CubeTutor Champion Contest Champion

Far too long ago, I announced a CubeTutor design contest, where participants were tasked with shaking off seasons of dust off my cube and bringing it into the present day. The not-so-subtle goal was to get myself excited about cubing again. From that perspective, mission accomplished.

As for the contest itself, you’ve all noticed that I’ve dragged my feet on announcing a winner. The blame lies on me for designing the contest in the way that I did. The submissions were all pretty great, but crowning a winner has been difficult.

Grillo’s submission seemed brilliant in spots, but doubling and trippling down on ETB Tapped lands and cutting aggressive black 1-drops (while retaining control bombs like Grave and Inferno Titan) feels like a pretty significant departure. There are some alterations made to compensate (white can no longer wipe the board with 4 mana), but on the whole it feels like a solid entry that I don’t personally identify with.

Aoeret’s list intrigues me with double Collected Company and generally aggressive singleton breaking, but then there’s the eyesore of triple Pridemate, effectively giving me flashbacks of a memory I had tried to repress.

Ultimately, the list I chose was Kirblinx’s, whose wonderful and elaborate submission I’ve posed in the linked forum thread. This was the entry I came to over and over again when revising my own cube.

That said, I don’t agree with all of Kirblinx’s design decisions. In particular, he proposes replacing Shocklands with Battle Lands, a change that dramatically alters the balance of the environment, and not for the better. If the current Standard environment serves as any indication, the Battle-Fetch dynamic really emphasizes Turn 3 and 4 plays, and that’s with on-color fetches being used. In cube, you usually end up with an assortment of fetches that can grab your on-color dual lands, and if these dual lands enter the battlefield tapped, aggro is already opening the game on the back foot.

I do agree that they are great in terms of adding meaningful sequencing decisions, but I would want to build an environment around them, not slot them into an environment tuned to ETB untapped mana sources.

Congratulations to Kirblinx, our CubeTutor Champion Contest Champion!

Honorable mentions:

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Learning From Pauper—A Study in Aggression

By: Grillo_Parlante

As it’s been several months since I last wrote about my evidently favorite magic topic—pauper aggro decks—I figured it was about time I returned to the well. I would like to do a more theoretical breakdown of how these decks function, and how some of their dynamics can help guide aggro design in cube.

Formats are defined by their mana, and one aspect that both cube and pauper share is that the mana is not great. Most cube design follows a fairly basic structure, which allocates about 11-12% of its space to land based mana fixing. If you look at Frank Karsten’s work in this article, the conclusions are pretty ugly.

As far as cube is concerned, this is poor news for two color aggro in general, worse news for two color aggro running double color spells, and fairly dire news for three color aggro.

In pauper, aggro decks are naturally divided along two strategic lines: mono-colored decks capable of curve outs (albeit perhaps not as consistently as other formats), and multi-color decks that devote the early turns to setup, with a big aggressive payoff once they do. This is due to the format’s comes-into-play-tapped lands (CIPT lands). In addition, cube tends to struggle with presenting a sufficient density of playable one drops for aggro without watering down the colored sections, further suggesting the value of giving consideration to turn two design.

While this should not be seen as a strict strategic divide—even within the context of pauper—it is a useful model in terms of thinking about cube aggro design as it helps address a central issue within the archetype. There just is very limited design space (in both pauper and cube) when it comes to two power creatures that cost one mana. If your aggro strategy is based around consistent curve outs, those decks are in danger of missing spots on their curve, or stumbling on mana, and then being crushed when the opponent’s grossly superior card quality is brought to bear a few turns later.

The harsh reality is that certain aggro decks are going to constantly be in danger of being a turn behind whatever else is going on in the environment; all because of a certain type of negative variance that uniquely affects them. However, I find that pauper aggro decks tend to do several things much better than their brethren in other constructed formats: namely, that they are very good at making up for lost time.

These things are easier to show than talk about in the abstract, so we are going to be doing a few deck techs. Of course, it’s generally undesirable to attempt a direct port of any constructed deck to cube, but hopefully we can unpack some concepts.

