I know it has been a while since I have shared new projects with you. That is all about to change. In this article I’ll be introducing a new type of Battle Box, as well as sharing the first few lists with you.
The Trouble with ‘Best Cards’
I love the Battle Box format. But like most formats, Battle Box also has its weak points. One that stood out to me is that Battle Boxes tend to play very similarly. I think this is easily explained. Like Cube, the Battle Box format has its favorites. Now, Battle Box is a bit younger and less widespread than Cube, but there is still a kind of collective opinion on what are good Battle Box cards and what aren’t. This is a logical byproduct of sharing things over the internet, but it does mean that Battle Boxes all tend to play more or less the same. If you ever visit sites for the Cube community, you can see what this eventually leads to; at some point there will be a ‘best’ Battle Box composition for different Battle Box sizes, and format experts will dismiss suggestions by lesser experts on the grounds that the existing choices are generally better. And while that may be true, it misses an important point. Battle Box, like Cube, is a closed environment. It doesn’t matter if the cards in a Box are not the best possible cards, so long as they play together well. Of course, both Battle Box and Cube enthusiasts know this, but it is so tempting to consult the Internet when you are looking for a card to fill a certain hole in your project. Cube enthusiasts have solved this issue by making Modern cubes, Pauper Cubes, Legendary Cubes and other variants to prevent the format from becoming stale. Obviously, we could make these variations in Battle Boxes, but I wanted to take it one step further.
Thinking Inside the Box
Deck building restrictions are great. For a long time, casual Magic used to be like Standard or Legacy but with bad decks. Then a group of judges devised the Commander format and casual Magic is now just as creative and diverse as any other Magic format, arguably much more so. How did Commander (or rather EDH, but let’s not split hairs) do this? It gave very strict deck building restrictions to players thereby not only ensuring that players had to be creative to make their decks work but also that each deck was almost guaranteed to be different from the next deck. And perhaps even more importantly, giving players tough restrictions limits their choices and makes the number of cards a player needs to sift through much more manageable. This means restrictions do not make it harder to build a deck, they actually make it easier. Now, Battle Boxes are slightly different because you don’t want players to construct their own wacky Box but rather you want to provide your players with a good Battle Box experience. Still, I was certain I could find an inspiring restriction that would work for the Battle Box format. And then, as I was sorting through the chaff from the Shadows over Innistrad booster box I bought for drafting, it hit me. What if you make Battle Boxes that can only contain cards from one specific Magic set? That way, you can piggyback on Wizards of the Coast’s ability to create good limited environments, and be more or less assured that each Battle Box will have interesting interactions. What’s more, if you’re a bit like me, after the release of each new set you’ll be drafting and cracking packs, and you’ll have a lot of commons and uncommons lying around that you would rather find a use for than just stick them in a trade binder. By making a Battle Box of a set, you’ll give those bulk trades a lot more value.
One Set, One Box
Because the average Magic set is only 250-300 cards, the number of cards that are suitable to include in a Battle Box will limit the size of the Battle Box. After some experimentation I set the size to a Dragon Shield Commander deckbox (which in my experience holds around 125 sleeved cards if you pack them tightly). After leaving room for lands and tokens, this meant that each Mini Battle Box could contain 90-100 cards, which fits well with the number of playables in the average Magic set. I intend to make two players the default for these mini boxes, but you could add a third player if the set is more multiplayer focused. Just remember that each potential player you add costs you about 10 cards in your Box. Normally, 90 cards gives you around 30-40 turns of play before the deck runs out (accounting for extra card draw, looting and other top-of-library manipulation). Barring some extreme games, 30-40 turns should ensure there are always enough cards in the communal deck. The small size does mean that games played with each mini Battle Box will actually play more similarly than games played with a normal Battle Box, but the whole point is that you will build more than one mini Battle Box and switch between them to keep games fresh and interesting.
Some Thoughts on Mini Box Construction
I have made quite a few mini Battle Boxes since I stumbled upon the idea, and I wanted to share some findings with you. The first thing I discovered is that it is fun to try new things and explore the uniqueness of each set, but you want to keep your mana curve conservative. Having too many one-drops or too many six- and seven-drops will just lead to bad gameplay, regardless of what the character of the set is. This may be slightly different for a set that is heavily focused on ramp (like Rise of the Eldrazi), but I’m afraid that just means those sets are less suitable for a Mini Battle Box conversion. After all, most ramping means land manipulation and searching decks for land cards, and those mechanics are just a horrible fit with the Battle Box format. My advice is to keep your mana curve balanced towards two- to five-drops, with the emphasis on three- and four-drops. Now, on to what you can change. The elements that most define a Magic set are its mechanics. As with all Battle Boxes, some mechanics just lend themselves more for Battle Box play than others. To take Shadows over Innistrad as an example, skulk is a great Battle Box mechanic and it works equally great in the mini Battle Box. An ability like madness is not a great fit for the average Battle Box because it relies on synergy to be good enough. However, in a mini Battle Box such synergy is much easier to achieve. Wizards of the Coast made sure that madness was suitably supported in Shadows over Innistrad and with only 90-100 slots to fill it wasn’t difficult to include enough madness enablers for it to be fun. On the other hand, some mechanics like the werewolves are a bad fit even for the mini Battle Boxes. Because cards are drawn from a communal deck, you expect any werewolves to be evenly distributed among players. So, if werewolves are transformed, on average this would help all players equally. Furthermore, players draw a constant stream of playable cards, which means that any transformed werewolf will usually not stay transformed for long. This gives us a problem. If some colors in a set are heavy on ‘werewolf’ type mechanics, there may only be so many cards of that color that can be included in the Battle Box. For example, my final Shadows over Innistrad list contains only 7 green cards in total, while it contains around 20 red, black and white cards. This was partly due to the Werewolves and partly because green’s generic ramping is another bad fit with the format. Normally, you would compensate for this by searching elsewhere for green cards that do fit, but unfortunately, limiting yourself to only one set doesn’t give you a lot of room for compensation. I decided it would be better to just let some colors be underrepresented than include mechanics that just wouldn’t work or water the quality of the whole Box down. If you want to put a positive spin on this, you could say that color imbalances give a further differentiation between mini Battle Boxes.
Please have a look at the Mini Battle Box project page for links to all current mini Battle Boxes. As time goes on, I will be adding new lists to the project page, so be sure to check back regularly if you are looking for new inspiration. I will be back next week with a set review for Eldritch Moon. Until then, may you appreciate the small things in life.