I believe one of the best things about Extended Zoo is that there is no 100% definitive way to build it. There are definitely wrong ways to build it, but there are so many good cards that can be added on to the core Zoo deck that can make it successful that you would probably have to try hard to be bad. Depending on the individual pilot’s skill level and the meta that they’re playing in, deciding what exact 75 to run can be quite the daunting task.
Today, we will examine the cards that make up the skeleton of this animal, add a few more to flesh it out, then fine tune the numbers and go over sideboard options that will make this beast a PTQ beauty.
As we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While I will go over the options today, I won’t force feed you a list that I feel is the end all, be all, absolute. You can decide what list is best for your meta and your play style. As I play online, my Zoo list is continually being tweaked based on what is getting popular or losing popularity. The meta is ever evolving and the awesome thing about running all five colors of the Magic rainbow is that we have almost limitless maindeck and sideboard options. Last year, my friend Zach Top 8ed a PTQ with a Zoo deck that splashed Spellstutter Sprite and Stifle maindeck. While we won’t quite go that far, you kind of get the idea of what I’m saying. Before we get into the extra stuff, let’s go over the core first.
If you feel you are fairly well versed in this deck, you can skip over this section as it is mostly review. For those of you new to Extended or new to this deck, welcome. Our plan is fairly simple: lay down efficient beaters early to get in there for damage, clear blockers, then finish with burn or with big swings from a number of dudes. To execute this plan, the deck has a lot of redundancy. Lots of small creatures that can get in there for a nice amount of damage fairly quickly, a few efficient creatures who can get very big with very little help, and burn spells whose cost to damage ratios are some of the best in history. Without further adieu, I introduce the core.
Wild Nacatl – She may not seem like much, but this is honestly one of the best cards in the deck, and definitely one of the major reasons Zoo is a competitor in the current metagame. Swinging for three damage per turn starting on turn two can get you within burn range pretty quickly, especially when teamed up with other fast creatures like
Kird Ape – The original cost efficient beatdown creature, Kird Ape has been an aggro mainstay long before Stomping Ground was even a twinkle in Mark Rosewater’s eye. Even with all that time passed, this crazy little monkey still stands up and holds its own. Though you may not be amazed with a 2/3 for one mana, Kird Ape is a necessity in this deck, and integral to the dream “one drop, one drop + one drop” hand.
Tarmogoyf – This isn’t the best aggro creature in just this deck. It’s the best aggro creature of all time. If you have access to green in any deck in any format and you’re not running Tarmogoyfs, you better have a damn good reason. Not saying that there aren’t legit reasons for not running him (Elves, for example), but I mean seriously guys Fetch a land, burn a creature, an opponent plays a Ponder or Duress and your Goyf is already 4/5. Must be nice.
Knight of the Reliquary – Now I won’t say that I was the first person to ever run Knight of the Reliquary in Extended Zoo, but I definitely was one of them! But anyways, Knight of the Reliquary is legitimately great in this deck. It is usually at least a 4/4 by turn three, but later in the game can be insanely huge. Knight can fix your mana helping set up domain for Tribal Flames, can find Treetop Villages and Ghost Quarters, and thin out your deck, growing all the while. She was optional last year, but is a staple now.
Path to Exile – I tried building Zoo without them. I tried building Zoo with just a few of them. It’s just not as good. Zoo needs these. There is a key rule to using Path properly though. As is my life motto, just don’t be dumb. Simple. Playing against Scapeshift? Don’t Path that Wood Elves in your way. Is UW stuck on three mana? Don’t Path that blocker and accelerate them into Gifts or Wrath or whatever. Path is too good not to play in this deck. Just don’t be dumb and you’ll be fine.
Lightning Bolt – Someone would have to be crazy to run a green aggro deck without Tarmogoyf. If they ran a red aggro deck and didn’t run Lightning Bolt, they would probably already be on their way to Arkham Asylum. Lightning Bolt is so good in so many matchups, from stealing tempo in the mirror by knocking out their early beaters, to clearing away pesky Trinket Mages trying to chump, maybe even killing a small unprotected Tarmogoyf from a not-so-smart opponent. Oh ya, three to the face for one mana at instant speed is preeetty nice too.
