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In Development – My Cube is a Block

Several years before Magic broke onto the scene, a friend of mine introduced me to Illuminati, from Steve Jackson Games. Illuminati is a game of conspiracy, where you sort of “draft by conquering” political and social groups in an effort to be the biggest and best conspiracy on the block. A year after Magic won the Origins award for Best Fantasy or Science Fiction Boardgame, the TCG version of Illuminati won the shiny new Origins award for “Best Card Game.”

As with most TCGs, Illuminati didn’t last. However, in a sort of callback to its origins as a contained boardgame, a “One With Everything” set was released that, true to its name, had one of each card that had been released in the game to that point.

In other words, a cube.

This week, I’m going to talk about why my cube is a block, and why you might want to give that a try.

Why cube again?

Drop this question into your favorite search engine, or say, ChannelFireball this week, and you’ll find a host of answers. Thea Steele neatly summed it up as “the cube is awesomely fun” and “the cube is accessible,” with a side helping of explaining how its great that cubes let players experience a cross-section of Magic’s history.

These things are all true.

Also, not (exactly) my reasons.

Here’s what I like in a cube.

Experiencing a unique set of game conditions

Some folks are Legacy or Vintage specialists. Some of us stick with Standard, although “sticking with Standard” really means interacting with a progressing environment that won’t be the same from month to month.

I’m fond of experiencing different all sorts of different constructed formats. I like the expansiveness of Legacy as well as the constrained card pool that mark Block Constructed formats. I’ve even gone so far as to “proxy up” (electronically) decks from past Block Constructed or other formats to give them a try and get a feel for a format I didn’t get a chance to play in myself.

This is one reason I’m not really into the sort of Fantasy Football-esque discussions around the cards people are putting into or taking out of their cubes. Like Commander conversations, these often revolve around cards that are near auto-includes, or which typically appear in peoples’ cubes. They’re also about little bits and pieces of tuning over time, trying to generate an awesome overall experience.

I’m not saying that’s a bad way to be into cube, by the way. It’s awesome…it’s just not my awesome.

What I want is a set of game conditions that’s distinct, and very different from others I encounter.

To tell a story

Time Spiral was a fun block.

Coming as it did during my return to the game, it was a nice review of the Magic universe. I’m fond of cross-references and homages anyway, so Time Spiral was great in that regard.

But I like a coherent story more.

When I’m playing in a tournament format, I’m likely not especially engaged at a story level. I tend to think of my deck and its components as a military team far more than I think of it as the mental and magical resources of some dimension-hopping mage.

But when I’m not sitting down for that mode of competitive play, I like to engage with the story a little bit more.

So I’d like my cube to tell a story.

Block cube!

I want to experience unique game conditions and for my cube to tell a story. What was my answer to these desires?

633 cards to tell a story

The design process for my current cube was utterly straightforward. Here was my sole criterion:

Every card from Kamigawa block.

Yup. That’s pretty much it. I have a big box with a single copy of each and every card from Champions of Kamigawa, Betrayers of Kamigawa, and Saviors of Kamigawa.

It sees most of its use for Winston draft, since I don’t tend to be able to collect large groups of folks to run a full draft.

…and since the defining point of the cube is that it contains one of each card from Kamigawa, I don’t really spend a lot of time figuring out which cards should be in or out. It’s pretty easy, that way.

I’m not necessarily advocating that everyone run a Kamigawa cube. I know my love of the block isn’t shared by a lot of you all. But there are some awesome things about running a block cube.

All the mechanics work together

You can get some quirky interactions – or failures to interact – in a normal cube. For example, how many poison cards do you want in your cube, given that they’re being diluted into a pool of hundreds of cards and you might see just one or so in a typical draft?

In a cube that’s formed from every card in a block, well…the mechanics work together. Or, at least, they should. As we see in each design and development article with each new set release, the sets are built to be drafted together and to work together in a constructed context.

Obviously, all of you tinkerers who like to continuously fine-tune your cubes are already on top of this whole “mechanics working together” issue. But it’s pretty cool to have all of the cards work not just together, but together along certain thematic lines that support an overarching feel.

No need to balance

Short and sweet – blocks are, by and large, supposed to be balanced across colors and card types.

I’m sure there are solid examples where this is not the case. But in general, you get to benefit from the efforts of Magic R&D in balancing draft and constructed formats when your cube is a block.

Do note, of course, that your rarities not at all the same as the rarities around which the cards involved were balanced. Draft balancing is based on the idea that the players involved are cracking boosters and seeing a bunch of commons, a few uncommons, and a rare (or mythic, in recent blocks).

Here’s the rarity breakdown in the Kamigawa block cube:

Rare – 208
Uncommon – 205
Common – 220

…and here’s the breakdown in a more recent Scars block cube:

Mythic – 35
Rare – 124
Uncommon – 164
Common – 222

Whether this skews the game toward “unbalanced” or “awesome” is left as an exercise for the reader.

(I think it skews toward awesome.)

You get a coherent narrative feel

Since one of my goals in my more “casual” gaming is to connect a bit more with the story behind the cards, it’s really nice to have the cards tell a coherent story.

Playing with a mixed cube has a different feel, sort of like clicking laterally through Wikipedia, connecting across concepts but not really staying within one topic or story. That’s one fun way to game, of course.

It’s also awesome, though, when the cards play well together in story terms in addition to in game terms. When your cube is a block, you’re going to find yourself playing cards that are mentioned on other cards, piecing together elements of the story with each game. There’s a decent chance you’ll have story heroes and villains facing off against each other, making the game a bit more of an interactive storytelling game while still letting you kick each other’s teeth in playing the game you know and love.

A note on quirks

If there’s one thing Magic blocks weren’t designed for, it’s being played as a “one with everything” set. This will, on a block-by-block basis, introduce some quirks.

In the case of the Kamigawa cube, for example, there’s this card:

It does nothing. It will never do anything in the Kamigawa cube.

But I leave it in.

Partially, that’s in service of the purity of this really being a full “one with everything” cube.

Mostly, though, it’s hilarious when [card]Mirror Gallery[/card] comes up in a draft. Players who’ve played with the cube before know it and smirk at it, and new players have that moment of pause, before they say, in a tentative tone, “So this does nothing, right?”

Best blocks to cube

I just have the Kamigawa cube at the moment, but that’s far from our only option for playing out this concept. Here are a few of the blocks that one might want to cube, and what they offer to the prospective player.

Ravnica

Ravnica is by far the top answer or suggestion when I ask people which block they’d like to have in a cube.

It’s no surprise. Ravnica / Guildpact / Dissension draft was incredibly popular. Being a gold and hybrid set, Ravnica also features quite a few interlocking choices in draft that lead to interesting complexity during the draft itself.

…and the block includes quite a few powerful cards such as [card]Dark Confidant[/card], [card]Lightning Helix[/card], and [card]Remand[/card].

Finally, Ravnica block’s focus on the guilds means there are many rich mechanics striped through the cube, giving players the option of drafting toward specific colors and the option of drafting toward certain mechanics…without there being enough of any one mechanic to make it truly overpowering.

A complete Ravnica cube is 651 cards.

Scars of Mirrodin

It’s no coincidence that I mentioned Scars and poison above.

Scars block is built around a very strong, very evocative narrative in combination with abilities that really want you to be living within the block. The most obvious case of that is the combination of infect and proliferate, both of which work far better as part of a coherent set than they do in isolation. This combines with metalcraft and a vigorous world of equipment to create a block with very strong, very distinct strategic choices.

The corollary, of course, is what we all saw with Scars drafting – you can really run into trouble if your choice of trying for metalcraft or infect does not mesh well with the choices of the other players at your draft table.

In terms of “strong narrative” as a selling point for a Scars block cube, it’s probably also no coincidence that Scars, like Ravnica, features watermarked cards assigned to certain factions. You can really build a story around the Phyrexian-Mirran conflict as you play, whether that means taking on one of those affiliations, or watching “your team” be “corrupted” by playing cards from the opposing faction.

A complete Scars cube is 579 cards.

The pocket block

Is 600 cards too much?

There are two fun options for “pocket block” cubes, both drawn from Zendikar block.

The first option, which allows for a full eight-player draft, is the Zendikar cube. This cube comprises just two sets, Zendikar and Worldwake. Clocking in at 394 cards, this is a nicely compact set that you will draft just over 90% of each time you do a full draft pod.

It’s also an awesome draft set, including creature lands, quests, landfall, traps, and tons of lands with quirky special abilities.

Oh, and [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card].

The second option is suitable only for Winston drafting or, perhaps, half-sized draft pods. A Rise of the Eldrazi mini-pod is a compact 248 cards and is, conveniently, a set that was designed for self-contained drafts.

Playing in the cube format also really accentuates the “battlecruiser Magic” feel of Rise, due to the rarity skew that comes with having one of each card. 4% of the cards in your pool are full-on Eldrazi, for starters.

You also get a great narrative element in the levelers. “Hah! Just leveled up my [card]Brimstone Mage[/card] – 3 to your guy!”

A game world in a box

I love a story.

We just rewatched all of Avatar: the Last Airbender ahead of watching The Legend of Korra. I ran the Lord of the Rings movies (and all their commentary tracks) in the background while I was putting together my dissertation at the end of grad school.

So it’s no surprise that my cube is a story in a box, a trilogy spread across six hundred or so cards, full of characters and themes that all play well together.

When it comes to cube, block cube is my awesome. What’s yours?

***
magic (at) alexandershearer.com
parakkum on twitter

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