Sunday, 24 September 2023

Homemade Cube: Initial Findings and Conclusions

I finished the set, ordered the cards, and I am now at around 10 events played with it. Just the design process alone was fascinating, fun, and rewarding. Actually playing with the cards and seeing how they turned out has been even more of those things. Much was, and is being learned, about magic, about design in general, and about other people, what they like and that sort of thing. This whole home made cube process has been one of the most interesting and rewarding endeavours I have involved myself in, which was really unexpected. The learning of things outside of magic was especially surprising, and of course most welcome. I suspect a large part of the enjoyment I got from the project is because Magic has been my creative outlet for many years, and with my dwindling interest in it over the last couple I was being a little starved of this important part of life. As such, when I found one that I was enthused for again I latched on pretty voraciously.

I was probably spending about 4 hours a day on average thinking about it and tinkering with it over the design phase, which was at least 12 weeks, likely rather more. Certainly toning it back a bit now... I was aiming for 600 cards and ended up printing 718 unique cards. Obviously I have not exactly stopped designing cards, and I have a folder with at least 50 more cards I have since designed under the same parameters. I am in no rush to get those out and have no specific plan for how I might use them. The main focus now is learning from, and improving upon those original 718.

In these early testing stages I have found plenty of mistakes, ranging from poorly cropped pictures, to misspellings, to cards I want to rebalance in some way. The biggest group of these cards in need of corrections are slightly over tuned cards I want to tone down a little. About 25% are grammatical and aesthetic corrections. A mere 3 cards have had a proposed buff on their original printing. Leaving about 10% of these cards that are fairly egregious over tunings. These 8 or so cards are sufficiently tedious in power level that I have already cut them. Not only are cards like that able to lower the quality and fun of games, they are also getting in the way of other cards getting action and revealing their secrets. Once it is revealed they are a bomb they get played near 100% of the time which is not what you want for anything other than perhaps a fixing land.

Once the candidates for tweaks, tuning, and touching up dries to a steady trickle I will look to finally post the whole set up. While I suspect I will never quite stop tweaking and tinkering, I feel like this first big revision will mark a good starting off point. There will be nothing too out of line in it and it will not take too long to get to that stage. If I try and wait until I think it is perfect it will never get seen! It is also not impossible that people might want to try the cube out for themselves and make it in some way (which I am obviously happy to assist with) but this does make me inclined to not release anything that might have "bugs" and other issues in it that could be ironed out easily! 

So, what have we learned? I do not have many regrets, here are the two I do have. I didn't put on the artist names. Not only does that feel rude, but it made the cards look a little different as there was quite a large blank black chunk at the bottom. You got used to it real quick but initially it made the cards look a little smaller. I obviously then spent a whole day going through 718 cards in my Magic Set Editor file and added in the artists so that the next batch won't have that problem!

Second regret is not keywording "search your library for a [thing], reveal [thing], put it [somewhere], then shuffle your library" and "reveal cards from the top of your library until you reveal a [thing], put that [thing] [somewhere] and the rest on the bottom of your library in a random order." These two phrases represent like 40% of the test on my cards! If they had simply been "tutor" and "seek" respectively then things would have been a lot cleaner. I think seek is already something they use on Arena and so I should probably find another word, although perhaps it is fine as they kindof do similar things? Here are the lines of text that these cards would have had I thought to do this from the start.

Seek a land to the battlefield tapped. 

But instead I have those block of words;

When this enters the battlefield, tutor an artifact to your hand.

Not quite as bad as the last card but still 4 lines of text for a common and basic action.

This card below is one of my most wordy in the whole set however it is fundamentally a very simple card, clean in theory but messy in practice down to my lack of keywording foresight. The grass is always greener however, it might have just confused players and been more trouble than it is worth. I think ideally I am just suggesting it is a change Wizards should do themselves! Like they finally did with mill. 

The card above is a riff on Guided Passage, which some players may or may not remember. It was a design inspiration first, and then a help with finding the name for the card. In practice it is also somewhat helpful for players who are familiar with Guided Passage in grasping what the new card does. You can skim read this, or assume things about it and generally be fine with that level of attention. This kind of thing, be it a specific card tribute, or an inspiration, or just following Magics approach to doing things, has been a recurring theme in the set. I was aiming at a kind of tribute set that represented the core elements of the game and this had the very welcome side effect of making things generally very easy to understand, not just to those familiar with the game, but seemingly all levels of player. If a card has the word Lightning on it there is a good chance it is doing 3 damage to something etc! A lot of this was me being unimaginative with naming stuff but it seems to have wound up being a positive thing. I have been really blown away by how quickly players, old and new alike, have been able to pick up and play the cards. Few words, plenty of room for reminder text, and a design philosophy that holds your hand the whole way through learning the new cards, all add up to make for a surprisingly smooth show. I have been getting things wrong far more than everyone else because I am remembering different iterations of cards and assuming I know what is going on, while others are actually reading the clear and simple cards! Having done drafts of Tales of Middle Earth and Unfinity recently with the same group of players, I can comfortably say my friends (who normally just play my cube) took to the home made cube far easier than these other sets, despite it being twice the size! It has made me respect simple cards even more. Simple cards do not make for a simple game. Just a more accessible ones.

