Jashin reminded me that some people already knew my principles of how to build Next Level Cubes and would be more interested in a list of differences instead of a rehearsal. Actually, there’s a lot of differences! For starters, I reduced the size of my limited card pool from 2195 to 1157. Thus, it might seem more fitting to say that I started again from scratch compiling it – that would be a slight exaggeration, but it’s not that far away from the truth.
What made me do this? Well, I gathered a lot of experience with cube building over the last years, and I found myself able to pinpoint my wants and needs much more precisely. One important change is that I started to exactly calculate instead of guess how many cards of a certain type were enough. After a lot of back and forth, I arrived at the formula for cubes I mentioned in my previous entry: 192 commons showing up with a frequency of 2/3; 128 commons and 64 rares each showing up with a frequency of 1/3. (So, obviously that formula is also new, although not too different from earlier formulas.) I especially found that I did not want or need larger cubes, since a larger cube size invariably comes with lower card frequencies, which I do not consider a gain anymore. I am now convinced that cube sizes between 192 and 384 cards overall serve all my needs.
Obviously, if I do not plan to build larger cubes anymore, I need fewer cards to provide redundancy, and I can also get rid of themes which never totally convinced me, but were needed to fill up large cubes. On the other hand, in some areas I actually added cards again after calculating how many slots I needed to fulfill certain functions. To do this, I had to assess which rarities these cards were likely to have, which in turn meant that I had to provide all cards in my pool with provisional rarities to see if they would actually fit in a cube the way I intended them to. That was really a lot of work, and the rarity column in my list is another new (and important) feature. (My slightly changed sorting order, now differentiating between instants/sorceries and other non-creature spells, probably is less important, but still yet another change worth mentioning and looking at – maybe this kind of organization also appeals to other people.)
As to the calculation of how many cards of a certain kind I need: One important thing to keep in mind is that my cubes – for creative as well as practical reasons – often feature a non-traditional color distribution, even to the point of leaving colors out completely. I already built cubes which only featured blue and colorless cards; or only colorless, white, black and black-and-white cards (and yes, these cubes were really a lot of fun to draft)! From this follows that the number of cards I need per color or guild is considerably higher than it would be if I always used all colors equally.
A development concurrent to slimming down my card pool was finding a lot of things I will not use on principle – too many to make a comprehensive list, I’m afraid. (If you wonder why a certain kind of card or even a single card did not make my list, you can just ask in the comments – I actually have answers for every single card, because I considered each and every one of them!) I will still, from the top of my head, mention the things which seem the most important. Some of these had still been featured in my cubes as recently as right before this latest uphaul. Others had never been a consideration for me since the very beginning. Without any particluar order:
I honestly tried to stay open-minded when these came out, but still came to hate them soon. For one thing, almost all of them are overpowered in limited play. Then, they change the play dynamic in a way I don’t like even if they aren’t. They are another kind of threat which needs to be answered, and it’s not exactly easy to provide enough answers for all the other card types already. Finally, they come with some complicated rules baggage which shouldn’t be necessary for cards which would at best make up a few rares in a cube (don’t forget that my cubes are designed to be played by people on all skill levels and with all kinds of Magic backgrounds, including those who stopped playing before Lorwyn). Limited simply plays better without that card type (I think this is also true for constructed, but I cannot say that with final authority).
2. Cards with (or referring to) 3 colors
This is not a decision on principle; I am just not satisfied with the available selection, but this is an all-or-nothing kind of thing. While, at least for the shards, the quantity of candidates is sufficient, very few cards actually play well, and I always really had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to fulfill the necessary quota, which also resulted in gross imbalances in power level between cards which made up cycles connected to the shards. And don’t get me started on the wedges! No manafixing (the only thing which really works well in the shards), practically no useful commons, and the truly 3-colored cards mostly either barely playable or completely bonkers. WotC has to deliver a LOT more (and better designed!) stuff before I consider 3-colored cards for my cubes again.
3. 5-colored cards, domain & sunburst
Since these can be implemented nicely as a mini theme, there is enough material for me to use them, but it is not nearly convincing enough that I feel compelled to do so. More importantly, truly multicolored decks are a bit too much of a stretch in limited, and they serve mainly as skill testers for unexperienced players, who will brew up unplayable concotions while trying to make these mechanics work. While it is certainly not impossible to implement them correctly in a draft deck, it would way too rarely be correct to try. There is no place in a beginner-friendly cube for that kind of card, and they are not a big loss: Combining two neighboring guilds into a three-color deck, maybe even splashing a fourth color, feels multicolored enough and already allows players who know how to build complicated mana bases to shine. The guilds offer all the tools one needs, as both Ravnica blocks proved.
4. Coinflip cards and cards which have random effects
These mostly suck anyways (okay, Hymn to Tourach doesn’t). I really don’t want extra randomness added to an already quite random game like Magic. I make allowances for some borderline cases, though, like Into the Wilds or Blast of Genius, which make use of the random order of the library in a similar way as the draw step, although I will replace the latter as soon as I find a better alternative.
