(Almost) Everything You Need to Know About Drafting the MTGO Vintage Cube, A Beginner’s Guide by George Alexander Miles
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year”
That’s right, the time Vintage Cube comes to Magic Online! For many cube devotees, the Vintage Cube is the pinnacle of drafting fun. But for those who aren’t used to it, Vintage Cube can be a daunting experience. All those old, crazy cards. All those combos. All that power! If you’ve never drafted Vintage Cube before, then you’re in luck, because Rob Catton has a primer at hand, right here at Manaleak.com.
But Rob’s article is two years old now, and since then there have been a few changes. Some cards have been added to the cube, some have been removed, and the Magic Online cube metagame has shifted a bit, to the extent that I (controversially) suggested that Mono-white aggro, a deck Rob dismissed as unplayable, was now actually pretty good. And now, even LSV who forces blue in all cubes at all times, considers it with a grudging respect.
As a result, I thought I’d throw in some of my own musings on Cube as a bit of a re-primer for drafting the format. If you’re a seasoned Cube drafter, I’m sure you know all this, but if you’re thinking of drafting Vintage Cube but aren’t sure where to start, then hopefully this will help. A quick disclaimer: Vintage Cube is a deep format, so I won’t be able to cover everything.
Me and cube
I first learned about cube a few years ago when friend, limited aficionado and all-round good guy Mark Aylett introduced me to his cube. It was more of a ‘Legacy cube’ power level, but a heck of a lot of fun. After that, I’ve drafted every iteration of cube on Magic Online whenever I’ve had the chance, including 30-40 drafts of the Vintage Cube each time it’s been available for the last couple of years.
What is Vintage Cube?
Also known as Holiday Cube or Powered Cube, it’s a draft format containing some of the most powerful cards ever printed, including Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall and Sol Ring.
In a usual draft format, your deck with be comprised mainly of creatures with a few removal spells and combat tricks thrown in. That isn’t necessarily what you want to do in Vintage Cube. Instead, you should aim to put together something that’s close to a constructed deck archetype such as Combo, Control, Reanimator, Ramp, or Aggro. That means that cards that would normally be first picks in draft like Doom Blade, Wrath of God or Thragtusk might not be as good as you’d think in Vintage Cube.
A lot of pros and streamers love Vintage Cube, so there are a load of great videos available on YouTube with LSV, Reid Duke, Paul Cheon, Numotthenummy and others drafting the format. These are great tools to become familiar with Vintage Cube and are also a lot of fun to watch.
On Magic Online, Vintage Cube costs 100 player points to enter, and you don’t get to keep the cards at the end. BUT, if you go 2-1 in a swiss draft, you get 100 player points back, so you can just keep drafting for free if you win 2 out of 3 matches.
My plan here is to start with a general approach to drafting Vintage Cube. Then talk about a few of the most common archetypes to draft, including a few cards to look out for, and finally a few fun little interactions to be aware of as you go. This is going to be a bit of a whistle-stop tour since there are a lot of archetypes and things to cover, but if you’re interested in a bit more depth on certain strategies, then try LSV’s Ultimate Guides.
A general approach to drafting the MTGO Vintage Cube
When drafting the MTGO Vintage Cube, and drafting cube in general, the most important strategic advice I can give is “draft decks, not cards”. I alluded to this above when I mentioned aiming for a constructed archetype. That means you should be on the lookout for cards which signal which archetypes are open, rather than which colours are open. Some examples:
- Lion’s Eye Diamond, Yawgmoth’s Will, Tendrils of Agony – Storm combo is open.
- Reanimate, Entomb, Griselbrand – Reanimator is open
- Joraga Treespeaker, Noble Hierarch, Primeval Titan – green ramp is open.
Additionally, since the power level of cards is so high, having good and consistent mana is more important. So pick mana fixing, especially dual lands and fetch lands, higher than you think. I will often pick a partially or entirely off-colour dual or fetchland in a pack without very good options for my deck, with the plan to use them to fix my mana or enable a splash later in the draft.
Finally, cheap interaction, mana fixing and deck manipulation are all better than they look, because there are so many good things you can do with 4+ mana. So pick Signets, Dual Lands, Ponder, Remand and similar cards highly, because having nothing to do in the early turns will lead to you losing the game a lot of the time.
