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. 

Tuesday 16 January 2024

Homemade Cube Second Print Run Spoilers


As promised here are the spoilers for the new cards printed for the Homemade Cube project. I am just posting the new stuff here rather than the cards I rebalanced from the first printing, I'll stick them in a later post. The cards in this post fall into roughly three groups. There are those cards I made to solve problems and these make up the bulk of the cards. There are a lot of meatier and top of curve threats, a bunch of mana sinks, and a load of incentives towards playing mono colour decks in this group. Next up are the experiments where I am toying with mechanics. A lot of these cards were produced as a learning experience rather than with the intent to have them last in the cube. This group includes the catch-up cards and a lot of the cost reduction mechanic cards. Lastly we just have my continuation of designing stuff as it was from the original printing. I slightly upped the complexity and toyed with things like fortifications and adventure cards while trying to incorporate as many aspects of the game and mechanics as possible. The cards are arranged by colour rather than these groups however so you will have to do that bit for yourselves!

I was rather sloppier with these new cards taking less care to balance them and with less attention given to things like naming and proof reading! Mostly I think this is a response to realizing it is a lot less effort to fix and reprint thins than it is to get it right first time and it all helps with the learning. Most of these new cards will either get reprinted for some tweak or just cut directly. There was a really low hit rate on the experiment cards with almost none of them appealing nor meriting any work "fixing". Of the other cards there is just plenty to tone down and fix. Turns out the best way to test cards is by playing them and the best way to get cards seeing play is to print them and to print them on the powerful side of things. 

Despite the sloppiness of these new cards they are doing the trick and the homemade cube is playing very much like how I wanted it to. The balance is decent and the "problems" I am now fixing with the third iteration of cards are few and small. All in all things are very well on track and going better than expected on all fronts. Here are the new cards we have been playing with and testing for the last seven weeks now roughly. 

New Green


New Red


New Black






Rest Of New Stuff 


Thursday 11 January 2024

Homemade Cube Part 15: Update


This is basically now just a blog diary of the homemade cube progress and is much more of a thing for me than anyone else. As such, only those that are interested in following the design process of this project are going to get much out of reading more here. I have had my second dose of new cards for coming up a couple of months now. I will upload the full spoilers of this second pile of new cards soon. 

We are in the sweet spot time window for testing these new cards and the changed meta, where you have a good idea of the situation but there is still plenty to learn and root out. It is no longer the blind fumbling about stage, but it remains a long way from being any kind of solved as a format. This dose of extra cards was about 200 new card designs aimed at solving issues, and about 200 revisions to old cards, of which nearly half were just aesthetics or grammar. Of the 100 or so rebalanced cards almost all were nerfs. There was the odd buff and the odd rework but for the most part things needed toning down. Turns out I am very good at knowing what I need to add to a card to make it playable, but not so good at knowing where to stop to keep it fair. This is of no surprise given I spent over a decade searching for cards that reach a minimum of power level rather than those not exceeding a maximum. It is also kind of useful as far as problems go. In order to test a card one has to play it. A card too weak is hard to spot and takes a lot longer to do so as you are spotting it by an absence of action. Consequently having not seen much of the card you have no idea why it is bad or by how big of a margin. At least if a card is too good you get a good idea of why quickly, and can then cut it if it is being oppressive. 

I had managed to get the size of the cube down to about 600 before the new cards hit. Wanting to keep it below 720 cards I did some fairly aggressive culling. Mostly just boring stuff that was fine but well understood. I have strongly felt that a 540 cube was a near optimal size for quite some time now but it turns out this is somewhat specific to the context of a cube using the real pool of magic cards and the bottlenecks and power gradients found therein. If you make a power gradient less steep and widen bottlenecks the size of your cube can expand as much as you like. There are some perks to larger sizes but on the whole I think closer to enough is better than way more, mostly just from a logistical point of view. A smaller cube is an easier shuffle and sort etc. It is also more accessible to newer players. With this in mind I didn't add all the new cards at once and drip fed additions in along side cutting things to keep size down. I am running a little below 680 at present and would like to get that closer to 600 in time but I am not in much of a rush and no longer think it is relevant to aim at 540 as before. Practically I think I am going to try and settle on 612 as that is largest single order print size the company I am using prints to. That means it is going to be nice and convenient to get a whole working cube printed off in one go and will make for a cool gift to a couple of mates.

