Tom LaPille wrote about the design of the original Magic Online Cube here and I wrote a follow-up article about the difference between the standard Cube and the Holiday Cube here. Today, I want to talk about a different aspect of Cube design—how we think about and focus on each color.
e want all of the one-color strategies to be viable in Cube. Mostly that's easy. Red aggressive decks are a Cube staple. Green ramp decks are very strong, the white beatdown decks play similarly to red decks with Armageddon instead of burn spells, and everyone knows how good mono-blue control decks are.
But in Cube, mono-black decks struggle for an identity, and our data showed that they struggle to win as well. So we started examining black Cube decks.
You can categorize most Cube decks pretty easily. "I have a [beatdown/ramp/control] deck." The beatdown decks have a fast curve with strong creatures. The control decks are a little slower, but have a more powerful long game. The ramp decks generate a ton of mana and do something degenerate with it. There's not much of a niche here for black. If you're all about beating down, you probably want red's hasty creatures and the burn spells to go with them. If you're playing the long game, you probably don't mind a Doom Blade or two, but you're really in the market for blue card drawing. Black doesn't have any way to ramp mana.
Black has other limitations. Planeswalkers are very powerful in Cube. Normally, you default to fighting Planeswalkers with creatures, but again, black's creatures aren't too strong, so black struggles there. Powerful artifacts and enchantments run wild in Cube, and black can't remove Vedalken Shackles or Moat without some artifacts of its own.
In our standard Cube, we've positioned black as more of a midrange color and given it the ability to fight other attack decks while removing the Swords that grant protection from black because black is the only color that can't remove a Sword. The structure of the Holiday Cube leads to fewer other midrange decks for black to prey on, plus we've left all five Swords in because the aggressive decks need the Swords to fight against powered-up control decks.
So what's a black mage to do?
The most powerful black cards in the Cube either generate a lot of value or feature prominently in reanimation strategies. Reanimator cards are virtually ubiquitous across Cubes, so we concentrated primarily on improving black's value proposition. Cards like The Abyss and Nether Void are brutal in the midgame, with Nether Void in particular being very powerful against ramp strategies. We also brought the curve down on black's creatures; it's more important for black to be able to pressure the control decks than it is for black to outsize other creature decks. We also removed some of the all-Swamps reward cards, because in the Holiday Cube, even mono-black decks often have a lower Swamp count due to artifact mana or small splashes. These tweaks should bring black back in line with the other colors.
Red Cube decks are almost universally aggressive. Veteran Cube drafters consider Sulfuric Vortex to be one of the strongest cards in the Cube because of how strong Vortex is against control decks. That's the story of most of the Cube's strong red cards; they're either hasty creatures, efficient burn spells, or game-ending bombs. Now, if Cubes showcase the strongest cards of each color from across Magic's history, you'd certainly expect red to be over-represented in the beatdown department; most of the strong red cards from the early days of Magic were aggressive creatures and big burn spells. Still, you shouldn't be pigeonholed into one strategy just by virtue of your color.
Adding midrange and control options to red Cube decks is a tricky proposition. Again, a lot of red's best cards are aggressive, and there's no getting around that. However, there are some bright spots. Red's burn spells function as fine removal for slower decks, and the Thundermaw Hellkites of the world do fine work at the top of the curve of midrange decks as well as beatdown.
What red really needs, though, is a reason to be a red deck that wants to play for the long game instead of taking all of the aforementioned good cards and putting them in a beatdown shell.
That's why there are cards like Wildfire and Bonfire of the Damned in the Cube. Effects like these are unique to red, and lend themselves to more controlling strategies in a way that few other cards can do. Every so often, I hear feedback from people wondering why they would ever put Wildfire into their red deck. You wouldn't put Wildfire into an aggressive red deck, of course, but it's there to give people a reason to draft red control decks.
White is the most schizophrenic color in Cubes. Like red, a lot of white cards lend themselves to very aggressive strategies, but white also has a lot of powerful control options. However, where red's control options promote unique strategies in and of themselves, white just mostly has a bunch of mass-removal spells. That's awkward for a few reasons. First, it's not that interesting if the only difference in your various control decks is how they go about killing enemy creatures. Second, mass removal spells tend to get worse the more you have of them, so once you have, e.g., Wrath of God and Rout, you're not that interested in the Catastrophes and Terminus's of the world.
Beatdown decks need redundancy in their mana curves in order to be aggressive. That's why it's important to have so many one- and two-mana options for those decks. Control decks, on the other hand, don't need a ton of redundancy in the options available to them, because they can craft their decks and strategies around whatever cards they end up with.
Blue is relatively easy to balance for Cube. With most colors, when you're adding the last few cards of a color, you start to feel like you're scraping the bottom of the barrel with cards to add on the level of Cube mainstays like Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Making the last additions to blue, on the other hand, is just a matter of accepting which awesome cards can't make the cut.
One thing that does come up with balancing blue is the importance of maintaining a reasonable mana curve. There are very few reasonable options for blue creatures under four mana. Worse, some of those cheap creatures are Willbender, Phantasmal Image, and Voidmage Prodigy, none of which are particularly exciting to play on turn two most of the time. There is a very low bar for cheap blue creatures in Cubes. (Incidentally, this is why Phantasmal Bears is in the non-Holiday Cube.)
Having Power in a Cube tends to lead you down a path where you'll also include other powerful mana sources (Sol Ring, Mana Vault, Mana Crypt, etc.) to help spread the love where broken artifacts are concerned. It's important to do this, because if there is just Black Lotus and the Moxes, games can devolve into "do something super stupid on turn one, go" versus "land, go," which isn't very interesting for anyone. So, counter-intuitively, to smooth out the variance among the best cards in the Cube, you add even more cards that generate unreasonable amounts of mana.
This all does weird things to green. Generating mana is one of green's best strengths in Cube, and adding a bunch of colorless mana artifacts removes some incentives to play green. We wanted to make sure that green was still a strong choice in the Holiday Cube, so we were judicious in where we changed green to take the Power into account.
The first changes were actually minor. After all, if having some fast mana is good, having more fast mana is often better, so we actually left all of green's one-mana Elves in the Cube. You can do some awfully gross things with four or more mana on turn two. What we really cut back on were green's mana-generating cards at two or more mana; with the addition of the Ravnica-block Signets, it just wasn't worth being green for the privilege of playing Cultivate.
The second tweak was making sure that there really were sufficient rewards for ramping fast and quickly, even with creatures. There are always going to be plenty of rewards for getting to six or more mana, but we were careful to leave in plenty of reasonable bombs at four and five mana. Cards like Natural Order and Wolfir Silverheart reward creature-centric ramp decks at a point on the curve that regular ramp decks aren't typically as interested in.
Making sure green has access to fast mana that's stronger than the non-Powered artifacts and ensuring it has strong outlets for that mana goes a long way toward keeping people interested in the color.
Developing Cubes is a lot like developing sets. Every color has unique challenges and often require different solutions. If you enjoyed this article, let me know and I'll see if we can arrange for similar articles about developing individual colors in paper sets.
Max McCall is a designer in Magic R&D. He designs features for Magic Online, works on paper sets, works on digital sets, and occasionally finds time to blow up everyone else's lands in Commander games.