/ Cube

The Game Night Cube — Designing Accessible Magic: The Gathering Sets That Are Fun for Everyone

Hello, Cardsphere! My name is James Paterson, and I am a game designer, and long-time Magic: The Gathering player. Being both of these things, it's probably no surprise when I tell you that I love designing custom Magic game experiences, and, naturally, this makes me a huge fan of Cube, the format where you design your own sets of cards to draft and play with. Today, I’ll be talking about my somewhat unconventional custom set cube, the Game Night Cube, the particular design guidelines I followed when creating it, and the benefits of owning a cube like this. Whether you’re someone who’s interested in building their first cube, or a hardened cube-making veteran, my hope is that this article will provide some inspiration for your next cube or Magic-related project. Or hey, you could always just use this article as an instruction manual to build the Game Night Cube for yourself!

So, what’s the Game Night Cube? Well, it’s basically the entire experience of an authentic Magic draft translated into a self-contained, replayable, board-game-like experience. It’s designed to be highly accessible to newer players, but still complex and high-powered enough to be enjoyable to veteran players, all while trying to be as polished as a legitimate, professionally produced board game. I envisioned it being the sort of thing you’d pull off your shelf during game nights, and, no matter the skill level of the people you’re playing with, everyone would be able to have a great time. It’s my attempt at solving what is, in my opinion, the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of Magic: its extreme complexity.

The cube features traditional, back-to-basics gameplay. It’s similar to a core set cube, featuring only evergreen mechanics, an overall lower complexity level, and a few other features which were used to engineer a draft experience more forgiving to new players (more on that later). To really give the cube that board-game-like quality of cohesiveness and polish, all cards in the cube share the same, most up-to-date card templating only, and it includes a custom-made play guide with tips for new players, along with card dividers for the storage box. I've made these files available for download, and you’ll find links to them, along with links to every other page/article mentioned hereafter, at the bottom of this article.

But first, some pictures of the final product:

GameNightCube_1
GameNightCube_2
GameNightCube_3
GameNightCube_4
GameNightCube_5
GameNightCube_6

More images can be found in the Imgur link at the bottom of the article.

Structure

Unlike a regular Singleton cube, the goal with this cube was to faithfully recreate the experience of an authentic booster draft, so its structure is almost the exact same as an actual Magic set, containing 245 unique cards comprised of 112 commons, 80 uncommons, and 53 rares. There are 3 copies of each common, 2 of each uncommon, and 1 of each rare, for a total of 544 cards. I chose not to include mythic rare cards because I don’t like how they warp gameplay around them.

As well, like regular booster packs, the cube's packs are seeding to contain 11 commons (the 11th common replacing the basic land normally found in booster packs), 3 uncommons, and 1 rare per pack. To further increase authenticity, a special shuffling method, based off of a shuffling method developed by moak0 on Reddit, is used to create packs which are sufficiently randomized while still maintaining a balanced color distribution just like real booster packs. An outline of the shuffling method is a little beyond the scope of this write-up, but if you're curious about it, you can find it in the play guide (found in the Imgur album or Google Drive links), or on the TappedOut page.

For people who are fans of singleton cubes, there’s also an alternative shuffling method you can use to transform the Game Night Cube from a set cube into an experience similar to that of a singleton cube!

Why Cube? Why the Game Night Cube?

For the majority of my time as a Magic player, it's been spent around the kitchen table alongside my friends, my playgroup. Over time, playgroups tend to evolve, and so, too, the players within it. But often times, a player may evolve in ways that are different from the other players in their group. One player may be fine treating the game as a casual endeavour, another may dedicate themselves to learning all the rules and honing their skills at the game, and another may just drop an exorbitant amount of money into the game to have the most powerful deck. This can lead to a great disparity in the power level around the table, as was the case with my playgroup. It was causing our casual players to feel resentful as they got beaten into the ground, and our competitive players to feel bored as they carried out the beatings.

Upon discovering the cube format, I knew it was the answer we had been looking for, as a shared card pool for deckbuilding would force everyone onto a level playing field, and no one would be able to beat another player just because they had spent more money. It would also allow us to play more draft, a format which we were interested in, but didn’t get to play too often due to some players not wanting to pay for the packs. It would also bring the focus of the game back to the game instead of the monetary value of the individual game pieces; drafting a cube is incredibly freeing compared to a retail draft, as you can, for example, pick an on-color common removal spell over an off-color chase rare and not feel bad about it because you don’t get to keep any of the cards anyway. It puts the entire focus back on gameplay.

