Zoo In Modern

Of course Pat Cox would find a Zoo deck for PT Philly—what else? But his evolution, instead of Flashfreeze, had Thoughtseize to fight the combo-laden Modern format. After going 7-3 in Modern, what does the Zoo master have to say?

Near the end of Day 1 of Pro Tour Philadelphia, I had the following conversation with Ben Stark:

Ben: “How are you doing?”

Me: “6-1.”

“Sick, Florida is going to win another PT!”

After the second draft, Ben came back to check up on me:

“How are you doing?”


“Why do you hate me?”

And that pretty much sums up how frustrating this Pro Tour was for me. I squandered a great start because I went a horrendous 2-4 in Limited, punting at least one of the rounds and almost assuredly drafting incorrectly in the second pod. On the plus side, this article is not going to be about Limited.

I finished a more respectable 7-3 in Modern, piloting Zoo. Shocking, I know.

Building a Zoo Deck, Modern Style

When I first heard about the PT format change, I was of course ecstatic. They left Zoo alone and banned a bunch of cards from combo decks that were good against Zoo. Even ignoring my bias, Zoo seemed like a good starting point.

After the announcement, BillyP came to Melbourne for the weekend, and we started figuring out the format. I piloted relatively stock Zoo decks against various decks that we had seen online or ported from other formats, since we figured a deck had to beat Zoo to be viable.

We quickly figured out a couple of things: 1) there were way too many decks, and 2) most of the decks were combo. This meant that control was not going to be viable until the format was more defined. It would be too hard to be prepared for all of the angles that combo decks would attack on. This was especially true when the format was missing the card advantage provided by Ancestral Vision and Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

Based on this, we wanted to either play a combo deck that attacked on a different angle from the others (such as the graveyard), or an aggro deck with some disruption. The main decks we tried at first were Doran and medium/big Zoo, since ideally we wanted to play a deck that was also good against other aggro decks. It turned out that bigger Zoo decks could not provide enough of a clock to kill before combo went off game 1. Doran decks were basically worse Zoo decks, except they had hand disruption to back up their clock.

We were going back and forth about the merits of these two decks when something hit me: can’t we just put the hand disruption in Zoo? So I started building various iterations of Zoo with Thoughtseize in them. By this time, Modern was on Magic Online, and we could see that Zoo wasn’t some enormous percentage of the field. So I decided to give up some of the aggro mirror in favor of a faster clock and added Tribal Flames to go with my Thoughtseizes, cutting Knight of the Reliquary entirely.

The Magic Online metagame quickly had a frontrunner for best deck: 12Post. This deck beats the crap out of Zoo. Billy and I tried maindecking Molten Rain, alongside Thoughtseizes, to grab Primeval Titans and Gaddock Teegs to stop Scapeshift, and we still were not favorable. On the plus side, the Thoughtseizes were often good enough against the combo decks, especially with the additional hatebears out of the sideboard.

For a week or so 12Post dominated the Daily Events. But then a few days before the Pro Tour, more U/R combo decks started showing up. These decks, along with most decks that can do infinite anything, beat 12Post pretty handily, as did the variants of the Poison deck that Sam Black piloted to a Top 4 finish.

Based on this, I assumed that a lot of people at the PT would play decks that beat 12Post, as opposed to 12Post itself. Sure 12Post would still be the most popular deck, but the rest of the field would be Zoo mirrors and combo decks that Zoo was about even against. That sounded good enough to me, so I told everyone they should play my list.

Kitt was on board, but BillyP, Sharfman, and Ant were all more interested in playing John Cuvelier Death Cloud deck with a ton of hand disruption. Orrin wanted to play a combo deck (per usual), but he had barely tested any of them (per usual), so I told him he would be better off playing my Zoo deck that was at least tuned.

Here is what Kitt, Orrin, and I sleeved up:

Let’s take a look at the card choices.

The One-Drops

Wild Nacatl and eight Kird Apes is pretty standard in my decks, regardless of format. Having 12 of these aggressive one-drops maximizes your chances of the “nut draw” of turn 1: guy, turn 2: guy, guy. This start immediately puts your opponent on their back foot. This is especially beneficial in Modern because it gives you a comparable clock to the combo decks and puts the onus on them to go off as quickly as possible.

