The Warlock Zoo deck is a combination of three elements. First are the efficient minions to claim the board. Second are the buffs which enable trades. Finally is the Warlock Hero Power to keep the engine running.
The Zoo concept that will never be completely out of fashion. Playing more cards than your opponent always creates opportunities and the Warlock Hero Power is ideal to support such a game plan. Zoo decks existed in Hearthstone already before the first expansion – and while the Shieldbearers, Shattered Sun Clerics, and Harvest Golems were replaced – the archetype itself is still alive and kicking.
The fortunes of Zoo have varied, but it has always been present. Right now, Zoo is living its golden age, and is one of the strongest decks for many players. Both Midrange Druid and Secret Paladin are weak to an aggressive board control strategy. Given the popularity of these decks there is plenty of prey for Zoo to hunt. The Druid population also keeps the greatest nemesis of Zoo, Freeze Mage, at bay.
Recently Successful Builds of Zoo
Zoo is a particularly interesting deck because there are so many ways to build a successful Zoo deck.
Even if we disregard the nowadays less common variants — Flood Zoo which floods the board to enable Reliquary Seekers; Demon Zoo which uses Voidcallers to pull out an early Doomguard or Mal’Ganis; and Hobgoblin Zoo that uses even more one-attack minions than regular Zoo and Hobgoblins to build them into significant threats -– there are many ways to build a regular Zoo.
To examine the varieties of regular Zoo decks, let’s take a look at some Zoo decks that have seen recent tournament success.
- Bunnyhoppor’s Zoo from the EU Winter Preliminaries (qualified for Championship)
- Pokrovac’s Zoo from the EU Winter Preliminaries (qualified for Championship)
- Nicslay’s Zoo from the EU Winter Preliminaries (qualified for Championship)
- Chakki’s Zoo from the NA Winter Preliminaries (qualified for Championship)
- Stancifka’s Zoo from the Hearthstone Champions League Season 2 (top 8)
The Common Core
These are the 22 cards that appear in all five recent tournament decks. This means that this sample of actual Zoo decks used in tournaments has differed by 8 cards, which is quite a lot for a 30-card deck!
Some of this variance can is explained by fast or midrange approach as the more midrange variant often includes Dr. Boom and two Sea Giants, which are missing from the faster variant. Still, there are significant differences even beyond this choice.
The One-Drop choices: High Value
The only one-mana minion that is present as a two-of in all the decks is Abusive Sergeant. This is no surprise, as it fits the Zoo philosophy in many ways. Abusive Sergeant is a cheap minion which offers a buff and enables Zoo to make valuable trades. These decks also run two copies of Power Overwhelming.
The more midrange variant of Zoo has made its cuts at the one mana slot. The midrange variants include four or five minions which cost one mana. The fast variants include six or seven.
The actual one-drop choices come from the same pool of cards. The differences in numbers depends on personal preferences towards a more aggressive or sticky style of play.
The one-drops used in the decks are:
- Abusive Sergeant: the staple cheap buff minion.
- Argent Squire: a sticky 1/1 minion with Divine Shield that can make good trades against aggro decks or with the help of buffs. Squire is somewhat lackluster when facing a Zombie Chow, for example, unless a buff is available.
- Flame Imp: A powerful aggressive minion who is too good to pass up on. That said, he’s sometimes only present as a one-of because of the battlecry effect. Taking a Fireball to the face is sometimes hard to stomach when also taking damage from your Hero Power.
- Voidwalker: A powerful defensive minion, can be useful also later in the game to protect more valuable minions.
The one-drop choices are all undercosted. With the exception of Abusive Sergeant, they are not trivial to remove and the Sergeant makes up for it with its powerful battlecry effect.
Another one-drop choice that has seen some play on the ladder recently is Zombie Chow. Chow fits the Zoo philosophy rather well but — because it heals the opponent — is more often seen in the more midrange versions of the deck.
On the other hand, the aggro staple Leper Gnome is a poor match with the Zoo philosophy. Leper Gnome is quick to die and does not support the board control plan of Zoo.
The Two-Drops: Almost Set in Stone
There is little variation between Zoo decks when it comes to the two mana slot. With Dark Peddler, Haunted Creeper, Knife Juggler, Nerubian Egg, and Dire Wolf Alpha demanding a slot each, there is little room for more two-drops.
The only card outside the list above to make the cut in our sample of recent tournament decks is Ironbeak Owl. While a few Zoo players have chosen to live without a silence effect, one copy of Owl to have access to silence is still the most common choice.
The other main choice is whether to run two copies of Dire Wolf Alpha or not. This is where opinions split. Some players appreciate the buff but the card only shines when you have tokens on board and can set up a Dire Wolf Alpha chain.
Here I can’t resist the temptation to mention one card that was not used in any of the tournament decks we are examining: Flame Juggler. I have played a Zoo deck where I replaced Haunted Creepers with Flame Jugglers. Its immediate effect is often useful, especially against Paladins. I believe that Flame Juggler is a sleeper star, and depending on what the spring expansion brings, may find itself a regular spot in Standard era Zoo decks.
