It's Back - The Rock Returns to Type 2

Feature Article from Jarrod Bright
Jarrod Bright
2/6/2004
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Over the past several weeks leading up to the Darksteel prerelease, there was a lot of hype that The Rock, the black-green aggressive control deck of Extended fame, was in fact viable in Type 2 with only Onslaught Block, 8th Edition and Mirrodin. Having played the Black-Green Cemetery deck during Onslaught Block, I had been working on making the deck viable in Type 2 for some time before deciding that there was simply no way it could work with the cards in the format at the time. Black-Green Cemetery simply could not beat the format's aggressive decks and still hope to be able to compete with the white-based control decks and Affinity. While it was possible for the black-green Cemetery deck to win a tournament if the metagame was right for it, it was far from a Tier 1 deck. What was more, the strategy of that particular deck was more akin to the Oversold Cemetery deck from Onslaught Block than that of The Rock.

It's amazing what the inclusion of three cards in Darksteel has done for the viability of black green control in Type 2. Formerly barely a Tier 2 deck at best, it now threatens to dominate the post-Darksteel format by being able to beat Affinity, white-based control decks and the new Skullclamp-based decks.

Since its first creation during the Tempest Block and Urza's Block Type 2 format, The Rock's game plan has been all about controlling the board while slowly gaining card advantage, and using powerful effects to create massive swings in board position. Malka's original deck did this through cards such as Yavimaya Elder, Spike Feeder, Phyrexian Plaguelord and Deranged Hermit, backed up by the massive board swing from Living Death. The modern Extended deck (with the exception of the brief period when Tinker was running rampant) did so with Ravenous Baloth, Genesis, Yavimaya Elder and Cabal Therapy, with the large swings coming from Pernicious Deed and Haunting Echoes. This incarnation of The Rock does this through two synergistic card advantage engines: Skullclamp and Oversold Cemetery. Death Cloud serves the role of creating a massive swing in board position and finally, the remainder of the deck serves as fuel for these card advantage engines, providing what is possibly the best assortment of utility effects ever available to The Rock.

Strictly speaking The Rock is not a Skullclamp deck, though this is not to say that Skullclamp isn't one of the most powerful cards in it. In this deck, Skullclamp fills three roles. Firstly, and most importantly, Skullclamp allows you to sacrifice any one-toughness creature that has out-lived its usefulness for an additional two cards, generating significant card advantage when used with creatures having relevant comes-into-play abilities. Secondly, it combines with Oversold Cemetery to enable you to replay a one toughness creature with a relevant comes-into-play ability to provide a soft-lock, which equates to a game one win in a lot of matchups. Lastly, Skullclamp allows you to generate enough card advantage to make Death Cloud positively abusive - either by building your hand up before playing a Death Cloud or letting you draw an additional two cards after the dust settles, leaving your opponent with no creatures, no cards, and very few lands. Of course, if you read last week's article you should by now be well used to the fact that Skullclamp is utterly ridiculous.

One of the major changes to the pre-Darksteel attempts to make The Rock work in the Type 2 environment is that Skullclamp allows you to remove the rather clunky Phyrexian Plaguelord. No longer do you have to rely on a 5-mana creature to sacrifice your creatures with useful comes-into-play effects. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of this is that The Rock is no longer able to abuse Caller of the Claw to the same degree as it was previously able to. In fact, with the card advantage already granted by Skullclamp, there is no need for the Wirewood Herald engine at all since if you are activating Skullclamp on a regular basis you are unlikely to run out of creatures to sacrifice to it. Indeed, with the additional slots required both to run Death Cloud and to provide the mana base to support it, there is no room in the deck for such luxuries as the Wirewood Herald elf chain.

This brings us to the most important addition to this deck, and indeed the card that differentiates The Rock from the Black-Green Cemetery decks from Onslaught Block and the previous Type 2 formats. Death Cloud is one of the most powerful board sweepers in the format, not only able to take out every creature on the board, with regeneration, un-targetability, indestructibility and protection non-withstanding, but also taking out your opponent's hand and a large chunk of their mana base at the same time. This card single-handedly turns many lost games into wins, and proves just as powerful against the most aggressive beatdown decks and the most dedicated control decks. In the late game, Death Cloud can even serve as a burn spell to finish your opponent off. However, it is in conjunction with Oversold Cemetery that Death Cloud does the most damage. Playing a Death Cloud on an otherwise neutral board position while you either have a Cemetery in play or are able to hold a Cemetery in hand is generally game over in your favor. It is relatively easy to lock your opponent with Oversold Cemetery when they are reduced to three or less lands and no cards in hand.

The rest of the deck is based around supporting both Oversold Cemetery and Death Cloud. The major concerns here are getting enough creatures into the graveyard on a regular basis to fuel Oversold Cemetery and being able to run enough black sources to be able to reliably cast Death Cloud.

