An Introduction to the Degenerate Micro Cube
Table of Contents
2020 will be a year to remember for many reasons. Alongside weathering a global pandemic, cooped up in the house for God-knows-how-long-and-counting, I’ll also remember it as the year I was consumed by the most intense and rewarding Magic design project I’ve yet embarked on — a cube that challenged my understanding of the game and changed the way I think about it forever.
To many, Vintage Cube is the pinnacle of limited Magic — the most powerful way to draft — but it’s a far cry from constructed eternal formats. Fast combos are inconsistent, powerful strategies like Shops suffer from a lack of redundancy, and the quality of both threats and disruption fall off sharply in singleton.
But what if there was a way to draft decks that play like constructed Vintage decks? Decks that can reliably threaten or thwart a win as early as turn one?
Introducing: the Degenerate Micro Cube.
7 Colorless Cards
5 Hybrid Cards
3 Multicolored Cards
13 Cheat Targets
8 Fixing Lands
10 Utility & Ramp Lands
The Degenerate Micro Cube is a 160 card cube that uses draft, deckbuilding, and gameplay rules adapted from Max Hero’s 15 Card Singularity format:
- Cards are drafted in 2 packs of 10 cards
- The minimum deck size is reduced from 40 cards to 15 cards
- Players do not lose the game if they would draw a card from an empty library
Under these conditions, the Degenerate Micro Cube pursues many of Magic’s most broken and degenerate strategies. The present macro-archetypes are better described as combo, stax/prison, and control, rather than the more prevalent aggro, midrange, and control.
The majority of the combo decks in the Degnerate Micro Cube win by cheating the biggest, baddest threats from Magic’s history into play. There are as many ways to cheat creatures into play as there are drafters in a full pod, so many of these combo decks utilize two or more complimentary cheat strategies to give their deck redundancy, such as Flash and Reanimator, Tinker and Welder, or Channel and Oath. The presence of these decks is a defining feature of the Degenerate Micro Cube — if you’re not drafting one yourself, you’d better have an answer to a turn one channelled Eldrazi Titan.
|Flash||Tinker||Show and Tell||Reanimator||Welder||Sneak Attack||Oath||Channel|
|Chancellor of the Annex||○||⭑||○||●|
|Iona, Shield of Emeria||●||⭑||○||●|
|Kozilek, Butcher of Truth||●||⭑||●||⭑|
|Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre||●||⭑||●||⭑|
|Emrakul, the Aeons Torn||●||⭑||⭑||⭑|
There is substantial overlap between the cheat strategies, and this fact, in conjunction with their prevalence, makes their component cards less committal picks than they would be in a tradtional cube. In defiance of some people’s assumptions, combo decks in the Degenerate Micro Cube take many forms — drafting them does not feel the least bit “on rails”.
“Turns” are merely a suggestion in the Degenerate Micro Cube. An abundance of fast mana and free spells mean that players face critical, game-defining decisions from the first actions of the game. Cards like Lotus Petal, Dark Ritual, and Simian Spirit Guide enable combo decks to effectively win on turn one. Conversely, the same fast mana allows disruptive decks to stifle their opponent or answer any threat as swiftly as it was played.
While fast mana is one of the most powerful and sought-after classes of cards in the cube, it is not without costs. With only 15 cards in your deck, each slot that’s not occupied by a win condition or piece of disruption must be carefully considered. Fast mana is a strategic choice to speed up certain combos and interaction when necessary, but some decks would rather keep their threat and answer densities high than play a turn or two ahead of curve. Trading card advantage for tempo is one of the strategic axes that must be navigated with care and consideration.
Free interaction is a corollary to fast mana. It too offers a tempo advantage but (usually) in exchange for card disadvantage, an even steeper cost in this environment given the small deck size. Finding the right balance of free interaction and more typical, 1-for-1 interaction is key: a deck full of free counterspells that 2-for-1 oneself doesn’t line up well against a threat-dense opponent.
“I’ve never thought so hard about Magic in my entire life.”
With so much free disruption in the cube, players must assume even their tapped-out opponents have interaction and sequence their plays accordingly. While I run a number of free spells in my primary cube, they are not at a sufficient density that I believe it is correct to play around them.
