The Long & Winding Road – A Trip to the Zoo

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Monday, December 21st – Last week, I took a look at some of my favorite cards from 2009, and ultimately I chose Qasali Pridemage as my favorite new card of the year. One of the reasons I love this card is the huge impact it had on Legacy, as the card is a staple of Legacy Zoo. Today, I want to look at Zoo specifically, catching up with the archetype’s progress and evolution throughout 2009.

Last week, I took a look at some of my favorite cards from 2009, and ultimately I chose Qasali Pridemage as my favorite new card of the year. One of the reasons I love this card is the huge impact it had on Legacy, as the card is a staple of Legacy Zoo. It also sees plays in decks like Natural Order Rock and Natural Order Counter/Top, as well as the Bant decks that are very popular in Europe.

Today, I want to look at Zoo specifically, catching up with the archetype’s progress and evolution throughout 2009. After that, I’ll go through some of my favorite decks from 2009. As always, let’s start at the beginning…

Grand Prix Chicago — March 2009

The performance of Brian Six’s Zoo deck at GP: Chicago was eye-opening for a lot of people. Wild Nacatl’s printing in Shards of Alara gave the deck a terrific one-drop to complement Kird Ape and Grim Lavamancer, so that the deck had a critical number of early drops that could bypass Counterbalance and keep control decks backpedaling. This early list is heavy on burn, and with its lighter color requirements, was running Wasteland (and is in many ways similar to Goyf Sligh). Qasali Pridemage and Path to Exile would come later in the year, but this list is already playing Ethersworn Canonist as an anti-combo measure in the sideboard.

Shards Block as a whole was extremely good for this archetype!

Following the then-record attendance at GP: Chicago, StarCityGames.com added Legacy to their $5K schedule, providing us with a number of large tournaments this year that all featured Zoo decks in the top 8.

Boston $5K — June 2009

Moving forward a few months, we can see the full influence of Shards Block on Legacy Zoo in Alix Hatfield’s 4th place deck from the Boston $5K:

Alix’s deck is more or less the base starting point for most Zoo decks today. First, let’s review the creature base:

1 Drops: Kird Ape, Grim Lavamancer, Wild Nacatl

Kird Ape and Wild Nacatl provide early muscle, outclassing basically every other one-drop in Magic in terms of base stats (side note here — why didn’t/doesn’t Skyshroud Elite see play?). Grim Lavamancer plays a number of crucial roles. It provides an on-board win condition against control decks, it gives Zoo a way to remove blockers without actually investing burn spells, and it can be a critical tool for managing opposing Tarmogoyfs.

2 Drops: Qasali Pridemage, Tarmogoyf

Qasali Pridemage is everything that Zoo wanted and needed. On its own, it attacks like a Watchwolf. If you and your opponent both have a Tarmogoyf, Pridemage lets you stay on the offensive. Most importantly, Pridemage has a Naturalize attached to it, so if it resolves early, it can destroy key Enchantments like Counterbalance, Standstill, Ghostly Prison, and Moat, and key Artifacts like Crucible of Worlds, Chalice of the Void, and Phyrexian Dreadnought — and it does all of that without requiring Zoo to run a reactive card like Krosan Grip in the main.

Oh, I hear that Tarmogoyf card is pretty good, too.

3 Drops: Woolly Thoctar

This slot is actually a metagame choice, but Woolly Thoctar helps speed up the deck’s clock, and it is excellent in the mirror, as it survives every burn spell except Fireblast.

Speaking of which, let’s look at the burn spells Alix played:

1 Drops: Lighting Bolt, Chain Lightning

One mana, three damage. This pair has always set the benchmark for burn spells.

2 Drops: Price of Progress

In a format like Legacy, PoP is probably the most effective burn spell in the format. Against most decks, for two mana, you’re probably getting back 4-6 damage, but the top-end potential is much higher (think 43 Land…). Additionally, Price of Progress is played sporadically, because there are some metagames where its inability to target creatures makes it a liability.

