Innistrad is one of the most important sets in magic’s history. Magic was rising in popularity but also was coming off a standard format where they had to ban 2 cards in Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Magic could not afford a slip up, and Innistrad did not disappoint. The flavor was top-notch, the power level was high, the set proved wizards could do crazy things like double-faced cards and not lose all their customers, and most importantly Innistrad gave us a boatload of cube cards. Today I’d like to take a look at Innistrad’s possible Cube inclusions and talk about why they do or do not work. SO LETS DO THIS.
Ambush Viper: Green has always been desperate for removal. Playing the biggest baddest creatures as early as possible is nice and will win you games in the same way that you can smash a square peg through a circle hole and it will still work, but a lot of the time it will be awkward or you’ll get stuck on board facing things you can’t attack around or afford to take a swing-back from. For a little while, some people including our playgroup toyed with Ambush Viper with mixed results. Like Deadly Recluse in core sets, Ambush Viper was kind of like a green Doom Blade—or at least called as such, as it cost the same and often ended up killing something attacking you. As a limited card, it was very good since you could effectively use it on defense for the death touch reasons and offense as a 2/1 for 2 is about the base-line of what you want in a cheap threat.
There are some issues with Ambush Viper as a cube card. For starters, it’s a bit clunky in terms of killing what you want. If my opponent suspects that I have Ambush Viper at all, he can play around it all day and I’ll either have to make the trade for a lesser creature and still have the problem card to deal with or let it shed endless layers of skin in my hand as I try to still hold it up. The threats in cube are too efficient to let them remain alive on the board, and you need to be greedy with your cube spots so “doesn’t target” is a pretty legitimate gripe. A 2/1 is a pretty lame body and it dies to everything as well. Death touch mitigates a lot of the good blocks someone could make, but there are a lot of spells and abilities that laugh at the puny Viper. If your cube doesn’t support green aggro at all, like mine, then Ambush Viper is decidedly worse in that it turns into a strictly-sideboard card. I don’t think Ambush Viper is horrible, but it’s not what I want to be doing in green at mid-to-small sized cubes.
Avacyn’s Pilgrim: People either love this card because it’s an elf that makes off-color mana or hate it because it can’t produce green mana. Personally as long as the mana is colored and the elf costs 1, I’m pretty happy having another option for 1-mana green ramp. I can understand the argument for wanting the elf to make green. There are a lot of heavy-green-symboled cards that work in green because so much of the ramp produced green. If Garruk, Primal Hunter or Vorapede were color-switched to blue or white, there’s way less of a chance we still play with those cards. Other colors can’t guarantee that their own cards can help cast other cards within their colors, and green is quite alright with high-devotion spells.
On the other hand, you’re rarely forced to make more than 3 green mana for your spells and that is in the minority. If I played my Pilgrim, by turn 4 I should be able to cast any GG spell and turn 5 any GGG spell since the rest of my ramp makes green. A Courser on turn 2 can be awkward, but a t3 Courser is on curve and the tempo-kill is rarely seen. White has the best removal that’s also the easiest to splash, so Avacyn’s Pilgrim is a main-deckable card that helps you splash that O-Ring or Swords to Plowshares. At first I had major reservations about not making green mana, but after years of playing with Pilgrim I can count on one hand how many times not making green mana has lost me games.
Blasphemous Act: On paper, this card should be great. 13 damage kills almost anything you could cube, and it’s a wrath so you should be using it to kill a bunch of creatures anyways, right? But what if there are only 3 creatures on the board that have to die? Is a wrath for 6 any good? What’s the threshold of creatures on the board where this is cubeable? If you play Boros Reckoner there are former standard-dreams to live where you can send 13 damage at someone’s face or creature, but Reckoner is not the most commonly card and that is quite the niche application. In addition, there are much more consistently-castable wraths in red that don’t require you to have a bunch of things on the board before you can cast it, as you typically won’t need to pay 13 for X on your Earthquakes and what-not to clean everything off. Even in the largest of cubes you can probably find a better option for red wraths.
