Community Voices

2020 — Cube in Review

December 28th, 2020

If you’re reading this, congratulations, you officially made it through 2020. While this was a challenging year for many of us, and for our favorite way to play Magic, that’s even more reason to gather our friends from around the community and reminisce about the highlights of 2020 for Cube. Each year, we ask Cube designers of many stripes to tell us what they thought of the new cards from that year and how their approach to the format has evolved over the year. Let’s remind ourselves of what 2020 brought us:

Introducing this year’s respondents:

Emma Handy is a seasoned competitive player and streamer. Her Proliferate Cube was featured on Magic: the Gathering Online earlier this year. She recently accepted a position on Wizards of the Coast’s Play Design team, and can be found on Twitch and Twitter.

wtwlf123 has been making Cube content for MTG Salvation for over a decade, producing 35+ set preview articles that focus on Cube. You can follow his cube on Cube Cobra and his posts on Twitter.

Darrell Ford, aka “Phizzled”, is one of the members of the committee that currently stewards The Pauper Cube — also known as “The Stybs Pauper Cube”. He sporadically tweets as @phizzled.

Alexis Janson is the winner of the inaugural Great Designer Search and is credited with working on the design or development of nine different sets. She maintains her own High-End Synergy Cube and is @alexisjanson on Twitter.

Anthony Mattox is a founding contributor to Lucky Paper and a co-host of Lucky Paper Radio. He is a champion of lower power environments, most notably his own Regular Cube.

SirFunchalot is a moderator of the MTG Cube Brainstorming Discord server and espouses a rigorously competitive approach to Cube design. You can find him on Twitter and follow his numerous and frequently updated cube lists on Cube Cobra.

Allison Battisti is a former competitive constructed player turned Cube designer. She’s been thoughtfully curating her own Peasant Cube for years.

John Terrill is behind the Château Cube Podcast, the YouTube series Cultic Cube, and is the designer of the cube of the same name, which was featured on Magic: the Gathering Online this spring. He is one of the organizers of CubeCon, which has unfortunately been indefinitely delayed due to COVID-19.

Cube “Hit” of the Year

Emma: The white/x creatures really stuck out for me here. A lot of cards like Skyclave Apparition and Winota, Joiner of Forces were printed this year that are absolute slam dunks for mid-power level cube, without being as oppressive as something like Palace Jailer.

wtwlf123: Modal double-faced cards. And this is saying a lot, because I adore Escape, and was pretty sure they weren’t going to be able to outdo that until I started playtesting the MDFCs. Cards that can be both lands and spells are so valuable; they smooth curves, increase the range of keepable hands, and can fundamentally change the mana flood/mana screw dynamic that can be such a frustrating experience. Most of them are mediocre spells strapped to mediocre lands, but the whole is greater than the sum of their parts, and having modal options as polarizing in function as spell//land is a split card dream. I’ve been very impressed with these cards in cube so far.

Phizzled: The Pauper Cube got a bunch of playables this year, but my favorites are the least flashy. The Jumpstart thriving land cycle freed up some space and added flexibility in a slot that has been rigid for our cube in the past. Dual lands in aggro color pairs would often just do laps around the draft table, but the Thriving lands always find a home.

Alexis: Seeing the results of R&D’s “F.I.R.E.” and “Booster Fun” philosophies come to fruition. For me, 2020 was all about watching R&D take things to the next level and throw all the constraints out the window. They pushed Magic on all axes — design maxims, visual and graphic design, IP crossovers, etc. This began in 2018 and 2019 (playtest cards, adventures, sagas), but this year took it to a whole new level with companion, mutate, keyword counters, modal double faced cards, Godzilla cards, all the showcases and variant arts, and all the secret lairs, notably Prime Slime, The Walking Dead, and Party Hard, Shred Harder. They’re even trying entirely new card treatments with the foil etched cards.

If you’re someone who wants to collect every card, 2020 was probably an overwhelming nightmare; but if you’re someone like me who just wants a wide swath of unique-looking cards and as much mechanical variety as possible, it feels like a whole new era is upon us.

Anthony: It’s not splashy, but as Wizards is really hitting a powerful stride in limited sets, they’ve also designed some excellent ‘core set’ cards. Simple and cleanly designed, these cards are filling gaps in my lower-powered cube. Examples include Fearless Fledgling, Bubble Snare, Malefic Scythe, Goblin Wizardry, and Fire Prophecy just to name a few.

SirFunchalot: 2020 has certainly been a dumpster fire of a year for many of us due to the, uhhh — waves hands around, gesturing at everything — you know why. But, there has been one consistently good thing this year and that’s been pretty, shiny cardboard. If you’re a fan of collecting overly expensive pieces of paper like myself, then 2020 has had quite a lot to offer as we’ve seen the continuation and ramp up of Secret Lair, collector’s boosters, box toppers, extended art, full art, alternate frame, foil-etched super mcdeluxe versions of cards. There has never been a greater range of options for premium editions of cards before and if I know cubers, the one thing that generally unites us is our love of these fancy trinkets. Even though the world around us has been quite the mess — to put it mildly — we’ve still had some cool stuff to look forward to. The recently released “Shred Harder” Secret Lair in particular features some of the most unique artwork I’ve ever seen featured on a Magic card, and I am all for it!

Allison: Modal double-faced cards. Truthfully, I am skeptical of the overall direction that Wizards has been pushing cards in by adding tons of value across the board and reducing variance — Bonecrusher Giant is a frustratingly good card. But the MDFCs have been fantastic. I love that they allow for flexibility but force players to choose one side or the other when they’re played, as opposed to giving them both, like Adventures. They also succeed in making otherwise too narrow effects like Makindi Stampede playable.

John: Modal double-faced cards were the great contribution this year, for similar reasons that Adventure was a cube home run last year. Flexible cards that are self-contained toolboxes are precious both for opening up additional design space and for giving players legitimate choices in game play.

Cube “Miss” of the Year

Emma: The “punisher” cards from Commander Legends feel like a pretty big miss for me. These are the Hullbreacher-esque cards that permanently lock out an entire effect. I don’t love cards that lock out a ton of cards from specific colors in a drafted, limited format where interaction is spread incredibly thin and sometimes completely nonexistent.

wtwlf123: The Companion mechanic. What a cluster that turned out to be. We’re trapped with either playing them as intended and having them be broken or playing them as adjusted and having them be lackluster. It was a frustrating experience testing them out, and having to flip back and forth between inclusion and exclusion was unpleasant. I basically dislike everything about that mechanic, and the frustration surrounding how it was handled has led to me simply leaving them out of my cube. Ugh.

Phizzled: I disliked the “non-human matters” cards we saw in Throne of Eldraine, and the further support we saw in 2020 for the concept. I want to love the mutate mechanic, and honestly, even at common we have some pretty appealing cards, like Cavern Whisperer and Vulpikeet. However, the ability creates some minor memory issues and the occasional feel-bad moment for new drafters. Savannah Lions and Elite Vanguard look functionally the same if you’re drafting them, but when you pick up your first mutate card later in the game, you can easily discover that the creature type on an otherwise vanilla card is a detriment. Keeping an eye on mutate’s requirements, especially the promo printings without the reminder text, can create concerns looking to the future and gives me worries.

Alexis: The “green flash” archetype. Nightpack Ambusher into Glademuse gave me hope that there could be a cool Simic archetype based around not casting spells on your own turn. But Glademuse being symmetrical sucks, and the rest of 2020 had nothing for this archetype. I’m still holding out hope that this concept can be fleshed out eventually, but for now I’m still looking for more depth to my Simic themes (and Boros themes, but I don’t see a light at the end of that tunnel).

Honorable mention to the companion rules change, which neuters the reward enough that I don’t bother stretching to hit the constraint; other than Lutri, companions just end up in our maindecks rather than forcing us to play cards we wouldn’t otherwise.

Anthony: The COVID-19 crisis. The last handful of cards for my second cube arrived in the mail mere moments into the pandemic and it’s languished untouched and unshuffled ever since.

Almost as disappointing was Commander Legends. Cube and Commander scratch so many of the same itches as casual, social ways to play that allow exploring the depth of the game. Cube does a lot of this much more elegantly, not forcing players to awkwardly balance the same level of un-optimization. To me, the cleanest synthesis of commander and limited is Cube. Providing an inroad to Cube for EDH players was obviously not and shouldn’t have been their goal for Commander Legends, but selfishly I think they’ve canonized a way to play ‘limited commander’ which is clumsy and will be hard to shake.

SirFunchalot: Companions. There’s not really much to say about this mechanic that hasn’t already been said. We saw companions totally upend every single constructed format they were legal in, resulting in some pretty ridiculous things like Lurrus getting banned from Vintage for power level reasons, Lutri being banned from Commander before it was even released, and eventually Wizards stepping in and nerfing the mechanic itself, forcing companions to effectively cost an extra 3 mana than originally intended (the difference between Sol Ring and Sisay's Ring). Despite this colossal nerf, Lurrus and Zirda remain banned in Legacy. It’s not a mechanic I’m willing to play with in any of my cubes.

