I’ve always stressed that a well-balanced cube isn’t so much a pile of all of Magic’s best cards, but a well-balanced set that happens to feature the
best cards in the game. In order to achieve that balance, there are many high-quality cards that just can’t be included in a cube due to the cube’s
limited space. An on-deck box is a collection of cards that don’t make it in, and having one is very useful for a cube.
Most of the time, cards that are in an on-deck box are cards that used to be in a cube but were taken out. Sometimes, a card performs very badly
(usually new cards), and thus, those cards get kicked out of a cube as soon as there’s something that can replace them. For the most part, however,
these types of “I’m throwing these cards out of my cube like Jazzy Jeff” cards are
more the exception than the rule. While no one really wants to think that they’re including bad cards in their cube (and cubes may run suboptimal cards
that aren’t good enough)—most cards that get taken out of a cube may very well come back into that cube, and thus, it’s better to put them into
an on-deck box.
The most obvious application is that it’s an easy place to look for replacements for cards if cards aren’t pulling their weight. I’ve been testing
Chandra’s Phoenix, and I’ve been very pleased with its solid body (in addition to its recursion, which isn’t too difficult to pull off), but it’s still
good to know that if Chandra’s Phoenix weren’t performing well, I have easy access to cards that could replace it in the on-deck box.
But, there are less obvious uses than that, and I’ll give several reasons as for why an on-deck box is a better home for cards than mentally rejecting
them from your cube.
Cards are better than initially thought.
Sometimes, a card gets taken out of a cube because the card gets misevaluated. The “Jackal Pup sucks because I take damage”/”Wild Dogs sucks because it
switches sides” are classic examples of misevaluation that I’ve beaten to death, but they’re classic examples because they’re both good cards where the
drawbacks are being overstated.
Misconceptions about cards sometimes get cleared up when talking to others who have had success with the card in their cubes. If, for example, I were
to use Stormbind because I saw the card in someone else’s cube, I may use it incorrectly by using it to primarily kill creatures as opposed to its best
use (acting as a difficult-to-deal-with constant source of damage).
Y: “Don’t use it like that; it’s much better when it acts as an unstoppable source of direct damage. Opponent is at eight? Throw some cards at
their face, gg. Oh, and it can kill blockers if you really need to.”
Other times, a fresh look at a card may be needed; someone may take a card out of their cube because of a string of bad performances, but after a short
hiatus, a “calmer heads shall prevail” approach may bring it back into contention. Keeping it in the on-deck box ensures one can do so. Archimedes would approve!
Conditions for a card to be good weren’t previously met but now are.
I had Flickerwisp in my cube ages ago and took it out and put it in my on-deck box since I felt that it wasn’t as strong as the other three-drop
creatures in white. Despite the fact that the three-drops have gotten even better (with ones like Blade Splicer and Mirran Crusader), Flickerwisp came
back into my cube because it had better aggro support, and there were other interactions such as being able to “blink” Titans,
planeswalkers, and other 187 creatures—all themes that were strengthened during the time that Flickerwisp was riding the pine. Another example is
Stoneforge Mystic. Before Scars of Mirrodin block, the support for Stoneforge Mystic was much weaker than it is now. While the inclusion of Stoneforge
Mystic in cubes was arguable before Scars block, it’s now definitely a cube staple thanks to that support.
Carnophage is another one of these types of cards, albeit in a less obvious way. In a cube that has weak aggro support, Carnophage will only be used as
a bad chump blocker when it’s not in its rightful place in the sideboard. Now, Carnophage is a great cube card, but in a cube that lacks the critical mass of cheap creatures to make aggro strategies viable, it’s going to be a bad card.
I wrote an article a while ago on how to give aggressive strategies the critical mass of support to make aggressive cards good
(although I’m probably going to revisit that topic sometime).
Needless to say, the performance of some cards is going to vary from cube to cube. Some cards are easy—Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Fact or
Fiction are going to be insane in every cube, but something like Steppe Lynx or Carnophage could be terrible if it doesn’t have the right support.
Keeping these types of cards in your on-deck box can make sure that these cards aren’t discarded because they weren’t good back in your cube’s slower
In this vein, I’ve brought Reckless Charge back into my cube after having it stay in the on-deck box for a while. When it was previously in my cube, my
aggro support wasn’t as strong as it is now, but testing, asking Kranny from In Contention about the card,
people learning how to draft aggro, and the improved speed of my cube made me consider bringing Reckless Charge back. So far, I’ve been happy with its
performance in red-based aggro strategies, and if I had just mentally dismissed Reckless Charge, I’d have lost out on that opportunity.
Cards in the box address potential needs of a cube.