The new cards, while a long way off the quality of the first lot, have done the job at solving the issues I was having with the format to begin with. There is now enough top end power and games are ending more consistently within a reasonable time frame. The first go was good, we got closer than I was expecting to the mark, but it was still only about 80% of the way there. This new batch seems to have gotten us to over 90% of where I was hoping to get to. As such the third shot at new cards and reworks/rebalancing should take us to over 95% which I am more than happy calling a finished product. I'll be able to cull to the best 612 once I have had testing on the third release. Any changes from that testing can be implemented on those 612 best and then I can consider it a completed project. The main upshot of all this is that once completed I will stop going on about it quite so much! I will likely do a bit of tinkering and add a few new ideas and tweaks in over the years from that point but it will not be taking all my attentions and will not dominate what ever remains of the blog by that point!

Testing windows will be increasingly long. The first lot only took a couple of months to identify the issues, and then no more than a couple more to have done enough design work to feel like they might be solved, this time round it is about half the pace, and so I don't expect to be in any place to make the third order until summer this year, and from then it is likely going to be winter again before I am settled on a final 612 and that final load of cards are sufficiently tested. Assuming that prediction is on point it means it will have taken about 18 months to turn over about a thousand cards. Much as that feels impressive given the small scale of the operation, it does not feel repeatable. This first go is milking years of idle thoughts on the matter that subsequent efforts cannot lean on. 

There is also a good chance the Art Cube project concludes within this time frame and puts it on hold for a while. We are now at about 900 cards (I was aiming at 1000 before we do a pre-print cull, although I now want more like 1200), and I am at around 80% viewed of the artists I was wanting to look through. As such there is every chance this is something I print before the summer. I am not even going to predict how long it might remain in the limelight for. Disregarding the Art set however I think we are looking at three or so months of testing where we are now, a month in limbo while we wait for the third and final big order, then a good six months of testing that.

There are a bunch of cards I already changed once and have now deemed they need a second change. Typically these have been the more complicated cards like the Class cards which just have more moving parts to understand and balance. I reckon if I can't get a card right in 3 attempts it is probably best to move on. That being said, we are still finding typos from the initial print run, cards that have been played repeatedly. There was an Edict called Edit and a Yavimaya card spelled Yayimaya that we only just spotted last time we played. Both great cards seeing a lot of play and both there since the beginning. I also have some vey literate and pedantic friends who have been pretty eagle eyed at spotting other errors. All that to say I expect these sneaky subtle errors will outlast any balance issues there might be on cards! 

My design objectives have morphed a little now. I was aiming for clean, simple, balanced cards in open design space in the beginning. I wanted to represent every aspect of the game. Now I am far more focused on making every card a card that increases the fun of the format. It was almost over balanced, over fixed, to the point games were too long, a little too taxing on the brain, and a perhaps even a little dry like chess. Effectively I overshot my goal and discovered things I didn't know about Magic and game design. The new Holy Grail of design for me is maximum fun. The first printing got a really nice framework of core set style cards with which to build upon with more fun, interesting, and complicated cards. I am in fact now working on some double sided cards. Much as I find them a bit overly complex and a bit of a phaff to play with it turns out that some of the most beloved cube cards are flip cards. If ones goal is to make the most fun format then it would seem remiss to exclude flip cards. It is mildly concerning as flip cards are more complex, with more moving parts, and I have clearly demonstrated to myself that those are the types of cards I am worst at designing. Further to that I have had almost no experience of playing with battles and so I expect my designs for those to be even more off the mark.

Speaking of card types I have not played with the fortifications I designed have been interesting. They are like little land equipment. I had about three times as many designed as I actually printed off and tested but I was so unsure about them I kept it to the most appropriate of the bunch to start with, the ones I was more confident of being viable. Mostly those have been a success and with what has been learned from them I hope to bring a couple more into the fold.

