Behind The Curtain – Spherical Zoo In A Vacuum

Modern, like any format, is full of questions and answers. Valeriy starts with the questions: Zoo variants, Doran, and Hatebears. Don’t use spherical cows to solve your metagame problems!

Modern was announced; the PT Philly format has been changed. Any past testing was a waste, time to restart. I’ve tested both Extended and Modern during previous weeks, but Extended is irrelevant now, and Modern’s ban list expansion nullified all my preparation. And finally, Modern is available not only at the PT, but on MTGO and at SCG Opens too (despite Wizards’ decision to postpone sanctioning). Looks like it’s the proper time to explore a new format. Let’s go into Modern Love!

Hmmm… Eh, this article started as an overview of the format, but I quickly realized that it’s just impossible to test all the ideas that come into my mind, so I decided to concentrate on different green-based aggressive decks. Why? There are basically two sorts of decks: decks with questions and decks with answers. Questions are easier to determine, because Wild Nacatl is always Wild Nacatl, while you can’t use “forty-two” as an answer without knowing the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Here would also be a pun on the film Zookeeper, but as I’m an arrogant bastard who prefers art-house cinema, here is an article about spherical cows in a vacuum or, to keep a piece of Russian specifics, about spherical horses in a vacuum. Fortunately, native humor doesn’t force me to put Armored Warhorse into a Zoo deck.

Very important vacuum-cow related statement: don’t fall into narrow and situational cards; they’re good only in well-established metagames and, probably, only a very short time. Right now there are only two ways: to have answers for everything (I mean literally everything) or to have your own proper questions. I prefer real ways, so let’s go into Zoo (while other decks will receive their honorable mentions).

Of course, control decks will be good at the Pro Tour and later, but it is significantly harder to collect proper answers in seventy-five cards. I see some obvious directions (One More Level Blue, U/x Twelvepost, or even U/x Urzatron, Cruel Control), some less obvious directions (Isochron Scepter, Tezzeret the Seeker, Gifts Ungiven, Martyr of Sands), and a bunch of sadly unplayable ideas (okay, Martyr should be in this category, but her unplayability is not sad). However trying to create control in an unknown format is probably a mistake if your name is not Guillaume or if your surname is not Chapin. I have, unfortunately, neither.

The first possible source of Modern data is the MTGO Community Cup. A brief look at the decklists provided the following data: six of the eight community decks included banned cards; five of eight of the WotC Team’s decks included banned cards. Hmmm, looks like they’ve learned the lesson. Okay, skip this step.

The second possible source is an online Modern tournament that just ended at our Russian-speaking forums. I played RUG Scapeshift, which proved itself to be funny, but not powerful enough. Banned. I asked other players, and only two of the sixteen didn’t have banned cards in their decks. Okay, skip this step too.

Quick aside about the Modern ban list: I think it is perfect or near perfect. I even agree with the ban of my beloved Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. And I do not think that combo was killed: there are many fair and interesting combos possible outside of the properly banned, consistent, and unfun turn-three kills.

The third possible source is Gavin Verhey Overextended. I observed the format’s establishment alongside my own Modern testing (and various forum disputes about both) and quickly realized that the formats are significantly different (combo is much stronger in Overextended; control has many strong cards), so any data from Overextended should be considered with prudence. I’ll return to Punishing Zoo (why is by far the most important Overextended deck for Modern) a little bit later. Now let’s start investigating our good questions from the very beginning.

I thought of Zoo as the “fast aggro cornerstone of the format” a few weeks ago, but Mental Misstep prevented me from serious consideration of this choice. As Mental Misstep is banned now, there is nothing to stop Zoo from being viable. While Tempered Steel / Affinity is probably faster at goldfishing, Zoo is far more consistent, so the very first question is “Do you want to be Zoo or do you want to beat Zoo?”

