One question I get asked more than any other when I am testing for my cube is, “Why don’t you play [random card]?” My answer, more often than not, is another question.
“What does that card actually do?”
You see, the vast majority of flashy cards that make an impact on Standard or Modern don’t really cut it in Cube. Deathrite Shaman, for example, might be the best card in Modern, but it doesn’t have a large amount of value in Cube. Your manabase isn’t all fetchlands in Cube, and it loses a lot of value when it is no longer Birds of Paradise. The same goes for other staples in recent memory such as Voice of Resurgence.
In Cube, I believe that every single card should serve a role when you include it in your deck. This theory really isn’t all that different from constructed formats. You don’t really see Reid Duke or Patrick Chapin say, “Well, I really needed a 35th card,” so why should you settle for playing a random 23rd? This is a large part of why I believe that cube drafting is the best format that Magic has to offer: it doesn’t just test your drafting skills or your knowledge of how to play the game; it also flexes your deckbuilding muscles like few other formats can. Too often, I see people playing cards like Savannah Lions in their UW control decks or Pyroclasm in Mono-Red. The justification, more often than not, is either nonexistent or “Well, it’s a good card.” Yes, they might be solid cards, but not in your deck!
Every single card in your deck should serve a purpose. Do you really need to pick up that fourth sweeper, or could your three-color deck use a fetchland more? Sure, we know that Baneslayer Angel is a game-ender, but maybe the better pick is that Armageddon for your aggro deck that curves out at two and three? Being abstractly “powerful” is not enough. You should never evaluate cards in a vacuum once you get past the first few picks in a draft. Synergistic decks will often win against those that just seek to jam the “best” cards, and that’s no surprise. Whether your synergy is little red men + burn spells or countermagic + planeswalkers or even Recurring Nightmare and [insert literally any creature card here], that’s okay! Having a cohesive plan is much better than just drafting “good” cards, as any experienced Magic player will tell you. So, before you include a “good” card in your cube, ask yourself what it actually does. What archetypes is it helping? What new lines of play does it bring to your cube? Test it out, see how it works, but don’t just throw a card in because it might be cool.
The new Commander decks for 2013 were recently released. There were a lot of cards that garnered a lot of testing in this product, going beyond just a few obvious staples like we have experienced in the past. Last time we got a Commander set, we gained Cube all-star Scavenging Ooze. From Planechase, another casual-only set, Baleful Strix and Shardless Agent graced us with their presence. This time around, we were granted some more saucy cards to build with.True-Name Nemesis
We might as well get the obvious dumb monster out of the way first. True-Name Nemesis is going to be a thorn in your side forever and ever. The funny thing is that this card isn’t even good in the Commander format! It is, however, a terror in Cube and is seeing a ton of Legacy play as well. It attacks for three, blocks forever, has “hexproof”…. Ugh, is there anything this card doesn’t do? If you are skimping on Wrath or Edict effects in your cube, this guy is going to make you painfully aware of that in a hurry. True-Name Nemesis has been covered to death and might actually join Jace, Memory Adept and Sword of Body and Mind on the list of cards that are too good or too unfun for Cube. For now, I’ve found that, while it does cause an interesting subgame, most decks do have the tools to deal with this guy. To each his own, however, and I can definitely see it not being included for fear of it being “too good.”Darksteel Mutation
Although I don’t see this card making a splash in rare environments, it is a cool option for common and uncommon cubes. It likely is not better than options such as Temporal Isolation or Journey to Nowhere, but it acts very much like the latter. Turning off abilities for just two mana is no joke, and I think it’s worth giving a shot.Unexpectedly Absent
Wow. This card is the nut. At its absolute worst, you pay two white mana to Excommunicate a nonland permanent at instant speed. At its best, you pay that same cost… only in response to a fetchland activation or some other kind of shuffle effect. Have you ever seen a Submerge resolve in Legacy? Well, now it’s not just creatures that are getting tucked away. This card is a gift, and one of the best cards in the set, both for Commander and Cube.
Curse of Shallow Graves
This is a card I initially dismissed, but then I had a discussion with Usman Jamil in which he suggested I try it out. This card is fairly innocuous, and it violates one of my tenets of Cube design in which cards need to do things by themselves to be good, but this card has seriously outperformed. It gives a huge boost to black-based attrition strategies, and provides real staying power in aggressive decks. It’s earned a spot in my cube, and while it not be worthy of inclusion in smaller lists, it’s surprising how much punch this card packs.Ophiomancer
This is my pick for the best sleeper card of the set. It gives you immediate value if your opponent doesn’t kill it on your turn, and if it sticks around, combat is just impossible. Combined with Goblin Bombardment or Attrition it’s next to impossible to beat. This is exactly what black needed out of this set, although the next card is a close second. Ophiomancer should be included in any cube that can play him. He’s that good.Toxic Deluge
Another marquee card of the set, Toxic Deluge is an incredibly efficient sweeper. If you want to clear larger things off the board, it will definitely cost you, but this card is as good as it gets against decks looking to swarm the board. Three mana instead of four is a pretty huge difference, as it means you can also hold countermagic up more easily for alongside or afterward. Again, this is one of the cards that has been covered to death, as it is seeing significant Legacy play, but it is slightly worse in Cube because, well, creatures have more of a range of toughness. That said, I definitely saw someone pay 10 life to kill Progenitus at the SCG Legacy Open in Providence a few weeks ago. With this card, what you see is what you get. Most of the time, this card will be a fantastic way to stabilize the board, but if you fall too far behind, drawing this card isn’t going to help you out much.Sudden Demise
All of my problems with this card stem from the exact same cause. Why on earth is this card not a freakin’ instant? It has “Sudden” right there in its name! Seriously, Wizards? That said, that is exactly the reason why this card doesn’t quite belong in Cube. Yes, I get that this card, costed the same, would be way too good as an instant. How about XRRR as an instant? That card would be sweet, right?Curse of Predation
This is a sweet one. Fangren Firstborn used to be a Cube staple, but this card gives it to you in a hard-to-remove package that just generates value. If you support green aggro, this should be close to an auto-include. If not, it gets substantially worse, but is worth testing. Following this up with something like Master of the Wild Hunt or Deranged Hermit is really sweet. It’s a bit of a niche card, true, but it has immense power if utilized properly.Gahiji, Honored One
I haven’t seen this card on too many designers’ radars for Cube, but I am here with the gospel truth: this card is great. It comes down, makes an immediate impact on the board, and demands an answer. Having this card as a top-end in an aggro or midrange deck is scary, and it leads to a lot of free kills. I would test it out in any cube that has a good multicolor component.
Well, that’s all for the Commander decks. I’ll be back in a few weeks with a review of the latest iteration of the Magic Online Holiday Cube! I’ll be streaming live on twitch.tv on December 18 at 8pm EST when the Holiday Cube goes up at www.twitch.tv/earaff with a few friends reviewing the newest offering from Wizards. Join me, won’t you?