Battle Box 101
Magic is a very complicated game. So complicated that there is a real risk of alienating new players by sheer overstimulation. If you think growth is good for the game, this is an important thing to address.
Over the years, I have often tried to get friends and family interested in playing Magic. Sometimes that worked, but the friends who have stuck can only be described as hardcore board gamers. Many others have tried once or twice only to decide that Magic was not their game. I find it hard to believe this is because Magic is not fun enough (that would clearly be an outrageous conclusion), but I can certainly see learning it takes more investment than people are willing to make. Wizards has from time to time come up with introductory products, but never with great success. They now finally seem to have it solved with the Duels of the Planeswalkers video game series, which really allows players to get familiar with the game in an accessible and fun way. But, unless you want to tell your friends to go home and play Duels for a few weeks, that doesn’t really help you if you’re looking to teach your friends Magic while having a bit of a social evening as well. Enter Battle Box 101.
When I first read about the Battle Box format about a year ago, one of the first things I thought was that this would be a great way to teach new players the game. You only need one box of cards, you can tune it so you can explain the game in some depth and you have complete control over the level of complexity the new player will encounter. Optimistically, I put the project “under construction” from the day I launched this site. Other priorities have meant that I have not been able to provide a decklist until now, and I would like to apologize to anyone who has been waiting a long time for this. I hope it will prove to be worth it.
The concept behind Battle Box 101 is simple. It contains straightforward, easy-to-understand cards that nevertheless showcase the most important aspects of the game, so a new player can discover Magic without being overwhelmed. This means there is a high percentage of vanilla and french vanilla creatures (Magic slang for creatures with no abilities or only keyworded abilities), as well as many often used game mechanics such as drawing cards, returning things from graveyard and destroying or exiling things.
I wanted the Box to be suitable for someone’s first game, but also to provide a player with enough knowledge and confidence that they can go to a prerelease or other non-competitive event. Unfortunately, these two target audiences are far apart, and making one Box to suit both proved impossible. Luckily, there was a relatively simple way around that issue: I divided the Box into two parts, which I dubbed “levels” (see the cardlists below for details). In level 1, only the most basic mechanics and combat keywords are included, while in level 2 the more complex evergreen keywords and game mechanics are added. Giving the Box two entry levels made it suitable for a much bigger range of “new” players.
In my own box, I have given the two levels slightly different sleeves to make it easy to sort the levels between games. This gives players a little bit of information about the game that they shouldn’t normally have, but I personally feel that in a game with new players this slight advantage will make almost no difference. That said, I think it is totally legitimate to use one type of sleeve and spend a bit more time sorting the Box if that’s what you prefer.
Level 1 – Absolute Beginners
Level 1 of the Box is meant to teach players who have no previous Magic experience. I have tried to leave out most things that could be confusing to new players and have only included the most basic combat keywords (flying, trample, first strike, lifelink, defender, haste and vigilance) plus some cards that manipulate different zones (hand, battlefield and graveyard but not yet exile or library) or influence the board in other ways (tokens, global P/T bonusses and some combat tricks). All other things, of which there are many, will make a first appearance in level 2. Clearly, the depth of gameplay with such a limited set of abilities will not be what the average Magic player is used to, but I have made an effort to balance level 1 so that even more experienced players can enjoy playing it.
Teaching Tips for Level 1
If you are going to teach first time Magic players the game, there are some important things to keep in mind:
- New players will not have any knowledge of the correct way to play Magic. During the first lessons, don’t try to explain that Battle Box is not the normal way to play Magic. There will be plenty of time to explain those differences later.
- Magic is really really complicated. Even when most of what we think of as complex has been left out, a beginner will still have a lot to keep track of and learn about. Respect this. Be patient and don’t get frustrated when you need to explain the same thing more than once.
- Try to explain the following basics before you start your first game. You can give more tips and explanations during the first game but nothing is more frustrating than starting a game knowing nothing about it. Don’t worry too much about whether a player really understands all this, you can clear up any misunderstandings during the first few games.
