Gleaming the Cube VS.1.0

By: Kirk Buckendorf

I have a Cube List and Rules written here┬áif you’re just interested in diving into the Cube Format. If you want to read a bit about how Nick Rausch and I came to that list and rules, read on as I cover what a Cube Draft is, and how we applied it to VS 2PCG:

In all the card games I’ve ever played my favorite format by far has always been draft. The first set of Magic that I drafted was Alliances, the expansion to Ice Age. It opened a whole new world in gaming for me. If constructed format is the Formula 1 of card games, where (deck) mechanics build the best decks possible from a large card pool and the best drivers (players) field those decks in a competition then the limited format is more like stock car racing where the restrictions and limited card pools even the playing field and the focus is more on the skill of the players, than the power level of decks.

Limited formats come in two flavors. Sealed pack is where everyone gets access to a number of sealed packs of cards and luck plays heavily into how good your card pool is. This is like going to a go-kart track and everyone getting assigned a random kart. It’s pretty even, but some karts are just going to be faster than others. Drafting is a little more like NASCAR, where you’re still limited by your card pool, but you get to tweak and improve that card pool a bit more by having a shared pool with 7 other players and you all draft your deck from it. Now the deck building skill becomes as important as the game playing skill.

VS 2PCG is great, and the sets designed so far have provided a great many possible decks to play in the constructed format, but one thing that is missing with the non-collectible card game structure is a limited format. You get full play sets of cards with every box, which makes great frugal sense for customers, but you lose the extra format of being able to crack and draft randomized booster packs. The last two Gencon 10k tournaments with new sets being released just days before the event were an experiment in a limited format on steroids. At the first 10k, I was excited to try it; give me the whole card pool and let me put my years of Sealed Pack experience to the test with two days to build a deck.

It was great in theory, but now with having done it twice, I can say that it is not very satisfying. It’s still constructed format, just with not enough time to discover all the decks on your own and test all the match-ups between those decks. Each team in those events didn’t come up with the same decks, for example everyone I tested with for those two days, didn’t see the now obvious monster in Thanos. We concentrated on different approaches due to the time constraints. Some of our group came up with the rush deck in Storm that Michael Barnes piloted to 2nd place, another came up with a control deck toolbox with Professor Xavier and I brought a deck that was built from most of the preview cards in the Hulk deck, because I’d had the most experience in playing it. I personally need to jam a lot of games with a deck against as many different decks as I can to become familiar with how to play it for constructed tournaments. So just playing the deck I’d been goofing around with from proxies for a week or two made the most sense to me.

The decks everyone came up with were pretty decent, but even in this first event, while many players and teams did immediately recognize the power of Thanos like David Leader, not all of the decks were fully optimal due to time constraints on testing. I think everyone left the 10k feeling a little disappointed that they couldn’t come up with their best interpretation of their deck and didn’t have time to build experience in playing all the possible match ups. So yes, it was a type of “limited” format, but only limited in time to prepare and not limited in card pool leaving everyone with a feeling of incompleteness.

So far, my favorite constructed experience in the new VS. mirrors my favorite constructed experiences in past games. It was Origins, where I had 8 weeks to build and test over 20+ decks and practice all the different match-ups. Now if only we could get just as satisfying of a limited format…

…Enter the Cube format. I’ve been drafting card games for over 17 years with my group of friends. Most of the time it was with Sealed Booster packs in Magic, OG VS. and WoW TCG, but a good chunk of it was with Cube Drafting. I think there was a streak there where we drafted our Magic cube every Thursday night for 5-6 years straight. Every new set of Magic released let us switch in new cards keeping it fresh.

For those not familiar with a cube, it is a format where you and your friends take all your favorite cards from a game and throw them into a box. Then you shuffle all of those cards and make randomized 15-18 card “packs”, usually 3 packs for each player and usually for 4-8 players (8 players being the sweet spot). Everyone takes their 3 packs and looks at the first pack at the same time. Each player then drafts one card from their pack and passes the rest of the cards to their left. Then you look at the cards you were passed and pick another card before passing the rest. Rinse and repeat until that pack is gone. For the second pack, you do the same thing, but you pass your cards to the right and for the third pack you pass them to the left again.

From the pool of cards you drafted, everyone builds a deck and you play your decks against everyone else. This was most successful in Magic, and there were some OK cubes in OG VS., but VS. was very team-centric, so designing the Cube Pools in VS was a lot trickier. My favorite cubes were built using the WoW TCG cards. That said, I think the new VS is prime for Cube drafting and we’ve experimented on how to get it just right.

Some of the challenges Nick and I talked about and experimented with on different sides of the country while developing our approach to a VS 2PCG cube were as follows:

  1. How do you pick your Main Characters in VS.?

In the WoW tcg, it was similar to VS. in that you built your deck around a single Hero card. In that game’s limited format and the cubes we played, you just needed to pick one of heroes available to sets being used in the draft for your deck. For example in Sealed Booster drafts, you were limited to picking only from the Hero Cards available in the Sets being used. In the Cube, since we had cards from every set ever printed, we had a stack of every Hero ever printed as well and when you were done drafting you could pick any Hero you wanted.

With VS. 2PCG we tried something similar for our first Cube design. We built a cube using Marvel Battles and let players pick any Main Character they wanted. Right away, this lead to everyone drafting with the same 2-3 Main Characters in mind, Thanos, Star-Lord and Storm. It wasn’t very interesting or challenging. The next Cube we built was after Defenders came out, so we had a little bit more diversity in the cards and Main Character pool. To keep everyone from drafting with the same Main Characters in mind, we added a little mini-draft before the regular 3 Pack deck draft.

