This top list is a little different to normal, mostly due to not being about cards! Obviously this list is not about power as rating the power of key words is meaningless. The cost and way it appears on a card determines the power of that card. This list is looking at the design and rating the keywords on that basis. Mechanisms that lead to better magic and better matches are what I am looking for. As with all things magic that means greater consistency, greater options and avoiding the overly polar. It involves interaction where possible too.
A quick honorable mention to kicker. It was the first of the cost variance modal mechanisms and was a very welcome addition at the time. We now have generally more interesting and exciting alternatives for cost varying on cards but we have the success of kicker to thank for them. I would like to see provoke revisited too, if nothing else I feel that green could really do with some decent provokers!
This is quite an old mechanic now. Being one exclusive to creatures and not being an evergreen one most of the persist creatures have become too weak for cube. I have chosen persist although I somewhat consider undying and even things that just leave behind tokens when they leave play or die to all be in the same sort of group. I really like the dynamic of creatures that are harder to get out of play. I like how they tax removal and differentiate the value of different types of removal. Specifically for undying and persist I like the interaction with other plus and minus counters and that what is left in play is a real physical card and actively bad to bounce or flicker compared to tokens. I think that creatures that need killing twice add a great depth to board positions and how you trade off a board. A persist creature can empower cards of your own like a Recurring Nightmare while depowering cards of your opponents like a Wrath of God. They make seemingly obvious choices actually interesting. If you are getting beaten up do you block your 2/1 on their 2/1 or their 3/2? Easy question until that 3/2 is a Kitchen Finks, then you might choose to block the 2/1 and face only 3 power of attackers the following turn rather than the four you would face if you trade with the first part of the Finks.
14. Level Up
This is another mechanic that is feeling it's age. When Rise first came out I had nearly a third of the level up dorks in the cube and they were some of the best dorks you could get. Now I am down to just two and they are pretty tame and fair. If anything the original level up dork, Figure of Destiny, remains the best despite not being an actual level up dork. The ability to "level up" at instant speed it pretty huge. At the time instant speed level up dorks would have been very over powered but now those cards would all just be inline with current creature power level. None of this is to say why this mechanic is so good which is a pretty simple one. It is all about the consistency backed up by decent option density. A level up creature offers you a typically cheap and low impact card that turns into a serious threat with enough mana dumped into them. They are rarely great returns on the mana but being able to spend it in small increments gives you incredible mana efficiency as well as more options. You get to have a top end threat and a low curve play in the same card. They help you out in floods and in screws and that is huge. Level up creatures help with curves and give you some nice wiggle room in the ratios of your decks components.
I was considering having haste on this list as it is one of the few ways you can have generic larger dorks being playable. Creatures without EtB or on death value triggers or at least some serious protection abilities/effects that cost too much are typically total liabilities. I often call it the Jace test and you don't want to fail it at four mana and up. I make a Hill Giant, you make a Jace and bounce my Hill Giant and I have probably just lost. If I am making a Talruum Minotaur not only am I three damage up but you can't make a Jace and bounce the 3/3 as I will just remake it and kill your Jace. Haste is great, it basically makes a spell effect out of any generic beater dork. The thing is haste is very powerful and rather basic. There isn't all that much in the way of exotic plays one can do with haste, the most interesting is not attacking because you need a blocker and then usually feels awful. Haste is sufficiently good of a mechanic that you have to pay for it. Dash affords some of the perks of haste and some more unique to it but it isn't so potent a mechanic at baseline that you need to pay for it as it were. You can add a dash mode to most cards (without EtB effects) and assuming the dash mode isn't itself wildly under cost the card will remain pretty fair. Whether or not to dash is a significant choice. You get more immediate damage with a dash but you are not developing the board to do so. Perhaps you don't want to develop the board as you are playing around a mass removal sorcery and that is great, that is one of the huge strengths of dash, even over haste. Most of the time you do want to develop the board but you also want to pressure as much as you can. You have to balance your potential mana needs on subsequent turns. These relevant options make dash interesting as well as good.
In many ways evoke offers the same things as level up but in complete reverse. Like level up, evoke has an impressive rate of cube viable cards with nearly half of all the cards in magic with evoke having seen cube play. Evoke is the same as level up in that they provide consistency through having a top end and a low end mode. A lot of the power of evoke however comes from synergies. Sometimes it is just nice to have a spell effect on a creature, especially when you get to use it at spell level mana costs. Being a creature typically makes it easier to finf and more easily reused. Sometimes what you want is the effect of a dying creature so as to flip your Liliana, Heretical Healer! Other times you just need a dork in the bin. Evoke just winds up having a lot of useful interactions. Evoke cards keep decks dynamic. I would like to see more evoke cards with a nice range of core colour effects on them. Evoke cards do not need to be very high powered to be good cards, neither end needs to be above curve, just playable. The convenience the mechanism affords is worth a cut in power level.
