Cube Design Theory: Part 1

On his website about the format, Tom LaPille said this about cube drafting: “Go make a cube, or at least convince someone else to. That cube will enhance your life and the lives of everyone else it touches.” and this may be the most true statement about the format by far, as it has been the most fun that I've ever had playing Magic: The Gathering. Many articles have been created to enlighten the world about the greatest Magic: The Gathering format that has never been sanctioned: cube drafting. I won't explore territory that has already been covered many a time on sites like Evan Erwin's, Tom LaPille's site and cube list and various articles on and a few articles on MTGsalvation and TCGplayer. These articles do a good job of covering cube drafting entails. If you're unfamiliar with the cube format, this article probably isn't the best introduction to the format. I'd highly suggest checking out the above websites, or at least watching the first half of this episode of the Magic Show to learn more about the amazingly fun format known as Cube Drafting because if you're unfamiliar with the format, this article probably won't be much use for you and unless you're really bored, it'll be not worth the lengthy time needed to read this.

Instead, this article focuses more on helping cube designers with the basic tenets and avoiding common pitfalls when designing their cube. I'll be discussing not only the oft-neglected theoretical aspect of designing and balancing a cube as well as discussing common pitfalls in cube design and how to alleviate them.

There are a good amount of cards, about 200 cards or so (most of which are covered in MTGSalvation's “Official Cube Power Rankings” thread compiled by MTGSalvation forum member Silent Edge) that comprise the best cards of all time. One of the main reasons that many people cube draft is because we want to play with these cards, such as Balance, Future Sight, Mind Twist, Flametongue Kavu, Tarmogoyf and Desolation Angel. However, what other cards should comprise a cube? This series of articles is to help with this oft-neglected aspect of cube design, by helping you discover what should be in the “2nd tier” of cube cards.

Finding out what to put in this “2nd tier” of cube cards is what this series is ultimately going to cover.

Cards like Sorrow's Path and Dwarven Song are obviously suboptimal cards because what they do isn't very good and really, who uses these godawful cards in their cube anyway? Most of the cards that don't do enough in peoples' cubes however, aren't that obvious, as there's an inherent positive bias with cube cards because they'll always at least do something, which is why they were brought into the cube in the first place. After all, these are, in theory at least, the best cards of all time and cards don't get called that if they do nothing. The main problem is that these cards either don't do enough for either their cost or their what they do in a cube (extremely linear cards like Helm of Awakening) and those are harder to identify.

You've probably heard the saying “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Instead of merely saying “don't use card X, use Y” (Well, ok, I kinda just did that but that's mainly just to prove a point,) this series of articles will give you the tools to identify what should and shouldn't be in the “2nd tier” to design your cube. While the contents of the “2nd tier” will be different from cube to cube based on the size of the cube (a 50-card red section will have a much “tighter” 2nd tier than a 100-card red section) and its contents, the general principles behind it will be similar across all cubes.

These cards will comprise the bulk of the colors' cards and kinds of decks that the colors can create and will ultimately determine how your cube plays and performs as a set.

After all, the goal of cube design simply isn't throwing a bunch of good cards into a box, shuffling them up and drafting them. Your goal, as a cube designer to build an extremely powerful, unique and well-balanced Magic: The Gathering set to booster draft, which happens to feature the most powerful cards of all time.

Ready to get started?

Before we do, I'll be referencing my own cube list as well as a commons cube list that my friend, makenfunny, created.

The first major problem in cube design is that many times, aggro decks are not a healthily draftable archetype due to the fact that cubes that do not support aggro strategies.

I'll start with a story from when I drafted with my friend's commons cube. His cube has only been drafted about 5 times so far, so me and my friends decided to try it at a Denny's.

At some point my generic WG aggro built got paired against a blue control deck featuring some powerful lategame cards. I couldn't get through with enough damage in “Phase 1” and eventually got Capsize locked out of the game.

Another game vs a cube control deck? Yay.

Sitting there with a cup of coffee and with a handful of now useless cards, I pondered how aggro decks performed in his cube and thought that they didn't perform well, as decks like Grixis Control typically ended up doing much better than aggro decks.