Allison: The uncommon commanders in Commander Legends. I love the uncommon legends we got in sets like Theros Beyond Death, but the offerings from Commander Legends all feel too narrow to make reliably work in a draft environment like my cube. I think my expectations were just too high.

John: COVID-19. It is perfectly frivolous to complain of the pandemic’s effect on Cube life when it has taken loved ones from us and profoundly changed the lives of everyone in the world. Nevertheless, I very much miss having friends at the draft table.

Cube Card of the Year

Emma: I’m gonna go a bit out there on this one, but The Prismatic Piper is my favorite. Themed cubes and cube variants are my favorite things in Magic, and official Wizards of the Coast cards that allow people to explore those spaces are wonderful for opening up the kinds of cubes that are possible. I hope we see more cards like this in the future.

wtwlf123: I think my cube card of the year is Shatterskull Smashing // Shatterskull, The Hammer Pass. The other card I was considering for this title was Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, but I’m giving the nod to Shatterskull because of its raw flexibility. As I said in my preview article, I’m not sure if I’ve ever evaluated a more versatile card than Shatterskull Smashing. Not only does it have the advantage of being a tapped land or an untapped land, but it scales in value from 3-mana all the way up. It can kill critical 1-toughness targets for 3 mana, kill bears, beasts, and/or multiple small creatures in the midgame, and kill two bomb targets in the late game. Hard to imagine wanting anything more out of a card that can also function as a land.

Phizzled: It feels weird to say this, but Warded Battlements is a heck of a lord for white-X pairings. It and Tuktuk Rubblefort both give aggro decks interesting options at the three-drop spot, and I’ve learned to be excited about clean aggressive threats.

Alexis: So far, Fiend Artisan stands out as the card that most commonly influences a draft on it’s own, with Lurrus as a close second. Fiend Artisan let me cut Vannifar and still have multiple pod effects available in any green-X combination. I like my cards to create maximal variety in experience, so I really like how it complements Pod while contrasting it in several ways. It sits at a different spot on the curve, can jump to any CMC, and can act as a significant threat in a graveyard-focused deck.

Anthony: Baleful Strix, fantastically illustrated by Allen Douglas’ in Secret Lair: Ornithological Studies. Despite the strix being a dubious, overpowered inclusion in my primary cube, this edition has secured its tenure. No disrespect to Nils Hamm for the original, which was already an all time favorite of mine!

SirFunchalot: I don’t think any card other than Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath deserves the crown this year; what an utterly ridiculous card. Wizards, if you’re reading this, can we please give Boros “the Simic treatment”?

Allison: I think the Cube card of the year is Skyclave Apparition. It’s powerful and cleanly designed.

My personal card of the year is Waker of Waves. It fills so many roles: cheap card selection, control finisher, ramp target, and importantly is 2/3rds of the necessary pieces for reanimator combo.

John: Shark Typhoon is a gift. It is a cheap cantrip. It is a great draw at any point in the game. It is a threat that is instant speed, uncounterable, scalable, and evasive. It represents a legitimate wincon for control that need not necessarily cost some grotesque amount of mana. And lest we forget (I often do!): the card can be hard cast, and it does… good things? I jest, but this maelstrom of razor-toothed fish does it all.

Best Set for Cube

Emma: Commander Legends. After my last answer it’s hardly surprising, but Commander Legends, despite its handful of flaws, knocks a lot of things out of the park. In a lot of ways Commander Legends is the roadmap for Commander Cubes in the same way that Commander Precons nudge newer Commander players into building their own decks. Products that expand the pool of people who want to be part of the cube community are invaluable, and I think Commander Legends did that better than any other official Wizards of the Coast product in 2020.

wtwlf123: Zendikar Rising is my favorite set for the cube in 2020. In fact, it’s one of the most represented sets of all time in my cube. A close second would be the new Bob Ross Secret Lair lands.

Phizzled: While novelty has me most excited about the cards I’m currently testing from Commander Legends, Theros Beyond Death is my favorite set. I really liked the Escape mechanic, having the opportunity to revisit Devotion, and testing out every member of the Omen cycle.

