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Cube Design – The Poison Principle

The opinions of players who dislike Cube can be some of the most instructive for a Cube designer. With alarming frequency, I speak to players who tell me they drafted Cube online a couple of times and decided the format was not for them. The truth is, Cube design is very much in its infancy, and many of the complaints players levy against the format can be remedied.

Today I turn my attention to a complaint made by an old friend of mine:

“One of the things I dislike about Cube drafting is that you have one person drafting one archetype, one person drafting another archetype, and there’s very little overlap between them.”

His only exposure to Cube drafting was the Magic Online Cube, which strips the format down to its barest elements. The online drafting experience lacks the camaraderie of passing packs with a group of friends. Online, there’s just your picks, deck construction, and matches. Your basic Limited environment. Naturally, he evaluated it as one.

His complaint struck at the core of the drafting experience. Fundamentally, a draft is an interactive deckbuilding exercise. Unfortunately, in his eyes, the interactivity was lacking.

Setting aside the validity of the assertion, the sentiment is that the cards supporting various archetypes have very little overlap. In recent memory, Scars of Mirrodin drafting took the concept of disjoint archetypes to the extreme. Scars was home to a real all-or-nothing archetype—infect. It wasn’t difficult to tell what cards belong to your archetype, and there often wasn’t a lot of subtlety in the picks. The main determining factor to your deck’s strength came down to one thing: how many other people at the table are drafting infect?

Although there’s an argument that the infect mechanic successfully drove home the theme and flavor of the block, as a player I found the dynamic rather frustrating. There was no halfway with infect. If you started off on an infect deck and discovered around pick four or five that you were being cut from the archetype, what were your options? Where could you transition to? Metalcraft? Dinosaurs? Your infect creatures were beyond useless in other decks. At that point, you either jumped ship to another archetype, or resigned yourself to presenting an underpowered infect deck.

Limited Examples

In general, design goals for a Cube are less restrictive than design goals for a retail Limited environment. Blocks must create an environment that is both mechanically and flavorfully interesting. Flavor sometimes pushes sets into mechanically tricky territory, and even then cohesiveness is the goal. Even when trying to create flavorfully distinct factions, Limited design suffers when the mechanics and archetypes cannot be mixed and matched. 

The Esper shard of Shards of Alara block was an acknowledged shortcoming, as its “artifacts matters” theme had little mechanical overlap with the adjacent shards:

“As the lead designer of the Esper shard, my biggest regret was that the shard isolated itself so much mechanically from the shards around it.  [I]f we force subsets upon the public we have to make sure there are synergies between those subsets. The design has to work at the service of what the block is doing. Our biggest mistakes came in places where we weren’t serving the block as well as we should.” (Emphasis mine.)
– Mark Rosewater

More recently, Wizards attempted a poorly received mono-black “loner” theme in Avacyn Restored which was actively anti-synergistic with the set’s primary soulbond mechanic.

“The second problem was the decision to make the bad guys go the opposite direction of the good guys. Since the good guys team up, the bad guys had a loner theme. I think we pushed the loner theme a little too hard, which made it hard to play black.
The big lesson for me was that design has to be very careful in what we’re asking for. Development can make players do what we ask by putting the power of the set in the proper place, but we have to be careful that we don’t ask for something that’s fundamentally going to shift the game away from its core.”
(Emphasis mine.)
– Mark Rosewater

Tying it to Cube

The problem with mechanical isolation is that the more you load up on cards that support a single archetype but have no utility in others, the less interactive your draft environment becomes. For the sake of hyperbole, let’s take this idea to its extreme.

We could, for example, make a Cube that simply contains 8 Legacy combo decks, and shuffle them together for a draft. We’d have Elves, Dredge, Show and Tell, 12 Post, Storm. Maybe we’d even sprinkle in Modern combos like Eggs and Melira Pod. Each player could draft their combo deck, each hoping nobody else was cutting them from their specific archetype. Drafting would be a little silly and mostly non-interactive, boiling down to identifying which card in the pack goes in your deck and snagging it. Moreover, there wouldn’t be much variability in each archetype’s decks from draft to draft, as we would lack the “mixing and matching” aspect that underpins traditional drafting.

