Tuesday, 9 July 2019

The Combo Cube

TinkerI have spent the last couple on months on a side project which as the title suggests is a combo cube. The premise is fairly simple, it is a cube that only supports combo archetypes. While there are many challenges in designing and balancing a combo cube the project was a resounding success. While it was certainly not as fair and balanced as my normal drafting cube it did exactly what I wanted it too by the end of the project. It was more polar and a little more random but it made up for that with vast diversity in game play and deck building. It was a delightfully refreshing change to my conventional cube and gave some memorable and exotic games.

I elected to use the exact same ban list that I use for my normal cube* essentially cutting the power from the equation yet it felt like powered cubes tend to feel. It had that craziness without the one sided nature. It was also vastly closer in balance to my normal cube than it was to any silly powered cube I have played. When I wanted to mix things up in the past I would do some sort of powered event, now I suspect I will lean towards commander style events or ones using this combo cube. Here is the list I ended up with after much cutting and adding over the time. The blog of the cube details much of these changes if any are interested in the design process. It is not as well tuned as it could be but it is a solid starting place to further refine from. Introducing The Combo Cube;


Enduring RenewalThis is certainly not the first time this has been done. I took inspiration from a couple of other cube tutor lists, one of which was clearly very well tuned and loved. This is just my take on the idea. I can thoroughly recommend it as a refreshingly different and fun way to play Magic. I don't think it the only thing you should play but I think mixing it in with your other Magic will increase the overall enjoyment! A great nostalgia trip as well for any longstanding players of the game. The main downside of this cube is cost. Even if you have an unpowered cube as a starting place you will need a lot more cards (400 or so) to make the change over and most of those cards are expensive for one reason or another. If you have the cards or are happy with proxies of some flavour then that is not an issue.

The rest of this article will be covering some of the design choices and parameters of The Combo Cube. If that is of no interest then read no further! There were a lot of issues to overcome with this design project, some evident from the outset and others that arose through testing. The most obvious one was that the cube shouldn't be too big. With many combos requiring specific cards you want to have a decent chance of seeing them in a draft. I find 360 card cubes or those little bigger to have very short longevity and draft in a less satisfying way. I have always liked a 540 minimum for variation and consistency balance. For the midrange cube the difference between 540 and 720 is minimal and only really changes things in terms of the value of the good one drops! For the combo cube it felt much more important to stay close to the 540 mark.

Vampiric TutorThis in turn meant that space efficiency was going to be important. This was done all over the place with a variety of strategies. An example is playing things like Vivid lands and most of the lands that tap for any colour in place of lands that just tap for two specific colours. I played a lot less lands overall as well to further save space. Much as I don't rate fixing any less in this format than for others picking up dual lands is a bit of a luxury. You just need to have more picks and options on cards for your non-land cards to balance the deck consistency appropriately with the colour consistency. Being able to cast your spells is only relevant if you have a deck capable of winning! It is noteworthy that the average land count for decks built in the combo cube is over a land less than it is for my midrange cube, and probably closer to the two lands less mark. This means you need more playable non-land cards from the draft as well further incentivizing a lower land count than normal. That being said I run a massive amount of lands in my midrange cube so those that I have in the combo cube probably just look fairly normal to many people.

Hallowed MoonlightKeeping other non-combo game plans out of the equation was another big issue although it did help with keeping the card count down. In a format focused around combo a control deck or aggro deck can run riot if you let it slip through the cracks. It is fairly easy to keep the aggressive decks back but you do have to pay attention to it. It means playing things like Hallowed Moonlight in place of the more potent Containment Priest and that kind of thing. If you have too many useful utility dorks, especially the disruptive ones, then that kind of deck will do very well. Offending cards are Phyrexian Revoker, too many Mesmeric Fiend style cards and the like. These just rip apart any combo game plan and then impose enough of a clock that they can win reliably. In a field of unsuspecting combo decks an aggro deck does not need efficient Monastery Swiftspear beatdown to come out ahead, it can get there with a couple of Bears quite comfortably.

It is important to keep the non-combo strategies out because you are drafting combo decks many of which are engine decks. These decks are never going to be as good as constructed versions, even the singleton ones. To include defensive options in the draft and then in the decks takes a huge toll on the quality and ultimately viability of the combo decks to the point of which several cease to be worth running. As such you are just best off making sure you don't have too many dorks that are at all efficient cheap beaters, especially ones that can also disrupt.

Mindbreak TrapThe disruption is a huge issue in itself as that is what makes up the control decks. Too much and too effective and the best decks are the control decks pretty obviously. Especially when there is no aggro to put a check on them. A good control deck in a field of combo is all a bit fish in a barrel. They don't even need much in the way of win conditions, they can hold out long enough to hard cast some card meant to cheat in or just win with some random value dork intended for some Birthing Pod or Aluren combo! The only good way we found to counter this issue was limiting the disruption card available and to just include those that are found in combo decks themselves. This drastically cut the countermagic complement and took out some of the black hand disruption too. With reduced availability on such things they became somewhat higher picks regardless of direction which in turn spread them out enough to ensure there was no one able to stockpile them and make a control deck.

The kinds of disruption used are key as well. Those on permanents are easier to deal with and so those afford better game play. Those that exile are brutal and can one shot a lot of decks with ease. As such I was very careful to keep the exile cards that hit hands and libraries to a minimum while also being somewhat conservative on those affecting the graveyard. This meant all iterations of Ashiok were non-starters. Gonti, Transgress the Mind and Extract were also all out. An unexpected card in need of banning was the new Narset. Most of the decks are a smattering of outs and disruption, the combo, lands, and then just card selection and draw. With so many decks playing so much draw Narset would just win games. Throw in an abundance of symmetrical draw seven effects which mostly just Mind Twist an otherwise brutally locked out opponent and Narset quickly became no fun for any one.

