11:48 AM sulivan casts Dream Halls.
11:48 AM sulivan discards Nucklavee.
11:48 AM sulivan casts Cruel Ultimatum targeting adonseth.
11:48 AM adonseth sacrifices Wall of Blossoms.
11:48 AM adonseth discards Bonfire of the Damned.
11:48 AM adonseth discards Great Sable Stag.
11:48 AM adonseth discards Strangleroot Geist.
11:49 AM sulivan chooses Nucklavee.
11:49 AM Nucklavee is returned to sulivan's hand from the graveyard.
11:50 AM sulivan discards Gathan Raiders.
11:50 AM sulivan casts Nucklavee.
11:51 AM sulivan puts triggered ability from Nucklavee onto the stack targeting Cruel Ultimatum.
11:51 AM No legal targets to choose for Nucklavee's triggered ability.
11:51 AM Cruel Ultimatum is returned to sulivan's hand from the graveyard.
11:51 AM sulivan discards Putrid Imp.
11:51 AM sulivan casts Cruel Ultimatum targeting adonseth.
11:52 AM adonseth sacrifices Faerie Rogue token.
11:52 AM adonseth discards Bloodbraid Elf.
11:52 AM adonseth discards Maelstrom Pulse.
11:52 AM adonseth discards Huntmaster of the Fells.
11:52 AM sulivan chooses Gathan Raiders.
11:52 AM Gathan Raiders is returned to sulivan's hand from the graveyard.
11:53 AM sulivan discards Control Magic.
11:53 AM sulivan casts Time Spiral.
11:53 AM sulivan discards Vesuvan Shapeshifter.
11:53 AM sulivan casts Cruel Ultimatum targeting adonseth.
11:53 AM adonseth sacrifices Faerie Rogue token.
11:53 AM adonseth discards Forest.
11:53 AM adonseth discards Sulfurous Springs.
11:53 AM adonseth discards Garruk Relentless.
11:54 AM sulivan chooses Vesuvan Shapeshifter.
11:54 AM Vesuvan Shapeshifter is returned to sulivan's hand from the graveyard.
11:54 AM sulivan casts Vesuvan Shapeshifter.
11:54 AM sulivan puts triggered ability from Nucklavee onto the stack targeting Cruel Ultimatum.
11:54 AM No legal targets to choose for Nucklavee's triggered ability.
11:54 AM adonseth has conceded from the game.
This was not your average Magic Online Cube Draft match though it really should be.
Consistently I have found myself bounced from the first round with what I thought was a slice of heaven in my hands. I am going to share with what you exactly I was doing wrong and then show you how that all changed with an innovative and beautiful approach to Cube that Ben Hayes has turned me on to.
My development in Magic Online Cube understanding is approximately as follows:
Stage 1 – Identified Green/x (preferably blue) Ramp as the premier and *only* strategy. This was during the first iteration of the Cube and this principle was almost certainly true. The deck went over the top of everything at a speed that matched or exceeded the decks trying to go under it making it all but unmatched when things worked out. Cards were available to disrupt this strategy but not at the same rate of consistency at which you could roll people over.
Stage 2 – Continued forcing Green/x Ramp even when it was no longer good. This phase existed at the beginning of last week when the cube returned to Magic Online. I do not follow card list changes to the cube but somewhere between them removing some of the ramp cards and the community identifying this strategy as dominant the deck became too hard to get. I found myself losing to decks that more closely resembled hyper-powered Limited decks than singleton Constructed which really should not be the case given what was available.
Stage 3 – Joined the fray and begin playing midrange decks. There is nothing worse in Magic than when you find yourself handcuffed from making decisions during your matches. After growing sick and tired of losing to Creakwood Liege while my Avenger of Zendikar rotted in my hand I assumed that I could just do "it" better—draft more balanced decks in the same archetypes play circles around these people etc. This was mostly true and my match win rate began to jump from its previous 0%. However I failed to ever actually close out a Draft event ultimately falling to someone casting an accelerated Upheaval or an Obliterate onto a planeswalker-filled board.
