Designer Fun – Black Versus Cube

Cube genius and now editor of ChannelFireball Andy Cooperfauss proposed that I write an article about black being the worst color in Cube. Well, he put it best:

“In doing Cube design, it occurred to me that I’d love to get your thoughts on an issue that has sort of plagued Cubes for at least the past year — and it might make for a good article.

Black, in Cube, is the consensus worst color — it took longer for [Cube] designers to come to this conclusion than it should have, but it’s almost unanimously accepted to say the least. What hasn’t been fleshed out, really, is why this is the case. I think it’s because black has been the hardest color for R&D to figure out, and the fact that black has had a few notable broken cards through history has cemented it in the collective consciousness of Magic players as “the second best color”. So for example, people think black, and they think [card]Necropotence[/card], [card yawgmoth’s bargain]Bargain[/card], [card yawgmoth’s will]Yawg Will[/card], [card]Dark Ritual[/card] — even though once those cards stopped commonly seeing play, a black deck really hasn’t been the best deck since. MBC wasn’t a “great” deck, despite protestations to the contrary, and Faeries was a blue deck with one centrally important black card. I often wonder if this has made R&D timid to examine what the color could be capable of.

This leads to some interesting phenomena—each new [card]Tundra[/card]-variant opens at a lower price than its [card]Underground Sea[/card] counterpart (So [card]Darkslick Shores[/card] > [card]Seachrome Coast[/card], etc. — with the exception of [card]Hallowed Fountain[/card] which is a function of small set/big set printing) despite the fact that UW has been outperforming UB in almost every iteration of Standard.

[card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card] is a really interesting case study in the problem. You look at Messenger and you have a great card — It always gets picked last. Its cost is prohibitive, but that has never stopped [card]Spectral Procession[/card], [card]Cryptic Command[/card], [card]Vedalken Shackles[/card], or [card]Ball Lightning[/card] from seeing play in every single draft. If you can cast a triple-black card reliably, your entire deck is terrible, so that’s the problem.”

The major points we’ve got are:

1) Why is black bad in Cube?
2) Can we fix it?
3) R&D vs black cards?

I brought up this topic with local brilliant strategist, deck designer, and original Duels producer Jay Schneider. He proposed that it is not an issue of black being weak per se, but that black is a deckbuilder’s color. It requires much more attention during draft — more planning and more careful picks — than the other colors. In large part this is because a powerful mono-black deck doesn’t have much redundancy. It has several different things going on, and contains just the right number of each.

Think about red, for contrast: 80% (or more) of the red cards in a Cube do the same thing — they deal damage fast. 30-40% [card]Goblin Guide[/card]s and 40-50% [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]s. (The last 20% is top end, or control cards like [card]Bogardan Hellkite[/card].) This makes it easy to build the deck in your head as you go, and simple to draft. You’re also less likely to get hosed by distribution, and you only need to know which card is the strongest/most efficient. Maybe you think about your creature to burn ratio a little bit. The resulting deck can be very challenging to play perfectly (spell sequencing, calculating life totals, when to throw away attackers for damage, etc.), but since all the cards are redundant, the deckbuilding aspect is straightforward.

Black, by contrast, requires several types of cards to make a strong control deck:

• Card draw
• Life gain (to counter the loss from other cards, & against aggro)
• Spot removal
• Maybe some mass removal
• Fatty finishers
• Early “trouble” creature ([card]Hypnotic Specter[/card], [card]Nezumi Graverobber[/card], [card]Nantuko Shade[/card])
• Discard / disruption
• 2-for-1s

You need 2-6 of each of these things (each has a different amount you need), so that during drafting you aren’t always taking the “best/most powerful” black card, you’re taking the one you need based on what you have and what you think you’ll get later. It’s a tricky thing to get right. You’ve got to figure out quickly what you’re doing and constantly rebuild your deck as you go.

Black also has an identity problem with its deck archetypes. The above is a breakdown for a somewhat “normal” black control deck, but what about Reanimator? Black Aggro? Necro?

The reanimator deck is a troublemaker for black, because its existence causes us to misperceive black’s strength in Cube. Reanimator decks (in Cube) usually have two ways to put guys into the graveyard, and then two ways to get them out. Three of each if you are lucky. The whole Cube probably only has a maximum of four of each of these effects. You’ve got to draw one of each in your opening hand (or shortly thereafter), and not have your guy be killed by a cheap removal spell.

So now Cube has the potential for this deck that will, on occasion, win on turn one or two by reanimating a fatty. Because those games are so dramatic, everyone remembers them and feels like black is so powerful in the Cube, so they don’t worry about the power-level being too low. Turns out that most of the time the reanimator deck doesn’t win on turn one, and then it’s a clunky mess and not as strong as we perceive it to be. Note that this deck is also a Chinese-Menu-required deck. Three grave fillers, three fatties, three reanimates, three card draw (and all the tutors you can get), three [card]Thoughtseize[/card]s to clear the way, etc.

