One of the many effects of the pandemic and various lockdowns has been that I have played a lot less cube. It turns out that some games get easier and more convenient online like board games, with lots of things than can be automated and displayed more easily . Then there are those that get harder like niche forms of Magic with potentially custom rules and cards or simply extensive ranges of cards. Suffice it to say cubing, while not impossible, is a lot more work online than compared to in person with the real thing. The knock on effect of little to no cubing is little to no testing. I managed a little on Zendikar Rising but then got none on Kaldheim, Strixhaven, Commander Legends or any of the Commander product linked to those sets until about a month ago. It is all coming rather at once now and that in itself is a little awkward. The cube simply doesn't support that many weak cards and so it takes significantly longer. My solution has been to cut about 60 of the best and most frequently played cube cards that I thought I could manage without altering the archetype balance too much. In no surprise to anyone blue cards ate the most cuts. I didn't take out things like Birds of Paradise or Preordain, more things like Remand and Embercleave. It is an imperfect solution but it is working. More low end cards are getting played and as such I am getting to see and appraise more of them more quickly. It also lets the better new cards stand out more than normal. I started writing this before MH2 spoilers started and finished it just after the release of MH2 so there is a reasonable chance that the cube meta takes quite the shake up. That could have any number of effects. It could also just bump out some of the more fringe and low powered cards as the power level jumps and a pile of new contenders jump in at the top end. I have also now tested and trimmed enough cards to have returned the cream back to the cube.
In what is essentially a quirky version of "winners and losers" here are some of the cards from the last six months or so that have performed above expectation one way or another.
Learn cards have been great (with my custom all lessons are always available rule). None are broken but many are fine to good. They bring a really nice element of consistency to the cube offering removal and curve plays. I have slowly been trimming it down to the best learn cards which are Gnarled Professor, Professor of Symbology, Igneous Inspiration, Eye Twitch, and Hunt for Specimens. These cards seem to get play in most decks in which they can be played. They have led to a lot of random dual land splashing so that more lessons are viable when you learn.
The MDFCs from Zen Rising with lands on the back have also all been great. They make decks much more robust. All are cube playable but sadly not all have enough impact to merit the inclusion. I have been slowly trimming down on them since Zen Rising when I added literally all of them to the cube. They are very hard to cut as they are so playable and add so much to the building process. Most of the remaining ones go in most decks of the colours and I still have about a third of them in cube which feels about right.
Skyclave Apparition is top rate and a staple in any deck able to support the WW cost. This will come as no shock to anyone with eyes on any constructed formats. It is just too convenient and rounded not to play. I thought it was comfortably cube worthy on initial rating but I didn't have it down as quite the top tier staple it had become. Everything from aggro through to control are happy playing this and that is really the mark of a top tier card.
Clarion Spirit was a card I thought too hard to support to be all that. In practice it is pretty close to Young Pyromancer. It triggers a little less easily but it far easier to support, makes better tokens, and has a toughness on Pyromancer. White isn't great at prowess triggers but it turns out it is OK at cheap things and playing multiple on a turn. Lack of card advantage in white does mean you can run out of gas for it but one or two triggers is more than enough to make this impressive. It is scary to face and scales really well with a lot of stuff. Usher of the Fallen has been strong too. Noticeably better than most of the other W 2/1 dorks. Not broken, just better than expected. It lets you play around mass removal really effectively and poses a far greater threat than that it looks thanks to all the team buff effects in white. Luminarch Aspirant is another cheap white beater that has stood out. It is high tempo and high threat all with good options and scaling. All three of these cards are top notch white aggro dorks and have helped give those archetypes a good push.
Elite Spellbinder and Doomskar were both cards I rated fairly highly and both have lived up to that expectation. White now has a healthy amount of Wrath effects that are good giving consistency on control options if you want them. It also now has some joyous disruption in Spellbinder that most archetypes are happy to employ. White interactive cards like Spellbinder are few and far between and very welcome. Spellbinder is seeing play in all manner of archetypes. Perhaps due to power, perhaps due to novelty!
Another white card to impress me far more than expected is Halvar, God of battle. or more specifically his Sword of the Realms. Arguably preferable to Skullclamp in white as it provides the value you actually want while making your threats relevantly more threatening (and not dead in many cases!). It is a high tempo and higher threat density means of ensuring value than Clamp as you don't cash in your threats for new ones, instead you upgrade and reuse existing ones. Another useful thing about Sword of the Realms is that you can just cast Halvar when you need a threat. He is quite big and has occasional upside. A bit of a Ghor-Clan Rampager but always nice to have "dead card" protection built in. With all these great new tools white aggressive strategies have jumped to the very top tier again in cube. High tempo and high quality value, disruption, and removal. I have been testing a lot of the gods and MDFC cards from Kaldheim and Strixhaven. They are taking a bit longer to work out the value of and so few have stood out but equally few have been cut. Tibalt is obviously great and Cosima has been interesting. Turns out I mostly need more time with this mechanic to properly evaluate and talk about it. I am going entirely on in game results and performance with them as it stands and need rather more in the way of fundamental understanding to properly appraise. That kind of understanding takes a lot of time and will require a team effort from the community. Sword of the Realms just happens to be good enough all by itself and carried this MDFC.
