Next Level Cubes

(Kurze deutsche Zusammenfassung: Ich erkläre meine Herangehensweise an selbstentworfene Draftumgebungen, und warum ich für diese jetzt doch die Bezeichnung “Cube” verwende. Das zweite Link dieses Eintrags führt zu einem ausführlichen deutschsprachigen Artikel von mir zu diesem Thema.)

Now that Wizards have registered a trademark for a product called “Magic: The Gathering – Cube”, we can expect this play variant to become even more popular than it already is. In case you are still unaware what a “cube “is: It is a term for a collection of cards used as a pool for a self-created draft environment. Simply stated, instead of using cards from previously unopened booster packs, you draft cards from that previously assembled collection. The specifics vary a lot, of course, but you get the general idea: You don’t need to spend money on product every time you want to draft, and you can shape that draft environment to your liking.

Shaping my own draft environments is something I’ve been doing for quite a while (if you can read German, you might want to check out an article I wrote on this topic, complete with a number of prebuilt environments to give you an idea what I’m talking about). However, I have so far diligently been avoiding the term “cube” for my creations, since from what I read on the net about people discussing it, there seems to be a general consensus that a cube should consist of one’s favorite cards (usually this explicitly meant the most powerful cards available), and any conscious crafting of those draft environments – if it happened at all – was restricted to trying to meet their most basic requirements: a rough color balance, acknowledging the need for distributing cards along a mana curve, and putting in some answers to all kinds of threats. Also, cube decks would often be used to play multiplayer games.

That is not my idea of self-crafted draft environments at all! I enjoy drafting more than any other Magic variant, and thus I want to reproduce those aspects of drafting I enjoy most. Here’s what sets my environments apart from those following prevalent cube philosophy:

1. I want my environments to feel like limited, not constructed. I’m less interested in revisiting funky and powerful rares from the game’s history, and more in using the basic effects which define the fundamentals of this game. I don’t want spectacular cards like Reaper from the Abyss turning the dynamics of a match upside down when they get played – I want the outcome hinging on thoughtful application of ordinary cards like Walking Corpse, Skeletal Grimace and Corpse Lunge. For me, an enjoyable game of Magic is not about reacting to the fascinating mystery of the draw step, which might at any moment deliver a game-turning card to me or my opponent, but about carefully managing my resources, applying or withstanding pressure, and incrementally generating tempo and/or card advantage. I want Magic to be decided by the ability to outplay, not outdraw your opponent. A limited environment bereft of cards designed primarily for constructed environments (as well as of cards specifically designed to increase variance in limited environments – yes, Wizards do this!) thus is closest to my liking. (There’s still enough chance left, trust me.)

2. I do not enjoy multiplayer Magic, especially not chaos variants. (The idea of playing in teams appeals to me, but I haven’t yet found a variant I like.) Just like Richard Garfield himself observed about one and a half decades ago (read issues number 17 & 18), I found that multiplayer Magic tends to be way too little about playing Magic, and way too much about playing a generic political game. So, my environments are designed for duelling with the drafted decks.

3. I design draft environments for four players. The main reason for this are RL issues: It is much, much easier to get four people together for an extended period of time than eight. (Also, drafts with four players are way less demanding on the location.) An added bonus is that you will be able to have everyone play against each other in a reasonable amount of time.

4. I take my responsibility for balancing an environment very serious. You can get a bit lazy here, if games tend to be decided by topdecking bombs, and especially when you play those drafted decks in multiplayer rounds. But this is not an option for duels meant to be decided mainly on players’ drafting, deckbuilding and playing skills. While draft, luckily, is self-correcting to a certain amount, too much of an imbalance between colors or available strategies will ruin the draft experience.

5. I do not just create generic draft environments, but specific ones with clearly distinguishable features, which go far beyond the difference of, for example, a “rare” cube and a “common” cube. I toy around with color distribution. I consciously vary speed. I weave specific themes into my environments, and I make use of the opportunity to combine or split up those themes in new ways (for example, combining affinity and metalcraft, or restricting spiritcraft mainly to green, while giving other colors other mechanical identities). I design my draft environments holistically and with much attention to detail, instead of just throwing cards I like into some kind of “cube”.

6. Resulting from the aforementioned points, I value generic cards (which many players might consider bland) very high in my environments, and while I’m certainly looking for cards doing interesting things, I shy away from those which tend to make the game evolve around them too much. For that reason, I will also roughly as often reject cards for being too strong as for being too weak. This does not mean that I try to include only cards of similar power level – I am well aware that difference in play value is important to guarantee interesting draft and deckbuilding decisions, as well as dynamic play. However, I want to make sure that single cards neither completely outclass an opponent’s strategy, nor are completely useless to an experienced drafter. (This leaves still quite a broad power spectrum.)

Keeping all these things in mind, I still have decided to from now on refer to my self-created draft environments as “cubes” as well, because that term is catchy and well-known and has a good chance of giving a reader a general idea of what I’m talking about. To clearly identify my personal brand of cube, however, I will refer to my creations as Next Level Cubes, signifying that they are answering to additional requirements compared to generic cubes.

Here’s the specifications for Next Level Cubes:

They consist of at least 192 cards, since they are designed to be drafted in 16 12-card-boosters. (Sometimes I might use 13-card-boosters instead, resulting in a minimum of 208 cards). If a cube contains only that minimum of cards, it means that they’re all the same rarity, and that all of them will show up in boosters. Reducing the frequency with which cards show up in boosters and introducing additional rarities will of course lead to a higher number of cube cards. I do not put more than one copy of any card in a cube. I recommend that commons always show up with a frequency of at least 50%, and that no rarity shows up with less than 25%.

An example for a possible distribution is the following: Each booster contains 8 commons (all commons showing up in boosters), 3 uncommons (each 50% likely to be in a booster) and 1 rare (25% chance to show up). This will result in a cube consisting of 128 commons, 96 uncommons and 64 commons, for a total of 288 cards.

The default method to draft those boosters is two-thirds-draft, a variant I developed especially for 4-person-drafts. (Some of the environments you can find in the article I linked above have instead been constructed for a variant for experienced players, called purchase draft, which I’m not discussing today.) It goes like this: Each drafter has 4 booster packs in front of them. They pick cards from those boosters in the usual way, with one exception: As soon as there are only 4 cards left in a booster, the person who just took a card out of this booster puts the rest aside face-down. That way, every drafter gets to see and pick from each booster twice (with 13-card-boosters, the person who opens a boosters gets 3 picks from that booster), and a third of the cards will not get used in this draft. Draft order alternates with every booster round, meaning that the first and third round of boosters go to the left, and the second and fourth to the right. When the draft is done, each player now has 32 cards (36 cards with 13-card-boosters) for deckbuilding at his disposal (yes, that’s enough – trust me!), and will also get basic lands to build a deck with a minimum of 40 cards, the unused cards being his sideboard, as usually. (I give exactly 15 of each basic land type to every player, but that’s only due to minor logistic concerns and personal preference – hand out more, if you feel like it.)

Whenever I will talk about my personal evaluation of cards in future blog entries, and each time I will post a cube list, I will refer to this entry here, because the context will always be Next Level Cubes according to these specifications.

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