Welcome to part two of my Cube design primer. If you didn’t catch part one, you can get up to speed here. In the first part of this series, I tried to cover some broader trends you should think about when getting started with a Cube. Once you have a clear idea of how you want your Cube to look generally, you can get down to the hard part: selecting the specific cards.
While I think it’s important to first come up with a “rough draft” list for your Cube list independent of too much external influence, I appreciate the need for a shortcut—trying to remember all of the obvious stuff can be a waste of brainpower. Although I would discourage anyone from copying another Cube list, it is useful to have a reference point.
Thus, instead of giving you a full list to look at, I put together a list of cards I consider to comprise a Cube “Core”: 224 cards that I would expect to see in any unpowered Cube. This list isn’t to be taken as gospel; it’s merely intended to serve as a strong foundation for anyone just breaking ground. If you disagree with a card listed here, don’t put it in! If you don’t see a card you like, add it! After all, that’s what this process is all about—designing an environment you (and your friends) will enjoy.
So, now that we’ve established a jumping off point, you can start thinking about the other cards that will make up your own list. This can be a tough process—luckily there are a few excellent resources for finding ideas, and chances are you’ll see something that interests you in each of them.
Remember: inspiration is exciting, imitation is boring. Copying the sweetest list you see will be tempting, but don’t give in!
1. The most obvious place to start is the Magic Online Cube. There are plenty of flaws with this list (some of which I will discuss later), but on the whole the design of the MTGO Cube was a success. Of particular interest to me is how well the “fatty” decks, combo and ramp, were supported. Storm, on the other hand, was a total flop, and I would not look to this list if you are interested in pushing non-red aggro. Regardless, Tom Lapille and Max McCall have clearly been thinking about Cube design for a long time, and their first attempt at introducing a Cube for mass consumption is a solid one.
2. There are a few other articles out there to cover any missed bases. Usman Jamil’s article on brainstorming Cube inclusions is particularly useful.
3. The Cube Comparison Thread on MTGSalvation offers a useful cross section of ~100 Cubes submitted for analysis. Similar to the Core list above, this tool should be helpful for deciding between cards, and as a heuristic framework for your Cube. This resource is not without its own flaws of course.
Cube designers can often be constrained by groupthink—some terrible cards are still considered staples (More copies of [card]Arcane Denial[/card] than [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card], for example), simply because they are played by everyone else. Often Cubes just aren’t updated well ([card]Morphling[/card] and [card]Mogg Fanatic[/card] are both relics of a bygone era).
Lastly, there’s a phenomenon I like to call the Constructed Staple Trap. Sometimes, people look at the best cards in some constructed formats and assume that they must be powerhouses in the Cube, as well. [card sensei’s divining top]Sensei’s Divining Top[/card] was considered a first pick for years, and [card]Brainstorm[/card] is still a common inclusion. So, this won’t let you escape thinking critically about each card you include. My apologies to the chronically lazy.
4. Also on the MTGSalvation Cube forum, you can simply peruse other, complete Cube lists to see where other designers are in their process. Again, take everything you see with a grain of salt, there’s not a lot of vetting involved with Cube lists.
From here, there’s nothing wrong with finding as many powerful cards as you can and throwing them together per se, but if you want to build a balanced, competitive Limited format, you’ll need to force yourself to follow a few design constraints.
Above all, keep the intended size of your Cube in mind at all times. If you allow yourself to continue adding cards until you run out of good ideas, you’ll end up with something ungainly. With size as the overarching constraint, you should try to establish your own guidelines to determine the right distribution of cards in your Cube. The most important “areas” of design are creature balance, curve, color balance, fixing, and removal.
While I find Cubes that encourage attacking and blocking to be more enjoyable and “fair”, I hesitate to dictate what you should choose to do when you design your Cube. However, focusing on creatures and combat in Cube may be unavoidable.
Wizards is clearly shifting the power level from non-creature spells to creatures, so even if you try to steer your Cube away from a creature-centric environment, you may find yourself trending that way anyway as you add the best cards (which will be creatures) from each new set. I’d recommend embracing it now, to save the time you will spend trying to get it right later. Yet, there are compelling reasons to push combat, beyond simple inevitability.
I discuss most of them in this article. In sum, you create a more skill-testing draft environment (removal is important, not just haymakers), lessen the impact of broken cards by encouraging more tempo-oriented games, and you introduce a natural foil to the best card type in Cube—planeswalkers.
There’s no hard and fast rule for determining how many creatures you should include. In general, I would aim for making creatures comprise more than 50% of the total non-land cards in your Cube. Beyond that, you just need to ensure that the creatures you do add fit within the confines of a healthy mana curve.
We truly are developing a Limited format here, so what could be a better reference than the sets designed by Wizards? After all, they’ve been designing them for some time. To help you visualize the standard curve in a given environment, I’ve put together this handy chart:
As you can see, there’s incredible uniformity in the sets presented. You’ll notice that even between Rise and Zendikar (Two sets with very disparate styles of gameplay) there’s quite a bit of similarity—which illustrates one of the most important points of drafting: even in the durdliest of decks, you need to be doing something at every stage of the game to win.
So for the first round of trimming, you’ll want to get your overall mana curve roughly in sync with the trend line shown here. Separate creatures from non-creatures for this. Since creatures are almost always played on curve, you’ll want them to rigidly conform to the curve. You’ll have to kill some darlings at this point—every 6-drop looks sweet, so pick your favorites and ditch the rest.
Non-creature spells are more often played at the most opportune time, so it’s less imperative to get them in line with the curve precisely. However, cheaper spells allow more flexibility, so don’t let the number of expensive ones get out of hand.
The next stage of Cube design is color balance. It’s important to understand that when I say color balance, I don’t mean having the exact same number of cards in each section. This is a pretty common approach, and it’s deeply flawed.
First of all, it’s unnecessary. If you have 62 blue cards, and 66 green cards, you’ll open an average of 3.2 less blue cards per 8-man draft total—nowhere near enough of a difference to influence the draft in a meaningful way.
Second, it constricts the design process, particularly regarding new additions. When you see a sweet new card, maintaining perfectly equal sections forces you to cut a card, even if all the existing cards at that mana cost are awesome. More importantly, if you need to cut a card that isn’t pulling its weight, you now either have to cut a card from every section, or find a (possibly inferior/underwhelming) replacement. It’s just not worth it. Allowing yourself to get loose with the numbers lets you cut bad cards and add good ones freely, letting you focus on what’s important—maintaining a strong Limited environment.
Keep this trap in mind when figuring out your multi-colored section as well. People love to make all of these sections numerically equal, and honest to god they end up playing cards like [card]Snakeform[/card] and [card]Suffocating Blast[/card].
Don’t let your imagination run wild when you design your multi-colored section. Most of these cards look incredibly powerful, but during the actual draft, they can be problematic. Usually they can only reasonably be picked by one drafter at the table, leaving them free to wheel a good card at no cost— making for less interesting decisions.
The decline of 5-Color Control has contributed quite a bit to this phenomenon—with more tempo decks in the format, any deck with an unwieldy manabase becomes easy prey: leaving many multi-colored cards in the cold. 3-color cards in particular have gone from interesting role-players to chronic tablers. Include them with extra care.
Surprisingly, mana-fixing is one of the hardest sections to find room for new cards. The “Big 30” listed in the Cube Core take up a hefty percentage of even the largest land sections. These 30 lands are so powerful they demand inclusion, which essentially dooms every borderline land. Despite that, fixing is the design area subject to some of the most disagreement in the Cube community. Again, Wizards’ has been doing this for a while, and they’ve had a few sets recently that, like Cube, required a firm reliance on fixing.
Note: The two Cubes in the chart above do not count green fixers for two reasons: First, the other two formats have only one green fixer between them. Second, when you draft green in Cube, you typically don’t move in to it for a fixer—the acceleration is a much greater draw, and the best fixers tend to go later.
The first thing that may stand out is how much more fixing I include in my Cube than Ravnica or the MTGO Cube. This is a conscious decision on my part—I want aggro to be a major player, which means it’s important to play your spells in the first three turns of the game. As a natural side effect of aggro reliably hitting its stride in more games, it is paramount that the control decks not stumble. Plentiful fixing makes for a fast-paced, interactive environment.
The second point of interest is that Ravnica, a format with a reputation for exceptional greediness, contained the lowest distribution of fixers. However, the speed of the format allowed you to take your time setting up your colors, and the high power level of its cards made come backs common. You could often wait until turn four or five to play a relevant spell, and easily be in firm control of the game.
Shards of Alara, however, was a more aggressive Limited format, and you can see that Wizards increased the fixing ratio accordingly. Curving out would have been incredibly difficult had the fixing in Shards more closely resembled that of Ravnica.
Given the contrast between Ravnica and Shards, we see that the MTGO Cube’s fixing ratios discourage streamlined aggro decks. I don’t think this was the intention, but it was certainly the outcome. Given Lapille’s previous statements about Cube, he seems to be in favor of making life more difficult for Control decks.
