Good Game: Can Zoo Q for Honolulu

Two weeks ago, some friends and I made the journey to Albequerque, where a PTQ for Honolulu was being held. Albequerque is nothing like Los Angeles or Kyoto. We didn't get lost in a place where we can't speak the language, [html=]it didn't take us 45 minutes to get around the corner of a block, and no hooker came calling to our hotel room at four in the morning[/html].

That said, the PTQ was still exciting and loads of fun. There were three of us in my car, and four more players from Tucson came separately a few hours later (two of whom were guys I traveled to Albequerque with last time I went). We didn't do as well as last time, when four out of four Tucson players made top eight, but two of us still made it to the single-elimination rounds.

The format was Extended. My deck: Naya Zoo, aka Naya Burn. Why? After some testing, I found the deck was just as fast and deadly as Domain Zoo (same turn one threats, most of the same burn), but lacked the fragility that the five color version seemed to have. I had redundancy on my lands, making something like Molten Rain much less devastating, and I could run my creatures in without reservation (something that is much harder when your creatures are Dark Confidant or Tidehollow Sculler). Plus, I could run Sulfuric Vortex without having to run out three Ravnica dual lands (in order to build the full domain), getting a basic land for my third land instead. It may not seem like much, but the loss of 2 life adds up fast.

Here's the list I ran, with some inspiration from other writers online:

Naya ZooMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
3 Bloodstained Mire
1 Forest
1 Mountain
1 Plains
2 Sacred Foundary
3 Stomping Ground
1 Temple Garden
4 Windswept Heath
4 Wooded Foothills

2 Ethersworn Canonist
4 Hellspark Elemental
4 Kird Ape
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Wild Nacatl

2 Incinerate
4 Lightning Helix
3 Path to Exile
2 Seal of Fire
3 Sulfuric Vortex
4 Tarfire

I went with Mike Flores' idea here, and decreased the number of two-drop burn spells for one-drop Shock-variants. The reasons are two-fold. First is Flores' argument: Bant decks are on the rise, and nothing is a bigger pain to deal with than a Rhox War Monk (other than maybe a Kitchen Finks). Barring a Path to Exile in my hand, the War Monk is going to be a two-for-one in the Bant player's favor, so as a Zoo player, I may as well mitigate that as much as possible. Spending only two mana for two burn spells is much better than spending three mana. I could still make another play that turn or, if I have four mana, have a 3 damage burn spell ready.

Second: Turn three can be an awkward time for a Zoo player. If they already ran out their one-drop creatures (if they had more than one in their opening hand), they may find themselves with an open mana. Now, the Zoo player could always tutor up a dual land and put it into play tapped, but that isn't maximizing their plays per turn. By upping the number of one-drop burn spells, the deck has a better chance of being able to spend all its mana each turn.

Tech? Maybe...
The Ethersworn Canonists in the main, as well as the two Thrill of the Hunts in the board, were an idea I got from a writer at Star City Games. The Canonist gives Zoo a better matchup against TEPS and Elves pre-board, which may be two of Zoo's most difficult matchups (not counting the new Loam variants coming out). The Thrill of the Hunt was meant for the mirror match. Now, I imagine some of you out there are pulling your hair out and demanding to know where the Kitchen Finks are. Yes, the Finks are good in the mirror. They give their player life and are a source of card advantage. At least, that was true in the days before Path to Exile.

Now, Zoo players have Path. It takes out the Tarmogoyf and the Finks. And the former is why I went with the Thrill. Tarmogoyf. A few days before we left for New Mexico, one of my friends saw my sideboard I was planning on. Where the Thrill is now, there were Circle of Protection: Reds. This bothered him greatly. I said it's good against Sulfuric Vortex and can give me the win against burn races (not to mention shutting out Lightning Bolt.dec completely). He said it's just going to prevent me from playing my other spells in the mirror. He said protection from burn means nothing as the burn will be mostly aimed at my creatures anyways. The mirror match, he said, is all about Tarmogoyf, and whichever player's Goyf is the last one on the table wins.

