I am a huge fan of Magic: the Gathering as a system (Insert joke about my weight here HA HA HA). It is an amazingly robust game system that can be used in many different formats. The one that most laypersons are familiar with is Casual Constructed, where you build a deck of 60 cards, limited to 4 of each non-basic cards, and minimal other restrictions. You then play a one-on-one game where both players have 20 life points each and try to reduce their opponent’s life to zero. As a game with 13,220 unique cards as of Gatecrash (the latest expansion), the variability inherent in that one game mode is staggering.
That’s why formats (which are essentially variants) were introduced. Formats usually impose some form of restriction on what can form your deck. Formats are important for sanctioned tournaments, as it reduces the barrier of entry for new players trying to get competitive, since you don’t always have to obtain expensive out of print cards to remain competitive. Granted, the popularity of newer formats also drives single card prices to absurd prices, but the print runs today are much larger so you at least have a better chance of actually getting the cards. Outside of a tournament setting, formats also let a playgroup self-regulate. By agreeing to a format where each member of the group can compete effectively, you could negate, or at least mitigate, any economic or entrenched advantages that some players may have. Most importantly, formats just plain allow you to increase the variety of game experiences you can get from Magic. Different formats can feel really different from each other even though it uses the same core system. Each format could be thought of as an entirely new game played with the same core system. Think of how many different games you can play with a standard deck of playing cards. Magic is the same way. It provides the tools for anyone to play the game however they want to. This, my friends, is why I love Magic so much.
Which brings me to the Cube. What is a Cube? Simply put, a Cube is a curated set of Magic cards. Essentially, someone puts together a set of Magic cards that forms a common pool for people to play with, usually by separating the cards into packs for drafting. It is different from other formats in that it is not tied to sets and blocks designed by Wizards of the Coast, and also aims to provide a more targeted cohesive experience than just playing with all the cards available. Essentially, a Cube is a Magic set that you can design yourself, and that is very exciting. A Cube aims to deliver a specific experience, as defined by the Cube designer. It can be a very personal thing, by including the designer’s favourite cards or themes. Most Cubes are designed for booster draft and then one-on-one play but even then they can be extremely varied. They can include the best cards from all of Magic’s history including the Power 9, or maybe just be made up of commons. They could focus on specific themes like Tribal or multicolour or artifacts. They could even just be a set of the designer’s favourite cards. I love the concept of Cube, because you essentially get to design your own game using Magic cards as building blocks. Good Cube design requires good game design skills. You need to set the “speed” of the Cube, the relative power levels of different themes, ensure that the themes you want to push are well supported, ensure the colours are balanced (or unbalanced, if that is your design goal) and tailor the Cube to deliver the play experience that you want.
I first started putting a Cube together to get some friends back into playing Magic. It was designed for draft and one-on-one. The first iteration of the Cube was more akin to a core set design. I put in more straightforward cards, and jammed in a lot of cards with nostalgia value for the players, but also made sure to include the exciting new cards from the latest sets to let them see what modern Magic was like. I was also trying to sell the idea that the entire group didn’t need to invest a lot into Magic financially, since we could always tweak and play with the Cube. I think it was pretty successful, since we started playing Cube pretty regularly, and even got some new players into the game. As we played more, I started to invest more into the Cube. I dismantled all my old decks to raid them for cards for the Cube, and I started specifically trading and buying cards for the Cube. More powerful cards were added and the Cube evolved to be more of a collection of “Greatest Hits” than a core set. At this point I hadn’t really focused on any themes in the Cube, other than generally trying to support both aggressive and controlling strategies, while combo was a rarity.
As we continued playing, we started to play more multiplayer, specifically the Star format. Star is a format for exactly five players, where your objective is to defeat the two players sitting directly opposite to you while the two neighbouring players are neutral to you. We also played Two-Headed Giant, where two teams of two people each played against each other with shared turns, life totals and combat. Although they were multiplayer formats, they were limited in terms of how many opponents you needed to deal with and there was no problem in balancing the Cube for either Star, Two-Headed or one-on-one. I started keeping an eye out for and adding cards that had bonuses in multiplayer play (dealing damage to multiple players, triggers on other players’ turns etc.). However, we still played a lot of one-on-one and the Cube was still focused on that.
I think the turning point for my own Cube is when a friend started to put together his own. This was around the time of the Shards of Alara block, which had a prominent three-colour theme. Edwin really liked the multicolour cards, and he decided to start a Cube with a heavier multicolour theme since mine had a lot of two-colour cards but not many three-colour cards. My Cube had also been expanding to have more cards, which had diluted some of the themes and Edwin wanted a more focused Cube. It was at this point that I really started to examine what experience I wanted out of my Cube. Now that Edwin also had a Cube, I could switch mine to focus on something else. We were playing more and more multiplayer, and had started playing other multiplayer formats like Chaos, Emperor, and Assassins in addition to Star and Two-Headed Giant. Recognizing this, I decided to increase the amount of multiplayer cards in the Cube and really focus on it. I still kept the expanded size of the Cube. My reasoning was that we usually played multiple drafts in one night, and I wanted to have enough cards to support that and not have to repack the cards as often. Additionally, I really value the variety it adds to the drafts, which I count as a major bonus.
The most recent change I’ve made to the Cube is the pack numbers. All along, I’ve had the packs at 15 cards each which is similar to what was actually in a real booster pack and you draft 3 packs each. I’ve now made the change to a smaller pack size of 12 cards, but drafting 4 packs each. You get 3 more cards in total, but you feel more in control of the deck as you get 4 first picks instead of 3. I’ve also started tracking the cards in my Cube in an Excel spread sheet. The sheet lets me keep an eye on the mana curves, creature types, creature sizes, colour intensities, and major themes in the Cube. If you’re interested, I’ve uploaded a copy of the spreadsheet on Dropbox here.
My Cube is now primarily for playing multiplayer and has grown to a staggering number of cards. I probably should cut it down to a more reasonable number, but I just love the crazy amount of variety. Part of it is because I don’t get to play Magic as often anymore, and I want to be able to see all of my old favourites. However, it has been really challenging trying to manage the themes in such a massive Cube, and eventually I’ll need to take some time to re-plan the Cube proper. For now, this ungainly Cube is what I have and I still love it. It’s provided many, many amazing experiences. Infinite combos, stupid interactions and most importantly, fun games with friends. If anyone out there wants to chime in on Cube design, I am always happy to hear about how other people manage their Cubes.