This is largely where I found myself stuck. I began doing my homework asking for copies of Tim Aten's draft recordings and watching Josh Ravitz or Greg Hatch on stream. While all three were capable of getting "fancy" from time to time it often just felt like things were falling into their lap as they opened Skullclamp or Jace for the umpteenth time.Meanwhile I was deciding whether I should spend my first pick on Kird Ape or Loam Lion wondering where the hell I went wrong in life.
It was time for some drastic changes.
Luckily for me SCG Invitational Top 8 competitor Ben Hayes makes frequent appearances on my Facebook feed and this week he was looking to show everybody the shenanigans he was pulling off.
"Using your opponent's Noble Hierarch to make their Griselbrand get them to 21 so you can deck them and put them to zero life at the same time is one of the many fun things you can do with a Mindslaver. #MTGOCube"
Intrigued and desperate for help I contacted Ben to see just what he was doing differently.
For those who don't know him Ben is much more of a gamer than a competitor (think Sam Black) a stark contrast to my own mentality when approaching Magic. While this often draws him more towards to what he finds interesting than what is abstractly good there is something to be said for not having your creativity stifled. This has allowed him to flourish in Cube because as it turns out the most ridiculous things that you can do are also the most powerful and degenerate.
The first thing that Ben had to tell me was that he goes into every draft trying to build a Constructed deck. This has two major implications the first rather obvious and the second more subtle but key to the direction that Ben takes.
Ben always drafts with a vision of what his final 40 should look like. This is frustrating advice because it is something that is always said whenever a Limited format debuts but it truly matters here. The plan is no different than usual—balance your creatures removal filtering—except that you can hone in on the specifics a bit more in Cube. Instead of asking yourself how many four-drops you need you might be deciding what the appropriate number of Wrath effects will be for this particular deck. This process is made difficult by the randomness of Cube both because you don't know what cards will be available in any given draft and because signals are fairly nonexistent.
More to the heart of this article if you are building a Constructed deck you should be doing broken things. Zvi told us to never play fair. We remember the premier event of New Orleans in 2003 as PT Tinker. The first thing that the community tries to figure out when a new set is released is how to go infinite with Gilded Lotus and Deadeye Navigator not how to update our G/R Aggro deck. There is a reason for these things and there is a reason why Ben ends up drafting Storm almost every single draft.
Much like any given Magic format both Limited and Constructed Cube has a metagame. There are the aforementioned G/x ramp strategies U/x control variants and a host of mono-colored beatdown decks. It's like everyone forgot that Lion's Eye Diamond and Yawgmoth's Will were available.
We click our lives away jamming our Ball Lightnings and Sword-equipped creatures into unflipped morphs but why do that when we can just Tendrils them for the full 20? There are a couple of simple explanations for this.
There is an incredibly high availability of midrange cards. It is very easy to fill out your deck's curve and spell requirements because there are enough to go around for everyone. The holes are made identifiable because your decks resemble most of your other 40-card constructs with thirteen to eighteen creatures and some removal. Additionally this strategy allows you to take lands and other fixing over spells because they are all interchangeable; a Frost Titan is a Consecrated Sphinx is a Keiga. In laymen's terms these decks are simpler to piece together. The decisions are both easily bifurcated (do I need a two-drop or a three-drop?) and less punishing because there are enough different cards that fill the same function.
Additionally the biggest hump is that the broken cards are not easy to understand. It's not hard for every person to identify that Restoration Angel and Thragtusk work well together but it might take an entire community to figure out what you are supposed to do with Dream Halls. While these decks are not leaps and bounds more difficult to compose they are at the very least foreign to most of us. The learning curve is high because it is different and people are always afraid of what's different.
At this point I can move on from the concepts to the specifics of this approach.
There are four main categories of cards that you care about: card draw/filtering ramp/fixing combo pieces and fatties. The first two categories are self-explanatory with the difference between Grim Monolith and Underground Sea or Looter il-Kor and Fact or Fiction being semantics. Combo pieces include various engines and game-ending winners including Dream Halls Mind's Desire and pretty much anything you would associate with the namesake term. Fatties are any of the interchangeable big guys that can serve as an arbitrary sink for lots of mana or other shells that you may integrate into your strategy such as Reanimator or Show and Tell plans.
