Hello everyone and welcome to ^3. In this article (series?) I will discuss the finer points of building, maintaining, and playing Magic’s most exciting format/rhomboid: the Cube. For those sorrowfully unfamiliar, Cube is a “build-your-own” limited format- a singleton collection of cards selected by the owner from throughout Magic’s history, built with the express purpose of crushing all of your friends in a draft, sealed, or whatever disgusting deviant format you enjoy in the dark corners of your local shop. You’ve probably seen cube owners wandering around before, clutching an 800-count cardboard box to their breast as if it were their first-born, desperately searching for a 6th drafter.
The basics of cube construction and play have been pretty well covered, and I won’t belabor them here. Evan Erwin’s cubedrafting.com and this site’s very own Tristan Shaun Gregson provide excellent resources for getting started on a cube, with lists including many of the most common staples for a standard Cube. Here, on the other hand, I would like to examine the process of actually developing your Cube as a complete limited format. I will assume a familiarity that is, if not as intimate and frowned upon by our oppressive social mores as mine, at least passing on behalf of the reader.
What qualifies me to write on such an important topic? It has nothing to do with my natural abilities as a player, that much is certain. Though, what I lack in quality I make up for in quantity. I am an insatiable Cube addict, and I’ve played with a lot of cubes. I look forward to PTQ’s so I can drop and Cube (since lately my winning one seems about as remote a possibility as my discovering I have super powers). I show up to 5k’s precisely two hours late to find the 0-2-drop bunch and lure them into a rage draft. I’m annoyed when my friends do well at tournaments as they are delaying the inevitable consolation pod. In short: my name is Andy, and I am a Cube-a-holic.
Aggression is the Key
Let me start by saying that the great thing about Cube is that you can make it your own. Pet cards, nostalgia, and general fun-factor are all respectable considerations when making an inclusion. However, when I construct my cube, I seek to create a true limited format. As a result, complexity, power level, and above all competitiveness (and by extension balance) are the primary criteria by which I evaluate any change I make. Thus, I will begin this series by laying out the case for what I believe is the cornerstone of a great Cube: Aggro as a dominant, not merely viable, strategy.
Enjoying Cube is all about casting powerful spells that we don’t get to play with any more. And, truly, there is nothing more satisfying than watching your best friend’s face as you resolve Upheaval, Stroke of Genius, or Recurring Nightmare. Turn two 11/11s, arbitrarily large amounts of mana, and hard locks are the kinds of game states that excite people in cube.
There needs to be a cost to playing these strategies, though. The game should be more than just a slugfest of higher and higher trump cards. With the exception of a quick entomb/reanimate, it makes the early turns of the game a race to the late game, and it means that a card that has as profound an impact on the game as say, Bribery, is always a first pick, and will always nearly auto-win the game. After all, there’s only one in the cube and a good deal of unique effects that only a counterspell can deal with directly (Or, in the case of Decree of Justice or Banefire, not even those do the trick). The answer is creating powerful aggressive strategies that punish decks that simply want to ramp and play powerful spells.
If you can make aggro a true force to be reckoned with in Cube, you accrue a number of positive results:
• Games shorten, which in turn drastically reduces the power level of cards that take over once the game goes long. Shipping the turn with four mana up and the devious intent to resolve an EOT Fact or Fiction is much less back-breaking when your opponent already has three dudes in play. In fact, they’re down-right happy that you didn’t do something useful like, you know, not dying. Cube shouldn’t be a format that is just about how much card advantage you can generate – this isn’t mental magic. As much fun as durdling is, punishing the durdlers is just as gratifying. More specifically on this point, you lessen the impact of Planeswalkers. Planeswalkers may be at their most annoying in Cube, since in a singleton format, there really is a dearth of cards that answer them, and Wizards doesn’t seem intent on stemming the flow of Cube-worthy ones any time soon. However, the faster you are able to develop board presence, the less effective Planeswalkers become. In essence, the great cards are still great, but forcing your opponent to cast them on the back foot makes them much more fair.
