Much Ado About Zoo – Humans’ Tournament Deck Guide

Learn the difference between a Rank 20 and a Legend #1 Zoo player! Humans breakdown his tournament proven Zoo deck with in-depth analysis.

Introduction

One of the most ubiquitous decks of Hearthstone is the Zoo or Zoolock. This deck had been all over the ladder for months on end, until shortly after the release of Goblins vs Gnomes when suddenly, it vanished, becoming as rare as Malygos Shamans or Fatigue Mages. With some recent reworking though, Zoo returned to the top of the ladder. Even with Blackrock Mountain soon to be released, it will likely stay a solid deck. So what has changed and how can you exploit this new-old deck? My name is humans, and I have been playing Zoo for months on ladder and in tournaments. I will show you!

What Makes Zoo So Strong?

Speed

Like many Hearthstone terms, ‘Zoo’ actually has its origins in Magic: The Gathering. Zoo decks are extremely aggressive decks that use fast, cheap, buffing creatures and offensive spells. The main strategy is to simply beat the opponent into submission before they have a chance to react. Cards like Flame-Imp, Leper-Gnome and Voidwalker hit the board the first turn, and sometimes two of them do with The Coin.

If this is followed by Abusive-Sergeant and/or Dire-Wolf-Alpha, you can reduce your opponent to half health in the first three turns! If your opponent doesn’t do much but hero power or draw cards early, then they will quickly find themselves overwhelmed and unable to recover. Zoo has the potential to get turn five or six kills, even with the opponent trying to clear the board. Considering many decks in the current meta just get started on turn four or five, Zoo has the opportunity to absolutely crush the opponent before they know what’s hit them!

Board Control

If you aren’t going to kill your opponent in the first five or six turns,you can still win through board control. Zoo features a plethora of Deathrattle minions that can be buffed by other cards and ran into enemy creatures, leaving behind more creatures to be used next turn. For example, playing a nerubian-egg one turn and then buffing it with power-overwhelming the next turn, gives you four attack into anything then giving you a 4/4 minion on the board, for only three total mana!

There are many combos like this in the deck, often turning simple 1/1 tokens into 5+ attack minions that can trade up against your opponent’s board. defender-of-argus is also a key card for managing board control. It can buff minions’ health out of specific board clear spells and enemy minions’ attack ranges, while also boosting their attack for better trading. Oh, and did I mention it adds taunt?

Sustainability

While Face Hunter has more speed, and Mech Mage has better board control, Zoo has the best sustainability. Zoo doesn’t have to rely as heavily on top decks as other aggro decks due to its hero power. Putting out a constant stream of ‘sticky’ minions and minion ‘buffs’ can be costly on your hand, and most aggro decks start running out of steam on turns five or six. This is where Zoo really shines in comparison. Dropping a doomguard is a huge tempo swing, allowing you to force your presence on the board and/or destroy the enemy’s life total. The next turn you can start drawing not one, but TWO cards a turn, refilling your hand and adding to the board at the same time.

While most control decks are designed to outlive early aggression, very few can handle that aggression well into the late game, quickly falling behind in card, board and life advantage. Likewise, you can defeat most aggro decks by matching their early game aggression while outlasting them. The only thing to be cautious of is how low you can afford to go with your life total. Many decks have burst damage that ranges from four damage all the way up to fourteen, so sometimes it’s better to keep yourself out of potential lethal range.

Consistency

So if the perfect combination of strong cards and sustainability hasn’t convinced you to play Zoo, consider something else that is rare in the meta right now: consistency. Zoo runs an incredibly consistent mana curve, where even your worst possible hands will guarantee you something to play on turn 3. Even if you hero power turn two it’s not the worst because it gets you card advantage and can convince the enemy that you are another Warlock variant. The best way to understand Zoo is to consider this: you win if your hand is better than your opponents.

Obvious right? Well, the way Zoo works, is that most of the time, your hand is better than theirs. With the ‘unfortunate’ nerf to soulfire and undertaker your best possible hand is no longer as strong as most other decks in the meta. BUT your average and worst hand will almost always be better; this means that every time you mulligan and draw your first turn, you are putting yourself at an advantage. You will be more able to make strong plays every turn, while your opponent is probably going to have a weak turn or two along the way. When they do, you can quickly swing the game to the point where they cannot recover.

What Does the Deck Look Like?

