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On the Grind: The Zoo Sampler Platter

ChannelFireball.com is the best Magic: the Gathering website that you’re not reading: not reading yet, at least. It took just a few conversations with the people in charge of this project for me to know that this site will be something awesome. Something new, something fresh, something different, and I wanted in. That being said, I’m happy to be here, at the beginning of it all. I hope you enjoy the hard work everyone has been putting into it and help us with any feedback or constructive criticism you feel is useful.

Nachos

With all the new set hype, how do we know what cards can be added to the list of bona fide Extended staples and which are just byproducts of hypebeastery?

Even with the release of Conflux, the major players in the format remain mostly unchanged. There are tons of viable decks and with the recent release of Conflux, you can expect to see more rogue decks trying out the new cards. The few tried and true archetypes you should expect to see at your local tourney include Affinity, Burn, Elves and BG Rock/ Death Cloud. Lesser played strategies include some Astral Slide/Loam decks, Swans, U/x Tron, Martyr Control and Bant Aggro. Last we have the big dogs. The archetypes to beat are still Faeries, Zoo and TEPS. While TEPS is pretty straight forward, The Fae and Zoo both have a plethora of variations. Today I will focus on a few of the Zoo variants.

Chicken Strips

Domain Zoo hit the scene with a bang back in 2007 when Rafael Levy won back to back GPs with it. Since then, the deck has been a tier-one mainstay in Extended. However, as the format has rotated and evolved, so has the deck, spawning a myriad of variations. The most popular on the menu is the RGW “Prosak Zoo” variation brought to the mainstream by our very own Luis Scott-Vargas.

EXT – Prosak Zoo (aka RGW Zoo)

In a nutshell, this deck takes the best of the old Domain Zoo and combines it with the blisteringly fast Mono Red Burn deck. Kird Ape and Wild Nacatl often get in there for two swings, and four or six damage is a great deal for a one mana investment. Mogg Fanatic helps fill in the one-drops and is very versatile overall. Tarmogoyf needs no explanation in this deck. Keldon Marauders is a major improvement to the slower “utility” two-drops that Domain Zoo ran. If resolved he always gets in for two damage. In combat, your opponent either wastes a guy chump blocking or takes three more to the face. I’ll take a two mana, five damage spell any day.

Focusing on the speed and consistency of the deck, the spell suite doesn’t waste time with “utility” spells like Oblivion Ring, opting instead for more burn. But don’t forget that you have the ability to point these burn spells at an opposing creature if need be. Calculating how much damage you will be doing over the course of a few turns is very important with this deck, as is clearing the way for more of your army to get in there come later turns (I’ll talk a little bit more about strategy later.) Incinerate and Lightning Helix fit those spots well, providing both efficiency and utility. A little lower on the curve, the Seal of Fire/ Tarfire duo help take care of smaller monsters at the same time pumping your Tarmogoyf. While Molten Rain can’t clear blockers out of the way, it wrecks players who keep mana tight hands and punishes deckbuilders trying to skimp on lands. Rounding out the pack is Sulfuric Vortex, one of my favorite cards in the deck. Solid against almost every matchup, landing this card almost always wins you the game by providing recurring damage and preventing annoying life gain.

This newer variation is already challenging Domain Zoo for the title of “Top Aggro Deck in the Format,” and for good reason. First of all, it has a cleaner, less painful, more consistent manabase. Bolting or even Shocking yourself each turn for the first three turns of the game can put you in a pretty big hole. This deck only really needs to fetch out a Temple Garden and some Mountains to be able to play every one of its spells. Also, this RGW version has more reach than its Five Color counterpart, boasting eighteen direct damage spells as opposed to ten or twelve.

Running this variant isn’t without its drawbacks, though. Being more reliant on burn than Domain Zoo, there are times when the RGW creature base gasses out while still being outside of burn range. This deck trades raw power for consistency. Double Tribal Flames almost always puts the game away for Domain Zoo, while RGW requires at least four burn spells to match that amount of damage.

Buffalo Wings

To solve that problem, I’ve come up with two modified versions of RGW Zoo for your consideration before deciding on your version of Zoo. The first is the deck I made Day 2 with at GP: Los Angeles (where I finished a disappointing 74th place.)

EXT – Jeremiah Red (aka RGW Blast)

 

The obvious change in this version is the addition of Shrapnel Blast. Once you have a Stomping Ground and a Sacred Foundry, you have all your land requirements for Wild Nacatl and Kird Ape, and are able to cast any other spell in the deck. I figure, if that’s the minimum, why not make the rest of them artifact lands and throw some Shrapnel Blasts in there for more power and reach? After only a few games of testing, I loved it. The Shrapnel Blast gives back the raw power you lose switching to RGW. I remember one game in the Grand Prix where I burned out my opponent for eighteen points in two turns! Though mostly used for finishing the opponent off, in a pinch, Shrap can take down a larger blocker, something the old RGW needed two spells to do.

After the Grand Prix, I played the deck more on MTGO and some local tournaments and began noticing some of the downside. Though the manabase is a lot less painful than Domain Zoo, having so many artifact lands combined with Mutavaults prevents me from consistently getting the full buffs on my Kird Apes and Wild Nacatls. I might have had the right mana to cast them, but they were swinging in small for the first few turns. Also, the artifact lands became more of a liability than I had liked. Nothing sucks more than having your Great Furnace pwn3d by a Duergar Hedge Mage while you’re holding a Shrapnel Blast in hand. Since your opponent brings those in to take care of Sulfuric Vortex, having an artifact to kill in addition is just icing on the cake. Still, if you can afford to hold your artifact lands, your opponent won’t know that you have the power to Shrapnel Blast them until it’s too late.

