I wanted to start by thanking everyone who read and especially those that commented or gave feedback on my first article. The positive response was overwhelming and the comments will help me produce better content for you.
One of the hot topics over the past couple of weeks with the release of the latest Magic Online Cube has been Black and specifically: Vampires.
I will get to our fanged friends soon, but let’s talk about a fact of life when it comes to Cube.
One of your colours will end up the best and one the worst. One of the Cube builder’s tasks is to try and narrow that differential. How you do so can vary and I will examine a little further down the page.
Since the inception of Cube, Blue has pretty much been the undisputed best colour, generally reliant on multiple people drafting it to bring it down a peg in decks. Now I am in no way saying a Mono-Blue deck would beat any other Mono-Colour deck, but that card for card it’s just “better”. Plus everyone loves drawing cards and no other colour does that better.
Over time Red has remained pretty consistently good at what it does. White and Green have been at different times thought off as the worst colour. Now ask most people and that distinction goes to Black.
The problems for Black begin when looking at its historical strengths in Magic’s history.
The top three things that come to mind when I think Black are:
In the context of Cube however, these aren’t as good as in Standard Constructed.
1. In Cube, creatures are often hyper efficient: they cost less than the removal spell killing them or they gained big value with their ETB effects (Enter-The-Battlefield). Black removal tends to have restrictions, such as -x/-x or it can’t hit some groups of targets as it gets cheaper to cast. The variety of threats in Cube means the removal may not line up well when you really need it. Lastly and most importantly, creatures have not historically been as powerful as they are today and decks in Cube can be built extremely creature-light while remaining as powerful.
2. Discard is not as good, because Cube decks don’t tend to be leaning hard on any one particular card for their strategy – although you can build around some of them. Each card is pretty high on power level, so taking the best is not that significantly impacting a game. The high power level also means that decks down to living off the topdeck have multiple game-impacting draws.
3. Leading on from the issues with discard, if all your cards are good, it’s less important to find one in particular. Exceptions would be Combo decks like Reanimator. How high you pick [card]Demonic Tutor[/card] is a topic that can be debated for hours, so let me know your thoughts on it in the comments.
These effects are still good in small doses, which is why these still get picked early – but often end up in second colour/splashes. This is why the Mono-Black Aggro decks that were drafted prioritise these spells before taking the creatures that wheel. Contrary to popular belief, if cards wheel it doesn’t mean they are bad. Cards consistently going 14/15 pick can be a valuable data point. As long as they are going into a pile for a player who intends to play them, then they were a desirable draft pick. That person just valued something higher the first go around.
So Black’s traditional strong suites aren’t as good in the context of Cube and that is before we come on to another issue: its creatures.
Herald of Torment
Black is the colour of killing creatures and combo. It’s unsurprising that its creatures do not stack up to White and Green – its traditional enemies in the colour pie – but everyone still seems to want to make Black creature-based decks work on a similar axis.
Black has a multitude of two power one drops. But they all tend to come with a disadvantage such as not being able to block or coming into play tapped, making them far worse than White. They are probably still ahead of Red, but do not have the reach in burn to back them up. From an aggressive point of view, Black’s other early drops leave a lot to be desired with no three power two drops or three drops, that do not come without a downside.
In the midrange battles Black can boast multiple 6/6 fliers at four mana. These also have caveats like [card]Desecration Demon[/card] or even like [card]Abyssal Persecutor[/card] that stops you from winning the game! As my Dragons of Tarkir set review showed, Black five drops didn’t need much to get a boost, but now they have some good options. Once Black hits six mana and more, it has great creatures that can get into play on the cheap with reanimation spells.
Now Black does have some good creatures, 2-4 drops even, but they all have something in common you might notice.
Black has a long tradition of really caring about having a lot of Swamps, from spells like [card]Corrupt[/card] and the iconic [card]Necropotence[/card] to the ability to make that mana in [card]Dark Ritual[/card] and [card]Lake of the Dead[/card].
So Mono-Black must be a great deck then, you say? Well, yes, it can be, if you play all these Black- and [card]Swamp[/card]-focused cards. But guess how many people will want them in their deck in your draft? That’s right: just one – and heaven forbid two people try to do it. The same issue comes up with Storm and Affinity when trying to make them work as Cube archetypes.
For a long time I tried to make Black Aggro a thing in my Cube, but the last pick [card]Carnophage[/card] was becoming a running joke. This is where Randy Buehler (the man behind the current Online Cube list) and I agree: if people are not picking the cards for the decks they are supposed to go in, then change it up and try something new.
Here we are going back to Fanged Friends.
