Deck History: The Rock (and His Millions)
As time marches on new sets release, rotation happens, and decks come and go. Some decks, however, seem to stay throughout the ever-changing metascape, becoming their own archetypes and changing the face of Magic across multiple formats. They become so rooted into the game we know that we can forget where they come from, what they're named after, or even imagine what the game was before they existed. Today we're going to explore one such deck. A deck that has been around for over 20 years now, and has come to help redefine what Magic is. I'm talking about The Rock.
What is the Rock?
If you're not familiar with deck names, then all coming talk about "The Rock" might be lost on you. The rock is a green-black midrange, aggro-control deck that focuses on disrupting the opponent, generating card advantage over long periods, and finishing the game with a heavy-hitting beats creature. The deck has gone through many different iterations across many different formats, becoming an archetype staple of Magic. The first Rock deck was officially made at the end of 1999, but it's roots go further back than that.
Inception: Before The Rock was The Rock
Every superhero has an origin story, and The Rock is no exception. Long before The Rock took to the local tournament scene, won PTQs, or was a featured deck in the Pro Tour, it had a humble beginning and an ordinary life. It all began over 20 years ago in the city of Maastricht, Netherlands, where a 17-year-old kid named Jelger had aspirations to be a Pro Tour player.
In October of 1999, the qualifying tournaments for Pro-Tour Chicago began, and the chosen format for these PTQs was Urza Block Constructed. The past twelve months had seen the "Combo Winter," followed shortly thereafter by the "Year of Bannings" that sought to end that winter. There were over eighty card changes to the banned and restricted lists during this period, which included seven cards being banned in Urza Block Constructed. Although things had since calmed down by October, many of the marquee decks from the past year were no more, and the Urza Block format was primed to have a rogue deck come out of nowhere and destroy the field. Enter Jelger Wiegersma. While Urza Block Constructed was defined by just a few cards — Wildfire|USG, Sneak Attack|USG, Phyrexian Negator|UDS, Opposition|UDS, and Masticore|UDS — he had been brewing a green-black deck unlike anything else in the format. His deck focused on combining the trilogy of Phyrexian Plaguelord|Urza's Legacy, Deranged Hermit|Urza's Legacy, and Diabolic Servitude|Urza's Saga. Although Plaguelord and Hermit have long since become the focus of topic for the deck, Diabolic Servitude was quintessential to the deck — it was, in fact, the Hermit-Servitude interaction that spawned the deck's inception. Jelger spent several weeks playtesting and tuning his creation, right up until the PTQs started in October.
Jelger first entered PTQ Maastricht on October 3rd. The tournament was pure Swiss, with no top 8, which meant that everything often came down to tiebreakers for the top few players. He went 7-1 before the final game, where he was in a three-way tie for first place. His tiebreakers were strong, so as long as he won the final match he'd be guaranteed the tournament. Luck was against him, however, and he lost the final match — narrowly missing his PTQ win and Pro-Tour invitation. Rather than being disheartened by his loss, however, he was inspired by the deck's performance. He made a few changes to his deck — most notably moving Splinter to sideboard — and went on to compete the next week at PTQ Delft on October 9th. His changes proved consequential, and he won the Qualifier going completely undefeated after 8 rounds. He wrote a tournament report for it a few days later for TheDojo, and the rogue PTQ win did not go unnoticed. His deck concept was repeated by later players, and although Jelger named his creation "Deranged Servitude", it is ultimately remembered as the predecessor and inspiration for The Rock.
Jelger Wiegersma - 1999 Delft PTQ
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Genesis: The Rock and his Millions
Just as the Urza Block PTQs got underway in October of 1999, Mercadian Masques was released, bringing with it a set rotation in Standard. With Tempest Block removed, the playing field had been wiped clean, ready to be explored by players in this new format. One such player was Sol Malka. Sol had played a version of Jelger's deck in Urza block Constructed and decided to use it as a basis for his new Standard deck.
With no revolutionary ideas in my head, I simply picked up my Urza Block Constructed deck, replaced two Swamps and the bad 2cc UBC mana creatures with Dust Bowls and Birds of Paradise - and thus, The Rock and His Millions was born.— Sol Malka
Sol obviously did not stop there — far from it. For the next twelve months, Standard consisted of 6th Edition, Urza Block, and Masque block - and for those 12 months, Sol played The Rock exclusively in every single Standard tournament he entered. He played it at local FNMs, Saturday Tournaments, Regionals, and even the US Opens. His deck caught on, and become a staple of the Standard format. It can be hard to look back at the deck today and note how innovative and out-of-the-box it was, but that is only because of the echoing changes it has made to the metagame since. In a format still pummeled by strong combo decks like Bargain|Urza's Destiny, Replenish| Urza's Destiny, and Tinker|Urza's Legacy, The Rock stood its ground. The Rock helped solidify Midrange as a viable archetype, and showed that a strong aggro-control build can hold its own even in a harsh combo environment.
There are two very common misconceptions that we should clarify. First: Sol Malka did not name the deck "The Rock". He named it "The Rock and His Millions". Second: Phyrexian Plaguelord wasn't the rock — Deranged Hermit was.
"The Hermit puts four and four tokens into play, and The Rock is always talking about the millions and millions of Rock fans. That's one of his catchphrases. I am sort of a wrestler fan, and The Rock calls himself the people's champion. That's where it came from, from local people.
Sol Malka's The Rock and his Millions
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Exodus: The Death and Rebirth of The Rock
With the release of Invasion, both Hermit and Plaguelord rotated out of Standard, and The Rock and His Millions went with it. The Rock was not strong enough to compete in extended as it currently existed, and it seemed the deck was dead. It very well might have faded away and have been forgotten to time, if it wasn't for Apocalypse being released just two sets later. Apocalypse released in June 2001 and brought with it two keystone cards: Spiritmonger|Apocalypse and Pernicious Deed|Apocalypse. Just as quickly as the deck had died to rotation, it was reborn again. This new rebirth lost the token generation prevalent in the previous version, instead focusing on a single mid-range beater, and this change came with a ubiquitous loss of the "Millions" in its name. Since the release of Apocolypse, The Rock and His Millions has simply been shortened to "The Rock", and that's the name that has lasted for 20 years.
Spiritmonger and Pernicious Deed were both instant powerhouses, bringing the Green-Black Midrange deck back from the dead. The concrete meta of Masque-Invasion Standard would not bend to The Rock's strength, however, and The Rock failed to land itself in the top decks of the format. It continued to have a following, but not until a few months later, when Odyssey was released and Masque rotated out, was The Rock able to become a staple in Standard again.
While The Rock was struggling to hold its place in Standard, however, it easily cemented itself deep into Extended. Extended had long had a stable metagame, which underwent gradual innovations and evolution as new sets were released. The format had settled shortly after the banning of Replenish, Necrologia, and Survival of the Fittest, with the rest of the existing meta converging on the newly open space. The Rock, however, threw that meta into the ropes and drop-kicked it just like its namesake would. It went from nonexistent to a powerhouse overnight, and the metagame was quite shaken. Decks scrambled to adjust to the new meta, and others adopted some of The Rock's core into their own. PT Junk, a haymaker that had previously upset the meta, practically disappeared, having been returned to a Rock variant that splashed white. The metagame did finally adapt, but The Rock was consistently one of the top decks for years. Raphael Gennari piloted The Rock into Pro Tour Tokyo's top 8, and Michael Pustilnik won Grand Prix Las Vegas 2001 piloting his own version.
Michael Pustilnik's The Rock : Extended 2001
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The Rock continued to be a presence in Extended for all of the format's future. As new sets came out, rotations changed the cardscape, and new innovations dominated meta shakeups, the rock always adapted and persevered. Few cards from the deck's early days survived into the later years, but the core concepts stayed the same. Even the beat stick card that represented "The Rock" changed. Just as Spiritmonger replaced Deranged Hermit, so too did new additions replace him. In 2005, Ravenous Baloth brought a massive surge of new players to the deck as one of the best answers to the speed of a Goblins and Affinity dominated format. Genesis came when the deck needed to have long-term answers to a slower meta, and Tarmogoyf came to be its final form in extended. The Rock was a staple in extended for 13 years, before the format was officially retired.
Ernie Marchesano's The Rock - Grand Prix Seattle 2005
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Succession: The Dawn of the Modern Era
In 2011, Wizards of the Coast released Modern as a new eternal format, and it quickly replaced Extended. Modern was, as one might expect, initially dominated by Extended decks that were retooled for the format, but this meta shifted and settled quite separately from Extended. Many Extended decks ended up not making the cut in Modern, but The Rock survived the shift easily. By early 2012, the format had become a major focus, and The Rock was once again a household name in Magic. In March of that year, Craig Berry won a PTQ in Maryland with The Rock, in a tournament with 99 players.
Craig Berry's The Rock - PTQ Rockville, Maryland - March 31, 2012
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The Rock isn't the dominant force that it once was, but it continues to be a metagame contender to this day. Although the deck has almost none of the cards it began its journey with, its core concepts remain intact. Its focus is still to disrupt the early game, usually with discard like Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek. It continues to rely on card advantage, now from Tireless Tracker and Dark Confidant. It still packs removal, with Abrupt Decay and Assassin's Trophy being new quintessential spells. And finally, the deck still wins with a major powerhouse beatstick. Tarmogoyf remains the most popular go-to finisher, but many have tried to supplant him in various builds over the past few years. Phyrexian Obliterator was Spiritmonger's spiritual successor, while Grave Titan harkened back to the original token making that made Deranged Hermit the original powerhouse. Regardless of the many forms and builds it has seen over this past decade in Modern, two things stand the test of time: The Rock is a force that we will always have to deal with, and Sol Malka will continue to play and tune the pet deck he's spent over half his life playing.
Sol Malka's The Rock - SCG Duluth Invitation Qualifier May 2019
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That ends today's deep dive into The Rock, and now you know the deck's rich history. What other decks do you want to know the full history of?