I learned about Battle Box from Dave Williams around GP Las Vegas 2013. I don’t remember if my first games were at the GP itself, or a few days prior at EFro’s or Dave’s house. Dave didn’t claim to have invented it, only renaming it Battle Box, crediting the creator as Brian Demars who named it Danger Room. I saw he recently wrote an article about it, and was taking credit for inventing it which no one else seems to really be challenging, so I would assume it was his creation. I did see in the comments of his article some people claiming that it is similar to some casual formats that have previously existed. I don’t doubt that to be the case, but ideas are generally not completely new. If you take an existing idea, put in a few innovations, or even just one that vastly improves it, then you deserve the credit. Feel free to think of me as a champion of the format but as far as I know Brian is the creator and Dave independently renamed it Battle Box from Danger Room.
If you follow me on Facebook or are friends with me you have probably heard me complain about powerful Magic cards. I don’t get them and perhaps I never will. Why does anyone find it fun to win a game of Magic with something their opponent couldn’t answer through any set of plays? To me, a game won or lost to a single card that was completely overpowered is just a wasted game. If it’s a tournament, I don’t feel bad—I’m just playing the cards I opened or drafted, or the best cards available in Constructed, and the goal is to win. But I don’t feel proud of myself either. If I beat Kai or Finkel in a game where they could have won through different plays, but I bluffed in some damage I needed, or made plays that made them believe I had something I didn’t, then they played around what I represented, and I won because of that. I feel proud of my victory. If I beat them with cards no set of plays they could have made could have answered, then it might as well have been anyone. I’m not ashamed that I drew way better than they did, but I can’t feel proud of it either. The cards drawn and not the decisions made determined the outcome.
Battle Box for the most part (nothing is perfect) gets rid of these wasted games.
Battle Box creates a scenario where almost every game of Magic is a good game of Magic. Sometimes you will lose, and if the cards had come in a different order you would have won. You still draw a random card every turn. However, if you wanted to play around what your opponent has and increase your chances of winning, you will be able to. Cards are roughly the same power level, and no one ever gets mana screwed or flooded, so the vast majority of games come down to the decisions you make.
At the start of every game you have a land pile. It has 5 Guildgates and 5 basic lands. The Guildgates need to have the colors evenly distributed—2 of them need to produce black, 2 blue, 2 red, 2 green, 2 white. This gives you the ability to produce 3 of any one kind of mana. These are the only lands you get (though you could probably toss a nonbasic land into the box if you thought it would be particularly interesting, but I haven’t tried that yet).
Every turn you can play 1 land from this separate land pile. This means you are never screwed or flooded, and you have to choose whether to play one of these comes-into-play tapped lands or a regular basic land which comes into play untapped. It’s not the biggest decision in the world and the game revolves around spells, not the ability to cast them (hence no screw or flood), but even this can be fairly strategic as you are playing a 5-color deck with spells that can cost double or even triple of the same color. I purposely put in Leatherback Baloth because I think it puts players in interesting spots when their hand has a lot of double-color, non-green cards and the Baloth.
The spells are a stack of your own design. I find it best to split the stack so that you and the opponent both have your own library. This allows for cool abilities like fateseal and scry to be played the way they were designed. Cards like Impulse are fine and actively good for the game, but I don’t include cards like Worldly Tutor because the stack of cards can be quite big, and searching and shuffling your library becomes burdensome.
I like to start with 4 cards in hand, while I believe Demars created it with the starting hand size of 6, and otherwise the format follows the regular rules of Magic. You draw 1 new card every turn, just like in a normal game. One land a turn, and you have many options since your first 4 cards and every card you draw from there on is a spell. That results in no mana screw, no mana flood, and lots of awesome games. I once played William Jensen a single game that last around an hour and a half (and we are both pretty quick players), and on the final turn he had me at 1 life dead the following turn and I drew a Counterspell to stop the instant he had saved or drawn that was going to keep him alive to kill me, and was able to attack for the win.
Everyone has different power levels in their Battle Boxes. Mine is unsurprisingly low. I think Magic is at its best when you can tap out without worrying about your opponent using a card to draw 4 cards or make you discard your entire hand. I avoided anything that would provide 3 plus cards without anything your opponent can do about it. I add the last part because there are plenty of symmetrical wrath effects—if you get blown out by one of those, it’s your own fault. And that’s really the point here. If you think your opponent is holding back and can put him on a wrath, now you can gain an advantage by attacking and not overcommiting because it’s not like he has Sphinx’s Revelation and will win anyway. If he doesn’t have the wrath though and does have some slightly more expensive, more powerful spells you may have hurt your chances of winning by holding back. Welcome to playing real Magic, where your decisions matter.
When deciding what to include in my Battle Box, that’s what I wanted. I wanted an environment where you can freely tap your mana without fear of outright losing the game, where the power level of the cards is around even, and where the cards are decision-intensive. I also like to have little creatures to get the pressure going. Wild Nacatl is one of my favorites. You don’t want 1-drops that are completely dead in the late game, since you almost always get there. But his drawback of forcing you to play basic Forest, basic Mountain, basic Plains over the first 3 turns can be quite large since you are playing a 5-color deck with double-blue and double-black spells in it. So most of the spells and creatures are meant to be interesting and get the action going or give you and the opponent options. For example, one of the most controversial cards in my Battle Box has been Undead Gladiator. Some say he is too good and he indeed is quite powerful, but everyone draws a spell every turn. He gives you choices. Do I play this mediocre spell I’ve drawn (and most are), or do I cycle it through him and take the chance of getting something worse?
If you find a card to be more powerful than interesting, you should almost certainly cut it. The beauty of the Box and one of my motivations for writing this article was hoping to get some great suggestions on new cards to add to my Box and cards that might be too powerful that I should cut. It’s been my favorite format of Magic to play and I hope you enjoy it as well, here’s my current list: