I don’t get it, Wizards. You were so close!
For those of you who missed it, Wizards of the Coast recently published their changes to the Magic Online Cube for M15. Along with that was an article detailing the sweeping philosophical changes that they were implementing in this new iteration of their product. If you haven’t gotten a chance to read that article, please do so by clicking here. I’ll wait.
Read it? Good!
I was ecstatic to see that Digital R&D was finally thinking critically about their product. Let’s just recap their findings, because I believe that they are on the exact right path in terms of what they see as the problems with their product.
Goal One: Let’s Balance Archetypes (Red’s Too Good)
I agree wholeheartedly that aggressive strategies were simply too strong in the unpowered versions of the MTGO Cube. From the article by Adam Prosak, “When we looked at winning decklists from previous iterations of the Cube, we noticed that some strategies were either too successful or not successful enough. In particular, red as a color had an unbalancing effect on the Cube. Many of the successful decks were not only red, but mono-red aggressive decks.”
Hooray! They identified a key issue. Mono-red was, in fact, too strong. In order to beat it, you generally had to have an incredibly strong green-based midrange deck, or you had to have a turn-three or -four sweeper and follow it up with something like Batterskull or Baneslayer Angel, which mono-red decks simply can’t beat. However, the consistency with which red decks were able to lay the smackdown on, well, just about every other strategy was appalling. Often even a subpar red deck was enough to get at least two wins in a queue, and that represents an imbalance with the strategies in the Cube.
Let’s take a look at what changes the Cube underwent to nerf the red menace. This includes every red card changed, not simply those that were aggressive staples.
Wizards’ strategy was to take away red’s powerful, aggressive cards and replace them with one-size-fits-all burn spells, add bigger (and worse) creatures, and make red play nicer with other colors by removing double and triple-colored mana requirements.They also removed a lot of red’s staying power in the form of Shrine of Burning Rage, Fireblast, Ball Lightning, Hellspark Elemental, Reckless Charge, Genju of the Spires, and Wheel of Fortune. This strategy, while most likely to nerf mono-red aggro into the ground, is nevertheless an effective one. Getting mono-red off the table, however, isn’t what Wizards has stated that they want. They want to balance the archetypes. This ham-fisted method of destroying a large part of red’s color identity in cube is not the optimal solution. My proposed solution is actually a tie-in to fix both issues that Wizards has proposed, so you’ll have to wait a little bit (or scroll down) to see it.
Problem the Second: You’ve Activated My Trap Card!
The Magic Online Cube had a number of cards that simply didn’t do anything because they didn’t have enough support. Again, Adam hit the nail on the head with this one. Specifically, he recognized Goblin Welder was a worse Raging Goblin, Deadbridge Chant was just a do-nothing card anyways, and Etched Oracle… well, greed isn’t always good.
The storm deck was also basically nonexistent. I don’t know if you’ve tried playing storm in Constructed before, but it requires a lot of ritual effects, or a lot of Moxen, or both. The cube couldn’t support this because the cards that are required to make storm work break nearly every other archetype (see the Magic Online Holiday Cube).
There is one change that Wizards deserves serious kudos for, and that’s removing the Ravnica bouncelands. Not only did you just lose the game on the spot if they were destroyed (or Flickerwisp-ed), but they made aggressive strategies better because you were essentially wasting a turn to play one. However, due in part to wanting to make decisions more complex, the cube replaced the bouncelands with multicolor spells. Adam Prosak listed this change under the “balancing archetypes” goal, but really it should have been under “traps.”
Moreover, this ends up invoking the “we’re making aggro worse by making it worse, not making everything else better” philosophy but with the additional problem that removing color fixing actually makes aggro better. Multicolored spells are traditionally more powerful, true, but it won’t matter if the fixing doesn’t exist to reliably cast those spells. This issue is compounded now that there are 10 more gold cards then there were before. Aggro will continue to prey on decks that aren’t prepared to fight it, and Wizards has provided us with a defective toolbox.
You know what land cycle is good mana fixing, maybe not the best against aggro, but very good in midrange and control decks (and might even punish non-mono-color a bit)? Temples! Originally, the MTGO Cube had the five Theros Temples, which replaced the Shards of Alara tri-lands. When two more were printed in Born of the Gods, they reverted that change. Frankly, I have no idea why. The Temple cycle is very powerful, and is right at home in an environment where it is incredibly skill-testing to determine what cards you need in a format full of the most broken cards ever printed. We just removed ten-plus lands from the cube, allegedly to make aggro worse, but the best way to fight a dominant strategy is to make a different one better. Why not give midrange and control decks the tools they need to fight, rather than taking away red’s primary viability?
Despite the underlying problems in their philosophy, Wizards actually did a great job removing the issue of traps. They replaced a lot of cards that they thought were out of place with playable ones! My problem with this change is that they didn’t go far enough. The following cards are all cards to avoid that are still residing in (or were just added to) the Cube:
(I’m skipping Red because those changes are in the solution section.)Academy Rector – There are very few cards that exist in the Cube to make this card worth playing. Mirari’s Wake and the freshly added (and soon to be cut, hopefully) Form of the Dragon are basically the only ones worth it, unless you are in the market for a roundabout way to tutor up Survival of the Fittest, Recurring Nightmare, Sneak Attack, or Sylvan Library. Iona, Shield of Emeria – Have you EVER seen anyone hardcast this card? Seriously. There are no reanimation targets that do less than this one. Eight mana can be reached, but 9 for a card that doesn’t make any impact the turn it comes down is wasting a slot. Heliod, God of the Sun – I love paying four mana to add no value to the board unless I’m already ridiculously ahead, and then have to pay for mana again just to make 2/1s that get blown up by Acidic Slime.
Wait a minute.
How was this card not replaced by Ajani Steadfast?Gideon, Champion of Justice – See complaints for Heliod, God of the Sun, minus the ridiculous mana sink. Thieving Magpie – Look, I love this guy. I do. But he’s just not good enough. If I’m paying four mana for a 1/3, I should be drawing a card every turn. Is there a legitimate reason this card isn’t Lu Xun, Scholar General? Yes, I’m aware Magpie blocks slightly better because it flies. Hypnotic Siren – If my seven-mana Control Magic doesn’t have split second, then I cut it from most cubes years ago.
Mono-Black Aggro – Just the whole archetype. They’re pushing it a little bit with the addition of Bad Moon, but it’s an uphill battle.Dictate of Erebos (new addition) – I love Grave Pact as much as the next guy (and more, really), but this card just seems forced to me. It’s good only if you have Bloodghast or Gravecrawler or are playing an incredibly grindy black-green deck. Even then, I’d like to spend my five mana elsewhere. Erebos, God of the Dead – Again, see complaints about Heliod. Erebos is a little more defensible because you have to pay only two mana to activate his ability and draw some actual cards. Tendrils of Corruption – Wizards, stop trying to make black happen. How is this in the Cube when Diabolic Edict isn’t? Hystrodon – They cut Genesis over this card in the most recent update. I don’t get that one at all. Genesis provides great utility in a number of strategies for green, while Hystrodon is a card that takes up two turns for minimal body and card advantage and is an undersized five-drop in a color that contests that slot very highly. Channel – This card isn’t a trap, but it has no place in this Cube. I’ve written an article about it before, and it can be found here http://manadeprived.com/what-is-wrong-with-the-magic-online-cube/. Heartbeat of Spring – Adam Prosak listed Palinchron as his favorite card in the Magic Online Cube. That is literally the only card that Heartbeat of Spring interacts favorably with now that storm is gone. You might be able to overwhelm your opponent with an Eldrazi as a followup or something, but for the most part, this card is just straight-up unplayable. Rude Awakening – If you think that Red Deck Wins is the best archetype in your cube, and you leave in a card where you have to turbo-throw lands onto the battlefield for it to be good, there’s a flaw in your thinking somewhere.
The Mirage fetchlands – These. Cards. Are. Slow. They also don’t provide tangible upside besides fetching dual lands, of which there are 10. Otherwise, they are simply more restrictive Terramorphic Expanse. In fact, here are five cards that could replace the Mirage fetches if Temples aren’t an option: Terramorphic Expanse, Evolving Wilds, Gemstone Mine, City of Brass (a recent cut), and Grand Coliseum.Athreos, God of Passage (new addition) – This card will do so much nothing that I’m getting bored just writing about it. In fact, I’m going to stop in the middle of this sen Uril, the Miststalker (new addition) – Eh. This card seems out of place. Auras isn’t really a thing in the Cube, so you’re paying 2RWG for a 5/5 hexproof guy with upside?
Am I missing something, or did you cut Sigarda, Host of Herons for some other reason?
Oh, and by the way, Sigarda is bonkers, just saying.
If we’re looking for cool Naya candidates, may I suggest Gahiji, Honored One?
Solve for X!
Let’s start with the red problem. I’ve said that I have a different idea for balancing the Cube without sacrificing power. Well, what would that look like, exactly? First, my proposed changes to red (* indicates card was already leaving or entering):
These changes reduce some of red’s aggressive power while keeping its identity. The real changes to red’s power level will come from elsewhere.
