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Black is Not Bad

March 24, 2015

Today, I talk about black in cube.

Black.

Within the cube community, the very utterance of the name of Magic’s dark slice of the color pie causes a crescendo of groans and complaints and confusion, infecting everyone with its viral contagion.

This article is partly prompted by the recent changes to the Magic Online Cube and the subsequent reactions from many people that think those changes are, well, less than ideal. I agree. It’s unfortunate that these changes only reinforce the negative view of black cards and decks in cube. Black is frequently called the worst color in cube by a vocal majority of players, and I don’t agree with giving a blanket statement like that.

I’d like to do away with a few popular notions:

  1. That black cards are weak and bad in cube.
  2. That black cards live in a vacuum.
  3. That there are too many oppressive cards preventing black from being powerful in cube.
  4. That black can or should do everything in cube.
  5. That there is one-method-to-rule-them-all of improving black’s performance in cube.

Myth: Black cards are weak and bad in cube.

Every color has powerful cards and does powerful things in cube. It’s cube! There’s no denying that black has powerful cards available to it. Thoughtseize, Dark Confidant, Pack Rat, Demonic Tutor, Reanimate, Recurring Nightmare, Bitterblossom, Damnation, and Grave Titan are poster-children for the raw power that playing with black can give.

Translating that raw power into a deck that performs well against other cube decks is another matter. In Gregory Marques’ 2012 article “Designer Fun – Black Versus Cube“ (http://www.channelfireball.com/articles/designer-fun-black-versus-cube/) he discusses with Duels producer Jay Schneider:

“I brought up this topic with local brilliant strategist, deck designer, and original Duels producer Jay Schneider. He proposed that it is not an issue of black being weak per se, but that black is a deckbuilder’s color. It requires much more attention during draft — more planning and more careful picks — than the other colors. In large part this is because a powerful mono-black deck doesn’t have much redundancy. It has several different things going on, and contains just the right number of each.“

I’ll be right up front and disagree with the concept that we should consider mono-black, specifically, a deck archetype that we should be concerned with producing in our cubes (but that’s part of number two on my list, so back to that later). However, I agree with the premise that black is often not a color you just draft with your autopilot on. Black has unique effects that encourage drafting around. The decks you draft that will take advantage of those effects can require a specific mix of spells and creatures and effects. But that’s just like almost every draft deck. I don’t consider having to think to be a huge drawback when drafting a deck. In fact, this is what makes a draft interesting.

The challenge, as a cube designer, is to come up with the right combination of powerful cards, redundancy in the effects we want to support in our cube, and support cards that enable the flagship cards that players naturally want to draft. In essence, we need to create the environment in which players not only want to draft Recurring Nightmare or Bitterblossom because they’re powerful, but also want to draft the cards that make those powerful in practice.

This is where I think the latest update to the MTGO cube has missed the mark. Pushing the vampire tribe presents itself at first glance as a synergistic aggressive archetype with a few linear support cards. However, the decision is based on the assumption that the archetype is both strong enough to compete with other cube decks (spoiler: it’s not) and the cards are stronger or more fun to play than other cards that could be in those cube slots (spoiler: they aren’t). I question the methodology behind the decisions and the opportunity cost those cards (and other poor performers) represent. For a few examples:

  • Anowon, the Ruin Sage
  • Ascendant Evincar
  • Bloodlord of Vaasgoth
  • Captivating Vampire
  • Dark Impostor
  • Necropolis Regent
  • Sangromancer

These cards are not impressive. I understand they represent some “cool” and flashy effects, but they are largely expensive/inefficient spells whose abilities do not match with what the rest of cube has to offer, and don’t really mesh well into the existing card base in any significant fashion. Some of them interact with the new vampire theme. However, after closer review of those vampires, one would find this to be a small theme. Only 24 of the 600 cards in the MTGO cube are vampires, and only 15 of them have a converted mana cost of 3 or less, and three of those are basically Scathe Zombies Vampires. You’re likely to only see 9 cheap vampires in the draft, and if anyone else is taking good ones, you probably get 4 if you take them highly as well, considering the usual pack distribution and more powerful cards that should take precedence over synergy.

The other 9 vampires in the cube have high mana costs and compare unfavorably with powerful cards at 4 mana and above throughout the cube, and also with each other. Good deck building technique precludes playing many of them in your deck on power reasons alone, even considering their minor synergies.

Myth: Black cards live in a vacuum.