Archetypes supported in the MTGO Vintage Cube
Do you enjoy puzzles? Do you enjoy taking long, complicated turns? Do you enjoy drawing cards? Then Storm Combo is for you.
Storm Combo is arguably the poster child for Vintage Cube, and it’s for a good reason. It’s probably the most degenerate thing you can be doing in Vintage Cube, with some decks capable of winning on turn 1, Storm wins by casting a number of spells in the same turn to abuse the Storm mechanic.
In order to cast several spells in one turn, you need two things: cards and mana. Therefore, Storm Decks will start with a combination of Rituals (Lion’s Eye Diamond, Dark Ritual, Cabal Ritual), Untap effects (Time Spiral, Turnabout, Palinchron, Frantic Search), and card drawing, typically with ‘Draw Sevens’ (Timetwister, Wheel of Fortune, Time Spiral, Memory Jar). They may use cards which ensure untap effects create more mana (Heartbeat of Spring, High Tide) or cast cards which allow them to re-use rituals (Yawgmoth’s Will, Regrowth).
After doing all this, enough spells should have been cast to ensure that Tendrils of Agony or Brain Freeze wins the game.
As a result of its power, Storm is a popular and difficult deck to draft, which makes it a real challenge but also a pleasure once you get it right. Storm is a high-risk strategy to draft because of its linear nature; several of the cards you want are not good in other decks, and the whole deck needs to be dedicated to the strategy in order for it to work.
Therefore it’s often a good idea to take more flexible cards early such as fast mana or card drawing spells, and then move in on Storm if you start to see the rituals and win conditions a few picks later.
How to beat this deck: Disruption + a clock will usually do the trick. Since Storm is so linear, it rarely has room for much interaction. So if you play an aggressive creature which also gives them trouble (such as Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or Eidolon of the Great Revel), there’s not much they’ll be able to do about it. Countering key spells can work too. Sometimes you just need to prevent a Yawgmoth’s Will or a Time Spiral to stop the combo in its tracks.
One of the most popular Vintage Cube archetypes due to its flexibility and power if the pieces are there. The basic strategy is to use a large number of mana-producing artifacts to power out game winning spells quickly. There are a few variants of this strategy, but they all rely on getting a lot of mana artifacts.
Those artifacts tend to get picked highly by almost everyone, since they tend to be good in a wide range of archetypes – but only you need them in large quantities. So my advice is to pick mana artifacts early and often, since once you have a lot of mana, the expensive spell you win with is almost academic.
As I briefly mentioned before, there are a few variants on the artifact deck.
- Tinker – Tinker is a broken card in a deck rich with artifacts to sacrifice, allowing you to get a game-winning artifact threat onto the table way ahead of schedule. The best targets to find with Tinker are ones that are very hard to kill, disrupt the opponent, win quickly, or are fairly easy to cast and powerful on their own. That means the top targets in the Vintage Cube are Blightsteel Colossus, Sundering Titan, Inkwell leviathan, Myr Battleshpere and Wurmcoil Engine. Sphinx of the Steel Wind, Mindslaver and Duplicant can all work well too, but I don’t consider them to be as powerful as the previous options.
- Daretti, Scrap Savant/Goblin Welder recursion – Daretti and Welder both allow you to sacrifice an artifact to return an artifact from your graveyard to the battlefield. You can use this ability to cheat powerful artifacts into play early in the game by discarding them first, but also allows you to re-use artifacts turn after turn, provided you have enough fodder to sacrifice. These guys enable shenanigans like activating Mindslaver multiple turns in a row, using Duplicant to exile the opponent’s threats repeatedly, drawing a load of cards with Hedron Archive, or simply getting more mana out of ‘stay-tapped’ artifacts like Mana Vault or Grim Monolith. If you’re running this strategy then Academy Ruins can be a useful addition, as it enables you to take your opponent’s turn every turn with Mindslaver if you can get to 13 mana.
- Prison – use mana artifacts to get ahead on mana before locking your opponent out with with ‘symmetrical’ effects like Wildfire, Upheaval or Balance. The end result should leave you ahead on mana and still able to cast spells, while the opponent is crippled. A sub-variant here is Stax, using Smokestack, Lodestone Golem et al to restrict the opponent’s ability to play Magic.
