How Cube Drafting Taught Me to Play Better in Constructed Formats

Submitted & Written by Andy Rogers.

I’m not a great constructed player. I likely never will be. Others in my playgroup are particularly good at building combos into their decks. Those decks are usually online by turn three or four and by then, I’m already losing. I still have a lot of fun playing constructed games. I read decklists and stick to powerful archetypes in order to win, but I know my strengths and constructed isn’t one of them.

Casual formats like Cube Drafting, EDH, Planechase, and other variants are where I have the most fun, and win more games. I found that cubing, in particular, has taught me more about the game and how individual cards work than other variants. This is because cubing, unlike the other variants, offers an extremely random card selection. This randomness often creates strange situations on the board that push me to make cards interact with each other in ways that they typically wouldn’t in a constructed game. Here are some examples of what I mean.

Molten Slagheap is a better mana sink than Azure Mage

In a recent cube draft I dropped Molten Slagheap on turn one and Azure Mage on turn two. The rest of my hand was filled with land and the types of expensive fatties you expect to see in a cube. I drew more land on turn three and didn’t have another spell to play, so I dropped the land and pinged my opponent for two life. I forgot to put a charge counter on [cube]Molten Slagheap[/card] during my turn and during my opponent’s turn. I didn’t really think it was a big deal though. After all, Azure Mage would offer me a card draw in one more turn. On turn four I drew another fatty, dropped another land, pinged my opponent for two (fortunately, he still hadn’t played a creature) and then paid four mana for a card draw off of Azure Mage. This eliminated my chances of loading Molten Slagheap with a charge counter.

You know what I drew with the mage? Another expensive fatty. It’s the nature of the cube I was playing, lots of expensive fatties. What did I expect?

On turns five and six I made the same fatal mistake. I kept pinging my opponent for two life and using Azure Mage to draw fatties I couldn’t play. Had I been loading Molten Slagheap instead of paying four mana to draw those cards I would have been able to drop at least one of the fatties I drew in my opening hand.

My opponent caught up with me on turn six, took out my Azure Mage, and my advantage on the board was gone.

Lesson learned: Don’t underestimate Molten Slagheap. It can be a better way to spend extra mana than Azure Mage. Next time I play a constructed game that uses either of these cards I’ll be able to make better decisions because of this experience.

 

Letting Jace come in and go out in three turns is completely worth it

My previous example showed how card advantage isn’t always the best route to pursue, now it’s time for an opposite example.

Cube drafting taught me that Jace Beleren is one of the few planeswalkers whose “ultimate” ability is not necessarily worth chasing. Not when he can offer card advantage the way he does with his second ability.

In multiple cube games I dropped Jace Beleren and immediately started reducing his loyalty counters in order to gain card advantage. It worked beautifully each time and helped me secure victory.

With every other planeswalker in our cube (Nicol Bolas, Ajani Vengeant, Koth of the Hammer and a few others) I find myself chasing their ultimate ability. “If I can just survive one or two more turns…” I think to myself as I ratchet them up. What often happens, however, is that my planeswalker becomes an even bigger target for my opponent, who takes them out before I get there. Or, I lose the game before I make it to the ultimate ability.

Jace Beleren isn’t as a big of a target, though. Especially when an opponent sees you ratcheting him down each turn, they won’t be as worried about getting rid of him. You are doing that for them already. Besides, they might also be secretly hoping you’ll ratchet him up once or twice so they can share in the card drawing frenzy. Either way, each time I’ve cast Jace and then immediately started depleting his loyalty counters, good things have happened.

Lesson learned: Don’t necessarily default to chasing a Planeswalker’s ultimate ability. This might be especially true in constructed formats where the games are typically shorter.

Don’t Underestimate Manabarbs

In another cube draft I was playing Red/Black and had Manabarbs in my deck. Our cube is filled with tricky little cards like this. I cast it on turn three hoping to just slow the game down a bit because I didn’t have much to speak of in my hand.

Well, slow the game down it did! My opponent didn’t have an answer for a long time and Manabarbs almost single handedly took him out. He ended up drawing so many cards he had to start discarding on his end step. It was amazing.

