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A Guide to Blue Zoo in Pauper


Author’s Note: This article was originally submitted before the ban of Arcum’s Astrolabe on October 21st. I’m presenting it with some changes since the change represents a massive metagame shift.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the queues recently, testing different builds of aggressive blue decks. As with any new deck, I spent a lot of time talking about it with various interested parties. I spoke with longtime deckbuilding partner Jason Sirichoke, and newer collaborators like reigning North American Vintage Champion Brian Coval, as well as Chris Stagno. But Blue Zoo got its hooks in Matt Ferrando–a New York local who has a Grand Prix Top 8 to his name. Ferrando and I spent most of the weekend going back and forth with ideas, turning the various knobs on the build. A lot of the bigger changes come from him and I am very pleased with how the deck is taking shape.

Blue Zoo in Pauper

16 Island (335)
2 Mystic Sanctuary
4 Faerie Seer
4 Slither Blade
1 Soratami Cloudskater
2 Fathom Seer
4 Spellstutter Sprite
2 Aven Eternal
4 Ninja of the Deep Hours
4 Accumulated Knowledge
3 Counterspell
1 Deprive
1 Foil
2 Hieroglyphic Illumination
4 Preordain
2 Callous Dismissal
3 Mantle of Tides
1 Neurok Stealthsuit

Sideboard
2 Spire Golem
2 Curfew
2 Dispel
3 Hydroblast
1 Counterspell
1 Echoing Truth
2 Relic of Progenitus
2 Spontaneous Mutation

There are some pretty radical changes from last time. I think none surprised me more than cutting Faerie Miscreant entirely for Faerie Seer. The change came from Matt, who was unimpressed with the Miscreant. After reviewing my games, I realized I agreed. While drawing the extra card was nice, it was not a regular occurrence. The guaranteed scry from Faerie Seer was much more important in the early game to set up draws. Seer is never dead topdeck and at its best it sets the table for Ninja of the Deep Hours. The one-drop slot shifted around quite a bit, at one point including copies of Mist-Cloaked Herald. In the end, the pair of Seer and Slither Blade made the most sense.

Sunken City also found itself on the cutting room floor. Sunken City does change the math on combat, but it comes at quite a cost. In a deck that wants to leave up mana to both draw cards and counter spells, the upkeep is too much to bear. That being said, it is a fantastic card and has proven itself to be a factor (as evidenced by this Challenge Top 16 finish).

The move away from Sunken City made it easier to slot in Aven Eternal in the Stormbound Geist slot. Geist is an all-star in the air but has trouble holding the ground on the ground. Thanks to Mantle of Tides, this deck is excellent at blocking, but having a card that could not get in the way of Stompy proved to be a huge detriment. While I originally had Spire Golem in this slot, Aven Eternal made more sense as we also moved from Man-o’-War to Callous Dismissal. The deck was in want of two-drops and Dismissal fit the bill. Not only does it improve on Man-o’-War in that it can bounce any non-land, it also can be retrieved with Mystic Sanctuary. Combine this with the ability to make an even larger Army with the Eternal and it is a clear winner over the jellyfish.

Matt also moved the Neurok Stealthsuit main and I have to say I love the change. The current best deck in Pauper, Jeskai, can recur removal with Archaeomancer. A resolved Stealthsuit ruins part of their lategame plan and keeps you in the driver’s seat. Every game against Jeskai where a Stealthsuit hit the board my opponent scooped it up shortly thereafter. Who knew a repeatable counterspell was a good card?

The draw suite was in flux, but we settled on Preordain and Accumulated Knowledge. While there is merit to running Brainstorm so you can trigger Mantle of Tides on your opponent’s turn, without a shuffle effect you run the risk of locking your draws. The best way to shuffle in mono-blue is Ponder, which also carries the same baggage. Considering the importance of the early turns, Preordain gets the nod. Hieroglyphic Illumination is a pseudo-cantrip that can put you up cards as the game drags on.

The last two cards in the flex slots are Soratami Cloudskater and Foil. The Cloudskater is another two-drop with evasion that has the advantage of letting you rebuy Mystic Sanctuary. Foil is there for keeping decks honest. It’s hard to run multiple copies, but the ability to just say no when you are tapped out is a huge benefit.

No matter what you are playing against, you must manage your copies of Mystic Sanctuary. When the game drags on, often your best play is to reuse Sanctuary to get the highest-impact card again and again. Sometimes this is as simple as a Deprive-Sanctuary lock whereas other times it could be making an ever larger Army with Callous Dismissal.

While your sideboard should always be in flux, the one here is a solid starting point. Relic of Progenitus is good at taxing graveyard decks, Spire Golem comes in when you need more threats, and Dispel is there to win stack battles. Curfew does a good job at holding off otherwise unsolvable threats (looking at you, Slippery Bogle) and Spontaneous Mutation is there to blunt assaults.

Sideboard Plan

Mulldrifter Decks

In: 2 Dispel, 2 Spire Golem

Out: 2 Hieroglyphic Illumination, 1 Soratami Cloudskater, 1 Callous Dismissal

If there’s a reason to run this deck, it is because you have a very good to great matchup against decks that rely on the Mulldrifter engine, like the now-dead Jeskai. Jeskai is a deck built upon the concept that its opponent is not going to try and disrupt it in the early turns, but Blue Zoo can do just that. An early Slither Blade can do quite a bit of damage and start drawing cards thanks to Ninja of the Deep Hours. In sideboard games, you want Spire Golems as additional airforce and Dispel to counter their counters. If they have Seeker of the Way, you may want to find room for Spontaneous Mutation. If so, you should consider cutting the second Dismissal and either a Counterspell (on the play) or a Ninja of the Deep Hours (on the draw).

Flicker Tron

In: 2 Dispel, 1 Counterspell, 2 Relic of Progenitus, 2 Spire Golem

Out: 3 Mantle of Tides, 2 Callous Dismissal, 1 Neurok Stealthsuit, 1 Soratami Cloudskater

While this matchup tilts in Blue Zoo’s favor, Tron has a lot of draws that can completely invalidate attacking thanks to Stonehorn Dignitary. The goal should be to apply early pressure and then use your countermagic to stop their preventive measures. Tron decks tend to run few pieces of stack interaction, so you have a very good chance of winning the counter war. Use your Relic judiciously and try to pop it when they have stranded a Ghostly Flicker or Ephemerate in the graveyard. Do not be afraid to throw a Spellstutter Sprite out there early as they have few relevant one-mana plays but plenty of action in the two-drop slot.

Stompy

In: 2 Dispel, 2 Spontaneous Mutation, 2 Spire Golem, 1 Curfew, 1 Echoing Truth

Out: 1 Counterspell, 1 Neurok Stealthsuit, 4 Accumulated Knowledge, 1 Ninja of the Deep Hours, 1 Hieroglyphic Illumination

Stompy is tough matchup. While it isn’t unwinnable, it’s awfully tough to get a foothold in the game. Stompy can present multiple one-mana threats and has Savage Swipe for their own tempo swing. Curfew is a nod to builds that run Silhana Ledgewalker, but in the event they are not running the hexproof threat I would still find space for at least one Curfew as it can help in situations where Stompy invested in one threat. Counterspell is fairly awkward here as you are almost always trading down on mana. Dispel, on the other hand, can stop Hunger of the Howlpack or Vines of Vastwood. Spontaneous Mutation can also declaw Savage Swipe. Make no mistake–this is one of Blue Zoo’s worst matchups.

Burn

In: 3 Hydroblast, 2 Dispel, 2 Curfew

Out: 1 Counterspell, 1 Neurok Stealthsuit, 1 Soratami Cloudskater, 2 Mantle of Tides, 2 Hieroglyphic Illumination

Burn is a coin flip that can often come down to whether or not you are on the play. Sometimes you have to chump block Ghitu Lavarunner to preserve life points. Curfew comes in as an answer to Thermo-Alchemist when you are on the draw. On the play, you can keep Mantle of Tides in provided you are not concerned about Smash to Smithereens. The key thing to remember here is that one is not zero. Do everything you can to keep your life total high enough that you can take over the game. Recurring Hydroblast with Mystic Sanctuary is pretty good, for what it’s worth.

