Pat Cox Talks – Tribal Zoo Primer

“Zoo? Is that even still a deck?”

It is funny how things work. When Wild Nacatl was unbanned before PT Valencia, Zoo was the biggest threat on everyone’s radar. It didn’t do so hot in the Pro Tour or subsequent events, and now it is written off as unplayable.

The truth is somewhere in-between. Zoo is not the best or most powerful deck in Modern. But it is a good deck, and it gets a lot better when everyone is ignoring it and shaving Anger of the Gods and Firespouts.

Since Wild Nacatl was unbanned, I have played Zoo in three events: PT Valencia, GP Richmond, and GP Minneapolis. I ended up 7-3 in Valencia; you can read about that here. I went 1-3 after byes in Richmond, losing to some fairly uncommon decks: Soul Sisters, Burn, and Skred Red. I didn’t think those matchups were particularly representative, and wanted to play the sweet “Wilder Nacatls” LSV got me, so I stuck to my guns and played the deck again a few weeks ago in Minneapolis, where I finished 12-3 for 21st.


Shouldn’t these be 4/4s?

A Brief, and Tardy, GP Minneapolis Report

This is the list I played in Minneapolis:

And here is a summary of the tournament:

Byes 3-0
UR Delver (L) 3-1
Merfolk (W) 4-1
Jund (W) 5-1
Scapeshift (W) 6-1
Jund (L) 6-2
Boggles (W) 7-2
Jund (W) 8-2
Pod (W) 9-2
Affinity (L) 9-3
Affinity (W) 10-3
Jund (W) 11-3
Merfolk (W) 12-3

GP Minneapolis left me feeling that the metagame had gotten both better and worse for Zoo. I don’t know that playing Merfolk twice is realistic, but UR Delver is certainly a deck that has picked up in popularity, and both are very good matchups for Zoo. Your creatures are more efficient, and your burn is removal for anything in their decks.

I also found that people weren’t building their decks with Zoo in mind anymore. One opponent lamented cutting Firespouts. My own teammates cut all but one Kitchen Finks from their Pod deck, which was actually enough to swing the matchup from bad to favorable. Given how annoying Pod was previously, I did not expect this to be the case, but Wrapter and I played ~10 games for funsies during our byes, and I won most of them. (We then played round 11 of the tournament, where I beat him handily.)

The main downside in the current meta for Zoo is the apparent resurgence of Jund. I could not believe I played against Jund four times in the Grand Prix. I mean sure, sitting across from Willy Edel round 8 (video here) I knew what to expect, but three other people? From looking at recent MTGO results, this is not fluke. Jund is back.

Now I used to be all about Jund in Modern, even playing it before Deathrite. Much like WIlly, I’ve been a proponent of Jund in all formats . But seriously: **** you, Jund. Just die already. Stop trying to hold back my Wild Nacatls.

I happened to go 3-1 against Jund, but I assure you, there was luck involved. I drew my one-of Elspeth two or three times, which is about the best card possible when they have a bunch of giant things in the way, and you have Geist of Saint Traft.


That isn’t to say Jund is unbeatable, Geist is very hard for them to deal with, and you’ll also just have those games where they stumble and you burn them out. I did have a game against Willy where I got him low and we were both topdecking with an empty board, a spot that generally favors Zoo, but he drew Bow of Nylea! The card was incredibly good in that spot, but I doubt most people will play it.

Anyway, enough rambling about GP Minneapolis, let’s talk about what I’d play now.

The Zoo Deck I’d Play in PTQs

The only change to the main deck is trading out Rampager for the third Mutagenic Growth. Rampager is occasionally much better than Growth, such as when they block with a Sakura-Tribe Elder and you can trample through for a ton, but overall it is just a weaker card. I was mostly playing it because of the split effect of being a creature in the late game. But given that Jund maindecks some number of Anger of the Gods, I’d rather just have access to another Mutagenic Growth.

I cover most of the card choices in my previous Zoo article here, so I won’t rehash all of that. But here are the main takeaways:

Steppe Lynx sucks. Don’t play Steppe Lynx over the other one-drops.

Geist is the best three-drop. A real ****ed up card, if you will. Don’t play other three-drops instead.

Tribal Flames is also busted, and worth splashing the other colors.

Snapcaster is extra copies of Tribal Flames (your best spell overall) and Path (your best spell in several matchups). The only reason you don’t play more is that it effectively costs 3 or 4 mana.

– The GW hatebears (Gaddock Teeg, Qasali Pridemage, Voice of Resurgence) are all fine, but underwhelming maindeck options. It is also challenging to fetch in such a way that you can cast both them and Geist on time.

I’d advise you to not veer too far off from this main deck. While I think this sideboard is fairly universally useful, and it is what I’d play in a PTQ tomorrow, you of course can tweak it for your local meta. If you expect a lot of Boggles, Back to Nature is the best option. If people are playing Storm, I’d advise 2x Canonist and 1x Rule of Law to start. While Rule is much harder for them to deal with, you might just be dead before you can cast it, hence needing a mix. These same cards are also good against Living End.

