Cube drafting is an exciting format that's recently gained a lot of popularity, and rightfully so. A conventional cube, essentially a pile of the best cards in Magic, allows players to draft the nuttiest decks you'll ever see in a Limited format. The conventional build of a cube has been discussed at length on this site and others. I'm not going to write about the conventional cube, though if you are unfamiliar with the format I recommend that you touch up on the basics of cubing before you read on.
Let's say your friend Sally has a conventional cube. It might run Black Lotus or maybe the power level tops of with Skullclamp. Your friend group drafts Sally's cube frequently and finds it to be an enjoyable experience. But you know what they say about too much of a good thing, and besides, there were some card choices in Sally's cube that you didn't agree with anyway. So you decide to build your own cube.
You could build your own conventional cube. You could make all of the choices that you think Sally should have made in the first place and include some pet cards that you're sad you never get to play. And you could make your cube all foreign, unlike Sally's foiled out one. But how different will your cube be from hers? There are a lot of cards that you'll have no choice but to include. Dual lands and fetches come to mind, as do tournament staples like Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf. Conventional cubes, though rarely identical, are awfully similar to each other.
It is my suggestion that you do something unconventional with your cube. Don't let yourself be stifled by what other people think a cube is supposed to look like. Build it based on your own vision. Maybe you think everyone should play green, or creatures should be really important. Maybe you're working on a budget and want to use only commons. Or maybe you really enjoyed Portal and don't think anything should happen as an instant. I'll tell you up front that not all ideas are good, but with some thought and Gatherer you'll find that there are plenty of ideas that can support a cube.
Once you've come up with an idea, the trick is to get a version of your cube assembled. You can have proxies in there for cards that you think might not belong, particularly expensive ones, but it's really more satisfying to play with real cards. And don't worry too much about getting the cube exactly right on the first try; you won't. Get something put together that's in line with the spirit of what you want your cube to be. Playtesting is where you'll figure out what works and what doesn't.
If you're lucky your play group will be excited to take part in the construction of an unconventional cube. They may be curious or even like the idea right away. This will make the construction of your cube a lot easier. The first few plays will be rough as you figure out through trial and error the finer points of cube construction. You'll notice that your cube changes a lot after the first few drafts. Eventually the changes will level off and your cube will become what you meant it to be in the first place.
In a conventional cube, card choices are determined by power level. How well each archetype is supported depends on the distribution of good cards. An important difference between a conventional cube and an unconventional one is that in an unconventional cube, power level aside, you determine what a cube-worthy card is. You can create and balance archetypes. It's pretty accurate to think of it as developing your own draft set. If it doesn't draft well, then it's your prerogative to make whatever changes you want to fix the problems even if it means lowering the power level of the cube. Ideally you'll be able to make changes without disrupting the theme of your cube.
Budget cubes are pretty well known, whether they are rare-free or even strictly commons. The phrase "tribal cube" is also thrown around but I can't tell you any more about it since I haven't had the opportunity to draft one myself. The trick to an unconventional cube is to choose restrictions for yourself. A conventional cube is unrestricted, so yours will be notable for the ways in which it is different. Everything in my cube has been printed at uncommon. I'll tell you about it, but first I will recount some ideas I had for other unconventional cubes.
A monocolor cube would be characterized by a prevalence of demanding mana costs and a small or nonexistent amount of fixing and multicolor support. You'd include Overrun but not Tromp the Domains even if you felt that Tromp was a stronger card. In this cube, drafting a consistent deck with more than one main color would be nearly impossible.
Right away you know you get to skip out on including mana fixing lands, which even in a small cube probably means 30 extra slots for more interesting cards. You might exclude multicolored cards altogether. Each of the five colors, as a result, will have notably more cards than usual. This gives you the opportunity to really flesh out each color. Rather than just having a pile of good cards, you can give each color a character. Since your players will not be up to any three- to five-color shenanigans you'll be able to see the characters of the colors shine through in the decks built.
I elected not to build this cube because I felt it would be frustrating to draft. Decks of a single color can be strong but are rarely interesting; my players would routinely have to choose between building a good deck and building a fun deck. Fighting the greedy instincts so strongly makes for bad tension. I don't think that a multicolor cube is universally a bad idea but I think it would be very difficult to do correctly, so I elected not to try it for my first unconventional cube.
Since you are constructing the cube to your own specifications, maybe you'd prefer not to include all of the colors. If you feel like games full of counterspells and cheap removal aren't fun, you could just cut blue and black. Green and white don't have the raw power you want? Cut them. This drastically changes the play dynamic in the cube; it would take time to balance the power level between your colors to account for the difficulties that some strategies are suddenly no longer faced.
Without blue or black, big green fat might be too strong. You would have to be careful about how much you include. Combat tricks would also be quite powerful in that cube. Without green or white you might worry that none of the best cards in the cube are creatures. Control versus control matchups might become the norm. You would have to build your cube to make sure that games did not become long and boring.
Luckily, the mana fixing doesn't get much trickier in a shard cube. Dual lands, fetch lands, pain lands, and bounce lands already exist for all ten color combinations. Shard lands and panoramas would suddenly be a lot better. All you really miss out on are the lands which are not symmetrical between the allied and enemy colors such as the Coldsnap snow duals and Castle Sengir.
My inclination would be to leave out an allied pair of colors. Multicolor support tends to be better for allied pairs, so you might prefer to have two allied pairs and one enemy pair rather than the other way around. Ultimately, however, it's up to you.
On the other end of the color skewing spectrum, perhaps you really like green. I'll tell you right away, I do. If you were so inclined, you could build a cube where each drafter is inclined to play it. Rather than 50 cards of each color, maybe there are 30 cards of each nongreen color and 130 green cards. You might include only the four dual lands that include green, and all of the multicolor cards could be green. In principle, this skewing could be as mild or severe as you want but extreme seems like the way to go.
I think that this cube would be extremely challenging to build. With the monocolor cube above, there was the opportunity to define one or more character attributes within each color. Here it would be crucial to have many within green. You would need support for several crisply defined archetypes within your green cards. Otherwise every deck might end up as midrange green with a splash. That means a draft full of being cut off and games that all seem the same.
I left this one alone for the same reason that I didn't build the monocolor cube. It seemed like balancing the cube would remove too many of the choices. But again, I think this cube could be profitably built by someone with more patience than I have.
Reject Rare Cube
If you are unfamiliar with the idea of a reject rare draft, you can read about it here. There have been a few well documented ones at Wizards and they happen at least occasionally out in the real world. I've been involved in several. They are as wacky and fun as you may imagine. And, given the inexpensive nature of reject rares, building a cube out of them would be quite budget friendly. An unchanging pool of reject rares might lose its novelty after a time but there are plenty of them out there. Plenty. Frequent card substitutions could keep the experience dynamic.
I ultimately elected to build an uncommons cube but I have done some research into the idea of a crap rare cube. I can tell you right away that if you just throw 360 of the worst rares into a box and try to draft it, it won't work. The objective of this cube is to create a balanced environment where the cards you are playing are crap rares. Furthermore, in order for people to ever want to play this cube, it has to be fun. That means having a wide range of supported archetypes and cutting the cards that are too weak, even for a crap rare cube. I'm looking at you, Heart Wolf.
Like any other cube, you need a mana curve and a balance between creatures and noncreatures. I'm not worried about the high end of the curve; there are plenty of expensive silly reject rares. However, making sure that aggro is supported in this cube will require some finesse.
You need aggressively-sized creatures like Veteran Brawlers and Endless Wurm. They are bad. You need to support them with cards like Ashling's Prerogative and Hall of the Bandit Lord. Perhaps most difficultly, you need to balance the cube so that aggro is a viable strategy. It has to be possible to draft an aggro deck, bad as it is, that can kill the opponent before they start casting their big spells.
This is tricky because aggro is mostly not made out of rares. There won't really be any one-drops and the two-drops are sparse. The entire cube might have to be slowed down so that aggro can be defined by three-drops. Luckily, there have been enough expensive rares printed that making the format slower should always be pretty trivial.
Like any other cube, a crap rare cube wants to be full of synergy. Considering the inherent weakness of Auras, I would be inclined to add an enchantment subtheme. I would love it if Daybreak Coronet and Auratog were playable. Whether or not that's feasible is unclear.
In fact, whether or not this cube could be built is unclear. It's a puzzle I fully intend to return to.
Alright, now I get to talk about my cube. This is a project I've been working on for the better part of a year. It still gets changed as new sets come out, of course. However, changes have leveled off to the point where there are no longer cards in my cube that I'm actively seeking to replace.
I imagine that some of you have played in rareless cubes. I went into this project anticipating that an all-uncommon cube would be similar to as a rareless cube; I mean, how many of those cards are commons? A lot, actually. Commons are powerhouses. They also make up most of the utility in Magic; this is why limited formats work. You want a burn spell? The best ones are common. You want to off a creature, counter a spell, accelerate your land, or fix your colors? Commons will do it best. Rares can sometimes get away with making utility spells, usually ones that are somehow eccentric, but there are a lot of roles that really aren't filled at uncommon.
