Sunday 19 May 2024

Carried by Tutors


As a local play group we have switched over from regularly playing either my unpowered cube or my homemade cube to a classic vintage cube build for the last month or so (list of that to be found here although as it is relatively recently rebuilt it is undergoing rather more tweaking than usual https://cubecobra.com/cube/list/rqt?view=spoiler&scale=large). This is a small tale of a recent draft and what I learned.




I thought my draft had gone badly, I thought I had half of three decks, all too thin to stand alone, that I was going to have to hope to get lucky with. Instead, my deck went on to win on turn three pretty comfortably undisrupted and still more than capable of winning through disruption. I dropped a single game to a dumb misplay (Entombing a card I wanted directly into exile because I had played a Yawgmoth's Will) and waltzed through the rest like they were all playing standard booster draft! 




So how had I so poorly judged the potency of my deck? It is not often one thinks they have a pile and then goes on to dominate the field. There is a heuristic in magic about trying to do to much. You want your deck to do one thing. The fact that I had three angles that lacked redundancy felt like I was off to a bad start in regards opinions on my pool. This was my main concern. My mana fixing was also less than ideal. I was rather lacking in interaction. I felt like I had some filler just padding out the list. Mainly it was about having the many thin plans that I was concerned however a bias also crept in that amplified my concern well beyond reason.




In my unpowered cube I do not have any combo options, it is all aggro, midrange and control. With the power creep as it tempo became paramount in that format. That in turn rendered tutor effects pretty useless. You were usually just getting some generic curve play or answer and not specific combo pieces. As such tutor cards stopped seeing play. Raw draw and card quality effects were simply a lot more efficient tools for that kind of consistency. As such I had rather forgotten quite how potent tutors are. The main reason I thought my deck sucked was because I was undervaluing tutors in the new meta of vintage cube. Not only are there myriad combos, from powerful interactions to win on the spot, the cards in general are vastly more powerful and varied giving your tutors a lot more range and punch too. Toss five premium tutor effects into a deck with multiple combos in it and you have a fairly robust and consistent little engine on your hands. Here is what I ran;


Misty Rainforest

Xander's Lounge

12 Basic


Mox Ruby

Chrome Mox

Lion's Eye Diamond


Sol Ring

Dark Ritual

Deathrite Shaman

Careful Study

Entomb

Aether Spellbomb

Vampiric Tutor


Demonic Tutor

Talisman of Creativity

Grim Monolith

Collective Brutality

Wishclaw Talisman

Fallaji Archeologist


Yawgmoth's Will

Hull Breacher

Lurrus, of the Dream Den

Force of Negation

Tinker


Grief

Tendrils of Agony

Damnation

Echo of Eons

Bolas' Citadel



Primarily this is a bad storm deck, but it also is a failed Tinker deck and a  Hullbreacher abuser. If I have a Hullbreacher deck I want more of the symmetrical draw 7 effects as well as more of the punisher effects (Leovold/Narset/Sheoldred/Bowmasters). I like three of each not one of each! When it comes to Tinker I like at least two good targets, ideally somewhat standalone ones. Blightsteel Colossus, Portal to Phyrexia, and that sort of jazz. Also ideally ones that attack on different axis. My only big target needs a high life total, further things to go with it, and some good fortune. All while sorely lacking in Divining Top to abuse properly! 





The storm element was my best shot, the Citadel Tinker plan plays into it quite well, but even so, it was rubbish on paper. Storm decks are the ones that want to be more pure. Every card that is off theme hurts the consistency. This list was half a midrange deck with what felt like just a hint of storm tools. Practically I am trying to go off with Ritual, LED and the other mana rocks, plus Yawgmoth's Will, or just getting pretty luck with the Citadel. That is a long long way off a storm deck. That is a free sample, a trailer to a storm deck, a demo and not the whole article. 




