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From the Ground Up: Format Design via Cube

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Well, I am officially back from an extended hiatus. My life was sort of complicated in July, so I decided to take a break, but I’m back now. I want to take this opportunity to thank Trick for the opportunity to write for his website and my readers for supporting me. This has been an incredible experience, and I hope to continue writing about Magic (by far my favorite game) for a while to come. I also want to apologize to a reader who e-mailed me during my time off with a question about my “Ultimate Standard Tournament.” The email got deleted by accident during one of my routine purges, and I didn’t get a chance to respond. I apologize. To answer the question of this mystery reader, I did finish the UST, but there didn’t seem to be much interest in it, so I didn’t write up the report articles. As expected, Academy won.

Well, now that we’ve tied up loose ends, on to this week’s article, which is about two things—format design and Cube, specifically, my Cube. I want to go through the design of my Cube step by step. At first, I was hesitant to do this, since my Cube is deeply personal (it’s a lot like my baby). However, due to the overwhelmingly positive feedback regarding my Cube and the fact that it does showcase pretty much all the design principles that I want to showcase, I decided to write this series of articles on format design, relating it specifically to my Cube. I hope you enjoy this journey.

So, where to begin? I suppose I should begin at the very beginning. I hear it’s a very good place to start. So, here’s the whole story of the design and development of my current Cube, from start to finish. It’s received very good reviews, and thus I feel like it’s worth putting out there, since I feel like I’ve done a good job designing it, and the overwhelming feedback from people who have played my Cube is in agreement.

Having played a number of Cubes, I became very interested in the format due to the wide variety of experience it provides. Thus, I set out to construct my own Cube. At first, I didn’t treat it as a real format, and thus my Cube was really bad. It was a collection of nearly nine hundred cards that I liked or found interesting, with the only real constraint being color balance. When I redid my Cube for real, I treated it as its own format, and built it from the ground up. Although many of the same cards from initial iterations of the Cube ended up in the final build, the result ended up being much better. This is a walkthrough of how I built my Cube. The result has been highly successful, and I feel that the methodology is good.

The first thing to remember is that your Cube is, in fact, a format in and of itself. As with every format, you must have specific goals in mind; otherwise, your format will falter. This is the main problem with most “new” formats, Commander included, but that’s an article for a different time. So, what are the goals of your format? What are the constraints of your format? These are the types of questions you want to be able to answer.

So, the first thing you need to determine is the goals of your format. As far as my Cube is concerned, these are what I considered my goals (in general) to be:

  • Create a fun Limited environment (for both Draft and Sealed)
  • Play with pet cards that are no longer available in Constructed formats or not powerful enough in Constructed formats
  • Explore some design space and redesign the format to align more with my own personal vision of color and design philosophy

Two of those goals are relatively straightforward; however, the third requires some more expansion. What specifically constitutes “fun” as far as Limited formats are concerned? After thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that a fun Limited format consists of two things that are true for fun formats in general and one that applies solely to Limited. These conditions are:

  • Format is well-balanced, meaning no strategy or card is particularly powerful in comparison with all other options.
  • Format provides a player with a wide variety of options strategically and thus a wide variety of options tactically as well.
  • Format contains no “dead” weight—i.e., last picks in every situation because the card is completely unplayable in any strategy. Cards like Scrambleverse, Angel's Mercy, Bountiful Harvest, and the Dragon's Claw cycle are good examples of this. This is different from cards that are playable a small percentage of the time, like Jace's Erasure or Tome Scour. These cards are fine, especially if they are applicable in more fringe strategies.

So, let’s talk about all three of these goals more specifically. The first two goals sort of go hand in hand, since naturally having a large number of equally good options will balance the format. The best way to do this is to counterpressure. Basic strategic pressures exist within any format. I have already discussed these principles in the articles in my series on the Circle of Predation, which are located here, here, and here.

Since the Circle of Predation is the basic skeleton of a format, enabling all four basic types of decks is necessary. Enabling the non-1-drop decks is easy, but it does require answering a couple questions:

  • What do I want my big spells to be like?
  • How heavily do I want to skew my counterspell decks toward defensive spells?

I wanted my big spells to be creatures like Keiga, the Tide Star and Ink-Eyes, Servant of the Oni instead of large spells like Cruel Ultimatum. Essentially, I wanted my big spells, for the most part, to be something you can recover from or fight. Of course, they were intended to be powerful, but I didn’t want too many “I-win-the-game” spells. Of course, I will include some, but even those spells have a mode that doesn’t win you the game automatically. I will say that forgetting that with regards to one of those spells—Rude Awakening—has already cost me a match in Cube draft. Rude Awakening can be cast without Entwine, even though it usually isn’t.

As far as my counterspell decks were concerned, I wanted them to be able to get away with low creature counts (like ten or so) reasonably easily and really low ones (like six to eight) on a good day. Below that I felt really shouldn’t be an option. The best way to do this was to control the frequency of my defensive spells. Removal is at a high premium in any format, so that will be taken high anyway, and by not providing a large number of counterspells and instant-speed card-draw, I force my defensive-spell decks to tap down occasionally, which is what I want.

As far as enabling 1-drop decks, many Cube writers, including Usman Jamil and Thea Steele over at StarCityGames.com, have spoken about the need to push aggressive decks in Cube, and they are right. Why, though? What is the function of an aggressive deck in a larger format?

I believe I’ve already talked about this, but perhaps I haven’t directly confronted it head-on. Aggro decks serve one purpose in any format—to be an external clock for interactivity. They need to be able to apply consistent pressure to kill you. This means that there needs to be a consistent quantity of support for the aggro/1-drop deck, which means that, as the designer, you need to ensure you hit that threshold.

As far as I’m concerned, that means having a sufficient number of 1-drops. 2-drops will almost always take care of themselves, so I’m not really going to worry about it. Also, I want the vast majority of aggro decks to be R/x, so I will focus on allowing that with my curve. Since 1-drops tend to go a little later, I can cheat on numbers a little bit, since they will occasionally wheel. As long as aggro drafters can get their hands on between four and eight quality 1-drops consistently, it should be fine.

Well, after thinking about all of that, we can finally get to the fun part—putting cards into our Cube. The first step will be to determine how large our Cube is. I settled on 650 cards as a good number. This was arrived at through the following simple calculation:

Eight-man draft: 8 players × 45 cards/player = 360 cards

This is the minimum for a Cube, in my opinion. However, I feel that Cubes should be larger than this. Being too close to 360 allows you to too accurately predict what will show up; thus, if a certain archetype is overpowered, you will be able to draft it. I feel that this is bad, so I only wanted about 60% of the Cube to show up in a typical eight-man. This removes the ability to rely on a single card or synergy showing up. Thus, I settled on 650 cards, which means 55% of my Cube will show up in an eight-man draft.

The next thing I did was to do a calculation for tribal synergies. I wanted tribal to be a relevant synergy, but not a required one. Thus, I looked at the most recent tribal block—Lorwyn. In Lorwyn Limited, you pretty much had to draft a tribe, so that set should give me a baseline as to what forces tribal synergies. I discovered that roughly one-third of each color was “tribal” in the color’s main tribe. This allowed me to settle on one-fifth as the number to shoot for in my Cube. This ideally would mean that tribal synergies were relevant, but would not show up in every draft.

From here, we get to mana, which is the basis of everything. Obviously, you need to have basic lands, but what about your nonbasics and artifact mana? Well, now we return back to considering the following question:

How strong do you want your (non-Green) mana-fixing to be?

Here, once again, we return to the idea of counterpressure. Having mana that is too strong is not a good thing, so just including the best mana-fixing is not an answer. I want the mana to support two colors with a splash easily, and three colors reasonably well. I also don’t really want to favor allied or enemy color combinations; thus, having lands that support both equally well is a goal. In addition, four- and five-color decks should require effort and have awkward/painful mana bases. With this idea in mind, we move to selecting the mana:

Auto-includes:

Starting with the strong five-color fixers makes sense. Given that I want a 650-card Cube, shooting for one hundred cards of each color and fifty each of lands, multicolored, and artifacts seems reasonable. That leaves roughly forty-five land slots. Given that I will want to include Mutavault (for tribal reasons), and likely will want a couple other random lands, shooting for four more cycles of lands seems to be good.

Cycle 1 – Vivid lands and Tri lands

Cycle 2 – Ravnica bounce lands

I think those inclusions are fairly self-explanatory. The nature of these lands is that they support any color combination. They are all strong mana-fixers that come with a cost, which is exactly the type of thing that I want. Now, we come to the real decision point. There were two pairs of land cycles that were competing for the final twenty slots.

Fetch land + Dual land vs. Pain land + Filter land

Here is where I did another analysis. Fetch + Dual is obviously the stronger interaction, but, like I said, that doesn’t make it the correct one. So, what does Fetch + Dual do that Pain + Filter doesn’t? In my experience, Fetch + Dual is better at supporting double or triple splashes of single-color-costed cards. You can splash a Doom Blade, a Pacifism, and a Fireball with Fetch + Dual if you have the right combination of lands. This is exactly the kind of thing I want to avoid.

Pain + Filter still supports four- and five-color mana bases, but it makes them far more awkward. The thing it does that Fetch + Dual fails to accomplish is support splashing of double-color-costed spells like Wrath of God. With the right combination of Pain + Filter, you can actually splash stuff like Wrath of God in an otherwise two-color deck, which is a strain for Fetch + Dual mana bases. This is exactly the sort of thing I want to encourage.

Looking at this, the choice is clear—Pain + Filter wins hands-down. Filling out my lands leaves me with the following list for Cube:

Lands (48)

Having finished the land, we come to artifact mana-fixers. Coalition Relic is already in, and there are a number of strong candidates for artifact mana. I definitely didn’t want to include the really strong mana rocks—Sol Ring, Mana Vault, Mana Crypt, Grim Monolith, Mox Diamond, Chrome Mox, Black Lotus, Jewelry. I feel that too often, having one of these cards just means your opponent isn’t playing the same game of Magic, and that isn’t a feeling I want. Chrome Mox and Mox Diamond are lesser culprits, but I’m not going to take a chance. My artifact mana is going to start at 2.

This still leaves a number of strong options, starting with the Ravnica signets. Mind Stone, Prophetic Prism, Prismatic Lens, Paradise Plume, Coldsteel Heart, Sphere of the Suns, Everflowing Chalice, and more are all very strong options. At one point, many of these cards were in the Cube, but eventually I decided that just the Ravnica signets were enough. This, alongside Coalition Relic, means that I have fifty-six non-Green mana-fixers. This is nearly 9% of the Cube overall and over one-third of my artifact, land, and multicolored slots, which means that mana-fixing will definitely be available in every pack.

This number might seem low to you until I reveal a method of color-balancing that a friend of mine first used. By color-sorting your Cube and making packs out of the color-sorted piles, you ensure a relatively even color distribution. This makes for a better drafting experience because no color is overrepresented and you can ensure your non-monocolored spells are well represented as well.

Because of the way my Cube is divided, I color-sort into six piles—one for each color and a larger artifact/land/multicolored pile. Then I have each player take eight cards from each pile, shuffle them together, and remove three cards at random. This gets each player’s stack to forty-five cards, which is exactly enough to make three packs to draft with. It also ensures relatively even representation for all colors in the draft. The side effect is to ensure that there will statistically be about three non-Green mana-fixers in each person’s pile. This is enough to ensure that it will likely be available, but not too available. Thus, each player will be forced to make decisions as to how high he wants to take his mana. This is exactly what I want.

Mana is arguably the single most important factor in all of Magic. Everything depends on mana, and thus, everything starts with mana. The mana for Cube shapes the entire drafting experience for the format. Too weak, and your drafters will have trouble casting the spells they want to cast, which is no fun. Too strong, and you will limit the number of available strategies, since splashing becomes incredibly easy. There is a sweet spot you have to hit with mana, and, as I demonstrated with the Fetch land + Dual land discussion, the strongest mana is not always the right answer.

Anyway, that’s the start of this. I’ll finish up artifacts/multicolored next time and then dive into the colored stuff.

Until next time,

Chingsung Chang

Conelead most everywhere and on MTGO

Khan32k5 at gmail dot com

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