Unleashing the Potency of Unpowered Cubes

Written by Phil Stanton on . Posted in Casual Magic, Cube

Unleashing the Potency of Unpowered Cubes

Phil Stanton

Phil has played since Alliances, including a stint as a Vintage writer in 2004-05. Now he passes cards in a circle at every opportunity and makes endless changes to his cube. He lives in Urbana, Ill., and can be reached on Twitter @drsylvan.

Designing a cube, refining it endlessly, and finding the perfect versions of the perfect cards can quickly grow into an obsession. I want my cube to feel like the most fun real-packs draft you’ve ever done, and recreate that experience even for frequent drafters. The power level is relatively low, in some ways even lower than most common/uncommon-only cubes. I pay close attention to metrics like word count per card and average converted mana cost, as well as my own aesthetic preferences. It’s not as beginner-friendly as a core set experience, but I’d bet it’s closer than any other cube you’ve played.

The lessons below should apply broadly to even powerful cubes because we all share the same mission of providing a fun experience to the players. My own preferences strongly resist bomby cards, but people who enjoy playing with swingier spells will learn cards that lead to fun situations is at the core of cube design.

1. Don’t accidentally dream-crush

This is a corollary to the founding principle of my cube. There are a lot of ways for a game of Magic to go wrong, but there’s one thing that makes a game of Magic great: The back-and-forth struggle for advantage. That goal of back-and-forth play requires some things to be present, like tools to dig out of mana-flood or mana-screw, but also a lot of things to be absent. You’ll notice R&D has abandoned great swaths of design space because they generate games where one player (sometimes both) doesn’t have a good time —land destruction and random discard are the oldest and best-known examples, but there are more subtle ways to undermine fun. Who, scrolling through the Innistrad card image gallery, would have said the biggest Limited development error was Invisible Stalker? Even experienced cube designers don’t agree about excluding Sol Ring for ruining games.

2. Preserve joy of attacking

The ultimate need for any game is to end. The designer needs to understand how the game plays to create player interest at the beginning, middle, and end, with appropriate pacing for each phase. In Limited formats, the sweet spot is based on an early game when the players should be answering “Who’s the Beatdown?” (much less certain, and harder to determine, than in Constructed), a midgame tussle for advantage, and an endgame that arrives, and then ends, as soon as that’s been resolved by the accrued advantage of one or more key plays.

Attacking is the primary mechanism to conclude every game of Magic. As much as Eternal players and some combo cubers prefer to end games with sorceries on the stack, the more common case involves creatures. At several points in my cube’s evolution, I’ve erred in putting overwhelming advantages with the defending player, where game rules like double-blocking place it anyway.

Close behind 2/4 and 1/5 among my favorite power/toughness numbers is the 2/7. (Based on the occasional R&D comment regarding his distaste for toughness, you might call me the anti-Mike Turian.) There have only ever been two 2/7s, and I’d be sorely tempted to run both, except for this lesson, and the fact that the coolest one, Silklash Spider, singlehandedly downgrades Skies-type strategies far more than Whirlwind, which I run happily. Silklash Spider is like adding several extra Whirlwinds to the environment, in addition to blocking almost any creature without dying. This is a recipe for a stalled game, from just one card in the environment (uniform rarity in cubes limits control over potentially toxic cards). The same thing has happened when I’ve included a large number of the 1/5s and 2/4s I love so dearly. Jareth, Leonine Titan had a similar effect, but worse in some ways because he was also a nigh-unbeatable attacker once the game state was in his controller’s favor.

3. Include more nonbasic land

Nonbasic lands alleviate the problem of too many playables, because they allow a deck to run well more than 23 out of 45 picks. It’s possible to go overboard, but it’s a plus if most players are running about three or four nonbasics, and some as many as twice that to support more colors.

This is one of the challenges posed by cube design’s routine exclusion of cards that aren’t getting played. If all the cards are playable, then players often have 35 playables when they go to build their decks. Cutting abstractly great cards doesn’t feel good to the drafter. For a player new to the cube or even to drafting, the surfeit of playables may lead them to misbuild into a poor experience—for example, by failing to populate the whole mana curve. (I once cubed with five guys who had never played Limited before; of course they liked it anyway.) Magic is a skill game, but R&D has evangelized that accessibility to new players is a worthy virtue. It’s small joy to craft a skill-intensive environment that makes players feel dreadful.

