Arena Cube Draft: A General In-Depth Strategy Guide
Arena Cube Draft is a format which selects the best cards on Arena, puts them all together, makes various changes to improve the environment*, and then throws you into some action-packed Drafts pitting them against each other, with an amalgam of familiar faces and cards you may only have heard of in legend rather than seen before, spread across a multitude of different sets! Nobody has ever properly assessed the Rekindling Phoenix vs Vivien, Monster’s Advocate match-up before, but we may well experience it today!
Check out the card list by clicking the link above!
- The event lasts from June 12th to 25th, the day of M21/Core Set 2021’s release.
- The mode is best-of-one player drafts only; there are no bots. The draft is timed, so you do need to be careful and pick at a reasonable pace.
- Cube is a singleton format; if you’ve already seen a card, you won’t see it again unless it’s on the wheel – you cannot draft multiple copies of any card. The 8 people drafting only look at 360 out of the 555 cards in the Cube, and you‘ll only see some of those – so don’t base your strategy too much around one particular card!
- You can playtest the event on Cube Cobra, if you’d like to save your gems/gold for when you’ve tried it out a bit.
- This article is mostly about general Cube strategy; I will not specifically be discussing the archetypes or evaluating cards here, as I would rather do that once I have had the chance to draft the cube a few times; this is the day of release, and I wouldn’t want to misinform people! A large part of understanding any Magic format is being able to place the decks within the overall environment; Cube is no exception. I do give some examples of cards I would recommend staying away from, however, and I do touch on which archetypes I believe will be well-represented.
*This is why some especially broken or unfun cards like Oko, Thief of Crowns and Agent of Treachery were excluded, and why there are some inclusions that aren’t all that powerful: they were included for other reasons such as being fun/popular or Wizards felt they would improve the environment by creating unique decks, filling slots etc. Additionally, some bad cards were included for the very same reasons for their being printed in the first place; check out this fantastic article from Mark Rosewater for more info, and click here for my list of traps/cards you mostly shouldn’t play from this iteration of the Cube.
Costs and Rewards:
Your first draft is free, and then each subsequent one will cost 4,000 gold or 600 gems. The event is phantom, which means you don’t keep any of the cards you Draft – you are paying for the experience and prizes.
- 0 Wins: 3 Individual Card Rewards (ICRs) – 1 rare and 2 uncommons not in Standard
- 1 Win: 500 Gold + 3 Individual Card Rewards (ICRs) – 1 rare and 2 uncommons not in Standard
- 2 Wins: 1000 Gold + 3 Individual Card Rewards (ICRs) – 1 rare and 2 uncommons not in Standard
- 3 Wins: 2000 Gold + 3 Individual Card Rewards (ICRs) – 1 rare and 2 uncommons not in Standard
- 4 Wins: 3000 Gold + 3 Individual Card Rewards (ICRs) – 1 rare and 2 uncommons not in Standard
- 5 Wins: 4000 Gold + 3 Individual Card Rewards (ICRs) – 2 rares and 1 uncommon not in Standard
- 6 Wins: 5000 Gold + 3 Individual Card Rewards (ICRs) – 2 rares and 1 uncommon not in Standard
- 7 Wins: 6000 Gold + 3 Individual Card Rewards (ICRs) – 2 rares and 1 uncommon not in Standard
Not quite Draft, not quite Constructed
Cube tends to differ a great deal from a regular Limited format; the cubes with rares in them tend to feel like more of an amalgam of Constructed and Limited, with factors that best befit each, and I suspect that while this iteration will still feel very different from regular Draft, it will be much closer to it than any traditional Cube variant, since the card pool is so much smaller and the individual cards so much weaker.
What are the effects of this? Well, play vs draw matters more; let’s look at the image below. The Arena Cube winrates for play/draw will be somewhere between the difference in Limited winrates, and this absurd play/draw disparity we’re seeing in Standard.
