Monday, July 6, 2015

Cub-ED - Starting a Cube: A Walkthrough

Hello internets!  Though we twitchcast and (soon) podcast, sometimes there's no replacement for the written word.  This is one of those scenarios. PlaidMagic in its unnatural love of all things cube will be starting a blog series as well for some of the Nitty-Gritty content.  This means links, documents etc to supplement our other content.  We decided to start from the ground up and dig in at the level of the curious "precubescent" (copyright).  Without further ramble, lets ring the bell!

There are a lot of articles out there that talk about this in one way or another.  The variables in order of chronological selection are as follows (in my opinion/experience):
  • What is my playgroup preference and goal?
  • What size should my cube be, and what does that mean?
  • What are the defining factors for this cube?
  • After size, what do I do to actually start building it?
  • How do I manage it?

  In an easily understandable sense, cube is a "Custom" magic set comprised of a (usually singleton) selection of cards and is meant for drafting.  The cube designer(s) select the cards for the cube pool to create a draft environment most often to be used again and again.  Two of the biggest advantages of this format are cost savings (don't need to buy booster boxes) and having a personalized draft environment that reflect your interests as a Magic Player.  
  Please note that the following sections indicate common cube designer theories, however we will go more in depth in future articles regarding common pre/misconceptions of cube design and what other possible options there are for you.  This single article is in no way meant to dictate hard and fast rules of cube design but rather as an outline to begin to understand the general concepts of cube and the limiting factors involved in designing one.  My computer science professor once told me that its very important to understand "The Rules" in order to know how to break them.  You will find that this holds very true in cube design.  

  That's pretty much it, the rest boils down to the next few topics.

  This is the heart and the start of it as far as I'm concerned.  Since cube is a draft format, you will be drafting and playing with other human beings, and as such this is a serious consideration.  The group you are playing with (which is what will define your cube "meta") may be a group of players who hate land destruction, love infect (yeah right), and have an affection for aggro.  They may be primarily Modern players or vintage players. They may have started playing during beta or since Dragons of Tarkir.  Perhaps you don't have a playgroup and you plan on hauling this thing into your LGS when its done and just harassing strangers to play with you.

  You get the idea.

  The Plaid Magic "Counters Matter" cube, for example, was designed with the intent of drafting with a close-knit playgroup of drafters that have been friends of MrMacabreMan and Crow13th for the better part of two decades. With this in mind we were able to design our cube without considering possible theft of cards and with a general understanding of the type of magic environment our players are interested in engaging in.  This is the point in which the intersection of who my play group is and what my goal is becomes manifest. We've mostly all owned P9, we have almost all owned and played with T2 and T3 kill decks, engine decks and ridiculous combo decks.  We found that we were starting to get bored with Magic because we were no longer playing those fun creature based, swingy games with decks containing Craw Wurms, Serra Angels and Sengir Vampires.

