Monday 26 February 2018
So this year saw a ramp up in product with nearly twice as many new cards released as previous years. Portal was a factor in this but we also have three other non-reprint only sets in Weatherlight, Tempest and Visions compared to two from the previous couple of years. You can see the ramp up in number of cards still in the drafting cube as well as the long old list of other cards retaining cube relevance. Lots of sideboard stuff and the first real bit of power creep to be found in creatures. Some of these tempo cards still hold their own to this day. Nothing since 1993 managed that and 97 probably just about outclasses 93 on that creature front (excluding mana dorks of course!). There are about 15 cards from this year still worthy of my drafting cube however half of those are pretty fringe and have been in and out of the cube quite a lot over the last decade.
This is the year that combo really started to come to light. There was also a lot of shadow weenie decks that were dull in a different way and I think the design team took the wrong message from that and toned creature power down. With all the tutors now up and running combined with pushing out the boat on new and exotic card design without the hindsight of what kinds of effects are likely to be dangerous it is no shock that the earlier combo decks were oppressive. All this also massively compounded by having such a weak representation of aggressive decks. Just because there are a lot of them about doesn't mean they are objectively good. I think the context of these events has overly warped the design philosophy of MtG. Combo was only rife in this era of MtG due to these factors, it is not so much the fault of combo itself or the support cards for it. I think the fault lies in card design that is more easily abused from this era with too narrow a range of interactive tools to deal with them and the impotence of aggro, neither able to race nor disrupt the combo decks effectively. I think a lot of the combo decks of this era would fold pretty hard to the standard decks of today, certainly if they could prepare sideboards for them. Prosperity is a cute counter to Hazoret at least! Here is the list of cube relevant cards from 97. Not only is it longer than the previous years but the average play of the cards listed will be rather higher as well. Although the bottom end of the spectrum is a lot higher with this year it would be fair to say the the top end of the power level was more contained. I have no cards banned out from this period. Power creep for this year is in the average cards, not the top end.
Aura of Silence
Sapphire (and other) Medalions
Helm of Awakening
Soltari Priest / Monk
10. Jackal Pup
This little card signals the arrival of red deck wins. It was the best stand alone aggressive one drop in red for a very very long time. I am pretty sure we didn't see another playable two power one drop in red until Goblin Guide! Norrin the Wary and Goblin Cadet don't feel playable to me even though I have run the Cadet in cube and constructed! Goblin Patrol isn't a one mana card. etc etc. Since Goblin Guide we have had a steady influx of playable red one drop dorks and so Pup has gone from the best steadily to the worst (of those that are cube worthy). One or two more good red one drops and the Pup will lose its long standing cube slot. Much as Pup is quite a lot worse than Savannah Lions it is substantially more interesting and leads to some cool situations. It will be a sad goodbye when Pup is retired but his cool interactions will live on in Firedrinker Satyr at least. Hopefully they will continue to reuse this drawback but on increasingly potent cards.
Abeyance is one of white's only ways to interact with spells. If you are a white combo deck you really want this for forcing through your things. Black has discard, blue has countermagic and white has this. White has a few other things along the same lines but none of those are generally playable as they either don't replace themselves or they cost too much, or they just don't really get the job done. Improved with the release of planeswalkers but sadly reduced in utility as tempo has started to dominate over control and combo. I think all colours should have some ways to interact with peoples plans that are not limited to things in play (or graveyards). This kind of effect feels perfect for not being like countermagic or discard and thus giving white some unique identity. Abeyance is used mostly as filler now but it has lead a rich and full life! It feels like a pretty fair card in a world dominated by creatures and looks increasingly well designed.
8. Ancient Tomb
Certainly compared to the likes of Mana Crypt and Grim Monolith Ancient Tomb seems pretty balanced. Turns out however that mana ramp is generally one of the least balanced things. As you iron out the oppressive stuff the Tomb looks more and more potent. These days a good Tomb start feels like you got a free Time Walk. Ancient Tomb is a bomb in a few places like Eldrazi decks, affinity decks and a load of combo shells. In aggro decks and midrange decks the lack of coloured mana makes it less useful to completely useless. In control decks it is high risk high reward. Yes, it can still easily be that free Time Walk but it will probably cost you half your life which might well kill you. This isn't so narrow that you can't usefully run it in a non-powered, non-combo cube but it is still very much one of those all in high roll old cards that isn't greatly balanced and that doesn't lead to the best games. I don't run this in my cube any more for that reason. Of my "powerful enough but polar and narrow" cards it is absolutely one of the most played still. Often in quite unexpected places it will work wonders. It is the kind of card that you should always ask the question "is my deck an Ancient Tomb deck?". More are than you would think and it adds a lot more to decks than most other cards can.
