It's been a while since I wrote about cube design. The idea for this article came when I remembered a conversation that I had at the last SCG Invitational in Indianapolis. I talked to someone about how cards can play multiple roles in a cube. "People just lack imagination in Cube," he said, referencing when people think too rigidly about the roles of cards in a cube. I honestly don't remember what the conversation was about, but since then, it's been something that I think about when it comes to Cube card evaluation, especially when it results in someone incorrectly evaluating a card based on their own expectations for a card. In this article, I'll talk about how that sentiment can hamper the ability to evaluate cards in drafting and in cube design and how to avoid that pitfall.
Rigid evaluation comes about when someone utilizes an inflexible method of expectations to evaluate a card for a cube. It typically involves looking at a card (either old or new,) thinking in terms of an idealized use, evaluating the card's Cube potential based on how well it compares to that idealized image, and using that as a mental barometer for how the card will perform in their cube.
Typically, when we consider cards for our cubes and cube decks, we inevitably compare it to options that we have available to us—either options that we have seen or expect to see in the draft or the pool of cards printed. Because of this, it's natural to compare cards to similar cards, and this is a good way to go when generally evaluating cards.
When I'm looking at a five-mana red creature, the first thing that I think of is how it compares to other red fives like Kiki-Jiki, Thundermaw Hellkite, Siege-Gang Commander, and Zealous Conscripts (although my evaluation doesn't stop there). When making these comparisons, especially when evaluating cards with which we have little Cube experience, we visualize experiences and imagine how a card would play out. This is generally a good idea, but the problem comes about when we imagine a card's use with rigid expectations.
For example, let's talk about Primeval Titan—a card that many people, myself included, dismissed for Cube. Why?
Consider the best lands in Cube. Library of Alexandria is the best land in Cube and it's arguably the best card in cubes that run it, if not very close to the best. Other lands are highly picked staples that include the dual lands, fetchlands, other mana fixers like City of Brass, and other lands like Mishra's Workshop. Since these were in the top tier of Cube's lands, the prevailing thought was that these were the lands that we'd want to get with the Titan.
A common talking point against Primeval Titan in Cube was, "Why would I want to get Library of Alexandria on turn 6? Wouldn't my hand have fewer than seven cards at that point? Why would I want a Taiga or a Bayou on turn 6? Shouldn't my mana be fine at that point?" Little did we know that we were evaluating the card in a completely incorrect manner.
When I considered the overall package of the card, thinking of it as a land Tutor combined with a pseudo Mirari's Wake which gave a 6/6 trampling beat stick instead of giving your creatures +1/+1, gave me a "Eureka!" moment, and I then realized the power of Prime Time. I realized that it was good when getting other lands like manlands (especially ones like Raging Ravine) and eventually figured out that it's good even when it's just fetching a few duals or some basics
It obviously gets bonus points if it grabs something like a Shelldock Isle, Raging Ravine, or a Maze of Ith though. In fact, in my most recent Cube Draft videos, I had Primeval Titan and Library of Alexandria. It turned out that getting Library of Alexandria was usually not what I wanted to do, but it had plenty of other really good uses.
The rigidity in mine and others' initial impression was that we went straight for what we expected the card to do based on linear ideas and dismissed Primeval Titan. I didn't take the extra step to make my evaluations more flexible by considering other lands that could be grabbed by Prime Time. I didn't consider the other possibilities that Primeval Titan provided and thus incorrectly evaluated it.
Since then, I've learned my lesson by examining where my card evaluation algorithm went wrong and have learned to think less rigidly for Cube evaluation. Had I simply said, "Well, as it turns out, Primeval Titan is good, so I'll just put it in my cube" without realizing why myself and others misevaluated it, I'd be not improving, not practicing Kaizen, and just keeping up with data found in other formats. This article was borne out of that realization—that making that fundamental shift in card evaluation was helpful in making better evaluations for my and others' cubes.
To summarize, a few years ago, a person who drafted my Pauper cube saw Gemhide Sliver, took it early, and ended up disappointed because there weren't any other Slivers to go with it. He was thinking rigidly because the idealized use for Gemhide Sliver is in decks with other Slivers to take advantage of the creature type. The mistake, however, was not realizing that it was a fine card in that format on its own—it obviously can't live up to its potential when it could be combined with other Slivers (since all other common Slivers are abysmal), but it still taps for any color of mana, which is good in pauper since it doesn't have the best options for mana fixing, and it's one of the cheapest providers of rainbow mana in the format.
Was it bad for him to make that assumption, especially in a relatively obscure format like Pauper Cube? The limited experience that most people have with Slivers is in environments where there are multiple Slivers—Onslaught, Tempest, and Time Spiral blocks all had plenty of common Slivers to pair with each other, and Constructed applications have Sliver decks work by combining Slivers' strengths.
In Cube, a drafter has faith in the designer that each card has a specific purpose and a goal. For example, a Jackal Pup in a cube doesn't just say to a drafter, "This is for red aggro," but also, "Aggro is an archetype that can be drafted in this cube, and there's a good deck for it. If you take this card, know that you'll be able to build with it and be able to do well with it." Granted, these intentions don't always match reality, as I've seen plenty of cubes with the usual cast of Jackal Pup, Isamaru, and Goblin Guide but not enough aggro support to make aggro a strategy worth pursuing, even if the designer incorrectly thinks that it is.
