PV’s Playhouse – A Format for Everyone


So, today I’m going to talk about different, casual formats. This is going to be for a different audience than the one I usually write for. For those of you who don’t care about casual formats, don’t worry – I’m still a competitive writer, this is just a one-in-a-lifetime article because we are (I am) at a very idle time right now. Those are all formats that I play from time to time with my friends, and each is interesting in a different way.

It is also important to note that, although those are not the formats you’ll be playing at a tournament, Magic is always Magic, and by playing, for example, Cube Draft, you will exercise many of the basic concepts that you need for a game. It won’t be as useful to Cube as it will be to play Standard for your PTQ, but it won’t be entirely useless either, because in the end the concepts are the same, and it forces you to not stick to preconceived notions and to reevaluate everything all the time, because it is always radically different.


Cube is probably the most popular casual variation, and there are a lot of articles, and even entire columns, dedicated to Cube Drafting. Cube basically means you have a stack of whichever cards you want, usually very powerful cards, and then you draft with those. It doesn’t really get repetitive, even if you use the same stack (which is usually 2x the size of a draft, but could really be any number that is bigger than the amount of cards you’d need for one draft – almost everything in any casual format is customizable), so a Cube is a good investment if you like playing it (you can even proxy whatever).

To me, Cube drafting is something quite unique, and I’d place a Cube deck somewhere in the middle of a Limited and a Constructed deck. I am a fan of control strategies – I will first pick Fact or Fiction over any creature in Magic, and Counterspells are also high priority on my list; I have Cubed about 10 times, and not once have I played an aggressive deck. There are some very good Red decks to be built in Cube, though (Luis, for example, always drafts Red aggro even if he is a control freak in real Magic), and you have to keep this in mind when you build your control deck – you need fast, effective answers or you’ll be overwhelmed by Goblin Patrols, Ravenous Baboons and Chars. For that reason, I generally find myself with Green as my main color, because Green offers excellent defensive creatures with good bodies and other abilities, and it allows me to splash any color that I want (which is usually the other four).

Ironically enough, the deck I end up with in Cube most of the time is the deck I hate most in Magic, a rock-style midrange-control deck. Perhaps it is only so because I can’t bring myself to play it when it’s worth something, so I use Cube to take care of my “midrange needs”. I also tend to like grinding cards a lot more than most people – I will pick stuff that lets my Rock deck overpower other Control decks pretty early, like Genesis, Thawing Glaciers, Decree of Justice, etc.

I actually played a Cube draft not many days ago, the first time I have ever done so online. We drafted in a different software, and then Thea Steele (who has a cube column on Starcitygames called Darksteel Cube) lent us the cards we drafted and we played the matches on Magic Online. I drafted my usual deck, a GBuw (splashing Balance, Oblivion Ring, Armageddon and Mulldrifter) that sometimes sided in Red for Bituminous Blast, and I promptly timed out among Mana Vault, Genesis and Sylvan Library triggers and Scroll Rack activations. I actually think I’m never drafting Sylvan Library online again, because it’s just impossible for me to use it – I kept keeping the wrong card, putting them back in the wrong order and on two different occasions I took four damage to keep a card when I didn’t mean to.

For whatever is worth it, here are some of my thoughts on Cube:

– Throw away all your preconceived Limited notions. Usual first pick bombs like Kumano routinely go last on Cube. In card evaluation, it’s more similar to Constructed than to Limited.

– Realize that, unlike in a normal draft, every card is playable, so you’ll end up with 45 of them when you need a lot less than that. That means wasting picks is not a big worry, because you’ll have plenty, and you should keep special attention to your mana base – most cubes have a lot of non basics, and a land that you’re going to use is better than a powerful spell in your sideboard (especially since most people play Cube without a sideboard, for fear of losing the cards).

– Planeswalkers are really, really good in Cube, better than in any format. There are not many cards I’d pick over, say, Ajani Vengeant, and I will pretty much always play one of I have it, even if that is not true in normal Limited or if I would not splash for him in Constructed.

– Artifact and Enchantment removal is generally playable.

Armageddon is really good, even if you’re not aggressive. It is an excellent way to close games with your the rock deck, and most control decks that I draft will have a lot of artifact mana sources anyway, so it’s not unreasonable to just play an early Armageddon to set them back for a while if they’re also slow. A lot of cubes have two, Armageddon and Ravages of War, so you also have to watch out for them.

Yavimaya Elder is the best.


These are drafts that you can do with two people only, be it because you only have two people or because you want to set up a challenge to prove who is better once and for all (still waiting, Conley and Brad!). I know of two, and you can play those with regular packs or with your Cube.

