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The Ultimate Guide to Cube, Part 1 – The Cards

The following series of articles was written two years ago, and now is the perfect time to give it a new coat of paint. Re-gifting is a holiday tradition, right? I’ve updated the examples, changed a few things I no longer agree with, and the result is the ultimate guide to Vintage Cube. Enjoy! – LSV

The happiest time of the year is here! That’s right, the Vintage / Holiday Cube is on Magic Online and we all have the privilege of enjoying the purest form of Magic. Today, I’m going to give you a detailed look on how to Cube for fun and profit (mostly fun, especially if you draft Storm). Hopefully, this reduces the barrier to entry some and makes what is a very daunting format a little less daunting, because Cube is honestly the best once you get into it. I know it can be hard to jump in, but that’s what I’m here for!

 

Header - What is a Cube?

A Cube is a set of draftable cards and can be literally anything. It can include Unstable cards, all commons, only cards from Innistrad, 360 cards, 720, 2000 – whatever you want. Usually, Cubes don’t have duplicates, but that’s not a hard and fast rule either. If you’re making your own Cube, go nuts, and do whatever you think sounds best. 

The Vintage cube is all one-ofs (though there are cards that are functional duplicates, but with different names), and as the name suggests, draws from all cards legal in Vintage. The current list can be found here.

 

Header - Be One With the Cube

Okay, that sentence doesn’t mean anything, but it is important to know how Cube works. This isn’t draft, as such. The reason that everyone’s first Cube draft (literally everyone) is something akin to Green-Black good stuff is because if you’ve drafted normal sets and then you draft Cube, you immediately just take “good removal” and “good creatures.” What you invariably end up with is Green-Black Garbo, as it’s commonly known. Cube is a Draft-Constructed hybrid and to be successful in it, you need to know what the archetypes are and how to draft them. All the picks should point in a particular direction because you’re crafting an archetype, not just assembling a pile of good cards. 

There are two points to really understand Cube drafting:

Know the Cards

    • Cube cards fit into a few broad categories, and even if you don’t know every single card and every single category perfectly, learning where they all fall (and why) will help you identify cards you’ve not played with and understand how the whole Cube engine works. 

Know the Decks

    • Cube is all about drafting decks, not piles of cards, and knowing how to draft the different decks (and how they overlap) is how you deconstruct the mystery of what to do when you see a pack of 15 insane cards. Cube is somewhere between Constructed and Limited and your job is to build an archetype when you draft. The great part about this point is that you don’t need to know all the decks at the start – even knowing one or two will give you a clear path to victory, and you can learn more from there.

I’m going to tackle the first part today, and my next article will cover the decks. At the end, hopefully you’ll be a Cube hero, and if this gets anyone to try Cube who otherwise wouldn’t have, I’ll call it a success. Let’s get to it!

 

Header - Top 15 Cube Cards

First, let’s talk broken. This is the fun part, the part everyone loves arguing about, and the part where you imagine always opening Black Lotus. I wonder what that’s like? I’m going to start with Tier 0 cards, which are cards that you never pass except when you open multiple Tier 0 cards. I have these in order, but honestly it doesn’t matter that much, as long as we all agree that they are busted. Still, my order is objectively right, so you should use it.

  1. Black Lotus
  2. Sol Ring
  3. Ancestral Recall
  4. Time Walk
  5. Mox Sapphire
  6. Library of Alexandria
  7. Mox Ruby
  8. Mox Jet
  9. Mox Emerald
  10. Mox Pearl
  11. Mana Crypt
  12. Mana Drain
  13. Jace, the Mind Sculptor
  14. Oko, Thief of Crowns
  15. Fractured Identity
  16. Mana Vault

An Aside on Library

Library of Alexandria

Now is the perfect time to lay out my thoughts on Library of Alexandria, because people tend to gravitate towards extremes. I don’t think Library sucks, but I also would put it closer to the Top 50 Cube cards rather than Top 25, and definitely not Top 15. Let me explain.

