One of the biggest complaint from players plying Cube is that many of the Cube’s matches feel like mirror matches, because each deck is just running out generically good cards. In particular cards that introduced no real constraints or interactions that made decks feel unique.
Card Quality vs. Card Synergy
At a simplistic level, the source of a Magic deck’s power can be placed along an axis with card quality at one end and card synergy on the other. In the context of this diagram, the decks that can create a complaint sit on the far left side of the spectrum: decks dominated by card quality. We want to shift them, by some degree, to the right.
We can add synergies to our environment, but they won’t actually matter if the most effective strategy is to ignore these synergies and just jam the best cards. To this effect, we need to lower the efficacy of the context-independent powerful cards. By doing so, you give room for your synergies and archetypes to shine. Do note that a format still needs a certain degree of “good stuff” to function, but it’s important to critically evaluate your strong cards and consider whether they are overshadowing or supporting your design goals. Beyond this, I’ve found the following guidelines to be useful when developing Cube archetypes.
Guidelines for Archetype Design
- Make your Cube about something : A “vanilla” Cube shares many qualities with Magic’s core sets: functional and fun to play, but perhaps lacking some of the texture and feeling of Magic’s expert level sets. If you want to have unique feeling decks and matchups, start by pushing your design space in some directions. It’s helpful to write these down explicitly. What themes and subthemes does your Cube support?
- Tailor your basic effects to your archetypes’ needs : With few exceptions, every Cube will comprise many basic effects: counterspells, card draw, removal, ramp, etc. Look for ways to fill these slots with playable cards that support your themes.
- Test cards for independent playability : Whenever you include a synergy-based card, test whether it can be played outside of its ideal environment. For example, play Executioner’s Capsule in a deck that doesn’t care about artifacts. Does it function? Do you feel hamstrung? Drafters may prefer Doom Blade over Executioner’s Capsule, but they’ll take and play the latter when that’s what’s available. And sometimes they’ll build an interesting and unique artifact deck that includes Executioner’s Capsule. As a designer, you create an environment with its own scarcities. By including synergistic yet functional cards, we allow ourselves to support more themes. Furthermore, we create competing demand for cards among our drafters (yay), and open the possibility for decks that hybridize various mechanics and themes. This makes the drafting environment far more fluid and dynamic. In general that’s not to say that there’s no home in Cube for a few narrower, context dependent cards. It’s important that we limit the density of this type of card, just as Wizards does by printing such effects at uncommon rarity or higher.
- Eliminate the “leap of faith” : Drafters naturally tend to follow the strength in their packs, and select cards that complement the qualities of their previously selected picks. It’s important that your drafters can end up in your archetypes through this process. If a certain deck can only be played when forced, there’s a glaring red flag. I encountered this in my early Cube design attempts when trying to support archetypes like storm, and more recently with my implementation of a life gain archetype. The archetype’s main incentive card was Ajani’s Pridemate. A 2/2 for 2 is well below the curve for my Cube’s standards, and although the deck had a sufficient win rate when assembled, it was only played when a drafter decided to force it. When an archetype requires forcing, that’s generally an indication that a large proportion of its cards have failed the independent playability test.
- Include flexible enablers : For example: Primal Command and Plow Under compete for a slot. Although Plow Under is a powerful blunt tool, the Command can help define a deck with its flexibility. One of my favorite drafts combined Primeval Titan and Volrath’s Stronghold, with the Command serving as a key engine piece. It tutored for the Titan while buying time, and sweeping away graveyards and problem permanents.
- Recognize false synergies : False synergies come in two varieties:
a) The unnecessary synergy: you’ve decided on a +1/+1 counter theme for you lower powered Cube, and opt to run a bomb that you think is good for the “synergy”. The mostly inconsequential synergy is overshadowed by the overpowered bomb you just put in your environment.
b) The “these don’t actually go in the same deck” synergy: 2 cards that synergize on paper, but their function is different enough that they never end up in the same deck.
- Build the overlap between archetypes : Once you’ve established a number of archetypes, indulge in the designer-pleasure of finding cards that lie in the intersection of multiple archetypes. The end result of making cards that crisscross solutions is that you increase the amount of potential synergy. As a nice side benefit, you also lessen repetition in game play as you allow players more choices in how to customize their strategy.
The Power Pyramid
I want to close by talking briefly about design space. Consider Magic’s card pool as a pyramid.
On the vertical axis we have the power level of our environment. The cross-section of the pyramid at any given height represents the number of playable cards at that power level. At a high power level, too many cards are simply too inneffectual to make the cut. As we lower the power to “retail draft set”, pretty much all the cards and themes from Magic’s history become viable. Note that some cards and effects become game-breaking as we lower the overall power level of a set.
When trying to open up new design space, you may have success with three techniques:
- Breaking singleton : By including a high density of certain effects, you open up certain cards that aren’t otherwise very playable. A card that isn’t played even in the average 720-card Cube, can be played in your Cube because you include many cards that synergize well with it thanks to the fact of breaking singleton.
- Lowering power level : At a lower power level, you have far more cards at your disposal, allowing you to support themes that might not have had representation at a more traditional Cube’s power level.
- Designing new cards : This is the approach Wizards of the Coast takes for their new sets, as well as the route taken by Cube designers who work with errata or entirely custom cards. In the context of our pyramid metaphor, this is the equivalent of piling clay onto the side in order to build a balcony. We are creating design space where none existed.
If you are interested in cube design and custom card design for cube I recommend going to Jason Waddell’s Design Forum.
Thanks for reading.