I couldn't have been more certain that I was going to play Jund at Grand Prix Toronto. I'd finished in 11th place at the last Modern GP, Chicago, with a stock, three-color version, and the deck felt awesome to me. Deathrite Shaman, Lightning Bolt, Tarmogoyf, and the rest of the cards in Jund are simply the best Modern has to offer. Jund has no clear weaknesses. I remember comparing it to old Standard Caw-Blade—it's just better than everything else. What's more is this type of grindy midrange deck is my absolute favorite type of Magic to play. I actually enjoy the Jund mirror! So what happened?
I guess it was the annoying shakeup caused by Jacob Wilson and Josh Utter-Leyton: Lingering Souls in Jund. I was forced to acknowledge the power of the card in a field full of creature decks, but introducing new mirror match tech is always a bad thing for a popular deck in the long run. Serious players can't allow themselves to be disadvantaged in the mirror match, so everyone ends up adopting the new build, no one has an edge in the mirror any longer, and every Jund player is consequently weaker against the rest of the field. (In the case of Lingering Souls, weaker against combo and ramp decks).
The Evolution of Haunted Zoo
All this I could have stomached, except that I hated the mana base of four-color Jund; it just didn't have the buttery-smooth feel that the three-color mana base did. I'd get two or three land hands, and I'd have to choose between fetching red mana or white mana. Sometimes it was fine and I could do whichever my hand dictated, but what if I fetched a Blood Crypt and then topdecked a Lingering Souls? I also ended up taking excessive damage from fetching untapped dual lands, whereas there used to be a lot more flexibility on that front. I was used to Jund running like clockwork, and it just wasn't anymore.
Finally, Lingering Souls destroyed the value of lovely Liliana of the Veil, which had been one of my favorite cards in the deck. She's a critical tool against Scapeshift, Tron, and Geist of Saint Traft decks, but now I was forced to configure my deck in such a way that I could sideboard her out in many creature mirrors. What was the point in even bothering?
At this point, Huey Jensen mentioned a "Zoo" deck to me which his friend Mark Herberholz had been working on. It featured Deathrite Shaman, Noble Hierarch, Geist of Saint Traft, Lingering Souls, Lightning Helix, Snapcaster Mage, and Mana Leak and was supposedly good against Jund. I immediately dismissed the idea. Perhaps it was the framing of the deck as "Zoo" that gave me such prejudice; I love-love-loved playing against Zoo with Jund, and I would never take a "Zoo" deck into the type of field I expected.
Nevertheless, I was unhappy with my Jund deck's mana base, and Liliana and I just didn't have the same spark that we used to. I realized that Lightning Helix was one of the best Modern cards not seeing play right now (one of the best cards period in a format full of creature decks), and I decided to see if I could make it work. Cutting Liliana meant that Jund had no double costs in any color, so I could reasonably plan my lands to get a single source of all four colors.
This configuration was okay, but didn't quite feel right. My next revelation was why play black cards at all? Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek are triply bad in grindy creature matchups: 1) they're bad topdecks, 2) they're bad cascades, and 3) they need to be played early when I'd rather be casting other spells or playing tapped lands. Dark Confidant is good but dies on sight at little cost to the opponent, so I had few reservations about cutting him as well.
The Treetop Village Dilemma
This deck was rather confused; it was an aggro deck that didn't win fast. But where it wasn't traditional or elegant, it was exactly what I wanted. It played all of the best cards in Modern, was great at grinding people out, and had built-in resistance to mana flood, so it was great for creature mirrors.
Even for matchups like Jund, the mana curve of the initial build was a little too high, and I wanted to cut the Snapcaster Mage. I also hated drawing multiple Path to Exiles and wanted to go down to two copies. What to add, though, was a question I couldn't confidently answer. What suddenly dawned on me was my deck's similarities to Mr. Herberholz's "Zoo" deck; my own confused mental processes had eventually led me to conclude the same things he had known all along. I added first one and then a second copy of Noble Hierarch.
