How Dungeons & Dragons Changed The Way I Look At MTG Cube Design

Magic and Dungeons & Dragons have tons of design crossover and Ryan Overturf breaks down how his time as a DM influences his Cube building

Wurmcoil Engine, illustrated by Raymond Swanland

Howdy, gamers! Today I’m going to be talking about Dungeons & Dragons. Not the Magic Adventures in the Forgotten Realms expansion, the TTRPG itself. More specifically, I’ll be talking about my experience with Dungeons & Dragons over the last couple years and the lessons that running a D&D campaign taught me about Cube design. Let’s dig in!

I see the role of the dungeon master (the player who runs a D&D campaign) as the closest parallel to the role of a Cube designer I’ve encountered in any other game. If we’re talking about just putting together someone else’s Cube list, one of the digital Cubes for example, then the experience isn’t too different from just explaining the rules to any board game, but when it comes to actually designing your own environment, the comparison to the role of dungeon master becomes very loud. The similarities between these two roles has given me a lot of food for thought and lessons that I’ve internalized that have helped me to improve at both.

I won’t get too into the nitty gritty of DMing today as this is foremost an article about Cube design, and many others who are more experienced at DMing have written better content on the topic than I’d be able to muster, but it shouldn’t take more than a very basic understanding of D&D to follow along, and the DM being the player who runs the game is all the more you’ll really need to know.

Cube design is, admittedly, an easier undertaking than DMing, though both certainly involve quite a lot of homework. As a Cube designer, the parameters are just much less open-ended, which offers a clearer view of the whole picture. That said, there are definitely better and worse ways to go about it in my mind. Today, I’m going to highlight four aspects of DMing and Cube design that I believe distinguish a good player experience from a great one.

Be Deliberate

One of the first things you’ll consistently notice when DMing is that your players are paying attention to everything. You might feel that they’re paying less attention to your plan than you’d like or expect, but it’s been a consistent experience for me that my players leave few stones unturned. They want to engage with your world, so when you tell them something is there, you shouldn’t be surprised when they’re curious about it. The nice thing about DMing, is that you’re designing a fantasy world, and if your players are particularly interested in something that you hadn’t given much thought, you can invent new ways for it to be important on the fly. Designing a Cube is a bit different, because every card is slotted in with the intention to be played. As such, it’s a much more reasonable expectation that you have a specific justification for every card that you feature, and with Magic players, I’ve similarly come to expect I’ll be asked a lot of questions about individual cards. When roleplaying, a weird tree can just be a weird tree, but when Cubing every card should have a purpose.

This is where you’ll sometimes see me call out cards and what I would expect them to signal about the rest of the Cubes when I review the digital offerings. When I see Swift Configuration, it’s a weird enough standalone card that I’m expecting to see Devoted Druid for the combo. Same with Deceiver Exarch, who doesn’t do a lot without a Splinter Twin to accompany it. This can be applied more broadly to spells that are some combination of very specific and difficult to cast. If I see Niv-Mizzet Reborn in a pack, for example, I’m expecting that there is a reasonable expectation that I can cast the card and that there will be some two-color card that I’ll pick up when I do.

I’m also reminded of a point in time before Underworld Breach was added to the Magic Online Vintage Cube. The Cube has a stated goal of letting you play with Magic’s most powerful cards and explicitly supports Storm with a lot of cards. So why would you then eschew one of the most powerful cards for these decks? The design just didn’t look intentional to me as a player and that breaks verisimilitude (my favorite vocabulary word that I learned while studying to DM).

Cube is, of course, an iterative process, and part of what makes Cubing great is that you can update your Cube as often as you’d like. When players present questions about cards that you don’t have answers for it doesn’t mean that you’ve failed, but it is an opportunity to make changes to better facilitate that card or to find a more suitable replacement.

You can absolutely feature cards with the intention that they’re used unconventionally, and the important thing is that it’s clear what you’re trying to do and that you have deliberate intentions. A Cube can just be a selection of cards that you like, but the clearer the picture of why you like them and how they’re to be used, the more likely other players are to like them as well.

Borrow, Imitate, and Outsource

My first Cube was a Pauper Cube, heavily inspired by playing a friend’s Pauper Cube. My first D&D campaign was a premade called Curse of Strahd. As a creative type, I strongly value carving my own path, but as a rational human being, I understand that it’s foolish not to take advantage to the countless hours of work that others have put in before me. There’s plenty of room to innovate campaigns and Cubes alike without having to reinvent the wheel every time.

It’s very common to use the digital Cubes as a starting or even stopping point for one’s personal Cube. I’ve published quite a lot of lists at this point that I encourage anyone to imitate or iterate! There are plenty of other creators in the sphere and communities to engage with that you don’t have to take on the task of Cube design alone. Designing an entire Cube can feel quite daunting, but there are vast resources available to get you off the ground. Even something as simple as just perusing random Cubes on Cube Cobra can provide a lot of inspiration.

If you’re stuck on an issue with design, odds are you are not the first person to encounter the problem you’re having, and there are also multiple solutions. You should be able to find examples of solutions in action as well as theoretical ideas to attempt through imitation and/or collaboration. There’s a bit more urgency with DMing to have something ready for each session, but another benefit of Cube is that there are no deadlines and no finished products. We can always try new things and build new ideas together.

