Community Voices

2021 — Cube in Review

December 6th, 2021

When I wrote the introduction to last year’s “Cube in Review” article I hoped that this year would not be as defined by COVID-19 as 2020 was. Twelve months have flown by, and even though we have vaccines, most of our lives continue to be heavily influenced by the ongoing pandemic. Cube players have perhaps resumed playing with a fully vaccinated playgroup, or chanced a masked draft at their local game store, but for most of us, paper Magic is still not the simple, carefree pleasure that it was two years ago.

Nevertheless, we’ve once again invited some friends from around the Cube world to reflect on the highlights of the last year for our favorite format.

Here is what Magic had in store for us in 2021:

Introducing this year’s respondents:

Andrea Mengucci is a professional Magic player and winner of the 2019 Mythic Invitational. His “Mengu Cube”, which Andrea maintains and plays regularly with his local playgroup in Italy, was featured on Magic Online in April of this year.

Natalie Weizenbaum is an avid Cube designer and player living in Seattle. She designed the first two iterations of Magic Online’s Modern Cube and had her Nega Cube — an environment featuring only cards that are not already included in one of Magic Online’s other cubes — featured in March. She can be found on Twitter at @nex3.

Dom Harvey is a seasoned competitive player from the SCG Tour. He writes a weekly column on Star City Games and hosts the Modern-focused podcast Dominaria’s Judgment. Cube-focused readers will know him from the Riptide Lab Podcast.

Harper O’Neill has been with Wizards of the Coast for 9 years, currently serving as the Senior WPN Retail Development Specialist helping to support the growth of local game stores. She has designed several cubes for employee events and is the curator of Magic Online’s Core Set Cube. You can find her at @imharperoneill 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.

John Terrill is the person behind the Cultic Cube video series, the Château Cube podcast, and the Cultic Bestiary medieval token collection. He is the one of the organizers of the CubeCon competitive cube event, which may finally happen in 2022, lord willing and the COVID don’t rise.

Jason Waddell is the founder of the Cube forum Riptide Lab and the host of the occasional Riptide Lab Podcast. He is known for his articles on Channel Fireball which helped bring Cube design principles to a broader audience.

Cube “Hit” of the Year
Adeline, Resplendent Cathar
Showdown of the Skalds
Magda, Brazen Outlaw

Andrea: Boros Aggro got a lot of new toys and it’s now the most successful archetype in our cube. I will go ahead and mention them all: Usher of the Fallen, Intrepid Adversary, Luminarch Aspirant, Sungold Sentinel, Adeline, Resplendent Cathar, Archon of Emeria, Brutal Cathar, Elite Spellbinder, Reidane, God of the Worthy, Solitude, Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer, Flametongue Yearling, Magda, Brazen Outlaw, Voltaic Visionary, Laelia, the Blade Reforged, Goldspan Dragon and Showdown of the Skalds.

Conspiracy Theorist
Late to Dinner
Priest of Fell Rites

Natalie: 2021 brought powerful tools for combo decks to colors that have never had access to them before. Red got efficient rummaging like Plargg, Conspiracy Theorist, and Falkenrath Pit Fighter, which give red combo decks a boost in consistency without needing to dip into blue and gives BR Sneak Attack/reanimator decks powerful discard outlets. Even more important are cards like Late to Dinner and particularly Priest of Fell Rites, bringing white a newly viable archetype that’s neither overbearing aggression or third-tier control. These are the sorts of designs that are necessary for a truly vibrant and multifaceted ecosystem of archetypes to thrive.

Dom: Popular but shallow themes picked up a critical mass of tools to flourish in cubes of all types. My previous attempts to make instants/sorceries or artifacts matter always fell flat in the past; now, both themes are deep enough to stand alone (in a cube that doesn’t care exclusively about them) but with enough crossover that they can happily coexist together or alongside other themes. Reanimator also gained strong tools across power levels that make it more tempting for a variety of cubes, beyond its usual Vintage Cube model as an unstable, all-in combo deck.

Ponder
Doom Blade
Ancient Den

Harper: I think the thing that particularly shone this year was the density of alternate art treatments for cards. Strixhaven in particular really stood out for me, with iconic spells getting absurdly beautiful updates. I appreciate having many, many options available when making selections for how my cube looks. Time Spiral Remastered delivered more old-bordered goodies for players who like that old-school aesthetic, and the hits kept coming set after set. I see this as a real turning point for paper Magic, allowing players to cultivate aesthetic game environments just as rich as their mechanical game environments.

Consider

Phizzled: My runner up — the half cycle of scrying lands from Strixhaven — would have won the title last year, when I put the Thriving land cycle from Jump/Start in the top spot. They mitigate the pain of the Pauper Cube’s enters-the-battlefield-tapped dual lands by having a utility that even our cube’s aggressive decks don’t mind. But my favorite card this year outshines even those lands: Consider, from Midnight Hunt. I’d gotten so used to seeing sidegrades and flavor tweaks on the two-mana cantrip spells that I never thought we’d actually see a clean upgrade over Opt, and even where the Pauper Cube only has one true reanimator spell, binning the card you don’t need right now is much better than putting it on the bottom of the library most of the time.

Den of the Bugbear
Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer
Laelia, the Blade Reforged

John: For me, the gains of the past year have been incremental but entirely welcome. I appreciate that Wizards of the Coast continues to deliver cards that are flexible, in modality and scalability. While every color has benefitted from this trend, red has been particularly blessed by it. Red received a useful mono-colored creature land, a pile of card selection, and scalable aggressive creatures.

I also love the quiet push toward making green non-creature spells more exciting and synergistic. I especially love Quandrix Apprentice and the way that the card rewards green decks for doing things besides casting creatures. And speaking of casting spells, Sedgemoor Witch offers a black Young Pyromancer, and red picks up a few similar, if lower power, tools such as Smoldering Egg and Manaform Hellkite. I like casting instants and sorceries, ok?

I’ve also appreciated that 2021 yielded familiar effects at competitive costs. I thought the days of new Doom Blades had passed into song, but my goodness! cards like Power Word Kill, Portable Hole, Damn, and Lose Focus prove that there are psalms yet unsung. Dread Fugue, Play with Fire, Consider, Falkenrath Pit Fighter, Liquimetal Torque, and Ornithopter of Paradise may not be the splashiest of tech, but they are excellent additions to our toolbox.

Natural Order
Lightning Helix
Memory Lapse

Jason: The Mystical Archive — I am normally the last person to care about card aesthetics. My paper cube is a hodgepodge mix of borders (gold bordered fetches say ‘hello’), my sleeves are terrible, three cards are foiled… but these designs are too good.

Cube “Miss” of the Year
Serra's Emissary
Unmarked Grave
Persist

Andrea: The Serra’s Emissary + Unmarked Grave + Persist combination. I thought it would be good, but the interaction consistently underperforms.

Natalie: 2021 sees the biggest gap between what cards are available in paper versus online since Vintage Masters finally brought MTGO into alignment years ago. Despite the ongoing pandemic and the rise of the Delta variant making online play the safest option, the quarterly commander products only have a few cards per release available on MTGO. For a product that was first released in April 2020, it’s baffling that they continue to make it playable only in person. And as a cube designer running online drafts but also hoping to return to in-person, it’s frustrating to maintain a MTGO-compatible cube list that’s increasingly divergent from my official paper list. (And this isn’t even getting into the new cards in Historic Horizons which are only available on a program for which homebrew cubing is all but impossible!)

Dom: The word “parasitic” gets thrown around too often, but it’s the word I want here. Every main set release this year had a flagship mechanic that demands full commitment — you can handwave away Kaldheim’s snow mana requirements with a house rule (inelegant as that may be), but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Strixhaven’s Lessons/Learn concept is a home run for retail Limited, but daunting for cubes. If any drafter hasn’t seen these cards before — or simply hasn’t memorized them fully — they’ll slow down drafts and games by rifling through a stack of Lessons. More likely, they simply won’t bother with Learn/Lesson — and neither should you! Adventures in the Forgotten Realms dodged this issue by ensuring dungeon-matters cards were unplayable, relegating the dungeon to clutter up MTGO dropdown menus for the rest of time. And the final Innistrad visit doubled down on parasitism with Daybound, which requires fiddly book-keeping with as few as one Daybound Werewolf in your deck, since you have to track day/night for the rest of the game in case it returns to play somehow. The one mechanical constant here is double-faced cards — a deep well of potential, but another layer of complexity that scales poorly in practical terms.

