Friday, October 28, 2016

Bouillon Cubes

a guest post by Wobbles

Mark Rosewater has been slowly introducing a new word into the Magic design lexicon - Soup-y. Four color commanders are soupy and cubes can be soupy too.

Magic is a game defined by the color pie. It's so important that they put it on the back of every card, each color in it's own little bubble. But in cube and set design you can play with natural divisions and remove this fundamental building block of Magic. When you start to play with that, the pie can become more than a little soup-y, with a lot less definition than typical sets.  The review today is going to discuss three cubes that do just that: The HULK Cube, The Venta Black Cube, and the UR Cube

Hulk Cube - the Mono-green Cube

The Hulk cube was inspired by a challenge in the contest announcement: can you build a mono-green cube?

This was the answer we came up with:

This is a pure green as they come: No Artifacts, No Eldrazi, No Green Hybrid. Just Green cards and lands. This is the apex of soup-y cubes. And starting with this a few design lessons become really clear.

The first is that you still need archetypes. In the Green cube there are a few that you can see in the sample pack: elf tribal, enchantments, graveyard synergies, ramp. In the absence of the color wheel to provide guidance, the strength of decks comes down to synergy and card strength. Archetypes are really the chance you have to make the synergies really pop and provide some diversity in the play experience.

The second thing that's obvious is that this cube is much friendlier to low skilled and high skilled players. For low skilled players, a mono-colored cube is a bit like adding training wheels on a bike. It's hard for your draft to really fall apart too badly when you're always guaranteed 45 playables by the end. Even decks that aren't able to pick up a strong theme are going to be decent with a fair curve. This is especially a nice feature with leagues, where players can edit their decks between rounds. New players can often wind up with draft train wrecks that aren't particularly salvageable even with chances to rebuild. For high skilled players mono-colored drafts really reward tough card evaluation. With so many options in every pack, finding the best fit in much more challenging and rewarding because the decks that result are much more powerful.

Unfortunately, a cube that appeals the top and bottom 10% leaves a huge swath of players utterly bewildered. Gone are the familiar signposts of color that most players can rely on in limiting the number of playables in a pack to a more reasonable amount. Taking the strongest cards in every pack can often result in jumbled mess at the end or randomly turn up broken with seemingly little choice on the part of the drafter. This really hurts the replayabilty of the cube, especially when coupled with the last point.

The third thing is that some colors are only good at certain things. The mono-green cube has archetypes, but they're all very aggro oriented. That means they can really appeal to some players, but others just feel left out in the cold. There's no typical control or combo decks that can be built with any consistency, and the lack of evasion means that you 're going to wind up in protracted ground stalls in a fair number of games. It's also a real stretch to find enough removal for things outside of combat, which can cause good utility creatures to just dominate games. That isn't to say the cube doesn't work at all, just that in addition to skill being a limiting factor, this isn't a cube that embraces all different types of players.

Vanta Black - The Black Cube

To try and address some of the issues with the mono-green cube, the next attempt was a mono-Black cube:

Black seemed like a natural fit, because unlike green there are a variety of archetypes avaliable for different psychographics and play styles.

I think a mono-black cube has a lot going for it. Tribal in black is far more open because they've bounced between characteristic races. Vampire, zombies, clerics, humans, robots, demons, eldrazi and even rat tribal have all been major players in various sets throughout Magic's history and they can all be found in the black cube. Part of this is also because the black cube was more relaxed about what it allowed by including colorless creatures and artifacts. There's a danger in drifting too far from a theme, although it's a bit easier when you're only dealing with one mono-colored cube instead of having multiple mono-colored cubes in your local play groups. In those situations, the different cubes can begin to feel similar because the artifact and eldrazi cards can lead to similar decks regardless of color. However, these cards really seem to feel more at home in a black cube. After all, most of these archetypes are based on Phyrexians or Eldrich horrors, which both seem pretty black. 

In addition to the tribal, Black has other viable archetypes that green was really lacking. Storm, control, Rack discard, reanimator, two card combos and prison are all far more readily built in this style of cube. That helps to break up the monotony of the Green drafts. It's worth noting that one of the nice features of a mono-colored cube is that they give you way more room for actual cards. Typical 540 card cubes can easily run close to 100 lands, most of which are fixing. The black cube has 40 non-basics. It may not feel like a lot of extra slots, but when any given draft deck is only playing 22-24 spells those slots can open up 3 new archetypes. That's really tempting from a design perspective and worth thinking about when designing a set or cube. Just how many archetypes can fit in your final design?