- How to win the game (getting a player to 0 life)
- How the mana system and Battle Box land system work
- The approximate turn order
- The battlefield, library and graveyard
- The difference between permanents and instants/sorceries. You can quickly explain the difference between instants and sorceries, but don’t expect them to understand the importance during the first few games
- Combat mechanics
- Attacking and Blocking
- Damage and lethal damage
- If a player is good at absorbing information you can try to explain the keywords, but you can also explain these during the game
- Some keywords are more intuitive than others. Flying is something most new players will grasp very quickly, but haste, first strike and trample will probably take a little longer. If players don’t understand these keywords, try to find out if they understand the basics underlying the keywords (for example, to understand trample, you need to first understand general combat, power and toughness, damage and lethal damage).
- Play the first one or two games with hands open on the table. This is not to allow you to explain in detail every card the new player has drawn, but rather it allows the new player to freely ask questions about his or her cards when they come up. Try to let the new player figure out as much as possible for themselves.
- Try to let the new player set the pace. If they want to know every rule of every card as they draw it, that’s fine. If they prefer playing first and getting an explanation later, that’s also fine. Try to only correct mistakes if they really hurt the game. If a player plays his Giant Growth as a sorcery during the first few games, just let it happen. There will be plenty of future games to explain these finer points without overwhelming the new player during their first game.
Level 2 – All the Basics
Level 2 of the Box is meant for players who have played games before, either in Level 1 or in some other form (maybe they have played some games in high school or bought an intro pack which piqued their interest). Level 2 introduces the player to most evergreen keywords, including the recently retired Intimidate. The only evergreen keyword I left out is scry, because the Box potentially impacts how that rule works and I’d rather avoid the confusion. The scry keyword is the most Spikey of all the evergreen keywords, and I don’t think it will hurt much if a player needs to find out about it through other channels. I also tried to include most common gameplay actions (like countering a spell, fighting a creature, tapping and untapping permanents, (temporarily) exiling permanents, taking control of a creature, and more). I also included two planeswalkers (Ajani and Garruk); their abilities are easy to understand, and I think it is important that a player knows about the existence and workings of planeswalkers before he or she ventures into the wider world of Magic.
To play a game in level 2, shuffle all the cards in the Box together and play it as one big library. Level 2 cards are not meant to be played separately. Players that have played some games before are no longer only looking to understand, but also want to have a fun game of Magic. The 101 Box is designed to deliver just this while using simple cards that nonetheless touch on all important aspects of the game. If a player has played a few games with the Box and can play games unaided and correctly, they should be ready to discover what else the world of Magic has to offer. Even so, I think the Box is deep enough that even more experienced players might play it every so often, to have a simpler, more relaxed game that will nonetheless take plenty of skill to win. The challenge in Magic is not in who can understand the complex cards best, but in who can see the best line of play in every situation.
Teaching Tips for Level 2
If you are using the Box to teach a player that has played Magic before, keep the following in mind:
- If you are teaching a player who learned the basics by playing the level 1 box, take some time to explain the additional mechanics below. This is a long list and perhaps it seems more difficult to teach than the level 1 mechanics, but once a player knows the basics, new mechanics are absorbed better.
- Double Strike
- Planeswalkers and how the loyalty system and attacking them work
- Unblockable and Can’t Block
- Countering spells
- Sacrificing creatures
- Players that have played the game before are looking for a fun game first and foremost. They also want to learn, but not at the expense of the game. Invite the player to ask questions about the cards they draw, but also accept it when they want to figure things out for themselves. You can always correct a player after he or she has made a play.
- Be lenient. If a player makes a mistake, allow them to take back their actions and try a different line of play, even if this happens several times in a game. Remember, you are still trying to teach this player, even if he or she is already thinking of how to beat you.
Level 3 – Graduating
When a player has mastered level 2 to a satisfactory degree, he or she should be ready to try their hand at other forms of Magic. Perhaps you also own some Commander decks or a Cube that you can teach the player, or maybe the player wants to try playing at the local game store. I would advise players that want to try playing in a more competitive setting for the first time to attend a Prerelease tournament. The atmosphere at these tournaments is generally laid back, and if you indicate that you are a beginning player, most players are more than willing to help you with advice both during deckbuilding and during games. Of course, if you are looking to attend a Prerelease, there are some things you should know on top of what the Box has taught you. Most importantly, you will need to know how to build a deck out of the Sealed Deck pool you will get at the Prerelease. Luckily, the 101 Box can easily be used to teach a player how to build a sealed deck.