Having a steady and consistent playgroup can help with this because with repeated drafts drafters can learn the intentions of the designers through drafts, as can having a list, but a list doesn't give perfect knowledge either. It wasn't until doing multiple test drafts with the initial iteration of the Magic Online Cube that I and others who drafted it found that Plated Geopede and Phantasmal Image were missing and access to the Magic Online Cube list was just a click away. Had I been in the person who drafted Gemhide Sliver in my Pauper cube's shoes, I honestly don't think I'd have looked at the list and may have made the same assumptions he did.
Other examples of cards that are victims of rigid evaluation are cards that get evaluated as mono-color cards. Lately, it seems like there's a cliche of disproportionally talking about mono-colored archetypes, like talking about mono-red as seemingly the only way to draft red aggro in cube, when I've found that R/X decks typically happen much more often in my experience and also are very good strategies. This has a negative impact when evaluating cards like Liliana of the Dark Realms and (initially) Geralf's Messenger because people think of the cards in terms of mono-color when they are fine in two-color strategies.
That's because when we see these cards, the first place that we go to is mono-black since that is the ideal deck for these types of cards. When thinking rigidly, these cards get rejected when not in mono-black/if mono-black isn't supported because the evaluation stops there without taking the next step to realize that the cards are fine outside of mono-black.
Obviously Geralf's Messenger is much better than Liliana of the Dark Realms, but the analogy still holds. Initially, people who used rigid evaluation dismissed Geralf's Messenger because they thought that it would be unplayable outside of mono-black, only to realize that the card was great outside of mono-black and a solid addition to B/X aggro decks.
Cloudgoat Ranger is an example of a card that has been accepted as a Cube staple now, but when it initially came out, many people (myself included) initially dismissed the card for Cube. We incorrectly dismissed the card because it couldn't combine with other Kithkin like in Lorwyn Limited since most cubes just had Knight of Meadowgrain as a fellow Kithkin.
As it turns out, we were focusing on the wrong aspects of the card—it wasn't its synergy with Kithkin that made it good, it was providing six power for five mana (and the ability to be a 5/3 flier most of the time) that made it good. This is an example of using an idealized image (Cloudgoat as a windmill slam in Lorwyn Limited), having it not live up, getting disappointed, and then realizing that the card was still good even if it didn't live up to that expectation.
Land destruction (LD) cards are another suite of cards that I find people tend to misevaluate due to thinking about them with rigid evaluation. I sometimes hear, "Is there a LD deck in your cube?" I typically respond by saying that the decks that want them are aggressive decks.
Since many people look at pinpoint land destruction cards as components of a dedicated land destruction deck, some may think in a rigid fashion and be disappointed because there isn't really a critical mass for a dedicated land destruction deck in Cube and land destruction effects in Limited environments. Like Stone Rain in Champions of Kamigawa, they tend to be very late picks. However, those cards don't get used for just killing every land that the opponent plays; they're played mostly for disrupting the opponent and keeping them in the early phases of the game, like the Molten Rain Zoo decks of years past.
Opposition – When I used to run Opposition in my cube, it was mainly used in awkward decks like Esper Control with token producers like Spectral Procession, but rigid evaluation would get in the way of their use as a tempo monster. Rigid evaluation ignored the fact that it could be utilized well in other archetypes where you have creatures that act like spells like Aether Adept and mana elves, so people dismissed a card that would have made for a very powerful addition in their decks. Due to its success in the Magic Online Cube in decks like U/G, more people have started to catch on to the card's power.
Skyshroud Claim – Skyshroud Claim is a card that I typically see get dismissed because of it not being as good as it'd be in a format like EDH where you can have approximately a thousand nonbasic Forests in your deck to fetch and the fear that it can be drawn without the ability to get Forests, which as I've found out isn't really true. It's true that there aren't as many juicy targets to get with it, but I've found that it isn't hard to get a dual. If not, it's usually still a fine card (that and being able to go Claim ’ two-drop is pretty sweet too.)
There are many other cards that are victims of rigid evaluation, but those are some good examples for you to reflect upon and utilize.
It's important to not go to the other side of the pendulum and sell yourself on cards via situations which won't realistically occur. Balance is key of course. The main thing is that it's important to not think in rigid terms of evaluation and not to be disappointed because a card doesn't match what you think a card should do. You should instead to think of what a card can do in a cube and if that can be realistically achieved.
Take, for example, this deck that my friend Jeremy recently drafted from my cube.
- 1 Molten-Tail Masticore
- 1 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 1 Precursor Golem
- 1 Exalted Angel
- 1 Fiend Hunter
- 1 Knight of Glory
- 1 Soltari Champion
- 1 Soltari Monk
- 1 Soltari Trooper
- 1 Sublime Archangel
- 1 Eight-and-a-Half-Tails
- 1 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
- 1 Pianna, Nomad Captain
I never would have thought to combine Mishra's Workshop with a Mono-White Aggro deck, as I typically play it in midrange and control decks with mana rocks and a few artifact finishers. When I saw Jeremy play the deck (and crush me in our match and subsequent games), I was floored by the creativity of the deck, and it was a blast seeing it in action. If I had my druthers, the Mimic Vat would be a Porcelain Legionnaire, but as is, I loved the deck.
Does that mean I lack imagination because I wouldn't have thought of that kind of deck? Perhaps, but hey, I'm working on it!
May all of your opening packs contain Sol Rings!