A Basic Guide to Cube
By Sam Landry
(DISCLAIMER: This is all the opinion of one person, and a huge thing to understand with some cube principals is YMMV, or Your Mileage May Vary. By this I mean that some of these experiences may not reflect what you find in your own play with your own cube in your own playgroup. At the end of the day, I’m human—there could be some analysis that you disagree with 100%, some points that don’t play out in your cube like they’ve played out in the ones I’ve had, and that’s ok! Everything you read here should be taken with a grain of salt, and even if you agree with some of this or find new fresh ideas (because I obviously am full of those 😉 ) you should always way one opinion with the rest, trust your own experiences and instincts to some degree, and do what you think is best for your playgroup.)
Cubes are a geometric shape. More importantly, Cube is the best way to play magic.
There is a lot of dispute as to what ‘Cube’ is as a lot of people define it differently based on their environment. This is part of the appeal of Cube drafting—it’s a draft format that’s customized by the cube owner, whether that is to make their own unique drafting experience or to replicate another, and it can be whatever the owner wants since they, you know, own the cube. Other than the ‘standard’ cube there are many iterations of what you could be doing—pauper, peasant, tribal, cubes that replicate entire draft formats, mono-colored, colorless; there’s really an option for any flavor of drafting you want, because what your cube does is defined by YOU, the cube owner. You want a carbon copy of someone else’s? Go for it. Only cards that have just one word for their name? Sure. All storm crow cube? Seems OP, but hey some people just like to power-game. At its very core, this is what cube can be for you.
But if you’re like me, you understand that there’s a generally accepted definition of Cube and that when you talk about cube you expect something. Words mean things, and saying ‘Let’s Cube’ should mean something to for what you expect if it’s said by a stranger or what not. Under this parameter, Cube is a singleton customized draft format i.e. there is only one of each card, and the owner chooses which cards are included. So if you see an Ancestral Recall during a draft, there will not be another one in a later pack to choose from—that will be the ONLY Ancestral Recall in the draft. A cube is usually at minimum 360 cards and maximum 1080, designed this way to accommodate 8 drafters for a standard booster draft. (8 players x 45 cards (3 packs of 15) = 360 cards necessary)
The power of throwing a pile of cards together like this is that you can draft the cards as you see fit. Anything from standard pack drafting to sealed to any crazy format you want to do is possible, since you can make your own packs from the stack. The most popular way is a booster draft, which is like how you would draft any standard set, but there are other formats like Winston, Rotisserie, Rochester, and Burn drafting. We will cover these later in this guide, but the point is that there are options available depending on the number of drafters you have.
In terms of what is included, it’s important to support the major basic archetypes: aggro, midrange, and control. Without proper support, a cube will lose balance. Gameplay becomes stale as matches often play out in the same way, matchups are less dependent on the deck and more so on individual cards, and the late game where you have an abundance of mana triumphs all. Some people like this, but I would be hard pressed to call that balanced. Instead of the dynamic format you are looking to create by including powerful intricate cards that fall under all of these theaters, you’ll have aggro decks always facing aggro decks, control mirrors for days, or midrange-aggro vs midrange-control every time. This is often the biggest issue new cube owners face without realizing why, as they’ll want to include all the bombs without proper support at the lower points in the curve, or they’ll go over the top with aggro support (insane statement? Maybe, maybe not), or etc. A card like Impulse may seem innocuous next to an Aetherling or Frost Titan, but Impulse is infinitely more important for a complete blue section than more top end stuff. Elite Vanguard seems like an absolute dud face-to-face against a Baneslayer Angel, but you need redundancy in the lower parts of the curve to put consistent pressure on the control decks. Inversely, if there are no bombs, then there’s no reason to plan into the late game, and games become weird formats where removal is king.
(Note that combo is a very real theater, but is different depending on the cube/definition of combo/etc. Combo decks will be covered in another section.)
Aggro decks rely on early pressure. Starting on turn 2 you need to be attacking with a creature, preferably one that always swings for 2 damage. It’s easy to dick around and do nothing in cube, playing towards your 4+ drops that take over the game when you’re able to untap with them, and aggro decks look to punish people who like doing nothing. Red excels at this since all their removal doubles as additional damage, but all the colors—blue included—can support an aggressive strategy. It’s different depending on the color (blue would be more tempo based; white might try to go wider and bigger with tokens and anthems, etc.) but the ultimate goal is to attack and kill before the opponent can set anything up.
Control is the opposite of this—they want to control the board, lose as little life as possible, and once the opponent is out of resources and stuck then control puts their own gas on. Think of it like two guys arm wrestling: aggro is the guy trying to pin the hand as fast as possible, and control is trying to wear their opponent out until they can no longer do anything and then pin the hand at whatever speed they want since they’ve worn them out anyways. Control achieves this by removing threats off the board, countering spells, attacking hands with discard, and spending their mana drawing more cards for more options. Control decks are arguably the hardest to build and pilot as they require the most amount of decisions and turns to win, but the quality of removal and card draw gives them plenty of options for how they want to build their deck.
Midrange is kind of the weird middle child, as midrange often adapts its role depending on what the opponent is playing. A midrange deck will not out-aggro an aggro deck so it needs to be able remove the threats and then land its own after the course is clear. A midrange deck will not out-control a control deck so it needs to be able to land a resilient threat either through fighting off disruption or running cards that are tough to deal with. Versus other midrange decks they face the ‘Who’s the beat down?’ question i.e. one deck must want to attack and the other deck needs to stop this. Of course both decks can try to attack, but one deck will be much better suited to be the aggressor and it’s important for each player to recognize their role there. Midrange achieves some of this success through hand disruption, but must rely on removing threats on the board as much when necessary.
Specific archetypes often warp over the course of time as more and more cards get printed. The more powerful cheap creatures are printed, the faster the cube gets, which means that control decks need that much more efficient removal, you need more disruption to make up for that, and etc. Perhaps the game will get to a point where the creatures are so efficient that there’s no point in trying to go over the top, but I don’t think we are there or will arrive there any time soon.
It’s important to remember that while going through this guide—I’ll try not to discuss cards that I could see phasing out so that some of this information stays relevant as the format continues to evolve, but as long as magic continues to be popular than Cube will continue to change. My biggest issue with the resources I’ve seen out there is how outdated they are, and how quickly they became outdated. Take Andy Cooperhaus’ Please Try This At Home series. I remember when these two articles came out how much I consumed them and studied the information in there. Now, there are so many cards and references that seem outdated that I wonder how much of it still remains true. This is not a knock on the guide—again, it’s great and there are a lot of principles and ideas in there that are evergreen—but a cube is constantly changing meaning a guide should be constantly either addressing these changes or looking at overlying themes instead. This guide will eventually seem old. It will eventually become decrepit. And to avoid that, I’m going to focus on specifics of cards as little as possible, which is an impossible task as you will soon see.
The Colors In Cube, And Their Strengths/Weaknesses
White’s main strength is that it is a jack of all trades. You could play white as your main or secondary color in any of the magic theaters and not feel like you’re forcing a square peg through a circle. White is absolutely capable of doing or supporting broken plays, but also plays in the fair decks well. This can be done in the aggro, midrange, or control decks largely because the removal is efficient (albeit often with a cost) and the creatures are often capable of winning games on their own.
White has the best removal in cube, able to hit almost anything other than lands and removing them to a degree where it’s tough to bring back whatever is gone. There is often a cost, but one you are willing to play in most scenarios. Like if you are facing an Ulamog or a Blightsteel Collosus, are you willing to give them a tapped basic from their deck to get rid of that creature? A clue token? The ability to return the creature with a disenchant? The removal often hits a variety of permanents too, with spells like Oblivion Ring able to hit anything but a land. These spells are useful in all magic theaters, as being able to answer anything an opponent throws at you can be crucial. There will be times where the life gained from a Swords to Plowshare will actually lose you the game, and times where certain decks might want to keep their removal cheaper and therefore more narrow in scope, but this is far and few in between—most of the time you removing the creature or other permanent forever will be enough to warrant the inclusion of the removal.
In addition to the spot removal, the wraths in white are classic. Wrath of God is the reason we call wraths wraths, and there are a ton of options for secondary wraths. You could reasonably include 5+ wraths in your white section and all of them are at minimum decent. Removing multiple creatures is often worth the cost of 4+ mana, and since day 1 white has been the premier color for this line of play.
White’s creatures are super efficient and are stellar no matter what theater you are playing in. White has an abundance of aggro options available, more than any other color. These creatures beat early, beat with evasion, and some have random protections. White has amazing top end options too, letting you build the control deck with white as a primary color without having to force a bad creature into the slot. There are a lot of white creatures that are costed way lower than what their stats are asking for, meaning if you protect that creature it can take the game home for you within a reasonable number of turns.
One of white’s major weaknesses is generating card advantage within your hand. Every other color is able to find acceptable ways to draw cards, but white has always been lacking. This is kind of the trade off—you get great creatures! But if those great creatures are dealt with and you can’t find more, then thanks for coming. Land Tax is real and totally can gain you cards, and quite a few at that, but like with a lot of white cards the massive ceiling does ask for something for that advantage.
Because of this, heavy white-based control decks often need to pair with another color, typically black or blue since those two colors draw the most cards. White is great as one of the two colors for a control deck because of it’s amazing removal and resilient creatures, but when you’re playing cube you have to expect your opponents to have answers to your stuff regardless of how much you protect it and therefore need to be able to re-supply your hand with card draw.
Inversely, white-heavy aggro/midrange decks can shine. Planting something like a Mother of Runes into a Stoneforge Mystic is really difficult for most decks to deal with, and while this may be a best-case scenario there are a large number of creatures you can insert in those two spots and still give your opponent issues.
Balance: One of–if not the–best cards in white, Balance can be slotted into pretty much any white deck, though it does its worst in aggro (like probably shouldn’t be there but I can see arguments) and at its absolute best in control decks. Balance is insane because it attacks your opponents in three different ways and can excel both when you are ahead and behind. Balance wraths, armageddons, and mind twists, all at the cost of 2.
As is the theme with white, you do have to earn this blow out. If you have a million lands in play to their 2, then yeah your balance might suck, but if you’re also removing all their creatures and their entire hand then losing the lands could be negligible or at least you’re still not dying. It might be clear why this wouldn’t work in aggro as you can’t afford to wrath yourself, but in aggro mirrors balance can still wreck if your opponent is assuming the role of beat down or you’re playing with creatures that are much more powerful than theirs or if you’re able to pump your creatures with anthems.
You essentially want to design your Balance to abuse balance, which is best done by running artifact mana, playing with planeswalkers that always live through balance, and have removal ready to deal with any left over creatures they have after the Balance resolves. This is not cut and dry—balance is a powerful card and will do powerful things even if you can’t check every box off—but your opponents will hate you a decent bit more if you end up with a full board and they have jack shit, and you should bathe in that sweet & salty hate.
Swords to Plowshares/Path to Exile: Arguably the two best pieces of removal in cube, paying 1 mana to remove just about any creature is worth the paltry prices these two cards ask for. What does 5 life matter if that Thundermaw Hellkite was going to kill you? Is the basic land really worse than letting them untap with an Inferno Titan? Again, these are real costs, costs that can be detrimental, but there are no other 1 mana spells that can do what Swords and Path can to the number of creatures they can do it to.
Swords and PtE are some of the few pieces of removal I’ll pick early because of how efficient they are. Not only are they important cogs to a deck that can pay white mana, you don’t have to worry about your commitment to white as the spells only cost a single white making them easy to splash and they are good at any point of the game. Whether you are answering a Goblin Guide or a Greater Gargadon, Swords/PtE gives you the cheapest option. (Also please acknowledge that neat little play on alliterated words in the comments section.)
Mother of Runes: Turn 1 Mom turns many frowns upside down. (And that better not be a smile, Lisa.) Other than wraths, it is hard to not get at minimum 2-for-1’d by mom. Like, what do you do? Do you send your creature into a bad attack so you can hit the mom after? Do you hope they tap their mom so you can try to deal with their creature after? At what point can you not afford to worry about the mom because the protected creature is too much? Protection is so annoying and ruthless, with this being more true in cube since there really is that much more quality removal available for all decks and the creatures that are protected are able to kill that much faster. There will be match ups where you don’t care if your mom eats removal as well. If my mom gets doom bladed, then my hero of bladehold can’t get killed by that doom blade. If mom gets Lightning Bolted, then my Elspeth is facing one less piece of burn.
The only white deck I wouldn’t feature mom in is a control deck with few creatures. Landing mom into an Elesh Norn when Elesh is one of the few win conditions is cool when you can pull it together, but without a partner on the board Mom doesn’t do much except protect herself and maybe force your opponent to try and double up removal on her. There are also the various wraths which mom can’t do much about, though it’s worth noting that mom does help dodge Earthquakes and such.
Moat: Do you hate your friends? Do you want them to hate you? Then play Moat. While not a card for every cube, Moat is a BRUTAL card when you choose to run it and absolutely passes the power level test. Sometimes it’s a card that is skirted by other decks, but when you plan to build around Moat it can be nearly impossible to beat if you don’t have the removal.
Moat might be a controversial choice to highlight here because of the deck building variance. If you are playing Azorius and happen to face Dimir, for example, you might be walking into a bad time with Moat. But most of the time, the player who builds around Moat is the one not getting wet.
Historically the best color, there are very few cubes where ending up in blue is a bad place to be. It’s really a perfect storm: card draw, answers to almost any spell that can hit the stack, powerful finishers and enablers, and some of the best cards you could possibly draft. Blue is typically a control color as it’s the color that allows you to do the least with your mana on your turn and still be doing something, a hallmark of control decks, but there are a number of options when building your blue section available.
The calling card to blue is counterspells—they are among some of the most unique sets of cards that stick to a color in magic, and something that, outside of a few examples, you never see anywhere else. While counterspells are literally/mostly useless against spells that have already resolved unless they are modal spells (see: Cryptic Command), counterspells either answer every or most cards that enter the stack. You can spend two mana and deal with cards that cost 1 to a million, and if the spell needs to be countered then it feels like mana spent well.
The threat of a counterspell is also priceless. A number of counterspells, like Force Spike or Mana Leak, require the opponent to have extra mana to cast, and if they know or think that’s what you’re holding up then they might delay spells or sequence them incorrectly due to avoid getting Time Walk’d by your counterspell that cancels out all the mana they used that turn. This is especially true with a card like Force Spike or Daze, something that is not unreasonable to wait a turn to play around but is a true tempo killer when you do have to play around it. I’ll often side out my Force Spike variants if they were played in games 1 or 2, since the threat is often good enough and it’s like having a free Thorn of Amethyst on your side.
