Saturday, 28 October 2017

Adapting to the Buck Cube

Llanowar Elves
I am a long way off knowing the Buck Cube format well but I am learning a lot already. I have now had the Buck Cube built up for a month or so and have got a decent number of games in. I am just going to talk a bit here about that, mostly in the form of cards that are better or worse than in my cube and the things I have learned so far. A nice simple example of this is a Llanowar Elf, in my cube a turn one ramp card is one of the better openers possible. In this cube the payoff cards are worse. An Elf is still a good play on turn one but you are punished less for not making it and the payoff for doing so is less as well. Further to that the punishment you get for that late game dead draw is more severe in the buck cube. There are less mana sinks in the buck cube and the games are slower, the consequence of which is that you run out of things to do more often. In my normal cube drawing a dud means you are just going to play a relevant card you had in hand, at worst you can spend your mana saccing of clues or going monstrous or investing in level ups, or just apply pressure with your lands! So much less of that sort of thing in the buck cube means you are typically looking to up the overall power level of your deck and potential draws.

This is manifest in the top end as well. With the threats being far less cataclysmic in the buck cube you are better off trying to win with two or three of them and starting a bit earlier. In my normal cube if you can land one of the big cards and keep in in play for a turn that is usually game, sometimes even landing it can be enough should it be something like a Verdurous Gearhulk. There are basically no threats in the buck cube that you will effectively win with if you untap with it in play. I found I was having more success with threat dense decks. I don't just mean stuff that can attack but stuff that threatens winning, well statted, resilient, and/or evasive.

Deadbridge GoliathAn example of a card in this camp that has stood out so far in the buck cube is Deadbridge Goliath. In my normal cube the card is just a bit durdly and risky, you flop it down and it does nothing other than be a 5/5. Being four mana you are going to be under a lot of pressure already and so any sort of removal or bypassing of said 5/5 is likely game over. Unsummon is probably game let alone Path and Plow and the rest... You are only ever scavenging for six when you have nothing else to do or it represents lethal and forces a response. Anyway, the card is very underwhelming and aimless in my normal cube. In the buck cube however the card is a beating! It is massive and efficient and exactly the sort of thing you want to start off winning the game with. It is not nearly as punishing getting a four drop with no EtB or manaless bonus value removed. It is also very well able to attack, little matches it in size for the mana. The scavenge is also a real threat in the buck cube. The tempo of the four mana 5/5 is enough to force them into removing it, perhaps awkwardly. As soon as those counters hit it is going to force yet more drastic action they may well not have any more of. It is literally a card you make, they kill it if they can and if they do your best follow up play may very well be scavenging it! All in all this card is one of those high tempo two for one style cards that dominate the normal cubes. I don't really want to go comparing it to Bloodbraid Elf... but I guess I just did.

Winds of RathFive mana Wrath effects also impressed me. The format is sufficiently slower, the threats are that much less evasive of removal, and the relevance of card advantage is that much greater that all in all the five mana Wraths feel quite a lot better in the buck cube than the four mana ones do usually. Imagine if Day of Judgement was three mana, gained you a life per creature killed and also cast itself twice just to make sure no sneaky Finks are left about the place. That is basically how a Fumigate feels in the buck cube. Pretty winning. Control strategies are made very real by the increased value of draw, the reduced tenacity of threats and the general slowing of things. You don't even lose that many  The ratio of cycle to cast on Hieroglyphic Illumination is like ten to one in my normal cube while it is more like one to three in the buck cube. I'm sure this math is flawed somehow but it feels like that makes it about thirty times more playable! Obviously Fact or Fiction has found a format in which it gets to be a big name again.

Falkenrath AristocratUnsurprisingly cards with a lot of text on them tend to be pretty good. Those sort of aimless middle of the road cards that are obviously massively powerful but are not entirely on theme. Any card like that that you commonly find in normal cubes is pretty potent. Stuff like Pia and Kiran Nalaar. Other cards that are just not played much outside of cube and thus cheap enough to be in this cube and good enough to be in normal cube such as Hallowed Spirit Keeper, Aetherling, Gonti, Surrak the Hunt Caller and Falkenrath Aristocrat have all stood out as clearly a lot more potent than the average power level and done a lot of heavy lifting when in cast.

The fixing is still somewhat of an issue although players are adapting to the restrictions better now. It makes three colour decks super risky and hard to do, seemingly impossible without green. The most notable thing to arise from the fixing issue is that mono coloured aggressive decks, mainly red or white, can just get those unbeatable starts. The kind of thing that looks normal and you expect in my cube is pretty unbeatable in this one unless you also have a pretty ideal draw. You probably need to be on the play too. The format is a little slower due to the power of the cards but it is mostly slower due to all the duals coming in tapped. This means that your typical two colour deck is running relatively a lot slower than the mono colored ones who only have the more minor setback affecting them. Basically if they curve out threats in a way that will empty their hand on turn four and have just a single piece of insteraction/disruption it is often too much to handle. All of magic has unbeatable draws and some polar matchups. The red and white aggro decks have less staying power than they do in the normal cube. I would still call it a very balanced and fair format with a very high skill level but this aspect of the mono coloured aggression is the weak spot. 

Flametongue KavuI am going to try and bullet point the main take aways from my testing so far. Bare in mind I am used to playing my heavily refined cube which is a lot more extreme than things like the modo cube for their speed. If you are coming from somewhere with most of your experience of cube being from modo, or even more so a place of block booster draft, then you need to take what I say with a pinch of salt. I would say the buck cube naturally lends it self to players who excel at limited. Most of what I am going to put in these bullet points are in relation to my cube, is translate "good" into better than they are in my cube etc. It feels like a totally different game when playing it despite a huge overlap in cards and style. Adjusting to it has been interesting and nostalgic! I suspect the adjusting process will be a lot easier for most other people. Much of it is the bread and butter of block booster draft. My first proper beating in the format came at the hands of the only play who has done more limited than cube in (in recent history). Despite it being his first go at the format his decks looked like they had been built by someone with a lot of experience of the meta.

Fact or Fiction
- Two for ones are good.

- Fliers are good.

- Good stats to cost ratios are good.

- Wraths are good.

- Drawing cards is good.

- Dead draws and cards are bad.

- Low power cards are risky.

- Spot removal is good!

Obviously these are all true in all formats, the relevant thing is that how and why they become more or less true in the various formats. Just learning which cards are better or worse in different formats only helps for a short while. If you understand the mechanisms that affect these variances then you will just be a better all round player of the game. You will adapt to new settings quicker and be ahead of the pack.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Midrange Red .dec

AbradeI have built a number of midrange red decks in my time cubing and it has been one of the most consistently poor deck ideas that I have tried. When I say midrange red I don't mean big red which is more about using artifact ramp to empower rapid top end and game breaking spells like Wildfire. I mean a red deck that tires to win by curving out with powerful cards. There are some problems with a midrange red deck so I have never been surprised when it fails to work in cube. The colour has very little in the way of utility. It has no enchantment removal, no real hand or spell disruption, no lifegain and so forth. Red also is a little lacking in rounded playable card quality and advantage. Red historically is good at a few combo things here and there but mostly it is good at direct damage and tempo. By trying to win a game quickly with red you work towards the colours strengths. By aiming to win over a longer time frame you expose the colours weaknesses that much more. As soon as you hit the mid game red removal gets a whole lot weaker. Killing off things with more than 3 toughness gets pretty uncomfortable pretty fast. A quick red deck can just ignore a Ripjaw Raptor and go through it or round it, even conceding enrage triggers if it needs to. A midrange deck has to deal with the Raptor and it will be around four for one to do so! The aggro versions are generally pretty happy if you spend four mana and only put one blocker down without gaining life or removing anything. Midrange red has typically been toyed with by all the control decks like a helpless slow threat light deck with zero ability to interact usefully! It has been hugely outclassed by other midrange deck with their bigger dorks that make your removal bad and their much better value cards. Even the aggro decks still tend to get through the defenses. The red ones can just go face and get there due to lack of lifegain and the white ones can simply land a Glorious Anthem effect and make reds removal inefficient and ineffective again.

