Spotlight Cube Series – Pioneer Cube

Posted in Magic Online on April 28, 2021

By Tom LaPille

Tom LaPille makes things. Some of the things he makes are card sets, like Dark Ascension and Born of the Gods. Sometimes he makes stories, too. Sometimes he makes unexpected things, like 16th-century Japanese clothing. He's probably making something right now.

Hi! I'm Tom. I like cubes a lot. Evangelizing Cube is how I clawed my way into Magic R&D back in 2008, and while I did a lot of things during my time at Wizards, probably the thing I'm the happiest about having as part of my life story is leading the final design of Magic Online's first Vintage Cube.

Cube originally appealed to me because it combined the improvisational aspects of normal Booster Draft with the higher power level and asymmetrical matchup possibilities that come with full Constructed formats. My personal cube while I was at Wizards used mostly Legacy-legal cards because of how much it frustrated me to put together eight people to draft and then have a game get blown up by a Black Lotus. I still had plenty of famously powerful and old cards in there, though, like Armageddon and Opposition.

When I started working at game companies outside of Wizards, though, I discovered that players who are less steeped in the entire history of Magic didn't like playing more traditional high-powered cubes as much as I thought they might. You can only Armageddon or Opposition people out of games so many times before they stop showing up. I still wanted to evangelize Cube to my coworkers, so I looked for a different set of card legality constraints which would:

  • Provide players with more straightforward gameplay.
  • Create a narrower power differential between the strongest and weakest cards.
  • Have cards that feel much more powerful than normal Limited packs.
  • Create the possibility of extremely asymmetrical deck matchups.
  • Give me the nostalgia of playing decks that felt like Standard decks I enjoyed.

I had Shards of Alara as the starting card set for a while, as it was the first set I touched, and it was also the first set to implement the New World Order design philosophy. However, that felt kind of arbitrary, and the set had balance problems. Green and blue were so much more powerful than other colors that it felt broken to me.

I started playing Pioneer as soon as that was announced, because it was simpler to communicate and naturally removed a bunch of the most powerful green and blue cards. In some ways, Return to Ravnica is when we learned how to design a set's environment and not just cards within it, so it's a nice philosophical breakpoint on top of being easily marketable.

The Pioneer cutoff also turned out to be wildly more fun for me than I expected. I still enjoy Vintage Cube on Magic Online, but I have always liked how games of Standard tend to give both players enough time to jockey for position over several turns before the game is decided. In a Draft environment with sufficiently asymmetrical deck matchups, this gives both players time to demonstrate the cool thing that they made their deck do before the game ends, which is the best way I know to make more than one player feel like they won.

To create those asymmetrical deck matchups, I leaned on Patrick Chapin's theory work from Next Level Deckbuilding in which he lays out sixteen archetypes that naturally exist in Constructed Magic. Some of them tend to only appear outside of Standard, like storm combo or prison, but many of them have been actively supported through all the Pioneer sets to date.

I distributed the currently supported archetypes Chapin described across the ten color pairs that were the best fit for them and then used the gold cards to direct players toward those decks. Then, I pointed about a quarter of the cards of each color at each of the color's four decks.

I also tried to be careful to keep each color's four archetypes feeling different from one another as much as I could. For example, white-blue and blue-black are both meant to be control decks here, but white-blue's strongest cards in Pioneer tend to enable draw-go style decks that get their advantage from making the opponent's removal spells largely blank. To facilitate that, I chose these gold cards:

  • Azorius Charm
  • Supreme Verdict
  • Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
  • Sphinx's Revelation

On the other hand, blue-black's strongest cards actively want you to tap out on a stable board for cards that play right through the opponent's removal spells. These are the cards I chose to represent that:

  • Thought Erasure
  • Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
  • The Scarab God
  • Dragonlord Silumgar

I could have put Dragonlord Ojutai in white-blue, but that would shift a white-blue deck toward the feel I want for the blue-black deck. Instead, a white-blue player who wants to make opposing removal spells weak can win the game with Approach of the Second Sun or Nezahal, Primal Tide.

Here's a quick rundown of the other decks:

The black-red deck is an attrition-based creature deck that is happy to trade off recursive or card advantageous creatures, such as Scrapheap Scrounger or Pia and Kiran Nalaar with their tokens, and then bring them back with Kolaghan's Command or use them to fuel a Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger.