Bloodgift Demon: While a fine beater that has performed well for me, Bloodgift Demon’s spot isn’t in stone and I’m ready to improve on him whenever. Drawing cards, a 5/4 flier for 5, that’s cool and all but for a cube finisher it feels kind of lame. 4 toughness is actually pretty small for your top-end guy and he can potentially die to a lot. Bloodgift Demon is a pretty lame reanimator target too, which is what I want my black finishers to double as. For 1 more mana I have 10+ power in Grave Titan, and the drop off from Titan to Bloodgift Demon is massive.
While the last paragraph was harsh, that’s because I’m a tough critic for cube cards—Bloodgift Demon IS a good card and has won a lot of games. I mean, 5/4 fliers for 5 that can draw you cards have to win some number of games, and you can even use the draw-effect on them to deal the last 1 or 2 damage. I’m perfectly fine running Bloodgift Demon and if I’m playing black I’ll probably run it in every build except 15-16 land aggro builds. In the long term there will probably be a better 5-mana creature or other type of spell printed (cough cough, Ob Nixilis planeswalker, cough cough) but for now Bloodgift Demon is a fine option.
Bloodline Keeper: While BK was one of the best cards you could crack in triple Innistrad draft, it was a bit too durdly for cube. I don’t want to make 2/2 fliers every turn with my 4 drop that dies to incinerate, and I certainly am not playing him as a 3/3 flier for 2BB. Like, unanswered Bloodline Keeper is fine, but if you can’t untap then he’s kind of the worst. There are just better things you can be doing at 4 mana. But hey, if you want to play him, have it your way.
Bramblecrush: Like I said earlier with Ambush Viper, green is desperate for quality removal and Bramblecrush does hit quite a lot. 4 mana is a lot for removal, but green doesn’t have a problem ramping up to 4 mana. Not hitting creatures kind of sucks, but that would be a very non-green effect so it does make sense. Hitting everything else though is sweet. Planeswalker? Equipment? Basic land? Bramblecrush has you covered. Bramblecrush is not an exciting card and with Song of the Dryads recently coming out Wizards has shown that they will print cheaper removal with not-so-bad detriments that can actually stop creatures to a point. Bramblecrush is solid; never a high pick, but your green decks are OK maindecking it if not happy to bring it in from the board.
Brimstone Volley: A reasonable card, Brimstone Volley always hits for 3 which is fine but hits for 5 way less than you like, which is the reason why you would include the card. Morbid cards are a lot easier to justify in black where you have more ways to sacrifice your own guys, but you typically need to go through combat first or have another spell to trigger the morbid, which can be awkward. 3 damage will work in a lot of spots, but at 3 mana for that you’re pretty disappointed in terms of a cube card.
Brimstone Volley is one of the better cards to splash in red as in a lot of non-red strategies you can find yourself triggering morbid. Black uses cards like Braids, Cabal Minion, Smallpox, and Flesh Carver to sacrifice their cheap, recurring creatures and punish the opponent’s unlikely similar strategy. Sacrificing your Bloodsoaked Champion or sending him at a wall of good blocks that could seem to be just testing the waters turns 3 mana into 5 damage, taking a quarter of the opponent’s starting life off or removing a lot of different creatures. Tokens in either white or black will swing en masse pass 1 or 2 blockers and Brimstone Volley can follow to seal the deal. Green creatures will make your opponent chump, then use the Brimstone Volley to kill another guy or the planeswalker you were trying to remove. Blue? Uh, maybe you got a Lightning Bolt instead. Being one of the better red splash burn spells isn’t a reason to run Brimstone Volley if you hate it otherwise, but I can understand the arguments for larger cubes.
Cackling Counterpart: 2 clones for one card at instant speed, though they must be your own creatures. Still seems kind of great in theory, but regular old Clone was better. The second half of the card was too overpriced for what the first half gave us. Three mana is cheap, but UU makes it the hardest to cast consistently cubeable clone—sick alliteration, bro—behind Phyrexian Metamorph, Phantasmal Image, and Clone. (Dack’s Duplicate is really good, but it’s not competing with Cackling Counterpart.) You can’t splash for a Cackling Counterpart, nor can you return it from the graveyard or bring it from your hand to play. Not copying what your opponent could have was the worst overall. There are just as many if not more times you’re copying one of their creatures if not your own, and a good portion of those times you wouldn’t have a creature of your own to target as is. Cackling Counterpart has proved that a self-serving clone needs to be a lot better than a built in 2 for 1.
