Cube Design – Grid Drafting and More

Today, we’re going to tackle one of the most important aspects of Cube ownership: getting the most out of your cube when you only have two or four players sitting around the table. Before I built up a play group, I spent a lot of my early days playing Winston and Winchester drafts, but they never satisfied. For lack of better options, I designed my own formats. Below I present two original draft formats, Grid drafting and Tenchester drafting, that have been tried and tested by the Cube community.

The Old – Winston and Winchester Drafting


For those unfamiliar, Aaron Forsythe and Tom LaPille have written great primers on the Winston and Winchester draft formats. In LaPille’s article, he even does us a favor and describes in detail some of the flaws of Winston drafting. While the two formats play quite differently, they both share an unfortunate trait—the decks they produce are complete abominations.

The term “decks” here may even be generous. To illustrate, let’s take the following thought exercise. Imagine you and a friend are given 90 cards for a two-man Team Sealed event. From these 90 cards, you must build two separate decks and sideboards. Already a daunting task, assuming you can perfectly allocate the appropriate cards to each player. Now pretend that, after building your decks, you and your buddy must randomly exchange about 35% of each of your cards with each other, and rebuild accordingly.

What you’re left with is usually a clunky pile of cards with barely enough playables to fill out a three-color, 40-card list. Terrible quality decks are the rule rather than the exception with Winston and Winchester drafting. It can’t really be helped. It’s the nature of drafting from a 90-card pool. Using my own Cube’s proportions as an example, a typical 90-card pool would contain about:

12-13 cards of each color
9 artifacts
11-12 lands
7-8 gold cards

The nature of Winston and Winchester drafting means that you’ll end up incidentally taking a good number of cards from each color. In most cases you’re forced to pick three colors and jam nearly every card to even reach 23 playables. Aggressive decks are virtually impossible to assemble, and consequently most games deteriorate into “Dragon Magic,” won by slow expensive bombs.

The traditional remedy has been to increase the size of your card pool beyond 90 cards. Winston drafts, however, are already tiresome, and a larger pool accentuates that. Moreover, adding more cards does not address the fundamental issue—it’s an exercise in taking value piles until you have enough playables to build a deck with.

With this in mind, I hit the drawing board to create some new drafting alternatives.

Grid Drafting

Whenever you set out to improve upon an existing idea, it’s very useful to specifically identify elements that you feel held the old design back. To date, nearly every draft format has hinged on an assumption that the players must collectively draft all the cards opened. Most Limited formats originated from the concept of opening booster packs and trying to use, “every piece of the buffalo.”

Cube, like any other draft format, excels when decks are driven by synergies and interactions rather than raw card power. Cube lists are filled with cards like [card]Crystal Shard[/card], [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card], and reanimation spells that hinge upon interactions with other effects to make them useful and interesting. When using a 90-card stack, often you simply wouldn’t have access to enough cards to make synergy-based strategies worthwhile.

As we don’t have the burden of buying booster backs, the need to allocate each and every card to a player isn’t present. What if the players were able to draft about 45 cards each, while seeing a much greater number of cards?

Enter Grid drafting.

Grid drafting is a two-player format that works as follows:

• Start with 18 packs of 9 cards.
• For each pack, lay it out in a 3×3 grid face up (just lay them out in order, don’t look at the cards and decide where each one should go).
• The first player takes a row or column.
• The second player takes a remaining row or column. Discard the undrafted cards (which will be 3 or 4 cards per pack).
Alternate who goes first each pack.

By the numbers, each player will end up drafting between 45 and 54 cards from the total 162-card pool.

Grid drafting, first and foremost, is an interactive hate-drafting format. Every pick requires you to balance maximizing your own deck’s power while minimizing the potential power of your opponent’s deck. With each pack you look to take a slice out of the grid that leaves your opponent without favorable options.

To help visualize, I generated some sample grid packs:

The actual drafting process is very exciting. The first player will try to set the tone with their initial pick, but by no means is the second player obliged to follow. It’s a two-player format, so feel free to step on each other’s toes and brawl over colors and archetypes. If your opponent opens by taking a particularly themed row or column, you can do the same in pack 2. Generally, the opening four or five packs will see both players jockeying to leave themselves open to a deck that is well positioned against the other player.

As far as the archetypes go, most any deck from an 8-man draft is fair game. However, certain archetypes are not without their risks. I’ve seen reanimator decks and nearly mono-color aggro decks put together, but both require some luck, both in terms of the contents of your 162-card pool and the order in which the cards are revealed. Narrow archetypes are extremely fragile and easy to hate out in this format, so I generally recommend a two- or three-color variant on one of Magic’s classic archetypes: aggro, midrange, control, ramp, and tempo.

When drafting, keep in mind that you only need 23 playables. Also, as all information is public and you have just a single opponent, there’s not much use for sideboard cards. You can simply include the cards that will be good against your opponent in the main deck. With 18 packs, this means that we’re okay with only getting one playable per pack a fair amount of the time. Also, if a pack or two is completely blank on your colors or archetype, you have the ability to compensate later. Keep these numbers in mind as you balance between choosing playables, fixing, and hate-drafting.

And hate-draft aggressively! Two-man formats are a zero sum game, and the tactics don’t have to be pretty as long as you walk out with a “W.” If your opponent is on a Dimir deck, and a column flops filled with juicy blue and black cards, don’t hesitate to snag it.

