Thursday, 1 November 2012

Green - Lean and Mean

In a recent podcast entitled "Greener Pastures", Matt "Kranny" Kranstuber and guest Tim Pskowski discussed the design of the Green sections of their cubes. The episode lasted about an hour and thoroughly covered many of the topics associated with choosing Green cards for your cube. I highly recommend having a listen if you have the time and interest. For me, there were three key points that I took away from their discussion. I'd like to discuss my thoughts on each of these and then take a look at how I plan to apply them to my own cube.

Clear philosophy

During the podcast, Tim stated his view that "Green is about mana and creatures." Many of us already know this to be true, but it's easy to get distracted when selecting cards for the cube. Tim went on to mention that he applies this in a number of ways:
  • The creature:spell ratio in the Green section of his cube is 40:20. Setting these ratios is part of the art of cube design, but it's clear that Green should tip heavily toward creatures.
  • Of the 20 spells in his Green section, 10 are about creatures. Examples include Treetop Village (classed as a Green spell for the purposes of actual game play) and Green Sun's Zenith.
  • Most of the other 10 spells in his Green section are about mana. Examples include Farseek, Cultivate, and some unorthodox inclusions such as Utopia Sprawl. He also include Growth Spasm, which is a good example of a card that is about both mana and creatures.
  • Many of the creatures in his Green section are about mana. The traditional "mana dorks" are there in abundance - Birds of Paradise, Noble Hierarch, Llanowar Elves, etc. But he also includes mana producers further up the curve such as Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary, Somberwald Sage and Oracle of Mul Daya.

Unique identity

What makes a colour unique? Perhaps more importantly, what makes you want to draft a particular colour? Kranny and Tim discussed this last question in some detail and their thoughts - which are corroborated by my own experience - are revealing. The things that get a drafter to want to draft Green are the mana producers. If you want to ramp into stuff faster than the other decks, you need to be in Green. In my experience with cubes such as the MTGO cube, when Green ramp is heavily supported, things can get out of hand quickly which makes these decks good and therefore worth drafting.

In an article entitled "Nuts & Bolts: Design Skeleton", Magic Lead Designer, Mark Rosewater, further clarified Green's role as the BIG creature colour:

For a long time, green was the color that got the most creatures but a year or so back we spent some time trying to differentiate between white and green and came to the realization that it was silly for green to be the color that got the most and the biggest creatures at common. White is the "army color" so we decided it would make sense for white to get the largest number of creatures and leave green the largest creatures at common. White beats you with numbers while green beats you with size.

Many cube enthusiasts complain that Green is sub-par and lacks a real identity. But if you're trying to make Green be just another aggressive colour with lots of cheap and agressive 1- and 2-drops, then it has to compete directly with other colours that have better options in these slot. On the other hand, if Green is the dedicated colour of mana and big creatures, then it provides something that the other colours simply can't compete with. In a draft environment, this is exactly where we want a colour to be.

There are many cube enthusiasts who defend Green aggressive strategies, and that's fine. It does seem like the Gruul guild should be aggressive. But for me, 1-drop mana dork into powerful 3-drop seems like an effective strategy and one that I'm willing to support for now. Gold cards like Bloodbraid Elf play very nicely with this approach. It is also possible to splash key cards like Kird Ape in a mostly Red deck.

It turns out that the very thing that makes Green unique is it's clear and streamlined philosophy.

Attention to the overlap with other colours

In order to truly execute on the Green philosophy, a cube designer must ensure a consistent message throughout the cube. One way to do this is to examine each two-colour pair involving Green and ensuring that the cards in the Gold section for these guilds are consistent with the approaches that your Green section is supporting. I think that this is where it often becomes easy to be distracted - good gold cards can sometimes do something quite different from what the natural overlap of the colours should be. As an example, look at Firemane Angel from the original Ravnica: City of Guilds - while this is a good card on it's own it does not really support the things that Red-White decks naturally want to be doing. As a minimum a gold section should encourage and support the strategies that are natural for those two-colour pairs.

As I am planning a big overhaul of the multi-coloured section of my cube just after Gatecrash is released, I'll save the analysis for then. However, I do think that it's an important aspect of supporting each individual colour which shouldn't be overlooked.

Don't steal pie

This topic wasn't discussed in the podcast, but I do believe it to be an important aspect of supporting Green in cube: cut the fast mana and coloured mana-producing artifacts. In a powered cube, the Moxen and Black Lotus are big offenders of both - fast coloured mana. In addition, a fair few people have caught on to the fact that cards like Sol Ring and Mana Crypt, which provide mana acceleration the turn they come into play (e.g. mana generated > converted mana cost) provide unnaturally fast starts in decks that don't even require Green.

If you want to preserve Green as the primary ramp and fixing colour, then you simply can't make these effects available to decks that don't contain Green. Artifacts have their role, but I believe it's possible for them to complement Green rather than render it irrelevant. To this end, I currently apply the following restrictions to my cube:

  1. The mana rocks that produce more mana than their casting cost are not included. These include Sol Ring, Mana Vault, Mana Crypt, etc. I understand that these are some of the best cards in Magic's history which is what many people are looking for in cube. However, I believe that having 5 strong colours is of paramount importance to diversity and creating fun and interesting cube experiences.
  2. The mana rocks that produce coloured mana are not included. These include Signets, Talismans, and even Coalition Relic for now. I'm currently running Mox Diamond as a special case because I think that the fact that you have to accept card disadvantage for the acceleration plus fixing makes it not quite as big of competition for Green.

