Unlocking Legacy – UGB Threshold, Part II

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Christopher Coppola continues his discussion of UGB Threshold, talks about the threshold mirror, and gives some sideboarding plans for a few common matchups.

I. Review

In Part I, I explained the design of this deck:

In brief, I was experimenting with rebuilding Threshold with different colors and threats, in an attempt to incorporate Counterbalance effectively into the maindeck. Thoughtseize perfectly complemented the incomplete disruption packages I had been using, and Ghastly Demise was an effective replacement for Swords to Plowshares in almost every situation, However, I was stumped regarding the threat base, and one of my teammates, Alix Hatfield, showed me the solution a few days before TMLO III — Sea Drake. At that tournament I split the Day 2 finals with another teammate of mine, Brian Diefendorf, beating Goblins three times along the way.

I will now discuss more the Threshold archetype and the most common matchups from each archetype — Threshold, Goblins, Landstill, and Breakfast.

II. Diversification

Fueled by the strength of Daze, Tarmogoyf, and the rest of the cantrip engine, Threshold has evolved builds in several color combinations, and even variants of Fish and Landstill are beginning to resemble it. The archetype may be the largest in Legacy’s history. Since each build has been successful at various tournaments, it is difficult to talk about Threshold in Legacy without being familiar with the differences between the various splashes and the card options they have available.

The first Threshold deck that I played seriously was White Threshold, back in 2005. After that I worked mostly on Goblins and Stax for a long time. In 2007 I played and worked on Red Threshold for several months. I have liked the idea of a four-color Threshold deck but I haven’t taken one to a large tournament. These decks have differences that can sometimes be hugely important, such as the difference in the Goblins matchup between White and Red.

In order to better understand UBG Threshold, it’s necessary to compare it to other Threshold decks, both against the format’s popular decks, and against each other.

III. Mirrors

As I mentioned before, one of my objectives in rebuilding Threshold was to create a dominant disruption package. I have spent a lot of my time in Legacy just analyzing its evolution and tracking decklists, and distinct stages are visible. One pattern which is currently important is the evolution of casting costs.

I looked at Counterbalance when it was released, but it was largely irrelevant to my focus on Goblins, so I didn’t think about it again. However, some Threshold players began to adopt it in their sideboards. As I discovered in early 2007, in a developed metagame, Counterbalance is more than just a sideboard card. It exploits some of the strongest deck designs, and it is the mirror match.

The Counterbalance battle was actually in effect before Lorwyn was released. Most environments weren’t advanced enough to commit to the card maindeck, but my predictions for the format’s future suggested that it would be essential. In this context, the release of Thoughtseize was a huge event, making Black the dominant mirror color, and even creating completely new advantages against other decks like Goblins and Landstill. Almost as essential as Counterbalance is to winning the mirror match, Thoughtseize is a key card in winning the Counterbalance battle.

UGB Threshold is favored against Threshold decks which do not run Counterbalance, or those that play it in the sideboard. The only problematic card in typical Threshold decks is Mystic Enforcer, but Counterbalance and Thoughtseize can address it. Counterbalance will generate enough card advantage that you should be able to counter it with spells, and Thoughtseize can get rid of the Mystic Enforcer before they have a chance to cast it.

The early game is about resolving Counterbalance as soon as possible, or preventing them from resolving it. Once it is in play, you should use your resources to set casting costs effectively and make land drops. If they manage to resolve creatures before you start to control the stack, you will have time to draw into blockers or removal, so do not neglect Counterbalance. After a few turns, you will have countered enough of the opponent’s spells that you will be able to control their threats and attack them effectively.

If you can’t find a Counterbalance, the typical Threshold strategies all apply, except that Thoughtseize is still a powerful threat. Your opponent, fearing Daze, may be holding back a Tarmogoyf or a large finisher, which Thoughtseize can discard. Thoughtseize basically gives you all the information that you need about the game state, and removes the opponent’s best card at any point in the game, which allows you to use your answers effectively.

