Good Game: Are You Thrilled?

Good Game: Are You Thrilled?
By Andrew Hanson

I'm so excited. Extended season is upon us. Standard has been such a drag recently that playing a fun format like Extended gives the same feeling as discovering the game of Magic for the first time: everything is wonderful and interesting. Are you thrilled for this season? I hope so. Some of you may even be getting ready for a PTQ this very weekend. Me? Thankfully, I don't have to be ready to battle until the 23rd of this month. Why thankfully? Because I need to test.

A Bad Idea

Even so, it still does nothing for three turns.
In my last article, I mentioned that I was working on an Extended deck, but that it was still too early to unveil it. Well, I guess I can talk about it now, especially since I've already abandoned it. The deck tried to make use of Bloodchief Ascension, because I thought that card might be a breaker against both Rubin Zoo and the Tezzerator deck. I mean, when I'm gaining 3 life and they're losing 2 life for every use of Punishing Fire, I win, right? And how good is Thopter Foundry + Sword of the Meek when you're losing 1 life instead of gaining 1 life... and I'm gaining 2 life?

Right, seems pretty sick. There's only one problem: Bloodchief Ascension doesn't do that. What do I mean it doesn't do that? That's what the card says, right? Wrong. What that card says is that it's a 1 CMC enchantment that just sits there, doing nothing for three turns. That's for real.

So, here was my original thought about the Ascension. If online, it pretty much just shuts down your opponent. As for getting it online, this was Extended. I mean, people lose 2 life for just putting their dual lands into play untapped. Plus, if you drop the enchantment into an aggro shell, say, a fast Zoo deck, you could easily get the card online by the end of your turn four, and maybe even by the end of your turn three. I mean, how good would a turn-one Wild Nacatl be if followed by a turn-two Ascension (attack, that's one counter), a one-mana burn spell on their turn if they don't drop an untapped dual (that's two counters), and another attack on your third turn (boom-baby).

The only problem with this notion, though, is that you have to actually see the enchantment. Of course, you can say that about any card in any deck—you have to see your good cards to play them. But with combo decks, they have ways to dig or tutor up their pieces. Aggro decks just play a lot of efficient threats (you don't need to see a Wild Nacatl if you see Kird Ape or Steppe Lynx). Control decks do both (play a lot of efficient answers and play draw spells to dig to those answers). So, what happens when you try to play an aggro deck centered around what is essentially a combo piece?

Ascension? He'll knock you down a peg.
Well, my initial belief was that you either get the combo card in your hand and blow out your opponent, or you get an aggro draw and have to play well but can still win. This notion only works well in a vacuum, when you aren't considering things like a metagame. You see, the aggro shell I planned on using was very similar to the Zoo decks of last season—you know, the ones that lose to Rubin Zoo now. Therefore, if I did not see the Ascension in an opening hand that was also suitably aggressive, I was running an inferior aggro deck. And if you did get an Ascension online really fast, you better hope they don't have a Qasali Pridemage.

Also, if you have experience running a really fast and aggressive Zoo deck, you know that every card in your deck needs to be a decent top deck—either a solid threat, or solid removal. So, an enchantment that does nothing for three turns (and then only does something as long as you have other cards to back it up)? Not exactly a good top deck. If you drew this in the late game, you'd need to be able to do 6 damage to your opponent (well, have them lose 6 life) just to get it working. In the late game, if you can get 6 through to your opponent, you probably just won, and didn't need the enchantment in the first place.

That said, there is probably a shell out there that runs the Bloodchief Ascension well, and it can probably do really well in Extended, if found. But Zoo isn't that shell. And I want to play Zoo.

A Good Idea

But, like I said, the Zoo decks of last season are getting curb-stomped by Rubin Zoo. So the logical answer is to play Rubin Zoo. But here's the problem: I don't want to play midrange. Now, some people call Rubin Zoo an aggro deck, but that's not quite true. I mean, it only runs one playset of one-drop threats. It runs a card advantage engine that gives its opponent life. It runs a five-drop, for crying out loud. Of course, in some matchups, it is the aggro deck. But in many, it'll play the control deck. And, again, it curves to a five drop. It's midrange.

So what's an aggro player to do? Adapt. First off, you don't have to fear Tezzerator too much. I'm not going to say anything insane like it's a bye, or an easy matchup. Hell, I'm not even sure it's favorable. But I don't think it's much worse than even. Plus, if you want mainboard hate for Tezzerator, you don't need to use anything awkward like an Ascension; just run Gaddock Teeg. If he comes down early, past their counters, and they don't have the Path to Exile to answer him, you pretty much just win.

