Building a Cube from a Collection

April 13th, 2023 — Anthony Mattox

Cube is a custom, personalized draft format. There are endless approaches to designing a list — but the easiest, cheapest, and fastest way to start a Cube may be with cards you already have.

The Advantages of Constraint

Even with tens of thousands of cards in all of Magic to choose from, your collection might be the best place to start building a Cube. At a practical level, working with what you already have saves you substantial time and money. But the benefits of designing from your collection go much deeper, making the cube design process more approachable and personal.

Assembling even a small cube from scratch can be daunting when you’re choosing from the massive, complete, 25,000-card set of all cards. Working within a collection is an easier starting point. The hidden design benefits to starting with what you already own stem from your collection reflecting your own personal tastes and your history with Magic. Your collection is a museum of the sets you loved drafting, of favorite decks you’ve built, or cards that you traded for just because they brought you joy.

Cube design using your collection isn’t a hindrance or a handicap — to the contrary, it is a perfect way to design a Cube uniquely yours.

Uncharted Waters

While the novel design restriction can yield great results, it’s not without challenges. Some challenges, like a heavily Blue-skewed collection or a conspicuous lack of discard, are easy to fix with a trip to the LGS. Others don’t have an easy answer. Other Cube designers may struggle to give you good feedback when you’re working from a unique card pool. It can also be more difficult to find existing Cube examples as inspiration. Some online cube guides and resources won’t perfectly apply to your unique constraint. Even so, perseverance and imagination can overcome these challenges!

Building a Cube in 4 Steps

A good way to approach cube construction is breaking it into four steps: explore the collection and gather material, find patterns of interest in the assembled cards, edit the list, and finally, test and iterate.

Step 1: Amass the Components

Since you’re working within the restriction of your collection, start there! Pull out any cards you own that seem like they could be fun.

At this point, try to keep your inner editor silent; don’t worry about power level, synergy support, or imbalanced colors. Just focus on fun. Meanwhile, even if they don’t actively spark joy, set aside a second pile of reasonable bread-and-butter effects: the removal spells, card draw, mana fixing, and curve-filling creatures that are an integral part of every successful deck.

And hey, since Magic players love a 2-for-1, this can be a great opportunity to sort your collection, too! While sorting, add cards to your piles for cube.

Empty the Laboratory
Open the Vaults
Empty the Pits
Seek the Wilds
Amass the Components
Assemble the Legion
Step 2: Find Patterns of Interest

After you’ve built up a stack of cards from your collection, interrogate them with some more specific questions:

  • Are there specific cards you want to highlight?
  • Are there any mechanical patterns emerging?
  • Do flavorful themes catch your attention?
  • Are there any major holes, colors, card types, or effects that are missing?

Let your design goals emerge from the things that draw your attention. Think about what kinds of decks you’d like to see. Set aside some cards you want to see shine in this cube — they can help benchmark the cube’s power level and play patterns.

Next, come up with a rough plan for the cube’s overall size and structure. For a first Cube, aim for 180 or 360 cards, 10-20% mana-fixing lands, some colorless cards, and a small number of gold cards, with the remaining space split between the five colors. None of these numbers need to be exact, especially this early in the process.

Step 3: Edit

With material to craft from, and an idea of what you’d like to succeed, switch to editing mode. Shape your list towards your rough template, whether that means cutting cards from your main pile or adding from the pile of bread-and-butter effects. At this stage, keep an eye on a roughly even distribution of colors. Also pay attention to the distribution of mana values, by considering the mana curve you’d expect to see in a draft deck and editing accordingly. Do the same for the distribution of creatures, interactive spells, and other effects.

Consider the patterns you noticed earlier. Are those themes reasonably supported? For example, if you have a payoff card, how many enablers do you want in a deck? Estimate that number, then add some extras to account for the drafters not getting every card they hope for during a real draft. There’s no perfect formula here — the goal is to eyeball if your synergies will function the way you want.

Try to identify themes or individual cards that might not be possible to support. Maybe you have a handful of creature-type-matters payoffs, but don’t have enough enablers — that’s a sign that the payoff won’t be missed if you trim it.

Identify what sort of power level your “benchmark” cards sit within, perhaps using Constructed as a rough yardstick — do your benchmark cards define Legacy metagames, or did they struggle to make a name for themselves in Standard? Cards that are substantially above or below the level you identify are good candidates for cuts. While a perfectly flat power level isn’t possible (nor even ideal), weak power outliers tend to lack meaningful impact, while strong power outliers can overpower the cards you’re most excited to play.

Cutting cards is much harder than adding them, but no change has to be permanent. If a cut is particularly difficult, throw it in your “maybe” pile, and it can be the first in line to return as you iterate your cube.

Careful Consideration
Determined Iteration
Shape Anew
Sculpting Steel
Frazzled Editor
Design Considerations

Cubes tend to include much more mana-fixing lands than a typical Limited set, often between 10-20% of the list. Given the high demand for mana fixing in every Magic deck, this might be a tight spot in your collection. While many cubes opt for the most efficient mana bases, anything from guildgates to a few dozen Evolving Wilds will do the trick. Sure, it’ll shape the gameplay, but Magic is a fun game even if one’s lands enter the battlefield tapped.

You may also be stuck with incomplete cycles of cards, including fixing lands. That’s okay, too! Cycles are a tool Wizards uses to give sets identity and highlight differences between colors. These aren’t necessarily relevant for your Cube. Even without the constraint of a collection, cubes often break cycles.

Step 4: Test and Iterate

This is the most critical step. Your Cube may contain all your favorite cards, but you can’t be certain if it contains your favorite gameplay without actually playing. Get to a point where you can playtest as soon as you can.

Plan to iterate. Your cube won’t be “perfect” on the first try, and that’s okay! Once you play some games, you’ll have a much better understanding of the environment and can make more informed decisions, iterating towards the gameplay you prefer.

Changes might be at the level of cards, strategies, or even whole colors. In any of these cases, it could be that the cards you remove are too weak or strong, or simply that they create gameplay you don’t enjoy. Add cards that are better for your cube, and keep that “maybe” stack handy.

A big advantage of working with your collection is how quick it can be to start playtesting, and how cheap it is to iterate. If cards end up not working, you haven’t invested anything new into them. Maybe they’ll still find a home in future cubes!

Moving Beyond your Collection

While your collection may already include many of the cards you’d be most excited to play in a Cube draft, it’s likely just a start. More than likely you’ll want to start acquiring some amount of new cards, but if you can, playtest before you make any big purchases. You’ll be surprised how much you can learn, even from very early play experience.

The “Cards First” Approach

This approach to Cube design differs from some common advice — we didn’t start by choosing “archetypes first”, then filling the cube with cards that fit. Our “cards first” approach lets the thematic structure emerge from what you already have, making it easier to fill up the cube with cards that work together and are free to include. Another advantage of “cards first” design is that it gives very concrete answers to theory questions about power level and gameplay goals. Having tried it both ways, I’ve found it’s much easier to let individual cards drive the process, rather than abstract ideas.

Other Considerations
Start Small

Many new cube owners also start out with a small playgroup. There’s nothing wrong with a Cube meant for two or four players. A 180-card cube is even faster and easier to build, and contains enough cards for many types of small group drafts. As your group expands, you can grow the list to accommodate it. It’s much easier to make a cube bigger rather than smaller. Again, the important thing is to playtest as soon as possible, even if the cube is small.

Digitizing the List

At some point you’ll likely want to move your process to the computer. A good time might be in Step 2, if you want to size up the list more carefully in a tool like Cube Cobra. Entering the list card by card takes some work, but is well worth it. You could try to speed up the process using image-to-text tools with pictures of fanned out cards showing just their names.

During your iteration stage, if you make big changes in paper and forget to update the online list, an easy way to do so is to divide the paper cube by color, then by card type. Then move mana value by mana value in Cube Cobra, reconciling it with the paper version.

The Game that’s Exactly as Big as the Box

Many Cube designers start their journey working with what they already have on hand. It’s a natural way to start. Your collection is more than just a stopgap until you get the real “cube staples” or “good enough until you can upgrade”; it is a unique expression of how you love Magic. A collection is how we choose to put the game that’s bigger than the box back in a box. If you’re new to Cube, start here.

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Collector Ouphe — Roman Klonek