Hey, guys. It’s RaFive, and after a few days playing the expansion, I’d like to discuss the future of old-school Zoo. I’m the kind of guy who likes reality checks, and I made some predictions about Zoo in a previous article, so let’s see how I did and where we can go from here.
Simply put, between the Soulfire nerf and the various metagame shakeups, Zoo has taken a firm hit. I think it’s still a top-tier deck, but it will no longer rule the roost as the cheap, aggressive deck of choice — Hunter has surpassed Warlock in that regard since Naxxramas, and GvG has firmly cemented that role. The nerf significantly slows tempo against early-game aggression, which has traditionally been a strong area for Zoo. In addition, the new GvG cards present a significant threat to Zoo’s early board plan, with 3-mana 4/4 minions like Ogre Brute and Tinkertown Technician who lack the card advantage downside of Dancing Swords.
It’s not all bad news, though. Zoo can, of course, use many of those very cards in its own lists, and minions like Clockwork Gnome help secure a maximally swift start for Zoo while also providing a Spare Part card, which fits much better with Zoo’s high-tempo early-to-mid-game board control plan than the desirable but low-impact health damage of Leper Gnome.
My conclusion after extensive playtesting is that limited mech synergies are Zoo’s best bet going forward. It turns out that I (and most of the folks on ladder, it seems) plunged too eagerly into GvG without considering how powerful and consistent the old build remains. Just as I discovered with Hunter, new Zoo actually looks mostly like old Zoo, just tweaked around the edges.
What I Learned
In a previous post, I talked about theorycrafting Zoo in the post-GvG metagame and hypothesized that there would be three paths Zoo might be able to take: a midrange demon list built around Voidcaller and Mal’Ganis (which I called Hellbringer), a Hobgoblin synergy deck, and mech Zoo. I’ve given all three a try since launch, and here are my updated impressions.
Hellbringer: Demons are strong in the post-GvG metagame. Floating Watcher snowballs hard and eats silences that would otherwise be saved for Taunt or Deathrattle. Mal’Ganis is hugely powerful when summoned early off Voidcaller or protected behind Taunt. Even Mistress of Pain is a decent card when buffed up.
However, with the strongest plays for demon synergies hitting the field on turns 4-9, maximizing those synergies will generally require a slower, heavier gameplan than Zoo is capable of offering. To truly squeeze all power out of the Hellbringer style, it’s better to recast as a slightly fast Handlock rather than building it off the Zoo framework. Later-game plays with Jaraxxus and Molten Giant are stronger when combined with demons than Zoo’s early board control. One thing I will note for Zoo’s purposes, however, is that in a slower, less discard-heavy metagame, Floating Watcher may be a good substitute for Doomguard.
Hobgoblin: I’ve tried to make this guy work. Really, I have. The problem is that 1-attack minions, even the good ones, have a low impact. They’re okay coming down in the early game, but by turn 5-7 when you can lay Hobgoblin down and also play 2+ minions with him for maximum value, there are bigger minions and clears available that significantly tamp down the value gain from the buffs. He’s probably at his best in an extremely aggressive, low-end deck — I’d say Murloc, if the synergies were better — where you’re dumping cards out as fast as you can and then refilling with Jeeves and hero power. Honestly, though? I can see running one copy as a tech card in a deck with several 1-attack minions as a later-game play to extract value from otherwise underpowered cards, but right now I’m skeptical that we’ll see a truly Hobgoblin-centered build as a serious contender in the Legend metagame.
Mech: It’s still possible we’ll see an extremely mech-heavy Zoo that upends our previous conceptions of what’s possible with the Warlock class. Lower-end mechs tend to not have Deathrattle or other sticky qualities, which makes them easier to kill than minions like Nerubian Egg traditionally run in Zoo. This suggests to me that mech-heavy Zoo will probably run a more aggressive, less board-control-focused game, probably also dumping cards fast and then refilling with Jeeves. Currently, however, I think adding just a few well-selected mech cards is the best way to keep Zoo current, and this is reflected in the list I’m bringing to you today.
