Wednesday, 12 December 2018
We have made it! The 25th and final installment of this yearlong Top 10 series. One thing that is fairly apparent is that the number of cards that get used each year increases. Not just new cards from that year but older cards that work well with new cards too reemerging. Each new card seems to add more, on average to the game, than the last. A fairly obvious trend if you think about it but not something that I had ever really considered prior to doing this series of lists.
The top ten list itself is fairly tame for this year however the number of cards that are performing well in the drafting cube and keeping their slot is huge. The number of cards I have used in specific decks or built around is also extreme. It is pretty much what I always used to request more of - more playable cards. Wizards understand card power a lot better than they used to and are far better at hitting the mark on power level. This means far less broken stuff and far less duds. Just a nice wide array of cards falling in the interesting and potentially playable range. This in turn provides way more longevity from the new stuff with a huge long list of cool new things to try out. Wizards get a lot of stick for a lot of what they do. Purely from a design perspective I am really pleased to see the direction they are going in. I can't speak so much for formats like draft and standard, nor the choices they make regarding play structures, but the individual cards are often such a joy to play with. Games in cube get appreciably better with each new set and it has been that way for the past few years. The cube is at it's most balanced and diverse and it is made up mostly from cards from the last few years. Those two things are very much linked. There are still so many new things I want to try out due to cards released this year.
I don' want to quote numbers for cards in the cube as everything is all still so new. Presently this year is the biggest contributor to my drafting cube however not by a massive amount. As the cards get tested, and indeed as new sets are released I expect this number to drop more sharply than others. In another five years any of the last three years could wind up with more than this one. Even so, at that point one of those future years will most likely have the most cards in cube. Presently over a third of the cube is made of cards from 2015 (Khans and Origins) onwards. These are the cards that are generally making a big difference to game quality in the right direction.
As for this top ten specifically I really struggled with the last few slots. There are at least ten comparably strong cards I felt deserved those last couple of slots on this list. The best of those can be found at the top of this extensive list of cards I have so far used in cube decks from 2018. I am sure a fair few more will crop up over time too that I have overlooked. I really couldn't decide for the final slots on the list due to insufficient experience so I just went with my gut. I will try and come back to this in a year or two and revise my opinion on the top ten. Here are those not on the list;
Integrity // Intervention
The Eldest Reborn
Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice
Fountain of Renewal
Sai, Master Thopterist
Adeliz, the Cinder Wind
Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants
Arcades, the Strategist
Arch of Orazca
Assure // Assemble
Board the Weatherlight
Bounty of Might
Connive // Concoct
Dawn of Hope
Dire Fleet Poisoner
Discovery // Dispersal
Emmara, Soul of the Accord
Etrata, the Silencer
Expansion // Expulsion
Fall of Thran
Find // Finality
Flower // Flourish
Forerunner of the Empire
Forerunner of the Legion
Ghlata, Primal Hunger
Gird for Battle
Grand Warlord Radha
History of Benalia
Invert // Invent
Isareth, the Awakener
Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain
Josu Vess, Lich Knight
Journey to Eternity
Knight of Autumn
Liliana, Untouched by Death
Martyr of Dusk
Marwyn, the Nurturer
Memorial to Glory
Nicol Bolas, the Ravager // the Arisen
Oath of Teferi
Paladin of Atonement
Path of Metttle
Price of Fame
Raff Capashen, Ship's Mage
Ral, Izzet Viceroy
Rite of Belzenlock
Slimefoot, the Stowaway
Song of Freyalise
Squee, the Immortal
Status // Statue
Tajic, Legion's Edge
Tetzimoc, Primal Death
Teshar, Ancestor's Apostle
Tezzeret, Artifice Master
The Antiquities War
The Flame of Keld
The Mending of Dominaria
The Mirari Conjecture
Thief of Sanity
Thousand Year Storm
Thran Temporal Gateway
Traxos, Scourge of Kroog
Urza's Ruinous Blast
Yawgmoth's Vile Offering
Zahid, Djinn of the Lamp
Aminatou, the Fateshifter
Ancient Stone Idol
Arixmethes, the Slumbering Isle
Entreat the Dead
Estrid, the Masked
Kestia, the Cultivator
Magus of the Balance
Najeela, the Blade-Blossom
Saheeli, the Gifted
Tuvasa the Sunlit
Varina, Lich Queen
Yennett, Cryptic Sovereign
Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow
10. Vivien Ried
A little bit of a slow burner in cube as well as in standard. Vivien is great. She is the ideal control walker in a green shell. She provides useful value in her +1 and has a nice range of answers on her -3. The Plummet is huge, the key line of text in what makes Vivien so strong. Green is poor at killing creatures and vulnerable to fliers. You can't play Plummet as it is far too narrow but you want to. Until now there have been no good modular cards with a Plummet effect but Vivien ticks that box wonderfully. Freyalise was the other common control walker for green but 1/1 mana dorks are no much value or reach. Nissa Vital Force is generally a bit more aggressive and slower to gain you value or control. Vivien just hits that sweet spot of doing what you need from that sort of card given the types of places you will play her. She both covers inherent weaknesses while being otherwise well suited. A very fair feeling planeswalker but one that it turns out we quite needed. Green is a bit in the position red used to find itself in. Neither was great at slower games. Mostly because neither had the tools to go long. Then red got great value and utility cards and became a fearsome thing to face in the slower games. Green looks like it can go long with good big cards and plenty of value but due to lack of ability to handle things like spells or creatures means that the longer the games went the greater the chances of just losing to something random are. Vivien does a surprising amount to counter that problem and that is why I have given her this slot on the list over cards that seem more potent or see a bit more play. Legion Warboss is both more powerful and sees more play but it is just the same as Rabblemaster and isn't such an interesting card. Jadelight Ranger sees more play and is more powerful but Jadelight is just another 3 drop value dork, a thing green has so many of I did a top 10 list just for them! It doesn't massively change what the colour can do and so Vivien seems a more noteworthy card.
9. Vraska, Golgari Queen
I have been really impressed with Vraska in this four mana offering. Her abilities cover a wide range of doing the things you want to be doing. She is safe and suitable. She can protect herself or yourself with either removal or life/loyalty gains. A four mana, six loyalty walker in green is no easy thing to take down. Her ultimate is frightening too. She can even support things like Liliana, Heretical Healer and Journey to Eternity with her sacrifice ability. The cost of sacrificing stuff late game in Golgari when you went the value is minimal too. She draws cards, deals with a lot of problem cards and threatens to close the game too with her easily reachable ultimate. Vraska is a real pull to the colour pairing and has seen some splashing for as well. She is one of few options on four mana planeswalkers in those colours and that greatly ups the demand on her. Vraska is one of the few elite gold planeswalkers that see as much play as the good mono coloured walkers.
8. Emissary of Grudges
This dude is super naughty. He is basically the big True-Name Nemesis. The red Aetherling if you prefer. Emissary comes into play and is super hard to interact with or get out of play. He also has the perk of ending the game incredibly fast. This would all stand to make him rather oppressive if it were not for being a red six drop and thus not seen as often. Power level wise he is about on par for a cube six drop. There has been much debate as to which is better out of Grudges and Inferno Titan which is a potent place to be! While Grudges may be on point for power I am not a huge fan of the design. Unsurprisingly all the less balanced cards come out of sets like Commander. Emissary simply isn't very interactive or fun to play against. You need to have a Wrath effect or two good removal cards and be ahead enough to eat the Misdirection. Both pretty rare and thus Emissary tends to just end games and on the quick side too. Very good but pretty dull.
7. Assassin's Trophy
Not a great deal to say about this one. It is just a lovely little removal card. It is what you want from removal. Cheap, broad target range with no target restrictions and instant speed. It has the perfect drawback weighting that makes it interesting and fair too. Without the drawback it would be utterly bonkers and no fun to play against, even if it didn't hit lands. With too much more of a drawback it would probably suck. It is exactly the sort of card you need in cubes. Broad removal that is unlikely to sit dead in hand is a big part of having good interactive games where choices matter. This is seeing way more love than Abrupt Decay in cube although that is actually down to the poor scaling Abrupt Decay has with recent cards like Fatal Push and Vraska, Golgari Queen than it has to do with power differences between Decay and Trophy. All told both cards are similar ballparks for power levels. Trophy is just a little more playable and a little more interesting. Status // Statue is also a lovely new offering in the removal camp this is also both more interesting and more playable than Abrupt Decay. Sadly it is not quite as powerful!
6. Ravenous Chupacabra
Not exciting nor even all that powerful. What makes Chumpcabra the go to 187 dork now in cube is simply reliability. It always kills and it has no target restrictions and as such it does its primary role better than anything else. Skinrender does't always kill, Shriekmaw can't always target and Noxious Gearhulk is in the price bracket of win conditions not answer cards and value. When you have recursion effects or tutor effects or anything like that you want the Chupacabra over alternatives as it is reliable. Sure a 2/2 body is fairly low value but that only represents a small fraction of what the card is about. You are playing this to kill things and it does that fantastically. Skinrender has a 50% better body so at first glance you might think the removal needs to be 50% better on Chupacabra for it to be better. It probably is about that much better but that still makes the cards seem comparable if you equally weight the removal and body components. If you value it more at an 80/20 split which feels more realistic then you get a vastly better deal with Chupacabra. (80% of 3x + 20% of 2x > 20% of 3x + 80% of 2x if you appreciate that sentiment better in a sort of maths phrasing!) Both amount of play and overall performance are notably better than all the alternative removal dorks so you can just go for some play experience with the card and not need to do maths conjecture on the matter! Chupacabra just feels like one of those clean staple cards with one line of text you find in Alpha.
5. Karn, Scion of Urza
Karn has seen a lot of play and has given a wide range of performances. The fairly obvious thing with Karn is that the more artifacts you run the better he is. This means that Karn is really only as good as the support there is for him. With no other artifacts Karn is on the low end of the spectrum for four mana planeswalkers. With a couple he is decent. With any more than that he is utterly unreasonable. I like cards that scale but Karn does so a little too steeply and has too acceptable of a baseline given how high his ceiling is. Arguably one of the most powerful planeswalkers, certainly in terms of ease of play and setup to obtain that near ceiling feel. Karn is certainly potent enough that the count and use of artifacts in my cube has jumped as a result of him. Despite this it is still pretty tough to get a Karn deck with all the good support in a draft where he reaches his ceiling. As such, despite his high ceiling and high floor Karn still seems to perform in a fairly average sort of way in an unpowerd draft cube. With power he has a nice jump but so do many things. Having synergy with cards that are more powerful and stand up on their own is no massive benefit or acclaim. It is the constructed cube decks where Karn really shines. In those he is an interesting and powerful option that improves a lot of decks, especially those with fewer or narrower colours. A big part of what makes Karn a lovely addition to cube is how widely playable he is with his lack of colour ties. This has lead to some interesting uses and a lot more general use.
4. Shalai, Voice of Plenty
I have been super impressed with Shalai. I was expecting her to not have that much in the way of abilities due to the fact that when you have removal you are going to be using it on the 3/4 flier preferentially over most things anyway. This was an accurate assessment for cards like Doom Blade however it turns out that most of the things Shalai effects are not Doom Blade. They are things like Vampire Hexmage, Walking Ballista, Duress, Lightning Bolt, Edicts, and many more. Shalai does a superb job of protecting your planeswalkers and your smaller creatures. She randomly disrupts a bunch of spells too. The best way of understanding what it is that makes Shalai so good is option density. She drastically reduces what your opponent is able to do. They may well have all the answers but Shalai still typically forces them to be used in a way or sequence that wasn't optimal. When they don't have answers then they really are unable to do all that much. Like Winter Orb reduces your opponents abiltiy to play by crimping their mana Shalai does it just by reducing options. The +1/+1 counter ability has even seen a bunch of use although I attribute this mostly due to Shalai seeing a lot of play because of the rest of her things. The more action a card gets the more likely you are to experience the less relevant aspects of it. Even if a minor perk the +1/+1 counters are still a perk on what is already a great card! Mostly she is played in non-green decks too. A 3/4 flyer is also a great body that puts a good amount of work. Shalai is solid, highly disruptive, potentially to the point of locking people out of the game and fairly safe. Her only real downside is that you tend to go one for one and concede tempo with her when you walk into a good answer. Not many four drops that have this downside last in the cube and that in itself should speak volumes for the quality of Shalai. Part of why she gets away with it is that you can mitigate that one weakness in loads of ways. From hand disruption and countermagic to simply having a board of powerful yet vulnerable things. Shalai seems like she buys enough time and is a relevant enough body that she closes out a lot of games pretty much by herself.
3. Plague Mare
This little horse is rather extreme in my cube but may well just be average in other cubes. It all depends how low to the ground your cube is and how much you have in the way of support for the token based strategies. I have found that both token strategies and low to the ground cubes to be great and so my cube is heavily tailored to those ends. As such Plague Mare is a pretty hard counter to vast swathes of cards in my cube. It has done some of the filthiest things since joining the cube ranks earlier this year. It is the new Arc Trail. It is a card you can play in midrange or proactive creature based decks without being an act of self harm or even going off theme. It was getting to be a bit the case that decks without sweepers had very little hope against the go wide decks and it was really hurting those midrange decks. A bit of tuning to counter that combined with cards like Plague Mare has decently addressed that issue but it hasn't stopped the Mare from being a power house. It counters or neuters so many top rate cards that you don't need it to kill three 2/1s or mana elves to be worth it. Having to make a 4/3 Angel of Invention because you saw a Plague Mare is really sad. A Siege Gang without any goblin tokens is pretty sad. Having a nice way of cleaning up after popping a Hangarback Walker or Hallowed Spiritkeeper is great too. I have simply never found Plague Mare to be bad. It can win some matchups all by itself but even in the non-aggro games Mare still seems to do great work. A little bit dull looking and also a little bit dull in action but dull doesn't mean it isn't bonkers. It also seems necessary so I am more than happy to have this guy as an options. Even though I seem to always be the one eating the wrong end of this card. I don't play around it enough and get savagely wrecked by it. I literally only just noticed the can't be blocked by white creatures bit as I put the images in before publishing. It has not come up yet despite seeing play in every black deck that can run it since its debut. The reason why is obvious - it killed all the creatures!
2. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
I don't really need to spend much time on Teferi. His power is well known to players across all format borders. He is just so clean and on point for what you want a control planeswalker to do. He is a stealth five mana walker due to his plus one. It makes him much more like a three mana planeswalker. Control decks want to be in the position to make walkers with disruption to back them up with and that is exactly what Teferi does. As powerful as five drop walkers and as safe as a three mana one. That is really at the crux of why Teferi is so played. He also does exactly what you want in terms of abilities. A gain in loyalty with card draw and one for one removal for almost any target. You get value or control and you get the most direct value and the broadest control. You will usually have at least one useful thing to do with Teferi, often two. His ultimate is a really big threat and empowers the threat of loyalty gain. The removal ability even lets you use Teferi exclusively as your win condition as he will prevent self mill and let you grind out the game. Teferi is the all round control planeswalker that combines decent power with perfection in suitability to task. His synergy with lands like Azcanta or Azorius Chancery is also a little bit naughty. It gives some easy ways to scale up the power on your already top of the range planeswalker.
1. Retrofitter Foundry
This was another somewhat slow burner. It took a fair bit of time with this in the cube before we cottoned on to how nuts it is. Some people call it the one mana planeswalker. It has a bit too much need of mana investments for me to like that comparison but I can see where people are coming from. Foundry just does several things incredibly well and efficiently. It is inevitability for one. Endless 1/1 fliers or 4/4 beaters will overcome almost all decks in time. Foundry offers great mana efficiency in that you can easily use all your mana every turn with a little planning. Just tossing those spare one or two mana the way of Foundry adds up over a couple of turns and leads you to being surprisingly ahead. Retrofitter foundry allows you to be incredibly reactive as you can leave up all your mana until the last minute all the time without risk of wasting it. Foundry also has massive amounts of synergy across the whole cube. It turns out a lot of good stand alone cube cards make servos or thopters. Whirler Rogue is already a great card, when you can freely make it 7/7 in stats instead of 4/4 it looks really oppressive. Lastly Foundry acts as a kind of sac outlet which is monumentally frustrating to play against. If you ever try and deal with a token your spell or effect will get fizzled and that token will become another kind of token. If you try and charge a Jitte or use lifelink the Foundry is going to deny you. Foundry has a numerous occasions defeated Wurmcoil Engine. The card is incredibly low cost to run in any deck and adds a lot if dimensions to it. The power level is very high but it isn't completely off the charts. What pushes this card to the very top of this list is playability and convenience. It is just a bit too easy to use and abuse without any real risk or cost. Only the most aggressive (to include most combo) of decks with no synergies to pair with it don't want this card. Any sort of midrange or control deck is more than happy running this. It is like Walking Ballista in that regard. The best thing about having this in your deck is that you will not have to face the card! Foundry is even a fine way to curve out. You can have a 4/4 on turn four for 4 mana total investment on prior turns, leaving you all your turn four mana and most of your turn three mana still to do other things. You even get a bit of utility from your various 1/1 tokens prior to that. The fact that the card is both inevitability and not a bad tempo opener should set some alarm bells ringing. Tempo and value is fundamentally all there is in magic and so when cards do both you have to pay attention. This has trickery and a boat load of option density to add to the mix as well.
Friday, 7 December 2018
Tajic, Legion's Edge
Spear of Heliod
Tshar, Ancestor's Apostle
Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Karn, Scion of Urza
Angel of Invention
The best way to appreciate why this deck did so well is to think of it as an aggro deck that also plays like a midrange deck. In the rock paper scissors world of most magic metagames being able to be one of two things makes you favoured! This deck seemed to be able to outpace or out value any opposition as required. As to why the deck gets to play as both aggro and as midrange in the first place however is a little more subtle. It is the combination of being able to support synergies without having to play any individually low powered cards. Yes, there are only two cards that directly empower having servo and thopter tokens in the deck but most of the cards in the list benefit from artifacts. Usually synergy decks have a bunch of weak stand alone cards but this deck is able to easily avoid doing that and is potent enough that you don't have to. When you have a bunch of good stand alone cards that are empowered by synergies they become great. There are a few weaker cards in this list in more of a support role like Sparring Construct and some stand alone do nothings like Animation Module but none are key cards and all have a nice deep pool of alternatives to chose from. Most of which would be stand alone more powerful cards.
The quality of the one drops is a pretty big deal. A 3/2 first strike, a 2/3, and a Flame Javelin all at one mana is pretty unreasonably above the curve. It doesn't take much at all to go from fine to completely nuts on a one mana card. These three cheap cards are filthy powerful and do a great job of stealing the early game. This list has less on the one slot than most other aggressive decks I build but in terms of quality it outclasses most other things.
Another sneaky way this deck edges ahead of other similar lists is having so much utility on the creatures it runs. As such it can afford to be incredibly light on pure disruptive cards that are usually offering no synergy support and are typically reactive. Loads of your creatures are able to do damage to other creatures and players, buff your own and so forth. The deck is full of natural reach and natural late game sources of gas without any effort, it simply gets those things from the cards it wants to play. The synergies mean that those cards are even better at those things than usual.
I played Tajic but not because he is a good fit in the deck really, I just wanted to test him. Despite having played him in at least five decks I am yet to even draw him which feels unreal. The odds on that must be minute. True to form I didn't draw him in this deck either. The idea was that he would empower Animation Module which was looking a little under supported. Really I think I need to go Steel Overseer, Arcbound Worker and most importantly Arcobound Ravager for the Module to get there. At that point you are looking to trim all of the non-essential non-artifact creatures for their lack of synergy with Overseer and at that point you wind up with a very different deck. A kind of Tempered Steel list with Bomat Courier and Signal Pest replacing your premium tempo one drops which is quite a different affair all together. For better theme reasons I would replace Tajic with something like Bygone Bishop, Aether Chaser or Myrsmith. The Smith is a little scary to introduce into the themed deck however as you open it up to the Myr subtype and have all the dilemmas that come with such things. Suddenly you can't resist that Origin Spellbomb instead of that clearly inferior Cogworker's Puzzleknot! Another good shout for Tajic replacements would simply be a land. This is a mana hungry list and one that does typically want to curve upto four and eventually wants at least five lands in play. 15 is a touch greedy even with the Mox. Speaking of Mox, that is another reason this deck performs so well. When your Boros aggro deck gets to play with power 9 levels of potency at no real cost it obviously gives it a bit of a boost!
It is pretty hard to hold off running a Stoneforge Mystic package. Skullclamp is great artifact support and loves a deck full of 1/1 token makers! Cranial Plating is pretty naughty and Jitte is still a fine little card. Undeniably Stoneforge is pretty busted when you can use it with the most busted equipment and would stand to make this deck even better. With so many great options on cards these days I find I enjoy playing new stuff ever more. I would rather lose with Tshar than win with the same old over tuned cards. When I am doing themed decks I would rather go as deep as I can go while still being a viable deck. I thought this would be good enough to function without the support of the tried and tested Stoneforge and that is why it is not here. It is also a good habit to get into if you play much in the way of rotisserie formats. Knowing what contested cards you can do without and what the good uncontested cards are for any kind of deck is a pretty big win. When a card is so potent that it is playable in a significant chunk of all the decks in the meta you are not assured of it, or at least if you are, then you are not getting much of a look in on other cards of that kind of potency. In a rotisserie for this kind of deck grabbing a Stoneforge package would come at the cost of the Mox Opal, the Smuggler's Copter, or worse still, some of your mana base.
As for the cards in the deck the surprise standout was Sram's Expertise. With a couple of global +1/+1 effects on three drops as well as a dude that gives things haste you can have some pretty explosive plays. From having just lands and Trinketeer in play I was able to go expertise into Thopter Engineer and swing in for 11! All the many sac outlets were great, it made me want more things that put token artifacts into play and also more artifacts that draw cards when they die. The deck had so many sac outlets it felt impossible to resolve targetting spells which is super annoying for a bunch of cards. It felt a bit like goblins decks do with their Sledders and Prospectors fizzling everything! Sparring Construct was a bomb as well! He was the on board combat trick that made life even harder for the opponent. Without the sac outlets and the artifact synegies the card would be pretty tame but in this list it worked wonders! Here are the other cards I was considering for the build that I have not already mentioned in the article.
Implement of Ferocity
Countless Gears Renegade
Board the Weatherlight
Th other great thing this deck does is attack from every angle. It has direct damage, it has efficient conventional beaters from turn one, it has the ability to go wide and to go tall. It has evasive dorks. It has permanents of every type making all kinds of removal, mass or spot, that much less effective. It can grow the whole team, or send a load of haste dudes your way. It can go all in aggro at you and it is pretty scary or it can sit back and play a control value game and do so very effectively. Thopters really are not to be sniffed at. They are good in all kinds of cube deck and an awful lot of the cards that make them, or indeed other flavours of 1/1 flying token, are top rate cube cards. This deck has the highest density of thopter cards I have ever had in a deck and I think that is a decent enough explanation of why this is a potent build! I have had a draft "Card spotlight: Thopter token" article in draft form for ages. Mostly unpublished because all it really says are that thopters are great! The performance of this deck was at least some testament to that sentiment. I find the two best ways to learn in Magic are losing and the unexpected. This deck brought the latter of those things and as such gave me much to mull over.
