Constructed Criticism – The New Blue Zoo

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Monday, February 1st – Last week I talked about the new “best” deck in Extended, but time has consistently taught us that something is only the “best” until people want to beat it badly enough. Dredge used to be the big man on campus, back in the day where Breakthrough and Ichorid were legal, but Wizards decided to print plenty of cards that gave the deck hell, and most of which are still around today.

Last week I talked about the new “best” deck in Extended, but time has consistently taught us that something is only the “best” until people want to beat it badly enough. Dredge used to be the big man on campus, back in the day where Breakthrough and Ichorid were legal, but Wizards decided to print plenty of cards that gave the deck hell, and most of which are still around today. While Dredge is still a powerful deck, it is not nearly as powerful as it once was, and the hate is just as potent as ever, if not more so. This in turn leads most people to believe that playing Dredge is a bad idea, because the hate for it exists in such large quantities, and people are so afraid of it that they still run it. This is all ignoring the fact that Dredge occasionally suffers splash damage from cards like Gaddock Teeg, Meddling Mage, and even Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender.

While Thopter Depths is undoubtedly the most powerful deck in Extended (and even taking six of the Top 8 slots in the PTQ early on Sunday morning), I think once people decide that they are tired of losing to it, they will do something about it. Unfortunately, the better players have forgone this route and just decided to battle with the deck themselves (myself included), leaving the problem of finding a solution to the deck up to the weaker players. It is clear that people love playing with the deck, and even the mirror match is relatively fun and skill-intensive. However, with the rise in popularity of the deck, and seemingly lazy attitude people have towards trying to beat the deck, it looks like it will continue to dominate all the way up until Grand Prix: Oakland. There aren’t any more Pro Tour Qualifiers on Magic Online for a little while, since they are getting prepared for Worldwake to be released, so there will be some time for people to finally discover just what beats Thopter Depths.

After some brewing about the format late last week, I came up with a few ideas to help beat Thopter Depths. While playing with the deck myself, I noticed that my closer matchups were ones against Zoo that had plenty of good cards specifically aimed at defeating my strategy, backed by aggressive creatures and burn spells. This strategy was almost always a race, but I won under multiple circumstances that really felt like I should have lost. This led me to believe that Zoo has all the right tools in order to defeat Thopter Depths, just as long as people are building in order to defeat such a deck while still having gas against everyone else. You can’t build a deck that only beats one deck in such an open format, but Zoo is a great place to start, since a lot of people can’t handle a Turn 1 Wild Nacatl. An old throwback for me was Qasali Pridemage, since he is so efficient at handling problematic cards like Thopter Foundry, Bitterblossom, and even an opposing Umezawa’s Jitte. In order to make room for him, I had to cut Gaddock Teeg, since he has been lacking since the evolution of the format.

Another card that I’ve really liked but never really been able to find room for in the maindeck was Bant Charm. Bant Charm is actually the best removal spell in Extended, since there are plenty of artifacts to target (including Thopter Foundry), as well as instants to counter. On top of that, it does a great job of removing 20/20’s from the Battlefield, as well as taking down opposing Tarmogoyfs or Knights of the Reliquary. Bant Charm is one of the best spells in the deck, and gives Zoo the versatility that it really needs in order to compete in such a hostile format.

Luckily, these two previously mentioned cards are just insane against Thopter Depths, and give you a pretty decent edge in Game 1 when combined with Path to Exile and efficient threats. While this particular list of cards seems like it is leaning towards Saito Zoo, I don’t really think Noble Hierarch or Baneslayer Angel really belong in a format such as this. You need efficient threats at each level of cost, and Baneslayer Angel just costs too much mana to really ever affect the board. She makes you play additional lands, which can lead to flooding, as well as a mana accelerator in a deck that really doesn’t need to accelerate. It needs to be playing 3/3 Cats on the first turn of the game. Once I realized this, the building process became much easier, and here is the decklist I came up with.

The maindeck is aggressive enough to combat an open field, while still having the tools that are specifically aimed at combating Dark Depths, be it Marit Lage or Thopter Foundry. Qasali Pridemage really earns his stripes right now, giving you plenty of outs against things you normally would be dead to. Bant Charm and Path to Exile are your catch-alls against Zoo, and potentially other random green aggro decks like Bant, but still give you enough versatility to counter removal spells, Cryptic Command, or even destroying a Cranial Plating. Bant Charm is just ridiculous, and I can’t really stress how happy I am to have it in the deck.

Umezawa’s Jitte is something I’ve become more fond of as of late, since Elves Combo has become more popular online. It is also incredible for the mirror, and does a number against Faeries. It also acts as a way to counter the Jittes from Faeries, which is probably their strongest weapon against you. While Jitte is legendary, drawing one will almost guarantee victory against the decks where it shines, and that is reason enough for me to play three in the maindeck. It is also an easy cut against decks like Thopter Depths, making room for better hate cards.

Speaking of hate cards, Damping Matrix is the real deal. I don’t know if many of you have seen this tech yet, but it is just ridiculous. It does everything you want it to do, and most Dark Depths decks have exactly one out against it. If you side in Negate and Bant Charm, you can easily protect the Damping Matrix against their Into the Roil or Echoing Truth, which shuts down both of their combos. It keeps Vampire Hexmage from being able to sacrifice itself, and also shuts down Thopter Foundry. If they happen to get one of their combos through your hate, they will usually be spending too much time to do so, and end up getting beaten to death by a Wild Nacatl in the process. These hate cards are specifically designed to buy you precious time, and Meddling Mage along with Negate just give them headaches if cast at opportune times.

