Cheating-In Cube: A Starting Point to Playing (Way) Ahead of the Curve

First off: this is not an article advocating actual cheating. If you think cheating is OK on any level in magic, you’re a big bag of crap and this article isn’t for you.

Rather, sometimes it feels like you’re cheating in a game of magic when you look at a board. 3 lands and an Emrakul or 2 lands and a Woodfall Primus is not a typical board state for that number of lands, but there are certain cards and archetypes that allow you to set these board states up. A lot of these strategies excel in cube, as cube enjoys fostering an environment where games are over quickly and big things are smashing faces on a clear board.

There are a lot of these strategies you can employ, so I hope this article serves as a starting point if you want to support these degenerate strategies in your own cube. I am probably going to miss something, so if I do please let me know! Until then, and without further ado–

Show And Tell/Eureka: While very similar in function, Show and Tell and Eureka are different enough to want two different styles of decks. They both are dropping creatures in way ahead of the curve, typically onto boards where they had no hope of casting the creatures or permanents dropped in. And while they are often dropping the same types of creatures and permanents onto the board, the nature of how they put these creatures and permanents in—or rather, how many—means that they typically fall into different decks, but they are also very happy sharing space.

Show and Tell decks usually have on average only a couple of quality targets they want to drop in. They’re not looking to fill their hand up with as many awesome things as they can, but rather are searching for that one-or-two awesome creature or otherwise game-ending permanent to beat their opponents in a duel. Show and Tell decks do rely on card advantage and filtering to find what they need, but instead of having as many awesome things in hand when Show and Tell is casted, they want the one and a variety of ways to back him up. There is no worse feeling than to have your Emrakul or Blightsteel Collosus answered by an O-Ring or Journey to Nowhere, so you want counters or other relevant disruption to make sure your guy lasts long enough to attack through. You also want ways to deal with whatever they are putting in, as in games 1s it’s not uncommon to face another deck that is trying to put big, stupid things into play. Having your own Path to Exile for their Woodfall Primus or maybe an Into the Roil for their own Eldrazi is important.

Eureka looks to out-permanent your opponent, and tends to be a much riskier proposition than Show and Tell, but a properly built Eureka deck can end the games faster than Show and Tell at times. Eureka is in a weird position where it’s green, which generally has little to no card draw, but wants to have as much card draw as possible since you want your board presence to outclass your opponents and it’s not rare to have a small hand by the time you get to 4 mana. Dropping in two Eldrazi or whatever is nice, but it means nothing if your opponent is able to drop 4 or 5 things into play and one answers an Eldrazi and the other mitigates any attack they could want to make. Too many times have I seen a Eureka cast by a player with less cards than their opponent and have the opponent end up with a better board AND get to untap first with the board presence. UG is the best combination for Eureka as you get access to Show and Tell along with all the blue card draw, but Golgari or Gruul are fine since both red and black have access to card draw if not filtering. It is also nice that all these color combinations feature stellar planeswalkers, which is something Eureka can bring in and not Show and Tell.

When playing with these cards, you need to be ready to side them out. There are decks that can play against Eureka or Show and Tell and not sweat it. Because of this, it is dangerous to rely solely on either spell. Show and Tell is more often the card sided out since not every Show and Tell deck will be able to cast their too-expensive cards, so pairing Show and Tell with something like Tinker when possible will help guarantee that you are playing big creatures early more consistently without getting busted by your opponent’s fat. Eureka decks have less of a problem with this, since green employs the ramp to not only cast the Eureka early but to cast any of the big cards if you don’t draw your Eureka or you draw more fat after the fact.

