BFZ year in review

BFZ was considered a great set for cube when it came out. The next year contained 4 consecutive sets, as well as conspiracy 2 which stole much of the set’s thunder. In some cases even directly so, like Ulamog is shadowed by Emrakul or Greenwarden of Murasa and Regal Behemoth. Battle for Zendikar will be remembered in the long term by the enemy manlands (and most of them did not come out in this set). Besides that, all three planeswalkers go from playable to staple and there are a few more loose ends.

 

New Mechanics

Awaken – letdown

Awaken first seemed like your regular kicker mechanic. Just like, say, evoke, it gives the spell two modes – one cheaper and one more expensive. Of course, unlike evoke, the mechanic is much less busable but still. It turns out no awaken spells bar one have long time viability in a large cube and even that spell is barely ever used in awaken mode. This was quite surprising to me. Why Awaken underperformed so much?

First, Awaken is actually more expensive by one than it reads. You do not want to spend a ton of mana to make a tapped 4/4 that has no impact on the board for a turn. Second, the bodies have no evasion and struggle to make an impact in the later stages of the game when they come online. With Awaken you cannot get a creature early. Third, losing your awakened land actually hurts. Awaken creates no card advantage in those situations. Many times, especially early-mid game, your land is far more valuable than a 3/3 body. Yes that creature will not die to Maelstrom Pulse or Anguished Unmaking, but it will die as a byproduct of every mass removal and is a saucy target for burn and bounce spells.

There is a philosophy in cube building that there are no bad mechanics, only bad cards. Every mechanic can be pushed enough to see cube play. While true, this is a meaningless philosophical musing if Wizards are unable to print cards of that power level. Awaken has failed and it is no great loss as it is not a very interesting mechanic.

 

White

 

Stasis Snare – worse than expected

Stasis Snare has one advantage going for it – flash. Everything else about it is weak. Compared to Grasp of Fate, it can only hit creatures. It costs more white than Oblivion Ring and a whopping mana more than Journey to Nowhere. As there are many like-minded effects in white that are better, Snare is fringe at best at 720. While Banishing Light effects are strong for their ability to exile the creature and move past undying, persist, death triggers and graveyard shenanigans, basically all white removals do this. Also there is a limit to how many temporary removals in the form of an enchantment one may want. Both for variety’s sake and because it can be a glaring weakness for white if it becomes totally hosed by Naturalize effects.

White is not the sort of color that can utilize the flash effectively anyway. Monastery Mentor and Seeker of the Way like it, it is okay with Restoration Angel and that is basically it. While being blue changes this equation, Snare costs double white mana which hinders his playability significantly in decks with blue as the main color. In general, we want our removals to be broad, cheap and easy to cast over minor incidental synergies.

 

Gideon, Ally of Zendikar – Better than expected

Gideon was the sort of card whose high power level is obvious from the first look. The card is not innovative, offering effects you can get elsewhere. White four drops are stacked and specifically Elspeth, Knight Errant is better. Despite this, Gideon is easily a worthy inclusion and turned out better than expected.

Creating an army ad nausea is the default mode. Instant board impact, mass removal recovery, endless supply of men to hold your swords and more are all powerful. After a mass removal, or when your opponent has few blockers, a 5/5 attacker will finish the game in short order and kill the majority of blockers in cube. That is exactly how Gideon was played locally for the first few months.

It turns out that instantly cashing him for an indestructible anthem was a good play in practice far more often than we have imagined. Of course it is immediate damage, which can be preferable for your tempo. In an empty board when you have two bodies out it will do immediately two damage and two every turn after, which outpaces knight making until the third turn. But when your opponent has blockers that will trade in combat with your men without the anthem bonus added, it suddenly translates to far more damage. That is in addition to pumping all your future drops, and the high ceiling with tokens.

Four is that magical spot in the curve where it can serve as both an aggro and a control card. Gideon fills both roles well. He offers more decisions and gameplay than might appear. I think he is the better Gideon now and would play him even in small cubes.

 

Planar Outburst – playable at 810 and up

5 mana sorcery wraths have never been stellar and we have just gotten the best one yet with Fumigate. Outburst’s awaken cost is especially white heavy. Still does the job but Rout and co are better.

