Ideas Unbound – Cube Construction

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Wednesday, March 31st – I am positive that everyone who owns a Cube will want to run an eight-man Draft at some point, so 360 cards is the minimum. However, part of the fun of any Draft format is wondering which cards will get opened; if you draft multiple times with the entire Cube, you lose that mystery.

It is difficult to communicate how completely and totally insane it is to live in Seattle’s University District. I mean, obviously living in an area populated pretty much exclusively by college students just is; hello, ladies. But every day, I walk ten minutes to campus and pass a half dozen Thai restaurants that Gavin Verhey and I have been sampling and grading. There are two microbreweries on the same block; down the street is a Lebanese sandwich shop where gyros can be had at four in the morning. I am writing this on Monday night; readers cannot possibly understand the nature of such sacrifice until they have hit up Dante’s for karaoke with Kyle Boddy, Zac Hill, Eric Reasoner, and Lee Sharpe, who I am sure will roundly castigate me for my absence. I could satisfy my word count purely by name dropping all of the good men who live within ten blocks of me, and to list off everyone in Seattle would be a volume on the order of War and Peace*.

And yet this is not the best part of living in the U-District.

I will elaborate: last week was Spring Break. Jon Loucks and Brian Wong borrowed Peter Beckfield’s Cube and ran drafts at their apartment for the duration. I don’t think anyone went home before two all week.

I should explain. For the uninitiated: Cube Drafts are like regular Booster Drafts, except that instead of packs of Mirrodin or Guildpact, Cube packs are constructed out of cards cherry-picked from all of Magic. A relatively weak pack might contain Garruk Wildspeaker, Worn Powerstone, Jackal Pup, Swords to Plowshares, and Hymn to Tourach. A stronger pack might force you to pick between Shelldock Isle, Upheaval, Fireblast, Survival of the Fittest, and Balance.

Most Cube decks are pretty good. They often end up resembling Constructed decks more than Limited decks.

Running that many Cube drafts led to quite a bit of discussion about Cube design. I was particularly struck by a comment when I was defending Desertion when Ricky Boyes wanted to cut it from the Cube in favor of Glen Elendra Archmage.

Max: “Archmage just sits in play and taunts all of your uncastable spells. Desertion gives you more awesome stores and is a lot more fun.”
Ricky: “Yeah, but is fun the point?”
Max: “Isn’t it always?”

I’m going to build a Cube myself soon to celebrate my impending move from “broke college student” to “broke college graduate,” and I figured I’d share my design process to inspire more Cube designers. I want the game play experience to be fun. Sure, I want it to be skill intensive too, but I am willing to make sacrifices so that people enjoy themselves rather than grinding out long chess-like games.

How many cards should be in a Cube?

I am positive that everyone who owns a Cube will want to run an eight-man Draft at some point, so 360 cards is the minimum. However, part of the fun of any Draft format is wondering which cards will get opened; if you draft multiple times with the entire Cube, you lose that mystery. Plus, over the course of a Cube night, more people might show up and you may want to run more drafts. Increasing the size of the Cube will cause more variance from Draft to Draft, but it also places subtle constraints on your Cube’s power level. The first few hundred cards you add will probably be more powerful than the last few hundred, but you want the playing field to be more or less level; if I opened Ancestral and you opened Cloud Sprite, you are going to be pretty miserable.

It is particularly important to note that if you want beatdown decks built around a low mana curve to thrive, you may need to keep your Cube size relatively low; there are just not that many one- and two-mana creatures in Magic that won’t become downright embarrassing when your opponent plays a four-drop. This isn’t to say that aggressive decks are terrible in larger Cubes, but it is important to be aware of. In most larger cubes, beatdown decks tend to become more midrange and feature larger individual threats; think less White Knight and more Calciderm.

Cube size also affects the nature of the linears you can include; there are enough cards to support a Reanimator strategy even in larger Cubes, but there are just not enough awesome Goblins to be able to draft the tribe if Goblin Lackey, Warchief, Ringleader, et al don’t get opened. Most Cubes I’ve seen run from 540 to 980 cards; I am going to try 720 and see how it goes. A 720-card Cube allows for 100 cards of each color, 100 lands, 60 artifacts, and 60 gold cards.

What should the Cube’s power level be?

This is a lot more subjective, and in some ways, the answer doesn’t matter too much as long as the power level is internally consistent. As mentioned above, you don’t want drafts to be determined by who opened what, but as long as all of the cards are on relatively even footing that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Dan Hanson has a Pauper Cube containing zero rares, and drafting it is tons of fun. Peter’s Cube, and many others, contain Black Lotus and other power, and are still very entertaining. It’s probably no surprise that Pauper Cubes tend to feature more creature-based decks than Cubes that contain Tinker, Mirari’s Wake, and other Flagship cards, but those sorts of decisions depend on the game experiences you want to have. If you want most decks to brawl in the red zone, you can do that by increasing the creature count and dialing back the power level on spells that don’t interact with combat.

Personally, I’m okay with decks that feature esoteric win conditions and only have a couple of utility creatures as long as attacking is still a reasonable plan. However, I don’t think it is any fun when players get to open with broken starts that involve Moxen or Lotus or Sol Ring; I don’t intend to include any of the Power Nine, with the possible exception of Timetwister. I haven’t had any particularly negative experiences with the draw sevens in Cube, and I’m okay with combo decks being a viable strategy. Further, the draw sevens, and Wheel of Fortune especially, can give aggressive decks a chance to reload against more controlling strategies.

How much mana fixing should be available?

