Saturday, 28 October 2017

Adapting to the Buck Cube

Llanowar Elves
I am a long way off knowing the Buck Cube format well but I am learning a lot already. I have now had the Buck Cube built up for a month or so and have got a decent number of games in. I am just going to talk a bit here about that, mostly in the form of cards that are better or worse than in my cube and the things I have learned so far. A nice simple example of this is a Llanowar Elf, in my cube a turn one ramp card is one of the better openers possible. In this cube the payoff cards are worse. An Elf is still a good play on turn one but you are punished less for not making it and the payoff for doing so is less as well. Further to that the punishment you get for that late game dead draw is more severe in the buck cube. There are less mana sinks in the buck cube and the games are slower, the consequence of which is that you run out of things to do more often. In my normal cube drawing a dud means you are just going to play a relevant card you had in hand, at worst you can spend your mana saccing of clues or going monstrous or investing in level ups, or just apply pressure with your lands! So much less of that sort of thing in the buck cube means you are typically looking to up the overall power level of your deck and potential draws.

This is manifest in the top end as well. With the threats being far less cataclysmic in the buck cube you are better off trying to win with two or three of them and starting a bit earlier. In my normal cube if you can land one of the big cards and keep in in play for a turn that is usually game, sometimes even landing it can be enough should it be something like a Verdurous Gearhulk. There are basically no threats in the buck cube that you will effectively win with if you untap with it in play. I found I was having more success with threat dense decks. I don't just mean stuff that can attack but stuff that threatens winning, well statted, resilient, and/or evasive.

Deadbridge GoliathAn example of a card in this camp that has stood out so far in the buck cube is Deadbridge Goliath. In my normal cube the card is just a bit durdly and risky, you flop it down and it does nothing other than be a 5/5. Being four mana you are going to be under a lot of pressure already and so any sort of removal or bypassing of said 5/5 is likely game over. Unsummon is probably game let alone Path and Plow and the rest... You are only ever scavenging for six when you have nothing else to do or it represents lethal and forces a response. Anyway, the card is very underwhelming and aimless in my normal cube. In the buck cube however the card is a beating! It is massive and efficient and exactly the sort of thing you want to start off winning the game with. It is not nearly as punishing getting a four drop with no EtB or manaless bonus value removed. It is also very well able to attack, little matches it in size for the mana. The scavenge is also a real threat in the buck cube. The tempo of the four mana 5/5 is enough to force them into removing it, perhaps awkwardly. As soon as those counters hit it is going to force yet more drastic action they may well not have any more of. It is literally a card you make, they kill it if they can and if they do your best follow up play may very well be scavenging it! All in all this card is one of those high tempo two for one style cards that dominate the normal cubes. I don't really want to go comparing it to Bloodbraid Elf... but I guess I just did.

Winds of RathFive mana Wrath effects also impressed me. The format is sufficiently slower, the threats are that much less evasive of removal, and the relevance of card advantage is that much greater that all in all the five mana Wraths feel quite a lot better in the buck cube than the four mana ones do usually. Imagine if Day of Judgement was three mana, gained you a life per creature killed and also cast itself twice just to make sure no sneaky Finks are left about the place. That is basically how a Fumigate feels in the buck cube. Pretty winning. Control strategies are made very real by the increased value of draw, the reduced tenacity of threats and the general slowing of things. You don't even lose that many  The ratio of cycle to cast on Hieroglyphic Illumination is like ten to one in my normal cube while it is more like one to three in the buck cube. I'm sure this math is flawed somehow but it feels like that makes it about thirty times more playable! Obviously Fact or Fiction has found a format in which it gets to be a big name again.

Falkenrath AristocratUnsurprisingly cards with a lot of text on them tend to be pretty good. Those sort of aimless middle of the road cards that are obviously massively powerful but are not entirely on theme. Any card like that that you commonly find in normal cubes is pretty potent. Stuff like Pia and Kiran Nalaar. Other cards that are just not played much outside of cube and thus cheap enough to be in this cube and good enough to be in normal cube such as Hallowed Spirit Keeper, Aetherling, Gonti, Surrak the Hunt Caller and Falkenrath Aristocrat have all stood out as clearly a lot more potent than the average power level and done a lot of heavy lifting when in cast.

The fixing is still somewhat of an issue although players are adapting to the restrictions better now. It makes three colour decks super risky and hard to do, seemingly impossible without green. The most notable thing to arise from the fixing issue is that mono coloured aggressive decks, mainly red or white, can just get those unbeatable starts. The kind of thing that looks normal and you expect in my cube is pretty unbeatable in this one unless you also have a pretty ideal draw. You probably need to be on the play too. The format is a little slower due to the power of the cards but it is mostly slower due to all the duals coming in tapped. This means that your typical two colour deck is running relatively a lot slower than the mono colored ones who only have the more minor setback affecting them. Basically if they curve out threats in a way that will empty their hand on turn four and have just a single piece of insteraction/disruption it is often too much to handle. All of magic has unbeatable draws and some polar matchups. The red and white aggro decks have less staying power than they do in the normal cube. I would still call it a very balanced and fair format with a very high skill level but this aspect of the mono coloured aggression is the weak spot. 

Flametongue KavuI am going to try and bullet point the main take aways from my testing so far. Bare in mind I am used to playing my heavily refined cube which is a lot more extreme than things like the modo cube for their speed. If you are coming from somewhere with most of your experience of cube being from modo, or even more so a place of block booster draft, then you need to take what I say with a pinch of salt. I would say the buck cube naturally lends it self to players who excel at limited. Most of what I am going to put in these bullet points are in relation to my cube, is translate "good" into better than they are in my cube etc. It feels like a totally different game when playing it despite a huge overlap in cards and style. Adjusting to it has been interesting and nostalgic! I suspect the adjusting process will be a lot easier for most other people. Much of it is the bread and butter of block booster draft. My first proper beating in the format came at the hands of the only play who has done more limited than cube in (in recent history). Despite it being his first go at the format his decks looked like they had been built by someone with a lot of experience of the meta.

Fact or Fiction
- Two for ones are good.

- Fliers are good.

- Good stats to cost ratios are good.

- Wraths are good.

- Drawing cards is good.

- Dead draws and cards are bad.

- Low power cards are risky.

- Spot removal is good!

Obviously these are all true in all formats, the relevant thing is that how and why they become more or less true in the various formats. Just learning which cards are better or worse in different formats only helps for a short while. If you understand the mechanisms that affect these variances then you will just be a better all round player of the game. You will adapt to new settings quicker and be ahead of the pack.


  1. Pretty excited to see you putting so much time into the buck cube. Back in 2008, I don't think we had enough cards to make two different rare cube lists that played differently. Seriously. Quality card choices were fairly limited back then. But we've gotten so many cards since then - many of which are very powerful (particularly creatures). Rare cubes have an infinitely larger design space these days. And as you have discovered, they play very differently even with a lot of the same card choices.

    The large midrange creature variance between lists is particularly interesting. I noticed this on forums - large creatures often get wildly different evaluations and reviews depending on what cube list it’s being run in. So I was not surprised when you called that out specifically. And my 2 cents is it has something to do with the role combo plays. Not talking two card combo - I mean combo in the sense that you combine some very high powered cards and start doing very unfair things that essentially break the game. Like Lake of the Dead/ Necropotence is just extremely broken (and high powered lists can do much worse than that these days). In that type of pushed meta where this sort of thing is common place, plain 5/5 dudes for 4 mana look downright anemic. Take away or greatly tone down that brokenness though and midrange fat just has a lot more room to breathe.

    I like both versions of cube. I enjoy degenerate Magic and exploiting raw power - it’s nostalgic and feels truer to the origins of the game. But I also enjoy value based Magic (particularly when it's heavily synergy based). I don't think these things work well together though, so separate cubes makes sense to me.

    1. Yeah, I am having a lot of fun with it at present. Really enjoying the change of pace, nostalgia and high quality of games. I will be curious to see how the longevity is for it. A big part of what keeps my main cube so much fun are the continual new additions. While you do get <$1 cards that are cube worthy in new sets they are typically the less interesting cards. Take Ixalan for example, all the best cards like Field of Ruin, Chart a Course, the two mana explore creatures and Kitesail Freebooter all cost me under a buck on release but none of them were things I was all that excited to play with. I knew broadly what they did, where they would fit in and so on. The cards I was excited to play with from Ixalan were obviously all the flip lands, the new Jace and basically the stuff that is over a buck!

      I also feel like the simplicity and the narrower range of power levels in cards in the buck cube will make it easier to solve so to speak. Neither slow change or being easier to solve are an issue yet but it is something to be aware of the potential for.

      I totally agree that in 2008 a cube like this would have been fairly pointless. It would pretty much have just been a peasant cube and not a great one at that.

      Much as I enjoy doing broken things in magic I vastly prefer good games and a balanced format. I very rarely play with the power these days and when I do it tends to be in rotisserie as that keeps it most balanced. I found the buck cube to be more balanced so on the whole but I find my normal cube to have a bit more going on, more options and the like. I don't know where the optimal mix of balance and options lies but it is ultimately what I would aim for. Trying to class things into degeneracy and value based is not required. I think all magic formats involve power and value. You may have a preference for more of one aspect of the game to others and so will find yourself preferring certain formats for those reasons. It turns out Magic is just such a good game most of the ways you can play it are pretty good!

      My intention for the buck cube was to see if it was possible to play premium quality magic without having to spend a fortune to do so. Having two cubes increases cost rather than reducing it! That being said, if the format was good enough to mean that people started to have multiple cubes then I would count that as an even bigger win!