Aggro Rock and an Examination of Playing the Best Deck

After disappointing results from Pro Tour: Columbus, The Rock has been tearing up the PTQ scene and is one of the hottest decks around. In this article, Noah puts aggro Rock to the test and is not disappointed by the results. Why did he choose a deck that is underpowered, in spite of knowing that in the first place? Well, I’ll let the man explain for himself…

The deck:

Wild Mongrel

River Boa

4 Birds of Paradise

Troll Ascetic

1 Eternal Witness

Llanowar Elves

Cranial Extraction

4 Cabal Therapy

2 Sword of Fire/Ice

3 Rancor

4 Call of the Herd

Vampiric Tutor


Diabolic Edict

Pernicious Deed

City of Brass

Treetop Village

Llanowar Wastes




Powder Keg

Coffin Purge


3 Engineered Plague

1 Pernicious Deed

2 Duress

2 Smother

It’s obviously very similar to the Japanese builds of similar note. I didn’t change much. The Rancor/Sword numbers got messed around with, but in the end, I think this was the best ratio. The one River Boa seems a little random. It was two until the very last ten minutes of registration, but I got scared of combo at the end and added one Cranial Extraction. The River Boa(s) were very solid though. I wanted more aggressive two-drops, and the regen comes in handy with Deeds and Explosives and Red cards around. Islandwalk is useful at the oddest times as well.

For a while there was a version with a few Multani’s Acolytes. The Acolytes were excellent in the late game, or to be quickly sacrificed to Cabal Therapy, but in the end, the Boas kept performing better.

The sideboard was a real gem. I sided in every card over the course of the tournament, with the exception of the 3 Coffin Purges. The only reanimate deck of the tournament ended up 9th, so it was a very close call on that as well.

The only thing I don’t like about the sideboard is that it’s mostly Black, whereas the maindeck is mostly Green. The means a more even mana base than I’d like, but luckily it didn’t bite me very often. The City of Brass was a concession to that possibility.

So why did I play this deck? Am I going to claim it’s the strongest deck in extended? Of course not. But it’s solid. It has answers to anything and beats the hell out of any random deck sporting creatures as a means to win. If your area is rife with Goblins, WW, and Affinity, I would run some version of this deck. Northwest events tend to have a higher percentage of creature decks, so it felt right.

Besides all that, there were two aspects of the deck that really sealed the deal. The first was that I knew how to play it, which I’ll address in more detail a bit later. The second was that it’s aggressive.

Extended isn’t blisteringly fast right now, but given enough turns, someone will probably do something silly. There’s simply no time to mess around and set up a board and reduce them from 20 to zero at your leisure.

Power is great, but only if you live long enough to use it.

As an example, let’s look at the controlling Rock builds. A lot run Wall of Blossoms and Living Wish. Living Wish might be the worst non-Aluren card in Extended right now. You either cast it and say go (awful), or you cast it and the Baloth or Visara or whatever and say go, except this is turn 7 and why isn’t someone dead yet? Wasting a turn in this format is just a fancy way to commit suicide. There’s simply no land/creature/sorcery that’s worth wasting a turn for. When I tested the Living Wish builds (briefly), 90% of the time I’d get a Wasteland, just so I could do something relevant.

I also tested a bit with the Burning Wish Goblins deck and the results were very similar. Wishes were for Cabal Therapy, Firebolt, or Pulverize. 1cc, 1cc, 0cc is all there was time for. Patriarch’s Bidding was absolutely pointless. If there were enough Goblins in the graveyard to kill them with a Bidding, why in the world aren’t they dead already? If you’re going to play a deck that involves swinging, you simply do not have time to dilly-dally!

Question: What do Birds of Paradise, Aether Vial, Goblin Warchief, and Sunscape Familiar have in common?

Partial credit if you said they help your mana. Big gold star if said they’re the best cards in whatever deck they find themselves in.

