“I think you've earned the right to say 'I told you so' for at least the next three months…” – LSV
From the beginning of our work on Modern no one else wanted to play Zoo. The format was too fast they said and all of the decks were too powerful. How could you play Wild Nacatl when people were casting Primeval Titan on turn three? How could you play Knight of the Reliquary or Elspeth in a format where people could combo you out before you could even cast them?
Some people thought I was just being stubborn. They thought that I was operating more from an irrational attachment to Zoo than from a desire to actually play the best deck. That suspicion wasn't entirely unwarranted—I played Zoo throughout the entire Extended season in which Thopter Depths was so dominant but that was due to a lack of opportunities to test the format leading me to just play the one deck I knew at the time. With a week in the mountains to explore the format at large that wasn't going to be a problem this time around.
As I mentioned in my article about our camp-style testing our process involved first identifying what seemed to be the fastest possible aggro and combo decks as well as the most powerful mana engines in the format and working from there. The answers to two of these questions were relatively obvious—the mantle of fastest aggro deck was held by Domain Zoo (with Affinity running a close second) while the most powerful “big spell” deck in the format was clearly Cloudpost.
The gap between these two decks made the format extremely difficult to approach from a control perspective. Early on we tried to build a number of decks like Faeries and Next Level Blue but we just couldn't find a mix of cards that could allow such a deck to compete with both Zoo and Cloudpost. Think about it—how can a deck based on reactive cards hope to fight against both Wild Nacatl and Emrakul? Even if you can find a mix of removal and countermagic to make you a favorite against Zoo (which is no easy task to begin with) you need a plan to beat giant Eldrazi monsters coming down from the sky and Mana Leak isn't going to cut it. Eye of Ugin in particular means that you have no hope of winning any sort of long game since your opponent can eventually just search for and cast Emrakuls.
The third pillar of the format was combo. Given Modern's massive card pool it was hard to pinpoint just what the fastest combo deck would be but it was obvious that there would be a lot of them. The first combo deck we worked on turned out to be the one that some people ended up actually playing—the Pyromancer's Swath/Grapeshot deck. The original build was put together by Wrapter (Josh Utter-Leyton) and aimed to simply race Zoo or Cloudpost by going off half a turn to a full turn faster than they could kill you or play their Titan.
We brewed countless decks and tried countless others from Magic Online once the Daily Event results started going up. Everything from Cloudpost to Swath to Ascension to Faeries to Doran to Melira to Boros to Burn to Blazing Shoal Infect—we ran out of proxy cards time and again and had to rebuild our supply by drafting.
All this time I was working on Zoo. I started with a Boom / Bust plus Bloodbraid list since I expected land destruction would be important against Cloudpost but found that Bloodbraid itself was decidedly underwhelming. Four mana was a lot in the format which was shaping up to be incredibly fast and the marginal value gained from the free card didn't seem to be worth the expense. Not only that but Bloodbraid made it difficult to play what seemed to me would be a very important card in the format—Green Sun's Zenith.
Green Sun's Zenith is a card that has seen a ton of play in Legacy as a toolbox tutor effect but hadn't made much of a splash outside of Eternal formats except to double up on Primeval Titans in Valakut. The reason is very simple—Dryad Arbor. Without Dryad Arbor in the format every copy of Green Sun's Zenith is just a less efficient version of any other creature in your deck which is useful but relatively unexciting. With Dryad Arbor around every Zenith is either that same slightly less efficient version of your other creatures or a Llanowar Elves.
That may not seem like a huge distinction but the implications are enormous. At PT Austin I felt Noble Hierarch was among the best cards in my deck simply because it let me get the jump on my opponents mana-wise while continuing to have an impact as the game progressed by providing the exalted bonus. Green Sun's Zenith does one better by allowing you to accelerate your mana in the early turns and then provide whatever it is you need later on. Being able to play Wild Nacatl into Zenith for Wild Nacatl or Nacatl into Zenith for Hierarch into Elspeth or Zenith into Knight or any of these sequences gives Zoo a huge amount of control over the way each game plays out a luxury that is rare in aggressive decks.