Now, I hadn't had a chance to test CoP: Red at that point (all my arguments where theoretical), but I had done Zoo mirrors before. And when I thought back on them, I realized my friend was right. Burn went to creatures (only going to the dome at the very end of the game), and the winner was whomever had a Goyf at the end.

Really, it wasn't just having the last Goyf, whoever had the last creatures won. So, I went back to something I read on the net. A writer had mentioned Thrill of the Hunt for the mirror—it set up two-for-ones when blocking happened, and it won the Goyf-on-Goyf fights not once, but twice thanks to its flashback. And, even if the opponent was planning on using a Lightning Helix or some other 3 damage burn spell to finish off your Goyf, Thrill of the Hunt says no. In theory, it seemed alright, so I decided to run it over the CoP: Reds. In the end, I like it. There were more matchups where the Thrill of the Hunt was useful than CoP: Red would have been. In fact, there was only one match I had where I would have boarded in the Circle, and I don't think it would have helped. My opponent was using green creatures.

But, enough on my card choices. Let's see how it played.

Round 1, Zoo vs. Elves

I had playtested this matchup quite a bit actually. One of my friends that went up with me was planning on using this deck, and switched to Loam-Slide the day before the event. I was not thrilled when my opponent laid a turn one Nettle Sentinel. Even with a plethora of burn spells, Elves can simply run the aggro plan, and cards like Wirewood Symbiote (which you have to burn) and Chord of Calling can turn a game that looks in your favor against you quickly.

Fights right through a Canonist.
He won the die roll, and like I said earlier, opened with a Nettle Sentinel. My hand didn't have any one-drop creatures in it, but it did have a decent two-drop plan. Against anything but combo and Loam, it was a solid hand. Of course, being poor against Loam probably means I should throw it back on game one, when I don't know what my opponent is playing. So no one-drop creature, but I did burn an Elf to keep him from going off on the next turn. Then I drew an Ethersworn Canonist on turn two. Cool.

My opponent played a creature, then passed turn. I played a Hellspark Elemental, which is great against Faeries, but less so against Elves, and he Chord of Callinged at the end of my turn, getting a Wiredwood Hivemaster. Crap. He played another Elf on his turn, then played a second Chord at the end of my next turn, getting his Mirror Entity. I couldn't kill it. On his next turn, an army of 3/3s swung in, and I went from 14 life to -1.

Game 1: loss.

In came the other two Canonists as well as the trio of Pyrostatic Pillars and the fourth Path to Exile. Out came the three Vortexes (elves don't gain life, and if they don't kill me right away, I probably have game) and three of the Hellspark Elementals, as I need my creatures to stick around in this matchup. I also had to mull, but my six card hand seemed good, with some burn, a one-drop creature, and my Ethersworn Canonist again.

So down came my Ape on turn one. Down came his Burrenton Forge-Tender. Son of a...

Even with my Canonist, his Forge-Tender and a Wirewood Symbiote slowed me down and soaked up my removal (a Path to the Kithkin, a Shock to the Insect), which left my opponent with a Hivemaster who was making tokens. Oh, and he played a second Symbiote after I killed the first one. After he had a bunch of tokens, he Chorded for a Mirror Entity again, and this time his army was much scarier, taking me from 17 life to -18. Ouchy.

Game 2: loss.

Match Results: 0-1-0

An inauspicious start for me.

Round 2, Zoo vs. TEPS

What's your storm count?
He won the roll and chose to play (duh). We both kept seven, and when he led with a Flooded Strand, my heart started to do a pitter-patter. He could be playing Faeries, which my hand was alright for, or he could be playing TEPS, and I was holding a Canonist in my hand. Only two in the deck, but somehow it always crept into my hand...

