This is the Beginner part of the guide. It explains more basic things, including deck overview, differences between builds, mulligan, a few general tips. For more complex concepts, check out the Advanced part of the guide.
Zoo Warlock might be the most popular deck in the history of Hearthstone. It was present in nearly every meta and it pretty much always was a Tier 1-2 deck. Zoo was always my “go-to” ladder list pre-Legend. The games are fast, the deck is powerful and Warlock is my favorite class. I’ve hit Legend with different versions countless times.
Karazhan introduced two new cards that are crucial to the Zoo’s identity – Malchezaar’s Imp and Silverware Golem. They’ve divided Zoo players into two groups – the ones that prefer Discard Zoo and the ones that stick to the classic Zoo without those. Well, there are also some in-between decks that mix both of them, but we’re not going too deep into that.
Zoo Warlock is not the strongest deck around right now. It’s probably somewhere in Tier II. It means that it might not be the best choice once you get to Legend*, but pre-Legend is a whole different story. Zoo still remains as one of the best decks to grind pre-Legend ladder with. If you practice the deck a bit, it might be one of the easiest Legend grinds of your life.
*Maybe not the best choice, but it’s not that bad either. While I didn’t push for any high ranks, I’ve peaked around top 200 for a while. This late in the season it’s not a bad rank at all.
**And Sjow just hit #2 Legend playing a very similar list (with Knife Jugglers instead of Argent Squires). So yeah, it definitely works :p
P.S. Just to avoid some confusion. Throughout the guide, I will refer to the whole archetype as “Zoo” and this specific deck as “Discard Zoo”. When I’ll refer to the older, pre-Karazhan Zoo builds, I’ll call it “Classic Zoo”.
The list I’ll be covering was, as far as I know, popularized by Xixo. It was the one I was playing in Legend this season. I’ve also played some Discard Zoo pre-Legend, but it was early in the season with a slightly different list. It seems like this or very similar lists are the most popular ones right now, at least in Legend on Eu. I’ve seen a Demonfire list a few times too, but I haven’t playtested it, so I can’t say if it’s good or not.
The main thing you need to remember – Zoo Warlock is not your usual Aggro deck, even though it might be incredibly fast. Board control, especially in the early and mid game, is #1 priority. Sure, sometimes you get insane start and you can just hit face and win. But that’s not the way you should play this deck. There are times when you prefer to smack face than to trade your minions, but each of those times you should know WHY this play is better, not just mindlessly point at the opponent’s portrait.
Zoo decks have low learning floor – the basics are easy to learn and they should give you enough knowledge about the deck to play it on the ladder successfully. But I’d have to say that this is the deck with one of the highest skill ceilings in the game. It’s very hard to play the deck perfectly, especially when it comes to minion positioning.
This list – Discard Zoo – incorporated some “Discard” synergies to the Classic Zoo. Certain discard cards – Doomguard and Soulfire – were popular in Zoo archetype even before the discard synergies. Not only you should be getting out of cards in your hand fast enough to not feel the discard downside that often, but those cards are so powerful that even when you HAVE to discard something, they might still be worth playing. Discard Zoo focuses on discards more – the main idea behind the deck is to reduce the downside of the discard card, or even turn it into an upside, so you can play more of them in a single deck and abuse their strength.
The general play style and trading rules are similar to the Classic Zoo, so if you’re already familiar with that deck, you should have much easier time learning this one. There are, however, some significant differences between two decks. Let me talk about them briefly before continuing to the mulligan.
Classic Zoo vs Discard Zoo
Two lists that are similar. They share a very close core, a similar (1-drop heavy) curve. There are only a few cards difference between those two. But those few cards change a lot when it comes to how playing the deck feels like.
The main difference is that Classic Zoo is more consistent, while Discard Zoo is more swingy. Classic Zoo most likely wins the game in a more “fair” way – it just plays more and more minions, overwhelms enemy enemy on the board and then kill him with something like Doomguard or Power Overwhelming. The deck is pretty predictable. It has little to no crazy RNG, it wants to play on-curve so both you and enemy know what to expect etc. The Discard Zoo, on the other hand, often relies on the early/mid game discards to snowball the game. And since discards are random, the results may vary greatly. For example – in a hand with 2x Soulfire and Silverware Golem early in the game, a whole match can be decided on a single 50/50 roll. Discarding second Soulfire leaves you with no additional board presence and no 1 mana 4 damage spell which you can now cast without any disadvantages (since your hand is empty). Discarding a Silverware Golem gives you a 3/3 on the board and extra 4 damage you can cast on whatever you want. Discarding the right cards in the right moment can swing the game in your favor. Discarding the wrong card, however, can mess up with the whole game plan. Malchezaar’s Imp was an important addition to the deck, because if you manage to get him out on the board, even discarding the wrong card doesn’t hurt that much, because at least you cycle it.
