A common piece of advice that I see when a lot of people want to start building their first cubes is to choose a mechanic for each color pair and add cards that fit into that theme. While adding themes such as +1/+1 counters and spells matters are really fun and can add a lot to a cube environment, if you add too many, it can detract from the environment you want to create. This can lead to cubes that are 1-dimensional and draft the same way every time. Rather than building a cube around color pairs, focusing on individual cards in a cube can lead to a much more unique drafting experience.
Pigeonholing Your Colors
I want to start this by saying that cubes can be designed with specific archetypes in mind and still be fun to draft. Limited cubes are usually just focused on 3-5 mechanics and support those mechanics with many different cards that can synergize well with one or more mechanics. However, even with a well-designed cube that only focuses on a few different mechanics, you can end up with the problem where drafters will choose a mechanic early on, and then the draft boils down to picking the mechanic when it shows up. Parasitic mechanics such as Affinity and Infect are especially notorious for this, and if they aren’t carefully accounted for can create a very on-rails environment which makes for less interesting gameplay.
Another thing to be aware of is how broad archetypes can limit your options, and give fewer choices to the players during the draft. Not only does it restrict what cards you can add to the cube, but it also forces players to draft the same cards for their decks each draft. If you ever made a list that looks like this, you may have pigeonholed your drafters.
RW Go Wide
While it is certainly appealing to create this kind of list, as it organizes the cube really effectively and gives clear ways for each color pair to draft, this actually leads to a stale draft environment. The second a drafter identifies a color pair as being open, all they have to do is choose the best on color card in their pack. While it is really satisfying finding cards that synergize well with multiple archetypes, these cards are few and far between. I’m not advocating against using archetypes to define a draft, in fact, if you have a cube that is already this way you don’t need to fundamentally change it. However, if your drafts are becoming stale because the same picks are happening over and over, I would recommend adding build-around cards to your cube.
Building Around Build-Arounds
Build around cards are becoming a vital component of many modern-day draft sets and for very good reason. These cards keep the draft environment feeling very fresh, even if the set only has a few mechanics at its disposal. A good example from War of the Spark would be Huatli, the Sun’s Heart. With a passive ability that lets your creatures deal damage using their toughness, all of the large toughness creatures in the set suddenly become much higher picks. By having build arounds in your cube you can change the pick order of any given pack, and make everything feel much fresher even from the same pile of cards.
Adding build around cards to the cube doesn’t need to take up very much space either. Adding a Splinter Twin archetype to a cube only requires around 5 cards, but adds a completely new dimension to the UR color pair. One of the most famous cube cards of all time is Wildfire and with the way most cubes are designed with tons of planeswalkers and signets, Wildfire becomes a one card archetype. Not every build around card is good for every cube, however. Sigil of the Empty Throne is one of the strongest enchantments to resolve, but if you don’t follow it up with any other enchantments it is basically worthless. Some cards are also really good on their own merits such as Presence of Gond, but the piece that combos with it in Midnight Guard will never see play if you don’t have Presence of Gond. Build around me cards need to be good without support but should become amazing when a drafter goes out of their way to build that deck.
Another word of caution is to not skimp out on your BREAD cards. People should still be able to draft aggro and control decks without having to rely on build arounds to get there. Sometimes, people just want to stick to a color pair and see where it takes them, and that should certainly be an option. Build arounds can be difficult for newer players, as they won’t understand that you can get a Griselbrand on the battlefield as early as turn 2 until they see it in action. A good balance of build arounds and solid cards is vital to the continued success of many cubes.
Build around cards add so much to draft environments and can be looked over if the designer decides to only focus on specific mechanics for each color pair. Making a cube around specific mechanics shouldn’t be discouraged, but these narrow draft environments can be tempered with great build around cards. Adding cards that fit the theme and design of the set, but also ask the drafters to reevaluate everything they are picking, are great for the longevity of a cube. Thank you all for reading, I hope you have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!