Goblins—Aggressive Control

jsiri84 (1st Place, Magic Online Pauper Premier Event on 3/8/14)

Creatures (31)
Goblin Arsonist
Goblin Bushwhacker
Goblin Cohort
Goblin Matron
Goblin Sledder
Mogg Conscripts
Mogg Raider
Mogg War Marshal

Spells (11)
Death Spark
Flame Slash
Lightning Bolt
Sylvok Lifestaff

Lands (18)
18 Mountain
Sideboard (15)
Flame Slash
Flaring Pain
Gorilla Shaman
Smash to Smithereens
Sylvok Lifestaff

This is a mono-colored list, which has a gameplan of steady pressure, building up to an explosive turn, supported by flexible aggro-control elements. Though a turn one aggro deck, it still is susceptible to stumbles due to its creature base (lots of 1/1s) or from mana screw. This is fairly analogous to the difficulty of many cube aggro decks, which may have the raw tools to curve out, but sometimes variance will get in their way.

Goblins is a highly synergistic deck, built around sacrifice interactions, and could variously be described as horizontal, recursive, sacrifice, or aristocrats aggro. Let’s pick out the key elements, so as to distill the core concepts into something useful to designers, rather than focusing on nomenclature.

Ability to beat removal: Being a deck built around sacrifice synergies, Goblins has a certain natural resilience to strategies that want to kill its creatures The key pieces are:

  • Sacrifice outlets. Mogg Raider and Goblin Sledder buff key board pieces beyond the range of damage based removal. The board may temporarily contract; but it can be surprisingly difficult to completely eradicate the deck’s board presence.

Ability to beat the board: Goblins has surprisingly excellent tools to help it play a more deliberate game, even shifting into a hard control position in certain matchups. It has repeat sources of removal in the form of Sparksmith and Death Spark, and its main aggressive pieces can play a surprisingly effective defensive game through stat boosting and chump blockers. It also has access to red’s flexible burn suite, which can be used either as reach, or as spot removal.

It can also close out games by fanning out its threats, attacking around an opposing line, before sacrificing its blocked board to buff one unblocked threat for lethal.

Ability to exert burst damage. It also has explosive haymakers, the specter of which hangs over every interaction. The tool of choice is Goblin Bushwhacker, which can close out a game in rapid, brutal fashion.

Goblins can leverage that perceived pressure to good effect. Perceived pressure means that while a deck may have an early game built around steady pressure, it doesn’t necessarily have to concern itself with curving out, and can force an opponent to play around spells in hand that are capable of producing lethal on the spot.

Curving out with a 2/2 into two more 2/2 creatures is very powerful; but if your aggro decks are going to have trouble making those types of plays consistently, you have to give them a game plan for the mid or late game. Goblins has the tools to pursue a more deliberate gameplan, compensating for early stumbles with flexible aggro-control tools, allowing it to play towards a haymaker finish powerful enough to make up for early stumbles.

Affinity—Turn Two Explosion

_Pain_ (August 2015)

Creatures (16)
Carapace Forger
Myr Enforcer

Spells (27)
Galvanic Blast
Perilous Research
Chromatic Star
Flayer Husk
Prophetic Prism
Springleaf Drum

Lands (17)
Ancient Den
Darksteel Citadel
Great Furnace
Seat of the Synod
Tree of Tales
Sideboard (15)
Relic of Progenitus
Ancient Grudge

One of the reasons why I think so many cube designers have a hard time incorporating turn two aggro principles into their environments is that most constructed turn two aggro decks are just poor specimens for direct ports.

For example, this pauper affinity deck follows a fairly standard turn two aggro blue print: it uses the first couple turns to setup (in this case playing out artifacts to power the affinity mechanic) before making a series of powerful turn three or turn four plays that compensate for having ceded over the early game. Affinity achieves this by playing out a small army of 4/4s for little or no mana.

Another example would be the hexproof deck, which wants to spend the early game setting up, before coming across with a giant boggle whose size and slew of keywords more than compensate for the lost time—raw power justifying the time spent maneuvering the deck into that position.

The problem with all of these strategies in cube, however, is that they tend to require narrow mechanics. If cube already has a difficult time making curve-out strategies consistent, than its going to have an even harder time providing infect redundancy, enough artifacts to make metal craft or affinity consistent, and the density of good auras to make an aura based aggro mechanic function. The above deck, requiring its multitude of artifact lands to even function, would be a nightmare to attempt to recreate.

While I don’t think it’s impossible to recreate true turn two aggro mechanics in cube (and I’ve had some success at lower power with heroic and double strike) it’s probably more important to recognize that cube is its own beast, and that aggro decks really just want tools to make up for the time lost due to cube’s negative variance. Flexible board interaction tools, the ability to beat removal, and access to explosive plays that compensate for lost time, are all good directions to go.

