Cube Design – Breaking the Rules (Learning from Legacy, Part 2)

Breaking the Rules

“Hell, there are no rules here—we’re trying to accomplish something.”
-Thomas Edison

One of the most striking aspects of Legacy is Wizards’ willingness to break the rules in order to sculpt the environment they want. For years, they’ve used the banned list, hate cards, and [card]Force of Will[/card] as the pillars to maintaining a healthy format. Recently, they added a new tool to their arsenal: supplemental casual products.


Wizards was looking for an outlet to print new cards to bolster fair Legacy decks, without burdening the Standard set releases with cards that didn’t fit from mechanical, thematic, or power-level perspectives. Sometimes you have to break the rules.

Scavenging Ooze
Baleful Strix
Shardless Agent[/draft]

The decision to release these cards in Commander and Planechase was unprecedented and a little unintuitive, but who can argue with the results? Collectively, these cards have shaped recent Maverick, Tezzeret, and BUG lists. The move to print these cards in casual summer products is one of a growing number of examples of Wizards tearing down its own rules to improve the game. From releasing new cards in Core Sets to reversing the order in which sets are drafted to printing double-faced cards.

In every case, the traditional rules and status quo served as needless limitations that held Magic back. In every case, Wizards rewrote the rules to move the product forward.

Trust Your Instincts

Recently, someone in the Cube forums made the following remark:

“When I was describing to my fiancee what I was looking for, I ended up deciding I either wanted a [card]Mind Rot[/card] that cost 2 instead of 3, or just a functional Duress reprint.

I’m not using this quote to insult the poster. Quite the opposite in fact. This person displays a keen understanding of their Cube environment, and an acute awareness of its needs. Identifying and precisely describing the problem is a tricky design task, and this designer has already done the hard part. The rigidity of the pesky singleton rule is the only thing holding back their design.

Effectively, they are saying that they would play a card with the exact same rules text, so long as it had a different name and different art. Scratch that, there already exist three different artworks for Duress, so the name itself is the only obstacle here.

“A hand disruption spell by any other name…”
-William Shakespeare

The truth is, it’s an easy thing to get hung up on. In my own design, I knew my set would really benefit from more fetchlands that could be used by decks of all speeds.

[draft]Flood Plain
Bad River
Rocky Tar Pit
Mountain Valley

For months I ran this cycle of lands with the errata that each of these lands, “comes into play tapped unless you pay 2 life,” Shock-fetches basically. The modified cards worked well for the problem at hand, and it’s a fetchland variant that I could see Wizards printing one day. Unfortunately, it also made the drafting experience much clunkier, as I had to explain the rule to new players each time and even experienced players would forget exactly what the errata was.

Ultimately, I came to the realization that I was contorting Cube design to provide an awkward solution to a problem that already has a very simple answer: just run a second cycle of fetchlands.

Building a Web of Solutions

“The key to making this work is being creative yourself. If you want to inspire creativity in your players, you have to be creative in finding answers for the problems you’ve created. Note that I don’t try to solve problems one for one. I make clear dependencies and then brainstorm the different ways that might help. Playtesting then reveals which ideas work and which ideas don’t.
You then find the successful strategies and start riffing off of those. With proper iteration you can create a wide net of working solutions.”

-Mark Rosewater

Let the riffing begin.

When Mark uses the words “problems” and “solutions,” he’s discussing the needs of his set and ways to address them. In Part 1, I discussed how I used an extra set of fetchlands as a solution to the multicolor dynamics in my Cube. A natural next step is to see whether this change can help to address any of my set’s other problems.

To start, I looked at the cards whose utility changed with an increase in the density of fetchlands.

[draft]Wild Nacatl
Kird Ape
Loam Lion
Steppe Lynx
Aven Mindcensor
Plated Geopede
Lotus Cobra
Grim Lavamancer
Deathrite Shaman
Sensei’s Divining Top
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Life from the Loam
Crucible of Worlds
Sun Titan
Knight of the Reliquary[/draft]

Historically, one of the biggest challenges in Cube design has been in figuring out how to design the white aggressive archetypes. A myriad of approaches have been implemented by Cube designers in the past, from dropping white aggro entirely to adding Rebel creature type errata to various creatures and including cards like Lin Sivvi and [card]Ramosian Sergeant[/card].

