New format - Standard - is just around the corner. It's going to come out in March and a lot of players are already theorycrafting and preparing for it. Instead of playing around with theory only, I've decided to take an archetype that might prevail the format changes to the current ladder and see how it goes. A not popular, but I'd argue that pretty strong archetype, especially for the early ladder grinding. This archetype is Ramp Druid.
Why not Midrange Druid? Because it is one of the most likely ones to get hit by the nerf bat. With the introduction of Standard format, a lot of Classic cards are going to be re-balanced. Everyone is predicting that the meta-shaping combo - Force of Nature + Savage Roar - is the #1 candidate for the nerf. But Druid is still the class with one of the strongest Classic shells. Ramp cards aren't likely to get nerfed, because that's the Druid's identity. Other cards like Ancient of Lore or Keeper of the Grove also aren't broken by themselves and even if they see some changes, I suspect they will be small ones. So the chances are that Druid's combo is going to be hit, but a non-combo Ramp Druid will still be strong. It's obviously only guessing at this point, but since we've got a whole month until some serious announcements, that's all we can do right now. Even if other cards get slightly nerfed, it doesn't necessarily mean that Ramp Druid is going to be a bad deck. As long as they don't touch too many of them, the deck still should be relevant. And if they do touch a lot of them, they'll ruin the Druid class, so I - for one - hope that they won't do that.
Classic Ramp Druid Shell
The thing I've talked about in the introduction - the "shell". It's the core of the archetype, something that you find in most of the decks (maybe very slightly altered). You can take the shell, add some more cards depending on the meta, your play style etc. and you'll have a full deck. As it turns out, the Classic Ramp Druid shell I've just built is 17 cards. 17 Druid Classic Cards. That's pretty huge - it means that it should be relatively easy to fill out the remaining 13 cards with the Classic Neutrals + cards from BRM, TGT, LoE AND the new upcoming expansion. It's actually already possible to play a viable Ramp Druid deck without any Naxx or GvG cards - it will most likely be even easier after the new expansion gets out. I'm posting the Shell as image below, because the site doesn't allow to post non-30 card decklists:
So, the shell. The base is obviously Ramp - 2x Innervate and 2x Wild Growth is a must in a Ramp Druid. After all, that's your way to ramp up. Then, the two removals - Wrath and Swipe. Unless Druid gets access to a new, strong removal, they will most likely stay relevant. And if Druid gets new removals - that's even better, because there will be more options. Druid always struggled with good removals. Both of them are good in the early/mid game, but can't really remove the biggest threats. So if the Druid finally gets a good big target removal, it might be much easier to play the Control style.
After that, we have almost all the classic Druid minions. As it turns out, they're still very good and viable picks. First one is Keeper of the Grove - a very flexible card, the 2 damage part was always great against fast decks, because it could right away kill their 1-drops or 2-drops. It got weaker with time, because most of the decks were running sticky small drops or 2/3's instead of 3/2's. Since the cards like Haunted Creeper and Shielded Minibot are rotating out, Aggro decks might be forced to pick slightly less sticky options, so the 2 damage will once again be relevant. On the other hand, the Silence part gets weaker - the sticky meta meant that Silence was really, really valuable. But I don't remember a time when having a Silence in the deck was useless, so it should still be worth it.
Next we have the Druid of the Claw. It was used in every Druid deck expect those most aggressive ones. Not only the card has good stats, the Taunt, but it's also flexible. Having an option to play it as a 4/4 minion with Charge is big, because it can be used as an on-spot removal (e.g. you can run it into opponent's Flamewaker to instantly remove it + you still have a 4/2 on the board) or as the reach, to kill the enemy. It's one of the most iconic Druid cards.
Then we have a pair of 7-drops - Ancient of Lore and Ancient of War. The first one is awesome value card. Not only you play a semi-big threat, but you also draw 2 cards. Drawing cards usually means losing some tempo, but Ancient of Lore combines both tempo and value, because enemy can't just ignore it, so you don't fall behind on the board that much. The second Ancient - Ancient of War - is a big Taunt that ruins every Aggro deck's day (if they don't have a Silence, that is). Even against slower opponents, if they don't have a good removal option, 5/10 is usually going to tank at least few hits. It's also too big to just ignore + it protects everything that's behind it pretty well. The only weak spot is Silence, because after Silenced, it becomes just a 5/5 for 7 mana, which sucks.
