The new cube is out on Magic Online! You probably want to be drafting it right now! But you'd probably like to learn to understand it better too so let's see if I can offer some quick help with the changes.
The cube is full of powerful spells; with most cubes that's the point. When spells are powerful they're often difficult to answer. This makes proactive strategies particularly appealing. It doesn't matter how powerful a spell is if the opponent can never cast it so killing them before they can do that is one of the best strategies. This is how decks like mono red become popular.
Control decks are much more like modern big threat decks than the old grindy "answer everything" control decks from the 90s. In Limited you can sometimes build a grindy control deck that has good answers and few good threats because most threats in Limited are commons that can usually be answered by "destroy target creature." In Cube there are great creatures you need to be able to answer but your opponent is likely to have a planeswalker or game changing sorcery like Upheaval Genesis Wave or Cruel Ultimatum. "All removal" is a horrible deck in Cube.
A control deck in Cube is generally a deck that looks to buy a little time to cast ridiculously powerful spells rather than trying to steal wins with one- and two-drops. If you want to play a serious control deck you need extremely broad answers. For example Murder is too narrow—you could include it but you should not rely on it. Oblivion Ring is a start. Realistically you're going to need counterspells which is part of why blue is often overdrafted. It's the only way to play that kind of game. In addition to counterspells you'll probably need something like Upheaval to answer anything or Armageddon or Opposition to really lock your opponent out though obviously both of those are better in creature strategies.
The counterspell decks can be awesome particularly if they get the exact right mix of counter mana card draw and huge threats but for the most part it's probably best to stick to something more proactive.
This is why popular strategies you hear about are things like mono-color aggro Reanimator ramp or maybe even storm. They're all just playing their own game to try to get the opponent dead in a way that mostly ignores what the other player is doing.
To me one of the more legitimate criticisms of Cube is that the games aren't interactive enough. When powerful spells are so diverse it's just not worth trying to interact. Instead the winner is the person who drafts the best plan. It's almost like everyone at the table drafts a deck and then they all sit around and goldfish them and whoever has the deck that can consistently do the most ridiculous things is declared the winner.
If you're very familiar with cubes in general you probably knew this already and have probably already drafted the previous Magic Online Cubes. You're just interested in catching up on the changes so let's look at those.
Changes from the Previous Magic Online Cube
Every color lost one more card than it gained to help make room for ten new lands. Every color is down from 100 cards to 99 cards except black which gained Lashwrithe in this update and is now down to 98 cards.
Anyway white gained three good aggressive cards and lost one reasonable but largely unimpressive aggro card and three narrow awkward cards. Clearly this is an improvement for white aggro but how significant is getting three new cards? Well my quick count shows roughly just under fifty cards that are generally aggressive and white though many of them are much worse of more narrow than these three so realistically we're looking at 5-10% more white aggro cards.
More importantly Sublime Archangel and Ajani Caller of the Pride are the kind of high impact cards that can basically win games by themselves which white aggro like everyone else is really looking for. I think it's particularly important for white aggro since most of your deck is going to be pretty low impact so you need a few big spells to really push you over the top. While these are certainly not Armageddon they're closer to that kind of role than to an Elite Vanguard kind of role. Overall this change is relevantly good for white aggro.
However all of these cards really are primarily aggressive in nature so while few white decks lost anything important this makes white control very slightly worse because you're more likely to be competing with more people at the table for flexible cards that every white player wants like Swords to Plowshares and Oblivion Ring.
I love Augur of Bolas and Talrand's probably fine. I'm happy to see Temporal Mastery go but I kind of wish we could have gotten Time Warp back. I like Fettergeist and I'm torn Trinket Mage. It's very good but it often feels like a gamble as to whether you'll get an awesome artifact for him or not. I think I like him in powered cubes where you're more likely to at least have a Mox for him to grab but I can see cutting him from this cube. I guess Fettergeist is really narrow since so many decks want creatures and his body isn't that impressive. Alright all good changes.
I'm not sure how good Talrand is. You're not going to be casting a Phyrexian mana spell the turn you cast him so unless you play him very late the opponent gets a turn to kill him and then he makes a few Drakes. Is that really that impressive in this format? I think it's not. My guess is that he'll be cut with the next update.
Augur of Bolas is awesome though. The spell decks love the cheap roadblock against aggressive decks and it's easy to have plenty of targets so he'll usually hit something.
