Battle Box, Commander Style
In this article, I try to combine the two casual formats I love the most into one fun format, which from now on I will dub Commander Box.
After having played my regular Battle Box many times, both in a duel and a multiplayer setting, it became clear that the flat power level and relatively low board impact of each individual card made the Battle Box perfectly suited for a duel, but much less for a multiplayer free-for-all game. As most of the games in my play group were either free-for-all or star multiplayer games, this needed to be addressed. As I was thinking about what a multiplayer Battle Box needs, I started to realize that it would not be that difficult to combine the Battle Box with my other favorite format: Commander. In that way, you would combine the defining elements of the greatest multiplayer format with the defining elements of the Battle Box. Hopefully, this would give us the best of both worlds; a Commander Box format with all the crazy high powered cards that make Commander great as well as the fairness and variety of the Battle Box format. My initial idea was simple: in addition to the communal deck there would be an additional communal Commander pool from which players would choose their Commander at the start of each game. After that, normal Commander rules would apply. Except of course they wouldn’t. Well, sort of. Let’s dive in.
Commanding the Box
Let’s start by quickly breaking down the defining elements of the Commander format:
- Each player brings one Commander to the game (besides a 99 card singleton deck). A player’s Commander has to be a legendary creature or a planeswalker that specifically states it can be used as a Commander.
- A Commander has a color identity, which is determined by all colored mana symbols contained within its casting cost and its rules text. For example, Olivia Voldaren‘s color identity is black and red, while Tasigur, the Golden Fang‘s color identity is black, blue and green.
- A player’s deck may only contain cards whose color identities are limited to the colors within his or her Commander’s color identity. For example, a player playing Olivia Voldaren may only play spells that are colorless, black, red, or black and red. Additionally, a player’s lands cannot produce any mana except for colors that are part of his or her Commander’s color identity.
- Each Commander starts play in the Command Zone. The Commander’s owner can cast the Commander from the Command Zone.
- Whenever a Commander is exiled or dies, the owner may choose to return the Commander to the Command Zone.
- Each time a player casts the Commander from the Command Zone during the course of the game, two colorless mana is subsequently added to its Commander Tax (which starts at 0). Whenever a player casts his or her Commander, that player pays its casting cost plus its current Commander Tax. This means the Commander will get more expensive every time it is recast from the Command Zone.
- Players start the game at 40 life. However, when a Commander has dealt 21 damage to a single player over the course of the game (regardless of that player’s life total), that player loses the game. This is called Commander damage, and is very important to keep accurate track of during a game.
Besides this, Commander uses its own banned list, which I will not repeat here. If you want to learn more about the Commander format, please visit www.mtgcommander.net, the official site for the format.
Rules Were Meant…
Not all of the Commander rules match up very well with the Battle Box rules. Because Battle Box uses a communal deck, enforcing the color identity rules would be very clunky. Players would draw cards they would not be allowed to cast, so the game would have to invent some rules to replace any cards players draw that do not fit their Commander’s color identity. Although that might be technically possible, it seemed it would not be worth the hassle. The color identity rules do a few things:
- Give each Commander a distinct identity, not only because of its own abilities, but because of the limitations it puts on which other cards could be in the deck.
- As a consequence, provide more variety between games.
- Provide a deckbuilding challenge.
However much I love a deckbuilding challenge, the whole point of the Battle Box format is to not worry about building a deck. Also, having a 200+ card communal deck will provide plenty of variety between games. The distinct identity is a little more difficult, as without the rules for color identity the only thing distinguishing one Commander from another are its own abilities. I still felt that this wasn’t enough to enforce color identity as a rule, but I did decide to include Command Towers in the land sets to pay homage to the original rules. Also, I made sure the Commanders in the Commander pool had outspoken and distinctive abilities.
The other Commander rules I followed as closely as possible. Players start the game at 40 life, the Command Zone rules are the same as in a normal Commander game, as are the rules for Commander damage. The only other change I made was to the Commander Tax rule. Because in Battle Box each player’s mana production is capped by the lands available in the land sets, I decided to put a maximum on a Commander’s total cost. A Commander can never cost more than 12 mana to cast, regardless of its original mana cost or its current Commander Tax. This way, playing your Commander always remains an option even if it will eventually always cost you all your mana to cast it.
Diving into the Pool
To determine which Commander each player will start the game with, each player is dealt four cards from the Commander pool before the start of the game – from these, each player selects a legendary creature to be their Commander for the game. As the Commander Box contains 5 land sets, it should have a minimum of 20 Commanders to accommodate all players. To find the Commanders I wanted to include, I started scouring card databases for legendary creatures that met the following criteria:
- They were cool
- They had a stand-alone ability that didn’t rely too much on synergies.
- They weren’t overpowered.
Most overpowered Commanders are overpowered because of the possible synergies they provide (e.g. Zur, Kaalia, Rafiq) but are actually quite reasonable with a communal deck; in fact, Rafiq made it into the final 20 as you’ll see. Still, it did mean that Commanders like Edric or Skithiryx were off limits, because they provide too much power without relying on narrow synergies. I selected the Commanders to have a nice spread of abilities. For example, I didn’t put Teneb, the Harvester and Lim-Dul the Necromancer and Geth, Lord of the Vault into the Commander pool as their abilities all play in the same area. In this case, although Geth is probably the cooler card, I didn’t want to put too much milling into the box so I went with Teneb. I will probably keep tinkering with the Commander pool as new sets come out (also because more than any other part of the Battle Box the Commander pool can get stagnant quite quickly). I like the mix as it stands now, but after playing with the box a bit it is already clear that some Commanders are always picked over others. I haven’t decided yet whether the ones which are always picked must go or the ones which are never picked, or possibly both; in any case evolution of the pool is inevitable.
Ramp It Up
For the land deck, I made two significant changes to my regular Battle Box: First, I took out all the allied duals and replaced them with a second set of basics. Secondly I added two lands: Command Tower and Transguild Promenade (you could use the functionally identical Rupture Spire if you prefer). The main reason I decided to leave out the duals is that they led to too much bookkeeping and generally added a lot of complexity to a board that was already prone to complexity. The other two lands were added to allow for the bigger spells that make Commander such a fun format and also to allow for spells with triple colored mana costs (which are not castable with only two sets of basic lands in the land sets). I toyed around with the idea of including one or two artifacts that produce mana in the land deck but ultimately decided against it.
During the first few games with the Box, it took a while each game to get to a place where we felt we were having fun. If you look at how a typical Commander game runs, this is not surprising. In most Commander games, players will spend the first 3-4 turns ramping up their mana and little else. In the Battle Box format, where mana ramp is intentionally left out of the deck, this meant the first 3-4 turns were usually spent doing nothing. And little else. To repair the issue (admittedly with a sledge hammer), we began starting each game with a set of five different basic lands already in play. Although it did take a little getting used to, it worked like a charm. All our games were at full speed from the first turn, and the 40 starting life provided enough of a buffer to mitigate early differences in card quality between players. It’s all hands on deck from turn one, and that’s quite a refreshing way to start a game of Magic, especially Commander.
What’s in the Box?
Having sorted out the Commander Pool and the land sets, I needed to build the communal deck. The Commander box has a slightly different philosophy from the original Battle Box, in that I wanted to encourage large swingy board states (which is one of the big reasons why Commander is such a great format). This meant the power level couldn’t be as flat as it was in the original, but I tried to balance that by making sure there were plenty of answers available to most cards in the box. Also, because my box is intended for multiplayer use, politics usually tend to mitigate power swings anyway, which makes imbalances in the individual power level of cards less of an issue. I did impose some deck composition guidelines for myself, which I mostly managed to stick to (if you’ve read any of these Battle Box articles before, please excuse me for sounding like a broken record):
- No ramp or land destruction. Even though mana producing artifacts are a mainstay in Commander, I found that starting with five lands in play provided enough ramp and I didn’t want otherwise bland mana artifacts clogging up communal deck space.
- Little card draw. Drawing too many cards quickly creates imbalance, especially because every card you draw is a “live” card (there are no lands in the deck). This for example meant I didn’t include Narset or Edric as one of the Commanders even though I think they are otherwise cool Commanders.
- No milling. Running the deck out too quickly might become dangerous in drawn-out games. Also, milling is a very synergistic activity, and is mostly useless without graveyard recursion or other things to take advantage of it. The deck just didn’t have enough graveyard recursion to make milling worthwile.
- No library manipulation. No searching for cards, very little filtering and no shuffling of the deck. All these would be far too cumbersome to be any fun with a deck of this size.
- No tucking effects (putting a Commander on the bottom of the deck). Tucking a Commander under a 200+ card communal deck is no fun for its owner, and I also wanted to be able to sleeve up my Commanders in different sleeves so they could easily be recognized.
I have tried to make popular Commander archetypes play a role in the box. Green has big fatties, white has board wipes and tokens, black can kill and reanimate, blue can clone and control and red has its share of dragons and combat fun. I tried to include many Commander staples, but I stayed away from any cards that just win the game on the spot (like Insurrection or Overwhelming Forces)
I started this project as an experiment, and I really had no idea how it would turn out. The result ended up to be an insanely fun format, which I will be playing again and again and again. I know the decklist is not exactly budget, so it may not be the easiest project to get together. I do believe in the value of using legitimate Commander staples, but I can only encourage you to swap out some expensive cards that you don’t own for similarly cool Commander cards that you do own. I’ll leave you with the decklist as it is at the time of the writing of this article. As new sets come out and I get new insights into the workings of the Commander Box, things will change, so be sure to check the Projects page for an up-to-date decklist.
Project Cardlist (290):
Lands (5 sets of 12)
Commander Pool (20)
Aurelia, the Warleader
Darien, King of Kjeldor
Intet, the Dreamer
Jalira, Master Polymorphist
Kamahl, Fist of Krosa
Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
Marath, Will of the Wild
Marchesa, the Black Rose
Medomai the Ageless
Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath
Prossh, Skyraider of Kher
Rafiq of the Many
Rakdos, Lord of Riots
Riku of Two Reflections
Teneb, the Harvester
Vorosh, the Hunter
Xenagos, God of Revels
Angelic Field Marshal
Archangel of Thune
Archon of Justice
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
Knight-Captain of Eos
Instants and Sorceries (8)
Instants and Sorceries (11)
Avatar of Woe
Demon of Wailing Agonies
Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
Kokusho, the Evening Star
Instants and Sorceries (13)
Army of the Damned
Reign of the Pit
Rise from the Grave
Rise of the Dark Realms
Spoils of Blood
Diaochan, Artful Beauty
Homura, Human Ascendant
Scourge of Kher Ridges
Scourge of the Throne
Instants and Sorceries (4)
Arashi, the Sky Asunder
Bane of Progress
Champion of Lambholt
Instants and Sorceries (5)
Instants and Sorceries (7)
Sword of Feast and Famine
Sword of Fire and Ice
Sword of Vengeance
Tatsumasa, the Dragon’s Fang