Ikoria: Lair of the Behemoths is around the corner and Theros Beyond Death has several good cards for Cube. Since we're quarantined in for the near future, it's safe to say that our collective Cube time will be drastically shortened for the time being, and since this set is a pumping on the brakes (compared to Throne of Eldraine), it's a good time to reflect on what we have in our Cubes.
As usual, these evaluations are based on actual Cube experience from several Cube drafts in various Cubes, referenced in this article, and discussion from other Cube drafter's experiences on the MTG Cube Brainstorming discord. I've always worked to have cards go through the ringer with many Cube reps before posting my reviews, and even though the holidays and Covid-19 messed with testing data, these every deck listed in this article contained Theros Beyond Death cards and either went 3-0 or had the best record in their respective Cube drafts.
Of course, going 3-0 with a card in a deck isn't ironclad proof of that card being good, but it does help illustrate how the card performs in actual Cube decks. Cards are sorted in order of approximate interest by color - the ones that pique my interest for Cube discussed first in approximate order. If a card isn't discussed here, it's intentional (because it compares poorly to other options/very obviously isn't good). I've always tried to make sure my Cube reviews use a pretty "generalist" point-of-view, so season to taste if you feel like cards may fare better/worse in your Cube and your Cube's metagame.
Check out Part 1 Here:
Underworld Breach - Is very powerful (for combo) as a second Yawgmoth's Will type of effect. Since combo is a critical mass deck, having another card that allows its caster to "go off" is a huge boon to that deck as a vital cog to allow for burst mana. It's too resource intensive if using it in a fair way to recast Doom Blades, so, like Corridor Monitor is a twin piece and little else, this is an easy include if supporting combo, and an easy non-include if not.
Phoenix of Ash - Creatures like Chandra's Phoenix and Flamewake Phoenix have played the role of recursive damage source acting like a more interactive but not symmetrical Sulfuric Vortex - think of Matt Sperling's 2014 "Boros Burn" deck. Cubes aren't rocking Lava Spikes, but when Chandra's Phoenix has seen play in Cube, it's generally in aggro decks that can aim a Lightning Bolt as a way to buy it back, but usually that was only done if looking to end the game the next turn (on your combat) or if you had some long-game planning going.
Its Fate Reforged cousin, Flamewake Phoenix, hasn't seen as much play in Cube since it's harder for Red aggro decks (and having forced attack, it's even more pidgeonholed for that deck) that don't have a lot (or usually, zero) of 4-power creatures, making the buyback a rare occurrence.
So where does this fit in? Having played with the old Phoenix guard, I've found this much better than those others.
I found the pump to be a nice way to get use of late game mana, even if not very efficient. In Red decks, getting it to escape wasn't hard either, making its recursion much more consistent. Much like Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis, it typically came back once in a game, but that was usually enough to make it worth inclusion. Aside from the Rabblemaster quintet, this is another great addition to Red aggro decks.
Anax, Hardened in the Forge - As an aggressive 3-drop, it also compares to the various Rabblemasters as a much better Pawn of Ulamog that I found was usually at least a 3/3. This deck utilized it, a rather meat-and-potatoes Mono-Red aggro deck:
Test Deck #7 | Cube | Usman Jamil
- Creatures (16)
- 1 Anax, Hardened in the Forge
- 1 Bomat Courier
- 1 Falkenrath Gorger
- 1 Figure of Destiny
- 1 Gingerbrute
- 1 Goblin Cratermaker
- 1 Goblin Guide
- 1 Hangarback Walker
- 1 Icehide Golem
- 1 Kari Zev, Skyship Raider
- 1 Lodestone Golem
- 1 Metallic Mimic
- 1 Phyrexian Revoker
- 1 Porcelain Legionnaire
- 1 Rakdos Cackler
- 1 Zurgo Bellstriker
- Planeswalkers (1)
- 1 Karn, Scion of Urza
- Lands (16)
- 16 Snow-Covered Mountain
Phoenix of Ash and Anax have been pretty close power-level wise, supplementing Red aggressive strategies on a slightly different axis. Currently, I'm slightly leaning toward Phoenix of Ash but I honestly could go either way if having to choose between one since both are very close power-wise. Their main difference is how they help different matchups - Anax's "persist" doesn't require mana which is great against wraths and if you need to chump attack to get damage in. 1/1 satyrs don't do much against baloth-sized threats, making it significantly worse against midrange, whereas Phoenix of Ash's flying and ability to close out the game helps aggro against midrange. Therefore, inclusion is mainly a question of where you want to bolster matchups for your aggro Red decks.