The only problematic situation is when your opponent has resolved a Counterbalance. As is clear from the emphasis I’m placing on achieving that result, this is a very tough game state to play through. If they have resolved a Counterbalance in game 1, your only real chance of success it to stockpile threats and tap them out with non-two-mana card on top of their library, and resolve a Counterbalance of your own. Counterbalance is strong enough that you may have to just risk blindly casting it early in order to get past their library manipulation. However, with Counterbalances and Thoughtseizes of your own, this situation should not occur frequently. After sideboarding, Krosan Grip will destroy their Counterbalances, and can protect your own from their Krosan Grips if you can float it with Sensei’s Divining Top.

I typically sideboard:
-1 Island
-1 Nimble Mongoose
-1 Portent
-1 Ghastly Demise
+ 1 Counterbalance
+3 Krosan Grip

IV. Goblins

This is perhaps the most discussed matchup in this format’s history, and as such I’m not going to be too detailed about the standard strategies since the older analyses are still relevant. Red Threshold’s impressive Goblins matchup was substantially different from the weaknesses of White Threshold, and instead of propping up the deck, contributed to the decline of Goblins in Legacy. Red Threshold probably still has a better Goblins matchup, just because Pyroclasm and Lightning Bolt are so cheap for what they do, but UBG is not far behind. Thoughtseize, Engineered Plague, and Tarmogoyf are very effective at stopping both Goblins’ early and late-game plans.

The fundamentals of this matchup are the same as they have always been. Aether Vial and Goblin Lackey must be stopped if possible. Thoughtseize can discard these cards proactively, which is the ideal play. However, even on the draw, it is still excellent to take the opponent’s strongest or fastest drop off of the card, giving you information on what answers you need, and buying time to cast them.

As has been discovered by Threshold players everywhere, Tarmogoyf is a big problem for Goblins. It will have four or five toughness when it is deployed, which is actually quite difficult for Goblins to deal with in the early game, even with Gempalm Incinerator. Nimble Mongoose with Threshold is comparable, but Tarmogoyf excels because it performs this role on turn two, which half of the time is fast enough to stop Goblin Lackey.

Another classic struggle against Goblins is the resolution of Engineered Plague after sideboarding. Getting to three mana to cast this card can be difficult if the opponent is using mana denial effectively. Attempt to fetch a basic first, and drop a fetchland second. This requires them to commit to using Rishadan Port early, which is good for you if they have not resolved Goblin Lackey or Aether Vial. If they do have one of these engines going, it is essential to be aggressive with Tarmogoyf so that they do not reach the late game.

Krosan Grip is useful for destroying the graveyard hate that some Goblins decks sideboard, and it actually helps you resolve Engineered Plague. If Aether Vial is destroyed (which is an important tactic anyway), Goblins needs as many land drops as it can make, and it can’t effectively cut you off from Black mana.

I typically sideboard:
-3 Sensei’s Divining Top
-3 Counterbalance
-1 Daze
+4 Engineered Plague
+3 Krosan Grip

V. Landstill

Modern Landstill decks are much better than their early incarnations, and can be difficult for Threshold to beat. The best of these utilize Pernicious Deed, which is very good against Threshold.

Counterbalance still has a lot of good targets in this matchup, but it doesn’t stop everything. It is still worthwhile to resolve it early, because it is necessary to limit the Control deck’s card advantage as much as possible. The worst case scenario is the resolution of Counterbalance and one or more threats, and the Control deck finding a way to resolve and activate Pernicious Deed. However, if Counterbalance has earned card advantage, this trade is still worth making if you can attack past your opponent’s life total and lands. I have found Ghastly Demise to be still useful in game 1, as it forces your opponent to sacrifice their manabase in order to preserve their life total. Landstill really wants to have six lands out, and paying one mana for a land destruction spell is a big boost.

Stopping Pernicious Deed is difficult, as they have a lot of countermagic, and Counterbalance needs a bit of luck to work. If you have a Sea Drake, float it as long as you can or Brainstorm it back, as it is a key asset in this matchup. After sideboarding this tactic will be much easier to perform, as you will have Krosan Grips to float as well.

