Fangs and Figures – Analyzing the Legacy Cube
By Dom Harvey
Recently the Legacy Cube returned to Magic Online as the time-killer of choice before the new set release. After a long binge, I formed what I think is a decent understanding of what worked and what didn’t. Some of it is obvious – there’s a reason that ‘…Vampires?’ was the universal reaction on social media – but there are more subtle problems too. In this article I’ll explain the flaws as I see them and offer constructive feedback for addressing them.
As a disclaimer, the ideas on this site can be very unorthodox. Our priority as Cube designers is optimizing our lists for local playgroups under parameters that we control; it’s a much different task to design a list that works for a mass audience of experienced and newer players, that offers enough variety to keep you interested during the third draft of the day, that conforms to conventional ideas of what Cube is, and so on; my ideal Legacy Cube list would not look much like my personal Cube(s). The goal is to help the Legacy Cube be as good as possible on its own terms.
If you follow Cube discussion for long enough, you will hear someone bemoaning the failure of black aggro. Designers dutifully pack their lists with Sarcomancy and Dauthi Slayer, only to watch them circle the table and end up in sideboards. Faced with this dilemma many Cube owners double down on black aggro, cut it entirely, or explore radical solutions, with no real consensus emerging.
Given that, I understand the urge to try Vampires, but the backlash was predictable and justified.
Randy Buehler summarizes the most important part of the official Cube philosophy here:
“We briefly discussed radically changing the theme of the Cube, but at the end of the day we all agreed that “Best of Magic” or “Greatest Hits” Cubes are just awesome, so the Legacy Cube will continue to be a Greatest Hits Cube. In fact, nothing was cut purely on the basis of power level—not even Jace, the Mind Sculptor. We cut some “hits” that were highly non-interactive (aka, straight-forward and/or dumb whether you’re playing with them or against them), so you won’t find True-Name Nemesis in the Legacy Cube and there aren’t any Swords either. We also cut some of the one-dimensional red cards (like Ball Lightning) that make it hard to keep all red decks from turning into mono-red aggro decks (so splashing another color should make more sense now), but mostly we just looked for the most exciting and powerful cards we could find”
In a ‘power-max’ context like this, the bar that any card – an experimental theme, cards from the new set, whatever – has to meet is very high. A few years ago, you could jam whatever ridiculous creature had just been printed into your Cube and call it a day; now, every set brings a bunch of impressively undercosted threats, and cards that were auto-includes before are being edged out. To earn a slot in this cutthroat environment a card must be very strong, both in relative terms and on its own merits. Sangromancer is a bad card to begin with, and is downright embarrassing alongside the likes of Hero of Bladehold. It’s not even better than the other lacklustre black cards that auditioned for that slot. Liliana’s Reaver is not exciting, but it suggests a plan – I’ll play Reaver, remove whatever my opponent puts in the way, and create a cascading effect that is hard to recover from. This plan only asks for cards I want to play anyway – discard and removal spells.
With Vampires, I need to play bad cards to power up my other bad cards, in hope of a payoff that isn’t demonstrably better than what I get from a normal strategy. For a deck based on synergy to succeed, it has to be better than the sum of its parts by a big enough margin to justify downgrading individual cards. I doubt this is true of Vampires: a perfect start of 1-drop -> 2-drop -> Captivating Vampire -> Vampire Nocturnus will win most games, but so will 1-drop -> 2-drop -> Brimaz, -> Elspeth or 1-drop -> 2-drop -> Goblin Rabblemaster -> Hellrider, and in those examples it’s much easier to win if I’m missing one of the pieces. This goes for the draft too: Randy says, “If you want to pass me Vampire Nocturnus or Anowon, the Ruin Sage I am quite happy to grab them and build around them” but his neighbours are also quite happy with that, as they have less competition for the legitimately good cards and can cripple Randy’s deck by hate-drafting at the right moment.
The other major problem is that so many cards are useless outside ‘the Vampires deck’. The biggest offender is Necropolis Regent, which is unplayable elsewhere and also bad in Vampires: with that deck I want to win quickly so my opponent has no time to play their good cards, not drag the game out, and even in the perfect deck for Regent I would rather have Grave Titan. The same problem afflicts the Guul Draz Vampires and Stromkirk Captains that fill out the deck: if I’m currently in another archetype, even a good Vampire tribal card gives me no reason to switch or dabble in black. The other side of that coin is that Vampires has no exit plan: if you move in on Vampires but what you need isn’t coming, you may not have enough picks left to avoid a trainwreck.
