Tokyo Draft: A Cube Report

I'm dead on the board. My R/U counterburn deck has run out of gas, holding only Empty the Warrens and Lotus Petal while staring down a horde of white creatures from Isamaru all the way up to Serra Angel. Ah well, I'll make a few Goblins for fun... untap, draw Repeal... Well, it won't save me but I can bounce one attacker next turn and dig a card deeper.

Then I see it. Play Lotus Petal, Repeal it (draw Lightning lucky), replay the Petal, Bolt White Knight, Empty for ten Goblins. Enough to swarm over for the win even after next turn's chump blocks.

My opponent untaps, plays Wrath of God destroying his own huge army and mine, then follows up with Sacred Mesa. Ahhhh, Cube draft.

Cube drafting is the best way to play Magic. Blending the excitement and in-depth strategy of booster draft with the complex and entertaining gamestates that result from playing with a Constructed-quality cardpool, it takes a blend of the game's best formats and its best cards and creates a rich play experience that's different every time. A Cube booster pack is also free every time once you've assembled the cards, and will never contain a Pro Player card.

Here's a writeup of a recent 4-man Cube draft I did. It wasn't intended to be the basis for an article when we sat down in a Tokyo coffee shop to play, but thinking about it afterward it offered a perfect snapshot of the format and a useful guide for the newcomer. I have done several 4-man and Winston Cube drafts before, as has my friend and arch draft nemesis Chris; John has recently returned to Magic but has never Cubed (yes, it's a verb!) before and Brian is still learning the game. We're using Brian's Cube, which is 'fully powered' -meaning it contains Black Lotus, Moxen and the like - and composed largely of proxies that are being slowly swapped out for real cards. A lot of players don't like the Power 9 cards in their cubes, fearing that they lead to dull blowouts too often, but I was looking forward to seeing some of the game's most legendary cards in action.

The box on the right explains what Cube is if you've never heard of it before; it also details how we turned an enormous stack of cards into twelve draftable boosters and a slightly less enormous stack of cards.

Maro, First to Explain

For a simple introduction to what Cube is, here's Mark Rosewater himself explaining the format prior to the invitational.

There are many ways to make the 'packs' you draft with once you've assembled a cube; we took a simple approach for this one that yields packs that are reasonably balanced in terms of the number of cards per colour in each, while retaining a degree of randomness that you'd find in an actual sealed booster pack.

We divided the cube into eight stacks: one for each of the colours, one for lands, one for artifacts, and one for gold cards. We then randomly dealt cards from the five monocoloured piles into one stack ('random A') and dealt cards from the final three stacks into another single stack ('random B'). To make the packs we dealt out twelve piles of ten cards containing two cards of each colour. Then each booster was dealt two cards from 'random A' and three from 'random' B. The result is twelve booster packs, each containing two cards of each colour, plus two random monocoloured cards and three cards that could be artifact, land or gold. It's not perfect, but you ensure a reasonable balance of the colours and a high degree of unpredictability as to which cards from the cube made it into the boosters. Head to the forums with your (undoubtedly superior) methods of pack creation, experienced cubers!

The draft opens with the gasps, chuckles and stifled snorts of amusement that regular Cube drafters will be familiar with. Part of the fun is seeing notorious first picks like Mirror Entity or Flametongue Kavu merrily handed round the table as even more broken cards are preferred. The German Control Magic in my cube has also been known to come round 15th pick: experienced Cubers know the value of recognising card art.

Unfortunately there's silence from my corner of the table and not because I'm a master of the poker face. For a Cube pack, this looks like a bit of a dud: there's a Moat, Eternal Witness, an assortment of 8-mana creatures, and some random spells like Reanimate. I take Moat, having a vague notion that it was once restricted or something and must therefore be good even though just looking at it I can tell it's perfectly solvable. The purpose of any moat is to impede attack, the flavour text solemnly informs me.

Next up we have Mind Twist in a pack with some typically solid green creatures and a Molten Disaster. At this point I'm keeping my options open and take Mind Twist, the more easily cast X-spell. Note that in a 4-man draft it's especially worthwhile looking through the rest of the pack since it'll be coming back so soon: here I note the Dauthi Horror I'm passing as a useful 2-drop should I end up building a fast black aggro-disruption deck around Mind Twist.