Discard Zoo deck is generally faster than the Classic Zoo. Unless you manage to keep an early Imp on the board, discard mechanics – no matter whether you hit right or wrong cards – removes cards from your hand. Classic Zoo could often get to turn 5-6 before it started tapping. On average, Discard Zoo needs to start tapping faster. So it really wants to start snowballing the game before that happens. Also, because the discard is not a downside once you have zero cards in the hand, you want to build Discard Zoo with a very low curve. With Classic Zoo, you can afford to play slightly more midrange minions. With Discard – you can’t, because you want to empty your hand as quickly as you can.
With so many discard cards, Discard Zoo more often ends up with a very awkward hand. If you have 2-3 discard cards in your hand and no cards you actually want to discard, you’ll often end up with situations like Soulfire discarding Doomguard, just because there were no other cards it could discard. So when operating on a big hand sizes, Classic Zoo has an advantage. It’s much easier to get out all the cards on the board without discarding any of them for nothing. On the other hand, Discard Zoo works better in top deck scenarios. Once you start topdecking cards, the average card Classic Zoo is going to topdeck will have lower quality. That’s because discard mechanics don’t matter when your hand is empty. When you topdeck a Darkshire Librarian, it’s a 3/2 with Deathrattle: Draw a card and no downside. Soulfire is a free 4 damage.
Thanks to the Forbidden Ritual, Classic Zoo has easier time managing the mana in the mid/late game (instead of floating 4 mana, you can summon 4x 1/1) and refilling the board after the clear. On the other hand, Forbidden Ritual is very weak in some matchups that are popular on the board – most notably Shaman (Maelstrom Portal) and Warrior (Ravaging Ghoul). Some other classes can also punish a huge Forbidden Ritual with things like Unleash the Hounds or Swipe.
There is also a difference in deck’s difficulty. I’d have to say that Discard Zoo is harder to play correctly than Classic Zoo is. Risk assessment is already a very important thing when playing Zoo – do I want to play into AoE? Should I go face and set up lethal next turn or is it too risky to leave X on the board? How much can I afford to Tap against that Aggro Shaman? You know, stuff like that. But Discard Zoo gets another depth of risk assessment. Do I want to risk my discard hitting an important card in my hand? What are the potential upsides and downsides of playing it now? Is the advantage of immediate power play worth losing a card I might need in the long run? Those are questions you need to ask yourself quite often when playing this deck. While discarding is RNG, it’s not a RNG you have zero influence over. Knowing when to play your discard cards outside of the obvious scenarios (lethal, Imp on the board, empty hand etc.) by quickly calculating the risk vs reward is a very important thing you need to learn when playing this deck. So outside of all the things you already need to be doing when playing Zoo, you get an additional thing you need to think about, thus making Discard harder than the Classic.
There are probably a few more differences, but I think that I have listed the most important ones. So probably the most important question – which list is stronger? I’d say that in the current meta and with the current card pool, Discard Zoo is slightly stronger than than the Classic Zoo. The difference, however, is not huge. I’d say that Classic Zoo is still a viable deck. And things can easily change in the future.
This screenshot shows the reason why this deck is played more than Classic Zoo right now. While it’s a very rare scenario, if you get insane opening, you can snowball the game so hard. This game against Shaman was just won on turn 2. I’ve played Soulfire on Totem Golem with 2x Malchezaar’s Imp on the board. On turn 2, I’ve developed 3 minions – 2x 1/3 and 3/3, I’ve killed a 3/4 minion with Overload (1) and drew 2 cards. All of that for 3 mana. Even though Shaman had good curve and AoE removals to follow, it was still easy win thanks to that early game tempo swing.
I’ve always said that Mulligan is one of the most important things when playing Zoo. The archetype relies so heavily on snowballing the board, getting the 1-drops you want, so making the right mulligan choices can win or lose you the game. Mulligan with Discard Zoo is actually even more tricky than it was with the Classic Zoo. Besides thinking about which card is good in given matchup, you also need to think about whether you want to keep your discard mechanics or not. Most of the discards / discard synergies are pretty weak by themselves, but if you get few of them in your hand, you can snowball the game as soon as turn 2/3. So is it worth to keep Silverware Golem and hoping you’ll hit it with some discard and swing the tempo heavily?
