reetings! I hope you've been enjoying Magic Online Week here at DailyMTG.com. I haven't written an article in a while, and until now my articles have mostly been on Magic Online design and the beta client. That's why, when we brainstormed topic ideas for Magic Online Week, I jumped at the chance to go back to my Magic-writing roots and bring you an article on Limited strategy: Cube style!
"Powered" Cubes like the Magic Online 2013 Holiday Cube—on Magic Online right now until January 8—are a celebration of the most efficient, powerful cards and strategies of all time. Cards in a powered Cube tend to fall into three buckets: the "fair" bucket, the "unfair" bucket, and the "broken" bucket.
The fair bucket is the largest, containing cards that are efficient and powerful, but that have a lot of redundancy within the Cube, such as Lightning Bolt, Counterspell, Llanowar Elves, cheap creatures meant for combat, and even big finishers like Frost Titan.
The unfair bucket contains cards that have more powerful effects than cards in the fair bucket, but are narrower in their application and not easily replaced, such as Tinker, Channel, and Wheel of Fortune.
The broken bucket contains the cards that are so hyper-efficient and generally powerful for all decks that many Cubes don't even include them. These are the cards I would almost never pass in the third pack regardless of my deck, such as Mox Ruby, Black Lotus, Library of Alexandria, and Ancestral Recall.
"Powered" Cubes get their name from the inclusion of the Power Nine (Ancestral Recall, Black Lotus, Mox Pearl, Mox Sapphire, Mox Jet, Mox Ruby, Mox Emerald, Time Walk, and Timetwister), and other cards of similar power level. However, despite the Power tag, I would not put Timetwister in the broken bucket, and even the venerable Time Walk is at least debatable. I would round out the broken list with Sol Ring, Library of Alexandria, Mana Vault, Mana Crypt, and Ancestral Recall.
Only Ancestral Recall is firmly in the broken bucket with color requirements, because not only is it just that absurd, it is that absurd at any point in the game, whereas topdecking a Mox Sapphire on turn twelve is usually the same as topdecking an Island.
Cards like Mind Twist, Time Walk, and Demonic Tutor ride a fine line with the metric of taking it pack three regardless of your deck, but they are a good reason to pick up black and blue dual lands and Signets that touch your main colors in the first two packs. If you are mostly in red, a Volcanic Island here and a Rakdos Signet there will set you up to take that third-pack Time Walk or Mind Twist with reasonable confidence that you can cast it. You might not run them, but there are so many good spells available in Cube, you can make a couple of speculative picks with high upside and be fine when they don't pan out.
If you draft the Magic Online 2013 Holiday Cube and have the good fortune of finding anything from the broken bucket in your packs, you would do well to take them, and even better to find them in your opening hand six times!
Fair vs. Unfair
As my bucket names suggest, Cube enthusiasts will often draw a distinction between decks that are "fair" and decks that are "unfair." Fair decks tend to be straightforward creature strategies that look to resolve spells for the costs in the upper-right corner of the cards, then turn guys sideways until the game is over. "Unfair" decks tend to contain the potential for serious abuse with narrow, powerful cards that can do ridiculous things when the plan comes together. Since the fair bucket contains a lot of redundancy and the unfair bucket doesn't, it tends to be a battle between consistency and power level.
Accordingly, the best fair decks include some seriously unfair support cards—like Skullclamp, Umezawa's Jitte, the five swords, and Armageddon and its functional reprint Ravages of War—and the best unfair decks contain cards that increase consistency and contain avenues to victory that don't involve the cornerstone unfair cards in the deck.
There is room in Cube for success with both fair and unfair decks, but drafting a successful unfair deck can be a significantly more intimidating task than putting together a fair one. Let's take a look at some core principles for maximizing your unfair deck and apply those principles to a few examples of unfair cards in the Magic Online 2013 Holiday Cube.
Principles of Inequality
At their core, unfair Cube decks are combo decks looking to assemble a few powerfully synergistic pieces that produce effects that are extremely difficult to overcome. There are several things you can do to increase your win percentage with such a deck.
