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Cube Design – Remodeling, Part One

Last time, I discussed two groups of isolated archetypes. First were archetypes like storm combo that rely almost entirely on mechanically isolated cards that have little value elsewhere. I spent much of my early Cube design trying to make archetypes like storm, Eldrazi, and Dream Halls work, to the detriment of my environment. Fortunately, these particular puzzles were ultimately quite easy to solve—just cut the archetypes entirely.

The next temptation was to make my design as flexible as possible. “Every card should fit in multiple archetypes” was my misguided mantra. Indeed, the resulting environment was flexible, but it was missing something. The decks were fairly generic, and the design lacked the spice that defines retail Limited environments. In search for an answer, I came across Zac Hill’s Innistrad development notes:

“[M]ost Limited formats improve when they’re given direction.”

Zac proceeds to describe how the team built in structured strategies like the [card]Spider Spawning[/card] and [card]Burning Vengeance[/card] archetypes. These strategies were unique without being isolated, tying to the sets abundance of graveyard and flashback effects. Innistrad‘s design arguably produced Magic’s most successful Limited environment to date, and was achieved through methods that represent the antithesis of many common Cube design principles.

“One of the most frequent comments we hear about Innistrad is that such a high percentage of the cards are playable under the correct circumstances. We’re happy that worked out—but one of the ways we made it work involves something a lot of players don’t like in their gut. We weakened the context-independent power-level of your average card, so you’re forced to look for synergies to recoup that power discrepancy. It’s asking our players to make a little bit of a cognitive leap, but Magic’s audience is very smart and we felt the risks were worth the rewards.” (Emphasis mine)
Zac Hill

A Change in Philosophy

Throughout my articles, I’ve been gradually proposing a paradigm shift in the way we think about Cube design. Cubes are often billed as a celebration of Magic’s most powerful cards, but what if we treated it as a celebration of the game’s best design principles?

The more I studied great Limited environments like Innistrad and Rise of the Eldrazi, the more I came to see the shortcomings of my own design. My Cube’s overall focus on selecting cards for their context-independent power levels often precluded the inclusion of cards and archetypes that have a greater focus on synergy. I could push cute interactions all I wanted, but it wouldn’t change anything if the best way to win games was to just slam [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card] or some other mindless bomb on the table.

The next problem was that I really wasn’t committing to any mechanical space. Fun strategies like [card]Spider Spawning[/card] work at a design level because they are woven into the fabric of what the set is already doing. To push synergy-focused cards, I needed to really commit and hit a critical mass of cards that reward said synergies.

Concretely speaking, say I wanted to include a card like [card]Carrion Feeder[/card]. For players to actually include [card]Carrion Feeder[/card] in their final 40, we need a sufficient density of cards to reward the player for playing a synergistic 1/1 over a vanilla 2/2. Like Innistrad‘s graveyard theme and Rise of the Eldrazi‘s Spawn token theme, my set would need an emphasis on creatures that like to be sacrificed or effects that reward you for sacrificing permanents.

Naturally, most of Magic’s context-independent, high-power cards don’t fit the bill. To push our set in this direction, we’ll need to dig a little deeper into the card pool. To make room, some of the Cube staples are coming out.

That’s a good thing. They’ll be back—someday.

In the world of Cube design, there’s an unusually high focus on semi-static design, where the main driver in change is the release of more powerful cards with a new set. Greg Hatch once said the “MTGO Cube isn’t perfect, but it’s about 30 cards away from being perfect.”

This type of statement might seem sensible in the context of power-maximization, but let’s imagine it in another context. In the recent “Rosewater Rumble,” a Twitter-based contest to determine the greatest Rosewater-designed set of all time, Innistrad beat Ravnica in the finals. There are no cards that are in both sets. Is Ravnica 264 cards away from being the perfect set? These two sets have nothing to do with each other, but they both still produce incredible games of Magic.

One of Magic’s greatest qualities is that it explores so much diversity of design. We can enjoy playing in one mechanical space this year and enjoy a completely different environment the next. For all the diversity Magic has to offer, Cube design resides in some fairly conservative design space. Aggro, midrange, and control decks play similarly from Cube to Cube, year to year. Perhaps this is the natural product of singleton power-maximization.

Whatever the reason, there’s a large swath of unexplored design territory out there. It’s time to go exploring.