If you want to make red play better with other colors, then removing Inferno Titan in favor of Soul of Shandalar is laughable. Inferno Titan is one of the better cards in the cube against aggro and was one of the better cards in the Cube against any archetype, period. Then again, that change had to do with the M15 changes, as Wizards does want to highlight new cards, and not any perceived power level cut. The fact that blue also lost Frost Titan because Soul of Ravnica is a card in a new set just angers me. Neither Soul is playable when compared to the Titans, so please don’t shove them down our throats.
Cube is not the place to showcase how cool your new toys are. If the environment is simply better than the cards you are adding, the consumer will think the card is bad in the abstract as well and not simply in the context of the Cube. That also applies to the change of Jalira, Master Polymorphist, being added. Yes, the card is cool, but if I’m casting a four-mana blue 2/2 that isn’t in Sower of Temptation or Venser, Shaper Savant, territory, then it’s going to end up in the Cube for exactly one iteration because it’s just not playable in such a high-power environment.
Next, the traps. All of the cards I listed earlier (and more) could be cut, but what do we replace them with? Well, the powers-that-be behind the Cube have stated that they think mono-red aggro is too good. From the article, they also want picks like Stomping Ground versus Ghor-Clan Rampager to be interesting ones. I have some bad news. Anyone who wants to win will ALWAYS pick the Stomping Ground in that scenario. Fixing is at a premium in the MTGO Cube, and even more so (arguably) because they have cut the bouncelands and also cards like Murmuring Bosk. What can we do to nerf the Red deck without cutting all the cards that make Red playable?
Yes, I said the dreaded “S” word. Signets are a powerful cycle of cards that some players cut from their cubes because they think that they take away from green’s color identity. What I have found is that including Signets actually makes life harder for aggressive strategies by empowering midrange and control decks to more consistently stave off aggro decks. That sounds a lot like what Wizards is trying to do. This also allows aggro to remain a force in the meta by punishing players that stumble, like they want to do. Crazy, right?
Seriously, Wizards, I get that you don’t want to make the regular Cube all-powerful like the Holiday Cube, but Signets are not too good for the normal Cube. It’s cards like Moxen that take the Signets and ramp their power up to 11, but giving every color access to efficient fixing and cheap acceleration isn’t damning. If it helps balance your environment, then why not give it a shot? The worst thing that could happen is that it proves too good. Cube is about testing limits and pushing boundaries. Why not try this one?
Giving midrange and control decks access to better mana and faster plays will help red stay in check. As such, Signets are one factor that will give players more pause to slam that Goblin Guide with their first pick. Perhaps Wizards could try shaving the Shards trilands and the Mirage fetches in exchange for mana acceleration and fixing that will balance strategies without sacrificing power.
But there is another thing that Wizards can do to open up more tools: reclassify cards under their proper color identities.
I realize that may sound confusing, so I’ll elaborate. Cards like Kird Ape, Loam Lion and Flinthoof Boar are currently taking up slots devoted to red, white, and green cards, respectively. These cards should take up multicolor slots in the list, because they are virtually useless without their accompanying colors (or at least a land like Taiga and a fetchland to find it). If Digital R&D were to throw these cards into their respective multicolor pair, it opens up slots for better monocolored cards, or even more test slots! Magic players the world over know that Kird Ape is both a red card and a green card, so why not classify it as one?
Overall, I am heartened by Wizards’ willingness to take notice of the issues that are affecting the most fun thing to do on Magic Online. They correctly identified key issues that need to be fixed. However, because how Wizards normally just bans cards if they are oppressing formats, they are unaccustomed to fixing problems any other way. The way to create a fun, enjoyable experience isn’t by crippling a particular strategy or excluding powerful cards because it seems like they are better than what other colors have to offer. Because Cube is a format where you can “ban” cards regularly and without much cost, it is understandable that Digital R&D would take that approach when they feel that a certain strategy was too strong. Balancing a format is not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s time that trial and error took precedence over the urge to kick cards out and be done with them. Magic formats are a constant work in progress, and Cube is no exception.
Bonus Section: Khans of Tarkir in the Cube!
We’re in full spoiler season swing, and that means that it’s time to start testing Khans cards in our cubes. As of the time I’m writing this, here are the cards I’d recommend! A full article will be forthcoming when the set is fully spoiled.
Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker
Utter End (if your cube has a lot of planeswalkers)
Wingmate Roc (test)
Icefeather Aven (C/U)
Rattleclaw Mystic (test)
Sagu Mauler (test)
Happy spoiler season! It’s the most wonderful time of the year!