Randy argues that you could say the same about the usual black aggro cards, but insofar as that’s true I think the blame lies with the rest of the Cube. Few people enter a draft intending to force black aggro, but the lack of respect it garners means you can often pick up the cards late. Suppose you start with a run of blue cards, but it’s soon clear that blue is being cut and you need a new plan; you see the black aggro cards coming back, and take them from a few shallow packs to keep your options open. You then open a good black card – say, Bitterblossom – and move in, ending up with a solid base-black aggressive deck touching blue for some disruption and maybe a Serendib Efreet or Phantasmal Image. Maybe you’re in mono red, but Carnophage and Falkenrath Aristocrat fill out your curve and Doom Blade gives you outs to larger creatures; or perhaps your white aggro deck really wants that Lingering Souls, and is happy to pick up Dark Confidant and Knight of Infamy too. That kind of flexibility makes aggro in general – not just black aggro – viable in Cube when the draft isn’t going perfectly, and for it to exist you need the aggro cards to be strong outside their own niche and not dominated by only a few colours – UG and BG aggro decks don’t need to be common, but they should be theoretically possible. Vampires violates this rule at the most basic level; Carnophage and friends do not.
The other crucial ingredient to making aggro work is manafixing. In Constructed, multicoloured aggro decks often have 8 or more dual lands – more than a third of their manabase; in Limited you might get a dual land or two depending on the format, but your mana requirements are less stringent and you can usually afford to play your splash card a turn or two later. Cube, which so often is the best of both worlds, is the worst of both here: Limited-quality manafixing is expected to enable Constructed-quality starts. It’s a much less forgiving format, where delaying a key play by a turn is often lethal. This is especially brutal for aggro decks, which need to deploy their cards early to compensate for their relatively low power and which can’t afford control’s extra methods of stabilizing its manabase – Signets/ramp spells, card draw, and the like. Black feels this more than any other colour, as its flagship cards require a heavy black commitment – Bloodghast and Geralf’s Messenger certainly contribute to devotion, to put it nicely. The Legacy Cube isn’t too bad in this regard, but for the more aggressive colour pairs switching out Temples or the Glacial Fortress cycle (which don’t let you go T1 R into T2 BB, for instance) for filter lands or the Seachrome Coast cycle would help if you’re willing to mix and match. Black could really use Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth.
The size of the Cube is an understated issue that looms over all of this. The Magic Online Cube has to be reasonably large to sustain people’s interest – if players see the same cards over and over, boredom quickly sets in. As a result, there’s no guarantee that any given card will turn up in a draft. This has depressing implications for the two-card combos sprinkled throughout the Cube. Take one recent addition: when I pick Scapeshift I know it’s a blank card if I don’t see Valakut, but that’s fine as nobody else wants Valakut and I can bet on it reaching me. In a 600 card Cube, the Valakut might not even be there! It’s hard enough to justify experimenting with these combos when both cards are in circulation, but when that’ s not even assured you almost always take the safer route. The same applies to a lesser extent to Vampires: building around Vampire Nocturnus is dubious when you’re guaranteed to see it, so when you aren’t…
The strangest part about all of this is I’m not sure black is a problem that needs fixing. In a Cube as creature-centric as this one, efficient and versatile removal backing up solid threats – Desecration Demon, Grave Titan, planeswalkers – has been a very successful strategy for me. Reanimator and ‘Pox‘ (and similar effects) have been tried in other Cubes to various degrees of success. Black aggro, if adequately supported, might yet be good enough. The one systematic weakness that black has is its inability to deal with certain card types – artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers. Cutting Swords and Jitte goes a long way towards fixing that, but green and white have a dozen planeswalkers between them and the Cube could stand to lose one of Garruk, Apex Predator and Vraska, Chandra Nalaar, and so on.
If they do give black aggro another go, I’d swap the Vampires for their replacements and then make some minor adjustments:
– Anowon, the Ruin Sage
– Ascendant Evincar
– Bloodlord of Vaasgoth
– Captivating Vampire
– Dark Impostor
– Guul Draz Vampire
– Kalastria Highborn
– Malakir Bloodwitch
– Necropolis Regent
– Vampire Interloper
– Vampire Nocturnus
+ Bloodsoaked Champion
+ Diregraf Ghoul
+ Gnarled Scarhide
+ Knight of Infamy
+ Lifebane Zombie
+ Mesmeric Fiend
+ Nantuko Shade
+ Spiteful Returned
+ Carrion Feeder, crucial for any sacrifice shenanigans and has crossover value with the token generators in red and white
+ Silumgar Assassin, a much-needed two drop from the most recent set
+ Flesh Carver, a startling omission if you’re taking black aggro seriously
– Underworld Connections, too clunky for aggro and underwhelming in midrange decks
+ Sign in Blood, a sleeker draw spell that serves double duty in aggro decks
+ Read the Bones, a more surgical draw spell without the heavy mana/time commitment of Arena or Connections
– Crux of Fate
– Skinrender, a conditional removal spell that feels redundant when you have Bone Shredder, Nekrataal, Shriekmaw, and the noncreature black removal
– Sorin Markov
+ Abyssal Persecutor, the original Desecration Demon and a solid midrange threat for black that creates an interesting subgame
+ Sidisi, Undead Vizier
– Diabolic Servitude
+ Makeshift Mannequin, which is unique among the plethora of reanimation spells
For most of us, refining your Cube is a lengthy and gradual process. If you’re lucky you get a draft or two every week, where one card overperforms or something goes undrafted again. You try out the obvious cards from the new set, move on to the less obvious, adjust the rest of the Cube accordingly, and by the time you’ve reached an informed opinion another set is on the horizon.