I didn't bother making all my card names unique from magic. Some I knowingly reused, and I am sure there is the odd one I unknowingly stole too! I did wonder if I would regret this choice. It looks like it might make things a little trickier if I want to use it with Cockatrice at some point but I am sure I can cross that bridge if and when I get there. For now I am enjoying the clarity of simple or obvious names. Many of the names I copied were direct easter eggs intended to be enjoyed by those in the know. The card below is one such card, and much as I love the aesthetic on this card, the design turned out to be a little underpowered and tedious. Just too much admin and ongoing thought for a minor part of the game. I just want my lands to be a bit simpler! This cycle is likely the first of the lands cycles to be dropped as the cube size drops over time.


One commentator mentioned a problem with my design ethos in regards internal card tensions that can feel bad. I put quite a lot of care into dealing with cards that feel bad to play against but I entirely overlooked ones that might feel bad to play with. This has become apparent in the feedback I am getting. There is lots of "this cards should do this" kind of comment, to which I reply why it shouldn't in a mechanical and balance sense, to which they typically agree, but still dislike the card because it feels wrong to them somehow. Turns out I need to go away and spend some time learning what it is people like and dislike about cards that do not relate to balance so that I can do a better job of this in the future! 

In a similar light to cards that are technically balanced and fine but are ruined by externalities like people feelings, we have cards that are logistically tedious. I used a lot of cards that give away life and a lot of cards that produce food, clues, and treasure. I figured this was all fine as there is precedent for it in magic, and even more so in cube. There are all the token types in cube and a really high density of them. Turns out I dialled that up even harder and it can get a bit overwhelming. I likely need to solve this with more use of card based tokens rather than dice and beads as I tend to use. The flexibility and scope these artifact tokens offer is way too good to forgo. The life concession cards however are another matter. Those that do so in a one off hit are fine but I have a cycle of lands that give away life like Grove of the Burnwillows and this is just a bit tedious. It is enforced admin and it disrupts the flow of play a little. Power wise I am super happy with these cards for a cube setting, but perhaps I can do a better job of finding a card that physically plays more smoothly. Below is a good example of a card that would be very well suited to an Arena only set, where the tedious logistics are carried out automatically by the computer.

One big lesson I learned was the value of patience, a long review period. It should have been obvious with the likes of Skullclamp and other last minute change horror stories from magic history. Apparently I needed to learn this lesson for myself. I had 18 spare slots on my order based on the set size the company prints to, and not being one to waste them I hurried along my 18 most liked cards from my drafts and printed them too. Not only were these cards far less considered and reviewed, they were also ones I liked most rather than thought were good, usually this just meant some art I really liked... Obviously we can all see where this is going. The vast majority of these 18 cards have already wound up in nerf corner, a couple of them seriously so. Turns out reflection time is really healthy. Here is one of these over performing cards, that as yet, I have no great idea on how to "fix".  

So those are the specific things I have learned so far. I have some more general take aways as well. Mostly I seem to have done what I was trying to do. There is plenty of room for improvement but I am pleased with the results and enjoying the games. The thing I got most wrong, that so far is being the most detrimental to the experience is how badly I misjudged the speed of the format. I knew it would be slower than my cube but I did not expect it to be by quite so much. Unsurprisingly almost all the factors I focused on in design are things you would expect to slow games compared to more conventional cubes. Greater consistency, more evenly spread power level, better life gain and card advantage, lower power in the top end with less game ending reach. These were all things I intentionally did. Magic metagames are complex eco systems, predicting the effects of one change is hard. Predicting the outcome of several additive changes is liable to be way off. And it was. This is not to say that it is all control. Aggro decks and midrange decks are doing fine, they are just real slow to turn an advantage into a win. This game style, with a high instance of older art, and the simpler card design philosophy did all contribute to quite and old school feeling.  

The consequence of this slow format is not skewing which kinds of decks are dominant but which kinds of cards. Shockingly, all those cards that benefit from time in some way are over performing much more than I would like. This includes all of the planeswalkers, all the saga and class cards, and the various ongoing effect cards. There are some other factors pushing some of these groups but broadly this is where most nerfs have been aimed. Equally, I am trying to solve the problem at both ends by designing a bit more top end meat, game closing tools, and better answers to these over performing card types. I feel a problem so large as this needs a gradual solution. Eco systems need to move and have the time to do that, they cannot just jump from one place to another. For now I am going to have to stomach that certain types of cards are more potent than I would like. 

