Sullivan Library – Zoo is King: The State of Extended

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Thursday, March 25th – The Extended season is winding down, but there are still a few PTQs available to the road-hardened player. Adrian Sullivan examines the current state of the durable and versatile Zoo list, highlighting a number of successful strategies and selecting the one he believes is the way to win in the current climate.

It’s been an interesting season, to say the least.

Extended has long been one of my favorite formats. I remember the first time that Extended “shifted” as it shed some of its cards, and the sadness that I largely felt in that moment. Since then, there have been many, many cards that I’ve mourned the loss of in Extended. Fire/Ice. Sylvan Library. Pyrostatic Pillar. Memory Lapse. And many, many others.

Magic formats, in many ways, can be best thought of as ecologies. The particular ecological makeup of any system can change just as radically when a species goes extinct (rotates or is banned) or when a new species is introduced. The zebra mussel and the polar bear each have their particular impacts in what you can expect to see in an environment.

So it is for Magic. And so it is for Extended.

This current season is an interesting one because of the introduction of Worldwake in the early-middle of the season. I wrote an early over on what was being played in the format. This has largely continued to be born out to be primarily:

Loam Lion
Searing Blaze
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Arbor Elf
Stoneforge Mystic

There are occasional appearance by other cards, but, for the most part, these are your Worldwake Extended cards. As might be expected, the makeup of most of the decks in the time after Worldwake’s release are largely the same.

The one thing that might have seen an explosion was Zoo. Check out the current breakdown of North American PTQ wins thus far:

Zoo: 18
Thepths: 9
B/G Depths: 3
B/U Depths: 2
Elves: 2
Tarmo-Pox: 2
Junk: 2
Affinity: 2
Faeries: 2
Critter Scapeshift: 2
Non-Critter Scapeshift: 1
Thopter Combo: 1
AIR: 1
Burn: 1
UWR: 1
Dredge: 1
Living End: 1
Merfolk: 1
Hypergenesis: 1

Or, put another way:

Zoo: More than 1 in 3
Dark Depths Anything: More than 1 in 4
Other: About 2 in 5

These numbers are something to pay attention to. If you’re someone who plays a lot of MTGO or plays with a small playgroup, unless you’re actively seeking the matchup out, it is possible you’re not getting nearly the kind of Zoo practice that you need. A part of the reason for this is that in both venues, players tend to like to play the deck that they enjoy. Unless you’re fortunate enough to have a Zoo devotee in tow, this means that you’re likely to play against other decks far more often than you ought to be.

You’re actually far more likely, on average, to get the proper kind of playtesting against a deck like Thepths. A part of the reason for this is the tendency of many players who consider themselves to be better players (truthfully and not) tend to really prefer decks that are closer to controlling or combo styles. Thepths quite neatly hits both parts. This preference among good players is partly due to a truthy feeling that these decks are better vehicles for leveraging their skill. Implicit in this is a feeling that it takes less skill to win with aggressive decks (a concept I wholly contest). Skill, as far as it goes with decks, might be more or less tied to one deck or another, but it isn’t specifically tied to archetype. I can’t tell you how many games I’ve lost because I made an incredibly small mistake with an aggressive deck that cascaded (figuratively) into “defeat” on turn 4 or 5 when I didn’t win, and so eventually my opponent did. As a spectator, I’ve watched countless players playing with aggressive Red decks throw away their match because they didn’t know the importance of pacing. The net result of all of this, sociologically speaking, though, is that you’re more likely to have good opponents who are practiced at Thepths than Zoo. If you have a good, practiced Zoo opponent who is up to playing with you regularly right now, consider yourself lucky.

If we were to look at the Top 8 from Yokohama we’d see Thepths (in the hands of master Katsuhiro Mori) take it down, with only a single Zoo deck in the running. Here is that list:

This build represents one of the growing trends within the archetype: Blood Moon and Temporal Isolation. This build of Zoo is fairly light on creature-kill, preferring to fit in more creatures and the disruptive power of Blood Moon. Four Bloodbraid Elf merge into a plan more interested in holding the ground than having great amounts of reach (and also tie neatly into the cute Boom/Bust combo, which some are more dedicate to). When we look at the curve, we get something interesting:

1cc: 12
2cc: 12
3cc: 10
4cc: 4

Compare this to an entirely different kind of Zoo:

Here, Benjamin Costrell takes up the mantle that was donned by Stephan Hink in Minneapolis, the first weekend of the season, and comes at the opponent with an incredibly aggressive curve, backed by a smidge of aggro-controlling elements. This deck tries to take things to the face, with Tribal Flames adding its weight to Lightning Bolt for the kill, and heaping it on to the early drops:

1cc: 20
2cc: 11
3cc: 8
4cc: 1

This approach is basically very similar to the “other” “Blue Zoo,” currently being called Saito Zoo, by some:

1cc: 20
2cc: 9
3cc: 7
4cc: 2

What these two very similar decks have in common is a dedication to making the game go quickly. The Tribal Flames build is willing to run a few less land in order to pack some more early punch, under the presumption that a Tribal Flames or two can get the job done. The “Saito” build is essentially the same deck, but with a smidge more dedication to the “longer” game that Lightning Helix is more suited to.

