Hip to be Square: The Cube

Hip to be Square: The Cube
by Tom Fowler

Cube drafting is the most popular pastime to be cubic since Emo Rubik sprang his eponymous Cube onto the world. Magic players have long embraced variant formats, most of which are casual in nature. From Elder Dragon Highlander to 5-Color to Cube, you can see these formats played at the back tables of big events, or at the paint-stained tables of your local game store. Cubing is easy, fun, and will attract many players.

And unlike Rubik’s Cube, you don’t have to deal with Rubik’s Revenge when you master the original.

Despite the growing popularity of cube drafting, we haven’t seen many articles here about it. Sure, there’s a website about the format, and we’ve had one very good article about the cube (along with a couple of MTGcasts), and MTGS has a well-read Cube forum, but articles? Not so much. I’m hoping to change that. While what I said in my signoff from Cranial Insertion remains true, cube is too much fun for me to avoid. And who knows? Maybe cubing regularly will pull me back in all the way. By the way, I’m going for the MTGS record for most hyperlinks in a single paragraph.

If you’ve never tried a cube draft, you should. Maybe someone at your local store has one, or perhaps the store has made one of its own. Maybe someone you know at a large event is doing a cube after several people have dropped. If you have a chance to get into a cube draft, I highly recommend it. If you want to make your own, I’ll give you some advice.

Part 1: Care and Feeding of Your Cube

1. Sleeve the bloody thing

Basic lands are in the box to the right. The long white box is chock full of awesome.

They’re your cards, after all. Maybe you don’t care much about how they end up, but that puts you in a small minority of players. Sleeve your cube, especially if you’re playing with valuable cards like Force of Will, dual lands, or Moat. You should also have a stock of basic lands for use in the drafts, and sleeve those, too. How many basics will be a function of how many people your cube can support.

Obviously, all your sleeves should be the same color and from the same manufacturer. They don’t all have to be new and shiny; maybe you have a ton of spare black sleeves from all the PTQs you play in. Use those. I would avoid any that are damaged or obviously marked, but worn sleeves are perfectly good. They’ll also save you money over buying a half dozen 100-count boxes of new sleeves.

2. Decide how many players you want to support

This involves a little bit of math. If you just want to do eight-person drafts, then you’ll need three 15-card packs for each player. That’s 45 cards per player, for a total of 360 cards. If you want to handle 16 players, you need 720 cards. My cube can handle 12 players, and I needed 540 cards to make that happen. (I actually have 545, as you’ll see when we get to the list.)

It’s not just about being a nice guy. You might want to do 16-person drafts, but if you can’t get a few tables at the local store, you might have to scale it down a bit. If eight players is the most you can fit in your apartment, or the most the Starbucks folks will allow without dumping hot lattes on all of you, then go with that. You may also not have a vast collection, and thus, a 360-card cube could be the right choice based on that. Consider the size of your collection, how many good cards you have that you aren’t playing with somewhere else, and where you can play.

3. Pick your cardpool

How far back do you want to go? Do you have Power 9? Do you want to use them in your cube if you do? These are things you have to consider. My cube runs the gamut of Magic, from Alpha/Beta/Unlimited up thru the newest set, Alara Reborn. I sold my Power 9 last year, though, so those aren’t in the cube.

That brings up another point: other people will be playing with your cards. At the end of the draft, you need to trust them to give your cards back. Personally, I only let people I know (or those strongly vouched for by one of my regulars) into my cube drafts. Remember, they’re your cards: you have the right to restrict who gets to play with them. This might be harder in a public place like a game store, but stick to your guns. If you think someone is sketchy, don’t let them play. The most important thing about cubing is getting your cards back so you can cube again.

4. Pick your cards

Let’s say you’ve decided on an eight-player cube, so you’re looking at 360 cards. You need to divide that 360 among the five colors, nonbasic lands, artifacts, and multicolored cards. (Some cubers make a distinction between normal multicolor and hybrid cards. I don’t; they’re all in the same pile for me. Your mileage may vary.) You might decide to distribute the cards like so:

Each color: 50 cards
Nonbasic lands: 30 cards
Artifacts: 30 cards
Multicolor: 50 cards

In case you’re still looking for your slide rule, that’s 360.

So you’ve settled on your numbers. Now you need to find a bunch of cards. I recommend just building piles of good cards. Look at other people’s cubes for guidance, of course, but don’t feel like you have to play something just because other cubers are. If you think putting Squire in your cube and watching someone open it would be hilarious, then do it. It’s your cube, after all. Make piles, and then pare down. Be merciless. Eliminate the cards you think are worse, and keep the good ones. Eventually, you’ll be at your numbers.

