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Cube Goldberg Machine: Introduction to Cube Strategy

Welcome back to Cube Goldberg Machines! Last time, we talked about what a cube is. If you’re not familiar with the format, I recommend checking out the last article, because today we’re going to jump right in. Let’s talk basic strategy for your first cube draft – and maybe you’ll even find something for your hundredth.

The first step in playing a cube is cracking your first pack and finding a bonkers bomb to snag, right? 

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Well... no. Let’s slow down.

Do Your Research

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Before you get going on a cube, it’s helpful to read up on it a little. There are lots of ways to do this. If it’s an online cube, then you can find an introductory article on the Mothership – Wizards’ official site – and usually you can find a list there. Or, if it’s a friend’s cube, ask them if they are willing to toss you a list before you get together. Look at the cards in the cube, and imagine some decks that would look good even if you couldn’t count on getting all the pieces. That is a decent first technique for understanding a format.

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If that sounds like a lot of effort, you can instead get a whirlwind tour from an expert. For the online cubes, people put out great introductory articles that can set you on your way. If you’re playing with a friend’s cube, ask them to orient you when you’re getting started. (For cube managers, this is a great move if you’re hosting people unfamiliar with your format!) This way, even without poring over the list, you can have a rough sketch of how the draft will play out.

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Of course, sometimes it’s not that easy. Or, reasonably, you’re not trying to do all that work – you’re just trying to play some Magic with your crew. You might not even want that insight to begin with! Sometimes, the joy of cubes is that you get to go in blind, see new cards, get scrappy and pull something together despite your unfamiliarity with what’s going on.

Either way, you’ve done all the research you want to do. You’re ready to sit down and open some crazy, crazy packs. I can’t tell you what to pick. Every cube is different, even every draft! But I’ve got some general tips to help.

Rules of Thumb

Make sure you can play your spells

Ok, this is the big one. If you don’t take anything else from this article, make sure you take enablers for your strategy – mana fixing. Just because you get to build with powerful cards in a well-tuned environment doesn’t mean you’ll get to play them! Lands are important. Don’t let your cards rot in your hand just because you don’t have the right colors to cast them. By the same token, don’t get too greedy. If you’re on track for a sweet red-black aggro deck, that sweet double-blue card in your third pack is probably a trap. This is even more important when your deck is aggressive, because you have less time to wait around for the top of your deck to cooperate. (Watch out for lands that enter tapped!)

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Another perspective: lands let you play more of the cards you draft. They don’t take up a slot of a normal card, and they let you splash fun cards, too. Mana fixing is like air – it lets you do all sorts of wonderful things when it’s around, but you only really notice it's not there. Plus, when a land does something extra, that's like an extra spell you get to play!

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And, lastly, mind your curve. Even if the format has a lot of ramp, it’s easy to wind up too top-heavy and get bottlenecked once you reach five mana. This should be easier if the cube is designed well, but in the end, the onus is on you. You’re going to have spicy options in every pack; control yourself as much as you can. I say “as much as you can” because I know there’s only so much self-control possible in the face of back-to-back Grave Titan, Consecrated Sphinx, Tamiyo, the Moon Sage, and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. Just remember that those sweet cards are more fun when they’re getting cast, not rotting in your hand!

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Balance consistency and power.

So, you’re drafting a sweet cube for the first time. Say it’s the Vintage cube. Is this the time to draft storm, a notoriously complex deck? Eeeeh, probably not. That deck is all or nothing, extremely strong or unplayable. You’ve got to get it right and need a dose of luck on top of that. Instead, it’s probably better to opt for something simpler and more reliable, whether it’s green-based ramp or mono-colored aggro. This might be a different example in another cube, but the lesson remains. Don’t get too crazy!

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Of course, there’s a flip side to this. Don’t play scared. Cubes are doing powerful things! Even if what powerful means is different. Whether it’s Reanimateing Griselbrand or Momentary Blinking Mulldrifter in a pauper environment, there is an expected power level. You want to shoot for that. If you’re just doing good things, you’re going to get swept away by the people doing great things. In many cube environments, “goodstuff” builds – just taking all the best generic cards – notoriously underperform. Be bold! Try to put together something special. Synergy wins cube games. (And, usually these decks are more fun anyways.)

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Also, one last note on synergy: “mono-red aggro” is a synergistic deck, even if it’s less flashy than “tribal elves.” Lots of aggressive creatures in the same shell build on each other, working as an ensemble towards a united goal. This is what a good cube deck should look like! Don’t put yourself in a box; enjoy flexibly and playing around with a brew. But also, maybe kinda put yourself in a box. Your deck should have a fairly unified goal, whether it’s “get lots of value from blinking things” or “bring back big dead monsters” or “get ‘em dead, quick.” When everything in the deck is working towards that goal, you can get there!