This is a harder question. Magic is obviously much more fun when you get to play your spells, but you want people to have to commit to a color rather than picking up a bunch of mana fixing and playing whatever spells they see fit. In most draft formats, five-color strategies involve a bit more sacrifice; most fixers tend to be relatively high picks, and so are the bombs that you want to be splashing. Because Cube power levels are much higher, people don’t have to sacrifice as much to play additional colors, and the cards they get to splash are among the most powerful in Magic.

Further, having too much mana fixing from lands and artifacts implies that Green’s strengths are going to have to come from its creatures, not from mana fixing and acceleration. That’s a problem, because the best spells in Magic are wildly more powerful than the best creatures in Magic. Tom LaPille was widely ridiculed on Facebook after cutting the Ravnica Signets and bouncelands from his Cube, but I tend to support the anti-Signet stance. I remember splashing Savage Twister in Blue-Black Ravnica Draft decks off Gruul Signet and Gruul Turf; the Signets make it way too easy to fix and accelerate mana in non-Green decks. However, I am much more tolerant of the bouncelands. They don’t accelerate, and having lands enter the battlefield tapped after turn 1 is a fairly steep cost. More importantly, though, bouncelands ease some of the pain from mulliganing.

Not all 100 lands are going to be mana fixers; I want to include specialty lands such as Tolarian Academy and Gaea’s Cradle, as well as lands that do things when players mana flood; think cycling lands and Kher Keep. I am also quite sure that there are some people who want nothing more than to farm themselves some goats. Between Beta dual lands, Ravnica shocklands and karoos, and the Onslaught and Zendikar fetchlands, that’s forty excellent fixers. I think M10 duals are more fun than Ice Age painlands, so I expect the M10 lands to make the cut. The Worldwake manlands are in for sure, and with the Shards trilands and Lorwyn Vivid lands we’ve got an even sixty fixers. City of Brass, Grand Coliseum, and a few other five-color lands will also get included, and there will probably be a few artifact fixers (Coalition Relic and Prismatic Lens) as well. It remains to be seen if all this fixing makes splashing too easy; I also intend to include a few nonbasic hosers such as Price of Progress, Blood Moon, and the like to keep the five-color decks in check.

It’s also important to ensure that you reward mono-color decks for limiting themselves to one color in the face of all of this fixing. Ball Lightning, Leatherback Baloth, Cabal Coffers, Primal Bellow, and Honor of the Pure can go a long way towards incentivizing mono-color decks. You can even reward two-colored decks for sticking with consistency by pumping up the power of cards with double-core casting costs (e.g. 2GG, 1RR) to reward them for not splashing. You want enough single-core casting costs that the five-color decks are still reasonable; you just don’t want any single strategy to be dominant.

How do you pick which spells to add?

Again, a 720-card Cube will contain approximately 100 cards of each color, 60 artifacts, and 60 gold cards. It’s important that each color have a decent mana curve; I want to include as many playable one-mana aggressive creatures as possible, and make sure beatdown strategies are supported at every point on the curve. Green and White will have more creatures than Black and Red, which will have more creatures than Blue. I don’t want to pigeonhole any color into a given strategy; I want to support Big Red-esque control decks featuring Wildfire and Chandra Nalaar along with aggressive decks along the lines of Deadguy Red. I want to include cards like Rishadan Airship and Serendib Efreet to give Blue decks the opportunity to attack. Obviously, control and combo decks will still be good, but with cards like Upheaval and Tinker in the format, you don’t really need to push control or combo decks any further.

When configuring Blue’s spells, it’s important to note how powerful “draw a card” is in Magic. A fair amount of games are determined by who drew more relevant spells; if you load up Blue with Tidings and Opportunity and Braingeyser in addition to value cards such as Exclude and Dismiss, you are giving Blue decks a lot of power. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; if a player has to weigh tapping out for Tidings against getting hit by something like Blistering Firecat, it’s an interesting strategic moment. What you want to avoid are situations where a Blue mage can afford to spend a few turns ignoring the board and drawing cards before annihilating some poor aggro deck. Again, a good way to do this is to push the power of creatures. You can also include cards like Harmonize, Call of the Herd, and Battle Screech to give beatdown decks some routes to card advantage.

You also want to support niche decks. You can include a Reanimator theme to Black without much trouble; Buried Alive, Entomb, Intuition, and a few variants on Merfolk Looter and Compulsive Research can enable you bury some large creatures and get them back with Reanimate, Exhume, Animate Dead, or even Living Death. Enduring Ideal and a few big enchantments can be the backbone of a different deck. Be careful, though; you can’t afford half measures here. If someone opens Tendrils of Agony, they need to be able to trust that there are enough storm enablers in the Cube to be able to draft a Tendrils deck. If they only have a couple of Rituals and a few draw spells at the end of the draft, they will feel betrayed, which is possibly one of the least fun experiences possible.

It’s important that people not feel totally overwhelmed when they open a pack. You want your Cube to be structured such that even if someone new to Cube is faced with Brain Freeze, Heartbeat of Spring, Enduring Ideal, Wildfire, and other fairly complex engine cards as options, they can still draft a simpler attack deck while becoming used to this new format. Veteran Cube players might be able to easily evaluate how good Life from the Loam is in their deck if they open it in pack 2, but that’s not so easy for folks with less experience. Avoid surface complexity, but let people dig deeply if they want. That way, everyone can have their fun.

My Cube is still in the formative stages, but these are the factors that have been guiding my decisions. I’ll include my list as an appendix in a future article, and write about the evolution of the Cube over time at some future date. I encourage others to make their own Cubes; it really is a total blast. Enjoy!

Max McCall
max dot mccall at gmail dot com

*Cedric: When are you moving here?!