Cube addicts were left with a square-shaped hole in their hearts in the wake of the MTGO-Cube-Weekend-Extravaganza. We had it all: 57 hours straight of the best format in Magic—a non-stop, no-holds-barred draftathon full of blissful triumphs and humiliating defeats. Any red-blooded Magic enthusiast will agree—it ended all too quickly. What could possibly fill the void? What could replace the elation of successfully racing a Sulfuric Vortex, or the irreplaceable feeling of vindication when they go to Reanimate [card Iona, Shield of Emeria]Iona[/card] and you actually have the Stonecloaker? Why, more Cubing, of course! Many of us have already emerged from the gentle warmy glow of the computer screen to turn once again to our primitive cardboard Cubes, safe in the arms of an old friend (I’m talking about the Cube, but feel free to hug your friends).
Perhaps you’ve been contemplating this very form of [card cabal therapy]therapy[/card] yourself, but lack the medicine. If the MTGO Cube opened your eyes to the beauty of the format, or merely gave you the nudge you needed to finally dive in to building one of your very own, this article is for you.
Simply drafting a Cube can be a personal experience, and designing your own is like creating an extension of yourself. But building one from the ground up can be a daunting task. Many start by copying a list they find interesting—that’s how I got started. Yet, I would discourage you from doing just that. Unlike netdecking vs. homebrewing, you won’t find a perfectly refined Cube list. So when you copy a list, you don’t get the same assurance that you’re wielding the best weapon possible. A Cube made from scratch, however, much like a brew that Top 8s, gives you all the same satisfaction of knowing that you created something great. Every time you play with it, it will be that much more fulfilling when you know that this Cube is truly yours. And that’s the first lesson of Cube design: build it with the enjoyment of your friends and yourself in mind, and no one else.
Once you’ve adopted that mindset, you’re ready to start. To build on that, I’m going to give you the necessary framework to build a working Limited environment. After all, that’s exactly what we are creating. I’ll try to cover all the bases—starting with the basic direction of the Cube and more concrete stuff, right down to the nitty-gritty of removal and fixing ratios.
The first question you want to ask yourself is “what kind of Cube do I want to make”?
The first adjective most Cube designers attach to their Cube is “powered” or “un-powered”, and rightfully so. The decision to include some or all of these cards determines quite a bit about how your Cube will look. Cube is, of course, intended to be a greatest hits collection of all the cards in Magic’s history, and nothing fits that bill better than power. If you do decide to include it, your games will tend to be more explosive and swingy, which has advantages and disadvantages.
Personally, I choose to eschew power. I find unpowered games more interactive and interesting, providing greater replay value. Power cards are universal first picks, which dilutes the number of interesting choices in the draft itself.
Regardless of your [card gerrard's verdict]verdict[/card], it should inform every other decision you make. Some strategies just work better in powered environments, and vice-versa. I’ll try to touch on those as I go along.
Size: Cubes vary in size from 360 cards to over 1000. When starting out, don’t pick a precise number, but have a rough idea of where you’d like to end up.
Bigger Cubes have a few advantages. You have more variety in between drafts, and you can be a little more adventurous with your inclusions. If you and your friends really enjoy brewing, bigger is often better.
Smaller Cubes lend themselves to much more streamlined draft environments. Aggro gets exponentially better, and you can plan to see certain cards more reliably if you are going for a certain strategy. For example, in my 445-card Cube, you can draft the Wildfire deck with considerable certainty that you will at least get a shot at picking up the namesake card, or it’s P3K counterpart. However, you’ll have to be extra discriminating with your card choices, and there isn’t much room for funky choices.
In sum: if you have no problem killing your darlings, and if you want a challenging limited experience where everyone has an awesome deck, I’d go smaller. If you have a few pet cards, and you want to get spicy at the cost of less consistent decks, feel free to get big.
Format: This is an area that I feel is completely ignored in Cube design, but ends up having an enormous effect on the efficacy of certain cards. You have to be a little honest with yourself here, because I know we all dream of holding 8-man drafts every other day. The reality of the situation is that most Cubers play with only a few friends the vast majority of the time.
So, when thinking about card choices, consider whether you’ll be using the Cube mostly to 2-man (Winston), 4-man (Rochester), 6-man (Also known as the Nut), or 8-man (AKA no chance of runbacks). How should this influence your choices?
Well, in smaller formats, it’s harder to construct a reliable aggro deck, and multi-color control tends to come together more easily. In six- and eight-person draft environments, decks are much more streamlined and aggressive. You can try to fight this natural tendency and skew your Cube toward aggro if you will be Winstoning regularly, but I think you’ll be much happier if you just give in. If you are strictly playing with 1-3 friends, I’d try harder to facilitate ambitious control strategies. I consider Cruel Ultimatum uncastable normally, but it will almost always get played in a Winston draft.
Niche-Archetypes: Decide what kind of special archetypes you’d like to support. Examples include:
-The Artifact Deck—this bad boy comes in 2 varieties that have a considerable degree of overlap. The first variety is UR with Wildfire to lock opponents out. The other often uses Tinker and its various targets as finishers and Metalworker or the [card tezzeret the seeker]Tezzeret[/card] [card tezzeret, agent of bolas]Brothers[/card] as an engine. Regardless of which you choose to support, the backbone of the deck is mana rocks like Signets and Monoliths of various dispositions, so you’ll want to include plenty.