The red-green deck wants to kill you with creatures that are large, have haste, or fly. It also capitalizes on those big creatures with cards like The Great Henge and Embercleave.

The green-white deck wants to go wide with tokens and ways to make them bigger, like Nissa, Voice of Zendikar and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.

The black-white deck wants to use its discard and removal spells to deal with the opponent's early things, then use big, resilient cards like Liliana, Dreadhorde General or Elspeth, Knight-Errant to finish you off. If you don't do anything early, it could also kill you quickly with a Pack Rat or a Desecration Demon.

The black-green deck wants to use cards like Satyr Wayfinder and Jadelight Ranger to put things into its graveyard for cards like Whip of Erebos or Murderous Cut to leverage. It can also play long games thanks to things like Den Protector and Find // Finality.

The blue-green deck wants to make a lot of mana with green's ramp spells, then do huge things like cast Mass Manipulation or activate Polukranos, World Eater for enormous amounts. It can also take some extra turns with Alrund's Epiphany or draw its whole deck with Finale of Revelation and then win with Thassa's Oracle or Jace, Wielder of Mysteries.

The blue-red deck wants to cast a lot of inexpensive spells and get rewarded for it with things like Young Pyromancer and Sprite Dragon. It gets late-game power from cards like Treasure Cruise, Bedlam Reveler, or Finale of Promise that are happy to have a bunch of inexpensive spells in the graveyard.

The white-red deck wants to attack the opponent very quickly with small creatures like Dauntless Bodyguard and Firedrinker Satyr, reload with Light Up the Stage or Experimental Frenzy, and finish the game with cards like Stoke the Flames or Maul of the Skyclaves that can deal damage right to the opponent's face.

This being Pioneer Cube, there's also a five-color deck in here that you'll need to find if you want to use Omnath, Locus of Creation and Niv-Mizzet Reborn to their full potential.

Here are some other quick thoughts about my design skeleton that may interest you if you have considered making a cube of your own:

I think you generally want to have as few cards in the cube as you can while providing sufficient replay value. This allows your players to learn fewer cards, cuts down on needless repetition of simple effects with tiny differences between them, and puts the coolest or most powerful or most nostalgic cards in front of people a little more often. Vintage Cube has 540 cards, and Arena Cube has 550, and I have yet to get bored of playing either one after an enormous number of drafts. At 540, a draft uses two-thirds of the cards in the cube, so I went with that for easier math.

One of my biggest gripes with normal Booster Draft is that the mana bases are often shaky, and I've always leaned high on lands in Cube to try to adjust for that. Frank Karsten's work on mana base math suggests that in a 40-card deck, you want eleven sources of a color to play a card that costs 2CC and ten sources to play a card that costs 3CC or C. I've gone with a total of 6 dual lands per color pair, which puts an average of 4 dual lands in the draft for a person playing two colors. This way, if you get all four of your dual lands, you can play 4 dual lands, 7 Plains, and 7 Islands to have a Frank Karsten-approved mana base for both Jace, Architect of Thought and Settle the Wreckage. If someone else snipes one of your lands, you can still get to ten sources each of two colors with 17 lands. In the worst case, if two players are sharing a color pair, hopefully they can each get two of their lands, and their mana will mostly work even though their decks might be weaker.

The Triomes make things a little funny here, as one of the six "cycles" of lands in here are the Triomes and the ally color cycling lands from Amonkhet. These ten cards actually add two dual lands of each color to the draft, so there's even a little bit of extra wiggle room. I'm okay with this, though, because I flirted for a bit with adding a seventh cycle of lands, but it made for too many lands that people couldn't use and I'd still prefer colors be a little easier than a little harder.

I feel obligated to note that Battlefield Forge and Inspiring Vantage exist and are more powerful than Furycalm Snarl, but Adarkar Wastes and Seachrome Coast are not legal in Pioneer and I value both simplicity in total number of dual land mechanics and fairness between ally and enemy color pairs. Higher authorities than me now control when I'll get to add a full cycle of pain lands or fast lands.

I have been very happy with four multicolor cards of each color that are pointed specifically at archetypes. That puts an average of nine multicolor cards in each set of eight packs, which I have found is enough to help drafters find the open strategies without flooding the packs with archetype offers they can't take me up on. I've also included one two-color card of each pair that isn't quite right for its archetype but is good to splash, because a Pioneer cube would be incomplete without Niv-Mizzet Reborn and some multicolor cards that will float to the Niv-Mizzet drafter.