Well, Zoo actually comes in many different forms. I’m going to list what I consider the very core of the deck, the unchangeable immutable center that almost everybody runs. These are cards that regardless of the other deck synergies you run, you want two copies because of how strong they are. They cannot be substituted if you want to perform well on ladder or in tournaments:

That’s just sixteen cards, which leaves a large amount of wriggle room. Do not be fooled though, you can’t just start throwing in tech cards here and there.

There’s a few cards that I would consider AT LEAST ONE of, and if you can fit two then it will greatly benefit you. They are: Voidwalker, an amazing one drop that can protect you and your other minions, while potentially being buffed to deal with other early drops and live with its high health! power-overwhelming is the perfect Nerubian Egg activator, and can often be used to turn a token into a big minion killer, or push for lethal. leper-gnome is a considerably underrated card, while it is just a 2/1 for one mana, that two extra face damage can be the key difference between victory and defeat!

ironbeak-owl is not only a great way to deal with Taunts, but can be used on key enemy buffs and Deathrattles that are so prevalent in the meta. If you use it on a sludge-belcher, you hit both! imp-losion is a strong, but high variance card, that combines with knife-juggler for incredible value, but sometimes can end up simply being two damage to a minion when your opponent was going to board clear anyway. These additions leave you with 20-24 cards, so there goes most of our slots!

Now, let’s talk about some crazy cool combos. Firstly hobgoblin is an amazing card if you have even a few one power minions, which Zoo does. I highly suggest you check out the Hobgoblin deck guide featured here. elven-archer makes a surprisingly good addition to the deck effectively giving you two hero powers worth of value for one mana and a card. echoing-ooze is a very stat efficient minion that works really well with knife-juggler, dire-wolf-alpha and defender-of-argus, but makes your deck even weaker to board clears. annoy-o-tron and argent-squire with their Divine Shields already fit quite well in the Zoo deck naturally, and can become huge when combined with Hobgoblin. Speaking of Divine Shields, you can get a decently large body with blood-knight even if your opponent doesn’t play any Divine Shields, and absurd value if they do!

Since you may want to run two imp-losion and often flood the board with minions, you can have a really cheap sea-giant in a deck of otherwise tiny minions. It’s important to note that while big-game-hunter will get easy value, quite often people are forced to play it early to try and stop your smaller minions.

There’s currently a Holy Trifecta that is featured in almost every top tier deck, that Zoo can take advantage of: dr-boom, loatheb and the high-variance, high-powered piloted-shredder. This Trifecta helps add some strong heavy minions to the otherwise small and weak minions Zoo runs. There’s also the spells mortal-coil and darkbomb to consider: cheap, effective removal. The older dark-iron-dwarf still sees some play as a bigger angrier Abusive Sergeant. Likewise, harvest-golem is an older friend that fits the mold of ‘sticky’ minions that Zoo loves. shattered-sun-cleric is also a decent three mana creature, but only if you already have a minion on the board. Finally, my favorite combo card is void-terror who not only works as a great egg activator, but can chomp up some otherwise weak tokens, to create a nice big body, especially if you happen across a power-overwhelming!

Below is an example of a well put together Zoo deck. This deck was used on ladder to put its owner in the NUMBER ONE SPOT ON NA! Earning him a huge amount of Blizzcon qualifier points.

My Personal List

So, months ago, just before GvG I decided I would try to make Legend for the first time. I had been watching the Blizzcon World Championships and Firebat’s Zoo deck seemed like the strongest you could get. I made my own change (one less Voidwalker for a Dark Iron Dwarf) and jumped on the ladder expecting to have to play at least 400 games with a 55% win-rate, but what happened instead was a pleasant surprise. I managed to get Legend for the first time with a 65% win-rate! I stopped playing a couple games after I got Legend and finished in the top 500.

Unfortunately, while I was in arena grinding for GvG cards, something happened: Zoo was hit hard with a double nerf, and by the time I went on ladder, the deck was almost impossible to play. I changed to Druid and found that what I thought was skill, was actually exploiting overpowered cards and settled for my more reasonable 55% win-rate. But then, something wonderful happened! Zoo came back! First one deck, then another, and then I was back into my collection editor making what I believed to be the best deck. I played 100 games on Ladder to get a feel for the deck, and decided the best way to test it would be in all the Blizzcon points tournaments that are floating about. Let me tell you, this deck is incredible. The deck has beaten several top 100 Legend players (whom shall remain nameless) putting me in top 8’s and top 16’s. I also managed to get 3rd place (I lost to RDU 2-3) in last week’s Hearthmind weekly tournament running this list in my lineup. Enough about that, let’s look at the deck.