To distinguish, Green can accelerate, fix and even gain some card advantage while doing it (e.g. Cultivate) or get a dude out of the deal which has it's own advantages (such as carrying swords and such).

Under this world view, artifacts are allowed to accelerate but only by providing colourless mana. The broken mana rocks shift the balance away from Green so restriction #1 applies. Dual lands can fix mana, and with fetches and shocklands (and eventually ABUR duals), they can do this rather effectively. Therefore, I don't need artifacts that also do this.


So, if you're ramping...what are you ramping into? Green is supposed to be the colour of big creatures, and if this is true then Green must have most of the biggest creatures in the cube. This can be difficult, since big creatures have been printed in every colour and colourless and many of them are of cube quality. Cards like Sundering Titan and Myr Battlesphere - as well as the Eldrazi if you run them - mean that you don't necessarily need a big Green finisher in your ramp deck. However, if we limit the number of cards that fall into this category and provide a hearty helping of the biggest fatties in Green, then drafters already in Green for ramp will be looking for some of these on colour options as they come around. As Tim discussed, including a card like Natural Order will also encourage this - ramping with a turn one mana dork into an early Natural Order sacrificing the dork and getting a big Green fatty into play on turn three is a perfectly reasonable - and fun - thing to be doing in cube. Cards like Woodfall Primus, Pelakka Wurm, Hornet Queen, Avenger of Zendikar and others hitting play many turns early make Green a good place to be.

To be honest, there are actually a number of directions that you can take the "creatures" part of the Green philosophy. Support for token strategies, for example, is something that I'd like to see a little more of. And yes, supporting aggro is possible. However, each strategy that you choose to support stretches the colour thin in terms of support for other strategies. For me, the answer is to keep my Green section lean and mean.


Here's my current Green section:

Green Creatures Green Spells
Avacyn's Pilgrim
Birds of Paradise
Elves of Deep Shadow
Fyndhorn Elves
Joraga Treespeaker
Llanowar Elves
Noble Hierarch
Wild Nacatl
Fauna Shaman
Lotus Cobra
Mire Boa
River Boa
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Strangleroot Geist
Wall of Blossoms
Wall of Roots
Wild Mongrel
Eternal Witness
Great Sable Stag
Troll Ascetic
Uktabi Orangutan
Viridian Shaman
Yavimaya Elder
Chameleon Colossus
Obstinate Baloth
Phantom Centaur
Thrun, the Last Troll
Wickerbough Elder
Acidic Slime
Deranged Hermit
Indrik Stomphowler
Rampaging Baloths
Avenger of Zendikar
Gaea's Revenge
Hornet Queen
Krosan Tusker
Woodfall Primus
Treetop Village
Nature's Claim
Survival of the Fittest
Beast Within
Call of the Herd
Kodama's Reach
Krosan Grip
Garruk Wildspeaker
Natural Order
Garruk, Primal Hunter
Plow Under
Primal Command
Green Sun's Zenith

Here are the changes that I'm proposing to update Green to be more lean and mean:

Proposed Adds Proposed Drops
Arbor Elf
Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary
Overgrown Battlement
Somberwald Sage
Ohran Viper
Oracle of Mul Daya
Primeval Titan
Pelakka Wurm
Utopia Sprawl
Search for Tomorrow
Growth Spasm
Elves of Deep Shadow
Mire Boa
Strangleroot Geist
Troll Ascetic
Great Sable Stag
Obstinate Baloth
Wickerbough Elder
Gaea's Revenge
Nature's Claim
Primal Command

Utopia Sprawl is a sweet option from Tim's list that I just had to try when I saw it. If it doesn't work out, I can always look for something else. Arbor Elf is just an upgrade over Elves of Deep Shadow which now moves into the on deck box with Boreal Druid as additional mana dorks available when the cube expands. Ohran Viper is a card that has been in the cube before, but was removed largely to support more aggressive Green 3-drops. If we're wanting to support ramp and midrange strategies in Green, the viper is an excellent fit. Seeing a card like Great Sable Stag go is actually a shame because it's better in more matches than it first appears. But most cubes have cut this card from 450. Meanwhile, cards like Oracle of Mul Daya, Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary and Primeval Titan are cards that I was already planning to include in Green - this big update is just an excuse to work them in.

There are some other cards that I've moved into my on deck box as well. Cards like Devoted Druid give me additional options if I feel that I need to push even harder in the ramp direction.

As it stands, it will likely take a week or two for me to pull together the remaining cards I need to make this change so there's still time to talk me out of it. Once I make the changes, the only way to know for sure whether things have improved is to play the cube.

And if you're cubing, it can't be that bad.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Return to Ravnica League - 40 Cards

Our three-person league kicked off the week after the pre-release. It's a little unconventional in that we start with our sealed pool from the pre-release and add two new booster packs each week, starting with the first week. Conveniently, our local store gives out two boosters to everyone who participated in the pre-release, so we were guaranteed to have the packs we need in week 1. We also split a booster box giving us another 12 packs each, which weren't available until week 2 of the league. We took advantage of a deal that involved getting a $20 gift voucher at our local store as well as getting the buy-a-box promo card, which is Supreme Verdict. We agreed to put up both of these for prizes, the voucher going to the first place winner and the promo card the prize for second place.

We also agreed on exactly the same structure as last time: seven weeks, starting with eight packs (sealed pool + two boosters) and building up to a total of 20 boosters. We'll play the first four weeks with 40-card decks and then shift up to 60-card decks for the final three weeks.

At this point, we've completed the first four weeks - the 40-card decks. Below is a summary of each of the weeks and the standings up to now.

Week 1

Here were the contents of my two booster packs for week one:

1 Azorius Justiciar
1 Sunspire Griffin
1 Rootborn Defenses


1 Crosstown Courier
1 Soulsworn Spirit


1 Drainpipe Vermin
1 Stab Wound
1 Shrieking Affliction
1 Ultimate Price
1 Perilous Shadow
1 Catacomb Slug
1 Launch Party


1 Pursuit of Flight
1 Cobblebrute
1 Tenement Crasher


1 Giant Growth
1 Korozda Monitor
1 Axebane Stag


1 Search Warrant
1 Dramatic Rescue
1 Azorius Guildgate


1 Rakdos Shred-Freak
1 Slaughter Games


1 Risen Sanctuary
1 Coursers' Accord
1 Selesnya Keyrune


1 Trestle Troll


1 Counterflux

A handful of potential goodies for Azorius and not much to pull me in another direction. Ultimate Price and Stab Wound are good cards, but not enough even combined with my other Black to make me jump ship. Blue-White-Black (a.k.a. Esper) is not one of the tri-colour combinations supported by the mana in this set so there's little incentive to make major changes. Furthermore, I have neither Selesnya Guildgate nor Izzet Guildgate in my pool, so beyond the one copy of Transguild Promenade and the newly opened Selesnya Keyrune there aren't really any mana fixers to support a natural splash.

Meanwhile, another Azorius Guildgate makes my on-guild mana a little better. Azorius Justiciar and Sunspire Griffin #2 also seem like auto-includes. The cards that are debatable from my perspective are Crosstown Courier, Soulsworn Spirit and Dramatic Rescue #3. The Courier's upside is not really something that is likely to greatly benefit my deck, so it would be included simply to have another 2-power beater on turn 2. It is more aggressive than Concordia Pegasus, for example, and is probably worth trying just to see how it performs. Soulsworn Spirit continues the detain shenanigans that the deck really relies on to get the job done. It is also an unblockable threat, though without any equipment it's a little slow for a 4-drop. Perhaps it would make me consider playing a card like Ethereal Armor - I don't have Civic Saber. Evasion is very strong though and it seems like it should be worth playing. Finally, Dramatic Rescue is actually just what the deck needs, but I'm not really sure that it needs 3 copies. If I find that it does, then this card is available, but I'll leave it in the sideboard to begin with.

The cards that seemed to under perform included Palisade Giant and Concordia Pegasus. The pegasi can come in from the sideboard against heavy aggression if necessary. I'm conscious of the fact that if I remove 2 2-drops that's bad in general, but if I replace them with a 2-drop and a 3-drop and replace the giant with a 4-drop then overall I think my curve is adequately dealt to. The question is whether I can fit another 4-drop in. I decided to play the Soulsworn Spirit in the end.

I managed to defeat Gund 2-0 with his Rakdos build.

Meanwhile, Michael got the prize for being first to abandon his guild, and he did it grand fashion, switching from the Green and White of Selesnya to the Black and Red of Rakdos. This means that I have to play against all Rakdos all the time. Michael's deck was fast, too, and he played well, stocking up on burn to finish me off when things seemed to be stabilizing. I went down 1-2. With Michael defeating Gund as well, Michael jumped out to the early lead in the standings.

Week 2

Unfortunately, I forgot to write down what I opened and shuffled it all in with the following weeks before I realized. After opening, I did sent the following email summarizing: "I opened nothing and Supreme Verdict".

So, the question is, would you play Supreme Verdict in a tempo deck? If it's in your opening hand, you can craft your game plan around it. But if it isn't, it pretty much works against what this deck is trying to do. I'd be interested to know what other people think. I ended up playing it. It was stuck in my hand more than once and I never ended up casting it which of course only reinforces my thoughts. But maybe I wasn't thinking about it the right way.

I ended up beating Gund 2-1. His deck has Pack Rat which scares me, but I always seem to have a way to deal with it - usually Detention Sphere. That card is just always there when you need it.

I also beat Michael 2-0. It was a big reversal from the previous week. Michael also lost to Gund, erasing his early lead in the league standings.

Week 3

Once again I didn't open enough of anything to steer my pool on any course other than the Azorius detain plan. Here are the relevant cards that I opened:

1 Sunspire Griffin
1 Runewing
1 Stealer of Secrets
1 Crosstown Courier
1 Dramatic Rescue

I don't need another bounce spell. The 2-drop could be a consideration if I'm looking to reduce my curve, but I'm more drawn to the two fliers. Stealer of Secrets I was unsure about. I decided to try it just to see how it plays. My thinking was that if I'm detaining and bouncing things, it might just get through and do some good work.

