When asked, most Magic players I know give a different answer to what, exactly, defines the cube experience. While I’m not writing today to answer this question as though I speak for everyone, this article will attempt to flesh out some of the more meaningful lessons in cube design I’ve been fortunate enough to glean. It’s far from empirical, but these observations might help provide a roadmap to a higher outlook on our goals as curators, and with better tools to aid the climb to these new vantage points.

This isn’t just for cube owners, however. This is for anyone who has an established interest in the format: be it dedicated members of a local playgroup, someone thinking about starting to build their own cube, or a cube owner who is always thinking of tinkering with an existing list to make it more their own, but might be afraid to try.

I believe each cube to be the expression of an idea. Much like a painting or novel, every cube environment tells a story about the curator’s perspective on what they believe makes Magic: the Gathering fun. The drive to communicate this perspective more and more effectively is the journey we all embark upon through the process of exploration, feedback, and iteration. I’ve been working on my own ideas for years; what had started out as a cut-and-paste Legacy cube quickly grew into a fully powered Vintage cube.

At some point I wasn’t satisfied with that cube. I finally sold it off a little over a year ago to invest my energies into building and refining an environment that spoke to the power level and the experience I craved. At first I called it The Limited Cube, in order to approximate the feeling of retail booster draft. Now it lies somewhere between a Peasant cube and a Masters set. I wanted to play with the cards I loved or believed were good, not only with the best cards ever printed in Magic. And I wanted combat to matter.

The Draft

I hosted a six person draft last week. I don’t get to do as many of these as I would like to, and thankfully with the help of the NYC community and more specifically with the help of Ryan Saxe, I’ll soon be able to put my cube on a new workout regiment. This motley crew sitting around the table before me wasn’t my usual playgroup; so I asked before the draft for feedback, both macro and micro, which they said they were happy to provide. Aren’t many of us eager to give our opinions when asked? I know I am!

Here are the drafted decks:

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The top performing builds were the Black/White Monarch deck, the four color control deck, and the Blue/Red Spells deck. Mine was the middling Black/Red midrange deck—I like to draft the harder-to-put-together archetypes as it allows me to gauge their average power level—with some sacrifice stuff and a couple of decent sideboard cards (not pictured). I went 0-3, but I fought hard and was alright with the result.

I’m not interested in trying to 3-0 in my draft pods right now. Instead, I want to understand the flow of the draft and the resulting decks people build. I’m extremely interested in whether anything weird or extraordinary happens: infinite combos, ultra game-ending engines, or wonderfully complex board states where a player’s individual card choices can really matter.

Some of the decks were really sweet. The Black/White Monarch deck was on another power level altogether, and the five-color control deck was along the lines of what I assumed would happen when someone chooses the Take The Land approach. (I have several of these people in my normal playgroup.) It quickly became obvious where I had gone awry: in all my recent theory crafting and two-player Winston drafts, I hadn’t clearly envisioned how the drafts would break when real, live humans would sit down to draft. It’s been a while, I guess.

As we cleaned everything up and boxed the cube away sometime close to midnight, the players had each given me some fat to chew on. I opened up and listened, careful to hear each of them collapse their experience into little packages of advice, frustration, enthusiasm, or hyperbole. Ultimately they had each enjoyed themselves, and that alone was a victory.

On Feedback

I read somewhere earlier this year that giving and receiving feedback is a skill, and that you can train yourself to become a better participant. I’ve worked on this idea since reading about it and very soon after my relationships to others, and with myself, have benefitted.

When someone asks for your feedback, ask them to be specific on what kind of feedback they’re looking to receive. What are they trying to accomplish with you? How can you better tailor your response to provide resonant and constructive data points?

When asking someone for their feedback, be careful to articulate your intentions with the other person. Try to communicate clearly which issue or problem you need help solving, or what confusion needs investigating. The better you can focus in on what you need or want, the more meaningful the response you’ll receive.

I often ask for a few different kinds of feedback before sitting down to draft my cube. The big picture “Is this fun?” is coupled with the more specific “Did your deck feel like it made itself clear to you during the draft? Did you find the draft engaging?”

This exercise of giving and receiving feedback is wonderful for honing one’s ability to communicate. I’m still learning how to better myself here: be it at work, at home, alone, or at the draft table.

The Challenge of “Cum Grano Salis”

Processing everyone’s feedback that night required patience, as it revealed aspects of my cube’s philosophy that were contradictory, or incorrect. I wanted people to work for their card advantage, or establish a casting cost barrier to get a clean two-for-one. But this was simply not the case as the cards played out. Some decks couldn’t get an advantage, or had to work for it, whereas other decks simply possessed an advantage inherently.

Having manufactured an imbalance in card quality, that meant each of my drafters were eager to plot the landscape of my mishaps. I listened, unsure anymore if I understood where my power balance was aiming to play out. It’s important to receive feedback both seriously and lightly. Your cube is your idea, and no one can take that away from you. But learning how others interact with it is, for better or worse, the most crucial data available.

First and foremost, I need to host drafts more frequently. That’s a no brainer. No one can come to any conclusions on whether their idea is working or not without practice.

Second, I need to accept that the ways in which I formulated certain archetypes, and some of the big picture ideas about the format are simply not going to work. When balance is at risk, one must reestablish the fundamentals in order to properly evaluate overall design without bias. Supporting Monarch was a mistake. Black aggro needs support to strengthen aristocrats. If only control decks are winning, aggro is failing.

When we look to communicate with others an idea that’s greater than words, it can be tricky to navigate in the dark. Be specific in why you think this or that power level is effective, and why it’s fun. Don’t forget that cube should be fun above all else, especially to the people you draft with. Your playgroup is one of the best resources available to you, and you should be sensitive to their honesty. If they’re not having fun, it might mean you have some work to do.

I laid out my cube at home and worked on updating the list. We all have pet cards, favorite archetypes. But making them work in context, and making it all fun to play—that’s the double rainbow.

Some Conclusions

If cube was only about communicating an idea, then a lack of fun is arguably not important. As with art, sometimes the role of the creator is merely to raise questions and not provide any answers, leaving it up to the recipient to decide whether or not they agree. But Magic is a game where communicating cannot be so vacuous, muddy, or ethereal. Curate for yourself, but also for your playgroup. Listen to those you draft with and especially those you trust; and never stop looking to stengthen the ideas you hold close concerning what, exactly, you want your cube to be about.

Cube is yours to build and yours to discover, but don’t forget to give it all away when you sit down to shuffle up and draft. Because at some point it’s not about you anymore. It’s about the group. If you’re open to it, you’ll get back so much more than you could possibly give. And your cube will be all the better for it.

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