Sunday, 2 December 2018
Generally I don't like to be overly critical of Wizards, don't bite the hand that feeds and all that. That being said, I think it is important to raise issues when looking at the actions of organizations, businesses and governments, especially those without alternatives. That is a pretty key factor in a democratic society and it seems to be slipping away a little. Censorship is on the up and that is a bad thing. So, as to why Wizards might need to spend some time in the naughty corner I want to take a look at the one area in which my sphere of Magic has some overlap.
There are two parts to the question I pose in the title. Firstly, what aspects of the MODO cubes makes them suck to play compared to other cubes and secondly, why are they like that? Let us do the first one first! I find that the MODO cube sucks because it is highly random and as such the quality of game is diminished. I could go into this rather more but I don't see much need. If you like random then that it fine but I think the best formats, be they constructed or limited ones, provide lots of options, minimize the number of games decided by screw and flood, and have close games where the choices made determine the outcome most often. That is pretty much the basis by which I build my cube these days. Good cards are those that achieve those ends. I will say, in an attempt to do a bit of a good news sandwich, that card design has been very impressive in that regard over the last couple of years. We have had loads of great new tools that do exactly what is required to improve cube if nothing else.
I used to think that the online cube sucked because Wizards were bad at designing cubes and that might still be the case but it feels wildly unlikely for several reasons. Firstly, they have all the data and resources at their disposal. The average cube on CubeTutor is significantly better than the usual MODO offerings and that hasn't even been designed. Wizards then have all the data from their many years of online cube which is amazing. They could have the perfect cube by now if they used that information properly. The jump in quality of card design over the recent years also displays a solid understanding of the game from Wizards and makes it more unlikely they are incapable of making a good online cube format. The other tell is that the MODO cube started to get better each new release from when they first introduced it and then it started to get worse again.
It could just be that they don't care at all and just throw any old garbage up without a second thought. That is more likely than incompetence but still pretty unlikely. Magic is big business and any potential source of revenue will be scrutinized and optimized. As such, it is time to don our cynical cap and think about why the online cube could be intentionally down graded. There are several potential reasons, it could be just for one or it could be for a mix of them. The reason that MODO cube is only available part of the time is also likely linked in to the explanation for why it is potentially intentionally designed to be more random that it could be. So what are these potential reasons?
First up we have the danger! This is one of the least likely reasons but it marries up very well with my perspective on things and that is that cube is clearly the best format you can enjoy Magic in! I am confidant cube players contribute less to the coffers than limited or any sort of constructed player and likely less than most of the casual players too. I support several Magic regulars with my cube such that they have never spent anything on the game while still getting to play regular Magic. I only really help prop up the secondary market having only bought a couple of the Commander products in a decade or so. Even my spending in the secondary market is low and would be far lower than someone drafting once a week or someone who just bought one box of new product each release. There is a small chance that Wizards simply don't want to divert players away from more profitable formats with too good of an advertisement for the more economical cube! Keep cube less good than the others, keep it like more of a comedy format for some light hearted gaming and it isn't a threat. Like I say, seems unlikely but it is good to cover all options.
Next up we have the idea of showcasing. My cube has relatively few chase cards in it compared to others. It is much more populated with cheap support cards in the one and two slot. Many of these are low power commons and uncommons that fetch little on the secondary market and likely do very little to drive product opening. If you can showcase a bunch of individually powerful cards you can potentially increase demand for such things. I wonder if some cards are simply in the cube to generate a bit of demand. Most big powerful things look good in the right situation and if they are in a cube they must be good right? Perhaps one should be in your EDH deck? Having cards that are not featuring in constructed formats in the MODO cube should help to stop the prices on such things completely tanking which is all round good for them. A nice healthy secondary market is very much in the interests of Wizards even if they generate all their revenue from the primary one.
Another potential reason for a fairly random MODO cube is player base retention. The more like my cube design philosophy you go the wider the gap in win percentage gets when looking at different player skills. Cube is also pretty extreme for this compared to other formats in general, I would argue that it is the most skill intense format but again, I am somewhat biased! The MODO cube keeps the best players closer in win percentage to the rest of the field by being quite random which is likely pretty important. If you always get stomped when you cube you are not going to be so eager to play it. With player skill being a bell curve you want to appeal to the nice fat middle ground. The extreme capability for cube to differentiate between abilities means you can alienate all of your player base bar the thin top end of skill level with too consistent of a cube. Keeping it high variance ensures most people have an enjoyable experience with a realistic possibility of winning.
The really lame things about the last reason is that it is the most convincing of the three and it is the most transferable to other formats. If they do intentionally increase the random element in the online cube format they probably do similar things to limited and standard so as to appeal to the greatest pool of players. Essentially it makes sound economic sense to not make Magic the best possible game it can be.
This is starting to sound like a conspiracy theorists rantings and ravings! Obviously there was no meeting where the big wigs gleefully plotted to worsen Magic. In any such meeting the agenda would have been framed as making the game more accessible. I must also return to my bias and my perspective. The online cube does not objectively suck, it is only I and like minded people who will think it sucks. All I can objectively say is that it has a higher degree of randomness and that for me makes it less appealing. I am sure there are plenty of people who rather like the MODO cube and would find my cube to be boring. If anything, my grievance is with the inevitable outcomes of our economic systems and not really with Wizards at all. Don't hate the player hate the game and all that.
I should also not go round throwing shade without solutions to the problem. I barely play any cube online because I find it so unsatisfying but I would if the cube was better. If it doesn't make economic sense to have a less random cube over their usual offerings then I am just out of luck. It probably also doesn't make great sense to have an expert and a beginner cube or anything like that. Such a ploy would still not satisfy everyone and might well push people away. Ques would be longer and stigma may get attached to things. A much better way to go would be to allow people to host their own events with their own designs of cube, or indeed, whatever formats and things that could be be made to work with the software. If I could log on, make a cube and play it with people, either friends or randoms then that would be amazing. I would play a lot of MODO, I would probably try and stream it. I would certainly experiment loads. Wizards have gone for the optimize a function without further investment in it line of play. I would argue that they could have invested a small amount in the functionality of MODO and reaped far greater returns and satisfied everyone. Most relevantly, they still can.
