Battle Box is my all-time favorite way to play Magic: The Gathering. Not surprising, since I basically created the format to facilitate the kind of games that my friends and I most enjoyed playing! No mana screw. No mana flood. Just sit down and play some MTG!
I recently acquired a bunch of sweet Alpha, Beta, and Arabian Nights cards at a great price. I was showing my little stack of treasures to my brother at a family dinner last week, and I could tell that looking at the old cards gave him a little nostalgia. He was pretty good back in the day, but hasn’t tapped an Island for mana in 10 years.
My first thought was: I should build some decks with old cards to battle with him one of these days. Then it hit me. I could build a Battle Box of all old-school “back in the day” cards.
I couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me sooner.
There were a few things I needed to consider before putting my stack together: Which cards would I include? How would I construct the mana? How many cards?
I spent about a week crunching the numbers and considering my options, and here is what I came up with:
The Old-School Danger Room
One of the big innovations of the original Danger Room was the mana system. For those who don’t know, each player starts with one of each basic land and one of each Allied ETB-tapped dual land.
Both players draw from a shared stack of spells and can play one of these lands from outside the game on each of their turns.
For the OSDR (Old-School Danger Room) I decided to go with the classic all 10 dual lands.
Next, I had to decide on the power level for my stack. There is a very, very wide gap between the most powerful old cards and the rest of the pack. In particular, the Power 9 cards like Ancestral Recall and Time Walk are pretty gross.
One of my favorite aspects of Battle Box is that it allows me the opportunity to play with cards I love from the past that no longer have a home in Constructed Magic. I wanted to make the landscape fun and interesting to highlight some of the cool cards that rarely see play anymore, rather than simply highligh how much better Ancestral Recall is than everything else.
I do believe that there could be a different version of Old-School Battle Box that has Moxen and Power in the stack that could be very fun. It would certainly be flavorful.
My earliest memories of playing Magic were pretty old school, but didn’t have a lot to do with the Power 9. We opened packs of Unlimited and Legends, but we didn’t open any Power 9.
Fun fact: I read that when Magic was initially designed that Richard Garfield didn’t believe that the overpowered spells like Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall, and Time Walk were particularly problematic. They identified that these were by far the most powerful cards in the game but their vision of what Magic would be was very different from what it became.
They assumed people would only buy a small, finite number of cards to play with, and so among a group of friends playing the game there might be one or two really powerful cards floating around in a group. Those cards would potentially be swapped back and forth between players through the ante mechanic. The way that Magic is now, where it is unfathomable to play with anything but the ideal constructed deck, is not how Magic was in the olden days.
I guess they underestimated a couple of things: First, how fantastic the game was and how much people would love it, and secondly, how much people love to collect stuff.
My goal with the Old-School Battle Box was to compile a collection of cards that were fun, enjoyable, and nostalgic to play with, and so far I feel like I’m on the right track.
Specifics of My Stack
There are a few specifics I want to get to before I unveil my list.
1. I decided to select cards from Alpha, Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends, The Dark, Fallen Empires, Homelands, and Ice Age.
So technically, my list is from 1995, but I felt adding Homelands and Ice Age brought a lot to the table.
2. I decided to leave some of the most powerful cards on the bench.
It’s kind of surprising how little card advantage there is in early Magic. It is, however, the most powerful effect in the game. These cards are obviously great, but they tend to dominate games in uninteresting ways.
3. Land destruction is in!
There isn’t a ton of land destruction but there were certain spells that felt awesome, iconic, and important. Some of these cards destroy lands.
The rule that I’m currently using (that I’m happy with) is that if a land is destroyed, it goes back to your outside-of-the-game land pile and it can be replayed.
I’d love to find a way to include:
4. Mana Ramp
I added a few mana ramp spells to the deck to try out, which I don’t typically allow in Danger Room:
I didn’t go so far as to jam a Sol Ring or Moxen. I’m trying some new things, and these cards all felt fine. They feel Old School and that’s what counts.
The stack is 210 cards with 100% balance with regard to colors.
- 30 cards of each color
- 30 artifacts
- 30 gold cards (3 of each Allied color pair, 3 of each Allied shard)
5. 5-card starting hand size. Maximum hand size=9.
6. Shared top of library.
Both players play from the same stack of cards and there are a few cards that allow you to manipulate the top of the library:
There is no real way to abuse this and it feels harmless and fun. A cool little dynamic. Plus, I wanted to play with Brainstorm and, yes, it is probably the best card in the stack.
First Few Play Throughs
I’ve only had my stack together for a couple of days, but I’ve really enjoyed it so far. It plays pretty smoothly. I’ve already started tuning it!
My first ever opponent was my brother with whom I haven’t played a game of Magic in years. I stopped by his house after work and said, “I’ve got this stack of old Magic cards—let’s play.”
I wasn’t really sure how it would go or if he’d even be particularly interested, but I thought I’d give it a shot. It paid off. The biggest compliment came after three games. I asked if he wanted to take a break from Magic and watch the new Rick and Morty and his response was, “Nah, let’s play another game.” I’m pretty sure we played at least 10 games! It was an absolute blast to find a version of Magic we were able to enjoy playing together.
Who could possibly resist the allure of playing an actual Elder Dragon?
I’ve always wanted to teach my dad and girlfriend how to play, and I’m fairly certain this will likely be the way I introduce them both to playing Magic. There is really something magical about those early Magic sets. The cards have so much imagination and character.
Old-School Danger Room Stack
Here it is.
Swords to Plowshares
Greater Realm of Preservation
Order of Leitbur
Order of White Shield
Order of Sacred Torch
Wall of Swords
Wrath of God
Blue Elemental Blast
Old Man of the Sea
Dance of the Dead
Hymn to Tourach
Order of Ebon Hand
Howl from Beyond
Ashes to Ashes
Feast of the Unicorn
Red Elemental Blast
Brothers of Fire
Sisters of Flame
Two-Headed Giant of Foriys
Eron the Relentless
Elves of Deep Shadow
Master of the Hunt
Stream of Life
Rod of Ruin
Horn of Deafening
Wand of Ith
Ring of Renewal
Just saying… The Elder Dragon Legends are pretty hot sauce in here. They are really powerful.
I’m not even close to finished with this Old-School Battle Box. I’ve been playing for the past few days straight and I’m not even close to bored. If anything, I’m even more interested in trying to make the stack better.
I’m really interested in hearing about cards I may have missed. I’m sure there are some goodies out there that I didn’t think of. Be sure to drop those suggestions into the comments!
I love the old cards, because playing with them never gets old.