Not so in the Degenerate Micro Cube. The density of free interaction brings a different kind of decision-making to the fore. For example: in game two of one match, I passed up the opportunity to cast a turn one Channel + Emrakul on the play. This may seem like a ludicrous decision, but my opponent knew my deck’s strategy, and I knew they had access to free countermagic. That was their only answer to my combo, so it would be a mistake for them to keep a hand without it on the draw. Instead, I waited a few turns and sequenced Thoughtseize, into Duress, into Channel all in one turn, which taxed my opponent’s answers just enough that I was able to resolve my Channel and win the game.
The aforementioned elements of the Degenerate Micro Cube are somewhat predictable: the best creatures and combos, fast mana, and free interaction are a given in the most degenerate environments. However, sometimes unstoppable combos run up against immovable disruption and the game grinds to a halt. Under these circumstances, the 15 card minimum deck size becomes a liability, and you need ways to recycle your cards or otherwise assemble some kind of inevitability.
“Figuring out this board state is like navigating a chess endgame. ”
This introduces a new class of cards to the Degenerate Micro Cube: graveyard recursion and grindy value engines. Some of them, like Goblin Welder and Auriok Salvagers, are also components of fast combos, while others simply reset your library, like Serene Remembrance, Feldon's Cane, or Memory's Journey. One of the most reliable and repeatable ways to recycle your resources is to combine one of the three Eldrazi titans with any discard outlet. Alternatively, Emry and Lurrus allow you to repeatedly cast answers or threats from the graveyard, while a card like Red Sun’s Zenith doubles as an inevitable win condition and removal.
Some players lacking recursion have opted to go above the minimum deck size to delay running out of cards, trading consistency for a deeper late-game. However, if the match does turn into a battle of attrition, decks with a plan for that contingency are better equipped to go long.
All the mana fixing in the Degenerate Micro Cube fixes for any color and comes into play untapped. An early version of the cube included the more typical cycle of original duals, but decks are so small that they don’t really adhere to typical “two-color” models. With so few picks in the draft and even fewer wheels, the chances that players end up with the appropriate duals are small, and with wildly different counts of cards in each color, specific dual lands are significantly more valuable than others. Five-color fixing lands are played in any deck with more than one color, and allow drafters to make choices about how much they want to prioritize fixing instead of just rewarding them for the luck of getting passed the right dual land. They also open up more creative deckbuilding and sideboarding options, as players who have prioritized fixing have the opportunity to splash for spells in different colors to shore up bad matchups.
Like swimming with sharks or eating a Ghost pepper, playing the Degenerate Micro Cube is not for everyone. Drafts and games harshly punish inexperience with the primary strategies, and with games often decided by one or two spells, there is no such thing as a “small” mistake. However, like spicy food, the Degenerate Micro Cube’s openly hostile first impression conceals a profound depth that keeps me and many others coming back for more.
The consistency in gameplay imparted by the small minimum deck size imbues the draft with extra importance. In a typical limited match between two 40 card decks, even if your deck is considerably worse than your opponent’s, you can still steal a win with a bit of luck. In the Degenerate Micro Cube, you’re likely to lose every single game of a bad matchup. Many matches are won and lost in the draft, not in the games themselves.
With only twenty picks across two packs, a draft of the Degenerate Micro Cube moves quickly, and each pick is critical. A common beginner’s mistake is to take a combo piece early and commit to the deck, assuming that no one else will take the other half of the combo. By the time they realize they aren’t getting there, it’s much too late to pivot. It’s important to remember that though you only get twenty picks, you only need roughly ten non-land cards to construct your deck. A willingness to stay open and spend a few speculative picks on varied combo pieces is key to success in the Degenerate Micro Cube. If you take Mishra's Workshop pack one, pick one, but then don’t see any spheres, it’s better to audible into an alternative strategy than try to play a shops deck that is missing key components.
With such compact win-conditions, most of your picks will be spent on interaction. Whether protecting your own combo or answering an opponent’s, a range of answers is essential, ideally with options to sideboard into depending on the matchup. Reliance on one kind of disruption is a liability. Many people’s first inclinations are to build “the counterspell deck” or “the discard deck”, but counterspells line up poorly against fairer decks, like hate bears, and discard spells can’t stop a topdecking opponent. Decks with a diverse toolbox of interaction fared best in playtesting, and drafting the right balance is a challenge.
