Due to the popularity of my top X equipment list it seems this is a must do list despite the limited number of contenders. While there is still only one blocks worth of vehicles we can assume we have already seen most of the best on offer. I don't really count the second set of Swords as new new cards and so all bar one (Jitte) of the best equipment are from Mirrodin block, the block that brought us equipment. My point is that if vehicles return we can expect them to be a little more balanced on the whole. As we have likely seen most of the best ones that there will ever be it isn't wildly unreasonable to do a top X list for them now.
Assessing vehicles is quite hard. They function in a unique way and so conventional comparisons don't really work. A good rule of thumb to get an initial idea of the quality of your vehicle is to take the crew cost away from the power of the vehicle and then compare that to creature of the same stats and cost. This is very much a guide for what kind of power level to expect from your vehicle. A Sky Skiff may equate to a Seacoast Drake using this method however that only tells you so much. In some situations the Skiff will be better and in some the Drake would be superior. This would depend not just on the game state and what you were up against but also the other things you have going on in your deck. Obviously the vehicle does nothing when you can't crew it so they have a substantially weaker low end performance than a dork does.
Lastly the vehicles have an advantage over conventional creatures in that they are a little like banding monsters of old. Banding would allow you to combine some dorks such that you could use them in combat like a single entity. You could band together your 3/3 and your 2/2 and attack into a 3/4 without risk of losing either. Due to the large size relative to the cost of vehicles combined with their crew requirement they act like a tidy version of banding. They allow you to use two or more cheap small things to gain a powerful attacker/blocker that should be able to outclass anything at that point in the curve and that will continue to be relevant for longer as the game develops.
The complex, varied, non linear and often counter intuitive scaling of vehicles makes them harder to assess than a lot of other cards. Being unique means comparing them to creatures isn't accurate but then nor is comparing them to equipment. Ideally you need to compare them to each other but with the crazy scaling that has been a misleading experience on the whole too. I have had to heavily base my opinions on performance rather than on analysis for the vehicles. As such, here are the best eight vehicles as far as the cube is concerned.
8. Sky Skiff
This is a sad card in that it is just wildly outclassed by other (rarer) vehicles. It was one of the first spoiled vehicles and looked pretty acceptable in a Bonesplitter sort of way. It is cheap and it does a useful thing. This card would perform fine in cube, it would be a good evasive threat that is cheap relative to the stats and keywords while being resilient to removal. These are all hypothetical however as the card never saw play. Strictly better cards got printed that set an unreasonable bar for vehicles and made the fair cards seem awful. You would just feel so ripped off playing this when you could have something sat nearer the top of this list instead. I wish the Smuggler's Copter was at most 3/2 so there was actually some merit to the Skiff alternative. Although this is not something I would advocate running in anything other than a pauper cube it is still significantly better than almost all the othe common and uncommon vehciles, most of those of higher CMC and most of those that don't fly. This isn't powerful particularly but it does tick the right boxes.
7. Renegade Freighter
This is a good solid aggressive card. It attacks as a 5/4 trample for an investment of only three mana. In the aggressive decks where you might play such things you will rarely have to use more than one dork to crew this thing, usually it will be just a one mana dork doing it. The crew cost is relatively minor which should make the 3 mana 5/4 trample threat that can't easily be killed with sorcery speed removal really good. The issue with the card is that it isn't too good. A three mana 5/4 trample is nice but it isn't insane by cube standards, it doesn't dominate the game in the way you want your bomb cards to do. So really this is just a little bit above the curve for an aggressive threat, it brings nothing more than some mana efficiency to the table. The cost for that minor power boost isn't at all worth it in the aggressive decks where you want reliable cost effective threats in. This can do nothing, if you have no other dorks this is blank and aggressive decks want consistency. You would rather the stand alone 3/3 haste or something for your three mana than a resilient 5/4 trample that can do nothing.
6. Fleetwheel Cruiser
This is the slightly powered up version of the Freighter. The casting cost difference between the two is reasonable given the haste on the Cruiser. The difference is the free crew that comes with the haste ensuring you get that first attack in regardless of your board and with no tempo cost incurred with a crew requirement. Fleetwheel Cruiser is a good top end finisher. It saw a bunch of play across the board in aggressive decks but usually only to make up numbers. It was fine in RDW when you didn't have a Hellrider and so on and so forth. The only place it really shone rather than being just fine filler was white weenie lists. White is not full of haste creatures or direct damage and so being able to threaten five haste damage added a lot of reach and danger to the archetype. Unfortunately the jump in power in cube from 3 CMC to 4 CMC cards is huge. Despite this being a chunk better than Freighter it is still worse relatively when compared to other cube cards of the same CMC. This is good in a white weenie deck but it isn't close to as a good as an Elsepth or Sublime Archangel. Fleetwheel is an eminently playable card but it isn't the game breaking bomb you want from your top end which as an aggressive card this very much is.
5. Aethersphere Harvester
As you will notice as you continue on this list, flying is a big deal for vehicles. Flying scales well into the late game, it keeps small and medium creatures relevant threats. Flying also scales well with things that are harder to deal with simply because it it more useful to have a relevant thing survive removal than a less relevant one! This is an oddly placed vehicle stats wise in that it is neither big nor aggressive. You can get plenty of good three power flyers for three mana. What this does is control the board very well indeed. A 3/5 flier, particularly one that can be relevant in combat as quickly as this, is winning most things. It will block and kill most other things and survive doing so in most cases as well. Equally it can attack into most things and as such is a great anti planeswalker tool. The energy and lifelink thing is all a bit of a fiddle but does add a free 4 or 5 life on average to the card which further improves this as a tempo control tool. You can use it offensively without conceding much in the race or you can hard shutdown aggression. A 3/5 flying lifelink for 3 would be a nuts card however it would mostly be nuts in midrange and control. The reason this is that much calmer is that you typically don't have enough things to crew it for the Harvester to be viable in control. Midrange are more able to run it but it will impose some build restrictions. You would want to ensure that most of your planeswalkers made tokens so that they can effectively crew it for example. The more you want this card the harder it is to play and that is the only real problem this card has.Beyond that it is well rounded and nicely powerful.
4. Cultivator's Caravan
This is a sneaky card that has crept far higher on this list than the vehicle component of this card would suggest. A 5/5 for crew 3 on a three drop is super poor. Renegade Freighter is far more card than that and it saw basically no play. This is so good because it is a dual purpose card. It does two highly different and significant things but none the less things most decks can put to good use. On the one hand this is a perfectly playable mana rock. It is good fixing and will power you up as you progress towards the late game. While obviously not as good as the appropriate Talisman/Signet as a ramp card as it is no use for getting to four drops quicker the dual purpose of the Caravan makes it a lot more playable. To include a Talisman you have to be able to support such things. You replace too much action with ramp without including draw and other gas giving things and you will simply not get enough done. The Caravan lets you have a lot of the perks of ramp without having to worry about potentially dead card. You don't even need that high of a creature count to play it as it does stuff when not being crewed unlike basically all the other vehicles on this list. While you obviously do need creatures for this to be good you can get away with less than you would if playing most other vehicles, even one with a low crew cost. A 5/5 isn't super exciting, you wouldn't want to rely on it as a win condition, not even really as a planeswalker control card. That being said it is very big, especially for 3 mana. It does a lot of work blocking and threatening a potential attack. It is also one of the only cards like this that doesn't cost mana to access the second potion. What this means is that you can make use of the 5/5 on a turn in which you use up to all bar one of your mana to do other relevant stuff. If you lay this on turn three, power out a five drop and then get to play another five drop the following turn while swinging with the previous five drop and a 5/5 Caravan the momentum is too much for most to cope with.
3. Sky Sovereign, Consul Flagship
This is the biggest of the vehicles to perform well in cube both in size and CMC. It is rather a cumbersome card but it is never the less incredibly powerful and threatening. You have to deal with it or every creature they have made or subsequently make, often before it hits play! There are a lot of parallels to Inferno Titan with this. It comes down, solves a problem and gets a bit of value. Then it attacks, gets more value and clears the way. It is a decently quick clock and it is doubly hard to race or stop as your stuff is getting killed! It is one of those double whammy problems in that it scuppers your plan twice, once by killing a thing and secondly by being an incredibly high priority removal target that you need to address. Big cards are a lot easier to include and play if they have relevant effects on the game right away so the EtB effect for this is of huge value. One of the real wins for this card is that it is fairly reasonable removal for colours that typically don't expect to remove things. Green decks use this the most being one of the weakest at coping with creatures but it has seen play in a wide selection of places. This card is a threat, a problem solver and a source of both tempo and value. It ticks all the boxes for sure but it remains relatively narrow just for being so top end.
