Pattern Recognition #106 - Zoo

Features Opinion Pattern Recognition


18 April 2019


Hello everyone, and welcome back to Pattern Recognition, TappedOut.Net's longest running article series. Written by myself, berryjon, I aim to bring to my reading audience each week a different look into some aspect of Magic: The Gathering - be it an individual card, a mechanic, a theme, or even just general history. I am something of an Old Fogey and Smart Ass, so please take what I say with a grain of salt. I enjoy a good discussion on the relevant subject matter!

Today, I'm going to take you all to the Zoo.

No, not that one. Or that one.



OK, so "Zoo" is a deck archetype that has come and gone over the course of Magic's history. While the specifics have changed, the core design has not.

The "Zoo" is a deck that leverages their excellent creatures in the early game to maximize damage output and get the kill before the opponent can recover.

Yeah. No. I'm still not describing this right. Let's start from the other end.

OF the five colours of Magic, the three that are far and away just simply better with creatures are , and .

Now, I cannot and will not state for certain in the here and now which is best, because there are a great many criteria and different ways to measure this. However, I can give some sweeping generalizations before moving on to the specifics.

First is that these are the three colours that, at any given mana cost, will have creatures whose power will more likely be higher than their toughness. These are the three colors that can boost their power and toughness the easiest, and these are the three colours that have the most ways to augment their creatures - be it through equipment or enchantments or more temporary means into being just plain better.

The zoo Archetype leverages these factors, in addition to certain utility effects that can be found on those same creatures, to an early lead in the game, and from there a close out finish

And to demonstrate this, I would like to introduce you to some of these creatures on which the whole deck revolves. Savannah Lions, Isamaru, Hound of Konda, Kird Ape, Loam Lion, Wild Nacatl, Watchwolf, and those aren't the stupidly expensive ones, like Tarmogoyf!

These creatures all have a few things in common. First is that they all have a power greater than their casting cost (with a couple of caveats), they all have a very low casting cost, and they all synergize very well with each other.

Seriously, a Stomping Ground leading into Kird Ape, followed by Temple Garden or Sacred Foundry for Wild Nacatl? Yeah, that's the sort of explosive combat growth that this deck wants and goes for all its worth.

But these creatures cannot be fed without a good mana base to support them. And when I say 'good', I mean the best. I mentioned in the previous paragraph three of the famous Ravnican Shock Lands, and a good Zoo deck will run a full play-set of them, just for starters.

To put this in perspective, I played Zoo back in Ravnica Standard. Or rather, I played against Zoo as the seer power of the mana base meant that those cards were expensive. Back then, they were about $25.00 Canadian a pop, and I joked without joking that the mana base of my opponents was worth more than my entire deck.

And it's the Ravnican Shock Lands that make this whole deck go. They are the linchpin of any non-Legacy version of the deck, given that only in Legacy are the Alpha Lands of cards like savanna even legal. Sure, the Bicycle lands of Amonkhet also contain those absolutely necessary conditions of having basic land types, but they lack the ability to come into play tapped from the start of the game, and they lack the necessary land pair () to complete the cycle.

In addition, the Invasion/Ice Age "Pain" Lands, those that can produce multiple types of mana, but lack the basic land types, are a nice addition to the mana base, but not required. Things like Brushland or Battlefield Forge can supplement the Ravnican Shock Lands.

Straight up, Zoo lives and dies by its mana base, and I'll come back to this when I get to this deck archetype's weaknesses.

Now of course, this deck is more than just its creatures and its lands. What do you think this is? White Weenie? Nay, I say!

If you're in these three colours, called "Naya" after the Alaran Shard to bear that name, then there are quite a few major options when it comes to Enchantments, Sorceries and Instants to benefit your deck.

First, and perhaps most important and iconic, is the ever-faithful and trustworthy Lightning Helix. This card slots perfectly into this deck's mana curve, and can be used either on the face of an opponent, or to remove a creature to allow your own creatures to swing in for the win.

In addition to that, keeping on the Burn degree, Lightning Bolt and Char are both nice options. After that, there is a certain degree of choice. Giant Growth and Brute Force both do the same thing, and keep the mana costs of the deck very low to the ground. In that same vein, Bathe in Light can, with the right luck, protect your creatures long enough to survive the back swing, or to get through defenses that cannot be burned.

Umezawa's Jitte is a common piece of equipment in this deck, given the rapid ability to attack, attack and attack some more. Though I prefer Mage Slayer for the more direct application of power.

After this though, it's often up to the individual player to determine what they want to include in the deck. Cards to deal with Enchantments? White and Green have you covered. More burn or removal? White and Red are there. Keep on the efficient creature train? Red and Green got your back. These three colours have everything creature-related covered, without a doubt.

Now, this is not to say that this deck is without problems. No. Far from it. Zoo has never quite been a permanent fixture in Top 8's throughout the game, and there is a very good reason for that.

This deck is quite weak to Combo decks in general. With little ability to interact with an opponent past sheer damage, this deck is vulnerable to some disruption. A card as unobtrusive as Unsummon can and will ruin your day, let alone your match. If the Control deck can hold you off long enough to go off, well, as it says on Magic Arena: Winning at 1 life is the same as winning at 20 life. This lack of interaction is a fatal flaw in the deck's design, and can be exploited fully.

