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By: CottonRhetoric, Cotton Rhetoric
Dec 19 2018 1:00pm
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Vintage cube, the best version of the best format, is coming December 19th!

Where else can you get board states like this? (Courtesy of a Karn reset ultimate.)

Or this? (Courtesy of Upheaval.)

Although a bounteously fun format, cube's sheer complexity can be daunting to new and seasoned players alike. I shall take you on the path of how to get into the format, how to improve, and how to improve even more. I've broken it down to ten levels of efficacy, starting with—!

 

Level One ♦ Try aggro

    Eidolon of the Great Revel

In vintage, legacy, and modern cubes alike, the same is true of aggro decks: they are the easiest to draft, the easiest to play, and the easiest to 3-0 with. They're gradually nerfed every season yet always remain a Tier One deck.

Article-length primers exist for more information, but let's cover a few fundamentals:

  • Mono red is great. Mono white is great. Red with splash and white with splash are worse but still strong. Equal parts red-white is far worse and should only be considered if neither color is open enough to force mono. (Boros is good in many sets' drafts, but not in cube's, where the colors' strategies are disparate and don't mesh nearly as well as you'd expect.)
  • In cube, where everything is powerful, curve is more important than power level. Hellrider might be the best four-drop, but I will pass it for Goblin Guide if forced to choose. You can always pick up a Koth of the Hammer or Thunderbreak Regent later to cover the four slot. Your deck needs very few four drops, and even the lesser ones are still powerful enough. Contrast this with one and two drops, where you are looking for quantity, and passing even one is tangibly detrimental.
  • Mono red's strongest spells are Shrine of Burning Rage and Sulfuric Vortex. Mono white is about the 3-mana double strikers into Elspeth, Knight-Errant and/or Armageddon.
  • No other color has a viable aggro deck.

 

Level Two ♦ Learn the other tier one archetypes

Again, there are full length primers out there, but some highlights:

Green ramp

  • 1/3 of your nonlands should be ramp, 1/3 should be high end, and 1/3 are role fillers.
  • Role fillers means things like Harmonize, Garruk Wildspeaker, and Primal Command. It does not mean equipment or Thrun, the Last Troll, unless you're really short on playables. (This changes in modern cube, but more on that later.)

Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary  Natural Order  Craterhoof Behemoth

UX control

  • Blue plus literally any other color is strong.
  • Blue is the most drafted color. That should not deter you. Getting even 3–4 good blue cards per pack is enough for a deck.
  • Counterspells are incredibly good in cube. Especially vintage cube, when a single card can win the game. Swords to Plowshares isn't enough to stop a Griselbrand, and Disenchant isn't enough to stop a Sneak Attack—you have to stop them before they start. Your opponent's entire game might hinge on resolving a Natural Order. Don't let them.
  • Card draw is also good. (Duh.)

Consecrated Sphinx  Mana Drain  Compulsive Research

Reanimator and/or Sneak Attack

  • Many color options. In order of decreasing popularity: black-blue, black-blue-red, black-red, mono-black, one of the preceding with a splash.
  • These are the only two archetypes for which this is true: don't go all in. Have a backup plan. Turn 1 Entomb into Turn 2 Animate Dead is great, but if that's all your deck can do, it's too fragile. (Ask yourself: can I beat a Swords to Plowshares?)
  • Consider creatures that are both worthy of reanimation and possible to hardcast. Grave Titan is the clearest example of this.
  • Gilded Lotus goes well in these decks, in that it lets you hardcast the 8+ mana creatures.
  • Some creatures, like Blightsteel Colossus, can not be in a graveyard. Some, like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, hit the graveyard just long enough to get grabbed by a Shallow Grave. Know which are which.
  • Tutors are good in these decks—even more so than in regular decks.

Entomb  Animate Dead  Sneak Attack

 

Level Three ♦ Learn the lesser archetypes

These are harder to put together and/or harder to play. Try the easier decks first.

Storm

  • Although incredibly powerful when open, it's rarely open. This is because, unlike most other archetypes, storm only exists in vintage cube, so when vintage cube does come around, everyone tries to draft it.
  • Watch other people draft, build, and play with this deck before attempting it. Pick orders are often unintuitive. (Jon Finkel had many great storm videos back in the day, although the card lists have changed some since then. For more recent takes, I recommend Iseroc.)

High Tide  Lion's Eye Diamond  Frantic Search

Other combo decks

Opposition

  • Green-blue is by far the most common, due to the namesake enchantment, elves, Deranged Hermit, and even one-a-turns like Master of the Wild Hunt and Garruk, Primal Hunter. I've heard blue-white is viable thanks to the token generators, but I've never seen it and remain skeptical.
  • When building, ask yourself: how do I win the games I don't draw Opposition?