Splinter TwinPlaneswalkers in general are pretty potent cards in this meta with less disruption to prevent them and far less in the way of board control so as to be able to kill them off quickly and easily. I only ran planeswalkers that are important to combos and played none of the generically good ones. This is a wise move generally but necessary to curtail the control builds.

There are combos that did not make the list and some that wound up getting cut. The perfect combos had some redundancy in all their components and significant overlap for their support cards with other combos. Splinter Twin is a great example of this with it being a two card combo with at least two bits of redundancy on both halves. All the support cards it uses are just generic disruption, dig and draw. It is easy to add into the cube in that it takes up relatively few slots while not being damaging to the draft due to having many narrow cards that other players have no interest in.

On the other hand an infect combo has almost zero overlap with any other combo what with it being mostly just pump effects and infect dorks. Despite being a very good combo deck it is a very poor one to add into a cube. This general premise of space efficiency basically dictated which combos went in. Testing then let us tweak the direct support and degrees of redundancy added in for them.

Birthing Pod
While this made for a very consistent drafting experience with minimal narrow cards and lots of broad and diverse support cards it did mean there was a distinct power difference in the combos. This is the case anyway but framing it in a cube and then drafting it greatly exacerbated the difference. It was apparent fairly early that storm decks were the best decks in the format. The solution to this given that it is either impossible or inadvisable to empower the weaker combos up to the same level as storm is simply to gimp the storm decks a bit. You can do this by taking away good storm cards but my preference is to up the disruption effects that are good against storm and keep it in check that way. Where you find particularly focused hoser cards you will likely find a top tier combo at the receiving end.

With there being so much overlap between the combo support cards I found that often people would run two or three combos in their deck. This was certainly the case for the weaker combos but it seemed to work a charm when done right. It gave a much greater degree of resilience to disruption and allowed a lot of the less potent combos to compete well with the more powerful ones.

I think that is all I have to say on this for now. I would be interested to hear of any combos people think would fit into this cube that are missing or indeed see any lists people have for their own combo cubes. Not the best format in the game but one of the most different and diverse. Impressive given  how similar it is in many ways to many other cubes. A format you want to run like a Cadbury's Creme egg! Just some of the time, all a bit sickly to have all year round! Absolutely worth trying if you can.

Narset, Parter of Veils
*General Ban List;

Ancestral Recall
Mana Drain
Time Walk
5x Original Mox
Black Lotus
Sol Ring
Mana Crypt
Mana Vault
Grim Monolith
Time Vault
Strip Mine
Tolarian Academy
Shelldock Isle
Library of Alexandria

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Top Planeswalkers

I was asked which planeswalkers I would run in a cube if I were allowed five of each colour and one of each guild exactly. This was a fairly easy task given that it is not that far off what I currently run in my cube. I do prefer a fluid approach to cube design but I also fully appreciate the desire to have balance and symmetry in design as well. If you are going for a set number across the colours this seems like a great arrangement. Without further ado lets dive right in!

Nahiri, the Harbinger

Boros - Nahiri, the Harbinger

Easy call for me here with Ajani Vengeant being the only other consideration. I have never loved Ajani even back when he was good. His low loyalty count make him play most like a bad Warleader's Helix. Far too vulnerable to wide boards and unable to generate value against slower decks that easily. Nahiri on the other hand is more diverse and better scaling removal backed up with a far more robust loyalty count. Her ultimate is threatening due to how fast she can get there and the card quality element is huge in the colour pairing. Nahiri is one of the most powerful midrange and control planeswalkers out there for her reasonable cost and would see a lot more play if Boros wasn't such an aggressively focused pairing.

Vraska, Golgari QueenGolgari - Vraska, Golgari Queen

While Relic Seeker and big Garruk Apex Predator are both rather more powerful than the Queen the four mana offering is far more desirable. Black has no good four drop walkers and green only has a couple of fairly limited walkers in the four slot. The Golgari Queen is impressively versatile being able to deal with lots of problem cards while reasonably well protecting herself and/or you. Like with Nahiri her ultimate is relevant and attainable and acts as a very real threat on the game even if it is still rarely used. Having a +2 loyalty ability on top of a decent starting count is a great way to empower ultimate abilities! I do really like Relic Seeker but there are just too many other non-gold cards that compete with what she offers that are better or more playable.

Dack Fayden
Izzet - Dack Fayden

Another quite easy one with Dack being such a cut above the other Izzet options. Looting is good generally but particularly good in Izzet colours. Stealing an artifact and having a powerful looter left over after is utterly brutal and wins a lot of games outright in cube. Almost anytime you play an artifact in cube you have to consider the Dack. Even something as simple as a mana rock will cost you the game if your opponent just instantly steals it while also making Dack. An unusual walker in that the value option is conditional and beyond that he is just a looter. It is rare that the ultimate does anything. I have certainly won many more games milling my opponent out with Dack than I have using the ultimate. Most walkers offer a game winning threat, some board control and some value options while Dack only offers one and only some of the time. He is just that good!

Sorin, Vengeful BloodlordOrzhov - Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord

This is one of the closest calls for the gold section with a couple of decent Kaya options and a bunch of Sorin cards too, most of which have decent power. I used to be a big fan of Solemn Visitor for the immense swing potential of the +1 however over time the -2 has gotten worse and worse simply not bringing enough defense to the board and leaving Sorin too vulnerable. This makes for a fairly win more card. Bloodlord can offer this big life swing while going even higher on loyalty or he can recur a more meaningful threat and get some assured value at the same time. This makes him the best of the Sorin options but there is still a pair of strong Kaya also vying for the slot. Ghost Assassin is a tricksy and diverse walker. She offers power in a unique way but is hard to use and consequently to fit into lists. The smaller Usurper is great but being a bit more low key works against her as a gold card. Normally I love a three mana walker but Usurper isn't a huge pull to the colour pairing as she isn't often all that relevant of a play later in the game.

Nissa, Steward of ElementsSimic - Nissa, Steward of Elements.

Kiora alternatives are pretty poor. One is bad and the other is too vulnerable at a startling loyalty of two and only a +1 to grow with. This Nissa is also decent although one of the most complicated planeswalkers on offer. I rarely feel like I lost the game because I misused a planeswalker but most of the times I do it is with the Steward. Nissa is great as she scales so well. You can flop her out at three mana and have good options or you can hold her back till eight mana and win out of nowhere with her. Or indeed anything in between. The only thing she lacks is self protection but the +2 and the scaling of her loyalty offset that somewhat. Being the only walker you can just 10 someone with off the bat also helps compensate rather! The most annoying thing about her is that she has fairly poor synergy with Hydriod Krasis and Shardless Agent which are some of the best Simic cards.

Daretti, Ingenious IconoclastRakdos - Daretti, Ingenious Iconoclast

This guy is really impressive but as with many sets that bypass the main competitive formats he is also rather under the radar. Daretti protects himself very well, better than any other three mana walker and he does so in multiple ways. The servo is a decent blocker and puts Daretti up in loyalty. It usually forces attacks in as Daretti with artifact food gets really scary. If your plan was to win with creatures but your opponent has a 5 loyalty Daretti in play and a couple of servo tokens you have lost without spot removal or some other god draw. When Daretti gets played and you have a Chromatic Star waiting for him or perhaps it is late game and you have a spare mana rock then the -1 ability is pretty back breaking. Being able to just kill a relevant card is huge. Getting to play a Bedevil (almost) and have a two loyalty Daretti leftover is strong at any stage of the game. Daretti benefits from artifacts kicking around but he also empowers a lot of other cards that enjoy having artifacts from Galvanic Blast to Pia Nalaar. No other Rakdos planeswalker comes close to cube worthly, let alone close to Daretti.

Wrenn and Six

Gruul - Wrenn and Six

Pretty easy one here with this being so cheap and rounded. Direct damage to any target is great and the +1 is reasonably reliable value in formats with sac lands, not to mention looting, cycling lands and the rest of it. This is just a cut above the rest in both power and playability. While there are some decent Domri options on the table that are also both cheap and powerful they are rather narrower and focused around creatures. Wrenn is good in most places and almost oppressive when well supported, mostly with the right lands!

Ajani, Mentor of Heroes
Selesnya - Ajani, Mentor of Heroes

While Greathearted is perhaps a better planeswalker in an abstract sense Mentor of Heroes is more powerful and better suited to cube play. While I normally dislike abilities that require you to have a dork in play Mentor has so many things about it that make it a non-issue. Selesnya colours have lots of good and sturdy dorks and build dork heavy lists. There is also another +1 ability that will find you a creature on the rare occasion you don't have one and really want one. Mentor is really muscular, he always grows and advances your board or draws you action while doing so. Three +1/+1 counters is far far better than making a 3/3 when you can also dig for dorks. Creatures are way more sturdy than tokens and a lot of them scale with counters or just getting bigger. The distribution also helps you craft the perfect board state to press a win. Any deck trying to win in conventional combat is going to get beaten my Mentor. He doesn't win quickly but he wins very reliably, every turn he remains in play that win becomes significantly more assured. This can be said of most walkers but it is pronounced with Ajani as he so directly bolsters the main route to victory. While I think he is very powerful I have not found room in my cube for him due to white and green having so many premium mono coloured walkers and with Selesnya being a less common pairing to see.

Teferi, Hero of Dominaria

Azorius - Teferi, Hero of Dominaria

This is a tough call between the two rampantly good Teferi cards in these colours. Ultimately Hero is more rounded of a walker and is not quite so tedious or annoying. He is more of a reason to splash or go in a direction and that is the best way to have your gold cards. He is also really spot on for the blueprint of what you generally want a walker to do, + to get cards in hand, - to get things out of play and ultimate to win the game! Tef ticks all these boxes and better than most.

Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver

Dimir  - Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver

There isn't anything even close to this. Ashiok is a brutally good cube card that is cheap, disruptive, hard to deal with and threatens the game on multiple fronts while often gaining loyalty as they do so. I cut Ashiok from my cube due to how little fun it was to play against and how warping it was on the game. Essentially a ban, in which case the only gold card and only walker I have ever banned, not to mention highest CMC card too. It was easily one of the best cards against control without being a slouch in any other matchup. It isn't even just that Ashiok is one of the best cube walkers period, Dimir also happens to have no other decent walkers that are generally playable. The Tezzeret options generally need too high of an artifact count to be good cube inclusions.

Jace BelerenBlue

Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Narset, Parter of Veils
Jace, Architect of Thought
Jace Beleren
Tezzeret, Artifice Master

The first three on this list are a lock in. Architect of Thought is one of the most underrated walkers being so good against go wide strategies. I wouldn't entertain the idea of cutting him. The last couple of slots are more up for debate. You could run Jace, Memory Adept as it is a fairly brutal milling win condition in 40 card lists. I dislike this route and prefer less linear and more interactive planeswalkers. It just turns out that mill is over powered in cube and that no one enjoys losing to it. The real alternatives to the bottom of this list are Teferi, Temporal Archmage and Tamiyo, the Moon Sage. Both of these are fine midrange and control planeswalkers. Tef is very powerful and fun when you have suitable cards to protect him with but he is a bit win more and a bit of a luxury. Tamiyo is potent and is one of the best planeswalkers against man-lands. She also has a lovely ultimate that has won more games than most other planeswalker ultimates in her time in my cube. The only reason Tez is beating her to the last slot is that there are a lot of exciting artifact matters cards in blue at present with things like Urza, Sai and the like. You could make room for both by cutting the fairly linear Beleren who is basically a jumped up Divination! The thing is that Beleren is still pretty good and being a three mana walker he sees a lot more play than any of the five or more mana options. Narset may well outclass Beleren but getting a card draw walker down on turn three is a great place to be in.

Gideon of the Trials

Elspeth, Knight-Errant
Elspeth, Sun's Champion
Gideon. Ally of Zendikar
Gideon Blackblade
Gideon of the Trials

This was the easiest of the colours to do with five very powerful options on offer containing a good spread of costs and abilities, especially considering they are mono white! Knight-Errant remains one of the best cube walkers offering great tempo, reach, planeswalker control, and self protection. Sun's Champion is simply one of the most powerful planeswalkers utterly shutting down the board and winning a few turns there after. She even answers some of the best threats in the game when making a small army each turn isn't going to contain things. Ally of Zendikar is one of the most overrated planeswalkers in the cube but he is still very much a top tier card. The instantly useful ultimate combined with the high tempo and fast win clock of Ally make him a perfect top end card for any deck beating down. Blackblade is similarly a great beater offering a bit of support to the attacks, a bit of extra utility and value, but mostly just a very hard to handle threat. Gideon of the Trials is what Kiora wishes she was! He is a great control card that provides a wide array of protection and has perfect synergy with Wrath effects. He forces the over extension and can animate post Wrath to attack down opposing walkers. White has some potent walkers not on this list but these five are just so good at what they do the others don't get a look in. Gideon Jura used to be great but these days he is just far too quickly and easily attacked down when he tires to use his +2 ability. Ajani Goldmane is still very potent as a team buff card but he is linear and terrible from behind. Adversary of Tyrants or Serra the Benevolent are those next in line on this list and are both strong, rounded walkers with their uses. Neither would be out of place in a cube setting and both are better than the 4th and 5th placed cards for some of the other colours.

Garruk RelentlessGreen

Nissa, Who Shakes the World
Nissa, Voice of Zendikar
Garruk Wildspeaker
Vivien Reid
Garruk Relentless

Green is like white in that it also has a great depth of top rate planeswalkers. Unlike white however green does not have the same spread of power in their walkers in terms of CMC or even really numbers. Relentless makes this list not because he is all that good but because he is a source of removal in green which is rare. That, and he costs four which precious few green walkers do. Nissa Vital Force and Worldwaker are both better and more powerful cards but they see rather less action with so many other competing five drops. Indeed I rate Worldwaker as one of the best threats in cube but when you are limiting yourself to few walkers you want ones that do planeswalker things. Worldwaker is very narrow and offers no removal or value. A Wolfir Silverheart or other such creature performs a similar sort of role while only planeswalkers really act like planeswalkers. It is this sort of logic that made me chose big Tef over little Tef for Azorious. One is a very potent planeswalker, the other a jumped up Repulse! Vivien Reid gets a pass for being such a strong way to include a solution to problematic fliers. She is otherwise decent and versatile but when she kills some dragon you are eternally grateful. Wildspeaker is very efficient often only costing two and coming out on turn three alongside another two drop. He can threaten an Overrun win immediately on the following turn and is pretty spot on for green. Voice of Zendikar is greens only proper rounded three mana walkers and does a lot of good work, especially coming out on turn two! Nissa, Who Shakes the World is just a monster. She does everything and seemingly all at once! She has kicked all the other five mana Nissa cards squarely in the teeth for the amount of play they now get.

Tibalt, Rakish InstigatorRed

Chandra, Torch of Defiance
Chandra, Acolyte of Flame
Chandra, Awakened Inferno
Chandra, Fire Artisan
Tibalt, Rakish Instigator

This was probably the hardest of the categories to chose. As you can see we have a lot of very new walkers on this list. Only Torch is a real lock in with neither of the Core 2020 Chandra inclusions having any testing from me as yet. They do seem very potent, and other red walkers are not all that. Either they are of mediocre power or they are overly situational, often linear too. Koth for example is strong but despite having a high power level he has all the other problems while also being a win more card. You are jsut better off playing a creature like Hazoret or Rekindling Phoenix. As you can also see the other two inclusions on this list are both War of the Spark cards meaning this list would have looked very different a mere six months ago. It would have been Chandra Flamecaller and Pyromaster alongside Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker and Fireblood. Both these Chandra are fine but are fairly hard to weave into builds. The Sarkhan cards are also fine but one is a bad Dack and the other a bad Glorybringer. All four are a touch clunky, inflexible and a little lacking in power compared to the better walkers in other colours. None of them are that exciting or different. Fire Artisan and Rakish Instigator on the other hand are something completely different. They give red new tools rather than mediocre alternatives to better walkers. They are much more playable than Koth, more powerful than the Sarkhans, and more interesting and diverse than the many older Chandra cards. Tibalt is surprisingly good, especially in cube. Red wants to prevent lifegain but it rarely wants to run Vortex anymore. Tiblat is the least painful and most reliable way to get this affect now. He is good in aggro for that but also good in both token strategies all the way to through to more controlling midrange decks. It is all fairly minor and it would not be unreasonable to run any of the red walkers I have discussed in any combination really just so long as Torch was always involved. I do expect big things from the Core 2020 walkers, or at least the three drop. Just being better than the other red six mana walkers doesn't automatically make you a good card... Nothing has really come closer to touching Inferno Titan in the six slot in red.

Ob Nixilis ReignitedBlack

Liliana, the Last Hope
Liliana of the Veil
Liliana, Dreadhorde General
Davriel. Rogue Shadowmage
Ob Nixilus Reignited

This one was a pretty easy five as well simply as black has so few options and less still that are good. The first three Liliana are all lock in cards with high power. The three drops are efficient and versatile and some of the best walkers in the whole game. The General is just a beastly card! Davriel is something a little different, while linear he is a very good threat that provides value and disruption and needs dealing with. It is like he has a passive ultimate. Not to be underestimated. Ob is low powered but he is a good blueprint for a walker, kill a threat on the -ability and draw a card on the +ability! He is clean on both accounts but just slightly pricier than you might like when compared to the likes of Torch of Defiance or Golgari Queen. Both Liliana Vess and Death's Majesty are viable alternatives for this underwhelming five drop walker slot in black. Even the other Obs both have some merit. The more boring nature of Ob Nixilis Reignited does play into him seeing more action. Quirky interesting things tend to be more situational or narrow and thus less playable.

Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
Colourless - Ugin, the Spirit Dragon

So much power it is worth building a mana base to support this monster. He can usually come down and clear everything relevant out of the way with ease and then dominate the game from then on. So often the only out to a situation is an Ugin. Karn Liberated is great against control but weak against go wide plans and just doesn't have that huge recovery ability you want from such a top end card. Ugin, the Ineffable has a similar issue to Karn Liberated although is a little more rounded and enough cheaper to be that bit more playable. The other cheaper Karn options are both strong cards but generally a little on the narrow side for drafting cubes. All the colourless walkers are very good and most of them are playable in most cubes despite some of their narrower aspects. Even so, the Spirit Dragon stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to drafting cubes.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Core 2020 Conclusions and Additions

Glad to see a good number of reprints here simply for the breather it gave on card reviewing! A nice calm 10 posts to get it all covered compared to the madness of Horizons and War of the Spark. The flip side of that however is that there are far fewer noteworthy cards. There are only a couple of cards I would normally call lock in cards and they are both Chandras!. The list of things I wish to test is down a lot on the last few sets and the number of those I expect to make it is minimal. The power of the last few sets has made the bar for entry to the cube noticeably higher making for fairly slim pickings from Core 2020.

While this set does relatively little for the drafting cube it does offer a healthy amount to singleton constructed formats. Not the most in terms of quantity but some really fun cards I look forward to building and playing with. There is also a few cards that could do well in modern. It seems pretty evident that Modern Horizons was developed around the same time and that the two sets shared out some of the cards between them. Some under supported tribes also get some good love. All in all a good little set.

I would be happier if I got a new one or two mana drafting cube staple even if it were just a new take on Opt or something. I fear the impact this set will have on games will be pretty minimal as it is. We might well have no Core 2020 cards left in the cube by the end of the year. With the more interesting cards being pricier, gold or otherwise narrow they will appear in fewer decks and impact games a lot less when they do show up.

It would seem as if 8/10 and higher cards according to my scale are no longer printed in standard legal sets which is probably sensible but also not ideal for my purposes. When I started doing this blog a 5/10 card was the point at which you started to have a good chance of lasting in the drafting cube and that has crept up and up over time. It seems to have jumped up a bunch just this year too with increasing numbers of 7/10 cards not lasting any time at all. With 7.5 ratings being the new lock in figure and no 8/10 cards coming out in most sets I envisage a fairly stagnant drafting cube going forwards. This in turn means I will spend more time experimenting with more exotic cube designs. I have just finished an extensive couple of months testing out a combo only version of the cube which I will be writing up shortly. Any way, going off on a tangent now so lets just list the noteworthy cards from this set;

Hopeful Testers; (best to worst roughly)

Chandra, Acolyte of Flame
Chandra, Awakened Inferno
Skyknight Vanguard
Ancestral Blade
Apostle of Purifying Light
Flood of Tears
Vivien, Arkbow Ranger
Cavalier of Gales
Cloudkin Seer
Cavalier of Night
Hanged Executioner
Mu Lanying, Sky Dancer
Corpse Knight

Unlikely to make it cards for testing;

Knight of the Ebon Legion
Glint-Horn Buccaneer
Shared Summons
Nightpack Ambusher
Spectral Sailor
Cerulean Drake
Elvish Reclaimer
Agent of Treachery
Marauding Raptor
Field of the Dead
Ravenous Hydra
Cavalier of Flame

Stuff for Constructed Cube of note;

Lotus Field
Mystic Forge
Kethis, the Hidden Hand
Manifold Key
Icon of Ancestry
Yarok, the Desecrated
Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord
Kykar, Wind's Fury
Rotting Regisaur
Lightening Stormkin
Brought Back
Tale's End
Thunderkin Awakener
Barkhide Troll
Bag of Holding
Salvager of Ruin
Healer of the Glade
Colossus Hammer
Vampire of the Dire Moon
Drawn from Dreams
Season of Growth
Starfield Mystic
Retributive Wand
Kaalia, Zenith Seeker
Empyrean Angel
Ajani, Strength of the Pride
Chandra, Novice Pyromancer
Scheming Symmetry
Cyptic Caves
Yarok's Fenlurker
Chandra's Regulator

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Core 2020 Preliminary Review Part X

Gorging Vulture 1

Self mill is useful but this is just too low powered for a three drop. It is an OK mill trigger and a passable body but it had to do better on one of those aspects to see much play.

Lightning Stormkin 4

Potent but not worth putting into a drafting cube. Not only is Stormchaser Mage almost always better but two drop efficient beaters turn out to be a real waste of valuable cube slots, even a waste of slots you are willing to give to gold cards in general. This is just a card you are happy to play in an Izzet aggro deck, it is not a draw to the colour or a bomb or something you can't get a comparable copy of in a single colour. This is potential for both tribes it ascribes to. Simple, powerful and efficient but nothing more. High quality filler.

Brought Back 3

This seems overly situational. It is an OK way to undo some of a mass removal spell or otherwise brutal turn. Mostly I think a protective card, a value card, a threat that limits exposure to removal, or even a combat trick will do more for you than this. You can't even abuse it with silly things like Black Lotus that easily as they return tapped. That is certainly the only kind of place this will get any love - a combo deck of some exotic nature.It does have some nice interactions with basic lands and will likely see some play as a (double) Rampant Growth in concert with sac lands or Ghost Quarter Flagtones of Trokair combos. In cube this will be cute and afford relatively low payoffs but in something like modern where you can play a good number of these support cards then Brought Back starts to look pretty impressive.