White also got Teferi's Protection at last. A card I overlooked for years assuming it was mostly an EDH thing. Turns out to be pretty effective in 1v1 play too. It is somewhere between a white counterspell and a white time walk. It is obviously less potent than either of those things but not by miles and can mimic both. I am very late to the party on this one so most will likely have played with this more than me. I have seen it used in all manner of decks and while it is quite the situational card it does seem to win the game when it gets played rather a lot. That is the kind effect you want your card to have if it is narrow!
Green has also had a lot of improvements over the last bunch of releases which is fantastic. White and green were the weakest and least interesting of the colours and had been for a while. They needed interaction, value, options, and reasons to actually want to play them. I am very glad to say that this is all now stuff they are getting. One big front liner for green is Vorinclex, who is clearly a house. I underrated him a bit in the review as six drops don't excite me very much. Power wise though this card is mentally good and comfortably sits pretty uncontested in the six slot for green alongside Primeval Titan. The likes of Carnage Tyrant, a good contender for 3rd best green six drop, is miles behind in power and effectiveness. Vorinclex plays a little like a Thundermaw Hellkite but is significantly more potent. The only real criticism I have of Vorinclex is that he ends the game so fast you don't really get to enjoy the passive abilities as much as you might like. He ruins so much. Saga and planeswalkers on the other side of the table are laughable. Yours are beasts.
Toski has been nice to see play out. While fairly far from what I would call a bomb it has really shored up greens options and range. Toski has helped green have more viable mono decks that are either midrange or aggressive. A bit like a Great Henge you can easily play or a Guardian Project that avoids being a blank. What Toski does best is make you happier playing other cards. You didn't want to over do it on mana dorks because you get so bodied by mass removal. Perhaps you didn't want to play equipment because your dork count was lowered to compensate for weakness to mass removal etc. Toski just really protects and compensates well for what green does best. He lets you do green things and push them a bit further. He really lets you go hard on cheap mana dorks.
Esika's Chariot has been one of the most standout new cards for cube. It is low risk, high threat, high tempo, and reasonable value. It is just the ticket for green allowing it to play a diverse midrange game that really capitalizes on the colours perks. Chariot lets you get on the board in a big way without over committing. It lets you get really involved in combat for little cost in that Chariot trades pretty favourably into most things. It is low enough in cost that you can afford to be very reckless with it and apply a lot of pressure with chump attacks and the like. I have little bad to say about the card. I had 28/28 worth of stats on turn four in a recent game thanks to copying a Voice of Resurgence token with a Chariot attack. It was rather overkill there too given I had already attacked for at least ten on that turn. Green now has a number of decent cards of all the permanent types it can use to threaten the game in some way and thus play a game of development that suits an early ramp style without all the usual risks.
Old-Growth Troll is another Chariot like card that is pushing green a good amount. It does all the same good things of offering lots of stats and value while being resilient to Wrath effects. Trample is what really polishes off this card. Killing it doesn't appeal as it ramps and can return in token form with effective flash but then not killing it is also an issue. You cannot easily develop walkers into it nor hold it at bay with chumps. Much like gold cards anything with this level of colour intensity needs to be a real pull towards mono or near mono lists and I would say that the Troll is such a draw.
Paradox Zone is the final green card I want to cover. I have seen fairly little of the card so far as it is one of my most recent additions but it has been utterly terrifying. It takes a colossal dump all over the likes of Assemble the Legion. It doubles rather than just ticking up by 1! You have so little time to act before it is utterly out of hand. It is like a planeswalker you can't attack and that has already gone ultimate... It is like having the Liliana the Last Hope Emblem in play. Sure, you can stall a bit, chump, bounce, all that jazz, but pretty soon they are making infinitely tough dorks that one shot you every turn. Winning through it is tough and outlasting it is impossible. Unless you have already won this looks to be a must answer card. Green has no trouble flopping out on turn three either. Good luck with that. This one sits in the oppressively powerful camp.