6 Drops / 0 Drops: Fireblast

Fireblast is one of my all-time favorite cards, and I love the fact that its seeing play again today. It is effectively a free burn spell for four, and conveniently bypasses Counterbalance, Spell Snare, and is easy to get past Daze. There is nothing quite like finishing a game with an attack for five, followed up by a Bolt for three, a Price of Progress for six, and a Fireblast on top for another four to blow an opponent away out of nowhere. Fireblast is one of the cards that keeps Zoo’s goldfish respectably fast, and when the card was good in Standard, it didn’t have support nearly as effective as Wild Nacatl.

Support Spells:

1 Drop: Path to Exile

Path is another perfect fit in this deck from Shards block. Zoo needed a way to deal with Tarmogoyf that didn’t require the investment of multiple burn spells, and the lifegain from Swords to Plowshares is counter-productive in a deck like this.

2 Drop: Sylvan Library

Sylvan Library is another metagame slot, but it fulfills a number of important roles. On a basic level, it gives the deck something similar to the card-filtering effect of Sensei’s Divining Top, but without the mana investment; Zoo plays enough filter lands that Library can keep the gas flowing if the game goes long. Most importantly, against decks like Landstill and Counterbalance/Top, Sylvan Library can provide a boost of additional cards to overwhelm the control deck’s defenses.


This deck loses the Wastelands of Brian Six’s Chicago list, as it has a much more taxing set of color requirements (Qasali Pridemage, Fireblast, Woolly Thoctar); instead, it has Horizon Canopy, which again helps with the flow of gas throughout the game. The total land count remains similar, (22 in Brian’s list against 21 in Alix’s), but Alix has a different set of tools to deal with additional mana as compared to Brian’s. That deck needed hardly any mana to function and was really just splashing green and white around a red burn shell, allowing the deck to get away with effectively running 19 lands plus Wasteland; Magma Jet provided a way to manage what cards were drawn. This list has Horizon Canopy to cycle extra mana, as well as Sylvan Library as a filter effect, and can make better use of three mana with Woolly Thoctar or Pridemage plus sacrifice effect. Because all of his lands produce colored mana, Alix plays 21 lands instead of the 22 in Brian’s deck, actually reducing the land count despite having more expensive spells and far more color requirements.

Charlotte $5K — September

Zoo did extremely well at this tournament, including one Alix Hatfield, this time taking down first place:

Alix made a few adjustments based on the changes in the metagame over the summer. He moved Price of Progress to the sideboard (since it’s something of a liability in mirror matches and isn’t effective against Merfolk) and added an additional Path to Exile and a singleton Umezawa’s Jitte.

The third place list played by Julian De Los Santos was similar to Alix’s list from June, with Price of Progress in the main, but he replaced Woolly Thoctar with Knight of the Reliquary and ran two Lightning Helix (which is highly effective in the Zoo mirror):

The last Zoo deck in the top 8 was Jonathan Bode, and his list was a blend of the two, with the updated spell set ran by Alix and Knight of the Reliquary .

For a great look at how effective Zoo was at the Charlotte $5K, see Stephen Menendian analysis of the tournament, here. Fourteen players chose Zoo for this tournament, and five of them were in the top 16.

Philadelphia $5K — October

Stephen Menendian also broke down the metagame of this tournament, here, showing that Zoo was the second-most popular deck in this event, but had much worse overall performance (with three players in the top 16, but none in the top 8).

The Zoo lists at this event were varied — you can see the top 16 at a glance here.

St. Louis Legacy Open — December

Remarkably, there was only one Zoo player in the top 16 of the St. Louis Legacy Open earlier this month.
Mark Larson’s deck was as follows:

This list has a stronger emphasis on Knight of the Reliquary and has Steppe Lynx in place of Kird Ape, as well as Price of Progress moved to the sideboard.

The top 8 of this event was relatively hostile to Zoo, with two copies of 43 Land and two copies of Aggro Loam (a deck that has shown up periodically in top 8s in Europe this year but has been less popular in the US).

Examining Zoo

When one considers the deep card pool and myriad deck choices available in Legacy, why would anyone choose to play a straightforward and fair aggro deck such as Zoo?

First, Zoo is relatively cheap, in the scheme of all things Legacy. The main expense in a deck like Zoo is Tarmogoyf, so if you’re buying the deck from scratch, it is rather costly — but if you already have Tarmogoyf and the necessary fetches (from previous Extended seasons, for instance), Zoo is one of the cheapest Legacy decks to assemble. With only six dual lands and no blue, the mana base is affordable.

