Guide to Classic Zoo

Vegietarian walks through the low curve and low dust Zoo decklist that he took to Legend in Season 14.

Introduction

Hi, vegietarian here! For my first article on the site, I thought I would I write about my favorite deck: Zoolock. Zoo is one of the oldest decks in Hearthstone, and has greatly evolved as new cards have been released. The heart of Zoo is extremely mana efficient minions making extremely efficient trades, and snowballing that into board control, and holding that board control through use of Life Tap. The original list created by Reynad was touted as the best deck in the game, and it did its job without legendaries.

However, recent Zoo decks have begun to cut some of the early game trading minions in favor of big drops, such as sylvanas-windrunner, dr-boom or malganis. I’m here with a lower curve Zoo deck that trades the sheer power of those legendaries for more consistent early game board control. This lower curve deck also has the advantage of being easy to craft for new to players at only 1420 dust.

The first time I hit Legend was with Zoo, after the release of Naxx and the introduction of haunted-creeper and nerubian-egg to the list. After soulfire was nerfed, Zoo began to fall out of favor. When it came back, it was in a drastically changed, midrange, demon-heavy form. I tried one of the midrange Zoo decks when it began to see popularity, but I was frustrated with the autolose games the list could produce when the big drops and demons were at the top of the deck. I went back to my old Zoo list, and tried to stay as close to that as possible. I cut the nerfed soulfire for the GvG addition imp-losion to maintain the idea of “remove a minion and develop the board” and cut shattered-sun-cleric for the new 3 cost minion from Blackrock, imp-gang-boss. The result was a quick climb to Legend in Season 14.

I was extremely satisfied with deck’s performance on the ladder. It fares favorably against every meta deck besides Patron Warrior and Handlock, and those are probably just a bit below 50% in terms of win rate. Zoo is a great deck to climb with because it’s consistent and fast. It’s far less susceptible to bad draws than other decks, simply due to its variety of early game options. You can crank out games in somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes, even against slower decks and players. In addition, explosive starts or power-overwhelming plays can tilt opponents into immediate concedes, which gets you into another game to continue the climb.

Mulligan and Early Game

Toss 3 or more mana cards. Aggressively search for argent-squire, flame-imp, and voidwalker. If you have the coin, you can keep haunted-creeper, knife-juggler, or nerubian-egg. If you already have an Egg, you can consider keeping Power Overwhelming if you think that your opponent is likely to drop a minion that you can clear with Power Overwhelming to unleash the Nerubian. Against Face Hunter, consider keeping Ironbeak Owl if your hand would struggle with an explosive-trap out of mad-scientist. Keep abusive-sergeant if you have argent-squire/voidwalker/haunted-creeper, as it will be able to buff those to clear zombie-chow or other early game threats, but mulligan it away if you only have flame-imp, as the buff is not needed there and it’s more important to fish for other pieces to play.

In the early game, you want to play as mana efficiently as possible. Use the coin aggressively, to put more stats on the board for the enemy to deal with. This Zoo does not really have specific combos or big drops that it would want to coin out in the midgame. A double 1-drop turn 1 is almost impossible for most decks to deal with, especially when followed up with a solid turn 2 play.

Note

A notable exception to the mana efficiency doctrine is a turn 1 abusive-sergeant. Do not play this card naked on turn 1, even if it is your only play. A 2/1 body alone is not a threat towards the board and will not trade efficiently unless your opponent gives you the trade. The Abusive has greater value held in hand for a later trade. (An exception to the exception is against Face Hunter; having the body to trade into his leper-gnome or worgen-infiltrator is valuable).

In general in the early game with Zoo, you want to be clearing your opponents minions on your own turn. The deck has so many tools that buff its minions, and those tools can either be disrupted or wear off during your opponent’s turn. In the early game, face damage matters very little, because your weaker minions do not do as much damage to the face. It’s much more important to hold control of the board for your bigger minions to take over.

Midgame and Combos

As the game moves beyond turn 3 and the deck no longer possesses primary minions to drop each turn, mana efficiency becomes slightly less important. It’s still important to try to use as much mana as possible each turn, but it’s more important to trade efficiently with enemy minions. Trading on your own turn is especially important here as well, but it’s also important to know when to go face, as to threaten lethal before you run out of steam.