One notable exclusion is Goblin Guide. He certainly fits very well into the above game plan, and I have him in my Legacy deck for that reason. The issue in Modern is that Zoo is actually a popular deck, and Guide is horrendous in the mirror.

Grim Lavamancer is good, not great, in the format. I could certainly see the argument for not running him, but he is very powerful against some decks. Lavamancer is incredibly powerful against decks like Affinity, Poison, and anything with Noble Hierarch. At worst, Lavamancer will be an extra burn spell or two game 1 and then get sided out.


It is a 10/10 for two.

Gaddock Teeg

Teeg is very good in Modern. He stops something important in almost every deck: Scapeshift, Green Sun’s Zenith, Splinter Twin, Hive Mind, Dragonstorm, Birthing Pod, Chord of Calling, Blazing Shoal, etc. I would run four copies if he were not a legend, and I think having extra copies of Gaddock Teeg is the main argument for playing Green Sun’s Zenith in Zoo (though they obviously do not play well together).

Lightning Bolt / Lightning Helix / Tribal Flames

Not playing at least the eight three-damage spells is pretty loose. You want the ability to close out the game quickly, even if the burn has fewer creature targets than a normal format. Helix is also insane against Zoo and Affinity. I was not initially sold on Tribal Flames, but it was often making me kill a turn faster in testing¸ which is pretty important given the speed of the format. It is also very hard to lose a game where you draw two Tribal Flames.

Flames is pretty nice in the Zoo mirror as well, since it usually kills both Tarmogoyf and Knight of the Reliquary and lets you burn them out if you are the aggressor. The matchup against Big Zoo decks is not nearly as bad as people think, and it is mostly because of this card.

Path to Exile

I only ran three of these main because I did not expect creature decks to make up a large portion of the field, and it is dead against a lot of the combo decks. Against the combo decks that do rely on creatures, a burn spell will often suffice as removal. The exceptions to this were Deceiver Exarch and Protean Hydra. If not for Twin’s strong showing on Magic Online in the days leading up to the tournament, I would have only run two Paths main.


This is certainly the least conventional card in the maindeck. While testing we were finding that Doran was often faring better against combo because of hand disruption, but Zoo was better in general because of the reach provided by burn. So the logical progression was to play a little hand disruption in Zoo. Normally one Thoughtseize backed up by your quick clock is good enough to take game one. You know how I said earlier that the nut draw in Zoo is typically three one-drops? Well two one-drops and a Thoughtseize is pretty sick too.

Originally I had three copies main with the last in the sideboard, but I brought it against basically everything but the mirror, so the full four are in the maindeck.

Mana Base

I started with 22 lands and Knights of the Reliquary. It was immediately obvious that this was too many, so I went down to 21. I probably should have cut another after getting rid of Knights. I sided out the Misty Rainforest quite a few times during the tournament because I did not want to get flooded in creature mirrors. The deck can operate on two lands very easily, and it is often correct to keep one-landers, so 20 lands is probably where you want to be.


Qasali Pridemage

Pridemage was not particularly good in our expected format, but things were open enough that I wanted to have a few answers to artifacts and enchantments. I considered running Ancient Grudge, since it is much better against Affinity, but Pridemage’s versatility won out. I did play against Affinity once, but Pridemage’s ability to kill enchantments was also pretty important to my winning against Splinter Twin. I also sided in Pridemages in the Zoo mirror because of exalted.

Gaddock Teeg

I did not want to run all three Teegs main only because he is not good in every matchup, and I did not want a second copy of a mediocre card stuck in my hand. He actually just hoses some decks though, so it is entirely possible you should run four in the board. Sharfman suggested running one Zenith as an extra Teeg/Pridemage. The issue with this was that Zenith cannot be cast with Teeg in play, so it is the same thing as drawing a redundant copy.

Ethersworn Canonist and Rule of Law

Rule of Law is better against storm decks, since they typically run fewer ways to remove it. But if you are on the draw, you can be dead before it hits play. Thoughtseize helps with this though, so for a while I ran two of each. Having a split also makes you less susceptible to Echoing Truth.

