It’s the beginning of the new season, and we all know what that means: The Zoo is everywhere.
A lot of players get very frustrated when laddering early on in the season because of this infamous deck, and the new cards from the Curse of Naxxramas have not helped at all. The nerubian-egg, and to a lesser extent the haunted-creeper, have done nothing but add versatility and “stickiness” to the modern zoo decks. Zoo used to be quite vulnerable to board clear, but now, the nerubian-egg, haunted-creeper, and the harvest-golem from earlier versions make board clears much less effective.
Beating Zoo consistently seems like an impossible task at times, but today, I’ll show you that it’s simpler than it sounds.
Beating zoo warlocks has two major parts to it:
- Learning how zoo works so that you can understand what beats it,
- and picking a deck that is well suited to the task.
In this article, I’ll talk about both. First, we’ll talk strategy, and then I’ll present a few solid options for dealing with the zoo, including my own anti-zoo ramp druid variant.
How Zoo works
The warlock zoo is an exquisite deck, really, with a very simple concept: put out lots of small efficient minions to take board control and overwhelm your opponent. Normally, it would burn its cards very quickly and run out of steam, but the warlock’s hero power provides continual fuel for the small-minion fire. This means that the zoo deck doesn’t necessarily care about card advantage the same way other decks do; they can (and will) outdraw a lot of decks with their hero power alone. As a result, cards like soulfire and doomguard which discard cards aren’t nearly as costly as they are in a more control-oriented warlock deck. One of the reasons, then, that the zoo is so consistently effective is that it is more efficient than most other decks.
Zoo doesn’t do its damage with burst or with combos like many other decks do; it does it simply through overwhelming board control. Zoo burst is actually remarkably small. Although some zoo varieties run leeroy-jenkins and power-overwhelming to achieve an unexpected 10-damage burst, most zoo decks don’t. The reason for this is that with all of the discarding and focus on efficiency and board control, carrying ‘dead cards’ (particularly in the case of Leeroy) is much more detrimental than it is helpful.
Additionally, the warlock’s “burst” cards (primarily doomguard and soulfire) both cause the player to discard, and so zoo decks cannot reliably perform damage combos – with such a small hand size, they will almost certainly discard the second half of their combo. More reliable burst could come from the dark-iron-dwarf or the abusive-sergeant buffing a minion that’s already on the board, but that requires them to already have board presence. What all of this means is that you very rarely have to worry about an unexpected zoo combo; in general, if they’re going to kill you, you’ll see it coming.
Zoo decks don’t tend to run silences or tech cards like the big game hunter or the black knight. In order to break down taunt walls or unexpected threats, they tend to buff their creatures and trade 2-3 expendable minions for a larger one. They are remarkably effective at doing this: shattered-sun-cleric, abusive-sergeant, dark-iron-dwarf, defender-of-argus, dire-wolf-alpha, and power-overwhelming can all be used to buff a small creature to effectively trade with the enemy. There is, however, a practical limit to this. Although they likely will not run out of buffing cards over the course of the game (I just listed 6 different cards, which make up over a third of the warlock’s deck!), it is possible that if they fail to get board presence, they will have nothing to buff.
So, let me sum this up: Zoo is a board control deck which is devastatingly effective at overwhelming the board and taking control of a game. However: It runs no silences or removal spells, cannot combo or burst, and relies on buffing its cheap creatures efficiently to really take control. Ask yourself – if I suggested that you use a deck with no removals, silences, combo potential or burst, would you be interested, or would you think I was crazy? Funny how that works, huh?
How to stop Zoo from working
As we can see, even though it doesn’t feel like it on the ladder, zoo is vulnerable to a lot of things. If they can’t keep creatures on the board, they’re dead. If the opponent is still alive and not close to death by about 10 mana, winning becomes much more difficult because the zoo will be topdecking and slowly tapping themselves to death.
Moreover, even though their small minions are efficient, if it gets into the late game and they find themselves facing off against ragnaros-the-firelord, ysera, or even lord-jaraxxus, they have remarkably few answers. If both players are sitting below 10 health and both are topdecking, zoo will have the advantage because it can pull a soulfire or a doomguard to steal a win, but if they’ve burned both of these cards, they have almost no means to push through those final few health points, and will eventually tap themselves to death.
So how can you change the way you play to more effectively bring out the weak points of zoo? There are a few ways.
The first is to not let them get going in the first place. Zoo decks usually get to the topdecking/tapping point by about turn 5-6. If you can manage to limit their board prior to these turns so that they’re scrambling for resources and damage, you’ve probably won. Against most decks, you want to be careful with removal and not use it too freely, but against the zoo in the first few turns, it’s important to limit their board by any means necessary.
