2021 Standard Rotation Cube Retrospective
For over two years, Lucky Paper has surveyed the Cube community on their first impressions of each new Magic set. In the wake of the 2021 Standard rotation, we’re using the milestone in the Magic calendar to look back at the sets leaving Standard and how the Cube community’s impressions have changed over time. For Cube designers, the evolution of Standard can be a good time to focus their interests, card evaluations, and take advantage of relevant price drops.
The rotation affects every set from Throne of Eldraine, the inaugural set for our Cube survey, to Core Set 2021, but we’ll also consider supplementary sets like Jumpstart and Commander 2020.
In the surveys for those sets, we asked Cube designers to give us first impressions of a set, usually well before the set’s release. Respondents rated cards on a scale from 1 to 3, with 3 being cards they’d describe as a “staple for years to come” for their particular environment, and 1 being cards that might not “make the cut for long term” in their cube. The reason designers might assign a 1 or 3 could be for power level, play pattern, or other subjective criteria, so it’s best understood as a measure of the community’s perception of cards rather than any characteristic inherent in the cards.
The goal of our retrospective is to use those prospectives, those windows to the past opinions of our respondents, and evaluate which sets and cards lived up to our expectations.
The key metrics for the retrospective compare our community’s first impressions from their surveys to the community’s present opinions as manifested in their cube lists. For the latter data set, Cube Cobra allows us to objectively measure the play rates of cards from 2019-2020, free of the hindsight bias that an “exit survey” might invite. Cube Cobra’s data certainly encodes designers’ biases both particular and universal, but the trends in the community are exactly what we hope to illustrate.
In the same way that our prospective surveys objectively measure subjective community opinions, our retrospective will not yield insight into the “strongest” or “best” cards. Instead, it captures an objective picture of whether the broader community is playing cards at a higher or lower rate than they did at the time of the survey.
The benefit of this method is that it encodes the subjective criteria by which cube curators include or exclude cards — concerns of aesthetics, play pattern, budget, power level, and more are included in the simple binary measure: whether or not a card is included in a cube. The risks of this method are in overestimating the objectivity of the explanations of the data.
For the table below, we capture two non-dimensional metrics for each card from ELD to M21: the first metric is the difference between present and past play rates among Lucky Paper’s prospective respondents; the second metric is the difference between Lucky Paper’s initial play rate and the present play rate of all cubes on Cube Cobra. For both metrics, the more negative the result, the more that card’s play rate has depreciated over time, and vice versa for positive results. In calculating these numbers, we only consider cubes whose Cube Cobra links were valid at both time periods, but the other descriptive data (average rating and testers from the prospective, and the number of current Cube Cobra cubes for each card) include all applicable cubes. Inclusion rate is given as a percentage since the number of submissions changed from set to set.
|Heartfire Immolator - M21||2.3||63.8%||3763|
|Verge Rangers - C20||1.8||56.0%||906|
|Questing Beast - ELD||2.8||52.8%||6822|
|Barrin, Tolarian Archmage - M21||2.4||52.6%||3824|
|Spiteful Prankster - JMP||2.4||50.0%||1528|
|Seasoned Hallowblade - M21||2.4||49.1%||5013|
|Charming Prince - ELD||2.4||47.2%||9015|
|Rankle, Master of Pranks - ELD||2.2||45.3%||7391|
|Ethereal Forager - C20||1.8||44.0%||1637|
|Heartless Act - IKO||2.7||43.9%||7027|
|Thriving Moor - JMP||2.7||42.9%||3565|
|Thriving Isle - JMP||2.7||42.9%||3582|
|Thriving Heath - JMP||2.7||42.9%||3569|
|Thriving Grove - JMP||2.7||42.9%||3568|
|Thriving Bluff - JMP||2.7||42.9%||3556|
|Eliminate - M21||2.3||42.2%||3149|
|Robber of the Rich - ELD||2.1||39.6%||4956|
|Once Upon a Time - ELD||2.3||37.7%||5021|
|Garruk, Cursed Huntsman - ELD||2.5||37.7%||2171|
|Oko, Thief of Crowns - ELD||2.5||35.8%||5921|
|Shark Typhoon - IKO||2.4||33.9%||6952|
|Garruk, Unleashed - M21||2.4||31.0%||1263|
|Vivien, Monsters' Advocate - IKO||2.4||30.6%||3254|
|Fabled Passage - ELD||2.8||30.2%||9002|
|Emiel the Blessed - JMP||2.1||28.6%||922|
|Llanowar Visionary - M21||2.1||28.4%||4934|
|Nadir Kraken - THB||2.3||28.3%||3428|
|Sanctuary Blade - C20||1.6||28.0%||346|
|Neutralize - IKO||2.1||27.2%||3610|
|Stonecoil Serpent - ELD||2.5||26.4%||8004|
The majority of cards have seen a decrease in interest compared to the initial percentage suggested by our prospective, even compared to the Cube Cobra userbase at large.