GlorybringerDespite knowing all this I really wanted to try out the deck again. In recent years red has gotten lots and lots of powerful top end. Cards like Glorybringer and the more recent incarnations of Chandra. While they are obviously very powerful cards I have never been able to get too excited about them as you don't often find that many decks in cube that really want midrange red cards even if they are nutty powerful ones. This list was initially inspired by that dude who took the "Wily Goblin" Ramunap Red list to the World Champs this year. The combination of great top end stuff, some utility support and some more versatile and rounded removal options made it seem like the midrange red deck might actually be able to hold its own now in cube. Well, I ran the list below exactly and there are certainly some cards I would change. I even did some really horrible plays and yet the deck crushed, it didn't drop a game even when I tried to punt! While only one cube event is far from sufficient evidence to say this deck is good it certainly felt like a good deck.

Mizzium Mortars23 Spells

Grim Lavamancer
Soul-Scar Mage
Faithless Looting

Wily Goblin
Arc Trail
Mizzium Mortars
Treasure Map
Incendiary Flow

Captain Lanery Storm
Wily GoblinSweltering Sun
Pia Nalar
Dualcaster Mage

Chandra, Torch of Defiance
Chandra, Pyromaster
Vance's Blasting Cannons
Pia and Kiran Nalar

Goblin Dark Dwellers

Inferno Titan
Chandra, Flamecaller

17 Lands

15 Mountains
Myriad Landscape
Feild of Ruin

Chandra, Torch of DefianceAs you can see this list is basically family fun with the Nalaars. A huge flavour win, with er, three Chandra, two Pia and poor singleton Kiran getting half a card. I even looked at Heart of Kiran just for theme but it was clearly far too inconsistent to run in a list like this. The three Chandra cards are all very powerful cards indeed that give you control and options alongside value and threats. Redbeing such a linear colour gets a huge boost from the utility of good planeswalkers when it can sensibly house them. Pyromaster is weaker in this list than usual as you are not so fussed about killing small things or forcing through attacks. I wouldn't be averse to changing her for something else, perhaps a Koth, but equally I was perfectly happy with her too. Torch and Flamecaller are busted. You normally don't get to see them at their full potential as not many archetypes suit them all that well. In this list it was like having better than Mind Sculptor and better than Sun's Champion. Both cards did a lot of heavy lifting for this deck!

Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Pia, Pia and Kiran Nalaar are perfect midrange dorks. They offer multiple bodies thus increasing the chances of value when trading in combat or with removal. It also gives much better board control, particularly with the fliers. It makes it easier to keep walkers in play and take down enemy one. They also have some synergy with and from the other artifacts in the deck. Most importantly, like the planeswalkers, these are more rounded high power red cards that give you a lot of options.

Treasure Map was a big win in the deck too. Due to reds cheap and powerful early game removal options you have far more time and safety in which to lay and use this card. So much so that it was drawing removal more often than I would have expected. Flipping it was basically good games, the extra cards mostly got it done but the extra mana and options really didn't hurt! The card had good synergy with the deck and give it both card quality and card draw in a very convenient package.

Captain Lannery StormWily Goblin and Captain Lannery Storm (a card that for some reason turns me all thespian!) also did very well in the deck. The Goblin is about as bad as you can make a playable card but having played with it a little I can appreciate why making it even a 1R 1/2 might have been too much. The card certainly isn't a good card, it is in fact shockingly low powered. There is a good argument for a Ruby Medallion or even a Fire Diamond in its place! Those cards certainly are better ramp options. The thing that made Goblin quite acceptable support in this deck was the general utility it offered. The 1/1 body you get makes that planeswalker play a lot safer. The treasure can be cashed in for a card with the Treasure Cove. I certainly looted and scryed it away a couple of times without hesitation but in those cases I imagine a land would have had the same response. I didn't regret playing the card and it did its job. It did a bit of useful ramp, gave me useful things to get on with early and saved a bunch of life and loyalty. I am not yet ready to call the card good but I will say it was suitable in the deck and performed well above expectation.

Captain Lannery Storm was the far bigger name for cheap treasure generation. She was all round very effective and useful and outdid expectation far more than Wily Goblin which considering she started out looking a lot better to begin with is a big win. I had not appreciated some nuances with this kind of deck that would play out to greatly help Ms Storm. While this deck is not super full of cheap removal it does have a good amount. Your ideal first couple of turns involve killing everything they might make that has toughness in a cheap efficient way. Unlike the aggressive red decks you are not also trying to play out beaters and get in free attack damage as well. This gives you much more opportunity to keep the board nice and clear. As such a turn three Captain has a pretty good shot of generating multiple treasure. She is pretty nuts when you do, the extra mana is so much tempo and options. The fact that you can stockpile it allows for some huge swing turns. The +1/+0 trigger is also far more relevant than I had appreciated. Mostly I wanted to case pre combat spells and so being able to set the Captain to the power I wanted made life unpleasant for my opponents.

Sweltering SunsI think based on wanting to clear for Lannery that I got the balance of burn a little wrong. For reactive reasons I would rather have as many instants in the 2 slot as possible with the one mana burn less rital to have at instant. I wanted to have a way to exile things if needed in the list so played Incendiary Flow but in retrospect a Pillar of Flame would have let me then run an Incinerate in that two slot. I would cut the Galvanic Blast to make the deck space, while it is cute with the artifact synergies that is not happening in the early game where I most want the cheap removal. Abrade and Mizzium Mortars are ideal for the less aggressive red decks. They are more rounded utility removal spells that give you those all important options and the cost of not being able to go face is a lot less in your game plan. Arc Trail and Lightning Bolt are just the best two burns spells and so they got in just to up that power level.

One of reds issues playing a slower game in the past has been how to include mass removal options. As soon as you start ramming in Pyroclasm and cards like that you wind up with a really clunky deck. It is great when you draw it against the right decks but it is inconsistent. Mostly you find yourself sitting with it in hand doing nothing wishing you had more card quality effects! It was a necessary evil and just added to the overall issues with trying to play a slower game as a red mage. Now there is a greater wealth of cheap split damage spells you can use to just take the edge of people going wide as well as multi purpose mass removal. The new cycling Sweltering Suns is perfect with its built in filtering. Chandra Flamecaller and Mortars add to your mass removal quota as well. I didn't even bother playing Fiery Confluence which is a potent spell and one that comes with a lot of arse covering.

Faithless LootingFaithless Looting is just too good to turn down, you need to curve out but you don't want to flood and this is one of the best cards in the game to help with that. You have enough value and top end to support the card disadvantage and so I think it would be madness to miss out on the consistency boosts this offers. I very nearly played Collective Defiance instead for the greater value and utility but given that I wanted that slot for card quality and Defiance is a really bad card to pull you out of a screw I did the sensible thing! It is probably a case of Looting or both and not a case of one or the other.

My one drop dorks were a little bit odd. Lavamancer is a fine enough source of value for a nice cheap cost but he doesn't have a super quickly filling yard to work with nor do you necessarily want to exile your cards in this list. I could have just run a Firebolt instead but I was happy enough with the little wizard. Mostly he was there for being one of very few suitable one drop dorks available. Soul-Scar Mage is the more controversial card and it was very much a test run for the card in a different sort of home. Thus far he has been purely something you run in RDW or Izzet tempo as a cheap beater. In this list however he was more about giving your non-combat damage sources wither. Mage is absolutely one of your best tools against big things. A 5/6 Tarmogoyf is typically a massive ballache for a red deck but when you can repeatedly apply Dead Weight and Sicken to things with your ongoing damage sources it is all a lot more cool. Being able to do so at instant speed makes combat pretty scary for them and the shrinking down of attacker's power makes racing super easy. Soul-Scar also gives you a fairly robust way to get onto the board and discourage quick planeswalkers or fend off little nibble attacks.