Although Cube design doesn’t take things to the ridiculous extremes of our theoretical Legacy combo Cube, mechanical isolation still permeates many designs. We’ve seen the Magic Online Cube push archetypes like Storm and Eldrazi ramp, which both rely on a very high density of cards that have next to no utility outside of very specific builds. The Eldrazi, for example, are simply uncastable in a regular control shell, and certainly can’t be reanimated.

Now, complaints about these archetypes are nothing new, so I won’t spend much space rehashing the arguments. However, it should be noted that there are two types of mechanical isolation present. The first is mechanical isolation in drafting. Archetypes like Esper, infect, and the black loner theme were all isolated in drafting, but in gameplay still very much interacted with their respective format’s decks. Each of these decks were playing “attack-and-defend Magic.”

Then we have another subset: archetypes that are isolated in drafting and gameplay. Storm and Eldrazi ramp fall more in this category. These sorts of decks have a habit of producing atrociously bad games of Magic, where the players simply frequently can’t interact in any meaningful way, especially considering the relatively low density of counterspells and hand disruption in most Cube environments. Most decks simply can’t be built to deal with an early 15/15 monster or a string of 10 spells in a single turn.

It’s for this reason that when Wizards wants to explore unconventional mechanical space with their sets, they make their sets about that mechanic. Blocks set on Mirrodin are packed with varying ways to interact with artifacts, so that the games can still be interactive and engaging even in the presence of high-powered artifacts. Formats are designed with modes of interaction in mind.

Notice though, that everything hinges on context. It’s very well possible that one could design a set wherein massive Eldrazi or Storm decks are not mechanically isolated. It would have to be an environment really dedicated to providing an interesting home for these strategies. But when you hand your players [card]Frenzied Goblin[/card] and [card]Emrakul, the Aeons Torn[/card] in the same pack, I wouldn’t expect great results.

The Poison Principle

This leaves us with what I’ll call the “Poison Principle”: the more isolated an archetype is from the rest of your draft environment:

1) The more focused decks of that archetype need to be in order to be successful.
2) The less other decks will want to include cards of that archetype.

These are both fairly straightforward, but it’s important to be aware of the repercussions. Extreme mechanical isolation runs the risk of feeling very “fetch-questy.” If I am drafting something like storm in a regular cube, I’m just on lookout for the storm support cards the designer has seeded into the drafting pool. Further, I generally won’t even have to fight the other players at the table for these cards. At least infect had you fighting the other infect drafters at the table for cards.

The Poison Principle, of course, exists on a spectrum. At the far end we have the aforementioned infect and storm archetypes that really want you to be all-in or all-out. Then we have varying degrees in the middle. Return to Ravnica‘s Selesnya guild, for example, relied on a somewhat isolated populate mechanic. Of all the keywords, populate most encouraged you to build a focused deck around the mechanic. In Gatecrash, Wizards cleverly tied Dimir’s milling strategy to combat damage triggers to reduce the strategy’s mechanical isolation.

The Mono-Red Conundrum

Once you start digging into it, you see that the Poison Principle applies to Cube design far beyond gimmick archetypes like storm and super-ramp.

Take, for example, red aggro. In a recent podcast, the Channel Cube Cast crew debated the merits of one-color versus two-color aggro. The consensus seemed to be leaning towards the strength of one-color decks, and many great points were raised. In many Cubes mono-red is, from a player perspective, a superior choice to two-color aggro. However, I found the discussion a little perplexing, as this dynamic is entirely in the designer’s control. Shouldn’t we step back and question the merits, from a design perspective, of having mono-color decks be the best choice for aggro?

For anyone who has watched a lot of Magic Online Cube drafts, you inevitably have heard a comment like: “Well, there’s a [card]Goblin Guide[/card] in my first pack, but a lot of people know about the mono-red archetype and I don’t want to get trapped.”

Is this the dynamic we want to create? Doesn’t this sound eerily similar to the kind of all-in or all-out archetypes that defined the Scars of Mirrodin draft format?

The truth is, in many Cubes, red aggro is extremely isolated, but for entirely different reasons than archetypes like storm and infect.

