Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Top 10 Cards of 2016

Thing in the IceThe release year of 2016 is a huge one for cube, which is no surprise. The power creep in magic is generally positive, although following peaks and troughs. 2016 contains the three sets that represent the zenith of the most recent power creep peak, hence the impressive potency of the year, those sets being Shadows Over Innistrad, Eldritch Moon, and Kaladesh. While there are not loads of cheaper or more abusive cards from these sets that lead to an abundance of them in modern and legacy, the slower, more limited feel of cube ensures that these high powered, more middle-of-the-road cards are staples. There are a good 60 cards from 2016 that are in my cube currently, which is over 10% of it! Not only that, but many of them feel like the big name bombs and build-arounds. Oath of the Gatewatch, Conspiracy: Take the Crown and Commander 2016 also contribute significantly to this large pool of power. I have even cut the draft-only and clearly oppressively powered cards from Conspiracy, which are all cards I can recommend in one way or another. For reference, they are Animus of Predation, Arcane Savant, Leovold's Operative, Paliano Vanguard, and Regicide. The last three make for good drafts, the first two are abusive. 

Pia NalaarA quick, honorable mention also to both Torrential Gearhulk and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. These were two of the hardest cards to leave off any list so far, both being total bombs. Gearhulk is a little on the top-end of things, and requires the right kind of instant support to be playable. When I have enough decent targets, I want Gearhulk, but a little too often I find I am not there. Just Gearhulking a Counterspell is usually enough swing to win a game, so imagine what you can do with some of the pricier instants on offer! Kalitas is also just a total house. He wins games in which he stays in play too long. He ruins aggro with his lifelink, ability to grow and brutal penalty for chump attacking. He ruins midrange with his exile effect, which just seems to gimp so many good cube cards pretty brutally. Both cards see a lot of play and have exceptionally high power levels. Their absence should set the scene for a potent year of cube juice! Thing in the Ice is another huge name I couldn't find room for. If I carry on like this I am going to want to talk about the top 20 cards on this list! They are all cards that would easily make lists of most other years. They are all at the top of this list of other good cards from the year, because I thought they had potential to make the top ten at first glance. Little did I realize quite how much strong competition there was!

Grapple with the Past 
Torrential Gearhulk
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Thing in the Ice
Verdurous Gearhulk
Westvale Abbey
Grim Flayer
Oath of Nissa
Anguished Unmaking
Nahiri, the Harbinger
Declaration in Stone
Angel of Invention
Bomat Courier
Chandra, Flamecaller
Sylvan Advocate
Thalia, Heretic Cathar
Bomat CourierTireless Tracker
Shadow Lands
Needle Spires
Nissa, Vital Force
Traverse the Ulvenwald
Nissa, Voice of Zendikar
Grapple with the Past
Aether Hub
Aetherflux Reservoir
Alway's Watching
Asylum Visitor
Armorcraft Judge
Attune with Aether
Avacyn's Judgement
Thalia, Heretic CatharAyli, Eternal Pilgrim
Bedlam Reveler
Blessed Alliance
Blossoming Defence
Bloodhall Priest
Borderlands Explorer
Brain in a Jar
Bristling Hydra
Bygone Bishop
Call the Bloodline
Cataclysmic Gearhulk
Cathartic Reunion
Chief of the Foundry
Collective Effort
Collective Defiance
Tireless TrackerCombustable Gearhulk
Cryptolith Rites
Crush of Tenticles
Cultivator's Caravan
Custodi Lich
Daretti, Ingenious Iconoclast
Dark Salvation
Demon of Dark Schemes
Distended Mindbender
Dramatic Reversal
Duskwatch Recruiter
Elder Deep Fiend
Eldrazi Displacer
Eldrazi Obligator
Eternal Scourge
Fairgrounds Warden
Needle SpiresFalkenrath Gorger
Filigree Familiar
Fleetwheel Cruiser
Foundry Inspector
Geier Reach Sanitarium
Gisela, the Broken Blade
Glimmer of Genius
Glint Nest Crane
Gnarlwood Dryad
Goblin Dark Dwellers
Goldnight Castigator
Grenzo, Havoc Raiser
Gryff's Boon
Hanwier Garrison
Harnessed Lightning
Harmless Offering
Hissing Quagmire
Harsh Scrutiny
Heir of Falkenrath
Incendiary Flow
Indulgent Aristocrat
Insolent Neonate
Inventor's Apprentince
Inventor's Fair
Jori En, Ruin Diver
Kaya, Ghost Assasin
Kessig Prowler
Oath of NissaKey to the City
Kozilek, the Great Distortion
Leovold, Emissary of Trest
Linvala, the Preserver
Longtusk Cub
Lone Rider
Matter Reshaper
Mausoleum Wanderer
Natural State
Noxious Gearhulk
Open the Armory
Palace Jailer
Paradoxical Outcome
Kalitas, Traitor of GhetPia Nalaar
Reality Smasher
Reckless Bushwhacker
Reaver Drone
Reflector Mage
Relentless Dead
Regal Behemoth
Saheeli Rai
Sanctum Prelate
Scrapheap Scrounger
Sea Gate Wreckage
Season's Past
Selvala, Heart of the Wilds
Skysovereign, Consul Flagship
Slip Through Space
Sorin, Grim Nemesis
Spell Queller
Splendid Reclamation
Stormchaser Mage
Stormkirk Occultist
Ash Barrens
The Gitrog Moster
Thought-Knot Seer
Torrential GearhulkUnsubastantiate
Breya, Etherium Sculptor
Vessel of Nascency
Voltaic Brawler
Veteran Motorist
Wandering Fumarol
Warping Wail
Whirler Virtuoso
Bruse Tarl, Boorish Herder
Faerie Artisans
Magus of the Will
Reyhan, Last of the Abzan
Saskia, the Unyielding
Tymna the Weaver