Again, this issue comes down to economic reasons as everything always seems to. Wizards are a bit of a pseudo-monopoly in several ways and are not really under enough pressure to streamline. Why invest in a risky solution when you can take a low risk, minimal investment and still do very well out of things. MODO cube is popular because cube is fun and otherwise logistically hard to arrange. Nothing comes close to the convenience of MODO for cubing and so it only needs to be a bit better than alternatives and not as good as it could be to get paying customers through the gates.
Can I offer a solution to the global economy? I would love to think so but it seems pretty unlikely all told. Even if I could this would not be the place to do so. I have however always thought that Pro Tour prizes should include some shares in Wizards. The more that you can align shareholders and players the happier everyone is going to be! I am sure there are other, and better ways to do this sort of thing too. I have not given it the deepest of thought what with it not being something I have power to exact! Certainly a far less good solution than the free-form MODO suggestion.
So, to answer the question "why do the Magic Online cubes suck?" - because money. It doesn't make Wizards bad or good. It is just how it is. It could be better but it could also be a whole lot worse. A bad MODO cube is better than none at all. I cast my vote on the matter by not spending my money to use it and that is about as much power as I have to change things.
Wednesday, 28 November 2018
Largely this deck is inspired by the redundancy brought to us with Risk Factor bringing out total of cards like that to three. Punisher mechanics are usually poor for the obvious reason that you don't want to give choices to your opponents. When you are able to align the theme of the deck with the options in the punisher cards they rather jump up in power. No result is bad pretty much regardless of situation. This list does that nicely and then takes the punishment theme a little further than just cards that directly give an option to the opponent like Risk Factor. It also includes all the classic red effects that do damage if you perform certain actions. This list is therefore nicely all round flavoured in the punishment sense. It is Rakdos too which feels like the guild most likely to be into punishment!
Basically this is just a burn deck as found in modern. Pretty good but pretty linear. With all the draw three effects at the top of the curve it tends to go a little longer than a pure burn list and as such the various ongoing damage sources gain a little value. Cube also goes on a little longer than modern. Here is the Rakdos Punisher list;
Bump in the Night
Eidolon of the Great Revel
Ankh of Mishra
7x Basic Mountains (with another 4 across duals and sacland)
That is not actually the exact list I ran. I cut the Black Vise and Ankh of Mishra because I find those cards polar. They lead to poor games either totally winning them or being complete blanks pretty much entirely down to chance and with little options presented. I also couldn't find a Bite! As such I ran three Incinerate effects all of which were obviously fine includes all be it less punisher in feel. Although it might have been a little less powerful this change did make my version rather more consistent. I wasn't in need of any card quality effects which this list looks like it would appreciate a little more. I also wonder a little if the creature count needs bringing back a little what with so little of the burn being able to clear a path for your attackers. Small beaters lose value rapidly if you can't burn away the smaller blockers.
These isn't loads to say about this deck. Burn is a well known archetype and strategy with plenty of literature support. It is pretty easy to assess the power of the different burn cards as well due to how well most of them translate into math. This version of burn does well for both power and flavour. It is probably one of the better directions to take a Rakdos burn deck in with the various new additions. It is not however an archetype you really want to support so heavily in a draft cube. The face only burn cards are too narrow and so a more typical creature heavier RDW style of list is the way to go there. I can see this being a strong way to go in a rotisserie style event where you can select appropriate punisher and hoser cards as the meta commands. Things like Price of Progress and Pyrostatic Pillar can be utterly devastating against the right thing but they can also be underwhelming.
Friday, 23 November 2018
Signal Pest and Defiant Strike (also Walking Ballista and Elspeth, Knight-Errant) - winners
So these are all winners due to the mentor mechanic. I put the latter two in brackets as they didn't really need the help, they were total bombs to start with! The former however were more borderline cards that are clearly seeing more action and doing more work than they used to. This bit could literally include all the dorks with low power and evasion, all the dorks that have synergy with +1/+1 counters and all the effects that buff power and/or give evasion. All such things have favourable interactions with mentor and mentor is proving quite a strong mechanic.
Integrity // Intervention - win
I knew this would be good but it has been even better! Easily the most played card in the set so far finding its way into most red or white decks (yes, that is an "or" not an "and"!) alongside some random duals. I have been more than happy to include City of Brass as one such piece of fixing solely for this lovely split card. To be fair, most of my play with the new cards has been sealed deck and in sealed you have many more random duals to afford such splashes. Combat tricks are very powerful and afford huge tempo swings which is exactly what both red and white aggressive decks want to do. The issue with combat tricks has always been their situational nature which this solves with a nice Lightning Helix Option. The issue with gold cards has always been how narrow they are but with this having hybrid mana you can splash it with no direct risk. It is about as playable as a gold card gets and about as playable as a combat trick gets. Oddly, the thing that makes me love this card more than anything else is the feeling I have when this is in my hand. I just feel safe and confidant. It is like having a Cryptic or Kolaghan's Command in your hand. You just feel covered for what might get thrown at you. It is your ace in hole.
Sunholm Stalwart - win
This came as a surprise to me. I only put it in the cube to hasten my understanding of mentor, I had no expectation of this remaining in the cube. After playing with it however I am all over it. It feels like one of the best mentor cards for cube. Obviously it lacks the power of the gold legends but being a mono coloured two drop it is significantly more playable and that counts for a lot in cube. First strike makes this scary to get into combat with, pump, removal and that sort of thing lead to even bigger blowouts that usual. You want your mentor dorks to be able to attack and without fear of death and Stalwart does that very well indeed. He feels better than Boros Challenger which I really didn't expect. In terms of play and power I put him around Precinct Captain. Both bring comparable stats to bear in a comparable time frame with the same bodies. Each is a little better at a few things and with a few things. If I were to only have one of those cards in my cube I would presently be cutting the Captain although I am happy enough making room for both currently.
