I don't think I've ever written about Cube but I am quite the avid cubesman. I don't write about Cube very often because I think it is a very personal format and that you can differ in opinions on what type of cube you want to build what type of cube deck you want to draft and so on and so forth.
That being said everyone else is wrong but me. I'm a Cube snob; I'll admit it.
Back in 2006 my BFF Anthony Avitollo and I built a cube simply by rummaging through our collections (aka Anthony's collection) and pulling out cards that would be fun. After we were done we thought of cards that we could acquire to complete the cube. The most logical scientific process imaginable. You see there weren't any lists for cubes back then on the internets. I had only seen a cube when I saw some Canadians with one at a Grand Prix circa 2002 and I only had a rough idea of what a cube actually entailed.
Because of my involvement with cubes I am partly to blame for the demise of Magic: The Gathering. You see Tom LaPille and I are good friends and Tom got involved with Cube largely because of Anthony and me. Then Tom decided that bringing Cube to the masses would be his avenue into a job at Wizards of the Coast and he was successful at becoming a developer for the game we all love. As a very visible developer Tom is automatically at fault for everything that is wrong with Magic. If you follow my logic you can blame me for anything that is wrong with Magic.
However if Tom (and by extension yours truly) is to blame for everything wrong in Magic he must be praised for the pure bliss that cube drafting entails. In my not-so-humble opinion Cube is the pinnacle of Magic: The Gathering. The representation of what I enjoy about the game of Magic.
Imagine my joy when the finest format in Magic is combined with the 24/7 access that is Magic Online. Yep I'm not going to do anything productive whenever Cube is on Magic Online.
I streamed (twitch.tv/aprosak or the sidebar on the right!) the vast majority of my cubing exploits and I learned quite a bit over the course of drafting the Magic Online Cube. I threw away many drafts just experimenting with various cards. I was pleasantly surprised by many cards I hadn't really had the opportunity to play before in a cube setting.
I would force Storm decks on the regular wondering how bad my deck could get if I missed out on the Storm cards. Turns out the answer is "real bad." However there is no greater feeling than "Tendrils you for 20" and it's well worth the countless failed drafts. During my streams I gathered input from watchers about what cards they liked and didn't like and I came up with a few lists that I would like to share.
I had a blast testing the limits of the Magic Online Cube and any suggestions I have are simply because I love cubing and want the Magic Online Cube to take away all of my time whenever it is available.
The Ugly – Truths About The Magic Online Cube
1. The mana fixing is restrictively bad for beatdown decks.
This was intentional on the part of the Wizards team that developed the MTGO Cube as they didn't want veteran players to just take lands for the first half of a draft without repercussion. This makes it very difficult to splice strategies together. For example you have to choose between a white beatdown deck and a red beatdown deck. You cannot be a Boros deck as even perfect draws won't produce the mana to cast some of your spells. If you want to attempt a Boros deck you need to find two cards (Plateau or Sacred Foundry) in 720 before your mana fixing costs you mana (not the greatest thing in the world for a beatdown deck) or else you're stuck with mono-basics.
Considering there are some fantastic colorless lands available (Strip Mine Mishra's Factory etc.) the best beatdown decks are mono-colored. Another effect of this is that color fixing lands are often first picks. I love drafting lands more than your average person but it's really important for many decks in this cube. One of the best parts of this particular cube is being forced to make the agonizing decision between an overpowered card and a dual land or fetchland.
2. There are over a hundred cards that are unplayable outside of a singular archetype.
Examples of this include cards like Ideas Unbound Obliterate Dream Halls Mind's Desire Sulfuric Vortex and Dauthi Slayer. Reanimator is a favorite planted archetype in many cubes because the majority of the cards can be cast for value in other decks. Animate Dead and Reanimate are solid value cards and nothing screams Reanimator about Liliana of the Veil or Compulsive Research. Even most cube fatties are intended to be cast. Outside of Reanimator most of the combo archetypes don't really overlap into other archetypes so they will be sitting on the bench well over 80% of the time.