Overhaul Overview

Going into my Cube overhaul, I had the following goals:
• Give my design more direction.
• Design in a way that rewards drafters for pursuing synergies over raw card power.
• Layer my archetypes to avoid mechanical isolation.
• Increase the number of cross-color synergies.

After some time at the drawing board, I introduced the following themes:
• Zombies (recursive aggro)
• Multiple [card]Birthing Pod[/card]s
• Sacrifice effects
• [card]Threaten[/card] effects
• Creatures that like to be sacrificed

All told, this wave of changes resulted in a 60-card change to my Cube’s list. There’s a lot of ground to cover, so I’ve broken the discussion into two articles. In this article, I’ll give a bird’s-eye view of the changes and rationale behind the various themes introduced. In part 2, I’ll discuss in depth the card choices that make the design a reality.

The original impetus for this wave of changes was a general dissatisfaction with black aggro, which has traditionally been both underpowered and underwhelming. Beyond hand disruption, black stacked up poorly with the other colors. Red has reach and speed, white hits harder and with more evasion, blue pairs evasion with tremendous tempo spells.

[draft]Gravecrawler
Bloodghast
Carrion Feeder[/draft]

The idea is to give black reach in the form of recursion, using multiples of [card]Gravecrawler[/card], [card]Bloodghast[/card], and [card]Carrion Feeder[/card] as the core of the revision. Having a critical mass of these creatures gives us a foundation that enables the inclusion of cards with synergistic effects that otherwise wouldn’t see play in a regular Cube. Naturally, [card]Bloodghast[/card] pairs with my high density of fetchlands in the presence of cards that reward you for sacrificing creatures.

[card]Gravecrawler[/card] synergizes with itself and other Zombies. The key to the design, however, is to limit the number of Zombies available within black, and sprinkle Zombie and synergistic cards across the other four colors. We’re not aiming to create a mono-black Zombie deck, but to give drafters incentives to pair black aggressive creatures with each of the other colors.

In order to open up the space for these archetypes I’ve cut, among other things, the Reanimator package. It may return down the line when I pursue another Cube configuration. This is fairly analogous to Magic’s designers setting aside an idea, card, or mechanic for future use in order to improve and focus their current design.

With Reanimator out of the picture, I looked for another “combo/engine” deck for green to support. Enter [card]Birthing Pod[/card].

[draft]Birthing Pod
Birthing Pod
Birthing Pod
Birthing Pod[/draft]

[card]Birthing Pod[/card] does a fantastic job of highlighting the limitations of the singleton format. Under singleton, we’re limited to building archetypes around the sorts of effects that have been printed several times throughout Magic’s history. Cards like rituals, big ramp, or spells that return a creature from the graveyard to the battlefield. Sure, better, more interactive archetype cards might exist, but with the singleton restriction they don’t reach the critical mass needed.

In fact, many of you may have been disappointed by [card]Birthing Pod[/card] in Cube. When you have access to only a single copy, it’s really not worth building your entire deck around the card. Without a deck built around [card]Birthing Pod[/card], the card can under-perform or get left out entirely. Give a player multiple copies, however, and we break out of this catch-22.

As Constructed environments have demonstrated, there are a wide variety of potential builds and applications for a card like Birthing Pod. Any color combination can field a viable Pod deck, and Pod decks are surprisingly diverse from draft to draft. There are your garden variety Bant Pod builds, and more exotic variants like Zombie Pod, Tezzeret Pod, and even fairly aggressive Pod decks.

Birthing Pod is a super flexible build-around, and best of all the required components are already abundantly available. All Birthing Pod needs is creatures! Moreover, many of Birthing Pod’s best creatures, like [card]Blade Splicer[/card] and [card]Kitchen Finks[/card], are already in high demand by the other drafters, so the drafting experience remains interactive.

[card]Birthing Pod[/card] decks hit that perfect mix of providing a unique gameplay experience while still leaving your opponent with options to interfere with your gameplan. As your deck is still fundamentally a regular-sized creature deck, your opponent’s cards are still live against you. Birthing Pod’s interactivity in both drafting and gameplay compares favorably to archetypes like storm, Reanimator, and Eldrazi.

Most importantly, Birthing Pod decks have been a blast to draft and play. Pod drafters must carefully consider their curve, and are rewarded for building CMC chains with synergistic interactions, as well as drafting answers-on-a-stick that can be tutored up.

In my first match with a Jund Pod draft deck, I pulled off the following sequence:

Sacrifice [card]Murderous Redcap[/card] to [card]Birthing Pod[/card], fetching [card]Zealous Conscripts[/card].

