Cubers Anonymous – The Black Plague

Today Justin focuses on black, the worst performing color in Cube right now. He tells you how it got to be this way and what problems the color has and goes over some things he tried to make black better in his cube.

Welcome back to your regularly scheduled (real card edition) of Cubers Anonymous. I hope you enjoyed a look at the Custom Cube Project the last few weeks. Ali and I are very proud of our work and are excited to get it into your hands. But I’m afraid I have to shift the mood from a joyous one to somberness and address a very serious problem we have in the Cube community. It’s hard to put into words exactly what the problem is, so maybe I’ll just keep it simple.

Black, you really suck.

The long and short of it is that black is currently at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to overall power level in most cubes. And when I say most cubes, I don’t mean just the majority of cubes; I really mean most cubes. Off the top of my head, here are some types of cubes: powered, unpowered, common/uncommon, Pauper, artifact, tribal, and combo. Only in a combo cube is black not the worst color, and I suppose in a tribal cube it isn’t dead last but is in the conversation. Otherwise and especially in standard cubes, black has the least going for it currently.

Now I know that every cube is different and you might feel like black isn’t the worst color in your personal cube. It may not be. Just understand that if that is the case, you may have knowingly (or unknowingly, perhaps) powered down some or all of the other colors.

Before we go further down the rabbit hole, I do want to say that I’m not the first author to write about the struggles black is having in cube these days. Last month Gregory Marques wrote a thought-provoking article that pushed me to look closer at this subject.

How Did We Get Here?

Oftentimes you can determine how powerful a color looks to be in cube based on how it’s perceived in competitive Magic culture. Blue and red are historically excellent in cube, as they’ve always been deep and redundant in what they do best. White and green are quickly getting there, but we’ll get to those in a second. Black wasn’t always considered the worst color in cubes. In fact, it seemed to happen very recently and very quickly.

The “worst color” consensus has been jumping around for the last six years or so. For a point of reference, let’s jump back five years to the end of Time Spiral block. White was, as it had always been considered, “the worst” color in Magic. The color pie suggested white was concerned with unity, defense, and order. This translated into defensive creatures, life gain, damage prevention, and sweepers. The first three things listed made very little impact competitively in Constructed, which meant much of the same for cube. The sweepers were good, but outside of that you had primarily a support color with a possible but loose aggro strategy in White Weenie. There have always been good individual cards splattered about the color, but the color lacked depth to make it on par with the others.

Then Lorwyn happened and changed Magic (and white specifically) forever. I think that in the time that the planeswalker card type has existed, white has had the most to gain from it and has gained the most. Not only that, but that block introduced better creatures with lifelink like Knight of Meadowgrain, dynamic token producers like Cloudgoat Ranger and Spectral Procession, and a recommitment to White Weenie with the Kithkin (most of whom are outclassed now and really were then too, but the direction is what is important.) These themes continued through present day, with just about every white planeswalker being a home run for Cube, better and better token support, and aggressively costed control cards, making white a true two-way color and one you can draft around.

While white’s transformation was happening, green had become the runt of the litter. The odd thing to me was that green’s problem was the exact opposite of white’s problem. It had the redundancy in all (well, almost all) the right areas, like fixing, ramping, and beefy creatures. Instead green had a notable lack of unique effects and had hit a critical mass of mana producers, ramping, and fixing. This critical mass didn’t mean that improvements couldn’t be made in those areas, but the number of cards most cubes required to had depth in those areas had been met.

In fact, the steady stream of upgrades at each position of green’s identity was part of what helped it out of the hole it was in. This is still continuing, and currently green has been on a tear over the last two years with awesome cards in the areas it is already very good in. The upgrades haven’t been overwhelming, but small ones all across the board makes a massive difference in how the color plays.

The unique effects have been coming too like Green Sun’s Zenith, as well as two awesome mono-green planeswalkers after a four-year drought since the card type was created. The ramp targets have been in a huge upswing as well, starting with Woodfall Primus and getting one every few sets up to Craterhoof Behemoth a few months ago. The colorless targets have also gotten way better, with stuff like Karn, Wurmcoil Engine, and the Eldrazi (if annihilator is your thing…) really helping green end the game quickly.

Blue, red, white, green. These are currently all colors that have strong identities, redundancy in all the right areas, and tons of unique effects to build around. So this begs the question…

How Do I Love Pity Thee, Let Me Count The Ways

Seriously, why isn’t black any good right now? Did this happen overnight? How do we fix it? All of these are very legitimate questions, and lucky for you, dear readers, I’ve done some research.