• You enable a much richer drafting experience. Most experienced cube drafters know that when you sit down with a new cube, you start by looking for the blue cards. It’s really hard to go wrong when you end up with 15 blue cards in your stack. The result, without fail, is that multiple drafters will be fighting over blue, and the green, white aggro, and to a lesser extent red players fell into their colors because they were wide open. Once aggro is actually sought after, the process of drafting becomes much more enjoyable as players are willing to pass instrumental control cards, following a specific plan becomes a reality, and everyone’s deck becomes better as a result.
• You create a more skill testing environment – As I mentioned earlier, one of my goals in creating a cube is to create an environment that is skill testing, and having a solid aggro segment to your cube helps to create that by increasing the number of hard picks that you have during a draft. Beside just questions of taking the first pick Counterspell or Keldon Champion, you are also forced to draft a deck that can not only compete with big mana decks, but with decks that have a turn 4 clock. Do you take the signet or the wrath? The Future Sight or the Swords to Plowshares? You are drafting the best deck possible against a wide range of strategies, not just the intrinsically most powerful deck.
• Games become much more interactive. I know I’m not the only one who is a little tired of Wizards constantly pushing “creatures matter”, but you shouldn’t use your cube as a coping method. By far the most powerful cards in Magic have been non-creature spells. But, once again, the only way to combat these are with harder to find enchantment/artifact/permanent destruction, or counterspells. By making aggressive creatures important in your cube, you force players to remain honest. They have to prioritize removal and mana-fixing to avoid stumbling and simply dying to an early dork. Counterspells become less important as more spells sneak under them, and they don’t affect the board. Loading up on late game cards becomes a recipe for disaster.
• Cube becomes more fun for first-timers. Often when I see someone sit down to their first cube draft, they hesitate to move into control. It’s very hard to know what the correct answers are if you don’t know what kind of questions the cube is answering. Should I have to worry about a lot of reanimation effects? Is combo a concern? Do I need to draft around Armageddon? Unfortunately, in many cubes this serves as a punishment rather than a reward for smart drafting (after all, if you don’t know a format, you probably should be trying to beat down). There isn’t anything much more discouraging than taking a first pick Cursed Scroll only to find that there isn’t a viable deck that really abuses the card. We want more people cubing, and finding out that all you did was filter out the chaff that nobody who knows the cube would draft anyway is a sure fire way to turn a potential new player away from the format.
• Lastly, you shorten games. I mentioned this already you say? Cube drafting takes a long time, and how are we supposed to run it back if you and the be-hoodied infinite-shuffle-effects guy are in a “race” to deck each other? More aggro means more time for more cubing, and that’s a cause I can really get behind.
Despite these factors, the vast majority of cubes I see neglect aggressive inclusions in favor of cards the owner views as inherently “more powerful”. Beatdowns get something of a bad rap in cube; just take a look at the “First Four Picks” feature on the aforementioned cubedrafting.com to see how often a truly aggressive card is taken over a more controlling one.
There is a reason for this, of course. With the exception of a few big hits like Armageddon, Aggro has very few cards that can compete on pure power level with the vast majority of the cards available to control. After all, when talking about a selection of the most powerful cards in Magic’s history, blue has been the uncontested top dog since Alpha. To compensate, we need to make some changes to push aggro up into the big leagues…
Aggro-izing your Cube
Recognizing the importance of strong aggressive strategies in your cube is all well and good, but what’s the best way to go about it? I’ve experimented with a variety of options that can be boiled down to three distinct categories: Adding cards that strengthen aggressive strategies, removing cards that make drafting them a losing proposition, and changing the cards themselves to correct the intrinsic imbalance between aggro and control in Cube. Today, I’ll discuss some of the cards you can add to your Cube to push aggro as a viable archtype.
