A few nights ago, I met with some friends to cube draft. I had just added new Ixalan cards to the cube I share with one of my friends, and I was ready to get my Regisaur Alpha beats on! But first, a second friend introduced us to the cube he had brought from home. As I looked at the first few packs, this new cube brought me into a world of cards that had been rejected by every other cube I had tried – too slow for Vintage cube, too old for Modern cube, too rare for Pauper cube. Penumbra Wurm, Tradewind Rider, Slaughter, Mobilization, Defiant Falcon – all cards that have a distinct “cube” feel to them but have not found a real home. Instead of Planeswalkers and powerful Mythics, I saw staples of Standards past, full of flavor, each with its own part to play in the history of the game we love so much. To top it all off, most of the cards had the classic pre-8th edition border and my friend had collected beautiful foil basic lands from Invasion, Mercadian Masques, and other older sets. Playing with this cube transported me into the olden days of Magic, playing with cards that dominated Standard before I was had learned the game at all.
Over the past few days, I have been thinking about guidelines on how to create a cube like the one my friend introduced to me. So far, I have come up with a few rules on how I would go about building a “classic” cube:
1. Old-bordered cards only. While it was nice to see Aven Riftwatcher fighting alongside Tradewind Rider, the aesthetic of cards that all have the same border is too good to pass up! The look and feel of the cube should be a nostalgic one.
2. Keep the price of cards in mind and choose cheap cards whenever possible. Some decks from Standard’s history are not at all expensive to build today. An old-school mana base with Salt Marsh or Coastal Tower will not be nearly as expensive of a modern-day mana base filled with Drowned Catacomb or Botanical Sanctum.
3. Go through the history of the Pro Tour and look at the cards that defined each year from its inception until the release of 8th edition and the end of old-bordered cards. Each card in this “Classic Cube” should be traceable to a certain era or archetype of Magic history.
With these rules in mind, let’s take a look the history of the Pro Tour to see which cards stand out. I have decided to start at the very beginning: The Top 8 of PT New York in 1996. This Pro Tour metagame sits in a perfect spot: after the rotation of prohibitively expensive Power 9 and before the advent of Force of Will, broken Urza’s block shenanigans, and Tempest-block fast mana like Ancient Tomb, City of Traitors, and Mox Diamond. For me, this 1996 Pro Tour represents a time when cards had the “classic Magic” feel to them and games were still defined by the traditional fights of aggro against control and creatures against removal. In this age, “combos” were not Tinker + Memory Jar, but the more enjoyable Dark Ritual+ Hypnotic Specter, Earthquake + Erhnam Djinn, Land Tax + Sylvan Library, Zuran Orb + Armageddon, or Wrath of God + Blinking Spirit. After looking through event coverage and finally finding some decklists, I inputted each one of the Top 8 decks from Pro Tour New York into a deck pricer and realized that building the lists today would not be too expensive by any means. The cheapest deck rings in at around $60, while the most expensive would cost around $180 to build. (The original place I found the decklists was this blog, thank you to the author!)
When building a cube, it is important to have a similar amount of powerful cards for each color. Luckily, all five colors of Magic were well represented in the diverse PT New York Top 8. Looking at these decklists, which cards stand out for each color?
White: The very first PT Top 8 contained two GW Aggro Decks, two WU Control decks, and a GWru midrange deck. Among these decks, many played the full four copies of Swords to Plowshares, Disenchant, and Wrath of God. Other white cards that made an appearance were Armageddon, Serra Angel, Blinking Spirit, Balance, and Land Tax. The color-hosers Order of Leitbur, Abbey Gargoyles, and various Circles of Protection rounded out many sideboards. Finally, the sideboard bullet Truce is a beautifully-designed white card that fits into the Classic Cube well.
Blue: Each one of the two WU control decks in the Top 8 played four copies of the iconic “Counterspell”, but one deck had a more extensive suite of countermagic than the other: it included Power Sink, Spell Blast, and Memory Lapse. Other notable blue cards included Control Magic, Steal Artifact, Recall, and some color-hosers in the form of Hydroblast and Sea Sprites.
Black: The dominant card Necropotence sent one player into this Top 8, along with the usual suspects of Hypnotic Specter, Knight of Stromgald, Order of the Ebon Hand, Dark Ritual, Drain Life, Soul Burn, and Hymn to Tourach. Dance of the Dead appeared as a 1-of in the Necro deck – probably to nab opposing creatures after they fell to a Hypnotic Specter or a Hymn to Tourach. A sweet 1996 “Jund” deck (ironically the cheapest of the bunch) sported Sengir Vampire and Ihsan’s Shade along with some other black staples, and played some copies of Dark Banishing out of the sideboard.
Red: One Top 8 deck was almost monored (splashing for Swords to Plowshares, Balance, and Stormbind). This deck was basically a dedicated burn deck, with Fireball, Lightning Bolt, Earthquake, and Incinerate ready to do a number on the opponent’s life total. There was also an artifact-hate package, courtesy of Detonate and Shatter. There are no maindeck creatures in the list, but if an opponent boarded out their removal, Eron the Relentless could come in out of the sideboard to punish them! Eron seems like a perfect inclusion for the Classic Cube.
Green: The most iconic green card of this era has to be Erhnam Djinn. While it may not seem like much today, a 4/5 creature for 3G used to be the biggest thing around! Supporting green cards for the GW aggro decks included 1-mana accelerants like Fyndhorn Elves, Llanowar Elves and Birds of Paradise, Spectral Bears, Elvish Archers, and the resilient Legend, Autumn Willow. Noncreature spells included Sylvan Library and the super-classic Hurricane.
Artifacts: Artifacts had a big role to play in the first Pro Tour. The WU control decks made good use of Millstone as a win condition that could not be answered by Swords to Plowshares or Wrath of God. Many decks played Icy Manipulator, but none utilized it quite as well as the red burn deck, which was able to tap down its own Howling Mine and Winter Orb to make their effects one-sided. The then-restricted Zuran Orb was a 1-of in every deck. Fellwar Stone was also widely included in these decks, and is a perfect mana rock for Cube that is solid without being broken and complements Armageddon well. Nevinyrral’s Disk showed up in maindecks and sideboards as an extra Wrath of God effect that could also deal with pesky artifacts and enchantments. Control decks made use of Jalum Tome and Jayemdae Tome to give them more card draw in the late game. Black Vise and Ivory Tower faced off as polar opposites of one another, with aggressive decks trying to punish slower decks with the Vise and control decks trying to use the Tower to get of the range of opposing Lightning Bolts and Fireballs. Finally, Aeolipile and Serrated Arrows made their way into many sideboards and gave control decks more ways to answer small creatures in the early to mid game.
Lands: The mana fixing of the time relied on the pain-lands originally printed in Ice Age, as well as City of Brass. For utility lands, many decks played some combination of Mishra’s Factory (Magic’s first “creature-land”) and Strip Mine. While Strip Mine is an insanely powerful card, the cube’s one-card restriction rule will make sure drafters will only get one to put in their deck.
I learned a lot about the history of Magic by looking at the Top 8 decks of the first Pro Tour in 1996. If you are interested, you can see the decks here:
To summarize, the very first cards we will include in “Classic Cube” are:
Thanks for reading! I will be updating this cube as I move through historical standard.
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