Suppose you're drafting red/green midrange from a pile of the best uncommons. Your deck will be full of things like Bloodbraid Elf, Eternal Witness, and Savage Twister. Maybe you'll get up to some hijinks with Oni of Wild Places and Firemaw Kavu. There are eighty dozen cards that support this deck. It's made out of the best cards in your pile, a lot like Jund in Standard right now.
The guy across the table might be looking to battle you with his heavy-white control. He'll hold down the fort with Condemn and Path to Exile. He might win a few races in the air with Serra Angel. But he needs some real board control. Unfortunately for him, at uncommon, white gets a handful of combat tricks and Tivadar's Crusade. He's got no way to compete with your green/red beats.
Uncommon gives plenty of aggressive cards but is woefully unsupportive of a dedicated control deck. White has no board sweepers. Blue has hardly any big scary finishers. I've put into place a rather involved solution.
Part one is making sure that archetypes are supported, even if it means supporting them with bad cards. Take Deep Spawn for example. He's a big bad dude, and by bad I mean terrible. But he's what blue is working with for finishers. And, even with all of that silly additional text on the card, he is a 6/6 with trample and shroud. If someone gets board control and drops him they can ride to victory... eventually. White is in the same cart. Crowd Favorites, ironically enough, won't be winning and popularity contests but nobody will ever draft them out from under a dedicated control player. And if the Favorites hit the table, it's bad news for anything aggressive.
Part two has to do with compensating for the cards that just don't exist at uncommon. There are no board sweepers in white. You can only get so far by waiting for your opponent to attack into that Arrow Volley Trap. However, red and black have tons of options as far as mass removal goes. I've included more mass removal than I would expect black and red players to need and made an effort to have much of it be splashable even at the expense of power. Of course I include Barter in Blood and Slice and Dice, but I also made a point to include effects such as Final Revels and Cleansing Beam which a white deck can easily splash for.
Part three is making room for these bad cards by decreasing the pool of cards that support the strongest deck or decks. If red green beats is too strong then I'm inclined to make it more difficult to draft. Roughly speaking, each color has a mana curve. Typically they each peak in the 3-to-5 range. In red and green they now no longer peak so strongly. I've taken some of the steam away from the midrange deck and added goofy things for ramp to do in the late game like Hunting Pack and Flame Wave.
In my excitement to tell you about a big change to my cube, it would seem that I have neglected to touch on some of the finer points of its early evolution.
The first lesson I learned about my cube is that Skullclamp ruins lives. It's debatably the most powerful uncommon ever printed (Library of Alexandria and Sol Ring being other contenders), so you'd think it would belong. Unfortunately it's just too far above the power level of the rest of the cube. Rather than drastically increase the quantity of artifact hate, allowing it to warp the format as much as the dark days of pre-ban Mirrodin, I elected to axe the Clamp. It seems to me that a good rule of thumb is that you should rethink the inclusion of any obvious first pick in a cube-wide Rochester draft. Sol Ring and Library were not included in my cube originally since I didn't own them. After removing Clamp, it's clear that they also do not belong.
In a 360-card cube, I play only 41 cards of each color so that I can include a lot of multicolored cards. Mana fixing isn't the greatest at uncommon, so with a large pool of each color there's little incentive to play greedily. Rather than provide good support for multicolor, which isn't really possible, I reduced the support for monocolor. It's now skill intensive to draft a deck without dipping into a third color.
I also made some manipulations regarding tokens. At first they were annoying. I was prepared with proxy tokens so I wouldn't have to deal with coins and paperclips. Even so, when someone plays Cloudgoat Ranger, Belfry Spirit, Battle Screech, and Spectral Procession all in the same deck, the bookkeeping is distracting. I reduced the number of token producers and consolidated the token types. For example, I cut things like One Dozen Eyes since I didn't want those Beasts getting confused with the ones from Beast Attack and Hunting Pack. Insect and Elf tokens were abolished in favor of Saprolings. Even after all my changes there are plenty of types of tokens; there are staple cards like Centaur Glade and Elephant Guide which make tokens of the same size and color but different types.
I'd be happy to hear any opinions you have about my cube ideas. I'd be even happier to see some of you share your ideas for eccentric ways to build a cube.
Best of luck!