Fundamentals of Next Level Cube Building
(You might want to read up what a Next Level Cube actually is.)
After a few months of cube drafting hiatus, I finally got to drafting Greenhouse Effect again, and it continues to amaze me. Once again, we had someone completely new to drafting (and almost new to Magic at all!) at the table, and once again, everyone had lots of fun. My creation succeeded again in reaching all important goals: Drafting, deckbuilding and playing was challenging and thrilling for the newbie as well as for the veteran (me) – and also, of course, the two intermediate players – and everyone had some success in accordance with his skill (meaning that everyone won a few games, while the better players won more of them, but more importantly, that each game was actually a game, not the massacre of a foregone conclusion). There is a sweet spot in between beginning players being frustrated because they don’t feel they have a chance, and better players being frustrated because they do not feel that their superior skills pay off – yes, that sweet spot (or rather, a zone) actually exists! You do NOT have to choose between an environment which rewards skill and one which is fun for less experienced players. You do NOT need to ruin the game by putting Snitches in it to appeal to idiots – that might be prudent for marketing reasons, but is NOT essential to game design otherwise! Also, I did not succeed in achieving my goals because I’m an off-the-scale genius, but simply, because I – in contrast to the company selling this game – made them my first priority. Since I believe that some of you will be interested in guidelines how to design such cubes, this is exactly what I will do in this entry! So, here come my 10 tips for great cube design:
1. Cull the power level at the top
It’s true that in a game as complicated as Magic, it is impossible to have all cards at the same power level, and that this is not even desirable. However, there must be a limit to how much cards stand out from the average, or they become Snitches, making the rest of the game largely irrelevant. There was a time when Serra Angel, Mahamoti Djinn and Shivan Dragon were considered limited bombs, but they pale in comparison to what players can open nowadays in boosters. Serra and Fat Moti are actually quite fair, provided that the environment overall is constructed correctly, while Shivan is already pushing it, threatening to end a game all by itself too fast. Now compare these cards with Baneslayer Angel, Consecrated Sphinx or Flameblast Dragon… And those are just creatures somehow comparable to the old standouts! Do I even need to mention the Titans? No single card should be able to take a game over so fast if it isn’t dealt with immediately, and especially not even IF it is dealt with (like the Titans). Impact in accordance with mana cost is okay, as is some resistance to generic answers, but even 8-mana-spells shouldn’t just read “I win”, and cards you don’t have to work too hard for to cast (like 6-mana creatures) even less so. Serra Angel, Mahamoti Djinn and Shivan Dragon should give you an idea of what is acceptable, and if a card seems considerably stronger than those, you should omit it.
Note, though, that reactive cards and balancing cards, which do not win the game by themselves, are allowed to have a bit more impact. Wrath of God, another limited bomb from the early days, isn’t even considered a bomb by many today. It is actually important that a few comeback cards exist, as long as they can be played around somewhat reasonably by wary players. Also, sweepers which require a bit of a setup to be really advantagous, are okay – one example is Pernicious Deed, which I understand is a terror (not a Terror, of course!) in some casual formats, but has turned out to be just a very strong card whenever I put it in one of my cubes. In the end, it’s a symmetrical card, and while it is possible to break that symmetry in a cube environment, this isn’t nearly as automatic as in most constructed environments or cubes which are designed to enable constructed strategies. Strong reactive cards reward planning, and sweepers punish overfocussed strategies, so don’t shy away from them. Of course, there can be too much of a good thing: Stuff like Mana Drain or Balance are still far, far out!