The main reason we eventually biased it towards Canonist is that sometimes the effect is marginal: it is worth bringing in if it is on a bear, but not on a card that only has the effect. For example against Splinter Twin or Poison, Canonist means that they cannot protect their combo when they try to go off, but it does not actually stop them from going off.


This is mainly for the Zoo mirror, to kill the too-big-to-burn guys: Tarmogoyf and Knight of the Reliquary. A secondary application was to kill the walls in Cloudpost decks, though that version appeared to be less prevalent as we got closer to the PT. I also brought it in against Birthing Pod decks and Death Cloud.

Path to Exile

See the discussion of Path in the maindeck section. This came in against the Mirror, Death Cloud, Pod Combo, and Splinter Twin during the tournament.

Sword of Body and Mind / Ranger of Eos / Elspeth, Knight-Errant

These are all mirror trump cards. None of them is much better than the others, since they are good in different situations, hence running one of each. Ranger is the best possible topdeck when the board has been cleared by the large amount of removal in both decks, but is weak if they have the largest creature on the board. Sword is very good if they have the largest creature, since it can both attack past said creature and allow you to block it, all while building up your army. Elspeth is good in creature stalls because she gives a guy evasion, but is also fine if you are a little behind since it can make chump blockers until you can regain parity.

Aven Mindcensor

This was a last-minute suggestion from Floridian Pro Tour Champion Charles Gindy┢ so we would at least have something against Cloudpost. Molten Rain never did enough, and I did not want to have to keep back mana for Flashfreeze as Kitt had suggested. This seemed like a card that would be reasonable against several decks, so I was willing to give it a try. I sided it in against two Pod decks and Elves during the tournament, since both of those decks rely on tutoring.

My Pro Tour, sans Embarrassing Limited Rounds

I normally wouldn’t go round by round here, but I played against nine different decks, and this seems like as good a place as any to give my thoughts on the various matchups. The only deck I played twice was Zoo, and even there the lists were fairly disparate, so you certainly can’t say the format isn’t diverse. Granted, 6/10 decks I played against were combo, but at least they had to be attacked from different angles and made for some interesting games.

Anyway, here’s what I played against:

Zoo (Big)

My definition of Big Zoo is basically any version that plays Noble Hierarch. My opponent had Hierarch in addition to multiple four-drops: Bloodbraid Elf and Ajani Vengeant, so his deck certainly qualified.

The conventional wisdom is that Big Zoo decks are favored against Tribal/Little Zoo decks like the one I played. That is generally true, since they have more “too large to be Bolted” creatures with Knight of the Reliquary and potentially Green Sun’s Zenith. But it is not quite as bad for Tribal as you might think, since Tribal Flames does usually kill both Tarmogoyf and a newly cast Knight.

They are still a slight favorite though, and I had to get a little lucky to win game 3 here. I managed to stabilize with Elspeth after surviving an Ajani and two Bloodbraid Elves, but sat in double burn range for what felt like a million turns.

Win 1-0

Melira Combo

Any combo deck that relies on creatures is far easier for Zoo to disrupt than the others, but this deck does have the ability to act as a midrange creature deck when not comboing. Kitchen Finks is annoying for Zoo, even if it only gains four life instead of a billion.

I lose to the combo game one when we are both in topdeck mode, and in game two Aven Mindcensor manages to stop Birthing Pod from actually killing me (though he did hit twice when only looking at four cards). Game 3 I get too aggressive with my removal, trying to mana-screw him by killing multiple Birds after a Thoughtseize revealed no land.

Loss 1-1

Splinter Twin

Again, this is one of the better combo matchups since it is based on a creature living. You have Path to kill Exarch, and everything kills Pestermite. Gaddock Teeg prevents Splinter Twin from being cast, while Ethersworn Canonist forces them to go off without protection. Qasali Pridemage can also stop them from comboing, which actually came up in game 3.

Win 2-1

Goryo’s Vengeance

This deck tries to discard Emrakul and then reanimate it with the trigger on the stack via Goryo’s Vengeance. The discard outlets my opponent ran were Merfolk Looter, Magus of the Bazaar, and Zombie Infestation. Again, we have a combo that mostly relies on a creature living. I manage to kill all of the looters that he plays. And while he does have Zombie Infestation both games, he does not manage to naturally draw the combo before dying.

