Hey everyone, it's been a while! This past year has brought us many sets and even a MTGO Cube from yours truly!
If you've read my content before, you'll notice that previously, I've had my articles come out not long after the time of set release and I haven't done so for the Standard-legal sets in 2021. Whether the articles came out shortly after, or months after, the findings came through weekly testing of Cube cards, aggressively asking for feedback from drafters and looking at how people have found cards to play in their Cubes. Prior to 2021, these reviews were a staple of my writing content for the past few years as I waned from writing about Cube design (although I've been itching to start again after the Ravnica Cube got on MTGO.)
But with Covid still being Covid, I haven't Cubed IRL much. Back in the old days before I had a group of regulars, I'd have to resort to jamming games against myself with Cube decks, and I could do that now, but honestly, these days, I just can't.
Since it'd be pointless in 2022 to write a review as if the cards were new and on a per-set basis, I've decided to briefly discuss the "hits" for each section in 2021's Standard-Legal sets of 2021: Strixhaven, Kaldheim, AFR, Midnight Hunt, Crimson Vow, followed by a more of a broad strokes discussion of the rest of the cards in an approximate tier-ish rating style. (The supplemental sets are going to be discussed at a later time - it should come as no surprise that MH2's impact is a big one and the other supplemental sets brought some other Cube cards.)
The context of evaluation is approximately for Singleton "legacy Cube" power levels. As a disclaimer, season to taste for card evaluation, as you'll know your Cube's metagame better than I if you feel that evaluations may differ from what I've said and because of that, adjust accordingly on your Cube's metagame.
This article will discuss the White, blue and black cards from 2021's Standard-Legal Cube sets, with the rest of the cards coming in my next article.
There's the old joke that whenever there's a Cube review, the best card is inevitably going to be the 2/1 for 1. While exaggerated, there's some truth to it - the trope was born of a time when we weren't awash with 2/1s for 1 in White and Red - even though the trend for making Savannah Lions in each set has slowed down, we still see them every once in a while and they usually have some form of upside to earn their keep. This is one of them. Usher has a way to help when flooded out and to help put more board presence out without committing more cards into a wrath and it's in the upper-tier of 2/1s for 1 in White.
P. Hole is a very good "catch-all" card with a very good spread of matchups; it gets more successful hits if you're including mana rocks and the density of aggressive creatures and mana elves, but it's overall just a very good cheap card to have in the maindeck + sideboard of a Cube deck.
Neither of these are extremely flashy but they tend to do what Cube decks want across White's represented archetypes - disruption and getting rid of things, even if they do them in different ways. Paulo tends to play better, overall, and is nice at pecking at planeswalkers, but they're both nice generalist cards.
Battlefield Raptor, Chaplain of Arms, Spellbinder's Familiar, Clever Lumimancer, Cathar Commando, Intrepid Adversary, Leonin Lightscribe, Sungold Sentinel, Star Pupil, Loyal Warhound, Fleeting Spirit, Adeline, Resplendent Cathar, Brutal Cathar, Guardian of Faith, Savior of Ollenbock, Welcoming Vampire, Sigrid, God-Favored
2021 brought us a LOT of aggro beaters in White. The 1-drops outside of Usher of the Fallen are mediocre, but there's a lot of nice bulk for White aggro decks to play to bolster beatdown strategies. They run the gamut by covering a wide spectrum - protection from removal (Guardian of Faith, Fleeting Spirit), ways to play to the late game (Intrepid Adversary, Brutal Cathar - the latter if you're able to consistently make it flip over multiple times) and mid-size generalists like Adeline and Cathar Commando.
These are part of a theme of cards that care about casting multiple spells in a turn, but these are really just a subset of aggressive beaters. Clarion Spirit is the best of the bunch by virtue of giving you some return on investment if the initial creature dies, and having warm bodies that hold equipment (with us getting even more in Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty) is a nice bonus too.
These "lifegain matters" class of creatures comprise another class of low-cost creatures, but they're much more parasitic - even moreso than traditional aggressive creatures, since only the "lifegain matters deck" wants them as they aren't that great on standalone rate and are mainly reliant on a lifegain archetype and whether the archetype fits into your metagame.
Sunset Revelry somewhat fits into this but it's much more of a generalist non-aggro card and/or a sideboard hoser to battle the aggro decks.
These artifact-mattering cards get a lot more relevant with Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty's artifact theme (a possible article coming... eventually!) by providing some nice payoffs for having 10+ artifacts in your Cube deck. Even if the payoffs aren't quite there in your Cube metagame, keep these in mind, especially if the Brothers War further pushes the payoffs for the archetype.
Doomskar, Starnheim Unleashed, and Glorious Protector comprise a small subset of Foretell cards, although there aren't many good Foretell cards in other colors, and forcing a cycle is a bad idea. There's a joke that "it's always Willbender" when seeing a morph and cards like Exalted Angel were able to be played in a world when creatures were much weaker and when the "surprise" of morph was dulled due to the relative power level of creatures. But that paradigm doesn't apply as much to the Foretell cards, which are all generally mediocre on power-level.
Generally, White tends to get a lot of "catch-all" cards which go across a swath of archetypes, and it doesn't hurt that White is well-represented across the archetype spectrum.
Vanquish the Horde, Devastating Mastery, Teleportation Circle, By Invitation Only and Ambitious Farmhand all represent various shades of control and midrange, but don't really do the job better than existing options. By Invitation Only can help in creature matchups if you're able to go wider than the opponent, but it's still questionable.
Fill the support role for more aggressive decks, and some are more linear (tribal, go-wide) than others. Generally, Cube decks aren't in need of more aggro support cards than they are for beefy threats that scale up according to the needs of the metagame (better threats/answers by the other decks) but these are options to consider - Dancing Sword and Halvar's back side are cards that I love as equipment, but long-time readers will be familiar with my bias towards aggressive-leaning equipment, so temper expectations accordingly. :)
This applies for all of the AFR creature lands, as they're all around the same power-level (Cave of the Eye Tyrant is likely the worst, but not magnitudes worse than the others) with them all being fine cards for the final 40 of a deck as lands that can, conditionally, enter the battlefield untapped as a supplemental threat to decks that aren't being super greedy.
Due to the relatively high mana cost to activate, activation is mainly something to do when flooded out/as a riposte after being wrathed. Like other utility land and land-style cards like the Eldraine Castles and the mythic MDFC cycle, inclusion mainly depends on the power level of your Cube and whether the cost of a land possibly entering the battlefield tapped is enough of a cost to be a detriment to your Cube's metagame decks, but it's another type of card that I wouldn't bat an eye to seeing or drafting.
Consider - it isn't flashy or exciting or one of those cards that most people gush about when it's in their deck. But, it's a very good "glue" card at holding together Blue decks and ensuring that they are able to trim on lands and have things to do during the opponent's turn.
Memory Deluge - on the other end of the spectrum, Memory Deluge is a big Blue card draw spell that can be used over multiple turns. Generally, Cubes aren't on the lookout for more big Blue draw spells since a Cube can only realistically support so many top-end cards. It's a nice option for the toolbox for those looking for another one, since it works so well in control mirrors.
Malevolent Hermit // Benevolent Geist - arguably, this is a card that fits into Blue tempo or in low-to-the-ground Blue decks, but it's another card that, like Memory Deluge, is best in control mirrors. Like Memory Deluge, representing action over several turns is nice when games go long and having something to block 2/1s for 1 in the aggro matchup is nice too. Very flexible.
Hullbreacher Horror - as a big ol' cheat target, this is one of the better ones in recent years, since it can protect itself with cantrips by bouncing opposing spells, or completely stall the opponent's ability to develop. It needs other spells to do its thing, so it can't solo a game like other finishers, but it's a nice one if you're looking for a resilient big mana play.
Lier, Disciple of the Drowned - like in Standard, Lier's strength is dependent on having cheap ways to protect it - in Standard, that's through cards like Fading Hope that bounce it. Unfortunately, the plethora of cheap countermagic can't help to protect Lier, so it's mostly dependent on being able to tap out for a five mana card and to be able to either get your mana back on investment by playing some spells, hoping it doesn't die or untapping with it with open mana. In a way, it's similar to a lot of old Blue finishers that inconsistently protect themselves. Whether this is something that can fit into your Cube metagame is your call.
Suspicious Stowaway // Seafaring Werewolf - if there's a group that seems to like looters more than others, it's Cube people. It had some precedence with looters enabling reanimator while not being as all-in as something like Putrid Imp (although looters aren't as good as enablers as imps) and playable in control-style Blue decks. It strongly emulates Looter il-Kor, with some upside in control mirrors as a cheap threat to protect, or as a way to force action on an opponent to deal with it or deal with an Ophidian that can't be blocked. Not bad out of 10.
While White aggro decks are the ones that are most utilizing snow in Standard, Blue decks got the most in terms of sheer numbers. You can house-rule your Cube to have basic lands count as snow basics, which is something I did years ago - mostly to support Skred, and Phyrexian Ironfoot when it was competitive with other creatures at the time. These are payoffs but likely won't quite get there in a lot of Cubes. They're there as a way to reward you for not taking duals (unlike cards like Reidane, which *do* punish you for doing so) but it's just hard to make work.
These finishers are similar to Lier in that they're sorcery speed threats that don't do a lot immediately, but differ from Lier as they do have ways to protect themselves. Demilich has the highest potential out of these, by far, and has the best payoff if you have enough cheap cantrips to be able to regrow it consistently and if your Cube's mana supports playing Demilich at .
These are some general catch-alls for Blue decks, but are cards that aren't absurd at their respective job. They're good ol' mid-pick cards for Cube decks that do things that Blue decks like to do. Memory Deluge does a better job at drawing cards than the other big Blue draw cards, and the creature-wrangling options are expensive, but they're fine as second-tier options if Control Magic and Treachery are cards that don't fit your Cube's metagame.
Cemetery Illuminator, Dragon Turtle, Dreamshackle Geist, Cosima, God of the Voyage // The Omenkeel, Poppet Stitcher // Poppet Factory (kinda), Overcharged Amalgam, Fading Hope, The Blackstaff of Waterdeep, Spectral Adversary (Kranny Blue tempo)
In 2011 (WHERE does the time go?) Matt "Kranny" Kranstuber wrote an article about utilizing Blue tempo as a way to diversify Blue strategies for your Cube. While the individual cards may have changed, especially as creatures got much better in the last decade, the overall concept remains the same.
That said, it's not easy to implement and requires taking out a lot of tried-and-true cards, and it's something that players don't expect, so it can have some mixed results. But if you want to enable those strategies, 2021 gave you a lot of solid options.
The Blackstaff of Waterdeep may be more of a pure "artifact matters" card, so putting it here may be a stretch. It probably is. But it helps Blue decks beat down!
Similar to the big Blue threats above, and they do have some return on investment if they die, but they're just so expensive that the mana cost may not even be worth the upsides, depending on your Cube's metagame. Alrund's Epiphany may be a Standard powerhouse, but without additional time walks, it's hard to make work out in a Cube.
When I think of what 2021's main Cube sets brought for Cube, the big takeaway that I had was that Black got access to a lot of great options at 2 mana: Infernal Grasp, Power Word Kill, Flunk (arguably, even Foul Play!Although it's quite a ways down on that tier list.)