This caused me to turn to my friend who designed the common cube and ask him “Has anyone ever drafted aggro in this cube and won?” (in terms of a winning record, not just a game.) To be completely honest, I don't remember his response, but I don't necessarily remember him disagreeing with my rather long-worded claim that aggro was weak in his cube. This conversation, along with some very good design on his part, has helped aggro become much better and a healthily draftable archetype (and in my opinion, become the best commons cube that I've seen.) leading to a much more balanced cube “metagame” and a much more fun environment. Sound fun? Read along!

While aggro can be drafted in cubes that don't explicitly support it and can win all of their matches, it is more the exception than the rule. Let's look at the Magic 2010 limited environment to underscore this point. Despite the inclusion of a few quality common aggro cards in M10 like Nessian Courser, Stormfront Pegasus and Trumpet Blast, aggro strategies are unlikely to succeed in M10 limited for several reasons.

  • Firstly, not only is there not a critical mass of aggro cards to enable the archetype, but there are also several common creatures like Horned Turtle and Griffin Sentinel which can stymie the efforts of an aggressive start, giving midrange and aggressive decks time to stabilize.
  • Secondly, there aren't enough disruptive cards like Molten Rain to make midrange and control decks lose tempo and prevent them from getting into “Phases 2 and 3” of the game that their decks are tailored to thrive in.
  • Finally, reach is hard to come by for M10 decks because there are no common pieces of equipment in M10 and what reach is available is in small amounts through cards like Lava Axe and Lightning Bolt (the latter of which will be picked very early).
Aggro decks rely on consistency, redundancy and efficient use of their mana each turn to achieve their goal of winning the game as soon as possible. The first step is to provide aggro decks a critical mass of cheap and efficient creatures, so that they can consistently deal damage quickly to win. 2 powered 1 drops have been an essential element of aggro decks since Magic's beginnings, as they are one of the most cost efficient sources of damage in the game.

The main pitfall with regards to cube aggro is that while most cubes include quality aggro cards like Isamaru, Hound of Konda, many cubes do not provide them with enough support through other aggro cards on a similar level, therefore denying aggro decks the required consistency and redundancy to help them succeed.

Unfortunately, some cube designers perceive aggressive creatures like Jackal Pup to be weak for 2 reasons. Firstly, these cards don't fit into control decks that care about a strong Phases 2 and 3, because drawing a one drop creature on turn 6+ is just useless or at least suboptimal for those decks. Aggro decks, on the other hand want to draw as many of those in the early game to keep on the pressure, even when the opponent can handle a few of them and just accept that these are useless later. Secondly, some cube designers do not use these cards because they typically overstate the drawbacks on these cards.

Let's discuss the first reason by distinguishing the difference between universally playable cards, aggro cards and control cards.

Most cube cards are universally playable in the sense that they can be used in any deck of the appropriate color, and are occasionally even splashed. These are cards like Flametongue Kavu and Magma Jet, cards that are equally at home in aggressive decks and control decks. Due to their flexibility and power, these cards should comprise a majority of a cube's contents.

Control cards and aggro cards are cards that are mainly played in their corresponding archetypes. Aggro cards include cards like Grafted Wargear and Savannah Lions, whereas control cards include cards like Akroma's Vengeance and Eternal Dragon. To show how their use in detail, let's examine two decks with regards to Goblin Guide, an aggro card.

The first is the Blue-Red-White control deck that Luis Scott-Vargas used to win the Los Angeles Star City Games 5K event in January, 2010.

Imagine that someone got a foil Goblin Guide and decided to change LSV's deck by taking out a card to put in the Goblin Guide (for the sake of argument, we'll assume that metagames are a non-factor.) You'd say that no matter what card is removed, using Goblin Guide in LSV's deck is a bad idea. Why?

Goblin Guide doesn't fit the themes of LSV's deck. LSV's deck uses a few creatures with shroud, spot and mass removal, mana denial, countermagic and card advantage to win the game. Goblin Guide clashes with these themes (aside from possibly acting as “spot removal” by killing an Elite Vanguard or a Goblin Bushwhacker on defense,) like putting vanilla ice cream on a piece of pizza. Therefore, it's a bad card in this particular deck.