3. There are plenty of completely unplayable cards that we'll describe in greater detail later.
Combine 2 and 3 and you will often struggle for playables which is absurd to think about when you're theoretically building a who's who of the most powerful cards in Magic's history. I'm not saying that having to scrap for playables is a fault of the Magic Online Cube but I certainly hate doing it. From a personal standpoint this is my least favorite part of the Magic Online Cube. While I don't want everything to be given to me I don't want to avoid certain strategies simply because I don't know if there is a playable deck even if I am the only drafter anywhere near this strategy.
4. The Magic Online Cube often involves Battlecruiser Magic.
Clash of the Titans. Dragon Cube. Whatever you want to call games that are never decided by something that costs less than six. Because the aggressive decks are so narrow you see a max of 2.5 playable aggressive decks (a mono-red a mono-white and sometimes a mono-black; I've never won a match with Bloodbraid Elf in my deck). Far too often the aggressive decks are forced to play some high-drops due to lack of playables and the games are pushed longer.
While the terrible mana bases some decks are forced to endure leads to some non-games they can often lead to very long games. Nobody is color screwed in a 20-turn game but some decks need the draw steps to hit their land drops. Theoretically the combo decks could help combat this but the combo decks are too unreliable to effectively make a dent in the cube metagame.
5. Blue is the best color in the Magic Online Cube and it's not close.
Green is a distant second but it's still miles ahead of the other three colors. In the world of Battlecruiser Magic counterspells are king and mana acceleration is strong as well. Blue gets to steal much of green's mana acceleration in the form of artifacts while green decks never get access to counterspells unless they are also blue decks. Blue and green are also boosted by the low frequency of cards dedicated to suicidal beatdown. Blue and Green have fewer Genju of the Spires if you will.
In addition while green is the king of color fixing the card drawing in blue does a reasonable approximation of it. If you need a black mana to cast your Terror Rampant Growth is always going to find it but Impulse will find it a good amount of the time assuming you've built your deck correctly (aka not splashing Terror on three black sources).
6. I hate that Wizards is slanting Cube towards a competitive format.
Read the Press Releases from the announcement of Cube as a format for the sixteen-player Players Championship. You could replace any mention of the word Cube with Commander and it wouldn't sound any different. Can you imagine how outraged the Commander community would be if their format was about to be Spiked up?
Much like Commander I view Cube as a way to do things that don't realistically happen in other formats. Things like Ranger of Eos for Mikaeus the Lunarch and Bloodbraid Elf into Epochrasite are part of what makes Cube the fantastic format that it is. I still try my best to win the games but I definitely have motives during the draft that don't involve winning. I'm sure I'm not alone in that mindset. I understand that many tournament players prefer Cube as their casual format of choice but that doesn't mean that Cube is automatically a competitive format.
With regards to the Player's Championship the more worrisome thing is that the current Magic Online Cube is not very Spike friendly. When everyone will be trying to win there simply aren't enough viable strategies. The current cube requires that some of the drafters draft bad decks (like the crazy people that force Storm on the regular...who on earth would do that?) and/or some inexperienced drafters not take their fair share of the good cards. I can assure you that won't be the case at the Player's Championship and if a high stakes tournament was played with the current Magic Online Cube you would see some awful Magic played by some great players simply because there aren't eight reasonable decks available in any given draft.
Not exactly "Must See TV!" If I were to change the cube I would cut out most (but not all) of the narrow strategies (all the Storm cards most of the 2/2s that cost two colored mana cards that only burn their face etc.) all the unplayable cards (to be discussed) and add 5-10 more lands that simply color fix (either painlands or filter lands). In addition I'd add cards that solidify each color/archetypes' mana curves. You know that sixteen players will be poring over the cube list looking for inconsistencies in the cube to exploit. Trust me I'll be sad when the Storm cards leave the cube but for the sake of the Players' Championship they need to go.
