Lands are important for magic. While they can be hated by players when luck goes in the other direction and your hand is more spells than not, the power level that some of these cards provide along with acting as a resource is nuts. Imagine if in Starcraft that you could make your crystals attack enemy soldiers that got close or it just pumped out soldiers on its own. Lands with abilities such as turning into a creature, drawing cards, or making excess mana are huge boosts to your deck’s performance as long as you can deal with the costs. No land is perfect in the land of cube, as even the best once suffer some sort of detriment, but the top-notch and supreme role players will overcome those deficits to change games on their own.
Other than maybe 1 or 2 lands, none go in every deck you could build. You’re not going to throw scrubland in a deck that only needs the white mana because it’s cool, you shouldn’t be splashing shelldock, in greedy mana bases you need to watch out for colorless lands; because I’m touting the power level of a card doesn’t mean it’s a free spell in all decks like how off color scrylands can be used in standard.
Library of Alexandria: Before you roll your eyes—this is by far the most powerful card I’ll talk about and I want to get it out of the way. None of the lands below I feel should be thrown into any deck conceivable, whereas I would play Library of Alexandria in any deck just because it’s ability to win games from the opener or beginning turns is more consistent than any other card. This directly contradicts what I said a paragraph ago, but this is the only case where I ignore most all deck choices and include Library in everything I play. There are answers in black discard, green and red land destruction, and some other land cards we’ll discuss later, but an unanswered Library that is burying your opponent in the early game with card advantage and tapping for colorless mana later is pretty much drawing for free.
There are a few situations where I’ll choose to bring out Library. If I’m facing a deck that has shown a ton of black discard in the first game, I will try and not play right into it the second game, especially since t1 library on the play is much easier to permanently dismantle. From my own side of the table, I like library a lot less if I’m an aggro deck but I’ll still run it at least in game 1 because it doesn’t matter that your attacking starts a turn later when you’re constantly packing gas to back up your barrage and counter their removal. While these situations do exist where I have taken out library in the past before, I’m not even consistent in abiding to them. To not include Library at all, I’d need to have a deck with awful fixing that tries to go in multiple colors, and that sounds horrible and like something I should try and avoid as is. Library is library, good cards are good.
Strip Mine & Wasteland: These two have been punishing greedy keeps for a long time. There is nothing worse than playing your dual instead of your basic and getting Wastelanded immediately, except trying to play around Wasteland and still getting Strip Mined. I’ve launched t1 Strip Mines and Wastelands often because they will shut down some hands and draws, even with the risk of needed the mana myself. Playing that single island in your hand because you want to keep up counter mana from the beginning? That sucks, dude, maybe you should’ve played that preordain instead. I’ve done it to players and have had it done to me, and if it hasn’t happened to you yet it will unless you are the most disciplined hand-keeper, and even then what can you do with inevitable bad luck? I’ve had 2 land keeps demolished by these two jerks because I don’t draw a 2nd/3rd land for enough turns after and my opponent out-spells me for the win.
If it sounds like I’m bitter, it’s because I am, don’t be mistaken for a moment. Strip Mine takes your hopes and aspirations and punts them out the window like your uncle with the ham at Christmas. I tend to not take Strip Mine and Wasteland because my mana bases are usually highly-prioritized or super greedy, and I have a hard time justifying a land that will be a spell a lot of the time in decks that need a lot of mana costs. Of course, that means I suffer the consequences of Strip Mine and Wasteland more than your average cuber, but that’s the price you pay for having greedy mana bases. I typically won’t play Strip Mine in those mana-symbol’d decks, but if there is a high priority target such as a man land or library across the table and I picked up either of the Strips, I’ll bring them in.
Rishadan Port is like the bastard 2nd cousin of strip mine and wasteland, but still performs at a high level. Port gives you the option of hating on their lands while still being able to use the mana later, which has its pros and cons. As mentioned, you don’t need to destroy port to start putting a hurting on their production. Port runs rampant as long as you allow it. The issue is if you have to make a decision between porting and play spells/other abilities, the free mana can give your opponent the space to come back, swing in to retain value and take the upperhand. Port is usually used in faster and mana-denial decks, so unless you’re further shutting them down with the mana from port instead of the ability, it can be dangerous to turn off the port hate. Port is an underrated card because of the cons, but in the right decks Port is an all-star and certainly deserves a spot in any cube.