Don’t forget, one answer to your opponent’s combo is simply to have a better combo. Marit Lage can’t kill you if it’s forced to chump block a Blightsteel Colossus on two consecutive turns. Yes, this actually happened.
Games between decks drafted from the Degenerate Micro Cube are a uniquely brain-bending experience. One might expect they would be less complicated than games between typical cube decks, as each has fewer unique cards and therefore fewer possible opening lines, threats, and answers. In reality, it’s the exact opposite.
40 card singleton decks are too large and varied to predict precisely when a given card will be drawn, so players largely rely on abstract gameplay heuristics. They choose their line based on limited information, and play towards a range of potential outcomes. In the Degenerate Micro Cube, however, that range is greatly reduced, enough so that it is almost always correct to plan in terms of specific, singular cards in yours and your opponent’s decks. Instead of thinking about card advantage or tempo or who’s the beatdown, players must determine which cards and interactions matter in the matchup and play accordingly. New players can often be heard muttering “hold on, let me check my decklist” within the first few turns of their inaugural game, as they realize their potential draws are very much a known quantity relative to typical cube games.
“Are you really playing Magic if you don’t have your decklist open, trying to figure out the exact composition and order of your remaining 6 cards?”
Playing to your outs in normal limited often means throwing up a hail mary, making sacrifices to give yourself one extra 4% chance to draw the single card you need to win. Playing to your outs in the Degenerate Micro Cube means mulliganing, scrying, and playing strategically so you deploy all of your threats at the right moments and have access to your answers when you need them. With greater consistency comes greater control, and greater control rewards skillful, careful play.
This environment, more than any other I’ve played, rewards familiarity with the list and knowledge of how the cards interact with one another. Bomberman and Welder/Emry decks, for example, have many moving parts, and truthfully I myself have struggled to draft and play them properly — others players in our online playtesting group have had more success with them than I have. This complexity makes the Degenerate Micro Cube less approachable and a hard sell to anyone but fairly enfranchised Magic players, and I consider it one of the cube’s biggest weaknesses. That said, the same complexity that makes the cube inhospitable to some is its greatest appeal to others.
All of these facts make playing the Degenerate Micro Cube difficult. Mistakes are inevitable, and they’re often more noticeable than they would be in a typical game of limited. I make boneheaded punts at a higher frequency in this format than in any other I’ve played. Despite the sky-high power level and abundance of swingy plays, almost every loss is attributable to some draft, deckbuilding, or gameplay mistake rather than bad luck or variance. With small decks and short games, those mistakes are often easier to spot.
A common refrain around our (virtual) playtesting table is “mulligans are O.P.” Whether it’s mulling to your turn one Channel or to guarantee that you have Force of Negation to disrupt your opponent’s fast combo, 15 card decks allow you to throw away perfectly fine hands in favor of broken ones.
“The best draw spell is the one that every player has access to: Wheel of Mulligan. Costs zero!”
In the Degenerate Micro Cube, even more so than in typical cube, you’re always looking for a hand with a focused plan — ideally one that is advantaged against your opponent’s strategy. If you’re playing Oath or Tinker, you may choose to mulligan a good opening seven to explicitly bottom your cheat target. When playing against a discard heavy opponent, it may be best to mulligan to a “bad” hand that doesn’t contain your most important spells. Recursion cards like Elixir of Immortality or Serene Remembrance are best if they’re the last card you draw, so you’re happy to bottom them on a mull to six.
The Degenerate Micro Cube also contains a handful of turn zero effects, like Gemstone Caverns, Sphinx of Foresight, and Chancellor of the Annex, which adds further depth to mulligans. These cards pay dividends in your opening hand — Chancellor protects against early combos or interaction, Sphinx’s scry 3 stacks almost half your deck, and Caverns enables early disruption or threats, including the elusive turn zero Flash in conjunction with a spirit guide.
Smaller deck size and potent, narrow answers mean that a Degenerate Micro Cube deck can be radically transformed by sideboarding. Siding in a single card changes ~10 percent of your non-land cards, the rough equivalent of bringing in four copies of a card in constructed. What’s more, you’ll see a given sideboard card in your opening hand in almost half your games. Whereas sideboarding in a more typical, 40 card cube deck is more about making marginal improvements, your post sideboard deck in the Degenerate Micro Cube may employ an entirely new strategy.
