When I don’t know what kind of deck I want to make, or what kind of article I want to write I always like to click random card on Scryfall to see what it will give me. Normally I’ll end up finding a card or mechanic I really like and I’ll build around it. Today though, Scryfall gave me a card type that I had long forgotten about in Vanguard. Recently, all I can think about is cube and upon seeing the Vanguard card I immediately imagined it in the context of cube and thought that it could make for a really fun draft variant.
For those of you who don’t know what Vanguard is, it is an old kind of card they introduced all the way back in 1997 that fundamentally changes the way the game is played. You reveal it when you start the game and 3 things happen. You’re starting hand size is changed along with your life total, and you also get a unique ability that is flavored depending on the character you have chosen. For example, if you choose to play as Karn you’re starting and maximum hand size increase by 1, you’re starting life total is 26, but the really interesting part is all of your noncreature artifacts become creatures. There were 2 different types of Vanguard cards introduced, first, there was a wave of Vanguards that were printed as 3×5 cards that could be used in real life, and then came the MTGO Vanguards which are exclusive to Magic Online. We will only be talking about the paper Vanguards today, as I believe they are slightly better balanced and don’t require random number generators to be functional.
This brings me to my first concern of Vanguards. They are either game-warpingly powerful or a neat little ability that you may use occasionally. Disparate abilities such as making all of your spells cost 1 less, or letting your creatures gain 1 life when they attack makes for a very imbalanced format where some people will have a distinct advantage over everyone else. Today I am going to try and grade the cards and group them at similar power levels to see if we can find a group of cards that are fun to play with, without being overpowered. This article was inspired by the recent post talking about using Hero Cards as Conspiracies over on r/MTGCube.
How would you draft these cards? They are bigger than normal cards, and part of the fun of these vanguards is that you get to build a deck based around it. Because of the power imbalance, I would recommend cutting 8 of the 32 cards and then giving 3 cards to each player and let them decide which one they want to build around. You can use my gradings to help you decide which cards should be cut in order to allow for a more fun draft experience.
Eladamri, Takara, Xantcha
Ertai, Mishra, Starke
Mirri, Oracle, Tawnos
Gix, Karn, Rofellos, Sidar Kondo, Volrath
Greven il-Vec, Lyna, Maraxus, Sliver Queen
Crovax, Multani, Orim
Upon first blush, this card seems way too good and would give way too much advantage to the Ashnod player. However, upon closer inspection, we can see that the Ashnod player begins with only 12 life. That’s 4 Lightning Bolts, and you only need to get in with so many creatures until they are forced to do something. With that low of a life total, you will also need to pass cards like Dismember as your life is a much more important resource. It is still really strong, but I think this card allows for some really interesting games. Grade A-
There’s a funny thing about Magic which is baffling to new players, but makes sense to a lot of competitive players and that is the value of being able to sacrifice things. If there was a 0 mana artifact which simply said “you may sacrifice any permanent” it would be incredibly strong. Maybe not broken, but it would be powerful. This card lets you do that and affect the board state. Did I mention the +6 life as well? This card is ridiculously powerful. Being able to sacrifice a land to bounce a Baneslayer Angel is stupid, but now imagine getting to sacrifice anything with a good death trigger. If someone targets your Tarmogoyf with a removal spell just Unsummon something of theirs! The only place where this card would underperform is against a creatureless control deck, but even against those decks, being able to sacrifice 1 creature to bounce another to your hand in response to a board wipe is still really good. This card does not encourage good gameplay, but does let someone have a busted cube deck for a night. Grade S
Going from Barrin to this is the perfect example of how disparate the balancing is. The +2 cards are great to have, but the rest of this card almost does nothing. Even if you support life-gain in the cube, you can probably choose a better card than this. Lifelink, except its lifelink that only gives you 1 life is pretty pathetic in the face of a Titan, or an Upheaval. This card can be good, especially against hyper-aggressive aggro decks but this card is just so bad everywhere else and can still be useless against the aggro deck if they just bolt every creature you play. Grade F
Normally I try not to base my grade on how much extra life a card gives you, but +15 is a lot. Starting with a Commander life total is pretty good, and many control decks would pick this card just for the lifegain. But what really makes this card good is becoming a master of combat. If they try to bolt your 3 toughness creature, just redirect 1 damage to your face. Your creature lives, and the bolt does almost nothing. Blocking your creatures is almost pointless as you will win any trade no matter what. Starting hand size of 6 does hurt, but the card advantage you will gain from your creatures being nearly immortal is more than worth it. Grade A+