Firstly, so many ONE OFS?! There is an argument that if you want to make a strong deck it should contain mostly DOUBLES of cards because you want to run the strongest cards. But the thing about Zoo is that it is strongly reliant on card synergies, so having two of a card in your hand can make it harder to create synergy. For example, if I ever had two Void-Terror then it would be much harder to set up a good situation for both. Likewise, I believe Voidwalker and Leper-Gnome make a stronger pair together than either one on its own. Finally, you need to consider the mana curve of the deck. Sure, two Imp-losion or Harvest-Golem might be stronger than one of each, but I’m aiming to play one on turn three and one on turn four, so there is one of each.

Next, ONLY ONE IMP-LOSION. Firstly, Piloted-Shredder is the best four mana minion in the game. There’s a reason almost every deck is running them, and that reason is that it offers insane stats at the cost of being slightly (or with bad luck, very) unreliable. Speaking of unreliable, while Imp-losion is great when it works, rolling a two when you need a three or more, can be game crushing. I tried running two and I felt that I would too often be hoping they had a good target to Imp-losion AND that I didn’t roll low; that’s a lot to hope for! Meanwhile, the check list for playing Piloted Shredder goes like this: Do I have four spare mana? Yes: Play Piloted Shredder. Pretty easy comparison I think.

Loatheb and Dr-Boom: Remember earlier how I said there is a reason that almost every deck runs Piloted Shredder? Well there’s a similar reason almost every deck has Dr. Boom and Loatheb. Loatheb is great stats for five mana in this meta, he can out-value almost every other five drop in the game, especially with Zoo’s buff minion and token help. Loatheb more importantly makes it much more difficult to remove minions from the board, which is SUPER important for Zoo. Perhaps most importantly, Loatheb can often block spells and prevent lethal. Dr. Boom, however, will NOT stop you from dying. What Dr. Boom will do is provide you with incredible value almost every single time he is played. You might think a seven mana drop is too high for Zoo, well Dr. Boom is an exception. Sure, sometimes he might be discarded by Doomguard, but so would any other card worth more than one or two mana. Often you will top deck Dr. Boom after a Doomguard, making the opponent’s life hell as they just managed to remove the huge 5/7 on turn five or six. Or if you play them in reverse, the enemy is now facing down AT LEAST THIRTY points of stats over turns seven and eight.

Match-ups

General Mulligan: flame-imp, voidwalker, haunted-creeper, knife-juggler, abusive-sergeant if you have another one drop and/or Haunted Creeper, dire-wolf-alpha if you have another one or two drop, nerubian-egg if you have an Abusive Sergeant or power-overwhelming and/or void-terror (which you keep if you have an egg), finally elven-archer if you have a Knife Juggler.

In general, you want to be considering two major things: Firstly how do I fit my curve? You want to be able to use all of your mana every turn as effectively as possible. For example if you have coin and you have a one drop but no two drops, harvest-golem could be a perfectly reasonable keep because you will be more likely to have a strong turn one and two, giving you two mulligans and three draws to pick up another one or two drop. Secondly, WHAT WILL MY OPPONENT PLAY? Here it can be very important to watch your opponent’s mulligan and to know the match-up well.

Warrior

Mulligan: Leper-Gnome is also a perfectly reasonable keep here, haunted-creeper and harvest-golem are even more valuable than usual because they survive fiery-war-axe.

You are favored about 65% here. Zoo is one of the aggro decks that Control Warrior just cannot compete with. Sure they get early value from weapons, but every time they attack a minion and kill it, you put two more on the field and can Life Tap to regain your cards. Kill the armorsmith and acolyte-of-pain as cleanly, efficiently and quickly as possible, but if you are pushing large amounts of face damage, they will often be forced to trade for you. On Brawl, it’s important to understand that Warrior usually only runs one, mulligans it away and is praying they draw it back. That means playing around brawl is generally not worth it. You are better off flooding the board. Besides, if they brawl and something big lives and your Deathrattles spawn, they spent five mana and you still have a bunch of damage. Finally, while you may think you are one turn off lethal, Warriors have several ways to suddenly gain huge health, so you are usually better off trying to go for value trades in the mid game.

Warlock

Mulligan: leper-gnome, ironbeak-owl.

