Cube Design: Making the Case for Black Aggro
Designing a cube is all about creating a smooth, fun draft experience. Doing this requires an intersection of two things: using the best cards Magic has to offer, and making deliberate design choices about what that draft experience should be. A cube is then, as is often misunderstood by newcomers, not just about running the best cards. It is, rather, about including the cards that fit the roles and archetypes you want in your cube. No matter the restrictions in place for the cube, whether it's a fully-powered Vintage cube, a budget-conscious cube, or even a Pauper cube, the overall themes and archetypes we are trying to include impact the cards that make the cut in our cubes.
Complex design ideas aside, there are also constants, such as managing the tools a respective deck type can have. Making sure aggro, control, midrange, and combo all remain in balance (or purposefully out of balance) is key to cube design. Particularly, when it comes to balancing aggro, we often designate that archetype to red and white. We then end up sprinkling a few aggressive one-mana creatures across black and green to make them acceptable secondary colors. Unfortunately, what ends up occurring most often is simply the drafter supplementing their missing red or white one drops that weren't find in their packs. Goblin Guide is clearly the superior one drop to Dread Wanderer, but in a pinch, it's still two power for one mana. Green often ends up with better aggressive options by having access to openers, such as Llanowar Elves, which can drive a three mana creature on turn two. Incidentally, many low mana value green creatures we see regularly in cubes, such as Tarmogoyf, Mayor of Avabruck, and Tireless Tracker, are powerful inclusions in aggro as well as midrange. Combined with access to pump spells, this makes green a strong contender for aggro drafters.
Black, however, is not treated this way. Instead, more often than not, we see a few black one-drops that enter the battlefield tapped, and usually have self-recursion, such as Gutterbones, Bloodsoaked Champion, and Dread Wanderer. Pair these with Diregraf Ghoul, Vampire Lacerator, and Gnarled Scarhide, and you have a solid swath of aggression at one mana. After this though, the support dries up quickly. Bloodghast is fairly common and aggressive, and then of course Dark Confidant is a fan-favorite that goes in every cube that can run him. Pack Rat is just so good it will be played wherever it is viable. By the time we hit three mana, there is little to no aggro support to be found. This results in black aggro not actually being viable at all, and instead gets relegated to shoring up the weaknesses in an existing deck, and usually only then as a splash for a few good one drops or cheap removal. To myself, this is quite saddening. Black-based aggro is a unique experience, and I think its gameplay is very undervalued. While it's certainly not everyone's cup of tea, it's always exciting to see someone taking black aggro for a spin in a cube draft because it plays unlike any other deck, with or without a splash.
Most of the time, I see the lack of black aggro support boiling down to a few common arguments. The first is that Black, as a color, has more powerful cards and strategies in its toolkit, and it would be better to showcase those instead. The second reason, closely tied with the first, is that supporting an aggro deck would come at the cost of those other strategies, such as strong Reanimator or Storm decks, or missing out on midrange haymakers and solid control staples. Lastly, black does not pair well with other, more common aggro deck colors, and would be better off pairing into them as a different strategy altogether. Each of these reasons has some merit and evidence to support them, but I personally think these are design misconceptions. With careful curation, Black can be a solid aggressive color in cube, while also supporting combo, control, and midrange strategies. Let's carefully address each of these arguments, and finish with a demonstration of how to design black with aggro in mind.
"Black has more powerful things it could be doing"
This is an accurate assertion. With Reanimator being viable at all rarity and budget restrictions, and Storm being a common archetype in Legacy and Vintage cubes alike, it can be hard for some to look at an aggro strategy and find it compelling in Black's options. Combined with efficient removal, powerful planeswalkers, and some of the best grinding creatures at the 2-5 manavalue slots, this pushes cubes to make black into a slower, value-based gameplan, and a fast combo color. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, and if this is how someone likes black in their cube, they should do it. However, the notion that black aggro should not be supported due to it being weaker than its other counterparts falls flat.
