It’s set review season! Cube set reviews have historically been a little problematic, as the Cube format means many different things to different Cube designers. I, however, run just a single cube. It’s an extremely fast, 360-card Cube. Intentionally or not, my card evaluations are informed by this context. I won’t try to guess whether a card belongs in a 720-card Cube. Or, as a friend recently put it, “I’d rather have a horse kick dirt in my face than read another rating that tells me Boros Elite is a ‘630 staple.’”
That said, to keep things interesting and digestible, I will provide verdicts for each of the cards I discuss. Consider these to be evaluations for Cubes with a power level similar to my own Cubes.
Master of the Feast
Straight from the Goblin Guide School of design! Master of the Feast give you an extremely efficient body at the cost of (guaranteed) card disadvantage. Cards like this work because of the promise of virtual card advantage: your opponent’s grip full of cards doesn’t count for much when they’re sitting at 0 life. However, as anyone who has Cubed with Goblin Guide can attest, the drawback can become crippling if either your deck or your draw isn’t quite fast enough.
Master of the Feast fills a significantly different role than black’s usual king of the skies, Abyssal Persecutor. Persecutor can lock up the board and help a player stabilize, but Master of the Feast needs to attack. Its strength in Cube will largely depend on context. Does your environment support sufficiently aggressive black decks? How much instant speed removal are you running, and how likely is the trigger to draw your opponent into said removal?
Verdict: Test it if you support any form of black aggression.
Mogis’s Warhound shares some DNA with Flinthoof Boar, a card whose Cube fate suffers from competition with its formidable Gruul guildmates. Like Flinthoof Boar, Warhound fixes an aggressive deck’s draw by slotting into either the 2- or 3-drop slot, and at three mana can add hasty attacking damage to the board. Mogis’s Warhound isn’t the flashiest of spells, but its flexibility and efficiency should earn it at least a temporary stay in a Cube list, even if its days are already numbered.
Warhound compares rather miserably as a pure 2-drop, but there is a dearth of quality in the three-drop slot. It’s worth noting that, as an aura, the additional damage and toughness should provide the edge needed for early drops to swing into the red zone profitably against opposing dorks or common road-blocks like Wall of Omens. Any cute double-strike interactions are simply a bonus.
Verdict: Test it, with a watchful eye.
Speaking of double-strike interactions… Prophetic Flamespeaker pulls two of red’s non-primary keywords to create a uniquely red card. Double strike has long stood as a mechanic just on the edge of receiving proper cube support, and one of the challenges in the design has always been finding ways to tie the design to non-white colors. Viashino Slaughtermaster and Hound of Griselbrand are fine, but hardly compare to the like’s of Mirran Crusader, Silverblade Paladin, or Fabled Hero.
Consider Prophetic Flamespeaker the missing piece. Although he boasts less aggressive base-stats, Flamespeaker compensates with a profitable trigger and the ability to connect past chump blockers. If you go the double strike subtheme route, cards like Ghor-Clan Rampager and Reckless Charge shift from solid roleplayers to key archetype cards.
Verdict: Run it, and consider designing around its presence.
Blue doesn’t often get aggressively-costed bodies, but when it does, it gets them exclusively at the 3-drop slot. Cube designers are constantly looking for ways to support aggro in new ways, and cards like Serendib Efreet, Fettergeist, and Stitched Drake already carry the banner for Les Blues.
Verdict: Pass. Even if you want to push blue aggro, look elsewhere.
2-power one-drops don’t need much upside to earn their keep in Cube. Although an inability to block is generally considered a downside, it’s almost pure icing here as Gnarled Scarhide serves as a rare one-drop with legitimate topdeck utility. Bestowing an opponent’s blocker will be a winning line for years to come.
Verdict: Run it.
Dictate of Erebos
Despite running a huge density of sacrifice effects, I don’t run Grave Pact because of the ease in locking the opponent out of the game when you’re running the likes of Gravecrawler, Bloodghast, and Carrion Feeder. Dictate of Erebos boasts a friendly casting cost, but retains the underlying flaw.
Mana Confluence, Banishing Light
Unless you’re running the likes of Chromatic Lantern or a playset of Oblivion Rings, Mana Confluence and Banishing Light represent strict personal reprints. Depending on your Cube philosophy, we’ve long had access to multiple copies of each effect, but even with different names I’m not sure cube is in need of multiples of either effect.
Harness by Force
As part of my sacrifice package I already run a small handful of sacrifice effects that interact with the likes of Carrion Feeder, Goblin Bombardment, and Birthing Pod. Harness by Force trades a slightly more restrictive initial cost for a huge upside: late game, stealing and swinging with two of your opponent’s creatures means that four additional creatures (-2 blockers, +2 attackers) can connect in the red zone. In practice a kicked—sorry—strived, Harness by Force should be as effective as casting Overrun in traditional Limited.
Verdict: Run it.
Fun design, but unless your Cube runs an absurd density of enchantments and 1-toughness creatures, Forgeborn Oreads won’t escape the shadow of Flametongue Kavu.
Setessan Tactics gets my nod for most exciting design of the set. Green has traditionally lacked for ways to interact with the opponent, but cards like this and Polukranos are giving green removal in new yet distinctly green ways. The fight mechanic has thus far been underrepresented in Cube, and Setessan Tactics brings it at instant speed. This card is scalable, and figuring out how (and when) to craft a board state to maximize its impact looks to be a fun skill tester.
Note that the creatures get pumped even if you choose not to utilize their fight ability. I haven’t cast Setessan Tactics yet, but I’m already salivating at the prospect. Winning with this card promises to be incredibly satisfying.
Verdict: Run it.
