Flow of Ideas – From Blue to Zoo: A PTQ Report *Top 8*

StarCityGames.com Open Series: Indianapolis on March 13-14
Monday, March 1st – I had just picked up my second loss in round five of the San Diego LCQ, and it was bordering on midnight. I hadn’t had time to revise my Dark Depths deck from the week prior. And that’s when, like a gigantic cheeseburger to a man stuck in the sand dunes of the Sahara, Alex West swooped in with his Zoo deck.

I had never attacked with a Wild Nacatl in a Constructed tournament in my life. Yet, the idea had never looked so enticing as it did at the time.

I had just picked up my second loss in round five of the San Diego LCQ, and it was bordering on midnight. I hadn’t had time to revise my Dark Depths deck from the week prior. And that’s when, like a gigantic cheeseburger to a man stuck in the sand dunes of the Sahara, Alex West swooped in with his zoo deck. Like a package with a parachute released from a jumbo jet, it floated further and further toward me. I knew that cheeseburger was bad for me. But I was so hungry. And man, did that burger look delicious.

So, it was settled then. Alright, I’ll play Zoo. I felt my muscles relax. In fact, my brain later told me that it sat back it its la-Z-Boy chair, opening the footrest and putting its feet up, then popped open a can of Sprite. It was going to be fun for once, not having to go deep in the tank every single turn and figure out how I could avoid losing just so I would have that 2% chance of drawing my string of outs.

It’s not that I thought Zoo would be easy to play. Far from it. But attacking comes natural to these hands, chipped over time with papercuts from the corners of unsleeved Vastwood Zendikons with the words “Tarmogoyf” sloppily written on them. I’m always the person who makes sure we test decks against Zoo, and inevitably I’m the one who is asked to play them.

Alex and I worked over some modifications to the decklist he made top 16 with at Grand Prix Oakland the week prior, removing Ravenous Trap from the sideboard and trading Lightning Helix for Tribal Flames.

This was the list I registered and prepared to battle with.

4 Arid Mesa
1 Blood Crypt
1 Breeding Pool
1 Forest
1 Hallowed Fountain
4 Misty Rainforest
1 Plains
1 Sacred Foundry
4 Scalding Tarn
1 Stomping Ground
1 Temple Garden

4 Knight of the Reliquary
4 Loam Lion
4 Noble Hierarch
4 Qasali Pridemage
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Wild Nacatl

4 Bant Charm
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Path to Exile
4 Tribal Flames

1 Bojuka Bog
1 Damping Matrix
1 Ghost Quarter
4 Meddling Mage
4 Negate
2 Ranger of Eos
2 Umezawa’s Jitte

The PTQ was moderately sized; a lot smaller than I had imagined. 147 people dragged us over the threshold and into 8 rounds. I was fine with that.

Round 1 — Dredge

As he is shuffling he flashes me a Golgari Grave-Troll. There are only one of two decks I could be facing at this point, and my opponent doesn’t look like he brought a Ravncia theme deck.

Well, poo.

I just cut the Ravenous Traps from the sideboard. Oh well. I was just going to have to win anyway.

My opponent mulliganned, and I led off with a Nacatl. He did nothing on turn one, and I upped the ante with three damage from my Nacatl and a Tarmogoyf. He decided to Glimpse the Unthinkable on the second turn, netting a free Narcomoeba. My ragtag duo of Cat Warrior and Lhurgoyf bashed in for more, and served up with a Loam Lion and a second Tarmogoyf. My opponent dredged a Stinkweed Imp and cast it, but a Bant Charm to the bottom followed by a Lightning Bolt to the dome ended his shenanigans that game.

Game two, he did nothing on turn one while I had a Loam Lion to introduce my opponent to the fine art of bashies. Game two had had a Narcomoeba and blocked my Nacatl attack, then I introduced him to my good friend Tarmogoyf. He cast a second Narcomoeba, but still had no dredge action. I sent in my squad and summoned another Lhurgoyf, then Bolted the Stinkweed Imp he tapped out to play on his turn. I Tribal Flames his noggin for five and sent in again. He dredged into blanks and tried to buy another turn with Narcomoeba into Echoing Truth in my combat step, but a timely Bant Charm ensured I got in for lethal.


Round 2 — Boros

From the few games I had seen played of this matchup, it looked pretty 50/50. It seemed like the rather traditional burn matchup. The burn deck thinks they are way ahead, but if you put your lands into play tapped, fetch basics, and play tightly, you’ll be fine.

