Six Degrees of Foundations

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When I wrote my first article on cube drafting, I discussed how to support aggressive strategies in a cube. However, learning about aggro support is only one of the lessons in how to design an entire cube. A cube shouldn’t dominated by dragons and X-spells but how many of those types of cards should be in a cube? Which ones should be used?

The beginnings of my writing on Quiet Speculation will echo this article’s content by discussing building the foundations of your cube and how this affects your cube. After all, you can't build a house without a solid foundation and a cube's no different! In future articles, I’ll discuss how to build upon the foundation: how to build a pool of cards for your cube, how to pare it down, general cube design theory and how to change your cube's contents – information that's useful for cube designers at any level of experience.

One of the foundations of your cube is dictated through card restrictions. The restriction of the rarity of cards allowed will mainly dictate what cards can be used in your cube.

When people think of cube drafting, many think of “powered cubes” (cubes that allow for all rarities and include the “power 9”).  However cubes that restrict rarity are becoming more popular, such as common cubes and common/uncommon cubes, which feature very different card pools than powered cubes.

What type is right for you? Here are some factors to keep in mind when deciding on rarity structures:

Common: Commons cubes are pretty cheap as cards like Sinkhole, Chain Lightning, Jungle Lion, Lotus Petal and Rancor will make up most of a common cube's price tag due to the cheap price of the other commons.   If you're on a budget and don't want to proxy cards, these 5 expensive cards can be pretty easily replaced.

Commons cubes can also be useful for beginning cube designers in that it's a very self-disciplining cube format.  In cubes of any size and rarity, it's a good idea to only have a few high-cost finishers and mass-removal in each color; the options available at the commons level make it so that having too many of either is difficult to achieve.

This isn't to say that those who create common cubes are undisciplined, nor that common cubes are easily built - it's just that the natural constraints of the format itself help beginning designers avoid frequent cube pitfalls. After all, it's hard to include too many 6+ casting cost creatures when the common ones are awful (granted, it can still can and does happen.)

Creatures in commons cubes are generally small: few non-green creatures get above the 4 power mark and non-blue evasive creatures typically don't get above 2 power (with blue fliers sometimes having 3 power) so evasive creatures are also generally small.

This isn't to say that a commons cube will end up in games that replicate your normal draft environment, because removal is much better and more plentiful and creatures are much more efficient ( In fact, Prodigal Pyromancer isn't a first pick or even good enough to be in a common cube, as I discussed on my article on context at ManaNation.)

There are fewer "big and splashy effects" at the common level although some do exist, like Pestilence, Opaline Bracers and Capsize.  I've found that commons cubes are more based on"boring" (a claim that I obviously don't agree with) workhorse cards  like Shimmering Glasskite and Wretched Anurid, so if you're a fan of that aspect of play, common cubes may be a good option to consider.

Common/Uncommon: Uncommons bring many mass-removal effects to the format, with red getting the lion's share through cards like Sulfurous Blast, Volcanic Fallout and Pyroclasm. Uncommons also bring powerful creatures who trigger when they enter the battlefield: “187” creatures like the Predatory Nightstalker and Shriekmaw, huge beatsticks like Pelakka Wurm and “armies in a can” like Cloudgoat Ranger - all of which represent themes that aren't well-represented at the common level. Creatures are still generally on the small side and evasive creatures get bigger through cards like Serra Angel, but they typically don't match dragon size (5 power.)

Allowing for the use of uncommons also allows for generally powerful like Force of Will, Control Magic and Swords to Plowshares and cards like Sol Ring, Library of Alexandria and Skullclamp, cards that are in the top tier of powered cubes (to the point where these cards are banned in some common/uncommons cubes like Eric Klug's.)  Common/Uncommon cubes bring some of the flavor of the "epic" feel of rares through these cards and I feel that they're a nice midpoint between commons cubes and rare cubes.

Rare: One of the many draws of cube drafting for people is being able to use cards with monumental effects like Sundering Titan, Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Wildfire are all rare. This isn't to say that powerful rare cards like planeswalkers and dragons define rare cubes, they merely make up a part of it as allowing for rares also brings equally important “boring” cards like Isamaru, Hound of Konda and Call of the Herd to a cube.

These cubes can be pricey, even if you aren't using cards like Ancestral Recall.   Costs can add up, but smart purchases and trades as well as help from your friends and playgroup can help drive the price down.

Due to the fact that a card's rarity dictates the content of a cube, changing a cube’s allowed rarity is ill-advised as it's a big transition; many people tend to stick with a rarity structure for this very reason.

Individual card/set restrictions, however, can be changed pretty easily.

Examples of this kind of restriction include whether you are allowing the use of cards from the “Un”-sets (Unglued, Unhinged) or the Portal card sets (because the cards in the Portal and "Un"-sets were designed to not meant to be played alongside non-Portal/"Un"-set cards with the "Un"-set cards also being banned from sanctioned tournaments.)

Set restrictions like these can affect the inclusion of a few cards in your cube, like whether cards like Blast from the Past, Rolling Earthquake and Booster Tutor are allowed in your cube. Other restrictions deal with individual cards, such as whether to include or ban cards for power reasons, such as the aforementioned banning of Library of Alexandria from some common/uncommon cubes.   Some cube designers allow for functional errata so that cards like Contract from Below and Chaos Orb are able to be used (Contract exiling the card instead of putting it for ante and Chaos Orb destroying a permanent.)

A popular cube variant is to make all basic lands in a cube count as snow-covered basic lands to allow cards like Skred and Phyrexian Ironfoot to be powerful cards.

Restrictions that dictate the use of individual cards or sets can be changed pretty easily in all steps of cube design, from building its foundation to a cube that's been around for years.

For example, while something like Ancestral Recall is an extremely powerful card that is a very high draft pick, its inclusion or banning doesn't require a major cube overhaul. A card like Deep Analysis isn’t suddenly made obsolete by the inclusion of Ancestral Recall, since it's still a great card regardless of whether Ancestral Recall is in the same cube.

The same concept works in reverse. I used to have the basic lands in my cube count as snow-covered for Skred and Phyrexian Ironfoot, but I eventually reversed this change. I also used to run Contract from Below and Chaos Orb with functional errata, but I chose to remove those cards.  I did this so that my cube would be able to be played by anyone easily without needing to know these rules since I didn't cube draft with a regular group.  When these were removed all that was really required was to find adequate replacements, not a massive overhaul.

There are other things to consider when designing the foundation of a cube, mainly factors of composition.

Cube Size:  When the idea of cube drafting started in 2002, many people used the basic structure that was used in Toronto, the format's city of origin. The idea was to have the best 50 cards in WUBRG (white, blue, black, red and green), lands, artifacts and to have the best 60 multicolor cards, (5 for each dual-color pair and 1 for each tri-color pair.) For years, this was considered the cube gold standard and this made it so that people referred to a cube as “the cube” – due to the fact that people thought of cube design as a uniform process: deciding on the best 410 cards and making that a cube.

Due to the addition of many cubeworthy cards in recent years, many designers have changed from the “traditional” size of 410 to a modern range from 360 cards to about 900 cards.  What what size of cube should you use?

Fellow writer cube writer Adam Styborski is discussing the very question on his blog in a 4-part series [More should be up this week! - Adam] and fellow cube enthusiast and writer Mark Oberdries addressed the topic in his article “Cube Design Philosophy.”

To summarize their points, 360 cards allows for the most concentrated pool of card power in an 8-person draft.  My friend Charles and I designed a 360-card cube for Ogre's Games in St. Louis and some extremely good cards like Myr Battlesphere had to be cut because there wasn't room for them. Mark mentioned that a problem with smaller cubes is that their drafts can lack variety due to the lack of cards in the pool. When doing an 8-man draft with a 360-card cube, you will always see every single card and that can get old.

Some cards like “toolbox cards” (Enlightened Tutor, Mystical Tutor) tend to be better in smaller cubes since it's easier to achieve the critical mass to make such cards good.

Deciding on card cuts is more difficult for smaller cubes than it is for larger cubes (in the same way that it's harder to edit a week's worth of film footage into a 2-hour documentary than it is to make into a 3-hour one) and because of this, I wouldn't recommend a small cube for a cube beginner. For an 8-person group, between 450 and 550 cards is a good cube size, as it's a good compromise between variety and card power.

Distribution of colors: Many cubes have an equal distribution of white, blue, black, red and green cards and I agree with this. Doing something like having more blue cards than non-blue cards is a bad idea since a well-designed cube is all about achieving balance amongst colors and archetypes.  Having color imbalance starts everything off on the wrong foot and makes it that much harder to achieve balance.

But what about the other cards like artifacts, multicolor and lands?

In general, the fewer multicolor cards you have in your cube, the stronger it will be. This is because multicolor cards naturally limit the decks that can play them so they need to be much stronger than their mono-color counterparts. A card like Watchwolf ends up in few cubes simply because, while it is a good card, it can't compete with the other amazing cards in green-white. Tri-color cards are especially limiting and suboptimal tri-color cards like Doran, the Siege Tower are typically last picks (while it's great when you can reliably cast it on turn 3 you can't make that assumption in a cube).   Having fewer multicolor cards results in fewer dead picks and in general, a stronger overall cube.

Artifacts and lands are different in that they are able to go into decks much easier than multicolor cards, since a card like Masticore or Maze of Ith doesn't care if it's being used alongside Plains or Swamps.  However, the same rule applies in that the artifact and land sections should also be smaller than the individual color sections (but larger than the multicolor section.)  My friend Brandon came up with analogy that the cards in WUBRG are the cogs in a cube and that multicolor, artifacts and lands are the oil that keep the cogs moving: having too many artifacts and lands can throw a wrench into the cogs.

There are other ways to categorize these kinds of cards, like the system that myself and Mark Oberdries uses where cards like Azorius Signet and Celestial Colonnade are considered to be blue-white cards. Concepts like these will be featured in future articles as I discuss how to build upon and improve your cube's foundations, no matter how old your cube is.

Tune in next week, when I'll be discussing how to build a pool of cards that you'll use to build a cube.  If that's not enough cube content for you, check out my blog at and my twitter @UsmanTheRad!

3 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Foundations

  1. Looking forward to reading more! I tried my hand at a cube before the rotation, and made a Standard cube from Shards/Zen blocks and the core sets. It was a learning experience as much as anything, but a blast to play as well. It's been backburnered, but I still have the interest in refining it. Thanks for the article!

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