As with this past week's Dekkaru Cube (which is still up for a few more days!), the Cultic Cube is one of the offerings from the now-delayed CubeCon. John's article talks a lot about his philosophy of Cube design, which is fascinating to read, not only to those of us who want to know what to expect when we play his cube, but also for anyone interested in the theory of how to design a cube. Heck, I designed and have maintained a cube of my own for years now and got some interesting food for thought out of this article.
This cube will run from the morning of this Wednesday, May 20, until next Wednesday, May 27, when we swap to bring back War of the Spark Encore (non-Phantom) drafts.
Digital Product Manager, Magic Online
People often say that cubing is like drafting a Constructed deck. The Cultic Cube is a Legacy environment that embraces that notion wholeheartedly and turns up the volume on it! Success in this cube is contingent on building to a plan rather than picking interesting cards, jamming them together, and hoping the discovery of unexpected interactions will be enough to carry the day. This is a Spike's cube: The power level is quite high but also quite flat. There aren't trap cards or trap archetypes that punish drafters for embracing a strategy that looks sweet but is unsupported. And on the flip side, the cube avoids cards that are dramatically more powerful than the rest and risk encouraging games that feel fundamentally unfair and non-interactive.
When I argue that the cube is a playground for Spikes, I absolutely do not mean that success in the format requires deep knowledge of arcane interactions. Quite the opposite is true, in fact! The Cultic Cube eschews inbred effects and combos in favor of broadly interchangeable effects that can be parsed easily even when one is not familiar with specific cards. Fire Ambush, for instance, may be a bit esoteric these days, but its utility is clear if one understands Volcanic Hammer or even Lightning Bolt.
Thus, this is a cube that should feel at once familiar and comfortable in that many of its cards and strategies will be familiar to Magic players broadly. Nevertheless, the format feels exciting and fresh, offering a novel play experience that minimizes narrow, corner-case strategies in favor of a reliable access to interchangeable pieces that can be recombined to powerful effect.
Rosewater on Choice and Variance
Mark Rosewater has a characteristically enlightening article titled Variance, Part 1 in which he defines two axes of game design: variance and choice. The Cultic Cube takes this notion seriously and plants its flag squarely in the "High Choice, Low Variance" camp, which Rosewater calls "the quadrant that experienced competitive players enjoy the most," because it permits "the greatest ability to impact the game while lessening things outside of their control that can lead to random losses."
Choice is one of the most central elements of Magic's success and longevity, and Cultic Cube celebrates this feature in its design. In the narrowest sense, this means that the cube is rife with cards that present players with options and modes.
More broadly, this entails balancing the format in such a way that no strategy, archetype, or color is an odds-on favorite to win. Moreover, recall that the power level of the environment, while quite high, is relatively flat. This has ramifications for choice because it means that there are few cards that are so high above the power curve that they are slam-dunk first picks. When you open a pack, you will have an embarrassment of legitimate choices at your disposal. And when it comes time to build your deck, you'll have the happy challenge of sculpting an elegant and focused deck from a mountain of awesome Magic cards.
Cube is the perfect format for showcasing the agency, control, and creativity that Magic affords us. And such choice encourages exciting, dynamic gameplay. Rosewater observes that high choice means "more surprise" and more upsets, which results in "games that are more fun to watch."Decision points and real options reward careful thinking, innovative strategy, and playing the percentages. Games do not come down to which oppressive artifact your Tinker finds on turns two.
This is not real choice, and it very nearly forecloses choice for your opponent. Cultic Cube tends toward a model that instead promotes interaction both on the board and on the stack.
Our second axis of design is variance. On the one hand, Cultic Cube is, like most cubes, a Singleton format that permits only one copy of each card. (However, I break with convention by including two copies of each fetch land, because people want to be able to cast their spells! Also, fetch lands sneakily do a lot of extra work, such as shuffling one's library and filling one's yard.) The Singleton conceit necessarily produces a diverse environment. Nevertheless, the guiding principle of this cube is "wide variety but limited variance." We dig deep for effects that are broadly desirable for a given color, so blue has a great many inexpensive cantrips, black has lots of spot removal, and red has a real density of cheap burn.