That being said changing the prize payout to Time Spiral Block (with concurrent Nix Tix TPF) was a fantastic move in the right direction. I still don't like the fact that I qualified for MOCS doing nothing but cubing but I enjoy low stakes cubing. Commander tournaments suck too. I understand that there are significant complexities that a format like Cube brings to Magic Online but I would love to see the day where Cube can be a constant fixture without ruining the rest of the Magic Online ecosystem. Awesome things tend to be a little too popular for their own good.
It's on three cards in the cube: Horsepie Horsedigger and Horsequake. I know that normal sets have lynchpin cards with nothing to support them but if you're going to support something support it. Awkward unblockability just doesn't sit right with me but I recognize that this is a personal thing.
NO MERFOLK LOOTER EH?
Dear Tom LaPille
-A Giant Fan (not the unhinged card)
9. White Bordered Cards
People didn't buy white bordered sets; logic would dictate that people don't like playing white bordered cards. For as awesome as the alternate art dual lands are Wood Elves just undoes all of that good effort. Also a great excuse to get rid of the stupid horsemanship cards.
The Bad – The 20 Cards That Absolutely Need To Be Cut
Remember when I said I would talk about the unplayable cards in the cube? Well here they are. Let's face it: there are plenty more than 20 cards that need to be cut. And honestly I've played some of them just because I was scrapping for playables. If some of the cards in the cube were more flexible then these would never see the light of day. In many cases there are more powerful options that are not in the cube.
Some of these cards see play but only because they fill specific holes. The rate on all of these cards is really really bad given the cards they are up against. For example Scorned Villager is only fine when there are no other options for acceleration (see Pro Tour Avacyn Restored). Goblin Wardriver is only good when you would kill for an Ironclaw Orcs.
For the record ranking these was really fun. How bad can a card be?
20. Priest of Urabrask - Nobody plays it in Constructed and it doesn't really have a ton of applications. At least Priest of Gix would combo with Recurring Nightmare and build Storm in a better Storm color.
19. Goblin Trenches
These are just cards past their time. When you had to grind out games this was reasonable and Morphling was king. Titans are not grindy cards.
15. Quirion Dryad
14. Goblin Goon
I could write an entire article about nostalgia in the cube as these guys were really good for their time. That's the thing about power creep. Wizards doesn't exactly put drawbacks on oversized creatures these days. So what are these guys doing in the cube?
13. Vulshok Refugee - Balduvian Barbarians with slight upside. There are plenty of exciting three-mana creatures in red; why do you want an edge in the mirror when your deck sucks if anyone else tries to draft it?
12. Thunderblust - It took me about five seconds to think of a trio of five-mana red guys (Arc-Slogger Kumano Master Yamabushi Ancient Hydra) that are way more exciting than this and not in the cube. It's not like everyone is looking to fill out their five-mana slot in red either. This was probably the second most requested card to stay in the cube and I have no idea why.
11. Goblin Legionnaire - AAAAAnd this is the most requested. I don't know which part of impossible to cast Ember Hauler appealed to so many people but this guy is complete garbage. This not Morphling was probably the greatest casualty of removing damage on the stack.
10. Lead the Stampede - If you didn't play the cube at all this card wouldn't stand out. Let's just say if Lead the Stampede was a basic land I still wouldn't add any to any of my decks after the draft. The cube just doesn't work in this card's favor. It's a shame because I really like this card in principle.
9. Cursecatcher - While Force Spike is very good (spoiler alert!) an onboard situational Force Spike is very bad. This was always the worst card in any Merfolk deck it was in and was played solely out of a desire to play a one-drop that could be pumped by Lords not because it was independently a good card.
8. Ruhan of the Fomori - If I want to cast an impossible to cast creature I don't want to have a drawback too! Having to attack is miserable even though it is adorable to "randomly" select your single opponent.
