Happy December, gamers. I don’t know how it got to be this late in the year, but here we are. As such, I thought it would be appropriate to write a “Cube year in review” style article to shout out the best new cards for Cube that were printed in 2021 as well as to critique my top 10 lists that were published shortly after each set release this year and to express any shifts in my evaluations. Additionally, this will be a good opportunity to go over cards released in Commander decks that as a rule don’t show up in my top 10 lists, but there are definitely some highlights to go over on that front today.
With five Standard legal set releases and Modern Horizons 2 launching this year, my Cubes have all gotten a ton of updates, as I’m sure is the case for many Cube owners. Others have taken some time off of updating their Cubes with drafts being difficult to come by through the pandemic, and hopefully this article will serve as a resource for players in this camp for an easy access list of serious Cube considerations.
Now let’s go set by set and discuss what 2021 had to offer!
Kaldheim was the first set release of the year and my first go at a top 10 article. When I started writing regularly about Cube I knew I wanted to do set reviews, but I wasn’t sure the best way to go about it. I enjoy the depth that we’re able to give these reviews on The 540, but a lengthy written review is somewhat untenable for publication, and I’ve come to really enjoy putting together my top 10 for every set. That said, my Kaldheim list was by far my biggest miss on this front.
There are some things that I really got right, so I’ll start there. I nailed my broad assessment of foretell, and foretell cards are by far at their most compelling when you have a spread of them. Doomskar has fallen embarrassingly flat as an individual card after being wildly overvalued by many during preview season, but I still contend that Glorious Protector is an underrated Cube card and plays incredibly well in conjunction with Doomskar and a small foretell package.
I was definitely overly bullish on Kaya, the Inexorable, and ranking Birgi, God of Storytelling at #1 was generous even if I do really like the card for Cubes supporting Storm. Dragonkin Berserker is also easy to bump off the list with the cards that I missed. My best call was putting Valki, God of Lies high on the list even just as a spell to cast on either side at a time when the card was otherwise considered a gimmick due to the now updated rules regarding cascading into a Tibalt. In my assessment I would say that I didn’t give the card enough credit for Legacy and Vintage Cubes, and it would likely be #1 on my list if I wrote it today.
Regarding the relevant cards omitted from the list, I missed some big ones.
Esika’s Chariot is easily a top three card from the set, and I let the high crew cost and silly Cat tokens distract me from the fact that it’s a self-crewing value engine. To say nothing of how it plays with Gaea’s Cradle. I don’t enjoy the play patterns of Time Warp effects for Cube, but over time in assorted Cubes and certainly from playing the card in Standard it was incorrect to leave Alrund’s Epiphany off the list given how powerful it is relative to other extra turn effects. Those Birds aren’t messing around as an upside for this sort of card, and it also contributes to a foretell package if you’re into that. Clarion Spirit and Showdown of the Skalds have proven to be cards that scale effectively with their environment, and are absolutely oversights as well. Sigrid, God-Favored is really strong in a combat-centric Cube, but it doesn’t hold a candle to any of these four cards that I missed.
The Kaldheim Commander decks aren’t anything to write home about, and are among the least interesting Commander products with regard to Cube this year. There are some interesting cards for Elf tribal and some foretell support, but beyond Stoic Farmer there’s very little that tickles my fancy.
Strixhaven: School of Mages
Strixhaven: School of Mages was much more my speed with the heavy spells matter theme, and I’m much happier with my second top 10 list than my first. My only serious miss was being way too high on Multiple Choice. At sorcery speed and starting with too small of an effect, it just hasn’t met my expectations, and blue has too many great options for it to be a serious contender. Other than that I would catapult Expressive Iteration to #1 on my list, which shouldn’t be surprising to anybody who has played any Magic format since Strixhaven’s release.
Expressive Iteration does a great job of scaling to its environment. Whether its key function is helping you hit your land drop to cast expensive spells or trying to find cheap spells to cast immediately in more efficient/powerful Cubes, the card just always plays. Every other card on the list I feel is solid and was evaluated properly, including Rip Apart which is fine and definitely was initially overrated by other players.
In looking over the care file I didn’t see anything that wasn’t on my list that really jumped off the page, which has me feeling even better about my list. I’ll just say that some personal favorites have been Conspiracy Theorist and Leonin Lightscribe for supporting madness and spells matter decks respectively.
Commander 2021 was a release with much more broad appeal than the Kaldheim Commander decks, which shouldn’t be surprising considering that there are five decks as opposed to two, and that the Strixhaven schools being largely just good two-color stuff isn’t remotely as narrow as foretell and tribal are. In fact, Commander 2021 had enough going on that we did a Cube review for it on The 540.
Spread throughout these decks you’ll actually find three cards that I would recommend for Vintage Cube with each being worth considering for lower powered Cubes as well.
Laelia actually has made its way into the Magic Online (MTGO) Vintage Cube, and is in contention for being the best three-mana red Cube creature of all time. It functions differently enough from Goblin Rabblemaster that there’s an apples and oranges thing going on here, but generating actual card advantage and scaling toughness makes it perform better at least some of the time.
Pest Infestation is just awesome at cleaning up mana rocks and problematic enchantments, and I love Incarnation Technique as a Reanimator enabler and payoff rolled into one. If you can assume that you have better hits than your opponent — and you should if you’re playing the card — then it’s free enough to just use the demonstrate ability to copy it.
A couple personal favorites from this release are Digsite Engineer and Cursed Mirror. Digsite Engineer has been an absolute powerhouse in my Artifact Twobert, convincingly taking the slot that I had originally intended for Losheel, Clockwork Scholar. Huge/Huge Constructs are just worth more than random cards off the top as it turns out. Cursed Mirror is just incredibly cool and nobody can tell me otherwise.
Modern Horizons 2
Modern Horizons 2 is easily the most impactful 2021 release for Cube, and this would be true of almost any other year as well. The set is incredibly deep for niche Cubes, and has plenty of power for less specific environments. Our set review for this one on The 540 was grueling given how many cards were worth mentioning, though the set is surprisingly easy to whittle down to the fifteen or twenty most broadly impactful Cube cards. I generally like my top 10 list on this one, but there are a couple misses.
The Grixis mage in me got the best of me in including Geyadrone Dihada. The effect is unique and cool but being a three-color card alone should have been reason not to include it, and on power level it’s just not there with the rest of the set. I am likely the world’s biggest fan of Lose Hope, and for as good as it is to have another two-mana counterspell if you want to push that sort of thing, it’s existence simply isn’t as relevant as a handful of cards that I left off.
The following is a short list of cards that would be put into my top 10 to correct these misses:
Dragon’s Rage Channeler proved very quickly to be easy to turn on, and really all of these cards have shown their merit in some way or another. I find that Urza’s Saga is busted when supported and a goofy slot when not, so while I do think that it’s a homerun Vintage Cube card, I don’t love it as a Cube card in a general sense. I hate the play patterns of Serra’s Emissary, so while the card is very powerful I wouldn’t go there either. Murktide Regent has proven to be the blue thing that attacks and blocks that’s big enough and cheap enough to matter even in Vintage Cube, but win conditions are replaceable in blue. Grief and Fury are both very powerful cards, but I’m going to give the nod to Profane Tutor as the card I would bump into my top 10 along with Dragon’s Rage Channeler. The card has proven to be close enough to Demonic Tutor to be great in Cube and black is a color that gains a ton from cards like this when you move into unpowered environments, with the card being good enough to feature in Vintage Cube as well.
If you were expecting me to say that I missed with regard to excluding Dauthi Voidwalker, you will be getting no such payoff today. I still think that card stinks and I don’t like it.
I think putting Damn at #1 was a solid choice at the time given how significant it is to give some flexibility to a traditionally rigid sweeper effect, but I’d move a couple things around in this list. After playing with the card extensively, I like Grist, the Hunger Tide as the #1 card from Modern Horizons 2. Grist is a very powerful planeswalker without being gamebreaking and it does a lot of work in terms of making Golgari more appealing in powered and unpowered Cubes alike.
I’d also knock Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer down a few slots after the ice cold reception the card got from members of my playgroup. To an extent I believe that the Ragavan hatred is overblown, but I would also prefer to see a version that didn’t play off of the opponent’s deck, which is where I’m sympathetic to the card being a negative Cube experience. Other groups love the card and I’ve been a huge fan of it in the MTGO Vintage Cube, but it’s clear to me that the card’s existence is somewhat contentious.
Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms
Following what was convincingly the most powerful set of the year, Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms proved to be 2021’s lowest power release. Party as a mechanic did not make a triumphant return, and both dungeons and rolling d20s offered little in the way of compelling cards.
I generally like my top 10 list, but there’s also not much to work with beyond those ten cards. Honestly it might have been correct to just list all five of the creature-lands individually. The one card on my list that in retrospect I feel doesn’t belong is Guardian of Faith. The card technically breaks some ground on advancing the strength of white flash threats, but it’s still not as powerful as other three-mana options and is a style of card that I expect to be improved upon in the coming years.
As for other cards from the set that I might have considered, that list is pretty short.
Loyal Warhound isn’t incredible, but Blade of the Sixth Pride with upside is good enough for a lot of Cubes. Hand of Vecna is a decent ceiling, low floor card that I like well enough as an Equipment but has convincingly felt worse than Grafted Wargear in my experience. Circle of Dreams Druid was added to the MTGO Vintage Cube with the AFR update and I’ve actually been happy to play it in my mono-green decks. The problem is that I always plan to wheel it even when I do want it due to the prohibitive casting cost and it’s not convincingly better than any other green three-drop.
The AFR Commander decks were largely forgettable unless you’re interested in rolling different sizes of dice. The one card that I really like from those decks is Hurl Through Hell. It’s incredibly cool and is a swingy and powerful effect for Rakdos decks that plays in a big way in midrange Cubes.
