The Horadric Cube

Last week I introduced a new project to add player abilities to Cube Draft. The initial test run provided a lot of good information, and after considering it, I decided to try these eight abilities for round two:

You already saw these at the end of last week’s article, but I didn’t have room to explain them. While Magic is a preexisting game, any modifications we make to it are instances of game design, and like all design, that means we’re looking to craft an experience.

On the whole, I intended these abilities to give the players the excitement of feeling that they’re doing something unfair without the associated baggage of the unfun games that come with actually doing something unfair.

That’s a nice goal, but it’s also pretty vague, so to get ideas flowing, I started thinking about all of the things that make me unhappy while drafting, and I looked for solutions to those problems. These solutions might not always fit the initial criterion, but ultimately, the goal is to help people have fun, and anything more specific is just an idea for how to go about doing that. You know what else is fun? Encountering an unpleasant situation you’ve run into time and again in Draft . . . and realizing that it’s not a problem. Or at least that’s the hope.

Stay a While and Listen

Imagine this: You’re drafting a sweet G/W aggro deck and gearing up for pack three. What will it bring? An awesome bomb to top your curve? A nice, solid removal spell? A few more 2-drops to fill out your deck? You crack open the booster and stare into a sea of Cancels, Lava Axes, and Mind Rots. The only on-color card is an Angel’s Grace that does nothing for what was about to be an awesome beatdown deck. “Why couldn’t I just open a normal pack?” you lament, “come on, a Runeclaw Bear, anything!”

So, you open a new booster and find something reasonable. Draft saved.

But maybe that’s not your problem. Maybe you’re drafting a more demanding archetype, and after wheeling Nath of the Gilt-Leaf in pack one of your Cube Draft, you go in on discard effects. You get the Hymn to Tourach and the Stupor and the Hypnotic Specter. You even manage to grab Liliana of the Veil, but you never see Megrim or feel Liliana’s Caress. All you needed was one more engine piece to have a consistent deck, and it’s not as though somebody took your enchantments; they just weren’t opened. But there’s no way to change things after you’ve seen that last booster in pack three . . .

So, you stick a second Nath in your deck, and all is right with the world.

Then again, Drafts don’t just go wrong when you try for an archetype. Imagine you start the Draft a little bit unsure about your colors, but you settle into B/R pretty early in pack two, and it looks as though you have a nice deck coming together.

In pack three, you open Lightning Bolt and then are passed a Terminate . . . and then nothing else. The player to your right just cut you off! Now you don’t have enough playables, and as the third pack wraps up, you resign yourself to playing a whole lot of lands. If only you could get your hands on those random creatures from pack one that you know are just going to sit in people’s sideboards.

So, you get a few more dudes to round out your deck and avoid all sorts of horrendous mana flood.

Or perhaps you get your hands on both Wildfire and Burning of Xinye, but whoever designed this Cube decided he or she didn’t like the impact of Signets, so you just can’t find enough artifact mana. You have Prismatic Lens, Everflowing Chalice, and Thran Dynamo, but you’re just not very likely to draw multiples out of your forty-card deck.

Oh, you’re not playing a forty-card deck? I guess you’ll be okay then.

Alternatively, you may have started out in three different colors, but when you dropped down to two, you started regretting your picks. Sure, Wrath of God’s a better card than Stupor, but it’s not going to do a whole lot for your U/B deck. Now you’re just a few playables short, and these white cards aren’t doing you any good.

Whoa! They just changed into a bunch of new cards, and some of these will fit in great!

Gaining a New Skill

But hypotheticals aside, Drafts offer a bit of agony even if nothing goes wrong. How many times have you been passed a booster with a bunch of different cards you want, but you know you’ll only end up with two?

How many times have you debated passing up a Necropotence because you know the next drafter is going to snap up the Phyrexian Obliterator from the same pack?

How many times have you had the best cards for your deck snatched up by people who aren’t even running them?

These tales of woe end here and now.

The Prime Evils

Unfortunately, I was unable to get a Cube session together this week. As I hope both of my articles last week drove home, playtesting is the best way to improve your designs, but that doesn’t mean we should let this set of abilities languish until I can put a session together. It’s theory-crafting time! Let’s see what potential problems we can spot and cut off at the pass.

The most obvious difficulty is also the hardest to address: These abilities probably aren’t perfectly balanced against one another. Luckily, we don’t need perfection; the effects just have to feel similar enough in power level that players don’t feel cheated when they do or don’t end up with a specific ability.

The biggest offender here is Cross the Streams since it effectively lets you trade two fifteenth picks for two additional second picks. On top of that, you get to make some sort of exchange in pack one and have added versatility in choosing when to use it. That said, it would be too anemic next to Double Up if it could only be used once during the whole event. My instinct is to restrict the picks somehow, and this seemed like the most natural way to do so:

Then again, asking players to keep track of what order they drafted their cards in may be a pain for those trying to figure out their colors and mana curve as they draft. Other possible restrictions include, “Use this ability only during pick four or later,” or, “You may exchange a card you picked this pack for an additional pick from the current booster.”

Actually, I like that last one better.

With a test-worthy version of Cross the Streams worked out, it’s time to turn to other issues.

Pay It Forward is rife with them.

First of all, the ability needs to be optional for it to matter that you have the ability—rather than just that it’s in the draft—but you’re bound to feel gipped if you decide not to use it and everyone else got some sweet power. Moreover, if you do use the effect, the only benefit you get on top of the one you’re giving everyone else is that you know for sure it’s going to happen. I really like the idea of adding another pack, but it needs to benefit the player who has it somehow above and beyond what it does for the rest of the table. Maybe:

That’s awfully texty, but it does alleviate Pay it Forward’s issues while still fulfilling its role, so I’ll give it a shot.

And finally, we come to Desolate.

Is this card too strong? Probably not. Does it have fail to help its user more than the rest of the table? Nope. Is it exciting? Not even close.

It’s really hard to find construction abilities that don’t push hard toward one archetype or another, and I want to give players the freedom to draft whatever they want, but that difficulty is no excuse for including a sorry excuse for an ability like this. I mean, who ever said I had to have four construction abilities and four draft abilities?

Hmm . . . This one will probably lead to people intentionally taking terrible first picks to screw one another over.

This might be a bit much to ask of somebody who isn’t experienced at cubing.

This card won’t always work well, and it doesn’t really fill the same role as Desolate, but it is useful to every deck. Multicolored decks can fix their mana, mono-colored decks can grab spell lands like Teetering Peaks or Emeria, the Sky Ruin, and in providing these options, it can prevent mana screw and mana flood. Players will either have better color fixing or get a higher land density and a higher density of live draws in the late game. Man lands are good! (Pun fully intended.)

Act V

Wrapping up, here’s the crop of effects I’ll be testing as soon as I have a chance. In the meantime, feel free to try them out yourself!

The Waypoint

This coming weekend, I’ll be at Grand Prix: Anaheim, so if you want to talk Cube abilities, expansion design, or really just about anything Magic-related, come and find me. Grands Prix are a ton of fun regardless of how competitive you are (just ask Adam Styborski or Brandon Isleib), so if you’re at all local, I’d encourage you to come and hang out. I hope to see you there!

And now for what is obviously a completely unrelated poll about Respawn Magic:

How interested would you be in a new Magic variant in the vein of Respawn Magic?

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