Mage has a tarnished reputation in Arena. Many strong streamers won’t play Mage except for in special circumstances. The class is considered boring, easy, and repetitive.
Over the past six months I’ve taken this as a challenge. The times I’ve played Mage I’ve messed around with different styles and have managed to get significantly more out of it.
I ask that you read this article with an open mind. There will be a huge tendency for confirmation bias to rear its ugly head. After all, Mage is the class that gets many people their first 12 win run. Why would you want to change a style that gets a 12?
First of all though I want to take a look at how Mage works traditionally. There will be many people reading this who struggle in Arena. Those people should pay more attention to the first half of the article and pay the second half a passing glance.
The Mage meme is to draft every removal card you’re offered, throw in some Water Elementals, Unstable Portals and Mana Wyrms and go 12-0 with no thought. The reality isn’t too far from the meme – apart from the 12-0 bit of course.
The real life version of the meme is actually a pretty decent strategy. The ability to gain tempo from the likes of Mana Wyrm and Mad Scientist while removing everything your opponent does is very powerful. Often the opponent will lose a lot of life to two or three small minions and can be finished off with direct damage to the face.
If the opponent gets out of trouble, Flamestrike often comes along to tidy up the mess and allows the Mage to find enough time to do the remaining points of damage.
Anyone who has played Arena for any period of time has lost to this, and it further propagates the idea that this is the only way to draft and play Mage.
Again, there is no doubt that this is powerful and I strongly recommend that newer players learn to play Mage this way. There are however several problems that you can run into.
Firstly, the drafting style is a little haphazard. Sometimes you’ll have four Flamecannons, other times you’ll have three Flamestrikes and three Fireballs. Occasionally you’ll end up with a collection of cheap minions and no backup. This means you’ll often be wasting mana as your curve will be awkward.
Secondly, when playing, the cards don’t always come out in the order you need them to. Of course that’s true of any Arena deck, but if you draw your removal early and your small guys late, you’ll be sat waiting for your opponent to play minions so you can kill them. This doesn’t advance the board, but merely equalises it. In some cases you end up with so much removal that and you end up having to over kill things just to have a play of any kind.
Your Mad Scientists have to be drawn before your secrets as secrets tend to be fairly poor on curve and Scientists are poor without secrets left in your deck. Likewise top decking a late game Mana Wyrm is pretty horrible.
Finally, people spend more time playing around Flamestrike than any other card. Players have adjusted their styles to play big minions on turn six against Mage, meaning that if the Mage Flamestrikes on turn seven, they will still be eating a chunk of damage the turn after.
The truth is that this style of Mage is inconsistent. People don’t mind that much as it is inconsistent around a high average win rate and strong cards but there is more complaining that “I didn’t draw one of my with my killer deck” or “I never get any luck, I only got offered one of all the good class cards” than in any other class.
Improving on the obvious.
Rather than stop playing Mage, I decided to experiment with it.
Inconsistent doesn't equal bad, but I set out to try to make Mage more consistent without being worse overall.
There are two main ways I find I lose with the traditional style. Either I draw too much removal and beg for my opponent to play something while I sit there with a hand full of Flamestrikes and Fireballs or I spend every turn shouting at my computer “Flamestrike please and I win”
This means I’ll waste damage or mana or both.
To combat both of these simultaneously I started to draft fewer and fewer removal spells to see if I could make the deck smoother and also to lower the need to top deck Flamestrike.
One great thing about Flamestrike is that it doesn’t actually have to be in your deck to slow your opponent down.
To balance the relative lack of removal I drafted more and more value based cards, more big minions and got in the habit of using my hero power. A lot. All the things you’ve been taught are too slow to do in Arena.
To balance that out, I started to take fewer and fewer tempo based cards. You can’t just rewrite the laws of what works, you still need early game and to challenge your opponent’s board and to spend all of your mana, but what ended up happening is that I developed a slow style of Mage that is comfortable playing from behind on board. Not miles behind, that’s never a good thing, but half a step behind. There is enough comeback available to us that a slight loss of tempo is surprisingly okay for the first few turns. It gets out of hand surprisingly infrequently and when we get level our value carries us to victory.
What started to happen is that I started to win more games. Not instantly, as the style change is dramatic even though the decks are only a handful of cards different to decks that traditional players will draft, but I found I ran into problems with my hand far less frequently than before. As I adjusted to playing differently, I didn't have as many annoying losses and I found a way to win more often. The wins are often not as emphatic as with the previous style, but we're only here to win, not to win easily.
Cards that change significantly in value
This is the bit where I say things, you throw things at me, and I go home muttering about the tough crowd. Some of these evaluations are very surprising and I must stress they only work as you get used to playing from behind.
The first Flamestrike we are offered is still probably the best common in Arena. We’ll get behind quite often and the ability to tidy up if things get out of control is still nice. We’ll also often have many things to tidy up as we’re not zapping everything the second it is played anymore.
On the upside, we’ll often have a decent minion on board before we cast this and that reduces the need to have multiples of the card.
The second Flamestrike takes a huge hit in value, and beyond the second they become pretty worthless. Our hero power is going to be used a lot and oddly, having fewer removal spells means we have control of the board more often. This means we actually end up killing minions more easily!