The acute impact of sideboarding has a profound effect on otherwise dead draft picks. Late picks in a traditional cube are often useless, but in the Degenerate Micro Cube, every pick matters because cards can be easily sideboarded. Whether it’s bringing in a big creature to counter your opponent’s Show and Tell or siding in a single Plains alongside Auriok Salvagers because a vanilla 2/4 is good against hatebears, creative sideboarding is rewarded in this environment.
Games are more likely to end in a draw in the Degenerate Micro Cube because players don’t lose to drawing from an empty library. However, more likely still isn’t very likely — in our many hundreds of playtest games we had four draws, two due to Ensnaring Bridge and two due to a locked up board where neither player could profitably attack. These draws were also somewhat attributable to mistakes on the part of one of the players. We’ve never had a matchup where a draw felt inevitable.
I do not know the reason that Max chose 15 as the minimum deck size in his Singularity Cube, but I know why I have kept it: a single card in a 15 card deck is the same percentage of the deck as a playset of a card is of a 60 card deck. Since my goal is to emulate powerful constructed combos, this allows singleton decks to mimic the proportions of their 60 card equivalents. However, because other aspects of the game are unchanged, like starting hand size, decks in the Degenerate Micro Cube are more consistent than a 60-card deck with playsets of each card would be. In a 15 card deck, you have a 47% chance of having a given card in your opening hand, compared to a 40% chance in a 60 card deck running a full playset of the card in question, or a 17% chance in a typical, 40 card, singleton cube deck.
card X in deck
Chances of having
card X in opening hand
For this reason, constructed decks are much better models for what can work in the Degenerate Micro Cube than heuristics derived from traditional cubes.
Like the 15 card deck size, I do not know why the rules were modified in the Singularity Cube to remove losing to drawing from an empty library. I’ve stuck with the rules change in order to, perhaps counterintuitively, make the environment more similar to “normal” Magic. With such small libraries, if winning through mill were possible, I believe it would be a meta-warping and possibly dominant strategy. I am sure a cube built under these conditions could be engaging, skill-testing, and dynamic, but it’s not what I was interested in exploring. Removing mill as a win condition actually brings this environment more in line with typical Magic, as decks are forced to win on more recognizable axes.
The draft, which consists of 2 packs of 10 cards, is the aspect of the cube I am least happy with. 10 card packs at an 8 player table means that you only get a single pick from three quarters of the packs in each direction. With so few picks and dramatically fewer wheels, there is much less time to find the open lane at the table. While I don’t think the draft format is ideal, it hasn’t kept us from having fun with the cube and drafting functional decks.
The nature of this cube, which is full of narrow combo cards, also precludes drafting with a smaller number of people. Not including all of the cards in a given draft risks splitting up combos, potentially torpedoing someone’s draft by pure chance. However, we did devise a novel way to draft the cube with exactly two people that still uses the whole pool: a modified grid draft with ten 4x4 grids. Each player ends up drafting a rather large pool of 35-40 cards, but due to the constraints of the draft format — picking an entire row or column at a time — many of those picks are incidental. The resulting decks are very powerful and have many sideboard options, but both features are on theme for the cube.
The Degenerate Micro Cube emerged from the confluence of three disparate factors: my latent interest in Max Hero’s “15 Card Singularity Cube”, a desire to draft and play combos that are too inconsistent to reasonably support in a normal singleton environment, and the COVID-19 global pandemic and consequent social isolation, which robbed me of in-person Magic and drove me to adopt digital play for the first time.
The concept behind the Singularity Cube wedged it’s way into a corner of my brain when I first read about it in 2017. I was fascinated by the novel constraints, radical recontextualization of cards and effects, and the idea of playing Magic with dramatically increased consistency. For months, my interest in it was lingering on the periphery as I prioritized my primary cube and other Magic projects, until something clicked as I was discussing the reason I avoid two-card combos in singleton draft environments: variance. The chances of drafting, drawing, and subsequently resolving an A:B combo in a 40 card singleton deck are quite low. When the stars align, game-winning combos are usually too much for opponents playing a fair deck to handle, but in most games, you’re playing a compromised deck in order to support a combo that you won’t often draw. I find this leads to polarizing gameplay, where the result is determined more by luck rather than careful play from both players.
