Why I Love Cube
One of my favorite formats in Magic is Cube Draft because it provides one of the few outlets for deckbuilders to design a deck from scratch and battle with it. You can do this in Constructed formats or funsies formats, but in general either the competitive feel isn’t there so you could play any pile of cards and do well or a competitive environment where there’s a good chance 99% of your brews will fail. With a solid Cube group you can have a group of people who are fun to play Magic with and still foster some competitive play if only for bragging rights, as well as provide a format where your decks will change from draft to draft, yet still has a set format to build from.
It also is one of the only customizable formats in Magic that people widely recognize. While you can come up with any format that floats your boat, if you tell someone you have a Cube, they instantly know the general format and what it entails. Even if the specifics are swapped around such as a Powered Cube, Pauper Cube or One-Drop Cube it only takes a little bit of time to convey all the information you need.
The customizable part is why people love it so, either you get to play with a draft set including the best of the best, set-up the color balance and design of your cube in your own vision or just want to make the perfect Limited format. All of these goals are great ones you simply can’t get in other formats in Magic and, the key part, share it with those around you in a simple and enjoyable way. As a result this article will be on a variety of Cube topics some of which may not be applicable to your own cubing experience.
For what it’s worth, for a good year I was cubing two to four times a week and as a result my opinions are biased toward playing with a few competitive play-groups and with a handful of Bay Area cubes. As a result I’m used to my opponent’s all drafting real decks and being good at draft in general, something I’ve found in other areas not to always be the case. Magic Online only made that clearer to me that the number one problem with Cube drafters is that they honestly have no idea how to draft decks that actually do… Things. They just exist and hope the other guy does nothing of relevance for ten turns. Additionally if I do harp on something your Cube has, don’t take it the wrong way, it’s just the opinion of one person who has played a fair amount of Cube. It shouldn’t bother your vision of the Cube… Unless there’s a bit of niggling doubt in the back of your head that you can’t get to shut up.
Things I Don’t Like in Cube Construction
You can freely ignore many of these complaints if you aren’t going for a balanced Cube or one that isn’t trying to be an ideal drafting format. I’m just spoiled by well-built Cubes in that regard.
Black Aggro: I don’t understand why people are so gung-ho about making a black aggro deck as a major part of black’s identity in Cube. Has anyone actually ever had mono black aggro succeed in a Cube draft? Outside of having the maximum number of 2/2′s for one mana available and worse shadow creatures than white, what does this color have going for it? Seriously the number of good mono black decks I’ve seen in Cube are single-digits to begin with and every successful aggro strategy will almost inevitably be paired with red or multiple colors.
The worst part is that all the good black creatures in Cube actively reward you for being heavy black, so this just furthers the illusion that you accomplish something when you play an aggressive black deck. I mean are we seriously playing Vampire Interloper? I can understand Mistral Charger and Spined Thopter because of the roles they can fill in a fair number of aggressive strategies but what deck would ever actively want Interloper outside of BR or MonoB? Midrange black decks don’t want it and the most control heavy models certainly don’t.
There are plenty of fine midrange black creatures between two and four mana that can actually go in strategies that aren’t purely aggressive. Instead I get to see last pick Daggerclaw Imp, Black Knight and a host of other mediocre creatures that no deck actively wants to take. Think of the arguments against gold cards in the Cube and apply them to every person that tries to make black aggro work. I guess at least you can team up with red and get enough reach to not make the entire affair a waste of time. Or you could have gone red in the first place and gone into almost any color you want.
White Aggro: Unless you’re playing the Rebel Cube* variant, I hate white aggro. It isn’t outright horrific like black aggressive strategies, but you just gain so little by sticking with a white aggro theme and not merging it with another color. There’s a ‘good set’ of white creatures that any moderately aggressive or even midrange deck would love to have and then there are the endless supplies of Savannah Lions rejects running around. The problem with white’s creatures in general is that they either don’t hit hard enough or aren’t good enough in a long game to justify themselves. There are so few white creatures that can help you recover once you start falling behind and even the cards that keep you ahead are limited to Armageddon / Winter Orb type effects.
