Attacking with swift, powerful creatures has been a mainstay of competitive Magic on all levels since the beginning of the game. The first aggressive decks included cards like Savannah Lions, Kird Ape and Serendib Efreet and have evolved as better creatures have been printed, usually pairing these attackers with direct damage spells to end the game even faster. Long-time players will remember decks like White Weenie and Sligh, and even newer players know of the Zoo evolution after Ravnica. The format’s best creatures wind up in Legacy Zoo decks, a seriously powerful archetype that is the focus of this week’s article.
Zoo has undergone several important evolutions in the format, but it seems to develop organically and not formally. While Zoo retains a common core of cards in just about every instance, there exists a wide latitude in tuning the deck to beat certain metagames. We’ll look at that core of cards and then “add-on packages,” sets of cards you can add into the deck to calibrate it for certain expected metagames. Some are standard, others are more experimental.
The Zoo Core
The cards that tend to show up in every Zoo deck are:
4 Wild Nacatl
4 Qasali Pridemage
4 Kird Ape
4 Grim Lavamancer
4 Lighting Bolt
4 Lightning Helix
That makes for 28 of the finest cards that deal damage in Legacy. The Tarmogoyf, Wild Nacatl and Kird Ape are all very efficient attackers, while the Qasali Pridemage revolutionizes the deck by providing a solid creature that can handle problem permanents. The remaining cards can be lumped as direct damage, with Grim Lavamancer’s repeated burn capabilities and Lightning Helix’s lifegain providing excellent anti-aggro effects. These cards make for a core of a deck that can handle the huge variance of decks in any given tournament. Further, since they are all mana-light in both cost and color, Zoo rarely stumbles on having the mana to cast all of these, resulting in a consistent gameplan.
Zoo decks are most usefully differentiated by the supplemental cards that players run. In building Zoo, I have often been tempted to diversify with many supplemental cards to cover different angles, which is a great strategy for controlling decks but lackluster for Zoo. That’s because Zoo wants to execute basically the same plan against any deck it faces and such a split makes for sad scenarios when you’re drawing the “anti-control” cards when you want to draw the “anti-aggro” cards. Thus, a little bit of actual planning has to go in before you take a list to a tournament, as Zoo can be surprisingly sensitive to the field. In Extended recently at Pro Tour: Austin, we saw Rubin Zoo, which was capable of demolishing opposing Zoo decks with its recursive Punishing Fire and Baneslayer Angel. However, Tsuyoshi Ikeda ran a very different Zoo list to a T8 in the same event, sporting cards like Spectral Procession, which would make three chump-blockers to face down the flying Marit Lage tokens that were everywhere in the room. Both players correctly anticipated the field and tuned their Zoo decks to play competitively among the other format powerhouses. Though the cards in Legacy are so powerful that it’s hard to make room for specialized cards in a Zoo deck, some degree of variation is certainly possible.
The “Fast Zoo” Variation
This is an option where the player simply attempts to put out enough cheap attackers and burn to kill the opponent as soon as possible. Why worry about Wrath of God or Engineered Explosives when you’re going to kill before those cards do their deed? To start off, we need to talk about Loam Lion. The White Kird Ape has several advantages over its red ancestor; it cannot be killed with Hydroblast and shrugs at Circle of Protection: Red. Running Loam Lion pulls the deck in a whiter direction mana-wise. This means more Savannahs and less Taigas, which can be incrementally dangerous if we’re trying to resolve a Fireblast and just can’t get the two required Mountains. However, it makes something like Horizon Canopy more useful because it can cast more attackers than it does in typical Zoo lists. The real question is not “do we replace Kird Ape with Loam Lion?” but instead, “Do we run Loam Lion alongside Kird Ape?” A 2/3 attacker for one mana barely makes the cut, so do we want eight of them? In a fast Zoo list, we might…
In a deck angled to put pressure on early, we want as many “good” one-drops as we can muster. Steppe Lynx shines, often being a 4/5 attacker on the second turn and ameliorating land-heavy draws. A very fast list might take the core and add in a full set of Loam Lion and Steppe Lynx. Since the deck has a very light mana curve, it’s possible to run a meager twenty lands, providing four more spots to fill.
