Anyone Can Build a Cube (Yes, Even You!)

Cube construction

Usually, a Magic: the Gathering player can be placed in one of three boxes when it comes to Cube Draft – either they’ve never heard of it, think it’s the greatest format in the history of Magic, or they’d love to give it a try but the thought of buying or balancing 360+ cards freaks them out. Never fear! Let’s talk about how easy it is to set one up and have some of the greatest fun you’ve ever had at a kitchen table!

What is a Cube Draft?

Firstly, for the uninitiated, let’s talk about what a cube draft entails. Essentially, it’s the equivalent of holding a booster draft, except we’re doctoring the cards available. And they don’t come in foil wrapping. And instead of being down at the local store, we’re probably at your kitchen table with good friends, good food and good drink.
As per a normal booster draft, you need 45 cards per person (i.e. the equivalent of three boosters’ worth of cards). A cube size of 360 cards is considered standard, as this is enough cards for eight players to draft with, and is the equivalent of a draft pod at your local store. Those 360 cards are usually singleton copies, but there is no hard and fast rule. If you want to include multiple copies of a card in your cube, go right ahead.

Why Should I Run One?

I initially got into Cube because my playgroup was split down the middle – we had a few who had been playing since the beginning of Magic time, had some powerful cards, and had the disposable income to keep building upon that… and then we had a few who were newbies with only the last couple of years’ worth of cards, and/or they couldn’t afford to buy cards that helped them keep pace with the power players. Cube solves this problem by limiting the card pool and making the same level of power available to everyone.

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As someone who has been playing for a while, it also gave me great joy to enable the newer players to discover some of the powerful old cards they wouldn’t ordinarily get to play. I distinctly remember a night early on where we had a new player draft Sneak Attack. Having never even seen it before, they tossed it into a deck full of angry red creatures, won the game with it, and said “Wow, that card’s even better than I thought it was! I can see why it’s worth so much.” As a cube designer, these are the moments that you want to take and frame.

As a draft format, Cube also takes the weathered old Spikes and net-deckers in your group and forces them to make decisions on the fly about their deck-building. Once you start getting used to drafting from the card pool, you begin to see combinations and archetypes that you wouldn’t have even thought about in a standard setting. It also teaches new players about good deck construction.

Finally, one of the best parts about putting your own cube together is then keeping it together, and figuring out what to change as time goes on and new sets come out. You will find that some members of your playgroup are totally into making these decisions with you, and it becomes a little bit of group excitement every time a new set comes out (e.g. “Wow, did you see the new merfolk that was spoilt today? That would be incredible in the cube! Maybe we should drop Storm Crow for it?”). Editor’s note – never!

Okay, So I Need 360 Cards Or So… How Do I Pick Them?

Just like designing an actual Magic set or building a deck, balance is important. We want to make sure we don’t favor one color over another, and we don’t want our curve all over the place. So we need to take care to have an even spread of colors and casting costs.
As a basic starting point for a 360-card cube, the following split is considered optimal:

  • 50 mono-colored cards for each of the five colors (i.e. 50 black, 50 red…);
  • 40 colorless cards;
  • 40 non-basic land;
  • 30 gold cards (i.e. cards with 2+ colors)

For each of the five colors, we want an even split of creature and non-creature cards, so a good starting point is to have 25 creatures and 25 non-creature spells in each color. Some cube designers consider green to be better at creatures and blue to be better at spells, so they weight these two colors differently (with green having a 33/17 split, and blue at 17/33 to counterbalance the cube).

It is also a good idea to have an even spread of cards across the color combinations in the gold section. Three cards per two-color combination / guild is a good baseline.
There are no true rules for colorless cards and non-basic lands, but I find it’s a good idea to have an even spread of color production across the land. Some people subscribe to the idea of splitting the colorless section out into 10 creatures, 10 equipment, 10 mana sources and 10 others, but again that’s totally up to you.

We also want to try and maintain a balanced curve, at least with our mono-colored cards as a minimum. This means, for example, that you don’t want to load up your 25 red creatures with 20+ dragons that cost 6 or more to cast – you want to spread out the casting costs evenly, with the majority sitting in the sweet spot of a converted mana cost at 3 or 4.
Some colors will likely want to have a lower curve than others. For example, red may want a pile of creatures and spells with a converted mana cost of 1. Green may want to have a higher number of creatures with hefty casting costs, encouraging you to ramp into them. How you design your curve is totally up to you – all that matters is that you have one, and it’s fair to all colors.

Some cube designers like to take this to the extreme and even have a mana curve for their colorless and gold cards. Personally, I haven’t bothered too much, especially with gold; my cubes haven’t suffered for it.

So I Have To Balance It, Curve It… This Sounds Complex…

Don’t worry – now that I’ve freaked you out with numbers, ratios and curves, this is where your creativity comes in. All the balancing ends up doing is limiting your choices when it comes to which cards you include. For example, you’ve just been limited to 25 white creatures, and you want to maintain a curve, so you probably want a maximum of five white creatures with a converted mana cost of 5. Did you want some angels? Things like Baneslayer Angel, Serra Angel and Archangel of Thune are probably already on the list if you have them and/or can afford them. Want to throw equipment around? Stonehewer Giant probably wants onboard. Want to play a totally non-viable enchantment theme just for fun? Celestial Ancient wants to join in. The point is that you’ve probably got some idea of the types of cards or archetypes you want to run in different areas, and with the limits we’ve put in place, you’ll find some of these slots filling up so fast that you’ll have to cut cards rather than add them.
If you want to make a particular archetype or theme playable within your cube, I’ve found through experience that the following guide works pretty well:

  • Have about 3% of the cards in your cube support the theme or archetype. For a 360-card cube, this is around 10-11 cards;
  • Try and spread the cards out on the curve (i.e. don’t make them all 3-drops);
  • Make sure each of the cards is playable on its own in a vacuum. For example, Wizened Cenn is great if you’ve already drafted 10 other Kithkin cards, but you’re never going to play it on its own (well, not unless it’s the only 2CC 2/2 creature you put in the cube, anyway)!