I've enjoyed this cube as a player quite a bit. The power delta between the strongest and weakest cards is much narrower than I'm used to in more traditional cubes, which means that you can't get edges as huge as you might be used to just by taking the most individually powerful cards like you can in Vintage Cube. So much more of the cards' power is only unlocked through drafting strategically coherent decks, and I've found people who have played a lot of Constructed tend to have a leg up here. If your deck looks like a famously powerful Standard deck, you're probably on the right track.

I'm tickled that I found a spot to contribute another cube to Magic Online, and I hope you enjoy this thing I've made.

Full Pioneer Cube List

Card Name
Abbot of Keral Keep
Abrupt Decay
Adanto Vanguard
Aethersphere Harvester
Agadeem's Awakening
Agent of Treachery
Agonizing Remorse
Ahn-Crop Crasher
Alrund's Epiphany
Alseid of Life's Bounty
Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit
Anax, Hardened in the Forge
Angel of Invention
Angel of Sanctions
Anguished Unmaking
Approach of the Second Sun
Archangel Avacyn
Archon of Sun's Grace
Arguel's Blood Fast
Ashcloud Phoenix
Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
Augur of Bolas
Azorius Charm
Baffling End
Banishing Light
Baral, Chief of Compliance
Barkchannel Pathway
Barkhide Troll
Beanstalk Giant
Bedlam Reveler
Behold the Multiverse
Benalish Marshal
Binding the Old Gods
Biogenic Ooze
Blast Zone
Blessed Alliance
Blightstep Pathway
Blink of an Eye
Blood Crypt
Bloodchief's Thirst
Bolas's Citadel
Bomat Courier
Bonecrusher Giant
Boon of the Wish-Giver
Boon Satyr
Boros Charm
Boros Elite
Boros Reckoner
Branchloft Pathway
Brazen Borrower
Breeding Pool
Brightclimb Pathway
Brimaz, King of Oreskos
Bring to Light
Burning-Tree Emissary
Callous Bloodmage
Canyon Slough
Carnage Tyrant
Cast Down
Cast Out
Castle Ardenvale
Castle Embereth
Castle Garenbrig
Castle Locthwain
Castle Vantress
Cathartic Reunion
Cavalier of Gales
Chained to the Rocks
Champion of Wits
Chandra, Heart of Fire
Chandra, Pyromaster
Chandra, Torch of Defiance
Charming Prince
Chart a Course
Chemister's Insight
Choked Estuary
Chromatic Lantern
Clarion Spirit
Clash of Wills
Clearwater Pathway
Clifftop Retreat
Cling to Dust
Collected Company
Collective Brutality
Collective Defiance
Command the Dreadhorde
Commit // Memory
Conclave Tribunal
Courser of Kruphix
Crackling Drake
Cragcrown Pathway
Crash Through
Crater's Claws
Crawling Barrens
Crux of Fate
Cyclonic Rift
Darkbore Pathway
Dauntless Bodyguard
Dead Weight
Deathcap Cultivator
Declaration in Stone
Den Protector
Desecration Demon
Dig Through Time
Dire Fleet Daredevil
Disdainful Stroke
District Guide
Doom Whisperer
Dragonlord Silumgar
Dragonskull Summit
Dread Presence
Dread Wanderer
Dreadhorde Invasion
Drowned Catacomb
Druid of the Cowl
Dusk Legion Zealot
Duskwatch Recruiter
Earthshaker Khenra
Elder Gargaroth
Elite Spellbinder
Elspeth Conquers Death
Elspeth, Sun's Champion
Elspeth's Nightmare
Elvish Mystic
Elvish Rejuvenator
Elvish Visionary
Emergent Sequence
Emeria's Call
Emmara, Soul of the Accord
Emrakul, the Promised End
Entrancing Melody
Esika's Chariot
Essence Scatter
Evolving Wilds
Experiment One
Experimental Frenzy
Expressive Iteration
Exquisite Firecraft
Extinction Event
Fabled Passage
Faerie Vandal
Faith's Fetters
Falkenrath Gorger
Fatal Push
Felidar Retreat