The rares were Nivmagus Elemental and Death's Presence, neither of which I see much use for in my established deck. The Elemental really requires a build-around instant and sorcery theme and the Enchantment doesn't seem like enough to put me into Green. It's interesting to note that I'm building up some decent Rakdos in my pool, but not enough for a really strong deck and I definitely don't want to play Rakdos mirrors the whole week.

I ended up with the exact same record as the previous week, defeating Gund 2-1 and Michael 2-0. Michael managed to defeat Gund but I had a 6-point lead in the standings after week 3.

Week 4

Here are the relevant cards that I opened for Week 4:

1 Soulsworn Spirit
1 Keening Apparition
1 Trostani's Judgment
1 Avenging Arrow
1 Fencing Ace
1 Crosstown Courier

Swaps: +1 Keening Apparition
+1 Soulsworn Spirit
-1 Crosstown Courier
-1 Supreme Verdict

I was thinking that Trostani's Judgment might be a bit too slow in the harsh environment that I'm playing in - two Rakdos decks. Avenging Arrow is also mediocre here where you're looking to stop damage rather than take it. Fencing Ace would be good in some environments, but I don't have ways to pump it unless I play Ethereal Armor, which just seems subpar.

Supreme Verdict has been awkward in a deck that is trying to tempo the opponent out. I left it in for Week 3 but decided to remove it for Week 4.

I won 2-1 over Gund - the games were close and I felt like I was on the back foot most of the time. I also got a little colour-screwed in two of the games, which made them a little closer.

I lost 0-2 to Michael. Once again I felt on the back foot a lot, even though the games were close.

The standings are close after the first four weeks as I'm holding on by a slim 3-point margin.

Next week we shift to 60-card decks. This changes things a bit and potentially provides a good opportunity to reassess the deck. In particular, I think that I need to consider whether my card pool can put together a strategy that can beat two Rakdos decks rather than just playing what my card pool does best.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012


In a previous post I discussed examining existing draft environments as a way to help you build your own custom draft environments. The example application of this principle which I discussed was mapping the concept of card rarity to your cube. There are many other things to learn from looking at these draft environments as well, such as how many draft archetypes you can support, what are the pieces you need to build a viable ramp strategy or what makes a "fast" draft environment. However, at its core, these things are all examples of a more general concept: modelling.

A model is an example that you use as a study reference which forms a basis of comparison; what you learn from studying the model can then be applied to your "actual" design - the real thing. Often models are created specifically as new things to be studied because they don't already exist. For example, an architect might build a scale model of a building in order to get a better feel for proportion and the overall impression of a design. With cube design, though, we have existing draft environments that we can study. However, existing draft environments aren't the only models that we have available to us. One of the goals of cube design - particularly for "best of" cubes - is to mimic Constructed playable decks and strategies within a Limited environment. It would make sense, then, to use Constructed decks as models for the type of decks we're trying to support in our cubes.

As an example, let's answer this question: How many aggro 1-drops do you need in your cube?

2-drops and a number of other factors are also important and might be worth running the numbers on, but 1-drops are the thing that allows aggro decks to start applying pressure straight away. Every turn you wait, that's an opportunity for your opponent to get their slower strategy online and functioning. Based on experience thus far, aggro 1-drops also seem to be the limiting factor in terms of how many aggressive decks can be supported in a cube. Interestingly, this line of analysis could potentially provide an indication of the maximum cube size that can adequately support this definition of aggro (which will increase over time as more aggressively costed 1-drops become available).

Ok, so how do you do this? I use the method below to build up my understanding of the problem domain and ultimately produce a number that answers the question.

Aside: When doing analysis like this I rely heavily on probability as it applies to Magic. While I won't go into the detail here, there are some good articles available on the Internet which explain how this works. I've provided some references at the bottom. I've also distilled this into a basic spreadsheet which I add to from time to time. I've transferred some of this information into this spreadsheet online. While I definitely recommend learning the maths behind this, the spreadsheet is a handy quick reference.


a) Aggressively costed (i.e. power > CMC) 1-drops are a critical factor in defining an aggro deck. The primary purpose of this is to apply pressure to the opponent from the opening turn.

b) Since this is the resource that appears to be in shortest supply, it will be the limiting factor.

c) While Cube is a Limited format, from a design perspective the goal is to allow players to draft and build Constructed-style decks (but only if they want to ). This means that we can look to successful Constructed decks of a similar archetype as a basis for comparison.


Step 1: Identify the model

In this case, our model is really a collection of successful aggressive decks from across the history of the game. Some examples include Zoo, Zombies and Boros. (Many Green-based decks will consider themselves aggro but open with a turn one mana-producer to accelerate into powerful 3- and 4-drops ahead of schedule. I personally classify this as mid-range though you may classify it differently. Here I'm discussing the decks that want to be attacking for two on turn two.)

Depending on the format, a typical Constructed aggressive deck will run anywhere from 8-16 aggressive 1-drops in a 60-card deck. The level of aggression is roughly correlated to this number. Eight provides a 65.4% probability of having a 1-drop in your opening hand, while 16 provides a 90.1% of the same. From personal experience, I think that eight is too few, and that a successful number tends to be 10-12.

10 provides a 74.1% probability of having a 1-drop in your opening hand while 11 provides a 77.8% chance (from the spreadsheet).

