Perfection, Knowledge, Adaptation.
Let's get this out there right up front. Blue is by far the most complex color in Magic, and that makes it a challenge to get the balance just right when creating your own Cube environment. Blue's skeleton (or should we say "blueprint") is tricky to establish, and in a small cube, it means there is less room to go outside the box. It's not an impossible task though - let's take a look.
When Limited Edition Alpha was released in 1993, Richard Garfield didn't realize just how powerful he had made Blue. Its color pie was much too wide, dipping into the strengths of other colors, and blue cards were, in many cases, criminally under-costed. As Magic grew and players became familiar with the game's strategy, it became apparent that Blue held the keys to the easy win. Wizards has of course worked to level the playing field in the intervening years, but those cards still exist, so supporting Blue's archetypes are a balancing act. You want to evoke the feel of the color and support its strengths while not overwhelming the rest with its raw power.
Blue craves knowledge, it believes that knowledge is the doorway to perfection - in ourselves and society as a whole. Blue also believes there is a need to control society in order to keep it on that path. Magic expresses this through Blue's card draw (knowledge) and counter-magic (control).
Working with a small cube or cube skeleton, you will find more than enough card options to express Blue's card draw capability. The tough part is which ones to pick. Jace Beleren makes the cut as our blue planeswalker. As a "face of the game", this card will be a cohesive flavor and mechanical win. "Baby Jace", as some call this version, is all about card draw and his ultimate "forced discard" ability is pretty much a game ending event when you are drafting 40 card decks. Looking for play value, the rest of my card draw selections focus on creatures that have the mechanic attached as an ability or effect. Mulldrifter, Enclave Archeologist and Merfolk Looter are all cube staples providing the blue player with "gas" and presence on the battlefield as creatures. For spell-based solutions there are two picks. Brainstorm is powerful card draw, and at just one blue mana it's splash-able in decks that need it. Then there is Cube all-star Cryptic Command. Cryptic is never a dead draw. With so many choices it always fills a need, and a must-have in your cube, no matter how small.
Cryptic Command crosses into the second archetype you are going to want to support, Control. In Blue, Control is a complicated beast, combining three different mechanics - counter-magic, tap-bounce effects, and creature control as its solution. To represent all three in a small cube, you won't have much overlap, so choose wisely.
Blue is known as the color of "No" and is the king of the counterspell. We will talk about about additional blue cards that fill this role, but they fall into our "iconics" category further into the article. Here, I want to touch on two lesser known options. Miscalculation, only printed once in Urza's Legacy, is a great choice for a small cube. It only requires one blue in its casting cost and can even be cycled in a pinch. Miscalculation is an incredibly tough card to find in foil. Retailing for $8.00 it may be pretty spendy for a common, but snap one up if you see it. On the creature side, Glen Elendra Archmage is fantastic. She provides a body for blue with evasion and a sacrifice ability that will counter a spell. She warps board states when she is in play and makes for great strategy.
Counterspells may be the first control strategy that comes to mind when thinking of Blue, but there are several other levers a blue mage can pull to slow their opponent. Tapping creatures or returning them to an opponent's hand is one of these, and AEther Adept's enters the battlefield ability is a great example of this. With slots so tight, this is my single representative of this, but as an "unblockable" creature, he is too good to pass up.
Blue is also famous for stealing or "controlling" their opponent's creatures, so we need to include that in our list. It is something people drafting your cube will expect to see. Veldalken Shackles should be your first pick to showcase this ability. As an artifact, it may not seem very "blue", but with a requirement of controlling islands as part its activation cost you should count it as part of your blue list. As a bonus, the Shackles can be removed from one creature and applied to another if a better target comes along. The card is fantastic and another example of a card that changes player behavior by just existing on the battlefield. Sower of Temptation is another amazing card. Casting the spell steals a creature, and as a creature herself, she provides more of those small annoying flying creatures that Blue is known for.
That leaves us with the "outside the color pie" card Imprisoned in the Moon. This card is bonkers. Wizards bent the color pie a bit to make a card to represent the storyline climax of Eldrich Moon, and in doing so created an instant staple across multiple formats. Blue has a really hard time dealing with in-play, non-creature permanents, and this card will turn any one of those into an almost useless land. It's just nuts.
We could just list Ancestral Recall, Time Walk and Timetwister here and move on to discussing Black, but running "power" is a dangerous (and expensive) game in Cube. You can quickly upset your environment's delicate balance when running these three cards in isolation, and raising the power level of the entire cube is a complex action for new designers. Instead, the Blue iconics in this list are there to strengthen the archetypes it already supports and bring a large helping of nostalgia.
No card in Magic is more straightforward than Counterspell. Its newest rules text is just three words long "Counter target spell" and describes an entire archetype on a single card. Another example of an "archetype on a card" is Control Magic. Both these cards strengthen the strategies we explored earlier in the article, and have the added benefit of bringing the nostalgia. Phantasmal Image will represent "clone effects" in my list, unseating the more iconic "Clone" for it's cheaper casting cost. Upheaval is included as Blue's most iconic board wipe, returning every permanent to their owners hands. I have given every color access to at least one board wipe and Upheaval is super powerful. Snapcaster Mage was an all-star in Innistrad draft, and remains a key part of the blue/red toolbox, allowing the player to flashback and instant when it enters the battlefield. Finally, there is Psionic Blast. A goofy, totally out of color pie spell that I just love. It speaks to Magic's earliest days as it was finding its way, but if you don't like this include, here is a slot you can customize with one of your playgroup's favorites.
We should briefly talk iconic creatures in Blue. Blue kind of has a "creature problem". By design the color is not tied mechanically to creatures, and while Wizards will tell you its iconic creature is the "sphinx", I think if you asked 30 players the question you might get 15 different answers. If you want to stick with Wizards, you can look to Sphinx of Jwar Isle or Consecrated Sphinx. Both see a lot of play in cube and are great picks.
I chose a different path, using these iconic creature slots to showcase some older "top end" blue creatures, as well as making sure blue players had a "token maker" available to them. Morphling and Serendib Efreet are two strong creatures that see a lot of play in cubes of all sizes. Played aggressively they can end games, especially after an Upheaval. For the token maker, I recommend Meloku the Clouded Mirror. She churns out cheap flyers and is a great all-around creature herself, as a 2/4 flyer.
So there's blue. A complex color, but one that is fun to play when mastered. I'd say blue is the polar opposite of white and takes a skilled drafter to pull the right cards for a deck centered in the color. It's power level also finds multiple people in a draft competing for the same cards so a player needs to be able to "read the signals" given to them as a pack is passed around the table. On the flip side, a well tuned blue deck can be simply deadly.
Join me next week as we rob the grave and dig into... Black.
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Travel Cubed (Introduction),
As always, if you want to skip ahead and start building, my entire list is up on Cube Tutor.