In order to be able to play Death Cloud reliably, you need to be running a minimum of 18 black sources. Birds of Paradise give you the first four of these quite easily (remembering they can be returned to play with Cemetery if removed), but in order to support these you also need a minimum of 14 green sources of mana, and you still need another 14 Black sources. Even taking City of Brass into account, that means running a minimum of 26 Lands in order to run both Death Cloud and the creature base you want to support Oversold Cemetery. Needless to say, with 26 Lands it is almost impossible to get enough creatures into your graveyard for Oversold Cemetery on a regular basis, so there is no choice but to run a set of Land-Cyclers. Of the Land-Cyclers in color, not only is Twisted Abomination the most powerful creature, but it also provides the black mana that is less needed until the later turns. With the Twisted Abominations making it much easier to draw your Swamps, The Rock is able to get away with a mana base of 23 Lands, 4 Birds of Paradise, and 4 Twisted Abominations.

The remainder of the deck is dedicated to creatures with relevant comes-into-play abilities and one-toughness, or those which can be sacrificed for a needed effect. In this way, The Rock's creature base serves the same purpose as the assortment of removal, discard and even life-gain spells commonly found in other control decks.

In the current Type 2 format, where The Rock's recursion ability comes from Oversold Cemetery, having all these roles served by creatures gives you the necessary fuel to reliably get your card advantage engine online. Ravenous Baloth is the most obvious and least disputed of these cards, giving the deck both a solid creature on offense or defense, and also a method of life-gain. Only slightly less ubiquitous is the set of Ravenous Rats, providing a source of discard, which when combined with Oversold Cemetery and Skullclamp prevents your opponent from holding any cards in their hand during your turn for the remainder of the game. For creature removal, Nekrataal provides very efficient point removal as well as a good blocker against beatdown decks in the early game, and Bane of the Living provides you with your board sweeper against low toughness creatures. Usually I am not a big fan of Bane of the Living; however, in the current format it is incredibly strong, both against aggressive decks like Goblin-Bidding and Skullclamp decks, and against Decree of Justice from White-based control decks. Finally, Viridian Shaman provides The Rock with the recur-able Artifact removal effect necessary for the current Type 2 format. The fact that this card can also target Enchantments doesn't come up particularly often, though it definitely is a useful ability to have.

One of the things a lot of Cemetery decks I've seen while playtesting online have been trying to do is include cards that do not directly help the deck's engines. Of these, the two most common are Troll Ascetic and Solemn Simulacrum. Of the two, the Simulacrum is the more understandable as it does provide a useful comes-into-play ability, and draws you a card when it leaves play. When Black-Green decks were being forced to run Phyrexian Plaguelord to sacrifice their creatures, the Simulacrum was actually a very solid option. Now, however, with Skullclamp providing your main means of recurring comes-into-play abilities with Cemetery the Simulacrum is much harder to get into the graveyard at will, and without being able to recur the comes-into-play ability, the effect is nowhere near powerful enough. Troll Ascetic is one of those cards that just tells me that the person building the deck just doesn't know what they are trying to accomplish. The Troll is a great card in an aggro deck or even an aggro-control deck like the current Red-Green Land Destruction deck. The thing is that in a control deck that is as mana intensive as The Rock, the Troll just has no place at all. You have no problem with your opponent removing your creatures because you can quite easily return them to play or generate card advantage with Skullclamp when they die. Against opposing control decks it is card advantage that wins you the game more often than fast beatdown, and against aggro decks, you just don't have the mana for the Troll's regeneration ability.

The Rock Jarrod Bright
Format: Type II - Darksteel
Main Deck
Sideboard
3 Bane of the Living
4 Birds of Paradise
3 Nekrataal
4 Ravenous Baloth
4 Ravenous Rats
4 Twisted Abomination
3 Viridian Zealot

4 Death Cloud
4 Oversold Cemetery
4 Skullclamp

3 City of Brass
12 Forest
8 Swamp
4 Headhunter
4 Infest
4 Oxidize
3 Withered Wretch
Total deck value: $177.15
Notes:

Average Casting Cost (ACC)= 2.62
Spells by Color:
Cards by Type:
*Hover mouse cursor over pie chart to see ==>> COLOR/TYPE : # CARDS : % OF CARDS.
*Left click on pie chart or legend to isolate a field.


The Rock is one of the hardest decks in the post-Darksteel Type 2 format to play correctly, and it is even more difficult to get three games finished in the usual time limit in a sanctioned tournament. This is not a deck you should play without first taking the time to learn how to play it. The most important thing to figure out in each matchup is whether you are taking on the role of a control player or an aggro-control player in the particular matchup, and what your game-plan is for that matchup.

