Editor's Note: Comment Thread can be found here.
If we go by the date on the opening post of my cube thread, I've been cubing for two years now. And in all that time, I've worked my way through the database of all common cards again and again, constantly evaluating them, reevaluating them, and comparing them to cards I already play with. Even writing this now makes me realise that I haven't quite done it in recent months, and I start itching to go through another list. Maybe multicolor cards in anticipation of our Return to Ravnica.
You know what, give me a minute.
So the question is, why? Why spend all this time sorting through cards you’ve already seen, that you either know you're playing or know why you don't? Doesn't it get boring after the second or third time? The answer is a fundamental reason why I love cube management, which I can sum up in one word: discovery.
Because the truth is, we haven’t found all of the cubeworthy cards out there yet. There are a lot of commons out there, and we’re merely human.
When you find a card that somehow works despite your initial misgivings, it's a strange feeling of elation. It's like you've discovered a secret that is yours. The analogy I want to make is Alex Hayne's Miracles that blew away Pro Tour Avacyn Restored. One of the key cards in his Miracle-choked deck was a full set of Feeling of Dread, which no one suspected would even make a dent in the format. It payed off, and it was awesome.
They're even cubeable!
It lets you take a step back and wonder, "Why? Why didn't I see it before?" Each discovery makes you better at evaluating cards and understanding the nuances of the format as a whole. And once you start finding these cards to play in your cube, the cube itself becomes more interesting, more varied, and more fun to play. Like I said before, it becomes more yours.
So, in the interest of spreading the joy, let's run through some underrated cards that will enrich your cube. Before we start, I have to thank Rubin for helping me gather this list.
When a clearly terrible ability like pure damage prevention becomes playable, I sob with joy. And it's also because pure damage prevention is so bad most of the time that cards like Embolden slip through the radar.
A lot of things make Embolden good, but by far the biggest is flashback, which is one amazing mechanic. The flashback cost is very cheap, allowing you to keep open mana for it easily, which is a big deal when considering purely reactive spells like Embolden. Embolden’s flexibility with splitting the damage prevetion among multiple targets also means that it can be used to give you an edge in many different situations.
Embolden isn’t bad the first time you cast it, maybe gaining you 4 life during a combat step or blowing out an opponent by turning what he thought was trades into chumps. It's already fair, but just not cubeable for the cost, especially because you need to hold up mana to cast it.
But the magic happens when it's in your graveyard. When your opponent knows you have it available, what can they do? They have to either work their way around it or force it out and in general waste time getting around a card that has already done a good job for you already.
Another interesting point is how well Embolden quashes burn. Burn decks normally possess an unbeatable late game, and Embolden gives control another measure of defence beside counterspells to beat them. Because of these, Embolden has a role as sideboard material even when it’s not making the main deck. And burn decks are very powerful, so I enjoy adding in one or two cards that really gets in their way.
HM: Totem-Guide Hartebeest
You wouldn't expect a 5 mana 2/5 to be powerful, but tutors are powerful, and there are so many Pacifism-effects in cube that it almost always draws you a removal spell (although note that you can’t find Oblivion Ring or Journey to Nowhere with it). Plus, a 2/5 is a defensive body out of reach of burn that eats 2/2s. When combined with the removal it draws for their largest guy, the Hartebeest is just a strong curve-topper for the control deck and a great topdeck for losing situations.
Plus, I’m always looking for ways to make Armadillo Cloak more hilarious.
This is where the fun is at.
This is only an honorable mention because, while it was fairly underrated a while ago, it seems like the cats gotten out of the bag. If you haven't tried him out, take a look at your white removal suite and maybe reconsider.
There are some sweet blue creatures in cube, from the powerhouse Mulldrifter to the tempo-tastic Man-o'-War. Amidst this stiff competition, I consider Thalakos Scout to be in the Top 5 of blue's creatures - which is pretty damn good for a card I see missing out on a fair number of cubes.
Let's break it down: it's an aggressive, nigh-unblockable creature that can basically never die. While it seems like it would fit well into the curve of a tempo deck, in control decks with a lot of card draw and desperate need for inevitability, Thalakos Scout is the perfect finisher — especially because it can come down early and start applying pressure. And yes, I did just say finisher. Even if you’re just slightly ahead, similar life totals and a few more cards in your hand than your opponent, Scout will just wipe the floor with them.