7. Time Warp
The fair Time Walk! Even at five these can be a bit oppressive. They are shocking things to have in your starting hand but they are a joke once you have made it to the five mana mark. If you are at all ahead when you cast one of these in cube you typically win on the spot. An even game can even be put out of reach with one of these. Worst case scenario they are a free cycle when you get to the five mana mark. Some cube decks simply use ramp and recursion to effectively loop these kinds of effects indefinitely. These can be great in certain combo decks, control decks all the way through to aggro decks. Although they have an air of the win more about them the fact that they are not that much of a burden in the mid and late game unlike other costlier spells which makes them the good kind of win more card. They have a feel of the Treasure Cruise about them in that when you use them they are painless and great but they will be dead weight in hand in the early game. If your deck can work well off muligans then it can probably support Time Warp.
This has always felt super fair so I found the printing of Anticipate a little insulting! Impulse is just great filler. Instant speed makes it feel incredibly cheap to play despite being double the price of most card quality effects. It is much more of a control card than anything else but it is sufficiently innocuous that it will crop up all over the place. It is more in the tutor camp of cards than other card quality as it only really does one cards worth of setup and doesn't let you stack your library. It is better than all the other cheap card quality in terms of its digging potential seeing a juicy four cards deep and bettering the mighty Brainstorm!
A super underrated card here. A cheap cantrip in white to support the likes of Monastery Mentor. A shuffle effect, fixing and even a two for one for about half the casts. Tithe is often better than Land Tax. If you are ahead it still gives you something yet it is one of few cards that aids the player going second more. To my mind that makes it exceptional design but I suspect Wizards view it as more powerful than they would like. It feels like a version of this made today would find basic lands and be a sorcery. Like Land Tax, it is one of those cards that isn't oppressive or proactive so even if it is above the desired power level it is not something people object to at all. This is one of those cards that isn't exciting so it doesn't catch peoples attention but it really should just be in every cube, there is no reason not to run it!
4. Goblin Bombardment
This was a bit of a sleeper card for me but I think that was my error misjudging how one is supposed to use such things. I just had it earmarked as a specific combo card and nothing more. This should have been in my cube really ever since creatures started to dominate the cube meta. It is insane reach, it is fantastic for empowering things like Blood Artist. It is great for denying Jitte counters or lifelink triggers. I actively want this in any creature or token heavy deck that is somewhat low to the ground. Great utility, one of the few cards that is worth playing in cube despite doing nothing on its own. It provides so much control and option density and it comes at very little cost. There are also tonnes of otherwise great cards that this supports very well. Rabblemaster is always a treat!
The red Force of Will! Fireblast is actually super narrow. You really only want it in aggressive decks that are entirely or predominantly red. If aggro red was not one of the most common, most popular and most potent archetypes in cube I doubt this would still be a thing. I have cut plenty of more powerful cards for being narrow. I do love this card. I appreciate how a smattering of free spells greatly increase the depth and complexity of games. I think singleton formats get the most out of these potent free spells. Killing someone a turn early with a Fireblast is a thing, it is how you want to use it but it isn't what makes Fireblast a "good" card even if it is what makes it powerful. What makes it good is when you put most or all of your lands in the bin in the early game to wiggle out of an awkward spot and manage to steal that game several turns down the line despite the huge setback. It is far more like Daze in that regard just closer to Force of Will in power. This non finishing blow use happens a surprising amount in cube. Knowing when you can and have to seemingly cripple yourself with the card is a big skill tester. Fireblast has had a recent surge in potency with the release of Insult / Injury. Red decks getting turn three kills is a very real thing in cube now and Fireblast is a big part of that.
