The First Four Questions Cube Designers Should Ask
October 25th, 2020 — Parker LaMascus
When I first finished my Cube, I remember wanting to show it off and get constructive feedback from more experienced curators. However, I quickly learned that each cube is its own microcosm — to fully understand another person’s cube, it’s not enough to get a two-word summary or do a few sample drafts. To get good feedback, I learned I needed to better describe my environment to those who might not be familiar so that we could speak the same language.
These questions are a starting point for new cube curators to get better feedback, and for seasoned designers to use when re-examining their environments.
Question 1: Context
How will your cube be played?
Whether it’s a 1v1 draft with you and your significant other, a full pod with the revolving clientele of your local game store, or even just for your own enjoyment — how your cube is played has a profound impact on its design.
Who will you play your cube with?
How experienced is your average player?
How will the cube be drafted and what kind of games will you play most often? (e.g. draft or sealed, 1v1 or multiplayer free-for-all or two-headed giant, etc.)
How invested is your playgroup in your cube?
These questions are key to framing some basics of your cube: its size, its complexity, and how approachable it is for newcomers.
Question 2: Restrictions
What are your restrictions?
Restrictions are an important component of any cube that bound the environment and breed creativity within their limits.
Are your card choices constrained by budget or card availability?
Are you adhering to the singleton restriction?
Have you imposed other legality, thematic, or rarity restrictions (e.g. updated rules text only, peasant Pioneer, silver-border, or even “all creatures must be wearing hats in their art”)?
Are there specific cards you do or don’t include for a special reason? (e.g. a favorite card among your players)
When you state these restrictions clearly, you’ll get fewer suggestions of cards that don’t fit your format.
Question 3: Power
How powerful do you want your cube to be?
We all define “powerful” Magic differently, but nonetheless, power is one of the most accessible metrics by which a cube is measured.
Do you have any favorite cards you want to include that might help define a power level?
Is there a specific deck or archetype that you know you want to be viable that other parts of the cube might be built around?
What are the best cards in your cube?
Are there any cards have you excluded for power level reasons?
Are you comfortable running cards that sometimes (or often) underperform?
These questions will help identify under- and over-performers in your cube.
Question 4: Gameplay
How does your ideal environment play?
This is perhaps the most fundamental design question of all. Unfortunately it’s also the hardest to answer, even for longtime curators.
What do you find most fun about Magic?
How acceptable are board stalls? Conversely, how acceptable is a fast, combo-oriented win?
How acceptable is mana screw or flood?
How many colors do you want your average deck to be?
How okay is it for a player to “scrub out” of a draft due to inexperience or bad luck?
How clearly should your draft archetypes be signaled? Conversely, to what extent should a drafter discover emergent archetypes that were not explicitly designed?
How much variance do you desire in gameplay? In drafts?
Your answers here will shape the kinds of gameplay that is healthiest for your environment, from the scale of draft archetypes all the way down to individual cards.
Equally important to the questions themselves is whether your answers contradict each other. Such contradictions are often great topics for discussion or advice. For example: “I want to reduce mana screw, but I don’t have the budget for a fetch/shock manabase — what are some ways to get around this?” Or perhaps: “How do I imitate my roommates’s favorite Legacy archetype in a low-powered Peasant cube?”
These design questions may seem basic, but they reward designers by giving them a clearer vision of their cube design goals. Keep refining your answers and converging on your desired format!
Curators around the Cube community have kindly provided a diverse range of examples for how they answer these four questions, and how their answers influence their cube design:
The Ravnica Extended cube was designed for competitive play at CubeCon, where it would be run in traditional eight person draft pods; 360 cards makes sense for this environment, to facilitate resetting the cube between events. Small cubes can grow stale more quickly than large cubes due to decreased variance in the card pool, but this was not an issue for a cube that was meant to be featured at a weekend-long event.
As this is a Ravnica extended cube, I want to feature elements of all the blocks that have been set on the plane, from Ravnica: City of Guilds to War of the Spark. A challenge was to provide mechanical unity to such diverse sets from different moments in WOTC design. I allowed myself some leeway in using cards from supplemental sets or from core sets whose art or flavor is Ravnican. (A superb resource for those who face a similar conundrum is The Multiverse Project). Furthermore, to increase plane-appropriate fixing, I broke singleton for Guildgates. This allows me, of course, to develop a Gates-matters theme as well.
I wanted the format to feel like a high powered retail limited environment, along the lines of a masters set. The format thus tends toward shades of midrange, it is bomb-driven (though the power level of the bombs are attenuated), games develop at an orthodox pace (little inexpensive mana acceleration, no cheat), and planeswalkers are scarce.