With a reduced, 15 card minimum deck size, I saw an opportunity to play combo decks I would never consider viable in a typical cube, like Oath of Druids, Flash, Bomberman, and Dark Depths. In August of 2018, I started putting together a list, which initially included a full set of power. For a little over a year I tinkered with it on and off, drafting against bots (which are especially bad at drafting this cube), and occasionally discussing it in various online cube communities. At any given time I have a number of speculative cube lists, but I had no plans to build the Degenerate Micro Cube in paper and never expected to actually draft it.
In March of 2020, when it became clear that my local game store would not be hosting Friday Night Magic any time soon and I would not be able to have my friends over for my monthly Cube Brunch, I started to look at alternative ways to play. The social aspect of in-person games that paper Magic offers has always been important to me, but digital Magic is better than no Magic, so my Cube drafts moved from in-person to online.
At first, we drafted the usual cubes in our playgroup, but as time wore on, we discovered the major advantage of digital play: being able to test a novel cube idea without collecting, sleeving, and transporting hundreds of physical cards. As my playgroup and I grew more adventurous, we built and drafted a number of outside-the-box, novelty cubes: a monoblack cube, a cycling focused cube, and a a “turbo” cube where all spells and abilities were errata’d to be two mana cheaper. Eventually, we got around to drafting the Degenerate Micro Cube.
I expected we’d get a few laughs from playing broken cards and appeasing our latent Timmy/Tammy urges, but ultimately I didn’t think the cube would have much replay value. I thought the cube would be the Magic equivalent of taking turns shooting sawn-off shortguns at eachother at point blank range. Instead, our first draft and the reactions of my playgroup blew me away.
“I can’t be salty about a match that ends in five turns.”
Playing the Degenerate Micro Cube is fun. I mean really fun. The line from your draft and gameplay decisions to the outcome of the game is short — all your choices really matter and you can feel it. Most of the losses are quick and therefore relatively painless. One match in an early draft was decided with two spells cast total between the two players (Flash both times, once in each game). As the player on the receiving end of those games put it, “I can’t be salty about a match that ends in five turns.” While the Degenerate Micro Cube definitely isn’t for everybody, there were a handful of players on the MTG Cube Talk Discord server who, like me, became very interested in the cube and wanted to push it to its limits.
The next few months were a whirlwind. The high of getting swept up in a new project is invigorating. Discussion of potential cards and archetypes was near constant, and we drafted the cube every weekend for months. The Discord became one of the first things I checked each morning, and we eventually had to isolate conversation about the Degenerate Micro Cube to its own channel to prevent bogging down the rest of the server. VolatileRig even wrote a bot for the server that tracked suggested adds and cuts from everyone, and I started maintaining a public “State of the Cube” Google Doc, portions of which were adapted into this article.
Some of the revelations from this period of playtesting were striking. I was initially skeptical that Goblin Welder was good enough, until it was proven to be a unique combination of toolbox, inevitability, and creature cheat that is potent if drafted properly. Preordain and Ponder, cards I assumed quite strong given their revered status in constructed Magic, were total duds. Instead, Ancestral Recall, a card I assumed too powerful, is actually just right. Similarly, Channel, Sol Ring, and Time Walk, other cards I was initially afraid would be overpowered, turned out to be perfectly fine. Griselbrand was not good enough, as he offered no inherent resilience or disruption. In our search for powerful answers, we discovered the unsuspecting Aether Spellbomb: it answers almost all the cheated threats, is an artifact for Academy or Tinker, draws your deck in Bomberman loops, and can be rebought with Lurrus or Emry, Lurker of the Loch. It was a thrill to find an overlooked common that fit so perfectly.
I plan to continue to improve and iterate on the Degenerate Micro Cube and have even built it in paper. Given the global pandemic, I don’t know when I will ever be able to draft it in person, but even if it’s not for years, I am grateful to have it as a token of all the work that I put into this project over the past nine months.
- You said this was supposed to be degenerate, so why not just play Black Lotus, Mana Crypt, and the true Moxen?
- Why no storm?
- What about Thassa’s Oracle, Laboratory Maniac, and Jace, Wielder of Mysteries?