Feel free to combine these variants – it’s perfectly possible to run Tinker alongside Daretti and Wildfire, as long as you make the appropriate concessions when deckbuilding.
How to beat this deck: destroy their artifacts, or counter their key spells. An artifact ramp deck devotes a lot of cards to making mana, and so often doesn’t have as many threats – so if you can deal with those then you have a good chance to win, as long as you can kill them before they topdeck something broken. Ancient Grudge and Fiery Confluence are great at blowing up artifacts, while Mana Drain is an absolute beating.
Reanimator allows you to put incredibly powerful creatures onto the battlefield as early as the first turn, by getting them into the graveyard before casting spells like Reanimate or Animate Dead. Reanimator tends to be blue/black, but variants include mono-black (largely to improve the mana) or black-green (with Survival of the Fittest).
Reanimator can play as a combo deck, aiming to pull this off as soon as possible, or operate as a ‘reanimator package’ in another archetype, since it isn’t quite as linear as a deck such as Storm or Ramp. Because you do have to invest resources (sometimes up to 3 cards) in reanimating your creature, choosing ones which are either resistant to removal (such as Inkwell Leviathan or Iona, Shield of Emeria), creatures which can recoup lost card advantage (Griselbrand or Consecrated Sphinx) or creatures which disrupt the opponent (Terastodon/Woodfall Primus/Sundering Titan) work best.
A reanimator deck needs a core of the following:
- Enablers – these cards get your creatures into the graveyard from either your hand or library. Entomb is the best of these.
- Win Conditions – these are the powerful creatures you want to reanimate.
- Reanimation spells – cards which cheaply put the creatures into play from the graveyard.
These are usually joined by tutors (to get the pieces together), hand disruption, counterspells, card drawing and removal. A couple of variants of this strategy exist:
- Using powerful Eldrazi with Annihilator in combination with Shallow Grave or Corpse Dance to kill the opponent in one hit.
- Having a minor reanimator sub-theme, containing only creatures which are easier to cast like Grave Titan, Consecrated Sphinx or Wurmcoil Engine in a blue/black controlling deck.
- Recurring Nightmare, which is a slower value deck which will use its creatures to gain value and disrupt the opponent with Recurring Nightmare to reanimate them over and over again. Creatures like Shriekmaw, Mulldrifter and Woodfall Primus work great here. This deck is very strong in Legacy Cube but less potent (since it’s slower) in Vintage Cube. However, it matches up well against creature decks due to the amount of two-for-ones available to the strategy.
- Splashing red for Sneak Attack and/or Through the Breach to put these bombs into play directly from the hand. Emrakul , the Aeons Torn and Blightsteel Colossus can win out of nowhere, Woodfall Primus will persist back into play, and Griselbrand can still draw a boatload of cards.
How to beat this deck: Since the deck needs the right pieces to come together, the deck is capable of losing to itself by drawing only the creatures and not the reanimation spells, for example. Try to exacerbate this by using countermagic on key spells, or hand disruption to pick apart the combo. Casting Bribery is excellent against this strategy, for obvious reasons. Some graveyard hate also exists in the cube, though it’s fairly minimal.
Blue and Red are probably the two strongest colours in the Vintage Cube. And they work really well together too, to create some of the best combo decks available to draft. Namely, Splinter Twin and Sneak Attack. The way these decks often work is as ‘goodstuff’ decks using a bunch of powerful cards in blue and red, with the combo finish always a threat to the opponent lest they tap out.
Fans of 2015 Modern and 2009 Standard will fondly remember the combo of Splinter Twin and Deceiver Exarch. And in Vintage Cube you also gain access to Pestermite, Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, Zealous Conscripts and Imperial Recruiter to help out. This makes assembling the combo pretty consistent, since you have redundant copies of combo pieces, and Imperial Recruiter can combo on its own, finding Kiki-Jiki which copies Recruiter, finding Exarch/Pestermite which untaps Kiki for the win. Common splashes might be White for Restoration Angel, or black for Demonic Tutor.
