Unpopular Cube

Posted in Making Magic on August 26, 2013

By Ethan Fleischer

Ethan Fleischer works for Magic R&D as a designer. He can sing, but not dance, and is an indifferent fencer. He lives near Seattle with his wife, three sons, and mother-in-law.

Magic: The Gathering isn't just a single game. Everyone can make their own decks, so a game against a red-green ramp deck will be quite a different experience than one against a white weenie deck. Compounding these differences is the fact that there are different formats, where different cards are legal. A game of Vintage is almost completely different from Sealed play. Some cards slip through the cracks, though, and haven't seen the light of day in many, many years. This is one of the greatest tragedies of modern Magic.

Play With ALL the Cards!

For the first several years of my Magic-playing life, I played what could be loosely-defined as "casual Constructed." I used the Vintage banned and restricted list, but that didn't really matter because all of my Power Nine cards had been traded away years ago. I was (and still am!) a compulsive pack-cracker, always on the lookout for cool new cards.


Eventually, I started paying attention to decklists online and reading up on deck-building theory. My decks started to improve. I started trying to improve my collection through trades instead of just seeing what I got in booster packs. I continued opening booster packs, but most of the cards I opened ended up being tossed into a box, never to be played with—a sad fate for a Magic card! I felt like I was missing out on a lot of potential fun.

So my play group made the plunge into Limited play. This was exciting! I got to play with nearly every card. Suddenly, Wind Drake was a card that mattered, for the first time since my earliest days. (Well, technically Wind Drake didn't exist back then, but Phantom Monster is a reasonable stand-in for Wind Drake.) Playing formats like Standard and Commander allowed me to play with other cards I otherwise would never have been exposed to.

Wind Drake
Phantom Monster

A Ratings Disaster

Soon after I was hired as a designer at Wizards, I was working on the Magic 2013 development team. As a casual player and totally inexperienced in R&D in general, I wasn't cut out for some of the heavier lifting involved on the team, so I spent some of my time looking for cool potential reprint cards. I consulted lists of eternal staples, but many of those cards are too powerful to reprint. I needed some way to get a list of popular cards from Magic's past. I discovered that Gatherer has a function where cards can be filtered and sorted by "Community Rating." People have been rating and commenting on cards for a few years now. Many of the cards had dozens or even hundreds of ratings. The rating system put me onto the scent of some cool reprints that I might otherwise have overlooked. I pitched ideas at Zac Hill, the lead developer. Some were accepted, and some were rejected.

Soon after, my friend and fellow designer Shawn Main came up with a format he dubbed "Gatherer-Terrible." While Legacy and Vintage play with the most powerful and popular cards from Magic's history, Gatherer-Terrible uses only cards rated two stars or less on our Gatherer website. I did a Gatherer search for cards rated less than or equal to 2. Wow! I had never even heard of most of these cards! This was exciting. Magic R&D director Aaron Forsythe had played a similar format with his brother back in the day, based on the star ratings from InQuest magazine. The three of us each made some decks and played some games. We had fun, but it soon became clear that the format was terribly unbalanced: black was far more powerful than the other colors. This, combined with the fact that we were playing four-of Constructed, meant we weren't really playing with very many cards we otherwise wouldn't play with. There had to be a way to bring more cards into the fold. I decided to build a Cube.

Assassin's Strike
Fatal Fumes

The Birth of the Unpopular Cube

"To be popular one must be a mediocrity."—Oscar Wilde

Most Cubes read like a list of Constructed all-stars from throughout Magic's history. Players divide the Cube up into booster pack–sized piles and draft them just like in Booster Draft. You will never play in such a high-octane Limited environment as in most Cubes. Many Cube decks are more powerful than Standard decks. If you get a chance to try it, I recommend it highly. We even offer an official Wizards of the Coast Cube occasionally on Magic Online.

A regular Cube wasn't going to get the job done here, though. I'd Tinkered into Blightsteel Colossus enough times in my life already. I'd sacrificed enough Spirit tokens to Smokestack. I was through with the popular cards. It was time to play Magic as it was almost never played. Named after Bertrand Russell's book, Unpopular Essays, the Unpopular Cube, like Gatherer-Terrible, is composed of cards rated 2 or less on Gatherer. Gatherer ratings are dynamic; they change whenever someone rates the card, so some of these may have been uprated to above 2 by the time you read this. The Cube includes:

Tomb of Urami
Obelisk of Undoing
Misfortune's Gain
Exalted Dragon
Poison Arrow
Moonbow Illusionist
Bog-Strider Ash
Raging Poltergeist
Wu Infantry
Kami of Empty Graves
Hisoka's Defiance


