"Home is where you can find a decent graveyard and strangers disappear without awkward questions."
Our story starts around 2007. I was just getting back into Magic after a short layoff from my disillusion with Magic's direction headed into Champions of Kamigawa block. I hated Champions' art and the story telling, so couple with my still sore feelings for Arcbound Ravager I decided to throw in the towel. Little did I know that Wizards had tricked me into missing what many Magicians feel is the greatest block ever in the original Ravnica block, and old-school favorite Time Spiral block. Well, I missed most of it anyway. When I quit, I separated myself from Magic completely: no new cards, no decks, and not even any new info. From Champions through my eventual return around Future Sight, I had absolutely no clue about anything Magic related.
Shortly before I quit, I did do one thing—I put together what was simply known as the Big Deck. The Big Deck was a single deck of Magic cards of all five colors, including an evenly spread number of basic lands. It sized up to about 400 cards, with roughly 100 of those being lands. It was meant to be used with anywhere between two and four players and played out like a free-for-all multiplayer game.
The difference was that everyone drew from the same deck and shared one graveyard. You only needed to shuffle before the start of every game and during each mulligan, which you could take like Magic's original rules of drawing a new hand of seven cards if you could reveal a hand to your opponent with zero, one, six, or seven lands in it. You could still take a Paris (or Paris-Mulligan) from whatever number you had in your opening hand before the game started (we call this just a mulligan now since only in Commander are you able to take a real mulligan, which Commander players refer to as a "free" mulligan).
The games were always fun, rife with five-color madness and great multiplayer cards. This Big Deck took me a bit past my quitting Magic for a few months, as I had a few local friends that still played. The Big Deck was always a hit whenever it was pulled out, and when I packed my Magic bags to take a long layoff, the Big Deck stayed intact.
Right around the Future SightPrerelease, a new card store was opened by a guy I knew from my earlier playing days. This was the same location as the old hobby shop where I played many an eight-man FNM. This new shop in my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina was dedicated to Magic, and after two and a half years, I decided to pick up the towel, wipe my brow, and jump back in the ring. My first move was to search through my collection and see what I could sell to get started with newer cards.
This is when I rediscovered the Big Deck. I took it up to the shop with me and tried to get some of my new friends to play it with me. After just a couple tries, it was clear there was little to no interest in the Big Deck—everyone just wanted to draft. Though a little sad at my failed attempt to rekindle the former glory of the Big Deck, I never minded drafting. Despite my failure to get people excited about the Big Deck, my wheels kept turning.
Cube Version 0.1
I went home one evening after drafting Time Spiral-Planar Chaos-Future Sight(still my favorite drafting environment to this day) and pulled out one of every card I thought would be fun in a game of Limited and threw it into a four-row box. After about seven hours, I had pulled out over 3,000 individual cards for what I would call Big Box Draft. The idea was a simple one (especially for Cubers now): pull out a group of the cards from the box, shuffle them up, and deal out three "packs" of fifteen cards per person. Everyone drafted, built a deck, sleeved it up, and played. There was very little design past the eye test; colors could be imbalanced, and cards that quickly appeared to suck would be pulled out.
Big Box Draft was an immediate hit, and I started hosting weekly drafts at my house every Monday. About a third of the cards from the Big Deck made it into the Big Box, including our lady of honor today. We'll talk more about who she is and what she means to all of this a bit later.
As new expansions were released over the next year, more cards were added to the Big Box. During the summer between the release of Eventide and Shards of Alara, I played a different kind of Big Box Draft at a PTQ in North Carolina. The number of cards in the owner's Box was much lower than mine, and his cards were nicely sleeved with matching lands and an even number of cards for each color. And he called his something different: a Cube. I drafted looked like a B/G Midrange deck if you squinted really hard, and I think my first overall pick was a Loxodon Warhammer. I don't remember the deck all that well and just know I won a game off of the power of Warhammer on a Phantom Centaur. Though my deck stunk, I was hungry for more.
Since it was a friend of a friend, I never spoke to him directly, so I didn't really ask him any questions about his Cube. I kept thinking about it over the course of a few weeks despite never (to this day) seeing him again. I continued on with my Big Box Draft, but after I had tasted the sweet nectar of Cube, it didn't feel the same. After a couple months, my desire hadn't waned, and I hit up the Internet looking for anything I could gobble up about Cube. And what I found may have changed my life forever. (I'm joking. Well, half-joking. Okay, maybe fourth-joking.)
Eyes. Open. Wide.
Shortly after reading all about it, my good friend (now coworker and then roommate) Adam Westnedge built his own Cube. In retrospect, the first mystery Cube I played was probably the worst one that I've ever played judging from my one experience. Adam's was much better tuned towards aggressive strategies and tempo-oriented games. The first deck I drafted with Adam's Cube was mono-blue and sported six(!) Control Magic effects.
I named the deck Steal-y Dan.
After drafting a few more times, I was completely hooked. The claws were dug in.
I started building my own Cube around Conflux. Foolishly or not, I decided I would come up with all of the cards included completely from scratch, which led to some terrible cards being in the inaugural list (like Hermit Druid) and some very good cards being missed completely (like Coalition Relic). I kept my project to myself for a couple months until I was satisfied with the list and then unleashed it on the world. The rest is history.
Until I started this column, I kept my Cube list and all of the changes in a blue notebook. When I made my most recent official change to my Cube, I cut a card from my Cube for the third time, which is a record for the largest number of times a card has been and out of my Cube. This card is a personal love of mine—it was in the Big Deck and the Big Box Draft as well as in the first Cube deck I ever drafted. Yet I had to make the difficult decision to part ways for a third time. Meet today's protagonist.
When I went public with my most recent Cube updates, Braids was by far the most talked about card in the cut pile. To reiterate, I don't like cutting Braids, but I do have some experience doing so. The first time she was cut was after a three-year stay from the inaugural list—it was alongside Smokestack, as both lacked enough support from my Cube at the time or from drafters wanting to make either/both work. It's not that they were bad; they just need a very specific and dedicated deck to make them work how you envision when you draft them, which came to fruition too few times to allow both to continue the stay.
After only four months, Braids came back in the fall of 2012 when I was revitalizing black (or at least attempting to anyway). Her second stay was much shorter than her first, as she was only able to make it a few months before being removed again for the same reason in early 2013.
The second try was very important because I was trying loads of different configurations to make black have fluidity as a whole, something that I believe I came close but ultimately failed on in my several attempts over the course of several months. I chronicled my journey in my article The Black Plague, but a heavier work schedule sidelined me from writing for several months so I never was able to talk about the ultimate decision.
Around the time of that article, I guest hosted an episode of Matt Kranstuber's The Joy of Cubing where he talked some about fixing black by going into a heavy sacrifice theme. Earlier this year my friend Eric Klug, who owns my favorite Common/Uncommon Cube, wrote about his Cube and its recent addition of a black and red sacrifice theme. Around the same time Andrew Cooperfaus began testing a black sacrifice theme in his Cube. Andrew, Eric, and Kranny are all people whose opinions I trust, so I started down the road of testing a sacrifice theme in black (and red) starting in July.
My initial list started like this of cards I wanted to add or that were already in my Cube to help fully form this archetype:
Braids, Cabal Minion
Skirsdag High Priest
Pawn of Ulamog
Mogg War Marshal
Greater Gargadon (already in)
Bloodghast (already in)
Blood Artist (already in)
Oversold Cemetery (already in)
Mortarpod (already in)
Abyssal Persecutor (already in)
Siege-Gang Commander (already in)
Falkenrath Aristocrat (already in)
Innocent Blood (already in)
Bitterblossom (already in)
Grafted Wargear (already in)
And more cards than even these that can contribute. Through testing, each side of the theme was able to bleed flawlessly into the other color's aggressive strategy, so it didn't matter if you were heavier on one side of a color or the other—you always were able to pick up extra cards that can fill in the gaps on the curve. Theros and Commander 2013 added Ophiomancer; Purphoros, God of the Forge; and Curse of Shallow Graves to the equation, so I really had a lot to work with. That being said, not all of the cards made the cut. Of the ones I initially tested, these few weren't needed and had to be left behind.