The next deck is a Boros Bushwhacker deck, played by Fabian Lucero to a 1st place finish at the Open Summer 2010 Cash event in Chile:

4 Goblin Guides are played in Lucero's deck, because it's an excellent card that supplements the theme of dealing damage to an opponent with lots of efficient creatures that have low casting costs (as Lucero's deck not only runs Goblin Guide, but also Steppe Lynx, Elite Vanguard, Plated Geopede, Goblin Bushwhacker and Kor Skyfisher to provide Goblin Guide support).

Looking at both of these decks, we can conclude that just because LSV's RWU control deck can't use Goblin Guide effectively, that doesn't mean that it's a bad card, it's just not the right card for LSV's deck. It's a phenomenal card in Lucero's RW Boros Bushwhacker deck due to the support that Lucero's deck provides for the goblin. No matter how efficient a creature like Goblin Guide is, it can't kill the opponent by itself, barring an extremely bad hand kept by the opponent.

Similarly, Lucero's RW Boros Bushwhacker deck is unable to use Luminarch Ascension effectively because it doesn't supplement the aggressive theme of Lucero's deck, as Luminarch Ascension takes at least 4 turns to go active, which is too long for an aggressive deck like this. This doesn't doesn't make it a poor sideboard card, it just means that it doesn't complement the themes that Lucero's aggro deck not only finds the card too slow, but it also doesn't provide the necessary defense and support for the Ascension like LSV's deck does.

Although it may seem self-evident that aggro cards often aren't very good in control decks and vice versa, the point is that restrictive cards that only fit into aggro or control strategies aren't necessarily bad, but that they require support through other cards.

Therefore, a cube with Isamaru, Hound of Konda as its only white 1 drop will have a “weaker” Isamaru than a cube that has Isamaru, Elite Vanguard, Savannah Lions and Steppe Lynx due to the fact that the legendary hound has less support in the cube with only Isamaru in the 1-drop slot. The sole inclusion of Isamaru in a cube doesn't mean that the cube in question is conducive for white aggro (although it's a good start) as it'd lack the support for Isamaru. Note that even if cards like Savannah Lions, Elite Vanguard and Steppe Lynx are not as good as Isamaru, they're quality cards that often play identically or at least extremely similarly to Isamaru.

Many strong cards have an added drawback (the by far most common one is somehow dealing damage to its owner) to compensate for having a undercosted effect or above average power/toughness. Some cube designers do not use these cards because they typically overstate the significance of the cards' drawbacks (for example, thinking that Wild Dogs is a bad card because it may defect to an opponent and that Jackal Pup is bad because it damages its controller). This can't be further from the truth! While creatures like these have disadvantages, their drawbacks in aggro decks are usually not enough to make the cards unworthy of being deemed powerful cards in a cube.

Drawback? What drawback?

For example, in the case of Jackal Pup, for the most part, the only time that you will take damage from a Jackal Pup is when it dies from either a burn spell or combat damage. When it does, it will have done its job by dealing a significant amount of damage and even then - why would a red aggro deck care if it takes 2 damage from its dead Jackal Pup that already has dealt 6 damage and traded with a Venser, Shaper Savant? Similarly, cards like Wild Dogs ask the caster to be at a higher life total than an opponent, which a good aggro deck should be doing anyway (and while the opponent can cast a lightning bolt on the dogs' caster, this scenario is not common and is a scenario that I haven't personally seen happen.)

The overstating the significance of drawbacks is similar to when new cards are revealed and people look for the absolute worst scenario for a card, dismissing a card. Some people dismissed Path to Exile at first because it let your opponent put a land into play and could potentially help an opponent out of land/manascrew. As time has proven, Path to Exile's drawback and scenarios when it could result in its caster being blown out proved to be nowhere near as much as people had feared and Path to Exile was given more respect.

Of course, not all 2/X creatures for 1 mana, are worth using, as creatures like Accursed Centaur and Scythe Tiger are creatures with extremely significant and prohibitive drawbacks. After all, I'm not advocating using suboptimal aggro cards in the place of good control cards nor am I advocating using inferior aggressive cards over good control cards. I'm advocating the opposite, allowing a cube to use the best of both worlds.

