With the release of Whispers of the Old Gods expansion and the associated Standard format approaching, there were many questions about the viability of Zoo in the new meta. Zoo was going to lose a number of its best cards, such as Haunted Creeper, Nerubian Egg, and Loatheb, and with all those sticky options gone, would a board-control based strategy still be strong?
As it turns out, yes, it is still strong. In fact, it is scary strong.
New additions to Zoo
Whispers of the Old Gods brought a number of new cards to Zoo’s repertoire. Three of them have quickly become staples in practically every single Zoo list – Forbidden Ritual, Possessed Villager, and Darkshire Councilman – with the other two – Bilefin Tidehunter and Spawn of N’Zoth – still looking to establish themselves as household names when it comes to Zoo decks.
Let’s examine the new cards and see what the first experiences with them have shown.
With almost all deathrattles going away, Forbidden Ritual immediately stood out as a key card to keeping Zoo viable. The card spends all your remaining mana and summons as many 1/1 tentacles as the mana spent, thus effectively flooding the entire board in mid-to-late game.
There were some doubts about the card: you cannot effectively use the created board on the same turn, as all your mana is spent to flood the board. That means no Gormok the Impaler activation or cheap Sea Giant (unless you can sacrifice a minion and the opponent has enough minions on the board to make the Sea Giant cost zero mana) and there is the risk that your opponent clears the board with an area-of-effect spell and denies the use of all those cheap minions next turn.
In practice, while these limitations and risks exist, the card has turned out to be spectacular. Even in the worst-case scenario – having the board cleared immediately – the opponent often ends up spending a board clear to clear away just one or two cards worth of minions, which means that Zoolock still has resources to refill the board with other cards.
Often the board is not even cleared away immediately, and the following turn offers some sweet options with Gormok the Impaler, Sea Giant, or simply the good old Dire Wolf Alpha chain, sacrificing the cheap minions one after another with the Dire Wolf Alpha buff to clear out major threats.
The flexibility of the Forbidden cards in general has been great. Forbidden Ritual can be played even on turn two or three if really needed, although it really starts to shine in the mid-game. When played in conjunction with a Knife Juggler in the late game, the effect is of similar power level to the feared Imp-losion that was rotated out of the Standard format.
Possessed Villager is another card that was clear to take its spot in Zoo already before the expansion was released. While it is not the most impactful card to be printed, just a one mana 1/1 with a deathrattle to summon another 1/1, it is a perfect match for the one mana slot in Zoo.
Its main competition is the Argent Squire, and in practice Possessed Villager has replaced the Argent Squire in Zoo except for the cases where more one-drops are needed and a player decides to run both.
This is because Zoo has more use for a deathrattle than for a divine shield: a deathrattle minion can be sacrificed with Power Overwhelming with no regrets, and its deathrattle summon can survive a number of board clears that are not based on damage: Brawl, Twisting Nether, Doom, and Doomsayer.
Argent Squire is better with permanent buffs, but Zoo does not run many of those, just the Defender of Argus.
Darkshire Councilman was a lot more difficult to assess before release. Many players dismissed it outright as a three mana 1/5, even though it gains more attack from each minion summoned, as it was considered to be too slow and unimpactful. Some even argued that Zoo does not want more three-drops, as it often wants to play a one-drop and a two-drop on three.
I was not convinced of it either, but I listed it as the first card I wanted to try out in Zoo as it had such great potential, even if results were not guaranteed.
As it turns out, Darkshire Councilman is downright nuts. It is the best card Zoo gained in the expansion, and one of the best cards in the entire deck. Five health is extremely difficult to deal with on turn three, and as Darkshire Councilman gains more attack for each minion summoned, not just played, it grows from the tentacles from Forbidden Ritual, the Imps from Imp Gang Boss, and even the deathrattle of the Possessed Villager. It is a rapidly snowballing damage dealer resembling the Undertaker of old.
The rotation of Nerubian Egg and Haunted Creeper left Zoo decks with a lot of room in the two mana slot. Bilefin Tidehunter is the card from the new expansion that has signed up for the race.
Wait, what? It’s just a Murloc Tidehunter, right? Actually, it is a lot more. Sure, it is a two mana 2/1 that also summons a 1/1 to go alongside it, but this time the 1/1 comes with taunt and that is a crucial difference. The 1/1 taunt can protect your more valuable minions, and as the card summons two minions, it has some sweet synergy with Knife Juggler, Darkshire Councilman, and Sea Giant. It works especially well with Darkshire Councilman, as the 1/1 taunt protects this valuable minion from harm.
However, the card is not entirely without downsides. As both summoned minions have only one health, they are extremely vulnerable to any board clears, even Fan of Knives and the knives thrown by a Knife Juggler.
The main competition to Bilefin Tidehunter is my long-time favorite, Flame Juggler. Flame Juggler is much more difficult to remove with its three health, and it can often trade favorably against Bilefin Tidehunter, especially if played after it as the battlecry of the Flame Juggler is likely to kill either the murloc or its slimy friend. On the other hand, Bilefin Tidehunter buffs the Darkshire Councilman more and the 1/1 taunt may be able to offer some protection.
In the recent Dreamhack Austin tournament, there was another old card that saw place instead of Bilefin Tidehunter or Flame Juggler: Crazed Alchemist. With a meta full of Doomsayers and silence effects being more expensive now, Crazed Alchemist is a solid tech choice to keep your board alive and well. It also goes well with Darkshire Councilman, buffing a recently played Councilman to a 6/1 minion for additional four damage burst (the switch happens before the Councilman receives the buff from the Alchemist being played).
Spawn of N’Zoth
The final card from the new set that has seen some experimentation in Zoo is the Spawn of N’Zoth. A three mana 2/2 with a deathrattle that buffs all your other minions with +1/+1, Spawn of N’Zoth is a natural match to Zoo: the more minions you have on the board, the more powerful its buff becomes.
In many ways, Spawn of N’Zoth is the replacement for Enhance-o Mechano that was rotated out of Standard: it does almost nothing by itself, but it can be really powerful if you have a large board. It works in a reverse way to Enhance-o Mechano though, as Enhance-o Mechano delivered its buff as a battlecry, and Spawn of N’Zoth delivers it as a deathrattle. Usually this means that you need the Spawn of N’Zoth to survive a turn to set up a good buff for the minions you play next turn, whereas with Enhance-o Mechano you needed a board to survive to buff it next turn. Clearly, Enhance-o Mechano is the better card of the two, and it looks uncertain whether Spawn of N’Zoth can find a permanent spot in Zoo as its effect takes more work to use optimally.
No silence or hard removal?
Blizzard wanted to make silence effects and hard removal more costly and more of a choice instead of auto-includes in every deck, and when it comes to Zoo, the nerfs to Ironbeak Owl and Big Game Hunter seem to have succeeded. Most Zoo decks have given up on these cards completely, focusing on a streamlined delivery of their main tempo play.
Increasing the cost of silence and hard removal hit Zoo in particular, as the deck lives on playing multiple cards each turn, and that became so much more difficult with the changes. Zoo can take that hit though, as with all of the buffs and board flooding, Zoo often has the means to deal with large minions even without hard removal, and there is no Dr. Boom to worry about anymore. Many potential silence targets were also rotated out, reducing the need to even run silence in the first place (and buffing the remaining cards with powerful effects, as they are now less likely to be silenced). It remains to be seen whether the need to run silence is sufficient anymore to warrant a slot in the deck, most likely for Spellbreaker as the investment in Ironbeak Owl is no longer worth it for a board-control deck such as Zoo.
Against Doomsayer in particular, some Zoo decks have teched in Crazed Alchemist, as it costs only two mana and thus is more in line with the overall gameplan of Zoo than many of the other options.
Three examples of early days Standard Zoo
So what does all of the above mean when you combine it into an actual decklist? Here you can find three examples of Standard Zoo decks played on legend level in the early days of Standard.
Modernleper’s Doomguards and a Sea Giant
The first Zoo list to start making rounds in social media in the early days of Standard was this Modernleper’s list. It incorporates the three new staples: Forbidden Ritual, Possessed Villager, and Darkshire Councilman.
With a large number of one-drops – the deck even includes an Argent Squire in addition to a full assortment of Flame Imps, Voidwalkers, and Possessed Villagers – the deck is highly reminiscent of the Fast Zoo concept of the refined lists of the previous meta.