-Reanimator—this option should be self-explanatory, but one of the persistent problems with these kinds of strategies is finding a way to include enablers that aren’t useless to everyone else. When you put a card like Putrid Imp in the Cube, it simply won’t be drafted when no one is in Reanimator. To avoid that, you need to get creative, and find cards that are still excellent as enablers, but will dutifully perform a utility role in other decks. Oona’s Prowler, for example, serves as an excellent discard outlet, and can perform double-duty as a beater in a black aggressive deck.
-Blue Aggro—I think aggressive blue decks are the most fun to draft, and Wizards has been printing an incredible number of efficient blue creatures recently to push the viability of this strategy. However, you might find it lacking without the proper support if your Cube gets even a little large. Luckily, Matt Kranstuber wrote an awesome article to help you get started down this path.
-Green Aggro—Friends don’t let friends put Jungle Lion in their Cube. Seriously, green aggro is terrible.
Combos: Similar to niche-archetypes, except instead of building around a general strategy, you are adding support for specific cards. Moreover, this is more than just [card recurring nightmare]Rec[/card][card survival of the fittest]Sur[/card]—These are combos that interact very narrowly with each other, and end the game quickly. You’ll want to tread carefully here. Combos can be a lot of fun to bring together in a draft environment, but they can also drive people away. Examples:
All of these cards have something in common: they all work with enormous fatties. If you decide to add one, I’d recommend adding a few of the others as well. The more overlap there is, the more likely that someone will get rewarded for drafting the deck. For instance, if you pick [card ulamog, the infinite gyre]Ulamog[/card] hoping for Channel, you can still get bailed out by Sneak Attack or Show and Tell.
This is my personal favorite choice for a combo kill in Cube. You get a good deal of redundancy with Deceiver Exarch, Pestermite, Splinter Twin, and [card kiki-jiki, mirror breaker]Kiki-Jiki[/card], and it’s disrupted by instant speed spot removal—a resource found in abundance in the Cube.
Remember that power will always make the Combo decks much stronger, for better or worse, and you should make sure to include a healthy number of support cards to ensure they are regularly viable.
Errata and Silver-Bordered Cards: There are a few wonkier options for modifying your Cube, which include changing the way certain cards work to make them fit, and utilizing cards that have literally never been legal anywhere. The most common choice for errata is to turn Chaos Orb into a colorless Vindicate (“1, Sacrifice Chaos Orb: Destroy Target Permanent”). This is a great option for every Cube, since there are a ton of troublesome permanents, and Chaos Orb is the best way to give everyone a way to deal with them, without forcing people to put up with an infuriating manual dexterity test (not to mention being forced to spread all your lands out every time your opponent plays the Orb). If you can think of other options that people will accept, go for it! The worst case scenario is that you make something that doesn’t work, cut it, and be endlessly ridiculed and ostracized.
Blast from the Past, Booster Tutor, and Who-What-Where-When-Why are common inclusions as well, and really add a lot of fun in a way that still feels like “real” Magic. Honestly, Blast from the Past is a card that easily could have been printed in Time Spiral as is. Some will balk at silver-bordered cards however, so only add them if you are comfortable “bending” the rules (see warning above).
Planeswalkers: Planeswalkers are easily the most consistently powerful card type in Cube, and they will be the focal point of every game they are played. Be sure to carefully consider how much you like playing the planeswalker ”sub-game”, and based on your feelings, adjust the number you include accordingly.
Most planeswalkers would make the cut in even the smallest Cube, but too many can make for a format inundated with ‘walkers. I think they should feel special, and when everyone has a couple, it detracts from their unique identity. At the moment, my Cube sees an average of just under 10 planeswalkers per 8-man draft, and they still appear a little more frequently than I’d like. I try to compensate by adding some hate cards specifically targeted at planeswalkers, but it’s still a work in progress (another argument in favor of the Chaos Orb errata). That’s part of the fun of Cube design—it’s hard to get it right, so you have to sort of feel it out.
There are two reasonable options if you want to makes planeswalkers a little scarcer:
One is to exclude the ones that aren’t strictly awesome. This can include the more niche planeswalkers like the Tezzerets up to the ones that just don’t scale as well as others relative to their cost, like Chandra Nalaar and Liliana Vess.
The other is to exclude those planeswalkers that are especially oppressive, or annoying, namely Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Jace, Memory Adept (sense a trend?), Ajani Vengeant, and Elspeth, Knight-Errant.
As Cubes have gotten more aggressive, and even the best planeswalkers become less absurd, I’ve switched from the latter option to the former. I still exclude Jace, Memory Adept, since he is a variance magnet; but since you can’t play with Jace TMS practically anywhere these days, it feels nice to give him a home.
Themed Cubes: This includes Common and Common-Uncommon Cubes, as well as Tribal and broader-theme Cubes. This isn’t exactly my area of expertise, but I can point you in the direction of some great resources.
-Matt Kranstuber is the most innovative Cube designer I know, and he churns out awesome themed Cubes like he’s making breakfast. Artifact Cube, Combo Cube, Momir Vig Cube… the man is a machine, and always strikes gold. You can get some insight into his process here.
-My common/uncommon Cube was an utter failure. Look at Eric Klug’s excellent one instead!
-My Cube isn’t a Tribal one, but I still stand by adding a Rebel theme as the most elegant solution to white aggro’s inability to reliably compete with the other archetypes in Cube.
These ought to get you thinking about what you’d like the Cube to look like generally, and what kinds of strategies you want to support. In Part II I’ll get much more specific, including a “core” list of cards that should serve as a strong foundation for any normal Cube, and talk about the more difficult to pin down concepts like curve, color-balance, fixing and removal ratios, and hate cards. Complete with lots of pretty charts!