- What about mill spells to make it so my opponent has no library? Even if they don’t die to decking wouldn’t that be very strong?
- What about the Ashioks?
- What about the Leylines?
- There are a lot of good blue and black cards here; why didn’t you include Veil of Summer?
- Are there any cards or combos that are too powerful for the cube?
- What have you tried and subsequently cut from the cube?
- What have you considered, but felt was underpowered?
You said this was supposed to be degenerate, so why not just play Black Lotus, Mana Crypt, and the true Moxen?
I actually think Lotus, Crypt, and all five Moxen could safely be added to the cube without disrupting things much. Decks are already capable of threatening a win on turn one and therefore must also be capable of preventing their opponent from winning on turn one — a higher density of broken ramp cards would just increase the odds of such explosive starts. In truth, if the cube had played out how I anticipated it would, I probably would have YOLO’d them in just for the hell of it. However, when it became clear that the cube had depth and real, non-meme potential, I decided to exclude cards that would be played in every deck and provide a sizable advantage at no real cost. With only twenty picks in the draft, I want them all to have strategic signifigance, and slamming a Lotus or Mox Sapphire is a no-brainer. As I mentioned above, I like the fast mana I do include, such as Mox Diamond and Sol Ring, because they are not actually “free” autopicks that every deck will run.
In truth, I have come quite close to playing just Black Lotus and may still do so in the future. It would provide redundancy for Lion's Eye Diamond in Bomberman combo, and Lotus does actually cost you a card. It’s more like Dark Ritual on steroids, which has more play to it than a Mox or Crypt, which is basically just an upgraded land.
Why no storm?
Oh, reader, how badly I wanted storm to work here. I have long dreamt of a cube where storm is consistently viable and has even matchups against other draftable decks. I thought this cube was my chance to make it work, and while I tried every version of Storm I could think of, all fell short.
I can hear you asking “But how can that be? Storm is so broken that they named a whole scale after it!” While you can definitely compose a 15 card storm deck that can reliably threaten turn one wins, drafting that deck and, more importantly, winning through disruption, proved much more challenging. Successful combos in the Degenerate Micro Cube are extremely compact, which means the rest of your deck can be any combination of your own disruption, fast mana, or recursion. To get a high enough storm count for a lethal Tendrils, storm decks need almost all of their non-land cards to be cantrips, rituals, or key enablers like wheel effects or Yawgmoth's Will. With no mill as a win condition, Brain Freeze is useless, and why jump through hoops to cast a big Empty the Warrens when you could just Flash in a Worldspine Wurm instead, and use all those other cards to protect your combo? Even the best storm decks we crafted were glass cannons that scooped to a counterspell or, if on the draw, a turn one Thoughtseize.
To put it another way, in constructed formats, the power of storm decks is partially in the explosive card advantage they can generate. Timetwister or Yawgmoth's Will are powerful because they draw you tons of cards, and with all your mana-positive spells, you can actually use all of them, often in the same turn. In a format where everyone is playing 15 card decks, the storm deck is relatively much worse off, as it’s super power has been limited more harshly than other strategies. Wheel of Fortune always draws your whole deck in this format, but sometimes that’s only two or three cards.
What about Thassa’s Oracle, Laboratory Maniac, and Jace, Wielder of Mysteries?
I have omitted these cards because they provide a win-condition for blue-based control decks that is exceedingly hard to interact with. Even a turn one Flash or Channel has a variety of potential answers, but once you have an empty library, winning with any one of these cards can only be disrupted with countermagic. Moreover, with the rules change that you no longer lose the game when drawing from an empty library, the inherent risk of these win-conditions is eliminated.
What about mill spells to make it so my opponent has no library? Even if they don’t die to decking, wouldn’t that be very strong?
Potentially. My logic for omitting mill spells is that they would have a high degree of variability. If you mill an Eldrazi titan, all of which are in the format, your mill spell did nothing but give your opponent a shuffle. You also might mill them out while they have Serene Remembrance, Conjurer's Bauble, or Memory’s Journey in hand, allowing them to actually improve their draws and benefit from it. You might mill them out then just die the next turn to a combo they already had in their hand. All of these effectively render mill spells useless. On the other hand, you might flip half their combo into the yard and win on the spot by pure chance. I don’t like the idea of such wildly variable cards, whose variance is largely out of the control of the caster. While the variance is somewhat in control of their opponent, I do not like the mulligan metagaming I suspect this would lead to.
