The year 2012 brought many changes for the amazing Cube format. Magic Online added a Cube to its repertoire so a lot more people gained exposure to the format. I've talked to a few people who learned about the format from the Magic Online Cube, and they have gotten more into the format because of it. Although most people do their reflection of the past year at the end of the year, this fashionably late article goes over what the sets of 2012—Dark Ascension, Avacyn Restored, Magic 2013, Return to Ravnica, and Planechase 2012—brought to the Cube format, partly to reflect and partly as an overall summary in case you haven't been keeping up on the cube-worthy cards of 2012.
Instead of doing a "Top X" of the year, I'm going to discuss the cards that have been put into most cube lists, the cards that aren't as popular, and how they have impacted the Cube format by breaking them down into a rough tier 1 and tier 2 based on popularity from what I've seen of various cubes online. Note that this isn't just a reflection of what's in my cube, as some cards in tier 2 like Entreat the Angels are in my cube.
Although we didn't get much in the way of good white one-drops, there were a few solid two-drops and a ton of options for cube designers with cards such as Nearheath Pilgrim and Precinct Captain missing the mark in a lot of cubes. It's good that we're getting away from cubes having to run cards such as White Knight and Silver Knight to cards like Knight of Glory that better support two-color white aggro decks. Restoration Angel was the best white Cube card of 2012, making itself at home in aggressive and control decks alike. But as you can see, most of the good white creatures for Cube cost three mana and below, bolstering white aggressive decks.
Angel of Serenity and arguably Entreat the Angels help to round out white's finisher suite (unfortunately, Avacyn, Angel of Hope ended up being not very good aside from being a Reanimation target). Besides Ajani, Caller of the Pride and Terminus, the rest of the cards for white are creatures. As mentioned earlier, a lot of the creatures are aggressive, but control and midrange decks are able to use finishers such as Angel of Serenity well.
One of the early tenets of cube design was forcing a 50/50 split in creatures and noncreatures, and one of the first things that I did when I built my cube was to throw that idea out. Even with white getting increasingly better creature options, it's still likely be the section with the second most creatures in it, behind green, but it utilizes the creatures extremely well as a centerpiece of its winning strategy.
With only four cards with high adoption rates, blue fared the worst out of all the colors in Cube in 2012, but it's fine since blue's an incredibly deep color. Jace 4 hasn't seen the level of adoption in cubes that Tamiyo has, and I don't think that's because people fear that planeswalkers will take over their cubes. Four mana is a really tight slot in cubes, and blue has a ton of great options so that may have slowed its adoption. In fact, Tamiyo was the only windmill slam inclusion into many cubes. I use all four of the "tier 1" cards in my cube, but the others are ones that I haven't seen included as much due to competition. I've lately started to see cards like Fettergeist get dropped from cubes, but they're all solid additions to tempo and blue control decks (especially Dungeon Geists).
A lot of the other near-inclusions tend to rely on archetype support, and as you'll notice in other sections, that's a recurring theme.
For example, Tandem Lookout and Sakashima's Student have adoption rates that depend on how often blue attack decks get drafted (or mana fixing so that people can splash for Tandem Lookout and a few other marquee blue cards—because, let's face it, no one's splashing for Tandem Lookout itself). They have started to catch on more lately with cards such as Opposition going higher in pick orders due to having better support than combining with token generators, as something like Tandem Lookout can do a pretty good Edric, Spymaster of Trest impression.
Cards such as Augur of Bolas and Talrand, Sky Summoner depend on the draftability of decks such as Standard Delver from early to mid-2012—decks that have a lot of instants/sorceries that can put pressure on the opponent to take advantage of the bodies produced. Deadeye Navigator gets some fringe play in cubes with a higher support for Blink decks. Blue's a very hard nut to crack in Cube as many of its cards either perform their tasks exceptionally well (Tinker) or are incredibly versatile (Venser, Shaper Savant, Remand). So I wasn't too surprised that blue didn't get much in terms of staples in 2012, but it wasn't until this reflection that I realized how little it got.
Like blue, some of the inclusions in black depend on what archetypes are supported in a cube. Cards such as Pack Rat, Disciple of Bolas, and Ultimate Price have been well received in many cubes as cards that work well whether you're supporting black aggro or not, but cards like Gravecrawler and Griselbrand represent opposites ends of the spectrum for what archetypes can make a card included or not. A cube without black aggro likely isn't going to bother with cards such as Gravecrawler or Geralf's Messenger, let alone cards like Knight of Infamy, Blood Artist, or Thrill-Kill Assassin.
Black has been having a bit of an identity crisis lately, and there have been some articles written discussing what to do with it. Cards such as Liliana of the Dark Realms get better in decks that support Pox archetypes. (Note that Liliana of the Dark Realms isn't just good in mono-black and gets a bit of a bum rap in Cube because people think of it as just a mono-black card, but it's fine in archetypes like B/R and B/U Control.)