Why the disconnect? I believe the limitations on mana fixing in the Cube derive from a fundamental fear of 5-color control that has permeated Cube design for some time. It’s not an unfounded fear, in the early days of Cubing the most successful strategy was 5cc—you could take all the best spells in a format based around the strongest cards in Magic. Those days have passed, and as I stated above, the increased speed of the format has made a loose manabase untenable. (Note: whenever I talk about the impact of aggro on the format, keep in mind that as the Cube size increases, the impact of aggro becomes less pronounced.)
This isn’t to say that you should just add as many fixers as you can find, of course. If you keep your (mana-fixing) land section at around 10-15% of the total cards in the Cube, you can’t possibly go overboard.
Breaking the Cycle: So which fixers should we add? Strictly adding more fixing won’t help aggro—the bouncelands, M10 duals, and Vivid lands are horrible in a tempo deck; the Scars duals are a much better fit for decks that function in phase I. The MTGO Cube opted for the m10 duals, most choose the Ravnica bouncelands.
I’m in the minority here, but I think cycles are yet another trap in Cube design. There’s no reason why the UR land has to look the same as the RW land—the archetypes to which those color combinations naturally lead want lands that function in radically different ways. In my Cube, I have a section I call “archetype-oriented” fixing—which includes bouncelands, Shadowmoor filter lands, a pain land, a Scars dual, and [card]Horizon Canopy[/card]!
Signets: Lands won’t make up the entirety of your fixers of course. Artifact mana has always been an integral part of the Cube environment, though Ravnica-block Signets (and to a lesser extent bouncelands as well) have come under considerable scrutiny lately. Tom Lapille, Usman Jamil, and Evan Erwin have all thrown their weight behind cutting Signets from Cube. They argue that once you have Signets and bouncelands, why draft green?
I don’t necessarily disagree with their statements entirely; on the one hand I do think that too much artifact acceleration is a bad thing. Since the early days of Cube, the best finishers have been non-green, and if you can get to them just as quickly and easily as green gets to theirs, why bother?
(As an aside, I think green fixing has considerable advantages over artifact fixing, but for the sake of argument let’s pretend they are roughly equal)
On the other hand, what if you love the artifact deck, like me? [card]Wildfire[/card] is a powerful effect, and even in my tiny 445-card Cube, I can’t reach the mana rock threshold necessary to support it without including Signets.
My solution is to once again break the cycle. I have yet to hear anyone explicitly argue that it must be all or nothing, but it’s a universal unwritten rule. Why? We unflinchingly added [card Kokusho, the evening star]Kokusho[/card], [card yosei, the morning star]Yosei[/card], and [card keiga, the tide star]Keiga[/card] without giving [card ryusei, the falling star]Ryusei[/card] and [card jugan, the rising star]Jugan[/card] a second thought—it would have been absurd to suggest you couldn’t have some without the others.
If you want a certain number of non-green accelerators but can’t hit it without adding bad cards, you have an alternative—I have five. 10 Signets or zero is a false dichotomy. Don’t fall for it.
As previously mentioned, creatures are getting better. If you don’t have plentiful answers, players will get steamrolled by a [card]Primordial Hydra[/card] in no time. At the same time, you have the best removal throughout the history of Magic at your disposal. How do you find the right balance?
It’s that time again-
Don’t let the scale of the chart fool you, all the numbers are remarkably close—the difference between Ravnica at the low end and the MTGO Cube at the high end is only one removal spell per drafter. If you have around six per player, you’re in good company.
However, I chose these formats for a particular reason. They illustrate that as synergy trumps power, the number of removal spells required per drafter can increase. It’s counter-intuitive; you would think that with great power comes more
responsibility removal, since those spells are the best. Yet, when you have to draft with a plan, as you did in Lorwyn, and as you do in Cube, the kinds of removal spells you are interested in are wildly different even within the same colors.
In Ravnica, everyone was drafting 3-5 Color Control, and could afford to play any removal spell they could snap up.
In Cube, you aren’t putting [card]Savannah Lions[/card] and [card]Wrath of God[/card] in the same deck, and the control player with sweepers will be less interested in [card]Fiend Hunter[/card]. So err on the side of more removal, not less. After you’ve played with your Cube a few times, you will be able to tell if the format is saturated with removal. From there, you can always cut down on them to make the effect retain that “premium” feel.
Sweepers: Wraths are the most impactful subset of removal, so I wanted to address them specifically. You have to have them, of course (just look at all the 5-star [card geist of saint traft]hexproof[/card] [card thrun, the last troll]monguises[/card] they keep printing). However, too many and you risk stifling aggro.
