Time Spiral, Cubed

This is a guest post written by Phil Stanton. If you’d like to contribute to cubedrafting.com, contact evan dot erwin at starcitygames dot com.

As soon as I heard about cube drafting, I knew it was for me. Many eons ago, in high school, my friends and I would create faux booster packs out of spare cards to do four-person drafts on the cheap. This turned out to be reliably fun enough, even with essentially chaff cards bereft of anything usable for any other format, that over the intervening years I’ve usually had a box of cards slowly refined for this purpose. Lately, that box has become a fully intentional cube, but not a traditional best-cards-ever version.

Instead, my cube has a vision inspired by my favorite block ever, Time Spiral, and my favorite draft environment ever, Magic 2011. You can view my continuously-updated, complete cube spreadsheet here, including a tab of cards that I’ve rotated since inaugurating the list.

Although it’s now considered a failed experiment in Magic set design, Time Spiral, Planar Chaos, and Future Sight felt like a love letter to me from Wizards R&D. I’ve been playing for the majority of my lifespan, and I got nearly all of the references. If the block hadn’t had a word of reminder text, I would hardly have noticed until Future Sight introduced so many keywords that even reading the mothership previews couldn’t unveil them all. I bought boxes and boxes of this block, which I’ve never done before or since.

That said, I know why R&D will never do something like that again: mechanically, those sets were a mess, and can’t possibly be attractive to new players. If the GDS2 has one theme, it’s that every new set aims to be just about the opposite of Time Spiral: simpler, mechanically tied together, and not just a laundry list of in-jokes for old-timers. I respect that, and think R&D is right to fight complexity creep as a top priority.

My favorite official booster draft format to date is Magic 2011, even ahead of triple-Onslaught or Ravnica/Guildpact/Dissension. That’s what sold me on the fun of simple cards. The few times I did different Time Spiral-block drafts, no matter how much I love the sets, it did not provide me as much fun as M11 did this summer. R&D really “got religion” on complexity after Time Spiral, but it only appeared fully in Shards block due to the long lead times on Magic sets.

My solution to loving Time Spiral but agreeing with the fun of simplicity was to set a different target for my cube. I want to create the perfect draft set for players like me, who’ve been around a long time and know all the mechanics, but taking into account that brain-melting board situations are not fun—at least not often. Just as important, I want cards that are off the beaten path, which is part of why I avoid the best-cards-ever plan. Even the common/uncommon cubes I’ve seen go too readily toward famous power spells like Swords to Plowshares. So, while I have classics like Man-o’-War, I’m just as excited to run Immolation.

I won’t deny that my Johnny side encourages this; generally, the more people are doing something one way, the less I want to do the same thing. I’m also kind of burned out on “that play was so broken!” from years of being interested in and writing about Type One. When I want to see insane things happen, the warm embrace of EDH is there to sate my desires. And when I want to see even crazier things, I have a Type Four stack. The cube is for a different type of joy.

Structure

My cube is 360 cards, designed to be perfect for an eight-person table to booster draft 15-card packs. I haven’t gone bigger yet because of key constraints like finding usable red cards. To make it easy, I have 50-card sections for each color and 110 slots for land, artifact, colorless, hybrid, and multicolor. The idea behind treating those together is to avoid rigidity. I want to have the flexibility to play up either multicolor or artifact themes really easily. One rotation I specifically swapped about 30 multicolor cards for an equal number of artifacts. I don’t keep the multicolor parts rigidly equal because (a) that would be a pain and (b) I’ve always thought certain colors should have an easier time working together, like W/G and B/R, so I don’t mind if some favoritism inadvertently appears.

Early Mistakes

The downside of running a totally different cube from the rest of the internet is limited opportunities to benefit from conventional wisdom, so I’ve made plenty of mistakes in designing the cube with each iteration. At the time I started work in earnest, I had never read Tom LaPille’s cube articles, among others that might’ve made the start less rough even for my unusual goal.