If there are a few more cards printed that take advantage of the graveyard and sacrificing such as Gravecrawler and Geralf's Messenger, black could take a more graveyard-centric direction with an emphasis on cards like the previously mentioned two cards, Bloodghast, and a few others that take advantage of the graveyard, similarly to how cards such as Venser, the Sojourner and Restoration Angel have made Blink strategies better in Cube.
Looking at the individual colors and the number of high-quality inclusions that made it into many cubes, with a staggering ten tier 1 cards, it looks like red was the big winner in Cube in 2012. Two-drops have historically defined the strength of red decks, and there were a lot of really solid ones for cubes this year with Lightning Mauler, Gore-House Chainwalker, and Ash Zealot combined with some solid burn in cards such as Hellrider, Searing Spear, and Flames of the Firebrand. Red aggro decks got a lot of awesome tools to the point where cubes don't necessarily need red two-drops as badly and can afford to cut some of the weaker ones like Fireslinger.
Surprisingly, some of the most helpful additions to red aggro decks were in red's previously anemic five-drop slot for creatures, which was previously inhabited by Siege-Gang Commander and occasionally Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. Zealous Conscripts and Thundermaw Hellkite were solid additions; I absolutely love Siege-Gang Commander, but a problem with it in R/X aggressive decks was that you didn't typically want to tap out on turn 5 if it wasn't going to help you win the game (although don't get me wrong, untapping with a Siege-Gang Commander usually got you the win). Typically, Zealous Conscripts and Thundermaw Hellkite help close out games quickly.
Red cards such as Mizzium Mortars and Hound of Griselbrand have been adopted more slowly, but they're good tools to consider when shaping a red section. With cubes adding more ramp elements in the past year thanks to the Magic Online Cube through cards like Sneak Attack, decks such as Wildfire can utilize less aggressive cards such as Mizzium Mortars and Hound of Griselbrand (as it turns out, Hound of Griselbrand is really nice post-Wildfire.)
Before 2012, it seemed like green's midrange section didn't get much, with a few cards such as Garruk, Primal Hunter joining the long-time midrange cadre of cards like Deranged Hermit, Thornling, Genesis, Acidic Slime, and Indrik Stomphowler. While green's midrange suite didn't kick many of those cards out aside from Thornling, cards such as Thragtusk, Vorapede, Wolfir Silverheart, and Craterhoof Behemoth provided solid options for midrange decks to ramp into, especially if they're on the 1 ’ 3 ’ 5 plan (mana dork, Cultivate / Kodama's Reach / five-drop). Wolfir Silverheart and Craterhoof Behemoth do some heavy lifting by letting you go over the top and mess up combat math—they aren't necessarily combat tricks, but they help your 2/2s overcome annoying things like Walls or Dragons.
Scorned Villager and Champion of Lambholt see some fringe Cube play, but a lot of the other cards such as Wolfbitten Captive are played less due to people shifting more towards ramp because of the Magic Online Cube. Gatecrash's Experiment One may shift the pendulum off that direction (which is doubtful, even with the high power level that Experiment One has shown in testing), especially if there are a few good one- to three-mana aggressive beaters in the coming sets (like a strong two-drop with evolve or bloodrush).
Prior to 2012, there were a few staple cards in B/G—Maelstrom Pulse, Pernicious Deed, Putrid Leech—and a few other cards that were on the fence, such as Putrefy and Spiritmonger, which held up the fort, and we wouldn't have thought that the section would get the insane competition that it got with Return to Ravnica. Aside from Lotleth Troll, which is just bonkers as a strong, evasive creature that replaced Putrid Leech in many lists, the other cards represent options that a cube designer has when choosing which direction to take. You can go in a more aggressive direction with cards such as Dreg Mangler or in a more traditional "Rock" style through cards like Vraska, the Unseen, and the cards are on a similar enough power level that it really comes down to personal taste.
Similar to B/G, U/R had some mainstays such as Fire / Ice, Electrolyze, and Prophetic Bolt, but other cards were up to discretion. Izzet Charm cracked that trinity, and it's arguably the best Izzet card due to the flexibility of its modes. Unlike Golgari, the other cards introduced in Return to Ravnica weren't quite as good as the Charm. Etherium-Horn Sorcerer was a nice interim card before Return to Ravnica, and its inclusion in cubes mainly depends on room.
Lingering Souls, Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
B/W was a section that wasn't as tight as B/G, but it had some solid cards. Vindicate was the king of that mountain, but other cards such as Desolation Angel, Tidehollow Sculler, and Stillmoon Cavalier were solid. Dark Ascension's B/W cards along with Vindicate now comprise a near ironclad trio since they're all amazingly efficient and powerful. (Upcoming cards like Obzedat, Ghost Council making or breaking it in cubes depends on whether there's room for a fourth B/W card.) Both of those cards help token decks and work well with equipment such as Swords.
