The Rock is one of the staple archetypes of Magic and has been for 20 years, but despite having a long and storied history, it has tended to be often a contender but never truly dominant. I can count the times that a Rock strategy has been the deck to beat on one hand, and just about all of those would be in recent years. There are a number of factors that go into what brought the archetype from simply everpresent to the top of the charts. In the next two to three articles, I want to discuss where we are but also how we got here and why. And that starts with defining what Rock decks actually are.
The short version is that they are green black based midrange control decks with an emphasis on board control and resource advantage through exhaustion, often at a slow, grinding pace. Also worth noting is its customizability and breadth of high-impact sideboard tools. There are two colloquial rules of thumb that come to mind when one thinks of Rock archetypes:
- Has game against everything, but everything has game against it (often phrased as “all fifty-five percenters” or similar)
- You have to draw the right half of your deck at the right time.
The former is due to the well-roundedness of the spell suite and versatility of its control elements as well as pressure pieces. The latter is because you often have splits of spells that do very different things–thus the versatility of the suite as a whole–but are individually hit-or-miss. If you draw your anti-aggro cards against control or vice versa, then you’re out of luck.
That is, until recently.
For starters, Rock traditionally generates its card advantage through individually powerful cards. First Deranged Hermit, then Spiritmonger, and so on down the line through Bloodbraid Elf, Thragtusk, and Siege Rhino. On the other side of the coin, sweepers or otherwise very effective removal lets the Rock player create advantages in games without having to rely on card draw to pull ahead. The difference now is that the card draw and filtering is almost incidental to the deck’s gameplan.
In case you couldn’t tell from this line of discussion (and didn’t read the title), GB Delirium is classic Rock. I say “classic” because though it harkens back to the Rock of yore, it is far from traditional in its execution of the pillars of the archetype. If you are unfamiliar, check out Brad Nelson’s winning decklist:
4 Blooming Marsh
1 Noxious Gearhulk
1 Emrakul, the Promised End
3 Grapple with the Past
4 Liliana, the Last Hope
3 Ishkanah, Grafwidow
4 Grim Flayer
4 Traverse the Ulvenwald
1 Tireless Tracker
3 Vessel of Nascency
3 Mindwrack Demon
4 Hissing Quagmire
1 Ruinous Path
1 Transgress the Mind
4 Grasp of Darkness
1 Evolving Wilds
2 Pilgrim’s Eye
Rock rarely gets to play dedicated card draw, as the deckbuilding cost of something like Harmonize is simply too high; if you aren’t interacting, you aren’t winning as Rock. But when your card draw comes in the form of your developmental pieces, things become a lot less restrictive. Tireless Tracker is one of the purest card drawers in recent history, and it comes in the form of a beefy green body that can generate advantages even if killed quickly. But even Tracker is getting the outshine treatment from Ishkanah, Grafwidow. If you consider Delerium a given (more on that in a bit), it is one of the most cost-effective card advantage cards in the format and is so in a very developmentally efficient fashion. It’s essentially a one-card stabilization with card advantage and win condition attached. In terms of effectiveness of table-turning, it’s up there with Deranged Hermit and Thragtusk as one of the best of all time.
Just when reach matters the most, too, what with Smuggler’s Copters and various Angels and Spirits taking to the skies.
So the card drawing is better, but so is the card filtering. It’s not every day that we get something like Sensei’s Divining Top for our Rock decks to avoid drawing the wrong part of our deck or flooding out with our land-heavy, card-draw-light deck. Most selection from Rock historically comes from recursion, ala Regrowth effects. Eternal Witness is the poster child for exactly this. Recursion has been pushed hard in recent years, and this standard is no exception. Grapple with the Past is like the joining of two long lineages; a marriage between Regrowths and Impulses [especially those that mill, ala Grisly Salvage]. This card was destined for greatness and has lived up to my expectations. This type of card that you are likely to be playing anyway that compound the potential value of your Ishkanah roleplayer are what keep these decks away from succumbing to single answers such as targeted discard or countermagic (or simply powering through the first copy, which is hard enough already).
Add to that list of recursion, the planeswalker Liliana, the Last Hope; a card that really does it all. A three mana planeswalker that can play offense (turbo-ult vs control), defense (killing and shrinking opposing attackers), and special teams (recursion of high-value creatures as well as enabling Delirium both by self-milling and by being a Planeswalker herself) is not something Wizards is going to give us very often, I assure you.
Speaking of enabling Delirium, the ease of which this is achieved means nearly no deckbuilding restrictions are required to generate the value. It’s called B/G Delirium, but it’s really just The Rock–the Delirium aspect is almost entirely incidental!
Pilgrim’s Eye is an artifact and a creature that you don’t mind dying and are absolutely fine playing (Rock has always liked itself a Civic Wayfinder or Borderland Ranger, and don’t even get me started on Satyr Wayfinder…). The deck is going to have instants and sorceries that it will cast as well as creatures and planeswalkers that need to be killed. With Liliana and Grapple, there’s already a good amount of mill, and Grim Flayer is just solid, being a great creature, good enabler and card filter tool that is useful later in the game. Mindwrack Demon is another type of card that slots right in and both enables and takes advantage of Delirium. The only card you are playing that you might not otherwise is Vessel of Nascency, which is so close to playable that the sacrifice you make in Wins Above Replacement is more than made up for in the added utility of the cohesiveness it brings to the deck.
This incidental synergy and the power it provides makes the deck tick, but what makes it a scary force in the metagame is that each card has utility in every stage of the game. Rock decks have to draw the right half of their deck at the right time, but when every card is a split card, this becomes a non-issue. The ultimate example of this is Traverse the Ulvenwald, which can be a land early (or more accurately, a Lay of the Land) and an Eldamari’s Call late. Those slots in Rock decks of the past were used on lands that, if drawn late, were blanks. Your 2-drop creature isn’t outclassed later on, because it’s a 4/4 trampler with an ability. Your 3-drop isn’t outclassed because it draws cards and grows. You even have Hissing Quagmires to help with flooding.
This idea of an early game card being put to use late is called Extending the Purpose, which is a topic I’ll be writing about more in-depth soon. But besides early vs late, the “right half of the deck” argument also applies to matchups; you don’t want to draw your creature removal against control or your discard against aggro. That’s the classic example, but there’s really not much in the ways of matchup specific cards anymore. Combo is all but dead (Yes, I know Aetherworks Marvel exists, but relative power level and metagame representation compared to historical Standard formats is infinitesimal), Aggro doesn’t really run out of cards or rely on reach anymore, and even Control uses creatures fairly often as well as Planeswalkers which some removal hits as well.
These principles are only the beginning of how contemporary Rock in the form of BG Delirium differs from its ancestors due to fundamental shifts in Magic design and development. The metagames may as much or more surface diversity, but the homogeneity within those supposedly varied archetypes tells a different story. Compounded by the increased utility of the individual cards themselves with pushes both towards the midrange and onto the board, and you have recipe for lots of green mana to be produced.
We’ll go over more of that next time, where I’ll discuss the design philosophy decisions that reinforce these principles, as well as how to take advantage of them, and analyzing the Delirium decklist in the context of its predecessors. Also on the list of topics I’m chomping at the bit to write about are Extending the Purpose and eventually Tutor Sideboards, both of which have significance here, so be on the lookout for those as well.