Of Pirates and Dinosaurs
Ixalan was touted as the Pirates vs Dinosaurs set. That worried me. I was afraid they would make a childish set with over-the-top storylines. But I must say the set exceeds my expectations. I think the dinosaurs fit into the mesoamerican setting quite naturally, as do the pirates. I can even see the vampire conquistadores, although I like to think of vampires more as meddlers than as conquerors.
It also means that Ixalan is a tribal set, with the unlikely merfolk stepping in as the fourth tribe. Traditionally, tribal sets are not good news for Battle Box enthusiasts, because they command a high level of synergy. High synergy is difficult to achieve with a big communal deck. That said, the tribal synergies in Ixalan are there, but not overpowering. There is plenty of nice things if you are not building a dedicated pirates or dinosaurs deck. So, without further ado, let’s jump in.
Ixalan sees the return of Raid and Vehicles, as well as two new mechanics: enrage and explore. On top of that, we get double-faced treasure lands and legendary planeswalkers. Raid and vehicles are both fine Battle Box mechanics. They require little specific synergy, and Raid even encourages attacking, which is a good thing in a format where the cards are more balanced than usual. As for legendary Planeswalkers, I can’t see this rule change impacting the Battle Box format much. I am curious about when the first all Jace or all Gideon modern decks will pop up.
I like the concept of enrage. Poke a dinosaur with a stick, and see him get angry. I think it will also play well enough, allowing for tricky plays if your Battle Box contains a decent amount of direct damage effects. That said, I am a bit worried about the consequences for the game states. The easiest way to trigger enrage is to hold back a dinosaur and block with it. This may lead players to play extra defensively, which leads to stalled board states and longer games. I think most Battle Boxes should not have more than a sprinkling of cards with enrage in it.
Explore seems a little too convoluted to become very popular. Basically, you scry, after which you may play the card if it is a land, or put a +1/+1 counter on the exploring creature if it’s not a land. As with scry, you get the choice to put it back on the top or bottom of the library. Aside from the long reminder text, explore has its ups and downs for Battle Box. There are no or very few lands in the communal deck, so we should only look at the second half of the ability. This means the creature always gets a +1/+1 counter, and you get to scry. Although scrying can be fun enough in Battle Box, this seems like enough of a devaluation of the original ability that it will not be a Battle Box hit.
Wizards has often attempted to put the concept of quests into card designs. But never before have they done it as well as in Ixalan. I love the treasure lands. Basically, you have the front face, which will give you some effect and then ask you to fulfil some requirements. If you do, you get to flip the card and “travel” to a hidden land. These lands are nothing to sneeze at. There’s a better Gaea’s Cradle, a better Maze of Ith, a Lotus Vale with no drawback, an improved Diamond Valley and six lands that give us new and powerful effects. For Battle Box, I think these lands will be a lot of fun. They can potentially break one of the rules of the Battle Box format, equal mana availability, but they only do this after the player has jumped through some serious hoops. I think the “quest” feel this generates fits perfectly with the Battle Box format. And luckily the hoops are all generic enough that they fit into any Battle Box (except for Thaumatic Compass and maybe Primal Amulet). Kudos to Wizards for a great job done!
The Ixalan Top 20
As usual, I close with what I think are the best Battle Box cards. I must say a lot of these are on the same level, so the ranking is not as important as inclusion on this list. I don’t think there are any real standouts, but there is a lot of great utility and fun to be had in Ixalan.
20. Atzocan Archer
I think this is an interesting incarnation of a creature that fights when it hits the battlefield. Rather than hit hard, it has a large defense, meaning it will survive most fights. On the flip side it only does 1 damage, making it more of a tactical card than a board changer. It can also trigger enrage, so it is definitely in the Ixalan Mini Box.
19. Chart a Course
A cheap draw 2 card that incentivizes a player to attack. As a Battle Box designer, that’s a lot to like packed into one card.
18. Fire Shrine Keeper
Although not flashy, there is a nice cycle of these cards in Ixalan. A 1/1 menace for 1 mana is a fine rate, and the extra 8 mana ability can make a real difference in the late game. I must admit that cards like this usually end up on my cutting room floor, but if you look at Ben Stark’s Battle Box, you can see that Magic minds greater than mine love cards like these.
17. Imperial Aerosaur
A 3/3 flyer for 4 mana is already an OK rate, but giving one of you other creatures +1/+1 and flying makes this good value. No flash, so no combat tricks but still a nice card.
16. Repeating Barrage
Ah, Hammer of Bogardan. How we missed you. This is expensive, but dealing with a threat can be worth a little extra mana if it is the only out you have. The fact that it requires you to attack is gravy for a Battle Box designer. My only real reservation is that you would need 4 red mana to use it on the same turn, which means you will always leave a turn between getting this in your hand and playing it.
15. Run Aground
I included this card because I know there are plenty of players that play with a central communal deck they all draw from. Otherwise boring cards like this get a whole new dimension when the person drawing the next card can be different from the person putting a card on top of the library. If you play Battle Box like that, Run Aground is a card to consider.
14. Sword-Point Diplomacy
Just drawing three cards will cost you 5 mana. So you get a considerable discount, but perhaps more importantly, you get to see your opponent squirm. Paying 3 life per card is just enough to not make this an easy decision, and if you like your Battle Boxes to contain brainteasers like this, I would include this. Don’t put it into a Commander Box, because the cost is not impactful enough to make it interesting.
13. Burning Sun’s Avatar
Three red mana may eventually disqualify this as a playable card, but I think the effect is just right for Battle Box. It will not completely take over a game, and it allows some incidental shenanigans with flickering and other effects.
12. Entrancing Melody
I always kind of hated that control magic effects always cost the same. Early in the game, they would basically be a dead draw because it would be a waste of mana to steal a cheap creature. And late in the game, they would swing the board state so much that they were far too cheap. Making the cost scale with the stolen creature certainly solves this. My intuition says it would be nicer if it would cost 1 blue mana instead of 2, but I’ll trust Wizards’ developers over my own intuition.
11. Kinjalli’s Sunwing
A tiny Kismet attached to a 3/2 flyer. Seems like a good deal for 3 mana. Having one player’s creatures enter the battlefield tapped will encourage combat and will demand an answer, both good things for a Battle Box.
10. Vraska, Relic Seeker
The only planeswalker on this list. Six starting loyalty is huge, but I don’t think her -3 effect is too powerful for the six mana price tag.
9. Captain Lannery Storm
This fun loving captain likes to get into the red zone as often as she can. I think nothing about her is too powerful, and being encouraged to attack (she doesn’t need to connect) is great.
8. Ripjaw Raptor
A 4/5 for four mana is fine, and it’s a body you might want to hold back for blocking anyway. This will reward you with a card for each successful block. It could be that this promotes a stalled board, but I think it isn’t impactful enough for that.
7. Search for Azcanta / Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin
Getting threshold without a deck specifically built for that takes longer than you would imagine. But even without the treasure land, getting the option of keeping or burying the first card you draw is powerful enough.
6. Captivating Crew
It took them a loooong time to come up with this card. Now that it is here, it seems so obvious. I think this card is a great design, although I am usually wary of including cards with high activation costs as activating it is only rarely the correct play. But I think stealing a creature for a turn is just impactful enough that this will work.
5. Siren Stormtamer
A 1/1 flyer for 1 is OK, but not that great for Battle Box. However, allowing you to keep 1 blue mana open to counter anything aimed at you or your creatures is quite potent. This will make quite a few opponents scratch their heads.
4. Marauding Looter
A 4/3 for four mana is fine, and being able to loot every time you attack with a creature makes this a nicely balanced card. Note that it doesn’t have to be the Looter that attacks.
3. Legion’s Landing / Adanto, the First Fort
Getting a 1/1 lifelinker for 1 is fine. Attacking with three creatures is challenging, but not exactly hard. Getting a repeatable creature token for your troubles is nice but not overpowered. In short, I think it is perfect.
2. Sunbird’s Invocation
A nice red chaos card. Unlike many other chaos cards it is mostly upside. Because the cards return to the bottom of the library, the effect does not wear out the communal deck. It is quite expensive, so it will need to stay in play for a few turns before it starts paying for itself. But after that, the upside is huge.
1. Vance’s Blasting Cannons / Spitfire Bastion
It should be no surprise that a treasure land tops this list. I really love them. I think getting another card to cast each turn is quite potent. On the other hand, casting three spells in one turn can be a real challenge in Battle Box. Doing a repeatable 3 damage to creatures or players seems a fitting reward.
I think Ixalan was a fine Battle Box set. Don’t forget to check out the Ixalan Mini Battle Box, which is built around the set’s Pirates and Dinosaurs!
Bonus Top 10: Commander 2017 edition
Because I have been very busy with a third child added to an already full house, I did not get round to writing an article about Commander 2017. As Commander 2017 is a tribal set and as a consequence not that interesting as a set, I will just give you my top 10 this time. Let’s hope next year brings us a Commander set with a little more Battle Box oomph.
10. Bloodforged Battle-Axe
Multiplying Battle-Axes seems like a fun effect. I am a bit worried about having to pay 2 to equip each Axe, though.
9. Disrupt Decorum
A card strictly useful for multiplayer boxes. Getting all your opponents’ creatures to attack anyone but you seems like a fun effect. Sit back and watch what happens!
8. Fortunate Few
This is a nice riff on cards that have been done before. Instead of choosing one of your own permanents to keep, you choose one of your opponent’s permanents. This will make it more likely that all the most powerful cards leave the table, plus it opens up some opportunities for deal-making.
7. Crimson Honor Guard
I’m not sure this effect will be much fun, but I commend Wizards for trying to come up with yet more ways to make Commanders relevant. Forcing players to play their Commander can be useful, especially if you have ways to remove them again. Obviously for Commander Boxes only.
6. Ramos, Dragon Engine
He will grow quickly, so this is only suitable for high powered boxes. Not exactly an exciting card, but surely one you would be happy to draw.
5. Shifting Shadow
Another mediocre effect that makes this list because it is a fun red chaos effect. I guess my preferences are showing. Choosing whether to play this on your own creature or your opponent’s may not always be an easy choice.
4. Mairsil, the Pretender
I would only consider Mairsil as a Commander in a Commander Box. However, if you have enough artifacts and creatures with activated abilities in your box, I think he can be a lot of fun. There’s not a lot other players can do to prevent you from stacking up abilities, but it will take a bit of time to set things up.
3. Mirri, Weatherlight Duelist
On offense, she can help push through damage as your opponent can only block with one creature. If you manage to protect her, she will also work for you on defense, only allowing your opponent to attack with one creature. I don’t think she is quite strong enough to be a Commander, but you could include her in a two player Battle Box.
2. Fractured Identity
Get rid of a permanent that is causing you trouble, and give yourself one in return. Unfortunately, your other opponents will also get one. I think this would be too powerful for standard Battle Boxes, but it’s an exciting card in a multiplayer box.
1. Stalking Leonin
Although his body is far from impressive, he has a great multiplayer effect. People will be more reluctant to attack you (certainly with their strongest creatures) if they might just lose them. This means they will attack each other as long as the Leonin is alive. I really like subtle political effects like this, earning mister Leonin the top spot.