 We knew from experience (a.k.a, our first cube) that drafting when P9 is involved, for us, tended to be less engaging in certain environments and decided to exclude this as a possibility.  We didn't like the auto picking of P9.  We didn't like having to exclude cards we found fun to play because the power disparity was too great between them and the the most powerful cards in magic.  One thing you will learn in making a cube is that power level is totally relative to the limited environment you develop.  An unplayable card in standard or modern could be a powerhouse in a cube.  The goal of our cube was to have fun both in drafting and in playing, having casually drafted many Magic sets since Ice Age, we wanted to develop an environment that was unique, something new that our seasoned playgroup had not yet experienced.  Additionally there was a small sub-section of our play group that has only been playing since Innistrad.
 This fact meant that a standard powered cube would most likely be an environment which would give advantage to those players who had been playing for 20+ years, since they had an understanding of magic history and why certain cards are powerful (Recurring Nightmare, Tarmogoyf, Channel), that the newer players did not share.  We wanted to even the playing field, similar to a standard environment, where cards are new and their effectiveness was untested.  
  We ditched our initial powered cube and sought out an interesting archetype that would bring new life to cards that we thought had the possibility of providing fun and interactive board states.  This is how the Plaid Magic "Counters Matter" cube was born. A single card, Ion Storm, sparked an entire slew of new ideas. Granted counters have mattered before in Magic's history but developing an environment in which counters mattered both intentionally and incidentally was what we wanted to go for.  We didn't want to force a mechanic too hard in drafting, we just wanted it to be there as an underlying glue that held everything together.  One could certainly draft a counters matter deck specifically, but one way or another, we wanted it to just exist in the background.  Part of the reason for this was an article posted on the Wizards website regarding a rules change how counters interacted with each other. Way back when, +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters stacked. the amendment to the rules was that moving forward +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters cancelled each other out. The possibility of a grafting a + counter from Llanowar Reborn on to an unleash creature to prevent a possible game changing block was an interesting prospect (just an example, not the apex of interaction). This is just one example and I won't go into detail here because the point of this article is not to sell people on the idea of a counters matter cube but to illustrate the thought process of understanding what an interesting limited environment is for cube designers and drafters.

  In wtwlf123's cube design article he starts by stating his first rule of cube design is "know thy playgroup", and I couldn't agree more.  It is crucial to keep this in mind because if your intended playgroup is made up of Timmy and Johnny, but that's not interesting for you, the answer is to either find a different playgroup or don't build a cube (unless you think you can change them).  I think I've illustrated my point,and I won't go further on this topic so let's move into the semantics of cube design, the nuts, bolts and guts of it.

We have some options here. the straightforward answer to this question is a basic math problem. If you're familiar with limited environments in general and understand draft formats the answer might be familiar to you already. 

  • Drafters sit down and are given a 15 card sealed pack.
  • They open the pack, select one card to keep for building a deck
  • They pass the remainder of those cards to someone sitting next to them.
  • They receive the remaining 14 cards from the pack passed to them from the opposite direction
  • The process continues until every card in the 15 card pack has been drafted.
  • They repeat this process for an additional 2 x 15 card packs, totaling 45 cards with which to build a deck from
  • Basic lands can be added to the deck and are not part of the draft

I will note that this too is a variable factor because when you were designing your own limited environment the pack size when drafting could also be adjusted. Its left to your own judgement and creativity. These could be nine card packs. There's no limitation when developing your own format, however for the purposes of this article, to be followed by further articles which will highlight the process involved in breaking the rules, we will stick to some of the known standards and the most familiar rules regarding cube design and drafting. With that said the standard cube sizes are 

  • 360 cards for a standard small cube supporting 8 drafters
    • 24 15 card packs 
  • 450 cards for a standard medium cube supporting 10 drafters
    • 30 15 card packs
  • 540 cards for a large cube supporting 12 drafters
    • 36 15 card packs
  • 630 cards for a large cube supporting 14 drafters
    • 42 15 card packs
  • 720 for a giant cube supporting 16 players 
    • 48 15 card packs, usually split up into two pods of 8 drafters. 

Most people are familiar with this, basically you have 90 card increments in size to account for 6x15 card packs which equals two extra players.  These are standard sizes, but there is some room to play around here which I will cover in a future article.  360 is the most common starting cube size, if not the most common cube size overall.  If you've read any article before this article regarding cube design you will already have certainly heard the recommendation of starting with a smaller cube. The advantage of the 360 card cube is that you are allowed a tighter design construct with no chaff. Individual cards swaps can adversely effect the environment.  This is both a positive and negative aspect of running a small cube. A single card swap can change both the actual in-game environment as well as the drafting experience. Every card in your cube will be analyzed by the drafters during the draft as a cue to what is supported.  We'll talk about draft signalling and AsFan in a later article as well.

These are really just the circumstantial and preferential factors that will contextually shape your cube.  There are some items here that may seem obvious, but you may not consider them at the outset.  Some of these are implicit and more or less unchangeable, and some are defined from a design standpoint. Let's go over the physical defining factors first (feel free to comment on these and I will add to the list):

Physical limiting factors
  • A place to play
  • Players to play
  • Time to play
  • Time to draft
  • Cards owned/budgetary limitations
  • Card playwear concerns
  • Card Theft concerns
Design limiting factors
  • Singleton or not
  • Size
  • Archetype support
  • Mono/Multi-colored deck support
  • Theme (this includes powered for me)
  • Signaling (AsFan)
  • Playgroup preference
  • Playgroup experience
  • Cube maturity (comes into play later)

  There's too much here to cover in a single article, but in the following sections I will cover some of them in the cube management section and how we crafted our cube environment around them, and others I will be covered in future articles.

Templating, templating, templating. Cubes like all limited environments consist of curve, color and archetype based ratios. the most important of these is the curve based ratio. I can't honestly think of a good reason why anyone should really re-invent the wheel on this one. There are many cube templates out there that are either expressly defined as templates or simply cubes that currently function correctly that have already figured out the math on this. I cannot stress enough that I advise that no matter what type of cube you're building, you take a currently existing popular and proven cube, copy it, and work from there. When building the Plaid Magic counters matters cube crow 13th and I used the Meeps 360 Cube (it had a similar power level, and a good curve) just started performing swaps. We did however stay as close to the curve on each individual card swap as we thought was necessary. I haven't tried doing it another way but I can only imagine the countless hours that the saved us trying to figure out and effective curve. that's not to say it's impossible but it is to say that its not required. save yourself the trouble grab a template.  Full screen the below short video for the process.

So this is a big question. After I build the, how to manage it? There many aspects of cube management:

  • List Management
  • Change Management (making and documenting swaps)
  • Physical Home
  • Collection Inventory (what I'm pulling from)
  • Getting the cards or proxying
  • Managing the playgroup
  • Scheduling
  • Drafting
  • Playing
  • Tracking card performance

List Management
There are options here, but really the best answer is in my opinion.  Its free and it is specifically designed to manage a cube list.  You could do it in,, an Excel Spreadsheet (or google spreadsheet) or on a piece of paper.  These are all options, but for me, has been the way to go. would be a functional close second, but the advantages I see in cubetutor are:

  • Built in changelog functionality
  • Ability to associate cards with a color identity other than the default (are Llanowar Reborn and Azorious Cluestone really colorless?)
  • Additional basic archetype assignments available
  • Easily available graphs for curve, supertype, subtype, color %'s.

That said, to each their own.  The main needs I see are to be able to easily view your list, your curve and changes.  This also allows you to evaluate supported strategies and archetypes.

Change Management

I find it important to keep track of individual card performance.  Keep track of what's being drafted and main-boarded.  It is also important to keep track of cards you'd like to try out (a cube sideboard so-to-speak) and to maintain a list of historical changes.  Changes often take place for us after a draft (when issues have been identified), after set releases, and sometimes when we decide to implement for "fix" an archetype or strategy shift.  As I mentioned before, works well for this.  Here's an example of how I document changes in cubetutor:

I actually go a little more in-depth and consolidate the changelog on a regular basis, manually adding swap dates, reason, etc after which I delete the automatically generated log, but at least I know that it being tracked no matter what.  If you want to check out how I do it, check out our blog.

Physical Home
Lots of choices here.  We use a holiday box.  I plan on building my own in the near future.  I keep everything Alphabetized, with tokens sitting behind their generators in different colored sleeves.  You can make your own decisions on this, but I'll put some links to info on this below the image.

