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Cube Design – M14 Cube Reviews

It’s set review season! Cube set reviews have historically been a little problematic, as the Cube format means many different things to different Cube designers. I, however, run just a single cube. It’s an extremely fast, 360-card Cube. Intentionally or not, my card evaluations are informed by this context. I won’t try to guess whether a card belongs in a 720-card Cube. Or, as a friend recently put it, “I’d rather have a horse kick dirt in my face than read another rating that tells me [card]Boros Elite[/card] is a 630 staple.’”

That said, to keep things interesting and digestible, I will provide verdicts for each of the cards I discuss. Consider these to be evaluations for Cubes with a power level similar to my own Cube’s.

Garruk, Caller of Beasts
[draft]Garruk, Caller of Beasts[/draft]

Magic 2014 brings us the fourth and most costly iteration of Garruk to date. Weighing in at 4GG, [card]Garruk, Caller of Beasts[/card] competes directly with the likes of [card]Primeval Titan[/card] and [card]Rampaging Baloths[/card]. On the planeswalker front, six mana sits the newest Garruk squarely between 5CMC powerhouses [card]Gideon Jura[/card] and [card]Garruk, Primal Hunter[/card], and the ultimate curve topper, [card]Karn Liberated[/card].

Given the company, the newest Garruk doesn’t compare particularly well. It’s true that if you untap with him you are heavily favored to win the game, but that can be said of most planeswalkers. His +1 ability is a repeatable [card]Lead the Stampede[/card], and given time will both refill your hand and dig through the entirety of your deck. However, even Lead the Stampede wasn’t a particularly strong effect in the Cube environment, and was cut from my Cube quickly.

The best planeswalkers need to either hit the table early or do heavy lifting on the board stabilization front, and Garruk, Caller of Beasts does neither. To affect the board on the first turn, Garruk needs to drop to the 1 loyalty brink of death. Using the +1 ability on the first turn only puts him at 5 loyalty (see Karn’s 10 loyalty for reference), and leaves Garruk completely exposed if you have no other defenses. Clearly the two are meant to synergize together, with the +1 refilling the hand and the -3 dumping your hand quickly to the table, but it’s all far too slow for a fast Cube environment.

Moreover, from a design perspective Garruk simply doesn’t introduce many unique advantages over the other Garruk versions. Wildspeaker ramps, Primal Hunter draws cards, and Relentless provides removal. And all three can spew tokens onto the board. Sure, in a Constructed environment Caller of Beasts can help to cheat out Progenitus or other prohibitively-costly threats, but in Cube he won’t be cheating anything out well before they’d naturally hit the board. Six mana casts all but two green creatures in my Cube already.

Verdict: Pass

Shadowborn Demon
[draft]Shadowborn Demon[/draft]

I’ve long bemoaned the fact that finishers in Cube have so little context dependency in their power level. It really doesn’t matter what your deck or the board state are when you slap down something like [card]Grave Titan[/card] or [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card]. [card]Shadowborn Demon[/card] is a dramatic shift away from that style of card design. Its value will vary tremendously based on deck composition and play sequencing.

At its worst, [card]Shadowborn Demon[/card] is an overpriced [card]Doom Blade[/card] that plays defense for a turn before dying to its own trigger. It’s a meaty curve-topper for the aggressive recursion archetypes that have been increasing in popularity in Modern Cube design, but is simultaneously a somewhat narrow card. Control decks have little interest in [card]Shadowborn Demon[/card], as they are unlikely to be able to profitably pay the “upkeep” cost or fill their graveyard with a sufficient number of creatures.

Competing with [card]Shadowborn Demon[/card] in my Cube are [card]Shriekmaw[/card] and [card]Skinrender[/card], which are both more versatile yet less synergistic. This is one of the puzzles we have to solve as Cube designers. I can rally for a greater emphasis on synergy over raw power, but by swapping in [card]Shadowborn Demon[/card] for one of the other cards I eat into control’s equity of the metagame. Perhaps the option is to up the five-drop count to three and cut a card elsewhere? [card]Shadowborn Demon[/card] is certainly a card I want to make room for, but I have to be careful to maintain control’s playability.

Verdict: Test it, but be aware of what effects you’re cutting to make room.

Liliana’s Reaver
[draft]liliana’s reaver[/draft]

In design, [card]Liliana’s Reaver[/card] seems most similar to [card]Ashling, the Extinguisher[/card]. Both cards share a casting cost, similarly-sized bodies, and a beneficial trigger upon dealing combat damage to a player. Ashling was never good in my Cube, and although Liliana’s Reaver has a more relevant creature type and is much more effective on an empty board, the 4-drop slot on black’s curve is far too competitive for the Reaver.

