The Rock is a deck that emphasises curving out midsized creatures and progressively gaining advantage on the battlefield. It plays a very fair game and balances aggression with wide-ranging interaction. One variant of the Rock is called Junk (it’s just a bit smaller and faster). After reading this article, you should have a better handle on building and beating Rock decks, which frequently appear in 7 Point Highlander as Equipment-based Midrange. Aspects of the Rock can also appear in Value Midrange and Lands decks.
Click here if you want to skip to the summary at the end of the article.
Patrick Chapin’s approach
In 2017 Patrick Chapin published an updated version of Next Level Deckbuilding. Amazingly, his book fully lives up to its own hype of being The Ultimate Magic: The Gathering Deckbuilding Resource. Foremost among its treasures is Chapin’s division of decks into 16 overarching strategies or “macro-archtypes”.
This figure plots the 16 diverse archetypes that Chapin sees as having enduringly risen to the top throughout the history of Magic. You may recognise some of the terms.
In this article, we focus solely on one macro-archetype, the Rock. The name alludes to actor and former pro-wrestler Dwayne Johnson for arcane reasons that Chapin goes into. Chapin also explains how the Junk name evolved from “jank”. Our aim is to summarise Chapin’s explanation of the Rock as a strategy, then to illustrate how the strategy has been successfully used in the 7 Point Highlander format. The rest of the macro-archetypes will have to wait! This is the first in a series of articles that we’ll write to gain insight into deck building in 7 Point Highlander by the light of Chapin’s analysis of macro-archetypes.
What is the Rock?
The Rock is the first in a quadrant of “midrange decks” in Chapin’s figure. If you take a look at the figure, you’ll notice that one axis runs across from “unfair” to “fair”, and another axis runs down from “aggressive” to “reactive”. The Rock strategy is very fair (it doesn’t cheat big-time on mana or short-cut its way to victory). And it strikes a balance between being aggressive (I’m gonna do my own thing and put the pain on) and reactive (I’m gonna respond to what you’re doing to gain an advantage). The meaning of these terms should become clearer as we go on.
At its simplest, a midrange deck is a deck that plays cards, especially creatures, in the middle of the range, namely when it comes to how big the creature is and how much mana it costs. The creatures aren’t so small that you get outsized on board and can’t easily attack. And they aren’t so big that it takes forever to cast them and you risk getting massively out-tempo-ed by a cheap counter or removal spell. Midrange decks are similar to the decks that you often find in Limited: midsized creatures get deployed, they interact in combat, and the occasional discard or removal spell makes things especially interesting. But don’t mistake midrange decks for being low-powered. They have won many tournaments, especially in formats that are light on blisteringly fast combo decks. Seven Point Highlander is consciously designed by its Points Committee to be precisely such a format, partly to welcome newcomers.
According to Chapin, “The Rock is a style that plays both threats and answers, with threats in particular climbing the power as well as mana curves over time” (p. 245). Rock decks curve out, increasingly presenting threats with higher mana costs and thereby more impact, but only up to a point. In 7 Point Highlander, Rock decks tend to stop at the occasional five drop or six drop, and this is simply a function of the speed of the format, which can gradually change over time. Currently, the middle of the range tends to correspond to turns three and four: by then, the aggro decks have stopped curving into bigger threats, and the big control finishers have yet to come online.
Chapin suggests that the Rock resembles a strategy once known as Suicide Black, but instead of combining fast offence with discard, the Rock slows down its offence and emphasises progressive card advantage, especially in forms that impact the board. Chapin characterises Junk as simply the stepping stone (or midpoint) between Suicide Black and the Rock. Junk is just a little faster than the Rock, not quite so big. So for the purposes of this article, we’ll treat Junk as a Rock variant.
Playing the Rock, you tend to get more permanents on the battlefield and not just more cards in hand. You can see this in the photo below, in which Elliot Hoskin on the Rock (at the top of the photo) faces down Beckett Wolfe on Junk (at the bottom of the photo). Because of its emphasis on progressive card advantage, the Rock can play the control role, profitably dragging the game out, even against control decks! The Rock can grind out more value (card advantage) than control decks, which puts control decks in an awkward spot, whereby they can’t afford to hang out forever. In 7 Point Highlander, the Rock’s progressive card advantage is often achieved via creatures with enter-the-battlefield triggers and other triggers like Persist. (We’ll see examples later.) This makes the card Birthing Pod a slam dunk for Rock decks.
Generally, Rock decks:
- “Try to be just a little bigger than the most common aggro decks
- Blend acceleration and modest disruption to try to race bigger decks
- Play green primarily for creatures, black for discard and removal” (p. 246).
What does the Rock look like in 7 Point Highlander?
In 7 Point Highlander, the Rock’s “acceleration” typically takes the form of creatures that tap for mana, colloquially known as mana dorks. These range from the one-mana virtual planeswalker, Deathrite Shaman, through to the humble, Alpha-common Llanowar Elves. It’s common for Rock decks to play six to eight mana dorks to reliably start curving out midsized threats beginning from turn two instead of turn three. When threats like Liliana, the Last Hope or Kitchen Finks start dropping before you even have a second land in play, it can feel like your Rock opponent is playing with a deck full of Mox Emeralds! Midrange decks in the Jund and Mardu colours sometimes look like Rock decks but then they lack the mana acceleration that partly defines the Rock.
In 7 Point Highlander, the Rock’s “modest disruption” tends to take the form of black discard effects (Thoughtseize and its variants), land destruction (Wasteland and its recursion) and taxing effects (like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or Thalia, Heretic Cathar). The Rock needs this disruption to try to race combo decks. As a midrange deck, the Rock may struggle in a metagame full of combos, since it typically lacks counter magic. But with the right disruption and interaction, the Rock can beat anything. It is especially good at out-sizing aggro decks and beating control decks at their own game of generating card advantage.
The Rock features accelerants and threats that go up the curve, but also multiple types of interaction. The Rock interacts with different zones, such as the opponent’s hand, creatures, lands, other permanents, and graveyard. Sometimes this differentiates the Rock from Pure Midrange, which can lack such wide-ranging interaction, preferring to emphasise threats rather than balance them with answers. (For more information on Pure Midrange and similar decks in 7 Point Highlander, check out Value Midrange.)
One consequence of all this interaction is a notable weakness for Rock decks: “Drawing the wrong interactive cards at the wrong times” (p. 248). This makes hand disruption especially effective AGAINST Rock decks: if you can Thoughtseize your Rock opponent’s threat or relevant answer, then you can strand them with only mana sources and irrelevant answers. Conversely, for the Rock player, effects that fix your hand, like filtering or tutoring, are especially helpful.
In 7 Point Highlander, Green Sun’s Zenith is ideal because it can tutor up (directly onto the board!) any of:
- mana (Dryad Arbor)
- removal for enchantments and artifacts (Knight of Autumn and Reclamation Sage)
- life-gain (Deathrite Shaman, Kitchen Finks and Obstinate Baloth) or
- a huge finisher (Titania, Protector of Argoth).
The Rock’s weakness can also be reduced by being extra proactive: if you emphasise threats instead of answers (like Pure Midrange often does), then you’ll be less likely to draw the wrong answers. David Price once said, “while there are wrong answers, there are no wrong threats”. This logic applies to all decks, and the Rock is no exception.
In 7 Point Highlander, cards like Birthing Pod and equipment, especially Skullclamp, make your mana dorks meaningful even in the late game. But this means playing artifacts, which poses a risk in a format featuring strong, maindeckable artifact interaction (Dack Fayden, Kologhan’s Command and sometimes even Abrade, Fiery Confluence and Subterranean Tremors). Because of this risk, some players have moved away from the Rock in recent years, while others have jammed it anyway and crushed. Dan Paskins once counselled burn players not to worry so much about anti-burn cards, because so much has to go right for the opponent for the burn player to lose to them. He said the same applies to any deck “posing threats and seeing if the opponent has the correct answers“: “If you, playing the Red deck, think that you’ve got a lot to worry about, you should see the other fella”.