In my Cube, white aggro’s problems were twofold. Firstly, it was underpowered compared to other archetypes. More importantly though, it just wasn’t a whole lot of fun to play. It lacked a certain spice. Simply put, players didn’t want to spend four hours of their day playing it. Part of the problem with white aggro’s traditional Cube configuration is that it was composed mostly of just efficiently-costed beaters. 2-power guys for one mana and 3-power guys for two mana—creatures without any real synergies or interesting lines of play to speak of.

With that in mind, I turned to white’s one-drops:

Let’s first attack this from a balance perspective. By no means do I consider those values to be accurate, and have left the scale intentionally abstract. The point is to demonstrate that, under traditional constraints, I don’t have many options to address the balance problem in any significant way. You can add more marginal one-drops, but they wouldn’t make the cut to a 40-card deck anyways.

[draft]Elite Vanguard
Savannah Lions[/draft]

[draft]Steppe Lynx
Steppe Lynx[/draft]

It’s the Paul Rietzl special!

Now I know breaking singleton is a bit of a faux pas in the Cube community, and I’ll address those arguments in a moment. First I’d like to pose the question: what are you trying to accomplish?

In broad strokes, I am trying to build a fun draft environment. “Fun” is a bit of a nebulous quantity, but in the context of Cube draftng I’m looking for an interactive, skill-testing, and balanced environment filled with layered synergies and archetypes.

By any relevant metric, [card]Steppe Lynx[/card] brings more to the table than [card]Elite Vanguard[/card] ever could. Steppe Lynx is more interactive and skill-testing than Elite Vanguard, and brings with it more balance, synergies, and deckbuilding possibilities.

Consider the following common scenario: You attack with a 2/3 Steppe Lynx and an uncracked fetchland and your opponent chump blocks. Post-combat, do you crack the fetchland to cast a spell? What if you need to crack two fetchlands to cast the spell? What if you have two Steppe Lynxes on board? What are the spells in question? What’s the boardstate? Could your opponent be holding a [card]Pyroclasm[/card] or [card]Arc Trail[/card]? How do you intend to push through damage in future turns?

These are the types of decisions that make playing an aggro deck a better experience. The decisions are multifaceted, depend on a mixture of planning and guesswork, and keep the game engaging for years on end.

In my Cube’s first draft with three copies of Steppe Lynx, the card provided more interesting decision points and moments than [card]Elite Vanguard[/card] or [card]Savannah Lions[/card] ever could. A player paid the alternate cost on [card]Daze[/card] to rebuy a landfall trigger, despite having 1U open and a pair of lands already in hand. In another game he stockpiled fetchlands and forced [card]Primeval Titan[/card] to chump block a 6/7 Lynx. In yet another game the player used [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card] and [card]Path to Exile[/card] to push through lethal damage with a pair of Steppe Lynxes on board. This kind of fun just isn’t possible with Elite Vanguard.


“Including multiple copies of a card reduces the diversity of the Cube.”

To the contrary, including a critical mass of certain effects allows us to build lynx between archetypes that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Draft enough aggressive landfall creatures, and you open the door to building Aggro-Loam decks that use cards like [card]Crucible of Worlds[/card] and [card]Life from the Loam[/card] to put bullets back in the chamber.

“If you’re running multiple [card]Steppe Lynx[/card], what’s to stop you from including 8 [card]Goblin Guides[/card] or 10 [card]Black Lotus[/card]es? Isn’t that subjective? Where do you draw the line?”

These type of questions spawn from the assumption that we are designing via power maximization. I’m not doing that at all. I’m designing via fun maximization.

The truth is, fun is subjective. Design is subjective. When the Wizards of the Coast designers try to come up with a new card, set or mechanic, they don’t go with what is objectively most powerful, they pick what they think will be the most fun. There are no easy rules or guidelines to go by, and after two decades of Magic’s design, Wizards are still learning new things about what constitutes fun.

When you’re fun maximizing, you don’t draw the line. You design, you playtest, you iterate. I don’t add 8 Goblin Guides or 10 Black Lotuses because I don’t think they would contribute more fun to my environment.

