Commander 16 was a very weak set for cube, with only Ash Barrens representing it in many groups. When I heard the set’s theme was tribal, I had set my hopes low. With those expectations in mind, C17 was actually quite good for cube! It has less testable cards than HOD, but the top end is stronger.
Stalking Leonin – somewhat niche, at least playable
This card is a metagame call – either it needs cheap defensive cards or it doesn’t. As a defensive tool it is very strong. The removal is free, it can target everything and it exiles. If you activate the ability on an average creature, getting it on top of a 3/3 body for 2W will be great value even in cube standards.
Against aggro decks this is potent. It threatens to be a 2-for-1, but with loads of tempo. Since the lion is 3/3, it will probably hold a few ground creatures back, and with it threatening to kill anything big or evasive, it will likely require removal before any attacks happen. It does die to any removal, but whenever your third turn play requires an aggro opponent to pay mana and waste a valuable burn spell early game, you are happy.
White has a deep suite of removal spells, but few are instants. Leonin will be able to shore up weaknesses of the color, by being able to kill vehicles, manlands, gideons and Koth mountains. You will never be caught off-guard by a nasty equipment or haste creatures.
Whenever you prevent a Baneslayer Angel or Titan from attacking, you are gaining quite a lot from this card. It is even better against reanimator decks, with shiny exile, and it can kill both Emrakuls and Kozileks. It even has some synergy with white blink effects.
Where will it see play then? The splashable cost and decent body help a lot here. In slower decks, I am very likely including this card. It is not exciting in aggro, but playable if you have curve problems, and is a good sideboard cards against the faster red decks and cheaty decks. It should not replace the true removals in your deck, as it has no use offensively and cannot kill creatures with abilities that can simply not attack, such as Dark Confidant.
Galecaster Mage – niche
Bouncing a lot of things is always fun. Galecaster can immediately bounce at least one permanent. With another wizard out, it should be strong enough. It cannot lock your opponent Opposition style, as it cannot bounce lands. What it can do is make you unkillable, and victory inevitable. I think in practice, you will never have enough wizards to both be in control over the game and make this unkillable. You play this, your opponent attacks with something big or evasive. You bounce the threat, then your opponent plays a kill spell targeting your big wizard. End result: Sadness.
So how many wizards are there in cube? I counted 25, 15 of them are blue and 14 mono blue. Most fit control, meaning you very likely to end up with a wizard or two in your deck, but unlikely to end up with 5 or more. Having two wizards in your deck is not enough to guarantee one will be there when you cast Galecaster Mage. That said, it is the best reason to build a wizard tribal deck so far.
Kheru Mind-Eater – fringe or unplayable
The 1/3 body with menace is worse than Hypnotic Scepter. It has slightly more survivability. Against many decks, eventually the discard will be irrelevant as they play whatever they topdeck. You can play whatever was discarded, which punishes the choice of discarding lands. Still, as they choose, you will never get a truly great catch. Hypnotic Scepter is not a commonly played cube card in the last 5 years or so either.
Patron of the Vein – fringe playable
Pretty similar to Noxious Gearhulk. Gearhulk is much better at stabilizing the board. Lifegain is a needed effect in black with all the self inflicted life loss. Gearhulk can also be grabbed with Tinker and Daretti. Gearhulk is a better card with Recurring Nightmare. Gearhulk also dies to spells that destroy artifacts, but as you are getting more value upfront from the trigger, you do not care as much.
Patron does have a better body. A 5/5 flier and a 5/4 menace body are comparable, but Paton will keep growing. It will exile opposing creatures entering the graveyard like Kalitas, mostly an upside. Speaking of Kalitas, it is perhaps the only other vampire you will play in a control deck with Patron. In reanimator decks, Heir of Falkenrath and maybe Bloodghast will also see play, but that is it, so do not count on Patron pumping other guys.
Overall, there are several black six drops much better than this. I’d cube him over both Ob Nixilises. Black really wants its top end to play well with reanimation, especially in a large cube. Still, this is the sort of card that can be outclassed and pushed out very quickly.
Territorial Hellkite – playable+, might be staple
Hellkite has a convoluted text box. In the best case, which might also be the most common, it will be immediate six damage to the head and that will close the game right there and then. It is sort of like the full burn version of Fiery Confluence. Red will really like another. If it doesn’t immediately kill, it will leave a 6/5 flying dragon behind. It might not be able to attack next turn but will need dealing with.
