Tuesday 9 July 2019
The Combo Cube
I have spent the last couple on months on a side project which as the title suggests is a combo cube. The premise is fairly simple, it is a cube that only supports combo archetypes. While there are many challenges in designing and balancing a combo cube the project was a resounding success. While it was certainly not as fair and balanced as my normal drafting cube it did exactly what I wanted it too by the end of the project. It was more polar and a little more random but it made up for that with vast diversity in game play and deck building. It was a delightfully refreshing change to my conventional cube and gave some memorable and exotic games.
I elected to use the exact same ban list that I use for my normal cube* essentially cutting the power from the equation yet it felt like powered cubes tend to feel. It had that craziness without the one sided nature. It was also vastly closer in balance to my normal cube than it was to any silly powered cube I have played. When I wanted to mix things up in the past I would do some sort of powered event, now I suspect I will lean towards commander style events or ones using this combo cube. Here is the list I ended up with after much cutting and adding over the time. The blog of the cube details much of these changes if any are interested in the design process. It is not as well tuned as it could be but it is a solid starting place to further refine from. Introducing The Combo Cube;
This is certainly not the first time this has been done. I took inspiration from a couple of other cube tutor lists, one of which was clearly very well tuned and loved. This is just my take on the idea. I can thoroughly recommend it as a refreshingly different and fun way to play Magic. I don't think it the only thing you should play but I think mixing it in with your other Magic will increase the overall enjoyment! A great nostalgia trip as well for any longstanding players of the game. The main downside of this cube is cost. Even if you have an unpowered cube as a starting place you will need a lot more cards (400 or so) to make the change over and most of those cards are expensive for one reason or another. If you have the cards or are happy with proxies of some flavour then that is not an issue.
The rest of this article will be covering some of the design choices and parameters of The Combo Cube. If that is of no interest then read no further! There were a lot of issues to overcome with this design project, some evident from the outset and others that arose through testing. The most obvious one was that the cube shouldn't be too big. With many combos requiring specific cards you want to have a decent chance of seeing them in a draft. I find 360 card cubes or those little bigger to have very short longevity and draft in a less satisfying way. I have always liked a 540 minimum for variation and consistency balance. For the midrange cube the difference between 540 and 720 is minimal and only really changes things in terms of the value of the good one drops! For the combo cube it felt much more important to stay close to the 540 mark.
This in turn meant that space efficiency was going to be important. This was done all over the place with a variety of strategies. An example is playing things like Vivid lands and most of the lands that tap for any colour in place of lands that just tap for two specific colours. I played a lot less lands overall as well to further save space. Much as I don't rate fixing any less in this format than for others picking up dual lands is a bit of a luxury. You just need to have more picks and options on cards for your non-land cards to balance the deck consistency appropriately with the colour consistency. Being able to cast your spells is only relevant if you have a deck capable of winning! It is noteworthy that the average land count for decks built in the combo cube is over a land less than it is for my midrange cube, and probably closer to the two lands less mark. This means you need more playable non-land cards from the draft as well further incentivizing a lower land count than normal. That being said I run a massive amount of lands in my midrange cube so those that I have in the combo cube probably just look fairly normal to many people.
Keeping other non-combo game plans out of the equation was another big issue although it did help with keeping the card count down. In a format focused around combo a control deck or aggro deck can run riot if you let it slip through the cracks. It is fairly easy to keep the aggressive decks back but you do have to pay attention to it. It means playing things like Hallowed Moonlight in place of the more potent Containment Priest and that kind of thing. If you have too many useful utility dorks, especially the disruptive ones, then that kind of deck will do very well. Offending cards are Phyrexian Revoker, too many Mesmeric Fiend style cards and the like. These just rip apart any combo game plan and then impose enough of a clock that they can win reliably. In a field of unsuspecting combo decks an aggro deck does not need efficient Monastery Swiftspear beatdown to come out ahead, it can get there with a couple of Bears quite comfortably.
It is important to keep the non-combo strategies out because you are drafting combo decks many of which are engine decks. These decks are never going to be as good as constructed versions, even the singleton ones. To include defensive options in the draft and then in the decks takes a huge toll on the quality and ultimately viability of the combo decks to the point of which several cease to be worth running. As such you are just best off making sure you don't have too many dorks that are at all efficient cheap beaters, especially ones that can also disrupt.
The disruption is a huge issue in itself as that is what makes up the control decks. Too much and too effective and the best decks are the control decks pretty obviously. Especially when there is no aggro to put a check on them. A good control deck in a field of combo is all a bit fish in a barrel. They don't even need much in the way of win conditions, they can hold out long enough to hard cast some card meant to cheat in or just win with some random value dork intended for some Birthing Pod or Aluren combo! The only good way we found to counter this issue was limiting the disruption card available and to just include those that are found in combo decks themselves. This drastically cut the countermagic complement and took out some of the black hand disruption too. With reduced availability on such things they became somewhat higher picks regardless of direction which in turn spread them out enough to ensure there was no one able to stockpile them and make a control deck.
The kinds of disruption used are key as well. Those on permanents are easier to deal with and so those afford better game play. Those that exile are brutal and can one shot a lot of decks with ease. As such I was very careful to keep the exile cards that hit hands and libraries to a minimum while also being somewhat conservative on those affecting the graveyard. This meant all iterations of Ashiok were non-starters. Gonti, Transgress the Mind and Extract were also all out. An unexpected card in need of banning was the new Narset. Most of the decks are a smattering of outs and disruption, the combo, lands, and then just card selection and draw. With so many decks playing so much draw Narset would just win games. Throw in an abundance of symmetrical draw seven effects which mostly just Mind Twist an otherwise brutally locked out opponent and Narset quickly became no fun for any one.
Planeswalkers in general are pretty potent cards in this meta with less disruption to prevent them and far less in the way of board control so as to be able to kill them off quickly and easily. I only ran planeswalkers that are important to combos and played none of the generically good ones. This is a wise move generally but necessary to curtail the control builds.
There are combos that did not make the list and some that wound up getting cut. The perfect combos had some redundancy in all their components and significant overlap for their support cards with other combos. Splinter Twin is a great example of this with it being a two card combo with at least two bits of redundancy on both halves. All the support cards it uses are just generic disruption, dig and draw. It is easy to add into the cube in that it takes up relatively few slots while not being damaging to the draft due to having many narrow cards that other players have no interest in.
On the other hand an infect combo has almost zero overlap with any other combo what with it being mostly just pump effects and infect dorks. Despite being a very good combo deck it is a very poor one to add into a cube. This general premise of space efficiency basically dictated which combos went in. Testing then let us tweak the direct support and degrees of redundancy added in for them.
With there being so much overlap between the combo support cards I found that often people would run two or three combos in their deck. This was certainly the case for the weaker combos but it seemed to work a charm when done right. It gave a much greater degree of resilience to disruption and allowed a lot of the less potent combos to compete well with the more powerful ones.
I think that is all I have to say on this for now. I would be interested to hear of any combos people think would fit into this cube that are missing or indeed see any lists people have for their own combo cubes. Not the best format in the game but one of the most different and diverse. Impressive given how similar it is in many ways to many other cubes. A format you want to run like a Cadbury's Creme egg! Just some of the time, all a bit sickly to have all year round! Absolutely worth trying if you can.
*General Ban List;
5x Original Mox
Library of Alexandria