Zoo: Faster, Higher, Stronger

The most obvious version of the deck is Domain Zoo with the powerful Tribal Flames alongside Wild Nacatl, Kird Ape, Loam Lion, Grim Lavamancer… I even didn’t create a decklist (and didn’t consider Goblin Guide, which caused some controversy in Gavin’s article) because I remembered about the existence of Engineered Explosives and, a little bit later, Chalice of the Void, Ensnaring Bridge, and Vedalken Shackles. Okay, artifact hate is needed, especially if we want to respect the obvious domination of Caw-Blade, as in any other format. One more real reason is Simic Signet from Twelvepost.

We don’t want to lose tempo, so there are three strong creatures deserving attention: Qasali Pridemage (proved himself in Legacy and fetchable with Green Sun’s Zenith), Duergar Hedge-Mage (with the ability to get around Chalice for two / Spell Snare and the weakness of a mana base with two basic Plains), and Tin Street Hooligan (who kills artifacts for two mana instead of three).

The next problem to solve is well-known too— the fearsome Blood Moon. This means that some basic lands are needed and that some sort of disruption would be good too. My first thoughts were about Tidehollow Sculler, but I’ve just decided to put artifact hate into my maindeck, so why can’t my opponents do the same? Okay, miser’s Thoughtseize / Inquisition of Kozilek. But… maybe just switch to Doran, the Siege Tower?

At this point, it’s probably time to change the mood: Thoughtseize and Duergar Hedge-Mage will not give the deck the speed needed to increase its win rate against bigger versions, so the only real way is to go all-in and hope that we will be fast enough. So, three Might of Alara maindeck and the following decklist (disclaimer: I like the deck, but I can’t recommend it, despite that it’s tuned and may look interesting).

Discard is still necessary against combo and Blood Moon. Gaddock Teeg is too, against combo decks and against the two best non-banned blue cards (Cryptic Command and Cruel Ultimatum). Our plan for the mirror is to make our creatures bigger and to keep our life total relatively high, so Kitchen Finks are good addition.

Relic of Progenitus is for the mirror match (it’s the best available way to beat Knight of the Reliquary without card disadvantage) and for something like Eternal Witness. Against the occasional Living End, we will be glad to see Relics too. Oblivion Ring is an answer for Elspeth, Knight-Errant and anything unknown. And yes, there is no Path to Exile in the deck—speed at any cost.

Going further, Molten Rain is a good question for the five-colored mirror match and for Twelvepost-like control decks. Double red is not very easy to make (mana base may require revision), but when Molten Rain is viable, it’s often devastating (especially the second one).

By the way, I claimed Tron unplayable in my previous article, but after additional revisions, I changed my opinion: Tron is not bad (especially in a properly built control deck that can operate without all the pieces), and eight tapped lands in Twelvepost is not a thing I dream of playing. The last that I will say about heavy control for today is that Martial Coup is freaking awesome with either Posts or Tron.

Now let’s return to our spherical pets. In general, the best way to win the Zoo mirror is to use bigger creatures. This statement was perfectly proven by Brian Kibler at PT Austin and then by multiple Overextended players (a couple of decks can be found here: mtgoverextended.com). As I said, any Overextended data should be perceived carefully, so after some testing of so-called Punishing Zoo, I came to the flowing decisions: I’m not sure if I really want to play only Kavu Predator, or even Punishing Fire in a Zoo deck.

Yes, advantage is advantage, but this engine is very slow, and it’s very hard to kill anybody with it alone: you can exchange your small creatures for opponent’s bigger ones, but Punishing Fire is a bad answer to a 6/6 Knight of the Reliquary. But the choice to not play Grove-Fire led me to needing some other advantage engine. Finally I came to the following:

There are lots of options available, so the decklist is very sketchy and subject to tuning. I definitely think that I want to incorporate one copy of Kitchen Finks into the maindeck, and I don’t really know if I like Ranger of Eos. By the way, Dryad Arbor is a nice way to make cascading into Green Sun’s Zenith less devastating (there are no Bloodbraid Elves in this list, but she can be in other variations). And, as there are no Elves in this list, it would be interesting to put Sejiri Steppe instead of Dryad Arbor.