An example of such an issue is what to do with the color green in a Cube with a heavy artifact theme. This is something I gave a lot of thought to while working on my Artifact Twobert and a problem that David McDarby also faced before decided not to feature any green cards in the Magic Online Artifact Cube. His plan to not include green cards and the idea that I ultimately implemented to just include fewer green cards than the other colors are just two solutions to this problem. There are plenty of other Cube designers who maintain Artifact Cubes who I’m sure have a lot of thoughts on the matter.

In addition to reading the source book multiple times over, I spent a lot of time on the Curse of Strahd subreddit while running my campaign. There were aspects of the source book I had questions about or outright didn’t want to run, and seeing how other players handled these situations gave me ideas to copy and iterate on. Similarly, if you’re copying someone else’s Cube list you’ll likely run into cards or themes that you’re not a huge fan of. Odds are you have access to someone who feels the same way that you do! Pull your resources and make some changes! Building on someone else’s idea is quite a bit easier than outright starting from scratch.

If you’re stuck on something, I’d also encourage you to send a tweet my way with an inquiry. The more specific the better. Just asking a good question can help tremendously in finding your own answer, and these sorts of prompts have often given me inspiration for future articles. Let’s bounce our creativity off of each other and keep building new cool things!

Encounters and Interaction

A word that you’ll think about a lot while DMing is “encounter”. An encounter generally speaks to some sort of interaction or obstacle that the players face, which can be combat, a puzzle, a non-player character for the players to roleplay with, or any number of other things. As a Cube designer, it makes a lot of sense to me to think of supported archetypes and types of interaction as “encounters” in their own right.

A matchup between two archetypes is a sort of encounter. I often contemplate in Cube design how the aggressive and controlling decks line up in a given environment. Designing this encounter is a pretty complicated thing! As the Cube designer you’re providing the blueprint for these two decks as well as the ways that they interact. The aggressive deck is not merely a sampling of creatures, it’s a mana curve with a theoretical fundamental turn, and the controlling deck is laid out with its various forms of interactions and win conditions. From there you ask what the role of each deck should look like. Does the control deck just need to hang on to establish its big win conditions while the aggro deck tries to go under, or is there some desire for the aggressive deck to play a longer game?

To get into specifics, let’s say there’s some back and forth between an aggro and control deck and the control player resolves a Wurmcoil Engine with a healthy life total. The aggro player might ask, “How am I supposed to beat that?!” Perhaps your intention is for the aggressive player to have some exiling removal. Perhaps the idea is that they should have already won the game if they were going to. “You’re not” is a fine answer, it’s just important that you’ve considered the question!

Another Cube design parallel to designing encounters involves card types more generally. For example, some Cube designers choose to eschew planeswalkers from their Cubes, which is similar to the way that I don’t really like running puzzles as a DM. There are also a lot of considerations for the sorts of effects that you want to feature at instant versus sorcery speed, or to feature at all!

Part of running encounters as a DM is allowing your players to find creative solutions that you didn’t plan for, and there are great opportunities for this in Cube design as well. Sometimes a player will try to draft an archetype that isn’t fully supported, but what they’re doing seems really cool. When I see this happen I like to ask them and think myself about how the attempted archetype could be better supported and how that could fit into the greater environment. No matter how much time you’ve put into your design there will always be interactions you hadn’t considered and things that other players see that you don’t, and these moments of discovery are among the coolest parts of the process. Which brings me to today’s final point.

Solicit Player Feedback

It’s easy to get lost in the sauce of designing your own world as a DM and your own environment as a Cube designer. The most important thing to remember is that the game can’t exist without players, and that each individual player’s fun is more valuable than your ego.

Something as formal as feedback forms work for some groups, but the most comfortable thing for me has always been just to sit down with my friends and ask them what they’re feeling. I try to ask more about feelings than thoughts partly because they’re more valuable, and partly because the intellectual part is easier to approach independently with enough skill at the mechanics of the game. “What did you lose to?” is a fine enough question, but “Did you have fun?” is both more humanizing and cuts to the core of the matter more quickly.

Part of the DM’s job is the make sure that every player gets their opportunity to shine, and similarly I take it upon myself as a Cube designer to offer every player an opportunity to play a form of Magic that they enjoy. Magic has a leg up over D&D in terms of ease of design, but there is also more of a barrier to facilitating self-expression among a group of people using specific game pieces that don’t allow them to write their own back story.

Remember that soliciting feedback is a listening exercise, not a speaking exercise. Be curious and kind, and ask follow-up questions. You’ll get some bad beats stories and sometimes you’ll want to tell somebody who didn’t have fun what they could have done better, but it’s best to just listen to what they have to say at least while they’re still feeling down. And even if you disagree you’ll still want to register what they’re saying, because even poorly given feedback can be useful and you might notice you start to hear the same thing time and again, and something you firmly believed could turn out to be untrue to your group. Keep in mind that hearing something one time is an anecdote, twice is a pattern, and three times is a trend. No matter how much you believe in your own vision, your players won’t stick around as they observe negative trends.

Cube design is a space that has evolved tremendously over the years, and is a role that I take very seriously. I’ve been on roadtrips with Magic players who described the exercise as “playing cards” but for me Magic is a very significant part of my life. As such, I like to put the work in to understand and enjoy the game at the highest level and to facilitate others to have the most fun. My experience learning how to run a Dungeons & Dragons campaign helped me to learn and grow in this capacity, and I hope that what I shared today helps you to do the same. Thanks for reading.