Archangel Avacyn10. Archangel Avacyn

A pretty brutal card. Combat becomes really tricky against white players with five mana up. Running into a Restoration Angel is bad, but an Avacyn is devastating. The extra power is minor, the everything being indestructible is savage. It means that if they have much of a board and you attack with much at all, you are getting a one-sided Wrath. The threat of Avacyn's potential blowout leads to some timid attacks, which is more free value most of the time. If they are too timid, you can just run out your Avacyn without any combat shenanigans and just get to beating down. A Serra Angel with flash is a pretty good card! I have even seen Avacyn counterspell spot removal, which is comparably savage to a nasty combat against her. Apparently, all that, however, is not enough card! Avacyn has a flip element and it is both powerful and confusing. I initially thought it made her bad for more aggressive decks, as you would Wrath your own team if she was flipped. While somewhat true, it turns out that having a 6/5 and three extra face damage is a hard swing to recover from against aggro! In control it is super savage, it’s just a free mini-Wrath if they happen to kill some random chump like a Blade Splicer. This can simply mean no attacking until removal for Avacyn is found, or enough for an alpha strike is amassed. Avacyn does not give you much time to find/do such things, as she rarely fails to attack. Super-powerful card that is hard to play around. She is punchy enough to be playable top-end in aggression. Flash makes her a fantastic control card, and her sheer power level and utility make her a great midrange card. One of very few cards to see play in most types of strategies in white. 

Selfless Spirit9.   Selfless Spirit

While not a savagely powerful card, this is a perfect role-filler for white aggressive decks and increasingly in any creature-based combo deck. This was exactly the card they needed to compete with red as a good aggressive strategy. A white aggro deck goldfishes far better than a red aggro deck, but when it comes to the real deal, the red decks typically out-perform the white decks due to the way burn provides for more early removal options and loads of nice late-game reach. White relies on having dorks to get through damage. With haste being rare in white, that allows for easy and informed counter play. Selfless Spirit is the complete package when it comes to solving these main issues for white. It is a cheap, evasive dork, allowing for some reach and it protects your investments from mass removal if the need arises. It gives you counter-play to your opponent, for once. You can even cash it in to save one other card, but it has to be a good card and in a matchup without mass removal! If it is, they are almost certainly killing your Spirit first anyway! Cards like this are a huge help to white. It may not be the most exotic or even the most powerful card out there, but it is one of the first names on the team sheet for any white aggressive deck. It is about as on theme as you could hope to be. As far as dealing with things you care about, it is not too far off a Counterspell on wings. 