Your Cube goals may dictate whether you want one, some or all of these - since they essentially all do the same thing - kill a creature, for two mana, with various drawbacks, although Power Word Kill is generally the lightest drawback in Cube, where people aren't playing 4 copies of a dragon like Goldspan Dragon to make Power Word Kill contextually worse. In the grand scheme of things, though, these are all pretty much the same.
Although the difference between 2 and 3 is quite large for targets, it's still a fine card that plays similarly to Inquisition of Kozilek, even if it's just acting as a Peek to see if the coast is clear or as a Coercion when needing to make absolutely sure you don't get wrecked by something. It's been impressive as a cheap disruption card and I've always wanted more for Cube, so here's another one.
Sedgemoor Witch - Monastery Mentor at home still packs a punch in most Black decks since I've found that a lot of Black decks are able to trigger Sedgemoor Witch consistently or, at the very least, act as a lightning rod style card that Lava Spikes the opponent when done. Because of this, it's had success as well in Black aggro decks, that one may not think of when thinking of a token generation card that triggers off of Spellcraft.
Valki, God of Lies // Tibalt, Cosmic Impostor - since this is, effectively, a Rakdos card more than a Black card, it'll be discussed in the next article.
Baleful Mastery - I didn't include this earlier with the 2-mana removal options but since it comes with a significant drawback, its 2-mana ability is more to be used when the opponent is cheating things into play or as a mode B when holding up mana. Like cards with modal casting costs, it's not out of the question to cast it for, but the main draw is being able to have a 2-mana Hero's Downfall that exiles. Because of this, I don't have this as highly as the tried-and-true 2 mana removal, but it's still a fine option to consider.
In addition to a lot of spot removal, Black got some great mass removal in 2021 as well, with these 3 doing a good job of mopping up boards with small creatures. Meathook and Path can scale up, which helps their ability to be played in more matchups than vs aggro but these are at their best at mopping up boards with small creatures - but they're playable enough to be fine in the final 40 of a Cube deck.
These planeswalkers are all solid, and Black's walkers have generally either been Lilianas or mediocre. These aren't Liliana-tier, but they're nice resilient mid-range beef that do a decent job at defending themselves, or taking over a board. Sorin does the best job out of all of these by being a 4-drop and having multiple ways of accruing consistent value and defending itself, but they're all welcome additions in the average Cube and much better than the Priest of the Blood Rite style of finisher for midrange Black decks.
While not being explicitly planeswalkers, Tergrid's Lantern somewhat emulates one by grinding out value over the course of the game, but it's slow at doing so, but her front side is a somewhat respectable body.
Both Tergrid and Bloodvial Purveyor suffer similarly in being weak against spot removal, though, but they're options to consider if the tension of "do you have it" for spot removal vs large creatures is a feature of your Cube.
These line up better against spot removal but may not do enough on most board states in spite of that. Burning-Rune Demon does reward playing decks with a pile of similar cards, so that's something that could pull you towards playing it, since it doesn't take over a game if it resolves, but it's more of a Mulldrifter-style threat with a sizable body. Cemetery Desecrator and Toxrill do as well, although it's more dependent on the board state.
Deadly Dispute, Shambling Ghast, Blood Fountain, Egon, God of Death // Throne of Death (kinda), Fell Stinger, Voldaren Bloodcaster, Henrika Domnathi // Henrika, Infernal Seer, Ebondeath, Dracolich, Plumb the Forbidden, Skullport Merchant, Grim Wanderer, Jadar, Morbid Opportunist
Cards that synergize with sacrificing things and things going into the graveyard was a big theme in 2021's sets. Cubes occasionally dip into this territory with cards like Blood Artist and Carrion Feeder, and these are a big boost to those strategies:
Arguably, these count as well for their synergies with sacrificing things:
These are some low-tier catch-all cards, with Go Blank being best against slow and/or graveyard decks and Lash of Malice being the best option as another Disfigure-style of card that helps the aggro matchups.
Stay tuned for part 2, covering red, green and the rest!
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