These seemed like insurmountable problems but when push came to shove the fact that a fifth of the spells in the list are tutors, and pretty good ones at that, fully carried it. I always had the tools I needed, I could always quickly assemble what I needed to win in any given gap or get out of sticky situations. Vamp and Demonic are well known and understood for being the best tutors. The others in this list are a little less intuitive. Tinker is a tutor even if the main abuse is gaining mana advantage. It feels laughable to get an LED or an Aether Spellbomb, but if that is all you need to be able to go off and win it starts to feel like a pretty good Tinker target. You can even get Wishclaw for the dodgy long way round to find anything!




Entomb is also well known for being great and it was working triple duty in this list. With Lurrus it was able to tutor up some utility, it was able to setup having some things you needed in the bin for a Yawgmoth's Will turn, and most importantly of all it was able to put Echo of Eons exactly where you want it. This added up to make it one of my best cards. It tended to be the 2nd tutor I wanted. Mostly I was either getting Echo or LED in the bin but that was all very powerful and on plan for most of my routes to victory. 




The real standout card was Wishclaw Talisman. I was not expecting it to be competing with these other big name tutors and it really did. Mostly you need to win, or at least do utterly devastating things with it on the turn you first use it. Giving away tutors is a bit (a lot) dodgy, but winning on the spot turned out to be very easy. Especially when you have a one mana Demonic Tutor. That was the real strength of the card, you get to pay 2/3rds of the cost on a prior turn and only need to pay 1 mana on the turn you go off. It is all the good bits of Vamp and Demonic rolled into one card. You can even sack it off to Tinker! It would have been even more impressive if I could have found an Upheaval to replace the rather desperate seeming Damnation. 

The Damnation was absolutely the worst card, I never needed it and would have done better with an filler cantrip or generic interactive card, be that targetted single target bounce/removal or hand disruption or countermagic. I ran it out of fear that I was going to just die to random crap and not be quick enough. I wanted outs rather than improving what the deck itself was doing and I didn't need to be running scared. 




The other card I wanted most after the Upheaval was a simple Brainstorm. It would have made the Tinker a whole lot more reliable and would have generally worked incredibly well in the list. Obviously you always want a Brainstorm, I just passed one in the draft quite early and lived to regret it. Careful Study did a pretty good job of representing Brainstorm all things considered. It might be the other card that stood out most above expectation in the list. 

The moral of todays story is that tutors are great in vintage cube, likely the second best generic type of card after mana acceleration. If you have a pile of good mana ramp and a pile of tutors you struggle to go too far wrong. Tutors are better in vintage cube than unpowered cube not just because they are finding combos but because the cards in general are that much more powerful and swingy. The right card in an unpowered card is not often going to make back the cost of finding it, no threat or answer still looks good when you add two mana to the cost. In vintage cube a lot of things still seem great even when you pay two more for them. Really there is no cost too high to setup a Time Twister Hullbreacher combo!




There in is another strength of the deck and the tutors there in. If you can easily threaten a devastating Hullbreacher play your opponent has to be super careful which allows you to easily win in other ways. It just gives you that time and breathing space, it opens up windows that might not overwise have been. 


Thursday 9 May 2024

The Hidden Power in Cheap Draw

 

We have seen power creep in most areas of magic (only really excluding mana acceleration), both ultimately over the whole existence of the game, and more consistently in recent history too. While creatures, and then necessarily the removal to cope with them, have received most attention of the power creep it is likely that value or card advantage have crept the next most. Most colours now have access to it in some form or other and the going rate for it in terms of mana and hoops to jump through has plummeted. 




Now, with this being the case, cheap raw draw is still nearly impossible to come by. All the power creep in value seems to be in the mid and top end of the curve. Night's Whisper remains the second best "pure" card advantage spell in terms of mana paid to net cards drawn after Ancestral Recall. This seems wild to me. Divination is an embarrassingly low power card and yet still the standard. Why are they throwing free added value on stuff all over the shop but being so restrained in printing cheap cards that just do value? 

