Cube Design – Tri-color Cards

Let’s talk tri-color cards. I love them, you love them. They’re powerful, efficient, and splashy. And frequently taken as 15th picks. <record scratch>

Thank you, 1990’s teen-movie audio trope.

What gives?

Let’s shamelessly pull tables from an earlier cube color diatribe.


Often, nobody can even cast them. They take two turns around the table (sans microphone) and take up their usual residence in some sucker’s sideboard.

What’s a designer to do? Cut ’em.

Over the years many designers have drifted toward Wild Nacatl as their only “three-color” card, a card which functions perfectly in Selesnya and Gruul decks, splash or no.

“But Jason, that option is total malarkey. I want to play with new cardboard!”

Okay, hypothetical reader, I hear you. And do we need to hear from a hypothetical editor too?

“Thanks for your usual late submission of another middling 1,500 words, but your recommendation to ignore the lionshare of the set is perhaps not the most commercially advisable.”

Do you guy’s see the flaw here? An editor should know that “lion’s share” is two words. This is unacceptable.

All right. Well what does Wizards do with three-color cards?


Mentally substitute “shard” with “wedge” and we see the retail approach. To ensure demand for three-color cards, Wizards limits to a subset of just five of the possible ten three-color combinations. I’d advise Cube designers looking to include Khans cards to do the same. Focus on wedges, and enemy color gold cards. If normally you allocate 30 cards to your gold section, you could do worse than to re-jig it to something like:

10 tri-color cards
15 enemy 2-color cards
5 allied 2-color cards

I should note that this doesn’t have to be a permanent change. All too often Cube designers seem to take the attitude of working toward an “optimal cube,” slowly iterating and tweaking. Each set brings in small incremental changes.

But it doesn’t have to be this way! A Cube is (by cardboard standards) a living, breathing thing. Play with it! Experiment! Run wild and push wedge decks in a few months. Let the impact of the new cards be felt. You can always change it later.

If you’re going to take that route, let’s consider some of design pitfalls we face.

When it comes to multicolor decks, there are two distinct concepts to look at:

1) Enabling players to play multicolor decks
2) Rewarding players for playing multicolor decks

The enabling is almost entirely a function of the mana fixing you put in your Cube. With sufficient appropriate fixing, players will play three- and four- color decks in the aggro, midrange and control theaters, even in the complete absence of gold cards!

The reason is that drafters can achieve greater card quality by having a wider selection of cards to choose from in each pack. Well-designed cubes have a natural balancing tension, as you have to sacrifice picks to grab fixing in the first place.

So that’s some reward. But if we want to make the reward more explicit, we turn to gold cards. This is easier said than done.

Gold cards are competing against the other cards in the pack, and for this reward dynamic to work, said gold cards should be of a noticeably higher power level than the alternatives. This is really hard if your environment is loaded with colorless bombs like Wurmcoil Engine and Karn Liberated, or hyperefficient monocolor cards like Hero of Bladehold. Now I don’t mean to blame all of cube’s problems on Scars block. I mean, it did help me name the Poison Principle!

There’s no easy answer here. When I ran cards like Lightning Angel, the correct move, even if you were in UWR, was to let them wheel. And even then sometimes you’d cut it from your final 40. When you’re making cuts, Jace and Ajani Vengeant tend to lock up their slots.

I think you ideally want an environment where players feel incentivized to take tri-color cards instead of letting them wheel. You achieve this by creating competing demand for said cards (i.e. only shards, or only wedges), and by increasing the power level of your tricolor cards relative to the rest of your environment.

That second part is the tricky bit. The tricolor cards have a fixed power level, so naturally to achieve this dynamic you’d lower the level of your monocolor and colorless cards.

Ugh, right? For most of us that sounds like a complete overhaul.

If that’s the boat you’re in, I don’t have a very satisfying answer to give you. There’s a nice theoretical design dynamic, and most of us aren’t going to be able to achieve that.

And that’s okay.

I’m not against just jamming the cards you like into a list. Good players will quickly learn to let tricolor cards wheel if they happen to be in that color combination, but hopefully they’ll end up contributing to new and fresh gameplay experiences.

Spice it up, have fun with the new set.

Multicolor Good Stuff

Veteran cube designers will let out a collective groan at the section header, but no, this is not that rant. Why early cube advocates were so dead set on avoiding the elusive “multicolor good stuff” is a topic for another day.

On the subject of selecting tricolor cards to run, I would skew towards “good stuff” cards. Tricolor cards are already very narrow by virtue of their color requirements, and if you then include cards that only work in specific deck-types, you further diminish their demand.

Dead cards aren’t the end of the world (we do run 15-card packs as opposed to retail’s 14), but the more competing demand you can generate for cards, the more interactive and rewarding the draft experience.

It’s for this reason that I’m not terribly fond of cards like Maelstrom Wanderer that only work in, say, a RUG ramp deck. Do we have to say Temur now? I can’t be the only one who finds the wedge names to be incredibly unintuitive and difficult to remember.

Do note that the more you push three-color cards, the more your environment has a natural tendency to skew towards the midrange. The curve for three-color cards starts at three, so if you’re going to really push gold cards you may want to compensate by adjusting the curves of your monocolor sections.

Mixing and Matching

This next idea isn’t very broad in its appeal, but I’m hoping it sets off a lightbulb in some ambitious cube designer’s mind.

Earlier I discussed how, when Wizards does three-color sets, they only include five of the ten possible three-color combinations. See Shards of Alara and Khans of Tarkir as examples. But those aren’t the only options! There are literally dozens of us! Dozens!

(Author’s note: there might not be dozens.)

(Author’s note: any aspiring statisticians want to count the number of unique sets of 5 three-color combinations there are that give equal representation to each individual color? For example, you can’t have five white shards / wedges. End parenthetical.)

Here’s an easy way to make your own.

Consider the guilds allocated to Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash.

This MS Paint diagram was hastily stolen from Google Image Search, but it gives us a good starting point. In Return to Ravnica, Wizards effectively rearranged the color pie so that only five of the ten two-color combinations were present in the set. We can do the same for three-color set design.

Step 1) Rearrange the color pie as desired.
Step 2) Select either the shards or the wedges of your rearranged color pie.

Let’s say we used RTR’s color pie, then chose the shards of that color pie. Then we’d have a set with:

Or, in proper names: Bant, Jeskai, Grixis, Jund and Abzan.


Let’s go a bit further. That determines our three-color pairings, but what should we do about two-color pairings?

Again, let’s follow Wizards’ lead. The basic idea is the we want to focus on guilds that are shared by our three-color sets. That’s why Shards of Alara had allied two-colored cards (e.g. Qasali Pridemage goes in Naya decks and Bant decks), and Khans of Tarkir has enemy color cards (e.g. Winterflame goes in Jeskai and Temur).

So, to be explicit, the above example would contain cards from the Return to Ravnica guilds:
Selesnya, Azorius, Izzet, Rakdos and Golgari.

It’s an easy to use approach that allows you to build a cube that is totally unique in the world of Magic. If anybody does start on such an endeavor, let me know in the comments, I’d love to follow the progress and see where the community takes this idea.

Wrap Up

Thanks for reading, I’ll be back next week with a complete Khans of Tarkir Cube Review!

Jason’s Cube Design Site: http://riptidelab.com/forum/

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