Additionally, Thalakos Scout fits in a lot of different decks, and that's a real boon in the color that many people would like to see branch off from just control.
Might I start this by saying that, while Mulldrifter and Errant Ephemeron may be the sickest blue creatures in Pauper cube, but Wingcrafter is by far my favourite. And I’ll be the first to admit that this might be my own personal preferences shouting loudly here, but Wingcrafter has impressed me again and again.
The biggest thing going for Wingcrafter is its cheap cost. It is effectively a Kitesail, for 1 mana and 0 equip cost. Wingcrafter comes down turn 1 for some early, if insignificant, beats, but its real function shows itself when you start giving evasion to your more expensive creatures down the line and suddenly outclass your opponents arsenal with evasive 3/4s and 4/4s. There are so many creatures on the higher end of the curve that just become ridiculous with evasion, and Wingcrafter does it for 1 mana.
I sound a bit overenthusiastic, but you’d be too after the fifth time you drafted it with Ninja of the Deep Hour.
I'll just leave this here.
I'll admit, black was an interesting one to do. I actually had a lot of trouble gathering up candidates for this; everything good has already been found, and everything sick is well known and well documented. On the other hand, there are two or three cards that I can name on the tip of my tongue that is drastically overrated. So maybe the undiscovered nuances for this color is inside the cube and not outside.
I wonder what that says about black as a color.
In the end I decided to talk about that I feel, while appreciated, just isn't appreciated enough. Even my own gut feeling has its grievances of this card. But I never cease to play it, and it always does a solid job.
I think a part of it is that Crippling Fatigue just seems underwhelming. -2/-2 is just shy of Last Gasp, which itself isn't even that strong; it doesn't kill Nessian Courser and sometimes those kind of things are what's killing you. Continuing with the Last Gasp comparison, is pretty expensive and very color intense for a lesser effect, and so is and 3 life. Together it doesn't add to a good image.
But if that were true, I wouldn’t be talking about it now, would I?
2-for-1 removal is strong. Really strong. Killing two 2/2s is usually well worth the five mana and 3 life that you pour into Crippling Fatigue. The power of the 2-for-1 should never be underestimated, and Fatigue proves that every card capable of both removing creatures and netting you card advantage should always be given a look, and perhaps a chance.
HM: Vault Skirge
One of my basic prejudices in Magic, almost exclusive bred by early days of Pauper cubing, is the insignificance of 1/1s. For this reason I am often very sceptical of trying 1/1s.
For a lot of cards, I've found this to be valid. Dragon Fodder, for example, I like a lot less than a generic red 2/2 bear like Goblin Furrier (which, I might add, is a depressingly reasonable addition for red 2-drops. I mean, that’s just a sign of how desperate red 2-drops are.) But recently, with cards like Doomed Traveler and Wingcrafter showing off their power, I've had to revise my dislike of 1/1s. But I don't think any cards does it as well as Vault Skirge has.
By itself, Vault Skirge is just a cheap evasive flier that will make it into most aggro decks I play by virtue of its phyrexian mana cost. But because of the flying + lifelink combination, Vault Skirge is one of the best candidates for cards like Bonesplitter or Vulshok Morningstar. Hell, even a Leonin Scimitar or Sylvok Lifestaff (now that's a combo) does good work. Sometimes a Vault Skirge on turn one will gain you five or so life, while an unprepared opponent scrambles to deal with everything you play from turn two onwards.
Only an honourable mention because, well, it’s not really nuts. It can be lacklustre, but the times it shines really do justify it.
I live for the part of the Venn Diagram where 2-for-1s intersect with 1 mana.
Red is burn city, and when you compare Lava Dart with powerhouses like Chain Lightning or Firebolt, Lava Dart seems pretty bad. Cute, even. But let’s see what Lava Dart offers:
1. 2-for-1 Removal.
Wait. Weren’t we just saying that these things were awesome?
Let's play with some numbers. In my cube of 360 cards, there are 174 creatures. 67 of them have 1 toughness, which means roughly 38% of creatures in my cube will fall to a lowly Lava Dart. That's not bad, although the real number's a little bit lower since we're including cards like Cenn's Enlistment and Sprout Swarm. And that's not to think about the situations when Lava Dart plays like a Mogg Fanatic and adds that lethal point of damage in conjunction with another burn or during a chump-turned-trade. And the gravy is that it lets you do it twice.
Something looks familiar...
