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Teaming the Cube: Cultivate your Playgroup

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Author's Note: If you are fine with only Cubing at large events once a month or so, this article is not for you. If you would like to play with all your toys on a more regular basis, however, read on.

Moving sucks. It is #1 on my list of least favorite things to do (along with waiting in the airport) for a lot of reasons. When you own hundreds of books, hundreds of CDs, and tens of thousands of cards, it's a heavy-lifting and organizational nightmare. You have to find a new job, new restaurants that you like, learn the layout of the new grocery store, figure out how to get home around traffic…

…and find people with whom to play Magic.

Even though that sounds like it should be an easy task, it really isn't. I’m sure every one of you have had issues with finding reasonable people with whom to cast spells, which may include:

  • Unreasonable or jerky store owners: “I got five From the Vaults. Awesome. But I’m just going to sell them to X website instead of you guys. And you’re banned, because I heard you bought some sleeves online instead of here. We do sell sleeves here, you know.”**
  • Obnoxious or smelly players: “Why does everyone always play netdecks like a bunch of jerks? I’m not signing the match slip for some netdecker! Do you smell something?”
  • Stores that are too far away: Last year I lived in Tahlequah, OK, and the closest Magic store was in Tulsa, about an hour’s drive away. This year, there is a great store near Atlanta… about a 1.5 hour’s drive away. With gas prices hovering near $4 peer gallon, driving there often is hard to justify.
  • Stores that are not suited to quality gaming: I have been to countless stores with bad tables, broken chairs, poor lighting, farting cats, dirty bathrooms, no air conditioning or heat, and/or a closing time of 8PM every night.
  • Bad prize support/high prices/table fees: In Oklahoma, I played in a 30-person FNM one night with an entry fee of $4. After five rounds of swiss and three elimination rounds, I stood victorious. My prize? The FNM promo and two booster packs. Awesome for $120 in entries, right? Afterwards, I went to another store in town to do some trading since they were still open only to have the store owner tell me that if I wanted to trade or play I’d have to pay him $5 per hour for using his tables without playing in his tournament. Good thing I keep a music stand in my trunk at all times! Who needs a table?

Hopefully, you’ll eventually find a combination of location and playgroup that will meet your basic Magic-al needs. But once you have pillaged all the trade binders (in a fair manner, of course), won all of the FNM cards, and earned the hearts of all the local maidens, it is time for the most important thing you can do with your cards:

You need to Cube.

Once again, this sounds easy. It ain’t, kind of like pimpin’. Some people will gladly do it, since they have done it before, or have read or heard about it. Some people will refuse, because they don’t know how or are afraid to fail. I’ve also heard that Cube isn’t a fair format because ‘some packs have more rares than others,' and others would rather just play Standard, Commander, or other games like Ascension. Your mission is to prove to them what you already know: that Cube is the best format ever.

I’ve lived in three different states in the past three years, and each time I’ve had to start my Magic social life all over again. Having learned the hard way, I want to share with you all what I’ve experienced, and how to have the highest chance of success for establishing an excited group of players all willing to add Cube drafting to their list of Magic activities.

Personal Introductions

Introduce yourself to people at the gaming location, make sure you learn people’s names, be sure to treat everyone like people, and blah, blah, blah. If you can’t do this part successfully then I’m unwilling to help you anymore at this point. Go read a book or two then come back for the next part.

Introducing People to the Cube

The main objective here is to get people interested in the Cube. You want people to see it, touch it, and play with it. Basically you are the pimp and the Cube is your…employee. Here are some ways to attract attention, without having to resort to fishnets.

If you are the type to pimp out your Cube, you have a lot of power to attract attention. Make it a point to show up early to a tournament, and then look for cards from your Cube to use in the tournament. Feel free to spread them around the table a bit like a casino dealer and make a little scene.  Then ask someone to help you look for the cards you need too!

When someone inevitably asks you what that pile of cards is (pimp or not), make it a point to talk up the Cube as the best format ever, which shouldn’t be difficult because it is, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. If you have to explain the format some, make some sample packs for people to ‘open’ and have them talk about what they would pick; a crack-a-pack, if you will.

Next to dirty sticky sleeves with black spots (ew), nothing is more gross in Magic than a white long box that looks like it has been used as a dinner plate, sponge, and blotter. No one thinks anything in that kind of box is cool. Please, please put your Cube in a nice box! Even if it as simple as starting with a white long box and decorating it (stickers, art, color), it will be head and shoulders above any old Magic box. Some examples of awesome Cube boxes.