As we’ll often only have one in our deck, it can be right to keep it in our opening hand as long as we have some early game.
Fireball is still incredibly powerful but after I get my first one I look pretty carefully at the future ones to see if I have to take it. If I’m offered a huge number of Fireballs I’ll end up with two or three in my deck. Traditionally you just keep taking them, especially as the reach they offer is so powerful, with this build you have to pay homage to that, but eventually we want something on the board. A simple Yeti is usually better than a third Fireball and if you have a lot of other removal you can even take a Yeti instead of the second one.
Frostbolt is essential and I still love this card. Play it as a 2-drop and mulligan as if it is a 2-drop. Sometimes your opponent does nothing on turn two and you don’t get to use your Frostbolt, but the tradeoff is worth it. If they don’t get ahead on board, they’re probably in trouble already anyway.
Late game you can often do 5 damage to a minion before it can attack again using a Frostbolt and two pings.
This is where things start to get messy.
Flamecannon is nothing like as good when playing from behind as it is when you have early control of the board. It is not guaranteed to hit the right target and is often a really awkward card to plan around. I draft this significantly lower in the first half of the draft than you’d expect and only pick them up later if I’m struggling for removal in general and by struggling I mean almost none.
Secret based Synergies
I very rarely end up with any of these at all now. Sometimes you’re tied into an early Scientist and it becomes silly not to take a Mirror Entity to fetch with him, but I try to avoid taking this particular set of synergies because having a secret in your opening hand is really horrible in Arena. Drawing a Scientist when you’ve already drawn your secrets can be equally painful. If we’re looking to lose very few games, this is one of the things I’ve found has helped to cut down on the inconsistency.
Of course, if you are still a new Arena player, this synergy will get you a decent number of free wins and certainly shouldn’t be scoffed at.
Vanilla and Value 4-6 Drops
These cards get a huge boost. It’s not exactly news that these are good cards, but they are the bread and butter that swings the game back your way. Our Yeti is better than theirs because we can finish theirs off with a ping and still have a 4/1 minion of our own. If this hits another decent minion, the 8 damage it has dealt is better than a Fireball would have done. If it dies to a 1/1, it’s nearly as good.
That sounds pretty level overall but over time having our vanilla minions kill our opponent’s vanilla minons slowly turns the game around.
This it the main change to the deck. I’ll take far more 4-6 drops than I would have previously at the expense of some removal, some Scientists and a Mana Wyrm or two. It allows me to get significant board presence and therefore need fewer removal spells.
Azure Drake is even better than usual, although you’re probably never passing it anyway. Arcane Intellect is also very good though. It is often a win condition in the late game. I take this much higher than previously.
We end up in a lot of top deck battles with this style of play and those cards push it over the edge.
We win top deck wars anyway because our Yeti kills theirs, and we are left with a 4/1 vs nothing, but it is nice to have the additional cards as backup.
Likewise Acolyte of Pain is pretty good. Cult Master is playable, although often our guys are not dying in huge numbers as the deck is heavier than usual so Cult Master would be more deck specific.
Sticky and Multi minions.
Cards like Harvest Golem and Murloc Tidehunter are significantly better than usual.
I like to visualise this style of play that every minion has one extra power than usual because of the ping. It makes cards that can hit twice become really powerful. Obviously that is not strictly true but it is surprising how often the leftover part of a Tidehunter will take down a Scarlett Crusader or similar with the help of a hero power.
In the early game take the opportunity to kill things for free or to slow your opponent down, rather than get an edge in tempo. If you can play a minion that won’t die to your opponent’s board then do that, but don’t obsess too much about getting slightly behind.
As this progresses into the mid game, you’ll be able to play Shredders or Yetis combined with ping to start to get control of the board again. The minions will be big enough to slow your opponent down.
BE GREEDY. Keep an eye on how many cards you and your opponent have in total (on board and in hand) and grind out the advantage. To make this work for you, try to get to turn five or six where you can drop a minion and ping every turn.
A sequence that tends to happen a lot is to play a Yeti (or similar) on turn four. On turn five play a Harvest Golem, run a Yeti into the enemy Yeti and ping then turn six we repeat that process with another four drop. This will often get an army of injured but powerful minions on board that will only die to AoE. The 4/1s will tidy up any 2/3s we didn't deal with earlier in the game. Playing two mana off curve to accomodate pings means we're often doing as much damage as if we'd picked up an extra Fireball over the course of a game, sometimes even more.
Almost never ping face. If you can ping minions, it’s almost never wrong to do so. When the end comes, it’ll come fast and your opponent will be powerless to stop it. The rest of the game is about setting that up.
Getting the most from Mage
The old mage style should not be forsaken, it is very powerful and when the cards come along to build it, then go for it. People hate it for a reason.
I have however been deliberately avoiding that to learn to build the slower style described in this article. Ideally you’d build the best available deck from what is thrown at you, but to learn new things you have to try new things and by giving up some EV now, you can try new things out so as to master them when needed in the future.
I also feel that this slower style might be well worth playing when Inspire is in the game and Flamestrike is even more uncommon through weight of numbers. That of course is mere speculation at this time.
Neil "L0rinda" Bond