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The Cube Part 5 – Change Evaluation

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Read this entire article series:

Part 1 - Redundancy

Part 2 - Data

Part 3 - Balance

Part 4 - Archetypes

Part 5 - Change Evaluation

As I wrap up this series (see parts 1, 2, 3, and 4), which has been the first serial of this length and gravity I've written. I'm reminded of some of the first discussions around cubes I had. Those of you astute enough to dig back into the annals of a certain forum will find a treasure trove of uniquely naïve thoughts I had.

I've learned so much since then that I find it humorously distracting to compare to today. And I'm counting on being surprised with my view of things a year into the future.

And that is where I'm going to end today: cube evolution through card exchange.

Intelligent Design

Before diving into the wonderful world of cube updating there are two points I'd like to preface with upfront:

1. There is more than one way.

I have recently ratcheted my cube down to just a bare bones count of 363 cards: slightly more than enough for a full eight player draft. I prefer that nearly every card is available in every full draft, and that the redundant effects I specifically include have their chance to be felt the most. Thus, I spend a lot of my efforts in examining individual cards and weighing how that card fits into strategies in the cube; counting circumstances where I cut a set of cards from multicolor or lands, swapping cards constitutes virtually all changes I make.

Another way to update your cube is to simply add new cards, balanced in quantity across the colors, when needed. Cubes can scale to any size, though beyond several hundred it can get physically unwieldy, and adding more cards certainly appeals to those looking to explore the mystery of higher orders of randomization.

Expansive cubes feel very different from "tight" cube in the same way that Elder Dragon Highlander feels different from Legacy. Sometimes pieces and parts overlap nicely, and execute in nearly the same way, but more often than not the EDH deck will feel looser and more swingy (and therefore potentially exciting) in terms of consistency while the Legacy deck will be more predictable and lead to incremental board attrition being the deciding factor (or for some of you, boring). To each their own; I like a tight style and it's up to you to follow yours.

2. Experimentation is part of the scientific process.

As I've been openly sharing throughout this series: I'm not an expert. My experiences and lessons are what I've shared so far and it's all I have to really offer. Working on a cube opens up a wealth of potential and, with the cliché so often used, you learn a lot from failure.

Trying different, unique, or uncharacteristic approaches to solving dilemmas can lead to both disastrous consequences as well as interesting positions. Making a change to a cube is can be both exciting and powerful. And, ultimately, any change is entirely reversible even if the new knowledge discovered through the change is not.

I have tried many things and currently reside in the middle of a trial now which is something I will get into details below. However, having both the courage to try something different and the humility to seek out others ideas will yield very well balanced changes that should help your cube play that much better.

Better Living through Science

And with the fine print settled lets dig into a process of updating a cube, or rather, my process. There are two types of changes I make:

  1. Upgrades and changes due to a new set releasing.
  2. Development towards a specific goal or theme.

Changes of the first type are usually much more straightforward: swapping removal for slightly different or improved removal, more evasive or aggressive creatures for those lesser, or adding an obviously overpowering card are all examples that I don't need to grind on.

Changes of the second type are often more dramatic and dynamic, and result from review and experience playing the cube. For my cube, the biggest ongoing issue is blue: why does it fail so hard?

"Why does it fail so hard?" is a pretty rough statement, but when a blue-based deck draws five-to-seven more cards than an aggro deck yet can't find avenues to stabilize something is clearly not functioning as intended. I wracked my brain trying to figure out the angle that needed to be reviewed:

  • More cards with the text "Counter target creature spell."?
  • More card filtering and draw?
  • Additional removal resistant and aggressive creatures in blue?

I had been thinking about this for quite awhile before my recent trip to US Nationals as part of the official coverage team. Nate Price is probably one of the most interesting, funny, and overall solid players you've never heard of and I had the privilege to share a room with him. In sum: Nate is the [expletive deleted]!

After playing with my cube a few times, including a full eight player draft featuring current R&D member Dave Guskin, former R&D member Greg Marques, and a host of other sharp minds I had a chance to talk with Nate. This was as we were going to sleep so I guess you could say it was "pillow talk" but I sincerely doubt there are many significant others who would be so entertained by bedside Magic discussions.

The conversation went something like this:

Adam: "Yeah, blue isn't working too well right now."

Nate: "Really? It didn't seem too bad."

A: "It's okay but really struggles with aggro decks. Blue heavy control has a lot of trouble stabilizing."

N: "What creatures are you running?"