Companions are a card type I am working really hard on. They are super fine lines as far as balancing goes but that isn't so much the issue. It is really all about making them fun, something people want to build around. I had both playable and unplayable companions but some of those playable ones did not excite and that was an issue. Companions in a cube setting allow you to tie together some narrower elements. They let you draft a synergy deck more viably as you will always have part of your tool kit available. As such I have tried to lean into this and allow otherwise overly synergy based narrow archetypes to exist as supported by a fun companion. Turns out there is a lot to say about companions and this is already an overly long article so perhaps they get a segment of their own. All sorts of quirky things unique to them crop up, like, a companion can be boring because of how you have to build to include it as well as the effect it has on the game. I managed some of both of those! I also managed to make some companions that support the correct cool narrow archetype in a colour pair but then failed to correctly offer the required support. I changed the green white companion into an enchantment based one which was great, but then I made it a value tool rather than a reach tool and consequently no one ever played it because it was either no use or total overkill. 

As far as the meta goes, I am quite happy with it. I would call it a format of Anthems and Wraths as they seem to be the two effects that dominate when trying to pin point the cause of a win. There are still areas to improve upon but I would no longer say there are problems that need to be fixed, which is probably a big part of why the testing and revision phase is slowing up, there is less urgency. 

Control is a little stronger than I would like but it isn't dominating. The format could use a few more things that are awkward to control, and that can then lead to a victory. I have plenty of the former but it isn't getting the job done quite so well as it is rarely also the latter. Planeswalkers are no longer busted but they are still generally among the top end of the power range. Decks that are slower and more controlling are best placed to leverage them, as well as the Wraths, which in turn trump the anthem based builds, and that is all feeding into this mild imbalance. I also gave blue a bit too much meat for the board, a few too many efficient dorks with a lot of stats. This let blue really leverage its control cards and throw its weight around. The colour really needs the limitation of being a bit thin and outclassed on the board. Blue was the weakest colour prior to the second printing, now it is the second strongest. Luckily it is not out by much at all, and by less than my normal cubes are typically too! 

The card draw side of things is very much where I want it to be. It is hard to run out of stuff to spend your mana on in most decks which is precisely what I was hoping for. Moving beyond the specifics of Wraths and Anthems there is a really obvious correlation between winning and mana development. There is high demand on the mana rocks and ramp, with green likely being the best performing colour, simply because access to more mana over time has strongly tended towards winning. Most decks are making most of their land drops too, all the way past turn six. The sub 16 land format I predicted has not come to pass but it is not too far off. If the threats were as they are in the normal cube but had the support and value mine offers then it might well be a 14/15 land format. The thing is that with games going longer and good value on offer, even the cheaper and more aggressive decks wish to carry on deploying land for quite some time. It feeds off itself as well. The more value you have, clues to crack etc, the more lands you want to deploy to do so, and in doing so, you draw more cards and with them more lands thus fuelling those extra drops. A 16 land deck in my cube typically feels like a 19 land deck in my normal cube in terms of being able to drop a land consistently each turn well past the midgame. 

Much as the new injection of cards solved the teething problems I was finding with the format it is very noticeably lower quality in terms of design. I spend ages preening through the cards in the first release and tried to make it as near perfect as I could. By the time the second lot were out I appreciated how easy it will be to amend mistakes, and how often I would likely be making more cards and really lowered the bar on my output. I was happy just churning out cards I knew were off on power level or a bit sloppy on design because I wanted to test them, see quite how out they are and the effects that had. You can learn more from a mistake after all!

A lot of the top end I made to ease that bottleneck was a little pushed, as was a lot of the stuff aimed at boosting mono coloured strategies. The latter has not proved a problem with the cards being fun and well received and bringing the mono decks to roughly where we want them. They were rather underperforming before hand. The mana sinks all over performed as well but this was down to my failing to appreciate game length difference. If things speed up a little such cards will cease to be issues and so I don't feel presently like I need to directly address them.