7. Augury Adept - The cube has too many Ophidians. Simply put they aren't that good. Magic is about combat and Ophidians suck when people play creatures. This one is easily the worst as it neither protects itself nor has evasion. At least it's easy to cast and can act as a laughable Grey Ogre. An off color morph would be better most of the time.
5. Tormod's Crypt - Reanimator isn't that good; do you really need a pure hate card? Relic of Progenitus is more acceptable as you can get away with not doing much if you can cycle. If I had my way Relic wouldn't be in the cube so I guess you know how I feel about Tormod's Crypt.
Do you really need Storm hate cards? These cards make me angry.
I couldn't decide which card was more laughable at first but if I asked people for a single card that didn't belong in the cube these were your answers pretty much every time. Two things work in Phantasmal Bear's favor in this case. First I've put the card in a sleeve. I don't think I would play Grim Backwoods in an IID draft deck that was G/B. Second there is a distinct possibility that there was just a typo in the file and that the Bear should be Phantasmal Image. Grim Backwoods has no such excuse. Therefore Grim Backwoods is the worst card in the Magic Online Cube.
Even though the cube is really large I feel that these cards are simply unplayable in all but the most desperate of circumstances. If you want a list of cards that could replace these check out the list at the bottom of this article
The Good – The 20 Most Underrated Cards In The Cube
While the cards on this list have a variety of power levels one thing that is constant is that they are not being drafted as highly as they should be. I couldn't exactly rank their underrated-ness so no rankings are attached.
This is the best card in the cube. One thing that was enlightening about streaming so often was that many players were curious as to why Upheaval was so good until they saw it played usually by yours truly. Let's just say Upheaval and I were good friends for the Magic Online Cube week. To simplify things you basically cast this card with some mana floating so you're essentially using the ultimate ability on Karn Liberated with the power of your restart based on how much mana you could float rather than the number of cards you could exile.
Upheaval is best with mana accelerators (and there are plenty!) but good even if you're simply making fair land drops. It's actually quite hard to lose games where you start with a Blade Splicer in play. That's an eight-mana spell and on the tame end of what is possible with this card. Do not pass this card. Ever.
I've signed the Shelldock Isle in Anthony Avitollo's cube. Anyone that played during this block knows how powerful triggering a hideaway land is. Not only is it a free spell but it doesn't cost you a card (the land still makes mana) and you get excellent card quality from your free spell. Now imagine that you don't have to do much other than play Magic to trigger this card.
Play a normal blue deck and you'll almost assuredly trigger this before the game ends. Obviously Upheaval is the greatest thing you can possibly put under this card (you can replay the Isle as well!) but there are plenty of very fun cards that are much more powerful when they can be played at two mana for instant speed.
Because the Magic Online Cube is so top heavy cards that can produce multiple mana are at a premium. Gilded Lotus is likely a Top 20 card in the cube (maybe even Top 10!). Joraga Treespeaker is much better than Lotus Cobra as it's very difficult to make multiple mana from Lotus Cobra and even Dark Ritual is a solid card for playing cards like Grave Titan ahead of schedule.
I initially had Mirari's Wake on this list but I was convinced to take it off after everyone assured me that it was considered one of the absolute best cards in the cube. Mirari's Wake combos with a ton of cards and I've seen more than my fair share of decks that are essentially Mirari's Wake or bust.
Mana denial is one of the most important aspects of the cube as it is one of the few ways to combat Battlecruiser Magic. As mana denial is an element of strategy that does not really exist in modern Magic I feel that it is misunderstood by many players that weren't around for the days of Avalanche Riders into Plow Under.
Basically time is a very valuable resource and these cards can generate the extra turn (or two) that you need to prevent your opponent from casting big cards. This is true both for beatdown decks and slower decks. I have drafted plenty of decks where Rishadan Port is stronger than Wasteland (although Wasteland is generally the better card) simply because I'll want to keep my land in play while denying them mana.
