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:
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:
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 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.
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.