Cube Design – Utility Land Draft

I love lands. I voted for Zendikar in every round of the Rosewater Rumble. The “You Make the Card 4” run-off between enchantments and lands was nothing short of a travesty. Land enthusiasts came out to support their card type of choice in droves, and took the initial vote by a whopping 26 votes out of nearly 90,000 votes cast. The powers that be issued a controversial runoff, with enchantments suspiciously coming out on top this time. Who was to blame? Foul play? Rabble-rousing by Robby Rothe? Underhanded tactics from the [card]Serra Sanctum[/card]? Even LSV’s public endorsement wasn’t enough to sway the tide.

Lands are sweet.

Unfortunately, Cube isn’t always a very hospitable home to sweet lands. Months ago, while discussing a card like [card]Karakas[/card] with other Cube designers, the verdict on it was unanimous. “Good enough for a spot in a Cube deck, but too narrow to deserve a spot in Cube.” Each draft could only house 360 cards, and there simply isn’t space to accommodate the full range of fun utility lands without clogging up the packs with extra lands.

During the same time period, I was trimming my list down to a lean 360 cards, and bumping my fetchland count to 20. The change did wonders for the balance of my environment, but it was not without its casualties. Interesting utility lands were being cut left and right. Adios [card]Windbrisk Heights[/card]. Sayonara [card]Slayer’s Stronghold[/card].

I missed the utility lands, but the fetchlands were far more critical to the design. If I had to choose, fetchlands get the nod every time.

Fortunately, I don’t have to choose. I can have my cake and eat it too.

To find a home for all the outcast lands, I created the “utility land draft.” It’s a small modification to the 8-man draft format that works as follows:

Step 1: Before the draft, lay out the utility lands face up in the center of the table.

As with all things Cube, your selection of lands is fully customizable. For reference, the list I am currently working with is:

[card]Flagstones of Trokair[/card]
[card]Windbrisk Heights[/card]
[card]Eiganjo Castle[/card]
[card]Secluded Steppe[/card]

[card]Faerie Conclave[/card]
[card]Shelldock Isle[/card]
[card]Riptide Laboratory[/card]
[card]Halimar Depths[/card]
[card]Lonely Sandbar[/card]

[card]Phyrexian Tower[/card]
[card]Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth[/card]
[card]Volrath’s Stronghold[/card]
[card]Barren Moor[/card]

[card]Barbarian Ring[/card]
[card]Teetering Peaks[/card]
[card]Ghitu Encampment[/card]
[card]Forgotten Cave[/card]

[card]Treetop Village[/card]
[card]Oran-Rief, the Vastwood[/card]
[card]Gaea’s Cradle[/card]
[card]Yavimaya Hollow[/card]
[card]Dryad Arbor[/card]
[card]Tranquil Thicket[/card]

[card]Academy Ruins[/card]
[card]Seat of the Synod[/card]
[card]Vault of Whispers[/card]
[card]Darksteel Citadel[/card]

[card]Tectonic Edge[/card]
[card]Ghost Quarter[/card]
[card]Rishadan Port[/card]
[card]Mishra’s Factory[/card]
[card]Blinkmoth Nexus[/card]
[card]Ancient Tomb[/card]
[card]High Market[/card]

[card]Celestial Colonnade[/card]
[card]Creeping Tar Pit[/card]
[card]Lavaclaw Reaches[/card]
[card]Raging Ravine[/card]
[card]Horizon Canopy[/card]
[card]Cascade Bluffs [/card]
[card]Rugged Prairie[/card]
[card]Fetid Heath [/card]
[card]Twilight Mire[/card]
[card]Flooded Grove[/card]

[card]Moorland Haunt[/card]
[card]Nephalia Drownyard[/card]
[card]Stensia Bloodhall[/card]
[card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card]
[card]Gavony Township [/card]
[card]Vault of the Archangel [/card]
[card]Desolate Lighthouse[/card]
[card]Slayers’ Stronghold[/card]

I will discuss the individual card choices later in greater detail.

Step 2: Draft as usual. After packs 1 and 2, each player takes a single land from the utility land pile. After Pack 3, each player takes two lands from the utility land pile.

Again, this part is fully customizable. My utility land stack is designed around each player selecting 4 total utility lands. Other Cube owners have tailored their list to accommodate as few as 3 or as many as 6 utility lands per drafter.

Step 3: At the end of the draft, put the unchosen lands back in the box. Build your decks as usual.


For my own draft group, I start by randomly assigning the players to seats 1 through 8. The utility lands are taken in a “snaking” order, meaning player 1 gets the first pick after pack 1, and the last pick after pack 2. Since all the picks are public information, we have the players keep their picks in front of them face-up for the remainder of the draft.

Crucially, the utility land draft is really easy for new players to comprehend. Once they see the cards on the table, they’re halfway there. As an experiment, I only explained the format myself the first time we played with it. Each subsequent draft, I simply laid the cards on the table. Inevitably, the following conversation would play out.

Newcomer: “What are these for?”
Regular: “Oh, they’re utility lands. You take one after Packs 1 and 2, and two after Pack 3.”
Newcomer: “Thanks.”

That said, complexity creep is a real concern. Even experienced players are unfamiliar with many of the cards I’ve included. One of the most important aspects of keeping the barrier to entry low is to arrange the cards on the table in a clear, logical way. Rather than arrange the lands in a solid grid, I lay them out like this:

Here we have clear groupings of each of the mono-colored sections, as well as the artifact lands, colorless manlands, land destruction, etc. Further, I put any Innistrad lands directly beneath their respective fixing land. For example, [card]Moorland Haunt[/card] is placed below [card]Celestial Colonnade[/card].

Truth be told, I didn’t think the utility land draft would be well received when I designed it. I experiment with a lot of design ideas, most of which flop. I’ve used this format with 30 different players now, including several first-time Cubers, with universally positive reception.

Impact on Drafting

Obviously, the utility land draft has some effect on signaling, but the drafting dynamic really doesn’t change much. A player relying on the utility land pick after pack 1 to give them an indication that they are being cut is already at a disadvantage.

The primary benefit of utility land draft is to give decks additional texture and play to them. A land like [card]Halimar Depths[/card] might not dramatically alter the shape of your deck, but they do give you fun options and ways to gain some incremental advantage.

Beyond that, the utility land stack gives you options for narrow archetype support without needing to water down packs. The inclusion of artifact lands, for example, give you a backdoor way to increase your artifact support for cards like [card]Trinket Mage[/card] and [card]Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas[/card]. The cycling lands bolster [card]Life from the Loam[/card] and [card]Crucible of Worlds[/card] strategies. Additionally, Magic’s card pool is filled with lands for other niche strategies. My Cube currently has a heavy emphasis on sacrifice effects, which [card]Phyrexian Tower[/card] and [card]High Market[/card] complement well.

The Lands

[draft]Flagstones of Trokair
Windbrisk Heights
Eiganjo Castle
Secluded Steppe[/draft]

Of the white lands, [card]Flagstones of Trokair[/card] has been the weakest. It pairs well with cards like [card]Armageddon[/card], [card]Cataclysm[/card], [card]Catastrophe[/card], [card]Balance[/card], [card]Smallpox[/card], [card]Boom // Bust[/card], and [card]Zuran Orb[/card], many of which have left my Cube list in recent updates. If you’re running the full suite of symmetric land destruction spells, it likely warrants inclusion. Another alternative is something like [card]Kor Haven[/card].

As these lands aren’t in the actual packs, there aren’t a finite number of slots available. I use about 60 utility lands, with 32 lands taken by players each draft. The main concern is to not overwhelm players with useless options. If a land is really never getting chosen, it’s best to remove it from your list to eliminate clutter and keep things easy for the players.

[card]Karakas[/card] is a bit of a niche pick. My Cube runs about a dozen legendary creatures. Players are always attempting to put together a [card]Venser, Shaper Savant[/card] lock, but with the speed of my Cube, I’ve yet to see it be game-breaking.

As Modern has shown, [card]Eiganjo Castle[/card] can be brutal when paired with the likes of [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card].

[draft]Faerie Conclave
Shelldock Isle
Riptide Laboratory
Halimar Depths
Lonely Sandbar[/draft]

[card]Riptide Laboratory[/card] is a personal favorite. I “discovered” it while perusing Vintage deck lists, of all things. It was being used as a one-of in a deck sporting a playset of [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card]s, allowing the pilot to re-cast ridiculous spells like [card]Time Walk[/card] and [card]Ancestral Recall[/card]. In Cube, we get a more ragtag assortment of Wizards to target:

[draft]Aven Mindcensor
Qasali Pridemage
Sower of Temptation
Glen Elendra Archmage
Blood Scrivener
Delver of Secrets
Snapcaster Mage
Sea Gate Oracle
Trinket Mage
Dark Confidant
Disciple of Bolas
Grim Lavamancer
Augur of Bolas
Vendilion Clique
Venser, Shaper Savant
Meloku the Clouded Mirror[/draft]

[card]Halimar Depths[/card] does great work with fetchlands, and is one of the few cards I would consider to be a “pet card” of mine, dating back to its inclusion in a homebrew [card]Pyromancer Ascension[/card]/[card]Treasure Hunt[/card] deck.

[draft]Phyrexian Tower
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Volrath’s Stronghold
Barren Moor[/draft]

Black Cube cards are mana-intensive, giving [card]Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth[/card] tremendous value. Every bit helps when you’re looking for mana to cast [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card] or [card]Pox[/card].

As I mentioned, [card]Phyrexian Tower[/card] is a great non-creature sacrifice outlet. It gives decks cheap ways to maximize [card]Threaten[/card] effects, and the added mana is relevant too. Turn 1 [card]Gravecrawler[/card] into Turn 2 [card]Geralf’s Messenger[/card] is nothing to sneeze at.

[draft]Barbarian Ring
Teetering Peaks
Ghitu Encampment
Forgotten Cave[/draft]

[card]Teetering Peaks[/card] is one of the more fun aggressive lands to play with. It gives the aggressive player additional lines during gameplay, and even has some synergy with [card]Kor Skyfisher[/card].

If you’re looking for more red lands, [card]Hellion Crucible[/card] is an option. I experimented with [card]Kher Keep[/card], which has cute synergies with sacrifice effects and [card]Smokestack[/card] decks.

[draft]Treetop Village
Oran-Rief, the Vastwood
Gaea’s Cradle
Yavimaya Hollow
Dryad Arbor
Tranquil Thicket[/draft]

[card]Oran-Rief, the Vastwood[/card] is a little clumsy, but you haven’t lived until you’ve seen an everlasting [card]Kitchen Finks[/card] or [card]Woodfall Primus[/card].

Unlike Teetering Peaks, [card]Dryad Arbor[/card] can be fetched at instant speed. This little 1/1 has had more than its fair share of planeswalker kills after being fetched on end-step.

[card]Gaea’s Cradle[/card] is the most misplayed and misdrafted card of the entire format. Players recognize Gaea’s Cradle as a very powerful card, and have a tendency to jam it in decks where it doesn’t belong.

[draft]Academy Ruins
Seat of the Synod
Vault of Whispers
Darksteel Citadel[/draft]

The artifact lands are usually only taken if somebody opens a pack 1 [card]Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas[/card]. Lands like these are ideally suited for the utility land draft format. They are seldom taken, but occasionally serve as the backbone for a 3-0 deck.

[draft]Tectonic Edge
Ghost Quarter
Rishadan Port
Mishra’s Factory
Blinkmoth Nexus
Ancient Tomb
High Market[/draft]

[card]Ancient Tomb[/card] is, in my opinion, the hardest utility land to draft correctly. In the right deck it leads to explosive openings, but never feels like a high-priority pick. I’ve seen [card]Ancient Tomb[/card] at its best in an Orzhov Stoneblade list that used [card]Ancient Tomb[/card] to expedite getting [card]Umezawa’s Jitte[/card] online.

[draft]Moorland Haunt
Nephalia Drownyard
Stensia Bloodhall
Kessig Wolf Run
Gavony Township
Vault of the Archangel
Desolate Lighthouse
Slayers’ Stronghold [/draft]

[card]Grim Backwoods[/card] and [card]Alchemist’s Refuge[/card] were cut after never being picked.

With respect to the other lands, another designer asked me if my Cube was too fast for the likes of [card]Desolate Lighthouse[/card]. While I do run a fast environment, evenly matched games can go long regardless of format speed. My environment has a very high density of fixing, giving decks the freedom to include colorless-mana producing utility lands. When games do run long, the Loothouse provides a huge advantage.

[draft]Celestial Colonnade
Creeping Tar Pit
Lavaclaw Reaches
Raging Ravine
Horizon Canopy
Cascade Bluffs
Rugged Prairie
Fetid Heath
Twilight Mire
Flooded Grove[/draft]

For something called a “utility land draft,” the inclusion of fixers may seem like a strange design decision. The idea is to provide an interesting decision space that complements the main draft. The main draft packs host the high-value fixing options: fetchlands, shocklands, Revised duals. The presence of some fixers in the utility land stack provides some tension to the high-tier utility land picks. Do you go for a high-impact land like [card]Volrath’s Stronghold[/card] first, or take a [card]Twilight Mire[/card] to improve the consistency of your mana base? Without a few fixers peppered in, the first-pick choices would be more clear cut.

Of course, if cards like [card]Mishra’s Factory[/card] and [card]Volrath’s Stronghold[/card] are already in your primary Cube list, this argument may not apply. So long as you’re providing interesting and rewarding decisions for your players, you’re succeeding as a designer.

Lastly, I’m sure there are concerns that additional fixing might skew the balance of the environment. While this is perhaps a topic for another article, for now I’ll just say that the proof is in the pudding. The winning decks are mostly very focused two- and three- color decks. For reference, below I provide the winning deck lists from our last several drafts, along with the utility lands taken for each deck:

[draft]Rugged Prairie
Slayers’ Stronghold
Barbarian Ring
Mishra’s Factory[/draft]

[draft]Creeping Tar Pit
Mishra’s Factory
Ghitu Encampment
Barren Moor[/draft]

[draft]Cascade Bluffs
Desolate Lighthouse
Halimar Depths
Faerie Conclave[/draft]

If you’d like to participate in the design process as I brew and test new Cube ideas, feel free to join in at my Cube design site www.riptidelab.com.

Thanks for reading!


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