This is how you support Bogles in cube. Giving all of your creatures Hexproof is really powerful which is fitting considering how powerful some of these cards are. Losing one card at the beginning of the game does hurt, but as we talked about with Eladamri, you’ll more than make up for that in the card advantage you gain from your opponent’s removal spells becoming useless. However, in games 2 and 3 this will matter less as they will board out all of their removal. While I do think this card is powerful, it’s not exactly broken. My problem with it is that it turns a lot of games into simply whoever has the bigger creature, and I don’t think that makes for really fun games of Magic. Especially when your removal spells still work. Grade A
I really like the design of this card. Drawing 2 cards a turn is really powerful, but a maximum hand size of 3 is incredibly limiting. You’re forced to keep basically any 3 you draw and if lands aren’t in your top 2 cards you’re SOL. Even if there is a land, you’ll still have to discard to hand size if you don’t draw any 1 drops. Even with these downsides, I think Gerrard can lead to some pretty unique and interesting decks. A low curve is almost essential, and 2 cards a turn means that you won’t run out of gas. If you start the game with the Draw you’ll have seen more cards than your opponent starting by turn 4. This is certainly strong, but it is risky and requires some serious deckbuilding considerations. Grade B
38 life is pretty good. But +18 life isn’t enough to make this card as broken as Eladamri. Having to pay 3 mana to return a creature to your hand is good, but it is a cost and a maximum hand size of 5 is much more limiting than 6. If this didn’t have the +18 life I don’t think it would be playable. However, that much life is a big enough roadblock against aggro to give Gix enough time to set up an inevitable value engine that will stabilize them, and against control, nothing short of exile will stop you. For 6 mana you can also recur a Mulldrifter indefinitely. Overall, it’s not too bad and could make for some really fun value decks. Grade B-
Giving all of your creatures deathtouch is pretty interesting. A recent printing from Ravnica Allegiance in Orzhov Enforcer was considered by mana for cubes, partly because it is a sticky deathtouch creature. Slapping deathtouch on cards like Elite Vanguard is something that reveals how this ability is more powerful than it lets on. It isn’t the most overpowered Vanguard card, but it has a nice angle and lets you say “buried” again. Grade C+
This card is busted. Permanently decreasing all spells by 1 is much more powerful than it seems, and lets this player effectively start the game with an unremovable Mox. Except, this card becomes even better than a Mox when you start to cast multiple spells per turn. If your cube supports storm in any way this card can let you storm off a whole turn or two sooner. Without storm, this card does become a little more reasonable, but another thing to consider is a starting hand size of 8. Overall this card just does too much in comparison to the other cards on this list that it probably is overpowered. Grade S-
This is one of my favorite cards from Vanguard for cube because it is doing something very different from any other Vanguard card. Turning all of your artifacts into creatures lets you make a deck that is incredibly threat dense and also extremely utilitarian. Having your Smuggler’s Copter always be a 2/2 flyer is pretty useful, and making your Sorcerous Spyglass be able to attack Planeswalkers is another great way to kill 2 birds with 1 stone. It does nerf a few cards, such as Gilded Lotus being unable to tap for mana the turn it is played, but it makes for some really unique decks and adds a lot to the cubing experience. Grade B-
Unblockable creatures are no joke and keeping Goblin Guide relevant for as long as they have a removal spell is really good. However, starting with a lower life total and no way to block means you are playing a much more dangerous strategy, and if you come across another aggressive deck, they have a distinct advantage. The kind of decks that would be built around this card seem to be playing with fire, and if things don’t go well they will get burned. But, a starting hand size of 9 might be enough to give this deck the edge it needs. Grade C+
As we have been seeing in this current Standard season, Judith is a powerhouse. +1/+0 boost across the board is great, and turns where Judith come down are game-defining. The thing keeping Judith from just taking over is the fact that she is a 3 mana 2/2, something that is very easy to remove. A permanent boost from the command zone is something entire decks can be built around. Turning your Dragon Fodder into two Elite Vanguards is really strong and this effect only stacks with other anthems. It’s not doing anything game-breaking, but it’s a solid effect and gives token decks a huge edge. Grade C+
This card is basically the Conspiracy Worldknit except you also get +5 life. 5C decks are extremely fun to draft in cube. Choose your favorite cards in each pack and build the ultimate good stuff pile. The only thing keeping it from being a really powerful deck is, of course, the mana base. Mirri here, lets you draft whatever you want free of mana concerns. This is really powerful, but I wouldn’t say what she is doing is necessarily broken. The cards won’t have extreme synergy with each other, and they won’t combine into easy combos that win the game. It’s just going to be a pile of good stuff that will try to win the game pretty fairly.
Double strike is a very rare ability that Wizards gives out these days. It is very powerful and is usually only placed on low cmc creatures if they are 1/1’s. Now imagine if Goblin Guide had double strike, and that’s more or less what this card does. It’s not a perfect translation of double strike as a 2/2 will still trade with Mishra’s Goblin Guide, but it still offers so much for creature-based decks. Even on defense, this card offers so much and lets your Grizzly Bears trade for X/4’s. The only restriction of this card is that you have to play creature-based decks, which ultimately isn’t a hard restriction to follow in most cubes.
+X/+0 as a static boost to all of your creatures is very nice to have. But there is one huge fundamental problem with this card that is holding it back, and that is a starting hand size of 4. The most your creatures will be buffed is by +4, but most of the time you’ll have played out your entire hand and be stuck top-decking for the rest of the game. To me, this card effectively reads “your creatures get +1/+0 and you better hope your top 4 cards are good”.
The more combat tricks there are in your cube the better this card gets. In a typical draft environment, where the best way to get rid of opposing creatures is to block them this card is outstanding. If they cast a pump spell you can just pull your creature back for free. With this card, you can swing freely with your entire team every turn and get damage in as long as you have more creatures than your opponent. Also if you have any creatures with good attack effects such as the titans, this card starts to become really good. +1 starting hand size and +9 life doesn’t hurt either.
The Giant Spider Vanguard. Giving all of your creatures reach will certainly come up and be useful, but ultimately this ability is pretty mediocre. It’s not doing anything interesting that makes the cube draft more fun, and the +12 life isn’t even the best you can get. This card is just boring compared to all of the other cards we have reviewed so far, and gets a lower rating largely because of that.
I could see this card leading to some really interesting decks! Giving all of your creatures a death trigger that draws you more cards makes me want to play a deck that is all about sacrificing your stuff for value. This card doesn’t even say non-token which lets you just continually accrue value from something like an Ophiomancer and a sacrifice outlet. A starting hand size of 5 is problematic, but one of the ways to come back from a low hand size is to just have every creature drawing you cards.
Giving all of your creatures vigilance is a pretty nice ability to have. There are many times where you want to attack but can’t because your opponent’s creatures hit back harder. As long as you have the bigger creature, you can swing every turn and win at both offense and defense. However, compared to the Oracle, this card is far less interesting. Selenia runs into the same problem that Orim does, in that giving all of your creatures a basic ability just isn’t all that impressive. Vigilance is not something you build around, it is simply something that is nice to have.
Now, unless you have a toughness matters theme in your cube, this card isn’t doing all that much. +0/+2 across the board is nice and lets almost all of your creatures dodge Bolt effects, but it’s not something you can build around. Maraxus, which gives all of your creatures +1/+0 is more of a build around than this because you can build a deck where that effect matters. In the general cube environment, +0/+2 has no mechanical benefit and is just a general buff in the same vein as Vigilance and Reach and doesn’t change the way you draft. If you do have a toughness matters theme, this card becomes amazing.
Threat of activation is a very powerful thing to have, and a repeatable Giant Growth can turn any of your creatures into a threat. When your Llanowar Elves is swinging in as a 4/4 or even a 7/7 in the late game, any creature you draw can become a threat. Combat tricks may be slightly worse in the average cube environment, as removal spells are far more plentiful, but sinking just mana instead of mana and cards does make this effect a little better. Until you can spend the mana though, you are forced to start with a 6 card hand.
Accelerating your mana for the low low cost of a starting hand size of 5 is a deal I would make any day of the week. One of the main problems smaller hand sizes run into is mana screw, but with this card, only 2 lands are needed to cast over half of the deck (assuming average cmc is 3). With a turn 1 Rampant Growth or Sakura-Tribe Elder, you can be casting titans on turn 2! The downsides of this card are easily outweighed by the explosive power of having a Mirari’s Wake on turn 1.
Do you have Slivers? If so, this card is really good. If not, it’s still a respectable option. Being able to make a bunch of 1/1’s without using any cards is nice to have and can buy you a lot of time. This also lets you support any tokens strategies as you can guarantee yourself that you will have tokens. 3 mana for a 1/1 is very below average, however, and even if you can activate this ability multiple times in a game, you’re only getting anywhere from 3-5 tokens from this card per game. If you find a way to make more tokens per activation or can make the individual tokens more threatening this card does get better, but ultimately it is pretty slow.