Blue’s other main draw is card draw. (I’m a magic player, I can’t help the awful puns, and nor will I help it as I draw inspire—I can’t even finish this one, ok I guess I’m sorry.) While some cube environments really punish you for doing nothing on each turn—see: the Legendary Cubes that MODO once ran, and I’m hoping ‘once ran’ is a statement that never gets old because those cubes weren’t my favorite—most will not, and filling up your hand with more spells will win a lot of matches. Card draw tends to be better when the cards you are drawing are higher impact, and this is cube: a LOT of the cards are high impact.
Whether the card draw comes from cards that more act like card selection like cantrips which don’t actually put you up a card but give you 1 of X choices of cards, or actually do give you card advantage like Ancestral Recall does (easy example is easy), card selection and deck manipulation can mean the difference between beating your opponent because you found your high-impact card versus losing and being X cards away. There are a lot of options for both cantrips and card draw spells, and a lot of them do function well in a cube environment because of what they’re finding, but it’s important to choose what is the best and most streamlined. For example, I think Careful Consideration is fine and has performed well for me, but if it was between that and Compulsive Research you bet I’m taking Compulsive Research every time due to its easier casting cost and less-punishing discard clause.
Blue’s biggest issue is permanent removal of permanents—there are minimal options outside of Psionic Blast which can removal spells without giving your opponent any chance of mitigating that effect. Blue is not completely lacking in removal, and I hope I’m not coming across as saying that, but there are always answers. A card like Control Magic is amazing, but a disenchant or bounce spell answers that. Bounce spells are great too, and that tempo can actually win you the game if you’re bouncing a cheated in fatty, but when given the time to recast the spell you’ll still have to deal with it the second time and that can be enough to push your opponent over the top.
While blue is primarily a control color, there are of course blue creatures, and supporting aggressive blue strategies are reasonable. Unlike other aggressive suites, there are minimal options for good aggressive blue 1 and 2 drops, and sometimes it feels like forcing a square peg through a circle when you support that archetype. I imagine that one day this will be massively dated, but when building blue aggressive decks in a cube that supports that archetype it’s important to understand that 1) your deck will be slower and 2) your deck will rely on tempo and protecting your threats. Blue can be a complimentary color in these builds as well, providing a few threats and giving your deck free counterspells or ones you can cast for 1 or 2 mana after your threat has landed, though it is certainly a subpar main option outside of cubes going out of their way to make that a thing.
Note: There will be some obvious exclusions that I’m going to cover in a section later about powered vs unpowered cubes—stay tuned!
Treachery: While there are definite answers to control magic spells, Treachery is disgusting since it acts like a free spell once you have five mana, and a free spell that’s a creature is insanely strong when it’s the best creature you can grab from your opponent on any given board. Taking your opponent’s creature and having counter magic up is not an uncommon line of play, and then you have the possibility of also landing another spell and giving your opponent the unenviable task of having answers to both.
Treachery is not unbeatable, as there are still answers to the enchantment directly along with cards that answer the creature, but untapping allows so many more options that it places Treachery among the best cards in blue. Keeping your mana open as you steal a threat is really a treat. A fondue fountain with Treachery flowing down as I dip strawberries and chocolates in it would be delish. No, I have no idea what I’m saying.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor: Easily the best planeswalker available regardless of color as of this publication, Jace is also one of the best blue cards and for good reason—it does everything! Jace draws you cards, Jace protects itself, Jace stifles your opponent’s plans, and it can also win you the game with its own abilities. Yes, that’s right, Jace wins the game, as controlling the tops of decks each turns on the way to the ultimate is a reasonable gameplan.
While massively powerful, Jace is not impossible to deal with. Getting one bounce or a brainstorm and then having him die to an attack or burn does not feel like what 4 mana in cube should feel like. For this reason I think Jace is a reasonable inclusion in an unpowered cube where he’s not consistent landing on turns 2-3, where he is a dominant card but not thoroughly broken and unbeatable.
For what its worth, I don’t think there’s a planeswalker out there that is unbeatable. Sure some are strong—look who we’re talking about here—but there are so many different ways to deal with planeswalkers that you can punish a player for not protecting theirs. Planeswalkers are great when you can ensure the value you get from using them turn after turn, so they absolutely have to rely on other cards. Jace does a lot of the work himself, but if you’re drawing garbage off the brainstorms or your opponent is top decking regardless, then he is going to die like any other planeswalker would. In fact, there are a lot of boards where Jace sucks and a card like Garruk Relentless shines because of his protection in the form of bodies. Jace is able to maneuver through a lot of different board states, but dropping him when you have nothing and your opponent is ballin’ can mean bye-bye Jace.
Opposition: While blue is definitely the color that relies on creatures the least, they still have creatures, and good ones at that. Saying Opposition rewards you for having creatures is a massive understatement. Building a board presence and then plopping down Opposition is often GG, and that can be in a variety of ways. There have been times when an opponent drops Opposition and I immediately scoop not because I was dead but because the inevitability was not worth fighting through—I like my sanity, and I like not losing it to one-by-one activations of opposition that can be super depressing.
If your opponent also has a number of threats down that is better than your board, you can continually tap them down until you can stabilize. If your threats are better than theirs, you can tap down their blockers at EOT and then swing in with the team. If they don’t have any threats at all but could drop something in the future sorcery speed, you can tap their lands during their upkeep so they can’t play anything. Unless your board sucks and you can’t land creatures or they directly deal with the opposition, there are few ways for an opponent to get out of an opposition lock other than scooping.
While incredibly strong, Opposition is not impossible to deal with, and it does rely on other cards, so I would have no problem running it in most cubes. I can understand how sucky it is to get Opposition locked as it’s happened to me, but I also understand the importance of having a board presence, doing stuff with your turns, and having enchantment removal. If you notice Opposition wrecking every time its played, it might be worth looking into running Disenchant or whatever instant speed options are out there, or removing it entirely as there are not a ton of great answers, but a format where Opposition is unbeatable is a format that needs to be re-examined.
Death is a weird concept, and black is kind of a weird color. Black has some of the strongest cards available with tutors and powerful, busted cards in its repertoire, able to support some strategies which can over power opponents as early as turns 2-4. Black also has some weird identity issues, as what it does poorly it does EXTREMELY poorly. Because of this black is often best suited less as a primary color and more in a 2+ color deck, either as color 1a in a deck, as the complimentary color, or as a splash.
Personally the first thing I think of when trying to categorize black is removal, and it certainly does not lack. There have been a number of cheap black removal spells printed since the very first set, going all the way back to cards like Terror which are efficient and deal with a large number of creatures you could want to kill. It’s hard to pinpoint specific examples since it’s really not out of the question at all that there may be a variety of Doom Blade-esque spells printed for the rest of magic’s history. Some are certainly better than others, but they all can be argued into a MD since spending roughly 3 mana or less to kill something is often worth it.
After removal, the next thing that comes to mind is playing out of the graveyard, which black accomplishes in a variety of ways. The calling card is the reanimator deck, one of the classic cube strategies that is widely supported since it’s broken but not in an effortless way. You’ll randomly be able to Thoughtseize an opponent’s fatty out of their hand and then reanimate it the next turn, but most of the time you need to build a deck that is meant to put your own monsters into the GY to reanimate. Fatties that are either resilient to removal or bring something unique to the table are the best, as you can’t afford to reanimate something and lose it to a disenchant on your reanimation spell or the whole thing to a edict. Griselbrand, for example, will always give you an opportunity to draw 7+ if your life total allows it; Woodfall Primus is destroying things and probably coming back from a destroyed Animate Dead; and etc. There are other graveyard strategies but those are tied closer to specific cards, some of which we will go over later in the staples section.
As referred to with Thoughtseize, discard is one of the glues that holds black together as a color. Discarding cards from your opponent’s hand on turns 1-2 is so huge and disruptive that you can literally (virtually) win the game with a t1 discard play. Beyond taking away what their most effective card is, you’re given so much information about what your opponent could do over the next X turns that there are very few surprises. Even cards that can be drawn are sussed out; if, for example, they only have 2 lands in hand and they hit all three of their land drops, you know that 1 out of X of their draws was a land. This is valuable information, data that you can use over many turns if not the whole game, and it all derives from the T1-2 discard spell. The discard is similar to blue’s counterspells in that it is good at preventing anything from landing.
Also similar to blue in that regard, black have some serious issues dealing with artifacts and enchantments, and by that I mean they generally cannot. In some formats this is not a problem—constructed does not always prominently feature artifacts or enchantments, and there are many limited formats where main decking a disenchant is a massive mistake. Cube is not one of those formats, and if black is your primary color to the detriment of artifact/enchantment removal then you could be in serious trouble. This is compounded since a number of the kill spells don’t kill artifact creatures too, so there are some threats and bombs that are literally unstoppable against some black decks and compositions.
Black also likes to hurt itself. So many of the cards give you a great deal, but they take some amount of life to achieve. Suicide black decks are a thing, but there are enough decks in cube that can keep up with that speed and disruption that stabilizing is almost as good as winning for your opponent since the clock they have to kill you in is that much smaller thanks to what you’ve done to yourself. There is some lifegain you can find, and because of the speed of other decks in cube lifegain in a lot of black decks is key to winning the game so you can continue to self-drain for profit.
Suicide black works when you are playing aggressively, and black does pretty well there. Black has a lot of 2 power 1 drops, which is the key to aggressive strategies in cube. They come with some downsides—can’t block, ETB tapped, deal some amount of damage to you—but a lot of them are 2/2s or come with another sweet ability to help them become recursive/tough to kill. I typically don’t like mono black as an aggro color since there are very few forms of reach in the games where black can’t continue to attack through a clogged board, but black makes up for this by having a lot of disruption and removal to at least keep the hands and board clean for the one drops that sometimes need to carry that deck to victory.
Demonic Tutor/Vampiric Tutor/______ Tutor: The power of a tutor is related to two factors: whether you have time to pay for the cost of the tutor, and how strong the cards you are grabbing are. Demonic Tutor performs a lot worse if the best card you can grab is a pacifism or basic bomb, and Diabolic Tutor performs much better when it can grab ancestral recall/time walk/etc. At the same time, Demonic Tutor is much more reasonable than Diabolic Tutor since there are so many formats which will thoroughly punish you for essentially doing nothing except find a card during your turn 4.
In cube the cheaper tutors are pretty much universally good, but not including them in unpowered lists is a legitimate move for a variety of reasons. For starters, the tutors can streamline certain decks unfairly past others. The Upheaval deck may be good, but what if they always have another copy of Upheaval available? What if you always have a copy of your Bitterblossom? Inversely, without as many shut-down cards, the tutors may be overall underwhelming enough in that environment to not warrant inclusion. Sure grabbing a card like Upheaval is the bomb, but what if that’s by far the best card you have? Is tutoring for a card draw spell or Mind Control, cards that make you kind of feel bad for grabbing if they get answered or amount to nothing, really that great of a play?
In terms of the more expensive tutors, there’s really no room for them in smaller cubes except for the most combo-focused environments. Tutors that cost 3+ are fine in 720+ cubes since redundancy can be an issue in those environments and it’s important to run some number of each effect, but the quality of a tutor exponentially decreases with how much it costs. Cube is an overall cheap and fast environment and when your opponent is playing curve toppers at 4 and you’re not doing anything but essentially super-cantripping (read: slowly) then it’s hard to say you have any real shot at all.
Mind Twist: Arguably the best black card, Mind Twist is a card that has been killing dreams since day 1. Whether it’s 1 card or the entire grip, randomly discarding cards is brutal and when you nail the whole hand it’s usually a GG scenario. Your opponent still gets to draw cards but depending where on the curve you hit them you can actually force them into a scenario where they both need to draw action and mana sources, a position that is an almost guaranteed loss against any deck except in scenarios where they need to only draw those in the next x turns to win.
There has historically been a lot of debate as to whether Mind Twist belongs in a powered vs unpowered environment, and I am firmly on the fence. (The least-firm firm position of all time.) On one hand, artifact mana should be a little less prevalent in an unpowered cube and it takes a bit more time to earn the whole hand discard that Mind Twist allows and can ask for. Mind Twist will still excel in control match ups where you are both sitting on a hand full of cards playing a game of chicken, but there are much fewer ways to keep up with quicker starts. On the other hand, Mind Twist is still Mind Twist and it’s enough of a back breaking play that it’s hard for any opponent to recover once all their cards are gone. The key to back breaking plays aren’t longer grinds like you’d see from a Recurring Nightmare but a play or series of plays over the course of 1 or 2 turns that puts the game far out of reach. 10 activations from a Jace, the Mind Sculptor isn’t back breaking to me because you’ve had 10 turns to do anything at all; if you still can’t get rid of Jace, then perhaps either it’s not that terrible or your back was broken from the beginning. However, removing 3-7 cards in the course of one turn is HUGE, and it takes all your opponent’s plans and shove them up their ass.
Recurring Nightmare: Speaking of which, Recurring Nightmare has been a classic card from the beginning and continues to improve as more and more creatures with quality ETB triggers continue to be printed. Recurring Nightmare is the definition of cube grind, as you need to be able to spend some number of turns recurring your creatures over and over typically to win, but it’s a grind that often ends with you far and above where your opponents are.
Nightmare is sweet because you can really make it work with any of the colors in any strategies since all the colors have ETB creatures. GB is probably the best since some of green’s most powerful cards want to put creatures into the GY to find more creatures as is (hello, Survival of the Fittest), but red white and blue are still able to be abused. Whether it’s damage from red, bouncing creatures from blue, or making an army of sorts with the white creatures, Nightmare has a flavor in every guild and shard that you want to taste because it’s so-so-so delicious to slowly squeeze the life out of your opponent.
That being said, I could see Nightmare transitioning out sometime in magic’s future not because it isn’t powerful but because the speed of the game is increasing so much. Perhaps this is a silly statement, but there might be a point in cube’s future where the creatures are so efficient that you can’t afford to dilly dally and dick around while your opponent beats you down with 4/4s for W and Winogoyfs that auto-win for you when you hit delirium or something stupid like that. This is a dark future I want nothing to do with, and I fully recognize how ridiculous my statement is because I don’t think this dark future is anywhere close to even beginning to come to fruition, but we only have so much control over what is coming in the long term.
Historically a binary color, red has expanded its horizons as of this printing and offers a decent more than pure pain. Burn is totally red’s BFFL (that’s Best Friend For Life, in case you were wondering) but red is able to play a variety of other roles now too whether it’s as a control deck, a GY based theme, or as support in combo colors.
It would be wrong to not start with all the burn that red has, which is by far the main strength of the color. 2-4 damage for 1-3/4 mana may seem innocuous, but that much damage deals with a LOT of different creatures. Most of the creatures in cube have 3 or less toughness, and even more with 4 or less, and the cost you pay—often at instant speed—is tremendous for you. Being able to use that burn in turn against life totals and loyalty amounts is what gives burn such an edge in so many spots against other removal. Path to Exile is cool, but when you’re facing a Liliana of the Veil it’s fairly useless; Lightning Bolt, on the other hand, will kill that Liliana in a lot of spots, if not bring it down to a reasonable loyalty count, and then when your opponent is at 3 or less life then Path to Exile is a big bag of crap compared to Bolt.
