So 1999 catches the tail end of Urza's block (Legacy and Destiny) and as such looks quite similar to 1998. It has one card I have finally banned, as with '98, that being Grim Monolith. It is one of the least oppressive burst ramp cards but it is still just polar and not very fun so I culled it and have not regretted it at all. Other similarities with '98 include easily abused cards, grossly polar cards, and absurdly powerful cards. It is also a year that contributes a lot to combo decks including the best way to cheat out artifacts or enchantments (on separate cards). There are lots of cards that were once considered power houses like Yawgmoth's Bargain that now only feature in highly tailored decks. Portal Three Kingdoms adds some nice redundancy to some core effects but I have tried to avoid using them in cube mostly for price reasons. Two five mana Time Walks is plenty. Sorcery speed on Vampiric turns out to make it pretty weak and much as I would love another Nature's Lore I can manage with the many alternatives on offer.
As for Ravages of War, I have been on a mission culling polar cards from my cube, powerful things that don't give great games and are increasingly narrow. As it is something I am in the process of at the moment it feels all a bit early to jump in and say this is how it should be. Cube was built on the premise of the most powerful cards however once I jumped into the rabbit hole of cutting the original power I simply haven't found a sensible stopping point yet and 98 - 99 seems the current focus of things worth culling. I got all the way to Grim Monolith for pure power cuts which must be around 25 total cards that are simply too powerful for fun balanced games. While the bannings on power has increasingly slowed down over the years I have accelerated in terms of cutting many of the remaining top power level cards that are at all narrow and/or polar. Opposition is a great recent example. Very very powerful but increasingly hard to pull off and finding itself a home in ever fewer lists. Despite clearly being one of the most powerful cards in the cube everything about my cube has improved without it. This aim of cutting polar and narrower cards has made my lists for the years containing Urza's block a little disjointed. Hopefully this will be the last year I have to do two lists to properly communicate the feel and historical significance of the year. Perhaps original Mirrodin block will also need that kind of attention.
As per the last list I have done a top 15 combo cards and a top 10 conventional cards list starting with the combo one. Before that however I have a list of the remaining cards from the year that are still relevant for cube. Mercadien Masques gets a bad rap for being a very weak set and it was in many ways. For cube however it remains more relevant than many earlier sets largely due to the high frequency of alternate cost zero mana spells in the set. Masques certainly offers a lot more than Starter 1999! It does still however look pretty weak when compared to the Urza's block offerings. As you will see, there are some big names on this "remainders" list including the previously mentioned Opposition, all the good Three Kingdoms cards (excluding the widely available reprinted few) and a couple of other big names from the era. A number of these still see play in current cubes but I have tried to keep the top 10 lists to cards I actually run.
Burning of Xinye
Capture of Jingzhou
Control the Court
Ravages of War
Peat Bog, Sandstone Needle etc
Squee, Goblin Nabob
Well here goes the combo list although as you can see from the remainders list there are a lot of combo tools from this era. Some very potent sideboard cards too. It is noteworthy that dedicated hate cards saw a lot less print after 1999. Hate cards printed now don't tend to hose colours or general strategies, instead they focus on hampering mechanisms that are easily abused. Generally that is for the best. It was never fun waiting till turn five to Disenchant that Gloom they made on turn one...
15. Food Chain
This is not a common combo card nor does it have loads of places in which it is played (Goblins!). I have it here because it seems so inherently potent. It is a card that is not yet done. I fully anticipate this working well with the kinds of things we see printed these days and being a centerpiece in a new combo build. Hopefully some clever legacy brewmaster will highlight this new strategy so I can use it as a basis for a cube build. In my final edit I somehow only just noticed I left Palinchron off this list and it should very much be on it! Probably higher than 15th too. One of the easiest infinite mana tools you can find.
14. Imperial Recruiter
Useful in a couple of combos but only really great in Aluren where being a creature empowers it. Otherwise you have a crappy slow 3 mana tutor and a broadly useless 1/1 body. In cube you need cards like this to make some combos consistent enough such as Splinter Twin. It is a sad need rather than a happy want however. A nice fair card to have as an option at least and a very welcome reprint this year.
This has been out of favour for a while in cube but I somewhat expect it to make a comeback and merit a slot on the other list soon. I think what made Unmask weak four or so years ago is that black was a very weak color in my cube. This simply meant you either didn't have the black cards to support the pitch cost or you had a bad deck because it was full of black cards! Black is a pretty solid combo colour in cube and so in a more combo driven format Unmask performs very well at both forcing through your own combo or disrupting other peoples. Black is pretty starved for good discard so that furthers the appeal of this little gem. A card for 2 life and a mana sounds pretty fair and so this compares to Thoughtsieze. The more cards like Arguel's Blood Fast we get the more this sort of thing will appeal.
12. Cloud of Faeries + Snap
It feels like a bit of a cheat putting two cards in one slot but they do typically come as a pair. These cards are only really good in a storm deck where they can help boost a storm count by three and generate a significant amount of mana. With just a Sapphire Medallion out you generate three mana (Black Lotus?). With a High Tide you get six mana extra! In a world where you can't play multiples of things like Turn About then these tools look quite attractive. Both also have a bunch of alternative utility.
11. Crop Rotation
This is a very potent little tutor being instant and putting the target into play! I have splashed green into decks before simply for Crop Rotation, all be it exclusively when I am abusing Tolarian Academy. More recently in unpowered settings Crop Rotation will either find the Dark Depths Thespian Stage combo or it will help speed up elf combo decks finding their Cradle.
10. Yawgmoth's Bargain
Bargain was a big deal for a very long time. It was the ultimate draw tool often with the ability to draw your whole deck! That made it not far off a tutor as well. Great for going off with, great in most places when the format is slow. Now the format is not slow and Bargain is a super narrow card showing up in very few places. Even Ad Nauseam sees more play now in cube. While still one of the best effects in the game the upfront cost of six is immensely prohibitive. If you have six mana to blow on something you can just win the game and that is a large part of the problem for Bargain now.
9. Imperial Seal
Given how good Vampiric Tutor is and how much play it sees I would expect Seal to see a lot more. Chain Lightning sees about as much play as Bolt for example. This just almost never sees play despite feeling like it is one of the premium tutor effects. Certainly sorcery speed hurts this more than a lot of spell types as you need a draw spell to pair with this so as to avoid waiting a turn and that consumes even more mana. A big strength of Vamp is doing it at end of turn so you have full mana on your following turn without giving your opponent much time to reach and having maximum information yourself. Imperial Seal feels like you are setting yourself up to fail. Other than something like a Counterspell I think Imperial Seal is the card that is made most worse when compared to an instant version of itself.
8. Academy Rector
There are a lot of applications for this little lady. You can flop her down and stop a lot of creatures attacking through the fear of what she might find. You can use her as a tutor or you can use her as a way to cheat things in for a massive mana saving. In cube almost every combo deck involving white and enchantments (and most of either of those involve the other) will run Rector in some capacity. Rector is a funny one in that you need to pair her with a sac outlet for a number of her uses. Unlike something such as Natural Order Rector will not two for one you in order to find your enchantment but it does rather depend on how you put her sacrifice to good use. The best is almost always Cabal Therapy although Goblin Bombardment is a concise way to do so in the Enduring Renewal combos. Yawgmoth's Bargain used to be one of the premier targets to find but these days it is combo pieces for the most part. Expensive cards like Omniscience and Decree of Silence are nice but simple things like Aluren, Opalessence and Sigil of the Empty Throne are more common.
This is an incredibly potent effect indeed and has a lot of the perks that Rector has. As enchantments are a bit more uncommon in a general sense with by far and away the highest proportion of do nothing cards the cards that interact with them are undercost accordingly. Take Erase for example, the most potent spot removal on offer and it is barely ever played anywhere. Back to Nature is a 2 mana instant speed Day of Judgement equivalent! The undercost reactive spells are not something you can abuse but the proactive ones are! Replenish may be used simply as a cost effect way to get back countered or otherwise removed combo pieces. It may be used as half of a tutor with something like an Entomb or just self mill and discard. Replenish may be used as a finisher to put several combo pieces into play at once or just for an overwhelming Opalessence style kill. It can even be used just for a bit of value. A narrow card in that you need to build around it heavily and with unusual cards but a card with a lot of different places in which you want it.
6. Memory Jar
Jar is a bit of a silly card. It looks like it is made fair by costing a decent amount and being symmetrical but the reality is that both of those fail safes are shoddy. Either you cheat out the Jar for minor cost or you just wait on cracking it until you untap and have loads of mana for your new hand of cards. Having only a turn with your new cards shatters the illusion of symmetry as you obviously use the Jar in your turn on most occasions rendering all but the instant speed cards your opponent draws irrelevant. I have had people scoop to Jar activations because of what randomly gets milled from their deck! Jar would probably be fairer if it only did your hand! You couldn't offensively use it to mill then. Jar, like Bargain, is all a bit slow to run as a stand alone these days. You need the support for it. Like so many cards of this era however, with the support the card is just silly. You could probably print Jar or something like it in current standard and it wouldn't be that oppressive. It was printing it with Tolarian Academy and the rest of the cards on this list that was so very daft. I think I am right in saying Jar is the only card to have received a ban announcement prior to its release although still not in time to wreck at least one event.
5. Metal Worker
This guy is slow and easily disrupted when compared to the likes of Mana Vault. The pay off however is basically infinite mana. In the right deck if you untap with a hand and a Metal Worker then you should win with ease. The old Mishra's Workshop into Metal Worker turn one play is about as scary as it gets. The follow up could very easily be a Lightning Greaves and a Blightsteel Colossus for a turn two stomping. Metal Worker is one of the most extreme mana producers in the game. Recently big cards like Ugin, Karn and the Eldrazi have hit the effectiveness of Worker. He might now be narrower but he is no less powerful.
4. Goblin Welder
This is another one of those stupid cards. In what world is this a one mana effect? Either you are locking people out of the game with Tangle Wire and the like or you are milking value and mana out of cards like Mana Vault and Solemn Simulacrum or you are just winning the game with threats like Myr Battlesphere and Wurmcoil Engine. Welder has the ongoing threat of something like Recurring Nightmare and he also has the speed of something like Exhume. Goblin Welder is one of the most must kill cards you will find. Metal Worker needs a hand and typically is only a must kill in the early to mid game. Welder just has to die in almost every situation. While it is hard to pick which year of 98 or 99 is more oppressive it is certainly fair to say that 99 has far too many must kill little dorks.
I was very close to having this in the other list as it is a more generally playable card than most of the things on this list. I don't presently have this in my cube nor do I have Careful Study however there is merit to both in a world with good delve spells and the like. Black Lotus with two loots sounds pretty good! With more prowess, flashback, delve, delirium and so forth I could well see Frantic Search performing well in midrange cubes like mine some day soon. In combo cubes it is an all star. Most combo decks can take advantage of at least one aspect of the cards unique functions. Failing that a free draw two spell is rarely going to passed up. Probably at its best in storm decks where it will often generate mana rather than just being free.
1. Grim Monolith
It might seem fair and tame but it turns out burst mana is the most abusable thing in magic because it it the fuel for everything else. Once you have mana you can do anything. If you need to recoup cards you can do that, if you just want to win the game instead then you can do so in whatever way takes you fancy. Simply put, the more mana you have the more power your deck can generate and thus the quicker or more assuredly it can win. Grim lets you play a six drop on turn three and that will randomly ruin a lot of games.
10. Treetop Village
Village was the best of this cycle and remains one of the most efficient ways to beat down with lands. Not only do you get X attacking power for X mana spent (which is the best return you can find on any man land) but you also get trample which is lovely. Two things have hurt Village for cube use. A huge increase in the importance of tempo has made EtB tapped lands something you really can't afford in any quantity. Usually these few slots you can afford EtB lands in will go towards fixing. The second thing to hurt Village is simply space. We have so many good cards now for cube and only the most playable of the cards merit inclusion. Village has become increasingly narrow in that you only want it over other cards (including Forest) in mono green decks and that simply isn't enough homes for a card to have a slot. It used to just be a free bonus in a deck, now that pick is missed in a draft, the slot is noticed in the booster and the card is far less free in your deck.
Sadly Gush is also becoming increasingly unplayable. In any normal deck by the time you can safely bounce two lands you might as well just pay the five! That is not always strictly true but enough that the card is pretty narrow. Gush is one of those odd support cards like Frantic Search that is most abusive in specific combo decks but still has a sufficiently generally useful effect (drawing cards!) that you can play them most places. It is not impossible that prowess style mechanics get to good that Gush is worth running again in a more standard cube. I spent far too long debating with myself which list for this year Gush should be on! I still don't really know, it is certainly best as a combo card but it is not exclusive to combo. Perhaps a clean swap with Unmask is what I should have done....
8. Yawimaya Elder
This was the original value dork. It was a three for one in green! Sometimes even a four for one, made more likely at the time with combat damage stacking. Elder is still a fine all round card but it has a lot of competition now that means it usually isn't the best option. Elder is one of the slowest value dorks and with Courser or Kruphix, Jadelight Ranger, Tireless Tracker and many more now on offer it is hard to justify a cube slot to Elder for any reason other than nostalgia. A good card but like Shock, not as good as too many alternatives!
7. Snuff Out
Doom Blade at twice the price with a simple pitch cost. All round this is a really well designed and balanced card which is pretty impressive for a zero mana spell. Typically such things are either broken or rubbish. The controlling a swamp clause ensures that colour pie identity is kept and is exactly the safety net they should have used with a wide number of the Phyrexian mana spells. This is a rare example of a good design aspect that was then later dropped. Snuff Out is one of many options on pitch removal in black but it feels like it should see more play than it does. I suspect that mildly poor scaling with other Doom Blade restriction removal (which is the most frequent limitation on black removal) is what keeps this at the lower end of the "amount of play" ranking tables. All round it feels like the best of the free black removal.