Riot Gear
Millennial Gargoyle
  • Cool weirdo cards that never found homes. We design a lot of goofy rare cards, hoping that enough people will like them. Sometimes they just don't catch on. They get a chance to shine in the Unpopular Cube.
  • Cards with downsides. This is one of the Spikiest Cubes I've ever seen. People vote down cards with downside text like you wouldn't believe. That's why black was so powerful in the Gatherer-Terrible format: it has far more cards with downside text, many of which are very powerful.
  • Cards that are clearly worse than others. Control Magic costs . Domestication also costs . Which would you rather have 99% of the time? Well, what if you couldn't have Control Magic? Domestication starts looking pretty good! Poison Arrow costs six mana to Doom Blade's two, and is sorcery-speed to boot. But it still gets the job done.
  • Cards that have a very narrow ability, but are otherwise perfectly good.
  • Vanilla creatures. People generally tend to vote down vanilla creatures. They're pretty useful in Limited, though, and have the added benefit of not introducing too much board complexity. When you're building a Cube out of cards from Magic's entire history, things can get pretty complex once the games get going, especially since the Unpopular Cube is pretty grindy and slow. Vanillas help by being strategically relevant without inducing analysis paralysis.
  • Spirits. The soulshift and spiritcraft mechanics from Kamigawa block were down-voted en masse. I took advantage if this situation by providing plenty of support in the form of Spirit creatures and even put some narrow hosers into the Cube.
  • Cards that help end games. Things like removal, creatures with evasion, and things that pump your creatures help games come to a fitting conclusion. They're really important in any Limited format and need special attention in such a slow format as the Unpopular Cube.

What the Unpopular Cube doesn't contain:

Adventurers' Guildhouse
Great Wall
  • Cards that don't do anything. Not to be confused with Null Rod, which does nothing. Some cards are so narrow that they have no function outside of very specifically engineered circumstances. While there is some value in making peoples' picks easier by including these cards, I decided not to put them in the Unpopular Cube, as they would never be played with.

The Unpopular Cube:

