How Zoodiac-Free Decks Keep Beating Zoodiacs
The Zoodiac takeover hit faster than any metagame shift in recent memory.
While the deck is still evolving – most recently with Lunalight Black Sheep –it was topping and winning events with a variety of builds right out of the gates. Pure Zoodiacs, Kaiju Zoodiacs, and Artifact Zoodiacs were popular, but so were countless other strategies running a small engine of Zoodiac Ratpier and Zoodiac Barrage, usually accompanied by one or two Zoodiac Whiptails.
Zoodiacs are topping events in droves, but that doesn't mean they're unstoppable. As Jason pointed out a couple days ago, multiple Skull Servant lists have gotten some high placements at Regional Qualifiers. The same goes for Chain Burn, a deck we haven't seen topping in months if not years, suddenly popping up again out of nowhere.
Not only that, but Paleozoics won YCS Atlanta and YCS Prague. They were the underdogs at YCS Atlanta, but were toe-to-toe with Zoodiacs at YCS Prague in tableshare in the Top 32. Zoodiacs are scary because they rarely draw an unplayable hand, and the majority of their combos rely on seeing any one of the twelve ways to get to Zoodiac Ratpier. Cards like Lunalight Black Sheep just take things to the next level, giving you three draws, a Daigusto Emeral, and a Zoodiac Drident off of a single Ratpier.
But clearly Zoodiacs aren't all-powerful, and as the weeks go by competitors are finding more ways to beat them. The theme has some very big downfalls that were originally addressed by tech choices in mirror matches, but we can expand those theories in a more general way to find some Achilles heels that can help you when you're building a Zoodiac-free strategy. First off, let's look at one of the more obvious issues…Zoodiacs Don't Have Much ATK
One of the implicit “checks” put in place with Zoodiacs is that the Xyz Monsters only have ATK if their materials do, so if you're exclusively running Ratpier then they'll never have any ATK. Obviously Zoodiac Whiptail is a big help, not only for having 1200 ATK but also for the banishing effect, but there's a definite reason that so many players have called Zoodiac Thoroughblade a threat in the mirror match because of its 1600 ATK.
Outside of Number S39: Utopia the Lightning, a card not everyone's playing, there aren't a lot of big attackers in Zoodiacs. They're basically relying on popping stuff with Zoodiac Drident, negating effects with Solemn Strike, and banishing stuff with Zoodiac Whiptail to get through your monsters. Then there's also a ton of board wipes in Games 2 and 3, another way that they can clear the way for lethal damage.
Why does that matter? It means if you can field enough big attackers, Zoodiacs don't have a decent way to deal with them all at the same time, which is doubly true for monsters that can't be targeted or destroyed by card effects like El Shaddoll Winda or Kozmo Dark Destroyer. It reminds me of an old deck profile where Jeff Jones said that sometimes the best way to beat Nekroz of Trishula with Shaddolls was to just put three big threats on the board. Nekroz couldn't deal with that many monsters at one time.
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Heck, one of the reasons I love Fluffals so much right now is that they can easily set up a board of Frightfur Sabre-Tooth and Frightfur Sheep, which is rough for Zoodiacs to get over. Frightfur Sheep prevents your opponent from using Zoodiac Whiptail to get over it, and if they pop it with Drident it just revives itself with 2800 ATK, plus the 400 boost from Sabre-Tooth. Sabre-Tooth can be taken down by Whiptail, but if you make it with three Fusion Materials it can't be destroyed by battle or card effects, meaning crashing a Drident with an attached Whiptail is the best way to deal with it.
Sort of on the same wavelength, Zoodiac's next pitfall is…
But take a look at the fields that Zoodiacs are making. In a vacuum, is a field of Diagusto Emeral and Zoodiac Drident that scary? No, and that's why when Zoodiacs were first announced the support from the dueling community was underwhelming. However, when they can make that field virtually every Turn 1, and back it up with three or four traps, then things start looking bleak if you're going second.
This means that Zoodiacs are, in some regards, only as good as the traps in the format. Imagine for a second that Solemn Strike and Dimensional Barrier didn't exist: how good would Zoodiacs be, especially in comparison to 60 Card Infernoids or Paleozoics? Without powerful traps to set up a defense with, Zoodiacs tend to crumble to the decks that can make a wider variety of plays than they can. I don't know if you've ever seen a Zoodiac match where one player went first and didn't draw backrow, but it's not pretty.
I'd like to clarify that just because a deck relies on traps, that doesn't make it bad, but it does continue the theme of the Zoodiacs not being strong monsters themselves, but that they're just so reliable as an engine that it's hard not to play them in every deck. They remind me of the early Burning Abyss builds with triple Tour Guide From the Underworld and Mathematician plus 20 trap cards, where you were basically just using the Burning Abyss monsters to live long enough for your traps like Raigeki Break and Karma Cut to deal with your opponent's monsters.
The last point that I wanted to make is that Zoodiacs are relatively linear in their common lines of play, which is unlike a lot of the strategies that we've seen as the “deck to beat” of their respective formats.
I'm not saying the theme is autopilot or fails to be skill intensive, but you can glance at a Zoodiac Extra Deck and quickly see how little room there is for variation. A huge portion of your Extra Deck has to be dedicated to the four Zoodiac Xyz due to their overlaying mechanic. It leaves almost no room for tech choices, and it's rare to be truly surprised with what they Special Summon.
But because Zoodiacs are so linear it makes them slightly easier to counter; you'll generally know what to expect. Those recently successful Chain Burn lists ran Secret Blast to take advantage of the big boards Zoodiacs often start with, and a lot of duelists have been using incredibly specific cards like My Body as a Shield that just happen to directly counter the monster removal Zoodiacs often favor.
Compared to a deck like Metalfoes, which could bounce cards, steal them as equip spells, and spin stuff all in the same few turns, Zoodiacs are just popping cards with Drident and banishing stuff with Whiptail.
Don't get me wrong: Zoodiacs are the best engine in the game right now, and it's definitely the number one deck to beat in competition. But there are enough rogue choices popping up in tournaments that are doing well, that it's worth considering some of the weaknesses of the theme. No deck is perfect, and even though Zoodiacs are one of the most consistent strategies we've ever seen it doesn't mean they're unbeatable.