Fetid Pools
Fiery Impulse
Fiery Temper
Finale of Promise
Finale of Revelation
Find // Finality
Fire Prophecy
Firedrinker Satyr
Fires of Invention
Flamewake Phoenix
Flower // Flourish
Foreboding Ruins
Fortified Village
Frenzied Goblin
Frostboil Snarl
Furycalm Snarl
Gadwick, the Wizened
Game Trail
Ghitu Lavarunner
Ghor-Clan Rampager
Giant Killer
Gideon Blackblade
Gideon of the Trials
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
Gifted Aetherborn
Gilded Goose
Gilded Lotus
Gilt-Leaf Winnower
Glacial Fortress
Glass Casket
Glasspool Mimic
Glimmer of Genius
Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
Glorious Anthem
Glory-Bound Initiate
Goblin Chainwhirler
Goblin Rabblemaster
Godless Shrine
Goldspan Dragon
Golos, Tireless Pilgrim
Gonti, Lord of Luxury
Grapple with the Past
Gray Merchant of Asphodel
Grim Flayer
Grim Haruspex
Grisly Salvage
Growth Spiral
Gruul Spellbreaker
Gurmag Angler
Hallowed Fountain
Hangarback Walker
Hanweir Militia Captain
Hazoret the Fervent
Heart of Kiran
Heartless Act
Hedron Archive
Heir of the Wilds
Hengegate Pathway
Hero's Downfall
Hieroglyphic Illumination
Hinterland Harbor
History of Benalia
Hostage Taker
Hydroid Krasis
Icefall Regent
Ifnir Deadlands
Immolating Glare
Incendiary Flow
Incubation Druid
Indatha Triome
Inscription of Insight
Into the Roil
Irencrag Pyromancer
Irrigated Farmland
Isolated Chapel
Izzet Charm
Jace, Architect of Thought
Jace, Unraveler of Secrets
Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
Jace, Wielder of Mysteries
Jace's Ingenuity
Jadelight Ranger
Jaspera Sentinel
Jwari Disruption
Kabira Takedown
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Kari Zev, Skyship Raider
Karn, Scion of Urza
Kazandu Mammoth
Ketria Triome
Kitesail Freebooter
Klothys, God of Destiny
Knight of Autumn
Knight of Grace
Knight of Malice
Knight of the Ebon Legion
Knight of the White Orchid
Kogla, the Titan Ape
Kolaghan's Command
Koma, Cosmos Serpent
Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger
Kytheon, Hero of Akros
Lava Coil
Law-Rune Enforcer
Leafkin Druid
Legion Warboss
Legion's Landing
Light Up the Stage
Lightning Strike
Liliana, Death's Majesty
Liliana, Dreadhorde General
Liliana, the Last Hope
Llanowar Elves
Llanowar Visionary
Lotus Cobra
Lovestruck Beast
Luminarch Aspirant
Lurrus of the Dream-Den
Lyra Dawnbringer
Magma Jet
Magma Spray
Magmatic Channeler
Mana Confluence
Mass Manipulation
Massacre Girl
Massacre Wurm
Maul of the Skyclaves
Mazemind Tome
Merfolk Branchwalker
Midnight Clock
Midnight Reaper
Migration Path
Mire Triton
Mizzium Mortars
Mobilized District
Monastery Mentor
Monastery Swiftspear
Multiple Choice
Murderous Cut
Murderous Rider
Nahiri, the Harbinger
Narset, Parter of Veils
Necroblossom Snarl
Needleverge Pathway
Never // Return
Nezahal, Primal Tide
Nightpack Ambusher
Nissa, Vastwood Seer
Nissa, Voice of Zendikar
Nissa, Who Shakes the World
Nissa, Worldwaker
Nissa's Pilgrimage
Niv-Mizzet Reborn
Noxious Gearhulk
Oath of Kaya
Oath of Nissa
Ob Nixilis Reignited
Obzedat, Ghost Council
Of One Mind
Old-Growth Troll
Omen of the Sea
Omnath, Locus of Creation
Outpost Siege
Overgrown Tomb
Ox of Agonas
Pack Rat
Palladium Myr
Paradise Druid
Part the Waterveil
Pelakka Predation
Pelt Collector
Phoenix of Ash
Phyrexian Revoker
Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Pia Nalaar
Planar Outburst
Polukranos, World Eater
Port Town
Precinct Captain