A bunch of the new cards are just not playing all that well. The catch-up mechanic doesn't feel nice and is a bit confusing. Some of the more pushed cards have been nearing oppressive on occasion on the old power level side of things. The heavy handed "fixes" didn't have the desired affect at all such as the sparkhunter cards as a knee-jerk reaction to the initial potency of the walkers. Going forward I will take a much more gentle and gradual approach to solving issues and I will tackle these problems at both ends at one rather than just hitting the one end real hard and hoping it works out! Overall I expect only about 20-25% of the new designs to remain in the finished cube which is a really low take up. This is especially impressive given how clearly the power level had raised between the two sets of cards. Despite having complained about power creep for so long I immediately went and did it myself and worse! Luckily I am still in the testing phase and can rein in the things that went too far. 

The main takeaway here is that things are going well, the project is really fun, much more illuminating that I had anticipated, being enjoyed by my whole group and not just me, and likely looking to be the main way we cube going forwards. Despite the relatively sloppy, careless and rushed second batch of cards and their low take-up rate they have done the required job and we are very happy playing a format with no issues and that we all have rather more agency than before to improve as we see fit.

Friday 29 December 2023

Overpowered or Undersupplied


When a card in a format is getting near ubiquitous play it means one of two things. Most would just go with the assumption that the card is simply high powered, which is often the case. The other possibility however is that there are not enough alternatives for the effect the card offers in the format. The card is undersupplied rather than over powered. Decks need an array of tools. Deck construction is not just a case of putting the most powerful cards together, nor is it even doing that with mana colour and curve considerations taken into account. You need an appropriate amount of interaction and threats, varying in degree based on the type of deck. You may also need other tools to facilitate what is going on in your specific build. In a typical cube deck I will have some space allocated to consistency, that of card selection and ensuring I have enough mana, and of the right colours. I will have some slots dedicated to value generation too, all on top of the classic removal and dork understandings of interaction and threats. I might then also have a deck trying to make use of the graveyard and as such I will be trying to hit a certain number of loot, mill, and discard effects to support that. As you can probably imagine, this need of certain tools is more pronounced in the more constructed settings of Magic but it is still relevant in cube.

As a cube curator over the years I have always tried to provide the options on cards that people seem to like. There was a time, long long ago, where consistently all of the one mana card quality spells on offer would get played. This was when I was just packing the premium ones commonly found in legacy. As such I added in Opt and immediately it saw ubiquitous play. So in went Sleight of Hand and it too was almost never left out. Finally we got to Portent (long long before Consider was printed). Portent got enough play to stay in the cube but it was also to be seen sat in sideboards. Not only was Potent not receiving the near ubiquitous play that had hitherto been seen in all those blue one mana card quality spells, but I was starting to finally see the occasional Sleight of Hand, Serum Visions and Opt left out of lists as well. Prior to the addition of Portent the demand for card quality was not met. Simply by helping to meet the demand the addition of Portent saw more powerful cards than it getting less action. 

This is because in a draft you might pick up that Portent early knowing you will want a couple of cards like that in your deck. Later when offered that slight upgrade you might choose to pick a different card all together, where as if you didn't already have something in that Portent slot you would be snapping up that Sleight of Hand or whatever it happens to be. Going from an OK card to a good card is a minor upgrade to a deck while going from nothing at all to that good card is a rather more significant one. As such, the opportunity cost of not taking that Sleight of Hand is so much reduced that alternatives appeal more. This is the ideal balance point in a format. You want your weakest tool to be playable, if it is too weak to see play then it is adding nothing to the format. Ideally you want your weakest tool to be sufficiently playable so as to reduce the demand on other cards in its class. This then lets you properly assess the demand for a card based on power. All card quality effects looked equally good based on play stats until I actually met demand for them by the addition of Portent. There after the play stats of the various card quality one drops in blue started to reflect those cards potencies within my cube meta. 