You can also notice the maindeck Ghost Quarter and Bojuka Bog—industry standard in Overextended (because of Knight of the Reliquary, Tarmogoyf, Twelvepost, etc.) alongside Surgical Extraction (from Grove-Fire mirrors). Pyroclasm is for potential combo Elves (Cloudstone Curio and Regal Force are not Glimpse of Nature, but still very strong cards), and Angel’s Grace is against Hive Mind.

Don’t be confused; sideboards of decks posted in this article contain fifteen cards, but in reality they’re just piles of possible ideas. I thought about equipping each deck with fifteen singletons in the board, but the deck is 75 cards, not 60, and fifteen singles are far from any kind of reality, so I gave up this idea.

The next step, and the next advantage engine, is Bloodbraid Elf and her Modern friends—Boom / Bust and Blood Moon. Fortunately, I was granted a simple decklist by Ali Mirghahari who won a Modern side event at SCG Open Richmond.

The deck is great and interesting, but I’m dissatisfied, as usual. First off, why don’t I find Flagstones of Trokair in a deck with four Boom / Bust? Second, Temporal Isolation is an elegant solution to the Knight of the Reliquary problem, but someone should be smart enough to put Sejiri Steppe into the deck.

Next, real problems. Blood Moon is sweet, but I bet that any player in Day Two of the Pro Tour will be prepared. Yes, it will be hard for them, and Moon will still hurt them, but the deck will not enjoy its rogue factor. Second problem is that better anti-control performance is bought for the cost of a worse mirror match. If the lunatic factor is diminished, the deck becomes a worse version of previous lists, with its key spell doing nothing and without any plan for an opponent’s Elspeth, Knight-Errant.

While the deck is very interesting, it requires serious tuning, and the most interesting direction would be… cutting Blood Moon. Seriously. Opponent will devote his forces to play around Blood Moon anyway, so why not just play an effective creature in this slot? Moreover, there are strategies in Zoo that could make Boom / Bust not only bad, but suicidal. So, ladies and gentlemen, the deck that I’d actually play in Modern.

Greater Gargadon became worse after elimination of damage from the stack, but he is still good enough and combos well with Keldon Marauders (an interesting example of a 3/3 for two mana that isn’t worse than a 3/3 for one mana). In fact, this combo was sweet enough for me to consider Mogg War Marshal. Additional advantages of Greater Gargadon include saving you from Threads of Disloyalty and Vedalken Shackles and countering Lighting Helix in the mirror match.

Aside idea: okay, Mogg War Marshal goes into a different deck, but I’ll try to let this deck see the light of day, maybe in the form of Gargadon Goblins, because both Mogg War Marshal and Siege-Gang Commander look great with Goblin Chieftain. And Fecundity is legal. End aside, go back to Zoo.

It may sound controversial, but Greater Gargadon provides some edge in the mirror, even if he doesn’t come out of suspend: he is a huge threat with a low amount of answers available, and you force your opponent to play around him. Alpha strikes are impossible; Lightning Helix becomes worse, etc., etc.

My most interesting play was when I sacrificed all my lands (without Flagstones of Trokair among them) to save my Knight of the Reliquary from two Lightning Bolts (she became 7/7 instead of 4/4). I obviously had two more lands in my hand, so keeping Knight alive was crucial. And, last, while Greater Gargadon is far from good a late game topdeck, he is a sort of elegant solution of a mana flood problem.

Keldon Marauders are good in the mirror match, and they’re good against every sort of creature-low control and combo, so they are an easy choice. I’d even consider them in other versions of Zoo if you’re low on Qasali Pridemage and Gaddock Teeg (maybe because of Green Sun’s Zenith) and if you’re going to be as aggressive as possible. Tarmogoyf is statistically smaller with Umezawa’s Jitte being banned and Seal of Fire / Tarfire being outclassed by Lightning Bolt; Keldon Marauders, in contrast, are never 0/1 or 1/2 on turn two.

Countryside Crusher is like Kavu Predator: strong, but a good long-term, underestimated creature. He is one more “deal or die” card in the mirror; he grows fast enough to be a serious threat for any sort of control deck; and he combos well with Greater Gargadon to win out of nowhere. There are three because sometimes lands are needed too and because Crusher is rarely welcome on turn three.

