Magic R&D member Tom LaPille loves to Cube. He has been preening and pruning his own Cube for six or seven years now, even going so far as to blog about it, introducing newer players to the concept of Cube and discussing his own views on the format.
As such, his knowledge of the Cube format and his design pedigree helped him to get the monumental task of helping to design and develop the Cube used on Magic Online, the same Cube being used at the Players Championship this weekend.
"When I was tasked with designing this Cube, the starting point was my own Cube, which I've been working on for a really long time, but we changed some stuff. Knowing that it was going to be played on Magic Online, which tends to want things to be a little different. We knew that it was going to be played a lot more, and would see a lot higher amount of competition. We certainly weren't dreaming of this, but..."
One of the other things that ended up being different in this Cube was the introduction of various unorthodox archetypes to the card pool.
"Basically, if it's been a niche Constructed deck, and some of the cards are in the Cube, you can build it. Like, there's a Wildfire deck in the Cube. Most people look at it and just dismiss Wildfire as a deck, but if you are the one who gets all of the cards like Kodoma's Reach, or Yavimaya Elder, or artifact mana, you can snag a couple of cards like Wildfire and just blow everybody's boards up."
There are a couple of other really interesting decks that are those "niche Constructed decks" that LaPille had discussed earlier that are a little more high profile within the Cube, such as Reanimator, Tinker, and Storm. These are themes that are fairly obvious by the inclusion of cards like Tinker, Mind's Desire, and Living Death in the card pool, as well as an assortment of other, similar effects.
Just because the cards are there doesn't make decks like this any less difficult to draft. Often, players tend to tunnel vision, obscuring the value of other cards to their deck's strategy.
"I think that the strongest way to draft these niche archetypes isn't the way that most people go about it. For example, there's a Reanimator deck out there, and I was watching Martin Juza play it, and he's got cards like the big creatures and the reanimation spells, but he also has cards like Dark Ritual in his deck. If your only way to get those creatures into play is to discard them and reanimate them, you really handicap yourself. If you've got the cards like Dark Ritual or Grim Monolith, you can just cast them if you need to. The better way to look at these cards is little packages that you can slide into an otherwise-normal deck. I watched Adam Prosak streaming Cube drafts, and watched him draft Storm several times. All a Storm deck consists of is a few Storm cards, a few ways to untap lands, and a ton of mana ramp and card drawing. What you're actually trying to do here is go off on like turn six or seven, doing something crazy. You could easily just play Keiga, the Tide Star here, but you're doing something more powerful. This package slots into a deck the way that any other package of cards could, but this one just does something fairly specific."
LaPille made a good point. While you are definitely capable of building a very narrow, very focused deck, the things that make most of these niche decks work are simple packages that can be subbed into decks in place of their other kill conditions. Maybe you are running the Control Magic package, with Control Magic, Treachery, Keiga, Sower of Temptation and the like. Maybe that's your kill package. If that's the case, you are still going to surround that package with plenty of card drawing and control elements that allow you to keep your goal alive. These niche packages require the exact same supporting cast for their decks. The moral of this story is to build your deck the exact same way you normally would, but to keep your eyes open for something that lets you know which package you should be picking up.
"There are definitely cards that should say to a player that 'I am this deck'. These cards really fall into two categories, and these are cards that we try to design even when we're looking at more standard Draft formats. The first are cards that are pretty strong that you would probably play anyway that might push you into a weird direction. Cards like Burning Vengeance. You look at it and can see that it's pretty strong, but it gets even better when you commit to the strategy. The other type of card is one that is terrible in every other situation but one. These are cards like Ethereal Haze, which is bad, unless you happen to be the exact deck that can benefit from it. A good example of this from the Cube is Turnabout. Turnabout isn't a very good card, unless you happen to be the Storm drafter, in which case it's very good in your deck. Because of this, you can see a Turnabout in a pack and expect to get it back fairly late, so you might start taking a look out for other cads for the Storm package while the pack is going around. All you need is like three or four cards from each category for a given niche, and you have a deck, since the rest of the cards in the deck are just normal, good Magic cards."
So how do you know when you should be the Storm drafter? Or the Reanimator drafter? What's the hook? What are the cards that really drive you towards a deck?
"For Tinker, it's obviously the Tinker. That and something like Sundering Titan. These cards will get you into that deck. For Storm, Mind's Desire is the number one card that draws people in. I've seen Prosak see a Mind's Desire third pick, and he moved in on the plan. Turnabout, Restock, and Nostalgic Dreams are also good cards to look out for to make the deck run. Reanimator is a little different. You obviously want the cards like Animate Dead, or Genesis, or any of the other recursion spells, but those are just good cards in their own right. Reanimator is a little different than the other two because you can just draft good cards, hit a critical mass of reanimation and enabling spells, and then you just are the Reanimator deck. It's definitely the easiest deck of the three to just back into."
So there you have it, a bit of knowledge about these niche decks that make the Cube so interesting from the man who helped to design it. Next time you get to drafting, keep this in mind when you pass that Turnabout and see a Mind's Desire a couple of packs later. Maybe this is the sign that you are that guy. Take a chance and have some fun. Just because it's unorthodox doesn't mean that it's not good. Just give it a whirl. Find your niche.