This is all well and good as a mere curator of cubes. You do what you can with the cards at your disposal. You can always trim the size of your cube in some areas as a way to inflate numbers on card types without needed more to be printed. The various bottlenecks in cube are interesting, discovering them in each individual cube and then trying to solve those issues, either as a curator or a player, are good fun parts of cubing. 

When designing cards however, as I have been for my custom cube, you control the supply. From the perspective of the designer I am trying to supply the natural demand for these various effects. I want just enough of the effects to supply demand and I want as flat a power gradient on those cards as possible, ideally affected by context much more than raw power. I want players to chose between cards based on how they are for the deck rather than because one is just that much better and more powerful than the other. As a player you only need to learn about the relative power levels of cards within formats, the specific context based power levels. As a format designer you want to be much more aware of the supply and demand side of things as well. You need to know roughly what ingredients and in what ratios the main archetypes and colours want in any meta. If you see cards getting too much play and determine they need nerfing rather than being made more abundant you are going to make matters worse.

The thing that brought all this to the foreground of my attention was the basic land cyclers. With the likes of Lorien Revealed performing incredibly well in constructed formats as well as the others getting a fair old pile of action in one way or another. Power wise all of that cycle are low. I made my own cycles of low power generic land cyclers and they were comfortably my most played spells. To me this really shines a spotlight on an area wildly undersupplied in magic in general. These cards are very useful and do a great job of solving the main inconsistency in magic. They are a long long way off powerful. They are getting play due to a real deficiency of tools that afford consistency without too much cost. 

I moved to five cycles of one mana land cyclers per colour in my 700odd card sized cube with my second printing of cards and finally got to the point where land cyclers were not always making lists. The play rate is still high and the power level is still low, lower than before with most of the original bunch getting a slight nerf, but at least I am meeting demand. One very marked effect of having this wealth of land cyclers in my format is the drop off in demand for other card quality cards, be that looting and scry effects bolted onto cards or dedicated card quality spells. Not a shock, just impressive how noticeable it is and feels. 

Partly in cube this is down to the cardboard problem I spoke of in a recent article. If I play a Preordain in my deck then one of my cards has no direct affect on my winning of the game. If we just take our whole deck and put all the pieces out on the table and all the cards in our hand, the pure card quality spell does nothing while the Giant Spider forest cycler adds a Giant Spider's worth of power to the proceedings. As the cardboard problem isn't really a problem outside of cube it wasn't adding to the downward pressure on things like Preordain in those places. In cube this double hit of proper land cycler supply and ability to mitigate the cardboard problem has therefor changed the meta rather more significantly. This is always the case when you have two affects both scaling in the same direction, the rate it that much more pronounced and rapid than with the single scaling effect. 

So the main takeaway here is simply that if a card isn't getting play it might be over supply not under powered, and equally, a card getting all the play might be undersupplied and not over powered. It tends to be healthier and safer testing, tinkering and probing the supply side of the issue before going in on the power side of things. Dilution of a problem is my go to  first port of call both as a cube curator, and now as a designer too. There is also the case of being able to create demand with power, much akin to the ability to generate demand for things in economics by sufficiently reducing cost. This however is already a plenty long enough article to we will look at the effects on increasing demand with power another time. 

Saturday 16 December 2023

The Cardboard Problem


Most players think of power just in relation to what a card does and how much it costs to play, and for the most part this is the relevant way to consider the power of a card. We all know intuitively that a Lightning Bolt is a far more powerful card than a Lightning Blast despite the Blast actually being a direct upgrade in effect. Once you disregard mana cost there is only nominal power, which isn't often that useful of a sole measure in magic. What you are in fact dealing with when disregarding costs, is power per card. Power per card is the unit by which we understand the cardboard problem and it could be defined as simply having insufficient power per card within your deck and nothing to do with power per mana, which might well be high. 

Most players will not really have encountered the cardboard problem, or at least not to any sufficient degree to notice it. Three factors contribute to it, library size, format power, and format balance/game length. For constructed and EDH the library size is too big to be relevant, and in limited the power level is too low for it to be relevant. It is only really in some kinds of cube and in 15 card highlander that you can appreciate it. It was also a pretty big deal in Hearthstone where balance was pretty good and deck size was only 30 cards. This is all well and good, but what actually is the cardboard problem? How is it relevant?

