Mox Cube v2
Link to the Original Thread
I'm pushing a new version number of the Mox Cube. The big-picture goals have remained the same. The environment is about explosive and velocity-centric gameplay - casting a lot of spells and drawing a lot of cards - with fast mana and a heavy emphasis on flexibility and creativity in deckbuilding. I've built the mission statement by example: I want a smooth, low-variance environment but subject to the constraint that you should still be able to draw 10 cards off Paradoxical Outcome to win game 1, draw 10 cards off Glimpse of Nature in game 2, but narrowly lose and go on to game 3.
The implementation details have drifted considerably since the original thread. At a surface level, whereas the original list had two of each of the OG moxen, now each player gets two moxen of their choice at the end of the draft. At a deeper level, the first list was built largely on Penny-Pincher principles with a pauper-inspired focus on slow and complicated engine assembly. Before I had put together an actual list, I started with a handful of deck sketches. These included Esper Eggs with Marionnette Master, Chromatic Star, Vedalken Archmage, and Second Sunrise; Jund Elves with Glimpse of Nature and Llanowar Elves, but also Sneak Attack, Essence of the Wild, Yahenni, Undying Partisan, and Blood Artist; and Artifact Madness with Dream Halls, double Circular Logic, Mycosynth Lattice, Reclamation Sage, and Memnarch. I wanted the control decks to try to lock the game out, so there was Lantern of Insight and Counterbalance but no Counterspell. Likewise, I wanted exciting expensive cards to have place to excel, which meant limiting the efficient disruption and removal. I envisioned creature decks winning without doing combat damage, so there was Kyren Negotiations and Intruder Alarm but no aggressive or midrange threats.
It turns out that maintaining both Penny-Pincher-style expensive engines and explosive plays ([like Seething Song into Timetwister) created a fun but uneven gameplay experience. I quickly found myself aggressively cutting from the bottom of the power band and slowly but surely increasing the level of disruption to guarantee interactive games. After sitting on two copies of Force of Will for a while and finding that zero-mana countermagic always felt fun in the environment, my stance on efficient removal changed. I also found that some pure combo decks were a bit too durdle-y (even with the more clunky individual cards removed) - especially the eggs-y Red/White sacrifice and/or artifact decks. This style of deck typically had very low curve and a natural solution was to hybridize them into aggro-combo decks with the addition of a few more threats and powerful equipment like Umezawa's Jitte and Embercleave. The introduction of aggro-combo made cards like Marionnete Master even less viable and increased the demand for cheap removal. Fortunately, I've found that it's really the cheap, generically-strong cards that make a lot of the explosive spell-velocity game play possible anyway. Marionette Master needs the Dark Rituals and Chromatic Stars to be good, but it's casting the rituals and baubles that makes the game play enjoyable, not an instant kill by nugging them for 4 with each sacrificed artifact.
As before, my new design still avoids midrange good-stuff piles, aggro is replaced by aggro-combo (no Goblin Guide or Savannah Lions), and control either needs a proactive plan or a prison lock (no Counterspell, no Jace). But based on the experience hinted at above, now I've arrived at a set of animating principles that make the cube simultaneously more flexible for the deck-builder but also more streamlined in execution. The first set of animating principles focus on the individual engine components that I find so enjoyable in storm decks: (1) mana generation, (2) card advantage, and (3) pay-offs. The second set of animating principles are a blueprint for my preferred style of archetype design: (a) high quality theme-adjacent glue cards, (b) stretching the themes across four or five colors, (c) some very high-power narrow cards encouraging specialization, and (d) cross-pollination across themes.
As a result of building on these principles, some things have changed radically. Now decks are faster and more sharply-tuned, and so I've dramatically increased the volume and quantity of one- and zero-mana interaction available to keep the games tense. Likewise, the most recent version puts a heavy emphasis on multiple copies of workhorse cards that many drafters will want; two Chromatic Star, two Faithless Looting, two Abundant Harvest, two Preordain, three copies of Lightning Bolt etc. I'm also increasingly inclined toward very broken cards that open up new strategies on their own, like Aluren or Doomsday. Overall, I think the list is in a great place, our remote drafts have been fun, and I'm especially excited to get in some in-person draft nights in the near future.
Through the rest of this post, I'll expand upon the animating principles described above, usually through examples. The deck gallery at the end includes lists from our most recent drafts. I'll begin with the key components of casting a lot of spells on one turn: mana generation, card advantage, and then something to do with it all.
Three Basic Parts of a Storm Engine:
As I see it, "explosive" gameplay relies first and foremost on mana generation and so the Mox Cube is deeply infused with ways to build mana. Different themes and different game plans find bursts of mana in various ways. There's the eponymous rocks, one time bursts (Lion's Eye Diamond, Lotus Petal), untapping effects (Paradox Engine, Turnabout), ways to convert creatures into mana (Earthcraft, Skirk Prospector), ways to convert aritfacts into mana (Urza, Lord High Artificer, Krark-Clan Ironworks), cost reducers (Helm of Awakening, Nightscape Familiar), mana doublers (High Tide, Heartbeat of Spring), ignoring costs (Sneak Attack, Reanimate), and playing multiple lands (Fastbond). This isn't an exhaustive list (rituals! delve!) but emphasizes the modular and interwoven ways to "combo off".
Some decks use their burst of mana to empty their hand and pressure the opponent early. Perhaps the prototypical example in my cube is the UR spells aggro deck that wants to stick a Monastery Swiftspear or a Guttersnipe, and then chain together a flurry of Frantic Search, Seething Song, Lighting Bolt, Windfall, and the like. But mana generation reaches its pinnacle when you have a flow of new cards to cast with it. Card advantage in the Mox Cube comes in many shades. There's card draw (Brainstorm, Gush), draw 7s (Wheel of Fortune, Timetwister), stocking the 'yard (Faithless Looting, Bazaar of Baghdad), reusing the 'yard (Underworld Breach, Yawgmoth's Will), recursive creatures (Kor Skyfisher, Gravecrawler), turning creatures into cards (Glimpse of Nature, Skullclamp), ETBs (Thought Monitor, Elvish Visionary) and using the top of library (Experimental Frenzy, Mystic Forge). An even less exhaustive list than the last! These card advantage strategies can be mixed and matched to the mana generation with which to abuse them. Some pairings are made for each other, like Phyrexian Altar and Fecundity, and some cards do both at once like Manamorphose, and Time Spiral.
Finally, you have to actually kill them - but this is the easy part, and it certainty doesn't require a single card with the word "Storm" written on it. There are countless ways to convert cards and mana into victory, from Goblin Bombardment to Walking Ballista to Teferi's Tutelage. Here we see decks differentiate into many distinct play patterns on top of the fast mana, including aggro decks that pack a combo finish. The crass 1+1+1 formula above might be underselling the variety, but it gets the basic flavor of the cube across. In fact, here I'll pause the discussion on spell velocity for a moment, since the point is not just to goldfish, not to die or kill sollipstically on turns 2 through 4. I want to keep the games back and forth and interactive, and to do that we need top-tier disruption.
On our very first cube night with the original Mox Cube, I drafted blue-green storm with Heartbeat of Spring, Turnabout, and Hunting Pack. My big takeaway: the match-up against the disruptive black-red deck packing double Duress turned out to be the most fun. My deck had enough raw mana generation that I could still partially go-off, but after Duress, maybe Hunting Pack would be in the yard. I was close to enough mana to kill them with Blue Sun's Zenith instead, but Blue Sun's Zenith is the one card that might also dig me to my one Eternal Witness to grab Hunting Pack. Then would I still have enough mana? It turns out that when your deck is busted, it's way more fun to not win on the spot, but be forced to really stretch the lines and pass the turn. In a more recent match, I was facing down Stasis + [/c]Smothering Tithe[/c], but I had Palinchron + Mana Flare for infinite mana every turn anyway - I still narrowly lost because my Kiki-Jiki and Magmatic Channeler were tapped down.
Given that it's more fun - even as the combo player - to be disrupted and adapt, the newest Mox Cube has a solid foundation of both cheap and free disruption. The cheap disruption includes top-tier creature removal (Swords of Plowshares, Lightning Bolt), non-creature removal (Fragmentize, Ancient Grudge), and countermagic (Mana Tithe, Flusterstorm). I've more or less decided that for 1 mana disruptive spells, nothing can be considered too powerful, and I use multiples of the stronger version of effects where I feel appropriate: e.g. three copies of Lightning Bolt instead of playing
Shock or Lightning Strike.
Many decks don't play out their strategy on the board, but instead build up resources until they can "go off", usually all in one turn. An interactive game against these decks requires being able to attack the resources they're building, which includes specific cards in hand, cards stocked in the yard, and amount of mana on board going into the combo turn. To attack the stocking-up of combo cards, the cube features a solid foundation of hand-disruption (Duress, Thoughtseize)
and graveyard hate (Deathrite Shaman, Soul-Guide Lantern). To attack mana available, there's taxing effects (Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Lodestone Golem), prison pieces (Winter Orb, Stasis), and three copies of Wasteland. It's difficult to precisely balance the match up between combo decks and this style of disruption. If someone plays turn 1 Duress, turn 2 Thalia, that shouldn't mean game-over on the spot, but should force the combo player to go-off suboptimally, improvise, or use busted fast mana to fish for removal options.