Fortunately, there is quite a bit of creative space as to how exactly one can go about achieving these elements.

Stompy—Disruptive Aggro

Jsiri84 (July 2013)

Creatures (25)
Quirion Ranger
Young Wolf
Nettle Sentinel
Skarrgan Pit-Skulk
Garruk’s Companion
Wild Mongrel
Shinen of Life’s Roar

Spells (18)
Vines of Vastwood
Gather Courage

Lands (17)
17 Forest
Sideboard (15)
Scattershot Archer
Leaf Arrow
Gleeful Sabotage
Hunger of the Howlpack
Viridian Longbow

Here we have a vertical growth strategy, where the growth pieces also function as disruption, and provide the ability to setup haymaker plays should the initial curve-out be stunted. In certain ways, Stompy is reminiscent of a fish deck; in other ways, it is reminiscent of an infect deck. However, it has traded Daze, islandwalk, and lords, in favor of disruptive pump and power based unblockablity. Rather than trying to create a direct port of a mono-blue deck, which never could have worked, stompy reinvents the disruption paradigm into something that thrives within its format’s constraints. Pauper has a focus on damage, targeted, and edict based removal, which is reflected in stompy via vertical growth, hexproof, and undying.

Pauper aggro decks also generally feature evasive tools to prevent their pressure from being shut off simply by an opponent’s wall of blockers. The goblins deck could go horizontal around a board and pump a single creature to lethal, and this deck runs a lot of conditional evasion pieces to allow it to continually apply pressure.

Access to an explosive, pump-based kill gives the deck a playstyle that feels strangely like an infect deck: it can deal incremental damage while protecting its threats, positioning itself for one big turn. An opponent has to be wary of how they time their removal, and stay attentive to the unseen pressure represented by the pump spells.

Stompy takes a lot of aggro concepts people have a tendency to think about narrowly, and rethinks the implementation of disruption and evasion in a creative manner. The deck focuses on core elements to creatively design something capable of thriving within the context of its environment, seeing the forest rather than just the trees.

Mono Blue Delver-Tempo Incarnate


Creatures (21)
Cloud of Faeries
Delver of Secrets
Frostburn Weird
Ninja of the Deep Hours
Spellstutter Sprite
Spire Golem

Spells (23)
Logic Knot
Mutagenic Growth

Lands (16)
16 Island
Sideboard (15)
Curse of Chains
Force Spike
Serrated Arrows

First, I want to caution people against supporting blue aggro in cube, at least not without substantial edits to your cube’s structure. Not only is there a lack of one drops, but there is a lack of quality two drops, which is generally crippling to any manifestation of the archetype. It becomes a bit more manageable with a lower powered base, or aggressive singleton breaking, but it is still a struggle.

However, our focus is going to be on the concept of tempo, which is critical to understand. We’ve already been hinting at this, with our acknowledgment of the need to provide aggro tools to recoup lost time.

In the above list, 26% of the spells cost effectively no mana, and 45% of the rest of the list costs 1-2 mana. Delver’s raw potential to get ahead on spell casting, while disrupting an opponent’s ability to cast their own spells, is extraordinary.

This is really the meaning of tempo within magic: comparative turn efficiency in a game whose basic metric is turns. The best representative of this concept is Man-o’-War, which allows you to add a 2/2 body to the board, while negating an opponent’s prior play.

While tempo is a term that has meant many different things to many different people, across many different formats, at its core, it simply is this concept of comparative turn efficiency. Tempo is a theory that applies to every game of magic on some level, but certain decks or cards may revolve around the idea more so than other. Delver, for example, is built around a concept of extreme tempo generation through free spells and counter disruption; one could fairly label it a tempo deck. Cloud of Faeries costs no mana and adds a body to the board, by its very nature it is a pure representation of tempo generation: and one could fairly label it a tempo card. However, this doesn’t mean that control decks or midrange decks don’t care about tempo generation or don’t support tempo cards; they just approach tempo in a different manner, usually by efficient removal or ETB effects.