Second, Zoo is a great into deck for someone new to Legacy. Zoo, in various forms, has been a mainstay of competitive Extended for some time, and the basic idea of undercosted aggro creatures supported by the best burn available has been around as long as competitive Magic has existed. No, really:

Bertrand Lestree

2 Bayou
2 City of Brass
4 Mishra’s Factory
4 Taiga
4 Tropical Island
4 Volcanic Island
3 Argothian Pixies
3 Birds of Paradise
4 Kird Ape
2 Whirling Dervish
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Black Lotus
4 Chain Lightning
1 Channel
1 Chaos Orb
1 Control Magic
1 Demonic Tutor
4 Fireball
1 Icy Manipulator
4 Lightning Bolt
1 Mind Twist
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
2 Psionic Blast
1 Regrowth
1 Time Walk

1 City in a Bottle
1 Control Magic
3 Disintegrate
1 Flashfires
1 Forcefield
2 Lifeforce
4 Serendib Efreet
2 Tsunami

When I played Type I at Grey Matter events in the mid- to late- 1990s, Paul Ferker qualified for the top 8 repeatedly playing an updated version of this deck; the basic strategy is time-tested and works in most formats of Magic.

Third, this style of deck has a few inherent advantages which we see on display in modern Legacy Zoo decks. They are consistent, usually sporting some close version of the 20/20/20 ratio (20 land, 20 creatures, 20 burn spells). This consistency combined with a reasonably fast clock means that Zoo can punish an opponent that stumbles for any reason — mulligans, mana flood, mana screw — and the ratio of the deck is such that you tend to have what you need, when you need it, provided you’ve built the deck correctly.

Fourth, there are certain metagames where a Zoo deck is actually a great choice. For instance, earlier this year, decks such as Merfolk, Counterbalance/Top, and Dreadtill were popular, and Zoo decks were geared to beat these common match-ups, banking on them to hate out decks like ANT.

Zoo, Today

It is this fourth point that we need to consider when looking at Zoo’s role, today. Clearly the metagame has adapted to the presence of Zoo to a large degree. Merfolk has added Tarmogoyf, Counterbalance/Top players have included additional anti-Zoo measures in the main, and Bant and Natural Order CB/Top decks play cards like Rhox War Monk. Although Ad Nauseam Tendrils still has worse-than-expected performance in most large Legacy events, there are other combo decks (like 43 Land) that have done very well lately, and Dredge has become one of the more popular Legacy decks as well (and generally has a positive match-up against Zoo).

Where does Zoo need to go to get its mojo back?

One of the first things that I’d suggest is that Zoo players look back to the decks from earlier this year, rather than those from August and on. I suggest this because Zoo decks became somewhat inbred as time passed — when Zoo became the most popular deck in Legacy, Zoo players began to gear the deck to beat the mirror. Now that Zoo is fading in popularity, those anti-Zoo cards in the main have become a liability against a field that is as broad as it’s ever been.

A prime example of this is Price of Progress. Legacy’s metagame is going through some interesting changes right now. Merfolk and Zoo, two match-ups where you don’t want Price of Progress, are both on the downturn, while a diversified field (especially those juicy boards that 43 Land offers up) is perfect for Price of Progress.

I haven’t played enough Legacy lately to feel like a have a solid grasp on the format, but I have been testing Zoo a lot lately, and I’m reasonably certain I’ll be playing it for the next few tournaments. The list I’ve tested recently is high on burn count and lacks the higher-cost creatures that are so effective in Zoo-on-Zoo matches, so keep in mind I’m testing this in a metagame that is suddenly low on Zoo decks (such as only one Zoo deck in 40 at the Legacy Showdown I recapped a month ago):

As with any deck, your mileage out of this specific list will vary, but I think this is a cheap, competitive build for someone new to Legacy. Legacy is a deep, complicated format — so go at it with a sledgehammer. Someone else will clean up the mess.

Next week, I’ll take a look at my favorite decks from 2009 across the formats of competitive Magic.

I should probably advise you if you haven’t realized yet — my teasers for next week’s content are about as accurate as “Next time, On Arrested Development”…

Matt Elias
[email protected]
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