Exploring deck lists for the Rock and Junk
Let’s look at two examples of the Rock in 7 Point Highlander. Elliot Hoskin piloted the Rock to 14th place at the 39-person Adelaide Eternal Highlander Cup in April 2019. (You can also click here for a link to the deck list.)
True to form for the Rock, Elliot’s threats outsize 2/1s and 2/3s, the most common aggro threats in the format. Elliot’s deck sports only three mana dorks (plus Green Sun’s Zenith for Dryad Arbor), but this skimping on acceleration makes room for more lands. Elliot uses his extra lands to disrupt the opponent’s mana: Wasteland and Strip Mine keep coming back thanks to Crucible of the Worlds, Life from the Loam and Ramunap Excavator. Elliot also uses his extra lands to fully combo out: combining Dark Depths with Thespian’s Stage or Vampire Hexmage creates a flying, indestructible 20/20. In these respects, Elliot has added Lock and Traditional Combo elements to his deck, just as Highlander Lands decks do. But we’ll get to those macro-archetypes another time. Indeed, combining macro-archetypes is commonplace in 7 Point Highlander, for reasons we’ll also get to in future. For now, notice the Rock’s characteristic green creatures and black cards for discard and removal, including the premium catch-all removal spells, Abrupt Decay and Assassin’s Trophy. (Elliot later moved away from playing the Rock because he found the combo match up too unfavourable.)
Finally, let’s turn to Beckett Wolfe’s Junk deck. Remember that Junk is a Rock variant, just being a little smaller and faster. Beckett’s opponents will always respect Junk. Beckett refined Junk through all of 2019, crushing in many tournaments and securing second place at the 30-plus-player Moxing Day in Melbourne just before 2020. (You can also click here for a link to the deck list).
Junk doesn’t go quite as big as the Rock. Elliot’s list went big with the six-drop Gitrog Monster and the Dark Depths combo, whereas Beckett’s curve tops out at the five-drop Titania, Protector of Argoth (if we ignore Tasigur, the Golden Fang for a moment because of its Delve). Beckett plays three more mana dorks than Elliot. That’s a total of six (plus Green Sun’s Zenith for Dryad Arbor) to start deploying midsized threats as soon as possible.
Beckett’s deck is beautifully designed to curve out, mostly with proactive plays. The curve also allows for a chain of Birthing Pod activations, from the lowly zero-costed Dryad Arbor all the way up to the six-drop Tasigur, the Golden Fang.
Beckett takes both of the two available approaches to shoring up the Rock’s weakness (drawing the wrong interactive cards). First, he emphasises proactivity, playing lots of threats, especially liking low-mana-cost threats like Hexdrinker, which is good as early as turn one. Beckett also plays cards like Stoneforge Mystic and Steelshaper’s Gift to help fix his hand, especially by tutoring for Skullclamp to get a better mix of cards through sheer card quantity. By contrast, Elliot fixed his hand with Sylvan Library and Traverse the Ulvenwald, which played nicely with his lands theme.
Playing a third colour
Adding a colour to your deck tends to increase its power, because you get to add the most powerful cards in the additional colour. This is especially true in a singleton format, where sooner rather than later you run out of premium cards in your base colours. In 7 Point Highlander, your third colour is fairly free: you gain an appreciable level of power at little cost in terms of mana consistency. The third colour gives you additional duals and fetch lands to play, which helps maintain your mana consistency. You generally need a good reason to play only one or two colours, like being able to punish your opponents with non-basic land hate like Blood Moon or Back to Basics, or being able to dodge that hate when it is prevalent in the metagame.