The short answer is that you end up with a card that is a bit too good at all points on the spectrum. Magic is a game that starts out with lots of card based resources but few mana based ones and transforms into the the reverse over time. Late game the player with access to more cards tends to win while early game the player who is able to deploy the right things, or indeed, anything at all, will be the winner. 

This is where cards like Preordain come in. They offer negative tempo and no value but they cheaply do a lot to ensure you cast the right things early on and so more than merit the cost. In terms of the early game, drawing X cards and scrying X has a near identical boost to your chances of casting the right things and winning the early game. A cheap card draw spell simply doubles up as a card quality spell while the costlier value sources come a bit late for that to be a big saving grace.




It isn't that effectively scrying for 2 at 2 mana is too good, nor that drawing two cards for two mana is too good, it is that rolling them together into one card, as you must physically do in any Night's Whisper esque card, you wind up with something that is too convenient and potent at all points without enough real drawback. It is value for late and consistency early. There is a hidden internal scaling with card draw as you reduce the cost, you need to pay for both the card draw and the card quality aspects of the spell, else you get too good of a deal. 

Tuesday 2 April 2024

Vintage Cube Wins

 

There has always been a divide in the cube community between powered and unpowered, or vintage and legacy respectively. All cube was the powered vintage format in the dawn of cube in the early two thousands as there was not enough powerful cards to make a cube without them! That was somewhat the whole point of cube. Slowly however as the cards crept up in power there was an argument for one or the other, powered or unpowered. Some people want to play cube for the silliness, the extreme plays and power potential. It is light relief from more conventional magic formats. These are your vintage cubers that love their power. 




Then you have the likes of me, someone who prefers consistency and good competitive games. I did away with power, and cards that have that really swingy polar play pattern too them about 15 years ago, around the time planeswalkers joined the game. Much as the language I have used here is pretty biased, there is no right or wrong. It is all about preference, and knowing what yours and your play groups is. I used to me much more adamant that powerless was the way to go but I am rather changing my tune on that front now too. 

Largely this is down to the new era of cards we are seeing. Cards like Minsc and Boo, Hull Breacher, and Solitude. Typically found in the sets that never go into standard, although not exclusively. These cards are just too good for my unpowered cube. They utterly dominate it in the way that the power used to. In a powered cube these newer additions are much more interesting and playable. They make the top end options more interesting and the gulf between the top and the bottom smoother and smaller. Powered cube is the healthiest it has ever been. It is the best and fairest way to play with some of the most powerful and iconic cards in magics rich history. It is also the only sensible cube vessel to pack a lot of the most egregious new stuff. If you want to explore the full extent of magic from the oldest to the newest it somewhat has to be vintage cube. 

Sure, the games may be a little more wild and random, but they are a whole lot of fun. I was finding that I was losing my way somewhat with my own cube. Once you start along the line of "that is too good", or "I don't like that play pattern", the cube rather loses its identity. It is just a draft format you have created that resembles a cube. This is why I have made so many themed cubes over recent years. In search of that identity that is missing in mine. Slap on a title like gold, or budget, or artifact, or combo, or even homemade, and you have guidance. You know what you are doing with your cube, the cards you can look to add, those you can't and with much clearer direction in mind. My main cube is presently just a collection of roughly 540 cards that you can play limited from. It isn't the best cards. It isn't even the best cards minus the cards I deem a little too good. That is because the bottom half of cards as it were, are there to support the top half in doing there thing as well as can be. So, my cube is a collection of 2nd best cards and things that work with them. Sure, the games are pretty good but I imagine there are near infinite random things I could do with endless assortments of random magic cards that were comparably good. 




Vintage cube hasn't won because it plays better. Vintage cube has won because it has the most clear identity. You know where you are with vintage cube and it does a far better job of being an envoy for the game and history its history. We can talk about vintage cube and immediately be on the same page without having to provide loads of stipulations and doing a bunch of recalibrating. Vintage cube is cube and all other cubes are variants. It has likely been that way for a while now too but as I sat on the other side of the fence it was rather harder to see. I was a couple of years too slow on cutting the power as I had biases and attachments and I suspect I did much the same job of missing that boat on the return journey! Now that I have my homemade cube it seems like it makes much more sense to run that alongside a vintage cube. It also makes rather more sense to do content from a more vintage cube perspective too.