Empowering slow yield cards is not the only consequence of a slower format. There is a lot to be said for raw card power. When you both see a lot of your deck it starts to become more about who has the most total power. You can just out threat weight the opponent. This has been meaning that players are punished for playing too much "fluff". Card quality effects are a little less desirable than before because they are a card in your deck that doesn't directly help you get to your victory condition. You just cycle through it. I love fluff cards and made plenty of them. They are seeing play certainly, but less than I was anticipating based on the need for raw power. Indeed, the inverse is true at the other end of the spectrum. I didn't quite make enough five and six drops for the meta that has arisen and so this group of cards is seeing way more play than I was expecting, and this is despite them being the most down powered group compared to real magic cards. 

These slow games have been very high quality. Lots of choices, lots of back and forth swings, and the feeling at the end of them that results could have gone differently if different choices were made at various points. These are all qualities I would attribute to a good game. However... I like to get my games in and there can be too long, too much of a good thing. Not finishing an event due to time constraints isn't where we want to be. Not all games are long certainly but there are more longer games, more epic games, less brutally short games etc, all rather pushing that average up. This means greater potential wait times for opponents to free up etc. There are plenty of good logistical reasons to have games closing out a bit quicker. I like the odd long game but I wouldn't want it to be the norm. I think I want my games in the 10-15 minute range for the most part, with perhaps one 30-40 epic per event. That is usually long enough to mean it was a game but short enough to leave time for the odd epic and get most matches done well within the hour. It is not until you start tinkering under the hood of these kinds of thing that you realize how important these non gameplay logistical elements are to design, yet they tend to go somewhat unseen by the players when you get it right.

All told I am very happy with how things have come out. It really feels like playing magic. The cards look and feel real. They all seem super plausible, and the games just feel like good games of cube magic. They do have that very old school vibe to them, thanks in part to how slow they are. Partly also because your life total feels like a more interesting and relevant resource. I do plan to try and improve upon the things that I have brought up in this article with cuts, re-balancing tweaks, and new additions. I had always assumed I would need to do some significant playtesting to get things right with the set, meaning I am all sorts of pleased with myself for how well things are playing right off the bat. 

I have no real idea of timescales at this stage. I am doing another custom magic cards project now, with a friend, inspired by this one, that is rather more casual and very top down focused, using historic masterpieces as inspiration rather than using just Magic art. Most of the cards I made for the homemade cube were inspired in a bottom up kind of way. Only a few cards, typically inspired by a piece of art, received a top down approach, and those were some of my favourites. As such, I am having lots of fun with this top down project as well! All of this means I am presently playing with new home made cube, designing new cards for it, considering changes to existing cards in it, all while tinkering with a whole separate and new project. I am busy again with Magic! I will try to get some sensible looking complete card list for my homemade cube up as soon as possible, but equally, I don't want to rush out a sub par showing, nor do I wish to turn this very fun set of projects into a chore. Hence, no clue on timescales. We are still very much in the early stages, so too many unknowns. I don't even have a notion of what articles I'll be putting out, if any in the interim. I have a couple of old unfinished ones perhaps. Rest assured this is very much not the last you will be hearing from the home made cube!

Monday, 18 September 2023

Homemade Cube Part 11

This is the final of the development articles I will release on the home made cube. I actually wrote it second but kept putting it off as I didn't want to showcase the dirty cards contained within! That is because this article is all about how to design cards with effects people dislike on them, or making use of bad mechanics. Given than several months have now passed since first writing this most of the cards have changed, which I at least have found somewhat interesting. These all changed pre-printing, there are now also plenty more cards I want to tweak post testing them. I am about 8 events in and I have a folder of about 80 cards with proposed changes. Mostly nerfs, the odd buff and about a fifth of cards with grammatical or aesthetic issues. Suffice it to say there will be some results and conclusions articles to follow, and of course the cube itself at some point! 

There are some aspects of magic that not all players like. Typically the receiving player is not a fan of a fairly broad spectrum of effects that stop them playing the game. This can be mana denial stopping them from casting their things, permission countering them, discard plucking them away before use, or a selection of tax effects bogging down the game. Certainly people don't like to lose but there are good ways and bad ways to lose. In no surprise at all cards that people don't like line up neatly with these bad ways to lose. The majority of that is the feeling you didn't get to play. Fine, if your deck did its thing and got beat, but if you didn't do anything there is very little to take away. Below is a card that shuts down a commonly used avenue to victory and is not much of a good time. This is fortunately not how it went to the printers and was made a little more palatable! 

There are only two classes of hated card that really falls outside this category of cards people don't like for stopping them playing. The first of those are things that allow you to beat people with their own cards. Either you steal them and play them or you just wait till they play them and steal them then! It just feels rough somehow. Your Control Magics and Gonti's. The other group are the free spells, or specifically the gotcha ones, be they removal or counter magic. People don't like being caught off guard or always having to be aware of something. People like the comfort of a tapped out situation. A free spell is something that should be approached with caution, not just from a mechanical point of view but also a compassionate one too! I have a smattering of both such types of cards but they are generally at the lower end of my power level range, and typically designed to afford as much counter play as possible. My zero mana spells tend not to be doing disruptive things or affecting tempo, this keeps them on the safe side of things. As for the other group, if you are going to steal people things, make them pay for it. Allow the ability to get it back. Don't let them do it at sneaky instant speeds bypassing potential interaction there either. Below is what I think is about as fair as it is possible to make a broad spectrum and playable Control Magic. Not the most exciting but certainly representative of an element of the game. This doesn't have obnoxious scaling, can be undone, and can be played around to some extend as well.

