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April 8, 2014

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Cube for Noobs – A Primer for MTGO Cube Drafts

What’s the only thing better than playing a draft consisting of all the greatest cards from Magic’s history? Why, WINNING that draft of course! In this post I’ll be going over some basic strategy and tips for successfully playing Cube, primarily how to actually have a better chance to win at Cube from a Spike’s perspective. Cube is by far my favourite format and I play it quite a bit, primarily on Magic Online but also in paper with my friends, and I do quite well in terms of match wins. What I usually do (and what I recommend you do) is play the Swiss cube queues on MTGO (especially if you are just starting out). The way the payout works, as long as you go 2-1 you get your entry (16 phantom points) back and you can jump right back in the queue! Also, no matter what happens you are allowed to play all three rounds, which means you get to play more with the awesome deck that you drafted, and you also have more opportunity to learn and improve your playing skills.

In this post I’ll be talking specifically about the current MTGO non-powered cube (not the Holiday Cube), which you can find details about, and full card list here.

Here’s what I consider to be the most important concepts when trying to win at Cube:

Watch other people cube.

Especially people better than you. There are plenty of cube videos on various Magic content sites, as well as people who stream cube on places like Twitch.tv. This is the number one way to “break into” the format and get a feel for it. Ideally you want to watch someone who has similar goals to you; so if you want to actually win don’t only watch someone who is just trying to have fun with a crazy deck (although this can be helpful sometimes for learning about obscure or sleeper strategies you might never have thought of). Watching others will also help with the next point:

Know the cards.

This seems obvious, but in order to draft a great deck you need to know what tools you have at your disposal. Every second you spend reading a card you don’t know during a draft is wasted time (though sometimes it’s necessary, I still read Necromancy every time just to be sure). I recommend doing some homework by going to the above link and just reading the list of cards in the cube. You don’t need to be able to recite each card word for word, but you should have a basic idea of what every single card does; enough to be able to make a quick evaluation of it when you see it in a pack.

Don’t just draft cards, draft a deck.

This is a major way in which cube differs from normal limited Magic. You must be able to draft a cohesive deck that centers on an actual game-plan, even if that game-plan is pretty basic like “attack with cheap creatures.” Otherwise how will you know whether your deck wants Wrath of God or if it wants Silverblade Paladin? You probably want to decide on some type of game-plan by the end of pack 1, so that you can make optimal picks for your deck at the start of pack 2 and forward. Of course, your plan can change based on what you open and get passed, but make sure you have a strong reason to switch plans if you do. That being said, in cube don’t put quite as much emphasis on signals (especially early in the pack) as you would in a regular draft. There are simply more awesome first-pick cards in cube and people value these picks quite differently.

Draft what you are comfortable with.

If you know for a fact that you just suck at or hate playing permission control decks, don’t draft the 10 counterspell deck. There is enough depth in cube that you can be a little picky about what you build without to much worry. Drafting a powerful deck you don’t know how to pilot is much worse than drafting a decent deck you feel totally comfortable with. On the other hand, playing decks you aren’t comfortably with is a good way to improve, just be aware you might do poorly in the short term.

Err on the side of consistency when possible & Drafting lands is awesome.

These two go hand-in-hand. My opinion is that having cards that perform consistently as expected is preferable to having cards that are occasionally amazing and other times terrible. Being able to reliably execute your gameplan every single time is going to give you a huge leg up against people who tried to get too “cute” with a crazy combo or whose messy 4 color brew didn’t come together. This leads to the second point; an on-color dual land is going to consistently do its job no matter what – it’s going to allow you to cast your spells, and there is great value in that. Your mana base is arguably the most important aspect of your deck. In my opinion you cannot play 3 colors without dual lands. It just won’t work. Another way to look at lands is this: you are going to play (usually) 23 spells and 17 lands. If you drafted 5 lands and I drafted none, then you will be able to play 28 of your picks in your deck, and I only get to play 23, while those 5 extra cards rot in my sideboard. You literally get to play more of your cards than I do, even though we both played 40 card decks.

Know the archetypes.

Here are some common deck archetypes you should consider. This list is not comprehensive but it does cover both my favourite and most often seen archetypes.

Blue-Based Control

This is my personal favourite type of deck to draft. This deck is usually going to be either primarily UW or UB, sometimes splashing another color. The game plan is the classic control strategy; drag the game out as long as possible by countering and removing your opponent’s threats then close it out with a big bomb. You want to prioritize counterspells, cheap removal, wraths/boardwipes, card draw spells, as well as some way to eventually win the game. Planeswalkers are great here, because they can often fill the role of defending you early then also acting as a win con later. Decks like this generally do not want those midrange combat-oriented creatures like Hero of Bladehold or Master of Waves.

Blue-Based Tempo

The goal with this deck is to disrupt your opponent’s threats and stay one step ahead of them just long enough to beat them down with some efficient creatures. This deck is usually UW, sometimes UB and sometimes UR. The best cards here are things that advance your board position at the same time as disrupting your opponent. Great examples are Venser, Shaper Savant, Man-o’-War, and Nekrataal. Creatures with flash are great in general here, because you can leave up mana for instants and then play your threat at the end of their turn if you didn’t have to use your other spells. Some more all-stars are Vendilion Clique, Restoration Angel, and of course Snapcaster Mage. You can play creatures that are simply good attackers too, like the aforementioned Hero of Bladehold and Geist of Saint Traft. In the black version, I’ve had some success playing the 1 mana 2 power creatures like Vampire Lacerator and Sarcomancy, because backing them up with disruption puts a pretty fast clock on. Note that Wrath effects are quite bad here, as you don’t want to kill your own threats.

Red Deck Wins

If you look at the list of red cards, most of them are specifically for this deck. The plan is simply to play as many cheap ways to deal damage to your opponent as possible, and ideally literally every card in your deck should be aiming to do this. This is an all-in strategy for sure, and the earlier you commit to it the better. This is a deck where it’s good to keep your eye on during the draft, and if it seems open, jump on it. Often goes completely undrafted online. You really want to be mono-red. Having to dip into a second color like white or black is generally a bad sign. This deck usually doesn’t want any cards more expensive than 4 (maybe a Thundermaw Hellkite or Thunderblust) and can often get away with 15 or fewer lands depending on how low you curve is. The single best card in this deck is Sulfuric Vortex, and if you see it late in pack 1 it’s a very strong signal that monored is open.

Reanimator

This cube has a lot of support for this archetype which is very popular online. The premise is to assemble what amounts to a three card combo – a giant creature, a way to get it into your graveyard, and a “reanimation” spell to bring it back to life. There are a lot of variations of all these pieces, and ideally you want multiple versions of each in your deck. The most reliable way to get the creature in the “yard” is either Entomb or Buried Alive, although discard effects like Oona’s Prowler and Liliana of the Veil also work and have the upside of being useful even if they aren’t being used to combo off. Blue “looting” cards are excellent here; look out for Frantic Search and Compulsive Research. Gifts Ungiven can be used to great effect here. Examples of the actual reanimation spells are Reanimate, Animate Dead, Recurring Nightmare, Diabolic Servitude, and Necromancy. Any of them will do. Then you just need a fatty, like Griselbrand or Inkwell Leviathan. Note that some of the reanimation spells are instant-speed, and can be used to bring back creatures that shuffle into your library like the Eldrazi by casting them with the shuffle trigger on the stack. The rest of this deck can be filled with things like cheap removal, hand disruption, and maybe some utility creatures like Hypnotic Specter.

Combo (non-reanimator)

There are a whole bunch of combo cards built into the cube, most of them have the end goal of putting a ridiculously huge creature (like Emrakul, Progenitus or Sundering Titan) into play early in the game. Some of the most common combo enablers are: Show and Tell, Tinker, Mind’s Desire (this one is bit harder to use than the others…), Tooth and Nail (requires more set-up because of the cost, more of a ramp card really), Heartbeat of Spring (be extremely careful casting this, your opponent gets the mana too), Eureka, Sneak Attack, Natural Order (Progenitus is the best target with this), Channel. A combo deck is one that relies on these cards as win cons, and generally is largely devoted to finding those specific cards as soon as possible using library manipulation like Ponder and Sensei’s Divining Top, tutors like Mystical Tutor or Demonic Tutor, or simply card draw spells. Pure combo decks are inherently risky to commit to, because if you end up not getting the right pieces your deck will just be bad. It also takes quite a lot of knowledge about specific card interactions to be able to build effectively. This type of strategy often can be a subtheme in the next type of deck.

Ramp

Pretty much always green-based, the goal here is to generate a large amount of mana very quickly and play larger threats than your opponent sooner in the game. Green is full of ramp effects, either ones that search for lands like Rampant Growth or cheap creatures with mana abilities like Birds of Paradise. Usually you want the things you’re accelerating into to be in the 7-9 mana range; you can play 10+ cmc things like Eldrazi but getting to that much mana is more difficult with the “fair” ramp cards. The “unfair” or more “all-in” ramp cards are artifacts like Grim Monolith, Basalt Monolith, Lotus Bloom, and even Pentad Prism which are almost more like combo cards because they tend to do something explosive once and then are difficult or impossible to reuse. An all-star in any ramp deck is Thran Dynamo (and to a slightly lesser degree Gilded Lotus), which have almost the same acceleration power of the unfair cards, but are reusable.

Fair Creature Decks

White weenie is definitely a viable strategy and is one that is often open during the draft. Perhaps people find it boring but winning is never boring in my opinion. This is the deck where you get to punish all those greedy mana bases and crazy people trying to make Storm work. The best of these decks will usually be White-Green because you get to utilize green’s mana dorks to put out threats faster. You really only want the 1 mana creatures as Rampant Growth type effects are not great here. This deck is all about curving out and you want threats all along the curve right up to and including 5 cmc. The occasional 6 cmc or two like Sun Titan is fine. Your creature count should be as high as possible. Some of the best creatures here are ones with hexproof or other forms of resilience, like Troll Ascetic, Thrun, the last Troll, Mirran Crusader, and Strangleroot Geist. This deck is the one where equipment is at its best. There are 3 Swords in the cube (Sword of Body and Mind, Sword of Fire and Ice, Sword of War and Peace as well as Umezawa’s Jitte, Bonesplitter, and Skullclamp. All these are excellent picks and are difficult to get in the draft because tons of decks can play them. Grab yours quick if you see one. If you can get any of these plus Stoneforge Mystic, which often goes pretty late in the draft, that’s obviously insane.

Of course there are countless other deck strategies, and it’s possible to mix and match parts from each. For example you could have a control deck that happens to run a Tinker combo. It’s up to you to explore these and find what works for you.

Thanks for reading, happy Cubing.