Sunday 24 March 2024

Jenny (and Spike, Timmy and Jonny)

 

I briefly explained the Timmy, Jonny and Spike concept to my wife for some reason the other day and without missing a beat she just asked me "What about Jenny?"

Jenny is someone who doesn't care much about winning, she just wants everybody to have a good time. A Jenny will help the Spike to feel good, share enthusiasm with the Timmy, and not interfere with the Jonny. 




Admittedly there is the social element of gaming baked into the Timmy definition. There is good reason for Jenny just being rolled into Timmy and not having a distinct term as it were in Magic. Why a Jenny is just a footnote of Timmy is likely that there are very few Jennys playing magic, or at least there were not when the design concepts came about. For one, Magic is a very male dominated game and the Jenny characteristics do seem to be more common elsewhere! That being said, I have a tiny and statistically irrelevant sample size to be going with. For what it is worth, Jenny is a real person we know and game with whom my wife was referring to, it just seems to work well with Jonny, Spike and Timmy as a name to use.

There are aspects of Jenny that are distinct from Timmy and why are why they should probably be more that a footnote therein! Jenny cares about the social aspect of the game more than the competitive or the mechanical. Timmy wants to win big and Jenny wants Timmy to win big too. They are fairly happy being the martyr for a suitably good win for another player. They are getting things from other people's positive experiences and from cooperation and teamwork. Jennys are great in social settings for helping everything go smoothly. The natural neutron as it were of the atomic game analogy.




The main thing making Magic a low Jenny game however is that a 1v1 game of any sort is not all that well suited to Jenny players. A nice four player game of Agricola is one where a Jenny can really have a great experience. Or indeed, one of many mechanically cooperative games where the whole group can win. Magic does now have a strong multiplayer scene and in those the Jenny is much more able to enjoy magic. The "Group Hug" player is just the EHD terminology for a Jenny as there isn't need for the term outside of the EDH community. Wizards are well aware of the Jenny in that they produce and print group hug cards. It just feels like they should be acknowledged within the classic categories as well as just getting cards designed for them. 

This was just one of the many random discoveries I found along the way in my homemade cube project. It has little baring on either my cube or my design projects in Magic as I am not making them for multiplayer use at all. It is however something useful to take outside my Magic life when I tinker with other game designs. I remain impressed at the degree of transferrable skills I have procured from Magic over the years, and the fact that there is still so much to uncover. 


Thursday 22 February 2024

Homemade Cube Crossroads


I am at a nice lull in the homemade cube project. The second run of cards are out, well palyed and understood. They fixed most of the problems, and the new problems with them, and the cube at large are mostly now known too. The really problematic cards, boring cards, and bad cards, are all cut and there is a relatively small waiting list of tuning tweaks to existing cards and some new designs not far off ready to print for the third run. Rather than rushing this through as I did with round two of the card prints, I am going super slowly. This has all been the case for some weeks and I expect to stay that way for many more with relatively little change or progress. It very much feels like the time in the creative process to simple let it brew in the background. Not apply much active thought, let the enthusiasm recharge and let the subconscious ruminate over it all. 




I attribute a large part of this lull to a directional choice that needs making in regards what I want my homemade cube to be. It was not even a question I was aware of when I embarked upon the project. Recently most  of the group I cube with went on holiday together and a bunch of other gamer mates. There was like 20 of them with more than enough for some 8 man events. They wanted to take the homemade cube with them and I was happy to oblige with some outside testing being of much interest. While they were away playing that, I did my first cubes using my main cube since getting the homemade stuff. The experiences of those main cube games after so long and the feedback from the strangers all pointed towards the same thing. Do I want poker Magic or do I want chess Magic? 