Verdict: Pass

Banisher Priest
[draft]banisher priest[/draft] [card]Banisher Priest[/card] is a simplified take on the [card]Fiend Hunter[/card] genre of cards. By rewording the “leave the battlefield” clause, players can no longer pull bounce or sacrifice shenanigans with the enter-the-battlefield trigger on the stack. Is this yet another aspect of New World Order? Standard power level concerns with [card]Cartel Aristocrat[/card] in the environment?

Perhaps it’s for the best. I once pulled a [card]Journey to Nowhere[/card]/[card]Into the Roil[/card] trick against a Flemish 10-year-old’s [card]Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre[/card] at a tournament, and I doubt it increased his appreciation of the game of Magic, especially considering that the intricacies of the stack manipulation had to be explained through a translator.

These tricks are less common in a Cubing environment, but do still occur. For the most part I expect [card]Banisher Priest[/card] to be a [card]Fiend Hunter[/card] variant that is slightly more appealing to aggressive decks, and much worse against aggro decks. [card]Fiend Hunter[/card] holds off all sorts of 2/x creatures running around, whereas Banisher Priest will often have to sit out of the blocking portion of the combat step.

Verdict: Test if you’re looking for this sort of effect. I don’t even run Fiend Hunter, and will pass on his priestly cousin as well.

Imposing Sovereign

[draft]imposing sovereign[/draft]

Aggro enthusiasts rejoice. It’s amazing how much more playable an effect becomes when stapled to a body. As my friend Eric Chan aptly put it, “[card]Imposing Sovereign[/card] is to [card]Blind Obedience[/card] as [card]Thalia, Guardian of Thraben[/card] was to [card]Thorn of Amethyst[/card].” I myself tried to push [card]Sphere of Resistance[/card] for a long time, but the effect was too minor to warrant using an entire turn and a card. Thalia, on the other hand, is a house.

Similarly, none of my Cube decks are interested in [card]Blind Obedience[/card], but I expect [card]Imposing Sovereign[/card] to push through far more damage than you would expect of her [card]Goblin Piker[/card] body. White aggressive decks often come up just short of pushing through that last bit of damage, and Imposing Sovereign gives an extra bit of “reach.”

Verdict: Run it.

Archangel of Thune
[draft]archangel of thune[/draft]

Sharing a casting cost and creature type with [card]Baneslayer Angel[/card] puts [card]Archangel of Thune[/card] in an unfavorable position. I like the design, and think it’s an interesting, self-contained anthem effect that works well with other white subthemes like double strike and tokens—but the power level is too low for a tight list.

Verdict: Pass

Barrage of Expendables
[draft]barrage of expendables[/draft]

Verdict: Pass.

Kalonian Hydra
[draft]kalonian hydra[/draft]

Magic’s designers often talk about the slowly swinging pendulum of the game’s balance, with creatures increasingly dominating the game after the early years of spell-based competition. In contrast to the unplayable update on [card]Goblin Bombardment[/card], [card]Kalonian Hydra[/card] does a pseudo-[card]Darksteel Colossus[/card] impression for the low, low price of five mana. Both cards deal over 20 points of trample damage over the course of two attack steps.

I’ve heard some mention of synergy in the design, which is mostly nonsense. By the time you would gain any synergistic benefits you are usually one turn away from winning anyways.

There is some tension built into the design, as the Hydra has to actually attack to achieve massive stats, and isn’t very impressive on defense. On the whole, though, I don’t find the design very appealing and imagine games involving Kalonian Hydra will mostly boil down to “do you have the removal spell?”-checks. The power level is there, but I do wonder whether Kalonian Hydra would actually make my Cube more fun to play.

Verdict: Run it if power level is your only metric.

Kalonian Tusker
[draft]kalonian tusker[/draft]

Three-power two-drops aren’t in short supply these days. There’s no disputing the value of a 3/3 for two mana, but [card]Kalonian Tusker[/card]’s GG casting cost is far more restrictive than those of recent printings like [card]Gore-House Chainwalker[/card] and [card]Cloistered Youth[/card]. I know there’s a contingency of Cubers that push for green aggro, but I don’t think green has the chops to carry the torch as a primary aggressive color at a high power level. Green is far more effective providing splash support in the form of cards like [card]Rancor[/card] and [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card].

Given this dynamic, I’m particularly hesitant when it comes to heavily green aggressive cards, as a deck splashing for green is unlikely to want to play them. Currently the only card I run at that cost is [card]Strangleroot Geist[/card], which is both more powerful than [card]Kalonian Tusker[/card] and supports the sacrifice themes my Cube is currently pushing.

Verdict: Run it if you’re pushing green aggro, otherwise pass.

Elvish Mystic
[draft]elvish mystic[/draft]

Uh…

Young Pyromancer
[draft]young pyromancer[/draft]

Is the cycle complete?

As with any build-around card, [card]Young Pyromancer[/card] is far more potent in a Constructed setting than in draft. [card]Delver of Secrets[/card] makes inroads in powerful formats like Legacy, but in Cube it’s difficult achieve the right density of spells without suffering from a lack of threat density. One of the factors that has long held back the “spells matter” archetype in Cube is a lack of cards that properly reward you for playing spells.

