Cards in the MTGO Unpowered Cube
Creating a cube is tough. I’ve watched two cubes evolve over time–my brother’s and my friend sky’s–and it’s cool to see the builds grow. You look back on cards that were run and wonder how they made it in there, but you gotta start somewhere and any set of cards is better than no set of cards. Some of the cards run were cool cards that were thought to be filler but really ended up as all-stars. But there were others that are gone and gone for good, sent out in a Viking Burial. (Except with less burning.)
(For refrerence: http://www.wizards.com/Magic/magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/other/01222013D – the MTGO unpowered list as of January/February/March 2013)
When looking at the MTGO, one could think that Wizards thought “We have all the cards, let’s just run whatever the heck we want.” And you know what? Power to them. Some of the best discoveries in life come from thinking outside the box, choosing the road less travel, and other terrible euphemisms. For example, Wake Thrasher has performed really well whenever I’ve seen it in context, as long as you know its role. Decree of Justice was always a card I was unsure of but, after watching a draft video a while ago, noticed its power and understand its inclusion. To some people these might be obvious inclusions, but before seeing them I hadn’t considered their actual power in context. They looked like cards that could be good, but before playing with them I thought that the weak body Wake Thrasher has on your opponents turn could leave him in trouble, or that a “good” decree costs too much to justify the card, and to a point that was true, but they excelled so much in other instances that I understood why they were included in cubes. It’s not like they are staples; many people choose to not run them and it’s not even noticeable, but when they are included they pull their weight.
Of course, for every hidden gem, there are turds that float to the top. In this article I’d like to take a look at some of these cards and talk about their merits and demerits.
Oust: One mana removal is solid. In cube matches there typically isn’t a lot of room for leaving mana untapped, so the cheaper a spell, the better. There is a reason Murder is not run but Terminate/Dreadbore is—even though Terminate/Dreadbore depend on two colors, killing any creature for 2 is incredible strong. It’s not that Murder is weak, but that 1BB is a lot if you can’t make it cheaper, like Dismember or Snuff Out. You really can’t afford to kill things for 3+ mana unless it’s attached to a body or the price can be lowered.
Considering these factors, Oust seems like it could be pretty good., but there is a lot working against it. First, Oust is always soft removal. Unless they are not aware of the board state, there’s no chance they’ll let a creature hit the library before a fetch cracks. So whatever creature you Oust, unless it’s a token, is coming back for another of those rock-jocking beats. A lot of the time, this is a problem. Unless you are stifling an aggro player’s fast start, there are so many ETB creatures that dealing with another of those triggers can be devastating. The 3 life they get is also pretty bad. It’s one thing when you Swords to Plowshares a creature and it’s gone for good, but most the time the creature that got Oust-ed is on his way back. Considering there are cards like Temporal Isolation or even Pacifism, two cards that are hard to remove that stop creatures from screwing you up and are essentially hard removal most the time, there is no need to run Oust, even for the 1 less colorless mana. Most of the time I would rather make my opponent deal with the enchantment, not find another way myself to deal with the creature.
Lone Revenant: I understand that Wizards wants to showcase its newer cards. If they didn’t play some of these awful cards in the cube, where would they be seen? Lone Revenant is seriously awful. So much has to happen to make the card good and playable. For starters, it needs to be your only creature on the battlefield. This is less of a problem in cube than it is in regular limited, as there are a higher amount of non-creature spells that are maindeckable and decks with only a few creatures are not unheard of, but most of the time you are still going to run a decent amount of creatures in most of your decks.
Even if Revenant was one of your lone creatures, would you really be happy running him? To get any kind of value for playing what is a Hexproof 4/4 for 3UU, you need to be attacking with him, but in a blue deck with few threats why would I want a 4/4 as my finisher? There are plenty of bombs that are way better that cost the same or one more that blue decks would prefer as a finisher. And if he wasn’t one of my few creatures, am I ever happy holding back creatures so my 4/4 without evasion gets chump blocked all day? There really isn’t a deck that wants Lone Revenant. A card like Morphling, which is finding his way out of more and more cubes, is way better as it can at least serve that “only creature” role better as he’s an efficient beater with potential evasion and also a 0/6+ wall with shroud if necessary and possible.