Very few, if any, formats have been as diverse as this one. That creates an innovator’s market, where lots of crazy plays and plans could actually work. That’s nice and all, but what keeps these brilliant creations in check is rough, underused mana. This also applies during the game as well. Whatever deck are facing off, a good bet is on the one which taps out every turn. Knowing your deck is so vital, so you can extract the most influence off your cards and mana.

The idea of using your turns to the fullest applies to every format, all the time. It’s just right now, the best decks are doing it the best. And the penalties for doing it worse are very harsh indeed.

So back to the Rock deck I played from the beginning. Between Mongrel, Call of the Herd, Swords, and Cabal Therapy, I was excited about the deck using all available resources to the fullest, especially the extraneous ones. Honestly, if I had any mana open from turns 1-7, it was probably for an Edict or Vampiric Tutor. Most of the cards in the deck were fairly un-reactive to what my opponent was doing. Those that weren’t were either good at the time, or created a pretty 3/3 Blue dog.

Here’s how the rounds played out:

Round one was against a sweet Mr. Kormel. He was playing Aluren. By some quirk, my sideboard is absolutely vicious against Aluren. Game 1 I tagged 3 Cavern Harpy with a Therapy, and the second game was a lot uglier.

Round 2 was Jason Adams. And a feature match, in the PTQ arena. Jason had a very interesting 4color Scepter-Chant-Tog deck going. Game 1 went very long, with me somehow pulling it out. Rancor on an Ascetic I believe.

Game 2 actually had some of the most difficult decisions all day. It’s tough to recreate, but essentially I’m playing to win or not lose, and the clock’s ticking and I’m up a game. In no way do I want a draw. But whether to go aggressive and leave myself vulnerable or stay passive and let the clock run out was a big deal throughout the game. I actually switched midway through, where he was forced to block enough so that I could leave guys back to block and not have enough cards. It was quite hairy there for a bit. After time was called, I literally spent 3-4 minutes on whether to tap a pain land to play a creature.

In the end I didn’t win the 2nd game, but I sure didn’t lose it either. It was enough for the match win.

Round 3 was against Matt “The Champ” Greene. Matt was running straight Goblins, which turned out be a bit scary. My opener was a City of Brass, a Birds, 2 Wild Mongrels, a Sword, a Therapy, and a Tutor. Amazing against combo decks and general creature decks, horrid against RDW and anything else that can kill the BoP. I kept it and got very sad when I saw a turn 1 Mountain.

Luckily it only led to a Vial, so I started pouring out the gas. I was stuck on one City of Brass for quite a long time, but the Mongrels held his army at bay. My Bird eventually found a Sword and started picking off the troublesome goblins. At around 11 life, my Mongrel snagged it and came through as a 9/9 + 2.

Game 2 was rougher for Matt. My E. Plague met his Goblin King, but my bigger fellows and his lack of Matron/Ringleader meant the normies weren’t going anywhere. A theoretically tough Goon was outnumbered by at least 3 guys. Matt just kept drawing lands and I just kept drawing Call of the Herds. A few judicious attacks and it was over.


Round 4 was against Beni Rose playing Scepter-Chant

Now easily, Scepter-Chant is my worst matchup in the room. Far and away. Mind’s Desire ain’t great, but at least the walls are killable. Beating Scepter either involves a lot of speed and disruption, or slipping a Deed in at some point. Game 1 that’s what happens. He wins the die roll and tries to shoot the moon with a turn 2 Scepter. I of course have the turn 2 Deed, and we’re back in it.

For whatever reason, a lot of decks in Extended right now have a tough time with a Rancor on a Troll Ascetic. Go figure. I make regen shields on my turn just so I could tap out. That, plus the 5/2 trample machine, led to a 1-0.

Game 2 was a rough shot for Beni. The deck simply drew perfectly, with all the sideboard cards at the right time, and beats otherwise. The deck can do that sometimes.


