December 5, 2014

Image Credit:

The Retro Cube

In a recent article I talked about using a limited format to simulate a bygone era of magic (league). Today I’d like to talk about another format that opens the door to re-living your favourite period of Planeswalking: cube. For the uninitiated, a cube is simply a box of magic cards that get shuffled into piles of 15 and then drafted as though they were booster packs. Deciding what cards to put into the box (“cube”) is like building a custom magic set.

While most cubes are built to showcase the best and most powerful cards from magic’s history, its not uncommon to build cubes with other limitations or objectives in mind. In my case I’ve spent the past year and a half tinkering with a “retrocube”; trying to create an environment where cards like Juzam Djinn and Shivan Dragon are kings while keeping cards like Sindbad and Flare playable. This cube also dedicates a certain number of card slots to entertainment value like Chaos Orb, Illusionary Mask, and Camouflage, and “artistic merit” cards like Natural Selection and Word of Command:


"Nothing says Darwin like an eagle-headed tiger man holding a giant apple and pulling a rope"

Originally I considered making the retrocube purely out of 4th edition cards. However, going over the actual set list for 4th edition revealed that my fond memories of turn 1 Dark Ritual into Hypnotic Specter were obfuscating the reality of packs full of circles of protection, mana batteries, and Bird Maidens. If I expected anyone to want to play this cube more than once, it would need to be a little more interesting than just who drew the least bad cards in their opening hand. To this end, I expanded the sets to the “4th edition era” which I loosely defined as any card printed between Alpha and Weatherlight.

"It's basically Chromatic Lantern, right?"

Another concession to the original 4th edition plan was designing the cube to avoid the “4th edition board state”. While nothing says 4th edition like a stalled board of 10+ creatures that can’t profitably attack, this does not make for a particularly engaging magic experience. In the interest of having players actually enjoy the cube (beyond sheer nostalgia), I caved on authenticity and severely limited the incidence of things like walls, regenerate, and colour-hate.

The first few drafts of the retrocube were a crash course in how I’m not as good at balancing cards as I think I am. There were too many quality blue flyers, and a curve as simple as Serendib Efreet into Illusionary Forces was pretty much instant win. There was too much red burn and specifically too many Fireball variants (sorry Lava Burst). There was also a chain reaction where cards like Royal Assassin required the presence of lots of “one-damage” cards like Shadow Guildmage, which then reduced the viability of aggro strategies that leaned on 1 toughness creatures. Worse, cards like Royal Assassin, Mereike Ri-Berit, and Rubinia Soulsinger were just painfully unfun to play against if you couldn’t kill them immediately. Finally there were too many 5, 6, and 7 mana bombs in each colour. Besides taking away the traditional edge of green decks, the prevalence of big finishers in all colours made any “aggro” deck (and I use the term loosely) even worse. Broadly speaking, I needed to turn down the good and turn up the suck. Rather than tinker with substitutions, I simply went ahead and increased the size of the retrocube from 450 cards to 720, and flooded it with cards like Kasimir the Lone Wolf and Horror of Horrors.

"The original Azorius fatty"

We last drafted my cube in early November with 10 players. My monogreen monstrosity took down the win on the backs of Killer Bees, Uktabi Wildcats, and Force of Nature, but more importantly there were a lot of memorable plays throughout the event. Some highlights included:

- Curving turn 2 Rampant Growth into turn 3 Nature’s Lore and Killer Bees. Opponent casts turn 4 Armageddon. Last 2 cards in my hand are forests and I topdeck a Thawing Glaciers. “Everything went better than expected!”

- Getting a double-block blowout with Giant Growth. Shuffling it back into the deck on the same turn with Gaea’s Blessing, topdecking the same Giant Growth next turn to win the game with exact damage.

- Playing a somewhat underwhelming Sylvan Library on turn 5 (had to get my Grizzly Bear on on turn 2). Opponent casts Shivan Dragon. Untap, look at top 3 cards with library - 3rd one down is Hurricane. “Everything went better than expected!”

- Hear someone lamenting that every time they cast Lord of Tresserhorn they lose.

- See another player desperately trying to topdeck one more island to cast their Leviathan.

- See yet another player living the dream of Hell’s Caretaker + Breeding Pit.

"Doesn't actually die to Armageddon"

You can see the full list of the retrocube here:

Until next time, good luck with your own crazy cube ideas!