There's a vital difference here that means I play with Lava Dart and not Geistflame: cost. Geistflame in total costs 5 times more mana to use, and by turn 4, that second 1 damage will be much less impacting. With Lava Dart, you sacrifice a land, but lands become meaningless after the fifth or sixth in a red deck. And after the first kill, you never have to hold up even 1 mana for it again, which makes it a lot easier to pair Lava Dart with cards like Crippling Fatigue (=D) or Incinerate.
Red has a lot of burn, and an insane amount of 1 mana spells. But Lava Dart still stands shoulder to shoulder with Lightning Bolt, because it can just dominate games for one red mana and a land.
HM: Fault Riders
Soon enough we're going to run out of lands.
Not a lot of people like Fault Riders’s ability; after all, sacrificing lands is non-sustainable and can really hurt your development. But when you're trading a land for their creature, things get a lot better, and you can swing him in safe in the knowledge that your opponents won't block. When he gets in, you don't even have to spend that land at all and just be happy with your 2 damage.
Fault Riders is strong because of what he represents: he could become a 4/2 first striker at any time. And because your opponent must always play with it in mind, you don't really ever need to activate it. Fault Riders can hold back creatures on the defence all day without ever costing you a land.
I absolutely hate Browbeat with a passion, but it's got some wise flavor text — even the threat of power itself has power. And while Fault Riders doesn't always have 4 power, that doesn't mean the threat of it won't get you a ton of value.
Fault Riders, a surprisingly strong creature. Try him out!
Quirion Ranger" target="blank">Quirion Ranger
Here’s a secret: this place wasn’t made for Quirion Ranger when I first wrote the draft of this article. Utopia Vow was my underrated card for green. But then I discovered this card during editting, and it is turning out to be quite strong. So yes, if you didn’t believe me that there are still awesome cards to find out there? Bam.
The first game we ever had to see Quirion Ranger in action was as such:
Turn 1: Forest, Arbor Elf.
Turn 2: Tap Forest, play Quirion Ranger, tap Arbor Elf ( ), activate the Ranger to untap the Elf and bounce the land, play Forest again, tap Forest and Elf ( ), River Boa, Wild Dogs.
I was on the receiving end of that. It wasn’t fun, but at the same time, it was bloody brilliant. Frankly, his entire deck was the optimal list to utilize Quirion Ranger, with Adventuring Gear, Steppe Lynx and Vulshok Gauntlets (Damn.) You can call me biased from that first experience.
Now I suppose I have to go about giving a critical, non-biased appraisal of Quirion Ranger. That shouldn’t be hard.
Vigilance to all your creatures is weirdly good. Potentially making mana with your bounced land by playing it again is sometimes relevant. Playing it with a Llanowar Elves seems, as you might have seen above, almost like cheating. But the main factor that is really working in the Ranger’s favour is how cheap it is. For something you can lay down on turn one, it changes the way the game works in fundamental ways. That's pretty good for a one drop.
And lastly, it’s just so damn fun. It promotes all these interactions, like you can see above, that just make the cube a more awesome place to play.
HM: Utopia Vow" target="blank">Utopia Vow
At first, Utopia Vow looks like a vastly inferior Pacifism, and it's not surprising — after all, there is no white mana in the top right.
But the key word is "green" removal spell. One of my favourite responses to the question "Why doesn't green get removal?" is "They do get removal. It's called bigger creatures." Sometimes that works, but not always.
Green can always use another removal spell. Sometimes it needs it so much that giving even the control deck another mana source to reach their expensive spells is just worth it. Utopia Vow is unconditional and, if Path to Exile has taught us anything, a land is rarely worth a creature.
HHM: Silhana Ledgewalker" target="blank">Silhana Ledgewalker
For those of us who persist, who don their ledgewalkers with the curse of vampirism or cloaks of armadillo skin, I salute thee brothers. We are few, but we are legion.
Probably the only card that I'll give my seal of approval for without actually playing him in my cube, and I rile against the fact every day.
Shadow Guildmage is more unknown than underrated. For a 1-mana pinger, an equivalent to a Fireslinger, Shadow Guildmage is one of the best cards at commons. Pingers get overrated a lot, as noted by such cubists such as Usman Jamil, but a 1-mana pinger is still exactly that — 1 mana for the opportunity to simply cut through your opponent's early drops. Shadow Guildmage is a card that needs to be played.