The first reason is mana. Many lists run an insufficient density of fast mana fixing, which directly cuts into the strength of two-color aggressive decks.

For comparison, consider a format like Pauper Constructed. There, the only fixing available comes into play tapped: Guildgates, bouncelands, Signets. Naturally, all the aggro decks (barring the semi-colorless Affinity deck) stick to a single color. You would simply lose too many games from stumbling on mana if you tried to include more colors. What multi-color aggressive decks need is a high-density of color-fixing lands that come into play untapped, otherwise they’ll pale in comparison to their mono-colored counterparts.

I’ll argue that, due to the infect-style dilemma, we create a more enjoyable drafting experience if we push the power in our set towards multi-color decks. Consider the dynamics in practice. If the two-color aggro decks are too slow, getting cut forces players to abandon their early picks and find a new home elsewhere. If we give players an escape route via mana fixing, they can still completely abandon their early picks if they want to. Additionally, they can also read the signals of the draft, prioritize lands, and shift into a multi-color deck.

Beyond that, in my opinion, drafting multi-color decks is a more fun experience. If we’re in mono-red, each pack presents us with a limited number of cards to choose from, and many of those choices will be fairly obvious. Imagine now that we’re drafting a multi-color deck. Now we have multiple colors worth of cards to choose from, in addition to gold cards and fixing to consider.

I’ve run my Cube in both configurations, and the players have greatly preferred the ability to improvise and carve out multi-color decks. Not to mention the additional benefits: when your best decks are mono-color, you inherently limit the diversity of decks that appear from draft to draft. There are only so many decks I can build from a 50-card red section, and many of them play similarly.

Lack of Synergy

Past the mana considerations, Cubes often contain a more hidden form of isolation in their aggressive sections: an overall lack of synergy between cards of different colors.

Now, this is in large part due to some of the assumed premises of Cube design. If we’re pulling from the upper echelon of Magic cards, we have relatively few cards to choose from. Further, Wizards only prints a certain number of “Cube power-level” cards each set. What we’re left with is an assortment of cards from all different sets, selected often for their context-independent power levels. This design style can lead to some very dry Magic.

This really came to light for me a few months ago, when someone made a thread on Reddit saying something to the effect of, “I went 4 – 1 with a GW aggro Cube deck, and it was the most boring Magic I’ve ever played.” Their deck was strong, certainly. It was filled with 2-power guys for one mana and 3-power guys for two mana, but the deck didn’t really do anything other than turn guys sideways. The deck had less play to it than certain intro decks. Sure, it was “successful” from a power-level perspective, but I wouldn’t expect that person to be eager to come back for a second helping of Cube.

The example really shed light on the fact that power maximization does not equate to fun maximization. As much as I’ve seen people avoid mono-red for fear of being cut, I’ve seen many more people avoid the archetype for fear of being bored. Stuffing a list with aggressively-costed beaters doesn’t necessarily create aggressive decks that are fun to play.

When an aggro deck’s only plan is to deal 20 as fast as possible, the choice of whether to move into additional color(s) is just a trade-off between added card quality and reduced consistency. But what if synergy was the incentive?

In retail Limited environments, Wizards takes great care to give aggro decks some sort of game plan that forces aggressive decks to both draft and play differently. They create tempo-based mechanics like bloodthirst that reward you for cards like [card]Mogg Fanatic[/card] or for unconventional plays like attacking with a pair of 2/2s into a 3/3. Wizards prints resource management mechanics like bloodrush and devour, and threshold mechanics like metalcraft and batallion. Moreover, Wizards deliberately spreads synergistic effects across multiple colors to improve the drafting experience.

Wrapping Up

What we find are Cube designs that simultaneously live in two extremes: decks with large degrees of mechanical isolation and decks with almost no mechanical ties whatsoever. I believe better designs live somewhere in the middle.

As a Cube enthusiast, it’s frustrating to see Wizards’ Cube replicating past design mistakes and ignoring some of the principles that make their retail draft environments so great. Fortunately, they also leave us a great roadmap in the form of extensive design diaries on every set they’ve ever printed. Join me next time, where I kick off a comprehensive overhaul of my own Cube’s design, inspired by the winner of the Rosewater RumbleInnistrad!

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