Finally, if you find a card that plays across multiple archetypes, that makes it more draftable. As an example, I have both Knight Tribal and Soldier Tribal as themes in my main cube. They were both about ten cards wide, and both worked fairly well as archetypes. And then I stumbled upon a little card called Knight-Captain of Eos. It worked with both, so I threw it in for a laugh. It has never left (and a player has won a game with a Soldier Tribal deck that fogged their opponents out, too).

But This Sounds Expensive… I Want The Best Cards In Here, Right?

No, not at all. The great art of being a cube designer is working with the limits you’re presented with. Haven’t got a big budget? Limit the cards to things you either own or can buy for less than $1! I have a friend who has literally built a cube this way. It’s incredible fun, and still completely broken. He let me get Balance under an Arcane Savant one night. He responded by resolving Tinker for Inkwell Leviathan!

Haven’t got a big card pool? Throw in what you’ve got! One of the great things about the Cube format is that it’s basically unsolvable – there is no such thing as a perfect cube. You’ll soon discover the weak points of your cube once you’ve drafted it a few times (and then you’ll catch the “what cards exist that I can put in this slot” bug). When I built my initial cube in 2011, I had about 200-250 decent cards and a whole lot of holes to fill. But I’d bought a playset of Lorwyn commons and uncommons, and my playgroup liked tribal themes, so I filled all the holes with Lorwyn commons and uncommons. And surprise! It was still amazing fun (and some of those commons and uncommons became favorites and never left)! Imperious Perfect and Elvish Harbinger are still in there seven years later!

How Do I Draft It?

So you’ve got your 360 cards together and you want to actually give this a try with your friends. How do you shuffle up and distribute the cards?
There are a few out there who subscribe to just taking the entire 360 and just shuffling it all in one giant pile to see what you get. That works, but it produces some pretty wacky boosters. My preferred way to seed booster packs is the following:

  • Split your cube out into the eight sections we had when we were designing it – the five colors, gold, non-basic land and colorless;
  • Shuffle each of those piles well;
  • Evenly distribute these piles into 24 stacks of 15 cards. There are plenty of ways to do this, but I generally hand each booster two cards from each of the monocolored piles, and then another five cards in some way from the last three. This tends to end up looking very similar to an actual real-life Magic booster;

If you’ve never drafted before, it works like this:

  • Everyone sits in a circle around the table. Each player gets three 15-card boosters;
  • Everyone picks up their first booster, picks one card from it, and passes the remaining 14 to the player on their left;
  • You then get handed a 14-card booster. Pick one card from it and pass the other 13 left;
  • Keep going until you’ve all run out of cards;
  • Everyone picks up the second booster and does the same, but this time passes right;
  • Finally, everyone picks up the third booster and does the same, but passes left again.

Everyone should now have 45 semi-cohesive cards to build a 40-card deck with. You usually want 23 non-land cards and 17 land. A cube should have 40-50 of each basic land type handy for players to complete their decks with. Once everyone has built their decks, you’re ready to go!

Some folks complain that drafting takes a chunk of time out of the evening when you just want to shuffle up and play. After a few drafts, you’ll actually find the group getting used to the cards and making faster pick choices. You’ll also find them enjoying having to make the hard decisions between the awesome cards in their boosters (and probably enjoy the agonizing looks you’ve put on some of their faces as they’re having to make those hard choices). It ends up being part of the fun in the long run.

If you haven’t got eight players, don’t stress – the rest of the cards stay in the box, and the players that are drafting are left with some quirky decisions when they try and draft particular archetypes (e.g. “Hmm… I’m going hard at Storm in this draft… I really hope Empty the Warrens isn’t still in the box!”).

So there you go – that’s the quick and dirty guide to creating and drafting your own cube! As a format, Cube can take you as shallow or as deep as you want to go – if you just want to slap 360 cards together and get going, you can. If you want to overthink every slot in the cube, you can do that too! I hope this at least encourages you to give the format a shot if you haven’t before – it is quite likely the most fun your playgroup can have at a kitchen table!

Martin first caught the Magic: the Gathering bug at university in Australia in 1995, just as Fourth Edition was released (naturally just missing the era of opening dual lands in booster packs). One degree, career, marriage and two kids later, he is still slinging cards across a kitchen table with friends and is spreading the infection to the next generation via cube, EDH and multiplayer formats.

One comment

  1. Needs more Monty Python references!

    But all injokes aside (I’ve known the author for over 28 years now) this is a great intro to Cube. I recently bought a box of Unstable to draft, and Martin was my go-to person for how to make an Un-Cube. (Sphere?) We’re also planning a Battlebond draft that will become the “Team Cube” for variety.

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