Magic Online Cube, Spoilers, And A Little Bit Of Standard

Sam Black goes over his thoughts on Magic Online Cube, Avacyn Restored spoilers, Return to Ravnica, and a little Standard for those going to SCG Open Series: Phoenix.

Spoilers have begun, and I assume most of us spent last weekend playing Cube on Magic Online. I know I did anyway. It’s my belief that the beginning of spoiler season officially announces the time when no one really cares about the old format. I’ll touch on Standard briefly in case you still have some tournaments, but I’m not really going to pretend you care too much. Instead, I’d like to focus—that’s a bit of a misnomer. Instead, I wouldn’t like to focus. I’ll write some about Cube, Ravnica, Avacyn Restored, and maybe whatever else I happen to think of.


We can’t play Cube anymore online; I guess the format is dead and there’s no reason to write about it. Maybe that’s not true. I bet there are some people who never had the chance to play the format before who did this weekend and thought it was awesome. I’m guessing some of you are still thinking about it, so you’re probably interested in reading about it. Maybe some of you are even looking to build your own cubes. For others, maybe you don’t care about Cube at all, but I still have something to say that you might care about if you’ll stay with me. I think Cube teaches lessons that are applicable to the rest of Magic.

First, for those of you who are interested in the strategy of drafting cubes. Note that I’m talking about strategy as opposed to tactics. This isn’t something tactical, like specific pick orders or ranking cards; I’m looking at macro strategies for cube drafting. Here we go. The basics: draft a deck. You should have a very good idea of what kind of deck you’re drafting and what it needs. You can’t be sure a certain card will be in the draft, and if it is, you can’t be sure you’ll get it. But you can easily draft planning on a certain kind of card, and once you hit a certain card there’s a lot you can do to draft around it.

There are a lot of bad decks in Magic Online Cube. A lot of them are actively “pushed” in that they’re seeded into the cube such that you can try to draft them. I like avoiding the trap of drafting a bad deck.

I’m not interested in your stories about how you won a draft with a deck I call bad. I said on my stream that Dauthi Marauder shouldn’t be in Magic Online Cube, and someone came back with a story about winning with that with a Jitte. Yeah, Jitte can win a game on anything; that doesn’t make the creature you put it on good.

I played against a large number of black aggro decks last weekend, and they all looked horrible. The Magic Online Cube is full of unplayable black creatures, and you should avoid them. Geralf’s Messenger is a giant trap. He has no good support. I think this is basically a universal fact of cubes. If a cube pushes black aggro, it just means that cube has a lot of blanks in the color black.

This can be extended further: for the most part, you should avoid drafting creatures that attack and block. Exceptions exist for those that are literally the best at what they do or that can win a game on their own (Tarmogoyf, Baneslayer Angel). Red is also an exception. Mono-Red Aggro is a deck; it’s a real deck that can win. It’s a little over hyped right now because people don’t know how to draft other decks and that deck gets a lot of press, but it’s still not back. White aggro, especially with Armageddons and/or good equipment, can also win.

For the most part, you should draft creatures based on their text box, not their numbers.

If I have equipment that I have to play and took early like Jitte, Skullclamp, or a Sword, I’m going to look to be green. Green has a lot of cheap creatures that are playable because they tap for mana.

Let’s take a step back.

Drafting a cube feels a lot like building a Commander deck. All I want to do is ramp, draw cards, and then cast big spells. In cubes without Signets, I want basically all the artifact mana and all the awesome spells that cost six-plus mana. The best big spells are Upheaval, Genesis Wave, Terastodon, Karn, and Time Spiral. Depending on what your mana is like, Wildfire can also be very good. There are a huge number of other acceptable top end spells, like most Titans, Consecrated Sphinx, and to a lesser extent, planeswalkers.

I almost always want to be blue, but if you can get your ramp and card draw without it (maybe you have Wheel of Fortune and Memory Jar) it’s not necessary. Maybe you have Necropotence, which is awkward because black in the Magic Online Cube is almost unplayable, but in other cubes it can be great. I don’t need a lot of blue. I don’t care that much about counterspells. I’m mostly in it for the card draw just so I have something to do with all my mana when I have twice as much as my opponent.

Basically any card that ramps you by more than one mana is amazing. Grim Monolith is almost unpassable, and Gilded Lotus and Basalt Monolith are both great. By the end of the weekend, I was taking Lotus Bloom aggressively and trying to find ways to splash Dark Ritual. Gaea’s Cradle is absurd.

All I’m really saying is this: there are effects in the Magic Online Cube powerful enough to easily go over the top of almost everything. The safest way to win is to go over the top of that. You want to do this as soon as possible.