2. Vampiric Tutor
Probably the best Tutor printed in magic. The more tempo has become dominant in cube the more Vampiric has over Demonic Tutor. I love this card. I love this cycle and this is my favourite of them all. It costs you every resource but nearly baseline on every account. It ties together so many decks so well. Faithless Looting is the only other card quality card with card disadvantage that gets universal play. Both see lots and lots of action in a stunningly wide array of decks. Cube decks being less focused than constructed ones mean that a wider range are keen to make us of card quality effects. Vampiric Tutor is one of the biggest skill testers in the game. Use it wrong and it hurts you in every way while achieving nothing. Use it well and it will sort out your deck and solve many a problem. I never play Demonic Tutor in tempo driven decks but I frequently play Vamp and it is great. Sadly Tutors are more oppressive in constructed as you can cram in way more main deck bullet cards in a 60 card deck which means we probably won't be seeing more cards like this. Vamp is hard to abuse in cube and so it is just a great fair card. It doesn't make combo decks good, it makes them viable because that is how singleton is.
The first of Wizards many attempts to make a fair and balanced Strip Mine. A goal they finally managed to achieve two decades after the original with Field of Ruin. Wastelands might look like a neat and clean fixed Strip Mine. It is certainly a lot less oppressive as it offers some counterplay but it is no less brutal when it connects well (which is still pretty often). If you have to walk into a Wastelands and it gets you then it is a pretty free win for your opponent. In constructed you are far less likely to have to walk into it as you will have more sac lands with the option to find basic lands. The only thing I really like about this card is how it creates extra significance and merit to basic lands. It is a bit too polar good, a bit too easy to include and is a huge punisher card to those on the draw. It is cards like Wastelands that actually make the original Mox seem fair and balanced as they offer some generic variance to who is "on the play" each game. You could be on the draw and counter their Wasteland with your Mox so to speak. Ramunap Excavator seeing print, as well as an influx of nice playable new dual lands, has elevated Wastelands to the high alert watch list for cards I might consider for a ban. Still, the most played and powerful card from this era, pretty much regardless of format! Probably contending for that accolade from all eras combined!
Saturday 24 February 2018
Bounty of the Hunt
Elvish Spirit Guide
Sky Diamond etc
10. Lake of the Dead
This is pretty much the Orcish Lumberjack equivalent which would have been 11th on the list for 1995. I cut this a few years back for being too polar and too narrow (you only really played it in mono black which isn't really a thing). I think if I had not Field of Ruin would have ensured I now had! Going all in isn't great in cube. Sure, you might make some turn three Grave Titan which might well win the game but you might also just lose with that line as well to a reasonable answer. There is a time and a place for going all in and it is a lot later than in the picking or deck design stage in cube draft ideally! Power wise Lake is absolutely cube worthy but like so many old and powerful cards it is narrow in how it offers its power making it questionably playable enough to merit cube inclusion and sufficiently polar that it doesn't lead to great games even if it were. Lovely look and feel though, a favourite of mine even back then.
Free spells are great but this is a little sitational to perform too well. You need to be fairly heavy black to support this. It is pretty good and can be devastating but it just isn't quite there overall. Snuff Out or even Sickening Shoal are typically more effective removal. Contagion is more of a counter card to weenie strategies but then in black you just have better options against those kind of plans. Too low impact to be worthy of a sideboard slot and too limp of a hedge card to merit running main. If this were three 1/1 counters then I think it would be really exceptional and the best of the mana less removal options. If there is a resurgence in one toughness dorks then this might come back but red already ensures they are not too prolific.
8. Enlightened Tutor
Fair, flavourful and elegant design. I am a huge fan of this cycle and would like to see it explored further. While not far off exclusively a combo card it is a remarkably good one and finds at least one part of a lot of the best cube combos and often more than one. A lot of the good sideboard, silver bullet and hedge cards are also something you can find with this little Tutor. I would probably call this the best tutor outside of black or blue, while green may have some more powerful cards that find creatures there is significantly more redundancy in those effects thus reducing the premium on their value. Fabricate and Idyllic Tutor both kind of blow. Half the range, three times the cost and sorcery speed.... No thanks.
7. Lions Eye Diamond
A classic example of a dodgy old card! This is as good as Black Lotus in a tiny fraction of places and pretty much garbage everywhere else. I do appreciate the throwback nostalgia cards that give us more balanced glimpses of original 1993 power however they have to be done right which LED is not! Ancestral Visions and Temporal Mastery are probably the two best attempts at fair and balanced power cards and neither of those are without issue. LED is fine for cube use as it is that much harder to abuse. The card is still great in a couple of combo shells but that is it. As combo doesn't draft that well either you don't even see LED in most drafting cubes and that is for the best.
