The Cube Part 4 – Archetypes
Balancing a cube is like dancing in shifting sand: by applying pressure in one spot things shift and warp around it, potentially requiring a quick-step somewhere else. The process never truly ends but always starts the same way: answering “What cards and decks are players playing?”
Every cube functions as a slightly different set in terms of options, features, and construction directions. In essence, anything is possible in terms of a cube. The reality is, however, that a closed system of cards being used as a Limited environment will naturally yield some builds, often centered around a top tier of cards driving the decks, that perform significantly better over a sufficient sample size.
In other words, the “best decks” will bubble to the top.
Willy Wonka's Real Dream
Every Limited environment is actually several environments rolled into neat, foil-wrapped packages. There are three usual ways drafts are run:
- Triple (3x) October release set
- Double (2x) October one (1x) February release
- One (1x) each of October, February, and May releases
This is nothing new. However, two others pop up as well:
- Triple (3x) February release
- Triple (3x) May release
It's not restricted to MTGO: I consistently see, and join in, such concentrated cracking of the latest set. It's one of the neatest ways to see a lot of the latest for the same price as mostly more of things four months old. However, the triple small set releases generally get old quick as the variance of what you see is much lower than the big releases.
Cubes, especially smaller ones like mine, fall prey to the same situation as these smaller set drafts. Over time the variance of your cube will diminish. Not in a literal sense but in a virtual sense: you get used to seeing things, know what to expect, and have a feel for the appropriate cards required for the build you're trying to sculpt.
Your cube becomes a pile of known information with a rich history and openly discussed theory. That's part of the genuine excitement in creating a cube to being with: you and your baby are the center of Magic theory discussion! Hotness!
Like a certain fictitious candy maker who desired to make ever better and more exciting concoctions, the temptation is to continue to fiddle with the cube for the sake of perpetuating freshness and the feeling of new. However, change for change's sake is a fool's errand; change for incremental improvement and calibrated adjustment of the strategies that aren't properly sharing the limelight is pure deliciousness.
Archetypes are the meat and potatoes of theory discussions. What synergies draw cards together, the support that subset of cards receives, and available nature of countermeasures all weigh into evaluating the relative strengths and weaknesses of these decks. What types of decks, exactly?
Again, every cube is unique in its own ways. The following is a brief breakdown of the types of decks that emerge during drafts. This isn't wholly exhaustive as I'm skipping “three color I-switched-my-colors-three-times-in-this-draft deck” and “I was getting cut from both my colors.” decks. Each of the following archetypes is neither mutually exclusive nor conditionally present with respect to any other deck: this is simply the breakdown of potential decks that I am choosing to actively support to varying degrees and that players intentionally seek to create.
Monocolored Based Decks:
- White – aggressive, splashes a color for removal (red, black), card draw (blue), or pump effects (green)
- Blue – controlling, splashes a color for removal (red, black), or efficient creatures (white, green)
- Black – aggressive, splashes a color for removal (white, red), card draw (blue), or recursion targets (green)
- Red – aggressive, splashes a color for efficient creatures (white, green), card draw (blue), or removal (black)
- Green – aggressive, splashes a color for removal (black, red, white) or flying creatures (blue)
There are some slight variations in there but that's the outlook for those who force a color hard. It's clear that one of these things is not like the other things – yet still belongs! - and I'll get back to that later. Now, let's break down some of the color pairings that are more balanced between color representation.
Aggro Color Pairs:
- White-Black – evasive creatures (shadow, flying) with disruption (Mana Tithe, Hymn to Tourach) and removal
- White-Red – “Bear-ly Boros” – efficient creatures with burn to clear blockers away or close the game out
- White-Green – a multitude of very efficient creatures with a touch of removal; extraordinary curve
- Black-Red – “All-In Aggro” – evasive and efficient creatures (Vampire Lacerator, Spur Grappler) with an excess of removal and burn
- Red-Green – very aggressive curve with more removal and reach than green white, but fewer creatures
Midrange Color Pairs:
- White-Blue – efficient, evasive creatures with tempo control (Daze, Force Spike) and card draw
- Black-Green – “Rock” – removal and recursion (Gravedigger, Pit Keeper) with efficient, problematic creatures creatures (Phantom Tiger, Blastoderm)
Control Color Pairs:
- Blue-Black – disruption and counter spells (Counterspell, Exclude) with card engines (Mystical Teachings, Frantic Search) and control locks (Evincar's Justice, Disturbed Burial)
- Blue-Red – “Counterburn” – counterspells and pingers (Fireslinger, Sparksmith) with creature-based burn (Hissing Iguanar, Ghitu Slinger) and Fireball or Rolling Thunder
- Blue-Green – counterspells and mana ramping (Cultivate, Sylvan Ranger) with powerful creatures (Blastoderm, Errant Ephemeron) and Sprout Swarm lock
Finally, any three-or-more color deck that is consistently powerful is a multicolored control based deck using bounce lands and card filtering to play the most efficient and powerful cards at every step of the game. Wickerbough Elder, Warren Pilferers, Yotian Soldier, Silkbind Faerie, and Shimmering Glasskite are examples of the very efficient creatures that that make the “X-Color Control” decks work.
