Out With The Old, In With The Zoo

I've been playing since beta and have reached legend in every season I’ve been active. For my first guide, let's look at the best version of the current Zoo deck.

Hi everyone! Nefirmative here. I’ve been playing since beta and have reached legend in every season I’ve been active. I’ve been a fan of aggressive decks in every TCG I’ve played and the majority of my success, especially in the early seasons was with various iterations of zoo. This season I used primarily Imp-Losion Zoo from rank 5 onwards, reaching rank 34 legend very early in the season.

Today I’ll go over what I think is the current best version of zoo. This list was used by Xixo to reach rank 1 legend NA and high legend on EU.

Play Style

Zoo has a bad reputation among a lot of the community as an autopilot “go face” deck, but in reality there are a lot of important decisions to be made, particularly throughout the early turns. In essence, the deck is more about maintaining board control trading efficiently minions to establish a presence  that amounts to a large chunk of damage each turn. The deck achieves this by playing the best stats available at almost every point on the curve. Once you’re ahead, your hero power enables you to stay ahead, allowing you to trade two or three one or two mana minions with your opponents fatties and still not run out of pressure. On the other hand, the deck lacks many serious ways to make a comeback and  if you lose board presence you often won’t be able to regain control.

Card Selection

Zoo’s plan is to play a lot of early minions and establish a board presence while stopping its opponent from doing the same. In order to play early minions the deck needs to, well, play minions early. Zoo decks tend to play around ten one drops and a similar number of two drops, with a few powerful, cost efficient minions at the top of the curve. The deck maximises the effectiveness of its deathrattle minions. The deathrattles both triggering undertaker for some almost unbeatable starts and easily triggering the deathrattles with a multitude of pump effects.

power-overwhelming

With the nerf to Soulfire’s mana cost the cards are actually quite comparable, with Soulfire discarding a minion from the hand and power overwhelming sacrificing a minion on the board. It can be used to deal the final points of damage to an opponent or used in combination with a deathrattle minion or Imp token to take down a troublesome enemy minion. It’s particularly strong with Nerubian egg. This card could also be replaced with another Defender or Argus or Dark Iron Dwarf for a better matchup in the Mirror at the cost of some explosive wins.

abusive-sergeant

At one mana a 4/1 for 1 mana spread across two bodies is very effective. Though you rarely want to play it on turn 1 it is a fantastic tool for maintaining pressure and board control, allowing a minion to trade up without losing your side a body or simply acting like a damage up front leper gnome. The importance synergy with the decks deathrattles, in particular Nerubian Egg, can’t be overstated.

flame-imp

A 3/2 for 1 with a very negligible draw step at early stages of the game. Flame imp trumps commonly played cards such as Voidwalker, Acolyte of Pain and Northshire Cleric and unlike a 2/1 can be played with relative confidence against an opponents Zombie Chow, Mana Wyrm or unpumped Undertaker. The 2 Toughness also means it’s more likely to be able  to stick around after attacking into an Annoy-o-Tron and the 3 power means it matches up well against 3 toughness minions, such as the now popular Mechwarper, Snowchugger etc.

leper-gnome

A necessary evil. A 2/1 for 1 is actually pretty ineffective against the field in this day and age. While still able to trade with a lot of one drops and a few two drops Leper Gnome matches up quite poorly with a field of X/3s for as little as 1 mana. The lackluster stats can often be compensated for by pumping it with a Sergeant or Wolf or hiding it behind a Voidwalker until it finds a worthy target. Thanks to the its deathrattle it enables nut draws in conjunction with Undertaker and in the worst case, it needs to be dealt with and deals two damage.

undertaker

The best card in the deck. Probably the most broken card in the game. This card is largely the reason that Zoo remains so successful even against a field tuned strongly towards beating it. Undertaker is often a ? for 1 mana or better if left unchecked and is in most situations a ? for 1 that has to be dealt with immediately. Much of the deck is built strongly around this card. Undertaker makes Leper Gnome playable and provides further incentive to run haunted Creeper, Nerubian Egg and Harvest Golem. Turn 1 undertaker is often an unbeatable start and if it survives until turn 3 will win the vast majority of games. Outside of being on the play and having it be Holy Smited the card costs at least two mana to deal with, be it Ironbeak Owl, Dark Bomb or Shadow Word Pain.