Satyr's Cunning doesn't exactly fit the mold of 2/1s for 1 that Red prefers. I found an early creature with additional use in the late game worked well with the Red aggo gameplan of attacking with small things, and the inability to block wasn't too bad.
I hadn't thought of it until Sirfunchalot talked about how it compares to Adanto, the First Fort by making a creature for , and while it's not a perfect 1-to-1 comparison - sorcery speed, creatures can't block, and don't have lifelink - it works well as a general analog by being a way to use mana and resources in the various stages of the game. It isn't something that is going to blow drafters away; a solid role-filler but one that I could see leaving Cubes in a year but still making a good impact in that time.
Purphoros's Intervention - Primarily, this has played out as a Never variant, killing 4/4s for and scaling up later to kill bigger things as the game goes on. As a tradeoff, it trades the ability to directly go to the dome for the ability to indirectly do so via its Lightning Serpent mode.
If I had my druthers, the X/1 mode would just be a straight-up Blaze effect; arguably, cards like Ball Lightning were the original punisher cards, since a card like Ball Lightning acts like a 6-mana burn spell that can be lessened by opposing blockers, or just negated completely with a removal spell.
Red aggro decks generally are the least interested in removal that can't go to face, but are usually fine with playing an Abrade. Because it fit the non-aggro Red game plan, those were the decks that tended to play it the most. Despite its low "position" here, I've been impressed with how well it works in Red decks - and since Red aggro tends to cook most of its potential blockers, getting a giant x/1 to be able to deal full damage wasn't a pipe dream. Red has gotten a lot of great cards in this set, and this is yet another.
Tectonic Giant - Over the years, we've seen cards that are mostly top-end cards for aggro: cards like Light up the Stage, Embercleave, Experimental Frenzy, Risk Factor, and Hellrider to name a few. These are cards that only aggressive decks want, since a deck like midrange isn't in the market for a Hellrider or Embercleave. They don't provide card advantage or ways to survive, only closing power, which midrange only cares about in racing scenarios or if the game needs to be wrapped up.
If a Red aggro deck was a meal, these kinds of cards would be the dessert, acting as the top end for those decks. Without discipline, it can be easy to overload on this kind of dessert, since these cards create a vivid impression of ending the game soon after being played. Although it has some form of resilience, it was only good in aggressive decks as playing it in other forms of Red didn't pan out. It also suffered from the lack of immediate return, which these kinds of cards require to be useful in Cube.
Tectonic Giant is yet another one of these dessert high-end cards that is parasitic to aggro decks. It isn't so much that it's inherently "bad" - it was just similar to Thryx while performing worse. The slot could be used better for other archetype support, or something more generalist like a Galvanic Blast. With the plethora of desserts printed in the past few years, I just don't see a lot of Cubes that need yet another sweet treat.
Storm's Wrath - Red has the dubious honor of its recent wraths hitting planeswalkers, with cards like Hour of Devastation. For the most part, this is more drawback than payoff. Usually, in slower Red decks, one of the ways they break parity and take over the game is through the use of planeswalkers as resilient value engines. Red decks are able to cook potential attacks that would threaten the planeswalkers. Because of this, cards like Magmaquake never really took off in Cube, because despite the ability to hit opposing Planeswalkers. Hitting your own was usually a bad deal. With the bevy of cheaper small wraths like (but not limited to) Pyroclasm, Whipflare, and Sweltering Suns, these perform the job much better and your Cube likely isn't in the market for yet another one.
Underworld Rage-Hound was another one of the early leaks where Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis also appeared. 1-drops are the backbone from which aggro is built, and thusly they're less important than 2-drops, but it's always nice when a good one appears. It's weird, but my impression of Underworld Rage-Hound never seemed to get above middling filler, since although it had several features that were good for aggro - decent stats and resilience - it always gave a mediocre performance. It could be that being forced to attack was generally a worse drawback than it looked, running it into opposing boards recklessly. It could be that the mana cost was too high to recur for something with only two toughness when escaped. Even with a lot of thought and reps with it, it wasn't one specific factor, but a combination of them, and although it had similar talking points to Satyr's Cunning, I found the 1-mana card to be much better for aggro.
This could just be from high expectations, and I don't think it's a bad card, but I'd recommend a lot more 1-drops and different 2-drops for a Red section over this.
Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded plays as a really bad Through the Breach/Sneak Attack variant and is only wanted if you're desperate for another cheat effect with more hoops to jump through than something like Dramatic Entrance. You know if you're in the market for this, but most Cubes likely aren't going to be.
Irreverent Revelers isn't irrelevant as artifact hate, but I was pretty hard-pressed to find a Cube that needs this in addition to better options like Release the Gremlins and the smattering of Manic Vandal type creatures.
Ox of Agonas suffers in Cube for similar reasons that other dredgey cards have - not enough payoff for what the deck wants to do, and fits poorly into other decks, even aggro, that wants to empty its hand.
The First Iroan Games - When I first started seeing reactions to The First Iroan Games, a lot of reactions seemed similar to a pretty common evaluation trap, that "the opponent can just kill it in response to the trigger" and that, therefore, it's bad. In the time since it got previewed and from trying it out, I wanted to gauge feedback on how it's performed from multiple Cubes and the general response was about the same - that even if the opponent had the piece of interaction for your 3-drop, it's essentially killing a bog Standard 4/4. If the opponent had the removal, well, them's the breaks; and, as Zolthux noted, even when that occurred, the timing window is pretty narrow for the absolute worst-case to happen.
It may be because of the feel bads of your 4/4 dying to a Shock and feeling like you've wasted a lot of resources to bank on a double draw, but if you adjust expectations to a 4/4 that usually draws a card (a lot of the initial misconceptions ignored its impact later in the game if drawn, so that it could even more reliably draw 2), it looks a lot better.
It hardly required a "4-power theme", like this 3-0 deck that had it as a big Elvish Visionary drafted by Derek Gallen from Buildingadeck's Cube:
Test Deck #8 | Cube | Buildingadeck
- Creatures (15)
- 1 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 1 Beastbreaker of Bala Ged
- 1 Biogenic Ooze
- 1 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Duskwatch Recruiter
- 1 Elvish Mystic
- 1 Foulmire Knight
- 1 Fyndhorn Elves
- 1 Growth-Chamber Guardian
- 1 Jadelight Ranger
- 1 Joraga Treespeaker
- 1 Kitesail Freebooter
- 1 Order of Midnight
- 1 Shriekmaw
- 1 Thrashing Brontodon
- Planeswalkers (5)
- 1 Nissa, Vital Force
- 1 Nissa, Voice of Zendikar
- 1 Nissa, Worldwaker
- 1 Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath
- 1 Vivien, Arkbow Ranger
- Instants (1)
- 1 Hero's Downfall
- Enchantments (1)
- 1 The First Iroan Games
I even found the gold token almost always had some use during games. Overall, this has been great as one of the better midrange threats in Green and it's continued to impress me over time.
Wolfwillow Haven has performed decently as ramp that can cash itself in if the game goes long. Its rate to turn itself into a Wolf is poor at and sorcery speed, but much like Firebolt, it's mainly for additional value if you've gotten to the late game. It's been significantly better than things like Cultivate, and if you're not already on Fertile Ground, Utopia Sprawl and Wild Growth, those are better; but, this is miles ahead of Cultivate for the average Green deck's gameplan.
Ilysian Caryatid is about what you'd expect - a Green ramper that dies to being looked at by a Red mage and has one of the least reliable upsides (vs something like Heart Warden). In most games, it didn't come up often, or did when getting two mana out of it was irrelevant. If you're interested in tools that make the Green midrange vs aggro matchup less lopsided by letting Red bolt birds, this is a nice one to have, but just don't expect to have it go Ferocious.
Voracious Typhon fits similar characteristics as the above mana rampers - doing something at a decent mana rate with some late game potential if you get there. The mana cost was high for Green decks that weren't super ramp, and while Green 4-drops have been lagging, this does somewhat go along the axis of "unga bunga" Green decks that fight the 1-for-1 removal axis that control decks tend to thrive on. However, the seven mana cost was prohibitively high for midrange goals most of the time, and while it wasn't the worst thing to cast for seven mana, it was generally amongst the weaker things Green could do for the card slot.
Dryad of the Ilysian Grove - Explore tend to dip in effectiveness as the game goes on and I don't recall this ever enabling another landfall in the time that I tested it, making it mostly a 2/4 that made your mana perfect. Still, Green decks could generally do better, even the non-greedy ones.
Nylea, Keen-Eyed, Nyxbloom Ancient, and Arasta of the Endless Web are too mana intensive to really be worth using. Nyxbloom Ancient is especially baffling for Cube since it's poor for ramp and is a pretty fragile mana tripler if the expectation is for it to live and let you burst out a huge effect.
Ashiok, Nightmare Muse's 2/3s have been great as an uptick since Blind Phantasms size up well with the 2/2s in the format, usually holding the fort against small creatures and gang blocking to make attacking with baloth-sized creatures awkward. I almost never saw Ashiok's nightmares mill ability end the game, but it was usually a nice way for them to be utilized if the opponent was within striking distance of being milled out.
Even its Recoil mode was solid, even if it was pretty mana inefficient - much like the middle modes on Elspeth, Sun's Champion, Liliana, the Last Hope, Gideon Jura, and Chandra, Torch of Defiance - they may look awful on mana rate (or function, like Gideon Jura's Vengeance mode) but they generally are useful to help make up for what the plus can't do. Ashiok's Recoil mode plays similarly to those middling-appearing minus abilities.
(In the deck that featured Thassa's Intervention, Ashiok, Nightmare Muse was in the sideboard. It was close to being in the maindeck and may have been user error to not include it, but I mainly just wanted to limit sorcery-speed threats to absurdly powerful ones like the other planeswalkers.)
Overall, I've found Ashiok, Nightmare Muse to play well in midrange (splashing for Ashiok) and control decks - even in a guild as stacked as Dimir, this Ashiok has compared well to the competition.
Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths also played well as a pseudo Mulldrifter that usually drew 2 cards with the bonus of being hard to block. The idealized scenarios of one good card//2 bad cards didn't happen that often and generally the piles it created weren't obvious to make or take, but this may have just been due to unfamiliarity, even though it is somewhat analogous to Jace, Architect of Thought's -2.
This is an example of a deck that mostly cared about the quantity axis:
Test Deck #9 | Cube | Usman Jamil
- Creatures (13)
- 1 Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths
- 1 Brain Maggot
- 1 Falkenrath Gorger
- 1 Flametongue Kavu
- 1 Frogkin Kidnapper
- 1 Geometric Weird
- 1 Giant Slug
- 1 Gingerbrute
- 1 Goblin Rabblemaster
- 1 Monastery Swiftspear
- 1 Woe Strider
- 1 Stonecoil Serpent
- 1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
- Artifacts (1)
- 1 Skullclamp
It was certainly more a "reward" card than one that pulled someone in to Dimir, but it was generally a good card for control decks that could pay the cost; hardly top-tier but better than something like Notion Thief or Thief of Sanity.
Polukranos, Unchained - I've been a big fan of Escape cards for Cube and this has been a decent card for Golgari decks. It mostly kills things which is what Golgari cards tend to do, for the most part, so it isn't breaking the mold for uniqueness, but it usually was a big enough threat for its drawback to not be too painful. Occasionally when it came back from the grave, it was able to clock the opponent and solo the opponent as the dust was clear. Like Atris, a good card but hardly necessary.
Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath - I've occasionally referred to Deep Analysis as the M:TG equivalent of having to eat through terrible dry Thanksgiving turkey to get to the good stuff, as Deep Analysis requires either paying through the nose at sorcery speed to get a slightly worse Night's Whisper, or a way to dump Deep Analysis into the graveyard, and most Cube decks tended to not have the latter. Uro played similarly where you had to pay through the nose for a sorcery-speed Growth Spiral at an additional mana for the potential to get an absurdly statted threat that Growth Spirals on entering and attacking.
Usually it was played in midrangey decks like this:
Test Deck #10 | Cube | Usman Jamil
- Creatures (10)
- 1 Consecrated Sphinx
- 1 Earthshaker Giant
- 1 Fauna Shaman
- 1 Gilded Goose
- 1 Llanowar Elves
- 1 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Questing Beast
- 1 Rhonas the Indomitable
- 1 Thrun, the Last Troll
- 1 Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath
- Enchantments (1)
- 1 Primordial Mist
That said, I don't recall seeing Uro attack once, since the threat of it was telegraphed a mile away and it could snowball if it lived, so decks usually had an answer to it, but it was big enough that respecting it was something that the opponent had to do.
If this was 2015, Uro would be a stone-cold staple since Simic used to have such poor multicolored cards, but in 2020, much better options exist. It wasn't a card that would pull you toward multicolored but rather would just reward you for being in Simic/splashing for it. Sirfunchalot had a recent reddit thread talking about cards that reward you for being in a color combination vs pulling you toward it. Uro, ultimately, is a reward rather a reason to be multicolored, which is why it isn't as "necessary" as it may look, given its current Standard implications.
Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger - better on the "base rate" as a baby Blightning that wasn't useless if the opponent was Hellbent. We found it was fine in Rakdos aggro, but unsurprisingly was nearly useless in decks like Grixis and Jund. Like Uro, it never survived to attack and and, like Uro, Kroxa wasn't a good pull to go into Rakdos, unlike cards like Daretti, Ingenious Iconoclast. My general impression was that it was just ok - hardly embarrassing and something I'd take if I was in the archetype in a Cube deck, but something that's likely better served by another card.
Kunoros, Hound of Athreos - Essentially this dog is Vampire Nighthawk with some tweaks that randomly hose reanimator, although one that scales worse in the late game from lacking deathtouch. Like Vampire Nighthawk, it's a "Baneslayer" style pile of keywords, and at three Mana it's a lot more forgivable than 5-6 Mana because it isn't as much of a tempo loss if it dies to a removal spell. Occasionally, it hosing reanimator was relevant but for the most part, it was something that attacked through single blockers and was one of those cards like Terminate - a fine card when you're in the color pair but not really something that pulls you into it.
There's better options for cards in Cube, but it was hardly embarrassing when played. Still, likely not something that'll last long in a Cube, if 2020 is anything like 2019.
Klothys, God of Destiny generally played as an odd version of a Sulfuric Vortex and usually didn't lack for targets in the average Cube game. It was hard to consistently get mana out of it, and as such was mostly a Vortex that was never a creature. As noted before, generally Red was the best color at incidentally sending things to the graveyard, but generally midrange wasn't in the market for a pure damage source, and being a card parasitic to aggro was more so hurt by being 2-color. Generally, I found the multitude of Gruul walkers to be better.
Dream Trawler is an analog to Dragonlord Ojutai, a big sorcery-speed threat that protects itself without requiring additional mana, which fits the tap-out control gameplan well. It generally performed decently in that role. It may be because the Mono-Color threats are so much worse in current Standard than during the era of Titans, but it's another card that tends to look better than its competition but gets dragged down when compared to the marquee finishers in Cube, like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria.
Shadowspear is a nice middle ground between Trusty Machete and Basilisk Collar in terms of performance against combo/control decks versus aggro/midrange, since for the most part, you want raw stats against the former and ways to race and stabilize against the latter.
To borrow an adage from the Limited Resources podcast, when it was played against the aggro decks, it passed the "groan test" with flying colors, since even a ham sandwich equipped with the Shadowspear had the potential to swing life totals massively. As such, the aggro matchup involving Shadowspear is something you'll want to keep an eye on if including it. Having trample over deathtouch was overall worse, but the +1/+1 boost was more than enough to make up for it, and was useful if the opponent is reliant on chumping your team with tokens.
I'm always on the lookout for cheap equipment since, like cards like Gingerbrute and Stonecoil Serpent, they carry a lot more weight for aggro decks than they may appear to (due to being able to be put into any color deck). A lot of equipment tends to be high-costed, and as good as a Sword of Fire and Ice is, paying 3 + 2 mana is a significant use of resources for a deck that has such low margins for mana as aggro. Overall, I've liked it more than Trusty Machete and other knockoff Bonesplitter types of cards, since typically the overall effects via keywords were enough to make up for the extra power.
As can be expected, the ability to stop hexproof was mostly flavor text and I don't recall it happening once during testing. Although I didn't have as many reps as I'd like to with Shadowspear, its hexproof-hosing ability likely only would matter in a game or two in a 3-round draft anyway.
Labyrinth of Skophos - I tried it since the leak and it was a poor use of resources since it required so much mana, even in the control decks. In theory, it promises being a Maze of Ith that can be used as a mana source, but it was so expensive to use that it was just bad at it.
Nyx Lotus - Only for "mega ramp" and it isn't even great when compared to competition. Decks that want Mana rocks want to ramp *into* 4-drops, not have them ramp into something, so coming into play tapped is even worse.
Bob Ross once said:
As most people reading this are (I assume) Cube designers, our Cubes may be even more important as something that we can control in a time when things are dreadful and out of our control from Covid-19. For many, opening a Cube pack is the equivalent of breaking bread as an introduction to a world that you've carefully created; in the coming months, we're not going to be able to break bread as often as we're used to, for a format that's social by its very nature. For us Cube designers, this period of social isolation may deprive us of the joys that we'd normally bring to drafters, even if just for a few hours.
But this period is only temporary; as Cube designers, we're in it for the long-haul, and although life may fundamentally change after all of this, we will persevere. Please stay at home during this crisis - whether it's for cube data or the experience of cubing in person, you can wait.
I hope that this article has, if anything, provided some joy to you in a world where Covid-19 makes it hard to find joy. Be excellent to each other in these dark times.