Precognitive Perception
Priest of Forgotten Gods
Primal Might
Prismari Command
Prison Realm
Pull from Tomorrow
Quarantine Field
Questing Beast
Radical Idea
Raise the Alarm
Rakdos's Return
Rampaging Ferocidon
Ramunap Ruins
Rankle, Master of Pranks
Rattleclaw Mystic
Raugrin Triome
Ravenous Chupacabra
Read the Bones
Reclamation Sage
Rekindling Phoenix
Resilient Khenra
Rhonas the Indomitable
Rimrock Knight
Rishkar, Peema Renegade
Riverglide Pathway
Robber of the Rich
Roil Eruption
Rootbound Crag
Ruinous Path
Runaway Steam-Kin
Sacred Foundry
Saproling Migration
Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker
Satyr Wayfinder
Savai Triome
Saw It Coming
Scattered Groves
Scavenging Ooze
Scorching Dragonfire
Scrapheap Scrounger
Sea Gate Restoration
Seal Away
Search for Azcanta
Seasoned Hallowblade
Secure the Wastes
Sedgemoor Witch
Seeker of the Way
Seekers' Squire
Sejiri Shelter
Selfless Savior
Selfless Spirit
Servant of the Conduit
Servo Exhibition
Settle the Wreckage
Shadows' Verdict
Shalai, Voice of Plenty
Shark Typhoon
Shatter the Sky
Shatterskull Smashing
Sheltered Thicket
Shepherd of the Flock
Shineshadow Snarl
Showdown of the Skalds
Siege-Gang Commander
Sign in Blood
Sinister Sabotage
Skarrgan Hellkite
Skyclave Apparition
Skyclave Shade
Skysovereign, Consul Flagship
Snapping Gnarlid
Solemn Simulacrum
Soulfire Grand Master
Soul-Scar Mage
Spear of Heliod
Spectral Sailor
Spell Pierce
Sphinx's Revelation
Spikefield Hazard
Sprite Dragon
Stasis Snare
Steam Vents
Steel Leaf Champion
Stoke the Flames
Stomping Ground
Stonecoil Serpent
Stormwing Entity
Strategic Planning
Stratus Dancer
Sublime Epiphany
Sulfur Falls
Sunpetal Grove
Supreme Verdict
Supreme Will
Suspension Field
Sylvan Advocate
Sylvan Caryatid
Tamiyo, Collector of Tales
Tangled Florahedron
Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
Teferi, Master of Time
Temple Garden
Temple of Abandon
Temple of Deceit
Temple of Enlightenment
Temple of Epiphany
Temple of Malady
Temple of Malice
Temple of Mystery
Temple of Plenty
Temple of Silence
Temple of Triumph
Tempted by the Oriq
Thassa's Intervention
Thassa's Oracle
The Akroan War
The Birth of Meletis
The Eldest Reborn
The Great Henge
The Immortal Sun
The Scarab God
Thing in the Ice
Thorn Lieutenant
Thought Erasure
Thraben Inspector
Thrashing Brontodon
Thrill of Possibility
Thunderbreak Regent
Thundering Rebuke
Tireless Tracker
Tithe Taker
Torbran, Thane of Red Fell
Torrential Gearhulk
Toski, Bearer of Secrets
Transgress the Mind
Traverse the Ulvenwald
Treasure Cruise
Treasure Map
Trostani Discordant
Turntimber Symbiosis
Tymaret Calls the Dead
Ugin, the Ineffable
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
Ultimate Price
Unbreakable Formation
Underworld Connections
Usher of the Fallen
Valki, God of Lies
Valorous Stance
Vanishing Verse
Venerated Loxodon
Verdurous Gearhulk
Viashino Pyromancer
Village Rites
Vineglimmer Snarl
Vivien Reid
Vivien, Arkbow Ranger
Vizier of Many Faces
Voice of Resurgence
Void Shatter
Voracious Hydra
Voyaging Satyr
Vraska's Contempt
Warden of the First Tree
Warlord's Fury
Watery Grave
Westvale Abbey
Whip of Erebos
Whisperwood Elemental
Wild Slash
Wildborn Preserver
Winged Words
Wingmate Roc
Woe Strider
Wolfwillow Haven
Woodland Cemetery
Yasova Dragonclaw
Yorion, Sky Nomad
Young Pyromancer
Zagoth Triome
Zhur-Taa Goblin
Zurgo Bellstriker

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