Thursday, 19 April 2018

Top 15 Keywords

Burst LightningThis top list is a little different to normal, mostly due to not being about cards! Obviously this list is not about power as rating the power of key words is meaningless. The cost and way it appears on a card determines the power of that card. This list is looking at the design and rating the keywords on that basis. Mechanisms that lead to better magic and better matches are what I am looking for. As with all things magic that means greater consistency, greater options and avoiding the overly polar. It involves interaction where possible too.

A quick honorable mention to kicker. It was the first of the cost variance modal mechanisms and was a very welcome addition at the time. We now have generally more interesting and exciting alternatives for cost varying on cards but we have the success of kicker to thank for them. I would like to see provoke revisited too, if nothing else I feel that green could really do with some decent provokers!

Glen Elendra Archmage15. Persist

This is quite an old mechanic now. Being one exclusive to creatures and not being an evergreen one most of the persist creatures have become too weak for cube. I have chosen persist although I somewhat consider undying and even things that just leave behind tokens when they leave play or die to all be in the same sort of group. I really like the dynamic of creatures that are harder to get out of play. I like how they tax removal and differentiate the value of different types of removal. Specifically for undying and persist I like the interaction with other plus and minus counters and that what is left in play is a real physical card and actively bad to bounce or flicker compared to tokens. I think that creatures that need killing twice add a great depth to board positions and how you trade off a board. A persist creature can empower cards of your own like a Recurring Nightmare while depowering cards of your opponents like a Wrath of God. They make seemingly obvious choices actually interesting. If you are getting beaten up do you block your 2/1 on their 2/1 or their 3/2? Easy question until that 3/2 is a Kitchen Finks, then you might choose to block the 2/1 and face only 3 power of attackers the following turn rather than the four you would face if you trade with the first part of the Finks.

Student of Warfare14. Level Up

This is another mechanic that is feeling it's age. When Rise first came out I had nearly a third of the level up dorks in the cube and they were some of the best dorks you could get. Now I am down to just two and they are pretty tame and fair. If anything the original level up dork, Figure of Destiny, remains the best despite not being an actual level up dork. The ability to "level up" at instant speed it pretty huge. At the time instant speed level up dorks would have been very over powered but now those cards would all just be inline with current creature power level. None of this is to say why this mechanic is so good which is a pretty simple one. It is all about the consistency backed up by decent option density. A level up creature offers you a typically cheap and low impact card that turns into a serious threat with enough mana dumped into them. They are rarely great returns on the mana but being able to spend it in small increments gives you incredible mana efficiency as well as more options. You get to have a top end threat and a low curve play in the same card. They help you out in floods and in screws and that is huge. Level up creatures help with curves and give you some nice wiggle room in the ratios of your decks components.

Zurgo Bellstriker13. Dash

I was considering having haste on this list as it is one of the few ways you can have generic larger dorks being playable. Creatures without EtB or on death value triggers or at least some serious protection abilities/effects that cost too much are typically total liabilities. I often call it the Jace test and you don't want to fail it at four mana and up. I make a Hill Giant, you make a Jace and bounce my Hill Giant and I have probably just lost. If I am making a Talruum Minotaur not only am I three damage up but you can't make a Jace and bounce the 3/3 as I will just remake it and kill your Jace. Haste is great, it basically makes a spell effect out of any generic beater dork. The thing is haste is very powerful and rather basic. There isn't all that much in the way of exotic plays one can do with haste, the most interesting is not attacking because you need a blocker and then usually feels awful. Haste is sufficiently good of a mechanic that you have to pay for it. Dash affords some of the perks of haste and some more unique to it but it isn't so potent a mechanic at baseline that you need to pay for it as it were. You can add a dash mode to most cards (without EtB effects) and assuming the dash mode isn't itself wildly under cost the card will remain pretty fair. Whether or not to dash is a significant choice. You get more immediate damage with a dash but you are not developing the board to do so. Perhaps you don't want to develop the board as you are playing around a mass removal sorcery and that is great, that is one of the huge strengths of dash, even over haste. Most of the time you do want to develop the board but you also want to pressure as much as you can. You have to balance your potential mana needs on subsequent turns. These relevant options make dash interesting as well as good.

Shriekmaw12. Evoke

In many ways evoke offers the same things as level up but in complete reverse. Like level up, evoke has an impressive rate of cube viable cards with nearly half of all the cards in magic with evoke having seen cube play. Evoke is the same as level up in that they provide consistency through having a top end and a low end mode. A lot of the power of evoke however comes from synergies. Sometimes it is just nice to have a spell effect on a creature, especially when you get to use it at spell level mana costs. Being a creature typically makes it easier to finf and more easily reused. Sometimes what you want is the effect of a dying creature so as to flip your Liliana, Heretical Healer! Other times you just need a dork in the bin. Evoke just winds up having a lot of useful interactions. Evoke cards keep decks dynamic. I would like to see more evoke cards with a nice range of core colour effects on them. Evoke cards do not need to be very high powered to be good cards, neither end needs to be above curve, just playable. The convenience the mechanism affords is worth a cut in power level.

Stoke the Flames11. Convoke

I love a free spell however I also love balance and fair cards and these two things are rather at odds. There are a few mechanics however that do allow for free spells without being far far too good or plain rubbish. Convoke is (one of) the best of those mechanics, it is a very real cost but it is an optional one. It cannot be abused and powered out too early, convoke only offers any sort of discount once you have developed a board making it a nice midgame effect. Sadly the more expensive convoke spells are really only playable in token themed decks and so despite there being a lot of convoke cards on offer fairly few of them are relevant for cube for being too narrow. More in the way of cheaper interactive convoke cards would be lovely. Convoke is relatively low on this list due to how few good and generally playable convoke cards that exist. It is hard to make good cards with the mechanic and so the restricted design space convoke has to work with holds it back. Really you need cards with convoke to be playable at base cost, both in terms of value and physically. A lot of aggressive decks with creatures in them want to stop their curve at 3 or 4 if they can and so a five or six mana convoke card isn't something that can physically be cast in a useful time frame without dorks to power it out. Cards like that are just needlessly dangerous inclusions.

Murderous Cut10. Delve

Delve might seem like a surprise entry on this list as many of the delve cards are oppressively overpowered. Certainly some of the Khans delve cards are on the extreme side but it wouldn't take much tweaking to bring them inline. I like the idea of capping your delve use on a spell but not just with coloured mana. I like the idea of having cheaper cards with calmer effects with delve on them. Treasure Cruise would be more than fair if you couldn't reduce the cost below 2U or if it was just a Thoughcast but replacing the affinity for delve. What I like about delve is two fold. I like how it interacts with graveyard mechanics and poses some interesting choices in the form of sacrifices. Do I want the option on flashing back this Firebolt later on in the game or do I want an extra mana now? I also just like cost reduction effects. I love a dynamic casting cost or mana range as is perhaps clear from this list! Delve is a real resource consumption and it takes some setup to get there. You cannot play too many delve cards nor can you play them in decks not somehow building up a graveyard with some level of speed and consistency and expect them to be good. Delve presents lots of options and has interactions in all sorts of places. It is the considered use requirement in addition to the wealth of choices delve engenders that makes me rate it so highly. I would like to see more of it but typically on cheaper, calmer, less proactive cards. Ancestral Recall is a bit much even if it takes a bit of setup. While it might take roughly as long on average to resolve Ancestral Visions as it does to put seven things in your graveyard the massive difference is that you can prepare a full yard without a Cruise, you cannot claim time served on a suspend card! Delve is a much more playable way of curtailing early use of cards than suspend is and indeed another aspect of design use for the mechanic.

Collective Brutality9.   Escalate

Fundamentally this mechanic was always going to be a winner as it has the prerequisite of being on a modular card. Modular cards; Charms, Confluences and Commands, are some of the best (cube) cards going. They bring much needed flexibility to the format. Escalate is pretty much the best of these kinds of cards as you can get a cheap mode as per Charms or you can invest more heavily and have a more Command like effect. What makes escalate even more interesting is the alternate cost nature of many of the cards. Some use mana and have the feel of an X spell or a level up card not in the form of a permanent! Others use alternate costs and make for even more interesting and dynamic cards. If I was just rating mechanics based on how well cards with that mechanic do in a cube environment then escalate would win hands down. Half the cards with escalate have seen a good amount of cube play since they were released and even more impressively the other half wouldn't be bad cards in cube, they would all see some play and do some valuable work. Sadly a big part of the reason for the impressive showing on escalate cards is that there is only eight of them. It is one of the mechanics that I most want to see further explored.