Tribal Flames – Last season, there was a bit of a debate between running a Tribal package in Zoo versus just straight Naya. Now, it doesn’t even appear to be a point of contention, as all the lists that have performed well have run this two mana, five point burn spell. In a deck where you want to beat down with cheap, efficient creatures and finish with burn, Tribal Flames fits in more than perfectly. Having multiple copies in hand with your opponent tapped out is really just unfair.
To this point, the skeleton for our Zoo deck has 28 cards. Could be 27 if you wanted to run just three Knight of the Reliquary, but is probably going to be 28. If you run 21 lands, that means you have 11 cards to finish the deck with. Believe it or not, these 11 cards are just as if not more important than the first 28. Let me share my thoughts on some of the more commonly played options so you can make the most informed decision on your final brew.
Steppe Lynx – I might catch some heat for not including this guy in the staple section, but I have my reasons. First of all, he’s not 100% necessary. Turning him into a 4/5 on turn two is extremely broken. Picking up the pieces as he sits back on defense as a 0/1 in the later turns”¦ not so fun. If you are pushing for something blisteringly fast, then this is the cat for you. If you are looking for a little bit more resiliency and long game (i.e. diversifying your threat cost in case of Engineered Explosives or bringing in utility type creatures) then we have some of those options for you too.
Gaddock Teeg – So good right now. Really. In the maindeck, Gaddock Teeg can just trump entire decks if they don’t have anything to deal with him. He hits a little bit of everything in just about every matchup except the aggro ones. Decks that run Chalice of the Void, Engineered Explosives, Wrath of God, Gifts Ungiven, Scapeshift, Repeal, Cryptic Command, Tezzeret or even Dread Return hate to see this little old midget staring them down on the other end. Plus, every kill spell they use on a guy like this is one less kill spell they have for your Tarmogoyfs or Knights.
Qasali Pridemage – Running Qasali Pridemage in the maindeck is like pre-boarding hate against some of the cards that can really annoy you like Chalice of the Void, Thopter Foundry, Umezawa’s Jitte or even Oblivion Ring. It’s not a staple card that you may feel is necessary for the deck to survive, but it is very nice to have. One thing that you may not know unless you’ve played with him is that he is rather helpful on offense as well. On turn two, your Nacatl swings in for four instead of three. In the late game, your Tarmogoyf can swing in bigger than your opponent’s, opening up the opportunity for a blowout if you burn a small creature after they team block. If you’re looking for a utility creature, definitely lean in this direction.
Jotun Grunt – I’ve seen several lists online running Jotun Grunt in the maindeck and I thought it was pretty interesting. In theory, it is definitely a strong card. It’ll last forever against Dredge, it can jack the cards that you choose to bin from a Gifts Ungiven pile, it can even prevent Hellspark Elementals from coming back the second time off unearth. In actual play, I’ve found it to be underwhelming. Dredge can usually set up a big Dredge in one or two turns and kill you on the spot. If you play him early, Dredge can play around the ability. If you play it late, it probably won’t affect the game as much as a Tormod’s Crypt or Ravenous Trap. Against Tezz, they usually Gifts at the end of your turn and then figure out how to get their cards back on their turn. Your Grunt won’t trigger until your next turn which may likely be late. In other matchups, I just don’t feel like he lasts long enough to warrant a spot. Even if he lasts past more than one attack step, you can be sure that you’ve shrunk the yards enough that your Tarmogoyfs and Knights that come later won’t be very big at all. I might recommend him if you were just looking to get in there as fast as possible, but for any sort of resiliency or longevity, look elsewhere.
Dark Confidant – It pains me to say this because I’ve liked Bob in Zoo since I started playing it back when Meddling Mage was still Chris Pikula and no one knew what a Tarmogoyf was. The theory behind the card in the deck is great. He’s a dude who can swing and he keeps your hand full so you can just pour it on. In actual play, Bob just doesn’t do enough. There are definitely games where he draws the last burn spell you need to finish off your opponent and it’s all just awesome. Other times, Bob flips Knight of the Reliquary after Knight of the Reliquary and makes your opponents job of trying to kill you that much easier. In the end, I feel Bob is just too slow in this deck. The format is pretty fast right now and the extra cards he draws do help, but he only swings for two if he swings at all and there aren’t many matchups where I wish I could topdeck a Bob. If the format were to slow up a bit (which is entirely within the realm of possibility), then cards like Dark Confidant and Ranger of Eos may deserve consideration again. But I don’t feel that time is now.