But you do have to fear Rubin Zoo, and adapting for that deck is pretty tricky. One of the first things to do is to neutralize their card advantage as much as possible. That's actually easy—don't run many creatures they can kill with 2 damage from Punishing Fire. That's the first step. The second step? Find a way to put them under pressure early, and to keep it up.

For example, against faster aggro decks, like Domain Zoo, Rubin Zoo is going to win by stealing tempo. It'll try to burn out early drops with its Lightning Bolts and Lightning Helixes, or simply drop a Wild Nacatl in the way to trade with the same. After its speed bumps, Rubin Zoo will then drop huge, hard to answer creatures to further gum up the board (and present threats) while also using the Grove of the Burnwillows + Punishing Fire combo to maintain control.

Really? Yes, really.
So, if you are playing fast aggro against Rubin Zoo, you need a way to keep them from stealing the tempo. My answer? A little green common, largely off the radar, called Thrill of the Hunt.

What does this card do? Well, first off, it can act like a cheap and repeatable counter to Lightning Bolt, Lightning Helix, and their ilk. If you see one Thrill of the Hunt, it can counter two Lightning Bolts. That kind of early game advantage is really good against Rubin. Secondly, it can get you around Rubin Zoo's second line of defense: its creatures. If you're holding a Thrill of the Hunt, your Wild Nacatl beats their Wild Nacatl. Hell, even your Kird Ape beats their Nacatl. Similarly, your Tarmogoyf beats theirs, and your three-drop beats their three-drop. You get the idea. It lets you keep swinging into their board, retaining your aggro tempo, while not losing your threats.

I ran this card quite a bit last Extended season to deal with the Zoo mirror, and it was always a blowout. I only wish I could claim credit for "discovering" it. That goes to Todd Anderson, who debuted the card in an article last season.

But enough, here's the decklist:

Thrilling Zoo, by Andrew HansonMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
4 Arid Mesa
1 Forest
4 Misty Rainforest
1 Mountain
1 Plains
2 Sacred Foundry
4 Scalding Tarn
2 Stomping Ground
1 Temple Garden

3 Gaddock Teeg
4 Kird Ape
4 Knight of the Reliquary
4 Steppe Lynx
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Wild Nacatl

3 Burst Lightning
4 Lightning Bolt
2 Lightning Helix
4 Path to Exile
4 Thrill of the Hunt

The Cards

First things first, let's talk about the deck's namesake card. What does Thrill of the Hunt do? Well, as I mentioned above, it can counter burn. Well, it doesn't really counter the burn, but it can push your guys past that 3 toughness threshold to survive a bolt. This means that if your opponent doesn't burn out your turn one creature (hopefully Nacatl), you can just leave a green mana up for the next few turns and really turn that burn spell on your opponent's head.

Against Rubin Zoo, it's been really nice being able to keep my early creatures on the board. There are a number of draws in which Rubin needs to burn your guys away if it wants to live to play its big threats (or get its combo online), and a Thrill of the Hunt hoses them not only once, but twice.

Zoo on Zoo is a cat eat cat world.
And Thrill means your cats don't go hungry.
Sometimes, Rubin's defense is playing creatures right alongside yours. You have a turn one Nacatl? So do they. Goyf? Them, too. But the Thrill gets you past them. Run your Nacatl into theirs (barring burn in your hand, of course—kill their Nacatl first, if you can). You'll just trade half a Thrill for their creature. And when you have them on the ropes because their creatures have been dying and yours haven't, keep that Path ready for when they try to drop a Baneslayer Angel. Nothing says "good game" like taking out their 5 CMC monster with a 1 CMC spell.

But Thrill's usefulness doesn't end there. A number of combo decks will run red in them (usually, it's part of their combo), and they'll run burn to deal with combo breakers like Meddling Mage or Gaddock Teeg. Thrill of the Hunt can also protect your breakers.

For example, when I was testing against Scapeshift combo, all it took to win was a Gaddock Teeg and a Thrill of the Hunt. If I had both of those cards, it felt like I couldn't lose. Why? Because Teeg not only turns off their one-card combo, it also turns off their counters and bounce (Cryptic Command, Condescend, and Repeal), leaving them with only one way to deal with Teeg: Firespout. But when they go for the board sweep (and the apparent win), you can often just show the Thrill and they'll concede. You get to save Teeg and, if you think it's necessary, another threat like Nacatl or Ape, while they are clearing their own board out of the way for you (if they still have creatures out).

Now, a friend did say that I should be running a different card than Thrill: Vines of the Vastwood. His big argument was that the Vines can save one of your creatures from a Path. This is true. In fact, a Vines can save your creature from a Path, a burn spell, and it can even pump your creature over theirs. So why not run it over Thrill, which only deals with burn and creatures? Well, the thing about Thrill is that it does what does twice. With four Vines, you only can stop Path/burn/block four times total. Considering that about half of Rubin Zoo are cards you would need to answer, the chances that they will get more problem cards than you get Vines is pretty high.

