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Pat Cox Talks – Zoo in Modern

[ccProd]Deathrite Shaman[/ccProd] is banned. [ccProd]Bitterblossom[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Wild Nacatl[/ccProd] are unbanned.

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For those of you that don’t know: I love [ccProd]Wild Nacatl[/ccProd]. A lot. My first GP Top 8 was with Wild Nacatl. I won a SCG Invitational with Wild Nacatl in Legacy, somehow. I even own this.

So, as you can imagine, I was thrilled with this news. Not only can I play my favorite card and deck, but Wizards is enticing people to play Faeries, a deck that stinks against Zoo?

I wasn’t actually too happy with the Deathrite ban, since I do enjoy playing Jund as well. But I guess as the old saying goes: Wizards never closes a door without opening a window.

If I were testing alone or in a small group, I’d have immediately settled on Zoo and got to work tuning it. But that seemed a bit foolish given the resources at my disposal (TeamCFB), so I decided that I’d only probably play Zoo (and got to work tuning it).

The negligible impact of any new set on Modern meant that we could get to testing on Magic Online immediately after the announcement, about three weeks prior to the Pro Tour. This option really isn’t available for other formats, since one set does have a big impact on Standard or Block, but I wish it was. It was helpful even for a big team like ours, and would reduce the disadvantage for people who don’t have a group to test with.

You can see some playtest videos here and here. I piloted Zoo, Jund, and Melira Pod against various decks in the hands of LSV, Wrapter, and a few others. We were able to dismiss Jund as not good enough any more fairly quickly, and Pod was as good as always. Wrapter also had a “Value Pod” deck that only had the Archangel combo, and not the Melira, which I liked the look of. I was reasonably far along in tuning my Zoo list by the time we met up in Valencia.

After a week of in-person testing, we were split into a few different camps. Most people were on Scapeshift, Affinity, or deciding between the two. A few of us (i.e. Kibler and me) favored Zoo decks.

I wanted to like Scapeshift. I’ve actually played Valakuts a lot: in a couple Pro Tours and ~5 Grand Prix. It seemed like a good choice if the deck was off the radar, and [ccProd]Anger of the Gods[/ccProd] is great against Zoo and Pod. But Scapeshift popped up on MTGO a lot in the days prior to the PT, which worried me. Also, it only felt like a slight favorite to my Zoo deck, even with Angers in the main.

Long story short, and to no one’s surprise, I settled on Zoo. Here is the list I played:

[ccdeck]1 Forest
1 Plains
1 Steam Vents
1 Temple Garden
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Stomping Ground
1 Blood Crypt
1 Sacred Foundry
1 Marsh Flats
4 Misty Rainforest
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Arid Mesa
4 Wild Nacatl
4 Kird Ape
4 Loam Lion
4 Tarmogoyf
2 Snapcaster Mage
4 Geist of Saint Traft
1 Ghor-Clan Rampager
4 Lightning Bolt
2 Lightning Helix
4 Tribal Flames
4 Path to Exile
2 Mutagenic Growth
—–Sideboard—–
1 Mutagenic Growth
2 Stony Silence
1 Domri Rade
1 Grafdigger’s Cage
2 Chained to the Rocks
1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
1 Ranger of Eos
2 Ancient Grudge
2 Aven Mindcensor
2 Swan Song[/ccdeck]

On Variants and Nomenclature

There were three basic types of Zoo decks at the PT: Tribal, Naya Aggro, and Big Zoo/Naya Midrange. It is a little confusing to call of these decks “Zoo” simply because they all run Wild Nacatl and the requisite colors for Wild Nacatl. But whatever, I don’t feel too strongly about deck names, aside from being against stupid ones (i.e. Tin Fins). If you want to call the variants something different, fine by me, but let’s just go with the above nomenclature for the purposes of this article.

Here’s an example of Naya Aggro Zoo from Kyle Dembinski (I just picked the first one from the list of top finishing Modern decks):

[ccdeck]4 Arid Mesa
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Verdant Catacombs
2 Stomping Ground
2 Sacred Foundry
1 Temple Garden
1 Forest
1 Mountain
4 Wild Nacatl
4 Kird Ape
4 Experiment One
4 Loam Lion
4 Goblin Guide
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Ghor-Clan Rampager
4 Lightning Bolt
2 Boros Charm
2 Mutagenic Growth
2 Pillar of Flame
3 Path to Exile
—–Sideboard—–
3 Lightning Helix
3 Pyroclasm
2 Domri Rade
2 Thrun, the Last Troll
2 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Ancient Grudge
1 Combust
1 Path to Exile[/ccdeck]

And here is the Big Zoo deck Kibler and Shahar played:

[ccdeck]2 Domri Rade
3 Loxodon Smiter
1 Kessig Wolf Run
3 Scavenging Ooze
1 Stirring Wildwood
4 Arid Mesa
1 Marsh Flats
4 Misty Rainforest
2 Verdant Catacombs
2 Qasali Pridemage
4 Knight of the Reliquary
4 Path to Exile
4 Noble Hierarch
4 Wild Nacatl
1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
2 Horizon Canopy
4 Tarmogoyf
2 Stomping Ground
2 Lightning Helix
2 Sacred Foundry
1 Temple Garden
2 Forest
1 Plains
4 Lightning Bolt
—–Sideboard—–
1 Bonfire of the Damned
2 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
1 Tectonic Edge
3 Fulminator Mage
2 Fracturing Gust
2 Aven Mindcensor
2 Ancient Grudge
2 Choke[/ccdeck]

Given these three options, why did I end up on Tribal Zoo?

Well, I think Tribal Zoo is doing the same thing as Naya Aggro Zoo, just better. I’ve played my share of Goblin Guides, but he is really not where you want to be if you expect a lot of Zoo mirrors. Your opponents have 12 one-drops that brickwall him. [ccProd]Experiment One[/ccProd] doesn’t have this issue, and is actually kind of sweet at pushing through 2/3s, but suffers from being a fairly weak topdeck. I also think [ccProd]Ghor-Clan[/ccProd]’s stock went down a lot as people started expecting it.

So why not Big Zoo? Big Zoo is actually a distinct deck that plays out differently, closer to midrange. I think it is more of a metagame deck than an objectively powerful one. If you expect a lot of Zoo mirrors, it makes sense to want to play a bunch of slightly bigger creatures. However, your goldfish kill is significantly slower, which matters a lot against combo decks. In our testing, in game 1s especially, I felt like I had a far better chance against combo with Tribal Zoo than Big Zoo.

I would be more prone to play Big Zoo in a GP where the metagame is somewhat defined than a PT in which we are largely just guessing at the field. If I were to play a midrange deck in a relatively open field, I’d rather have access to hand disruption. Maybe splash Wild Nacatl in Jund or Junk?

And the biggest reason to play Tribal Zoo? Well, as we kept saying in testing, “[ccProd]Geist of Saint Traft[/ccProd] is a pretty f***ed up card.” As is [ccProd]Tribal Flames[/ccProd]. 5 damage for two is just unfair, and kills people out of nowhere, even if they deal with all your creatures. This deck has some reach.

Card Choices

One question I was continually asked by teammates during testing is, “why no [ccProd]Steppe Lynx[/ccProd]?” It is hard to exactly articulate why Steppe Lynx sucks, since it seems so good on paper, but Steppe Lynx sucks. Table 1 sums up my thoughts:

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 7.31.48 PM

Now that we have that out of the way, I believe the remaining one-drops are self-explanatory. I did give some consideration to [ccProd]Grim Lavamancer[/ccProd], but I think he has gotten a lot worse with no [ccProd]Deathrite[/ccProd] and less [ccProd]Dark Confidants[/ccProd].

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 7.32.35 PM

I tried a number of different two-drops in addition to [ccProd]Tarmogoyf[/ccProd]. [ccProd]Qasali Pridemage[/ccProd] has traditionally been the most reasonable hate bear to maindeck, since exalted can help you punch through damage in the mirror. It has also at times been correct to maindeck [ccProd]Gaddock Teeg[/ccProd]. I didn’t love either in my initial testing, though I was pretty high on [ccProd]Voice of Resurgence[/ccProd]. This was likely because LSV kept playing decks against me that operated at instant speed (Twin, UWR variants), so it felt insane. But once we started putting [ccProd]Anger of the Gods[/ccProd] into decks, I became less enamored. Ooze is a great card, in the mirror especially, but a bit slow and mana intensive for your general game plan. The five-color mana base also makes activating Ooze multiple times a turn tricky, weakening its topdeck impact.

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 7.33.26 PM

As mentioned previously, Geist is a pretty f***ed up card, and I think it is the best three-drop, assuming you’re in the market for a three-drop at all. With all of your removal and tricks, you have plenty of ways to keep Geist alive for more than one combat, and even if you can’t, one Angel hit is often enough. It isn’t like you’re UWR, where Geist is largely your only way to win quickly. If Geist goes unanswered, you definitely win. If he dies after one hit, you have a decent shot at winning. If they do answer him before he attacks, well, you got unlucky. Sorry.

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 7.33.42 PM

[ccProd]Mutagenic Growth[/ccProd] was a suggestion from Wrapter (that we later noticed had been widely adopted on Magic Online), and it was great for me. Countering [ccProd]Lightning Bolt[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Anger of the Gods[/ccProd] is just such a huge swing. It isn’t quite Ghor-Clan in combat, but often it is close enough. Having a free spell with [ccProd]Snapcaster[/ccProd] is also nice, since you are often mana constrained and Snapcaster might as well cost 4 in this deck. Game 1 against Storm I knew I had to get aggressive to possibly win, so I went t2 Mutagenic Growth/Snapcaster/Mutagenic Growth on my Loam Lion.

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 7.34.25 PM

As you can see from the above Naya Aggro Zoo list, a lot of people were playing 4x [ccProd]Ghor-Clan Rampager[/ccProd]. I started at 3 and kept cutting all the way down to 1. It is possible that none is right, but I did like having it sometimes, and 3 Mutagenic Growth main felt like too many in testing. Rampager gave me a similar effect as a split card. I did find it to actually be a good body to cast in Zoo mirrors, only getting outclassed by Tarmogoyf, and got lucky that my mirror opponents didn’t draw more.

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 7.34.46 PM

I don’t think you can go nuts on Snapcasters, since, as previously mentioned: it essentially costs 4. But it is great to have a couple extra [ccProd]Tribal Flames[/ccProd] in your pocket, as well as extra [ccProd]Path to Exile[/ccProd]s or [ccProd]Mutagenic Growth[/ccProd]s in the matchups where you need those.

I originally had the third and fourth Lightning Helixes in the Snapcaster slots, and thought I’d miss them, but I did not.

Sideboard

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 7.35.52 PM

The reasoning for Mutagenic Growth was already discussed. The third was in the sideboard because I wanted something else against Anger of the Gods, and it felt like the most versatile answer. I also sided it in for the Zoo mirror. Other options for this role include [ccProd]Burrenton Forge-Tender[/ccProd] (bad in the Zoo mirror, but can be found with [ccProd]Ranger of Eos[/ccProd]) and [ccProd]Harm’s Way[/ccProd] (reasonable in the Zoo mirror).

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 7.36.20 PM

These are, of course, for Affinity. I went with the mix because Silence is better to have turn 2, but Grudge is better to topdeck. Hindsight being 20/20, I’d probably play less Affinity hate.

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 7.41.20 PM

These are for the match-ups where you expect things to get a bit grindy, such as the Zoo mirror and UWR. I’m not necessarily sold on Domri, given your relatively low creature count, but I don’t know that you want mono-four-drops either. Another of this type of card that I’ve liked in the past is [ccProd]Sword of Body and Mind[/ccProd]. It might sound a bit weird, but pro green is useful at attacking past opposing Tarmogoyfs, and making a guy every turn is quite powerful.

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 7.41.50 PM

Cage is a reasonable card against Pod (though having played Pod a lot myself, I can say it isn’t backbreaking), and I also wanted to hedge a bit against fringe graveyard strategies like [ccProd]Goryo’s Vengeance[/ccProd]. Unfortunately, and unintuitively, this does not work against [ccProd]Living End[/ccProd]. Given that Living End performed well at the Pro Tour, I’d be inclined to replace this with graveyard hate that can actually combat that deck, such as [ccProd]Tormod’s Crypt[/ccProd].

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 7.42.28 PM

[ccProd]Chained to the Rocks[/ccProd] is extra [ccProd]Path to Exile[/ccProd]s in the Zoo mirror. Burn kills most of the creatures in the deck, but usually not the ones that truly matter: [ccProd]Tarmogoyf[/ccProd] and (potentially) [ccProd]Knight of the Reliquary[/ccProd]. Chained is also a reasonable answer to [ccProd]Kitchen Finks[/ccProd], though it is unfortunate that many Finks decks also play [ccProd]Abrupt Decay[/ccProd]. If I were to play a card purely to deal with Finks, it’d be [ccProd]Pillar of Flame[/ccProd], but I was going for versatility here. One of my opponents said he had an [ccProd]Isochron Scepter[/ccProd] in his board as additional Paths. I am not sure if that is good, but it sounds really sweet.