Ishkanah, Grafwidow8.   Delirium

I am generally a fan of the mechanics that utilize the graveyard for the extra dimensions they bring to the game. I also like the interplay between the various graveyard mechanics and how they tend to have both positive and negative synergies. Self mill effects both empower delirium and delve for example however subsequently delving might remove your delirium. What I like most about delirium and cards like Tarmogoyf and Emrakul, the Promised End is that they make you consider a whole new aspect of deck design. While not the most important element of deck design when playing delirium cards it is still significant to consider your balance of card types and how easily you are able to get them in the bin. That will determine the power level of a fair number of cards you could well be playing in cube. With clever picking and deck building you can empower delirium cards significantly without compromising the rest of the deck. State based effect mechanisms are interesting and afford lots of extra design space. Threshold and ascend are both decent but they are linear and have less involvement than delirium. Both are more direct in deck design and how you are able to get there and that makes them more archetype locked, delirium can be slipped into a lot of builds.

Gust Walker7.   Exert

While perhaps a little oppressive in limited due to the way it often forced a race that is something that can easily be solved with sensible design and allocation of the mechanic. What makes exert so interesting is the way it adds another element to combat. Rather than just being a completely linear me, you, me, you, etc. attack rhythm exert creatures are able to alter the flow. Over two turns a creature with exert has four different modes it can attack in on top of the option to not attack which is all other creatures ever get to do. Exert adds a huge degree of option density to the simplest of dorks and thus a good amount of complexity in how both players must plan and consider combat. In much the same sort of way that persist makes the dance of removal and threat more interesting and involved, exert has that effect on the attack step. Exert lets you get an extra effect for an unusual cost and I am a fan of unusual costs. Exert is the closest thing to a loan you can really do in magic, that or echo I guess. You essentially borrow from the next turn to empower the attack this turn. It is like dash except not linked to mana, rather than forcing you to pay more mana to empower your dork exert simply costs you time with access to your dork that you paid mana and a card for.

Stormchaser Mage6.   Prowess

What I like most about prowess is how it brings the hidden information aspect of magic into combat. You need combat tricks or specific circumstances plus instant removal for combat to have any hidden component. So often combat is a logic puzzle that can be solved. In any given format you know what combat tricks people might have, which is usually none, and so combat is a fairly nice safe space. That extra dimension of probability and gaining reads on people is something I like a lot about magic and I like having it in combat and prowess offers this nicely. I don't need to run combat tricks in order that I can represent with my prowess dorks. I love running into a 2/3 blocker with my 1/2 prowess dork and just getting in free damage due to the fear! Prowess turns all your Opts and Impulses into little combat tricks and that really lets you play some magic. I felt like a king yesterday for killing a True Name Nemesis with a Monastery Swiftspear. I ran it in as a 1/2 and unsurprisingly my opponent blocked it, I then fired off both halves of a Lava Dart and lastly a Wild Slash all at my opponents face. The ferocious trigger was activated by my now 4/5 monk meaning that damage was no longer preventable which meant that protection from me no longer prevented damage from my stuff and so the 4/5 easily dispatched the 3/1 fish. Cute play though this was I still lost that game (close though it was) as a three for one is pretty brutal, it turned out I really needed an extra mountain in that game and flashing back the Dart cost me dear. Another nice aspect of prowess is that when you have a decent amount of it you can build around it. You don't need all that much of it before Gut Shot looks really appealing.

Lava Dart5.   Flashback

This is a lovely versatile mechanic that was so successful they have been trying to find a way of mimicking it for creatures ever since. Flashback is typically used to add some super late game value on to otherwise fair early game cards. It can however be used to create unique multicoloured cards or cards where you get a vastly under priced effect should you be able to get the card in the bin first rather than casting it normally. Flashback always ensures you get some value out of discard and self mill effects ranging from mild value on the classical overcost flashbacks to the significant on the cheaper ones. Flashback gives a lot of options to players, it interacts in an intersting way with other graveyard based mechanisms too. Flashback has a lovely way of easing players from the midgame into the late game top deck stage in a nice gradual way. The thing with spells is that you probably want the effect of that spell in your deck if you are playing that spell in the first place and so flashback is pretty much always welcome. No spell is made worse by gaining flashback even when it is savagely over cost. Just so long as one half of the card is close enough to reasonable for the effect you generally have a winner. Not only is flashback versatile in how you can design with it but it is also very much inline with what you want in magic. One of the more numerous mechanics that isn't evergreen yet still able to boast a very significant percentage of those cards as having been used in cube and indeed still useful in cube.

Kari Zev, Skyship Raider4.   Menace

Evasion adds an important dimension to combat. Without it you wind up with a rather dry game and the relatively few stat lines in the game becomes far more evident. There are a lot of forms of evasion but few of those are good. Protection, intimidate, landwalk, and straight up unblockable are uninteractive which is not great for quality games. Flying is better but it is still rather polar and a lot of games still come down to not being able to deal with a flier. Trample is probably the best of the earlier forms of evasions but it is not an exciting mechanic. It has little impact on smaller creatures which are the most common creatures in magic. One a one or two powered dork (that neither grows itself or has an "on damaging opponents" trigger trample is probably the lowest value keyword you can have. There is no real counter play to trample other than having more toughness. Trample is a great mechanic it and benefits the game, all I am saying is that it is limited. Menace on the other hand is super interesting. Wizards know this too as they quickly made it evergreen and are using it more frequently and in ever better ways. It is nice to see when they know they have something right. Menace taxes blockers, it doesn't prevent blocking but it does make it rather more difficult. The inefficiencies menace forces on an opponents blocking options often leads to menace acting as evasion. Usually on the menace creature but if not there then more often on another attacking creature than no benefit at all. Menace is not polar like flying, random like protection or uninteractive like so many. From a design and game play perspective menace is the easy winner of the evasion abilities even if trample and flying are better flavour wins.

Dissenter's Deliverance3.   Cycling

This was the first great new addition to the game mechanically back in Urza's block. Sadly it was overshadowed rather by the horror that was constructed magic at the time. We didn't really get to appreciate the delicate improvements to consistency cycling could offer because everyone was too busy abusing infinite mana and cards. The second time we encountered the ability it was in Onslaught block which was rather a two horse race. The block was poorly designed all round and fairly poorly received. Legions has my vote for worst ever set. The best deck at the time was cycling based and it was very consistent as a result but interesting it was not. We have encountered lots of experimentation with cycling over the years with effects on cycle and typecycling. Amonkhet most recently showcased a lovely array of cycling cards demonstrating some of the best cards yet some of the simplest design. You can have some pretty average power level cards and slap on cycling and a lot of them instantly become great cards. Any narrow effect you often want but will otherwise be dead is a perfect candidate for a cycling card. Equally, at the other end of the spectrum, cards that need to be clunky for what they offer can become vastly more streamlined and playable with a cheeky cycling cost on them. Cycling allows far more different types of card to be playable and that diversifies the game. Cycling on lands is great for countering floods, cycling on cheap cards is great for allowing decks that want to go long the ability to pack in low end. Cheap cycling effects on non-land cards help a huge amount with mana screw. Colourless cycling helps a lot with colour screw and makes for vastly more splashable cards. Cycling on narrow cards makes them not narrow cards. You can do loads with the basic cycling ability and it is never oppressive. It doesn't further the position in any physical way, it is pure card quality at the cost of tempo. Formats with cycling are simply more consistent and lead to better games. The more playable cycling cards the better. Amonkhet proved that you can push out the boat with cycling and it isn't a problem at all. I hope to see more cycling cards of that power level.

Tireless Tracker2.   Investigate

I am a massive fan of clues. One of the awkward issues with magic design is that everything has to be whole numbers to work. You cannot have a third of a card or half a mana, well you can in Unhinged or something but not the point. Cards are one of the most important resources in magic and one of the highest value per unit. Things like loot and scry are nice and do a lot of the same things as actual card draw but ultimately they are still not card advantage and don't quite scratch that itch. Investigate is a fantastic way to provide card advantage in a less valuable manner. As such it allows for greater scope in design and a great way to tone down cards without having to hack chunks off a card. One mana or those lovely three words "Draw a card" make a huge difference to a card. The latter is the difference between playable and a bomb, the former is enough to often have that effect! If a card is too good with a draw a card clause you can keep it interesting by replacing it with investigate. I think part of the reason I am so in love with this mechanic is that I like the cheap cards and those are the ones with the finest line on balance. A one mana card is always going to be a low value card and this makes the card cost too great for a lot of them. You add draw a card onto a nearly playable one drop and you wind up with a three mana card and that is pretty sad. At three, even two mana, a lot of low key effects with draw a card on them are then not worth the tempo cost. A lot of low key effects are caught in this limbo where no fair version of the card is playable. At one mana without replacement it isn't worth the card cost and at more mana it is too expensive for the effect. While a bit of a borderline case with both of these cards being pretty playable I would say that Unsummon and Repulse are a reasonable example of this issue, Twitch and Twiddle would perhaps be a better example. One mana Unsummon or Twiddle with investigate would be great cards, both would still be decent at two and probably more playable than the one or three mana alternatives for the most part. Investigate is the mechanic I most want to see more of. Wizards know most of their good mechanics and have redone them at a reasonable frequency. The only other really great mecahanic that hasn't seen loads of print is escalate and that has a much lower range what with needing to be on modal cards. I want to see escalate explored a bit more, I want to see investigate evergreen and explored fully! I don't think that will happen as it is a bit too clumsy logistically however I think there are some really great cards missing from the game out there to be designed and printed that are made possible by this great mechanic.

Preordain1.   Scry

It couldn't not be number one the way I ham on about consistency. Scry is a pretty perfect mechanic and it is highly welcome in the evergreen group. Scry is able to be put on any kind of card and can be a one off effect or bolted onto an ability. It is clean and simple. It is near impossible to abuse. It doesn't affect any resource from either player. It just increases consistency and that makes it delightful. I hope to see every set doused in scry cards. Scry makes everything better. Having scry cards in your deck improves the effectiveness of your other cards more so than other mechanics. Scry eases the lines on mana ratios and protects against flood and screw. Scry increases the chances you have the situational cards when you need them and not when you don't. Scry reduces the amount you see top end cards early game while also reducing your chances to see low value early cards in the late game. Scry is also a skill based mechanic. You can hurt yourself if you do it really badly or simply gain little to no value if done poorly. Scry is options dense. Scry for 1 you get 2 options, for 2 and you get five, increasingly so as you go up in scry value. When you combine those options with the things you can do from hand or on the board it continues to scale up dramatically. Many a loss can be traced back to a bad scry in the early game. The great thing about that is when you start to notice it you are well on your way to being a solid player.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Big Ritual (Skred) Red

SkredThe other day a friend and I did some constructed cubing and he came up with this gem. It started out life as a Skred Red deck as found in modern however he adapted it in a unique way that really seemed to work wonders. Essentially he filled out the low end with ritual and looting cards giving him great burst and consistency. Rather than a Skred control deck he had the bottom end of a red storm deck. His top end was all just the premium red stuff. Rather than ritualing out an Empty the Warrens he would just flop a Chandra, Titan or Dragon and it turns out that would usually win. The threat and tempo of the red top end is very high, if played at all before curve it can be pretty devastating. I lost a number of games to this deck to him making six drops on turn three. This list is not exactly what he ran, he had a couple more generic burn spells and one less Commander as well as one rather more embarrassing Skred missing. Turns out I didn't have the namesake card for his deck so he just ran the vastly superior Lightning Bolt!

24 Spells

Pyretic RitualFaithless Looting
Rite of Flame

Desperate Ritual
Pyretic Ritual
Ruby Medallion
Cathartic Reunion

Tormented Voice
Coldsteel Heart

Simian Spirit Guide
Sweltering Suns
Seething Song
Wheel of Fortune
Tormenting Voice
Chandra, Torch of Defiance
Koth of the Hammer
Past in Flames
Fiery Confluence

Pia and Kiran Nalaar

Siege Gang Commander

Chandra, Flamecaller
Inferno Titan

16 Lands

14 Snow -Covered Mountains
Ancient Tomb
City of Traitors

Chandra, FlamecallerThere were lots of things I really liked about this deck. The innovative freshness of it primarily but also how different it felt to play. It was quick, it was option dense, it got to use big red top end that many red builds in cube can't make work. It was a deck full of some stark contrasts. Intuitively I don't think to burn resources in rituals to ramp to something interactive that then takes time to return that lost value but in this kind of deck it is a great strategy. It has a lot to do with the general way the red top end threats function. You can typically get a decent amount of initial value in the form of damage to stuff in play from them and so even if they are dealt with you are not behind in tempo. The scaling with ramp is also very impressive. By turn six 3 or 4 damage won't kill a bunch of the things people are making but on turns 3 and 4 that will provide very apt control. And once you have control you can then very easily move on to win, and quickly with a lot of them!

The combination of lots of looting, rituals, Past in Flames and Wheel of Fortune pretty much make up for any card advantage you lose through ramp effects. The abundance of the first two kinds of card really empower the Past in Flames and Wheel of Fortune. Even when the ramped out top end gets answered this deck still has a lot of legs and can recover some pretty big swings. Past in Flames was the thing that tied it all together and made it a brilliant work of art rather than a mess. The deck was a nicely tuned whole rather than a show of individuals. That being said, the Ruby Medallion was more than impressive. I got to fear it on the other side of the table, any sort of turn two, or perish the thought, turn one Medallion just felt like it spelt my doom.

Past in FlamesThis deck is unusually good against the increasingly popular go wide strategies with an abundance of cheap mass removal effects. Again, the many looting and rummage effects in the deck, as well as some nice modular cards, ensure that the deck remains consistent and doesn't suffer dead cards in hand as control red decks in the past have done.

This list uses a very unintuitive blend of  effects. Most of them cause a new problem while solving a different one. Ramp solves speed issues but causes savage card disadvantage etc. All together all the problems are covered, both those inherent to red control decks and those newly caused by the other solution tools. Amazingly this quirky deck is rather lacking in weaknesses. It is a bit too specific to be a thing you would want to support in a drafting cube. While it almost certainly isn't a tier one cube deck by any measure it is absolutely a strong and competitive deck. It might be a good rotisserie option with few contested cards, broad and high power level and hard to read (and thus counter) general direction. I suspect most people would assume something different to this almost regardless of the order you drafted it in! It lets you play red in a really satisfying and involved way while putting loads of hard to use, yet also very fun, red cards to work.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Final Dominaria Additions and Thoughts

Well that all turned out rather unexpectedly. After the first reveal Dominaria looked to be another Rivals of Ixalan for cube offering little to change anything or do anything all that interesting. With the full set out I am prepared to call this a big win. It isn't huge for cube additions with nothing at the top end of the spectrum for power level but we do have some nice interesting things as well as some useful core cards. It was quite interesting reviewing the cards twice in many cases without playing them as it highlighted bias. I easily wrote off loads of cards from the first spoil that I spent longer thinking about when I saw the real card with art. I found that cards I liked the look and feel of I wanted to be good and spent time looking hard to find the way in which they might be good. While I found reviewing cards from just text to be harder I think it removed bias effectively. I also appear to have some kind of normal baseline target of cards I expect to add to cube with is another weird kind of self constructed bias. I seem to want to add about X new cards to the cube and so for sets offering less than X I start to overrate things a bit to mentally bump up the sets power level. Equally really potent sets with more than X to offer I will start to underrate and overlook things, in both Khans and Origins I undervalued a bunch of cards just because the sets were so potent and I was over loaded with good stuff! I wasn't even aware of this bias until this odd set review exposed it to me. While understanding my bias isn't a great help for the reader I am talking about it because the process of understanding ones own bias and how to compensate for it are critical skills in the playing of magic.

Given how stacked cube now is I am totally fine with the level of offerings Dominaria has for it. Especially when in every other way the set seems great. I love the flavour, the art and the design. I have never read up on MtG lore before, I have never read every detail on the flavour text for the whole set before either. Dominaria captured my interests and nostalgia and in that regard I have to rank it as one of the best sets.

The other aspect of Dominaria I love is the quality to be found in the commons and lower rarity cards. For a long while now most cube additions I have made have been mythic or rare. While there is nothing that would be considered powerful by cube standards Dominaria is actually one of the most power crept sets I have seen. It has been done in the right way, the bottom has been brought up closer to the top rather than keeping the bottom fixed and raising the bar. This should make the set a far better drafting experience. Across all the cards and rarities Dominaria has a very high average power level . Below is now a complete list of the cards from Dominaria I plan to get for cube including those from the initially spoiled cards and those from the final spoiling. The new additions to this list are at the top of each section.

