A new year...
A new set…
A new spoiler season...
Spoiler season is now in full effect. Khans of Tarkir was one of the best sets ever, across the board. Standard is awesome, Limited is awesome, and every older format got shaken up. With just one month until Fate Reforged drops, it's time to start working with the new cards and figuring out what direction Magic is going for the next few months.
A major part of evaluating new cards is figuring out how mana efficient they are. Even when a card doesn't have a home yet, if it's particularly mana efficient, there's a very good chance a home will emerge. There is another half, however. Context is crucial, and early in spoiler seasons we don't always have enough information to know if the context will be right for a given card. What we can do is figure out what context would be necessary for a given card to thrive.
Today's preview is definitely going to require more than just a straight-forward power level evaluation. Even though we know very few cards from the new set at this point, maybe we can get an idea of how it fits into today's format and what changes to the format would be most beneficial to it.
Today's preview is sure to be one of the most powerful cards in Fate Reforged...
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is an unusual card, making it more of a challenge to evaluate than usual. First, it's a planeswalker, which already tremendously lowers the number of cards we can straight up compare it to. Add to that it costs a ton and is colorless and suddenly we find ourselves holding it up next to Karn Liberated, as if that somehow solves the puzzle.
Those two cards are radically different. Karn's plus ability doesn't affect the board. It also gains loyalty at an unheard of rate. Ugin's minus ability has a radical impact on the game, letting it function as a one-shot spell much more so than Karn. Karn's ultimate is much more "win the game," though Ugin's happens faster. Karn costs seven rather than eight, which is a massive difference right there.
Rather than overly focus on that comparison, let's instead just line-by-line breakdown Ugin's abilities.
Ugin's +2 is Lightning Bolt? That's great! Having a plus ability that "draws a card" is already a big game, but a zero-cost Lightning Bolt on demand is better than a random card, and +2 is huge on a seven-loyalty base. That is so much loyalty to try to fight through while Ugin is often killing something every turn.
Ugin, more than most planeswalkers, requires looking at all of its abilities together to get the full picture. In this case, Ugin's ultimate has a big impact on his +2 ability. That you can drop him, kill something, and be threatening to ultimate the turn after next is a massive amount of pressure. This will cause people to have to play into him in a way they might not otherwise want to, which can in turn make the +2 ability more effective.
That Ugin has a plus ability that is "always good" is important, because it means his other abilities can be more contextual and the card still be great at all points. This is absolutely perfect for Ugin because his minus ability is quite contextual, but is the best part of the card in my opinion.
Ugin's minus ability is an absolutely incredible Perilous Vault meets All Is Dust type deal. I think Ugin will be a tier 1 powerhouse, despite costing eight, and this minus ability is why. In something like 98% of boards, Ugin can 187 (kill when he enters the battlefield) every non-land card on the table. There are no manlands (yet... how much you want to bet we have enemy manlands within a year?), so that leaves just colorless artifacts and tokens (not a lot of those at the moment) and permanents that cost eight or more (though even seven-cost permanents would trade with Ugin).
Just think about how many boardstates that Ugin completely turns around. Behind an Elspeth, Sun's Champion that is up six tokens? No problem. Eidolon of Blossoms and Doomwake Giant taking over a board with help from Whip of Erebos? Ugin's got this. Even if they have a Hornet Queen, you can minus zero, kill all the tokens. They get to attack for two, but then you get to Bolt it and own the table.
That's a super important part of Ugin, by the way. Tokens cost zero, so you can actually spend zero loyalty to sweep the board of tokens. You can literally lock out tokens if you want. Tokens are everywhere in Standard at the moment; Hordeling Outburst, Raise the Alarm, Elspeth, Sun's Champion, Wingmate Roc, Brimaz, King of Oreskos, Goblin Rabblemaster, Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, Sorin, Solemn Visitor, and Hornet Queen, just to name a few.
For the most part, Ugin can solve any problem when he enters the battlefield, but the kicker is that now the board is swept and Ugin is still in play. Even if your opponent draws a creature, there's a good chance Ugin can just shoot it with his plus ability!
The normal play pattern for Ugin is a game-winning one. Drop him, sweep the board, then plus Bolt every turn. That pattern alone will win the majority of games in which Ugin resolves. That pattern alone is enough to ensure Ugin is a tournament card. Now, just being a tournament card isn't the end of the discussion. Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker was a tournament card. However, costing eight mana when Cruel Ultimatum cost seven? That's a hard world to break into.
The minus ability sweeping the board when Ugin enters the battlefield and being able to lock out tokens are two great applications of the minus, but there are more still. Because you can pick whatever number you want, you have access to some incredibly powerful tactical options. For instance, if you already have Elspeth, Sun's Champion, you can sweep everything below her and have an iron grip on the board. Even if the board has a ton of stuff including Elspeths on both sides, you can blow up everything else, start with the first 3 tokens, and shoot their Elspeth with Ugin while the tokens run into each other.