In matchups against opposing control decks, especially the white-based control decks, you have to take on an aggro-control role, putting your opponent under the threat of being reduced to zero life from your creatures and Death Cloud, and the threat of being overwhelmed by card advantage. Skullclamp is your most valuable asset in these matchups, as it both allows you to generate massive card advantage and punishes your opponent for playing board-sweeping spells. It also allows you to dig through your deck for Oversold Cemetery, which is the best spell to play to either overwhelm countermagic or recover from Akroma's Vengeance and Oblivion Stone. If you are able to get Oversold Cemetery and Skullclamp working together in a control matchup, the best card to return is Ravenous Rats, using it to keep your opponent's hand empty while drawing an extra two cards per turn (Probe with Kicker eat your heart out). In the control matchups Death Cloud should be played at any time where you can destroy your opponent's hand while keeping a Skullclamp or Cemetery on the table. Any other cards you keep in your hand are just a bonus as when both players are reduced to topdecking, keeping either card in play will allow you to recover faster than your opponent can. If you have the Skullclamp on a creature when you cast Death Cloud, you will of course end up with at least two cards in your hand after the Death Cloud resolves, making it very easy to overwhelm your opponent before they can recover.

After sideboarding in these control matchups you get to remove some of the redundant creature removal and/or Ravenous Baloths in favor of a set of Headhunters. You can also bring in either Withered Wretch or Oxidize depending on which cards you are more concerned about in your opponent's deck. However, the main addition from the sideboard for these matchups is the extra discard effects. Not only do the Headhunters make Ravenous Rats much more effective, but they also force your opponent into using their board sweeping spells instead of being able to hold them back for your Oversold Cemeteries and Skullclamps. The main benefit of bringing in the Headhunters is that they make it much easier to take your opponent's hand out with Death Cloud while still leaving cards in your hand - especially if those cards include an Oversold Cemetery or Skullclamp. The alternatives for these slots are Cabal Interrogator and Persecute. While Persecute may end up being the better choice if mono-color control decks light in Artifacts become popular; I rather doubt this happening. The fact that Persecute isn't a creature and can't be sacrificed to Skullclamp when it has outlived its usefulness also counts heavily against it. The Interrogator is a good alternative; however, The Rock is a very mana intensive deck and you will have trouble paying the activation cost of the Interrogator's ability every turn.

Against the rest of the field you are playing as a control deck. This includes pretty much any aggro or aggro-control deck in the format, including the aggro-combo decks such as Goblin Bidding and the Skullclamp-based decks. In these matchups it is important to play out your card advantage engines as soon as possible. While you may end up losing copies of Skullclamp or Cemetery to targeted removal, you are very unlikely to be facing any board sweepers capable of taking out Enchantments and Artifacts in these matchups. In these matchups you want to keep the amount of damage your opponent can deal to you to a minimum, with chump-blocking with creatures like Ravenous Rats being a very good strategy to buy time to get your more powerful spells online. If you are lucky enough to draw a Bane of the Living early in these matchups, the first copy should be flipped as soon as possible, then traded off through combat in preference to your other creatures so as to be reused. Bane of the Living is the only creature in this deck that you can't send to the graveyard without trading with an opposing creature unless you activate it for three (two if Skullclamp is involved), but in these matchups you will often find the blocker invaluable. If you are playing against a Skullclamp-based deck you may want to keep a Bane face-down until your opponent tries to use Skullclamp on one of their creatures, which usually leaves them waiting until the following turn until they can use Skullclamp.

In the long run you are looking to win these matchups either by a battle of attrition or by playing a Death Cloud, leaving your card advantage engines in play while taking out your opponent's creatures, hand, and manabase. In the aggro-combo matchups, especially Goblin-Bidding, you will want to aggressively dig for Death Cloud because wrecking your opponent's manabase is often your only way to prevent your opponent from using their combo to kill you within the single turn. Against the Skullclamp decks, non-Combo aggro decks and Affinity, your game plan is to establish a lock with Oversold Cemetery and Skullclamp and finish your opponent off with your creatures before they can fight their way out of the lock. Of course, this isn't to say that Death Cloud isn't absolutely devastating against these decks, as removing your opponent's creatures, hand and manabase makes it extremely hard for them to get much of an offense going before you can lock them. Affinity in particular has serious problems getting back into the game after losing both its artifact creatures and its artifact lands, especially since Viridian Zealot can take care of any Talismans or Moxes first.

Against the aggro and aggro-combo decks heavier in small creatures, Infest provides a cheap way to not only gain significant card advantage, but also to keep your opponent from overrunning you before you can stabilize the board. Oxidize is included in the sideboard over Molder Slug because the problems this deck runs into against Affinity are more often from the broken early game draws that can be quite readily broken up or at leas delayed for a turn by destroying a key artifact on your first turn. By the time this deck could be playing Molder Slug you have no shortage of powerful effects, including the ability to recur Viridian Zealot each turn through Oversold Cemetery. If you are playing against a more controlling Affinity deck, you also have the option of bringing in Headhunter, which when backed up by Oxidize and Viridian Zealot will usually leave them easy prey for the rest of your deck. Against Goblin-Bidding, one of this deck's worst matchups, you want to bring in the Withered Wretches as well as the Infests, and make sure that as soon as a Goblin Warchief, Piledriver, Sharpshooter or Siege-Gang Commander hits your opponent's graveyard it is removed from the game.

Next week I will be taking a look at another Skullclamp based aggro-Combo deck, this time built around the frame of the aggro-Affinity deck, but with some significant changes. Until then, enjoy playing the game.

- Jarrod Bright




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