I played a turn one Kird Ape, and he cracked the fetch land and got a Steam Vents. My heart sped up. He played a storage land then passed turn. I attacked, then played the Canonist. He grimaced and said, "In the main, huh?" Two turns later, he conceded, having no answer in his hand to the metal Cleric.

Game 1: win.

Well, the boarding for this is almost the same as for Elves. Except, out come the Vortexes and the Paths (not too many creatures to kill) as well one Tarmogoyf. Why? Because in addition to the other two Canonists and the Pillars, I put in the two Thrills. Why? Pyroclasm and Electrolyze. Now, not every TEPS player plays the Clasm. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that few of them do, but I've seen it. As for Electrolyze, they all play it. And how cool would it be to save my Canonist when my opponent tried to burn it?

He had to mull to six, and he opened with the storage land again, as well as a suspended Lotus Bloom. I didn't have a one-drop. But I kept my seven because it had a Canonist again. He missed his turn two land drop (going all in on one land, huh?), and I dropped the Canonist. He missed his land again, and I played a Hellspark Elemental. Cool thing about Hellsparks: unearth isn't playing a spell (it's an activated ability), which means, as well as being excellent against blue decks, you can unearth him and still play something while Canonist is in play.

He continued to miss his land drops, and conceded two turns later.

Game 2: win.

Match Results: 1-1-0

In that second game, I had the Thrill in my hand the whole time, too, just in case he tried to burn my Canonist. At this point in the tournament, though, the jury was still out on the green instant.

Round 3, Zoo vs. Affinity?

Affinity's worst nightmare.
The reason it's Affinity? and not Affinity (with no question mark) is that this was not a normal affinity build. It may be better to call the deck Extended Esper, or something. I don't really know. What I do know is that my turn one Mogg Fanatic into turn two Goyf, into turn three Tarfire and Wild Nacatl (I missed my third land drop) was enough to get there. In fact, I didn't take a point of damage that wasn't caused by my own lands.

Game 1: win.

Not knowing quite what he was playing, except that he did drop an artifact land, I decided to play it safe, and put the Kataki's in, just in case. Out came the Vortexes, the Canonists, and two of the Hellsparks. In addition to the Kataki's, I put in the fourth Path and the two Duergar Hedge-Mages. My opening hand was a keeper, with Goyf, Kataki, and some burn.

My opponent opened with a turn one Relic of Progenitus. Turns out, that can be pretty good against Goyf and Hellspark. On turn four, he played a Cumberstone.


On my turn four, I played Kataki, and then hit him with an Incinerate at the end of his turn (he didn't do much, paying to keep his artifact lands and his two artifacts alive). On my turn again, I hit him with a Helix so that my Goyf could at least deal some damage through the Stone. An opportune Tarfire got my Goyf hitting for two on the next turn, and a second Tarfire finished my opponent off.

Game 2: win.

Match Results: 2-1-0

Round 4, Zoo vs. W/R/G Loam

Gives Zoo game against Loam
This can be a rough matchup. This version of Loam makes use of creatures like Knight of the Reliquary to outclass Zoo's critters, and to kill quickly once the board has been stabalized in their favor.

He won the roll and got to play. I had to mull to six. He kept a sketchy hand that crawled off the start, just to get his Life from the Loam engine running, while I opened with Kird Ape, a Path on his turn three Finks, and a turn three Vortex. He was never in it, as his deck would rely too heavily on life gain to salvage that game.

Game 1: win.

Boarding is actually pretty easy for this, though I do think I made one mistake. Out came the Canonists, in came the fourth Path and the fourth Vortex. I think I should have also boarded in the Thrill of the Hunts. He runs Goyf and burn to try and tempo me out. A Thrill, in this case, does not necessarily get me card advantage to win, but maintains my tempo. But I didn't board it in, so really, I'm just theorizing.