Chandra, FlamecallerThe Titan was as good as ever and is a lovely curve topper. You could turn it into a Wurmcoil Engine and it would be better against black and red and worse against white and blue. Much as Titan is nutty good I think Flamecaller is the better red six drop. Much as I would love to have had some fun with the Blasting Cannons I literally never saw it. It might be better than Pyromaster in the deck, this is certainly one of the most appropriate places for the card but I didn't get to put any of that to the test this time round. I still don't hold out huge hopes for it but am unwilling to rule it out until I see it not working out.

Glorybringer was probably the MVP, the card is just bats. I wasn't too high on it in the spoilers despite asserting it was probably more powerful than Thundermaw Hellkite which is a card I highly rate for most archetypes! I just didn't see where it was going to fit or take the slot of the more direct 5/5. I have found plenty of places to cram in the Glorybringer and it has been pretty good even when forced. In this list where he is a natural fit he was getting it done. Tempo, value, board control, options and threat. The card has it all. Although I never lost when I cast it that is a fairly limp point given that this list didn't do any losing. I will just say I cast a lot of Glorybringers!

Myriad LandscapeYou have some slots in this list for utility lands. Without Wily Goblin in the list you could probably push it to three colourless land out of the 17. There is also more room for EtB tapped lands, without Faithless Looting you would probably look to include the odd cycling or scrying land. Just because you can play more colourless and/or EtB tapped lands doesn't mean you should. I was very happy with 15 red sources and 16 lands coming in untapped and ready for use. Myriad Landscape felt too good to miss out on in a deck with multiple five and six drops and the capacity to generate some breathing room in the early to mid game. Field of Ruin is a low cost inclusion that gave me some extra disruption and coverage, the latter is not super huge however as you are already cold to enchantments. I was happy with the Field in my games but I am sure plenty of other utility or creature lands would have also been of use some use.

So, lastly the less potent cards. Dualcaster was poor. The 2/2 isn't good at all and so you need to get value from the trigger which is situational and expensive. I wanted to have a way to interacted with blue trickery and countermagic but in practice most other things would have performed better. A simple Chandra's Phoenix for example. Not only would it have gone in the theme of family Nalaar but it would offer value, tempo, synergy with the looting and better board presence. You can probably fill this slot with a lot of different things but Phoenix seems like the cleanest direct substitution. It is a pretty fair card but red isn't overdone with midrange options.

Goblin Dark-DwellersGoblin Dark Dwellers was my attempt to have a Snapcaster/Torrential Gearhulk style card in the deck. It wasn't bad but it wasn't all that exciting either. In practice I suspect I would have got more from a Sarkhan Dragonspeaker, a Siege Gang Commander, Thundermaw Hellkite and the like. Your spells all do fairly similar things so it affords less utility than the blue options. Probably still better than Flame Tongue Kavu which is a notable omission from this list being one of the few notably powerful midrange red cards I asserted there were few of! My experience with red midrange decks is that you lose when you have action in hand that isn't appropriate. The Kavu isn't something you can just play and have it be decent to good. Like Pyroclasm it can be one of those cards that clogs up your hand and causes you to lose the bad matchups. You don't really need it when you have such good four drops and things like Glorybringer and Titan doing similar sorts of things on the back of relevant bodies.

The combination of red having access to a bit more card advantage and quality combined with  an increase in the number of playable utility spells all rounded off with a handful of extremely powerful four through six mana cards seems like it is finally enough to let red play a wider range of magic. Given that blue has been able to support an aggro deck since like original Zendikar block a midrange red deck doesn't feel like a big ask! At least with this list I finally now have some indication it is on the way if not actually here already.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Top 16 Replacement Dorks

This is a follow on to the previous post talking about the types of sticky dorks and why they are declining in value in the cube. Rather than make that post even longer by extensively looking at individual cards I thought a series of top x lists would do the job best and break up the monotony of a wall of text! I have ranked these cards within their category but also given them an out of 10 rating so that they may also be compared to the cards on the other two lists.

Penumbra Spider16. Penumbra Spider 3/10

What could be better than Giant Spider you ask? Well, two Giant Spiders of course! The penumbra series of cards was our first real offering of replacement dorks. In the very early days the Bobcat saw some play in cubes but being from Invasion power creep has hit them hard. None have really been playable for a long old time. The somewhat more recent throwback offering from Time Spiral however was a much more reasonably costed and useful front end. In cube this proved to be a solid defensive value card that would stave off loads of aggression very well. I think it was probably Courser of Kruphix that ultimately pushed it out and set a new bar for defensive dorks. Penumbra Spider never stopped being good, other better cards just rose up around it and left it no room to shine in. While I don't see this returning to cube glory I can see it doing good work in budget cube designs. I think it would surprise most people how annoying this is to play against and how good it still is despite a fairly booster draft feel to it.

Doomed Traveler15. Doomed Traveler 3/10

This is a nice efficient little support card but it carries far too little weight to stand alone. Neither end of the card affords enough return to be worth the cost of the card and a mana. This can even be out performed by Suntail Hawk when you needed that flier up and running right away and you don't see Flying Man played in any colour these days. The occasions that Traveler starts to shine are where you have sacrifice costs to pay and ideally creature buff effects as well. It is one of the better support cards in black white tokens. White offers good boosts to the tokens while black offers some nice things to cash in on them with. More over there are very few good token style cards in the one mana slot further increasing the value of this support tool. The addition of Intangible Virtue and a Cabal Therapy turn this into a very potent one mana play indeed! This is one of those cards that is fairly useless unless it is in the ideal deck at which point it becomes incredibly strong and often one of the better cards in the deck.

Strangleroot Geist14. Strangleroot Geist 4/10

This is an odd card in terms of how it has done in cube. It is the victim of the decline in value in sticky dorks more so than most but a large part of this is down to the meta. Most other colours would be all over this card, it is the fact that it is green that hurts it so much. It is odd that it has fallen off in power so greatly as it was and probably still is one of the highest tempo replacement dorks both overall and in its front end. The issue is not with the tempo or the power level. It is that the only archetypes that want this card are creature based green aggressive decks. That is basically only Zoo and Zoo being any colour you fancy is so utterly spoiled for choice that this is just one of many strong two drop options. A while ago you might have thrown this in a green ramp deck or a midrange rock deck both to stall out the game against aggression or to apply pressure and tax control. These days you have far better options and so this only goes in the one deck to which it is most well suited. The other real issue for this card is that it is pretty low threat level. A 2/1 is very easy to ignore and leave till last and a 3/2 is hardly back breaking. It get killed in combat by most things and is basically just board filler. Strangleroot was a premium green two drop when it first came out and has steadily declined since then to the point where I don't think it is all that exciting.

Loyal Cathar13. Loyal Cathar 4/10

This is another one of the fairer replacement cards that has gotten steadily less exciting like Strangleroot. Cathar has held on a bit better despite being substantially lower power level. Mostly this is to do with theme. White often wants to flood the board with cheap dorks and really wants to keep as many of them there to attack with as possible. White aggressive decks hate mass removal and are much better than green aggressive decks on the whole. Human creature type has been a big help for this card as has transitioning from Honour the Pure / Crusade effects to Glorius Anthem ones. Cathar is also slightly better against flicker and bounce than the token producing cards on this list as it stays as a physical card. Ultimately it is just getting pushed out by substantially more powerful cards coming in around it. It is fine on theme filler but the good aggressive decks are less and less filler cards these days. Double white is a big turn off for a filler card as well as it makes it substantially narrower in where you might want to play it.