One of the more important decision to make in the midgame is whether to drop defender-of-argus or dark-iron-dwarf on turn 4, or to cast Imp-losion. If the opponent’s board is empty, Argus is generally a better play as it puts more stats on the board for your opponent to deal with on their next turn and still allows you to do two extra damage to their face. However, if you are looking to trade up and need a buff, Dark Iron Dwarf is a better play, as it develops a bigger body and allows you to save Argus for a later turn in which you could take advantage of the Taunt and extra health it gives. Imp-losion is generally a worse turn 4 play than the other two options (unless you don’t have any sort of board at all), because that’s when clears like consecration, hellfire, swipe and holy-nova start coming out and your opponent is likely to play those cards anyway to get rid of the minions you are throwing at them. If Imp-losion can be saved until after the board clears have been used, or if your opponent has cheap clears that they have already burnt, such as whirlwind, you can find more value out of your Imps.

Another important decision is whether to drop doomguard on turn 5. If you have another way to deal with your opponent’s board in a decent manner, even if it doesn’t use all of your mana, it’s probably a better play. Discarding two cards can really hurt you in the long-term, especially if your opponent can clear your Doomguard on their following turn. If your opponent spent their turn 5 on a big minion like Loatheb or Dragon Consort that you cannot clear, Taunts like voidwalker or defender-of-argus on your small minions will more effectively stop that threat than charging your Doomguard into their big guy and discarding your hand. However, if they play something like sludge-belcher that you cannot deal with without throwing away your board, you may have to bite the bullet, charge Doomguard into the Belcher and get the extra damage onto their face. The cards in your hand can greatly impact the choice of whether to Doomguard and discard or not; cards like flame-imp and haunted-creeper are not the best in the late game so it’s okay to discard them, but the 3+ mana cards in the deck are crushing to discard. This is because the rest of the draws in your deck are more likely to be the lower cost minions that are not as effective in the lategame. In general, it is better to avoid the turn 5 Doomguard and double discard in favor of holding the card in hopes of a turn 6 or 7 topdecked low cost minion and a Doomguard with an empty hand power play.

Here are some of the strong combinations that Zoo uses in the midgame to take control of the board:

knife-juggler and imp-losion – Zoo’s version of knife-juggler and Unleash the Hounds. However, it’s more of a single target removal combo than the board clear that Hunter uses the Juggler for. The main use for this combo is fearless Imp-losions on to 3 or 4 health minions, as you can be more confident that your knives will be able to clean up the minion if you roll low. If you roll high, your opponent will have a face full of knives and a board full of imps. I don’t think I actually play this combo out of hand that often, but I find myself casting Imp-losion with the Juggler already on the board quite a lot.

void-terror and abusive-sergeant or power-overwhelming – After using Abusive Sergeant or Power Overwhelming to pump up minions for a trade, you can then summon out Void Terror to eat the minion and keep the buff. This puts out a massive minion early in the game and can prompt concessions from the opponent if they have no answer for it.

void-terror and nerubian-egg – Even an unbuffed egg is a good snack for Void Terror. On turn 5, this combo drops a 4/4 and a 3/5 on the board; 8 mana worth of stats distributed in an effective way. Especially against a Druid, a class that struggles with clearing higher health minions, this can be a great way to put more stats on the board than your opponent can handle.

defender-of-argus and imp-gang-boss/argent-squire/haunted-creeper – Defender of Argus is a great card in general, but these three cards are very sticky and hard to deal with in general. Many opponents handle that by flat-out ignoring them. Buffing them and Taunting them up forces your opponent to deal with them before they can clear the rest of your minions.

Late Game and Finding Lethal

Once you reach a point where you are Life Tapping almost every turn, you are in the late game. This varies from game to game, depending on whether you had the coin, how much you Life Tapped in the early game, and the size of the drops you drew into, but once you reach that point you need to begin searching for a way to kill your opponent. Board control can still be held, but you have to start thinking about how you are going to kill your opponent.

In the late game, if you have not already won, you have to stop playing around certain cards. For example, against Druid lategame and running out cards, you cannot really play against force-of-nature and savage-roar by refusing to tap below certain levels. Without a threatening board, you will give Druid more time to find the combo, and if they did have the combo, you probably weren’t going to win anyway. (You can counter the combo by setting up taunts and clearing the minions on board.) Zoo is more able to do this than other decks since the pressure it can put on often forces decks to spend their mana on removal instead of card draw.

