Periodically I receive questions from readers on various Cube design issues. Below, I tackle one such question, concerning the future of Cubing!
I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on where the Cube community can go as more people sober up from PowerMax. I'm fairly new to the format and it didn't take long at all for me to get sick of winning games with Ancestral Recall. What cool design spaces are out there unexplored for those who want to do interesting things to their format?
Once you set your power level to an arbitrary mark, you can basically play whatever cards you want. How can we balance this with the "fun" of playing with powerful effects versus the potential blandness of traditionally "bad" cards? Is there a potential Cube out there full of only interesting, "bad" cards?
This is a pretty loaded question with a lot to unpack. Let's lead with a meandering rant:
The predominate method of Cube design is to power maximize under the singleton constraint, including only a single copy of each card. If we think of design space as a physical space, these constraints push us against the parameters, and there's no inherent argument as to why the fun maximum should occur on the boundary. However, the “singleton power maximization” space is well defined, with relatively clear metrics as to whether a decision is “correct” or not.
Mathematically speaking, singleton Cubes are a subset of the set of Cubes with no singleton restriction. If I'm seeking to make the most fun Cube possible with no restrictions, and singleton Cubes are more fun, then it follows that I'll converge to a singleton Cube as I iterate my design. People who make slippery slope arguments against breaking singleton (e.g. "why not include 20 copies of Black Lotus") are considering the wrong slope: as game designers, we should seek to maximize fun, not power. Games like Chess, Starcraft, and Street Fighter work not because the pieces in each game are power maximized, but because the array of options at the players' disposal create an enjoyable maximization exercise for the player.
That said, even the approach of unique "fun maximization" is flawed at its core. Is Innistrad more fun than Rise of the Eldrazi? Does it matter? I think there is a tendency for Cube designers to view their Cube as a singular "best draft set ever," which can be detrimental to design as people may be less inclined to experiment.
Further, different people will always be looking for something different out of the experience. If you've been grinding away at PTQs and scrapping for every inch, it can be refreshing to throw your hands up and hope that your deck manages to Tinker into Blightsteel.
There's a temptation to say "restrictions breed creativity" to justify a narrow design space, and to that end I'd say the proof is in the pudding. Most singleton power-maximized Cubes aren't that creative. The restrictions that Mark Rosewater often alludes to are things like, "I need a card that can support both Orzhov and Boros." I've been there myself, and when looking for cards that support both Zombies and Birthing Pod, had to go pretty deep into the creative tank.
Still, one could argue that even the restriction of using existing Magic cards limits the scope of the design. Cube designers like Andy Cooperfauss or Chris Taylor use errata'd or entirely new cards to great effect, and Justin Parnell's Custom Cube showcased some of the things you can do when you escape the mantle of Wizards' card pool.
Regardless of the arguments for or against various restrictions (custom cards lack nostalgia, increase the barrier to player entry to an already complex format), I do see the appeal in some of restrictions. It's fun as a designer to pound away at a well-defined problem. I abandon singleton, but use only official cards.
As a Cube designer, making new archetypes work well (both in terms of power level and design integration) with existing cards at a traditional Cube power level is my holy grail. It's immensely satisfying to "solve the puzzle" if you will, to spend hours running queries on Gatherer, to develop an archetype that others can adopt and integrate into their own Cubes. Part of the appeal in working in this environment is that there is a sense of community. Most Cubes exist around the same power level, and collaborating or sharing new ideas is relatively easy.
Lastly, I'd urge players to consider whether their creativity even translates to better gameplay for your players. Creativity is a means to and end, not an end unto itself. Certain restrictions may breed creativity, but even then there's no guarantee that said creativity leads to fun. A local player built one of the most creative Cubes I've ever seen, but it was scrapped after just two drafts because the gameplay was atrocious.
As for new directions to take Cubing, I'd offer my own two Cubes as examples. The first is my primary Cube, which started as a fairly generic Cube that I've modified to carve out new archetypes and ideas. Through use of multiple copies of cards like Gravecrawler and Birthing Pod, new and unique strategies open up. Some of the best feedback I've received from players is that archetypes like Gravecrawler Zombies are exhilarating to play both with and against.
In an entirely different direction my Eldrazi Domain Cube seeks to build a WotC-style draft environment from the ground up, with overlapping archetype and mechanical support. That Cube is filled to the brim with absurd interlocking ideas, including Eldrazi ramp, morbid, Elementals, multicolor matters, and proliferation.
[draft]Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre
Nest Invader Brimstone Volley
I think this direction holds the most untapped potential, as there are countless ways to mix and match the various themes and mechanic's of Magic's cardpool. Let your imagination guide you!
However, what most surprised me is that, although the Eldrazi Domain Cube is a blast to draft and creates really memorable games, I find my primary Cube more fun to play in large part due to its higher power level. I didn't expect that.
In my main Cube, people are in the tank all the time. There are tons of decisions to be made from turn 1 on, and it's no coincidence that the Pro Tour player in our play group always goes 2-1 or better. While I don't think the Eldrazi Domain Cube is a bad environment by any means, making it taught me a lot about a concept we rarely talk about in Cube design: decision density.
Let's sidetrack and take a look at some opening hands from an LSV Rise of Eldrazi draft.