Phyrexian Crusader: I have a hard time believing this card has ever won a game in cube. There are no other Infect cards in this cube, and yet there’s Phyrexian Crusader, just chilling. What is his role? Is he a wall? If he’s a defender for you, his two toughness leaves a lot to desire. Is he an attacker? There’s no way I’m happy trying to get my opponent to 10 infect, and there’s no way they mind me trying. Is he a build around for that reason? Then I need swords, which is like saying you’re going to build a deck around power, or I have to play equipment that is subpar and probably terrible with the rest of my deck. Is he a sideboard-only card? How many sideboard-only cards do you need to run in a cube? I’m of the school of “less is more”; I want packs to be full of cards players want to use, not a decent amount of cards that are destined for the sideboard but are good when they come out. Is it worth running a card that is so useless against every other deck? What cards aren’t being run because red and white needs something to worry about in black? There isn’t even a Vampire Nighthawk in the list, which is arguably the best black 3 drop creature in cube, and yet there is a narrow, sideboard-only card which essentially performs the same role against RW as Nighthawk does. Nighthawk dies to Searing Spear, but that could’ve been 3 damage that finished you off.
When you start excluding cards like Vampire Nighthawk because you want a narrow card like Phyrexian Crusader, you have to start asking yourself if you’re doing it right. Are players really itching to play with a Crusader over Nighthawk? Do you really think Infect is a viable way to win? Do you have to hose red white with such narrow cards? It’s not even like Phyrexian Crusader is an iconic card or anything; in fact, I don’t think it’s really seen any serious play, whereas Nighthawk has been an efficient creature which both attacks and blocks like a champion that has found its way into decks since it was first released in Zendikar. Putting the two cards next to each other and having to choose one, the obvious choice seems like Nighthawk. (If I am wrong about Phyrexian Crusade, please leave a deck list in the comments!)
Vulshok Refugee: I drafted a lot of the holiday cube on drafts.in to play on cockatrice while it was still chugging, and about every 3rd or 4th draft we’ll use the unpowered cube. Back when people first started recording themselves drafting that cube, I remember seeing Vulshok Refugee and wondering what it was doing in there. For all intents and purposes, it is a 3/2 for 1RR. The pro red clause is there, but if you pick this card as a red player, then how many other red drafters are there at the table? One? Maybe two? And is a 3/2 for 1RR really better than any other creature you could run? Better than burn? If you’re going to include cards into a cube, then you need to keep power level in mind; Vulshok Refuge is barely better than your standard bear, and I’d prefer the 2 drop most of the time. It has essentially no evasion, a pretty regular body, and protection that would be better if it was any other color.
As a red player, vanilla creatures do nothing for me if they’re so expensive. I have minimal time before my aggressive start become kaput, and playing a guy like Vulshok Refugee that gets chump blocked by a lot of creatures is not what I’m looking for. Searing Spear is a surprising exclusion from the cube, especially considering the cube runs Incinerate and functional reprints are obviously not an issue, with both Savannah Lions and Elite Vanguard in there. Taking out a creature could ruin the balance, but Vulshok Refugee was barely playable anyways; adding a card that will see way more main decks is always a better call.
Brooding Saurian: As I said earlier, sideboard only cards are pretty rough for your cube design. Instead of including a card that players playing that color are more likely to want, you’re guaranteeing a card does not see a maindeck and instead is often a dead card in a pack. This leads to packs with less tough decisions, and those hard choices from the beginning of the pack to the end are part of the experience. Brooding Saurian is really only good against blue decks that have Control Magics and Bribery effects. In a pinch he is a 4/4 for 2GG, but if you need to run one of those without any other actual relevant abilities then you’re most likely in trouble. Because of his ability, he is unplayable in any sort of UG deck, which is one of the stronger green archetypes in cube in my opinion. (Survival Nightmare Genesis is my favorite green-style deck, but a lot of things have to happen for that to come together.) Other than reanimation, there are few other ways for you to get your permanents stolen.
An oddball choice for replacement is Noxious Revival. Revival is not a card that sees a lot of play in cubes, but those that include it probably see its power. While it is undoubtedly card disadvantage, having a colorless regrowth effect that you can save until end of turn is really good. Nothing is better than when an opponent does everything he can to deal with a problem planeswalker or finally top deck that disenchant to kill your Jitte, only for you to put it right back on top for the often low cost of 2 life. Noxious Revival may seem like a luxury, but there are a lot of spells and instants you’d be happy to buy back. Plow Under x2, getting a Farseek back so you can get closer to a 6-drop, returning your giant bomb you Sneak Attacked into play; Noxious comes across as a surprise most of the time for your opponent, especially if you’re tapped out.
Phyrexian Processor: Looking through the artifact section, Wizards did a good job of not including too many cards that are fairly useless. Even Phyrexian Processor is not that bad. Pay a good amount of life, make giant creatures, win the game. Seems pretty good, huh? Unfortunately, it’s not so cut and dry. Naturalize and similar effects are worth main deck inclusion, if not coming out of the sideboard in most match ups already. There are a ton of problems that can easily be answered by Naturalize. With Processor, paying the X amount of life and then losing your artifact is awful, especially since you pretty much have to untap to get any value out of Processor. When Processor gets going, it’s really sweet, but sometimes you can’t get that snowball rolling, and “sometimes” occurs more often than not.
Instead, a utility artifact like Ring of Gix would be a great replacement. There is still a mana commitment with the echo cost, but you’re not also paying life. Also, it’s much easier to get the Ring online, and once you do there are a variety of options for what you can do. You can tap down lands, artifact mana during their upkeep and stop their tempo or save some life by tapping down a problem creature. It’s an Icy Manipulator, and Icy is very good. Processor can be better in certain situations, but the consistency of Ring shines through.
Void: This is a card my brother used to run, and it did some cool stuff. Sometimes you would get at least a 2 or 3 for 1 out of it, and when that happened, it was great! Unfortunately, Void does not care whether or not you have artifacts or creatures that share the same converted mana cost as well. Spending 5 mana to kill one creature is never a good deal if you avoid to get your own guys killed, and losing your own guys can be understandably awful. Void is a card that looks like its nuts but is only good in random situations where you can avoid getting your own cards taken. There will be situations where instead of killing what you want to kill, you kill something else to protect your own cards, or you pick that card and lose one of your important spells and ultimately suffer down the road for it.
Why they included Void and not Murderous Redcap is beyond me. Murderous Redcap is great in both slow and fast builds. In a faster build, you’re getting 3 damage off the of the persist triggers, along with an attacker and blocker. In a slower deck, you have a blocker that comes back and can randomly kill their more aggressive creatures. Combine Redcap with any kind of recursion and you have a filthy damage-dealing machine. The value you can get out of Redcap can go through the roof, and in those recurring occasions can double as a win condition. That is way better than selective kill spell that can screw your own board up as well. The redcap’s body may be a little weak, but you consistently get so much value out of 1 card that it is worth it.
This article is by no means trashing the MTGO Cube; I’ve played with it multiple times and as a lot of people say, any cubing is good cubing. But there is such a variety of cards in the history of magic—many cards considered unplayable in cube that are better than some actual roster inclusions—it’s worth taking a look at the list and re-evaluating some choices. There are more cards I could’ve written about, but this is a good starting point of changes and fixes to make that’ll ensure we don’t keep seeing the same cards sitting at the end of packs and resting in sideboards, never coming out.