The burn is useful in a lot of decks, but with the nature of red’s best creatures the aggressive decks lean on the damage the hardest and to the most success. Red’s best deck involves attacking with cheap small creatures and then closing out on the last ~10 or less damage with burn spells of some variety and perhaps a few more swings from the creatures. Of all the aggressive decks you could build in cube the red ones are the best since it’s able to use that burn earlier in the game to get rid of problem creatures and later to kill the opponent. Red aggressive decks are often 6-10 pieces of burn, the rest cheap creatures, and an appropriate lower amount of land to account for only having one or two 4 drops at most or to end the curve at 3.
The aggro deck is able to go wide as well, as tokens is a strategy Red can delve into. There are a number of red creatures that contain armies in a can, letting you use that creature by itself to generate your pressure and protect it with your other spells. While the tokens deck is less defined and unable to really stand on its own like a mono-white tokens deck is, red is a great complimentary color to white-based token decks as it gives that deck a shorter clock and the tools it provides can win without the anthems and other goodies white supplies.
Red’s aggro-only stigma is not unwarranted since that really is the best red deck you can build, but slower builds that either want big dumb creatures or cleared boards also exist. The artifact/creature cheat decks are supported by a few cards that want to cycle the artifacts in and out of the GY along with sending giant stupid creatures from your hand straight at their faces. Red leans on some busted cards like Sneak Attack, Goblin Welder/Daretti, and Wheel of Fortune to send annoying jerks like Emrakul or Sundering Titan at your now-crying opponents. Red also uses Wildfire effects to clear off the board, but we will soon look at those cards a bit closer.
Opposing big creatures are the bane of red’s existence. Burn is great because it answers a variety number of cards and can close out games, but using two pieces of burn to answer a 6/6 is really shitty. Aftershock was a card that used to be run in a lot of cubes both because it answered any creature + some number of other cards, but paying 4 for that effect + taking damage is a shitty deal that’s either not worth it or not on time in a lot of spots. I’ve had games where I’m playing a red deck and they somehow got a bigger creature onto the board and not only did I have no answers in hand but I was completely dead because the amount of work to get rid of that creature would be too much. Now imagine if that big creature is a Griselbrand or Wurmcoil Engine—how do you stand a chance at that point? The slower your red deck is, the less you can consistently rely on burn as your sole piece of removal.
Lightning Bolt: One of the most inconic cards in existence, Lightning Bolt has been a boss since it’s origin and is the bar set for amazing burn. Lightning Bolt is so good that cards which are strictly worse than Bolt are still considered staples. 3 damage at instant speed for a single R is so efficient, dealing with so many creatures and planeswalkers up and down the curve during so many different scenarios. Originally printed as part of a 3 for single X cycle, Lightning Bolt proved to be the second best of that grouping but the most universally powerful of the ‘fair’ versions. (FWIW: Ancestral Recall, Dark Ritual (better in certain decks, useless in others, clearly not ‘fair’ but not as generically powerful as Bolt), Giant Growth and…Healing Salve.)
Because there’s only so much you can say about burn (hey, uh, 3 damage, it’s good!, right?), it’s worth mentioning Chain Lightning here as a clear runner up but no where near to third place. Sorcery speed is a real hurdle, but 3 damage for a single mana is the key. Cube is a place where your mana is often tight and it’s not out of the question that you may be 1 or 2 mana short from doing what you need to do turn-to-turn, so having spells that require the absolute minimum from you is powerful.
Sulfuric Vortex: The true barometer for knowing how well someone understands cube is by how high they rate Vortex or how much respect they give it as a card. If you look at Vortex and don’t think much, then you are most likely new to cube and are due for the rude awakening that Vortex bestows upon the summer children of the cube world. Sulfuric Vortex is not made for every deck, and nor does it want to be. If you are playing red aggro, Vortex is the card you take over every other option.
There are a few reasons why Vortex, a card that costs 3, is the absolute best you can do for you aggressive red decks. One is that turning off life gain is absolutely huge and it’s one of the few effects in cube which does that. It’s hard to guarantee for every deck a spot for a card which can gain you life, but even gaining 3-5 can be enough to shut down the red aggressive decks long enough to stabilize. Every card you draw needs to work towards killing your opponent, and sometimes you cannot afford an extra draw to achieve that goal—the next draw can be your last for better or worse. Another reason is that Vortex can offer multiple triggers. 2 damage for 1RR is pretty lame; 4 is decent/good; 6+ is incredible for what you’re paying. All of this is packaged onto an enchantment, which is one of the hardest permanents to remove in cube. Mono red decks can include Vortex as the only disenchantable card and your opponent has to face the tough decision of running dedicated hate in their 40 or choosing a card which does more except hate out one specific card.
Shrine of Burning Rage deserves some consideration in the same conversation, but I like it a little less than others because of those disenchant effects. Shrine can hit for MASSIVE amounts of damage, and it can do nothing but eat the business end of a Manic Vandal or Reclamation Sage. Costing 3 means whether or not you get to shoot the shrine is not always a guarantee, and it can be punishing to run burn that doesn’t actually burn since you only have so many turns to kill. There are a number of games where your Shrine is better served as literal any other playable 2 drop, but there are also games where it can clock them for close to double digit damage.
Wildfire/Burning of Xinye: The classic non-aggro red deck, Wildfire punishes opponents in a unique way. By destroying a set number of lands and doing a set amount of damage, you can customize your own deck to take full advantage of the burning/wildfiring that occurs. The best Wildfire compositions rely on artifact mana that lives through the destruction or other heavy non-creature ramp, and threats that aren’t killed by 4 damage to creature.
The first half of that equation is pretty easy to put together if your cube is composed correctly. Artifact ramp is the key, so not every cube will be put together to take full advantage of that aspect, but those that support and run mana rocks will. You essentially want to be able to continue to cast spells if you’re required to Wildfire before you have a threat on the board or in case they are able to answer yours, as you don’t want to be put into a top-deck-wins scenario against your opponent even if it is something like a 50-50. (Which is still awful.)
The second half of that equation is the threat. Creatures with >4 toughness are clearly great for Wildfire as they live through the burn. Indestructible creatures or ones with protection from Red are also sufficient. Beyond creatures, planeswalkers are also pretty excellent since they give you something you can do every turn if attacking is not in the cards or you can’t scrap together lands after yours are destroyed. Planeswalkers allow you to gain incremental value in those scenarios where you need to out-topdeck your opponent, putting more and more pressure on their top decks being answers and less on yours being anything at all.
I would like to take this moment to give a special shout out to my main man, Jokulhaups. One of if not my absolute favorite magic card, Jokulhaups does everything I want it to: fucks shit up, makes me want to draft around planeswalkers, lets me pull a trigger that makes magic easy after the bullet goes off, and has an amazing name. Just stop reading now and say Jokulhaups allowed. Now just repeat the word Jokul like you’re saying wakka wakka wakka or you’re in Pac Man: JOKUL JOKUL JOKUL JOKUL JOKUL JOKUL JOKUL JOKUL…
Your day has improved; you’re welcome.
Green is a binary color—small creatures that ramp into big creatures that attack and kill. Unless you are splashing for a specific set of spells it is more likely than not that your green deck is going to feature a good number of creatures and it’s going to try and play them ahead of curve with elves. Since it’s cube it’s not like green is completely non-dynamic i.e. it is capable of being more than the midrange ramp deck, but when you’re so focused at doing something and you do it better than any other color…well, if it ain’t broke why fix it?
The key reason green is so good at what it does is the number of small creatures that add mana. The iconic card is Llanowar Elves, another that has been around since the beginning. The most busted plays you can make in cube involve playing ahead of the curve i.e. casting spells that are way undercosted or are supported by additional mana to be cast on a turn that is way before they would usually turn up. (THE PUNS…MY GOD, HE’S OUT OF CONTROL.) This is green’s specialty. The perfect ‘average’ green curve would go T1 1 drop->T2 2-3 drop->T3 5 drop, preferably with that last spell being a big creature or impactful planeswalker.
Destroying artifacts and enchantments is green’s forte as well. There are a litany of creatures that ETB with a disenchant effect of sorts, so many that there are strictly better versions of cards that are run in place of cards that were considered staples at one point. Green overall lacks creature destruction and instead relies on playing bigger creatures and forcing through the damage with some kind of overrun effect or just guys that can’t be profitably blocked. This is a role that green has no problem playing
At times this can still be a bit slow or fragile against certain decks, but green makes up for this by having a few pretty decent ways of playing big creatures from their deck. These spells give green a dynamic that is missing in some powered environments and give green the option to be the unfair deck in unpowered cubes. The decks are able to play massive creatures, some that they might not have a realistic consistent option of casting, and then force them onto the board straight from their library. There are very few cards in general that can do that in cube, and green has multiple versions of varying power levels. In some cubes these cards are absolutely necessary to keep up with all the other broken plays occurring.
Green unfortunately must rely on these methods of winning against control decks at times as green really struggles with interaction. Regrowth effects are real, but a well-timed wrath can not only destroy all their gas but also all the ramp that got them to their winning position. Heavy green decks—and more so mono green—can get stuck in stale mates where they can be profitably chumped or traded with well enough that it’s not worth attacking into at all, and you have all these big dumb creatures doing nothing in a board lock. Mono green is one of the few colors that really struggles with removing creatures or dealing with some forms of interaction/inaction, so you definitely want to include some of your own and make sure you have some resilient threat options.
I would be remiss if I did not mention green aggro packages that a number of cubes run. On their own, these decks could not replicate being an aggressive build—like, a mono green aggro deck would not be winning many games consistently due to a general lack of reach if the board stabilizes—but they have a number of 1-3 drops that are heavily and aggressively inclined. I personally don’t run the green aggressive package as my playgroup often doesn’t play green aggro and there are definite costs to including it, but others swear by the cards so take that for what you will. Green is sometimes a secondary aggro color in my cube—Rancor, Bloodbraid Elf, the cards exist—but my own cube by design never produces a G/x aggressive build as it’s not a strategy I’ve found to be overall successful, but don’t let that deter you from doing the same with your own cube if you think that’s an archetype you want to support.
Survival of the Fittest: Powered or not, Survival of the Fittest belongs in your cube. Every aspect of Survival plays well with what green wants to do: find their big creatures to cast, get some use out of useless creatures drawn late (i.e. elves drawn later in the game) and have some play out of the graveyard. Survival of the Fittest is a tool box that turns any of your creatures into a tutor, all at instant speed and pretty much uncounterable outside of something like Stifle. Survival lets you make the key play turn after turn as long as you can feed the chain, all the while often upgrading whatever creature or gas it is you’re pitching. With the random regrowth effects and green’s affinity for reanimtor/graveyard styled strategies it’s often not a problem to throw some creatures into the pit so it can feel like you’re not even losing out with the pitch and instead getting two cards for that G cost. Survival is best as a golgari card since black is the best at playing out of the graveyard, but it would take a lot for me not to include Survival in a deck with enough creatures to make it worth it.
Survival is so good that a creature version of the card that can only activate once a turn, Fauna Shaman, is kind of a staple all the way to the smallest size. At the end of the day almost any low-costed tutor is amazing in a singleton format, so one that can swing for damage when you don’t have something to pitch or don’t need to is incredibly valuable.
As a side note, I rated Survival of the Fittest pretty lowly on an online poll/survey in terms of the overall best green cards. If anyone finds that, please ignore my brain for whatever period in time that was—I don’t know what I was thinking! (Except that Symbol Status is definitely absurd.) I’ve rated it higher in more recent iterations of said poll, but because of the work it takes to fully abuse I’m not entirely sure if it’s the best overall green spell. Highest overall ceiling? Probably, but there’s a floor you have to watch out for when constructing your deck.
Natural Order: This is the ultimate pay off green card—a lofty statement but not one without merit. Big green creatures are one of those types of cards that Wizards should never have a problem printing since they’ve done a better job of not printing the broken enablers like Natural Order. With the amount of punishing green creatures at that size which either flood the board with creatures, destroy important non-creature permanents, or prove to be extremely difficult to deal with. Like with Tinker, it happens early enough that you force your opponent to have the specific answer for that specific card.
Natural Order is a bit underrated because, realistically, it’s the green tinker and should be treated as such. Think about it—unless it’s later in the game, how often is Natural Order really being cast off of four lands? Ideally you are NOing off of one of your mana dorks from the first two turns, and like with Tinker you are sacrificing a card you probably invested some amount of mana into. Unlike Tinker, you typically have many more options for big green creatures to choose from. There are the mono colored options, and usually there is 1 or 2 to choose from the multi-colored options. You also rarely have to compete against other players for your big creatures since you’re the only one able to cast them, except against random strategies like reanimator or sneak/show, two strategies which still might ignore your green creatures in lieu of other options.
In terms of comparing Natural Order to Tinker, Tinker is still undoubtedly more powerful. The reason is pretty simple: lightning bolt doesn’t kill my mox. Doom blade doesn’t kill my signet. Swords to plowshares doesn’t hit my Pithing Needle. The amount of cards that answer a creature far outweigh those that answer artifacts, and because creatures are the backbone of the game—even in cube—most all decks will have some way to remove your elf.
Channel: One time I played a match of magic where I lost to my opponent’s T3 Channel + fireball variant for both games; we were done within about 5 minutes. This is of course not the norm but games with Channel are games that end early one way or another. Free mana is so insane, and while life is a cost it’s one that isn’t real at times. Who cares if you paid 10 life for that T2 Ulamog when you’re winning the game?
While Natural Order is a card I feel better about putting in an unpowered cube, I’m much more hesitant with Channel. The key for broken cards is the effortless nature at an early point or cheap cost. You don’t really need any sort of board presence for Channel, something that is literally not true of Natural Order, which can be stunted for turns by removing the elves. There are many more cards that deal with that elf than there are that deal with the Channel or Channel-target in your hand. All you need for Channel is two sources of green, whatever you’re casting, and the Channel. It’s pretty much a two-card combo that can prove to be insanely difficult to deal with, and from my experience it totally blows out the ‘fair’ feel of an unpowered cube.
First things first: other than lands if you count them as such, there are NO staples for any guild. This might be a claim that others will try to dispute, but multicolored cards are where wizards is able to have the most creativity and design space since they are inherently the hardest to cast and only fit in so many decks, both in standard and eternal formats. It’s not that there aren’t any massively powerful multicolored cards, but that it wouldn’t surprise me if they printed any number of busted cards even in the next few years of printing that I am hesitant to include any card there. The only one that I would be willing to rest my hat on is Vindicate since I don’t think they’ll ever print an answer that really does answer just about everything ever again for that cost, but I say that now only to see Abrupt Vindicate, the CMC 2 version of Vindicate uncounterable at instant speed be printed immediately after this. (As of writing this that didn’t happen, but the power gamer in me can have dreams, can’t he?)