Constructed and, by extension, Cube have a lot more snowball potential than Limited – once you start to fall behind, it is harder to catch up because cards are so much more powerful and efficient, and there’s more stuff like planeswalkers which spike from weak to immensely powerful based on whether you’re ahead or behind. That means it matters more if you get screwed or flooded, or if you miss plays on curve as a deck that’s looking to win through tempo.
In regular Draft, surviving a turn or two of this is usually trivial, since most Limited decks can’t punish stumbles that significantly – even aggro decks don’t have nearly as much reach, so you can oftentimes stabilise on a lower life total and still be fine, and then win with your better late game; this natural disadvantage is part of why pure aggro decks are on the rarer side in most Limited formats. As I’m sure you’re aware, none of this applies to Constructed – stumbles generally result in a quick loss – and Cube decks too will have a lot more reach and cards with far more snowball potential, so you really need to make sure you have a good mana base and curve, since almost every deck will be able to capitalise on you doing nothing for a turn or two. I argue later that you should take lands higher, and part of that is because it’s much more important that you don’t get colour screwed – Limited decks can function with worse mana bases, Constructed and Cube decks absolutely can’t – in Cube, if you can’t cast your spells 20% of the time, that is a loss 15% of the time.
Almost all of the cards you’re picking from are of decent quality – you won’t have to play too many total duds, whereas sometimes you have to play some cards you’d really rather not to fill your playable count in regular Draft. While Arena Cube has some weak cards (I’ll have a section later where I’ll list cards I think you almost never want to play/trap cards) and some bombs you’ll try to jam into any archetype, the overall power curve is much flatter i.e. the difference between an average card and a good card is much smaller. That means that it’s correct far more often to take the card you perceive to be weaker, if it synergises with your deck, is good on your curve, or you have any other good reason to – it’s common for Limited decks not to even want 1 drops, even in aggro decks, but most 1 drops in Cube will be of good quality, so it makes sense to take them much higher, and Aggro decks absolutely need them. Power level sacrifices are much less important when cards are only slightly better than others anyway.
Ignore rarity completely here, just as you would ignore it when building your ideal deck in Constructed – the most powerful cards in Cube are not at all based on rarity, and the format is phantom anyway so there’s no point in rare-drafting.
Drafting towards a Plan
In large part because Cube exists in the limbo between Draft and Constructed, the ways in which you would brew for a Constructed format are valuable to Cube drafting (probably still less valuable than regular drafting skills, but I assume you knew you would need those!) – in most Constructed formats, all of the playable cards are powerful so the cards you need to put in the deck need to synergise well, and that’s the case for Cube too. However, just like in a Constructed format, there are some cards that are so powerful that you will sacrifice synergy to fit them in; in fact, Cube diverges in that you’ll have to do that more here – you can’t build as synergistically as in Standard, because you just won’t see the right cards a lot of the time, and will have to make do with what you can get. while playing some cards just because they’re good is fine and usually necessary, almost all of your cards need to be on-plan and most of them should fit within your archetype or niche.
In Ikoria Draft, it’s much more common to have packages rather than full archetypes – you can dip into Mutate in pretty much any deck if you have enough nonhumans; you can incorporate sacrifice synergies with inefficient cards like Bushmeat Poacher even if your main plan is to hit them with your big creatures, and most decks want plenty of removal. In fact, almost all decks in most draft formats tend to be some flavour of midrange; it is far less common for decks to be straight aggro or Control. Not in Cube though! In Cube, if you have a gameplan then you’re trying to commit to that gameplan – if you’re Jeskai Control, then you probably shouldn’t be playing something like Sprite Dragon, which is purely a beatdown card, whereas you would be happy with it in any Draft deck with plenty of spells.
For example, if you’re playing Mono Red then you want to be looking for efficient aggressive red creatures and ways to give yourself reach once your opponent has stabilised. A card like Viashino Pyromancer will be your bread and butter, whereas something like Chandra, Awakened Inferno is usually too expensive and doesn’t fit your gameplan enough to warrant inclusion which highlights the difference because a Draft deck would always be happy to play that card. However, there will be times when your aggro deck either needs to play it to have enough playables or has some strange synergy-based reason to do so; Chandra isn’t unplayable in Mono Red, she’s just not what you want (this doesn’t apply to every card though – I suspect Zetalpa, Primal Dawn is unplayable in any iteration of Mono White Aggro!).