He got a good hand this game. He killed both my turn one and turn two threats. I made the Vortex on turn three, which gave me a chance, but he landed a Knight of the Reliquary. Even with the burn I had in hand, I couldn't outrace the Knight having not hit him once with my first two creatures. It was close though. He was at 5 life when he killed me. Just one more turn...

Game 2: loss.

We both kept our seven, and I opened with Kird Ape on turn one, and a Mogg Fanatic with a second Ape on turn two. One of the Apes died, but I still made my Vortex play on turn three. An early Vortex all three games against Loam? Someone upstairs must like me. As he never got the chance to drop a life gain card pre-Vortex, the enchantment buried him.

Game 3: win.

Match Results: 3-1-0

This was a pretty big win for me. The Loam decks may be Zoo's worst matchups, so getting the Vortexes all three games was nice.

Round 5, Zoo vs. Zoo

Ah yes, the mirror match. Only, he was running Domain Zoo, going for all five colors and Tribal Flames. Let's see how it went.

What the mirror is all about.
He was on the play, but had to mull to six. But he still got to open with a turn one Nacatl. I also opened with a Nacatl. He made a turn two Ape and a 2 damage burn spell to kill my Cat, then hit for three with the Nacatl. Next, I played a fetch land and passed turn. He attacked with his Cat-Ape team. I cracked my land, getting another dual land, and killed the Cat with an Incinerate. He passed turn, missing his land drop and leaving two mana up.

At the end of his turn, I was at 12 life (3 damage from the Cat, 2 from the Ape, 3 from my own land), while he was at 14 life (6 damage from his lands). On my third turn, I played a Hellspark and hit him for 3 damage (putting him at 11 life). On his turn, he came in with the Ape, putting me at 10 life, then played a Steam Vents untapped (giving him four out of five basics, putting him at 9 life) and played a Vortex.

On my upkeep, I went to 8 life, didn't draw a third land, and passed turn. He went to 7 life, and then came in with his Ape. I Pathed it. He fetched a Forest, and then hit me with a Tribal Flames for five (the Forest gave him full domain), putting me at 3 life. On my upkeep, I went to 1 life, drew a fetch land (meh), and then activated my Hellspark and swung, putting him at 4 life. Well, now it was up to luck. If he had burn, or drew it, I was dead. He went to 2 life from his enchantment, shrugged, tapped three land, and put down a Kird Ape and a Goyf. He must have just drawn the Ape, and had played the Flames over the Goyf last turn. Mistake.

I untap, put the Vortex trigger on the stack, then play a Tarfire, targeting him. He went to 0 life.

Game 1: win.

Out came the Canonists and one of the Vortexes. In came the fourth Path and the two Thrill of the Hunts. Alright, I thought, time for their real debut. He had to mull to six again, but I didn't. He opened with a turn one Ape off a fetch land into a dual land, putting him at 17 life. I just played a fetch land and passed turn. He played another fetch and then hit me for two, leaving me at 18 life. Then he cracked his fetch, got a dual, and played a second Ape and a Mogg Fanatic, putting him at 14 life. At the end of his turn, I broke my fetch, getting an untapped Sacred Foundary, and aimed a Tarfire at the Mogg. He sacrificed it in response. Now I was at 14 life, as was he. On my turn, I played a Forest and a Nacatl.

Against aggro decks, it's always a 2-for-1.
He untapped, played no lands, and killed my Nacatl with a Helix, putting him back up to 17 life. Then he smashed face with both Apes, putting me at 10 life. However, I was still holding five cards in hand, while he was down to two cards at this point. So I played a Plains and passed turn (two basic lands, neither of them red; my land were not being kind to me). He played a Hellspark Elemental and came in. I aimed an Incinerate at one Ape, and a Path at the other. I was now at 7 life. He dropped a land for turn (one card left in hand) and passed turn.