  • Library usually only works when drawn in your opening hand.
  • Library requires you to start the game very slowly, meaning that you’ll get run over in most matchups (Vintage Cube is a lot faster than it used to be).
  • Library is exceedingly powerful against Control and Midrange, and tends to be weak against Aggro and Combo.
  • The opportunity cost of playing Library isn’t high, but picking it early is a big cost. I would probably take it around third to fifth pick but it rarely gets passed, so I just don’t have it very often.

In summary, Library is a powerful but slow card, and while it has matchups where it shines, it’s not the card you want against most decks you’ll face. That means it’s a card I’d be happy to play if I got it, but I’m unwilling to take it as early as most people (which is too early).

 

Header - Engine Cards

After this short list of Magic’s greatest hits, I’ve got a few groups of cards. This isn’t in any strict order because there are usually multiple viable paths and pick orders change once you have cards in your pile. These also aren’t exhaustive lists, because the cube is so big, but this should give you a good sense of what I mean (and in the case of the engine cards, I did a scan of the Cube and these are what stood out).

Here are the powerful engine cards I like taking early:

I’ll talk about the decks these go into in my next article, but these are cards worth building around and cards that give you a specific (and powerful) direction. The downside to taking these is that they can end up in your sideboard if you don’t draft the decks they go into, so I usually prefer to start with cards from the next category when given the option.

 

Header - "Good" Cube Cards

The next group of cards are the cheap cards that go into multiple archetypes. These are what I think of when I think of “good cards” in Cube – they aren’t broken, they aren’t engine cards, but they’re cards I’m always happy to add to my deck.

This list is but a sampling because there are so many cards that fit into this category. The idea is to find cards that are efficient, powerful and flexible. These cards go into many kinds of decks and are effective at either furthering your game plan (via mana ramp, card filtering) or disrupting the opponent’s (counterspells, hand disruption). Note that creature removal and threats are NOT on this list – that’s intentional, and that’s one of the big wins you can get from this article. You want your threats to be whatever engine makes your deck work and you really should devote very few slots to strict creature removal. In short, this Cube is not run on creatures.

Here are cards I’m happy taking early for their power and flexibility:

The list goes on, but the key attributes you are looking for in cards like this are:

  • Cheap
    • Cube is chock-full of expensive (four mana or more) cards and you’ll have no shortage of ways to finish the game. With few exceptions, I’m taking one or two mana card over a six mana card at almost any point in the draft.
  • Flexible
    • The above cards all go in many different decks and as such, keep you open to drafting whichever synergistic archetype is open. Taking Remand over Yawgmoth’s Will is a pick I recommend early, even if Will does have a higher high end in Storm.
  • Interactive
    • Not all of these cards interact but many do, and what’s important here is noting that finding cards that interact without being just creature removal is important. I don’t have Dismember on the list, despite being cheap and flexible, because Mana Leak or Thoughtseize are good against creatures and non-creatures alike, which helps slow down any deck you might face. You can’t always win the race and preventing the opponent from doing broken things is useful.

Early in the draft, knowing how to keep open without sacrificing power is really important and lets you see the fifth pick Sneak Attack, Entomb, Frantic Search or Natural Order and take it without throwing your first four picks in the garbage.

Between these descriptions and the example list above, you should be well on your way to identifying cards like this when you come across them.

 

Header - The Mana of Cube

Next, we have mana. Cube decks live and die based on their mana and if you’ve seen me draft, I have no qualms about slamming Volcanic Island or Flooded Strand first pick. How you want to go about constructing a Cube mana base is tricky because there isn’t a pick order per se – instead, you want to build a blend of the options because the ways dual lands and fetchlands work together is a thing of beauty. 

Priority 1: Dual Lands

Volcanic IslandTundraBreeding PoolBlood Crypt

For our purposes, Alpha duals like Volcanic Island (yes, I know) and Ravnica shocklands like Steam Vents are exactly the same – clearly you’d rather have the better version, but it doesn’t matter (and I’m just going to use the Alpha names from now on, but I mean both).

The goal is to maximize how good your fetchlands are, and that starts with dual lands. Pack one, pick one, the power ranking goes:

  1. Volcanic Island
  2. Tropical Island
  3. Underground Sea
  4. Tundra

I’d pick the blue duals early, because blue IS the best color in the Cube and I’d ideally not pick the bottom six all that early.

