Arcane Teachings – A Last-Minute Guide to Domain Zoo

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Tuesday, March 25th – Extended season is winding down, and PTQ players have likely chosen their deck of choice for this coming weekend. Of course, not all preparation is flawless… with mere days until the Last Chance Saloon opens its doors, those folk requiring a change of deck direction could do worse than turn their eyes to Domain Zoo. Tom LaPille walks us through the details…

If you were trying to qualify for Pro Tour: Hollywood and have not yet succeeded, it’s now officially crunch time. There’s only one more weekend of PTQs for most of the world, so you should probably try to make this one count if you don’t want to fly to London for the lone qualifier that is inexplicably in April, or to Hollywood for what I’m sure will be a very large last chance event. If you’ve been actively playing Extended this season, you’ve probably settled on a deck for this weekend already based on what you know how to play. On the other hand, if you haven’t been playing a lot of Extended and you’re looking for a deck that you can just pick up and have a reasonable shot at winning with, I would strongly suggest you play Domain Zoo. This is a quick guide to zoo both for completely uninitiated extended players and for people who have never had reason to learn a lot about the deck.

First, I want to justify recommending this deck. I think that in the abstract this deck is really good because it plays all of the best aggressive cards that Extended has to offer. Ravnica dual lands and Onslaught fetchlands let you thumb your nose at conventional mana requirements and give you access to all kinds of sick cards, like Dark Confidant, Tarmogoyf, Lightning Helix, and Vindicate that are very powerful in the abstract. This is good both because it means your average card is better than your opponent’s average card most of the time, and because your deck isn’t very draw-dependent because so many of your cards are interchangeable. The reason that I am so quick to recommend this to an inexperienced Extended player is that unlike almost all of the decks in current Extended that have earned players invitations week after week, Domain Zoo actually rewards knowledge of basic Magic concepts like attacking, blocking, and combat math. In many of the deck’s matchups the games are very simple battles between creatures and removal spells, which shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out on the fly. Other matchups are straight races between your creature clock and their combination clock, which are pretty simple to play. There is of course plenty of useful specific knowledge, but I’m going to cover most of it here so hopefully you won’t be too far behind.

Perhaps the most technically tricky part of playing this deck is knowing how to fetch lands. You would like your first two lands to be able to make all four colors of spells that you play, so ideally you will be able to start each game by using fetchlands to find Temple Garden and Blood Crypt, Stomping Ground, and Godless Shrine, or Sacred Foundry and Overgrown Tomb. Any of these three combinations of lands will give you all four colors. If you naturally draw one of those six lands, this can force your hand with regard to which combination you start with. However, if you draw only two fetchlands for lands, how do you decide between those three pairs? The key is to pay attention to your gold cards. If you have a Gaddock Teeg that you want to play, you shouldn’t get Temple Garden and Blood Crypt. If you think you need to Lightning Helix something on turn 2, don’t get Sacred Foundry and Overgrown Tomb. If you plan on casting Vindicate on turn 3, don’t get Godless Shrine and Stomping Ground. In the latter case you can follow up with fetching a Sacred Foundry and still cast the Vindicate, but that will cost you nine total life by turn 3. If you started with either of the other two combinations of lands, you could have just fetched the Mountain and still cast Vindicate, saving you two life. Alternately, if your life total was irrelevant in the matchup, you could have found the Steam Vents and powered up your domain spells. All of the gold cards in the maindeck are White, so as you get to four or five lands in play you should make sure that you get two White lands so that you can cast multiple gold cards in a turn. The best way to learn about the deck’s mana is to goldfish a bunch of times. I guarantee that a few times you will screw yourself by getting the wrong lands, but that will give you a much better sense of what is going on than a paragraph of text.

Another aspect of the deck that is not immediately apparent is that it has the ability to play different roles in different matchups. It may look like a simple aggressive deck, but that is hardly the case. Against control and combination decks you will play like an attack deck, but in the mirror and against actual Red decks you prefer to take the control role. They have more actual burn spells while you have straight-up removal like Vindicate, and after sideboard you cement your place in the control role by sideboarding in Terminates and Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tenders. When you are playing the control role, you need to stop thinking about how to kill your opponent as quickly as possible and start thinking about how to last as long as possible. This means that every time you need to kill something, you should do it with the minimum required force. Don’t use a Grim Lavamancer activation on something that you could Mogg Fanatic instead, and never use a Vindicate on something that you could burn unless you absolutely have to. Doing this will ensure that your answers will be effective as long as possible.