Along with this . . .

Blue counters spells, so if you own one, it should be
in your cube. Yes, it's signed by Garfield.
5. Keep in mind what the colors are like and what they do

Your green pile shouldn’t be 20 creatures and 30 other spells. That’s a fine breakdown for your blue stack, but green is all about smashing people with big dumb monsters. (It’s also about cool things like Hurricane and Plow Under, but the smash-you-with-large-animals motif is the primary one.) Keep that in mind when you’re building your stacks. Green should be heavier on creatures than other spells. Blue should be the opposite. The other three colors should be pretty evenly balanced between the two.

Also, blue counters spells and draws cards. Don’t be afraid to put Remand in your cube just because you already have Counterspell and Force of Will in there. All those cards are perfectly in theme for blue. Sleeve them up and put them in your cube. (Besides, Remand is far more splashable than the other two, and could very easily end up in a different deck.) Red burns things. Play burn spells. Black makes people discard and then reanimates the dead. Put those cards in. Don’t go crazy with a particular theme (for example, you don’t need Reanimate, Life // Death, Necromancy, Animate Dead, Zombify, Dread Return, Makeshift Mannequin, and Vigor Mortis. Pick the best three or four and ditch the rest.), but make sure the theme is present. If you’re unsure of where the dividing line is, look at other people’s cubes for some guidance.

Part of this is making sure archetypes are represented. If someone wants to draft U/W control, the cards should be there for them to do so. If you didn’t include cards like Wrath of God, Mana Leak, and some good late-game creatures in those colors, that archetype won’t be draftable. You don’t need to re-create everything—the Merfolk mill deck in Lorwyn limited can be safely omitted—but the classics should be there. R/G beats. U/W control. Mono-Black. People have played those decks, both in limited and constructed events, for years. They should be able to play them in your cube, too.

Even if you personally hate an archetype, like U/W control, there will be people who want to draft it. Cubing is supposed to be fun. Make your players happy. Even if you want to stab someone in the face every time their Wall of Denial foils your Hellspark Elemental, you need to keep your players happy. Think of it this way: you're making a Magic set. You need to make the colors good, make sure they represent what they do, and try to keep them in balance. You also need to make sure Timmy, Johnny, and Spike have something in there they like. It's like putting yourself in Mark Rosewater's shoes without talking about Roseanne.

6. Keep track of your cube

It’s OK to jot down a decklist idea on a cocktail napkin. It’s not OK to record the contents of your cube like that. Make sure you get a list. That way, you know exactly what’s in your cube and can keep tabs on it from time to time. Also, you can share the list with others and get feedback on your card choices. Personally, I use an Excel spreadsheet to document my cube. A Word document would do just as well. You might even keep a handwritten list, but I think you’ll find that an electronic one is easier to update when you make changes.

Another benefit to using a spreadsheet is that you can easily see how many cards you have of each color. My cube has 75 cards of each of the five colors. Somehow, I had added a 76th white card. I don’t know how, nor specifically what it was, but I could tell right away because I kept track in Excel and the columns were off. The extra white card was identified as the weakest in the pile and was summarily executed. And yes, I drew a card.

7. Play enough morphs to avoid “face-down man = Exalted Angel”

Exalted Angel is certainly a good creature, but if it’s your only morph, then there’s not much of a surprise factor there. Part of the fun of Onslaught Limited was the fact that you didn’t know what the face-down cards were. You may have confidently played a Clutch of Undeath on a hapless 2/2, only to find out very quickly that it was a Zombie Cutthroat, and the dead creature you expected to see had become a 6/7 that you’d be hard-pressed to stop. If your players know that your morphs begin and end with Exalted Angel, then there’s no ability to bluff. There’s no hidden information. There will just be a parade of removal spells queued up every time that face-down creature lands in play.

What other morphs can you play? Here’s a list of some. They may not all make the cut in your cube, but they’re all worthy of consideration.

Playing these will deflect suspicion from Exalted Angel every time a face-down creature appears on the table. They’re also worth playing on their own merits, depending on the size of your cube.

8. Have a plan for future sets

Some sets might only have a couple of cube-worthy cards. Some may have quite a few. Then you’ll have a set like Alara Reborn that has its share of cube-worthy cards, but not in the conventional way (in this case, of course, they’re all multicolored). Whatever the set and however many good cards it contains, you need to figure out a plan for adding them to your cube.

