One of the first things you notice once you’ve gotten several Cube drafts under your belt is how difficult it is to send signals. Without any crappy chaff cards taking up slots in your pack, there’s a lot less room to push the man (or woman) on your left in a certain direction. With four sweet blue cards in a pack, what can you do but take your Treachery, and lament the fact that you’ll be getting someone else’s seconds in the next one.
Just as quickly, however, you learn that this doesn’t matter all that much. As I’ve heard both LSV and PV point out, you don’t really need to sweat the early signals you send. After a whole pack of cutting blue, the people on your left will get the message eventually. Even if they don’t, the odds are in your favor, since pack three’s delicious blue contents have your name written all over them.
Yet, for some reason, we still can’t really help but get upset when you feel like the man on your right set up a big flashing sign that says “I’M NOT IN RED!” only to find out later that he’s in mono-red, and he just didn’t think that Goblin Guide was that great. For example: in every MSS draft I’ve done lately, it feels like I’m afflicted by something I like to call the “Flesh-Eater Imp Curse.” It involves making some picks that don’t commit me to any archetype in particular, and suddenly pick four rolls around and I find the little mischievous flying fireball staring back at me. I slam it and naturally fail to see another quality infect creature for the rest of the draft.
After stepping back from the precipice of full monkey-tilt, I’m left wondering why this keeps happening. There are two explanations, of course: either there were legitimately three superior cards in the pack for each of the drafters on my right, or someone is overvaluing a card (Either my valuation of ol’ Flimpy, or their valuation of whatever they took over him). Since the former is only likely under some rare circumstances, it’s the latter explanation I’d like to explore in regards to Cube, since I regularly see Cube drafters give certain cards a great deal more love than they deserve.
Most of the time the choice is defensible at the very least – I mean, we are talking about Cube here, so the card is bound to be powerful. The most common offenders are Constructed all-stars, and players’ picks can be influenced more by the last time they saw the card at a numbered table than how effective it actually is in Cube. Thus, after hundreds of drafts, I decided to put together a list of twenty cards I’ve noticed get overvalued most often in Cube. Keep in mind that this is largely assuming you are drafting with an unpowered Cube, as once you get Moxen involved, card evaluations vary widely. Some of these are cards that are undoubtedly good (even great in some cases), are simply undeserving of the place they hold in players’ pick orders or certain main decks, while others are cards I don’t think should even have a place in Cube! So, without further ado, Think Before you Windmill Slam (in no particular order):
Balance is the card that first got me thinking about this project, since it’s considered a first pick by many, but in most cases is largely mediocre. One of the ways I judged which cards belonged to this list was following the “First Four Picks” feature on cubedrafting.com (a fun segment where a sample pack is generated, and readers rank top four cards they would pick from the pack, in order), and every pack that featured Balance was followed by a surfeit of comments ranking it as their number one choice.
In a draft I was birding recently, one player had a G/W midrange deck piled out on the table. He included Balance. When he asked for suggestions I pointed out that the Balance wouldn’t actually do anything, and a certain level four pro who shall remain nameless (His name rhymes with Gnat Brass) claimed that you should never cut Balance.
There is no doubt that when you can break the symmetry of Balance, it is one of the most powerful effects available. However, breaking the symmetry is no easy task in Cube. You need to dump your hand onto the table with non-creature, non-land permanents (read: artifacts) to make it a true ranching. Outside of a powered Cube, artifact mana can be difficult to come by, since every control drafter at the table should be snapping it up. If you aren’t building around Balance, it’s often a two-mana Wrath of God that forces you to discard two cards. That’s a reasonable effect, if unexciting, and that’s all you should expect out of Balance early on in a draft.
Force of Will is actually a great Cube card, as it provides an unusual and useful tool when you need it. However, the other reason I love including Force is the skill testing aspect it adds to the draft. Many players will first pick Force of Will because it’s widely regarded as one of the best cards in Magic. Yet, Cube is still at its heart a Limited format, and the loss of card advantage is actually quite painful. Force should occupy more of a niche role where it’s used to force through (hah) a spell that needs to be cast early to have the largest effect (Wildfire), serve as a tempo swinging spell in a blue aggro deck, or sideboarded in to deal with problematic permanents like Bitterblossom or Ankh of Mishra. It is not a card that should encourage you to go into blue, and the mark of an experienced Cube drafter is a willingness to pass Force of Will.