Guilds—they have what are the hardest cards to cast since they are multicolored, but some multicolored cards are so powerful that it would be a travesty to not include them. Multicolored cards are kind of fun too. I don’t know what it is—maybe the gold aesthetic, perhaps having to work for what is a unique/combined effect—but drafting and making a multicolored card work often feels good, especially when it’s one of the best. They’re often good cards to splash for and can be a massive signal for what is open or not.
Composing your multicolored section can be one of the hardest things to do in designing a cube. Some of the other sections are fairly easy—X amount of creatures, X amount of spells, blah blah and you’re done. But there are a lot of questions that go into putting together a guild section: do you count lands? What types of cards do you prioritize? How many actual spells are you looking to run? You don’t want too high a count of multicolored cards since only specific manabases can run some of those cards, but in some of the guild sections you don’t want to omit some incredibly powerful cards. (See: Orzhov, debatably the best color combination.)
The first bit of advice when putting together a guild section is to always lean towards hybrid cards if it’s between a hybrid or non-hybrid for a cube spot. Hybrid mana cards compared to true multicolored cards are preferable because it gives your multicolored section that much more play. Take Kitchen Finks versus Voice of Resurgence. Kitchen Finks can go in ANY deck that can cast 1WW or 1GG cards. This includes Golgari /Orzhov/etc. You could have literal zero sources of green in your deck and Kitchen Finks will still be castable AND good in your W/x decks. Replace that Kitchen Finks with the Voice of Resurgence and you no longer have a card that you can cast in your two-colored decks. This is a real concern, and when considered extends the overall playability and depth of your cube.
Do not confuse this as advocating for running weaker cards in place of strong true multicolored cards. There is no reason you would run Unmake over Vindicate, for example, because you do lose quite a bit of power level even if Unmake has the benefit of being hybrid-colored. With cards like Kitchen Finks or Murderous Redcap it’s a bit easier to argue their inclusion as they are either top tier or strong enough to warrant inclusion in addition to their hybrid status, but it does take some intuition to understand that while hybrid is ideal that there are only so many worthy options in comparison to what else you could run.
I would also suggest not including hybrid colored cards in a mono colored section. At the end of the day the impact this will have on your cube will likely be negligible, but if you are trying to maximize the playability of your cube then you are doing a disservice to the number of decks that can be supported. Say you want to include Rakdos Cackler as a red 1 drop because you’re unhappy with the depth of that section. (Hopefully ‘we need more good red 1 drops’ will seem like a silly statement at some point in the existence of this guide, but as of writing this we are close but not quite there yet.) This leaves you with two possible compositions: a mono colored section with X options, or the same + 1 for two different colors. There are arguments to a lack of balance of the cube where certain colors are better supported because the hybrid cards do act like mono colored options, but it’s not like there are dozens of hybrid cards being included—the few that are do more for your multicolored section’s strength and versatility versus what it does to weaken the non-supported colors.
The next big question is what to do about lands. There are many different opinions on this matter, and it would be a stretch to say any of the basic options are wrong. I see it is a black-and-white issue: you either include lands in your multicolored section and have X amount of slots for both lands and non-lands within that color combination, or you have a set number of lands allotted and a set number of non lands. I tend to lean towards the former, the reason being that some color combinations are better supported one way or another. Some guilds have utility lands that identify as a certain color (Kessig Wolf Run; Horizon Canopy); other guilds have so many great non-land options that you’d rather run less fixing to support them. By giving yourself only so many slots you really have to prioritize which of the multicolored cards you are running versus the fixing and etc. While it may seem restrictive, it actually gives you the most amount of wiggle room as you can truly decide what goes in those X slots instead of having to fill an arbitrary cube-wide quota.
Maybe you like arbitrary cube-wide quotas; it’s your cube, do what you want and power to you for that! However, there is still a line you can cross if you’re looking to not saturate the ends of packs with unplayable guild cards. At 360, you have room for 2 and MAYBE 3 non-land multicolored cards. Beyond that, the percentage of multicolored cards in your cube is too high and the amount of playables you’ll find in a draft will diminish. From there, 1-2 more per every 100-200 cards you add seems appropriate. You are looking to keep your cube at a certain percentage if you don’t want too many multicolored cards—enough so that you can include the great options, but not too many so that all you see are multicolored cards.
There are of course exceptions to this, including multicolored cubes. These are cubes that play like Alara block on steroids, and are quite fun! I don’t know much about composing one, but the biggest balance you want to focus on is the amount of fixing. You don’t want too much so every deck is effortlessly 4-5 colors (see: early iterations of the MODO Legendary Cube) but you need enough so games don’t turn into the “who fixes their mana first” game.
Graveyard shenanigans are the calling card to this color combo, but black works really well with green for other reasons. Green has trouble dealing with creatures and black does not, so often you’ll use black spells to kill everything and then send your big guys through. Black’s selective wraths, of which there are a few options, work really well with green’s creatures since a large number of the ramp targets both in midrange and big ramp decks can live through the –X-X wraths. Black’s discard also helps pre-emptively stop any gameplan the opponent has from rolling, letting you play the uninteractive game that green decks sometimes fall into. Stripping a wrath before it can be used can be GG for the opponent.
As mentioned before, the graveyard shenanigans are the #1 strategy for the guild, as both green and black like playing out of the graveyard. Black has an abundance of reanimation spells, and green has the most amount of big creatures that you want to reanimate—that right there would be enough. In addition, both colors have a variety of discard outlets that can take advantage of it, from boring/tenuous cards like Oona’s Prowler (giving your opponent the same ability can be dangerous) to streamlined monsters like Survival of the Fittest. The latter works particularly well with Recurring Nightmare, as you can often fuel however many parts you need for the Nightmare to never end, acting as a multi-tutor for both pulling cards out of your library and placing cards into the GY from either your hand or your deck.
GW is a solid color combination, but at times suffers from being too fair. While green can do some pretty broken stuff, white is fairly plain-jane, so if you’re working with a regular ramp deck then you need to get big quickly and have plenty of white removal to clear the boards. The white wraths tend to not work well with green, so selesnya ends up being more aggressive or midrangey. White’s removal is a hot commodity because it’s so good and often splashed for, so if you’re firmly in GW you need to prioritize the removal above everything else.
Selesnya has some of the strongest cards, but in play is not one of the strongest guilds. A lot of the strengths of the colors kind of conflict—white has wraths, but green typically doesn’t want to remove its own creatures; green has no removal, so you have to take white removal as early as possible. It often ends up being a hate-bears style deck that plays like an aggressive-midrange deck, or you’re going big and splashing for white along the way.
This isn’t to say that Selesnya can’t win—we’re talking cube here, powerful cards are powerful—but in certain environments it’s a lot tougher to win when you’re so heavily in midrange without any sort of hand disruption. In my experience the best Selesnya decks are the ones that splash for high-impact cards in other colors to make up for some of these short comings, something green can help out with a decent amount due to the available fixing, or they disrupt somehow with their creatures.
Rakdos’ main strength is the aggressive deck. Red is the best aggressive color, and black has a strong suite of aggressive creatures to compliment. You should never lack on 2-power 1-drops if you’re playing Rakdos, and there are a number of pieces of removal you can at minimum SB for creatures that are too large to deal with.
That being said, Rakdos has applications in all theatres of play since both red and black are great complimentary colors. Midrange decks take the form of traditional Jund constructed builds, relying on discard to clear hands and burn to clear boards. There are incremental engines that Rakdos can rely on to secure their board presence turn by turn, and when it’s time to kill the red burn goes straight to the face. Rakdos can also play control well enough, but black as your main control color is a risky endeavor as it hurts a lot to draw with black. A control deck often needs card advantage through drawing cards and black almost always asks for some life to do this.
Graveyard strategies tend to work fairly well with Rakdos too. There are a number of looting effects in red, and binning your fatty is of course the main goal of reanimator. Other strategies, such as Welder/Daretti decks and more midrangey GY strategies, are dually enabled by the colors. Rakdos has really become more expansive the more universal red has become as a color, stepping out of its traditional role and being more than just burn baby burn.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make with orzhov is assuming it’s a great aggro color combination. The orzhov aggro decks are traditionally more aggro-midrange or stax-based, relying on either being a little bit bigger than the aggro deck or going wide and busting the game open with ‘symmetrical’ effects. You can load up your BW deck with a bunch of aggressive 1 and 2 drops, but lacking reach is really bad for your aggro decks. Anthems help force through a lot of damage, but you will still be blanked since a large number of your creatures are X/1s that improve to X/2s which are still blocked. This is another reason why going wider can be better, meaning that your army of outclassed 1/1s become 2/2s to march through.
Orzhov can play a controlling role too, largely because the combined removal of black and white means just about anything can be answered. The color combination has the highest amount of wraths, and the spot removal can answer just about any creature. The wraths and removal play well with white’s stellar planeswalkers, as you can gain your advantage through them instead of the creatures which will be swept away. Running out of gas is a real issue, but thankfully there are enough threats in white and black that can stand on their own without necessarily needing to land additional threats every turn. Black also has a number of card draw spells available at the cost of life, and both colors have enough ways to gain life that if properly built won’t feel like shooting yourself in the foot.
UW control is a classic cube archetype, and probably one of the strongest pure control decks. Blue and white bring everything a control deck needs to the table: removal, card advantage, resilient finishers, the whole shebang really. You can put together a complete control deck that doesn’t abuse or do anything broken and still have a solid deck, doing it the old fashioned way of running your opponent out of cards while you continue to draw your own, and that deck could compete in just about any cube environment.
Tempo builds are also a real thing in azorius, supported by bounce creatures and spells in blue plus cheap, efficient threats in white. Since white is not only a great aggressive color but also has a high amount of high-caliber creatures that can win the game on their own, you can land one or two of those threats and protect them with counterspells and various forms of removal. Blue tends to be less aggressively oriented, but playing a cheap threat and protecting it with counters and bounce is a real strategy that wins games. Blue also has a number of creatures that specifically shine in aggressive tempo strategies, but buyer beware: these cards are not good without the whole package supported. Blue is typically a controlling color, so you really need to go out of your way to support aggressive strategies.
What Gruul does in your cube is largely dependent on the make up of your green section. Every Gruul section should be able to support midrange/ramp strategies, as green naturally does that along with having a lot of creatures that live through Wildfire and Earthquake effects. You don’t need to be heavy red for this to happen: the Earthquakes are easy to splash, and there are a large number of ways green decks can have RR by 6 mana. There are large number of strong green and red planeswalkers that play well with Wildfire too, meaning you could build an entire Gruul deck that hypothetically had no creatures and it could certainly perform well.
In addition, if you support green aggro, then Gruul aggro/midrange decks are strong. Red is fine-tuned for aggro and green has a lot of creatures that are either much larger than their low cost or do a great job supplementing the need for aggressive 1 drops. Personally this is not a strategy I choose to support, but that is only because the people I play with have no interest in drafting aggressive green decks on the regular. Every so often we see aggro-midrange decks that have Bloodbraid Elf or take advtange of some of the meaty two drops on green’s roster, but for the most part none of us want to play Jungle Lions or Kessig Prowlers. (Or at least compliment Kessig Prowlers with much-worse versions of the similar effect, the 2/1 for G.)
As an aside, this would be a good time to note (maybe again) that you should ALWAYS do what your cube group wants. If you think they are wrong about a card choice it’s completely reasonable to debate inclusion or not, but if no one is looking to draft an archetype then it’s time to remove the archetype. Inversely, if they are clamoring for archetype support then it’s worth recognizing. Cube is about having fun—period blank—and if your cube group has fun casting 2/1s for G then it’s worth supporting that archetype. There have been a number of times I’ve advocated for cards and strategies as I’ve read about them, heard all this good stuff about how well it performed in that person’s playlist, and then the cards end up perpetual last picks. Then I would feel obligated to draft and show my drafters, Hey look! This strategy is good! And then that would feel like forcing a square peg through a circle and…you get where I’m going. Instead of having fun with these cards, I felt I had to prove something or just got annoyed by seeing them end up last again and again. Now there are definitely times where a card you aren’t running is that strong and should be played regardless of what others say, but entire archetypes should be considered and discussed with the playgroup first.
While tempo is definitely a Dimir thing, the two main strategies I think of (which can overlap) are control and reanimator. UB control decks rely on counters and removal to keep the board clear, and then using the card draw in both colors to churn through the deck until whatever is needed is found. The tutors shine in these decks, since having what you need at any point to maintain control of the game is huge. Whether you need the counter to protect your next play or the removal to stop what they’re doing, finding those answers is easier in Dimir than any other deck either by pure card draw or searching through the entire deck.
Reanimation decks often take on a similar form, except they focus more so on blowing the game out early by landing the early massive threat and then using blue’s counters to keep it on the board. Reanimation decks are often blown out by removal that you can’t stop, and blue’s counters help mitigate this. Cards like Force of Will and Daze carry extra weight in these decks since you only need X amount of turns after you land your big play to win, so paying whatever the cost of a ‘free’ spell is will often be worth it since you will be able to tap out the next turn and typically only need 1 or two additional counters to make it through to the next game.
As mentioned, tempo is a real thing, but also as mentioned in the Azorius section you must make concessions in your blue section to support the deck. Black is already there with their aggressive creatures, and if you want to compliment it with blue then the options are there too.
Aggression, aggression, aggression. Boros wants to attack, it wants to kill, and it wants to win a turn ago. Red and white are by far the best color for aggressive decks, and if I can’t draft mono-red aggro then my next choice for an aggressive deck is RW. The color combination provides everything you need: cheap efficient creatures, burn for removal, and powerful aggressively-inclined curve-toppers. Depending on your cube makeup you do need to prioritize fixing as there are a number of (x)CC costed cards i.e. cards with double-color costs at CMC 2 and 3 for both red and white. But by going into Boros, you will never be short of one drops, removal, and creatures that kill quick.
Boros is also fine in midrange and controlling builds, but I would exercise more caution with these builds. Some control decks are looking to tap out every turn either with removal or disruption, which is fine, but red-white ultimately suffers from having no card draw. When your hand is exhausted and you are pulling off the top of your deck and it’s land-land-land then your control deck isn’t doing much of anything. Blue and black based control decks mitigate this by being able to see more cards, but there just aren’t many great option in Boros for doing that. Slower Boros decks typically need to either lock the game out somehow with a controlling-aspect (Moat, Armageddon/Wildfire, Form of the Dragon if you like to party) or gain their value with spells that continue to be spells after they are casted (planeswalkers are a good example of this) so that when the top deck blanks they can still be virtually casting spells or stopping the opponent. It’s easier to build a midrange Boros deck than control as riding the back of a planeswalker will typically need to happen in a spot that stops aggro and puts pressure on control, and going from something like Chandra, Torch of Defiance into Wildfire is much more of a midrange play than control.
