Darksteele Cube - If You Guild It, They Will Come
Earlier this week, I saw
on MTG Salvation from Betote:
“I built ten 40-card decks (one per guild) and we played with them... I think it's the best way to introduce a Cube to newbies: they get to know what a 40-card singleton deck can do and have an idea of which archetypes they should expect so that, if you get to draft with them later, they are not aimless in their picks.”
I thought that was an awesome idea.
The motivation for this exercise is pretty appealing – how do you show someone who is new to your cube what the strongest archetypes are? How do you show a new player that synergy is more important than just drafting powerful cards?
But it's not just for new players – as a cube veteran, you also get to evaluate your cube from a design perspective at the same time. When I sat down to do this exercise, these are the questions I kept in mind:
1. How do the gold cards in each section contribute to that combination's plan?
2. What do the four decks of each color tell me about the balance of archetypes in that color?
3. What are colorless cards really supporting?
4. Where do niche archetypes fit in? By this I mean something besides control or aggro – Blink and Reanimator fall into this category.
5. What are the relative strengths of these decks? How could the weaker ones be improved?
6. How hard is it to draft a deck like this? How could I make it easier, especially in the weaker combinations?
7. What is missing? Is there something that only one guild can do that might be worthy of more emphasis?
8. What lacks focus? How can that be improved?
9. What doesn't fit in any deck? Are those cards worthwhile?
The point of (9) is that even if a card doesn't work in the classic deck of that archetype, it can still earn its spot. We often end up with fun and powerful decks that do something a little strange for their color combination. For example, U/B can produce a strong aggressive deck, but it's more natural in a control role. W/B can play in a few ways – aggro with lots of black hand disruption, combo with lots of reanimation and discard outlets, or straight control with board sweepers, spot removal, and finishers. To limit those combinations to only one deck would be silly. However, it's still worth looking at the cards that no deck particularly loves to see if they could be used for something else that might really shine.
The questions I listed above seemed worth answering to me, and I had a feeling the decks would be really fun to play.
Building the decks
I sat down to build these decks realizing that it would be difficult, and I wasn't going to spend the time to get each deck exactly right from the start. After all, even a misbuilt deck in this scheme tells you something about what not to do, and getting everything optimized would be a long process.
The first thing I did was to write down a few words for each guild, describing my first thoughts on what that combination should do. For example, for Boros I noted that it's the most aggressive combination with a strong land destruction element. Pretty straightforward, except that I also wanted this deck to be able to play control against other creature decks.
Those notes gave me pretty good guidelines for some builds. In the case of Boros, I went with aggressive white creatures backed with burn that can to go the face or to creatures, like Arc Trail, and topped the curve off with Ajani Vengeant and Armageddon.
In other cases, my initial thoughts didn't work out. After I started building, I realized that I hadn't planned for an aggressive B/x deck, so I made the B/R a little faster, cutting some haste creatures and LD for evasive black two-drops and hand disruption.
With G/W, my plan was a token deck with lots of pump effects and a Stoneforge Mystic toolbox. When I built the deck, however, I decided that this was the right home for all the sweet midrange creatures in that combination – Baneslayer Angel, Chameleon Colossus, and the hard-to-kill guys like Blastoderm with some ramp to get them out early.
There's a lot to talk about, so I'm going to examine the white decks I built with those initial questions in mind and see which of them I can answer even before doing a lot of testing. At the end, I'll give my list of first-pass decks, and next week I'll talk about how they evolved. Kind of like Cube Doctor.
The role of gold cards
The G/W gold cards were extremely synergistic. Kitchen Finks is basically everything that deck wants to be doing, and Qasali Pridemage is a fantastic utility creature that doesn't hurt your threat density.
Other combinations didn't fare as well. I played one R/W card (the admittedly pet card Spitemare) in another deck entirely, and my plan to include a blink subtheme for Venser, the Sojourner got scrapped when it felt much less powerful than the rest of what U/W can do.
I don't think that means that those cards don't belong in the cube – all in all, only about 280 of the 520 cards in my cube made it into a deck. They might well shine in another archetype. For example, Spitemare is a house in a more controlling R/W deck with red sweepers and bigger guys. But it's worth noting that they don't fit into the most optimal and obvious strategy that color offers, which means they might see less play, particularly in Winston Draft.
Balance of archetypes
In white, I ended up with one very aggressive deck, one very controlling deck, and two that were somewhere in between. Both G/W and B/W could easily have skewed towards being more aggressive, however, while U/W is more or less set where it is. I see this as a useful result. Despite the fact that white has an abundance of awesome control cards, typical white decks are looking for something different. To me, that suggests that support for control in white might more effectively take the form of versatile removal like Faith's Fetters than control-only finishers. In the middle are cards like Wrath of God that you aren't necessarily looking for in a more aggressive deck but can salvage unwinnable games when you run into a mirror or get a slow start.
