It has been a wild few years for Cube design, as well as Magic as a whole.
The power level of sets lately has been extremely high, which has not only made major ripples through every competitive format but also thrown Cube owners for a loop. How can one fit so many cards into their Cubes with so many new options!
Throne of Eldraine was one of the densest Cube sets in recent memory, between all of the Castles, all the good adventure creatures, busted cards like Once Upon a Time and Oko, Thief of Crowns, and mythic powerhouses like Questing Beast and Embercleave. Theros Beyond Death wasn't as outlandish, but featured a number of nice additions like Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, Elspeth Conquers Death, and more. Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths couldn't possibly hope to live up to Eldraine's murderer's row, but contains a number of sweet cards to add to your Cube.
Today we're going to look through the Cube playables of Ikoria, discussing their viability and giving a final verdict on if you should consider them for your Cube. Remember that all Cubes are different; the barrier for entry for a huge 720 card Modern Cube is much lower than a 360 card powered Cube. Some Cubes also have unique themes or restrictions that can further skew what they want. I'll be looking at these cards through the lens of my ~500 card Legacy-power level Cube.
Ikoria: Lair Of Behemoths
There's really no sidestepping the elephant in the room when it comes to Ikoria - companions must be discussed.
The companion mechanic has been one of the most polarizing topics in Magic history. The idea isn't necessarily a bad one, but they are currently running absolutely rampant across every format in Magic. Even formats like Modern and Legacy, which often have a much higher barrier of entry for new cards, are awash with companions. It's to the point now where if you play a tournament of any major Constructed format, you're over 50% to play against a companion.
Is this sustainable? Probably not, although I'm not sure when the other shoe will drop.
Regardless, we're here to talk about Cube, and the question becomes "do I want companions in my Cube, and if so how many?" There's also the option of having companions in your Cube but prohibiting the use of the actual companion mechanic, making them just interesting multicolored cards, but this is rather inelegant. Given that meeting the companion requirements in Limited is much more difficult than Constructed, giving them a chance to start feels reasonable.
Right off the bat Kaheera, the Orphanguard; Keruga, the Macrosage; Zirda, the Dawnwaker, and Umori, the Collector seem far too restrictive to be interesting in Cube. They're all too hard to build around and not worth the trouble. That being said, let's take a look at the interesting ones.
You may jump right to Lurrus of the Dream-Den as the most potentially problematic for Cube design, but Lutri is actually just broken to the point of being excluded for power level reasons. Given the singleton nature of the format, there is no deck-building restriction for Lutri. You can pick it up freely as long as you have Red or Blue mana in your deck and you've got a free 8th card in hand that can be so much more.
Given that it's entirely possible that it's never correct to pass Lutri, and because it is "free" in the sense that it completely circumvents the intentions of the companion mechanic, Lutri just feels wrong in Cube. Is it obscene to put Lutri in your Cube? Considering that Cubes can contain cards like Ancestral Recall and Black Lotus, probably not, but that doesn't mean it makes for a better drafting experience.
Verdict: Just Feels Wrong
Ah yes, Lurrus of the Dream-Den, the current destroyer of formats. Considering how top-heavy most Cubes are when it comes to mana costs, Lurrus will probably be more difficult than one might expect to pull off in many Cubes, but the power level is certainly there. Lurrus gets there on rate, can guarantee card advantage if you can cast something immediately, and creates a cascading advantage if your opponent can't kill it.
Add this to the fact that even if it didn't have companion and you had to actually put it in your deck, Lurrus would be a pretty sweet Cube card and you have a surefire addition to most Cubes.
Verdict: Should Be In Most Cubes
Most of Gyruda, Doom of Depths's impact in construct comes on the back of copying it over and over again with Clone and blink effects to create a pseduo-one card combo, and this won't really be an option in a Cube draft. The restriction is rather harsh, but the effect is fairly fun and powerful, even if it has a decently high fail rate. Gyruda looks a little silly next to Primeval Titan or Grave Titan, but still has a fun and powerful effect on gameplay and deck-building.
Gyruda is probably a bit too cute for more serious Cubes, but could definitely be a fun addition that makes for some crazy games and fun stories. Just putting Gyruda into your deck to cast isn't insane either, making it a bit more reasonable.
Verdict: Probably Too Cute
Obosh, the Preypiercer has many of the same problems as Gyruda, with less of the fun and a much more prohibitive restriction. Two mana is such an important spot on the curve and one-mana spells are some of the most contested in Cube drafts, making Obosh rather difficult to curve out with. While Obosh is very powerful once it is in play, it will either usually end the game with a huge attack or do nothing if you don't have a battlefield presences when you cast it. It lacks the big, fun, and exciting potential that Gyruda brings to the table to overcome its deficiencies.
Obosh would be fine in most Cubes, but Cubes usually aren't looking for merely "fine."
Verdict: You Can Do Better
Jengatha, the Wellspring is very different than most of the other companions. While most ask you to jump through some ridiculous hoops for a big time payoff, Jengatha's restriction is easy to meet while mostly just providing a free Colossopede for your trouble. This, of course, is very good, and there's a reason Jengatha is the companion most often to see play in normal Ikoria Limited.
The issue is, does this make drafting your Cube more fun? Jengatha puts you to work a little bit, making you pass on Inferno Titan or Eternal Witness, but doesn't really pay you off in a fun or interesting way. You just get an 8th card in hand that's a decent creature. It really comes down to feel, which can only come with testing. For now, Jengatha makes the cut, but it will be watched to see how much Jengatha players are enjoying the experience - On power level Jengatha is definitely there, it's just about crafting a good play experience.