Ravnica is definitionally a multi-color world. It is extremely important to me that gold card as-fan in packs closely approximates Wizards of the Coast’s formula for recent Ravnica sets. I want to incentivize people to adopt a guild, but not necessarily to reward everyone for playing rainbow decks. Thus, fixing is largely tied up in lands. Dorks rarely fix for color, and I eschew Signets in favor of the more expensive Keyrunes or Lockets. I work hard to create guild identities that allow beloved cards from the history of Ravnica sets to be showcased without feeling like a schizophrenic mash-up of competing mechanics. A few one-off build-arounds exist, but deck strategies are principally tied up in maximizing guild-based archetypes and in finding cross-guild synergies.
Right now, playing heads-up draft with my roommate is the primary target. We see about half of the ~400 card cube per draft. We’re experienced as both Magic and cube players, so I want to layer in as much viable variety as possible. Complexity is a feature, not a bug. Cards can start out as “pet cards” but eventually have to demonstrate some results. It’s important that the cube remain theoretically viable for an 8-person draft for the future, when I still want to see a variety of colors and archetypes represented across 8 decks, and most or all of the cube is used.
I’m following singleton restrictions, but otherwise any physically printed Magic card is in-bounds, including silver-border and playtest cards.
The goal of the cube is to maximize gameplay variety thru synergy, so every card should provide multiple angles to consider and require thoughtful deckbuilding to maximize. I don’t want cards that are generically powerful with little regard to your other picks, so no Lightning Bolt, Questing Beast, Thoughtseize, etc. This cuts out a ton of “cube staples” and impacts interaction the most. Interaction generally requires setup effort or a higher mana cost than most cubes. One minor exception — a subtheme of the cube is maximizing visual variety and I’ve allowed a handful of simpler cards due to unique frames or presentations. Mana fixing also has relaxed complexity rules.
As powerful as it can be without sacrificing other goals. I don’t want “must pick at any stage” cards. I originally had Mana Crypt, Sol Ring, and Moxen as they theoretically have lots of interesting synergies, but in practice those never came up and instead they overshadowed and overpowered the synergistic gameplay. These are the only cards I’ve cut for pure power reasons, although I’m considering cutting Recurring Nightmare.
The cube currently has Skullclamp, Fastbond, Balance, Winter Orb, etc. so there is no shortage of powerful plays as long as they still increase overall gameplay variety rather than homogenize it. The best cards have high ceilings and low floors. The wider the band of power for a card, the better. For example, a card like Ephemerate ranges from “really bad combat trick” to “W: draw 4 cards via Mulldrifter”. I don’t want cards that consistently underperform outside of Magical Christmasland, but I do want cards that require effort to maximize
Draft: Experienced drafters should never feel like they’re “on rails”. Instead, there should be multiple layers to their choices. I don’t want complete red herrings, but scrubbing out because you chased a minimally-supported archetype is an acceptable cost. Mana fixing should support two color decks; anything beyond a splash in a third color should require sacrifices in the draft. A drafter should be able to find cards that mitigate screw and/or flood if they are willing to prioritize that.
Gameplay: True board stalls should be rare, because most cards will offer options beyond plain combat. Barring bad mulligans, players should feel like their drafting and gameplay decisions mattered. “Big finishes” (combo, locks, etc.) should take effort to set up, conscious deckbuilding, and/or play out over multiple turns. Being surprised by strange interactions is expected to occur regularly.
I primarily play with 1-3 other people, so 360 is the right size for my cube. I am the most experienced Magic player among my group, so it’s important that my archetypes and cards are easily communicated to newcomers (no customs, no alters, updated English-language rules text).
I adhere to a “singleton art” restriction — my cube has multiple copies of Llanowar Elves, for example, but each has a different art. This helps me stay on a budget of 20/month for cube upgrades.
I try to maximize power of the core archetypes of Magic — aggro, midrange, and control — while maintaining a balance between them. A card like Goblin Rabblemasterrepresents an average 3-drop in my cube, while Oko Thief of Crownsis the most powerful. I try to trim anything that offers more power for less mana than Oko (Moxen, Sol Ring, Mana Drain), or anything which has a much lower failstate than Goblin Rabblemaster(Curse of Predation, Drake Haven).
I find close, tight games to be the most fun thing about Magic, where player decisions matter on both sides of the table. I maximize the opportunities for players to exercise agency through a higher-than-average amount of interaction, cantrips, and manafixing. Combo actively works against that goal, so I have eliminated it from my environment. Finally, I try not to include “microarchetypes” like aristocrats or +1/+1 counters matter, as a way to design towards my goal of approachability for new players.