All of this doesn't even take into account the ability to Zenith for silver bullet type creatures like Qasali Pridemage or Gaddock Teeg. Being able to search out Teeg in particular changes the dynamic of some matchups enormously locking out opposing Zeniths Scapeshifts Hive Minds Splinter Twins Empty the Warrens and more at the incredibly low cost of a single slot in your deck once you're already committed to the Zenith plan. The mere existence of Gaddock Teeg played a huge part in our evaluation of combo decks for the Pro Tour and the immunity of Swath/Grapeshot to Teeg disruption played a huge role in the rest of the team choosing that combo over Empty the Warrens or something like Splinter Twin.
I felt like the power and resilience offered by a Zenith build vastly outweighed the benefits offered by the speed of Domain Zoo builds. While I favor aggressive decks I generally don't like to build them as balls-to-the-wall beatdown. Cards like Steppe Lynx Goblin Guide and Tribal Flames are strong cards but they're also the sort of cards that people are typically prepared to face. People pack their sideboards with Kitchen Finks and Obstinate Baloths and Firespouts and such and you lose a lot of the strength of being as aggressive as possible because you run into those sorts of cards.
Not only that but the faster builds are pretty much universally weaker in the aggro mirror. Which side do you want to be on—the side with Goblin Guide or Knight of the Reliquary? Do you really want to have Steppe Lynx against an opposing army of Frogmites? While Zenith is powerful in matchups across the board it particularly shines against other Zoo decks where it serves as copies 5-8 of Tarmogoyf or Knight of the Reliquary either of which absolutely dominates a board cluttered with Wild Nacatls. I knew that Zoo and Affinity would be among the most popular decks so I wanted to be the aggro deck set up to win the mirror. I briefly tried Punishing Fire and Kavu Predator but found them both to be rather underwhelming—that said I never went as fully on the plan as Matt Sperling and company did with their Oust plus Fiery Justice plan.
The major challenge to making Zoo work though was finding a way to beat Cloudpost. More than anything Cloudpost decks were what stood in the way of Zoo being a viable deck. In particular the mono-green version with both Overgrown Battlement and Wall of Roots was a major problem since they could hold off most of your creatures with those while also accelerating out Titan or Zenith which generally closed the door on you. My earliest versions as I mentioned used Boom / Bust which was good but not great—their Walls could often generate enough mana to keep them in the game if you couldn't kill them quickly. I tried Molten Rain plus Boom / Bust and then Blood Moon all of which had similar problems. The Walls were too good for the mana denial to pin them down.
The first plan I had success with was Molten Rain plus Deathmark and Slay out of the sideboard. My reasoning was that the black removal spells were good in the Zoo mirror or against Elf decks anyway so they'd be serving double duty if they could also turn things around against Cloudpost. They were fine but not amazing and many of the games went long and I ended up winning with an unanswered Knight of the Reliquary when the Cloudpost deck ran out of gas from my removal. It was rare that the land destruction plan was really winning any of the games though it happened from time to time.
That was when I decided to try Bant Charm. My reasoning behind Bant Charm was that it was a solid card against other creature decks that could help kill walls against Cloudpost without giving them mana back like Path did and it could also protect Knight from Beast Within which we had by that point discovered and realized was an important card in Cloudpost and which could easily turn around those long games that I was winning before.
My epiphany moment with Bant Charm didn't come when testing against Cloudpost though. It came when I was playing against the Pyromancer's Swath deck and I played out a few creatures and passed the turn. My opponent—I forget who—started to go off and played Rite of Flame into Rite of Flame into Seething Song which I Bant Charmed to counter it. He looked at his hand looked at the board and just packed up his cards.
It seems so obvious in retrospect but it wasn't obvious at the time. In a world of turn-four decks like Cloudpost and Zoo all of the combo decks are pushing to get faster and faster so they go off on turn three and win the race. That speed comes at the price of resilience and those combo decks get that much more fragile and can play that many fewer cards to defend themselves when everything is devoted to speed. Practically speaking what that means is that beating them is often just a matter of disrupting their combo chain at a certain point at which they've already invested too many resources that they can easily go off again the next turn. Basically knock down one leg and the entire house of cards comes tumbling down.
Enter Flashfreeze. The moment I Bant Charmed that Seething Song Flashfreeze immediately jumped into my head. It solved every problem I was looking to answer. It gave me a way to deal with the major threats from Cloudpost—Primeval Titan Green Sun's Zenith and Scapeshift—that served double-duty against all of the U/R Combo decks that were likely to show up as well. Flashfreeze could break up ritual chains; it could counter Splinter Twin—hell it could even stop a board-clearing Firespout. It was perfect.
No one believed me. By the time we left the mountain camp in Pittsburgh and went to Philly everyone else had discovered the Blazing Shoal Poison deck and were trying different versions of that debating the merits of Ponder and Preordain versus Plunge into Darkness and doing the math on how often they'd die to Spoils of the Vault. When we did our fantasy PT draft in the airport Ben Stark asked me “Kibler are you going to play Zoo in this PT or what?” I told him I'd play whatever I thought was best (which he knew meant Zoo at that point) and he decided to pick someone else. I ended up picking myself on the wheel.
In Philly everyone else was scrambling for their decks up to the last minute. Eventually Brad was on board with my Zoo list and when the rest of the group insisted it couldn't beat Cloudpost in a single game let alone a match he offered to play a ten-game set against any of them with it. When the dust cleared David Ochoa beat him six games out of ten before sideboarding and then Brad turned the tables and won seven to three in post-board games.
I'm not sure what ultimately convinced everyone. Maybe it was the results of that match. Maybe it was my calm assurance that it was the best deck to play to the point that I didn't play a single game of Modern in the last few days before the event instead spending my time practicing draft on Magic Online. Maybe they just realized all their other decks were fragile and inconsistent and they panicked. I don't know.
In any case come Pro Tour time nearly the entire team was on my Zoo deck—which I came to call “Counter Cat” because of the way sideboarded games play out against combo. And after the first five rounds of Swiss our combined record was something completely insane—LSV was 5-0 Wrapter was 5-0 Owen was 4-1 I was 4-1 etc. I think only PV and BenS had losing records. That was about when LSV came up to me and said the quote that I used to open the article.
So yeah. I told you so.
As for my tournament experience—it was one of highs and lows. I started off with a loss against Hive Mind. Game one I had a spot on my third turn where I had a Wild Nacatl and two Noble Hierarchs in play with a Green Sun's Zenith in my hand. My opponent had only played two Islands and cantrips so far so I had to make a decision about what to fetch based on what combo deck he could be. I felt like Swath and Splinter Twin were likely to be the most popular combo decks in the event and Hive Mind the least. I had enough mana to pay for a Pact of the Titan on my turn so even if my opponent was playing Hive Mind and went off I wasn't likely to be dead.
Since Pridemage gave me outs against both Swath and Twin and I could pay for a Pact I went for that only to promptly lose when my opponent played Spirit Guide/Seething Song/Hive Mind with double Pact to kill me. I won the second game and then in the third once again died on turn three to double Pact when I just needed a chance to untap with counter mana to win the game. Alas.
I rattled off four wins after that beating Ascension Affinity Elves and Zoo before getting to the draft portion. As I mentioned before I'd spent a lot of time over the last week preparing for the draft since my results in our testing at the house had been less than stellar. Ben Stark's tutelage seemed to serve me well as I managed to post a 2-1 record in the first pod and 3-0 in the second winning a nail biter of a match against Ari Lax in the last round of the second pod with a timely Fog to beat his all-in attack with Hideous Visage.
I won the first round of Modern against David Williams before running into Wrapter at 10-2 with four rounds to go. He out-planeswalkered me in both games to take the match—Elspeth was supposed to be my lady love not his!
I then lost a heartbreaker to Nakajima to knock me out of Top 8 contention as I double mulliganed game one against his Affinity deck and then never found a removal spell for either of his two Cranial Platings in game two and that was that.
I managed to win the second to last round against Richard Bland's Splinter Twin deck before checking the standings and realizing I couldn't make Top 8 even with a win so I offered the draw to my final round opponent to lock us both into Top 16.
It's funny because if you'd told me before the event that I'd end up finishing Top 16 I probably would have been thrilled with the result but after needing just two more wins in three rounds to make Top 8 the finish was bittersweet.
I'm confident that we had the best deck in the tournament and I was virtually certain that whoever won between Josh and me in the Swiss was likely to go on to win the Pro Tour. As fate would have it Josh fell in the finals but I still feel like he was a major favorite to win the whole thing and would win that match more often than not if it were played out again. But I didn't win and neither did he and I guess that's just the way it goes.
Oh well. Next time. Worlds I'm coming for you.
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Wild Nacatl
- 1 Gaddock Teeg
- 1 Dryad Arbor