Finally, Grand Prix Toronto came around, and Huey Jensen, Owen Turtenwald, and I were all ready to play Haunted Zoo (as we later came to call it). The only thing we couldn't agree on was the inclusion of Treetop Village. My position was that this deck needed a high land count since it couldn't operate on less than three mana, but the easiest way to lose was flooding out, so Treetop would help solve both problems at once. I argued that Treetop Village is simply an amazing card and that the trample is particularly good against Lingering Souls. Owen and Huey's position was, "Are you stupid, Reid?"
In my search for the right answer, I consulted the people whose opinions I respect the most on this type of deck: Brian Kibler, Gerard Fabiano, and a handful of others. Without exception, they echoed Huey's eloquent explanation, "You're an idiot if you play Treetop Village." They said the deck has very demanding mana requirements and wants to curve out smoothly. Treetop Village doesn't cast Lightning Helix or Geist of Saint Traft, and it doesn't contribute to Tribal Flames. Their arguments made a lot of sense. Treetop Village definitely comes at a high cost in a five-color Zoo deck.
But for the same reason I had initially rejected Mark Herberholz's deck, I held on to my prejudice against "Zoo." I didn't want to play Zoo; I wanted to play my five-color mess! Nevertheless, as we sat down to write our decklists, Owen and Huey pleaded with me one last time to cut the clunky manlands. They essentially said, in so many words, "We're not friends anymore if you write Treetop Village on that decklist." So many great players couldn't be universally wrong (at least not very wrong) on this issue, so here's the deck all three of us registered.
Modern is particularly soft to Geist of Saint Traft right now. There was a time, during and preceding the Players Championship in August, when Geist was a defining card in the format. If you weren't playing it yourself, you were packing lots of hate or you were losing to it. Today, the card has fallen off the radar so that hate is largely gone. With Deathrite Shaman and Lingering Souls, Jund players are hard pressed to play cards like Jund Charm or Pyroclasm anywhere in their 75. LSV, PV, and Willy Edel, thinking along the same lines as myself, left Liliana of the Veil out of their decks for GP Toronto. Helpless gazelles sometimes let their guard down when they go to the watering hole...
What might not be obvious from looking at the decklist is just how good Bloodbraid Elf is in Haunted Zoo. Geist of Saint Traft and Lingering Souls are the best three-drops in Modern right now, and this deck has four of each! What's more is since most of the removal is burn, it's much safer to cast Bloodbraid on an empty board because two copies of Path to Exile are the only dead cascades. Tribal Flames? Nothing to kill? Okay, take eight!
Matchups and Sideboarding
Anyone who's played a lot of Jund mirrors knows how the early turns of the game usually play out; you kill each other's stuff, and nobody really accomplishes much. The same is true of Jund vs. Haunted Zoo except that with four copies each of Lingering Souls and Geist of Saint Traft, Haunted Zoo is a favorite to have the "last man standing," which will quickly take control of the game. Having access to extra burn is a huge advantage because it greatly reduces the chances of a Dark Confidant or Deathrite Shaman running away with the game and gives you a way to steal wins if things begin to turn sour. As mentioned, Lightning Helix is a powerhouse in any creature matchup, and Tribal Flames is just a powerhouse period.
The maindeck is already perfect against Jund, and I typically sideboard nothing. As an aside, this is a huge advantage that Zoo has over Jund. Jund packs discard spells and Lilianas, which need to be sideboarded out in the mirror. However, since anti-combo sideboard cards tend to be immensely more potent than anti-creature cards, the Jund deck ends up not taking full advantage of its sideboard. Haunted Zoo can devote all fifteen cards to powerful hosers instead of modest upgrades.
One of the best ways to lose to Jund post-board is Batterskull, as you only have two Path to Exile and four Tribal Flames to kill the Germ token and even then will have to finish quickly before it can get successfully reequipped. When I faced Paulo Vitor in round 12, I decided to bring in my singleton Ancient Grudge since I knew he'd have at least one and probably two Batterskulls. (I cut a Noble Hierarch). I ended up topdecking the Grudge when he was on track to stabilize with a Batterskull and won because of it.
