Last Wednesday, I found myself at Mr. Nice Guy Games, which isn’t too out of the ordinary. Long ago, we would play Constructed there on Wednesdays and play Limited on Fridays, but over time gears have shifted and now we pretty much only draft at the store. So, of course, when the owner asked if I had a Standard deck on me for the Win Gold at Worlds Qualifier he was holding, my answer was no.
However, when I was informed that entry was only five dollars, I immediately decided that I wanted to play in the tournament, despite the fact that I was already involved in a three-v-three Shards draft with a pumpkin pie from the Oakmont Bakery on the line. Unfortunately, when I went digging through my backpack for a deck, all I could find was my pre-Shards Reveillark deck, sporting plenty of rotated-out hits.
Left with no other option, my friends and I all cracked out the draft commons and uncommons we’d held onto for the past week or so, and I set about putting together a sixty-card draft deck so that I could battle. It was easy to find Wild Nacatls and Akrasan Squires, a little harder to find Qasali Ambushers and Naya Charms, and downright impossible to find any worthwhile rares other than Realm Razer. Still, I wound up entering with something resembling a Zoo deck, and the results were surprising.
Keep in mind that I was playing with just a pile of cards. Hits in the deck included three Cylian Elves and one Steward of Valeron (we couldn’t find any Knight of the Skyward Eye), a few pump spells like Resounding Roar and Sigil Blessing, and so on. I finished (after some lucky breaks) in third place with my pile of draft leavings. I don’t really know what would have happened if I hadn’t conceded the semifinals to someone who was sure that they were going to be able to attend Worlds, but I dream that I would have been able to easily win the tournament with my Topan Ascetics.
The real story, though, was just how absurd both Naya Charm and Qasali Ambusher felt when I was playing with them. High on my unlikely trouncing of the Wednesday night tournament, I set about trying to build an actual version of the deck for a friend to play at the upcoming StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open. It was not, however, as easy as I had hoped it would be. My hope for this article is to share with you the thought process I went through as I built the Zoo deck from scratch.
It’s actually pretty hard to come up with enough quality creatures that stand on their own. Lorwyn Block went ahead and gave us a whole bunch of Voltrons to try to build, but if you ignore them, many of the cards are unimpressive on their own. However, I think that there’s enough there to work with.
Wild Nacatl – While not exactly the main reason I’m trying to make this deck work (I’d leave that title to Qasali Ambusher), Wild Nacatl is impressive enough that I think it’s worth stretching to accommodate. The simple fact is that people used to play Isamaru, Hound of Konda in their decks and you really don’t need to try too hard to get Wild Nacatl to be a 2/2. If you can routinely have him swinging for two on the second turn with a now-and-then option to have a one-mana 3/3, I think you’re way ahead of the game.
Figure of Destiny – Depending on exactly how the mana ends up looking in the end, Figure is probably going to be difficult to pump to 4/4, and nigh-impossible to make an 8/8. However, as with Wild Nacatl, if you’re routinely swinging for two on turn 2, then you’re doing something right.
Akrasan Squire – Yet another one-drop that can attack for two, this one is probably my least-favorite of the trio. The problem that I have is that when you’re putting more and more guys into play, you want to be attacking with more and more guys, and Exalted obviously doesn’t play too well with that plan. However, there are times you’ll really like the bonus, such as when you lead with a Nacatl and then attack for three on turn 2, or when you successfully send your Qasali Ambusher into their Kitchen Finks without simply losing your threat.
Llanowar Elves/Birds of Paradise – At the moment, I’m intending to go for a fast rush deck. I don’t really plan on ramping up to cards like Woolly Thoctar or Chameleon Colossus, so the mana acceleration would only be useful to help me play an extra creature each turn. I don’t really think that that’s worth spending a card and my first turn on, though, so chances are good we won’t see any of this class of creature in the final build.
Bramblewood Paragon – Figure of Destiny is just a Kithkin, and Akrasan Squire is a Soldier, but Wild Nacatl and Qasali Ambusher are both Warriors. When I played with the draft commons version of this deck, I was quite happy to see Cylian Elf in my opening draw, and this particular Cylian Elf can give extra power and extra Trample to two of my best creatures. If you draw them in doubles it gets pretty sick, and they have the ability to combine with things other than Warriors…
Quirion Dryad – I’m not completely convinced that the Dryad is the go-to secondary two-drop, but there’s a good chance that it is. Bramblewood Paragon and Wild Nacatl are the only spells I’ve talked about so far (and the only ones I’ll talk about at all) that don’t trigger the pump ability, so it’s not unreasonable to see her as a 2/2 or 3/3 for two without a lot of work. In addition, because she grows with +1/+1 counters, she’ll gain Trample from Bramblewood Paragon.
Gaddock Teeg – When it comes down to it, I don’t expect to be playing any cards that Gaddock Teeg would prevent me from casting, so the question becomes whether or not his ability justifies his relatively small size. I’m pretty sure that it does; again, simply curving out with reasonable creatures does a good job of running over Faeries, and this one also stops Cryptic Command from ruining your day.
Qasali Ambusher – This card is the reason I’m building this deck. As a simple 2/3 for three, it’s really not all that impressive. With a Paragon out, you’re getting a 3/4 Trample for three, and that is absolutely impressive. Really, though, it’s the Ambusher part of the card that makes it amazing. Kithkin decks have an extraordinarily hard time playing their game while also disallowing the Ambush; cards like Windbrisk Heights practically guarantee that you’ll be able to pick off an attacker at some point in the game, or simply just toss out a free creature. Faeries can exercise a little bit more caution when attacking you, but you’ll almost always get the first one into play while the opponent looks on in horror. Against Five-Color Control he’s not at his finest, but you can pick off Mulldrifters from time to time, and at least his 2/3 body is resilient to Pyroclasm.
Kitchen Finks – Three power for three mana with the option to come back from a Pyroclasm or Wrath of God is a decent deal in my eyes. However, the question that I think you need to answer is whether you’d rather have the post-Wrath 2/1, or a 3/4 the first time around. I think that opposing Finks, War Monks, and so on lead me to…
Wilt-Leaf Cavaliers – You don’t get life, and you don’t get a dork after a Wrath, but 3/4 Vigilance is much more impressive to me than 3/2 Persist. However, the mana cost is a decent amount harder to support, so if the mana winds up leaning towards Red, we might have to cut him anyway.
Boggart Ram-Gang – Of course, if I’m going to play one of the Hybrid three-drops, this one is probably the most impressive. Not only is the 3/3 Haste body the most appealing of them all, it’s a Warrior to go with my Paragons. However, the Red/Green Hybrid is going to be much more difficult to make than the Green/White Hybrid, so chances are good that he’d just sit in the grip and do nothing.
There’s one spell that I just have to play in this deck: Naya Charm. It says right on the card what it does, but it wasn’t until I played with it that I realized exactly how good all of the modes are. Dealing three to a creature is a perfectly reasonable deal, and the mode used second-most. Regrowing any card is the least-used mode, but turning your removal spell into a Wild Nacatl or Qasali Ambusher is a very nice option to have. Tapping all of their creatures, though, is why this card is a guaranteed four-of in the final consideration. You will find yourself up against a Kithkin swarm of Spectral Procession tokens, or a Faerie deck trying to stabilize with a Bitterblossom-fueled Mistbind Clique, and you can just tap their men and swing in for eight. The power of an instant-speed Falter (that can Fog, too!) and the utility of the other modes is just amazing.
After that, my main concern is to give myself extra reach against the controlling decks. This means either pump spells or burn spells, and I’m leaning towards burn because pump isn’t too impressive against a Bitterblossom. The burn options, though, can be underwhelming or too stressful on the lands.
Magma Spray – I’ve been playing this card in goof formats like 100 Card Singleton on MTGO, and I really do like it. It’s also shown up in numerous RDW lists, specifically because it turns one mana into a permanent answer to Kitchen Finks, and it lets you take out assorted other dorks, too. Unfortunately, I think that the fact that it cannot go to the face kills the card in this deck. Again, we’re looking for reach that can help us beat Bitterblossom.
Lash Out – I think that if I were going to play this card I would just swap over to Magma Spray. You might Clash your way to three points of burn, and the scry might help you, but I think that a removal (burn) spell is best served by being cheap. I just wanted to mention it so that it was clear I’d thought about it.
Incinerate – Pretty much a full step up from Lash Out. A while ago, people were saying that you should consider replacing your Incinerates with Lash Outs because Incinerate usually kills a guy and you might as well get the extra mileage out of Lash Out’s abilities. However, in this deck, I think that the burn often goes to the face, and so I want to make sure I know I’m getting three points out of my spell.
Puncture Blast – Earlier I said that I wanted my removal spells to be cheap. That is still very true, so the question is if the Wither is worth a colorless mana. I tend to think that it is not. I would obviously rather have the Blast when I’m squaring off against Kitchen Finks or Rhox War Monk, but I think that those times will be outweighed by the times you can cast Incinerate and a creature in the same turn.
Flame Javelin – First up, I think it would be unreasonable to expect to cast this for less than 2RR, and really I think it will most often come up as 4R. At that cost, I don’t think that the extra point of damage is worth it over either Incinerate or Puncture Blast. Plus, if I did play this one, I’d have to worry about drawing it with Gaddock Teeg in play.
In the end, I think I really only have room for one of these spells. Of the bunch, I think that Incinerate is the winner, though I would love to have something like Char instead.
This is the part that gave me the most trouble. The problem is that Qasali Ambusher needs me to play with a lot of Forests and Plains, while Wild Nacatl needs me to play with a lot of Plains and Mountains, and still be able to produce Green mana in the early turns. There are only three lands that I found that helped me break these requirements:
Murmuring Bosk – Some time last year, I was playing Murmuring Bosk in one of my decks as a Llanowar Wastes. The fact that it tapped for White was irrelevant; I was getting pain-free Green from my painland at the expense of sometimes having to play my land tapped. Now, I don’t have any Chameleon Colossi or Nameless Inversions in this Zoo deck, but this is still a Forest that taps for White mana, and there’s a chance that that’s good enough.
Terramorphic Expanse – This one makes me a little bit squeamish. I’m trying to curve out of the gates, and this land basically comes into play tapped. However, it gives me the ability to make sure that I have all the right Basic land types in play, and thins the deck. Additionally, if I’m packed to the gills with one- and two-drops, I might be able to slide it into play after playing an under-drop. However, it should be noted that it’s not really there to fix mana; I want to be able to cast my spells without cracking an Expanse, I just want to have the Expanse ready to guarantee that my Nacatl is a 3/3.
Naya Panorama – I think that this is just worse than Terramorphic Expanse. Sure, it technically taps for mana on its own, but the deck is comprised mostly of spells that don’t include colorless mana costs, so the ability to tap for colorless will rarely help. When I do go to crack it, my land still comes into play tapped, and I have to pay an extra mana.
Other than those three, I’m looking at lands without Basic types to help me fix my mana. Of course, like I said, that’s not really an issue. I’m going to need Plains for both Ambusher and Nacatl, then Forests for just Ambusher, and lastly it would be nice to have Mountains for Nacatl. I’m going to take the dive and try out the Expanses, so on top of those I think I’ll need something like six Plains, four or five Forests, and one Mountain. Assuming 22 or 23 lands, that means I’ve got six or seven more nonbasics to work with.
4 Wild Nacatl
4 Akrasan Squire
3 Figure of Destiny
4 Bramblewood Paragon
3 Gaddock Teeg
3 Quirion Dryad
4 Qasali Ambusher
3 Wilt-Leaf Cavaliers
4 Naya Charm
1 Puncture Blast
4 Terramorphic Expanse
2 Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]
1 Karplusan Forest
I threw this maindeck together and played some quick games against my roommate. Here are some quick and dirty thoughts on the top three matchups:
Five-Color Control – You are not the favorite here, but you are also not much of an underdog. If you come out swinging early, you can easily put them on the back foot. However, a good Five-Color list will have plenty of early defense, and you’ll find Condemn, Bant Charm, Pyroclasm, and Wrath of God all put a cramp in your style. It’s not hard to get them below ten life, but finishing from there can be tricky. I won many games by using Naya Charm to return an Incinerate to my hand.
Sideboard ideas include more burn, Guttural Response, and Vexing Shusher. I think that the Shusher makes more sense than Guttural Response since it can attack for two, and it’s a good way to take out the underperforming Ambushers. I don’t know what the best backup burn spell is, but I’d want it to be something big. Maybe a little bit of re-working of the mana and some Beacon of Destructions?
Faeries – Depending on card choices, you might be way out in front or just barely ahead of them. Agony Warp is a very powerful way for them to buy time against you, and the more time they get the less likely you are to win. If you are playing against someone who does not respect your Ambushers, you will win a lot more than if they attack only when they can handle a free 2/3 blocker. Put as much pressure on them as you can; you don’t have to worry about Damnation any more.
Sideboard ideas are not too plentiful. I want some way to handle Bitterblossom, but Wispmare just does not get me excited here. I could see using something like Wickerbough Elder, but that’s pretty slow and might just get brushed off by a counter. I also don’t really like the idea of Oblivion Ring because it’s really only good if you can play it the turn they cast the Bitterblossom, but it might be the best way to go because it will give you an extra card against unexpected things from unexpected decks.
Kithkin – You win the vast majority of the time, largely due to Qasali Ambusher and Naya Charm. People used to play Pollen Lullaby for the Kithkin mirror match, and your Naya Charms give you maindeck Fogs that also happen to remove blockers. The way that most games tend to go, you’ll hit them for a decent amount of damage, get stymied by Procession or Cloudgoat Ranger, and then come over the top with Naya Charm.
Sideboard ideas here are pretty wild. The one that I had in my draft common deck was Hissing Iguanar, and boy let me tell you how fun that was. When I slam my Wilt-Leaf Cavaliers into someone defending with a series of 1/1 tokens, I love to see the points to the dome flying left and right. If Hissing Iguanar is too out there for you, you just need to look for more ways to push damage through their mass of creatures. I suggest Ember Gale or Overrun.
All in all, the experience I’ve had with the deck so far has been positive. I’m sure that the manabase needs more time put into it, but for now it’s been working pretty well. It’s just a ton of fun to completely overwhelm someone in just a few short turns, and then know that there isn’t any comeback in store for them because you’re holding Naya Charm.
As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me in the forums, via email, or on AIM.
ben at mundy dot net
SlickPeebles on AIM