Beckett adds white to the Rock. He loses little in terms of mana consistency and resilience to non-basic land hate. Indeed, he plays four basic lands, whereas Eliott played only two to make room for his lands theme. Moreover, Beckett has six mana dorks and powerful sideboard cards like Carpet of Flowers and Force of Vigor, which variously help to fix his mana and fight through non-basic land hate. What Beckett gains by adding white is considerable:
- More tutoring (Stoneforge Mystic and Steelshaper’s Gift)
- Better creature interaction (Swords to Plowshares and Karakas)
- Better enchantment and artifact interaction (Knight of Autumn and Quasali Pridemage)
- Better graveyard interaction (Kaya’s Guile)
- More progressive card advantage that directly impacts the board (Lingering Souls, Restoration Angel, Renegade Rallier, Voice of Resurgence)
- Better sideboard options against combo, especially Storm decks (Deafening Silence, Kambal, Consul of Allocation and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben).
How to beat the Rock
One of the great strengths of Beckett’s list is its resilience. There aren’t many angles from which to attack it. This makes it tricky to metagame and sideboard against. What deck do you pick up if you have to beat Beckett’s list? No obvious answer occurs to us. It’s ready for all-comers and thus hard to get free wins against, which is a virtue that few decks in 7 Point Highlander can really boast. The best approach might be to try to trip up Beckett on mana by killing his mana dorks and hoping he kept a clunky hand that gets punished by this. Or you could bring a combo deck and try to dodge or answer his hate. But these approaches aren’t guaranteed to work. You really have to beat him straight up, on the merits, which is a daunting prospect when the Junk pilot is good.
Drew once had the privilege of watching Elliot on the Rock play against Beckett on Junk. (He took the photo that appears early on in this article.) The late-game board state featured a huge number of permanents. Two armies of green creatures stared down one another. Elliot had created his 20/20 Marit Lage token, and even after gaining 20 life from Swords to Plowshares, he created it again through land recursion. But Beckett had Bitterblossom to keep the 20/20 at bay, plus Batterskull to top up his life total. Finally Beckett drew Karakas to break the impasse by providing a permanent solution to the legendary 20/20. Eventually Beckett navigated some attack steps to win the game. Both players showcased the skill required to master the midrange mirror. It was a long, grueling match that required both players to navigate complex board states. (Drew doesn’t play midrange to this day because nickel-and-diming your way out of a tough spot just seems like too much hard work!)
To watch an equally enthralling example of the midrange mirror, check out a semi-final from the 2019 Adelaide Eternal Highlander Cup (embedded just above). It features Beckett Wolfe on Junk versus fellow Adelaidean James Arthur on Dark Bant, a deck with many similarities to the Rock. In this video, commentator Sarven McLinton describes playing midrange as “literally Magic at its purist, translated from Limited”. You get to see the skill required to navigate the midrange mirror and almost all of the hallmarks of the Rock. There is modest acceleration in the form of mana dorks on both sides. Players curve out and interact with opposing creatures and lands. Players fix their hand with tutoring in the form of Green Sun’s Zenith, Stoneforge Mystic, and Steelshaper’s Gift for Skullclamp. Players compete for progressive card advantage on board with creatures featuring the keyword Persist, Voice of Resurgence, Garruk planeswalkers, and the game-defining Titania, Protector of Argoth.
In our next article, we’ll focus on the little-known Paper strategy, which defeats the Rock.
The Rock is a deck that emphasises curving out midsized creatures and progressively gaining advantage on the battlefield. It plays a very fair game and balances aggression with wide-ranging interaction. Junk is a Rock variant, being a little smaller and faster. The Rock plays green for creatures and black for discard and removal. In 7 Point Highlander, it can add a third colour with little downside. The Rock can bully aggro decks with bigger creatures. It can out-value control decks with progressive advantage on the battlefield. And it can race combo decks by accelerating up the curve with creatures that tap for mana and by also disrupting the opponent with discard, land destruction and taxing effects. The Rock's only weakness is drawing the wrong interactive cards. This makes hand disruption good against Rock decks. The Rock can reduce its weakness with hand fixing or by being extra proactive.