6. Mystical Tutor
I have this rated above Enlightened as it is something you can play outside of combo. I am not convinced my logic is sounds here as I feel like I play the two cards a similar amount overall. I have used Mystical Tutor in a selection of control builds, typically those without black and more recently those with miracles in them! Mystical Tutor is not that exciting in combo decks and is usually just backup for one half of your things. Merchant Scroll also will take its slot from time to time, typically in storm combo decks. There are no two card combos that are both instants or sorceries except the very first one (Channel plus Fireball) and that is pretty much the nut low now. I have on many occasions used Mystical Tutor to find Enlightened Tutor and that makes you want better Tutors, perhaps even just card quality effects. Given how hard they cut back on Tutor power after this cycle I can say with confidence that 1996 was the best year overall for Tutors in magic offering more strong and playable ones than any other year.
5. Lim-Dul's Vault
A wildly underrated card but not necessarily an underplayed one. In a 40 card deck you only need so many tutors. In a black deck you are more limited on good discard spells than you are on tutor effects! While I rate this in the top three Tutors of all time, and fairly close in power to the other big names - Vamp and Demonic. Vault just being gold makes it substantially less playable. It is a must for any combo cube but a more midrange cube has less call for such things.
4. Lat-Nam's Legacy
This card used to be hugely important in cube but has steadily declined in power. A big part of what made this good was that there are very few ways to put cards in your hand into your library and this was one of the cheapest, most playable and most self contained option on offer. Back when Tinker and Oath of Druids decks were big things this was the sort of thing you wanted most as support. There has been a huge shift in the meta since then and now we tend to want cards in the graveyard much more than back in our library. Since I cut the miracles from the drafting cube the only real value this has compared to other card quality is that it is instant. Chart a Course and Strategic Planning are both more effective than Lat-Nam's but they are not something you really want in control decks. Still however Impulse and Predict typically steal the slots Legacy would get. This is very much a card I could cut now which seems crazy given how much of a staple it used to feel like it was. Cheap blue card quality is just good however and sees play all over the place as premium filler. I could equally keep this and add in Anticipate and Telling Time and See Beyond and all four of them would still probably see enough play to merit their inclusion!
3. Wall of Roots
Much as some of the best and more important core coloured cards come from the earlier years of Magic I am starting to appreciate how dry aspects of it were too. While green has had a lot of premium ramp spells from these first four years of the game it has just dawned on me that it has nothing else at all! The only thing green has to show for the early years of magic in a cube setting is simple quality one and two mana ramp cards. Red only has burn and the other colours and types of effects are sadly linear too. Obviously power creep in creatures renders a lot of older dorks unplayable but that isn't really a thing yet. The cube never had much in the way of threats from the early years of magic, they cube wasn't really a thing until post 2000 and so most of its threats came from sets after 96. Anyway, just another observation on the way through! Wall of Roots, while just another cheap green ramp card is pretty great! Arguably the best two drop ramp in green although that area is really well catered for with lots of powerful options each of which has their time to shine but none always being the best. Wall of Roots is just all round good, it makes mana quickly and develops the board usefully at the same time.
2. Arcane Denial
Another underrated card. I think that this period probably has a lot of these because they dodge other formats. Arcane Denial isn't relevant for modern or standard, the only format you can play it in you also have Counterspell, Force of Will and even Mana Drain legal. In constructed runners up don't get much in the way of reward or acclaim. In cube runners up, especially close ones, are a pretty big deal. Remand, Memory Lapse and Arcane Denial make a nice triangle of comparable counters with varying degrees of card cost. Arcane Denial is a hard counter that also draws you a card! It is just not card neutral like the other two. If your reasoning for not loving Memory Lapse is because it isn't an answer then let me introduce you to this lovely little gem. If you come back at me with "eeew, I don't want to two for one myself" then perhaps you will disagree with the number one card on this list? Arcane Denial is premium cheap hard countermagic. It is great in proactive strategies or ones where you have a very nice lineup of answers to threats across the deck or indeed if they are just threat light. Highly versatile card, one of my all time favourites too! Even if you don't like Arcane Denial, if you are in the business for unrestricted hard counterspells you will not find more than a handful at two or less mana. I think indeed that Arcane Denial marks the last printing of such a card.