Step 2: Convert the model to your situation

To find the equivalent number in a 40-card deck, we simply find the number that provides the closest probability to the target range (~74%-78%). In a 40-card deck, six 1-drops provides a 71.1% chance of having one in your opening hand, while seven provides a 77.1% chance. For the purposes of this analysis, I'll say therefore that the prototype aggro deck in cube wants seven 1-drops.

Step 3: Decide how to apply the findings to your environment

So, for every aggro deck that could be drafted, you'll need about seven 1-drops in the draft. Ignoring variance for a minute (see step 4), if you have eight drafters and a 360-card Cube (meaning all cards are available in the draft), then you need to determine how many aggro decks you want available in a given draft. Of course, this doesn't mean that this many decks will be drafted, but does indicate the number of 1-drops you would ideally need. Let's say you want n aggro decks available in the draft. This means that you need n * 7 aggressive 1-drops. I'll say that I want three aggro decks in my 8-person draft, so I need at least 21 1-drops in the draft.

Step 4: Scale the model to your cube size

What happens if the entire cube is not drafted? I'll take the example of a 450-card cube with eight people drafting. This means that 360/450 cards are available in the draft. If you still want n aggro decks, then you still need n * 7 1-drops in the draft as above. So then how many do I need in my 450-card Cube?

360/450 = 21/x

Solve for x...x=26.25

I need 26-27 aggro 1-drops in my 450-card cube to support three aggressive decks in an 8-person draft. Of course, the split won't always be exactly this ratio. Sometimes there will be more or less available. You have two options: You can add more 1-drops than the calculated minimum to try to ensure that there are at least enough available most of the time, or you can accept that sometimes there will be 2 aggro decks available and sometimes there will be 3 (or whatever you calculated for). That's the variance.

Step 5: Make decisions about how to apply the numbers

It's all well and fine to know that you need X 1-drops, but how should these be divided by colour? It's probably not viable to expect the lone aggro drafter to put together a 4-colour deck to make it happen.

My own principle is to assume that the mana is good enough to run 2-colour decks fairly easily. I also don't personally plan to guarantee to my players that mono-X aggro will be supported. On the flipside, if a player wants to run Naya Zoo, that's fine but I don't think you necessarily need to do anything to support that other than make the mana available.

This means that the number of aggro decks that you want to support should be divided across the colours in which you want to support aggro. For the purposes of this calculation, I think that you need to include the Blue-based tempo decks, because if they're paired with an aggro colour for efficient 1-drops, then they'll be pulling from your the same pool. In fact, since Blue doesn't really have any aggro 1-drops (or maybe just Phantasmal Bear), you might need the second colour to provide the full complement.

So, then, for every 3.5 1-drops you have in a given colour which are available in a given draft, you can support half of a deck. So if a 360-card cube with eight drafters has seven White 1-drops, four Black 1-drops and three Red 1-drops, then your Cube can roughly support 2 aggro decks. Further, you can expect that either one will be mono-White and the other will be Black/Red, or both will be White/X.

I suppose in an ideal world I'd see something like 2 aggro decks, 2 aggro control decks, 2 midrange decks and 2 control decks in an 8-person draft. These numbers are very rough and I wouldn't want it to always be exactly the same every time, but this kind of tells me that I'd really need about 28 1-drops in an ideal draft!


There are other factors that can affect the numbers. For example, some players might draft 1 or 2 1-drops but not see anything else to support aggro (cut-off) so they might abandon that plan. That means that those picks are stranded in a non-aggro deck or sideboard, and are not available to the other players drafting aggro. It might be worthwhile erring on the side of greater than the minimum calculated.

On the other hand, you might not want it to be too easy, either. Part of drafting is knowing that resources are limited and that you need to know what to prioritise. If 1-drops are abundant, then drafters will not need to prioritise them as much. Mark Rosewater, the Lead Designer of Magic: the Gathering, addressed this point in a recent article entitled When Cards Go Bad Revisited. In it, he identified improvisation as a key element of game design:

Design Principle #4: Force Players to Improvise

Another truism of game design is that you can't give the players everything they need. Games at their core are about allowing players to challenge themselves. A good game designer gives the players some tools but not enough to easily complete the task. Why? Because the goal of game design is to force the players to seek out their own solutions.

Another similar consideration is that you need to leave players wanting more. When drafting, you can build a great deck - say, a UW control deck - but even if you win with it, you can often look at it and think "this deck could have used one more removal spell" or "it was lacking a bit of card draw". It's not often that you build the perfect Limited deck, and that's what helps to keep an environment from getting stale. Over the weekend I drafted Return to Ravnica five times on Magic Online. In one draft, I had a really good Golgari beatdown deck. I had wanted to try out the Golgari scavenge strategy, but my deck only ended up with about 3 cards in it with scavenge. Fortunately, I realised pretty early that I might not get the pieces I needed for the scavenge deck and prioritised making a viable beatdown deck if there was nothing with scavenge available. It worked out reasonably well for me, but I still wanted to go back and try again. It happened in the very next draft - I ended up with a deck with about 8 or 9 scavenge cards, some black fliers, etc. The deck ended up not being that powerful, but I think I didn't quite have it right...I'd want to try it again. And that's the point - if you have too much of what the players need, then they'll get it and they might not even have to fight for it.