Another great example is in sweepers; if you’re a heavy creature deck then you generally don’t want to play those even if regular Limited decks would be overjoyed, such as Settle the Wreckage in White-based aggro decks. It might seem like a fine card to include anyway, but when your opponents are far more likely to have planeswalkers or enchantment/artifact-based wincons, and you’ll be running into Control decks much more often, you can see how cards like that start to fall off dramatically… That being said, Settle the Wreckage isn’t completely unplayable in those decks; sometimes your deck will have weaknesses to midrange you want to shore up, if you feel it’s good against Control anyway, for example.
Slower decks need catch-all answers in Cube; there are a huge variety of different permanent types you’ll have to deal with. On that basis, a versatile removal option like Maelstrom Pulse is far better than something like Epic Downfall; neither of those cards is particular good against aggro, so they don’t fill that role, but only one is embarrassing against planeswalkers and cards like Ethereal Absolution. Consider carefully which removal options you run; unlike in regular Drafts, you don’t just want to throw all of them in there, especially in decks which favour pro-activity, like every aggro deck and most midrange decks. Removal isn’t the end-all be-all in Cube, because far more permanents will get immediate value; if you remove most planeswalkers after they’ve used their abilities, you’re not getting nearly as exciting a rate as if you had killed a big creature in Limited, and often it would’ve had more impact if you had just slammed your own haymaker.
The deckbuilding stage will generally be harder than in a regular Limited format, because you’ll have so many more cuts to make – imagine having to make 20 cuts from a deck instead of five, and most of the cards being of similar power level! To mitigate this, consider how every card you put in your deck fits into your gameplan: why are you playing it and what does it do in your deck? If you’re playing Mono Red, what is Sarkhan the Masterless likely to do for you? Is a 4/4 Dragon attached to a planeswalker that they must kill good for your gameplan? Well, probably, but not if you have a lot of other 5 drops, or if you want to play 15 lands instead of 16 to 17. Also if you have a lot of other reach (reach refers to your ability to finish games as an aggro deck after your opponent has stabilised – fliers will do this, burn spells will do it better), then maybe you just don’t need a 4/4 flier and would rather shore up your early game and make sure you can get to the point where your reach can win the game. As with so many aspects of Magic, a lot of thinking is involved, but you do have all the time you need to build your deck at least!
Be varied in your preparation – you’re playing best-of-one games so you’ll only have one shot at beating your opponents, and there’ll be a lot of different strategies on display. What that means is, in the deckbuilding stage, consider how your deck fares against plenty of different archetypes: Aggro, Control, Midrange value decks, decks that are trying to ramp to busted stuff like Ulamog etc. It’s unavoidable that you’ll be worse against some things than others, but if you can make some switches to cover your weaknesses, then you’ll be more prepared against the field. Since I’m writing this before the format has even come out, I can only make guesses based on the card pool as to which decks will be the most common: I suspect Aggro decks will be very common, so you need to prepare the most for those by including good blockers and plenty of early plays. This is still a Limited format so midrange variants will still be the most common decks you face; this means that you’ll still want lots of removal, sweepers can help you break midrange mirrors, and you want some sources of value to help you take over the late game. It’s a singleton format with 500+ cards so it’s going to be impossible to prepare for everything; just be ready for the vast general archetypes and you’ll be fine.
Speculative picks are better – go where the power is
If you’ve seen any of my other Limited articles, you’ll know that I subscribe to “drafting the hard way” – I try to maximise the strength of all my draft decks rather than worrying about specific ones, I don’t force things, I pay attention to signals and allow the draft itself to dictate what directions I go into. For more information, check out my first article for MTG Arena Zone, back in September, where I give a very in-depth explanation on how to follow signals and stay open! In basic terms, if you’re seeing good cards in certain archetypes or colours, those should dictate to you which deck to move into – early on, you just want to take the best cards until you have a clear idea of where you’re going, and you’re beginning to sacrifice more than is worthwhile in abandoning what you already have; it takes a surprising amount of time to get to that stage though.