To Add

Cast Down

The Flame of Keld
Dauntless Bodygaurd
Wizard's Lightning
Ghitu Lavamancer
Benalish Marshal

To Test

Saproling Migration
Zhalfirin Void
Board the Weatherlight
Yawgmoth's Vile Offering
Shalai, Voice of Plenty
Adventurous Impulse
Rite of Belzenlok
Josu Vess, Lick Knight
Vodalian Arcanist

Lyra, Dawnbringer
Merfolk Trickster
Goblin Chainwhirler
Karn, Scion of Urza
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
Tetsuko Umezwa, Fugitive
Squee, the Immortal
Fungal Infection
Demonlord Belzenlok
History of Benalia
Seal Away
Aryel, Knight of Windgrace
Verix Bladewing
Grand Warlord Radha

Exotic Reserves

Memorial Lands
Dread Shade
Orcish Vandal
The Mending of Dominaria
Thran, Temporal Gateway
Swarm of Spores
Fungal Plots
Yavimaya Shepherd
Traxos, Scourge of Kroog

Mox Amber
Damping Sphere
Sparring Construct
Voltaic Servant
Navigator's Compass
Warlord's Fury
Naban, Dean of Iteration
Song of Freyalise
Tempest Djinn
Urza's Ruinous Blast
Jaya Ballard
Precognition Field
Multani, Yavimaya's Avatar
Sporecrown Thallid
Slimefoot the Stowaway
Neru Meha, Master Wizard
Torgaar, Famine Incarnate
Fall of Thran
Healing Grace
Adeliz, the Cinder Wind
Oath of Teferi
Shanna, Sisay's Legacy

Dominaria Initial Review (final) Part XIV

Thran Temporal Gateway 5

While in many ways this looks like a dodgy Elvish Piper I can actually see this being quite potent. This is pretty much the Goryo's Vengence of Sneak Attacks! While no where near as abrupt as Sneak Attack this slower and fairer offering does have things in its favour. Mostly that your stuff stays in play. Ideally you flop out a dork to block with or at the end of their turn thus giving them minimal time to react to whatever massive threat you put in. Most of the best game ender cards are legends and a lot of those that are not are conveniently artifacts. You can even now use this to flop out a Bolas and have that as your win condition. Thran Temporal Gateway puts the things you want to put into play into play! Eight mana is a lot to "cheat" in a thing but you can break it down meaning you never need more than four. It is all colourless so very easy to ramp into, and you get to do it every turn. One of the problems in cube with the cheat in fat stuff decks is that one dork is rarely enough to seal the deal, it usually takes two. The first to stabilize and the second to close as it were. I have lost plenty of games after getting out one fatty despite it putting me well ahead at the time. If they can hang on and somehow deal with it then you are a sitting duck without followup. Gateway not only puts out dorks in a nice safe and poised way but it lets you do it again the following turn for that game ending one two punch. I think any cube with a good amount of top end, which is basically any cube supporting Reanimate and other cheat in combos or just slower cubes, can run this to good effect. It is more God Pharaoh's Gift than other big cheat in cards but it is rather better for cube use.

Swarm of Spores 2

This is not a powerful token generation spell by any means. Green is presently the second least used colour (only ahead of blue) in the various token strategies but it does have many of the tools so it won't take much more for it to jump into the forefront. That said, white loves to go wide and Baral's Expertise hasn't been getting any love and so this is not looking too hopeful. While I still don't see this cutting it in a token based green deck it might due to cards like Sprout Swarm and Scatter the Seeds with their convoke. When a card is ramp as well as core support for your deck it starts to look more appealing. Kind of how Mental Note etc have become over powered support cards in delve decks. The other potential for this card is simply a tribal saproling deck which isn't looking like quite such a joke idea any more!

Fungal Plots 2

This is worse than it looks, you can only play it in saproling decks and in such decks you will not have many creatures. Those you do have you would probably rather recur than exile and so this has quite significantly reduced functionality. What this is is a very poor Skullclamp! While Clamp outdraws this 4 to 1 when fueled with 1/1 saprolings the Plots has no mana requirements, can be done at instant speed and gains life. Fungal Plots has a good amount of utility about it. This is probably good enough to make a tribal saproling deck, even just on the second ability. Nothing else is ever going to want this outside of tribal builds though.

Weight of Memory 0

This feels like the black combined Entomb Demonic thing we got at five mana but made up all blue! This is in fact far worse what with being a sorcery in blue and having weaker effects. Far too expensive for graveyard filler or for draw or for both. You want Mental Note for this kind of support card. Never this.

Kazarov, Singir Pureblood 0

Obviously unplayably bad in cube, comically worse than Olivia Voldaren. Is it this bad just to keep limited a safe space?

Traxos, Scourge of Kroog 4

This seems pretty nutty when you can play it in the right deck. I think my cube probably doesn't have quite enough artifact support for this presently but I could easily force it if I wanted to. Non-affinity artifacts using cards like Lodestone Golem have been strong cube archetypes in the past and this would fit into such decks a treat. I suspect most powered cubes as well as unpowered ones with some combo in them contain enough artifacts to support this thing. It might still be too narrow in where you want a big cheap 7/7 trample but it could reliably be made to attack each turn! So how good is a 7/7 trample for 4 mana? Without the trample it would be bad that is for sure. Even with it Traxos fails the Jace test and dies to a fair amount of removal. He is very powerful but in pure stats which is a hard power to milk in cube. I see this performing best in formats like legacy where you can take advantage of size more effectively. In cube this will be fine to good in the right place but it isn't an exciting card. It is narrow and it lacks any sort of option density or utility, Traxos is Mr Linear.

Yavimaya Shepherd 1.5

The power level is painfully low, lower than Swarm of Spores even and I though that was about as low as you can go and remain a cube playable. Despite the low power this is doing exactly what a tribal saproling deck wants to do and in a tribe highly restricted on playables that might well be enough.

Grow from the Ashes 0

Nice flexible ramp card offering some value and extra ramp. Having the lands come in untapped is nice but on such a slow card to begin with I don't see this ever quite being enough. Kodoma's Reach / Cultivate just feel like they will do what this does most of the time for 2 less mana and they are generally too slow for cube!

Run Amok 0

Nice and punchy for a way to force through damage but I am always just going to play a one mana trick over this with Brute Force, Rouse the Mob, Rush of Adrenaline, Crash Through, Titan's Strength all as strong alternatives.

Deathbloom Thallid 1

Possible a bit higher power than the Yavimaya Shepherd but the off colour nature of this makes it less appealing for the tribal builds.

Vodalian Arcanist 4

Presently I think all the blue decks that want ramp can get it better from artifacts. There is no real need to go and get it from a creature, especially if you are playing mass removal. That being said, a 1/3 blocker is pretty reasonable on turn 2 and so perhaps this can represent a bit like Wall of Roots. It looks a lot less impressive than Curious Homunculus but Arcanist is a way better defensive card. Two toughness more make Arcanist safer and substantially more useful when you make him which is most of the trouble with the Homunculus, so often it is just pinged out the way and causes too much tempo loss. Arcanist shouldn't be a tempo concession. Not only does he have control potential thanks to his healthy statline but he has some minor tribal application due to being two of the most relevant blue creature types. Certainly a card to test. While I think it is a little on the narrow side and a little on the low powered side to made an impact in draft cube I suspect this little card will crop up a bunch in more tailored cube builds.

Artificer's Assistant 2

Some decks just want cheap evasive dorks and in those decks this is quite reasonable. You don't need to have many things that trigger it at all for it to be interesting. It isn't Judge's Familiar good but it isin the power rung just below it. As with all 1/1 fliers for 1, this is only really worth playing if you have ways to buff its power, be that anthems or equipment. I guess a raid / ninjitsu themed deck might be enough but the point is more that this is a narrow card with plenty of alternatives. There will be plenty of times that Hynpotic Siren or something is preferable even when you want those 1/1 fliers. Fine though this is it is easily the sort of card to wind up not seeing any play.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Dominaria Initial Review Part XIII

Dread Shade 3.5 (but set to go up)

Aww, look at the little Nantuko Shade all grown up! So my first port of call for card analysis is to take the closest thing to said new card, subtract one from the other and see if what is left over sounds like an upgrade on said card. Well, going from Nantuko Shade this looks rather like you pay a whole extra black mana just to get +1/+2 in stats. There are no cards I can think of in cube that get better when you add B to the cost and +1/+2 to the stats. Now given the pretty limp starting position of Nantuko Shade I don't think Dread Shade is off to a good start either. Value wise Dread Shade is absolutely the weaker card however in suitability terms perhaps that isn't so much the case. One of the risky things about Nantuko Shade is that it is very easy to kill it the moment they tap out, it can't do anything in combat without at the very least representing available mana to sink into it. You can indeed fall behind trying to dominate a game with Nantuko Shade. Say I flop a Garruk Wildspeaker and just make an elephant, beast, whatever dork he makes three turns in a row and chump with it. At the end of those 3 turns you are a card up but you had to pay 11 mana to be that way compared to the 4 mana invested in Garruk. Paying 7 mana to get a card up is a terrible return and will lose you a game if your opponent spent their mana at all well in that time. All this is to say that actually the best way to use your Nantuko Shade is often in a trade that you could win.

