"Invisible Stalker. Go."
Ugh, this thing again. *sigh* It always starts the same—this stupid 1/1. He probably just kept six lands and this terrible creature. Whatever, it's just a twenty-turn clock. Surely he won't have it again. My keep was fine; I can't deal with that stupid thing anyway.
"Attack with Stalker. Land, Butcher's Cleaver. Resolve?"
Oooooof course. I hate this mechanic. Hate it, hate it, hate it. Maybe I'll stare at my hand for thirty seconds so he thinks I have something to deal with it. Who made this stupid thing? Rosewater? Probably Rosewater. Damn you Rosewater. If this were Magic Online, I'd just time him out for having such a brainless combo.
"Hmmm . . . resolves."
"Sweet! Okay, go."
I know I'm dead. I have nothing in this deck to interact with this card. Why is this even a thing? I could teach my 90-year-old grandmother to draft Stalker and Cleaver and a bunch of unplayables. I pretty sure he tried to counter something with Frightful Delusions last turn. My only shot is to let my opponent outthink himself.
Did he just say all of that in one breath? I can't believe I'm gonna lose to this mouthbreather. What are the odds he forgets to attack me four more times? Screw it, I'm done wasting my time.
Does that bring back memories?
There's a good chance you've been on the business end of the dreaded Cleaver/Stalker combo in Innistrad Limited if you played that format for any significant amount of time. And hopefully you didn't react as our narrator did above in the face of not being able to interact with their opponent's plays—but I don't know many would fault you if that's where your unconscious mind went.
That tinge of frustration, the twitch in your eye, a slow rage building. If it wasn't Invisible Stalker and Butcher's Cleaver, it was Spikeshot Goblin and Loxodon Warhammer. Or Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief and basic lands. If there was a Limited format, there was something about it that made you AAARRRRRGGGGG!!!!
The debate on whether or not these cards should've existed in the same Limited format is moot—they did, they annoyed most everyone, and there isn't anything we can do about it now. So why bring this up now? Well, ladies and gents, we have a new enemy. Or nemesis rather.
I Have Seen True Terror & His Name Is Traft
Saint Traft to be exact. Let's jump in the time machine and go back to the setting of our opening story, Innistrad. Not only did it boast the most recent version of terrible Limited "combo," but it happened to be a pretty good set for Limited in general and was no slouch in the Cube department. In fact, based on some research I did for my Cubermetrics article, Innistrad was the third most represented set in my entire Cube, trailing only Alpha and Zendikar in total number of cards.
But it did bring about the first in the lengthening line of unhealthy Cube cards in Geist of Saint Traft. I was not the writer to preview Innistrad for Cube, but if I had been, my evaluation would have been scathingly against adding this innocuous 2/2 for three to your Cube. Some of you are scratching your heads saying, Why the hell does he hate Geist so much? This is a fine card!
And it is a fine card! Especially when you're beating your opponent to death with it when they just sit and watch. My issue with it (and True-Name Nemesis and Jace, Memory Adept—I think I've exhausted my opinions on the latter) is that it is not a healthy card for having an interactive Cube experience. Geist is in an aggressive card in a predominately controlling archetype (though U/W Tempo is certainly something that Cube owners can build) and is never average. It is either unbeatable or terrible and gives blue an incredibly quick clock, which is one thing I'd like to make sure the color that has it all doesn't have access to. Even if every turn of every game features a 2/2 creature to block, Geist of Saint Traft is still non-interactive as it sits back unable to attack.
Fortunately his use was not immensely widespread, and my ranting could wait another day.
Well, here we are.
Same Ol' Song & Dance
If you've read my column for any amount of time or are new to my opinions on Cube (go ahead and get settled in), you should know that the tallest soapbox that I like to stand on is that of having the best possible Cube experience. This is something you should strive for whether you have a commons-only Cube, combo Cube, tribal Cube, powered Cube, bulk-rare Cube, really any Cube. The most important part of the work you put into your Cube should be making sure it's fun to draft and play for all of the people that interact with your Cube. Without people having fun, you just have the Cube and nothing more.
We Cube designers have the unique opportunity to offer the best possible Limited environment. We don't have to live with incorrect design choices or non-interactive cards. Though I don't think any Cube is perfect or can ever be completely perfect, a well-designed Cube is the most perfect drafting experience that there can be. Innistrad is a fantastic example of a truly expertly designed environment, yet there were wrinkles of imperfection that can never be undone.
We can and should tinker with our environments, constantly moving cards in and out and watching and listening and learning. Even as someone who preaches change, I feel like I let myself down with changes in my Cube, and I do it once a month at worst. Change should be constant, and if you aren't able to draft your Cube very much, you should still try to tune it before you bust it out to play with most times.
We see around five opportunities each year to add brand-new cards to our Cubes, and the number of Cube-worthy cards from each of those sets grows year after year. In most cases people's Cube sizes aren't increasing alongside the available card pool, making potential cuts tougher and tougher. Or are they? Is it necessary to include the 35 Cubeable cards from next year's fall expansion? I think we need to take a step back and remember what we're trying to accomplish.
We are past the point where we are forced to add every playable or powerful card that comes our way. Circling back around to the card that sparked this article, True-Name Nemesis is a very powerful card. You'll be seeing lots of it in Legacy for the next several years, and the price tag on the card will reflect it. I think Usman Jamil did a great job in his last article breaking down all of the new Commander 2013 cards, and I agreed with roughly 95% of what he had to say (I'll give my opinions on the few cards I'm trying at the end. Don't you dare scroll down yet!) outside of the new poster child for non-interaction.
True-Name Nemesis is better than Geist of Saint Traft in every category except one—pure clock speed—though it makes up for it by being completely unblockable and equally untargetable. It doesn't require a second color and reduces the number of ways to remove it from the battlefield to only non-damage-based sweepers. I think this is the least interactive creature Wizards has ever printed and can't imagine a scenario where someone is having an enjoyable game experience on the other side of the table from this in a Cube match.
It would easily become the most ubiquitously drafted creature for every blue deck and is so generically powerful against the field (read: people playing Magic) that it removes all of the thinking from either you or your opponent. I like my Cube being combat oriented, but when racing is the only answer (ever) to hold off certain death, there is a problem with no in-Cube solution.
Blue has the unique distinction of having the ability to do almost anything in Magic and more specifically Cube. This starts to become less true the farther you gravitate from a 360-card Cube, but whittled down to only the most powerful cards for each color, blue is a king that's incapable of being dethroned. The game of Magic could go on for twenty more years, and if you stacked each color's 30 best cards against each other, blue would still be the best.
Growing up, like most young men in the early 90's, I was mesmerized by Michael Jordan. Jordan was a literally unstoppable offensive force in his prime, scoring at will from all over the court. One of my favorite sayings about Jordan (as told by my childhood best friend's UNC basketball-bleeding dad) always came up as we watched Jordan fill the basket up. To really set the stage for those that recall that time period, he was probably making Clyde Drexler overwork to defend what would always turn into a twelve-foot undefendable jumper. Just left of the key.
"You guys know the only man that could ever hold Jordan under twenty?"
The first time I'm sure I turned around on my spot on the floor just enough to still kinda see the TV with a bewildered but intrigued look in my eyes.
I probably made the gesture I would now: head leaned down and eyes rolled slightly up with a deep sigh.
For the non-sports fans reading this, Dean Smith was Jordan's college coach at UNC. The only way to stop Jordan from scoring was to put him on the bench.
The only way for you to prevent a color, strategy, or archetype from dominating is to put parts of it on the bench.
I'm Blue Dabasomethingsomethingsomething
A question that often comes up when people ask me to describe my Cube is to tell them what my Cube is. Matt Kranstuber described it best as a Cube mission statement. In Rosewaterian fashion, I define my Cube by what colors and archetypes can't do rather than what they can.
Blue has very minimal access to splashable counterspells (only Remand, Condescend, and Force Spike include a single blue mana in their cost.) Blue has trouble dealing with creatures at instant speed. Blue must pay six or more mana to cast a threat to end the game.
Reanimator doesn't have lots of discard outlets lying around. It must plan to be able to cast its fatties if it needs to.
Red has trouble competing in later stages of the game. It has to maximize its resources to win from an aggressive standpoint.
Other colors must turn to green (or draft lands very, very highly) to have access to other colors of mana easily. There are a few Signets and Lanterns / Relics, but they must be prioritized above other things like game-advancing spells.
The list goes on with small caveats for every archetype, some can's and some cant's. (You can check out a brief list of each in this article.) You don't have to have as strict of guidelines as I do in defining each archetype or color, but a general sense of what you want to accomplish (or more importantly prevent) in each draft allows you to locate cards that aren't needed despite their power. This discussion would normally trail off into the fear of cutting cards, but look at that! I wrote about just that a couple weeks ago.
The moral of the story? Your Cube is like a plant; you must prune it to allow for the most growth. Don't let it grow out of control!
Before I go I want to give you a bit of homework. As an exercise in Cube design, find an up-to-date 360-card Cube list somewhere online (or maybe your own!) and try to build a new Cube list using no more than 25 percent of the cards on the current list. This is to prove that there are so many great cards for Cube now that you don't need to add everything under the sun to make your list as powerful as it can be!
If someone wants to post a link to their 360-card Cube list in the comments below this week, I'll do the homework myself and show my work in my next article.
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