Like last year, the Magic Online Cube goes powered with the iteration that's available over the holiday season. I'll be discussing the changes that happened when the Cube went from the previous Theros update to the Holiday 2013 iteration as well as doing some comparisons with the previous Holiday version of the Magic Online Cube.
For reference, I'll be using the following lists for discussion:
This is the last full article that was posted to the Mothership, which had the M14 updates.
Since the Magic Online Cube was up for a few days with Theros changes, they were briefly discussed in a blog post here.
Finally, this is the Holiday 2013 version.
If you look at the list and sections for white, blue, black, red, and green, you may think that the sections have an uneven number of cards, but it's mostly that the enchantment cards in Theros—specifically the enchantment artifacts (Spear of Heliod,) enchantment creatures (Boon Satyr), and legendary enchantment creatures (Erebos, God of the Dead)—broke the table, making those look uneven.
With that information, we can look at the Cube changes.
Like before with the transition to 720 cards from 540, there was jettisoning some of the weak cards like Gideon, Champion of Justice; Silver Knight; Hand of Honor; and Momentary Blink. A lot of the sideboard-only cards like Celestial Flare were among the casualties. Also like last time, Moat came in since it's one of the more powerful sweeper effects. The Magic Online Cube has been rightfully criticized for being very top heavy with an emphasis on sweeper and big haymaker types of effects. Because of this, I was surprised to see a lot of cards like Decree of Justice; Entreat the Angels; and Akroma, Angel of Wrath get cut, but I think that it's a step in the right direction since it has had an embarrassment of riches even with the midrange- and control-heavy leanings of the Cube.
Martial Coup is the one that I'll probably miss most since it was able to act as a sweeper in addition to being a pseudo-Dragon, but with Angel of Serenity being another sweeper effect at seven mana, it's good to see them curbing that effect. There's still a ways to go because aggressive strategies are still underrepresented—I generally have found that aggressive decks on the whole are on the weaker side and the support for them has been on the weaker side, lower than the support in my Cube that's nearly 100 cards smaller. But cutting clunky cards like Akroma help that regard and help that balance.
Gideon's Lawkeeper snuck in from the last Holiday iteration, which seems questionable when it got included at the cost of cards like Imposing Sovereign that got cut in this iteration. There's an argument that it was included since there's an additional emphasis on cheating big creatures into play, but having both Gideon's Lawkeeper and Whipcorder seems a bit excessive. Archangel of Thune makes its debut; I've found that it works pretty well without any other forms of life gain, and it should be solid in this Cube as well.
The biggest change with this iteration is the removal of Man-o'-War for True-Name Nemesis. To be honest, this change seems kind of lazy and that the conclusion to cut Man-o'-War was hastily arrived at.
It looks like they wanted to cut a blue three-drop and found what seemed to be the weakest, possibly because of the Jellyfish not seeing Legacy play or some other factor. The more odd thing about the cut is that it's a powerful card that works well in all types of blue decks, including tempo decks, and other cards that are there mostly for tempo decks and are not only weaker overall but weaker in tempo decks overall, like Cursecatcher and Voidmage Prodigy, remain and generally weaker cards like Aeon Chronicler came in for it. Of all of the changes that happened in this iteration, this was one of the more odd ones.
Some other cuts were questionable, like cutting Thirst for Knowledge, Thassa, Ponder, and Condescend (getting cut at the expense of things like the suboptimal morph creatures and Jushi Apprentice), but a lot of the changes were good. A lot of the chaff that was hanging around like Phantasmal Bear for the fringe blue tempo deck seemed like a failed experiment, and those cards were just taking up space so it's good to see them go. Most of the other blue changes in this iteration were good since it helped to get rid of a lot of the chaff that was in the section, with a lot of the clunky three-mana counterspells like Dissipate (which I've never been happy with in Cube because it's almost always a Cancel) and Hinder and some of the other weaker counters like Essence Scatter and Negate as well.
Much like with some other iterations, it looks like black got a lot of changes, and in this update there are some strong positives.
Like with the blue cuts, this change made it so that black lost a lot of suboptimal cards, including the frequent joke Headhunter, and weak removal like Sorin's Thirst, Smother, and Spinning Darkness got upgraded into better removal spells. Unfortunately, black still seems like it's in a state where its aggressive decks are being half-supported.
Cutting cards like Vampire Lacerator and Vampire Hexmage yet keeping things like Sarcomancy feels like the designers of the Magic Online Cube really need to decide whether they want to support it fully or not since the aggressive elements aren't really doing anything right now. The addition of Black Knight seems to imply that they want to make it work, but it doesn't have the support to do so (because of this I'm not too shocked to see Curse of Shallow Graves not get included but am still somewhat disappointed).
I'm also incredibly surprised to not see Ophiomancer as creature-based wall that is incredibly difficult to get through (as those who have used it can attest to, myself included) since there are some cards like Plague Sliver that would be better served by becoming Ophiomancer.
The Abyss and Nether Void make a return like last year, and while Nether Void likely won't be acting as a curve topper ala Armageddon / Ravages of War, it's nice to punish players who are reliant on Signets and mana rocks (in other words just about everyone). Black still seems to have a way to go, but this iteration did at least get rid of a lot of the chaff that has been clogging the black slots.
The vaunted mono-red deck loses some of its best twos and the number of three-drops got cut in half. I've felt that the deck has lately been paling to the greedy control decks in the format, and this doesn't really help that part of the metagame.
In addition to the taking out of Man-o'-War, the other change that I thought was very odd was taking out Rolling Earthquake but keeping the original. This seems very unusual since it's inferior to the original; obviously not strictly so since it can be worse based on your board state, but for the most part your deck won't be packing fliers as opposed to your opponent's deck, making that change a questionable one. Lu Xun (and all the other horsemanship creatures) were not in the Magic Online Cube before so it was not taken out because of horsemanship leaving, and I really do not understand the reason for that change.
Also, my experience with Goblin Vandal was very minimal, but it was never something that I was afraid of seeing on the opposite side of the table since it lacks evasion and saboteur creatures without evasion haven't really done much even if they have decent stats (Liliana's Reaver). When I asked other people about their experiences with it, they thought that it was not very good as well, so I'm not really thrilled seeing it come back, especially since it looks like it came in at the expense of Stromkirk Noble, which seems like a huge downgrade.
During the last article talking about the Magic Online Cube when talking about green, I talked about how people were scared that green would be bad because of the cutting of mana acceleration and the addition of Signets since it was (and is) a common myth that Signets make green bad. In that article, I noted the following, which rings true of this iteration of the Magic Online Cube:
Some time ago Tom LaPille said that he took Signets and bounce lands out of his Cube because they made aggro decks and green decks bad. After he said that I did some research. At the time my Cube had all ten bounce lands and Signets, and I did some test drafts where I took the bounce lands out and replaced the Signets with other mana rocks (like Prismatic Lens) and wrote an article dispelling the myth. The tl;dr version of it is as follows:
When I first heard the argument about green being weaker because of signets and bounce lands, I thought, "Why should I cut Signets because they make cards like Rampant Growth look not good enough? Shouldn't I just cut Rampant Growth because it's not good enough?" Instead of using cards like Rampant Growth in my Cube, I've only used the ones that I've considered to be better than the Signets and the other mana rocks. Signets shouldn't be taken out because they're too good; green mana acceleration and fixing should use Signets as a benchmark because if a green fixer/accelerant isn't as good as a Signet people aren't going to use it.
When I did this, I cut the green mana fixing that I felt was worse than Signets and bounce lands and used those powerful mana fixers and accelerants as the benchmark. Green's role was not jeopardized because it had good mana fixing and acceleration, and the overall Cube meta didn't change once I took out the Signets and axed bounce lands—aggro was still a strong archetype in my Cube just like it was before.