Here’s something that I have to get off of my chest: Mono-black is a trap archetype. I cringe every time someone writes about black cards for cube being good or bad in mono-black. I think if you were to actually imagine the best mono-black control deck you could build in cube, it might sound pretty great at first. It’s got Dark Ritual and Cabal Ritual and Cabal Coffers to power out an early Necropotence, Hypnotic Specter, Geralf’s Messenger, Phyrexian Obliterator. Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth lets your Phyrexian Tower and Volrath’s Stronghold give Corrupt and Mind Sludge extra ‘oomph’, and Tendrils of Corruption lets you keep drawing cards with Phyrexian Arena and Sign in Blood. Does this archetype of old actually perform well in the face of typical cube decks playing their more modern strategies? Is it fun to play with or against? How does the deck interact with an opposing threat, like a resolved enchantment or planeswalker? Good luck battling Sulfuric Vortex or Moat. But it’s fine, because 75% of our black cube cards are devoted to the mono-black archetype and we managed to be the only drafter at the table going for it, right?

That design for our draft environment just doesn’t bear fruit in practice. When you warp your cube design to support a linear archetype like that it causes a dichotomous rift between players that are attempting to draft the archetype and players that are completely removed from it. It’s similar to supporting the storm mechanic in cube, where most of the cards in the archetype are useless to other drafters (ritual effects, tier 3 cantrips, spells that untap lands, cards with storm, etc.) but completely essential to drafters that need them for their deck to function. Meanwhile, other drafters are content to draft the other 7/8ths of each pack without worrying that you, the storm player, will interact with them in any way. The major decision a storm drafter makes is whether they’re cutting it hard enough to disincentivize another drafter to move into the deck. And supporting a linear archetype like this takes a lot of cube card slots in order to show up at the correct frequency in draft in raw card numbers to produce the final deck.

It doesn’t even matter if the “mono-black” you want players to draft is aggro, control, or even combo – it’s just not realistic to expect players to draft only black cards in a way that produces a good cube deck. Black has weaknesses that cannot be overcome by more black cards. Artifacts cannot account completely for these weaknesses, because the answers artifacts provide are simply less efficient, slower, and less powerful (or more symmetrical) than those found in other colors.

Black cards represent less than a fifth of every traditional cube. Players should be expected to draft them like they would draft any other color – as part of a cohesive deck that usually includes cards that provide synergies and shore weaknesses.

In Usman Jamil’s 2011 article “Cube SWOT: Black” (http://www.quietspeculation.com/2011/02/cube-swot-black/), Usman outlines some typical archetypes black cards find themselves in. Some of the specific cards have come and gone in cubes, but the advice is very strong overall. The main take-away from the article is that there are different roles black plays when it combines with other colors and archetypes. Remember, though, that not every card is interchangeable with another. In much the same way that Wrath of God and Land Tax don’t typically coexist with aggressive creatures when drafting a Boros aggro deck, not every black card wants to be put into every deck with black in it.

In the previous section, I touched on the idea that black is a deck-builder’s color, and that we need to support the flagship cards with other cards in the cube that encourage drafting powerful decks around those cards. This is really where thinking about your cube holistically will improve how black performs in your cube. Your cube should have cards littered throughout every color that amplify the effects of other cards elsewhere in the cube. Your Braids, Cabal Minion wants token fodder provided by Elspeth, Knight Errant as well as Bitterblossom. Recurring Nightmare wants to chain Woodfall Primus and Mulldrifter in and out of the graveyard as much as it wants Grave Titan and Gravecrawler. Pack Rat can add value to Deep Analysis and Dig Through Time just as often as it sets up Reanimate and Necromancy. Thinking only of how changes to black cards in cube affect other black cards in decks is limiting their potential just as much as not considering how much Purphoros, God of the Forge likes having Cloudgoat Ranger enter the battlefield the next turn.

Myth: There are too many oppressive cards preventing black from being powerful in cube.

Eg. “Sword of Light and Shadow and Sword of Feast and Famine are too good against black.”