Alaborn Trooper Creature
Arbalest Elite Creature
Aven Archer Creature
Aven Soulgazer Creature
Battle Hurda Creature
Blessed Orator Creature
Carrier Pigeons Creature
Chronosavant Creature
Combat Medic Creature
Exalted Dragon Creature
Foot Soldiers Creature
Gate Hound Creature
Ghost Tactician Creature
Grassland Crusader Creature
Gravel Slinger Creature
Harsh Deceiver Creature
Hipparion Creature
Holy Justiciar Creature
Hundred-Talon Kami Creature
Innocence Kami Creature
Jedit's Dragoons Creature
Jeweled Spirit Creature
Kami of the Painted Road Creature
Kami of the Palace Fields Creature
Keepers of the Faith Creature
Kjeldoran Guard Creature
Mesa Falcon Creature
Moonlight Geist Creature
Mystic Visionary Creature
Royal Herbalist Creature
Ruham Djinn Creature
Sandsower Creature
Sentry Oak Creature
Shinen of Stars' Light Creature
Shu Elite Infantry Creature
Siege Mastodon Creature
Silvercoat Lion Creature
Silverstorm Samurai Creature
Skyrider Trainee Creature
Steelform Sliver Creature
Steeple Roc Creature
Titanium Golem Creature
Trap Digger Creature
Angelic Voices Enchantment
Armistice Enchantment
Debtor's Pulpit Enchantment
Noble Steeds Enchantment
Ritual of Steel Enchantment
Serra Bestiary Enchantment
Banishment Decree Instant
Bold Defense Instant
Defensive Maneuvers Instant
Endure Instant
Fulgent Distraction Instant
Last Breath Instant
Ray of Distortion Instant
Shielded Passage Instant
Swift Maneuver Instant
Withstand Instant
Misfortune's Gain Sorcery
Amphin Cutthroat Creature
Ascending Aven Creature
Aven Windreader Creature
Balloon Peddler Creature
Balshan Griffin Creature
Capricious Sorcerer Creature
Cephalid Scout Creature
Coastal Wizard Creature
Coral Eel Creature
Coral Merfolk Creature
Glintwing Invoker Creature
Hoverguard Observer Creature
Kami of Twisted Reflection Creature
Keeneye Aven Creature
Kiri-Onna Creature
Merchant of Secrets Creature
Moonbow Illusionist Creature
Neurok Prodigy Creature
Outrider of Jhess Creature
Paperfin Rascal Creature
Phantasmal Sphere Creature
Primoc Escapee Creature
River Kaijin Creature
Sapphire Leech Creature
School of Piranha Creature
Shinen of Flight's Wings Creature
Slipstream Eel Creature
Slipstream Serpent Creature
Storm Elemental Creature
Tolarian Sentinel Creature
Vedalken Dismisser Creature
Vedalken Entrancer Creature
Voidwielder Creature
Whiptongue Frog Creature
Wu Infantry Creature
Wu Warship Creature
Arnjlot's Ascent Enchantment
Coma Veil Enchantment
Dispersing Orb Enchantment
Domestication Enchantment
Duplicity Enchantment
Field of Reality Enchantment
Illusionary Armor Enchantment
Skygames Enchantment
Stasis Cell Enchantment
Champion's Victory Instant
Fervent Denial Instant
Force Void Instant
Frazzle Instant
Hisoka's Defiance Instant
Metamorphose Instant
Oppressive Will Instant
Spell Snip Instant
Surging Æther Instant
Thoughtbind Instant
Dematerialize Sorcery
Essence Fracture Sorcery
Glimpse the Future Sorcery
Touch of Brilliance Sorcery
Vacuumelt Sorcery
Andradite Leech Creature
Anurid Murkdiver Creature
Aphetto Vulture Creature
Ashenmoor Cohort Creature
Battlefield Percher Creature
Bloodcurdler Creature
Brutal Nightstalker Creature
Cabal Inquisitor Creature
Carrion Howler Creature
Crawling Filth Creature
Cursed Monstrosity Creature
Deathknell Kami Creature
Dementia Bat Creature
Derelor Creature
Dross Hopper Creature
Ebon Drake Creature
Enslaved Horror Creature
Gloomhunter Creature
Grollub Creature
Hagra Crocodile Creature
Hasran Ogress Creature
Kami of Empty Graves Creature
Kami of Lunacy Creature
Lost Soul Creature
Marrow Bats Creature
Mire Shade Creature
Nightwing Shade Creature
Nim Grotesque Creature
Noxious Toad Creature
Pus Kami Creature
Restless Bones Creature
Rotting Legion Creature
Scuttling Death Creature
Serpent Warrior Creature
Sewerdreg Creature
Shrieking Specter Creature
Sightless Ghoul Creature
Skittering Monstrosity Creature
Skullmane Baku Creature
Terrus Wurm Creature
Tomb of Urami Creature
Vampire Warlord Creature
Vengeful Vampire Creature
Vesper Ghoul Creature
Viscid Lemures Creature
Young Wei Recruits Creature
Zanikev Locust Creature
Colfenor's Plans Enchantment
Horror of Horrors Enchantment
Murderous Betrayal Enchantment
Nihilistic Glee Enchantment
Patriarch's Desire Enchantment
Afflict Instant
Pull Under Instant
Rend Spirit Instant
Dance of Shadows Sorcery
Phyrexian Tribute Sorcery
Poison Arrow Sorcery
Shattered Crypt Sorcery
Sink into Takenuma Sorcery
Anaba Shaman Creature
Axegrinder Giant Creature
Barbarian Lunatic Creature
Bloodpyre Elemental Creature
Bloodstoke Howler Creature
Brothers of Fire Creature
Charging Slateback Creature
Cyclops Tyrant Creature
Faultgrinder Creature
Flamecore Elemental Creature
Frenetic Raptor Creature
Geyser Glider Creature
Goblin Glider Creature
Goblin Piker Creature
Hammerheim Deadeye Creature
Indentured Oaf Creature
Independent Troops Creature
Iron-Barb Hellion Creature
Kami of Fire's Roar Creature
Kavu Aggressor Creature
Kyren Glider Creature