While Damping Matrix is a fairly specific hate card against Thopter Depths, it does randomly act positively in matchups like Affinity or Martyr, since it shuts down the prime engines of the two decks. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest siding it in too much against non-Thopter decks, but it can be good outside of those matchups. You could describe it as narrow, but I am under the impression that all the best players in the room will be playing Dark Depths, and having access to the full set of Damping Matrices against them will give you that much more of a chance to defeat them on your way to the finish line.

While Damping Matrix is narrow, cards like Negate and Meddling Mage are not. They act as your parachute against certain combos that Zoo can’t normally handle. While Meddling Mage can be incredibly vulnerable, there are some decks that have very few outs to him. Elf combo can’t really deal with him, and naming Heritage Druid almost always slows them down enough so that you can get an Umezawa’s Jitte online and kill them. I’ve been pretty scared of Blood Moon from them, but having a basic Plains and Forest gives you some ways to get out of the jam that Blood Moon can put you in. If you are having trouble beating Blood Moon, and still like siding in Meddling Mage, I would suggest cutting 1 Ranger of Eos in the sideboard for 1 Island, since you have eight ways to fetch it excluding Knight of the Reliquary and Path to Exile.

Meddling Mage and Negate are just great ways to take out dead removal against control decks, as well as giving you plenty of answers to random combos like Scapeshift and Elves. Most Scapeshift players will not side in Boseiju, Who Shelters All against you, which makes it that much more potent. Also, they will usually go for the Firespout into Scapeshift plan in one big turn, which will rarely leave them with enough mana to counter a Negate for their Scapeshift. This could buy you valuable time to find a burn spell or another threat before they combo out again. Additionally, you could just counter Firespout, which is their main way of slowing you down.

Ranger of Eos is a guy that I’ve liked for a long time, and he is just ridiculous. I’ve thought he was good enough to maindeck for a while now, but there is just no room for him at the moment. However, he is just too good not to have in the mirror match, which makes him a valuable sideboard weapon. While I don’t have the same tutor package I used to have with him ala Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender, he still gives you plenty of gas in the mirror match. Having tons of creatures to attach Jitte to is very important in the mirror, and he can singlehandedly win you the game if your opponent uses a Path to Exile and ramps you into him. While you will usually only have 23 creatures after boarding for the mirror, you will often have more than your opponent simply because of Ranger of Eos. This is also a matchup where Bant Charm really shines, winning the creature battle by removing their Baneslayer, Tarmogoyf, or Knight of the Reliquary. Ranger gives you the gas you need in the mid-game to catch up if you are falling behind, and Qasali Pridemage makes sure you don’t lose the Jitte or Tarmogoyf battle. I think that with all of these cards combined, you should not have a difficult time playing the mirror.

One card I’ve been seriously considering for the sideboard is Threads of Disloyalty, but it is a bit more narrow for the mirror than Ranger of Eos. I’ve sided in Ranger of Eos in a few matchups that try to grind you out, and Threads of Disloyalty would just be terrible there. Also, Threads makes your manabase much worse, as you are forced to play a Breeding Pool over the 2nd Stomping Grounds, which I completely disagree with. Drawing a Stomping Ground in your opener is rarely a bad thing, where drawing a Breeding Pool could seriously hamper your ability to cast spells, as it is usually about as good as a Basic Forest, until you have the right mana to cast Bant Charm at least. With Treetop Village and the Basic Forest already in the deck, it is hard to justify the switch.

While there are a lot of different decks in the format, I think that the only one you really need to focus on is Thopter Depths. You have the tools in your deck to beat it, and a sideboard that gives them more hell. If there is anything I’ve learned from playing with and against the deck, it is that there is no such thing as too much hate. Much like the days of old against Dredge, people would pack upwards of 8-10 sideboard cards just for that matchup, just so they could have a shot at beating it. Zoo’s maindeck is good enough to beat almost any deck by itself, so having a few dedicated sideboard cards to fight the best deck in the format is a valuable tool. I think that is what sets Zoo apart from many of the decks in the rest of the field, specifically Faeries. While Faeries theoretically has the tools necessary to handle the format, their counterspells are very specific and can easily be played around. Spell Snare is a great card, but incredibly narrow. Compare this to either Bant Charm or even a burn spell like Lightning Helix from Zoo, and you can see just why I’m falling in love with playing cheap monsters.

I think that Zoo is poised to make a comeback, and it still continues to put up decent results. It is far from dead, and combining aggression with specific hate cards can give you the edge you need in a field full of combo decks. Meddling Mage and Negate give you incredible diversity against such an open field, and don’t tie you down to specific hate cards like Tormod’s Crypt or Aven Mindcensor for matchups where those are particularly good. If you build your deck with narrow cards, you will often find yourself stuck in tournaments without answers to certain decks, and will ultimately result in a loss. I have already made this mistake in the PTQ yesterday because I had “the Fear,” and ended up cutting Meddling Mage for Tormod’s Crypt and a singleton Gaddock Teeg. I didn’t trust my instincts, and I lost to Scapeshift in the first round because I didn’t have enough sideboard cards. Lesson learned.

Thanks for reading.

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