When I first started doing commentary for Star City Games, I think people commonly assumed that Matthias Hunt and I were very close friends. That we would go curling or whatever the hell people think Minnesotans do together on our weekends off. We’re friends, but our friendship consisted of traveling to a couple of tournaments together here and there at a clip of less than one a year, and I was caught completely off-guard when he messaged me near the end of 2015 to ask if I was still interested in tournament coverage.
Sure, I have an aptitude for public speaking, but why me? Did everybody that people had actually heard of already turn the job down? I was getting pretty cool on tournament Magic at the time, and I was closer to hanging it up than embedding myself deeper into the scene. That was an answer that I just couldn’t bring myself to hit send on, though. You already know how this story goes from here.
Welcome to Week 5 of the rollout of my Time Capsule Cube! This week’s module features cards from Khans of Tarkir through Rivals of Ixalan, which overwhelmingly consists of Standard formats that I had the privilege of observing from the commentary booth. I was playing a good amount as well, and a fun piece of Ryan Overturf trivia is that I was qualified for every Invitational that I covered through assorted tournament results. I was more committed to working tournaments than battling, but I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder that somewhat naturally comes with a rise from obscurity. It was important to me to prove that I could hang in the tournament hall, and I did.
A Time of Standard Bans
This era was marred by bans in Standard, and player investment in the format waned significantly as we weathered the storm of Emrakul, the Promised End; Smuggler’s Copter; Reflector Mage; Felidar Guardian; and the energy mechanic. I had significant loathing for many of these Standard formats at the time, especially for Emrakul and Collected Company mirrors for going to time literally every round. That said, the Cube hits are awesome and many of the cards that stank up the joint in Standard are much more enjoyable when removed from that context. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve come to love this module.
As usual, you can find the list for this Twobert on Cube Cobra. The color distribution is actually very close to where I landed for the original Twobert, and it was great to work with a card pool that has great mana-fixing and gold cards alike. There were some significant decks that had issues porting over to a Cube environment, but I maintained a lot of the big players. This environment is unique in a lot of ways that I find very fun, and I finally cross constructing a Cube with energy support off my bucket list! Let’s break things down by color and see what all is represented and which cards unfortunately didn’t make the cut.
Once again, white is headlined by a lot of efficient aggressive cards. The best white card yet printed enters the fray in Thraben Inspector. Standard and Cube all-star Gideon, Ally of Zendikar also increases white’s stock significantly. Archangel Avacyn and Angel of Invention also show up to give aggressive decks reasons to make their fifth land drop, as well as just being powerful midrange options.
Monastery Mentor isn’t all that powerful with the spells available in this module, which is pretty consistent with how the card played out in Standard. It showed up in small numbers or even as a sideboard card, and while it was relevant, it wasn’t a major draw to white. Secure the Wastes offered a lot more as an individual card, which carries forward to this Cube.
On the control side of things, we see an alternate win-condition that people either love or hate in Approach of the Second Sun. Love it or hate it, it saw significant play once upon a time along with Fumigate to play a controlling game that involved padding your life total until you could close the game. Settle the Wreckage tended to show up alongside these cards, and as much as I hate the card for Cube, it’s absolutely a relevant card from this era.
The most notable omission in the white column is Rally the Ancestors. Rally was a dominant deck in Standard, and Jacob Baugh won the first tournament that I ever covered with the deck. It just takes too many slots to be consistent in a singleton environment. I do like Rally as a Cube strategy, and if you’re also interested in that sort of thing, I’d check out my Spooky Cube.
Blue gets a lot of the typical control fare here, but also branched into some more specific archetypes. Some discard outlets for God-Pharaoh’s Gift, energy support, and Elder Deep-Fiend to represent Michael Majors’s darling Temur Emerge all make an appearance.
The reprint of Opt in Ixalan relevantly made the card Modern-legal, and it showed up in Standard plenty. Being the only one-mana cantrip in this module is highly relevant for Search for Azcanta, delve spells, and Dynavolt Tower. It’s also one that you’ll want to have if you’re trying to play with Monastery Mentor.