Look for synergy in other unfair cards. When you pick up an early unfair card and begin building around it, ask yourself what kind of overall deck your card thrives in, and keep an eye out for other unfair cards that also work well in that space, even if the two cards aren't direct analogs in the way Counterspell and Mana Leak are. Channel and Sneak Attack don't have similar rules text, for example, but they overlap in their ability to do broken things with big colorless creatures, so you might pick up a Sneak Attack to support your early-pick Channel, and then prioritize the legendary Eldrazi creatures, Blightsteel Colossus, and Sundering Titan over a card like Karn Liberated, which only works with the Channel plan.
Seek the redundancy that does exist. While fair cards have the lion's share of redundancy in the Cube, there are often a few cards looking to be unfair in the same way. If you decide to take Show and Tell early and move in on cheating big threats onto the battlefield, lean toward a pairing with green and see if you can pick up Eureka; Garruk, Caller of Beasts; or the aforementioned Sneak Attack to give yourself multiple ways to achieve your unfair effect.
Know your tutors. "Tutor" is Magic slang for a card that allows you to search your deck for a specific spell and get it into your hand. They are perhaps the most important tool for being reliably unfair, but there are several tutor variants in the Cube with various restrictions and drawbacks. The black tutors—Demonic Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, and Liliana Vess—are the most flexible, while Mystical Tutor and Enlightened Tutor require that your unfair target be a specific type of card. Know which tutors fetch the cards you need for your combo, and take mana sources that will help you cast them should you come across one later in the draft.
Control until you're unfair. If you don't get your nut draw where you do something insurmountable on turn two, you're going to have to improvise until you can. Try to pack some tools in your colors that will extend the game or dig you deeper into your deck, like cheap removal spells, counterspells, card drawing, and board sweepers like Wrath of God and Damnation. Temporary stalling effects like Tangle Wire and Parallax Wave can also buy you enough time to stabilize against a fair opponent. The more cards you see from your deck, the better your chances of assembling your doom machine.
Have a fair backup plan. Sometimes you have to win the fair way with an unfair deck, so draft tools to successfully cast spells that you were hoping to cheat onto the battlefield with unfair cards. This typically means mana-acceleration effects that will help you produce eleven mana naturally for someone like Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre when you can't bring him to class for Show and Tell.
A Few Favorites
Here are a few of my personal favorite unfair cards in the Magic Online 2013 Holiday Cube, and how to apply these theories to a draft where you have taken the unfair card early.
In the sea of busted mana generators in the Magic Online 2013 Holiday Cube, Mishra's Workshop may be the king of them all, but only if you go all-in on artifacts. Given the density of powerful artifacts available, this isn't an unreasonable demand. We drafted a paper version of this Cube at an R&D party recently, and I snapped up Mishra's Workshop with my first pick and never looked back. To support it without relying on it, I prioritized artifact mana acceleration like Thran Dynamo, Basalt Monolith, and all the artifact creatures I could get. I ended up with a deck that could generate a ton of colorless mana quickly and had plenty of outlets for it. I snagged The Abyss in pack two, which notably does not affect artifact creatures, and in the third pack I actually took Tinker over Mox Emerald because Tinker was more likely to lead to a broken start in my deck at that point, and had significantly more value later in the game.
The deck was fantastic and didn't lose a match, even beating a turn-four, hard-cast Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre when I followed up with The Abyss on my turn four! It was a great deck when I didn't draw Mishra's Workshop, and it was nigh-unbeatable when I had it in my opening hand. One game saw a curve of turn-two Solemn Simulacrum, turn-three Wurmcoil Engine, turn-four Myr Battlesphere! The Abyss waiting in my hand that game wasn't even needed.
I know I cast The Abyss on turn four to defeat a hard-cast Eldrazi at the R&D event; I'm just not sure if I'm misremembering and it was actually Kozilek, Butcher of Truth, or if both of us failed to see "indestructible" and I got away with one.
The combination of searching up a specific card and circumventing its mana cost is the devastating one-two punch on several unfair Magic cards (see Tinker and Stoneforge Mystic). Natural Order is the original menace in this regard. Like all cards with tutor effects, Natural Order has only gotten more powerful with time, as the number of potential targets has increased.
To properly support an early Natural Order pick, you need a lot of Llanowar Elves (any one-mana green creature that taps to produce mana) and a few big green creatures to search up. Terastodon, Woodfall Primus, and Primeval Titan are probably the best cards for the "big green creature" role, but Simic Sky Swallower and Broodmate Dragon can serve the role as well, although they require greater deck manipulation to be able to hard cast should you draw either of them before finding your Natural Order.
On that front, to help your chances for victory when you don't find yourself with a natural Natural Order, a basic green ramp strategy is a fine backup plan. You should already be looking for the walking moxes that are green's mana creatures, so supplement them with artifact mana and a range of efficient, beefy green creatures at all points on the mana curve. Adding other unfair cards that want a similar deck—like Tooth and Nail or Genesis Wave—adds consistency as well.
Natural Order is capable of some devastating starts. If you are lucky enough to grab a Mox or two, a sequence of turn one: Forest, Llanowar Elves; turn two: Forest, Mox Ruby, Natural Order into Terastodon, destroying both Forests and the Mox Ruby for 18 power is a real possibility!
Of all the unfair strategies in Cube, the combo pieces of a "reanimator" deck have the most analogs to work with. Reanimator decks are looking to get a powerful creature into the graveyard quickly through discard or Entomb effects, then cast a spell to return it to the battlefield at a steep mana discount. There are many spells that can do the reanimation trick, but Recurring Nightmare is a cut above them all, as it is the only one that can lather, rinse, and repeat for as long as you have three mana and a creature on the battlefield and in the graveyard.
It does, however, ask that you have a creature on the battlefield, where spells like Animate Dead, Reanimate, Exhume, and Unburial Rites do not. One of the best ways to lessen the drawback of Recurring Nightmare's extra requirement is to draft creatures that can do the other job a reanimation deck requires: getting reanimation targets into your graveyard! Creatures like Looter il-Kor, Putrid Imp, Oona's Prowler, and Fauna Shaman can first get your reanimation target in the graveyard, and then sacrifice itself to your Recurring Nightmare to complete the combo.
Also look out for cards that generate a stream of expendable tokens like Bitterblossom, and creatures whose value is not in staying on the battlefield but in entering it, like Bone Shredder. Let's not forget Bloodghast either, whose self-reanimation is almost unbeatable with Recurring Nightmare plus any kind of body count in your graveyard and lands in your deck.
The recursive nature of Recurring Nightmare is particularly rewarding with creatures that create tokens upon entering or leaving the battlefield, like Wurmcoil Engine, Grave Titan and Thragtusk. Even if your opponent manages to destroy them after reanimation, they leave behind bodies you can sacrifice to bring them back again. Or, if it fits your game plan, loop through it yourself for and leave your opponent out of it.
Besides creatures that make more creatures, ideal reanimation targets are creatures that have a big impact the moment they hit the battlefield, so that even an opponent holding Swords to Plowshares with available will have a hard time recovering from your unfairness. Griselbrand is the poster child for this principle ("Hold on; before Mr. Brand turns to farming, I'd like to draw seven please...or fourteen; I want to be sure to have to discard."), but there are many large creatures with immediate impact in the Cube, and you want to have a few of them in your reanimation decks.
To win games where you don't draw Recurring Nightmare, take advantage of the number of replaceable parts available to the reanimator strategy and the many tutors in black, potentially splashing white for Enlightened Tutor. Try to get a Damnation to survive a bad draw, or ideally a Living Death, which is both a way to survive against an aggressive deck and one of the best reanimation effects in the Cube.
Unfair Thee Well!
The list of awesome unfair cards in the Magic Online 2013 Holiday Cube is far longer than I have the space to cover. Upheaval, Gifts Ungiven, Yawgmoth's Will, Balance (the most ironically named unfair card), Wheel of Fortune, Gaea's Cradle, Tolarian Academy, Survival of the Fittest (a classic combo with Recurring Nightmare), Vedalken Shackles... you can draft Cube a thousand times and still discover new ways to cross the streams of your unfair cards to delightful and successful effect. If you were hesitant to go for an unfair approach in Cube before now, hopefully you are coming away with the tools to identify and take advantage of some of the sideways strategies available, and become the unfairest of them all!
Until next time, good luck and have fun!
Ryan Spain has been a digital designer in R&D since 2011. He is involved in all things Magic Online, from new card sets to the new client and everything in between. He likely has more lifetime hours played on Magic Online than anyone at Wizards.