Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #29: Heaving Over Upheaval

Peter comes up with a G/W deck that could be competitive… But did blue REALLY need a reset button to bollix the metagame? A rant and an analysis of how decks will fail you.

Chris made a comment during playtesting this week that really got me thinking. Chris is a blue mage through and through, and he was talking about how good Upheaval was in U/G. His comment:

"What blue has really needed is a good reset button."

Good Gawd!

What this format does not need is a blue reset. What blue in general does not need is a good reset.

At one time, there was supposed to be this balance between colors – each color was supposed to be able to do some things well, and others poorly. Blue was supposed to have difficulty dealing with permanents once they hit the table.

Upheaval is so wrong for blue in so many ways. It’s the new Nev’s Disk – and it has just as strong an impact on the metagame.

Later on, I want to take a look at a deck that just doesn’t work in this metagame – but it comes so close. It’s a G/W mid-range beatdown. The deck can handle beatdown and control, but it cannot handle Upheaval. Even with adding Birds of Paradise, it cannot recover from Upheaval fast enough to beat Psychatog. Ditto U/G tempo.

Yes, Psychatog is still around. It’s evolved a bit. It still has old toothface and Fact or Fiction, plus Edict, Blood, a Compulsion or two and lots and lots of counters, plus two to four Upheavals. Or it could contain ‘Togs, counters, Fact or Fictions, Familiars, Standstill, lots of bounce, and two to four Upheavals.

With Upheaval Tog doesn’t worry about CoP. It doesn’t worry about Kirtar’s Desire. It doesn’t worry about Llanowar Knight or Obsidian Acolyte. It doesn’t worry about Swords to Plowshares. (Well, that would be an answer if it were legal.) It doesn’t even worry about creatures since it Upheavals, lays a land and the ‘Tog, and says go. At best, you can drop one creature the next turn. Assuming that creature does not die to Demise or get Force Spiked (unlikely), and assuming that it doesn’t get bounced, it has to chump. Next turn, Tog has three mana open, and Tog can either counter the creature, or Repulse it, or just send, force you to block, then Recoil your land. About the only answer to Upheaval/Tog is Innocent Blood – which doesn’t seem to work without swamps.

Blue/green madness control is equally a problem – because of Upheaval. It is an awfully good reset – if the deck is losing, it starts the game over. Being able to drop the Rootwallas again for free is a bonus. After Upheaval, there is no practical way to stop a mage with nine cards in hand from casting two Rootwallas. There’s no Force of Will in this format.

Upheaval is also an answer to black control. Upheaval is not kind to Corrupt. It comes down to whether the Duress hits the Upheaval, and – if so – whether the blue mage can topdeck it.

That’s the problem with Upheaval. In the past, the way a mid-ranged deck could beat control was to play carefully around counters – baiting with less important spells, then slipping a creature through. That’s pretty pointless with Upheaval – anything that blue doesn’t like, it gets an opportunity to remove and counter (maybe) on the way back down.

I’m wondering if printing Upheaval and Insist in the same block was Wizards’ idea of a joke. Kind of like printing Perish and Warthog as competing color hosers in 6th edition.

Wizards played a similar trick with the new Atogs. It was nice that they created a cycle of Atogs, but their design was really flawed. Here are the colors, and the effects:

  • Blue: Discard a card, get +1/+1.

  • White: Sacrifice an enchantment, get +1/+1

  • Black: Remove 2 cards in your graveyard, +1/+1

  • Red: Sacrifice an artifact, +1/+1

  • Green: Sacrifice a land, +1/+1

Blue’s ability just looks better, doesn’t it? Especially since blue has lots of cards that will draw many more cards. Green has very few T2 cards that draw lands – and only one (Far Wanderings, and only when you are at threshold) that can put multiple lands into play. The white and red abilities are a joke. The black one is pretty strong late game – and the combination of blue and black abilities are broken.

Funny Wizards didn’t notice that imbalance in their vaunted Future Future League.

How much more balanced would the Togs have been if Black got the discard cards to pump effects to black (the color of discard) and the remove cards from your graveyard effect went to green (think Night Soil and Bearscape)? Blue could have the sacrifice lands effect – that would hurt blue more than discard, and would have meant that the Upheaval combo was not quite so good.

Yes, that probably means that all the Atogs would be equally unplayable – but why should that status be limited to just the green, white and red Atogs?

Okay; enough ranting. On to a brief discussion of my G/W deck. Yes, it’s another white deck. I don’t think I am really a white mage at heart, but I wanted an deck to illustrate the problem created by Upheaval, and I’m not going to add much to Regionals tech by describing my build of R/G fat beatdown. (It’s probably 0-12 cards different from any of the other R/G fat builds discussed on the net. Same with my version of Tog.) The G/W deck is at least different from anything else I’ve seen in print in the last couple weeks. (Although I have to tip my hat to the Krosan Restorer/Caustic Tar "Turbo Land" deck; that was unique.)

Chris Richter suggested the skeleton of this deck during a draft, and I played around with it for a bit. It has the combat tricks and utility to handle most decks (except for anything with maindeck Ensnaring Bridge – which isn’t all that common). It is a strong midgame deck – it controls the board, then wins with superior creatures: Exactly what Upheaval locks out.

Panther Party

4 Devoted Caretaker

4 Wild Mongrel

4 something costing two mana, probably Crimson Acolyte (see below)

4 Noble Panther

3 Fleetfoot Panther

4 Mystic Enforcer

4 Wax/Wane

4 Shelter

4 Divine Sacrament

2 Vengeful Dreams

4 Brushland

1 City of Brass

2 Sungrass Prairie

8 Plains

7 Forest

1 Elfhame Sanctuary

The theory is pretty simple: A solid mana curve and some good creatures. Noble Panther blocks Rootwallas and elephant tokens and lives. With a Divine Sacrament on the board, he blocks Beast Attack tokens and lives. With Sacrament and a Wax, he blocks Roaring Wurm tokens and lives… And so forth. Fleetfoot Panther has the same effect, plus he helps your other creatures avoid burn and bounce – any that Shelter and Devoted Caretaker miss.

No elves or Birds – no room! They’re too vulnerable to burn, and nothing costs more than four mana. At least that’s the theory.

The two-drops are also in contention. Wild Mongrel claims a spot automatically. Spectral Lynx had the other slot, but Crimson Acolyte is my preference now. Lynx is great against U/G, but against red it gets burned, and this deck isn’t going to regenerate the Lynx all that often. Patrol Hound is too small to have the first strike ability prove useful. Llanowar Knights have some appeal – but the color problem remains, and I don’t want my entire deck to be vulnerable to Hibernation – or stalled by an opponent’s Lynx. Crimson Acolyte is probably the best option if the metagame continues to have lots of red. I was even desperate enough to try Prison Barricade – which is reasonably fat and can be dropped early, then gated with a Fleetfoot and dropped again with kicker. Yes, it was a stretch, but white’s moderately aggressive two-drops are pretty slim. Thornscape Familiar helped with the mana, but a 2/1 that did not benefit from Divine Sacrament had a very short lifespan. Sunscape Familiar did not beat down, ever, making it a bad draw in the late game – but in retrospect, it was better than Prison Barricade.

The three-drops are Noble Panther, Fleetfoot Panther (sort of) and Divine Sacrament. Call of the Herd is missing because it gets no benefit from Divine Sacrament, and because the other three-drops are just as good.

The deck has a couple four-drops, but only because Mystic Enforcer is so good with Divine Sacrament. Ancient Spider looked strong, but it’s no Mystic Enforcer. Sabertooth Nishoba also tried to make an appearance, but it couldn’t have made the deck unless it matched the Enforcer’s low cost.