Black aggro… is not a good deck in Cube. It can’t compare to RDW, and both mono-white and R/W are stronger. If the Cube supports blue tempo, that deck is usually also better. Black aggro is one of the weakest aggro decks, despite black now having even more good one-drops ([card]Diregraf Ghoul[/card] & [card]Gravecrawler[/card]) than it ever did before. This is a two-fold problem for black in Cube. Obviously, people are trying to make black aggro in Cube, and it’s a bad deck, and so they lose and feel black is weak. Second, Cubes are full of black aggro cards, which dilutes the pool for the other black decks. The second issue is that black is often trying to support several disparate archetypes in Cube — like reanimator, control, Necro, aggro, and midrange — and there aren’t enough cards to play all those roles in sufficient density to really support them.

Necro — well, hold on there; Necro isn’t really a deck in Cube is it? That’s just the name of one powerful card that you might draft. Here we have another one of black’s problems: It’s power cards are a few well-known power cards from the very early days of Magic. [card]Necropotence[/card], [card]Yawgmoth’s Will[/card] (and [card yawgmoth’s bargain]Bargain[/card]), and [card]Dark Ritual[/card] are great and all, but there are only one of each of them. You end up with a deck with one super powerful card and a bunch of okay-ish cards. [card]Yawgmoth’s Will[/card] is particularly sinister in mono-black, because what are you casting again? [card]Inquisition of Kozilek[/card] on turn eight? [card]Ravenous Rats[/card]? [card]Doom Blade[/card] and [card]Terror[/card]? You might be doing something, but it’s not all that powerful compared to any other black card you could have in that slot. If you had a [card]Dark Ritual[/card]…

Fast mana further creates a misperception of black. A lot of black’s powerful starts are secretly very dependent on fast mana. You remember that you got [card]Mind Twist[/card]ed for 6 on turn one, but you forget that the opponent needed [card Mox jet]Jet[/card], [card black lotus]Lotus[/card], and/or [card]Dark Ritual[/card] to get there. You just blame the Mind Twist. Any deck will clobber you with fast mana. Dark Ritual is fast mana for black and no other decks — but there’s only one.

Black’s midrange decks depend on the four-drop creature slot. [card]Phyrexian Obliterator[/card], [card]Abyssal Persecutor[/card], [card]Bloodline Keeper[/card], [card]Juzam Djinn[/card], and that’s about it. Does your Cube even have all of those? How can this deck rely on that slot when it can’t even be sure of getting the two or three it needs? Black’s midrange decks seem more like something that happens when you try for MBC or MBA and don’t get the right combination of cards. Cubes include these cards just because they’re cool and famous, but without much consideration for the deck they fit best in.

In addition to the deck types, black’s individual cards can be a problem. Many of the most powerful cards come with drawbacks, and those add up fast. If you play [card]Thoughtsieze[/card], [card]Bitterblossom[/card], [card]Phyrexian Arena[/card], [card]Juzam Djinn[/card], and [card]Bloodgift Demon[/card], you’ll be down to 8 life at the start of turn six. Of course, you’ll also attack for lethal that turn, if they don’t do anything to stop you, but since when does that happen in Cube? Black’s best cards don’t always play nice together in the same deck.

We’re not done yet! Black has a problem outside of its own cards and deck types. Black is the most hated-on color in almost all Cubes:

[draft]Sword of Feast and Famine
Sword of Light and Shadow
Chameleon Colossus
Great Sable Stag
Karmic Guide
Mirran Crusader
Paladin en-Vec
Phantom Centaur
Soltari Monk
Stillmoon Cavalier[/draft]

All are found in most Cubes. No other color is getting pounded on so hard (pretty much all the pro-red cards are already on the list above, for example). This is compounded by the fact that black is the only color completely incapable of dealing with the Swords. Red, green, and white can all destroy a piece of equipment quite easily, often as a two-for-one deal, while blue can at least counter or bounce them.

If you want black to be better in your Cube, cut some of these cards!

Ready for more? Black’s planeswalkers also rank the lowest on the power scale:

•[card garruk wildspeaker]All[/card] [card garruk, primal hunter]three[/card] [card garruk relentless]Garruks[/card]!
•[card jace beleren]Jace[/card] & [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card] (CMC 3&4)*
•[card gideon jura]Gideon[/card] & [card elspeth, knight-errant]Elspeth[/card] (CMC 4)
•[card koth of the hammer]Koth[/card] & [card chandra nalaar]either[/card] [card chandra, the firebrand]Chandra[/card] (CMC 4&5)
•[card liliana of the veil]Liliana[/card]? [card sorin markov]Sorin[/card]?