I love a free spell however I also love balance and fair cards and these two things are rather at odds. There are a few mechanics however that do allow for free spells without being far far too good or plain rubbish. Convoke is (one of) the best of those mechanics, it is a very real cost but it is an optional one. It cannot be abused and powered out too early, convoke only offers any sort of discount once you have developed a board making it a nice midgame effect. Sadly the more expensive convoke spells are really only playable in token themed decks and so despite there being a lot of convoke cards on offer fairly few of them are relevant for cube for being too narrow. More in the way of cheaper interactive convoke cards would be lovely. Convoke is relatively low on this list due to how few good and generally playable convoke cards that exist. It is hard to make good cards with the mechanic and so the restricted design space convoke has to work with holds it back. Really you need cards with convoke to be playable at base cost, both in terms of value and physically. A lot of aggressive decks with creatures in them want to stop their curve at 3 or 4 if they can and so a five or six mana convoke card isn't something that can physically be cast in a useful time frame without dorks to power it out. Cards like that are just needlessly dangerous inclusions.
Delve might seem like a surprise entry on this list as many of the delve cards are oppressively overpowered. Certainly some of the Khans delve cards are on the extreme side but it wouldn't take much tweaking to bring them inline. I like the idea of capping your delve use on a spell but not just with coloured mana. I like the idea of having cheaper cards with calmer effects with delve on them. Treasure Cruise would be more than fair if you couldn't reduce the cost below 2U or if it was just a Thoughcast but replacing the affinity for delve. What I like about delve is two fold. I like how it interacts with graveyard mechanics and poses some interesting choices in the form of sacrifices. Do I want the option on flashing back this Firebolt later on in the game or do I want an extra mana now? I also just like cost reduction effects. I love a dynamic casting cost or mana range as is perhaps clear from this list! Delve is a real resource consumption and it takes some setup to get there. You cannot play too many delve cards nor can you play them in decks not somehow building up a graveyard with some level of speed and consistency and expect them to be good. Delve presents lots of options and has interactions in all sorts of places. It is the considered use requirement in addition to the wealth of choices delve engenders that makes me rate it so highly. I would like to see more of it but typically on cheaper, calmer, less proactive cards. Ancestral Recall is a bit much even if it takes a bit of setup. While it might take roughly as long on average to resolve Ancestral Visions as it does to put seven things in your graveyard the massive difference is that you can prepare a full yard without a Cruise, you cannot claim time served on a suspend card! Delve is a much more playable way of curtailing early use of cards than suspend is and indeed another aspect of design use for the mechanic.
Fundamentally this mechanic was always going to be a winner as it has the prerequisite of being on a modular card. Modular cards; Charms, Confluences and Commands, are some of the best (cube) cards going. They bring much needed flexibility to the format. Escalate is pretty much the best of these kinds of cards as you can get a cheap mode as per Charms or you can invest more heavily and have a more Command like effect. What makes escalate even more interesting is the alternate cost nature of many of the cards. Some use mana and have the feel of an X spell or a level up card not in the form of a permanent! Others use alternate costs and make for even more interesting and dynamic cards. If I was just rating mechanics based on how well cards with that mechanic do in a cube environment then escalate would win hands down. Half the cards with escalate have seen a good amount of cube play since they were released and even more impressively the other half wouldn't be bad cards in cube, they would all see some play and do some valuable work. Sadly a big part of the reason for the impressive showing on escalate cards is that there is only eight of them. It is one of the mechanics that I most want to see further explored.
I am generally a fan of the mechanics that utilize the graveyard for the extra dimensions they bring to the game. I also like the interplay between the various graveyard mechanics and how they tend to have both positive and negative synergies. Self mill effects both empower delirium and delve for example however subsequently delving might remove your delirium. What I like most about delirium and cards like Tarmogoyf and Emrakul, the Promised End is that they make you consider a whole new aspect of deck design. While not the most important element of deck design when playing delirium cards it is still significant to consider your balance of card types and how easily you are able to get them in the bin. That will determine the power level of a fair number of cards you could well be playing in cube. With clever picking and deck building you can empower delirium cards significantly without compromising the rest of the deck. State based effect mechanisms are interesting and afford lots of extra design space. Threshold and ascend are both decent but they are linear and have less involvement than delirium. Both are more direct in deck design and how you are able to get there and that makes them more archetype locked, delirium can be slipped into a lot of builds.
