Planeswalkers in Cube

Do you remember when the original Lorwyn five had been out for a bit and people weren’t sure if planeswalkers would have any place in Cube? Both sides had vocal supporters and detractors. “It’s not real Magic” was the essential complaint. They fundamentally changed how the format was played and how important the catch-all answers and early creature game were.

Eventually, everyone saw how the planeswalkers were mostly low impact, and you almost never see the original five anymore. Of course that only stopped the debate until really powerful planeswalkers came out. The unique format that is Cube makes it so that certain planeswalkers have a much more significant impact than in other formats.

For example, I’d say the most powerful Jace in Cube isn’t the Mind Sculptor, but Jace, Memory Adept. Another card that has constantly overperformed in Cube compared to similar cards is Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver. Both these cards can quickly snowball into a game over and slide into existing U(B)x control strategies. Meanwhile, cards like JTMS and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion are on the edge of being too powerful for the Limited format.

By now the vast majority (or all) planeswalkers are accepted and many of them aren’t even playable in Legacy/Vintage Cubes. In Vintage Cube, this doesn’t come up as often due to the higher emphasis on combo and the ability to throw haymakers around on turn 4, but many planeswalkers are simply great permanents to be able to power out for “fair” decks. In Legacy and Modern Cube, the planeswalkers have a wider impact both how you draft and how the games  play out. The top tier of planeswalkers create the subgame you often see in Standard where ignoring them is not a realistic option. You get buried in card or board advantage before you ever have a chance to get back in the game.

The two Cube iterations I play with most include a healthy mix of planeswalkers and I don’t have an issue with them aside from Memory Adept. But I have noticed how much of an impact they’ve had on designing my decks. If you’ve ever slammed a JTMS first pick or built a 5c Good Stuff mana rock pile with 6-8 planeswalkers and a handful of sweepers and spot removal spells, this is already obvious to you. It turns out that the average deck isn’t designed to beat turn-3 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, turn-4 Ajani Vengeant, and turn-5 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion.

With that in mind, you may want to minimize or remove planeswalkers from your Cube. Maybe not all of the time, but at least some percentage of your Drafts. It has been years and years since I’ve played a Cube without a significant planeswalker presence, and it felt refreshing to play a set of matches without them.

The Upside of Removing Planeswalkers

Spot removal gets better, which in turn increases the potency of black as a color and lessens the rush to either steal catch-all spells such as Cast Out from white or B/G removal like Maelstrom Pulse and Abrupt Decay.

For the most part, only the base-white aggro decks get worse, while black can take advantage of Lilianas in most Cubes since B/X Aggro isn’t a real archetype. Meanwhile, losing Koth of the Hammer hardly reduces the effectiveness of Mono-Red as long as cards like Goblin Guide, Sulfuric Vortex, and Shrine of Burning Rage exist.

Green midrange likely gains on the whole since it has many of the best anti-control threats. Meanwhile, everyone else gets slammed for losing some of their best anti-control threats*. Since combo is rarely a meaningful presence, you can go pretty deep on recursive or resilient threats like Eternal Witness or Thrun. Losing out on Garruk and Nissa does hurt the long game of these decks, but if you fill the Cube with a few more anti-control elements this should easily balance out.

*You could argue that this is a feature and not a bug, depending on just how much you think control needs to be kept in line.

Control decks lose the easy-mode wins where they trade 1-for-1 and snowball an early blue planeswalker, and they actually have to play a resource battle against midrange and other control decks. Non-counterspell control also loses out here as they’re effectively forced to splash for draw over jamming a bunch of black planeswalkers. With planeswalkers, you could just go for cards that provide immediate tempo advantage and simply ignore the drawbacks of traditional draw spells.

Cutting planeswalkers also makes green more valuable as a primary color since it still has cards like Courser of Kruphix, Sylvan Library, Tireless Tracker, Green Sun’s Zenith, and Eternal Witness. You aren’t immediately locked into the old standbys of ramp or Opposition.

Cutting planeswalkers makes blue softer to multiple drafters, since taking cheap Jaces over normal draw cards has been a viable and popular strategy for a while now. With the legendary rule change, this only makes it easier to overload on Jaces, and actually increases the value of Jace AOT and Jace Beleren. Now people actually have to focus on alternative engines or pure draw spells over stacking their deck with Jace.

Cutting planeswalkers in the Legacy Cube specifically also opens up a lot of room from a Cube template that feels overburdened with cute or situational cards. How many people actually play with a card like Ral Zarek or half the Ajanis unless they have to? How many people go out of their way to draft any of the gold planeswalkers early besides perhaps Ashiok? The rest are practically guaranteed to wheel in the average Cube draft. Even if you keep planeswalkers in the Magic Online Legacy Cube there’s no reason to have incredibly weak ones like Xenagos, the Reveler, Elspeth Tirel, and Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker in there.

The Downsides of Removing Planeswalkers

Control decks get a significant buff and nonblue/green midrange lose some of their best tools for gaining real or virtual card advantage. White in particular gets hurt by throwing away the varied sets of Gideon and Elspeth, and forces them to lean them heavier on equipment or splashing. Black also loses some of their better ways of getting ahead and staying there.

Essentially anything that gives you staying power and needs more than a point-and-click answer is good against control. So if you’ve been playing with planeswalkers for a while, it’s hard to go back to the days where the control player can dictate pace. Of course, creatures have gotten significantly better than the olden days. Think about how many former Cube staples are now dregs or cut altogether. While there is an impact, it isn’t nearly as bad as you may assume.

Still, it does stymie certain play styles in the Cube and it relocates some of the power back to a few staples that would need to be taken even higher than before. If you feel that control decks are already top tier, then perhaps you wouldn’t want to pursue this line without reworking your blue section as well. Besides those few reasons though, the number of drawbacks of cutting planeswalkers is minimal. They are powerful for little work and completely change how the format plays out. Some people may like that, but I’ve grown apathetic to that type of subgame.

That’s all I’ve got on this particular aspect of Cube! If you agree or disagree, let me know in the comments below. If people are interested in more Cube discussions about significantly altering the normal Cube list, I’ll do more of these types of articles in the future. If not, I hope I at least gave you an alternative perspective to the norm and something that’ll give you a significantly different Cubing experience!