Cat has quietly been one of the strongest creature types in magic for quite a while now. If beatdown is your style, one need look no further than Wild Nacatl, Steppe Lynx, or Qasali Pridemage. For Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, I decided to look to the power of Cats along with a few more exotic animals and a humble goat herder to lead them into battle. Unfortunately, in my search for powerful beasts of burden, I unearthed something… unsavory.
Introducing: Demonic Zoo
This deck doesn’t have time to mess around with nonsense like Courser of Kruphix. This ain’t your grind-’em-out-with-Elspeth Junk deck that you may be used to. This is a pump my Rakshasa, Thoughtseize your answer, put-you-on-a-fast-clock-you-better-find-that-answer-soon kind of Junk deck.
Unfortunately, things don’t always go exactly as planned and sometimes you have to slow your roll a little bit. That’s all right because your 8-pack of cool cats happen to come equipped with a dazzling array of fantastic abilities that help keep them relevant from turns two to twenty. Herald also provides some nice flexibility by being able to play as a mediocre 3-drop or a fantastic 5-drop. Sorin and Siege Rhino help recoup the life lost to Thoughtseize, Ulcerate, and your painful mana base. Hero’s Downfall is just the best at what it does and makes sure that you’re not left without answers to whatever Stormbreath Dragons, Sarkhans, or Arbor Colossi happen to be running amok.
Let’s take a look at some of the more popular matchups in Standard:
This is a pretty terrifying matchup because there are so many seemingly innocuous board states that you can just die from. The number one most important thing to do here is to put them on a clock. To become the Supreme Master, students of the Jeskai arts pay a hefty price in blood for the mana to conjure their strange variety of mana critters. This means that while disruption is great, damage often IS disruption. If you pass the turn back to them at only 3 life, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to actually cast the spells required to win without killing themselves. Of course, we don’t have to rely on just damage alone, we have removal as well as the always fantastic Thoughtseize to help us out. Generally it’s best to err on the side of just killing their mana guys rather than hoping to “get” them when they try to go off on a later turn. It’s also generally best to Thoughtseize Ascendancy rather than mana guys unless you have a good plan to actually remove all the mana dorks.
For sideboarding, I want to cut my slower cards and bring in more disruption and cheaper removal.
The Other Jeskai Deck
This matchup can be a bit tricky because it’s so hard to know where they’ll end up on the aggro/control spectrum in the post-board games. They could easily leave in all their aggressive creatures and burn spells and try to race, or they could be bringing in a ton of Elspeths, End Hostilities, and counterspells. The one thing I’m sure about though is that they’ll still have Mantis Rider in their deck. While Mantises are not generally thought of as predators for Cats, these Jeskai monsters are incredibly dangerous and should be dealt swiftly lest they bring about our untimely demise. Once again, a swift clock backed by some disruption as well as some powerful healing magic is exactly what is required.
When sideboarding, be sure to reconsider what they’re up to if things don’t work out in game 2. If they surprise you with Elspeth or End Hostilities, be sure to consider changing up your plan to adapt accordingly. The following is my “default plan” but be prepared to deviate based on the specifics of their list.
This is not the greatest matchup—Cats happen to be quite scared of Hornets and when the Queen makes her debut, things tend to go poorly. Fortunately, there are a few options available. Thoughtseize is always good at helping mitigate specific problematic cards, and it can be supplemented post-board with Despise. Additionally, in games where there is not a Hornet Queen on board, Herald on basically any creature can end the game in a big hurry. Sometimes you can even win through a Queen by suiting up a Siege Rhino and trampling over for the last bit of damage. In the post-board games, you get a bunch of cheap removal that’s capable of killing their early accelerators as well as being reasonable answers to Hornet Queen.
Going into the Pro Tour, we were not exactly sure what this deck was going to look like, but if there’s one deck that is always at least playable, it’s 17-21 Mountains plus a pile of red Magic cards. The matchup is actually surprisingly good for how much pain you tend to inflict on yourself with some draws because your creatures come down so early and are quite good at blocking until Sorin shows up to gain 10+ life in a single turn. Speed is the name of the game here, which means that even though Thoughtseize might look bad on paper, just getting to cast your spells and disrupt their curve is more important than mitigating the potential life loss. Basically, in games where both players get to cast their whole hands, I would expect the Demonic Zoo player to come out on top, so keeping a few cards like Thoughtseize in the deck helps make that game plan come together.
This matchup feels a lot like a mirror match, but while they have some cards that help them win longer games, you have a few haymakers that they are pretty poorly positioned against. Make no mistake, your role should be that of the aggressor when possible, meaning that Thoughtseize takes removal more often than in a traditional mirror, but you’re perfectly capable of winning longer games if it comes to that. Herald is your big trump card for their potential Elspeths or other ground fatties so you should save it for when it can have maximum impact. Post-board games are more of the same—both players get a few cards that help trump each other in the matchup, but with Thoughtseize, you can invalidate a lot of their card text.
(2 Anafenza on the draw, 1 on the play)
(0 Despise on the draw)
The specifics vary, but the broad strokes are generally the same. Removal, counterspells, and Dig Through Time form the core of pretty much every control deck in the format and our plan is basically the same regardless of what else they’re up to. If they have white, End Hostilities should be on your radar, but fortunately all of the 2-drops are capable of surviving under the right circumstances. Because of how awesome the Cat squad’s abilities are against the control decks, it can be tempting to play them later in the game when you have mana available to use their abilities. However, we did not find that to be a generally winning strategy because it gives them too much time to leverage their clunkier cards and keep up with Digs. Thoughtseize obviously plays a huge role by giving you information on what to play around and letting you knock out a key removal spell or counterspell at an opportune moment. Post-board, you get to remove the dead removal spells for some more high-impact hard hitters. Despise isn’t amazing, but seeing their hand is helpful and stripping potential threats can buy you a lot of time to draw some more of your powerful felines.
I think Demonic Zoo will be a great choice in the post-Pro Tour metagame in GP LA. The cards are all so individually powerful that it would take a massive shift to really push it to an unfavorable spot. Thanks for reading and if you happen to make it to LA, see you there and good luck!