In a year that saw more new cards than any other, this slashed the number of cards in scope for most cubes and shut off the interesting design space explored by those mechanics. I’d love to explore cards like Professor of Symbology, but not when it comes with so much overhead.

Harper: It was a shame that we didn’t get a traditional Core Set for the year to update my Core Set Cube. That’s a small complaint, though, since Adventures in the Forgotten Realms was amazing and it makes more sense for products like that to exist.

Otherwise, I think it’s also a shame that Learn and Lesson are harder to pull off without being a much bigger focus in a cube. If only you could draft the full spellbook to go along with a narrow Learn card!

Phizzled: There were cards I tested this year that failed to excite or which were surpassed during the next set or two, but the biggest miss for me is the loss of Cube Tutor. Last year, I read or reread a lot of Cube content older than the existence of Cube Cobra, and the loss of the changes to those cube lists stings.

John: It’s disappointing that the general power level of sets destined for standard has been reined in, but then Eldraine and Theros Beyond Death spoiled me. Oko so terrified Wizards of the Coast that Planeswalkers this year have been markedly milquetoast, Grist aside. Many new or returning mechanics such as Snow, Foretell, Lessons, and Dungeon Venturing feel as if they have potential, but they remain too parasitic or have too low a density of desirable effects to be worth inclusion in my book.

Dungeon of the Mad Mage
Lost Mine of Phandelver
Tomb of Annihilation

Jason: Dungeons — How do you even describe this mechanic? Parasitic isn’t quite right. Dungeons have a back-loaded reward structure, and unless your cube is tailor-made for dungeons, it’s hard to imagine hitting the critical mass needed to make this mechanic worth your while as a player, designer, or Cube peripherals manager.

Cube Card of the Year
Siphon Insight

Andrea: Siphon Insight. The card is a phenomenal Cube experience, embodies one of my favorite archetypes perfectly (UB Stealing things), and it’s good card advantage. I love it and pick it quite highly.

Grist, the Hunger Tide

Natalie: I love a card that recontextualizes a bunch of existing cards in the cube, so my pick is Grist, the Hunger Tide. Immediately after first reading the card, my mind was filled with dreams of combining it with Green Sun's Zenith, Vivien, Monster's Advocate, Meren of Clan Nel Toth, and of course black’s suite of reanimation spells. And it’s certainly lived up to those dreams, almost single-handedly giving Golgari midrange decks a new lease on life. With a resilient, easy-to-search, and recursion-friendly removal spell like Grist they can live up to their promise of outgrinding the opponent. At the same time, sacrificing a creature is a real cost in a tight game, so Grist is far from oppressive.

Hard Evidence
Occult Epiphany
Showdown of the Skalds
Glimpse of Tomorrow

Dom: Hard Evidence is everything I love in a Magic card. Hard Evidence delivers for all kinds of synergies, like cheap spells, cards in graveyard, tokens, artifacts, and more. If you don’t care about those synergies, Hard Evidence is still a fantastic way to spend your mana and smooth your draw in the early game. More than any other card I can think of, Hard Evidence would be a healthy and positive part of any blue deck in any cube, regardless of power level or other constraints.

Moving up the rarity scale, Occult Epiphany is a late home run from the Crimson Vow Commander decks, an incredibly powerful and flexible card that rewards careful planning but also creates some thrilling moments and enables further big plays. Along the same lines, I’ve loved Showdown of the Skalds as a curve-topper for proactive Boros decks that does more than just rack up damage in combat. A final wildcard that gets me going despite seeing it in literally zero cubes is Glimpse of Tomorrow, and I hope I can build a format where my drafters are as excited about it as I am.

Gelatinous Cube

Harper: Gelatinous Cube. It was the only cubic card printed this year, so it easily takes the (Jell-O) cake. You could also argue that it’s a really cool card and possibly worthy of inclusion, puns aside.

Otherwise, it’s probably Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer. I have a Legendary Cube that features only legendary creatures and one drop Legends are hard to come across. Also, it’s ridiculous.

Captured by Lagacs

Phizzled: It seems odd to say I got more joy casting something other than my actual favorite card this year, but Captured By Lagacs was the most enjoyable card we added. I love the utility, I love what it offers to our relatively weak Selesnya color pair, and I love the art.

Hard Evidence
Expressive Iteration

John: Hard Evidence! I love this little crustacean-summoning spell. It finds welcoming homes in a number of my cube environments that have differing goals and power levels. It’s a turn one defensive body to put in front of the Ragavans of the world, it’s a one mana “cantrip” of sorts, it provides two permanents (one of which is an artifact), and it’s a creature attached to a non-creature spell.

