Chatter of the Squirrel – Rock and Nail

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Can’t make this stuff up, folks. Get a message from Dan Ackroyd – okay, Danny Ackroyd-Isales, but story value, people, story value – asking about Rock and Nail. Never really got a chance to write about that deck, but accusations of self-flattery and the reality of an irrelevant format made me think it’d stay that way. Come to find out Extended season’s almost here. Cute.

Can’t make this stuff up, folks. Get a message from Dan Ackroyd – okay, Danny Ackroyd-Isales, but story value, people, story value – asking about Rock and Nail. Never really got a chance to write about that deck, but accusations of self-flattery and the reality of an irrelevant format made me think it’d stay that way. Come to find out Extended season’s almost here. Cute.

For the record I have no idea if the deck is a good choice for the PTQ season. No idea what people will play, no idea how the metagame will evolve. But I can tell you how and why I constructed it for Valencia, the reasons behind the decision then, and how it’s possible to vary things if the format turns out differently. In my opinion it’s one of the best decks I’ve ever worked on, so hopefully at the very least you can gain some insight into the deck construction process.

So the deck.

Notably, the deck is the work of almost equal collaborative effort from Marijn Lybaert, Richard Feldman, Bill Stark, and myself. Bill Stark had the concept, Richard designed the manabase and suggested the incredible Search for Tomorrow, I posted the first decklist and innovated much of the technology, and Marijn did most of the tuning and focusing. In case it isn’t clear, the plan is to stall the early game with very difficult-to-deal-with all-purpose answers like Deed and Restraint before using the combination of Urborg and Cabal Coffers to power out huge finishers like Titan, Angel, and Tooth and Nail.

One of the great things about working with Marijn is that he has one of the best “bad-idea” radars known to man. It’s not the Gerry Thompson tilt-o-meter, where “that card/deck/bystander is the most savagely unreal pile of fetid garbage” means you’ve broken the format, and “[whatever deck] should be burned on a pyre along with you for even suggesting that [whatever card] is anything other than a three-day-old tin of Spam left to rot in the hot sun for three days before being tossed in a blender along with mildew stains and animal parts to be served as a meat paste shake” means you might want to begin considering other options*. Marijn knows when something is potentially good, but he also can understand immediately when something’s not going to work out. Richard for awhile was very wed to the idea of Tolaria West, and I thought the flexibility it would provide might potentially merit the addition of CIPT-lands to the deck. Marijn saw through that in ten minutes, and as a result we saved countless hours of trying to make something that on the surface seems very reasonable in a blue deck that wants to tutor up copies of two different lands.

Before I go into the specific card choices, I want to talk a moment about why the deck is called “Rock and Nail.” Originally it was conceived as a Tooth and Nail deck that, because of Coffers/Urborg, could operate with more disruption and thereby compete in a field where Tooth and Nail as a linear strategy was just too slow. The turning point in the deck’s development was when we realized it was far better just to play like a Rock deck until it came time to win, and then instead of casting Gifts Ungiven and waiting forty turns while all kinds of things could go wrong you could just get there on the back of a single spell. This led to several key innovations, such as the removal of the Kiki/Hussar kill and the elimination of one copy of Tooth and Nail.

So: why play the deck? For Valencia, we chose the list because of its high volume of effective “turn 3 kills,” a sufficiently powerful strategy in and of itself, an extremely good game one against Ichorid, and an absence (we thought) of bad matchups because of the dearth of Loam and Tron decks. In a field of Counterbalance decks, Red aggro, Enduring Ideal, Ichorid, and Gifts Rock – our estimation of the metagame – this is the deck to play. Insofar as your local metagame is going to mirror that, then, it’s still the deck to play. The trouble, of course, is Tron.

The deck is good against that particular field because, in a nutshell, it has the nut trump — inevitability – against everything, and some of the best means available for getting there. To fight Dredge game 1, for example, you have Tribe Elder, Collective Restraint, Duress, Wish for Jailer or Meddling Mage, Pernicious Deed, and Moment’s Peace to interact with them by turn 3. By turn 5 or 6, they can’t beat a Platinum Angel. So you don’t have to stall the game very long to shore it up. Sure, you can rarely beat their nuts hand on the draw – barring a Duress on a key Breakthrough – but one of the best lessons Richard has ever taught me about deckbuilding is that you don’t have to try and beat a nut draw. It doesn’t happen that often, and you might as well make them show it to you. If you can handle everything else, then it’s okay to give away that twenty or so percent.

