In this entry I listed a number of guidelines I follow when deciding which cards I want in my cubes.
Here’s a PDF you can open in a new window to look at the part of my list I’m taking about while reading:
And here’s a link to an explanation of the shortcuts I use in that list, if you need it.
This entry might be especially long, since I’ll say something about many cycles spanning several colors.
About the lands:
Daru Encampment is part of a small cycle of tribal supporting lands I use. They’re especially useful because they’re of little interest to drafters not going for that theme, but also not worthless if that theme fails to manifest fully. A general note about tribal: Each tribe has 6 supporting commons and 3 supporting uncommons/rares, so that the average number of these cards showing up in the draft pool of a typical cube is five (6* 2/3 + 3* 1/3). (I treat red and black goblins as different tribes, so that I can use them either separately or together.)
Kjeldoran Outpost is a nice card for a land theme, but it is also the closest thing I found for a generic token producer.
The cycle featuring Secluded Steppe fulfills several roles: For one thing, they are a great option for advanced drafters to subtly improve their deck by taking a land which gives them a little flood protection instead of a redundant spell. They also lend some support to a threshold theme, as well as to cards like Cartographer or Grim Discovery. Then there’s the effect of thinning one’s deck (of course, you need a couple more cycling cards and/or cheap cantrips for it to become noticeable), which might become important in a cube where you want to give drafters a little extra help to find synergy cards.
Vivid Meadow and its ilk are a cycle of mana fixers intended for environments encouraging players to draft mostly monocolored decks (but with the option for a few splashes), in contrast to mana fixers for „normal“ environments, where two-colored decks are the norm; or for pronouncedly multicolored environments.
About the creatures:
Exalted is just a mini theme now, centered in White, with one card each in the other colors except Red, where there isn’t one, and Cathedral of War. There’s still room for another card in White, but only if the design convinces me completely.
The amount and rarity distribution, as well as the nature of support cards for an artifact theme differs from color to color. After Blue, White is supposed to lend itself the best towards a heavily artifact themed deck.
White and Green are the only colors which are able to support an enchantment theme. (White playing well with – and also against – both artifacts and enchantments might be one reason the amount of White cards in my pool is slightly higher.) Blue offers some aura-themed stuff, but as I already mentioned, that doesn’t really play that well. I still hope that Theros block will offer something usable in Blue, Red and Black (other than enchantments themselves, which are already plenty). Actually, even the selection in White and Green isn’t THAT great so far, but enough to work with (barely).
I’m not too happy with Favored Hoplite as the white representative of heroic (a bit too explosive and too hard to kill), but was even less happy with Wingsteed Rider, which was the only double-colored card in the cycle, and also the only one which was both decent without ever triggering and impressive when triggering a few times (and thus overpowered overall). Here, the next two sets will likely present a better option, though.
I use Soul’s Attendant over Soul Warden, because that trigger is forgotten so often, and in casual, neither having to always remind your opponent, nor NOT having to remind him of a mandatory trigger seems a good solution (one is incredibly annoying, one feels too much like rules-lawyering).
Landfall is another smaller theme, and I took care to somehow balance it out, so that it is not nearly completely about aggression, as it was in Zendikar, but in White, the only acceptable candidates clearly tend towards offense.
I decided to make all double-colored creatures for two or three mana at least uncommon: not all of them – like Chapel Geist – really feel uncommon, but most do, and I needed more uncommons overall (because most designs I really like are printed as commons). Bumping all color-intensive creatures up to uncommon is another piece of the puzzle of making sure beginning players will end up with an at least playable deck.
Let me talk about Leonin Skyhunter as a prime example of an absolutely perfect design which still did not make the cut anymore: Mistral Charger isn’t any less perfect, but more important, and Skyhunter is too similar to it. The Charger and Spectral Rider together cover all of the spectrum where the Skyhunter fits in.
Soulbond is another of those mini themes which simply does not need large numbers. It is also, like exalted, one of those themes which manifests in 4 colors, which is terribly unaesthetic. I used to avoid that on principle, but came around when I realized that this forced me to leave out too many interesting cards. By the way, I really don’t think it would be too hard to find a flavor for a black soulbond card, but this is unlikely to ever happen.
While I like shadow, I reduced that theme continually until it only featured three uncommons each in White, Black and Blue, which is enough because shadow works better on just a couple of cards instead of constituting an omnipresent theme. Since Soltari Foot Soldier really only makes sense as a common, I replaced it with Lantern Kami.
Wall of Essence showcases that I do not reject creatures with defender in general, but want to make sure that they play a very specific role. The generic defenders are colorless, to be useful to any drafters who find themselves wanting such a card, but I chose the colored ones to be high profile (and thus uncommon or even rare).
Another theme, which is the strongest in White and Black (and thus maybe also responsible for those two colors featuring the most cards in my cube), is color matters. Since I do not use hate cards, this means all those cards only refer to their own color, which makes them generically useful, but especially interesting in mulicolor environments, and especially powerful in (near) monocolor environments, where they serve to draw players into such a strategy in the first place.
Azorius Justiciar is the sole white representative with detain. As much as I love Azorius Arrester (which was, for reasons I still do not fully understand, one of the most undervalued cards in Return to Ravnica draft): Between the Justiciar, Niblis of the Urn and Red’s Goblin Shortcutter, there is just not enough space in the crunch for the Arrester. White has access to a rather large part of the color pie, and I had to fight hard against myself not to include each interesting design in my pool, leaving too little room for the other colors. The Shortcutter is an excellent limited card on its own, so White shouldn’t one-up (more like two-up, actually) it.
I had to be careful with my selection of threshold cards. I do not use graveyard hate anymore (not the least because there is no good way to do that), and thus have to make sure I avoid cards which take over a game too easily, like Nomad Decoy or Cabal Torturer. I wonder if WotC will ever revisit threshold and improve the selection available to me…
A word about Indomitable Ancients: This is what a dedicated high-toughness aggro stopper should look like! So, if you feel you would miss one of those horrible Siege Mastodon / Thraben Purebloods / Silent Artisan type creatures, which WotC seems to be so fond of, in a cube: Here’s for you.
Knight of Obligation is a common for frequency reasons. Extort is a theme which should show up often enough that it makes sense for players to tune their deck with it in mind sometimes.
Loxodon Partisan wasn’t my first choice for the white battle cry creature, but Accorder Paladin was too similar (and in my opinion, inferior) to Daring Skyjek, which is very likely to show up in the same cube. It also has the same mana cost as Goblin Wardriver, so I decided to mix things up a bit. I ended up happier with the card after thinking a bit about it than I had expected at first, because White now has a somehow generic 5-mana creature, which is both useful on defense and offense, and not nearly as boring as WotC’s standard 3/5 for 5 mana.
Luminous Angel is a bit weak for my taste in the 7-mana slot – it really should be 5/5 – but it will do until a better design comes around. (Job description: A bit stronger, but not too strong; generically useful; and not too similar too other, more important cards in my card pool.)