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By: oraymw, Matthew Watkins
Jul 18 2012 11:56am
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Welcome back to Ars Arcanum, where I do statistical studies of Magic Online formats, and present you with the information. This week, we’ll be looking at the MTGO Cube, and we’ll see some interesting data. What is the best deck in the format? Is Mono Red as good as players like Luis Scott Vargas seem to think it is? What about the ramp deck? In this article, I’ll be answering these questions and more.

The MTGO Cube has not been around too long, but it is already the most drafted and most talked about Cube in the world. For those that don’t know, Cube is a variant draft format where the cards are taken randomly from a preselected group of cards instead of from booster packs. This group of cards is called a cube, and it typically features some of the best Magic cards of all time. It takes the best cards from all kinds of different formats, and mashes them into one powerful and fun format. It’s a format where you could open a pack with Karn Liberated, Umezawa’s Jitte, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and Recurring Nightmare, as well as 11 other powerful cards.

As for the MTGO Cube, Wizards has been using it especially to fill in the gap between when a set is released in paper but has not yet been released on Magic Online, such as is the case with M13 at the moment. Typically during these times the Cube is up for a week, and I think we can expect Wizards to make slight changes to this Cube between each set. Because of this, Cube drafts will no longer be up by the time this article goes live, but the information should still be relevant the next time you come around to draft the format.

Furthermore, this particular Cube list has special importance, because it will be the exact Cube used in the 2012 Magic Player’s Championship. That makes this Cube the most important single Cube in the game, which was one of my major reasons for analyzing the data from this Cube. I realize that the most important practice that each of those players will get is with their own teams, but my hope is that this data will help them orient their own data in respect to what people are playing. To do this, I decided to limit this study to 8-4 drafts on MTGO, and I found out a lot of interesting things. For more information on the MTGO Cube, as well as a full list of the cards in the Cube, you can check out this link: http://www.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/other/07032012d.

Like my other Ars Arcanum articles, I got this data by watching hundreds of matches on Magic Online, recording various points, and then arranging it in the way that can help you best process what that data means. In this article, I’ll be covering the speed of the format as expressed by the turn on which games ended, as well as the number of decks played in different colors and archetypes and the win percentages of those decks. In this study, I watched more than 200 cube draft matches, totaling upwards of 400 decks, as well as seeing about 500 games of Cube magic. Some of the data is what you would expect, while other parts are a little more intriguing.

 

Cube Speed

Ending Turn of MTGO Cube games as compared with AVR

In this chart, we see a graph of the ending turns of both the MTGO Cube in blue and AVR in red. One of the helpful things about this chart is it helps people have a better understanding about the reality of how many turns they have to play around in a Cube game. One of the main mistakes that new Cube players make is that they assume that since a Cube as a lot of expensive and powerful cards the games are going to be slow. They take a lot of expensive dragons and things, and then end up being beaten by much more efficient cards. As evidenced in this chart, Cube is a relatively fast format, and you just don’t have time to durdle around.

We see that the majority of Cube games take place from turns six to nine, with a relatively sharp drop off from turn ten onward. One of the most interesting things about this chart is how similar the curves are if we compare AVR and Cube. Both formats have a large number of games from turns six to nine, followed by a steep drop off for the later turns. The Cube line hovers above the AVR line until turn seven, which indicates that many Cube games are very fast. There were only a few turn two, three, and four wins, but the fact that they exist at all shows that Cube games can be lightning quick. In the next section, from turns seven to eleven, Cube hangs under AVR, and then hovers above AVR for most of the other turns. This tells us that the speed of MTGO Cube is a little bit more unpredictable than AVR, since games can be both shorter and longer, but overall it is a fairly fast format. Also, if we look at the cumulative frequency for game endings, we see that 51% of Cube games end before turn nine, with 73% ending before turn eleven, and we can compare this with AVR which only has 50% of its games end before turn nine, but has 76% end before turn eleven. Overall, we see that the two formats share a lot of similarities in being fast formats, though Cube’s results are spread out a little more evenly across the board.

This obviously demonstrates why it is such a trap to think that you will have a lot of time to mess around in Cube. There are so many ways to generate continuous card advantage in Cube that these strategies are often less important. Instead, players will often find the most advantage from making better use of tempo than their opponent. Cards like Genesis or Future Sight are much worse than they appear, while cards like Planeswalkers are very powerful because they create an effect without any additional mana investment. This is also a reason why ramp strategies can be powerful in the MTGO Cube; getting a little bit extra mana means that you will be capable of using all of your cards, and turning on more of your cards generates a lot of extra advantage. Additionally, tempo spells like Venser, Shaper Savant, Memory Lapse, or Plow Under are even more powerful than they would normally be, since they reset a lot of your opponent’s mana development, which is also a much more precious resource than card advantage in this set.

It should be noted that tempo focused is not the same as aggressive. Many observers have noticed the particular weaknesses of aggro strategies in this Cube, and this data will bear out those observations. Additionally, this data suggests that decks should be much more focused on doing things that are relatively inexpensive, but powerful for the mana cost, and that allow that player to have better control of the pace of the game.

Cube Strategies

Cube Deck Popularity by Strategy Categories

Cube Deck Win Ratios by Strategy Categories

Our next set of charts depicts the results as arranged by the overarching strategies of the decks. As I watched the games, I assigned the majority of decks with a tag for the focus of their strategies, and then arranged the results according to these categories. For some decks I did not get enough data for categorization, but I was able to assign a category for more than 95% of the decks viewed. Aggro refers to decks that play like Red Deck Wins or White Weenie; these decks are focused on overwhelming their opponent with cheap and efficient sources of damage and hopefully winning before their opponent is able to mount a defense. Control refers to decks that play like Draw-Go or UB Control; instead of focusing on cheap and efficient threats, these decks focus on cheap and efficient answers and try to win the game at a later stage with a few overwhelming and resilient cards. Tempo is my own label for the type of decks normally labeled as Aggro-Control, which I’ve always thought is a misnomer, and they typically play like Delver or Cawblade; these decks focus on managing the tempo of the game by dealing with early game threats by aggressive decks or by protecting powerful creatures against control decks. Attrition refers to the kinds of decks typically labeled as Midrange and often plays like The Rock or Jund; they are typically creature based decks that try to win the game by creating a lot of incremental advantage, like Sprouting Thrinax or Huntmaster of the Fells. Combo refers to decks that are entirely focused on finding and then using a game winning combo, like Storm decks and some kinds of Reanimator decks.

The reason for my changes in these labels from typical Magic jargon is that these labels more accurately describe what these decks are trying to do within the MTGO Cube specific format. As I’ve been reading the discussion about the MTGO Cube, I keep seeing people demonstrate a misunderstanding of the differences between these archetypes. We’ve seen that the MTGO Cube is not a very good format for Aggro decks, but many people mix Aggro and Tempo decks in their mind. They think that the only viable decks are control decks or ramp decks, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Tempo decks act differently than Aggro decks, and players that avoid drafting creature based strategies because Aggro is bad are going to be seriously hurting their win percentages.

Now that we’ve finished talking definitions, let’s look at the actual data. The first thing we notice is that Aggro decks are by far the most played decks in the Cube, taking a little more than a quarter of the field. The next closest strategy are Tempo decks, but Aggro exceeds them by 7 points, even though many players consider Aggro to be bad in this Cube. So what exactly is driving so many people to play Aggro decks?