  1. Badlands
  2. Taiga
  3. Plateau
  4. Bayou
  5. Scrubland
  6. Savannah

Priority 2: Fetchlands

Scalding TarnMisty RainforestPolluted DeltaFlooded Strand

Once again, there’s a gap between blue and non-blue. It’s worth noting that the difference is smaller here because which fetches you want varies wildly based on which duals you have. If you are blue-red and have Tundra, then Arid Mesa becomes better than Polluted Delta.

The Ideal Mana Base

Here’s where it gets tricky – you want to start with duals and add fetches, but you have to know how to combine them. As with the above example, you’re looking for the minimum amount of duals that covers all your colors and all fetches from there on out. The reason is that if you have Underground Sea in your Sultai deck, Misty Rainforest is now a tri-land – it gets blue, green or black mana. For a two color deck, the dual of your colors is always the highest priority, followed simply by fetchlands that get it (Volcanic Island, then any blue or red fetch). In a three or more color deck, you want duals that touch all your colors, then fetches that get those plus other colors. For example, in Grixis, Volcanic Island plus Polluted Delta is better than Volcanic Island plus Scalding Tarn.

Signets

Izzet SignetDimir SignetGruul SignetOrzhov Signet

These are great early plays and they fix your mana. I tend to put them just under the dual/fetch engine in importance, though if you have Tinker, an artifact theme or are lacking early interaction, they become critical. Signets are great and even half on-color ones are good.

The Other Lands

Getting the hang of dual-plus-fetch is the most important and past that I just pick up lands like fastlands (Spirebluff Canal) or creaturelands (Celestial Colonnade) when I see them late. They aren’t high priority, though they do help your mana base, so they’re better than marginal playables or sideboard cards.

Here’s a sample Jeskai mana base that I would say is good, for a deck with lots of blue and red cards, splashing something like a Restoration Angel and an Armageddon.

Header - Finishers

Next in the hierarchy are the finishers. These are cards capable of ending the game, your win conditions, but ones that aren’t necessarily engine cards you build around. Here are some examples:

These sometimes edge into reanimation territory, but I mostly mean cards that cost five to seven mana, like the Titans. Near the end of the draft, if you don’t have them, they move up in importance, but I start out by aggressively bypassing them in favor of broken cards, engine cards, cheap cards and lands. It’s just so easy to win the game once you have disrupted the opponent or accelerated to six mana, so I tend to not worry about how I’m closing. Additionally, synergy decks don’t really need these if they have their own finishers, so Sneak Attack, Reanimator, Storm, etc, aren’t in the market for random Titans all that often.

 

Header - The Trash and Traps

I’m impressed – the current Cube is pretty lean, and there isn’t much in the way of garbage left. I’ll still update the list, but this section is less important than it used to be.

If you take nothing away from this article but the ability to identify the cards that largely suck, you will see a nice win percentage bump. There is a large class of cards that are not good and trick people into playing them. These are usually cards that aren’t cheap but don’t have the endgame power of a Titan. They aren’t synergistic or have a synergy that doesn’t really win the game either. They may also be narrow, such as removal. They’re also disproportionally black or white, since those colors lend themselves more to this kind of nonsense (and because mono red and mono green have fewer random midrange cards).

Here are some “winners”:

Basically, cards that aren’t fast or powerful end up in the middle, which is a really bad place to be. Cube is about going big or being fast, and these cards don’t do either. I also will admit that Mono White Aggro is actually not bad but the midrange white cards still suck. 

Note that many of these cards make fine sideboard options (like Baneslayer Angel), but won’t help much in the main deck.

 

Header - Conclusion

To sum things up:

  • Take broken cards
  • Take powerful engine cards
  • Take efficient and flexible cards
  • Take duals and fetches
  • Take (some) finishers
  • Don’t take garbage

Cube is a journey, but it’s a fun one, and hopefully these guidelines can help you start getting the hang of it. Next I’ll be diving into the archetypes, since once you learn those, you’ll be a certified Cube Master.

If you have questions about Cube, and which cards belong in which category, shoot me a comment here or on Twitter (@lsv) and I’ll be glad to help. If you have to ask if it’s crap, it probably is, but I’m happy to say why!

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