Game one he gets off to the races with Steppe Lynx action, and I match his bipolar cat with one tamed in the forests of Naya. He gets in for four and adds another bipolar feline to his army, then sends the turn back. I knock off his cat with a Tribal Flames, and then on his turn he Searing Blazes my Nacatl and cracks in for four more. With my life total dwindling, I pass back with Bant Charm mana up. He has a Goblin Guide but no land, and I Charm the Guide away. I follow up with a 5/5 Knight and he’s still landless. Subsequent removal spells followed up by a Tarmogoyf and a Tribal Flames for five seals the game for me.

Game two, he mulligans to six and tanks. He eventually keeps, and confidently goes turn one Ghost Quarter, then activates Ghost Quarter.

“So, you’re activating Ghost Quarter targeting itself?”

“Yes, I am activating Ghost Quarter targeting itself.”


Round 3 — RGW Scapeshift

Another matchup I’m not happy to see. I know this is a bad matchup, and game one my opponent does exactly what he drew up in the playbook. Turn two Elder, turn three Wood Elves plus Elder, turn five Scapeshift.

Game two, I auspiciously mulligan to five on the play. Already a poor start for my group of barnyard animals. Fortunately, I still lead with Nacatl and follow it up with a Tarmogoyf. A turn two Chalice from him makes me mulligan even further by neutralizing the Loam Lion in my hand, but I push in what the guys I have and summon a Knight of the Reliquary. He summons a Kitchen Finks and undoes all of my hard work, then continues to ramp up and starts Punishing Firing my creatures. I set a Meddling Mage on Punishing Fire to end those Shenanigans, and draw my second Negate. I hold onto both negates the rest of the game, pushing my guys in every turn. He plays another Finks, but it’s not going to matter. I counter his Scapeshift twice since he’s all in on that plan, and eventually I push in enough damage to take the game down.

Game three, he’s on a new plan. Not only does he have Scapeshift, but I have to deal with Baneslayer Angels too! The game begins pretty expectedly as I play a one drop and a two drop, curving into a Knight at three. But then he drops a Baneslayer Angel. I rip a Bant Charm to deal with it, and pass the turn since my knight is only a 4/4. He bashes, I Bant Charm, but then he follows it up with another Angel. I make Knight a 6/6 and begin bashing into him, and he tries to race me by attacking with his Baneslayer. I Negate a Scapeshift when he triumphantly drops his seventh land, and eventually I get the board to the position where he’s dead next attack and I’m at 6 — exactly enough to not die to his Angel. He doesn’t draw Punishing Fire, I force him to chump block my Knight, and I take down a well fought match.


After the match, Alex West pats me on the back and whips out a container of brownies. “You deserve a reward for that one.” Sweet. I could get used to this.

Round 4 — Dredge

Whaaaaaaaat? Dredge again? Not cool. Oh well, just going to have to beat him like I did my last opponent. My opponent flashes a Drowned Rusalka while shuffling, but the knowledge doesn’t help me as I mulligan to five and he has three Narcomoebas in play on turn two. Next game!

Game two, he mulligans to three and I roll over him with a pretty good draw which includes my single Bojuka Bog.

Game three, we finally have a real game. Or as close to real as you can get when you’re playing against Dredge, anyway. He has a turn two Crab, which he follows up with a Rusalka. I keep applying pressure, and he dredges into some blanks and a Bridge. He casts a Stinkweed Imp which provides a minor roadblock, but he doesn’t kill me on his next turn and another attack plus Tribal Flames seals up the game.


Round 5 — RGb Scapeshift

I kept hitting all of these bad matchups and winning anyway, which is saying something about the power of this deck. Unfortunately, this one the wheels fell off. I wish I could give you some exciting game notes, but my scorepad this one actually is just a drawing of a civil war battlefield with a bunch of dead soldiers and a charred white flag. Game one I mulligan to six, he ramps up and quickly disposes of me with Scapeshift. Game two I mulligan to five and he has double Kitchen Finks into Umezawa’s Jitte and Bloodbraid Elf. The games were about as close as a germaphobe on the dance floor.


After this match, I decided I needed some sustenance. I grabbed Alex West, checked the clock to find out when the 27 minutes left in the round would be up, and headed out to eat some of the legendary Fish ‘n Chips at the Tin Fish Restaurant. I ate there several times on the weekend, and they were just as delicious as I remembered. I ate them fairly quickly so I could get back to my round in time, and headed back.

Round 6 — Zoo

…Only, there had been a mistake made somewhere, and I showed up three minutes into the round while by my count there were still three minutes left in the last round. I have a judge verify the last round didn’t end early and gracefully accept my game loss. The fish was worth it.

