An Off-Color Joke: Fixing, DGR, Cube, and You


famous scene in the hilarious TV show I’m Alan Partridge involves the titular jackass-of-all-trades pitching terrible ideas for new ‘programs’ to the guy who’s about to fire him:

ALAN: Shoestring, Taggart, Spender, Bergerac, Morse. What does that say to you … about, regional detective series?

HAYERS: ‘There’s too many of them?’

ALAN: That’s one way of looking at it … another way of looking at it is: ‘People like them, let’s make some more of them.’

I imagine a similar genesis for new Magic sets:

FORSYTHE: InvasionApocalypseGuildpactDissensionReborn. What does that say to you … about, multi-colored Magic blocks?

MARO: ‘People like them, let’s make some more of them.’

These sets have had a huge impact on Magic history for a number of reasons — R&D is more comfortable pushing power level on gold cards, and I remember the buzz when Apocalypse was released; it’s still one of the greatest sets of all time. The draft formats have also aged well; IPA (Invasion, Planeshift, Apocalypse) was the first block designed specifically with drafting in mind, RGD (Ravnica, Guildpact, Dissension) is inexhaustibly, everlastingly, and overwhelmingly the best draft format of all time, and SCR (Shards of Alara, Conflux, Alara Reborn) was also a blast.

And so we come to RTR block (or ‘DGR’). Triple-RTR was a decent enough format, though I had plenty of time to grow sick of it, and triple-GTC was so terrible I didn’t need time to grow sick of it. These formats will never be played again; good riddance to them; bring on the full block.

I went to two Dragon’s Maze pre-releases. In the first, I won three matches due to color-screw and lost one. Having played precious few games of actual Magic, I felt queasy about the format. The second pre-release went better; my opponents and I both hit our colors with improbable regularity, and I had the privilege of not only winning all four matches, but winning them how I wanted to win them.

This got my hopes up for the full-block draft format, but I’m fairly confident that it’s just terrible.

The primary reason is simple: there’s not enough fixing. In his excellent preview of DGR draft, Ari Lax wrote:

You can expect around sixteen Guildgates per draft, or two per player

— not very many for a three-color format, and anyone who’s drafted before knows how inconsistent evenly split three-color mana-bases are.

The secondary reason is that what fixing there is has too steep a power curve. Gates are terrific, but beyond them you get the frustrating Cluestones. Cluestones are weak cards, as are the Keyrunes at uncommon.

The tertiary reason is a corollary of the first two, viz. you have to prioritize fixing to the point where you’re passing the bombs that you’d splash for with the fixing.

Let me try to relate these assertions to what I see as common Cube design fallacy. In his article on Cube design, Andy Cooperfauss made the following image: 


The calculations aren’t precise — Cooperfauss writes, “[I] don’t count green fixers [because RGD and SCR] only have one green fixer between them,” when in RGD alone there’s Farseek and Utopia Sprawl — but they’re accurate enough to draw conclusions from. RGD was a ‘durdler’ format, and its fixing — bouncelands and signets — was very powerful. SCR was a ‘beater’ format, and its fixing — Panoramas and Obelisks on one end; Shard-lands and Borderposts on the other — was either quite bad or quite good.

DGR is like SCR in both that it’s a fast format and that the quality of its fixing is polarized, but like RGD in that the density of its fixing is lighter. As a result of this, lots of the fixing doesn’t even get played; as a result of this, everyone gets color-screwed a ton. In other words, my first impression was correct; my second impression was incorrect, but Wizards’ whole marketing scheme nowadays seems to be geared towards making a positive second impression on players, and at least DGR succeeds at that.

I played seven games against a good friend at the last FNM, and only in one of them did we hit our colors; the game was fun and interactive and full of tough decisions. Given that it would have been easy for Wizards to bring about more of these games — simply add one to two Guildgates per drafter, cutting some chaff (like the numerous unplayables in Gatecrash) — why instead is the block this way? I have a handful of conclusions:

-People don’t think they like environments with ‘too much fixing.’ Zac Hill, who ostensibly left Wizards to stop lying in public all the time, nevertheless penned a whopper a few weeks ago:

The thing is, a lot of gold environment trend toward “good-stuff” decks that just aren’t very fun to play.

What, you mean like RGD? What could be more false than that sentence?

-And yet, as false as it is that these formats are not fun, it’s quite true that the perception of them is this way. In other words, people don’t know what they like, and would rather hate what they think they like and like what they think they hate. Contemporary Magic design is based heavily on truckling to this cognitive bias; think of it as a microcosm of how the culture of the game encourages the very same cognitive biases that playing the game should expunge. Zac’s statement is false, but he’s not deliberately lying — he’s somehow convinced himself that he’s telling the truth.

-All of these criticisms apply to the Modo Cube (especially the last one: somehow the Wizards employees have risen to the top of the Magic world to become its only true professionals, and yet they are unaware of what an abortion it is). In its first few iterations, there wasn’t enough fixing because of the ‘good-stuff fallacy’ — never mind that it’d be impossible to make a Cube deck with as good of mana as there is in Standard, that the ‘4c midrange’ decks in Standard are bad anyway, and that trying to draft these decks in Limited is really fun — and splashing was ambitious and stupid as it was in triple-Gatecrash. In the most recent iteration, they added a ton of fixing, but all of it was so low in power-level (Mirage fetches? Bouncelands?) that it wasn’t heavily played; this is comparable to how the DGM Cluestones don’t matter much. Therefore, though over a hundred cards were switched out, it is unsurprising that the decks from August 2012’s Players’ Championship look more or less exactly like the decks from March’s MOCS Championship.

-Another parallel between the Modo Cube and DGR is the steep power curve of the spells; when Tibalt faces off against Jace, it’s as absurd as Catacomb Slug staring down a Blood Baron of Vizkopa.

-The failure of DGR as a draft format is thus mainly a function of Wizards’ self-imposed constraints making it impossible to create a good multi-colored format under NWO. The Modo Cube is the same way: you can give people what they want and have a great Cube, but you cannot give people what they think they want and have a great Cube. Consequently, you get color-screwed and bombed out in both, and the good games are few and far between.

DGR is not the successor to RGD, but the stepchild of SCR. In order to rediscover the complexity and consistency and skill-testing nature of old draft formats, it’s necessary to recognize these flaws of Modern design and eliminate them in your own Cube.

-I therefore suggest adding much, much more fixing to your Cube, and making that fixing both high and flat in power level. Eight lands per drafter is a good number, and in a Cube of size 360 to 450 this is possible with just ONS/ZEN fetches, ABU duals, RGD shocks, M10 buddy-lands, SOM fast-lands, SHM and EVE filters, WWK man-lands, AP and IA pain-lands, FUT ‘future’ lands, and ALA shard-lands. In a larger Cube, you’ll need to start doubling up on fetches, then duals, then shocks — in a 720 it is much better to triple up on fetches than it is to start including trash like Jwar Isle Refuge.

-My recommendations will solve the problems of ‘aggro is terrible,’ ‘there’s not enough archetypes,’ and ‘I get color-screwed too often’ — which are the very same problems that one finds in SOMGTC/AVR, and DGR, respectively, or the failed Limited formats since the inception of NWO. Ironically, color-screw was the main flaw with IPA, the first multi-colored draft format ever — ‘… And thus the whirligig of bad design brings in his revenges.

Inline image 1

‘People like fixing lands, there’s too many of them?’

Next week, I’ll go into more detail about the business arm of Wizards, how it directs R&D more than vice versa, how multi-layer thinking explains the universe, and how these all explain the failures of the Modo Cube.

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