2. Raise the power level at the bottom
Now, just as there are too strong cards, there are too weak ones. The reasons why such cards, which are unplayable in limited environments (I mean actually unplayable – that term is used WAY too much nowadays to denounce filler or fringe cards), even exist, are debatable, but even if you accept them, they have no bearing on building a good cube. Put only cards in a cube which you can reasonably expect to (justifiably) see play under some circumstances. There is absolutely no reason for blanks to exist in a cube. Also, you do not need any cards which are explicitly underwhelming, but barely usable, like Grizzly Bears, Zombie Goliath, or Wind Drake, when the general standard of your cards is closer to Wild Mongrel, Hyalopterous Lemure and Kathari Screecher (as it should be, so that the gap to your cube’s “bombs” isn’t too wide). The only reason (applicable to cube design) to do so would be to balance colors or draft archetypes out, and you don’t need them for this if you have access to a five-digit number of cards from Magic‘s history. You will already find a spread of varying power levels among your cards when you allocate slots for the themes you want your cube to feature. Do not waste slots in your cube on cards which are weak AND uninteresting, even if they meet the minimum standard of playability; use these slots for stuff like tribal cards, synergy cards and sideboard cards which have a chance to shine for better reasons than filling up a deck after a miscarried draft: A Goblin Turncoat might be just what a goblin deck or a sacrificing-for-profit deck needs; a Defy Gravity might actually be appealing in a self-milling deck or saboteur deck; and Rest for the Weary might actually be what you want against that ultra-aggressive weenie deck which plans to finish you off with stuff like Lava Axe.
If you do it correctly, you will end up with draft pools which contain enough obviously strong cards enticing players to commit to colors or switch them, while overall making sure that even drafters fighting over slightly overdrafted colors will not just be able to get decent decks, but even still have meaningful drafting decisions. The point of using only playable cards (and only a few situational ones among those) is that drafting never happens on autopilot, and there are always decisions to make, other than just identifying the chaff.
3. Weave themes into your cube
Do not just use a collection of cards you happen to like (by the way, using cards you especially like is generally something to be wary of, since we tend to like cards we won games with, which might mean that these cards are just too strong for a balanced environment – to quote Mike Turian on twitter: “Tinker is fun!”…) Make sure that there are interesting interactions and synergies between them. This adds an extra decision level to drafting beyond which colors you take and how aggressive/controlling you want to be, so that you do do not just fall back on taking cards according to their power level, once you reach the point when you know you’re aggressive RG (for example). It also means that all cards in a cube will have their chance to shine sometimes, and that you do not always see the same cards in players’ decks. As to the complexity this adds to drafting, which can be overwhelming to new players: I will address that issue in the next paragraph.
Oh, and do not only create synergies, but cross-synergies – themes will have a hard time to manifest in draft decks unless they are either completely dominant (making for a stale environment), or cards support several of them at once. If you have a token theme as well as an enchantment theme in Green, look for stuff like Fists of Ironwood or Bearscape, and make also sure that the colors you want drafters to combine with Green support these themes a little.
Of course, you cannot leave out the step before this: Allowing for both aggressive and controllish strategies in your cube, and making sure that no color is fixed on one of those paths exclusively (different weighting is fine, of course). This ties into the next paragraph:
4. Construct your cube using ratios of cards akin to those in draft decks
You see, a typical draft deck will run about 15 basic lands (which didn’t need to be drafted), 2 additional mana cards, 15 creatures, and eight other spells. This means that on average, ca. 60% of the cards players wish to draft are creatures. Yet, for some unfathomable reason, it is official policy of R&D to keep the ratio of creatures noticably lower, creating an artificial shortage of them in limited (and an abundance of non-creature “blanks” with little hope to ever make the cut). Do NOT make that mistake. If anything, put a little MORE than 60% creatures in your cube, because, you see, creatures are indispensible in limited decks, and all but the most specialised creatures will always hold at least filler value in a deck, while non-creatures will often prove worthless. Giving drafters enough creatures to choose from maximizes the number of relevant drafting decisions they make, and protects newbies from the cardinal error of running way too few creatures, which leads to useless decks and frustrating gameplay.