Tale's End 3

Stifle for one more that can counter something legendary. Alternatively Disallow that can't counter any old thing! Stifle is too narrow for the drafting cube and Disallow is expensive for what it does regardless of the mode. Being in between two decent cards that fail for different reasons certainly looks good for this rather than bad. My cube has a little under 15% legendary spells. If going from countering 0% of things to 100% of things isn't worth 2 mana then a 15% improvement is unlikely to merit 1 mana. Unlikely but not impossible. When you are looking for a balance the raw numbers going in matter less, it is the product of them that counts. Put simply 2 and 10 are more than 3 and 7 added up but less when multiplied. This logic indirectly applies to magic in a contextual sense which just means you can't rule out Tale's End just because it seems less efficient. Ultimately I don't expect this to last in the cube but it is interesting and test worthy for sure. The percentage of legendary cards is rising in cube over time and so perhaps one day this will broad enough. Ultimately for now it is just a card that doesn't do enough, enough of the time.

Thunderkin Awakener 4

Well this certainly makes a Ball Lightening, or better yet the new Blightning version, quite the beating. Turn one Looting, turn two this and in for 7, perhaps with a Mind Rot to boost and threatening the same each turn there after! Brutal. Not nearly enough support for this in a limited setting but build around and this will do work. Probably good in most elemental builds as well as having a build specifically for him as well. You don't even need a stats boost for this to be impressive.

Apostle of Purifying Light 6.5

After Remorseful Cleric proved a failure as a graveyard hate card in cube I learned more what you want from such things. The issue with the Cleric was that it was rarely worth your card and two mana to disrupt the bin. You want to have ongoing access to graveyard disruption that doesn't cause you card advantage. Scavenging Ooze is perfect and Cleric is bad. This is more like the former. It costs more to do and rewards you less but then white quite wants access to graveyard removal so it might well run this little dork. Prot black is not the security I really want on this card being polar and uninteractive. Even pro red would have been more suitable to cover the low toughness. At least black is infrequently played as mono giving some hope of an out to this thus making the protection a little less tedious. It is a very low powered card but it does a job in the way it needs doing and it does so better than any other white alternatives. Close to the mark but certainly potential.

Drakuseth, Maw of Flames 3.5

Inferno Titan turned to max! If this had any sort of EtB effect (or haste) it would be a strong contender. Needing to get an attack in means this is only getting love in places it will get haste, and being a seven drop also only in places that can cheat or ramp him out as well. Attacking with this is made of winning however. It should safely wrap up a game in two hits and generally put it out of reach in one. I like the trigger way  more than annihilate 4!

Scampering Scorcher 2

Lots of tokens, a bit of haste and a real body to recur or flicker for more going wide value! Sadly this is a support card and as a four drop that makes it quite hard to fit in. It might make the cut in some elementals decks but I can't see it outperforming even the lowly Goblin Instigator in a general setting or even a token themed setting.

Bag of Holding 2

A cheap artifact with a loot ability for two mana and a potentially big card draw one off use for four mana. This is a lot to loot with but it is still pretty good as far as a colourless looter goes. The real issue this card has is that it doesn't work like other looters for most of the things you want looting for. If it is purely card quality and draw then this is fine but if you are trying to empower delve or threshold or something then this is no help. Indeed it prevents anything helping you do that! On the flip side you can use this with cards like Burning Inquiry and Goblin Lore to exile a load of cards and get a huge amount of draw for relatively little cost. Seems like too much work just to draw cards. Certainly interesting and offering rare utility but for the most part this is just a little clunky, risky and unhelpful.

Glint-Horn Buccaneer 5.5

The activated ability is pretty poor on this which makes it look quite weak. I think that is deceptive however. You could take that away from the card and it somehow looks a little better despite being far far worse. This is a 2/4 haste for three with a passive damage trigger. That is aggressive, something you can synergize and scale with, it is pretty efficient too just as a body. You can just flop this out and do some beating down and it will be pretty good. Toss in a bit of looting from other sources and it starts to get scary. The activated loot is repeatable as well so you can get yourself a four mana Faithless Looting and a bonus two damage the turn after making it which isn't nothing. You can sit back and just use other loot, discard,  and rummage effects to wear down. Save up mana and go for a big card dump in a chump attack. Pretty versatile considering. Red has so many three drops of really high power and this is a bit all over the place. Part aggressive and part defensive. Is it a midrange card? Who knows! Testing will help with this oddity of a card. Certainly got tribal potential if it fails on other fronts.

Salvager of Ruin 2

I am sure this has some uses in combo decks. Recursion effects always seemt to. Seems quite pricey and less easily abused than a Junk Diver but at least it can be used without needing a sac outlet. It certainly isn't a help in an Ironworks build!

Healer of the Glade 1.5

Potential elemental tribal tool or anti aggro hedge card. Far too low power and too narrow for the drafting cube so a double fail for that but I do expect it to pick up a smattering of play in the singleton constructed formats. An odd one drop but the value of the sum of it's parts is high.

Gauntlets of Light 1

Mild potential in an infinite mana combo and perhaps even a cute supplement card in a Doran build. Probably just playing a tutor for a global effect however.

Friday, 28 June 2019

Core 2020 Preliminary Review Part IX

Vivien, Arkbow Ranger 6

Powerful but critically hampered by needing a creature in play to do anything at all. The Living Wish mode being costed like an ultimate is a problem and likely an overreaction to the power of Karn, the Great Creator. I think it could have been -3 and Vivien would have been decent. It would mean you could flop her out and do something useful regardless of the game state. Living Wish was fine at two mana and finding lands. This is green and green does tend to have dorks in play and so this will mostly do things. The fact that it is fairly powerful should help with the conditional downsides. Counters scale well and gaining trample is very potent when growing dorks and trying to threaten other walkers. Mana dork, random three drop dork, then Vivien should be able to win a lot of games without anything else. Removal is also a big pull to this card. It is why Garruk Relentless sees most of his play and Vivien offers it in a mostly better way. This is right on the line and very much needs some testing time to establish if it will join the drafting cube ranks. It might be a staple, it might be too awkward.