Of these categories only the first two have to be fought over as they are desirable to every player at the table. Because nobody knows what to do with Time Spiral it will always go late so taking Careful Consideration over it and banking on it wheeling is not only acceptable but probably necessary.
Through pack 1 you are looking to (at the very least) build a foundation. Often times you will not see any of the so-called "key" cards available in the first eight picks. Do not panic. While it is obviously preferable to have picked up a few combo pieces you want to make sure that you have not locked yourself out of being able to move in during the next pack. This means not taking Ink-Eyes or Phantom Centaur or any other non-combo creature.
The following is the first fifteen cards from one of Ben's drafts in order:
Augur of Bolas
Lion's Eye Diamond
Caves of Koilos
Elves of Deep Shadow
Relic of Progenitus
To most spectators I am sure this looks like he goof-grabbed on every pick. However he has three pieces of filtering (Augur Consideration and Brainstorm) a few combo pieces (LED Turnabout Rude Awakening) and several ramp/fixers (Colonnade Caves Dynamo Fertile Ground). While that is only eight spells out of the first fifteen picks you have to remember that you only need 23 to fill out your deck. It is by this same logic that you can afford to take lands so high—you end up only playing just over half of your picks. Do not be afraid to "miss" in any given pack as there really isn't much difference between having 25 and 35 playables for this style of deck.
Despite what I said earlier regarding the unpredictability of Cube openings there is an element of trust that is necessary. The fact is that the deck will sort itself out from a start like this. Just as I've described the midrange cards to be interchangeable so are the combo pieces—it just isn't quite as obvious. If it's not Tinker this draft then it will be Mirari's Wake or whatever.
On that note the most powerful cards are probably the Tutors (Demonic Vampiric Mystical and Enlightened as well as Imperial Seal) followed by Yawgmoth's Will and Time Spiral because they don't need much else to "go off" with.
The next 30 picks played out as follows:
Show and Tell
Tendrils of Agony (passing Frantic Search)
Tooth and Nail
Brain Freeze (passing Seething Song Misty Rainforest Sphinx of the Steel Wind Eternal Witness)
Pact of Negation
Blue Elemental Blast
Mirari's Wake (passing Myr Battlesphere)
Sphinx of the Steel Wind
While it certainly seems like everything just fell into his lap that is kind of the point. When you simply aren't fighting anyone at the table for cards that you would gladly second or third pick your deck should routinely turn out to be at this power level.
Lion's Eye Diamond
Elves of Deep Shadow
Augur of Bolas
Tendrils of Agony
Sphinx of the Steel Wind
Caves of Koilos
I am going to be really blunt and honest with you guys here. I was as excited to play Cube as the next guy (and everyone certainly is) but being able to draft construct and play with a deck like this takes me to a whole other level. Magic Online is no longer some draining slugfest for tickets by the hour; I feel alive playing Magic again. Hell I even picked up the proverbially pen to share this with you because of it. If that isn't enough of an indicator of what's going on here for you guys please tell me what is.
I would like to add a few closing notes before I finish things here.
Things are going to change because of this article. There are enough combo cards to go around because at most one person is happily scooping them up at any given draft table right now. As more people gravitate towards this strategy (as they should) it will become increasingly difficult to draft. At some point this may become cyclical and you will again find yourself taking Frantic Search on the wheel but your mileage may vary.
To the main reason that I wrote this article – I implore you to please apply this strategy in other areas of Magic. While I hope to have introduced you to something new and powerful that you can try out the next time you find yourself with eight in the queue this article is hardly just about Cube. I am not trying to tell you to stray from your Sentinel Spiders for Mind Sculpts in M13 but you may want to reconsider those Bloodbraid Elves you are casting in Modern when there are tools to make infinite attackers on turn 4 Reanimate a Griselbrand on turn2 or Grapeshot someone for half a million. When the tools present themselves you should never be toughing it out on the same playing field as every other player in the room.
I would greatly appreciate any feedback criticism or commentary you have for me in the comments. Thanks for reading guys.
P.S. Be sure to check both of the aforementioned streams out!