At first, the problem was with the poor screening on card selection. I wanted cards that would have been bombs in a more mundane draft format, or at least would have been considered strong playables. The problem with this is that bomby cards are often four or more mana, so the first time I did an eight-man with it, everyone’s mana curve was horrible. Indeed, I 0-4′d my own cube with a W/U flying deck that had entirely too many four- and five-drops. I solved this by laying all the cards in each section of the pool on a table sorted by converted mana cost, and rotating 20% of the cards out, replacing each one with a card that was at least one mana cheaper. Even that ended up creating a glut at three mana, which I had to iron out with subsequent changes. At this point I get the most excited when I discover a one-drop that I genuinely want to run.

The next mistake was to allow way too much removal. If an ordinary set’s Limited removal is at maybe a 5 or 6 out of 10, my cube was running roughly an 11. I had Cone of Flame, Shower of Coals, Arc Lightning, Jagged Lightning, Magma Burst, Reckless Spite, Strangling Soot, Infest, Pyroclasm… you get the idea. Armadillo Cloak was, no joke, a 15th pick one time because creatures wouldn’t live long enough to use it, if they even survived long enough for it to resolve. I’ve made two substantial waves of reduction in the removal since then.

After those major issues, the changes have gotten more subtle. For instance, as a consequence of dialing down the removal, blue became a lot better, since I hadn’t done anything to the bounce. Out of 50 blue cards, I was running Wash Out, Rushing River, Man-o’-War, Repulse, Venser’s Diffusion, Echo Tracer, Churning Eddy, and Tradewind Rider. The problem revealed itself when a friend and I played 75-card Sealed pools of the cube, and he got about five of those bounce cards. It was as if my side of the table were coated in Teflon; nothing could stick. Looter il-Kor is a great win condition under those circumstances.

The latest discovery was that I have too much flying, meaning U/W mirror matches can be insanely painful. I’m looking to reduce flying, and add in some creatures with landwalk abilities to compensate. (I already have two horsemanship cards, several shadow, and straight-up unblockables.) Keeping the ground important to every color is important for interactive play, and I’ve prioritized adding stalemate-breakers like Thundermare to help end games that would stall out.

Ocular Delight

One of my other goals is that my cube should be absolutely gorgeous, a treat for the eyes. I’ve started pursuing altered art, promo cards like Electrolyze and Liliana’s Specter, and the best-looking version of each card. I don’t like foils as a general rule, so I mostly include them if it’s my only copy of a card, or I’m trying to mitigate the worst-ever look of artifacts in the original Mirrodin. My biggest problem is that the new card frame is so ugly. You can tell I’m an old fogey from the fact that I’m still calling it new after over seven years.

Permit me a moment on my soap box: I think the #1 biggest problem with modern R&D is the card frame’s ugliness. The boxes are here forever, and I think they’re a net positive. I just want one change from Wizards: make the cards broadcast their colors, like they used to. An example: Smash, Apocalypse vs. Ravnica; the newer one looks like WotC ran out of ink. I want the borders to be more solid, and the background of all the boxes to be tinted if not straight-up colorized.

I know Wizards can do it, because Planar Chaos tantalized us with its beauty. Just use the PC-timeshifted frames but with black text on blue and white cards’ names and types. Look at Pyrohemia and Damnation; they’re so cool! I often cite Pyrohemia as a visually perfect card. The PC-timeshifted frame is so gorgeous that I don’t even want to replace my Blood Knight with the extended-art version. The fact that they haven’t fixed this makes me curious if their market research shows that less-colorful cards are easier for new players, although, unlike the frame boxes, I can’t think of any reason why that would be true.