Dread Shade looks a whole lot more suitable to scale with the ability it has than Shade. It is a lot more relevant in base size and takes a significantly lower mana investment at any given time to put it out of reach of most other dorks. Dread Shade can attack the turn after you make it as at least a 6/6 while Nantuko attacking on turn four with 3 swamps is a mere 5/4 potential. Mana invested in Dread Shade goes a lot further a lot more quickly. Due to its higher base stats it gets relevant quickly and never sits in an overly vulnerable state. In the Garruk Wildspeaker example it is only a total of six mana to have the Dread Shade plow through three 3/3s over as many turns and live to tell the tale. Paying 2 mana more than your opponent to be up a card, and indeed have it in play and have it be a scary threat at that is a great deal. I think Dread Shade is deceptively potent. I think that blocking it will rarely look good, you will need deathtouch and prot black dorks basically to make that happen. Killing it will require hard removal as well, it will be pretty easy to play around burn with Dread Shade. I suspect this will be an auto include in devotion black decks going forwards. It is a powerful card in its own right that not only provides a good amount of devotion but is also a great mana sink. There will be plenty of occassions this guy just has to be blocked because he can one shot people in the high teens on life thanks to Nykthos. Outside of specifically that deck I fear he is presently too narrow for other cube uses. You really want to be mono black for this guy and that is very infrequent in draft. In constructed cube the mono black decks are not top tier and typically are quite themed. Rack decks, Pox decks, zombie decks, vampire decks all don't want Dread Shade at all. Devotion does but unless mono black takes off in draft I think that is the only place we can expect to see the Shade. This gets a mere 3.5 because it is super narrow in the current places that want it. Power wise I think it is impressive and deserving of a much higher rating. 

Final Parting 1

This is both Demonic Tutor and Entomb in one card which will set up loads of combos directly from the obvious Reanimate classic to things like Auriok Salvagers with Lion's Eye Diamond and Sword of the Meek plus Thopter Foundry. While this is great setup it is five mana and that is far too slow and far too big of a tempo hit even if for some reason you could be going off the turn after you had five mana to spare! We need a combo where this can win the turn you use it with little to no other setup or mana needs which seems very wishful. Too powerful for me to want to rule out but it presently has no hope in cube and is pretty unlikely to do so going forwards either.

Orcish Vandal 3

This feels like a narrower version of Grim Lavamancer. I reckon Grim would be a better card as a 1R 1/1 that had no mana cost on the Shock. Grim is just a card that works in almost any deck while Orcish Vandal requires build support. Vandal has the better cost arrangements but the non mana aspects are more demanding. Vandal is worthless without artifacts to sac but he isn't good just because you are playing them, they have to be the right kind of artifacts to make him good and in healthy supply. You want Ichor Wellspring, Servo Schematic, Chromatic Star, treasure, perhaps rounding things off with an excess Great Furnace or a spent Tangle Wire. Most cubes won't support this card suitably but there will absolutely be those that do and in those cubes this will be a pretty nice little card. There will also be those builds where this guy shines, he might even be enough to tempo affinity players into a bit more red. Cards have to be seriously good to make an affinity list, even a cube one, with coloured mana needs and not being an artifact themselves. The fact that this could be a contender for cube affinity is testament to it's potency.

Bloodtallow Candle 0

This is a lot of mana, some might say too much, and they would be on the nose with that assessment. There was a time when colourless removal and easily tutored low CMC artifacts were enough of a draw that you would overlook some over costing. This would need to have half the activation cost to even be a consideration for cube. When you need a card to be 3 mana cheaper... you probably didn't need to write a paragraph explaining why it is bad.

Skittering Surveyor 1.5

This probably has more to offer than Civic Wayfinder with the artifact tag being fairly relevant, especially in support cards. Colourless fixing is nice too. While I have not yet used Pilgrim's Eye in cube I well might one day and this, although probably worse, can be better and may well also just be desirable for some nice redundancy in your support tools.

Untamed Kavu 0

Well this is a lovely depiction of power creep on the classic Bear chassis. This is Kavu Titan updated to account for power creep! Much as this is clearly a powerful and versatile card it is not what I am after in the cube. A 2/2 is pretty tame and doesn't offer a great return on the key words. The trample is only really going to be relevant on the Bear when you slap on equipment or soulbond it with a Silverheart etc. The vigilance offers a little bit of bonus control and options on the unbuffed body but very minor. As a stand alone two drop this is not at all what you want in cube. It might be better than not playing anything and it might get good with the right support but that applies to most cards. As a two drop threat this has nothing on Sylvan Advocate, Strangleroot Geist, Tarmogoyf, Kavu Predator and so on and so forth. Once kicked this is a 5/5 vigilance trample which does a lot of work, both key words increase in value a lot with that size increase. the trample especially. Sadly, while five isn't an unreasonable deal on a 5/5 vigilance trample it isn't close to cube standard, Vorapede is a card and it doesn't get a look in! While both modes on Untamed Kavu can be described as above the curve in power neither mode is really something you want. The option on two (fairly similar) things you don't really want isn't a great option. Instead of a card like this you should be playing cheap threats, powerful top end threats or cheap support cards. This is a great limited card, it could even feature in standard but it isn't a cube card. Not outside of a tribal Kavu deck?!

The Mending of Dominaria 3

I love this card, both flavour and effect. Sadly I don't see this as being playable outside of build around decks. This card does loads and loads but it is a value card or setup card, any tempo this gives is so far down the line you might as well ignore it. For general cube use this is a five mana card with zero tempo boost. Green can get away with five mana do nothings but why would it when it has so many lovely planeswalkers and do something cards it can run. I can perhaps see this in some kind of Splendid Reclamation deck but sadly, despite getting redundancy for it, I have not as yet worked out what the deck wants to be doing and how to do it! I need a Siesmic Assualt for lands in play! Perhaps you can just run this in the place of Bow of Nylea. Ultimately you are only playing either for the go long potential reshuffle aspect and while this isn't as much utility it is way more power and value. Compared to most other sagas which do 2 or 3 things this feels like it does twice that, mill yourself for four, useful in many ways and indeed with The Mending of Dominaria itself! Regrow two creatures, a nice two for one and incredible late game gas. Put all your lands from the bin into play, literally a four mana spell, and you get them untapped for extra immediate abuse. Lastly it puts all your remaining gas back into your deck leaving you with loads of draws worth of safety before getting decked and a nicely increased quality of draw. I am talking myself into this card but even if it could be cube worthy, now is not the time in my cube. Super grindy games happen but very few decks set out to be that way. It is such a difficult game plan to execute with such diverse and potent threats in cube. Those decks that do look to go as long as can be gone are not so frequently green these days. I don't know what the reasoning is for that evolution is, quite possibly just a local meta anomaly with it being out of favour and nothing to do with viability. If green based control makes a return and has a reasonable creature count then this actually does have a main cube shot. I am certainly going to be building with and around this in a few different ways.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Cube Stream on Friday

I will be doing another MODO cube stream with Lewis at UCG this coming Friday. Aiming to start at 2pm GMT on the 13th. Vod will be up after for any interested who can't make the live time. I'm too novice a streamer (my big bad 2nd go!) to read the live chat much as it is!

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Dominaria Initial Review Part XII

Lingering Phantom 0

The only way this would ever see play is as some combo loop enabler however most of the things like Cadaverous Bloom exile cards and so I cannot think of any places you might want this. Certainly you don't want it as 5/4 body, it is only good as a card you can get back in your hand repeatedly and it seems too well contained to be used like that.

Unwind 7

Well I never thought I would see the return of this particular mechanic! On a situational reactive card like this, or indeed Rewind, the untapping of lands is far less abusive. In a storm deck for example you would have to burn two cards to use this as ramp and it would still ramp for less than a Frantic Search. Rewind was never great because having four mana open to use it in the first place is hard to do. It is obvious to walk into and doesn't overly help win a counter war as you are tapping down so much to fire it off. Treachery is a potent swingy card however you run that into a Mana Tithe and you will lose very hard and that is pretty much the issue with Rewind. Unwind however costs a much more reasonable 3 mana which I think greatly increases its viability. Having three up is not such a tall order and assuming your Unwind resolves then you have a one for one free counterspell! Negate is a strong and desirable countspell and this cost re-jigged version should be comparably good. There will certainly be times Negate is better but I am rather leaning towards Unwind in a lot of cases. Obviously Negate is the better disruption on turn two however Negate isn't really that great on turn two. It counters the occasional 3 mana planeswalker from people on the play but otherwise the kinds of thing people do with their mana on turns two and three tend not to be things you want to Negate or they are creatures. In the very late game there is barely any difference between the two, it is all in the midgame where Unwind has the potential to really outclass Negate. Some really big swing plays will be possible. Negate something and then Anguished Unmaking something else or perhaps just flop out a Nimble Obstructionist and  attack a planeswalker to death. Great all round card design. Powerful and interesting but not abusive. Neither directly better or worse than Negate, just a similar sort of card with a lot more potential. Certainly it is more polar than Negate but I think it returns more than enough in interest value for that mild cost. Unwind is far from the levels of too polar, just being more so than the relatively stable Negate is not an issue.

Drudge Sentinel 0

Well this makes Kytheon look really good...