The third pack is where the draft gets interesting, as I see deep Blue including a Looter il-Kor, Deep Analysis, Tidespout Tyrant, and Rainbow Efreet alongside a solid white 2-drop if I want to play with Moat, and a Dark Ritual for the Mind Twist. On a hunch that Blue is open I grab the Efreet and resolve to monitor the progress of that blue pack.
Next up there's a pack with more strong Green, including a Harmonize and a Mystic Enforcer. I waver for a moment, thinking that G/W might be more viable, but there's a Counterspell in there as well so I stick with Blue and when that third pack comes back with both the Deep Analysis and the Looter still there after I take a useful Oblivion Ring and a Man o'War, my path is set and from then on: I'm just grabbing every card I can get for a U/W control deck

On pack two, I flip over to see Garruk's beady green eyes staring back at me, and despite the fact that he's probably not even good in this format and I've shipped a lot of good green already I'm wavering until I flip to the back of the pack and find Gifts Ungiven. I've never cast it before, but I look forward to misplaying the card immensely, and as it turns out I'll have an opportunity to do just that very soon.

The White's not coming - turns out Brian and John were both using it as a main colour - but I suspect I'm the only base-Blue drafter at the table when Mana Drain comes round third. By the end of the draft I'm almost mono-blue, with White just there to deal with permanents via O-Ring and Fetters and for the potential hilarity of Momentary Blink on Palinchron (into Stroke of Genius. I also snag a Flame Javelin on the grounds that even at 6 mana it's quite a good deal for this type of deck. Maybe it should have been maindeck over Spell Snare, but the Extended favourite was good for me all afternoon. Moat stays in the side with Prison Term since I only want to play three Plains.

Uw controlMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
1 Spell Snare
1 Counterspell
1 Boomerang
1 Mana Drain
1 Momentary Blink
1 Oblivion Ring
1 Gifts Ungiven
1 Gush
1 Deep Analysis
1 Stroke of Genius
1 Faith's Fetters
1 Desertion
1 Pact of Negation
1 Crystal Shard

1 Looter il-Kor
1 Man o'War
1 Willbender
1 Quicksilver Dragon
1 Thieving magpie
1 Chronozoa
1 Rainbow Efreet
1 Palinchron
1 Sakashima, the Impostor

14 Island
3 Plains

1 Moat
1 Flame Javelin
1 Prison Term
1 Phyrexian Processor
1 Waterfront Bouncer
1 Bottle Gnomes

A touch slow, perhaps, and susceptible to beatdown but I've never played with most of these legendary cards before and am already composing hypothetical Gifts piles in my head. What's interesting about Cube is that it forces you to make on-the-fly card evaluations that will often be influenced by a card's reputation: Gush, for example, is a card that I knew to be a defining engine in Vintage but that might be only average in draft without ways to abuse it. Garruk, meanwhile, is a powerhouse in Standard but I thought he'd be outclassed in Cube where some many creatures have evasion to sneak in and damage him. Often when you draft with a new Cube there won't be time for you to flip through the whole thing, but it's important to have a quick look so you can assess the overall power level of the cards and draft accordingly. My own Cube, which mostly consists of Standard staples from Ravnica onwards, plays very differently to the one we're drafting now - as I'm about to find out.

"Highest two rolls play each other?" asks Chris as he casually rolls a 20.

Low, low, low I'm thinking as I roll, knowing that a red deck will be bad for me and I shipped Chris a lot of nasty red cards. Who passes Siege-Gang Commander? But there I go again judging Cube cards like they're in Standard.

Naturally I roll a 20, too, and with the other two players having confirmed that the die isn't loaded Chris and I set to. Before the game starts he reveals he took Ancestral Recall and asks with a grin whether it might be useful in my deck; I guess with four players in a draft it's not that hard to read signals.

I'm on the play and see four Islands, Plains, Gifts, Quicksilver Dragon. Not ideal, especially against the burn deck I'm almost sure he'll be playing, but it has a turn three play and the chance for my first ever Gifts. What the hell, I would definitely mulligan this on the draw but let's see.

Chris plays a turn two Oona's Prowler, and starts beating while I drop the morph only to see it get Bone Shredder-ed then play Gifts at the end of his fourth turn.

