Interesting deck archetypes are the holy grail of cube design. Cube designers’ reasoning for each wave of changes nowadays focuses more on which decks to support and how to define archetypes to emphasize a color that’s lagging, rather than on superseding less powerful cards from past sets. This is part of the natural evolution of Limited development, to progress past mere color-balancing so that players draft cohesive decks rather than just a pile of cool cards.
You can identify archetypes to add from two directions: looking based on what you’re not happy with in your current list, or browsing for something to add. The latter is easier, because you’ll be more motivated, and you won’t have to cut as many of your most beloved cards. Ultimately it’s the same as the browsing approach, but with an initial step deciding on a focus for the search in the colors you’re not happy with.
When you browse for something to add, I’d start with power level to decide where to look. If you run Umezawa’s Jitte, Recurring Nightmare, Treachery, and their ilk, look at Constructed decklists, especially obscure Block and Extended formats, where you’re less likely to have heard of the decks. Old deck techs, even for decks that didn’t make Top 8, could supply something fresh, different, and powerful enough for your cube, if you’re willing to dig around.
To use an arbitrary Extended Pro Tour as an example, look at the Day Two lists from PT Valencia 2007. The second deck listed is full of unusual interactions: Greater Gargadon / Balancing Act is a fine starting point. A big challenge of niche archetypes in cube is finding the redundant, related effects that make the archetype generally available to someone who wants it with only one copy of each card and without generating packs full of useless cards for other drafters. You have to identify cards like Razia’s Purification and Cataclysm, plus other sacrifice outlets (Read the Runes, Desperate Research, Sylvan Safekeeper, Mycoloth, Magmaw, Goblin Razerunners, Magma Vein, Reprocess; whatever wouldn’t be inordinately narrow for your cube).
For reduced-power cubes, you can do the same combing through Limited event coverage, or you can do Gatherer queries of the common and uncommon cards in a set to identify elements they focus on. R&D has been intentionally adding “build-around” cards for years, and Magic strategy websites have been publishing Limited articles the whole time. My latest technique is to cobble together strategies from evergreen concepts, like recurring creatures from graveyards, that behave uniquely depending how they appear in a given draft.
A giant chunk of my advice can be short-cutted here by reading the best cube article that makes no mention of cube drafting, “Building Limited Strategies” by Zac Hill of R&D. What resonated most was Zac’s point that every card should have a home, and those homes are usually two-color pairs. R&D assigns primary and secondary strategies to each color pair to create depth for frequent drafters. When plotting color-pair strategies, it’s worth considering if there’s a natural tertiary color for that strategy that will lead to a lot of splashes or to a version of the deck that will play differently. Even cubes with below-average mana fixing have more than real sets, so “shard” and “wedge” combinations deserve the same attention Zac prescribes for pairs.
As Zac explains: “[M]ost Limited formats improve when they’re given direction—when nearly every card can be slotted into some kind of strategy. These strategies can be linear or open-ended, narrow or robust, but our goal is to ensure that as many pieces of real-estate as possible pull some weight.”
Case Study: Astral Slide / Lightning Rift
One deck I’m pushing to include at the moment is cycling, and the process is teaching me a lot. I settled on trying it because it’s my second-favorite mechanic after flashback, and red is always in need of cards that don’t play identically to all the other red cards. This is actually the second attempt to add the cycling deck; the first try ended when both Astral Slide and Lightning Rift appeared in pack one, and no one went for it. I’ve run both the Urza’s Saga and Onslaught common cycling lands for almost the entire history of my cube, so that first attempt consisted of identifying and replacing cards comparable to a cycling version, like Reprisal for Radiant’s Judgment. I swapped around 20 cards, like any other week, with an intentional minimum of disruption to ratios in the rest of the environment.
Failing to alter the competing decks was one of my problems, because at that time there was an established best deck, GW tokens, being forced every time by Nathan, local curmudgeon and regular cuber. The cycling deck is inherently slower than that. While Lightning Rift is amazing against a deck of all Grizzly Bears, a tokens deck makes more than one creature per card, maintaining pressure more consistently. The metagame had an existing, solved deck that made it less appealing to gamble on a ponderous control strategy (in RW, no less).
Worse, the cycling cards by themselves weren’t all that prevalent. Onslaught has 110 commons, 18 of which have cycling. To achieve the same ubiquity in a 500-card cube you’d have to invest about 80 slots, as in most of the 147 cycling cards ever made, given a no-duplicates rule. It’s not worth it to invest that much space when the supported enchantments aren’t even sure to appear in the draft and the cards don’t advance the rest of the cube’s agenda.
The density problem means that your themes need to be compact and cross-compatible. The premier archetypes in a Limited environment don’t depend on specific cards, because you can’t control which pack they appear in. On the flip side, the inconsistent availability is exactly what makes it exciting to pull off a niche deck. Your cube needs both decks that are always around and decks that aren’t to match the depth of a great set like Innistrad (think of GW aggro and Burning Vengeance as reference points).
Regular cubers in my group kept advising first-time drafters that green was unplayable, an obvious problem since this advice typically emerged partway through pack two. I was already hunting for a way to give green an identity, leading me to add a set of graveyard cards (Life from the Loam, Mulch, Spider Spawning, Restock, Foster) as well as a Madness connection with red, which has its own looters to enable it since Dark Ascension. I saw discard/graveyard connections creating possible decks in any RUG combination, and added Meteor Storm and Seismic Assault. This was a natural home for Lightning Rift, since Loam/Rift/cycling lands is absurd.
Slide is more challenging, as white wasn’t heavily connected to any of this. It had a connection to a U/W flicker deck, although it would be awkward to rely on one enchantment that doesn’t even flicker on its own. But as is often the case, there was a sweet Odyssey-block card begging me to run it: Spirit Cairn. With 25 cycling cards and a profusion of looters (everything from Desolate Lighthouse to Compulsion, Faithless Looting, and Fa’adiyah Seer), Spirit Cairn interacts with around 50 cards and increases the value of all of them.
Lightning Rift Strikes
I consider the experiment a success, although I’ve had to tinker around the edges. Intentionally adding a bunch of synergy usually leads me to overshoot a bit once the pieces connect. After the deck was a known entity to the group, the Loam/Rift interaction turned out to be unbeatable. Loam is a fairly degenerate card with any cycling lands at all, so it’s the one I’m cutting.
Case Study: Kiln Fiend
Part of what made the cycling deck viable is that most of the cards are generically playable without the key enchantments. In contrast, much of what I’d be adding for Kiln Fiend would only be desirable with the direct, planned interactions, hardly up to the compact, cross-compatible Standard I laid out earlier. This is the same thing that happens with the storm cards in the Magic Online cube, which is frustrating enough to draft that most see it as a rarely playable, eccentric choice of the developers.
Kiln Fiend got added by itself for exactly one week, intended as the next step in expanding red’s options. Sometimes, I add a card that probably needs more support one week, then slip in the support over subsequent weeks as I identify more of my beloved cards that I’m willing to cut. I nixed the experiment because I ran into some of the dealbreakers that the cycling deck could work around.
In this case, the problem was how to create a reason for someone to draft around Kiln Fiend. It’s a naturally UR archetype, and I do have several flashback spells that fit the deck, like Geistflame, Engulfing Flames, Reckless Charge, Think Twice, and peripherally Feeling of Dread. I had a pile of others collected to promote this deck (Nightbird’s Clutches, Defy Gravity, Artful Dodge, and of course rebound cards like Surreal Memoir if I decided to add a mechanic to the cube), but the greater issue was what the deck would do without the Fiend.
My research into the original Rise of the Eldrazi archetype led me to Valakut Fireboar, and I’ve considered Wee Dragonauts before; it always fails the “why would I play this?” test. With such a small selection of such fragile creatures, the Fiend archetype seemed like a hard sell. So far I’ve only found loose fits beyond those three, like Storm Entity and Shrewd Hatchling. Other enabler cards vary between dangerously powerful (Charmbreaker Devils), tangential (Manaplasm), and unlikely (Lunar Mystic). Leering Emblem might even be worth reintroducing equipment to my cube, and Talrand, Sky Summoner could be enough to make the archetype solidfy.
A Kiln Fiend-style deck may take more design planning than previous decks, or it may have to wait until one of the existing themes rotates out to make space. Either way, constantly running experiments like this is essential to keeping a cube fun in perpetuity. I’d love to hear from others about what you’ve tried and how you went about it.
— Phil Stanton
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