These spots can be more creatures, with Goblin Guide being (regrettably) the best candidate, or they can be more burn spells. Chain Lightning is the next best thing to Lightning Bolt and can result in a faster kill. Price of Progress often will act as a Flame Rift; it’s not at its most powerful in a deck like this because at two mana for usually four damage, it’s below the ‘three damage for one mana’ standard. In this case, the ‘four damage for zero mana’ aspect of Fireblast makes it enticing. One can also put in Path to Exile in this spot, since any blocker is going to slow this deck way down. Finally, there’s also Rift Bolt for another cheap burn spell.
Fast Zoo decks have an advantage in that they are remarkably consistent in the first three turns of the game. They’ll play a creature or two, attack and aim some burn at the head. One subtle reason that Fast Zoo decks are great is that any stumble on the part of the opponent is severely punished. A missed land drop, a bad topdeck or a mis-fetched dual land can all be magnified because there are just too few extra turns to work out of that hole. I’d be happy playing a Fast Zoo deck in a metagame where I can expect other players to be running slower decks. For example, I’d like to play this against Enchantress because I could get free wins when they couldn’t assemble a Solitary Confinement fast enough. I would be hesitant to play this deck if I knew that players in my area liked the Firespout-heavy Supreme Blue deck or packed Aggro Loam with Chalice of the Void.
The “Big Zoo” Variation
On the other end of the spectrum from little, fast beaters is the selection of big, fast beaters. We’ve got vanilla attackers like Leatherback Baloth and Woolly Thoctar and then we’ve got variable-size monstrosities like Knight of the Reliquary and Terravore. Some of these big creatures also have side utility, like Jotun Grunt. The advantage of playing these big creatures is twofold: other aggro decks cannot handle a 5/4 monster very easily, and any big creature drawn on an empty board is an immediate threat. Consider a board where both players have exhausted their hands and the Zoo player draws and plays a Terravore. This beast is going to be at least a 7/7 trampler and will grow quite regularly as the game goes on. Though a Big Zoo variant lacks the fast damage elements of a Fast Zoo deck, it has much better staying power.
We’ve seen a lot of Knight of the Reliquary recently in Zoo decks, but I tend to see Terravore as a better creature. It’s lighter on the mana requirements in some ways and it has Trample, which is huge compared to the Knight’s ability. Certainly, Knight can cash in a Forest for a Horizon Canopy, but unless you’re digging for a burn spell and cannot attack, a swing from that Knight is going to be more powerful than the card from Canopy. That Terravore grows with both graveyards is a little extra icing, making up for the fact that it would need two lands in any graveyards to come close to Knight’s starting stats.
One great aspect of Big Zoo is that it can feed out creatures one at a time and say “here, deal with this guy!” Against opponents who are banking on generating card advantage through sweeper spells, this is a time-honored way to get the most out of every creature. It has the downside that Zoo isn’t really made for a late game and it shouldn’t try to be a deck it’s incapable of being. It has no recursion, no real way to interact with an opponent’s board or graveyard and a very linear plan. That said, I’d absolutely play lots of big creatures if I knew there were a lot of other aggressive decks in the field, such as other Zoo decks, Merfolk, Goblins or the like. I would probably play twenty-two lands, giving me ten spots to fill with spells. Those spells would likely be four Terravore, two Woolly Thoctar and four Path to Exile. That would assure plentiful large attackers and removal to make sure they connect.
The Anti-Counterbalance Zoo Variation
Counterbalance, in its many forms, is one of the most popular decks around these days and when it gets its namesake soft lock operational, it can slow Zoo down to a crawl. Many Counterbalance lists run cards like Firespout, Rhox War Monk, Natural Order and the like. Even well-prepared Zoo players are in for a real fight, as a low mana-curve deck might fall prey to Counterbalance with a one-drop sitting on top and a meatier deck can be slowed enough to also get locked out by the enchantment. Thus, fighting Counterbalance effectively requires some subtle changes in how the deck plays.
One of the greatest core cards in the deck is Grim Lavamancer, which can come down early and make for a string of fire, even if the rest of the deck is hampered by Counterbalance. Qasali Pridemage is also a great contender for its disenchanting nature. However, I’ve seen a lot of Zoo players blow their Pridemage as soon as a Counterbalance hits the table. If you’re in a position where you’re applying pressure with the Cat, save the Disenchant for when you actively have to resolve something else. Another card that’s common in Zoo and fantastic against Counterbalance is Sylvan Library. One of the bounding parameters of Zoo is that it can only draw one card a turn, so something like the Library can put more burn spells or creatures in the Zoo player’s hand in a short time. I’ve often considered the Library to be a must-counter when facing it with a deck that looks to lock things up, since the Library can really screw up how much you can handle from Zoo.
