With the huge growth in popularity of cube drafting over the past several years, much has been written about the format. I haven’t read any of it, preferring to study through ChannelFireball videos and my own experience. I have been cube drafting for three years, which began with Evan Erwin’s cube card-for-card. With probably fifty drafts of that format, thirty drafts/sealed decks of a similar cube, several drafts of a tribal cube, and several drafts of various other man-made limited formats, I have formed many opinions about what makes a cube fun to play. The objective of this article is to articulate and justify those opinions through the discussion of an iteration of cube maintenance.
I began work on my own cube several months ago with an overambitious, five-thousand count “complexity cube”, the modus operandi of which was to maximize the occurrence of unusual card interactions. Were I to drop out of school and somehow have access to an entire card shop, I might be able to make this format adequately enjoyable, but in reality it was hopeless. Aside from that, I quickly learned that being able to play a cube and being able to build one are very different things. The size of the cube forced me to shift the mana cost bell curve to the left to avoid standard deviant distributions with all high casting cost creatures. Picking a card as a high-upside gamble on getting another card with a highly synergistic interaction was rarely +EV compared to taking something that was effectively a Hill Giant or a Shock. Pushing themes was really tough. Etc.
The Graveyard Cube is born
Deciding I had a long way to go before I could design something as broadly defined as a “complexity cube”, I settled on making a thematic cube that had a lot of creative breathing room, but also had a narrow enough set of motifs to quickly rule out most cards in the Magic universe. I settled on using the graveyard as a theme. This was around the time Innistrad had just come out, and given that it was easily the most polished draft format ever design-wise, I didn’t have to do much of a paradigm shift–I could just look at what I appreciate about Innistrad and use that as my first iteration.
Austin Hambrick, my cube-design comrade, prefers to look through every card on Gatherer and order whatever he wants from Pat’s Games in order to perfect his cube. This is a valid preference, but I like to take a more machine-learning style approach, looking through giant stacks of cards in order to build each iteration. Not only do I get the nostalgic warm fuzzies from physically holding cards I haven’t played with in years, but it gives the cube a suboptimal roughness that can take it in unexpected directions. For example, I was not proud of The Graveyard Cube 1.0 because it tried to do too much and wasn’t stressing any of the subthemes enough, but that’s because I was making due with the set of cards I had looked at. At this point, after doing many drafts and looking through many cards, I have excised certain small themes such as emphases on enchantment and artifact recurrence and stressed others, such as 187s and soulshift. This happened organically, largely based on the cards I have had immediate access to. This is not to say they are gone for good. On the contrary, the cards that get removed as Austin and I build cubes are cached in the “Mothership Cube”, a set of color-sorted 5000 count boxes cards that houses a wealth of chaff-free inspiration. All of that being said, I can’t deny that some of the motivation for my iterative strategy is simply not wanting to go through the online parsing and purchasing process. While I am obsessed with managing the construction and analysis of my cube as much as the actual games with it, I’ll leave the more surgical, measured approach to Austin.
State of the Cube
Below is the entire cube, prior to the refurbishment that this article focuses on. There were (and will always be) some glitches to iron out. Cards with an asterisk ended up being cut.