And, if you weren’t already curious about it, the current list has a significant problem: there’s only one Qasali Pridemage maindeck (with one Green Sun’s Zenith) and no Gaddock Teeg at all. One cat and one zenith is miser’s choice, and I don’t know if they will turn back into Grim Lavamancer and Lightning Bolt, while I would agree with some pre-board losses. By the way, these changes were caused by Isochron Scepter imprinted with Silence, the case where GSZ and Pridemage are useless, but Silence led me to the idea of Krosan Grip. This deck has enough raw power to play artifact hate without a body.

The rest of the maindeck is mostly obvious. Noble Hierarch is our one-drop of choice, while Wild Nacatl / Grim Lavamancer are for mirror, so I have only three cats. And, if I’m going first against another Zoo deck, I’d definitely prefer turn-1 Gargadon suspend into turn-2 Keldon Marauders, insulting the opponent’s Nacatl. The goal in the mirror is to go into the midgame and to realize our advantages. If Noble Hierarch is allowed to live, you are far ahead, and if she dies, your opponent probably lost some tempo; that is good too.

A pair of Flagstones of Trokair is feed for Gargadon and / or for growing our Knight of the Reliquary—it is important to have a bigger one in any sort of aggressive matchup. I started with four, but my red spells (Countryside Crusher) convinced me to cut half.

As for the sideboard, the fourth Greater Gargadon is against Living End and, maybe, for some combo decks where suicidal speed is necessary. Act of Aggression is just great removal with our fatty, and Combust is an answer to Splinter Twin and random fatties (Baneslayer Angel, Vendilion Clique, or even Doran, the Siege Tower if you can somehow find Combust in your hand in this matchup).

That is probably all that I can say about Spherical Zoo in a Vacuum at this moment. Time will tell where to go and how to adapt the deck for the metagame, but now I will repeat my statement: don’t fall into the trap of narrow cards. Your deck will contain good and universal questions. Probably all the best creatures and all the best aggressive spells are available in this format, so there is no way to avoid Zoo. But let’s look at other possibilities first.

Doran: No Love for Kittens

In the previous part of the article, I occasionally concluded that Noble Hierarch could be a better turn-1 play than Wild Nacatl, so the next step is clear: why not try the deck even without Wild Nacatl? There are technically five three-colored variations with green except for Naya (Bant, Jund, G/W/B, R/U/G and B/U/G), but if we’re skipping the most aggressive one-drop in favor of Noble Hierarch, powerful third-drops are needed. There are Doran, the Siege Tower and Rhox War Monk (with honorable mention to Glissa, the Traitor as both a good creature and a card to build around), but the idea of a Bant deck is very different (because of the defiling influence of blue), so we are going into Doran.

First, Brian Kibler and Brad Nelson deck from PT Amsterdam will be noticed.

The format’s speed was mostly defined by weak and fragile combo decks and Punishing Fire (sound familiar?), so the key point was to pack creatures immune to fire and provide consistent turn-4 kills. The solution to have four Treefolk Harbingers is so elegant and attractive, and it can be used now with some success, despite the fact that Zoo’s creatures are far more effective than Amsterdam’s (there was mostly Weenie and Jund). Moreover, the deck received Green Sun’s Zenith for flexibility. Treefolk Harbinger is less strong in the presence of Zoo, but chaining Green Sun’s Zenith into an 0/3 into the mighty Doran, the Siege Tower may be worth packing one or two copies—card advantage is rarely enough in this sort of deck.

The next point is defense of Noble Hierarch. If the goal is to overpower Wild Nacatl with three-mana creatures, she is necessary, and more turn-1 acceleration will be provided by Green Sun’s Zenith into Dryad Arbor. Both Dryad and Hierarch die to any burn spell, but if Zoo casts Lightning Bolt instead of another creature, it’s also good for you. Later, defense will be provided by the new kid on the Doran block and warmly welcomed two-drop: Spellskite. The rest of the shell is the usual: strong creatures, good removal, and some disruption. Amsterdam’s Doran was built without acceleration because Siege Tower was okay on turn three, but in Modern it will be just not enough.

