Evolutions of Zoo: Fundamentals

It’s RaFive, HearthstonePlayers’ newest contributor! I’m an F2P Legend and I do infinite Arena as well. Here's my 1st article!

Introduction

Hey, guys. It’s RaFive, HearthstonePlayers’ newest contributor! I’m an F2P Legend level player on ladder, and I do infinite Arena as well. Deckbuilding, however, is my first love, and that’s what I’m here to help teach you today!

Building decks in Hearthstone can be an expensive process, and many of the pricier decks, while powerful, play slowly and aren’t good for a sustained climb up the ladder. That’s why Zoo Warlock has been a staple of the metagame for ages: it’s a fast, tournament-level deck that’s cheap to build and has consistent answers against every other archetype. I recommend every Hearthstone player have a Zoo deck and know how to play it — even if you don’t like Zoo personally, it’s such a common encounter that it pays to know how it works.

In order to maximize your success with (or against) Zoo, it’s important to understand how Zoo works in terms of both game plan and deck construction. Zoo’s strategy is straightforward: get early, unstoppable board control by abusing the hero power to drop lots of cheap minions that buff each other for favorable trades; then go for the face. With that in mind, we’re going to go through three quite different Legend-level Zoo decklists today and discuss how they go together and what alternative picks there might be. Let’s start with a look at what I’d consider to be an archetypical Zoo deck for laddering today:

Ol’ Reliable

Soulfire x2

Abusive Sergeant x2

Flame Imp x2

Undertaker x2

Zombie Chow x2

Dire Wolf Alpha x2

Haunted Creeper x2

Ironbeak Owl x2

Knife Juggler x2

Loot Hoarder x2

Nerubian Egg x2

Harvest Golem x2

Dark Iron Dwarf x2

Defender of Argus x2

Doomguard x2

Here’s a rough explanation of why each card is in the deck:

Soulfire is an amazing tempo swing because you can play it no matter what else you’ve played that turn, and you can almost always play it either for free by emptying your hand or cheaply by letting it discard only minions or cards that are less important in your matchup.

Abusive Sergeant lets you trade up into much more expensive minions while still leaving a body on the board. Not great against Mage, Druid, and Rogue because of his low health, but still invaluable as a cheap buff.

Flame Imp lets you get a creature with 2-mana stats onto the board for 1 mana, making it one of the strongest cards in the early game, and an auto-include in Zoo’s plan.

Undertaker forms the core of all aggressive decks in the current meta, since he’s cheap as dirt and gets way stronger the more minions you toss out, making him a perfect addition to Zoo.

Zombie Chow is kinda like Flame Imp’s evil twin, another undercosted early board control minion with a downside that can usually be played around early on. He’s also a 1-mana buff for Undertaker.

Dire Wolf Alpha isn’t a personally strong minion and is frequently a lousy turn 2 play, but he’s effectively 4/2 worth of stats (or more) if you put him down between your minions, which enables a number of trades. Great combo with Haunted Creeper’s Deathrattle, in particular.

Haunted Creeper buffs Undertaker, and it summons two tokens after it dies, making it AoE-resistant as well as a fantastic synergy with Knife Juggler and Dire Wolf Alpha. It’s also a bit like a mini Sludge Belcher when combined with Defender of Argus. One of Zoo’s best turn 2 plays.

Ironbeak Owl isn’t a great minion because it dies to almost everything, but it’s a cheap Silence effect that leaves a minion on board afterward. In the current meta filled particularly with threats to Zoo like Undertaker, Sludge Belcher, Cairne Bloodhoof, Sylvanas Windrunner, and Savannah Highmane, it’s a good idea to run an Owl or two in order to cheaply rob your opponents of value and keep the face open for any final bursts of damage. Note that you can also use Owl to take a debuff away from one of your own minions, as well, particularly Equality and freeze effects (important since Freeze Mage has made a comeback).

Knife Juggler is another minion that gets more value the more minions you summon. If left alive for more than a turn, you can get immense gains in mana and trade efficiency from the damage he puts out — he’ll frequently kill pesky opponent minions outright.

Loot Hoarder buffs Undertaker and makes your deck a little more sustainable into later turns by giving you extra card draw. If not removed by a ping from the enemy hero, he’s also a solid 2 damage that can trade up in many cases.

Nerubian Egg is your insurance policy against AoE, since any board clear leaves you with a 4/4 minion that only cost you 2 mana. Also buffs Undertaker and combos with Defender of Argus, forcing your opponent to waste an attack and also give you value. In some more specialized cases, it can also be good to buff the Egg up with Abusive Sergeant or Dire Wolf Alpha to kill an enemy minion off and get yourself a Nerubian.

Harvest Golem buffs Undertaker (noticing a pattern here?) and generally takes two cards to remove, making it an efficient, sticky, solid body that’s easily buffed for valuable trades as well as being another good combo with Defender of Argus.

Dark Iron Dwarf is one of the best midgame plays out there — a strong minion that trades evenly or better with pretty much everything except Chillwind Yeti, plus it buffs one of your minions up to enable valuable trades. A must-have.

Defender of Argus is slow and is a horrible card to put out “naked,” unlike most Zoo cards, but it makes your minions stronger in both attack and health (often, crucially, out of AoE range), increasing your sustainability and flexibility into the later turns of the game. The Taunt also forces more burst-heavy decks to play board control where you’re strong, protecting your precious life points.

Doomguard is a card I personally hate because its effect frequently tosses out cards I’d rather keep, but after extensive experimentation I’ve determined that it can’t be replaced in Zoo and is still one of the strongest cards in the game. It’s powerful, its effect is immediate, and it’s usually really hard to kill. If you’re careful to empty your hand first, Doomguard is so efficient and undercosted that it frequently wins you the game outright.

Notice that almost every card in the deck can buff another minion, and the ones that don’t buff have powers that can immediately affect the state of the board (Soulfire, Ironbeak Owl, Knife Juggler, Doomguard). The only exception is Flame Imp, which still works in Zoo because it’s intended as an under-costed turn 1 tempo minion to help establish that early board control, and therefore usually hits the board before you need to buff another minion or affect board state.

Impact Zoo: A Point of Comparison

I like the modular approach with deckbuilding, starting with a core of cards that give you the synergies or win condition you’re pursuing, and then slotting in the best cards to serve particular roles in a particular metagame. Since most of us didn’t invent the archetypes we’re using in our decks, the best way to do this — and teach ourselves to build that archetype in the process — is to “reverse-engineer” by comparing highly successful decklists within the archetype to see which cards have remained the same and which have changed. This lets us establish a basic framework for the deck. Let’s compare the list we’ve just seen to an older list, the one Impact used to win the Sunshine Open a couple months ago:

Soulfire x2

Mortal Coil x2

Abusive Sergeant x2

Argent Squire x2

Flame Imp x2

Voidwalker x2

Dire Wolf Alpha x2

Echoing Ooze x2

Haunted Creeper x2

Knife Juggler x2

Nerubian Egg x2

Shattered Sun Cleric x2

Dark Iron Dwarf x2

Defender of Argus x2

Doomguard x2

We can see here that there are a fair few cards in common. In fact, the only different ones are Undertaker and Zombie Chow in place of Argent Squire and Voidwalker, Echoing Ooze instead of Ironbeak Owl, Mortal Coil in place of Loot Hoarder, and Shattered Sun Cleric in place of Harvest Golem. This tells us that, at least, we have 2 somewhat flexible spots at 1 mana, a flexible spot at 2 mana, a spot that can flex at either 1 or 2 mana, and a flexible spot at 3 mana as long as it buffs a minion (Harvest Golem buffs Undertaker). I would also personally say Defender of Argus is flexible for minions that solidify your board in the midgame; you can replace a single Dire Wolf Alpha with a strong 1- or 2-mana minion; and Nerubian Egg is conceivably flexible for anything that makes you AoE-resistant (back in the old days, Amani Berserker was Zoo’s choice for that slot). This means that we can play around with around one-third of the deck (8-13 cards) to tune it to our personal preferences. I’ll describe what those slots are trying to do, and make some suggestions for alternative picks.

Substitutions in Zoo

At 1 mana, in this meta I strongly recommend you run Undertaker and at least one other Deathrattle minion to provide an early buff. I favor Zombie Chow for its superiority in early board control, but Leper Gnome is also a solid pick. The main thing to look for here is minions that’ll trade favorably and stick past your opponent’s early attempts to remove them. Argent Squire used to be the best pick for stickiness, but is now outclassed by Undertaker in most cases. Voidwalker remains a good ( if relatively low-impact) pick for value and early board with a little bit of stall in the later game.

The 2-mana flex spot is for your “tech.” As I’ve said above, I currently recommend Ironbeak Owl, but you should experiment and put different things in here depending on your personal playstyle and the current meta. Lots of early AoE? Maybe you should run Amani Berserker in addiiton to Nerubian Egg. Too much spell-based removal? Try Faerie Dragon. Running into a lot of Deathlord? Crazed Alchemist might be just the trick. Prefer a thicker board? Impact’s choice of Echoing Ooze is great (especially if you’re running Shattered Sun Cleric in the 3-drop spot and Defender of Argus x2).

The 1-or-2-mana spot in both lists ekes out just a little bit more card draw. If you’re running Undertaker, I recommend one or two Loot Hoarder as an additional buff that also provides card draw and a pointy body on board, which in most cases gives you a lot more value and consistency than Mortal Coil, which is the other traditional alternative here. If you find your card draw is good enough, Voidwalker is a good pick for keeping more valuable cards alive. You can also tech with this slot; I’d recommend considering Power Overwhelming for cheap extra damage that can also be used with Void Terror and/or to trigger a valuable Deathrattle.

The 3-mana spot has traditionally been dominated by Harvest Golem and Shattered Sun Cleric, the former for its solidity and stickiness (and now for its Undertaker buff), the latter for its ability to buff minions on board. They’re both still good, solid picks for that slot — older-school picks like Scarlet Crusader aren’t consistent enough in the current meta. The other contender is Void Terror, which can be used to trip a Nerubian Egg turn 3 to put basically two 4-mana minions on the board for a total of 5 mana — and the Terror also permanently soaks up buffs to attack and health, making it easy to put together a terrifyingly powerful creature with little downside. Void Terror is frequently a horrible play in Zoo, though, because it always kills at least one of your creatures on board, so you have to use it carefully. I personally love Void Terror but would not recommend running more than a single copy.

The 4-mana slot that normally holds Defender of Argus is actually pretty flexible for anything that’s good tech in the current meta. While I like Defender in principle, I generally only run one copy because he requires two cards on board to get value, which can make him a dead draw. For a deck that’s running Undertaker and more than the four essential Demons (Flame Imp x2 + Doomguard x2), I think Voidcaller makes a neat pick that gets value with any Demon summon and also forces your opponent to play around it because of the possibility you’ll spring a Doomguard on him for free, although Voidcaller is otherwise an underpowered card and I’d generally advise against running two. You can also flex this slot into a lower mana curve, so you could, for example, run Harvest Golem x2 and Shattered Sun Cleric x2 and leave Defender of Argus out.

Last but not least, the slot for Nerubian Egg can be replaced with anything that’s also AoE-resistant, but the Egg is so mana-efficient that I don’t currently see the point. That said, you could fit Amani Berserker in here, as well as Scarlet Crusader. Argent Squire also fits here if you’re really trying to lower your mana curve. Again, though, I consider this slot the least flexible and the least desirable to change in current Zoo builds.

Now that we know what Zoo wants and how Zoo works, we can start making our own evolutions of Zoo, breaking down the basic list and customizing it for our personal playstyle or card collection. Here’s a list I’ve run recently. I’ve had great success with it, it’s a little different from the cookie-cutter builds, and it suits my playstyle, which is aggressive with just a little bit of flash.

Ra-V’s Bursty Zoo: Using What We’ve Learned

Soulfire x2

Power Overwhelming x2

Abusive Sergeant x2

Flame Imp x2

Leper Gnome x2

Undertaker x2

Voidwalker x2

Amani Berserker x1

Dire Wolf Alpha x1

Haunted Creeper x2

Ironbeak Owl x1

Knife Juggler x2

Nerubian Egg x2

Void Terror x1

Harvest Golem x1

Dark Iron Dwarf x2

Voidcaller x1

Doomguard x2

Let’s take a look at the particular picks to see where this deck is strongest. What I’ve done with this list is pointed Zoo as far at the face as possible, with as many shenanigans as possible, without losing Zoo’s essential focus on consistency and board control. I’ve included Power Overwhelming in addition to Abusive Sergeant and Dark Iron Dwarf for extra burst potential. Since it’s a huge, temporary buff that kills the minion it affects, it also synergizes really well with Void Terror and can be used to trigger Voidcaller’s Deathrattle, which makes it smart to run one copy of each along with two copies of Voidwalker to maximize Voidcaller’s chance of getting good value. Amani Berserker is a better independent early drop than Dire Wolf Alpha and serves as a more proactive AoE defense than Nerubian Egg, with huge burst potential if enraged. I’ve chosen to cut the extra card draw and Defender of Argus since I can make my minions huge and get them out fast using Power Overwhelming / Void Terror / Voidcaller. The extra burst power in this deck makes it great against aggro and control at the expense of burning out more quickly and being more vulnerable to midrange, which makes it a solid pick in a meta with a lot of Hunter and mirror matchup.

Today we’ve looked at three distinct decklists for Zoo and gone through the cards in each to explore their synergy, flexibility, and relevance to the Zoo strategy of board-control aggression. Congratulations! Now you have a solid base of knowledge from which to build a better Zoo deck. Don’t just netdeck a list with a high win percentage; take a look at your own personal playstyle and make a deck that works for YOU. Get out there and make a more creative metagame!