Magic Online Cube Theros Update Review

Cube enthusiast Usman Jamil shares his thoughts about the latest changes made to the Magic Online Cube with the release of Theros.

A couple weeks ago the Magic Online Cube went up with the addition of M14. It was up for the usual time period of a week, going offline during Wednesday’s downtime. However, they then broke tradition by having the Magic Online Cube go up with the addition of Theros for a couple days until Friday’s downtime.

In one of Justin Parnell articles about the Magic Online Cube, he talked about the lack of transparency with recent updates since the only lists were published. Eventually, whether through articles online or through grunt work, people figured out the changes and found out the replacements. With the M14 and Theros changes, they took a step in the right direction by posting the lists of what came out and in each iteration, but the reasoning for doing so were still obscured. A lot of the changes were "easy" ones that I typically don’t advise in Cube maintenance—changing like-for-like as discussed in my Kaizen article.

The recent updates were posted on the WotC community blog, which broke the tradition of mostly posting them on the mothership. Since the changes with M14 were already in effect in the last update of the Magic Online Cube, I won’t be going into them in detail, but I will be discussing them in passing as well as talking about the changes with Theros.




Recently I’ve felt that cards like Academy Rector aren’t well supported in the Magic Online Cube, a sentiment echoed by the Magic Box podcast. While a Cube doesn’t necessarily need big-mana enchantments like Debtors’ Knell and Form of the Dragon to support it, it typically felt like the number of enchantments and the quality of them wasn’t high enough to usually justify playing Academy Rector. Angelic Destiny was an awkward card because it was one that aggressive decks would want to play in theory but the four-mana cost made it an awkward one to play since the few four-drops that it would want to play were higher impact (Elspeth / Geddons / Ajani Goldmane) than Angelic Destiny and it wasn’t good enough for midrange decks either.

Heliod wouldn’t be very good in aggressive decks either because the last thing that they want for a four-mana investment is a global enchantment that can give your creatures vigilance, even if it can turn into a large creature, but it may be more of a midrange card that can help to grind out matches via making tokens like the old "dude ranch" Kjeldoran Outpost, Sacred Mesa, etc.

Angelic Destiny was a fine cut, although if you’re looking for a four-mana card to cut, something like Gideon, Champion of Justice would have been better as a relatively weak four-mana creature (because let’s be honest, it’s more a creature than a planeswalker). But Angelic Destiny was weak enough to make not cutting the weak Gideon ok for now.



While many people initially had a lukewarm reaction to Elspeth and seemed scared to say anything other than "seems not bad," people have come around to how powerful she is. I’ve honestly never been happy with Shining Shoal in Cube since it performed much worse in practice than it did in theory; I saw it leave many Cubes years ago during white’s renaissance throughout Lorwyn and Shards of Alara block, as it cost too much mana when hard cast and typically was awkward due to the variance in casting cost with its pitch mode. Having it leave for something as powerful as Elspeth is a win. It’s arguable that there may now be too many white finishers, which be something that the Magic Online Cube may need to be cognizant of for future changes, especially if there’s another good big-mana finisher in upcoming sets (like Commander 2013.)



With Soldier of the Pantheon’s inclusion, I’m very glad that the Magic Online Cube didn’t go for the straight-up replacement route that I’ve seen some Cubes do when they don’t want to look for more apt substitutions by changing something like Savannah Lions / Elite Vanguard into it, as one-drops are the bread-and-butter of aggressive decks. When considering things in the vein of aggressive decks, replacing Ronom Unicorn is an overall upgrade since it almost always ended up as a bear and had minimal board impact, which is bad for a deck that wants all of its permanents to have a high board impact as soon as they come into play and to hit the ground running. Even with the increased enchantment count, it’s still not that great of a card.

With that being said, I’d also get behind replacing Kami of Ancient Law with a more efficient beater like Cloistered Youth or a Soltari creature like Soltari Trooper / Priest / Monk. Lately, in both Cube streams that I’ve been watching and in my personal Cube Draft experiences, I’ve seen the meta of aggressive decks go way down, and making that kind of change may help shift that back.



As discussed in my Theros review article, this was a relatively "easy" change and is overall a positive (the drawback of being hit by artifact removal isn’t enough to make up for the Avenging Arrow ability). As I previously discussed, in Cubes that make that change, there are likely better changes that are there that require some looking for. With this change, there were some cards like Gideon, Champion of Justice; Aven Mindcensor (whose stock drops in Cube due to the lowered percentage of tutors than in a format like, say, Modern); and my pick Linvala, Keeper of Silence.

Linvala’s on the lower end of white fours, and its best use tended to be as a green hoser to try to help against the green decks. But even in those cases, it wasn’t impactful enough and a poor sideboard card. Anthems get better in multiples, and I’ve found that one of the few ways to successfully go aggro in the Magic Online Cube is to go for "anthem aggro" by playing cards like Honor of the Pure in conjunction with white. Cutting an anthem seems counterproductive, even if the overall count remains.

I’m also a bit surprised that Chained to the Rocks wasn’t included since it’s perfectly fine in a Cube this size. One of the reasons that I wish that there were reasons for showing what cards were included and not included is to reduce speculation on exactly why cards are/aren’t included. For example, was Chained to the Rocks not included because of having enough white multicolor cards like Loam Lion and Lingering Souls? Was it thought of as a generally lacking Boros card or a generally lacking card in general? I’m not really sure, but balance reasons aside it seems like an oversight; I would much rather have Chained to the Rocks (the drawback isn’t that bad) than something like Aven Mindcensor or Celestial Flare.

In non-Theros changes, Knight of the White Orchid got replaced by Imposing Sovereign, which is a nice change to help aggressive decks fight midrange ones. Even with the plethora of mana fixing in the Magic Online Cube, there still is a lot that enters the battlefield tapped (and although they did add the filter lands and pain lands, cards like the Scars of Mirrodin duals, Undiscovered Paradise, and Gemstone Mine would be very happy additions), which makes having a lot of WW costs in not mono-white aggro decks awkward, so having Imposing Sovereign is a nice thing to combat that.




While Forbidden Alchemy is more of a Dimir card under the literal categorization rule, it’s categorized under blue. It’s a card that I tend to find myself wishing that I had when playing decks like Grixis and Esper, especially if there are reanimation elements in the deck. Thassa acts as an upgrade in having better long-term impact over the game, especially in control mirrors. There’s a surprisingly high amount of suboptimal cards in blue like Phantasmal Bear. (Although Phantasmal Bear’s inclusion is for tempo decks, it doesn’t really do enough to make it worthwhile and ends up in sideboards very often. However, if it would have been cut, it likely would have been cut a while ago, so it may be here to stay—at least for a while.) There’s also Legacy’s Allure (super slow), which may have been a better cut for Thassa.



The problem with cards like Ninja of the Deep Hours and not Sakishima’s Student Ninjas is that they typically get ninjutsued in and then get blocked forever and ever. Justin Parnell has talked about how saboteur cards without evasion typically aren’t very good, and Ninja of the Deep Hours tended to disappoint often because it wasn’t able to get more than one trigger in a game very often, so I was happy to see it go for another card that may fit the blue tempo archetype in Master of the Waves. I have a feeling that it’ll end up disappointing due to its fragility versus nonred spells, but if it doesn’t die after being cast and your 2/1s don’t get made irrelevant by that point in the game, it provides a ton of power for the cost.

In terms of other changes, Dissipate should have been replaced by Dissolve. It’s one of those "easy upgrades" but one which would have been an upgrade nonetheless. Dissipate’s exile has some corner cases where it’s useful, but overall the scry 1 has better universal applications and would have been an improvement.

I’m also surprised that Prognostic Sphinx wasn’t included in a Cube of this size due to its ability to protect itself and ability to filter through blanks—its scry ability can lock you, but like with Brainstorm, don’t get too tilted by hindsight. Aside from cards like Legacy’s Allure and Phantasmal Bear, in terms of large finishers, Tidings would have been a good cut for it.




I’m not a big fan of cutting Profane Command when there were a lot of weaker cards that could have been cut instead; it seems like Profane Command was cut in a like-for-like manner by cutting an expensive removal spell, but it’s not an exact cut since it does a lot more. It’s a card that I’ve been happy for in all sorts of black decks for reach and value, and cutting one of its better finishers and card advantage tools is questionable when there are cards like Ravenous Rats, Visara the Dreadful, Headhunter, and Spinning Darkness remaining. One of black’s strengths is its spot removal, so Hero’s Downfall should be solid in black Magic Online Cube decks, especially since they can have a hard time dealing with planeswalkers. A three-mana answer is nice; I’ve been pretty happy with it in my own Cube so far, so I can imagine it staying in for a while. But Profane Command being cut seems like it went the wrong way for it, especially with cads like Visara still in the mix.



When I saw the Magic Online Cube Theros change log, adding Erebos was one of the more odd inclusions. There are cards in the current iteration to try to make mono-black a thing, but it honestly seems more of a downgrade to the color in an attempt to make the color better. The no life-gain ability is mostly flavor text in the format, and the Greed mode is too expensive to be worth it. As was said before, Okiba-Gang ended up being awkward since it hit once and then typically got outclassed because its 3/2 body wasn’t pushing through Baloths or tokens due to its lack of evasion, but it honestly should have gone some time ago for another four-drop (let’s be honest, it’s really a four-drop) like Desecration Demon or Abyssal Persecutor. Erebos feels like a nod to mono-black, and while it has more universal applications than something like Phyrexian Obliterator, it’s worse in that aspect than cards like Geralf’s Messenger and Gatekeeper of Malakir. With a lot of the other Gods, the devotion is the afterthought, and the main abilities are the draw—I’ve personally seen Thassa turn into a creature once so far, but its other abilities are good enough to make it not matter very much. With Erebos, his worth is dependent on turning it into a 5/7, and the dream won’t happen as much as something like Whip of Erebos will provide.

As far as Erebos itself, its slot could have been better served by Whip of Erebos as a generic value card for midrange and control decks to get value from expired creatures in the late game.

I was a bit surprised that Tormented Hero wasn’t included, but it seems that black aggro is in a state of being half-supported, with cards like Dauthi Horror, Pack Rat, and specifically Sarcomancy being included and other cards like Vampire Lacerator remaining. Because of that, I wasn’t surprised, but I wish that the direction of black aggro would either be aptly supported (which it can) or be cut altogether since cards like Carnophage don’t really have a purpose now.




I’m happy with the cut of Destructive Force since the card never really amounted to much; it seemed like there was a push for Wildfire decks, but with only two in the list, there was a want to have another, so cards like Rite of Ruin and Destructive Force were included. While Destructive Force was never as bad as Rite of Ruin (which I wouldn’t even play in my Wildfire decks), it was still not very good. Ember Swallower was a card that seemed like a shoo-in for a replacement, and I’m surprised that it didn’t replace Destructive Force as a non-embarrassing third Wildfire. Regardless, I was happy to see D. Force go due to its extremely high mana cost.

Purphoros goes in that kind of deck since it isn’t a very good curve topper (you want your curve topper to end the game, not make your topdecks/cards in hand better); I’ve seen people try to play Purphoros in aggressive decks, but the card didn’t perform that well there. However, I’m looking forward to trying it in R/G ramp decks in the Magic Online Cube, such as Jund and Naya. Due to the low quality of Destructive Force, it’s easily an upgrade.



This upgrade looks more along the lines of cutting Glorious Anthem for Spear of Heliod than cutting Ronom Unicorn for Soldier of the Pantheon by going for a like-for-like trade, but I’m again happy that Jackal Pup wasn’t cut as it’s still a very good card. It being cut was awkward since even the vaunted mono-red deck has been losing steam in comparison to the greedy four- and five-color control decks that seem to comprise a lot of the meta. If a one-drop needed to be cut, Goblin Cadets would have been a preferred cut because it’s a poor hoser of durdle decks. But that said, Firedrinker is an easy inclusion, so I’m happy to see it there.

As far as other additions, I’m very surprised that Hammer of Purphoros wasn’t included in this iteration—with the addition of Ogre Battledriver, it seemed that red was supporting decks like Fires of Yavimaya by making big dumb things have haste (especially since Staggershock was cut, which felt like a downgrade). Adding it would help non-aggro decks that already have support through cards like Slagstorm, Urabrask the Hidden, and Sneak Attack.