Referencing Gregory Marques’ article again, here is a list of cards that (at the time) were very popular in cubes and give black some trouble due to their protection abilities:

Sword of Feast and Famine
Sword of Light and Shadow
Chameleon Colossus
Great Sable Stag
Karmic Guide
Mirran Crusader
Paladin en-Vec
Phantom Centaur
Soltari Monk
Stillmoon Cavalier

Some of these have now been removed from many cubes due to abstractly more powerful cards being printed since the article was published. Great Sable Stag was a strong curve filler creature that got around countermagic and removal, but current cube green threes are typically filled with utility creatures and ramp support, eschewing aggressive creatures (a common shift in overall card choice in green). Chameleon Colossus and Phantom Centaur still see some play, but are often eclipsed by powerhouses like Polukranos, World Eater and Thrun, the Last Troll. I question how much Karmic Guide really hates on black in the first place, as its role is more important as a reanimation spell. Paladin en-Vec is completely absent from most modern cubes, outclassed by other threes, as is Stillmoon Cavalier by better cards of type “Planeswalker – Sorin”. With these changes, we’ve seen a shift from many creatures with protection, to holdouts like Soltari Monk (which behaves like a better Invisible Stalker versus black) and cube mainstays Mirran Crusader and the Swords.

The Swords and Crusader are very strong cards. They’re strong cards in their cost range that demand a response quickly. Black can use its edict and wrath effects to deal with the Crusader and any other creature equipped with a sword, but is otherwise at their mercy. I don’t think it’s a big deal for the overall cube that some cards are very strong against cards in a certain part of the cube. There are answers available in black, if rare, and there are many answers in cards of other colors. Black-based decks want cards in other colors to not just support the deck’s proactive plan for winning a game, but they may also require cards able to answer its opponent’s plan.

As a cube designer, if you want to play powerful cards in your cube, it is important to provide answers to them. Those answers should have a power level commensurate to the cards being answered, because being able to interact with what your opponent is doing in a game is more fun than each of you playing threats that pass one other silently across the battlefield.

Myth: Black can and should do everything in cube.

Black can do a lot of different things in Magic. Part of its appeal as a color is its identity as the color that will pay any price to do something it wouldn’t normally get to do. In a sense, many of black’s most powerful cards are from wildly different eras of Magic history doing very different things – partly because of the natural evolution Magic design has taken in every color, but also partly because these designs necessitated spreading them out across time so as to not create a supermassive black hole of power concentrated in any single time and space (though this has been known to happen in warmer seasons). Black is one of the more multifaceted colors in terms of different kinds of strategy available to it. Black cards have participated and succeeded in all theaters of Magical war, utilizing every resource at its disposal (life, cards, library manipulation, graveyard recursion, etc.) and thus it can be expected that if one were to include only the most powerful cards from black into one’s cube, it would just be a literal pile of good cards. Cube designers have moved beyond that method of picking cards for cube years ago. However, sometimes we forget, and the power level of individual cards and the emergent gameplay we expect out of their combinations encourages us to overlook the fractured nature of the color. We also sometimes forget the environments in which certain strategies are/were popular when thinking about adding them to our cubes, or perhaps the environment we are inserting those strategies into.

With all of this in mind, what should black cards do? Everything? No. If you support every strategy available in black, you run the risk of supporting none of them.

From another perspective, cube designers do not typically judge other colors the way they do black. For instance, white has efficient and powerful aggressive creatures, powerful finishers and sorcery wraths, and card advantage in the form of planeswalkers and token creatures. It does not have card draw, combo, or graveyard interaction as a primary function, and is not expected to. One could envision a white cube section with Second Sunrise, Faith’s Reward, Astral Slide, and supporting cards in white – and then wonder why aggro is suffering and why it’s still hard to build a cohesive white deck.

This is fairly similar to how many players and cube designers view black now; there are a lot of build-around cards available that want specific kinds of support, but the best ones don’t always play well with traditional archetypes available via most cube cards. Because these cards take up so much room in black cube sections, a simple linear theme like black aggro can get pushed out of existence, even though typical aggressive cards (Diregraf Ghoul, Gravecrawler, Hymn to Tourach) may be present.

On another end of the spectrum, the color red traditionally has a single-mindedness toward aggressive creatures and burn. Players have been clamoring for something different, something interesting, for red to do. Printings in the past year or so have finally given us more cubeworthy build-around cards in red, like Purphoros, God of the Forge, Feldon of the Third Path, and Daretti, Scrap Savant, revitalizing older staple cards like Goblin Welder and Siege-Gang Commander. Black, overall, doesn’t typically have the kind of raw focus that most cards in red have. But it can.

For example, in my cube, there’s a theme in black. It’s not a mechanic and it’s not a creature type. It’s just very simple incremental card and resource advantage. And it’s pushed hard. Roughly half of the black cards in my cube (http://www.cubetutor.com/visualspoiler/87) are chosen because they provide either immediate card advantage (e.g. discard and card draw, creature destruction and reanimation effects strapped to bodies), repeatable advantage (e.g. token production, discard, and stax), or the threat of advantage (e.g. “dies” triggers, self-recursion). The other half is spot removal and other traditional black support spells and creatures. Across the board, these effects are at efficient costs. This setup, within my own cube, gives black an identity as an aggressive color that wants to win via disruption and attrition. I also appreciate that because it is full of semi-interchangeable parts that have a consistent theme, it provides a method of the deck-building creativity that black provides with a low amount of risk inherent in more demanding linear strategies.

Unfortunately, the push in that direction, combined with the size of my cube, means that certain strategies are not playable in the same way they could be in another cube. Namely, “Reanimator” in terms of being “a deck” is not “a thing”. The concentration of cheap reanimation spells, fat creatures (a little harder to draft in my cube in general), and enablers (Entomb, mill, and discard effects) is just lower than my cube would need to fully support that archetype. That being said, the cards that support it still exist and still play very well alongside of the resilient creature base present in black and elsewhere in the cube. Because reanimation spells also double as good cards in other deck types, like BG Rock, they still see play and perform admirably.

I truly believe it’s important to recognize what themes you are already pushing in your cube. They will inform you what the combined effort of the cards will look like when they are being played. If there isn’t enough support for aggro, it’s probably not going to get played (or if it is, will perform poorly). It sounds like common sense, but if you don’t dedicate enough cards to a strategy, it will underperform.

Myth: There is one-method-to-rule-them-all of improving black’s performance in cube.

I don’t claim that what works for me in my cube will work the same for you in yours. I don’t always agree with other cube designers and the way they shape the archetypes in their cubes, but I have the highest respect for those that really go deep considering how their format looks and plays within their playgroup, and are able to defend their choices with reasonable arguments. The make-up of each individual cube is fairly unique, and even among those that share 75% of the same cards, even a small minority of cards still affect how the rest of the cube plays.

If you hated the idea of a grindy aggressive black theme in your cube, there’s nothing really wrong with that. You could just as easily push a reanimation theme instead, with lots of fat creatures, lots of tutors for consistency, and a lot of other enablers throughout the cube. If the theme is designed in concert with and has the same power level as the rest of the cube, it will succeed. If individual cards in your cube don’t really mesh with the rest or don’t play consistently enough, perhaps you should remove them, even if they appear objectively powerful at first.

In the end, the right design for your cube is one that works for you and your playgroup. I hope I have given you some ideas to discover what that is.

Additional References and Last Thoughts

Since CubeTutor is simply the best resource around for organizing your cube, the ways you can find and compare cubes are remarkably powerful. Here are a few links you may want to check out to get ideas for your own cube:

My Cube list and visual spoiler:

http://www.cubetutor.com/viewcube/87

http://www.cubetutor.com/visualspoiler/87

The MTGO Legacy Cube:

http://www.cubetutor.com/viewcube/12345

http://www.cubetutor.com/visualspoiler/12345

The CubeTutor “average” cubes of different sizes:

http://www.cubetutor.com/averagecubes/

Comparison page for My Cube vs. the MTGO Legacy Cube:

http://www.cubetutor.com/comparecubes/87/12345 – Replace either number here with your own CubeTutor Cube ID # to compare it to either mine or the MTGO Legacy Cube. You can also compare with other Cube ID #s, like the Average 720 Cube on CubeTutor, which is ID # 495.

I also like to compare the statistics page of each cube when I’m doing research, since you’ll find some additional info there doesn’t show up on the card comparison page, like converted mana costs/curves. Both of these pages are filterable, too, so you can fine-tune your comparison to colors, card types, and combinations of other criteria.

I realize that this article is pretty heavy on the theory behind black in cube and lighter on actual card selection. If people want to see a more card-focused article, perhaps detailing my specific card choices in my cube, or changes I would make to the MTGO cube, I can certainly write a follow-up article discussing them.

Until then, happy cubing!

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From → Cube Philosophy

One Comment
  1. Goodking permalink

    Completely agree with your well-written and thought-out article here. I think black has plenty of powerful cards to offer every major theatre, and does a lot of unique things no other colour can offer at all: discard, reanimation effects, sacrifice effects… and that’s on top of the ‘power’ and value cards available. These things come in cycles though, since I remember a time when white and green were considered the worst colours in cube, and I don’t think that was true then. Some of the choices in the ‘official’ cube have contributed to this perception now, IMO, as you say.

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