After months of playing nothing but Jund in Modern, I started searching for a change of pace. But I still wanted to find a deck that was competitive and had decent matchups against the format’s top decks. I found exactly that in Bant Zoo, which I played to an 11-4 finish at Grand Prix Oklahoma City last weekend.
I worked hard at fine-tuning the deck list, and even after the 15-round GP, I felt good about all of my card choices. The one tiny change I would make is to swap the Magma Spray in the sideboard for a Seal of Fire.
Paul Rietzl wrote an excellent and detailed article on his very similar Collected Company Zoo deck, so I’ll direct you to that and simply focus on the differences between our two decks.
In fact, I started my Zoo testing with Paul’s exact deck list. I was very impressed with what it could do. Both the deck and the card Collected Company were great at putting an unfair amount of power and toughness onto the table very quickly. I knew I wanted to preserve that quality, and I also knew that I’d be thrilled if I could play with Wild Nacatl and Noble Hierarch in my next Modern tournament. However, I also encountered a couple of specific weaknesses that I wanted to find a way to correct.
Collected Company is a powerful card, but wasn’t playing the role that I wanted my 4-mana trump card to play. More specifically, it was powerful and efficient in the spots where the deck’s normal game plan was already good, but it wasn’t actually “trumping” the things that were shutting me down. It also made the deck uncomfortably weak to Dispel out of decks like Grixis or Splinter Twin.
Collected Company did shine in the matchups where there were powerful silver-bullet creatures to find. (Think Kataki, War’s Wage against Affinity, Magus of the Moon against Tron, or Scavenging Ooze against graveyard decks). However, in the “fair” matchups like Jund and Grixis, the opponent could sometimes have the ground locked down with Tarmogoyfs or Gurmag Anglers, and Collected Company would just wind up giving you more ground creatures that still couldn’t attack.
That’s why I turned to the lovely lady.
Elspeth, Knight-Errant is one of the most underplayed cards in Modern, and is a perfect fit for this deck. She’s difficult to kill (going up to 5 loyalty is important against Siege Rhino and Celestial Colonnade), helps you beat creature sweepers, and breaks board stalls wide open.
Against grindy decks, Zoo’s advantage is coming out faster, while a deck like Jund’s advantage is in its late-game 2-for-1s and staying power. If you have a fast start and put Elspeth into play before they’re ready to handle her, they can almost never win.
Finally, Elspeth with Geist of Saint Traft once in a while just gives you a free win.
Which brings me to the first of the two “big questions”: why play blue?
Once you decide not to play Blood Moon (which I had), the costs of adding a color are not that high. I was playing 12 fetchlands and 4 Noble Hierarchs anyway, so two blue dual lands is all I needed for a comfortable 4-color mana base. (Two days before the tournament, I cut my 12th fetchland for a third blue dual land).
Bant Charm rounds out the spot removal, providing more good answers to opposing Tarmogoyfs and Tasigurs. Importantly, it’s also an instant against the Splinter Twin combo. The number one reason I wanted to include Bant Charm, however, was to break up Cryptic Command “locks.” Often, you can start strong against a Snapcaster deck, but eventually they’ll navigate the game to a situation where they can Cryptic and Snap-Cryptic a few turns in a row and race you regardless of anything you’ve been able to put on the board. Including just a couple of cards that can stop that takes a very important tool away from them.
Bant Charm also destroys Cranial Plating, Batterskull, and Amulet of Vigor. It counters Goryo’s Vengeance, Through the Breach, and Collected Company. The more you play, the more awesome things you’ll find that Bant Charm can do for you.
For a lot of the same reasons, Negate is an extremely good versatile sideboard card. I boarded it in for 9 of the 12 rounds I played in the GP.
The second big question is: why not play the fifth color and Tribal Flames?
I actually think that adding the fifth color has a higher cost than adding the fourth. Once you have Tribal Flames in your deck, it becomes pretty difficult to ever fetch for basic lands (unless you’ve drawn 4+ lands, that is). I wanted to play two basic lands, and I wanted a little bit of resilience against Blood Moon.
Big Zoo also just doesn’t have very many slots that can be devoted to burn spells. Lightning Bolt is still better than Tribal Flames, and you need to play Path to Exile and Bant Charm if you want a good chance of beating the Twin combo. Your number of creatures ought to be in the mid-twenties, and that just doesn’t leave much space for Tribal Flames.
Bant Zoo is a slight favorite against Splinter Twin. The games they win come in two forms: They can combo fast and cross their fingers, or they can kill all of your early creatures and prevent you from getting any traction. The second one happens slightly more often after sideboarding, as sometimes your draws won’t allow you to play around Anger of the Gods.
That said, you don’t want to play a long game with them. If things drag out, they can set up their combo with counter backup, or they can just grind you out with Snapcaster Mages. You should play aggressively in the first 3-5 turns of the game, and make sure you establish some effective pressure, even if it means leaving yourself vulnerable for one turn. You need to get the game to the point where you’re attacking while sitting back on Path to Exile, not just sitting back on Path to Exile.
I consider Big Zoo and Jund to basically be the same strategy, they just fall at different points on the spectrum. Zoo is a bit faster, and Jund has a bit more staying power. However, once in a while the cards will come in a way that makes it work the opposite way.
In other words, this is just a classic creature mirror. It’s going to be very close, and come down to topdecks very often.
(-1 Wild Nacatl on the draw).
Bant Zoo is about 50/50 against the format’s popular fair decks. It’s inherently a little bit weak against combo decks. (You can sideboard to beat just about any of them, but you can’t beat them all at the same time). The deck’s best matchups, though, come against smaller creature decks like Affinity, Infect, and Merfolk—basically any matchup where Grim Lavamancer excels.
Like most decks, Bant Zoo has a bad game 1 against Affinity. However, the post-board games are very good, and would probably still be fine even if you chose to play less dedicated hate than I did.
Your creatures beat theirs in combat and put on a fast clock, you have tons of 1-mana removal, and you sideboard 3 Grim Lavamancers. Infect is a deck designed to steal wins, but this is statistically a quite favorable matchup.
I don’t think there’s a best deck in Modern. In testing, Bant Zoo has done about as well for me as Jund has, which is about as well as most of the other top tier decks have done. Unlike Jund, however, Bant Zoo can have fast and powerful nut-draws, and is very punishing to players who either show up unprepared, or wind up with a weak draw once the cards are dealt. The other great things about picking up Zoo is that it’s very customizable, a bit off the radar, and incredibly fun to play.