I was trying to design a fun format that eschews away from "bad" design however I was also trying to do a tribute to Magic and showcase the breadth of the game. You can't do that without including some of these "bad" effects. Some you can tone down by playing fewer of them, such as the stealing effects, however you can't really just not have counterspells as that is a big part of what blue is about. You are being unfaithful to the game, but also giving yourself an impossible task of filling the gap left by countermagic. Where you cannot calm with reduced numbers you can at least calm with power. The countermagic suite is one of the few areas where my homemade cube is below the power level bar compared to most other cubes. I have no free counter magic that is for sure! The counter magic I do have I have tried to keep reasonable.

Another strategy I have used to tone down disliked mechanics is a spreading out and tucking away kind of affair. I had only two cards capable of destroying a basic land and both only do so once. No Armageddon here! No Strip Mine Crucible of Worlds nonsense. Having just two effects is certainly pretty toned down but it is not the only length I have gone to. Both cost five mana which is fairly tucked away. Cheap land destruction is the most egregious. I have moved it up the curve to take the sting out of things but I have added it to other things so as to keep the power level somewhat attractive. Even with all that the card below has not faired well in testing. It wasn't fun or appreciated. The issue is simply that it is green and thus quite easy to play this on turn three. On the play that is way too oppressive, not to mention tempo and value all at once. Rather than try and fix this I am liable simply to cut it all together. It is not like I need things to kill basic lands.  

The last thing I did, the spreading out, is about playability. Both my five drops that could kill a basic land are gold cards, in this case ones that share no colours at all. It is going to be pretty hard to fit them both into a deck and abuse a mana denial strategy. Indeed, just by being gold we are going to be seeing less of the card assuming it is of comparable power level and playability otherwise. This is an approach I have taken repeatedly, the hiding of the less loved effects in gold, up the curve, spread about the colours, and in short supply. As it turns out I have since nerfed the Angel below to only hit non-lands. It didn't seem like it was a good thing to have on the card. It is plenty powerful enough already and while it isn't in the colours of other land destruction effects it is in the colour of flicker effects and that would be a miserable way to lose. I was trying to evoke the spirit of Vindicate but in practice exorcising the ghost of Stone Rain losses is a more valiant calling. It turns out you don't need to have a land destruction theme for it to be egregious, just one well timed hit is all it takes. And so with that fall all the means of attacking basic land and total mana production present in my cube. Sure, they might be aspects of the game but I am not so into a tribute that I am going to harm the playability of it to represent.

At this point we start to move into territory I was reserving for a different article although they both concern "bad" elements of the game. This is a more general one about types of effects people don't like and isn't so much to do about things that are mechanically poor. There are actually a bunch of things that are technically quite poor mechanically but that people like or enjoy. There is just something to the gamble of a cascade that is fun! Hard to call it a good mechanic from a design point of view but the people like it and so there we are! With effects like cascade I have simply tried to include them in the most safe and contained manner possible. Obviously it is much easier for me to do so not having to worry about no mana suspend cards in the format. Designing without the baggage of pre-existing cards and formats is certainly making my job a lot easier! 

There are other "bad" mechanics that are not necessarily loved by players but that are highly flavourful and feel important to reflect in a tribute to magic. First strike is a good example of this. Not hated or anything but not something that is great for the game as it can shut things down in combat a bit defensively and make tricks all a bit too risky to play into. First strike is most egregious when you start to stack it up. As such the first port of call was turning as many of my designs for cards where I had used first strike into something else, be that vigilance or lifelink or whatever felt appropriate. Thinning it out over the colours a bit more. The next thing to do was more nested in the design of the cards themselves. Making it only apply when attacking is a trick wizards have been using themselves for a while and solves the problems with the ability. The cost is a little added complexity and noise on the cards but this is exactly what it should be used for. The art of keeping designs clean and simple is in part so that you have the space to fix things when needed without winding up with a mess of a design. 

I find I am not compelled to slap loads of examples of these kinds of thing as they tend not to be my favourite of cards. They are more like the blemishes in the set I am trying to cover up. Yes, they are parts of the whole but they are getting more attention from the makeup bag than other areas of the face! Dark Knight is a nod to Black Knight, but protection is horrible design and so became ward. Deathtouch was granted to make the card relevant and interesting and sufficiently powerful in the modern game, and so the first strike needed to receive that common fix. The classic but ungainly Black Knight has a makeover and becomes presentable! I don't like it but I like it more than the original, and I feel like it is about as close as I am getting to a Black Knight without straying into  the realms of bad design. 