Gargos, Vicious Watcher 0

Cute, a hydra lord! No use for this in cube but I am sure there will be many happy EDH players.

Cavalier of Gales 6.5

Five mana 5/5 flier with Brainstorm as an EtB takes a massive dump all over Riverwise Augur! Toss in a scry 2 on death complete with a prior reshuffle and you have quite the neat little card. It is loads of card quality, decent value, and reasonably worth having. A 5/5 flier does work! It is somewhat of a recursive threat too. I like it more than Kefnet for the drafting cube that is for sure. The value is more assured and that is a big part of why these cards are good. You get a decent tempo boost with this without costing you cards. This can be played in most heavy blue decks and be reasonably suitable. One of the interesting quirks of this card is the gamble on when it will die. With Brainstorm you will often hide a card in the relative safety of the top of your deck. If you do that with this then you will potentially lose it should your opponent kill Cavalier and force a shuffle. On the flip side, Brainstorm will often lock out your next two draws in cube when you fail to find a shuffle. Cavalier has a somewhat built in shuffle. One final big use for this card is in Vanifar / Pod decks. In singleton you need the specific cards in the library and drawing them can be a real burden. Having Brainstorm on a creature with an EtB is a massive help with this. Having good options like this and a range of CMCs is even better! This card will see a bunch of play in a bunch of places. It isn't silly power or anything but it is strong on that front as well as very playable in terms of archetypes.

Embodiment of Agonies 2

This is probably really good but I don't have much love for it. The deathtouch means that even if it is small it still has relevance in the late game. It is pretty easy to make this huge as well. Even on turn three you could easily have this coming out as a 5/5 and well over a 10/10 late game. While this is easy to do you do need to actively do it. You need mill, discard and looting and you need to pay attention to the spread of your costs. This is probably great in an undergrowth build akin to Hogaak decks but they already have tonnes of options on generically undercost fatties. I think this is too much work and too narrow for drafting cubes and not quite exciting enough for most singleton constructed uses. A card I should at least build with a couple of times to give it it's dues.

(Twinblade Paladin 1)

I might play this in a Pridemate style deck. It isn't great but it is on theme and packs a punch. What I don't like is the powercreep in these starter kits. Thirsting Bloodlord is another one very close to the mark. There is no need of a vanilla 4 drop vampire lord in 40 card singleton but I suspect you need one in any vampire EDH deck and at that point it feels like a price gouge. Either make these products actually good in terms of power level or just use exclusively reprints. Seems like wasted design efforts otherwise. Carrying on like this we are going to find a good or important card wind up in these products and lots of people being really unhappy about it.

Ancestral Blade 7

It is a Bear, it is Leonin Scimitar. While incredibly fair looking I think this is actually really good. It is cheap and kind of like a two for one. It is also two permanents in one cheap card which some decks care about, an artifact synergy card which others care about, an equipment which another subset of archetypes have interest in and so forth. Even just as an EtB effect card there is some merit to playing with this. Initially Ancestral Blade isn't very exciting but it is cheap and proactive and gets on with the game plan. The only real advantage it has over a Bear early is that you can get stuck in with it quite happily without risking card disadvantage. It is also a bit like a Scrounging Bandar in that you get to reallocate the stats if you want. The mana cost to re-equip makes this tempo poor early game but the potential for countering your opponents board offsets that rather. Being able to scale it with other effects like first strike or flying is nice. The Blade will do a lot of work over time making your dorks more efficient and forcing through damage you otherwise could not. I think this is a truly exceptional support card for cube. It is more relevant as a play than Flayer Husk, more useful as an equipment in an ongoing capacity and immune to being entirely removed with a single Shatter effect. This card isn't powerful but it is suitable, great at scaling with things and even better at empowering other cards. It is an enduring early play that offers incremental advantages there after without costing you much at all to do so.

Colossus Hammer 2

Rather silly as far as things go but with any sort of cheat on equip costs this starts to impress a lot more. Also only being a one drop to play makes this a perfect tool to pair with Puresteel Paladin. Obviously awful if you are not abusing this in some way with synergies and thus very narrow. Fun none the less!

Skyknight Vanguard 7

The Aetherswooper with unlimited energy supplies!  Kari Skyzev. This is good but it is very polar. On the play uncontested and unanswered this will win a game far more impressively than most other two drops going solo. Mid and late game this will just send soldiers to die if it can even attack itself. The real comparison for this is to Precinct Captain which is a potent cube card that does much the same sort of thing. This has to be better what with being gold but it doesn't have to be much better what with Captain being great and also a WW two drop which is a narrowing element in the same lines as being gold. So a 1/2 flier is worse than a 2/2 with first strike but not when they have attacking triggers. Triggering on attack is obviously a lot better than on combat damage to a player. The tokens coming in attacking is occasionally good for damage output but usually bad for value generation. It is looking good for Vanguard at this point. What really breaks it is when paired with synergy cards. Something like Purporos or Goblin Bombardment suddenly make Vanguard far better than Captain. Captain struggles to make the tokens late game and when you just care about the triggers they can offer rather than the amassing of tokens it makes Vanguard great and and Captain a dud. Skynight offers better scaling and is more reliable in that regard. Seems like enough card to make it in the drafting cube. It is certainly themed and powerful enough to be in any Boros token builds you could construct.

Mystic Forge 6

Oh my my. This is danger. I am not sure this has been thought through properly at all. The odd cantrip and a bit of cost reduction effects and this is just a one shot wonder. This will be a mainstay in Paradox Engine decks. It might make a new colourless Aetherflux Reservoir and/or Paradox Engine storm deck. It could be pure filth in a land light shops deck in any eternal format. A really good job Ironworks was banned but quite possibly not enough to stop this. Obviously only a build around card but one of the scariest of such I have seen in a long time.