While perhaps a little oppressive in limited due to the way it often forced a race that is something that can easily be solved with sensible design and allocation of the mechanic. What makes exert so interesting is the way it adds another element to combat. Rather than just being a completely linear me, you, me, you, etc. attack rhythm exert creatures are able to alter the flow. Over two turns a creature with exert has four different modes it can attack in on top of the option to not attack which is all other creatures ever get to do. Exert adds a huge degree of option density to the simplest of dorks and thus a good amount of complexity in how both players must plan and consider combat. In much the same sort of way that persist makes the dance of removal and threat more interesting and involved, exert has that effect on the attack step. Exert lets you get an extra effect for an unusual cost and I am a fan of unusual costs. Exert is the closest thing to a loan you can really do in magic, that or echo I guess. You essentially borrow from the next turn to empower the attack this turn. It is like dash except not linked to mana, rather than forcing you to pay more mana to empower your dork exert simply costs you time with access to your dork that you paid mana and a card for.
What I like most about prowess is how it brings the hidden information aspect of magic into combat. You need combat tricks or specific circumstances plus instant removal for combat to have any hidden component. So often combat is a logic puzzle that can be solved. In any given format you know what combat tricks people might have, which is usually none, and so combat is a fairly nice safe space. That extra dimension of probability and gaining reads on people is something I like a lot about magic and I like having it in combat and prowess offers this nicely. I don't need to run combat tricks in order that I can represent with my prowess dorks. I love running into a 2/3 blocker with my 1/2 prowess dork and just getting in free damage due to the fear! Prowess turns all your Opts and Impulses into little combat tricks and that really lets you play some magic. I felt like a king yesterday for killing a True Name Nemesis with a Monastery Swiftspear. I ran it in as a 1/2 and unsurprisingly my opponent blocked it, I then fired off both halves of a Lava Dart and lastly a Wild Slash all at my opponents face. The ferocious trigger was activated by my now 4/5 monk meaning that damage was no longer preventable which meant that protection from me no longer prevented damage from my stuff and so the 4/5 easily dispatched the 3/1 fish. Cute play though this was I still lost that game (close though it was) as a three for one is pretty brutal, it turned out I really needed an extra mountain in that game and flashing back the Dart cost me dear. Another nice aspect of prowess is that when you have a decent amount of it you can build around it. You don't need all that much of it before Gut Shot looks really appealing.
This is a lovely versatile mechanic that was so successful they have been trying to find a way of mimicking it for creatures ever since. Flashback is typically used to add some super late game value on to otherwise fair early game cards. It can however be used to create unique multicoloured cards or cards where you get a vastly under priced effect should you be able to get the card in the bin first rather than casting it normally. Flashback always ensures you get some value out of discard and self mill effects ranging from mild value on the classical overcost flashbacks to the significant on the cheaper ones. Flashback gives a lot of options to players, it interacts in an intersting way with other graveyard based mechanisms too. Flashback has a lovely way of easing players from the midgame into the late game top deck stage in a nice gradual way. The thing with spells is that you probably want the effect of that spell in your deck if you are playing that spell in the first place and so flashback is pretty much always welcome. No spell is made worse by gaining flashback even when it is savagely over cost. Just so long as one half of the card is close enough to reasonable for the effect you generally have a winner. Not only is flashback versatile in how you can design with it but it is also very much inline with what you want in magic. One of the more numerous mechanics that isn't evergreen yet still able to boast a very significant percentage of those cards as having been used in cube and indeed still useful in cube.
Evasion adds an important dimension to combat. Without it you wind up with a rather dry game and the relatively few stat lines in the game becomes far more evident. There are a lot of forms of evasion but few of those are good. Protection, intimidate, landwalk, and straight up unblockable are uninteractive which is not great for quality games. Flying is better but it is still rather polar and a lot of games still come down to not being able to deal with a flier. Trample is probably the best of the earlier forms of evasions but it is not an exciting mechanic. It has little impact on smaller creatures which are the most common creatures in magic. One a one or two powered dork (that neither grows itself or has an "on damaging opponents" trigger trample is probably the lowest value keyword you can have. There is no real counter play to trample other than having more toughness. Trample is a great mechanic it and benefits the game, all I am saying is that it is limited. Menace on the other hand is super interesting. Wizards know this too as they quickly made it evergreen and are using it more frequently and in ever better ways. It is nice to see when they know they have something right. Menace taxes blockers, it doesn't prevent blocking but it does make it rather more difficult. The inefficiencies menace forces on an opponents blocking options often leads to menace acting as evasion. Usually on the menace creature but if not there then more often on another attacking creature than no benefit at all. Menace is not polar like flying, random like protection or uninteractive like so many. From a design and game play perspective menace is the easy winner of the evasion abilities even if trample and flying are better flavour wins.