Midnight Reaper - win
Really good but can be a little scary. In the close games you occasionally send this to an early death just so that a mass removal spell isn't actually fatal what with the life loss and card draw not being optional! What makes this card so fantastic is that it is essentially a Phyrexian Rager with an extra power as it's floor. The worst this is is better than a fairly playable card. If Reaper lives for a couple of turns the value he generates is typically game winning. This makes him a high value target but unless you get him with premium exile removal that is going to be a relatively cheap two for one in the Reaper playsers favor. Nice types as well!
Status // Statue - win
Much like Intergrity // Intervention this has seen a bunch of play and been solid. It is not quite so playable nor quite so desirable but none the less it has proven to be well worthy of the cube with all the same sorts of qualities, just to a lesser extent. Status // Statue makes for really hard in game choices I have been finding. For a one shot card this is about as option dense as you get. That being said I have used the cheap mode significantly more than the four mana mode. Both typically win up killing creatures!
Conclave Tribunal - win
Not really better that much better than an Oblivion Ring on average however way more flexible and with a nice high ceiling that affords some potent tempo shifting plays. Adds a nice dynamic edge to removal in white that is usually very inflexible and dull. The card is fine and fair but more interesting which is enough to earn it a spot over Ring and company in my books.
Bounty Agent - lose
This is still holding on in the cube but I am not being blown away by it at all and imagine I will do away with it soon. It keeps being way too slow of an answer or way to limp of a threat. Make this on turn two and it will just get killed or easily played around such that it is not relevant as a removal spell. Then you just paid a card and two mana for a Bear with vigilance. A long long way from the cube par. I went off it rather when it came up against a Jitte and horribly lost due to not preceding the
Jitte by a whole two turns... When you fail to be a useful answer against the things you are supposed to answer it is looking good.
Pilfering Imp - big win
This is one of those surprise cards that has outdone my expectation and already earned itself a long term home in the cube. It is just so versatile and so cheap. Black lacks for one drops and this is a fine one for most kinds of deck. It might be low potency for the cost of a card but it is a bit like Thraben Inspector in that regard. You can cash it in for a cards worth of value when the time suits. Imp gets you on the board for little cost both in cards, potential and mana. It threatens to disrupt and indeed often does! Unlike most other hand disruption cards it is never a dead card as it is at least still Flying Man. Another huge perk to Imp is how much creature recursion there is kicking about. Having such a cheap disruptive tool to get back is amazing. It is far harder to play around than the likes of Ravenous Rats and far more useful as a recursion target than something like a Kitesail Freebooter.
Torch Courier - lose
Still a card that is going to see a load of play but only in constructed decks with a lot of synergy going on. In the drafting cube this is too low powered of a card to be worth playing. There is not enough out there that is willing to pay a card to gain haste. As utility this is too much cost and as threat it is too low powered.
Maximise Velocity - lose
Almost the exact same things apply to this as they do for Torch Courier. It will be seeing some mild play in constructed as a support card but for drafts it is far too weak and narrow.
Kraul Harpooner - lose
As expected this card just isn't what the people want. If you want beaters there are many better, the same of which is entirely true for removal of fliers. The decks that want one thing don't want the other and so this low powered pseudo-modal card appeals no where despite the reasonably high power.
Arclight Phoenix - lose
Like Torch Courier this is just too narrow. When you don't have much chance of recurring it then it is pretty poor. Ideally you want ways to get it in the bin as well. This asks a lot of deck design and makes it very much on the narrow end of the spectrum. The base stats and abilities are simply not good enough for the cost and that is what you get without the onerous supporting synergies. In tailored decks like Runaway red the Phoenix is obviously fantastic. There are many potent uses for this card but cube limited isn't a likely place for such things to go down at all consistently.
Vraska, Golgari Queen - big win
Very impressive walker. Vraska gives loads of good options and feels very like Teferi (the good one) while in play. Both either grow and gain value or pay loyalty to deal with a wide array of problem permanents. Vraska can jump to 6 loyalty off the bat which is pretty huge for a four drop walker, especially a green one that can easily be deployed on turn three. She can also just protect herself, or you, with her removal mode allowing her to retain her versatility across a much broader ranger of board states that you might play her into. Her ultimate is dangerous as well and not all that hard to get to with a safe cheap walker and a +2 ability. Broadly her other abilities are so good that you rarely need the ultimate. The life gain on the +2 further works towards to all round safety Vraska brings. The sacrifice element can also be turned into a perk with cards like Liliana, Heretical Healer. It works very well in the various archetypes for the colour combination. Vraska is a significant pull to black green, not that they needed it.
Mausoleum Secrets - lose
As expected, this is too narrow and too easily disrupted. As it fails to get lands it isn't even that good of a consistency tool. I would absolutely rather run Discovery // Dispersal in my black decks for improved consistency, it is not even close. Secrets is only going to have a place in the most specific of combo decks a bit like Infernal Tutor.
Haazda Marshal - lose
Although I have a tonne of support for this little dude he is just too weak. Getting that 1/1 to survive combat is simply too hard on top of having to have at least 2 other dudes also attacking. The average outcome is less value than Hunted Witness which is a pretty poor place to be. You can high roll with Marshal and that will win some games but it is pretty win more. Turns out a vanilla 1/1 in combat is just really really low value. Who knew?
Goblin Banneret - lose
Just too much of a three mana card. This doesn't curve well nor represent much in the way of tempo or threat. Early this is just a 1/1, late it is typically just a delayed and overpriced +1/+1 counter (Battlegrowth). Like Marshal, this needed to be more than a 1/1 in combat. It needed to do more on its own or more without mana investments.
Legion Warboss - big win
No real shock here. Rabblemaster is great, this is basically the same but a little bit better. The real kicker is that Warboss makes Rabblemaster better and vice versa. Having that token production redundancy has been really huge for red and seen to a big uptick in red token based strategies. It turns out not forcing your other goblins to attack has been much more significant of a difference than I though and has made Warboss the red token generator of choice.