Affinity

In: 3 Hydroblast, 2 Dispel, 2 Spontaneous Mutation, 1 Aven Eternal

Out: 1 Neurok Stealthsuit, 2 Hieroglyphic Illumination, 1 Counterspell, 2 Callous Dismissal, 2 Spire Golem

This all comes down to whether they can assemble Atog and Fling or Temur Battle Rage. Mantle of Tides can make your creatures large enough to block their 4/4s effectively. Spontaneous Mutation can help keep Atog small or neuter a Gearseeker Serpent. Be wary of Galvanic Blasts and off beat sideboard cards. Thanks to Prophetic Prism and Springleaf Drum, Affinity is quite capable of playing any high-impact card and can bring in Ancient Grudge and Electrickery in an attempt to ruin your day.

Mono-Black Control

In: 2 Spire Golem, 2 Dispel

Out: 2 Hieroglyphic Illumination, 2 Callous Dismissal

Another fairly even matchup. Very few of their cards actually matter and you can maneuver yourself around Chainer’s Edict fairly well. The presence of Defile makes this matchup somewhat more difficult, but thanks to Neurok Stealthsuit you should be well-suited to defend yourself in these instances. In the event they do not have a decent number of instants, do not bring in Dispel and instead side in the additional Counterspell.

Bogles

In: 2 Curfew, 1 Echoing Truth, 1 Dispel

Out: 1 Neurok Stealthsuit, 1 Ninja of the Deep Hours, 1 Counterspell, 1 Hieroglyphic Illumination

Bogles comes down to Curfew. If you can leverage it against their one threat, then you are golden. Dispel comes in since they can bring in Fling, Electrickery, or Dispels of their own–they can even run Pyroblast/Red Elemental Blast. Being able to Callous Dismissal an aura and counter it on the way back down with Spellstutter Sprite is nice.

Elves

In: 1 Echoing Truth

Out: 1 Counterspell

A nightmare matchup. Elves makes its bed on the back of beating blue decks. You can try and contain their threats and use Echoing Truth to beat up on tokens. Alternatively, you could bring in Curfew as a way to get extra uses out of Spellstutter Sprite. That being said, you have your work cut out for you in this pairing.

Familiar Combo

In: 2 Relic of Progenitus, 2 Dispel, 1 Counterspell, 2 Spire Golem

Out: 2 Callous Dismissal, 2 Aven Eternal, 1 Mantle of Tides, 1 Neurok Stealthsuit

This deck uses the mana reduction of Sunscape Familiar and Nightscape Familiar to loop Ghostly Flicker through Mnemonic Wall and an Island to trigger Sage’s Row Denizen enough times to mill the opponent. Thanks to Mystic Sanctuary, the deck just got harder to stop.

The only card that really matters in this matchup is Iceberg Cancrix, but Familiars is well set up to protect it with Dispel and Reaping the Graves. They can also resist damage thanks to God-Pharaoh’s Faithful. Early on you want to try and stop them from gaining life, but in the latter stages do everything you can to keep the Cancrix from sticking around. While this is an uphill climb, you are not likely going to be under pressure since their main source of offense is Mulldrifter. Bide your time and play out your lands.

Author’s Note: Without Astrolabe this combo no longer works with Mystic Sanctuary. It is therefore much easier to stop since it hinges on creatures like Mnemonic Wall. with that in mind, keep the same sideboard plan and aggressively go after Sage’s Row Denizen as they cannot win without the card. Failing that, go after Mnemonic Wall or Ghostly Flicker.

Blue Zoo is not the heir to Delver decks. Instead the strategy fills an empty niche in the metagame. Right now, the ability to establish a threat and be proactive with countermagic can exploit weaknesses in many of the top decks. There are going to be times when you want Mutagenic Growth and Piracy Charm, and maybe a Silvergill Douser out of the sideboard. Stormbound Geist will no doubt have its day in the sun again. But for now, strike fear in the hearts of your adversaries with Slither Blade on turn one.

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