Welcome to a deck primer on 4c Zoo (WURG Aggro-Tempo-Midrange) in 7 Point Highlander! In this article we will take a deep dive into 4c Zoo, which is a hybrid of the Aggro, Tempo and Midrange Archetypes in Highlander. This is a deck that I initially created in late 2019 at a point where Oko, Thief of Crowns and Wrenn and Six were at zero points and I felt that they were both too powerful to not play. Since then I have had a lot of success with the deck in South Australian events, with notable wins in the Adelaide Eternal Weekend Qualifier and the Dragon’s Lair Store Championship as well as a 7-3 (20th) finish in the 204 player 7PH MTGO Win-a-Mox.
The Points in 4c Zoo
My current points configuration as of the Adventures in the Forgotten Realms update is:
Oko, Thief of Crowns (2)
Honestly Oko is just one of the best cards ever printed, it’s both defensive, offensive, incredibly difficult to answer and has applications in most matchups. It’s hard to find a reason not to play it, even at 2 points.
Wrenn and Six (1)
Wrenn and Six does far too much for 2 mana. It is mana fixing, early game removal, card advantage and a threat all in one. Add on the ability to rebuy wasteland to give you another angle of attack and you have the perfect card for this deck.
Wasteland is a great card for pushing an advantage which is everything the deck is trying to do, while also having the ability to steal a win from a land light opponent. It is worth noting that for deck building purposes I do not treat Wasteland as mana source, it is considered a spell.
Karakas is an exceptionally powerful land that always earns it’s spot in the deck, even at the cost of occasionally being a less than ideal mana source. The ability to invalidate almost any opposing legendary creatures your opponents have just by being in play is too strong. It also allows you to have a strong late game with Lutri as a companion and the few legendary creatures in the maindeck.
Snapcaster Mage (1)
Snapcaster Mage doesn’t have any inherent synergy in the deck and in general my build doesn’t have a lot of instants and sorceries. It is just a card that I personally believe is exceptionally strong in singleton formats. The ability to replay your more powerful spells allows you to keep your card quality higher and gives you much more flexibility when navigating through the different ways the deck can play out.
Lutri, the Spellchaser (1)
Lutri is a card that I was initially not very interested in playing until some point changes left me with a spare point that led me to trying it and I haven’t looked back since. Having an 8th card gives you so much extra play in the games where you start to flood or run out of cards. Too many times it has won me a match from positions that looked really desperate.
Other Points Options
Deathrite Shaman (1)
This is a card that was in the deck until it received its point and is still a very reasonable option. I decided that the value the other points provide are greater than what is essentially another mana creature and since I got to add Ragavan recently it doesn’t change the actual structure of the deck too much. If you were to add Deathrite Shaman I would cut the Karakas and play a Black Dual land to get the most value out of it.
Strip Mine (2)
Another card that was in the deck until points changes forced me to reconfigure the build. This is a very good card and fits very well in the deck but there just isn’t enough room for the value it provides and the Wasteland does a good enough job of still giving you a way to attack lands. If you want to play this I would recommend leaning more heavily into attacking lands and playing a card like Knight of the Reliquary to tutor Wasteland + Strip Mine.
While clamp is a really powerful card, it is unfortunately very slow and goes against the general strategy of trying to maintain pressure throughout the game. Equipping your creatures to draw cards takes up too much mana and doesn’t really add to the board. This is a much better card in a heavy midrange/control meta but even then there are more general answers to clamp today so you’re not guaranteed to get value out of it.
Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath (1)
Similar to Skullclamp, Uro is a card that is slow and value-oriented as opposed to being board oriented but with a lot more application in the aggro matchups. There is only so wrong you can be putting it in your deck but you typically struggle to fill your graveyard and hitting UUGG can be really tough on the mana so it will only start escaping late and likely only once.
True-Name Nemesis (2)
Yet again we have a card that was initially in the deck but eventually forced out by pointings. True-Name is really difficult for opponents to deal with but more decks are better at completely sidestepping the card these days. 2 points is too steep of a cost and it is not close to better than Oko. Klothys, God of Destiny served as a functional replacement to True-Name and is honestly just a better card most of the time. It isn’t worth it anymore to play True-Name.
The primary game plan is all about applying pressure, whether that is through aggressive attacks, mana advantage or keeping their board clear you always want to keep your opponent on the back foot. While it is not a primary game plan, there are a few value generating cards that will allow you to grind when your game plan falls through and provide inevitability if unanswered.
