Pat Cox Talks -- PT Report 50th -- Zoo Primer1

LSV helpfully texted me these words every few hours last week. He and the rest of TeamCFB were testing while I was at work, and this was the extent of him keeping me in the loop until we met up in the afternoon.

Last weekend was Pro Tour Fate Reforged, conveniently 25 minutes from my home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.. To the surprise of exactly no one, I piloted Zoo. The list I played was a good bit more midrange than what I usually battle with, so today I’ll tell you how we arrived at that deck.

How We Discovered That Loam Lion Sucks

Before the bannings, I had shelved Zoo for the time. Pod had access to 4x Kitchen Finks, 4x Siege Rhino, and at least 4x ways to tutor for them, and that was just way too much life gain on bodies that are good against you.

Once Pod was out of the equation, I thought it may be safe for Nacatls to come out and play again. I first tried a version of Zoo similar to what I played in PT Valencia (primer here), but with Monastery Swiftspear. (Video of testing that deck against LSV here.) Since you want to conserve burn in early turns to make a path for your creatures, Swiftspear was often only dealing 1 damage per turn. While the card is great in Burn, it felt worse than Kird Ape or Goblin Guide in Zoo.

Next, I tried out Noble Hierarchs as a way to cast turn 2 Geist of Saint Traft. Hierarch also has the added benefit of letting your Geist attack into 2-power guys thanks to exalted. This switch turned out to be great, as turn-2 Geist backed up by removal and pump is very hard for most decks to beat. I tried the deck out in a SCG Premier IQ side event at the DC Open (8 rounds, 150-200 people), and made it all the way to Top 4.

A brief summary of that tournament:

Faeries (L)
Abzan (W)
Burn Zoo (W)
Living End (W)
Wescoe Zoo (W)
Abzan (W)
RUG Twin (W)
Abzan (W)
Jund (W)
Boggles (L)

I wrote a mini-tournament report/article on our forum, and armed with that information, TeamCFB added this deck to the gauntlet. The general consensus seemed to be that the deck was winning much more often when it had turn 2 Geist, and that Loam Lion sucked. Paulo told me this a lot, which led to Luis telling me even more.

EFro suggested replacing Loam Lion with Birds, since that addressed both points. He, Luis, and I worked on the deck for a few days, though only I ended up playing it. (Seeing as he made Top 8, I’m sure EFro is very happy with that decision.)

The other thing that quickly became evident was that Mutagenic Growth isn’t nearly as good when the midrange deck of choice is Abzan. When the midrange deck is Jund, a large enough percentage of the field is playing Lightning Bolt for Growth to be awesome. But if Growth is just a combat trick, Rampager probably serves that purpose better, since the back-up mode of being a creature will come up more often than Mutagenic Growth’s “counter removal” mode.

The Most Midrange Zoo Deck I’ll Ever Play

Below is the list I played last weekend to a 50th place (10-6) finish. Though that was on the back of a 5-1 Limited record, meaning I only went 5-5 in Modern. I ended up mulliganing quite a lot in the Constructed portion, and I’m not sure if that was due to how the deck is built or just some bad draws. Anyway, just wanted to give full disclosure that I didn’t have some incredible win rate with this list, and would want to test it more before playing it again:

You’ll notice this list is decidedly more midrange than the earlier one. The reason being: if you’re going to add more mana dorks to maximize turn 2 Geist, you probably want other things to do with that mana. The appeal of this version was that I got to play powerful, proactive cards that provided a fast enough clock to give me a shot against anything game 1, while also having access to basically any sideboard card I wanted. Tribal Flames and Geist of Saint Traft can kill people very quickly, from very high life totals. And if that plan doesn’t work, Siege Rhino can mop up in a longer game.

Seeing as you are truly all five colors, how to fetch can be a bit tricky. Generally, your first two lands are going to be Temple Garden and Steam Vents, though if you have three or more lands in hand you can sculpt your fetching to your exact hand. You can often fetch a basic as your 3rd or 4th land so you aren’t taking too much damage, but be wary of Tectonic Edge, and double up on colors as much as possible if playing against it. I lost a game to Willy Edel in the PT by thoughtlessly playing a Stomping Grounds tapped as my fourth land when I was waiting for a black source for Siege Rhino. He destroyed my only white source, and suddenly casting the Rhino was hopeless.

Let’s take a look at the new additions:

Savage Knuckleblade acts as an additional threat to ramp into turn 2, while also having the bonus of sometimes coming down with haste on turn 3. The main reason we settled on Knuckleblade over something like Doran or Anafenza is that it is a late-game mana sink, which the deck wanted. In testing, games against Abzan and Jeskai were going very long, and we were looking for ways to make the extra mana from Birds and Heirarchs relevant. We also tried Sword of War and Peace and Lingering Souls. Souls was okay, but the Sword was underwhelming every time I drew it, and also had the disadvantage of dying to Abrupt Decay. (Not that Knuckleblade doesn’t die to Decay too, but at least that isn’t going to blow me out mid-combat.)

I was worried about not having enough red to give this guy haste when I wanted to, but was able to 3/4 times that I cast him in the tournament. A much bigger issue was the basic Plains, which I always seemed to draw in conjunction with Knuckleblade. It is possible that you shouldn’t play both cards in the same deck. If I were to cut Knuckleblade, I’d probably add a second Snapcaster Mage and move the Qasali Pridemage to the main deck to free up a sideboard slot.

Given this card’s prevalence in both Modern and Standard, you probably don’t need a lengthy explanation as to why these stats are good. I was initially not too high on Rhino in Zoo, but as Abzan lists shifted to a full set of Lingering Souls, the trample became more and more appealing. The life drain is also far more relevant for you than Abzan, and will just outright kill your opponents sometimes.