The Magic Online Cube lies dormant for most of the year, and is then subjected to more drafts in the first hours of its run than most Cubes over their entire lifetimes. There is enough evidence from thousands of drafts that ideas about what does and doesn’t work in the Cube can be backed up by statistics and not just anecdotes or intuition. Randy’s articles explaining his changes are laden with references to these results.
The problem for us is that we don’t have access to the data; we only ever see it when the organizers use it to justify their changes. When we do see it, it often doesn’t support the point being made (or the point remains underdetermined).
Take this quote:
“The really interesting data comes when you compare the average draft pick of cards among people who won their draft to the average position among other drafters. Of the top 30 cards on that list, 29 are mono-red aggro cards (with Sulfuric Vortex having the biggest difference). Clearly mono-red decks are too efficient, and while I am happy to have mono-red be around as an option, it shouldn’t just be easier to win with than all the other archetypes”
Sulfuric Vortex is strong enough to be listed as a top-tier Cube card, no matter how that list is drawn up. But what about Firedrinker Satyr and the rest of Vortex’s groupies? How about the low-tier red aggro cards like Scorched Rusalka? These cards all go in the same deck – and only the same deck – as Sulfuric Vortex, so if red decks have a great win percentage then all these cards will place higher even if most of the work was done by Vortex and other premium cards. Vortex being high makes every other red aggro card that much more likely to be high too; it would be surprising if the list weren’t overpopulated by red aggro cards.
Cards specific to red aggro will look better in this context than cards that are more widely playable or better in the abstract. Lightning Strike is a better card than Skullcrack; if you could only include one in your Cube or your red aggro deck, you would pick Lightning Strike. However, any red deck can find room for Lightning Strike, so these R/G midrange decks or U/R control decks drag down Lightning Strike’s win percentage and lower its position on the list; Skullcrack is certainly higher, and Lightning Strike probably lower, than their power would suggest.
What the data does show is that red aggro cards are ‘poisonous’: a card like Sulfuric Vortex is an automatic pick if you’re drafting the deck and an automatic pass if you aren’t. In this respect it isn’t much different from black aggro, but it’s more successful and has a long pedigree in Constructed and retail Limited so its inclusion has become a sacred cow in Cube. The graveyard theme in B/G was junked for being equally poisonous but less successful – in Randy’s words, “I think we landed in a place where there just weren’t enough rewards in the Cube to justify the enablers (mostly because we cut the rewards because they tend to be super-narrow cards that only work in one deck)”. Ultimately, is there a difference between Shrine of Burning Rage and whatever your reward for the B/G deck would be? With enough delve cards, reanimation effects, and so on, I think there’s room for a successful graveyard deck that offers more interesting gameplay than typical aggro or midrange decks while furnishing black with a distinct identity. The danger is that new Cube designers will look at these results and conclude that this theme, or any unusual theme, is doomed to failure in Cube. As an ‘official’ product this Cube sets the tone for the public’s understanding of what Cube is and what works, so any failed experiments have larger implications.
It’s clear that people were winning a lot with red aggro. What’s less clear is who, and why. Mono red is ruthless at punishing mistakes in deckbuilding and gameplay, and many less experienced players end up with decks that are terrified of Mountains; equally, mono red allows those players to run over better decks and players without engaging them on their level. It’s hard to tell from the statistics how much of red’s win percentage is due to its inherent strength and how much is due to the weaknesses of other decks and players. If everyone paid close attention to their deck’s mana curve, hate-drafted red aggro cards when appropriate, and sent back hands without early interaction, its win rate would be a fair bit lower. Does this matter? The Magic Online Cube isn’t meant to be a perfect test of skill or a purely competitive experience. It stings to ‘waste’ time and money losing to Goblin Guide in five minutes, even if you could have done things differently, and you don’t want to scare newcomers away from Cube permanently.
This same issue applies to individual cards: it’s hard to judge a card in isolation when the other contents of a deck and the skill of the pilot skew the results so heavily. Recently on Twitter, some Pro Tour mainstays were bashing Tangle Wire as a trap that’s only used by bad players in bad decks. Even if their general distaste for the card is on point, the fact that it’s used badly doesn’t make it unusable. Lots of players jam Tangle Wire in decks that aren’t built to exploit it properly, where it’s a waste of a card and mana, and their low win percentage will lower the card’s rating. If, on top of that, the best players are avoiding Tangle Wire, its placement will be solely determined by worse players creating a warped perception of how bad it truly is.
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Sangromancer???1?????? I hardly know her!!!!!!
If a singleton “best of magic” cube is the only thing they’re going to put out, maybe it’ll be a little while until black aggro works. But after gravecrawler (I hardly know her1) and Bloodsoaked Champion I’m pretty hopeful that they’ll print a few more good recursive black cheap-drops. Then the archetype might be viable.