Play some alternate formats with some people that are less time-consuming than an entire draft. The object is to get the cards in peoples’ hands and make them want more. Some ideas:

  • DC10: Unlimited mana, activated abilities 1x a turn, X costs are either 1 or 0, starting hand size is zero
  • Type 4: Unlimited mana, one spell per turn, roll a d6 for starting hand size
  • Windfall: Unlimited Exploration, Mental Magic lands (cards from hand face-down are 5-color lands), draw 2 card each turn (unless you're going first, then 1), starting hand size is seven
  • Winston Draft: Explained best here

Lastly, tell stories about the fun times you’ve had with the Cube! Talk about cool plays, funny moments, people with whom you’ve drafted, how you obtained certain cards, or anything else interesting! Make people want to be a part of future stories!

Once you have people frothing at the mouth for more hot Cube action (or at least interested in what you’re talking about), it is time to get down to the real nitty-gritty: a booster draft.

Starting a Draft

How do you set yourself up for a successful Cube draft that will keep them coming back for more? Here are some things that I have learned along the way:

Burn some calories and have everything readily available that could possibly be used in the draft. This includes, but isn’t limited to:

  • Have your Cube fully shuffled: If you are a pack-seeder/sorter, make sure that is done ahead of time as well. You don’t want to put people to work just yet. You could do randomized packs ahead of time, but people might get suspicious if your packs are 'too good'.
  • Have your basic lands sorted: Have them already in piles so people don’t have to scramble looking for extra lands all over the place, or the cardinal sin of drafting: not having enough lands for everyone. “OK, so, my Plains are Swamps, and my Forests are Islands. Ugh.
  • Tokens: Figure out what tokens you need; there is no point in having a large pile of tokens that people need to sift through to find the right ones. For example, I would need 1/1 Goblin (min 3), 1/1 Soldier (min 6), 4/4 Angel (min 3), 3/3 Golem (min 2), 3/3 Elephant (min 3), 3/3 Beast (min 3), 2/2 Wolf (min 5), 2/2 Zombie (min 5), 0/0 Germ (2), and some spiffy 1/1 Illusion tokens. That isn't a full list of possible tokens in my Cube, but is a pretty good list for 99% of plays when you have dice also available.
  • Dice: Several d6's should be enough to handle the job here. One of those little cubic containers full of small ones should be plenty.
  • Life tracking material: Pads of paper and writing implements (or abacuses if you’re spiffy enough!) will do just fine.

Try to set up the draft time while another event is going on, so less people have to make a special trip. This can be pre- or post-FNM, PTQ, or Tuesday Commander; it doesn’t really matter as you will be bringing all the supplies. Make the Cube draft an extension of peoples’ gaming for the day. When you do, find a visible place in the room like near an aisle. Put yourself on the end.

Why? People passing by will have no choice but to behold the awesome of the Cube, and they will inevitably ask questions. This is a perfect opportunity to tell them all about it and do even more hyping! Avoid back corners and large tables (like tabletop figure gaming tables) if possible.

Explain any and all special rules before you draft, not when a confusing card comes up in the draft. You don’t want people passing cards because they don’t want to deal with any sort of extra thinking. For me, that just means telling people that cards play exactly as they read, including any writing on it, and no sideboarding. Come up with a plan for foreign cards, if you have any. My plan is to stand up and whisper it to people, as to not tip off other drafters. I only tell each person once, though! Communication is key, just like any other relationship.

Have a fun time! This sounds like really stupid advice, but you need to have an outwardly great time. Laugh a lot, joke around, and be excited when you draft cards. I can’t help but do things like windmill-slam cards, dramatically agonize over picks, and offer two cards face-down to people to pick for me. Fun is highly infectious, and soon enough other people will be laughing and loosening up as well (even if it is just to laugh at you!)

Team draft, if possible. For those unfamiliar, team drafting is done by breaking the participants up into two teams and each team member only has to play the opposite team members (instead of everybody playing everybody else, as in a round-robin). Teams help each other build decks, but do not share card pools. The winning team is the first team to x wins, where x is the number of wins the other team can’t match (four-man, x=3; six-man, x=5; eight-man, x=9). Pretty simple.