The Three-Drops: A Black Hole
The weak spot of Zoo is the three mana slot. This weakness can often be overcome by playing a two-drop together with a one-drop. Sometimes even a one-drop and Hero Power if the board state allows for such slow tempo but turn three is still often troublesome for Zoo.
The only three-drop that is in all the decks is Imp Gang Boss and it always comes in two copies as well. Imp Gang Boss is appreciated by all Zoo players as a high health three-drop that can create tokens on the board.
Everything else that Zoo can fit in the 3 mana slot is more or less situational:
- Big Game Hunter is a common choice for a deck that lacks hard removal but even it does not have a guaranteed spot. BGH is a reactive card while Zoo often wants to be proactive.
- Void Terror is an immensely powerful card when all the stars align. Able to make temporary buffs permanent by absorbing the buffed minion, or even used as a turn three play with a Nerubian Egg on the board to create 3/5 and 4/4 minions on turn three, there are lots of stories of successful Void Terror plays. As a downside, it is not very impactful when played on an empty board and it always destroys at least one of your own minions.
- Brann Bronzebeard is the closest Zoo has to a staple three-drop past Imp Gang Boss. It has grown in popularity and is now used in the majority of Zoo decks. Upon closer examination, it is easy to see why.
Let’s take a look at Brann and why he’s a perfect match for Zoo. Brann is a three-drop, quite sturdy at four health, can act as a soft taunt, and it makes the buffs run in Zoo even more powerful.
Looking at cards run in Zoo, with Brann they become impressive indeed:
- Abusive Sergeant + Brann: +4 attack to a minion for a turn.
- Dark Peddler + Brann: Discover two one-mana cards.
- Void Terror + Brann: the Void Terror gains double the health and attack of the adjacent minions – it does not destroy additional minions!
- Dark Iron Dwarf + Brann: +4 attack to a minion for a turn.
- Defender of Argus + Brann: +2/+2 and taunt for adjacent minions. This is great for protecting Brann or him into a 4/6.
- Enhance-o Mechano + Brann: Give your minions taunt, windfury, or divine shield twice. This can result in just one of them if the same effect is rolled both times.
- Gormok the Impaler + Brann: Deal 8 damage to the selected target
- Loatheb + Brann: The opponent’s spells cost 10 more for the next turn. This is simply game-winning against a Freeze Mage, for example, and one of the ways Zoo can try to challenge Freeze Mage.
- Dr. Boom + Brann: Summon four Boom Bots.
Brann also has negative synergy with Flame Imp, Doomguard, and Leeroy Jenkins, but these are easy to play around.
The Four-Drops: Tweaking to Your Liking
The four-mana slot is where you can make many choices. Two copies of Defender of Argus and two copies of Imp-losion are a given; but beyond that, there are many interesting minions to consider.
The candidates seen in our sample of tournament decks are:
- Dark Iron Dwarf: An oldie but a goldie, a solid 4/4 body with a buff battlecry to boot. This is a neutral choice for when you have no specific plan in mind.
- Piloted Shredder: Just the highest value minion available for the four-mana. It is also the only four-drop run in Zoo that is good on an empty board.
- Enhance-o Mechano: Weak body but awesome buffs. Requires you to have a solid board though and does not contribute much to it with its own 3/2 body.
- Gormok the Impaler: A solid 4/4 body with a big battlecry if you have the minions in play. Gormok is one of my personal favorites in Zoo, as its four damage battlecry provides something Zoo does not have in direct damage. Even with its charge minions, a taunt can block Zoo. Gormok, on the other hand, is able to deal damage anywhere and does not require you to trade.
The four-drop choices cater to different styles and situations: how large of a board do you think you will have? Do you want cards that can function alone? With just one other minion in play? With a large board? This is a flexible slot in Zoo that depends on what you are facing and how you expect the game to develop based on that. There is even room for a Kezan Mystic here if the meta is right.
Loatheb: No Questions Asked
Zoo needs Loatheb. Well, as long as it is available, anyway. The deck is all about board presence and Loatheb is a crucial piece. He can prevent board clears for a turn and give Zoo the time it needs to close the game.
Loatheb can also serve to disrupt the opponent’s game plan by preventing a, say, Blessing of Kings from being played, or buy you an extra turn against an aggressive deck by preventing a Kill Command or Shaman burst spells. If there is no other use for it, a 5/5 on turn 5 with some disruption by blocking spells is not bad at all.
The Midrange Package
The midrange package in regular Zoo consists of three cards: Dr. Boom and two Sea Giants. Boom is always a high-value play. Even if it gets taken out by a Big Game Hunter, the Boom Bots still remain on board and ensure some value from the card.
Sea Giants can also be powerful in a board-presence-based deck, as playing one on turn four or five is a big power play. They are even scarier if they appear together which is sometimes possible in games where both players fight for the board.
The three cards often come together as a package because that way you are more likely to gain value from them. Thanks to the Warlock Hero Power you are likely to find at least two in any given game. When you do, a single piece of hard removal is no longer enough to deal with the threats.
The midrange package is powerful against control and midrange decks but situational against aggro. Sometimes you can get Sea Giant value against an aggro deck, but more often cutting some of those one-drops for the midrange package which means that you are hard-pressed to fight for the board.