Ultimately how you play the game is often decided by the hand you keep. Sometimes the pressure starts on turn 1, other times you control the board for the first few turns then slam a powerful threat. Either way you have to be navigating towards an early advantage because the biggest weakness of the deck is that it doesn’t play well from behind.
The Key Cards
Wild Nacatl and friends
Wild Nacatl and the other cheap threats are a big part of why this deck functions at all. Creatures with high stats and low mana investment generate life total pressure, often trade up on mana and most importantly allow you to start casting multiple spells early in the game.
The value of haste really can’t be overstated, it is like casting a mini time walk with your creature. One thing that also connects these three threats is that they play both offense and defence at the same time allowing you to be aggressive attacking life totals or removing planeswalkers without sacrificing your own. They often generate big swings in the game while acting as extra reach since all of them are evasive.
All the counterspells I play are soft and easy to cast due to mana requirements and because generating that early advantage is the most important thing. Having turns where you can play threat plus counterspell early in the game are back-breaking for opponents that can’t keep pace and only cast one spell per turn.
I find that for decks in highlander you’re better off keeping your removal as wide as possible because of the wide range of cards you can play against. This is where the white cards in the deck really shine, being able to deal with almost anything your opponents can throw at you. The burn spells are obviously very flexible, being able to tag creatures and planeswalkers early but they exist mostly as extra reach for opponents that are starting to wall you out.
This deck has a few small synergies that give you a lot of extra play and ways to generate card advantage but they mostly exist within small packages.
There is a small lands package with Elvish Reclaimer, Wrenn and Six, Renegade Rallier and Wasteland.
Territorial Kavu with its discard and draw ability can generate card advantage with Renegade Rallier, Wrenn and Six, Lurrus of the Dream Den and Snapcaster Mage.
Mishra’s Bauble and Urza’s Bauble can be replayed with Lurrus each turn to generate card advantage. They also combo with Renegade Rallier being able to trigger revolt and can be brought back with its ability.
Qasali Pridemage as well as the sideboard Seal of Primordium, Cindervines and Tormod’s Crypt can also be replayed with Renegade Rallier and Lurrus.
Karakas can be used defensively to protect your legendary creatures from removal. It can also be used to proactively bounce your Lutri to copy more instants and sorceries or potentially with enough mana copy that same spell twice. The same thing can be done with Lurrus to play a second permanent from your graveyard.
You can always find a red card to evoke the sideboard Fury by paying 3 to pick up your Lutri, the Spellchaser.
The lands in this deck are very tight and about as greedy as I want to go, making sure the spells are castable but not always losing to Blood Moon or Wasteland. Since the colour requirements are so tight I’m playing all 10 fetchlands to give me as much access to the 6 dual lands that I’m playing.
In an ideal situation you want to lead on either Tropical Island + Plateau or Savannah + Volcanic Island as both of these will let you cast all but one of your spells that are 2 mana or less. From there you want to get Tundra to have access to double white for a Skyclave Apparition/Lurrus and double blue to make it easier to cast threat + counterspell. Then to round out your colour requirements you want Taiga for your 4th land. It is important to note that you never want to play Tundra as your first land since it can’t cast Wrenn and Six or Territorial Kavu on turn 2.
Since you won’t have perfect mana every game we play a few mana creatures to help ease the requirements as well as give you an early mana advantage. At the moment we play Birds of Paradise, Noble Hierarch and Ignoble Hierarch since Birds is the best at producing mana and the Hierarchs provide the best offense. Ragavan is also somewhat of a mana creature, occasionally being able to provide you with the incredibly valuable treasures but should not be relied upon as a mana source when choosing which hands to keep.
There aren’t a lot of flex spots for lands since we’re colour hungry, but not a mana hungry deck. The basic forest is there purely to help with problematic cards like Blood Moon and Price of Progress. You don’t really ever want to draw it but it is very valuable as a fetchable option. Breeding Pool is played simply as a concession to the mana requirements of the deck. Breeding Pool is the choice since Blue and Green is the best possible colour combination to have in the situations where you are light on lands, letting you cast mana creatures and cantrips. Horizon Canopy is just a really good land that works as flood protection and a late game draw engine with Wrenn and Six. Karakas occupies what I consider to be the one true flex slot in the lands. The others are largely necessary from a deck building perspective but this one could really be anything. It just turns out that Karakas is in my opinion one of the best things to be doing.
