It is not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.
Welcome to a no-frills edition of Cubers Anonymous.
I love rules. Often when I say that I get sideways looks from people. Not just Magic players, but from everyone. Not necessarily because people like to break rules—more so that rules are a funny thing to love. They only exist in theory, made by man to provide structure to an otherwise chaotic world. They are only as imposing as the people that enforce them, and when absent the potential for chaos is heightened. It only makes sense that they’re the most important thing holding together the game we love.
(This is also the paragraph where Cedric leaves a note wishing I paid more attention to the rule of turning in articles on time.)
There are rules literally everywhere in Magic before we even get to the Cube portion of today’s article. 60 cards minimum for a Constructed deck. No more than four of any card in a Constructed deck other than basic lands. Untap before upkeep before draw step. Lands under creatures on the battlefield. You can only play with X sets in Standard. I could go on to fill up an entire 2,000-plus words on just basic rules, but that would be even less fun than you think rules already are.
And the fact that I think rules are fun makes me the weird one, not you dear reader. I don’t even think I want to change your opinion on rules; I just hope you’ll look at them in a new light when they’re related to Cube.
Aside: T.S. Eliot is one of my go-to sources for good quotes. He was a poet, so I have a feeling he was better at saying smart things than actually enacting all of the quotes that bear his name. Either way, the quote above is my favorite about rules. Even though driving five miles over the highway speed limit of 60 is technically breaking a rule, the law enforcement usually could care less assuming you’re following the reason for the rule, which is to drive at a safe speed. As long as you are correctly assessing and understanding a rule and why it exists, there is much less harm in going outside of the rule’s bounds.
Restriction Breeds Creativity
I doubt Mark Rosewater was the first to say that line, but he’s probably the one we all know it best from. When building a Cube, this should be the line you keep returning to in order help structure your design. The fact that every Cube owner is creating a self-sustaining metagame is easy to forget, especially when you’re attempting to give more ground to a color or color pair in your Cube.
Archetypes in Cubes and by nature the five colors in Cubes are self-restricted based on what abilities and effects they’re unable to achieve, like enchantment destruction in red and direct damage in green. These are restrictions that are decided on by the game mechanics rather than we Cube owners since these tools aren’t available to us to begin with. So why then would we go out of our way to further restrict powerful tools from colors when there are already parameters (to varying degrees of looseness) set for us?
The answer to that question goes hand in hand with a question that I’ve always had trouble answering.
What exactly is a Cube?
Last year I participated in an interview about Cubing with the very talented Rich Castle on his Inside the Deck video series. The first and most obvious question was exactly what you’d expect, and I could never determine a clean way to describe what a Cube was.
Attempting to recall what any of my five or six answers were to that question would be an exercise in futility because I had no easy way to answer it, nor did any of my answers (understandably) make the final cut. I tried to describe it over and over and never could peg down what I wanted to say in anything under three minutes. The question sounded so simple, but I couldn’t (and to this day can’t) find an appropriate answer that doesn’t leave some kind of Cube out. Why? Each has its own set of rules, and though many Cubes operate under the same parameters, I couldn’t find a single rule that every Cube ever adheres to.
When we look at the Rosewater quote along with the T.S. Eliot quote, we have the perfect recipe for understanding your Cube, whether it doesn’t exist yet or has existed for ten years. It’s okay to break the rules once you’ve fully defined them and explored the space within. Just because you can break a rule you set, like the ones above, doesn’t mean you should. It’s my belief for my personal Cube that operating within the boundaries I’ve set myself creates a design experience I enjoy, like a constant puzzle with moving pieces.
So what rules does my Cube follow? This is a much easier question for me to answer than what a Cube is.
– My Cube is exactly 540 cards. No more, no less. I keep it at this number so I can support exactly twelve drafters at one time and when less are drafting there is a deep enough representation of each archetype while allowing a less predictable draft. It can be very tempting to add cards without removing them, but I feel like part of the fun for me as a Cube owner is determining the perfect 540-card setup that allows the best experience for my drafters.
– There is exactly one of each card by name. An effect may happen twice if there are two cards with that same effect. This is a Cube design principle that I’ve had since the very beginning, and over the years that my Cube has existed, this is the only rule that has never changed. Similar to the first rule, I feel like my Cube is a puzzle, and utilizing additional copies of cards to fill a hole is stepping out of bounds of my Cube’s restriction. If an archetype can’t work without adding another copy of a card, either I’m not trying hard enough or it’s simply not able to work.
– Every card goes by its oracle text. This means no Chaos Orb, as well as eliminating fun cards from silver-bordered sets like Frazzled Editor. I never want a player drafting or playing my cube for the first time to question how something works if they can’t tell by reading the card itself. A small area where I break this rule is with the card Booster Tutor and allowing a fifteen-card Cube pack to be used from the undrafted cards. If a card has confusing oracle text on the "best" printing of the card, I suck it up and use the version that is most accurate.
These are the big restrictions for my Cube, and I greatly enjoy working inside of the box I’ve created. I have a ton of small rules, but they’re usually very specific to cards that I don’t want colors and archetypes to have access to. Example: Blue may not have access to "unconditional" early countermagic without a heavy color commitment, meaning no Mana Leak or Miscalculation.
