I am always reluctant to give much of an opinion of cards focused too much on a new mechanic. Without having played with a mechanic you simply don’t know how it is going to perform in practice. Most new cards you can compare and contrast to existing cards and get a good feel for what they will do and their power level but for ones with a new mechanic as well you have little baseline to go on. Vehicles and their crew mechanic are exactly this kind of new effect that I am generally unsure of how good it will be. While I feel reasonably comfortable ranking the vehicles relative to each other rating them relative to other cards is a lot harder. A number of the vehicles might be cube worthy or very few of them could be and only really testing them will tell me that.
The vehicle mechanic is an interesting one that sits somewhere between equipment cards and cards like Mutavault, Celestial Colonnade, the Totem cycle and the Keyrune cycle. On the one hand they are somewhat of a creature buff and on the other they are sleeper creatures that only activate when you want them. Vehicles can evade a lot of the removal that hits creatures and thus offer threat diversity. For the mana investment you typically get a vehicle that is more powerful than creatures of the same converted mana cost. This is balanced by the crew cost which unlike an equip cost is one you have to pay each time you wish to use the vehicle rather than just once per pairing of artifact and creature. There is also the fact that the vehicle does not scale with the pilot. When you equip a creature with something the end result is the combined effects of both while when you crew a vehicle the effects of the creature are lost for that combat. Also there is a reverse in the dynamic of what you put at risk. With equipment you only risk the creature in combat and not the equipment itself. With vehicles the pilot is protected but the vehicle is at risk. This is neither better nor worse but does effect how you wish to use them.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the crew mechanic to activate vehicles is that it is not tied to mana directly. Just by tapping enough powers worth of creatures you can activate your vehicles which gives a lot more freedom to cast stuff. Before an equipment is doing anything you have to cast and equip it which means cards like Umezawa’s Jitte are really pricier than they look. Jitte is more of a 4 drop than a 2 drop even though you can split the cost if you want. This means that vehicles are typically cheaper to become active and far less of a tempo blowout when disrupted in some way. The greater options on how you activate vehicles over equipment or creature land cards will lead to more efficient plays. One of the more notable benefits of a crew cost over an equip cost is that is allows your creatures with summoning sickness to be much more useful. As they can instantly be tapped to pilot a vehicle having one in play gives new creatures and option on a pseudo haste effect.
The vehicle mechanic will not increase the goldfish clock of a deck but it will increase it’s effectiveness interacting with other decks and it will afford a lot more options. If this convenience and utility is in general worth paying the card and mana cost of vehicles up front is what I am least sure of. Certainly in booster draft they will generally be pretty good but when it comes to cube I am a lot less sure about almost all of them. The one card I am not unsure about is Smuggler’s Copter. If vehicles are weak then this will still be a good cube card. If vehicles are good then Smuggler’s Copter will be of comparable power to Skullclamp and Umezawa’s Jitte – the most broken of all the equipment! I fully expect the card to be a standard staple and wouldn’t be shocked to see it cropping up in modern either.
Smuggler’s Copter will not have the same impact on constructed formats as Jitte or Skullclamp and will probably feel more like a Hangerback Walker. Both Jitte and Clamp did quite specific and direct things that significantly impact the board. Smuggler’s Copter is a much more rounded card that trades off some high impact power for convenience and ease of use. While this kind of tempering makes it fairer for constructed formats it actually makes it better for cube. Both Skullclamp and Jitte are a touch on the narrow and risky side. Both require the right kind of situation and both can cost you games. The Copter can be thrown into any old deck with creatures and it will really help out without being a burden.
So why is Smuggler’s Copter obviously so good while all the other vehicles require some testing to know their quality? Firstly it is clear than this has been pushed so that Wizards are assured a card with their new mechanic is playable. Sky Skiff looks pretty fair and reasonable yet the Copter is clearly a lot better in every single possible way. One of the strengths of vehicles is that they are convenient. As a 2 drop with a crew cost of 1 the Smuggler’s Copter is going to be have the option to be active significantly more than other vehicles. This is both due to it coming down earlier and being crewed easily by almost every creature in the cube. Bonesplitter was one of the best equipment in cube and in limited when they first came out and much of that was down to how early and often it could be put to use.
Clearly it is not just being cheap that makes this good else the Sky Skiff would also be an auto include. It is the package of what you get for your 2 mana that pushes Smuggler’s Copter way into the realms of the overly good. Cheap fliers are hard to come by in magic, especially ones with strong stats. There is Serra Avenger if you can wait till turn four. There is Kor Skyfisher if you can stomach bouncing something else, beyond that you are looking at a 2/2 at best for a two drop flier. A two mana 3/3 flier would be playable in the cube in any colour. It would still likely be playable with some awkward attacking or blocking clause such as having to pay a mana or needing some other kinds of creature like Mogg Flunkies. Crew 1 is likely a less onerous cost than either of those I suggested and we must not forget that against things like Wrath of God it will be a benefit rather than a drawback.
Just for the stats with flying there is a good chance this would be good but it also has the looting going on. Looting is one of the most desirable card quality things there is in cube. It is better than scry in a vacuum and has far more synergy with other effects as well. Looter il-Kor is an incredibly good cube card and I hear a certain Prodigy of Vryn also does a good job! In the early game it will be harder to stop a Smuggler’s Copter looting than either of those top cube cards I mentioned. You can even loot when blocking with Copter which seems like it will happen fairly rarely but does mean you can potentially start looting from the turn you make it. Smuggler’s Copter is able to dominate the board in the early game. It will prevent the safe laying of planeswalkers, it will apply or deny a load of pressure and simultaneously ensure you have a good curve for the rest of the game. All you really need to make it work is a reasonable count of cheaper creatures and/or things that produce tokens.
Smuggler’s Copter is the best of the cheap fliers on the one hand and the best of the ongoing looting effects on the other. Neither is a bad thing to have and many decks specifically want one of those roles and will play lower powered cards to get them. You won’t notice it quite so obviously when Smuggler’s Copter wins the game compared to when Jitte and Skullclamp do as much of what causes you to win will be down to the looting. Despite not being so visibly prominently I suspect the Copter will be doing more work in the future of cube than those equipment. I am not sure if I am more excited about getting to play this potent new tool or more concerned about it being too common a spectacle and becoming tedious really fast like Jitte! Either way, it is still a powerful card you should look to get your hands on whatever kind of magic you are into.