During the first week of February, I’ll be in Bilbao with the rest of Team Coverage as we bring the live stream of Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan to the world. For those new to Modern, getting across the huge scope of viable decks is quite intimidating. To bring everyone up to speed for the Pro Tour, Level 1 Modern is a column that seeks to explain the game plan, strengths, and weaknesses of the format’s major archetypes. This week, I’m looking at Black-Green Rock.
What Black-Green Rock Does
Black-Green “Rock” decks have been a mainstay of the Modern format more or less since its inception. They are so named due to old black-green decks playing Phyrexian Plaguelord and Deranged Hermit—these cards were referred to as “the Rock and his millions.” The name aside, Rock decks come in a few different flavors but are all pushing towards the same objective: use high-powered threats and efficient interaction to grind out incremental advantage over the course of a game.
I’ve talked about linear decks, such as Affinity and Storm, which rely on synergy between weaker cards to do powerful things. Rock decks are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, as generally every card in a Rock deck can stand on its own and doesn’t rely on other cards to impact the game meaningfully.
As a result, Rock decks are difficult to effectively disrupt, as all of their pieces can operate independently. Whereas removing a Cranial Plating or a Goblin Electromancer can be devastating against Affinity or Storm, Rock decks have no such weak points.
There are a few different versions of Rock decks that have had differing fortunes over the years. While some keep it simple by playing straight black-green, the principal build these days is Abzan, which splashes white for Lingering Souls. Reid Duke’s masterful writeup of this approach, which includes the deck list below, goes much deeper on the intricacies of Abzan.
Another approach to take is Jund, which was featured in another characteristically superb Reid Duke piece. Red allows for Lightning Bolt and other excellent removal spells to be played, giving the deck excellent game against smaller creature-based strategies, but even Duke himself isn’t high on this angle right now, suggesting that Abzan is the better deck right now.
Either way, these decks are similar in that they play some of the best cards ever printed, have few weaknesses, and can be built to beat more or less anything. Except Tron. Well, they can’t all be winners, kid.
One of the core strengths of any Rock deck is the simplicity and effectiveness of its basic game plan. There aren’t any fancy tricks or clever interactions to have to understand—Rock decks are simply seeking to run an opponent out of resources and rely on the differential in individual card quality to get them over the line.
Ideally, Rock pilot seek to put both players in topdeck mode, where their usually superior standalone cards will beat out the opponent’s. Rock decks will drain an opponent’s resources with early hand disruption and must-answer threats, then slowly turn the corner by using whatever is left when the dust settles (often a creatureland) to win the game.
To that end, Rock decks are all about efficiently trading cards 1-for-1. Thoughtseize and Inquisition hit the hand, Lightning Bolt, and Abrupt Decay the battlefield. These cheap disruptive elements aim to prevent an opponent from ever pulling ahead, and also seek to trade up on mana wherever possible. Given the cheap nature of threats in Rock decks, casting a removal spell while deploying something like a Tarmogoyf is how they get ahead.
Additionally, grinding out longer games is something Rock decks excel at (at least when they’re not pressured by threats from big mana decks, as I’ll get to). Rock decks play exceptionally well off the top of their libraries, and are able to eke out card advantage with cards like Dark Confidant and Liliana of the Veil.
Given that Rock decks seek to play such an efficient 1-for-1 game, the best way to hamstring their approach is by playing cards that you cannot simply 1-for-1. Rock decks are known for their weakness against big mana decks. Namely, Scapeshift and Tron. This is because the threats in these decks (Primeval Titan and Scapeshift, or Karn Liberated and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger) are more or less impossible for Rock decks to reliably answer 1-for-1.
While Rock decks do offer some of the best threats available in Modern, they are slower than those played in other tier 1 lists. Death’s Shadow and Gurmag Angler are good examples of cards that outshine the threats available to traditional Rock decks—they hit a lot harder and end the game faster than even a Tarmogoyf.
Rock decks also struggle if these threats can be dealt with consistently. The efficiency and speed of the disruption in Rock decks will generally enable its threats to do their job unimpeded, but this comes apart when faced with an opponent that can find all the answers they need. Decks with reliable, consistent ways to deal with the threats in a Rock deck (for example, Blood Moon against creaturelands) gain a significant edge.
How to Beat Black-Green Rock
The most simple and straightforward way to beat Rock decks is to play Tron. This may seem like a facetious and cynical line to take, but fundamentally it holds true—Rock decks generally can’t compete against the game plan of big mana, and in particular, Tron. It’s unusual to think that Rock decks have pretty good game against the general Modern field, with the exception of this one extremely lopsided matchup.
Outside of going big with Urza lands or Scapeshift, the best way to tussle with Rock decks is to either outclass them with other powerhouse threats (such as Shadow and Angler, as discussed) or to out-value them with cards that require multiple answers. Kitchen Finks, Lingering Souls, and any other cards that shine in midrange matches will be of enormous aid in tussling with Rock decks.
Generally speaking, you don’t want to have your game plan rely on a single linchpin card when facing off against Rock decks. Their disruption suite is very powerful against linear strategies. Instead, look for standalone cards that can generate more value or a greater advantage than the cards in a Rock deck. Things like Cryptic Command or difficult-to-answer planeswalkers like Elspeth, Sun’s Champion.
Rock decks are never dead in the water and can put up good results in virtually any field of Modern decks. Given the current state of the format, with a wide range of viable archetypes and the chance that new, unknown decks may appear at the Pro Tour, a Rock deck would be a defensible choice in Bilbao.