You’ll notice that Delver, unlike every other aggro deck we’ve looked at, has no way to generate a sudden burst of damage, and the reason is that it doesn’t need to. Goblins, Stompy, and Affinity are all prone to stumbles in their opening turns, either due to mana issues, insufficiently aggressive draws, or by design. Consequently, they need some sort of overarching, powerful play to make up for that lost time. Delver doesn’t have this problem, because it generates tempo simply by its basic operations. Even its slowest draws are capable of greater raw spell efficiency than many other decks in the format. Its best draws put a clock upon the entire game, devolving its remaining course into a contest of turn efficiency that other decks are ill equipped to compete in.

Cube is too inconsistent of a format to support anything approaching this level of consistent tempo generation. As a result, every single aggro deck really should have some tools to compensate for lost time. In a more consistent, stable environment, where the aggro decks are producing six power worth of creatures on turn two, this isn’t so much a problem; however, this isn’t the reality in pauper or cube. This is especially key, because cube tends to feature a large number of ETB producing midrange creatures, or planeswalkers, who are very good at generating tempo through free spell effects. Without tempo recouping devices, both pilots can find themselves in unfun situations where the aggro deck stumbles, and the game has effectively been decided by turn two, but it doesn’t actually end until much later.

Rats—Visages of Suicide Black

SneakAttackKid June 2013

Creatures (19)
Augur of Skulls
Chittering Rats
Crypt Rats
Okiba-Gang Shinobi
Phyrexian Rager
Ravenous Rats

Spells (18)
Dead Weight
Echoing Decay
Geth’s Verdict
Sign in Blood

Lands (23)
Polluted Mire
17 Swamp
Barren Moor
Sideboard (15)
Okiba-Gang Shinobi
Rendclaw Trow
Snuff Out
Sorin’s Thirst
Tendrils of Corruption
Victim of Night
Choking Sands

Our last deck tech is perhaps a little strange, as it generally is classified as a control deck.

We’ve been touching upon different forms of disruption in aggro, ranging from Vines of Vastwood to Spellstutter Sprite. However, all of those forms of disruption are reactive, and work on a model of sequencing threats into disruption. Here we have an approach that revolves around sequencing disruption into threats.

The old suicide black lists would do this with cards like Unmask or Duress into Phyrexian Negator, and vintage workshop decks do something similar with Sphere effects into threats. Modern jund has turn one Thoughtseize into Tarmogoyf. In rats, you can curve out disruption into a three drop threat, which gives the deck a feeling of being oddly aggressive at times, despite having so many attrition and control tools.

Rats provides some interesting commentary on one way discard can be incorporated into cube as cheap disruption for aggro decks. This sort of sequencing swap also provides a form of alternative “early drops” for aggro, relieving the pressure to water down a list with Savannah Lion clones, and provide an interesting way to blend turn one and turn two aggro concepts, within the limited space of a cube. I also feel it helps give context to the role of how cards like Thalia should function as disruptive pieces. It would seem there is a lot of creative space for cube designers to approach and solve these problems.

To reiterate, some of the knobs and levers that a cube designer has to work with are:

  1. Basic aggro structure: turn one vs. turn two.
  2. Reactive vs. proactive disruption strategies
  3. Different ways to recoup lost time.
  4. Tools that fill a dual role of control or disruption, while simultaneously feeding an aggressive plan.
  5. Different forms of evasion.

ChannelFireball: Archetype Design

by: Jason Waddell

My latest ChannelFireball article is online!

This article was a difficult one to write, primarily because it’s such a broad topic. My first inclination was to create it as a two-parter, but my initial drafts were too unfocused. Too many side-rants and perhaps some over-explaining of concepts. Eric Chan suggested I try to condense the content into a single article, so I re-wrote and re-wrote the article again. The biggest challenge is that I wasn’t sure what to say. Over the years I have gained some first-hand experience with what works and what doesn’t, design-wise, but to try to package these thoughts proved to be a real challenge.

Moving on, I’m interested in your feedback. Either on the article, or in terms of topics you’d like to see addressed in the next one. Feel free to leave a comment on the ChannelFireball article linked above, or in our forum thread discussing the article.

Thanks for reading!

December 5th 8-man Cube Draft

by: Jason Waddell

Last month purchased its first MTGO cube(s), and while as a community we are still in our infancy in terms of online drafting organization and video content production, things are moving in a positive direction. Community members are firing Grid Drafts a couple times a week, and we’ve organized several 8-man drafts over the course of the last month or so.

My streaming skills are still developing, and this weekend’s drafts were not without its headaches: my internet crashed, computer was straining under the stress of running Skype, MTGO and stream software concurrently, and my draft was a bit of a disaster. Well, a salvageable disaster.