5. Cards requiring to keep track of correct graveyard order
Not at all worth the hassle.
6. Cards asking for the number of cards in hand
I actually banned those from my pool even before I tried out the larger hand size. Cards which specifically punish players for emptying their hands (or worse, not being able to do so) just aren’t fun, while cards which encourage you to keep cards in hand promote a gameplay dynamic which isn’t healthy. I do not miss any of those cards, other than maybe for nostalgic reasons.
They might be funny to read, but they’re not at all fun to play. Funny and silly is NOT the same thing. Also, they are a rules nightmare.
I always knew I didn’t like that mechanic (it’s clumsy, adds randomness and eats too much cube space in order to actually play the way it is intended to), but it is maybe the best-supported theme in all five colors, and it helps against color screw somehow. With larger cubes and thus a larger card pool, I couldn’t do without it. Now I can.
While splice onto arcane is just a bad idea in general, the combined arcane/spiritcraft theme is something I wish had been implemented better. However, there is just not enough good stuff – I used that theme in some of my cubes, but I always had to put up with a number of near unplayables then. Maybe, if WotC one day revisits that theme, I’ll give it another try, but until then I am glad I cut it. To not confuse beginning players with a useless supertype, I replaced all arcane spells (even those without the mechanic) with non-arcane counterparts, which was really easy.
While my very first cube experiment featured snow (and worked out astonishingly well), the implementation of that mechanic just doesn’t cut it, and requires fiddling around with snow-covered lands (obviously). Once I killed the mechanic, I decided to remove all cards with the snow supertype (for the same reasons as with arcane). I only miss Karplusan Wolverine, Ohran Viper and Coldsteel Heart somehow; but I found I could do without them.
11. Tribal cards except for soldiers, zombies, goblins, elves and wizards
I found that poorly supported mini-tribal themes simply didn’t work, and only a few tribes possess enough quantity and quality to be worth keeping. Wizards are already a bit thinly supported for my taste, but I really wanted at least one tribe in each color. I also cut tribes which could only be reasonably supported in two colors (essentially clerics), because they led to archetype drafting instead of synergy drafting – the decision to go for clerics left too little room for further meaningful decisions. The same is even more true for multicolor tribes like allies and slivers. I never considered humans, even though their support is steadily growing, since that tribe is a pain in the ass with older cards. I’m not going to use a theme which requires players to look up oracle wordings every five minutes or so to see what is a human and what isn’t. For similar reasons, cards which do not clearly specify which tribes they boost (like Adaptive Automaton) are out. I really miss merfolk, though, and I wish I had been able to make beasts work, but there were just not enough good choices for those tribes.
12. Color-specific hate cards, including landwalk
There is no room in Zweidritteldraft for dedicated sideboard cards, and maindeckable hate cards are just too random in a 4-player draft and serve no desirable function.
13. Off-color flashback
These cards just do not fulfill either of the roles I’d want them to: For a graveyard theme, the requirement of using another color is besides the point. For a guild theme, there are simply better choices. Also, their power level is really too different to make a useful cycle.
14. Graveyard hate
Mostly too specific to be maindeckable; not fairly distributed over the colors; not actually needed unless graveyard themes are too strong (and then still too narow).
15. Triple-colored cards costing less than 5 mana
(This means stuff like Ball Lightning, Mystic Snake or Nightveil Specter.) Too hard to cast, restricting deck-building options too much. A normal draft can get away with a couple of such cards, but in Zweidritteldraft, every cards must pull its weight in usefulness. A smooth drafting experience is something you have to actively work for as a cube designer.
16. Alternate win conditions
This means especially poisoning and milling your opponent. They reduce interaction and promote archetype drafting.
17. Banding, phasing & cumulative upkeep
Way too complicated while not offering enough.
18. Creatures using other counters than +1/+1 or -1/-1
Too confusing and mostly uninteresting anyways.
19. Cards producing 0/1 Tokens.
Okay, mostly I just don’t like those. Also, they don’t do anything which 1/1 tokens don’t do better (with the exception of eldrazi spawn tokens, which are a bit too complicated and ramp too randomly for my taste), and I just don’t really miss them.
20. Cards costing more than 8 mana.
Way too rarely castable to deserve slots in a Next Level Cube.
21. Cards with superfluous tacked-on text
Ash Zealot is an excellent example. It needlessly confuses drafters.
22. Color-affiliated lands which would be „splashed“
Like Soaring Seacliff. If I included such a card, it would be in a blue slot, but any deck might want to use it as if it was a colorless land.
23. Legendary lands
They’re just unnecessarily confusing, especially with Vesuva, which is a great design serving an important role in the very kind of cube where legendary lands would be guaranteed to show up if I used them. (I would accept them, though, if I really wanted some of them, but that is not the case.)
24. Aura- or equipment-themed cards
Too narrow, and thus not supported well enough overall. Mixing those with broader-themed cards referring to enchantments or artifacts doesn’t work too well either, so I just use the broader-themed cards.
