~This is the first of a two part series looking at building a green and black Rock deck for Khans of Tarkir standard. It is just as much about the building and testing process as it is about the deck.~
Rock is the epitome of midrange. It features a healthy suite of discard spells in conjunction with diverse removal to handle any problem permanents you might encounter. Its creatures are hand-picked to defend you early, but also to close the game quickly once you’re ready to do so. The goal in the early game is to play defense against aggressive decks, and to set control and combo decks off-balance with disruption. In either case, once you’re ready to turn the corner, it will only take a couple of turns for your giant creatures to finish off the helpless opponent. –Reid Duke
The Rock, a classic build of green and black which balances strong removal with powerful and flexible creatures to dominate the game.
Rachmaninov completed his Fantaisie, Opus 7, generally known as The Rock or The Crag, in the summer of 1893. Rachmaninov introduces the work with a theme for cellos and double basses, joined by a recurrent descending interval of a semitone for the bassoon, representing the man, followed by the brighter sound of the flute, depicting the girl. These elements are intermingled, leading to a climax, as the girl leaves, while the man watches her sleigh disappearing into the distance, leaving him to his cares. –Keith Anderson
The Rock, a late Russian Romanic period orchestral piece based on a short story by Anton Chekhov which utilizes variations in sound to depict the elations and despairing moments of human interaction.
One is a modern Magic: The Gathering deck and the other a renowned philharmonic piece. When you talk about The Rock, no matter which one you speak of, you speak of the near highest level of craftsmanship in its respective field.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend a performance of several Sergei Rachmaninoff compositions by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, including the aforementioned The Rock. Being that this concert occurred mere meters from the location of 2008’s Pro Tour Kuala Lumpur, it is natural that my thoughts drifted to Magic and specifically to potential applications of The Rock archetype being played in standard.
I had never before sat in the front row of this sort of performance, but the seats, cheapest in the house, afforded us an extremely unique look at individuals who have mastered their craft. Everything from the manner in which they sat, to how they communicated with one another, to the random observations on red argyle socks were all at our fingertips.
I realized there was a lot we can learn as Magic players from watching musicians and composers work. Their path to this performance started off as a child, picking up an instrument for the first time long ago, much like how each of us cracked open that first booster pack. Many hours were invested learning the ins and outs of both their instrument and of music theory in general until turning notes on a paper into beautiful sound was a natural action. The composer, much like a deck builder, works the other way. They take the sound in their head, their vision, and find a way to transcribe it into the sheet music that acts as a launch pad for each performance.
When Rachmaninoff wrote The Rock, I do not think he instantly heard the final product playing in his subconscious and then wrote it down in absolute perfection on his first try. I believe he spent quite a while trying out his ideas and developing them into something fuller. I believe he underwent a painful process of then crafting and reviewing his ideas, cutting things that he liked in order to create a more cohesive final product.
There is toil in perfection, and as I sat listening to the music before me, I was inspired to test just how well I could implement this process. I vowed to see just how well I could turn the modern Rock deck into something viable for standard play. I am literally writing this article as I build and test, and can make no guarantee that the end result is a successful deck.
This is not about the G/B Whip decks we are currently seeing, this is not about G/B Constellation, and at least for now it is not about adding red for an updated look at Jund or about adding blue to update my Sultai midrange build. With the focus of a great musical mind I strive to build standard Rock.
First, what is modern Rock? As Reid Duke summarized in the above quote, Rock seeks to one for one the opponent until the point where one can shift from being the controlling player to being the aggressor. I think this is an important function to focus on. Most decks in a matchup will identify themselves as either the beatdown or the control. While this theory was originally developed for matchups between similar decks, in an open format with many new decks exchanging the limelight it is equally important to be cognizant of the answer to this question. I feel a strong advantage in sort of rapidly evolving meta is the flexibility to be able to switch between the two, dramatically reducing the number of bad matchups and hopeless moments in matches.