If you want to watch the actual draft portion, replays are available here (part one) and here (part two). The audio levels are a mess (Skype callers are barely audible… my bad), but if you’re so inclined.

(click to enlarge)

What generally turned out better were the matches. Match 1 is still a mess (stream crashed and missed part of Game 1), but Matches 2 and 3 are pretty watchable. Here’s a playlist (below). I’ve started it on Match 2, but feel free to click through and watch the first match (at the end of the playlist).

As mentioned, we’re still new to this, so if you have any comments or suggestions for how to improve the quality of the stream, YouTube channel or commentary, please let us know in the forums.

(Note: a forum member had created a RiptideLab YouTube account for us, but I had to create a new one so that I could complete the verification process and upload videos that were longer than 15 minutes. If you subscribed to the old YouTube channel, please subscribe to this new one)


I’m sick.

It’s been 72 hours or so since I left the house. Stomach pains have kept me pinned in bed. Too sick to work, too sick to cook, and worst of all, too sick to play Rocket League. Boredom never cease.

I found some respite. Here’s a game that was being passed around Reddit. Hex FRVR.



Is this a good game?

That’s the question I’ve been trying to answer. For the uninitiated, Hex FRVR is a game that gives you three pieces at a time to drop onto a hexagonal board. Fill up a complete line or diagonal and those pieces disappear from the board (think Tetris). Color is irrelevant.

The game ends when you can no longer place one of your pieces. Naturally you play for high score.

As a score-tracking, easy to learn web puzzle game, it draws a natural analog to 2048. 2048 was a wonderful journey in discovery. As you played, you refined your mental algorithm. If you reached 2048’s endgame, you discovered an unavoidable truth: that the fun came from refining your mental algorithm, but the actual execution was rather tedious. Once you’ve made an 8192 block or a 16384 block, there’s little reason to ever come back. Tetris has had me returning for decades, but 2048 was fairly disposable as a source of entertainment.

How deep is Hex FRVR?

The fact that I am writing this section within 24 hours of discovering the game is perhaps a bit damning.

When I first played Hex FRVR, my high scores all hit the 10k – 20k range.

“It feels a bit random. I just kind of play for a while and then it’s over”, I told my girlfriend, who seemed to agree while also not really caring.

If you want to figure out the game on your own, I would stop reading here.

My initial strategy? ‘Put the pieces where they fit most naturally’. This had some aesthetic appeal, but it wasn’t really yielding great results. I knew from the developer’s post that the unofficial high score was somewhere around 100,000, so I clearly had improvements to be made.

Second approach: ‘try to set up combos’. Hex FRVR has some built-in system that gives your more points if you clear multiple lines at once. Unfortunately, it doesn’t reward you all that much. It’s rarely worth filling up the board for one big payoff. In fact, my “winning” strategy went in the complete opposite direction…

How to win: 

Current approach: ‘keep the board as clear as possible’.

At the end of the day, Hex FRVR comes down to a rate problem. Every move, you drop about 4 hexes onto the board. That means, on average, you need to be clearing about 4 hexes per move to stay alive. Secondly, since the pieces can’t be rotated, you afford yourself the greatest freedom of movement if you just keep the board very open. There are far more pieces in Hex FRVR than Tetris, so you can’t let the board fill and hope for the “right” piece to come along. The long piece in Tetris was 1 of 7, but a single “L” type piece equivalent in Hex FRVR has 6 non-rotateable orientations.

There are some tricks to keeping the board clear, but eventually you’ll come to the simple conclusion: Hex FRVR does not get more difficult over time. 

Behold, a game at 33k.


And a game at 48k.


As long as I stay the course, there’s really nothing to keep me from hitting 100k.

Except boredom.

The developer mentioned creating a mode for the “10% of people for whom Hex FRVR is too easy”, so I may check in again if/when that happens. I’ll passively try and think of some ways. Currently my only idea is to steal Hexic’s bomb counter mechanic, which places a bomb on a hex that explodes if you don’t clear that hex within a certain number of moves. It would certainly place some new constraints on the gameplay.

As is, Hex FRVR gave me several hours of peaceful entertainment for the low cost of $0. I don’t expect to come back to it for long, but if you’re looking for a pleasant diversion, look no further.

(fun tip: the music is charming for a couple minutes, but grating after that. I replaced it with Spotify’s “Peaceful Piano” playlist)