It seems my motivation to blog about Magic fluctuates more wildly than I anticipated… Well, these are interesting times for cubebuilders, so let’s roll while the momentum persists!
When I talk about „Gray“ as a Magic color, I refer to those early spoilers from Oath of the Gatewatch, which I believe will turn out to be real, and which I already analyzed here, coming to the conclusion that their new mana symbol stands without reasonable doubt for one colorless mana. I used to refer to that symbol as „<>“, because this is how it was written in the original MTGSalvation thread discussing it, but seeing as this is unwieldy (especially so in any editor with HTML tags), I will switch to the simpler „#“ for the time being. It seems possible, though, that the official shorthand for it will be „C“, since that letter has not too long ago been removed from official references to chaos mana, and obviously I would conform to that, but as of now, „#“ will do.
Just as preliminary is my choice of „Gray“ as a pseudo-color word for spells requiring colorless mana, which I will use in contrast to „Clear“ for colorless spells without that requirement – if I’m really unlucky, the „official“ terminology might actually end up the other way around… However, for the moment, „#“ and „Gray“ it is!
With Wastes as a new basic land, I have little doubt that gray cards will not be confined to Oath of the Gatewatch alone, although they will not necessarily show up in every future expansion, and maybe only in small quantities, like multicolor cards in many sets. This means I will likely want to use them in my Next Level Cubes as well, although this certainly depends on how they will be designed – with only two examples to go by so far, the jury is still out on them: Mirrorpool seems decent, albeit not escpecially a bread-and-butter example for this „new color“, while Kozilek, the Great Distortion is far beyond anything I want in my Limited Card Pool. There will probably be a decent number of usable commons and uncommons, though, and I find myself already planning how to integrate those gray spells into my cubes.
You see, this is actually not easy! I’m afraid it would even be outright impossible if Gray turned out to be a full-fledged color featuring #-intensive early drops in the vein of Leonin Skyhunter, but I do not see that happen in limited (a few rares of that kind might be an option for constructed, though) – there are both design space issues and gameplay issues making this unlikely. Instead, I mainly expect a relatively small number of midgame cards costing #, and an even smaller number of ## lategame cards at higher rarities. Gray will thus serve a role as a splash or at most tertiary color, and not enable six extra viable color pairs (Gray-Blue etc.) in draft, because the former is doable with some design effort, while the latter seems impossible to me.
And yet, even this presents me with sizeable issues, because of the differences between Two-Thirds-Drafts and normal draft. Remember, I created this special draft variant for four players after juggling a lot of numbers, since it is impossible to give those four drafters access to the same number of cards as in normal draft without making the majority of their picks irrelevant. If we consider a normal draft using 14-card boosters (assuming there is a basic land slot which does not contribute to players‘ decks), each drafter gets to see 3*(14+13+12+11+10+9+8+7) different cards – that’s 252. (With 15-card packs, it would be 276.) In Two-Thirds-Draft, even using my new standard of 13-card boosters instead of 12-card boosters, they only get to see 4*(13+12+11+10) different cards, for a total of 184! This is already a stark compromise, made possible by completely eliminating downright unplayables and not maindeckable sideboard cards. And note that even with that smaller number it’s only the two-thirds-mechanic which makes sure that all pick decisions are still relevant.
However, this also means that each player drafts only 36 cards, while in a normal draft he would get 42 or 45. This is usually not an issue because in a normal draft those extra cards will be of no consequence – unplayables, almost never used sideboard cards, redundant filler-level maindeck candidates, and hatepicks of minor relevance. The first two categories do not exist in Next Level Cubes, while the latter two hide among the undrafted cards.
All this changes, though, if drafters are suddenly required to draft a high amount of lands (or other mana cards)! We are not talking about the usual 2-5 picks invested in manafixing or utility lands which happen in most draft environments, we’re talking about 6-10 picks required to make running an additional (pseudo-)color possible! While you may still get what you need in only 36 picks, obviously your margin for errors is a LOT smaller, and you might easily end up with too little manafixing, too few spells, or an overall untuned deck.
