Last year a reader sent me a message asking for help with archetype design. He complained that many of his Cube's matches felt like mirror matches, because each deck was just running out generically good cards. In particular, he bemoaned cards like Brimaz, King of Oreskos, Umezawe's Jitte, and planeswalkers—cards that introduced no real constraints or interactions that made decks feel unique.
Today we'll look at how cards like Jitte and Brimaz can harm an environment, and establish some guidelines for designing well integrated yet unique feeling archetypes to your Cube.
Card Quality vs. Card Synergy
At a simplistic level, the source of a Magic deck's power can be placed along an axis with card quality at one end and card synergy on the other. In the current Standard environment, UB Aristocrats would lie very far to the right (weaker cards that combine to great effect), and a deck like Dark Jeskai would fall on the left-half of the spectrum.
In the context of this diagram, the reader's decks sit on the far left side of the spectrum: decks dominated by card quality. He wants to shift them, by some degree, to the right.
We can add synergies to our environment, but they won't actually matter if the most effective strategy is to ignore these synergies and just jam the best cards. To this effect, we need to lower the efficacy of the context-independent powerful cards. By doing so, you give room for your synergies and archetypes to shine.
Do note that a format still needs a certain degree of "good stuff" to function, but it's important to critically evaluate your strong cards and consider whether they are overshadowing or supporting your design goals.
Beyond this, I've found the following guidelines to be useful when developing Cube archetypes.
Guidelines for Archetype Design
1) Make your Cube about something
A "vanilla" Cube shares many qualities with Magic's core sets: functional and fun to play, but perhaps lacking some of the texture and feeling of Magic's expert level sets. If you want to have unique feeling decks and matchups, start by pushing your design space in some directions. It's helpful to write these down explicitly. What themes and subthemes does your Cube support?
2) Tailor your basic effects to your archetypes' needs
With few exceptions, every Cube will comprise many basic effects: counterspells, card draw, removal, ramp, etc.
Look for ways to fill these slots with playable cards that support your themes. For example:
The cards in the first group aren't the uniformly most powerful effects at their slot, but each of them is independently playable while concurrently serving as interaction for themes or subthemes in my Cube. I've built decks that used Sarkhan the Mad to turn Growth Spasm's Spawn token into a Dragon; utilized Satyr Wayfinder to dig for utility lands and fuel delve spells; found Executioner's Capsule with Trinket Mage and Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas; and proliferated creatures, planeswalkers, lands, and artifacts alike with Volt Charge.
3) Test cards for independent playability
Whenever you include a synergy-based card, test whether it can be played outside of its ideal environment.
For example, play Executioner's Capsule in a deck that doesn't care about artifacts. Does it function? Do you feel hamstrung?
Drafters may prefer Doom Blade over Executioner's Capsule, but they'll take and play the latter when that's what's available. And sometimes they'll build an interesting and unique artifact deck that includes Executioner's Capsule. As a designer, you create an environment with its own scarcities. By including synergistic yet functional cards, we allow ourselves to support more themes. Furthermore, we create competing demand for cards among our drafters (yay), and open the possibility for decks that hybridize various mechanics and themes. This makes the drafting environment far more fluid and dynamic.
Let's take a retail example: in my last Battle for Zendikar Sealed pool, I played a 4-color control deck that was filled with converge and awaken cards. But I also had these three lif gain cards:
Each was playable on its own, but sometimes the life gain synergy came together and I swung in with a 4/3 Malakir Familiar. If each of the cards were only playable in a fully dedicated life gain deck, a life gain subtheme would not have been possible.
That's not to say that there's no home in Cube for a few narrower, context dependent cards. I, myself, run Goblin Bombardment. It's important that we limit the density of this type of card, just as Wizards does by printing such effects at uncommon rarity or higher:
4) Eliminate the "leap of faith"
Drafters naturally tend to follow the strength in their packs, and select cards that complement the qualities of their previously selected picks. It's important that your drafters can end up in your archetypes through this process. If a certain deck can only be played when forced, there's a glaring red flag. I encountered this in my early Cube design attempts when trying to support archetypes like Dream Halls and storm, and more recently with my implementation of a life gain archetype.