The ability to sweep the board and keep something is big, so using Ugin alongside colorless artifacts is something to watch for. There aren't a ton of good ones at the moment, but if some get printed, it is something to keep in mind. The same goes with colorless tokens, such as those from Hammer of Purphoros.
Hammer of Purphoros isn't a great fit in most Ugin decks, but it is an interesting idea to keep in mind if you want a tool that is decent against Ugin. Ugin can still blow up the Hammer itself though. Because he starts at seven loyalty, if the Hammer player only has one token, Ugin can still take over. He drops to four to kill the hammer. The golem attacks and drops the Spirit Dragon to one. Now, a simple +2 Bolts the golem and the board is stabilized.
There is another secret way to dodge Ugin's wrath. Creatures with a higher printed cost than their functional cost can evade him. For instance, Necropolis Fiend is generally cast for five or less mana, but is very difficult for Ugin to deal with as he can't Bolt it and it would take nine loyalty to minus it. Of course, we can use this to our advantage. If we have a Hooting Mandrils, we can sweep with a -5 and still keep both the Mandrils and Ugin. While Hooting Mandrils isn't the most exciting control card in the world, we should keep a look out in Fate Reforged for a card that could better fill this role.
There are basically two types of boards for Ugin to enter:
— Ones where he sweeps when he enters, then starts to take over with his +2 ability.
— Ones where he can +2 when he enters, with the board already stable, threatening ultimate in two turns.
This brings us to Ugin's ultimate. How good is it? After all, that isn't exactly "win the game." It is, however, quite valuable. See, when you have a powerful card like Ugin, you gain a major advantage over the board immediately, but you might be gaining just three points of damage in advantage per turn after that (if they don't play into him). That means it can all fall apart if your opponent gets rid of Ugin, perhaps with a Hero's Downfall or Banishing Light they eventually draw.
Ugin's ultimate spreads out his power in many places, making coming back extremely difficult (sort of like how Cruel Ultimatum was a lot closer to "win the game" than people initially realized because it gave you major advantages in so many areas of the game). If you draw seven extra cards, you are not really afraid of a Hero's Downfall anymore. As if that wasn't enough, you also get to cast basically everything for free, ensuring your board is entirely set up and you have seven extra life to make sure you don't randomly get burnt out.
The other half of the equation is that Ugin ultimates so freaking fast. If he charges up for two turns, he's already there, and even lives to keep dominating. What's so sick is that he can kill most creatures the turn you play them, so you have to drop multiples in the same turn. Of course, that makes your opponent more vulnerable to sweepers (such as Ugin's minus ability).
Let's try a few different possible homes for Ugin.
Control decks are an obvious place to start with Ugin, as they are often the decks most in the market for an eight cost kill condition. U/B Control, in particular, appreciates good enchantment removal and another good sweeper. This is a great deck for Ugin, as you can just hang out, trade with their cards, then drop Ugin and win. Dig Through Time even lets us find Ugin easily, despite playing just two.
Thoughtseize and the number of reactive cards people play makes me want to play at least three victory conditions in control decks, but at eight cost, it's better to diversify a little. Besides, playing around permission is a lot easier if you have a Pearl Lake Ancient.
It could be foolish to only play three Perilous Vaults maindeck, but people have been playing so much artifact removal these days (Reclamation Sage, Sultai Charm, Utter End) that Perilous Vault isn't as good as it used to be. Besides, Ugin does help in that area, even if it is a bit slow.
Crux of Fate is another potentially important card from Fate Reforged that could turn out to cause a very big change in the format. Black gaining a five-mana sweeper is huge! After all, white's cheapest wrath costs five, which puts these in the same ballpark.
Of course, if you're not playing Dragons, Crux of Fate is usually going to be weaker than End Hostilities, since it is weak against Stormbreath Dragon (since those decks will often have other creatures, meaning you will miss something). It also doesn't snag a bestowed Boon Satyr and Gnarled Scarhide like End Hostilities, but that's not that big of a deal.
One very important part of Crux of Fate is its ability to hit lands, namely those that Nissa has awakened. That was always a major hole in U/B's gameplan, and Crux of Fate helps shore up that weakness a great deal.
Crucible of Fire is going to be a card to keep an eye on, because Crux of Fate sure suggests a bunch of dragons are going to get printed (which makes sense, given the Khans of Tarkir storyline). Regardless of whether the Dragons are cheap enough to make Crucible of Fire good, however, there are surely going to be enough dragons printed to make it possible to play all (or mostly) Dragons with Crux of Fate as a five-cost Plague Wind.
