What if Cubes were seen not as a collection of Magic's most powerful cards, but as a display of Wizards' best design philosophies?
That's the question I am seeking to answer with my new Cube, a Cube built from the ground up with synergies, interactions, and overlapping archetypes in mind. Unfortunately, it's a rather difficult question to address. Wizards has 20 years of Magic design experience under their belt, and the components that make their Limited environments succeed or fail aren't immediately evident. Although your average FNM player may be able to pick out the game's most powerful red 1-drops from a lineup without much difficulty, understanding what makes great sets like Rise of the Eldrazi or Innistrad tick is another challenge altogether.
Moreover, not one to take the easy road, I wanted to build a Limited environment that could field the following creatures in an interactive way:
Ramp is a classic example of an archetype that is least interesting in its most powerful state. My first ChannelFireball article railed on the MTGO Cube for inclusion of glass cannon combos like Channel/Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre, which really scrape the bottom of the barrel in terms of game design and fail to create compelling games of Magic.
The super-ramp archetype is a difficult one to properly bake into a Limited environment, and it's unsurprising that Wizards has only attempted it once. In order to create interactive games, Wizards went with creature-based as opposed to spell-based ramp. Eldrazi Spawn tokens rank among the most innovative and interactive mechanics Wizards has printed. The Spawn tokens served as a novel resource-management system that could be pressured by the opponent via attacking, or assaulted directly via removal spells.
Spawn token ramp decks are resource-intensive and vulnerable to any number of effects: Mind Rot-style discard effects, counterspells, and mass removal to name a few. Further, we have to build our environment to create overlapping demand for cards like Eldrazi Spawn producers that enable the ramp decks.
Lastly, although we already have large Eldrazi creatures and Spawn tokens in our Cube design, I don't intend to simply recreate Rise of the Eldrazi. I want to create something unique for my drafters, and imbue it with a touch of whimsy. Welcome to the Eldrazi Domain Cube.
Morbid on Demand
When creating a set, one of the best ways to ensure interactive drafting mechanics is to bake in competing demand for resources. I touched on this in The Poison Principle, and here's a great example of putting it into practice. Even if you have no intention of ramping, players can draft Spawn token creators to turn on morbid and sacrifice effects.
Further we have all sorts of other creative ways to trigger morbid.
Now, the keen observer would note that although we have plenty of overlap between the above themes, we also have a bit of an incestuous Jund party on our hands. Here's where we start to spice things up. One of the inherent constraints of the format is that we need the environment to be sufficiently slow to accommodate ramp decks that are using weaker cards like Kozilek's Predator. The strength of the Spawn token producers anchors the speed of our format, and although we can and will bolster the ramp archetypes with the likes of first-pickable cards like Primeval Titan and Lotus Cobra, our environment will need to be slower than a traditional Cube.
One of the ways to slow down a draft format is the inclusion of a multicolor focus. To kick things off, we turn to everyone's favorite five-color tribe:
Evoke plays incredibly well with morbid, although these cards tend to hold their own without the presence of additional synergies. Here we have an opportunity to build in a new archetype with just a few anchors.
Most often players will simply run their Shriekmaws and Mulldrifters in whatever deck they were already building, but on occasion you can go deep on Elementals and be rewarded with a card like Horde of Notions. Even in a non-dedicated Elemental deck, Flamekin Harbinger is perfectly serviceable as a toolbox that tutors relevant cards to the top of your library.
Speaking of manipulating the top of the library, one of the blue subthemes involves cheating things into play with the following creatures:
These two are relatively efficient bodies on their own, but can pull off some incredible plays in concert with library manipulation.
Blue's primary role in this Cube is serving as host to the domain theme.
Although I haven't mentioned it explicitly, this Cube runs multiple copies of several cards. In this case, that includes four copies of Evasive Action, along with a pair of Worldly Counsels and Tribal Flames. When you build a theme, it's important to properly incentivize drafters to dive into it. Magic's history isn't rich with domain-reward cards, so to pull the theme off properly, breaking singleton is a must.
