Darksteele Cube – Testing

Monday, January 10th – Thea Steele has five ways to test new cards for the cube in any situation and lists their pros and cons! Make sure your cube is perfect for you and your playgroup.

It’s that time of year (well, one of four times) where cube designers suddenly have an abundance of cards to consider for the cube. I’ve
already talked about
the reasons to make changes in your cube,

and this week I’m going to talk about a related issue – how to test new cards. There’s an obvious way to do it – add the cards, go! – but that’s not always the right choice. Sometimes, a combination of cards and playgroup requires a more delicate touch.

That became really clear to me in the past few months. As soon as Venser, the Sojourner was spoiled, I was sure I wanted to try him out. I love reusing ETB (enters the battlefield) effects, and I’m also a fan of U/W decks that can use unblockability. However, Venser wasn’t an immediate cube stable. He got mixed reviews from those who tried him, so I really needed some results of my own. Unfortunately, Winston drafting can make that pretty difficult. He sat in sideboards for match after match. Even though we were excited to test him, there’s not much you can do about a U/W card that shows up at the end of draft when you’re in B/R.

If you don’t intervene at all in a situation like that, you’re not going to be sure about that card taking a spot in your cube for a while. Not the worst thing in the world, maybe, but unfortunate enough that I’ve spent some time thinking about ways to avoid it. I’m going to lay out the methods I use and talk about when each is useful. At the end, I’ll talk about how to know when a card has been tested enough.

The Default

This is the simplest thing you can do – add new cards to your cube and draft, draft, draft. And even though it’s simple, it’s also the best method in a perfect world. As I’ll discuss, the other methods require a lot more care to ensure that you aren’t over- or under-estimating the card in question. When you’re drafting frequently, and everyone in your group is on board with the new cards, this method is all you need.

It’s also usually the right move when a set is first spoiled. You’ll probably have a bunch of cards to test, so there will be something new in every draft. And since the changes are based on new cards, chances are good that everyone is excited to try them.

The problems start when you get away from the perfect-world scenario. Maybe you’re busy, and your drafting is cut down to a couple times a month. Or maybe there’s a card that you’re really excited to try, but the rest of your group is uninterested. In those cases, testing using this method will be slow, and some cards might be totally neglected. That’s when you need to try something else.

Best for: Completely new cards or cube overhauls

Retconning Old Decks

Let’s address the first issue: lack of time. How do you quickly test new cards and avoid waiting for new cards to both show up

find an appropriate deck? One possibility is to edit a saved deck from a past draft to include the new card, then to test that deck. Obviously this requires a time commitment at some point – you need to have the deck saved – but if you’re in that habit, testing this way takes only the amount of time you spend to play the games.

You pay the price for efficiency, though, because this method requires you to be scrupulously honest. It’s easy to record only the sickest decks. You might have no inclination to record mediocre decks, as you don’t intend to play them ever again. If you do that, you’re likely to overestimate the performance of the new card. A strong supporting cast can make most cards look good. For example, imagine that you’re testing the new Mirran Crusader. If the deck you start with is full of Glorious Anthem effects and ways to grant evasion, your double-striker will have a better showing than it would as a chump-blockable 2/2.

That isn’t to say that you should test cards in an inappropriate deck, but unless you’re saving every single deck, you’ll need to think carefully about how reproducible your results will be.

This method is best for niche cards because that’s where you’ll get the most improvement in time spent. And when you pick an appropriate deck for a card like Koth of the Hammer or Abyssal Persecutor, you can get some information right away. If it’s easy to find a good deck to use, you’re probably okay. If you struggle, well, you better hope that there’s a

good incentive to draft around it.

Finally, you can max out your time saved by doing the testing on Magic Online or Magic Workstation. Since I’m already saving every card pool drafted from my Magic Online cube, I’m looking forward to being able to use this method more effectively.

Best for: MTGO/MWS users, realists

Thought Experiment

Some cards depend heavily on what they’re paired with. A great recent example is Stoneforge Mystic. The card goes from “tutor for any of the best cards in your deck” to unplayable depending on the number and quality of equipment in your deck.

A few months ago, I was interested in adding Stoneforge Mystic to my cube, but I wasn’t sure exactly how narrow it was. So whenever I drafted a white deck, I asked myself, “Does this deck want Stoneforge Mystic?” The answer was yes often enough that I made the change. This method works well when you know exactly how good a card will be
in the cases where it’s good at all.