Rite of Belzenlok 5

One of the more interesting sagas to be printed. I can actually see this one doing some work in cube despite it's seemingly low initial impact. No aspect of this card is bad really. Sure, a pair of 0/1s for 4 mana doesn't sounds great but it isn't actually horrible there and then and obviously has more to offer subsequently. It is a good amount of blockers and quite a safe way to get this four mana saga rolling. This influx of dorks could work quite nicely in a Blood Artist / Goblin Bombardment style of deck. Just having stuff on the board and stuff going on is a good place to be in cube and Rite provides both. The next hit of 0/1s is even better as you didn't have to pay four mana for it! It should help you start to pull ahead if the 1st lore counter merely kept you treading water. Lastly you get a 6/6 flying trample token that might smack you if you can't feed it. That is pretty juicy at 4 mana, very juicy indeed when it also comes with four 0/1s and not ruined by the two turn wait on your big demon (mostly due to getting those clerics to soak up some trouble). The demons drawback should be negligible, you should be able to feed it with ease if needed and generally race the win down if you can't. Rite of Belzenlok produces 5 token bodies over two turns, it is 6/10 of stats and some nice key words in the mix. It is not far off Ishkanah when described as such! While this is very playable in the Blood Artist decks I am not sure how it will fare in other places. Control won't want this as they won't be able to feed the demon reliably and it just doesn't synergize with their general game plans well. Aggro decks will probably find this a bit slow and so we are just left with the theme decks and midrange ones. I can see midrange liking this but it is perhaps a bit durdly and aimless to be really good. Four drops want to have a huge impact like Kalitas and Rite isn't that sort of card. I am not even sure of any theme decks outside of Blood Artist ones that would really want this. Intangible Virtue lists likely have better options. Smokestack lists, much the same.

Cabal Stronghold 1

This is a long way off a Cabal Coffers. You need 5 basic swamps in play before this generates more than one mana and to my mind that makes it worse than Temple of the False God in most cases. You cannot use this with duals with the basic land type which makes it a mono coloured tool nor can you combo it with Urborg to count itself and more. Basically in cube this is only something you could play if all your other lands are swamps. Now if I am in that position of having mostly swamps I am much more likely going to look to Coffers, Lake of the Dead and the Urborg as ways to take advantage of my heavy black deck. Those cards are more powerful than Stronghold and work with each other. Cabal Stronghold has negative synergy with all of them and as such probably rules itself out. Tapping for colourless might look like some upside over Coffers but the reality is that Stronghold is so weak you need the ability to tap for colourless as that is all the card is likely to do in cube. If I had room for a colourless utility land in my black deck I imagine there are quite a significant number of lands I would elect to run over this, notably Nykthos and Temple of the False God and Myriad Landscape for all having similar late game ramping appeal. This is both super narrow and also impressively low power. It is a land however and it will see some play, mostly in EDH I suspect. I certainly don't see myself running this in cube. I had a mate who needed to try Magosi out before he accepted it blew, I imagine he will have a go on this at least once and thus accounting for most of the reason this is a 1/10 and not a flat zero.

Josu Vess, Lich Knight 5

Epic design, really impressed with how this one feels. Biggest ever stats on a creature card (Army of the Damned has more but it doesn't feel like a dork) for one thing pipping the Marit Lage by a single toughness! So how good is this all round? Sure 20/21 of stats and 9 bodies is enough to make Grave Titan seem limp but at 10 mana how often will that be a thing? Due to the kicker element of Josu he will not be something you cheat into play with Sneak Attack and the like as you do with a number of the more powerful dorks and token generators. Josu will only bring his army in cube when you have ten actual mana and that isn't the most common of events. It does happen, and has more chance of happening in specific deck types, green ramp routinely gets there for example. While low occurrence rate on the 10 mana mode it is pretty game winning. You are only surviving that if you can win the right away or have an appropriate Wrath effect. Josu is probably only behind Craterhoof and the Promised End as "I win buttons" in cube and in the same ballpark as them both. Craterhoof is cheaper and a quicker kill but it does require you to have three or more other dorks in play in most cases to seal the deal. Josu just does his thing all on his own. So the ten mana mode is certainly a nice perk but it is much more like a planeswalker ultimate, it can be used as a win condition but it wont come up all that much unless you need it to for your game plan and save it especially.

So how good is a 4/5 menace for 4? Actually decent I think. For a card that fails the Jace test I think I like Josu more than most. A 4/5 statline is really appealing, it was the main thing that made me like the new Weatherlight. Josu is very hard to kill for a dork with no defensive abilities/keywords. Josu should also be a decent threat with his evasion and reasonable punch. If it were just a 4/5 menace for 4 it would have no shot at seeing play in the cube. There might however be just enough small things that combine to get Josu more desirable. The legend and zombie tags are not irrelevant. If you just want a kind of meaty filler dork and Josu happens to empower some other synergy cards in your deck then perhaps Josu will appeal. More likely you are running a devotion deck or something and it is the higher odds on the kicker being used that make Josu a nice option.

Broadly speaking the top end is too uncommon and the bottom end is too fair for this to be a great cube card. Despite that I think Josu is going to be popular and perform above expectations. I think Josu is superior to Bloodline Keeper, if you have the Keeper in your cube Josu will be a nice replacement. I also prefer Josu to Siege Rhino, not because he is more powerful but because he is more diverse and rather less narrow. I would also replace Rhino with Josu but more for overall cube consistency reasons, the Rhino not failing the Jace test is a somewhat different kind of card. Kalitas and Persecutor are the two black four drop dorks I have in the cube at present that fail the Jace test. Kalitas is insanely good and has a state based effect that rather mitigates its failing the Jace test as you can always hold it to combo with something for some immediate value. Josu is going to have to compete with Persecutor, the fairer of the black four drops, to get any sort of lasting time in my drafting cube. Still great card design even if Josu doesn't quite make it in cube.

Arcane Flight 1

None of these effects have broken through into cube yet and this doesn't feel close to the best with things like the Cartouche and Curious Obsession out there. Not going to fully rule this out for some day being useful as it is cheap and does a reasonable amount of stuff!

Friday, 6 April 2018

Dominaria Initial Review Part XI

Ghitu Chronicler 0

The versatility on this card fails to help it be good. The option on a 1/3 for 2 is just poor, no one wants a Lumengrid Warden. While the kicked version is very much something desirable it is cost such that it is low power and basically unusable. At two mana total (kicked) Ghitu Chronicler would look a little better than Snapcaster Mage. At six mana we can move on.

Divest 6

Well, I have been asking for more of these for a long old time so lets see what we can make of Divest. The cards we can best look to compare Divest to are Harsh Scrutiny and Despise. Firstly we have Despise, a card that didn't perform very well in my cube and was cut. There are not loads of planeswalkers and they are not super important cards to take with this sort of crd, especially on turn one. You are better off taking a card they could play prior to the walker and put them in a position where laying it would be weak. And that is only on the few occasions you get to take a walker. Divest compares very well to Despise I would say. Not only are there nearly twice as many artifacts in cubes as there are planeswalkers but those artifacts are generally much more relevant things to pull out of peoples hands for a swathe of reasons. A Talisman for example is a whole lot less powerful than a walker but it is a curve play and taking it away could well be Time Walk levels of good. Black can't kill artifacts in play at all easily while it is the best colour at killing walkers directly. Turn two Jitte is usually a poor play, especially if you didn't make a one drop that can hold it. Turn two Jitte however is a common play against a black deck because once in play the Jitte is far safer than it is in hand. Another black one drop that can hit those Jittes is most welcome! Overall Divest seems far more useful than Despise and should easily outclass it but it needs to in order to have a shot at the cube what with Despise not itself being good enough.

Harsh Scrutiny is a more awkward comparison as it is much more akin to playing an Opt than it is playing a Thoughtsieze. It is included in builds to increase the number of turn one plays and consistency a deck has. Harsh Scrutiny is a one for one in most cases that provides a lot of information and that is why it is good. Specifically taking a creature is quite varied, sometimes it is disruptive but that is not the norm. What makes Scrutiny decent is the fact that it doesn't miss too often in the early stages of the game and it is for this reason I think Divest will just about cut it in cube. It shouldn't miss that often in the early game due to hitting creatures while it gains a decent amount of value from the ability to hit artifacts. Divest feels like a card you play when you want a bit more hand disruption or one drops and lack alternatives. It will never be used as a tool to help force things through as is the case with the actually established good one mana black hand disruption cards and that will hurt its playability. Most other colours can deal with artifacts and creatures, it is typically for instants and sorceries that people look to black hand disruption. Divest feels like it is probably at its best in a black or Dimir setting. Divest will certainly have quite a different set of parameters defining it's quality to Duress, Inquisition etc and if it is ever a choice card over those it will be in a different sort of deck or for a different sort of role. We can at least all agree that Shattered Dreams and Ostracize are  done! I think Divest is probably a Shock level of power but the lack of depth in what it does in black should help secure it a cube slot.

