Recognizing how far you can carry your conclusions from playtesting is important. Between two decks, even slight alterations to one of them can cause significant swings in the matchup. Testing against Zoo decks with Baneslayer Angels is different from testing against Zoo decks with Molten Rain is different from testing against Zoo decks with Tribal Flames. Conclusions drawn from testing against one list do not necessarily apply to similar lists, and it is very dangerous to assume that all Wild Nacatldecks are the same. It’s important to be aware of how the presence or absence of particular cards changes a matchup, and how your strategy should change accordingly.
There are a couple Gifts Ungiven decks that use the Thopter Foundry–Sword of the Meek combo to close out games. There are also many variants on aggressive decks led by Wild Nacatl. I am testing some Gifts decks against some Wild Nacatl lists to get an idea of the matchup as a whole. Specifically, I have chosen the Tezzeret deck Luis Scott-Vargas et. al played at Worlds and Patrick Chapin’s Punishing Gifts deck to battle against Martin Juza’s and Hunter Burton’s Zoo decks from Pro Tour: Austin. I have found that the Gifts decks are favored against the Zoo decks.
The Thopter Foundry decks are very similar. LSV has an extra land and a Trinket Mage/Tezzeret the Seeker package to supplement the Gifts Ungiven engine. Chapin has a third Gifts, but no other tutors, preferring instead to have extra counters. Chapin also has a slightly beefier removal package, exploiting the synergy between Punishing Fire and Grove of the Burnwillows in addition to running the more standard Engineered Explosives, Paths to Exile, and Vedalken Shackles that LSV has included.
The differences between the Zoo decks are a little more subtle. Juza and Burton play almost the same amount of creatures, but Juza has sixteen one-drops and a much lower curve compared to Burton’s Knights of the Reliquary and Molten Rains. Juza’s burn suite is much more suited to such an aggressive approach; Tribal Flames and Might of Alara can enable turn three kills with a fast Steppe Lynx draw. Burton’s deck is a little slower and has a more controlling strategy, with slightly larger but more expensive creatures and the light disruption of Molten Rain. Burton’s high-end spells require more land than Juza, but also allow Treetop Village to make an appearance as an additional threat.
Notable in its absence from the Wild Nacatl corner is Ben Rubin’s Zoo deck that Brian Kibler won Pro Tour: Austin with. Rubin’s Zoo deck isn’t nearly as aggressive as the lists Juza and Burton played, and I want to see how the Gifts decks can handle draws featuring multiple one drops and heavy amounts of burn as opposed to a slower curve topping out in Baneslayer Angel. Besides, popular consensus holds that the Gifts decks are solid favorites over Rubin Zoo, but opinions are mixed concerning who is the favorite when Gifts decks battle faster Zoo decks.
Martin Juza’s Zoo:
Hunter Burton’s Zoo:
The Tezzeret deck did most of the winning in preboard games against Juza’s list. Most games play out with Juza having an uncontested one-drop that plinks away while the Tezzeret deck uses permission and removal to keep the board relatively clean of the rest of Juza’s animals. Eventually, Juza’s first threat falls to a sweeper (Wrath of God or Engineered Explosives) or is hit by an end-step Path to Exile, and Tezzeret is able to untap into a clear board, which is usually a win. Tezzeret tends to lose the games where the Zoo deck has a hyperaggressive start and Tezzeret has no sweeper, or when Tezzeret doesn’t draw enough removal and permission to keep the board clean in the first few turns.
The Zoo player can sandbag threats to minimize the damage from Tezzeret’s sweepers, but in doing so risks giving the Tezzeret deck enough time to tutor up the Thopter combo with Gifts Ungiven or Tezzeret himself. Gaddock Teeg is Juza’s best card, and won multiple games by blanking Wraths or Gifts that the Tezzeret deck was relying on.
For sideboarding, LSV has recommended +3 Baneslayer Angel, +2 Glen Elendra Archmage, +1 Path, -1 Tormod’s Crypt, -3 Cryptic Command, -1 Aether Spellbomb, -1 Gifts Ungiven. Even if you feel there is a better sideboard plan, your stock testing should use this one, because most of your opponents will probably read LSV’s article and follow his instructions by rote.
Sideboarding for Juza is a little trickier. Juza’s burn is weak in this matchup, because the Zoo deck just wants to keep pressure on the board, and if the burn spells are not lethal, they are not useful. Accordingly, I cut two Lightning Helix and three Gaea’s Might. However, the Tezzeret deck isn’t linear enough to be vulnerable to a hoser, and Juza doesn’t have extra creatures like Qasali Pridemage in his sideboard. I am adding three Ancient Grudge to Juza’s sideboard to disrupt the Thopter combo and go after cards like Vedalken Shackles and Chrome Mox. Two Umezawa’s Jitte also come in to help mitigate the effects of mass removal. I feel the Zoo deck just wants more cheap creatures to keep the pressure on, but so far that is not a popular sideboard plan, while Ancient Grudge is pretty widespread.