Champion of the Parish: At the time there were not nearly enough cubeable humans for the champ, and I’m still not sure there are, but it will be worth revisiting him in the future if the cube’s composition shifts more towards the human tribe. Also, “human tribe” felt weird to type, suggestions for something better in the comments appreciated.
Enemy Check-Lands: I’ve always liked these cards. They’re the best fixing to have other than ABU duals and sometimes over fetches if you’re light on fixing overall in your decks as they will consistently come into play untapped. The more colors you’re playing through your non-basics the much worse they get, but for some decks any fixing would be good enough. Which ones you include are most likely dependent on how you organize your lands and your multicolored cards as you may have only a certain amount slotted for lands of a type or perhaps your lands are sorted with the guilds. They are all playable and a cube could get away with running all of them, with more ease as your cube grows in size.
Cloistered Youth: A good aggro card, Cloistered Youth will never be the best card you ever played with but is a serious clock at an easy cost. Cloistered Youth is pretty much a 3/3 that hurts you, but at the end of turn which is super sweet. There will be games where your own black creatures will kill you right as you attack for lethal, and Cloistered Youth not only gives you a pain-free turn at first but lets you attack before she taxes you. The pain-free turns can last as long as you want, not punishing you for being stuck against a bigger board and letting you clear the way before you starting hurting yourself a little. Being a 1/1 while all this happens means that she’ll die to anything, which does suck, and means that Cloistered Youth does not have a permanent spot in any cube. There will hopefully be better 2 drops printed that follow trend of nice aggro support, and there could be a decent amount of cubes that doesn’t think she’s worth it, but she is a good inclusion as aggro support and will always bring pain en masse.
Curse of Death’s Hold: It’s a strong effect. Enchantments are hard to remove and -1-1 is small but when permanent is tough to deal with. Any token build crumbles and there are enough X/1s floating around to shake in their boots. At 5 the effect is a bit expensive for my liking, but I’ve seen it floating around at the end of packs and not been completely disgusted.
Delver of Secrets: As of writing this article I run Delver and I’m still debating on cutting or supporting it more. Delver of Secrets will probably end up back in the binder, which is a shame because I love the card, but even in the tempo builds I don’t find that he flips enough or even that the 3/2 flier will matter. It’s so much harder to protect your Delver every game turn after turn than it is in eternal formats where you can build your deck to perform to maximum efficiency. In cube where it’s a singleton format you only have access to so many counters that cost 2 or less, and as cube becomes more and more popular and more are coming together you can’t depend on every cube you draft that can afford a delver will be able to afford a Force of Will, one of the classic cards to pair with Delver. (Along with any other Legacy blue cards.)
If I ran more cards in the spells-matter deck and me and the people I played with loved that deck and tried to draft it more, Delver would be an auto include because he is so good in those decks that can play him t1 and flip him t2. But I don’t think the typical cube control decks want to spend all their resources fighting over a 3/2 and any deck with any amount of reasonable creatures to be called a tempo deck will have enough non-creature, non-instant/sorcery cards to not flip Delver. Delver is the classic “all-star constructed subpar cube” card.
Desperate Ravings: People who played a lot of Innistrad block think this card is cubeable and actually good in cube because of how much fun it was to play in constructed and limited at the time. However, like Delver, the decks where Desperate Ravings showed up were made to use the card with maximum efficiency and reduce the pain of discarding a card you couldn’t use again as much as possible. There are only so many UR cards in cube that can re-use the graveyard, and in decks where that effect doesn’t exist at all you can’t afford to pitch important cogs and win conditions. There isn’t a “random” card I like for cube for that reason.
Devil’s Play: I like to run one red X spell. My brother ran Devil’s Play for a while and I don’t think he runs it anymore, not because it was a bad card but because there were better options. Built-in 2 for 1s are great as you want to get as much out of your cards as possible, but at RRR the buyback means any deck splashing for the first half will almost if not straight-up will never cast the second half. Without the second half Devil’s Play is clearly worse than Red Sun’s Zenith, Fireball, and Bonfire of the Damned, and I’d only run 1 and maybe 2 of those if I wanted both Bonfire and a more direct damage spell. I don’t think Devil’s Play is a horrible inclusion, but there’s no reason to run it in mid-to-smaller lists if you’re looking to run the best cards unless your nostalgia is playing a bigger part in the decision making.