My runner-up is a better Cube card most of the time: Expressive Iteration. It is a two mana Divination — or often still better thanks to the card selection. I am happy to run this card in most environments, despite my allergy to gold cards.

Quandrix Apprentice
Expressive Iteration

Jason: It’s a toss-up between Quandrix Apprentice and Expressive Iteration.

Best Set for Cube

Andrea: Modern Horizons 2 is by far the product with the most value and the highest percentage of good cards. Its draft is nice and it made Modern into a format I enjoy more than I did before. It also gave birth to several busted Cube cards like Urza’s Saga and Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer.

Natalie: As much as I love Innistrad as a setting, double-faced cards as a mechanic, and many specific designs from Midnight Hunt and Crimson Vow, I’d be lying if I gave any answer other than Modern Horizons 2. With a whopping twenty-two cards still in the cube after five months of testing, MH2 is currently my single most represented set, and it doesn’t even have a land cycle bolstering its numbers! Not only did it have an incredible number of powerful and interesting cards, it helped define new archetypes as I discussed above. Although I hear that it may have been a bit too impactful from a constructed perspective, for a Cube designer it was practically perfect. My only complaint, as a steward of a Modern-era cube, is that including such legacy-cube staples as Upheaval and Nevinyrral's Disk blurs the distinction that gives my cube its identity… but I can always just exclude those cards anyway.

Dom: Modern Horizons 2 is the easy answer, but the right one for me. Just like the first Modern Horizons, the set is a goldmine, full of eye-catching cards that escape the limits of a Standard or Commander set, as well as the role-players that tie a cube together. Cards which are obnoxious as constant features of Constructed are much more tolerable in the small doses of Cube. Dragon's Rage Channeler and Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer have a stranglehold over Modern and Legacy, but are easy to appreciate if and when they show up in draft decks. Some archetypes didn’t get the support I’d hoped for — we’re still missing those pushed Madness cards — but the flexible glue cards are the true stars of the set. Cards like Abundant Harvest, Bone Shards, or my beloved Hard Evidence have an open invitation to any cube I build.

Harper: It’s gotta be Modern Horizons 2, right? It’s the set that delivered Hard Evidence and Scuttletide! (I’m a huge Crab fan, #reprintShorecomberCrab)

In seriousness, cards like Ragavan and Esper Sentinel, Ignoble Hierarch and Dragon’s Rage Channeler, among other incredibly powerful and unique cards, slot directly into existing archetypes (which I understand was the intent of the set’s design). I can’t look through that set list without smiling and thinking of a bunch of unique Cube themes and builds inspired by this set.

Phizzled: I don’t think anything can touch Modern Horizons 2. There is a ton of power, a bunch of utility options, and a surprising number of reprint cards made relatively affordable, including the fetchlands and utility spells like Vindicate. Though I like the decision trees playing pauper cube with foretell cards from Kaldheim, pauper isn’t the only cubing I got to do this year, so MH2 takes the crown.

John: The straightforward answer is Modern Horizons 2. And in many respects, it’s “not close,” as we Magic players are wont to say. The set provides a wealth of options for designers of every stripe. MH2’s callbacks to beloved cards and its resurrection of moribund mechanics are all entirely my speed, as I appreciate the MH2 model of nostalgia much more than the meme-y Un-set approach. Also, MH2 is one of the sets for which Wizards of the Coast kindly gave me a free preview card, so I have a special fondness for the set.

The more complicated answer is that Strixhaven has a lot of potential as a world and as a collection of ideas, even if the power level of the set was conservative. Again, to lay bare my biases, my feelings for the set are colored by Wizards of the Coast’s invitation for me to lecture as a Professor of Quandrix College. But I was won over by the set’s exploration of what it means to be a “magician” in different contexts. I like that Strixhaven offers a fictional formalization of our beloved game as lore, as structure, as play. The “college” structure works as a giddy celebration of co-equal and co-implicated means of appreciating and mastering M/magic.

Leaving aside the flavor of the world, Strixhaven has a lot of mechanical potential, too. I like Ward as a new-and-improved Hexproof. I like Magecraft as a generalized Prowess. Pests are a cool spin on Drones. The set pushes modality in coyly endearing ways. Despite the fact that I am almost entirely free of nostalgia for fictional wizarding schools like Hogwarts, I see more potential in Strixhaven’s universe than in any other that we visited this year.