The general answer is no, it’s not worth it. It’s a mulligan strategy that can work sometimes, but it’s not consistent enough. Sure, if you get a nut hands of Malchezaar’s Imp, Soulfire and Silverware Golem it would be stupid to not keep it. But you don’t actively mulligan for the discard synergies.
With mulligan, you mainly look for the 1-drops, especially if you’re going first. When going first, it’s very important to open with a 1-drop, giving you the tempo advantage this deck wants to have so much. So 1-drops are your highest mulligan priority. Even though Imp Gang Boss is amazing, you don’t keep it if you don’t get a 1-drop. Dire Wolf Alpha? Amazing if you have a lot of 1-drops, but useless if you don’t – so if you don’t, throw it away. Other more expensive card? Yeah, you get how it works.
With Coin, your mulligan can be slightly less strict, because Coin can fix your curve a bit. You don’t have 1-drop, but you have 2x 2-drop? You can coin one out on t1. You don’t have a 1-drop and 2-drop, but no 2-drop? No problem, play 3-drop on t2. You still prioritize the 1-drops most.
But what is the 1-drop priority? The deck runs 6 different 1-drops and they’re better or worse in different matchups. Overall, there is no “best 1-drop”. When wondering which ones you want to keep, think about few things. Can enemy remove it easily? Does it trade well against whatever he might drop in the early game? Does it have extra synergy with other cards in your hand? Do you need to play faster or slower? Let’s take Flame Imp. 3/2 for 1 is great. But it has lower priority against Warrior, because no matter what Warrior deck you face, they will mulligan heavily for Fiery War Axe – and Imp sucks against Axe. Plus you don’t really need the early 3 damage for trading purposes, you can take the game slightly slower against Warrior. It’s also pretty bad against Hunter – it gets poor trade against the Fiery Bat (no tempo gain, no value gain, you lost 4 extra life for nothing) and can get taken down by Quick Shot. On the other hand, it’s solid against Shaman. Sure, some lists run Lightning Bolt (but in that case Shaman gets overloaded and his next turn is weaker), but now you block Shaman from playing a lone Tunnel Trogg, because it gets taken down for free. And it can trade into Totem Golem quite easily with just a little bit of help. It’s also good against Druid – sure, he might kill it with Living Roots or Wrath, but it he doesn’t have it, he will take a lot of early damage, and it’s important to put pressure on Druid.
I won’t make a full list of which 1-drop is good in which matchup, because there are too many variables and it would take too long. But in general, Flame Imp is the best if you have no attack buffs in your hand and enemy doesn’t run a 2/1 minions. Possessed Villager and Argent Squire are slightly worse in that case, but they are better if you have Abusive Sergeant or Dire Wolf Alpha or if enemy deck runs 1 health minions. Voidwalker is slightly behind those two, but it gets extra value with Abusive Sergeant if opponent runs 1/3 minions (Tunnel Trogg, Mana Wyrm). Malchezaar’s Imp is good only if you have Soulfire, but if you don’t get any other 1-drops it’s also an okay keep. And Abusive Sergeant is bad by itself, but it’s great with other 1-drops, most notably the sticky 1/1’s, so I tend to keep it anyway, because it’s very rare that you don’t get anything else and in the worst case scenario you can drop him as 2/1 for 1.
Soulfire is a keep if you have Malchezaar’s Imp too. It’s a very strong combo – it can clear pretty much any strong minion you might encounter in the early game (Totem Golem, Innervated Mire Keeper or Azure Drake, any Animal Companion, Flamewaker etc.) while not losing the card advantage. You can keep Soulfire independently against Shaman – this is hard matchup, where the early game tempo is VERY important. If you’ll be the one making efficient trades against Shaman – you have a big chance to win. If Shaman gets to stick some minions on the board and he decides trades, you have no chance. Soulfiring opponent’s Tunnel Trogg or, more importantly, Totem Golem, even when discarding something you don’t want to, might snowball the early game enough for you to win in the long run.
Dark Peddler is the most consistent 2-drop – it’s a solid t2 play pretty much all the time. Since you’re always getting something back with discover, playing it into a removal, weapon etc. doesn’t feel that bad. It can also double-up as a 3-drop a lot of times – you get to pick a solid minion that you can immediately play most of the time. That’s why I almost always keep Dark Peddler – if going first I throw him away only if I don’t have any 1-drops in my starting hand and I always keep him when going Second.