Guess what green likes to do? Ramp. Simic decks are either really trying to do this, or are going for the tempo-midrange builds where they are aiming to make their big plays at 4-5 mana. Simic decks that perform the best have control magic spells in them, as that is the biggest issue for Simic—removal.
Simic is easily the color I try to avoid the most when building aggressive decks. It is possible to both support green aggro and blue aggro/tempo, but green and blue are both the worst colors for this strategy. Green lacks the reach, and blue lacks the overall aggressive presence. Simic ‘aggro’ decks tend to be faster midrange decks, but when you are playing the colors with the worst permanent removal then it’s hard to beat a lot of decks that can land something which sufficiently gets in the way. Blue can bounce spells that have made it onto the battlefield, but there are only so many of those options and more often than not a Simic deck that isn’t trying to go over the top is going to find itself facing something it can’t deal with. If you want to go for the faster strategies, be sure to prioritize bounce spells and control magic to clear the way for your creatures.
(Interesting to note: I had the most success playing Simic aggro builds in the Twisted Color Pie cube that was featured in 2016—go figure!)
Izzet: Other than being the best pun-based color, Izzet can take on a variety of roles. Izzet decks are often either controlling in nature, are spells-matters decks, or they’re heavily aggressive. What version of this deck you find yourself in largely depends on what color is the most prominent. Heavy blue decks are often more controlling; heavy red decks are often more aggressive. Counterspells can protect aggressive creatures well, and burn can fill a variety of roles in controlling builds.
Note that Izzet is the premier color of combos all over cube. Both Storm combo and Kiki/Twin are best when featuring UR, and I will cover both of those later in the article. (Though to be fair I cop-out and say ‘just google search for my storm article’, so I guess I WON’T be covering that aspect later, will I?)
So you have a cube—now what? Clearly there are no set or defined ‘decks’ once you crack the box open, but you constructed a cube for a specific reason: to draft it! That being said, there are a variety of ways to draft cube depending on the number of players you have, and it’s important to note which draft styles are available at what cube sizes. I’m sure I’ll forget or neglect some options as there are a million different ideas you could come up with. With that in mind, consider these as ‘some options’ instead of ‘the only options.’
Standard Booster Draft
Ideal # of Players: 4+
# of Cards Per Player: 45
If you have played retail limited you are familiar with what this is in, at minimum generally familiar. With cube it’s just about the same in execution, but instead of buying packs you construct them yourself. General set up requires that each player randomly takes 45 cards and divides them into 3 packs of 15. These packs are then drafted in 3 rounds, 1 for each pack at the table. To start a round, ‘open’/look at the pack, pick a card from it for your pool, and then pass it to your left or right. (Typically it goes left/right/left for the three rounds i.e. first pack left, second right, third left.) You CANNOT look at any pack other than the one that you are currently on, which means in round 1 you can only be looking at cards that you either opened in your own pack or were passed to you by another player.
The number of players drafting largely dictates the strategy involved with this version of drafting. Drafting with 4 players is a LOT different than drafting with 8, the reason being the amount of cards you will see again in a pack. It’s basic math: when the pack wheels to you (i.e. when it goes around to every other player first and then makes it back to you) it’s a lot easier to 1) figure out what others are doing and 2) plan for your own deck when so many less cards are taken out before you see them. Losing 7 of the next best cards vs losing 3 before you see the card can sometimes mean there’s nothing for you at all when you wheel the pack. In an 8 person draft, I’m more inclined to focus more on what’s being directly passed to me, but less than that drafting with 4 and there is a lot more stock given to what comes back from your opening pack. It’s not hard to figure out what three cards went missing if you’re only drafting with 4 players, and that gives you a strong idea of who is doing what. If I receive my opening pack and the top 3 blue cards that were in there are all missing, I am going to avoid drafting blue as much as possible; inversely, if only one of those is missing, I can potentially make the assumption that there is probably only one other blue drafter and therefore it’s a safe color to be in. This is not as easy to do in an 8 person draft, but the signal screams so much louder when it’s noticed in these drafts.
If this is your main style of drafting, be careful to build your cube to reflect the number of players you will typically get. If you always have 8 players, it might be worth it to build a cube larger than 360 cards so your drafts have variety unless you want to know that every card will be in the cube every draft. If you regularly draft with 4, you might want a smaller cube so you can see specific archetypes supported within drafts on a consistent basis. Like, how often will a Wildfire deck appear if you’re pulling 180 cards out of a 720 cube? 540? 360?
Ideal # of Players: 2-3
# of Cards Per Player: 45-70
The easiest draft method to set up, Winston drafting is essentially a pile with smaller sub piles. How it works is you have a main pile with X amount of cards determined by the number of players, and 3 smaller piles that start with 1 card. At the beginning, one player looks at the first small pile. If he takes it, he takes a card off the main stack to replace the cards taken from that pile and the next player goes; if not, he puts a card from the main stack onto that pile, and moves down to the next pile doing the same thing. If by the end of three packs the player has chosen zero cards, then they get 1 off the top of the big pile and it’s onto the next player. You do this over and over until there are no cards left, typically meaning players won’t have anywhere close to the same number of cards.
The biggest strategies in Winston are 1) like all draft formats, figure out what other players aren’t drafting and take those cards, and 2) digging for bombs. It may seem a bit crazy to be digging for bombs, but you need the cards that are dominant in order to win in cube, and when you can’t choose them out of a best-of-15 pack then it’s a lot harder to find them. Bombs can range from anything like Sol Ring to Recurring Nightmare to Primeval Titan; you need to find the cards that you want to build around and will win you the game. You may find a pack with 2-3 solid spells for what you think is your color, but if you have no way to win or synergistically pull your deck together then your opponent is probably getting those cards that win instead and you are probably toast with a deck full of enablers but nothing to enable. In the same regard, there has to be stock given to packs with 3+ cards of a specific color, as that’s often an indication of not only that color being open in the rest of the draft, but also those 3 cards could allow you to dig later on in the draft. This ties into figuring out what others aren’t drafting. When you are left with piles that are full with a certain color again and again, then you have to come to the conclusion that those colors are open.
Unless they pop up early or I know there is abundant support left, I typically avoid drafting combo or aggressive decks while doing Winston. This is not a sentiment I share alone, and therefore Winston drafts can end up with a lot of mid-range-to-control decks during a Winston draft. Because you don’t know what you’re missing and you could be seeing a much lower variety of cards depending on what ends up in the piles, there are a lot of instances where the cards you need for a deck (1 drops, key combo pieces) either are taken by other players, taken as chaff as they are in packs with cards other players deem as important, or don’t show up. It can be a lot harder to figure out what isn’t showing up in a Winston draft, as you might not make it to a 2nd or 3rd pack for a few rounds due to unpassable cards in the first small pile and then those piles might build up from the other players until they are gone and cards you didn’t know were there but needed end up being scooped.
Winston decks are often of varying levels of power. This is not to say that they won’t have a defined theme, but when you are at the will of only seeing so many cards each round for each choice there will be times where you struggle to find a 23rd card or you have to rely on prioritizing fixing to get there. In one Winston draft each player might have pretty even decks; in another a player might be the first to see most pieces of power and crush everyone else at the table. We have personally stopped drafting Winston as we found styles of drafting that are more accommodating to making decks with strong synergistic ties with a smaller group of players, but that does not mean Winston is not fun, just you can end up with a lower power level at times.
Ideal # of Players: 2-4
# of Cards Per Player: 135
My personal favorite way to draft, Burn/Glimpse drafting (from here on out referred to as ‘Burn’ drafting because typing Burn/Glimpse every time I say its name will make me claw my eyes out by the end of this section) has lead to the strongest, most streamlined decks by seeing the most amount of cards and typically has the most complex draft for a smaller group. Complexity can be misconstrued as scary, but here it should be sweet as it means there is so much more stock put into the draft itself and it feels a lot more engaging, and then you all have streamlined awesome decks.
Burn drafting is done in a similar style of booster drafting, except you make 9 packs of 15 cards instead of 3. Like booster drafting you open a pack and stay on that pack until all 15 cards are gone, but instead of only taking one you take an additional 2 and add them to the ‘burn’ pile, which acts like a discard pile that players can’t pull from or look through. So instead of 15 picks from a pack, each player is making 5 and then discarding a total of 10 cards. You go through all 9 packs this way, ending up with 45 cards total.
There are a few reasons I love Burn drafting. One is that every player gets 9 first picks, meaning that ~1/10 of every cube deck is composed of what should hypothetically be top-tier stellar cards. (Sucky packs still happen in cube—not every cube card is an eye-bulger.) The inverse of this is that you have a lot of middling cards filling out the rest of the roster, but it’s generally a lot better for your deck’s synergies to have as many stellar cards as possible instead of having a solid 23. Not that you won’t get a solid 23 cards out of Glimpse drafting—it is almost impossible to draft a ‘bad’ deck—but the power level between your 1st and 23rd cards is often high, and that extends into the late teens. However, because you have so many first picks, these 23rd-ish cards are often complimenting what you’re doing with your first picks. This leads to my next point, being that when you see so many cards you are able to truly draft the deck you want. 2 players doing a Burn draft are able to see 270 cards from the cube. In a 360, that is ¾ of the list! Even in larger cubes you are seeing a higher percentage, resulting in less hodge-podges and more actual cube decks.
There is a ton of strategy involved with what you burn as well. Do you burn cards in your colors to fend off others from jumping into what you’re doing? Do you burn the cards that beat your deck i.e. the artifact/gy/etc. hate? Do you burn the worst cards because you want one of the X good cards left to come back? Depending on the number of players, there is some merit to what returns, but at 3 and 4 players this matters less unless it’s glaring. Like, if there are a bunch of middling aggro beaters and filler cards that come back with 3-4 players then that doesn’t necessarily mean those strategies are open as only specific decks want those cards, but if something insane happens like a Control Magic or Thragtusk wheels in those spots then there needs to be consideration given to those scenarios.
Ideal # of Players: 2-8
# of Cards Per Player: 45
One of the highest strategy-based drafting methods, there is no hidden information in Rochester, meaning paying attention not only to what you’re doing but what you’re opponents is doing is huge. Rochester drafting involves going through packs individually instead of a round of packs and making all the picks one at a time through that pack. So each pack is looked at simultaneously by the whole table and each player makes a pick one at a time until the pack is empty and then it’s onto the next player’s pack. Player 1 opens his pack, takes his card, and then player 2 and etc.; the next round player 2 opens his pack, takes his card, and then player 3 (or whoever is next) and etc. Drafting this way can take a long time, and way more so as you increase the number of players and therefore the number of individual packs to look through.
Drafting this way is also essentially a litmus test for determining cube skill, as it becomes clear and obvious who does and doesn’t know what they’re doing when drafting this way. If it’s the first pack and a player takes a card like Garruk Wildspeaker over Sol Ring or a Moxen or something like that, you instantly know that they might not have any idea what they’re doing. In the same regard, long-tenured cubers will know when to take cards they need vs ones they need to prioritize due to the competition at the table. In a 4 person Rochester draft there is a high probability that every player will share at least one color with another player, and it’s important to recognize when to take a certain card of a certain color before another player does, including the relevant fixing. If I know another player is heavy red and I’m X/r and there’s a lightning bolt in the pack that I need + another card of my main color that is better but less necessary, I am more inclined to take the bolt since the other card is likelier to wheel.
Rochester drafting is great for team events if that’s how you like to play. If you want to play as two teams of two or three, during the Rochester draft you can discuss with your team which cards would be better or worse for what you’re doing. Going deeper, you might have two green players on a team and when there’s a Birds of Paradise in a pack the green player to go first might take a different card so the second green player has an opportunity to take that Birds of Paradise when its their turn. Of course you can see what your opponents are doing too, but be wary of whispering everything lest you want to make your drafting experience as annoying as possible.
Ideal # of Players: 2+
# of Cards Per Player: 30-45
Rotisserie drafting is a lot like a fantasy sport draft where you pick each card one by one from the ultimate list of cards available. Rotisserie decks are by far the most powerful decks you can draft considering you are literally picking from the biggest ‘pack’ possible, that pack being the reminder of whatever is left in the cube. Rotisserie drafts are a lot of fun, but they take a LOT of time, and if your playgroup is like mine some rounds can seemingly take forever when a player has to really think about what they’re taking and trying to do based on their deck.
Unless you are patient and/or have the time, I would advise doing no more than 4 players during a live Rotisserie draft where you plan to immediately play out the decks after the draft is over. I can’t speak for everyone, but in my life I don’t see any day where I would be able to wait for 5+ people to do a rotisserie draft considering the number of cards you need to draft in order to make it feasible. It is also worth considering lowering the number of cards you draft, considering there should be no cards that aren’t at minimum a stellar sideboard option. 30 is the absolute minimum I would consider, and with that amount you must be ready to accept the consequences of a lot of no-more-than-two-color decks as you can only dedicate so many picks to fixing (at most 7-8). 45 would be ideal, but there are few instances where I would want to pick 45 cards and not need a nap in the middle of the draft. Some groups have drafted the cube online during the course of the week via something like google docs, and this is worth considering if you want to Rotisserie with a larger group.
Before you start the draft, you need to think of what deck you want to make and then consider how feasible it is to draft that depending on your position. Say you want to make the Time Walk deck, you need to commit to that deck pretty much pick 1 or consider it a non-entity. If there are 8 players, there is no way that Time Walk will make it to you at the end of that list, and therefore need to have a different strategy mapped out. Rotisserie drafts without a planned direction are disasters waiting to happen, and this is increased when there is a timer involved. I’m not saying you need to have your draft board mapped out for every possible pick, but knowing the archetype you want to draft and what to prioritize due to that is key.
Ideal # of Players: 2+
# of Cards Per Player: 60-90
I can count the number of times I’ve done sealed for cube on one hand, but I’ve done enough sealed in other limited formats to understand how it would work with cube, plus I would be remiss for not mentioning it as there are a number of cube owners that do sealed. Basically, sealed’s main appeal is how easy the set up is, and then figuring out what you can do with what you’re given. You have a number of cards per player distributed randomly, and they have X amount of time to make a deck out of that pile. These decks are much more consistently hodge-podgey compared to Winston and other formats as you get what you get and if you can’t make a streamlined deck out of that you are in trouble, but sometimes you can get a streamlined deck and then your decision process comes down to the last cards you’re adding vs any of the 23. I’m not a fan of sealed as part of the major appeal of cube is that I get to draft the cube, and just getting a pile of cards removes that entire aspect, but if that’s what you like then power to you.