Tolarian Community College Storage Review

Collection Inventory
Everyone has their own style, I find it very useful to keep my entire inventory in  Free basic membership gives you access to an inventory as well as the ability to create decks that check against the inventory, which is what I was looking for.  If you are interested in the process I used to inventory my collection, and then keep it updated, let me know, but that's a whole other can of wurms.  When we got our cube figured out, I created a deck and pasted our cube, then I knew what I needed to get or proxy.  I'll take that template we made before and show you that process:

So as you can see, my process is to move missing cards to the sideboard, then addthem back as I acquire or proxy them.  Basically, that deck is basically, for me, the digital representation of the physical cards inside my cube storage box.

Obtaining Cards
You know the normal methods.  LGS, TCGPlayer, Ebay, ChannelFireball SCG, etc.  You probably know this already as well, but I literally just started using PucaTrade, and man has it changed my job as a cube curator.  Send out cards I don't need, get ones I do.  I would highly suggest using if you are not already.  If you are in need of purchasing high volume commons and bulk stuff, I would also suggest grabbing what you can from AdventuresOn - They have really great prices on low end stuff.

So, I'm not the best here, but I do alright.  You know your options.  Writing on a card, printing an imaging and slip it into a sleeve with another card all the way to removing images from foils using acetone and printing on transparency adhesive paper.  This Reddit Post will cover this better that I can.

Managing the Playgroup
  I don't need to guide here, you know what to do.  I mentioned this just to say, "Hey, here's a thing you need to do!"  Create a contact group, facebook group, text message group, make phone calls, whatever.  If you're going with the group strategy and not the "Show up at the LGS and recruit" strategy, get a pool of drafters that is larger than the capacity of your cube.  You may occasionally need to turn a drafter down, but at least you are more likely to fill out your seats.

If you can set a regular schedule, that's great and I envy you.  We can't, and propose dates a month or so in advance.  This is where a facebook group is probably a good idea.  Not all of our drafters use facebook, so we just email to keep track.  We try to play once a month, since we don't have a ton of spare time after work and family stuff.

Here I think we differ from most.  Most cubes get together and have either pre-shuffled the cube and separated into packs or do the shuffling and pack making immediately prior to drafting.  We actually electronically draft on on a Friday, send everyone a copy of their draft results and request their final decklists.  We pull on Saturday and meet on Sunday, at which point we are ready to sit down and play.  This may be overly structured for most people, but We have some serious time contraints for cube play, and we want to get in as many games as possible.  The side effect of this method is that we have a chronological set of all the decklists played each round, what was drafted in what order, what made the mainboard and what was sent to the sideboard, and who did well or poorly.  Oh the data!  This allows us to take a look at strategies or archetypes that are underperforming, then talk with the player that drafted it and try to get an understanding of where they felt they were being shortchanged and what wasn't working right.

So each player starts with 20 life, roll dice two see who....just kidding.  Really though, figuring our what tournament format you're using.  Round Robin, Elimination bracket, etc.  We actually switched to just three match drafts.  We have 8 players (usually), grab 2 Islands, 2 forests, 2 Plains and 2 swamps, shuffle and have everyone pull one to find their matching land opponent.  We do this for 3 rounds and give out "PlaidWalker Points" that carry on through the year.  So we play best 2 out of 3 and a win is worth 3 points, a draw is 1 point and a lost is 0.  So the maximum amount of points you could pull out of 3 games with a single opponent would be 7.  This would be Win(3)/Draw(1)/Win(3).  I honestly had a hard time finding good articles on options here, so I will probably do some research and write an article later.

Tracking Performance
I would actually love to get some input on how others do this.  I highlighted how we do this, but I imagine you could do this but taking pictures of decks and sideboards, then entering it into a spreadsheet later.  Tracking draft order I think would be very hard outside of a digital draft.
If you have some input or ideas here, let me know in the comments and I will add/credit you.

Links and Resources

I would like to get some more of these out in the near future, diving deep into some of the subsections listed here.  Let me know in the comments what you'd like to to see next!  Make sure to like or subscribe or whatever it is you want.  We are on twitter @plaidmagic, check out on mtgcast for audio, youtube channel or just check out our series here: