The Best Magic Format

Shaheen takes a step back from the competitive slugfest known as Standard and talks about his passion at this point on his Magic journey: Cube Draft!

Let’s take a step back from the competitive slugfest we all know as Standard. In my last article, we had a chat about Limited strategy and M14 specifically. Today we are going to scratch that casual itch. Many of you know that I would neither touch a Commander deck if you paid me to nor play a multiplayer free for all. There is only one format that has both competitive elements and casual excitement:

Cube Draft.

Cube Draft is my passion at this point on my Magic journey. Long before Magic Online dipped into the field I had friends that poured their hearts, souls, and collections into a few different forms of Cube. Cube is amazing because of the creative freedom you have when developing one. It brings joy to your pals when you are able to reuse cards that you thought were dead forever. Commander is a format I will ever get behind because I’m too competitive. I love to draft, and Cube is the closest I’ll ever get to a tabletop shindig. Anyone who plays Cube will tell you that it can get pretty competitive and skill-intensive.

Like in any other Limited format, you have the power to construct a superior deck than others involved in the draft. Just because all the cards are very powerful doesn’t mean that all the decks will have equal punch. The same rules of signaling, card synergy, threats, removal, card draw, etc. apply to Cube just like a regular draft. The glaring difference is the quality and power of cards is much higher in 99% of the Cubes out there. This article will be a guide to crafting a quality Cube and give the pros and cons of including the power cards (Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall, etc.). I also want to talk about the different types of Cubes I’ve had experience playing and what I would do if I were starting from scratch and the responsibility landed on me to build the Cube for the local shop/group.

Cube Beginnings

Cube building is an expensive venture if you’re planning on going the no-proxy route. I personally can’t stand proxies and will gladly dish out the cash or trade up to make sure my Cube, deck, or collection has the necessary cards rather than creating proxies. If you don’t mind looking at proxies, then you can pretty much build every Cube you can think of to have a huge variety and to avoid monotony. Commander and Cube (Commander more so) has fueled the market on "fringe" cards over the years. Luckily for most of us who have been playing for many years now have many of the starter cards you would want to toss right in your Cube.

It’s important to have a game plan before you go and buy every missing card you need. Start off by deciding what type of Cube you and your friends would most enjoy playing. If you have that competitive fire, you might want to build something similar to the Magic Online Cube. More times than not Cubes will have a clear "weak" color, and it hurts the overall integrity of the Cube when you try to compensate for that weakness.

Black tends to be a weak color across the board. However, in a competitive Cube (the Magic Online Cube for example), you’re able to use cards like Mind Twist, Yawgmoth’s Will and maybe even a Black Lotus if you go that route. I think that Common/Uncommon Cubes are a lot of fun. So are tribal variants. I think your best bet is putting your favorite (and the best) cards from each color together in a balanced way if you’re building a Cube for the first time.

You have to keep the colors balanced if you want your Cube to be healthy. You can’t have 75 blue cards and 50 red cards if you want to maintain fairness in your drafts. Also, the mana curve is very important when laying out the groundwork for Cube construction. This is why when we made a Cube we had a spreadsheet to verify that the bulk of cards had a low casting cost. You don’t want to have Consecrated Sphinx; Keiga, the Tide Star; Time Stop; Time Spiral; Upheaval; etc. and only have a handful of cards that cost three mana. This leads to some pretty tough cuts when skimming the fat off, and you may have to part with cards that you held dear when played in Standard many moons ago. Trust me—this is the way to keep the drafts fun and competitive.

Most people create a Cube that is an exact fit for eight or ten drafters. I know some Cubesmiths who enjoy piling more and more cards into their creation. However, I like the exact number set so you can craft strategies and guarantee the strength of all the archetypes that you spent a long time developing. Magic Online followed the same line of logic—sort of. At first their Cube was gigantic and awful. Then they began to shrink it to help archetypes flourish. An example of this is the Storm deck. It is tough to build an effective Storm deck when there are 200 cards floating out there that may or may not contain key spells needed to win.

15 cards in a pack x 3 packs x 10 people = 450 cards

It’s entirely up to you how many of each color you put in your Cube, but keep in mind the artifacts section needs to be a little heavier than the others. Artifacts go in every Cube deck and are pretty high picks since they fix or ramp mana pretty well. 73 cards of each color and 85 artifacts are close to the numbers we use. It’s up to you for the numbers you would like to use. Trial and error to find the perfect amount is a must!

New sets will be released, so you will have to continue to cut cards and add cards to your Cube. I’d make it a day with pals and discuss what the weakest cards are in the Cube and the cards that people just don’t like drafting. It will never be a perfect set, and that’s the beauty of Cube Draft. It’s constantly changing for the better and creates board states and card interactions that have no other home to recreate them. The real question for your Cube: to power or not to power?