Designing Your Cube
While briefly covered at the beginning, there is a lot to be said about designing a cube. As mentioned before, it’s your cube so you can decide what you want, and here we are going to explore the MANY options for customization available.
Singleton vs. Non-Singleton
While most of this article is designed to look at cube from a Singleton angle, there are a number of cube owners that run multiples of certain cards. Personally I don’t currently play with any cubes that run multiples, but there are certainly pros and cons to running that style.
Archetype Support: There are certain decks that benefit greatly from redundancy that don’t currently have the redundant option available. Aggro decks would be an example of an archetype that is well supported by what’s in print, as there are a number of viable aggressive one drop options in just about every color possible, but this is not the case with every archetype. For example, in a larger cube (720+) it might be hard for the Wildfire deck to come together because there are only so many versions of the titular card before you’re running options that some cube owners shy away from. (Jokulhaups, Destructive Force.) Typically you find archetype redundancy in the larger cubes that are only drafted by a smaller number of players, as they want the variety a large cube allows but still want certain decks to be available in a higher percentage of drafts. At smaller cube sizes, aiming for this type of redundancy can skew the balance of certain sections unnecessarily, and should be avoided until the archetype has proven to be under-supported.
Mana Fixing: After the main 3 land cycles—ABU duals, shocklands, and fetchlands, which I think are the only required cards for making the ‘cube experience’—your options can be less than ideal. Not that they are terrible as fixing is still fixing if that’s what your decks need, but not every deck wants to meet the parameters these lands ask for, and the bigger your cube the more you’re reaching for quality by what you include. By doubling up on any of these cycles you can increase the amount of ideal fixing, improving any deck that is running 2+ colors. This does not only pertain to control decks trying to play every color on the spectrum but aggro decks as well, as nothing kills a 2-color aggro deck more than not being able to cast your spells due to color requirements. The most popular version of this redundancy is doubling up on fetchlands as they are the most powerful in the right mana base, often acting like virtual versions of multiple different lands if you have the duals to find.
Cards That Benefit From Having Multiples: This is the least consistent of the reasons, since you are still drafting with a certain number of the card and there is still the chance that some number of the cards from that set you’ve added won’t make every draft, and the cards that ask for multiples really punish you for not reaching that goal. Squadron Hawk is a card that is pretty awesome when you have 3+ of them, especially if you can take advantage of the shuffling and card advantage aspects, but when only 1 or 2 show up in a draft it’s an embarrassing card to run. It might be tempting to run a package like x4 Accumulated Knowledge + Intuition for a build-your-own 2 mana draw 3, but you must be ready to accept the consequences of running cards you might not want even in limited formats when you can only get 1 or 2 of them.
Powered vs Unpowered
First things first: what makes a card ‘power’? We’ll go through the usual suspects and evaluate why they are too powerful for an unpowered environment. Most unpowered cubes, if not unpowered for budget reasons, will be designed as such to not have turn 1 or 2 blowouts that are unrecoverable or be put in a position where winning is impossible due to 1 or 2 cards carrying the weight of the game on their back. Perhaps that description is lacking, so instead I’ll break down the usual suspects and why they are considered ‘power’.
Sol Ring: 4 drops on turn 2 are insane, 5 drops on turn 3 are insane, and etc. There is no card that consistently ramps you turn after turn without any real drawback for as much mana at such a little cost other than Sol Ring. Arguably the best card in cube, there are very few decks that can keep up with how much Sol Ring plays ahead of the curve.
Sol Ring is also the card that players include in non-powered cubes the most because of its cost (typically $5 or less, as it’s been printed in a million sets), but that is a massive mistake if you’re going for balance. If Sol Ring is the best card in an unpowered cube, then there is no card that comes remotely close to it. I’ve seen peasant lists that ran Sol Ring, which to me is pure insanity, as it makes all the other cards in those lists look silly.
Black Lotus: In addition to being by far the most iconic and recognizable magic card in existence (‘Hey, do you have one of those Black Lotus cards?’ every magic player has probably been asked at least once) Black Lotus is one of the most powerful too. 3 mana of any color for nothing is absurd, launching yourself ahead of so many boards. Like, how does an opponent beat a t1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor consistently? While Lotus can lead to blow outs (T1 Thrun and then the opponent edicts you for the 2-for-1), you are forcing your opponent to have that answer in that specific spot before the game spirals out of control. This may be accomplished in a percentage of games, but over the course of time the Lotus starts winning will prove the more dominant of possibilities in that scenario.
Moxen: The jewels are essentially artifact lands you can play in addition to your other land drops—this is really strong. Playing ahead of the curve is a strong strategy in any cube, and all the moxen allow you to do this. While sometimes they will feel like worse lands that a Manic Vandal can hit, other times you can hold them until you are ready for your burst of action and then start burying your opponent. They act like mini sol rings, carrying no cost and tapping for a specific color but also tapping for one less. Mox Jet and Sapphire are by far the most valuable, as those colors typically have the strongest cards to splash for. (Tutors, Mind Twist, blue cards.)
Ancestral Recall: Try to find the next closest raw card draw spell in terms of power level. Are you done yet? The point is, Ancestral Recall is ridiculously overpowered, giving you a massive deal on 3 cards, at instant speed no less. There is no other card that gives you such an advantage consistently for one mana, and it’s a spell always worth splashing as there isn’t a deck that doesn’t benefit from spending one mana to draw three cards. It’s absurd.
Time Walk: Extra turns are crazy powerful in cube. Not only can a cube be one of the fastest limited environments, but there are a large number of cards that reward you for each turn they stick in play. However, the cost of getting an extra turn is extremely prohibitive for most extra turn spells—except Time Walk. When you’re paying 5 mana for an extra turn, it can be pretty uneventful at times. For every time a 5 mana Time Walk wins you a game, there are plenty of other times where it’s essentially an extra card/land drop and maybe attack. That’s not bad, but it can be non-impactful, especially if you’re playing a blue deck that doesn’t want to attack. Time Walk however opens you up for additional spells due to its cost, along with being massively abusable for a low cost due to regrowth spells, especially Eternal Witness.
Mana Crypt: Remember all those awesome things I said about Sol Ring? Now imagine what I’d say if Sol Ring was free. Sure, sometimes the flips go wrong, but I’ve seen Mana Crypt deal 12+ damage before to its owner and still be the most disgusting card and win the game. Losing all your life means you lose, but if you win the game with 1 life, there’s no asterisk—you win the game. The only life loss that consistently matters is when it’s lethal. Otherwise, nice free Sol Ring bruh! (BRUH.)
Mana Vault: Generally the weakest of the colorless power spells, Mana Vault gives you one-shot mana but at a heavily discounted price. Think of it like this: Mana Vault is colorless Dark Ritual that doesn’t drain from your mana pool. That’s a card that is distinctly too powerful for unpowered cubes, giving the Mana Vault deck 5 drops on turn 2/6 drops on turn 3/etc., something that few if any other unpowered deck can match up to. Like, how often can an unpowered cube beat t2 Tamiyo? T3 Wurmcoil? It’s not impossible, but it requires your opponent has specific cards, something that is ultimately a losing endeavor over the long-haul in a game of variance.
Mana Drain: For every times Mana Drain plays as just Counterspell—which is a great floor—there are games where it turns into Ugin or Karn or something else that costs quite a bit. Adding Mana Drain to an unpowered cube is a massive mistake, as it swings from good to back-breakingly oppressive. Cards like Ugin or Karn are great, but when played on curve (or slightly less than their cost due to typical ramp) they have options to deal with them. When Ugin or Karn are hitting the board on turns 3-4, and that burst comes from stopping another of their spells, then you are giving them a brutal 1-2 punch of hurting their tempo + pushing your game plan way far ahead.
Channel: Another two mana card that is disgusting, Channel can be innocuous until it’s putting an eldrazi onto the field turn 2. While there are definitely spots where Channel does not break the game as it does rely on you having the second card in your hand, the cards it pumps out when you do are absolutely ridiculous. Go through an average list, see what they have for big colorless spells, and ask yourself if you want your players to have to face that kind of deck. If you’re consciously designing a cube to minimize the groans from feeling helpless, you cannot ignore the massively high ceiling Channel presents. After a short time of watching Channel dominate in every game where it was matched with just one option and watching every deck flounder against it, I removed it from my unpowered list and have not looked back.
Tinker: I’m pretty hesitant to run this in unpowered cubes, though it is possible to construct your cube to not make this the absolute best card you can get in an unpowered draft. If you’re running a full set of signets and other 2 mana rocks, this might be too powerful. However, you could throw this in any of the 2015-2016 iterations of the legacy MODO cube and not only would it not be OP but probably would be considered a trap. There’s a delicate balance pertaining to Tinker’s power level, and it’s not always easy to tell where your own cube teeters towards.
Mind Twist: This is a weird one, in that it’s a ridiculously bonkers card in a powered cube but pretty fair in unpowered. When you are ramping your mana far ahead with artifacts, Mind Twist can eliminate a hand with relative ease by turns 3-4—this is crazy and REALLY hard to come back from. When you’re casting it for X=2 you have a better Stupor, which is a fine card but one you won’t find in a lot of lists now.
While I think Mind Twist is OK in an unpowered cube (as I mentioned earlier), I’m less enthused to run it because of how miserable it can be in matchups where hands don’t deplete so quick. I try to remove as many ‘miserable’ cards as I can from my unpowered cube, cards that on their own and with very little help can make awful feel-bad moments. Even though Mind Twist relies on mana to really excel, mana is something that every cube game needs so it’s not out of the question that you’ll reach the point where it’s back breaking in what is too-high a number of games within an unpowered cube. Speaking of relying on other cards…
Jitte/Skullclamp: I pair these two together because of their reliance on other spells (read: creatures) and a real mana cost to be explosive and brutal. This isn’t to say these cards aren’t powerful—they’re not being mentioned in this section because they suck—but on their own they don’t do much. Play a Jitte on turn 2 and you strike a little fear, but if you can’t get it to stick onto a creature well what the frig is it doing? And unless you’re dropping it onto a 1 drop, you realistically have until you get to 4 mana before you start getting swings in. This is certainly not too late, but there’s a lot of opportunity to both answer the Jitte and the Jitte’d creature.
I actually think Skullclamp is a bit more oppressive in an unpowered cube because of how much easier it is to reap the rewards when built around, but inversely you do need to build around it. Putting Skullclamp on your Isamaru is not bad as making your one drop a 3/1 that draws you two cards when it dies is pretty nice, but you’re not blowing the game out of the water that way. There are an abundance of both X/1s and tokens available for the Skullclamp, and if you’re in a fair match up (which a lot of unpowered cube games are) then Skullclamp can dominate. I would probably cut Skullclamp before I cut Jitte from an unpowered cube and then just make sure I have enough artifact hate, but realistically if I’m cutting one I’m cutting both. (And most people realistically probably don’t agree with that sentiment of Skullclamp being more oppressive than Jitte, and those people can go write their own article about why I’m a big dumb-dumb. (No, seriously, WRITE! ADD TO THE ONLINE CUBE PRESENCE! CONTRIBUTE!))
2-Mana Artifact Ramp: This comes in the form of signets, talismans, really anything that taps for a mana that costs 2 to cast. While I don’t think you need to remove every piece of artifact mana from an unpowered cube, there’s a balance that you need to watch. Both midrange and control decks are rewarded by mana rocks that cost 2, as it means their super strong spells and answers come down a turn earlier. There are times that you can severely punish an opponent for doing ‘nothing’ on their second turn, but if you include so many rocks that they can consistently be doing that awesome ‘nothing’ then the cube turns into a weird amalgamation of something between powered and unpowered pretty quickly.
That being said, the amount of artifact ramp you have will probably always be in flux as long as Wizards doesn’t maintain a consistent standard for cards they print, which they historically haven’t. Recently I had a discussion online where a user was saying that aggro has become so quick and efficient that midrange is suffering, that even in unpowered cubes decks that are playing on curve are losing a lot more to decks that are able to get things going that much easier. To me this makes sense to a degree—when the aggro deck is always on full swing with efficient creatures turn one going forward, it’s hard to beat that game after game—but, like most all things with cube, nothing is permanent and it should be one of those things you keep a close eye on when designing and running an unpowered cube.
So what makes a cube unpowered?
Well, other than taking away the fast mana and undoubtedly broken spells listed above, the lists are often pretty similar and in most match ups a list that shares most all cards but the powered ones will play the same. Powered lists tend to put more stock into artifact removal since hitting moxen and what-not is pretty powerful and more decks are looking to ramp with artifact mana, but there are still problem artifacts. The key for an unpowered cube, or rather which cards are not appropriate in an unpowered cube, really falls into a few categories:
-Does the card come down in a time frame where there minimal possible answers for it?
-Is the card hard to answer once it hits the board in that early spot? (This one is less important, and often reflects the composition of the cube more than the individual card, but should be noted.)
-Does it enable other spells to land in a spot where they are much harder to deal with than if they were put on the board close to their relative cost? (Wurmcoil Engine is disgusting on both turns 3 and 6, but the number of cards available to answer Wurmcoil for the average deck on turn 6 is much higher.)
-Is the reward for the card *much* higher than the cost you are paying?
-Is there any real punishment for playing the card for most decks?
Because of this, there tends to be more of an artifact theme in powered cubes vs unpowered as there are so many more staples in a powered environment. That’s not to say you can’t support an artifact deck in unpowered, but with noticeably fewer pieces of artifact ramp you either must run a higher number of 2 mana rampers (which is dangerous territory if you go over the top) or remove some of the streamlined pieces.
An additional result of the lack of artifact ramp is that aggressive decks get a boon in unpowered cubes. Aggro decks can exist in powered cubes, and with the right amount of support and interest in drafting those decks absolutely thrive, but it’s a lot easier for many different decks to either play ahead of the curve or for them to be playing their own minimally-interactive deck that cares only a small amount about their life total since they’re winning in a small time frame once their combo is going off. Like, how much does a deck that is playing 5-6 drops early in the game care about your 2/1? This is not a 100% concrete this-always-happens situation, but when your control decks have openings that make aggro decks look slow, then aggro stops being the only fast deck and loses that major aspect of its appeal.
Conspiracies, and Why They Do Not Belong In an Unpowered Cube
Like all things that regard opinions I imagine a number of people will disagree with this, but I don’t think Conspiracies have any place in an unpowered cube. At the cost of a draft pick—something that, when you’re playing the games, rarely feels like a real cost at all—you get a free spell, and sometimes you get a free spell every game. That’s absurdly absurd. Even if you eliminate all the massively broken ones, like Backup Plan and Power Play, you not only still have free spells but their power levels are highly magnified.