Usually it’s my local playgroup of about 5ish regulars, and I take others into account as a content producer when making changes to the finalized lists.
This cube is a Pauper cube, so I am restricted to cards printed at common. I also adhere to singleton restriction and the basics are snow basics. Honestly, it’s nothing hugely groundbreaking.
I honestly hadn’t given it a lot of thought for the majority of my time in cube — perhaps this was a naive view of balancing. My general cube ideology is that every card in a cube should have a mission statement — “if you take me, you shouldn’t be surprised if this goes in a 3-0 list” — even though individual cards are certainly more powerful than others, like a Shock or a Galvanic Blast is less powerful than a Lightning Bolt.
Ideal gameplay is where someone can get done with a draft and not feel like they messed up by being in an archetype, or worse, being in a lane in an archetype but finding out that it’s a bad archetype, and then having a bad time. Although, I’m fine with cards that are lopsided, like the protection swords and whatnot, which may be just something that I’ve accepted from playing the game for 32847982374 years. Maybe it’s just the Desi in me, but I think I’d define ideal gameplay in cube is where everyone has a good time while competing with powerful cards, and if there’s cool/interesting gameplay in there, that’s even better.
My cube is designed to be played primarily with three different groups of people: in person with my large, local playgroup in Baltimore, the Bun Magic Kitchen Table Pro Tour (6-8 player pods), online with players from various Cube communities (6-8 player pods), and one-on-one with friends (2 players). I aim for my cube to represent what I enjoy most about the game so I am able to share that experience directly with others.
I maintain a spirit of singleton restriction, not running multiple copies of the same card or cards that are strictly worse than others I include, with very few exceptions, though I do break singleton for shock lands. Other than that, my card choices are unrestricted.
I aim to optimize my cube for power and consistency within the scope of what I deem to be “fair” strategies. I exclude individual cards which offer their caster an outsized advantage with minimal or no deckbuilding cost (The Power Nine, hyper-efficient ramp like Sol Ring and Mana Crypt, Mind Twist, Mana Drain, etc.), strategies that are linear and largely non-interactive (combo and storm), and cards that cheat mana costs (Tinker, Natural Order, reanimator, etc.). My goal is to push the core strategies of the game — aggro, midrange, and control — to their most powerful limits while still remaining in balance with one another.
I want to enable my players to express their skill and empower them to control their fate through their draft, deckbuilding, and gameplay decisions. While I believe variance is an inherent and essential part of the game, I want to offer my players the opportunity to minimize that variance with an abundance of mana fixing, modal cards, and efficient card selection. My ideal games are realtively fast, with the deciding plays happening before turn five, and narrow wins that are one decision or card away from the opposite outcome. I accept the occasional non-games and swingy plays as a byproduct of the power-level at which I choose to play, but only if those non-games are the result of conscious deckbuilding and gameplay decisions, like the successful execution of an Upheaval deck, rather than on the back of singular, powerful cards, like Mind Twisting away your opponents hand. I am especially interested in “symmetrical” effects that can be abused with selective deckbuilding.
The Regular Cube is designed for players in my local group, especially those who love limited, and have a range of experience. It’s intended to have a relatively high floor, allowing les experienced players to draft a function deck, but high strategic complexity to offer depth to the more experienced. My goal is for it to be ‘Spike hardened’, not only supporting complex, synergistic strategies but ensuring that they are also optimal.
The cube is between 400 to 450 cards. There are no formal restrictions on rarity, era, or budget. It is more loosely restricted to contemporary Magic design philosophy and the power level of what would be good uncommons and lower tier rares in a premier set. Singleton is generally preferred, including functional duplicates, but I’m willing to break any rules if there is a good reason to.
I want the cube to be a bit north of a special set like Modern Horizons or Double Masters. I want to support a number of synergistic strategies possible at this power level. Cards that are powerful enough in isolation to make synergistic and strategic power less important are avoided.
Ideally the cube should play like a powered up limited set. The gameplay still revolves around creatures and combat, making you work to generate card or tempo advantage. Strategic and board complexity is significantly higher than a premier set. I want to support as much variation between drafts and games as possible and am somewhat tolerant to variance as long as the overall feel of the game is that players are still making decisions that matter most of the time.
You can copy the below Markdown template to use as an outline for your cube description on Cube Cobra.
Explain how your cube will be played here.
Explain the restrictions for your cube here.
Explain the desired power level of your cube here.
Explain your ideal gameplay here.
Cube description derived from [The First Four Questions Cube Designers Should Ask](https://luckypaper.co/articles/the-first-four-questions-cube-designers-should-ask/).
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