This means, as Rosewater writes, "decks work more consistently from game to game
Furthermore, to the extent that narrow archetypes are supported, they are supported at a high rate, with low variance. The only combo that exists has a deep roster of interchangeable pieces in a way that such archetypes do not prove a trap when essential components fail to materialize. Here we seek to capitalize on Rosewater's observation that "because low-variance games are more controllable, they tend to end less often with one player having bad luck." We minimize the role of luck in the Draft setting (e.g. seeing both Kiki-Jiki and Pestermite in packs) as well as in game (getting both cards in hand).
Support for the Macroarchetypes
Given our interest in consistency and skill, let's take a look at the major strategies that Cultic Cube supports. First, aggro is a check on durdly strategies that putter along hoping eventually to land a win condition. Slow and powerful strategies should exist, but they should not flourish to such an extent that the metagame is entirely given over to tedious slogs through clogged boards. The aggro player should look to red and white as bases for lean decks full of cheap creatures and cheap interaction.
Red offers hasty creatures, menace, and direct-damage spells. White is half a step slower than red but can tax the opponent by interfering with their mana or with opposing creatures' ability to block. Black aggro does not exist here, but it is a fine support color for aggro decks.
Midrange is often a dirty word in Cube circles. It has the reputation for being too slow to compete with aggro, for not going big enough to compete with control, and for being a pile of good stuff that does not work in concert. There's an old joke that the first deck that the Cube neophyte will draft is almost invariably a black-green stack of Thragtusks and Doom Blades. Lack of a plan is a grave sin in Cube! In other cubes, I have approached the "problem" of midrange by trying to exorcize it from the environment. I largely removed green creatures between three and five mana, thus making the section all elves and big beef with very little in between. In the Cultic Cube, by contrast, I worked hard to make midrange a deck that one can actively pursue and can be extraordinarily successful.
My approach to midrange here is informed by a strategy championed by Cube design colleagues Usman Jamil, SirFunchalot, buildingadeck, Ben Fleisher, and Zolthux. The key to this model of midrange, which I take the liberty of calling British Racing Green, is to leverage green's inexpensive ramp in order to accelerate out threats that are resilient, sticky, and value oriented. Here, the "beef" should not include mega-ramp and cheat targets such as Terastodon or Woodfall Primus.
Rather, Racing Green threats cost between three and five mana, they are hardened against interaction thanks to hexproof or flash, they are difficult to get rid of thanks to regeneration or flashback, they make multiple bodies, or they are planeswalkers that combine a number of these attractive features in one package.
I can totally understand the skepticism that the Cultic Cube's approach to midrange is sometimes met with. But I encourage you to give it a whirl! People are often surprised at how effective, unusual, and fun Racing Green is to play. By the time this article is published, I will have a conversation about this strategy with SirFunchalot available on my podcast Château Cube.
Control decks have robust support through all the usual channels. Blue is, of course, control's natural home, and the Cultic Cube offers a wealth of cheap counterspells and inexpensive cantrips that allow card selection, greasing the wheels as you sift through your deck for the appropriate answer to each situation. White and black offer not only an array of targeted interaction but also a variety of sweepers. Control decks need to be able to control the board, and one of the principle ways that they eke out advantage is by making positive trades in resources: Doom Blade trades up in terms of mana investment, and Wrath of God trades up in terms of cards.
When I sit down to draft an unfamiliar Cube environment, my go-to strategy is to pick color fixing extremely high and jam as many good controlling cards as possible, almost irrespective of color. It is often a fine hedge to take dual lands and then a slew of eighth- to fifteenth-pick cards (often gold cards). As this is Cube, those last-pick cards are going to be amazing cards, provided one can cast them. Such an approach is not rewarded in the Cultic Cube. Control decks are entirely viable and can be quite successful, but I do not want them to have an outsized win percentage by virtue of readily deploying enough early defense to reliably stymie aggro until a sweeper can put the game out of reach for the opponent. Thus, the defensive speed of control decks has been attenuated through the somewhat unconventional absence of reliable early blockers that help add drag to the fast decks.