4. Make monocolor hard to achieve

A card pool with only playables adds the risk that it will be routinely possible to assemble a strong monocolor deck, reducing the diversity of archetypes and game play. For a hypothetical 360-card cube with 50 cards of each color and 110 others divided among land, artifacts, and multicolor cards, let’s assume the average drafter is looking for two colors. If one of the eight players pursues a monocolor deck, there are 15 “color slots” being sought. That’s an average of three per color, so the average drafter pursuing that color could pick up about 15 cards because some will get picked by players who aren’t in the color.

But if a player is focused on taking that color for a monocolor deck, they can easily get more. If there are 30 to 40 artifacts, there’s a reasonable chance the player can get about 22 nonland cards they’re happy to run. The problem actually gets worse if additional drafters are aiming for monocolor because there are fewer drafters in each color, so each person in it typically gets more. My cube has the added wrinkle of a higher share for mono cards, since most sets are not in multicolor blocks, and I don’t run cube staples like full sets of original and shock duals or signets. An occasional monocolor deck is an exciting challenge for a drafter to assemble, but once it’s routine, the environment is likely suffering.

Avoid scaling cards that reward having lots of a certain basic land type or color of mana. Nightmare is the poster child for this. The flip side is to add cards that provide incentives to play more colors, such as Tribal Flames instead of Spitting Earth. And the bluntest tool, not usually welcomed by cube designers on principle, is to weaken a color overall. Cuts that fit more than one of these criteria for me were Hammer of Bogardan, Pyrohemia and Pestilence, all at the top of the power curve for my cube.

Black and red are the colors most prone to mono-drafting because of their removal and predilection for triple-colored mana requirements. White sometimes promotes monocolor due to the long tradition of efficient creatures costing WW, and green can occasionally do it if the cardpool gives green the best creatures along the majority of the mana curve, especially if there are finishers like Hurricane available. Blue is the least likely to be drafted by itself because it tends to be valued highly, spreading it across more players, and because experienced drafters know they want a removal color to balance their decks.

5. Keep bombs special and interactive

As with most drafts, clearing the board is relatively infrequent in my cube. At one point the only ways to hit all creatures for more than two damage were Planar Cleansing and Bane of the Living. I’m a big believer in keeping splashy things special and making players work for their bombs. As drafters know, there’s a feel-bad aspect to playing against a true bomb on the level of Flameblast Dragon or Grave Titan. Most cubes “solve” this by saturating the card pool with ridiculous cards in hopes it will balance out. But when I play a best-cards-ever cube (I also call these traditional or “munchkin” cubes), I have trouble enjoying the blowouts, regardless of whether I’m winning. I’ve tried narrow planeswalkers like Tezzeret the Seeker in different combinations several times, and concluded they are just incompatible with fun Limited play.

Examples of bombs with drawbacks: Hellfire, Phyrexian Arena, Devastating Summons. The most important thing about bombs is they need to be answerable. The other player should never feel shut out of the game, even if they are facing an extremely uphill battle (like Phyrexian Arena on Turn 3). The player with Hellfire will sometimes draw it too late; killing the things it kills will make the spell suicidal. Bane of the Living is a vulnerable, colorless 2/2 for one turn before its controller untaps enough mana to kill what they care about. Even Moltensteel Dragon, one of the most aggressive and powerful cards I run, is vulnerable as an artifact creature and a big risk to pump.

6. Incorporate a splash of whimsy

By far the card in my cube most frequently singled out by players is Who/What/When/Where/Why. Hardened Spikes crack a smile for it, and those who spot the silver border while I shuffle the cube publicly to make packs ask about it constantly. Many players less fanatical about drafting latch onto it as a signal that there’s something in the cube box for them, either a truly different experience (Timmies) or a weird combo they can pull off (Johnnies). All that even though the card itself has mundane effects.

I can get away with doing things in the cube that Wizards never could in a real set. At one point in my quest for fun Beta cards to add, I decided it would be okay to run both Channel and Fireball. Madness! Drafters who passed Channel and opened Fireball in a subsequent pack were agog that I’d leave such brokenness lying around in my lower-power cube. It never came up in a game until I was playing a 1-vs.-1 Sealed variant against a friend. For four turns we alternated land-go. He chose to draw a spell, and started all but giggling before casting Channel. Knowing my cube, I feared the worst-case scenario of Channel into Grim Poppet, the best artifact creature. Instead he cast Fireball for 20 damage — straight into my Deflection.

Your cube should be capable of making someone giggle, or dream what else they might find.