Oversold Cemetery – This card is ultimately best suited for a grindier midrange deck. Those decks often need to have an angle to work out well in my Cube, and Oversold Cemetery didn't do enough often enough to warrant its stay. It had a whole year to prove its long-term worth, and though it did return a number of creatures to hands, it didn't do it often enough when support was around it to make it succeed. I wouldn't be shocked to see it come back next year.
Shadowborn Demon – I wanted this big bad guy to be the new face of upper-end black, and he still can be. With the swing in the archetype towards tokens, you would think his drawback would be able to be mitigated more. Testing proved otherwise, and he had to sacrifice himself better than half of the time. I am a big fan of this card for Cubes in general and will definitely give it a shot in the future.
Pawn of Ulamog – Similar to the above cards, it didn't perform optimally enough of the time, and the shift towards tokens hurt Pawn. I think I drafted it more than all of other players in the last five months combined, and I never saw it be anything other than just average. When we're talking about cards in niche situations that are set up to allow for a card's success, average isn't good enough. I don't see it returning.
Skirsdag High Priest – Though the High Priest does play great with tokens, oftentimes it sits around waiting for the world to come to it. Not many 5/5 Demons were made in its time in my Cube. This card was cut more for velocity than power—when it's going, it can take over, but getting High Priest set up took about a turn too long for the speed of my Cube. I don't see it returning.
Braids, Cabal Minion and Smokestack – I want to put these two together for a couple reasons. First is their obvious analog to each other; they both "do" the same thing when active. The second is these are both cards that received a second chance (third in the case of Braids) at life in my Cube.
Before I dig in to talk about the specifics of why these two cards are on the outside looking in, I'm going to take this example to stress the idea of having what I like to call an on-deck binder (thanks again, Kranny!). The on-deck binder is where you keep cards that you've cut from your Cube, are looking to fit into your Cube, or both. It doesn't have to be a binder; it can be a card box or even a sectioned-off part of your Cube holder. Braids and Smokestack went from my Cube into the on-deck binder when they were initially cut. Though they stayed in there for a little while (much longer in Smokestack's case), once I started putting together a list of cards for the B/R sacrifice archetype, the on-deck binder was the first place I looked for inspiration.
Of the cards I added specifically for the archetype, a whoping ten cards were cards not printed in the last three years, so they wouldn't have been on my radar recently to just think of them. In the case of Oversold Cemetery and Shadowborn Demon, though they're getting cut now, there's a good chance they'll find life again down the line. Always remember to look for older cards every now and then to add to your own on-deck binder; you never know when they'll help spawn a new archetype!
Back to the matter at hand. The problem with both Braids and Smokestack wasn't that they didn't do their jobs—they always fit right into the archetype I wanted and performed predictably. The issue was their speed and relative effectiveness when operating at full bore. The fact that these are the highest-costing pieces to the sacrifice theme puzzle so it was the fifth turn of the game before they started doing anything made them among the first cuts when you were in deckbuilding after the draft. Speed is part of why this archetype has been a successful one in my Cube, and I was more interested in adding speed when I was playing the deck than slowing it down to offset my opponent.
Another thing is the increasing abundance of tokens across all nonblue colors. This dramatically reduces the effectiveness of either of these cards when they no longer break parity. Braids in particular was tough to get to a point where the opponent was scared rather than annoyed and outside of a perfect curve that also allowed you to skip a turn (with a Mox etc.) and go first often resulted in you casting a 2/2 for four that made the opponent sacrifice a single permanent.
I will admit that both cards are still very good against blue decks, but the advent of planeswalkers stifles their effectiveness; coupled with the slow speed of both cards, a player with access to almost any planeswalker was able to ignore their mana development (Braids' and Smokestack's most common target) as long as they could activate their planeswalker every turn to break even or even get ahead.
After much deliberation, I decided it was best for them to both take another shift in the on-deck binder, though given everything I just said about them there is much less hope of escape for another run than there was before. That doesn't mean I won't try—I do love Braids in particular, and even though it didn't work out this time, I'll always be on the lookout for another chance at what could be her final hurrah.
Thanks for joining me; I'd love to hear in the comments about how you all began Cubing. It always makes me happy to hear personal stories of how you got to be the Cube lovers I know you all are!
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