What do Highlander decks need to succeed?

With the next Hearthstone expansion, Knights of the Frozen Throne, on the horizon, it is an interesting time to speculate on whether the expansion will rejuvenate or give rise to some archetypes that are currently having a bit of a hard time.

One interesting type of decks in Hearthstone is Highlander decks. A Highlander deck is a deck that contains only single copies of each card, no duplicates. These decks emerged to the top of the competitive scene with the introduction of Reno Jackson in the League of Explorers adventure in late 2015: turns out, having a card that heals you to full health can be a pretty big incentive to sacrifice some consistency.

Having struck gold with Reno, Blizzard continued to introduce more cards that had powerful effects if your deck contained no duplicates, but Reno remained the centerpiece of all Highlander decks, called Reno decks in Hearthstone. With Reno out of Standard format, can Highlander decks return to popularity?

The Early Reno Jackson Days

Back when Reno Jackson was the only Highlander synergy card, the idea was immensely popular among players. Reno decks were powerful and gave a good reason to play many of the less used cards in viable decks, something that was usually not possible in card games.

The first competitive success of Reno decks came right at the start when SuperJJ took SeatStory Cup 4 by storm with his Reno Jackson Freeze Mage. The archetype did not stick, but there would be tons of experimentation around Reno.

Warlock was quickly established as the best class for Reno synergies: a class that uses health as a resource to draw cards really benefits from healing to full at will and does not hurt too badly from needing to find answers – after all, card draw was built into the class. Renolock was a star deck that suffered from occasional inconsistency but was nonetheless extremely powerful.

Reno Jackson ended up not having a spot in Freeze Mage in the end, as that deck already had everything it needed without the heal. Reno Mage as a type of Control Mage did see some play, even though it was not a dominant deck.

There were more experiments still. Reno Warrior was never a mainstream deck, but Belveder piloted it to within top-10 legend on EU, and it was definitely strong. Reno Priest was still too inconsistent – the class itself was already inconsistent, and adding Reno did not make things any better – and Reno Hunter had a hard time finding the card draw needed to even find the card.

Nonetheless, Reno Jackson was experimented with in all classes, and some of the decks were very good.

The Kabal Cometh

Blizzard proceeded to release more cards with Highlander synergies in Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, but this time they limited the cards to three classes: Warlock, Mage, and Priest.

All three classes had access to Kazakus, one of the must-have legendaries of the era that allowed the player to craft a powerful custom spell. Furthermore, each of them received another synergy card for their class: Priest got Raza the Chained that made its Hero Power cost zero, Mage got Inkmaster Solia that allowed a spell to be cast for free when played, and Warlock got Krul the Unshackled that summoned all other demons from the player’s hand when played.

Raza and Solia are solid cards, but Krul was never really able to find its place outside of some minor experimentation.

Nonetheless, two Reno decks rose to prominence during Mean Streets of Gadgetzan: Renolock and Reno Mage. The pure synergy between the Warlock Hero Power and Reno Jackson was still a major engine, and the addition of Kazakus further strengthened the deck. As for Mage, the synergy between Ice Block followed by Reno Jackson had not been quite enough, but adding Kazakus and Solia to the mix brought the deck to prominence.

Priest had less to gain from Reno because Priest was already able to heal, and even the additional power of Kazakus and Raza were only able to make Priest a decent, but not a competition-level deck.

Kazakus was the main value powerhouse of the Highlander decks of this era: combined with Brann Bronzebeard you could brew two potions at once for an immense swing. This had the downside of sidelining all other Reno decks: when three classes had multiple times the rewards from running only one copy of each card, running just Reno in other classes was even less viable than before. Reno Warrior had been the strongest of the off-meta Reno decks, and it simply could not compete with Kazakus – nor with Jade Golems from another three-class faction.

During Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, the sentiment began to turn against Highlander decks. With so many games decided not only by whether the Highlander player was able to find Reno, but also by who finds Brann and Kazakus combo first, the inherent inconsistency combined with the high power level of multiple synergy cards made games feel more and more like dice rolls.

Thus, surprisingly, players breathed a collective sigh of relief as Reno Jackson rotated into Wild in Spring 2017. What had started as a praised, unique experiment, ended up overused and boring to many.

Journey To Un’Goro

Even though some fatigue had set in, there was still interest in Highlander decks in Journey to Un’Goro, especially as the expansion matured and people started looking for new decks to play.

With Reno gone, most classes had no reason to play Highlander decks. The synergy cards from Mean Streets of Gadgetzan still remained, though, so there were three classes that could consider it. This time, however, the roles were about to get reversed.

The departure of Reno Jackson robbed Renolock of its main method of healing, and it also lost some secondary healing as Refreshment Vendor rotated out. With healing gone and the Warlock class synergy card, Krul the Unshackled, being the weakest of the three, it was all down to Kazakus – and only one potion from it as well, as Brann Bronzebeard had also rotated out into Wild. All of that was too much for Renolock to bear: a Kazakus Warlock can take some games here and there, but with miserable health gain, it is often unable to play the control role and can no longer be considered a competitive deck. Accordingly, there are currently no Kazakus Warlock decks on HSReplay – there is not a single popular build that people actually play.