Sideboarding & Matchup Overview
The aggro matchups feel pretty positive overall except for the card Price of Progress which will usually do at least 8 damage to you. Tarmogoyf dominates any races and cards like Mantis Rider and Questing Beast allow you to push damage while protecting your life total and completely stopping their 2 power creatures. It’s really important to keep in mind that you don’t want to play the waiting game against these decks because they will eventually burn you out, racing is the key to winning.
Here you just want to bring in anything cheap and interactive in exchange for slow and clunky spells. Cards you’re mainly looking for are Hydroblast, Grim Lavamancer and Path to Exile with the possibility of bringing in Containment Priest, Collector Ouphe, Fiery Justice and Fury. Typically you will take out Glorybringer, Palace Jailer and Gitaxian Probe because you can’t afford to take multiple turns to get going or do unnecessary damage to yourself.
The midrange matchups feel pretty even overall, you have better closing speed which can help a lot if you reach a low resource game state but they will be able to generate more value than you in the long run. If you can avoid letting them get a mana advantage you can control the early game well and finish them before they ever get set up.
Typically I take out the Spell Pierce, Mana Leak and Evasive Action to bring in more on board interaction. My experience in the games is that you are both forced to spend the early turns building the bigger board which doesn’t give you time to hold up reactive spells. You want to bring in cards like Fiery Justice, Fury, Path to Exile and Grim Lavamancer to help fight for the board. Containment Priest comes in against the Green Sun’s Zenith/Birthing Pod decks to completely shut down those effects and is often a huge blowout. If your opponents have equipment you will want to bring in the Force of Vigor and Seal of Primordium. Midrange decks have the widest potential range of any archetype so it’s best to be flexible in your sideboarding.
Tempo feels even to slightly unfavourable because they’re much better at fighting to get ahead with more cheap interaction and threats that win a game on their own. However if you manage to pull ahead it’s very easy to win from there and it becomes a lot easier to do this in the sideboard games. In the early turns you’re both trying to become the player who has their threat chipping in while you fight over everything else.
You want to bring in Pyroblast, Red Elemental Blast and Veil of Summer pretty much every time and potentially bring in Hydroblast if they’re heavy on red. Sometimes if you feel they have a sideboard Blood Moon plan you can bring in Cindervines to tax them on their cantrips and potentially save you from getting locked. I typically sideboard out the Mana Leak and Evasive Action because the tempo decks are much better at getting under you and will leave these 2 mana counterspells rotting in hand as you fight to get back on board. Qasali Pridemage usually comes out unless you specifically know they have a lot of cards like Sylvan Library and Blood Moon.
Control Matchups feel very favourable where you can generate early pressure and disruption then follow it up with value generating cards or some reach in the form of burn spells and haste creatures. Don’t be afraid to just hold an early advantage and avoid letting your opponent use their mana efficiently. Sometimes it is better to cast nothing if they already can’t deal with your threats.
These matchups feel even better in the sideboard games where you get access to Red Elemental Blast, Pyroblast and Veil of Summer which will let you force anything through counter magic. Most of the time I will bring in Cindervines against control decks even with no obvious targets for it because it’s a hard to answer threat that taxes their life throughout the game and makes it harder for them to stabilise. It also hedges against unexpected prison cards they may have in their sideboard. Typically cards like Swords to Plowshares and Skyclave Apparition come out since they will have very few targets. Chain Lightning and Bonecrusher Giant can come out unless you expect your opponent to have a Blood Moon.
The Artifact decks are a positive matchup because they can’t stop you from getting on board very well and you close out the game very quickly if they don’t do something broken in the first few turns. You also have enough light disruption and some incidental hate in Qasali Pridemage and Oko, Thief of Crowns to slow them down.
In the sideboard games it gets even better with Force of Vigor, Cindervines, Seal of Primordium and Collector Ouphe. Path To Exile comes in when you’re worried about big sticky threats like Wurmcoil Engine. You want to take out Mother of Runes because it won’t protect you from colourless. Mishra’s and Urza’s Bauble come out because you’re bringing in Collector Ouphe and they will likely have Karn, the Great Creator in their deck. Klothys comes out because the life gain is irrelevant and the graveyard hate won’t be good enough against cards like Emry, Lurker of the Loch or Academy Ruins.
Combo decks are theoretically hard matchups because you have too many cards that don’t do anything to disrupt them and not much room in the sideboard. Fortunately the combo decks aren’t very consistent and often one piece of disruption will be enough to get you over the line. This is where a turn 1 creature that can attack is at its most important, disruption is nice but given enough time they will beat you through it so it’s better to take away their number of turns instead.