The odd one out is the single Sea Giant that was often part of the midrange package together with another Sea Giant and Dr. Boom, although a single Sea Giant was also seen together with Leeroy Jenkins in the Chinese Zoo style.
In Modernleper’s take, the single Sea Giant is accompanied by two Doomguards, even though Doomguard and Sea Giant usually do not play well together, as playing Doomguard as a tempo play risks discarding the Sea Giant. Still, with just one such card in the deck, the risk of drawing a Doomguard and Sea Giant at the same time is limited.
Vinz’s Sea Giants, Bilefin Tidehunters, and an Argent Horserider
Another list comes from the French Hearthstone community, where Vinz and later on Torlk have played a slightly more midrange-style double Sea Giant list. This list cuts one of the one-drops in favor of another Sea Giant. With hard removal becoming more rare, Sea Giants are more powerful than ever, and while there were doubts about the ability to get them on the field without all the deathrattles, Zoo has found ways to refill the board after clears to the point where playing two copies of Sea Giant is viable, and very strong in the current meta.
This deck also utilizes Bilefin Tidehunter for that little bit of extra protection from the 1/1 taunt and synergy with Darkshire Councilman, Knife Juggler, and Sea Giant.
Another peculiar card choice is the Argent Horserider. It is a rare sight in Zoo, but it gives the deck the option to use burst damage either as a finisher or in early or mid-game for spot removal, taking out pesky Knife Jugglers for example. As a finisher it plays well with Power Overwhelming or Soulfire from Dark Peddler, as unlike Doomguard, it does not discard cards from hand.
Old Guardian’s Double Juggler Zoo
As Standard format was released, I updated my Double Juggler Zoo for Standard as well. It is the most midrange deck of the three, cutting yet another one-drop for some mid-game power in the form of Dark Iron Dwarf.
The reason this list can cut another one-drop is the Flame Juggler. With so many one-drops having one health at the moment – such as Fiery Bat, Selfless Hero, Possessed Villager, and even a two-drop such as Bilefin Tidehunter – the battlecry of the Flame Juggler is extremely potent. Even though many of the cards that Flame Juggler traded favorably with – such as Shielded Minibot, Mad Scientist, and Muster for Battle – have been rotated out, the influx of one health minions and the nerf of Knife Juggler to 2/2 stats have ensured that there is still plenty of prey for a powerful 2/3 minion.
This deck also includes a charge minion, this time in the form of Leeroy Jenkins. Unlike the other decks that have more flexible charge minions that can easily be used for tempo plays, Leeroy is almost a pure finisher. This gives the deck the most powerful burst of the three, as Leeroy has four more attack than Argent Horserider while still playing well together with Power Overwhelming and Soulfire unlike Doomguard. With its more powerful mid-game, the deck can afford to run one card purely as a finisher for those cases where burst is needed.
Another option would be to cut charge minions altogether, and perhaps the new meta will make that possible. I have even seen Zoo run The Black Knight (an excellent tech card in the current meta) instead of charge minions, but that is still a step I am not ready to take, at least not yet.
Zoo remains a potent deck in Standard. Even though it lost a number of deathrattles, it gained new threats and new ways to flood the board that more than make up for the losses it suffered.
Sea Giants are more potent than ever in a meta where hard removal has been reduced, so most Zoo decks opt to run at least one of them, often two. Zoo decks still sport a slightly lower curve than the midrange variant of old, placing them somewhere between the old Fast Zoo and Midrange Zoo.
In a world of C’Thun and N’Zoth, Zoo simply cannot afford to be too slow (unless it’s a C’Thun Zoo, but that is an archetype under so many changes right now that it is hard to say what will come of it). On the other hand, the sheer number of taunt minions run by many decks mean that Zoo cannot be too fast either – it is not a face deck, and it does not have what it takes to become a face deck. Zoo needs to be fast and still run a number of powerful threats to mow through everything the opponent can throw its way, and the various Zoo lists right now are looking for that sweet spot between speed and power. Even while the search still continues, the power wielded by Zoo has already proven to remain formidable in the Standard format as well.
This article was originally published on Liquidhearth. I am the original author of this article. Republished with slight modifications and with permission here on my personal blog.