The Cube According to Gatherer, Part Three – You Got To Do the Cooking by the Book
In our last experimental Gatherer Cube log, Gatherer cracked six random eggs open, and minor themes spilled out. Anti-flying, three color cards, off-color activations, life loss as cost, and a predilection toward Humans are now spices for our batter. But you can’t make no cake with just spice. We need some basic key ingredients, or this cube cake is going to fold in on itself when we set it to bake.
The continuing life gain theme from the first week is nice, but my palate is sophisticated. I won’t be happy unless my cube is brimming with flavors. Technically, though, I already got my key ingredient last week. At the tail end of the article, I asked Gatherer for one final card before calling it quits. That’s when this dropped:
Retether is a fun cube card, assuming you support it. Whelp, I guess I need to become a bald little baker who stumbles around in the morning talking to himself about six kinds of jelly donuts, because it’s time to make the auras. I’m adding seven new random cards from Gatherer to the mix, and designing seven auras to work the dough. And while any old creature-enchanting aura is fine, we’re assigning high priority to auras destined for the graveyard and/or auras that can trigger each time they slap the battlefield.
Since we’re juggling an aura theme, we should give players at least one more excuse to prioritize them. Stirring Refrain can be a cantrip which nets you a bonus card when you inevitably enchant the same target. Or it can fuel an entire draft of auras, letting you pile through your deck, constructing a massive creature while negating the card disadvantage you normally would receive from an errant Doom Blade.
Technically, Stirring Refrain should cost , or maybe more. Especially when compared to a card like Fate Foretold. But I want to double down on supporting this theme, so I’m okay with this power level for now. After all, it’s unlikely for the cube to feature enough cards to abuse it, and we can always fix this later if I’m wrong.
Since we’ve been working with Mirage flavors, I pulled this text from the Love Song of Night and Day, which, yes, is a real poem written by Jenny Scott. While working on Mirage, Scott wrote the 85 line poem to help evoke the flavor of Jamuraa. Seventeen of the cards in Mirage and Visions quote The Love Song in their flavor text, but there’s plenty of poem left for quoting. You can find the full poem over here.
Back to business. Smacking the random button on Gatherer, I get…
…which I must veto. I know many, many cubes include a copy of Sol Ring. It certainly is exciting. But it’s too powerful for our cube.
Let’s be honest for a second. Considering some of the expensive, heavy-hitters we saw thus far, I would eagerly draft a Sisay’s Ring/Ur-Golem’s Eye to muscle my way into more explosive threats. Compared to Sisay’s Ring, Sol Ring costs less. I know when you get crushed underfoot by a Terra Stomper it’s easy to focus on the threat and how incredibly powerful it is, and ignore the cards that put that threat into play. But Sol Ring grants the reality-warping power of skipping the early game to anyone dropping it on round one. We should set this ring back in the box and draw again.
Okay, good. Terramorphic Expanse is a great card for fixing mana bases. Almost any limited environment can benefit from this card, and Wizards found it so useful that they reprinted it (and its functional reprint Evolving Wilds) a total of thirty-seven times.
Maybe it doesn’t look it by reading the card, but it took a while to get here. Terramorphic Expanse didn’t offer a lot of design space for an aura to work with. I tried some Landfall-like themes first, but that was wrong-headed because I didn’t want to pull landfall out of a solitary bonus trigger. Then I designed a spate of auras with interesting mechanics which ultimately had nothing to do with the Expanse. I tossed those too. If I’m not drawing inspiration from Gatherer’s random cards, then why bother using them?
The set needs mana acceleration, though, so my next trick was to fashion an aura that gives your creature the Bird of Paradise treatment which you could later sacrifice to put two lands on the battlefield. It sounded fine in theory, but there was no way to properly cost it. Since I didn’t want players to sacrifice the enchantment the round after it entered the battlefield, I needed to make the activation cost . To balance that expensive activation, the cost of the aura became . All of which makes sense from a cost analysis perspective, but it must feel dumb to enchant a Centaur Courser with a card that turns it into a cheap elf, squandering its potential as an attacker while you wait to overpay for Explosive Vegetation.
So I tinkered about, and stumbled up this design. Now you get two mana up front, with a a free Rampant Growth if something goes wrong. And maybe you want something to go wrong, if Retether is in your hand. Either way, the backup land drop is nice, especially considering the next card Gatherer walked me into.