COLOR: Red TOTAL: 84 6cc Goretusk Firebeast Firemaw Kavu Flayer of the Hatebound Rage Thrower Charmbreaker Devils Goblin Marshall Thundermare Slice and Dice Chandra Ablaze 5cc Ogre Savant Zealous Conscripts Reckless Wurm Anarchist Caldera Hellion Magmaw Jagged Lightning Lightning Surge Savage Beating Pardic Arsonist 4cc Avalanche Riders Petravark Chainflinger Changeling Berserker Seismic Mage* Lavaborn Muse Skyfire Kirin Swelter Temporary Insanity Seize the Day Violent Eruption Solar Blast 3cc Carbonize Pillage Brimstone Volley Threaten Fiery Temper Firecat Blitz Rolling Temblor Yamabushi's Flame Volt Charge Demoralize Fires of Undeath Knollspine Invocation Arc Lightning Unearthly Blizzard Fire Imp Hissing Iguanar Rockslide Elemental Mudbutton Torchling Vithian Stinger Ghitu Slinger Arms Dealer Bogarden Firefiend Adamaro, First to Suffer Arc Mage Thunderthrash Elder Orcish Bloodpainter Gathan Raiders Tuktuk the Explorer 2cc Recoup Fiery Fall Fiery Conclusion Scorching Lava Kaervek's Torch Goblin Bombardment Fire Whip Desperate Ravings Disentegrate Tin Street Hooligan Mogg War Marshall 1cc Geistflame Lightning Axe Pillar of Flame Flame Jab Firestorm Lava Dart Reckless Charge Reckless Abandon Magma Spray Firebolt Flame Slash Kris Mage Orcish Lumberjack Mogg Fanatic COLOR: White Total: 72 7cc Hour of Reckoning 6cc Exclusion Ritual Graven Dominator 5cc Second Thoughts Angel of Flight Alabaster Changeling Hero Belfry Spirit Hundred-Talon Kami Totem-Guide Hartebeest* Night-Captain of Eos Stormfront Riders Gelestial Gatekeeper Phantom Flock Glory 4cc Sigil of the New Dawn Faith's Fetters Ray of Distortion Wrath of God Cenn's Enlistment Glimmerpoint Stag Dust Elemental Sanctum Gargoyle Moonlit Strider Windborn Muse Sandsower Celestial Crusader Mausoleum Guard 3cc Remember the Fallen Crib Swap Prismatic Strands Embolden Oblivion Ring Radiant's Judgment Fiend Hunter Kabuto Moth Flickerwisp Order of Whiteclay Monk Idealist Azorius Herald Auramancer Reborn Hero Stonecloaker Waxmane Baku Nomad Decoy Shrieking Gargoyle Aven Mindcensor Soulsworn Jury 2cc Terash's Verdict Feeling of Dread Otherworldly Journey Journey to Nowhere Disenchant Liberate Last Breath Revoke Existence Momentary Blink Vengeful Dreams Kami of Ancient Law Angelic Page Pteron Ghost Spectral Rider Patrol Hound Ghost Warden Loyal Cathar Phantom Nomad 1cc Cloudshift Condemn Cho-Arrim Alchemist Doomed Traveler Spurnmage Advocate Benevolent Bodyguard COLOR: Artifact Total: 27 5cc Clone Shell Precursor Golem 4cc Dingus Staff Skull Catapult Molten-Tail Masticore Junktroller Solemn Simulacrum 3cc Eye of Yawgmoth Cloudstone Curio Pilgrim's Eye Goblin Replica Ticking Gnomes Vulshok Replica Moriok Replica 2cc Culling Dais Prophetic Prism Prismatic Lens Mask of Memory Myr Retriever Myr Sire Millikin Perilous Myr 1cc Sylvok Lifestaff Terrarion Chromatic Star Horizon Spellbomb Nihil Spellbomb Color: LAND Total: 17 Cephalid Coliseum Centaur Garden Shimmering Grotto Lonely Sandbar Temple of the False God Ancient Zuggurat Treetop Village Barbarian Ring Buried Ruin Moorland Haunt Tranquil Thicket Forgotten Cave Barren Moor Terramorphic Expanse Evolving Wilds Ghitu Encampment Terminal Moraine Faerie Conclave Color: GREEN Total: 97 7cc Stone-Tongue Basilisk Roar of the Wurm 6cc Grim Flowering Deadwood Treefolk Phantom Wurm Howlgeist 5cc Strength of Cedars Skullmulcher Arrogant Wurm Grizzly Fate Beast Attack Acidic Slime Venerable Kumo Indrik Stomphowler Aerie Ouphes Metamorphic Wurm Savage Conception Dowsing Shaman Seedguide Ash* Spider Spawning Gigapede Golgari Grave Troll Mitotic Slime* 4cc Momentous Fall Slice in Twain Foster Monstrify Tribal Unity Greater Mossdog Symbiotic Elf Centaur Chieftain Krosan Beast Oracle of Mull Daya* Possessed Centaur* Squirrel Wrangler Burr Grafter Phantom Centaur Kodama of the South Tree Algae Gharial* Festerhide Boar Timbermare Springing Tiger Lumberknot Simian Brawler 3cc Elephant Guide Unchecked Growth Krosan Tusker Holistic Wisdom Primal Growth Recollect Fecundity Wild Hunger Harrow Bearscape Far Wanderings Tilling Treefolk Elder Pine of Jukai Splinterfright Spikefeeder Borderland Ranger Cartographer Wood Elves Phantom Tiger Kami of the Hunt Yavimaya Granger* Phantom Nantuko Uktabi Orangutan* Carven Caryatid Citanul Woodreaders* Mul Daya Channelers* 2cc Evolution Charm Travel Preparations* Moment's Peace Nostalgic Dreams Life from the Loam Rites of Spring* Resize Mulch Regrowth Wirewood Herald* Forcemage Advocate Hermit Druid Sakura-Tribe Elder Multani's Acolyte Nantuko Tracer Werebear Dawnstrider Loam Dweller Woodland Changeling 1cc Thrill of the Hunt* Rancor Quirion Ranger Crop Rotation Greenseeker Groundskeeper Elvish Skysweepter* Basking Rootwalla Diligent Farmhand Tinder Wall Color: GOLD Total: 54 7cc Phantom Nishoba 6cc Cauldron Dance Vengeful Rebirth Drooling Groodion* Nucklavee 5cc Slave of Bolas* Marrow Chomper Giant Ambush Beetle* Izzet Chronarch 4cc Vanish into Memory Hellhole Rats* Murderous Redcap Kathari Remnant* Desecrator Hag Grazing Kelpie 3cc Mortify Goblin Trenches* Putrefy Electrolyze Snakeform Blightning Recoil Mercy Killing Savage Twister* Psychatog* Selkie Hedge-Mage Kathari Bomber* Restless Apparition Teysa, Orzhov Scion Geist of Saint Traft Wistful Selkie* Rendclaw Troll Hag Hedge-Mage Orzhov Pontiff Shambling Shell Centaur Safeguard Jund Sojourners* Plaxcaster Frogling 2cc Turn to Mist Agony Warp* Glimpse the Unthinkable Terminate Hull Breach Mask of Riddles* Lightning Helix Eladamri's Call Lurking Informant Cavern Harpy Coiling Oracle* Mistmeadow Witch Gruul Guildmage Dimir Guildmage Selesnya Guildmage 1cc Seedcradle Witch Color: BLACK Total: 99 7cc Pus Kami Absorb Vis* 6cc Pull Under Dark Withering Kami of Lunacy Abyssal Horror* Extractor Demon Grixis Slavedriver 5cc Cruel Revival Torrent of Souls Screams of the Damned* Unburial Rites He Who Hungers Treacherous Vampire Scuttling Death Coffin Puppets Morkrut Banshee Nested Ghoul 4cc Makeshift Mannequin Seize the Soul Sever the Bloodline Death Pulse Ritual of the Machine Childhood Horror Highway Robber* Braids, Cabal Minion Falkenrath Noble Gravedigger Horobi, Death's Wail Lingering Tormentor Ichorid Infernal Kirin Phyrexian Defiler* Mausoleum Turnkey Moan of the Unhallowed Razorjaw Oni Faceless Butcher Bala Ged Scorpion* Disease Carrier* Skinrender Shambling Swarm 3cc Last Rites* Dark Banishing Swat Recover* Footsteps of the Goryo Buried Alive Rotlung Reanimator Searchlight Geist* Dusk Urchins Pawn of Ulamog* Ghoulraiser Plague Spitter* Stinkweed Imp Lord of the Undead Kami of the Waning Moon Infernal Caretaker Phyrexian Rager Putrid Raptor Doomed Necromancer Mercenary Knight* 2cc Skeletal Scrying Suffer the Past Diabolic Intent Diabolic Edict Animate Dead Last Gasp Grasp of Darkness Disturbed Burial* Viscera Dragger Decompose* Gempalm Polluter Toxic Stench Smother Stitch Together Dregscape Zombie Blind Creeper* Mesmeric Fiend* Ravenous Rats* Crypt Creeper Apprentice Necromancer Nether Traitor Nezumi Graverobber Cruel Deceiver 1cc Vendetta Ghastly Demise Fade from Memory Bloodchief Ascension Coffin Purge* Cremate Darkblast Fume Spitter Festering Goblin Plagued Rusalka Putrid Imp Ghost-lit Stalker Carnophage Carrion Feeder Vampire Lacerator Color: BLUE Total: 94 8cc Kederekt Leviathan 7cc Phyrexian Ingester Palinchron* 6cc Skaab Goliath Ethereal Usher 5cc Ancestral Memories Followed Footsteps* Scrivener Shinx of Lost Truths Mnemonic Wall Murder of Crows Riptide Shapeshifter River Kelpie Teller of Tales 4cc Mystic Retrieval Chamber of Manipulation Careful Consideration Mystical Teachings Choking Tethers Cytoplast Manipulator Mist Raven Makeshift Mauler Troublesome Spirit Wormfang Crab Secretkeeper Fatestitcher Faerie Mechanist Wonder 3cc Esper Sojourners* Rescind Flash of Insight* Ghostly Flicker Flux Probe Oona's Grace Aethersnipe Forbidden Alchemy Circular Logic Compulsive Research Three Wishes* Catalog Attunement Civilized Scholar Scrapskin Drake* Pestermite Fettergeist Armored Skaab Spawnbroker Callous Oppressor Raven Familiar Wurmfang Drake Lantern Spirit Drift of Phantasms Cephalid Looter* Frontline Sage* Latch Seeker Aether Adept Brackwater Elemental Stormbound Geist Stitched Drake Kathari Screecher* 2cc Drifting Djinn Repeal Confound Compulsion Peel from Reality Consuming Vortex Trade Routes Call to Heel Trickbind Screeching Skaab Cephalid Vandal* Surveilling Sprite Voidmage Prodigy Mindshrieker Deranged Assistant* Mindshrieker Aquamoeba Thought Courier Alchemist's Apprentice* Merfolk Looter* Looter il-Kor 1cc Silent Departure Saving Grasp Mark of Eviction Extract* Brainstorm* Seal of Removal* Chain of Vapor Preordain* Trickster Mage Hedron Crab Enclave Cryptologist* Drowned Rusalka
At the beginning of this iteration, I had my cube, a 5000-count box half-full of sorted Cube Mothership, and three or four 100-count boxes of unsorted cards that needed to be merged with the Mothership. I began by sorting the 100-count boxes by color as I looked through them for cards that could potentially go into my cube. Then I set the sorted piles aside and began going through the Mothership by color, taking out any cards that caught my fancy as a potential inclusion to this iteration. After finishing each individual color, I added the corresponding color from the previously unsorted 100-count boxes.
Order of Operations
At that point, there were many options for how to go about adding and removing cards. I tried to think about what macro-cubic issues I was trying to solve. For example, I have one problem that can plague any cube that tries to push a theme while also including inherently solid cards. I believe that lots of gold cards and fixers lead to players taking cards due to their power level in a vacuum as opposed to how they might interact synergistically with other cards of variable value. I wanted to strengthen the incentive to gamble on high-upside jank with early picks. Nobody ever ends up with too few playables because the base card quality is so high, but people would rather spend their gamble on an early Lightning Helix they might not end up playing because of mana restrictions than on an Ichorid they might not end up playing because Ichorid is a pretty serious hit-or-miss depending on what support cards you get. The difference between these gambles is that if players are steered in the direction of volatile jank, the decks end up characterized by that jank, giving the draft a more unique flavor. Put another way: gold cards generally have a higher quality-to-converted-mana-cost ratio, and if players can cast a 3cc gold card like Naya Charm with an average mana base, they have no reason to take Footsteps of the Goryo over it early on.
I state this specific problem not because it informs the entire remainder of my procedure, but because it is an example how I develop rules for the framework of cutting/adding cards. With a pile of cards to add and a rough set of alteration rules in my head, I made a roadmap for refurbishment:
1. Add in all artifact, gold, and land; they were sparingly, judiciously selected from the Mothership for high impact
2. Add in all red and white cards because they have the lowest counts among the five colors
3. Cut white, green, blue, and black cards liberally because there are plenty of replacements to put in; red is the limiting reagent at 101 cards
4. Add in green, blue, and black cards until their counts are up to 101
5. Cut artifact, land, and gold cards liberally
5. Cut cards from everywhere, maintaining equal color distribution, until everything fits in the box
My intent was to get the cards equilibrated across colors, compare the size of all cards to the size of the box, and begin cutting. This process is all about speed and intuition, and I don’t want to give the impression that I was following a recipe. Not only would that be impractical, it would spoil the experience. My method is messy and heuristic. I had many piles, sorted and unsorted, around the table. I cached cards I removed from the cube and went through the caches every once in awhile to see if my fancies had changed in the minutes or hours since removing them.