To give you a sense of the power level of Grid draft decks, I’ve included a sample Bant midrange below. In this particular draft my opponent was playing Junk colors, so there was a fair bit of fighting over cards the entire session.

This was not the most powerful or streamlined deck ever Grid drafted, but it certainly had some play to it. I have the unfortunate habit of jamming [card]Augur of Bolas[/card] and [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] in decks without a sufficient density of spells, and the fortunate habit of not being punished for it. In this particular match [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] recast [card]Mana Tithe[/card] and [card]Path to Exile[/card] in a single game. The screenshot also reveals how pitiful my MODO collection is.

Four-Player Grid Drafting Variant

After the format’s initial positive reception, many players requested a four-player variant. Here’s what I recommend:

• Instead of 18 packs of 9 cards, use 16 packs of 15 cards.
• At the start of each pack, lay out the first 9 cards in a 3×3 grid.
• After the first player selects a row or column, replace those cards in the grid with three cards from the pack.
• After the second player selects a row or column, replace those cards with the remaining three cards from the pack.
• The third and fourth players pick their cards as usual.

• The player who chose their cards last in one pack chooses first in the next pack.
• After 8 packs, change the drafting rotation (from clockwise to counter-clockwise).

A four-player draft will have a much lower emphasis on hate-drafting. Additionally, as you now use packs of 15, this format can be used to draft retail sets with only four players.

Tenchester Drafting

The next draft format was originally designed as a four-player format, motivated by a general dissatisfaction with four-player booster drafts. I found that the drafting process lacked tension. Players would settle into their segments of the color pie, and very little fighting over cards occurred. Generally you could figure out which colors were shared and which you mostly held to yourself. This led picking cards from the shared colors early and intentionally wheeling other cards or gold cards.

Another issue is the fact that the second half of each pack tends to be filled with garbage that nobody at the table wants. This phenomenon has led many people to draft 5 packs of 9 cards instead of 3 packs of 15 cards. While this change does slightly (and only slightly) alter the dynamics of the draft, its main purpose is to spread around the misery so you don’t face six or seven miserable meaningless picks in a row. It’s the Cubing equivalent of an automated voice message interjecting every 30 seconds to say, “Please hold, your call is very important to us.” Nothing really changes, we just break up the misery into smaller and more numerous chunks.

The tipping point for me came when we ran a draft one evening, and somehow I was the only player in red. It was easily the most boring draft of my life.

For Tenchester drafting, my goal was to create a format where the decisions were difficult and engaging even if you weren’t fighting with your neighbors for cards. Here’s how it works:

• Make 36 10-card packs.
• Lay out the first pack. The first player picks a card, then each player follows in turn. After all players have selected a card, discard the remaining six cards and lay out a new pack.
• The person who selected last in the previous pack selects first in this pack. Continue drafting in the same direction.

• Continue until all packs have been drafted.

Tenchester is a format with little margin for error. You only have 36 picks with which to put together 23-24 playables and whatever fixing you need as well. The driving force behind these drafts is internal rather than external tensions. You’re constantly faced with simple but challenging decisions. Take a fetchland or a counterspell? Library manipulation or a finisher? Unlike say, Rotisserie drafting, the tension of Tenchester comes from the fact that whatever cards you pass up on each round are gone forever.

What I’ve found is that Tenchester is skill-testing and difficult even when played virtually solitaire. You have to make the most of each pick while keeping in mind your deck’s desired final composition. Tenchester decks, when built well, are more powerful than 8-man draft decks. Additionally, truly any archetype your Cube supports can be built and/or forced in this format.

For comparison, here is another Bant midrange deck, which I put together during my first Tenchester draft:

Again, a fairly generic and somewhat flawed build, but when it produces opening hands like this, who can complain?

[draft]Wooded Foothills
Flooded Strand
Deathrite Shaman
Path to Exile
Snapcaster Mage
Stoneforge Mystic
Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/draft]

Some considerations:

• With an entire Cube at your disposal, the planeswalker density can be disproportionately high. I would consider cutting some out if I planned to Tenchester draft on a regular basis.
• It’s important to make sure the players make their picks at a reasonable pace. Ideally the picks in each pack should happen pretty quickly after the first player has made their selection, as all the cards are publicly viewable. One draft, we had a couple players who over-analyzed each pick, and the draft took ages. In the final pack, a RW aggro player faced a choice between [card]Stromkirk Noble[/card] and another card, and started counting how many Humans we each had drafted.

Two-Player Tenchester Variant

Just play it with two players!

Assorted Other Formats

One of my personal favorite formats is 2v2 Team Sealed. It’s just Team Sealed, where each team is given 9 packs of 15 to make two distinct decks and sideboards. The format requires a lot of cooperation and communication, and the deckbuilding presents a fun social problem-solving challenge.

Alternatively, I also play “2v2 Team Sealed” when it’s just two players Cubing. In this case, each player is given 9 packs of 15 and has to build two decks from the pool.

Wrapping Up

These formats have been very positively received by the Cube community, but as always there’s still endless room for innovation. My personal advice is to keep in mind the fact that not every card in your pool needs to be drafted, and try to leverage that fact to create unique and fun decisions for your players.

Happy drafting!

4 thoughts on “Cube Design – Grid Drafting and More”

  1. Pingback: » Cube Design – See the World

  2. Pingback: Alternative Limited Formats: How to Dominate

  3. Pingback: » Grid, Tenchester, and Cutting a Color from the Cube

  4. Pingback: Cube Draft Format Primer via /r/mtgcube | brandybradham

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