Emrakul, the Promised End8.   Emrakul, the Promised End

Not as powerful as her original form, but generally a lot better in a cube setting for playability reasons alone. Certainly when you are cheating things into play, the Eons Torn is not just the most powerful Emrakul but also the most powerful card! If you plan on playing "fair" and casting your cards the way god intended, then the Promised End suddenly seems a lot more appealing! Without too much effort, the Promised End is a 7 drop, which is fairly achievable for the slow and the ramping decks. Even 8 is fine for such things, as suggested by Ugin and Craterhoof both being in my unpowered, non-combo cube. Equally, I have cast the Promised End for the bargain price of five, which is utter cheats! When played as your top end finisher, she is really quite impressive. The on-cast trigger is super hard to stop and makes control decks incredibly nervous and vulnerable. The turn steal itself can range from mild to cataclysmically, game-endingly brutal. In the mild cases, it takes little time for the 13/13, flying, trampling, protected body to mop up. The combination of protection and turn stealing makes it incredibly hard to remove the Promised End from play, once there. Security against countermagic and removal, combined with serious disruptive components and a very impressive body, all combine to make the Promised End one of the most effective game-ending tools in all of Magic. She is typically under priced for what she does and is highly playable as a colourless card. No good magic card has, or should have, the ability to simply win the game. Few cards even come close, but I think the Promised End comes closest when we are taking ease of casting (and using for things like Door to Nothingness)  into account. "Emrakul, the Promised End - pay five to thirteen mana to win the game". Well named at the very least! 

Liliana, the Last Hope
7.   Liliana, the Last Hope

As my cube moves more and more towards low-to-the-ground decks full of dorks, this iteration of Liliana is increasingly the three mana, black planeswalker of choice. Edict for -2 to kill a token of their choice pales in comparison to getting +1 and targetting! Recursion is also a little more useful than discard utility in that same environment. Control decks still hate Liliana of the Veil more, but control decks hate most cheap walkers with any relevant abilities. Great against a small and weak portion of the meta and mediocre against aggressive decks compares very poorly to decent against the former and outstanding against the latter, hence Last Hope seeming to be better than Of the Veil. The relative difference of position in the ratings Last Hope gets compared to Of the Veil is a reflection of the power of 2016, far more than a measure of the difference in quality between the three mana Liliana planeswalkers. The Last Hope literally steamrolls decks that can't easily handle her without the use of 2/Xs and X/1s, if she comes out early enough or well protected enough. It is like untapping with a Goblin Sharpshooter against an elf deck. Even just stalling a bit with the +1 and getting some value with the -2 also has the tendency to be better than Of the Veil. Self mill is increasingly useful, and the card advantage from an Edict is usually a lot worse than for a Raise Dead. However you rate your Lilianas, the Last Hope is one of the premium walkers in cube and certainly one of the most played. 

Ishkanah, Grafwidow6.   Ishkanah, Grafwidow

Easily the best army-in-a-can card ever printed. The power of Ishkanah is a little more subtle than more straight forward cards like Siege-Gang Commander. The strength of Ishkanah is all about her immense power to defend. She provides 6/11 total stats, which is good for five mana - it’s up there with the very best you can do, for pure numbers to mana. You do need to get delirium for that, but most cubes can do that pretty comfortably before their five drop. It is a mild build consideration that normally costs you little to draft and include, and simply serves to make the card a little more interesting and balanced. The stats are good, but it is that in combination with the multiple bodies, all with reach, that solidify her as the best defensive creature in the game. You could make a case for cheaper dorks being better, like Baleful Strix, Will-o'-the-Wisp, Sylvan Caryatid, Thraben Inspector and Courser of Kruphix, and while these are all great, they are all a lot more easily bypassed. They are good for their low price, but Ishkanah is just good regardless. She is typically a more effective defensive tool than Hornet Queen, and she is two mana less! She packs five more toughness, for effective trample damage reduction, reach dorks are a little less vulnerable than fliers (Thundermaw, Vivien Ried etc), and most relevantly, Ishkanah has no one-toughness dorks. There are lots of ways to quite efficiently kill X/1s in cube, but killing two toughness dorks en-masse is a lot more onerous, and far fewer decks will be positioned to do so. Ishkanah is only really moved out of the way with a Wrath effect, and if one of those lands you are not really getting beaten up, and your defensive work is largely done! Offensively, she is OK just through loads of stats and bodies, but you are better off just sitting back and using the seven mana drain mode. Most green decks can produce mana of other colours without too much hassle, so you don't really need to be black to get value from all of the cards bits. Grafwidow wins a bit like how infinite life wins, you just can't die and win by default! 