Alexis: My cube focuses on two things: pushing drafters towards new archetypes and synergies, and maximizing visual and thematic variety. Ikoria was a homerun on both ends. Even with the rules change, companions still push in new deckbuilding directions while using hybrid mana to increase playability. Triomes revolutionize my mana fixing while being visually striking in showcase foil. Kogla, Mothra, and Rielle make you think about something you weren’t thinking about before you drafted them. Shark Typhoon lets me have a 6-mana “win the game” enchantment that isn’t a dead draw on turn three. Fiend Artisan was mentioned earlier. And Godzilla cards are the first salvo in what I expect to be a long run of layering non-Magic IP into my cube.

Anthony: I enjoyed Jumpstart tremendously. I expected it to be a great introductory format to new players, but turned out to be a format I just delighted in playing on Arena, despite being holed up without paper Magic. I loved the resonant deck themes, varied gameplay and a new precedent for a ‘sandbox’ environment. I don’t expect to build a Jumpstart cube myself, but it plants a flag as style of sandbox deck building involving just two important and engaging decisions.

SirFunchalot: The best set of the year for cube, at least as far as I’m concerned, has to be Double Masters; I don’t even think it’s close. Double Masters contains tons of highly desirable reprints and the increased print run, coupled with both collector’s boosters and packs containing twice as many rares as normal, has obliterated the prices of singles. As far as Magic sets that have made powerful cards available to a wider audience, it’s hard to even think of any that have achieved this goal better than Double Masters. If anyone out there has been waiting for a while to pick up some of the bigger ticket cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Dark Confidant and Stoneforge Mystic, Double Masters has made this a significantly more budget-friendly endeavor.

Allison: Definitely Zendikar Rising. Modal double-faced cards, powerful standouts like Skyclave Apparition and Omnath, Locus of Creation, scaleable kicker cards like Nullpriest of Oblivion and Skyclave Shade, and the styling of the showcase cards are all home-runs. The limited format has been a challenge for me, but enjoyable even dozens of drafts in, and I got lots of great cards for my cube from the set as well.

John: Wizards has once again graced us with a bumper crop of great cards this year. THB, IKO, and ZNR are all outstanding sets. For me, Zendikar Rising is the stand-out, and this is thanks almost entirely to lands. The introduction of enemy Pathway lands is great, especially for larger cubes. And I am delighted that the cycle will be completed in Kaldheim! But of course, the most exciting additions are the MDFCs. A Murder that can be a land? Sign me up! And give me that Censor, that Clone, that Raise Dead, those angels, and heck even the indifferent-looking creatures such as Skyclave Cleric or Umara Wizard. The fact that these spells need not occupy a spell slot in one’s deck makes more of our picks matter in draft and expands in-game decisions.

Cube Level-Ups

Emma: I was brainstorming on ideas for my Proliferate Cube a bit with Ryan Overturf, and he basically made a point about emphasizing gameplay that blew me away. I think in Cube it’s tempting to show off how cool some cards can sound on paper… Only for those cards to end up going 15th every draft and almost never making it into decks.

Emphasizing the importance of good gameplay is going to lead to more memorable cube moments than hoping that someone calls you clever for remembering some obscure 15-year old uncommon.

wtwlf123: Shifting the focus back onto combo a bit. It gives my drafters more tools to draft, different ways to win games, and almost adds a bit of a puzzle solving component to the event. Looking for synergies, interactions, and combos, keeping track of what components I’ve drafted and what I’m still looking for — it has added some complexity to the drafting and deckbuilding process that has been fun and challenging to explore. If you’re looking for a way to spice up the white and green creature decks to have a little more flair to their function, I highly recommend discussing and experimenting with creature-based combos for your playgroup.

Phizzled: I spent a lot of downtime during the summer months looking at other people’s color restricted cubes and considering how they viewed the foundations of varied archetypes to allow replayability. I’ve been thinking for most of the year about how to ensure that our cube has support for doing cool things with commons without feeling completely on rails, and I appreciated the reminder from other cube owners and managers that our players can puzzle together cogent archetypes with fewer archetype signposts. I’m hoping to revisit some utility spells and ensure that we’re not painting players into a corner in 2021.

Alexis: This year was spent realizing how malleable the drafting experience truly is. Designing a cube is just designing a game, and part of that includes how the draft functions. COVID put me in an environment where the only way I got to play cube was heads up against my roommate. All of the heads-up draft formats I knew of were kinda crap for my cube, so instead we just started with “why not literally just do 2 player draft?” and changed the rules a little bit each time to make it better.

