The Magpie’s Cube

While other birds collect twigs for their nests, magpies collect jewels.

I love to make games about ephemera, destruction and creation. I like when experiences are transient, when objects get altered forever, when my possessions carry the marks of historic adventures on them. I also like Magic: The Gathering. I’ve been meaning to make my own Magic draft environment for some time, and I’ve finally found myself in a position financially to create my mad science experiment, a cube of my own predilictions towards destroying cards and having fun.

Let me introduce you to the Magpie’s Cube. Around 360 cards (although that number is always fluctuating), changed by the players every time we play, with custom cards and weird lore and prizes at the end. I’ve had to fight a hastey dashed Stormtide Leviathan, a Horseshoe Crab that could detain my board each turn, and an Ameboid Changeling with more than 200 power and toughness. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had playing Magic, and if you’re looking for a new approach to the game that brings you back to the childlike wonder of first starting out when anything is possible, this cube is for you.

In this article I’m going to go over the basics of the cube and how to create your own. I’m going to assume readers have an understanding of how Magic cards work, even if it’s only a casual knowledge. This article also has some spoilers for some of the prizes and mechanics of the cube, so if you might end up playing with me in real life and that’s the sort of thing that worries you, proceed with caution!

What Is This?

A cube is a custom drafting environment for Magic: The Gathering. It’s a collection of cards (in this case, around 360, the minimal number for eight drafters) designed to be split into boosters and drafted by players. Each player takes cards from packs of 15 until they have enough for a deck, and then everyone plays their decks against each other in a little tournament.

A sticker cube is a cube where the cards are modified by stickers that change their abilities, their costs, or anything else about the card. The Magpie’s Cube isn’t the first cube of its kind. I’ve seen sticker cubes floating around since 2011, drawing inspiration from Risk Legacy and other sticker-based games. Philosophically, the Magpie’s Cube in heavily inspired by Dear Gonti, Love Sophie — a video by the outstanding Rhystic Studies about a deck worn down and practically torn to shreds. Most Magic players value their cards based on market cost and power, whereas a sticker cube proposes a new way to view even old cards, by radically changing what they do.

Broadly, the Magpie’s Cube has three core principles that guide its construction:

  • The Magpie’s Cube is ephemeral. Archetypes will emerge and be lost again, cards will strike fear into the hearts of their foes before being cut apart, there will be versions of the cube that are more or less “fun” to play. The passing of time reflected on the cards is the point.
  • The Magpie’s Cube is self-correcting. I shouldn’t go outside its own mechanics to inject new cards or modify the cube. Players will give the cube its own life, and we are all simply its curators and gardeners.
  • The Magpie’s Cube is whimsical. I will try to stick to the rules of Magic: The Gathering as much as I can, but there will be rules interactions no one expected, and the focus is ultimately on having fun and making weird cards.

It’s called the Magpie’s Cube because it feels like a hodgepodge collection of assorted stolen treasures, glued together over time. As I put the cube together and figured out all the little prizes, I started to imagine the Magpie as a genuine being — perhaps a huge bird, or a sorcerer in a black cloak — who for some reason allows us to play with his treasures while he flies across the countryside. I think it’s because he knows cards need to be played with, or else they lose their hearts.

How I Made The Cube

To start I made a cube on Cubecobra (I used this guide, because I don’t know what I’m doing). I chose ten 2-color archetypes, and gave them varying degrees of presence in the cube. I chose archetypes both based on personal interest, and whether they’d have interesting rules text to sticker over / cut apart. These were the archetypes, and what I’d do differently now:

  • White-Blue: Flicker / enter-the-battlefield. This is a bit strong.
  • Blue-Black: Ninjitsu. Probably the most fun archetype in the cube.
  • Black-Red: Unearth / graveyard aggro. I would replace this with Madness.
  • Red-Green: Landfall aggro. Surprisingly effective.
  • Green-White: +1/+1 counters. Perfect.
  • White-Black: Lifegain. Totally fine.
  • Blue-Red: Spellslinger. I would cut and replace with Artifacts.
  • Black-Green: Graveyard recursion / reanimator. I’d replace with Self-Mill.
  • Red-White: Aggro. Unbearably boring, but works fine.
  • Green-Blue: “Draw 2 cards a turn”. Very tacked-on, but UG is always hard.