Minister of Inquiries sticks out a bit, but the card was a relevant part of Standard God-Pharaoh’s Gift decks. Being an energy source and having a 1/2 body against some of the aggressive creatures in this module are also relevant. I could see changing this slot at some point, but you do really need a high volume of energy cards to make the mechanic work, and the card has some interesting peripherals. It can also be used to help enable delirium and in a pinch could be used to mill the opponent.
An unfortunate casualty of this design, in part due to Dominaria being the first set in the next module, is Mono-Blue Aggro. Autumn Burchett’s Mythic Championship win was one of my favorite tournaments to watch, but Curious Obsession just doesn’t fit in this blue column. I considered Siren Stormtamer as a nod to the deck, but it also doesn’t really fit. If I mess with the Minister of Inquiries slot, I imagine it will be to include some card from that deck.
There were multiple great black aggressive decks in this era. Lucas Esper Berthoud’s Mardu Vehicles and Gerry Thompson’s Mono-Black Zombies are the biggest standouts there. Scrapheap Scrounger is one of my favorite Cube cards, and during its time in Standard it had an unreal Pro Tour Top 8 conversion rate. Cryptbreaker and Dread Wanderer show up here as great rates that also back up the Gravecrawler in the fourth module.
For my money, Liliana, the Last Hope and Liliana, Death’s Majesty are both more powerful Cube cards than Liliana of the Veil. Both were good in Standard, though Liliana, the Last Hope was an absolutely defining card at different points, perhaps most notably as a foil to Selfless Spirit.
Black gets a great variety of removal in this module, with Fatal Push the headliner. And who could forget the “Languish plus five-toughness creature” combo? Thoughtseize only got the one Standard-legal reprint, but the return of Duress is welcome to combat some powerful planeswalkers, artifacts, instants, and sorceries.
Ravenous Chupacabra and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet speak for themselves as powerful anti-creature cards, though Distended Mindbender is a card that you might not be familiar with if you weren’t playing at the time. The card saw less play than Elder Deep-Fiend and is by most accounts weaker, but it offers some back-breaking disruption with the right setup. I also wanted to include multiple ways to trigger a Kozilek’s Return from the graveyard to recapture all the power of that card from Standard.
Monastery Swiftspear and Soul-Scar Mage falling in the same module along with three other great one-drops makes the red decks in this module a force to be reckoned with. Really, all the creatures featured here are powerful aggressive options all the way up to Glorybringer. Chandra, Torch of Defiance is no slouch in aggressive roles either.
After a somewhat lengthy return to Standard, Lightning Bolt left us once again to play with some similar but weaker options. All the same, Wild Slash and Lightning Strike did plenty of winning at the time. Abrade was also a very significant printing, albeit more of a midrange card than an aggressive one. It’s not the easiest to madness a Fiery Temper in this module, but it absolutely showed up alongside Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and for a shorter time alongside Smuggler’s Copter.
Red was great in Standard in this era as part of aggressive, midrange, controlling, and even combo decks. I didn’t preserve things like Combat Celebrant to combo with God-Pharaoh’s Gift, but the color’s strength in both controlling and aggressive roles is absolutely represented here.
Green has one less card than the other colors. This is not to diminish green, but to emphasize the role that green played in Tarkir‘s enemy wedge theme. Having two “Lay of the Land”-style cards in Attune with Aether and Traverse the Ulvenwald would be weak if I was trying to support mono-green at all, but I’m not, and Attune was so good that it actually got banned in Standard.
A lot of what green is up to here centers around energy, delirium, and assorted three-color archetypes. Nissa, Voice of Zendikar shows up to represent the briefly dominant Selesnya Tokens strategy, while also offering counter support for cards like Winding Constrictor and Hadana’s Climb. Green had considerable time in the limelight during this time, though not as much as it would see in the coming years…
The glaring omission from green in this module is Collected Company. Bant Company was a massively impactful Standard deck, but it’s just not a good Cube card. It incentivizes you to try to make the card as good as you can, but it’s only one card in your deck, and there are plenty of four- and more-mana spells that just give you more on average. I wasn’t willing to compromise on this. I believe that Reflector Mage, Tireless Tracker, and other assorted threes are evocative enough of old Collected Company decks without muddying the Cube experience.
There are too many great gold cards from this era to include them all, though Orzhov was something of a limiting factor on trying to cram a bunch in. Not to mention that there are great lands and plenty of powerful artifacts to feature. Some stuff that I liked was left on the chopping block, and I’m specifically a little sad about not including Atarka’s Command. That said, it’s a more engaging Constructed card than a Cube card anyway.
Once again, I wanted to represent the three-color theme of this era by offering each wedge a slot. I’ve experimented with having a higher quantity of three- or more-color cards in different Twoberts in the past, and have found that it’s very easy to include too many and reduce player agency by forcing them to try to play specific colors. As such, I kept every wedge to one card. Well, every wedge except Abzan…
I have some sympathy for fans of Savage Knuckleblade and Sidisi, Brood Tyrant. Not enough to include the cards over the ones I selected with much higher rates of play, but some. I knew I was going to include Siege Rhino, but it was really difficult for me to leave the other Abzan cards on the chopping block. It made sense to me to convert an extra Orzhov and green slot to fit some more Abzan cards in, especially with Abzan’s period of dominance in multiple archetypes. Ari Lax’s PT win with Abzan Midrange and Caleb Scherer’s Invitational win with Abzan Aggro involved a lot of the same cards, but the two decks really highlight just how long the list of awesome Abzan options over the course of this era was. You could argue that the other wedges offered options as well, but Abzan was very clearly top dog.
The major exclusion in the gold column is Saheeli Rai. I went out of my way to feature Deceiver Exarch in the previous module, which is somewhat inconsistent with my decision here, but the Saheeli Rai combo with Felidar Guardian just exists in more isolation, with both cards being quite weak on their own in addition to being more difficult to execute in tandem. Copying Torrential Gearhulk with Saheeli was definitely an interaction that also came up back then, but that wasn’t usually a sign that things were going poorly for you otherwise.
Dynavolt Tower, Aetherworks Marvel, and Emrakul, the Promised End were all powerful build-arounds that resulted in bans. The Vehicles here are also all quite powerful, with Smuggler’s Copter catching a quick ban. God-Pharaoh’s Gift has the distinction of being the engine card in this spread that remained legal, but it had some dominant weekends in its time. Similarly, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon was a common curve-topper that showed up consistently but wasn’t completely broken.
Walking Ballista and Treasure Map round things out here, and while Walking Ballista is banned in Pioneer, I don’t think it’s fair to use that as an argument to lump it in with the cards in this section that caught Standard bans. These are two great role-players that I would play in almost any deck, and are among my favorite all-time Cube cards.
The artifact that I wish I could have made room for is Electrostatic Pummeler. It’s another thing to do with energy, but it doesn’t overlap with the other energy strategies all that well, and it adds some pressure to pull green in another direction with Blossoming Defense and other pump spells. A rework of green and probably red could make the card fit, but ultimately, Pummeler just isn’t all that consistent or repeatable as an enjoyable Cube archetype.
The lands in this module are a little funky, but there’s a good amount of them and some of them are great. The allied Battle for Zendikar lands and cycling lands are great for being fetchable, if otherwise weaker than the enemy fastlands and creature duals. Allied fetchlands are a slam-dunk, but I did spend some time on the last enemy lands to feature.
I had trilands initially, but when I looked at them next to the other cycles, I noticed that a lot of the lands in this module are going to enter the battlefield tapped at least some of the time. I have reservations about three-color lands in the first place, but the volume of other taplands was the final nail in the coffin for Frontier Bivouac and company. The enemy painlands saw plenty of play during this era, and even though the Time Capsule Cube already has plenty of painlands as is, I made the call that this module needing good enemy fixing and that anything that entered untapped was preferable.
I find myself far more nostalgic for this module than I ever expected to be. A lot of my memories of these cards involve other people playing them, so in that sense these memories are secondhand, but in another sense, this exemplifies how my years in the booth really made me feel like a part of something much bigger than myself.
Anyway. I love this module, I love Cube, and I’ll be back next week to break down the final Twobert of the Time Capsule Cube. I hope you’re excited, because it’s a doozy!