Dark Confidant didn’t fit because we don’t intend to kill ourselves, which is very plausible because of relatively high manacurve. While combination of Bob and Kitchen Finks would be good, I’d suggest life-saving play style (fetching Murmuring Bosk instead of shocklands if possible etc).

The sideboard, as usual, is just a list of possibilities—Angel’s Grace and Duress for combo, Reveillark for control decks, and Sword of Feast and Famine for Tarmo vs. Tarmo Bludgeon Brawls. I didn’t test this deck as much as Zoo variations, but it will be a strong contender equally in Philly and during the subsequent PTQ season (dear WotC, give me a Modern PTQ season please!).

Haters Gonna Hate

Last but not least, Hatebears. The idea of using this deck in an unknown metagame is a little bit strange—we have so many questions to ask, but they’re generally narrow; however Green Sun’s Zenith makes the task of asking proper questions easier, and, more important for me as an investigator, the deck is a great home for Aether Vial—which is considered very strong, but hasn’t gotten much attention.

The deck has a couple of strong turn-1 plays—Noble Hierarch, Green Sun’s Zenith into Dryad Arbor, and Aether Vial into Dryad Arbor. The very first draft of the deck contained a playset of creature lands, but later I cut the fourth in the favor of a second Ghost Quarter.

Zenith’s toolbox is Qasali Pridemage (for all sorts of artifacts and Blood Moon), Gaddock Teeg (for combo and control), Tarmogoyf (only one because in this deck Tarmo isn’t normally as big as we want), Kitchen Finks (against aggressive decks), sideboarded Eternal Witness (for the matches with estimated long games and to recover our swords), and Riftsweeper (Ancestral Vision is banned, but Lotus Bloom, Greater Gargadon, and Living End are here). Non-fetchable hatebears are Ethersworn Canonist (against Boom / Bust decks and Living End) and Aven Mindcensor (against nearly any deck).

Sword of Fire and Ice provides necessary protection for Gaddock Teeg, card advantage, and useful speed for our fliers. Sword of Body and Mind helps us attack Zoo through big creatures and provides even more creatures for us. Chalice of the Void in the sideboard is the most controversial card of the entire deck. I’m not sure, but in some metagames it could be worth even maindecking.

Finally, I should repeat my statement about strong questions and thereby say that this deck is probably a bad choice for the PT because of the unknown metagame, but it could be very good after Philly or in your local store where the metagame can be evaluated because of a limited amount of participants. That is all for today, see you next time!

Bonus section

Honorable mentions to cards legal in the format, but underestimated right now:

Fecundity. Well-known combo engine, it can be powerful even without Skirk Prospector in, say, a Melira, Sylvok Outcast deck or as a powerful sideboard against “fair” aggressive decks.

Choke and Boil. Nothing else to say. More hate against blue mages.

Plow Under. FFFFUUU. The most unfun card ever, but very effective, especially with fast mana provided by Lotus Cobra. Turn-3 Plow Under, turn-4 Eternal Witness and Remand, turn-5 Plow Under again. So nasty.

Isochron Scepter. There are many unfair spells to imprint. Silence is not as good as Orim’s Chant, but still good. Muddle the Mixture can be transmuted into Odds / Ends (and you can play Ends every turn for two mana!) and Research / Development (don’t you think that both parts can be a little bit unfair?). And Glittering Wish may go into same deck. I have no precise ideas or lists for Scepter Control, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it at the top tables in Philly.

Vedalken Engineer. He is just the older brother of Grand Architect, and they can provide fast and unfair mana together. Myr Superion tends to be larger than Tarmogoyf, and fast a Wurmcoil Engine is not easy to overpower.

Valeriy Shunkov

@amartology in Twitter
Valeriy dot Shunkov at gmail dot com

P.S. Props to my friends for extensive testing and priceless discussion that made this article possible.