Should You Be Playing Zoo Right Now?

The Zoo master, Pat Cox, asks if right now is a good time to be playing Zoo (for Pat Cox, the answer is always yes). Read how to prepare Zoo for this weekend’s metagame at SCG Open: Pittsburgh.

As I’m sure many of you know, I love Wild Nacatl. So when my friends ask, “What would you play in Legacy right now?” I feel a little guilty telling them Zoo because what I would play and what they should play aren’t always the same thing. However for the last couple of months, Zoo was in fact one of the best decks. But the metagame has shifted recently. Combo decks aren’t quite as absent as they used to be. So the question is: should you be playing Zoo right now?

Since the printing of Mental Misstep, the format has been predominantly fair decks. Everyone was reluctant to play combo and get their key card Misstepped. I doubt the old combo decks were quite that invalidated, but nevertheless no one was interested in playing them.

In a field of fair decks, Zoo is a great choice. It is the fair deck that beats the other fair decks. Why is that? Well, I think Ari Lax put it well last week, “[Zoo has a] higher threat concentration and a lower density of situational answers like Spell Snares and Mental Missteps.”

Let’s take my list from the Invitational as a starting point:

You can find my discussion of the card choices in this deck here. This list was good for the metagame at the time, but since then decks like Hive Mind and Dredge have started doing well. Let’s take a look at what decks comprise the current metagame and what this means for Zoo.

The Current Metagame, from a Zoo Perspective

Based on the results of the last two Opens, along with the data in Too Much Information from Baltimore (this series is awesome by the way), I think we can expect the following decks to be popular for the next Open or two:

Hive Mind
Junk Depths*
U/W (and B/W) Stoneforge

*Maybe. I think this deck is very good, but I’m not sure how many people will adopt it.

Hive Mind

Three Hive Mind decks in Top 8 last week? And another in Top 16? Are you kidding me? Given how diverse Legacy is, those are some meaningful numbers. The deck has been popping up quite a bit in Premier and Daily Events as well.

In Hive Mind, people seem to have finally found an unfair deck that doesn’t care about Mental Misstep. Not that this is a new deck. Tom Ma won the Denver Open with it over a month ago, and it made the finals of GP Providence two weeks before that. But I think people were reluctant to adopt it at first because it sure doesn’t sound like a good deck.

When asked to write about the Hive Mind matchup last month, I thought two things: 1) Hive Mind can’t be a real deck, and 2) wow Zoo can’t ever beat this deck.

Well, I was right about one of those things. This matchup is a nightmare. The typical way that Zoo beats combo decks is “hate bears” of one variety or another: Gaddock Teeg, Ethersworn Canonist, Meddling Mage, etc. Hive Mind was a deck in old Extended, but it relied on actually hardcasting the enchantment through rituals. So between needing to cast multiple spells in a turn and having to cast a specific >4 CC card, all of the hate bears were good against it.

However, here in Legacy, the bears do next to nothing. Sure, Teeg stops a hardcast Hive Mind, but they can still Show and Tell it into play. And Canonist means they have to wait a turn to kill you with a Pact, but you would also need a Qasali Pridemage to kill the enchantment for that to matter. And none of the aforementioned cards deal with Emrakul. You can run Phyrexian Metamorph to kill him, but that’s about it.

The point here is almost any card you can reasonably side against them is very situational. And you really don’t want to be running narrow reactive cards like Angel’s Grace or Sundial of the Infinite in Zoo. (Never mind the fact that neither of these deal with Emrakul.)

The only cards I like against this deck are Pyroblast/Red Elemental Blast. They stop both Show and Tell and Hive Mind. Pyroblast/REB are also good against other decks, so they are not totally unreasonable to sideboard. Hive Mind has access to both Force of Will and Mental Misstep though, so there’s certainly no guarantee that a Pyroblast will save you.

Okay so we probably can’t beat Hive Mind. Fair enough. Even if it is arguably the best deck, there are a ton of archetypes in Legacy. What else is doing well?


Hmm well this isn’t great for us either. I played 10 rounds of Legacy in the Invitational, and the only time that I felt unfavored was when I was paired against Dredge. (If you’re curious the other rounds were: 2x Merfolk, Bant, NO RUG, 3x U/W, B/W Stoneforge, and Goblins.) I’m actually surprised it took Dredge this long to see much play, since it is another unfair deck that isn’t particularly concerned with Mental Misstep. It is true that its enablers can be Misstepped, but they can also just discard on turn 1 to get things going.