The key when you receive a game loss is not to panic, tilt, or otherwise freak out. Whatever. Your opponent won game one. This situation happens all of the time. It had already happened to me three times this tournament. You just have to win the next two.

I focus and get ready to play a tight zoo mirror. He opens with Nacatl on the play and kills my Nacatl with a bolt, then sends in for three and further develops by adding the Loamliest of Lions to his squad. I try and halt his offensive with a Tarmogoyf, but he sends it to Exile and casts a Kird Ape. I muster a defense with Knight of the Reliquary and a Loamly Lion of my own, to which he has no good response to. We trade up creatures for a little while, and with him at five and me at four we both sit waiting to draw burn. Eventually I draw a Tribal Flames, gulp, and crack my fetchland to find my fifth color. He doesn’t have a Bolt. That’s a good start. I Flames him, he tries to Bant Charm it, and I inform him Tribal Flames is not an instant.

Game three he once again has a pretty good start, but is stuck on two lands. He paths away my first few blockers, but I get to Knight of the Reliquary and hand it Umezawa’s Jitte which is more enough to seal up the game.


Round 7 — Affinity

Affinity is a deck that at one point may have held the advantage, but with Path to Exile, Bant Charm, and Qasali Pridemage, the tides have turned. Game one I have larger creatures and destroy any artifact that matters, and game two he mulligans to four to my double Qasali Pridemage Bant Charm draw.


The standings go up, and Tom Martell and I, who are going to be playing, figure out the math. One 6-1-1 will not make it. The way it works out is that if we draw, we will both make it in unless Chris Fennel, who is on table one and playing a super favorable matchup — Dark Depths to his opponent’s G/W haterator deck — loses, and the 15 pointer loses to the 16 pointer. Additionally, my tiebreakers are slightly better then Tom’s so as long as two out of the three remaining people I faced in the tournament win, I should at least be 8th seed regardless. We ponder it over and decide to draw.

Then disaster begins to strike.

Fennel keeps a sketchy two land, one of which is Dark Depths, hand against his opponent, tilts, and scoops two turns before he lost when his opponent’s has one creature in play, his hand is 6 lands, and if Fennel draws a single land he can demolish his opponent with double Tarmogoyf and Hexmage. His opponent offers a draw, and he takes it.


I watch as two of my past opponents lose and Martell’s win.

Double gulp.

It all comes down to the match of two people who can’t make top eight. The 15 point player has the win, and his opponent asks for the concession. He thinks for a little under a minute, and my ribcage begins to crack under the pressure. Eventually he declines, I take a moment to breathe, standings go up, and I’m in eighth place.

The good news: I made top eight. The bad news: I have to face Chris Fennel with GB Depths in the first round. Not only is GB Depths a pretty bad matchup, but Chris is obviously a very skilled player who placed 18th with the same deck in Oakland the week before.

Fortunately, I have a pre-game out. After this tournament, Fennel will be qualified on rating. If he loses, he might no dip low enough that he’s no longer qualified. I ask him to see if he will drop before top 8 so no ratings change happens, and he begins to ponder. He asks the judge for specifics, the judge goes to consult with the TO, and eventually the judge comes back with what seems like the most absurd deal for me ever. Fennel can drop before top eight, but after pairings, not take a ratings hit, collect his packs for first place after swiss, and I would get a match win. Though I can’t say anything, I’m sure he knows I would give him all of my packs too. Fennel thinks it over for a while and eventually opts to play.

Quarterfinals — GB Depths

This match is extremely anti-climatic. Game one, he Thoughtseizes me and makes a turn three 20/20. Game two, I mulligan to five, Path his 20/20, but get run over by Tarmogoyfs I can’t defend against.

Oh well. I wish Chris good luck, and he goes on to dismantle the rest of the top eight and pick up a plane ticket to San Juan to boot.

I give Alex half of my winnings for lending me the deck, and we begin to talk with Brian Kowal about other changes to the deck.

But before we get to those, here is a sideboarding guide with the list I was using. All of the credit for the sideboarding plans goes to Alex West, who gave me a rundown of how to sideboard pre-tournament.

+2 Ranger of Eos
+2 Umezawa’s Jitte
+1 Bojuka Bog
-4 Noble Hierarch
-1 land (either a basic or Blood Crypt)

Alex let me know Zoo is an attrition match, so you will find all of your lands between the game running long and them Pathing you. Noble Hierarchs don’t block very well, and are pretty poor in the mirror. I kind of agreed with him, but sometimes I would leave 1-2 in on the play just so I didn’t end up mulliganning into oblivion due to mana screw or so I could Ranger 1 up if necessary. However, they should come out in some quantities.

