The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Zoo at Grand Prix: Yokohama

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Friday, March 26th – At Grand Prix: Yokohama, Brian Kibler returned to his Extended Zoo roots… only this time, he focused on Speed and Efficiency. With nary a Grove of the Burnwillows in sight, he proceeded to lay down the smack in fine fashion. He shares his tournament stories today.

When we last left our intrepid hero, he had just finished a decent but unexciting performance at Grand Prix: Kuala Lumpur and had a lot of ideas about how to improve the deck he played. Next up on the schedule, however, was not another Standard event, but an Extended Grand Prix in Yokohama, so those ideas would have to be put on hold while animals once again took center stage.

Prior to doing any testing for GP: Yokohama, I felt that it was pretty likely I would end up playing Zoo. For starters, I didn’t have a tremendous amount of experience with other decks and I’d played some form of Zoo in every Extended event since I started playing Magic again. The reason for that is not because I have some sort of particular affinity for attacking with Wild Nacatl, but rather that I feel like Zoo is the sort of deck that has the tools to beat just about any deck in the field. Extended right now is a collection of beatdown and combo decks. Zoo is the best beatdown deck, and its combination of speed and potential disruption give it a lot of game against most combo decks as well. It plays the most efficient creatures as well as the most efficient removal in the format, and has a wide variety of sideboard options to combat the decks against which those just aren’t good enough. While you may be a dog to combo decks in game one, cards like Meddling Mage and Negate combined with pressure give you a fighting chance after sideboarding.

My traveling companions besides Sam Black — Brian Kowal, Alex West, and Mat Marr — were also pretty convinced that they wanted to play Zoo, but they weren’t sure quite what version. Brian in particular was pretty high on Punishing Fire. He had finished in the Top 16 of GP Oakland with a deck very similar to the one I played in Austin and seemed likely to run it back, while Alex West had also finished in the Top 16 at that same event with a more aggressive Zoo deck, but seemed rather enthralled by the idea of putting Punishing Fire into a faster Zoo build in an attempt to get an edge in the mirror and against Faerie decks. We’d been told by some of the Japanese pros that Faeries was likely to be inordinately popular because Yuuta had just written an article on the deck, so it was much more on our radar during our testing than it would have otherwise been.

My thoughts on the matter were that Punishing Fire just isn’t the spell it used to be. Back in Austin, Punishing Fire was so good because Zoo was much more vulnerable to it. Back then Zoo decks had cards like Goblin Guide and Steppe Lynx, against which Punishing Fire was a great removal spell even in the early turns of the game. Nowadays Zoo decks are all Kird Apes, Loam Lions, and Wild Nacatls — not a single creature naturally dies to a Punishing Fire. Additionally, the popularity of Bant Charm means that less games just stall out the moment a big creature hits the table. An aggressive Zoo deck that draws a Path and a Bant Charm can very easily run over a more defensive deck just by removing its first two creatures while the big Zoo player sits there with Punishing Fires in hand that can’t kill a single creature in play. As much as I wish it were, I feel like now is just not the time for Punishing Fire.

The real Zoo debates, in my mind, were how many one drops you play and what mix of spells. There’s a lot of debate on this issue amongst proponents of Zoo, and people even argue for different versions for the same reason. Some argue that Big Zoo decks — that is, Zoo decks that play Wild Nacatl and Noble Hierarch for one-drops and include more big creatures like Woolly Thoctar instead — is better in the mirror match, while the little Zoo decks with Loam Lion and Kird Ape are better against control and combo decks. Others will argue that the reasons to play cards like Thoctar rather than more one drops are cards like Engineered Explosives and Spellstutter Sprite, and that the bigger versions of Zoo are actually worse in the mirror because they get run over too easily.

After playing a bunch of games of various Zoo versions against each other and against Faeries and a bit against Dark Depths, I became more sold that it’s important in this environment for Zoo to be as consistently aggressive as possible. Smother seemed like a much bigger deal than Engineered Explosives, as did Deathmark, and it seemed like a 12 one-drop version of Zoo was much better against those cards than Woolly Thoctars were. The one drops also went much better with the Negate sideboard plan against combo decks. It’s a lot harder to apply pressure and keep counter mana up when your creatures cost three mana than if they just cost one.

The more difficult question, in my mind, is the spell mix for the deck. Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile are pretty much a given, but after that things get harder. The three finalists I considered for the last two spell slots in the deck were Bant Charm, Lightning Helix, and Tribal Flames. Bant Charm is the most versatile of the three, but also the most expensive and the only one that is ever going to be dead or close to it since it can’t go to the face. Bant Charm is at its best against DDT decks, since it can deal with either half of their combo, and in the mirror since it gives you another way to remove Knight of the Reliquary or Tarmogoyf or even protect your own from removal. I was pretty certain I wanted some number of Bant Charms since it does so much, so the real decision was between Lightning Helix and Tribal Flames.

At the time, I chose Tribal Flames. The logic behind my decision was that Tribal Flames is a card that gives me that little bit more reach against combo and control decks because it can do two more damage than Helix and also gives me four more answers to big creatures in the Zoo mirror. The cost to play Tribal Flames over Helix seems minimal up front — just include a single Black land in your manabase — and it seemed almost strictly superior than Helix in most matchups. I had a sneaking suspicion that Helix was important in the Zoo mirror to handle aggressive starts when you were on the draw, but convinced myself that the upside was worth it. I literally debated the decision until the last minute and actually scribbled out my Tribal Flames for Helixes on my decklist while sitting at the player meeting for the tournament, but ultimately went back to my original list before handing it in — a decision I’d regret for the rest of the event.

Here’s the deck I played:

Rather than draft during my byes, I got a chance to be a part of a special exhibition match during round one — with Phyrexia vs. The Coalition! Keita Mori, one of the top dogs of Magic in Japan, set up a rematch of the PT Austin finals with Tsuyoshi (SP?) Ikeda in which we’d play the newest duel decks. Naturally, I’d be playing the role of The Coalition – I was hoping to win once again on the back of an Armadillo Cloaked Rith! Although I never drew my favorite dragon, I managed to pull out a hard fought match, winning game 1 with Daarigaz when Ikeda had Hideous End in hand and game 3 by burning him out through his turn 1 Phyrexian Arena. All told, it was a lot of fun, and I’m glad I was asked to be a part of it. I hope WotC does similar promotions in the future.

Eventually, my byes and exhibition matches were over, and it was time to play some serious Magic.

Round 4 — Bant Thopter Sword

While you know what my opponent was playing because of the my round title, I didn’t have that luxury. I won the die roll and opened with a turn one Wild Nacatl after a mulligan. My opponent played a plains and a Chrome Mox, imprinting Trinket Mage. I played a second Wild Nacatl on my turn and smashed for three. My opponent played an Island transmuted Muddle the Mixture for Sword of the Meek, which I destroyed with Qasali Pridemage on my turn and smashed for six. My opponent transmuted again on his turn, and my Nacatls plus Tribal Flames finished him off on my turn.

Having only seen Blue and White lands plus the combo, I sideboarded against UW Thopter, removing my Paths and shaving the numbers on Lightning Bolt and Knight of the Reliquary to fit my additional artifact removal, along with some Meddling Mages and Negates. My opening hand for game 2 seemed great — Pridemage, Meddling Mage, Negate, Wild Nacatl, and the lands to effectively play all of them — and then my opponent played a turn 1 Noble Hierarch. Uh oh. When he played a turn 2 Rhox War Monk, and then a turn 3 Rhox War Monk, I felt pretty foolish when my first few draw steps yielded cards I would not have sideboarded in while I wished they were Paths instead. I suppose that’s what I get for beating down too fast in game 1 so I couldn’t even tell what I was playing against! I resideboard for game 3, taking out the anti-combo and control cards and bringing my Paths back in, and then proceed to double mulligan in game three and lose a long, grinding attrition game that ends with my opponent at three life. Oh well.

Record 3-1

Round 5 — Faeries

I lose the die roll and keep a very good hand with Wild Nacatl, Tarmogoyf, Knight, and some burn spells, which looks even better when my opponent opens with Secluded Glen. It looks much worse when my Nacatl gets Smothered, then my Tarmogoyf gets Smothered, and my Knight gets Smothered too. My second Tarmogoyf gets Spell Snared, and I resolve another Knight the turn after my opponent’s Ancestral Visions ticked down — and then that gets Smothered too. A Bitterblossom comes down, and I play a Pridemage, leaving the blossom around to tick down my opponent’s life total each turn. A Jitte forces me to sac the Pridemage, and I’m winning the race against the Bitterblossom on the board with my opponent’s life set to hit zero the turn before he’d kill me. I draw a Tribal Flames with my opponent at 2, but Vendilion Clique comes down to both send the Flames to the bottom of my deck and speed up the clock by enough to kill me. If only that Flames were an instant like, say, Lightning Helix

The second game doesn’t go any better. I keep a hand with Pridemage and Treetop Village but no one drop, since after sideboarding Faeries has enough removal that a first turn creature isn’t as powerful and the game more often comes down to attrition. My Pridemage gets Smothered and my Bant Charm gets Vendilion Cliqued, and when I tap out on turn 4 my opponent drops a Jitte. I never draw another way to remove it and die in short order.

Record 3-2

At this point I’m pretty bummed since I’m on the brink of elimination already. LSV and Ben Stark are both 3-2 as well, so at least I’m in decent company. I feel like I’ve gotten pretty unlucky in both of my matches so far, though, and resolve to keep playing tight and make the best of it.

Round 6 — Burn

It’s always stressful to be playing with your back against the wall, but rarely more so than when your opponent is playing Burn — and it’s even worse when you’re down a game. In the first game I have a Kird Ape heavy draw against my opponent’s double Keldon Marauders, which gives him too many draw steps to assemble enough damage to burn me out. I board in Negates and Jittes and shave the numbers on Bant Charm, Knight, and Pridemage, figuring that Negating a burn spell can likely buy me the time to attack for the win.

In the second game my pair of Tarmogoyfs and Jitte are too much for him to handle, and I win by a comfortable margin. On the draw in game 3, I breathe a sigh of relief when my opponent double mulligans, giving me a huge amount of breathing room. There’s an interesting point in the game when my opponent is dead in two turns and casts Browbeat with me at 9 life, leaving him with a single card left in hand. I have a Negate, but my Blue mana is tapped, so I decide to take the damage rather than let him draw because there’s no combination of two cards from that board state that can kill me through Negate at 4 life, while if I let him draw three cards he could have four Lightning Bolt/Lava Spike effects and actually deal enough damage to kill me from 9.

Record 4-2

Round 7 — Affinity

I’m always surprised to see that people still decide to play Affinity in Extended given just how hateful the format is for the deck, and my deck is no exception, with Path, Bant Charm, and Pridemage all incredibly powerful against them. The first game is an example of this, as I draw a Pridemage, Path, and Bant Charm to remove all of his meaningful threats, while Tarmogoyf cleans up. I bring in the 4th Bant Charm and the 4th Pridemage for some Kird Apes and game two is much of the same. I make a mistake and wait until my opponent’s turn to Path his Ornithopter with Cranial Plating which lets him protect it with Dispel, but he can’t put together the last few points of damage and I win regardless.

Record 5-2

Round 8 — Hive Mind

I lose the die roll and my opponent’s turn 1 Ponder makes it clear that he is playing Hive Mind. I have a solid aggressive hand but have Paths rather than burn spells, which means that I can’t burn him out and he kills me the turn before I can attack for the win. In the second game, I play a turn 1 Nacatl, which my opponent kills with Dead/Gone. I have both a Kird Ape and Loam Lion to follow up on turn 2, along with a seemingly never-ending stream of Meddling Mages that my opponent kills one by one. The third sticks and I’m able to kill him before he can go off. In the third game, I have one of the exact opening hands that made me hesitant to play Tribal FlamesStomping Ground/Godless Shrine with Negate in my hand. I’m silently fuming for letting myself get into this situation since the Godless Shrine would be a Hallowed Fountain if I were playing with Lightning Helix instead, but my opponent doesn’t have the combo on his fourth turn, which lets me get in enough damage to burn him out with room to spare.

Record 6-2

Round 9 — Hive Mind

I’ve gone from 0-2 to a single win out of the second day, so I’m seriously pumped. I once again lose the die roll, and once again have a decent beatdown draw but no burn to back it up. My opponent transmutes for a Pact on turn 3 and then plays Ideas Unbound on turn 4, leaving him with four cards, which clearly means Seething Song, Hive Mind, and two Pacts. I Path my own Kird Ape, which gives me enough mana to pay for Pact of the Titan, and leave up Bant Charm mana so I can counter the Hive Mind copy of the second Pact he plays, leaving me in a position to just pay and attack back for the win on my turn. Unfortunately for me, my opponent’s draw step yields a third pact and I can only stop two. In game 2, I open with a Nacatl and a Pridemage and my opponent plays a turn 3 Blood Moon. On my turn I attack and stack exalted then blow up the Moon. He doesn’t kill me on his next turn and I’m have a fist full of burn to kill him. In the third game, I play out two Meddling Mages, putting the first on Blood Moon to ensure I can play the second on Hive Mind and run out a Tarmogoyf. When I attack with my team, he plays a Pact of the Titan with only four land in play and blocks my Meddling Mage on Hive Mind. During his upkeep, he removes a Spirit Guide to pay for Pact, but he’s too far behind and I’m able to burn him out after my next attack.

Record 7-2

I’m thrilled to make Day 2 after starting 0-2 but exhausted from the long day, especially since I still hadn’t caught up on sleep after flying overnight on Thursday. I decide to skip dinner and just head back to the room to sleep. LSV and BenS decide to get room service and their food comes just as my sleeping pill is kicking in, so I drowsily munch on a few fries before drifting off to sleep. It doesn’t last long, unfortunately, as that night I was introduced to the horror that is LSV’s snoring. It actually wakes me up — despite my sleeping pill! – at both 5am and 6:30am, after which point I can’t get back to sleep and decide to make my way to the tournament venue. I make a trip to the convenience store in the convention center and stock up on both Red Bull and the Japanese energy drink Regain to try to help me power through the day and wait for the hall to open.

Round 10 — Smallpox

I yet again lose the die roll and my opponent opens with a first turn Swamp. I play a Kird Ape which proceeds to die a horrible death to Smallpox. We both play Tarmogoyfs and I Path his. When he doesn’t have a follow up, my Goyf hits him a few times and I’m able to burn him out with Tribal Flames. I sideboard in my Rangers and Elspeth which both seem incredibly powerful since his entire plan is based on attritioning me out and cut a few Lightning Bolts since they don’t kill anything meaningful in his deck and he has too much removal for the burn plan to be that relevant. The second starts the same way as the first, with my turn one Kird Ape dying to Small pox. I again follow up with a Goyf and he plays a Kitchen Finks. I play a Kird Ape and Wild Nacatl and end up trading my Goyf for a his Mutavault and a counter on the Finks when he triple blocks with those plus Treetop Village, the latter of which I send to the bottom of his deck with Bant Charm. This lets my Ape and Nacatl start hitting, but his Tarmogoyf quickly puts a stop to that. He Extripates my Goyfs, and after I path his Goyf he Extripates my Paths as well. He plays out another Goyf and I start trading some of my one drops to force damage through with my manlands as well. I get him low and he’s forced to play out a Dark Confidant as a blocker to survive, so I stop attacking and just let it do its work. He hits a Finks off of it and his board is starting to look better than mine until I draw a Ranger. He’s forced to try to start getting damage through, but I draw a Jitte, which pretty much seals it.

Record 8-2

Round 11 — Scapeshift

I win the die roll and play a Loam Lion on turn 1. When my opponent plays a first turn tapped Stomping Grounds, I debate whether to play a naked Tarmogoyf on turn 2 — if he’s Zoo, the chances that he actually draws a Stomping Ground are fairly low, and the chances that he keeps a hand with no turn 1 play off of a Stomping Ground are also fairly low, but the importance of a Tarmogoyf to my hand in the Zoo mirror is so high that I decide to hold on to it for fear of losing it to Bolt, since I only lose out on one damage against Scapeshift since I can just play it the next turn and there’s only one card type in the graveyard. His turn 2 play is a Coiling Oracle, which hits a land, and I play another Loam Lion that I just drew and Tarmogoyf. Two Repeals slow down my beats but even with them I’m still on pace to kill him on my turn 6, but on his fifth turn he casts Search for Tomorrow and Scapeshift to end it.

In game 2 I have a good start with Meddling Mage and Tarmogoyf against a turn 1 Search for Tomorrow and a turn 2 Oracle, which misses a land, but he follows up with Wood Elf. I have Negate in hand along with three Tribal Flames but once he hits seven land I have to keep passing the turn back to keep Negate mana up and I’m never able to cast my Flames. Things are looking good anyway until he casts a Siege-Gang Commander! The Siege Gang takes out my Meddling Mage and buys a ton of time against my Tarmogoyf, while I still can’t draw a fourth land and have three Tribal Flames stranded in my hand. Eventually my opponent draws into a second Scapeshift and just casts both in one turn and kills me. I add this game to my list of times when Lightning Helix would be better because it’s an instant.

