One of the most important elements of Cube design is crafting a dynamic and balanced Cube environment where all the cards are performing well. Recently, I asked on Twitter what people do when cards or archetypes aren't performing well, and there were surprisingly few responses, with most just saying to take the cards out of their Cubes. This is an incomplete method. In this article, I'll tell you what to do when cards and/or archetypes are underperforming in your Cube.
In your Cube, because each card is competing with the best cards in the game, each card needs to say "this card has a purpose and positively contributes to winning decks in this Cube; you can draft this card, and the deck for this card that you are drafting has a realistic chance of going 3-0." While a card like Jackal Pup obviously isn't as powerful as Jace, the Mind Sculptor when you're drafting a Jackal Pup deck, you shouldn't feel like you made a mistake by going for a Jackal Pup deck (red aggro) instead of going for a Jace, the Mind Sculptor deck (blue control.)
I'm going to use the phrase "contribute positively" often because this is what you want every card in your Cube to do to your environment. You want it so that each card in your Cube is positively contributing to your Cube environment since you don't want your cards to be "loser's traps"—cards that you expect to see more at home in 1-2 decks than 2-1 or 3-0.
When looking at why individual cards and/or archetypes are underperforming, these are questions to ask yourself:
How often is the card being maindecked and how often is it winning?
When questioning whether a card is positively impacting your Cube, one of the best ways to find out is to see how often the card is played and how often it's winning through observation. Recently, I've been looking at positive impact as a function of how often it's played and how often it's winning by data tracking:
As Cube designers, we don't have access to the amount of raw data that Cube designers have on Magic Online, like being able to see what pack 1 pick 1s have the best win percentage, but we can still cull useful data from observation as a numerical approximation of how often the cards are winning drafts.
It isn't perfect since things like improper deckbuilding and general deckbuilding anomalies can happen and can lower your numbers, like if you somehow ended up with four of the Mirrodin/Scars of Mirrodin Swords and can't run all of them. Instead, tracking the maindeck percentage and win percentage gives you an overall figure on the positive contribution of a card to your format; just because Sword of War and Peace is sitting in your sideboard in one draft in this match doesn't mean that it's not positively contributing overall (and in the long run, it won't affect those numbers very much anyway).
If you don't have the ability to Cube often or honestly don't want to bother with creating spreadsheets, you can still approximate by looking at general trends of what cards are seeing maindeck play and what decks are winning your Cube drafts. Use the same principles of seeing not only how often the card is played but how often that card is winning even if you're not tracking it on paper; just make sure that you're being objective.
Another useful aspect of information gathering is that even if it's informal it helps you to keep your perceptions in check with reality. It can be easy to convince yourself that certain cards or archetypes are performing well based on a good performance, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is contributing positively to your Cube.
Think back to Mike Hron's 2007 Pro Tour Valencia win during Time Spiral-Time Spiral-Planar Chaos Limited, where he went all-in on black when he was in it because it was weaker than the other colors:
"One of the strong incentives for Mike to be in black was the good price he could get on his cards. It was not like he thought that black was deep in the third pack—his opinion of the color was the same as most everyone else's.
If you look at the black commons from Planar Chaos, there are really only two good ones—Rathi Trapper and Blightspeaker. My goal in theory was to draft B/W Rebels if it was coming. I figured most people wouldn't be drafting black. Brain Gorgers is a card most people don't even feel is playable, and Trespasser il-Vec is another card that people rarely take. It is available much later than it should be.
Mike was so confident in his black plan that he stunned me with his first-pack first-pick Tendrils of Corruption over Teferi in the third draft of the weekend."
If that example is from too far in the past, think back to Avacyn Restored Limited where black was weaker than the other colors. Once people became familiar with the format and learned that black was the weakest color, it was a legitimate strategy to take advantage of this by trying to go for it early and harvesting the bounty of getting cards like Bone Splinters later than they normally would have in Shards provided that another person in the pod wasn't trying to do the same thing since that would end in disaster. (Thanks to Tim Aten for the information.)
This gamble does not a good format make, and it's one of the many reasons that Avacyn Restored was panned as a Limited format; you don't want this to be a way for archetypes to do well in your Cube. It'd be incorrect to think that black was good in TTP limited, and as such a single victory based on an archetype being (deservedly) underrated doesn't mean that it's properly supported.
Are there similar cards that are performing better in your Cube? Is the card being crowded out because of already-existing support?
Looking at data like positive contribution can help give you some insight into cards in your Cube. Doing so helped me notice something about how Lodestone Golem has recently been performing in my Cube.
I found that although it is a solid card with very impressive stats for an aggressive deck it is in an awkward spot since it's often relegated to sideboards because of being crowded out. The decks that wanted to play Lodestone Golem—aggressive decks—don't run many four-drops as is, and they frequently didn't have room for it since they had other options like Ajani Goldmane, Hellrider, and Hero of Bladehold. Even not-insane cards like Abyssal Persecutor and Dungeon Geists pushed Lodestone out of aggressive decks, and non-aggressive decks frequently couldn't take advantage of the "taxing" effect, so its positive contribution was quite low in my Cube.
Of course, I'm not advocating that all Cubes take it out because my Cube has 460 cards and other Cubes may not have the same level of competition at four. Because of this, it's possible for that same card to see more maindeck play in a smaller Cube.
It can be easy to get caught in a trap of dismissing a card because it isn't as good as other cards in that slot, especially the all-stars. Dungeon Geists and Jace, Architect of Thought may not be Fact or Fiction; Jace, the Mind Sculptor; or Control Magic, but they're still solid since they tend to have high positive contribution percentages. Redundancy, after all, is a key element of Cube design, and it's important to maintain that no matter what the Cube size.
Are drafters incorrectly evaluating cards? Is it incorrectly evaluating the support that a card needs or is it general incorrect evaluation?
Sometimes a card can have low impact in a Cube because of misconceptions about it, such as drafters incorrectly thinking that it is unsupported in Cube. A common example on both the designer side and the drafting side was people thinking that there wasn't enough equipment for Stoneforge Mystic in Cube. Once Scars of Mirrodin came out, many Cube designers did eventually add it (myself included), although realistically the support was there all along, and drafters who may have initially underrated it found that it was a solid card.
Other cards like Sneak Attack and Opposition may suffer because of incorrectly evaluating the decks that can use it in a myopic sense, restricting their vision of the cards as only being good with a specific subset of cards (Sneak Attack only with Eldrazi / Griselbrand and Opposition only with token producers.)
A card can also get lower play through general improper evaluation tropes like "I wouldn't even play this in Limited, so this card is bad," incorrectly dismissing cards like Duress, or general fear of drawbacks/symmetrical effects.
I've heard the saying that to show people how to play with the card you should just beat them with it, but I've found that it isn't as simple as that adage implies. People tend to have a "once bitten, twice shy" feeling after getting stung by an unfamiliar card's drawback when using a card for the first time, which can reinforce incorrect perceptions that they had about the card even if the person has seen you use the card successfully for months or years. That said, it is helpful to receive feedback from drafters and find out why people aren't a fan of that card. They may on the right path or they may be completely wrong, but it's good to have the information as a point of reference.
Does the card require further support?
Cards like Reassembling Skeleton and Nether Traitor may look innocuous but are much better when they're in Cube decks that give them the support to be good. The more important question, however, is whether that kind of support can happen consistently enough in your Cube and if that kind of support is worth taking up space in your Cube. Sometimes a card like the two above may not be contributing positively due to lack of explicit support, which causes the Cube designer to question whether supporting the card further is worth it.
Think about how even with new Slivers in M14 there weren't enough Slivers to make a Sliver deck work in Cube. Thinking in terms of positive contribution, it'd take a small miracle for a Sliver deck to go 2-1 in Cube, let alone 3-0. Most cards that require explicit support aren't anywhere near as bad, but as a designer you must ask yourself if the overall package of the supported cards + support cards are helping your Cube's archetypes versus other options. This also happens in Cube archetypes that aren't traditionally supported like green aggro and Blue tempo/aggro. As a Cube designer, it is up to you to decide whether those are worth it versus other options.
Personally, I've found that they are, but it's up to the designer to make that decision. A few years down the line, support for those archetypes may push them more into the "mainstream."
Think back to Justin Parnell's initial article talking about black Cube cards and how black aggro cards were going late, weren't performing very well, and were generally not positively contributing to the format but he found they got more traction once support got added.
Let's apply these lessons and a few others to discuss some other questions we can ask regarding why decks and/or archetypes are underperforming.
Are there strengths that aren't being fully explored for that archetype?