Standstill is another important card to stop. If the opponent resolves it early, play through it as soon as you can to limit their tempo generation. You have a lot of tools to stop it from resolving, and it may even be worthwhile to discard it over Pernicious Deed if you can counter the Deed. Limiting the number of cards the Control deck sees is critical; as such, Brainstorm is a card you do not want to let the control deck resolve, as it allows them to trade dead cards for land drops or silver bullets which can wreck your strategy. I would always pause before letting Landstill resolve a Brainstorm at any point in the game.

Landstill has a better late game than Threshold, even with Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top, so be aggressive. Nimble Mongoose is pretty good here, especially when you can defend it from Mishra’s Factory with Ghastly Demise, since it comes down early and can’t be hit with Swords to Plowshares. As usual, Tarmogoyf may be your best threat, as it can dominate Nantuko Monastery in combat and comes online much sooner. Both decks in this matchup have artifacts and enchantments, so it is possible to set up the graveyards such that you present 6/7 Tarmogoyfs on the attack, which Landstill cannot block effectively. Sea Drake is also very good since they cannot block it at all, but usually it’s better to just counter Pernicious Deed with it.

After sideboarding, you will have access to the powerful Dark Confidant, which changes the late-game dynamic by giving you overwhelming card advantage. Landstill must answer Dark Confidant as soon as possible, so force them into a defensive situation by playing it early and frustrating their search for answers. Dark Confidant is almost always worth defending with all of your disruption, since you will recover from the loss twice as quickly as your opponent.

In this matchup I typically sideboard:
-3 Portent
-4 Ghastly Demise
+3 Krosan Grip
+3 Dark Confidant
+1 Counterbalance

VI. Breakfast

This is an interesting matchup, since both decks run similar draw spells and disruption. Breakfast is fast enough that it can beat Threshold’s engine, and so the really key battle here is Aether Vial versus Counterbalance.

Without Aether Vial, Breakfast has little chance of executing through a resolved Counterbalance. Likewise, Threshold will have a tough time dealing with a resolved Aether Vial. The early game is critical, and Thoughtseize is very effective here as well as in the mid game . Thoughtseize can prevent Breakfast from resolving the Aether Vial, or it can take the combo piece before it gets put into play, which is invaluable for Threshold. Breakfast has to try to execute early, since Threshold’s disruption is all relevant in this matchup, even Ghastly Demise.

I would counter Aether Vial in the early game, and attempt to set up a Counterbalance engine. Once you have applied pressure to the Breakfast deck with Tarmogoyf or Sea Drake, Aether Vial is not as important, as they will need to resolve multiple creatures to win the game and you can probably counter both Cabal Therapy and Dread Return. Also, Worldy Tutor and Eladamri’s Call are still necessary to make full use of Aether Vial, and Counterbalance deals with these effectively.

Play carefully with Counterbalance, as many spells get cast in a single turn, and it is critical to have the right spells on top at the right time. Counterbalance will probably stop Cabal Therapy, so make sure you can counter the Dread Return when they try to go off.

After sideboarding, Engineered Plague actually allows you to shut down the combo by preventing Cephalid Illusionist from coming into play. Yixlid Jailer will prevent the opponent from casting either Dread Return or Cabal Therapy, so attempt to protect these from removal with Counterbalance. Sea Drake is probably your best route to victory, as damage redirection and prevention will hinder Tarmogoyf on the attack.

+4 Engineered Plague
+4 Yixlid Jailer
-4 Nimble Mongoose
-3 Portent
-1 Daze

VII. Further Evolution

There are too many decks to list complete matchups. However, some decks seem to be gaining popularity, in particular those adopted widely by pro players at Worlds. Some decks which may represent more important matchups in the future are Ichorid, RGB Survival, Angel Stax, and GW/x Zoo. These are actually some of Thresholds worse matchups, and this suggests that their popularity is increasing precisely due to Threshold’s current strength and ubiquity.

Christopher Coppola