agic: The Gathering isn't just a single game. Everyone can make their own decks, so a game against a red-green ramp deck will be quite a different experience than one against a white weenie deck. Compounding these differences is the fact that there are different formats, where different cards are legal. A game of Vintage is almost completely different from Sealed play. Some cards slip through the cracks, though, and haven't seen the light of day in many, many years. This is one of the greatest tragedies of modern Magic.
Play With ALL the Cards!
For the first several years of my Magic-playing life, I played what could be loosely-defined as "casual Constructed." I used the Vintage banned and restricted list, but that didn't really matter because all of my Power Nine cards had been traded away years ago. I was (and still am!) a compulsive pack-cracker, always on the lookout for cool new cards.
Eventually, I started paying attention to decklists online and reading up on deck-building theory. My decks started to improve. I started trying to improve my collection through trades instead of just seeing what I got in booster packs. I continued opening booster packs, but most of the cards I opened ended up being tossed into a box, never to be played with—a sad fate for a Magic card! I felt like I was missing out on a lot of potential fun.
So my play group made the plunge into Limited play. This was exciting! I got to play with nearly every card. Suddenly, Wind Drake was a card that mattered, for the first time since my earliest days. (Well, technically Wind Drake didn't exist back then, but Phantom Monster is a reasonable stand-in for Wind Drake.) Playing formats like Standard and Commander allowed me to play with other cards I otherwise would never have been exposed to.
A Ratings Disaster
Soon after I was hired as a designer at Wizards, I was working on the Magic 2013 development team. As a casual player and totally inexperienced in R&D in general, I wasn't cut out for some of the heavier lifting involved on the team, so I spent some of my time looking for cool potential reprint cards. I consulted lists of eternal staples, but many of those cards are too powerful to reprint. I needed some way to get a list of popular cards from Magic's past. I discovered that Gatherer has a function where cards can be filtered and sorted by "Community Rating." People have been rating and commenting on cards for a few years now. Many of the cards had dozens or even hundreds of ratings. The rating system put me onto the scent of some cool reprints that I might otherwise have overlooked. I pitched ideas at Zac Hill, the lead developer. Some were accepted, and some were rejected.
Soon after, my friend and fellow designer Shawn Main came up with a format he dubbed "Gatherer-Terrible." While Legacy and Vintage play with the most powerful and popular cards from Magic's history, Gatherer-Terrible uses only cards rated two stars or less on our Gatherer website. I did a Gatherer search for cards rated less than or equal to 2. Wow! I had never even heard of most of these cards! This was exciting. Magic R&D director Aaron Forsythe had played a similar format with his brother back in the day, based on the star ratings from InQuest magazine. The three of us each made some decks and played some games. We had fun, but it soon became clear that the format was terribly unbalanced: black was far more powerful than the other colors. This, combined with the fact that we were playing four-of Constructed, meant we weren't really playing with very many cards we otherwise wouldn't play with. There had to be a way to bring more cards into the fold. I decided to build a Cube.
The Birth of the Unpopular Cube
"To be popular one must be a mediocrity."—Oscar Wilde
Most Cubes read like a list of Constructed all-stars from throughout Magic's history. Players divide the Cube up into booster pack–sized piles and draft them just like in Booster Draft. You will never play in such a high-octane Limited environment as in most Cubes. Many Cube decks are more powerful than Standard decks. If you get a chance to try it, I recommend it highly. We even offer an official Wizards of the Coast Cube occasionally on Magic Online.
A regular Cube wasn't going to get the job done here, though. I'd Tinkered into Blightsteel Colossus enough times in my life already. I'd sacrificed enough Spirit tokens to Smokestack. I was through with the popular cards. It was time to play Magic as it was almost never played. Named after Bertrand Russell's book, Unpopular Essays, the Unpopular Cube, like Gatherer-Terrible, is composed of cards rated 2 or less on Gatherer. Gatherer ratings are dynamic; they change whenever someone rates the card, so some of these may have been uprated to above 2 by the time you read this. The Cube includes:
- Cool weirdo cards that never found homes. We design a lot of goofy rare cards, hoping that enough people will like them. Sometimes they just don't catch on. They get a chance to shine in the Unpopular Cube.
- Cards with downsides. This is one of the Spikiest Cubes I've ever seen. People vote down cards with downside text like you wouldn't believe. That's why black was so powerful in the Gatherer-Terrible format: it has far more cards with downside text, many of which are very powerful.
- Cards that are clearly worse than others. Control Magic costs . Domestication also costs . Which would you rather have 99% of the time? Well, what if you couldn't have Control Magic? Domestication starts looking pretty good! Poison Arrow costs six mana to Doom Blade's two, and is sorcery-speed to boot. But it still gets the job done.
- Cards that have a very narrow ability, but are otherwise perfectly good.
- Vanilla creatures. People generally tend to vote down vanilla creatures. They're pretty useful in Limited, though, and have the added benefit of not introducing too much board complexity. When you're building a Cube out of cards from Magic's entire history, things can get pretty complex once the games get going, especially since the Unpopular Cube is pretty grindy and slow. Vanillas help by being strategically relevant without inducing analysis paralysis.
- Spirits. The soulshift and spiritcraft mechanics from Kamigawa block were down-voted en masse. I took advantage if this situation by providing plenty of support in the form of Spirit creatures and even put some narrow hosers into the Cube.
- Cards that help end games. Things like removal, creatures with evasion, and things that pump your creatures help games come to a fitting conclusion. They're really important in any Limited format and need special attention in such a slow format as the Unpopular Cube.
What the Unpopular Cube doesn't contain:
- Cards that don't do anything. Not to be confused with Null Rod, which does nothing. Some cards are so narrow that they have no function outside of very specifically engineered circumstances. While there is some value in making peoples' picks easier by including these cards, I decided not to put them in the Unpopular Cube, as they would never be played with.
The Unpopular Cube:
What do you like?
Anyone can understand why you play with Lightning Bolt or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. It requires discerning and unusual taste to enjoy playing with the kinds of cards found in the Unpopular Cube. This Cube is only for the most elite, or the most insane, players.
But I have to confess that I didn't write this article solely to share my delight in discovering diamonds in the rough and experiencing novel ways to play Magic. I want to encourage you to rate cards on Gatherer. The more ratings we have for each card, the more accurately we can gauge that card's popularity. Also, I'd love to hear from you directly: What kinds of cards do you like? What kinds of cards do you hate? What kinds of cards have surprised you by being more fun than you thought they would be? Post your thoughts in the community forum or send me an email using the links below this article.
Find fun in places where most don't look for it!
Ethan Fleischer works for Magic R&D as a designer. He can sing, but not dance, and is an indifferent fencer. He lives near Seattle with his wife, three sons, and mother-in-law.