I love limited, and not just cube—some of my favorite formats have been limited formats. The first cube set review I did was on Rise of Eldrazi because it was my favorite limited format of all time, as there were a variety of cool archetypes and each pack was full of playables. Urza’s block was fun in a “ok this is ridiculous” kind of way, as a lot of the spells had built-in recursion or a “free” cost. Onslaught block is sweet as you can get greedy with your mana while still having a bunch of sweet creatures with the cycle guys in the first pack, and the third set was all creatures which is a neat concept of its own. A little more than a year ago Innistrad premiered and it was great, as you could manipulate the graveyard, play aggressive decks, build around strong archetypes available at uncommon in all three packs, and so many of the spells were 2-for-1s.
Cube is, of course, the ultimate limited format, but with the recent prerelease, I’ve been playing a lot of Return to Ravnica block sealed and draft and have taken a short-term focus on the formats. While it’s mostly unfair—and, frankly, stupid—to take limited lessons and apply them to cube, there is some merit to recognizing the strength of cards in a limited format and seeing how they could apply to cube. Cards like Skullclamp, Dismember, Sensei’s Diving top were all nice in the limited formats they were featured in and had the ability to take over games or easily swing the tides your way for cheap; it’s tough to not think “maybe this card will be good in cube” after playing with them there. There were a few cards I took not of while playing at the prerelease, and while everything I experienced came with a grain of salt as some of these cards were goliaths among men, it got me thinking about their cube applications and how they would fit.
Sealed was the format for the prerelease, and typically a lot slower than regular drafting. My pool—and final deck—was pretty sweet.
2x Tithe Drinker
1x Gatecreeper Vine
1x Kingpin’s Pet
1x Varolz, the Scar-Striped
1x Basilica Screecher
1x Steeple Roc
1x Trostani’s Summoner
1x Pontiff of Blight
1x Loxodon Smiter
1x Luminate Primordial
1x Lavinia of the Tenth
1x Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage
1x Courser’s Accord
1x Holy Mantle
2x Warleader’s Helix
1x Fatal Fumes
1x Warped Physique
1x Devour Flesh
1x Boros Cluestone
1x Azorius Cluestone
1x Golgari Cluestone
1x Dimir Cluestone
2x Orzov Guildgate
2x Selesnya Guildgate
1x Rakdos Guildgate
1x Dimir Guildgate
The deck went 2-3 at the prerelease, but despite the record I felt it was very good. I lost in the first round to a fast rakdos deck that I was surprised to see where I drew pretty terribly; his deck was capable of turn 3 wins he said, but I felt with my Tithe Drinkers and Warleader’s Helixes, staying afloat wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, I had mediocre hands that only got worse when I drew, and he in the first round kept a 5 card hand with one land and won by turn 5 or 6. It was pretty sick, but his deck had nice cards to draw, and he drew them.
In my other matches, I lost to Aetherling. As in, if Aetherling didn’t hit the board in any of those 4 games I lost, I would’ve won without question. The card is pretty sick in RTR block limited, as there isn’t a lot of removal that actually kills it if you’re tapped out when you play Aetherling. The spells that do kill him exist, but they either need to be of the Murder variety or one of the exile/damage spells. Of course, this only really works if they don’t have a single blue mana open. Once they untap or cast Aetherling with plenty of mana—which isn’t super difficult in the format, as it’s much slower than the recent limited formats—then you’re in a lot of trouble. There were a few boards where I had lethal on the board, but couldn’t attack into an Aetherling as they had a blue open. I honestly think Aetherling is the best card in RTR block sealed and probably draft as well. Pack Rats is in the conversation, but after beating a Pack Rats player with my own Aetherling in an online draft, I’m starting to think otherwise, as you can have your creatures and removal eat rats until you can cast the Aetherling and keep it protected and tapping.
I feel that Aetherling is going to be really nice in cube as well. There aren’t a lot of unblockable creatures in cube; other than pseudo-unblockability in shadow and Creeping Tar Pit, I can’t think of any. As a finisher, it’s kind of perfect: get in there for a nice amount of damage, and then before the end of the turn pay blue to bring him back into play untapped. There is more solid, cheap removal in cube, but if you can manage to keep 1 blue open you can usually dance around a lot of the board and hand states that you’ll face with Aetherling. Once you have UU open, Aetherling is essentially invulnerable, as they’ll need two different pieces of removal to take him off the board. Even if they do, you’re getting a 2-for-1, and as long as it’s not a 2-for-1 for the loss it’s not the absolute worst to clear their hand out of removal and potentially drop another finisher the next turn.
The biggest drawback with Aetherling is the competition at CMC 6 in blue is really tight. Keiga, Consecrated Sphinx, Sphinx of Jwar Isle and Frost Titan are all stellar cards; without inflating your top end or overall cube size, any of these 4 could be better than Aetherling as they are all fairly effortless, large creatures that allow you to use your mana for other purposes. Jwar Sphinx has the most resilience to removal via shroud but otherwise is pretty boring, but boring is not always a bad thing. Perfect edicts and sweepers are the only answer to a Sphinx with a clear path, allowing your flying beater or blocker to stick around. Aetherling can get in for more damage while still blocking any amount of damage (barring trample) but requires what can be an intensive mana commitment. Cube is an environment where available mana is tight; keeping the lands open or using them can result in your opponent sneaking in a well-timed spell to turn the tides as you decide between the spell on the board versus the one they’re playing. There will be some games where Aetherling will outright win for you, but there will also be times where you face a deck heavy with removal, better or quicker threats, and more card advantage. I think the ceiling on Aether is high enough to warrant testing, but it is possible that there are still better options.