Jason: Strixhaven was my favorite Wizards of the Coast-designed Limited set of all time, with Magecraft as one of the best examples of how to spread a single mechanic to all five colors.

Cube Level-Ups

Andrea: I leveled up by not drafting green in Magic Online cubes. With green I have my lowest win percentage and now I try to avoid it, only moving in when I get an early Natural Order, Channel, or Opposition. Just sticking to the other four colors usually does better for me.

Natalie: As the pandemic forced a retreat into the digital realm last year, a friend of mine created a group chat that we started using to coordinate online cube drafts. Since then, our Cube group has grown to include people outside the Seattle area, and we now have a place to discuss Cube drafts and design any time we want. My Cube design philosophy has always been heavily based on iteration and feedback from my players, but having such a high-bandwidth and constantly-available venue for discussion and debate has really taken the design to the next level. My brilliant friends constantly give me ideas, challenge my assumptions, and help me think through tricky decisions. They even helped me write these answers!

Dom: I used to raise an eyebrow when people said they enjoyed drafting but didn’t care much about playing the games out — surely that speaks to a lack of faith in the format or a flaw in its design? But seeing the latest blockbuster auto-battler success in Storybook Brawl and dabbling in it myself showed me that it’s easy to compartmentalize different phases of a game, or to view those phases as separate games with their own identities. Extending that to Cube design, I’ve come to view drafting, deckbuilding, and gameplay as related yet distinct experiences, each with their own (sometimes clashing!) design problems and incentives, which are nonetheless the curator’s job to design.

I’ve also had more success this year understanding and designing archetypes by ignoring what the archetype is supposedly ‘about’. My ‘spellslinger’ theme in Izzet wasn’t about the mostly interchangeable enabling spells, but rather the threats and payoffs that care about spells. Asking what the spellslinger payoffs had to look like centred the Baneslayer vs Mulldrifter distinction familiar to any Cube designer, even though that design tool seemed out of place at first.

Harper: Design for maximum accessibility. When designing the Alpha Core Set Cube for Magic Online, I took a look back at how previous versions of the Core Set Cube performed. Those iterations were great, but they were largely centered around overly clear archetypes like GW Enchantments or Mono Red Goblins. I wanted to build on the success of those early versions but also allow more creative deck construction, which meant removing some of the more narrow play options (like Verduran Enchantress) and adding cards that performed well in general.

I also paid more attention to the accessibility of mana costs in cards to allow more cards to be played in more decks. This meant being very strict on which cards had {W}{W} or {B}{B} in the cost, for example, and considering cards that only had a single mana symbol instead.

This was especially important for an environment like Magic Online, where thousands of players might experience the draft exactly once. Anything short of accessible might mean they take some card that makes them think “Zombie matters” is a thing, or they end up with too many cards with intensive mana costs across multiple colors because they didn’t realize fixing was at a premium, and they train-wreck their whole draft.

John: In the past, I’ve often exclusively devoted myself to a particular cube environment until I am inspired to abandon it for a new project. This year, I’ve designed, well, a number of cubes. But I’ve maintained two “main” cubes that operate at very different power levels and cater to different psychographics. This parallel development has been enormously satisfying, unlocking a much broader range of cards of interest in each set. I don’t mean to bemoan Wizards of the Coast’s trend away from Eldraine’s high-power sensibilities. Nevertheless, my active curation of a lower power, Jenny/Johnny-oriented cube has helped attenuate the vague disappointment that might otherwise attend my higher power cube’s lack of fresh meat this year.

Jason: I improved at listening to a cube’s needs and disregarding certain constraints. In testing my Eldrazi Domain cube, I realized that the multicolor-matters mechanic was a touch too parasitic. The fix required unorthodox solutions: doubling the fixing, tripling the hybrid and gold cards, and increasing the total number of cards drafted.

Thank you to all our contributors who lent their voices to this article. Here’s hoping 2022’s only surprises are in a surfeit of Cube innovations.

Lucky Paper Newsletter

Our infrequent, text-only newsletter is a friendly way to stay up-to-date with what we’re doing at Lucky Paper. See past newsletters

Lightning Helix — Minttu Hynninen