However, this still wouldn’t solve the fact that some people in our playgroup simply aren’t as good at Magic and aren’t interest in spending the time necessary to improve (which is understandable—it’s a behemoth of a game). As an aside, while I was interested in finding the best solution for our playgroup, I was also interested in creating something I could use to introduce newer players to draft and Magic in general. Little did I know, both this problem of disparity in skill level among my playgroup, and my desire for something I could use to teach newer players draft with, shared the same solution.

As I considered what to do, I stumbled across Tommy Occhipinti’s Core Set Cube. It’s a cube originally designed to introduce newer players to draft, but for my purposes, it also had the added benefit of creating an experience that was more forgiving to less skilled players, letting players who weren’t very good at draft to still make a half-decent deck when they (inevitably) made poor deck building decisions. It was exactly what I needed. I finally set out to make my cube, and using Tommy’s design goals as inspiration for my own, I established the following guidelines:

Design Guidelines

  • No “trap” cards. By this I mean bad cards that a new player might think are good. Cards like Angel's Mercy. New players are basically drafting cards at random and are already at a huge disadvantage as it is, so I did my best to remove cards that could mislead them. With that being said, there are still some cards in the cube that are a little narrower than I’d like, but are still included because they serve important roles in their corresponding archetypes.
  • No sideboard-specific cards. A new player might look at a card like Smelt and think that “Destroy target artifact” sounds powerful, when, in reality, it’ll be a dead card in many matchups. To prevent this, all sideboard cards in the cube are cards which could also be in the mainboard. For example, cards like Silverchase Fox and Reckless Reveler. This also has the added benefit of making decks better for experienced players too: instead of wasting a deck slot to side in a narrow hate card, you can have it jammed into the curve-filling bear you were going to run anyway. Sometimes the card will be an important answer to a threat, sometimes it’ll just be a curve-filler, but it’ll always be relevant. It’s a minor change, but every bit helps.
  • Traditional color identities. Each color in the cube is a pure representation of what it’s traditionally known for. This not only means flavor and basic mechanical identity, but more nuanced things too, such as traditional power and toughness values (e.g. blue creatures typically have higher toughness than power) and traditional creature to noncreature ratios (e.g. white gets the most creatures, blue gets the most noncreatures). This cube isn’t just an appropriate way to introduce people to drafting, it can also be used to introduce people to the colors of Magic, and I want to showcase the unique qualities of each color and allow players to discover the ones that they identify with the most.
  • No confusing or overly convoluted cards. This is trickier to determine, and is probably the most subjective guideline, but when you play Magic long enough, you start to notice common points of failure in new players’ understanding of the game, and you want to avoid the confusing or counterintuitive cards that result in this. For me, an example of a confusing card that I wouldn't include is Akroan Horse. It’s a cool card, but back in Theros when I was still a more casual player, I remember being confused by this card and not understanding that I was the player (the "opponent") that would get the Soldier tokens. Another example of a card I wouldn’t include is Sin Prodder. Again, I really like this card, but it has a lot of steps involved, is very wordy, and a lot of those words are abstract Magic jargon. You don’t want to include cards that are too wordy or have too many steps, and basically, when you read a card it should leave little room for confusion and be almost immediately understood.
  • Ensure cards are distinct, both mechanically and thematically. Let’s say that I was trying to decide on which red rares to include, and was looking at both Dismissive Pyromancer and Sin Prodder. First of all, I’d be ignoring my previous suggestion about Sin Prodder, but let’s say I had a change of heart for this example. Well, I’d only include one of the two cards and not both, as they’re too mechanically similar to each other in that they’re both low-cost creatures that offer card draw/quality. You only get so many rare slots for each color when making a Magic set (about nine), so each rare should be entirely unique from the other rares in that color. For example, there could be one red rare that offers card value, another that’s a token generator, another that’s a board wipe, etc. Similarly, cards should be distinct thematically, so if I was trying to decide on, say, blue commons, I wouldn’t include both Snapping Drake and Muse Drake. Including both could not only cause players to confuse the cards with one another, but it would also make the color feel more one-dimensional, and it’d be a wasted opportunity to show off what else the color can do besides having flying lizards.
  • Ensure it’s fun for both new and old players. Although this cube is focused on creating an experience that new players can enjoy, I tried to make the cube more compelling to veteran players by following traditional cube design principles, for example, using cards that support multiple synergies and archetypes to create a draft environment that’s flexible and has a lot of play to it. As well, I tried to support “classic” cube archetypes such as spells-matter for UR, sac-aggro for BR, and blink for WU. I also included iconic cards or cards that see play in more competitive formats wherever it made sense to do so! Things like Llanowar Elves, Young Pyromancer, Serum Visions, Scavenging Ooze, and Restoration Angel, among others.
  • Including cards where the flavor strongly resonates with the mechanics. The flavor of Magic is one of my favourite things about the game. I particularly enjoy when the mechanics of a card cleverly convey the narrative portrayed in the card, and I wanted to include some examples of this in the cube so other people could get excited about flavor too! I didn’t just arbitrarily include flavorful cards, but if it was appropriate to do so, I would include it. One card I like in particular is Suspicious Bookcase.
  • Only evergreen keywords. Learning Magic is hard enough as it is, and since new players are already going to be tasked with learning all of the evergreen keywords, I decided it would be best to not include sporadic one-off mentions of a dozen other non-evergreen keywords. The only exception I made was for one instance of totem armor on Snake Umbra because the enchantments-matter archetype needed a bit of a push. There’s also only one instance of hexproof in the entire set so one instance of totem armor didn’t seem too strange to me. I’m sure some people will think this is blasphemous, but you can still have interesting gameplay without non-evergreen keywords!