This was the first great new addition to the game mechanically back in Urza's block. Sadly it was overshadowed rather by the horror that was constructed magic at the time. We didn't really get to appreciate the delicate improvements to consistency cycling could offer because everyone was too busy abusing infinite mana and cards. The second time we encountered the ability it was in Onslaught block which was rather a two horse race. The block was poorly designed all round and fairly poorly received. Legions has my vote for worst ever set. The best deck at the time was cycling based and it was very consistent as a result but interesting it was not. We have encountered lots of experimentation with cycling over the years with effects on cycle and typecycling. Amonkhet most recently showcased a lovely array of cycling cards demonstrating some of the best cards yet some of the simplest design. You can have some pretty average power level cards and slap on cycling and a lot of them instantly become great cards. Any narrow effect you often want but will otherwise be dead is a perfect candidate for a cycling card. Equally, at the other end of the spectrum, cards that need to be clunky for what they offer can become vastly more streamlined and playable with a cheeky cycling cost on them. Cycling allows far more different types of card to be playable and that diversifies the game. Cycling on lands is great for countering floods, cycling on cheap cards is great for allowing decks that want to go long the ability to pack in low end. Cheap cycling effects on non-land cards help a huge amount with mana screw. Colourless cycling helps a lot with colour screw and makes for vastly more splashable cards. Cycling on narrow cards makes them not narrow cards. You can do loads with the basic cycling ability and it is never oppressive. It doesn't further the position in any physical way, it is pure card quality at the cost of tempo. Formats with cycling are simply more consistent and lead to better games. The more playable cycling cards the better. Amonkhet proved that you can push out the boat with cycling and it isn't a problem at all. I hope to see more cycling cards of that power level.
I am a massive fan of clues. One of the awkward issues with magic design is that everything has to be whole numbers to work. You cannot have a third of a card or half a mana, well you can in Unhinged or something but not the point. Cards are one of the most important resources in magic and one of the highest value per unit. Things like loot and scry are nice and do a lot of the same things as actual card draw but ultimately they are still not card advantage and don't quite scratch that itch. Investigate is a fantastic way to provide card advantage in a less valuable manner. As such it allows for greater scope in design and a great way to tone down cards without having to hack chunks off a card. One mana or those lovely three words "Draw a card" make a huge difference to a card. The latter is the difference between playable and a bomb, the former is enough to often have that effect! If a card is too good with a draw a card clause you can keep it interesting by replacing it with investigate. I think part of the reason I am so in love with this mechanic is that I like the cheap cards and those are the ones with the finest line on balance. A one mana card is always going to be a low value card and this makes the card cost too great for a lot of them. You add draw a card onto a nearly playable one drop and you wind up with a three mana card and that is pretty sad. At three, even two mana, a lot of low key effects with draw a card on them are then not worth the tempo cost. A lot of low key effects are caught in this limbo where no fair version of the card is playable. At one mana without replacement it isn't worth the card cost and at more mana it is too expensive for the effect. While a bit of a borderline case with both of these cards being pretty playable I would say that Unsummon and Repulse are a reasonable example of this issue, Twitch and Twiddle would perhaps be a better example. One mana Unsummon or Twiddle with investigate would be great cards, both would still be decent at two and probably more playable than the one or three mana alternatives for the most part. Investigate is the mechanic I most want to see more of. Wizards know most of their good mechanics and have redone them at a reasonable frequency. The only other really great mecahanic that hasn't seen loads of print is escalate and that has a much lower range what with needing to be on modal cards. I want to see escalate explored a bit more, I want to see investigate evergreen and explored fully! I don't think that will happen as it is a bit too clumsy logistically however I think there are some really great cards missing from the game out there to be designed and printed that are made possible by this great mechanic.
It couldn't not be number one the way I ham on about consistency. Scry is a pretty perfect mechanic and it is highly welcome in the evergreen group. Scry is able to be put on any kind of card and can be a one off effect or bolted onto an ability. It is clean and simple. It is near impossible to abuse. It doesn't affect any resource from either player. It just increases consistency and that makes it delightful. I hope to see every set doused in scry cards. Scry makes everything better. Having scry cards in your deck improves the effectiveness of your other cards more so than other mechanics. Scry eases the lines on mana ratios and protects against flood and screw. Scry increases the chances you have the situational cards when you need them and not when you don't. Scry reduces the amount you see top end cards early game while also reducing your chances to see low value early cards in the late game. Scry is also a skill based mechanic. You can hurt yourself if you do it really badly or simply gain little to no value if done poorly. Scry is options dense. Scry for 1 you get 2 options, for 2 and you get five, increasingly so as you go up in scry value. When you combine those options with the things you can do from hand or on the board it continues to scale up dramatically. Many a loss can be traced back to a bad scry in the early game. The great thing about that is when you start to notice it you are well on your way to being a solid player.