voidwalker

A ? for 1 doesn’t seem like an exciting aggressive body, but Voidwalker is another key player in the deck. The 3 toughness and taunt work very well with the decks pup effects and it also synergises well with Undertaker and Leper Gnome, allowing them to survive long enough to either grow or find a desirable target. It’s also particularly strong against other undertaker decks, trading very efficiently with the 2/1 deathrattles or Leper Gnome and Clockwork Gnome and  often stopping the Undertakers first attack.

dire-wolf-alpha

IT SLICES, IT DICES, IT DOES IT ALL FOR THE LOW LOW COST OF TWO MANA. Usually functioning at least as a 4/2 the deals a damage the tun it’s played, it synergises very well with the majority of the deck. It can be used to pump deathrattles, help Leper Gnome Trade up, Machine gun boards by placing it to one side of a hoard of imp tokens and suiciding them into larger minions for two damage a piece or even just played turn two between two one drops for an immediate damage boost. It’s one of the few two drops that’s great on any turn you have any creatures at all, ahead or behind, it may be the most underappreciated card in the deck.

echoing-ooze

2/4 worth of stats for two mana is very valuable in a deck full of pump effects and the two bodies proc Knife Juggler once each are particularly valuable when working with Dire Wolf Alpha and Sea Giant, as well as minimizing the drawback of Power Overwhelming.

haunted-creeper

One of the decks more “sticky” minions ¾ in stats for two mana is quite efficient and current zoo lists are very good at maximising the value of this card. The multitude of pump effects mean that if it isn’t triggered by an enemy board clear it can be efficiently traded and the 1/1s left behind often exceed their expectations as well, be it through Direwolf or other pump effects, triggering Knife Juggler (up to three times from one card) or just cheapening Sea Giant. Of course, it also pumps undertaker and works well at finishing off any minion that tried to tussle with its best undead friend if it dies before its prime.

knife-juggler

Okay, this guy literally slices and dices. The stats aren’t super impressive but the cards abilities represent a lot of damage it left unchecked. As turn two play it must be killed immediately if the opponent is planning on playing any X/1s or X/2s or risk losing them to a flurry of juggles. When played alongside multiple minions in the same turn it can often win the game on the spot. Imp-Losion is the best example of this, dealing 2-4 damage to target creature then a 2-4 damage arcane missiles. When used together it’s usually possible to take down a single large minion or a large number of smaller minions, as well as do a nice chunk of damage to the face.

nerubian-egg

If this card can be triggered reliably it is the best two drop in the game.  When triggered it provides fantastic stats for the mana, if pumped the 0/2 body is relevant because you can deal damage without actually damaging the “real body” of the creature. It also pumps Undertaker (the best one drop in the game) and provides great resistance to board clear. It perfectly fits the plan of the deck, efficient stats and synergy with pump effects.

harvest-golem

While not incredibly exciting, the best card for the job. 4/4 for 3 spread over two bodies, all the benefits of the other deathrattles while filling a hole in the curve. If not for the importance of triggering undertaker it’s likely the deck would run Spider Tank Instead.

imp-losion

The biggest change to the deck to come out of GvG Imp-Losion tries to fill the void that Soulfire left after the nerf and does a surprisingly good job. 4 Mana is an infinite amount greater than 0 mana, but can be cast earlier than an infinite amount of turns later. Soulfire was excellent at 0 mana because when you had board control the discard didn’t matter. You went even on cards because their X/4 was probably going to trade for two creatures anyway and the tempo generated by such a massive effect at no mana was massive.

Implosion tries to generate tempo by simulating the effects of playing a minion in addition to removal. Instead of being able to play a dude on turn 4 and cast soulfire you cast Imp-Losion on 4 and get an average of 3 1/1s. The card isn’t mana efficient but in a lot of situations the card is a 2 for 1 or better, especially in conjunction with knife juggler and the decks pump effects. Implosion also allows us to play Sea Giant for some explosive turns.

dark-iron-dwarf

Effectively 10 stats for 4 mana is an ever better rate than King of the Vanillas: Chillwind Yeti. Dark Iron Dwarf is very good at maintaining the snowball effect of Zoo, activating deathrattles and allowing weaker minions to trade up while putting a large minion on the field.

defender-of-argus

 Similar to Dark Iron Dwarf a lot of stats for a fair cost. Defender can pump your minions to a large enough size to eat their counterparts. The taunt allows you to protect your more important or fragile minions such as Knife Juggler and maximise the value of your Nerubian Eggs, Haunted Creepers Etc. In many circumstances it can also allow you to deal additional damage by forcing your opponent to make frequently undesirable trades on their turn rather than your own, allowing you to go to the face.