This is not a good matchup, but it’s certainly a lot more reasonable than Hive Mind. Between Lavamancers and burn spells, you have plenty of ways to get rid of Bridge from Below and kill their enablers. Though getting rid of Bridge in this way is often easier said than done. You don’t typically have a lot of lands in play with Zoo, plus they start going off fairly quickly. So it is not a trivial thing to have to leave a mana open. Never mind that unless you are killing Lavamancer with himself, you are two-for-one-ing yourself here.

Anyway, Gaddock Teeg can sometimes buy you time by stopping Dread Return (and if you’re really lucky, Breakthrough). You can also run dedicated graveyard hate in the sideboard, if you are really worried about the matchup.


Now we are talking. This deck can never beat you without resolving Natural Order. It is also unlikely that will happen before 5, since you will burn Noble Hierarchs and Dryad Arbors given the opportunity. Their plan B of attacking with Tarmogoyfs and Vendilion Cliques is just not good enough against you. And if they don’t have the Natural Order immediately, you are often far enough ahead to win through Progenitus. Also, after board, you get Gaddock Teeg and Phyrexian Metamorph to further throw a wrench in the Progenitus plan.

Now don’t get me wrong; it is certainly possible to lose to this deck if they slow you down a little and manage to resolve an early Natural Order. But you are definitely favored here, and we can even add another Metamorph to the sideboard if we expect a lot of the deck.

NO RUG is no longer the only fair deck with a combo in it, though.

Junk Depths

I actually love the idea of this deck. Knight of the Reliquary is awesome right now if your deck is able to run silver bullet lands (Zoo does not have room and has too many color requirements). Between Knight and Living Wish, you can fairly reliably make a 20/20. Your backup plan of attacking with Knight and Tarmogoyf is certainly a solid one. And you get to run Dark Confidant? Neat.

So, how does Zoo fare against this deck? I think it is about even. On the one hand, Dark Confidant will never live. And aside from being a combo piece, Vampire Hexmage is terrible against you. It is smaller than almost every creature in your deck, and they have to wait until Dark Depths is in play to cast it, or it will just immediately be burned.

But, they do have a very large number of things that can only be killed by Path to Exile: Knight of the Reliquary, Tarmogoyf, and Marit Lage. And unlike most decks that run the “too large to burn” green creatures, they have Mental Misstep for your Paths.

These Knight/Tarmogoyf type decks are the main reason I like Sword of Body and Mind. It lets you attack past giant green creatures while building your board for a later alpha strike. And hey, maybe you’ll get really lucky and mill their Dark Depths!


Zoo itself can even be found in multiples in the top 16s. A couple of the lists are more or less what you’d expect, but then you have Caleb Durward’s Blue Zoo deck. It is somewhat of a misnomer to call this “Zoo” since in reality it is going to play out more like a Bant deck. But perhaps the main criterion is running Wild Nacatl.

U/W Stoneforge

U/W Stoneforge might have only put a single pilot in Top 16 of the last two Opens combined, but I’d be surprised if it was not still wasn’t a popular choice in the coming weeks. It is often in feature matches on SCGLive, so people are still clearly playing it. Plus it is still doing well on Magic Online.

Burn-heavy versions of Zoo are typically favored here. Obviously Batterskull is awesome, but it is very hard for a Stoneforge Mystic to live against you. And a turn 5 Batterskull is much less threatening. You can also potentially just strand the Equipment in their hand forever with Gaddock Teeg or kill it with Pridemage.


Merfolk is another deck that only has one Top 16 lately, but I’d still expect to see in numbers. According to the TMI from Baltimore, Merfolk was the most played deck at that tournament, and it has been the most popular deck since Mental Misstep was printed. However, I do expect its numbers to go down some based on its recent lack of results. Which is unfortunate because ideally I would play against Merfolk every round of every tournament until the end of time.

Given this Metagame, Is Zoo Still a Viable Choice?

Now that we have covered the expected meta, let’s return to our original question: Should you be playing Zoo right now? Well, the answer isn’t no, but it’s also not the resounding yes it was a month ago.