Win 3-1

Death Cloud

This is the deck that the other half of Florida played (Billy P, Ant, and Sharfman). I was paired against Sharfman this round. Basically his whole deck was good against Zoo: Sakura-Tribe Elder, Kitchen Finks, Obstinate Baloth, Primal Command, Death Cloud, etc.

I somehow manage to win via exceedingly aggressive draws games 2 and 3. Game 3 I had to topdeck a land for my Deathmark, a Path, and a second Deathmark in consecutive turns to win. This was to answer his Baloth, Finks, and Baloth that he cast in the same turns.

Win 4-1


This matchup is favorable for Zoo because of how much removal you have and how small their average creature is. Grim Lavamancer is an all-star here. The most annoying card in their deck by far is Etched Champion, and you can definitely randomly lose to that and/or Fling. In this match I actually had a Cranial Plated Etched Champion flung at me, but had the Lightning Helix in response to go to two life.

Win 5-1(in Modern)


This matchup sure was a lot easier when we had access to Umezawa’s Jitte. You would think it would be favorable because of what I’ve been saying about combo decks that are reliant on creatures, but the deck is literally all creatures. It is entirely possible to run out of removal. You are pretty close to 50/50 here, and again Grim Lavamancer is your best card.

I had a really weird game 3 here where I kept two Lightning Bolt, two Tribal Flames, and three lands. I figured I could kill all of his relevant creatures and draw a threat in the interim, or just find another burn spell and go all to the face. When he goes to 16 from lands by turn 2, I just silently hope that he will not try to go off. He passes on turn 3 after only attacking, so I double Bolt him and then untap, play a land, and double Flames him.

Win 6-1 (in Modern)

Pod w/ Twin Combo

I am not sure if this is really a played deck or not, but it was definitely a bad matchup for Zoo. The deck’s early game was all things to get in the way like Coiling Oracle, Wall of Roots, and Spellskite. And the late game was a bunch of hard to deal with stuff like Reveillark and Grave Titan. You know, in addition to the combo randomly thrown in for good measure. Anyway, I won game 1 thanks to his having an awkward draw and then lost the other games handily.

Loss 6-2 (in Modern)

Zoo (Medium)

His deck was definitely closer to mine than Kibler’s, but stuck to Naya colors and ran Knight of the Reliquary. Zoo mirrors often come down to attrition, and once the board was clear game 1 he topdecked more lands than I did. Game 2 he took on the back of Elspeth and Ranger of Eos, since he had more or less the same mirror plan as me. Game 3 I was able to get a fast triple one-drop start and remove anything he played that could effectively block, before burning him out.

The way game 3 played out is the one advantage that Tribal Zoo has in the mirror. You are capable of much faster starts, so you can have games where they are on their back foot the whole time and you are able to burn them out. But still, a more likely scenario is that the games will go long, and the deck with the bigger spells will come out on top.

I cut a land after sideboard in the Zoo mirrors I played, since running out of gas first is a surefire way to lose. Plus they will Path a guy at some point, so you are all but guaranteed to get to four mana eventually.

Win 7-2 (in Modern)

Hive Mind

This is another combo matchup that is pretty decent for Zoo. Any deck that is stopped by both Canonist and Teeg isn’t too scary, especially when they are backed up by Thoughtseize.

Game 1 I didn’t have a Thoughtseize, and my Teeg was killed, so that was that. Game 2 I kept Loam Lion, Thoughtseize, Gaddock Teeg, Helix, and three lands, which is a near-perfect hand. I led with Loam Lion and Teeg, planning to Thoughtseize turn 3 before he could Firespout.

But instead he Simian Spirit Guides into Magus of the Moon. I am pretty frustrated with myself because I could have fetched around this; that is why the basics are in the deck, after all. I never draw a Lightning Bolt or basic land to make my Tribal Flames two damage and lose on turn 10 or so to a 4/4 from Pact of the Titan.