Liliana at 5 isn’t even in most Cubes. Sorin at 6 is okay — but not nearly as strong as the others. Liliana at 3 is good, but not fantastic, and she’s a very hard card to use correctly. (Finally, we have a Liliana at 4 that might be amazing in Cube.)

So, How Do You Fix Your Cube So that Black Is Good?

Take out some of the hate.

Put in all the removal — black should have so many [card]Doom Blade[/card]s that they are not signals, and that the black drafters can always get a couple in the middle picks, even if other players are taking some. You want to make [card]Grave Titan[/card] into the signal card for black.

Cut black aggro back, or figure out what it needs to actually compete. In Standard, recently, black aggro has depended heavily on cards like [card]Kalastria Highborn[/card] and [card]Blood Artist[/card] to give it reach and protect it from sweepers, so you could try those. Until more of these are printed, it will be hard to get a critical mass for Cube, I fear.

Maximize the creatures in the “very dangerous early threat” category. You probably have [card]Hypnotic Specter[/card] already, but how about [card]Guul Draz Assassin[/card]? I am not at all surprised it was recently added to the MTGO Cube. Pumpknights are similar — they can kill fast and run away with the game if not answered; [card]Stillmoon Cavalier[/card], [card]Nantuko Shade[/card], [card]Order of the Ebon Hand[/card] — they provide a cheap threat, but one that doesn’t get outclassed a few turns later.

Give black real answers to the other decks in your Cube. Black is a reactive defensive color in control decks, so it needs to have the right answers available. (Blue, by contrast, is a proactive control color: hard counters work on all kinds of things.) Make sure you’ve got black cards that can deal with the major decks in your Cube.

Color specific mana-acceleration might also help. You could try adding [card]Jet Medallion[/card] and [card]Charcoal Diamond[/card], instead of [card]Coldsteel Heart[/card].

Can Design (R&D) Do Anything to Help out Black in Cube?

The new [card liliana of the dark realms]Liliana[/card] is a great start. She’s easily the best Cube planeswalker black has — she generates card advantage and fixes your mana (for B/x decks) and she can kill a creature. Be sure there are some splashable X-spells for her to abuse, like [card]Stroke of Genius[/card], [card]Red Sun’s Zenith[/card], or even [card]Drain Life[/card]. Oh… it only takes four Swamps to cast [card emrakul, the aeons torn]Emrakul[/card] once you have her emblem? Yeah, put an Eldrazi or two in your Cube to keep her warm at night.

More versatile cards might also help. Since black needs so many specific answers, more cards that can handle multiple situations might be better. [card]Guul Draz Assassin[/card] has this property. It mostly looks like an assassin, but it’s also a one-drop that can attack as a 4/4 against a counterspell-heavy deck.

Cards with greater variety of drawbacks, or some powerful cards without any drawbacks would be nice. Abyssal Persecutor is a good example — the drawback is unique, and it’s even one that black can handle quite easily.

More solid lifegain cards, to offset all the really strong cards that cost you life. I’ve considered adding [card]Sorin’s Thirst[/card] to my Cube, but it doesn’t quite feel strong enough. I may add [card]Tendrils of Corruption[/card] instead. R&D could look at expanding the role of black’s lifegain. I’d like to see a middle-ground lifelink creature to fill the gap between [card]Vampire Nighthawk[/card] and [card]Griselbrand[/card]. Actually, several from CMC2 to CMC5 would be nice. There are so very few black lifelinkers in existence.

Fewer BBB and BBBB costs on black powerhouse cards. At first it sounds counterintuitive; you might think loading Cube up with BBBB cards would help mono-black out, but being isolated and playable only as mono-black makes the color weaker in Cube overall. The 1BB cost of Nighthawk makes it playable in a black/green or black/red deck, whereas [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card]’s BBB scares you away from drafting it even when your first three picks were all black.

You can still end up mono-black if the cards keep coming. Aggro white had this problem for a long time, especially in the famous WW two-drop slot. Now we’re seeing more cards like [card]War Priest of Thune[/card] and [card]Thalia, Guardian of Thraben[/card] that could have cost WW, but cost 1W instead to make the color more palatable. [card]Knight of Infamy[/card] and [card]Knight of Glory[/card] cost 1W and 1B, so that they can both be played in the WB exalted deck in M13 limited, and perhaps also so they can take the place of double-white and black cards in other formats such as Cube.

I hope we’ll see more cool black cards in the coming years, and I hope you try some of these changes in your Cube, and we can find out how to balance our Cubes better.

Follow me on twitter: @gregorymarques and ask me a design question sometime.


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