When I tell people I’m playing Zoo in Legacy they immediately laugh and think I’m joking. But Zoo is no joke. I’ve made Top 32 in the last four SCG Legacy Opens I’ve played in, succeeding against quite an impressive list of names and decks.
Playing Zoo optimally can take a while, but it’s a huge learning experience that can translate to a lot of other decks and other formats. Why have I been so successful? I’ve been playing the archetype for more than three years, and it comes down to making good decisions like knowing whether to keep a sketchy hand or whether to kill their creature. How do I know what the right decision is? Well, I don’t always make the right decisions.
Zoo traditionally includes the most efficient creatures backed by the most efficient removal. It got its name from running a variety of creature types when it was first developed. Some of the earliest Zoo lists ran Kird Ape alongside Savannah Lions, but it wasn’t until Wild Nacatl was printed that it really took off. But Zoo has fallen off the radar lately and no one expects to play against it. I can’t tell you the number of opponents who have been surprised to see a Zoo deck. In Legacy, that surprise can easily lead to victory because they don’t know what cards you’re running. Here’s what my Zoo list looks like:
Legacy Zoo by Josh Milliken
You’ll notice some choices that might seem odd depending on what you know about Legacy. There’s no Fireblast because you generally want your burn to be able to hit their creatures to clear the path for yours. There’s no Chain Lightning because Lightning Helix is a superior card in this spot that helps win against other decks that run a lot of creatures. Goblin Guide is not here because he’s just too fragile.
This Zoo build is somewhere between a Small Fast Zoo and a Big Slow Zoo, so the creatures are just a little more consistent. You’ll also notice three Horizon Canopy, which help when the deck starts flooding and when you draw a Knight of the Reliquary. Sometimes the game can go long because of a stalled board state, and Knight of the Reliquary searching for Horizon Canopys can help you find what you need to win. I don’t run the Punishing Fire and Grove of the Burnwillows combo because this deck already has issues with Wasteland; adding to those problems is not a good idea when it already beats the decks the combo would help against.
SCG Cincinnati (Feb. 12, 2012) — 28th place
RUG Delver, 2-0
RUG Delver, 2-0
UW Stoneblade, 2-0
Bant Stoneblade, 2-0
RUG Delver, 2-1
RUG Delver, 1-2
UW Stoneblade, 0-2
I started off amazing and faced a lot of very talented opponents, three of whom made Top 8. I made one bad mulligan decision that prevented me from Top 8, and I still kick myself for it. I lost my win-and-in against the fourth RUG Delver deck I faced because I kept a hand that allowed me to lose to Wasteland. I learned not to get too overconfident when faced with a good matchup, which is why I didn’t take a mulligan in the decisive game. Had I made the right decision, I may have been the champ that day. Instead that honor went to Adam Prosak, who beat me pretty badly with Dredge the following round when I didn’t mulligan aggressively to get my Grafdigger’s Cage.
Lesson Learned: Don’t think that just because you’re doing great, you can’t lose. Play it safe when you can.
SCG Columbus (June 3, 2012) — 17th place
Sneak and Tell, 0-2
BUG Control, 2-0
Monoblack Pox, 2-1
UR Delver, 2-0
Again I was off to a good start, and I felt like king of the world when I beat Brad Nelson in Round 2. But in Round 3’s deciding game against Gerry Thompson in, I missed him discarding a Bridge from Below to his Firestorm to kill my creatures. His Bridge from Below, which should have been exiled, stayed in his graveyard and won him a game he couldn’t have won otherwise.
Lesson Learned: Pay attention to everything your opponent does, even if you don’t think it could affect the game.
SCG Columbus (Jan. 1, 2013) — 24th place
UR Delver, 2-1
RUG Delver, 1-2
UW Stoneblade, 0-2
UW Stoneblade, 2-0
Yet again starting off pretty well, but another mistake in Round 3 cost me the match. I kept a hand that had double Kird Ape but no Forest. Had I been patient, I would have drawn my Forest soon enough against RUG Delver. Instead, I played them out and was punished by a Rough // Tumble that should never have been able to affect that game.
Lesson Learned: Be patient when you can. Zoo’s creatures outclass everyone else’s creatures.