As I mentioned earlier, along with creating an authentic and accessible draft experience, creating something which had a professional level of cohesiveness and polish, similar to that of an actual board game, was another large focus of this project, so all cards in the cube share the same up-to-date templating and card frame style (this consistency also had the added benefit of making things easier to understand for new players). Specifically, this meant:

  • If a card has flavor text, it must have the separator bar introduced in DDU separating rules text from flavor text.
  • If a card is legendary, it must have the legendary frame introduced in DDU.
  • No cards that say “put a creature token onto the battlefield”, only “create a creature token”.
  • No cards that say “Add {Mana} to mana pool”, only “Add {Mana}”.
  • No cards that haven’t received the planeswalker redirection errata. So, cards that say “target creature or player” when they actually mean “any target” can’t be used; cards that say “target player” when they actually mean “target player or planeswalker” also can’t be used.
  • No cards with watermarks.
  • All common and uncommon cards with evergreen keywords must have the accompanying reminder text of that keyword, just as core sets do. Flying is the exception to this rule, and instead must not have reminder text (which may seem like a strange inconsistency, but is actually the official templating WotC has established for most core sets; they probably just think flying is so intuitive and prevalent that it doesn’t need it, which I agree with).

And to really solidify that board game feeling, I created a play book which contains tips and tricks for players who are new to draft, as well as a shuffling guide for the person running the draft. I also created card dividers for the storage box for some extra polish.

If I had to summarize the Game Night Cube, I’d described it as a gutted Core Set with all the bad, underwhelming, and constructed-only cards removed and then replaced by more powerful and/or synergistic cards. Some people may scoff at what I’m about to say, but I truly believe that an evergreen-only cube can still be an exciting and complex play environment. Just look at cards like Leonin Warleader: it supports lifegain, go-wide tokens, and sacrifice decks, all in one card. Or sweet build-around cards like Sarkhan's Unsealing. And you can't forget the classics like Ajani's Pridemate and Guttersnipe. There are many great cards like this in the cube. Since most of these cards are at uncommon or rare, something I’ve been experimenting with is increasing the amount of uncommons and rares in packs, so instead of doing an 11/3/1 split, I’ve been doing an 8/5/2 split. I personally like this split a lot, and find it to be a good balance between power and complexity.

Conclusion

Following the design guidelines above, I’ve created the Magic experience that I’ve always wanted: a polished, deeply engaging, infinitely replayable draft experience that all of my friends can enjoy, regardless of their skill and investment levels in Magic. The Game Night Cube is the highlight of my board game collection, and I’m certain it will be a great source of fun for years to come.

There’s still a lot of unexplored space when it comes to designing accessible custom Magic products, but if you’re interested in creating something like this for yourself, whether it’s a cube, a pair of intro decks, an EDH battle box, or anything else you can imagine, it’s my belief that these guidelines will serve well as a starting point for designing accessible Magic products such as the Game Night Cube.

Thanks for reading!

On the Web
Imgur Album
CubeTutor.com
TappedOut.net
ManaBurn.org
CubeCobra.com
Draftpod.org

Downloadables (Google Drive Links)
Digital/Printable Play Guide
Printable Card Dividers

Resources
moak0's Shuffling Method
Tommy Occhipinti’s Core Set Cube

James Paterson

James Paterson

James Paterson is a game designer, and has been playing Magic: The Gathering since the release of Innistrad in 2011. He probably spends more time analyzing Magic cards than he does playing them.

Read More