All you’re wondering is how often those cases will show up, so thinking about it and keeping track of those cases is really all you need.

In reality, the cards will usually perform a little better than this assessment would show, since once you have the card in your pool, you can draft around it.

This is a good way to pre-test cards that you aren’t sure of, but it’s also a fancy way to convince your playgroup when you are sure. Simply explain that, “my last ten black decks had at least five ways to remove Abyssal Persecutor.” It’s foolproof.

You can also use this method to compare cards. For example, I’ve recently been
deciding between
Revoke Existence and Seal of Cleansing,
and I don’t think my cube needs both. Because they’re so similar, I don’t necessarily need to test both – I can just try one and make a note whenever I play it of how good the other would’ve been.

Best for: Deck-specific cards and cards with close analogues.

Modifying a Current Deck

This is similar to the Retcon method, but instead of a using a deck from the past, alter a deck that you’ve just drafted. The advantage here is that you don’t need to keep any records, and you don’t need to worry as much about the base deck being exceptional.

I often use this method when a card that would’ve been great for my deck is sitting in Justin’s sideboard or vice versa. After we finish the normal series, we swap a card or two and play a few more. Doing so also takes advantage of the otherwise frustrating situation where the perfect card
for your deck is hated out, intentionally or not. I
recently used this method

to get Dark Confidant into a deck after missing out on it a few times in a row.

The downside? You need to have the time to play as many games as you want. That makes it a better fit for Winston drafting than an 8-man.

Best for: Cards that are variable or tend to be hate-drafted

Seeding the Card Pool

This method is the ultimate middle ground. You want a card to show up but only in its natural habitat. Maybe you’re concerned that no one will be interested in drafting it – in that case, it doesn’t help you to simply add it to a deck. Or maybe you’re testing a card, but you aren’t 100% sure what deck would want it most. In those cases, it makes sense to add the card to your draft pool but otherwise leave things alone.

That’s obviously not going to be relevant if you’re drafting a 360-card cube with eight players, but it can make a big difference if you’re using (as I do) 108 cards out of 500+ in a Winston draft.

A similar method is to add new cards, at random, to a Sealed pool. That gives you even more information about what cards players are excited about, since they have complete information about the card pool before they have to choose colors or an archetype. When I’ve done this, I’ve often chosen a weaker deck in order to play a cool card, which is a good indication that that card will see play.

Best for: Cards that require player interest, cards with broad applications

Now that you’ve got a way to see that card in action, when are you done testing?

This can be really easy or really difficult, and the honest answer is that you’ll probably get it wrong a decent fraction of the time. My tendency is to stop worrying about a new card once it’s had a good showing, but that’s sometimes premature. There are cards in my cube now, like Abyssal Persecutor and Memory Jar, that probably did the most in their rookie appearance. As such, they’ve gradually crept back onto my watch list, and maybe they shouldn’t have ever left it.

And it’s much more difficult to know how long you should test cards that aren’t performing. Unless you’re super-strict (for example, only making changes after a card has been played a certain number of times), you might prematurely cut some cards simply because they’re added at a bad time. If I add a card to my cube today, and it does nothing in a deck or two, I’ll probably be more inclined to give it the axe when Mirrodin Besieged comes out, but that’s not entirely fair.

As such, here’s my guideline. If a card is repeatedly cut from decks after you’ve drafted it early with the intention of playing it, feel free to let it go. That’s flunking the best-case scenario. If a card is simply underwhelming, wait a bit longer. Experiment with different archetypes and matchups, and see if you can find a place where it really shines.

There’s one caveat – it’s possible that a card can perform badly because it lacks support, not because it’s inherently weak. If
you suspect that’s the case – i.e., if a card requires redundancy that your cube doesn’t provide – it might be worth making

changes to your cube instead of just removing that card.

And finally, if you do cut it, take another look in the future if your cube changes as a whole. I learned that lesson recently
when I basically said I hated
Consuming Vapors
and then had it pointed out to me that I was looking for the card to be good in the wrong archetype. The problem was that my cube had gotten faster since I had tested it, and I hadn’t taken that into account. Since my cube (and my idea of where the card should go) has changed, I’m going to give it another try.

What about you – do you have a favorite method of testing new cards? How long do you spend on a new card before it becomes a fixture or gets taken out?

Thanks for reading!