Zoo actually has a surprising amount of burst, with power-overwhelming and doomguard comboed with buff minions. Always calculate how much damage you could do if you sent everything to face, and remember that you can drop Doomguard next to dire-wolf-alpha after attacking with the other minion adjacent to the wolf to squeeze in one more point of damage. Beyond that, attempt to plan out two turn lethals. This deck runs so many buff minions that if you have two minions on board at the start of your turn, you can count on drawing into two damage (if you Life Tap).

The hardest part of this deck, but often of the most important, is plotting out those two turn lethals. It’s very difficult and often subjective, but you have to consider your opponent’s hand size, what removal they have already used, and see which minions they are likely to be able to clear. Your goal is to do enough damage to face so the minions they leave up are able to finish them off. You can still consider the likelihood of drawing into buffs to finish them off as well. If antique-healbot comes down, give up on the two turn lethal plan and try to punish them by taking advantage of the mana they spent healing to retake control of the board.

Playing Around Your Opponent’s Deck

Moreso than most decks, Zoo requires knowledge of what your opponent is packing in their deck. Playing directly into your opponent’s removal will stop the Zoo dead in its tracks. You’ll be able to win some games, but if you want to climb from 5 to Legend with Zoo you have to be able to predict your opponent’s plays. Here’s a list of what you can do to counter common plays by the current meta decks:

Hunter

It’s often hard to tell if a Hunter is Face or Midrange, and it’s getting even harder with the new Hybrid Hunter list. Against Face Hunter, hold your eggs in hand for as long as possible, because you can abuse the typically devastating explosive-trap into giving you a 2 mana 4/4. You can also counter Explosives by power-overwhelming your knife-juggler or flame-imp to keep it alive through the trap and net 7 damage on his face. Try to get Taunts up midgame against Face Hunter. On those turns, they are looking to send their eaglehorn-bow or arcane-golem into your face, and Taunts can make their turns awkward. Against Midrange Hunter, the matchup is much easier. You can get some value if you let your abusive-sergeant or argent-squire trigger his freezing-trap. Against both Hunters, trade-off 1/1s whenever possible to deny the swing of the knife-juggler and Unleash the Hounds combo.

Handlock

It’s much easier to tell Handlock from Zoo, and if a Zoolock is forced to look like a Handlock they are probably going to lose anyway. Against Handlock, Hellfire and Taunted molten-giants are your biggest enemy. Try not to overextend into Hellfire and use your nerubian-egg or imp-gang-boss before the Hellfire turn so something can survive the flames. Ideally you would save your ironbeak-owl to Silence a Taunt for lethal, but it’s often hard to get to that point if you don’t Silence their twilight-drake.

Zoo

When on the draw in the mirror, be wary of playing voidwalker turn 1 if he also played a voidwalker or an argent-squire, as an abusive-sergeant trade into it can really hurt. However, being on the draw in the mirror is generally an advantage as it allows you to double 1-drop or coin out a 2-drop. Once you take board control, do everything you can to not relinquish it as to deny defender-of-argus or dark-iron-dwarf swing turns.

Patron/Control Warrior

fiery-war-axe is a great card against this deck, especially for slaying turn 1 flame-imp and voidwalker. It’s really hard to negate that fact, but argent-squire and haunted-creeper are not easy for the Axe to clear. With the coin, you can take the opposite approach and drop both Flame Imp and Voidwalker on turn 1, forcing him to Axe the Voidwalker and thus take six damage from the Imp after he axes it the following turn. Because the new Patron Warrior runs so many 1 damage to the board effects, try to trade with your spectral-spiders and imps so those effects are not as punishing. acolyte-of-pain is the best silence target in their deck so don’t worry about saving your ironbeak-owl for anything else. After turn 8, try to have big minions taunted up with defender-of-argus so that the Warrior can’t go off on your small minions with the warsong-commander and grim-patron combo.