Simply put, the cardboard problem is where you are running out of cards, not in hand, but in your deck, and that is what is deciding the game. It is not even really a decking problem. If you play any of these formats where the cardboard problem can be seen while adding the rule where you don't lose by trying to draw from an empty library, the result is much the same. There becomes a point in many games where you just know you don't have enough gas left in your deck to get the job done. You didn't run out of life, you didn't run out of things to do, you didn't lose to screw, you just didn't have enough overall power to get the job done. 

So why is this a problem? Surely just add more powerful cards into your deck? Certainly this works to a point, but you start to get all a bit clunky. You need those cyclers and cantrips to smooth out a draw so you don't stumble to a screw or flood early. You need cheaper cards to be involved in the early game, and you really want some sources of card advantage so that as you develop your mana in the mid and late game you are able to cast multiple cheaper spells in a turn. This is all good basic magic. So yes, if you cut out the cheaper cards and draw cards too much it stops being a problem because you lose well before it would come up! Build your cube deck properly, or optimally, however and things can start to get a bit sketchy in a closer longer game. You are now straddling a fine line between early game consistency and keeping pace, without burning through resources recklessly and overly churning through your deck such that you will have enough gas to compete in the long game. In other words consistency and raw nominal power start to compete with each other in your build.

It is easy to see why library size affects this cardboard problem. A more powerful format tends to have more effective means of drawing cards and churning through a deck, it will do these things more quickly, and it will also tend towards having cheaper cards overall, thus commanding more draw effects so as to keep the tap running. Deck size, as with life, only starts to be relevant when it is running out which is why the balance of the meta is relevant. More balance translates to longer games. I avoided saying slower formats as these are more typically corelated with less powerful formats. It is this general lack of balance that I attribute to masking this problem in most cube settings. Relatively few cubes are built primarily for balance and as such the number of games you see that are still close as either player nears the end of their deck is low. And fewer still where both players hit the final quarters of their decks in the same match. 

I was only starting to notice this problem in the last few years of cube. I was opting to play threats instead of value generation. I was cutting down on the filler cards that I was playing but it was minor. Not worth worrying about and easily countered with minor draft and deck building adjustments. Along comes my homemade cube project which is incredibly balanced and full of value and filler cards but deficient in finishers. Something like a quarter of the games are getting to the point where both players have libraries in the single figures size wise. We have been doing a lot of best one one to give you an idea of quite how balanced and long games are! 

I thought this might be an issue while designing it and so had a bunch of cards that put things from your graveyard on the bottom of your library but it was a terrible fix in practice. It is like lifegain, you just don't want to invest in it ever. It is not a relevant thing until right at the end of the game and as such you are just way better off spending any resources on being in a better position prior to that. With things like escape and delve kicking about putting cards back into your library is often a drawback as well! The only way to include reshuffle effects is to slap them on for free but this is messy and a bit random. I think I would argue for playing with 50 card decks before relying on that "Wheel of Sun and Moon" strategy to try and solve the problem. So the problem I envisaged is real, and the fix I included for it failed.  

The other way to approach the problem in a design sense is to speed up the game. You do this with power in a general sense but ideally directed power. Power up the tempo effects, threats, and things that provide reach (or the capacity to close out a game) within your meta. Comically it is exactly that which I have been complaining about WotC doing for a while. But then their formats are not really suffering the cardboard problem so I can still argue that they are over doing it! Regardless, I under did it in my powerful cards and reachy cards that can end games. As such, I designed a whole bunch of extra tempo threats, high nominal power cards, and things that end games, I printed them off and things have improved a bit, but only a bit. Turns out it doesn't change all that much if you do it for both sides. The issue is that my card design overall follows a pattern of avoiding being win more or polar or random and so that inherent balance of card is the problem, not so much the lack of threats or power of them etc. You need wayward, random cards apparently! Blood Moon style hosers, protection and landwalk abilities which are blank in some matchups and unbeatable in others. What I am getting at is that what I think of as "bad design" is a large part of what has kept the cardboard problem away from cube until recently.

