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Cube Building 101

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Casual Magic, Cube

So you’re thinking about building a cube. That’s great! I’m truly excited for you. Building a cube and drafting it (or watching others draft it) can be a really rewarding creative experience. But if you want your cube to be more than just a collection of cards, then you should do some thinking ahead of time. And that’s why I’m here: to help you keep the right things in mind that will make your cube the stuff of legends, and to walk you through building a simple cube.

Note: This article is focused mainly on cubes with 360 cards. They draft eight people with fifteen-card packs very nicely, and if you’re thinking of building a cube, 360 is a good number to shoot for on your first one. In a later article, I’ll tackle larger cubes, but for now, 360 is the place to start. I’ll be occasionally using my own cube as an illustration throughout this article.

But first, why build a cube in the first place?

Well, there are several reasons. Maybe you just want a simple, reusable draft pool to kill time between tournament rounds. Maybe you want to host your own draft events for your friends or for visitors to your local game store. For me, cubing is particularly interesting and fun because it allows me to play the role of game designer. Only, instead of designing cards or sets, I’m designing a Limited environment. Building and maintaining a cube is a great way to channel my excess creative energy.

So, with that said, let’s get to it!

Step 1: What kind of cube do you want to build?

First, figure out the point of your cube. The one-sentence description. Do you want to build a flavorful environment reminiscent of Innistrad? Do you want a skill-testing format with loads of power cards? Or maybe you want to recreate an environment you loved from a specific point in the past, like RAV-GPT-DIS or ZEN-ZEN-WWK.

Your cube can also be based in a theme. Do you want to build your cube around a handful of tribes? Do you want a cube made only out of commons and uncommons? Uncommons and rares? Rares and mythics only? How about a cube that excludes one of the five colors of mana? Do you want a cube built for multiplayer games? You can be as wacky as you want when dreaming up your idea; what matters is that the end product is fun for you and for others, and I believe that almost any cube idea can get there.

When I started brainstorming, it didn’t take me long to settle on what I wanted: a 100% multicolored cube that would allow players to draft aggro, combo, or control.

Once you have your idea nailed down, it’s time to move to…

Step 2: Figuring out your cube’s skeleton.

Generally speaking, you’ll want to make sure that every color is equally represented in the cube. If someone opens up an excellent red card in the first pack, but red has lower representation than other colors, that person is going to be frustrated when he or she can’t find the necessary support.

For cubes without multicolored cards, the breakdown is pretty simple:

60 white cards
60 blue cards
60 black cards
60 red cards
60 green cards
30 nonbasic land
30 colorless artifacts
(60 * 5) + 30 + 30 = 360 cards.

This is a pretty good starting skeleton (in fact, if you want to stick to that skeleton, you can skip this section and move to Step 3), but in trying to add cards while maintaining color equity, things can quickly get away from you.

Let’s say you’re building your list based on the skeleton above. You’ve got 60 cards in Black and 60 cards in White, but you come across Sorin, Lord of Innistrad and Vindicate, two B/W cards you’ve just *got* to have in there. The only way to maintain color equity would be to remove one Black card and one White card and replace the two cards with your multicolored cards.

However, this doesn’t quite solve the problem. Now you’ve got 59 Black cards, 59 White cards, and 2 B/W cards. This might seem okay at first glance, but you’ve just given power to a specific color combination and taken freedom from other combinations. Before the addition of those cards, someone drafting black and red had access to the same black cards as someone drafting black and blue. But after those cards were put into the cube, now the person drafting black and white is the only person who can take advantage of the two new cards. On top of that, the person drafting black/blue or blue/white now has fewer cards to choose from.

This might not seem like that big of a deal. After all, it’s only two cards. But over time, if your cube is drafted regularly by your friends or a certain playgroup, it won’t take them long to realize that black/white is the most versatile color combination; this can lead to issues while drafting.

Some might disagree with my assessment of color equity, and that’s fine. I simply want to highlight the importance of giving equal versatility, power, and opportunity to every color combination.

