My First Cube: 7 Steps to Success

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An old friend came to visit last week and brought me a very unique gift: his entire collection of Magic cards. I was given ‘power of attorney’ over the collection, meaning that the cards didn’t belong to me but I could do whatever I thought best with them.

Anyone who has played more than one game against me in recent years would probably know that I’m constantly building new, unique decks. This is because I believe the best way to enjoy your collection is to use as many cards as possible. This new collection was an amazing opportunity to play and enjoy amazing cards from Magic’s history that have been untouched for a long time. It was the perfect time to build my first cube.

If you have never heard of a cube, it’s simply a self-made pool of cards designed for playing Limited. To begin playing, each player grabs a randomized pile of cards from the cube and uses that pile as a sealed pack to play — for example, each player starts with three piles of 15 cards for a draft. I love playing MTGO’s Holiday Cubes and I once played an uncommons-only themed cube at Face to Face Games Toronto, but going into this project, I didn’t know much about making cubes. I did a little bit of research, such as looking up the recommended size — 360 to 720 cards are recommended for eight players drafting 45 cards each — but I generally went into this project without any preconceived notions about what you MUST and MUSTN’T do.

Step 1: Get Organized and Develop a Plan

My friend’s old decks were stored in a great little carrying case with a shoulder strap. I knew this would be the perfect spot for my cube. It could hold around 600 sleeved cards in five slots. Since I would need to have basic lands — around 50 of each — I aimed for a smaller-sized cube.

I dug through about a dozen large boxes, most untouched for ten years, and looked at every card to find diamonds in the rough. I set aside every card that was valuable or looked like fun, making a pile for each colour and another for gold, artifacts and lands.

Step 2: Know Your Audience

One thing I considered early was using proxies to mimic the Magic Online Vintage Cube. Adding Moxes and Black Lotus to the pool of playable cards sounds awesome, but the point of this project was to showcase the cards we did have. Likewise, I thought of adding cards from my collection to enhance certain colours and strategies — for example, replacing Savannah Lions with Dragon Hunter — but I realized that people WANT to play with the original 2/1 for W creature. Just because a card is inferior doesn’t make it less fun. On top of the nostalgia factor of using cards from our childhoods, my target audience for the cube will know exactly what Savannah Lions does just by seeing its picture. The play experience is significantly better if you don’t have to read every single card you see to understand what it is.

Sorting through the old decks, I saw some patterns. Firstly, black was clearly the favourite colour. There was a mono-black reanimator deck, mono-black midrange, green-black attrition, and black-white discard. There was also green madness, red-white morph (from the first time morph existed in the Onslaught block), and a huge pile of slivers.

Step 3: Themes/Synergy

Now I had a pile of fun cards for each color. In order reduce the piles down to size I had to look for patterns in cards. I started with black. Black had a huge pile of reanimate spells. For those to be powerful, the cube needed two other things: large creatures and ways to put them into the graveyard. Both of these were available in black (Entomb, Buried Alive, Avatar of Woe), but I would now look to add these pieces in other colours as well. Blue had Merfolk Looter to find the cards and throw fatties into the graveyard and Show and Tell as another way to cheat in monsters. Green had a plethora of big creatures plus Pattern of Rebirth. White had its own reanimation spells in the form of Breath of Life and Miraculous Recovery. Suddenly, a fun black strategy could be used to a lesser extent by any of the five colours.

I wrote down themes for each colour, and when choosing cards for the cube I included a few spells in every other colour to fit in with these plans.

Black – Reanimation, Attrition
Green – Ramp, Big Creatures
Blue – Board Control, Mill, Artifact Matters
Red – Goblins, Land Destruction
White – Enchantments/Mass Removal/Aggro

Step 4: Balance

At this point I re-counted the amount of cards in each colour and found a lot of variance. Some colours had as many as 90 cards while others only had 50. I decided to aim for 70 cards of each colour, plus or minus 5 cards. I didn’t just throw in new cards to reach that number; I searched for more cards in the collection that supported the strategies and synergies I laid out. Blue needed more hard-to-kill creatures that could end the game quickly, red got several more payoffs for playing goblin tribal in the form of more lords and Goblin Grenade, and white received enchantments that made all their creatures larger. I also added more morph cards and slivers to all colours to further reward these strategies.

This cube wants to allow ridiculous things to happen while still allowing for possible answers. One card I later added to the pool was Blightsteel Colossus. I did this specifically to power up blue Show and Tell and Tinker strategies, which allow him to see play as early as turn two. As amazing as that sounds, it’s not an instant win; Boomerang, Innocent Blood, and Exile are among the answers in the card pool.

Step 5: You Make The Rules

Some people were surprised to hear I had added multiple copies of some cards that perfectly fit into my strategies: two copies each of Goblin King, Lightning Bolt, and Counterspell and three each of Muscle Sliver and Savannah Lions. These are cards I want to come up more often: premier spells that reward choosing specific archetypes. Despite what others may think, there are no rules that say you must include only one copy of any card in your cube. I’d be free to add ten copies of Llanowar Elves if I thought that would be more fun.

These personal choices also go beyond the cards. Instead of a typical draft routine of three packs of 15 cards, I ask my players to make six packs of 8 cards. I believe this method will make it less likely to players to commit to a specific colour as they will see a greater amount of ‘first pick’ choices. Adding a few more cards to the draft also increases the power level slightly.

If you build a cube and decide that any rule is getting in your way, remove it! You could set the starting life to 40 or you could say that players can’t attack until they are able to deal themselves damage. Everyone could start with ten Clue tokens or only two cards in hand if you thought it would be fun. A cube is a great opportunity to alter all the parameters of the game, even the starting rules. It’s YOUR game.

Step 6: Make It Beautiful

I bought new sleeves for all the cards and added life dice and tokens to the set as well. Having the right tokens is a much more visually dynamic way to represent the board than dice. It’s an easy way to enhance the game play. Including a way to track life is just a part of having everything you need for a game of magic.

Step 7: Trial and Error

At the time of this writing, we’ve only played once and the format was Sealed Deck (60 random cards per player), but I kept track of what cards won games and what strategies were popular. All four players used red. While I’m not making any changes to the build yet, if red keeps winning I know what to change to bring better balance. It’s like playtesting a deck, but you’re making changes and improvements to the entire game.

I look forward to refining my cube for years to come. How have you been refining your cubes?

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