Why isn’t black preforming better? To reference a recent Zac Hill article outlining the pillars of Standard constructed, there are four real blanket strategies in Magic and Cube: aggro, midrange, ramp/combo, and control/disruptive Aggro. I tend to separate the last category into two, as they act differently in Cube than Constructed Magic. I’ll primarily focus on the first three strategies and control without really touching disruptive aggro as the “aggro” part is far more important than the “disruptive” part, and we already have that covered.

Why is this important? Each color in cube fills right around three of the four strategies in their identities, except for black. It certainly has some depth in the midrange category, with a load of the best black cards coming in the 3-5 casting cost range. Details aren’t needed here as over 50% of black Cube cards fall into this category.

I can give black half a point in the control category, as it does have the necessary sweepers and all of the removal you could ask for (hold that thought), but outside of the all-star Grave Titan and maybe Massacre Wurm, black somehow struggles with finishers. It does have a small handful of card advantage resources, around five or six, but every single one requires a life down payment. When combined with other black cards that cost life but don’t give more than they get in return, it becomes hard to get ahead without getting a-dead.

Combo has some elements in black too, mostly in the way of Reanimating monsters. The problem, or rather the confusion, is that these cards honestly fall into control more than combo, but this is part of the misdirection black is having.

I’m not counting Storm even though Tendrils of Agony is black, and neither should you. There isn’t nearly enough redundancy there. A whole article could be written on what it takes to make Storm work—maybe another day.

Black had no ramp to speak of, which is fine as it isn’t expected too, but the 75% miss in this category is already having black fail to meet the expectations of the other colors. Luckily, we still have aggro left for black to impress us, and it’s been getting a steady stream of Lacerators and Crawlers for the last few years.

I have news for everyone (read: not news): black aggro is freaking terrible. While we’ve been tricked into thinking that WotC has been printing black aggro goodies for a few years, I’m seeing packs like this with only five cards in them:

…and I know I’m not alone. How could I be? Does everyone else have access to the same cards? Did you guys get your hands on five more one- and two-drop creatures that are actually playable?

The reason black aggro is so bad is twofold. The first problem is that the better creatures require a heavy black commitment, like Nantuko Shade and Geralf’s Messenger. This isn’t a huge problem with the two other good aggro colors, red and white, as those should be able to be routinely drafted by themselves in most cubes. But if you’ve committed yourself to mono-black aggro in a draft, the most each you’re going to get is a couple excellent discard spells.

Even to fill a true good black aggro deck you need at least thirteen one- and two-drop creatures, and by my count there are really only sixteen good ones in existence before you start drifting into happy-to-be-here Wretched Anurid territory. Then what after that? Some portion of the deck will drift into midrange, where we encounter a curve identity crisis of sorts. I want to play aggro, but all my best cards cost three or more mana. Keep this in mind when as we move forward.

Secondly, black aggro is putrid against other aggro decks. All of their evasion is two way, whether we’re talking shadow guys or the can’t block family like Gravecrawler or Vampire Interloper. This is rough against white since by way of tokens they can put dual attackers and blockers on to the battlefield at a much high clip than black, awful against red as they are literally three times as fast as you and tons of black cards give them free Lightning Bolts, and even green as Llanowar Elves and friends either soak up a removal spell, stick around and block, or get the green deck to its middle and end game quickly, where you really can’t compete unless you’re running Grave Daddy in your aggro deck.

So to recap, black has good marks in midrange, fair marks in control, poor marks in combo/ramp, and toilet bowl skid marks in aggro. Time for an overhaul.

The Fix Is In

So I set out to try some different things. I wanted to try a few different sets of cards to find the right combination. I had a few goals in mind, and I went through three different sets of cards with a nod towards each goal. To be honest, I don’t remember the exact cards I took out each time for these tests other than the final one (since I didn’t want to change it on the cube homepage), but I remember enough for you to be able to follow along.

Here is my cube homepage for reference. You’ll notice for each try I take Booster Tutor out. The reason behind this is because I need strong baseline cards that I know exactly how they play and won’t affect how the new cards interact with it. Booster Tutor always comes back at the end of the experiment but is one of the few black cards I could afford to lose for testing.

Attempt 1: All-In on All Black

This test was the simplest to implement—push black to the furthest limit power-wise it can go by itself without support from another color. Here’s what this set of swaps looked like:

In – Liliana of the Dark Realms, Dark Ritual, Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, Lashwrithe, Necropotence, Contamination, Mutilate, Tendrils of Corruption, Corrupt, Gatekeeper of Malakir

Out – Knight of Infamy, Unburial Rites, Enslave, Dauthi Mercenary, Dauthi Marauder, Booster Tutor, Wretched Anurid, Puppeteer Clique, one other

Verdict – Some upside there but still left a lot of the worst black cards in. It helped aggro only slightly and really just made the heavy black cards like Nantuko Shade, Geralf’s Messenger, and Phyrexian Obliterator more castable. Didn’t fix the problem of black control closing easily unless it ran the opponent out of cards.

The first week I implemented this I did see someone draft Mono-Black without prompt from me and had a handful of the new cards. Power wasn’t the issue, but to make a successful deck you really needed to get a lot of them. I think going down this path makes for a better deck available, but the frequency that it would be drafted would be really low. Doesn’t really fix the problems outlined earlier except maybe 1/20 drafts. Time to try something else.

Attempt 2: Attack! Attack!

Full-fledged aggro support on this one. Nothing more to say.

In – Pulse Tracker, Guul Draz Assassin, Fledgling Djinn, Blind Creeper, Oona’s Prowler, Fume Spitter, Bad Moon, Unearth, Nezumi Graverobber

Out – Kokusho, Sorin Markov, Liliana Vess, Enslave, Puppeteer Clique, Knight of Infamy, Buried Alive, Booster Tutor, one other

Verdict- Uggghhh. This did not work at all. In fact, it made all of the other colors better because there were so many fifteenth picks going around. I dug so deep I hit China, but only if China was made of poop. I don’t want to talk about this one anymore.

Attempt 3: Kill All the Things

Something I noticed from the first two attempts made me upset, and that was the inability of a black deck to win against something as simple as Soltari Monk and Glorious Anthem. One change I made between these attempts was taking all but two of the protection from black creatures out of my cube (Mirran Crusader and Phantom Centaur got to live another day) in an effort to really let black kill all the things.

In – Snuff Out, Terror, Consuming Vapors, Barter in Blood, Mutilate, Innocent Blood, Cruel Edict, Demonic Rising, Demonic Taskmaster

Out – Knight of Infamy, Booster Tutor, Dauthi Mercenary, Dauthi Marauder, Nezumi Shortfang, Wretched Anurid, Hypnotic Specter, two others

Verdict – This definitely isn’t the way to go, but I did learn a lot for my next attempt. Killing everything was similar to what black already had in its discard, and you had to pray for the top of the library to show nothing. It did kill all the things, even your things, but every other deck was always better at replacing threats than yours. Helped and hurt aggro and wildly depended on the draw. The cards were more appealing and splashable, which headed in the right direction.

Attempt 4: To Value Town!

I learned that black does like to kill all the things but needs to have some kind of card advantage built-in to do it. This attempt was the most sweeping, and you’ll see why shortly.

In – Guul Draz Assassin, Disfigure, Innocent Blood, Terror, Tainted Pact, Blood Artist, Jet Medallion, Demonic Taskmaster, Phyrexian Rager, Fleshbag Marauder, Skinrender, Diabolic Servitude, Disciple of Bolas, Nekrataal, Abyssal Persecutor, Snuff Out

Ready for this?

Out – Booster Tutor, Gravecrawler, Diregraf Ghoul, Vampire Lacerator, Carnophage, Sarcomancy, Wretched Anurid, Nantuko Shade, Vampire Interloper, Dauthi Horror, Knight of Infamy, Dauthi Slayer, Geralf’s Messenger, Dauthi Marauder, Dauthi Mercenary, Phyrexian Obliterator

Verdict – We have a winner! On the very first draft after the changes, out of the sixteen cards that were changed, ten were in the draft and nine were played in maindecks. The complete removal of aggro is certainly a radical idea, but one I can now say I’m incredibly happy with.

Black became an incredible support color, found two more control finishers in Persecutor and Taskmaster, and even has a build-around me card in Jet Medallion that likes it—and acts like Sol Ring—for a deck that wants it. The midrange is beefed up even more, and the control elements were filled in. I’ve seen black all over the place now and killing everything like it should be. Disciple of Bolas ranges from good to absurd and is the poster child for my new direction for the color.

The last attempt is the one I’m sticking with for now, and I’m sure I’ll keep tinkering as I get more testing with it under my belt. I’ve been incredibly happy with it so far though, so I expect more good things in the future. And no more auto fifteenth picks! Make sure to keep tabs on my cube to see how things are going.

I hope you guys and gals enjoyed my look at the past, present, and future of the most maligned color in Cube currently. I want to thank my card shop, Cape Fear Games in Wilmington, NC in (unknowingly—until last week anyway) helping me test these cards. Their love of cubing is growing all the time, and I happily have between eight and sixteen ready and willing cubers each week. Thanks guys!

Be on the lookout for a final Custom Cube Project article by Ali sometime next week. Thanks again, and as always, a deck!

Ten-man draft at Cape Fear Games!

Justin Parnell

@JParnell1 on Twitter

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