He's dropped another beater by then and I've drawn only lands so it's time for my first ever Gifts pile: I get Fetters, O-Ring, Deep Analysis and Stroke of Genius, which was probably not the best call. My thinking at the time was that with an empty hand I needed to get two-for-ones and draw a lot of cards to get back in the game, but as Chris pointed out afterward he was perfectly happy to let me muck about casting draw spells for draw spells while he beat down. A little more Deep Analysis would have also led me to realise that hoping to flashback that card against beatdown was a bad plan. You have my decklist above: What would you get here? Discuss in the forums.

I've deliberately not played a Plains yet so I hope he'll think the white cards are a bluff, but he drops them straight in the bin and I'm resigned to a lame turn five Deep Analysis, pitching excess lands to the Prowler. Sadly the Analysis and its flashback net me only land, and a Crystal Shard that I deploy and use just to buy time.

A ten Yen coin atop the library - the mark of a true pro

Things are looking bleak when Chris drops Hypnotic Specter. I have a Looter il-Kor and a Chronozoa, which is quickly killed, so when the Specter hits I have the choice of playing a Stroke for two cards, or hoping it takes one of the two lands or the topdecked Pact of Negation in hand and then going for a Stroke for six on my own turn. I gamble, lose and I'm left with lands and a Pact.

I draw and play Palinchron on my turn to at least make a game of it, but Chris responds with Slaughter Pact with the untap ability still on the stack (smart move). If I Pact back I'm out of cards and will need to topdeck a creature to survive and give up the one-turn window in which Chris has to pay for his Pact and thus can't use his Trip Noose to tap my Palinchron. If I don't Pact, I save it for what ever he has next but will be knocked down to 1 life and still need a creature off the top. Either way I need to draw some gas, so I Pact his Pact in order to keep my life total up. Just need to draw something that blocks or affects the board…

... And unfortunately Desertion isn't it (and what exactly is going on in that art?), and we're on to game two after my attempts to mind trick Chris into not alpha striking fail.
I sideboard in Bottle Gnomes and Flame Javelin, taking out Deep Analysis (life loss hurts too much against his deck) and Momentary Blink.

Game two starts much more promisingly as Chris goes to six cards and although a Prowler lands on turn two I am able to counter his next few plays (go go Spell Snare, which I should have sided out and therefore did not deserve to snag a turn-three Dauthi Horror with) and then bounce a potentially troublesome Phyrexian Negator with Mana Drain in hand.

Mana Drain lets me stick a Thieving Magpie that gets quickly slaughtered, but I'm moving into the mid-game with a reasonable life total and no real threats on the other side of the board: good news for this deck.

I draw a lot of cards, dealing with the onslaught of creatures and losing a few life points along the way. Chris gets a Skeletal Vampire when I'm out of counterspells, but I'm able to copy it with Sakashima and bounce one of his Bats. Prowler is still getting in there and I can't block it with Chronozoa and shrink it since he has an active Grim Lavamancer to finish my Chronozoa off. Chronozoa is down to one counter by now, so it's up to Chris to force the issue. Eventually he makes an attack that causes a lot of trading, then he wipes the board with an Incendiary Command to leave him with a Skeletal Vampire and me with nothing and 1 life. I play O-ring on the Vampire and Chris, not missing a trick, sacrifices it to Miren, the Moaning Well in response to gain some life.

Although I'm at an extremely modest life total, Chris is very low on cards and I'm feeling like the game may have turned in my favour until he drops Wheel of Fortune and we both refill. I finally use my Desertion on a Mogg War Marshall of all things, and begin to beat down when Chris's refill looks to have been disappointing. I can see how frustrating this is for him: I'm at one life, he's at 14 and here I am plinking away with two Goblin tokens, a morph, and a Looter. I have a Pact in hand and the morph is Willbender, so there's not much Chris can do even though it looks as though any burn spell would win it for him. I have to stop attacking with Looter to avoid decking myself, making the drip-drip-drip trickle to the finish all the more agonizing. When I win the two remaining cards in my library are the Dragon and the Palinchron.