Geralf's Messenger12. Geralf's Messenger 5/10

This is a card I find hard to rate. It has quite a monstrous power level as well as lots of good synergies one the one hand and on the other it is designed to be on the awkward side and is so hard to cast that it is one of the narrower cards on this list. You have to be super heavy black to even consider this. It is not far off a mono only card. This has a bit of the Doomed Traveler to it in that you need specific conditions to make use of it. Unlike Traveler however the Messengers is absolutely worth the card and mana you spend on it and it does plenty all on its own. My experience playing with and against this is that it forces the race in most cases. It is such a huge disincentive to try and work through it the long way combined with the fact it comes in tapped. People just look at the board and the only half good option seems like going sideways. Even exile removal is not a total disaster as you still did them two, only paid three mana for your card, you went one for one and you baited a premium removal spell. You may even have gone two for one if you got a clue or a land. Messenger's fits perfectly into devotion decks as he is cheap, sticky, reasonably well rounded and offers maximum devotion for the mana. He is also decent in zombie decks although he is just a good card with the zombie tag. It might well be the case now that you want lords and other synergy cards for your zombies in a tribal build. Given that the best devotion payoff card in black is a zombie (Grey Merchant) you often see those strategies combined and then Messengers jumps to one of the first names on the team sheet.

Woodfall Primus11. Woodfall Primus 5/10

I only ever play this now if I am cheating it into play somehow or if I have a terrible terrible deck. For eight mana this simply doesn't do enough to swing a game. Killing one non-creature thing and providing a single 6/6 blocker is not the devastation I desire for 8 mana. I want to win the game with a Craterhoof Behemoth or at least clear their board and have an Ugin left in play. Primus is a good value dork but you are not looking for value at 8 mana. Scaled back in some way to somehow make it a 4 or 5 mana card and it would probably be nuts. At 8, even with potent green ramp, I am only really happy with this card when I get to Sneak Attack it into someones face or when I can Shallow Grave it and then sac it post combat. A simple Exhume can also be plenty good enough if you do it sufficiently early that destroying a land is a big deal. While you can easily play this in a green ramp deck and will sometimes have to it is simply not enough payoff to be good. You are investing so much of your deck into ramping that you need those few big mana cards you can run to really carry which this doesn't do. It doesn't stop enough pressure, answer enough problems or pose a significant enough threat itself. Once upon a time this was playable top end but now it is basically just part of a combo.

Murderous Redcap10. Murderous Redcap 5/10

A great little card that has seen a surprisingly small amount of play given its quality and potential abuse. A lot of this is down to it being a bit too pricey for a lot of red decks to get interested and a little outclassed by the mono black 187 dorks like Skinrender, Shriekmaw and the like. The most common place to see this is in Birthing Pod decks and Goblin decks where they would commonly use it as a good thing to sacrifice. Redcap has seen some play as a stall tool for control decks but he is pretty mediocre at it. Redcap is far more about the EtB ability than the body. While the persist is good both the 2/2 and the 1/1 do very little to improve your board. The shock and the ping are great but they are a lot less useful to control at the four mana mark as it is typically only able to kill cheaper things. Control decks want removal options to be as cheap as possible relative to the things they are killing and Redcap fails that test pretty hard. While this card very much has its roles in cube I think it is now, much like Woodfall Primus, a combo and synergy card exclusively and not something that you really want to just play because it is just good.

9. Carrier Thrall 6/10
Carrier Thrall
This is a low powered card for sure, arguably lower powered than Loyal Cathar! Despite this it has put in an impressive showing in the cube so far and has not fallen off nearly as much as some of the others. This is a cheap pair of bodies to chump or sacrifice like Doomed Traveler yet it is already in the colour that wants sacrificial bodies and it comes with sufficient power to make it relevant on its own. The ramp aspect is useful as well and gives the card a broad range of utility. I have thwarted Mother of Runes dominance over a game with my colourless eldrazi scion! I have saced it before combat damage to deny lifelink and Jitte counters. I have turned this card into four with Skullclamp. I have merely traded with a one drop and then ramped out a four drop. This card is fine filler in aggro and great stall and utility in slower decks. As you get more things that have synergy with it the value of the card increases fairly impressively. One of the huge things propping this card up is that black basically only has this and Seeker's Squire as good all round value two drops. If you want a black midrange dork at two mana then this is one of the cards you look to.

Voice of Resurgence8. Voice of Resurgence 6/10

Time to jump to an immensely powerful card. Despite being gold this is less narrow than Messengers and it is certainly more powerful. The total board presence this gives is rather greater than Messenger's, mostly because it all comes in untapped. Being green white the token does tend to get pretty out of hand pretty fast. The combined front and back ends of these cards on average likely favours the Voice over the Messengers. It is a mana cheaper than Messengers and it also has a hate bear mechanic! It is dangerous enough that it pretty much shuts off instants. If you Armageddon you might still bait out a counterspell but in most other cases if they are triggering this they are either broadcasting their Wrath or they are in desperation mode. Just turning instant speed removal into sorcery speed removal against say a Jund deck is a big deal too. It gives you much greater comfort to get into combat on your turns. Voice is a total all rounder. It is disruption, it is value and it is tempo. Some decks can ignore it for a long time but they will usually have to eat two in the face every turn rather that kill it in combat as the token will be the biggest thing on the board! The things that keep Voice in the realms of a fair cube card are the fact that green and white have all the best cheap dorks. If you play this you are cutting something comparably strong to do so. Green white is also not an especially common or strong pairing to go in cube.

Thragtusk7. Thragtusk 6/10

The real strength of Thragtusk is that it works when it leaves play rather than as a when it dies trigger. That means bounce, reshuffle and exile all still trigger this. Basically, once Tusk is down there is no preventing that 3/3 short of a Stifle effect! The card is sort of a countermeasure to red decks mostly these days. Without the five life holding significant value the card is actually pretty awful. For five mana neither the value, nor the tempo, nor the threat level really come close to what cube can do. Tusk is a total of 8/6 stats, pretty poor compared to a Wolfir Silverheart, Ishkanah or Verdurous Gearhulk. You never need more than 3 damage to kill it either making it a pretty poor card for trying to win with. It can't get past a Blade Splicer...Tusk is great against burn, it is nice to abuse with flicker effects and Recurring Nightmare but outside of that it is not so impressive. It is a five mana card that performs the role of what you want a three drop to do. To play it you have to cut a card that is actually a good threat or source of value.

Hangarback Walker6. Hangarback Waker 6.5/10

This little card is certainly a pretty fair card in isolation. It is low tempo and a typically slow card. It still makes for fine all round filler in a surprisingly large number of decks but a reasonable portion of it's value as a filler card is that it is both a fine enough 2 drop and a fine enough 8 drop. It is a supporting card by nature but it is curve filler across the board and is a card you can put towards you tally of threats. Where Hangarback starts to get more exciting is when you have synergies with it. Typically those are artifact matters cards or +1/+1 counter shenanigans. It can also be sacrifice mechanisms or just global buffs too. There are a lot of things that can make good use of this little artifact in all the colours. Being a replacement dork they will not that keen on killing it but the longer it sits around the more chance there is of it growing and becoming too dangerous to pop. While a terrible up front tempo play regardless of the value of X you can do a lot to quickly change  that, particularly on the smaller Hangarbacks. You think all is well and you can handle a couple of 1/1 fliers and then they flop and Nissa and a Rishkar and the Hangarback is suddenly beating down hard and casts a Lingering Souls when it dies!

Hallowed Spiritkeeper5. Hallowed Spiritkeeper 7/10

Speaking of cards that cast Lingering Souls when they die... This is the white only tempo version of the Hangarback. Spritkeeper has a body twice as big as a Hangarback relative to cost and requires no investment in it to scale up the tokens it will produce. Spiritkeeper is a total house, it is cards like this that greatly reduce the value of chaff like Loyal Cathar. Who wants a 2/1 when it dies when you can win the game if it dies instead. People often underrate this card on the assumption it counts things in the bin prior to when it would die not "after" so to speak. If you have it and 3 other dorks in play and two dorks in the bin then when they cast Wrath of God you will get six 1/1 fliers and not two or even five. If you have just it and an otherwise empty board and yard you still get a single 1/1 which is still probably more use than Loyal Cathar! Spiritkeeper is one of whites best anti mass removal tools. You have to remove this from play first and then Wrath. You also have to do it as quickly as possible to minimize the spirits unless you are bouncing or exiling it. This is super tedious to play against and super safe to play with. The Vigilance is also far more relevant than usual as this is a card they often cannot afford to kill in combat. As such it can get in for 3 free damage and hold off a lot of their swing back potential. All in all this card is pretty silly. It is a touch clunky but well worth it. It is also a touch narrow being double white and scaling with creature count. This is a fine card in a midrange or agro deck but control is probably getting more out of a Hangarback. Spiritkeeper is the first of the cards on this list that I would consider to be properly powerful and scary cube cards.

