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Scheming the Cube: Combat Tricks

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Being an avid Cube player/manager, I feel that it is my responsibility to constantly be evaluating and thinking about the cards contained within that Magical box. While other people can contribute ideas and cards, the owner is the person who gets to make all of the final decisions on what cards are included. Some of the questions that Cube owners have to face are:

- Are all three ‘theaters’ (aggro, midrange, control) of decks viable?
- What about the archetypes? Are they varied, competitive, and fun?
- What cards do you cut for new ones? Do any cards previously cut find their way back in?
- When you add/remove cards, are you hurting/helping/creating those archetypes?
- What are you gaining/losing to include those new cards?

While I think about these questions a lot, the most obvious time that Cube managers really have to do some hard-line evaluations for inclusions and exclusions when new cards become available. This year, we got an extra chance to make those hard (and fun!) decisions.

When the Magic: The Gathering Commander was released, I was very excited for the possibility of extra new cards. I figured there would be some multi-colored cards (since most Commander decks are not mono-colored) and maybe we would get lucky enough to have an artifact or a single-colored spell! As it turned out, there were only a few cards that I even considered for additions to the Cube. After looking at all of the new cards, the two strongest candidates for inclusion emerged: Chaos Warp and Edric, Spymaster of Trest.

Awesome! I didn’t think it would be particularly difficult to find cards to remove this time around, as the power level on these two cards are very high. As I scanned my list for weak spots, I came across two cards that seemed to be weaker than the rest in those colors: Brute Force and Snakeform. I wouldn’t have thought that much about it if it weren’t for a conversation I had some weeks ago on an online forum.

Flashback!

People were talking about Snakeform, categorizing it as a 'bad removal spell' and talking about how it is the worst removal spell ever. The thing is that Snakeform isn’t a removal spell at all; it is an amazing combat trick. It is useable by two colors, easy to cast, and draws a card. We know that the going rate for drawing a card is two mana, and so we are getting a hyper-powered Diminishing Returns for U/G instead of U. Seems good, right?

So good that it got the axe from my Cube in favor of Edric.

What about Brute Force? The Philosophy of Fire has taught us that three damage for one card is good, and three damage for one mana is better. Red is an aggressive color, and could surely benefit from the boost of an attacker. So what’s the deal? Whatever happened to good ol’ fashioned combat tricks?

All of the awesome tricks of past Cube iterations and constructed top decks have mostly been replaced. By what, you ask? Removal spells, of course!

'In response...'

While we all know the value of removal spells (especially instant-speed ones), I feel as though there is a big part of Magic play that we are missing because of the systematic replacement of combat tricks by removal spells. Another issue is that the more instant-speed removal spells you have in the Cube, the worse the combat tricks get (at least the ones that target your own creatures); every time you cast a pump spell, you might just get two-for-one'd by an instant (this is the same problem facing auras in Constructed and Cube Magic). Also, why play Shining Shoal when you can just play Path to Exile?

Because combat tricks are, well, tricky.

At my Magic 2012 prerelease, I had a Turn to Frog in my deck. Every single time I cast that card, it ate something enormous (like a Thran Golem with two auras on it... twice) and it felt wonderful. I experienced something that I don’t feel very often in Magic since I stopped drafting on a regular basis: I surprised someone with a spell, and they paid for it.

I miss that feeling of deception, and I don’t want to miss out on that feeling completely by removing all of the combat tricks in the Cube. I want people to remember that Vines of Vastwood was going around the table, and have to think twice about freely casting that Terror. When you attack with your 2/2 into their 4/4, I want people to consider the possibility of you having a pump spell, instead of just auto-blocking because they are fine with you trading two cards (creature plus a burn spell, e.g.) for their one card. I want people to be able to attack with their 2/2 into a 4/4 even if they don’t have the trick! If combat tricks have no presence in your Cube at all, then these levels of deception are almost completely lost.

If you would like to keep (or perhaps add!) that element to your Cube as well, then you should consider the following cards for inclusion. While some of these cards are indeed powerful, some will likely appear lackluster at first glance until you get a chance to play them and get used to having this level of trickery in your draft environment. Let’s start with the combat tricks that are still seen in quite a few Cubes:

Berserk – A classic from way back in Limited Edition Alpha, Berserk is a coup-de-grace type of spell that allows a large attacker (green has a few of those!) to punch through blocker(s) for either a large chunk or the rest of your opponent’s life total. It’s really fun with creatures that do something when they die (Champions of Kamigawa dragons and Woodfall Primus come to mind), and it can also be used as a removal spell in a pinch!

Vines of Vastwood – A very versatile trick that is useful with or without the kicker, Vines provides a nice power boost that should enable a 1/1 to take down all but the largest of creatures. If used as a burn spell, you are getting four damage for one card which is pretty good also. It also functions as a counterspell akin to Avoid Fate but does the job much better, countering sorceries and targeted abilities as well. The best case, of course, is attacking into a removal spell and getting a counterspell and four extra damage! Don’t forget that Vines can also be used on your opponents’ creatures as well, preventing them from doing nice things such as equipping or aura-ing.

Two doesn’t seem like enough, does it? Here are some more cards that can cure that fever for more combat tricks.

Momentary Blink – While this definitely qualified more as a combat trick when damage still used the stack, it is worth mentioning here because I think more Cubes should be running this card. While in combat, it saves your blocker or attacker from death (by either combat damage or removal spell); the best use for it, however, is to recur your comes into play/leaves play abilities (enters/leaves the battlefield, for you noobs) like [card Flametongue Kavu]FTK[/card], Reveillark, and Mulldrifter. I think this card is good enough in your deck even if you can’t flash it back, if you have enough ways to abuse it (what’s better than one Shriekmaw? Why, two of course!)

Giant Growth – This classic is the inspiration for the aforementioned Brute Force, and was of the last cards removed from the Core Set. While it has not seen significant play in a long time, it remains a part of Magic’s history as part of the famous ‘boon cycle’.

Harm's WayHarm's Way is a conditional white Shock, but with the ability to creature two-for-ones when creatures battle in combat. The one mana price is right, and this card really shines in aggro vs. aggro matchups where lots of x/2s or smaller are on the board.

Shining Shoal – Shoal is a nice, scalable redirection spell that has some nice casting flexibility since it can be cast for zero mana. While not as efficient as Harm's Way on the low end, Shining Shoal can really provide some top-end protection/damage, allowing you to eliminate large creatures, save your creatures, or save yourself from larger damage spells.

Snakeform – Snakeform often kills a creature for zero net cards, since you are replacing the card you cast. Obviously most often used in the combat phase, it can also be used to kill a larger creature pre-Wildfire/Rolling Earthquake/Black Sun's Zenith et al (no matter who is casting said sweeper). Bonus points for being usable and easy to cast in two different colors.

Brute Force – See Giant Growth, but in a color that might attack more than green.

BriarhornCall of the Herd plus Giant Growth for a slightly easier cost, Briarhorn has the ability to be a 6/6 blocker on an empty board as well as an extra blocker who helps another. He is fine on your attack phase as a combat trick that leaves something behind, and can also just be a 3/3 flash creature if you need some action the following turn.

Where is my kidney?!?

Stonewood Invocation – The precursor to Vines of Vastwood, Stonewood Invocation is the ultimate ‘screw you’ to combat phase removal spells.

Doom Blade your Baloth.”
Stonewood Invocation it?”
“Awk…”
“Take…nine?”

Four mana is a bit much for a trick, but ideally you are getting some value out of the +5/+5 and the split-second shroud when you cast it. I also give Invocation the nod over Might of Oaks, since I think the shroud and split second are better than the extra two points. I guess it just depends if you like Unicorns or Squirrels better.

Constant Mists – Just when you thought your alpha strike was safe, Constant Mists comes around to ruin the party. The thing is? You now have to play around it for the rest of the game! Unlike the one-shot Fog or the double-shot Moment's Peace, your opponent can keep having Constant Mists flare-ups for which Valtrex will not help (but an Armageddon will)!

Combat tricks are such an essential part of limited Magic that I think omitting all of them in favor of the increasing amount of unique and efficient removal spells being printed would be a shame. It is my hope that in the future we will see more Cube-worthy combat tricks, even if I couldn’t tell you what that card would look like. For me, the Cube is not just about having powerful cards and high-octane plays; the Cube is also about the history and legacy of Magic: The Gathering all wrapped up in one wonderful limited set that allows for players of all walks and ages of Magic to enjoy and discover new things about themselves and the game they love.

Until next time, may all your squares be three-dimensional!

-AA

@Antknee42 on Twitter
Co-host of The Third Power Cube Podcast with Usman Jamil
Antknee42 just about everywhere

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