I think it’s tempting with cards like this to take a best-case-scenario approach to evaluation. When Boros Charm was revealed, many players raved about the card’s ability to counter a wrath, yet I never really saw these situations materialize. Worse, Ajani’s Presence represents the type of card that, while useful in certain game states, rarely seems appealing during deck construction.
Hour of Need
I first completely overlooked this card, dismissing it as just another Dragonshift variant. “Reactive” spells like Ajani’s Presence generally don’t play well in Cube, but the difference with Hour of Need is that it provides huge value even when used proactively. The potential is definitely there. That said, I’m not exactly sure which archetypes actually want this card in their final 40. This is the type of card that I toss in my Cube after a set release and hope that testing pushes me in one direction or another.
Utility blue 2-drops are all the rage these days, and while Sigiled Starfish‘s ability to scry turn after turn could give it a groanworthy nickname (Crystal Wall, sorry), slots are tight. I personally favor Augur of Bolas and Ludevic’s Test Subject in this arena.
Scourge of Fleets
I’ve heard some buzz of excitement from the corners of the Cube community surrounding this card, and while design is a subjective exercise, I can confidently state that these people are objectively wrong. An evasion-less 6/6 for seven mana isn’t turning any heads on the street, and tying the trigger to Island count isn’t all that reliable in a format filled with multicolor decks and utility lands.
Best-case scenario, Scourge bounces a couple guys and gets chump blocked until the end of time. Worst-case he sends back Nekrataal and other creatures with profitable ETB triggers to hand for a rebuy. If you were looking for a card that takes and ruins everything good about Angel of Serenity, look no further.
Verdict: Pass with a vengeance.
Ajani, Mentor of Heroes
Ajani, Mentor of Heroes completes the two-color planeswalker “cycle,” and vies for the title of most boring of the bunch. Maybe that’s hypocritical, considering I stumped for double-strike and pump interactions earlier this article, and new Ajani delivers on that front. The design strikes me as paint by numbers, and for a planeswalker, really does nothing to excite me. In my opinion, planeswalkers are required to carry a certain “fun burden” to make up for the inherent misery of playing against one.
Maybe I’m being particularly curmudgeonly, but nothing about Ajani excites me. He provides value at a steady clip, in two very dry ways. There’s no internal tension about which way to tick his loyalty, only a (generally obvious) choice over how to gain the most value.
The catalog of potential Cube cards, particularly Selesnya cards, is deep enough that we can include powerful cards without including boring ones. Toss in every Cube owner’s fight against planeswalker density creep, and I really don’t see Ajani’s draw.
Keranos, God of Storms
Keranos brings a new dynamic to the table. Technically it’s an enchantment (or whatever), but in spirit it feels like a planeswalker you can’t attack. A slow planeswalker you can’t attack. If you want to deal 3 damage to a creature, Keranos will do so at least a full two turns after Ral Zarek. There’s an inherent risk/reward proposition built into this card, based on the fact that it is a 5-drop that initially has zero board impact. The longer you can drag the game out, the more it provides you value.
Whether this is an interesting dynamic depends almost entirely on your environment. In an aggressive setting, fending off aggressive decks deserves a reward. There, stalling the game is a difficult but unconventional game plan. I like Cube cards that encourage a certain style of play, and grinding out a Keranos victory feels a bit like an alternate win condition.
My gut tells me that Keranos doesn’t quite cut it at 360, but it’s close enough that I’m willing to give it a go.
Verdict: Test it.
Iroas, God of Victory
Iroas is a very streamlined card, with a measurable and immediate board impact. The two halves of the card work together very cohesively, allowing your attackers to swing in with impunity and continue to contribute devotion even after facing (two or more) blockers.
Pyreheart Wolf’s time in Standard demonstrated how effective such an effect can be even without a powerful body attached to it. I think Iroas pulls enough weight for an abstract Cube slot, but practically speaking it’s competing against the likes of Lightning Helix, Ajani Vengeant, Boros Reckoner, Boros Charm, and Figure of Destiny.
Verdict: Play it if you’re looking for a change of pace, but realize you’re likely not running the objectively strongest card for the slot.
Pharika, God of Affliction
Pharika leaves me conflicted. On the one hand, I can’t get enough of cards like Scavenging Ooze and Deathrite Shaman that interact with the graveyard and give the format additional ways to tackle decks that recur Gravecrawlers and Bloodghasts.
On the other hand, I hate board clog. I and many other Cube designers have experienced a dramatic increase in the quality of game play associated with removing board-cloggers like Cloudgoat Ranger, Seige-Gang Commander, and Deranged Hermit. I briefly tried Commander’s Ophiomancer, but the card proved tedious. A card whose primary purpose is to pump out deathtouch blockers isn’t something I’m in the market for.
Athreos, God of Passage
Athreos, God of Passage is my favorite of the Journey into Nyx Gods. Being in black, home to recursive threats like Gravecrawler and Bloodghast, helps for devotion contributions. Strangely though, those two creatures don’t synergize terribly well with Athreos. Bloodghast doesn’t want to return to hand (usually), and Gravecrawler is apathetic with regard to his non-battlefield location (usually).
If Blood Artist has proven anything, it’s that draining small chunks of life adds up quickly. Your opponent can avoid giving you card advantage all they want, but eventually they’ll be stuck between a rock and a hard place. Imagine the relentless churn of a Birthing Pod deck sacrificing creatures turn after turn with Athreos on the board. When do you give in? How do you race?
Not to mention specific interactions. Evoke Mulldrifter. Pay 3? Evoke Shriekmaw. Pay 3? Sacrifice a creature to Goblin Bombardment. Pay 3? Drip. Drip. Drip.
Athreos is its own engine, and one that can be tuned to maximize its potency.
Verdict: Run it.