With all the love white and green have had it is no surprise that Selesnya has finally had a resurgence. Not since the days of the mighty Finks and Pridemage has the white green pairing been a strong one in any iteration of my various cubes. It only ever got seen as part of a much more colourful deck or as a light splash, usually both of those things. Pretty comfortably white green was the least played colour combination. Omnath, Kenrith, Jengantha and that sort of thing were basically the only places using it and the lands. I strongly considered cutting most of the duals given how little it was used. White green is now back and with some vengeance. It never really lacked for good gold cards, just good decks to go in. Now you can just run a blend of muscular midrange cards , good tempo, good value, and some ramp and have yourself a very fine deck. You are not cold to say a Duress and an Ophiomancer or a Wrath and a Counterspell as it felt up to now.
While it is the various mono white and green cards that have allowed Selesnya to shine there is a new goldie that has been a huge beneficiary of this. Yasharn the Implacable Earth is a total house. Finding the lands is nice, the stats are nice, and it turns out the ability is a total beating. It shuts off so much and has impressed far more than I imagined. Yasharn certainly feels like the best white green gold card. It has that essential quality of pulling you into the colours. It is just that good somehow. I say somehow, it is a 3 for 1 with high tempo and strong disruption.
Izzet did the best out of gold cards recently it would seem. Prismari Command is a bit better than I had given credit for. Options are nice. Treasure at instant speed on the back of doing something else useful it turns out is amazing. It leads to some very swingy plays. The even bigger standout however is Expressive Iteration. It is a support card and the only gold ones of those I entertain are those so good that you simply always play them when you can. Expressive Iteration it turns out is such a card. You don't play it on turn two but beyond that it is basically a two mana draw two of three. Anticipate level card quality on top of Divination level card advantage. It is just one of those cards you are always really happy to have and be able to play. There is a really strong argument for Iteration being the second best card advantage spell after Ancestral Recall. Dig and Cruise are in the debate along with Night's Whisper and presently Iteration is winning out of those option.
Red and blue have a couple of winners each themselves. Obviously Hullbreacher is pretty massive given the card is getting action in legacy. The card is a horrible design and horrible to play against but it is strong. Behold the Multiverse is the other standout blue tool. It is just such a clean, efficient and convenient draw card. While far from a bomb it is still a card you want to play. You always want to play draw cards but when they are clunky like Fact or Fiction you typically can't afford to in the high tempo meta. The cost breakdown of Behold removes this barrier and gives you access to some good old fashioned raw draw. I have not had any pure draw cards costing over 2 last in the cube really since planeswalkers arrived on the scene. Card advantage cards are all modal things like Mystic Confluence or planeswalkers in cube and so Behold the Multiverse being good in that setting really impresses me.
Red has some even more impressive tools. Crackle with Power is a very hard hitting X spell. It lacks the smooth scaling of traditional X spells but gains a significant mana efficiency in its place. Five damage anywhere for 5 mana is decent, it is a lot of reach or reliable removal. It is fine at just that. It has already ended many games. Take it to 8 mana or even 11, which does happen, and the card is obscene in power. Usually ending the game on the spot. I have typically run one red X burn spell in cube which has usually been Devil's Play. Crackle feels like a pretty big upgrade on that. Another noteworthy red card is Goldspan Dragon which has impressed and carved out a little niche for itself. The treasure component makes it a really appealing threat in more reactive decks. Being able to flop out a dragon and have mana for disruption left open is strong. Goldspan isn't a Glorybringer but it also isn't far behind.
Lealia, the Blade Reforged is reds big new card. She is like a Rabblemaster Slith that offers card advantage rather than going wide (but still going very big on the damage output). Baseline attacking as a 3/3 haste for 3 is decent. Growing in size every combat step is delightful and gets out of hand quickly. That alone is nearly good enough and we still have two strong perks to go! You get a card per attack as well if you can use it. This is less relevant on the turn you make her but is still more often than not a hit in the cheaper decks when Lealia is made off curve. Lastly you have the ability to pump her further with things like escape, flashback or Light up the Stage. Those that you can do instantly are extra scary but it all just gets out of hand very quickly. She has dominated multiples games. A super planeswalker if you can't quickly contain her. Already on multiple occasions I have seen her be at least a 6/6 having drawn multiple cards and done massive damage, often forcing chump blocks.
Black has had a huge jump in its ability to be the main colour in a build rather than a splash for gold power and removal. This is not really down to any bombs or surprise cards. It is the continued addition of strong and diverse removal options, cheap support cards, and well rounded and decently powered midrange stuff. Woe Strider is a great example of this but since then we have had more along those lines. Callous Bloodmage has been fantastic if not wildly exciting or powerful. I just want it in all my black decks. You feel good about things when you have it in hand. The most surprising performer from recent sets in black is Unwilling Ingredient which I am increasingly likening to Thraben Inspector. A cheap throwaway dork that ultimately costs no cards. Great for sacrifice fodder, holding equipment, and all that sort of thing. What the froggy lacks in artifact synergy it makes up for in being useful even when you don't play it. Mill and discard both empower the frog and will all the escape and other black recursion on offer it has empowered the likes of support cards such as Stitcher's Supplier.