This isn’t to say that you should or shouldn’t follow any of these rules, but clearly outlining what rules you follow—and leaving out other rules you don’t—helps quite a bit in describing your Cube to others when it comes to drafting.
Yo Dawg, I Heard You Like Rules
We’ve come a long way as a Cube community in understanding what a Cube really is and how to make it operate exactly how we want it to. Part of this is understanding Magic set design as a whole, and part of it is experience. All of it is determined by the rules we set up for ourselves. It’s pretty clear by now that I enjoy strict rules for my Cube, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only option. What about when a lack of a rule is a rule itself?
"Breaking Cube rules" is becoming more common and popular among the Cube community. In lots of cases, this allows the weaker archetypes to become richer, thus strengthening the ability to successfully draft those archetypes. These are some of the more commons rules that can be broken to great effect:
– Allowing more than one of each card. I’ve played two different Cubes that have broken this rule, one that added a small number of duplicate cards and one that was designed to have cards appear as "rarities" by allowing cards to have either one, two, or three copies. Adding just a few duplicates to allow for more consistency helps archetypes like black and green aggro that are often hard-pressed to get off the ground become routinely competitive. Removing this restriction allows for easier drafting without losing the Cube experience.
– Pre-seeded cards. Pre-seeding cards in the beginning of the draft allows drafters to have an easier path to archetypes. Sometimes even a small group of cards can be pre-seeded to players, such as a Ranger of Eos, an Elite Vanguard, and a Student of Warfare. This takes the cards out of the draft but ensures that players won’t be stepping on each other’s toes as much during drafting. Allowing for players to draft a card from a special pack in the middle or end of packs doesn’t necessarily help with direction but can add consistency in the form of mana fixing or powerful archetype-assisting cards like Rugged Prairie and Obzedat, Ghost Council. This does takes some randomness out but allows underplayed archetypes to be supported easier and ensures they’re drafted.
– Errataing cards. The most commonexample of this is Chaos Orb, which basically removes the dexterity restriction to allow it to become a colorless Vindicate. The most famous example of this is the "Rebels" errata, which was / is popular among West Coast Cube drafters. This adds the Rebel creature type to most or all white creatures in the Cube, which allows for the addition of powerful Rebel searchers like Ramosian Sergeant; Amrou Scout; or the queen herself Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero. This gives White Weenie a serious boost, taking it from "hope I draft Armageddon” to "hope you drafted Wrath of God."
The most insane example of this is Stuart Fleisher’s Split Card Cube, which is as crazy as it sounds. The biggest downside to the allowance of erratad cards is the potential confusion for new drafters. Having a consistent group of six-to-ten people helps cut down on any confusion errata may cause.
– Imperfect color balance. This is a rule I only loosely follow, as any color or color pair in my Cube can have up to five more cards than another. For me, this allows me to give a nod to the more powerful and popular archetypes and ensures that I can fit the coolest cards in my Cube without caring as much about cutting a card from the same color, especially when there are cards in other colors much worse. I’m fairly strict in my maintenance of color identities, so keeping the colors close but not even in number is never an issue. Allowing for colors to be unbalanced necessary for some Cubes, like Matt Kranstuber Combo Cube where some colors like white and green have much less to offer than the rest.
– Breaking rarities. Are the cards Land Tax or Bloodbraid Elf less powerful than cards like Deadshot or Caller of the Hunt? I don’t think anyone would disagree that those two uncommons are far and away more powerful than the two rares above. Breaking rarities is something that can be alleviated by allowing cards at an uncommon rarity power level to make it into a Cube similar to a Common / Uncommon Cube. This would be something that very clearly breaks a rule but is more shifted towards the spirit of the Cube (lower power level) than the self-imposed restriction.
Where Are We Headed?
I love drafting Cubes that break these rules, but that doesn’t mean that I want to break them myself. How I operate my Cube taps into several of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and breaking the rules I’ve set for myself would be very difficult for me to handle mentally. I’m sure you’re saying but you set up the rules, so what can’t you change them?
Breaking and altering rules in any sense is a very slippery slope. It’s not so much that I’m concerned I’m going to slip into a Cube rule-breaking addiction, but where do we stop? When does a Cube really become a custom draft set? To quote Cube expert Anthony Avitollo, "I want words to mean things." To me personally, I believe the true definition of a Cube is defined by something close to the strict rules I enforce in my own Cube. That’s a Cube to me. Have I drafted and really enjoyed Cubes that act more like souped-up Limited environments and not Cubes? Absolutely! The fact that the person called it a Cube and not a "custom draft set" or what have you didn’t remotely change the experience for me.
It’s important to keep in mind that everyone is fighting for the same thing—fun—and though we may disagree on the terminology we use to describe what we’re doing, in the end that’s the least important thing. Maybe Cube as we call it is really just what we’re using to describe the greater drafting experience. I think rules should play a part in it, but there are people whose opinions I respect that would find my rules silly. Maybe they, and Thomas Edison, are right.
Hell, there are no rules here—we’re trying to accomplish something.
Thanks for reading everyone. I hope your Cube’s rules help add to your Cubing experience, not take away from it!
Draft my Cube on CubeTutor.com!
@JParnell1 on Twitter
Official Facebook Cube Drafting Page
My and Ali Aintrazi Custom Cube Project Facebook Page