2019 — Cube in Review
With 2019 in the rear-view mirror, we reached out to some of our friends to get their takes on the brightest moments from the past year for our favorite format — Cube. Let’s meet our respondents:
Cube set reviews for CoolStuffInc, one of the hosts of the Third Power podcast, and the owner of no less than three cubes, one at each rarity restriction: Pauper, Peasant, and Vintage. He’s on Twitter at usmantherad.is the author of the
how data science relates to Cube. He designs custom cards to fill gaps in his cube and frequents all of the various Cube Discord servers, message boards, and subreddits where he can be found under the handle Tjornan.is a founding contributor to Lucky Paper where he writes about
I think that while Modern Horizons bringing back snow payoffs has been particularly excellent for Cube curators, the Adventure mechanic from Throne of Eldraine tops the list for me. I believe the vast majority of the cards with Adventure are Cube playable at a variety of power and rarity levels. The combination of spells and creatures on one card is a big helper for multiple archetypes all across cubes, and have two actual playable cards stapled to one makes the cards more fun (and more powerful) without sacrificing playability. Most of the Adventure cards play better than they look!
Planeswalkers. Prior to 2019, I felt most Planeswalkers fell into one of two categories: snowballing win-conditions that protected themselves and took over games in which they resolved or narrow build-arounds that were too unreliable or low-power level to warrant inclusion. Honestly, I had begun to lament the fact that many Planeswalkers were designed so similarly, following established patterns for the card type. I had started to wonder if R&D was running out of design space.
Spoiler season for War of the Spark, and every other set that followed this year, obliterated my reductive little model.
2019 saw Planeswalkers pushed in a number of ways, all to the benefit of my cube. WAR brought us walkers with static abilities, as well as downtick-only uncommons that disrupt the classic play patterns of the card type. Narset, Parter of Veils and Teferi, Time Raveler don’t have any of the earmarks of classically powerful Planeswalkers: they can’t protect themselves, or do so very poorly, and they don’t snowball into a win-condition. Narset is almost a glorified Divination, and Teferi took the slot Repulse previously occupied in my cube — but the combination of value-oriented activated abilities and otherwise uncubeably narrow static abilities on low mana value Planeswalkers has proved to be very potent. These cards, along with others like Vivien, Champion of the Wilds and Saheeli, Sublime Artificer, have all the value, modality, and interactivity of the more traditionally powerful Planeswalkers, but they serve a supporting role instead of dominating the game singlehandedly.
WAR wasn’t the only set this year to explore new space for the card type. Serra, the Benevolent and Mu Yanling, Skydancer uniquely have most of their value tied up in one big token they create and may be more easily understood as creatures with upside rather than a Planeswalker in the parochial sense. Oko, Thief of Crowns, who some are calling the most powerful Planeswalker ever printed, has such an unusual set of abilities that it managed to sneak past Play Design a little too pushed and was subsequently banned in multiple formats. Wrenn and Six occupies a similar space and bears mention even though I am not playing it at the moment.
Thirteen Planeswalkers printed this year have made it into my 360 card cube, and it’s definitely the highlight of 2019 for me. I feel like we’re in the middle of a renaissance for the card type, and early previews of 2020 indicate that more powerful, unique designs are imminent. What a time to be alive!
Reaper and Carver, have been stellar.Cards with the Adventure mechanic. I was a big fan of how these cards looked (many are still underrated) and just about all of them, aside from limited fodder like
Hexdrinker, Hydroid Krasis, and Voracious Hydra. These cards are excellent with lots of mana and very serviceable mid game, and along with the numerous playable green Planeswalkers printed in 2019, they have given green decks a much needed boost in flexibility and interactivity. I hope these style of cards become the norm for green and extend to other colors as well!My Cube hit of the year is the rise of good green mana sinks. Historically, green ramp decks have always had issues with “drawing the wrong half” of the deck — flooding on ramp cards or having uncastables in hand. 2019 has seen the printing of cards like
Strip Mine reuser and ping distributor with Wrenn and Six. I really like the idea that even the “simple” color combinations are pushing into unique design space that isn’t just “efficient creatures with some upside.”The push for Gruul to have a lands matter theme. Even in the non-cubeable cards you see things like dragons that are cheaper to cast based off of number of lands in the yard. We got everyone’s favorite 2 mana
Knight of Autumn is a card that is emblematic of this design shift, which often expresses itself in modal cards.For me, the most exciting cube news of 2019 is that our favorite format is increasingly visible and is making its presence felt in many aspects of Magic. Perhaps most importantly for designers, Wizards is both intentionally and less intentionally designing products that cater to us. Arena’s “best of one” format encourages WotC to make “maindeck sideboard cards” — cards that have niche effects that are unembarrassing maindeck inclusions.
