It's a shame really, to see so much wasted potential. Cube started with so much promise. “Cube is a challenging draft format that tests players with powerful cards and strategies from throughout Magic's storied history.”
Who could argue with that tagline? Disappointingly, Cube design often does not live up to its potential.
Imagine someone told you that, via some wizardry, they had managed to gather all of basketball's greatest hall-of-famers onto one court for the best game of all time. You're expecting to see suffocating defensive schemes, perfect pick and rolls, and world-class technical skill.
When you show up, all the big names are there, but they're not even working up a sweat. They're just playing casual streetball. Nobody plays defense, and after seeing Moses Malone dribble the ball between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's idle legs for the twelfth time, you turn away in disgust and head home.
Technically, you got what you were promised. The stars were there, playing a game. Yet none of the things that made you love the stars or the game were on display. So far, that has been the essence of some Cube designs: a lazy combination of all-star cards, put together in an experience that somehow manages to be less than the sum of its parts.
If you're looking to represent the sad state of Cube design in a single image, look no further:
This type of game state is no accident. It's the selling point:
“We're constantly looking at ways to tweak the online Cube experience (both the card list and the prize structure), but rest assured you'll be able to Channel out Ulamog or Tinker up Blightsteel Colossus many more times over the coming year.”
- Aaron Forsythe
I can't tell if these designs are lazy or patronizing. Did the designers think that playing with Jace, Goblin Guide, and Pernicious Deed wouldn't be enough to hold our attention? Did they misread the Return to Ravnica Pack Rat feedback and conclude that players really enjoy games that end with nearly unbeatable turn 2 plays?
These problems are not unique to the Magic Online Cube. I recently played another player's Cube for the first time.
I drafted what was effectively a pre-banning Jund list, complete with a mana base that required only four basic lands. I opened round 1 with Deathrite Shaman into Dark Confidant, and thanks to a fetchland in hand looked to follow it up with a Bloodbraid Elf. I'd love to tell you what I cascaded into, but the next turn my opponent ended the game by casting Eureka and dropping an EDH game's worth of power on the board.
The evening represented four hours spent in the least engaging games of Magic I've ever played. If that had been my first Cube experience, it likely would have been my last. I drove home with one thought on my mind:
“People must think Cube is the bad fan fiction of Magic formats.”
The Great Cube Fallacy
“The mindset of your design is important because when you boil it all down, design is a mental activity. If you approach your problem merely looking for any answer, you will find the first one you stumble across then stop looking.”
- Mark Rosewater
Many common Cube design problems are solved by leaving behind a common fallacy:
“We are designing a powerful Limited environment, therefore we should include the most objectively powerful card at every slot.”
Designs influenced by this mindset tend to focus on the question, “what cards are good in my Cube?” rather than, “what cards are good for my Cube?”
It's easy to see how people can get trapped in a frame of mind focused on power maximization. Playing Magic actively cultivates and rewards these skills. We learn to mulligan in situations where a six-card hand will increase our odds of winning. We try to brew and build the decks that have the greatest chance of winning the next tournament. As players, we reap the rewards of maximization week after week.
As designers, our job is to create an environment where the player's maximization process is engaging, compelling, and rewarding. Power maximization often works against these goals. For example, imagine if we applied power maximization to the design of the Rise of the Eldrazi and Return to Ravnica sets—“We were having issues with that whole Eldrazi Spawn token concept, so we added Show and Tell to the design file, and now the Eldrazi archetype's win percentage has gone way up.”
“Rakdos was having trouble closing out games, so we decided to go ahead and reprint Nether Void.”
In both cases, by including powerful non-interactive cards, we replace interesting decisions with mundane ones.
Rise of the Eldrazi featured a unique resource management mechanism, allowing the player to make engaging decisions about how to utilize Eldrazi Spawn. Do we spend them to pay for level up costs? Horde them while we save up for a Broodwarden? Spend a couple now to cast Skittering Invasion? Hold them and hope we draw one of our fatties?
Our opponent could further complicate this process, using cards like Forked Bolt to disrupt our resources. If we provide the player with superior and powerful tools like Show and Tell, their maximization instincts will kick in and encourage them to eschew the resource gathering entirely. Why build up tokens when you can just drop an Eldrazi into play on turn 3?
Rakdos' entire design is set up to create situations where the player doesn't know whether it's correct to unleash their creatures or not. The set is designed to create tricky moments where the opponent starts to stabilize, and the Rakdos player has to figure out how they're going to win the race and force through the last points of damage.
If we give the players spells like Nether Void that just end the game on turn 4, we no longer have an actual unleash mechanic. All we have are creatures that enter the battlefield with +1/+1 counters.
Players will maximize, even if it reduces their enjoyment of the game. They may want to fiddle with Eldrazi Spawn and mull over possible unleash combat math, but given the opportunity, they will take the path that leads to easy victory.
Evaluating Reanimator from a Design Perspective
The primary issue with traditional reanimator archetypes is that they lead to non-interactive games by design. Historically, they simply seek to resurrect an evasive monster with protection as quickly as possible. This leads to “silver bullet” situations, where the opponent needs to find one of a very limited number of answers or lose the game on the spot.
This dynamic can work in eternal Constructed formats filled with interactive disruption like Force of Will, Daze, and Thoughtseize, but in a draft environment, it mostly produces stale and frustrating gameplay.