Druid

This deck can usually outvalue druid by trading up, even if they have wild-growth, so the main way the matchup is lost is by playing into removal. Try to bait an innervated keeper-of-the-grove with flame-imp so your nerubian-egg does not get Silenced, as the Druid will struggle to deal with the 4/4. Again in this matchup, try to trade off your 1/1s so that Swipe does not wipe your board.

Mage

Most of the Mages I was seeing in my climb were flamewaker-based. If a dark-iron-dwarf-buffed imp-gang-boss or power-overwhelming-buffed nerubian-egg is able to trade into Flamewaker, the game is basically over. You can counter their mirror-entity by dropping either abusive-sergeant or knife-juggler into it as those minions are pretty easy for this deck to clear.

Rogue

You can bait out the backstab with a turn 1 flame-imp to protect your knife-juggler. blade-flurry is a pretty strong board clear, but if you are able to put out enough threats per turn you can force them to spend their mana on removal rather than setting up their weapon. Try to save your dark-iron-dwarf and abusive-sergeant for trading 1/1s into their si7-agent or earthen-ring-farseer.

Priest

velens-chosen is hard for this deck to deal with so try to clear all minions when they are dropped. Prioritize buffing imp-gang-boss out of cabal-shadow-priest range, and prioritize not buffing dark-iron-dwarf or nerubian into shadow-word-death range.

General Meta

piloted-shredder hates dying to a minion buffed to a 3/1. dr-boom hates when his Boom Bots bounce on to a nerubian-egg you played that turn. emperor-thaurissan and sludge-belcher hate dying to a 1/1 buffed with power-overwhelming. Setting up those turns can swing games very hard.

Tech Choices and Substitutions

void-terror is the most cuttable card in the deck and fits a mana and stat size similar to most of the tech cards you would consider adding to Zoo. If Handlock is extremely common on the ladder or you want something to take out dr-boom for cheap, try adding big-game-hunter. If Hunter and Mage are giving you trouble, kezan-mystic can provide a large swing. loatheb is a good option to shut down Oil Rogue decks. However, Zoo wants to be a proactive deck and most tech cards are inherently reactive. Adding these cards in will hurt you in other matchups where they do not excel.

If you don’t have the gold to purchase Blackrock yet, this deck is still very playable. The only Blackrock card used is imp-gang-boss, whose role can be filled by harvest-golem. However, if you are a newer player and have not unlocked Naxx yet, there are few replacements for the value of haunted-creeper and nerubian-egg. Luckily, those two cards are in the first wing! If dust rather than access to wings is your biggest issue, focus on crafting two doomguards first, as the power and finisher potential of that card is absolutely essential to the deck. defender-of-argus and knife-juggler are also very important to the deck. imp-losion is very good, but if you do not want to craft two, soulfire would be an okay replacement as you learned the deck and built up more gold. void-terror again is not essential to the deck, so if you don’t have the card, using one of the tech options is fine.

A personal preference type of card choice in the deck is voidcaller in the place of dark-iron-dwarf. Voidcaller is definitely a higher value minion than Dark Iron Dwarf, as its Deathrattle will almost always pull something in this deck. However, Dark Iron Dwarf allows for more powerful swing turns and trading minions up, which is more in the style of Zoo. It also can be buffed by dire-wolf-alpha or defender-of-argus to kill 5 health minions, like sludge-belcher, where Voidcaller would come up 1 attack short. I feel like Voidcaller is just one turn too late for this kind of deck; by turn 4, you don’t want to be dropping new minions, you want to be buffing your existing minions for trades. It’s an extremely close call though; I have been playing around with Voidcaller now that I’ve hit Legend and he can definitely be great at times. Dark Iron Dwarf is what I recommend for the current meta full of piloted-shredders (trading a spectral-spider into the front half of a Shredder feels so good), but if Shredder concentration decreases or you are consistently finding yourself with an empty board on turn 4, Voidcaller may be a better choice.

Conclusion

I hope you learned something from reading about my experiences with Zoo. I also hope you give the deck a try if you are looking for something easy to pick up but tough to master. Even if you don’t like the style of Zoo, playing it for a bit can give you a better sense of what kind of cards Zoo holds in its hand and that will allow you to play against it better with your other decks. If you have any questions about the deck or comments about how different Zoo lists fare in the current meta, I’d be happy to talk with you in the Comments section. Thanks for reading!

-vegietarian