I dropped a Kird Ape on my turn, and passed. He untapped (now with four lands, thanks to the Path), Helixed my Ape, going up to 20 life, and unearthed the Elemental, putting me down to 4 life. Then he played a land and passed turn. So the game state was that neither of us had creatures, I had three lands and 4 life, while he had five lands and 20 life. But, he had no cards in hand, while I had three (a Thrill of the Hunt and two Hellspark Elementals). Kind of a scary position for me, as I was too good top decks away from dead. But, at the time, what I was thinking was, "The first one to rip Tarmogoyf wins."

I drew, getting another Path, and played my Hellspark, and put him down to 17 life. His turn, he drew, laid a land, and passed turn. Yah. I drew, finally getting my fourth land (a dual, which came into play tapped), unearthed the Elemental, and put him to 14 life. He ripped a Finks next (putting him to 16 life), but I sent that thing into Exile at the end of his turn. Then I ripped a Tarmogoyf. I played my second Hellspark, put him to 13 life, then played the Goyf. I only have one card left, at this point, and it's my Thrill of the Hunt.

He pulled a Nacatl. I pulled a Helix, killed his Cat (going up to 7 life), and then unearthed my second Hellspark and crashed in for 7 damage, putting him at 6 life. He drew a Goyf next. I drew a Nacatl. The beautiful part: if I swung with my Goyf and he didn't block, I could play the Thrill, flash it back, and kill him with a 6/9 Goyf. If he did block, I just play the Thrill and kill his Goyf. He blocked. I killed his Goyf and dropped a Kitty. He pulled a Mogg Fanatic next. My next draw? Tarmogoyf number two. I swung in with my two creatures (he blocked the Goyf and shot me, putting me at 6 life while he went to 3 life), and then I dropped the Goyf.

He drew and conceded, hitting another land.

Game 2: win.

Match Results: 4-1-0

Normally, I don't do such an in-depth play-by-play (it takes forever, and can be tedious to read), but this match was so close, came down to such minute plays (like him hitting me with the Tribal Flames instead of dropping the Goyf), that I thought you'd need to see it fully to appreciate how intense the game was for me. A friend was actually sitting next to me, playing his match while I was doing this one. After I packed up my deck, he asked how it went in a somber sort of way. When I told him I won, 2-0, he responded with, "What? Really? Every time I looked over, it looked like you were getting crushed." Ah, Zoo mirrors.

Round 6, Zoo vs. Faeries

Can't counter him the second time around.
This match was against one of the guys from Tucson that came in the other car, and I knew he was playing Faeries. I won the roll for a change, and even got to keep my seven. I opened with a turn one Nacatl, and played nothing on my turn two (just attacking with the Cat), using a Helix at the end of his turn. Turn three, I hit him again, and passed turn. He dropped a Faerie at the end of my turn, but I burned it before he could untap. I clipped him again on turn four, made my third land drop, and played Sulfuric Vortex. He played his fourth land and passed. When I swung in, he dropped a Venser, bouncing the Vortex and blocking the Nacatl. I played double Incinerate to kill him.

Game 1: win.

For boarding here, I pull one of the Vortexes for the fourth Path, and one of the Goyfs for a third Canonist. Goyfs can be a little slow to build to respectable size (at least, respectable as far as Zoo is concerned), but the Canonist can really put Faeries in a tight spot, especially if it sticks while they still have an Ancestral Vision suspended, as that's their card for turn, so you can unload a burn will-nilly afterwards.

This game, he hurt himself a fair amount with his lands (at least 4 points of life, maybe more), and I had Hellspark Elementals. Remember what I said about unearth? They can't counter it, so the Hellspark is a guaranteed 3 damage, probably 6 damage. My Elemental didn't get countered on the way down from my hand, so he was the full 6 damage. Add in four burn spells (three of which did 3 damage a piece), and you'll see how, with the damage his lands did, it adds up to 20 life. This game ended by turn five.

The thing was, his hand was hand was great for fighting the creature front, with two Damnations in it. But Damnation doesn't do much to a Hellspark and a long burn suite.

Game 2: I win.