This doesn’t come as a surprise to us. After all, it’s baked into our survey’s expectations that not all cards will thrive for years and years, so many respondents test cards only tentatively. Since Wizards produces enough new cards to fill multiple cubes each year, designers often make room for new tests by cutting those same tentative tests from the last set release.
We also have to consider the breadth of Cube Cobra’s data set when we compare our hundred-odd respondents to the tens of thousands of Cube Cobra lists. Many of Cube Cobra’s lists are rarely updated compared to our ultra-engaged respondents, or they might be based around themes or restrictions where the latest release doesn’t fit, thereby suppressing those cards’ results in our study.
In other words, the odds are stacked against an individual card seeing an increase in play rate over the last two years. In the rare instances where this does occur, it is a signal that something unique or surprising is responsible for that card’s long-term success.
Many of the cards that saw an increase in play were tough-to-evaluate effects that were nevertheless powerful in a variety of formats. Our survey respondents tend to test powerful cards at higher rates than Cube Cobra more broadly, so cards which break out in Constructed or prominent power-motivated cubes tend to see long-term play in the cubes we evaluated.
Other sleeper hits hailed from unassuming supplemental products like Commander precon decks, which don’t receive the same level of community scrutiny during preview season.
Throne of Eldraine has the dubious honor of the most broadly powerful and influential set in the last two years. Its standout cards monopolized Constructed formats, and the Cube community was no doubt influenced by this broader understanding of Eldraine. Two years later, our respondents are still playing a median of 8 cards from this set.
While many cards (especially Adventure cards) did receive high initial ratings, others slipped under the radar. Embercleave is the biggest hidden gem from our set prospective, which was tested by zero of our initial 30 respondents. Fabled Passage’s results have been assisted by several reprints, a trend we see replicated in other highly available cards.
And then there’s Oko, Thief of Crowns, who challenged players’ card evaluation skills in every context. The dominant sentiment during preview season seemed to be “Oko’s strength probably depends on what Food does”. In retrospect, a 3-mana planeswalker that upticks to 6 loyalty and brings snacks along for the ride speaks for itself.
Notably, the majority of Cube Cobra plays Oko at a lower rate than our respondents, but our respondents have only played Oko more, suggesting that the people responding to Lucky Paper surveys at the time were much more tolerant of the elk hijinks than the average cube curator.
Among all cubes on Cube Cobra, Thrill of Possibility had the largest increase from the expectations set by our survey participants among all non-reprint cards from 2019-2020. It’s not a particularly splashy card, but has been reprinted in quick succession, is Pauper- and Peasant-legal, and offers redundancy for the ever-beloved Faithless Looting for cubes using singleton restrictions — this is the kind of broad appeal and easy access that tends to see the most play in the diverse lists on Cube Cobra.
Meanwhile, Cube designers tended to sour on Eldraine’s interchangeable aggro beaters and midrange roleplayers. Midrange beef has seen substantially decreased play rates in the last two years, perhaps because it is relatively easy for Wizards to design novel, pushed midrange threats in the 2-6 mana range. Simultaneously, aggressive decks need a critical mass of attackers and support to thrive, but one of the most obvious trends in the retrospective results is a decrease in these cards’ play rates. It is likely that cube curators keep their linear aggro decks feeling fresh by interchanging the pieces on a regular basis, thereby suppressing the results for any individual card, nearly regardless of the set.
Once Upon a Time, though, doesn’t fall into the prior categories. It’s possible the free spell doesn’t “feel powerful” enough to justify the Cube slot (arguments often applied to Gitaxian Probe or Street Wraith), but it may also be fatigue from its dominance in Constructed, eventually leading to its ban from Standard, Pioneer, and Modern.