Rock uses two creatures to primarily do this, Scavenging Ooze and Tarmogoyf. Each of these creatures can come down early to provide a blocking body, but both of them also get bigger as the game goes on. Tarmogoyf gains power and toughness equal to the number of card types in graveyards, naturally progressing in size as the game goes on without requiring a mana investment. Scavenging Ooze requires a small cost, but is able to gain you life while it exiles graveyard cards, thus attacking the synergies present there, in the process of acquiring +1/+1 counters.
The other creatures in Rock either gain card advantage or provide an ultimate ability to both lock down the board or attack for the win. The no brainer modern card advantage creature is Dark Confidant, a two drop who draws a second card each turn for only a mild cost. There is a reason this card carries such a high price tag, because it is that darn good. The ultimate finisher in this deck is Phyrexian Obliterator. Attacking or blocking, the fact that damage dealt to it turns into sacrificed pernaments means that unless they have a deck rocking evade or successfully pull off some sort of combo, the board is on lockdown and the Rock player is free to develop their forces until they are ready to attack.
The rest of the deck is devoted to ruining the opponents plan through hand disruption and targeted removal. Thoughtseize, the reprinted fiend of last year’s standard season appears as a strong four of and is joined by Inquisition of Kozilek, a discard spell which though limited due to only being able to target cards with converted mana cost three or less is quite strong in modern due to the lower mana curves present there. Discard is also valuable in modern due to the increased number of combo decks.
Liliana of the Veil continues the discard element of the deck, but she also is flexible in the manner in which she can force an opponent to sacrifice a creature. Other removal in rock decks often includes efficient removal spells like Abrupt Decay, Dismember, and Slaughter Pact.
Looking at the core tenets of the modern deck I identified three essentials for the deck; 1) at least six sources of discard, 2) at least eight targeted removal spells, and 3) every creature in the deck must be useful both in the early and late game.
After tweaking the possible cards which could be included, I came up with this as the first presentable version of the deck.
Excluding a few sideboard choices I think the deck meets all of those conditions.
To start with discard, six might be a little low for the number of spells, but the choices in standard for a second choice after Thoughtseize are lacking. Despise does not allow me to take non-creature, non-planeswalker spells and neither Rakshasa’s Secret or Mind Rot allows me to chose the card that is discarded. Liliana Vess could be another option, not to using her ultimate as an alternate win condition, but for now her high mana price tag means she will be on the sidelines. I include the full complement of Thoughtseize due to its power level and include two Despise to bring me up to six discard spells.
I am also right at my goal for mainboard targeted removal with Hero’s Downfall and Murderous Cut each receiving the full four of. I strongly feel Hero’s Downfall, between being an instant and not caring if the target is a planeswalker or creature, is the best removal in the format. Murderous Cut is hit or miss depending on what is in your graveyard. Between the early game discard and the decks plan to use other removal spells there typically is enough cards in the graveyard that this spell is better than a five drop. The last piece of removal is two Drown in Sorrow. I always like a way to sweep the weenie decks, and this is the best option that isn’t Anger of the Gods. This can slow U/W Heroic, Jeskai Ascendancy, and mono-Red aggro. The scry is always a nice bonus as well.
The biggest challenge of the deck was finding creatures which could even think of emulating all stars like Tarmogoyf and Dark Confidant. While nothing in standard currently jumps out as that abusively powerful, there are a few mechanics that can emulate these cards. The first is pumping. A cheap creature that is able o pump itself is good to be played early in the game and can keep itself relevant by using excess mana in the late game.
Bestow is another mechanic that allows cards to be relevant in multiple parts of the game. Both Boon Satyr and Herald of Torment can be played as a reasonable creature on turn three, or can be played as an aura once I reach five mana. Herald of Torment has the added bonus of granting flying to whatever it is bestowing. They also add resiliency due to just becoming creatures when their target creatures die.