I find Cube draft to be among the most complex and rewarding ways to play Magic. The format is enriched by the fact that every Cube is different. Adapting to an unfamiliar Cube is part of the challenge. On the fly, you need to be able to combine cards in new ways, and find the best way to win in a format with almost limitless possibilities.
Today I’m going to discuss how to evaluate an unfamiliar Cube. What are the most important factors to consider, and how should these factors change your approach to a Cube draft? While I’ll be using the Magic Online Legacy Cube (currently available on MTGO, card list found here) as an example, this article is about preparing for the unknown.
First, a disclaimer:
Cube is meant to be fun. My personality and my history with Magic force me to look at everything with a competitive eye, and I love sharing what I see with my readers. But this article may not be for everyone. It’s great if you enjoy hearing a competitive perspective on things, but if you don’t, don’t let it take away from your enjoyment of the format. Just take what you like from this article, and leave the rest behind.
Also, there’s no such thing as right or wrong when it comes to building a Cube. Every Cube will be different, and that’s part of the point. So when I make a claim like, “blue is usually the best color in Cube,” what it really means is, “based on my personal experience across dozens of Cubes including all incarnations of the Magic Online Cubes, blue has most often been the best color.”
Let’s get to it.
Overall Power Level
How powerful is the Cube? There’s a very easy two-step process to gauge the answer to this question. First, what are the best cards in the Cube? Does it have Power cards (Moxes, Black Lotus, etc.)? This sets the ceiling for what you should be prepared for, and also ties in closely to the speed of the format.
Second, what are the weakest cards in the Cube? Now, you don’t necessarily need to identify the single worst card, but simply to get a feel for how powerful the “weak filler” cards are. This will give you an idea of how easy it will be to get enough playables during the draft. It will tell you if the card pool is deep enough to build a strong mono-color deck. It will hint at the possible rewards of splashing or otherwise branching out in colors.
The Magic Online Legacy Cube has a restriction that’s easy to remember: a card is only eligible to be in the Cube if it’s legal in Legacy. No Power, no Skullclamp, no Sol Ring, etc. This means the strongest cards are the efficiently-costed planeswalkers like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, the Control Magic effects, and a couple of other standouts. Things are (relatively speaking) pretty fair, and you can expect most decks to hit their stride around turn 4.
While there are a handful of duds, the weak filler in the Legacy Cube is still fine. You can always round out your deck with some fine but unspectacular creatures—things on the power level of Precinct Captain, Man-o’-War, Pain Seer, Avalanche Riders, and Troll Ascetic. You usually won’t have a problem finding 23 nonlands you’re happy to play with.
I alluded to the concept of color balance above. In Cube in general, and previous incarnations of the MTGO Cube in particular, the colors can be roughly ranked like this:
• Blue - A clear best
• Green - A clear second-best
• White - In the middle
• Black - A clear worst
*And red is hard to define (more on this to come)
In fact, blue used to be so good that I’d start every draft planning to be blue and I’d only draft a non-blue deck is I was completely forced out of the color by my neighbors. If you identify a color as really being head-and-shoulders above the rest, this is the right strategy. Put yourself in a position to make use of the best cards.
In the current Legacy Cube, things are far more balanced. Blue still has many of the absolute best cards, and is still very good, but it doesn’t have the astounding depth that it used to have. I actually think that green is now the best and deepest color. Perhaps because people are still in the mind set of blue being overpowered, I’ve found blue to be overdrafted online and I’ve had the most success when drafting green.
There’s also the issue of particular color combinations. This has a bit to do with what multicolored cards are in the Cube, but also…
What archetypes are most supported in the particular Cube? You want to know when you see a Tinker if it’s possible to build an artifact deck. You want to know when you see a Tendrils of Agony whether or not storm combo is supported.
Neither of those cards are in the Legacy Cube. Dedicated artifact decks are not really supported (and Tinker is banned in Legacy, of course) and storm combo decks are definitely not supported.
The archetypes that are supported include (but are not limited to):
White aggro, red aggro, black aggro, black devotion, green ramp, and reanimator and other types of graveyard decks.
These are important to know, and can help you choose your color combinations. For example, if you’re drafting a black graveyard deck, black pairs great with green and fine with blue. Tokens are a major theme of white, but are also great in red and have a bit of support in black and green.
In old incarnations of the Cube, white had so many excellent board sweepers that once I picked up a blue card drawing spell, I’d default to white as my second color and build a control deck. The number of white sweepers in the Legacy Cube is reduced to the point that this is no longer a great strategy. I could’ve saved a lot of tickets if I’d taken the time to look at the card list before diving in!
There’s an important corollary to the question of archetypes: are any archetypes so deeply supported that it reduces the number of generally playable cards in the color?
The reason it’s often difficult to slot red into the color rankings is that mono-red aggro is a great archetype, but if you’re not drafting that exact deck, then red is very shallow. In order for mono-red to be good, most Cubes contain so many cards like Jackal Pup, Firedrinker Satyr, and Sulfuric Vortex that if you’re not drafting a dedicated aggro deck, a large portion of the color is off the table for you. If you’re drafting a U/R Control deck, nearly half of one of your colors is completely useless to you!