Lightning Helix – Lightning Helix is a great card. In the mirror or against decks like burn, Lightning Helix is an all-star. However, against blue decks, it’s a little underwhelming. When the life gain isn’t relevant, Helix just becomes a cost restrictive Incinerate. Not that that’s the worst, but you could do a lot better. If you are looking for a quick start and quick finish, Helix definitely deserves consideration in the extra spell slot.
Molten Rain – Molten Rain is great against a lot of matchups, but isn’t necessarily an auto include. The timing has to be just right for Molten Rain to resolve and actually affect the game. It can be quite punishing if you stall or color screw your opponent early on. If you draw if late in the game, you might be better of having a Shock. I feel that Molten Rain is definitely strong in this meta, but whether you decide to run it or not is really up to your personal taste.
Bant Charm – Bant Charm is another card that is really great, but dependant on the pilot’s personal preference. It can bottom a fattie, kill problem artifacts (and generally get around Chalice), and even counter something like a crucial Cryptic Command or Gifts Ungiven. The only problem is the mana cost. One, it’s pretty clunky for what it does. Erase a creature for one mana or three? Kill an artifact for two mana or three? Second, the cost is restrictive. You can set it up perfectly if you go Stomping Ground, Godless Shrine, Steam Vents (generally the ideal sequence, in my opinion), but holding three mana up with other cards in hand will get your opponent suspicious and they will play around it if they can at all. I really like Bant Charm as a utility spell in an open meta. If you have a better read, you may want to pick a more focused, less cost restrictive card (unless of course, this is the correct card for your meta, then by all means).
Umezawa’s Jitte – Why this card isn’t seeing more play, I don’t exactly know. This is one of those cards that just gives you the ability to win the game outright once it gets active. I guess in some matchups, you don’t need it in order to win, but it just really helps (like Burn). Against aggro or midrange, Jitte is strong, but Zoo might be better off including cards in the maindeck that can help against blue and combo matchups instead. If you decide not to run them in your 60, take them into consideration for your sideboard if you expect a lot of Doran or Bant.
As far as sideboards go, I really like sideboard cards that are good in multiple matchups. In a format as wide open as this, almost never know 100% what you’re going to face. Cards that work against multiple decks are extremely helpful and get more consideration than narrow strategies. Maybe later in the season when the meta is more clearly defined, but not now.
Ancient Grudge – While everything first thinks Affinity when they think of artifact hate, Ancient Grudge is decent against Thopter Combo and Dark Depths also. In addition, bringing in a couple to deal with Doran’s or Bant’s Jittes might not be the worst plan in the world considering how much of a blowout that can be against you.
Kataki, War’s Wage – Again, while Kataki shines against Affinity, it is also pretty decent against Thopter and Dark Depths, restricting their mana options. Personally, I would probably go with Grudge first and then Kataki next if you expect to face a lot of Affinity.
Aven Mindcensor – In the matchups where Mindcensor shines, he is pretty insane. He cripples Gifts Ungiven, Scapeshift, and transmute tutors. He obviously works against fetchlands also, but I’m not sure I’d go so far as to bring him in against Zoo or something like that. Mindcensor has flash, but make sure you play him smart. This card is definitely starting to beep on the radar and if you have a full grip and pass your turn three with all your mana up, your opponent might become suspicious and play around it. Against blue, if your opponent is tapped out, you might be better off just running him out there instead of waiting for the opportunity to “jack them” in response.
Burrenton Forge-Tender – This is my personal board card of choice against Burn. If you play the matchup smart and have at least some action, you almost can’t lose if you have BFT out early. She swallows some of the damage from Spark and Hellspark Elementals, can block Goblin Guides and Keldon Marauders all day, and will take the hit from their finishing burn spell. The key to winning this match is giving yourself enough time to stabilize and get your big dudes swinging. BFT definitely helps buy you those extra turns. She has some value in the Dredge matchup also, being able to remove Bridge From Below from their yards. If you expect a good amount of Burn at your PTQ, I would highly recommend this card.
Kitchen Finks – I don’t really like this card in the sideboard for Zoo. I could see why other midrange style strategies would run it in the maindeck, but it honestly just doesn’t do enough. You’re almost never going to gain the full four life off of it against Burn and Zoo/midrange all run Path to take care of him.
Loxodon Hierarch – I would definitely run Loxodon Hierarch in my side fifteen before I ran Kitchen Finks. First of all, you gain the full four life off the bat so you don’t have to worry. Second, the big body is actually useful against mid-sized Tarmogoyfs or blocking early weenies. The regeneration ability, though maybe not always relevant, is still a plus. The only thing is, against Burn you might be dead before you get to four mana. I would take him into consideration secondary to BFT against Burn and probably secondary to Jitte against aggro and midrange (if you’re not already running Jitte main).
Ravenous Trap – The reason why I like this card so much vs Dredge is because they don’t expect it and can’t really play around it. I mean, of course they can play around it, but that would make winning an extremely slow process for them. The downside of this card is it’s only really good against Dredge. It works against Thopter, but they can just respond to the Ravenous Trap by triggering their Sword of the Meek by sacking another artifact. I’ve seen better players intentionally not tap out completely at end of turn just in case their Sword got trapped. While you might be able to get away with it a few times, I’d like to think a Thopter player in the Top 8 wouldn’t make that mistake.
Extirpate – This card is a lot better against Thopter, but not as good against Dredge. They can’t respond to it by triggering their Sword another time and you get to go through their deck and see what else they boarded in against you. Against Dredge, what to Extirpate really depends on the situation. Dredge has a lot more cards they can use to fill their yards now and don’t solely rely on dredgers like Stinkweed Imp and Golgari Grave-Troll. I think the two main targets would likely be Dread Return and Bridge From Below, so keep your eyes open.
Leyline of the Void – This card is probably the strongest against both Thopter and Dredge. The only problem is once they bounce it, and they both run bounce, you’re pretty much screwed. If you do decide to run these over the other options, make sure you have more than one black source and can recast (or God forbid, hardcast) it if necessary.
Yixlid Jailer – Yixlid Jailer offers a nice balance between Dredge and Thopter hate also. The difference is that even though it doesn’t come down for free on turn zero, it is fairly easy to cast and then recast in the event it gets bounced. Though it doesn’t nullify half of Gifts like Leyline would, it does shut down the Thopter/Sword combo. I would probably run a combination of Jailer and Extirpate/ Ravenous Trap as my anti-dredge package.
Meddling Mage – Luis had mentioned this in his article, but for the context of Zoo it probably bears repeating. I would run Gaddock Teeg over Meddling Mage if you’re not already running Teeg main. If you are, there is probably better or less vulnerable hate you can run in addition. The only reason I would run Meddling Mage is if I suspected a large amount of Hypergenesis. Hopefully this won’t be the case, given the upswing in number of Faerie decks, and we can leave the Meddling Mages at home.
Now that we’ve covered most of our options, let me give you a sample of a deck I would take to a tournament today. If at this given tournament I expected a decent amount of Fae and Thopter, followed by the mirror match, then Burn, Dredge, Scapeshift and Doran/Bant/Rubin Zoo (aka the midrange brothers) in that order as the major players, I would likely build my list as follows:
Against Fae I might go +1 Umezawa’s Jitte, -1 Gaddock Teeg, mostly because they run their own Jittes and if it gets active you could be in trouble. Other than that, this matchup just takes practice. Learn how their cards interact and what they do and you should be able to take the match most of the time.
Against Thopter I would board +2 Ancient Grudge, +1 Gaddock Teeg, +3 Aven Mindcensor, +2 Extirpate, -2 Umezawa’s Jitte, -4 Path to Exile, -2 Knight of the Reliquary. This is a pretty heavy hate package. Just pray that they don’t board in the man plan. In the event that they do, you still have Tribal Flames to take care of Baneslayer Angel. Knight of the Reliquary is a little slow in this matchup so he’s the easiest creature to board out. This is a pretty tough matchup even after the board, but if you can come out quick and stall their combo and mana, you can definitely win.
Against the mirror, Rubin Zoo, Doran and Bant, I would go +1 Umezawa’s Jitte, -1 Gaddock Teeg. If you feel comfortable, you could cut the last Teeg for an Ancient Grudge also, but that would put you below twenty creatures. Fewer than twenty creatures while running three equipments seems like it could get risky. Teeg is pretty useless in those matchups, so it might be worth it. These matchups are usually pretty close and pretty draw dependant. Figuring out who is the beatdown and adapting is the key. Save your Paths for Kitchen Finks and Paths and Tribal Flames for Rhox War Monk and Baneslayer Angel. Their guys can be bigger, but you are definitely faster. Don’t let them steal too much tempo from you and you should be able to take the match down.
Against Burn I would board +4 Burrenton Forge-Tender, +1 Umezawa’s Jitte, -4 Molten Rain, -1 Gaddock Teeg. Molten Rain is way too slow to keep in. Gaddock Teeg is pretty useless here also, so you have room to bring in the extra Jitte. If somehow you have a read that they’ll be bringing in Smash to Smithereens, you could run the tricks and board your Jitte out. That’s your call though.
Against Dredge I would board +4 Burrenton Forge Tender, +2 Extirpate, +2 Ravenous Trap, +1 Gaddock Teeg, -4 Molten Rain, -2 Umezawa’s Jitte, -3 Knight of the Reliquary. You might already be down game one, but you are definitely favored post-board, especially with all this hate. Timing your Ravenous Traps properly can completely blow them out. Kill their mill enablers early and often. If you can sac a BFT to prevent multiple tokens from coming in (but still only kill one Bridge) I would say do it. Those tokens are some of their only blockers and being able to push through with combat will help you a lot.
Lastly, against Scapeshift I would go +3 Aven Mindcensor, +1 Gaddock Teeg, +3 Burrenton Forge-Tender, -4 Path to Exile, -3 Qasali Pridemage. Under no circumstances do you want to help accelerate them into their critical number of lands. If they didn’t already have them in game one, they will definitely have Firespouts post-board. Be ready.
As I said in the beginning, I don’t feel this is the end all be all of Zoo lists. This may not reflect what you feel will be prevalent in your local meta. You have lots of options as far as things that you can run in the main and in the side that will give your deck the best shot of making it through this wide open field. Before you finalize your build keep these things in mind.
– Don’t be greedy with your mana – Twenty-one lands may not seem like a lot, but for that build I think it’s fine. If you go down to a sleeker, faster build you might be able to afford to go down to twenty, but I don’t think I would recommend it. Twenty-two is fine if you really feel uncomfortable. On the same note, don’t splash too many unnecessary things. Just because you’re running all five colors, doesn’t mean you should abuse it. I started the season testing out a deck with a Zoo base, splashing Bob, Vendilion Clique, Spellstutter Sprite and Meddling Mage. Let me tell you, even with all the fetches and duals, getting that mana to work was not fun. Keep the splashes simple and focused and you should be able to maintain the consistency that makes this deck great.
– Be Efficient – This isn’t Rubin Zoo where you curve out into Baneslayer Angel. We’re building for speed and consistency here, with a little bit of resiliency and mid-game. If you’re going to be ramping up to some crazy stuff, then make sure you make the proper adjustments in creatures, spells and lands. Efficiency is the name of the game with Tribal Zoo. Keep that in mind when you’re building.
I’ve more than doubled the amount of words I normally put into an article, but I just wanted to make sure that I put in everything that I needed and wanted to say. I hope you learned something from reading this, whether you are already an Extended veteran, or just looking for some inspiration for your PTQ deck. I hope that you can find the list that works best for you and enjoy the same success that I have with this deck so far. Good luck with your PTQs everyone and thanks for stopping by the shop!