So, what is the upshot of all this? What is the takeaway? I think the big one is that Magic has a cap on it. You cannot infinitely improve in any one area without ultimately starting to incur costs in others. This should obviously be no shock, this is exactly how things work in the real world. As you iron out any perceived flaws (such as inconsistency) you incur new challenges (in this case both game length and the cardboard problem). 

Really now we are getting to the nub of it, because it is not really a problem, it is just a facet of the game. I am just calling it a problem because I have a bias at play. My favourite thing to do in magic is draw cards. Beyond that I like to be doing stuff. I am happy as Larry spinning wheels. Lots of moving parts with little going on is where I am at. These decks are packed full of things like Chromatic Star and Mishra's Bauble, full of cyclers, Preordains, tutors, and raw draw. It all works together in harmony but the power per cards is low. These decks often struggle to win despite getting to do their thing and this is usually due to the cardboard problem. Another solid reason why EDH is so popular! Basically I find increasingly I am having to cut down on these types of cards I enjoy in my decks and consequently in my cubes and this makes me a bit sad. Card design helps a little but I cannot have it all! I think the 50 card library size might be the best fix on offer but as with any fix, it is just extending your buffer, you are not removing a cap. 

A large takeaway from this principle, and one all 15 card highlander players are only too aware of, is that card draw spells and effects are themselves capped and have diminishing returns prior to their cap. Over draw is a common mistake players make in cube. Value tools only generate consistent power returns in an infinite library. As with any real library, a finite library yields diminishing returns on value generation.

It is one of those things you can have some fun applying a bit of maths to. In a 40 card deck you have roughly 32 draws available to you before you have to have achieved a win assuming you have no effects that can recycle used cards back into your deck. Assuming you have no card draw cards, no cyclers, and nothing that thins or mills the deck, then bam, you have a bit over 30 turns to win, lots of time, should be plenty. Start to throw in those other effects however and the potential game length you can fight for quickly shortens. Each sac land is two cards. Each time you cycle it is two cards. A Night's Whisper is three cards down. Each one of these that thins or reduces down the deck brings you closer to the other ones that do it as well. They all scale up with each other. You can directly over do it and mathematically demonstrate that fact. If you know you ideally need 14 turns to win but your average card is actually 2.5 cards from your deck then you simply won't have the stuff to get you there too much of the time. You will be out of stuff before you can win, that or, much more likely, you will be sat slowly losing with stuff in hand you cannot afford to use or that has been somehow already rendered useless. 2.5 might sound like a lot but it really isn't in cube. Many cards wind up being two, and plenty can be a lot more. A Faithless Looting is five, a Fact or Fiction is six. Sure, most decks will win by turn 14 and most won't quite hit the 2.5 cards average but that is just for the average game. You can have well under those numbers but just happen to have a long game and the cardboard problem will scupper you. You really want to minimize the chance of it happening which means shifting the whole centre of the bell curve away from this point, which means being incredibly conservative with "do nothings", card draw and filler in the slower decks.  

One little aside that I find somewhat mindboggling is that the cardboard problem is sufficiently noticeable in my homemade cube that a one mana Merfolk Looter does not get play. The above card but jsut a blue mana to deploy! The power level in my homemade cube is absolutely lower than unpowered cubes, there is plenty of (non-combo) graveyard synergy, and yet a one mana Looter cannot get play time. A card that is a fine card, but then halved in price! Imagine a Concentrate or a Rampant Growth at half price! A Wrath of God? You get the idea... This means essentially you are saying that committing to a sufficient number of loots to make the Looter worth it in card quality and support terms, incurs too much of a cost in terms of unused card resources to be a wise play. It is a direct casualty of the cardboard problem. I come from a background in magic where the idea that an unanswered turn one Looter not providing ample consistency to reliably win the game hard to comprehend. It is good that we have now reached a point where the game is balanced sufficiently that I don't need to comprehend it, I can experience it first hand!