Make no mistake, a mono red aggro deck will outpace its mono black counterpart consistently. However, Black still has solid aggro starts. Curving out with Vampire Lacerator, Bloodghast, into Spawn of Mayhem is a start sure to drop someone to zero life fast. Even with a turn four Spawn, with perhaps a Graveyard Trespasser or Drana, Liberator of Malakir on turn 3, this demands a board wipe or a strong stabilizing creature to answer effectively. There are also a wide variety of viable aggressive one drops in the color, meaning a turn one creature into two more on turn two is not confined to hypothetical scenarios, but rather a very possible start to a game. Backed by cheap removal spells and a splash of hand attack, a la Hymn to Tourach, this deck could be nasty to face. While the fastest mono black start would be a turn slower than mono red, this does not make it weak by any means. It is still capable of presenting a board state that demands an immediate answer.
Being entirely creature-based, the more accurate comparison to draw would be to white. White's aggressive creatures usually pack disruption too, like the ubiquitous Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. In comparison, however, a black aggro deck can have faster starts due to raw stat lines. Truth be told this falls on the shoulders of a few select cards, like Pack Rat, Spawn of Mayhem, and Rotting Regisaur. White's access to anthem effects can offset this, but short of that the black deck will have a comparable, if not faster, kill time. When properly supported, a mono black aggro shell can be comparable to mono white, which is an oft-seen cube archetype already. In comparison to both other aggro strategies and strategies within the color, the deck remains a solid way to win games. While this does not include multicolor aggro, which without significant support is how the deck would often be played, the color can very easily support an aggro deck beyond a splash, which will address later. While these situations are hypothetical, they are not outside the realm of possibility or fringe lines of play. With a little support, such a deck could be a real force in a cube, no matter how fast the games play on average within the cube. Suffice to say, the deck is plenty strong, and while it can't beat a turn two or three Storm turn, neither would mono red or white. It competes in the same realm as other aggro strategies. Aversion to the deck based on it being weak does not line up with the tools available to it, and as we will now cover, those tools are often already in cubes, and what is missing is actually only a handful of cards to make the deck work.
"Black aggro is parasitic to other black strategies"
This generally comes from the idea that in order to give black aggro enough support to work, it would require removing cards to make Reanimator and Storm function properly and consistently, while also nerfing midrange and control. While supporting black aggro does require card slots, by and large, this idea is not true for all cubes. Truthfully, this does come down to the size of a cube. A 360 card cube with combo archetypes is hard pressed to fit aggro support in. At midsized cubes, such as 460-540, it becomes much easier to fit these archetypes together. It also comes down to the nature of these cubes. Midsized cubes will often have multicolor approaches to black combo decks, such as adding white or blue to Reanimator, while blue and red will always be part of Storm. Tthe creature/spell split of the color also matters, and what is required to best fit with the cube. Beyond the one mana slot, what we see is a lot of good black aggro cards are also great midrange and value cards. In reality only a handful of cards need to be added to black to make an aggro strategy possible. Many of it's needed pieces are already there.
Of course, aggro support requires sufficient one and two mana creatures to function. This is the largest opportunity cost present: Black aggro will require running more one mana creatures than the color would otherwise run. This slot can be clogged when combined with other good one drops, such as Stitcher's Supplier, Viscera Seer, and Putrid Imp, which are powerful cards in non-aggro strategies. However, a midsized cube only needs about 6-7 aggressive one drops to be a solid enough base for a color's aggro. This may seem like a lot, especially when there are only 60-70 cards of a given color in cubes of this size. However, most remaining creatures necessary for the archetype to work are already making their way into cubes for their midrange and value potential.