doomguard

5/7 Charge for 5 is about as efficient as you’re going to see anywhere and charge really puts it over the top. This card is the ideal curve topper, the drawback vastly countered by the fact the rest of the decks cards are so cheap it’s very easy to play Doomguard on Turn 5 discarding only one card.  A 5/7 charge played in the mid stages of the game typically represents at least two cards of value and usually a greater mana investment to answer than it costs to present.

sea-giant

Another great curve topper in a deck that is able to flood the board with cheap minions, against other decks that are attempting to control the board Sea Giant can often come down as early as turn 4, allowing very potent curves into Doomguard. Unfortunately as the only 8 power minion in the deck playing Sea Giant opens up weakness to big Game Hunter and as such isn’t always the correct meta call.

Mulliganing

As stated in the play style section the goal of Zoo is to establish early game dominance and snowball a win before the opponent is able to stabilize. In order to do this it is important to spend as much of our mana as possible each turn. Undertaker plus at least one deathrattle minion is also very hard to deal with, so mulliganing aggressively for undertaker and other one drops is usually the optimal strategy.

On the play, in all matchups, mulligan Abusive Sergeant and anything that isn’t a one drop.This maximises the chance of drawing Undertaker and other proactive one drops allowing us to play multiple one drops in the early turns.

On the draw in most matchups mulligan anything that isn’t a one drop or a Dire Wolf Alpha. Dire Wolf can be very strong on the draw, especially when played turn two as a follow-up to two one drops played turn one with coin. Being on the draw also gives us an extra card, increasing the chance of having a Nerubian Egg or Haunted Creeper, which in combination with Wolf can create some explosive reactive starts that can compete with aggressive openings from opponents. In the mirror it can be a good idea to keep Knife Juggler as well if you already have at least 1 one drop. Because your opponent will be playing 2/1s Knife Juggler will have targets and can be crucial for taking back the initiative.

It is also possible to keep an opening hand on the play or draw with Abusive Sergeant, Nerubian Egg and at least one other one drop as the combination of Egg and Sargent is very potent in the early turns.

Gameplay Tips

Sequencing with deck can be tricky and the best way to learn is experience because the mistakes usually make themselves quite obvious. In general, plan your turns ahead and if you’re going to Lifetap, do it before you do anything else because the card you draw can change your plans.

Don’t be afraid to cast Doomguard with two or more cards in hand if it’s the best way to spend your mana or allows for a very good attack. The general mindset with Zoo should be ‘does this put me ahead on board this turn‘. Doomguard almost always achieves this, allowing you time to Lifetap and maintain control of the game.

Knife Juggler is the card that tends to create the most difficult situations, a few lucky hits can often mean the difference between winning o losing. While you can’t completely control the whims of our little friend you can do your best to manipulate the odds. The more targets there are, the less likely any one target will be hit. Though this example is simplistic, keep in mind that in this and other more complicated positions, if you opponent  a 2/1 and a 1/3 it is usually correct to kill the 1/3 with attacks and then play minions in an attempt to kill the 2/1 for free. On the other hand, if your opponent has a board of identical creatures, for example three creatures with 2 toughness, it is usually correct to play a minion first to see where the first knife toss goes, then attack one (or if possible both) of the full health minions, then resume playing creatures to maximize the chance of the same minion being struck twice. In the mid game it can be important to get multiple Juggler triggers, so if there are other decent plays it can be ideal to save Knife Juggler for a turn 6 Juggler+Imp-losion play and possibly devastate your opponents board.

While there aren’t a lot of exciting synergies with Echoing-ooze compared to other decks a few are still present. Ooze triggers Knife Juggler twice, once for each body, though the destination of the second trigger is unknown until you end your turn. Echoing-ooze can also be pumped by Defender of Argus to create two 2/3 taunts the turn it is played. Unfortunately most of the decks buffs are temporary and won’t be permanently applied to either the ooze or its clone.

It can be correct to minimize trading in order to play an early Sea-Giant in some matchups, but don’t go overboard and allow your opponent to take advantage of your peaceful nature and make efficient trades of their own.

Closing

In a creature heavy meta I think Imp-Losion/Sea Giant is the best build of Zoo but if spell heavy decks such as Control-Mage or Rogue make a large resurgence it’s likely that returning to a loatheb version and swapping the Imp-Losions for more cards like Defender of Argus would be optimal.

Feel free to leave any questions or comments and I’ll answer as many as I can!

Also feel free to follow me on twitter at @Nefirmative if you want to ask more general questions.

Thanks to everyone for reading