Flinthoof Boar, Huntmaster of the Fells
Initially, some of Innistrad's Werewolves were slow to be adopted in cubes, and some unfortunately still remain underrated (like Wolfbitten Captive). But others such as Huntmaster were adopted pretty quickly, even though Huntmaster doesn't fit into the traditional mode of most R/G cards, acting more like a card for decks such as Naya and Jund than the breakneck speed decks of yore with Kird Ape.
Speaking of Kird Ape, Flinthoof Boar and its M13 friends were a riff on that card, and it was never able to get much attention in Cube because of the stiff competition (competing with cards such as Boggart Ram-Gang). It's interesting and somewhat frustrating that efficient creatures such as this end up slipping through the cracks because of the competition. Granted, that comes with the Cube territory—cards that we like and are very powerful just can't fit into a cube sometimes. But it still feels a bit odd that a card that's essentially a split card of Watchwolf and Boggart Ram-Gang can't be included. Ah well, them's the breaks.
U/W also ended up with a lot of high-quality cards, with the best ones (Supreme Verdict and Detention Sphere) being riffs on white cards, making them harder to cast for a minor upside. But as boring as the riffs may seem, they were solid additions to cubes. U/W got a lot of options such as Sphinx's Revelation and Drogskol Reaver, and such as with B/G, there are different directions one can take the section. But the power level of the more control-friendly cards like Sphinx's Revelation seems higher than the tempo-friendly cards such as Judge's Familiar and Lyev Skyknight.
Overall, Rakdos aggro got a big boost in 2012. Most people were anxiously awaiting the R/B one-drop, and it was a very welcome addition to base black and base red aggro decks. But cards like it, Dreadbore and Falkenrath Aristocrat, aligned with the streamlining of red aggro in 2012 through more efficient beaters and more haste. With more planeswalkers being printed, Dreadbore was a welcome addition (I've seen cubes replace Terminate with Dreadbore, but I think that there's plenty of room for both). Unlike some sections such as B/G, Rakdos' additions were mostly aggressive.
Although B/U is traditionally a strong Cube color combination, it didn't get much in terms of cube-worthy multicolor cards. Baleful Strix has been a wonderful addition to cubes as the best Wall of Blossoms ever, but others like Forbidden Alchemy and Havengul Lich generally fell by the wayside for being too slow and clunky. B/U has some solid cards anyway, but unfortunately, the pool's pretty shallow and quality goes south after a few cards. It's still early on in Gatecrash spoiler season, but it looks the ground that wasn't gained with cards like Havengul Lich should be gained through cards such as Dimir Charm.
G/W is generally known as the tightest color combination in Cube. It was already brimming with high-quality cards, and like with blue in 2012, it didn't gain a whole lot in cards. Cards such as Dryad Militant didn't make some cubes based on space constraints (even if they had cards like Savannah Lions). The cards with the best chance of making it into cubes were more on the midrange side, such as Sigarda and Armada Wurm, but even then adoption was limited
R/W and G/U
Gisela, Blade of Goldnight, Shardless Agent
Unlike G/W, both R/W and G/U are shallow sections without much in terms of multicolor depth (R/W's card quality drops after the Figure of Destiny / Lightning Helix / Ajani Vengeant trio). When Boros Charm and Aurelia's Fury are released, there won't be room for cards like Gisela, but Shardless Agent has been a solid addition to ramp and tempo decks that are lighter on counterspells and as a splash.
Maelstrom Wanderer has also been a solid addition to cubes that use it. It generally doesn't have any direct competition because cards such as Intet and Guided Passage aren't very good, and the fun potential of Maelstrom Wanderer is high. Its inclusion usually depended on how much room there was for tri-color cards like it and Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker.
Lands and Artifacts
With the emphasis on lands and mana fixing and their importance in Cube, 2012 really didn't bring much to the table. A lot of the marquee lands such as Desolate Lighthouse and Cathedral of War ended up being too slow, but others like Slayers' Stronghold and Vault of the Archangel were nice ways of bringing reach to creature-based decks at a cheap cost. Like with tri-color cards, their inclusion depended on what their competition was—whether Vault of the Archangel was competing against other lands such as Cathedral of War, other B/W mana sources such as Orzhov Signet, or other B/W cards like Tidehollow Sculler influenced whether it made the grade.
Cubes didn't get anything like a cycle of guild-aligned lands, but honestly, I don't think that it was a high priority, certainly not as important as the two-drops for red. Chromatic Lantern was a nice artifact addition to cubes that support greedy decks (or at least non-aggro decks), and the low number, again, wasn't necessarily a bad thing considering the boost that Scars of Mirrodin block gave to cubes.
All in all, it was a good year for Cube, and 2012 helped strengthen archetypes and moved cube sections in the directions that they were headed in 2011, like green's midrange direction.
May all of your opening packs containSol Rings!