Charge with Chicken or the Demon
Zoo decks have a good deal of burst but it is conditional to having a board.
The traditional choice of a charge minion for a Zoo deck is the Doomguard. The way to play with Doomguards is usually not to save them as finishers. Rather, play them out as soon as possible while attempting to minimize hand size to lose as few cards as possible. The 5/7 body is then more than capable of remaining on the board and turning the tide in favor of the Zoo. If you don’t play the Doomguard early enough, you also increase the risk of drawing a second copyat which point you most likely will not get to play both. Doomguard also does not mesh well with the midrange package as you want to play it out early. When you do play it out, you might discard your Boom or Sea Giant.
The way Doomguard has been made to fit in a more midrange Zoo has been the Demon Zoo variant. The drawback here is negated because Doomguards often come out of Voidcallers. Demon Zoo is becoming rare, however, and will not be part of standard as Voidcaller and Mal’Ganis are both rotated out soon.
The frustration caused by having multiple buff cards and a Doomguard in hand has led to a different approach. An approach that involves having chicken and the use of Leeroy Jenkins instead of Doomguard.
Leeroy Jenkins fills a slightly different role as it is a clear finisher and rarely played on board when you don’t have lethal. That said, it is sometimes a good idea to play Leeroy earlier if you have the board and can clear the Whelps it spawns.
With the introduction of the Dark Peddler, Leeroy has become a more attractive option as it is now possible for the Zoo player to have three copies of Power Overwhelming and an Abusive Sergeant in hand. Together with Leeroy that can result in 20 points of burst for nine mana. Rare? Yes. Have I done it myself? Definitely. With Leeroy, 12-14 points of burst is even rather common from an empty board where Zoo used to be almost powerless.
Leeroy also plays nice with the midrange package by not forcing you into to choose between losing tempo or discarding cards. Leeroy also plays nice with Soulfire – another burst card available from Dark Peddler – allowing you to pick that option knowing it can be used unlike with Doomguard.
Finding the Balance on Cards Which Require Multiple Minions
Zoo decks are more or less based on synergies between the cards. How far you want to take the dependence on these synergies is up to you.
Pokrovac’s Zoo, for example, relies on synergies as little as possible: Piloted Shredder and Dark Iron Dwarf in the four-mana slot are the options with least dependencies. Running double Doomguard comes naturally for such an independent deck construction.
Chakki’s Chinese-type of Zoo is at the other end of the spectrum: Enhance-o Mechano, double Sea Giant, and double Dire Wolf Alpha mean heavy reliance on having a large board to get the most out of the deck.
This is an aspect of Zoo deck building that you need to pay attention to. There are lots of attractive options, but fitting in everything in a single deck just places too much of a strain on board presence. If you are not careful in this regard your game plan will collapse if you are unable to build large enough of a board. For example, there is no room to add Gormok to Chakki’s deck and the likelihood of achieving the appropriate conditions would drop too much.
While on a superficial level Zoo might seem like a simple deck, it is far from that. There are lots of choices when it comes to building a Zoo deck and optimizing the synergies between the cards. Zoo decks form a whole family of related decks that have subtle differences in playstyle. That is a huge part of its attraction: there is plenty of room to customize a Zoo deck to match your own playstyle.
Epilogue: What About Standard?
While it may still be early to speculate about the upcoming Standard format, I guess none of us can completely avoid that.
Looking at the fundamentals of Zoo, it is safe to say that these fundamentals will not change with Standard. There will still be cheap minions. There will still be buffs. And most of all, there will still be the Warlock Hero Power. Zoo will survive in some form. Zoo is in a better position than many other decks because the Zoo concept is not reliant on any single card. How strong it is will depend on the specific cards available to fulfill its game plan.
When looking at the 22-card core of our sample, the cards that will rotate out are Haunted Creeper, Nerubian Egg, Imp-losion, and Loatheb. Seven slots out of 22 will be leaving standard play. Of the tech choices, Enhance-o Mechano, Piloted Shredder, and Dr. Boom will no longer be available in Standard.
As for replacements, Flame Juggler is already a two-drop just waiting for a spot in Zoo and the departure of Haunted Creeper may just open up such a slot.
With the reduced number of Deathrattles around, Divine Shield may become more important for sticky minions. That said, it does not quite make an Argent Horserider into a substitute for Nerubian Egg.
The departure of Loatheb is a huge hit to all board-based decks as it has been a key card in protecting your board position. Currently, there is no viable replacement. Perhaps the Zoo mana curve may move lower as it is more difficult to create tokens which increases the reliance on the Warlock Hero Power to play even more low-cost minions in rapid succession. If 5/4 minions become more viable with the departure of Piloted Shredder, you can remove one from the board with an Argent Horserider and an Abusive Sergeant.
Ultimately, the future shape of Zoo depends on what the spring expansion brings. The above is just some speculation based on the currently available cards. Nonetheless, the survival of Zoo as an archetype is not in doubt.
This article was originally published on Liquidhearth. I am the original author of this article. Republished with permission here on my personal blog.