Turtle Mage is one of the most annoying Hearthstone decks of all time, which is really saying something

Hearthstone Turtle Mage
(Image credit: Blizzard)

Every so often a new Hearthstone deck will emerge to suck the fun out of climbing the Ranked ladder. Okay, quite often. For a good chunk of last year, Bomb Warrior was on hand to stack armor and stave off others until they died from the bombs shuffled into their decks. Because of Warrior's control tools and armor-stacking capabilities, it was possible for mirror matches to extend beyond 45 minutes—as I discovered the hard way. Not to mention the lengthy tournament games, where most players rope as they consider their next moves. Warrior may still be an irritating class to play against, but it's got nothing on Jaina's latest monstrosity: Turtle Mage.

There are a few variants floating around, but Turtle Mage's core cards make for grueling matches. Like most control mage builds, the deck uses spells like Blizzard and Frost Nova to freeze the opponent's board. Turtle Mage's big brain play is using Potion of Illusion in combination with Tortollan Pilgrim to create infinite loops of healing, freeze and damage effects. In order for that to work it's key to not draw the Potions, but you can assist that by using Sphere of Sapience to push them to the bottom of your deck.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Then, once you play a Tortollan Pilgrim, it can cast the Potion in order to create a 1-Mana copy of itself. From there you're free to repeat the process ad infinitum, picking freezing and AoE spells as required while also generating more Tortollans. At this point the other player isn't so much playing Solitaire as staring at a particularly terrible screensaver.

As for how Turtle Mage closes the game out, there's room to discover more spells with cards like Wand Thief and Vulpera Scoundrel—and your eventual lethal damage comes from Sunreaver Warmages, Night Blades or even Desert Obelisks, all of which can be turned into 1-Mana copies using the Tortollan/Potion combo. And if you think this all sounds very bad indeed, just take a peek at the Wild version that uses Ice Block. Ugh.

The most infuriating thing about Turtle Mage is how excruciatingly drawn out the games are, choking your opponent for consecutive turns like some awful card-playing boa constrictor as you deal chip damage. Once the combo is locked in, matches feel one-sided and inescapably boring. If the other player sticks around, it's really only in the hope that you'll mess up the ordering. 

The resolution of Turtle Mage games are far from the tense, exciting affairs you'd hope to hash out in Ranked, and if you're on the receiving end of it, you're better off just conceding once you see the Mage begin the endless freeze cycle. As you'd expect, this also makes for tedious viewing during tournaments. The above Hearthstone Masters Tour Montreal match was the last straw for Tim over the weekend.

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None of which is to say Turtle Mage is an unbeatable powerhouse, and it can still lose to itself if it gets bad draw RNG. The game plan sours quickly if you happen to draw both of your Potions of Illusions early, for example. This makes it much harder to maintain momentum and keep the opposition at bay, as Trump experiences in his first game against a Shaman.

Managing your hand size and knowing how to adapt when you haven't been gifted the perfect draws requires brain power. But I can't help but think that it's really not worth putting yourself, and others, through these matches. To me, it doesn't feel fun or creative to play. Unlike a combo deck where you find the cards you need, then end the game shortly afterwards, this deck thrives from painful time-wasting, so I fear it'll be beloved by the same trolls who love mill decks. 

From my experience with the deck, victories have felt hollow, while losses have forced me to take a long hard look in the mirror at the monster I've become.

Since being popularised by Eddie at Grandmasters, Turtle Mage has become more prevalent throughout August and September, featuring extensively at the Masters Tour over the weekend. Given that the deck's win rate doesn't look especially oppressive on ladder, the question over whether or not it gets nerfed will likely come down to 'game feel' for Blizzard. 

This year, we've seen the team prioritise balancing which has provided us with regular patches. Other cards have been adjusted for lesser crimes, so it's not out of the question that Turtle Mage could see some changes. One suggestion proposes that Tortollan Pilgrim's card text is tweaked to use the spell it casts, rather than cast a copy of it. Given how unusual the combo is, I suspect Blizzard will let it slide for a while in the hope the community comes up with effective counters. 

For now, tech cards such as Acidic Swamp Ooze remove Sphere of Sapience to halt Turtle Mages' abilities to choose their next cards. As Thijs discovered last week, Bomb Warrior also operates as a hard-counter to Turtle Mage. Wrenchcalibur shuffles bombs into the Mage's deck to render Lorekeeper Polkelt's reordering effect practically useless. As it stands, I think Turtle Mage is already a tricky deck to pilot, and there are a few ways to trip it up. There's no denying that it's a cheesy strategy, but I'd still rather run into it over the Tempo builds which seem to be able to generate a billion copies of Evocation.

Emma Matthews

As PC Gamer's guides writer, Emma is usually juggling several games at once. She loves competitive first-person shooters like CS:GO and Call of Duty, but she always has time for a few rounds of Hearthstone. She's happiest when she's rescuing pugs in Spelunky 2.