Brineborn Cutthroat 3

Good enough to make many fish and any pirate builds. Not however good enough to make it in the cube. It is unsupported in terms of generic ground based aggro in blue. It is slow in that it isn't growing fast enough and it isn't doing anything impressive beyond slowly becoming a mana efficient threat. Probably better in a control deck in the drafting cube than anything else which doesn't bode all that well for it! It looks like a lot more card that it is.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Core 2020 Preliminary Review Part VIII

Cavalier of Thorns 0

The weakest of the cycle by some margin. Ramp late is mediocre. Play Primeval Titan or play Elvish Rejuvanator. The body on this has poor closing power and the on death trigger is slow and affords no card advantage. This does quite a lot but none of it is what you want given the way it is presented.

Shared Summons 6

Instant speed makes this quite interesting. It is card advantage and a tutor and it isn't over cost. This has a lot of potential in a number of combo decks and has some application in both ramp and midrange decks. With enough creatures with enough of a spread of effects this looks pretty good in control too. It might be one of those top end cards that overly thins your deck of gas but it looks a bit too good to suffer all that much for that. I am not sure it will get enough play to last in the drafting cube but it is very much one of those cards that could.

Audacious Thief 0

Interesting rework of Phyrexian Rager. Slower and less likely to return value but potential to return a lot more value. Seems like black doesn't need to run slow risky crap like this in cube so we can probably move on but I do like this card. I like that it is made and printed at common too.

Cloudkin Seer 6.5

Hmm. Well, this replaces itself, is cheap, and unlike most other cards in this camp, has a relevant body. Baleful Strix is relevant mostly for the deathtouch and while a much better defender, Strix offers poor offensive threat. Now Strix is one of the best dorks in the cube and remains firmly better than this what with being a two drop but the fact that they are even in the same conversation together speaks volumes to this Seer. I see myself playing this a bunch. I'll throw in a lot of places just as nice filler. It gets you where you need to be going at minimal cost. It is OK on the tempo front, is never dead, and costs no cards so it is very low risk. The card is lowish on the power level by cube standards but the playabiltiy feels great.

Tomebound Lich 3

Lots of strings to this one's bow but all together still not enough to compete with cards like this that actually generate card advantage. Play Thief of Sanity or Shadowmage Infiltrator. Lifelink is mediocre here with one measly power. Deathtouch is better as it makes blocking more awkward and helps on defense a lot. Ohran Viper is pretty reasonable and the deathtouch counts for a lot of that. The biggest perk this card has is the EtB trigger on top of the combat damage one. It makes this card a lot more reliable than the likes of Ohran Viper if you are in the market for looting instead of drawing without the discard. It is a bit slow for combo decks but is just the ticket for some zombie bidding lists and other graveyard midrange strategies. This is like a better Nyx Weaver and will see play in the same sorts of places (theme wise rather than colour obviously!) Too fair and gold for the drafting cube but a card with some uses never the less.

Blood for Bones 0

Slow, risky, narrow, and not even all that powerful. Play Victimize over this. Or Zombify. Or treat yourself and play a good card over it instead. This is so bad that bad cards start to look good. I bet this will see play somewhere too, just not in any of my cubes!

Moat Piranhas 0.5

Big stats for blue. Might see some love just as a big cheap wall but I highly doubt it. Might see play in a defenders deck but again, I doubt it. Most of those don't need power and with this card that is what you are getting. Nice clean design though. Feels like this card could be 25 years old.

Kethis, the Hidden Hand 5.5

Lovely design that instantly makes me want to brew around this in a multitude of ways. This is a fantastic looking commander first and foremost. For cube he is hurt by the many colours. Despite the legend count in cube being higher than in most other formats this just isn't going to be enough extra to be worth a cube slot. I suspect this does under 0.5 mana reduction per cast and still under ten times less than that on the recursion front on average in limited cube. It is not until you build a legendary deck around Kethis that the power level really starts to rise. This will go very well in a historic deck where your mana base contains a bunch of legendary cards and you can run Board the Weatherlight and Urza's Ruinous Blast with no trouble at all. There this goes very well indeed! I suspect Kethis ramps that build up a tier in cube and at least two tiers in commander. It also gives it direction. Black and white are the best historic colours but there was no clear way to go beyond that until Kethis. You should be able to make a nice 40 card Abzan deck with up to 50% legendary cards in it while still being decnent which will make Kethis pretty nuts. The passive will do a lot of work and the activated will be so nuts that you play self mill cards to power it up and increase the option density. Kethis looks like a lot of fun.

Noxious Grasp 1.5

I rate this over Deathmark mostly for being an instant. The increased target range and lifegain make you happy to pay two for it but the speed of the spell is what makes it so good. This is a nice sideboard card in that it is space efficient due to working against so much. It is also nice in that it is a fairly fair way to hedge and hose. You just get a powerful efficient spell that won't ruin games unlike Chill or Warmth which do. Much as I like this there is not much call for sideboard cards like this even in singleton constructed events.

Sephara, Sky's Blade 1

Oof. Four fliers you say? That is a lot of fliers needed to play this. It makes it sound very win more as well as unreasonably conditional. Decks that can play seven drops will not have four fliers in play and those decks that might be able to put out four fliers really can't play seven drops meaning this will be dead weight a lot of the time. The real cost of Sephara is skipping attacking. If you have four fliers then that should be at least four damage missed. If instead of Sephara you just play a Glorious Anthem card and attack then you are doing eight. Sixteen in the space of Sephara doing eleven over two turns. This means Sephara isn't even that good unless you make her off the back of vigilant fliers or on the same turn as making your fliers. The massive six mana play of Lingering Souls times two followed by Sephara is certainly powerful but it is late, unlikely, and probably win more too. I love the idea of turn one dropping out four Ornithopters and playing Sephara while we are talking about unlikely things. I will give Sephara a shot of performing in a skies deck at some point. She has no hope outside of decks built to house her and I don't hold out that much even if she is supported. She is potentially very powerful at least, who doesn't want to make a one mana 7/7 angel of winning!