Wednesday 25 July 2012
Zoo really came to the forefront with Alara block and became a dominant tier one deck until about the time Innistrad was released by which point it started to lose lots. I suspect that this was the fault of myself and the people I play with most frequently failing to work out how to get the deck to perform in the current metagame. My cube has a lot of mana fixing which makes Zoo very consistent in constructed and viable in draft. Being in so many colours does mean you get very late powerful gold cards as well as lots more scope to pick up powerful cards than mono or duo coloured drafters simply by having a higher number of colours to pick from.
One of the biggest quandaries of the Zoo player is what sort of curve to employ and how much acceleration to use. Unlike 60 card deck constructed formats which allow 4 copies of a card cube Zoo cannot rely on consistently having a Wild Nacatl start, nor can it ensure all of its ramp critters contribute to the aggression with exalted. Many of the most exciting and powerful gold cards cost three or four mana which has a tendency to up the mana curve of the deck quite a bit beyond something like red deck wins or white weenie. This means you either accept your deck is a little more midrange and ensure it has reach and staying power or you pack it with a good quantity of ramp.
I think one of our groups big failings over the last year or so have been down to two things. Firstly the mana base of Zoo and secondly on the types of one drop played and the balance of them. The mana base in Zoo is very fragile with few copies of specific lands and lots of sac lands each with few targets. On top of this it has lots of coloured mana intensive spells. Cards like Lightening Helix can be a nightmare to cast, even on turn five or something simply because you also need to cast another two or three drop and can't tap in a way that gives you the right combination of colours. A small amount of disruption to the mana base or a poorly built one will usually result in a horrific loss. My solution to this was to make the deck as much in one colour as possible and then splash only the most powerful cards of other colours with little requirement for other colours outside the main one. Obviously green is the primary colour as your best one drops and most of the gold cards are green and so I built mana bases which had very few lands that did not tap for the primary colour. I also made sure I was heavier on lands than I have been in the past, I might have tried to get away with 16 lands including a bounce land or rely more upon my mana critters for example. I have seen too many games lost by Zoo missing a single land drop as late as turn four. With multiple man lands and sac lands to thin the lands from the deck and provide good ways to spend excess mana late in the game I was more than happy to play a beastly control deck level of land at 17.
The second issue in Zoo is the one drop assortment for which people either tended to play lots of mana critters or they would play loads of beaters such as Kird Ape, Loam Lion and Goblin Guide to supplement the solitary Nacatl. With just mana critters you are far less able to apply pressure and are most vulnerable to early creature removal. Dumping down a turn four Llanowar Elves you have ripped of the top does little where as a Nacatl would be quite a bit more serious. If you however choose the polar opposite of this plan you are left with very linear draws and a much lower average power level. You have both increased the number of weak late game cards like Kird Ape and you have removed some of your powerful high end due to having less ramp to get you there. It turns out that a mix of the one mana ramp critters and the most powerful beaters is best in Zoo. This gives you loads more options in the early game and it allows you to play a decent number of more expensive cards which leads to higher average power level.
There are 4 main ways to build Zoo which are RGW, RGWb, RGWu and RGWub. Due to the high number of playables and easily includable groups of cards with powerful synergy Zoo decks of the same colours can look wildly different. I recently tried out my new strategies for solving Zoos problems in a RGWu and a RGWb version of the decks. Both were very streamlined and performed very well for me enough to warrant putting Zoo back on the tier one list of archetypes. I find the five colour version hardest to build in constructed as you have so much choice of cards that are hard to compare and extra things to include should you wish like Tribal Flames. The blue version I made first and it was a little less refined that the subsequent black version but both were true to my aim regarding one drops and mana bases which seemed far more relevant than which planeswalkers I chose to use or which extra colours to splash.