I still have this in my drafting cube but I am itching to cut it. Certainly Fractured Identity is a far safer and more powerful card that has taken a lot of the play time Treachery once enjoyed and that is part of my justification. Mostly it is that Treachery is one of those poorly designed old polar cards that just are not fun to play with. Either I have loads of tapped one drops and a Goblin Bombardment and your Treachery looks like the nut low or I have just tapped out to make a Wurmcoil in my midrange deck and Treachery is game over. It is such a swingy card that playing it usually ensures one player loses as a result. The average performance of the card is fine, if anything it is under par for cube. The top end is about as good as it gets but that is not what leads to good magic. It is certainly good enough for cubes but it is also overrated.
5. Bone Shredder
Somehow this little dork worked its way back into the cube and stayed there! While very much the weakest overall value in any of the 187 dorks black has to offer the Shredder is the cheapest and is desirable on that front pretty often. In many ways it is the black Sakura Tribe Elder. Rather than Rampant Growth it is Terror but you still get your 1/1 chump and Shredder can chump fliers too! The flying is pretty significant and is one of the only things that leads to the echo getting paid. Even a 1/1 will apply relevant pressure to planeswalkers. A useful little utility card frequently picked up by decks wishing to sacrifice creatures for some return. It is funny, as a sum of its parts Bone Shredder has to be one of the weakest cards in cube. A Flying Man and a Terror for double the cost! Two weak cards rolled into one more appealing package! It is the broad array of options that Bone Shredder provides that keep it playable.
4. Strategic Planning
This is the only Three Kingdoms card on the main list and that is because it now enjoys a common reprint and isn't awkward to get hold of. This is a funny card, in many ways it is a bad Anticipate which itself it not an exciting card. What pushes Planning above and beyond such things is the current strength of delve, delirium and other graveyard based mechanisms. When your planning effectively draws you more than one card due to your Ramunap Excavator or costs you zero mana due to your later delve spell then it is starting to look rather good. You don't need to improve much on an OK cheap card for it to become a great card.
3. Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary
After a short stint of two good cards that enhance the game we will end on a run of tedious cards that represent bad design. This guy is a must kill on curve. Turn two Rofellos usually leads to five and six drops the following turn which isn't going to be pretty. In a powered cube this is fine, it lets green keep up but in an unpowered cube it is one of those potential free win cards. If they fail to pass the "do you have an answer now?" test then you are in a great spot. If they pass then you get to carry on your game in relative normality. Rofellos looks very fair, tame and sensible compared to Cradle as he is slower and significantly more vulnerable but he still isn't a good card as such. The main advantage Rofellos has over Cradle is that he can do it all on his own. Rofellos can bait out a Wrath on his own while against a Cradle play Wrath is usually pretty devastating. Rofellos lets you have access to big mana without having to go all in on that plan.
2. Rishadan Port
A lot fairer than Wasteland but still a rather tedious card. While it costs the user twice as much mana as it denies it is all about the control Port gives you. It allows you to curve out as you wish while putting spanners in the works of your opponent. You don't have to hurt your ultimate mana potential and you don't have to commit as you do with Wastelands. Port is incredibly potent in control mirrors where it gives a pretty significant effective mana advantage on those few critical turns. It is a superb counter to manlands. All round Port is just a very strong and tedious card. It is a real cost adding colourless lands into your decks but Port is one of the few lands that merit this cost. It is relevant early in the game and continues to be so throughout. The thing I dislike about the card is how punishing it is against players on the draw. If I am on the play and I make a two power on drop and then just start Porting you down there after I am not far off a nice free Time Walk!
1. Mother of Runes
Yet another must kill dork. Mother destroys decks low on removal and really punishes any deck without mass removal when they don't have their spot removal right away. Mother was always top tier power level but I have only started to resent her more recently. Against red decks with loads of cheap burn or a few cards like Walking Ballista the Mother is pretty irrelevant. If however you happen to be a clunkier black deck that didn't quite have the removal in time then the combination of tempo loss and card disadvantage will probably kill you. Mother of Runes is horrifically polarizing. It is bad when a five drop card is polar but it is a lot more frequently damaging when you have such a polar, yet highly powerful and playable one drop. Against some decks Mother not only gives you a Knight-Errant emblem but it also gives you mental reach with the ability to force through their blockers. I have even attacked people with Mother for the win! Hard to really hate on white too much, I don't expect many more years with my number one slot going to a white card. Path to Exile year perhaps?