While many people usually wait for a card to get printed to try cards in their cube with their first real-world experience being at set Prereleases I've been a proponent of initially testing cards in my cube once they're posted on Wizards' visual image gallery to see if they're able to make it in my cube. This has helped me get some valuable insight on cards for my cube. When I've mentioned how I've tested cards for my cube people have asked me how I go about doing so. In this article I'll discuss the methods that I've lately been using for testing cards out in my cube so that you can try them out yourself.
In a previous article I discussed how people sometimes outsource card evaluation to other formats—relying on getting information about how the card plays in Limited and other Constructed formats to evaluate how the card will fare in their own cubes. I discussed how that method isn't by any means foolproof due to differing contexts but it can sometimes be a useful tool when evaluating cards in cube. However it's not the only one at your disposal.
It can be useful to discuss the theoretical aspects of a card that you don't have much personal experience with especially a new one that few people have had a chance to use or a hidden gem that has gone under the radar. It can also help develop opinions on whether the card is going to be good in your cube. However as useful as theoretical discussion is I've found that it's a much more efficient use of time to test the cards out in cube to get an overall impression of the card. Initially I tested cards that looked interesting but I've become a much more aggressive tester of cards in my cube in the past few sets as it has helped me get a better evaluation of cards more quickly.
This is because when evaluating new or newly discovered cards without experience people tend to think in extremes for card evaluation and make comparisons to similar cards while focusing on the differences between the old and the new. People generally trend towards preferring the older similar card because it's a card that they've had a good amount of time to get an opinion backed by real-world experience rather than theoretical evaluation.
This is where testing the cards in your cube comes into play as it allows you to temper your initial impressions of cube cards with the same real world experience you have with old cube stalwarts. Cards like Jace the Mind Sculptor Sword of War and Peace or Goblin Guide don't really require that much testing to find out if they're good. They're all very objectively powerful cards that I knew were going to be staples as soon as they got printed but I still wanted to temper my initial impression with real world experience. That and I wanted to just try the cards out as trying new cards in cube is just as exciting post-Prerelease as it is during the testing phase! This is especially useful for cards that are objectively powerful but are in competitive mana slots like Restoration Angel and its powerful competition at four mana in white.
Granted all cards don't require testing; I'm not going to bother testing things like Felidar Umbra because despite it being a pretty unique card I know that it just isn't very powerful a card due to being a weak aura that offers little return for the payment. Still there are cards that went under many peoples' radars like Shrine of Burning Rage Tarmogoyf and even the original Lorwyn planeswalkers such as Jace Beleren and Ajani Goldmane that were initially dismissed but caught on once people realized how good they are.
Lately I have gone by a "when in doubt try it out" rule for testing cards in cube. When something looks like it could be good enough for inclusion in cubes I try it out especially if it's something unique or something that's outside of a color's traditional role in the color pie (like Dungeon Geists). When testing cards in my cube for Avacyn Restored I was testing about 20 cards—and this was at the time when people thought that Avacyn Restored was a weak cube set!
So how do we try these cube cards out?
How To Test
Seed the draft packs with the cards to test. When it comes to testing cards in my cube this is my preferred method. Prior to making packs I set aside the cards that I want to test and then make packs as usual (like getting together 45 cards to make a draft set) but after that I shuffle and distribute the tested cards amongst each player and randomly take that many cards out of the original 45 and replace them with the test cards.
If there is an uneven number I add enough cards to the remainder of the test cards and distribute those accordingly. For example if I have a six-person draft pod and I have ten cards that I want to test I distribute one card to each person then I add two cards from the unused portion of the draft to the test cards shuffle them all together have each player take two cards out of their 45 card draft set pool and replace them with the two test cards. It isn't a perfect method since unfortunately two people will have one test card in their pools but it results in a relatively even distribution.
This method is really useful because it makes it so that the cards are distributed as they would in any regular draft and the data that you get on the card's power in your cube is pure. If a card like Maelstrom Wanderer is seeded in the packs whether it has the same chance to make it into a deck as a card that's been in your cube since day one. It's a good idea to encourage your drafters to try the tested cards; I've found that most people are generally receptive to trying new cards in your cube because well they're new cards!
When seeding cards into packs it's very important to get feedback on the cards from your drafters. It's a good idea to do so in general about your cube especially regarding cards that you're uncertain about. It's a good way to get some outside opinions on cards in the draft. When seeding cards in a draft or when people use cards that I need more data on I typically ask drafters what they thought of certain cards when they've had them in their decks. "Did card X work out for you? I'm testing it out and wondering if it did very well in your deck."
Seeding cards into a draft pool also is also good because a cube should be able to support all kinds of decks. Sometimes even in a duel between two diametrically opposed decks (B/U control versus R/W aggro) this can result in not having some cards like red control cards or green midrange cards being represented and having an actual draft can help the various archetypes become represented. It's by no means guaranteed; sometimes someone just isn't in the black aggro archetype or the Wildfire deck.
In a cube draft that I did today I didn't seed Maelstrom Wanderer into a pack but it was in the pool. While I could have hated it when it went around late I kept passing it (and lo and behold someone in G/B/R/U took it and absolutely smashed me with it!). Seeding cards into a draft gives a good cross-section of how the cards play in real time which is why it's my preferred method. But sometimes I just can't get a cube draft going even just a four-man so I've used seeding cards for other methods of playing cube as well.
Seeding also works very well for Winston Rooster Winchester drafting and Sealed and using these other methods are useful as well—especially if you can't get a full draft going. Making a sealed pool and seeding the card into a sealed pool is a good method if there's no one else available and it's a good quick way to find out whether the card can be used in a deck effectively.