The aforementioned Dark Confidant, Pack Rat, and Graveyard Trespasser all routinely see play in Legacy and Vintage cubes because they are just good creatures. Other flexible creatures, like Murderous Rider, are also excellent inclusions for black aggro decks because they offer more value out of one card, and mesh well with midrange and control strategies for the same reason. Other two drops, like Skyclave Shade and Tenacious Underdog, grind well and provide more value out of the graveyard for the midrange decks. Options like Rankle, Master of Pranks and Sedgemoor Witch are both evasive and provide value as the game goes on. Hypnotic Specter is good, be it the top of the curve or the bottom. Speaking of the top of the curve, Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is an excellent midrange card that can be a great curve topper for a resilient aggro deck. Cheap removal, like Fatal Push, Bloodchief's Thirst, and Snuff Out make it into any black deck that drafts them and will already be in many cubes as well. Therefore, adding some dedicated black aggro support, such as Drana, Liberator of Malakir and Spawn of Mayhem, is really only adding a few cards, and utilizing Black's tendency toward value creatures with good stats and cheap removal that was already played in cubes everywhere. Obviously, one can elect to go much deeper, and start adding aggressive-slated cards that also fit into midrange decks, like Dauthi Voidwalker — not only does it have strong stats and evasion, but it also generates long-term value. There's even expressly aggro-only cards, like Foul-Tongue Shriek if lower-rarity cubes wanted a burn spell game ender for the archetype, but this is far from necessary. There's even interesting inclusions like Heir of Falkenrath, which is cheap and evasive, but discarding a card also can be used to pitch a Reanimator threat, generate extra value, activate Madness, and much more. Tourach, Dread Cantor is an incredible card for midrange, control, and aggro decks alike, and when kicked can be backbreaking. Delve threats like Gurmag Angler are also great curve toppers.
These are only a few examples. However, the good draft picks for black aggro don't point towards the archetype being parasitic. In reality, to adequately support the deck, a midsized cube needs to run about 6-7 aggro one drops, include an aggressive lean to some of the two drop creatures that also provide value later, and then add one or two nice aggro support cards to the three and four mana slots to give good curve toppers. Assuming that most cubes already run about 3-4 aggro one drops in black, this translates to somewhere between 6 and 11 cards the cube builder otherwise might not run. Note that this figure does not include the two drops, as many of those are perfectly justifiable inclusions without black aggro. This can easily be accomplished by swapping a fringe or slow three drop for an aggressive one, trimming a hand attack spell here, an expensive for the mana reanimation spell there, and suddenly, the cube has a draftable black aggro archetype. Yes, it is competing with other black decks for creatures, but so is every deck that shares a color, so this point is moot and not exactly hampering black midrange anymore than another black midrange deck at the table was. With just a tad more support, black aggro can be a draftable deck.
Of course, this example utilizes Legacy and Vintage cubes. Pauper and Peasant do not have the same powerful aggro enablers. That said, they still have plenty of options. A blitzed Night Clubber can swing the aggro mirror into a decided win by removing X/1's. Mogis's Marauder is a personal favorite for Peasant, providing sudden evasion for an alpha strike. Death-Priest of Myrkul is actually a very interesting pick because not only does it maintain board pressure by generating tokens, but also that most of the aggressive black creatures at common and uncommon happen to be Zombies, Skeletons, or Vampires, so they buff the board too. At Pauper, cube builders should look towards swarming tactics, especially with options like Night Market Lookout that will force damage through simply for attacking. Good curve toppers will end up being delve threats. Cards like Viscera Dragger, that can come back from the graveyard for another attack, are also worth looking at. More than likely, it will come down to swarm and then drain with something like Gray Merchant of Asphodel.
"Black pairs poorly into other colors for an aggro strategy"
This notion comes from the lived experience of many frustrated cube designers when they find that red/black aggro is clunky, difficult to draft well, and even harder to work properly. Even a cursory look at red/black's multicolor tells us the color pair has poor aggro synergies in a cube environment. Sure, there's Blightning, Rakdos Cackler, Rakdos Headliner, and Falkenrath Aristocrat, but after this the options dry up fairly quickly. Vial-Smasher the Fierce fits in a range of decks, and certainly not terrible in an aggro deck, but as a three mana 2/3 that does nothing on their own, it's a tough sell. Stormfist Crusader is a great source of card advantage, but extremely risky. A few cube builders choose to force Vampires in, but executed poorly it results in a parasitic archetype with little room for the color pair to act as anything else. Other potential inclusions, like Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch look strong on paper, but require warping the colors around the multicolor to get off the ground. Truth be told, with Olivia, Mobilized for War, Azra Oddsmaker, and Rakdos Headliner, a Madness archetype could be strong. More often than not, however, the color pair is much better off being something else. Over the past few years, red/black sacrifice came front and center to the color pair, with cards like Judith, Scourge Diva, Juri, Master of the Revue, Mayhem Devil, and many more. At the Pauper level this is almost the only way to clearly signpost in multicolor, using Body Dropper. Fireblade Artist, and Kathari Bomber. This is a much more compelling and easy-to-implement archetype. In short, red/black aggro is not a deck seen often due to how clunky the color pair is for that strategy.