Handlock is unfavored about 20% while other Zoos are about even. This is right up there as one of the hardest match-ups. Pre GvG, Zoo had some decent reach with Soulfire and could snowball pretty hard with Undertaker and was STILL unfavored. Now you pretty much have to hope they don’t draw the right stuff. You only have one Ironbeak Owl so use it wisely. Ask yourself: is it really worth it to silence the Twilight-Drake for an easy clear or should I save for the eventual huge taunts? Board clears in the form of both Shadow-Flame and Hellfire make it really hard to safely build up a board, and Molten-Giant is likely to come down cheap when you get them low. Add antique-healbot to the mix and there’s just so many things to try and play around. Still, it’s not unwinnable, a well timed Loatheb and/or Dr-Boom combined with some decent burst can tear them apart. Not to mention you might just get lucky and get one of those sweet god-hand turn five or six kills!

Shaman

Mulligan: leper-gnome, nerubian-egg can be kept even without an activator.

Close match up 50/50 against most Shamans. Shamans have a huge collection of ideal solutions to your plays, from earth-shock and rockbiter-weapon turns one and/or two, to a nice lightning-storm once you build up your board. Managing your hand and board is key here. Don’t empty your hand and pop your Deathrattles to remove his board only to have it Lightning Stormed away. Likewise, be aware of what the shaman will play and when, using defender-of-argus to buff your minions out of three damage range at any point in the game is ideal. The best chance you have is to somehow manage to out-tempo AND out value them, keeping their board clear and at least a couple of Deathrattles on your side will win you this game. The other option is once you have seen one copy of a card, stop playing around the second copy, this only works about 50% of the time, which is part of the reason why the matchup is so close.

Rogue

Mulligan: nerubian-egg is a decent keep if you already have a good one or two drop.

Unfavored about 40% but highly dependent on each player’s draws. As is always the case with Rogue, this match-up is a huge beat-down for one side. You have to really calculate the odds of your opponent having the right answers to your threats to decide what the best play is. Luckily most Rogues will expect Handlock so they likely won’t be ready for the turn one onslaught. If they know you are Zoo then it suddenly gets much harder. You should generally throw out your Nerubian Eggs as soon as you can and get them popped ASAP too. The reason for this is that Rogues like to use Blade-Flurry to clear so a Nerubian Egg makes that harder for them. They will often sap anything from a turn one Flame-Imp to a turn five Doomguard, and they seem to LOVE to use Sap on a Defender-of-Argus buffed Nerubian Egg. If you can cleanly and efficiently kill a Violet-Teacher, then do so, but if it costs most of your board then you are probably better off face-racing them. Trying to count the Rogue’s lethal potential is also really important when deciding whether to Life Tap.

Priest

Mulligan: Abusive-Sergeant is always a keep, Leper-Gnome is a keep if you have Abusive Sergeant or Dire-Wolf-Alpha.

This match-up can be Handlock level of difficulty depending on the Priest. But if you are smart, and a little lucky, you can get it up to about 40% unfavored. Firstly, if you drop a one or two attack minion turn one, Priest will be very eager to drop their Northshire-Cleric. You can punish this with buffing spells and minions. Likewise if you drop a three attack minion they might try dropping the Northshire Cleric with a power-word-shield and then you can kill it with buffs or spells. On trading in general, basically the game plan should be: Can I kill it with minimal or no losses to my board and/or hand? Yes: Then kill it. No: Then start the face-race.

Sure, priest has some insane healing, amazing board clears and super powerful combo potential, but if they don’t draw well, and you do, then you will win. Just as I mentioned at the start of the guide, Zoo wins with consistency, and Priest is highly reliant on card synergy to win. Most of the time they have the perfect counter and they win, but about 40% of the time they don’t, and you win. defender-of-argus can be used to great effect here to buff your minions just out of range of specific spells (three > four attack and two > three health). If you can afford it, try to bait out a shadow-word-death with Loatheb or a buffed up nerubian before you drop a doomguard or dr-boom.

Paladin

Mulligan: elven-archer and mortal-coil are almost guaranteed to get some good value. Beware keeping Flame-Imp or knife-juggler as they die readily so you need a back up plan if/when they do.

At first you might think that Zoo is unfavored, but in fact it is decently favored at 60% to win. shielded-minibot is definitely a HUGE counter to both Flame-Imp and knife-juggler but if you are smart, you can use card combos to efficiently remove it before it ruins your day. Even with consecrate and muster-for-battle, Paladin still lacks a good way to dominate the early board. Most importantly, most Paladins only have card draw in the form of one acolyte-of-pain and a lay-on-hands. This means that, like Warrior, your best bet is to slowly whittle them down while Life Tapping so they run out of answers while you are still pumping out threats. Like I said though, they do have some really strong counter cards so try your best to play around what they might have while also applying heavy pressure on their life total.

Mage

Mulligan:  elven-archer and mortal-coil make decent keeps if you can fit them into your curve to help remove early threats.