Memorial Lands 3ish

These are very much like the Blighted cycle from BfZ. Some have better effects than their counterpart and others worse. The only consistent difference between the two cycles are that you get either a coloured mana source (Memorials) or you get your land untapped when you lay it (Blighted). As a general rule these kinds of lands are too narrow to be good inclusions in drafting cubes. Even the ones that are not narrow typically offer too marginal an effect on games to be worth the slot. That is the thing with lands in draft, they have to significantly outclass a basic land else you rather wasted a pick. If you are light on playables you never want to be taking something that is mostly just going to be a sub par basic. Barbarian Ring is a superb card that gets lay in every constructed aggro red cube deck but it doesn't enhance a draft and so despite its archetypal auto include status it isn't in my drafting cube.

So while none of these are worth running in a cube most of them are things that could well see a decent and varied amount of use in a cube setting. I can see some white tokens decks quite liking the white option. Some red Wildfire decks into the red one etc etc. When you have a good reason to run one of these then it is a pretty low cost inclusion in your deck. Spell lands are a nice way to increase late game consistency, especially in limited, and this cycle does that fairly well in all cases bar the War Memorial. Genius is likely the least likely to see cube use as blue decks wanting 6 mana effects and card draw barely ever want to reduce their land count.

Slinn Voda, the Rising Deep 0

Really close to great but falling at two key hurdles. Firstly, just being an 8/8 makes this pretty weak, you might as well jsut run Crush of Tentacles and have a token dork for the difference it makes. Past about 5 power lacking evasion means you are pretty capped in performance in cube. Either some tedious shroud or some nice evasive key word would have helped make Slinn appealing outside of the kicker. The Evacuation effect Slinn offers is lovely but it just costs rather too much. Cyclonic Rift hits more of their stuff, costs 3 mana less and is instant. If you could kick this for 8 total it might be in with a shot but at 10 it has no hope what so ever.

Two-Headed Giant 0

Well this is elegant and flavourful design if nothing else. Easily the best coin flip card design I have seen in magic. It wouldn't need to be all that much better to be a consideration for cube which is not something any coin flip card has achieved.

Daring Archeologist 0

Great effects but just too far up the curve for this sort of card in cube. As a 3 mana 2/2 this would be a strong consideration but at four it is competing with game ending cards. Value cards like this don't compare well to game enders. Either play a cheap card with the effect you want like Argivian Find or play an actually powerful card like Sun Titan.

Adventurous Impulse 6

At first glance this might just seem like a bad Oath of Nissa and in many ways it is. In a number of ways this will actually outperform the Oath. Green loves delirium things but green is rather lacking in instants and sorceries. This is an Oath of Nissa that adds one to a delirium count or indeed reduces the cost of a delve spell. Seek the Wilds was very nearly good enough and this is quite a lot better than Seek. Imagine how much better than Impulse Anticipate would be at 1 mana! I think this will see enough cube play to merit inclusion. While it is the lowest power effect of all the green card quality offerings it is one of only three one mana card quality effects in green and arguably the best to play on turn one for the immediate setup. It is certainly better than a turn one Traverse the Ulvenwald in the general sense. Cards like this are rather at their best in green as they offer lovely synergy with Sylvan Library, Courser of Kruphix and that sort of thing. I expect to see plenty of this little green card padding out green lists.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Dominaria Initial Review Part X

Time of Ice 1

This is barely playable in a cube setting and probably why I didn't bother reviewing this first time it was spoiled. Four mana sorcery speed with slow effects and no card advantage ever. This has some Dungeon Geists meets Paralax Wave about it but I can't see you ever wanting it over either.

Raff Capashen 2

While seemingly low power for a gold legendary, a 3/3 flying flash at 4 mana is pretty strong. Wydwen, the Biting Gale hasn't seen any love in the cube but it does tend to be the Azorius control decks that thrive off the flash dorks rather than the Dimir ones. While Raff has a narrow looking ability it is going to be powerful, you only really need to use it once in the kind of deck where a 3/3 flash flier is good to have it be a significant perk to the card. End of turn planeswalkers for bonus safety, surprise blocks from Brimaz and that sort of thing. Raff is very much a Teferi, Mage of Zhalifir alternative. While he is more interesting in what you can do with him I suspect Raff will see less play due to not also being a disruptive card. Even if Raff saw a little more play than Teferi it still wouldn't be at cube levels, Raff would need to really over perform as Taferi is a pretty meh starting mark.

Board the Weatherlight 5

A white take on Ancient Stirrings. While Board has a potentially bigger range than Stirrings it naturally has a far smaller range and it is twice the price. While there are a bunch of legendary lands there are not enough nor are they good enough to form the bulk of any mana base. Stirrings hits all lands and that is a big part of its strength. There are simply not enough targets on average for Board to be a good card in my drafting cube. I see Board more as a combo card used in many of the places you might use Enlightened Tutor, Time of Need and that sort of thing. Board likely fixes together a couple of unusual combos and smooths some quirky decks. The existence of the card makes things like Minamo, School at Water's Edge and other such lands more valuable. If you are playing Board you are going to try and fit in some free extra targets where possible. Board certainly has the most eclectic array of targets for any tutor or dig card. It finds some dorks, some lands and the odd enchantment as well as every artifact and every planeswalker. Absolutely it will see play both in cube and constructed and likely limited as well. It is pretty fair but nicely unique. It is also in white, a colour bereft of decent card quality.

Weatherlight  3

This feels bad. It compares terribly to Aethersphere Harvester in terms of tempo and board control being both a mana more and having worse effective stats (subtract crew value from power as a general rule of thumb to get vehicle stats, although this fails to account for abilities such as the gaining of flying for some of that power). As a source of value Weatherlight is pretty unreliable. While there are over 100 targets for this out of my 540ish cube size that fraction doesn't translate directly to decks.  Firstly there will be lands in decks of which very few will be legendary indeed. You can almost cut your target % in half just for that fact. Next up you simply have the fact that those cards that are hit are played at a lower rate than other cube cards on the whole. I expect you would find many an aggressive red deck to have literally no targets. Certainly there will be some decks with enough targets to consistently hit with Weatherlight but it is all about the average. I suspect that will be around 5 per deck in my cube which gives the Weatherlight about a 50% chance to hit. Certainly worse than a simple draw a card trigger and probably worse than a loot trigger! Weatherlight has build restrictions on it, it is unreliable in several ways, it isn't insanely powerful when it comes together well either. All it really does well is what other vehicles do better. That and being a huge flavour win in terms of being inline with the original. Oddly however, in the same kind of durdly all round way Siege Rhino turned out to be insane I can actually see Weatherlight somehow pulling off the same feat. The 4/5 statline is dangerously potent. It is hard to take out in combat and hard to take out with removal. Just steam rolling someones face with a 4/5 flier that is bigger than all their dorks and that they can't touch with sorcery speed creature kill and that draws you the occasional card might be just the ticket. While I was referring to Harvester and Smuggler's Copter earlier when saying I thought other vehicles likely do this things job better I now also realise that Heart of Kiran also probably outclassess this in this last "Siege Rhino" aspect. Only some testing will reveal if this bit of everything vehicle but better than none card is desirable in cube but I would be betting at no.

Tatyova, Bethnic Druid 2

The very best friend of a Fastbond! While drawing cards and gaining life as you play out lands sounds amazing in a green ramp deck I fear it might be a bit late in the day. Oracle of Mul Daya is a similar sort of card in that it is very pricey for its awful statline but a good source of ongoing value. The difference is that Oracle lets you do more immediately with extra land drops and extra scope on where those lands come from. Tatyova needs a land follow up to be even close to reasonable on the turn you make her and that means she is really more of a six drop. Although she should win any game in which she gets to sit around in play for any length of time that is an expectation I have of cheaper, less gold cards. Tatyova seems like a win more card but I like the potential for abuse and going off with her too much to not try her out in some build around lists. Horn of Greed redundancy sounds like winning to me.

Yawgmoth's Vile Offering 5

All sorts of situational with the legendary sorcery tag and the needing targets already in the bin however also all sorts of powerful. This rather resembles Fractured Identity and that is a pretty brutal card in cube. Killing a planeswalker and getting one yourself is a vast swing and unrecoverable in most cases. The best case for this is better than Fractured Identity as you get more choice on what you get and it isn't a token card and this is just in one colour. Worst case however is the unplayable mode which should be fairly often what with the prerequisites on casting it. That should at least make the needing things in the bin aspect rather negligible in terms of making the card less good. I can see this working out well in delirium decks. They have mill and loot to empower the recursion options but more critically they have Tasigur and a range of flipwalkers and other cheap and/or robust planeswalkers giving them some cheap or sticky activators for the legendary needs. I am super wary of the prerequisites on this but it is just too powerful not to at least try out. Black, and the supporting colours for decks you would play this in, have good dig, tutor and recursion effects to further complement the offering. Or you could just play Azorius and Fractured Identity and not have to fuss about for your massive swing play.