Flesh Carver4. Flesh Carver 7/10

Arguably Spiritkeeper is a better card than this in raw power terms. Spiritkeeper certainly has a better final form! Flesh Carver on the other hand is far more rounded and playable. Not just for the cost but also for the various things he offers. An instant sac outlet, the ability to grow at instant speed and evasion. All of these things make Flesh Carver all round awkward to handle. He can simply win games by being unblockable or by being the biggest thing on the board. Spiritkeeper often feels like a card you play to counter mass removal a bit like Selfless Spirit. Flesh Carver is something you can play as a threat and he is pretty good at it while also being pretty good against mass removal too. He might not protect your other dorks from it but he can somewhat recycle them! He is a royal pain to try and play planeswalkers into. He is usually enough to bait out premium exile removal. Like Spiritkeeper he does scale with your creature count, he also scales with things that are good to be sacrificed. This is a card I want in any sort of midrange deck and most aggro decks too. I have played him in control too though it was in a hole I much rather would have had an Ophiomancer or the like.

Glen Elendra Archmage3. Glen Elandra Archmage 7.5

For some reason this card feels like a hard lock all by itself! You can abuse some synergies to afford you as many Negates as you have blue mana for but you don't really need to. Once this comes down spells are not how they are winning the game. Even premium exile removal doesn't stop the two for one from this card as you just get it countered! You have to run two relevant spells into this to be able to resolve a relevant spell and that makes this the bane of many decks. It is more of a five drop than a four drop but you can be enough ahead that one counterspell will seal the deal so just running it out is fine. This also isn't the worst card defending against creature pressure. It flies and has two lives at least! I have certainly held back Lingering Souls with this for a good while. More relevantly than its capacity to block is its ability to attack. A resistant flying 2/2 will chip away at life totals and potentially loyalty counts. It might not be quick but the threat of Negate does tend to slow down a lot of games. Her ability to threaten walkers does mean that some of the less able to protect themselves wont even bait one of the Negates. Garruk Wildspeaker is either a Hill Giant token and two life or a Hickory Woodlot(ish) and six life in the face of a 2/2 flier which makes him probably not too important to Negate. Although one of the best cards against control decks in the cube it is also a card control decks often want themselves. It is insane in the mirror, a two for one counterspell is good but having hard counters at one mana is what really allows for the power plays.

Kitchen Finks2. Kitchen Finks 7.5

This is the card I think of when I think of sticky dorks. While still very much one of the best sticky dorks it has not been immune to their general decline in value. This would have been number one on this list since it was printed until very recently and would probably have had a 8.5 or higher rating out of ten. Finks is a fantastic anti aggro card, it is what Thragtusk wants to be! It is also just a pain for control and midrange decks. It isn't threatening so much as annoying. The strength of Finks is not in how good the card is in isolation but that it is pretty good all round and the best in the business at going head to against red aggressive decks. The decent exile burn, Pillar of Flame and Incendiary Flow, and even the lifegain prevention cards red now has some reasonable access to have all helped reduce how good Finks is against them which in turn has hit the average performance of the card. When much of its prowess was in countering the best deck and it does that less well the fact that it is just a fine card in other matchups starts to be more of a drag on the card. The card is still great, I don't want to sound like I am beating up on it too hard. It is flexible in where you can play it due to hybrid mana, it is one of the most front loaded sticky dorks on offer, it performs multiple roles and has a number of good synergies too. It is getting less play in aggro and control decks than in the past but it is still a mainstay of midrange and not a stranger to the combo side of life!

1. Wurmcoil Engine 8/10
Wurmcoil Engine
Much as I am a bit against this as the number one slot it certainly earns it in how much it gets played, how high it is picked and how often if simple makes people pick up their cards. This is super easy to cast and powerful enough to be worth cheating into play. It is common place to see this in ramp decks and control decks as well as the top end of a midrange deck. Finks is low enough impact than a red deck can play around it or through it and still win even when it doesn't have the perfect answer. Wurmcoil connects with anything once and that is usually game over. You need specific answers to it such as Abrade plus 3 damage for the lifelink token and they are never favourable trades for red. It is super common for Wurmcoil to force plays like burning your own blocker so that the lifelink doesn't trigger and you get an extra turn to try and win in. Wurmcoil shuts down most attacks as well so despite not technically having an immediate impact on the board it generally feels like it does. It is near impossible to race a Wurmcoil for any archetype and hard to trade with it in a way that doesn't generate them loads of value. It is a great source of lifegain to colours that don't have it. Being such an expensive card you do run some risks with the Engine. You will pretty much immediately draw any exile removal your opponent has unless they happen to have a way to steal it from you! If you invest six mana in a thing that gets dealt with cleanly for just a couple then you lost a lot in that exchange. You probably just gave them a safe window to play that planeswalker and start milking it for value. In those kinds of games however you are not under time pressure and so you just have to be a little bit careful about your Wurmcoil and not just slam it down as soon as you can assuming it beats every archetype as hard as it beats the aggro red decks.

The Decline of "Sticky" Creatures

In this article we are going to have a look at "sticky minions" which is a term from Hearthstone that refers to a creature that needs killing twice. Magic being more complicated that Hearthstone means that there are a much wider range of cards that could be considered "sticky". While these various forms will have different mechanisms at play and different synergies to exploit they do all share a couple of key elements. Sticky minions are all harder to deal with! Either they require specific removal cards or they require sinking significant resources to deal with them. They are great for maintaining a board presence or for extending with greater safety. They can often represent a big tempo swing too based on the context in which they are used. While you can get bigger tempo for your mana by using normal creatures like Baneslayer Angel, Goblin Guide and Tarmogoyf these are simply looking at tempo per mana in isolation. If you are under pressure having something that gets to block and trade twice over two turns is a huge tempo recovery. The humble Strangleroot Geist is going to be a safer defensive tool than a Goyf in a lot of situations as they cannot just Doom Blade it out of the way and carry on swinging. On the flip side if you are applying pressure and you are ahead you would far rather play a sticky minion than a normal one as mass removal will still leave you with a board. Not only does the tempo from sticky minions tend to wind up better over a number of turns than normal ones but they also tend to generate more value.
Kitchen Finks
There are three broad categories I would break down the Hearthstone term sticky minion to for Magic. Those are replacement, recursive and resilient. Replacement dorks are those which automatically put something(s) onto the battlefield when they leave it or die. The two defining features of this group are that they don't require you to do anything extra to replace themselves and they only do it once. This group includes all the persist and undying creatures and then it includes things that leave token creatures behind when they die. This group is the most comparable to the Hearthstone sticky minions overall.

Recursive dorks is a more commonly used magic term that often includes the replacement dorks but not the resilient ones. In this article I wish to be a bit more specific about recursive dorks and exclude the replacement ones from it. This leaves the creatures that are able to get themselves back to the hand or battlefield in some capacity for some cost or met condition. Many recursive dorks can repeatedly bounce back into play while others only get to do it once (embalm, eternalize etc) and so you could further break down this group. It is not all that important, the first recursion is the significant one for the most part and the cost to do so is the more defining feature. Another relevant overlap in this group is that they all have synergy with discard and self mill effects. The tempo side of this group is widely varied. Some cards are decent enough tempo plays when used normally. These tend to be the more linear cards. Some can be huge tempo plays if you manage to cheat them in with synergies. Some are more about the value or even the inevitability and are less impressive tempo regardless of how you get them into play. A more relevant extension of this group would be the cards like Misthollow Griffin and the few other cards that can be played from exile. These have many similarities but don't share all the same synergies. Mostly they are interesting from a combo perspective with Food Chain! They are few enough and uninteresting enough that we can broadly ignore these for the sake of space and time. Recursive dorks, even without the persist style cards or the from exile cards is still the largest group of the three with old cards as well as new ones filling up the ranks.

