Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the red drafter in the first 8 picks at the table, then you are the red drafter.
I first learned about Cube drafting in 2006, when my friends went to Denny’s at around midnight to do what we called at the time a “dream draft.”
It was awesome.
I was warned that cards like Serra Angel and Shivan Dragon would be “only okay” and that I should try to draft blue. As an amateur to Cube and veteran to drafting, I pretty much disregarded their input—“How could Serra Angel be bad in Limited?” During the draft, however, I quickly learned that Cube drafting is nothing like normal drafting.
Not. Even. Close.
Since that draft, I have become a firm advocate for Cubing and try to draft whenever possible. Cubing offers players a unique experience to determine the contextual values of cards in an abstract setting, thereby improving their overall draft performance by implementing a more dynamic pick order in all Limited formats. This is my favorite part of Cubing, and I’ve said before: “We should just have someone unbiased come over and look at our decks, then decide who wins. Then we can draft again!”
Anyway, that’s my Cube background, now onto the relevant subject matter!
First I’d like to clarify that all my assertions in this article refer to the relative power level and usefulness of a card in the context of the Magic Online Cube. I use this list as a reference for all Cubes, simply because each Cube is different. Some Cubes are powered, combo-oriented, or less aggressive—instead of trying to cover each card’s relevance in every Cube, I’m picking one context and sticking to it for the entirety of the article.
Dynamic Pick Orders
“I have to play this card-X, it’s so good!” (Read: I will incorrectly justify playing this card.)
“Card-Y is very good, but I’ll never play it in my deck.” (Read: This card is terrible right now.)
“Card-Z has always been good in my red decks, I’m taking it.” (Read: I’m not considering my deck composition and threat ratios when determining the relative power level of my draft pick.)
“I’m going to first pick a marginal blue card over one or more highly powerful card(s) of another color, because I want to be drafting blue.” (Read: I am sure that forcing blue in Cube is correct.)
The above statements and my own translations aim to provide insight and perspective to common Cube dilemmas. Often forcing blue is correct with the right group of people. Likewise, including Flametongue Kavu in all red decks is likely correct—but I think it is prudent to take a step back once in a while. By asking a few questions about cards while drafting you can ground your opinion and improve the accuracy of your card evaluations.
1) Is it good in your deck? Why is that? Would its inclusion improve the ratio of that particular effect in your deck?
Deck composition is essential when determining how highly to pick an above-average card for your deck. If you already have Path to Exile, Journey to Nowhere, Doom Blade, and Oblivion Ring you may find yourself picking a card like Mother of Runes or Kitchen Finks over Swords to Plowshares in the 3rd pack to improve your mana curve and threat density. On the other hand, picking Mother of Runes over Swords to Plowshares in the first pack would be close to indefensible.
2) Does your mana base support it? If not, does its power level justify its inclusion?
Some cards are so good that I always find ways to splash them. I consistently take fetchlands and duals highly in the first pack, because it increases my chances to be able to play powerful spells that table during packs 2 and 3. Sometimes, however, without the proper mana-fixing I still find ways to play cards I consider to be too good NOT to play.
Without duals, I’ve often played Rolling Earthquake in an otherwise mono-colored deck, because I was willing to play a few Mountains to vastly increase my deck’s board impact and range. Alternatively, I’ve refrained from splashing Swords to Plowshares in my mono-black deck, because the removal spell didn’t improve the quality of my deck enough to justify the strain of an extra color. I’ll often splash for Balance but rarely for Fact or Fiction. If you do manage to have some relevant dual lands, splashing for [card nicol bolas, planeswalker]Nicol Bolas[/card] or Cruel Ultimatum in control builds can often be correct, while stretching your mana in a three-color deck for Future Sight usually means you will never untap with it.
3) If abstractly powerful or often playable, does this card’s effect create tension in gameplay? Is this tension an acceptable sacrifice given the card’s expected impact and my deck’s primary/secondary game plan?
Tension occurs in gameplay when the cards in your deck either lack synergy or interact poorly with each other. Sometimes, a card’s impact can be so powerful you are willing to ignore your deck’s typical strategy and switch gears by playing a card with an entirely different game plan. Some examples of high power level cards that create tension include Jace, Memory Adept, Balance, Rude Awakening, and, to a lesser extent, Upheaval.