And last, but not least, the Classic Druid Legendary - Cenarius. Back in the day it was played even in the Midrange Druid, but Dr. Boom pushed it out, because it was 2 mana cheaper for a similar effect. The card is, however, still very good. It also might be played as a value or tempo card depending on the board state. First options is quite good already - playing a 5/8 + 2x 2/2 with Taunt is 9/12 worth of stats for 9 mana. Not that bad. But it gets even better when two bodies have Taunt, so in the late game scenario it might make things awkward for the enemy. If you're playing against a fast deck, the 2/2 Taunts might trade into 2 of their minions. Against slower decks the 2/2's might block attacks from some big guys. And against combo decks based on Charge, they might... well.. ruins everything (at least until they get removed). The second option, however, is more interesting. If you get any kind of board control, it allows you to push it even further. Buffing 2 minions is already great, while buffing 3+ usually means game over for the opponent. Not only you might get very good trades, but it allows you to push for a lot of damage, possibly setting the next turn lethal.
"Standard" Ramp Druid
So, as you can clearly see, the Ramp Druid shell in Classic is actually pretty strong. But what more do we need to play the deck in the standard? Above this text, I've put the example Standard list made only from the cards already available. It's already playable, but it is pretty much guaranteed to get stronger with the new cards from the Spring Expansion (and with some of the cards gone). It's obviously not optimized and based on some assumptions, because some tech cards might not work at all and some others might be great, so take it with a grain of salt.If you want to play Ramp Druid right now, look below for the deck list with Naxx & GvG cards included. But now, I'll analyze the choices and the possible cards you can add to the Shell right now:
- More early game. Even though the deck consistently ramps to 4+ mana, some early game is necessary in case you don't get to ramp (+it's good anyway against fast decks). With Zombie Chow gone, if the expansion releases another anti-Aggro 1-drop, it would definitely be an include. Otherwise, Living Roots is a decent option. While it's weaker turn 1 play most of the time, it's more flexible in the late game, because 2 instant damage might be much more valuable to remove something. Another early game card I'd definitely want to see in Ramp Druid is Darnassus Aspirant - it allows for the more consistent Ramp and also serves the purpose of a 2-drop. Another thing it does is makes your life easier against both Mirror Entity and Freezing Trap - Ramp Druid rarely has a good targets to copy/freeze and Aspirant is great for that. With Aspirant & Wild Growth, I don't think the deck needs more 2-drop. For the same reason, the deck doesn't really need 3-drops - you're consistently skipping turn 3, making the 3 mana slot not that necessary to fill out. But Druid of the Flame is actually a decent 3-drop option + you can fill the 3 mana slot with tech cards.
- A 4-drop. Keeper is great, but it's not really a 4-drop a lot of time, so we need another one. Right now the best options are probably Sen'jin Shieldmasta or Chillwind Yeti (I'd play it over the Mechanical Yeti, because the deck can't really take advantage of the Spare Parts and giving one to an Aggro deck might actually matter) - so the standard Classic 4-drops. Another option is actually an Evil Heckler, if the "4 damage" becomes less popular due to departure of the Shredder, Heckler might be a solid option. Also, we'll most likely get some new 4-drop in the upcoming expansion, so it shouldn't be hard to fill.
- Late game threats. Something that helps you in slow matchups. Obviously, Dr. Boom will be gone, so we need to find something else. From the cards we already have, there are couple of good options - Sylvanas Windrunner is the obvious one. She's usually too slow for her mana cost, but with the ability to get her out much earlier, she's a big threat and might stop enemy's advance. Ysera is another one - this one is even slower and is only good in real Control matchups, thus you'd want her if the meta slowed down a little. You can consider Ragnaros the Firelord too, but I wouldn't recommend that one - it's like giving enemy a free tempo from Big Game Hunter, as it would be the only BGH target in the deck.