Basically if you're going to go big you're going to need to go big with multiple cards most of the time. Someone is going to try to match you or go over the top and these are cards you can pick up in the middle of a pack that are exceptional. Basically these cards allow you to do multiple big things.
Palinchron in particular is very underrated and I happily play it in all sorts of decks. If you have nothing else going on it's a 4/5 flier that's immune to sorcery speed removal. Most of the time however it's fairly similar to a turbo charged Broodmate Dragon. Martial Coup might be the strongest Wrath effect in the cube and swings tons of games. Easily first pickable. This category could also be titled "Cards That Are Insane With Mirari's Wake." Do you like infinite mana?
Equipment in nearly any cube is excellent and all five Swords are easily first pickable. That being said these equipment are quite efficient yet very underrated. I feel that Bonesplitter should be in any cube this large and Manriki-Gusari offers similar efficiency. Ignore the text about destroying other equipment; this card is efficient! The fact that it can bail you out of otherwise dangerous situations involving seven powerhouse equipment (the five Swords plus Umezawa's Jitte and a certain other equipment...) is just extra spice that won't come up often but also costs you nothing.
Grafted Wargear on the other hand is very close to the power level of the Swords simply because it is free to equip. There are obvious drawbacks in that you lose the creature if the equipment gets blown up and you can't voluntarily move the Wargear around without consequences but you can't move soulbond around at your leisure either. That mechanic seems to be good. As for getting it blown up there are probably a half dozen cards that blow it up for less than five mana. Also put it on your Wolf token and not your Huntmaster.
These are just incredibly efficient cards. Keldon Champion is a high impact Keldon Marauders. Zac Hill told my stream that he'd rather see Mana Leak in Standard than Miscalculation and this. Dismember is a colorless Swords to Plowshares in a cube without a ton of removal and Tainted Pact is an Impulse on steroids. Seriously Tainted Pact is often a last pick and provided you aren't playing double digits of a basic land this card is fantastic.
It probably backfires on me about 5% of the time and I am really greedy with it. You will never hit a copy of anything but a basic land and I've built decks where it cannot backfire making it a 15th pick cross between Demonic Tutor and Demonic Consultation. If you're into analogies (or practicing for your SATs!) Demonic Tutor : Demonic Consultation :: Impulse : Tainted Pact.
Smokestack gets its own section. Smokestack wasn't in the majority of cubes I played in for the longest time. Now it is. It is an extremely fun card to build a deck around and when people ask me what my favorite archetype is to draft I reply with "Smokestack decks." Basically your goal with Smokestack is to generate extra permanents somehow (Gravecrawler Bloodghast Crucible of Worlds) and then use Smokestack (and/or Braids Cabal Minion) to keep your opponent's permanents at a minimum.
Smokestack is basically the final piece of a low curve mana denial deck. It's at its best in black decks (alongside Hymn to Tourach) but I've played it with the likes of Cloudgoat Ranger Kjeldoran Outpost and Increasing Devotion(!) to ramp it up beyond two (where I generally try to keep it in black decks)
Thank you for tagging along on my journey through the Magic Online Cube. I love cubing and I want the cube to be the best possible for all interested parties. While I am but one of the many interested parties I felt obligated to share my many thoughts on my idea of pure Magic bliss. I considered making a few more lists (AVR cards to include 20 best cards overall) but I felt that would be too many lists for a single article. There is a list of possible additions to the cube below. If you are interested in these or other rankings let me know and I will do my best to accommodate.
I don't advocate all of these but they are certainly worth considering
Progenitus / Blightsteel Colossus
Teferi Mage of Zhalfir
Glare of Subdual
Kessig Wolf Run / Moorland Haunt / Gavony Township
Delver of Secrets
Crystal Shard / Erratic Portal
Oath of Druids (Probably not but Black Vise and Channel are in amirite?)
Eureka (A third Show and Tell / Dream Halls.)
Obelisk of Alara
Door to Nothingness (No seriously it's super fun. And significantly easier than killing someone with Tendrils of Agony.)