“But Cube is a singleton format.”

I’ll lead with another Rosewater quote:

“One of my pet peeves is people who follow a rule so stringently that they start to turn against the reasoning for the rule’s creation in the first place. [W]hy do I bring this up? Because when we break a rule in Magic design it’s importan[t] for us to ask why the rule was created in the first place. In the case of Relentless Rats, we had to look at the four card limit. The rule exists because some cards are broken if allowed in high numbers. But not all cards.”
-Mark Rosewater

Why was I using singleton in the first place? Was it to increase the balance, depth, synergy, and fun of my environment? The singleton restriction did nothing but hold back my design. In the end, I couldn’t come up with any gameplay justification for this rule. The only advantage was that as a designer it was fun to meddle in the unorthodox singleton design space.

“Do players care about the unorthodox design space? Not really. Players care about the play of the game or the expansion or the mechanic or the card. Is it fun to play? Does it make for thrilling and compelling games? Does it offer cool deck-building opportunities? The concept is irrelevant to everyone but the designers.”
-Mark Rosewater

When I finally did break singleton, the players didn’t even skip a beat. They didn’t care that the format was no longer singleton. They cared that it was more fun to play.

You’re probably already breaking singleton.

Ravages of War[/draft]
[draft]Kodama’s Reach
[draft]Savannah Lions
Elite Vanguard[/draft]
[draft]Llanowar Elves
Fyndhorn Elves[/draft]
[draft]Arc Lightning
Flames of the Firebrand[/draft]

At this point, we’re hinging the constraints of our Cube design on the whims of the creative team. Have some agency!

Not to mention, any number of pairs of cards like [card]Incinerate[/card] and [card]Searing Spear[/card] that can be used interchangeably in drafting, deck-building, and almost all of gameplay.

Consider this baffling bit of Cube logic:

March 2010:
“I think we should include two cards that fetch a basic land and put it into play tapped.”
“Absolutely not. Cube is a singleton format.”

April 2010: [card]Evolving Wilds[/card] is printed in Rise of the Eldrazi as a functional reprint of [card]Terramorphic Expanse[/card].

May 2010:
“I think we should include two cards that fetch a basic land and put it into play tapped.”
“Me too.”

Now, I know the counterargument is coming. “Wizards printed a second copy so singleton formats could have access to two of these effects.” Sure, but why? Because it’s a safe card that increases fun, whereas they wouldn’t print a functional reprint of [card]Demonic Tutor[/card]. Formats like Commander rely on the singleton safety valve to keep certain effects from being too consistent and oppressive. If anything, this is an argument for breaking singleton in Cube. You have complete control over the format. You decide what increases fun and what doesn’t. You don’t need a safety valve.

Continue Riffing

With extra Steppe Lynxes and fetchlands in my design file, I then looked for ways to continue to improve my Cube design. A recent subtheme in my design of white aggro is the inclusion of a critical mass of double-strikers.

[draft]Fencing Ace
Silverblade Paladin
Mirran Crusader
Ajani, Caller of the Pride[/draft]

I then looked for an intersection between my landfall and double strike subthemes.

[draft]Adventuring Gear[/draft]

Now, this card might not be right for any other Cube list, but in my environment it’s been an absolute blast. It’s good in landfall decks, it’s good in double strike decks, and it’s outrageous in a deck that has both. Not to mention it has some great synergies. Ever attacked with a 5/6 [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card] or a 6/6 [card]Trinket Mage[/card]? Swung for 10 on turn three with [card]Fencing Ace[/card]? Nuked a [card]Baneslayer Angel[/card] with a [card]Spikeshot Elder[/card]? [card]Adventuring Gear[/card] is the real deal.

From there, I looked for ways to layer white’s themes with other colors. This led to the inclusion of [card]Reckless Charge[/card] and a second copy of [card]Noble Hierarch[/card] to play on the double strike mechanic. And so design continues. You keep riffing, and finding cards that are solutions to multiple needs of your set.

The beauty is that another designer’s riffing could lead them into entirely different territory. I started with a second set of fetchlands and carried it through my design, and you could start elsewhere. Decide what you are trying to accomplish, and don’t let anything hold you back.


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