As a result of this very, very strong preference, the average age of the cards in my cube is radically high. I do run new-frame cards, because many of them are so fun to play, but it hurts to look at them. When I’m rotating cards, I find myself deliberately holding down the proportion of bad frames. I have a spreadsheet of the cube contents, with a column titled “Aesthetics”; a PivotTable count reveals that only 98 of 360 cards are on the new frame without mitigating characteristics like being textless, PC- or FS-timeshift, or Esper. I’m actually driving that down bit by bit on each rotation, and targeting my altered-art commission budget at newer cards to “fix” them into something attractive.

Simplicity

Another factor that I control tightly in my cube is complexity. Since, of course, featuring set mechanics from a dozen blocks will create a lot of extra complexity, I wanted to create a metric to monitor and control it. I planned to rate on a 1-10 scale, but eventually settled at 1-7—even the scale measuring simplicity wants to be simple. So far, I haven’t had to use 7, which I envision assigning only to nightmarish cards like Humility or Opalescence. Here’s roughly how I graded cards, with examples from the cube’s current or recently rotated contents:

1 = Vanilla (Nessian Courser), french vanilla (Azure Drake), simple virtual vanilla (Cloudchaser Eagle), or straightforward spells (Annihilate)

2 = Requires some understanding of timing rules, like activated and triggered abilities (Tar Pit Warrior, Power of Fire), or expands options, like library searching (Rampant Growth), or uses additional/reduced casting costs (Spontaneous Combustion, Fireblast)

3 = Almost any set mechanic (Benalish Lancer, Ethercaste Knight, Deep Analysis, Shriekmaw), anything that refers to upkeep (Serendib Efreet, Blastoderm), or has minor memory issues (Coldsteel Heart), trample (Cradle Guard), deathtouch (Thornweald Archer), mentioning converted mana cost (Smother)

4 = Anything really texty like suspend (Errant Ephemeron), regeneration (River Boa), interactions between keyword mechanics (Viscera Dragger, Ichor Slick), protection (Blood Knight), X spells (Verdeloth the Ancient)

5 = Highly specialized rules, like Morph (Whipcorder), weird effects that introduce a lot of thinking (Lashknife Barrier) or grant non-evergreen abilities all over the place (Sporoloth Ancient)

6 = Planeswalkers (Chandra Ablaze), magnifying other complex stuff (Ixidron), changing the rules majorly (Undying Flames), changing card types (Mishra’s Factory, Weatherseed Totem), turn structure alteration (Relentless Assault)

7 = Judge Kryptonite — I won’t put these cards in the cube, but it would be Opalescence, Humility, Licids, Lich, prolific copying and layer interaction, etc.

This accounts for most things, but I won’t claim it’s 100% consistent. Sometimes the confluence of two things that would separately be 3′s pushes a card to 4. You, the veteran Magic player, might think it’s silly to put trample and regeneration at 3 and 4, but it was only a year ago that I finally could remember regenerating tapped the creature. The current average rating of my cube is a 2.3.

The only way for me to determine whether this is actually a good number is to compare it to real sets. I figured that, rather than try to weight it by rarity, I could create a more valid comparison to my cube by evaluating sets as if for a rotisserie draft (one copy of each card). The over-representation of rares would reflect a similar dynamic to my cube, which isn’t designed to be as friendly to new players as a modern expansion set is.

On this scale, M11 averages 2.07, Zendikar is 2.24, Invasion is 2.27, and Future Sight is 3.2. I consider this “mission accomplished”, as the complexity region right above Zendikar and Invasion is a comfortable one for experienced players. If I cut all Morph cards, it’d drop like a rock. This metric is something I intend to continue watching closely.

After re-reading Aaron Forsythe’s GDS2 note on common word count—“For recent comparison, Shards of Alara had just over seventeen words per common, Zendikar just under twenty, and Scars of Mirrodin just under seventeen (Magic 2011 had about twelve and a half, and that’s including reminder text).”—I decided that this would also be a great metric, and, after rotating a few word-bombs like Search for Tomorrow (64!), the cube is 19.5 words per card.