There’s really not much else to say about the deck in general, so we’re moving on to specific matchups. I’m going to start with matchups that require the most specific knowledge first.

The matchups against all of the Lotus Bloom decks are fairly similar. By Lotus Bloom decks, I mainly mean TEPS, Enduring Ideal, and Balancing Act. The nature of the card Lotus Bloom means that these decks tend to be turn 4 combination decks. Happily, Zoo is quite often also a turn 4 combination deck if you draw two of your seven domain spells. Vindicating Invasion sacrifice lands is also huge, since that takes two mana away from their big turn. Finally, a Gaddock Teeg in play means that they can’t play any of the spells that they use Lotus Blooms to make the mana for. Teeg in game 1 requires a Burning Wish out of TEPS, but against Ideal and Balancing Act decks you should expect maindeck Fire/Ices. Because of this, against those decks you should try to play Teeg with Gaea’s Might up to protect him. Other than that, game 1 is a pure race. Be mindful of Orim’s Chants out of Ideal and Balancing Act. These can mean that sandbagging spells to hide how fast you can kill them will backfire if you get Chanted in your upkeep and can’t play spells during your main phase.

Sideboarding makes the matchup much more dynamic. Against every Lotus Bloom deck, you will bring in the four Forge-Tenders, the fourth Teeg, and the three Ancient Grudges for all of the Grim Lavamancers and Mogg Fanatics. Against Enduring Ideal, you will also bring in the three Kamis for a Tarmogoyf and two Lightning Helixes. The Red one-drops that you are cutting are very low-impact in a matchup where a Mogg Fanatic on turn 1 may only get the chance to attack three or four times and a Grim Lavamancer will never find a spare Red mana to be activated. Forge-Tender may look similarly low-impact, but he protects Gaddock Teeg from the aforementioned Fire/Ice. Your postboard matchup against Enduring Ideal is very, very good; they rely a lot on artifacts for mana between Pentad Prism and Lotus Bloom, and Kamis give you the ability to kill enchantments even under a Dovescape. Having four Forge-Tenders and three Mights also lets you protect Gaddock Teeg very easily. TEPS, on the other hand, is actually rather bad for Zoo. They bring in Slaughter Pact, which kills Teeg through everything that we have. The plan is essentially for them to not draw Pact, which is honestly a terrible plan. I haven’t tested against Balancing Act to know what that matchup is like, but I can only assume that they will have a hard time dealing with a protected Teeg.

The other combination deck that we need to worry about is Dredge. Dredge seems to have mostly disappeared in the United States, but Vienna showed that Europeans are still more than happy to roll the dice and try to flip their deck over. Zoo’s best cards against Dredge are Mogg Fanatic and Gaddock Teeg; if you start with those two in the first two turns, Dredge will be hard pressed to win. If you don’t, you may just die on turn 3. Do your best to keep Bridge From Below from overwhelming you with zombie tokens and try to sneak through twenty damage, but it’s pretty rough. Sideboard in the Forge-Tenders and Kamis of Ancient Law for four Vindicates, two Isamarus, and a Gaea’s Might. Your plan is essentially to land a Gaddock Teeg to keep them from playing Dread Return, use Forge-Tenders and Mogg Fanatics to remove any Bridge From Belows that they find, and then outrace their Ichorids. The Kamis come in to deal with any Leylines of the Void that would keep your Forge-Tenders and Fanatics from touching Bridge From Below. Honestly, this matchup is not great with the sideboard as I have it here, but I wouldn’t expect to see much Dredge at American PTQs. If you want to have a shot at Dredge, the right card to play is Extirpate. Your plan becomes to Extirpate their Dread Returns, then remove all of their Bridges with self-sacrificing creatures and outlast their Ichorids. I don’t know where I would put the Extirpates, though; you would probably have to cut Kami of Ancient Law and I don’t feel good about that because of how important Kami is against Threads of Disloyalty.