If you’re building Zoo to be impervious to Counterbalance, Vexing Shusher is probably the best maindeck option. I think it’s too narrow for most instances, though, and so we’ve got to look at more reliable cards. Fireblast dodges Counterbalance every time and can end the game out of nowhere. Though Price of Progress gets caught up in Counterbalance, it can punish dual-heavy opponents, so it’s worth considering as well. Many Zoo lists used to run Rift Bolt to dodge Counterbalance, but the Suspend card’s time has come and gone for that purpose as more CounterTop decks run more three-cost cards to counter the Bolt. The sideboard is where you can do the most damage against these blue decks, and it can come in the form of Krosan Grip, Choke, Gaddock Teeg and Shusher. Some combination of any of these cards is advised, and if nothing else, you should have two Krosan Grips on the sideboard for their versatility. Zoo is slightly favored unless the CounterTop player explicitly built their deck to stomp Zoo, so it’s not an abysmal matchup.
The classic Zoo formula has been twenty creatures, twenty burn spells and twenty lands; this design aims to build Legacy Zoo in those parameters. Our core card list gives us twenty creatures to start with, so we’ve just got to fill out with twelve more burn spells. I would opt for a set of Chain Lightning and Price of Progress and make the last four cards a split of some Fireblasts and probably Rift Bolt. I only hesitate about four Fireblasts because multiple copies can be nearly impossible to resolve in a game. This makes for a consistent Zoo deck and it’s a good place to start for new Legacy players. You don’t have many big creatures, but a combination of Grim Lavamancer and burn spells can make your Wild Nacatls tear down lots of opposing monsters. The 20/20/20 split makes sure that two-thirds of the cards you draw are going to be straight-up threats, so you can bank on it being a reliable, if simple, deck. It is, as I stated before, good for newer players, but also a fine consideration if you know nothing about what you’ll be facing. There is a decent number of this style of Zoo populating T8s, so it is a reasonable deck choice.
The biggest factor for running more than Naya colors in Zoo is Dark Confidant and the biggest reason not to is that you’ve just about cut yourself completely from Price of Progress, the best burn spell in Zoo. That’s the best explanation of the decision that I can come up with. Dark Confidant is obviously amazing versus CounterTop decks and, if he lives a turn or two against something like Merfolk, he’ll put the game away with the card advantage. Tribal Flames is a reasonable substitute for Price of Progress, but requires you to run something blue like a Volcanic Island maindeck to fully power up Domain. The other downside is that your mana is less consistent, since you now need three or more dual lands in play to cast everything you want to. If you skip out on the Tribal Flames, you can still run other burn and avoid having to run more dual lands for Domain.
I’m undecided on 5-color or Dark Zoo, as the Black-splashing version is called, at this point. You have great tools like Vindicate and Meddling Mage at your disposal, but one of the bedrocks of Zoo is a solid manabase that lets you resolve your entire hand. Making opposing Wastelands better and forcing you to mulligan more often might be a fair tradeoff for Dark Confidant, but Sylvan Library does a similar job and is on-color. Dark Zoo has done well recently, though, so it’s a contender if you’re looking for a different angle on Zoo.
A Note About the Manabase
Zoo’s manabase usually consists of eight fetchlands and between six and eight dual lands. There’s a lot of room to move around in these guidelines, so make sure you have figured out whether you need access to more White mana or Red mana (or both, necessitating more Plateau). The deck often rounds out with two or more Horizon Canopy and a basic land of each color they are running. Thanks to Arid Mesa and Wooded Foothills, Zoo can play around cards like Back to Basics if it has some advance warning. Unless you’re playing a hyper-fast version of Zoo with, say, all one-drops, then twenty lands is the base. Twenty-three lands is a fine ceiling; any more and you’ll get flooded at times.
Wrapping It Up
We’ve looked at several variations on the Legacy Zoo deck, but we’ve also just touched the surface. For example, sideboarding is an important part of Zoo deckbuilding, but it’s also very dependent on what you expect to face and what your deck is weak against. Needless to say, some amount of graveyard hate and some Krosan Grips are always a fine call, as is a copy or two of Umezawa’s Jitte.
As always, feedback in the forums or through email is fantastic.
Until next week…
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