There's the argument that cutting Signets and bounce lands gives green an identity, but the problem is that it doesn't even really do that. Having drafted Cubes with no Signets and bounce lands, it didn't make green "the ramp color"; it just meant that it had more ramp options (some better than Signets, some worse) available and that when drafting non-green control decks I still utilized cards like Mind Stone, Talismans, Everflowing Chalice, and Thran Dynamo to accelerate and took them accordingly.
Many Cubes are able to support aggro even with all ten of the Signets and bounce lands like Anthony Avitollo's Cube and Kenny Mayer's Cube (Kenny's Cube doesn't have all ten Signets now and does not use bounce lands since he only has the non-green Signets, but the aggro percentage in his meta is not different from when he ran all ten Signets and bounce lands), and others on the MTGSalvation Cube forum use partial cycles of Signets and bounce lands because the aggressive-leaning color-paired Signets like Boros Signet weren't doing enough in their Cubes. Justin Parnell cut the bounce lands from his Cube because they were a liability against decks with disruption.
It can be convenient to point to Signets and bounce lands and say, "That's the problem," with regards to aggressive strategies since in those metas it's the "Signet and bounce land decks" that are dominant. However, as the testing showed in my article, those mana producers weren't the cause at all. In previous iterations of the Magic Online Cube, it was shown that the root cause was weak aggro support; Max McCall's statement that aggro being worse is the fault of Signets and bounce lands is false. When I tested the Magic Online Cube's current iteration, the portion of the Magic Online meta with aggro was about the same as it was before, so it wasn't the mana rocks and power that were causing the problems with aggro.
When the Holiday Cube went up, drafters found that because the overall ramp percentage was the same as before and that since Signets help with green's ramp strategies that green was still good and that the talking point fears don't match reality.
With this change, there was some moving around of the guard with a lot of tricolor cards that weren't doing much being replaced (Woolly Thoctar usually ends up being more of a pipe dream than a good card in Cube), although I was very surprised to not see Ashen Rider replace Angel of Despair, which seems like a rather easy change that they could have done. The biggest change that confused me was taking out of "Quesadilla" Qasali Pridemage, not only on an arguably objective power level but because of the format having more artifacts in the format and the importance of having cheap artifact removal. In most decks in this Cube, I feel that I'd prefer a Pridemage over Knight of the Reliquary.
The star of the show is the artifact mana that got added to the Magic Online Cube with the Moxen, Black Lotus, other fast mana like Mana Crypt, and the Signets as this helped the Cube to (at least for now) jettison some of the weaker artifact acceleration like Sphere of the Suns. Some cards like Sword of Light and Shadow and Sword of Feast and Famine, which got cut previously in an attempt to make mono-black (or at least black) better, return like last year.
It's good to have them back, but it does seem strange that a card like Sword of Light and Shadow (arguably the worst of the five Swords) is considered to be "overpowered" or at least on the power level of things like Mana Vault. I thought that the designers of the online Cube would have deemed them to be ok power level wise as I have like they did with Eureka and Show and Tell.
The land change is a big change, but a lot of it comprises of cutting several land cycles from the Cube. They are as follows:
Theros "Temple" cycle: Temple of Deceit
Shadowmoor/Eventide "filter" cycle: Sunken Ruins
Mirage fetch-land cycle: Bad River
M10/Innistrad "buddy" land cycle: Drowned Catacomb
Worldwake man-land cycle: Creeping Tar Pit
In terms of cuts, a lot of them are to be expected since a lot of those cycles are worse than the stalwarts that are in the Magic Online Cube, but it seems strange that the strongest of the remaining ones—the Worldwake man-land cycle—got cut since there are a lot of weaker lands that remain like Teetering Peaks, Ghitu Encampment, and Thawing Glaciers. City of Brass being cut while the aforementioned lands remain also seems like an error (especially with Thawing Glaciers remaining over City of Brass).
So if you're used to drafting the Magic Online Cube with Dragon's Maze and Theros, it looks like there are a lot of changes to keep in mind. However, once we look at the changes compared to the changes from the previous iteration of the Magic Online Cube, we start to see another way in which the changes manifest themselves rather than huge swathes of changes.
For reference, here is the previous iteration of the Holiday Magic Online Cube
Because like with previous iterations of the online Cube where size did not change, it is a lot easier to make like-for-like comparisons (although because the direct analogues are not provided, it's still just guesswork). Credit for Andy Stout for doing the grunt work of the changes.
One of the complaints that I've had with the Magic Online Cube is that a lot of changes are very like for like and typically done when there are still issues that may be able to be resolved through deeper analysis. In this iteration, it seemed like there were a few in that vein—Akroma being replaced by a better big-mana thing in Angel of Serenity, Glorious Anthem being replaced by a card that nearly duplicates it (albeit in a better way), and Oust was replaced by another card that puts something on the top of the player's library.
Ethersworn Canonist was replaced by Soldier of the Pantheon; it's good that it did not just replace Savannah Lions, and Ethersworn Canonist was never really good at being an aggressive creature (and was mostly an awkward storm hoser). Akroma's Vengeance was a fine cut for being a nombo with Signets and other mana rocks even if it was just cut for another six-mana card, but other inclusions like Linvala don't really make sense as it's just a weak creature in a super-crowded mana slot. But things like the weakness of aggressive decks weren't really addressed aside from bringing in Soldier of the Pantheon for a near blank, and cards like Kami of Ancient Law being in over Accorder Paladin and Cloistered Youth seem like a mistake.
Much like with white's changes, a lot of the changes seem to be mostly just "easy upgrades," with Jace, Architect of Thought replacing another four-drop that draws cards, True-Name Nemesis replacing another three-drop which as was mentioned earlier could have been served better by something else, and a card that never really worked out replaced by an insane finisher (it's also odd that Keiga was taken out essentially for Sphinx of Jwar Isle). While it's probably an upgrade, it's strange to see that change happen all of a sudden, but it seems more just keeping up with the previous changes than deliberately deciding that Keiga was worse than Sphinx of Jwar Isle.
Considering the love of reanimation strategies, I was shocked to see Exhume leave, and it's something that I'd keep in mind when forcing the archetype. Aside from Bane of the Living, the other cards are weak enough to make the changes overall positive, especially the weak two-drops that got kicked out since Nightscape Familiar should at least do something as a storm enabler (which is more than the "being perpetually last pick" that Headhunter and Gloom Surgeon did), but the changes should help overall. While I do wish that Bloodline Keeper were something like Desecration Demon or Ophiomancer, I'd play Bloodline in most durdling black decks, which I wouldn't say for the Shinobi.
Looking at the changes through the lens of the previous Holiday Cube, the change with Rolling Earthquake happened before since Rolling Earthquake was not in the previous iteration of the Holiday Magic Online Cube. But is has been in every other iteration, and it still doesn't really make much sense why they wouldn't just keep Rolling Earthquake over the original.
Like with the changes in blue and white, these changes seemed pretty uninspired. Chandra, Pyromaster was taken out, and it looks like Chandra Nalaar was a hasty decision for its removal (whereas something worse like Urabrask the Hidden or Price of Progress would have been better cuts). Firedrinker Satyr replaced "another red aggro creature" that also could have been replaced by something better like Taurean Mauler, a card that I was shocked to see last this long due to its inefficiency. I was also surprised to see Magus of the Moon since my general experience with it is that the greedy decks that get hosed by it produce red and Signets don't really help that, but Thunderscape Familiar was enough of a blank to make that change an overall upgrade.