Gonti, Lord of Luxury5.   Gonti, Lord of Luxury

I remain blown away by how much this card surpassed expectation. I thought it would be OK, like a cool Solemn Simulacrum or Acidic Slime kind-of card. Somehow, this card is absolutely top tier, and a reason to be in black. There are multiple reasons this performs above expectation. Face value, a 2/3 Deathtouch is worth at least two mana and an Impulse the same. Getting both in one card is even better value, even if it is lower tempo. Turns out, however, that getting to Impulse your opponent's deck is so very much better than doing your own. Sometimes, it is just a win when you are facing a deck with a critical card and you get to exile it. Nice Seismic Assault, good luck winning without it! The card you get will typically be better in the matchup than one from your own deck. Firstly, you have no mana issues casting it, but more over, the cards function will be more in line with what you need. Getting beaten up by an aggro deck and put under tempo pressure? A cheap tempo card is your best find and that is what decks that beat you up are full of. Need something tricky and disruptive to force through a win against control? Yup, control is full of that and midrange is full of meaty solid cards, which is what you want against them. So, the card you get is better in several ways, but the goodness still doesn't end there. The information you get with Gonti is pretty brutal. It is one of the few cards that gives you info on your opponent's things that they themselves do not have. You know four cards they don't have in hand and that they cannot draw (without a shuffle on three and many effects on the picked one, of which stage one is entirely under your control). That may not sound like a big deal, and sometimes it’s not, but frequently it is and games can hinge on it. Your opponent can no longer try and bluff you out until they are upto speed on the information they have over you. The blowout potential is huge. 

Thraben Inspector4.   Thraben Inspector

It is quite spectacular how good this little card is. Certainly one of the most playable cards in the cube, winding up in aggro all the way through to control. It is pretty much a 1/2 for W that says draw a card. That is over egging it a bit, as there is quite a lot of delay on that card draw and it is probably costing you some minor tempo to get. With that all being said, the upside of getting an artifact into play alongside some board presence is a big deal, and makes Inspector have a higher ceiling than the 1/2 card drawing dork I said she basically was. Inspector offers vastly more tempo than cards like Elvish Visionary, due to the ease of deploying her and the convenience of subsequently cashing in your clue. Having a card that costs one to deploy is more than twice the convenience of a two drop. Visionary is pretty playable filler in cube and Inspector is a better body, and half the cost to get at the tempo component, a.k.a. the important bit, to get out cheaply. Inspector is the glue that holds decks together. It lets you get to your big cards and lets you play magic. Cards like Inspector let you play more one drops without lowering the power of your deck. It is like a free card. You get a free 1/2 when you have your first spare white mana, and you get to play with a 39 card deck and thus up the power level overall. A 1/2 for W is better tempo than it seems, as defensively it’s great, and offensively it is also pretty good. Given that you typically play it when you don't have other plays in aggro, and as such, it is a lot better than doing nothing! Having those extra bodies to empower buff and battalion effects is great too. 

Collective Brutality3.   Collective Brutality

An all-star for black and one of the biggest additions to the colour in some time. It offers more than just utility and flexibility. If you have three useful modes and two duds in hand, you get insane value, not only are you getting three manas worth of stuff for two mana you also effectively get potent card quality thrown in for free, the likely equivalent of a loot per additional useful mode beyond the first. In this example, that sounds like a Careful Study. Now if you wanted that, as well as all three written modes, then you are getting four manas worth of stuff with even more value. All three modes are surprisingly often all good, basically anytime you face an aggressive red deck you are looking to use all three modes. It is rare that your top-end cards work out better than gaining two life! Not only is it very unlikely for Brutality to be dead, but it also helps you put other dead cards to use. This has been something black has historically lacked the ability to do and it made the colour clunky and inflexible. Now, with cards like this, black can be dynamic and it really shows. Black has been one of the best performing colours in my cube since 2016 and while several cards made this possible, I would mark Brutality out as the most valuable. Prior to 2016, black was the runt in cube, with too few key cards to have the power or depth required to perform in cube. 