Round 5 Ricky Boyes-Mind’s Desire

Ricky is a very strong player in the state. Multiple Qs, locks up a top 8 wherever he goes etc etc. And playing the 2nd worst matchup. So it wasn’t a great pairing, but a win here puts me at ID land, A.K.A. the stop before Paradise.

Game one was quite amusing for everyone watching. I Cranially Extract the Mind’s Desires on turn 3, then play a Vamp for Eternal Witness with the plan to do it again on turn 5. Of course, that 5th turn never comes.

The second game I remember a massive Deed wiping away a Mox, Wall, and Medallion. River Boa regenerated, and Ricky fizzled when he Desired for 8. Add it up = game win.

Now, despite these short descriptions, those two games took quite a while to play. There were about 10 minutes left on the clock at the beginning of the third game. Either one of our decks can win in that amount of time, but it certainly favors Ricky.

Luckily, my start was disruptive enough to effectively prevent Ricky from doing his thing. But all that disruption was costing me attacks as well. It came down to turns, and I was set to win on the 5th and final turn with a Rancored up Treetop Village. Alas, Ricky had the Snap. So a draw, right?

Well actually, Ricky played it cool. We both agreed a draw favored neither of us, and with a win on the board on the next turn, Ricky graciously conceded. It was a kind move, although perhaps the wrong one, as it turned out.

Round 6 and 7, ID

I was first seed going into the Top 8. That gave my opponents pretty good tie-breaks, including a 5-2 sneaking in at 8th, one Beni Rose.

Quarterfinals Beni Rose-Scepter-Chant

To make a long match short, I was dispatched in three. Beni got flooded in game 2 which allowed me just throw enough at him to eke out a win, but game 3 was the interesting one.

Beni starts with the turn 2 Scepter again, but misses land drops after. I have the turn 2 Deed of course, but I don’t pop it right off the bat. I have that Birds in play, and a Cranial in hand. My scheme is to get him tapped out so that I don’t have to lose Birds to Deed and can Cranial him, safe from permission and whatnot.

It’s a solid plan, although a bit risky. I need to use a Naturalize on the Scepter, have it countered, and continue to hope in one of the next 2 turns Beni continues to miss land drops. The first part works fine, but two land rips in a row was making the second part a lot tougher. I bit the bullet and Deed away everything. On my turn, I do something relevant. Countered. Something relevant, countered, something relevant countered. 5 turns and 5 counters later I attempt the Cranial Extraction. Alas, it does not resolve. Beni even had enough mana left to Intuition for the remaining Chants and lock me down. I had outs of course, but the Exalted Angel makes it necessary to find them in an expedient manner. Unfortunately, nothing shows. So ends the Top 8 dream.

I was told later that Beni pretty much ripped every counter right in a row. It’s annoying, but I felt I played the match to the best of my ability. Despite it not working out, I can only be satisfied with a game played correctly (I hope!).

This brings us to the final topic of the day. How valuable is to have a deck you know you can play well versus a deck that is generally recognized as better?

I’m sure everyone knows a player with a pet deck, who exclusively plays it and only it. Assuming this pet deck has some game, the player will win with it sometimes. But the funny thing, anyone else who picks up the deck thinks it’s a trash heap, because it never wins for them.

This situation is not uncommon, but it can look confusing. Is this pet deck good or not? Well the answer is, any deck is a lot better in the hands of a person who knows what he or she doing.

In a recent article, Mr. Mowshowitz suggested either playing the best deck, or not playing at all. Specifically:

If you want to qualify, you want to be on one of the most powerful decks in the format. Affinity was my initial guess for most powerful, but it has let me down, so I’m forced to go on to the real threats. Choose one of the combination decks, likely Mind’s Desire but you can also choose Aluren…If someone shows up with Rock, I lose respect for their Constructed skills. If they run Mind’s Desire, you can at least give them credit for a good decision and having enough faith in their own skills to run the deck.”