Ugin is a fine addition to U/W Control, though he does kind of take you down the Perilous Vault path, rather than Banishing Light. One major advantage here is that Elspeth is a great lead into Ugin. Elspeth eating up their Hero's Downfall still leaves you with three tokens to protect Ugin if you drop it and are on the +2 plan. If Elspeth lives, you can sweep the board with a -5 or lower and still keep her. Besides, her tokens can go a long way towards locking up the board, ensuring Ugin has lots to sweep.
The problem with this deck, sadly, is that we still don't have good enough early interaction. A good victory condition has never been U/W's flaw, so while Ugin helps, it doesn't address the need for good reactive cards that cost two or less. If Fate Reforged offers us any, however, the whole balance of power in the format could shift. Path to Exile, for instance, would completely change the way U/W Control plays. I don't think that one is a likely reprint at the moment, but stuff like that is worth keeping an eye on.
Valorous Stance is an interesting card that seems like it could be solid, however, a lot of its value comes from being able to get value out of your removal spell even against an opponent that doesn't have targets. U/W Control with no creatures wastes half the card. It's much more appealing in some kind of Craig Wescoian Brimaz deck.
What about Ramp decks?
This build has some pretty sketchy choices, but I kind of just want to try a few cards that are probably worse than just playing more land. For instance, Astral Cornucopia has some appeal because of how few ways there are to accelerate that don't get blown up by Ugin. It also can sometimes make for a good turn 6 when you have Disdainful Stroke to back it up. Then you can untap and drop Ugin.
The problem is that Standard is full of good three-mana plays. Spending your third turn to play the Cornucopia seems low impact. Then, factor in how often you have a Cornucopia on top of your deck from Courser of Kruphix or Satyr Wayfinder, and it starts looking pretty loose.
Interpret the Signs, on the other hand, really excites me. Yeah, we're not short on good things to do for a lot of mana, but that's part of what's so sweet. We've got a 77% chance of drawing five or more cards when we cast it! That may sound kind of "win-more," but it is a pretty big way to go over the top of other midrange decks. We just need to make sure we aren't dead by then.
Kiora, the Crashing Wave and Nissa, Worldwaker make for pretty respectable ways to ramp into Ugin. Kiora's extra land drop helps a lot when you are trying to get to eight, and Interpret the Signs means we have better chances of actually still having land in our hand. Peregrination is probably just a worse Kiora, if nothing else.
Nissa, Worldwaker's untap ability only needs you to have two Forests by turn 6 to be able to Ugin, and most of the time you sweep, it can be for four or less, letting you keep Nissa. This interaction is so exciting, it makes me want to try Ugin, the Spirit Dragon in Green Devotion.
- 2 Arbor Colossus
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 3 Hornet Queen
- 2 Reclamation Sage
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 4 Voyaging Satyr
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
- 4 Eidolon of Blossoms
- 3 Polukranos, World Eater
While Ugin sweeping the board will often cause a lot of collateral damage, Ugin coming down turn 5 (sometimes sooner) is just going to win the game on its own against a lot of strategies. That is a pretty absurd amount of power, and if you even get to keep a Nissa? Game.
You've probably noticed that most potential homes for Ugin involve him as a one or two-of. Eight mana is just so much, and there is often way more marginal utility in playing a diverse mix of high end cards, including some that are cheaper, since drawing two Ugins is way worse than one Ugin and one anything else.
One interesting element of the Ugin experience is how he gives anybody that wants him a way to go over the top in mirror matches. Basically regardless of what your midrange or control deck looks like, if one of them has an Ugin and the other doesn't, the one with the Ugin is more likely to be ahead. Sometimes this is by a small amount, but sometimes the advantage can be sizeable, for instance in a green devotion mirror match.
How does Ugin fit into higher powered formats? Well, the difference between seven and eight-cost can be a lot in Urzatron decks, but it's certainly worth trying as an added weapon. After all, a lot of Urza decks would use a fifth Karn if they could, and Ugin adds some new dimensions to the deck.
Any deck that can cheat planeswalkers into play should at least consider it. Show and Tell doesn't work with planeswalkers, but Eureka does. Ugin's a great card with Eureka anyway, as it can immediately kill almost anything your opponent cheated into play.
Powered formats are not exactly the friendliest to eight-drop non-creature permanents, but Ugin's minus ability is so great, he should be on the short list of cards to consider for any deck capable of ramping into huge amounts of mana.
As for Standard, the context that emerges as the spoiler is unveiled will help us determine how realistic it is to play eight cost cards in the new format. It's very possible that it ends up being one of those week-to-week questions that ebbs and flows with the metagame. Regardless, its primary use will be a single copy (maybe two) in control decks, and a possible diversification from Hornet Queen in ramp decks. Who knows though? If Abzan can play Duneblast, maybe they end up being able to support an Ugin...
Verdict: Standard role-player with important implications to decks and matchups that go big.