Like with Exhume, I was very surprised to see Rancor and Yavimaya Elder get cut. Rancor being cut seems unusual when some cards like Harmonize and All Suns' Dawn (the latter of which never really impressed me very much even when I was forcing Five-Color Control) remain, and if it was done to replace it with Boon Satyr, it seems like a downgrade. Yavimaya Elder was also a casualty, one I felt like may have been a bit too far in the "cut whatever can't compete with the Signets and other powerful mana rocks" types of strategies because it's still a nice card advantage card that I play in just about every green deck in Cube that works well in decks that use Signets.
The other changes were good; I've frequently found Exploration to be a bit of a pipe dream unless the deck has a lot of bounce lands (and a dead draw late game), and the other cards that came in support green ramp very well, so at least in that regard the changes don't really change much in terms of the landscape but do strengthen what the archetypes are.
As mentioned above, cutting the Pridemage seems like a mistake whether in the context of Voice of Resurgence, Fleecemane Lion, or Knight of the Reliquary and cutting Supreme Verdict for Daxos of Meletis seems like a massive downgrade due to the unreliable evasion on Daxos; although it does sound a bit contradictory to complain about the Magic Online Cube having so many sweepers and complaining about cutting a sweeper, the problem with a lot of the secondary and tertiary sweepers is that a lot of them are very inefficient (like Austere Command, Akroma's Vengeance, etc.) whereas four mana is about as efficient as it gets (especially when Signets are available to make the mana cost not as awkward).
The rest of the changes are very welcome. Cold-Eyed Selkie was awful due to inconsistent evasion and awful base stats, and the planeswalkers tend to do a lot in durdle matchups (well, they tend to generally be good anyway). Steam Augury is a card that I wouldn't be surprised to not last long, but it's better than Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius, which cost way too much mana to be worth it.
These cuts is where some of the lack of transparency can put a damper on things. With a cut like this, without people knowing some tweet from Tom LaPille on May 1, 2013 that likely influenced the taking of it out for fear that it was too good, how would someone looking at the list know why it was taken out? A similar thing happened when Vampire Nighthawk was cut last year—was it because they thought that it was too good or because they thought that it was bad (as it turns out, it was the latter.)
While lands and artifacts overall haven't changed much, these changes seem—to put it bluntly—lazy because the sections have minimal changes. This has resulted in a multitude of cards that have been taken out due to them being considered to be weak only to return later.
If we as Cube designers should embrace Kaizen and continuous improvement, why hasn't the Magic Online Cube? If it would have been too difficult to change the section size of the artifact and land sections, why were cards that were brought in but were then taken out due to them being deemed not powerful enough brought back in? Many other artifacts could have been tried (if the sections had to increase) that haven't like Ankh of Mishra; Jinxed Choker; Karn, Silver Golem; Icy Manipulator; Crystal Shard; or Black Vise. Why haven't those been attempted rather than just copying and pasting the contents from last year?
The context for Dust Bowl hasn't changed because the concentration of nonbasics is the exact same as it was before; it was taken out because it wasn't doing much and was too slow (at least I found this to be the case in my Cube and am assuming similar reasons were used for taking it out of the Magic Online Cube since there wasn't an official reason given). Why, then, was it brought back? Was it added just for Library of Alexandria? Did the context of the environment change so that original Masticore, Lightning Greaves, and Razormane Masticore were deemed to be good for the Magic Online Cube environment again? If so, how?
It just seems like someone ran out of time and phoned in the section change. "Well, there weren't many good artifacts or lands in the past year, so sure, just go with that." As experienced Cube designers know, there's a lot more than just keeping up with new sets; some sections of this iteration of the Magic Online Cube have followed through with that. But it seems like someone dropped the ball, and this mentality doesn't seem to be fully embraced with this iteration of the Magic Online Cube.
I hope that this article has given you some insight into how to draft and analyze elements from the Magic Online Cube into your own drafts this holiday season.
May all of your opening packs contain Sol Rings!