In case that example isn’t clear, the point is that you have both the best available early game means of surviving, and the best late game means of turning initiative into absolute victory. You’ll find this pattern holds for every other matchup. Against Red decks you’re using the same basic cards – and Collective Restraint is still the high nut – and can still trump them with two Platinum Angels off a Tooth and Nail or back-to-back Angel/Titan. There’s just nothing else better in Extended to really put that game away. But it’s not only against aggro decks that this same plan applies. I squared off against three Gifts Rock decks at the tournament and went 2-0-1, with my draw to Melissa DeTora coming with her at one land, thirteen life, and my Sundering Titan and Platinum Angel on the table. That was the first of (I believe) her three or four draws of the tournament. Point being that none of these matchups were close. Why? They have to be the aggressive deck, but your Deeds and incidental cards ensure that they can’t kill you before turn 7 or so when it matters. From there you’re both trying to “take control” of the game, but their absolute best play is a Gifts for a Genesis, an Eternal Witness, and one or two disruption spells. Even once that happens and you give them time to set up, if at any point you can pluck a Sundering Titan their entire plan falls apart. You have four Living Wishes, four Divining Tops, three Tooth and Nails, and two Titans to ensure that winds up happening. As evidence of that, in the match I won to make day two, I had mulliganed severely and was unable to put up much of a fight while the Gifts player set up Genesis/Witness/Extirpate. He had Extirpated my Aven Mindcensor (I boarded it in to randomly mise a Gifts since I wanted to board out six cards but only had three Meddling Mages and two Hierarchs I was explicitly excited to bring in) in order to shuffle away a Top he knew was on top of my deck, my Sundering Titans, my Platinum Angel, and my Tooth and Nail. Despite all of this I was still able to rip one Living Wish for a Titan and the game wasn’t even close.

Some common questions:

Why two Platinum Angels and two Sundering Titans? Isn’t it better to kill right away with a Tooth and Nail?

I have never once lost with this deck in its current configuration after casting Tooth and Nail. The reason is that none of the “aggressive” decks are capable of handing seven-mana four-toughness flying creatures, and none of the “mid-range” or “control” decks (again, except for Tron) can ever beat a single resolved Titan, much less two of them. Think about how much you can extrapolate from that point, though. Tooth and Nail gets two of those cards and it’s rarely even close; one of them, therefore, is still probably going to be extremely, extremely strong. Notably, many ostensible “control” decks (such as Fortier-style Counterbalance) have few or even zero ways to beat a resolved Platinum Angel once it hits because it’s the exact opposite of the type of threat they are used to having to control. Similarly, because of Urborg, a single Sundering Titan can often obliterate all of an opposing deck’s lands by itself. What Marijn found was that many of the games the deck lost were because it had a one to two turn window to cast a threat, any threat at all, and neither Kiki nor Hussar can fulfill that role by themselves (okay, with Hussar you get an Air Elemental that dies to Incinerate and Rift Bolt and doesn’t protect you from those same burn spells being sent at your face. Exciting).

What are the advantages of running this manabase over traditional Tron-oriented Tooth and Nail?

Put simply, Extended is not a format where hardcasting Tooth and Nail is going to be powerful enough to get you there. The aggressive decks run Molten Rains and Vindicates, and unlike U/W Tron you don’t have any way to counterspell those vitally important cards. Moreover, you lack the tools to interact in the early game versus Ichorid, Breakfast, and Red aggro if you fail to draw a copy of the card Moment’s Peace. Against Invasion-land decks you lack Duresses and Meddling Mages to slow them down, Urborgs to make your Sundering Titans relevant, and especially the Aven Mindcensor to hold in your hand against Ideal and make life miserable. Perhaps most importantly, you lack the non-Tooth and Nail silver bullet trumps like Collective Restraint; Kataki, War’s Wage; Yixlid Jailer; and Meddling Mage that can oftentimes win you the game immediately as early as turn 3.