Don’t stop at the creature ratio, though. Make sure your cube contains everything draft decks need in the right numbers (of course, you need to figure in the rarity of cards). Spread your creatures along the mana curve in a sensible way – do not create a shortage of cheap drops and an abundance of creatures for 4+ mana, which is often the case in Magic sets. Balance aggressive and defensive cards out (okay, at least this R&D usually does). Put enough removal in the set (this they often do NOT), give players as much useful manafixing as they need (the only reason why dual lands are rare is to maximize profit!), and cut situational cards of the kind which are usually run in numbers of 0-2 per deck to a corresponding ratio, so that they’re there if someone wants them, but do not clog up the boosters. This achieves three things: It makes for more interesting draft decisions (since you’re not just struggling to fulfill quotas of important stuff, but can actually decide between alternatives), helps newbies get playable decks (in the sense that they can actually participate in games, even if their decks aren’t quite competitive) even if they know little more than the most basic deck-building principles and draft without a deeper understanding of Magic strategy, and improves gameplay. About the latter:
5. Keep your environment dynamic
Make sure that both tempo and card advantage play a role in games. There need to be fast, aggressive decks which stop players from durdling around too much while setting up an invincible endgame, and which punish too high mana curves. At the same time, give control-oriented decks the tools to stop these early onslaughts and some reward if they manage to do so (a strong endgame, that is). Then again, to avoid long-drawn-out games with a foregone conclusion, give aggressive decks a little “reach” – some way to close out a game even after the momentum has begun to shift away from them, typically direct damage or mass evasion effects – so that the control player is kept on his toes.
6. Provide plenty creature removal
Interactive gameplay is good gameplay. Non-interactive gameplay is bad gameplay. Avoid games which come down to catching the Snitch. Let players react to what their opponent does. Make gameplay go back and fourth.
The most important tool to guarantee interaction is removal. Give creature removal to all colors (yes, even Green – you can use stuff like Roots, Unyaro Bee Sting, Desert Twister and Prey Upon), and to make really sure that every player has access to it, include colorless removal. Ignore the taboos of the color pie which, essentially, just mean that some colors are not meant to interact with certain strategies, and thus lead to frustrating gameplay. Don’t worry, the colors will still feel distinct enough from each other by the way their removal is implemented, by the power level of it – and of course by their other cards.
7. Balance threats and answers
Do not just include enough answers to creatures, but to all kinds of cards. At the same time, put enough of these cards in the cube that it actually pays to run these answers! You cannot expect players to sideboard Smelt if their opponent offers only one or two good targets for it, but they should have a sensible option to deal with those problematic artifacts. It’s not hard to get enough artifacts into an environment, but you will need to consciously monitor the number of enchantments. Since enchantments are nearly impossible to deal with in both Red and Black, you need to make sure that some or all of the following are true:
- there are colorless ways to deal with enchantments in your cube (probably only stuff like Nevinyrral’s Disk or Spine of Ish Sah, which are likely not common, though)
there are splashable ways to deal with those enchantments, AND there is enough manafixing that it is actually feasible to splash them (not an option in many cubes which do not propagate multi-colored decks)
the most powerful enchantments are slow enough that it is possible to beat them via speed (which isn’t exactly great gameplay, if it is the only way to deal with them)
the most powerful enchantments can be dealt with indirectly (auras can be removed by removing the enchanted creature, for example)
enchantments are not so powerful that they need to be removed (which is the default – you can get away with pretty strong creatures and artifacts, but you really have to be careful with enchantments)
Non-basic lands are another issue. At least, all colors have somehow reasonable ways to deal with them, and there are Strip Mine, Wasteland and Arc of Blight, but once again, you need to avoid too powerful lands (Volrath’s Stronghold or Academy Ruins qualify), AND need to make sure that, once lands are strong enough to require removal, there are enough good targets for that removal around (manlands help, as do utility lands like Quicksand or Rogue’s Passage).
With sorceries and instants, while you can work with counterspells and discard, there is only one safe way to go about them: Avoid “I win” cards like Living Death, Bonfire or Sphinx’s Relevation. Oh, and talking about Living Death: Keep graveyard abuse to a reasonable level, and provide ways to deal with graveyards which are maindeckable, but not overly suppressive (Relic of Progenitus is too much against threshold, but acceptable against flashback) – Vessel of Endless Rest is helpful, as is Junktroller and in some environments Heap Doll (in a cube with a metalcraft theme, for example).