When looking to improve the performance of an archetype, it's important to note its strengths and weaknesses and how the colors play into those strengths.
For example, black aggressive decks have a solid cast of one-mana two-power creatures, but they can be dismissed by drafters because they're worse than the ones found in white and arguably Red. However, that doesn't mean that it's not worth supporting, as black excels in other disruptive elements such as land destruction, hand disruption, and strong recursive elements. Although it may seem counterintuitive, adding a card like Wrench Mind may end up making other cards like Gravecrawler and Carnophage have a higher positive impact in your Cube.
What decks are performing well against the underperforming archetypes and how can I balance this?
A classic example of this is when years ago Cubes were struggling with aggressive support and people like Tom LaPille said that taking Signets and bouncelands out of Cubes was the answer. A more recent example is when people took pro-black cards out of Cubes to try to make black decks better.
The problem with this approach is that it isn't looking at the root cause of the problem.
When Cube designers were struggling with aggressive support, they noted that the non-aggro decks—the ones with Signets—were outperforming the ones without Signets, so the solution was to take those away. In Cubes where this was done, I frequently just took the other mana fixing and acceleration available like Talismans and Fellwar Stones and my control decks still performed extremely well.
It was deemed that their ability to go to from 1 --> 2 --> 4 (wrath / big four-mana spell) was too strong versus the aggressive decks.
We've seen Cubes since then adopt measures to make aggressive decks stronger with any number of Signets—from just the blue ones to all ten without having non-signets decks falter—by working to address aggressive deck support by making them stronger by lowering mana curves and increasing their mana efficiency, not by cutting Signets and bouncelands.
This problem of looking at the symptoms but not the root cause tends to happen when intentionally curtailing mana fixing, fearing that too much fixing will lead to five-color-control decks being dominant. However, like before, this looks at the symptoms without understanding the root cause—that control decks in those metas are better supported and aggressive decks tend to value mana fixing, especially that which doesn't enter the battlefield tapped for their own decks. By trying to curtail those decks, they end up making two-color aggro decks weaker, exacerbating the problem.
Again, looking at the visible symptoms but not the root cause. It wasn't the availability of the fixing that made 5CC a dominant strategy years ago; it was the weakness of its prey, aggressive decks, that did so.
What are the incentives to play the deck?
This argument was brought up when designers considered cutting Signets and bouncelands from their Cubes; the argument was that the incentive to play green wasn't there since other colors had access to mana fixing and acceleration. However, I found that this wasn't true and that even with the inclusion of mana rocks there were still plenty of incentives to play green midrange: big spells like the Green planeswalkers and cheaper mana acceleration.
If you find that archetypes aren't working or aren't drafted, it may be that the proper incentives aren't there and finding what the incentives for the deck are is a key step to do so. If green midrange decks find themselves unable to compete with aggressive decks and blue control decks, it may be worth looking into what the threats of the deck comprise of. This is why when I tend to think of archetypes I don't try to think of the best build that the deck can have; I think of what will realistically be drafted on average and whether the incentives to go for that or the incentives of the deck itself is there versus other decks that are supported and can be seen.
As a Cube designer, it is up to you to create these incentives to draft archetypes. If you've drafted or designed a Cube without rares, you'll notice that aside from the few finishers that transition over from a Cube with rares that the quality of finishers drops quickly. The normal incentives—big resilient finisher creatures and planeswalkers—are removed from the format, so designers for those formats have to look for other incentives to entice drafters to go for those archetypes without making aggressive decks bad, through other methods of card advantage and finishers—Warren Pilferers and Maul Splicer—make for nice Pauper incentives to go control.
As for the discussion on the critical evaluation of questions to ask yourself when cutting cards to make sure that you're not being hasty, don't be afraid to cut cards from your Cube. Too often I see people hold on to cards based on anecdotal evidence without objectively viewing how well the card has been performing.
While I've used positive contribution as a function of maindeck percentage and winning percentage, positive contribution isn't just about winning. If blue tempo, for example, isn't winning as often as replacing those elements with blue control but it's resulting in drafters having fun with that archetype because it's a decently performing archetype that's out of the norm, it's your call (I just haven't spent much time on that since it's mainly subjective.)
Archetype and card balance is one of the trickier aspects of Cube design, and I hope this article has given you some useful tools for how to critically look at evaluating underperforming cards and/or archetypes before cutting them out of your Cube.
May your opening packs contain Sol Rings!