Reverse Analysis

So, how am I actually doing? I'll look at my cube to figure out what I can support. From my current list:

White: 5
Blue: 0
Black: 5
Red: 3
Green: 1
Multi-Colour: 5

Total: 19

Based on these numbers, I'm likely to only get about two aggro decks in a given draft. It is possible to get a third, but I'd like to see a few more cube-quality aggro 1-drops printed before I try to increase the size of my cube. The recent additions of the incredibly flexible Rakdos Cackler and Dryad Militant have been a real boon to aggressive strategies in cube. Keep in mind that just throwing in bad 1-drops doesn't solve the problem. The cards being considered must be of cube quality. In addition, an aggro deck can also look to other plays that progress their strategy on turn one, such as AEther Vial, Black Vise or Bonesplitter. That's where improvisation comes into play.


This method can be applied to any number of card classifications to help you make appropriate design decisions and card selections for your cube. The final step, of course, is to play your cube and get a feel for whether there are too many or not enough cards of a particular type.

And if you're cubing, it can't be that bad.

Reference Material

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Returning to Ravnica

I didn't go to Ravnica the first time around. Or, at least, I didn't go with everyone else on the big bus tour around the place. I've made a few side trips on my own, but sometimes it really is nice to get the thorough tour, complete with guide. Or something like that. In any event, I'm as excited as everyone else is to be spending the next year in the City of Guilds.

It's been a couple of weeks since the Return to Ravnica pre-release and that means that our new tradition of running a league at work is underway. Before I get to that, however, today I want to talk about the pre-release itself. Michael, Gund and myself all attended the pre-release at Vagabond, our local store, again. There was a pretty impressive turnout for our area - we counted more than 40 people, and while plenty of stores in larger cities have more, that seemed pretty strong for our smaller town. To be honest, there really wasn't room for more people.

I had been wanting to play both Izzet and Azorius. However, after the cards were spoiled on, I was very unimpressed with the cards in the Izzet guild - I'm talking about commons and uncommons here, the majority of what you have to work with in Limited. As a result, I decided to go with the Azorius guild pack and see how it ran.

Here's the pool that I opened:

2 Keening Apparition
2 Concordia Pegasus
1 Sunspire Griffin
1 Palisade Giant
1 Eyes in the Skies
1 Soul Tithe
1 Ethereal Armor
1 Trained Caracal
1 Seller of Songbirds

3 Voidwielder
1 Isperia's Skywatch
2 Inaction Injunction
1 Paralyzing Grasp
1 Mizzium Skin
1 Search the City
1 Psychic Spiral
3 Doorkeeper
1 Blustersquall
1 Dispel

1 Drainpipe Vermin
1 Cremate
1 Daggerdrome Imp
1 Thrill-Kill Assassin
1 Sewer Shambler
1 Mind Rot
1 Perilous Shadow
1 Destroy the Evidence
1 Zanikev Locust

1 Electrickery
1 Pursuit of Flight
1 Splatter Thug
2 Lobber Crew
1 Viashino Racketeer
1 Batterhorn
1 Goblin Rally
1 Minotaur Aggressor

3 Drudge Beetle
1 Stonefare Crocodile
1 Axebane Guardian
1 Oak Street Innkeeper
1 Aerial Predation
2 Chorus of Might
1 Axebane Stag
1 Horncaller's Chant
2 New Prahv Guildmage
1 Vassal Soul
1 Hussar Patrol
1 Archon of the Triumvirate
2 Dramatic Rescue
1 Detention Sphere
1 Search Warrant

1 Rakdos Charm
1 Hellhole Flailer
1 Slaughter Games

1 Heroes' Reunion
1 Sundering Growth
1 Centaur Healer
1 Growing Ranks
1 Coursers' Accord
1 Risen Sanctuary

1 Golgari Charm
1 Trestle Troll
1 Golgari Longlegs

1 Izzet Charm
1 Frostburn Weird
1 Chemister's Trick

1 Azorius Guildgate
1 Rakdos Guildgate
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Transguild Promenade

1 Azorius Keyrune
1 Street Sweeper

I built the following deck, though some cards were a bit fluid throughout the day. One of the things that I really like about pre-releases is the ability to switch your deck around as you learn more about the new cards.

RTR Prerelease Sealed Deck

Lands (17)
8 Plains
8 Island
1 Azorius Guildgate

Creatures (15)
2 Keening Apparition
2 Concordia Pegasus
2 New Prahv Guildmage
1 Sunspire Griffin
1 Vassal Soul
1 Hussar Patrol
3 Voidwielder
1 Isperia's Skywatch
1 Palisade Giant
1 Archon of the Triumvirate

Other Spells (8)
2 Inaction Injunction
2 Dramatic Rescue
1 Paralyzing Grasp
1 Detention Sphere
1 Azorius Keyrune
1 Eyes in the Skies

After my initial build, I played a practice game against Michael after which I decided to swap in the 2 Dramatic Rescue - I took out Mizzium Skin and Soul Tithe. I had originally thought that Dramatic Rescue only targeted your own permanents, but upon closer inspection it bounces any creature, so that fit in pretty well with all of the detain in the Azorius deck. I actually swapped the Soul Tithe back in against opponents with a lot of big guys but generally was happy not to have it. In retrospect I don't think it's very good. I also swapped out Palisade Giant several times. I was pretty disappointed with it, since usually it just bought me one turn - my opponent would swing for 7+ damage and just kill it. The only other change I made was after the first round, during which I found Transguild Promenade to be far too slow and unnecessary in a 2-colour deck.

Detain is a mechanic that performs better than I expected in practice. I guess I must have initially thought that it just bought you half a turn - either the block if you played it on your own turn, or their attack if you played it on theirs. However, since it lasts until your next upkeep, you actually get both, making it pretty effective in a tempo-based deck. I also notice afterward that all of the detain cards occur at sorcery speed anyway, so the point is moot.

Inaction Injunction was pretty good - not fantastic, but pretty good. It usually did what you wanted and it cycles for another card making it's cost actually pretty low. Sometimes stalling and digging for another card is exactly what you need to do. The number of times that I've needed a land, played Inaction Injunction and found my land - both during the pre-release and since - is actually pretty impressive.

Keening Apparition was mostly pretty average because it gets outclassed so quickly. However, against my round 3 opponent who had a Collective Blessing, it proved invaluable, destroying it both games. It's also pretty good against Stab Wound, and sometimes you just need a 2-power dude to start beating down on turn 2. So while not fanstastic, it turns out to be a pretty useful card.

Concordia Pegasus looked bad, seemed good in the first match, and then didn't really seem very effective after that. I think it has it's place to stop the early beatdown and can be an effective sideboard card in this deck, but probably should not be maindeck if I have other options.

Hussar Patrol was pretty great on the day. People didn't seem to play around it and it managed to eat something in many games, giving me the 0-for-1. It's a nice pairing with Eyes in the Skies, since you could have either when you pass with 4 mana up.

Voidwielder, especially having 3 copies, played extremely well into the detain plan. In general, bounce is a natural companion to detain and I was very happy with these all day. I do think that they're very expensive and as I add more cards to the pool for league I think they may just be too slow. But I do think they were the right call during the Sealed event.

Detention Sphere is obviously a great card, but I just seemed to always draw it as well. An answer card always seems much better when you always have it.

Round 1 I played against a Rakdos guild pack that splashed Green. His deck had some threatening dudes but I always seemed to have something to hold him off. I would come to find out that this is the bread-and-butter of the Azorius detain decks. There were some good games here and I felt like I just managed to pull off the win. Most games ended with me staring down something like a Chaos Imps.


Round 2 I played against a solid Golgari deck with Underworld Connections. My opponent, Jeremy, seemed to bury me in card advantage but somehow I pulled off the victory. Once again, I felt like I barely got away with it and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, staring down a Corpsejack Menace or an "active" Ogre Jailbreaker.


Round 3 I played against Kelly with an aggressive Selesnya build with a very low curve. These games seemed less close, but that's largely because "I always had it." By "it" I actually mean whatever wrecked his well-laid plans. To wit - both games Kelly played Collective Blessing and both games I had Keening Apparition to neutralize it; both games I had Detention Sphere to take out multiple 3/3 or 4/4 tokens. My deck gave me what I needed when I needed it, and I was ecstatic to go 3-0 for the flight.


I'd be interested in knowing whether you would have built the deck differently and if so, why. I've been hearing that certain Izzet-aligned cards are maybe better than I thought so I wonder whether I should consider any of them. Should I have played Blustersquall? If so, over what? Were any cards in the pool worth splashing for in your opinion?

I ended up playing a Rakdos guild pack in the afternoon and went 2-1 with a good strong deck that I was very happy with. In the final round I made many very bad play mistakes and deserved to lose. Prior to that I was 5-0 on the day. Overall I was pleased with my 5-1 record and felt like the two guilds that I played were good choices. The other guilds didn't seem to come together as well, but that may just have been a result of my small sample size. One friend opened an Izzet pack and ended up building what was in his own words "an average Azorius deck" - that's just how poorly the Izzet cards were initially received. Of course, that's the deck I lost to in the final round of the afternoon flight, so it couldn't have been that bad.

In any event, the Azorius pack is the one that I'm using for league. Not only did I like it, but it seems right given that Michael and Gund didn't play the afternoon flight so this is the pack that we opened at the same time. Plus, Gund opened a Rakdos guild pack and Michael opened a Selesnya guild pack, so I'm all for diversity. More on the first week of league in my next post.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Cube Rarity

An important aspect of designing a cube of any kind is simply becoming familiar with a variety of draft environments. This allows you to compare and contrast various aspects of those environments - the things you liked and the things you didn't - with the draft environment that you're creating. Gaining this experience can be done in a number of ways. The first and most obvious is simply to draft a lot - whether in person or online, this is a great way to experience the nuances of an environment first-hand. However, if budget is an issue, there are other approaches. One simple one is to do mock drafts online. This website is one such place. Another good approach is to actually watch draft videos posted online by professional Magic players (at sites such as, and many others). This approach allows you to observe real-life drafts along with the commentary of the pros for little to no cost.

One of the ways that I use knowledge gained from such activities is to reference a draft environment as a basis of comparison for establishing card rarities. I started this approach with Magic 2011 which was a pretty good draft environment for a core set. However, one interesting thing to notice is that Magic 2010, Magic 2011, Magic 2012 and Magic 2013 are all exactly the same size in terms of the number of cards at each rarity. Because of this, and my experience with drafting these environments, I have a feel for how frequently a particular common or uncommon might appear in a draft. Extrapolating this into a cube environment allows me to tune numbers with relative rarity in mind.