One final means of reducing hated effects I have found myself using a lot is the application of phyrexian mana instead of normal mana to some of the tax effects. Normally I dislike giving my opponents choices but on tax cards it goes down very well. It takes that oppressive cornered feel out of it a little. The card below manages to evoke the flavour of Tabernacle without stinking the whole room out. It also does this by being a creature and also an artifact as well making it far more easily removed. This is what also happened with the gold Ghostly Prison/Propaganda card I showed off first. That will have to do for bad cards for now!

Monday, 11 September 2023

Homemade Cube Part 10

I understand that Richard Garfield has made the comment about magic that "it is not individual cards that are, or should be interesting, but the interactions between cards". This is one of the big reasons why I have tried to keep cards as simple as possible. It is also for this reason that I would class cards like Negate and Doom Blade to be some of the best designed cards in the game. There is however very little room left for simple yet sensibly powered cards such as these. This therefore means more complicated cards. This in turn is like jumping from a two body system to a three body system, if that is a meaningful reference! A Negate is clean, pointed and simple. It does one thing and is pretty easy to appraise. Add in another element and suddenly you have a far more complicated card that is hard to parse and solve. Your card can wind up falling into many more camps. Below is a nice simple card. It does one thing. It of course also shares this text with other cards that exist. Simple ones like Glorious Anthem too, this can get away with being cheaper because Anthem is slightly blow the mark and this is gold. 

There are many ways in which a card can gain complexity. We have the well understood modal camp. There are plenty of cards with Negate as an option for what the card can do, along with some other non-negate stuff. Then there are just those composite cards that do a bunch of stuff such as Llanowar Visionary. They don't give the option on a few different things, they just do all of the different things! You have Elvish Visionary - a card draw dork, and Llanowar Elf - a mana dork. Both, as far as utility creatures go, as simple as you can get. Slap them together and you have Llanowar Visionary, a mana dork and value card. As neither of those things detract from the other, they are both just positive things to have without being overly conditional or situational and so the card is a purely positive additive card. That doesn't make it better than the constituent parts, that is about context and what your deck wants, but they do tend to have a good amount of raw power in a vacuum! Then you have cards where there is a downside or drawback component like Arcane Denial. These are a bit more interesting as you can sometimes negate the drawback or turn it to your advantage and in doing so scale the power of your card up multiple times. 

Somewhere in the middle, between these additive cards and these drawback cards are those that have a collection of positive elements but that do not neatly line up, either in a vacuum or in context. Utilizing one will come at the expense of other aspects of the card. I find these internal card tensions to be fun to play with. Below is a really simple example of such a card, where by you cannot have more than one trigger from the battle cry if you want the exalted to trigger. I have been able to put a little bit more on this card in terms of power due to how these two mechanics have tension with each other and cannot both perform well. While we have capped the ceiling, we have also raised the floor, which is a nice place to be. We have also made for a much more interesting card because of all the varied options it presents as an attacker. 

We have looked at this card before I think but in a different light. City Square is basically just a Triome if you draw it. The interesting tensions on the card are directly lifted from the Triome cycle, or indeed all the playable cycling lands. Basically a cycling land is one you want to hold as long as possible in case you start to flood and want that extra card draw. Being an EtB tapped land however, you want to deploy it as soon as you have a window to do so. Say you have no one drop, then flopping out a tapped land feels free. Being forced to work out how likely you are to cycle a card at the time of the window for the free EtB aspect adds an element of skill that is missing from many fixing lands. 

Pentad Construct is a utility and support card. You can use it to ramp and fix or you can use it to get into combat with and perhaps get to retain the stats on the board once it dies. Doing one comes at the cost of the other. This is a pretty direct and linear situation. Further to that, it is a card you can deploy early at low power or later with more. One scaling tension is enough to make a card interesting, two will hopefully do more than merely double the interest! 

I have a cycle of six drops that can diminish their size to gain effects. These were inspired by Wall of Roots. While you are generally going to be wanting to use the effects where sensible to do so as they represent more value than a mere +1/+1, there is still plenty of internal tension. None of the cycle have any combat abilities and so can easily be bested. This will mean careful size management of these dorks if you want to use them in combat or avoid certain removal effects. 

This next card is very pushed and may well need tuning down. Much as it has some tension it is all good things. Either you save your stuff and have a bigger construct or you crack your clues and draw more cards. Mostly I think it will be the latter, especially when you don't have other things to do with the powerstones, but every now and again, you will just want those stats. I think there will be a lot of similarity to when you fetch a Bauble or some such with an Urza's Saga and then don't sac it. Hopefully my saga attempt is not quite as broken as Urza's!

So, we have all modal cards, all cycling cards, and by that logic any other mechanic that gives some kind of modality such as evoke providing some form of internal tension. Read ahead is a good one, it lets you trade total returns for expedience. Companions are another quite extreme card with tension although it comes in the deck building stage, you have to chose if the constraints on your deck cost you more or less than the companion you are accommodating offers you in return. For some reason I always enjoyed the delirium design challenge and so that is pretty much the inspiration for this little companion. Much as companions are very interesting, they are also very dangerous. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the 13 I have designed for the cube get culled down to zero, or near there. At the very least I would expect them to be the most heavily rebalanced of the cards. You have so much more potential danger and are trying to hit an even finer line of power level. That of being below average, yet still just about playable as a maindeck card, but interesting and potent enough to bother having as a companion. 