1. Force of Will
This card feels like it is more significant to MtG than the rest of the cards from this year combined. Best ever counterspell. Great in vintage, legacy and all forms of cube alike. One of the very best things about this card is that it is actually close to fair. It is certainly much more inline with the power level of Thoughtsieze than Stripmine or Mana Drain or something. It leads to interesting decisions and vastly increases the need for thought over actions for both players. It is a card that makes games better even when it isn't in the game (assuming not everyone knows that). One of the nice things about cube is that you don't get as tired of cards as quickly as some big names in constructed. If I were an eternal format player I might not be so keen on the card. There are really only a couple of cards in the cube I have not banned that I find boring and tedious, Ashiok, Jitte, Shackles mostly. Force of Will has had a lot longer to annoy people and it really hasn't. Them putting their powerful blue spells in the bin really softens the blow on an emotional level if not in the actual game!
Friday 23 February 2018
The cards from 1995 continue to show the trend of better design and understanding balance that 94 had over 93. There are basically no oppressively powerful cards printed in 95 with the single exception of Mana Crypt. As the card was a promo and not in proper sets it seems a lot more reasonable to print it. Rather like cards such as True Name Nemesis in the commander sets and them not damaging modern or standard or even draft. Although the only card I have banned from my cube from 95 compared to the four cards of 94 that I ultimately banned, Mana Crypt is a return to the broadly over powered style of broken found in the 93 core sets rather than the more linear power of 94.
Before the top ten from the year I have the list of other cube relevant cards for the year. This also continues the trend from 93 to 94 in that it has even less in it. A couple of powerful but narrow cards and then basically jank. I suspect when I am done with all 25 years that 95 will stand out as one of the weaker years with both relatively limp cards and few of interest. The couple of gems from the year combined with the lovely flavour of Ice Age mask how low the power level is in almost all the dimensions of the game from this year. Low power doesn't prohibit good design however and I feel like Ice Age had some much more interesting cards than we had previously sampled. Doing this historical account of Magic by years rather than by sets also divides most blocks up and mixes them up with others. A very colonial British thing to do! It makes it a lot more cut and dry on whats goes where which is nice and convenient for me at least! Orcish Lumberjack gets the honourable mention for this year and was a mainstay in my cube for a long time. Powerwise he is great but he is a little all in for most peoples tastes and as such is now rather too narrow to be a good inclusion. Merchant Scroll, Hydro and Pyroblast are the only cards that see any sort of regular play now and they are all in unusual formats.
Dance of the Dead
Illusions of Granduer
Huge in its time and very significant in early cube Necro is now somewhat of a relic card only used in the narrowest of builds. It is not so much that the card is bad but more that black cannot support it alone in the current meta of extreme tempo. Mono black devotion is the best place for the card these days but it barely out performs Phyrexian Arena. I have no doubt it would be put to nefarious uses in modern where you can suitably build around it. In cube you typically either don't have sufficient support for the card or you do put in enough and then don't see your vital Necro. Sure, you can tutor it up but then it is even slower and more costly to your tempo. In a previous article in this series I mentioned the cards that have drawn me the most cards over the years and this is still in the top three despite it having drawn me fewer than Faithless Looting in the past half decade.
I feel like this card is yet to reach its peak. Red is getting better at slower and more grindy games and that was always the main problem for this, not effect or power level. In white or really any other colour I think this would have done far more work in cube. While obviously the less powerful card I would say that Pyroclasm is far more brutal than Wrath of God. It creates far bigger swings due to costing so little. You are going to be well up on mana if you are at all up on cards with your Pyroclasm. An early game Pyroclasm is more brutal than Arc Trail and that is otherwise the most brutal thing that can happen to the majority of unpowered cube decks these days. It is like a double Time Walk a lot of the time. Later on in the game two mana in little enough that you can do other useful things as well. Worst case it is a weak Shock, best case a half price Wrath. More decks seem to be going wide or cluttering up the board than used to be the case so despite threats becoming hardier Pyroclasm still seems to have plenty of work to do. As red gets more tools to compete in longer games the value of Pyroclasm will continue to climb.
8. Memory Lapse
For no particular reason this seems to have dropped in value of late and it is one of the least played two mana counterspells in my cube. I have always felt this was on a similar power level to Remand. Remand is certainly the better card being more proactive, more versatile and better balanced but Remand is a great card and being in the same ball park should be a big win. Memory Lapse is generally better than Remand when hitting cheaper cards and the cube has had a strong tendancy towards lowering CMC over time. Memory Lapse should be getting better and that isn't being represented by play. It isn't even like other good 2 mana countermagic is getting printed and edging it out. I think it is just peoples feelings, Lapse feels worse than other counters. Despite being able to hit any spell and always stopping it, only costing two mana and being a one for one trade the Lapse doesn't answer anything. It is Repulse rather than Hero's Downfall. Except again it isn't, Denying your opponent a draw is not the same as getting to draw yourself. Most decks will favour the latter and even if it isn't technically better I still think people are predisposed to favouring drawing themselves for a multitude of reasons. If you haven't tried out Lapse I recommend it. A surprisingly good Counterspell and the only offering from Homelands to make this list. Along with Merchant Scroll it is pretty much one of only two playables from the whole set!