Winston Draft

Winston Draft consists in having three face-down piles of one card each. Then a player looks at the first pile, and decides if he wants to pick that pile (that has one card at that moment) or not. If he wants to pick it, he picks the entire pile and replaces it with a random card from the stack, and then he is done and it is the other player’s turn. If he does not want it, he adds a card to the pile, and repeats it with the second pile. If he does not want the second pile, he moves to the third pile, and if he does not want that either, he picks a random card from the stack. Then it’s the other player’s turn.

Winston Draft is very interesting, and very skill intensive, because you know a lot of what your opponent has (since you looked at the piles) and you can control what you want him to have or not, kind of, and you only have one person to beat so you can be very extreme. I have not played it many times, but one was in the last Invitational, and it was pretty cool (we also had a Cube Draft there).

Solomon Draft

I have never played Solomon draft, but I’ve heard of it – you get a stack of cards (likely a Cube), set aside 8 at a time and then players alternate splitting and picking for Fact or Fiction – i.e., one player splits the 8 cards in two piles, and the other player chooses a pile (the remaining one goes to the person who split it), and then they change roles and repeat until the stack is gone. Sounds even more skill intensive than Winston, since all the information is visible.

Bonus: Nassif’s Format

Nassif’s format is called Nassif’s format because he was the one who introduced it to me, and I have no idea how it should be called. It is kind of similar to Winston Draft, but with more people. You need at least 4 people for that, but there is no reason to assume it can’t be played with more.

The way it works is you get a Cube stack, and then each player flips two cards in two different piles. Then the first player selects one pile from anyone – if you play with four people, that would be 8 piles to choose from. If you play with 8 people, you could also do one pile per person. After the first player does that, everyone flips another card into each of their piles, and then the second person chooses a pile – so by the time the second person does it, there will be seven piles of two cards, and one pile of one card, and they can take any of those. You then repeat it until the stack and all the piles are gone. This format is also very interesting, because you get to know what everyone else has and what they want, even though the first time we played it Luis managed to trick us into thinking he wanted Blue cards when in fact he was Mono Red Aggro (as always).


Lands, again for the lack of a better name, is a format you can play in between rounds no matter how long you have, or pretty much whenever you have a stack of lands in front of you. You shuffle a bunch of basic lands together, you play one land a turn and the first person to get Domain (at least one of each Basic land) in play wins. Each land does a different thing:

Plains draws you a card when you play it.

Mountain destroys a land when you play it.

Swamp makes the opponent discard a card.

Forest Regrowths a land (puts it back from your graveyard to your hand).

Island is Force of Will – you can discard two Islands and counter any of your opponent’s land drops (or their Force of Will). Alternatively, you can play that you need to discard the exact Land you’re countering (so to counter Forest you’d need to pitch Island + Forest).

You start with 5 cards in hand, though you can do variations with 3 or 7 or with any number really.


Mental magic is a great format because it is always different, and it requires a lot of creativity. The idea with Mental Magic is that you have a stack of sorted cards, and then you may play the card you draw as any card with that specific mana cost that is not that card (so a Merchant Scroll can be a Mana Leak or a Time Walk or a Spellstutter Sprite for example, but it cannot be a Merchant Scroll). Newer players might want to limit the format; for example you can only play Standard legal cards. I don’t like Extended much, since I don’t really know by heart everything that is Extended legal, but Legacy Mental Magic works fine.

You can play lands in two ways – the first way is to choose if you want to draw a land that adds any color or a spell every time you draw a card (Abundance style), the second is that you may play any card from your hand face down as a land that adds any color. I like the second way better. Once a card has been played, it cannot be played again (and to make things more interesting, if you play more than one game, I like to keep the restriction to all games together). Lands that you draw can be any land you want, and hybrid cards can be any card with any of the casting costs (so, for example, Kitchen Finks could be Great Sable Stag, Glorious Anthem or Knight of the Reliquary, and any of those cards could be Kitchen Finks).

The problem with mental magic is that you need to define a lot of rules, for example:

– Graveyard – I play without graveyards altogether, so no Flashback, recurring Squee, etc.

– Cycling/Channel – I play that you cannot do anything other than cast a spell, so Kicker and Entwine are OK, but Cycling and Channel are not.

– Tutors – I play without tutors.

– Bounce – once a card has been bounced, then it’s not that card anymore – it goes back to being anything, though you cannot repeat the card. So if you play Merchant Scroll as Spellstutter Sprite and it ends up back in your hand, you can play it as Mana Leak, but not again as Spellstutter Sprite. If a card that you played face-down as a Land is bounced, it’s going to be a Land in your hand – you cannot bounce a Land and play that as a Spell.

– Land Types – I play that there are no land types, though some people play that every land is all types, so that Tsunami and Boil are Armageddons.

You can start with as many cards as you want, though I like to start with less than 7 – 3 for me is a good number. It is also possible to just start with zero cards. The more cards you have in your opening hand, the more time you spend thinking instead of playing, and it increases exponentially – if you have one card, you have to think about what that card would be, but if you have three cards, you have to think about what spell each will be in the context of what the other cards could also be, and it takes much longer. If you play with good people and ban no cards, then it is possible that people just get comboed very early if you start with 7 cards.