As for the utility – the Divine Sacraments are what drive the deck, since they benefit even the Mongrels, but they have a drawback – if anyone else is playing Mongrels, they too can get the benefit. The Shelters are less obvious, but I really like the cantrip effect. They seem to work. Wax and Wane are both good given that I am playing with first strikers and beatdown – and the ability to kill Opposition or Deed is okay, too.

The deck seems to be pretty strong against any other beatdown decks, unless it gets too far behind in the early game (namely, don’t get color or mana screwed) and has a decent matchup against control. The Caretakers and Shelters are even better than Yavimaya Barbarians or Spellbane Centaurs against targeted bounce and removal. It can play around Mutilate (Vengeful Dreams is okay against Nantuko Shade) but it has no answer to Upheaval.

I took it to FNM and went 3-1, finishing third. I lost to a U/G deck -which summoned 6/6 Wurm tokens on turns 3, 4 and 5 both games. It didn’t even need Upheaval. I beat Ingrid’s mid-range R/G deck, but mainly through luck, not skill. She won game one and I sideboarded in exactly two Armadillo Cloaks. Game two, I had a turn 2 Mongrel, turn 3 Cloak, turn 4 Divine Sacrament – game. Game 3, I had the turn 2 Mongrel, turn 3 Cloak again. Ingrid used Hull Breach to kill the first Cloak, but I had Cloak number 2 in hand. Luck beats skill.

Hey – luck like that beats anything.

Saturday, I took the deck to a GP: Milwaukee trial (the deck doesn’t warrant that, but I didn’t have anything else along – I expected to be playing in the PTQ. My sealed deck didn’t agree).

Round 1 of the Trial I was paired against Ingrid – yep, drive for two hours to play a game we could have played at home. Nice. Ingrid had dumped the R/G for a U/G deck with – guess what? Game one, I got ahead with fast creatures, stalled, then nailed some of her big threats with a nicely timed Vengeful Dreams. Her last-ditch Upheaval wasn’t quite enough – the Devoted Caretakers and Wild Mongrels came back down too fast, and all she drew was lands.

Game two was all mine, with my secret sideboard tech – Intrepid Hero! (Don’t laugh – Intrepid Hero is pretty good against a lot of U/G decks, provided you have either a Devoted Caretaker or Shelter to protect against bounce.) At least, I was in complete control until Ingrid cast Upheaval, then countered the Intrepid one and smashed me down with Roar tokens.

Game three showed the problem with Divine Sacraments – I was doing pretty well, until Ingrid got out a Mongrel and used Aether Burst to bounce all my creatures. I would have lived, if not for the +4 my enchantments gave her white Mongrel.

The rest of the day – well, I sucked. I played badly at times, and very badly at least twice. I can also honestly say I drew horribly. In some fourteen games I played, I mulliganed ten times and double-mulliganed twice. The ultimate demonstration of my drawing skill was against a bad U/W Millstone deck. I died after 16 turns. My hand and graveyard had two castable creatures – one Devoted Caretaker (died to Wrath on turn 4) and one Noble Panther (countered turn 6). The rest of what I had drawn: Three Shelters, three Wax/Wanes, two Fleetfoot stupid gating Panthers, two Vengeful Dreams, ten land. Most of the game, my opponent was banging his deck looking for a counterspell – if I had drawn a single creature, I could have won.

Ingrid did okay – she went undefeated and untied until she IDed into the top eight. Then my luck proved contagious while she was playing against an Enforcer Go deck. She had beat her opponent to one life (despite a play error on her part) and had the Aether Burst to bounce his last blocker. He cast Fact of Fiction with plenty of mana open and revealed Absorb, Mystic Snake, Counterspell, Aether Burst, and Call of the Herd. Best ever? No. In the second game, with the board stalled (Rootwalla vs. Call token), he Fact or Fictioned into the following: Aether Burst, Meddling Mage, Mystic Enforcer, Mystic Enforcer, Mystic Enforcer.

Ingrid didn’t win the byes, which is probably just as well since she will be judging at GP: Milwaukee, not playing.


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