Originally when I volunteered to cover The Rock I was not particularly excited about doing so. My opinion of the deck this season had best been summed up by a Vintage player talking about Sui-Black in Vintage: "I just don't get why people play this deck. It's so incredibly underpowered in Vintage that it almost feels like you're playing against a bad Legacy deck." Change the word Vintage to Extended, and Legacy to Standard, and that's the feeling I got when doing the testing for this article as well. "Accelerating" your way into a turn 2 Spike Feeder is not very impressive when your opponent's turn 2 play is a Sundering Titan killing your two lands. Clearing the board with a Pernicious Deed just doesn't feel so good when the turn afterwards you get Firebolted to death.
So why play Rock this Extended season? Nostalgia? Familiarity? Don't have the cards to play something else? Just want something to test against? Live in a combo metagame? Whatever your reasons are for wanting to play Rock, rest assured that there are lots of other people just like you. It has been quite a popular deck this Extended season, and should you live to see turn 5-8, it's even a good deck.
For the analysis in this article, I took five different Rock decks that t8ed five different PTQs (four PTQ's and GP Seattle), and one from a local FNM to use as the basis for my analysis. Rector - Pattern was deliberately excluded, because even though it is commonly misnomered as Rock, it plays and 'feels' quite different from conventional Rock, and deserves its own article. Red Rock was ignored while designing the deck, although I promise to discuss it below.
Building The Deck
The obvious spot to start at is the manabase. All of the decks used Swamps, Forests, Llanowar Wastes, and Treetop Villages. Three of the Six decks used at least one Wasteland, while Volrath's Stronghold was used in only two. The FNM deck was the only one using Pine Barrens, but I suspect that’s mostly due to an exceptionally high Teen Titans count and an exceptionally low RDW count at local FNMs more than a need for manafixing.
All six of the decks used a full set of four Birds of Paradise. Spike Feeder and/or Ravenous Baloth also made it into five of the sample decks. After that, the samples break down in terms of creatures. Call of the Herd, Mesmeric Fiend, Kokusho, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Eternal Witness, Wall of Blossoms, Yavimaya Elder, Troll Ascetic, Wild Mongrel, Solemn Simulacrum and Duplicant all make appearances in the sample decks. Choosing the correct creature base is going to require making a decision about how the deck is going to operate. A more aggressive approach to Rock should be packing Call of the Herd, Wild Mongrel and Troll Ascetic, whereas a version more reliant on Recurring Nightmare is more likely to use Duplicant, Ravenous Baloth, and Jens. Both decks benefit from mana acceleration such as Sakura Tribe Elder and recursion in the form of Eternal Witness. I opted for the slower Recurring Nightmare approach.
Because surviving long enough to get the card advantage and the Recurring Nightmare engine going is so important, the next priority on my mind was creature removal. The standard removal package appearing in every deck was Pernicious Deed, Diabolic Edict, and Smother in varying numbers. The aggro versions of the deck also tended to use Sword of Fire and Ice. Chainer's Edict made three appearances, as a one-of each time. Engineered Explosives, Living Death, and Death Cloud were each played in a single deck as well.
If there is one thing Rock is good at, it's beating combo decks. The combination package of Duress, Cabal Therapy, and Cranial Extraction are absolutely deadly to combo players. Originally I intended to use them in a 3/4/2 role respectively, however the end result was a 61 card deck, and a Duress was moved to the sideboard.
Recurring Nightmare strategy, obviously Recurring Nightmare must be included. There also has to be either tutors to fetch the nightmare when it is needed, or multiple copies thereof.
It would be nice to include other cards, such as Living Wish, Engineered Plague, and Withered Wretch. Unfortunately the deck is at 60 cards already.
Red Deck Wins
Game 1 against RDW causes the deck listed above headaches. The creatures of the red deck are relatively controllable, however the burn typically becomes lethal before Spike Feeder recursion manages to stabalize your life total. Sakura Tribe Elder is actually very useful in this matchup, helping you to get around Rishadan Port, and typically soaking up a burn spell as well. Unless desperate, Pernicious Deed should be saved for destroying Cursed Scrolls. To offset the difficulties of game 1, two Ravenous Baloths and a 4th Smother are going into the sideboard. They replace two Cranial Extractions and an Eternal Witness. Also, when facing artifact heavy versions of RDW, containing Great Furnace, Mox, and Scroll, I would replace the two copies of Duress with an Uktabi Orangutan and a Viridian Shaman.
The post sideboard games play out with a similar strategy to game one. Your goal is still to contain the creature rush and use Baloth/Feeder to counteract the burn. Your opponent's goal is to disrupt your manabase for long enough that his creatures and burn spells go lethal . The extra pair of Baloths helps your strategy immensely, and in an RDW dominated metagame they should be maindecked in place of one Extraction and one Witness. This matchup is certainly winnable, but is by no means easy. Worth noting is that about half of the decks I faced in testing, were opting for maindecked Sulfuric Vortexes in place of the more conventional Pillage or Tangle Wire, (no 'Tog locally at all) and were thus limited in terms of mana disruption to Wasteland and Port.
Pernicious Deed, I thee love. Deed is your strongest spell, and you should use it liberally. Don't hesitate to fire off a Deed for 2 which only kills one creature. If that Deed also takes out three lands and an AEther Vial it was well spent. You can expect your opponent will always name Pernicious Deed with his Meddling Mages (if he plays them), which conveniently leaves Pikula vulnerable to your Smothers.