You see, there is quite a lot to juggle to keep an environment interactive. Your best options are to keep the power level reasonable, and to include flexible answers, like Vindicate, Oblivion Ring, Aftershock and, of course, Counterspell.
Oh, and do NOT use planeswalkers! Ever. Most of them are already out due to being overpowered, but they do also put an additional stress on your selection of answers in a cube (and they are notorious for needing an immediate answer much more than any other type of permanent). Also, they’re Snitches. This card type simply worsens limited gameplay.
8. Avoid cards which suppress interaction
A trap you must not fall into, though, is to provide answers which are themselves non-interactive. Answering a threat, and even gaining tempo or card advantage through doing so, is acceptable. Shutting down major parts of your opponent’s deck unless he finds an answer to your answer is not! Grafdigger’s Cage, Stony Silence, Gaddock Teeg, City of Solitude – none of these belong in a cube.
There are other explicitly non-interactive cards. Avoid anything which has hexproof for more than one turn, for obvious reasons. Shroud is fine in moderate doses, as long as it is restricted to one creature, and that creature only impacts the game via attacking and blocking (and isn’t unblockable). Protection has to be carefully monitored, and protection from more than one color is a no-go, unless an environment is extremely multicolored and/or features an enormous amount of colorless ways to deal with creatures (even then, why not just let it be?) Single cards which cannot be countered are fine (unless they’re Obliterate), but AEther Vial or Cavern of Souls are not. Land Destruction can play the role of point removal, sideboard against greedy manabases or the odd tempo play, but it must never become a strategy onto itself. For the same reason, Armageddon is not acceptable (Catastrophe might be fine – if someone invests six mana to blow up all lands, he has to work for it, and there is a game happening before then.)
And then there’s alternate win conditions. They’re bad, because they make players play different games, leading to missing interaction. Milling is the main offender here, but poison is not much better, even if it works mainly through the combat phase. Single cards, even if their conditions are hard to fulfill (like Coalition Victory), and true combos are Snitches of the worst kind – synergies between already useful cards, which make a combination stronger than the sum of its parts are fine, because they foster interesting draft decisions as well as interesting gameplay, but outright winning a game is not.
9. Avoid undeserved hate
Hate punishes players for strategic choices. This makes sense when that player overfocusses to gain an advantage. It doesn’t make sense when a player just plays the game, or if he builds up critical mass to exploit a synergy seeded in a cube. You do not want players to randomly lose to a Karma or Anarchy just before they happen to play a certain color, and you do not want them to get totally blown out by Shatterstorm because they employ the metalcraft theme of your cube. (Shatterstorm is, however, okay if artifacts are either rare enough that it will usually only kill one or two cards; or ubiquitous enough that it is basically symmetrical, like Wrath of God.) In a limited environment, hate only makes sense when the opponent can reasonably be expected to play around the hate by not overcommitting to the thing hated. Note that pure value cards are not necessarily hate: Ingot Chewer or Execute are reasonable. (Then again, Execute is probably too narrow a sideboard card to warrant inclusion in a cube, unless in that cube White is especially dominant.)
10. Use colorless cards
Providing enough manafixing is one thing, but you can do more to ensure that players can build decks with smooth draws. Colorless cards help both with giving drafters enough deck-building material even if they end up in overdrafted colors, and with their actual draws. (They usually also constitute targets for artifact removal and shore up weaknesses of colors, as I mentioned before.) In two-third drafts, colorless cards are especially important, because with only four players it is important that each drafter can use a higher percentage of cards in each booster than in eight-player drafts (that is because boosters circulate faster between drafters, allowing for less diffusion of selection patterns). For all these reasons, in cube design, artifacts are your friend.
We always change the starting and maximum hand size to eight cards now when we draft. This smooths out draws, requires players to mulligan less and makes mulligans less disadvantageous. We encountered no negative effects whatsoever. (My cubes contain no cards which explicitly care about handsize, though.) I strongly encourage you to try this out!Next Level Cube