Now to be fair, he also suggests testing the hell out of the best deck, so you do actually know what you’re doing. However, some people don’t live in areas where there are enough quality players to play against, or don’t own a Sharpie, or simply don’t have the time to test to oblivion.

Eventually yes, you should learn to play every style of deck with equal verve and skill. In the meantime, there’s a lot to be said for minimizing your mistakes. Personally, I consider a tournament a success if I can have a mistake free day, regardless of actual wins or losses. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m always shooting for it. I’ve always believed that if you play correctly, the winning will simply be a by-product.

So back to Extended. There are a lot of viable decks. Viable doesn’t mean the most powerful, but there are certainly a lot of options for the consumer who doesn’t mind getting a little less in quality. For a deck that I knew I could play inside and out, I would be willing to throw away a touch of environmental authority.

The question is, what exactly does a game play mistake cost? It usually equals a mulligan, or them casting Reach Through Mists for free, or a Shock, or a Diabolic Edict, maybe even just a straight Time Walk. These are not inconsequential effects. Sometimes a person wins despite a triple mulligan. I’ve certainly lost to people on MTGO who have mana burned. More often than not though, losing a card or life points for absolutely no gain (i.e. wtf were you thinking?) will cost anyone any number of games, even if it’s not obvious at the time.

There’s an argument that says something like, if the deck you play is so overwhelmingly good, then you can blow it in any number of ways and still win. It’s “forgiving”. This is true, except when you play someone playing the same deck as you, only better. How many errors are you allowed to make against this overwhelmingly good deck piloted by someone who plays better than you? An uphill battle to say the least.

As I said at the beginning of this article, there’s no way the Rock deck I played is the best Extended deck. No way at all. But that doesn’t mean it can’t win. The Cephalid/Life deck might be the best deck right now, but aside from goldfishing, I don’t have a freakin’ clue on how to play it against permission or Aluren or any other interactive scenario. I make a wholehearted promise that if I had played a quality but complex combo deck at the PTQ, I would have given away a large number of turns. How many turns can I sacrifice in this environment, really?

In a perfect world, we’d all identify the best deck and playtest the hell out of it, achieving a zen-like knowledge of every possible scenario. I myself don’t have that kind of time, and frankly, I’m ok with that. Doesn’t mean I’m going to cut myself out of the competitive scene.

As of this writing, I don’t know what I’ll be playing at any future PTQs, although I’d guess a build similar to this one. Still won’t be the best deck, still will be played mostly right. The key is that this is not a play style choice. I don’t care in particular about playing Green, or flashback cards, or whatever. It’s about playing the deck that gives you the best chance of winning. Next time you’re thinking of where to devote your energies, think on whether you can play a complicated deck well enough in time for a tournament, or are best suited for something else. Good luck.

Noah Weil

Noastic on Magic Online

nweil at the very warm mail address

I'd explain this, but it wouldn't be funny anymore.

—————————————————Bonus Section—————————————

Stuff to do with a booster and a buddy.

Pack War“: A fun variant sometimes known as DC10 or max mana or any number of things. A two-person draft with exactly one booster apiece. During the game you start with zero cards in hand and infinite mana/basic lands available. The dynamic makes certain cards quite good, and some a lot worse. Kodama’s Reach is quite awful, for example.

We allow one Feldon’s Cane per game, but only when you run out of cards. Burn spells can usually only target creatures, but Cursed Ronin is a really excellent first pick.

Winner of x games gets all the cards. Give it a try sometime.

Pack “War”: This game is actually the old game “War” played with Magic cards. Each of you simply cracks the booster and starts Warring with the cards. The best card revealed takes them both. Two cards of equal strength of course merit a 3 card down one card up scenario. It takes trust, but assuming you can find a person that knows the true strengths of cards, you’ll have a fun time. Recommended stakes: $200 a pack. Have fun!