Only once? Not enough.
But with four Thrills, you have eight answers to burn/blocks. Rubin will probably still see more problem cards than you see Thrills, but if you see two Thrills, you've dealt with four of their cards. With this card, I wasn't really looking for something big and splashy, I was looking for a little edge that gave me efficient persistence. This is also why I wouldn't consider spells like Giant Growth or Colossal Might—they only work once.

The only thing Thrill doesn't really save is Steppe Lynx. But I include the kitty because it is sick. I was wary of him at first because he gets killed by a Punishing Fire pretty easily and an unpumped Lynx dies to a Bolt unless I give it both uses of a Thrill. But he is absolutely nutty against just about everything else. I mean, nothing compares to a 4/5 swinging on turn two. Just two of them, with enough fetch lands and some burn, can be a turn three win. Not the best card against Rubin Zoo, but then, Rubin Zoo isn't going to be every match you play.

Burst Lightning was a weird choice. Originally, I ran a pair of Seal of Fires and Tarfires because they could ramp up Tarmogoyf. But, against Rubin Zoo, those spells are really only good going to an opponent's face (sometimes they can snag a Noble Heirarch in a timely manner), and they have the unfortunate side-effect of pumping your opponent's Tarmogoyfs. Rubin Zoo plays so many fatties that are out of your burn range that your Path to Exiles are stretched pretty thin. If you don't go out of your way to pump Goyf, burn and other creatures plus Thrill of the Hunt can fight him, taking a little of that pressure off your white instants.

But even if I just axed the Shock variants, I was asking myself two important questions: am I comfortable with running fewer burn spells (answer: no), and how do I get advantage out of my opponent's Path to Exiles. You see, a friend of mine commented on the dynamic of Paths in Rubin Zoo vs. Aggro Zoo. In Rubin Zoo, they can whip out their Paths whenever they want because they aren't accelerating Aggro Zoo into any big plays. But Aggro Zoo can't whip out early Paths willy nilly, because you could be accelerating Rubin into Baneslayer Angel.

Can kill Tarmogoyf. Not efficient, but it works.
So what do I do to keep my burn count up and to capitalize on Path? Well, Burst Lightning, I suppose. I mean, it's burn, and 2 damage for a 1 CMC isn't terrible. Also, it can be for 4 damage, which can be pretty intense in a top deck situation, especially if an opponent thinks they're safe because they're just out of Bolt range. But there's another thing that Burst Lightning can do, especially against Rubin Zoo: it can kill Goyf.
You see, maindeck, against the list that Kibler won Austin with, Tarmogoyf can't get bigger than 3/4. That's right, if you look at my list and his, you'll notice that every spell is either a land, creature, or instant. Well, alright, there is one exception. There is a single planeswalker in Rubin Zoo, that one Elspeth, Knight-Errant. So, as long as she's not dead, Goyf will only be a 3/4 and a kicked Burst Lightning will kill him. It's nothing to write home about, but it's not terrible.

The only other card in the deck that felt awkward was the Knight of the Reliquary. The thing about this guy is that he's huge and awesome...sometimes. Originally, I ran Woolly Thoctar in this spot, but switched it over to the Knight after some analysis and testing. I'll show this in a simple pro-con sort of way.

Woolly Thoctar
Pros: He's a 5/4 for a 3 CMC always, no strings attached. That's the epitome of efficiency.
Cons: He's a 5/4 always. Sometimes, a 5/4 just isn't big enough. When is that, you ask? Well, when your opponent is holding 6/6 Knights of the Reliquary, or even a Baneslayer and you're out of Thrills (or never had them).

Knight of the Reliquary
Pros: He's usually a 4/4 for a 3 CMC, which is pretty efficient. He also can make himself much larger given just one turn to activate his ability (he digs up a fetch land). And, if need be, he can make Steppe Lynx legit (usually best used when the Knight is still just a 4/4; that way, you attack with a 4/5 and end up with a 6/6), which is really sick if you have multiple Lynxes in play.
Cons: Sometimes, he's just a 3/3. I've never actually had him when he would just be a 2/2 coming down, but I suppose it's possible. This is the only real con for the Knight, but I felt it was significant enough to rule him out.