Percentage of Aggro Decks by Color

This pie chart shows us some very interesting data. It shows the influence of Red among the aggro decks. Mono Red Aggro is generally known as one of the most powerful decks in Cube, and this pie chart suggests that too many players are trying to draft this deck. Of the aggro decks, 59% are based in Red. However, only fifteen percent of the Aggro decks end up being Mono Red. In fact, Red based aggro decks made up 18% of the entire field, which means that about 1.5 drafters at every table will be a Red based Aggro deck, and Red based Aggro decks have a higher representation than any other archetype in the Cube.

These players are doing this for good reason. Later in this article, we’ll look at win percentages by color, but it is worth noting that Mono Red decks pick up a 61% win ratio, which is higher than any other color combination or strategy in the Cube. It seems like a lot of players are attempting to draft the Mono Red deck, but aren’t able to get enough playables, and are then being forced to make a two color red Aggro deck. The problem is that two color red Aggro decks only have a win ratio of 40%, which is one of the worst performances in the Cube. The lesson we learn is that Mono Red Aggro is a great deck, but only if you are the only person drafting it. As soon as you add more drafters, the deck gets too diluted. If you are forced to add a second color to get enough playables, then your chances of winning the draft drop significantly. In point of fact, non-Red based Aggro decks put up a 52% win ratio. Apparently aggro is not as bad as advertised, but it is true that Mono Red is currently being drafted too heavily.

A big mistake would be to assume that the best strategy is a slow control deck, since Aggro decks tend to be less competitive in this Cube. We see that there are about as many Control decks as Tempo decks. These players are hoping that since Aggro is less strong, that they will be rewarded for aiming for the long game. However, the win percentages suggest that Control is not a great strategy, since it only puts up a 48% win ratio. Remember that 48% isn’t terrible, it just suggests a suboptimal strategy. The decks that are trying to focus on the long game tend to not do much better than decks that focus on the short game.

Instead, we see that Tempo strategies are the best performing in the Cube, with a whopping 60% win ratio, while still being the second most drafted strategy. There are a few reasons why these decks are performing so well. One of the biggest reasons is that these Tempo decks are best equipped to take advantage of the Swords, Umezawa’s Jitte, and Tangle Wire, which are some of the most powerful cards in the Cube. Aggressive decks have a hard time using so much mana for something that doesn’t increase their damage output substantially, while control decks don’t play enough creatures to really take advantage of those cards, but Tempo decks really want to get one or two efficient, evasive, and/or resilient threats, and then protect them while disrupting their opponent’s game plan. Each of these cards is exceptional in these situations. On top of that, Tempo decks are best able to make use of Planeswalkers. They play enough creatures to be able to protect a Jace or a Gideon and take advantage of all of the abilities of these planeswalkers, and they are also the most conscious of mana conservation, which allows them to take advantage of the mana free abilities of planewalkers.

Furthermore, Tempo decks are best able to act in the ending turn window that characterizes this format. These decks are about using their mana efficiently to manage the pace of the game during the middle turns. They can slow down an aggro deck and then swing the tempo of the game greatly in their favor with a better creature than those of their opponents. Against the control decks, they can protect their threats long enough to punch through for a win. Tempo decks can also win quickly enough against the combo decks to force them to move quickly, but they have enough disruption to deal with key pieces of that strategy. The only decks that they really struggle against are the Attrition decks, which tend to clog up the battlefield, which makes it hard for a few creatures to get in. But since the Attrition decks are one of the least played decks in the Cube, and since they have the worst win rate of the strategies, the Tempo decks will only have to face a few of them in the early rounds, and the numbers dwindle later on.

Tempo decks also tend to be the most flexible decks in Cube. One of the peculiarities of Cube drafting is the large number of potential decks that players can get. Board states can be wildly different from game to game, and you often can’t predict exactly what your opponent’s deck is going to be able to do. Tempo decks are the best able to respond flexibly to a wide range of strategies.

