Every great super hero has an origin story. Peter Parker had his radioactive spider bite, Captain America and the “Super Soldier Serum,” Barry Allen’s freak lightning strike. So what’s our origin story? What’s the origin of Abzan and Jund style decks? Did the deck exist before Liliana of the Veil, before Tarmogoyf?! What would a Rock deck even look like without these cards? Perhaps it was the product of an unfortunate accident, or the product of a mad genius, or maybe the evil combo decks of the format forced some unlikely cards to come together and create the ultimate team.
Most decks in Magic today have names that can be pretty telling of what’s actually in the deck. If someone says they’re playing Sneak and Show, you know that some of the key cards are probably Sneak Attack and Show and Tell. If someone says they’re playing Storm, you can assume the deck contains cards with the Storm mechanic like Grapeshot or Empty the Warrens. So what does it mean to be a Rock deck? If you ask anyone in Magic what a “rock” is, they’ll tell you it’s an artifact that taps for mana. Wait a second. If a rock is an artifact that taps for mana, and Rock decks don’t play those artifacts, then why is it called that?
That’s right. Our deck’s name comes from this guy, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Still confused? Don’t worry, so am I. Let’s continue…
While this is the nickname for our deck, it started as a nickname for this card: Deranged Hermit.
During Urza’s Block, it would be Sol Malka who would be credited for not only a really sweet brew, but the birth of an entire archetype. The combo, was Phyrexian Plaguelord (The Undertaker) using Deranged Hermit (The Rock) and “his millions” (referring to his tokens and possibly the relationship between Dwayne and his fans) to clear the board. The combo was brutally powerful. The early game involved ramping and discard with cards like Birds of Paradise and Duress. In the mid to late game, the attrition value of the creature combination and recursion of those creatures was incredibly powerful and overwhelming. His deck looked something like this:
Notice anything similar in this list to today’s decks? You can really see the shell of how this deck evolved into the decks we play today. Turn 1 discard, creature lands, big threats, removal, it’s all there. You can see there are some narrow 1-ofs that can be searched up using Vampiric Tutor, giving the deck versatility against anything in the field. Today we do the same thing by playing cards that have wide applications so that we can be prepared for any match; cards like Maelstrom Pulse and Abrupt Decay.
As time went on the deck played less and less Plaguelords and Hermits while still keeping the heart of the strategy alive by remaining a G/B attrition mid-range deck. It started to trade these cards for more efficient threats like Spiritmongers and removal like Pernicious Deed. Deranged Hermits stopped showing up all together and Phyrexian Plaguelord got one more shot at glory by winning first place in Grand Prix Las Vegas in the hands of Michael Pustilnik in 2001.
Phyrexian Plaguelord and Deranged Hermit were history, but the archetype held on, picking up strong inclusions like Eternal Witness, Ravenous Baloth, and Cabal Therapy. Then, when Ravnica block was introduced, Extended (A rotating format that existed before Modern) was gifted with extremely good mana fixing by the addition of shock lands. Rock decks started to splash white for cards like Loxodon Hierarch or red for Flame Tongue Kavu. Your first Abzan and Jund decks! Slowly over time the different variations began to hold their own. Abzan adopted Doran the Siege Tower as it’s build around until Khans of Tarkir gave the deck access to Siege Rhino. Jund adopted cards like Bloodbraid Elf, Blightning, and the Punishing Fire+Grove of the Burnwillows combo.
Today’s decks have much more efficient creatures and removal than the original “Rock and his millions,” but we have a lot of thanks to give to Sol and his design. His idea laid the groundwork for the archetype we enjoy and love today. It’s possible all the cards we play now would have come together anyway, but the rich history and lineage of these decks makes them all the more fascinating and enjoyable to play. You’re extending that lineage with every adaptation you make to your deck, adding to its pedigree.
In a world of superheros, I’d like to think we’re the Rorschach of Modern. With format full of linear and powerful decks, we don’t have any crazy “super powers.” We have to rely on our wit and perfect timing to maneuver our way to victory. We fight a fair fight, through brawn and brains, and that’s all we need.