Learn which minions are high priority: dire-wolf-alpha and knife-juggler are two very important minions, and if you kill them both, you’ll have gone a long way to helping your early control of the situation.
The next thing to think about, along the same lines, is AoE. Although it is absolutely fine against zoo to, for instance, coin wrath on turn one in order to kill his flame imp, or use spells like holy smite, you have to be a little more reserved with AoE. Because they rely on so many small creatures with low mana costs to get the job done, zoo can often throw three or four creatures on a board in a single turn. If you’re using prime AoE – holy-nova, swipe, consecration, blade-flurry, and others like it – on 1-2 minions, you’re not going to have a good time. Try to wait for about four or so, if you can.
Always keep track of how much damage they have the potential to deal, and use your best judgement; if you’re close to death, or one more turn would put you in that range, AoE should probably be used.
Remember to pay attention to the warlock’s mana, and get used to calculating what he could potentially do in a given turn. it’s five mana and he’s already used an Abusive Sergeant on an earlier turn; how much extra damage can he pump out? These are the sorts of questions that you want to get familiar with when dealing with the zoo.
(And, for the record, the realistic answer to that question is 6 damage on top of what he has on the board – dark-iron-dwarf/abusive-sergeant + power-overwhelming. The likelihood of the zoo player having these cards and wanting to use them on turn five, though, is pretty low. The more realistic threat would be a doomguard. For a less realistic and more theoretical answer, it’s 14, if you add the double soulfire. But that would require a hand of 5 cards on turn 5 (very unlikely) in which the first soulfire didn’t discard any of the other combo pieces. See how zoo combos are tough?)
The final thing that really hurts the zoo is taunts. A few taunts don’t do much; they’re a board control deck, and any competent zoo player would be trading for your minions anyhow. However, many taunts, especially big ones, can ruin their day. Taunts that involve AoE board clear are also your best friends when making a specialized anti-zoo deck – abomination and unstable-ghoul to be precise. Taunt and board clear together is the zoo’s worst nightmare.
So, what do you need to win against zoo? You need lots of cheap removal, AoE damage, or taunts. Additionally, understanding how much damage the zoo can push out on a given turn is important in helping to judge when you should be using your removal. Finally, you have to be able to get at these removal or taunt options relatively quickly, and so decks with a good draw engine are useful as well. Which decks are good at these things? Well, let’s have a look!
There are a number of very popular control decks out there that do wonders against the zoo, although some of them are more expensive than others. I’m not going to discuss any in detail here except my own, but I’ll mention some strong choices first.
The Handlock is an excellent counter to zoo. As a late-game control warlock deck, it thrives on taking a lot of damage. Playing the handlock can sometimes be dicey against zoo; if you don’t act quickly enough, they might be able to power through your defenses for a very quick finish. However, the handlock has a lot of tools for dealing with zoo: Lots of taunts, lots of board clears in the form of hellfire and shadowflame, and of course, the molten-giant for when your health gets low. One of our contributors just wrote an excellent guide on the updated Handlock deck which you can read here – I highly recommend it!
The Control Warrior is another strong choice for dealing with zoo. You have weapons, great removal, great AoE, and the ability to gain so much armor that you’ll push yourself out of their reach. I’ve had great success with the control warrior against zoo, and you can too! The major problem with this deck, of course, is the outrageous cost, but if you happen to have a boatload of legendaries kicking around, it’s one of the best options out there. And, if you want to give this deck a try but lack cards like cairne-bloodhoof or sylvanas-windrunner[card], try putting in a [card]sunwalker or a sludge-belcher to replace them. Remember: against zoo, you don’t need a ton of killing power – they’ll kill themselves soon enough if you let them. Your job is to just outlast and keep the board clean. Even a watered down control warrior ought to be capable of that.
The Control Priest is another option. Any variation will do, although I personally prefer Amaz’s list. You can use a wild-pyromancer for board clear along with your excellent removal spells like shadow-word-pain, holy-smite, or even silence. A lot of people don’t think that the priest is ladder-viable, but if you run an Amaz-style priest, zoo, at least, won’t be a problem. Although I do think this is a fine option, I would prefer the handlock or the control warrior to the priest. That’s a personal preference thing, though.
Finally, we arrive at the Druid. Almost any druid variant has a lot of great tools to use against the zoo, like keeper-of-the-grove, druid-of-the-claw, wrath, swipe, and innervate. However, at the beginning of the season when I was deep in the sea of zoo, I made a ramp druid variant that has an excellent winrate against it. When I was laddering in the lower ranks this season, this deck took me from 17 up to rank 10 on a continuous winstreak almost the entire way because of the amount of zoo I was facing. I will include a disclaimer here, though: I’m not facing a ton of zoo on the ladder where I am anymore (rank 6 as of the time of the writing of this article), and so I’m no longer personally using this deck. I don’t know whether it’s legend viable, because I’m using other things to get there this season, but it will certainly do the trick if you’re stuck dealing with nothing but zoo.
This deck plays a lot like your average ramp druid. The goal is to ramp up, as per usual, and hold off with giant taunts until you ultimately win with the force-of-nature savage-roar combo. Normally, taunt-heavy decks like this lack any kind of real killing power; not so with this deck! The stickiness of many of your taunts in addition to the power of your combo means that you won’t have any problem doing damage in the late game. The combo is included in there twice so that you can use force-of-nature early on for board clear if you need to, and so that you can use double savage-roar on creatures you happen to already have on the board as a secondary win condition. The deck is fairly self-explanatory, I think, but I’ll give a few quick tips for those of you who are not familiar with druid play.
- Use your innervates wisely. You almost never want to innervate out a 3-drop, for instance; try to save it until at least turn 3 to innervate out one of your high-impact 5 drops, the druid-of-the-claw or the sludge-belcher. Turn 5 is another great turn to innervate, enabling you to put out an ancient-of-lore or an ancient-of-war much earlier than usual. On that note: be as mana efficient as possible. The zoo is an incredibly mana efficient deck, and any good zoo player will be using all of their mana every turn. Do your best to do the same.
- Don’t be afraid to use your ancient-of-lore for cards, rather than healing. You will feel as though you’re under a lot of pressure a lot of the time from zoo, but especially if they’ve used one or more doomguards or soulfires, you can feel fairly confident that they won’t kill you by surprise. That said, the ancient-of-lore has a strong healing option too, and so if you need it, take it. Don’t be afraid to use the healing on a damaged ancient-of-war, either! This will really screw up the zoo player’s plans, since they have no hard removal.
- Be careful with your swipes, and do your best to use them as efficiently as possible. You have bloodmage-thalnos in there to kick up your swipe’s effectiveness, too, so make sure you take advantage of that when you can.
- Certain card choices might seem weird. Why loatheb, acidic-swamp-ooze and the-black-knight if you’re building a deck to go against zoo? Because this is a laddering deck, and it also needs to be effective against other things, too! Plus, they’re also reasonably effective against zoo as well. loatheb, at the very least, is a 5/5 body, acidic-swamp-ooze is an effective 2-drop, and the-black-knight is great for removing anything he’s used the defender-of-argus on.
- (“acidic-swamp-ooze? Actually? What is this, 2 months ago?” I hear you scream. Yes, it’s an odd card to see these days. But frankly, shaman decks are getting out of hand with their use of the doomhammer, and control warriors with gorehowl are back in force. There was a time when both decks were afraid to use their big weapons because there was so much ooze floating around, but that time is gone. Where I am in the ladder and the current meta, it just makes sense. Not seeing any shaman or warriors? Swap it out for another tech card of your choice to deal with the meta you’re facing!)
- If you don’t have the legendaries, that’s perfectly fine. cenarius is a wonderful card to stall and provide fodder for an extended savage-roar force-of-nature combo the following turn. However, you can replace him with anything you see fit. Another good option would be another ancient-of-war, or even something like an azure-drake. This deck doesn’t usually have a lot of card draw problems, because you aren’t going to be playing a ton of cards at any one time, but if you feel it’s lacking in draw, that switch is a natural choice. If you don’t have bloodmage-thalnos, I’d also suggest another azure-drake. I put loatheb in there because as I was nearing rank 10, I was encountering more druids and rogues than in the early stages; if you’re still in the thick of the zoo, though, though, swap him out for another sludge-belcher.
Hopefully, equipped with a solid anti-zoo deck and the knowledge of the zoo this article has imparted, you’ll be well on your way to consistently beating zoo. If you find that you’re still having trouble, though, you can do two things. First, you can ask questions here or on twitter (@DreadmakerHS) – I’ll be happy to answer you! Second, and more importantly: Play zoo yourself. (Whaaaa…?) This isn’t a case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”; rather, it’s the absolute best way to understand how zoo works. If you play it yourself for a while, you’ll learn where the deck struggles, and the things it needs to win. Then, you can return to your regular deck and beat them all the more efficiently!