However, this is not black's fault, necessarily. The inability to pair with the de facto aggro deck in a cube does not make black a bad half of an aggro deck. Rather, designers should pair it with what it has plenty of synergy with: White and green. Black has a lot to offer white. Excellent hand attack and removal, combined with resilient creatures, pairs well with White's resilient creature-base, especially disruptive creatures like the Thalias, Eidolon of Rhetoric, and Archon of Emeria. The color pair also has strong multicolor options for aggro. Kambal, Consul of Allocation fits squarely with Death and Taxes weenies, Tidehollow Sculler is a body and hand disruption, and Lingering Souls puts plenty of power on the board fast. For Planeswalkers, Sorin, Solemn Visitor provides a team-wide buff and a lifeswing. The best part is, for a midsized cube, even with just Kambal, Tidehollow Sculler, and Lingering Souls, black/white aggro becomes possible while also leaving multicolor slots for midrange, Reanimator, or anything else in the color pair. Investing a few multi-purpose aggro and midrange cards in the multicolor slot is perfect for aligning white and black aggro. If rares aren't allowed, token-generators and payoffs, like Zealous Persecution, Call to the Feast, and Campaign of Vengeance, are sure to close the lifegap fast. While not as fast as red aggro, black/white is a viable, grindy weenie strategy with just a few multicolor options to tie it all together.
Pairing black with green follows a similar pattern. Deathrite Shaman is an excellent source of damage and mana ramp for very little investment. Lotleth Troll provides trample while growing for pitching to the graveyard, meaning it pulls double duty for getting value out of the graveyard and cramming damage past blockers. Grim Flayer also fills this role, albeit he can't get past blockers as easily. For Pauper, the newly downshifted Dreg Mangler is a haste body that later can be scavenged for more power. If Elfball is present in the cube, Shaman of the Pack is a must. Only two or three of these cards would be necessary to make a solid early game black/green deck that presents constant, resilient pressure. Combined with delve threats and some graveyard value, this deck could be hard to keep down in the hands of a skilled aggro player. Once again, this is only 2-3 slots of the pair's multicolor, meaning there's plenty of space for efficient removal and dedicated midrange value engines, while the low drops also still fit into midrange and graveyard-based shells.
Looking at other possible aggro pairs, black fills an important role in non-red aggro strategies. It can complement White's offerings to form a disruptive board state, or Green to make a resilient deck capable of applying pressure early and often. While neither of these will be as fast as Burn, they absolutely are worthy inclusions for aggro in cubes of all kinds. Now, let's apply what we've discussed, in making a hypothetical early black curve for a cube.
Building an Example
For our purposes, I'll use a mid-sized Legacy cube as my example. The first thing we need is our one drops. For these, I'll take Bloodsoaked Champion, Dread Wanderer, Gutterbones, Gravecrawler, Knight of the Ebon Legion, and Okiba Reckoner Raid. This should be enough to get us started. Now, let's look at two drops. Dark Confidant is an auto-include, and Pack Rat is great in every black deck. Dauthi Voidwalker is great in all sorts of midrange and aggro strategies too, so I'll include that as well. Blade of the Oni is evasive, but can also be equipped later to turn something into a midgame threat, so it makes the cut. Bloodghast always comes back for more, and if self-milled or discarded, still provides value, as does Tenacious Underdog and Skyclave Shade. Tourach is an amazing card too, so he'll go in as a secret four drop.
