Size Matters

The classic debate about Cube size has largely (and rightfully) been given a “to each his own” resolution. Each side has its pros and cons with their own appeal, but humor me while I resurrect the debate in search of finding a solution that combines the best of both worlds. A solution that is original, undoubtedly impractical for most, but also a little bit wonderful.

For the sake of establishing an easy dichotomy, let’s break the argument into small Cubes (e.g. 360 cards) and large Cubes (e.g. 720 cards). When I first started Cubing, the main draw, aside from the allure of repeatable free drafting, was cards. Specifically, I remember thinking to myself how much I wanted to play a deck that had Garruk Wildspeaker in it. Most of my Standard collection was tied up in the colors blue, white, and red, and I’d never been fortunate enough to crack a Garruk in draft.

My Cube started small, but as it grew from 360 cards to 450 cards and beyond, the Cube experience became unwieldy. I had a diminishing feeling of control over the environment, and because of my then-use of a singleton rule, I found it difficult to build a balanced pool of cards. The depth of control and midrange cards exceeded their aggro counterparts.

I cut back to 360 and felt the improvement overnight. Over time, however, doubts crept in. There were elements of the larger Cube I missed. First and foremost, I missed cards. Sweet new planeswalkers like Jace, Architect of Thought and Domri Rade simply didn’t have a home in my 360, even if they did find work freelancing in my Eldrazi Domain Cube.

Secondly, I missed variance. In large Cubes or retail draft sets, you see players throw together outrageous decks from time to time because the combination of cards present in the draft came together just right.

Thirdly, I missed granularity. In a 720-card Cube, each card you include only constitutes half a “slot” in the average draft. Although I’ve really enjoyed running multiples of cards like Birthing Pod and Gravecrawler, the choices of running either 3.0 or 4.0 of a given card sometimes feel stifling. I couldn’t shake the feeling that some drafts I wanted 3 Birthing Pods in the pool, and 4 in others. And I didn’t want to know beforehand which was the case.

As I’ve moved the bulk of my Cube hosting from offline to online (the logistics of which are a separate discussion), I briefly flirted with the idea of running an online 720 Cube. This Cube could have, say, 7 Birthing Pods, for an average of 3.5 per draft. I’d have room for the aforementioned friends Jace, Architect of Thought and Domri Rade.

Naturally, this solution had its own problems. Did I really want drafts that had, 5, 6, or heaven forbid 7 Birthing Pods in the pool? More problematically, the variance in the lands present in each draft presented potential nightmares.

Historically in my 360-card Cubes I’ve run a mana-base that consists of:

20 Fetchlands
10 Dual Lands
10 Shocklands

Doubling down on fetchlands has done more to improve the quality of my draft environment than any other change. In addition to the wide range of interactions the cards have, fetchlands produce huge competing demand for cards, which is great in a draft environment. To review an old article:

Two-color decks can use 70% of fetchlands.
Three-color decks can use 90% of fetchlands.
Four-color decks can use 100% of fetchlands.

Two-color decks can use 10% of shocklands.
Three-color decks can use 30% of shocklands.
Four-color decks can use 60% of shocklands.

Among other things, the setup allows players many opportunities for turn-1 mana fixing. A savvy two-color aggro player that picks up a shockland and four or so fetchlands can really hit the ground running. We even open up the possibility for competitive three- and four-color attacking decks.

Naturally, this approach requires there to be something to fetch. Without picking up a correspondingshockland or dual land, that player would be up a creek. This hasn’t been a problem in my 360-card Cube, but in a 720-card environment that becomes a real issue. If I wanted to run, say:

40 fetchlands
20 dual lands
20 shocklands

Then we have 4 mana producing lands for each guild (2 shocklands and 2 dual lands). But in any given draft, each guild has about a 31% chance of only having 1 or fewer mana producing lands in a 360-card draft. This is a huge problem!

Not all variance is good variance. Here, we’d want a solution where some elements of our Cube were fixed and others are variable.

Enter the polyCube (working title).

Rather than run a Cube with a fixed number of cards, I now run a Cube with 360 slots. Let’s start with a picture.

This is my current gold section. Each “slot” is a row with a variable number of columns. For each draft I run a script that samples one card from each row to form the draft pool from the day. Every draft is different.

If you ignore the practicality concerns, this approach is full of upsides. No longer do I need to agonize over unimportant decisions like Abrupt Decay versus Maelstrom Pulse. They’re both fun and at an appropriate power level, let’s toss them in. Three-color cards never seemed worth the design space in my old arrangement, but tossing in five or seven tricolor cards into a single slot? Sure, I’ll say hello to Doran every now and then.

I never had room for Vraska before, but now? Sure, give her a partial slot. My polyCube runs a gamut of two dozen or so planeswalkers, even if each draft will only see somewhere in the ballpark of 13. We take the good variance without the bad.

We can rotate through control finishers and aggro beaters while keeping more unique synergy cards like Life from the Loam and Restoration Angel fixed. For comparison, my land section:

polyLands

Currently I have in the ballpark of 540 cards filling out a Cube that plays with the tightness and control of its 360-card cousins. Next article I’ll show the polyCube in action with a full draft report. The quality of game play it’s producing is really top notch.

Now, I’m not so obtuse as to believe that this approach will see further adoption in the Cube community. I remember years ago Thea Steele wrote a Cube article about the growing concern of planeswalker creep. She wanted to play with all the sweet ‘walkers, but didn’t want more than five in a draft. Her solution was to create five planeswalker “slots,” and randomly draw five from her collection to use each draft.

I never implemented her solution, but it’s been rattling around my brain for years and assuredly influenced this approach. I’m perpetually seeking new sources of inspiration and original ways to think about design, ideas to plant a seed in my mind. Maybe one day you run a large Cube with 40 fixed land slots. Maybe you use a sticker system for sorting which cards should be in every draft and which should be shuffled and dealt each time. Perhaps the idea takes root in another project entirely.

Maybe it lies dormant forever. Let’s close with something more mainstream.

Swords of X and Y

“Valar morghulis.”

All men must die. All games must end.

In all my years, I’ve never had a friend recommend a game to me on the grounds of being “really powerful” or “really balanced.” They’ve always sold games on the grounds of being really fun.

As designers, ending a game is trivial. Even if the players are abandoning the table in frustration, their game is functionally over. Our task is to be the heralds of fun.

Swords give me mixed feelings. As fond as my memories of dueling in Caw Blade mirrors are, the Swords’ impact on Cube games more often than not leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I’ve seen too many otherwise competitive Magic games be ruined by a Sword that incidentally happened to produce the optimal colors of protection.

Protection from colors is an element that can play very well in Constructed environments, where players are forced to build their deck around the presence of given cards the format. Cards like Skylasher and Chameleon Colossus are printed with target metagames in mind, and shape the environment accordingly.

None of these really apply to a Limited environment. I have no desire to discourage players from building enemy color-pair decks. Regardless, the most appropriate argument I can mount against the mass-inclusion of Swords is this:

From participating in and observing hundreds of matches played with my Cube and others, games ended by Swords have been less compelling and less fun than games ended by other means.

A mindset that has helped me in my Cube development is to imagine that Magic as we know it doesn’t exist. You’re in charge of producing a draft game that is functionally the same as what we know as a Cube. One of your designers brings you a fresh idea. “Should we put this in the game?” The card doesn’t exist, it’s just an idea, with no history. You ask yourself, “does this card make my game better?”

The question is inherently subjective, but from where I’m standing, that answer is no. Where do you fall?

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