SCG Cincinnati (Feb. 17, 2013) — 19th place
Bant Stoneblade, 0-2
Shardless BUG, 2-1
RUG Delver, 2-1
U/W Stoneblade, 2-0
I started off with an easy win against BUG, but things took a turn for the worse when I kept a five-land hand against Bant Stoneblade in Game 1. I felt pretty confident about that hand for no reason and should have automatically thrown it back; instead I drew quite a few more land and got killed by a Batterskull.
Lesson Learned: Use common sense when making mulligan decisions; if you keep a lot of land, there had better be a reason.
Here’s how I try to play against some of the more popular decks in Legacy using my current sideboard:
You want to play the role of the aggressor against RUG Delver, but you need to be wary of Stifles and Wastelands because that’s their best way of beating Zoo. Keeping a hand with more than two lands and fetching for basics when you can is a good start to taking RUG Delver; they can’t answer your endless stream of threats and removal. Try to play around Daze when you can.
Playing against BUG Delver is like playing against RUG Delver except nothing is safe sitting in your hand because of their very efficient discard spells. You will need to balance what you play versus what you can afford to have discarded. Try holding back your burn spells so they get no real value when making you discard.
Just keep dropping creatures as fast as you can against UW Stoneblade while killing any Stoneforge Mystics and Jace, the Mind Sculptors that hit the field. If they resolve a Batterskull, it’s not the end of the game, but it does get much harder. You need to resolve Knight of the Reliquarys and/or Tarmogoyfs that are large enough to live through Batterskull blocking. Don’t be afraid to use Sylvan Library to draw a bunch of cards; they can only one-for-one you most of the time, which leads to a much slower game.
Playing against Dredge can be a miserable experience if they hit everything too early. You need to be the aggro, but not too aggressive when you have a burn spell in your hand; because you want the ability to kill your own creature to remove Bridge From Belows from their graveyard. After side boarding, you want at least one piece of hate in your opening hand; if you can land it, you’re probably going to win because it means you’re not dead yet. Be careful even with Grafdigger’s Cage, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or Scavenging Ooze on the field because they still have bounce spells. Cast Path to Exile on Ichorids during their upkeep, when you can keep them from using the flashback on Cabal Therapy.
Sneak and Show
This matchup is always miserable and one-sided even if you do win. This is just a hope they keep a slow hand so you can punish them. After sideboard, you have several cards that can help, but only if you hit the right answers to their cards at the right time. With Blind Obedience now available, at least Sneak Attack isn’t an auto-lose. Always save Pyroblast for their Show and Tell even if you have Knight of the Reliquary to fetch a Karakas; you don’t want an Omniscience in play on their side if you can help it.
This matchup isn’t much different from BUG Delver other than they can hit a lot of card draw off Shardless Agent. You should easily put them into burn range before they get enough card advantage, though. Just make sure to kill Deathrite Shamans because they can pull them out of burn range faster than you would expect. Try to save Pyroblasts for forcing through important spells or for countering Ancestral Visions. Also be careful of Submerge when you’re using a fetchland.
This matchup is pretty straightforward: Keep unloading your creatures as you draw them while keeping theirs off the board. Tarmogoyfs and Knight of the Reliquarys will be your best creatures because they outclass all of Jund’s creatures. Sideboarding in Scavenging Oozes not only helps against Punishing Fire if they try to get it online, but keeps their Deathrite Shamans from doing too much heavy lifting. Try to hold onto Price of Progress as long as you can; they don’t run many basic lands, and can only make you discard it to keep it from happening.
This is a pretty tricky matchup because you have to keep the pressure on without overextending into a wrath effect. They’ll have a hard time killing you, so if you land a Sylvan Library, draw as many cards as you can. Hold back any Qasali Pridemages or Krosan Grips for their Energy Fields and Helm of Obedience. Hold back your burn to either finish them off or to kill their planeswalkers. Specific creatures are mostly irrelevant in this matchup, but prioritize connecting with Tarmogoyfs and Knight of the Reliquarys before they can get Rest in Peace.
There are so many different decks in Legacy that there’s no way I could go over them all, but these matchups should give you a starting point. There’s always a new deck lurking around the corner, so learning what the deck can handle is very important when sideboarding. Sometimes knowing you need to cut a card will make or break the match, and it might even make or break your whole tournament. Make sure to get in as many matches as you can with Zoo before you head off to a larger Legacy tournament so you can minimize mistakes.
Zoo has served me well over the last few years, and with this guide it will hopefully serve you well, too. I hope you also enjoy turning big dumb animals sideways.
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