In the third game, I get a good draw with plenty of countermagic and am able to bounce an early Negator again with Man o'War. This time when he replays it I can actually counter with Desertion, but after a brief moment's reflection the thought occurs that this might not be a game-winning play against a burn deck. Instead Man o'War starts getting in for damage while Chris struggles to resolve a creature, and his life total goes 20-18-16-14 before he cracks and uses the Volcanic Hammer he'd been saving for a bigger threat. I play Chronozoa, which ticks down to one counter before it's killed, and then I'm out of gas.

Chris gets a kickered Skizzik (ouch!) which I am able to remove with Oblivion Ring, and then I feel all smug when I later Boomerang my own card to kill the Skizzik and let me re-use the O-Ring.

I get Efreet and Magpie down, but Chris lands Siege-Gang Commander to go with his inevitable Oona's Prowler. "They say if you untap with Siege-Gang in play and lose you're a fool," he says with a somewhat resigned tone… either this is a master bluff or he doesn't have much in hand since the board looks good for him. I have a Flame Javelin in hand that could kill it, but he's at 7 and if I can just smuggle 3 damage through somehow I can burn him out by tapping six Islands which ought to come as a bit of a shock.

Chris swings with the team and I declare no blocks, which looks to have been a mistake when he ninjas in Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni, returning Siege-gang Commander and putting a Chronozoa into play on his side. Now he has two tapped Goblin tokens, tapped Ink-Eyes and Oona's Prowler, an untapped Chronozoa, and Siege-Gang Commander in hand with plenty of lands in play and my life total below 10. Looks bad.

I try to look as defeated as possible and sort of nudge my Efreet into the red zone muttering about futile attacks, futility, no need to block, just a humble 3 damage, etc. Chris surveys the board… considers the massive amounts of damage he can do next turn… and lets it through. I display my mastery of deadpan by starting to grin before damage is on but it's too late, I tap six Islands and drop the Flame Javelin on the table.

"Never trust a grinning Larry," says Chris, and sportingly offers the shake straight away despite what must have been two very frustrating defeats.

The waitress who's been hovering by our table moves in, initially I think to ask Chris whether he might have gained a strategic advantage by more aggressive use of Siege-Gang tokens, but in fact to ask politely whether we might order more drinks considering he and I have been playing for over 90 minutes and had one coffee each.

"She's been working up the courage to ask that for half an hour or so," notes Brian, but I like to think she was merely appreciating the finer points of a classic red-on-blue matchup.

It turns out Chris first-picked Ancestral Recall from the same pack that had Harmonize, calculating with ruthless logic that paying U to draw three is better than paying 2GG. He was aiming for a Blue/Black control deck until my relentless forcing of Blue to his right became apparent at the same time he realised Red was wide open, so he switched into B/R and never looked back. In Cube, it's vital not to just draft a pile of good cards: the best decks have a plan, and it's important to have an idea of what archetype you're aiming for as you progress. For instance, I knew that U/W control can get blown out before it sets up, and therefore prioritised stall and lifegain cards like Bottle Gnomes and Faith's Fetters.

Chris's deck, which went on to a 2-1 record:

R/B aggro-controlMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
1 Slaughter Pact
1 Seal of Fire
1 Trip Noose
1 Terror
1 Volcanic Hammer
1 Incendiary Command
1 Death Cloud

1 Grim Lavamancer
1 Oona's Prowler
1 Dauthi Horror
1 Mogg War Marshall
1 Nightscape Familiar
1 Bone Shredder
1 Hypnotic Specter
1 Changeling Beserker
1 Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
1 Siege-Gang Commander
1 Puppeteer Clique
1 Skizzik
1 Kamahl, Pit Fighter
1 Skeletal Vampire
1 Crypt Angel

1 Vigor Mortis

1 Miren, The Moaning Well
8 Swamp
8 Mountain

Poor John and Brian have had time to finish their match, order extra coffees, play some friendly games and read a Russian novel apiece by the time our match ends so we jump straight into the next one. Unfortunately, after that epic match the next two are anticlimactic quick victories for me, so rather than recap them I'll discuss the decks and how the draft went for each player.