The Deck: In With the Old, and Some New
If you look at the decklist on the right, you’ll see that it’s mostly (20/30 cards) the post-Naxxramas Zoo that you’ve come to know and (presumably) love. You can check my author page out for numerous articles that cover Zoo deckbuilding and gameplay out in extensive detail, so for brevity’s sake I’ll focus here on the changes I’ve made.
The most important change to note is that the game has slowed down for Zoo-style board control. This means minion stickiness is extremely important, as well as card advantage. For that reason, I’ve cut both copies of Soulfire and exchanged them for Darkbomb, which does similar damage cheaply (especially in light of the nerf) without damaging card advantage. Likewise, with games going longer, traditional Zoo lists almost guarantee you’ll draw into double Doomguard regularly, which will devastate your chances of victory, so I’ve swapped one out for a Floating Watcher, instead. You’ll have to rely on your hero power to buff it, though, because Flame Imp drains too much life for a slower game and has to be left out.
Longer games mean you need less burst, but ensure you need to be tougher, stickier, and sweepier on the board. To that end, Zombie Chow and Clockwork Gnome are the ideal early buffs for Undertaker, which is further supported at the higher end by the Deathrattle of a single Piloted Shredder. That card, incidentally, makes a great target for the single Shadowflame in the deck, clearing the board with the power of Flamestrike while still leaving you with a minion on the field. Failing that, Power Overwhelming on a weaker minion like Abusive Sergeant or Haunted Creeper will achieve the same effect.
Last but not least, the 3-drops have been changed up significantly. Older Zoo often tried to run only two total 3-drops, typically Harvest Golem and/or Shattered Sun Cleric. The problem is that Golem’s attack is weak and Cleric is terrible played onto an empty board (or as a topdeck). GvG, however, has saved the day with plentiful powerful 3-drops that also happen to be neutral commons. Ogre Brute makes a lot of sense here as a large body that can potentially bypass Taunt, and Spider Tank, while not sticky in the sense of having two stages, has as much total health as Harvest Golem along with a critical extra point of attack. Running at total of four at this mana cost ensures we have hefty midrange bodies that are strong plays no matter what turn you put them down.
Honestly? Old-school Zoo is still pretty strong. As long as you’re running less Soulfire, you should largely experience pretty similar results with traditional Zoo as with this list, although I’ll stand firmly behind my preference for the GvG cards at most of the slots indicated. You can, therefore, swap pretty freely from cards on older Zoo lists, if you lack the right GvG cards or dislike how, say, Spider Tank is treating you compared with that Harvest Golem you used to run.
If you find the board clear is too often dead in your hand, Loatheb is an obvious substitution. You could also fit him in as a replacement for Piloted Shredder or even a single Defender of Argus, although this messes your mana curve up a bit.
If you’re looking for a little more flash, I particularly like a single copy of Fel Reaver or Anima Golem as a finisher. Reaver is probably better in more mech-heavy decks where you can potentially get him out turn 3 off of Mechwarper (whose synergies are too specific to fit into this Zoo deck, where synergy flexibility is key), but Anima is a brutally powerful play if you have a Nerubian Egg on the field. They’re just as easily countered by the various forms of hard removal as the faster cards like Doomguard, which is why I haven’t yet found space for them, but they’re powerful finishers with the right setup and can absolutely find a home in a deck like this. You’d probably want to take out Shadowflame and Power Overwhelming, run one Reaver or Anima, and probably add a second Ironbeak Owl to counter Taunt delays.
Most controversially, I can’t shake the feeling that a Jeeves or two might not be insane in this deck as a way to prevent yourself running out of gas against the heavier decks that represent your weakest matchups. I haven’t tested it extensively because the Warlock hero power already serves as excellent draw for Zoo and better board synergies for your minions is more important in Zoo than card advantage, but initial results are awfully suggestive. If you’re feeling adventurous, see if the robo-butler can’t boost your lategame a little.
The Lion King had it right. There is a circle of life, and we separate ourselves from those roots and that cycle at our own peril. Incremental change is always safer than radical change, and over the long run, it’s usually more efficient, too. That all turns out to be the case for Zoo, where it was mostly working already and now we’re just tweaking around the edges to maximize our marginal advantage. That said, Hearthstone is still in flux post-expansion, and nobody knows the final forms of all these decks we’re testing, so get out there, make some tweaks, and build a better metagame!