Looking back on 2001 there are some very big names for early cubes. A lot of the big names in creatures of the day as well as some impressively desirable spells hark from this year. While I am now down to a mere five cards from 2001 left in my drafting cube, 2001 is rather more impressive than that suggests. Many cards find themselves flickering in and out of the cube from this year. Many more are linchpin cards in constructed cube strategies. This was the first year they really started to push gold cards and give them a sufficient boost of power over mono coloured cards and that shows. While most of the gold cards from this era have now been surpassed you can still see the high numbers of them sitting in the reserves and how well they hold up compared to the cards of today. Although the five cards of 2001 doesn't sounds much more impressive than the four cards from 2000 the reality is very different and this year marked a large step up in power from the last. More over it was a step up of power in the right kind of way. It was a move towards Search for Azcanta and a move away from Tolarian Academy and that is a big win.
Planeshift didn't bring much to the table, or doesn't anymore now that the creatures have been power crept out of viability. Remember when Flame Tongue Kavu was the best thing you could find in a booster? When it was pretty much the best creature in the game? When it was so good it got an acronym! Apocalypse brings some nice enemy coloured dual cards and Odyssey brings some lovely new mechanically themed cards. Odyssey is when the graveyard started to matter for more than just one archetype, when it become a relevant part of the game and that aspect of magic has continued to grow and improve the game. As ever, before our top ten I have the list of cards that are cube relevant that didn't make the list;
Flame Tongue Kavu
Rites of Initiation
Braids, Cabal Minion
Original Filter Lands
Life / Death
Lord of the Undead
Words of Wisdom
10. Phyrexian Arena
I kind of wanted to give the 10th spot to Peek, the card certainly has a higher chance of returning to my cube than Arena and another card or so on this list too! Peek is just a nice useful fair little filler card. Phyrexian Arena is also quite a fair card but it is not at all a filler card, you have to build around it and you have to do so quite carefully. It is Necropotence light as far as I am concerned. Card draw for the faint hearted! Certainly Arena has its place and does outperform Necro in plenty of places. For one thing you can expect to cast Arena in decks that are not entirely black. Arena is typically a safer card to use in control and midrange decks. It was a big name back when tempo wasn't so serious. Now Arena is just too slow and painful to easily utilize as a source of card advantage. Cheaper alternatives like Confidant or those that provide utility like Arguel's Blood Fast are the way to go usually.
9. Pernicious Deed
This used to be the premium in mass removal and control technology. I have seen many a blue deck splashing both black and green for Deed in the past. Deed is still a good control tool these days but more so in the control of combo decks than against aggro or control ones. Two things have combined to topple this mighty card of yesteryear. One is as ever the uptick in tempo in the world of magic. The other is the arrival of planeswalkers which Deed cannot destroy. Deed used to offer all the perks of a Wrath of God that you could use at instant speed and that was well worth spending two turns of mana on. Now if you try and spend 7 mana to kill a four drop you are probably going to loose that game. Deed would let you sit there even or slightly behind and effectively time walk your opponent because if they ran anything into the Deed you would blow it up and get bonus value from it and then get to untap and use mana first. Now if you try this trick out you will open up a perfect window for them to flop a planeswalker onto the board and put the Deed player well behind.
A lot of decks can't handle having their non-land permanents reset, almost none can recover from a full board reset. Especially when the Upheaval player always "gets to go first" and typically has a bunch of mana pooled. Upheaval basically says, "restart the game, go first, and get a Black Lotus extra free for every couple of turns you hold off past like turn 5 on said Upheaval". A burn heavy red deck that has gotten the Upheaval player to low life might recover, nothing else really has much of a shot. Upheaval is an overly oppressive card that greatly limited design space in older cubes. Simply put a midrange deck couldn't really ever beat it. It isn't like other cards you can't beat either, in a powered cube it is pretty much a first pick card. You are super likely to face someone with it and super unlikely to win. Upheaval is one of the most format shaping cards. Now in fair magic the card is rather too hard to get working. It just takes too long to get to the mana levels you want for it but as soon as you start to couple it with Mana Vault, Grim Monolith and other such cards then it is just stupidly potent. It is one of those Yagmoth's Will level of cards that goes from being first pick power level when it has the right support all the way to basically unplayable in the fair cubes. Upheaval represents one of the last printings of a highly powerful effect that tries to use symmetry to balance it and that feels like it is probably a good thing!
7. Reckless Charge
This is one of the most efficient damage output tools in all of magic. Baseline is Lightning Bolt quality on the 3 damage for a single mana. Then you have an impressively cheap flashback cost allowing you to get another 3 in for a still respectable 3 mana. Then you have potentially infinite scaling with the giving haste to things. Even if this is just a 1 power dork you haste up each time that is still a significant boost to the effectiveness of the card. The average damage for Charge in a game in which it is cast is probably under 6 but mostly because it is sufficiently strong that a lot of games will just be over before you come to cast it the second time round! The games in which it is cast twice are probably closer to the 8 damage mark. Super super effective! Charging up doublestrike dorks gets pretty filthy too! The damage isn't the only great thing about Charge, it gives you relevant options and hidden information. When your opponent isn't playing around the potential for any dork in your deck to have haste then they can be punished. So, with all this in mind, why is Reckless Charge not such a cube mainstay any more these days? Simply put, the combination of being narrow and situational, even if only a little on both. It is only face damage and cannot be turned on enemy creatures like Searing Spear so unless your deck wants Lava Spike it probably doesn't want Reckless Charge all that much. Secondly, you need a dork for it to be useful, one that can connect ideally. This means that even pure face decks can't always run Charge due to lack of dorks. Even in the perfect deck you will still have those instances where you lack a good target and your Charge is dead. You want consistency and Reckless Charge doesn't offer it enough, even despite it's pretty silly power level.