In a singleton cube, of course, there will only be one copy of a particular card, but cube designers counteract this by including multiple cards with similar effects. For example, a cube might include both Wildfire and Burning of Xinye. These cards are functionally identical and effectively create 2 copies of the effect. But the cards don't need to be quite so close - a cube designer might simply decide that any card that deals damage to a creature or player is a "burn" spell, and consider the number of these as an entire group. Likewise, the same approach can be applied to the number of one-cost creatures in Black or the number of wrath effects in White.

The effective rarity, then, can be calculated as a number that compares to a known draft environment. There is no correct answer in terms of which environment is the best choice - anything that is familiar to the designer is fine. I think that no matter what you choose, the numbers should turn out pretty similar. Also, the reason that I choose a triple-set draft (e.g. three packs of M11) is because it's easier on the math and also easier for me to remember as opposed to the frequency with which a particular card appeared in Scars of Mirrodin-Mirrodin Besieged-New Phyrexia draft, for example.

So, what are the numbers? The first thing to identify is that a booster pack of M11 (my target set) contains 1 rare (which could be a mythic rare but doesn't matter for our purposes), 3 uncommon, and 10 common cards. The final card is a Basic Land which we won't be using. It doesn't matter if your cube pack fills this 15th slot with a real card because we're only looking at the effective rarity of any given effect.

So, M11 contains 101 commons, 60 uncommons, 53 rares and 15 mythic rares (as do M10, M12, M13, Avacyn Restored and a number of other large sets, incidentally). From these numbers, we can determine the average number of each card that will appear in an 8-person booster draft. Of course, the actual number in a given draft will vary, but over time it will tend toward the average.

Since there are 10 commons per pack and 24 packs then 240 commons will be opened. With 101 commons in the set, this means that each common will appear approximately 2.4 times (or 2.37 to be a bit more precise). Applying the same logic, we find that each uncommon will appear on average 1.2 times. Since 1 in 8 packs contains a mythic rare instead of a rare, 21 packs should contain rares, meaning that each rare appears approximately 0.4 times. Mythic rares appear approximately 0.2 times.

Right, so how does this help? Well, if you are building a 360 card cube then you have your numbers. Obviously, you can't include 2.4 copies of a particular card effect, but at least you know that if you have 2 copies it will appear a little less frequently than a common, and if you have 3 copies then it will appear a little more frequently than a common. Likewise, something that appears only once is roughly equivalent to an uncommon - just a little less frequent.

If you have a cube of a different size then you just have to adjust the ratios. For my 450 card cube I find the following ratios:

2.4/360 = x/450

Conveniently, a common equivalent appears exactly 3 times in my 450 card cube. An uncommon appears 1.5 times. From this point forward, I won't really bother with rares and mythic rares. The reason is that we only approach whole numbers (1) when cube size reaches 900 cards. Therefore, for any cube smaller than this, any card or effect that appears even once will be more frequent than a rare. Whatever your cube size, you simply need to convert these numbers to determine what your rarity equivalents will be.

I've been using these numbers (3 and 1.5) to assign values to a variety of effects within my cube for some time now. For example, if I have 6 1-drops in White, I know that that's equivalent to 2 different commons in a typical draft. This tells me that I have a good shot at finding a few copies during a typical draft. Also, if I have a single copy of an effect, I know it will turn up less frequently than an uncommon and I know that doubling it to 2 copies will result in it being more frequent than an uncommon. It is for this reason that I decided to spend the money to obtain a copy of Ravages of War - Armageddon provides an important effect for White-based aggressive decks and I wanted this effect to be more frequent. Ideally it would be about as frequent as an uncommon, but I'd rather err on the side of too frequent than not enough.

To take another example, I'm also designing a cube that is intended to feel very similar to a real Limited draft environment (though of course with my own favourite cards to make up the draft set). In doing so, I realized that removal is more restricted in a typical Limited environment than it tends to be in high-powered cubes. For example, in M11, White effectively has 2 common removal spells - Pacifism and Excommunicate - and one uncommon removal spell - Condemn (excluding the more situational Celestial Purge). Setting aside the quality of the spells mentioned here, this means that a typical 8-person booster draft should only have about 6 removal spells in White. Given this, I have been sure to design my draft set to have a similar ratio of removal. While it is not perfect, it does provide a nice guideline to work with. From there, playtest and season to taste.

Of course, all of this assumes that you're also doing an 8-person draft with your cube. But the whole purpose is to provide a rough tool for calculating how frequently an effect should appear, regardless of how you end up using it.

After playing with the ratios for awhile, I recently realized that there is another nice round level at 600. In a 600 card cube, a common appears exactly 4 times and an uncommon appears exactly twice. These are very nice round numbers to work with. Furthermore, while a rare would appear about 0.67 times, it is certainly possible to create a pseudo-rare slot - any effect that appears exactly once is a little more frequent than a rare.

In a previous post I discussed the most common cube sizes and indicated that cubes were often built in multiples of 90-cards as a means of supporting exactly 2 drafters per 90 cards. This approach is not required of course, and as I consider expanding my cube from 450 cards, I am very seriously considering 600 as my next jump.