Moreover, notice that control decks do not have access to any artifact-based mana acceleration or fixing. The lack of rocks creates more choice when drafting, makes control strategies develop at a more natural rate, and protects green's essential contribution to the color pie.
For many people, Cube is fundamentally about doing broken things, and Cultic Cube is delighted to help you scratch that itch. Lots of unfair cards exist, from Sylvan Library to Through the Breach to Liliana of the Veil. The fastest, least interactive game-enders are absent, however: Balance, Show and Tell, Channel, and so on. Still, creature cheat is present in spades. Reanimator has access to a wealth of discard effects and reanimation spells, such that a careful drafter can almost certainly assemble the deck. Our guiding rules, however, are that reanimation spells cost four or more mana, or they are creature-based and thus slow and fragile.
The four-CMC limitation still permits you to run out an Emrakul, the Promised End far earlier than you have any right to. However, it is just slow enough that opposing interaction has a chance to come online. And black does not have a monopoly on creature cheat. Every color has a means of sneaking game-enders into play, from Resurrection, Arcane Artisan, and Sneak Attack to Elvish Piper and Quicksilver Amulet.
In Defense of the Contentious
A few words about some of the features of this cube that sometimes surprise people: Firstly, this cube dramatically limits the number of multicolor cards. Gold cards tend to put one at a disadvantage when picked early, as the odds that one will ultimately be able to play a two-color card are much lower than a monocolor card. Moreover, if no one is interested in a color pair, its gold cards are wasted. This environment minimizes such potentially unwanted cards by trimming down its gold section to a handful of unique essentials. If you are interested in a more in-depth exploration of multicolor section design, I have a video on the topic!
Some people remark on the comparatively high planeswalker density of the Cultic Cube. Planeswalkers get a bad rap as "easy mode" cards or as prime contributors to stalemates. I find almost precisely the opposite to be true in each case. Planeswalkers, which are definitionally choice-rich modal cards, proliferate decisions points. Furthermore, they tend to close games rather than to drag them out. A planeswalker that is allowed uncontested upticks will soon arrive at an ultimate, which typically brings a game to a head in short order. Some complain that planeswalkers are a difficult type of permanent to answer, requiring access to burn or flexible spot removal such as Vindicate. Let us not forget that the most common way to destroy a planeswalker is to attack it, and thus the presence of a planeswalker creates dynamic decisions not only for its controller but also for the opponent, who must calculate anew how to allocate their resources and to direct their firepower. I have a video that offers a defense of planeswalkers.
I believe that the Cultic Cube provides a novel and exciting play experience. It looks similar enough to more traditional Legacy lists that it is quite accessible. But it eschews the sort of busted cards that create massive advantage simply through the accident of opening them and that risk rendering irrelevant everything that the opponent hopes to accomplish. Instead, this environment rewards canny drafting, focused deck building, and tight gameplay.
For me, cubing is a powerful, emotional experience. When I sit down to draft a cube, I feel as if I am embarking on a journey into a dense, primeval forest peopled by powerful forces. It is a mysterious locale, but one that can be mastered with methodical thought, a profound respect for the rules that govern this universe, and a good measure of artistry. I long ago named my first cube Eleusis in tribute to the seat of the Eleusinian Mysteries, one of the so-called mystery cults of Ancient Greece (like the Dionysian, Orphic, or Mithraic Mysteries). When I began my YouTube channel, I named it Cultic Cube as an encomium to those subterranean religions that promised access to the divine and the means to interpret it.
I very much hope that the Cultic Cube engages your sense of mystery, of mastery, and of Magic. It is one of ten (10!) cubes that will be featured at CubeCon, a three-day celebration of competitive Cube that will occur in Madison, Wisconsin when the coronavirus allows. For more from me, come by my YouTube channel at youtube.com/culticcube and my recently launched podcast, Château Cube. I offer content that treats high-level Cube design theory and gameplay strategy. Let's hang out and chat Cube!