Thursday 18 January 2018

Cards to Make Cube Better

Recently I have been having some discussion with fellow cube enthusiasts and it turns out that we feel a little under catered for by the good folk at Wizards. We have money we want to spend on Magic cards but not the product worth doing so for. Certainly it is a hard task making all the people who play the many formats of magic happy. I am not a man who knows about marketing, business strategies and all that sort of crap. All I know is what kinds of cards I want to see that would make me excited to get and cube with. I suspect my wish list will be incredibly dull compared to others. I am all about the cheap cards! I want to make things more consistent and more skill based. I want new cards that will see lots of play and change up the pick dynamics and potential archetypes and this can only be done with cheap cards. We need more in the way of core staple cards but this is trickier than it sounds with the cube power level being so high. Luckily there are some things cube is more keen on than other formats and so you can print things that would be a lock in for cube use but not also for modern and legacy. This article will simply be ten of the cards I have designed myself and some discussion about what problems there are in cube and how best to solve them.

So here we have two very simple cards that are basically just other cards with cycling added. Both of these cards solve issues within the cube that are mostly black's problem. Black has lots of powerful cards and effects but most of them suffer from being dead from time to time. Discard effects are useless when opponents are out of cards and black removal tends to have target restrictions which can make them useless in some matchups. Cycling is the perfect solution for cards and effects like these. That being said, it has to be done right. Expunge is not a good card but that is because it is so costly. Creature removal is good at two or less in cube, it has to offer rather more to merit the three mana tag. I don't want to pay more for the same effect on a card just because it has cycling but I am happy to pay the same for a worse effect. Inquisition of Kozilek would suck at two mana regardless of cycling however a worse version at one mana is just the ticket. In the case of my removal card I am taking the base line card as Doom Blade rather than Terror (despite the flavour) because Terror is too weak these days. In cube black has struggled to do its thing very well because so many of its core effects can be dead. As such they have to run fewer of these cards than they would like to do so as to limit their risk exposure. Cards like Doom Fall have been really impressive in cube, not because the card is all that good, simply because it is a discard and removal spell in one which massively lowers the risk on it being dead. It lets you play a discard and removal count closer to what you would like to do without a downside. Both of my low powered cycling options let black do black things without winding up with a hand full of blanks.

The Inquisition iteration is especially valuable as black has so few playable one drop discard effects and those are really what define it in most other high powered formats. Most constructed black decks are at least 10% (including lands!) Thoughtsieze/Inquisition when they can be but cube decks can't get above 5% of those cards. Green has one drop ramp for days, white literally gets a new 2/1 for 1 every set, red has a long old list of playable one mana burn and blue has swathes of card quality and disruption in the one slot. In cube draft black players need to hit all their good one drops to keep up while everyone else has far more to choose from and should always have enough. Black sorely needs more one drops and the cube would appreciate more discard and disruption effects. Only blue and black really have the ability to interact with spells. Without access to one of those two you are at the mercy of what your opponent wishes to do to you which might be Armageddon or something equally revolting. Blue counterspells in cube outnumber black targetted discard effects a good five to one. That puts strain on things and simply isn't great for balance. My cycling Inquisition injects more playable one drop discard effects into the cube without going above the existing power level. It also allows individual decks to play more discard effects due to this one not suffering any diminishing returns.

I have been so impressed with Dissenter's Deliverance I really want to see a lot more of that sort of thing. A red version would be nice, another one to hit enchantments, perhaps a blue Remove Soul iteration with cycling. Cycling is just one of the best mechanics they have ever added to the game, perhaps only behind scry, and we don't see it enough. It is a good thing in general to have but for certain kinds of cards, like these two, and like Shatter, it makes all the difference. Amonkhet gave us a taste of some really good appropriate uses of cycling on fair situational cards and now I am hungry for more!

Another one of my favourite mechanics is investigate and it has only been in the one set unlike cycling things so there is still plenty of design space to explore. Cards are a huge resource in magic. They are one of the most important ones alongside mana and they are of high value. A lot of effects are simply not worth a card regardless of the cost. Sadly you cannot fix this simply by adding "draw a card" to such things as drawing a card is so powerful, it is a major change not a minor one. Gut Shot is often too low damage per card to merit inclusion however Zap is simply too much mana for that kind of effect. This leaves a big gap in potential design. You want to be able to add on 0.2 of a card or something so that you can fairly balance cards in the low mana cost region. Clues are the perfect balancing tool and really help you explore design areas on cheap cards with low value effects without having to tangle with awkward or impossible fractions of things.

I basically want to see loads of cards stripped back using the power of investigate. Either making existing cards more powerful by replacing draw with investigate or by making them cheaper. All we have here is and instant speed Preordain with and extra scry and an Ice for one less mana. Empowering cards with draw effects on them is only part of the magic. You can turn almost any unplayable garbage into a good card with use of investigate. As stated, the best use of that is to make effects that are otherwise too low impact playable at the appropriate cost. Nobody ever thought they wanted Devoted Hero but give that guy a clue and it turns out he is amazing. I basically want to see every iteration of a card design using clues to allow for a one or two mana printing of a card that is otherwise too expensive with "draw a card" and too low power to forgo the card reimburse costs all together. I even quite like the idea of a partial clue where you can sac two of these partial clues, perhaps for no mana cost, in order to draw a card. This would allow for a kind of balance where by you get closer to adding fractions of the value of "draw a card" onto a cheaper card. It would sadly be rather narrow, especially for cube. There would need to be significant printing of good cheap cards with partial clues on them for there to be any real expectations of ever getting value from them. I'm certainly happy with clues and am eager for more. The real genius of the mechanic is how it lets you tap into the finer tunings for card design at the low cost end of things and there is loads of room to expand in that area.

Unsurprisingly another mechanic I am a huge fan of is treasure. I love how it lets you stretch normal limits for cards. It is inherently more dangerous than clues as well as being rather harder to design with. It is very easily abused and the design/testing teams showed good understanding of this in printing only very tame treasure cards. You can however afford a little more scope in design when you are giving them away rather than collecting them for yourself. This card is perhaps a touch on the powerful side and may still even be abused for mana ramp. Exile my 8 mana delve creature, have all the mana on turn three and win in any number of ways. Easy solve, this has to exile a creature you don't control. Bad card design... Any way. The cube needs more premium removal. I have tried many different cheap unrestricted exile removal effects in white and few come out right. Typically they are either totally over powered like Swords to Plowshares or utter garbage like Reciprocate. This comes closer than most and would be a refreshing addition to the vey well worn in suite of white removal presently in cubes. I like how this card is fairly pure. It is one for one removal that hits anything and at a very reasonable rate. It is however always a tempo loss, you are always down two mana when you take something out with this. The issue with removal for the cube is that is has to compete with cards like Council's Judgement and Swords to Plowshares and it is super hard to design cards that do that without having them be oppressive in other formats. Certainly Payoff is a powerful card but it probably doesn't replace Path to Exile in modern and could be printed in a standard set. Removal is not only an area we need to see more power creep in it is also an area that doesn't really suffer when you over do it a bit. An over powered threat is an issue but a removal spell is far less so.

Next up on my wish list is more interesting one mana ramp. While green probably has enough one drop ramp to sustain it the pool is a bit bland. Wizards don't look like printing any new one mana ramp, even in green, and certainly no better than Llanowar Elf. This means unless they have a big change of heart with regards to their design policy we won't be seeing cards like this printed in standard legal sets ever again. People don't get overly excited for one mana ramp cards and so there is not much call to print stuff like this in the non-standard legal sets like commander and conspiracy. Cube could really use it though, just one every now and again, like every four or five years would be fine! This Ignoble Anarchist is pushing it in terms of power level. It isn't better than the other premium ones but it is in the same league and might well end up seeing legacy play. It is designed for flavour but also for colour balance. Green feels like it has loads of incomplete cycles of mana creatures.

A card such as these Forest Goblins would also be very satisfying to have in a cube for a number of reasons. It would pad out the Avacyn's Pilgrim / Elves of Deepshadow partial cycle. It would offer an interesting alternative to Llanowar Elf without being strictly better or worse. It would offer good redundancy to the Grove of the Burnwillows forced lifegain effect and could be paired up with Punishing Fire and Kavu Predator with better consistency than before. That is one thing that could be done in general to cater better for cube players. Many great cards are not worth getting and using in cubes. Punishing Fire is a fine example of such a card as it simply doesn't have enough support with most cubes being singleton. Redundancy is a huge feature in making archetypes a thing. Red deck wins and white weenie are not the best decks because of their raw power or high numbers of broken cards. It is because they simply have a lot of good redundancy in the low curve of key on-theme cards.