This is a little hard to answer because I'm positive that my decks should have included more colorless cards. Right now Loxodon Warhammer is sitting in the unused section, which is probably wrong. Making cuts was pretty difficult, and I wanted to make sure that the decks emphasized both colors sufficiently.
One thing that was obvious right away is that certain effects are in high demand. Several of the decks really wanted equipment-based life gain to counteract Phyrexian Arenas and Dark Confidants... or maybe they just wanted Umezawa's Jitte. After building these decks, I'll definitely think of those effects as strengthening black aggro, though that's not their only role.
Another example is the Masticores. Though they can go in any deck, I like them best when they can double as a discard outlet, or so I thought. Turns out a Molten-Tail Masticore also feels really relevant in a nearly mono-creature G/W deck.
Building these decks made me realize how much the colorless section is doing to balance aggro and midrange against control. I was pleasantly surprised to see that while the fast mana is largely for the control decks, most of the section is doing more for the creature decks.
Poor Venser. I really like him, but I think he'd be getting a lot more love if the U/W decks weren't so strong already. I want to support Blink as an archetype in the cube, but it doesn't seem so crazy good that it's worth cutting back on white control extensively to fit it in. But supporting both seems to favor U/W more than I really want to do.
That's not the death knell for Venser, though. He's going to remain a build-around card, getting support in the form of cards like Flickerwisp, which can do cute stuff in basically any white deck, and the large number of creatures with "enters the battlefield" (ETB) effects.
Reanimator is in a different position. This exercise really drove home to me that pretty much every black decks wants reanimation. Furthermore, there are enough cube-quality discard outlets that it's not hard to put the two together. If anything, I came away from these feeling that we could support reanimation more and not just because I love a turn-two Angel of Despair.
How realistic is it to draft these decks?
This is more difficult to quantify, but my feeling is that it really varies. The R/W deck doesn't seem crazy to me. It's good, but there are a number of similar cards that didn't make it in. I could see a deck similar to that one coming up in an 8-man draft. The G/W deck is in basically the same position; although a draft deck would probably have more second-tier equipment.
The U/W deck seems less realistic. I think the distinction is that the really bomby cards in U/W are very unique. You have Vedalken Shackles, or you don't. You have Jace, the Mind Sculptor, or you really hope that no one else does. Unlike the Boros deck that could swap in different shadow guys or burn spells all day, the U/W deck is made by the individual cards and your ability to find them and protect them.
What is missing?
I've been restricting my discussion to the white decks, but on this topic I need to talk about the green decks as well. In R/G and B/G, I toyed with the idea of putting together a ramp deck. In both cases, ramp seemed significantly weaker than the other options – haste/burn and Rec/Sur (Recurring Nightmare/Survival of the Fittest), respectively. Depending on how those decks do, I might try a ramp build instead. I think the amount of land fetch in my cube that isn't played in these decks is more a symptom of the format than anything, though. No deck is trying to splash anything, and the mana bases are pretty fantastic with 4-5 lands per deck.
After building these decks and taking them for a quick spin, I already feel like I've learned a lot about my cube. I'd recommend doing this with your own cube – you'll end up with really fun decks to play as a bonus. And what better time than the holidays to have some pre-built decks for your siblings to play, no?
Next week, I'll get into the rest of my questions from the beginning and talk about how my lists evolved.
Disclaimer: These lists might be rough and or uneven. The choices of what to include are pretty hard – kind of like cutting the size of your cube in half. In most cases, I decided to go with whatever appealed to me the most, so I'll learn something about my deckbuilding in the process. But I'm definitely not claiming that this is the best set of decks from my cube, and they might be completely different than what you build in your own.
Path to Exile
Wall of Omens
Wrath of God
Yosei, the Morning Star
Glen Elendra Archmage
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Keiga, the Tide Star
Pact of Negation
Thirst for Knowledge
Grand Arbiter Augustin IV
Wall of Denial
Library of Alexandria
Fact or Fiction
Barter in Blood
Oona, Queen of the Fae
Creeping Tar Pit
Hymn to Tourach
Koth of the Hammer
Zo-Zu the Punisher
Mother of Runes
Swords to Plowshares
Sword of Fire and Ice
Day of Judgment
Angel of Despair
Swans of Bryn Argoll
Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
Squee, Goblin Nabob
Survival of the Fittest
Sword of Light and Shadow
Isamaru, Hound of Konda
Pianna, Nomad Captain
Student of Warfare
Figure of Destiny
Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
Meloku the Clouded Mirror
Ninja of the Deep Hours
Sower of Temptation
Birds of Paradise
Master of the Wild Hunt
Sensei's Divining Top