Devout Harpist. Here I am, making auras be a thing, and Gatherer coughs an answer card into the cube. Not just an answer, mind you. Given time, Devout Harpist scrubs the board of enchant creatures, or your money back. She’s a walking, talking late night infomercial, with a hatred for unsightly cat hairs all over your new blouse (“Yeeeuuk!”) Got a Pacifism stuck on your creature, that just won’t let go? Then you need Devout Harpist! Tap the Harpist, and your problem simply disappears! Is an aura deck enchanting your entire team? Tap the Harpist once per target, and watch as those pesky auras fade away like magic! It’s thaaat easy!
This could have been terrible. But the Harpist came up early, so we can work around her while we design. The point of this aura cycle is to make auras go to the graveyard for Retether. We already designed two auras with good come into play/leave play abilities. In fact, Devout Harpist might be a welcome addition to the Retether deck, with an eye toward intentionally destroying our own auras. It depends on how we design.
We can’t let Devout Harpist be a dead card, however. We gotta give sourpuss a reason to play her harp.
Violent Transformation puts this principle into practice. The Devout Harpist remains employed, since her strumming removes the +3/+0. But her music isn’t soothing enough to stop creatures from fighting. Meanwhile, Retether likes this card because the creature it enchants is likely to die in the exchange, putting the Transformation in the graveyard, and letting Retether get its second use.
Oh. Oh my. Tromokratis.
My first instinct was to slam down the veto hammer. This legendary kraken is a tsunami in limited, smashing through your opponent’s seawalls and devastating their game. All it takes is for a random villager to sleep in late for Tromokratis to wreck an entire seaport.
But we’re in charge of the design, and I think we can even reign in the Tromokratis, terror of the seas. The card looks absurd after decades of suboptimal serpents like Shoal Serpent, and it even makes some traditional green creatures, such as Enormous Baloth, inadequate by comparison. But Shoal Serpent and the Baloth aren’t here, so let’s concentrate on making this card work if we can. Worst case scenario, we can always replace it later if it refuses to fit in.
We saw a lot of high-cost creatures with strong abilities bound out of Gatherer. And while I want to support them, I need to make sure this cube is a safe place for small and mid-size creatures to thrive. Because if no one is drafting small and mid-range aggressive creatures, then there’s no reason to draft small and mid-range defensive creatures either. I need to measure my choices, or whole swaths of viable strategies become unplayable.
So I designed Victim to the Elements to make large creatures a little less appealing. I need to add a few more effects like this, depending on what else pops up in this draft. Ironically, this card is very good in a blue/white control deck featuring Tromokratis; if a creature is enchanted with Victim to the Elements, then none of their friends can block Tromokratis (barring instant speed removal.) Raising an army to stop a kraken is intimidating work. It only takes a single Mountain Goat to be lost in a blizzard, for the entire town to give up faith, toss their weapons, step aside, and watch as a sea beast destroys everything they ever built and loved.
Some artwork is more difficult to find than others. I’m afraid I forgot to turn on Chrome’s Incognito Mode before searching for “Chains”, “Obedience”, “Punishment”, and “Servitude”. I’m sure GoogleAds will advertise a veritable dungeon worth of kink equipment to me for years to come. As you can see, I didn’t even use artwork based on these words; there was too much… other stuff… clogging the search engine. After an hour or so I was forced to change tactics. I wonder if Wizards ever experiences this problem when commissioning white enchantments from artists? “I’m sorry Mr. Frazier, but we weren’t clear when describing the artwork needed for the card Arrest in Mercadian Masques. You hit all the finer points of detail in Orim’s arrest at the hands of the Saprazzan Merfolk. We should have mentioned, however, that Orim should be wearing clothes in this scene. Also, if you could reduce the back arching by about 80%, we’d be most obliged.”
Hitting the random button on Gatherer again, we get…
Huh. Another card with fight. Okay, that’s not a deal breaker. I’m pretty sure any random set can feature both a green and a red common with fight.
I wanted an aura that made fighting particularly deadly. Meanwhile, we still need auras that easily end up in the graveyard. Four mana may seem like a lot to spend on a 1/3 deathtoucher, but an instant speed scorpion can be devastating.
Let’s move on. The random button gives me…
I wanted to work with this card, but I must veto it. Not for power level reasons, mind you. Compared to a great number of other color hosers, Bereavement looks fair. Setting this card up only works if you can follow through, either with consistent creature removal, or a series of aggressive attacks that forces the opponent to trade/chump green creatures early. That’s far different than a card like Gloom which shuts down the opponent’s game before it even begins.
But it doesn’t matter whether Bereavement is fair. I need to veto it because it isn’t fun. I’ve been through this problem many times with my big box drafts. Every time a color hoser in pack two or three comes up, it presents the following conundrum to players working with that color: Take this card and skip your pick for the turn, or take the best card in your color and accept at least one automatic game loss. It’s even worse when that player never sees the hoser that will be used against them. How does a mono-black player defend against a round four Karma? Call disenters crybabies if you want, but you can’t deny that people don’t enjoy losing an otherwise tactical game for seemingly random reasons.
For what it’s worth, I tried to design a card to match Bereavement. Something close to an anti-black Fecundity. But I found myself caught in the same trap that the Mercadian Masques team stuck themselves in: In order to make a non-offending color hoser, I would make one that was far too weak, like with Righteous Indignation. And if I’ve learned anything from the According to Gather series, its that while most people don’t like drawbacks and bad mechanics, what they really hate are drawbacks and bad mechanics on pathetically weak cards. If I’m going to make an unfun card, then I’ve got to own it. Otherwise, don’t make one. It took Wizards decades to learn that rule, and I don’t plan to revisit their mistakes with my own design.
Hi kicker! I’m a big fan. You’re like Now and Later candy, except that candy’s name is a lie since you either eat none of the candy, or all of it. Really it should be called “Now, or Maybe Later, But If You Aren’t Going To Eat It Now Then It’s Probably Going To Sit In the Candy Dish Until You Throw It Away.” Not sure why they don’t call it that. Probably something to do with marketing.
Marsh Causalities takes out small critters, which overlaps space with the Byoki-Onna I designed in part one. But I can change the p/t, -x/-x, and cost on that card to accommodate this one. What I find interesting is that between those two cards and Pull Under, I seem to be approaching a theme…
I worked hard to make a card that reads “Whenever a creature loses power” but I couldn’t get there. Occasional oddball cards like Flailing Soldier might randomly end up in the cube, imploding on contact with the battlefield like Chris O’Donnel’s career after Batman & Robin. But that’s not the real problem. If the trigger happens too often, you make the trigger a nominal boost, like providing vigilance. Multiple instances of vigilance doesn’t keep the creature untapped any harder.
The problem was that that card needed to do too many things. It needed to be an aura. It needed to trigger when power was lost. It needed to find its way to the graveyard. And it also needed to do something when it came back. That last ability may seem obvious, but I flirted with an aura that only turned on in the graveyard and had the line, “whenever a creature loses power, you may discard [this card] from your hand.”
But too many of my designs featured too many working parts on one card. Instead, I figured it was better to support the theme of losing power so that I could revisit this trigger later. In the meantime, I got to make a neat creature token, and potentially build on a cycle of auras that discard for creature tokens. I’ll take it.
Another straight-up monster. As if Tromokratis wasn’t bad enough. This is what happens when you give rares and commons equal billing. At least I don’t need to worry about blue being the best color for giant creatures anymore. Red hit the gym. And between this and Tribal Agitator from our first article, red is flexing some serious muscle.
Like Tromokratis, Magmatic Force looks damn good next to traditional green creatures. Heck, the card this is color shifted from, Verdant Force, the original king of monsters, only created a 1/1 token every upkeep. Magmatic Force tosses around Lightning Bolts. In a five player game, Magmatic force can deal 15 damage before you get a chance to swing with it.
I can live with one or two huge red monsters. But when the quality of monsters in this range are this good, we need to find ways to increase the quality of the creatures that cost less.
While Goliath Shackles is built to support an aggressive strategy featuring cheap creatures, I suppose it also works well with cheap evasive creatures in an otherwise control deck. That’s fine. The important part is that the card is only supported if a player runs numerous cheap creatures. Don’t ask what I needed to sift through to find reasonable artwork.
I keep vacillating on this card’s power level. Sometimes, I imagine it’s too strong, providing an entwined Blinding Beam on the round you play it, and keeping two creatures tied down as long as you can consistently swing. But still… you need to keep your cheap creature in play and attacking to get this benefit. I suppose this card will only be bonkers in certain matchups, and that’s the point, isn’t it?
Thirty-Six down, Three Hundred Twenty-Four to go. If you’re reading this, then Part Four isn’t up yet. But perhaps you’d like to look through the According to Gatherer back catalog while you wait?