Perhaps the most important factor in making Tempo decks so strong is the lack of powerful options for other decks. There are many powerful things to do in this Cube, but compared to other Cubes, the power level is a little bit lower. A lot of the most powerful aggressive cards aren’t present. There isn’t enough mana fixing to enable too many 3-5 color control decks. There aren’t enough powerful and efficient control cards to make the control decks stable enough. The only cards in the Cube that are grossly overpowered compared to the cards around them are the artifacts I mentioned above and the Planeswalkers. Because of the vacuum of powerful cards in other archetypes, Tempo decks are naturally suited to taking advantage of the format.

Now that we’ve looked at the macro-strategies that are performing best in the Cube, let’s get a little bit more specific and look at colors.

Colors in Cube

Performance of Colors within the MTGO Cube

Color

White

Blue

Black

Red

Green

Of total

41%

47%

35%

25%

42%

Average Wins

51%

55%

48%

50%

47%

This table shows the data for the five colors. To be honest, this data should not come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with Cube or with Magic historically. Blue is obviously king, even though it is also the most played color in the Cube. Blue decks have been the strongest constructed decks for a long time, being the best Tempo decks, the best Control decks, and the best Combo decks. Blue performs particularly well in this Cube on account of the focus on Tempo. Since Blue has the best tempo spells and also plenty of Counterspells to protect key creatures and disrupt their opponent’s spells, Blue is well suited to take advantage of the environment. White shows up second for many of the same reasons. Its creatures are very efficient, often being more efficient than even their Green counterparts on the low end of the curve. It also provides some key removal spells to the Blue half of the Tempo decks. Furthermore, it gets particularly powerful cards for Tempo strategies in things like Parallax Wave or Stoneforge Mystic.

There are two things here that may surprise people. First, I have heard a lot of people talk about the power of Green based ramp decks in this Cube. While those decks can often be powerful, many Green decks either don't get enough ramp or end up being  the midrange Attrition decks that performed so horribly in the strategies section. The problem with Green is that the creatures are too expensive. Many of them are worth their cost, but because they come down a little later in the game, the Blue Tempo decks are able to play good creatures earlier, and then gain a huge mana advantage when they counter a Green creature.

The second surprise may be with the Red decks. Red is the least popular color in the Cube. Most of the Red decks are the Red based aggro decks that I mentioned were the most popular single deck archetype in the Cube, but hardly anyone uses Red for any other purpose. A whopping 69% of decks with Red in them are aggressive decks, and overall those aggressive red decks, including Mono Red and two color Red Aggro, tended to pull about a 46% win rate. But if we look a little bit deeper into Red, we’ll see something interesting.

Win Percentages of Red Decks

What we see here is the win percentages of Red decks when we pull them a little bit farther apart by archetype. Red/X Aggro, which is the most common Red deck, performs miserably, but the important part of this chart is how well Red performs in the other sections. Mono Red, we have discussed, but I find the Other Red section to be fascinating. These decks are split about evenly between Red based Tempo decks, often UR or BR, and Red based Control decks, which are also usually UR or BR. Red has quite a few cheap creatures with a high power relatively to their toughness. When these creatures get paired up with Blue Tempo spells or Counterspells, or when they are alongside Black disruption and creature destruction, they can often win games quickly, and do so through serious resistance. Red also adds powerful removal spells to these decks, along with burn spells that can give the Tempo deck just a little more reach. If there is any area of the Cube that is ripe for exploration, it is in using Red as a companion for Tempo based strategies.

Now that we’ve looked at the colors by themselves, let’s look at what happens when we look at the main color pairings.

Cube Two Color Pairing Popularity

 

Cube Two Color Pairing Win Percentages

In these two charts, we see the culmination of a lot of the data that we’ve seen throughout the rest of the study. First, we see that Blue decks are easily the most popular decks in the draft, followed by the Green decks. The UG and GW decks tend to be Ramp decks more often than not, but occasionally they are Tempo decks or Aggro decks. Lastly, we see the combinations using Black and Red to peter off towards the tail of the popularity chart.