What about the Ashioks?
The relevant Ashioks, Dream Render and Nightmare Weaver, which exile cards from your opponent’s library, are excluded for similar reasons to mill cards. They are actually much stronger because they negate methods of recurring the milled cards, and would be oppressive in my opinion.
What about the Leylines?
Some of the leylines would be potent sideboard cards. However, because of the small deck size, they can easily be mulled to and therefore play out more like conspiracies. Because they are so situationally powerful and relatively easy to guarantee in your opener, they would completely shut out certain decks and demand enchantment removal or else lose on turn 0. I think they would be too polarizing and are not necessary.
There are a lot of good blue and black cards here; why didn’t you include Veil of Summer?
In addition to being a card I loathe, Veil is strictly a sideboard card. It is completely dead in some matchups and a silver bullet in others. While it might seem like we are already playing a number of cards that fit this definition, they all have much more reasonable floors. Hatebears whose ability is not relevant are still bodies that can attack and block, cards like Pithing Needle and Sorcerous Spyglass can almost always find a target, Scrabbling Claws cycles in a pinch, etc. Veil would sometimes be a full-on blank, and unless it is determined in the future that green needs this kind of narrow disruption to be viable, I am against running pure sideboard cards.
Are there any cards or combos that are too powerful for the cube?
In short, no.
In full, the answer depends on your definition of “powerful”. I don’t think any cards in existence are too powerful for the cube in the sense that they would be overly dominant, result in unbalanced win-percentages, or push other decks out of viability. But, there are a number of cards that lead to play patterns that I don’t think are healthy for the environment or would require narrow answers to keep them appropriately in check.
Conspiracies and silver border cards have been excluded, even though some of them are strong enough to warrant inclusion on the basis of power level. In addition to Black Lotus, the Moxen, Mana Crypt, Lab Maniac effects, Ashioks, and Leylines explained above, which were dismissed without testing, the following cards were cut in playtesting for reasons that could be considered related to power level:
Strip Mine — Strip Mine is an amazing card in every format in which its legal, and in the Degenerate Micro Cube it even gets an additional buff from the fact that decks, and therefore land counts, are so small. Maybe more relevantly, that same small deck size means the Strip Mine player has reliable access to it. If you would like to understand just how powerful Strip Mine is, I recommend playing a deck that gets to play it every single game. During its tenure, it was aggressively drafted by any variety of deck and it often more-or-less locked the opponent out of the game even when it wasn’t used in tandem with some recursion, which it often was. After seeing a Strip Mine in game one, it felt correct to sideboard above the minimum deck size and pack 2-3 additional lands, but even that couldn’t guarantee that you’d get to cast your spells. I want resource denial to be a viable strategy in the cube, but Strip Mine allowed any deck to also be a resource denial deck at the cost of only a single card. The final nail in the coffin for Strip Mine is that it’s a land and therefore is basically impossible to interact with. Unlike other broken things, if your opponent has Strip Mine in their opening hand, there is no reasonable way to stop them from using it. Once we started to seriously consider adding Tomik to the cube I knew Strip Mine had to go.
Karakas and Maze of Ith — Both Karakas and Maze of Ith are potent tools to combat creature cheat decks, which run rampant in this environment. While I welcome almost all powerful answers with open arms, land-based answers pose a problem: they demand that cheat decks run land destruction or risk losing the game to a land drop. While it might be possible to play enough Sinkholes and Ghost Quarters to make these lands reliably answerable, almost all land destruction is very narrow. While Ensnaring Bridge or Balance are similarly strong answers to the cheat decks, they can be countered or discarded — Karakas and Maze of Ith cannot. Counterspells and discard spells are useful against many cards and are excellent maindeck inclusions, but the 5-10 land removal spells needed to keep Karakas and Maze of Ith in check would mostly clog up sideboards. I didn’t like what I’d have to do in order to keep these from being overly polarizing.