Mad Dog Creature
Mage il-Vec Creature
Mogg Toady Creature
Monstrous Hound Creature
Nearheath Stalker Creature
Ogre Recluse Creature
Oxidda Daredevil Creature
Raging Poltergeist Creature
Renegade Troops Creature
Rock Badger Creature
Sabertooth Alley Cat Creature
Scalding Devil Creature
Sell-Sword Brute Creature
Shaleskin Plower Creature
Shimatsu the Bloodcloaked Creature
Shinen of Fury's Fire Creature
Skittish Valesk Creature
Soul of Magma Creature
Spurred Wolverine Creature
Tectonic Fiend Creature
Errantry Enchantment
Magma Vein Enchantment
Bash to Bits Instant
Cackling Flames Instant
Fiery Conclusion Instant
Flaming Gambit Instant
Flare Instant
Thermal Blast Instant
Torrent of Stone Instant
Zap Instant
Acceptable Losses Sorcery
Awe for the Guilds Sorcery
Consuming Bonfire Sorcery
Desert Sandstorm Sorcery
Earth Rift Sorcery
Magma Rift Sorcery
Searing Flesh Sorcery
Structural Collapse Sorcery
Volcanic Submersion Sorcery
Bog-Strider Ash Creature
Bull Elephant Creature
Elvish Pathcutter Creature
Fiddlehead Kami Creature
Flailing Drake Creature
Fyndhorn Brownie Creature
Geist Trappers Creature
Ghor-Clan Savage Creature
Gluetius Maximus Creature
Gorilla Pack Creature
Grappler Spider Creature
Groundshaker Sliver Creature
Hundroog Creature
Ivy Seer Creature
Johtull Wurm Creature
Krosan Constrictor Creature
Llanowar Vanguard Creature
Malachite Golem Creature
Matsu-Tribe Decoy Creature
Moon Sprite Creature
Nantuko Calmer Creature
Needleshot Gourna Creature
Niall Silvain Creature
Orbweaver Kumo Creature
Order of the Sacred Bell Creature
Orochi Ranger Creature
Runeclaw Bear Creature
Scarwood Treefolk Creature
Simian Brawler Creature
Skyshroud Behemoth Creature
Tel-Jilad Outrider Creature
Totem Speaker Creature
Viridian Scout Creature
Vitaspore Thallid Creature
Wildwood Geist Creature
Woodcloaker Creature
Wurmskin Forger Creature
Zendikar Farguide Creature
Fyndhorn Pollen Enchantment
Petrified Plating Enchantment
Savage Hunger Enchantment
Bloodscent Instant
Crash Landing Instant
Fanatical Fever Instant
Refresh Instant
Strength of Cedars Instant
Sudden Strength Instant
Sylvan Bounty Instant
Verdigris Instant
Vital Surge Instant
Bee Sting Sorcery
Feral Contest Sorcery
Heavy Fog Sorcery
Lair Delve Sorcery
Monstrous Growth Sorcery
Rebuking Ceremony Sorcery
Spring of Eternal Peace Sorcery
Treetop Defense Sorcery
Wallop Sorcery
Wielding the Green Dragon Sorcery
Multicolor (or with off-color activation)
Angelfire Crusader Creature
Blightsoil Druid Creature
Cloudheath Drake Creature
Emberwilde Caliph Creature
Gruul Scrapper Creature
Kei Takahashi Creature
Lady Caleria Creature
Lady Orca Creature
Merfolk of the Depths Creature
Ogre Savant Creature
Ordruun Commando Creature
Ostiary Thrull Creature
Rakdos Ringleader Creature
Segmented Wurm Creature
Stalking Assassin Creature
Steel Leaf Paladin Creature
Undead Leotau Creature
Vectis Silencers Creature
Warping Wurm Creature
Waveskimmer Aven Creature
Krovikan Whispers Enchantment
Martyrs' Tomb Enchantment
Meteor Storm Enchantment
Azorius Ploy Instant
Fall of the Gavel Instant
Rites of Reaping Sorcery
Aladdin's Ring Artifact
Ark of Blight Artifact
Baton of Courage Artifact
Dragon's Claw Artifact
Emmessi Tome Artifact
Flying Carpet Artifact
Greatsword Artifact
Jandor's Saddlebags Artifact
Mana Prism Artifact
Obelisk of Undoing Artifact
Phyrexian Lens Artifact
Riot Gear Artifact
Rod of Ruin Artifact
Sandstone Deadfall Artifact
Steamclaw Artifact
The Hive Artifact
Tower of Champions Artifact
Wolfhunter's Quiver Artifact
Aesthir Glider Artifact Creature
Arachnoid Artifact Creature
Diabolic Machine Artifact Creature
Ebony Rhino Artifact Creature
Goblin Dirigible Artifact Creature
Millennial Gargoyle Artifact Creature
Narstad Scrapper Artifact Creature
Rusted Sentinel Artifact Creature
Sliver Construct Artifact Creature
Street Sweeper Artifact Creature
Venser's Sliver Artifact Creature
Wirecat Artifact Creature

What do you like?

Anyone can understand why you play with Lightning Bolt or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. It requires discerning and unusual taste to enjoy playing with the kinds of cards found in the Unpopular Cube. This Cube is only for the most elite, or the most insane, players.

But I have to confess that I didn't write this article solely to share my delight in discovering diamonds in the rough and experiencing novel ways to play Magic. I want to encourage you to rate cards on Gatherer. The more ratings we have for each card, the more accurately we can gauge that card's popularity. Also, I'd love to hear from you directly: What kinds of cards do you like? What kinds of cards do you hate? What kinds of cards have surprised you by being more fun than you thought they would be? Post your thoughts in the community forum or send me an email using the links below this article.

Find fun in places where most don't look for it!

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