A: "Some aggressive ones, like Wind Zendikon, and some card quality ones like Looter il-Kor and Sea Gate Oracle. I've added both Remove Soul and Essence Scatter as pseudo-removal for blue."

N: "Do run any high toughness guys like Maritime Guard or Giant Tortoise?"

A: "Uh... no. Not really. Fathom Seer and Calcite Snapper – he's really solid – are probably the only ones."

N: "You might want to try that. Should slow aggro down pretty well."

A: "Yeah. I'll take a look."

Adam's Inner Dialogue: "Wow. I feel pretty dumb right now."

The power of discussion is to never be underestimated. Blinded by the appeal of having an aggressive theme in blue I didn't balance the options against the bodies that make a slower deck work. Like the low power, high toughness cards that consistently make it into sets for blue.

For everyone's sake I've left my cube list pre-changes up for download so you can see what I saw when I was looking through the cube.

Now having a vague idea of potential cards to look at I turned to my handy card database to dig deeper. Knowing that regardless of the time of the game blue is generally going to want to leave mana up I decided to first look through all blue creatures with converted mana cost of two or less, and found some interesting options:

And with the same requirements I looked at artifact creatures, finding:

I also wanted to find more creatures that could trade with powerful aggressive creatures, like Wild Nacatl, as well as deal damage effectively enough to close a game quickly. So I set my selection to power greater than two and converted mana cost less than five:

And, finally, I knew that Mnemonic Wall would serve the role of "speed bump plus removal buyback" very well.

Choices, choices! The process of narrowing these down to the top options is simply applying evaluation. The highlights I felt the most confident about were:

  • Halimar Wavewatch – converts into a 0/6 wall quickly, then a massive 6/6 later on.
  • Giant Tortoise – four toughness for two mana is very cheap.
  • Dream Stalker – five toughness for two mana is even cheaper.
  • Wormfang Drake – impressive power and toughness for the cost with an effect that can be used to abuse "enters the battlefield" trigger creatures; see Man-o'-War for details.
  • Cloudskate – 2/2 flying for two is on par with most of the flying creatures in the cube.
  • Mnemonic Wall – removal rebuy on a solid blocking frame.

With a few creatures out of the way I turned my attention to noncreature spells in blue. Specifically, a short list of spells that were living under their expected performance level as well as new options that should be useful:

Underperformers:

  • Capsize – six mana is a lot to bounce a two or three drop repeatedly.
  • Train of Thought – tapping out for cards defeats some of blue's point to getting the extra cards.
  • Ponder – This doesn't truly dig for an out
  • Scarscale Ritual – blue creatures want toughness, black creatures are lacking it.
  • AEthersnipe – slow bounce and doesn't put the brakes on aggro.
  • Merfolk Looter – "looting" was never fast and efficient enough for blue.

Potential:

  • Preordain – truly digs down for cards.
  • Gravelgill Axeshark – persist on a well-sized blue creature is a little change of pace.
  • Ogre Savant – tempo gain plus a nice sized body that no aggressive red deck would want.

A quick check of counts confirmed that blue was very creature shy so getting a few more bodies into the color seemed correct considering the need for such bodies. Here's where I ended up taking blue:

I also cut five of the Ravnica "bounce lands":

The non-blue bounce lands did not serve a solid purpose for the color pairs. The only pair that likes the mana consistency was black-green so it stayed. This both tightened the cube count down to 363 and ensured that blue bounce lands were the only real options, essentially forcing nonblue decks to skip bounce lands and reduced the "wasted pick" feeling a blue drafter would experience grabbing a nonblue bounce land.

Victory... or Defeat

I made these changes, and a few other small upgrades to other colors, just the other weekend at the Star City Games Open Baltimore. This allowed me to give the changes a whirl immediately. It didn't take long for some of the new cards to turn up.

Of course, this game was just a small sample. As I look to potential changes for Scars of Mirrodin I know that more games will be required to really dig into answering "Is blue working better or, perhaps, too well?"

I hope you've enjoyed this introductory series to cube; if you want to catch more about my pauper cube or want to dig into discussing individual cards you can check out my new cube blog thepaupercube.wordpress.com and leave a note. Otherwise, I'm looking forward to seeing a few more cubes, and a lot more Magic, happening in the near future!

Read this entire article series:

Part 1 - Redundancy

Part 2 - Data

Part 3 - Balance

Part 4 - Archetypes

Part 5 - Change Evaluation

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