These are the best ways I can think to shorthand the directions I can go in but I shall elaborate. Neither is better or worse than the other, it is simply a preference. My homemade cube was described as "too smooth" and "lacking jeopardy" which are reasonable criticisms. The huge consistency, option density and reasonable power level of threats in my cube ensures you are losing to screw and flood infrequently nor getting beaten by a god draw. You get to play your game but your game is going to be long and hard fought. The tide will change with incremental advantages over many turns. Games are long, there are lots of choices, and the player making the better ones tends to win! A good test of skill? Yes. The most fun you could be having with Magic? Unlikely.




In stark contrast the games in my main cube are a lot shorter. Out of three games it feels like you only get one real game, with the other two being decided by the draw, be it a god draw or a wonky land one. Games are much shorter, a best of three takes little longer than a single game in the homemade cube. There is a lot of going all in, something happens which you probably lose to so you take a risky line that contains your only possible out. These games are some of the most fun. The ones where you felt like you had no agency are frustrating. In my strive to cut out the frustration I also seemed to cut some of the fun as well.

Basically the average game in my homemade cube is substantially better than that with normal magic. The best games however are absolutely to be found in real Magic. I have slated much about their design process over the years but now I start to peel back the layers of the onion I am able to appreciate where they really do excel. And that is making fun cards and fun and exciting formats. 




I have been looking very hard at what is fun and what designs result in it, it is hard to distil. There is indeed an article in the works discussing the concept of fun within card design. My main aim is to inject the homemade cube with as much fun as possible. It is fine on all other accounts so that seems like the place to focus. I strongly suspect however that the main way I am going to be able to inject fun into the homemade cube is to make it more poker and less chess. More swingy cards, more wild and wonderful threats etc. I think a lot of fun comes at the cost of balance, certainly if we are talking about fun in terms of unit of fun per unit of time rather than amount of fun per game. The main issue I had with the homemade cube with time. It was just impractical more than anything else. We were all playing best of one so as to get the matches in.

So, the crossroads I am at is simply the poker direction or the chess direction. Do I carry on with my original design premise and make the most balanced and skill intense format that has long dry chess like games. Or do I veer back towards Wizards and try and create more all in situations, more risk, shorter games, more fun...




Ultimately I have overshot and regardless of how far back I ultimately track, some backtracking will be done. The main focus is on the search for fun cards and so I can certainly start that process in the realms of the cards I deem to still be good design and balanced. Perhaps we will get lucky and find a sweet spot. We can reassess then. Certainly I will also be trying a mashup cube at some point with both my main and homemade in action. See if we (Wizards and I) can combine efforts to reach that sweet spot. I certainly prefer my games on the consistent side of things but I think I am much more that way than the average. I am better served by making the homemade cube what my player base want more so than just what I want. And that isn't even taking into account practical considerations like game length. It seems foolish to just make my cube a somewhat copy of things that already exist, but equally, it seems stupid to intentional keep something less fun or less practical for the sake of principle. Regardless, the sweet spot, for me or my playgroup, is going to be somewhere between the main cube and the current state of the homemade cube, and I look forward to the slow meandering journey over the next couple of years trying to find it!

Wednesday 31 January 2024

Trample vs Flying

 

A mate offhandedly said "trample is the best ability on a threat" the other day, as if that was obvious. He meant of the more reasonable combat abilities rather than things like hexproof and indestructible. Even so, intuitively I value flying more, and this is reasonable when you consider lower cost cards. Trample is a scaling ability and at its best on bigger dorks, being of little to no value as the creature's power tends to zero. Most magic is played at smaller mana costs and so on average flying is worth quite a bit more than trample. As are things like first strike and menace. He was right though. There is a point at which trample is going to be getting more done towards closing out a game than flying is. This is obviously going to have to be a discussion about averages as there will be every context under sun where trample on the smaller dork is better than flying on the bigger etc. That all in mind however, trample can't be chumped, it has to be met with toughness. You can't so easily shut off combat damage triggers and things like lifelink on a dork with trample. Give a trample guy deathtouch and it is about as scary as it gets. So, simple question, on average, at what power value trample better than flying?