When I was adding cards, I tried to also prioritize cards with interesting lines of text on them that I would want to see modified by stickers, such as:

  • Weird downsides (Reinforced Ronin, Phantasmal Dreadmaw, Kuro Pitlord)
  • Modal Choices (Hooded Assassin, Pollenbright Druid, Dawnbringer Cleric)
  • Unique lines of text (Croaking Counterpart, Haakon Stromgold Scourge, Haze Of Rage)

There’s also a few cards that I by all rights should cut, but I love too much. These include my cycle of skulkin and cards like Ameboid Changeling. If a card made me smile unreasonably wide when I saw its picture, I had to find a home for it in the cube.

I then printed out two sheets of stickers. (I would recommend printing on Avery 8 ½" x 11" Matte Printable Labels (94268) found here, and then cutting down to fit the size of the sticker). One sheet contains mana symbols (including lots of all five colors of mana, hybrid symbols, some colorless indicators, and some “two-brid” symbols) and the other includes keywords and lines of text that can change the abilities of a card.

For the second sheet of abilities, I limited my design to only abilities that generate at most one card’s worth of raw card advantage. It turns out from playing that even a sticker that says “draw a card” is incredibly powerful, so if you want a somewhat more reasonably powered sticker cube I might encourage even weaker stickers.

I also made a couple custom cards, by cutting out a chunk of sticker and covering a card with it. The only custom card that started in the game was Moloch, who was a wonderful choice — in most drafts so far, at least one player tries to build a Moloch deck and spends most of their time cutting up cards to create Molochian abominations.

I apologize to any of my friends at Wizards Of The Coast if you see this custom card: I pinky promise I hold no rights on Moloch and won’t be weird about it. I promise!!

How To Play The Cube

Step 1: Have friends who want to play Magic: The Gathering with you in real life. Encourage them to each bring a Magic card to contribute to the cube, as these contributions help hold the Cube together and let it adjust to meta shifts.

Step 2: Split the cube into “packs” of 15 cards, and distribute a pack to each player.

Step 3: Draft two packs normally, building a deck with the cards you pick up as a normal booster draft.

Step 4: Everyone “drafts” 3–4 stickers (more stickers makes the decks more high-power, so be careful!). They can put those stickers onto cards now, or during deckbuilding.

Step 5: Everyone drafts Pack 3, now that they can pick cards with their stickers in mind. There are some limitations on sticker application, which we developed communally as we played.

Step 6: Deckbuilding! Everyone figures out their mix of 23 non-lands and 17 lands (approximately), with free access to basic lands. They should put all their stickers on at this time.

Step 7: Run the tournament. I like to do three rounds of Best-of-3, and keep track of seeding and pairs on a scrap of paper. M:TG also has various apps available for running a tournament without all that, however. Whatever mechanism works best for you. Much like a regular draft one might play at a local game store, I let people change their decks freely throughout the drafts.

Step 8: Winners are determined after the rounds conclude.

Sticker Application Rules

As we played, we realized that we wanted some consistent way to understand stickers, and so we developed that. As the person in the group with the most knowledge about Magic: The Gathering and the creator of the cube, people often go to me to make impromptu rulings about how the stickers fit together.