Innistrad: Midnight Hunt
Innistrad: Midnight Hunt is probably my favorite set from 2021. It nailed the feel of Innistrad in a way that I found Shadows Over Innistrad to be lacking. I generally like my top 10 list for this one, but I’ll admit to being overly bullish on Fateful Absence and Light Up the Night. Both cards are quite good and I’m still cubing with both, but there are four cards that didn’t make my list that I believe are all better than these two.
I originally evaluated Adeline as a strictly different Brimaz, King of Oreskos, but getting the attack trigger the turn Adeline comes down off of your other creatures actually makes it dramatically better. Reckless Stormseeker only really realizes its full potential in a Cube with some other day and night cards and with the abundance of three mana options in both red and white I’d say that Malevolent Hermit and The Meathook Massacre would be the two cards that I would promote.
Malevolent Hermit immediately impressed me upon playing it and continues to do so every time that I do. A body that can hold off a planeswalker or win a counter war is just great, and having another card stapled on, however good, really puts it over. With regard to The Meathook Massacre I simply undervalued the card’s modality initially. It’s great as a Blood Artist effect even if it’s killing nothing, it works as a sweeper in a creatureless deck, and it can just win the game on resolution in the right spots. I think that it’s brutally powerful in lower powered Cubes but it’s great in more powerful environments.
I do feel that I really nailed the top three from this set, with the red and white adversaries and Augur of Autumn all being excellent every time that I play with them, and all being easy to fit into a wide range of Cubes.
The Innistrad: Midnight Hunt Commander decks, on the other hand, don’t offer much for Cube. There’s some neat Human and Zombie stuff but nothing earth shattering. These decks do really make me wish that they had made a Werewolf Commander deck, but the issues with double-sided cards unfortunately make that more or less a non-started. I have really enjoyed Cubing with Tovalar, Dire Overlord, so it is at least nice that some great Werewolf support did come in the main set.
Innistrad: Crimson Vow
And that brings us to the most recent release in Innistrad: Crimson Vow. This being my most recent top 10 list, you’re probably not expecting me to report significant changes in my evaluations here, and you’d be right not to. I’d bump Graf Reaver and Overcharged Amalgam down a couple slots and promote Ulvenwald Oddity to #5, but I feel good about selecting these cards. I’m still slightly in awe that Thirst for Discovery exists, and that’s a pretty unshakeable #1 for me.
The Innistrad: Crimson Vow Commander decks generally followed suit with Midnight Hunt’s unexciting tribal offerings. Some day I will be excited about Spirits in Cube, and there are some individual cards that I really like, but we just need more one-drops. The one card that I adore from these decks is Occult Epiphany.
An instant-speed discard outlet that makes some bodies and offers implicit support for delirium made this an immediate Spooky Cube inclusion. This is also just a great card for blocking small creatures, pressuring planeswalkers, and leaving up counterspells. I’d for sure check it out for a wide range of Cubes.
And that’s everything! 2021 was an awesome year for new Cube cards, and every color got some great new tools. I’ve loved the influx of powerful new white cards, and it has been communicated that we can expect more good flash threats and hopefully more unique and powerful white effects. Green and black got a few new tools to serve as departures from the traditional Reanimator and Ramp strategies, and I look forward to seeing even more on this front next year. Blue probably got more than its fair share, certainly in Innistrad: Crimson Vow, but I suppose you can’t just give them nothing.
Adventures in the Forgotten Realms was the only general let down for me this year, though I’ll also say that Innistrad: Midnight Hunt delivered significantly better than Innistrad: Crimson Vow did. Crimson Vow just really missed for red and is my second least favorite set for Cube this year after Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. Midnight Hunt was actually close to ideal for me though, and I would be thrilled to see more sets of its nature with powerful options across all five colors.
It seems appropriate to me at this point to nominate my pick for the 2021 Cube card of the year. Naturally, the short list is going to be my #1 cards from any given set, with Expressive Iteration, Grist, the Hunger Tide, and Intrepid Adversary leading the pack. For my money, no card understood the assignment better than Intrepid Adversary. A solid threat with a relevant creature type that scales into the late-game with an ability that white aggressive decks want but don’t always love spending a card slot on. Pushing the envelope on a threat with a secondary ability in a way that’s powerful but not overly so in one of the color’s hurting most for flexible and powerful cards is exactly what I’m looking for in every set. Expressive Iteration will show up in more Cubes for a few reasons, but I consider it less significant given that Izzet is already long on flexible and powerful cards.
In 2022 I’m hoping to see more one and two mana single-pip aggressive creature options for black and green, and ideally some more compelling non-aggressive red options. In addition to that, I believe that some of the most significant Cube holes fall in the gold slots. I would love to see more options for efficient and powerful Gruul, Selesnya, and Boros cards. I’m not saying that I necessarily want to see an analog of Grist or Daretti, Ingenious Iconoclast to show up for every color pair, but some cards of a similar texture would be the path of least resistance in my mind.
With regard to my year in writing for 2021, I feel good about the progression of my top 10 lists over the year and about the quality of my calls overall. I had some misses to be sure, but I found my footing much better after Kaldheim. I greatly appreciate everyone who has read my articles over this last year and change, and I’m grateful to have this opportunity to share my passion with you.