To borrow from a popular botched PR campaign: Cubing is fun; winning is better. This series of articles attempts to help you get better at Cube drafting, which will likely make you a better player and drafter in any format.
When to Ramp
By way of background, “ramp” effects are distinguished from “fixing”- (short for mana fixing) effects, in that ramp can get you beyond the “one mana source per turn” limitation the rules present, while fixing helps you get the colors of mana you might need. A single spell can be both ramp AND fixing, just as a game can be both a first-person shooter and a console game. The following chart has a few archetypical examples:
Cubes vary dramatically (this will be a running theme, I promise) in terms of which ramp spells are available. Many use Moxes or Signets, “Rampant Growth” and its ilk, and miscellaneous others like Solemn Simulacrum or Wayfarer’s Bauble, and, if you’re among the lucky bastards that always seem to have it against me, Coalition Relic. In terms of Cube construction, Moxes and Signets are more similar than you might think in terms of impact on the Cube and its color pie. Thinking for a second about the above chart, we realize why—these are multi-card cycles providing colorless sources of fixing and ramp.
Setting aside the issue of which to include in your Cube for a moment (we’ll get there later), our first introduction to the problem of ramp and Cube usually occurs when we spread out our first pack that contains a ramp card and try to evaluate it. With all the usual caveats about context and complexity varying wildly in Magic, there are some simple principles that I think will help you out.
1) Combos that “cheat” on mana don’t always fully take advantage of ramp
The other day Tom Martell showed me his Cube deck and told me that his first two picks were Mox Sapphire and Mox Ruby. The rest of Tom’s deck was Sneak Attack, Tooth and Nail, some countermagic and card draw, a few fatties, and kind of a hodge-podge of other effects. Tom wasn’t happy about where he ended up, so we began a post-mortem discussion of how he got there. Tom claims he was “cut off” by another blue/green mage and never got a chance to develop his strategy, but I think he likely didn’t prioritize correctly, given his first two picks.
With two Moxes as our first two picks, we should be thinking a) “Wow, we’re pretty lucky,” and b) “What kind of cards let us take full advantage of these?” Sneak Attack and Tooth and Nail based strategies don’t fully take advantage of the Moxes. Moxes are always helpful, so of course I don’t mean they aren’t playable or don’t make your deck a lot better. What I mean is that Sneak Attack is already a combo card that lets you “cheat” on mana by throwing a creature into play for R. Tooth and Nail lets you cheat as well by throwing two creatures into play for the low price of 9 mana (usually a bargain when you consider the two creatures you intend to get).
Sneak Attack is very similar to the most typical strategy of combo cards that don’t take full advantage of Moxes: Reanimation strategies. Discarding a fatty and then [card exhume]Exhuming[/card] it is very similar to Sneak Attack or Show and Tell. All of these strategies win far more than their fair share of games in which a player can resolve the cheat effect and has a fatty (in graveyard or hand) to cheat in. Having the mana to set up the combo a turn early tends not to be as important as finding all the pieces. So for these strategies, ramp just isn’t as important. Let the other folks accelerate into their Thragtusk, you’ll be putting something far scarier into play, even if you have to take 5 or 15 in the meantime.
Tooth and Nail presents a different issue. Moxes certainly can help you cast Tooth and Nail, and I say “can” because Uktabi Orangutan and Manic Vandal are no stranger to Cube. The thing to realize here is that a very early Tooth and Nail is rare, and to cast it even in the mid-game requires some serious help, so the kind of ramp that really lets you cast is different. The chunkier stuff like Grim Monolith, Gilded Lotus, Explosive Vegetation, Heartbeat of Spring, or whatever else is in your Cube of that nature is going to help much more than a Mox will. In fact, here’s an interesting conceptual note: If you miss a land drop at any point between the turn you had your Mox and the turn you cast Tooth and Nail (or an Eldrazi or Mindslaver or whatever), the Mox didn’t really help you at all! We should be cutting land for our Moxes and so had the Mox just been a land we’d have the same amount of mana.
2) A “one-for-one”-style control deck doesn’t fully take advantage of ramp
Many control decks in Cube seek to use their mana efficiently to negate (and sometime Negate) what their opponent is doing. Cheap answers like Mana Leak, Oblivion Ring, Wrath of God, Repeal, and the like trade mostly (but certainly not always) on a one-for-one basis in card advantage terms. The idea is that you gain two types of advantage, and you do so over and over again: 1) your answers tend to be cheaper than the threats, so you might be able to do 2 things in a turn your opponent only manages to do one, and 2) you get to pick and choose what you answer and what you ignore, leaving your opponent (hopefully) without the tools they need to win the game.
The problem with ramp in this context is that these cards are already built to be cheap. I have on many occasions played a Signet or a Rampant Growth on turn 2 and then on turn 3 cast a two-mana spell like Doom Blade or Mana Leak, and then another two-mana spell or a three-mana spell the next turn. The extra mana didn’t hurt me (unless of course they resolved something when I tapped out) but I haven’t gained anything to outweigh the costs of ramping. What are those costs?