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Quarantine Field – solid

Quarantine Field was not even among the first batch of cards I have tested from this set. In slow decks, the ability cast it for 6 or 8 mana is great. The immediate tempo swing it creates is huge. It swings board states like few other cards can and does it consistently. Unlike Oblivion Ring, which is an early answer, this is a lategame card. That is why the drawback is much lighter on Field. There is simply less time for your opponent to find an enchantment removal as the game is closer to its end. Also, with the greater number of targets there are high chances that some of them are tokens, or at least that not all of them have ETB effects.

Casting it for X=1 is much less common than I have thought, probably less than 1 out of three times. It will take a slot of a fattie/finisher during deck construction. Field should not be competing for the same slots as your cheap 1 for 1 removal spells. A mana sink in white is a rare thing. It still fights for space with fatties, cheaper removals and plenty midrange cards so it is by no means necessary.

 

Expedition Envoy – solid

This is Elite Vanguard. The ally subtype has no meaning in cube. This is needed redundancy for Savannah Lions. At 720 I believe all those semi-functional reprints are needed, at 630 maybe you could skip one of them and you surely can at 540.

 

Blue

 

Scatter to the Winds – unplayable

Cancel is bad. Holding up six mana for a counter is not feasible. A 3/3 with no evasion or abilities is very often irrelevant at the stages of the game where hoding up six mana for the ability to say no is possible. I prefer Dissolve by far and likely Dissipate too. Enough cancel+ cards exist that playing this seems unnecessary.

 

Eldrazi Skyspawner – for peasant

It looks okay on paper. However it is not easy to get good use from all parts of this card. What can you do with it? Have a 2/1 flier and a ramp of one for 3 mana? A trade with a 2 drop and a chump blocker? It can be both when needed, sure, but it has no home. Your blue three drops are better.

 

Black

 

Ruinous Path – great

Runious Path is 90% or more of the time a sorcery speed Hero’s Downfall. That is still plenty good enough. It is not far from a monoclored Maelstrom Pulse. Always live, always solid, basically universally played.

 

Ob Nixilis Reignited – solid, better than expected

Often disregarded due to reading bad and being a bit bland, it is totally a solid card. Against most aggressive decks it will just an unconditional creature removal plus life. Not really worth 5 mana at sorcery speed, but that is the absolute worst scenario barring corner cases (having him on an empty board with 1 life is worse, yes). If you can keep him alive, the card advantage is hard to overcome. There are few things more depressing than being on topdeck mode, with an empty or stalled board, facing an Ob Nixilis with 4+ loyalty.

We have to keep in the mind the lack of competition in black’s five drops. Few are the black midrange and control decks that will not main Ob. He is not a reliable finisher, but as a value card he is worth his mana and more in most matchups.

 

Drana, Liberator of Malakir – almost a staple

Drana reads better than she truly is. By herself, she is very slow. She dies to all removal spells, including all burn. Sometimes she will pump a creature or two and that is quite solid. If you do that twice you have surpassed your mana’s worth. Given her cost she rarely pumps masses of tokens, nor is she nearly as good as a true anthem for token decks when drawn late. A conflicted card that is hard to cast. Nevertheless she makes the cut until quite low cube sizes still, I’m just not as high on her as most of the community.

 

Carrier Thrall – only as a necessary evil.

A general goodstuff black two drop, but low powered. Not thrilling for any deck to have, but performing best in stacks decks. Offers a trade + chump blocker at 2 mana against aggressive decks, and in aggressive decks gives some mass removal compensation. Now we have more black two drops. It is a matter of time until Carrier Thrall is cut, but whichever amount of time it will turn out to be, that is too long in my opinion.

 

Transgress the Mind – unplayable

This is among the broadest targeted removal spells and exiling makes it one of the best answers in black to some cards. That said, it suffers from all the downsides of discard – you need to draw it before the threat you want to answer is drawn and becomes increasingly bad as the game continues. That could still be fine if it could be used as reliable disruption. As is, it will never hinder their first two turns of play, which are the most critical to disrupt. An easy pass for all cubes, perhaps barring those that are very heavy in combo decks.

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Red

 

Makindi Sliderunner – fringe playable

Sliderunner is another Gore-House Chainwalker look alike. We have Thriving Grubs and Scrapheap Scrounger as 2 much better options from Kaladesh. Borderland Marauder and War-Name Aspirant both attack for 3 much more consistently, however the natural trample of Sliderunner have been very relevant with various swords before. Ultimately a weak card that will be replaced and not missed, but I’m not unhappy to have it in the meanwhile.

 

Green

 

Nissa, Voice of Zendikar – niche

Nissa is not the sort of card that can be thrown into a random deck. The 0/1 tokens are not worth anything naturally. They chump block, repeatedly, with her having high loyalty, but you still waste a card to do that. She plays way too often as a lifegain spell. Sometimes not even that, as the tokens will be unable to block evasive beaters or will just die to a mass removal. She plays okay in token decks, being both a producer and an anthem. Thing is she is still low impact on the third turn. Her anthem is only great mid to late game, IF you have a big army. Unlike Glorious Anthem, it is undone by mass removals and will not pump future drawn critters. If she is left alone her ultimate is strong, but many three drops will be game winning if unanswered by that time frame.

Where she is good is in stacks decks, where turning those creatures into real card advantage is easy. A continuous chain of sacrifice fodder is highly abusable there. She has several other great combos that include Skullclamp, Opposition and Gaea’s Cradle. Problem for most of those decks and the tokens archetype is her heavy green cost. She is not easy to combine for value. You need to sweat and be lucky to get her to be worth a card, let alone a 3 mana one. She can do a lot, but needs specific conditions to do so.

 

Greenwarden of Murasa – fringe playable

Greenwarden was seen at the time of his printing as the promised green three drop. Up until then it was only Primeval Titan. Green is a color that really wants a 6 drops, both because it is the best accelerator and because it fills a curve gaps for cards like Green Sun’s Zenith or Survival of the Fittest. Now we have both the new Nissa as a way to recur cards and more importantly Regal Behemoth as a six drop.

Greenwarden is only a situationally good card, just like Regrowth. Sometimes your graveyard is empty, sometimes whatever you are returning cannot be cast again due to lack of targets or simply loses relevance. Sure, you can get a land back, but after you have 6, that is unlikely to alter the game much. Same with your mana elves, Force Spike or even Disenchant. Now you can say, and rightly, that by turn 6 chances are you will have something juicy or you are winning. Even if you get a bad card back, you at least get a 5/4 body with a good death trigger. Which is all true, if you play it as a midrange curve topper. As a ramp target, or something to cheat quickly into play, say via Natural Order or reanimations, it is severely lacking. A 5/4 with no evasion that by those stages of the game is unlikely to even have 2 targets if answered. Greenwarden fills only some of the roles we want our green fatties to fill and is not that strong even in his best home due to slowness and low board impact upon resolution. A filler that can easily be cut.

 

Woodland Wanderer – playable

Wanderer is consistently a 5/5. It has a combo with Unexpected Potential. This is definitely a solid creature. It survives burn spells, punches through chump blockers and is a quick clock while defending you. None of this is any wrong or inefficient. The problems here are related to cube archetype design – this card is strong against aggressive decks, especially red, while being weak against control. It doesn’t survive the Vindicate test, and is easy to remove for most colors. Against slower decks, his vigilance is of little value and so will usually be his trample. As such he is making your strong matchups stronger and weak matchups weaker. This is really not what you want to be doing, but rather round out each deck so you have more of a fighting chance and as a cube builder create more interactive games. Being unplayable in heavy green decks and not working with cheat effects are other major drawbacks.

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Colorless

 

Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger – a staple of several common archetypes, otherwise unplayable

The biggest, baddest, meanest creature mana can buy. Ulamog ticks off all the boxes fatties need to fill. If cast he offers some of the better means of stabilization. He is durable to removals. He kills very quickly, and kind of has evasion. In many matchups one attack trigger will be enough to seal the deal. He is cheatable with reanimation, Channel and more. A great combo with Sneak Attack. He even gains you some value even if countered. Ulamog rises above the oldrazi and he is even cheaper than two of them.

Emrakul stole his thunder, mostly by being more castable therefore much more playable. Ulamog is therefore only the second best eldrazi. He is still the best reason to go super ramp or Channel so he is a must if you want to support that strategy. In large cubes that wants to support super ramp and cheat decks, I think the minimal number of eldrazi you should be playing is 4 making Ulamog is a shoe-in for most.

 

Hedron Archive – staple due to lack of options, solid by power level alone

We have limited options of colorless rocks at this cost. A double Mind Stone, this is perhaps the best big mana rock in control. It is also good in mana ramp decks, of course, but they usually prefer mana efficiency over it if possible. That said, ramp decks are prone to floods and losing all their gas, and getting 2 extra cards is big game. Still better in control, which can sacrifice this at end of turn or dig for a specific answer when needed. In control there is usually little interest in getting over 7 mana or so, therefore Thran Dynamo is an overkill and you lose less by ditching the Hedron.

 

Multicolored

 

Catacomb Sifter – playable

A fine card with all kinds of value yet fair. It can get you two blockers, two attackers, one shot minimal ramp and some card selection. However it is never an ideal card for the job. It is the type of card B/G decks that are not too much combo oriented will play, unexcitedly. It is easy to trade with, easy to ignore, easy to kill. Yes, you will usually gain some small value but that value is all the card can ever do and that is not often better than mono colored three drops that advance your game plan. Green and black have plenty of good three drops as is.

 

Kiora, Master of the Depths – playable

Kiora is a fine planeswalker. Her most common comparison is inevitably to her older version, Kiora, the Crashing Wave. She compares favorably in most decks. She has more starting loyalty, which can be as high as five. She doesn’t die to every burn spell. She can dig for specific answers and generates card advantage from the get go. This is a very rare virtue of planeswalkers. In general you feel pretty good even if all Kiora did was draw 2 cards out of four and absorb some damage. She also fills your graveyard for blue delve cards, Tarmogoyf and Emrakul.

This is all assuming you do have a high creature count. Most green decks do, and they appreciate the extra gas drawn. In blue based decks old kiora is better. She protects you and herself very well. Crashing Wave is better in a superfriends build, or a Simic control deck. She’s valuable as the deck lacks removals. Unfortunately she is at her strongest against midrange and weakest against aggro, so she makes your best matchups better and weakest matchups weaker. On the other hand Master of Depths has a near useless first ability. Going for the ultimate with her is less reliable and she can be a dead card if your deck size is low.

Overall the value of one Kiora version over the other is dependent on the common Simic archetypes in your cube. Both Kioras are playable but entirely skippable. Blue and green have plenty of value at this point of the curve and both are not really splashworthy. Even if we take Jace, Architect of Thought, he is about equal to Kiora, Master of Depths while being monocolored. Kiora is the Dovin Baan of Simic. Simic is a significantly weaker guild than Azorius though which is why the Kioras are playable.

 

Lands

 

The Tango lands – recommended

The Tango lands are solid. They are interesting in that as far as the lands themselves go in a vacuum, they are weak. Almost always they enter the battlefield tapped when it matters. They are very close to the guildgates. In that regard, the drawback has been harsher than anticipated. But that is not why we play them. We pack them for their basic land types. They can be fetched by fetchlands, Nature’s Lore, Three Visits, Farseek and Wood Elves. They can be sacrificed for Fireblast. They strengthen Vedalken Shackles. They work with Sundering Titan. Turns out guildgates with basic land types are good and useful. They are definitely below fetches, shocks, duals and manlands. I like painlands more too. But after that, they are fair game and are generally better than filters and check lands. I’ll complete the cycle when it is printed.

 

Lumbering Falls – staple

A card that is hard to answer. Not cheap and not evasive, but it is near impossible to kill with spells. It is also a reliable blocker in times of need. Lumbering falls rarely ends game on its own as a measly 3/1 will trade with it– the average red/black two drop, and his colors are removal light. However it does attack often, prevents planeswalkers from being played and more in addition to fixing your mana.

 

Shambling Vent – staple

Shambling Vent reads bad, but plays great. A 2/3 is unassuming but does so much work while racing. It is almost a Vampire Nighthawk when both players leave no blockers behind. The size is big enough to contain small creatures, and you gain value even while blocking or being chump blocked with tokens. A 2/3 lifelinker wins the race against a 3/3. Vent makes alpha striking you that much more difficult. In white there are plenty of ways to pump this, from Elspeth to anthems, which cause huge life swings. B/W aggro is weak to red aggro, so a card that is good in that matchups is a blessing.

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