Cube Design: Versatility Vs Synergy

Cube is often described as being home to the most powerful cards in Magic’s history, and while this is true, if you were to make a cube using only the best 360 cards ever printed, the cube would ultimately become boring to draft. Why is that? This cube would become boring to draft because it lacks the synergy and versatility that a well-designed power cube would have. Cube is more than just a box filled with the Power 9 and the original dual lands. It is a custom draft environment and building a fun draft environment means adhering to several design principles. Today I am going to talk about versatility vs synergy, and why it is important to build your cube with both of these aspects in mind.

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Black Lotus – Chris Rahn

(If you want a vague idea of what this cube might look like, check out the top 360 cards of the Magic Bracket – the spreadsheet can be found here).

Versatility > Power

First, let’s talk about the value of versatility. What defines versatility in a Magic card? In short, a versatile Magic card is one that can see play in any deck. It doesn’t matter if the gameplan is aggro, control, or combo, a versatile card could see play in any of these decks. Artifacts are a great example of versatile cards, in the sense that any deck that drafts them can play them, due to not having any color requirements.

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One of the most versatile cards of all time though would have to be Lightning Bolt. Its versatility comes from its simplicity, 3 damage to any target for one Red mana. This is a card that any deck playing Red wants. Control decks love this card, as it is incredibly efficient removal that can kill almost anything. Aggro decks also love the card, and how it can go to the dome to finish off the last few points of damage or remove most blockers. This ability to have a place in any Red deck is exactly what makes a card versatile, and so highly valued by Cubers.

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Wurmcoil Engine – Raymond Swanland

Now let’s imagine a cube that was designed with only versatile cards in mind, a cube filled with Lightning Bolts if you will. If you were to take 40 cards from this cube and build a deck around it, you would end up with a strong and playable deck that could facilitate any number of strategies. Ultimately, however, these decks would feel the same and it wouldn’t matter how you drafted the cube, as you’d always end up with a very similar deck. This is why synergy in Cube cards is as important, if not more important than versatility.

Synergy in Cube

What makes a Magic card synergistic? Synergy is described as two elements coming together to form something that is more than the sum of their parts. Take the Splinter Twin combo for example. The cards, individually, are mediocre and would never see play in most Cubes. But when combined, they form a powerful combo that can win the game on the spot. This is one of the more extreme forms of synergy, and while it does play an important role in cube, a better example would be soft synergy, such as Restoration Angel.

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At its base, a 3/4 flash flyer is simply good. With just the stats to back it up, it would never see play in the best cube environments. The power in Restoration Angel lies in its synergy with other creatures. We can track how good of a card Restoration Angel is based on how many creatures are in the deck. Filled with only instants and sorceries, the Angel is simply a 3/4. Once you start adding creatures, however, it starts to get more powerful. Flickering Brimaz in response to a removal spell is a powerful play and turns Restoration Angel into a form of card advantage. However, to truly break Restoration Angel it is best to combine it with cards that have “enter the battlefield” effects (ETB’s). Flickering a Blade Splicer not only gives you a 3/4 flyer, but also another 3/3 golem. In a deck filled to the brim with ETB’s, Restoration Angel becomes a card you want to see every single game due to how powerful it is.

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The absolute extreme form of synergy is the combo cube. In this kind of cube, every single card in the cube has to combo with another card, or help to facilitate a combo. Designed poorly, you will end up with a cube that has a ton of synergy when everything goes well, but it won’t have consistency. When you assemble your Splinter Twin combo you win the game, but until then your deck can’t do anything. The true magic of cube lies in between these 2 extremes of versatility and synergy. Highly synergistic decks benefit from Lighting Bolt just as much as a good stuff control deck. This is where cards that are both versatile and synergistic become especially important. Restoration Angel is a good example of a card that becomes better with synergy but is still playable in decks that can’t abuse the synergy. Finding these kinds of cards can be difficult, but is well worth the effort as it will allow your cube to be drafted in ways you can never imagine.

Conclusion

Designing a cube is more than just shuffling powerful cards together and hoping for the best. Good cubes are designed by keeping the balance between versatility and synergy in mind. Cards such as Restoration Angel that can facilitate both roles of design are invaluable to cube designers. Not every cube is split 50/50 down the middle, as it ultimately comes down to what the designer has in mind. But, going too far down either extreme can lead to repetitive and boring gameplay. As long as you design your cube with synergy and versatility in mind, you can create a draft experience that is both functional and fun. What’s the balance like in your cube? Let me know in the comments below. Thank you all for reading I hope you have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!

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