2. Heart of Kiran
I didn't much like this card at first but have persevered in testing it out in different ways as it has performed so well in constructed. I figured the high crew cost, if using creatures, rather hurt this for aggressive decks as you are only ever gaining one power that way. A hypothetical 1/4 flying vigilance for 2 is pretty good but I doubt aggressive decks would play it without specific synergies. They certainly wouldn't if it couldn't attack or block unless you have other creatures. I thought this was more of a midrange or control card where a 1/4 vigilance flier for 2 is very much something you want. I figured the problem there would be lack of consistent ability to crew this, particularly in control. Certainly I have not had this work or seen it work in a control deck nor do I really expect to. It has however blown me away with its performance when in the right setting. This can be an aggressive deck, it can be a midrange deck or it can even be something a little more quirky.
Essentially the thing I failed to fully appreciate with this card is the way it effectively buffs your other cards. Sure, the 1/4 comparison works in a goldfish situation when you are crewing with creatures. Sure, the pseudo haste is nice when you get to crew with the thing you make that turn but all vehicles have that. What Heart does is give flying to 3 powers worth of generally otherwise useless dorks and it can do this twice a round due to the vigilance. This combined with the fact that it is actually a 4/4 flier means that you have incredibly good reach, race and general board control. This can be blocking on turn two or attacking turn three making it wildly outclass the other things you generally see, certainly that early in the game. Someone (I think Jon Finkle) commented on the Mardu Vehicle standard list about having four copies of the card despite it being a legendary wasn't at all an issue as if you had one in play that they couldn't deal with you were going to win. That is certainly how it feels in cube when it is in a deck that supports it.
You can support Heart in a couple of ways. One is just by having mostly creatures. If that is the case and your deck is otherwise half sensible then Heart will almost certainly be a good card for you. By mostly creatures I mean at least 16/40 and of those most want to be in the 1-3 CMC range. While specific that describes basically every aggressive deck in my cube with the exception of the burn heavier RDW lists. You can also aim to run Heart primarily off planeswalkers. While it is far less likely to be a good early tempo play and will spend more time sat doing nothing in such decks the potency of the Heart when combined with the right walkers is off the charts. You do still want to have some dorks that are good for crewing with in such decks but you can get away with far far less. Typically these sorts of decks have plenty of card quality or perhaps some other artifact synergy meaning you can get away with a handful of creatures and planeswalkers as enablers. If you can play a turn two Heart and follow it with a half decent three mana walker your opponent is going to need very specific removal to stand a chance. When you get to freely plus loyalty a walker and smack them in the face for 4 and defend the walker in question with a 4/4 flier you are looking good. Daretti, Ingenious Iconoclast is one of my favourite follow ups to the Heart. He has good control, is decently threatening has good additional defenses and will eventually provide crew for the Heart with his tokens. Jace Beleren and Ashiok are lovely as well simply because turn three +2 loyalty walkers behind defenses are pretty unfair.
While one of the narrower vehicles overall the Heart is one of the few you can play in very creature light decks. It is also sufficiently powerful to more than offset this narrowness when compared with most of the other cards on this list.
1. Smuggler's Copter
Well obviously... You could certainly argue that Heart and Flagship are more powerful or have more impact. Certainly both need dealing with a little more urgently than the Copter but neither are better cards, not even close really. Copter is a 2/3 flier for two rather than a 1/4 flier for 2 when compared to the Heart in this crude goldfish analysis manner. This is a much better starting place to be as a two power thing is wildly more relevant than a one powered thing. Then we get to add some further perks to this such as only ever needing one dork with a mere one or more power to crew it making it wildly more likely to actually be viable to crew on any given turn. Lastly but in no way least we will throw a loot in whenever involved in combat! That is powerful card quality and strong synergy potential. You would play a 2 mana 2/3 flier if you could. You already play two mana 1/1 (or other irrelevant bodied) things just for a loot each turn. Copter is essentially both these things combined with the potential to be a little more! The card ticks all the boxes and more. It is a cheap card that offers a decent tempo return for the mana. It is a potent threat that scales well into the late game and it is a source of ongoing value and synergy. The card offers reach in two ways at once, both as a 3/3 with flying and as a looter giving you the right tools and a supply of gas. The only reason this card is not oppressively good (for the cube! obviously it was that good in standard and got banned..) is that it is relatively slow for its impact on the game to take hold. It has that good planeswalker feel where by each turn that passes and it remains active your chances of winning decrease significantly. If you can kill a planeswalker after just one use it is usually fine, after two and you are a little behind but it is still fine however by three you are usually dead to it. You are not dead right away, it might take several more turns for that value to fully kick in but the damage has been dealt! Essentially what I am saying is that it only takes a Copter about three turns to kill you however it will take you about six turns to die from it. The card is too good but at least it is more subtle in how it delivers its power than the few other oppressive cards that are too good.