If the counts Aaron references include type lines, mine is off by roughly two words per card—still within striking distance. My numbers are even weirder because I usually counted the wording as-printed rather than in Oracle (examples of exceptions: I used the Oracle version of Cycling reminder text rather than Saga’s, and the Oracle wording of Sentinel). The old templates are, um, interesting. Since it’s a pile of mixed rarity competing with some of R&D’s tightest groups of commons, I see this as a being quite an achievement. The range of 15-23 words is my target zone to confine future changes; since three words x360 is enough space to swap fifteen vanilla creatures for fifteen Search for Tomorrows, this doesn’t feel terribly confining, and mostly serves to make both drafting and gameplay more smooth.

Frequent Rotation

One of the other advantages of using a less powerful cube is that newly added cards don’t have to be insane to keep up with the cardpool. I could put in Hill Giant without tragedy, although it wouldn’t be very good. I have a few hundred candidate cards on the sidelines awaiting a slot, and I’ve kept all the rotated cards in their own pile for eventual re-introduction except a few that I’m sure I don’t want to bring back (for example, Linessa, Zephyr Mage and Disintegrate were each too decisive).

I’ll often change something simply for the sake of change. Moroii and Fireshrieker are examples of cool cards that I cut simply because they’d been in too long. I’m starting to get a sense of the cards I never want to cut—my Legends Azure Drake, Ravnica bouncelands like Azorius Chancery, Benalish Lancer, Recoil—but eventually I might even let those take a turn on the sidelines. The perpetual freshness of being able to create my own version of Time Spiral every on an evolving basis is the core appeal of the cube format to me.

I predict that, once I have a fairly stable core that I’m comfortable with as a baseline, I’ll more intentionally develop packages of cards to rotate in together, like devoting 60 cards to spiritcraft/arcane or emphasizing the graveyard or making Morph a more major theme. I’ve already got some more bizarre rares (e.g., Form of the Dragon) included to encourage more gameplay diversity, and those slots are another avenue for keeping the cube fresh.

The greatest challenge, honestly, is to find interesting red cards. Red desperately needs to do more than mete out damage points. I can only lean so much on temporary stealing and land sacrifice as subthemes.

Ways to Play

Of course, an eight-person booster draft is the Platonic ideal of cube play, and certainly six- and four-person variants of the same thing are common. But as we all know, sometimes it’s not that easy to point eight people in the same direction for several hours at a time. One of the things this cube, in particular, lends itself to is a cobbled-together play setup, due to having a creature density comparable to ordinary sets and no reliance on combos to generate playable Limited decks. (Don’t get me wrong, there’s abundant synergy: the bounce-heavy deck I mentioned also ninjitsu’d Ninja of the Deep Hours into play, returning Mulldrifter and replaying it. Broken!)

Sealed works fine, and you can dial the power up or down to taste simply by how many cards go to each player. I haven’t tried splitting the cube in half yet, but now I kind of want to—maybe with an exciting, difficult 15- or 20-minute deckbuilding time limit. I also haven’t done 30-card pools yet, but it sounds excruciating, in a good way.

For my money, though, the second-best way to play after actually drafting the cube is a variant I read about on the mothership in a non-cube context: MindMaster (see: http://www.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtgcom/feature/352 for a more thorough exegesis). Give each player fifteen random cards as an opening hand, no hand-size limit or library, and the ability to put a basic land of any type into play ten times per game. You can add more rules to make more cards work within the format, or just live with cards like Tidings being blank (sometimes having blanks is an important resource).

The faux packs are almost always a fair match, and games go 10 to 30 minutes. In the cases when one person gets dramatically better cards, the game is usually over mercifully fast to mitigate the un-fun-ness. Land picks are skill-testing, since the cube has higher colored-mana requirements than regular sets. The limit on free basics is an anti-stalling rule, and it reins in cards like Pegasus Stampede that might otherwise be too good (even Sacred Mesa weakens when you had to use six or seven land drops on other colors).