Perfect information for the entire game is a pretty strong ability. I know that if I cast a discard spell on turn 1, I have a big advantage for the next few turns as I can easily plan around what they have. If I know they have a Path to Exile, for example, I’ll keep my stronger creature back until they use the Path on something else. Having this kind of knowledge every step of the game lets you play around bluffs, combat tricks, removal and more, all while your opponent is kept in the dark about what is in your hand. And with a starting hand size of 10, you have so many different options that allow you to easily answer anything your opponents may do.
This card is very similar to Gerrard in that you get to draw 2 cards per turn, and while this vanguard does give card advantage in the same way that Gerrard does, it makes up for that in card quality. The ability to fine-tune your hand to fit whatever situation is at hand is remarkably strong and keeps you from having dead cards in hand. If you keep a hand full of removal spells against a control deck you can easily ship these cards to the bottom and effectively draw 2 cards that turn. This also lets you dig for outs, and even lets you find combo pieces much easier.
I have previously said how giving your creatures a generic keyword is not very interesting and doesn’t lead to fun drafts. In the case of haste, however, I believe that it does lead to more interesting decks. A lot of creatures have really awesome on attack triggers, and being able to use them immediately is really powerful. Fires of Yavimaya and more recently Rhythm of the Wild are both cards that see cube play because they can grant creatures haste. Haste is a proactive ability, which means it can be built around, unlike reactive abilities such as reach.
I find Goblin Bombardment to be one of the most powerful cards in my cube when it’s built around. Once you get your opponent low enough, you can just sacrifice everything to finish them off. If they board wipe, they will take damage for every creature you have. If they have a powerful or annoying creature, you have many more options to deal with that creature. It’s very powerful because it is a free sacrifice outlet that can always be activated. What really pushes this card over the top is the starting hand size of 10. This kind of ability would still be strong if the starting hand size was 7. The only downside of this card is the starting life total of 12, which is meaningful but not enough to stop this card from dominating certain matchups.
This is my kind of card! I love giving all of my cards flash as it creates really interesting gameplay and lets you respond to whatever your opponents are doing. It also makes your opponent wary of attacking as long as you have open mana which lets you bluff a lot of different things. 10 cards is also really strong and make it more likely that your bluff is actually a threat. Flash is a good ability that introduces a lot of nuance into your deck and strategy. Responding to board wipes with something like Selfless Spirit is awesome, and it can make for fun games and stories.
I feel like a lot of these vanguards are just you start the game with a card in play. In the case of Titania, that card is Exploration and it is pretty strong in a dedicated lands deck. Crucible of Worlds and Strip Mine is lights out against most decks. However, assembling this kind of deck in a cube draft is more difficult to do. In the average deck, this card lets you play more lands per turn which is still a powerful ability in its own right. With a 9 card hand, it’s very likely that you will have 5-6 lands by turn 3. Sisay is more explosive but is held back by not always having a good starting hand. 9 cards basically ensures that you will have everything you need making this card more consistently powerful.
Urza is one of Magic’s most powerful Planeswalkers, however, his vanguard card does not really compare. 3 mana to ping something is not the best rate, especially when other cards such as Sidar can be casting Giant Growth for the same amount of mana. Pinging also doesn’t have as much ability to be built around unlike Sliver Queen who can make tokens. Pinging is useful and lets you control a lot of small creatures and also win trades that you otherwise wouldn’t, but 3 mana is asking for too much.
It’s not quite card advantage, but it does ensure card quality throughout the entirety of the game. The longer the game goes, the better advantage the Volrath player gets. If you can continually trade creatures and constantly be bringing them back, eventually your opponent will draw lands and give you an opportunity to draw into more spells. In the early game, it’s very hard to want to activate this card as you need to make sure you are hitting your land drops, and not just drawing the same creature over and over again. I like this card as it provides a lot of interesting decision points, without being overpowered.
This card was designed before wizards realized that free sacrifice outlets are really busted. Allowing you to sacrifice anything to regenerate your creatures makes your opponent’s removal and creatures almost meaningless. If the Xantcha player were able to find something like Ophiomancer, it would be nearly impossible to interact with their board. This isn’t the most busted of all the free sacrifice outlets, but it’s still really strong and can invalidate a lot of games of Magic.
Vanguards offer interesting changes to the rules, and many of them are very powerful and fit right in with the power level of cube. However, the range of power levels is very drastic with some cards winning the game on their own, while others barely even impact anything. I believe that if you are ever going to play with vanguards it’s very important that you only play with cards that share a similar power level. You don’t want the Barin player to get matched up against the Crovax player as that would be extremely one-sided. This is definitely not something I would want to do for every draft, but if you want to have a sillier draft night and introduce some really awesome rules, I would highly recommend this variant. Thank you all for reading, I hope you have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!