Ral Zarek was also another nice one that Kirk managed to crack at the prerelease, and he said when it hit the board it did nicely. It makes sense in limited—planeswalkers have almost always been bonkers in draft and sealed, and with Ral Zarek you have two lightning bolts on a stick at an almost-worst-case-scenario. Removal is valued highly in every limited format I’ve played. So many times you and your opponent will drop creatures into play but can’t afford to attack, as allowing your opponent to make good blocks and come off on top for the 2-4 damage you might make it in with is almost never worth it. Ral Zarek gives you at least two pieces of removal for the price of one. His +1 ability has been a bit more underwhelming, but ramping up in a format where casting 6 and 7 drops is a real think is perfectly fine, along with attacking with a creature they can’t block and then untapping it to protect your Ral.
It probably doesn’t need to be said, but I have faith that Ral Zarek will be stellar in cube. While not as good as Ajani–the easiest comparison and a PW who can hold down the creatures that 3 damage doesn’t actually kill–starting off at 4 loyalty before you activate an ability gives Ral a lot of breathing room, in addition to the previously mentioned ramping. You can play Ral and keep open your counter magic, whether it’s a force spike or something larger, and you can untap stuck artifacts like Mana Vault and Grim Monolith. His finisher is sweet too; you’re probably going to get at least an extra turn, and it’s not too difficult to reach it if you have something to protect your Ral. Easily the best UR card available for any cube of any size.
In the prerelease and a few times in draft I’ve seen Blood Scrivener in action. In principle, the card seems like it should be really solid. There are plenty of games where you end up in top deck mode, and getting that extra 1 or 2 cards can be the difference. An early Scrivener is destined to die, though—it dies to pretty much everything, and a lot of players will happily trade for an early one if it could bit them in the ass in the future. In draft I’ll never pick this too high, but if it comes around pick 5 or 6, I usually take it.
Now seems like a good time to tangent into my draft strategy for RTR block. It’s really simple: draft all fixing and bombs in the DGM pack, and then take whatever cards you want in the GTC and RTR packs. I’m honestly surprised more players aren’t doing this; in multiple drafts already people have been shocked when I open with gate, different color gate, land and then cluestone for the 5th color. RTR block draft is much slower than GTC and variably slower than RTR. Aggressive decks do exist, but you either need the perfect packs to stay in two colors or you need to stretch your mana base thinly. It’s very rare that you’ll be dead by turn 4-6, so you’ll have time to drop your bombs. That’s the best part—you will be passed bomb rares, and you will be able to play them all. The other night I had a draft where I picked and played 9 rares. The deck strategy is nutty, and you really only lose to the super aggressive decks that either draw perfectly or draft perfectly. Your cheapest cards don’t start at cluestones, as there are plenty of two drops that your deck will want. Prophetic Prism is a nice one you should keep in mind for the GTC pack so you don’t take too-too many Cluestones in the first pack. Deputy of Acquittals is a card in the DGM pack that you’ll consider a high pick, another great two drop. You can get value with any of the gate guys that fit well in the deck, and he’s perfectly fine as a combat trick or 2-4 life.
Back to Blood Scrivener. I think Scrivener will be better in cube than in as it’s easier to clear the board and build an aggressive deck where his functions can be utilized quickly and efficiently. At worst, he attacks for two without evasion; while this is a fine worst-case scenario. I imagine it will make him a liability or non-entity at times. Not being able to get in with your creature the turn after you cast him can cost you the game in the black aggressive decks. My biggest question is “how often is this worse than a Walking Corpse?” Providing no immediate impact can be tough. It’s one thing for a one drop to have no relevant abilities, as you’re dropping a creature that can make an impact immediately in a spot on the curve where a lot of the slower or midrange decks are either dropping smaller creatures or doing nothing. By turn two, I want my creature to have some sort of evasion or card advantage/disruption advantage. Waiting 2-4 turns for value, and I feel the “2” on there is generous, can be a bit too slow.
However, if you can sandbag him in your by playing an alternate 2 drop or a couple of one drops, you can insure that Scrivener will reach madness sooner than later, garnering you that important extra 2-3 cards to put you into the win column while dropping multiple or evasive beaters. In cube, I feel that Scrivener is a cheaply-costed top-end aggro card—it’s easier to get value off him when you play him as the last spell in your hand rather than as a 2 drop that attacks, but by costing so little he’s a fine option as a two drop, especially against any slower deck or if you can get your opponents with removal. It helps that black two drops have room to improve. The recent printing of Pack Rat and a little further back with Bloodghast added some solid staples for any black section, but I feel like a replacement could be found.
I’m looking forward to seeing how this set plays out. Gatecrash was overall a disappointment, both in cube and in regular limited, but Dragon’s Maze seems like a solid improvement in terms of cube playables, and a way better format in RTR block draft. If you can’t be cube drafting, RTR block is a nice other option that can be drafted at your local gaming store. Thanks for reading!