By: Chris Taylor
A lot of people come here looking for input on how to adjust their already existing cube, but perhaps you, dear reader are someone looking to start earlier. Perhaps you are looking to make a cube of your own.
Or at least I hope so because that’s what I’m going to talk about today: How to build your cube, from a glimmer in the back of your eye to sleeves on the table.
For those of you reading as an introduction to this fine slice of magic: cube is, at its roots, a custom draft format you build yourself. It’s a lot of fun to play and an interesting thought exercise to design.
First: some advice. Cubes, being large projects, require a lot of time. The smallest cube I’ve ever seen is 180 cards, designed entirely for drafting with 2 people. That’s still almost twice as large as an EDH deck, and many people know how much time and devotion goes into those things. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your cube be perfect the first time in. I’ll be asking you a lot of questions in this article, and you might not have hard and fast answers for them right now. Even if you do, those answers might change, so don’t sweat it. Everyone has different answers to these questions, so keep that in mind when asking for advice. I’ve tried to remove as much of my own personal cube preferences in this article, but I’m hardly perfect.
So, that being said let’s dive in with the basic question.
Question 1: What do you want out of your cube?
Yup, gotta start with the big questions. Some people build a cube because they love drafting, but hate all the overpowered rares and useless commons which clutter up the packs; they think they can do better. Some people hate the fact that they can’t realistically play with old cards anymore, and they want a format where they can do that. Some people just hate paying money for draft, so they make a cube so they don’t have to shell out for packs each Friday.
This also is a good time to consider what you want your cube to play like. Maybe it’s a goofy, off-the-wall format with all sorts of weird cards like Vizzerdrix and Giant Fan, maybe it’s an ultra focused environment meant to emulate Vintage. Maybe you want to replicate the feel of an old beloved time in magic (Ravnica block maybe, or Kamigawa/Ravnica Standard?)
Whatever your reasons are, keep them in mind. All the answers to these questions inform each other, so keep this one in mind while you ponder the rest.
Question 2: How big do you want your cube to be?
This might seem like a minor question, but it affects more than you think. A cube built for gambling men who enjoy the luck of the draw more than anything else and a cube for people who hate variance are very different things, after all.
Here’s a bit of a breakdown about what the numbers mean:
- Most cubes are sized according to a multiple of 45. This is because 45 cards are enough for exactly one person to draft with, so some multiple of 45 is some number of people who can draft your cube at the same time. For standard 8 person drafting you’ll need a cube at least 360 cards in size. Any less and someone isn’t going to have enough cards to draft with.
- The smaller the cube, the more consistent the drafting experience will be. Say for example you only ever host 8 person drafts, and your cube is exactly 360 cards. That means that every draft will contain the exact same cards (Just not always in the same order). This can be a good and a bad thing for people: on the one hand, the drafting experience can get old with the unchanging cards, but on the other hand, you can always count on narrower cards like Tinker to show up in the draft somewhere. Find a balance between those two ideas and a number that appeals to you, and go on from there.
- Larger cubes also mean that you’ll need to find more cards which do the same thing if you want that thing to show up in the games regularly. Unless you add multiple copies of the same card, really unique effects like Armageddon, Sulfuric Vortex, and Tinker show up less because it’s a smaller percentage of the overall card pool. If you’re a fan of decks which require a single card to function (e.g. Recurring Nightmare) consider building a smaller cube. Adding multiples of the same card can also fix this problem, but I’ll go into more detail about that later.
Personally, my cube is 540 cards. It’s a multiple of 45 for ease of drafting, and I find it strikes a nice balance between the variety you get from having a larger cube and the refined strategies you get from a smaller, more focused cube.
Question 3: What’s your cube going to look like?
More specifically, what the distribution of cards is going to be. Most cubes are divided into 7-8 different sections:
- Either a guild section, or separate sections for lands and multicolour cards.
A guild section is having one area to keep track of both the strictly multicolour cards available to each color pair (Cards like Venser, Vindicate, and Kird Ape/Boggart Ram-Gang depending on how you look at it. More on that later) and the nonbasic lands available to that same color pair (e.g. Tundra, Marsh Flats, Horizon Canopy). This helps keep the pair’s identity in one place, and avoids lots of flipping around trying to get a sense of things. While I’d recommend giving each pair an equal number of cards to start, don’t sweat it too much if one guild has 1-2 more cards than another. This sort of strict thinking doesn’t help you make your cube any better. As well, the debate over weather Kird Ape is a red card or a red/green card is a dead horse long beaten in the cube community, and a rather unhelpful one. Jason wrote an excellent article on why people usually get too caught up in this debate.
A few tips:
- Start with an even distribution of everything and adjust the numbers until you find something you like. Even if you hate the color blue and everything it stands for, your drafters might disagree.
- Somewhere in between 10-15% of the total cube should be mana fixing for drafters to be able to cast their cards on time. Mostly this has to do with the nonbasic lands you include, but in slower environments, artifact mana and green ramp can help this issue as well. I’ve written a primer on the land section to help guide you.
- Multicolor cards might seem amazing at first glance, but they look more powerful than they play. There’s a small percentage of drafters who want something like Armada Wurm, after all, and while it may seem incredible when it gets cast, it’s easy to forget all the times when nobody put it in their deck because they weren’t in that exact color combination. By the same token, three+ color cards are even harder to cast, and need an even more watchful eye.
With all those in mind, decide how big each section is going to be. Try to keep the numbers at least a little consistent across the colors, but don’t get too hung up on making everything exact.
From here, we’ll get into how the curve of each individual section looks.
Take a look at this chart, shamelessly stolen from Andrew Cooperfaus’ “Please Try this at home, Part 1”, an article quite similar to this one.
You’ll notice that even for Limited environments with drastically different feels to them (Zendikar on the fast end and Ravnica on the slow end, for example) the basic curve remains basically the same.
I say this to illustrate that essentially no matter what you’re doing, you’ll probably want to look at and base your cube around something close to this chart. This is really important because by their nature, more expensive cards look more appealing than cheaper cards. Nothing beats the raw simplicity of Lightning Bolt, but something like Bogardan Hellkite looks way cooler at first glance. If you just add whichever cards seem cool, before long you’ll have a format filled with nothing but giant monsters, and that gets old fast.
Do take into account that creatures and non-creatures aren’t separated in this diagram. I’ve yet to see a cube where blue has more than five one-drop creatures, and quite a few don’t run any blue creatures of that size, since there just aren’t any worth adding for the most part. Always allow yourself some wiggle room. It’s often better to disobey one of your design principles than include bad or ineffective cards for the sake of an invisible, unenforced restriction you placed on yourself.
Question 4: What archetypes do you want to support?
This is the real meat and potatoes of cube design: what can your drafters play with at the end of the day? And after that, which colors will they be able to play those strategies in?
Primarily there are the three main archetypes of Aggro, Control and Midrange. These three are the core archetypes which make up the main identity of colors in your cube, and many articles on this site and others can help direct you with individual card choices to help these work.
Other, more niche archetypes are the more interesting ones sometimes. A few examples include:
- Reanimator: Entomb for Iona, Exhume. The strategy involves dumping large creatures into the graveyard with the intent of bringing them back on the cheap. Mostly a black strategy, but can be supported by other colors.
- Wildfire: This one is a little trickier, but I have written a guide. The gameplan is to cast the namesake sorcery, but to break the symmetry by leaving you with something in play (frequently a creature with 5+ toughness, a planeswalker, or an abundance of artifact mana) while your opponent loses almost everything.
- Blink: Using effects like Crystal Shard, Cloudshift, Reveillark and Kiki-Jiki to repeatedly use the enters-the-battlefield effects of your creatures (e.g. AEther Adept, Deranged Hermit, or Avalanche Riders).
- Tinker: Yes, this card is so insane it has its own deck named after it. Much like Reanimator, the plan is to use Tinker to get large (this time specifically artifact) creatures into play like Sundering Titan, Sphinx of the Steel Wind, or Inkwell Leviathan.
- Recurring Nightmare: Another card strong enough to have spawned a whole new archetype, this is a combination of the blink and reanimator decks, with the ability to generate large creatures early on, as well as use Recurring Nightmare to trigger leaves/enters the battlefield abilities repeatedly. Typically this deck is Green/Black to take advantage of the ever useful Survival of the Fittest and Fauna Shaman.
- Ramp: This doesn’t technically fall into the above trifecta of Aggro/Control/Midrange, but can be a fun strategy nonetheless. The gameplan involves playing cards which accelerate your development like Farseek or Izzet Signet to play large creatures like Craterhoof Behemoth or Myr Battlesphere much earlier than most decks can deal with. Typically green due to the tight control of artifact mana, this deck can pair well with almost any color: white, red and black offer board control in the form of mass destruction cards which can be played before your large creature, and blue offers draw spells to help re-fuel after spending so many cards accelerating.
- Combo Decks: Usually involve casting two specific cards together (e.g. Splinter Twin + Pestermite) to win the game. Harder to include in larger cubes since the cards you need might not be in the draft.
- Tokens: The combination of Spectral Procession and Honor of the Pure is a strong one indeed, and can give some life to a linear white section. Other support cards include Overrun, Glorious Anthem, and Opposition. The key is to include cards which produce multiple tokens, as while Advent of the Wurm is a fine card, it doesn’t synergize any better with the various anthems found in this deck more than Grizzly Bears does.
Question 5: What aren’t you including in your cube?
Most people think this topic concerns only the cards that aren’t good enough for your cube, but consider the cards which are too strong, or just make cubing miserable. At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do here is have fun, and if something in your cube isn’t fun, take it out and don’t look back.
Here are a few cards which tend to drum up controversy in the cube community:
- Power: The Moxen, Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall, Time Walk and (arguably) Timetwister. Most people add Sol Ring to this list. These cards are some of the most powerful ever printed, and games involving them typically warp around that single card.
- Cards that Mill 10: While Glimpse the Unthinkable is probably okay, most cube designers eschew cards which mill repeatedly in large chunks like Jace, Memory Adept, Sword of Body and Mind, and Nemesis of Reason. Because of the smaller size of typical limited decks (40 cards instead of 60) these cards typically kill far faster than intended, and are hard to stop in time to boot.
- Planeswalkers: Because of the advantage they generate by doing such big things each turn, planeswalkers can warp the flow of a game around them really quickly, and some people eschew them entirely for this reason. What’s more, Wizards didn’t do the best job balancing the early ones, from around the Shards of Alara Block. They usually become more manageable the stronger aggro decks are in your cube, since the easiest way to deal with them is attacking. Definitely a card type to keep a close eye on.
- “Easy Picks”: Much like power, these cards warp drafting because of their sheer power level. Any card you’ll pick regardless of what’s in your deck or what cards you need is a candidate for this, though some are more offensive than others. All power level is context dependent, but there are a few recurring offenders (Skullclamp, Umezawa’s Jitte, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Elspeth, Knight-Errant, Balance, Sol Ring, and Library of Alexandria, to name a few). Everyone has their own different list, and different answers can depend on the cube itself. Nobody would fault you for saying Tsabo’s Decree is too strong in a cube that’s all about tribal decks, but that might not be true elsewhere.