Potato Skins

The second variant is one that I’ve put together most recently and it tries to solve the problems of both of the above lists.

EXT – Grand Cru Zoo (aka RGW Tribal Zoo)

In order to maintain the raw power level of Jeremiah Red without inheriting the liability of the artifact lands, I’ve reverted back to Tribal Flames as the “power burn” spell. It doesn’t have to hit for five to be good, as two mana for four points of damage is still pretty efficient last time I checked. Also, without as many UR Swans or All-In-Red decks flying around, you don’t have to worry about Blood Moons as much as you used to (one of the big drawbacks to running Domain Zoo before GP: Los Angeles.)

I tried the RGW list with Tribal Flames (obviously with a tweaked manabase), but still found that I was gassing out a lot more than I’d liked. I tried to add Dark Confidant back into the deck, but he didn’t seem to fit the theme. Though Bob gave the deck some long game, it ended up just being a little slow and I decided to cut him for some fresh, newer Conflux tech: Hellspark Elemental.

Essentially, Hellspark Elemental is an Incinerate with flashback. Though you have to be a bit more careful at times, having to avoid Mogg Fanatic pings and Jitte counters, Hellspark Elemental helps speed the deck up, while giving you more options when you have extra mana in the midgame.

While this version seems to be the best at shoring up some of the less favorable matchups and filling in the holes of the other two, it’s a bit of a dog in the mirror (straight RGW matchup) due to the pain of the manabase. However, running all five colors creates versatility for the sideboard including the ability to play Thoughtseize if you expect a lot of combo.

Sour Cream, BBQ Sauce, Marinara, Ranch and other saucy options

The sideboards you’ve seen on different Top 8 lists vary greatly, so let me break this down from my own personal experience. The cards you definitely want to include are some number of Choke, Ancient Grudge, and some sort of non-burn removal. Choke is good against most Fae decks, but be careful – it’s most, not all. Also, you can bring it in against random other blue crap like Swans or PLU. Ancient Grudge is pretty much the standard choice of artifact kill and that comes in against Umezawa’s Jitte, Vedalken Shackles, Affinity, and any other random matchup with problem artifacts. I’d really like to run Shattering Spree, but I’m not 100% sure the deck consistently has enough red to fully utilize it. It does have the bonus of always being able to get through Chalice though, and Chalice for two is at the very least, horrible for you. However, Affinity is a rough matchup when you don’t draw an Ancient Grudge, so some extra artifact kill might not be so bad. The removal is more for utility and though I’m not 100% sold on Path to Exile, that’s what I’m running at the moment. It gets under Spell Snare, can target pretty much any creature, and when played correctly is just as good as any removal spell in the format.

In addition to those auto includes, you need some sort of combo hate. The default choice here is Pyrostatic Pillar as it works against both Elves and TEPS. Your deck is enough of a clock that if TEPS doesn’t draw the bounce by turn four or five, you can race them. If they do draw it though, you spent two mana on your own turn for a Shock and you’ll probably just lose. If you feel TEPS is going to be prevalent in your local meta, you can also try a few Gilded Light in addition (a card that doubles against Gifts and Swans and can just cycle in a pinch). If you somehow win game one, they generally aren’t likely to play around them in game two. Just make sure you play it in response to their Mind’s Desire and not the Tendrils because it’s possible for them to flip and Remand and bunk your whole plan.

Lastly, we have a few flex spots that can go for a few two-ofs or another three-of depending on how you’re configuring everything. Some options that I suggest include Sundering Vitae, Umezawa’s Jitte, or Blood Moon. Any deck that has access to white can board in Circle of Protection: Red against you, and that would be very bad news. Also, the Bant Aggro deck can board into Troll Ascetic + Worship, which is otherwise impossible for you to beat. The reason I recommend Vitae over Krosan Grip or Seal of Primordium is because it gets around Blood Moon so long as you have a Nacatl or Goyf out. Many players are running Duergar Hedge-Mage and though I see the logic, he has been clunky in my testing. Umezawa’s Jitte is just flat out awesome in aggro mirrors and I don’t have any other cards in the board for it. Blood Moon is a card that I’m still on the fence about. Though it can randomly steal games, most decks nowadays are running enough basics to survive and maybe even more now with the “fear” of Path to Exile.

Cheese Sticks

The traditional Domain Zoo deck is pretty straight forward in that you are mostly just playing out of your hand. The strategy with a more burn oriented deck is a little different, however. They say the Burn deck is like a combo deck in that you have to draw and play sixteen to twenty points worth of damage spells within four or five turns in order to win. These versions of Zoo play out a lot like that. Sometimes you might not necessarily have the win in your hand, but you are well within your rights to play as if you’re going to draw the extra burn within the next few turns. The deck has enough redundancy and consistency that you should be able to put some faith in the deck and map out your play two or three turns into the future. I’m not saying to direct your burn at your opponent’s face blindly. You have to time it and do the math to see if you’re within range. However, the worst thing you can do is play the slow game and end up getting caught in a situation where you had enough burn in hand, but not enough turns to play it out. As they say, if you’re playing an aggro deck and you lose by just a point or two, you likely did something wrong.

Doggie Bag
That’s all for me for now. I hope you enjoyed my first piece on this new site. Help us get this off the ground with a bang! I have a really good feeling about the direction and creative minds behind this whole project, and all your support is greatly appreciated. If you have any questions, comments, or criticisms, feel free to IM me or shoot me an e-mail. Hope you enjoyed the sampler!

Peace

Jeremy Fuentes

*The Bonus Section* -Top 5

1) The Grouch – The Bay to LA
2) Atmosphere – Puppets
3) Kid Cudi – Is There Any Love
4) Hieroglyphics – At the Helm
5) Lupe Fiasco – Dumb It Down

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