Like most decks, Haunted Zoo is an underdog to Affinity in game 1 and a favorite post-board. One of the reasons I like the matchup is that you have access to Stony Silence in addition to red artifact hate. These hate cards, backed up by tons of burn and Lingering Souls, present a very difficult challenge to the Affinity player. I was even able to beat my Affinity opponent 2-0 in the GP because I had a very strong draw on the play in game 1.
Of note, this is the type of matchup where Treetop Village would be very costly, as the games are usually decided before a manland would come online and you cannot afford to miss a beat in the early turns.
Tron is a scary matchup, but I don't feel it's actually that bad. It's certainly better than it is for Jund since Haunted Zoo can put on a faster clock and Tron has few ways to save itself from being burned out. Zoo also has Path to Exile for Wurmcoil Engine and Stony Silence in the sideboard.
Although I did end up going 0-2 against Tron in Toronto, I felt the matches could have gone either way. Once in each match, I came within two points of burning my opponent out and had several draw steps to topdeck burn but didn't.
I actually feel that Treetop Village plays an important role in this matchup because it represents a permanent source of damage that cannot be killed by sorcery speed removal. Notably, Oblivion Stone also only destroys nonland cards. Typically in this matchup, if you can get in a little bit of early damage, you can burn them out from eleven or so life. In the GP, my opponents had strong draws and were able to Pyroclasm away my creatures early and often, and I couldn't get in enough damage for my burn to be useful.
In one particularly frustrating game, my opponent led with an Expedition Map. I untapped and played a Stony Silence. My opponent sighed, untapped, and played two Chromatic Spheres; he couldn't use any of them! What he was able to do, though, was Pyroclasm away my creatures, and I sat there helpless as he eventually played seven lands from his hand and started casting bombs. A Treetop would have gone a long way there.
In another game, I had my opponent down to six with a board of Deathrite Shaman, Geist of Saint Traft, and Meddling Mage naming Pyroclasm. My hand had Lingering Souls, Lightning Bolt, and Path to Exile, and I lost from this position! The game went on four or five more turns and involved multiple Oblivion Stones, multiple Wurmcoil Engines, and a Relic of Progenitus. Again, a Treetop Village might have swung things in my favor.
In the end, I finished 10-4 with Haunted Zoo and intentionally drew the final round into 52nd place. I went (in no particular order):
1-1 vs. Jund
1-0 vs. Affinity
1-0 vs. U/W
1-0 vs. Pod
0-2 vs. G/R Tron
2-0 vs. Eggs
0-1 vs. Junk
1-0 vs. W/B Tokens
My honest evaluation is that Haunted Zoo is not format breaking but is as good as any of the other top decks in the format. I would play it again if I could go back in time to the start of the GP. However, it may be a little worse if Birthing Pod becomes the new flavor of the week, as that matchup is winnable but not favorable.
The only card that was bad for me was the singleton Nihil Spellbomb in the sideboard. I drew it once in the whole tournament, when my Eggs opponent had started with a Leyline of Sanctity in play. It should be either a Relic of Progenitus or a Leyline of the Void for that reason.
I would also go back to my Treetop Village version (-1 Noble Hierarch, -1 Marsh Flats, +2 Treetop Village). I believe it's equally valid to play the deck with or without Treetop Village. The card serves to simultaneously reduce the chances of a nut draw (turn 2 Geist) and to reduce the chances of a very poor draw (mana screw or flood). In each of my losses, there was at least one game where I felt very flooded, and the presence of a permanent source of damage, however awkward, could have turned the game in my favor.
Playing a large number of Noble Hierarchs is costly in certain matchups. It's a bad topdeck and a mediocre cascade. It also makes you excessively vulnerable to cards like Pyroclasm and Zealous Persecution. I think two is the best number to play.
Of course, the costs of the Treetops are as large as the rewards, and if I had played them, I'd probably be sitting here complaining about how many games I lost because my lands came into play tapped or how many times my Tribal Flames failed to hit for five damage. Feel free to make your own decision on this point, as I'm sure you'll enjoy Haunted Zoo either way!