They said it couldn't be done.
Three years ago I began to throw around an idea. I wanted to build a cube... but a cube with such a small footprint that it could be thrown into a backpack and taken to a con without being a pain in the ass. That made me really think about archetypes, the color pie and the flexibility of spells. I learned an awful lot about the game and what makes it tick from that exercise, and I think it is time to pass it on to you.
The perfect beast.
So what is a cube, anyway? A cube is a collection of cards that together make up a custom draft environment. It is like designing and then playing your own expansion set (or block). Most of the time, a cube showcases the "best of Magic", where every card is a bomb and there is no "fodder" in a pack. The 15th pick is as amazing as the first. It makes the draft crazy - and decks even crazier.
There is a strong cube community for Magic. People who invest in cube care deeply about the format because other than the Magic Online cube, they get very little "love" from Wizards. Yes... there are reprints "for cube" but there has never been a targeted product. There is also no "rules committee" to protect the format and its health. So it's no wonder they are a bit defensive. There are many kinds of cube - "powered" cubes, "unpowered" cubes, pauper or peasant cubes, block cubes and theme cubes (to name a few) However, if you start discussing the format itself, most cube "curators" (look it up) will tell you there are two laws in cube; first, cube is a singleton format, and second, 360 cards is the smallest size a cube should ever be.
This presented a problem. As I started to assemble my cube I realized that a 360 cards takes up a lot of room after you package them up with basic lands and tokens. Think "Holiday Gift Box" - much too big for a backpack loaded with con supplies. So I began to ask myself, "What makes 360 cards so magical"? Well... 360 cards allows eight people to draft your cube with every card in-use. This guarantees your deck archetypes are viable. It also allows for 50 cards in each color with 80 cards leftover for lands (mana fixing), artifacts and a couple of multi-color cards for each pair so there is room for all those archetypes. To be fair, it is a pretty logical standard, and one that most are happy with.
360 cards just wasn't going to work for me. Even if I ignored the size problem, I didn't have a regular playgroup of eight people. It seemed like a lot of the cards wouldn't be seen and as a result archetypes might not work. So I did what I always do.... and veered from the norm. "Who wants to be normal anyway? I'll build a four man cube. I mean that's just cutting half the cards - how hard could that be?" Turns out, it was pretty hard.
Smallest of the small.
180 cards. With twenty of each basic land a few tokens all double sleeved. That will juuuust fit into a Deckbuilder's Toolkit box. That supports a four player draft. I had my target. Working backwards that's 29 of each color, 10 multi-colored cards -one for each color pair, and 25 cards for color fixing and artifacts. Yikes.
Don't panic - we'll get through it. When choosing cards, there are two things you should value - how iconic the card is and how flexible it is mechanically.
"Iconic" can describe a lot of Magic cards and it may have a different meaning depending on what kind of cube you are running. For example, if you are making a cube themed with cards from Innistrad, Sorin needs to make an appearance in your list. People will expect him to be there. If you are running a "best of Magic" unpowered cube, at 180 cards, poor Sorin will be sitting this one out on the bench. Here's another example - I'm choosing cards for my list in white. I want to make sure I have flyers in white, its one of the things that gives white its color identity. Thematically angels are iconic to white, so i'll also need some of those. Now I only have 19 slots and I need to save room, so I pick two angels Restoration Angel and Archangel Avacyn, they are both popular cards from the history of the game, both fly and both have strong and flexible mechanics which brings us to our second requirement - "flexibility".
What do I mean by "flexibility"? A flexible card may be a creature with an enters the battlefield ability that destroys and artifact and then stays on the battlefield as a creature for combat. Kor Sanctifiers, for example. Cards that fill two roles in your list means there is at least one more slot you can use for something else. Multi-color cards can be especially tricky in a travel cube. One slot for each color pair, combined with the fact that these decks will not be finely tuned means that if you are not careful these cards will just be a dead pick at the end of the draft. To mitigate this while still providing the feel of two color cards, value cards with hybrid casting costs and split cards. They may not be the most iconic cards or the most powerful, but they can be used as an either or card in a pinch. Yes there are some cards that are hard to not include, but I promise you that your cube, and its draft experience, will be the better for it.
You aren't going to get any cube right the first time you make a list, let alone a travel cube. It will take playtesting and tuning to get it right. Feel free to rely on the Magic community a little here. Take a look at some cubes on Cubetutor.com, check out /r/mtgcube on reddit, join MTGSalvation and read the posts in the cube forum. This will set you on a solid path. Here is my travel cube list if you want to use it as a starting point. There are many years worth of work there, and while it is far from perfect it is a pretty fun play experience.
Speaking of play experience, how does a travel cube play best? Well if you are playing with four people straight up draft is the best. Shuffle the entire cube together and divide them into 15 card packs and proceed with a normal draft. If you are playing with two or three people you have a couple of other draft options to consider - Winston draft (created by RIchard Garfield) and Winchester draft are both super fun and the draft becomes almost a social - and strategic - as the games.
Over the next several weeks we are going to take a look at each of the colors of the color pie from the perspective of Cube. I am going to use my travel cube as a reference point for these articles, so while they will be useful for any first time cube builder they will be especially useful to folks building a travel cube.
When you reveal your cube to your playgroup it is important to pick the right time. Offering it up on your weekly game night is always an option, but people seem far more receptive to trying it in situations where playing with all their magic gear is awkward or just impossible. You can literally grab a table at a restaurant, order up some drinks and appetizers and play this at the table. its a blast and it makes memories. After you play a few times they may even begin to ask for it.
When I revealed my cube to my playgroup they were a bit wary. We hadn't played magic in a long while together and cube gave us the opportunity to relive our weekly game nights without the burden of deck construction. The decks are durdly (especially in a travel cube), but its not about finely tuned decks - cube is about the fun.
When I revealed my deck on MTGS, I was prepared for negative feedback. Funny thing though, people began to ask questions and follow its development. It turns out other folks liked the idea of a portable cube and ere inspired to build their own. I'm happy that I brought that in a small way to the community.
Join us next week when we start working our way through the color pie, starting with the weenies of white. Until then, - Go Cube!