While it didn’t have nearly the impact of Eldraine, Theros: Beyond Death still offered broadly popular and resilient threats for Cube curators, with a median of 6 THB cards still played by the median Lucky Paper respondent.
Foremost among them is another Simic threat, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, who saw an increase in play among survey participants despite a lower play rate across all of Cube Cobra. Along with it came Klothys, God of Destiny and Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger, examples of how Constructed success boosts cube inclusion for power-motivated lists.
One quirk of this feedback loop from Constructed to Cube is Shadowspear: due in part to an interaction with an even newer card, Urza's Saga of Modern Horizons II, we see significant increase in this humble equipment’s play rate.
Elder Giants notwithstanding, Theros: Beyond Death took a drubbing in terms of long-term Cube retention. It’s trivially easy for Cube curators to find replacements for generically strong cards that cost more than 2 mana, and that’s where most of THB’s power was located.
Ikoria introduced Companions, 1-mana cycling, and a bold new flavor to Magic. As a whole, our respondents cut many of their IKO tests, but standouts like Sprite Dragon, Winota, Joiner of Forces, Chevill, Bane of Monsters, and many of the companions saw increased play rate. The Triomes also rose in play rate — Lucky Paper respondents are often loathe to include taplands, but Constructed play and their interaction between fetchlands and Triomes may have tipped the scales in their favor.
IKO boasts a median of a whopping 12 non-reprint cards played currently in survey respondents’ cubes. This speaks to the appeal of IKO’s sleeper cards, and the prevalence of its 5-card cycle of Triomes among Lucky Paper respondents.
Most of Ikoria’s cards which have fallen from grace are of the same category as the midrange threats of ELD and THB: mechanically familiar, easily replaced, known quantities. Designers were happy to try new variations like Heartless Act and Neutralize, but they were likely cut when the novelty wore off, and the midrange threats of Gemrazer and Luminous Broodmoth may have suffered for their wordy rules text that didn’t offer a proportional increase of power.
Commander 2020, released alongside Ikoria, had one notable sleeper hit: Ethereal Forager took some time to get noticed, but its combination of efficiency and novel synergies made it a good fit in a range of contexts.
From Core Set 2021, Seasoned Hallowblade seems to be the rare aggro beater that has withstood long-term testing. Notably, Hallowblade is much less favored by the average Cube Cobra curator, which suggests that the Lucky Paper respondents at the time were relatively receptive to linear aggro strategies.
Though M21 had other promising options for midrange, there was not any long-term Cube retention among those cards.
Finally, in Jumpstart, the Thriving land cycle has seen a significant increase in play rates. Although a little difficult to parse, with a floor of Evolving Wilds and a much higher ceiling, has turned out to be quite appealing. The cycle is one of the most powerful mana-fixing options for rarity-restricted environments.
The Lucky Paper survey respondents of 2019-2020 were fairly power-motivated and aggro-leaning.
Since the lion’s share of respondents to our set prospective surveys self-described as “Unrestricted” curators, this should be obvious already. Even so, it’s surprising just how much our respondents liked controversial power outliers like Oko or aggro all-stars like Seasoned Hallowblade relative to the rest of Cube Cobra.
We cube curators are not very good at evaluating powerful cards, and depend on Constructed results to provide a referendum.
Many of the most infamous cards of 2019-2020 — Oko, Uro, Embercleave, Winota, Lurrus — were underestimated or simply unnoticed by our power-motivated survey respondents, and have only seen increased cube play rates after Constructed success popularized them. Conversely, many of 2020’s most-heralded preview cards turned out to be duds in the long run (which often correlated to a lack of Constructed play). We curators would probably waste less time, energy, and money if we simply waited until new sets saw tournament play before buying cube updates — but where’s the fun in that?
The average Lucky Paper survey respondent will cut more cards than they keep.
Every set reviewed here saw an overall depreciation in their cube representation over time, meaning that the cube curators who respond to our surveys tend to cut more cards than they keep. It will depend on the individual curator whether this churn in a cube list is an intentional effort to keep things fresh, or a net cast too widely. Either way, this data does call into question the most visible update cycles in the Cube community, which occur right before each set’s prerelease. Despite all the hype and fear of missing out, it would be more efficient to wait awhile before making cube updates.
Browse the first impressions and view the full survey data from each set: