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Cube Design – Khans Cube Review: Part 1

It’s Cube review season! Khans of Tarkir is chock-full of goodies, so I’m doing things a bit differently this time around. First of all, I’m going to go more in-depth on specific cards or related archetypes and design issues. Issues that don’t necessarily warrant their own article, but (hopefully) work in the context of a set review. Secondly, it’ll be a two-parter. As always, I’ll give a verdict for each card based on whether they are suitable for play in a high-power, 360-card Cube. On to the review!

Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker

Planeswalkers, by virtue of their card type and the very real competition for slots in a Cube environment, draw natural comparisons to their predecessors. Sarkhan 3.0 matches up against Koth of the Hammer, and I don’t think the comparison is particularly favorable. Both send 4/4s into the red zone, and Sarkhan’s added evasion is more than compensated by the fact that he hits the table at least a full turn later than Koth. And while Sarkhan’s ultimate is useful, it’s less of a guaranteed victory than Koth’s.

The real difference comes in the fact that Sarkhan legitimately has two abilities. While Koth abstractly has a -2 that ramps, it’s been ages since I’ve seen it put to good effect, given that the +1 typically provides sufficient acceleration for powering out an Inferno Titan or other threat.

Sarkhan’s Flame Slash is useful, but the activation is costed rather conservatively. Compare to Ral Zarek or Ajani Vengeant—4-mana ‘walkers with -2 abilities that cast player-targetable Lightning Bolt and Lightning Helix respectively. Make no mistake, players will trade 3 loyalty to nuke a creature, and I think Sarkhan amounts to more than the sum of its slightly underpowered parts.

All this pushes Sarkhan into the range of “playable,” and as is generally my advice with Planeswalkers, it boils down to preference. If you’re power-maxing on two slots, I think Koth and Chandra, Pyromaster remain your best bets. But if you’re skewing toward cards that have more play to them, I’d opt for something like a Sarkhan-Chandra pairing.

Verdict: Run it if you play 3 red ‘walkers, or are looking to mix up your planeswalker cast.

Butcher of the Horde

Although I’ve made my stance on tri-color cards clear, if I were to be seduced by one Khans card, it’s Butcher of the Horde. That said, he (it?) likely isn’t even better than Falkenrath Aristocrat, as the haste doesn’t come for free, and neither vigilance nor lifelink quite compare to indestructibility. The casting cost is just too restrictive, even for the cards we love.

Verdict: Pass.

Icefeather Aven

While a 2/2 flier for 2 mana is ever so slightly above the power curve, and the option to invest 6-mana into a flying Man-o’-War is nice, this in no way meets the stringent requirements of a precious gold slot in my Cube.

Verdict: Pass.

Treasure Cruise

Treasure Cruise is causing quite the stir on the back of a 1st place finish as a 4-of in the hands of Bob Huang in last week’s Legacy Open. Standard playability isn’t always the best indicator of Cube viability, but Legacy results catch my eye.

Bob’s deck showcases an ideal setting for Treasure Cruise: 10 fetchlands, a dozen free spells, a curve that (barring Treasure Cruise itself) tops out at 2, and no anti-synergistic cards like Legacy staples Dark Confidant, Snapcaster Mage, or Tarmogoyf. While Cube decks will never provide an equally idealized home, many designers have recently skewed toward such an environment by adding fetchlands and dropping the curve.

A good litmus test for Treasure Cruise is how effective Tarmogoyf is in your Cube. Both cards rely on settings that can fill the graveyard quickly.

Early testing has seen Treasure Cruise cast for 3 or less. Even if you cast it as a Harmonize in a pinch, you’re still getting acceptable value.

In many ways Treasure Cruise is a reverse Ancestral Vision. The latter is great on the first turn of the game, but often dead as the game progresses. Treasure Cruise is a more consistent effect with a greater variety of synergies (cards that fuel the graveyard versus cascade spells). If you’re searching for a cut, Ancestral Vision may be worth a look.

Verdict: Run it.

Dig Through Time

On the subject of 8-mana delve cards… it’s odd of Wizards to print two nearly equally-costed cards with such similar function in the same set, but here we are. The differences with Treasure Cruise are clear. Instant versus sorcery. 1 blue mana versus two. Card selection versus raw card draw.

That last point will prove most telling. Consider our environment. Unlike a consistent Legacy deck filled with 4-ofs and a hyper-low curve, Cube decks are predominantly singleton and usually top their curve around 5 or 6 mana, not 2. What this means for us is that our delve spell will be cast later in the game, when we’re more likely to be digging for specific cards. In the same vein that turn 1 Preordain was often a bad play in Standard, Dig Through Time’s value relative to Treasure Cruise increases as your needs become more defined.

Add to that the fact that, unlike a Constructed setting, a Cube deck’s cards are less interchangeable, increasing the value of selection.

All of which means that, for Cube purposes, Dig Through Time may well be the stronger card.

Verdict: Test it. I’m going to run both for now.

Tombstalker

On the subject of 8-mana delve cards… okay, technically this isn’t a Khans printing. But I haven’t even given this card a look since 2010, and my Cube design has changed considerably in the intervening years, and it doesn’t hurt to reevaluate from time to time.

Delve is an interesting mechanic in that it’s naturally anti-synergistic with itself. There’s a finite graveyard that cards compete to use. I don’t currently push the graveyard as a playspace (more on this next time), but even if you don’t run something explicit like reanimation, I think the recent wave of delve cards has pushed us into a territory where a “graveyard matters” subtheme can shine, with support from cards like Forbidden Alchemy.

Verdict: I’m going to test Tombstalker. It’s been a while.

Monastery Swiftspear

The Cube design community sees a disproportionate number of Izzet mages, and you don’t have to look far to find someone trying to push a “spells matter” theme. Unfortunately, said “spells matter” decks are often underwhelming. Except when they’re not.

Constructed’s Delver decks have set a very high bar for spells-matter tempo decks, but it’s not surprising that people originally wrote Delver off. LSV famously gave it a 2.0 Constructed rating, and understandably so. Said decks require a very precise balance of creatures and spells, and Cube pilots often suffer by virtue of being threat-light. There’s a tension between creatures and spells that’s difficult to resolve properly in deck construction.

The U/R tempo deck has never been bad, but it always lacked explicit reward cards. Monastery Swiftspear delivers. But, what’s most exciting is that Swiftspear works in other decks too.

Where Delver is confined to specific decks that are jammed with instants and sorceries, Prowess’ wording is much more forgiving. Aggro decks trigger prowess by playing artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers, and the difference is hardly trivial. Triggering off of things like equipment is huge, and I salivate at the thought of opening turn 1 Monastary Swiftspear into turn 2 Bonesplitter + equip.

This hits the sweet spot of supporting a designer-favorite archetype while being widely applicable enough to slot into a variety of more generic decks.

Verdict: Run it.

Bear’s Companion

“It’s a bear that makes a Bear, but it isn’t a bear, and neither is the Bear.”

Seeker of the Way

Another bear that’s not a Bear! Seeker of the Way is perfectly playable, if not for the tremendous competition at white’s 2-drop slot. When I see the card I want to include him, but when I look at my list I struggle to find a suitable cut. But it’s close!

Mostly I see Seeker of the Way as an option for those who want to bleed the Izzet “spells-matter” theme into a third color.

Verdict: He makes it into my 2-drop rotation, but is by no means a staple.

Wingmate Roc

There are those that are constantly searching for an excuse to take out Baneslayer Angel, but replacing it with a raid card seems negligent. Control decks need creatures they can drop into an empty board to try to stabilize. One could argue for Archangel of Thune for that role, but Wingmate Roc is too much of a stretch.

Verdict: Pass.

Temur Charger

Temur Charger is not a great card, but there are those out there that fetishize green aggro. While it’s been a long time since anybody ran Blade of the Sixth Pride, I wouldn’t be doing due diligence if I didn’t at least point this card out.

Verdict: I wouldn’t bet on this horse.

Cranial Archive

I haven’t really read this card, but it gets my vote for most intriguing art of the set.

Ugin’s Nexus

I guess Eldrazi are coming back. My only hope is that, somewhere, this creates an awkward judge call where a round goes to time, and somebody takes a liberal interpretation of the phrase “extra turn.”

Flooded Strand

Designers are quite polarized on the topic of breaking singleton, but if I had to choose the single change that most improved the quality of my Cube’s gameplay, it’s running multiple copies of each fetchland. With reprints driving down the price of both Onslaught and Zendikar fetchlands, now’s as good a time as any to try.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for part 2!

Jason’s Cube Discussion Site – http://riptidelab.com/forum/

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