All in all these changes are almost completely irrelevant for how blue should be drafted as a color.
Skithiryx the Blight Dragon
Visara the Dreadful
Xiahou Dun the One-Eyed
Decree of Pain
And here we see a major overhaul. This is great because black clearly needed one. Black was extremely weak in this cube before so the question is whether this was the change it needed to make it a real color.
My first reaction is confusion. At the point where you're adding Sorin's Thirst you're clearly trying to do something. Either that or you entered Sorin's Vengeance into a file incorrectly (speaking of which that might be a card worth trying). With the addition of Tendrils of Corruption and Corrupt it looks like they're trying to give black some life gain to support Necropotence. I like the direction but I have no idea why you'd cut Vampire Nighthawk if that's the goal. I'd really like to see this pushed further in the next update. I'd like Vampire Nighthawk Blood Artist and Ribbons of Night for additional life gain to support adding Yawgmoth's Bargain to help Necropotence as a strategy. I hope that they don't see going halfway as a failure and back away from it entirely.
Greater Cube theory aside let's look at how this actually changes the color.
Demonic Taskmaster Skithiryx Skittering Skirge Xiahou Dun the One-Eyed Demonic Rising and Unearth are weak or narrow enough that I'd generally expect them not to end up in people's decks. Massacre Wurm Visara and Decree of Pain are largely arbitrary big spells. Snuff Out is a fine removal spell but nothing special. Vampire Nighthawk is a pretty good man but he just fills the solid man role and is not a real game changer for the most part. Okiba-Gang Shinobi is a powerful card but it's much better against some decks than others and fairly narrow in what decks it can go in. Overall I'd say black lost around three reasonable aggro cards three reasonable control cards and six filler cards. That sounds pretty good.
What did it gain? Carnophage Vampire Lacerator Night of Infamy and Nantuko Shade try to breathe life into black aggro. I'm not optimistic about this deck but at least these cards have a theoretical place.
Nefarox Overlord of Grixis just seems like a worse six-drop than Visara or Massacre Wurm that made the cut just to get more M13 cards in just like they did with all the Avacyn Restored cards that are being cut with this update. Again if you like this guy draft him now because he probably won't be around the next time the cube's back (hint: you shouldn't like this guy).
Attrition is an interesting card. It can just beat some decks in combination with an active Gravecrawler Bitterblossom Bloodghast or other token generator but it's very slow and clunky. Powerful enough that it's fine to have around but definitely a little narrow.
Liliana of the Dark Realms isn't the greatest planeswalker but I'm not sure that she's really just another M13 throw in. I think she's a little better than people give her credit for and the Swamp based removal spells definitely help her out.
Sorin's Thirst Tendril's of Corruption and Corrupt will either make mono-black or mostly black control playable or do basically nothing. Sorin's Thirst is a fine card in half black control decks that need to hedge against aggro but for the most part these cards are all looking to support black control. My advice is to ignore them unless you get Necropotence early but I know that I'm actively interested in trying to draft around Necropotence now if I get one to see if these changes work.
Overall the changes were less radical than I'd like. Aggro lost three midrange cards and gained some very aggressive cards pushing it more toward what it would probably like to be. Control lost some big spells and gained some answers which is also probably an upgrade and narrow but powerful cards changed around (Demonic Rising -> Attrition).
The bigger changes come in the artifacts which I'll get to later.
All in all I'd say black is marginally better but still not there. But we'll see—if it's good enough it's largely because of the artifact changes.
Obviously Arc Lightning -> Flames of the Firebrand is purely cosmetic. So really we're looking at adding two cards and cutting three. Basically Aftershock a laughable blank (maybe someone sided it in once but I don't think I've ever seen anyone actively draft it) was replaced by nothing which is a huge upgrade Keldon Champion became Thundermaw Hellkite and Volcanic Fallout became Magmaquake.
I like these changes. I've always hated Keldon Champion. I know he has supporters but I think he's just bad. He wants to go in the mono-red aggro deck but it'd rather have any one-drop than him. Four is just too much mana for that deck. You can play things that cost four but you should never be actively looking for them so he'll always go in a deck that's kind of willing to play him but shouldn't really want him. That's not what I look for in a Cube card.
