A quick note. This article was written just after Ep 111 and focuses on the topic of cube designer fatigue that we touched on during that episode. It was written before our latest set review Ep 113. I should have posted it earlier, but I was not entirely with the result and wanted to edit it further. However, since we have already done Ep 113, it seems difficult to edit it with the same mindset I had before our latest review and I have decided to just post it as is. Hopefully, you get something out of this article and that this latest review (Magic 2020) reflected some of the changes I talked about in this article. Ideally, it was our best review yet. End of quick note.
Modern Horizons had snow as one of its subthemes. This is the first time since Coldsnap that snow has appeared. Naturally, many players were excited. However, this excitement poses a problem for cube designers. Not the excitement of a snow theme in cube specifically, but the excitement itself. Magic sets are designed to imbue that excitement in players. To make players want to build decks around certain themes and mechanics. To make players want to play certain cards. This effect is what creates a challenge for cube designers.
If you have listened to the last episode of Path to Cube (Ep 111,) you already know that Kevin and I touched on this subject. I wanted to delve deeper here as what feels like the never-ending summer spoiler season has already been on full blast with War, followed by Modern Horizons, followed by Magic 2020. Soon we will get Commander 2019 and the unannounced Fall 2019 set (which is sure to bring exciting new content as always.) That is not to mention we still have no confirmation of whether a Battlebond/Conspiracy style set is happening this year. This is the most likely time of the year that cube designers suffer the fatigue of new cards and stop making changes to their cubes. Once that happens, future changes become harder and harder to do as the new card pool gets larger and larger and the appetite for change gets smaller and smaller.
I personally hate that feeling. We have the pleasure and curse with the modular cube of being able to make space for every new thing. New modules can always be created, while underperforming cards always exist to be replaced. However, that also means we must consider everything new that gets printed, so we have to power through the new printings and continuously adjust our cube to the new cards while with each new module the task gets bigger and closer to unsustainable. (Let’s be honest, if I didn’t like it, I probably wouldn’t be in a podcast that’s all about cubes.) For the less masochist cube designers, new cards, mechanics, and themes should be exciting. They should inspire designers to make changes and try new things. But with this current age of over abundance of the new, designers will have to adjust and learn to ignore, or be much pickier with, a large part of it. Which brings us to snow. Snow is once again new and exciting with some incredibly powerful or synergistic cards. A recipe that is sure to get the blood running of many. It is perfect as a subject to analyse.
The first notable part of snow is that it wants more snow. Until a deck is forty snow cards, there is always the desire for more snow. That is not to say that a deck should be forty snow cards, just that it will always be a factor when deciding on picks or cards to cut. This is not something new in magic. All tribal themes tend to play in this regard and it often makes the format it is in more parasitic. However, snow has a mechanic that nothing else has: snow basic lands. There are no other kind of different basic lands, which makes snow more akin to energy than to tribes. Energy also behaves in a similarly parasitic way and does something that no other mechanic does. We can look at what energy has been like for cubes in the past three years to extrapolate what snow might be like.
In the modular cube, we still enjoy energy. It is relatively fun and unique, although new cards with higher power level would certainly help the energy decks stay competitive. Currently, they are mostly centered around Attune with Aether as the main source of free energy and the main payoffs are Aetherworks Marvel and Dynavolt Tower. Both cards that work with non-energy cards (this is a red flag for snow cards.) In other cubes, energy is not really seen. Whether this is because most people did not try it to begin with or if they tried it and removed is hard to tell. Another possibility is that they have energy containing cubes as their non-primary cube that does not change frequently. The first two cases are not a good sign for snow, but the third could be indicative of what must be done. Designers might have to plan an entire cube around it or not run it at all. Snow has cards that work well outside of snow like Dark Depths, Ohran Viper, or Blizzard Specter. But just like energy, they are few. The bulk of it will be at a power level that is slightly too low to be supported by most cubes or too high to support the exciting cards.
There is one key difference between snow and energy. Snow utilizes basic lands. Energy does not have basic lands that generates an energy when they enter the battlefield (it would be awesome if this existed.) Snow comes with a temptation of just saying all basics can be snow or that there are snow basics in the basic land box for any drafter that wants them. But this is not great gameplay. Incorporating snow in a draft via some sort of picking mechanism is what makes the mechanic great. The only effect that giving everyone free snow lands has is make Chained to the Rocks say enchant land instead of mountain by replacing it with On Thin Ice or give Baleful Strix flash by replacing it with Ice-Fang Coatl. There is no unique snow gameplay in these cases, just a power upgrade of cards. If it is for a powered or semi-powered cube, a strict power upgrade might be exactly what is needed, but for everyone else, that detracts from good gameplay and just creates unnecessary complexity. For designers that will take the snow basic as a challenge on how to get drafters to draft them without detracting too much design space from other things or having a tedious land draft attached to the regular draft (an idea that I have come to strongly dislike in recent years,) snow seems an excellent mechanic. Albeit, one that will permanently affect and warp a cube and will certainly prevent other new and exciting things to be included in the future.
This all comes to the striking conclusion that most cube designers should simply ignore snow. Yes, it is the new hot thing, and yes, it has the potential to provide excellent gameplay, but the alternatives are to have it as a module like us, create a cube entirely around it, or permanently change a cube for the foreseeable future and accept that a lot of new cards will be unable to be included due to restricted space. This constant desire to make the new things work and realizing that most of the new cards cannot possibly make it into a 360-list due just to numbers is demoralizing. With Magic having around a hundred expansion sets, the number of cards from each set should be three to four. Designers should take spoiler season with a much more skeptical approach. Making changes a while after the cards have been out is also a great approach (I am writing this as Magic 2020 is half done spoilers, but we are not even close to finalizing our Modern Horizon changes.) This allows a cooling off period, allowing many cards to be ignored instead of being inclusions that, in hindsight, were obviously never going to cut it (Aryel, Knight of Windgrace and Azra Oddsmaker are two recent cases for us.)
All of this does raise into question how we do our set reviews. Do we belong in the overhyping of cards on initial release? Do we have a hype fall off every summer as the new sets keep arriving? We get to play with all the new exciting cards, but we still should not contribute to something that might be harmful in the long run for other cube designers. Maybe the solution is to be more skeptical of new cards as we review them? Perhaps start from skepticism instead of excitement when reviewing new cards? This might also be why the Path to Cube Awards format works so well. We get to review only the top cards and only after they have been out for a long period of time. Focusing on the best gameplay new cards have to offer. I do not know if any of this will have on the upcoming Magic 2020 set review in two weeks, but you should listen to find out (oohhh, that shameless plug just melded right in there.) I will check back on this topic once the Fall set comes out and the entirety of this spoiler summer has passed. Until then, happy cubing.