I expect Gray to be supported in normal draft just like snow was in Coldsnap: A good number of basic lands inserted in the common slot to average out roughly 1 per booster (Wastes actually is denoted as common on the card itself) in addition to a couple of more interesting cards which just happen to also provide that kind of mana. This is, however, exactly what NOT works in Next Level Cubes! Or, to be more precise, it only works in very specialized Next Level Cubes explicitly designed to make it work. I once designed just this kind of cube with a snow theme, so I know what I’m talking about… That cube worked fine, but it really was a one-of-a-kind thing, and more an experiment than a blueprint for future cubes. Normally, I want more variance in my cubes for higher replay value, and including Gray in a cube should not mean that it has to be as dominant as snow was in that one. Also, I do not think anymore it’s a great idea to make players draft uninteresting cards like basic lands, and addiionally I do not like putting several copies of one card in a cube for aesthetic reasons. If you want to take that route, though, I suggest using eight copies of Wastes (together with a generous amount of basic-land-searchers, just as in my snow cube) overall, ideally as a one-per-booster in the third and fourth booster round. Together with a couple of more specialized #-producers, this should easily support two Gray drafters, and with a medium amount of struggling, three.
If I do not want players to draft basic lands, though, I only have one choice: I have to provide a certain number of Wastes to them for free! I already provide 15 copies each of Plains, Swamp, Forest, Island and Mountain to every player, and I can just add a couple of Wastes here (I hope there will be 4 different pictures…) After long deliberation, I have decided that three Wastes per player is the optimal number (and yes, fitting exactly 78 sleeved cards into a deckbox without issues was a minor consideration). That way, drafters still have to invest a few picks into mana cards (which is kinda the point of Gray, I feel), but not so many that the payoff is no longer worth the effort.
Three Wastes are just enough to support a Gray splash without fixing via a 8-7-3 or 9-6-3 mana distribution, but just one or two fixers will noticeably stabilize that mana base and probably allow for cutting a land. On the other hand, you usually do not even want more than three Wastes in your deck, seeing that you probably run a two-color-deck and have the option to pick up more attractive producers of # like utility lands and mana stones. Instead, you will probably be on the lookout for basic land searchers like Evolving Wilds, Traveler’s Amulet or Pilgrim’s Eye, which can either fetch your Wastes or your main colors.
With this setup, I actually do not need many new entries into my Limited Card Pool to support Gray. I already have enough basic land searchers (especially the Gleam of Resistance cycle does excellent work here) and a generous selection of mana stones and utility lands producing #. If Oath of the Gatewatch makes me want to include Gray in my Limited Card Pool, there are only a couple of additional cards I will need (assuming that there won’t be better options in that set itself):
For cubes which focus on certain color pairs, I will need an additional dualland cycle to complement Adarkar Wastes and co. – this will be the filter lands cycle (Mystic Gate etc.). I parted with those lands not too long ago, not because they did not play well, but because I did not see how I would need them in addition to all those other dualland cycles, and because they were kinda expensive. Well, bad luck: They did not get cheaper in the meantime, but their ability to produce colorless mana makes them valuable again to me!
Another cycle I already had considered for different reasons which would go extremely well with Cubes featuring Gray are the original bouncelands, like Karoo – they’re essentially „duallands“ here, but require commitment to a main color, which is good. They will go a long way towards enabling Gray splashes.
Lastly, I will probably acquire Grand Coliseum and Blasted Landscape again. The former suddenly plays consideraby different from City of Brass, while the latter is just what you want if you need to make sure you have a source of #, but are not really interested in drawing multiples of those.
There is a large number of other cards which suddenly may take up a new role in a cube thanks to the introduction of Gray, and it is a lot of fun to look through a card database and identify them, but these are the ones which work especially well with our new „sixth color“.