There are cards where the tension is about the investment you make in them. I wanted to showcase Dragon Wagon here but I already did that card as a mana sink example! If you dedicate too much mana to the card and end up with idle mana and you get hit with an efficient and appropriate removal spell then you are pretty sad about it. Instead let us look at a level up dork as they share those elements a bit. Like a companion this tension is more of a building decision than a gameplay one, although it is certainly both, and I am a fan of that. Is your deck able to afford that mana investment and that risk, does it need to do so?

There can be tension in information. I have always been fascinated by how some people play when they know about things like removal or countermagic. It is sometimes as if the information makes people play worse not better! With that in mind I made a bunch of answer cards that reveal themselves and cards that reveal other cards. The Seal cycle of cards was one way to do this but I was especially pleased with this use of the forecast mechanic. 

The cards arrived a few days ago so this design process series will be coming to a close and this will be the penultimate article of this nature I think. Obviously there will be a few about the testing and review step, as well as some full spoilers for the set once I work out how to do the galleries for them! Not to mention a conclusion sort of an affair. I have done 3 events so far and been very pleased with the results. Despite this I have already found about 10 cards with typo style errors on them and another 10 or so with rebalancing tweaks I want to make. I am sure there will be many more to follow!

Monday, 4 September 2023

Homemade Cube Part 9

Being a tribute to Magic I wished to include as much as sensibly possible in the way of examples of mechanics. Some very emblematic cards and mechanics are actually horrible designs and not at all fun to play with. A challenge I relished was using a bad mechanic, or paying tribute to a dodgy card, and making it palatable in the process. 

Making a card fairly innocuous is a great way to stifle dodgy mechanics. Miracle is horrendous, it is such a swingy effect. Especially if you are sticking Time Walks, and Wrath/Fireball combos on to them.... If you make a miracle out of Revitalize however, you are not subjecting yourself to anywhere near that level of polarity

I have always hated Banisher Priest style cards in cube as they feel so polar. Great when they work, really dodgy in the face of removal, even just bounce. They are however incredibly white and cannot simply be ignored. As such I just split up the card so as to also split up the risk. You don't lose your dork and give them theirs back, just one of the other when it comes to spot removal. You still want to be a bit careful with this card and not just toss it out on any old thing that has a strong EtB effect you want to avoid giving them a second shot with, but you do at least have a card that isn't just a white knuckle shit for you whenever it is in play.

Another common white effect that I find plays poorly is removal that only hits stuff actively involved in combat. I think it is because white gets into stalls a lot of the time, and is also fairly dull, lacking in trickery, and as such pretty easy to read. Simple fix to a card dodgy for this kinds of reasons is to slap on some cycling. Cycling of sufficiently low cost makes almost anything playable! 

Cycling is just a nice clean form of card modality. And modality is another fantastic way to hide your narrow and dodgy mechanics. Planeswalkers, Charms, Confluences, Commands, and even the likes of classes and sagas all offer a kind of inbuilt modality where we can house some of our less desirable elements. 

Some mechanics are weak simply because they demand support. With such mechanics you can simply bake in the needed support to the card as a whole. Sagas do this especially well. It is just a type of polarity a card can have but it is at least a much easier type of polarity to fix than most. A lot of things need fodder to use or some kind of setup, many things beyond devour, and using tools like adventure, sagas, and aftermath can allow us to somewhat cleanly build that in. This card feels rather over tuned and should probably make three Thrull tokens and only have devour 2 on the final mode. That being said, sagas always house a lot of power. Play testing will reveal where the line needs to be for this tribute card.  

At the opposite end of the scale to this idea of baking in support there is diluting down the offending mechanic. Cumulative upkeep is fairly poor in general, as mechanics go, with very few interesting or playable cards that support it. If you take a card with cumulative upkeep and give it a EtB effect then this is going to be a part of the card that does not have its value hampered by the upkeep cost. In effect you are diluting away some of the bad mechanic! The card blow is mostly Evacuation which has no baring on the upkeep. 

Some effects are just tedious to play against and can be frustrating when on a permanent type you are unable to answer. I have put some of these effects on walkers so as to help offer all archetypes some means of answer. Bastion of Remembrance is an absolute house of a card in my cube. It was very much the inspiration behind this little walker. I wanted that effect available to black but I wanted it answerable.

In games some juicy content is locked behind a pay wall. I managed to lock away some bad mechanics behind a pay wall of sorts. There are plenty of random bad mechanics that depend on what your opponent has, land walk, protection, and that sort of thing. Intimidate is one such janky ability but when tucked away behind a reasonably expensive activation cost it stops contributing and affecting the main cost of the card anywhere near as much as it would if it were passive. It is a kind of dilution effect but achieved in a different way. 