1 drop creatures aren't the only creatures that aggressive decks use, since that'd make for an abysmal curve. Aggro decks, cube aggro decks being no exception, also rely on efficient aggressive creatures that are 3 mana or less, like Keldon Marauders or Soltari Champion, to form the backbone of their creature base, so that they can deal a lot of combat damage to an opponent quickly. We can enable aggro decks to thrive by providing a critical mass of creatures in this mana range.

Each aggro color needs to devote about 1/6th of its total slots to aggressive one and two drops. In other words, if you have 60 cards in each color, and want to support aggro in black, white, red and green (blue, for the most part, doesn't support aggro well due to the fact that its 1 drop creatures as well as its 2 drop creatures are, for the most part, not very efficient attackers), 10 of the cards in each color need to be those aggressive early creatures. Note that these should be aggressive creatures like Bloodghast, not only cheap universally playable ones like Knight of Meadowgrain (although you are still happy when you get cards like Blastoderm, Mother of Runes and Sakura-Tribe Elder for your aggro deck). Note that even though I'm advocating this ratio, I'm not advocating forcing cards in if you have a larger cube. For example, black's best 1 drops are Sarcomancy (it's really a creature, no matter what Glen Elendra Archmage says) Carnophage and Vampire Lacerator. The next best black one's Ghost-Lit Stalker but I wouldn't advocate using it, even in cubes that have 100 cards in their black sections.

Using this critical mass helps aggressive decks achieve their needed support through redundancy to win through creature combat.

For example, look at Tom LaPille's white creature section in his cube. Tom included many white efficient 2 drop creatures, like Soltari Priest, as well as the best white 1 drop creatures available (Steppe Lynx and Elite Vanguard did not exist when he last edited his cube list) to ensure that aggressive strategies in his cube were viable through providing white aggro decks with the necessary critical mass of early creatures to build their decks.

Further, look at the sample RW decklist that Tom LaPille posted on his site as a showcasing of what a cube deck looks like.

Note the 6 1-drops and the 6 2-drops in the deck. If LaPille didn't provide a critical mass for early creatures like he and I use in our cubes, decks like these wouldn't be possible and the draftability of good aggro decks would suffer.

I'll sum up the critical mass of cheap and efficient creatures discussion using a up with a recent discussion: I got ask a few weeks ago why I'm running Jackal Pup if I'm already using the superior Goblin Guide in my cube. The reasons are because I'm providing aggro decks with support through a critical mass of cheap efficient creatures, as well as Jackal Pup being a cheap and efficient creature with an overstated drawback. These reasons are why Jackal Pup's in my cube and always will be.

When many people think of of disruption in cube aggro decks, they think of Armageddon and possibly Winter Orb. However, these aren't the only way to provide disruption as I've found that a common pitfall in cube design is not providing decks with enough disruption.

While many cubes include cards like Avalanche Riders, Strip Mine, Wasteland and Rishadan Port for mana denial cards and like the inclusion of Isamaru, it's just scratching the surface of land denial cards that should be in a cube. Note, however, that I'm not advocating land denial as an archetype, but I'm saying that many cubes don't utilize land denial cards enough as a means to gain tempo because it is extremely hard to enable a land destruction archetype through critical mass (at least, as opposed to powerful aggressive cards.)

Land destruction can be used to occasionally manascrew an unlucky opponent by destroying a Tundra that's enabling a blue splash or to destroy a specialty land like a Library of Alexandria. However, its best use in cube aggro decks is to gain tempo. We've already discussed achieving the critical mass for early aggressive creatures in aggro decks so that you can have 1 and 2 drops that capitalize on the tempo that you gained with your mana denial effects.

For example, casting a turn 3 Molten Rain without controlling any creatures will be much less effective tempo-gaining play than casting a turn 3 Molten Rain with a Wild Dogs and a Tarmogoyf on your side of the battlefield, since not only are you holding back your opponent's mana development and keeping the opponent in “Phase 1” longer, but you're also capitalizing on the tempo with your creatures.

This isn't a fringe strategy either, the plan of using land denial has been used in various ways: in sideboards of decks like Boros Bushwhacker using Goblin Ruinblaster to gain tempo and hose decks that use a lot of non-basics, in Extended Zoo decks such as these that use Molten Rain to deal damage and gain tempo. In Vintage Aggro MUD and Aggro Stax decks use Smokestack and Tangle Wire, which are more typically elements of in Stax control decks, for efficient mana denial and this application transfers well to cube, making them excellent aggro cube cards as well.

Other means of disruption include discard spells and tempo gains by destroying artifact based mana accelerants like Moxen, Signets and Sol Ring (but since not every deck is going to have these, it's harder to rely on this strategy with regards to tempo). For the most part, these are generally included in good amounts in many cubes, so I don't really think that's a problem in many cubes. The only cards that I don't see as often as I'd like to are cards like Duress (which still has plenty of juicy discard targets in a cube and is definitely worthy of inclusion in a cube even if the cube has Thoughtseize) and artifact destruction effects like Disenchant and Viridian Shaman, as it seems cards in this category aren't included because designers think that these cards do not do enough, which is quite false since there are plenty of targets for cards like these, making them excellent cards in the main deck. Creatures that trigger when they enter the battlefield tend to generally be easier inclusions in decks than their spell counterparts, but their non-creature counterparts are definitely cubeworthy as well.

The main thing about disruptive cards like these is that these are cards that make people WANT to draft aggro. When someone opens a pack, for example, they look for the best card or at least something to build around: Recurring Nightmare makes a player want to draft a black reanimation deck, whereas Isamaru, as good as it is, doesn't make someone necessarily want to draft a white aggro deck.

Disruptive cards like Armageddon, Ravages of War, Nether Void, Plow Under and Winter Orb are the kinds of cards that make people want to draft aggro decks, as can be seen by LaPille's sample RW deck and the white-centered aggro archetype discussions on Evan Erwin's, but as I've discussed, cards like these should not be the sole representatives of disruption.

There is the argument that cards like these are "unfun" cards to play against, but I personally don't agree with this argument for several reasons. Cards like these aren't “unfun” because they encourage a more balanced cube “metagame” where control isn't overbearingly powerful. Disruptive cards like these are as important to aggro decks as cards like Wrath of God are important to midrange and control decks. Besides, one could argue that it equally isn't “fun” to have your board wrathed, and it isn't “fun” to be unable to beat a control player because they've stabilized behind a Capsize and counterspell wall. The concept of “fun” is very subjective and not including cards solely based on what someone may perceive as fun or unfun is detrimental to a cube.

Wrath:Control decks :: Disruption:Aggro decks

When I was discussing the use of aggro cards in a cube with a friend, he said that Wild Dogs wasn't good because of the “it can switch sides” argument and also because it can't kill something like an Elvish Warrior (or, for a more relevant cube example, a White Knight/Knight of Meadowgrain/Black Knight.) On its own, Wild Dogs can't kill one of these creatures. However, if you look at the above RW decks (and pretend for the sake of argument that your Wild Dogs became an Elite Vanguard,) you'll find that neither of these decks would be shut down by a White Knight, after all, if that was the case, the White Knight and Black Knight tag-team would have forced Boros Bushwhacker and pretty much every Standard aggressive deck out of the format. Why would a deck like Lucero's or LaPille's RW cube deck be not scared of a Knight? Reach.

When many people think of reach in aggro decks, they tend to think of direct damage. While this certainly is a component, it does not encompass all of what reach is.

Reach is also used either to increase the significance of your creatures, through cards that either win the game on the spot with cards like Overrun or cards like Grafted Wargear and Sword of Fire and Ice that increase the significance of your creatures.

While Sword of Fire and Ice and Sword of Light and Shadow are extremely strong cards that are auto-includes in cubes, much like with land denial, a common mistake is eschewing the other quality reach cards, like Bonesplitter, Glorious Anthem and Grafted Wargear. While cards like these are not as windmill-slammingly awesome as cards like the Mirrodin Swords, Umezawa's Jitte and Skullclamp, they're excellent cards whose inclusions shouldn't be overlooked in cube, because much like the “1st Tier” equipment, they give your creatures extra “oomph” and increasing their relevancy in the later stages of the game.