Verdict: In, For Now
Saving the best for last - Yorion, Sky Nomad. "Shooting the moon" is a fun challenge we used to have when we used to do weekly Cube nights way back in the day, and it was the shorthand term for playing every single card you draft. If one was to do this and 3-0 the draft, everyone else had to buy them dinner. It was a fun challenge, but part of it was trying to get as many non-basic lands as possible to keep your deck size down.
Realistically, getting to 60 cards in Limited is hard. In a Cube format where every card is playable it becomes easier, but every non-basic land you take to try and fix your mana puts you down another spell you need for your deck. Playing that many cards usually requires playing at least three colors, which can make life difficult. As we've seen in Standard and other formats, Yorion is often well worth the payoff in Constructed, but is a real challenge in Limited.
Again, it comes down to feel; is Yorion a fun path for your players in a Cube draft? Or will it just be a distraction or trap? My feelings are toward the latter, but it's going to take some time to figure out for sure. I tend to err toward the side of "just put it in and see how it goes" when I'm not sure how a card will play in Cube, so for now let it rip and see what happens.
Verdict: In, For Now
Beyond the companions, Ikoria is lighter than most recent sets on Cube cards. A lot of the set's power is tied up in companions and flashy two and three color Mythics and Rares, which don't translate well to Cube. However, there are some diamonds in the rough.
Forget Stormchaser Mage, Adeliz, the Cinder Winder, Lightning Steamkin, or whatever other trash Izzet card you thought you liked, Sprite Dragon is the Izzet card we've all been waiting for. With basically "super prowess," Sprite Dragon is phenomenal in spell based decks, from ones that lean more aggressively with lots of Red and burn spells, to more controlling ones looking for a cheap win condition while leaving up countermagic.
The power level of Sprite Dragon combined with the relatively low power level of Izzet cards in general has Sprite Dragon prepped and ready to be the figurehead of Izzet multicolored cards for years to come.
Verdict: Should Be In Every Cube
I was profoundly high on Sea-Dasher Octopus during preview season, seeing it as a vast improvement to the already awesome Ninja of the Deep Hours. However, I'm at a point now where I'm not even sure it's better than Ninja of the Deep Hours. Mutate is a very difficult mechanic to parse, but the reality is that you are essentially sacrificing whatever creature you mutate Sea-Dasher Octopus onto. This means if the Sea-Dasher Octopus is killed, you get two for oned, unlike Ninja of the Deep Hours where you'd still have the 1-drop in your hand.
Don't get me wrong, Sea-Dasher Octopus is still a really good card and is a likely candidate for Cube inclusion. It also helps to promote Blue creature decks which is a great goal to have for your Cube. It's just not the absolute powerhouse I (and many others) thought it was going to be.
Verdict: A Likely Inclusion, But Temper Expectations
There's really not much to say. Heartless Act is probably the best Doom Blade/Ultimate Price/Cast Down/Go For The Throat/etc of all time. Outside of Ikoria Limited and a few other specialized formats, most creatures don't have counters on them, and often the ones that do have +1/+1 counters (that can also be removed to kill them).
Verdict: Should Be In Every Cube
Fiend Artisan has all the makings of a great Cube card.
It has a cheap and friendly mana cost. It has a good rate that rewards you for just playing Magic. It does excellent specific synergy things involving two zones (your graveyard and your deck) that also rewards you for sacrificing creatures in play. It provides consistency and tutoring to your deck, while also making the deck-building process fun and interesting. It's hard to ask for more from a card in your Cube.
Verdict: Should Be In Every Cube
Call of the Death-Dweller is a really sweet card, not only providing possible card advantage but also bestowing deathtouch in places that deathtouch was never supposed to go. Imagine returning a Grim Lavamancer with deathtouch and a Dark Confidant with menace and Call of the Death-Dweller looks really nice.
The issue is it needing to have the proper home and proper graveyard support. Call of the Death-Dweller also almost demands a critical mass of one and 2-drops in your Cube, because you really want to be returning a 1- and 2-drop with it for card advantage. It's niche, but could be a really cool addition to Cubes with low curves and strong graveyard themes, or in larger Cubes in general.
Verdict: Sweet Addition If Your Cube Thematically Supports It
The Triomes are very good, functionally superior to the original trilands in almost every way. Being fetchable is huge game in a Cube, and if you're looking to heavily support multicolored play then Triomes are an awesome option.
There are issues however. Taplands are slow, and if your Cube is fast or looking to create a very powerful environment they can be a death sentence. There's a reason that these types of taplands are all over Standard but don't see much play in formats with better, faster options. Furthermore there are only five of them, which is supremely frustrating from a design point of view where you want to have all the colors represented.
I dislike taplands and my Cube has a heavy focus at the lower mana costs, making Triomes a non-starter for me, but these will go well in larger, more multicolored-focused or slower Cubes.
Verdict: Good In Larger, Multicolored Focused Cubes
The Best Of The Bunch
That's pretty much it for the cards that interest me for Cube in Ikoria. None of the planeswalkers feel much better than the planeswalker options we already have, while the Apexes and Ultimatums are much too restrictive. Many of the other cards like Rielle, the Everwise or Chevill, Bane of Monsters are also very restrictive in both their mana costs and effects; they are powerful but not flexible enough for Cube play.
When it comes down to it though, companions are quite the bunch and come with loads of baggage, so it feels nice that Ikoria isn't going crazy on top of them. And boy I can't wait to cast Sprite Dragon!