Thundermaw Hellkite is even more expensive so by the same token I shouldn't want him in my mono-red aggro decks. To some extent that's true. He's not what I'm looking for the nut Mono Red draft deck but the card is insanely powerful and CAN go in any red deck so it's a huge step up.
Volcanic Fallout has always been extremely awkward in the cube. It was printed essentially as a dedicated hate card for Faeries so it's just a little out of place anywhere else. Aggro decks don't want a three-mana two-damage spell that kills their guys and control decks would rather not take two to kill their opponent's little guys. I'm not in love with Magmaquake but at least a control deck can happily play it without feeling like their doing their opponent's work for them.
Minor changes but all steps in the right direction.
I've played all of the green cards that were removed. Chameleon Colossus and Primordial Hydra are fine threats that give you something to do with a lot of mana but they're not amazing and are definite filler. Scorned Villager and Werebear are among the worst accelerators. There are a ton of green creatures that tap for mana in this cube probably enough that it forces green to be about them a little more than it should. I don't mind that because I think they're what green wants to be about anyway. I'm sad to see Scorned Villager go because tapping for two is amazing and that usually happens at some point. Werebear was the worst mana creature and he sometimes didn't make the cut because you'd have too much of that effect anyway.
In exchange we get Thragtusk who's just the greatest. If no other green cards were added green might be stronger as a color for having him even if it had to pay several cards to get it. Yeva is very similar to Chameleon Colossus in that it's not particularly what any deck is trying to do but can randomly be sweet against some decks. This is mostly just because some decks are bad against 4/4s and sometimes their abilities line up well. We also get Flinthoof Boar which is really a gold card but is excellent in green/red aggro. So it's basically like we did have to pay an extra card for Thragtusk but again: worth it!
Dryad Militant is a nice card. It's weak enough that I don't really care about it but the fact that there are twice as many decks that might want it because of its hybrid cost makes it easily earn its spot.
As for the other changes: awesome. This doesn't really matter for anyone in particular but mostly I'm glad the decision was made to move away from three-color creatures. They're just too much work to support for not enough payoff. I hope this means Woolly Thoctar is next (three-colored cards that give you more time to find the colors by costing some colorless as well like Broodmate Dragon are less of a problem).
Lashwrithe is treated as a black card in this update which is weird because I'm not sure if other color-aligned cards that aren't technically colored are balanced but it definitely happened here. Well it's a powerful card that any very heavy black deck is happy to have.
Cutting two Swords is the more interesting change. Moving away from Swords hurts green white and black creature decks a lot. Those decks don't do much unless you have equipment and they lean pretty heavily on Swords to steal wins. That said I like that we don't have five copies of basically the same card now.
What's more interesting is that it was specifically the protection from black swords that were removed. Because black had no way to deal with artifacts these Swords were extremely hard for black decks to beat and may have subtly been one of the bigger problems for the archetype. Removing them is probably more significant than any of the actual changes to black as a color in terms of making mono-black a viable strategy. This was a very "outside the box" type solution to a very real problem for the cube. I'm impressed and happy with this change.
Hellion Crucible is probably better than Ghitu Encampment but this change is pretty minor. City of Traitors is powerful but awkward enough that I don't think I've ever played it while Cathedral of War is sweet in any mono-colored aggro deck.
Slots were trimmed everywhere to make room for ten painlands. I like more lands to some extent but I wish these had been filters or Ravnica bouncelands on power level.
Clearly power level was not the defining factor here.
Painlands are awkward for supporting multicolor decks because then they're likely to be your only source of a color for a long time which can force you to take damage from them for several turns. In a two-color deck they're a minor hedge that often won't do more than a few points of damage to you.
Overall I think this change was made specifically to help two-color aggro decks and decks that are either two-color or aggro. Painlands being around means aggro decks will have to do a little less damage on average to win games so I think this is a good change because the cube was pushed a little against aggro in the past.
Black and aggro generally are relevantly better than they were before (I think there are enough things working for aggro to make up for losing two Swords). Most other things are largely the same. A change can remove a deck entirely (storm for example is always in danger of just getting cut) but I don't think anything was really gutted here. All the old decks are still around and more aggro decks are viable—sounds like we have more options to me. Great work WotC!
Now get to drafting!
Thanks for reading
@samuelhblack on Twitter
I am Simic. I don't care that much about beating my opponent. I just want to learn and grow as a player.