The black cube does run into some of the same skill gap issues as the green cube did, especially because of the reliance on more archetypes. When you think about it, colors are really nice default archetypes. Mono-colored archetypes don't give you nice visual cues that you might be taking the wrong card for your deck. It's much easier to know that your red deck probably wants red cards unless some other card is really going to be worth the splash.

The black cube also has a unique problem that didn't come up as much in green: some cards are objectively a lot more powerful in the black cube. In a standard cube, you can spice up one color by adding a few more powerful cards to give it a boost. Some jalapenos on that slice of the color pie. In a mono-colored cube, adding a few broken cards is like adding Tabasco to soup: way harder to get the right balance and impossible to avoid. When every card is in your colors, it's hard to justify not taking the Jitte or Hymn. Even if those cards aren't the most synergistic, the power level is just so high that they're going to be one of the strongest cards in any deck. That can lead to a real drafting on rails problem where players don't feel like they have a lot of options while drafting. It also leads to a problem in Leagues, because the 2-0 decks are going to have really swingy games defined by the same small group of cards. More play testing helps to reduce that, but it's a double edged sword because it means you wind up cutting cards that players expect and want to play with. 

On the other hand, this soupy cube is pretty spicy. 

Fun Police - the UR Cube

As discussed last week, one of the contest restrictions is that the cube had to be feasible on MTGO. This ruled out one popular cube variant: Paradise Cube. In Paradise cube, basic lands tap for every color of mana. Some devotees go so far as to buy out Rainbow Vale so that they can use them in place of proxies. It basically changes any cube into a mono-colored cube experience, which is pretty neat. The question then became: how close can we get to that on MTGO?

Thus was born the UR Cube:

By moving to two colors, you're able to try and get the best of both worlds. The archetypes are strongly defined, both by color and play style. Although there's still enough fixing (basically every UR fixer in the game) that players can splash the less dominant color if they need to. That said, you're also going to wind up with enough playables that mono-color decks are certainly strong contenders.

The power level on this cube went high. Really, really high. Right over the bar set by vintage cube, these decks were all going to be some kind of BAH-ROKEN. This can certainly be a problem. Ultra-fast killing machines can be quickly demoralizing, and non-interactive games get repetitive in a hurry. That said, Vintage cube still has a strong audience that just really enjoys doing broken things. It's hard to know if this cube pushes that too far (Answer: All most certainly). But it's really one of the only solutions to the Tobasco problem I described in the black cube. It's very difficult to meet expectations on what cards should go in, while maintaining the balance of a limited color cube. By raising the bar for broken really high, it actually winds up making for a more interesting draft experience at the expense of some nuance of game play.

Soup to Nuts

Hopefully this gives you a few examples of adventures in extreme cube design. The mono-color cubes are a challenge to balance, but really fun to build! The extra slots provided by skimping on fixing opens up neat opportunities for archetypes that require more dedicated cards to work.

One of the most exciting was the ability to include Harmless Offering and Donate in the UR cube. These types of narrow cards too often wind up being dead in more colorful cubes because their isn't enough redundancy to guarantee you'll be able to put the pieces together. In these cubes, unusual and unlikely heroes are way more likely to emerge. After all, where else is a card like Yavamaya Dryad going to be one of the best first picks in an entire cube except mono green?

By challenging on the foundation structures of Magic, you can see the elegance of Garfield's solution to Soup. That said, some players really enjoy soup-y cubes: it's a challenge for experienced players to really find the edges when there are so many options while also giving a lot of leeway for beginners. If you're new to cubes or an old pro looking for an interesting twist, take a crack at a mono-colored cube. You might find that the pie isn't as important as you thought.

Join me next week for gimme the gimmicks


  1. Having never explored a mono-colored Magic environment, this is fascinating. Thanks, Wobbles.

  2. Fascinating exploration! It really shines a spotlight on just how much the color wheel does for Magic. I will contest the point on mono-colored cube being easy for the bottom 10%. Boosters have an overwhelming number of cards to compare early in the draft, and color is the easiest way to eliminate options. It definitely helps as the draft goes on matching with your first pick, but I also often see inexperienced Magic players come in with 1-3 colors they're comfortable playing, and they'll ignore the others off the bat.