We Wrought A Zoo

Planning to attend Grand Prix Richmond at the beginning of next month? Then be sure to take a look at Glenn’s latest article about Modern!

I wasn’t planning to do much Modern deckbuilding this week. I even considered skipping the topic entirely, to be honest. However, a number of my friends both locally and abroad are testing for the Pro Tour, and I’ve wound up having my brain picked enough times that it just sort of started thinking for itself. I couldn’t help but start analyzing the format, looking for chinks in the armor.

Post-Ban Remix

Of course, everything begins with the enemy. Birthing Pod is the best deck going into the Pro Tour, and the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that, in the absence of extended testing, you’d need pretty serious reasons to not just play it. I don’t want to cover too much weathered ground, but let’s start with the two primary selling points.

  • Birthing Pod is powerful—it can deal infinite damage and gain infinite life, meaning that many powerful linear strategies will find themselves completely outmatched by the occasional nut draw. Most decks give something up for that kind of power, but Pod has mostly just grafted it onto a solid midrange shell.
  • Birthing Pod is versatile—the deck can adapt very quickly, turning on a dime from midrange to the aggressor, and it also threatens that scary combo finish. It’s incredibly difficult to successfully adapt your deck to beat Pod because the deck can change angles so fast—most of its bad matchups are just attacking it on another axis that covers every base, a la Tron.

There are a number of more specific reasons to like Birthing Pod as a deck. The unbanning of Wild Nacatl and the banning of Deathrite Shaman means that Kitchen Finks will only grow more influential than it was before as a midgame creature. Finks has been a thorn in the Cat’s paw since time immemorial, and Shaman was one of the best ways to deny a Finks player the majority of their value. That makes it a Kitchen Finks’ world in the spectrum of the fair decks, and every deck planning to win conventionally should have a plan for the 3/2.

By the same token, decks planning to win in other ways are much better. Twin has never cared about Kitchen Finks—even infinite life doesn’t beat infinite damage. With Jund in recession, now might even be the time for U/W/R Twin to rise again! Most Storm lists can’t actually go infinite (although with Noxious Revival, it’s doable) but they can go off early enough to challenge the Birthing Pod deck and many of Modern’s other contenders. I like both of these decks a fair bit, placing them just behind Birthing Pod in my personal ranking.

As far as dark horses go, my selection is Goryo’s Vengeance. I don’t have much to say about the deck, but I can link you to Todd’s treatise following his Grand Prix Kansas City Top 16 and post up the decklist.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m not playing Birthing Pod! I probably would be, if I was trying to win the Pro Tour, but I’m not burdened by such limitations in my own daily life. Last week, I said that Wild Nacatl was what I wanted to be doing, and I wasn’t lying.

I knew immediately that the Tribal Flames and Geist of Saint Traft lists for Zoo were not my speed before I even sleeved them up. Not only did they lose Deathrite Shaman—which definitely makes both their mana and long game significantly worse—but Geist of Saint Traft is no fun against Finks, or even just against Pod in general. Against Voice into Finks, it’s pretty obnoxious to fight through that even if you’re only getting chumped and not roadblocked. I wanted a deck that could play Wild Nacatl as efficient early pressure in the non-Finks matchups while still ensuring he generated value in the games against Finks.

Nonred Nacatl

When Nacatl first came off the banlist, I had a conversation with Pat Cox on Twitter in which we recalled an ancient decklist from a little old format called Extended.

This is obviously a different take on the whole concept, but I remembered it working fantastically for Ben and became pretty impressed by the deck while watching him play, though I’d never get the chance to play the deck myself. Obviously times have changed—Jitte was a major reason that Ben’s deck performed so well, and it seemed doubtful that one could replace it with something like Elspeth or a Sword. I started considering the concept.

Mostly, the idea of curving Voice of Resurgence into Spectral Procession into Wilt-Leaf Liege sounded pretty exciting. This deck also played its own Kitchen Finks, had a strong creature force, and could go through the skies if it had to. Card advantage from a creature deck is nothing to scoff at either, so I decided to jam some quick casual games.

I toyed with the idea, adding in and pulling out a variety of elements before losing interest. It wasn’t delivering the haymakers I wanted to—without Jitte, you really couldn’t turn around the boards in the same way. There might be something there still, but I wasn’t finding it. I moved on.

Walking away from the deck, I realized that exalted and Wild Nacatl was something of a “combo” during a period when I was running Pridemages, and that sent me on another path. I returned to a deck I’ve covered before for the site, taking a more recent list from DrNutzlos and tweaking things around. Here was my starting point:

Exalted let you attack into Finks and Voice pretty frequently, and the air force was very capable of crashing in for victory. No iterations of this deck were especially quick—it couldn’t cash in on the Wild Nacatl pressure that I really wanted—but it still had some potent interactions of its own. Still, I quickly moved away from it, as the deck wasn’t much better than it had been before (although it was better).