Thrun, the Last TrollThe last group is the resilient dorks. You could argue they are different enough in function to the other two groups that you shouldn't be having them under the same umbrella term. In cube I think that they do wind up fulfilling many of the same roles and providing the same kinds of advantages as the cards in the other two groups. What I consider resilient dorks to be are those that are particularly hard to remove and require very specific answers. This would include such cards as True-Name Nemesis, Aetherling, Thrun, and even things like Fleecemane Lion and Falkenrath Aristocrat. The key thing about these cards is that once they are dealt with that is it, they are entirely gone and are not coming back without some external help. The reasons they feel like they belong in this group are as follows; most of the removal you can use to remove resilient dorks is the same as the removal that most effectively answers the other two groups. All three groups tax your opponent's resources in the same kind of way. The next reason is that you get to use them in the same way. If your opponent's out to your board is a mass removal spell then you drop down the dork you have that is impervious to their kinds of mass removal. If they are ahead and rely on spot removal to clear a path then a dork that has hexproof is going to be a real chore for them. The resilient dorks are a little less flexible than the replacement or the recursive ones (those that can block at least!) in which contexts they will help you out in however they are typically a lot more brutal for your opponent when they hit the right situation.

Spectral LynxYou could argue the case for a much wider range of dorks than I am considering resilient for this essay. You could call anything with regenerate or a random protection from a colour or even card type as a resilient dork. You could even call something with very high toughness to be resilient and that wouldn't be entirely inaccurate, it would be pretty true against red players! There is very much a sliding scale and I have arbitrarily cut it off at quite a high up point. Colour protection is narrow and more of a sideboard thing or gravy on an otherwise playable card. Regenerate is increasingly rare in cube and the combination of mana costs and effects that bypass it make it fairly low impact. The main things I am considering for this group are indestructible, hexproof and shroud, cheap flicker effects and broad protection mechanisms. I am also only really looking at reasonably well statted dorks for the mana that you aim to play. Obviously Progenitus and Emrakul and Ulamog and those cards are pretty resilient but they are deck defining cards you build around. They are not things you put in your deck to improve your curve and aspects of your deck!

So until fairly recently creatures that were sticky were all pretty nuts in cube. They ruined control decks for a long time and were generically good in a huge array of archetypes. Their ability to provide both value and tempo combined with their ability to proactively punish people all helped contribute to them being a fairly defining aspect of cube. A lot of the most desirable cards were the sticky ones. This is still true to a degree but the fairer or more linear options have fallen off a lot in value of late. The bombs are still bombs but the rest are far less special now. They are all a lot more counterable or beatable than they used to be. So what has changed? Why are these types of creature not holding their value? I am not suggesting they are no longer good, I am merely saying they are not as good as they where and shouldn't necessarily be picked with the same priority.

Incendiary FlowAs with most things in magic I would say it is a combination of factors that has lead to the declining value of sticky dorks. Removal options have become deeper and wider. Threats have also become better. Five years plus ago there were only a handful of good cards that dealt well with something like a Kitchen Finks and it was also one of the more aggressive threats you could play. Now neither of those things hold true. Threats have also become even more diverse. More threatening lands exist, a far deeper range of planeswalkers are on offer. We now have vehicles, gods and the ability to steal and play loads of things from our opponent's deck too! There is also just a lot more on offer in the way of sticky dorks which rather reduces the demand on the fairer ones.

The largest contributor to the decline out of these factors feels like the power creep in the threats on offer. Tempo is increasingly more relevant in cube regardless of your archetype. Sticky minions are effectively back loaded. They only go above and beyond after they die (or would have). If you make a Kitchen Finks or a True Name Nemesis and they just entirely ignore it killing you with evasive threats and direct damage then your card has performed terribly. No one is playing a 3/2 that gains 2 life for 3 mana. It is not until they cast a Pyroclasm or something that you get any real tempo or value out of either of these two cards. While I asserted earlier that these cards were ultimately tempo that is exactly the problem. No one is trying to claim Ancestral Visions is better than Ancestral Recall. Having to wait four turns for your effect rather curtails its power. If the game is decided within that time frame then your card did nothing useful. The comparison is probably better between Search for Azcanta and a lot of sticky creatures. You do get something right away but it is typically not great until you get more than just the first part of the card. If your opponent can bypass or ignore your sticky minion then you have conceded tempo by playing the sticky minion over a front loaded alternative. Even if your opponent can just delay you getting much out of your sticky creature then they will be mitigating the effect that card has on the game.

Bloodbraid ElfFront loaded cards are more vulnerable than sticky minions but they can still offer value and they can do so without relying on their opponent to cash in. They also give the tempo right there and then when it has most value. Bloodbraid is the classic example and remains one of the premium cards for offering value and tempo simultaneously. Newer cards like Rabblemaster and Pia Nalar also act as front loaded tempo and value cards. Sure, your value is only a 1/1 token should they kill the main body but it is enough to make these cards fairly strong. While they are worse against mass removal than sticky minions this is far less of a concern than trying to maximize your tempo. There are enough non-creature threats kicking about so as to greatly reduce the value of mass removal. It is still needed but it is far less effective than you might hope. I would rather have high threat and tempo dorks in my creatures slots and have things like planeswalkers in the slots I previously may have tried to fill out more with sticky creatures.

Another element of this is simply the level of threat any given card poses. A Kitchen Finks is not all that threatening. It has no evasion, it doesn't do something every turn it stays in play nor does it represent that frightening of a clock. This makes it a whole lot easier to ignore and thus reduce the value of the persist. More dangerous cards command reactions from your opponent and quickly. If you let someone untap with a Chandra flipwalker there is a very real chance they are just going to kill you. 20 to 0 is a real possibility now too with Insult. Even cards like Thermo Alchemist represent a higher threat level in most cases than a Kitchen Finks. If I can force you to blow removal on my two drop and forgo playing what you wanted to play on your turn that is quite a big win. This is usually the case even if it is a straight one for one trade. Threats are better than answers in the cube and a lot more numerous.

Tireless TrackerTireless Tracker is another great example of a threatening threat. It both generates card advantage over time and grows in size and as such generally needs killing. The player with an unkilled Tracker in play is the heavy favourite in any longer game. Cards like these tax your opponents answers and their game plan far more than sticky dorks. They also have the advantage of winning the game quickly when compared to the sticky minions. The faster you are winning the less chance you give your opponents to turn it around. Rampaging Ferocidon is another new example. You can easily 1 for 1 it with a Doom Blade or most other average 2 CMC+ spot removal. In my old school way of thinking this makes it a bit of a risk. The thing is, when they don't kill it the card is a complete beating. It has some evasion, it disrupts and it does direct damage. It threatens in multiple ways and it does so well. It really does feel like you either need an immediate answer to it or you needed to be extremely ahead before it came down to beat it. The main thing that has changed and makes my old school risk assessment of this card off is that there are just so many high threat level cheap cards in the cube now. If you have more than your opponent has good answers for then the one that sticks will win the game. We are well past the critical mass of good stand alone threats that you don't need to try and grind out value with safer more resilient dorks.