- Card draw. If the meta will turn out to be pretty fast, there is no real need for card draw in this kind of deck. The deck is already pretty heavy, so it's very unlikely that you'll run out of cards before fast decks. But if the meta becomes slower, adding some card draw might be necessary. Since Ramp cards (Innervate and Wild Growth) are pure tempo and no value and you mulligan hard for those, your starting hand might end up very low on actual threats to play. 2x Ancient of Lore should be enough card draw IF you draw them. But besides Lores, you might play some other card draw minions - like Azure Drake or Nourish. The first one, already played in Midrange Druid, is a great card that lets you not run out of steam while developing something on the board at the same time. The +1 Spell Damage also makes your Wrath and Swipe considerably better. Nourish, on the other hand, is huge in slower matchups - drawing 3 cards while still having enough mana to play a 5-drop in the late game is very good. Not to mention that sometimes the Ramp part might actually be better. If you Innervate + Coin it on turn 2, you end up with 5 mana on turn 3, so you might start developing the actual threats before enemy does. And just like in previous examples, if some strong card draw gets released, it will definitely be something to consider.
- Tech cards. There is a room for a lot of tech cards in this kind of the deck. Since Ramp Druid lacks his own removal tools, it might use a lot of tech cards to offset that. The first and most obvious one is Big Game Hunter - is it going to stay relevant in standard, though? With Dr. Boom gone, a lot of the decks might decide to not include 7+ attack minions at all, making BGH worse. If the meta stays pretty fast, Mind Control Tech is a great card - Druid lacks proper AoE, because Swipe often doesn't cut it, so MCT might work wonders. Stealing anything is actually good, even the 1/1 already makes the card alright. It also might be dropped as a 3/3 for 3 if you don't ramp up. With enough weapons in the meta, Harrison Jones will definitely be a good include. Since Ramp Druid has no real burst, weapons are great against the deck - they get a lot of value and enemy can't be really punished for paying his own health. And in case of a lot of Taunts, which might happen if the Sen'jin becomes a 4-drop of choice for a lot of decks (in case no new good 4-drop gets released), The Black Knight will actually be good. And if Ramp Druid really becomes relevant, it's also a great tech choice in mirror matchups. One last card I like to talk about, which I absolutely love in Ramp Druid is the Justicar Trueheart. The card works really well with Druid's Hero Power, pumping the damage and armor gain to 2. In faster matchups it both helps you with killing smaller minions (now you don't need to have a Wrath or something to kill that Juggler) and +2 Armor per turn really helps when he tries to rush you down. The card is also very good in slower matchups - additional damage might help you with the trades or just put enemy on the clock (like Hunter's Hero Power does). Against Warrior, it might keep his Armor in check. And against Freeze Mage, the Armor makes it pretty tricky to kill you - an early Justicar might mean up to ~20 Armor by the time he Alexstrasza's you.
"Wild" Ramp Druid
Now, I want to show you the Ramp Druid list I'm currently laddering with. I didn't hit Legend yet, but I've played mostly this list - after just 2 days of playing with almost 70% win rate I've got to rank 5 from rank 15. The list I've posted here is the latest one - it might not be the 100% optimized, because I'd need to play around with it a lot more, but I think it works very well.
So, a few points about the deck. First one is that it runs only FOUR cards that won't be available in the new Standard. Zombie Chow and Sludge Belcher can be easily replaced, Dr. Boom is not even that great in this deck, because it's the only BGH target and removing it from every deck will definitely be good for Ramp Druid and Kel'Thuzad. Kel'Thuzad is the only card I'll be really missing from Ramp Druid, because it's awesome in this kind of slow, minion-based list. It's a really strong win condition, because once you get 2-3 minions on the board (they will be Taunts, very likely) and then drop Kel'Thuzad and make some immediate trades, the card already got its value. And now enemy HAS to remove it or else he loses the game. Getting to it with minion/weapon damage is very hard, because of all the Taunts around. So enemy needs a Silence (which still leaves a 6/8 body) or big single target removal (not even BGH) to get rid of it. It won me tons of games and that's the only card that I hate giving up going into Standard.