The Power Debate

Pros of Power

How often do you get to play with power? Even though I’m not a proxy guy, I will always proxy power when used, but if you have a couple thousand bucks simply lying around, go for it! It’s not like the price of power is going to plummet. For the rest of us, we will have to survive with just a couple pieces of paper in sleeves. Power is a mysterious set of cards that 99% of the Magic community doesn’t use on a regular basis. The whole point of Cube is to use cards that you normally can’t use in a fun and possibly competitive way, and power fits into that category.

Another huge bonus is you get to do outright unfair things to your opponent. I played a Karn Liberated on turn 1 in a Cube draft once and had a blast doing it. I’m pretty sure you can guess the con opposite to this pro pretty easily. If you and your friends have an itch to cast an end-of-turn Ancestral Recall, then Cube is where it needs to be scratched. Cards like that are banned in everything, including Commander! Cubes don’t have a banned list and are at the builder’s discretion

Power also strengthens the more fringe archetypes. If you have a Black Lotus and cast a turn 1 Grand Arbiter Augustine IV, then you’re probably going to win easily, but using a Black Lotus with a Yawgmoth’s Will and casting Mind’s Desire after a few other goodies is a different feeling in Magic. Not only are you doing unfair things with the best Magic cards printed, but you also build the deck from the ground up by projecting cards that would table and getting that lucky open of a Black Lotus. There are a lot of fun aspects of being the deliverer of unfair synergies.

Cons of Power

You guessed the first one! Power is unfair when you aren’t the one using it. If you build this awesome deck and they play a Library of Alexandria on turn 1 and just destroy you, it’s not a good feeling. This is the great debate when building something for your entire playgroup to enjoy at once. We discussed how important balance is, and power technically falls into that well. Everyone has access to it and it doesn’t make one archetype dominant over all the others, but it does make one player have an extreme advantage when drawn early.

We ultimately decided to cut power from our Cube after months of using it because of these negatives. At first we chopped out Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall, and Time Walk and left the Moxen in. We later decided to axe the Moxen and Sol Ring as well because they were making games less interactive and ending them too quickly. The Magic Online Cube followed suit; it gave power a shot and ultimately decided that the Cube was healthier without them. Every playgroup is different though. Some groups will gladly get routed by a couple pieces of power, shrug it off, and hope to draft the power next time. For this reason putting power in or leaving it out doesn’t make or break a Cube’s success.

So Many Cubes!

There are a ton of Cubes to choose from, but I’m going to go over the ones that I feel are the most fun and competitive. I keep using "competitive" as an adjective to describe Cube; besides the skill involved in the draft, it is also a challenge to combine old mechanics with new ones. Not many people have used Force of Will to protect a Consecrated Sphinx or landed a Sulfuric Vortex after their Stromkirk Noble earned its second counter. When there are a hundred different mechanics and new synergies jammed together, gameplay can be much more difficult to master.

More so than most formats Cube can help you to improve your overall game by exposing you to many different and complex situations. My core group of friends that I Cube with have gotten noticeably better after many runs through the different Cube gauntlets, and since our games tend to be more casual, we help each other by pointing out mistakes and different lines that can be taken. This can also happen through hours and hours of playtesting competitive Constructed formats like Standard, Modern, and Legacy—but that is just miserable!

Third Favorite Cube: Combo

This is a Cube where power thrives and it is understood that fairness is not an aspect of the game. The point of this format is to do the most ridiculous things in the least amount of turns. There are no color restrictions in Combo Cube because the only lands available after you draft your deck are "prismatic" that tap for any color. While drafting, you just pick up cards from all five colors knowing that your mana will be perfect once it is all said and done. Without color restrictions, the combos become endless. You have the power to play a Necropotence on turn 3 and then drop a Pandemonium into Saproling Burst for the win.

The vast majority of a Combo Cube is two-card combos. The reason you don’t want combos like Reveillark or Aluren is because there isn’t time for a complex setup. You need to drop Helm of Obedience into Rest in Peace or Painter’s Servant into Grindstone. There are so many two-card combos that you can fill up the Cube almost to the brim with each and every one of them. Since this Cube is prismatic (all your lands produce any color), you aren’t bound by the color restrictions we mentioned earlier. You don’t need 70 of each color and a certain amount of artifacts; instead you can just toss everything you need in without worrying about the balance.

A Combo Cube needs more than just combos. Card draw is essential. Every one- and two-mana draw spell needs to be included to ensure players get to actually perform the combos they crafted together. Everything from Gitaxian Probe to Telling Time to Opt needs to be included, along with the more busted card draw spells. Under the card draw section go tutors as well and anything else that helps move along the combo dream. Even Johnny, Combo Player is included with a few other Unglued and Unhinged cards to make the format easy to operate.