Modern Horizons 1 is a novel set that has also been a huge boon to cubes. People joked that the set would have been better titled Commander Horizons given the format that it most affected. It might just as well have been named after our format, however. Cubes of many different power levels and goals found exciting new tools here, from Soulherder to Force of Negation. At least some of the set was doubtless consciously intended for us, given the vocal interest in Cube that designers such as Gavin Verhey express.
Cube has benefitted from the work of organizations other than Wizards as well. SCGCon featured cube in a substantial way for a second year. Justin Parnell, who pushed to make Cube the heart of the event and who designed the environments that were featured, has done excellent work increasing the visibility of Cube. Inspired by SCG’s model, a group of cube enthusiasts, among whom I am honored to count myself, is putting together CUBECON to be held in Madison, Wisconsin next year. Keep an eye out for more details about CUBECON! Events such as these spotlight cube in ways that are fundamentally different from pros streaming an MTGO Holiday Cube. These conventions put a new emphasis on Cube design, they show off the huge range of cubes that can be built, and they demonstrate above all what a social activity Cube is.
Finally, channels of conversation around and content about Cube have proliferated this year. There are Discord servers with exciting and active engagement, discussion on the Cube subreddit has been lively, the MTG Salvation forum died but then was saved, and while the #mtgcube hashtag may not be trending, we have more Cube conversation than ever on Twitter. Moreover, this year has seen the introduction of new Cube podcasts and websites (such as this excellent one!), the resurrection of YouTube channels that had lain dormant for months or years, and the genesis of a few YouTube channels devoted to Cube design. We have more ways than ever to consume content concerning Cube theory and strategy, and we have more channels than ever for engaging in discussion around it.
War of the Spark, as a whole. Everyone loves Planeswalkers, right? I was certainly salivating at the idea of a huge swath of Planeswalkers making their way into cubes of all rarities, but as the year has gone on WAR has really worn me down. No one is questioning the power level of War of the Spark, but there is a lot left to be desired for creating fun designs, which is what most cube owners are looking for. While ELD and MH1 are both very powerful and impactful sets for Cube, there aren’t cards that are designed to be problematic (shapeshifting Planeswalkers aside). WAR should serve as a cautionary tale for cube owners — where is your balance between powerful and fun?
Arcum's Astrolabe, Dead of Winter, Ice-Fang Coatl, and Icehide Golem are all contingent on this parasitic, non-interactive mechanic. I know many cube designers have replaced their normal basics with snow basics so they can play these cards under circumstances closer to constructed formats, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I feel that completely removing the draft limitation that snow cards are designed to impose results in them being too pushed and out of place, even for Cube. I’m just not that excited about Icehide Golem outclassing three quarters of my aggressive one-drops with no real downside.Snow is a big miss for me, and even though Modern Horizons was flush with great stuff for my cube, I can’t help but be disappointed that pushed cards like
Ultimately, I wish this power-creep equity had been directed elsewhere. I would love to see the cards WotC could have designed for these slots if snow had not been in the set. (Honorable mention for miss of the year is protection and color-hate cards making a comeback. No thank you!)
Master of the Wild Hunt just didn’t have enough impact given how often it lived/died, and usually died.I’ve been thinking about this and not much comes to mind. Probably the realization that
notable exception, Planeswalker removal in Cube does not recoup card advantage and remains inefficient. While combat and a healthy aggro section can mitigate this problem, I have found that midrange and control matchups have become races to resolve walkers. Wizard’s R&D has recognized this problem after the Oko-Teferi-Narset debacle, but I worry that their efforts to introduce more good Planeswalker removal in future sets will not translate well to Cube.For me, the miss of the year is easily the lack of good Planeswalker removal. 2019 was chock full of excellent Planeswalkers for Cube; Planeswalker quotas nonwithstanding, this has translated into a substantial increase in the number of Planeswalkers in our cubes. Yet Planeswalker removal has lagged significantly — with one
We still have no Orzhov hybrid card I could defend in Cube in 2019 after a solid year on Ravnica. For every other color I can make at least some argument for at least one hybrid card. For Orzhov though, I have nothing.
I’m not allowed to wring my hands and complain about Simic anymore.