*For those who don’t know, Rebel Cube is a variant where essentially every good white creature under three is errata’d into a Rebel so the Rebel searchers are playable and provide a useful sub-theme to white. Being able to tutor up a Mother of Runes, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or Fiend Hunter can make for aggression that can rival good mono red decks. It also means if someone goes into white early you aren’t completely hosed as you can chop some of the white elements and still have a coherent thread even if you end up midrange. This is a Bay Area favorite that I first became acquainted with through Jeff Huang’s Cube, who could constantly be seen cubing with LSV, Ochoa, Nass and other PTQ regulars.
Andrew Cooperfauss, one of my favorite people to Cube with, also altered his cube in such a way which you can read about here.
The other problem I’ve found is there just isn’t enough white aggression to go around for anyone. If there’s enough aggro white cards for one person in the draft, you better hope nobody decides they want a white splash for Mother of Runes, Mirran Crusader and a few other white drops to join their Loam Lion and Knight of the Reliquary. White is not deep in the least and the best white* cards can go into a host of strategies outside of naked aggression.
The power of WW in the average Cube is determined solely by the skill-level of your group unless you alter the Cube to make it work. The average WW or WW/x deck should not be beating the average Cube deck unless you’re just drafting sweet decks with no rhyme or reason attached to them. People who tell me the archetype is good enough are typically the same ones that fought long and hard for durdle cards and tell me Sensei’s Divining Top is a first pick*. Really the only thing this archetype has going for it is that it does stuff which is something some Cube groups really need more of.
*It isn’t. Also if you think Lodestone Golem, Tangle Wire or Smokestack are legitimate disruption options in W/X aggro I would like to remind you people can actually cast spells before turn five and that both Instant and Flash exist.
“Power” Cube Cards: What are you trying to do with your Cube? If you want to have the most powerful and cutthroat format possible, just skip over this part, if you want a powerful and fun format on the other hand…
As far as I’m concerned Sol Ring is the best card in Cube and it isn’t particularly close. Even in fully powered Cubes I stare at Sol Ring and am just amazed at how much better it is than all but a handful of cards. Just about any good Cube deck or strategy will benefit extremely well from an early Sol Ring. Even fast aggro with heavy colored costs benefit greatly from Sol Ring as they cast Morphs, four’s like Hero of Bladehold or [card hero of oxid ridge]Oxid Ridge[/card] or artifact creatures like Juggernaut or Precursor Golem far sooner than normally possible. If you think the power nine is too powerful for a Limited format, but still have Sol Ring in your deck, I don’t get the joke.
Library of Alexandria is another card that I feel leaves no middle ground, either you absolutely dominate your opponent with it, it comes too late to be relevant and it’s still just another land. The average is… only gaining a few extra cards from tapping a single land over a couple of turns. Real card.
Mind Twist is weaker than the other cards I’ve listed, but produces the same reaction as Invisible Stalker typically does. Either one person completely steamrolls the other person by accelerating out a Mind Twist for most or all of the opponent’s hand or you have a card that you can never cast because you drew it too late to matter or you need to not die. Mind Twist is basically as high up on the variance bandwagon as it gets in terms of Cube power.
Planeswalkers that are named Jace, Ajani Vengeant, Elspeth, Knight-Errant and Gideon Jura are all incredibly strong in the game and some cubers even take out Planeswalkers entirely. I know Thea Steele had reduced it to just a single PW per color in her Cube. Depending on your point of view Planeswalkers are either very powerful cards that are easier to interact with than [card umezawa's jitte]Jitte[/card] or a Sword or they’re the bane of the land.
For those that do like Planeswalkers in the Cube you may have noticed I wrote every Jace as one of immense power and I stand by that. Small Jace dominated non-aggro in a way rarely seen and outside of red very few decks truly punish you if you land Jace on turn three. Bigger Jace on the other hand just ends the game in two turns if the game is stalemated or you have control of the board. He’s too big to easily burn out and even just drawing a couple of cards in the types of deck you would play him in will end the game quickly. Justin Parnell called him the Planeswalker Moat and I 100% agree with him.
So do I like Planeswalkers in Cube? Some of them, mostly the green and black ones as far as fairness goes, though the gold ones are their own special kind of terrible as almost nobody wants them and the person in that color combination gets rewarded at the end of the draft. I can live with small Jace and have learned to loathe the bigger brothers unless I’ve drafted them, in which case I get to do a little dance.