Cranial Extraction should ALWAYS name Disciple of the Vault first unless there is already one in play. Arcbound Ravagers are very managable given your abundance of blockers and removal, but a Vault Ninja always spells trouble. As with RDW, you want to play a slow controlling game: grinding the ground game to a halt and winning with your graveyard recursion. Somber Hoverguard is the biggest Non-Disciple threat you will face as it is immune to Smother, has flying, and is typically too big to hit with Deed.
There is not a huge need to sideboard stuff in but, since Uktabi Orangutan and Viridian Shaman are already on our sideboard, it's certainly advisable to bring them in (replacing Cabal Therapy), as well as Ravenous Baloth (Cranial Extraction) and any other artifact hate.
You adopt the same strategy for game two as for game one, but with the added benefit of having more artifact hate in your deck. The one downside is you lose the ability to Extract Disciple, but as long as you keep his artifact count down, and your life total up, the 1 mana Lava Axe is managable.
Ouch! Sundering Titan is the very definition of Rock domination. Pretty much any time it enters play the game is over. During testing, the only time I EVER managed to beat Teen Titans game 1 was when I ramped up to a "quick" (turn 3) Cranial Extraction, and extracted Titan before it hit play. From that point on however the matchup suddenly becomes very winnable. The smaller creatures are fairly easy to keep in check via Pernicious Deed and Smother, while anything large that gets through, dies to Diabolic Edict. Most of the time however, A Sundering Titan will come into play and just slaughter you.
If you want to win this one, you've got to have a method of dealing with Sundering Titan. My recommendation is Coffin Purge. Not only will two copies of Coffin Purge permanently deal with all 4 of your opponent's Titans, but they only cost 1 mana, and don't interfere with your own graveyard recursion, unlike Nether Void. However, you're not out of the woods yet. Show and Tell is the ultimate anti-sideboard-sideboard trick for your opponent, giving him a method of getting a cheap Titan into play even despite graveyard hate.
There isn't much to do about Show and Tell, except forcefully rip it from hand with Duress and Cabal Therapy. So in addition to Coffin Purges, you are going to have to bring in additional copies of Duress. That fourth Smother is also a good idea, since keeping Goblin Welder off the table is definitely desirable.
Despite the strength of Cranially Extracting Sundering Titan, I recommend going down to one Extraction for this matchup, because if you don't win the game fast, you won't win the game at all.
Various Combo Decks.
Beating Combo is the best reason to play rock at the moment. Just about all of the combo decks are favorable matchups, from Aluren, to Life, to Mind's Desire. Your big strength is your ability to rip apart an opening hand with Duress and Cabal Therapy One dejected Mind's Desire player joked during testing that it didn't matter what hand he drew, because it would all just be Therapied away before he could go off anyway. The second major benefit is Cranial Extraction. With the notable exception of Cephalife (and to a lesser extent, it's component decks of Life and Breakfast as well), all of the combo decks in the format revolve around one specific spell. It's very hard for Aluren to win for example, without its namesake card. The great advantage over Life is that even going off won't win a Life player the game.
Recurring Nightmare + Eternal Witness(es) + Cranial Extraction will eventually end up decking the Life player even if he goes off. This "combo" works in any matchup, but rarely will you actually get enough time to implement it. Life is the one exception, because killing it with damage is improbable, and your opponent is highly unlikely to kill you any time soon either, especially once you Extract his ability to Living Wish for Serra Avatar.
The Rock Rebuilt
Cards not Discussed
Oversold Cemetery: Originally this was a Kokusho, The Evening Star, believe it or not. However the "engine" with Recurring Nightmare just never seemed to work the way I had hoped. Furthermore, Recurring Nightmare, while very powerful, did not have the best of synergy with Sakura-Tribe Elder, Spike Feeder, or Ravenous Baloth. With those cards, what I really wanted was a way to get them back into play without having to sacrifice the creatures I already had in play. Typically, Cemetery was plopped down immediately following a Pernicious Deed activation and could quite often last the entire game. It proved espescially strong in the aggro matchups, where it essentially allowed me to "draw" a Spike Feeder every turn.
Engineered Plague: Goblins can be quite difficult to beat without it. It has uses in other matchups, such as naming "Beast" versus Aluren. A single Plague very nearly made it into the maindeck, and could quite possibly replace a Cranial Extraction at some point in the future.
Naturalize: Not actually intended for Affinity, these were to help deal with Isochron Scepter-based decks. Instant speed artifact hate is a real premium when getting Orim's Chanted every single turn, and Naturalize got the nod over Oxidize for the superior versatility against unexpected or uncommon decks such as Opposition.
Red: Quite simply, I don't see justification for it. The typical reason is because Flametounge Kavu when combined with Recurring Nightmare provides a very potent removal package. That is true, but the deck it is most effective against, is Affinity. You can get a very similar effect using Viridian Shaman but with the added bonus of being on color and able to kill lands. RDW is rarely hampered by recurring FTKs, since by the time the nightmare engine comes on line, RDW is typically in the "burn him out" stage of their plan, and doesn't particularly object if you feel you must kill that Mogg Fanatic he's got. While Flametounge Kavu is a very powerful card, It's just not worth the decreased consistency that adding a third color brings.
That's just about everything you need to know about The Rock, and how to play it this Extended season. Until next time, may your Deeds bear Witness to your greatness.
Goblinboy - Primary Editor
Qwerty - Secondary Editor
Dr. Tom, for making me write this
All my playtesting partners, for all the advice
Sean Connery, for making The Rock such a good movie
You, for reading the entire article