Are you dead set on keeping your cube at its current size? If so, that means you need to make a cut for each card you add. If you have a 360-card cube fashioned from a vast collection, your cube’s power level is going to be high. Making cuts won’t be easy. A cube of the same size made from a more shallow collection will have more cards easily cut. You could also expand your cube as new sets come out. Maybe you have 360 cards you really like right now. But once Magic 2010 and the next block are out, there might be 100 cards you want to add. Add them. A 460-card cube would be unconventional, but it’s your cube. You could accommodate 10 players at that point, so your group could expand from eight.

9. Try to draft regularly

You may look at the saucy cards in your cube and cackle like a bad movie villain, but at some point, you’ll want to show it to other people. The best way to do that is to play. If you can get a table or two at your local game store, so much the better. If not, someone could host a night of cube drafting at their apartment/house. Heck, I know of 5-Color players who had a regular gaming night at an area Burger King. If you build it, they will come, and someone will provide a place to play.

How regularly you draft is, of course, a function of how often everyone can get together and do it. If you have an eight-player cube and 15 friends interested, then you should be able to get eight together pretty easily. It’s when you get to be adults, and everyone has a job, and some guys are married with kids, that cubing becomes more difficult to set up. Yes, I speak from experience there.

10. Get feedback from your players

Just because you think a particular card is the cat’s pajamas doesn’t mean everyone else will, too. After a draft, you should ask your players what worked and what didn’t. What cards did well for them? What cards did poorly? Which cards were better than they thought, or worse than they thought? Were any cards out of flavor for their color(s)? Was is possible to draft an archetype, like U/W control? These are the things you want to know so that you can tweak your cube. It is, of course, your cube, but your fellow players are going to have some good suggestions.

Part 2: My Cube

Umezawa's Kitten Kabob is a Legendary Asian Stereotype.
And yes, those are cat stickers impaled on the jitte.
My cube is 545 cards (it was 540, but I added the Blade cycle from Alara Reborn), meaning I can handle 12 players drafting. I considered making it 720, but I had to include cards I thought were suboptimal, so I cut back. We've never had 12 for a draft, but we did have 11 once. My cube also contains cards I no longer play in a 5-Color deck. Some of them have been scribbled on because I lost them in games involving graffiti ante. It's exactly what it sounds like: if you lose the game, your opponent gets to doodle on your card. In my opinion, it adds to the fun nature of the cube when someone opens Umezawa's Kitten Kabob.

:symw::symw:White :symw::symw:

White has a 43/32 split between creatures and other spells. I did this to allow people to draft White Weenie. There are so many good two-drops in white that I had to cut some, but the best of the rest are here. You’ll also notice the rebel chain, highlighted by Lin Sivvi herself. I had seven rebels, including Ms. Sivvi, in a deck once, and it was quite good. You’ll also notice the cards to support a W/x control archetype: Exalted Angel, Eternal Dragon, Wrath of God, Akroma’s Vengeance, Story Circle, etc.

White is a versatile color. You can drop a pile of cheap men on the table and attack for 2 a lot, or you can sit back, deal with threats, sweep the board, and drop a troublesome fatty to carry the day. Both schools of thought should be represented in your white cards.

:symu::symu: Blue :symu::symu:

Here we have a 33/42 split. Blue isn’t exactly known for having a wealth of great creatures, of course. When it gets good ones, they tend to be really good, and I think you’ll see a nice arrangement of the really good ones up there. Blue shines in its noncreature spells, and the array of what those cards do is represented here: countermagic, card drawing, stealing other people’s permanents, and generally being the color everyone loves to point a Lightning Bolt at.

What’s here could support a U/x aggro (or, more likely, aggro control) strategy, though. Serendib Efreet is quite a nice beater. Wake Thrasher also packs a serious wallop for a low cost. There’s enough cheap and splashable countermagic to hold your opponent at bay. And of course, there’s the real lynchpin of the archetype in Opposition. It obviously goes best with green, but if you have a good number of creatures and Opposition, it really doesn’t matter what your other color is.

:symb::symb: Black :symb::symb:

Black has a pretty even 36/39 split. The creatures support both aggressive decks and control decks. The aggro men are highlighted by the always-underrated Flesh Reaver, along with old-time favorites like Erg Raiders, Black Knight, Carnophage, and Phyrexian Negator. Creatures like Thrashing Wumpus, Phyrexian Plaguelord, and Visara the Dreadful allow you to draft and play control, be it Mono-Black Control or a B/x deck.

Other components for Mono-Black control are Mind Sludge and Mutilate. Even if you’re playing additional colors, though, you have several tutors, card drawing, a reanimation suite, and Damnation. You could even try and re-create the old school Pox deck. Ribbons of Night is a card that should be an auto-include in cubes; it’s good removal if you’re not playing blue, but if you are, it’s exceptional. Corpse Dance is a personal favorite that I put in the cube as soon as I started assembling it. It’s a different take on the traditional reanimation spells.

:symr::symr: Red :symr::symr:

Red is split as close to down the middle as it can be with 75 cards: 37 and 38. If there were a creature/non-creature split card, it would have been perfect. Alas. Anyway, it’s red. Efficient men and burn spells are the order of the day. Utility comes from cards like Dwarven Blastminer (I play it over Dwarven Miner because it has morph), Tin Street Hooligan, Keldon Vandals, and others. The higher-cost creatures are the ones you might expect. Don’t sleep on Tahngarth, either: he can pick apart your opponent’s creatures pretty easily. Drop a P/T-boosting enchantment or equipment on him and the job gets that much easier.

:symg::symg: Green :symg::symg:

And here we have the most severe split of all: 50/25 in favor of the creatures. It's green, though, so what else were you expecting? Note that the "big dumb monster" school of green creatures is well-represented, including The Best Fatty Ever Printed. There's also a lot of utility here, from one-drop mana accelerators to land-fetchers to artifact killers, and more. Genesis is the most important green creature, in my opinion. Sure, your opponent can counter it or kill it, but then they'll have to deal with your ability to get a creature back every turn. Take 4, or enable a Recollect? Genesis forces this decision.

The noncreature cards aren't plentiful, but the things that green does well are there. Plow Under, by the way, is a total beating, and any cube should include this card. Crumble tends to be forgotten because it's old and a little obscure, but I think it earns its slot. One change I'm considering is Filigree Fracture over Naturalize. It costs 1 mana more, but being able to draw a card a third to half the time is probably worth it. Is it? Leave your comment in the discussion thread.

:symwg::symbg: Multicolor/Hybrid :symrb::symbw:

I added the ARB Blades since they don’t really fit into any two-color pairing. At one point, I played with three-color cards (even losing to turn-five Sol’Kanar the Swamp King, cast off all basic lands, two games in a row one match), but they almost never saw play. One draft, I got Doran, the Siege Tower 15th pick. In case you missed the memo, Doran is pretty good. Unfortunately, I couldn’t play it, either, since it was the second pack and I was solidly in Grixis colors. While I think three-color cards are strong and flavorful, I want to minimize the number of cards people don’t play. The problem is that you can see them when it’s too late to change your colors. The current multicolor configuration works well. Adding the Blades also gave me 75 multicolored cards, which is the same number as any individual color.

Some cubers draw a distinction between multicolored cards and hybrid cards. I don’t, and I don’t see the point of doing it. If it has multiple colors in its mana cost, it’s multicolored for my purposes. Your mileage may vary. If you do separate multicolored from hybrid, though, where do you put the Blades? They’re both, after all.

I’m considering adding some multicolored cards. Having 75 doesn’t really feel like enough. I’m not sure what the right number is . . . probably 100 or so. Having more multicolored cards than cards of any single color makes mana fixing more important, emphasizes good deckbuilding, and turns on the Blades more often. (I do play the Borderposts, as you’ll see, but I group them with artifacts since they can be played without a specific color of mana.)

Random note: Blazing Specter is better than you think. Haste is so important there. Hypnotic Specter sits around and gets killed more often than not, but Blazing Specter almost always gets in there once, and sometimes more. I ended up B/R my first three times drafting the cube, and each time, Blazing Specter was among the best cards in my deck.

"When equipped, you win the game because this card is gas."
Yeah, that sounds about right.
:0mana::0mana: Artifacts: :1mana::1mana:

I wish there were more good artifact creatures out there. Etched Oracle is a personal favorite, and a very good man in 5-Color, but needs a four-color deck to shine here. That’s not impossible, with all the mana fixing the cube has, but I’ve yet to see anyone pull it off. I also wish there was more good equipment. Bonesplitter is decent and functional, certainly, but I wouldn’t call it great. Still, it goes nicely with fliers, and it does its job well enough. They can’t all be Jitte or Sword of Fire and Ice. The Borderposts took the place of the Mirrodin “pain stones” (the Talisman of Unity family) since they’re both better and also multicolored.

:symtap::symtap: Nonbasic Lands: :symq::symq:

The cycles are obvious inclusions if you have the cards: fetchlands, dual lands, RAV duals, RAV karoos, and Vivid lands. The rest of the lands range from really good (Rishadan Port) to mediocre (Stalking Stones, Nantuko Monastery). I’m considering cutting the Stones and the Monastery; they’re decent man-lands, but one is really slow and the other is really specific.

That’s my cube, in its form as of our draft on Sunday, June 7th.

Next: a report about that draft. Sneak preview: the phrase “attack with God” was used, rather appropriately.


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