Gaea’s Cradle: Green has outlets to use tons of mana, so Gaea’s cradle is perfect. From a cube design stand point, I like Gaea’s Cradle a lot. Obviously they didn’t design it with cube in mind, but it’s a great card with a powerful effect that is easy to disrupt. If you’re choosing to let your opponent’s elves live or have no way of killing them, then Gaea’s Cradle deserves to run you over. A player can hold it in their hand and drop it as a surprise influx of mana, but if you’re letting a board sit that makes Gaea’s Cradle good without any sort of removal then you’re asking for trouble.
Though Cradle’s ability to make a lot of mana is entirely dependent on your creature base, it’s still a land and is tough to destroy early in the game. Since you can drop Cradle on turn 2 or 3 and be making 2 or more mana, Cradle is almost always a surprise punch in the mouth when it’s finally played. Then there are hands where your ramp is non-creature based and Gaea’s Cradle is a land that taps for 0. Gaea’s Cradle is a card whose power is entirely dependent on 1) the make up of your cube, and 2) the make up of your deck. I’ve noticed in cubes with a full suite of mana rocks, power, and the elves that Gaea’s Cradle is worse since green ramp has so many more option on what they use for early game plays and instead can get more liberal with taking the gas or the splash. In an unpowered cube, especially one without signets, Cradle is one of the best green cards while still having that non-factor potential, the epitome of a boom or bust card. Your opponent can shut you out with tic-for-tac removal, but you quickly outclass any hand that leaves you unchecked. Fair decks are more common, as are the other interactive decks that care about what you and your creatures are doing Gaea’s Cradle is great because it is a busted card with fair, common answers.
Mishra’s Workshop/Tolarian Academy: I’m grouping these together because they both depend on artifacts, but are a little different. I’m not necessarily going to play Workshop in every Academy deck, and vice versa, but they do tend to overlap in serviceability. Also both excel in powered cubes and suffer with the more artifact ramp you remove.
Tolarian Academy performs better in a powered environment where you can drop a bunch of small artifacts and make a ton of mana to either cast a big spell or multiple ones. Academy excelled in the Holiday cube where storm combo decks that choose a ton of signets was heavily supported, along with the mono-brown decks that were often base blue or U/x. You can do some silly things with all the land-untap spells too, making an excess of mana, playing all your cantrips, and then storming off for a trillion. Academy is great with your typical hate cards like Winter Orb, Tangle Wire, Lodestone Golem, and the bunch, taking the disadvantage and rocketing ahead of your opponent in mana production. The further we stray from power, the less strong Academy is. The main reason Academy is so good is you can generate all that mana super early; if there are no good cubeable artifact mana spells at CMC 1 or less and the options are super limited at CMC 2 and above, then Academy will often be subpar and even a dead card a lot of the time. In a powered environment I think it’s very good, but if you’re not supporting combo I feel like it ends up being gravy a lot more than being a lynch pin.
Mishra’s Workshop, while having a much lower ceiling than Academy, still performs at a high level and is much better in an unpowered cube. It really, really sucks that you can’t use Workshop to cast non-artifact spells. I’ve kept it out of decks because of the lack of artifacts I had while still having a good amount in the deck, and I’ve had to not count it as a land ala Maze of Ith because there are some spots where Workshop is insanely awkward and you end up strip mining yourself for nothing. Workshop is at its best when you are casting things that cost actual mana instead of free moxen or the 1 mana artifacts (which are still awesome and should still be played); things like Solemn Simulacrum, Coaltion Relic, and those types of ways to push your mana. He’s still great with a bunch of signets, but also works without them since there are a lot of unpowered artifacts that cost 3-5 total mana, which is right around the sweet spot of workability for the Workshop. I like to have at least 8-10 castable artifacts to run the Workshop; that might be a low number for some, but that’s the point where I start actually considering running the Workshop.
Maze of Ith: Watching other people draft cube can be really weird. Sometimes it’s clear that there’s a best card in the pack, but there are other times that conflicting styles will mean completely different picks than anything I would’ve imagined. The biggest trend is the lack of love for Maze of Ith. In some decks where you need to hit your land drops for mana produces, like any dedicated green ramp deck, Maze might not be the best, but it stops so many different strategies and saves you so much damage that any deck that wants to live pas the early and potentially middle game should seriously consider Maze.
Not tapping for mana definitely does suck, and there have been a fair number of games lost because of being behind curves, but more often than not Maze of Ith takes your nice plan and says not today. Maze may not stop every creature but on boards where you have some creatures it makes combat super awkward, forcing you to attack with multiple attackers to get damage in if you’re not walking into a really awful block. Maze does a great job skirting around protection, rendering whatever creature a sword is on as pacified or completely shutting out some of the other options, like a Chameleon Colossus or something minor like a paid-for Karmic Guide. Maze can hide innocuously in your lands section, catching some players off guard as they forget there’s a pacifying land out there and can sometimes gain you advantage that way. Maze protects your planeswalkers, giving them enough time to get going, and makes all non-eldrazi targets without hexproof/shroud for “put big things into play” strategies silly. Attacking triggers can really burn Maze of Ith, so Titans and Eldrazi are really good, but for such an otherwise strong card like Maze of Ith I’d be fine with having a variety of cards that make it bad. All cube cards have a foil at times, and it’s OK if Maze of Ith has a few considering how it acts as the foil to so many other cards. (“Foil” as in “easy answer/arch nemesis”, not “shiny”, though if you have a foil that’s sweet.)
Manlands: These are great, though not all of them are consistently playable. Some are horribly costed, whereas others are in a deep color combination and therefore compete with better cards. In decks that can afford to play them, they act as a threat that bypasses so many sorcery speed options that they can win games on their own, attacking through an open board after a wipe or using their evasion or higher power to get past lesser or hindered creatures. Even the “bad” man lands are playable because they are so good against sorceries, rendering your wraths and ETB-187 creatures as sucky, so if you’re just beginning with a cube and don’t have all the fixing in a dedicated lands section you can still give players good cards with some of the older/more dated manlands. You won’t throw any manland into any deck you play; they all have their niche and varying levels of playability, and it’s worth knowing where you want them in order to avoid hurting your mana base or stretching it too thin.
Mishra’s Factory: The easiest to use, Factory is the best of the man-lands since it fits in so many decks and offers you a good amount of power on attack and defense for the by-turn cost. It might not have the ceiling of a card like Creeping Tar Pit or Celestial Colonnade, and I’d probably avoid taking Factory first in a pack where that and either Tar Pit or Colonnade are the other option, but if your mana can support it then Mishra’s Factory really should be played in every cube deck you draft. In aggressive decks Factory is that last bit of damage after a wrath or an extra attacker in a turn where you can’t use your mana in a better way. With control decks he’s an amazing early-turn blocker against a lot of different creatures you’d see attacking at that point in the game, blocking and then tapping for that extra toughness to keep him alive versus a lot of threats or force a 2-for-1 in your advantage when they blow a burn spell on Factory and not your face/better creature or permanent. Midrange can use it as more of a tool, either applying the pressure against control or blocking against aggro, and when it comes to it adding that extra bit of damage in when you need to in a crucial attack.
Mutavault for all intents and purposes is exactly the same card as Factory except for the +1+1 ability that Mishra’s Factory can give itswelf, making it definitely worse but still not at all bad. There are too few tribal elements to count that part of mutavault as a bonus. Siege-Gang commander is good, and if you’re doing it to actually win the game that’s good, but otherwise that seems like a pretty bad play in a vacuum to sac Vault to the commander if it isn’t automatically winning you the game or directly responsibly in the ensuing plays. I feel like I’m missing some tribal interactions that are commonly run, but a standard cube is largely lacking those types of effects. Some cubes try and run the Zombies package with the Lords/Grave Crawler that enjoy pox-style builds to go along with them, and Mutavault can be really nice there, and mutavault would certainly excel in those decks. Funny enough, one of the best tribal bonuses is from Mishra’s Factory, giving you an extra cheap blocker that can act as a 3/3 without losing that ability in the future for a potential exchange.
Creeping Tarpit: In terms of power level, I think Tarpit is actually better than Factory, though it must go into far less decks and that hurts its stock in comparison. UB is a great place to find yourself in the world of cube, and Tarpit gives you a great line of attack that fits into either tempo-aggressive decks or the control/reanimator decks. Tarpit is great because being unblockable for 3 damage can deal with a lot of issues. The tarpit carries weapons like a champ, can kill most planeswalkers in a hit or two without most of them being able to stop them with their abilities, and can act as a win condition on his own in any board. I’ve seen boards where one side is completely dominating and they lose because their life is low and a Tarpit is able to swing in 2 or 3 times untouched.
In relation to Factory, 3 mana per activation is a lot, but the other abilities add so much that it’s actually pretty cheap. Since you are able to stop so many other answers that any real creature would suffer too, it’s not uncommon that in longer grindy/controlled games that you’ll hit a bunch of land drops and have the extra resources available to Tarpit again and again while still making other plays. I’ve splashed a Tarpit before because in UW control decks he’s such a nice finisher, maybe pulling out situational black removal from the board and running Tarpit and 1 or 2 other black sources. Tarpit would be a lot worse if it costed 4 mana to activate him; 3 is probably the threshold where he stays at “playable”, since that extra mana is so crucial in situations where you want to equip or hold up counter/removal mana.
Celestial Colonnade: Next on the list behind Creeping Tarpit, Colonnade is less powerful than Tarpit but does have some definite bonuses. UW is a color that wants a powerful manland, and Colonnade performs multiple roles for that deck. Obviously fixing the colors is great, but in the late game Colonnade acts as a blocker and attacker you’re never going to tap out all the way for. Vigilence allows you to attack/defend and hold up a spell if possible, letting you put pressure on your opponent and hold up counterspells or make a block and cast a spell on the blockers step.
As an aside– based on color combination alone–is Colonnade better than Tarpit? This is tough to tell. Being blue is awesome and no matter the cube I tend to go in that direction, but which is the better complimentary color? Both colors offer removal, but based on personal preference other drafters would be more inclined to grab white removal. While white removal either gives your opponent a slight boost or a way to get around the spell, it’s unconditional for what it can target and hits way more targets than the majority of black removal. This is a blessing and a curse, since white players have the best ability to play these spells but often have them stolen because players not in white might decide that an O-Ring or a Swords to Plowshares is worth playing. I’ll splash for black removal no problem, but so many of the creatures in black also kill when they enter the battlefield that you’ll wheel doom blade way more than you wheel path to exile.
With that in mind, black is probably the better complimentary color because it does all the above to a point while adding a couple other elements. Black discard is a good away to attack hands in mirrors or knock gas out of the aggro player’s hand. A t4 Hymn to Tourach with counter magic up is probably still insane, and leading off with a Duress or a Thoughtseize can give you enough time to lock down the board by picking apart a hand. Black’s tutors are insane as well and black gives blue everything white has (removal, mass removal w/ Toxic Deluge/Damnation/Black Sun’s Zenith) plus the ability to find all these cards at will. While it’s on average just two cards to consider—Imperial Seal is fine but waiting that turn can be so bad if you can’t get the card immediately, and next is Grim Tutor? The black tutors drop off considerably after Demonic and Vampiric—these two cards are so easy to play and such high impact that they’re totally worth it.
The power of Demonic Tutor is pretty clear since putting the card into your hand means you aren’t actually losing a card and you can decide when and what to get at your will, mana depending. Vampiric Tutor doesn’t gain the same level of respect, and though Vampiric Tutor is definitely worse than Demonic Tutor and non-miracle reasons aside is always not the pick if the two tutors are in a pack, it’s still an incredible card and one that should never go later than 3rd or 4th pick in an unpowered cube. There is no doubt that Vampiric Tutor is card disadvantage. Paying a card to manipulate your deck seems kind of wonky when you don’t consider the context of the cards your playing with. Think about what you could grab—does Ancestral Recall seem good? How about Liliana of the Veil? Black Lotus. Time Walk. Mox. Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Even worse card draw spells like Compulsive Research or Tidings is fine because you’re making up for the disadvantage. Tutors are incredible in cube because they’re a copy of any card in your deck, and when you’re playing cards like the above that can end games upon resolution and a series of turns, they are super high priority. Single black, too, so they are easy to splash.
But I digress…
Treetop Village/Faerie Conclave/Ghitu Encampment: These three are all similar in that they cost 1X, with x being their respective color. They’re all fairly cheap, and while coming into play really sucks, their abilities make up for the detriment for the most part. The power level between Treetop Village and Faerie Conclave is close, whereas Ghitu Encampment is far behind but still playable. Treetop is better in the aggressive and midrange green builds since you need your mana in the big ramp decks for ramping a lot of the time and can’t really afford to tap for Village’s cost to ramp. In the decks where you can attack with him earlier than others, his trample will smash in for a lot of damage and his size will take care of any chump blockers he picks up as your bigger threats require more attention. Conclave pounds in for damage as well, but excels as a slower finisher in a control build or as an additional tempo creature that can start getting in at your later attacks once you can keep that last counter open. Both carry weapons like champs as well, not guaranteeing a hit but having a higher probability to hit than a lot other creatures. Ghitu Encampment is fine but against a lot of different creatures he can be either dealt with or irrelevant. If the 2 power isn’t killing whatever is blocking him, he dies to just about everything. I like encampment as a 17th land in the mono red/aggressive red decks that can be dropped at the end of the curve where his size is less and important and “being a creature” is enough.
Shelldock Isle: In the fastest of the fast cubes, Shelldock might not be that great, but you should still be able to make decks that draw a lot of cards and can pull through the deck. Let’s say you’re on the draw in a blue deck—when is Shelldock Active? If you don’t mulligan and play Shelldock, then you should be at 32 cards left in deck before you draw anything with the 7 in your hand and the one under the shelldock. Every turn you get to draw a card, so by turn 4 you’re at 28, turn 5 27, etc. If you’re in any sort of mirror, there’s no question that you’ll get to the 20 cards in deck you’ll need since they often start as “draw-go” back and forth and land-drops hit unless someone throws a spell out there. Shelldock is really only at its worst in the aggro match up, since if you get that far into your deck you’re probably doing OK as is, but at least it’s a cheap and probably undercosted spell you can throw out there at instant speed. There are certainly bad Shelldocks where you need a certain amount of the cards you look at for Hideaway and not casting and bottoming any number of all 4 of the cards really sucks, so it’s important to find a certain number of shuffle effects for your deck.
Playing on cockatrice, I haven’t seen Shelldock in cubes in a while come up in drafts or in games, and I fear that people are really undervaluing the card because it might be too slow. You can’t splash for the Isle and you need to be drawing cards, but that’s something blue wants to do anyways and you only have to get through 7-8 cards in addition to draws before the card becomes active. Shelldock seems to fluctuate in popularity, since sometimes it’s absolutely bonkers in grindy match ups and other times it’s completely awful, but I like the fact that such a powerful type of effect exists and that even if it can be tough to activate, it’s always a possibility in any match and is a threat for your opponent to consider the entire time Shelldock Isle is on the board.
Fetches/Duals: There are 30 cards your cube needs for fixing if you are able to get any card one way or another. They are the best because they are the simplest, the most powerful, and they compliment each other. They’re not exciting but I’ll pick them highly out of a lot of packs, and certainly in weaker ones early on where I don’t want to commit to weaker colors. Often it’s worse to continue onto a second color pick which could actually be a lark while taking that on-color dual which you don’t share the second color with can be so much better because what someone passes later. If I’m in black and someone passes me a Pernicious Deed or Maelstrom Pulse, I’d be happy to have that Bayou, and those situations extend to a lot of cards. There are 10 fetches (Polluted Delta, Arid Mesa, etc.), 10 ABU/AlphaBetaUnlimited duals (Underground Sea, Plateau, etc.), and 10 shocklands that can come into play tapped or untapped for 2 life. (Watery Grave, Sacred Foundry, etc.)
Beyond these guys, where do you go for 2 colored lands? There are the M10/Innistrad lands that come into play untapped if the appropriate type of basic is in play (Drowned Catacomb comes into play untapped if there’s an island or swamp in play, etc.), which are probably the strongest non-core options in that you’ll be able to play them untapped the most. 1st turn is impossible for this, but most cube decks run enough basics that it shouldn’t be the toughest. These are my favorite past the original 30 because you can set up hands where the land comes into play untapped typically with any other land in your deck. Next are the Mirrodin lands that check to see if you have 2 lands in play to come into play untapped. These are the best in the aggro colors that need their fixing to be untapped always, so classic aggressive color combinations are the best ones to include. From there you have painlands, which tap for 1 colorless or deal 1 to you to tap for one color or the other. These are also best in the aggressive colors, but I like them the least because the Scars of Mirrodin lands work so much better for those decks most of the time without having to deal damage. The painlands are fine in other decks and I would certainly play one in a control deck if my fixing needed it, but that would be a last resort. Filter lands are pretty cool but I don’t like too many of them. Fetid Heath is the most popular because of the high number of WW and BB cards in each color. The others are fine but are the worst of any of these options, needing some kind of on-color mana before you can start fixing. It’s tough to play the filter lands in a deck with a ton of utility lands like Strip Mine or Rishadan port because the possibility of having 2 or 3 of those in your hand with the filter land makes them so bad.
For fetches, the other options are severely lacking. The MTGO cube uses cards like Bad River as additional fetches, but these are really lacking. Having to wait is painful, and its even worse when you need to get a shockland. They work, and they aren’t the worst—fixing is fixing to a point—but I’d rather run the set of vivid lands and 5 other lands than run the full set of the Mirage fetches. If you have a ton of duals in your deck that you can fetch with the relevant colors then the Mirage fetches are slightly better, but it can be really awful to wait to fix that greedy mana base.
Island: The best card. Disregard everything else.
Though every great cube land hasn’t been named, hopefully this is a good place to start when considering your land base or how to play with and against these cards when you see them in the draft. If you have any other favorite lands you think I forgot, let me know in the comments—and thanks for reading!
Strip Mine by Ondal the Fool
Maze of Ith by Laura Lou