This is an introductory article about to a subject that few have talked about – the differences between a small cube and a large cube. A cube size affects a lot the evaluation of cards and archetypes, but first we should ask the basic question: why a large cube?
The downsides of size
Large cubes have many downsides. It is definitely not for everyone. The biggest drawback is most definitely the added logistics. Big cubes just have more cards, which means you need more storage space, especially if you also pack enough lands for a 16-man. More storage means the cube is heavier to carry around. Also, it is much more cumbersome to shuffle, although you do not need to shuffle the whole thing all the time, but you usually will for reasons that will be discussed later. They will also require more time packing after the draft, and finding a specific card (say every time you want to cut something) will take you longer.
Obviously a large cube is also more expensive. It is not twice as expensive as a small cube, but it can get close. Even if you use proxies heavily, you need to acquire twice as many matching sleeves.
A large cube needs more maintenance as new sets comes out. Much more cards are printed that are playable or fringe playable in a 720 each set than a 360 cards cube. So much so, that in many sets the ratio is 5:1 or higher! If you want to keep a large cube at the best shape possible in a given time, you just have to acquire and test many more cards constantly. Which ties to the next point.
Testing new cards is a lot more difficult. Every given card has only a 50% chance to appear in a given draft, with larger cubes or smaller playgroups even less. That’s why most designers have developed a way of controlled testing that simulates drafting however it can never be perfect. Moreover, every individual change to the cube is barely felt at the macro level. Only masses of cards can really shape the metagame, while in a small cube the addition of four cards can create a whole new archetype.
Combos are more difficult to support. It is harder to see a certain card, then it is much more unlikely to see specific cards together. Some small cube archetypes just become weaker, like reanimator, or totally unplayable like Splinter Twin combo or Time Vault.
The power level is lower. Although the power gap is steadily decreasing between a 720 and a 360, it will always be present. The top cards are less frequently showing up. However, there are ways to mitigate this, as using the cube slots as a resource that small cubes cannot afford for cards outside of the core 23 playable of the deck – examples are nonbasic lands, conspiracies and sideboard cards.
So why should you consider owning a large cube?
The reason why most people do it is the increased variance. In a 360 cube, assuming you draft with 8 people, you are always seeing the exact same cards. There only so many games you can play before it becomes repetitive. In a 720 cards cube the whole pool can change between drafts. It means that even if you build the same type of deck, the overlap between them will be small and the games can be vastly different. The replay value is a lot higher.
There is more place for personalization. A large cube can afford to test more cards, and since the power level is lower, more things can be made to be competitive as well. The differences between between large cubes are more significant, not only by absolute terms but by percentages too.
There are more interactions between cards. Simply because there are more of them. A large cube is a more complex format that is much harder to solve and study. Seeing all those unplanned interaction is also more rewarding to the builder.
There is more space for pet cards. Every player and every group have cards they like that are not always strong enough or broad enough in use to truly be worth a small cube slot. In a large cube you can have more of them, to satisfy your group’s wants.
There is an option to have larger drafts. You might not always hit 16, but drafts of 10 and 12 are also possible to accomodate, and they still have variance. One of the things we like to do is simply two drafts in a row, with 0% overlap and without a need to shuffle. On top of that, different formats are available too like sealed (which requires large pools). More options are always good and it is very awkward when more people showed up than there is space.
Which cubes are considered large?
For the purpose of this blog, I focus on 600-900 cards, but mainly on 720 as that is what I know best.
How do metagames change with size?
This is a very broad issue. The discussion here is just a starting point. First of all, the environment is slower by necessity. Unlike common misconceptions, aggro and control are still very strong, and can be even stronger than small cubes in relative terms. However, the cube in general will see more midrange decks in their expense.
As said before specific combo decks are harder to assemble. On the flip side, combo decks that have sufficient redundancy are more common in large cubes, because they can afford the slots: super ramp in green, token decks, artifact decks and so on.
To complicate things even more, some things which are common in small cubes are just not redundant enough for larger cubes – there are not enough effects of their ilk in the game for a large cube. A prominent example will be green aggro.
These changes of the metagame are archetype individual and constantly in flux, and is one of the main topics this blog covers.