There are many cards, however, that create tension in a deck that are completely unwelcome. Playing Day of Judgment and Wrath of God in a deck with 18 creatures is obviously incorrect; and including Blistering Firecat, Keldon Marauders, or Ball Lightning in your removal-heavy black/red or blue/red control deck is a great way to lose a game with your opponent at 3 life instead of 0.
Other examples: Balance or sweepers in dedicated aggressive creature-based decks, [card mystical tutor]Mystical[/card]/Enlightened Tutor without high impact targets, Ghitu Encampment with an abundance of 1- and 2-drops in mono-red.
An Exercise: Why Day of Judgment Tables and Damnation Doesn’t—or—What’s Wrong with Black?
In my experience, black couples best with colors that can favorably eschew board position. Black/green Cube decks don’t need Skinrender because their creatures are already so big that you rarely need to remove a creature to gain advantage aggressively. Black/red decks don’t need Shriekmaw (although it is good) because they already have so much removal in the form of burn.
Part of what makes drafting red attractive is that its removal has reach to kill planeswalkers or go straight to the dome in the end game. It’s for this reason that I avoid black/red in cube. Black’s awesome removal simply doesn’t offer anything necessary to red’s sufficient removal suite. It’s often better to play these Shriekmaw effects in a defensive deck as a way to stay alive and produce blockers/threats or in an aggressive deck with a lot of threats. A good alternative would be white/black, due to white’s limited supply of quality spot removal.
Another good example is black/blue control, where you may only play eight creatures, two of them pseudo-removal spells like Nekrataal and Bone Shredder, accompanied by planeswalkers and 6-drops, or some other win condition that can win the game on its own. Damnation plays perfectly into the black/blue strategy because it gives the blue player access to 187 creatures, profitable chump blocks and precious time, in order to live to untap on turn 6. Casting Damnation ensures that turn 6 will be reached without a good curve of one-for-one removal spells and counters and basically acts as glue that holds the deck together when you are drawing poorly. It is also one of your best answers in U/B to hexproof creatures. For these reasons, you may find that you don’t want Damnation in your creature-heavy green/black deck or your removal-heavy black/red deck, but you wouldn’t want to be without it in your black/blue build.
This leaves us with black/white, where you really don’t need Damnation at all. Day of Judgment effects are easy to pick up as it is from a whole family of cards in white that can destroy all creatures (Wrath of God, Martial Coup, Rout, Balance, Terminus, Catastrophe, Akroma’s Vengeance, and to a lesser extent Cataclysm). The marginal utility of board sweepers diminishes quickly after you already have three, so they are going to get passed through white drafters who are more eager to pick up a card like Journey to Nowhere or Cloudgoat Ranger. Black simply does not have this luxury.
Damnation is therefore one of the most important black cards in the Cube. Whether or not your deck needs it, your neighbors might, and it sends an incredibly mixed signal to pass a card of this quality. While signaling often means less in Cube than in other formats, black is particularly light in playable cards and therefore suffers greatly from neighbors cutting you off from cheap removal. In short, if you’re drafting black and intend to pair it with blue or white, you cannot pass Damnation in pack one and expect to get Go for the Throat 3rd in pack two.
If you are playing blue, there’s just not much better than Damnation outside of splashing Balance or Treachery/[card vedalken shackles]Shackles[/card]. If you end up playing white, you may not need the Damnation, but you do need to prevent your opponents from drafting black next to you and ensure you receive the necessary Bone Shredders, Doom blades, and Tutors in pack two to accompany your powerful white 5- and 6-drops.
I’ve found that the best tool to use to determine playability comes from brewing decks in Constructed formats. It doesn’t take much to convince someone that playing Bitterblossom in Modern Jund decks or playing ten removal spells in Caw-Blade is wrong, but convincing your teammate to cut a Bitterblossom from his midrange B/G Cube deck or cutting Day of Judgment from his four-Wrath U/W control deck can be difficult. By comparing your Cube deck to a similar constructed deck during the draft and into deck building, you can determine the contextual value of cards more accurately and estimate the optimal ratio of spells/creatures/removal/counters/sweepers/lands to include in your deck.
Thank you for reading, and I look forward to hearing your feedback. Feel free to contact me on twitter ( @Hatchingplans ) or in the comments with any article topic suggestions, personal experiences, or general Cube discussion of any kind.