When you think about it, though, these decks are essentially going to perform the exact same way: they are dropping really fast critters, they have 7-8 “Path” effects, and if they have any difference in their average kill turn (against resistance) it is probably on the order of turn X.8 versus turn X.6 (a 0.2 turn average, based on numbers I took out of my butt).

Remember, even aggro decks can have aggro-control moments. If you drop a turn 1 Wild Nacatl and your opponent responds by dropping their own, which you then kill with a Lightning Bolt, it’s essentially the same thing as you having countered the Nacatl. These smidges of aggro-control are things that you often don’t really hold truly (that Bolt won’t always totally negate an action), even with cards “closer” to that concept, like Bant Charm. But, you can always push your way into it…

1cc: 16
2cc: 8
3cc: 12
4cc: 2

Negate. This deck is making a claim: “(non-creature) spells are important enough that I actually want to spend the time to counter them.” It certainly has the mana to do it. Making this shift so far into aggro-control is a real new ground for this kind of archetype, which, in the past, has largely avoided this way of going about things, if only because it mostly wanted to be spending its time going about the business of killing the opponent.

The common critique of the aggro-control game plan has always been that sometimes you draw things in the wrong order, and you end up getting disappointingly anemic draws. If you wanted to, you could step ever further down this path, adding in Mana Leak, next, for example. But every step down the path is another where you’re building your deck to not be applying pressure. In addition, going this direction tends to be the way to lose the near-mirror, even as it increases your potency against more controlling decks. As Zoo has become more popular, this can be dangerous. Be very wary, here, indeed.

On the other end of the spectrum is heading towards midrange. Here, you trade in the sheer speed of the Loam Lion-style builds in exchange for more staying power. This can sometimes mean you might get run over by the fastest builds of the deck, but you’ll make up for this in being able to win any game that isn’t over in the blink of an eye. In many ways, these decks are fairly “old” for the metagame, essentially hardly deserving of the name Zoo. “Rubin Zoo” is probably better termed Rubin Midrange Naya for a lot of reasons. Here is an early build of the archetype:

1cc: 16
2cc: 12
3cc: 4
4cc: 1
5cc: 3

Brian Kowal ran with this idea for Grand Prix: Yokohama, building what is nearly a Worldwake-free build of the deck. He’s thinking of writing an article about it (if you’d like to read it, put a shout-out in the forums), so I’ll leave most of the analysis of it to him.

1cc: 16
2cc: 11
3cc: 8
4cc: 0
5cc: 2

With literally only one Worldwake card main (Stirring Wildwood, with a Bojuka Bog in the board), this deck is nearly completely legal for old-Extended and is six spells off of Rubin’s deck. He took this to an 11-4 finish, intriguingly using elements of many of the other Zoo builds in his board (Blood Moon and Qasali Pridemage and Negate, oh my!). While I haven’t played his build yet, I do know that I generally love BK’s decks, and I have to imagine that it is good in a field that is light in opposing “solitaire” style combo decks.

Zoo’s versatility is really incredible. If we just look at spells that have seen play in the main of winning lists only, there is a respectable amount of variety:

Wild Nacatl
Noble Hierarch
Loam Lion
Kird Ape (once banned in Extended!)
Lightning Bolt
Path to Exile

Qasali Pridemage
Gaddock Teeg
Umezawa’s Jitte
Temporal Isolation
Tribal Flames
Lightning Helix
Punishing Fire

Knight of the Reliquary
Woolly Thoctar
Blood Moon
Bant Charm

Bloodbraid Elf
Ranger of Eos
Elspeth, Knight-Errant

Baneslayer Angel

One of the things about the sheer variety in such a varied archetype like this is the difficulty it makes for an opponent and their preparations. If they have only done their work against one variety of the deck, they could find that they are wholly unprepared for a different version; the way you beat the Rubin-style deck is fairly different than beating lists with Bant Charm and Loam Lion or decks with Boom/Bust.

For the savvy player, then, the answer is the same as it always is: put in the time. Put in the time. Put in the time. Magic is a game that rewards dedication. If you don’t put in the time, you can imagine that someone else is, and they are all the more likely to get a skill advantage that can be quite tangible over time. This is one reason why I really appreciated Craig Wescoe article on finishing out Magic tournaments. I know that often I just won’t have the mental energy to do this after a rough day, but there’s no denying that practice makes perfect.

I’m hoping to play in the PTQ this weekend up in Minneapolis. Kowal’s list is one of the five I’m considering. Wish me luck!

Adrian Sullivan