The current iteration of the Magic Online “Legacy” Cube replaced a lot of the underdrafted Black creatures and replaced them with Vampire tribal. I have nothing against tribal – I run a small Goblin subtheme in my Cube for Red. But those things come with problems on their own like:
1. Many of Creatures are bad without a high concentration of Vampires – ([card]Captivating Vampire[/card])
2. Many of the Creatures are bad to help make a high concentration of Vampires – ([card]Vampire Interloper[/card])
3. If two people take early Vampires-matter card, they end up with a very bad deck if they didn’t get out – similarly to the point on heavy Black cards earlier.
Ultimately what happened was the Vampires wheeled like the old Black creatures, but were individually worse – so less people were interested in them. I do not fault Wizards for trying, though I hope that they are removed when the Cube comes back online.
I hinted in my set review at trying to push Zombie tribal a little, but looking to avoid the issues with Vampires. The Zombies that are not seeing play in the Cube already were just too bad to justify. So if not Vampires what have I done in my Cube for Black?
Around the time of the Aristocrats ([card]Cartel Aristocrat[/card]/[card]Falkenrath Aristocrat[/card]) decks in Standard, Sam Black was making a name for himself in all formats by sacrificing for value. Black was getting paired with White, Green and Red to great effect. Cards like [card]Bloodghast[/card], [card]Gravecrawler[/card], and [card]Blood Artist[/card] were showing up everywhere.
It was all these things that brought me to a great insight about Black. Black in Magic is like the LBD (Little Black Dress) in fashion: it’s great value and goes good with everything. So, rather than push for a Black-based creature deck, I considered a Black as a kind of soulbond colour – that worked best when organically paired up with another colour, in decks people were building.
Reanimator (the base Black deck) – with Blue, or Green, or Red
Aggro decks – with Red, Green, or White in token-based decks
Midrange – Abzan and Jund
Control – Esper and Grixis
If this is what people wanted to do with Black, then what I wanted to do was add more cards that would go into these decks. Preferably those that would be attractive to multiple drafters, but I also wanted to give people something unique to do – if they pushed it.
I trimmed the targeting removal to just the very best. [card]Doom Blade[/card] hits more targets than [card]Ultimate Price[/card], especially if you are taking Black creatures, and upped the 187 creatures (creatures that offer ETB effects) with ‘destroy creature’ in their text box such as [card]Nekrataal[/card] and [card]Shriekmaw[/card].
I brought in some token makers like [card]Ophiomancer[/card] and [card]Marsh Flitter[/card], which pushed the token deck. In doing both of these things I increased the number of bodies lying around, which helped me push the sacrifice theme I wanted to introduce. This took those small Black creatures and made them useful fodder for cool things – like killing your opponent.
People were already using [card]Gravecrawler[/card] with [card]Blood Artist[/card] into [card]Goblin Bombardment[/card] – they just were secondary to the main goal of the deck. To make it an archetype there needed to be some redundancy in the pieces, so you could make sure they exist in the packs to start with and that decks could draw them more consistently. The three cards shown above are the next best functionally, quite strong enough individually, and could go in other decks even if they were 22nd/23rd cards.
I trimmed the one and two drops, so that other colours could dip in for later pick aggro cards and keeping the Zombie count high enough for [card]Gravecrawler[/card].
While I pushed a sacrifice theme to “fix” Black, I know some Cube builders have taken it to extremes by having multiple [card]Gravecrawler[/card]s and [card]Bloodghast[/card]s in the Cube – so that the synergies are easier to pick up. I find this a troublesome and worrying path to take as you start on a route to Constructed decks rather than Limited ones and also worry for the diversity of decks. The common argument these builders point to are functional reprint cards – ([card]Searing Spear[/card],[card]Lightning Strike[/card],[card]Incinerate[/card] – that exist already. It’s fair, but they are flexible non-linear kill spells rather than a cool unique effect to play with. And they feel different to me.
In summary I want to leave you with what I consider the ideal Cube card in Black, and please bear with me those who played a lot of Return to Ravnica Sealed or Standard a year ago.
[card]Pack Rat[/card] may have encompassed everything that is bad in recent Constructed, but in Cube it shines along others as powerful as he is:
1. Discard outlet in Reanimator decks
2. Allows you to discard redundant discard and removal spells
3. Individually powerful
4. Good two drop for an Aggro deck
5. Good late drop for a Midrange/Control deck
Also, in Cube there are more on-time answers and sweeper effects to keep the rodent in check from rampaging all over town again.
Black gives Cube builders a lot of options to play around with and each new set usually gives 2-3 new Black cards that can make the cut – especially in the creature slot. So I doubt Black will stay as the worst for long.
Thank you for reading as always I welcome your feedback in any form, format or media.
Community Question: In your opinion, what is generally the best colour in Cube and why?