So what does this mean? Why is this type of breakdown useful? The answer is both is simple: these archetypes, if acceptable, are the grids used to evaluate cards that may be added, removed, or swapped into or out of the cube.
It's not a catch-all system or perfect way to manage every card, but more of a loose set of boundaries that create a framework to work within. There's more than one way to look at a framework, something that I plan to talk about another time, but this is the simplest way I've been able to boil things down. Perfection is not achievable, but the pure pursuit thereof is almost as good.
Linear vs. Sandbox
Constructing a cube is like picking from a hall of unlocked doors that extent as far as you can see. You have free reign, which you never really lose, to do whatever you please. However, all of my encounters with cubes that have been good involved a cube that matched up to player expectations in many ways.
My cube started off with more mana fixing, lands, and multicolored cards – way more. The result was that my original vision was possible: three color decks were seamlessly possible, like the ultimate Invasion-meets-Ravnica-meets-Shards of Alara drafting set. Some players gravitated to it since:
- Breadcrumbs – individual cards that hint or point at a goal or theme – of abundant mana fixing and multicolored cards indicated to follow that direction
- I draft with a mix of tournament veterans and multiplayer-forged casuals
- I originally called my cube “the PMC cube” meaning “Pauper Multicolor Cube”
However, those who have drafted sets for a long time or have focused on the competitive nature and benefits of Limited skills would almost invariably skip most multicolor cards. They went for forcing a single color, or crafting a naturally synergistic pairing of colors. They had specific archetypes in mind and followed different breadcrumbs of the most efficient cards available, rather than the obvious “do anything you want” push.
I won’t belabor further: those tight, linear decks far outperformed the three color concoctions that the rest of us were cooking up. Generally speaking, games weren’t even remotely close. Green-White was, and still is to a degree, the most powerful pairing and was stocked with arguably the best creatures. It only took a few drafts for the competitive types to attempt for force green-white every time. The pair was so deep that two decks could emerge and perform similarly dominate.
Blue was often left completely open. It simply couldn’t keep pace or provide the appropriate support to deal with the efficient aggro decks. Three color creatures were either unplayable in the “efficient” decks or ignored in the rest.
I had built a sandbox for players to draft in: everyone could pick virtually any cards they liked, find sufficient mana fixing and selection to make it happen, and sit down with highly variable decks that felt like a Limited version of Elder Dragon Highlander. It was a mirror reflection of where my heart in Magic resides. It turned out incredibly boring and frustrating because within the sandbox there were only a few “correct” ways to build a deck and these ways eschewed the sandbox entirely: some players were playing a different game altogether.
So I adjusted to meet expectations.
While I was disappointed my “Magical Christmas Land” of a Limited environment was being ignored it opened my eyes to something that had only hit me subtlety before: environments are shaped by player expectation almost as much as designer and developer sculpting. Drafters who draft consistently know what they’re looking for and pursue towards the apparent “strongest decks” to use.
Purpose in Life
A loose framework is the beginning of looking hard at cards. Things that make cards “good” in Constructed can often reach into Limited and play well there. Glare of Subdual can take over virtually any game; Black Lotus and Sol Ring are incredible, accelerating bursts of mana; Blastderm and Calciderm are difficult to efficiently resist or answer; Umezawa’s Jitte is perhaps the strongest equipment ever printed.
It doesn’t matter where you’re using these cards, they work well. The trick with cubes, however, is placing the cards that specifically fit but aren’t dominatingly overpowering in their own right. Harrow is great mana fixing and acceleration by itself but works best in a landfall or tempo control deck (sacrifice a Forest to Harrow, get two Islands, then play Counterspell, untap accelerated). It works in a variety of decks but has a particular function and home in blue-green – and seeing that interaction is exciting knowledge to obtain.
Which brings me full circle: knowing the archetypes you’re supporting is the basis for evaluating changes to your cube. Here are the sample questions I ask myself (and others!):
- Which and how many decks would want this card?
- Is this similar to anything already in the cube? If so, does redundancy make sense?
- Where in the “pick order” would this card live? How much competition is already there?
Archetypes are the foundation that players will build upon. Cards are the bricks that are available to build with. The intentional synergy and relationship between cards you, as the cube owner, ply into the cube is the mortar that holds decks together.
Which is why for my final article in this series I’m going to show you a color that isn’t working right and how I plan to fix it: Blue is the underpowered color in my cube and there are discrete steps that can be made to understand why and find the potential changes to address it.
I hope you like searching card databases and reviewing less popular sets. It’s far more exciting than you think – I promise!