Inside the Zoo Deck
By Blake Rasmussen
Here's the gist of what you need to know about the Zoo deck the main contingent of the ChannelFireball squad is sporting this weekend: they tried a bunch of different decks, from combo to control to Windbrisk Heights/Summoning Trap decks, liked some, liked some less, and then ended up playing pretty much the same deck they played at Worlds last year.
The interesting part, however, is the why.
As you can see, there's nothing terribly original about the deck. There are a few slots here and there that differentiate it from other Zoo decks, even from other Zoo decks being played here at the Players Championship (Owen Turtenwald and Reid Duke played Zoo decks with wildly different sideboards). It even bears a passing resemblance to the Counter-Cat deck Josh Utter-Leyton finished second with at Pro Tour Philadelphia.
But it says a lot about how this particular wedge of the ChannelFireball team – Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Utter-Leyton, David Ochoa and Luis Scott-Vargas – views the Modern format generally and this tournament in particular.
Damo da Rosa said the team tested a ton of decks for this tournament running the gamut from fair to unfair and everything in between. The results were, well, they were somewhat awkward.
"It depended on if people were playing unfair decks," the Latin American representative said. "For example, Jund is good against fair decks, but not against unfair ones."
The team came to the conclusion at some point that there would be a number of Life from the Loam based Jund decks, similar to the deck that won Grand Prix Lincoln, and that Pyroclasm would be a heavily played card.
That led them fairly early on to realize that the Delver of Secrets decks, especially the ones packing Geist of Saint Traft, would be vulnerable to the two-damage sweeper as well as to Liliana of the Veil. That particular pair gave those decks a catch-22: either play around Pyroclasm and play into Liliana's black-mana infused hands, or play around Liliana and get decimated by Pyroclasm.
Instead, Damo da Rosa said, the team opted to sidestep the problem entirely by playing more creatures with three toughness. Enter Kird Ape and Loam Lion (as well as Tarmogoyf, who was always there anyway).
From there they started tuning for the expected metagame. They didn't think there would be many combo decks (correct), but figured Zoo could sometimes goldfish fast enough anyway (which was similar to their thinking at Philadelphia as well, actually). They also reasoned that players would play Jund colors (correct again), but that they would pick the Life from the Loam version (incorrect).
Basically, they expected a lot of green decks (correct) but didn't expect others to be on Zoo (not quite correct). Also, no one really saw Æther Vial Control coming, but that's another story (see Shouta Yasooka).
The team also looked at deck complexity. Damo da Rosa said that, at something like a Grand Prix, the team could look at something more controlling or complex because they could gain an edge by simply outplaying their opponents. But here, at the Players Championship where everyone is basically among the best at what they do, that just wasn't the case.
"Normally this would have been a good tournament for Storm," Damo da Rosa said, pointing out that he expected mostly the kind of decks Storm preyed upon. "But we couldn't really find a list that we liked."
Instead they had to make a choice, Damo da Rosa said, between going bigger or going faster. They chose faster when bigger wasn't working out like they wanted it to, and like that, they were on Zoo.
From there, the major change from their Worlds deck was adding Geist of Saint Traft which, while vulnerable to Pyroclasm, was very good against decks like Blue-Red-Green and White-Blue-Red that had no common ways to attack the legend.
From there they honed a sideboard that turned out to be very good against the decks that showed up at the Players Championship. Elspeth, Knight Errant, Lingering Souls, and Thrun, the Last Troll are all strong in the mirror, which often comes down to attrition.
The Lingering Souls were especially impressive since, as Damo da Rosa pointed out, the matches where it's good are typically ones where the last creature standing wins, no matter how small that creature may be. Against Zoo, for example, they often have to trade a whole spell for a single Spirit token.
The Mana Leaks and Relics of Progenitus were essentially hedges against any unfair decks that might show up, while Shatterstorm was the lone nod to Affinity in the sideboard (though Pyroclasm was a strong spell in that matchup as well). Damo da Rosa pointed out that, if the team had expected more unfair decks, it was likely the two Qasali Pridemages in the main deck would have been Mana Leaks instead.
As it turned out, their sideboard ended up being far superior for this particular tournament than that of Reid Duke and Owen Turtenwald. For comparison, here's what they registered:
- 1 Geist of Saint Traft
- 2 Grafdigger's Cage
- 4 Mindbreak Trap
- 3 Oblivion Ring
- 2 Ranger of Eos
- 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
In a tournament where literally no one is playing Storm, Mindbreak Trap is a virtual blank. Thalia also loses some value when so many players are playing creature-based decks, and Grafdigger's Cage is mostly a Birthing Pod spoiler, which no player came with.
Nonetheless, Damo da Rosa thought their read on the metagame was still pretty wrong. They didn't see all of the Jund coming from the Japanese players and Martin Juza and they hadn't counted on so many Kitchen Finks, which make their Kird Apes look a bit silly.
Still, after looking through the decks in attendance, Damo da Rosa said he didn't regret their deck choice at all. And with six rounds plus the Top 4 geared up to feature Modern, that choice could make or break their tournament.