Speaking of direct damage, another common mistake in cube design is that red typically doesn't have enough direct damage in its arsenal. MTGSalvation forum member and cube enthusiast wtwlf123 proposed the idea that in red, half of the red section's cards should be able to deal damage to an opponent without attacking. This enables aggressive decks to finish off an opponent who has stabilized with removal for your creatures or who has casted bigger creatures like Yosei, the Morning Star and Kokusho, the Evening Star. In many aggro decks, your aggressive creatures will deal damage in the early stages of the game to “soften up” an opponent through dealing early damage, using direct damage to finish an opponent off (although direct damage is also really good at destroying creatures.) Much like how it's difficult for aggressive decks to thrive without proper support, it's difficult for red aggressive decks to thrive without a good chunk of its arsenal being able to dome an opponent for his or her last few remaining points of life. This allows red to play into one of its major strengths and in cube like in all Magic: The Gathering formats, each color should play into its major strengths.

Repeatable burn is an especially excellent tool for red aggro decks to win. Aggressive strategies use their creatures to deal quick damage to an opponent in the first few turns of a game before an opponent can stabilize, but the creatures usually can't do the job alone. Much like Jackal Pup, cards like Sulfuric Vortex and Stormbind are sometimes deemed bad cards due to their drawbacks, which also cannot be further from the truth. Not only do they provide a lot of extra reach, their drawbacks are very overstated, as it usually doesn't matter what life you're at or what cards you've discarded when they result in your opponent's death. While, much like with Wild Dogs' drawback, cards like Sulfuric Vortex and Stormbind can have their drawbacks be detrimental towards you, but their drawbacks are typically overstated because, for the most part, they won't matter as they'll be finishing the job that aggro creatures in an aggro deck started.

Again, looking at the above RW decks, both use a significant amount of red direct damage spells to not only clear a path for their attacking aggro hordes, but to also finish off a weakened opponent. Without a significant portion of red spells being able to deal damage to an opponent, decks like these would be weaker. In my cube's 50-card red section, 27 of the cards can deal damage to an opponent without attacking. Increasing the amount of red burn to the amount that I presently have has helped aggro decks in my cube finish off weakened opponents.

Aside from burn and the 1/6 cheap creature ratio, you're probably wondering how much support is needed to make sure that aggressive strategies are a healthily viable archetype. Unfortunately, it's hard to quantify these concepts and a lot of this really depends on the individual contents of the cube, its size and even the people who draft it. One method that I've found to be a good method of evaluation is observing how aggro decks perform. In other words, it doesn't matter as much if people can draft aggro decks if aggro decks can't consistently win.

Another common mistake in cube design that usually leads to the predominance of midrange and aggro strategies and the failure of aggressive strategies is including too many expensive cards. One of the best ways to “trim the fat” of a cube is to monitor a cube's curve and average converted mana cost per color.

Many cubes tend to have too many cards in the middle to higher mana range because these cards seem more impressive and because much like gold cards, they are overwhelmingly fun. However, owning fun cards does not mean that they should be represented as heavily as an entire color. Dragons are fun, but making the entire color red comprised of 75% dragons and 25% fireball effects would make red an absolutely unplayable color except as a splash.

This doesn't mean that a cube should powerful high-casting cost cards, but many cubes put in too many expensive cards over less expensive ones, to the point where they also include suboptimal control cards at the cost of excluding powerful aggressive cards, for example, using Ryusei, the Falling Star over Jackal Pup.

Do I do enough for 6 mana? Not really.

You're probably thinking “Ok, this guy's been going on and on about Jackal Pup, which is good and all, but there's no way that it's better than Ryusei. Wasn't it a first pick in Kamigawa draft?” There are a few problems with this.