Now let’s look at how I’d use this sideboard in common matchups.

This is How to Sideboard

Melira Pod

The traditional version of Pod is hard for you almost solely because of Kitchen Finks. Having four copies, plus tutoring, of such an annoying speedbump is just really hard to get through. If the LSV/Wrapter version of the deck with a single Finks takes off in popularity, well then this matchup is actually pretty good.



UWR Control

A lot of games against UWR play out with them dealing with your board after you get them low. They don’t have a ton of pressure, and one of their only ways to apply it, Celestial Colonnade, involves them tapping low, so you are often able to find a window to burn them out. Given that they have a lot of removal and sweepers, you want to side in cards that can help grind them out. Ranger of Eos and Elspeth might sound expensive, but games go long, and they are likely to Path you at some point.




This is where cutting Rampager hurts the most. Sakura-Tribe Elder is great at buying them enough time against you, and Rampager puts a stop to that nonsense thanks to trample. Mutagenic Growth is good after board because they bring in Anger, but doesn’t do much game one, since their burn spells only do 2 damage, and your guys are all 3 toughness. Though this also means they can’t actually kill anything game one, which is pretty nice. Game one is very dependent upon who is on the play, since you are both largely goldfishing. Your “combo kill” isn’t much slower than theirs, between Geist and Tribal Flames.

I’ve piloted a lot of Scapeshift myself, and Aven Mindcensor isn’t nearly as good as people think it is, being pretty easy to kill. But it is still good. Generally I just run it out there end of turn, rather than holding it for a Scapeshift. Swan Song is great against the RUG version of the deck, but a little more suspect against RG. It is still good there, but you’ll feel fairly stupid if they have a Titan instead of a Scapeshfit.




Affinity is the only common matchup where you’re the control deck. Geist isn’t great here because it is hard to find a safe window tap out; you usually want to leave up a removal spell for fear of Cranial Plating. Generally you win by deploying early/cheap threats and spending the rest of the game killing whatever you need to.




I already discussed this matchup earlier, but basically pushing through Geist is your best path to victory. I actually wouldn’t mind having another card for this, but it is hard to come up with something good. You don’t really want any more 4-drops with so few lands, but anything that costs three is made a lot worse by Abrupt Decay. If Decay were not a commonly-played card, I’d want a pro-green sword (i.e. Body and Mind or Feast and Famine), since that is another way to push Geist through and gain advantage. But it is too big of a blowout to have the Sword killed and your guy eaten by a blocker. Perhaps Ghor-Clan Rampager as another way to push through Geist?




Twin is generally a favorable matchup. You have a lot of instant speed removal to stop them from going off, and your fast clock doesn’t give them a lot of room to set up the combo with protection. They potentially have access to all kinds of nonsense post-board: Threads of Disloyalty, Batterskull, Vedalken Shackles, Blood Moon, etc. Luckily, Pridemage answers all of these, as well as Splinter Twin itself. If you expect a lot of Twin, I’d probably play a second copy.




Aside from Wurmcoil Engine, Tron doesn’t do a whole lot that is scary to you. Even if they Oblivion Stone away your team, you’ve probably got them in burn range already. Path to Exile is pretty crappy, and usually dead against them, but I do like leaving in a couple as an out to a resolved Wurmcoil.



Here’s Some Tips and Tricks

– Generally, you want to fetch Temple Garden and Steam Vents as your first two lands. This is a departure from Tribal Zoo decks in the past, where the typical start was Stomping Ground and Hallowed Fountain or Godless Shrine. You don’t play any GW cards, and the GW/RU split means that any third land will cast Geist.

– Be aware of how susceptible you are to people messing with your mana, and fetch (or don’t) accordingly. Blood Moon may sound slow against you, but making it impossible to cast nearly all your spells is good enough on turn 3. Spreading Seas can also be strong against you, if you are light on lands or they have multiples. These cards have the added whammy of making your guys in play shrink, which is some real bull****.

– Don’t be afraid to use Mutagenic Growth aggressively. Game one against combo decks you are just racing, so feel free to cast it in any open window. Also keep in mind that Snapcaster can allow you to use the same Growth multiple times in the same turn. Turn 1 guy, turn 2 Growth/Snapcaster/Growth puts them well on their way to dead.

– If you are playing against a deck with Goblin Guide or spells that deal 2 damage (i.e. Izzet Charm), lead with Kird Ape/Loam Lion over Wild Nacatl.

Wrap Up

Sadly I won’t be playing Modern anytime soon, since I am skipping GP “Boston” to prepare for PT Portland. But if I were, I’d certainly bring Zoo. Hopefully this article gave you guys the tools to battle with Wild Nacatls in my stead. If you have any questions about matchups not covered, or suggestions for other sideboard cards to try, please let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading!

Pat Cox
@wildestnacatl on Twitter


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