Opposition  Deranged Hermit  Master of the Wild Hunt

Artifacts

  • This probably has the record for "least likely to be open," since most other archetypes want your key cards.
  • The artifact-related planeswalkers are all great, but they need a lot of support, and you rarely will get it.
  • Even when it does work, it's not as powerful as other archetypes, although it will occasionally go off. I once had an opponent go Turn 1 Sol Ring into Mana Vault, Turn 2 Tezzeret the Seeker, untapping both and casting Tinker with five mana still left over. I lost that game.

Mono black

  • Vintage cube is the only cube that doesn't have obvious support cards for mono black (unless I'm forgetting something?). The other cubes have things like Phyrexian Obliterator and Tendrils of Corruption.
  • Either way, I'm usually unimpressed with mono black, but some disagree.
  • Black does work as a good support color to many other strategies, largely due to its discard and removal.

Flooded Strand  Temple Garden  Mana Confluence

4+ color

  • By far my own favorite.
  • If you try this, PRIORITIZE NONBASICS. Pick them over anything but the best of the best nonlands in the first two thirds of each pack. Your final build should end up with at least 10.
  • Do not take fixers like Birds of Paradise or Fertile Ground—use nonbasics to fix your mana and save the nonland slots for high impact cards like planeswalkers and wraths.
  • At the end of each pack, you will notice some very strong cards that you wouldn't be able to take if you were limiting your color options. Take these. You will get things like Vraska, Relic Seeker pick 9 at a table where no one is Green-Black. Then you will take an Ajani Vengeant and be able to cast both with ease.
  • To be clear, this is not a Tier 1 deck, and it will lose to a well built version of a more established archetype. But it will beat an attempt at an archetype that wasn't fully open, which happens a lot later in the season when the archetypes are known. 

 

Level Four ♦ Know what goes where

    Eternal Witness

"Is "Eternal Witness good in cube?" is the wrong question. "Where does Eternal Witness go?" is more helpful. Your mono green ramp deck doesn't want Eternal Witness. What would you get back with it, a dead Llanowar Elves? However, your deck with two Time Walks indeed wants Eternal Witness.

Often the answer is obvious. We can all look at Stoneforge Mystic and know to play it with Umezawa's Jitte and Batterskull. You might even know to play Upheaval next to artifact mana. But where do you put Bazaar of Baghdad?

(Reanimator decks can use Baghdad to dump targets in the graveyard. Some decks with draw 7's can make use of it as well, such as storm and something I'll mention later.)

This segues into our next level—

 

Level Five ♦ Know the combos

I don't mean the Kiki-Jiki / Splinter Twin stuff covered above (although those are good too). I mean the nice synergies, like Gifts Ungiven and Unburial Rites, or Mindslaver and Academy Ruins.

Novices will look at Soulfire Grand Master and think, "perfect for my red-white burn deck!" Mavens see it and think, "Infinite combo with Time Walk!"

An easy trap to fall into is, "It's only two cards. what are the odds I'll even get both at once?" And true, this will not happen every game. But even without any filtering or card draw, it will happen a couple of times in your three rounds, and it can often mean the whole game when it does. Plus there remains the fact—you can run card draw! And tutors, in vintage cube.

 

Level Six ♦ Know the traps

Every cube is saturated with powerful cards—that you should not play.

   

Winter Orb

Oath of Druids

Necropotence, Moat, Show and Tell, Oath of Druids, Land Tax, Bitterblossom, Winter Orb, Fastbond, Deathrite Shaman... I won't say NEVER play them, but I will say play them rarely, with caution, and under limited, carefully planned circumstances.

  • In a deck with artifact mana, Winter Orb seems brilliant. The problem is that, in the only cube it exists in, vintage, nearly every deck has artifact mana, between moxen, signets, and Mana Crypt, so it rarely hurts your opponent a significant amount. This is best as a sideboard card.
  • Moat too: put it in your sideboard. You will face some decks with no way to remove it, but most vintage decks know to pack disenchants, or are unconcerned with nonfliers in the first place. Red decks have dragons; white decks have Elspeth jumps; green decks have Woodfall Primus; storm decks already killed you; and so on.
  • Show and Tell: if it doesn't win you the game THAT TURN, as in through a Yawgmoth's Bargain in storm or a Lightning Greaves'd Eldrazi, it is probably losing you the game on the opponent's turn. When you drop your Darksteel Colossus, your opponent will drop a Sower of Temptation. Discard spells can be useful to help clear the coast beforehand.
  • Oath of Druids can be wildly exciting, and will win you some games in commanding fashion, but it will win you rounds less often, and believe me, I've tried many times from many angles. If you are going to run it, you want to also run Beast Within to help ensure it triggers. But despite your best laid plans, you will find your last remaining creature either at the bottom of your library, causing you to deck out a turn before winning, or at the very top of your library, causing you to draw it the turn before your Oath goes off, way more often than you thought possible. And they just took Scroll Rack out of the cube!
  • Fastbond is good with draw 7s, Yawgmoth's Will, and Courser of Kruphix, but not anywhere else. In a typical deck, it functions like a Lotus Petal, sacrificing a card for a small temporary boost, and most decks do not benefit from Lotus Petal. ("It's also good with Upheaval," you might be thinking. But Upheaval already wins on its own, so Fastbond is superfluous.)
  • Deathrite Shaman, terror of modern constructed, is a benchwarmer in vintage cube. If your deck has multiple fetches and Strip Mine, it might get you some accel, but it is here worse than Llanowar Elves. If your deck has a long game with many spells and cares about chip damage, it's B ability might be useful. But really its best use is from the sideboard against decks that utilize their own graveyard, such as with reanimation and Snapcaster Mage.