The slow Ponder does have some perks over actual Ponder. Mostly it is nice to be able to gain free knowledge of what is on your opponents library for a couple of draws. You still mostly aim it at your own library but the option on either is both strong and relevant. When used early, or in decks full of instants, the delay on the draw is pretty irrelevant however in the later portions of the game it is a significant drawback. Portent sits with Sleight of Hand at the bottom of the one mana card neutral blue card quality cards but that still makes it pretty decent and very playable.
6. Urza's Bauble
The bad Mishra's Bauble! Bad because you can't use it for card quality with shuffle effects and bad because many other things show hands and hands are often empty leading to this offering no information at all. Obviously you are mostly playing cards like this to trigger prowess, fuel delve and delirium all while thinning the deck. There is a real cost to playing these cards but the payoff is worth it in a surprising number of decks. Bauble is a nice example of a sleeper card too.
5. Nature's Lore
With the various dual lands in cube this has always been significantly better than Rampant Growth, not just for the ability to fetch up non basics but also because it puts the land in as if you had laid it rather than the always tapping Rampant Growth. Rampant Growth feels so fundamentally green that it seems odd that this predates it. While green is not shy on two mana ramp options this remains one of the cleanest and best of those on offer.
Not much to say about this, it is the balanced Lightning Bolt. Well Searing Spear is but regenerate is so fringe now that there is basically nothing to choose between them. After trying Bolt out at sorcery it was learned that 3 damage is just too much damage for one mana when you can put that damage where ever you like.
3. Fyndhorn Elves
Another slot going to green ramp! A fifth of these lists so far is green ramp spells! This is also the first functional reprint to make the lists. Functional reprints, especially of core cards like these, are of huge value to cube players who stick to playing singleton. What I am learning from taking this chronological look at magic is that the earlier cards are very much core cards, they are not frilly and exciting like newer cards. They are just simple ways to do simple things nice and cost effectively. I class both Fyndhorn and Incinerate as fair and balanced, certainly in cube terms. They are not powerful because they are powerful, they are powerful because they do a broadly useful thing and only that thing in a cheap and focused way.
In any other lists (as in not a cube focused one) Brainstorm would be the clear number one from this year. In cube however Brainstorm simply isn't on the same nutty power level it is in other formats. Often an Opt will achieve more than Brainstorm as Opt is self contained, you have no need of a shuffle to obtain the maximum value. Brainstorm is almost a build around card with things like Delver of Secrets and miracles and sac lands. Cube having a lower density of all such things simply can't empower Brainstorm as effectively. Now the card is still the best one mana cantrip in cube on average (because Gitaxian Probe is zero mana!), it is just a lot closer to the others. It has a much wider range than other card quality effects being comparable to Ancestral Recall at its best and being a Whispers of the Muse (without buyback!) at worst. The most common way to mis-evaluate a card in magic is to think a good or fine card is better than it is. As the card isn't bad you never get punished for thinking it is good and so you continue to over value it. When a card you thought is good is actually bad you are quickly informed of your error through experience. As Brainstorm is insane in most formats and still decent in cube it is typically over valued. If you just want one mana card quality there are plenty of things to choose from and they are all fine. You shouldn't snap up the Brainstorm over something you actually need for your deck.
1. Pain Lands
In the exact reverse of the case for Brainstorm the painlands a far far better in cube than in other formats. Pain lands are comparable, if not a little better, than the quick lands in cube. Cube is slower than modern and so those 4th and 5th lands carry more weight. Coming in untapped all the time is a huge win. Pain lands do less self harm on average than shock lands as well. There are only five cycles of dual lands (including the sac lands) that are always able to produce two colours of mana on turn one and that is what you really want from your lands in cube. Lands that come in tapped restrict options and cost you tempo and are increasingly unpopular. With other formats able to play 16 sac lands per colour and four of each dual they wish for you simply never need to resort to pain lands. In Singleton you just want every half decent dual you can get and pain lands are more than half decent! They got an additional boost in power with the release of BfZ and the colourless mana requirements. While quite a narrow element it is a use for which these lands become the actual best in the game. They are basically Murmuring Bosk that always has a treefolk to reveal!
