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Command Tower Arena to Paper

Tips for Tuning a Cube or Battle Box

Last week I wrote my Throne of Eldraine set review for Battle Box/Danger Room. Typically, I add the cards I like from a new release, take out a few cards that have either over or under performed, and move on with my life. The last significant structural change I’ve made to my list was during Guilds of Ravnica when I expanded the number of multi-color guild cards from 10 to 15 of each combination and thus increased the size of my stack.

One interesting aspect about playing Magic is the game always changes and evolves. I decided to take a closer look at the numbers, mana costs, distribution and card choices to look for areas where I could impose significant change onto my format. I don’t consider this to be change for changes’ sake, but an opportunity to add depth, flavor, and richness to the format I’ve created.

Since, I’ve been in the tank all weekend working on my stack, I’d like to share some of the insights I’ve gained about refining a Battle Box or Cube and creating a format that offers the most potential depth and best possible gameplay. Today’s article will focus on some of the basic ways to get the best play experience out of a Casual Stack format such as Cube or Battle Box.

1. Think of your Cube or Battlebox as a unique format

Whatever your format of choice, it’s important to always keep in mind that it is a format with its own unique metagame and nuances. It’s a pretty obvious piece of information that is sometimes easy to overlook or underestimate. It’s not just a collection of sweet fan favorite cards, it’s also a context that will inform certain types of gameplay and strategy. Just like Constructed formats, our casual formats are prone to having issues with broken cards, interactions, and stale game play.

The cool thing about formats like Cube and Battle Box is that we can cut right through the red tape and fix them immediately, practically, and unbiasedly (as long as we try to set our biases aside!).

2. What’s the identity of your format?

Every format is defined by various elements of gameplay and/or deck construction. How is your Cube or Box different or unique in comparison to other formats?

Some casual stacks are extremely innovative:

  1. Mono-Blue Combo Cube.
  2. Pauper Cube.
  3. Tribal Cube.

These tend to inform an extremely specific type of game. We are probably not building a beatdown deck in a Mono-Blue Combo Cube, for instance!

When you are building your Cube or Battle Box, the most important question is: what is the identity of the format in relation to other formats that already exist? Are you trying to create a completely new context? Are you trying to mimic a specific type or style of gameplay? If you are creating a Cube, which archetypes are you going to include and how will you balance them in relation to one another?

One comment I often hear when people are talking about their Cubes or Battle Boxes is:

“Archetype X is the most busted.”

Is that on purpose? If not, why not balance it in relation to the rest of the archetypes either by addition (adding better cards to other color combinations) or subtraction (taking out powerful cards)?

For me, as a player who loves to be creative and think outside the box, my favorite part of drafting a Cube is when I’m able to draft something and the Cube designer says: “that deck is sweet, I’ve never seen anybody draft that archetype before!” These are my favorite types of Cubes to play, because good decks tend to be less rigidly defined by being in specific colors or themes.

While archetypes are always a part of draftable formats, I much prefer to draft Cubes where I don’t need a half-hour primer about the hierarchy of the archetypes, which brings me to my next discussion point:

Balance

Balance

Personally, I believe solid balance between the cards makes for the best gameplay in Battle Boxes and Cubes. I mentioned the importance of a format having an identity, and the relationship between the cards is what informs a format.

I dislike Powered Cubes because they tend to have a looser balance. The difference between the top subset of cards like Ancestral Recall, Black Lotus, and Sol Ring and the next tier of cards is extremely high, which makes the random lottery of getting the best cards a strong correlation to winning.

The great thing about building your own format is that you decide how to balance it, and the bolder the card inclusions, the greater the challenge!

Magic has never been a “fair game” in any sense. There are always cards that are better, decks that are broken, and strategies that are advantaged. When you create a format, the decision on how and where to place or position the imbalances lies on you!

Balance doesn’t need to mean every card is equal, but rather that you’ve accounted for the relationships between the cards in terms of actual gameplay.

I find this is actually more important in a Battle Box than a Cube because a lot of the imbalance between cards in a Cube can be offset by drafting a solid, synergistic deck or being in the most open colors. In Battle Box, players are at the mercy of drawing random cards and cards that feel either too weak or too busted stick out like a sore thumb.

Observations from tuning my Battle Box

I finally, officially moved to Canada, which means my Magic cards were imported to my new home! Last weekend, my wife was a little bit dismayed when the Battle Box took over the kitchen table and I went to work on really analyzing my card choices, distribution, and balance.

Identity

My vision for the “identity” of my Battle Box, the Danger Room, has always been that I want the gameplay to feel like extremely excellent and evenly matched draft decks battling it out against one another in games where both players have equal access to resources (mana production) at each stage of the game.

I want the games to be as diverse as possible. I want the cards to be fun and flavorful. And, more so than anything else, I want to foster gameplay scenarios where decisions and plays, moreso than cards, impact the outcome of games. Obviously, what cards are drawn matters a lot and there are many scenarios one can’t play themselves out of, but on the whole I wanted a format where players had a lot of choices that matter.

Balance

In order to achieve the identity I’m aiming for, balance is extremely important. I believe I’ve done a good job with identifying which cards are too good, or too bad, and for the most part have a nice collection of cards that are costed at a fair rate with regard to how they impact the game when cast.

I’m typically an advocate of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, when I laid out my stack, I noticed a few trends that blatantly broke from my concept of the format as two excellent draft decks:

  1. A disproportionately high ratio of spells (removal) to creatures.
  2. A disproportionate mana curve from what I’d expect in a draft deck.
  3. A glut of 3 and 4-drops.

The Danger Room has always been defensively biased because I’m biased toward liking longer, deeper games.

I decided to go out on a limb and overhaul my stack. The reason there are a glut of 3 and 4-drops is that these are the cards that I believe define the identity of my stack. In fact, I believe what has happened over the past few years is that I’ve been cutting cheap creatures to make room for more midrange threats.

While I think cutting the lower impact low-drops in favor of higher impact three-drops has helped to balance the power level, it has come at the cost of unbalancing the relationship between aggressive starts and defensive starts.

I’m in the process of making the following changes:

  • Going from 70 cards of each mono-color to 100 cards.
  • Going from 15 cards of each guild to 20.
  • Going from 30 artifacts to 40.

So I’ll be adding 210 total cards to my Battle Box when it’s all said and done. Here’s the rationale behind the choice and what I hope to accomplish by doing so: I felt the glutted 3 and 4-drop slots provide a lot of cohesion and define the gameplay, and I didn’t really want to cut a lot of these cards because I think they add a lot to the play experience.

I’ve never tried to balance the Danger Room by mana curve, but that is the project I’m currently embarking upon: the distribution of converted mana costs. By adding roughly 200 cards, I can use the lion’s share of those new spots to pad the one and two-drop spells slots and thus bring down the average CMC and increase the viability of aggressive starts.

Another area where I’m looking to potentially reposition aggression in the Danger Room is to try out the tri-lands:

Arcane SanctumSavage LandsCrumbling NecropolisSeaside CitadelJungle Shrine

One of the reasons I’ve tended to favor controlling cards over aggressive cards is that aggressive starts and trying to play basics on curve can often lead to terrible mana in the midgame. I’m speculating that better tapped land fixing is one way to offset the cost of playing on curve a little bit. It also believe it opens up the possibility of getting some two-drops that cost double of the same color into the realm of being playable, whereas they were too cost-prohibitive for consideration before.

Blood KnightSilver KnightBarkhide TrollAsh ZealotSurge Mare

I also think adding 200+ cards (with the emphasis on cheap creatures and combat tricks) will also dilute the odds of drawing Wraths and enter-the-battlefield creatures, which will also make the Danger Room more combat-oriented. It’ll still have a ton of sweet midrange and control stuff, but the deck won’t be stacked in favor of defensive postures.

The relationship between identity and balance is critical. The overall vision for my format has always been Draft decks full of A+ playables, but the balance between aggression and control had become somewhat skewed because of my own bias for certain types of cards and strategies.

Ultimately, even more than playing grindy games, I value choices and diversity in gameplay and want my format to reflect that dynamic. When you’re working on any other format, it’s important to be both true to the identity that you’re trying to establish as well as objective about the balance you are trying to strike.

I have a lot of thoughts on the design of the new Danger Room that I’ll be sharing soon after I’ve tested it out and struck a balance that I’m happy with. It’s still a work in progress, which brings me to my last CRITICAL point about tuning a Cube or Battle Box:

Take Criticism and Suggestions Seriously!

We make these formats to play with our friends, family, and fellow gamers and so it only makes sense to take their feedback to heart to improve the format. I try not to be stubborn about keeping in cards that people don’t like and for the most part if somebody complains about a card, I’m apt to sideline it for a while. Player feedback is important and it’s a huge mistake to disregard it.

With that said, I have 210 unique cards to add to my stack and so if you have ideas about ones you’d love to see included in the new Danger Room, let me know! Also, if fellow Cube or Battle Box curators want to weigh in with tips, tricks, and strategies they use to create balance or identity in their stacks, please share and trade ideas in the comments!

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