Sneak Attack: While similar to Show and Tell and Eureka in that you’re placing something from your hand onto the battlefield, Sneak Attack is a bit different and ends up in different styles of decks. This is not to say that Sneak Attack is no good with Eureka or Show and Tell, as it is a fine alternative to their methods of sneaking them in, but because the creature dies at the end of turn you cannot rely on threats that won’t leave a presence behind or if they are just big-and-dumb. A card like Sphinx of the Steel Wind might be great to drop in off of Show and Tell or Eureka, but in many spots Sphinx certainly lacks if you’re just getting the 6 points of damage and lifegain and then he’s gone. Your Sneak Attack decks want something with an ETB ability, or they want a creature that will seriously screw things up when they attack.

Having the creature die at the end of turn has its pros and cons. Unless I’m packing one-shot kills in Blightsteel Collosus or the bomb re-shuffles into your library like with Emrakul or friends, it can be really painful if you’re not killing your opponent off the attack and you have no way to recycle the creature. You can mitigate this by having tons of card advantages and multiple creatures which you can chain together, but having too much top-end fat can result in too many hands where you’re bomb heavy but lack either the Sneak Attack or the card draw to find the Sneak Attack.

Another way to abuse the sac clause of Sneak Attack is to play out of the graveyard. Rakdos or RBx builds that want to reanimate the monsters once they die are amazing as you can get your initial damage in, gain heavy advantage through ETB effects, and then bring the guy back the next turn with an Animate Dead or a similar effect. Gruul Sneak Attack decks can play out of the graveyard too by using cards such as Eternal Witness, Den Protector, or Regrowth to re-buy their creatures, with Witness having the added bonus of working off of Sneak Attack. You can continually attack with hasted fatties and make up for the lack of card draw in the color pair by using your value creatures to gain advantage.

On the subject of Gruul Sneak Attack decks, cards like Survival of the Fittest or Fauna Shaman play really well with Eldrazi. You can potentially re-cycle not only the Eldrazi but your other creatures by continually searching and pitching the Eldrazi, shuffling your graveyard back into your library. This trick works better with Survival of the Fittest, which can be activated multiple times in a turn. With either Survival or Fauna Shaman you can immediately find a creature in the GY with the ability as the Eldrazi shuffle clause happens first since the cost of Survival includes discarding the creature.

Channel: You either love or hate Channel. Rarely is someone just OK with playing Channel, and that makes sense since the card is totally an all-in spell. Paying life for colorless mana is absurd in the early turns, as there are so many colorless creatures that are incredible in the early turns, and since you’re casting the spell you get the added Eldrazi cast-clauses. Channel is one of the few cards that can cheat an Eldrazi and still give you that cast-clause, which is incredible since all their cast-abilities are nice. Even casting a turn 2 Wurmcoil Engine or Sundering Titan is stellar, as they can dominate the board or dismantle whatever your opponent is trying to do.

Unlike the other examples listed above, Channel is generally an awful mid-to-late-game draw, which is probably the main factor keeping it out of many lists. The further you go into a game, the more likely you’re taking damage, and the less likely spending life is a viable option. If you’re at 11-15 life and you have Channel and Kozilek, there are too many boards where you are dead or the threat of death is too real. Channel can also be horrendous against red aggressive decks in general since there is so much direct damage in those lists. Too often is spending 10+ life bad news for you. Slower aggro decks, like anything heavy black/white or a combination of the two, might have a harder time dealing direct damage to you, but if your Channel target dies to black or white removal you might be in for some bad times.

Tinker: The viability of Tinker largely depends on the composition of your cube. Tinker excels in powered cubes since they usually have way more artifact mana acceleration, and more importantly cheaper variants like the signets and power in general. The cube dream of turn 1 or 2 Tinkers are real and often is one of the most busted things you can be doing in a powered cube. Unpowered cubes are not incapable of these broken plays, but it’s a lot harder to completely shut a game down since your artifact mana is more expensive/clunky and not nearly as abundant. Some unpowered cubes are OK with running signets, but many don’t as they consider signets to be too powerful in that type of environment and stymie the aggro decks which don’t really care to run signets in their own decks.