Risk Factor - win
This outperformed expectation due to the potential burst in cube. If facing a red player being on anything less than or near 10 life is a pretty scary place to be. So many combinations of cards will just end you on the spot or put you on a one turn clock or something. It is super rare that the four damage can be comfortably eaten and almost never that the next four can as well, lifegain has to be involved for that. Being instant and being something you can pitch to a loot and still expect some useful returns later all work massively in Risk Factors favour. You don't need to be pure aggro to run it, it is hard hitting enough on its own just with the threat of being red that it seems to carry itself. It works very nicely with prowess too.
Runaway Steam-Kin - mild lose
While very powerful the Steam-Kin loses out in cube mostly down to narrowness. Unless you are mono red the Steam-Kin is neither punchy or reliable enough. Being only good in mono red cuts the play significantly from what a 1R card of Steam-Kin's power level should get. The other mild issue for Steam-Kin in cube is that it is even less likely to get a mono red deck with all the synergies that really push it. Steeam-Kin is just a good card in mono red, it is not until you have mono red with access to lots of card draw as well that Steam-Kin gets really nuts. In standard you have multiple copies of Experimental Frenzy and potentially also Risk Factor to really abuse the card but in cube even if you get all the good red draw effects you still only get one of each.
Experimental Frenzy - mild lose
While still a great card I have been less impressed with Frenzy than the hype around the card lead me to expect. It is much like Steam-Kin in that it is just a little bit narrow to be a great drafting cube card. While you can play Frenzy in decks with more colours than just red it is not that exciting of a prospect. Most other colours can offer card advantage and typically in a less restrictive way. Frenzy can only be sensibly run in low curve decks meaning you are only running it in aggro or combo decks, ideally the former as you also want to be fairly redundant while using Frenzy. An aggro only four drop, especially a pure card advantage one, is a dodgy place to be. There are loads of great four drops for aggro decks that are not aggro only cards. There are also plenty of card advantage cards that are playable in a wider array of places. Frenzy would need to be unfair levels of good rather than just the very good it is to make up for all these cube design issues it buts up against.
Doom Whisperer - mild lose
While a solid card it is very clunky. Doom Whisperer generates no card advantage and is a huge tempo risk against almost any kind of removal. The body is absolutely fantastic and the ability is certainly nice but neither are that easy to bring to task. For the body to do work you need to survive to play it and then also have it survive. Not impossible but not easy either. The surveil requires you to have spare life and has diminishing returns. Optimally you want to spread uses out over multiple draw steps. That however isn't easy what with Whisperer either being a big removal target or simply that he ends games fairly quickly. I have certainly had Whisperer win games for me but in those cases any big evasive threat would have got the job done. The surveil is low importance when you are connecting with the 6/6 and it is no compensation for when you don't. I prefer top end cards that have immediate effects which Doom Whisperer doesn't really do enough of. Just because it is efficiently cost does not make it a big risk for tempo concession.
Goblin Cratermaker - fine
A fine filler card that keeps red versatile. This is never broken, it is never great tempo and isn't really close to Abrade as a removal card as I am sure I claimed in my initial reviews. It is however a more proactive card than Abrade and thus better suited to certain builds. Basically, this hasn't done anything that impressive and is unlikely ever to be an instrumental or key card but it remains a very useful and playable cheap support card. I don't see this getting cut anytime soon even if it is very much on the fair side of power level. You play this when you need dorks, when you need removal, when you need low end, pretty much you are happy to play this most of the time. You are only cutting it when you have a really bonkers deck.
Bounty of Might - lose
Turns out that when looking at six mana card you want ones that stand up all by themselves. This is just very unappealing as an inclusion when building. It is best suited to aggressive decks but those rarely get to six mana. The elfball style aggro decks that do make loads of mana can just afford to run much better things like Craterhoof and Creeperhulk.
Thief of Sanity - mild win
This is so dangerous that people are running it. Each hit is so devastating that it is worth the risk of getting it Shocked. It is sufficiently cheap that the high risk of having it removed is not all that much of a disaster. You are probably a mana or two down as a result. The upside of pretty much winning when you connect more than once is a big draw to it and seems to offset that high risk of having it killed.. Even just forcing your opponent into a line of dealing with your Thief isn't always bad. Clear the path for your Hostage Taker for example.
Mission Briefing - mild win
This is great in the spells matter builds. Those dream situations where your Young Pyromancer lives and you get to Mission Briefing back some card quality spell while getting a pair of 1/1s free is lovely. That was expected but it is also too narrow of a remit to be a cube mainstay alone. Fortunately Briefing is decent in almost any blue deck. Having some extra redundancy on your cards is great and the cost of this is relatively low. It is a long long way off a Snapcaster Mage but it is still a fine and useful card. The general consensus regarding this compared to Snapcaster is that the double blue cost is the bigger of the two downsides! Most commonly used with powerful removal cards like Swords to Plowshares and Toxic Deluge so far.
Chemister's Insight - lose
This is a nice card. I think it is probably one of the best of the broad group which includes Fact or Fiction, Hieroglyphic Illumination, Deep Analysis also at the top end. The issue is not that these cards are bad, just that the tempo now in cube doesn't really allow for the spending of so much mana purely on card advantage. Planewalkers are just the safer alternative. I have been most impressed with Insight in combination with cost reduction cards. Is has many of the same perks of Deep Analysis but it has far less risks due to instant speed and no life loss meaning it works much better with the things blue is generally trying to do.
Radical Idea - win
While certainly not a great drafting cube card it isn't terrible either. Where I have found this to truly shine is in combo decks and quirky ones doing more unusual things. This has been a cute little way of clearing the 2nd land off the top of my library while under the influence of an Experimental Frenzy. It has been a useful thing to discard/mill as well as to enable further discard. It is especially desirable in the spells matter decks, more than Mission Briefing for sure. Even more so than Chemister's Insight , Radical Idea gets vastly improved when combined with cost reduction effects. The card ranges from passable filler to top rate support tool. Power wise it looks like a fairly unimpressive Think Twice but in practice the jump start provides extra synergies that allow you to push the ceiling of the card far past what Think Twice can hope for. I expect to see a lot more of this in my more exotic decks.