Explain the sideboard.

The board of this deck is probably my favorite thing about it, actually, as most of the sideboarding is so clean. Against matchups where you don’t die early, the Restraints and the Peace are clearly garbage and come in for 3 Mages and 2 Hierarchs, and occasionally you swap a Platinum Angel out for a bullet creature if the Angel becomes an unexciting threat. Against matchups where you do die early, you figure out what’s killing you. You sub out a Tooth and Nail, a Titan, and maybe a Duress for Hierarchs and the Peace if you’re dying to creatures, Titans and a Tooth for Meddling Mages if you aren’t. The tight thing is that this is almost the only conceivable sideboarding that’s ever going to come up, so you don’t feel very bad about having so many Wish targets in the board; there’s just not a lot else you’d ever want in the deck. Sometimes you’ll drop a Duress or two for some random Grizzly Bears if you just desperately need to block early, and that’s sub-optimal, but it’s not the end of the world. Everything else is an incredibly effective bullet or an answer to an obviously tangible problem.

What are the deck’s weaknesses?

I lost four matches in Valencia, and none of those losses came to anything I tested against. Two were to Tron, one was to a Red deck with a phenomenal sideboard that lost all its creatures for Sulfuric Vortexes and burn spells, and one was to triple and then double-Stifle draws in a feature match against a 3-Stifle deck. It turns out that Stifle is very good against one-land, double Search-for-Tomorrow six-card hands. The main problems you’re going to face, though, are Tron decks and any Loam decks that decide to rear their ugly head again, because you (like Gifts Rock in general) are basically kold to Devastating Dreams. I don’t foresee Loam being a huge problem, as we discounted it for Valencia and there was indeed only one copy in all of Day Two. It’s got too many problem matchups, even if those matchups weren’t necessarily represented in the top eight. Tron is stickier, though. While I don’t think Tron was a good choice for the format – and that’s evident by the dearth of Tron decks in Day 2 generally – two of them did make Top 8 and that means they will be played. I said at the beginning to Zack Hall that if Tron got the right pairings it would make it, and that’s exactly what happened. You can’t really beat Ichorid or Gaea’s Might, but you sure can pound Gifts Rock and Counterbalance. The reason Tron is so strong against you is that their Sundering Titans are so much better than yours, and they get to look at many more cards than you do. You are forced to Duress their countermagic else they just sit back and chill, while all it takes for them is a Fact or Fiction, Gifts Ungiven, or Thirst for Knowledge.

What would you change in a Post-Lorwyn environment?

Because most decks I prepare are specifically for a given tournament, I can’t really answer that question. The only thing I was unhappy with in the maindeck was the fourth Collective Restraint, and even then only because of what I happened to play against. I think the sideboard’s very tight. Danny suggested Doran, Gaddock Teeg, and Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender as potential options but I don’t know what I would cut in their place. I could move the second Hierarch to the maindeck in place of a Restraint to make room for the Forge-Tender, which does add tons of value to your Living Wishes in any Red matchup, but I don’t know if that’s one hundred percent correct.

Another idea was to replace that Restraint, one Divining Top, the Moment’s Peace, one Tooth and Nail, and a Platinum Angel with three Trinket Mages, an Engineered Explosives, and a Tormod’s Crypt. This would require a reworking of the manabase but would basically ensure that the deck could have a Divining Top at all times. It’s very difficult to lose with Divining Top in play, and Mage would go a long way to ensuring that. All the while you’d have a tutorable way to get rid of problematic cards like Destructive Flow and Pithing Needle on Pernicious Deed and a Crypt for the Dredge and Breakfast matchups. At the same time, you’d lose a lot, and I haven’t tested enough to know what’s absolutely correct.

I’m glad to get the opportunity to finally talk about this deck, and I hope it serves people well in the PTQ season. I’m Q’d for Worlds and Kuala Lumpur so hopefully I won’t have to worry about it, but should those tournaments not go over so well you’ll probably see me in the trenches with something close to these seventy-five.

Good hunting,


* I would simultaneously kill and die for a Yawgatog illustration right about now.