This was a hand from a relatively strong deck in a format that most regard as one of the best ever made. Yet, this game doesn't promise to have a lot of play to it. Part of the reason is that the cards are so expensive, mana wise. The higher your curve, the less the cards in your hand compete with each other for casting opportunities. With a low curve, you have to decide which spell to play each turn. With a more stretched-out curve, that decision may be made for you.
It happens that, over the course of a regular Limited game, that the player makes no meaningful gameplay decisions. Next time you watch a draft video, after each game, ask yourself, "did the player's choices really affect the course of the game?" Some games just play themselves. Another hand:
Interaction! With this hand, the game could be won or lost based on when and where the player decides to point their removal. And while there are some cheaper spells here, the cards aren't actually powerful enough to place the opponent under any pressure. Here we get a sense of the importance of absolute power level. Players start with 20 life. You simply won't be able to place enough pressure on your opponent if you pack your deck full of inefficient cheap threats like Goblin Arsonist and Glory Seeker, as they can simply stabilize with more expensive cards before dying.
The low power level of the environment forces players to play a higher curve, thereby reducing the decision density.
For a ridiculous comparison, let's look at the other end of the spectrum, a sample hand from Owen Turtenwald's recent Legacy UWR Delver Daily Event:
Swords to Plowshares
Force of Will[/draft]
This hand has it all: interaction, decisions, competing mana costs, and a threat that can take over the game on its own if left in check. The hand doesn't win on its own, but instead depends highly on the decisions of its pilot.
Contributors to Decision Density - A non-comprehensive list:
Low CMC curves increase the likelihood that you will have to make decisions about how to sequence your spells.
The following Cube decks were chock full of fun sequencing decisions:
Every removal spell involves a choice: when do I cast it, and what do I point it at? The more removal we can pack into our environment, the more we contribute to interactivity and decision density.
However, the following reality exists: cheap removal is inherently anti-aggro. Traditionally, the way to contain this is by limiting the quantity of removal in our draft environments. Most beatdown decks won't be able to best a deck consisting of, say, 22 Terminates and a Sphinx of Jwar Isle.
The corrolary here is that, the stronger we make aggro in our Cubes, the more removal we can afford to run in our environment. It's no coincidence that my primary Cube is one of the most aggressive and most interactive Cubes out there.
Lands that Do Things
Despite the clunkiness, the biggest upside to the Utility Land Draft is that the lands greatly increase your game's decision density.
Ghost of Cubing with Less Power
There are large swaths of unexplored design space out there, but exploring them generally requires either lowering power level or breaking singleton (or both). While I don't think that power maximization is the best route, I do think there are merits to designing for Magic to be played at a high power level.
When designing a Cube that had a Spawn-token ramp archetype, there were a number of considerations. The environment had to be slowed down, so that aggro decks couldn't just run over the ramp decks. The curves had to be stretched. Removal was added carefully.
Further, although this hasn't been true, Wizards has in recent years been very conscious to make sure that there's some positive correlation between power level and fun. Miserable cards like Black Vise are largely a thing of the past, and although the occasional game-ruining garbage like True-Name Nemesis slips through the development cracks, by and large the cards that comprise the upper echelons of modern Magic are well designed and enjoyable to play with. It's central to the business model.
Regardless of your power level, it's important to consider whether the cards you're including contribute to the experience you are trying to craft. Context is everything, and a card like Pack Rat can be harmless in one environment (say, Cube or Constructed) and miserable in another (Return to Ravnica Limited). I'm not trying to dissuade anyone from designing a lower power level Cube, but be aware that you likely face a trade-off between the uniqueness and novelty of the experience, and the decision density of the games themselves.
Ghost of Cubing with More Power
The problems of low decision density aren't isolated to low power Cubes. The last time I played a Powered Cube, the owner said:
"If we could, we'd outsource the games."
After playing his Cube, I understood the sentiment. Drafting was fun (when isn't it?), but the games his environment produced were broken and unsatisfying. This is almost entirely due to the gross imbalance of threats and answers in a power-maximized, singleton cardpool.
I do think it is possible to design a Vintage-style Cube with multiple sets of power and heavily interactive skill-testing games, but it would be an immense design task that requires liberally breaking singleton and countless hours of testing and tuning. I've seen Vintage decks that, despite being otherwise singleton, still run a playset of Force of Will, which should be a point in the right direction.
If I were approaching such a task, I would question whether certain Cube conventions, such as equal color representation, need to be present, and really build the environment from the ground up with gameplay in mind.
Ghost of Cubing with Equal Power
The design space at the "standard" Cube power level is by no means fully explored, and designers are out there trying to make archetypes and themes like double strike, spells matter, and life gain work in new and interesting ways. I think the challenge here is not only to make said strategies sufficiently powerful, but to figure out how to integrate the design with the other elements of your Cube in a way that doesn't violate the Poison Principle.
As the Cube community continues to pour hours of work into designing and tuning archetype packages, Cubes will increasingly diversify as designers mix-and-match existing ideas to create their own concoctions. There are a number of archetypes my Cube doesn't explicitly support (tokens, reanimation, and artifacts, to name a few), but as the months pass I swap things around to reconfigure and keep things fresh for myself and the players.
If you have a question you'd like to see addressed, feel free to leave it in the comments, or send me a PM directly on my Cube forums.
Join me next time, as I go deep into the tank trying to introduce a brand new archetype to my primary Cube!
Jason's Cube Draft Forums - http://riptidelab.com/forum/