Wednesday 21 February 2018
With so many of the simple and staple cards already printed in the core set there is rather less overall from 1994 and much of the things that have or still get used are in quite specific places. I will not be listing all the cube played cards from every year but it is quite interesting to look at the formative years this way. I had not appreciated quite how quickly power in design was reigned in nor how stark the contrast was between 93 and 94 for direct simple colour defining cards and vague convoluted cards respectively. Here is a list of the cards I have used in cube from this era;
Candelabra of Townos
Maze of Ith
The Tabernacl at Pendrell Vale
Lastly onto our top ten. You can see the exploration of design space starting here already with tried and testing cards getting tweaked. You can also see a stark decline in power level when compared to the list for 93. Certainly there are some great cards on this list but they don't match up with the top of the last list even with over 15 cards banned out from that era and not on the list! Not only does the top end not match up but the 94 pool lacks the depth of the 93 one.
There isn't really a solid contender for this slot. It could be Moat although the card is lame. It would be Blood Moon if it were not a cube thing as the card is so significant in constructed formats. Ornothopter felt like it merited the slot simply for its latent power and eventual ascension in Mirodin. Ball Lightning was a huge card back in the day but is no longer that much of a feature. Goblin Grenade is one of my favourite cards! Pendlehaven is probably the most playable of the options.. You are hard pushed to find more than 8 generally playable cards for un unpowered un-combo cube from this era but at least there are still uses for many of these lovely antiques.
9. High Tide
A narrow card but a mightily potent one in the right deck. Blue storm is one of my favourite decks to play and this is the cornerstone of it. I don't think cards like this are great in what they do for drafting cubes but that is the case for all the narrow build around things really. High Tide and decks using it certainly merit mention in power terms being not just one of the best combo decks in cube but also one of the best decks in all of magic.
8. Mishra's Factory
Like an old friend this card has always been there for me. It has been used in control and in aggro, it has been the main win condition for some lists! The very first manland managed to hit a lovely note for power level. The mere fact it has remained playable for 24 years without being overly oppressive at any point makes it seem like good design. Factory was one of few counterplays to Wraths for quite some time. I suspect the success of the card is the reason we now have a wealth of interesting manlands to choose from.
This is the only card printed in 94 that feels like a card printed in 93 with perhaps the exception of Strip Mine . Boomerang is simple and clean. It is also colour defining and fairly spot on for power level. Unlike Counterspell, two mana is the appropriate cost for a bounce spell. The only real advantage Boomerang has over other bounce spells that followed it is that it can hit lands. A well aimed early Boomerang on a land, despite the card disadvantage, can be more than enough to secure a victory. This game winning potential probably makes it the most powerful all round of the bounce options but newer quirkier versions like Cyclonic Rift and Into the Roil lend to a better gaming experience. Ideally what we need is a bounce spell that specifically targets planeswalkers, artifacts, creatures and enchantments such that it can hit man lands but without being oppressive for slower decks needing to hit every land drop.
6. Hymn to Tourach
Disruption in a brutal form and a cheap two for one. Hymn is very powerful indeed, it has won a lot of games randomly hitting lands. While still far above the power of what would be reasonable in standard, even modern, Hymn is not that big of a deal in cube any more. The heavy black is more of an issue, as is it being a potential dud in the late game or a significant tempo set back in the early game. Night's Whisper has been seeing a lot more play in my cube for a while now. All the premium discard in cube is now one mana or modal. Despite the high power level most people I play with now typically prefer a more consistent option.
5. Land Tax
This is arguably the most potent card advantage tool ever made. I suspect I have added more cards to my hand via Land Tax than any other card in magic, with a potential exception found further down this list (although that is more of a technicality) along with with Necropotence and Skullclamp too. Land Tax is one of those nice cards that gets away with being significantly above a reasonable power level due to it having no proactive or threatening components. Further to this Land Tax needs you to be behind in some respects to power up thus being somewhat of a catch up card. Anything that improves on the draw but still good enough to play when not is an interesting card that may help to improve the game which I would argue that Land Tax does despite its vast power level. Land Tax is something you need to build around to some degree which also keeps its power level a little better in check. Not only is it the most mana efficient way to increase your hand size without paying life or setting up an infinite combo but I think it probably also represents the biggest cards per card on average in all of magic. I love Land Tax, I love removing all the inactive draws from my deck, I love the way it can incite the "don't play lands" game. It is not just one of whites most powerful cards but also one of the most interesting it has on offer.
