Magic is an amazing game. You know it, and I know it (or else why in the world are you reading this?) Whether you play competitively or casually, constructed or limited, EDH or cube, it all boils down to playing the base game in a fashion you enjoy. Unfortunately, sometimes games don’t go as planned. Mulligans can lead to aggravating losses. Land light draws and land heavy draws can lead to equally frustrating games that fail to register highly on the fun scale. We have all heard (and told) the bad beat tales and “if only” stories. Well, what if I told you that there is a quick and easy format that tries to erase all of these bad feelings? WHAT IF this magical leprechaun of a format eliminated land screw and flood? WHAT IF this Nessie of a format took in place in a world where you never mulligan? WHAT IF this Bigfoot of a format featured some of your favorite cube and draft cards from across Magic’s history? WHAT IF this Chupacabra of a format meant you always drew a spell – every turn? I know you don’t believe it…WELL BELIEVE IT. I give you Battle Box!
Hopefully many of you have already heard of this format. The legends speak of Mr. Brian Demars descending from on high with a format that he called “The Danger Room”. He wrote about it recently and you can find his thoughts on it here. It really took off recently when it was introduced to limited specialist and hall of famer Ben Stark. Stark spoke reverently of the format and even released his list which can be found here. Both players have unique lists and thoughts on the format, but let me give a quick rundown of the basic concept. I tend to agree with Stark’s setup, but you may want to try Demars’ rules variant as well.
What’s in the (Battle) Box?
- A Battle Box is a collection of cards that are roughly even in power level. The numbers of individual cards in a battle box will vary, but at least 200 cards is the best place to begin. This will allow for multiple games without reusing the same cards too consistently. Mine is currently over 300, while others are far larger.
- Each player is given ten lands: 1 of each basic land, and 1 of each allied guildgate. Players may play one land per turn. There are no lands in the Battle Box beyond these. There will also be no land destruction/disruption in the box.
- Separate a similarly sized stack of cards into two decks. The Danger Room variant sticks with one deck, nut cards like Preordain require two decks. Scrying and deck manipulation is much more difficult when every card is a spell, so I hate to lose out on them by using a combined library.
- Each player starts with four cards in hand. This may sound low, but if you start with more than this, you will end up discarding cards by turns four or five in games with likeminded individuals.
- While I mentioned that the cards should be even in power level, the power level is a personal decision. Demars suggests cards that are easy first picks in draft that aren’t exactly bombs. Personally, I have tried to stick with effects that don’t surpass Divination in overall value. The idea is that there shouldn’t be cards like Sphinx’s Revelation to make games lopsided. This rejects a number of popular build around cube favorites, but it makes for consistent gameplay.
- The only cards that break this rule are wrath effects. There need to be a few to address aggressive draws. Make sure players know that they are in the box, so players can adjust accordingly.
- Lastly, you play Magic.
Why Battle Box?
First and foremost, the things I mentioned in the introduction are true. You will never have mana issues. You will not need to mulligan. No one is going to draw their bomb that is obviously much more powerful than anything your deck could do. This leads to amazing and interactive games. Ben Stark discussed the idea of having games that don’t feel negative afterwards. Sure, someone loses, but generally due to the way they played. That is truly the key here.
I have fallen in love with this format due to the great and pure games of Magic that it supports. Since we eliminate the games that everyone complains about, the leading factor in a loss is you. Sure, sometimes your opponent will draw the right card at the right time, but you can play around just about anything. The box presents essentially every type of trick and removal spell in existence. You quickly learn to prepare for multiple scenarios. Longer games are mentally taxing and truly satisfying. You will be able to trace where you lost, and outplaying your opponent feels like a true achievement. I may be overstating this to some degree, but it is truly a great experience.
In addition to the great play experience, this format is easily transportable. It is the perfect in between rounds format for large tournaments. 20 minutes left on the clock? Time to battle! The whole thing fits in one average sized box and is perfectly simple to transport. It is quicker than both cube and EDH, while also being just as enjoyable, and in my opinion, even more so.
Honestly, I feel like I am retreading what has already been written about the format to some extent, but I want to share this awesome format with even more people. Additionally, there is another aspect of the Battle Box that has become apparent to me recently. It is an awesome teaching tool. I have been using it to play games with my wife. The games are quick enough that they are easy to chain together. It has been a blast getting to play more Magic with her, and it has been equally impressive watching her improve. The first weekend that it was built I was something like 20-1 against her (#HumbleBrags). This is obviously a higher percentage than in cube or other formats because we had taken some of the drastic variance away. Soon though, that percentage was crawling back towards the middle as she recognized interactions and looked to get the most out of her cards. This format is an excellent way to teach card advantage, tempo, planning multiple turns ahead, and more. Essentially the skills that make the best Magic players are all learnable and repeatable with the Battle Box. A Columbus player & parent and I even discussed creating a simpler box as a way to teach kids. I don’t think you need to go and build the Portal box, but the idea is intriguing.
Designing the Battle Box
The design of the Battle Box has been the most enjoyable part of this experience for me. Many of my friends have some pretty awesome and diverse cubes, so I do not have much of a reason to create one. This format has been a fun way for me to dig through Magic’s history. I personally started my design based on Ben Stark’s list. This can be found in the article linked above or on Cube Tutor. I definitely made some changes to his list. There were a few cards that seemed underpowered, and I did not like his use of multiple cards with the infect mechanic. From there I went to Brian Demars’ list and picked over some the interesting and balanced cards there. There were a number of cards in his list that I wasn’t a fan of as they seemed to break the good uncommon rule. Cards like Prime Speaker Zegana allowed for the wild swings that I felt the format shouldn’t have. Once I had a good base, I then tried to balance the colors to some extent. Blue still has the largest presence, but I wanted to ensure that both players had access to consistent card draw. I have worked to try and reduce the amount of redundant effects and card types, though there will obviously be some overlap. The most interesting part for me was finding unique effects that led to fun and challenging board states. While you can ostensibly design your box in any fashion, there are some choices I would strongly suggest:
- Be careful of cards that say target permanent. This format is not meant to have land disruption and destruction. Cards to stay away from – Confiscate, Boomerang, Capsize, etc.
- Be wary of mana ramp effects. Again, cards like Birds of Paradise break the parallelism that the format should have.
- Avoid tutors if possible. The cards should be balanced enough that tutors will be unnecessary time sinks.
- Look for mechanics that are fun and interactive. For example, I am a big fan of the Domain mechanic because there is a decision tree based around your land sequencing. That being said, I try to avoid broken cards like Collective Restraint. Additionally, I try to avoid mechanics like Hexproof. I even experimented with a few Shroud cards that I felt were fun (Neurok Commando), but even these can take over a game.
- I try to stick to the Divination rule. Mulldrifter and Citanul Woodreaders fit this idea. Cards that are better than 2 for 1s can be too powerful. Obviously you can add pushed cards, but be careful of cards that are making games lopsided. As I mentioned above, I think wrath effects have their own necessity despite possibly breaking this rule. Learn to play around and with them!
Even after following these guidelines, there is still a ton of room to explore here. I am going to continue advocating this format in the hopes of playing some exciting and unique boxes. Players with all levels of experience and sizes of collection can build these, and I hope they do!
I hope you explore this format or find someone that has. If you see me at any events in the Columbus area, I will likely have my Battle Box with me, and I will be looking for some sweet games in between rounds. I will end the article with a thank you to Ben Stark and Brian Demars for bringing a great format to light, and I will post a link to my own list for everyone to peruse. You can find it here.
Thanks for Reading
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