I did state that there was more removal which was one of the reasons sticky dorks were getting worse. Then I also said that threats were better and more numerous than answers in cube which may have come across as a contradiction. Certainly red and black have gained some exile effects which help a lot against the sticky minions. White has also greatly filled its ranks with more good exile removal, including two that don't target! Yes, a Pillar of Flame is a perfect Answer to a Kitchen Finks and an Arc Trail is the perfect answer to a Pia Nalaar and yes, in theory you could have a deck with more removal than the number of threats likely to be played against you. This is overlooking when you have the Arc Trail when they have the Finks, when you have the Pillar when they have the Pia, when they have either and you have neither or indeed when you have both and they have nothing. In all those other situations you are behind or at best, doing nothing to get ahead. This is fundamentally why threats are better than removal. I'm not saying don't play removal, I am just trying to illustrate why tempo is so important in cube and why good threats are the best way to get it.

Selfless Spirit
One final but minor point is that there is also more in the way of things to protect your dorks or get them back. White has a bunch of new tools to make their things indestructible and green and black have way more in the way of recursive effects on otherwise good cards. The increased abundance of these kinds of effects further improve the value of cheap effective threat cards and reduce the value of sticky dorks.

Sticky minions are still great and still see lots of play. They are just coming down in power level to quite a nice healthy place. They don't define the goings on in the cube meta as they used to and are just nice things to supplement decks with here and there. My plan is to follow this article with three top X lists for the three various kinds of sticky minions presently in the cube, the recursive, the resilient and the replacement. That should hopefully show where those cards sit and how good they are in the present state of cube.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Card Spotlight: Adanto Vanguard

Adanto VanguardI didn't know exactly where to place this on initial reviews as it has a lot going for it but is also very awkward. It is also somewhat of a filler dork akin to a Porcelain Legionnaire, Loyal Cathar or Daring Skyjek! There are lots of such cards and you just use them to pad out your deck with suitable cheap spells. Vanguard is all sorts of awkward in that he offers no human synergy, is a lame crewman for vehicles and a lame blocker for much the same reasons. He is also yet another one toughness dork that increases your vulnerability to -X/-X effects and to some degree ping effects as well. I was a little concerned that this inconveniences would stop this filler level card getting much play. Turns out however that you really don't care. This is all about being an indestructible two drop that attacks in a relevant way. I initially thought you would need to be heavily aggressive to really play this as well as four life is uncomfortable in slower decks and the card is generally a lot worse on the defensive. Wrong again! While this certainly isn't a control card I am very happy running it in a number of places other than very aggressive white decks.

True-Name NemesisI think my average life paid with this card is around ten per game in which I play it. It has been oppressive in much the same way as True Name Nemesis is. Obviously you can block this and you can interact with it much more with spells, that mostly just makes it better designed! Technically you don't have infinite life to pay to keep this indestructible either. In practice I have found that you are pulling so far ahead on the board every time you use the ability that games are won before you can do yourself critical damage. I had a situation where I was just an aggressive white deck and I had this beating down with a Declaration in Stone in Hand. My opponent just made a Flesh Carver which for most other dorks in play would have been enough to bait the Declaration so that I might keep up the pressure. I reasoned I was better off in the situation allowing him to chump and conserve my other non-life resources. While allowing him to save 6 life is a much bigger deal than paying 8 myself it not only saved my removal but more critically my mana. This let me further develop my board. Slightly later in the game my opponent made what appeared to be a big swing with a fully cast Lingering Souls. It probably would have won the game had I not been able to remove them all for two mana and continue the aggression with my developed board.

Umezawa's Jitte
True Name is a very hard card to deal with but it is three mana for the same attacking stats and more colour intense. It is also vulnerable to much more mass removal than Vanguard. True Name is good when you are threat light but if you are looking to go at all wide then it falls off a lot in value. Vanguard scales in the other direction. Both are really good for getting a very sticky cheap dork on the board and both are even better when you have equipment. It was a recent UW tempo control deck I built in which the power of Vanguard really stood out. The combination of it being so cheap and so hard to get off the board makes it a perfect thing to slap equipment on. While it might lack some synergy with some things white likes to do this matter little as it is the perfect counter to things white hate. It lets you abuse equipment with greater safety and it also lets you go wide with greater safety and they are your two main plans and an aggressive white player. If you ever stick a turn one Mother of Runes and follow it with Vanguard you have a more resilient threat than True Name! All in all Adanto Vanguard is a pretty big addition to white. It is a premium two drop threat for any aggressive strategy where white is a main colour but it also has application in other archetypes which very few other white two drops have achieved. This puts it in the same camp as Selfless Spirit and Stoneforge Mystic which is pretty impressive stuff. White cares so little for life, it has nothing much to spend it on and it great at generating it should it wish. If this were a black card, even with the more relevant tribe, it would be a whole lot weaker. Life is a more precious resource in black and they have rather more in the way of sticky dorks than don't block so well! So yeah, play this in your white decks and pay life to keep it alive often and without fear and you will do well. Put a Jitte on it and people will loath you...

Monday, 23 October 2017

Cards that are much better in constructed and why

Now I talk about cards that are overrated a lot in cube, two of the main ones are Tarmogoyf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. While both are still good cards neither has anywhere near the strength they do in constructed. Being someone who almost entirely looks at Magic from the perspective of a cube player I generally think people overrate a lot of things like Jace. In reality constructed is a bigger part of the Magic scene than cube and as such I am the minority. If we are talking about all formats combined then I am very much the one who underrates Jace and Goyf! It is pretty understandable when people play cube they translate from what they know. If they know a world where Jace is the best planeswalker by a long way they are more include to assume that would be the case for cube. It is quite an odd one as planeswalkers in general are far better in cube yet Jace isn't anywhere near as far ahead of the pack, they all get better but for some reason Jace does not, or at least not by the same proportion.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
I have recently been watching a lot of Channel Fireball videos for a wide array of constructed decks. Mostly legacy and some modern but with a smattering of standard and vintage too. I usually stay interested long enough to watch a game or two. I always love to see innovative deck ideas and the reasoning behind subtle choices in refined tier one meta defining lists too. While watching such games it became vividly clear why Jace and Goyf and some other big names earn their reputation. It was clear and obvious in the context of each individual game why Jace was so powerful but it was less clear to me why this was a general case. There must be some fundamental difference between cube and constructed that make these cards change in potency. Obviously there are many differences between the two formats and they are generally pretty obvious. The issue is trying to find a mechanism which logically explains why it is happening. I want to understand what aspects of the formats lead to this change in power of cards.

To probe at a mechanism I needed to get a broader picture of which cards perform better or worse in cube than constructed. That would in turn allow me to get a better idea of the kinds of card, the sort of attributes they have, that makes them either better or worse. I looked through my cube and "the average 720 cube" and marked out all the cards that are far better in cube and those that are stronger in constructed. Obviously knowing cube better and doing it from the cards in my cube I mostly found cards that are better in cube. To even up the scales I started looking through constructed decks across many formats and did the same. With lots of cards to look at you start to get a feel for what the various attributes are that have bias either way. It is well known that synergy cards perform a lot better in constructed. I was trying to look beyond that as much as possible.

Gurmag AnglerSome of the biggest offenders presently are Death's Shadow, Gurmag Angler and Tarmogoyf. All of which benefit from synergies quite heavily and all of which are far better in constructed than cube. Shadow in particular is weak in cube as it is the only card that really works with low life (already my mind is plotting some cube sillyness with Argual's Blood Fast...) and so it isn't worth building around. The other two are certainly both very playable in cube and easy enough to support. You see a lot more 7/8 and 8/9 Goyfs in cube than you do in constructed even if the average size is lower. These three cards are very alike in that they are all just vanilla dorks with an extreme cost to stats ratio. Looking past the synergies for these cards you can see that constructed magic values linear efficiency significantly more than cube. A fat vanilla dork is rarely impressive in cube. Zoo is the only deck that really wants dorks that just offer good cost to stats ratios in cube. All the others want a bit more card value, utility or action on their cards.

