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Zoo Primer
By Oscar Tan aka Rakso
ZOO FAQ by Luke Berry, England
www.bdominia.com

The Zoo deck is not a new concept. The deck has its roots in the very earliest days of Magic, when the limited card pool only really allowed fast creature or direct damage decks as reliable winners. From there, the first recognisable ancestor of the Zoo deck was Betrand Lestree’s finalist deck from the first World Championship.

Bertrand Lestree's Deck

LAND (20)
2 Bayou
2 City of Brass
4 Mishra's Factory
4 Taiga
4 Tropical Island
4 Volcanic Island

CREATURES (12)
3 Argothian Pixies
3 Birds of Paradise
4 Kird Ape
2 Whirling Dervish

SPELLS (29)
Ancestral Recall
Black Lotus
4 Chain Lightning
Channel
Chaos Orb
1 Control Magic
Demonic Tutor
4 Fireball
1 Icy Manipulator
4 Lightning Bolt
Mind Twist
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
2 Psionic Blast
Regrowth
1 Sylvan Library
Time Walk

SIDEBOARD (15)
1 City in a Bottle
1 Control Magic
3 Disintegrate
1 Flashfires
1 Forcefield
2 Lifeforce
4 Serendib Efreet
2 Tsunami

As you can see, Lestree made use of the most powerful cards currently available to him (Mind Twist and Channel being notables here), a solid base of 14 direct damage cards, and 9 small yet cost-efficient creatures. Although he lost in the finals to Zak Dolan’s unusual control deck, the principles laid down here are still in today’s Zoo, and we can now jump from 1994 to mid-97, and the birth of the Zoo deck in its most recognisable form. Patrick Johnson’s “New York Zoo”

LAND (21)
4 City of Brass
Library of Alexandria
3 Mishra's Factory
1 Mountain Valley
4 Strip Mine
2 Taiga
2 Tropical Island
4 Volcanic Island

CREATURES (11)
3 Ernham Djinn
4 Gorilla Shaman
4 Serendib Efreet

SPELLS (28)
Ancestral Recall
Balance
Black Lotus
Demonic Tutor
4 Incinerate
4 Lightning Bolt
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Mox Ruby
Mox Pearl
Mox Sapphire
2 Mystical Tutor
2 Psionic Blast
Regrowth
Sol Ring
1 Sylvan Library
Timetwister
Time Walk
Wheel of Fortune
1 Zuran Orb

SIDEBOARD (15)
2 Birds of Paradise
1 Control Magic
1 Disenchant
1 Earthquake
1 Ernham Djinn
1 Force of Will
2 Hydroblast
1 Maze Of Ith
1 Mind Harness
1 Mystical Tutor
2 Pyroblast
1 Stormbind

As can be seen from the listings, Zoo and its ancestors are aggressive decks, relying on efficient creatures and direct damage to deal the twenty damage necessary in short order. Modern Zoo has also harnessed the power of recursion capable in the T1 environment with the addition of Mirage’s Mystical Tutor. Following is a Zoo deck that took me to a third place finish at the 1998 UK T1 Nationals, and is thus made under the tournamnet rules before late ‘99’s major restrictions.

Luke’s Zoo

LAND (19)
3 City Of Brass
1 Gemstone Mine
Library Of Alexandria
2 Plateau
Strip Mine
4 Taiga
2 Tropical Island
4 Volcanic Island
1 Wasteland

CREATURES (10)
3 Erhnam Djinn
2 Frenetic Efreet
2 Gorilla Shaman
3 Serendib Efreet

SPELLS (31)
Ancestral Recall
Balance
Black Lotus
Demonic Tutor
2 Disenchant
4 Incinerate
4 Lightning Bolt
3 Mystical Tutor
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Mox Pearl
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
1 Psionic Blast
Regrowth
1 Swords to Plowshares
Sol Ring
1 Sylvan Library
Timetwister
Time Walk
Wheel of Fortune
1 Zuran Orb

SIDEBOARD (15)
Varies constantly.

Now, we can begin discussing why each card has a place in this deck. Like all Zoo decks, we have a core of effective creatures and direct damage for a kill mechanism, library manipulation to speed recursion, and the standard land, creature and artifact removal.

The incredibly efficient Arabian Nights creatures have superb power and toughness to cost ratios, with their drawbacks meaning very little in this aggressive style of deck, plus they make the deck harder to shut down post sideboarding thanks to their colour diversity. The Shamans are T1 staples, providing card advantage and efficiency with their low-cost destruction of the many popular 0-1 mana artifacts prevalent in T1. The Frenetic Efreets are questioned by some, but in my opinion they are not only superb card advantage, as often the opponent must expend more than one card in trying to remove them, but under 6th edition rules, their ability to deal their combat damage and THEN phase out is just astounding.