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 7.43.00 PM

I overestimated the amount of Scapeshift that would be in the tournament, and would only played one copy in hindsight. It is good against Pod, though they can pretty easily beat you without drawing a Pod and Mindcensor is unimpressive in the non-Pod games. Mindcensor is also good against Tron, though not many people play that deck anymore.

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 7.43.21 PM

Kibler tried [ccProd]Swan Song[/ccProd] in his deck and found that he had a hard time keeping mana up for it while deploying threats. He suggested it might be a better fit for my deck, given my lower curve, and he was right. The card was very strong for me, and I’d consider playing a third. What do you want Swan Song against? It is great against what are commonly referred to (by me) as “bulls*** decks.” Things like Goryo’s Vengeance, Storm, Living End, etc. Basically anything that is slightly faster than you, will probably lose to Swan Song if you draw it.

Succinct Tournament Report

I was happy with the deck, and ended up 7-3 in the Modern portion of the event. Here’s an overview of the tournament (sans Limited):

UWR Twin (W) 1-0
Living End (W) 2-0
Kiki Pod (W) 3-0
Melira Pod (L) 3-1
Storm (W) 4-1
Naya Aggro Zoo (W) 5-1
Burn (L) 5-2
Naya Aggro Zoo (W) 6-2
Gifts Rock (L) 6-3
Tron (W) 7-3

Are these results representative? Hard to say. I feel favored against Twin, Kiki Pod, and Tron. The Zoo mirror/pseudo-mirror is largely a coinflip. Melira Pod is not a good match-up, and I felt lucky to beat Storm and especially Living End.

Gifts Rock isn’t exactly a deck you need to worry about, but it was certainly a nightmare matchup. Game 3 I go turn 1 [ccProd]Wild Nacatl[/ccProd], turn 2 [ccProd]Kird Ape[/ccProd]/[ccProd]Loam Lion[/ccProd]. He has only played a [ccProd]Sylvan Caryatid[/ccProd]. He blocks Kird Ape, and I have Rampager. This leaves him at 6 life going into his turn 3, with me having a [ccProd]Tribal Flames[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Lightning Helix[/ccProd] in hand. Nut drew him, can’t lose, right?

I wish. He casts [ccProd]Timely Reinforcements[/ccProd] and chumps, effectively gaining 13. I pass with Helix up. He [ccProd]Supreme Verdicts[/ccProd]. I play a ‘Goyf. He plays his own ‘Goyf and a Lilly to kill mine. I play another ‘Goyf. He plays a [ccProd]Thragtusk[/ccProd]. I feel sad.

A note on Zoo mirrors: in general, you are the aggro against Big Zoo and the control against Naya Aggro Zoo. i.e. I’d leave in Geist against Big Zoo, and side it out vs. Naya Aggro Zoo. Though, this is, of course, dependent on your respective draws.

Paired with my lackluster 3-3 Limited finish, this left me at 10-6 overall and in 80th place. I finished 10-6 in two PTs last year to get 42nd and 51st, so 80th was disappointing. But oh well, thems the (tie)breaks. (Top 75/Top 50 are cutoffs for money and additional Pro Points.)

Should You Play Tribal Zoo?

Well, that depends on your metagame. Given how well Melira Pod did at the PT, I’d be wary to play Zoo this weekend in Richmond. Not only is Melira Pod a bad matchup, but cards that are good against it are incidentally good against you (i.e. Anger of the Gods).

If you’re looking for an aggro deck, or a Zoo variant specifically, I would recommend this deck. You have reasonable chance against everything, with very few lopsided matchups in either direction.

As far as how I’d change my list from the Pro Tour: I’d probably keep the main deck the same and tweak the sideboard to have more dedicated Living End/Storm hate such as [ccProd]Thalia[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Ethersworn Canonist[/ccProd]. [ccProd]Domri Rade[/ccProd], a [ccProd]Mindcensor[/ccProd], [ccProd]Grafdigger’s Cage[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Stony Silence[/ccProd] are all potential cuts, if you’re looking for room.

Will I be casting Wild Nacatls in Richmond? I certainly hope so, though LSV is trying to convince me otherwise.

Thanks for reading,

Pat Cox
@wildestnacatl on Twitter

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