Shalai, Voice of Plenty 4

This looks deceptively good. After being quite excited by it at first I have rather come down off the card and expect it to be pretty limp for cube. Granting everything else hexproof sounds amazing and a 3/4 flier for 4 is no bad things either. The issue is combining those things. Giving everything else hexproof when you are a 3/4 flier is pretty pointless as odds on the 3/4 flier is going to be the target. Shalai fails to do the role of Spellskite or Mother of Runes because she is going to be the highest value target leaving the hexproof effect pretty blank. It will be a little annoying for black discard, player only burn and that sort of thing but it is mild disruption at best and pretty situational. The green ability Shalai has won't be relevant in a lot of games. Those it does come up in however it will be pretty significant and will allow Shalai to dominate them. You don't need to be able to use the ability for Shalai to be playable but it certainly helps to make her more powerful and dangerous when you have the green mana access. Sadly the hexproof giving ability makes Shalai a huge target to begin with so even when you are a green ramp deck your are rarely going to have a live Shalai to start pumping things with. Shalai fails the Jace test and that is really her main problem.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Why is tempo so crucial?

Fact or FictionI talk a lot about the increase in the value of tempo in magic and how that has had a big impact on the performance of many cards. I am forever saying things are no longer viable due to the change in tempo but I have not taken the time to detail why. I have not really bothered because it initially seemed obvious - fast formats mean slower cards and those that don't affect tempo get less work done and have higher risk. That is a pretty easy to appreciate aspect of tempo but it is a statement of fact and not an explanation as to how and why.

There are several factors that have caused tempo and the relevance of it to increase in magic over time, and in quite a pronounced way in the most recent years. Power creep in creatures is one of the main contributors but it is certainly not the only thing at play. In theory if every one is making better dorks then things should be somewhat balanced. If I make a 2/2 and you make a 2/2 that is in many ways the same as both players making a 3/3. The main way in which it isn't is when that parity is broken, either one player fails to make the dork to even the board or one player has removal. In such cases the larger more powerful dorks in play mean that breaking the tempo parity in some capacity will have a bigger impact. In the example of the vanilla dorks you get to apply 3 damage with the unchecked 3/3 rather than just 2 with the bear. While one extra damage is not  a big deal we are using simple things to paint an example, in reality this will usually be a much more significant swing. The power creep in creatures has made consistency more important rather than anything else. The tempo aspect is kind of increased but it is much more to do with the potential swings in tempo. You need to be consistent so as to not suffer a big swing in the game due to missing a play or not having a good answer.

Black ViseAnother of the main contributors to the increase in tempo is that of redundancy and it ties in heavily to the consistency we just looked at. If you are going to get punished more (due to better threats) by not making a tempo play the way to hedge is by having a threat heavy low curve deck as that is the best way to be consistent. Tempo increase in cube has much more to do with depth of power than it does with the peak power. A decade ago if you tried to make an all creature aggressive red deck it would be horrible. You would be playing some pretty serious dregs and your curve would be on the high side for that sort of archetype. Usually old aggro decks would pack zero or low tempo situational things like Black Vise to make up numbers and keep the power level high instead of the really weak dorks but it is not what the decks want to be doing. Now you have enough options that you could make a deck of all dorks if you felt like it and the power and suitability of the cards wouldn't suffer any where near the same decline. So, the high powered creatures make it a bigger risk not to be doing things involving creatures and that makes consistency more important. The redundancy of good dorks allows players to obtain this consistency and thus further reinforcing this loop. As you can play the tempo game and do it well it means everyone needs to respect that and so everyone gets involved making it yet more important.

Jace, Architect of ThoughtThe third main thing affecting tempo in magic is planeswalkers. They are great in most kinds of magic but in cube they are near there peak performance. Most decks in my cube look to planeswalkers to offer them utility, card advantage and ultimately a win condition. They are such good top end that you don't need big six and seven drop threats to close the deal, you don't need to fill up your deck with loads of utility spells and value cards and so you have more space for those lovely cheap tempo cards. It is not this aspect of planeswalkers that has made tempo so important however, that just makes it more obtainable. It is all about being able to play walkers safely. If I am ahead on the board I can lay my walker and put you in an awful position. If I am behind on the board I am not going to get anywhere near the same level of value from my walker. Obviously the number of activations you get out of a planeswalker in a game correlate with your chances of winning. One often doesn't change much, two will typically give you a good edge and three or more is generally game over. That strong contrast means being in a position to protect and attack planeswalkers is huge and that is a big part of why tempo is so huge. Although we have had walkers in the game for a decade now we have had them added at a super slow rate and at quite a wide range of power and playability. Each year we get hundreds of new cards and only about 10 planeswalkers. We are still a little way off saturation in terms of playable good walkers in cube. Shock effects and Rampant Growth effects for example have reached saturation as playable power level cards from those groups are commonly not included in cubes. A half decent four mana black walker for example would just be a lock in for cube as black is lacking in that department. Likewise a three mana red walker that wasn't terrible would likely get in. As we close in on this saturation point for cube you can more consistently expect walkers and good ones. The relevance of tempo relating to walkers has steadily increased since 2008 and is now quite pronounced.

Insectile AberrationIt is however not just planeswalkers although it is easiest to understand and appreciate in those cases and they are some of the most significant. Tempo leads give you the greater option density, or at least the greater range of good options in all situations. This concept is a little more ethereal than most and so I shall do my best to paint some examples of it. A nice simple one is just that the option of doing nothing, or at least casting nothing, is a bad option when you are behind or even yet can often be the best option when you are ahead. This is most noticeable when two decks with a lot of reactive things clash. Being ahead on the board is like having the initiative. The other player is forced into doing something and so you will have the option to respond to that and more mana to do so with. Perhaps you will counter their play, perhaps you will use the window to resolve a more serious threat of your own etc. If I can flip a Delver of Secrets and then do nothing for the rest of the game beyond sitting behind good reactive spells I am probably winning that one.

Another way to look at this concept is to simply say that if one player is ahead in tempo the other is forced to react else they will ultimately lose. Whenever you are forced into a line of play you are having your option density reduced, you are effectively being controlled or disrupted, all be it rather indirectly. The player who is ahead can pretty much goldfish their cards in the most efficient way while the one behind is being given all these side quests or hurdles they need to do to stay in the game. Across the board your cards gain value when you have the tempo lead. Be it planeswalkers directly doing a great deal more work or just having a much wider range of choices on where to aim your burn or countermagic and when. The tempo lead lets you dictate the flow of the game and hence why it is so good.

Wrath of GodTempo is different to speed but related. It is like momentum and velocity in physics, one is a property of the other but they are not the same thing. Combo decks typically don't invest much if anything in tempo but they are trying to race by using speed. Tempo will let you race and give you speed but it also lets you counter other people's tempo. Tempo is an ongoing property while the speed from a combo is used in a one time payoff. Speed is just a measure of when you will get there if other things don't change. Tempo is more a measure of power. Control decks do use tempo but a lot of it is reactive tempo such as Wrath of God. A Wrath cannot give positive tempo to you but it can afford a huge tempo swing in your favour. A common trick for the control player is to bait out a window of inaction due to the threat of open mana and countermagic or mass removal. In this window of inaction the control player can then cast a big instant or flash card at the end of their turn to gain the initiative and take a tempo lead. This is why Archangel Avacyn is so strong.

Considering tempo as momentum works nicely in a lot of ways but it is far too linear to be appropriate. Tempo needs to consider context as does pretty much everything in magic. A flier might represent a lot of tempo if it can threaten a planeswalker or low life total unchecked but if they just have some reach spider the flying element has little to no value. This is largely why tempo is an ethereal concept like option density. It is based on far to much subjective analysis. There are no units to express how good something is in a situation, how valuable an option is or how strong a dork is. You can approximate and act accordingly but it is only an aid in being good and winning if you already have a reasonably good understanding of the game and can evaluate game states and individual cards within those contexts. This is all demonstrating why magic is so hard, ideally you want to understand everything, which, in a game of infinite possibilities, rather needs an infinite amount of time! Getting lost on a tangent here. Regardless of how difficult magic is and how impossible the task of mastering it every bit of understanding and perspective and experience you get under your belt is a boost. The more bits you add the more they assist all the other bits and you find some very nice steep bits of learning curve where you leap in ability. Accurately evaluating the tempo of lines in a game and acting accordingly is super hard but being aware of their importance is relatively easy and actually most of the battle.