6. Careful Study
Simple and effective. Mostly a combo card these days for it's efficient graveyard filling potential in concert with its significant draw for the mana. Typically Thoughtscour effects are preferable as ways to fuel delve and delirium in cube due to being card neutral. Study is sufficiently cheap and direct however that I really wouldn't be surprised to see it making a return and perhaps ousting a card like Strategic Planning. Back in the day madness was sufficiently strong that Study was used in aggro decks as well as the combo ones. Study was widely played, quite highly picked, and just a great support card for a vast array of decks. What is so great about Careful Study is that is has all this range yet it is a super fair card. It has never once felt over powered or oppressive. It is cheap, it does things and it provides lots of choices. It is the only blue card quality spell (excluding Frantic Search) ever to have seen play in my cube that is card disadvantage and that feels like it says quite a lot.
A low key card but a versatile one. The value of Predict is mostly in that it is instant speed. When you are representing countermagic having a Predict to spend mana on if denial isn't needed is a great position to be in. In concert with cards that provide the right information Predict is one of the cheapest card drawing 2 for 1 spells on offer. It is also reasonable graveyard fuel usually putting two cards in the bin rather than one. The brutal Predict is when you not only counterspell their Vampiric Tutor but also guess what they Tutored for and get that extra draw as well! Much better than Shadow of Doubt! Predict is the control player's Chart a Course. The card sees legacy play which is testament to it's potency.
A rather legendary card. This was actually an issue for me at the time as it somewhat priced me out of constructed. Spectral Lynx being the premium two drop dork of the era and sharing guilds with Vindicate meant simply that all the good decks were black and white. You could run Mardu, or Esper or Abzan. You could even run a risky four or more colour greed deck, just so long as it had black and white mana in it. That meant every constructed deck needed 12 rares (those plus Caves of Koilos) and with Vindicate being a good £15 a go and the others not being cheap combined with the fact that no one had spare to lend as they were all running their copies was an issue for cheapskate old me. Vindicate is actually a remarkably fair card with the only unfair thing it does being Stone Rain which will lead to the odd free win. Vindicate isn't really a big deal in cube any more, you would prefer Council's Judgement if you can easily support the double white. Even Anguished Unmaking and Hero's Downfall seems to see more play too. At physically killing things Vindicate is hard to get much of an advantage with. It costs more than the average thing in cube, is a mere destroy and at sorcery speed. With Vindicate you pay for versatility and that is all well and good. Being ahead on the board with Vindicate in hand is one of the best places to be.
Pew pew. Lovely little card, very fair but also the perfect example of why flashback is such a good mechanic. It is not a direct comparison but the flashback adds more value than you lose from going from instant to sorcery. Normally you loose a huge amount of option density with that transition however you also gain loads of option density with the flashback aspect, all be it options in a rather different form. You also gain a small amount of synergy with discard and prowess themed cards. Five mana for two damage is a pretty terrible deal and six mana for four damage is hardly strong. It is all made good by being a free option and that sorcery speed Shock is an OK card to have in your deck. Not far off a perfect card at all from a design point of view. Great power level and a very positive effect on games. Firebolt is not a polar card, quite the opposite. It is simple, elegant, fair and consistent.
2. Fire / Ice
I used to consider this one of the most playable and most auto include cards in any Izzet deck. I have played more Fire / Ice with no ability to cast one half of the card more than I have played most other whole cards! Fire / Ice is still a great card that still goes in most decks able to play it but it is loosing that auto include status rather. Fire is great but we have loads of things that do it slightly more efficiently in Arc Trail, Forked Bolt and so forth. It is good tempo when it lands good (two for ones) and just OK tempo when it just takes out one thing. The change in Ice is probably more significant. It used to be a card neutral, positive tempo play even if you were just hitting lands with it. Now it feels like it is tempo neutral as well. It is rare to get much of an advantage using Ice now and overall the card feels like a Chandra's Pyrohelix with cycling, which is still great, but much more of a filler card than it used to be.
I know the other half of the cycle got the number one slot for 1995 but still, pain lands still seem to be the most underrated dual lands in magic. The Modo cube isn't doing much to promote them either choosing to run check lands over them! The thing that makes that worse is that the modo cube is so badly designed in that it has far far far too few one drops that you don't even notice how much weaker check lands are than pain lands. And that is not to say check lands are bad, they are great, it is just pain lands are rather better. Quick lands are a little better in aggro decks and check lands are a little better in control decks however pain lands win out in the middle ground and would have a better average performance than checks or quick lands even if you only looked at aggro and control and ignored the midrange. I am at the stage where I run Mana Confluence and City of Brass in every two colour aggro deck I make and pain lands are much better! Enemy pain lands represented a change of direction in design that greatly improved the game. For some reason it was thought that opposing colours should be nerfed in the consistency department, for flavour reasons I guess? Enemy pain lands are the first printing of enemy colour dual lands (that don't suck all the arse as per the Salt Flats cycle) since the original duals. I guess we do typically have to wait about 6 years still to get our off colour duals after we first see a cycle as most still come out allied colours only. Still, this being the first example and City of Brass being your only alternative in most formats at the time was a real chore and made those six years feel like an eternity. I think price is perhaps one of the main factors in people underrating these when compared to other pricier duals. Usually price is in line with power ergo the pricier duals should cost more. Given how many printings pain lands have had and how little play they see in most constructed formats they are worth very little which perhaps gives them a bad image. No cube should be without a full set of 10 pain lands. Or no cube in which they are legal, I guess pauper cubes have an excuse not to run them... Stupid pauper, ruin my pithy ending.