An aside: we can get really into the math discussion, but we don’t need to just yet. This is a macro-level look a cube-building. Future articles can delve into the mathematics behind solid cube-building. For now, let’s just focus on making a cube.

Since my cube has no monocolored cards, I spread out the color equity to make easier combinations more plentiful and difficult ones rarer. But each “type” of color combination has the same number of cards as the other combinations of that same type. My cube is broken down as follows:

20 of each two-color combination – 200 cards
10 of each “Alara shard” combination – 50 cards
4 of each wedge combination – 20 cards
5 four-color cards – 5 cards
8 five-color cards – 8 cards
40 nonbasic lands – 40 cards
37 colorless artifacts – 37 cards
200 + 50 + 20 + 5 + 8 + 40 + 37 = 360 cards.

Step 3: Let’s make a list.

This is the real meat of where your time will be spent. It’s time to construct your list, card-by-card.

The first thing you’ll need is a card search engine. Gatherer is probably the best choice, but it’s up to personal preference. Almost any advanced search on an online card store will work as well.

Second, you’ll need a way to make your list. I suggest using a spreadsheet program to track what you are doing. You can either make a single list of cards and include properties like color, rarity, and converted mana cost (this is best for long-term tracking of metrics, which I’ll go into in a later article), or you can make a grid with your counts and “plug in” your cards as you decide on them (this is better for visually seeing where you are in terms of how many cards you need). Excel is good for this, but you can also use Google Docs. I use Google Docs because it has nearly the same functionality, I can access it from my phone for on-the-road checking, and I can share it with other people via e-mail whenever I’m looking for new cards.

Once you have those, go nuts! Fill in your color skeleton with cards you find through your searches. You’ll want to keep a few things in mind as you fill up your cube:

  • Make sure that every color has access to some sort of removal, and make sure that every color has a reasonably equal number of removal spells.
  • Vary mana costs. Even though you might want a certain color to be “aggressive,” make sure it doesn’t consist entirely of one- and two-cost spells.
  • Vary card types. You probably want a healthy number of creatures, but don’t forget to throw in some enchantments, sorceries, instants, and so on.
  • Experiment with different mechanic combinations, themes, and cycles.
  • Nonbasic lands should chiefly be mana-fixers or utility lands. Avoid lands with overly specific uses, like Eye of Ugin.
  • Artifacts should be things that any deck could conceivably use. Equipment is a  good choice. So are cards like Tumble Magnet, Everflowing Chalice, and the like.
  • Note that some cards might be “better than you think” because of the particular cube you’re putting them into. In my multicolored cube, the cycle of two-color “X of the Y” cards (like Steel of the Godhead and Runes of the Deus) is almost overpowered because of the hybrid mana and the wide availability of multicolored cards. That same cycle might only have a few specific uses in a mostly-monocolored cube.


Step 4: Collect the cards.

Sorry, I misspoke earlier when I said that making a list would take most of your time. The truth is that getting the physical cards together will probably be the most time-consuming endeavor. There are a few different options for doing this, though.

1. Trade for the cards.

This is in my opinion the best way to start building, since it doesn’t cost you any real cash money. If you have a healthy trade stock that you don’t mind turning into cube cards, take your binder to a few FNMs (or bigger events, if you go to them anyway or if they happen to be near you). Have your list of what you need readily available, read up on pricing beforehand, and look at everyone’s stuff. Mention to everyone that you’re building a cube and describe it to them. People are sometimes more receptive to trading with you if you make it clear that A) you aren’t a grinder who is trying to gain value, and B) you’re channeling these cards toward a creative end.