In Cube, it is even better to pick speculatively and to stay open/take the best cards for longer. For the same reasons I just gave, that you have access to far more playables and the difference between average and good cards is smaller, you almost never have too few playables in Cube – every card you pick will be good but you only end up having to play half of them. If that means you have to play a less synergistic card in your deck or a card that’s very slightly worse, that’s really not a big deal. That means that the average decent playable really isn’t worth that much, so if you have the potential to make something really powerful happen, by taking a card that’s really busted even if it doesn’t work especially well with your strategy or you aren’t looking like you’ll be in those colours right now, then you usually should – later in the draft, when you would be giving up too much to be in that colour and you can’t splash the card, maybe not but, for most of the draft, you should be open to taking powerful cards. That being said, the cards do need to be powerful – because most cards aren’t that much better
That’s not to say that some archetypes aren’t better than others, and you shouldn’t favour them at all – Cycling is so powerful and deep in Ikoria that taking the payoffs for it much higher is correct, but forcing it from the beginning of the draft will often end in disaster and lower your overall winrate. especially now that we’re so late into the format and other people are aware that it’s good.
This is the same case with every Draft format – draft is self-correcting, and there’s a lot of gain from exploiting holes in the meta where people are underprepared, and this is why I suspect Mono Red will be super strong in Arena Cube Draft, especially at the start – people will be inclined to draft mostly sweet durdly decks that aren’t really prepared for aggro, and you can just steamroll them almost freely; Mono Red rarely fails to be good in Cubes. You still shouldn’t draft it if you’re not seeing good cards for it late though; that indicates other people will be competing with you for those cards.
Take lands and fixers highly – over medium playables, but not busted ones
For reasons I’ve given, including that colour screw is more crippling, replacing your lands with nonbasics ends up having a much bigger effect – having better and more consistent mana in decks with two or more colours is a much greater edge than having a few cards that are only 10 or 15% more powerful. If you end up playing a B- instead of a B because you took a land over that B earlier, you have improved your overall deck significantly. If your fixing is bad, you will lose far more games on average than you need to, and your deck won’t be much better in terms of quality for it.
Remember that you can also count fixers like Paradise Druid as non-green sources; they will reduce your likelihood of being screwed, and are a good reason to slant your mana base more towards their colour, since they unlock your other colours when played.
Powerful Buildarounds over Bombs
In Draft, you’re looking for the most powerful cards – a card like Dream Trawler will often take over the game immediately, and your opponents are unlikely to be able to stop it. In Cube however, when your opponents will have answers to Dream Trawler available from Lyra Dawnbringer to Shadowspear to Stonecoil Serpent to Shark Typhoon, or can just ignore it and do an even more powerful thing such as ramping to Ulamog, Ceaseless Hunger or making the 5 life you just gained look like a joke with a big Embercleave swing.
In Cube, you’re looking for direction, for a powerful payoff which you can then pick around enhancing and building synergy with. A card like Feather, the Redeemed, Ulamog, or Gray Merchant of Asphodel can be a strong early pick, and then you can see whether the archetype they best fit into is open and try to move in; the payoff if these cards work tends to be far greater than the impact of the average Bomb in Cube, and especially if you’re seeing those cards fifth or sixth pick, that’s a great reason to move in.
Some Examples of Cards Not to Play (most of the time)
Every Cube has its share of terrible cards and traps, though generally there are less than in Draft formats; I’ll run down the ones in the Arena Cube that I think you should almost never play. Luckily, as I said before, you have access to far more playables; if you don’t want to play cards of this caliber, you will rarely have to. There are exceptions to every rule, so I’ll try to talk about some of them, but if you’re on the less experienced side then stay away from these cards completely.
Cards that aren’t great in Limited to begin with will generally be even worse here, unless their synergies are much better supported such as with Cathartic Reunion – since there are far more ways to make use of the graveyard, that card is likely to be better here than in the average Draft format. Cards like Fires of Invention or Wilderness Reclamation are also much better here than in Limited, since there are far more powerful things you can do when cheating on mana.