Moving into control opponents, playing against most of the different levels of Blue decks is very similar. Regardless of the name, these decks are characterized by having some number of counterspells, Vedalken Shackles to deal with creatures, and they may or may not have Counterbalance. Regardless of the level of the opposing Blue deck, you do not want to get into a long game fight with them, especially if they have Counterbalance. You basically can’t beat a Vedalken Shackles or a Counterbalance if they have a Sensei’s Divining Top, and a single Threads of Disloyalty is a massive tempo swing. Awkwardly, you have four Vindicates to deal with all of those permanents while they have many actual Counterspells to defend them. This means that your goal is to kill them as fast as you possibly can. Take every opportunity to throw burn spells at them if you suspect that a Counterbalance is coming, and play out as many creatures as you can as quickly as you can. They probably have a single Engineered Explosives as mass removal, and unless you see it coming thanks to a Trinket Mage, you can’t justify playing around it. Sideboarding gives you the Ancient Grudges and Kamis of Ancient Law for the Gaddock Teegs and Gaea’s Mights, which completely changes the tone of the match and gives you the tools to fight a long game. Vedalken Shackles changes from a near-indestructible long-game trump to barely a threat at all, and Kami gives you a convenient way to deal with both Threads and Counterbalance. One important trick to know is that you can in fact use Ancient Grudge to get rid of Tops. If they sacrifice a fetchland and you Grudge the Top in response, they will get to draw a card but the Top will get shuffled away. Do this whenever possible, since without Top the Blue decks are actually pretty non-threatening.

The other important category of control deck is Tron. Both Blue-White and Blue-Green Tron decks rely heavily on artifacts for colored mana and are seriously weak to Gaddock Teeg, but that’s where the similarities end. Blue-Green Tron is essentially a Gifts Ungiven combination deck that can set up a shockingly fast Mindslaver lock, but its only creature defense is Moment’s Peace. Your goal is to attack them fast enough that they have to Moment’s Peace every turn or die to your creatures so that they never have the mana to cast a Gifts Ungiven before they die. If they get enough mana to start Giftsing and Peacing in the same turn, you are in real trouble and will probably lose. You should bring in the Ancient Grudges, Kamis, and Gaddock Teeg for the Lightning Helixes and Gaea’s Mights. They will bring in Tarmogoyfs and Threads of Disloyalty, which is why you want Kamis and why you are keeping the Mogg Fanatics. Their mana draws are often awkward, and a single Ancient Grudge is sometimes enough to stunt their development beyond repair so use those on Signets and Chrome Moxes early and often. Also, try to play Kami of Ancient Law as your very last creature to ensure that you get to use it on whatever Threads of Disloyalties that they draw.

Blue-White Tron is a totally different animal because they have Wrath of God and more diverse threats. Gaddock Teeg is still awesome against them, but they can still get it out of the way with Oblivion Ring or ambush it with Decree of Justice. They also just naturally have more business spells than Blue-Green Tron does, with two each of Mindslaver, Sundering Titan, and Decree. Your goal is to kill them as quickly as possible without overextending into a Wrath of God. You should use Vindicates to try to keep them from completing the Tron, since without access to tons of mana their deck is pretty unimpressive. Sideboard in the Kamis, Grudges, and Teeg for the Mogg Fanatics and Gaea’s Mights. They will have Threads of Disloyalty and Oblivion Rings so Kamis will never be short of things to kill, but you can sideboard out the Fanatics here because you won’t be getting into any Tarmogoyf fights.

Playing against Doran is oddly refreshing. It should feel to you like you and your opponent are playing essentially the same deck except that your cards are one to two mana cheaper. They have cards like Eternal Witness, Loxodon Hierarch, and Profane Command that will take over the game if it goes long, but I find that I usually win a couple of turns before things go bad. Be confident that your better cards will win you the game, but don’t let it go too long or your window may close. The most dangerous thing that your opponent can do is untap with a Birds of Paradise or Dark Confidant. Birds lets them leverage their expensive spells too quickly, and Confidant will find them answers. Both of those creatures need to die immediately. You should also do your best to keep your opponent on the back foot so that they have to keep tapping out for spells and don’t have time to leverage any Treetop Villages they might draw. Sideboard out one Gaea’s Might and the Gaddock Teegs for four Terminates, which give you more ways to deal with their large creatures. Gaea’s Might gets worse after board because they will have more removal, but they still have to tap out an awful lot so you can usually use it safely.

The Zoo mirror is probably the most draw-dependent matchup you have. To win it, stop drawing lands once you have three or four in play, and bury your opponent in an avalanche of spells while they continue to draw a normal amount of lands. The one thing that you can do to take some control of events is to play very deliberately to get Dark Confidant advantage. Even though there’s a decent amount of burn flying around, even just a few extra cards can make the difference. Kill your opponent’s Confidants immediately, and never expose your own to a Mogg Fanatic or Grim Lavamancer. Forcing your opponent to spend a Tribal Flames or Vindicate on a Confidant instead of a Tarmogoyf is also a big win. Sideboard out Isamaru, Teeg, and Gaea’s Mights for the Terminates and Forge-Tenders. You and your opponent are both bringing in extra removal spells, so Gaea’s Might after sideboard will get you two-for-oned more often than not. Isamaru and Teeg are just mopey bears in a real creature mirror, so they can go. If your opponent has the same sideboard plan as you, the matchup is still pretty random. If they bring in things like Jitte and Armadillo Cloak to try to win creature fights, however, your Terminates will trump them and you’ll have a very significant advantage. Forge-Tender may not look impressive, but it blocks Kird Ape forever and will serve as a Counterspell for a Tribal Flames or Lightning Helix. Also look for opportunities to use a Forge-Tender to protect a Dark Confidant, or at least force them to use a Terminate or Vindicate on one.

Little Red Deck Wins decks with creatures are another place where you will take the control role. This matchup plays fairly similar to the mirror except that they have a bunch of burn spells and do not have access to Vindicate, so your Tarmogoyfs are very difficult for them to deal with and the rest of your creatures tend to die on the spot. Do your best to protect your Tarmogoyfs from their burn by eliminating Grim Lavamancers before you play one. If you suspect Blistering Firecat, you may need to go through some contortions to keep it from hitting you. If a Cat ever hits you, the game is basically over, so try to keep a Mogg Fanatic, Lightning Helix, or untapped Tarmogoyf around to absorb it. Sideboard exactly as you did for the mirror, sit behind Forge-Tenders, and let your superior spells do their work. The main bad thing that can happen to you after sideboarding is that they could Blood Moon you. Kami of Ancient Law won’t stop this from happening, since they can easily just kill it and then play the Moon, so if you know that there are Moons out your goal is to put so much fast pressure on them with big early Tarmogoyfs that they don’t have time to play it. This is obviously not an easy plan to execute, so you would prefer that they just not draw Moon.

The burn deck is by far the worst matchup for Zoo. You take tons of damage from your lands, their cards do insane amounts of damage, and you are hard pressed to outrace them. Your only hope is to never put dual lands into play untapped, draw a Tarmogoyf so you can kill them quickly, and sneak one or more Lightning Helixes past their Flames of the Blood Hands. Sideboard out Dark Confidants and Gaddock Teegs for Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tenders and Ancient Grudges. Confidant hurts you and that is unacceptable while Teeg is just a bear; Forge-Tender isn’t that awesome here, but it will counter the last burn spell for you. Ancient Grudge is serviceable because they have Blinkmoth Nexus and Great Furnace, so you can possibly mana screw them with it. They may also board in Ensnaring Bridge or Sun Droplet, both of which must die.

As Extended decks go, Domain Zoo is a refreshing return to the attacking and blocking Magic of simpler formats while also providing the tools to both outrace and legitimately deal with the unfair strategies of the format. In my opinion, it’s also a lot of fun. I know I’m not supposed to care about such things, but for me playing this was a very welcome change from playing Counterbalance for so long. If you’ve been playing lots of tournaments and you’re set on a deck, I would encourage you to stick to your guns; if you’re not sure what to play, Domain Zoo is one of the few decks in the format that is both good enough to win a PTQ and simple enough that you can figure it out in four days. Good luck to everyone in the trenches this weekend, and hopefully we’ll see you in California.

Tom LaPille