Other cubes have vicious densities of removal spells, especially mass removal, which really cuts into the playability of MindMaster, and regular packs have far too many chaff cards to be consistently balanced.

I hope this outline gives you a window into a different kind of cube, and some ideas to potentially improve your own.

-Phil Stanton
“DrSylvan” on Magic forums everywhere
prstanto at gmail dot com

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6 Comment(s)

  1. My wife and I often play our cube in a similar fashion to MindMaster.

    Basically we grab a big stack out of the shuffled cube, cut it in half and take 7. Then each turn we may choose to draw a card or pick one of any basic land. When the game’s over we just move what we played with into another box until we’ve gone through the entire cube and we’re ready to shuffle up and play again.

    It’s super fast to play (there’s no between game shuffling) and set up. The last thing we want when she says, “hey let’s play Magic until we get sleepy,” is to be handed a sealed pool.

    Just made me think of it and I thought I’d share!

    Matt | Feb 1, 2011 | Reply

  2. Good article. I really like the complexity scale. Card complexity isn’t something I’ve ever really taken into account. I always just expected people to get better to deal with it.

    I feel you love for the old cards also. I like foils a lot and it always just looked so much cooler before the border change. Timeshifted foils are like crack for me. I just got a foil Sacred Mesa and I am giddy for it.

    Keep writing stuff like this, I want to read more.

    Kingofweasels | Feb 2, 2011 | Reply

  3. Thanks Matt & King; I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

    Matt – I’m definitely trying that format! I like that it offers mana stability without making it too easy. It could be a great break from MindMaster.

    King – The simplicity sells itself to me whenever I’m in a draft game, looking at the board, and can’t even decide whether it’s stalled or I’m just not seeing the way through to end it. The too-much-flying problem was the most recent instance of that in my cube, and I think it’s stamped out of the current list. I’m still looking for interesting, non-flying Blue creatures, though, for future rotations, since that’s in the shortest supply. I’m not sure my cube will ever be appropriate for beginner players, but it’s way closer to that point than any other cube list I’ve seen.

    -Phil

    DrSylvan | Feb 2, 2011 | Reply

  4. I enjoyed this. I’m in the middle of building my cube, and am a bit worried about the complexity getting out of control. I might test your metric!

    My cube has a pretty major morph theme, and a lot of +1/+1 and charge counter usage.

    It currently also uses multiple types of counters (+1/+1, charge, -1/-1, vanishing, time, wish(!), loyalty etc.).
    I’m thinking it might be worth cutting out some of these, to keep the board looking simpler. -1/-1′s only appear due to skinrender, contagion clasp and a couple of persist guys, and vanishing only appear on calciderm, so they seem like easy cuts.

    Stealthbadger | Feb 3, 2011 | Reply

  5. Another thing which I’m not keen on with a lot of people’s cubes (which relates to the complexity, sort of) is a high quantity of foreign cards and textless promos. I like to keep them to a minimum (currently just a french tezzeret, which I’m trying to trade for an english one!).

    Stealthbadger | Feb 3, 2011 | Reply

  6. My solution to textless or foreign cards is to have an english copy of each such card in a different-backed sleeve, then set that group of copies in the middle of the table before a draft.

    I encourage all the players to check the pile at any time, whether before or during the draft. Even if people only check when they see a textless in their pack, my invite prompts everyone to consider that the person might not be looking at any of those cards presently, preserving uncertainty.

    Including more sleeved cards is infinitely more natural for the cube box than something clunky like an Oracle printout, and it’s easy to update.

    P.S.: I’m a little jealous of a cube that can justify running Clockspinning, Power Conduit, and Energy Chamber. Just make sure you have distinguishable types of counters available. I like go stones, white and black, for +1/+1 and -1/-1; charge counters deserve dice.

    DrSylvan | Feb 3, 2011 | Reply

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