Speaking of the sideboard,

 

Level Seven ♦ Plan for Game 2

A breakthrough moment in your cubing evolution is when you pass a pretty good maindeck card for a very good sideboard card.

It hurts to forego Jace, Architect of Thought, a perfectly playable four-drop. But you will get enough powerful four drops without him. You will not get another Vryn Wingmare if you pass it.

Is Timely Reinforcements a good card? Is it worth maindecking? No. Not even in a go-wide tokens deck. But you'll be glad you have one in Game 2 against red aggro. Also think about ways to hate on graveyard decks, ramp decks (can you kill an elf?), storm decks (discard and counterspells), and Kiki-Jiki decks (sorcery speed removal does not stop an EOT Pestermite).

  

Level Eight ♦ Distinguish between cubes

    Bribery

I've been talking mostly about vintage cube, as that's the one around the corner, but many of the specifics change for different cubes.

  • Vintage cube is about broken things happening quickly. Thoughtseize and Spell Pierce therefore skyrocket in value. In modern, they are merely good.
  • Vintage cube has the best creatures in the game. Bribery is a positive bomb in almost every matchup. In modern, it is merely good.
  • Vintage cube has moxen, signets, and so on in basically every deck. It also has single artifacts and enchantments that win the game on their own if not dealt with. Disenchants are therefore worth maindecking. In modern cube, they sideboard only (and they rarely come out).
  • Pack Rat—a famously broken card in its own limited format. Still great in modern cube. In vintage, barely playable.
  • Thrun, the Last Troll—bad in vintage cube. Good in modern cube.
  • Equipment—It's okay in legacy cube, good in modern cubes, and barely playable in vintage cube. Its best uses in vintage are in white weenie decks and from the sideboard against decks the protection matters against (which are few).
  • Know how prevalent 1-1 removal is in each cube. The less there is, the more desirable fragile creatures are, like Sower of Temptation and Progenitor Mimic.

 

Level Nine ♦ Learn what wheels

Silverblade Paladin    

This takes the longest, and as you can tell if you spend any time reading Twitch chat, most people are terrible at it. But when you spend Pack 1 going mono white, and pack 2 pick 1 forces you to choose between Silverblade Paladin and Swords to Plowshares, both extremely good for your deck, know that Swords is much less likely to make its way back to you. Every deck with white is looking at the Swords; only your aggro decks wants the Paladin.

In a format full of cards that would get p1'd elsewhere, what is still a p1 and what becomes a p8? The only way to get the intuition is to do a lot of reps. Don't only pay attention to the cards for your deck; look at what else you're seeing, and how late.

Know that the rules change in pack 3. Build-around cards like Sneak Attack, Tinker, and Channel get taken very early in pack 1. By the time we're in pack 3, few decks are still interested in those, so you might see one in picks 7 through 10. In pack 1, seeing one even as late as Pick 3 is extremely rare (and quite a powerful sign—if you see one pick 4 in the first pack, drop everything you're doing to accommodate it).

This does not apply to unilaterally powerful cards. Ancestral Recall is still a pick 1 in pack 3. I have literally splashed for it in my red aggro deck because of a pack 3 pick 1.

 

Level Ten ♦ Invent new strategies

    Necropotence

After you're dozens of drafts deep, try something new! Make a weird three color combination of two strategies. Find new uses for cards you regularly see wheeling. Force yourself to play a card you haven't tried before. Cube will amaze you with its depth.

Necropotence is usually not great. But I once had one in a deck with both Demonic Tutor and Enlightened Tutor, meaning I was usually drawing 8 extra cards on Turn 3. I also had Bazaar of Baghdad in there. Pre-Necropotence, it helped me to find a Necropotence, which would undo all the card disadvantage. Post-Necropotence, it was just an extra 2 cards a turn at no real cost. And because I was so regularly paying exorbitant amounts of life, I even had a reason to use Timely Reinforcements in the maindeck!

You may have written off Yawgmoth's Will as a storm-only card, and generally it is. But one time I played it in a deck lucky enough to have both Time Walk and Ancestral Recall. It was extremely good.

 

Thus ends my advice. See you in the queues! Cotton