The direct damage needs very little explanation, except to note that Incinerate was chosen over Chain Lightning thanks to its Instant speed. Three Mystical Tutors, Demonic Tutor, and Sylvan Library provide a lot of library manipulation, important to both ensure that you can reach situation-critical cards (eg Balance against WW, Timetwister in response to Amnesia/Hymn), and that the recursion element of the deck functions smoothly. The deck also sports a healthy complement of T1 restricted cards, and I think that each card on that list needs no explanation as to why it is included.

On to playing the Zoo. At first, it may seem to be a case of laying a creature, firing off all the direct damage in your hand at your opponent, then Timetwister and do it all again. At its crudest level, that is true, but there is a lot of subtlety, I feel, in playing Zoo effectively.
The biggest mistake, I believe, people make with Zoo, is they aim all of their direct damage at their opponent, lay a creature, and then wait for some recursion or card drawing. Whilst this is satisfying, it drastically reduces your options, leaving you with very few cards in hand, and although Zoo is not a reactive deck, it suffers with less cards in hand. Firstly, it reduces the bluff factor inherent in Magic. With more cards in hand, your opponent knows you have more options, and may play more cautiously, often not casting things for fear of the possibilities in your hand. Secondly, what if you Bolt your opponent, and he then plays a Dwarven Miner and starts chewing up your land?
The direct damage in Zoo, in my opinion, is best used as board control, clearing the way for your creatures and removing threats, and should only be aimed at the opponent when a) you are going to win because of it, or b) when, for example, the opponent Wheels or Twisters, or perhaps you Wheel or Twister and have a lot of mana sources. This is difficult to describe well, but I guess it’s “use it or lose it”.

Knowing when to use the Wheel or Twister is an integral part of Zoo. Ideally, they are best used when you stand to gain the most card advantage, and that is when you have less cards in hand than your oppnent. They are also used to break out of a stalled situation, to replace an unsatisfactory hand, or, in desperate circumstances, to search for a desired card. Always remember that both you and your opponent are affected by Wheel/Twister, so try to maximise your gains, and minimise your opponent's. Perhaps the finest example of this is the first turn play of Land, perhaps a Mox or Sol Ring, Lotus, Timetwister/Wheel. Although it risks Force of Will if facing control, against other decks the card and maan advantage this gives is often insurmountable. A similar effect is gained when you cast Time Walk, then Wheel/Twister, or vice versa, giving you the first chance to use your seven new cards with all your mana. And, importantly, both Twister and Wheel are extremely powerful against Necro. They regain the card advantage lost by card denial, and mean the life the Necro player just spent to top up his hand has served nothing more than to bring him closer to direct damage range.

The Tutors and library manipulation in this deck are self-explanatory. Using them, you can fetch a card that you need at the moment for play advantage. Unfortunately, the restriction of Mystical Tutor has hampered this a little, although one can be repalced by a Vampiric Tutor. Perhaps the most common targets for tutoring are the restricted cards (Balance and recursion in particular), and the Plowshares, to deal with nightmares such as first turn Juzams (although that in itself is not too much of a problem for Zoo.) Sylvan Library, whilst primarily used in conjunction with the constant reshuffling from tutors and Twister to see three new cards regularly, also has another function in this deck. Against decks that are not known for aggression (eg Weissman control, most Keeper, some Necro) and are only going to deal damage to you once they totally control the game, the “4 life for a card” feature of the Library really shines, allowing you to gain more card advantage early, trading, basically unimportant, life for cards.

There are two cards in the deck that people often question, and those two are Balance and Zuran Orb. Many people see Balance as a card made for defensive control decks, not aggressive decks such as Zoo. I disagree. Balance is just too good not to include in almost every T1 deck. It kills hordes of Protection From Red weenies just as easily as it sweeps away Juzams and Ishan’s Shade. You can use it in conjunction with the Zuran Orb to clear away land. You can phase out a Frenetic, Balance away all land and creatures, then the Efreet returns, unopposed. You can empty your hand and Balance away your opponents, effective against control and Necro. The list goes on. As for the Orb, in addition to its synergy with Balance, it provides life gain which can keep you alive versus another Zoo deck, or Sligh. It lets you draw more cards with Sylvan Library by sacrificing excess land. I have seen a number of variants on the Zoo theme. Perhaps the most common involves using smaller creatures such as Kird Ape and Savannah Lion instead of the AN creatures. Others include 4 Frenetic Efreets. Some run Dwarven Miner. However, they are still Zoo decks, and still adhere to the recursive aggresion that Zoo and its ancestors have been winning with all these years.

Read More Articles by Oscar Tan aka Rakso!

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