4. Force Spike
While very well balanced the Force Spike is a little polar as per many of the earlier cards. Force Spike can be a do nothing dud or it can win the game. I tend to prefer my cards with a lower range on their performance but Force Spike brings enough good to the table that I can forgive it easily. It is one of the only ways to effectively be safe on turn one as a blue mage. Island go while sat on Force Spike is a great feeling. Force Spike is all about the reads and bluffs and that is what makes it a great card. Playing around the card excessively is far worse than running something into it in most cases and that is where the intrigue comes from. As both 100% playing around the Spike and blinding running into it are pretty ruinous you need to hit the right balance and that makes it a nicely skill intense card. As easily dead cards go Force Spike is well positioned in blue as you can cash it in to some looting effect with relative ease. In the same way that Nekratal and Shriekmaw step on the toes of Doom Blade so too do things like Censor and Daze effect Force Spike. There is diminishing returns on how much value you can get from these effects in a deck and so each one beyond the first gets weaker. While Censor does not directly compete with Spike as they are on different points on the curve it does still make it a less played card overall. The beauty of Force Spike is that the less it gets played, the better it becomes. The less play it gets the less it is on people's radar and so the more value it typically gets.
3. Elves of Deep Shadow
An early example of design exploration and a lovely one at that. Llanowar Elves were just so spot on that tweaked iterations of them were pretty inevitable. This card is not just a balance win but also a big flavour one. Whenever you have some black costs in your green deck Elves of Deep Shadow are preferable to Llanowar Elves, when you don't then they are not! You can still play them off colour and they are OK. I feel like I have been waiting for over 20 years now for the rest of this cycle! Avacyn's Pilgrim is a fine card but it is not as well balanced or flavoured as these elegant old elves. Turns out green got about as many one mana ramp cards in the first three years of MtG as it did in the following twenty years!
2. Sylvan Library
This is the card I was referring too that is up there with Land Tax for extra cards drawn for me. It feels a bit like cheats counting library as two extra draws each turn as you have to put those extra draws back or pay a lot of life each time. I certainly have not payed 4 life more times than I have gotten a basic with Land Tax! Anyway, this card is supremely good. It is better than Divining Top for most uses. Only really miracles, Counterbalance synergy or artifact synergies prefer the Top. All other decks would just rather flop out a Library and not have to invest any further mana into it. I rate Library over Demonic Tutor in pretty much every non-combo application. The ongoing card quality is really hard to beat. It is very akin to playing against a Search for Azcanta. The longer the game goes on the lower your chances of beating the perpetual card quality cards and Library is absolutely up there with the best of them. It feels like you got an Anticipate for free every time you get to shuffle or mill your library. Against the slow decks you can just pump life into it as you see fit. While there are plenty of matches where I don't pay any life there are plenty more where I will draw multiple cards from the Library. On average the card more than replaces itself. Although most poor tempo plays have gotten worse over the years Library seems to be holding steady, if not improving. Green is getting more and more things that work with tops of library as well as things which manipulate it all of which help to empower this gem. Sylvan Library is not a million miles off Land Tax, both are above the curve but not being threats they get away with it rather more. Library doesn't need as much build consideration as Tax nor does it need you to be behind in any way to activate.
1. Chain Lightning
Quite a lot worse than Lightning Bolt yet nothing really to do with the text box. I have only seen the chaining of Chain Lightning be relevant on a couple of occasions and only once in a significant capacity. It is all about the difference between instant and sorcery. Broadly speaking this is the second best burn spell however I will frequently play a Burst Lightning or Searing Spear over it as the value of the instant speed is more important in that style of deck. In the more aggressive decks there is a lot less to choose between this and Bolt. Chain and Bolt, Path and Plow, Inquisition and Thoughtsieze, Birds and Hierarch, it seems like most of the colours have a pair of top notch colour defining cards that sit above the Ousts, Llanowar Elves, Shocks and Blackmails. I do not expect to see another one mana three damage spell without target restrictions or other notable drawbacks and unlike the one drop mana dorks this is not something I am sad about. It is simply too much of a return, too efficient, too much utility and too much tempo. Much as I don't think we want more things like Bolt and Chain I do not begrudge them in cube as they are so diluted by the other less efficient burn spells.