Beauty and a Beast?
After some playtesting, I realized that the con for the Knight was not actually that important. Most often, when playing my Thoctars, I'd check my graveyard just to see how big the Knight would be. The vast majority of the time, he would have been a 4/4, which is perfectly acceptable for a three drop, especially since he can grow. So I made the switch, and don't regret it at all. Sure, sometimes he's just a 3/3, which is scary for me (what if they have Bolt or Firespout?), but most often he's out of burn range, and he plays oh so nice with the kitties. Plus, activating him just once makes him even scarier than a Goyf.

For the sideboard, I feel there's a lot of neat things going on there. First off, and least interesting, are the extra Helixes. When I was originally talking about Zoo at the shop, someone commented that Helix was terrible in Extended now. That's not quite true, but it has certainly lost some of its awesomeness with the advent of Rubin Zoo. But, if you're planning on hitting the PTQ scene, you need to disavow yourself of the notion that every deck is going to be Rubin Zoo.

This is Extended, which means that there are many many many many many decks that are tier one. Not even Rubin Zoo is going to take up 33% of a metagame. Like I said, it's midrange, which means fast combo decks could be rough on it (Meddling Mages out of the board aren't bad, though), and there are plenty of them in this season's Extended. Also, from everything I've been hearing, Tezzerator and its ilk (Blue/X control decks) tear Rubin Zoo to shreds. Therefore, get ready for a more dynamic rock-scissor-paper-gun-knife-vehicular manslaugher kind of metagame, where one deck's popularity one week could mean another deck's the next week.

Which means you need to be ready for the older Zoo decks, especially Domain Zoo. You don't want to get blown out by Steppe Lynxes and Wild Nacatls backed by Tribal Flames simply because you don't have the virtual two-for-one of Lightning Helix when you could be playing it. There could be plenty of matches where the removal plus life gain will be too important to pass up.

The Ghost Quarters would be next for least interesting. I mean, it's straight up hate for Dark Depths combo. I'm not sure if it's really good against other decks—though I think it may be good against Rubin Zoo as well. You could take out their Groves to turn off their combo, or even hit their basic Plains if they have it out already—it's the only one in their deck, and you may be able to knock them off double W for Baneslayer. Especially if you've kept Hierarchs off the board.

Qasali Pridemage is the obligatory enchantment and artifact hate. Normally, as long as a deck runs both red and green, it'll run some amount of Ancient Grudges to deal with artifacts and Affinity. This is something I support. In fact, it's something I want to do—I'm just not sure where to stuff the Grudges. Grudges are sick against Affinity, but that deck has taken a pretty big hit with the M10 rules change (no more damage on the stack tricks for the Arcbound Ravager), and can also be good against Tezzerator. It's nice to be able to get some card advantage out of your hate. But I decided against the Grudges because of the next card, which is also great against Tezzerator, and makes including Grudges feel like hate specifically for Affinity.

Counter Zoo?
Negate is neat in a Zoo deck. Granted, it'll never be that extra reach you need to burn out an opponent, and it'll never put them under beats pressure. But it's as good and surprising as Thrill of the Hunt can be. I mean, against Tezzerator, how good is it to counter their Gifts Ungiven? Or their Wrath of God? Or their Thopter Foundry? I mean, it can counter pretty much everything in their deck. It's a great edge against the more controlling decks. Plus, you can use it as combo disruption, too, especially against Hypergenesis.

Speaking of combo breakers, where would we be without Meddling Mage? Why is he good? Why isn't he? Look at him. There doesn't need to be much said, and he can patch up a lot of holes that the deck may have. You know, he might actually be the least interesting sideboard inclusion in the deck, simply because his worth is so obvious.

The last card in the sideboard is the one I expect to raise the most eyebrows. Steam Vents? A land? I mean, it's not hard to figure out, but why isn't it just in the main? Excellent question, and not one I can answer with full conviction. In the end, I wanted a basic Forest in my maindeck for two reasons: first, it gives me more lands to fetch without pain and to fetch from Path; second, it gives me resilience against All In Red – an early Blood Moon is pretty savage. At least with the maindeck Forest I can hope.

Plus, I'll never need the Steam Vents unless it's post board, and my opponent will never see a blue-producing land in game one, and therefore my boarding might be a surprise. Of course, I don't have to fetch up the Steam Vents in game one, and can have both the surprise and an extra sideboard slot if I just removed it...

This is the list I've been testing with recently, and it's been doing pretty well. Against any deck that runs Firespout as a board sweeper for Zoo, Thrill of the Hunt is a savage beating. Against Rubin Zoo, it gives the deck the persistence it needs to win (I'm not saying anything silly like it makes me the clearly favored deck, but it does make the match quite winnable). And it's never a useless, dead card—you can always use it for two extra damage for two mana. Not exactly the most efficient use of mana, but never a dead card.

And sometimes, it can be just downright Thrilling.


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