To construct a sealed pool from the Battle Box, deal each player 85 cards at random from the Box (a regular sealed pool contains 90 cards, but some of those cards will be lands so a pool of 85 cards most accurately simulates an actual sealed pool). If you want to give a feel of opening packs, you could also give each player 6 packs of 14 cards each; the end result would of course be exactly the same. Now it is time to start building a deck using the cards you have been given. To do this properly, here are some general guidelines that will help a new player get some grip on what’s important:
- First you need to explain how lands work in the non-Battle Box environment. This includes mulligans and the dangers of mana screw and mana flood.
- Explain the basic rules of the sealed deck format.
- Have a player sort their cards into the different colors, and order them by casting cost.
- Let the player choose which colors they want to play. This can be based on personal preference mixed with the power level of the cards in their pool. Tell the player to generally stick to two colors (with a light splash of a third color if necessary) unless the format they are playing has a lot of mana fixing available.
- Explain a little bit about the mana curve and why a player should try to have a mix of cheaper and more powerful spells in their deck.
- Normally, a sealed deck should have 17 lands and 23 spells. Deviating from this ratio is generally a bad idea, as is going over 40 cards. If the Box doesn’t have enough lands in a certain color, just let some unused basic lands be proxies for the basic lands you need.
- For a typical sealed format, having between 14 and 18 creatures in your deck is correct; having too many spells that don’t give you a presence on the board will generally make your deck weaker.
- If you are using different colored sleeves in your Battle Box, the resulting sealed decks will probably be a colorful mix of different sleeves. Just accept this as a quirk of the teaching tool; you are just practicing, so it is not important enough to resleeve all your cards.
I would advise practicing building a sealed pool a few times and having one or two games with each constructed deck. This will give the player a good feel of how “regular” Magic works and what’s important in the sealed deck format. After that, your work as a teacher is done, and your pupil should be ready to try out their wings in the great big world of Magic. Oh, how quickly they grow up…
Some Thoughts on Card Selection
When I was selecting cards for the Box, I was looking for several things. First and foremost, I wanted cards to be as simple as possible. There are great Magic cards that even most advanced players have to read more than once to understand what’s going on. A card like Ice Cauldron is often used as a slapstick example of card complexity on a rampage, but there are far simpler cards that can be confusing to the average player (Norin the Wary and Seance spring to mind). By always choosing the simplest version of a card, I have tried to keep the entire Box below a certain complexity threshold. This doesn’t mean the Box doesn’t contain any exciting cards. Rather, it means that even splashy rares do not always have to have long confusing texts. It also means I sometimes included a relatively powerful effect in the Box – for example, Time Warp is a more powerful card than more recent “take an extra turn” cards like Part the Waterveil and Temporal Trespass, but it is also far simpler and therefor more suited for the 101 Box. If more than one simple version exists, I have tried to stay close to the default power level for that effect. This means I have for example chosen to include Shock over Lightning Bolt even if the latter is a more iconic card; it is just far more likely that the power level of red burn spells will be between Shock and Searing Spear and I think it is useful for beginning players to develop a feel for what they can expect from certain cards.
As always, I’m pretty certain some card choices could have been made differently and probably better, so I urge you to change any cards you feel are out of place – at the very least, the list below is a nice place to start building your own Battle Box 101.
Project Cardlist (280):
Lands (4 sets of 10)
Level 1 Cardlist (120):
Crusader of Odric
Seraph of Dawn
Instants and Sorceries (5)
Instants and Sorceries (6)
Instants and Sorceries (6)
Cyclops of One-Eyed Pass
Instants and Sorceries (9)
Instants and Sorceries (6)
Instants and Sorceries (5)
Artifact Creatures (6)
Level 2 Cardlist (120):
Instants and Sorceries (5)
Instants and Sorceries (10)
Disciple of Griselbrand