In a cube with 50 red slots like mine does, Ryusei, the Falling Star doesn't make the cut. In something like Kamigawa-era draft, Ryusei was a very high pick, not only due to being a 5/5 flier for 6 mana, but being a mass removal effect (albeit, an inconsistent one.) Yet, I'm not running it in my cube. Why? The very reason is why I’m advocating examining your mana curve – to find that it doesn't do enough, when compared to other options at the same mana cost. For 6 mana, creatures like Hellkite Charger, Rorix Bladewing and Crater Hellion are much better options, not including non-creature 6 mana red cards like Wildfire, Burning of Xinye and Chandra Ablaze. Sorting cards by their converted mana costs help to make comparisons like these and realize that some cards may not be as powerful as other options in the same casting cost.

A cube with 100 cards for its red section may very well have room for Ryusei, but in a cube with 50 red cards, it doesn't make the cut and even if it did, Ryusei would still be the weakest 6 drop in red and the weakest card in the 50-card red section.

A good way to ensure that your cube does not have too many high casting cost cards is by monitoring each color's average converted casting cost. A good rule to follow is that each color in a cube should have a converted casting cost average (ignoring X spells and any color-aligned lands) as close to 3 as possible, with colors such as blue skewing higher (to about 3.3-3.35) and colors such as red skewing lower (to about 2.8-2.9.)

While cards with lower mana costs aren't necessarily aggro cards (and conversely, cards with higher mana costs aren't necessarily control cards; cards like Path to Exile and Cloudgoat Ranger are universally playable and cards like Kodama's Reach are more midrange and control oriented, despite their mana costs) – the concept of having a good mana curve in a cube is good to follow, as not having enough low casting cost cards, or at least aggro-friendly cards, does not allow aggressive decks to thrive. In M10 limited, both Serra Angel and Air Elemental are bombs for UW, but a deck with ten of each of them and 20 basic lands would struggle to win any games at all. Having all high cost 'bombs' makes for weak decks.

Don't freak out, though, if you put Bogardan Hellkite into your red section and red’s average converted casting cost goes up, because average converted casting cost shouldn’t be used for the sole metric regarding your cube’s aggro friendliness, but it’s a good general barometer for several reasons:

The first good thing about organizing your cube by mana cost is that it makes it easier to look at, at least when it's posted on forums and websites. Too often, I see a cube list posted that has its cards unsorted, making it very hard to do a critical analysis on a cube, like if there are too many 5 or 6 drops in red, as I'll have to manually go through the entire section and tally it up by hand.

The second and most important reason is that organizing your cube by cube by mana costs also helps you easily compare cards with similar casting costs and forcing you to more critically evaluate the worth of cards in your cube. Even the act of putting the cards into their respective casting cost sections can help determine if anything is the “odd man out” or if there are too many cards at a specific casting cost for a color.

A good example is the Ryusei example, but I’ll provide an example from my cube.

It slices, dices, flies & resets planeswalkers!
I used these as my white 3-drop creatures:

Pianna, Nomad Captain
Soltari Champion
Spectral Procession (despite the fact that Glen Elendra Archmage can counter it, it plays much more like a creature than a spell.)
Mirror Entity

After looking critically at the 3 drop white creatures in my cube, I thought that Flickerwisp stuck out as the weakest out of these available options and thus removed it. Was I saying that Flickerwisp was a bad card? Of course not! It's a 3/1 flier for 3 with a myriad of uses (resetting planeswalkers, Tangle Wire and Smokestack, killing token creatures, temporarily removing blockers and making lands like Azorius Chancery force an “extra bounce” when the land comes back into play and even making julienne fries!) Still, I felt that it was the weakest out of the options that I had for white 3 drops and thus it got cut. Sorting out your cube by casting costs helps moments of insight like these happen more often.

It also makes you more critically analyze the merits of the cards in the section as getting your average converted casting cost to as close to 3 as possible enacts a certain degree of discipline for your cube by making you ask questions like these “Is this card REALLY worth 6 mana? Is it as good as the other options at the same mana cost?” This process makes you give cards a much more critical look, not so much regarding whether a card is good (because very few cards that will ever enter a cube will be bad cards) but rather regarding whether the card does enough for its casting cost. This imposed discipline also makes sure that you do not use too many control cards as using an average converted mana costs mimics natural curves in decks. Like I said earlier with the Serra Angel/Air Elemental example, using too many cards with high mana costs won't do well, and a cube with a mana curve like that won't allow for aggro decks to be able to be a healthily draftable archetype.

