Thursday, 1 November 2012

Green - Lean and Mean

In a recent podcast entitled "Greener Pastures", Matt "Kranny" Kranstuber and guest Tim Pskowski discussed the design of the Green sections of their cubes. The episode lasted about an hour and thoroughly covered many of the topics associated with choosing Green cards for your cube. I highly recommend having a listen if you have the time and interest. For me, there were three key points that I took away from their discussion. I'd like to discuss my thoughts on each of these and then take a look at how I plan to apply them to my own cube.

Clear philosophy

During the podcast, Tim stated his view that "Green is about mana and creatures." Many of us already know this to be true, but it's easy to get distracted when selecting cards for the cube. Tim went on to mention that he applies this in a number of ways:
  • The creature:spell ratio in the Green section of his cube is 40:20. Setting these ratios is part of the art of cube design, but it's clear that Green should tip heavily toward creatures.
  • Of the 20 spells in his Green section, 10 are about creatures. Examples include Treetop Village (classed as a Green spell for the purposes of actual game play) and Green Sun's Zenith.
  • Most of the other 10 spells in his Green section are about mana. Examples include Farseek, Cultivate, and some unorthodox inclusions such as Utopia Sprawl. He also include Growth Spasm, which is a good example of a card that is about both mana and creatures.
  • Many of the creatures in his Green section are about mana. The traditional "mana dorks" are there in abundance - Birds of Paradise, Noble Hierarch, Llanowar Elves, etc. But he also includes mana producers further up the curve such as Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary, Somberwald Sage and Oracle of Mul Daya.

Unique identity

What makes a colour unique? Perhaps more importantly, what makes you want to draft a particular colour? Kranny and Tim discussed this last question in some detail and their thoughts - which are corroborated by my own experience - are revealing. The things that get a drafter to want to draft Green are the mana producers. If you want to ramp into stuff faster than the other decks, you need to be in Green. In my experience with cubes such as the MTGO cube, when Green ramp is heavily supported, things can get out of hand quickly which makes these decks good and therefore worth drafting.

In an article entitled "Nuts & Bolts: Design Skeleton", Magic Lead Designer, Mark Rosewater, further clarified Green's role as the BIG creature colour:

For a long time, green was the color that got the most creatures but a year or so back we spent some time trying to differentiate between white and green and came to the realization that it was silly for green to be the color that got the most and the biggest creatures at common. White is the "army color" so we decided it would make sense for white to get the largest number of creatures and leave green the largest creatures at common. White beats you with numbers while green beats you with size.

Many cube enthusiasts complain that Green is sub-par and lacks a real identity. But if you're trying to make Green be just another aggressive colour with lots of cheap and agressive 1- and 2-drops, then it has to compete directly with other colours that have better options in these slot. On the other hand, if Green is the dedicated colour of mana and big creatures, then it provides something that the other colours simply can't compete with. In a draft environment, this is exactly where we want a colour to be.

There are many cube enthusiasts who defend Green aggressive strategies, and that's fine. It does seem like the Gruul guild should be aggressive. But for me, 1-drop mana dork into powerful 3-drop seems like an effective strategy and one that I'm willing to support for now. Gold cards like Bloodbraid Elf play very nicely with this approach. It is also possible to splash key cards like Kird Ape in a mostly Red deck.

It turns out that the very thing that makes Green unique is it's clear and streamlined philosophy.

Attention to the overlap with other colours

In order to truly execute on the Green philosophy, a cube designer must ensure a consistent message throughout the cube. One way to do this is to examine each two-colour pair involving Green and ensuring that the cards in the Gold section for these guilds are consistent with the approaches that your Green section is supporting. I think that this is where it often becomes easy to be distracted - good gold cards can sometimes do something quite different from what the natural overlap of the colours should be. As an example, look at Firemane Angel from the original Ravnica: City of Guilds - while this is a good card on it's own it does not really support the things that Red-White decks naturally want to be doing. As a minimum a gold section should encourage and support the strategies that are natural for those two-colour pairs.

As I am planning a big overhaul of the multi-coloured section of my cube just after Gatecrash is released, I'll save the analysis for then. However, I do think that it's an important aspect of supporting each individual colour which shouldn't be overlooked.

Don't steal pie

This topic wasn't discussed in the podcast, but I do believe it to be an important aspect of supporting Green in cube: cut the fast mana and coloured mana-producing artifacts. In a powered cube, the Moxen and Black Lotus are big offenders of both - fast coloured mana. In addition, a fair few people have caught on to the fact that cards like Sol Ring and Mana Crypt, which provide mana acceleration the turn they come into play (e.g. mana generated > converted mana cost) provide unnaturally fast starts in decks that don't even require Green.

If you want to preserve Green as the primary ramp and fixing colour, then you simply can't make these effects available to decks that don't contain Green. Artifacts have their role, but I believe it's possible for them to complement Green rather than render it irrelevant. To this end, I currently apply the following restrictions to my cube:

  1. The mana rocks that produce more mana than their casting cost are not included. These include Sol Ring, Mana Vault, Mana Crypt, etc. I understand that these are some of the best cards in Magic's history which is what many people are looking for in cube. However, I believe that having 5 strong colours is of paramount importance to diversity and creating fun and interesting cube experiences.
  2. The mana rocks that produce coloured mana are not included. These include Signets, Talismans, and even Coalition Relic for now. I'm currently running Mox Diamond as a special case because I think that the fact that you have to accept card disadvantage for the acceleration plus fixing makes it not quite as big of competition for Green.

To distinguish, Green can accelerate, fix and even gain some card advantage while doing it (e.g. Cultivate) or get a dude out of the deal which has it's own advantages (such as carrying swords and such).

Under this world view, artifacts are allowed to accelerate but only by providing colourless mana. The broken mana rocks shift the balance away from Green so restriction #1 applies. Dual lands can fix mana, and with fetches and shocklands (and eventually ABUR duals), they can do this rather effectively. Therefore, I don't need artifacts that also do this.


So, if you're ramping...what are you ramping into? Green is supposed to be the colour of big creatures, and if this is true then Green must have most of the biggest creatures in the cube. This can be difficult, since big creatures have been printed in every colour and colourless and many of them are of cube quality. Cards like Sundering Titan and Myr Battlesphere - as well as the Eldrazi if you run them - mean that you don't necessarily need a big Green finisher in your ramp deck. However, if we limit the number of cards that fall into this category and provide a hearty helping of the biggest fatties in Green, then drafters already in Green for ramp will be looking for some of these on colour options as they come around. As Tim discussed, including a card like Natural Order will also encourage this - ramping with a turn one mana dork into an early Natural Order sacrificing the dork and getting a big Green fatty into play on turn three is a perfectly reasonable - and fun - thing to be doing in cube. Cards like Woodfall Primus, Pelakka Wurm, Hornet Queen, Avenger of Zendikar and others hitting play many turns early make Green a good place to be.

To be honest, there are actually a number of directions that you can take the "creatures" part of the Green philosophy. Support for token strategies, for example, is something that I'd like to see a little more of. And yes, supporting aggro is possible. However, each strategy that you choose to support stretches the colour thin in terms of support for other strategies. For me, the answer is to keep my Green section lean and mean.


Here's my current Green section:

Green Creatures Green Spells
Avacyn's Pilgrim
Birds of Paradise
Elves of Deep Shadow
Fyndhorn Elves
Joraga Treespeaker
Llanowar Elves
Noble Hierarch
Wild Nacatl
Fauna Shaman
Lotus Cobra
Mire Boa
River Boa
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Strangleroot Geist
Wall of Blossoms
Wall of Roots
Wild Mongrel
Eternal Witness
Great Sable Stag
Troll Ascetic
Uktabi Orangutan
Viridian Shaman
Yavimaya Elder
Chameleon Colossus
Obstinate Baloth
Phantom Centaur
Thrun, the Last Troll
Wickerbough Elder
Acidic Slime
Deranged Hermit
Indrik Stomphowler
Rampaging Baloths
Avenger of Zendikar
Gaea's Revenge
Hornet Queen
Krosan Tusker
Woodfall Primus
Treetop Village
Nature's Claim
Survival of the Fittest
Beast Within
Call of the Herd
Kodama's Reach
Krosan Grip
Garruk Wildspeaker
Natural Order
Garruk, Primal Hunter
Plow Under
Primal Command
Green Sun's Zenith

Here are the changes that I'm proposing to update Green to be more lean and mean:

Proposed Adds Proposed Drops
Arbor Elf
Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary
Overgrown Battlement
Somberwald Sage
Ohran Viper
Oracle of Mul Daya
Primeval Titan
Pelakka Wurm
Utopia Sprawl
Search for Tomorrow
Growth Spasm
Elves of Deep Shadow
Mire Boa
Strangleroot Geist
Troll Ascetic
Great Sable Stag
Obstinate Baloth
Wickerbough Elder
Gaea's Revenge
Nature's Claim
Primal Command

Utopia Sprawl is a sweet option from Tim's list that I just had to try when I saw it. If it doesn't work out, I can always look for something else. Arbor Elf is just an upgrade over Elves of Deep Shadow which now moves into the on deck box with Boreal Druid as additional mana dorks available when the cube expands. Ohran Viper is a card that has been in the cube before, but was removed largely to support more aggressive Green 3-drops. If we're wanting to support ramp and midrange strategies in Green, the viper is an excellent fit. Seeing a card like Great Sable Stag go is actually a shame because it's better in more matches than it first appears. But most cubes have cut this card from 450. Meanwhile, cards like Oracle of Mul Daya, Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary and Primeval Titan are cards that I was already planning to include in Green - this big update is just an excuse to work them in.

There are some other cards that I've moved into my on deck box as well. Cards like Devoted Druid give me additional options if I feel that I need to push even harder in the ramp direction.

As it stands, it will likely take a week or two for me to pull together the remaining cards I need to make this change so there's still time to talk me out of it. Once I make the changes, the only way to know for sure whether things have improved is to play the cube.

And if you're cubing, it can't be that bad.

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