  • Stickers must fit inside the text box, meaning cards with too many lines of text are prone to having some of their abilities covered up. Stickers may be cut to fit into the text, but this cutting can’t change their meaning.
  • For an ability to function, it must fit into the “grammar” of Magic: The Gathering. The biggest impact of this is that a sticker that says “draw a card” needs a trigger for it to do anything on a creature, meaning lines of text like “When this creature enters the battlefield” or “Whenever you cast an instant or sorcery spell” are especially valuable.
  • If a sticker’s application simply doesn’t make sense, then that entire line of text is ignored. This occasionally means one can remove drawbacks from cards by creating implausible grammar, although I consider it bad form and caution against it.
  • If a sticker only sorta makes sense, I do my best to read it in favor of its intent. For example, if a card reads “{1} draw a card.” then I would assume it’s meant to be “{1}: Draw a card.” even though it lacks a colon. It’s rare that a card needs a special ruling.
  • Mana value stickers can only cover one pip — you couldn’t replace a card that costs {5}{G}{G} with a {2} sticker, but you could make a card that costs {8} cost {2}.
  • Reminder text is ignored and can be stickered over without changing what the ability does. However this also means you can’t alter reminder text to change what a keyword does.

After The Games

After the games, everyone puts 3 gold star stickers on their favorite cards. If a card gets 3 or more gold star stickers, it goes to the Hall Of Legends — a special home for cards that have proven themselves both broken beyond belief and yet also important to the cube’s community. Then, prizes are divvied out in the following manner:

  • 1st Place: 1st Pick from amongst the Gifts.
  • 2nd Place: 2nd Pick from amongst the Gifts.
  • 3rd Place: 3rd Pick from amongst the Gifts.
  • 4th-8th Place: Everyone else works together to choose three cards to Kill, taking a pair of scissors and cutting them up. This is a good chance for the losing players to take revenge on the winning decks, and a way to destroy unfairly broken cards that might’ve propelled someone to a brutal finish.

The Gifts

There are five black tins, each with a different tarot card sticker on them, available as prizes. These are the Gifts, and they represent the winning players’ ability to shape the game well into future rounds. The Gifts are as follows:

Death: Within Death is the graveyard where all dead cards must be buried. The player who chooses Death can, with a gluestick and a pair of scissors, stitch together cards to create their own Frankenstein’s monster. I put a couple cards within Death to start, including another custom card of my own creation.

The Fool: This is a gift befitting a most marvelous prankster, or prince of japes. The tin is full of very bad stickers, such as “You cannot win the game and your opponents cannot lose the game” or “This card cannot untap.” You may take three cards and modify them to make them wildly worse.

The Devil: I DEMAND A SACRIFICE. The tin is full of very powerful stickers, such as “Cascade” or “Storm”. You may Kill up to three cards from your draft pool. For each you Kill, take a sticker from the tin and apply it to another card in your draft pool.

The Sun: The Magpie brings back his most ambitious finds during the day. I’ve created a number of packs of additional draft archetypes, such as Vampires, Madness, or Scarecrows. The winning player picks one and adds it to the cube, inserting new archetypes or empowering old ones.

The Moon: The Magpie brings back his strangest finds on moonlit nights. There’s a number of cards (some iconic expensive cards from Magic’s history, while others custom cards entirely) proxied up. The winning player chooses one to add to the cube.

Sample Decklist

Here’s a sample decklist from Week 2 of the cube, an Esper (UWb) control deck I piloted to a 3–0 6–0 finish. This is probably one of the most broken decks I’ve ever built, although I’ve since faced more powerful. I’ve reproduced oracle text when relevant, and bolding the impact of stickers.

List:

Quickling

Luminarch Aspirant

Deputy Of Acquittals

Watcher For Tomorrow

Dawnbringer Cleric

Omenspeaker

Betrayal of Flesh (costs {2/U}{B})

Banisher Priest

Man-O’-War

Sea Gate Oracle

Cloudkin Seer

Mulldrifter

Ghostly Flicker

Solemn Simulacrum

Archaomancer

Illusionist’s Gambit

Ameboid Changeling (Costs {7}{u}, Changeling, Shadow, {T}: Target creature loses all creature types until end of turn. This creature gets +1/+1 for each creature type it is.)

Akroma’s Vengeance

Cleansing Nova

Blessed Light (Draw three cards. Exile target creature or enchantment. Overload {6})

Sunbeam Spellbomb ({W}, Sacrifice Pyrite Spellbomb: Gain 5 life. {1} Exile the top two cards of your library. You may play them this turn.)

Pyrite Spellbomb ({R}, Sacrifice Pyrite Spellbomb: Deal 2 damage to any target. {1} Target creature phases out.)

7 Island

7 Plains

Temple of Deciet

Dimir Aquaduct

Temple of Enlightenment

Orzhov Basilica (Noncreature spells cost {1} more to cast. When Orzhov Basilica enters the battlefield, create a treasure token. {T}, add {W}{B}.)

Many of these stickers were from the week before, either the result of drafts or Gifts (Some of the more egregious gifts, such as “Draw three cards” came from the Devil) The only stickers I applied were two stickers to Orzhov Basilica, and “Overload {6}” onto Blessed Light to create my third boardwipe.

The deck was a control deck, playing out cheap creatures and drawing cards until it found Pyrite Spellbomb to lock down the board. I would then use Blessed Light to wipe the board and draw three cards, leaving my spellbombs intact. Then I would actually win with Ameboid Changeling or just attacking with random little creatures.

At the end of the draft, I put two gold stars on Ameboid Changeling, which coupled with the one gold star it had on it from the week before, sent it to the Hall of Legends. The losing players chose to destroy the Pyrite Spellbomb, but felt no other cards in my deck were unhealthy for the format.

The Emergent Meta

As of Week 4, a “meta” around the cards has emerged. Most of the original archetypes of the cube have fallen by the wayside in favor of new deck-building styles. In a lot of ways, this cube has a lot in common with Vintage Cube or other powered cubes, as fundamental power level differences between cards sculpt the meta.

  • Blue is the most powerful color in the cube, as card draw/selection ensures you reach your broken bombs faster and counterspells are some of the only ways to deal with other busted cards. Every single 1st place deck has been blue-based. Blue also has disruptive aggro decks like UB ninjas, although its game-ending threats (such as Stormtide Leviathan) have been destroyed.
  • White was the most powerful color at the start of cube, as it has the most board wipes and strong creature base. In those first few weeks however, many of white’s premier cards were destroyed, and white now has the fewest cards out of any color in the cube, meaning it’s hard for more than one White drafter at the same table.
  • Black has grown a lot of strength as the only color in the cube with plentiful creature removal and powerful aggro cards stitched together by Moloch. Black has yet to have a standout archetype of its own, although I suspect that as Blue gets weaker, Black will have its time to shine.
  • Red is among the weaker colors in the cube (as it leans towards aggro and its removal generally wasn’t good enough against format-warping cards like a 2-mana Ulamog’s Crusher) but it benefits from quantity and speed. There are more red cards than of any other color in the cube, meaning mono-red decks are viable.
  • Green is the weakest color in the cube right now, as its strengths (mana generation and big creatures) are outclassed by stickers themselves. While I think green will have the chance to redeem itself eventually, a good base-green deck has yet to emerge.
  • Scarecrows use a bunch of underpowered scarecrows and can be any color combination. They rely on the fact that a number of stickers reference scarecrows in some way, meaning the deck slowly grows more tribal components. This deck also uses artifact synergies and leans aggro.
Temple of Silence, one of the most important cards for any base-scarecrow deck, and a strong B/W fixing land.

Building Your Own

If the idea of desecrating Magic cards and creating your own communal vintage cube sounds like a fun activity for you, then I have a lot of tips for you. I consider this first iteration of the Magpie’s Cube a prelude to a second version, so I’ve been thinking extensively about the good and bad parts of the cube. I know anyone who makes their own version will probably have their own approach to the cube — part of the joy is that this cube is an expression and reflection of my joy with Magic and how I like to have fun with my friends. Here’s a few broad things to keep in mind when designing your own cube.

Think About Your Player Base

I created the Magpie’s Cube for my friends, who are “queer nerds who enjoy Magic: The Gathering but don’t play competitively or might be rusty”. I tried to avoid cards that would lead to complex rules interactions and I tried to focus on stuff that would feel familiar without being overly complex. This is a bad way to teach new players how to play Magic, and sometimes I’m sad that I didn’t make the cube more accessible for my friends who might be less familiar with the base of Magic: The Gathering. If you hang out with a group of tournament grinders, you can afford to reference more obscure rules. Remember that even the most simple stickers increase the complexity of Magic by a fair bit, and simple, resonant stickers are better than complex or wordy stickers.

The Cube Should Function As A Cube

The more you play with the Magpie’s Cube, the more the stickers and the intentional cullings shape the cube’s environment. This doesn’t mean the base of the cube isn’t important. Try to have a good mix of removal, creatures, and abilities. Include a few cards with fun downsides. Avoid wordy cards or cards with out-of-date grammar in their most recent printed version, as that can be confusing. Make sure mana fixing is plentiful. Know that some cards are easy to break — the karoo lands often become unbelievably busted and Eldrazi are quick to discount in cost. It should be possible to draft a playable deck in this cube without any stickers. Try to give each color multiple angles of attack — for example, if ramp is bad because of your stickers, green could still thrive with Commune with Nature type effects.

Stickers Directly Impact The Power Level

If players start with too few stickers, then they’re not as likely to have powerful stickers, and are more likely to have decks without any bombs. If players start with too many stickers, then every deck becomes unbelievably broken, and each game becomes very fast. Stickers that discount mana values make ramp abilities less relevant. Stickers that generate lots of card advantage make card draw less relevant. Turning creatures big makes already-big creatures and damage-based removal less relevant. The sticker pool you create directly shifts the value of cards across the table and throughout the draft.

Custom Cards Are Cool When Used Sparingly

The Magpie’s Cube opens up a ton of design space around permanently destroying or altering cards that can feel like a candy shop for custom M:TG card designers. If you’re the kind of person who has fun with that, you might be tempted to make a bunch of cool cards to fill your cube — and I think that’s awesome. I do encourage you to be careful, and play at least one or two sessions of your cube without them before you start adding abilities that play with the mechanics introduced. For example, a card that instructs you to tear up one of your opponent’s cards might feel like a fun piece of Black removal, but in practice it’s deeply unfun and can ruin another player’s draft experience.

Abandon The Illusion Of Control

The Magpie’s Cube is built around the idea of an environment that grows and changes with the players, creating ephemera that will inevitably be destroyed or altered beyond play. Archetypes will emerge and then be lost again, the best decks of the format cannot be drafted more than once. This will sometimes feel sad or scary, to lose out on cards that felt important to you. Embrace the thrill of a dynamically shifting card game that changes every time you play, and delight in a game that never settles into predictable rhythms. The Magpie’s Cube turns us all into game designers.

Conclusion

That’s all, folks! I hope you enjoyed this foray into Magic: The Gathering, and taking old games and transforming them into new play experiences. If you’re new here, hello! My name is Jay Dragon, and I’m an award-winning and critically-acclaimed tabletop game designer who makes queer games about community. You might know me from Sleepaway, Wanderhome, or my work on Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast. I hope you enjoyed this article, and that you can check out much more on my Medium page here or on my Patreon.

--

--

--

Game designer at Possum Creek Games. Gay trans. Has never successfully caught a ghost. Wrote Wanderhome, among others.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

House Designer Mod Apk Unlimited Money v1.106

House Designer Mod Apk Unlimited Money v1.106

Epic Meta partners Meliora 42 Esports

2018 Was a Bad Year for Gaming — Here’s Why

Introducing Game Audio Separation: The Future of Game Capture

Kingdom 2.0 Guide Update 6th May

EA Game Changers Hurt Anthem’s Launch and the Gaming Industry at Large

Where are the Nintendo Directs?

Beneficial waves bounce off for $MXY holders!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jay Dragon

Jay Dragon

Game designer at Possum Creek Games. Gay trans. Has never successfully caught a ghost. Wrote Wanderhome, among others.

More from Medium

My own interest in Gno.Land

Who is Amanda Bond?

A Letter To My Lovely Freshies

THE MINORITY REPORT — DFW & BIWHM: A REVIEW IN 2 PARTS