A perfect example was my last deck of the weekend, which 3-0’d very easily despite not having Upheaval (which would’ve made the deck dramatically better):

The most important lesson to me, in drafting the Magic Online Cube, was to just have faith that you could get a real deck. Don’t buy out and start taking mediocre creatures in a bad archetype because they’re there and the cards you want aren’t. Don’t hedge. Take a card that will be good in the deck you want or good in the sideboard of the deck you want over settling for a 20th playable that you won’t be excited about.

I’ve never played Thraben Purebloods. I’ve heard there are some people who have been happy with them. I’ve read the card. It was easy: it didn’t have any words. I know what it would do, and I know that that isn’t what I want, so I don’t take it. If you draft mediocre cards because you might not get enough good cards so you’ll have to play mediocre ones, you’ll have to play mediocre cards. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s usually something better to do with those picks. It’ll work out.

Next, for those of you who are interested in building your own cubes. I think the Magic Online Cube was fun, and it did a lot of things right. It was a good starting point. I personally don’t like cutting cards for being “too good” and like powered cubes, but that’s a matter of personal preference. There are a lot of changes I’d definitely make to the Magic Online Cube without fundamentally changing its philosophy.

First, I think black as a color needs a massive overhaul. All the bad creatures need to leave, and there should be cards like Cabal Ritual, Yawgmoth’s Bargain, Entomber Exarch, Ribbons of Night, Pox, Small Pox, Chainer’s Edict, Unburial Rites, Overwhelming Forces, Tendrils of Corruption, The Abyss, Nether Void, Bloodline Keeper, and Rune-Scarred Demon instead. Maybe even Heartless Summoning. I’d like Reassembling Skeletons more than most of the cheap creatures they had.

In general, I’d move away from bad attackers. Jungle Lion is embarrassing; Vinelasher Kudzu is bad. I’d like Gaea’s Blessing and Elixir of Immortality, which can be huge role-players.

The blue creature choices are also all wrong. Phantasmal Bear isn’t where you want to be, and all the Magpie/Ophidian variants suck. I want Phantasmal Image, maybe even Pestermite. I might try Mindshrieker, Invisible Stalker, or Ludevic’s Test Subject.

I like a lot of the artifact choices, but I’d really like to see Candelabra, Voltaic Key, and more expensive artifact creatures like Pentavus. I’d also like Tolarian Academy to go with them.

As for the lands, I think cycles of lands that are strictly worse than dual lands are really boring. Ravnica lands are acceptable because they make fetchlands better, but the M10 duals are bad. I’d much rather see lands that are better than regular duals in some way, like the Shadowmoor filter lands, the Alara tri lands, or the Lorwyn vivid lands. I wouldn’t hate to just see a wide mix of lands. Maybe for the blue/green or blue/red land, you could have that Karoo without having all the others, maybe instead of the g/w land you could have Horizon Canopy, maybe for b/w you could have Fetid Heath. It’s ok to mix and match.

I’d also like to err much more strongly toward unique and interesting lands. This cube has a reasonable number, but I want more. I don’t want Grim Backwoods, which probably went 14th pick on average at best, but I do want Gavony Township. Use some discretion rather than blindly following cycles. Moorland Haunt and Kessig Wolf Run would also be nice; Nephalia Drownyard’s probably good too. So is The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale (that card’s amazing, actually), Valakut, and Pendelhaven. Kjeldoran Outpost is bad. Rupture Spire and Reliquary Tower would be nice. Any land that sees frequent play in Commander is probably a good choice.

Ok, that’s probably enough about Cube.

I just took a break to check Twitter and saw that a handful of players who have had exceptional seasons without qualifying for Barcelona have been invited. Specifically Ben Friedman, Caleb Durward, Till Riffert, Pascal Maynard, and Eric Meng. I don’t know exactly what each of those people did to earn this, but I do know that it was an unfortunate side effect of the newest system by which people are invited to the PT that those players weren’t already invited.

Every system in the past has had something to account for players who perform exceptionally but never actually win a tournament. Those are great players who deserve to compete at the highest level, and it’s a problem with the current system that it doesn’t have a way to let these people in. I’m writing this before the official announcement, but clearly WotC felt these people deserved to go. The systematic changes weren’t possible at this point, so they took advantage of a tool they’ve always had to compensate for the problem with the current system.

This sets a slightly dangerous precedent, as some people might feel excluded and others might feel like it’s not fair that a player might be able to petition legitimately for an invite and earn a spot on the PT that way. But overall I think it’s a good solution and a good move, as long as it can be handled fairly and consistently.


This seems like the kind of nonsensically overpowered creature that does something fun and unique enough that I like it. It looks like it would be really fun in a cube (even if it goes in a kind of deck I don’t love in the Magic Online Cube). I don’t think it will be “too good” for Constructed; it might not even see play, but it’s way better than four-mana flying creatures usually are.

It’s interesting that he doesn’t have a title or anything, just a name. It’s also noteworthy that this was deemed too powerful to print at seven mana, which would’ve been nice for symmetry. Does that mean it would’ve dominated  Constructed? Does that mean it’s already good enough at eight mana? It seems like it would be nice if at all possible to have Griselbrand make an impact on Constructed, so I would hope they didn’t make it eight because it was playable at seven and that was a problem. (If you don’t want the rules text to appear on a playable card, you should change the rules text instead of making the card unplayable by increasing the casting cost, in my opinion, but maybe they wanted this guy to exist for Commander or something.)

Anyway, it does seem like this is kind of like Consecrated Sphinx in the control mirror, only with this one if they kill it right away you’re still up seven cards on them. That’s pretty unbeatable if life doesn’t matter and you can resolve it. And when life does matter, it’s a seven-power lifelink creature! Definitely unique and powerful.

Really, most of the individual cards don’t really grab me right now. I think the thing to talk about is miracles.

I feel like this is obviously not a mechanic with legs. There’s a reason it isn’t a full block mechanic, and I don’t think we’ll ever see it again. It’s not a “good” mechanic; it’s designed as a “fun” mechanic. They just want to create moments, and there’s something to be said for that. That said, for competitive players it might be more obnoxious than interesting. I assume they know that, and it probably won’t be pressed too hard.

Ideally, the legacy of the miracle mechanic will be to make us all much better Magic players. Let me explain by telling you a story.

Last year, Bob Maher was helping Brian Kowal test for Nationals. Brian Kowal drew his card for the turn and paused to consider his play. Maher asked him what he was doing, rhetorically, and explained that Kowal had already misplayed by “showing” Maher the Lightning Bolt he drew.

Maher knew the only card Kowal could draw that would make him need to think was Lightning Bolt. Everything else would be obvious. Kowal gave away too much information by not already having a plan in case he drew Lightning Bolt. Maher explained that you should always be aware of every card you could draw and know exactly what you’re going to do for each of them.

For any of you that haven’t been given the nickname “The Great One,” that may be an unrealistic expectation. You might not always be able to think of everything that far ahead. Well, miracles force you to work on this skill. If you pause on a card before putting it in your hand, you’re either thinking about whether you should play a miracle or bluffing that you’re thinking that. There’s nothing else you could be doing, and it should be relatively obvious which one it is. If you can’t think about what you’ll do with every card you might draw, you should at least learn to think ahead to what you’ll do if you draw any of the miracles in your deck. Once you’ve mastered that, you might consider extending it to other cards, and hopefully by the time we’re back to Ravnica you’ll be a better Magic player.

As for Returning to Ravnica, yeah, I’m excited like everyone else. Ravnica was the first Magic world that really captured my imagination, and I think it’s a very fun setting. I like the image of Jace with Niv-Mizzet because it just makes so much sense. Of course Jace would hang out with Niv-Mizzet if he found himself on Ravnica. As for speculation about reprinting cards or mechanics, I honestly don’t care that much. At some point, Ravnica duals will be reprinted and I’ll “lose a bunch of money.” Similarly, Force of Will will be reprinted online and I’ll “lose more money” since I have a playset. That’s fine. I assume you’re not here for my financial advice. I’m not here to give it, and if I tried I’d need an article-long disclaimer about how I’m actually the worst Magic trader/investor ever.

That said, you really have to wonder about all the weird alternate artwork in the Magic Online Cube, like the ones we’ve never seen before. Where did those dual land pictures come from, and why do they exist? What about that new Force of Will; that’s gotta be a promo card that’s coming to Magic Online soon or something, right?


I’m honestly writing this mostly out of obligation, so let’s keep it short. Here’s the super short version: Delver didn’t dominate last weekend’s StarCityGames.com Open Series tournament in Des Moines. Why not? What does that mean? Is this the end of Delver’s dominance? Answer: no, of course not. This happened before the Baltimore Invitational, and Delver crushed the next weekend.

R/G is a deck that people are really paying attention to and working on. I assume it’s getting better, and it’s a real deck now. I wouldn’t know for sure because it’s not a deck I’m likely to play, but if you’re into that thing you’ll want to do a lot of research on it. I’d pay close attention to anything written by Brian Kibler or Jackie Lee.

It occurs to me that while I’m counting down the days until I have the full spoiler for Avacyn Restored, several of you are probably just now trying to get into Standard and filing away your Modern cards for the rest of the year. Maybe there’s a lot more interest in Standard than I was thinking with the Standard PTQ season coming up. That said, after a weekend of playing Magic Online Cube I’m feeling pretty out of it. Keep an eye out, and I’ll try to make it up to you with some Standard videos.

Thanks for reading,


@samuelhblack on Twitter