Lessons I’ve Learned
Lands are better than all but the most powerful (top two tiers) cards in Cube. In large part because you will never be hurting for playables if your mana is good and you don’t have an incredibly unlucky run of packs. Not only does it make your deck more consistent but it leaves open the possibilites for splashes down the line if you draft enough fixing early. It also increases the number of late picks you can take and play, which players typically underrate even though in Cube it’s very easy to get 10th-12th picks as good as your first few depending on the color.
Mana-fixing in general is underrated by many, even some of the players that know better at his point still let duals float by them for marginal cards that may make their deck. Don’t even get me started on Magic Online where I could consistently table duals and fetches, making my value happy decks all too easy to build. Remember you don’t even need a good card in an off-color to justify a dual, if you take them early then the possibility is always there that you’ll get an easy gold card splash late or something amazing just comes along in a weaker pack.
Also when prioritizing mana I always prefer the on-color dual over on-color fetch, but when my secondary color isn’t locked in I prefer the fetch for potential mana variety. Oh, and while Coalition Relic is just as amazing as you’d expect, I find Signets to be wildly overrated for what amounts to a worse Mind Stone in most decks. I really like Signets in blue decks and certain black strategies, but the rest of them either have better on-color options or don’t care about having Signets in the first place. Despite this I frequently see them taken above lands despite being worse at fixing just because they can potentially accelerate and I’m left wondering what people are even trying to accelerate into.
Planeswalkers are absurd, moreso than I ever imagined playing with them in normal draft. MODO Cube was a real nice place to be if you had cube experience when you were tabling “weak” Planeswalkers and Elspeth, Knight-Errant going 5th in every other Cube draft I saw. I’d like to think people learned from the first weekend of cubing online, but if you haven’t gotten the memo, draft Planeswalkers highly and even the second tier are easy slams in your early picks unless you get a Sword or Sol Ring or something equally silly.
Mono Red is the ultimate barometer of what is a good or great cube deck. Even a mediocre red deck has a fair shot at going 2-1 or better by the nature of Cube decks. Which is to say that the majority of Cube decks are just a bunch of sweet cards and not real decks in terms of consistency or power. The number of players that have shown me a sweet one that has no actual chance of beating mono red, a control deck that actually runs countermagic and draw spells or just something that doesn’t want to play Magic (Turn three Titan anyone?) is pretty high.
Adding onto that is one of the key factors that I find make Cubing with less experienced people a real pain, they don’t draft for synergy or curve and end up with a bunch of great cards that combine to form a really bad deck. I’ve found that outside of the very best engine and top cards in each class / color, the rest of your picks should be flowing toward making a good archetype. Figure out what your goal is quickly and then fluctuate your pick order around that instead of seeing how many good cards you can pick up. This is far more important when Cube drafting versus normal drafting and yet it feels criminally overlooked.
I asked my friend Roger Gao (Someone who has cubed more than almost anyone else I know…) what he thought was a good lesson.
“I guess the main thing is to not let other formats influence your pick order. Cards like Tarmogoyf were insane. but I don’t think that card is in the top 50 Cube cards, let alone worth gushing over. Like context is everything and people don’t disassociate experiences from other formats when cubing. I also find that a lot of people don’t pay attention to the curve, but I think that is a problem with normal drafting and it just gets exacerbated in Cube.
Also for the most part, synergy trumps power level… You are drafting an archetype not just a pile of cards. There are way too many people jumping at the chance to draft decks that durdle for the first five turns or focus on the wrong things. Jamming Titans into aggro isn’t necessarily wrong, but it shouldn’t be something you’ll almost never be casting. Seeing Inferno Titan played in a deck with Goblin Guide just gives me a bad feeling.
Oh and there’s no good way to signal in Cube. Just forget about it, though the average drafter doesn’t know how to signal anyway.”
I could go on, but I want to leave something for Andy to write about this week. Before I go I want to share an interesting decision tree from the secret grand poobah of cubists.
Pack One, Pick One, what’s your choice and why?
See you next week.