When I assembled my cube, I owned probably a third of the cards, and another third came from trading. For the last third, I had to…

2. Buy the cards.

Trading is my preferred means of getting cards, but unless you have a huge, well-connected local community, odds are that you’ll need to buy some cards once you’ve traded for all that you can. These will likely be commons and uncommons (which people don’t usually have in their binders), older bulk rares (which people might just leave at home), or cards that are simply hard-to-find (which people just straight-up don’t have or refuse to trade). Find your favorite singles store *coughLegitMTGcough* and start building a shopping cart. If card quality isn’t important to you (you’ll be sleeving everything anyway), buy the MP or SP versions of cards instead of the NM ones.

Maybe it takes a couple of paychecks. That’s fine; there’s no rush. If you made an effort to trade for cards, you shouldn’t have very many to buy.

3. Beg for the cards.

This is an option if you know people who have a bunch of cards they aren’t particularly attached to. But it’s never good form to say to someone, “Hey, I’m building this cube but don’t want to pay or trade for cards. Can I give you a list and see if I can bum any of the cards I need from you?” Don’t be that guy.

Instead, maybe try, “Hey, I’m building this tribal cube, but I’m a little strapped for cash. If I gave you a list, do you think you could part with some of the commons or uncommons on it? I could trade some bulk rares or pay a nickel a card or something.” See how much nicer that sounds, even though you’re kind of asking for the same thing? Most people won’t make you pay for commons and certain uncommons, but it’s polite to offer. And even if they do make you pay, you’re only out, what? A buck for twenty cards?

A few things to keep in mind when gathering your cards:

  • Promos and Foils: These can make your cube visually striking, but you shouldn’t seek them out if the extra money could be better spent on other cards or supplies like sleeves and basic lands. If, after you’ve had your cube for a while, you decide that you love it and want to keep it forever, then you should think about “pimping” it. Until then, keep in mind that you might hate having a cube–why spend extra on something if you don’t know that you’ll like it?
  • Foreign Languages and Textless Promos: I would almost always say to pass on foreign cards or the textless promo cards when starting out. Unless your playgroup is super pro and has memorized all of the arts and the wordings for all of the different cards, these will inevitably lead to confusion. One day, you’ll be drafting your cube with someone who doesn’t know the game as intimately as you do, and you’ll have to grind everything to a halt while you look up the wording on Terminate or Cryptic Command.
  • Silver-Bordered Cards: Unglued and Unhinged are great sets for their humor and flavor, but they really screw up some aspects of the rules. I’d advise against including any silver-bordered cards. At the very least, give it a lot of thought before putting any Un-cards in your cube. That said, I allow for one exception: Ashnod’s Coupon.

Step 5: Put it all together.

Once you’re at your 360 cards, it’s time to assemble your cube. The first piece you’ll need is a box. Most card game stores carry long, plain white boxes. One of these is perfect, and it should only cost (at most) a couple of bucks.

The second piece is basic land. It’s generally good form to have a supply of sleeved land you can stick in the box with your cube cards. The number of land you need is an inexact science. I’d say to start with fifty of each, but have some extra on hand the first time you run an eight-person pod, just in case. If you don’t have the land yourself, ask around. See if there’s a player at your FNM or a store in your area that can make you a deal on bulk land.

The third piece is the card sleeves. The kind of sleeves you use is up to you, but you want to make sure they aren’t a pain in the ass to shuffle, and you want them to be sturdy enough to take a beating. Your cube cards will get less beaten up than, say, a tournament player’s Constructed deck, but they will still see play, possibly by a wide variety of people. You don’t want flimsy sleeves. These can be pricey, since you’ll need enough to cover your cube cards and all of your basic lands–between 600 and 700 sleeves–AND they have to match. If you know someone who has tons of one particular kind of sleeve and can part with them, do that. Otherwise, eBay is a good option. You can buy new sleeves from a store, but you may have to place a special order and pay for all of the sleeves at once to ensure they are all uniform.

Once your cube is sleeved up, you’re ready to draft! Shuffle your cards up, deal them into 15-card packs, give three to each player, and draft the night away.

Next time, I’ll talk about how to use player feedback and metrics to improve your cube. Until then, happy cubing!

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