As of the latest iteration, we’re drafting 7 packs each heads up, first taking 1 card faceup from each pack (14 total), then circling back to take 2 more cards from each pack. This lets us quickly figure out what the full card pool is so we can plan deck direction and synergies, know where to prioritize mana fixing, and not have to spend mental energy on memorizing picks.

Figure out what you want your cube experience to be, and don’t be afraid to tweak pack counts and sizes, add rules, modify collation, or do whatever else is needed to help maximize that experience.

Anthony: I’ve shifted the way I think about the relationship between power level, rarity, and card advantage. My cube has a fairly low, floating power level and drawing the line of how powerful is too powerful has always been one of the biggest challenges. I’ve realized that line needs to be different depending on why a card is powerful. At the speed and power level of the cube, sources of repeated card advantage proved to be overwhelmingly optimal and the meta game degenerated entirely toward value oriented strategies. There’s always more work to do, but after cutting a number of the biggest offenders here, many of which I love and hoped would be more like synergistic build arounds, there’s more tension between tempo and value strategies and plays. At the same time I’ve been much more willing to increase the power level in cards that effect tempo: faster mana fixing and proactive cards.

SirFunchalot: Lands. With the release of Zendikar Rising and its modal double faced cards, myself and many cubers in the community were very excited to trial a more robust package of utility lands. While I certainly enjoyed the higher density of flood mitigation that comes with running these cards, what I ended up finding out was I actually just liked playing with more lands in general. This process put me in the direction of increasing the density of dual lands in my cube (and gold cards alongside them). Currently, I happily cube over 100 lands at 384 (the 16 card pack equivalent of a 360 cube), and I haven’t been as excited about cubing in years.

The moral, I think, of this story is that cubers shouldn’t be afraid to try new and weird ideas. There are many ways to build cubes of all shapes and sizes that achieve a myriad of wildly different design goals. In 2020 I’ve seen a huge surge in the number of extremely unique cubes such as Lucky Paper’s own Andy Mangold’s Degenerate Micro Cube, MinorBug’s Tringleton experiments, Derek Gallen’s Limited Cube and a host of others I wish I had the time to name. Gone are the days where cubers simply pick between Powered, Unpowered, Peasant and Pauper and we’ve even seen Wizards of the Coast showcase some of these unique designs on MTGO this year. There honestly hasn’t been a more exciting time to be cubing, and I for one can’t wait to see what new things 2021 brings us.

Allison: Reassessing the rarity restriction in my Peasant cube. I love playing with just commons and uncommons, but I’ve realized that although my design goals are very closely associated with the play patterns at these rarities, it’s not a perfect overlap. In some cases, this restriction has needlessly hindered the pursuit of my desired gameplay. This year, I decided to introduce rare fixing lands and it’s felt great. It has me questioning whether I should introduce more rares into my environment. I’ve been asking myself what it is about peasant that I really like. One of the appeals is getting to play with good limited commons and uncommons that you otherwise would not get to play with outside of their respective draft formats. I love Rakshasa Gravecaller, a card that people who don’t play peasant or didn’t draft Dragons of Tarkir may have never even heard of. I also like that peasant doesn’t really include huge bombs and power outliers that show up in retail limited and more powerful cube environments. Moving forward, I am asking myself if I can make my cube better by adding more rares while still protecting what I love about peasant.

John: I’m honored that Wizards featured one of my cubes on Magic: the Gathering Online in May 2020. That experience was amazing all around. I not only benefited from direct community feedback on a massive scale, but I was able to peek into how many people tackled the format on stream and on video. And crucially, Wizards very kindly lent me a wealth of play data for the cube. I am so grateful to good friends in the community who tackled the dataset with me — and who taught me ever so much about data analysis.

I won’t get out in the weeds here about specific lessons I learned. See my video series on this topic if you want a breakdown! But I will mention a couple of large scale take-aways:

  • Environment is important: even in cubes that appear quite similar, cards may play quite differently.
  • People are important: different groups may approach the same environment very differently.
  • Time is important: people will play an environment differently over time; metagames will coalesce and shift.

In short, despite a designer’s best efforts to create a controlled environment, our players will surprise us. And that is part of the joy of cube design!

Thank you to all our contributors who lent their perspectives to this article. At Lucky Paper, we value representing a diverse approach to Cube design, and we can’t do it alone. Here’s to next year and getting to play Magic, in person, with our friends again.

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© 2020 Lucky Paper. Card images courtesy of Scryfall.