Manabarbs is one of those cards that’s been around forever and doesn’t garner too much attention anymore. I don’t see deck lists that include it very often, and most cards that have a negative effect against the owner seem to be completely ignored in FNM or other Standard formats. (There are obvious exceptions, of course. Dismember comes to mind immediately.)

Lesson learned: Don’t underestimate the power of tricky cards that slow down the game. Manabarbs might be a tool I can use in the future to win against the Johnny in my playgroup who is always beating me on turn five or six.

Worldfire: The answer to your burn deck

The first time I saw Worldfire I thought, “This card was made for EDH.” When I read decklists for formats like Standard and Modern I just don’t see that many cards with a 9 CMC. I also don’t often see cards included that, like Worldfire, leave the game to chance. Tournament winning decks leave nothing to chance and they’re usually fast enough that they’ve won by turn nine anyway. Because of cube drafting, however, I’ve changed my opinion about Worldfire. I think it could easily be included in a Standard or Modern burn deck.

In a recent cube draft I included Worldfire in my deck. As it happens, the evening was wearing on and just about the time I drew Worldfire was the time when I needed to box up my dice and head home. So I thought, “What the heck. I’ve never cast Worldfire before, and I’ve got to wrap up this game anyway. I’ll just drop it and see what happens.” So I cast it, my opponent and I dumped all of our cards into exile, and laughing all the while, entered into a “sudden death” style of Magic.

In three turns I was dead. My opponent drew three cards to get me: Plains, Lightning Bolt, Mountain. Game over. He burned me to death, and that’s what taught me something about how to improve my constructed burn decks.

Burn decks are always running out of steam. Every variation I’ve ever played has had the same problem: it can’t win in the late game. When I play this archetype I usually end up burning all of my opponents set-up creatures on the first few turns, and I can usually reduce his life total to less than 10, but then my cards run out. While my opponent rebuilds his board, I’m stuck relying on whatever happens to be on top of my deck (and I usually end up drawing Mountain after Mountain).

Worldfire is the answer to the burn deck’s late game. Had I not actually seen it happen in a cube draft, I don’t think I ever would have figured that out. The 9 CMC is just too high. I would’ve never considered putting it in a constructed deck.

Lesson learned: Just because a card has a CMC that’s typically too high for Standard, doesn’t mean it might not have it’s place in a constructed format. Next time I see a card like Worldfire with a high CMC I won’t automatically assume it’s a card made only for EDH and other casual formats. It might just be the answer I’m looking for.

On playing well with others

You might’ve noticed that throughout this article when I’ve referenced the cube I draft I’ve been saying “our” cube and not “my” cube. That’s because the cube I draft is a combination of my cards and the cards of one of my best friends. We built it together because the card pool of our combined collections creates a much stronger cube than if we each build one on our own. This is another way that cube drafting has helped me be a better player in constructed formats, by allowing me access to popular cards I don’t own.

I know this scenario won’t be true for everyone. Most people probably don’t build cubes along with other people. (If you decide to give it a try, I highly suggest setting up a shared doc on Google to help you keep track of who owns which card.) But if you’re serious about cube drafting, and interested in growing your playgroup, it won’t be very long before you’re sitting around someone else’s table and playing with their cube. Experiences like that will undoubtedly have you drafting cards that you don’t own and haven’t played with before. As you play those cards, win or lose, you’ll learn something about how they work and have a better shot at handling them in a constructed format.

End Step

What has cube drafting taught you? Are you a better player in other formats because of the time you’ve spent cubing?

As I said at the beginning of this article, I might never be a good constructed player. There will always be the Johnny’s out there who build better decks than me. That’s okay. I don’t play Magic in order to win every game. I play Magic because every game is fun. Cube drafting is one of the most fun formats in the game. And if it can teach me something along the way that will help me secure a victory or two against “Johnny,” then that’s all the better.

Andy Rogers is a casual player from Grand Rapids, MI. You can find him on deckbox.org as Andy_Rogers or follow his blog, www.TellBetterStories.wordpress.com.

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