(As an aside, these days I just assume that in both Standard and Extended, any control deck with White mana is bringing in Baneslayer Angel for games two and three. I have frustrated quite a few people by leaving in Terminate and/or Path after boarding against ostensibly “creatureless” decks, and suggest you do the same.)
After boarding, the Tezzeret deck remains the favorite. Ancient Grudge fluctuates from being completely insane when the Blue deck is relying on Seat of the Synod and Chrome Mox for mana to utter garbage when Baneslayer Angel is in play with no artifacts in sight. Grudge is good enough at destroying Shackles, Explosives, and lands to be worthy of inclusion, but it’s not very good at disrupting the Thopter combo due to Academy Ruins. Tezzeret was able to go off through one and a half Grudges without much issue in one game.
The postboard games play out very similarly to the preboard ones, but there are some complications. Tezzeret can be put into situations where it is all in on a Baneslayer Angel, and if Juza can show a Path to Exile or a fully powered Tribal Flames, Tezzeret is kold. Glen Elendra Archmage provides some protection in that area, and is also very good at blocking. Jitte helps Juza get around sweepers to some extent, but fundamentally, Juza has to expose himself to removal to have enough pressure, and if the Tezzeret deck can run Juza out of creatures, it is very hard for Juza to win.
Tezzeret also won the majority of game ones against Hunter Burton’s Zoo deck from Austin, but this matchup was much closer. Burton’s deck is slower, but has more heavy hitters in the form of Treetop Village and Knight of the Reliquary. When Burton curves perfectly with a one- and two-drop to accompany his high end, it’s difficult for Tezzeret to win without a Path, but when Burton draws all Molten Rains and three drops and no cheap creatures, Burton will almost assuredly lose. Tezzeret’s sweepers aren’t as good in this matchup; Treetop and Knight spread out Burton’s casting costs and diminish the impact of Explosives, and Molten Rain excels at keeping Tezzeret off Wrath mana.
In the postboard games, Burton was the victor. Molten Rain is very good at keeping Baneslayer Angel stranded in Tezzeret’s hand, and Ancient Grudge helps facilitate mana denial when Tezzeret draws Chrome Mox. Even when Tezzeret manages to assemble five mana for Baneslayer Angel, Burton often has Path waiting. Tezzeret is not helpless; Burton still has some curve issues and can be vulnerable to Spell Snare when no one drop comes to the party, but Tezzeret is still the underdog.
Tezzeret was not the only enabler of Thopter Foundry in Rome. Patrick Chapin used Gifts Ungiven to tutor up the combo:
Patrick Chapin Gifts:
Chapin’s version of Gifts is favored against Juza Zoo in game one. This is no surprise; Chapin’s Gifts list has even more removal and counterspells than the Tezzeret list. The games play similarly to the Tezzeret-Juza games, with Juza trying to fill the red zone with beaters, but it’s pretty easy for the Gifts deck to contain early rushes with the extra Mana Leaks and other kill spells. Firespout in particular is a huge beating against landfall creatures. Punishing Fire isn’t too impressive; often the Blue deck wants to play removal at end of turn because of its counterspells, but Fire doesn’t kill landfall creatures if you don’t play it in response to landfall triggers. However, letting the Zoo player sneak Tarmogoyf into play because you wanted to Shock their Steppe Lynx is more than a little embarrassing.
Accordingly, Punishing Fire hits the bench for postboard games. Spell Burst, Tormod’s Crypt, and a Gifts Ungiven get cut as well, making room for two Baneslayer Angels and four Kitchen Finks. This plan might not be as good as cutting the Thopter combination and relying on Baneslayer to win all of the games, but I am leery of relying on Baneslayer against a deck with Paths and Tribal Flames. Juza Zoo boards the same as against Tezzeret, despite Gifts having much fewer artifacts; killing Vedalken Shackles is very important, and I was curious to see if breaking up the Thopter combination was a better plan against Gifts than it was against Tezzeret.
It was not. The Gifts deck was still winning the postboard games. The Zoo deck can’t really alter its plan of “play men and attack,” and when the Blue deck gets more speedbumps to put in the way of Zoo’s animals, Zoo’s matchup only deteriorates. Kitchen Finks is phenomenal, matching up well against Wild Nacatl and Goblin Guide while providing a lot of life when chumping Tarmogoyf. Baneslayer Angel’s lifelink ability won some games, but there were also times where Gifts needed to untap with Angel very badly and Zoo would flash a Path and completely wreck Gifts. Because all of Chapin’s Gifts piles for the Thopter combination involve Academy Ruins, Grudge isn’t too effective at disrupting the combo permanently, but Grudge is often a Time Walk on the turn Foundry comes into play; where the Tezzeret deck often has artifact lands and Chrome Moxen lying around to forge into 1/1s, Gifts often just has Sword and Foundry, and cannot make any Thopters to block with until Foundry can be recurred.