In my first SCG article, I talked about “hoser” cards
and how some maindeckable “hoser” cards like Gatekeeper of Malakir, Smash to Smithereens, and Ravenous Baboons can be brought into a cube
based on the needs of a cube. Usually those needs change with new cards; if there have been a lot of newly printed creatures with shroud/hexproof,
Gatekeeper of Malakir could be brought in from the on-deck box to help give black decks another set of tools to combat those creatures. Some cards get
taken out because there’s not enough room for the redundant effect. (Right now, much to my chagrin, Terror’s in my on-deck box because I have Snuff
Out, Dismember, Doom Blade, Go For the Throat, etc., and I just don’t have room for Terror right now.) A good cube is all about fostering a balanced
environment and in the future, my black section may need another black removal spell, so in Terror would go. Smash to Smithereens has earned a
near-permanent place in my on-deck box because of its ability to hose artifacts and decks reliant on mana rocks. It’s been in my cube before, and it’s
a solid card, but the need for its effect isn’t quite there. But hosers in the on-deck box—that’s easy. Cubes have other needs too.
For example, there are also considerations with mana curves and mana costs in cubes, particularly in colors like white. A problem with white aggressive
creatures, particularly those at two mana, is that a lot of them cost WW. If a two-drop white aggro creature with a cost of WW card gets printed, it
may be useful to replace a WW creature with a 1W creature. A problem in cubes with a lot of WW creatures is that they tend to make decks that are
evenly distributed (W/R aggro with equal amounts of red and white cards) rely very heavily on mana-fixing for the decks to work due to the constrained
mana costs. Of course, all of these things should be done within reason, as taking out a good WW creature for a terrible 1W creature is a bad idea, but
having these options in your on-deck box is very useful.
Cards in your on-deck box are a reminder of lessons learned about your cube.
I have some cards in my on-deck box that I likely will never put into my cube, but I have them there, not because I want to get those cards into my
cube, but more so to remember lessons learned. Learning lessons is an important thing for any Magic player to do (especially cube designers!), and
having tangible reminders of lessons you learned or old cards that reflect how your cube used to be can be useful to keep those lessons with you.
I have Ashling the Pilgrim and Orcish Settlers in my on-deck box because both help me to remember that my cube used to be much slower (and thus, those
cards were great in that format) and that a card’s power can change based on factors like the speed of a cube. I also have a Skyshroud Elite in my
on-deck box because it reminds me that, while something may seem like it’s a powerful card against a certain strategy, sometimes that just doesn’t work
Context is a powerful thing, and having those cards in my on-deck box reminds me to keep those slow cube days in mind. However, just like there’s only
so much room in your cube for cards, there’s only so much room in your on-deck box, and these are the types of cards that I’d consider to be the first
to get out of my box if space was an issue.
It holds ideas for whenever you expand your cube.
It doesn’t happen too often, but it’s still really nice to have those cards that are on the cusp for when your cube expands, as they’ll likely be the
first to be included in the expansion. Plague Sliver and Cloudgoat Ranger were almost permanently in my on-deck box when my cube was at 405 cards. Both
were great cards, but there just wasn’t enough room at the time. When I expanded my cube to 450 cards, however, there easily was room for those cards,
and those cards were the first to come in!
It helps break down overwhelming options and prevents paralysis of analysis.
When I asked people on Twitter if they had an on-deck box for their Commander decks, many people said that they didn’t, with many people using more
informal processes like looking through stacks of cards or looking at the lists of other Commander decks with the same generals (or other generals who
share the same colors). Those who have Commander decks know that there’s a lot of information and options to use to configure your decks, and
cube is the same way (and it’s arguably much harder for a cube since a cube needs to support multiple archetypes!).
Having an on-deck box helps to make sure that when considering cards, you’re not getting overloaded by the options available by streamlining the
process. Due to the fact that a cube supports multiple players and archetypes, there’s more of a need for balance, since if a green card in a Commander
deck isn’t pulling its weight, only its caster suffers, but if a green card in a cube isn’t pulling its weight, all green drafters in that cube suffer.
Regardless, the concept for an on-deck box still works well for making information easier to digest.
This gets to the main reason why an on-deck box is useful—it helps to make the overwhelming options available for cube designers easier to go
through. When looking for something like two-drops in white, having some of them in the on-deck binder is definitely better than having to search
through Gatherer for all of the white two-drops that have ever been printed, since that takes a short eternity to do so.
However, as contradictory as it may sound for me to say, it’s always good to be on the lookout for new ideas and things to put in your cube. Don’t let
your information and options become too inbred—if there’s a Hell’s Thunder in your on-deck binder that looks like a good option when considering
good three-drops in red, there may be better options that you haven’t considered, like the Keldon Vandals that’s sitting in your box
of old red commons. However, that doesn’t mean that an on-deck box isn’t useful for cube designers; just keep in mind that it has limitations as you define what goes in and out of it.
I hope that this article has given you some useful information in making an on-deck box. It’s nowhere near as laborious as making a cube, at least!
May all of your opening packs contain Sol Rings!