It is a bit of a loaded question really as ever is the case in magic. Even if we are averaging across all games and all matchups it is still both format dependant and affected by the toughness. For simplicity we will just consider X/X dorks where toughness equals power. This is somewhat the norm. For a rough rebalance when considering lopsided dorks, I would tend towards flying as toughness gets lower than power. On a 4/3 flying might be worth more than trample, while on a 4/5 it might be the other way round for example. There is also the general consideration that flying has defensive capacities and trample does not. This means in slower decks there is absolutely added utility in those fliers. My mate did however stipulate "threat", which means you are hoping to close the game out with it rather than stall. Threat also implies big, which is how his statement could be so simple and yet so casually accurate. 



(Amazed this Sphinx is the closest I could find to a vanilla 5/5 flier for 6!)

So, with all those caveats out the way, when is trample better than flying on a threat? I can only speak to the various cubes I have played but it is around the five power mark. On average slightly above I would say, like 5.5 or something meaningless like that. I think however it is the case that a few outliers, specifically against green where you are preferring a flyer to a trampler quite some way up the power curve.  As such, I think if you disregard green and then consider again then my estimate of 5.5 drops to somewhere below 5 power at which trample is on average better on your threat. Anyone else with any differing ideas on when the crossover happens, or anything further to add on the matter I would be interested to hear. Beyond that, this is a mercifully short article. I have slapped down an opinion on what I think the number is for that cross over point, which is five or a bit over that if we are allowed fractions, but I can't really justify it or demonstrate it, it is simply a feeling based on experience. 


Tuesday 23 January 2024

An Ode to Giant Spider


As we all know power creep has hit magic pretty hard, with creatures being the most notably and consistently affected. Most pre-modern dorks are a joke compared to post modern ones, and most modern dorks are pretty pathetic by the standards of those in the last five years. The list of dorks that have been best, or like top 3 in cube, and then gone on to be cut because they are not good enough is real long. No spell on the other hand has been top 3 in any category then gone on to get cut for lack of power with the possible exception of Fact or Fiction.  




Now, Giant Spider has never been in the cube, but it has had many things supporting its iconic 2/4 reach body. I have had opportunity to see how this sized body performs over the years and it is frankly kind of baffling. It is somehow a card that has never been good as such, or at least never broken or over powered, while never being bad either. No one is complaining about the egregious Giant Spider! The weird part is that is doesn't seem to get much worse over time. That 2/4 reach body just puts in a good shift of work. I have splashed in limited seal deck just for Giant Spider (M10 or M11 I believe and it was just the ticket!)

The more I try and understand why the Spider is so static in regards the effects of power creep the more I feel as if it must be because the Spider is like the fulcrum, the bar, the tipping point, of sorts. If you think of the dorks in Alpha that are good it is Serra Angel and Shivan Dragon that jump out. If you think of the creatures that are bad, then it is almost everything else (as threats at least). What to the Angel and Dragon have in common? They trump a Spider. What does everything else do? Match up pretty poorly against Spider. Certainly everything at or below the mana value of Spider in Alpha is at least held by Spider. Move on to Arabian Nights and the best dorks there are Juzzam and Ernham Djinns, both of which can match the Spider. A trend!




It is that really defensive lean that makes Spider such a fair tipping point. It is hard to get past the card and thus provides a bar to get over for offensive threats, but being so defensively weighted itself it does not represent much threat and thus cannot really ever stretch into the realm of broken. It is decent on defence yes, but you can't overly leverage that because the card neither provides tempo nor value. A card like Wall of Omens is a far more useful control tool as it still does some defensive work, and while it is no where near the defensive strength of the Spider, it did cost half the mana and no cards! Giant Spider is a seemingly simple and unassuming card that is yet somehow one of the most enigmatic and well balanced creatures in the whole game. Like the eye of a storm, funny things can happen dead centre. Spider is a card that sees little to no play outside of limited and yet still feels as if it has had relevant effect on the meta.