But what we will find most useful is the Win Ratio chart. We see that Mono Red aggro is the most powerful deck in the Cube, but since it is so hard to get, we can hardly say that it is the optimal strategy. Instead, we see that WU and UB decks, which happen to be the two most played color combinations, also happen to be the most successful decks in the Cube. These decks are made up mostly by Tempo decks, though they also have a significant representation of Control decks. Again, this data confirms what we have seen previously; that the most optimal approach to the MTGO Cube is to draft a Blue-based Tempo strategy, preferably in WU or UB. The only other decks to perform above 50% are the RG decks and the Other section, which is made up primarily of UR and BR, though it does have a healthy representation of Mono Black decks of all varieties. The RG decks are split with a slight edge going to the Ramp strategies, which also represents the greatest portion of the RG win share, while the Aggro portion drags the RG win ratio down to closer to 50%.

The middle section features GW, UG, and WB, all a little bit below 50%. The GW decks are a split between Aggro and Ramp strategies, with the Ramp strategies performing a little better. UG also has several Ramp decks, but also a fair portion of Tempo decks, and both perform at about the same Win Rate. WB decks tend to be either Aggro decks or tap out Control decks, with each performing at about the same Win rate. The biggest problem with these decks is not that they lack power; it is that they lack the flexibility needed to deal with the wide range of potential board situations in Cube.

Finally, we see the dramatic underperformance of the BG and RW decks. The BG decks tend to be Attrition decks, which we know are horribly disadvantaged in this Cube. The RW decks tend to be the Red based Aggro decks that we saw perform horribly earlier. Again, this data serves to solidify the themes we have already touched on during this study.

Before finishing the article, I'd like to address the popular Ramp decks and Reanimator decks. The MTGO Cube features a lot of expensive and overwhelming creatures, and these decks are built to get these creatures out early and often. Ramp decks managed to get a 58% win ratio, which is exceptional, while Reanimator decks managed a 56% win ratio, which is also pretty good. Both of these decks are powerful options, but it is important to note that both strategies lagged behind the Tempo decks and the Mono Red aggro decks. In fact, they didn't even perform better than the Red based Control decks. While these are definitely both powerful archetypes, they are simply one of several potential strategies, and certainly not the powerhouse that are the Blue based Tempo decks.

Recommendations

The key points that we learned from this study are as follows:

1.       Cube is a relatively fast format. You don’t have time to durdle around.

2.       Blue based Tempo decks are the best equipped to take advantage of the environment.

3.       Mono Red Aggro had the highest win percentage, but it is a risky deck to draft, since Red/X Aggro was one of the worst decks in the Cube.

4.       One area of untapped potential is in using Red as the other half of a Tempo (or Aggro-Control) strategy.

5.       The ramp deck is powerful, but probably a little over rated.

6.       Avoid midrange Attrition decks if possible.

Hopefully this data will help you approach Cube drafting with a little bit more preparation. When the Cube draft comes to MTGO again, I’ll link to this article again so that you can reread it in preparation.

I also hope that this article will prove useful for any pros who are preparing for the Player’s Championship, but most importantly I hope that it helps everyone following along at home to have a better idea of what is going on when they draft it.

I do want to make one important point. MTGO has been offering OLS drafts alongside Cube drafts. Because I chose to do a more extensive study on the MTGO Cube, I wasn’t able to do a full study on OLS. However, since Magic 2013 Prerelease events start on the 26th of June, and Release events won’t start until the week after, it would be three weeks before I will be able to put up my Magic 2013 Limited Overview, since I can’t watch events until Release Events start. Because of that, I’ll be putting together an OLS Overview in the interim, which you can expect next week.

You can follow me on twitter @oraymw for updates about articles or to see what I’ll be covering next time.

Thanks so much for your time and remember:  "If in other sciences we should arrive at certainty without doubt and truth without error, it behooves us to place the foundations of knowledge in mathematics." - Roger Bacon, Doctor Mirabilis

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