Next up on my wishlist is simply more card quality for all the colours. There is no real reason to restrict it to blue. Blue already has countermagic, raw card draw, bounce, stealing things, cloning things and just far more colour identity than it should have. Card quality makes the game a better game by reducing bad luck. Wizards must agree with this to some extent as they have dipped into giving some colours some kinds of card quality. Red got Faithless Looting and some Tormenting Voice variants and green got a bunch of things that looked really good compared to some of the blue options but lacked the ability to find all card types. This idea of giving colours more thematic card quality as has been done so well in green rather stuck with me. As such I have a bunch of cube power level card quality spells that are intended to be somewhat themed to the colour. This red one for example is an instant Preordain which is very powerful but it has the classic red exile rather than draw and briefly concedes information to offset this. I would say Preordain is the better card still but it is a little bit too close. I am not sure printing something very similar to a banned card in modern is a great way to go but then I don't think Preordain should be banned! I think if combo is considered a problem in a format then better disruption should be printed rather than trying to make such things too inconsistent to compete by hitting the card quality. To my mind things that don't generate resources, act as threats or have any way to gain tempo shouldn't be the problem. That is a general design philosophy rather than one specific to cube. Combo is even less of a problem in cube simply due to singleton lowering consistency.

This is my favourite of the black card quality cards. It it not as well themed as some of the others but it is a lot more interesting. I had very dull scry 3, lose 2 life, draw a card for a black mana at sorcery and that felt black and felt on par for power in cube. It just felt a bit unimaginative! The Old Three Cup Trick however does some really cool things. It is essentially a Sleight of Hand with some upside and some downside. It feels black because it has graveyard interaction and the capacity for your opponent to do some nasty things to you with your own card. Best case scenario this card looks three things deep, finds you something you want and puts two cards in the graveyard ready to be put to use in some other way. Worst case scenario this cycles into the card you didn't need costing you mana, conceding information, and reducing the number of "hits" left in your deck. While I don't normally go for cards with a large range on performance I don't really consider this card to have a wide range nominally, only when compared to Sleight of Hand. The range on this is fine, what makes it really cool is that Fact or Fiction feel of incomplete information and bluff. This is a very interactive card and it adds a whole lot to the game without doing too much. It is entirely fair on power level yet is very playable in a wide array of archetypes. It is a pretty simple card yet has so much to offer the game on many different levels and for both players. It is an all round incredibly skill intensive card and that it what I want to see more of most of all. This makes the game better not only because of the type of card it is but because of the card design itself.

Here we have another example of me trying to emulate strong but fair blue card quality - Looter il-Kor. I like this card for loads of reasons; It feels like a really good power level of card. It feels nicely red. It has some elegant interplay with the mechanics which not only make the card more relevantly option rich, it also mildly increases the ceiling on the card. At worst this is a Merfolk Looter you have to discard before drawing with and that you have to do in your turn before combat. At best however it is a looter that can get in a free point of damage each turn while doing it's thing. Looter il-Kor is the Lava Axe Looter for good reason! While shadow has a lot to do with that this little Goblin will greatly benefit from being in red and having lots of cheap removal and other more dangerous threats applying pressure allowing this to slip on through comparably easily to the il-Kor inspiration for this card. Even if this only gets in for a few damage before it has to hold off attacks that is a pretty big deal in red who will be using damage as their primary win condition in most cases.

Green doesn't need the card quality as much as black, white or red but this was just the best example card I could find with my mechanic wanderlust. I was simply looking for a way to avoid screw and figured a card that turned into a land when you stopped making land was a nice double edged sword. While it does seem like quite an interesting mechanic I don't think it is a great solution to flood and screw. It helps a little with such things but probably not a patch on a simple looter. All my other cards with the wanderlust keyword were threats in some way and as such you were given incentive to keep making lands so as to keep the threat in play. With this you may want to have it trigger simply to shuffle away the top two cards of your deck. There are a lot of top of library synergy cards in cube for which extra support is always welcome. Sylvan Library is perhaps too good and yet Mirri's Guile is rarely played. Much as it is a nice effect to have it is too often not worth the card cost. With Ranger's Correspondence you don't have the capacity to abuse it for cards when you are flush with life as you do with Library but you are not forced into being down a card as you are with Guile. This version of that effect simply falls in the sweet spot between those two cards hopefully making it fair yet very playable.

Lastly we have this beast! Not only is this the most dangerous card of the ones offered here this is one I would want as a cycle as well, every colour needs one of these! Tutoring is considered highly dangerous by the people who make the cards and historically that is accurate. Tutors are good because they empower combos and combos are good because they often bypass convention. Lots of decks in the past have simply had no equipment available to them to counter combos. Either they went faster or they lost and tutors make combos fast. I think this is a bit of an outdated hangup though. It is like those people who always dismantle their car stereo whenever they park. No one wants to steal your crappy car stereo OK? Just leave it there and save us all some time. I don't think combo should be feared the way it is nor should it be countered in the way it is. Printing better answers to combos in all the colours like Dissenter's Deliverance, like Rampaging Ferocidon and Harsh Mentor. That is how you keep combo in check. I want to see tutors being used like the old school rock decks used to do in extended. You would see people Vampiric Tutor for Duress and that was great. We don't get to see Tutors being used in midrange and control decks because they are printed prohibitively weak for such decks. Any way, once you take combo decks out of the equation tutors like these are incredibly fair. Paying a card and a mana is a big deal. In cube however with it being a singleton format having access to more reasonable tutors would be lovely.

So that is the sort of stuff I want. Cards that see lots of play because they help the game rather than because they are rife with power. I appreciate all these cards are all potent cards but I was designing them for cube and not for standard or limited. I tried to ensure none of these would just ruin any of those formats. Rarity can solve a lot of problems you might have in limited already so that is probably fine. Standard would be the main concern but there are ways of bypassing that issue. Most of the things I have designed that I think would benefit the cube are cheap card quality cards and removal. This is a slice of the best of those but I have done far far more over the years and this sample is not all that far off representative of those! In a nutshell then I think we need more cheap cards, more card quality, more removal and more things to challenge some of the staples. I have designed quite a lot more exotic cards with escalate and other modal excitement. Cards generally with a lot more text than a lot of those shown here. While they might be slightly more interesting cards the point was finding stuff the cube needs most and it turns out the cube needs cheap and simple things more than it needs exotic stuff. There is a huge amount of space in the cube for cards like these shown here yet we rarely see a card of this caliber. There are far fewer spaces in the cube for top end threats and gold cards and yet we are offered far more of those kinds of cards than we are those that we actually need.


  1. Totally agree - we need more one mana discard in black and one mana selection in other colors.

    But black in general needs an upgrade. The creatures are anemic in comparison to other colors (particularly red, which shares many archetypes). Planeswalkers dominate many of the slower cube archetypes, yet black only has 3 ways to remove them, with only one of those at instant speed. To remedy this we recently added the following card to our cube:

    John Wick 2BB
    Legendary Creature - Human Assassin
    When John Wick enters the battlefield, destroy target creature or planeswalker. First Strike, 3/3.

  2. Love the ideas!
    Cheap cards hit right on the spot. Black one-mana discard is much needed! Spot removal with cycling would be amazing and solve consistency issues.
    The blue instants with investigate would fit most blue archetypes, and also would greatly empower artifact decks!

    Color tutors that also fetch basics are perfecto, and would make viable many new decks by adding consistency, but seem unlikely (sadly) given Wizard's politics

  3. Great stuff! I really like the ones with investigate and treasure. I love how those two mechanics act like alternative resources & sources of advantage that can be interacted with in a variety of ways (unlike energy). I also like how investigate and treasure can help archetypes/themes such as ramp and artifacts-matter. I made a cube that is limited in the scope of time (post-Theros) and omits certain mechanics and game elements (planeswalkers, most notably), and I can say that the cards you designed would certainly go well in there! Thanks for the post :)

  4. This post is a masterpiece, and may well become one of my favorite cube article. It reminds me of your old article on RDW, that was so eye-opening for me.
    Triple SOI and HOU/HOU/AKH were my two last favorites limited environments. The main reasons are investigate and cycling. In the wake of the success of HOU, people on forum began to ask for cycling to be included in every magic sets. R&D of course would not listen, because they stick to the rule that evergreen mechanics should only be tied to creature-based keywords.
    As regards investigate, it should be kept in mind that this was supported in only one set, SOI. It was removed from EMN for bad reasons, and Rosewater recognized it was an error. It was created very flavor-related mechanics (the quest of Jace), and unfortunately, I do not think it will come back soon. There is plenty of design space left for this mechanic, so let’s keep fingers crossed.
    Here are a few mechanics I would like to see become evergreen:
    - Landfall
    - Card-type-in-the-grayevard matter cards: the desert mechanics was another hit in Amonkhet. There are already plenty of graveyard matter keyword (the king of all, flashback; delve and pseudo delve, delirium, eternalize, embalm, the */* creatures etc.), but no such things as “if you have a land/sorcery/instant/creature in the graveyard, you may…”. Cards like Sand Strangler, Unquenchable Thirst or Wall of Forgotten Pharaohs only touched the very top of what can be done. This kind of card synergies well with deck building, and can be tweaked to fit with the color pie. It is easier to include than constructed all stards like, say, dearthrite shaman, which are too graveyard hungry to see their full potential in the cube.
    - Exile matter
    Maybe I am stretching here a little bit, whereas your article has the quality to focus on the three simple mechanics that really matters. But it is disappointing to see R&D trying to force mediocre mechanics in every sets while not exploring the design space of “hit” mechanics.
    Good job anyway!