Diregraf Ghoul: Black is good at aggro, so Diregraf Ghoul is good. The ETB tapped clause is unimportant since you’re not looking to block with Ghoul anyways, as a 2/2 for B is built for speed. Diregraf Ghoul is important as a compliment to Gravecrawler, which is so much better when you do have buddies to share. The Ghoul is unexciting but in order to support aggro you need to run it.
Doomed Traveler: Sky ran him for a while. 1/1 fliers are kind of neat, but you have to put in some work to get one. If Xanthrid Necromancer ever proved to be a staple then Doomed Traveler should be reconsidered to pair along with Champion of the Parish, but as a creature without tribal bonuses 1/1s followed by 1/1s is often followed by yawns.
Fiend Hunter: While I can understand not running Fiend Hunter as it’s not the craziest card, it’s good enough at removing creatures while having a defensive body that works with the effect. I run both Fiend Hunter and Banisher Priest and find that the 1/3 is better. My aggressive decks do want to remove threats but they don’t want to give my opponent the choice of putting a lethal blocker in front of Bannisher Priest, returning the creature that was a big enough issue to be removed. With both tokens don’t last, but if I decide to only run one it’ll be Fiend Hunter. Bannisher Priest will come out if I ever get a Brismaz or any other 3 drop I don’t have, though I do like having one of those types of creatures for now.
Fiend Hunter is fun because you can pull some Crystal Shard shenanigans. Play Fiend Hunter, with the trigger on the stack return it to your hand, and before the trigger resolves the Fiend Hunter is gone and therefore can’t trigger the second part of his abilities. Yay magic!
Garruk Relentless: One of my favorite cube cards, Garruk brings the beats. He’s one of the few green cards you want to splash because 1) you can, and 2) he’s a threat that can win the game on his own. Garruk is worse in planeswalker super friends then some other planeswalkers as the back side can’t fetch as many good creatures nor give much of a bonus with the ultimate, but 1/1 death touchers are great blockers and at times have pseudo unblockability, and even +1+1 and trample will be enough to kill. Garruk dies to quite a bit of burn, but you will either be able to kill something or have a 2/2 left. I like this card a lot, and have written a lot about him on the site; in fact, he’s my #6 favorite planeswalker on my top 15 planeswalkers list, and while that list is outdated he’d still make a top 15 list re-done today.
Geist of Saint Traft: This is another card that performs much better in constructed and the original limited format that in cube, but there are quite a bit of cards that are excellent with Geist the cubes run and he is great in the UW tempo decks or a control deck built to protect him from non-targeting removal. The UW/UWx delver builds in constructed either feature Rune-Chanters Pikes + tons of instants/sorceries to kill any blocker that could get in the way on the ground while continuing to go over the top. In regular triple ISD limited there were only so many answers to Geist and the UW fliers deck was a strong, fast deck in a good format where there were a lot of great tempo cards.
In cube? There are plenty of viable decks that don’t really care if just a 2/2 and a 4/4 in the air that’s attached at the hip to the 2/2 are attacking each turn because they can either happily trade by the turn 4 attack or are much faster than when Geist can get into action. At the other end of the spectrum, cube also features all the swords and plenty of counters and removal, with a plethora of non-blue archetypes available you can face that’ll give you time to set up your Geist and keep him alive. If I owned a Geist I probably wouldn’t play it as azorius is a tough archetype to get into and I’d rather run other cards, but he is a nice option if the UW tempo decks are highly drafted in your group.
Geist-Honored Monk: Cloudgoat Ranger is better. Geist-Honored Monk is a sick card, but there are other better five drops. Having Geist’s P/T dependent on the number of creatures you control seems good in theory with how you’ll want to blink the card, but removal is so good in cube that something like Pyroclasm kills a Geist-Honored Monk and his pals if they’re all you have whereas Cloudgoat Ranger would still be chilling. Even attacking and blocking can be awkward as removal or even blocking one of the 1/1s means you lose the monk. G-H M is cool in a larger cube probably, but spots are too tight when you’re small.
Intangible Virtue: If the token deck is heavily supported and heavily drafted, then a two-mana anthem is very good in that deck. If it is not, then Virtue is pretty kaka. Tokens good, no tokens bad. GOT IT? GOOD.
Kessig Wolf-Run: At the beginning of Wolf-Run’s time, I had minimal respect for Wolf-Run as a cube card. Not that the effect was bad, but the cost to do it seemed like a lot to sacrifice the ability to tap for mana. As time passed, I was killed enough by Wolf Run to gain the respect it deserved. It’s not a card I’d necessarily go out of my way to get, as it can be an awkward card to fit into your cube, and it’s not so powerful that I feel like I would need to include it in your list. Where it shines is in the green decks that I personally love to draft. If your win con doesn’t have trample, you can’t afford to attack, or they’ve removed it and all you have left are your elves, Wolf Run works in all of those spots. Removing lands is tough for any deck as there are so few pieces of spot-removal for lands, so your Wolf-Run will live where a lot of other end-game threats will die to a lot of the removal. Wolf-Run is the weird card I would recommend if you’re looking to change up your cube but completely understand if you’ve had bad experiences with it, as it’s not always the bomb diggity but does indeed go boom.
Laboratory Maniac: If you run this, you’re the maniac. But you got spunk, kid; guts, chutzpah.
Liliana of the Veil: One of if not the best card in the set, Liliana is the rare card that attacks your opponent’s hand and board. At 3 mana you can usually drop Liliana at a spot where you have a blocker in case you need to edict or they just don’t have another creature. That early in the game the control decks might not be ready to deal with the Liliana yet, and after a few +1s they are in serious trouble. Liliana supports your own graveyard strategies as well, letting you attack your opponent while you do what you wanted to anyways. Since she lands so early, you can reach and activate the ultimate easier than a lot of the other planeswalkers, and the ultimate does work.
Liliana also works in every black strategy. Aggro can use her as repeated removal of creatures and their hand so you can kill them quick and efficiently. Control will mitigate the discarding by drawing extra cards and it’s a lot easier to deal with your opponent when they have no cards in their hand. Seeing a passed Liliana is a clear sign that black is open, and any cuber that has any experience with magic from that set or cube in general will recognize this. Liliana is a staple.
Mayor of Avabruck: If Humans were a better tribe, Mayor would be better as the back side supports itself while the front is pretty lacking without other humans. If you’re not flipping Mayor, which if your opponent doesn’t let happen can be painful to force on your own, then your Mayor typically won’t have other human friends to make big. A 1/1 for 1G proved to suck too often.
Mentor of the Meek: I like Mentor, but understand that it’s a bit weak and probably not worth a spot. Mentor provides card advantage in the aggro decks that typically can’t draw cards, turning your top-deck Savannah Lions and Isamarus into bears that draw you card, good deals when you need to fill the board up without any other way to draw extra cards than the one you’re allowed each turn. In token builds you can draw multiple cards in a turn if the mana is open depending on what your token maker is. A 2/2 for 2W is kind of weak on its own, and there are certainly games in the faster decks where you won’t have the mana to mentor the meek. There will be a point where Mentor will be tough to argue for a spot, but for now I understand the love.
Mikaeus, the Lunarch: Mikaeus is a lot better when you heavily support token builds, and is a lot worse when you don’t. Sometimes it’s really awkward in figuring out whether to make him bigger or make your team bigger, and if your deck isn’t spamming the board then Mikaeus is kind of shitty/slow. You can’t afford to slowly pump him up, and making 1 or 2 other creatures a little better will be underwhelming most of the time. Making 3-5 tokens go from 3-5 damage to 6-10 is really good, and when those decks are being built consistently then Mikaeus is your guy. At that point he’s a slower, permanent anthem that gives your team the size to end the game quicker and earlier before you need to get a giant token army that would typically do the job, or let that army take 1 or 2 turns less to kill.
Olivia Voldaren: When you have the mana available, Olivia Voldaren will take games over on her own. Her ping ability clears off a lot of boards, and whatever she can’t kill she’ll bring to her side. As she grows bigger its less important what lives that you take, since Olivia will fly over the rest of the creatures. She’s a threat you can use on her own to warp the board and make the game go your way.
Olivia probably is not good enough for smaller Rakdos sections. RB is often the aggro combination since the creatures are smaller and faster, and something like Falkenrath Aristocrat is better for forcing the damage in faster. Olivia is more like a snowball, taking a bit to get going and then becoming hard to stop once she had a few turns to go unchecked. I like seeing Olivia Voldarens in cubes but understand why she wouldn’t be included since Rakdos is a tough, tough color to crack.
Reckless Waif: A OK card, Reckless Waif is kind of a necessary evil since it is so good in the mono red decks on the play. There have been enough times where it hangs out as a 1/1 and any other red 1 drop would be better, but flipping her makes her the best 1 drop in red you could have. Her power level is a bit bi-polar, which frustrates me and hurts her in my eye. I like consistency in my cards and need a much higher ceiling if the card is swingy in power. Reckless Waif is right on the border of being too inconsistent for my liking as after turn one Waif is really bad, but red kind of needs the one drops so Waif is good for those cubes.
Skaab Ruinator: Did you know this card after it was spoiling up until the release of the set was being priced around $40? You can buy around 80 of them for that much now. Not a cube card, I just always love to share that as a reminder that you shouldn’t always buy into the hype.
Snapcaster Mage: There are many sick, gross spells in cube and more in a powered cube, and at two mana Snapcaster Mage is able to flash so many of them back with ease. Whether you’re holding up a counter without holding the actual counter, drawing way more than the card says you can, or copying a removal spell to take out all sorts of creatures, Snapcaster lets you recycle cards you already gained value from. As a two-power creature you can do enough damage with Snapcaster to at least make a dent, if not use him as a compliment to other creatures. Snapcaster is a staple, and is very very good. If you understand that cube spells are good, then you understand why Snapcaster is good.
Stromkirk Noble: Stromkirk is slow to get going up to the speed you’d like, but makes up for it by severely upgrading his body where many other 1 drops stay stagnant. The human clause comes up enough to be relevant, and on turn 1 there are few plays across the table that consistently and profitably stop your Noble from strolling on in to beat-town USA. If they keep on printing good 1 drops there will probably be one that will be better than Stromkirk Noble as if you stutter and they don’t, then the Stromkirk does give them enough time to stop him before he deals any kind of sizeable damage. By the time Stromkirk deals one or even 3 damage, every other good red 1 drop has done 4+ damage on its own. Stromkirk in the long-run does more, but how many games are going long enough to use that damage without doing it too slowly? So far enough, but enough have gone the other way to yearn for something better.
Tribute to Hunger: If you need two instant speed sac effects, then Tribute is probably fine since gaining life is enough of a bonus for the control decks that want this kind of card. If I had an ideal cube where availability wasn’t an issue I don’t think that Tribute would be necessary, but if I’m looking for another removal spell and I have all the others I want or want to add another instant-speed sac effect, Tribute to Hunger is strong enough to help me pull that proverbial trigger. But ultimately, meh. Take it or leave it.
Unburial Rites: For a while Sky ran this and it was good there, but orzhov is too tight of a guild and at 5 and 4 mana Unburial Rites is too expensive for reanimation. When you have the time to spend the mana its good and you can pitch the card. There is also the Gifts Ungiven trick where you find rites and another fatty, forcing your opponent to throw both to the bin and let you tutor out a reanimation. My reanimator decks don’t like to wait too long or spend too much mana to bring their guy back. If I’m not pulling my first reanimation off on curve with the spell’s cost, I want mana available to protect Unburial Rites with counter magic or be able to kill anything that gets in the way. I like Rites in a big card since it is good, but I have a hard time including it with how good the BW cards are at the top of the section.
Victim of Night: This card kills a surprising amount of creatures, but BB is a hard cost to justify and it is kind of awkward when you do run into the issue. The cost is the bigger issue, since there are more Vampires and Zombies in black than the other colors so this card acts more like Terminate than Doom Blade. But like Terminate instead of Doom Blade you can only fit a BB card in so many decks. You have to want the effect in your cube to be OK with the cost, and I’m OK with the easier to cast or stronger removal that black offers otherwise.
What did I miss? Let us know in the comments, and thanks for reading!