Jace is also nothing like these cards and by far and away the biggest anomaly. Jace isn't linear nor is he cheap. It kind of blew my mind how much he was getting played in legacy given that he is so clunky to play. There is a very different reason as to why Jace is so potent in constructed. There are in fact loads of reasons but one main one. It ultimately does come down to the same reasoning behind the Anglers and Goyfs as well. Unsurprisingly it also derives from the nature of constructed formats in that they allow upto 4 copies of a card and have to make up a total of sixty. I am not even really going to look at access to cards, which is generally restricted in cube due to mostly being drafted in some way or another. I am pretty much comparing constructed 40 card singleton cube decks to 60 card constructed decks and how that affects the scaling of certain cards.

TarmogoyfConstructed decks on the whole are far more direct and narrow than cube decks. They do their thing and they aim to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. They are also significantly more aware of what they will need to combat in the meta and how damaging those cards are to their strategy. Constructed decks typically run about 12 distinct spells, obviously this is an average. Some 28 land constructed decks can go as low as 8 different spells while some exotic vintage decks are packing well over 40 unique spells. The norm tends towards lower numbers for much the same reasons that you don't exceed your minimum card limit for decks. Twelve is also a nice number to estimate at because it is exactly half of what you play in your typical cube deck which is an average of 24 unique spells per deck and with a far far smaller range. By this logic you can roughly assert that a cube deck will be half as consistent as a constructed one in terms of being able to follow a plan. You can also say that you will have to deal with more unusual and unexpected stuff in cube than in constructed.

Constructed decks being able to do their things more consistently gives them incentive to be even more linear. If their thing wins and they can do it quickly then they only need to worry about exactly the the things that stop their thing or that can win faster. This combined with knowing a bit better of what to expect from archetypes and the meta in general means constructed decks tend to be more polar. They will often wind up with some cards that are super hard for them to beat main deck and a bunch of main deck cards that will wind up dead in some matchups. Cards all have a specific purpose in constructed be that disrupting the scary things or working towards your own end game plan.

Constructed decks can often feel like they have been built as a 50ish card deck and a 25ish card sideboard with the most generally applicable sideboard cards run main. Only the most proactive decks in the meta can be all cards towards their own goal. Despite the meta and matchup based pre sideboarding aspect of constructed decks the remaining cards are typically much more on theme than is achievable in cube. I talk about being on and off theme quite a lot in cube where it is more important to have every card in the deck as being on theme however the remit of said theme will be significantly broader in cube. Constructed decks having more synergy based plans and better access to those cards means their theme cards are typically of a narrow range of cards that have a very specific game plan in mind. The theme for a cube deck will be substantially more vague and thus allow for many more kinds of cards to work in that archetype.

Fact or FictionSo, what does all this mean? The one fundamental thing I was noticing about constructed when compared to cube is how many games were won or lost based on running out of gas. People ran out of gas that much quicker  in constructed with a higher number of dead cards in their main decks and a generally lower curve. The preside boarding aspect of constructed also means lots of cheap one for one removal being used which also hastens the rate at which players run out of gas. If one player ran out of action and the other did not then they lost. In cube it is super rare to run out of action. Most games are won or lost while both players still have stuff going on. Even when you don't have any gas in hand there is a wealth of things to be getting on with in cube. You will be able to level up a dork, activate a utility land, flashback something in the bin, cash in a bunch of clues, etc. It is for this reason I value tempo so highly in cube and have found cards like Fact or Fiction and other high end pure value cards to be hard to use and far weaker than in other formats. If mostly you are dying with things still to do then you don't really need more cards, you need to be doing more sooner! Constructed decks typically can't do more sooner, they are already finely tuned to be as quick as possible at doing their thing.

When individual cards matter more as they do in constructed the value of seeing more of them increases. A big part of what makes Jace so good is that you get to see three more cards a turn if you wish. If you have shuffle effects he also negates any dead cards you might have drawn. The extra physical card is better in constructed and so is the ability to go three deep into your deck. More on Jace later as we are going to return to the efficient fatties.

In a format where you are often trading one for one and it can often wind up as last man standing you really want that last man to be able to end the game quickly. By winning quickly you reduce the draw steps your opponent gets. Obviously this applies in all formats but it is far more significant in constructed. Both because of the polar nature of potential draws and because resources are consumed that much faster. In cube you are looking for the reliability of the threat more than the raw speed of it. Cube threats tend to be more tenacious. They often go wide or go over or go through, they are often hard to remove or generate ongoing value. This is because cube is far more cluttered than constructed. A Tarmogoyf is fairly unreliable threat in cube because there will be things to block it most of the time. It doesn't quickly close out a game which is why you play the card in constructed.

ThoughtseizeA friend argued that Goyf was basically a combo card these days when used with black one mana discard. Inquisition and Thoughtsieze are incredibly potent turn one plays that heavily disrupt the opponent but that fall off in value as the game goes on (in any format). If you follow either of those with a Goyf you can try and end the game while the effects of your discard still resonate hard.

Back now to another major part of what makes Jace the best planeswalker outside of cube. When you are facing down a single vanilla fatty, regardless of size, the -1 to bounce it is immensely effective. In cube you are lucky to be able to make that sort of play without instantly losing the Jace to their board, perhaps a man land, or just some haste dork. Jace can buy you that extra turn in constructed which will then let you see four extra cards on that turn and with all your mana active. In those four you can either find the answer to their threat and win from the value and control of the Jace or just find the things your deck does and win with those things!

Other more subtle elements also factor in to the strength of Jace in constructed. Things like Abrupt Decay and Lightning Bolt (if you +2 to avoid it) and other premium removal simply don't deal with it. The +2 is also a lot more powerful on a deck with polar draws and potentially out of gas as well. Yet another factor in the performance of Jace in constructed is that you only see him when he is the right card for the deck. In cube it it such a potent card you see it rammed into loads of places where it isn't so optimal. While this doesn't make the card any less good it does hurt its performance.

Ob Nixilis ReignitedIn cube the raw power of the effects on a planeswalker are not quite so important, you are just playing a planeswalker to be a good all round card. Either it will get value over time or it will trade with something and stall out your opponent. Most also have the perk of being able to win the game either through their ultimate or through generating dorks or even doing direct damage. While Jace is still a great card in the cube he does fall down a little when compared with some of the alternatives. Take Ob Nixilus Reignited for example, a decidedly average walker but a pretty classic template of gain a card or deal with a dork, much like Jace. Both go to 2 loyalty when they deal with a dork but Ob actually kills it and so when you invariably lose your two loyalty walker to a shock or something the Ob has gone one for one and bought you time while Jace has gone zero for one. When you use the card draw mode Ob goes to a healthy 6 loyalty while Jace sticks on 3. Yes, a Brainstorm is wildly better than draw a card and lose a life but you are using them in much the same way and in much the same situations. You are probably winning or desperate. Being able to grow in loyalty and become both safer and more threatening is a much bigger win when you are able to hit the value button. It is essentially doing multiple things and not just one thing. Greater safety, immediate value or the ability to do two things at once such as the plus one on Ob are the hallmarks of a good cube walker. Jace is just a little less well suited to cube than he is constructed. His raw power carries him and keeps him in the tier one bracket but he doesn't stand out from the crowd.

So that is basically it! My key finding was that people run out of things to do in constructed far quicker than in cube. The greater redundancy and consistency from fewer distinct spells empowers synergies which speed up the format and in turn make archetypes more linear. That in turn demands more focused disruption which of course also has to be cheap. This means draws are more polar and resources are depleted much quicker. Cube has such a motley assortment of cards that you never know what you are going to have to deal with. Decks need to be more rounded and capable. As cube is a slower format and decks cannot rely on synergies as much to empower them the range of cards they can ignore is much smaller. I find it pretty fascinating how a few differences in the nature of construction provide a cascade of effects which result in significant differences to power levels of cards. Although some things are obvious a number of them are much more subtle and only become significant when combined with the many other subtle changes. It does seem that all of the differences favour Jace, the Mind Sculptor when going from cube to constructed which explains why he is such a bomb in constructed and just good in cube, at least to my satisfaction!