3. Nether Void
The draw to this card is pretty easy to recognize. It looks like a black Armageddon, and admittedly I believed the hype and added it at first opportunity. The formula should be simple enough: stick some threats and resolve Nether Void. Now you’re beating down and they are left with four-drops stranded in their hand! Once it was in the Cube, however, we noticed a strange phenomenon. Whenever a Nether Void was on the table, the controller always lost. I thought this could be an anomaly, but it’s almost a truism at this point that if you are casting Nether Void you will lose. The problem with the card is actually pretty hard to identify.
I tried to work it out for some time. At first I assumed that since removal is usually cheap, once they remove your threat you can’t play any more spells and control decks tend to have access to more mana as the game goes long. Thus, I tried playing it in a big mana deck to leverage my advantage even more. Things seemed to be going well until I realized that my Sundering Titan now cost 11 mana. I was promptly obliterated. At that point, I cut it from the Cube and now avoid it like the plague when I see it in others’ Cubes.
I didn’t think this card was typically overvalued, since everyone I draft with on a regular basis relegates it to the random guy pile along with every other vanilla critter in the Cube. However, at the last few Grands Prix I’ve traveled to I witnessed a baffling number of players actually move in to green because they were passed a Tarmogoyf. In Limited, Tarmogoyf is absurdly difficult to power up, and if he’s a 2/3 by turn three you are doing pretty well for yourself. He’s not even as much fun to play with, since in a tournament people are often too proud to check his power and toughness, leading to random blowouts involving Tribal Enchantments. If you run that in a casual game you just look like a jerk. That being said, he is quite the looker, and I can see being drawn to him early on in a draft for that reason, and that reason alone.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I loves me some Cryptic Command. It is an incredibly flexible card, and the sweet interactions with cards like Gilded Drake or Reveillark are exactly the kind of durdling I can get behind. That being said, Cryptic Command is still mostly just a Dismiss, and triple-blue is a truly prohibitive cost without the kind of reliable fixing available in constructed. Not to mention, the biggest Cryptic blowouts always involve drawing multiples so you can race while fogging them each turn. Yet another example of a card that is a constructed all-star but simply workmanlike in Cube. Dismissing spells is still a good place to be, though for UUU you should make sure you’ll even be casting it before you go diving in.
This is probably my least favorite of any sweeper that commonly sees Cube play, and clearly most Cube builders disagree with me, since I see it everywhere. Akroma’s Vengeance does look valuable: dealing with artifacts and enchantments en masse is a rare quality for a Cube card. The problem with a sweeper that costs six mana is that you always want to be casting it in a deck that plays signets, and as creatures get better, your opponent needs to commit less to the board to threaten your life total. Thus, most of the time you mete out some Vengeance you actually Venge your own mana base to kill two creatures. I’d much rather opt for the flexibility of Austere Command any day, and I think all things Akroma should be left out of the Cube, let alone your draft deck.
I saw a Brainstorm table the other day, and hopefully it’s a sign of a larger trend. Brainstorm is another one of those cards that just has all-star written all over it, but simply can’t perform on the same level in Cube as it does in Constructed. The central issue is that without a plethora of shuffle effects to depend on, Brainstorm’s greatest asset (getting rid of the cards you don’t want) becomes an unreliable pipe dream. In fact, both Ponder and Preordain typically perform better in Cube if you want that sort of effect, since neither requires another card to offer quality library manipulation. While I think finding shuffle effects in Cube is not too difficult, it’s enough of a problem that you shouldn’t be looking at Brainstorm as a pseudo-Ancestral. Here’s hoping I can start wheeling it reliably from now on.
If you manage to cobble together a truly focused Reanimator deck that consistently puts a game-breaking fatty in the bin by turn two… you are probably not Cubing. Most people don’t appreciate the difficulties in finding Cube-able enablers for the Reanimator deck- only Entomb does it on turn one well, one of the most narrow cards you can include. The very best enablers cost two mana, meaning the earliest you are Reanimating is turn three on average. At that point, the life loss becomes a very real problem, and I’ve seen more than a few Reanimates stagnate in a player’s hand because taking seven to get back a Battlesphere will put them on roughly dead to the next light breeze. Necromancy and Animate Dead do much better work, so value them accordingly.