As this is something I covered in a past article partly, if you want to read more into conspiracies do a google search for “Magic Cards Melt Steel Beams” and read my article there/give me more page views/validate me!
While I’m not as versed in most non-traditional cube styles—I know what I like!—this section can be a jumping off point if you want to cube but you don’t want the classic ‘cube experience’. This is not a negative, this is not being ‘cute’, as magic is a fun game with a large library of options that can make a customized draft set really into whatever you want, and words mean something so when I refer to ‘cube’ there should be an understanding of what we are referring to when that word is commonly used in context of cube. But still, non-‘classic’ cubes are still cubes, they just have different theory and design choices.
Frankly this is one of the major appeals of the idea of cubing: whatever you want to do with your cube, people will want to play it as long as they like to draft and the cube plays well. A build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy applies to cube.
These cubes are ones that exclusively feature either commons (pauper) or both commons and uncommons (peasant). At their core–and in the simplest, probably-not-fairest way to describe them–they don’t play out exactly like what a traditional cube would, but more so like limited++ (pauper) and cube light (peasant). There are a few defining features:
-Matches are grindy. While there certainly aren’t a dearth of strong, impactful cards, most of the shut-down mega bombs of classic cube experiences are rare. For every Cloudgoat Ranger or Pelakka Wurm, you miss out on a Hero of Bladehold or Terrastodon. There are much fewer cards that can win the game on their own early and within only a few turns, giving both sides plenty of opportunities to exchange punches.
This means there are swings, but since a lot of the highest impact cards are missing, the swings are less back breaking. You’re never going to get Upheaval’d or even wrath’d, so there tend to be more big decisions in pauper and peasant matches in general. Every card, every permanent, every piece of removal needs a careful target. Do you kill that first creature? Or do you let it run rampant for a couple turns, land your big roadblock, and save your removal for the thing your roadblack can’t handle? What if your opponent can handle the roadblock? What’s your plan then?
Speaking of removal…
-There tends to be more spot removal, but it is impossible to have the same number of sweepers, or at least quality sweepers. Looking at a standard cube, all the stellar sweepers are rare. This leads to severe changes in gameplay when translated over to pauper and peasant. There is much less of a fear of over-extending into a board where a wrath will wreck you. In fact, gaining as much of a board presence as possible for whichever stage of the game is the most important for your deck (having a board presence in the early game for aggro, mid-game for midrange, later for control, and anything in between) is one of the keys for winning and success.
Because of the lack of sweepers, there needs to be more spot removal whenever possible because creatures still need to be dealt with. Limited has generally always had top-notch removal at common and uncommon. You can’t have a good limited format without having premiere ways to deal with creatures at common and uncommon, and pauper/peasant reap the rewards of this.
Also because of the lack of sweepers, the sweepers that are included are almost always premier picks. Pestilence is a card that most standard cube owners would never seriously consider, but because it’s a way to remove the board at common it’s a top card in pauper. (Along with being reach and selectively keeping your own creatures alive.) Within pauper and peasant you have to keep an open mind when included mass removal.
-Games are more creature-focused than cube. This point is a bit trickier, since it’s nearly impossible in limited magic of any sort to have a fun environment that doesn’t have creatures—players like playing creatures and turning them sideways, most cards deal with creatures to some degree, and making decisions based solely on what’s in your opponent’s hand/deck and your own is a lot less fun than doing that + playing around what’s on the board. Creature combat is one of the defining features of magic, and it is that much more defined in pauper and peasant where creatures dominate the percentage of a cube’s make up.
That being said, rarity inherently means certain cards will be featured more. Cards that are virtually creatures but can’t be killed by Doom Blade, such as planeswalkers, are no longer present, meaning that a threat is probably going to replace that card once the cube is ultimately composed. Instead of Elspeth, Knight Errant applying pressure, it’ll be something like Calciderm. (Which, of course, doesn’t get hit by Doom Blade, but still…) When your games are much more focused on creatures, other cards gain more prominence.
-One of these types would be tricks, or rather cards you play typically in combat to make otherwise good blocks bad and to save your own creatures. Tricks are typically either P/T modifiers, or they give a relevant ability like indestructible, hexproof, something that keeps the creature alive and, often to include a spot, get rid of the other guy in combat.
Regular cube typically doesn’t have place for tricks since the game is typically less about tricks and more about synergy. A deck that can consistently Natural Order every game does not care about Giant Growth when it’s winning in another way; a counterspell is much more important than keeping your specific creature alive since there are more ways to attack that creature after you’ve blown your trick; a control deck doesn’t give any shits about any of that trickin’; and etc.
That’s not to say there are no tricks, but they typically have other applications as well for when fooling an opponent during combat isn’t helpful. A card like Into the Roil can act like a trick when an opponent is double blocking, but it can also stump someone’s reanimation or save your own creature from a removal spell. Go For the Throat is typically a kill spell, but acts like a trick when you force a bad block. When a card is only valuable in combat or in reaction to removal, like Giant Growth, it loses a decent amount of value.
-The ultimate bonus of maintaining a pauper and peasant cube is that the cost to keep them updated can be dirt cheap. There are definitely cards that will always be expensive no matter the rarity, as past printings are not as extensive as they are today and certain cards have a high demand. Kitchen Finks is a $10+ card at the time of writing this, for example, and seeing that it’s not a card that will (probably) ever hit standard again, it’s unlikely it will drop much further.
However, it’s rare that an uncommon has that high of a price tag right off the bat. For the most part, updating your pauper or peasant cube for each set could be a few dollars at max, and if you’re spending time at your local LGS drafting or cracking packs with your friends, then you’ll often pull what you want as residuals.
This also leads to being able to ‘pimp’ your cube out with much more ease. New commons and uncommons are cheap, and their foil prices can be even cheaper. (Treasure Cruise post-release not withstanding.) There are also older promos that are only appealing to people who own pauper/peasant cubes, and it’s much easier to stomach getting that foil Lightning Bolt when you haven’t spent more than $15 on the rest of your yearly cube updates.
I’m not going to go into depth here as I frankly have not played a lot of tribal cubes, but it is what it sounds like: tribal synergies are heavily supported, and you want to commit to one while you draft. Good stuff decks lose to elves, lose to goblins, lose to decks that reward themselves for having cards that build off each other. I would suggest finding a list that’s out there and seeing what they’re doing. Wish I could help out more with this, sorry!
This could mean a variety of things, but generally the goal with set specific cubes is to replicate a typical limited draft experience within a set. The reason someone may want to do this is that it’s really hard (read: expensive) to continue to draft certain sets years after they’re out of print. Packs that are out of print go up in price unless they suck, and this tends to be more true in the sets with powerful limited environments. For example, look up how much three packs of Rise of Eldrazi is—I hope that this statement ends up being dated and not true, but I bet it’s not a reasonable price, especially if you want a whole table of drafters.
Set-specific cubes also allow you to make the set slightly more powerful by eliminating certain cards that do nothing during draft. Even the best sets have their stinkers—it’s an inevitability in retail magic—and eliminating those can really improve the draft experience. The degree in which you do this varies, as maybe there is some appeal to having some sucky rares so not everyone is opening bombs. (And more importantly, not everyone is passing bombs they can’t play.) If you’re a purist you can definitely include the stinkers, but don’t forget: no one like drafting triple AVR, and that was a set full of suck at common and uncommon.
The numbers for amounts of certain cards you include all depends on the composition, but cube construction for set-specific cubes needs to be approached differently if you want it to mimic a limited environment. Essentially you need to come up with a set number of all the rarities, enough so that you aren’t flooded consistently with a specific card for each draft, but not too few so that you don’t see any of the cards enough. Like, if a set contains pacifism at common and you go through an 8-man without seeing any come up, that’s either an extreme case of variance that you can’t replicate consistently or you don’t have enough of each card. (It’s probably the latter.)
Set-specific cubes also allow you to make your own custom formats that stick with a theme. If I were to make a set specific cube, I would do a combine Innistrad blocks cube. I think that the madness components and discarding of the 2015-2016 Innistrad matches up really nicely with the flashback and similar mechanics of the original, along with having a lot of the same tribal synergies. If you went with humans you could have a strong deck there, the same way that delirium is not only possible and wholly conceivable with the original innistrad in mind with a lot of the cards overlapping (Vessel of Nasency would’ve been great in original Innistrad) but would present some interesting decisions with flashback cards too.
Lower Powered Cubes
I don’t like this name for this style of cube, but when you are intentionally not including higher-powered cards in favor of lower-powered ones that support specific archetypes, it works. Some people get rubbed the wrong way when their cube is described like this, and I get that—the cards are still powerful, the synergies are still efficient and game winning, it’s just clearly a different environment.
Lower powered cubes are like a mix between peasant and regular cubing. There are rares and strong cards for that type of support, but often the archetypal/specific cards you may be choosing would never be considered for a standard cube or are peasant/pauper all-stars. If you’re supporting +1+1 counters, for example, there are a number of cards that shine when that archetype is available, but they aren’t cards you would include in a traditional cube as they can be a bit slow or too reliant on things staying alive. (Things don’t stay alive in regular cubes. They die.)
I don’t have too much experience with these types of cubes, but my brother recently put one together and we’ve play tested it and it turned me around a bit to the idea. Not that I was completely against it—magic is magic and by that I mean magic is fun—but it was interesting and cool to see the different archetypes you could support, which cards overlapped from one cube to another, and what frankly didn’t work.
Storm Crow Cube
If you’re looking for a high-powered format, look no further. Even though Storm Crow is a card I wouldn’t run in any regular cube as it’s power level is much too high, it makes for a unique environment when you have a cube that is solely composed of storm crows. It leads to some interesting game play decisions: Do I play crow? Do I attack with it? Do I block? Do I scoop? Do I storm? Do I crow? If you want to not only test the skill of your play group but you’re also looking to power game as hard as you can, look no further than the most skill-intesive and explosive cube format you could draft. Ca-caw, sucks.
The Importance of ABU Duals, and the Power of Proxying
This might be a controversial opinion, but regardless: there is nothing more important to a cube environment than running solid fixing, and the best cubes have ABU duals, shocks, and fetches. I get that certain cube environments don’t allow these duals due to their rarity, but if that’s not a concern then there’s no reason other than budget (an actual, legitimate concern) that you shouldn’t be running the duals. Cube is a format full of powerful cards and often cards powerful enough to splash, in addition to having some heavy cost requirments. When you’re losing because you can’t cast your spells and the mana available never gave you a fair shot to do that in the first place, it’s a suck-bag feeling.
Other fixing works and it can be efficient, and even with the full set of the big 3 you’re going to have to run other lands as 30 fixers is not enough for most cube sizes. By having good fixing, cards are able to shine and the decks that stumble the most on casting their spells are the ones that are devoid of fixing. Even two color decks benefit massively from having duals you can fetch. Your archetypes are able to shine stronger and be more efficient, and instead of seeing a deck stumble because of lands it’s only stumbling due to its own merit, which can be helpful when evaluating archetypes.
Now in terms of cost, I understand if it’s not reasonable to invest in these cards—even for the cheapest versions it would cost near if not over a thousand dollars to invest in the set. Some people can afford this, but not everyone can realistically justify spending that on cardboard. Their status on the reserved list and their general holier-than-thou standing in the lore/history of magic heavily influence their price. They’re cool cards, with their text boxes super unique with the back-and-forth color pattern, but old cool cards are not typical cheap. There’s no way I personally could invest in them at this point in my life, and even if I had that spare money lying around there are about 10 million other things that I could probably use that money for before spending it on cardboard.
Because of this, I am a HUGE proponent of proxying. As long as you’re not using the cards in constructed tournaments for money, where your lack of investment is kind of a slap in the face to the people who made that sacrifice or had the foresight to get those cards, I don’t see any problem with proxying expensive cards for your cube as long as that cube is kept to kitchen tables. This is not for everyone, for a variety of reasons.
While I won’t give you any advice on how to print or make proxies as that has gotten me some shit in the past on some forums I post on, I will go over the pros/cons:
-Access to the best cards for minimal cost other than labor, which can be a major concern for older cards and especially those who want to run a powered cube.
-Stolen/damaged cards are easily replaced, or at least can be replaced in the way you made the card before. Cubes are sometimes boxes with dollar signs on them, a proxied cube is not.
-You can customize the art and the frame.
-Set updates are not only easy on your wallet, but can be done ahead of time if you want to get testing in before the real thing hits the shelves.
-You don’t have a ‘real’ card. This is noticeable, and there’s this certain subconscious release of endorphins when you have the real thing. (This point does not apply to everyone, maybe just for weirdos like me. BUT BE PROUD OF BEING WEIRD!)
-The feel of the card, depending on how you produce the proxy, can be off, especially when compared to real cards you run in your cube. When put next to actual cards, the difference can be jarring and hard/impossible to ignore, leading to some gameplay decisions that are made entirely different solely because of what you’re feeling.
-There is no value to the cards you play with i.e. the ‘collector’ aspect of the collectible card game is removed.
-There might be some hurdles if you wanted to run an ‘official’ tournament of any sort. I don’t know how many people are doing this at the time of publication, but it could be a real concern.
-Depending on how all-out you want to go in producing your proxies, there is a real time commitment.
Whether or not you proxy is up to you, and I truly understand the appeal to having a fully organic cube of all cards that came out of WoTC’s presses, but if all you’re doing is playing with your friends and none of you really care about how the cards feel or what they look like, I can’t stress enough how great proxying could be for building the cube you want with a budget anyone can afford.
Combo in Cube
This is a tricky subject as there are a lot of different combos out there you can run, but only a certain number that are truly applicable in cube. The reason being that most combo decks rely on redundancy and tutors/card selection to really work. If you have a deck meant to take advantage of a combo but you can’t find your combo, then you don’t have a combo deck, you have a pile of crap. However, this is cube, and if you choose to support those combos and choose to include the cards that enable them, then your players can certainly draft & run these combos to success.
Storm Combo: I wrote a pretty long article in 2013 about this—I would suggest checking there. Google search “Turnonemagic storm combo cube” and it should be a top result. Plus give my website those sweet sweet luxurious views! Perhaps some of the points are outdated or things I don’t agree with, but it’s a good starting point for exploring that archetype.
Splinter Twin/Kiki Jiki: This is my favorite combo in cube to run for a few reasons. One, a number of the pieces are pretty good cube cards on their own, so you’re only running a few ‘stinkers’ i.e. cards that you probably wouldn’t run if you weren’t explicitly supporting the combo. Some of these are even reasonable and would be fine 23rd cards, but that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for a precious spot in a cube. Two, it’s an instant win combo that’s clear and obvious how it’s won when it happens. Some combos take a while to build-up (see: storm combo) whereas you either have the answer to Twin or you don’t. Three, it’s not massively oppressive i.e. there are instant speed answers available if you choose to run them. Some cubes are less apt in having answers available, but that has to be a conscious design choice. If you feature the combo, you should really run more instant-speed answers in black and perhaps more bounce like Into the Roil, or else non-twin players are going to have a bad time.