Icehide Golem is my pick if you include Snow as a theme — I love great aggro cards, and this is the first truly colorless one mana beater in Magic’s history. Innocuous Insect is my pick is you’re venturing down the path of Mystery Booster playtest cards (which you should!) — this card is fun, powerful, and much less nonsensical that it appears at first glance. It also helps blue, which is very much in need of some extra support (-_-). If you don’t like either of those answers, it’s boring ol’ Prismatic Vista. Fetchlands are great at every power level, and one that only gets basics is just as great as the rest.I have three answers, depending on how picky people are (these are Cube owners we’re talking about, so very picky).
Voracious Hydra is the complete package for me. It’s scaleable, modal, and interactive — everything I want from my midrange cards and ramp payoffs. On top of that, it has excellent art and the design is clean. In a year where I am begrudgingly playing word-salad cards like Questing Beast, I’m thrilled to have a new staple that is simple, clear, and powerful.
Heirloom Blade wasn’t printed this year, I’d say Rimrock Knight. It does a lot of what red aggro wants to do and brings a previously unrepresented mechanic to Cube (at least in the last few years as they’ve been pushed out by power creep) — combat tricks.Since
Hexdrinker. While I love the card individually, to me it also represents the move towards flexible green mana sinks in green, a change I have loved from 2019. The card itself is incredibly powerful, blowing open midrange stalls and putting the heat on control opponents. Despite its Progenitus like vibes, the card also has great gameplay. Opponents can interact with it early, and it creates tension as the caster decides when to commit to leveling it over casting other spells.The answer to this is unquestionably
I test a large amount of cards every set. Mostly because since Innistrad I’ve said that I’d rather err on the side of inclusion, but partly because now I review sets on the podcast and need to be knowledgeable of how all the remotely test-worthy cards play. This year we’ve had everything from an avalanche of mistake walkers to free draw spells to creatures that would make former format all-stars feel inadequate.
Of the 120+ cards printed since January 2019 that I’ve tried in my cube, Soulherder gets special mention as my new favorite Azorius card. No, I don’t think it’s better than Fractured Identity or anything! It is however extremely fun to play with and powerful enough to make a splash in any Cube environment that includes tempo decks and ETB creatures. Go grab one and you won’t regret it, I promise.
Cavalier of Gales. This is the happy marriage of Baneslayer and Mulldrifter that I have been waiting for.I pick a card that is on my mind as it led me to victory in a draft last night —
I’m going with the set that was actually factually made just for Cube — and that is Mystery Booster playtest cards! The deeper I dig into this set, the more awesome it is for cubes of every shape and size. I know that 2019 gave us Modern Horizons and I fully expect that to be the answer to this question for most people, but Cube will always be about fun to me, and no set has every delivered more than these playtest cards do. I also truly believe that the playtest cards set of 121 cards has the highest percentage of Cube-playable cards of any set in Magic’s history, which is something not even Modern Horizons can claim.
In a year with three all-time great sets for Cube, I have to cast my vote for War of the Spark. It’s not the set from this year that has the most representation in my own cube — that title currently belongs to Throne of Eldraine — but it had the biggest impact on how I think about Cube design.
Throne of Eldraine. Just so many good cards for Cube and it feels like so many are still under the radar, kinda like an album or movie that people thought was good, but didn’t realize how good it was.
best Cube card ever in it. It introduced a number of incredible cards to cubes, ranging from upgraded versions of old cards (Deep Forest Hermit, Talismans, Prismatic Vista), cards that support developing archetypes (Wrenn and Six, Urza, Lord High Artificer),to just plain powerful cards (Fiery Islet cycle, Hexdrinker, Giver of Runes). There was something for every cube designer in this set, and I’m excited to see what happens with MH2!Probably Modern Horizons, and not just because it has the
I’m going to go against my obvious answer which would have been MH1 and instead say the Mystery Boosters. I finally had the chance to play them at SCGCon and fell in love in a single draft. The format is honestly the closest we’ve ever come to a WotC Cube set. It has cards I’d love to pick up for my personal cube with the Playtest cards while also printing piles and piles of older cards that were in desperate need of reprinting. I truly think one of the worst challenges to getting people into Cube is the initial price requirement placed on a playgroup, this set (combined with MH1 to an extent) has done an amazing job at printing cards that have been difficult to reprint until now while also giving us juicy new toys for our existing cubes. I really think a year of Mystery Booster drafts is going to do more to help grow the Cube community than any set released before it.