Putting this card anywhere near this list deeply saddens me, as there once was a time, not too long ago, when opening a pack with Wake brought great joy indeed. Untapping with potentially twelve mana and who knows how much power in tokens was a devastating play, and still leads to some dizzying game states in Cube. However, the glory days of Wake are behind us, and it is now a card that can be played only under the right circumstances. Creatures just keep improving, and tapping out on turn five to do literally nothing is a recipe for disaster. It’s still pretty nice in green decks, but I regrettably will no longer be trying to splash this in my U/B Control lists (Alright, maybe I shouldn’t have in the first place. I admire your restraint).
Capsize is a funny card because it frustrates players so much they assume it must be a house. To make matters worse, in a Common/Uncommon Cube it really is the bee’s knees. Yet, six mana to bounce a permanent is an outrageous investment, and if you are getting away with it you are either playing a matchup that revolves more around the size of your opponent’s library than the number on his life pad, or against a player that has no idea how to stop it. Either one should be a corner case, and on the whole it’s better to play a card with real flexibility and realistic value, like Into the Roil. Interestingly, Capsize was at its best when paired with Mirari’s Wake. This is all very depressing, you know.
11. Fact or Fiction
While we are on the topic of blue cards that cost a ton of mana, let’s talk about Fact or Fiction. FoF is another card that falls in the category of great, but not that great. In other words, stop assuming it’s the Flesh-Eater Imp from my example at the beginning. The list of blue cards that outclass Fact or Fiction is reasonably long, and four mana is more taxing in practice than it ever looks on paper. When Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Control Magic share your spot on the mana curve, you’ve got some tough competition. Speaking of which….
12. Gifts Ungiven
Even more annoying than watching someone glare at you like you just gave up the Holy Grail when you pass them a Fact or Fiction is getting the same expression when you cut ship Gifts. Getting value out of a Gifts Ungiven is quite a long shot, and the only time I have ever seen someone do more than Inspiration was with Body Double, Reveillark, and Karmic Guide. How often is that going to happen? Well, for Reuben Bresler it happened three drafts in a row. Cutting it meant I got to get rid of a mediocre card and disappoint Reuben at the same time. I finally got some value out of it!
13. Yawgmoth’s Bargain/Necropotence
Add Bargain to the list of expensive enchantments that have no effect on the board. Again, in a powered Cube, Bargain is a whole different animal, as Moxen enable not only earlier Bargaining, but more to do when you resolve it. However, for us unpowered folk, Bargain kept getting worse as other cards got better, and eventually the time came to just let it go entirely. Necropotence is very similar, in that it’s almost impossible to cast for the effect it gives you, and your life total is more dear these days in Cube than it once was. When you see these cards in a pack, think carefully about what the board might look like when you want to cast it, and how much life you could possibly be willing to pay if your position is an unfavorable one.
I talked about why this card is terrible in my article on Mirrodin Besieged, but I can’t restate enough how underwhelming this card is. If you are mono-black in Cube these days you are undoubtedly doing something wrong, because the only cards worth sticking to black for are bad [card]Damnation[/card]s and bad [card]Fireball[/card]s. If you play with a Cube that includes this card, and see it in a pack, you’re better off treating it less like a Wrath and more like a nice trap to let the guy on your left walk in to.