If only I could find a good way to illustrate this point graphically…
This is the number of sweepers total per 8-man draft, not including [card]Wildfire[/card]/[card]Burning of Xinye[/card] or [card]Jokulhaups[/card]/[card]Obliterate[/card] (Since I feel like those are so specific, and serve as much more than a simple wrath within the decks they get played).
As you can see, the MTGO Cube has almost double the number of sweepers I do. I think sweepers should be a special, desirable effect—in order to give them that unique aura, I limit them as much as possible (I don’t even have Day of Judgment!). I’ve found that those who need them will still end up with at least one if they just adjust their prioritization.
Regardless of whether you fall on the side of sweeper surplus or scarcity, select wraths that cost more than four mana with care. Some are deceptively tempting. Take [card Akroma’s Vengeance]Akroma’s Vengeance[/card] for example, a sweeper considered a Cube staple by many. I hate it. Allow this wonderful Conley hand to illustrate:
The above is hardly an uncommon occurrence. When the Cube includes a six-mana wrath, you encourage the player using it to use acceleration to support it. When doing so nukes his or her own mana base back into the stone age, you end up with a card that often hurts the caster as much as the player getting wrathed (Yes, it cycles. So does [card]Clear[/card]. Let’s not go there).
My point is not to rag on [card Akroma’s Vengeance]Akroma’s Vengeance[/card] necessarily, but to show you the process by which I decide when to cut cards from the Cube. If I saw this situation occur often enough, I would think about any cards that might come close to replicating the effect, without the same trouble. For example:
There, doesn’t that just look better? Now you may discover [card]Austere Command[/card] has its own disadvantages, but it’s best to try to replace a card, before cutting it entirely.
Picking the mix of hate cards for your cube is one of the most difficult areas of Cube design. If you pick something too potent, you run the risk of ruining games with an unbeatable card. If you don’t include enough hate, you risk letting a certain strategy run roughshod over everyone else. Leave out artifact and enchantment destruction—[card]Sulfuric Vortex[/card] and [card]Sword of Fire and Ice[/card] will become insufferable (moreso). You must give your drafters options, but I dislike cards that are strictly for the sideboard—they’re narrow, and almost always get picked last. I’ve got a few general suggestions on how to avoid this, though they are hardly comprehensive. Managing hate in your Cube is hugely dependent on your exact build.
-Choose value disenchants over, well, [card]Disenchant[/card]. This goes for life gain as well, but I prefer [card orim’s thunder]Orim’s Thunder[/card], [card]Dismantling Blow[/card], and the like because their higher upside increases their maindeckability. [card]Disenchant[/card] or [card]Naturalize[/card] get the job done, but won’t ever get played in game one. I prefer having my cards work for me through an entire match.
-Hate bears are annoying, but Mono-Red must be addressed. The problem with Mono-Red in Cube is that you are playing a Tier 2 Legacy deck against a field of Limited decks. So it’s no surprise that Mono-Red is by far the most dominant deck. The common answer has been to choose cards like [card]Silver Knight[/card] and [card]Pulse of the Fields[/card]. Again, these are cards that will only work for their owner in one match, for (at best) two games out of three. Lean instead on cards that fight red, but have applications elsewhere like [card]Obstinate Baloth[/card], [card]Wall of Reverence[/card], and [card]Knight of Meadowgrain[/card].
-Reanimator: If you only include the value version of this deck, I wouldn’t bother hating it out—[card]Genesis[/card] and [card]Necromancy[/card] for [card]Mulldrifter[/card] isn’t close to overpowered. On the other hand, Combo Reanimator, involving [card]Entomb[/card] for giant monsters, does demand an answer. Here I would opt for cantripping graveyard hate like [card]Relic of Progenitus[/card] and [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card]. Pass on cards like [card tormod’s crypt]Tormod’s Crypt[/card]. If a card is too narrow, it just won’t get played.
There are some generally playable cards that offer light splash damage against the Reanimator deck like [card]Primal Command[/card], [card]Stonecloaker[/card], and even [card]Mimic Vat[/card], as well.
Now Get Cubing!
Alright, that’s all I have to offer—you should be ready to make a list. None of these guidelines are definitive, and you’ll find yourself falling in line with or drifting away from them naturally as you select cards. The best way to hammer these out, luckily, is the most fun: playtesting! The more drafts you jam with your Cube, the clearer your path will be. Hopefully, I’ve provided enough of a baseline to get you to that far. Good luck!
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