There is no one way to sideboard against combo decks; you just want to bring in every piece that will disrupt them in some way without taking out your threats. Mother Of Runes, Glorybringer and Bonecrusher Giant pretty much always come out but apart from that you just have to identify which cards in the main won’t provide any value. For example Swords to Plowshares is bad against Storm decks but necessary against Reanimator.
What is my opponent siding in?
You need to be very conscious of these cards when sideboarding and playing the early turns. Hands that are light on early threats will often lose to a t3 Blood Moon or Back To Basics. You want to hedge a little bit if you’re unsure and bring in some ways to kill enchantments. Never board out your red cards against Blood Moon because sometimes it’s easier to just cast spells through it. Back To Basics is unfortunately going to be lights out if they deal with your board so you want Force of Vigor if you know your opponent has it.
Even though it is going to be a mistake most of the time, people are still going to bring these cards in against you because you have blue in your deck and you need to play with this in mind. This is part of why I take out some counterspells and get to leave these cards stranded in opponents hands. The only downside for you is that Oko is a lot less reliable as a card that will win the game by itself.
People are going to bring in more removal to deal with all your threats and sweepers are the most important to keep in mind. Over-committing into these without a back up plan will often lose you the game. Since we don’t have any good cards to deal with these in the sideboard we want to adjust how we play to make these less effective. Ideally you never commit more than 2 creatures at a time and you try to sandbag a haste creature to keep the pressure on after being swept. The planeswalkers are also good at adding pressure to the board in the face of an incoming sweeper.
When to play this deck?
I think this deck is great in an open and mostly fair metagame where you expect to face a wide range of decks. Being proactive is the best thing you can do when you aren’t sure what your opponent will play, while counterspells and white removal give you a lot of flexibility and answers to almost everything an opponent can throw at you.
Since it’s a 4 colour deck, the mana base can be exploited by opponents through a clever Wasteland or a quick Blood Moon/Back To Basics before you’ve had time to establish a board. The deck is also a bit of a jack of all trades, master of none in that it doesn’t do any one thing particularly well but gives the pilot a lot of flexibility in the execution.
Personally I am very happy with my list and don’t feel a need to change much but there are certain things you can do to adjust to different metas. You can cut a slow value card like Palace Jailer for a Force of Negation or a Spell Snare in a combo heavy meta. You can take out Glorybringer in an aggro/tempo meta for a cheap removal spell like Unholy Heat. You can swap a low value card like Luminarch Aspirant for an Omnath, Locus of Creation or a Titania, Protector of Argoth in a control/midrange meta.
There are very few cards in the deck that I would consider as flex slots but when you’re playing 4 colours you have a lot of potential for variation and experimentation while keeping the same shell. The cards I could cut easily and replace if a better option came along are: Luminarch Aspirant, Qasali Pridemage, Urza’s Bauble and Mother of Runes.
Luminarch Aspirant and Qasali Pridemage mostly exist in the deck because the quality of two drops in highlander drops very quickly and you need to keep your curve reasonable. Urza’s Bauble is just the weaker second copy of Mishra’s Bauble. Mother of Runes is another powerful one drop that I would ideally replace with another attacker like Wild Nacatl.
For cards that could be in the deck depending on personal preference, the main ones I would play are: Brazen Borrower, Teferi, Time Raveler and Preordain.
Brazen Borrower was in the deck for a long time but recently I found that it was not having a strong impact in games as people put more cards in their deck that are getting immediate value. Teferi is an absurdly powerful card that can make it really difficult for your opponents to even play the game just by sitting on board. However, locally there have been a lot less counterspells lately which significantly decreases his value and developing creatures feels like a better use of mana. Preordain is the cantrip that most people will say I should be playing but I don’t like getting flooded on cantrips in this deck because most of the time you really can’t afford to fall behind while looking for cards. You need to be proactive.
In the lands you can’t really change anything but the Karakas without hurting the mana too much. Something I experimented with in the past was cutting the Karakas for a Scrubland so I could have all 5 land types and play Tribal Flames but overall Karakas is too powerful to give up for some minor upside.
Unfortunately this deck is very hard to build on a budget since it functions entirely because of its manabase and that is where almost all of the cost is in the deck. If you would really like to try it you can replace Dual Lands with Shocklands and it will mostly function the same but makes the aggro matchups significantly harder. You can compensate for this by gearing your sideboard to be more anti-aggro.