Additionally, when designing a set, it's important to get design space mileage out of your bread-and-butter effects like burn spells, counterspells, and card draw. We could easily replace the Evasive Actions with an assortment of generic spells like Memory Lapse, Mana Leak, Remand, and Counterspell, but we rob ourselves of design space for pushing additional themes and archetypes.
Note that since we have a multicolor focus already (more of that to come), these domain spells aren't all that narrow. Most decks will be fielding at least three colors, allowing Evasive Action to do a Mana Leak impression or Tribal Flames to imitate Volcanic Hammer. Even Worldly Counsel gives you the better part of an Impulse in a three-color deck.
Domain gives blue a real identity, and a natural way to incentivize the blue drafter to reach into other colors. Further, we create overlapping demand for cards like Farseek and Khalni Heart Expedition that live in the intersection of ramp and domain enabling.
As an anchor for the five-color blue decks we have:
White proved to be the most challenging aspect of the design. Originally the intention had been to link white to the other colors via token production and Return to Ravnica's populate mechanic. The results were abysmal.
“Dear God, my
movie Cube is the worst piece of crap I have ever seen in my entire life. How could I have been so blind? It’s a self-indulgent, adolescent mess. I can barely sit through it, and now with all this hype, I’ve got a real Snakes on a Plane brewing.”
- Abed Nadir
It turns out that draft environments are rather precarious, and too much of a given element can ruin the whole batch. Here, the combination of Edrazi Spawn tokens with other token producers led to some major board stalls. To compound the matter, even the airways were clogged as players ran out Spectral Procession, Midnight Haunting, and Eyes in the Skies. Further, nobody was ever really populating Eldrazi Spawn tokens, so the theme didn't even tie that well to that mechanic.
The whole thing was a mess.
It was also a mess with some serious upside. Tokens are a pretty frequent component of Magic's design, and now that our set cares about specific effects, I was finding tons of fantastic cards that fill multiple roles:
Ultimately I scrapped almost all the white cards that produce multiple tokens, as well as most of the populate triggers. Although the idea seems rather obviously terrible in retrospect, the truth is that design is an iterative process. It's difficult to know a priori whether a set will result in board stalls or how the games will feel. Every time we playtest this Cube I walk away with dozens of ideas for card and archetype changes. Part of the fun is watching the evolution.
White's New Identity
Rather than provide multiple bodies with a single card, white's new role involves pumping armies via anthem effects. This forces a white drafter to reach out to other colors for best effect, as the Spawn tokens are created elsewhere.
As an alternate use for pump effects, I provide a sprinkling of double strike:
Multicolor Matters Aggro
As part of the multicolor focus, I include a double dose of each of the following:
In addition to the usual assortment of gold cards, thanks to Return to Ravnica block we now have a critical mass of hybrid permanents that can get the blade cycle online.
The blade cards create interesting deckbuilding and gameplay constraints, as well as adding a layer of complexity to the attack phase, as instant-speed removal can become a blowout combat trick. They have been surprisingly fun to play with and against, and allow for some explosive openings. Last draft an opponent tutored for a turn 3 Burning-Tree Emissary with Green Sun's Zenith, then dropped a hasty Jund Hackblade to the table with the resulting mana.
Proliferate Aggro & Ramp & Tokens
Oddly, a theme that tied together several of the sets themes is proliferate.
I only include a small peppering of proliferate cards, and most of them are usable at this Cube's power level without any explicit synergies.
Mikaeus, the Lunarch
Student of Warfare
Ludevic's Test Subject
Guul Draz Assassin
Quest for the Gravelord
Black Sun's Zenith
Champion of Lambholt
Animar, Soul of Elements
Lastly, a great way to smooth out the draws in an environment with a heavy ramp component is to include x-spells that scale throughout the game.
This Cube is still very much a work in progress. For the interested, you can find my complete Cube list here, along with hundreds of posts in design notes.
Although I will continue to iterate and improve this Cube's design, perhaps the most interesting takeaways from this experiment were the lessons learned about Magic's design. I'll cover those starting in my next article. For now, I leave you with some of the sweeter cards from the Eldrazi Domain Cube. How many interactions can you find?
Thanks for reading!
Jason's Cube Design Site - http://riptidelab.com/