After about 60 games, I've found the deck to work really well in a lot of matchups. The only decks I was really struggling with were slower Warlock lists, because their Hero Power was too much and I ran out of steam before I could finish the game (the games usually ended when they were near the fatigue and I still had 10+ cards in my deck). Also, like usually, Secrets Paladins were tricky matchups. It really depends on whether you got your early ramp or not - if you did, the games were relatively easy, because you could keep the empty board all the time. But if you didn't, Mysterious Challenger on turn 6 most often sealed the deal.
I've also surprisingly found that the decks works quite well against Freeze Mage. Justicar helps with the Armor gain. With so many high health minions it's pretty much impossible for them to clear the board without the Doomsayer and Doomsayers can be cleared quite easily (Silence or the combination of Swipe/Druid of the Claw/Wrath). Lores can be used as an emergency healing. Without a good Archmage Antonidas turn, it's very hard for them to find enough damage to kill you. Obviously you're not as favored as the Midrange Druid (because of the Combo), but I thought that the matchup is going to be horrible and it turned out to be okay. It was important, since I've met a lot of Freeze Mages on the ladder this season (for some reason).
In faster matchups, it's usually Taunt after Taunt after Taunt until they run out of steam. It's possible that they rush you down if they get a very good starting hand, Silences and stuff like that, but I found the matchups quite easy. The slow matchups were also okay if you know how to play them. The deck runs so many big threats that the Warriors and Priests are eventually going to run out of removals. If you keep them away from card draw (e.g. Silence the Acolyte of Pain against Warrior, kill the Northshire Cleric straight away against Priest) and don't play into obvious AoE clears (Brawl/Lightbomb) they will be forced to use all their single target removals before you drop something like Kel'Thuzad to seal the game. And if you force a bad AoE turn (like Brawl on 2 minions), then you can overextend and play let's say Cenarius to make the push.
One matchup I've also found very hard was Patron Warrior. That's because this deck has simply no good way to deal with the Patron swarm. Unless you got really good ramp and kept the board control all the time, a big Grim Patron turn usually meant game over. Swipe doesn't work against them, Wrath and Druid of the Claw are good, but they only kill one etc. Often the only way is to play a big Taunt after big Taunt and hope that they have no way to clone them even further.
By all means, you can change the tech cards or add some stuff to the deck. I've tried to optimize it against the opponents I was facing, but your experience might be completely different. For example, I was using both Mind Control Tech and Harrison Jones, because I was playing against a lot of Paladins and both of the cards are good in this matchup. Adding some card draw might be really good if you face some slower decks, especially Warlocks. I was running out of stuff to play sometimes if I didn't get my Lores in time. On the other hand, if you face a lot of fast decks, you might get rid of some slower late game card like Sylvanas Windrunner and add a second Zombie Chow or some 3-drop (like Druid of the Flame) instead. Deathlord is also an interesting choice in Aggro matchups, because it stops their aggression for at least one or two turns, making it easier for you to curve out into the mid/late game. It's really up to you, because there are a lot of tech cards in this deck and you need to decide which ones will be relevant in the matchups you face most.
If you want to read more about how to play the deck, read about the strategies etc. I recommend you to check out my Ramp Druid guide. Yes, it's a little outdated right now (it was written pretty soon after TGT release) and the decklist isn't the same, but the play style is still very similar. There are only two big changes - first one is that I was testing Aviana back then in Ramp Druid, but after giving it a try right now I don't think that she's great in the current meta. And the second thing is using Emperor Thaurissan instead of the Justicar Trueheart, but again - after some testing, I prefer the Justicar (they're still interchangeable, though). Besides that, it's only a couple of tech choices and the guide should still have a lot of good points.
That's it folks. I hope that you've enjoyed the read and that some of you will try the deck. I really think that Ramp Druid might be good in the new Standard format. Obviously, theorycrafting is just one thing and reality is another. We still don't know what changes to Classic cards will be done and we don't know a single card from the new expansion. Those two might shake things up a bit. But even if the deck won't be good in Standard after all, it's still a fun and solid deck to play right now. I had really good run with it and maybe I'll even try to get it to Legend this season (I'm sure that it wouldn't even be that hard, but I might go for the faster option if I won't have enough free time).
If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comment section below!