The first step, naturally, is including a high number of highly efficient creatures. Aggro decks thrive on consistency, and ensuring they have a reliable curve is paramount. Unlike in constructed, we can’t run a bunch of 4-ofs, so we have to search for redundancy wherever we can find it. I learned an important lesson about this from the man who introduced me to a balanced cube, Matt Kranstuber. I used to hesitate over cards like Steppe Lynx or Spikeshot Elder- I was worried they would be too unreliable. Matt told me that every time Wizards prints a playable one-drop, it should get the benefit of the doubt. Jackal Pup and Elite Vanguard aren’t flashy, but they are absolutely necessary if you want aggro to succeed. Don’t go crazy however, “playable” is the key term here- Wild Dogs and Ghazban Ogre are often so bad that you end up punishing people for playing them.
Two-drops are much easier to come by, so the most important lesson to take away here is to try to be discerning when it comes to the restrictiveness of double-colored casting costs. Playing Blood Knight and Dauthi Slayer in the same deck is a recipe for disaster, so I lean a little more toward two-drops with a colorless mana symbol in the cost. Try to keep the number of double-colored two-drops to about 25%, white will have more, of course, but in my cube less than half of even white’s two-drop slot is double-colored. For instance, I’ve seen players include Kor Aeronaut, and while I think the card is defensible, consider running Stormfront Pegasus instead. They are almost the same card in the majority of games, but you’ll be frustrated that much more by hands with Mountain, Mountain, Plains.
The second step is adding cards that help aggro disrupt the greedy plans of LSV-types who want to cast triple colored spells in 4 different colors. Land destruction helps with this quite a bit, so don’t be afraid to go beyond Molten Rain. The green LD spells Winters Grasp, Ice Storm, and Thermokarst are especially potent here with the number of 1-drop accelerators in that color. They allow for a different angle of attack, and with cards like Acidic Slime and Plow Under to follow up with make green stompy much more dangerous. Cards that can punish players for using artifact mana are crippling for the same reasons, so make sure to include a healthy number of Keldon Vandals-type cards as well.
Lastly, include all the cards that help aggro go over the top. Cube owners are seldom afraid to include large splashy effects that benefit control like Upheaval, but hesitate to include the same caliber of cards for aggro because they are seen as less fun. However, when you omit cards like Armageddon, the control player has little reason to fear tapping out, and aggro decks don’t have the same opportunity to swing games back in their favor when things go badly. Armageddon and Ravages of War, Ankh of Mishra and Zo-Zu, Winter Orb and Hokori, the Dusk Drinker alongside the underappreciated Sulfuric Vortex are automatic inclusions for any cube that wants to see aggro thrive.
Haste creatures are similar in purpose though less dramatic in effect. Most cube owners have caught on to the value of cards like Giant Solifuge and Keldon Champion, but make sure to consider lesser known ones like Skizzik. While the often overlooked Grafted Wargear isn’t a creature, it virtually has haste and is one of the most powerful tools available to creature-based aggro, making even the smallest creature into an enormous threat at no cost. I once shunned Hells Thunder and Ball Lightning because I felt they were uninteresting, but the truth is anything you can do to make bad decisions costly for the draw-go types is a positive for the environment overall.
Now, be sure to get the maximum value out of these changes. By that I mean do as I do and make them without telling anyone. Then, when you draft, force mono- red and make a fun game out of how long you can school everyone before they figure it out.
Yet, making a contender of mono-red is the easy part I’m afraid. Getting green, black, and especially white aggro to a semblance of playability is much more challenging, and can’t be achieved by merely
adding good cards. Next time, I’ll talk about some of the tricks I’ve learned to overcome this particular obstacle, though I must warn you it is not for the faint of heart. Until then, if you have any suggestions for cube-related topics you’d like to see covered or interesting cube card ideas (especially aggressive ones) please share them in the comments, and happy cubing!