As a side note: Blood Moon effects are decent against Zoo, but you probably want the actual enchantment so it cannot be Bolted. I am also not sure how great it is on the draw, but it might be reasonable if you have rituals.

Loss 7-3 (in Modern)

And with that I ended up 7-3 in the Modern portion. I punted at least two games, so I probably could have been 8-2 or even 9-1. Though I did get very lucky against Sharfman, so perhaps the 7-3 is about right.

Kitt went 6-3-1, and Orrin went 3-2, which puts the deck at a 66% win percentage. We were all pretty happy with the list, and I think our metagame predictions were fairly accurate. I would change anything with the list currently, but we will have to see how the metagame shapes between now and Worlds.

Kitt’s finish paired with a solid Limited record allowed him to top 32 his first PT, and I was very happy to have some part in that. Between the top 50 invite and his rating, he is now qualified for both Honolulu and Worlds. One of the best parts of traveling around for Magic is getting to see the world with your friends, so I am excited that he and Megan will be at both tournaments. Just in general I feel very fortunate that so many of my friends (Orrin, BillyP, Sharfman) managed to get on the train at the same time as me.

What about that other Zoo deck?

Early on in the tournament, Ben came to me looking for some advice on how to play the Zoo deck they were piloting:

“Turn 1 do you cast Wild Nacatl, or Zenith for Dryad Arbor to cast turn 2 Knight?”

“Only one of those cards is even in my deck. You should cast that one.”

As I’m sure you all know, Josh Utter-Leyton made the finals of the PT with this Kibler creation:

This is clearly very different from what I ran. The maindeck is ~20 cards off, and the sideboard has almost no similarities. From talking to Kibler, it sounds like he built the deck with the Zoo mirror and Cloudpost in mind. Zenith, Knight, and Gideon Jura (!) are all good trumps in the mirror, so I doubt they had many problems there. We had also kicked around the idea of Flashfreeze for Primeval Titans, but I ultimately decided I’d rather give up the matchup than completely warp my sideboard for it. I think Flashfreeze was a lot more reasonable in their deck though, since they had Hierarchs and Zeniths to accelerate.

Like Kibler, I predicted that Zoo and Cloudpost would be the two most played decks (though we were technically wrong as they were 1st and 3rd). But I thought they would be perhaps 30% of the field combined (they were 35%) and almost everything else would be combo. I think his deck was better suited against that 35%, but weaker to the rest of the field, especially game 1. Having Thoughtseize to disrupt people game 1 was just so huge for us all weekend.

Honestly the decks are so different that they are really only considered the same archetype because of Wild Nacatl and Tarmogoyf. I think both were good; I just personally prefer to play more proactive cards like hand disruption and hatebears. Playing a Fish type deck is perfectly reasonable; I just don’t want to be running the number of mana sources that requires. Anyway, I figured I should talk about the deck a little since it did make the finals. Grats to both Wrapter and Kibler!

So Is Modern a Good Format?

Not yet, but it certainly could be. I believe the goal of the banned list was to ensure that the format looked like no other, and they accomplished that. However, a format that is almost exclusively combo decks is not very interesting. Zoo has the tools to provide some resistance, but I don’t think Zoo and a bunch of combo decks is what we are looking for in a format. There need to be control decks.

It is possible that control will be viable now that the format is more defined and people have a better idea of what threats they need to answer, but I am not holding my breath. I do not think any of the half-dozen viable combo decks are drastically better than the others, so I expect the format to still be somewhat in flux.

How do we fix this? Well, I think they can remove some of control’s tools from the ban list. Jace, the Mind Sculptor and/or Ancestral Vision would go a long way towards making control viable. You can afford to run more specific answers in your deck if you have reliable card advantage/selection engines.

An easy change would be to unban Bitterblossom. Faeries is good at fighting combo, but is terrible against Zoo. This would at least create some sort of balance in the format, since Zoo is generally soft to combo (assuming you have not skewed your deck as I did).

Complaints aside, the format was very good for being the first tournament ever. There were a lot of viable decks, and there was no clear “best deck.” I hope they continue to tweak it because I am definitely excited to play it again at Worlds.

Thanks for reading!

Pat Cox
@wildestnacatl on Twitter