War of the Spark is the best thing to happen to Cube, I believe. This is not necessarily because it supplied my cube with the greatest number of cards from among the year’s sets (sorry, I’m not counting!). Rather, its signature emphasis on Planeswalkers helps to acclimate people to this card category. There are many who are wary of the power level of Planeswalkers, which on the one hand makes perfect sense but on the other can sometimes be based on possible misconceptions about walker-rich environments. The set shows that when walkers run rampant even in actual retail draft, the format does not immediately fall apart (even if few would peg WAR as an all-time great draft format).
Furthermore, WAR’s stable of uncommon walkers helps to teach that walkers may be usefully compared to enchantments with modal effects. Such a reframing of walkers may help people overcome a potential allergy to them. Mind you, I’m not trying to convince you that you must enjoy gameplay around walkers or that you should run a great many of them in your own environment. I hope, though, that WAR has contributed generally to the sense that walkers are not an inherently special class of card but are a tool just like any other card type — even if walkers are a tool that one prefers to avoid or to which one wishes to limit access.
Teferi and Narset, looking at you) and my decision to ignore them completely was something I felt good about, where a younger me might have tested “just to be sure.” I wish I had made the same call right away with Oko, but two out of three is a good start!War of the Spark was a very testing set for Cube for me. There are a number of powerful cards that I don’t believe create fun games (
My level-up this year is a recommitment to the stated design goals for my own cube, which has pulled it further from the “average” Vintage unpowered list. Ever since I became aware of the format, generally accepted wisdom has been that win-conditions are a dime-a-dozen in Cube, and it’s better to focus on supporting cards with your early draft picks. While this may be the case with many cubes, that is merely a byproduct of their design, not an incontrovertible fact of the format. I personally aim for an decision-rich draft environment where no class of cards is a universally higher pick than any other. Subsequently, I have cut back dramatically on the number of threats in my cube and doubled-down on the supporting cards: cheap cantrips and card selection, efficient ramp, burn spells, and mana fixing. This has made my decks more consistent and feels like it has opened up draft picks substantially. I’m eager to continue to pursue and refine this approach in the new year!
Briarhorn and Call of the Herd for reasons that I can’t remember (as they were taken out many years ago.) It taught me that it’s still very important to not be afraid to look at things from an unconventional point of view, especially as Cube design ideologies have been more “concrete.”My approach to green. A focus on less expensive, more efficient threats as opposed to 6+ mana value haymakers has definitely helped to change how green approaches its control matchup and made me realize that I had dismissed some older cards like
I’ve already mentioned my shift to flexible mana sinks in green. Along with this, I’ve also embraced its reliance on mana dorks and Planeswalkers; I’ve transitioned to cubing 10 one mana elves and added 4 green Planeswalkers. I’ve mirrored these changes with an increase in the number of wrath effects and removal to keep green in check, but as a whole playing green feels more interactive and flexible compared to 2018.
More abstractly, I’ve also changed the way I approach cubing and the community. I’ve drafted many cubes this year, and I’ve come to realize how much context actually affects a Cube environment. Cube owners vary wildly in design goals and drafting preferences, and I think these factors lead to our cubes being more different than we’d like to admit. I’ve come to trust my gut more when it comes to new cards, and I’ve become more comfortable with deviating my cube from prominent cubes in the community.
MH1 Ninjas have made me fall in love with UB tempo for the lower powered cubes of the world. You’ll be seeing a lot of them in the budget cubes I design for the show. This is an archetype I never respected or attempted until this year but it has just so many tools available to it.
I have focused on community this year in a way that I had not hitherto. Of course, one of the main attractions of Cube for me has always been that it is a gathering of friends around a game that we love. But this year I have made a concerted effort to connect with fellow Cube designers, which has paid happy dividends. I have learned new approaches to Cube, I crystallized some of my own opinions in the act of articulating them, and I have made new friends who share my passion for Cube. It has been one of my goals this year to test design strategies, archetypes, and individual cards that colleagues promote, even (or especially) when the ideas sound off the wall. I have learned a great deal from this exercise, and it has, I hope, kept me humble and flexible in my Cube convictions.
Moreover, I began a YouTube channel devoted to cube in February of this year. My goals for the channel are communitarian: to increase awareness of Cube, to expose people to a variety of philosophical approaches to Cube, and to introduce people to spaces for Cube discussion. I do not flatter myself that I have any sort of influence, but I will continue to endeavor to encourage and to engage in discussion that is productive and collegial.
I look forward to a new year of new friends, new cubes, new cards, and new experiences. Happy cubing, everyone!