Dire Wolf Alpha is a good keep if you have a solid amount of 1-drops. It can help with early trading or damage push immensely, but you need to have at least 2 other minions for it to be really useful. That’s why Dire Wolf is best when going second and when you already have two 1-drops in your hand. Playing two 1-drops on t1 and following with Dire Wolf on t2 is a very powerful move. Keep Dire Wolf even with a single 1-drop if it might boost your trade. E.g. if you have Flame Imp against Shaman, keep Dire Wolf. In case Shaman drops Totem Golem, you will have a way to kill it. If you play against Tempo Mage and you have a 1 Attack minion, also keep the Dire Wolf. This way you’ll be able to trade into Mage’s 2 health 2-drops – Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Cult Sorcerer. If you don’t have 1-drops or you won’t likely need to trade early, throw Dire Wolf away.
Darkshire Librarian might be a keep with Malchezaar’s Imp, but outside of that you don’t keep it. Even if you don’t discard anything crucial, it’s usually a 3/2 that discards one card and cycles it into another. It’s not good – it doesn’t put you ahead on the board, doesn’t give you any significant advantages. And the card it “cycles” isn’t available to you until it dies, so if it sticks on the board you might have discarded a card you wanted to play while not gaining anything instead immediately.
Darkshire Councilman is a keep only in matchups where you will likely have time to snowball it – e.g. against Druid or Control Warrior. Dropping it on turn 3 against any faster deck is way too slow. 1/5 stats it starts with might give enemy free trades and let’s be honest – once you snowball it it’s better at going face, not maintaining the board control. It’s better to drop it after already having Imp Gang Boss/Possessed Villager on the board (so you can trade them off and bump Councilman’s attack) and/or have more mana so you can follow it with some 1-drops to immediately buff it. That’s because a 3 mana 4/5 is great, but a 3 mana 1/5 or 2/5 really isn’t.
Imp Gang Boss is a keep much more often than Darkshire Councilman, as it’s more powerful immediately after placing it on the board. 4 health is out of range of the most early game removals and while 2 attack isn’t amazing in this meta, it can still trade into most of the early game drops over two turns (or in one if you boost the attack) while leaving 1/1’s behind. I very often keep Imp Gang Boss with Coin, and without Coin if I have smooth curve – e.g. I have 1-drop into 2-drop already.
Silverware Golem is the most tricky one. On the one hand, it can snowball the early game heavily. But on the other, to make it useful you also need a discard mechanic and you need to roll it. Let’s say you even get a Soulfire alongside Golem. I’d say that on average, when playing a very early discard with Silverware Golem in your hand, you have 1/2 or 1/3 chance to get it. But if you don’t get it – that’s usually a disaster. So I keep discard synergies only if I get a lot of them at once and the chances that they will work are bigger. For example – I would keep a hand of Malchezaar’s Imp + Soulfire/Darkshire Librarian + Silverware Golem in a lot of matchups. Because enemy isn’t likely to kill a t1 Malchezaar’s Imp immediately and then even not hitting the right discard won’t be as heavily punished. But outside of those nuts hands, I throw Silverware Golem away. Trust me – he will get useful later, for example alongside Doomguard.
Defender of Argus & Doomguard – you don’t want to keep those no matter what is the matchup and how the rest of your hand looks like. Those are absolutely worst cards you can get with Zoo in your starting hand.
I know that’s a quite long mulligan section, but as I’ve said at the beginning – mulligan with Zoo is incredibly important, so I’ve tried to make it as specific as possible. But here is a short version if you just want a quick glance at the mulligan:
- Focus on getting 1-drops, going first. Flame Imp is the best one in vacuum, but Argent Squire, Possessed Villager can be better with attack buffs (Abusive Sergeant, Dire Wolf Alpha). Voidwalker is behind those. Malchezaar’s Imp is worst one unless you also get Soulfire.
- Keep Soulfire only with Malchezaar’s Imp and against Shaman.
- Dark Peddler is the best 2-drop. You can also keep Dire Wolf Alpha if you have good 1-drops in your hand already. Darkshire Librarian is okay with Imp, but never keep it without it.
- Generally don’t keep Darkshire Councilman or Imp Gang Boss, focus on 1-drops and 2-drops. But if have Coin or good curve when going first, you can keep Imp Gang Boss when the rest of your hand is good.
- Silverware Golem is a keep only with a perfect hand, like Imp + Soulfire + Golem. Never keep it alone.
- Never keep 4+ drops.
General Strategy Tips
Here are the few basic tips for players who are learning Discard Zoo. For more advanced and better explained strategies, (when to prioritize going face over trading, setting up a clock, positioning etc.) check out the Advanced part of the guide.
