2021 — Cube in Review
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:
featured on Magic Online in April of this year.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
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.is an avid Cube designer and player living in Seattle. She designed the first two iterations of
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.is the person behind the
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.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:
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.2021 brought powerful tools for combo decks to colors that have never had access to them before. Red got efficient rummaging like
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.
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.I think the thing that particularly shone this year was the density of alternate art treatments for cards.
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.My runner up — the half cycle of
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.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
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.
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.
Serra’s Emissary + Unmarked Grave + Persist combination. I thought it would be good, but the interaction consistently underperforms.The
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!)
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.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
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.
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!
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.It’s disappointing that the general power level of sets destined for standard has been reined in, but then
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.
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. 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.I love a card that recontextualizes a bunch of existing cards in the cube, so my pick is
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. 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.
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.It seems odd to say I got more joy casting something other than my actual
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 and Expressive Iteration.It’s a toss-up between