Shift your guidelines

Even if – maybe especially if – you’re an experienced limited player, you’re going to have to re-evaluate your standard drafting heuristics. Cubes can have phenomenal removal. Cubes can have abundant bombs. Going back to last article, Glorybringer loses a lot of appeal when you know that people get to run Swords to Plowshares and is a lot less special when you know you could pull a Stormbreath Dragon or Wildfire or Chandra, Flamecaller in the next pack. Meanwhile, Swords to Plowshares, while still fantastic, is less pivotal when there’s still Path to Exile, Declaration in Stone, and Unexpectedly Absent floating around. In traditional limited, removal can be slim pickings; bombs are special and eye-opening. In cube, this isn’t always the case, and you’re going to have to find a new baseline for how you evaluate these things.

Good cubes will have signposts.

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Watch for cards that are indicators of an archetype. In the last example, Momentary Blink and Reanimate serve as signals for drafters for which niche you can exploit; in this case, a blink archetype or a reanimation one. (Aren’t people clever with their naming conventions?) You can use this to guide your draft in your early picks. If you see a Goblin Welder, maybe you can expect a Tinker down the line and that Myr Battlesphere looks more appealing.

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Be careful with the signposts, though – sometimes designers will seem to leave signposts for archetypes that aren’t there. For example, because I don’t really like infinite combos in the environment, I don’t have Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker combos in my cube. But, to support blink and flash archetypes, I do run Restoration Angel. And because it creates sweet, interactive gameplay I run Zealous Conscripts. (Going back to good hosting, I try to make this clear in the intro to my cube!) Don’t latch onto an idea just because you see one indicator; you’ll have the best experience if you can roll with the flow!

Be flexible

Actually, in general, that’s also really important. Just like any draft, read the signs. Try to see where the wind is blowing; if you don’t see more pieces to the deck you want to run, you might have to re-evaluate! This is probably obvious; it’s just a little trickier when it comes to applying it to the picks themselves.

Pick Flexible Cards

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Ok, so you’re gonna draft some duds. Especially your first time, but honestly, every time. Not every deck will want Puca's Mischief, even if I really want them to. Try to pick cards that are flexible. Bitterblossom is a reasonable first pick in my cube. It goes well with tokens themes, but it also is strong in sacrifice archetypes. It goes with stax themes, and in a less focused shell it helps you stay afloat or get aggressive. Don’t go in and just take the Parallel Lives just because you love token decks. It’s a great card if you have like twenty other token creators in your deck. But even if you wind up with Lingering Souls, Bitterblossom, Thragtusk, and Hero of Bladehold, you probably won’t get your value’s worth in the games you play. (As a side note, you probably shouldn’t have Parallel Lives in your cube in the first place, for this reason. I know that, but I’m doing it anyways! I love the card. It’s ok to be suboptimal in cube.) Actually, that raises another good point.

…Or, ignore all of this and just have fun.

If you’re trying to win, these tips might help you. But if you’re just trying to have fun, you can go ahead and ignore some of this. (Still draft lands though. You know what’s great? Casting your spells.) But beyond the fundamentals like lands and curve, this is a time that you can do crazy things. Remember, there’s nothing riding on this. You’re not gunning for an FNM win or advancing to the next round in some tournament. If winning gives you joy, well, go for it! But if durdling with Tireless Tracker, Crucible of Worlds, and a Windswept Heath makes you happy, do that instead. If you like making other people not get to play? Play the Smokestack and the Braids, Cabal Minion and the Oppression. Or gravitate towards the weird stuff, the cards you’ve never gotten to play with. If you’ve always loved tribal Rogues but haven’t had a chance to play with them, well, maybe first-pick that Oona's Blackguard in your friend’s janky tribal cube even if it’s definitely wrong. You might not win, but then again, maybe you will. But you’re playing some crazy, new, exciting Magic, and in the end that’s what cube is all about!

Last Thoughts

This has been an introduction to cube strategy. Some of it is applicable to every limited format, while other bits are more specific to most cube environments. To be honest, though, every cube is different. Even two cubes with similar philosophies (think "pauper cubes" or "tribal cubes" or "powered cubes") could draft very differently. I've tried to set you up with a basic toolbox to approach these drafts, but remember: you'll have to find your own way! And, most importantly... Have fun! (Yeah, it's tacky/cliche/trite. Still, it's true!) 

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