This list is by no means exhaustive; hopefully my reasons will give you some idea of what other cards fall into this category. You can also check out my Draft tier lists, which cover Theros: Beyond Death and Ikoria, or other tier lists from people you trust; if cards get low grades in those formats, they generally won’t be worth picking here either.
- Sudden Spinnerets: This is a mediocre card even in Ikoria Draft; I know that some people are more fond of it than I am there, but in a much higher power format like Cube, I see practically no reason. Perhaps if your Mono Green midrange deck is very weak against fliers, and you’re especially worried about that matchup, but you’re going to get obliterated by instant-speed removal far more than in a regular Draft format. It’s a huge risk for a card that’s so situational that it will just rot in your hand most of the time anyway. Just don’t play this card!
- Akroma’s Memorial: If the format weren’t best-of-one only, I could see some argument for this – you could bring it in in your slower midrange/ramp decks against Black and Red decks to give your stuff hexproof and unblockable, which still isn’t that exciting for 7 mana, but is certainly much better than the average case of this card. 7 mana is a terrible rate for an effect that doesn’t immediately have a colossal effect on the board; you need a bunch of creatures lying around for this to do anything, and it doesn’t even make those creatures into bigger threats – it just gives them a range of mediocre abilities, which may or may not be useful. In ramp decks, which one might intuitively think of as the best home for a 7 mana card, its effect is completely useless – giving your Ulamog, End-Raze Forerunners, or Carnage Tyrant any of these abilities is completely unnecessary, and if you draw this by itself, it’s just a brick.
In Tokens decks, you can use Memorial’s combination of first strike, flying, and vigilance to essentially mean that your opponents can’t attack you – if they do, you just put a ton of blockers on every creature and they all die for free to the first strike, so I don’t think the card is completely unplayable, but even there, you should be able to do better for 7 mana. Save this for the Commander formats!
- Juggernaut: Folks, 2003 has been and gone. You need a truly fantastic reason to do this for 4 mana – maybe it’s your deck is desperately reliant on Artifact or synergies like Steel Overseer, in which case having one that kills itself some proportion of the time isn’t a great place to be, but at least it’s a thing. Most decks will want to stay away; there are just far better 4-drops and far better cards you can play.
- Manifold Key: You really need a heavy density of Artifacts that tap for mana or for other advantages like Icy Manipulator does, before this card even begins to look reasonable. I suspect you want 7-8 which, based on the number of decent Artifacts in the Cube, is going to be extremely hard to get.
- Any really situational cards – In any Limited or Constructed format, you really need specific information about the environment before it’s worth jamming cards that don’t have a consistently good effect into your deck. This means staying away from stuff like Redcap Melee in non-aggro decks, since we’re playing best-of-one and Redcap Melee’s rate is pretty bad for most decks if you’re not hitting Red creatures, at least outside of low-curve aggro decks which can afford to lose a land for the sake of efficiency in the late game.
I’ve mostly covered general strategy today, but I’ll have a follow-up with a more specific run-down of the Archetypes and other information once I’ve had a chance to draft the Cube a few times! I’m really excited to dip my toes in, and hope all of you will put some of the advice I’ve given here into practice as soon as you can.
- I offer Limited coaching, which certainly extends to Cube Draft! Learn some fundamental skills in just a few short hours. Contact me through the discord/twitter or click this link for more info.
- Look out for my M21 Tier List, releasing right after the Limited Set Reviews, which begin on the 17th or 18th!
- If you’re looking for a good draft streamer to watch, I recommend www.twitch.tv/justlolaman. Lola is a a strong Limited player and good teacher, one of the site’s sponsored streamers, and a long-time friend of mine. I’ll be guest-starring on his stream for the early access event, the day before Ikoria’s release, so check that out!
- The MTG Arena Zone discord: https://discord.gg/SPYMExR. Engage with your favourite MTGAZone content creators there, myself included!