In the Legacy Cube, it’s good to know that white, red, and black, all have quite a large number of one-mana creatures and other dedicated aggro cards. If you’re not drafting a suicidally aggressive deck, and are thus not interested in a card like Elite Vanguard, your options are a bit limited in these colors.
The Legacy Cube has painlands and scry lands, but not the other two. To be precise, it has 63 color-fixing lands (six cycles of 10 dual lands plus three miscellaneous ones). In a 600-card Cube, that means there’ll be an average of about 37 color-fixing lands opened in an eight-player draft. If you’re drafting them highly (but not psychotically) you might count on winding up with eight or nine. However, if you’re playing three colors, a couple of those probably won’t be in your exact color combination.
Draft two colors.
Two colors is the sweet spot in the Legacy Cube. The costs of playing more than two colors are pretty high, and the rewards just aren’t necessarily there. This is something that differs from Cube to Cube.
Part of the reason for this is artifact mana. Signets are sometimes a big part of color fixing, but Signets are not in the Legacy Cube.
When there’s a plethora of artifact mana, it raises the value of expensive cards relative to cheap cards. It’s not particularly productive to waste time with Xathrid Necromancers and Kitchen Finks when everyone is ramping straight to Titans.
An abundance of artifact mana also robs green of its relative advantage on the color wheel. Green’s main strength in Cube is fast mana, but when you can draft non-green decks and have a comparable amount of ramping, what’s the point?
There’s not much artifact mana in the Legacy Cube (only 12 cards and many of them produce colorless mana). This makes these cards relatively high picks, ensures that cheap creatures still have value, and preserves green’s position as a very appealing color.
Card Draw and Sweepers
The appeal of dedicated control decks depends a lot on the exact suite of card drawing and board sweepers in the Cube.
The Legacy Cube has a fairly healthy amount of blue card drawing, but not as much as previous incarnations of the MTGO Cube. The power level of these cards has also gone down. Notable absences include Tidings, Opportunity, Thirst for Knowledge, and Concentrate. They are sorely missed.
There are also far fewer board sweepers in the Legacy Cube, and they’re split more evenly among the colors than in the past. Now, if you want to draft blue control, black is just as good a support color as white. Red is also a fine option.
The lack of sweepers isn’t just important to control decks, but also to their opponents! It makes green mana dorks more reliable and makes a deck like White Weenie more viable (though still not great).
How Good Are Disenchant Effects?
In Cubes with lots of artifact mana, the good artifact destruction cards like Ancient Grudge and Smash to Smithereens are sometimes stellar maindeck cards. Naturally, this is completely context-dependent. In some Cubes you shouldn’t be caught dead playing with Ancient Grudge!
For an average Disenchant effect (let’s say for example... I don’t know... how about Disenchant) I’d say it’s a strong maindeck card if your average opponent is going to have five or more targets (meaning some opponents will have more, some less, and we don’t know ahead of time what the targets are). I’d say it’s a passable but unexciting maindeck card if your average opponent has between two and four targets. It’s a disaster if your average opponent has zero or one target.
By my count, the Legacy Cube has about 70 good targets for Disenchant (omitting things like Rancor, Seal of Fire, etc.). This makes up about 13% of the 525 nonland cards in the Cube. So if every card has an equal chance of making someone’s deck, and everyone plays with 23 nonland cards, then your Legacy Cube opponent will have, on average, approximately three targets for Disenchant.
This approximation is barbarically rough, but it does accord with my experience. Most decks have a couple artifacts and enchantments, but some have zero and some have a bit more. I try not to maindeck Disenchant, but if I wind up short on playables I’ll do it and it’s not a complete disaster. I prefer to keep it as a sideboard card for when I see a Treachery or a Control Magic.
What’s much better are the cards that can incidentally blow up an artifact or enchantment while being able to impact the game in other ways. Cards like Acidic Slime, Freyalise, Llanowar’s Fury, Vindicate, and Karn Liberated. Not only do I maindeck these cards, but I’ll go far out of my way to make sure I have at least one.
Finally, what dedicated combos exist in the Cube? Time Vault changes in power level pretty dramatically depending on the presence of Voltaic Key or other cards that untap it. Before you draft a card, it’s good to know what’s out there, instead of speculating wildly.
Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Splinter Twin have a lot of creatures to combo with in the Legacy Cube. Wake Thrasher and Basalt Monolith, while not an auto-win, are good to know about. Beyond that, there are a lot of ways to cheat giant creatures into play including Sneak Attack, Show and Tell, Eureka, and plenty of reanimation.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my thoughts about the Legacy Cube and Cube draft in general. If you have a few hours to spare, fire up a draft on MTGO and tell me which of my opinions are right and which ones are wrong. If not, then the next time a friend brings a new Cube to a tournament, try to apply the questions in this article and hopefully they’ll help to steer you in the right direction for that particular Cube.
(I've got a bonus article coming up later this week—my complete ranking of the Top 40 first-picks in the Legacy Cube. Don't miss it!)