Chandra, Torch of Defiance2.   Chandra, Torch of Defiance

Arguably the best four mana walker in cube. Four mana walkers are also the most powerful of the walkers, with four mana being a lovely balance between nominal power and overall relevance to a game due to ease and frequency of casting. Even with her ability to hit planeswalkers lost in the recent rules changes, Torch of Defiance is still a comfortable top two (alongside Knight-Errant!) with a good case for being the top dog. Chandra simply does everything. She is card advantage or reach, based on how you use her first +1. In one ability, she can mimic Sulfuric Vortex or Outpost Siege (in card advantage mode). Then, she can ramp, also for +1 loyalty! This means you can have her effectively cost you two mana on the turn you make her (like Garruk Wildspeaker, but more loyal). It also allows you to threaten some huge swingy plays on the following turn, which manage to greatly up both her personal safety and her threat level. The -3 to Flameslash is not super-efficient, but it is quite hard-hitting and critically leaves Chandra with remaining loyalty if used right away. It allows Chandra to be fairly safe all by herself and offer some immediate value alongside tempo. Even her ultimate is really good, it’s easy to get to and impressively game-ending. Chandra feels like she has double the number of abilities of most other walkers, all of them are good and they cover a wide spectrum of the game elements. Torch of Defiance is a really big player in red now, being a more rounded colour capable of midrange and control builds. In the way that Brutality has been the main contributor in black becoming good, I would attribute Chandra as the main reason non-aggressive red builds are now viable. 

Smuggler's Copter1.   Smuggler's Copter

Mentally, this is probably not the most powerful card from 2016, and may not even be in the top three! What Copter has over all the competition is spades and spades of playability. It is cheap, colourless and it works with almost everything. In a powered cube, this is less the case, but in an unpowered cube it is pretty hard to have a creature count so low that Copter isn't a playable for you. Obviously, it is easy to have a low creature count, if you want, I mean it is hard to have a competitive deck with a creature count too low for Copter. I probably don't need to spend any time on why this card is good, as it is sufficiently pushed that most elements of it are now obvious. Things in its favour are safety, for one. Jitte is a more devastating two drop artifact and in many ways a good card to compare the Copter to. Equip costs being mana and crew costs not, however, makes Copter a low risk card you are not just happy to play and use early, but that you actively want to. Jitte tends to be held back until you can play it with some more safety. Copter makes the rest of your deck better and empowers synergies, while Jitte really just makes the game about it. In constructed formats, it is a bit harder to have random chaffy dorks floating about, but in cube there are lots more things like Dusk Legion Zealot, Thraben Inspector, etc., all flavours of one power tokens and so forth, making Copter hard to handle and pretty consistently relevant. An outstandingly first-pickable card.

1 comment:

  1. Always enjoy these lists. And always have some different opinions ;)

    My two biggest differences are:
    1) Ishkanah - doesn't rank for me. Tried it, found it to be lackluster, cut it. The biggest problem with the spidermom is consistency: delirium is hard to enable on curve, and without it a 3/5 reach for 5 is just a terrible card. Ishkanah also does not have a ton of support. Control decks tend to want walkers, wraths, or better moats (actual moat). Ramp decks tend to blast right past 5 drops, and aggro tends to prefer the other army in a can creatures, both due to color support, and easier activation of the evasive damage components. I'd probably add Hanweir garrison to this list, which to my mind is a premium red 3. I actually don't run that card because I dislike the dead text and back (since I don't run the meld).

    2) Emrakul - probably the most powerful (least fun) card on the list. As you stated, basically the card reads 5-8 mana win the game. This is the only card we have considered cutting from the cube solely due to power level, basically because there is almost no counterplay to having this cast, and no beating it.