If you have less cards, say three or zero, then it changes to a card-advantage match, and you should keep in mind anything that is a two for one. The thing with mental magic is that, when we play tournament Magic, we usually play with cards that have generic effects, because we don’t know what we’re going to face. We know Aura Blast is better at killing Enchantments than Disenchant, but we play Disenchant anyway, because we might want to kill artifacts too. In a mental magic game, this doesn’t happen – you know exactly what you want the card to do, which means you should probably look for the most specific card that you can find that serves that role, because, in general, the more specific a card is the better it will be at doing it. Example of cards to keep in mind that people generally forget are Zap, Slay, Smash, Force Void, Stupor, Aura Blast, all the creatures with come into play abilities – basically, if it’s a two for one, it’s a good play in a low-starting hand mental magic.

5 Seconds Mental Magic

5 Seconds Mental Magic my favorite Mental variant. In this format, you start with zero cards and you have infinite mana. You draw your card and you have 5 seconds to play any spell you think of with that casting cost. If after 5 seconds you cannot think of anything, then the card is removed and you can’t use it anymore. After that, you move on with your turn normally (i.e. you can use abilities and attack). This is interesting because games go pretty fast and you go through cards pretty fast, and you can’t name a card that has been named already. Even if you have a small stack, you just reshuffle them and, because you can’t name the same cards, the game will be totally different.

When you draw multiple cards, you draw all of them and you have 5 seconds to play as many as you can (alternatively you can draw one at a time but that is less fun). When something gets bounced, then you have 5 seconds to replay it as something else, and if it is your opponent’s turn you have to play an instant.

I remember once I watched Gabe and Luis play and on turn 1 Luis drew a card that cost 2W. He played Sacred Mesa and made 1000 tokens. On Gabe’s turn, he had to draw a card that dealt with both the Tokens and the Sacred Mesa (because Luis can just make more guys, he has infinite mana). Gabe drew a card that cost 3U, and in 5 seconds he thought of playing Wash Out, naming White. Then Luis had a 2W card in his hand that he had 5 seconds to play as an instant, and played Aven Mindcensor. Sweet huh?

This variant is the more widely played, but I actually dislike having infinite mana – it makes too many cards auto-wins, such as Flamewave Invoker. I like that you have infinite mana for spells, but there is a maximum value for X (say X = 5), and you can only use abilities once per turn no matter how much they cost (so in the previous example Luis would have been able to play Mesa and make one token, and then another token in Gabe’s turn and so on).

Alphabetical Mental Magic

This is a variant of Mental Magic in which you again have infinite mana, but there is a catch – you again have to play cards with the same casting cost as the card you have, you can only play cards that start with a certain letter. It starts with A, and then every time someone plays a spell with a letter it moves to the next one, and the counter is the same for every person (so if I am A and I play Aven Riftwatcher it goes to B, and then I can keep playing and if I have a 3WW card I can play Baneslayer Angel. You can then use your U spell to play Chain of Vapor on my Baneslayer). At any point, a player may pay one life to move the letter counter by one – so if the current letter is E and I want to cast Giant Growth, I can pay 2 life and move it to G. Once you get to Z, you start over on A.

Mental Magic is never very easy for people who don’t know a lot of cards, but this is the hardest one. It’s also interesting that life totals are really important in this format – if you gain life you have more options, and if you take some of their life away they can also do less stuff. The general good strategy is to just play any dudes you can with the letters and cards you’re given, no matter how bad they are, and then just attack away – life is almost like cards in this format.

Actual Mental Magic

This is a variant taught to me by Sam Black, and it is different than all the other magic variants because you don’t actually need cards. It is very simple – a player starts on turn 1, which means he has 1 mana. You can play any spell that costs 1 or less. You cannot hold cards in hand, and you cannot tutor or use graveyards (though Sam plays you can use graveyard, I like to keep things simple). Then it’s your opponent’s turn, and he gets the same. Next turn you get two mana, and so on. This gets repetitive fast, because even if you ban cards that were already played the strategies are always similar, but it’s fun to play when you are, say, waiting for food in a restaurant, because you don’t actually need anything.

When we played, we found out that the player on the play had a big advantage most of the time. To balance that, someone suggested that the person who went first skipped his first drop (that is, player 1 went “land, go”, player two went “land, 1cc spell” and then player 2 plays his second land and can play a 2 or less cc spell). I’ve never played this variant, but it looks better. Also, a tip: creatures with haste are good.

Well, that’s it. There are of course a lot of different casual formats you can play, but those are the ones I often play with my friends and enjoy the most – all the ones with a Cube are particularly enjoyable. I hope you’ve liked this, and see you next week!

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