25. Mechanics-based „tribal“
Those are cards which give bonuses to creatures with defender or flying, for instance. Right now I see no need for them, and I do not want to use them as mini-themes (mini-themes, in contrast to fully-fledged themes, tend to encourage beginning drafters to shape their whole deck around a single card, which is bad). If such a theme grows (and I like it, which will probably never be the case with defender), I might reconsider my stance. Flying is the most likely candidate here.
26. Color-affiliated cards fixing mana
Essentially, I did not want Green to be a support color for spells in other colors (which is often the case in official draft environments), but instead stand on its own. Thus, I decided to keep all mana fixing colorless. That symmetry also makes for better draft environments, because it gives me more control over color balance. I miss some kind of Civic Wayfinder for forests only, though (putting the land on the battlefield in exchange would be fine) – Wood Elves just don’t cut it, and Cartographer is a different concept.
27. Clearly defensive cards for more than 4 mana
They simply play badly. Expensive cards should not serve to prolong the game, but actively help to win it.
28. „Free“ instants
I would just say „free spells“, but I have to make allowances for stuff like Salvage Titan. Most of those don’t play well in limited, but I also want beginning players to focus on mana management, which is good gameplay. Tapped out opponents should not be able to do anything with the cards in their hands.
29. Uncounterable cards and those which explicitly punish discard
There’s no need, and it’s even counterproductive to specifically punish basic interaction like counterspells or discard in limited. If countering spells were a thing which several colors in Magic did with some regularity, being uncounterable would make more sense, just like shroud does. Split second is actually an acceptable compromise, but not developed well enough to justify its inclusion. (Once again, remember I want to cube with Magic players on all skill levels. Every mechanic I use makes things harder for them, so its play value must be worth it.)
30. Cards which do not let your opponent play the game
In contrast to interactive cards like removal, counterspells and discard spells, these stop the action and single-handedly shut down parts of an opponent’s deck: Armageddon, Winter Orb, Gaddock Teeg, Null Rod, Privileged Position, Stigma Lasher… (That last one is another example of annoying tacked-on text on an otherwise well-designed card.)
Do you really need to ask? Shroud is fine, though, if used with care. (A pinger with shroud would NOT be fine, as would a card-drawer.)
32. Creatures which must attack
They take an important decision away and create feel-bad moments. („Cannot block“ isn’t nearly as bad.)
33. Non-basic lands with basic land types
Needlessly confusing, and the ones everybody thinks about here are too strong anyways, especially with the fetch lands, which are absolutely perfect if they can only search for basic lands. The rest falls squarely into the camp of „I don’t miss them at all.“
I actually like the fundamental concept of flanking a bit more than that of its brother, bushido, which is featured on a few cards in my pool, but exempting other creatures with flanking makes the machanic a bit too unwieldy.
35. Cards naming cards or requiring card naming
Requiring card naming from players is obviously out in any beginner-friendly cube. I do not like cards naming other cards at all – this is such a crude way to forcefeed intended synergies to players, and it does not work well in an environment where there is only one copy of each card. (Also, it effectively forces me to include both cards in the cube, which I do not like.) Cards naming themselves (not just referring to themselves, of course – I mean stuff like Flame Burst) are usually at least silly, if not downright awkward if there is no other copy of them around, and again confusing.
36. Phyrexian mana
Other than providing „colorless“ removal, for which I found better ways to integrate it into my cubes, I’m not sure what role these cards are supposed to play in a limited environment. Especially, I don’t like that, even if played on-color, they will usually get cast by paying life, so the colored mana option seems mostly unnecessary.
37. Cards which mention a tribe, but do not support it
Once again, these are unwieldy for unexperienced drafters: Imagine they pass an Eyeblight’s Ending, and now they consider with each creature pick if that card is an elf, because they know it might be less vulnerable to removal and thus more desirable. That eats up too much mental processing power – or creates feel-bad moments, when they ignore this, but know they shouldn’t to draft optimally. Looking for more elves when you drafted an Elvish Archdruid, on the other hand, is way easier and more rewarding.
38. Cards which are strictly better than others in my pool
This is a pet peeve of mine, but I find strictly better cards terribly inelegant (and, once again, confusing for some players). I know they are a tool to vary power level, but I am convinced that this can also be done in a more creative way. I do, of course, keep cards on different power levels in my pool, and I sometimes go for a weaker version even if I don’t feel the stronger one would be overpowered.
I’ll stop here, although there’s probably still more I can’t think of right now. If some of these criteria seem needlessly strict to you, remember one thing: I really do not need good reasons to exclude a card from my pool – I need good reasons to include it! Magic has so many cards in existence right now that one can and should be picky. If I do not like a card for any reason, no matter how irrelevant, it needs something important going for it. Otherwise, there is a better alternative.
Sometimes, I need to grudgingly accept a somehow flawed card to fulfill an important function. Overall, though, I can cherry-pick from a plethora of choices, and even flawless designs might not make the cut due to crunch reasons. It was kind of a slow process for me not to ask myself „why should I not use this card?“ instead of „why do I want/need to use it?“, since I relish the magnitude of options Magic offers, but I believe I’m almost there now!