15. Future Sight
Did anyone else notice there are a ton of blue cards on this list? I may have some kind of bias here but the fact that I have an unnatural affection for these cards makes me think otherwise. Regardless, while Future Sight is a card advantage monster in the long game, it’s still very prohibitively costed. If the coast is clear to resolve a Future Sight, you could probably be casting any number of solid five or six drops that can be cast on time and just winning with those. Which of course leads me to yet another blue card, though it’s the last one, I promise (it’s not).[draft]Desertion[/draft] 16. [card]Desertion[/card]
Before the telephone was invented, there was a device that used radio frequencies to transmit and receive messages over long distances. That’s exactly what you’re doing when you leave up five mana every turn for Desertion, and playing around it doesn’t exactly require a Herculean effort. People love counterspells and they love [card]Mind Control[/card]s, so it should be no surprise that this spell is beloved by many. Desertion requires so much to go right, yet players only remember the blowouts, and not the times where it just rotted in their hands while they got smashed. This brings up another problem with blue cards which is that people tend to notice less when they are mediocre. If you are playing blue-based control you are often winning anyway, it doesn’t really matter how you do it- a [card]Jetting Glasskite[/card] or [card]Sky Ruin Drake[/card] could probably do the trick. [draft]Eternal Dragon[/draft] 17. Eternal Dragon
White is an interesting beast because despite its reputation for Weenies, hosers and sweepers, it actually does Dragons quite well. In fact, the white six and seven drop spot on the curve in many Cubes ends up badly clogged because of the great options available. Eternal Dragon is one of the last to go when Cubers need to make space, though I’d argue it should be one of the first. I like to grind people out more than is healthy, but Eternal Dragon is just embarrassingly slow now, and seven mana is too much to pay for a fat vanilla flyer. Eternal Dragon is another example of a card where you just aren’t getting the necessary return on your investment, though if you treat it as simply an instant speed mana fixer, you might have it valued correctly (Which is to say, not good enough for Cube). It’s a shame really, since the art on the Pro Tour foil is so nice. [draft]Crystal Shard[/draft] 18. Crystal Shard
Crystal Shard is still excellent, but it’s not the bomb it used to be. Four mana for the first use is actually problematic now, and one removal spell from your opponent can get you tempoed out in no time. While I still think it’s reasonable to take Crystal Shard highly and draft around it, I wouldn’t assume leaning on the Shard is all you need in order to get by. Rather, I’d tend to draft value creatures over the Shard now, where I used to do the reverse. It’s a small change since [card]Mulldrifter[/card] and the like were already high picks, but it’s important to recognize that getting passed a Crystal Shard may no longer indicate that the [card]Reveillark[/card] deck is open. [draft]Senseis Divining Top[/draft] 19. Sensei’s Divining Top
I have to say, this may be common knowledge at this point, and perhaps I am late to receive the memo. I had never considered Top anything less than a first pick until recently, when I was drafting with Kyle Eck and he went on a tirade about how tired he is of seeing Top treated as some kind of bomb. When I thought carefully about it, I realized that he’s right. Top doesn’t swing the game in your favor at all, while many cards in Cube are capable of just that. Top is merely a solid card that gradually improves your position over time, and gives you some card selection when you draft shuffle effects. Certainly it’s better than a simple library manipulation spell, that’s obvious, but I now realize I need to reevaluate how I compare the Top to a large number of card draw spells, Control Magics, and bombs. I haven’t pinned down exactly where it should end up, but it’s important to recognize that you can do bigger things than look at your top three cards with a first pick. [draft]Library of Alexandria[/draft] 20. [card]Library of Alexandria[/card]
Okay, Okay… this card can’t really be overrated, since it is possibly the strongest card in the Cube. My objection to the card is in what is admittedly a corner case, but one that I see occur often enough that I wanted to address it. Essentially, it boils down to this: stop first picking this card if you are in mono-red aggro. I’ve argued with my friends incessantly about this issue, and they insist that it’s excellent because it gives you a 7/33 chance of winning the game. However, when you are casting 2/1’s for R, there is no guarantee that drawing a bunch of them will win you the game. Red’s strength is in its dominance of the early game, and if you spend that time drawing cards instead of committing to the board, your five random beaters will look very silly staring down a [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card]. On the other hand, if you are all burn spells, then drawing twelve cards in a game will probably be enough to win, so keep that in mind.
Well, there you have it. I think you probably noticed a recurring theme in my choices, and that’s a deeply ingrained fear of getting haumphed while I’m trying to cast my awesome spells. Cube is only getting more aggressive as Wizards prints more cards, and that trend doesn’t look to be changing any time soon. Keep this in mind while you draft the Cube. Tempo has become nearly as relevant as card advantage, and if you focus solely on raw power, you are likely to be punished by some sicko that actually enjoys turning things sideways.