Zoo With Black
Bird of Paradise
Elves of Deep Shadow
Path to Exile
Knight of the Reliquary
City of Brass
Zoo With Blue
Bird of Paradise
Path to Exile
Fire / Ice
Knight of the Reliquary
Edric, Spymaster of Trest
Geist of Saint Traft
Grove of the Burnwillows
City of Brass
Irritatingly I only wrote down the spell lists and assumed I would be able to recreate the mana base accurately which I am not sure I have done as I felt like at least one of the lists had only one land that did not tap for green. The core of both decks was very similar and the different splash colours are reasonably interchangeable. The blue version had more one drop accelerators and therefore could pack more three drops but in hindsight I prefer the aggressive landfall guys as you have a high land count with lots of sac lands already in the deck as well as Knight of the Reliquary to support them. This is a change that is not relevant to the non RGW colours of the deck and should probably be applied to most Zoo decks.
The Punishing Fire engine is reasonable against weenie creature decks and some control type decks with lots of utility dorks but it is probably not worth the hassle and power reduction. Without many more ways to support the engine it is likely to be less beneficial to your game than just having a Karplusan Forest and an Incinerate instead. The blue version had some other reasonably silly cards such as Orcish Lumberjack and Sarkhan Vol. Lumberjack is a little random at the best of times and will go from being a useless 1/1 to being super Black Lotus and totally dominating games. The home of the Orc is red green where he is most consistent but I wanted to see if he would be useful in a Zoo deck with such a high forest count. Sadly my few games were very inconclusive and so I shall probably have to try again at some stage despite the grief I got from my opponents for including silly cards. Vol is hated by lots of people and generally thought to be pretty bad and while I concede he is not one of the best walkers I do quite like him. Ultimately I played him to wind my playmates up by beating them with cards they think are bad and not because he was the best card for the deck. In my defence this is one of the least damaging places to play a weaker walker. I wanted to play one walker in the decks to give me variation in threats and some late game reach but didn't feel it mattered too much which. I wanted to spend no more than 4 mana for my walker as the single five slot I was happy to play was dedicated to getting some playtime on the new Wolfir Silverheart. Koth is a bit needy of mountains, Chandra is very low impact as is Garruk Relentless and I play Garruk Wildspeaker in every deck. Elspeth is definitely the best but the double white cost was offputting and I also have played her to death and so took the opportunity to have a go on the less used gold walkers. Both did their roles as required and I am still unconvinced there is all that much to choose between Ajani Vengeant and Sarkhan Vol in a deck like this.
Both decks are light on answer cards with only a few ways to deal with various permanent types, excluding Vindicate they cannot do anything directly about planeswalkers or lands. The deck relies on appliying relentless pressure which in turn forces opponents to play very defensively so that they cannot get into a position of control. This makes persist and undying along with the man lands very important to Zoos game plan. It also really likes to have dorks that pack lots of stats and have good tempo abilities like haste. I was not impressed with Geist of Saint Traft, he was too small himself with no immediate impact on the board and was more awkward to cast than I would like. Lightening Helix is similarly awkward to cast having no green in the cost but is somewhat more reliable and powerful of a card. Helix is not as much of an auto include as you might think or get the impression of based on it being in both of mine. I think it is because in cube people feel obliged to play it however I wouldn't be at all surprised if Incinerate was just better most of the time.
I was very impressed with Shardless agent who could really up your presence on the board and provided both mana and card value more reliably and often than Bloodbraid. Edric is a little bit different and suffers some of what Geist suffers in that he is a lowly 2/2 body for three himself however his effect applying to other creatures immediately is very significant and was one of the reasons I was able to go a bit heavier on the accelerators in the blue build of the deck. Edric is a little bit like Consecrated Sphinx in that it usually draws you a few cards even when they have an answer and will totally dominate the game if they don't have an answer. Obviously answers for 2 toughness dorks are easier to come by than those with 6 and with Edric you also have to have a greater board presence which can make him a touch of the win more type of card. The advantage with Edric in this kind of deck is that it turns you advantage on the board into more fuel for later making you better against mass removal.
Almost all the other cards are mainstays and widely accepted as very powerful cards and need no real explanation or justification for why they are in the deck and why they help you win. Zoo might be very easy to goldfish but being a very standard style of magic deck it tends to end up having very interactive and complicated games with most archetypes. It is also hard to build with consistency being of such high value while faced with seemingly limitless options for insanely powerful cards. I like the deck both to play with and against, it feels fair and a great benchmark by which to test decks against.