Elspeth is a little less necessary in this version of the deck, since you have more of a top-end, but I still like her. The ideal scenario is turn-2 Geist, turn-3 Elspeth + jump Geist. But even jumping a lowly Wild Nacatl provides quite a bit of reach. The token-making ability also makes her useful in empty boards, or if you are behind and need some chump blockers while you try to catch up. Though, the chump-block ability was admittedly much better in a world without ubiquitous 4/5 tramplers, so if you are looking to cut an expensive card, it is probably this before a Rhino or Snapcaster.

The sideboard I played had the strongest hate cards against a variety of decks, as well as some more versatile catch-all options. You can of course add more hate based on your expected metagame.

Negate is not an all-star against any specific deck, but is good against basically any combo deck. In an unknown metagame, I like having a versatile card like Negate to supplement more specific hate cards. I have previously used Swan Song for a similar effect, but with 8 mana dorks, leaving up two mana is a lot more reasonable, and Negate is overall better. If you have a more defined metagame and know what combo decks you will play against, you can replace these with more targeted hate (i.e. Rule of Law, Back to Nature, Blood Moon, etc.)

These cards are both for Affinity, of course, and while Shatterstorm is more likely to always do something, Silence has a stronger high end: it can just end the game before it starts. The reason for Shatterstorm over Creeping Corrosion, despite having more green sources, is that Affinity sometimes brings in Blood Moon. The regeneration clause can also be relevant; the only Affinity deck I played against in the tournament had Welding Jar.

In my experience with smaller Zoo decks, Firewalker was the best card against Burn, letting you (usually) narrowly win the race. It is possible with your slightly slower clock that Firewalker does not do enough here, but I think it is still the best option. Single-time life gain cards are vulnerable to Skullcrack and Flames of the Blood Hand.

I normally do not bother with any hate for Burn, even if it isn’t a great matchup. Based on testing and MTGO results, it seemed better than usual, so I decided a couple Firewalkers would be a good idea. I certainly didn’t expect it to be the second-most played deck, or to put two into Top 8. If Burn’s popularity continues, I’d up it to four copies, and cut either Rule of Law or Negate.

Pridemage is worse than Ancient Grudge against Affinity, and probably worse than Wear // Tear if you want a card against Affinity and Twin because of Snapcaster. But it is still good against both of those decks, and I really like having access to one copy in the 75 for decks that might bring in Batterskull against you. You can’t reasonably side in Ancient Grudge against a deck that may or may not have one target, but Pridemage does enough on its own to bring in at little cost.

These cards are for grindy matchups like Abzan and Jeskai. Batterskull is also worth bringing in against Burn and fast Zoo, though you’re going to need some help before casting it for it to matter. I had a match against fast Zoo where I just traded resources and blocked into pump spells until I could get Batterskull online, and that was good enough. If you’ve never attached a Batterskull to a Siege Rhino, let me tell you: it feels pretty good.

Thundermaw Hellkite is one of the best things you can be doing against Lingering Souls, while also just being a great threat even if they don’t have Souls. (As opposed to say, Izzet Staticaster, which can be better vs. Souls but rots in your hand otherwise.)

Abrupt Decay is another catch-all type card, mostly intended for Twin, but also good against opposing Tarmogoyfs, Affinity, Amulet of Vigor, and so on. If you want a card solely for Twin, Combust is better, since they are likely to have Blood Moon.

Rule of Law stops several combo decks cold: Storm, Ad Nauseam, Living End. None of these decks were very popular at the Pro Tour, by my count only 15 total pilots between the three, so you can probably skimp on this hate for the moment. If you are worried about these decks, but are playing a faster Zoo variant, I like a split erring on the side of Ethersworn Canonist.

Blood Moon might seem like an odd inclusion, given that I’ve mentioned how several decks might bring it in against us. But there are some decks that just can’t beat it, and you have enough basics and mana dorks to function under it, especially if you side out your Siege Rhinos to remove any black mana requirements. Amulet decks truly cannot do anything about this card, and it is also a headache for Tron and Scapeshift.

Here’s a brief recap of the Modern portion of the Pro Tour:

Abzan (W)
Infect (L)
Abzan (L)
Affinity (W)
Living End (W)
Twin (W)
Burn (L)
Naya Zoo (W)
Abzan (L)
Infect (L)

Aside from losing to Infect twice and beating Living End, I think these results are fairly representative. Abzan is about even, skewing in either direction based on their exact deck list. Two of my opponents had Kitchen Finks and Voice of Resurgence, which are certainly harder to grind through than decks without them. Decks like Affinity, Twin, and Infect play out similarly, where you try to present a relatively fast clock while leaving up removal to disrupt theirs. Mana dorks make it possible to take less pain from your mana base against Burn, but the matchup is still hard without some dedicated sideboard hate.

Maybe Loam Lion is Great?

If the metagame continues to be as Abzan-heavy as the PT (28%, if you haven’t seen the breakdown), I’d like to try a faster Zoo deck like this list from MTGO:

m0x (3-1)
Modern Daily #7949804 on 02/08/2015

20 one-drops! I’m not necessarily sold on Gut Shot or the lack of Tarmogoyf, but the general idea looks like where you want to be against Abzan. Tons of one-drops can pretty easily overload their removal, and pump spells get by their larger creatures. The trample from both Ghor-Clan Rampager and Rancor are great against Lingering Souls. My friend and GP Nashville teammate Orrin Beasley played a deck more along these lines, and while he also didn’t fare too well in the PT, I do think it makes sense in an all-Abzan world.

If nothing else, this deck looks fun, and I’ll make a video with something like it before my next Modern GP.

Pat Cox
@wildestnacatl on Twitter