In the above paragraphs, I made an effort to describe the deconstruction process in the abstract. As the contents of the cube became increasingly defined, so did the pile of cards that came very close to making the cut. What follows is a log of changes which exemplify more specific directions, subtle and not, that I am taking the cube in, with respect to those cards I left out:
Seedguide Ash: the cube is more about cheap beaters and the board state should evolve quickly, so the high end needs to be more about creatures with high-impact board presence/187 or very high-impact leave-play abilities
Somberwald Spider: morbid can be awkward to trigger and I don’t want to have too much of it, so I’m opting for just Festerhide Boar and Ulvenwald Bear since they are more closely aligned with the aggression level
Possessed Centaur: most of the drafts I do are heads up, and given that he’s 2GG to cast, you are probably the only base green player, making his activated ability irrelevant
Oracle of Mul Daya/Channelers of Mul Daya: interesting with mill but ultimately too off-theme
Mitotic Slime: usability issues; this card is an example of great top-down design but is very annoying to play with in practice due to the confusing variety of slime sizes
Borderland Ranger: Fertilid, Kodama’s Reach, Krosan Tusker, and Harrow all fill similar functions while interacting more copacetically with current themes
Battle Screech: flashback cards in this cube should be readily castable upon being discarded or milled
Spiketail Hatchling: dreams of activating morbid with this guy were misleading; it’s hard to use this guy to leverage Raise Dead effects and threshold proactively
Courier’s Capsule/Etherium Astrolabe: nice with Sanctum Gargoyle, Remember the Fallen and not much else; relics from an earlier iteration where artifacts were more important
Three Wishes: who has time to read all the text on this card?
Merfolk Looter/Cephalid Looter/Cephalid Broker: redundant, not aggresssive enough
Cloudseeder: there’s not a great reason this card couldn’t make it in later; I almost cut Thought Courier for it; this is a good example of a card happening to strike me in the gut the wrong way for whatever reason, and clearly belongs in a cache
Preordain/Brainstorm: I’m trying to cut cards with almost pure upside in favor of a high jank quota
Pestermite/Deceiver Exarch: they belong in too many decks; a reminder that players should be rewarded for archetypal picks, not general-purpose picks
Enclave Cryptologist: I want early turns to be spent developing board position, not leveling up an 0/1; also adds unneeded complexity to a format that presses the limit of enjoyable board complication levels
Followed Footsteps: optimistically, a really cool card for creating an engine of some sort; in practice, a 5cc do-nothing
Extract: if I end up with more spellshapers in the cube, I will put this back in since it can be pitched late game; it can also be very strong vs. a deck with Genesis or Life from the Loam, particularly if you have no other exiling
Palinchron: I’ll leave the theme-agnostic powerhouses to other cubes
Cephalid Vandal: the cube is currently more about aggression than crazy, creative engines that this guy can enable
Mark of Eviction: wasn’t seeing any play; kind of a 1cc Followed Footsteps
Flash of Insight: this cut was mostly about keeping decks cohesive and having cards consistently agree with the objective they wanted to accomplish; once I feel like the cube is polished and the decks are running very smoothly, I could add cards such as this that compels a player to do something antithetic to the rest of the cube (that is, removing cards from their graveyard); another highly cached card
Deranged Assistant: simply not good enough; the cube might need a higher end to make this guy have enough value in the later stages of the game
Scrapskin Drake: there are enough blue zombies already
Esper Sojourners/Jund Sojourners: these guys fulfilled an interesting role of being a trick that put a spin on the value of Raise Dead effects, but I didn’t like the aesthetic of having them come up when a pack was being laid out during a Rochester draft, especially knowing that they were the only two of a five-sojourner cycle
Kathari Screecher: if only it were a bird zombie
Krovikan Sorcerer: a sweet looter, but a little too expensive
Seismic Mage: the one red card I cut, but I don’t think I need to go into detail why
Vivid lands: goes along with the anti-fixer argument above
Psychatog/Goblin Trenches/Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter: goes along with the anti-gold argument above
I have now outlined the deconstruction process in gratuitous detail. In the next article, I intend to focus on what cards I ended up adding and why, as well as the updated cube list in its entirety. Thank you for reading.