I've always found classification in Cube design a frustrating topic, as the discussion of classification often misses the mark entirely, focusing on something mostly irrelevant: the spreadsheet.
“If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation.”
Last month while shuffling up for our weekly cube draft, a player picked up the most militant of Dryads and asked me “how do you have this card classified?”
Actually, no, that never happened. Of the 50 players who have drafted my Cube, not a single one has ever asked about the classification of any card. Instead, they all ask the same question of each of the several hundred cards they see each draft.
“Do I want this in my deck?”
Now that's a pretty complex question, so for now let's break it down to something slightly more digestible.
“Can I cast this card with my colors?”
The aforementioned Dryad Militant can be cast in two of the five mono-color decks:
Seven of the ten 2-color decks:
And all of the 3-color decks except:
We could then perform the same exercise for mono-color cards and (two-color) gold cards, and by summarizing the data we produce the following table:
By the letter of the law, both hybrid and gold cards are considered “multicolor” cards, but the two have opposing impacts on your environment. In the abstract, hybrids are more castable than mono-color cards, and gold cards are less castable.
If you take one thing away from this article, take away the fact that in most cases, hybrid cards aren't remotely the same as gold cards, and should be treated differently for the sake of set construction.
The Hybrid Shuffle
In the wake of a second Ravnica chock-full of good gold cards, Cube designers have scrambled to find clever ways to accommodate the newest wave of golden goodies in their file. The thought process usually looks something like:
“Voice of Resurgence looks pretty sweet, but I don't have any room in my Selesnya section. Maybe I can push Kitchen Finks over to green and take out Wolfir Avenger. Then I'll still have the same number of cards in my multicolor section.”
It sounds pretty innocuous, right? The section sizes on our file didn't change, so everything still works out the same. Well, not exactly.
What we have is another example of irrelevant spreadsheet-focused thinking. In terms of our environment, there was no Kitchen Finks in this equation. Here's what really happened:
All that we really did was replace a mono-color card with a gold card. We can do all the voodoo accounting we want, but in the end it's only the environment that matters, not the spreadsheet.
Now, for those of you who did perform some hybrid shuffle, you probably noticed something: the world didn't end. Some of the same people who rigidly and zealously maintain equally-sized multicolor sections have performed this “hybrid shuffle,” whose only impact is to add a gold card to their environment and take away a mono-color card. To this I would say three things:
1) It's not such a big deal. There's some wiggle room in set design.
2) Don't think about your spreadsheet so much—
3) —think about your environment more.
To be clear, I'm not advocating against slotting hybrid cards in mono-color slots. I really don't care how you arrange your Cube file. At the end of the day the players don't care. Each draft, you shuffle up 360 cards and pass them around the table. What you should pay attention to is how your assortment of cards affects the drafting dynamics at the table. I'm not going to recommend a system because any system is subject to completely missing the forest for the trees.
Focusing on What Matters: Competition
When picking cards for an environment, there should be a major focus on draft dynamics. There's no single right way to set up drafting dynamics, but it's important for your set design and ideas to be cohesive. Let's start with an example of draft dynamics done poorly.
In the early iterations of my Cube, I wanted to play with a lot of gold cards. I filled my set with a high density of them, but had neither a high quality or quantity of fixing to match. As a result, most players stuck to drafting only two colors, and with eight players collectively occupying the 10 guilds, odds were that you had your two-color combination all to yourself. This led to really terrible draft dynamics, as the correct strategy was always to take the mono-color cards first and let the gold ones wheel.
Gold cards would wheel with great consistency, because nobody else wanted them. The ends of packs were filled with gold cards, and the drafting experience lacked tension because the dynamics were so far out of equilibrium. The problem, as I came to realize, was that if you were in a two-color deck, only 10% of the gold cards were actually relevant to you. I was filling my set with too many cards that were in low demand.
There are a number of ways to address this issue. For examples of how Wizards has handled color-based drafting dynamics, we turn to their retail sets.
Shadowmoor's marquee mechanic was hybrid. In fact, it was so prevalent that about half of each pack's cards were hybrids.
What this meant is that a player could squat on a single color and still have access to about 30% of the cards in each pack (20% of the mono-color cards, 40% of the hybrids). This is an ideal example of just how different hybrid cards are from gold cards.
Of course, the dynamic wasn't necessarily ideal.
“Our takeaway from Shadowmoor block was that it had too much hybrid.”
- Mark Rosewater
Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash
Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash addressed the issue of narrow two-color gold cards by limiting the number of playable two-color combinations. Rather than the full ten guilds, both RTR and GTC featured only five guilds each. As a result, the demand for gold cards among two-color decks doubled from 10% to 20%.
Full Return to Ravnica-Block Draft
With the introduction of Dragon's Maze, all ten guilds are now in play. This drops the demand of gold-cards among two-color decks back down to 10%. The solution? Shift the focus to three-color decks.
In theory, having the players play three-color decks keeps a high demand for gold cards. In practice, one of the complaints levied against DGR draft is that the fixing available is neither plentiful nor powerful enough to make a three-color deck tempting.
The reason I do not run any three-color cards is that they are inherently in low demand among drafters. They are unplayable in one- or two-color decks, and even if the entire table is in three colors there's a chance that they go un-drafted. In my opinion, none of the three-color cards are important enough in the context of my current design to justify their narrowness. Sure, Lightning Angel is fun, but I think most sets are better served by using that slot elsewhere.
Shards of Alara addressed the narrowness issue by limiting the scope of the design to only half of the three-color combinations.
Application to Cube
When it came to addressing my Cube's poor drafting dynamics, the solution was two-fold. First, I increased the quality and quantity of my fixing so that players would be able to play more colors, thereby increasing the demand for gold cards. Second, I limited the number of gold cards to about three per guild in my 360-card Cube.
Note that neither of these issues really had anything to do with hybrid cards. My problem was not the average demand of cards, but the high number of cards in low demand (i.e. gold cards).
To be clear, the point is not to remove all cards that are in low demand. However, these low-demand cards should be used very purposefully. Most commonly in my set, low-demand cards are archetype anchors that very explicitly support a certain strategy or archetype.
Once I started to think about cards in terms of demand and competition, it became clear that these ideas were far more reaching than simple color classification.
A forum poster once commented that they would “play Fulminator Mage if it were mono-red or mono-black,” but didn't have room for it in their multicolor section. Another victim of spreadsheet-based thinking.
At a certain point I pushed aggro too far, and I was looking for tools to strengthen control's early anti-aggro game. I wanted a card that would actually reach the control player. Condemn was the perfect tool.
Far // Away is a good example of the fact that there is no simple binary classification between “gold” and “non-gold.” There is a continuous spectrum of varying degrees of demand. A deck splashing blue or black can take this card with the knowledge that they have (at least) five turns to hit their splash color to cast the fused spell, and can still get value out of casting only half the card.
By contrast, a deck only splashing green or black is far less likely to want a proactive turn 2 spell like Putrid Leech. The demand for the cards is not equal.
Boros Reckoner is a hybrid card, but doesn't really follow the same behavior of cards like Deathrite Shaman or Dryad Militant. I personally think of Reckoner as “gold” for the purposes of set building. My Cube doesn't field many mono-color decks, and Reckoner can be much harder to cast on curve than true gold cards like Ajani Vengeant.
I consider the inclusion of Ball Lightning in most Cubes to be a mistake. Every Cube I have seen has a multicolor focus, in the sense that they have multicolor cards in all ten guilds. In terms of design space, this puts Cubes in the full Return to Ravnica block end of the spectrum. Most Cubes have between 15% and 20% of their card space occupied by gold cards and fixing.
For my own Cube, I have about 50 mono-red cards. By the numbers, this means about two red cards per pack, with a few artifacts that are relevant to a mono-red drafter. That's very little! Few of the packs will hold meaningful decisions for a mono-red player. For this reason, many people find drafting mono-red quite boring. This isn't Shadowmoor where the drafter also has a boatload of hybrids to choose from.
I understand that mono-red decks will happen on occasion, but to make it a central part of the design in a set with a large multicolor presence is jarring. Moreover, to explicitly promote mono-red aggro with a card like Ball Lightning strikes me as bad design. There's a reason that Gatecrash included Spark Trooper instead.
In the case of Ball Lightning, it's not even providing a unique effect. It's just an efficient aggro card in a stable of efficient aggro cards. For my own design it's only with great care that I include a card with such a prohibitive casting cost. Geralf's Messenger is the only one I have, and it's a lynchpin of the Zombie, sacrifice, and Birthing Pod archetypes. Further, my fixing is strong enough that it gets cast in multicolor decks.
If you're looking for guidelines, I would follow the lead set by Wizards retail sets, and not their Cube. The original Magic Online Cube was simultaneously home to Doran, the Siege Tower, Ruhan of the Fomori, Phyrexian Obliterator and Ball Lightning.
Design and balance concerns aside, Armageddon's biggest problem was the fact that it often didn't support white aggro at all. Armageddon's casting cost is so trivial that often I'd be solidly in a Rakdos aggro deck, then splash for a pack 3 Armageddon without much effort. The card would have been far more effective at boosting white aggro with a 2WW casting cost.
You don't have to be multicolor to have narrow demand. In my Cube, seven mana is a lot, and often only one drafter is in a position to cast a spell like Angel of Serenity.
Lastly, I encourage all of you to think less in terms of where a card falls on your spreadsheet, and more in terms of how your collective card choices impact drafting dynamics. Sometimes you need a narrower card that will reach a certain type of drafter. Sometimes you need to consider what types of decks you are incentivizing with your card choices. Other times you'll need a card that fills the intersection between two or three different strategies.
And hybrids are not the same as gold cards.
Thanks for reading!
Jason's Cube Discussion Site - http://riptidelab.com/