John began by taking some of the strong green creatures that were lapping the table, and when I passed him Garruk in the second pack he settled into a G/W midrange deck that looked to beat down hard:

G/W BeatsMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
1 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
1 Eight-and-a-Half-Tails
1 Basking Rootwalla
1 White Knight
1 Epochrasite
1 Benalish Knight
1 Simian Grunts
1 Mirror Entity
1 Eternal Witness
1 Intrepid Hero
1 Chameleon Colossus
1 Changeling Titan
1 Baru, Fist of Krosa
1 Vigor
1 Arashi, the Sky Asunder
1 Phantom Nishoba

1 Crusade
1 Sacred Mesa
1 Stonewood Invocation
1 Garruk Wildspeaker
1 Primal Command
1 Hurricane

1 Sol Ring
1 Deathrender

1 City of Brass
8 Plains
8 Forest

In the two games we played, I was able to play the tempo game and bounce John's creatures while applying pressure - Waterfront Bouncer was an all-star - but looking at the decklist it seems like I might have been a bit lucky. He certainly has the creature base to pose a serious early threat and Arashi and Hurricane would have been hell on my army of fliers in the late game. Crusade + Sacred Mesa is a neat little interaction, and this is the perfect deck for Primal Command as well. ‘Zeroth-pick' Sol Ring aside, however, he is a little short on mana acceleration: Cube is generally a fast format, and ‘fair' decks like this one that seek to win by beating down with large creatures need to get those big men into play as quickly as possible.

Brian pointed at his deck and says "snowball" and then my deck and says "hell" before our games, and so it proved. Rather than play out the second we took Brian's deck apart and examined where he might have done better in the drafting and building: I think when you're trying to help newer players improve their game this sort of exercise is much more useful than playing out one-sided games.

B/W/r Mana and MonstersMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
1 Martyr of Sands
1 Soul Warden
1 Withered Wretch
1 Stromgald Crusader
1 Spectral Lynx
1 Royal Assasin
1 Avatar of Discord
1 Hollowsage
1 Graven Dominator
1 Twilight Shepherd
1 Myojin of Cleansing Fire
1 Yosei, the Morning Star
1 Desolation Angel

1 Shock
1 Burn Trail

1 Mox Sapphire
1 Reanimate
1 Dark Ritual
1 Seal of Doom
1 Griffin Guide
1 Devouring Light
1 Phthisis
1 Profane Command

1 Tendo Ice Bridge
1 Godless Shrine
1 Gemstone Mine
1 Sulfurous Springs
1 Desert
6 Plains
6 Swamp

Brian has a collection of mana sources to die for and an impressive array of enormous, game-dominating creatures for the late game, but with Chris to his right and John to his left snatching up Black and White weenies respectively, he ended up short both on playables and cheap men for the early game. He told me that he first-picked the Mox, then took a string of big bomb creatures before correctly becoming worried about mana curve and taking some smaller red and black men. With Chris to his right in exactly the same R/B strategy that didn't work out, Brian was left with an unexciting red splash for Burn Trail and Shock and plenty of green mana fixers but no other reason to play the colour. Amusingly, he has Llanowar Elves and Birds of Paradise sitting in his sideboard, exactly the two accelerants John on his right desperately needed…

It's a small sample size to draw any hard-and-fast rules from, but I think one thing the two more successful decks (mine and Chris's) had in common was unity of purpose. Mine played draw-go and looked to win with a flier once the coast was clear; Chris's looked to murder each and every creature that hit the board while applying pressure with efficient threats. It's easy in Cube to be distracted by great cards in your colours, but it's important to try and develop a plan for the deck as you go. The best Cube decks can look like highlander versions of famous Constructed decks from formats past, and that's half the fun of the format. If you've ever wanted to use a fifteenth-pick Bog Hoodlums to scalp yourself and then spoon out your own brain in disgust at the atrocious cards going round the table in conventional draft formats, then Cube is for you. It's free (once you have the cards), ever-evolving, fun, and good for your play skills, too.

If you're interested in learning more about Cube, here's a few useful links:

Tom LaPille's Cube - LaPille, who recently got a job at Wizards, has been one of the format's foremost proponents for a long while and his list is a great example of a powerful Cube.

The 2007 Invitational Cube List

MTG Salvation's Cube Discussion Forum - Discussion about Cube lists, various ways of Cube drafting, and our own 8-way forum draft.

Evan Erwin's - A useful basic introduction to building and playing your first Cube


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