There are the odd card that is just a soup of abilities. It is a bit like dilution but is also a bit like self support. This card supports one dull, one weak, and one bad ability (Graft, Outlast, and Heroic respectively). I am not suggesting that this is a great card or anything, either power wise or design wise, but for a cube setting it is certainly a lot more viable that most other cards supporting any of these three key words! These three seem to add value and interest to the other abilities, somewhat helping to justify them, while making them less narrow or polar. This is very much a sum greater than its parts kind of a  card. 

So there we have it, a little deep dive into how the sausages are made! I have now finished the home made cube ready for its first lot of playtesting. I rather overshot my initial plan of hitting 600 or so cards and finished a couple shy of 720! I will be whittling it down to somewhere in the 600 region in this alpha test while picking up which cards need tweaks to their designs. I will try and get the full set I am playing with uploaded as some kind of gallery. There is likely a couple more of these homemade cube progress and process style blog posts to come as well before that. 

Monday, 28 August 2023

Wilds of Eldraine Review


This set I simply don't have sufficient interest to bother doing a full set review. Mostly this is down to my homemade cube project taking up most of my Magic energy, but obviously Wizards has not helped much with my interest over the past few years either! I tried to read the spoiler as it was coming out and there were so many adventures and wordy cards I just couldn't care enough to focus. This will be the first set I have not reviewed since I started doing so over a decade ago! That being said, I still am going to do a checklist of cards to get, where I think they will wind up, and a rating for them. All that will be missing is the blurb that goes with my rating trying to justify it. Sadly, without having to think quite so hard about my opinion of a card and formulating that into words I am going to be rather more off the mark than usual. It will be interesting to see by how much post testing! Once done with ratings then finally a perhaps a paragraph or two about any thoughts I might have on the set as a whole. 

Auto Includes

Restless Fortress 8

Restless Vinestalk 8

Restless Spire 7.5

Restless Cottage 8.5

Virtue of Courage 7.5

Decadent Dragon 8

Charming Scoundrel 7

Horned Loch-Whale 8

Pickock Prankster 7.5

Lord Skitter, Swere King 7.5

Virtue of Persistence 7.5

Goddric, Cloaked Reveler 7.5

To Test (High expectations)

Court of Locthwain* 7

Tegwyll's Scouring* 7

Candy Trail 7.5

Restless Bivouac 7.5

The Huntsman's Redemption 7

Questing Druid 7

Mosswood Dreadknight 7.5

Hearth Elemental 7

Embereth Veteran 7.5

Specter of Mortality 7

Faerie Dreamthief 7

Twinning Twins 7

Frolicking Familiar 7

Farsight Ritual 7

Elusive Otter 7

Pollen-Shield Hare 7

Heartflame Delist 6.5

Regal Bunnicorn (The white Tarmogoyf!) 7

Virtue of Loyalty 7.5

Werefox Bodyguard 7.5

Torch the Tower 7

Asinine Antics 7

Beseech the Mirror 6.5

Rankle's Prank 7

Tangled Colony 7

Food Fight 7

Kellan, the Fae-Blooded 7

Scalding Viper 7

Elvish Archivist 7.5

The Goose Mother 7

Agatha's Soul Cauldron 7

To Test (Low expectations)

Tough Cookie 6

Three Bowls of Porridge 5

Gruff Triplets 5

Flick a Coin 6

The irencrag 5

Syr Gginger, the Meal Ender 6

Witchstalker Frenzy 6.5

The Witche's Vanity 5

Spiteful Hexmage 5

Woodland Acolyte 6

Cheeky House Mouse 6

Cooped Up 6

Hylda's Crown of Winter 6

Expel the Interlopers 6

Lady of Laughter 6.5

Plunge into Winter 5

Shrounded Shepherd 5

Spellbook Vendor 6.5

Stroke of Midnight 6

Freeze in Place 5

Gadwick's First Duel 5

Sleep-Cursed Faerie 5

Talion's Messenger 6

Tenacious Tomeseeker 6

Ashiok, Wicked Manipulator 6

Devouring Sugarmaw 6

Voracious Vermin 5

Immodane, the Pyrohammer 4

Monstrous Rage 5

Raging Battlemouse 6

Redcap Gutter-Dweller 6.5

Rotisserie Elemental 5

Beanstalk Wurm 4

Blossoming Tortoise 6.5

Bramble Familiar 6

Up the Beanstalk 6

Welcome to Sweettooth 6

Talion, the Kindly Lord 7

Constructed Reserve Stuff

Hopeful Vigil 5

Moonshaker Cavalry 6

Slumbering Keepguard 3

Stockpiling Celebrant 2

Ingenious Prodigy 6

Snaremaster Sprite 4

Spell Stutter 3

Callous Sell-Sword 5

Hopeless Nightmare 5

Not Dead After All 6

Harried Spearguard 6

Brave the Wilds 6

Night of the Sweets' Revenge 3

Virtue of Strength 5

Likeness Looter 6

Obyra, Dreaming Duelist 4

Rowan, Scion of War 5

Collector's Vault 5

Throne of Eldraine* 6

Not a whole lot to say about this set. I don't think my lack of excitement or interest is any real reflection of the set. It seems fine. I like the plane. It is perhaps a little too cartoony and cute for my tastes but not by much, and that certainly isn't how we should be looking at sets. The power level is about where you would want it which is a relief, the first Eldraine visit was marred rather by unreasonable power levels. There are lots of potentially good cube cards here but none that look to be oppressive in power or staples in their frequency of play, other than the manlands of course. Just a bunch of fine looking mid and top end variations of stuff. 

