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Darksteele Cube – Cubemander

Monday, December 6th – Now that Wizards has shown its support for Commander, if they were to do that for Cube, how should they do it? What would the players want?

The morning after the
EDH announcement

from Wizards, Evan Erwin had this to say on Twitter:


@misterorange



Sheldon finally legitimized EDH, sweet. It will take me a bit longer, but I hope WotC gives the same love/respect to Cube Draft someday.

Being that I’m pretty interested in cube-related topics, that got me thinking about what kind of legitimacy or respect Cube could gain, and what that would look like.

It’s pretty clear (and Evan acknowledged this right away as well) that support really means “MTGO support.” Supporting cube in paper is basically just printing good cards. To take a broader view, I think that Cube is supported by the structure of tournament Magic. Cards rotate and become outclassed, but Cube (and Commander, and other competitive-casual formats) serve to keep those cards relevant. So as long as Magic has rotating formats, people will miss cards, and will look for the chance to play them again.

So support for Cube in paper looks pretty good. Online, though, there’s a long way to go. There’s also a lot of disagreement about what support for Cube online would look like. Evan suggested that Cube Drafting online would require an official WotC list, which initially sounded pretty unappealing to me.

Many people who cube (like myself) don’t just play — we put a lot of time and thought into tweaking our cubes. We play games, and then we think about what archetypes are succeeding and failing, what’s fun and what isn’t. We draft, but in the back of our mind we’re thinking about that card that’s been going late. Has it been power-creeped out? Are we just undervaluing it? What could replace it?

Clearly, design — not just playing sweet cards — is a big part of the cube, for a lot of people. But I disagree with Geordie Tait, who said it was 99% of the point. Empirically, that’s just not true, since many cube owners routinely get 4- or 8-man drafts going, so three to seven people are drafting the cube for each of those designers. Presumably willingly.

Are all of those drafters actively participating in the design process? Of course not — they are friends or people from a local game store, but not everyone who enjoys the cube has the time or interest to be super-involved. I’ve certainly drafted with people who didn’t impact the design of my cube in any way, and I’m pretty sure they had fun too. That’s not to say that for those people, there’s no difference between drafting a friend’s cube and drafting the Wizards list, though.

For one thing, even a casual drafter of someone else’s cube can suggest a change, or mention a card they wish was included. Maybe nothing will come of it, but there’s at least a method for feedback.

What I think is the more serious flaw is that there might be cards in the Wizards cube that no one likes (among a specific group of drafters). In
normal cube draft, there’s a go-to strategy when someone doesn’t respect a card or archetype: beat them with it until they do. As long as
someone

drafting the cube appreciates each card, cards tend to get the respect they deserve.

But when a group is drafting a cube that no one designed, though, you could just keep on having the same last pick forever. That’s frustrating in a format where the whole idea is that you’re excited about every single card. Of course, Wizards could also just provide emergency cube drafters to help you see the error of your ways. Like AAA for the cube. What a sweet job!

Casual games could go on neglecting some cards forever, but prize support for online cube drafts would alleviate this problem. I’d bet that if the games were more competitive — with a few packs on the line, at least- players would be canny enough to adopt any under-drafted strategies. In that case, as long as the list is well designed, perma-last-picks shouldn’t be a problem.

On the topic of prize support:
Ted Knutson said
that he would pay to cube online, with no prize support. I guess you’re a better person that I, Ted — or you hate shuffling more. I’m sure I’d draft under those conditions a few times, but I definitely wouldn’t regularly choose to draft online rather than playing for free, with the tactile experience of paper Magic, and no misclicks. Especially if cube drafting were implemented with an official list, I think paid drafts with prize support are the way to go.

After all, the two-man Constructed queues on MTGO prove that Wizards is willing to break even on prize support (each player pays two tickets to enter, and the winner gets a pack). A similar arrangement for cube drafting could be a Swiss or 4-3-2-2 payout, which would mean entry fees of around $6 — not bad considering that no one would have to buy cards.

An official cube list isn’t a perfect solution, but there are problems with user-designed lists, as well. For example, will anyone even draft your cube if they have hundreds of choices? It seems to me that the people who could get a group together to draft their cube online are probably the same ones who could draft IRL. If cube were implemented online with just one list, everyone who wanted to cube would get to. That, to me, is one of the big reasons to want cube support online in the first place.



Another issue is how card ownership would work with user-defined lists. Requiring one person to own a cube online is fairly daunting. A mid-sized list like mine, without the power, would probably top $1000 online. Unlike in paper, you can’t proxy the cards you don’t have, so color balance becomes more difficult. I
have

to pay $62 for Survival of the Fittest if I want green to have its best card. Would some people build whole cubes online, if the infrastructure were in place? Sure. But I don’t think I could, and that’s a lot of redundancy to ask of people who already have paper cubes.

After thinking about the options, I’m inclined to side with Evan. At least initially, user lists present some serious problems (even completely ignoring any additional difficulty from the programming side), while an official list is a flawed solution but an interesting one.

Just how different would a WotC list be from a typical cube, anyway? I got some help from eidolon at the
MTG Salvation Cube forums,

and it turns out that more than half of cubes around ~500 cards in size have at least 400 cards in common. My interpretation of that is that for most cube drafters, the knowledge they’ve acquired from the cube they’re used to drafting would carry over to another reasonable cube — like the hypothetical WotC cube.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about something like the
Invitational cube,

which bears little resemblance to most cubes. I think the right way to go would be start with a base of, say, the 360 most commonly played cube cards, to make sure you hit the all-stars that most designers agree on. Then, an additional 50-100 cards could be added to give the cube some personality — so that it wasn’t just a greatest hits collection but a cohesive whole. In other words, I think that an official list should be designed with thought given to what most people include, but it shouldn’t be soulless.

Updating a Wizards list would present some new problems, but I think there’s room here to build community and knowledge as well. Internal updates (with no community input) seem bad — I’d be frustrated if a new card came out that I loved in my paper cube and couldn’t play online.

Another option would be to extend votes to people who draft online a certain amount, or to a selection of people, including both the community and WotC employees. I think this could spawn some interesting conversations about not just the cube, but also design and card evaluation.

Would it be correct to update the official list as soon as a new set is released? Some people, like Evan Erwin, wait to update until they have tested
the new cards. That method probably leads to fewer changes overall, but not everyone will have
the patience to test cards

like Dark Tutelage for a month. Ahem.

I think a more flexible approach is required. For example, it’s pretty mindless to wait on including obvious bombs like Baneslayer Angel or Wurmcoil Engine, but some cards genuinely need testing, like Frost Titan. Maybe testing could be an opt-in thing, or maybe we would just rely on the testing many people already do in paper. 

More than making an initial list, updating that list in a way that improves it while keeping players happy about drafting it would be a challenge — but a worthwhile one. If supporting Cube as a format meant “collaborating with players on a cube,” well, I think that’s a pretty good outcome.

I realize that this topic is speculative, but I think it’s a conversation worth having if we want cube to be available online in the future — so let me know what you think in the forums!