Many of the cards from this school of design have fallen flat. [card]Talrand, Sky Summoner[/card], for example, required you to cast two spells after casting it in order to get more value than simply casting [card]Talrand’s Invocation[/card] instead.

The biggest difference, of course, is that [card]Young Pyromancer[/card] hits the table much earlier, greatly extending your window to cast spells. Following up a turn 2 [card]Young Pyromancer[/card] with a turn 3 [card]Stone Rain[/card] is a massive game. Moreover, aggressive decks often suffer from a loss of momentum when using removal spells to clear out blockers. [card]Young Pyromancer[/card] elegantly gets around this.

[card]Young Pyromancer[/card] also lights up my imagination. I dream of following it up with a [card]Gitaxian Probe[/card], [card]Cabal Therapy[/card], and an immediate flashback on [card]Cabal Therapy[/card]. Even when not hitting a ridiculous draw, Young Pyromancer challenges you to properly sequence your plays and consider how to get the greatest value out of your investment. Do you alpha-strike into blockers with the Pyromancer, or leave him back for future token generation?

All in all, an excellently designed card that I can’t wait to cast.

Verdict: Run it.

Chandra, Pyromaster
[draft]chandra, pyromaster[/draft]

The newest Chandra is the most playable Chandra iteration to date, and likely the second most powerful red planeswalker ever printed.

I try to keep my planeswalker count to 2-per-color, which pits [card]Chandra, Pyromaster[/card] directly against [card]Chandra, the Firebrand[/card]. As mentioned above, the “spells matter” decks often lack cards that actually care about spells. Chandra, the Firebrand was a key player in that archetype. Pyromaster, despite having less overt synergy, seems more powerful in almost every situation. She has a higher starting loyalty, a strictly superior +1, and a +0 card-advantage engine.

Decks that would run Chandra, the Firebrand will still eagerly play Chandra, Pyromaster, and Pyromaster is additionally far more appealing to other archetypes.

Verdict: Run it.

Witchstalker
[draft]witchstalker[/draft] [card]Troll Ascetic[/card] meets [card]Great Sable Stag[/card]! I don’t run either of those cards, and am not in the market for [card]Witchstalker[/card] either.

Verdict: Pass.

Xathrid Necromancer
[draft]xathrid necromancer[/draft]

If you were in the market for a [card]Rotlung Reanimator[/card] and weren’t quite sold, Xathrid Necromancer is right up your alley. My Cube has 37 Humans and only 5 Clerics, so this is certainly an upgrade. But you probably shouldn’t be in the market for a [card]Rotlung Reanimator[/card].

Lindsay’s Verdict: Best [card]Rotlung Reanimator[/card] on the mountain!

My Verdict: Pass.

Lifebane Zombie
[draft]lifebane zombie[/draft] [card]Lifebane Zombie[/card] is the most intriguing card design of Magic 2014. This set has introduced an entire cycle of color-based hate-cards without once using my least favorite keyword: protection.

On the board, [card]Lifebane Zombie[/card] is a passable if unexciting 3/1 intimidate creature, making him a likely candidate to get into the red zone. His enters-the-battlefield trigger potentially hits 74 of the 360 cards in my cube (about 20.5%), but is by no means an equal-opportunity discard spell. Barring any acceleration, [card]Lifebane Zombie[/card] will hit the board on turn 3 or later, making it far more likely to pick off a [card]Sun Titan[/card] than a [card]Steppe Lynx[/card]. Further, nabbing an aggro or midrange deck’s un-casted beater is not nearly as backbreaking as taking a control or ramp deck’s finisher. This is not inherently good or bad, but it’s important to be aware of how a card affects an environment’s balance.

Given [card]Lifebane Zombie[/card]’s value as a color hoser and unimposing stats, one might be inclined to relegate [card]Lifebane Zombie[/card] to the sideboard and then bring him in for relevant match-ups. How often will you be paired against a deck playing green or white? I looked at the decks from our last 10 drafts, and 62 of 70 of them were running either green or white.

Naturally, this will vary based on the structure of your Cube and density of fixing, but at this rate Lifebane Zombie will be “live” against about 90% of Cube decks in my environment. It will naturally be better against some decks than others, but the percentage is high enough to make maindecking Lifebane Zombie a profitable proposition. Even if the trigger misses, there’s still value in a peak at the opponent’s hand.

For reference, here are a couple table layouts from recent drafts.


Of note, 6 of the 8 decks not running green or white were black decks. The breakdown was 4 BR decks, 2 UB decks, and 2 UR decks. If you’re the player casting [card]Lifebane Zombie[/card], it’s not terribly unlikely that all seven other players at the table will be running white or green.

Lastly, black’s 3-drop slot is extremely non-competitive

Verdict: Run it.

Disagree with an evaluation? Let me know in the comments! Thanks for reading!

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

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