Thursday, 24 August 2023

Homemade Cube Part 8


Today we are going to be making some predictions based on design choices. I currently play a pretty reliable 17 lands in my 40 when playing my main cube these days. This is up over the years as mana sinks and sources of value have gotten better. Scrap that, as tempo has become more important, is the predominant reason. Those first two things mean you don't suffer floods as badly when and if they happen but really it is about the tempo. You want to just curve and you want to do so in tempo positive ways, either efficiently shutting down theirs, or progressing your own. The best way to win in my cube these days is by having a powerful midrange deck full of generically good cards and then curving out all the way to five while managing to usefully spend all fifteen mana along the way, ideally capping it off with some absurd five drop. More lands makes this more likely. I would likely be playing nearer 18 lands per deck if it were not for the fact that so many cube cards draw and dig and generally help you to curve.

I predict that in my homemade cube I will be playing closer to 15 lands on average. There are a lot of reasons why I think this will be the case so lets have a look at each in turn. Firstly my curve is lower in the home made cube. There are a lot more one drops and rather less three drops and upward, all pulling the average down somewhat. In a very simplified way, if there is less to spend mana on you are going to need less of it! I think this will be the more significant of the factors that reduce the number lands I want to play.

A more subtle factor is that I think the top end in my homemade cube is less powerful and less able to brute force a win. In a world where your five drop is winning you the game quickly and reliably you want to get there as fast as possible as is increasingly the case in my main cube. I don't think my homemade top end is quite so alluring and as such not as important to arrive at punctually. 

One of the other factors that I tweaked in the homemade cube was the reduced cost of card advantage and card quality, with an increased abundance in the latter. If it costs less, you are going to be able to play more, and are incentivized to do so, and there being more around makes that easy to do. More filtering and digging effects typically result in fewer lands getting played. 

The card above also reminds me that there is a fair amount of incidental treasure in the set as well. Both cards give you treasure and those giving it away. These really help get you over those key threshold. You might have a deck which only ever needs five mana for two five drops. For those five drops to be relevant enough of the time they need supporting with sufficient lands. You might well however be able to trade a couple of lands into treasure generating cards, get the same level of playability out of your five drops, and increase the overall threat and power density of your deck. 

Inspired by the quality of the one mana basic land cyclers in Tales of Middle Earth I ended up packing two full cycles in my home made cube. This is comprised of a 4 and a 5 drop dork in each colour, each with a single flavourful key word and a relatively low power, by cube standards at least. These cheap cyclers are very alike to the MDFC cards in function and I expect them to see a lot of play and replace a lot of lands in the process. Lorien Revealed is one of the most played five drops in the more powerful constructed formats already. I similarly expect the land cyclers to be some of the most played in my cube. 

Further to that I slapped on a lot of "Lay of the Land" effects onto Charms and other modal card fairly often, both as a way to give low impact card neutral options thus lowering the narrowness of some of these cards, but also just as a good way to increase game consistency. While not quite as potent as the land cyclers I suspect the relative abundance of these will add to that effect in a relevant way.

Mana sinks are getting better and more common. There is just always some land to activate, some card in the bin to escape or flashback. Just some dork you can pump a load of mana into. This is not the reason I am playing at least 17 lands in my normal cube, as discussed, that is mostly for the tempo. The perk of the mana sinks is simply that I am happier about playing more. Things do not go so disastrously when you flood out a bit. A flood these days is far less problematic than a screw. While I do have mana sinks a plenty in my home made cube they likely fail to impress more than the raw card advantage tools on offer. As such I expect people to be drawing more cards and playing more cards, rather than investing more mana in cards already in play. I feel like my mana sinks offer less in the way of reach than existing ones, and there is relatively less power in them. If you are drawing more cards rather than investing more mana in existing ones then you will draw more lands with them and not need such a high ratio of lands to spells in the first place. 

So there we have it, a collection of reasons as to why I expect to play significantly less lend per deck in this homemade cube meta than I am accustomed to; 

Lower curve. 

Less powerful top end. 

Abundant card quality and cheap land cyclers.

Efficient card advantage.

Pleanty of treasure and cards that search up basics.

Less exciting and powerful mana sinks.

Looking forward to seeing if I am right and if I have managed to artificially cut land counts in decks by a significant margin (well over 10% in terms of lands and by 5% considering all cards) simply with considered card design. If so I might try my hand at other similar challenges. That is of course, assuming we also hit the main objective, that of being a fun format to play!