Shelldock Isle — Shelldock Isle was in the cube for a long time, from the first iteration through months of playtesting. Cutting it was one of the most controversial and hotly debated decisions I made in bringing the Degenerate Micro Cube to life. The small deck size means that Shelldock Isle is always “turned on” and allows you to cast any spell in your deck, at instant speed, as early as turn two. It’s not that the card required no setup. Topdeck manipulation in the form of Brainstorm, Sensei's Divining Top, or Sphinx of Foresight was key to making it work reliably. It’s not that it was too good. It was no more efficient than Flash or Channel. Counterspells still work against it, as long as your opponent didn’t have the good fortune of tucking Emrakul under it. Instead, its reason for removal was a combination of two factors. First, discard spells are dead against it, as you can’t discard the Shelldock itself, and the target is plucked from your opponent’s library and never in their hand to begin with. This puts it out of reach of much of the cube’s disruption. Second, and more importantly, Shelldock proved one of the most polarizing cards in the cube. If you do have a narrow removal spell for your opponent’s Shelldock, their win condition is now stranded in exile. Worse yet, the best answers to Shelldock are lands themselves, like Wasteland and Ghost Quarter, which suffer from the same non-interactivity as Karakas and Maze of Ith. All of this resulted in Shelldock Isle feeling exceedingly swingy. Either people lost to it and didn’t have a chance, or, more often, it just ate a Wasteland and the Shelldock Isle’s controller felt it was a huge liability. This meant that experienced players knew better than to build a ”Shelldock Deck” and would instead only play it in combination with other, more reliable methods of cheating a creature into play. In short, the decks that were playing it didn’t even need it. It was polarizing some matchups without adding any depth to the environment, so it had to go. While it was a controversial decision at the time, even some of the players that were opposed to cutting it have since conceded that it is not missed.
Time Vault Combo — Time Vault, in combination with Manifold or Voltaic Key, is arguably the best combo in Magic. For just two cards and four generic mana, which can be paid in installments over two turns, you can take infinite turns and win easily. We ran a couple drafts with a full Vault-Key package, and while it was definitely one of the premier combos, I’m not convinced it was overpowered, per se. It was cut because of how narrow the components of the deck and the requisite answers to it are. As demonstrated in the “cheat matrix” at the beginning of this article, all of the creature cheat combo decks have a swath of overlapping cards, so “supporting” Sneak Attack or Show and Tell is just a matter of adding them to the cube. This overlap is what keeps the drafts of the Degenerate Micro Cube from feeling on rails, and Vault-Key combo has no such leeway. Moreover, it’s one of the only combos that reliably lets you win the game without passing the turn, which means all the sorcery speed answers are blanks against it. The combo and additional instant-speed answers required many slots, the deck doesn’t feel interesting to draft, and it was one of the best strategies in the cube. I am a strong proponent of Mark Rosewater’s advice to game designers that they make the optimal decisions also the fun decisions, so Vault-Key got the axe.
What have you tried and subsequently cut from the cube?
- Wheels and One-sided wheel enablers (Leovold and Narset)
- Almost all cantrips and tutors
- Twin/Kiki Combo
- High Tide
- Punishing– Grove
- Zirda– Monolith Combo
- Blood Moon/ Magus of the Moon
- Strip Mine Lock
- Time Vault Combo
- Power Artifact
What have you considered, but felt was underpowered?
I experimented with lots of cards and combos in versions of the cube that were only solo simulation drafted and were cut before proper playtesting, including:
- Persist Combo
- Devoted Druid Combo
- Jeskai Ascendancy Combo
- Food Chain Combo
- Worldgorger Combo
- Eldrazi Stompy
- Enduring Renewal Combo
The Degenerate Micro Cube would not be what it is today without the playtesting and input of my friends, whose enthusiasm kept me going during the long, tedious, and ongoing months of the COVID-19 lockdown. Their criticism and feedback made the cube better and, I hope, made me a better designer. Special thanks to the community on the MTG Cube Talk Discord server, who have drafted hundreds of decks from the cube and exchanged tens of thousands of messages about it, especially:
A big thank you to my co-conspirators at Lucky Paper, Anthony, Jett, and Parker, for their help editing this article. I am also grateful for two online tools, and the respective teams behind them, that were essential to designing and playtesting the cube: Cube Cobra and DR4FT.
And of course, I want to formally acknowledge Corey Murphy and Max Hero for the original cube that directly inspired the Degenerate Micro Cube.