Previously, all of the popular decks were either favorable or even matchups. Now there are two combo decks that we are a dog to in Hive Mind and Dredge. Of course, it is important to keep in mind that this is Legacy. Even the most popular deck in the field probably won’t crack 10%.

Also, there are still plenty of fair decks in the mix. The best performing fair deck, NO RUG, is a pretty good matchup for Zoo. It is likely that any decks gunning for Hive Mind will be blue control decks, which are also favorable matchups.

Would I play Zoo this weekend? Duh.

Should you play Zoo this weekend? Depending on your preferences, I’d recommend playing Zoo, Hive Mind, or Junk Depths right now. But if you wanted to hear about Hive Mind, you’d probably be reading Ben Swartz extensive Hive Mind article. So I’m just going to assume that you picked Zoo and tell you what list you should play and why.

This Is the Zoo List You Should Play

You’ll notice a few changes to the maindeck from my list at the beginning of the article:

  • 19 one-drops! I haven’t played Goblin Guide since they printed Loam Lion, but I think it might be time for him to come back (alongside Lion). Between the combo decks and the fair decks with combo kills, you want the extra speed.
  • No more Stoneforge Mystic/Equipment package. Stoneforge helped give you a late game, but Equipment is far too slow against combo and not particularly exciting against the currently popular fair decks. Sword of Body and Mind lets you attack through Progenitus against NO RUG, but only once did I have that make or break a game (and it would get sided out for games two and three).
  • The fourth Chain Lighting. I’d actually run a couple more burn spells if there were any more I did not hate. Rift Bolt gives you the equally crappy options of waiting a turn to kill something or paying three mana for three damage. Fireblast really only works as a finisher, since you rarely have extra lands sitting around. Which is fine if they are at four life, but it is pretty annoying if you have it in your opening hand or need to kill something. Luckily Goblin Guide is pretty much a burn spell.

Now let’s take a look at the sideboard:

Phyrexian Metamorph

I used to think I was being cute with this card, but holy crap are there a lot of giant legendary creatures these days: Emrakul, Progenitus, Marit Lage. Metamorph is also solid against other green creature decks, since you can copy a Tarmogoyf or Knight of the Reliquary.

Path to Exile

This is for creatures that don’t die to burn, so basically Knight of the Reliquary and Tarmogoyf. It is also fine to bring in against Merfolk, since you are just trying to kill every creature they play.

Qasali Pridemage

I cut a Pridemage from the maindeck in favor of more one-drops. However, there are still some decks that you want extra artifact removal against, and Pridemage is the best option available.

Sword of Body and Mind

I rarely see people run this card, but I still really like it against other Tarmogoyf decks. It is great at breaking stalled boards. You can attack right past their guys and add to your board at the same time. The protection from blue isn’t totally irrelevant either, since it means Jace cannot bounce the equipped creature. Though, I would not typically side this in against a Jace deck unless that deck also had Tarmogoyf.

Umezawa’s Jitte

I saw some real jitte in Nagoya Castle last month, and they really did not look all that scary. The ends weren’t even sharp. I’m not sure why Wizards decided to make one of the most powerful Equipment of all time a short dull rod.

Luckily the Magic card is a little more threatening. Jitte comes in against any kind of creature deck. It is almost good enough to just run a miser’s copy main, but it does little to nothing against half of the popular decks in our expected metagame.

Stoneforge Mystic

Having a Mystic lets us cheat and effectively run two copies of each Equipment. And usually all three cards come in together, so it also lets you choose which Equipment you get based on the situation. I still think this card is great in the maindeck given the proper metagame, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it moves back there sometime in the next few months.

Gaddock Teeg

This is one card that should always be somewhere in your 75. Some of the more relevant cards Teeg stops include: a hardcast Hive Mind, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Natural Order, Dread Return, Batterskull, Force of Will, Engineered Explosives, and Green Sun’s Zenith.

Elspeth, Knight-Errant

Elspeth serves a similar purpose to Sword of Body and Mind in that it helps break creature stalemates. If you are a little behind, a chump blocking Soldier token every turn can give you time to stabilize. If you are ahead or the board is stalled, the jump ability will end the game quickly. Elspeth is also good against decks that have a ton of spot and/or mass removal. Basically, if you think you might be in for a long game, you probably want to side this in.

Red Elemental Blast

I tried this card (well, Pyroblast) at the Invitational, and it was okay, not great. The reason I am still running it now is because it counters all of Hive Mind’s threats. It is nice that you can effectively run up to eight copies of this card, but I don’t know if you can reasonably play more than four or maybe five. You don’t want opening hands with a bunch of reactive cards, since you need to apply pressure to them quickly. This card will sometimes not be enough, since they run counterspells. But as Ben S is so fond of saying, “They don’t always get to have it.” You are putting a quick clock on them, so they will not always have the luxury of having counterspell backup before going for it.

This card is also pretty much the best card possible against Merfolk, but that is the only other common matchup where I’d side in the full four. Against heavily blue control decks, I would side in 2-3 copies, depending on how many things I had to take out.

Here Is How to Sideboard

Hive Mind

In: 2 Phyrexian Metamorph, 1 Qasali Pridemage, 3 Gaddock Teeg, 4 Red Elemental Blast
Out: 3 Path to Exile, 3 Grim Lavamancer, 4 Tarmogoyf

I am actually unsure if we want the Metamorphs here, since they are situational. You definitely want the other cards though. Pridemage is a fine attacker and sometimes killing Grim Monolith will strand Hive Mind in their hand. Teeg serves a similar purpose of delaying their casting of the enchantment. As mentioned earlier, Red Elemental Blast counters both Show and Tell and Hive Mind.

Obviously Path does nothing here, so it comes out. Goyf is an unimpressive creature in the early game, and there won’t be a late game in this matchup, so he is much worse than your two-drops with abilities. Lavamancer isn’t terrible here; it just isn’t good. If it turns out Metamorph is too situational and clogging your hand, then you could leave in two Lavamancers instead.


In: 3 Gaddock Teeg
Out: 2 Qasali Pridemage, 1 Tarmogoyf

You might think it’s odd that I’m not running any graveyard hate in the sideboard after saying Dredge is a popular deck and a bad matchup. Well, unlike most sideboard cards, graveyard hate is really only good against Dredge, and you would have to spend at least a third of your sideboard on graveyard hate to reliably swing the matchup.

So instead, we will just make do with what we have for other decks: Gaddock Teeg. Pridemage doesn’t have any targets here, so it gets sided out. Goyf is actually enormous immediately, but costing two is a pretty big deal, since you want to leave up R to kill Bridges. Path is actually decent in this matchup, since it gets rid of Tireless Tribe, Ichorid, and some Dread Return targets, but not good enough to warrant siding in the fourth copy.


In: 2 Phyrexian Metamorph, 3 Gaddock Teeg
Out: 2 Qasali Pridemage, 1 Path to Exile, 2 Chain Lightning

Teeg is awesome in this matchup. It stops Jace, Natural Order, and Green Sun’s Zenith. Metamorph is to kill Progenitus, but don’t be afraid to just use it to copy a Tarmogoyf if you are ahead.

Pridemage has no targets here, so it’s an easy trade-out for Teeg. You don’t really need the full amount of Path to Exiles here, since the only creature that requires Path is Tarmogoyf. A couple Chain Lightnings come out because they do not have all that many creatures to burn, and the instant speed of Lightning Helix is relevant for Vendilion Clique.

Junk Depths

In: 2 Phyrexian Metamorph, 1 Path to Exile, 1 Sword of Body and Mind
Out: 2 Qasali Pridemage, 2 Lightning Helix

Metamorph pulls double duty here, both killing Marit Lage and copying their large green creatures. Keep in mind that it does require a bit of maneuvering to kill Marit Lage with the clone, since they will make the 20/20 at the end of turn if they can. But you can burn their Hexmage to force them to do it during your main phase.

Path and Sword come in because they are both good against Tarmogoyf and Knight. Path also kills Marit Lage, if things get that far. Typically you should be saving Paths for Knights, since they are the most important creature in the deck. Don’t be afraid to use two burn spells on Knight; you really don’t want them to untap with him.

Pridemage comes out because while two-for-one-ing them by killing Mox Diamond is fun, it will likely not make or break the game. Lightning Helix comes out because the only thing you really need to burn here is Dark Confidant, and they have the ability to play it on turn one, so you want all of your one-mana burn spells. You will sometimes have to burn Hexmage, but it is unlikely they will just run it out there until they are going to use it, so you can get by without the full twelve burn spells here.


In: 1 Path to Exile, 1 Sword of Body and Mind, 1 Umezawa’s Jitte, 1 Stoneforge Mystic, 1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant, 2 Phyrexian Metamorph
Out: 4 Goblin Guide, 1 Kird Ape, 2 Qasali Pridemage

These games are generally going to go long, as you will spend the early turns killing each other’s creatures. The Equipment package and Elspeth both help you win the long game. Metamorph can become a Tarmogoyf, Knight, or even a piece of Equipment. Path is the best removal spell in your deck in this matchup, and you should never waste one on something that can be killed with burn. Using Chain Lightning requires some care in this matchup because they can make use of the “chain” part of it. But you can typically use it to kill their early drops, since you will both be tapping out in the first few turns, and you do want access to all of your removal spells.

Goblin Guide comes out because he is outclassed by every other creature in the deck. Pridemage is in a similar boat, though he can stay in if you know they are also running Equipment. If you are unsure, you can still take Pridemage out since Metamorph provides you with some protection against the most important Equipment (you can legend rule Jitte with it). The 2/3s are the next most unimpressive creatures, so you the last card you take out is Kird Ape. It does not matter that much if you take out this or Loam Lion, but there’s a better chance they will have a pro-red sword than a pro-white one, so might as well take out Ape. If you are leaving in Pridemages, you can take out more Kird Apes.

U/W Stoneforge

In: 3 Gaddock Teeg, 1 Qasali Pridemage, 2 Red Elemental Blast
Out: 3 Path to Exile, 3 Tarmogoyf

The third Pridemage gives you another way to kill Batterskull, if they manage to get it into play. Teeg stops Jace, hardcast Batterskull, and Force of Will. Red Elemental Blast is decent here, since it can help you force your spells through. I don’t think you want all four copies because you would rather be playing threats. But if they manage to stabilize, a REB can help you force through the last burn spell.

Aside from Germ tokens, Path kills nothing here that burn spells and Lavamancer don’t already, so it comes out. Tarmogoyf is sided out because we don’t want a million two-drops in our deck, and his size is not particularly relevant in this matchup.


In: 4 Red Elemental Blast, 1 Path to Exile, 1 Umezawa’s Jitte
Out: 4 Goblin Guide, 2 Qasali Pridemage

Goblin Guide and Qasali Pridemage are your only creatures that trade with theirs, so we take them out. You might be tempted to leave Pridemage in because of Aether Vial, but honestly that card does not matter much in this matchup. You are going to kill all their relevant creatures anyway, so you don’t particularly care if they are hardcast or Vialed into play. Even game 1, you’d usually rather keep your Pridemage in play than kill their Vial. Pridemage does kill Umezawa’s Jitte, which Merfolk sometimes run a copy or two of, but you have so much removal post-board that they will be hard pressed to equip a guy and have him live. If you are sure they have Jitte, you can leave in a Pridemage so you aren’t drawing dead if they manage to get it going, but I’d definitely never side in the third copy.

What you side in is pretty straightforward. You just want more removal to keep yourself ahead on board. Red Elemental Blast is obviously the best card on earth against them, but Path is also great because it can kill a leveled Coralhelm Commander. Jitte is good here, but not good enough that you want to be spending two mana tutoring for it with Mystic. Mana is fairly tight in the early turns, as you are trying to both build up your board and kill whatever they played.


If you are going to Pittsburgh this weekend and you like attacking, I would encourage you to run something very close to this decklist. (Or play Junk Depths, because that deck is sweet too.) I covered the most popular decks here, but I know there are plenty of archetypes that I left out. If you have questions about any other matchups, please feel free to ask in the comments, and I will respond as best I can.

I won’t be in attendance this weekend, but I will be going to Virginia (aka the Greatest State in the Union) for the Richmond Open in a couple of weeks. It will be my first Open Series event since the Invitational, so I am pretty excited to turn some Nacatls sideways. In the meantime, I guess it’s time to turn my attention to Standard for Nationals. Is Caw-Blade really still a deck?

Thanks for reading,
Pat Cox