Additionally, reanimator occupies much of the same design space as ramp strategies, but performs better on so many levels. If my goal is to put giant creatures on the battlefield, Reanimator does it faster and more reliably than ramp.
Discard outlets like Oona's Prowler really don't care about removal spells, whereas bolting a Joraga Treespeaker can completely derail ramp's gameplan. Ramp has a few advantages, like the ability to power out planeswalkers and spells like Plow Under, but in my Cube reanimator had a better success rate in each of the matchups. If we had a pair of Constructed decks with these properties, players would stop playing the ramp deck in favor of reanimator.
Lastly, the old reanimator came online far too quickly for Cube's aggressive decks.
That said, the Reanimator achetype does have a number of good qualities. For one, it's very compact. Thanks to recent printings like Lotleth Troll, Pack Rat, Liliana of the Veil, and Faithless Looting, there is no shortage of discard outlets that are perfectly cubeable with or without the presence of a reanimator strategy.
Secondly, the archetype really doesn't need its own stable of fatties to pitch to the 'yard, as reanimation targets can overlap with ramp and control finishers. All you actually need to support the archetype are a few spells that say, “return target creature from your graveyard to the battlefield.”
Making the Change
The reanimator redesign had specific goals:
• Add interactivity to the archetype.
• Find reanimation targets that create deeper and more interesting gameplay without crippling the ramp and control strategies that also rely on these creatures.
• Slow the deck down by a turn or so
• Add depth in both drafting and gameplay.
• Provide more trade-offs compared to ramp.
I started the adjustment process by first evaluating the archetype's support cards:
While this is by no means a comprehensive list, it highlights the fact that our discard outlets often double as reasonably-sized bodies. Rather than just treat them as means to an end, the archetype could be designed to use these bodies to apply pressure against control and hold off aggro.
I swapped out several of the big creatures that were being used more by reanimator than ramp or control, and replaced them with more specific role players:
This moved the strategy away from one that lands a single big creature and hopes the opponent simply can't answer it, to one that engages the opponent's strategy and adjusts its threats accordingly.
Craterhoof Behemoth and Gaea's Revenge give reanimator an angle of attack that cares about its total damage output. Not only does this approach make our enablers like Oona's Prowler and Lotleth Troll more relevant, but we introduce an element of timing. Do you want to drop Craterhoof at the earliest opportunity, or wait for spells like Lingering Souls and Bitterblossom to add more bodies to the board before going for the killing blow? Deploy Gaea's Revenge early and risk getting blown out by a Wrath effect, or hold it for later and risk losing to a Baneslayer Angel or Titan?
Additionally, I liked how each of the new creatures performed differently in various matchups. The green hasty monsters perform better against control, whereas Massacre Wurm's trigger might be irrelevant in that matchup. This creates decisions not only during sideboarding, but during drafting and initial deck construction. Do you maindeck Massacre Wurm to pick up percentage points against aggro, or are you more concerned with pushing through damage against control decks?
Lastly, I turned to the reanimation spells themselves:
This wave of changes is unorthodox, but did wonders for the quality of gameplay. The old arrangement generally had players pitching a card on turn 2 and casting a reanimation spell on turn 3. By changing the price of admission to 4 mana, we both set the reanimation back a turn and give aggressive decks a way to interact with the combo.
Previously, reanimator decks were impervious to mana denial effects. Losing a land rarely prevented it from casting a reanimation spell on turn 3. Now, aggro decks can actually have some say over the flow of the game, through cards like Rishadan Port, Wasteland, Tangle Wire, Stone Rain, or even a well-timed Pestermite. By delaying the reanimation a turn or so, the games become more interesting.
Against control, the deck now has a few lines of attack. The first is to play the aggressor and put on enough pressure to force your opponent to tap out. This creates a window for you to resolve a reanimation spell to finish the opponent off or rebuild with a hasty board presence. Alternatively, you can overload your opponent's counterspells by jamming Dread Return or Unburial Rites and flashing them back later. Diabolic Servitude also threatens to deplete the opponent's removal.
Additionally, there's the consideration of which colors to use to support the deck. Green is the most natural pairing as it provides the highest density of discard outlets in cards like Lotleth Troll, Wild Mongrel, Fauna Shaman, and Survival of the Fittest.
Now, you get legitimate use out of 1-mana Elves. We previously had little need for either acceleration or additional small bodies, but with the reanimation spells costing 4, we can speed things up with a 1-2-4 curve like Llanowar Elves into Lotleth Troll into Dread Return. A 1-3-4 curve is also possible, allowing cards like Liliana of the Veil and Survival of the Fittest to set up a third turn reanimation. Even when the Elves aren't accelerating, they add to the body count for Craterhoof Behemoth triggers, feed Dread Return flashbacks, and pitch to Survival of the Fittest.
Unburial Rites points us in the direction of white, where we'll find graveyard-focused targets like Angel of Serenity, Sun Titan, and Reveillark. The archetype is no longer as combo focused, allowing red or blue to push decks towards more aggressive or controlling builds respectively.
Collectively these changes to the reanimator archetype have improved the quality of gameplay in my Cube. We're no longer charging only 1 or 2 mana to put finishers on the table, but 4 or 5 mana still offers a great bargain for the likes of Grave Titan, Griselbrand, and Angel of Serenity. The archetype's win rate has fallen to a more reasonable value, and the interactivity of its games has skyrocketed. Powerful and degenerate cards will always have their allure, but if the choice is between good gameplay and good cards, gameplay wins out every time.