Another method that I've been using is to make a deck for the card on the fly. Thea Steele discussed doing something like this for general guild decks for cube but generally when I build test decks to get data on a card in cube I'm usually crafting a deck where the card will usually be. Using a general guild deck may not necessarily be the best home for it (a standard U/G shell may not be good for Shardless Agent or a standard U/R/G shell may not be good with Maelstrom Wanderer).
Take for example Shardless Agent. After the card was revealed to be a 1GU 2/2 cascade I knew that it had some really strong potential but I thought like many others that it would be not very good since it can hit the many two-mana counterspells in blue resulting in a Grey Ogre. However looking at the blue section of my cube I found that only eight out of the 23 blue cards in are really "misses" (mostly counterspells) so to test the card out I decided to make a U/G deck that would ideally play Shardless Agent. I made this deck for it on the fly:
- 1 Phyrexian Revoker
- 1 Shardless Agent
- 1 Aether Adept
- 1 Albino Troll
- 1 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Dungeon Geists
- 1 Llanowar Elves
- 1 Nantuko Vigilante
- 1 Pestermite
- 1 Phantasmal Image
- 1 Strangleroot Geist
- 1 Uktabi Orangutan
- 1 Ulvenwald Tracker
- 1 Wild Mongrel
- 1 Edric, Spymaster of Trest
- 1 Venser, Shaper Savant
My intention building the deck wasn't to make the absolute best deck where Shardless Agent would cascade into Time Walk but instead to create an example of a deck that I could very well see happening in my next draft: a more aggressive U/G build that could take advantage of the cascade on Shardless Agent. I made sure that there were a few "misses" to see how often that would be relevant with Shardless Agent. In this test deck I found that it wasn't really that big of a deal; even if it hit something like a Force Spike it was still a solid card.
Since then I've seen it "in the wild" cascade into things like Rofellos Llanowar Emissary Duress and Moxen while Justin Parnell has seen it cascade into things like Signets Tarmogoyf Doom Blade and Ancestral Vision. Testing helped me realize that the drawback of being able to be hit by counterspells wasn't as bad as I had thought and was something that could be mitigated in deckbuilding. This has helped to make my card evaluation more objective.
You can also use this "build on the fly" method to test several cards in a deck provided that the deck can support both of those cards well. Taking a card like Wild Mongrel out for Sakashima's Student in the above deck isn't a bad idea since Sakashima's Student fits into that deck as well.
It also allows you to test various archetypes in cube which is a bit different than testing individual cards because it allows you to see how good an archetype is. Much like with testing cards you don't want to have it be the absolute best version of it as that's disingenuous card evaluation. Building a mono-blue deck splashing black for Tezzeret Agent of Bolas with thirteen other artifacts isn't going to show you how viable the "artifact deck" is in your cube just that you can make it. I find that doing a few sealed pools is best for testing archetypes as it's a quick way to see if an archetype like the Wildfire deck is something that can be consistently drafted (or in this case Sealed)—if it can't at that stage I found that the support for that archetype needs an additional look and usually needs more support.
Regardless of whether you're testing a single card a few cards or an archetype make absolutely sure that you get a good data set on the card; you don't want to just dismiss a card because it had a bad run in one of your test matches. I try to get at least a few matches in when testing a card especially one that requires some think-tanking because even if I only have a little bit of experience that experience will help me to critically evaluate the card. It's also important that the decks have a similar power level as this helps with evaluating the impact of the new cards. If you have an insane control deck with power-a-plenty going against a lackluster ramp deck where you're trying Maelstrom Wanderer it'll be hard to get much useful information on Wanderer aside from it falling hard to an opposing deck.
The most important step is to be critical with your post-testing evaluation as a card can be particularly effective in certain situations but still just be a suboptimal card. I've wrecked people in cube drafts with cards that I wouldn't want to play in my own cube but they did work when the situation called for it. This should be noted when you're evaluating new cards for your cube.
You may be reading this and wonder "So why should I bother testing cards in the first place if people are going to realize that cards are good eventually? Why should I waste my time?" It's true that people who aren't as fanatical about Cube as I am (aka nearly everyone else on earth) have other non-Cube things higher on their MTG priority lists as I discussed in the outsourcing article. However there are definite reasons to test cards in cube. The most important one is that it lets you have a more objective and well-rounded evaluation of cards that are going in your cube and when it comes to including cards in your cube you want to have a well-informed and well-rounded data set to use for evaluation.
Had I not tested Shardless Agent I would have just considered it as a middling U/G pick that barely skirts the surface in many cubes but through testing I am confident that the card is "the real deal" in cube and should have a home in many U/G sections. Had I not tested a card like Searing Blaze in my cube I would have dismissed it as a card that rots in my hand as opposed to its actual performance of typically dealing a ton of damage.
When the Titans were printed a few years ago people knew they were good (at least Sun Titan Grave Titan and Inferno Titan) but they were unsure how good they were; many people preferred traditional finishers that they had years of experience with like Kokusho the Evening Star over Grave Titan. Yet thanks to having years of experience with Grave Titan if you were to ask people for whether Grave Titan or Kokusho is better now they'd immediately say Grave Titan. That's because they have years of experience with Grave Titan that they didn't when the Titans were first spoiled.
Testing won't give you the equivalent of years of gameplay but it will give you some valuable experience that you can use which is especially important if you're considering not running a card due to lack of experience.
I hope that this article has helped to give you some good methods for testing new cards so you can gather some definitive real world data for evaluation.
May all of your opening packs containSol Rings!