Eyetwitch and Hunt for Specimens are a pair of lovely versatile and very low overall cost support cards that have been massive for black. Being able to learn Pest Summoning is amazing for black aristocrat decks and has propelled them to a top tier archetype along with the addition of Bastion of Remembrance. Nested Shambler looks set to further continue this wealth of low cost support cards empowering black sacrifice decks. Village Rites was a little late to the party but has been an impressive inclusion along with these new cheap support dorks arriving in abundance. Sedgemoor Witch is yet another noteworthy card helping out the aristocrat lists although actually performing better in more control and midrange settings. It is just a surprisingly playable card that is well supported in a couple of archetypes. As you can see that is a wealth of cards that are cheap and broadly playable while supporting key synergies. Not any surprise that black has started holding up by itself.
Well, those are the winners, now lets take a quick look at some that have flopped despite my initial optimism for the cards. First up we have Skyclave Fledgling and Bloodsky Berserker. We are just past the point in cube were being a pure beater with no tricks or perks is a no go outside one drops. I recently cut Tarmogoyf so really these guys should have twigged as non-starters.
Inscription of Abundance is a bit too clunky and narrow. It does nothing without creatures. It isn't great when you can play it and for a modal card it doesn't feel very option rich. I still like the card but it was just super hard to ever find room or justify putting it in a deck. The kicker is a bit of a trick, it makes it look like it is good value but really you never want to pay five for all the thing and as such being just a two mana card the total power it offers is dismal.
Toggo, Goblin Weaponsmith was a big flop. He simply offers far too little tempo or threat. Sure, with enough time and lands he will win but isn't that most things? Prior to that Toggo is rather the Grey Ogre! I initially likened this to Tireless Tracker but starting smaller, not growing, and needing to tap down dorks in order to use rocks all added up to make Toggo pretty unplayable.
Magmatic Channeler is very hard to turn on and very easy to turn off again either through escaping and delving yourself or just some disruption from the opponent. A 1/3 looter for 1R with card quality elements would still be great in red but this forces you into awkward lines. You can't keep cards for later and this often means exiling something you actually want at some point. It also tends to force you hand on lines for the turn which is often inefficient. Inconvenience on a card that is supposedly there to be convenient kind of killed this. Plaarg is simply a far more suitable tool even if he is lower powered.
Basalt Ravager I just over estimated the expected damage output. Turns out this is rarely above two and often just one. That isn't enough punch for a four drop. The removal is very low powered resulting in low value. You need very high value or a good degree of threat as a cube 4 drop and being a vanilla 4/2 ensures it is neither of those things!
Pathways are absolutely still great lands and certainly cube worthy but I also overestimated them too. The issue with Pathways is that you lock yourself into just the one colour and this really doesn't help with colour intense cards. In a two colour deck with loads of single coloured mana symbols in costs Pathways are exceptional. Start adding in more colours or double coloured costs in cards and the drawbacks of the Pathways become clearer. A Pathway fails to help cast a white one drop followed by a Dimir Two drop while any Esper Dual land would facilitate this fairly comfortably. You typically want to hold Pathways until your last land drop and that can be awkward when forced into playing them early due to having EtB tapped lands in hand or lands with preconditions you are setting up to meet. Absolutely run Pathways but don't expect them to be outperforming pain lands.
Ascendant Spirit was facing an uphill battle from the start. With blue not really supporting an aggressive strategy and this being fairly hard to play outside of a mono coloured deck it is no surprise this saw barely any play. It is a good one to help force an archetype if you want blue to do beatdown things but sadly it isn't really a strong draft cube card fundamentally being effectively mono. Good blue aggro cards are ones you can pair with other colours giving them more options and homes in draft. This is still a fairly potent one drop and will get a bit of play but mostly outside of the limited settings.
Silverquil Command is not the spice I had hoped by quite a long shot. Sorcery speed just kills it. Such a cumbersome and clunky card. Edicts can be great but mostly are ineffective. The narrowness of the three reasonable abilities ensures you are almost always drawing the card which results in a fairly over priced and low tempo card. At three mana or being instant and this would be back on the table. This is just never taking the spot of an Orzhov planeswalker or one of their top rate removal spells.
Fain the Broker is the last card on the list to talk about. He got lots of play but really underperformed. This told me two things. One - Fain is poo. Two - black still hungers for broadly playable sac outlets and token generation. We just got loads of these and it made black great but apparently there is room for more. I do still quite like Fain but he is very slow, very fair, very easy to concede an edge with, and frankly would be indistinguishable from a vanilla 3/3 most of the time.