Sneak Attack doesn’t strictly have to be Blue/Red, but it’s at its best there due to the quality of cards available in those colours as well as the card drawing and deck manipulation of blue. Again, splashing is possible, with black for tutors or white for Enlightened Tutor and/or Nahiri, the Harbinger some good possibilities.
How to beat this deck: Sneak Attack and Splinter Twin aren’t the fastest combos, so killing the opponent before they kill you works nicely, as does putting them under enough pressure to force them to try to combo into your own disruptive elements.
Mono Red Aggro
This deck is all about killing the opponent as fast as possible with aggressive red creatures and burn spells. While it’ll never be capable of the most broken things, it is very consistent and powerful and will punish any opponent who stumbles or takes a while to set up. Operating similarly to modern Burn decks, it will play aggressive creatures on the early turns and aim to finish you off with a flurry of burn spells. The deck should be made up mostly of 1 and 2 mana spells, comprised of aggressive creatures and burn, with a possible top end at 4 or 5 for a powerful finisher like Koth of the Hammer or Thundermaw Hellkite.
Mono red’s role is the fun police of Vintage Cube. It’s not often popular, but it keeps the durdly nonsense in check and is brutally effective at doing so. One risk though is that much like Storm, Mono Red is an all-in strategy, so it doesn’t support very many drafters at the table. Hints that you can draft this strategy will be late-pick Sulfuric Vortex, Goblin Guide, Shrine of Burning Rage and Hellrider.
How to beat this deck: Kill their early creatures, get hard-to-burn blockers into play early, or execute your strategy faster than they can. There are also a few strong life-gain cards in the MTGO cube, so pick them up as sideboard options.
If you love to ramp but can’t get your hands on enough artifact mana, then this is the strategy for you. It’s centred around a high number of 1 and 2 mana ramp creatures like Joraga Treespeaker and Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary which enable powerful top-end cards ahead of time. The best of these is Craterhoof Behemoth, but anything 6-8 mana is reasonable to cast, and some truly broken versions can manage Emrakul or Ulamog. If you have those cards and Channel it can often take the deck from a solid 2-1 to a 3-0.
When drafting this deck, you need to pick up the following components:
- Mana dorks. Almost as many of these as you can get. Green Sun’s Zenith is one of the best ‘mana dorks’ because it fetches an elf early and a win condition later on.
- 4-5 mana ‘bridge’ spells. These give you stuff to do on turn 3-ish to start pulling you ahead or giving you card advantage. Examples include Oracle of Mul Daya, Garruk Wildspeaker and Freyalise, Llanowar’s Fury. Note that pure midrange creatures like Polukranos, World Eater, Thrun, the Last Troll and Master of the Wild Hunt don’t really work well in the main deck but can be useful out of the sideboard against some strategies.
- Top end. Big, game winning threats. Some of my favourites are Primeval Titan, Terastodon and the aforementioned Craterhoof Behemoth. Colourless options work too, including Wurmcoil Engine, Karn Liberated and Myr Battlesphere.
- While usually mono-green, blue is a fairly common splash colour for Opposition, Upheaval and Edric, Spymaster of Trest. Make sure to pick up plenty of fixing if you want to splash, and prioritise mana creatures which make blue.
How to beat this deck: “Bolt the bird” still holds true – kill their first mana producer before they can do anything. That’ll slow this deck down a lot, but they tend to have a bunch of backup ramp creatures, so it doesn’t always do the trick. Other effective ways to win are casting Wrath of God effects, which basically always amount to a 3 or 4-for 1; going off with Storm or another combo, since they’re light on disruption, or stopping their big threats, since the package of small elves doesn’t amount to a threat on its own.
White creature decks used to be a joke in Vintage Cube. Other people are slamming super-powered cards, and you’re casting variants on Grizzly Bears? Then, around 2 years ago, they started to get better. Is this because better cards for them were added to the cube? Not exactly. I discussed this change a fair bit in my aforementioned article last year, but it is now a deck to be respected.
The basic strategy is to play an aggressive creature on turn 1 and follow it up with Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Vryn Wingmare and friends. Keep the deck aggressive and you’ll be able to Death and Taxes your way to victory. This deck is usually at its best as mono-white since the colour commitments can be fairly strict, and it enables Wasteland and Strip Mine, but if you can get good fixing then I’ve found blue to be a decent pair since you gain access to additional disruptive elements like Glen Elendra Archmage and Opposition.