Cutting Skullcrack for Hammer would have been a solid addition for midrange red decks (since Skullcrack isn’t very good because with Erebos the life gain is mostly a marginal bonus since the density of life-gain cards isn’t very high). Or if cutting with a like-for-like method of archetype support, Volcanic Fallout would have been a solid cut because it’s a weak card even for the non-aggro decks of the format. But if Volcanic Fallout was cut to bring Staggershock back, I’d be a happy camper.




A big upgrade that plays into green’s strengths of ramping and battling through annoying chump blockers replacing a card that usually ended up being average even in big green midrange decks. I’d rather have seen something like Brooding Saurian, a control hoser that is a bit too corner case to really do much, leave instead of Yeva, but the overall change is good and fits green’s strategy, so it’s an overall win.



In articles and podcasts past where I’ve talked about the trend a few years ago to cut signets in Cube for fear of them being "too good," I said one shouldn’t cut signets out of fear of making green bad but cutt green cards that do signets’ job poorly. The Magic Online Cube goes by that design philosophy by cutting all of the signets and most of the mana rocks, making it so that mana acceleration is centered in green, but cutting Devoted Druid seems counterproductive in that vein.

Both Devoted Druid and Sylvan Caryatid both perform the role better than a lot of mana rocks, as Sylvan Caryatid is better than cards like Rampant Growth or Farseek. There are some cards like Borderland Ranger that do the job worse, and Devoted Druid was one of the cards that I usually tried to get when in green ramp. Whether I’d take Sylvan Caryatid higher is arguable (likely not), but cutting a card that works well in that archetype when cards that perform the job worse like Borderland Ranger is a mistake. Overall, I’d rate this change as a wash/slight downgrade.



As mentioned above, Borderland Ranger is on the meh side because it tries to straddle a role of aggressive beater and mana fixing but doesn’t really do either job well, so I’m happy to see one of them go. The green side of the Magic Online Cube leans heavily towards ramp. Boon Satyr doesn’t traditionally fit that role since it’s much more of an aggressive creature, but I’m still happy to see it in this update as a way to aggressively combat planeswalkers and as a combat trick that I’m actually happy to play. The problem with cards like Vines of Vastwood in Cube is that their impact is low enough to make it so that playing them worsens your deck, making them not worth playing. I’d likely play it in the Naya/Jund decks in Magic Online Cube, especially as a way to fight the big blue menace, picking fights end of turn for counterspells.

In non-Theros changes, I’m very surprised that Kalonian Hydra wasn’t included in the previous change and that it hasn’t still been included when there are some middling five-mana cards like Restock, All Suns’ Dawn, and Hystrodon (if being literal) and other midrange cards like Chord of Calling leaving.




I’ve personally never been a fan of Absorb since when it comes to counterspells the cost of the counterspell is high due to restricting your mana. Absorb never really felt worth the extra mana because holding the extra (white) mana for gaining three life usually wasn’t worth it unless you were facing a burn-heavy deck, so its inclusion usually was something I felt was questionable, but Davos looks to be a big downgrade. As discussed earlier, saboteurs need to have solid evasion to be good, and evasion that only gets around haymakers isn’t what I want when I’m tapping out on my third turn as there are plenty of walls and small creatures that can trade with it/stymie it due to the prevalence of value 2/2s in the format. Its trigger is nice, but it seems like even with a lot of slow decks it won’t happen enough to be worth it.  



While changing Devoted Druid into Sylvan Caryatid may have been debatable, cutting Boros Charm for Wear // Tear looks to be a big downgrade. Years ago many people played Duergar Hedge-Mage due to the lack of good Boros cards, and many—myself included—can attest to how often there were board states where both sides would be triggered. Personally, I found that it didn’t happen very often. Wear // Tear may arguably be worse since it’s not on a body, but either way it isn’t that good.

There’s an emphasis on mana-rock destruction in the Magic Online Cube, and while mana-rock destruction is important (I always play artifact destruction on a body in my maindeck), Wear // Tear looks to be weak enough to not be worth it due to not being able to craft board states where you can fuse it for value and taking it out for one of the most efficient burn-to-the-face spells in the game (as well as sweeper-insurance spells). This change may have come about because historically the answers for artifacts and enchantments were lacking, but there may be other solutions, such as including Kor Sanctifiers in white and others like Manic Vandal in red. Out of all of the changes in this iteration, this is the one I’m least happy with.



I’m a fan of this change because of the ways that the cards function—Giant Solifuge was a beating versus durdle decks because they couldn’t effectively deal with the 4/1 hasty shroud creature outside of creature combat on board states with few defenders. Xenagos works well in that same vein; I’ve found him to be a bit worse than expected since he can’t defend himself very well, but he’s still a very solid addition. It’ll be a disappointment since I won’t be able to get it for my red- or green-based decks to beat up durdle decks, but the overall power level will be a positive upgrade.



I found that Behemoth Sledge was usually too slow due to the initial six-mana investment required. Although Cubes don’t run Watchwolf, Fleecemane Lion should be good versus decks with a lot of sweepers and decks dependent on spot removal to deal with things and should help to push Naya aggressive decks a bit.



Changing from Niv-Mizzet is a nice upgrade mainly because even the new Niv-Mizzet wasn’t very good as a mana investment (for six mana) in a color that had better things to do at six with an easier mana cost. Steam Augury may not fit the Izzet/Grixis storm decks, but it works well enough in other decks to be a solid addition, especially when it’s replacing a near blank.



As mentioned before, there are a lot of lands that enter the battlefield tapped, which can be awkward for aggressive decks to play, but the Temple cycle should be nice for all types of those decks for the color pairs; I can see the Temples working well in multicolor aggro decks to siphon away poor late game draws. The shard tri-land cycle was on the weaker side of the land cycles in the Magic Online Cube, with that and the mirage fetch-land cycle (Bad River) being on the lower end due to them being extremely slow, and the overall power level of replacing the weaker tri-land cycle should be an upgrade.

In terms of non-inclusions, I’m surprised that Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver didn’t replace Nightveil Specter, but the inclusion of Nightveil Specter may be to try to give a boost to black decks as a way to grind value. I’ve never found that it performed very well in that regard though. I’ve heard mixed receptions on Ashiok that match my own experiences—either being too slow or too good due to being a monster in slower matchups. Because of this, I have no idea if it not being included was because it was thought to be too good or too bad (much like when Vampire Nighthawk was cut).



Powder Keg was on the weak side of cards since it was too unwieldy and slow to hit whatever you wanted to, so I never gave the card much stock, and in the time that I saw it in the Magic Online Cube, I never saw it do much work, so cutting it for something that has potential is a nice change. Pentad Prism looks to be an addition to help storm combo (or four- or five-color control by acting as a miser’s ritual to help you get four- and five-drops out early), so it should be a fine addition, but I’m honestly surprised not to see a better artifact like Mimic Vat, Ankh of Mishra, or Jinxed Choker—the latter two to try to help aggressive strategies.



Stillmoon was low impact enough to make losing it not a big deal even with the weak competition for three-mana creatures, although this can be seen more so in black than in white, and fell into the category of being too small for midrange decks but too low-impact in aggressive decks even if it acted as a mana sink because it performed that job inefficiently. Something like Merciless Eviction is a card that may have been a better cut due to being too expensive and doing a bad impression of Austere Command—a card that isn’t very good either even in B/W control decks like Esper. Blood Baron should be nice as a giant lifelinker with protection from relevant removal spells, although it is arguable that its role is diminished with other five-mana cards like Obzedat, Ghost Council, but like with the plethora of 2RG cards in Gruul, that may not actually matter.

In conclusion, this update is in between past ones in size; for Avacyn Restored, too many cards were included (50 changes, to the point where people making accusations that the Magic Online Cube was being used to "sell" cards), whereas the update for Dragon’s Maze had four changes. On one end, the changes, especially in red, felt a bit too safe with some cards not included, and on the other end, there were some questionable ones, like Wear // Tear and Erebos. I’m hoping that this update will help find a good middle ground of how many changes to make to the Magic Online Cube with each new set.

May your opening packs contain Sol Rings!

@UsmanTheRad on Twitter
My blog with 450-card Pauper and 460-card Powered Cube lists (with Theros):  I’d Rather Be Cubing
Cube podcast that Anthony Avitollo and I co-host: The Third Power