Last updated on September 29, 2023
Boon-Bringer Valkyrie | Illustration by Heonhwa Choe
Mayday! Mayday! Calling for backup!
March of the Machine is the culmination of 30 years of Magic, illustrating a full-scale Phyrexian invasion of the entire Multiverse. The planes of Magic lore are falling to Elesh Norn’s will, and the characters we know and love are being compleated left and right.
If the allies of the Multiverse are going to overcome this cataclysmic takeover, they’re going to need some backup. Thankfully, MOM’s got a new mechanic to help the cause: backup. I’ll be putting on my L1 judge hat to walk you through the new, aptly-named, backup ability.
How Does Backup Work?
Fearless Skald | Illustration by Slawomir Maniak
Backup is an enter-the-battlefield keyword ability that puts a predetermined number of +1/+1 counters on a target creature. If the ability targets a creature other than the backup creature, that target gains all the creature’s abilities written below backup until end of turn. A backup creature can target itself instead to get the +1/+1 counters, with no additional effect. Basically, the backup creature can either make itself bigger, or give its abilities to another creature until end of turn (and also make it bigger).
You can also target creatures you don’t control with backup. This is mostly relevant for Two-Headed Giant games where you can backup your partner’s creature. This could also come up in Commander where doing so interacts favorably with cards like Generous Patron and Nils, Discipline Enforcer.
The History of Backup in MTG
Backup was introduced in 2023’s March of the Machine, and is currently exclusive to that set and the accompanying Commander precons. There are a total of 25 cards with the mechanic across all five colors, with the Call for Backup precon revolving around the mechanic.
From a flavor perspective, creatures with backup represent the forces of different planes fighting against the Phyrexians, so the mechanic only appears on non-Phyrexian creatures in MOM.
What Is Backup N?
Backup N is an ETB ability that puts N counters on target creature. For example, a creature that enters with backup 2 puts two +1/+1 counters on target creature. If the target wasn’t the backup creature itself, it gains abilities until end of turn based on the written text of the backup creature.
Can the Backup Creature Target Itself?
Yes, backup creatures can target themselves. If a backup creature does, it gets the +1/+1 counters but doesn’t gain any additional abilities.
And since backup has a target, the choice is locked in once you’ve chosen it. If the target gets killed before backup resolves, you can’t change it to a different creature.
How Many +1/+1 Counters Do You Put on Target Creature?
The number of +1/+1 counters put on target creature is determined by the backup number. Backup 1 puts a single +1/+1 counter, whereas backup 6 puts six +1/+1 counters. Those counters are also affected by replacement effects on cards like Hardened Scales and Kami of Whispered Hopes.
Are Abilities Printed Before the Backup Text Granted to Target Creature?
Backup’s reminder text states that only “the following” abilities are given to the target, so anything above the backup text is excluded. Cards with abilities that are irrelevant on the battlefield are generally written with those abilities above backup so they don’t add unnecessary text to your cards.
For example, Cragsmasher Yeti has mountaincycling and trample. Since mountaincycling is written before backup, it’s not transferred to the targeted creature. Trample is printed after backup, so the target would gain trample.
What If You Give the Backup Creature Additional Abilities?
If the backup card enters with additional abilities or gains abilities with the backup trigger on the stack, those aren’t added to the targeted creature. Only abilities that are physically printed on the backup card are gained by the target creature.
Gallery and List of Backup Cards
- Archpriest of Shadows
- Bola Slinger
- Boon-Bringer Valkyrie
- Bright-Palm, Soul Awakener
- Chomping Kavu
- Conclave Sledge-Captain
- Consuming Aetherborn
- Cragsmasher Yeti
- Death-Greeter's Champion
- Doomskar Warrior
- Emergent Woodwurm
- Enduring Bondwarden
- Fearless Skald
- Gloomfang Mauler
- Golden-Scale Aeronaut
- Guardian Scalelord
- Hangar Scrounger
- Mirror-Style Master
- Redcap Heelslasher
- Saiba Cryptomancer
- Scorn-Blade Berserker
- Serpent-Blade Assailant
- Sigiled Sentinel
- Streetwise Negotiator
- Voldaren Thrillseeker
Best Backup Cards
There aren’t too many slam-dunk staple backup cards, but there are a few that justify their inclusion in a deck.
Boon-Bringer Valkyrie is probably the best of the bunch on raw power level. It’s as good as any other modern-day Baneslayer Angel and gives you value on ETB, which is something most similar Baneslayers don’t do.
Archpriest of Shadows presents a dilemma to your opponent: trade off a blocker for a deathtouching attacker, or risk allowing the attacker to reanimate a creature. It’s a solid midrange value threat that puts the defending player in a tough spot.
Bright-Palm, Soul Awakener and Conclave Sledge Captain are good +1/+1 counter support cards, which is technically true of the backup mechanic as a whole. These creatures pile on +1/+1 counters and make blocking difficult for your opponents.
Emergent Woodwurm and Guardian Scalelord are a pair of Commander exclusives that give you repeatable card advantage on attacks, which translates to an advantage on ETB thanks to backup. These incentivize you to put your +1/+1 counters elsewhere to get immediate value from the attack triggers.
Backup also fills the conditions for modified, which is referenced on Mirror-Style Master. This creature acts like a Flameshadow Conjuring effect for all your modified creatures and can lead to some ridiculous attacks if you can give it haste.
I also want to mention Voldaren Thrillseeker for its combo potential. If you can make an arbitrarily large creature, Thrillseeker gives you the means to turn that creature into a one-hit kill against an opponent. It’s kind of like a Fling in that regard and might find its way into some flavor of combo decks.
Decklist: Bright-Palm, Soul Awakener in Commander
Bright-Palm, Soul Awakener | Illustration by Mila Pesic
Champion of Lambholt
Dusk Legion Duelist
Gwenna, Eyes of Gaea
Halana and Alena, Partners
Kodama of the West Tree
Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin
Lae'zel, Vlaakith's Champion
Leinore, Autumn Sovereign
Rishkar, Peema Renegade
Shalai and Hallar
The Red Terror
Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider
Kessig Wolf Run
Oran-Rief, the Vastwood
Path of Ancestry
Temple of the False God
Here’s a variation of the Call for Backup Commander precon that released alongside MOM. This version keeps the core beatdown plan of the precon, upgrades the mana base, and focuses heavily on the +1/+1 counter component of the deck.
The plan is to stack up counters with backup and other +1/+1 counter-granting cards and then smash your opponents with counter doublers like Kalonian Hydra and Branching Evolution. It’s straightforward and deadly at the same time, and leaves some room for optimization.
Conclave Sledge-Captain | Illustration by Ilse Gort
Is the backup mechanic Kingdom Hearts? Because it sure is simple and clean.
Jokes aside, backup is inoffensive and easy to understand, so I see no reason this can’t make a return in the future. I think it would be a flavor win to include it in a Battlebond follow-up, if that ever happens.
Backup is another +1/+1 counter mechanic at its foundation, so it naturally fits with the counter support that already exists. Transferring the printed abilities to other creatures seems like it should have some interesting design space, too. I’m also curious if there’s room to experiment with backup on noncreature permanents (which might not work under the current rules text).
I can’t imagine backup will ever be anyone’s favorite mechanic, but it’s a solid addition to Magic’s keyword catalog. How do you feel about backup? Are you planning on playing any of the new cards, and would you like to see it again? Let me know in the comments below or over in the Draftsim Discord.
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