Disruption is also a must so the Cube doesn’t become similar to solitaire. All the best hand-disruption spells are included in an attempt to stop players from comboing off in the very early turns. Countermagic joins the team as another way to trip up players trying to go off. With disruption and card draw, another type of deck emerges from the combo field in the form of "hate bears." The deck is full of disruption, countermagic, card draw, and 2/2s that have some disruption ability tied in.

Cards like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Gaddok Teeg are perfect examples of creatures that can kill but also stop combo decks. I know it seems like a bunch of bears can’t kill a player fast enough to be viable, but the format has a very low removal count due to the shear lack of creatures, so you only need a couple of these in play to have a great shot at taking down your opponent.

The final component of a Combo Cube is the storm and big creatures section. Storm is a must because of how fun it is to cast a lot of broken, cheap spells and use cards like Mind’s Desire and Tendrils of Agony to slay an opponent. All the cheap artifacts and card-draw spells are utilized in this deck and make it pretty easy to draft even if someone else in your posse is on the same plan. The big creatures section has even more room for other players to jump right in the water. Griselbrand; Emrakul, the Aeons Torn; and Blightsteel Colossus are all involved with tons of ways to be cheated onto the battlefield.

Cards like Eureka, Show and Tell, Sneak Attack, and Through the Breach all bring the pain from the hand. You can also use Oath of Druids, Tooth and Nail, Tinker, and Natural Order to drop them onto the battlefield from the library. The spells used to bring them from the graveyard into play are endless, and you can use your discretion to decide which spells stay and which go. The big creature component is the easiest for newer drafters to grasp and will be available even if multiple people are trying to draft similar cards right next to you. This Cube format is my third favorite and will give you the most explosive games of Magic outside of Vintage.

Second Favorite Cube: Peasant (Common and Uncommon)

This Cube has the feel of real Limited. When the rares are taken out, you enter a world of "bombs" throughout the history of Magic that have no gold symbol. As long as a card was common or uncommon at one point, it is allowed to be included. This Cube has the most flexibility, and the pool is huge to pull from. Cards like Serrated Arrows and Loxodon Warhammer don’t have homes in a Cube with power or even the Magic Online Cube, but in Peasant each one of those cards is a house. I could list bombs in Peasant Cube for days, but I think you get the idea. Just think back and remember all the cards you wished you could open and those cards are probably just as good in this format.

The reason why this is my second favorite Cube is because the games are completely different from all the other variations. Full of combat and much more skill-intensive in the drafting of cards are the reasons why Peasant is very addicting once you get into it. It brings you back more than the other Cube does if you were big into Limited in the past, and that knowledge is powerful when drafting Peasant. This format is more combat-oriented and has a lot less "combo" than other Cubes have. Those of you that love Limited will probably vote this type of Cube number one after drafting it for the first time.

Favorite Cube: Unpowered "Balanced" Cube

The Cube we have been working on since the dawn of time owns the number one spot for a variety of reasons. The biggest reason is the balance I discussed earlier in the article. All the two-card combos are excluded to promote fair but powerful game play. You’re still attacking with Hero of Bladehold and then playing Consecrated Sphinx the turn after or attacking with Goblin Guide and then playing a Keldon Marauders. The point is there are no Tinkers into Blightsteel Colossus or Channel into Emrakuls here. To win in my Cube, you have to earn it by drafting a powerful deck and playing epic games—no freebies! I think two-card combos and cheap game-winners have a home in Combo Cube but not in the balanced format.

Another huge advantage is the balance of colors. Blue is obviously the best in my opinion, but I get my butt kicked by a well-drafted mono-red deck a large portion of the time. The world is your oyster in this format, and there are no "weak" colors or combinations that are strictly inferior. This format also allows control nuts like me a chance to branch out and play aggressive decks because I actually prefer to attack in Limited, unlike in Constructed where I rarely enter the red zone with more than one Aetherling at a time. I find myself drafting cards like Wake Thrasher and Dark Confidant all the time and loving it. It doesn’t mean those cards are the best by any means, but my tempo/aggro deck is a blast and I do a fair amount of winning.

This type of Cube can be built right out of your own collection. Just because you don’t own a Vampiric Tutor doesn’t mean you have to go out and buy one. When building a balanced Cube, you can eventually fall into a list like mine, but at the start it is just an equal distribution of powerful cards. After you draft a few times with your new Cube, it’s all about trial and error. Change cards that make the matches lopsided and add cards for the duds you find after seeing them fall to fifteenth pick every time. If money isn’t a barrier, then do some research and ask your pals what cards they want to see played, including fun pet cards (we all have them).

I guarantee if you are new to the Cube scene and a competitive brute like myself that this format will provide entertainment and challenge you at the same time.

Twitter – @shaheenmtg

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