Grapplers are really hard to make work well in a fighting game. Command throws can't be broken and can't be blocked, so characters with them can exert a level of fear in their opponent that leads to them doing all sorts of crazy things to try to get out. So how do you keep such a character from completely dominating games? Often the solution is "give them nothing but a couple of good normals that don't lead to combos, take away all of the game's mobility options and toss some extra health at them to compensate." If you're SNK the answer is "create Iori Yagami, Benimaru and 98 Daimon and not give a hoot". But we're not here to talk about that.
Today's subject is Under Night In-Birth's Waldstein. The last few tier lists that were put out in Japan listed him as a top 3 character, arguably the best in the game. This was before the controversial timeout infinite was discovered about 6 weeks ago. So let's unwrap what makes him so good, shall we?
Reason 1: Space control and size intimidation
First up, a bunch of Waldstein's normals (mostly C-related) and his claw swipe specials outright stuff projectiles. He just kind of swats them away. Such a tool seems really powerful, but in practice it mostly helps against characters like Hyde or Nanase. If he tries that against Vatista she just shoots a laser and takes that 1.5/2K off his health right up. Most of the cast control space with tools such as far-reaching normals rather than traditional fireballs so this isn't as strong as it could be. Still, pretty handy.
What matters more is that Waldstein is huge. His normals are gigantic and have pretty much the same speed as the rest of the cast's. This game is about huge normals, and his are some of the hugest. In particular, his dashing C and jumping 6C have ludicrous reach and a great deal of his stuff wallbounces. He doesn't need to slowly walk a hundred kms to do his thing. He starts exerting his pressure well over half a screen away.
Speaking of that "well over half a screen away", that's where he can hit you with overheads, lows and EX grab from. At a range where you'd normally expect to just be playing some cautious footsies, he's already running the standard high/low/throw game. Thankfully the overhead swipe looks nothing like the low, but he's putting you in a state of caution before he's even close enough to do the really grimy stuff. The grimy stuff starts with...
Reason 2: Safe, repeatable pressure
Something that separates strong grapplers from the weak is whether they have ways to continually exert pressure up close. Potemkin could spend 25 meter to turn Hammerfall (a superarmour dashing attack that launched on hit) into one of the best frametraps in Guilty Gear. KOF grapplers follow the same movement rules as everyone else and could thus just keep hitting those crouching light kicks. On the flipside, characters like Iron Tager have to bank everything on a single mixup and pray it hits. If it doesn't work, then at best Barrier block pushes Tager away after the 5B/6B was blocked, and at worse they jumped and punish his whiffed throw with a combo. I'm simplifying things a bit, but you see what I'm getting at.
Waldstein's dashing B is terrifying. It's safe. It's fast. It leads to combos. It cancels into his clap. He can do tick throws off of it. He can cancel it into an overhead. It catches people jumping away. Once he starts hitting that dash B, your only option is to bank that he'll start autopiloting dash B into clap so you can shield. After all, shielding this string can net you a punish. But this leads to the meat of what I really want to talk about. That is...
Reason 3: Shield Meta
Let's talk a bit about UNIEL's meta. You and your opponent can fill your GRD gauge. Every 14 seconds or so, whoever has the most GRD gets put in Vorpal State which increases their damage output and gives them Chain Shift.
Chain Shift (hit D twice) stops whatever you're doing, gives you free meter and basically hits the pause button. You use it on offense to make sure that a mixup connected. You use it in neutral to score whiff punishes. You use it on defense to hunt for an opening. The pursuit of Chain Shift is the heart and soul of most of your decisions in UNIEL.
How do you get GRD? You gain it by walk forwards, hopping or airdashing. You lose it by walking backwards (much like meter gain in Guilty Gear). However, you also gain it by blocking. Just by holding down-back in this game you can really make an aggressor think twice about what they're doing. Hops and most overheads are very reactable, so swatting people who overextend themselves is very much a thing that happens in this game. When you block in this game, you gain a lot and take more from the opponent than you might realise.
So what happens if you're winning the GRD race with blocking? The other guy starts to sit back and use the charge function more, or they hop further away so you don't just swat them. Those gain GRD faster than down-backing, so you're back to losing.
What do you do then? You start to shield. When you shield (D while holding back or down-back) attacks, you gain lots of GRD. When you shield at the right time, you also shave off 3 frames of blockstun. This lets you punish moves that aren't normally punishable (such as Waldstein's dash B into clap), and completely destroys hopping attacks (such as Waldstein hop C) So, again, the mental advantage is often held by someone who defends themselves smartly rather than someone rushing in and expecting to run some setplay.
Now here's the fun part. Waldstein wants you to shield. Read that again. Waldstein wants you to shield. Why on earth would he want you to do something that gains GRD and makes his pressure punishable?
Whenever you release the D button while shielding, there are 28 frames where you have to commit to that shield. If you're shielding low and a high hits in this time, you're GRD broken and lose your GRD, as well as the ability to hop or airdash or shield for a good bout of time. You'll probably lose the next GRD cycle. Likewise if you're shielding high and get hit with a low. You also cannot tech throws in this 28f window. Naturally this means that a key part of offense is empty hops into lows or throws to blow people up.
Here is where we get to what separates the top tier of UNIEL (Merkava, Gordeau, Waldstein and arguably Eltnum) from the next group of characters (Vatista, Orie, Carmine). The top tier all have ways to react to shields with an overhead or low, and so at a distance. Merkava blows up the distant shields with 3C and 4C. Gordeau has to be somewhat close to them to blow up with either his grab or 6B, but he can use both depending on his mood. Waldstein has both that far-reaching overhead clawswipe and 360B to blow up shields with.
You know how 360B always gold throws so it's super easy to tech? If they're shielding, this doesn't matter because they aren't allowed to tech it. This is scary as hell. You shield dash B? He gets a free throw. You shield clap? He gets a free throw. You shield 2B or 5C half a screen away? Yup, he's going to throw you. And then he gains a GRD advantage so he can run a regular mixup then Chain Shift it and do even more damage.
Waldstein plays long-range UNIEL by the book. Once he's within midrange, he takes the book, kicks it in the dirt then successfully runs a lawsuit against it for a million dollar payout. This is the main reason he's so damn scary, and why he's a pretty damn cool guy.
Note: This is written about 9 days after the game came out. If anybody feels like correcting my assesment of the guy, feel free to yell at me in the comments.