The Bog looks suspect at first, but it is actually incredible in the mirror. The mirror is all about Knights and Goyfs, and Bog marvelously deals with the former by ensuring your Knights win in combat.

Once again, the mirror is all about Knights and Tarmogoyfs. Try not to waste removal on anything else unless absolutely necessary. Seldom do you lose quickly; it’s always just an attrition war.

Dark Depths:
+1 Ghost Quarter
+1 Damping Matrix
+4 Meddling Mage
-4 Lightning Bolt
-1 Noble Hierarch
-1 Tarmogoyf

Lightning Bolt is not great in this matchup. You can shoot down their Dark Confidants, sure, but they will likely not cast Hexmage until they have Depths for fear of it being removed.

You cut one Hierarch because, while one on turn one is good, you can’t afford to see two; an opening hand with two in it gives you a fairly dead card.

+2 Umezawa’s Jitte
+4 Meddling Mage
-4 Knight of the Reliquary
-2 Bant Charm

Mage here, will almost always sit on Heritage Druid. Knight is slow, and, though it does kill Curio, Bant Charm is pretty expensive. You could remove Tarmogoyfs instead depending on what kind of sideboard plan you think they’re on

U/G Scapeshift:
+4 Negate
+4 Meddling Mage
-4 Path to Exile
-4 Lightning Bolt

You can cut some Pridemages instead of Bolts if you think they’re going to have any creatures worth Bolting. They usually don’t though.

R/G Scapeshift
+4 Negate
+4 Meddling Mage
+2 Umezawa’s Jitte
-2 Lightning Bolt
-2 Loam Lion
-2 Noble Hierarch
-4 Path to Exile

They’re going to have Jittes, Finks, Bloodbraid Elves and Goyfs, plus a combo finish, which makes this matchup miserable. Fortunately, the combo is less effective against you because they can’t counter your Negates back. I would definitely not play Zoo if I expected to play against Scapeshift twice on the day.

+4 Negate
+4 Meddling Mage
-4 Bant Charm
-4 Lightning Bolt

Pretty straightforward here. Just try and kill them before they combo you.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about modifications you can make to the deck to try and build the best version of zoo.

First, I would definitely go -1 Matrix +1 Ghost Quarter in the sideboard from my published list after playing with the Matrix. I think Ghost Quarter is just better, as you will seldom lose to the Thopter Combo with this list and you just want a plan against 20/20’s that can’t be Thoughtseized.

If you’re looking at lists of Zoo, I was very happy with my list. However, with that said, another list to consider is Brian Kowal’s. If you haven’t seen it (which you probably haven’t, considering how GP top 16 lists aren’t up) it looks like this:

4 Grove of the Burnwillows
4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Arid Mesa
1 Scalding Tarn
2 Stomping Ground
1 Temple Garden
1 Sacred Foundry
1 Forest
1 Mountain
1 Plains
1 Ghost Quarter
1 Treetop Village
1 Stirring Wildwood

4 Noble Hierarch
4 Wild Nacatl
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Knight of the Reliquary
4 Woolly Thoctar
2 Baneslayer Angel

4 Punishing Fire
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Path to Exile
3 Lightning Helix

3 Deathmark
2 Damping Matrix
2 Blood Moon
2 Extirpate
2 Chalice of the Void
2 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Bojuka Bog
1 Blood Crypt

After talking with him and Alex together, it basically comes down to this. Kowal’s list is more advantaged against Zoo, R/W, and Faeries. Alex’s list is better against Depths, Hypergenesis, and Living End. I felt like Alex’s list was a little ahead in the mirror anyway because we knew what mattered more, and I felt it was pretty important to beat Depths. However, all three of us agreed that the next level to take the deck to might be to merge the two lists and play blue in BK’s list for Negate, Meddling Mage, and sideboard Bant Charm. We haven’t tested at all with a list like this, but it’s something to consider.

Another list to consider is Kyle Boggemes list. The week before placing second at the Pro Tour, he who a PTQ with Zoo with a list sporting Temporal Isolations, which seem pretty good against Depths and the mirror, and Bloodbraid Elf coupled with Boom/Bust, alongside maindeck Blood Moon. Once again, I have not playtested a lot with Zoo post-PTQ, but I think there are a lot of ways you can take zoo. There are a lot of very interesting maindeck decisions you can make which will significantly modify your percentages. I would be happy to answer any questions about the list I played or future changes in the forums or at my e-mail address, gavintriesagain at gmail dot com, and I look forward to talking with you soon!

Gavin Verhey
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic online, Lesurgo everywhere else