How one views the cards from a new set depends a lot on how they like to play Magic.
If you're a Standard player, it's all about finding the cards that stand out and figuring out where they fit in the big picture of the format. For Modern or Legacy players it's much more difficult, as the barrier for entry is so high that only a few scant cards from new sets really make a mark. If you're a limited player, there's a lot to be excited about! Cloudkin Seer holy cow! The more formats you play, the wider your lens needs to be for viewing how each card from a new set fits into the focus of each particular format.
As someone who plays all the competitive formats both seriously in tournaments and for a bit more fun on stream and in content, I get to wear a lot of hats and look at cards in many different ways. However there's one more hat in my closet and that is of "Cube Designer," which requires a whole new set of criteria on how to judge cards. When designing a Cube it's less about "is this card good" and more about "does this card help create a healthy and fun environment for what my Cube is trying to do." Evaluating Cube cards is very challenging, but also what makes building a Cube fun.
As such, today we are going to look over Core Set 2020 and Modern Horizons for what they've got to contribute to Cube.
Core Set 2020
Your average set doesn't often add too many cards to a Cube, even less so when it's a Core Set with a number of reprints that have already been available to Cube designers. The bar is very high and sets can only be so powerful. As we'll see a bit later this trend is broken by Modern Horizons, but that's a whole different story. Core Set 2020 doesn't have a bunch of cards that are too exciting for Cube, but it does have a few possible role players.
The first place to look for a new Cube card is in the 1-drops because that's the place with the least competition in a Cube. There are a million great 5-drops that could go in a Cube, but only so many good 1-drops.
Knight of the Ebon Legion is very solid, as we've seen in Standard, but unfortunately his Vampire creature type doesn't matter at all in Cube. Still, he's a durable 1-drop that scales well into the late game and offers an aggro deck a reasonable mana sink. He's not flashy, but when your competition is Vampire Lacerator and Tormented Hero it's not too hard to make a mark.
Verdict: A likely addition
Let's keep the one-drop train rolling. Elvish Reclaimer seems tailor built for Cube play; it features a reasonable size body that can size up pretty quickly in a world of fetchlands, while also featuring a tutor effect which is always a desirable attribute in Cube. There are a multitude of awesome lands available, which makes Elvish Reclaimer's ability to cast Crop Rotation over and over again a very useful one that can facilitate fun deck-building. I don't know exactly what you'd want to do with Elvish Reclaimer, but I know there are many interesting possibilities.
The issue is that there needs to be a home for Elvish Reclaimer. What deck wants this effect? If your Cube contains some sort of lands or lands-matter theme, Elvish Reclaimer will fit right in, but as a card that isn't just universally good there needs to be consideration for placement. Just like you wouldn't put Goblin Ringleader into a Cube with only three other Goblins, Elvish Reclaimer needs a job to do.
Verdict: In if it has a clear purpose
One more 1-drop. I've already waxed poetic about Spectral Sailor, but the reality is that it is a lot of value for one mana. While Blue aggressive decks are not usually well supported in most Cubes, Spectral Sailor can also make some waves as a cheap card draw engine for control decks that plays very well with the bevy of great counterspells in the Cube.
The issues here are if there are enough decks that will actively want Spectral Sailor, and also the extremely high barrier of entry into any Cube's Blue section. Still, it's a unique effect on a cheap creature in a color with very few good cheap creatures. I just can't resist the best Azure Mage of all time!
Verdict: It will be tried
While the barrier for entry for one-drops is very low, the barrier for entry for planeswalkers is very high. One of the most common and egregious Cube design mistakes is including far too many planeswalkers, which has a dramatic influence over the gameplay of the Cube. You stop being able to make all sorts of different decks and everyone just ends up with a midrange planeswalker pile.
Chandra, Acolyte of Flame is a sweet Magic card with a lot going on. Token generation can be wholly aggressive, or do other interesting things with sacrifice outlets and the lot, while flashing back spells is also very cool. Sadly she just isn't better than the other planeswalker options, meaning she should probably only make the cut in very large Cubes or Cubes that heavily promote a theme she is invested in.
Verdict: Falls just short
Yes, I know, Golos, Tireless Pilgrim looks more like a fun casual card than a serious Cube card. However, one half of a Primeval Titan that any color can cast for five mana is actually a very good effect. As we said about Elvish Reclaimer there are tons of great lands to get, and Golos gets them at a decent rate with a good sized body. Furthermore, Golos' activated ability is kinda wild and fun but ultimately a very powerful thing to build toward.
Verdict: Just crazy enough to work
For the most part that's all Core Set 2020 has to offer. A quick word on the omissions:
Mythic Planeswalkers: The planeswalkers in Core Set 2020 are all well designed, but too narrow in scope and power level for Cube play. Unless your Cube has a very specific Vampire or life gain theme there just aren't good enough.
Cavaliers: The cavalier cycle pales in comparison to other options at five mana. They're embarrassing next to the titan cycle and don't bring much to a Cube.
Three Color Legends: The barrier for three colored cards in a Cube is almost unbreakable, and while Kethis, the Hidden Hand and friends are reasonably powered they are narrow in scope. When you're already extremely hard to cast you need to be a big payoff every single time.
Core Set 2020 is pretty normal in regards to what it adds to the Cube card pool. However, Modern Horizons is something else entirely.
Modern Horizons is wreaking havoc across both Modern and Legacy and it makes a lot of sense that the set full of cards "too good for Standard" would be jam packed full of power. While most sets have a small handful of potential cards, Modern Horizons has a boatload, with a number of "must adds" as well.
Let's start with the big one. Wrenn and Six is just busted, while also having a fun build around me theme that can help give more identity to Green and Red as a color pair. It loves being paired with fetchlands, cycling lands, Wasteland, and all sorts of other land-themed effects, bringing with it an extremely high power level, the ability to interact with all sorts of early creatures, and a game altering ultimate.
Wrenn and Six may be the best card in Modern Horizons.
Verdict: Should be in every Cube
Another easy one.
Fetchlands are great. Color fixing is great. Put this in your Cube.
Verdict: Should be in every Cube
Hexdrinker is overhyped in Modern and Legacy. It's essentially just a Savannah Lion with mild upside, which is fine but very unexciting. However, as we said earlier there's a much lower bar in Cube for good 1-drops and Hexdrinker fits the bill perfectly. There aren't a ton of great aggressive one-drops in Green that aren't just mana creatures, so Hexdrinker gets to fill a nice niche at a good power level with a solid floor and a big ceiling. That's a lot of value for one mana, especially for a card that scales so well into the late game.
Verdict: Should be in most Cubes
Slam dunk after slam dunk.
There isn't really a question that the Horizon Canopy lands should be in the Cube; they're color fixing and they're great. The big question becomes what to do with them because there are only six of them, which is a really awkward number if you're trying to keep your Cube uniform. I've always had one set of ten multicolored lands in my Cube that encompassed one land for each color pair from various cycles. You want to have Creeping Tar Pit in your Cube, but don't want to have Lavaclaw Reaches; you want to have Simic Growth Chamber but not Boros Garrison; etc.
Here's where I'd be currently:
- Creeping Tar Pit
- Celestial Colonnade
- Horizon Canopy
- Kessig Wolf Run
- Temple of Malice
- Sunbaked Canyon
- Firey Islet
- Simic Growth Chamber
- Golgari Rot Farm
- Silent Clearing
I still like having a few bounce lands for the turbo lands-style decks and will be working forward with this configuration to start. It's important to consider what each color combination wants to be doing! When the full cycle of Horizon Canopy lands is here it will end up just having its own ten card cycle slot and we will figure something else out for the oddball lands.
Verdict: Most to all should be in all Cubes
Okay, we've got the easy stuff out of the way, let's get to one of the most complicated issues - snow in Cube?
There aren't that many snow cards that actually matter, meaning there may be half a dozen total cards in the Cube that will care about the word snow. However, if you stop thinking about snow mana being snow mana and start thinking about it just being "basic lands matter" things become much clearer. You could easily make all basics in your Cube snow-covered lands, which immediately adds more value and interest to playing basics to help turn on cards like Dead of Winter and friends. The question becomes, are these cards powerful enough only triggering off basics? Even a card like Icehide Golem offers a Cube-worthy rate if paid with snow mana, but is needing to play a lot of basics enough of a turn off that they won't see play?
My gut says they are too awkward, but they are fun cards that make you value your basic lands in a unique way, so they are definitely worth trying. Anything that makes you actively want to play basic lands and adds tension to how you build your decks is a win in my book.
Verdict: Worth trying, but may not be worth the trouble
While he many have terrorized Modern for a while there, Hogaak is actually a pretty cool card once you take Bridge from Below and a fully refined Modern deck out of the picture. Cube decks don't routinely put 12 power into play on turn two, meaning Hogaak needs to be played fairly and worked for, which is exactly what I want to see from my Cube cards.
If every card is a Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Lightning Bolt, or Treachery, then it just becomes my good cards against your good cards. Cards like Hogaak inspire your drafters to take a trip down a certain deck-building path, make hard deck-building and drafting choices while having to alter how they value cards, and ultimately lead to a great gameplay experience.
Verdict: Unless you hate synergy, Hogaak slots well into a Golgari slot
Okay, on the one hand we're always on the lookout for good Cube 1-drops. On the other hand, I try to avoid extreme redundancy whenever possible. The Cube can only be so big, and by having both Armageddon and Ravages of War you're wasting a slot on a card that could be something more unique. There are outliners to this for cheap effects that define a color (Lightning Bolt/Chain Lightning, Birds of Paradise/Llanowar Elves, Thoughtseize/Inquisition of Kozilek) but for the most part I try to avoid it, especially on powerful or unique effects.
Mother of Runes qualifies as a powerful and unique effect, to the point of almost being annoying. Yes, Giver of Runes is the "fixed" Mother of Runes and is still a very good card, but having both doesn't feel right.
Verdict: Only in if you cut Mother of Runes or your Cube is huge
Another sweet tutor and synergy card? Sign me up!
The fixed love-child of Goblin Welder and Stoneforge Mystic, Goblin Engineer brings a lot of power to the table but doesn't risk unfun things like turn two Sundering Titan or Blightsteel Colossus. You get to put together whatever artifact synergies you want, while also getting to do the Goblin Welder thing of swapping stuff back and forth for value over and over again which is sweet too. I only see good things when I see Goblin Engineer.
Verdict: If you have an artifact theme Goblin Engineer fits great
One of the hardest things with handling Red in your Cube is finding more interesting things for it to do than just attack and Lava Spike people. Many Cubes have this problem, as if you just take the best Red card in any draft you end up with a cohesive deck because they all do the same thing. Variety is very important! Goblin Engineer helps to do that, as does Magmatic Sinkhole.
Most removal spells in Red also double as burn spells, meaning you can just pile them up and kill your opponent. Magmatic Sinkhole gives Red a very good removal spell that is going to be good against almost all of your opponents and can also answer things that Red typically struggles with (higher toughness creatures and high loyalty planeswalkers). Having more answers to planeswalkers in your Cube is a goal you should have anyway, making Magmatic Sinkhole a slam dunk.
Verdict: Should be in every Cube
Reasonable body? Reasonable ability? Tutor effect? Card advantage in White? Props up 1-drops?
All those things sound great to me! Ranger-Captain of Eos is a card that does a lot and can be played as an aggressive card or a value card, while also helping to pull together certain things if that is what you're looking for. There aren't many 3-drops better.
Verdict: Should be in every Cube
If Undead Augur was in Standard it would be one of the best 2-drops in the format. A 2/2 that can replace itself for only two mana is already great, but Undead Augur is so much more when paired with other Zombies that things can start to get out of hand.
Tribal themes don't go too far in my Cube, but there are light Human and Zombie themes which really help to give more of an identity to fast aggressive decks. Just jamming garbage like Vampire Lacerator rarely works, which is why Black aggro is often maligned in Cubes, but when you top off your Gravecrawler and Carrion Feeder with something like Undead Augur, good things start to happen. Cryptbreaker is another great early creature that does a lot of unique things that fits the theme.
Verdict: Should inspire a light zombie theme even in your non-tribal Cube
Seasoned Pyromancer is just the right kind of Cube card. Yes, it is a powerful card in a vacuum. It grinds well, scales well into the late game, provides card advantage, and gives you a mana sink once it's dead. But if it was just another good fair card I'd only be mildly excited.
The great part about Seasoned Pyromancer is that it gives graveyard decks an excellent and powerful way to get cards in the graveyard for good value. Maybe you're playing fair and discarding Lingering Souls? Or maybe you're thinking bigger and it's Griselbrand. Either way Seasoned Pyromancer gets to be more than the sum of its parts, while not forcing the synergy decks to play with subpar enablers. Seasoned Pyromancer is great.
Verdict: Should be in most Cubes
These are all the Modern Horizons cards I feel can make the Cube in most Cubes. Are there more cards worth talking about? Absolutely! But it's important to recognize that any card that costs four or more mana has extremely heavy competition, and good Cube cards need to be castable, flexible, and hopefully create meaningful gameplay and drafting/deck-building choices.
If there are any other cards you would like to see discussed please post them in the comments and I'll do my best to address them. Otherwise, happy Cubing!