The combo is pretty basic when you break it down: get a creature that untaps another creature when it enters the battlefield, have Kiki Jiki in play or put Splinter Twin on it, and then go infinite with your creatures. Both Twin and Kiki make hasty creatures when they’re going off, so if you’re able to put the combo together without disruption you can kill your opponent on most board states.
The first two key card ‘types’ you want are the enabler and the enabled. The enablers are pretty binary in Splinter Twin and Kiki Jiki, hence the name of the combo. The enabled can get a bit tricky, and we’ll go through some options.
Pestermite/Deceiver Exarch: By far the most important creatures for this combo, they are also the biggest point of contention due to their general lack of quality outside of this archetype. Pestermite and Deceiver are invaluable as they offer a monocolored T3 EOT creature -> T4 Splinter Twin, giving you the fastest possible version of this combo assuming your mana lines up with your turns. They also can be found by Imperial Recruiter, which is huge as a number of Twin decks are UR due to all the main pieces being those colors.
There is a decent amount of support built in by the card draw and selection that UR offer in addition, letting your deck either be a tempo beat down deck that happens to feature the combo, or a streamlined deck that only wants to put the combo together. There is merit to running Grixis Twin combo decks too, as both the tutors and reanimation spells lend a hand. Imagine the combo in a Living Death deck, you could Buried Alive the creatures into the GY and then auto win once you cast Living Death—that’s awesome!
Pestermite and Deceiver Exarch can also have minimal value if they’re not in a twin or tempo deck, as they provide a body, a short term effect, and then not much. The issue is that, without the combo, I don’t think I would run either of these cards. Sure, there is a tempo package you could support, but even there Pestermite is a flashed Wind Drake that kinda helps, and Exarch is a 1 / 4 and not exactly something that’s putting the needed pressure on for T3 going forward. The cubes that use the combo the best also support blue tempo builds as it lessens the dud of having a dead slot in your cube for a number of your blue decks, but even then there will be a number of drafts where there just isn’t a UR or tempo player and you have sucky cards taking up space. That sucks, and is a conscious sacrifice you have to make when supporting what is a powerful combo otherwise.
The other half of polarization in supporting the combo is that Splinter Twin is not a cube card on its own, and Kiki Jiki is fine but is a bit mana intensive in a tough section. Without any combo possible there’s no chance I run Splinter Twin. It’s a powerful card and can be insane on certain cards (see: ETB triggered creatures) but it’s also a 2 for 1 when they kill your creature in response, and Spellskite makes you look like a fool. Kiki Jiki is a bit better as it’s always able to resolve on boards regardless of the other creatures available, but without other creatures you’ve paid 2RRR for a 2/2 haste. Clearly that is a giant bag of suck, and I think it speaks for itself why that is a sucky option due to the abundance of removal in cube and how easy it can be to keep creatures off the board that Kiki Jiki can abuse.
Time Vault + Voltaic Key/Untappers: A combo so powerful it was banned from the MODO Vintage Cube! Well, it’s not really unstoppable, but it is a shut-down combo once it’s put together. It’s a pretty simple combo: get Time Vault, get a card like Voltaic Key that untaps it without having to sacrifice a turn, and then you get to goldfish to a win. The combo is fairly uninteractive as there are minimal instant-speed answers to artifacts, and once it gets going your opponent’s only hope is that you mill yourself.
The combo relies on untappers to work, and there are a few available. Voltaic Key is the classic, and it’s one of the main reasons this combo isn’t commonly supported. Key is great in the combo, but it is a literal pile of kaka outside of the combo. Even Time Vault has some loose application if the combo doesn’t come together (you can skip a turn to get two in a row, which I imagine is good sometimes), but Voltaic Key is mostly garbage. There are corner cases where maybe it can produce mana as it untaps something like Grim Monolith which nets you an additional mana, but these scenarios are rare.
Other untappers include Tezzeret the Seeker and Ral Zarek, both good cards but ones that aren’t staples by any means. Tezzeret is much more important than Ral for supporting the combo as it’s not only multicolored, but it fetches the combo pieces and even acts as a combo piece itself, untapping the Vault. Ral Zarek is unfortunately in a guild so its place is less in stone, though as of this publication it’s one of the finer options and doesn’t look out of place without the combo in tow.
I don’t like running this combo for a couple reasons. The first is the lack of instant speed answers. Unlike Twin combo, in which any creature removal is sufficient as an answer, there are only so many cards that destroy artifacts at instant speed. An opponent that knows their stuff won’t throw out the important part (Time Vault) unless they have the combo ready, so you consistently need Disenchant or Abrupt Decay to answer the combo. This is difficult, since that is a small number of answers available.
The second major reason is that you don’t actually just win with Time Vault. It does no damage, it does not end the game, you are still relying on your deck, so if an opponent chooses to he can make you play-out as much of your deck that is necessary before the win is ready. This leads to a lot of bad feelings where players either feel obligated to sit back and make their opponent win, or inversely the vault player can get rubbed wrong when all their opponents make them goldfish even with the win con known and in the deck. While the combo does come with that unspoken tag on it, it’s a sucky tag to read and I’d personally rather not even having the option available to make people walk away from the draft angry versus supporting the combo and waiting for the bad time to happen.
Some groups don’t care about this, and it makes sense as there are a lot of frustrating archetypes that are a part of magic. The thing about those decks is that their frustrating mechanics still involve both players, it doesn’t involve a player literally being forced to watch another player play magic due to their combo. If you decide to run the combo, good on you, as I think it’s definitely strong enough for cube and it’s your cube i.e. your decision to make and live with. But if you do, you need to be ready to 1) accept the fact that you’re going to ‘waste’ cube spots on the combo, spots that only fit into that deck and 2) accept the fact that you might annoy the shit out of your playgroup. Vault with caution.
Fastbond Sha-Nay-Nays: Fastbond is an interesting card. Playing multiple lands in a turn is obviously good, but there are a number of hands that do not support this. So what’s the appeal? There are a number of cards which can efficiently abuse Fastbond’s power, and while I don’t know how valid these are overall, they are reasons to run the card.
The one that sticks out is Gush, as it is the classic combo i.e. when you see Fastbond in constructed, it is always with Gush in tow. Gush ends up being a free draw-2 that nets you mana when used correctly, which seems like a great cube card. But would anyone want Gush without Fastbond? There are times where it still kind of nets you one mana at the cost of 1 land returned, but there are too many times where you can’t afford to play it for free and you can’t afford to play it for 5 mana. Is that a good cube card, something that relies on another card for quality and even then that quality ends up being as an engine piece vs something that wins the game? Like, if I do all the work to assemble Fastbond + Gush, and it doesn’t even win me the game, is that something I want to support in my cube? It might appeal to some, I’m not going to define what risks are worth it for players, but if Fastbond + Gush doesn’t consistently form then Gush will seem like a dud in most decks.
To paint Fastbond as only good with Gush is unfair though, and there are other options, like Crucible of Worlds. Probably the main reason to run Fastbond, Crucible allows you to play lands from your graveyard, letting you set up a number of infinite combos if you have the life and land available. Strip Mine/Wasteland are the most oppressive of these, letting you knock out entire mana bases and leave your opponents with nothing. Fetchlands also work well with Fastbond/Crucible, letting you thin out almost all of your lands at times if you have the right fetches. Some of these interactions are fine without Fastbond, which I wouldn’t say is icing but it’s definitely making something already strong and efficient better.
There are also other random interactions that give Fastbond a lot of credence. If your deck draws a lot of cards, Fastbond can take advantage of that. If you’re running Upheaval, Fastbond is an amazing card to play off that. Fastbond gives a creature like Titania, Priest of Argoth another reason to run her, and in the same note is yet another interaction with Life From the Loam. (Which is one of my favorite card names, btw.)
Basalt Monolith/Wake Thrasher: While a weird combination of cards as decks that run one typically don’t want the other, they work really well together in making an infinitely big Wake Thrasher. Basalt Monolith decks are looking to ramp and Wake Thrasher decks are looking to attack, but combined together you can tap and use that three mana to untap Basalt Monolith infinitely. You’ll need an open board as Wake Thrasher is still pretty much a vanilla creature that just gets bigger, but once you are able to connect that’s it.
This is one of those combos that feels easy to support and kind of sucks simultaneously as both Wake Thrasher and Basalt Monolith are fine cube cards, but at the lower sized cubes it’s harder to justify their inclusion. Basalt Monolith ramps you a decent amount, but getting a one-shot out of your CMC 3 artifact mana can sometimes not be enough if you need multiple turns worth of your investment. Wake Thrasher is great if you often have blue decks that want to attack, but that’s not what every blue deck wants to do, even in cubes with a designated blue tempo package, plus it dies to almost everything when it’s not your turn. And the combo can be chump blocked for days by tokens, making the strength of it tenuous if you can’t completely clear the way.
Muzzio’s Preparations + Persist Creatures + optional sac outlet: While I breezed over the conspiracies earlier (visit my site, GIVE ME THEM VIEWS BABYYYY) this is an important one to note. With any persist creaure—Kitchen Finks, Murderous Redcap, Glen Elendra, Woodfall Primus—you can infinitely loop them if you have a sac outlet, letting you both reap the rewards of their trigger and the sac outlet’s. Given that a lot of these creatures have great ETB abilities, you can put yourself out of lethal range, kill your opponent, or remove everything but their creatures. Depending on the sac outlet (see: Goblin Bombardment) you could even just use that to sacrifice them infinitely, though it’s still hard to lose to anything but white removal if you’re just grinding with those creatures.
The most powerful part of this combo is the fact that you don’t have to reveal Muzzio’s Preparations until you want to. So you can play out your Kitchen Finks and, if they decide to block it or remove it, you flip the Muzzio’s Preparations before they return from the graveyard, and then your opponent is probably down a card while your combo is back on. Hidden Conspiracies are awesome for this reason (hastey Mother of Runes out of nowhere, anyone?) and they can lead to blowouts the same way you might not expect Mana Tithe from a Boros deck.
Palinchron Infinite Combos: While Palinchron certainly isn’t in a majority of cubes, those that do run him are sure to run some number of combos pieces. These can include Recurring Nightmare, Phantasmal Image, Heartbeat of Spring, or anything that can take advantage of Palinchron’s untap land ability + return to hand activations. Once you have your infinite mana, it’s time to funnel that into a big creature, massive Upheaval, or a red X spell. Palinchron is not a horrendous card on its own, but for 7 mana you kind of want a bit more due to the speed of cube and how much dicking around you need to do before you get a huge advantage out of Palinchron. Palinchron can function in Storm decks for this reason too, as infinite casting means infinite storm.
Want more info on cube? Was this basic guide not enough? Do you think I’m a big dumb-dumb and want to read what other people have to say about cube? Below are a few resources that I think could help you expand your thoughts. As I said at the very beginning of this, you should take everything everyone says with a grain of salt, but at the same time understand that people are sharing experiences because it’s what they, y’know, experienced! Knowledge is power (so is Ancestral Recall) and the more you expand yours by doing research into what works and doesn’t, the better your cube is.
MTG Salvation Cube Forums
This is where I personally post a decent amount, and it’s a community I love. There have been some negative comments towards us over the years, but I think the naysayers are blowing things out of proportion. I’ve been posting there for years, and while different users come and go, it’s ultimately always about cube and the only thing that really matters is the opinions on cards. It’s a great resource due to literal YEARS of posting about cube, and there is a thread for almost any card you could think is cubeable. On top of that, the forums are always buzzing during spoiler season, and it’s a good place to go and get ideas for new cube cards to run and look at.
I also want to give a special shout out to the peasant and pauper section of the forums. I’ve dabbled with the formats for years, even owning a pauper cube once, but I’ve learned so much more about pauper and peasant from the discussions there than I would’ve otherwise on my own. If you are looking to get into either pauper or peasant for whatever reason, I highly suggest signing up for the forums and jumping right in. The users are friendly, helpful, and as long as you’re not a jerk will welcome anyone in.
MTGSalvation is great too because of all the other communities involved. You could be involved in communities that cover every format and have an active forum attached to those—that’s amazing! I hope I’m not coming across as a fanboy here, but it’s really cool that there’s a one-stop shop for forums online that truly offers every angle of magic you could possibly approach the game from.
Another forum strictly relegated to cube, this is another great resource for discussing cube ideas and seeing what’s out there. While I don’t spend nearly as much time there as I do on MTGSalvation, I’ve always been welcomed with open arms by their community and appreciate some of the ideas that are there. It’s given me ideas for alternative cubes I’ve always wanted to produce, and they deserve a lot of credit for exploring untouched areas of cube ideology.
While their forums aren’t as extensive as MTG Salvations, their community is smaller and that’s not a bad thing—it seems like the users really have a rapport with each other, and that always lends to a great community. If your sole focus is not just cube, but ideas about cube that don’t reflect some of the standard cube experiences, I suggest checking them out. Even though I enjoy the confines of my own cube, thinking outside the box is always welcome and Riptide is often exploring the corners most cubers miss.
Reddit’s Cube Page
No matter what your (valid) opinion of reddit is, this subforum is a pretty great avenue for discussing cube. There are new topics posted every day and a lot of different discussions. The voting system has its inherit flaws and such, but it still works, highlighting the most popular subjects on there. Plus, the mods are pretty rad so there’s that.
In addition, their side bar of resources is extensive, and better than anything I could put together on this guide without outright ripping off that list. If you want additional sites and blogs to visit about cube, I highly suggest checking out the sidebar on the right of that page, as there are a ton of different options.
Final Notes About This Guide
While I tried to be extensive, it’s impossible to cover everything, even if you spend forever trying to do it. That’s the main reason I labeled this a ‘basic’ guide—there is inevitably going to be someone who is going to say ‘why didn’t you cover that?!’ and I will forever be able to say ‘because this is a basic guide’. (Gotcha, suckas.) There is just too much to cube to be completely comprehensive, and while I did try to cover enough, someone is going to be upset.
Instead of responding negatively, please suggest changes and updates for future editions! My main goal for this is to be something evolving, a piece of work I can edit and change and add appendixes to when new ideas come up or the meta of cube changes due to new cards being printed. Cube has changed a lot over the years, and as long as they keep on printing good cards it will continue to.
My main goal was to produce something that stands the test of time for as long as something like this, a guide addressing an ever-changing medium, can pass that test. Eventually this will be outdated, the same way guides from the early days of magic look like they’re talking about a completely different game. If you have any suggestions to improve this guide, let me know wherever you found this posted, and ultimately—HAPPY CUBING!