When decks have particularly fast lines available to them - undisrupted, many decks win on turns 2 through 4 - I've found it fun and healthy to have a lot of free disruption as well. Therefore you'll see Snuff Out, Force of Vigor, and Force of Negation, but also two copies each of Daze
and Mental Misstep, plus a full three copies of Force of Will. MH2 rounds out the count with the free evoke creatures, Endurance, Solitude and Grief. Note that these cards are best both in and against combo decks. In fact, I do not include typical card-neutral countermagic,
like literal Counterspell: I like the way that the free disruption (usually with card disadvantage) pushes proactive strategies, helping to maintain the flavor and identity of the cube.
As an aside: without access to Planeswalkers and with the disruption slanted towards proactive strategies, it is difficult to play a purely-reactive control deck. The few examples of pure control decks that we've drafted usually only hold off an explosive combo from the opponent for so long before dying. So instead, control decks either need a combo finish of their own, or need to assemble some kind of powerful lock (think Urza + Winter Orb).
Themes and Cross-Pollination:
One of my foremost goals is to make space for creativity and flexibility in deck-building. To that end I've aspired to make the cube's archetypes/themes as broad as possible, typically supported across 4-5 colors. Each theme should come in many viable flavors depending on the cards you see and the playstyle you prefer.
Consider graveyard synergies for example, and even though many decks play 3-4 colors, let's limit ourselves to 2-color pairs for illustratrive purposes. A graveyard-centric decks can exist in many base color pairs (BW, RW, RG, UB, GB, RB, GU are probably the most common). But even in a specific color pair - let's say UB - you can have multiple, very different configurations:
UB Dredge Aggro
UB Reanimator Storm
These decks each share a common core of blue and black graveyard synergy cards, but have quite divergent game plans and play patterns. I hope to accomplish a large variety of strategies within a theme by including generically powerful enablers (Entomb, Frantic Search, Bazaar of Baghdad), some flexible pay-offs (e.g. Reanimate which goes in either aggro, pure reanimator, or tendrils-y reanimator), and then a handful of very powerful, narrow pay-offs which incentivize decks to specialize (e.g. Thassa's Oracle, Bridge From Below). Note that the degree of flexibility across themes and color pairs is intended to be pushed beyond shard/wedge archetypes where you might have Sultai be the graveyard colors with UB as reanimator and GB as dredge. Instead all five colors are involved, but UB individually can be either reanimator or dredge.
I don't plan on attempting an enumeration of all my themes, but I can give a handful of additional examples.
Creature themes are found in GWRB with many of the strongest options available in Green. There are ways to make mana (Earthcraft, Burning-Tree Emissary, Phyrexian Altar), gain card advantage (Glimpse of Nature, Midnight Reaper, Thraben Inspector), and pressure your opponent (Goblin Bombardment, Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis, Purphoros, God of the Forge). Subthemes include creature bounce (Cloudstone Curio, Kor Skyfisher), ETBs (Panharmonicon, Ephemerate), Recursion (Second Sunrise, Bloodghast), tokens (Pia and Kiran Nalaar, Chatterstorm), etc.
There are many opportunities for cross-pollination here. Sacrifice and recursive creatures help bridge cards that care about creatures and cards that care about the graveyard. Cards like Glimpse of Nature and Kor Skyfisher are great at upping the storm count. Artifact creature decks with Arcbound Ravager
and Hardened Scales go naturally with combo creature toolbox decks; Metallic Mimic + Kitchen Finks and Heliod, Sun-Crowned+Walking Ballista draw these strategies together. Even the instants/sorcercies theme can merge with the creature themes e.g. with creatures like Dragonsguard Elite together with Green Sun's Zenith which opens up creature toolbox options but lets you lower your actual creature count.
The lands theme is healthily available in all five colors, again with green as a core pivot. Generic subthemes include recursion (Crucible of Worlds, Zuran Orb), land destruction (Cataclysm, Wildfire), landfall (Hedron Crab, Lotus Cobra), mana doublers (High Tide, Bubbling Muck), etc. The lands theme can fit into prison (e.g. Stasis, Quirion Ranger), aggro (Elvish Reclaimer, Knight of the Reliquary),
and various combo shells from Thespian's Stage + Dark Depths to Titania, Protector of Argoth + Zuran Orb to Dryad of the Ilysian Grove + Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle.
Again, the lands theme can be mixed and matched with other archetypes. Life from the Loam and the graveyard is an obvious pairing. Dryad of the Ilysian Grove is right at home alongside Bubbling Muck, Dark Ritual and Tendrils of Agony. The lands and artifacts themes also play nice with each other: Elvish Reclaimer can grab Mishra's Workshop; Mirage Mirror can copy Dark Depths after Golos, Tireless Pilgrim fetches it.
More generally, I want the ability to mix and match themes to feel like a core part of the drafting process. For drafting dynamics, this requires the ability to switch direction but not abandon previous picks. I think spreading the themes over 4-5 colors and emphasizing cross-pollination of archetypes helps make this a reality.
For example, a combo deck can choose to "aggro-ify", like when you start a draft with Dark Ritual, and Tendrils of Agony, but then snap up Clever Lumimancer and Giver of Runes. Likewise an aggro deck might choose to "artifact-ify", as when you start with Esper Sentinel and Ranger-Captain of Eos but then open Mishra's Workshop and Nettlecyst.
Combos and Build-arounds:
I suspect that the power-level of individual cards helps make this off-rails draft experience more viable. In fact, I think I have more of a "cards not decks" type of format. I absolutely don't want the extreme (straw-man) case with 10 decks that you're supposed to draft where you find the open lane and then take the corresponding cards. One of the best ways I've found to create the type of drafting experience I want is to include a very high density of combo engines based
on individual cards. Some examples chosen more or less at random: Valakut Exploration + Fastbond, Underworld Breach + Lion's Eye Diamond, Palinchron + Mana Flare, Muderous Redcap + Metallic Mimic, Earthcraft + Intruder Alarm, Dryad of the Ilysian Grove + High Tide, Greater Gargadon + Balance, Heliod, Sun-Crowned + Walking Ballista, Golos, Tireless Pilgrim + Karakas, and so on and so on and so on.
Some cards create a whole archetype all on their own. These usually have highly centralizing game-play: once the card resolves, the game suddenly becomes all about the dynamics of that card. Examples include Stasis, Doomsday, Oath of Druids, Opposition, Aluren, and Experimental Frenzy. Since these cards can basically produce deck gameplans on their own, they vastly increase the variety of strategies in an enjoyable way - especially when you pick one up early in the draft. From glancing at the examples above, you can see that these combo engines and build-arounds usually synegize with one or more of the cube themes, often slotting into multiple shells and helping to bridge them.
At a high power level, and with some inherently higher variance themes at play, format balance can be difficult. In the original list, this took the form of general rules, e.g. no generic beaters, no two-card infinite combos, and no two-card infinite combos so that combo engines got the chance ot shine. Now I don't work with hard and fast balancing rules but focus on trimming the total volume of tools available for what might become a less fun/interactive deck. So for example, there's Kiki-Jiki, the Mirror Breaker and Zealous Conscripts, but no Pestermite. There's Sneak Attack and Show and Tell but no Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. I run Tinker and Kaldra Compleat but no Blightsteel Colossus. One of the great things about cube is that we get the chance to control the volume and power-level of each different cog for a given strategy.
The current cube has a lot more support for disruptive aggro decks and aggro-combo decks. But this also requires careful policing of a certain density of effects so that the cube still maintains its identity and flavor. In particular, I heavily cut back on generic and efficient beaters to prevent disruption + good-stuff threats from becoming a dominant strategy. This means no Brazen Borrower, no Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, no Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer, no Gurmag Angler, and no Tarmogoyf. Other cuts are made because they don't line up with the format's goals. For example, I cut Glen Elendra Archmage, not because it's too powerful, but because two negates on a stick conflicted with the high-velocity format I want to curate.
The balance between deck styles like combo, aggro-combo, disruptive aggro, and prison is delicate and an on-going process. One inherent difficulty is that a card you want to include to improve some strategy might be even stronger for a different deck. I'd love to include Strip Mine as a unique prison lock piece alongside Crucible of Worlds. The issue is that Strip Mine is even stronger in disruptive aggressive decks. I tested Hullbreacher but ran afoul of the same issue and I cut it after one draft. I'm sure the list still has more balancing to be done. I'm trying out some cards like Hexdrinker and Berserk which may simply be at odds with the format I want to achieve; but it's worth testing to see if there might be new avenues which do gel with everything else.
On the whole, after nearly two years of tinkering on the list, I have a cube that I'm thoroughly happy with. For our draft a week ago, we didn't get to finish the last round and decided to schedule the games asynchronously. I popped into Slack a few days later, and saw one of the players had posted a glowing match report featuring Standstill and Library of Alexandira facing down Valakut Exploration and Fastbond in one game and an Experimental Frenzy + Tendrils of Agony finish in another. Since my players still consistently get excited about the tense and wacky matches after dozens of drafts, I think I'm doing at least some things right.
UG High Tide Depths
Bant Titania Mentor