There are not too many things I can complain about with Tinker as I love the card, but it is important to not rely on one target. You do have to draw a card every turn, and it truly sucks when you have your Tinker ready to go in a turn or two and then draw your target. One game I’ll never forget is with one of those single-target tinker decks, with the target being Sundering Titan. I was on the draw with a hand of island, mox, mox, tinker and 3 other cards—amazing, right? It’s the type of hand which epitomizes the broken aspects of a powered cube. I was on the draw and my opponent led with a basic, meaning my sundering titan was going to wreck house…until my first draw was the Sundering Titan. Not only was I nowhere near casting it, but what was a lock became a pretty close contest. If I had one other viable target in the deck, I wouldn’t be telling this story, but instead it was an eye-rolling moment and most importantly a good lesson to learn about drafting the Tinker deck.

Reanimator: Bringing fatties from your graveyard into play is an easy archetype to support and remains powerful in both powered and unpowered cubes alike. There are a variety of ways for creatures to end up in your graveyard across multiple colors, and outside a couple specific cards that don’t make all lists, the reanimator ability is exclusively found in black.

There are a ton of reanimator spells from the history of magic, but only so many are cube worthy. The main ones are Animate Dead, Reanimate, and Necromancy, with Animate Dead being the best and the other two good for different reasons. Animate Dead is cheap at two mana and has minimal draw back, with disenchants being the major issue. At times the -1-0 power drop can hurt too, but usually you are bringing something back so large that it won’t really matter. It’s better than Necromancy because 3 mana really is so much more than 2, but Necromancy is nice if you are bringing something back at the EOT that leaves an army like Hornet Queen, or something that’ll stick around after dying like Woodfall Primus or Vorapede to a lesser extent. Reanimate is nice when you can spend the life, but unlike the other spells I mentioned and very much like Channel, Reanimate is generally a horrible late-game draw. It gets around the disenchants, which can be incredible and game changing and when that is relevant is a major selling point.

A card Reanimate pairs nicely with is Entomb. Entomb has some non-reanimator niche applications, but if you’re running Entomb that’s predominantly because it is the best at getting fat into your GY. At a single black mana and instant speed, you can set up either you Reanimate or Animate Dead for turn 2, which is incredibly early and even more so in an unpowered environment. Entomb is great outside of finding creatures since it can get any card, so if you’re playing with something like Life from the Loam or Crucible of Worlds you can get whatever piece you need. Randomly you can stifle stuff your opponent is doing as well, taking away a Bribery target or something silly like that.

Recurring Nightmare is often referred to as a reanimator card, but it’s less good for bringing back that one, big creature and better at abusing multiple value creatures. I am not saying you cannot bring back your Griselbrand with Recurring Nightmare; if you can make that happen, then more power to you! But needing a creature already in play requires a bit more set up than the other reanimator spells. Recurring Nightmare excels when you’re able to loop creatures that do something when they enter or leave play. If you have experience in cube you know what I’m talking about, but if you don’t cube often, imagine repeatedly bringing these creatures in and out of play: Thragtusk, Inferno Titan, Cloudgoat Ranger, Man-o’-War, Skinrender…these are all exemplary targets to recur again and again, and only a fraction of the possible nice creatures you could select in any color. If you want to read more about Recurring Nightmare, you can probably do a site search of Turn One Magic and find something—I love the card and have talked about it a lot.

There are other options for reanimator like Living Death. The card Living Death is a cool sweeper that swaps the board with each player’s graveyard, but I have mixed feelings about the card. When Living Death works, it is incredible. Answering your opponent’s creatures while giving yourself a board to win with is hard for anyone to deal with. It is nice when that situation comes together, but Living Death is also the bringer of bad news when your opponent’s GY has more troublesome creatures than you. Even if you build your deck around Living Death, there are too many situations where you can’t wait to get to 5 mana to deal with your opponent’s creatures that some will end up in the graveyard before you cast Living Death. It’s a card that comes out of a lot of main decks after game 1, but in certain match ups and situations Living Death is the best card you could cast.

Unburial Rites is an interesting card as it ties in white to the actual reanimating aspect of reanimator, but I have mixed feelings about Unburial Rites as well. Unburial Rites is cool because you can discard it and still have it be a spell. It is especially nice with Gifts Ungiven, as you can find two cards and then fail to search for the second two, making sure your Gifts Ungiven and fatty of choice are guaranteed on their way to the GY—at instant speed, no less. Casting Unburial Rites can be asking a lot at 5 mana, and it does suck that you can only target your own GY, as it’s great to take your opponent’s creatures with your other reanimation spells. Personally I like Unburial Rites because it is so sweet when you can grab it with that Gifts Ungiven, but I can see how lists of all sizes might decline.

You can continue the reanimation theme in white with Karmic Guide and Reveillark. Karmic Guide is your classic reanimate-one-creature type of spell, but as a creature you can abuse the ability in a variety of ways. She holds an echo cost, but when you want to recur her from the graveyard it is nice to have an option to get her in there a turn later. Karmic Guide works pretty well with Reveillark, a unique card that in the right deck is sick. There are a lot of high-impact two power or less creatures that give you a ton of value in all the colors, and since Reveillark only needs to leave play you can use bounce and blink effects to reel in multiple creatures. Worst come to worst, Reveillark is a 4-power evasive creature, potentially ending the game in 5 swings if it is your only threat.

Academy Rector: Some people have tried Rector to mixed results. There are some sweet enchantments you can get with Rector—Debtor’s Knell, Form of the Dragon—but you have to jump through a lot of hoops to get those into play off of Rector. First, Rector costs 4, which is quite a bit for a card that still needs some work to be good. Then you need Rector to die somehow, which can be harder than you think. There are minimal cube-worthy sacrifice outlets available for cubes of all sizes, and no one is going to block a ½ except in dire circumstances if you think that’s how Rector will die. Whenever I’ve seen Rector early in a cube on Cockatrice or XMage I always try to force it to see how viable it is, and rarely am I satisfied with the results. It’s just too much work to get out an enchantment that you could draw by accident anyways.

Natural Order: Like Tinker and Rector, Natural Order asks for a green creature sacrifice in order to bring out a giant fatty from your deck. Unlike those two, the Natural Order deck is less reliant on Natural Order to play your giant creature since green decks can cast most of their fatties not too late into the game. The restrictions are very real in needing green creatures on both sides of the spell, so you can’t really splash for Natural Order like you can for Tinker or Academy Rector. However, Natural Order gives the green decks an asymmetrical way to cheat their fatties into play from their deck, giving what would be a regular ramp deck an exciting, explosive angle.

By far the best part of Natural Order—other than the naturally ordered part—is that you don’t need Natural Order for the deck to work, and drawing your fatty is not the end of the world. Drawing your Blightsteel off the top of your deck or pulling Form of the Dragon into your hand can really suck, but with the green decks you could be casting that big creature a turn or two later. It helps that the green fatties that are usually run don’t exceed 8 mana, with Woodfall Primus and Terrastodon being castable and cheatable.

Sometimes Green Sun’s Zenith is mistakenly coupled with Natural Order in style, but they are pretty different cards. Green Sun’s Zenith is best when you hitting cheap elves or midrange beater or value creatures, as the cost for admission is worth the tutorable ability. Green Sun’s Zenith rarely breaks games open on the level that Natural Order does, but by being able to find the specific card you need for a situation it acts like a swiss-army knife in the right deck. Need to get rid of an artifact or enchantment? Get that Reclamation Sage. Is your opponent playing out of the graveyard? Then Scavenging Ooze is a good one to get. Like Natural Order, only getting green creatures can limit deck design, but it gives green decks more layers of depth than ramp-to-girth.

This is just a simple starting point for how to cheat your big guys into play. Is there a card you think I should’ve mentioned? Let us know in the comments, and thanks for reading!