Every time I add a ramp card to my deck like a Signet or Solemn Simulacrum, the proportion of my deck that is “business,” i.e. does things that affect the board, goes down. In a one-for-one control deck, I tend to lose the games in which I draw too many mana sources, since I can’t really end the game quickly (before the mana flood is a problem) and I lose the advantage of having cheap spells as the game goes long. The two ways to avoid this problem are to include enough big finisher-type cards (the Grave Titan, [card nicol bolas, planeswalker]Nicol Bolas[/card], and Baneslayer Angel-type cards) so that I can finish an opponent off—but also, more commonly overlooked, I can’t include too many cards in my deck that don’t impact the board. I’ve seen players ramp and then cast Deep Analysis and flash it back, find a few more lands, another ramp spell, and a few answers, all while the opponent played a few tough threats. Those extra lands and ramp spells often feel like completely blank cards as the player who was off to a great start fizzles out and gets overwhelmed by opposing threats.
Anywhere the effects are cheap (it could be White Weenie or Suicide Black as well), ramp won’t be effective. I deemphasize the somewhat obvious White Weenie and Suicide Black to discuss control because people naturally figure out that the ramp isn’t doing them any favors alongside Carnophage. But to get a complete picture of who is likely to grab those Signets and who will pass on them (in a draft with experienced players), we need the total picture.
3) “Heavy hitters” do take advantage of ramp
Finally, I get to talk about where ramp shines, and why it is so good. The above categories don’t really capture the majority of decks (in typical Cubes). Ramp tends to be so good (in an unknown Cube I usually take ramp early and fill the rest in later, and I’ve had a ton of success in Cubes I’ve never seen before) because so many decks are doing exactly what ramp helps with: casting as many “heavy hitters” as they can. First, a note on terminology, “bombs” is too broad since undercosted stuff like Moxes or Library of Alexandria are bombs. “Fatties” has too strong a creature connotation; don’t think Upheaval and Obelisk of Alara can’t be heavy hitters. Anyways, heavy hitters are just the cards that have a big impact on the game and have appropriately larger costs relative to the cards they tend to trump. It’s not all [card ulamog, the infinite gyre]Ulamogs[/card] and Upheavals. Even Phantom Centaur is a heavy hitter, and it’s a card that is often lackluster on turn 4 in powerful Cubes, but can be great on turn 3.
A turn tends to make a huge difference with heavy hitters. Think about the context of the game and what the opponent is doing. She is likely either playing cheap answers (control), trying to kill you very quickly (aggro), trying to assemble and use a combo (combo), or playing heavy hitters herself. In each case (heavy hitters or midrange mirror matches less so, but still), a turn late often leaves you a win short. The very worst green decks in Cube cast Avenger of Zendikar on turn 7. Some of the very best cast him on turn 5.
What Do the Above Principles Mean for How I Draft?
The two sides of the ramp coin are to 1) draft more ramp when you have heavy hitters, and 2) draft more heavy hitters when you have ramp. It’s that simple. Ok not quite that simple, there are also 3) draft less ramp when you don’t have heavy hitters, and 4) draft fewer heavy hitters when you don’t have ramp. But really, that’s it, a simple idea to understand and implement, yet a very often violated canon.
Going back to Tom’s case earlier, he started the draft with Mox Sapphire and Mox Ruby, so when the blue cards he loves weren’t coming, he should have been taking the stuff like Obstinate Baloth and Thragtusk, or Sun Titan and Reveillark. Look to pair a good mix of those cards and ramp alongside some flexible control elements that keep an opponent’s broken plays in check (stuff like Vindicate or Oblivion Ring or Thoughtseize; and if we’re lucky, Mind Twist or Treachery). You don’t have to swing for the fences with Sneak Attack, and lose when you don’t have a perfect draw (like Tom did repeatedly). Settle into your role as the midrange deck, ramp enough to keep up with aggro and stay ahead of control, and accept that combo is your natural predator in Cube and try to hedge a little if you can.
What Ramp Do I Put in My Cube?
I won’t spend too much time on this less strategic and more planning-centric aspect of ramp. I will say that I feel like Signets and Coalition Relic often disrupt the color pie and color balance such that green really suffers. I want Cultivate to be great at what it does in my Cube, not an also-ran. Whether to use the 5 Moxes (we don’t count [card mox diamond]Diamond[/card] or [card chrome mox]Chrome[/card] where I was born and raised) is to a large extent a matter of taste. I don’t find they “ruin” games like others have opined. Since there are only 5 of them (as opposed to 10), I actually find their impact less severe than that of Signets. It seems like a player can always find a Signet, but rarely a Mox, just based on scarcity.
I think the fixing that isn’t ramp and the ramp that isn’t fixing are great cards for Cube. Most people don’t think of it this way, but it is what, in my mind, makes Grim Monolith and Rakdos Carnarium interesting cards that lead to interesting choices in draft while Coalition Relic isn’t (just add it to your stack and move on). Don’t take out all rampfixing, green should have access to cards that fix and ramp, since that is one of the things the color is supposed to have access to traditionally. The decks without access to green can also easily overpower some linear decks like White Weenie or Tokens if everyone gets to rampfix. At the risk of repeating myself, the Signets are kind of the poster child for what’s wrong with making rampfixing widely available.
The counterargument goes as follows: “we have fun when we can cast our spells, these cards help us cast our spells, leave us alone.” That’s not only a fine opinion, it also reveals one of the great things about Cube. Build it how you want to play it. Everyone’s goal isn’t and shouldn’t be making White Weenie playable, but if you keep scratching your head about why White Weenie never wins, maybe start here to address the problem (and if that doesn’t work, add a second Tangle Wire when no one is looking).
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article as well as what Cube strategy topics you’d like to know more about from future articles. Drop me a line on Twitter @mtg_law_etc. Thanks for reading.