Cat’s Cradle

I decided to scratch everything and start from the beginning: the Nacatl himself. My problem was that I needed my deck to address Kitchen Finks very effectively without giving up too much margin everywhere else. The first step was exalted, and I quickly realized that I was actually loving Noble Hierarch in the format. With Hierarch in the mix, Loam Lion or Kird Ape could also function as fighters that go through the Finks. Qasali Pridemage could play second fiddle, if more exalted was necessary.

That wouldn’t be enough, however—I needed more. Here I turned to a relatively new card, Ghor-Clan Rampager. Rampager is incredibly efficient and also a great way to equalize the Kitchen Finks disparity while functioning as a fine card for outgrowing defensive Tarmogoyfs or punishing Bitterblossom players when they chump block with a single token. A 4/4 for four isn’t nothing in Modern, surviving both Lightning Bolt and Abrupt Decay when you need to generate a body. Against just about anything except Tarmogoyf, he’s a reasonable combatant.

Of course, Ghor-Clan Rampager is great when you pair him with larger monsters. Tarmogoyf was a given, but Knight of the Reliquary started looking especially attractive as well! A fetchland-heavy Zoo list could play the Knight as a 5/5 or 6/6 attacker on turn four with frightening consistency, and Rampager could make that clear half of their life total. If Nacatl had gone unchecked for the first three turns… that would nearly be game on the spot.

Knight would both help avoid flooding and also generate mana as necessary, making Rampager easier to cast and also enabling four and even five drops, if one was in the market for them. The most obvious to jump out at me was Elspeth, Knight-Errant, and to a lesser extent Thrun, the Last Troll. Elspeth plus Knight sounded approximately as awesome as Knight and Rampager, so I flagged her as a favorite.

From this point, I sketched out the basics of the deck I was imagining. Many of the cards were automatics, after all:

4 Noble Hierarch
4 Wild Nacatl
? Grim Lavamancer
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Knight of the Reliquary
3-4 Ghor-Clan Rampager
4 Path to Exile
4 Lightning Bolt
? Lightning Helix
? Elspeth, Knight-Errant

Look passingly familiar to anyone?

Counter-Cat 2: Electric Boogaloo

That’s right—much to my embarrassment, I realized someone else had already finished fleshing out this particular deck: Counter-Cat Zoo, circa Pro Tour Philadelphia.

As soon as I made the connection, I realized that Bant Charm would do virtually everything that I wanted. Against Birthing Pod it could tuck Kitchen Finks, Shatter a Pod, and also disrupt attempted combo kills. Having Dark Banishing against Twin and Cancel against Storm and Cryptic Command? I was hard-pressed to find a matchup where Bant Charm wasn’t at least reasonable!

Then I remembered Living End.


Even so, I was excited. I immediately began studying various iterations of Counter-Cat to see what would be worth stealing and what would need to change. Obviously, original Counter-Cat had access to a card that both slowly increased threat density in your library and provided unparalleled versatility—it was mana, threat, and answer, all in one.

No, not Deathrite Shaman. Green Sun’s Zenith!

Without Zenith to fetch Dryad Arbor, I knew I’d want to slide the deck’s curve down a notch. I’d try trimming a land and playing less expensive cards, Zenith itself sort of included, and use that space to balance things out. A few one-drops would help me get out of the gates quickly, so I figured Kird Ape or Loam Lion would be my best bet.

Initially, I assumed it would be Kird Ape—then I began planning the mana base. Original Counter-Cat wasn’t especially picky except for the maximum amount of fetchable green mana and access to green and white mana from the majority of three-land sets. I needed more than that—I needed access to green and red as early as turn 2, in order to support Rampager as well. So, I examined the options that enabled those sequences while turning on Wild Nacatl and Kird Ape/Loam Lion.

Stomping Ground and Sacred Foundry would of course do the trick, though I couldn’t access blue mana. Both are fetchable by Arid Mesa and Scalding Tarn, which is a problem because I must run at least ten fetchlands and preferably more.

Breeding Pool and Sacred Foundry could also do the trick, although leading Foundry would wound my ability to follow with Noble Hierarch or drawn Nacatls, while leading Breeding Pool meant I’d always have to shock to add a 2/3 dude to the board if I played turn 1 Nacatl. Sadly, only Scalding Tarn fetched both, so that was right out anyway.

Stomping Ground and Hallowed Fountain accomplished every goal pretty well except for bloodrushing Rampager. I could lead Nacatl, follow with Kird Ape or Noble Hierarch or Bolt and a tapped shockland, assuming no better plays. It’s also a combination fetchable by Arid Mesa, Scalding Tarn, and Misty Rainforest.