Mech Mage is a coin flip, on the one hand a mean mechwarper opener can be practically impossible to overcome for Zoo. However if they don’t have a perfect hand, then you can slowly out-value them while having more reliable card draw. Freeze Mage and Secrets/Value/Tempo Mage are pretty unfavored at about 35% to 45% depending on the deck and draws. A common opener for all mages is mana-wyrm and/or mad-scientist. You can usually get great value off these cards because you will often be able to kill them without losing card advantage, whilst establishing board control.

Mage’s hero power does help them remove tokens, but it costs them more mana than it costs you to put them on the board, and if you run low on cards, it’s easy to Life Tap for more. Remember against Mech Mage that it is usually better to clear Mechs to stop them getting value from tinkertown-technician and/or goblin-blastmage. Since your life total is your card advantage, removing threats benefits you in the long run. Remember that Zoo does have damage bursts, so sometimes pulling the trigger on a face-race is the key to victory against Mages. Loatheb is super important against Mages, as almost all of them use key spells, so a well timed drop will often make their turn super awkward, even if it only blocks Spare Parts.

Hunter

Mulligan:  leper-gnome,  elven-archer, mortal-coil, abusive-sergeant even without another one drop, nerubian-egg even without an activator. Flame-Imp is often not worth keeping if you have other one or two drops to make a nice curve, too much face damage.

This match-up is about 50/50 split with both Face Hunter AND Midrange Hunter. The same strategy applies to both Hunters, try to make efficient trades and remove beasts for as long as you can before face racing them to the end. Remember that all Hunters run double unleash-the-hounds so sometimes it’s better to sacrifice your tokens and one health minions rather than just going face. As always, defender-of-argus does amazing work here in protecting both your weaker minions and your face; just be careful because most Hunters also run at least one ironbeak-owl. You have plenty of tokens to make freezing-trap pretty weak, and if you play your cards right explosive-trap should only ever kill at most one minion. Be aware of just how much damage they can put out in one turn, and how much damage you can do in one turn. Managing to stay just one or two damage out of lethal can easily give you just enough power to kill them the turn before they kill you. Finally, it’s usually OK to Life Tap once or twice, but past a certain point the two life becomes far more important than whatever card you might draw.

Druid

Mulligan: leper-gnome can be used well with other one drops. Even if it gets hero powered early it does three damage and costs the Druid two mana.

My favorite match-up to get: at least 60% favored and maybe 70% if the Druid mulligans wrong or isn’t running enough anti-aggro cards. As a Druid player, I know when I see a Warlock I think it’s most likely a Handlock and consider it a tough match but one I am favored in. The second that Flame-Imp hits the board, the Druid player’s heart sinks as they realize this is going to be an uphill struggle that they will most likely lose. As Zoo, you have such a huge amount of constant aggression and minion-flood that Druids find it almost impossible to deal with. A Druid can spend as many as the first three to four turns effectively doing nothing while you get to set up a perfect board. So what is the perfect board? Well first, don’t over extend into swipe. Your board should, at any one time, have as few one health minions as possible.

Druids run AT MOST one mind-control-tech as an answer to board flood, and usually they mulligan it away, meaning they mostly won’t get to play it. Play around it if you can but don’t do so at the expense of serious pressure. Also, when the Druid starts hitting nine or more mana, be aware of the Combo (Savage-Roar+Force-of-Nature). Many Zoo games have been lost to the Zoo player thinking he can happily Life Tap away and go face with the game in the bag, only to be bursted down in one turn.

Conclusion

A big thank you to everyone who read this far! I know Zoo may seem like a simple concept, but there is a large amount of variety. The difference between an OK Zoo player and a Great Zoo player is the difference between Rank 20 and Legend #1! There can be a lot of luck involved with draws, but such is Hearthstone! Zoo is a dependable deck that does well against most of the strongest decks on the ladder, and doesn’t do terribly against the rest. With Blackrock Mountain just around the corner, containing several strong potential cards for Zoo, I think we will continue to see this deck be popular. I would love to hear from other Zoo players who have used the deck on Ladder, in Tournaments, or just having fun in casuals or friendly matches!

-humans

Post Blackrock Mountain Addition

With the addition of imp-gang-boss to the game, Zoo has become even stronger than before. This is an ideal three mana minion for Zoo and much preferred over harvest-golem. Personally I am running two of them. Because of the extra demons in the deck, I also swapped my two piloted-shredder and dr-boom for two voidcaller and malganis. This is following the recent success of Orange and Kolento running very similar decks.