- Before using your Discard mechanics, try to calculate the risk vs reward of a certain play. For example, with a Soulfire in your hand and a 4/4 minion on the board. It’s a great target, but there are always a few things to consider. Do you have a clear way of killing it on the board? E.g. throwing a 3/1 minion buffed by Dire Wolf Alpha can be just as efficient trade. Do you have any crucial cards in your hands that you don’t want to lose? E.g. Defender of Argus in an Aggro matchup – you really don’t want to throw that away, so you might want to wait with discards before playing it. What are the chances of discarding something crucial? Once again, in Aggro matchup – if you have only 25% chance to discard Argus and playing that Discard mechanic this turn is pretty important, you might still want to go for that risk. 3/4 of time you won’t discard the thing you want, so the chances are in your favor.
- Mind your positioning. The general idea is to put minions that spawn something on death/hit (e.g. Imp Gang Boss) or don’t die immediately (e.g. Argent Squire) on your left, the small minions without effect / stuff you want to trade out most (e.g. Dark Peddler) on the right. Then the biggest minions (e.g. Doomguard) on the far left. And minions that you value highly and absolutely don’t want to trade even further on the left. If you have multiple minions with Deathrattles etc. you can put one on the far right, it won’t break this line. This deck doesn’t really run the last category (minions that you want to stick on the board), but it could be for example a Knife Juggler in Classic list or Brann Bronzebeard if you ran a lot of positive Battlecries. In this deck it MIGHT be Malchezaar’s Imp if you have a lot of discard mechanics in your hand, then you want to protect it. This is the generally optimal positioning for both Dire Wolf Alpha and Defender of Argus. You can alter it a bit if you already have one of the guys in your hand and you know exactly what you will want to use them for. But going with that is rarely wrong.
- When getting a discover from the Dark Peddler, it really depends on the board state and the rest of your hand, but a few safe picks are: 1-drops that are already in the deck (you play them, so they’re good in this deck), Power Overwhelming, Mortal Coil, Soulfire (but only if you don’t have more discard mechanics in your hand, you don’t want to flood your hand with those). You get one of those cards 90% of time. I’d say that getting a “above average” 1-drop is best. E.g. Leper Gnome if you need more damage, Elven Archer will always find some target to hit. If enemy has a big minion on the board and you don’t want to kill it “manually”, you can also pick Corruption. Sure, he will get a single trade he chooses, but after that the minion dies, which is generally worth it.
- If you can choose between playing Darkshire Councilman and Imp Gang Boss, you should generally drop Imp Gang Boss first. If you hit some minion with your Imp Gang Boss next turn AFTER dropping the Councilman, it gets immediately buffed to 2/5, which are way better starting stats than 1/5. Also, if it’s your only minion on the board, Imp Gang Boss is more resilient against removals.
- If you have 3 mana and nothing in your hand to play besides Silverware Golem – play it (unless you don’t want to play into AoE or some other rare cases). I’ve seen this mistake a few times and I don’t understand that. It’s not like you HAVE to drop him from discards. It’s still a 3 mana 3/3 in the worst case scenario. It’s usually better to get him on the board immediately than to wait a few turns to maybe discard him. That extra 3/3 means a lot in Zoo.
- Going for turn 5 Doomguard, even if that means discarding two other cards, is often the correct play. Especially in the matchups you need to take fast and if you have a good trade on the board immediately. If you have to choose between playing Doomguard and killing 3 of your minions to get rid of Thing from Below against Aggro Shaman, consider going for the Doomguard. This way you don’t fall behind on the board and you put pressure on the enemy. It’s even better if you have Malchezaar’s Imp – then you can throw him anytime you want, the discards don’t matter that much if they’re recycled immediately.
- Voidwalker or small Taunts in general (e.g. made by Argus) are very valuable in the mid/late game to protect the rest of your board. If enemy has a medium or big minion on the board, he probably can trade into anything you have on the board. But if you have Taunts, he’s forced to hit them instead. This way your board is protected and you buy yourself more time to deal face damage or find an efficient way to kill that given minion.
That would be it for the Beginner part of the guide. I still have a lot of stuff to explain, but that should be enough info for you to start playing the deck pretty well. Remember that Zoo Warlock is an archetype that’s very easy to learn the basics, but it gets harder and harder when you try to master it. That’s why I recommend you checking out the second part of the guide as well.
By the way – if you wonder why there are no matchups in this guide, the reason is simple. I’ll be releasing MUAs (Matchup Analysis) against the popular meta decks in separate posts. If you’d like to see a certain matchup covered first, tell me and I’ll see what I can do.
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Good luck on the ladder and until next time!