Record 8-3

Round 12 — Boros Burn

Speaking of times when Lightning Helix would be better… In game 1 I keep a hand with Forest, Wild Nacatl, Goyf, Knight, Path, Bant Charm, and Stirring Wildwood on the draw and my opponent plays a turn 1 Goblin Guide, which hits a Qasali Pridemage. I play my Wild Nacatl on my first turn and Goblin Guide once again hits a Pridemage. He plays out a Geopede and I play Wildwood, chumping on his turn with my Nacatl to help fill the graveyard so I can safely play a Goyf. My opponent stalls on land and we end up in a stalemated board because he can’t attack with Geopede without landfall until a Jotan Grunt comes down and starts to make both my Knight and Tarmogoyf much less exciting. Eventually he draws fetch land and a Zektar Shine and goes all in with his team and I’m able to completely wipe his board and leave him with no cards in hand, but at only two life. There is no suspense as his top card is a Lightning Bolt and we’re off to the next game. In game 2 I have a hand with three one-drops, Tarmogoyf, and removal on the play and just run him over. In the third game he plays a turn one Steppe Lynx, which I chump block twice to preserve my life total. He plays a Zektar Shrine and goes all in with his fetch lands after Pathing my Goyf, but I have the Path to remove his Lynx and stabilize at a healthy 10 life. I play out a Goyf and a Knight and things are looking good, but I’m never breathing easy since he has a hand full of cards. It turns out they’re all land and my fatties go the distance.

Record 9-3

Round 13 — Zoo

By now my lack of sleep was clearly beginning to catch up to me. In game 1 I lose the die roll and my opponent plays a turn 1 Wild Nacatl and a turn 3 Woolly Thoctar, with a Path for my Knight of the Reliquary, and I just get run over. In game 2 I have a Nacatl of my own along with a Tarmogoyf while my opponent’s first two plays are just Noble Hierarchs. He plays out a Jitte, which I Bant Charm, and I have a Path for his next creature and two Tribal Flames to seal it. In the third game I played pretty much as badly as I could. When my opponent plays a turn 1 Wild Nacatl, rather than play a Loam Lion I decide to Lightning Bolt it, leaving myself open to a turn 2 3/4 Tarmogoyf, which is exactly what happens. I end up just so far behind that I can’t really get anything going, but still end the game with my opponent at two life. If I hadn’t played like an idiot, I certainly would have won.

Record 9-4

Round 14 — Elves

I lost my notes for this match, but game 1 was a long and messy affair in which my opponent when through multiple Ranger of Eos and Primal Commands but I just kept removing his key creatures and attacking. Eventually he gained enough life from Essence Warden to get out of burn range and drew into a Regal Force, which put the game out of reach. I win a quick game 2 on the back of monsters and removal, and we go to game 3 with only seven minutes left. We’re both playing quickly because we don’t want to get a draw, and I could have slowed down when it became clear I wasn’t going to be able to win, but I don’t and die on the last of the five extra turns.

Record 9-5

Round 15 — Scapeshift

Now that I’m out and playing for nothing, I get my absolute best draws of the entire tournament. In game 1 I run him over with three one-drops by turn 2, a Knight on turn 3, and a Bant Charm to counter his Cryptic Command tapping my team. Game 2 I have a turn 1 Ape, turn 2 Mage, which he Firespouts away, and then I have a Tarmogoyf and another Mage with Negate backup that go all the way. Standard.

Record 10-5

I end up in 70-something place, out of the money and PT points — a disappointing result, for certain. I’d hoped to make the equivalent of one Top 8 between the two Grand Prix to justify the expense of the trip, and even though I didn’t do that I’m happy I went. I had a great time in both Kuala Lumpur and Japan, and really appreciated the chance to experience things I wouldn’t have otherwise, like the monkeys in the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, feeding and riding elephants at the preserve outside the city, or going out drinking with over 50 Japanese Magic players Sunday night and getting a chance to hear Kenji belt out Japanese ballads, and ending up drinking so much that I went back to the wrong hotel at 7 in the morning and not even realizing it until I was wondering why my key didn’t work in the door. While I love winning, Magic tournaments aren’t just about winning — they’re about the people and experiences that they offer, and this trip had some of the best I can remember. I certainly learned a lot about better ways to plan my travel for future events, and fully intend on making the trip back out to the GPs in Sendai and Manila in a few months. But up next — Houston! This time if I play Zoo, I’m certainly playing with Lightning Helix.

On a non-Magic related note, just this week at GAMA the team I’ve been working with (which includes PT stars like Justin Gary, Rob Dougherty, and John Fiorillo) did our first demos for a new game we made — Ascension. It’s a non-collectable deck building card game in a similar vein to Dominion, and so far everyone who has seen the game has given it rave reviews. It’s not coming out until August, but we’ve sent demo copies to a number of game stores and distributors, so if you’re lucky you might get a chance to try it before then. Check out our website, and be sure to ask your local game stores to order it, because it’s awesome.

Until next time…