On another hand, another flaw is that this deck is extremely low to the ground in terms of costs, which means that this deck tends to run out of steam on turn 4 or 5. A mid-range deck that plays for time and trades creatures with an eye to the long game can and will come out ahead.

Yet again, a dedicated burn deck might be able to keep abreast of this style of deck, especially with cards like Goblin Chainwhirler. The single point of damage may not seem like a lot, but it does put most, if not all, of the creatures in a Zoo deck firmly within reach of a Shock kill, and a 3/3 with First Strike can and will wreck this deck's day.

Hell, a 1/1 with First Strike can wreck this deck in the Standard environment, not that me and my Boros Recruit are the centerpiece of one of my personal story favourites in reminding people that rarer does not mean better when it comes to cards.

There is also another flaw in this deck, one that is not quite readily apparent, but one that can be seen when people go through my cards mentioned so far in the article. You see, this deck reached its heyday with the Ravnica Block, and while that glorious set is well deserving its fame and fortune, it also provided a lot of tools for this deck, including the much-loved Shock Lands.

And it was in this environment that Zoo made its mark on the game. The idea that one would Fetch land into Shock Land into aggressively costed creature was born in this Extended Environment. Sure, it was something that was used by many decks before and since, but Zoo took the sheer pace of being able to drop cards and swing for the win to a before-unappreciated level.

But with the loss of Ravnica, even with the replacement of Alara in Standard, the effect was lost. Wizards had wised up to the issues, even going so far as to ban Wild Nacatl for a while just to put a crimp on the deck archetype. Which worked out too well in the long run, and Zoo faded in favor of different flavours of aggro.

Now don't get me wrong, I love Aggro as my deck archetype of choice, but my personal opinion of this deck is very ambivalent. I like what it's trying to do, and I admire the lengths it goes through to gain some sort of consistency. However, in pursuit of this single-minded goal, the devotion to face-smashing, I find it lacking. Pure can and will do more, faster, and with recent additions to Burn's arsenal, it can keep going long after classic Burn and Zoo run out.

Other creature focused aggro decks, like Boros, Gruul or even Selesnya in nature each share the basic strengths of Zoo, but in dropping the third color, tighten up their mana base considerably, and can provide a more elegant focus to their solutions to various problems that cannot exist in a tri-color deck.

For those of you who want to see what a more contemporary Zoo deck looks like, take a look no further than Ixaland's Dinosaur decks, and how they handle triple colors for their dinos. Though this one is more midrange than straight aggro, so the implementation is different. But it's a good place to start.

And, because I haven't done one of these in a while, I would like to offer you all my primer on how a Zoo deck operates. Remember, these decks are examples, not finished products.

Patterns in the Zoo

Modern berryjon


Join me next week, when I talk about something new! Perhaps I'll go back to White's section of the colour pie, perhaps not!

Until then, please consider donating to my Pattern Recognition Patreon. Yeah, I have a job, but more income is always better. I still have plans to do a audio Pattern Recognition at some point, or perhaps a Twitch stream. And you can bribe your way to the front of the line to have your questions, comments and observations answered!

This article is a follow-up to Pattern Recognition #105 - White Crust The next article in this series is Pattern Recognition #107 - Lifegain

Flooremoji says... #1

Although you probably were going back to pre- Fleecemane Lion /Nostalgia days, its a little better then Watchwolf :)

Good article as always!

April 18, 2019 2:55 p.m.

TypicalTimmy says... #2

You mention that the deck falls to combo decks. Would something such as Reclamation Sage / Broken Bond / Naturalize in sideboards?

There are clear benefits to all three of these, depending on what you need:

  • Sage is a 2/1, who under appropriate circumstances can be a decent creature. For example, if you are not up against a deck with burn aspects in it, you can always Giant Growth / Brute Force / Mutagenic Growth it for some serious power. Effectively, you are packing a combo-stopper inside of a creature that benefits from the Zoo archetype.

  • Bond allows you to hit your land drops. Perhaps you are slowed down for some reason. Perhaps you'd like to replace a land or two with more pump or more removal, and thus getting what lands you do have out earlier are all the more important. Perhaps you've gone a bit more budget and opted into lands such as Gruul Turf or are looking to optimize on your draw, so you choose scry lands such as Temple of Plenty . What Broken Bond will allow you to do is tap your land to gain the mana from it, drop your stronger land for the turn that enters tapped, then play Broken Bond to crack down on combo pieces and play the land you just returned to your hand. If you are wise, you returned a basic land so you can replay it untapped and gain an extra mana.

  • Lastly, Naturalize is just a powerful instant. Once your opponent declares their combo to start, slip in at the right moment and destroy it on the stack and watch their entire combo end.

April 20, 2019 1 a.m.

berryjon says... #3

Naturalize has been replaced by Return to Nature from War (it's not in the system yet, so no linking) as being strictly better by allowing precision removal of a card from a graveyard as well, but yeah, there are options available for match ups like this.

April 20, 2019 7:46 a.m.

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