Over a long amount of time, Hellkite deals only 3 damage on average per turn. It means it will not be a contender in slow decks like Thundermaw Hellkite sometimes is. That said, in an aggro deck, the game is very likely over after one or two attacks, so it will deal closer to an average of 5 per turn (6 damage per turn for one attack, 4 damage per turn for two attacks). Of course this is a much less reliable way of killing than straight burn. This dragon be blocked or killed. But we never had anything this efficient before.
The one thing that takes this card down considerably is the inability to attack planeswalkers. Not a deal breaker for the main use of the card, but perhaps enough to keep him out of staple status. It should also be noted it can block for a turn if you play him after your attack phase. It is also a solid way to win over a Moat. I’d test him over Hero of Bladehold, Hazoret the Fervent or Purphoros, God of the Forge.
Qasali Slingers – niche or fringe
Better than Conclave Naturalists. The body is a bit better with reach, and once in a while it will be paired with one of the handful of cats there in the cube (I play 7). At least Brimaz will create a steady supply of them.
Fractured Identity – staple
This is a very powerful card. It answers everything, creates card advantage and grants tempo. Compared to Treachery, you can steal any type of permanent with FI. Creatures will still be the majority of targets, but hitting planeswalkers is very relevant. Grabbing an opponent’s Batterskull or Oblivion Ring is also potentially game winning. But FI has more advantages.
FI will grant you ETB triggers. It is the reason why we play Phantasmal Image, and with FI we get it nearly for free. It is like playing my opponent’s titan, for less mana, while killing his! FI will also not die to Disenchant like every other Control Magic effect. It cannot be destroyed, in any way. Once it happens, there is no way to undo it. Even bounce will not work, as the creature is permanently exiled. Yes, your opponent will also not be able to kill your stolen dude and then reanimate it. It is gone.
The final and perhaps largest advantage of FI over Treachery is that it is abusable. It can be replayed with Snapcaster Mage and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. It can be doubled with Double Stroke. Even just fetching it with Regrowth is very strong.
I am not saying it is stronger than Treachery, but it doesn’t look far behind at all. A treachery that costs 3WU is a busted card, and there is little reason not to play this card. Azorius is a strong guild. FI is not as important as Supreme Verdict in a large cube. But after that, it could very well compete and win against every other card in the guild. Just not to appear too high on the card, I will remind that it suffers from some of the shortcomings of Control Magic effects, mostly that it is weak against aggressive decks. Everything you will kill in that matchup is likely cheap and not that useful on the defense.
Mirri, Weatherlight Duelist – fringe playable
There is nothing wrong with Mirri per se, she is just not a cube level threat. Her ability is cool but might be completely irrelevant. If my opponent has one or less blockers, and relies on mass removals, it does nothing. If my opponent has a single big creature, like a titan or Griselbrand, it does nothing. It is good in aggro against midrange or the mirror. If she can attack and survive. But she does die to a Shock. She will be best against token decks, but you are the one playing the token colors.
Consider her versus something like Loxodon Smiter. Is her ability good enough to be worth the much worse stats? I doubt it. Selesnya is a powerful guild. But even if Mirri was monocolored she would not be an auto include, in either color. Thalia, Heretic Cathar, does her thing better. Mirri does not provide a function you truly need. I do not see a deck splashing a color to play her, but rather just playing her if she fits and the curve needs it. I require more from gold card.
Bloodforged Battle-Axe – niche
I do not know why some are optimistic about this card. The worse thing about Trusty Machete was her equip cost. Yes, Battke-Axe will grant value if you can connect, but that value will not be great either. You will get another Darksteel Axe. It is so expensive to equip the copies, and so vulnerable, that I cannot see it being more than a win more card. If I am already having a guy with an equipment that doesn’t grand evasion or defense connecting, then I’ll still need to sink more mana to get proper value.
Heirloom Blade – niche for tribal support
This is better value and far better stats for the cost. It is still clunky, likely too slow for aggressive decks. You can play and equip it only on turn four. But the equip cost itself is rather cheap. The chances of getting card advantage when the creature dies are not that low, with a lot of creatures having some overlap. You will get that odd equip to an angel or elemental, but maybe you can get a 50% card advantage hit and that’s decent. Problem is decks wanting a +3/+1 equipment are not interested in slow card advantage engines. Equipment and vehicles are fighting for a tight space, and I do not see this as better than anything in that section.