I’ve been playing Zoo for almost two years. Now that it’s starting to make a bit of a resurgence I’d like to show off my take on Zoo featuring my favorite card, Geist of Saint Traft! First, a look at the winning Zoo list from GP Porto Alegre from a few months ago:

Grand Prix Porto Alegre 2015 – Naya Zoo – Marcos Paulo De Jesus Freitas

This is a typical “Big Zoo” list: some efficient burn, Path to Exile to clear blockers or break up combos, all backed by a ton of efficient creatures between 1 and 3 mana. Elspeth, Knight-Errant grants you a bit of reach by jumping any of your creatures over blockers once you’ve entered the mid- to late-game. It can often be enough to sneak in the last few points of damage. Collected Company gives you some flash creatures to surprise attackers or overload counterspells. The Naya mana-base allows you access to some of the best sideboard cards in Modern. This particular list has a few strange sideboard choices that I might not necessarily agree with, but they are mostly powerful cards that, in the right situation, are incredibly effective. I have a vastly different approach to both the Zoo deck’s mainboard and the sideboard. Let’s take a look:

Geist Zoo – Courtney Johnson

Reasons for the Build:
The main point of my build is to be as quick as possible while remaining versatile and interactive. This list is meant to win before turn 5, it doesn’t want to be anywhere near the late game. The most interesting part of this deck is that Tarmogoyf does not make the cut. I’ve played Tarmogoyf in previous Zoo decks, but most of the time he was less impactful than Voice of Resurgence or Qasali Pridemage. Geist of Saint-Traft is the most powerful card in this deck. He is extremely hard to deal with in the Modern format, especially when he is played on turn two off of Noble Hierarch. A 2/2 Hexproof creature that attacks for 6 is really powerful when it is backed up by cards that can help defend him, such as Boros Charm and Dromoka’s Command. For added punch we turn to our exalted triggers and Ghor-Clan Rampager.

Mulligans and Playing the Deck:
It is important to mulligan aggressively with this deck, because your opening turns are very important in shaping the game. One of the issues with this deck is that it becomes a lot less powerful without a 1-drop. Having to miss a play on turn one can cause you to lose the game. You are heavily affected by the number of lands you draw, as you do not have any ways to shape your draw or cycle to churn through your deck.

This deck has a combo that can kill on turn 3 with Noble Hierarch; the combo requires the use of Ghor-Clan Rampager and Boros Charm which can do 20 damage on turn 3 with Wild Nacatl or 18 with either Geist of Saint Traft or Kird Ape. This combo is difficult to assemble, but it can easily win you the game at any point. While Ghor-Clan and Boros Charm can be used separately, both have numerous effective uses. When the two are combined they can surprise the opponent with a huge amount of damage. This is especially effective on an angel token (to dodge Lightning Bolt) or Geist of Saint Traft (to dodge pretty much everything).

People always assume I’m on Tribal Flames Zoo as soon as I get a blue land, but I dislike Tribal Flames as a card, because it is not especially versatile. Plus, adding black will make an already painful mana-base that much more dangerous. Boros Charm is a better card than Tribal Flames. It can deal surprising amounts as a combo card with Ghor-Clan Rampager or it can deal 4 damage to a player at instant speed. Most importantly, it can save your creatures from removal. When people play against aggressive creature decks they always shape their turns around their mass removal, such as Anger of the Gods or Damnation, and Boros Charm is great because it protects your creatures from these effects while remaining a live draw later in the game.

The Sideboard’s Counterspell Suite:
My sideboard follows a different path from most other Zoo decks because it has 7 counter spells. I have these counters in my deck as they can be brought in against a variety of decks and catch my opponents off guard. Unified Will is the best counterspell in this deck and provides an answer for nearly every situation. Having this many counterspells allows me to transition into a “counter-cat” playstyle. Mostly these counters come in against the GB variants, Burn, Scapeshift, Twin, Tron, and blue control decks. The four colour manabase allows us nearly infinite possibilities for our sideboard.

