First off, let me just say that this cube remains the most entertaining way to play Magic that I’ve ever encountered. I am happy to be a part of the testing team but cannot take credit for the design of the cube which functions so well due to its careful construction by my good friend Max Hero.
As we continue to test, I’ve made a special effort to draft the cards that have been thought to be potentially too powerful in this format. In the process, I’ve had to reconsider what I thought was strong in this strange world of tiny tiny decks…
I have to say, I initially agreed with the concerns that I most commonly heard in response to Introducing Fifteen-Card Highlander:
- Mill (Breaking // Entering, Chancellor of the Spires, Dream Twist) is egregiously overpowered in a format with fifteen-card decks
- The power 9 inclusions were unnecessary or potentially bad in the format (looking at you Ancestral Recall!)
- Shelldock Isle + Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is unbeatable
I was able to test out a few of these claims in our last draft…
Corey’s Shelldock Emrakul
1 Mana Drain
1 Time Walk
1 Noxious Revival
1 Ancestral Recall
1 Rolling Earthquake
1 Crystal Shard
1 Wurmcoil Engine
1 Isleback Spawn
1 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
1 Shelldock Isle
1 Bojuka Bog
1 Molten Slagheap
1 Volrath’s Stronghold
1 Unexpected Potential (naming Rolling Earthquake)
With just fifteen cards in my deck, it wasn’t hard to mulligan into a hand with Shelldock Isle. If I was really picky, I could mulligan into a hand with JUST Shelldock Isle, making sure to leave Emrakul, the Aeons Torn in my deck to “hide away”. We’ve had many discussions about the drawbacks of taking a mulligan in this format and the consensus has been that as long as you aren’t up against a mill strategy, the setback is minimal. Knowing that you’ll likely reach ‘no deck mode’ in every game, you can generally mulligan until you see what you need and will only suffer a small disadvantage – that being the variety of choices in your first few turns. Beyond that, Ancestral Recall‘s purpose in the cube became clear to me as a way to instantly recoup this disadvantage and function as a way to reach maximum hand size to discard cards like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn.
This seems like a good spot to stop and address the concern around cards like Ancestral Recall…
If you are allowed exactly fifteen items to survive on a deserted island, do you even consider bringing something that can only replace itself with something you already brought?
If you answered no, you are among the majority who, in this case, would prefer the widest variety of tools in an extremely limited suite of resources.
If you answered yes, it’s likely that your fourteen other choices include one or two extremely valuable items that present a clear path to your survival. An airplane plus a tank of gas perhaps?
In the case of my deck, I hoped to ride Emrakul to victory and needed Shelldock Isle to make it possible. This isn’t always the case, however, as many of the drafted decks in this format focus so heavily on card advantage and recursion. There are plenty of other options to fill the need for affordable card selection but Ancestral Recall is, hands down, the best choice here. The drawback of taking a place of any other card with functions other than drawing cards is enough to make this a surprisingly late pick in a FCHC draft but its usefulness in the previously described situations make it an important inclusion in the cube.
Regarding other power 9 cards, we’ve also included Black Lotus and Time Walk as well. Both of them are low picks in the cube despite being some of the “most powerful magic cards ever printed”. They have a home, though, as they each serve a unique function that few other cards can provide in the same way (or as affordably, in Time Walk‘s case). Black Lotus is not necessarily needed as mana fixing but can either accelerate an aggressive strategy or function as a piece of an engine with cards like Academy Ruins. Obviously, there are many other clever uses of such a thing. Hence, its place in the cube.
But isn’t a turn four Emrakul just unbeatable!?
In order to draft this deck, however, I had to watch Emrakul pass by me in the first pack (I took Mana Drain instead) and only took interest in it after I picked Shelldock Isle in pack three. Once this strategy was known by my opponents, they wouldn’t let these two cards end up in the same player’s hands ever again.
Beyond that, another card being passed around the table provided an interesting anti-Emrakul strategy. In my second game, I was giddly anticipating the coming of this giant Eldrazi when my opponent simply dropped Karakas and passed the turn with no idea at how badly my hopes and dreams were just crushed. At a certain point, when Emrakul was bounced to my hand there was nothing that I could do to have it discarded as I would never reach maximum hand size again (no cards left in my deck).
1 Braids, Cabal Minion
1 Restoration Angel
1 Hangarback Walker
1 Lingering Souls
1 Mana Tithe
1 Mind Twist
1 Leyline of the Void
1 Leyline of Sanctity
1 Backup Plan
I was fortunate enough to have drafted a backup plan in both Isleback Spawn (heh, appropriately thematic) and Wurmcoil Engine, which has the upside of being entirely castable from the mana produced by Mana Drain. With these two options, I was still able to win this match.
Emrakul, the Aeons Torn just might be too much alongside Shelldock Isle but it is unclear which of these two is the piece that needs to be addressed. It is quite possible that Shelldock Isle can be effective (but not too effective) alongside any other large finisher creature in the format. Emrakul provides a useful tool in its reshuffle trigger that seems too valuable to lose. Currently, no changes are made but we’ll keep an eye on these two.
Another deck in this particular draft fell a bit short of the mark despite running some of the cards that are high on our “watch list”.
1 Chancellor of the Spires
1 Breaking // Entering
1 Dream Twist
1 Kefnet’s Last Word
1 Black Sun’s Zenith
1 Path to Exile
1 Codex Shredder
1 Elixir of Immortality
1 Grim Monolith
This deck, which happened to include all three of the questionable mill cards mentioned above succeeded at resolving early mill spells that would typically be rather debilitating to an opposing strategy but met a few hurdles…
The cube is relatively small in size. In fact, if eight players draft two ten-card packs, you’ll be seeing ALL 160 cards included. With that in mind, the odds of running into one of these types of spells, especially the automatic graveyard shufflers like Gaea’s Blessing and Emrakul is quite high rendering a mill strategy quite risky. Beyond that, playing a card like Breaking (of Breaking // Entering) represents another situation where you are replacing one of fifteen valuable resources in your deck with a card that may do little to advance your own strategy. Based on our testing, the value of assembling your own engine and advancing your own game plan (be it sticking a threat or creating a lockdown) is quite a bit more effective than using your resources to deny your opponent of theirs. Breaking has nothing to say about the Student of Warfare that your opponent has already played and is leveling up every turn.
I have, however, spoken about the value of mill spells in my last post on the cube. You can read that here.
These mill spells are far from too good. They serve a specific purpose in the format but are certainly not being considered as the centerpiece of an over-powered strategy within the cube.
There are a few cards that haven’t been mentioned that have caused us to scratch our heads. These cards may not appear egregious on paper but certainly pack some punch in this crazy world of fifteen card decks. I’ll tease you with one and go into more detail next time.
Sovereign’s Realm not only provides a ridiculous opportunity to draft any card regardless of color or mana cost but also does so without taking up a place in your deck. As previously mentioned, the drawback of a mulligan is significantly less detrimental than in other formats. The automatic “mill to five” here hurts a little but is severely outweighed by the value it provides.
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