The archetype's main incentive card was Ajani's Pridemate. A 2/2 for 2 is well below the curve for my Cube's standards, and although the deck had a sufficient win rate when assembled, it was only played when a drafter decided to force it.
When an archetype requires forcing, that's generally an indication that a large proportion of its cards have failed the independent playability test.
5) Include flexible enablers
Primal Command and Plow Under compete for a slot. Although Plow Under is a powerful blunt tool, Primal Command can help define a deck with its flexibility. One of my favorite drafts combined Primeval Titan and Volrath's Stronghold, with Primal Command serving as a key engine piece. It tutored for Primeval Titan while buying time, and sweeping away graveyards and problem permanents.
6) Recognize false synergies
False synergies come in two varieties:
a) The unnecessary synergy: you've decided on a +1/+1 counter theme for you lower-powered Cube, and opt to run Kalonian Hydra for the "synergy." The card is a 2-turn clock on its own. The mostly inconsequential synergy is overshadowed by the overpowered bomb you just put in your environment.
b) The "these don't actually go in the same deck" synergy: 2 cards that synergize on paper, but their function is different enough that they never end up in the same deck. I've been guilty of this on numerous occasions. Fatestitcher was originally conceived as some strange "wrath protection" for Gravecrawlers, but the two were never sleeved up in the same deck.
7) Build the overlap between archetypes
Once you've established a number of archetypes, indulge in the designer-pleasure of finding cards that lie in the intersection of multiple archetypes.
For a retail example, let's look at Mark Rosewater's explanation of a Gatecrash design:
"As an example, Knight Watch was designed specifically because it has a use both for Boros and Orzhov. Boros is trying to reach a threshold of 3 (or get additional creatures to maintain the threshold of 3). For Boros, Knight Watch is a means to get 2 creatures while only using a single card. Orzhov, on the other hand, cares more about slowing down the game. It also has a subtheme of sacrificing creatures. For Orzhov, Knight Watch is a means to help slow down the opponent while also providing more creature fodder.
The end result of making cards that crisscross solutions is that you increase the amount of potential synergy. As a nice side benefit, you also lessen repetition in game play as you allow players more choices in how to customize their strategy."
In my own Cube, one of my favorite inclusions is Innocent Blood. The card works in control (no creatures on board), or in aggro decks that have creatures they want to (or don't mind) sacrificing.
The Power Pyramid
I want to close by talking briefly about design space. Consider Magic's card pool as a pyramid.
On the vertical axis we have the power level of our environment. The cross-section of the pyramid at any given height represents the number of playable cards at that power level. At a high power level, too many cards are simply too inneffectual to make the cut. As we lower the power to "retail draft set," pretty much all the cards and themes from Magic's history become viable. Note that some cards and effects become game-breaking as we lower the overall power level of a set.
When trying to open up new design space, I've had success with two techniques:
a) Breaking singleton
By including a high density of certain effects, you open up certain cards that aren't otherwise very playable. Tuktuk the Explorer isn't played even in the average 720-card Cube, but because I include so many sacrifice effects (thanks to breaking singleton on Birthing Pod and Gravecrawler), it's a pretty great and unique card in my environment.
b) Lowering power level
At a lower power level, you have far more cards at your disposal, allowing you to support themes that might not have had representation at a more traditional Cube's power level.
Note that there's a third option:
c) Designing new cards
This is the approach Wizards of the Coast takes for their new sets, as well as the route taken by Cube designers who work with errata or entirely custom cards. Andy Cooperfauss's Rebel errata is a famous example of this approach. In the context of our pyramid metaphor, this is the equivalent of piling clay onto the side in order to build a balcony. We are creating design space where none existed.
If you have any specific questions, feel free to leave them in the comment section or visit my design forum. As always, thanks for reading!