Match Results: 5-1-0

This put me in a position where I may be able to draw into the top eight. After the pairings went up, it was another guy from Tucson (in the other car) that had to go up against the 4-0-2 guy that made drawing iffy. I did some quick figuring after seeing that and realized that if I drew, I was in.

Round 7, Intentional Draw

Not much to say here, other than I dodged having to play against the fat-ended Zoo deck, with quads of maindeck Hedge-Mages, Eternal Witnesses, and Umezawa's Jitte.

Top Eight, Quarterfinals, Zoo vs. W/G/R Loam

This was the one guy I did not want to go up against in the top eight. He was running a white/green/red Loam build that featured a small land destruction suite. He ran Paths, Helixes, Finks, and Ajani Vengeant for tempo, while using Tarmogoyfs and Knights of Reliquary as his beaters and win conditions. The Loam engine was in the deck to give him a brutal source of card advantage that simultaneously pumped the Knight to sick levels. If a 5/6 for 1G is considered excellent, what's a 9/9 or larger for an extra W?

This guy is simply massive. An Extended Bomb.
He won the roll and we both got to keep our opening hands. The whole time we were shuffling, he kept asking me how Slide did against a Martyr deck. Apparently, his friends never found out what I was playing and he thought I was Slide. When we started, he came out slow, while I came out with a turn one Kird Ape into a turn two Goyf. He made a turn three Finks, but I Pathed it. Then he made a turn four Vengeant, which kind of sucked. But my turn four Sulfuric Vortex was really good. He couldn't fight from under it, and eventually succumbed to my burn.

Game 1: win.

I do my Loam board which, is taking out the Canonists, and putting in the fourth Vortex and Path. But, now that he knew what I was running, he was more prepared. I also had to mull down to six. But, I came out with a turn one Nacatl. It only crashed in once before it died to a Path. He made a Finks, and, sadly, I had to take it out with burn (well, one burn spell, then I let it chump block). I started getting in with an Ape, but it died to a Vengeant. I did land a Vortex, but he had enough kill spells to clear my board, and then he dropped a Knight, who ended dealing 20 points of damage in three swings. Ouchy.

Game 2: loss.

This one hurt. I had to mull to five as both my seven and six where sans land. But my opening hand was a Nacatl, a Forest, a fetch land, a Tarfire, and a Sulfuric Vortex. Really, it's the best five card hand I could really ask for. And I hit my third land on turn three. I thought I was going to steal a win on a five card hand.

He had the Duergar Hedge-Mage.

I had a lot of burn, and kept hitting him, fighting through two Finks, a Lightning Helix, and an Ajani Vengeant. I even hit a second Vortex. But, he had a second Hedge-Mage and had the Loam-engine going, so while I was on top deck mode, he had options. Eventually, he had multiple creatures down, and an Umezawa's Jitte.

The thing that was the worst—had I been two cards deeper, had I drawn that second Vortex two cards sooner (essentially, if I my five card hand had been seven), I think I would have won. I would have gotten in two damage with the Vortex, he would have had to spend his turn getting rid of the Vortex and not gaining life, and my burn spells in my hand could have gotten the last bit of damage. Of course, this is just speculation, as it didn't happen that way. In the end, I just couldn't get there with a five card hand.

Game 3: loss.

So, I fought my way to the top eight, but got knocked out right away in the quarterfinals. It was nice making top eight, though. After the disappointments of the Grand Prix in L.A. and the Pro Tour in Kyoto (not to mention the PTQs I entered after scrubbing out), it felt good to do well. It brought my confidence back up, and brought back faith in playing the aggressive decks.

I think Zoo can do it. Its creatures are the most efficient beaters out there and its burn can reach past turn three board sweepers to knock a player out of the game. Its so fast that it leaves no room for errors, and will bury an opponent if they stumble. So I think I'll be running it at the PTQ in Phoenix on April 4th.

If you're there, say hi. Otherwise, I'll let you know how it went next time.


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