I always include cards at the casting costs where they're cast, most of the time, to accurately reflect their mana cost. For example, I have Force of Will at 0 mana because it's almost always casted by pitching a blue card and paying 1 life, when I used to use Spitebellows, it was included as a 1RR spell instead of a 5R creature, because it was almost always evoked and Vines of Vastwood is included as a GG spell, since it's almost always played with the kicker cost.

As discussed earlier, my friend has made his commons cube much more friendly for aggro decks and has helped them become a much more healthily draftable archetype that can, most importantly, consistently win games from doing many of the steps that I've referred to in this article.

Interestingly enough, it's had more far reaching aspects than one would initially think; it even changed how some cards functioned, which has special significance with regards to mana curve. Someone who drafted his commons cube in its early days said “I pay for everything at full price, I never evoke or pay for anything without kicker.” It struck me as odd...but after having a moment of realization, the statement made sense.

Because aggressive strategies were losing ones, not only did you had to get as much of the card advantage out of cards like Ingot Chewer because slow games would often end up in card advantage wars (which meant playing everything at retail price) but there was also little incentive to use cards like these to gain value out of them as soon as possible because games went for so long. Contrast this with how Ingot Chewer being almost always evoked in Vintage, due to the fact that games can end much quicker (and cards like Wasteland, Rishadan Port, Tangle Wire and Smokestack tax mana as well.) Since he has taken steps towards making aggro more viable, Ingot Chewer's evocative use reflected the change in the “metagame.”

The reason that I bring up my friend's commons cube is that he included Ingot Chewer as a 5 casting cost creature since it was hardly ever evoked. He has cut Ingot Chewer to reduce mana costs, but if it was reintroduced, it may very well be reintroduced as a R casting cost spell, if it's used more often as an evoked creature to destroy an artifact due to the fact that the environment no longer allows players simply to play cards at their most expensive casting cost due to the changed “metagame” of the cube.

The point is that you must be realistic in where you put your spells and creatures to truly portray an accurate portrayal of your mana curve. Simply including everything at a lower mana cost is only cheating yourself, since the whole point of using a converted mana cost average system is to help you identify how your mana curve truly plays out and to identify strengths and weaknesses in it. Cheating the system by using incorrect information is not a good idea at all and defeats the purpose of doing it.

If you have Microsoft Excel, I’ve created a spreadsheet that does the math for converted mana costs (with hybrid cards included!) and even has some graphs if you're more visual. If you don’t, I’d highly suggest downloading OpenOffice (because if anything, it’s a great free program) and using the spreadsheet for your own cube, after all, I’ve done all of the hard work! is also a wonderful site for doing the numbers crunch with your cube to notice patterns and statistics.

All in all, a cube should be a balanced environment. While you don't want aggro to be unviable or a fringe strategy in the format like in m10 draft, you equally don't want it to be the other way around, like it is, for the most part, with Zendikar draft.


I hope that you've enjoyed this article about the more theoretical aspects of cube drafting. If you're a cube designer, I hope that this article has gotten you to take a deeper look into the cards in your cube and has challenged some assumptions you may have had about the format. If you're just a person who likes to cube draft, I hope that this article gave you a nice “behind the scenes” look into what makes up the format you enjoy and maybe pique your interest in designing your own cube. I've had a lot of fun designing my cube and am extremely proud of my list and how it has been designed, and being able to share the joy that I've felt in designing my cube makes all of the time that I've spent designing my cube worth it. Creating a balanced environment in all facets is difficult and ultimately, most of your work in cube design will in creating and maintaining a balanced drafting environment that's enjoyable to draft and which happens to feature the best cards of all time.

Later in this series of articles about cube design theory, I'll discuss things like the role of multicolor cards, manafixing (and the unfortunate side effects of having too much of it) in cubes, transferring knowledge from limited and constructed formats to cube, the use of hoser cards in cube and many other topics.

Cheers and happy cubing!


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