Untap the pod with Conscripts, sacrifice the Conscripts to get [card]Mikaeus, the Unhallowed[/card].

Play [card]Carrion Feeder[/card], sacrifice [card]Murderous Redcap[/card] infinite times for the win.

[draft]Birthing Pod
Carrion Feeder
Murderous Redcap
Zealous Conscripts
Mikaeus, the Unhallowed[/draft]

Birthing Pod can pretty effectively slip into most any Cube list without too much design effort, but there are always ways to build in more Pod interactions. Cards like [card]Pestermite[/card] are an example of useful Pod targets that provide value in another archetype.

Sacrifice Effects

In addition to having Zombies in various colors, another way to layer the archetypes is to provide useful sacrifice outlets in other colors as well. I’ll cover the full range of sacrifice effects in detail in the next article, but to give an example we’re looking at cards like [card]Goblin Bombardment[/card]. [card]Goblin Bombardment[/card] is pretty weak in isolation, but can quickly become a powerhouse in the right context.

Now, obviously we’re starting to tread dangerously close to Sam Black’s Legacy Zombies deck in design here. The point is not to just bury his deck within our draft pool and call it a day, but to find other layers for these interactions. Specifically, my goal is to create an environment where players are using sacrifice effects even if they don’t have [card]Bloodghast[/card] or [card]Gravecrawler[/card] in their deck.

The key link was to include a handful of [card]Threaten[/card] effects in my Cube list. Threaten and its variants are already fairly strong in a creature-centric environment like Cube, and are perhaps a bit underrated already. With an abundance of sacrifice outlets, their utility spikes tremendously. Stealing your opponents largest creature and sacrificing it for value post-combat turns out to be an immensely satisfying play.

Lastly, we round out the list of changes by adding to our environment creatures that like to be sacrificed. [card]Tuktuk the Explorer[/card] and [card]Perilous Myr[/card] come to mind as prime examples.

Layering and Crisscrossing

“You start with the core of your set. You then find the dependencies that the core creates. As you solve those dependencies, you build in new dependencies based upon the solutions to the initial dependencies. Thus, you create a shell of layered dependencies.

Once you have a bunch of working solutions, the next step is to try and solve problems with cards made for other problems. As you get better with this, you will find that you start designing cards from scratch to address two different dependencies at once[…]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.”
Mark Rosewater

Many of the changes I’ve introduced are layered together and can be used in combination with each other. The key to pulling it all together is in execution. This is the fun part. Once you have the shell of your set established, you start looking for ways to tie the elements of your design together.

Although we aren’t designing new cards, we can find cards that fill multiple needs of our design. Often this involves hours of scouring Gatherer for ideas, but the rewards are worth the investment. My most joyful moment as a Cube designer was rediscovering this card:

[draft]Fatestitcher[/draft]

The innocuous [card]Fatestitcher[/card]. At first glance, it’s simply a random blue Zombie to pair with [card]Gravecrawler[/card]. Then we notice that its unearth ability allows us to restart [card]Gravecrawler[/card] chains after a board wipe, enabling the Zombie player to over-commit. But I wouldn’t be excited for those reasons alone.

The joy comes from discovering that [card]Fatestitcher[/card] is an all-star in Birthing Pod decks! Picture this: you untap with Pod, Fatestitcher, and another creature. You can sacrifice the other creature to Pod, untap Pod, sacrifice Fatestitcher for a 5-drop, unearth Fatestitcher untapping Pod, sacrifice Fatestitcher again for another 5-drop. Three Pod activations in a single turn! Or just keep Fatestitcher alive for two activations every turn.

This is where you make your mark as a designer. Once you give your set some direction, you’ll start to find cards and strategies that bring texture and personality to your environment. Fatestitcher might not be right for any other Cube list, but it’s practically tailor-made for my current list.

Execution

“Magic design, like almost all creative ventures, is all about the execution. Many of the best ideas sound thin on paper, but when executed correctly transform into something beautiful.”
Mark Rosewater

As always, the devil is in the details. Join me next week, where I discuss the specific cards that pull the set together, as well as a comprehensive list of the cards added and cut during this overhaul.

In the meantime, if you’re looking to talk shop or find my current list, I organize a Cube discussion group here.

Jason’s Cube Discussion Group: The Riptide Laboratory

Discussion

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