How to beat this deck: White creature decks can match up fairly poorly against other creature-based decks since its creatures are fairly small and it lacks card advantage. Wrath of God is a strong card here, though White Weenie is capable of running a number of Planeswalkers to counteract that to some extent.
Blue Control decks are some of my favourites to draft in Vintage Cube. Usually Blue/White or Blue/Black with Esper/Grixis/Jeskai all possibilities, they operate on a much fairer axis than many of the other archetypes, since they aren’t trying to do broken things. They just want to stop their opponents doing broken things before riding card advantage and a powerful win condition to victory. Important elements here are:
- Countermagic. Counterspell, Mana Leak, Cryptic Command etc will help stop opponents who’ve invested a lot of resources into one big spell and work as virtual card advantage in Vintage Cube. Save your counters for stuff that really matters – so big win conditions or recurrent sources of card advantage. If you get Mana Drain though, you can counter almost anything and turn it to your advantage because of the huge mana boost you get.
- Removal Spells. Not all decks in the Vintage Cube run creatures, but you need to be able to deal with them just in case. Nobody wants to die to a Brimaz, King of Oreskos. Options in white include Swords to Plowshares, Path to Exile and Wrath of God, while Black offers Go for the Throat, Murderous Cut and Toxic Deluge, among others. Because creature removal spells are fairly easy to find, prioritise cards which can also deal with Planeswalkers, since you aren’t great at attacking them to get them off the board. Council’s Judgment and Hero’s Downfall are two very good examples.
- Planeswalkers. Planeswalkers usually operate as disruptive elements or recurring sources of card advantage to pull you ahead in the mid-game. Some good choices are Jace the Mind Sculptor, Dack Fayden, Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria.
- Card Drawing. It’s abundant in Vintage Cube, but tends to get picked early so don’t sleep on it. Aside from the obvious Ancestral Recall, and Planeswalkers which draw you cards, Fact or Fiction is one of the best options.
- Win Conditions. While it’s possible to win by sitting behind Planeswalkers, many decks you’ll face have the capacity to come back from far behind with a single powerful spell. As a result, it helps to have a couple of powerful win conditions that kill the opponent quickly or can dig you out of a difficult spot. Some good ones include Ugin the Spirit Dragon, Consecrated Sphinx, Grave Titan, Inferno Titan and Karn Liberated.
How to beat this deck: Mono red aggro is almost always great against control, since its threats go under most of the countermagic and removal on offer. Some other good cards against Control include Emrakul the Promised End, Coercive Portal and Planeswalkers which offer a quick clock, attack the hand, threaten an ultimate quickly, or provide recurring card advantage.
Some little tips, interactions and things to be aware of
- Fetchlands are more versatile than you think. For example, if you need to fix for blue and red, then you can turn Windswept Heath into both colours by running Plateau and Tropical Island in your deck.
- Many decks will contain artifacts and/or enchantments, so cards like Disenchant or Reclamation Sage are good main-deck options.
- Yawgmoth’s Will combined with Black Lotus or Lion’s Eye Diamond make a lot of mana and storm on their own – you don’t need much more to win.
- Dack Fayden is a great way to slow your opponent down and speed yourself up by stealing their Signets, Moxen, or Blightseel Colossus.
- Soulfire Grand Master seems like an odd inclusion in the cube, but it goes infinite with Time Walk.
- Fastbond works great with Upheaval, Wheel of Fortune and Courser or Kruphix.
- Be careful putting Oblivion Ring and Upheaval in the same deck.
- Don’t play Show and Tell or Eureka, except out of the sideboard against decks which can’t put powerful permanents into play.
- In general, avoid playing red in decks that aren’t mono-red or have blue in them.
- In general, avoid playing white in decks that aren’t mono-white or have blue in them.
- In general, avoid playing black creature decks.
That’s it for now
If there’s one thing to take away from this, it’s that Vintage Cube is awesome fun. Don’t be daunted by the complexity and old cards, just jump in and give it a go!
Thanks for reading,
George Alexander Miles