Except for the people who, under the strain of their overbearing perfectionism, can't help but notice that second ability above it. It's Grixis, the voice in their heads whisper; it's better in the decks that can save their own creatures from removal with that than simply in the deck.
Even though it's not very good and costs you another card.
I'm one of these people, and it's almost entirely because of Shadow Guildmage alone that I want to mess with my cube structure to get it a place. And when a card makes you reconsider the very basis of your cube's structure, that has to be worth a look.
HM: Deft Duelist
Deft Duelist left my cube for a while, but once I started paying more attention to the way decks played, I realized that it might deserve a place again. I think Deft Duelist is exactly the kind of card that all variants of wants — difficult to deal with for any deck, and just ruling combat in the early stages of the game. Personally, I play a lot of for… some… reason, and while I’ve yet to draft the Duelist in any of them, I’ve folded many games to aggro decks that would’ve broken themselves against a 2-power first-striking roadblock.
What they never told you in Magic Theory 101 is that repeated life gain attached to a useful ability is the sickness. I consider Pristine Talisman the 4th best colorless card, and that doesn't sound that impressive, but it starts becoming more significant when you realize 1 to 3 are Vulshok Morningstar, Bonesplitter and Serrated Arrows.
I've played against Pristine Talisman more times than I can count, and every single time it landed I've groaned. Against aggro, it makes the game an uphill battle, and against control, it lets you play your finishers faster than they can while simultaneously improving your chances with every turn that drags on.
I think that people look at Pristine Talisman and think it's perfectly fine; some people add it without expecting much, while others just play other mana rocks and don't bat an eyelid. But if I'm even slightly in the need for ramp, I would take Pristine Talisman over Darksteel Ingot every single time. Even if I'm playing 5 Color.
Out of all the underrated cards of this list, this is the one I’ve in love with the most. Play it, love it.
HM: Sylvok Lifestaff
I feel like eventually I'm going to start sounding like a broken record. Repeated lifegain attached to a useful effect turns out to be very strong again? Well, yes. Sylvok Lifestaff is cheap and a great inclusion in aggro decks, allowing small creatures to trade up while gaining you 3 to 9 life in the course of the average game. LSV once said, and I really like this comment for its truth, "You want lifegain, you just can't spend a card on it." When you start playing against a Sylvok Lifestaff, you start realizing how much steeper the hill gets.
It's also a nice trump for a deck in the aggro v aggro matchup, allowing one player to really get ahead in a way other than Who Drew The Most Burn.
I began this article talking about how discovering underrated cards improves your card evaluation. When we start playing, we take in all these generalisations and advice that simplifies this extremely complex and amazing game known as Magic: the Gathering. We learn simple things like disregarding pure lifegain or 0-power creatures as a rule, and because of it, some cards get lost by the wayside.
There's a story I still think of wistfully about my M13 prerelease. I remember looking over the spoilers during the week before and just scrolling past Touch of the Eternal with faint disapproval. When I went to my LGS on the day with my friends, I audibly groaned when I cracked on and put it in my junk pile.
It wasn't until later, when I read LSV's set review on white talking about its potential to simply win games, that I stopped and have to reconsider why I never even gave it a second look. I’m not saying that Touch of the Eternal is at all broken or bomby in M13 Limited, but somehow my prejudice against life gain just completely shut me down when I looked over this pure lifegain card. I didn’t even give it a chance.
And remember, this was a fairly recent event, so I still have a way to go.
I think that's one of the best things about managing a cube: over time, as you try new cards, surprises like the ones I've talked about break down these generalisations and give you a more sensitive, case-by-case appreciation of power level. The Internet has risen as an amazing platform for discussion and helping improving card evaluation; hell, that's exactly what I'm doing to you right now. But there's real value in trying cards out for yourself, to play with your cube and cards that pique your interest. Before you can know what cards are surprisingly powerful in your cube, you need to know what exactly your cube environment is at all, and no amount of discussion or reading can assist you there.
I do believe that there are still cards out there, like undiscovered territory, the banners stuck in the earth with the sprawling words "Here be dragons." It's why I still stop and check myself whenever a common is reprinted, or when discussion in some other area of Magic, like EDH or Modern, covers commons. That's why I'm so fascinated by old draft formats, and what were the shining gems there that I never had a chance to try. That’s why I’m here, trying to make future discoverers out of you all.
There are a lot of things between heaven and earth. We’ll playtest them all eventually.