Moving to three drops, I know I want aggro to be in the cube, so I'll include my pet card, Drana, Liberator of Malakir. Graveyard Trespasser is also solid, so she can go in as well. I know I want graveyard strategies in this cube, so Rotting Regisaur will get the job done in multiple decks. Sedgemoor Witch is evasive and gives plenty of mid-to-lategame value. Murderous Rider is just too good to not include. At 4 MV, I know I want one or two dedicated aggro support cards, and then the rest can be just solid creatures for midrange and control decks. I'll add Spawn of Mayhem because, frankly, I love the card. Rankle, Master of Pranks is also good in aggro and midrange, and the more flexible, the better. After this my 4 MV slots can be creatures like Ravenous Chupacabra, Grief, and whatever else fits my fancy. I already know this cube needs cheap removal like Fatal Push, Infernal Grasp, and Go for the Throat, so I can add those later. I'll toss in a manland, Hive of the Eye-Tyrant, right now too. And with that, this is what our aggro pool looks like.
Black Aggro Creatures
One Drop Creatures
Two Drop Creatures1 Pack Rat
Three Drop Creatures
LandApproximate Total Cost:
This is a solid start to supporting black aggro. It's important to mention that not only do almost all of these cards pull double duty, but there's still plenty of space for more creatures at every spot on the curve. Stitcher's Supplier and Viscera Seer for graveyard and sacrifice strategies, Blood Artist to get value out of creatures dying, and Priest of Forgotten Gods to speed up the dying a bit. Our 3 and 4 MV slots are still plenty open to add more creatures, and most importantly, there's still space for combo cards in black. The noncreature spells, such as draw and removal, will fit anywhere of course, and there's more than enough room for Reanimator threats and spells in our, say, 65 monoblack cards in the cube. Almost every card viable in an aggro deck also works well in midrange, providing resiliency on the board and flexibility in the draft. From here, I could add everything else I need with little worry about my aggro impacting my ability to include other archetypes. For multicolor, I'll be sure to look for disruptive black/white creatures and aggressively-costed value card in green/black. After the couple of cards there, I can turn my black/white top end into, say, Reanimator targets like Ashen Rider, and then spells like Ascent of the Worthy to signal this is a good Reanimator color pair. Finish with Vindicate, and we look solid. For green/black, I know I want Deathrite Shaman and Lotleth Troll because I just love those cards. Abrupt Decay will be great removal. After these, I feel like adding Meren of Clan Nel Toth to assist midrange, and Pernicious Deed for a board wipe. The last card can be a planeswalker, like Vraska, the Unseen or Vraska, Golgari Queen. This means I have some aggro support, but also excellent midrange value support across my multicolor, while including enough cards for excellent top end. This makes my black aggro non-parasitic, and also makes the color pairs more flexible to drafters. Now, is this perfect? By all means, no, it isn't tested yet, but it's a very strong start, and that's what matters.
As demonstrated, we can very easily make black aggro viable in a cube. The common arguments against its inclusion fall flat in practice while still making compelling draft decks across archetypes. This of course doesn't mean a cube designer has to support black aggro. If they don't want to, they don't have to. However, I always recommend considering it. It's a unique, fun take on aggro, that I find few cubes will truly decide to support it. All it takes is the designer understanding what they are building towards before starting. If you've wanted to try black aggro but worry about space or impact midrange, this archetype is viable while taking up comparatively little space. It is absolutely possible to support this archetype across different cube types. If you don't know where to begin, I've included a list of possible black aggro cards, across all rarities, so no matter the cube's design restrictions, every cube designer can find useful cards here.
Black Aggro Creatures
One Drop Creatures
Two Drop Creatures1 Pack Rat1 Wight
Three Drop Creatures
Four Drop Creatures1 Ichorid
Noncreature Spells1 DuressApproximate Total Cost:
I hope this is helpful to all cube designers wondering what to do with their aggro balance, or simply struggling to support everything within the color. While it all comes down to cube restrictions and sizes, supporting black aggro is by no means impossible or difficult. All it takes is flexible cards, and a willingness to throw it a single card or two at the three and four drops. But, what do you think? Am I describing a non-issue, or fixing it wrong? Tell me about it in the comments below. Don't forget, we also have a Cube forum to discuss all things Cube Draft!