The Good Matchups:
The best matchups for Zoo are usually blue control and combo decks because they have few ways to immediately answer our early aggressive plays. Having 4 Boros Charms in the main deck allows you to survive their main board mass removal or bash them in the head for 4. Bringing in counters out of the sideboard allows you to deal with cards like Timely Reinforcements and Cryptic Command, which are cards they rely on heavily to buy time with while they try to cobble together a win.

Twin is definitely the best blue deck to play against, because we have removal for their creature based combo, some number of counters to win the war against the few cards that really matter such as Anger of the Gods and Splinter Twin. Our aggressive clock lets us keep the pressure on. They have few ways to interact with a Geist of Saint Traft in an effective manner or most of our other creatures for that matter. Voice of Resurgence, Qasali Pridemage and Scavenging Ooze are all great for attacking their game plan from multiple angles. Against the blue matchups I like to take out Ghor-Clan Rampager and Lightning Helix because they aren’t as useful. Lightning Helix would most likely only deal damage to the opponent and having too many Ghor-Clan Rampagers against blue decks can make your hand rather clunky and the trample ability isn’t useful due to the few creatures that blue decks play.

The next best matchups are the GB variants because you have aggressive creatures that outclass your opponent’s creatures and trump their removal spells. Tarmogoyf is the only creature to be concerned about but, he can easily be dealt with by Path to Exile. After sideboard counter-cat becomes a great tactic against this matchup as it allows you to have an aggressive clock while dealing with the few plays your opponent makes each turn via the counter suite. Collected Company is also a useful sideboard card for the G/B variants because it allows you to build up enough creatures to overload their removal. This card can protect against Liliana of the Veil at instant speed, as well as set a surprise attack to get in the last little bit of damage necessary to close out the game. The cards to cut from this matchup would be 2-3 Ghor-Clan Rampager, Dromoka’s Command, and Lightning Helix. Attempting to combo with Ghor-Clan Rampager and Boros Charm is too risky due to all of their removal and having too many of them can make your hand clunky. Dromoka’s Command often just isn’t a good removal spell because Tarmogoyf is typically out of reach and Lightning Helix just isn’t efficient enough. Our counter-cat plan out of the board is where we want to be post-sideboard.

The Nightmare Match and Burn:
The worst matchup for this deck is Amulet Bloom, because it is really hard to deal with their best draws. We do not interact well with their combo, and their combo is usually too quick to race, especially when they have a large blocker in the form of a vigilant Primeval Titan. The plan against Amulet Bloom is to hope to draw as many counterspells and Path to Exiles as possible because you need to deal with the plays which can cause you to lose the game upon resolution.

Burn is an incredibly complex matchup. The Zoo player starts out down a large amount of life due to the vast amount of damage taken from lands. Playing against Burn requires a lot of patience. You need to evaluate the board state constantly and decide if you should start to race or if you need to slow down. Playing more of a control role and allowing your creatures to deal damage while you run them out of cards can be a rewarding strategy. You have a couple good cards in this matchup such as Dromoka’s Command and Lightning Helix. There are other sideboard cards that could be even more effective, but I feel like dedicating sideboard slots to cards specifically for this matchup hurts you too much over the course of a tournament and does not vastly improve the overall matchup. I like to take out all of the Geist of Saint Trafts and Ghor-Clan Rampagers because having 3 and 4 drops against Burn is too slow. Having to tap out for Geist of Saint-Traft can often cost you the game. You need to be able to answer their burn spells and Ghor-Clan Rampager just isn’t needed to get through their creatures as your removal answers them nicely.

I’ve been playing Wild Nacatl for as long as it has been legal in Modern, and I’m very optimistic about the position Zoo has in the current meta. My Zoo deck has the ability to heavily pressure the opponent’s life total while maintaining board presence and interacting with combos. I am overjoyed with the way my Zoo deck can surprise opponents with burst damage, while also protecting its creatures and providing versatile answers to threats and removal. The resiliency of Geist of Saint Traft and Voice of Resurgence allows you to severely restrict the available options your opponent has. The quick clock combined with the ever present threat of surprise damage can force opponents to make mistakes, or just leave them with few good options. While Zoo might seem like a straightforward aggro deck, my list tries to interact as much as possible with the opponent’s deck and requires a pilot that knows the format well in order to sideboard correctly and take the correct lines.