However, Temple Garden and Steam Vents are fetchable by Arid Mesa and Misty Rainforest and also accomplish the job of ensuring Rampager. This combination incentivizes playing Loam Lion for the same reasons the previous one encouraged me to play Kird Ape. In the end, the fact that Noble Hierarch can cast a Loam Lion sold me on playing it over Kird Ape and thus favoring this fetch pattern in my play. Also worth noting is I always knew I’d play a Forest and a Plains, to help battle Blood Moon and Path to Exile, which Loam Lion works slightly better with as well.

Plus, playing a new Cat in the Counter-Cat sequel is just too adorable.

Red mana would be stressful to access between Rampager and Bolt, so I decided to bend toward white with my fetch patterns but run the extra Stomping Ground. I am not 100% sold on this yet, however.

Because I’d be playing basically all of the above lands no matter what (barring the useless Breeding Pool) this analysis might have seemed unnecessary—but it’s actually a pretty worthwhile thing to figure out, as it’ll help your mulligan decisions and improve the logistics of your fetching much better than just winging it and hoping for the best.

With Rampager on my side, Elsepth’s reach would be less necessary. I initially wanted to use some slots on maindeck Aven Mindcensors, both to free up sideboard slots and to hedge some extra hate against Birthing Pod. After playing a lot of games with them, the Mindcensors failed to impress. If you’re expecting a ton of Pod, and you should, then they are still very much worth considering. At the moment, however, I’ve elected to go without. The online post-ban metagame has been diverse, but I owe that mostly to there not being supported tournaments for the new format.

Between its service issues and release implementations, it feels like Magic Online has become rather committed to living in the past…

Here’s the decklist I’ve been playing against friends and casuals for a couple days, to not-insignificant success. Frankly, I felt pretty unlucky on the few times I lost—but for those who know me, that’s not especially unique to this deck, so consider that your grain of salt.

I’m currently hovering on the question of playing 21 vs. 22 lands, depending on whether I play the second Elspeth or not. I’m not sure what I would do with the two maindeck slots that cutting a Scalding Tarn and an Elspeth could create, but I’m sure I could do something; perhaps maindeck the Voices and gain some sideboard slots, likely for Back to Nature. I don’t like the Horizon Canopy at all; it’s been generally disruptive to my draws and I’ve rarely been in positions where fetching it with Knight became worthwhile, so it’s basically been good only when I flood and draw it naturally. I mostly want to cut it, but doing so means an Elspeth must also likely go.

Qasali Pridemage, Grim Lavamancer, and even Boros Charm are all also possibilities for maindeck play.

I changed the Tectonic Edge that CFB ran to a Ghost Quarter because I think the difference is valuable against Tron in order to avoid a turn three Karn or turn four Oblivion Stone activation. In the other situations where you want such an effect, namely against Affinity and Infect, Ghost Quarter is also probably better than Edge. In fair matchups, the difference does hurt.

Beyond that the maindeck is actually quite straightforward.

The sideboard should be similarly self-explanatory. There’s a very real debate between Unified Will and Mana Leak, but I’m mostly fearful of having Leak against Tron or failing to counter a Path to Exile against a Rampager on turn four or thereabouts, so the Will is a little better.

Your eyebrows probably perked up at the Celestial Flare. Well, truth be told I’ve struggled a little bit against Infect. I’m breaking even, but every match is three games and it feels like a tougher matchup than I’d originally estimated, considering I have 4 Path and 4 Bolt. The Flare is close to unbeatable here when implemented properly, and it also has applications against midrange Tarmogoyf decks and anyone getting cute with a Baneslayer Angel or a hasted Griselbrand. I’ve actually rather liked it, although I’ve only had it in the deck for a handful of games.

That’s my piece on Zoo in Modern right now: play the deck from 2011! Maybe MTGOverlords and I aren’t so different…

Final Tips

If you’re looking for other ways to combat Pod with other decks, Mindcensor is fine in the main or side and has applications elsewhere. Two cards I’d expect to pick up in stock significantly are Sword of Light and Shadow and Sword of Feast and Famine. Both enable any creature to get by Kitchen Finks and Bitterblossom tokens, which are the most significant blocking creatures in the format right now. Neither Sword is especially poorly positioned either, with Light and Shadow being nice against burn and Feast and Famine being good against combo.

There are many flavors of Zoo, and I’m sure we’ll see at least one of them do something interesting at the Pro Tour. If you’ve got sweet tech, feel free to share it—then you’ll have at least have bragging rights if someone smashes the Pro Tour with it!