Chapin’s Gifts deck also tested well against Burton’s Zoo list. Gifts has the full four Mana Leaks, which are brutal against Burton’s Molten Rains and Knights. Burton still gets the games where he leads with creature, creature, resolved Molten Rain, but Gifts has the upper hand overall.
Even in postboard games, with Teegs and Jittes in for Burton and Gifts sideboarding in Angels and Finks, Burton was struggling. A couple of games were won on the back of Molten Rain, but Life from the Loam is a good answer to mana denial strategies, and the extra counters and removal in Chapin’s Gifts list keep all of Burton’s creatures under control. Ancient Grudge again proved helpless in keeping Gifts off of the Thopter Foundry combination, but Vedalken Shackles is very difficult to beat unless Zoo has Grudge to keep it at bay.
When the Blue mage leaves up two lands, they are representing Mana Leak. If Zoo has a creature in play, it is often profitable to attack and pass the turn, denying the Blue mage the use of their mana. This is particularly true when the Zoo player has a threat-light hand. However, when the control deck has more mana and can use it to cast Thirst for Knowledge, it is usually correct to cast the creature so that the Blue mage is forced to counter instead of drawing cards.
Spell Snare is hard to play around, because casting a second one drop can just lead to getting blown out by Engineered Explosives. However, if the Blue mage plays a tapped dual land on turn two, they probably have Snare. (As a corollary, if the land is untapped, play around Leak.)
Gifts players should mulligan hands that do not interact with the board on turns one or two. Gifts will lose the most games to simply being run over by creatures, and the best way to avoid that is to keep hands that are long on Paths, Snares, and Leaks and don’t feature multiple expensive spells that don’t impact the board.
Don’t keep two-landers with either Gifts deck, even if they include Thirst for Knowledge. You can’t keep such hands on the play, and when on the draw, spending turn three Thirsting puts you very far behind on the board.
The Gifts decks want to get into situations where they can untap into an empty board. This means doing things like taking extra damage while Engineered Explosives is in play so that you can blow it in your opponent’s end step. While detonating Explosives in combat saves damage in the short run, being unable to counter their next threat actually puts you behind.
After boarding, keep Ancient Grudge in mind when you are playing Chrome Mox. If you want to curve turn two Thirst, turn three Wrath, waiting to Thirst until after you Wrath to ensure that you don’t get crushed by Grudge might be wise.
If your opponent has a few cards in their hand but hasn’t been playing that many creatures, consider Spell Snaring the Lightning Helices they send at your head when you are at eight or so. If the rest of their hand is Bolts, you will be thankful.
Drawing multiple Thirsts for Knowledge early can clog up your hand, and boarding out one or two is probably a good idea.
It appears that the Gifts decks are solid favorites over the Wild Nacatl decks. The Gifts decks have enough ways to counter or kill Zoo’s early creatures that they can usually get into the midgame and find a window to assemble Thopter Foundry with Sword of the Meek. The best cards for the Gifts decks in the Zoo matchups are the one- and two-mana removal spells and counters as well as more expensive sweepers such as Engineered Explosives, Firespout and Wrath of God. When playing the Chapin Gifts list, I found myself wishing for access to Wrath of God and Day of Judgement to power up my Gifts Ungiven, and that change might be worth making if you expect a lot of aggressive Zoo decks.
Gifts players concerned with their Wild Nacatl matchups should consider boarding in more Paths and Spell Snares. Threads of Disloyalty is another option, but unless you manage to steal Tarmogoyf, I feel that both cheaper one-for-one removal and more expensive mass removal is superior to Threads. To fight Molten Rain and more expensive creatures, more Mana Leaks are also a reasonable sideboard inclusion. Baneslayer Angel, while good against Zoo postboard, is not a panacea, nor is it necessary to win. Kitchen Finks is another excellent answer to Zoo’s creatures, but sideboard plans that leave Zoo’s creature removal completely dead may be worth looking into.
The Zoo decks win games against Gifts with threat-heavy draws featuring lots of creatures. Games Zoo wins with burn would often be won if the burn spells were additional creatures, except when killing Baneslayer Angel. Zoo players wanting to shore up their Gifts matchup should consider maindecking fewer burn spells in favor of additional creatures. Qasali Pridemage in particular is very good against some of Gifts’ trumps, especially Vedalken Shackles. Molten Rain is also strong against the Gifts decks, but only if accompanied by enough creatures. Another interesting option for the five-color Zoo lists is including Dark Confidant as a source of card advantage.
Every season, I test hundreds of games across many matchups. If there is interest, I can write more articles similar to this one focusing on specific matchups. Please let me know in the forums or via e-mail.
Max.McCall at gmail dot com