The strongest Highlander deck in Journey to Un’Goro is the one that relied on Reno the least – Priest. Priest is happy to use Kazakus and Raza, and Reno is perfectly replaceable with plenty of healing available to Priest. Add in Shadow Visions from Journey to Un’Goro that added a bit of consistency to the king of inconsistency, and the Quest Rogue nerf that helped all Priests, and Highlander Priest is actually a pretty good deck right now.

Mage loved Reno Jackson. Have an Ice Block in play, get it popped, then drop Reno for a heal back to full. That was such a powerful move. Alas, Mage can still do things even without that heal. Even though duplicates are out of question, Mage can still pick up duplicates of spells from all the various spell generators at its disposal: Babbling Book, Primordial Glyph, and Cabalist's Tome give the Mage some ways to fix up holes in its spell repertoire. Kazakus Mage is a viable deck, even if it is not immensely popular right now.

What Does It Take For Highlander Decks To Be Good?

We have already seen that a single card with a sufficiently powerful effect can make Highlander a viable archetype. Reno Jackson was that card. It was a loved card as well until Blizzard created a number of other synergy cards alongside it, and perhaps overdid the concept a little.

On the other hand, the current support for Highlander decks has not enabled a Kazakus Warlock to exist as a viable deck. Why?

Kazakus, Raza, Solia, and Krul could be enough to make Highlander decks perfectly viable for three classes. One could argue that for Priest, Highlander is already good enough, or very close to it. It all depends on the support available from other cards.

One notable feature of Highlander decks is that they are at their best late in the rotation. The more cards there are, the more close seconds there are – cards that are almost as good as the cards that actually make it to meta decks, but that fall just a tiny bit short. Highlander decks thrive from having such cards: they need to cut a bit of power for the synergy cards, and the closer other cards are to each other in performance, the smaller the needed compromises are.

The new system where adventures have been replaced by full expansions benefit Highlander decks: the card pool will grow faster and bigger, and there will be more cards to choose from. Look forward to the final expansion of Year of the Mammoth as the potential peak of Kazakus decks – before Kazakus rotates out of Standard when the first expansion of 2018 is released.

It is uncertain whether Blizzard will release new Highlander synergy cards. Having the right mix of such cards can be good for the meta, but there must not be too many such cards or the entire meta is taken over, especially late in the rotation. Without any such cards, there is no reason to play a Highlander deck, so it is possible that this archetype will come to an end in spring 2018.

Knights of the Frozen Throne And Highlander Decks

Both Kazakus Mage and Kazakus Warlock have the same problem: they lack good ways to heal themselves.

For Kazakus Mage, this issue is mitigated by the tempo swing from Inkmaster Solia: playing a ten-mana Kazakus potion alongside a 5/5 minion on Turn 7 tends to be a pretty effective swing turn. With at least one copy of Ice Block preventing accidental deaths and a number of Freeze spells to stop undesired attacks, Mage has plenty of ways to stall the game.

Kazakus Mage might not even need that healing if it receives more ways to stall the game. Most other Mage decks go on fine with very little healing, but they have two copies of Ice Block, two copies of Freeze spells, and two Primordial Glyphs to defend themselves with. More such cards could narrow down the gap and make Kazakus Mage great even without healing. With Lifesteal being a new mechanic in Knights of the Frozen Throne, some good Lifesteal cards could also fill up the gap and make Ice Block less important.

Kazakus Warlock, on the other hand, desperately needs more healing. Warlock is already forced to use health as a resource, so without means to heal up, Warlock is incredibly vulnerable to any burst damage.

Furthermore, Warlock is the only class whose Highlander synergy minion is largely unused. The Standard rotation took away some of the already few Demon minions in the game and Journey to Un’Goro provided only one new Demon, Lakkari Felhound, so Demon synergies are now more difficult to activate than ever. Krul has a Battlecry that can provide a big tempo swing, but there are not enough playable Demons in Standard format to even run a pure Demonlock, much less to take only single copies of them into a deck.

If Knights of the Frozen Throne adds a number of new Demon minions into the game, it could make Demonlock viable, and it could also help make Kazakus Warlock viable. On the other hand, Kazakus Warlock could be fine with some healing even if there are no new Demon minions and Krul remains unused. There are a couple of paths for the deck to return, it all depends on what cards we’ll get.

Conclusions

Unless new Highlander synergy cards are released, any Highlander decks will rely on Kazakus as their main reason to see play, and the archetype will come to an end in Spring 2018.

Until then, the decks that can use Kazakus – Warlock, Priest, and Mage – will continue to grow in power as more cards are released, reaching their peak with the last expansion of 2017.

Priest can already find success, whereas Mage and Warlock need some more survivability. Look for any cards that add survivability, especially healing, to either of the two classes to find clues as to whether their Highlander decks can improve in performance. As Krul the Unshackled is largely unused, additional Demon minions could also shape the form of Kazakus Warlock to a large extent.

Knight of the Frozen Throne card reveals have just begun, and soon we will know more!


"Ville "Old Guardian" Kilkku is an analytical Hearthstone content creator and a regular legend player on the EU server. In addition to his articles, you can find his Hearthstone videos on Youtube and stream on Twitch. If you have any questions or comments, you can connect with him on Twitter.