Here’s the problem: you want to create as positive an experience as possible for everyone, and straight up team drafting can cause some problems.  There are some modifications I have found to alleviate those issues:

  • Randomize seating before the draft, except your aisle seat, but pick teams after the draft! This will discourage any sort of hate-drafting that happens in usual team drafts, as you might be hating a card from a teammate! It also helps to stir the pot some socially, as people who may not usually work together will be forced to do it.
  • Encourage people to play all of the matches out, not just to the magic number. People need to earn experience with the cards in the Cube, and having everyone stop playing once a team wins is not productive to leveling up.
  • Help people out as much as possible, regardless of team. If people want to know if an unfamiliar card is ridiculous, or simply very good, tell them. If people have to decide between two cards, help them decide. This is not a super-competitive drafting environment (Yet!), and the object is for people to have fun. Help them.

If you can’t get an even number of people, run a different draft format such as round-robin or a form of swiss. Single elimination is right out.

Playing the Games

The draft is over, and its time to start sculpting those little piles of awesome into decks. Encourage teammates to help each other, and feel free to wander around helping out if needed. Make sure people know where to find the basic lands, and do your best to:

  • Celebrate cool plays! Make a big deal when someone plays Phyrexian Metamorph copying Murderous Redcap (killing something), then copies Batterskull when it persists, then finally returns it to hand to recast it and kill off an opposing Akroma, Angel of Wrath! My extensive research has proven to me that there isn’t a single Magic player who turns down high fives before or after something remotely cool. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve met anybody who turns down high fives period.
O.K., maybe you can 'get' people with these. Consider it an honor.
  • Let people take back particularly bad plays if they missed something obvious, especially if it involves a card that is already in play and may be unfamiliar (playing x/1's under Kumano, Master Yamabushi with open mana, for example). The only thing you gain by ‘getting’ somebody because of an inexperienced mistake at this point is more work trying to find someone to replace the person you embarrassed.
  • Highly encourage people to play all their matches, even you have to skip playing a match or two to ensure the other people play theirs. You want people to be having as much fun as possible (and to get over any sort of new format anxiety), so make sure all the newbies get their games in and a winner is decided. All bets are off if people want to draft again, however!

Maintenance

Now that you all have drafted and had a wonderful time (which they should have, if you did your homework), you may think that your job is done. It isn’t, bucko! You need to make sure those people keep coming back for more. One Cube draft does not a steady playgroup make!

Try to talk about Cubing at FNM and other events. Ask people if they want to Cube afterwards, or between rounds, or the next week beforehand: you get the point. If people enjoyed themselves the first time (And they should have, if you listened to my advice!), then they will want to play again.

This also leads to the next tip: invite people who played to invite others to Cube. The best way for anything to spread is by word of mouth. If a friend tells you that something is awesome and you should do it, you are obviously more likely to do it than if a stranger tells you. Many people like to watch first, and voyeurism is fine, but everyone knows that the real thing is always better than watching. Implore them to help their friends build their decks, or maybe even tag in for some sleeved action.

Organize a regular night to Cube, if possible. This can be before FNM, after the Wednesday night Legacy, or even at a friend’s house or IHOP at 1 am. (By the way, I hate playing Magic in public places. Don’t ask me, because I’m not gonna do it unless there is no other choice). Having a regular time and place to meet will help ensure that you always have enough people to draft; because a lot of people will know exactly when to show up, you might get some more newbies to play if your regulars miss or if you have more room in your draft.

Talk to your players. Even though you are the Cube authority and godfather, find out what kinds of cards your people like. What do they think about cards from the new set? What do they think of that card that you are considering removing from the Cube? Is someone going to gain some angst if you take out Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir? Explain why you agree or disagree, but always be open to their suggestions about other cards. Making them feel as though they are a part of the creative process will go a long way to keeping them around for a long time as a Cubist.

That’s about it! Bottom line: you’re going to need to burn some serious calories to cobble together a regular Cube playgroup, but it’s worth it. The good news is that once you get it started, it does a very good job of keeping itself populated and will pay all sorts of dividends in the future. If you are going to be in Indianapolis for the SCG Invitational this weekend, hit me up and get some awesome Meloku tokens for you and your friends!

May all your squares be three-dimensional!

-AA

** Two true stories, combined into one.

9 thoughts on “Teaming the Cube: Cultivate your Playgroup

  1. I wouldn't advise giving them access to the cards right away. Get to know the people first; personal introductions and all that. Most people are pretty good at being able to tell honest people from scummy ones, so interact with the former ones 🙂

    -AA

    1. There's also a psychologigal aspect to it. You are less likely to steal from someone you know and by talking about cubing, you are in a way respected for the work, money and dedication you put into the cube and they don't wanna ruin that.

  2. Something I've just started doing is to have each person who plays my cube sign/personalize one of the basic lands. Mine are all foils from various sets, so tons of different pictures to choose from.

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