7. Enable spontaneity with build-arounds

Including cards that invite different valuations of other cards will multiply the viable archetypes in your cube. Among the build-arounds I’ve added is Celestial Ancient, adding value to late-pick auras. One of the worst cards I’ve ever run in my list is Invisibility, but it didn’t get its slot because it’s good, although my Beta copy is pretty sweet. I’m willing to run a couple of flavorful-but-lousy cards to alleviate the all-playable problem, but also because there are rare circumstances where it’s smart to run it, like as part of an enchantment theme. I pulled it because it was reaching Squire-in-Time-Spiral levels of intentional weakness, but there is still a batch of enchantments available to leave the door open for Celestial Ancient to dominate a match (e.g. Weakness, Enfeeblement and Immolation).

I like to set up dreams that could actually happen, like Crucible of Worlds and Goblin Trenches. Neither is broadly applicable enough to get picked early, but together they make a potent strategy that’s worth going to some trouble. One I actually saw happen: Contagion Clasp and Serrated Arrows.

I also add niche sideboard cards to diversify the environment in the same way that build-around cards do. In the Eye of Chaos is a card that raises eyebrows and usually goes very late, but I have high hopes. My theory is it’s secretly a blue/green card, because the dangerous instants are removal spells, and green suffers the most against decks that can resolve lots of removal. So against a blue/white deck that leans on Second Thoughts, Divine Verdict and Exile as removal, or a black/red deck with Fissure, Dark Banishing and Fireblast, In the Eye of Chaos could cripple four or five of the opponent’s best spells. I don’t know if it’s good enough, but it can create the occasional expectation-defying game state.

8. Maintain level of uncertainty

One of the nice things about a nontraditional cube is that players don’t have as many ingrained expectations of what they’ll find. Blue is popular and potent, but unlike munchkin cubes, it will never be in a majority of the decks. Those who play my cube repeatedly also know it changes every time. Since the highest probability of rotation is reserved for the most powerful cards, the impact is even larger than the fraction that changes. It’s like a new set came out every week that happened to be 90 percent the same as last week. The uncertainty maintains the crispy hash-brown effect.

Uncertainty is also an in-game benefit. The sensation your opponent could be holding almost any card in Magic is exciting. It’s harder to have the Spike moment where you accurately pinpoint the imminent trick, but observant drafters will have seen most of the cardpool if they’re looking for that moment. I also limit the opportunities to look at the opponent’s hand or library and sparingly use Morph. Zombie Cutthroat and Zoetic Cavern prevent any color deck from being immediately locked-in as playing Bane of the Living or Blistering Firecat.

9. Remember power of nostalgia 

I’m an old-timer who loves Time Spiral block but now I think it was just approached the wrong way by jamming keywords together for the heck of it. I like a lot of the individual results, but I respect that it threw everyone into the deep end of the pool and hoped they’ve read the Comprehensive Rules. At least they didn’t bring back phasing, right?

After refining my cube to at one point almost 40 percent pre-Mirage and about 80 percent pre-Mirrodin cards, while keeping an average word count about 15, I can safely say it oozes nostalgia without going overboard on complexity. I’ve drafted a few times with players who have joined the game within the last few years, and they even make picks substantially faster than Innistrad draft. Those players also can sense the age of the cards, and get a kick out of the Mono Artifacts and the Beta templating of Weakness.

10. Tweak color combinations

Lots of cube designers use the “guild system” or something similar to balance out their support of the 10 two-color combinations. I think assigning even numbers is a mistake because the multicolor section is an opportunity to right some of the wrongs of the cube’s color pie. Blue, red, and black are the best colors; green and white have an uphill battle.

I’ve considered just giving the Grixis colors fewer slots than green and white as a handicap, but I never pull the trigger, because of the lesson of triple-Scars of Mirrodin draft. It’s not necessarily that the Judgment-esque metagame would be as bipolar as infect versus metalcraft. But making the best strategy more of a gambit, guessing how many other players will pursue it and then either getting the nut deck or collapsing, is a road to unhappy times. I’d rather just keep a lid on the number and types of the best blue/black/red cards.

In many cases high-potency multicolor section is a much better leverage point. Less than 10 percent of my cube is multicolor cards, so you never open an Alara Reborn pack. Without the easy mana-fixing of a traditional cube, most of the gold cards included are too much commitment for drafters to take early. This leaves their benefits to whoever is in the color combination already, so I unbalance it toward ally pairs (the natural tilt of Magic history) and toward pairing a Grixis color with either green or white. Blue-red gets the fewest slots, because it just doesn’t need a boost and is naturally the most powerful.

Ultimately, what matters is that you and your players are on the same wavelength. When my players made me cut Timely Reinforcements because it was unbeatable, I was ecstatic. They noticed an unfun card because the rest of the pieces worked. (Cube image links, as of October 2011)

Phil Stanton

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