We dealt out all the main characters from Marvel Battles and Defenders evenly to all players, then drafted those just like you would do with the packs. For example, in an 8 man draft there were 24 Main Characters, so each player was dealt 3 of them at Random. They picked one and passed the other two to the left, then picked 2 more in the same way. Now, this gave players a limited pool of Main Characters to draft a deck around forcing diversity and evening out the power level available. This improved the challenge of drafting and deck building greatly, and put the “limited” back into what needs to be a limited format.

2. How do you add the Basic Locations to your deck?

The closest approximation to Locations in VS are the Lands in Magic. In limited formats for Magic, you simply build your deck from your limited card pool and then add whatever lands you choose and need for your deck with no restrictions. For WoW the closest approximation to Locations was Quests, but in that game, the Quests were part of the sealed packs, or randomized cube packs that you drafted. So any Quests you wanted, you HAD to draft them. In Magic, you draft around 45 cards, and build a deck using about 22-24 of them and add 16-18 lands to build a 40 card deck. In WoW you would draft about 45-48 cards and build a 30 card deck, without adding any cards to it other than choosing which Hero you wanted to use.

Nick and I tried VS. Cubes both ways. By necessity for the first Cube using Marvel Battles only, we pretty much shuffled ALL of the cards from the box into a a cube (I think we took out some number of Locations to get the card pool somewhere around 383 cards to make enough 16 card packs for 8 players). That first cube gave us experience in having to draft the locations that your Main and Supporting characters would need. This was actually fun and challenging, and kept Thanos players in check a bit as they would need to draft Locations of ALL types, in enough quantities to be effective. We also found that we needed to play a 40 card deck, as drawing two cards a turn was too fast for a 30 card deck. Because of the design of VS. with no real limitations on what characters can go in your deck, it worked out and drafting 40 playable cards from 48 was WAY easier than you’d think. In fact, I still find it hard to cut the last 1 or 2 cards down to 40.

When Defenders and A-Force came out, we experimented with taking the Basic Locations out of the Cube Draft since we had a larger pool of “Action” cards. Now you could draft 45-48 cards, pick 28-32 of them and add which ever 8-12 Basic Locations you wanted to your deck (with a limit of 3 of each type, but I think we also tried one with 4 of, but that was too much for a 30 card deck). This didn’t have quite the results we wanted, and just didn’t feel right.

First of all, you had WAY more playable cards than you needed. 45-48 cards seemed like overkill and it was hard to cut it down to the 28-32 of the best. The third pack you drafted felt like overkill as well, and it really felt like it took the “limited” out of the format that is truly needed to make it challenging.

Second thing was the effect that there was no skill or decision in building around the best Main Character that you drafted. If Thanos was in your choice of 3-4 Main Characters, you just HAD to play him, because you were assured to have the Locations in your deck to always make him work. Same with other powerful characters like Star-Lord and Dark Phoenix.

We went back to making room for the Basic Locations in the Cube draft and this put the challenge and tension back into drafting that a “limited” format needs. Now if you have Thanos as one of your characters to build around, you really have to stay on top of your picks – do you pick the only Academy you’ve seen so far in the draft, or do you pass it up for Goblin Queen hoping you’ll get the Academies you’ll need for BOTH later on? With having to draft your Basic Locations, a better built Iron Man deck could beat Thanos… THAT is what Limited formats should be!

Everyone has the same “chances” to open bomb cards, but even then, a well drafted deck with tons of synergy can beat bomb cards. Now skill is as important as card quality. Finally we felt that VS. had a quality Limited format. We’ve only been able to do a handful of full 8-man drafts, casually, but I’m really fiending for more. So I’ve recently reached out to Mark at Upper Deck to suggest using the Cube Draft format for Win-A-Box events at conventions. It really would be a perfect fit! It’s a small 8-man event, where players don’t have to bring any cards and the Cubes can be built using the just the Marvel Sets so far.

There are no promises now, but he is looking into it and seeing if it is something they can do. So if you think it’s a great idea, be sure to mention it on the Facebook group to let Mark and Upper Deck know that you’d be interested!

For the future of Cube drafting, it only gets better. So far the 8 teams in the cube are from Marvel Battles, Defenders and A-Force. I think 8 teams is the perfect fit for 8-man drafts, so I’ll wait for more properties to be released before trying out Xenomorphs and Company in a cube. If Predator is released, it’s an obvious choice to bring into a non-Marvel Cube, but there’s always space for designing Cubes with some of the Marvel Teams mixed with Aliens, Predator, Big Trouble in Little China or whatever they come up with.

With the next set being Marvel Legacy, the Cube I have made will only get better as it adds more cards for the existing 8 teams. I’ll be sure to update it as soon as we get a full card list spoiled! My favorite cubes from Magic and WoW are ones where there is only one copy of each card. By necessity, we’re using 2-3 copies of most cards, but I really like the highlander feel of one-of cubes. It makes drafting even more challenging. (There may always be room for multiples of some cards that have Swarm, tough to make drafthing those arch-types viable)

Thanks for reading, and give the Cube format at try and let me know what you think! Stay tuned for more Gleaming the Cube articles where I’ll update as new sets come out and throw together Cubes built with new teams and even some around themes.