Amonkhet shapes up to be a great set for the cube format, likely the best set in my history of cubing – 9 years! As such it is unavoidable to dissect the set review to smaller parts. The set is high in innovation and the most natural way to discuss the new contenders is to see the new mechanics separately first. I’ve written about the gods and cycling before, now I’ll cover the three new mechanics in this set – Exert, Embalm and Aftermath.
Exert is an ability that reads better than it truly plays. You are committing to not attack next turn, which is obvious, but you are also giving up the option to block for two consecutive turns. An opponent can play a creature AND attack with it the following turn, without you being able to change your game plan accordingly. Similarly, the creature will not be able to attack a fresh planeswalker, or use a topdecked equipment. As such the effect you should get from the exert creature should be a significant one. Exert is a highly offensive ability as a result. Even in aggressive decks, exert should hurt in the mirror. In reverse, if you fear removals it should be correct to use the exert abilities as soon as possible, so as to squeeze more value from your card. Your opponent would still have to deal with the exerted creature, as it is still a threat.
Exert is not an ability you build around. It is an ability to be examined on a card-by-card basis. It can combo with a few effects that untap or give vigilance. There are not too many of them in cube, but such random synergies would still be a huge pain to face – we have Restoration Angel, Flickerwisp, Ral Zarek, Maze of Ith and Ajani Goldmane as some commonly used enablers.
Glory Bound Initiate – solid playable
Could even be a staple as far as large cubes as concerned. There have been several 3/1 creatures for 1W and only the top few of those had seen cube success. A 3/1 body was always good on an empty board, but on the too common scenario where there are blockers, it will die to the worst one your opponent has. GII can grow to impressive 4 toughness and avoid that fate. It will not be able to attack every turn in that mode, but it will do above and beyond any two drops in stall situations as a 4/4. It kicks through Courser of Kruphix and breaks down Wall of Omens. Lifelink tremendously helps not being able to block for a turn and will be a key ability against opposing aggro decks. The 3/1 body is still fragile against red, but if it attacks once you have already got an effect that’s worth a card, with a potential 8 point life swing. You cannot get the life and the blocker simultaneously which is sad, but that’s two drops for you.
White is a color that needs many two drops and frankly only few of them are truly great. Initiate is comparable to Seeker of the Way yet looks better. Probably also better than Relic Seeker as it does not need to connect to get value. Other potential cuts include Cloistered Youth and Soltari Trooper, which both have their advantages, but beat for equal or lesser amounts on a clear board yet are much worse in a race.
Gust Walker – unplayable
This seems comparable to Mistral Charger, but it is far worse. Plays worse with equipment as it doesn’t have static evasion. It is also a slower clock while flying and when you factor all the aforementioned drawbacks is just not worth it.
Ahn-Crop Crasher – solid playable
There are two ways to look at this – a better version of Geier Reach Bandit or a worse version of Goblin Heelcutter. As Heelcutter is such a great red card, and Bandit totally acceptable, both comparisons are to his advantage. One of the better topdecks you can have in red aggro. It is great on turn 3, great after a mass removal, a good planeswalker killer and good in board stalls. Basically always useful, with the floor of a haste 3/2 for 2R being perfectly good. Heelcutter still has the advantage of being able to disable a blocker every turn if you need, and can evade mass removals. But Crasher can also replace Brazen Scourge, Sin Prodder and likely quite a few other cards as red’s three drops are shallow compared to other colors. It is not a bomb, as 2 toughness is fragile, but a card with high ceiling and a still almost playable on its own low end performance for a three drop is bound to be great.
Battlefield Scavenger – unplayable
A very bad attacker and a very bad looter. Being able to do both once every two turns does not come close to redeem this.
Combat Celebrant – niche to low playable
Celebrant is almost good enough by itself, but I do not think it passes. A 4/1 body will die to everything. For three mana it hurts, especially if it trades with a token. If you have a few attackers lying around it will be a fine deal not matter what. Assuming you have 2 dorks with 2 power (one drop and a two drop), Celebrant will add 8 damage to your board, or an Imperial Edict + 4 damage. But in the very likely case of having less unblocked attackers, it does too little. What redeems him is being an on color combo piece with Kiki-Jiki. Unless the opponent has a first strike or protection from red blocker, you will kill all his blocker and eventually him, in an infinite loop of hasted attacking 4/1s and extra combat steps.
Glorybringer – solid playable
Exert is at its best with haste. This is a limited bomb. In cube it reminds me of Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker. It has the obvious advantage of dealing 4 damage to a creature and a player in the same turn, creating a ton of immediate value that is unstoppable with sorcery speed answers. Sarkhan on the defense will too often kill a creature then die to everything. Glorybringer will be able in the best of days to take down a creature and a planeswalker the turn you cast him. It also kills the second creature in two turns. Sarkhan will only do so in three turns and will die in the process.
The drawback compared to Sarkhan is that it is a much more fragile win condition on average. Creature removals that are sorcery speed or don’t exile all deal with Glorybringer and not Sarkhan. As a red five drop, I find that being better on defense trumps being a better win condition against control decks here.
Glorybringer seems better than Stormbreath Dragon by quite a lot. It still below the mighty Thundermaw Hellkite as it is just a far less focused tool for his job. Between the high redundancy of similar effects, I’d cut one of the lesser dragons for Glorybringer instead of one of the other solidly performing red five drops that you might play.
Embalm is card advantage. It is a synergistic ability with discard. Given it is printed in blue and white, the major way to gain extra value from embalm cards is to loot them. A second way is to just let the creature die in combat. Another useful attribute is that you just don’t care as much when a creature with embalm dies to your mass removal. Plus, embalm cannot be countered, which is a rare but game winning upside. Embalm could be great on an aggressive creature, especially a one drop, but it was rather calm this set. The only ability in this set which I can say was played safe and not pushed. The mummy tokens are also a flavor win.
Angel of Sanctions – playable
So much value. I’ve found in testing that it is usually possible or even easy to answer it the first time (at the cost of a turn’s worth of mana or near), but when embalmed the turn after, it usually stays for good. As a sturdy flier out of bolt range, this has great immediate defensive value. It is a slow clock but punishes planeswalkers and will rescue you from most situations. Oblivion Ring effects are good in this format. You are going to face many threats of many types, almost all are game winning and you need to have solutions. There are more white five drops available than is sensible to play in a cube, and AoS is no Avacyn or Baneslayer. In large cubes, it will be a low 2nd-high 3rd tier and can replace Cloudgoat Ranger. The slower and more midrange your cube is, the better this will be. Not long ago Wingmate Roc was a playable cube card and this seems a few levels above that card.
Trueheart Duelist – fringe playable to playable
Who doesn’t like card advantage on a two drop? This card serves a few specific purposes really well yet has enough broader uses to be playable. We never had cubeable cards with the double-block clause. This card can just be a defensive nightmare for your opponent. It is very close to a double fog + killing an attacking creature every attack if played on turn two. Just having a Moment’s Peace is good for keeping planeswalkers alive, especially those that come down turn 3. If it means your opponent is just holding back and overextending, just play Duelist again after your unrecoverable mass removal.
Seems dangerously closer to a weenie hoser but for the fact it is a decent 22nd-23rd card in a white weenie deck itself. It offers value after a mass removal. It is splashable. It will just be a hard to remove body to hold your equipments sometimes. All are fine functions if not great. When things go awry in aggro mirror, a Moment’s Peace can be all that you need. Duelist also plays well with the Stacks theme in black, especially Liliana of the Veil and Braids.
Glyph Keeper – playable to solid playable
A great finisher, but lacking on defense. It seems (and definitely felt so far) nearly impossible to kill. There are some limited ways to target this without spending a card, such as Maze of Ith or the new Gideon. Even if you manage that though, it still demands two removal spells for it to be gone for good. Combined with an ability that ensures it cannot be countered and you get a very reliable way to close games. While it can die to big fliers, you still get the card advantage and as a control deck yourself, you have ways of removing opposing threats. Another huge trait is that early game, when you do not need finishers, it can be cycled with a looter. The second useful way to play it is as a blocker turn 5 and a finisher later. As a 5/3 flier it will block and kill nearly everything in combat and it is not a blocker you can remove in any way.
All in all, rather great and comparable to Sphinx of Jwar Isle. Sphinx dies to mass removals and edict effects while Keeper does not. Sphinx does not die to burn, but given how difficult it is to answer Glyph with it that might not be a relevant point! As a result, I’d play Seeker over anything weaker than Jwar Isle, which I consider a solid card, including the likes of Frost Titan and Meloku.
Vizier of Many Faces – fringe playable
This would see more cube play than it should just because it is a clone effect. It is card advantage, but like all copy cards is only good when you have something useful to copy, and that likely does not come from your side of the table. Blue just doesn’t have many great creatures. That is why the double blue mana in Clone effects is a big limitation, and why all the playable versions so far have been splashable.
Temmet, Vizier of Naktamun – unplayable
Temmet does not do much alone so requires building around. Token decks in cube go wide. For this to shine you need a deck with a few large tokens, which is an archetype that doesn’t exist yet, plus play both white and blue. A narrow card is an understatement here, and even then the power level is questionable. In the rich guild of Azorius. No chance.
A mechanic pretty close to flashback. It shares a lot with embalm actually – plays well with looters, is an inherent card advantage. As aftermath is spread across more colors it has more synergies, mostly with discard effects in red and black. It has synergy with the prowess and spells matters archetype. They also count as two card types while in the graveyard for Emrakul and Tarmogoyf.
Dusk to Dawn – unplayable
A major feature of mass removals is killing hordes of tokens or just stopping aggro decks on turn 4. Dusk doesn’t do any of that. As a value card off of the Dawn side, this is rather limited and slow. Plus it is a white four drop.
Commit to Memory – playable
Commit is almost a good card by itself. Most comparable to Venser, Shaper Savant or Into the Roil. Venser offers a creature for your trouble, while commit just puts them down a card. Comparable from the card advantage outlook and Commit can even appear to be better. That is not so. Venser offers immediate tempo and often played for bounce + trade with an attacker for stabilization. The body can be reanimated with Reveillark, bounced with Karakas or it can just carry a sword or surprise attack a planeswalker (plus killing the token it just created). Into the Roil is played often at the two mana mode here (a rough estimation would say 40%), so it is far from a direct replacement. Commit is less color intensive than these two though.
But that is ignoring Memory. While obviously paying six for a Timetwister is a lot, it doesn’t have to be used often to make the card great as the base mode is almost powerful enough by itself. It will be played when your opponent has a large hand advantage over you. It will be played to prevent yourself dying from milling. It can just be good value in certain decks, especially prowess triggers decks.
Another way to look at it is a form of blue removal. I love Imprisoned in the Moon, but this can be an even better card. Blue likes instant speed answers and this doubles as a counter. Blue’s four drops are stacked, and I’m not sure what I’d cut for this, but I will find the space for this solid piece of cardboard.
Failure to Comply – unplayable
While Unsubstantiate is fine, it is not good enough I’d want a second one in 720. This is worse than Unsubstantiate a fair amount, as it cannot target a creature. Having a half that is bad by its own and requires another color is not enough. Plus, Azorius is competitive.
Never to Return – staple
Being better than an already commonly cubed card is a sure recipe for success. This is a Hero’s Downfall and Ruinous Path variant. I’d rank it in the middle between the two. Hero’s Downfall is the best, as instant is a significant advantage and you get it for no additional cost. Ruinous Path has an alternative mode that requires 7+ mana. Thing is, I’ve seen the 7+ mana mode used less than 5 times in the few years it has been in the cube. A 4/4 vanilla, with a drawback (being a land is bad), is not impressive at that stage of the game. Enough so that even when you have that kind of mana, it was often used to cast Path in cheap mode so you can used the other 4 mana in other ways.
Return in not a great mode at all. But it is free value. We are paying 4R to flash back Firebolt after all. Return is playable at any point in the game after you cast Never, so it already wins Path. Maindeckable graveyard hate is nice to have. The synergy with LotV and Heir to Falkenrath should not be ignored either. It is a zombie for all your filthy desires with Gravecrawler, Cryptbreaker, Kalitas and more.
The question becomes whether you want three versions of this effect or is Path just cut altogether from cubes. On one hand, planeswalkers are becoming cheaper and more dangerous with time and we need answers. On the other hand, those three spells are expensive for creature kill, which is what they’ll end up doing most of the time, and the unsplashable cost hurts more in multiples. In 720 I am going to test playing all three, but I’m skeptical. At 810 or 900 the highest, I’d want to have access to all three for a long while.
Insult to Injury – very niche
Free value is tempting and the card is plashable. But both halves are not worth their price. Insult requires damage on board or it does completely nothing. Lunge sees no cube play. Not many creatures that cost 3+ mana die to Shock. Other times it will be uncastable just because you have no creature to target. You can also get both in a single turn, which is great in an aggressive decks that will not get to six mana, or very unexciting in a slow deck that will.
Mouth to Feed – unplayable
Worse than Call of the Herd, which is fringe cube playable at best. Feed needs a 3/3 or better to be on board to be equal or better to Harmonize, a bad card by itself in cube. After a mass removal it doesn’t even do that. The ability to generate 6 power and 6 toughness worth of stats from one card is probably better and much more consistent in a deck that wants that three drop.