Thinking Outside the Battle Box

Battle Box is a solid concept that deviates enough from traditional Magic that it could effectively be its own game. In an alternate world where Magic: The Gathering didn’t exist and we had Shampoo the Lathering, I could easily see playing this type of game on my tablet or as an LCG.

The complexity of MtG makes this format interesting enough to play for a long time (not to mention being incredibly customizable), and it’s just flat-out unique from normal MtG formats.

This comes from the biggest change to the formula—how Battle Box handles land drops and a mana system. It’s an approach now popularized by Hearthstone, where you simply get a mana a turn until you hit 10 mana. After that, you don’t get anything else.

Where Battle Box deviates is that it doesn’t throw out the concepts of land drops, mana curves, or color requirements. In the past, many of these self-contained formats have tried things like, “any card in your hand can be a land” or “everything is a rainbow (5c) land,” and so on. Box gives you the guarantee of hitting your land drops while not taking away the decision making.

My friend Mark has had a Battle Box for a long time, and it has changed quite a bit. Not only its cards, but its rules as well. Many of these changes were made through League-style play, with 8 players and three rounds of Swiss, and repeat the process. This has produced not only more games, but also ones that were played a little more seriously.

So before I go deeper into creating your own Box, I want to highlight a few of our rules that deviate from the norm.

1) Enemy-colored lands

This is a pretty simple change, but giving players the choice to have allied or enemy-color lands is a nice preference. Depending on how you build your Box, there may be a minor advantage to having one set of lands or another, in which case you can also tie that into going first or second. In our Box the player on the draw has the choice of lands they want.

2) Replacing Guildgates with scrylands

This was one of the major changes we wanted to try after a couple of Leagues. We just felt there could be more going on with the lands.

One issue with the original Box was that unless you had a bunch of landfall cards or a specific interaction (Bloodghast comes to mind), there was just no reason to “hold lands” after a certain point. In slower Box builds, it was often incorrect not to just jam your Guildgates at the earliest opportunity, and it was rare to have an aggro curve strong enough to throw off your midgame or end up constrained by color.

By adding the Temples and their scrying power over Guildgates, you not only add another layer of consistency, but also of decision making. You can have no cards that are directly affected by late-game land drops and still get some value out of holding one “just in case.” In the games where both of you exhaust most of your resources in the midgame this can make a game altering difference.

3) Applying a partial mulligan

We’ve frequently been at odds with the original “you don’t need mulligans!” rule in the format for a while and looking for a good solution. A free mulligan was often too extreme and time consuming, but having a hand of three expensive cards and only one early play wasn’t a lot of fun either. The original intent is correct—the majority of hands you get out of the Box should and will be playable. The problem is that borderline hands are often the most boring and least decision driven.

I wanted to try something different, and having just come from Hearthstone and noting the similarities in the mana system, I wanted to give Hearthstone’s partial mulligans a shot.

Under those rules, you can pitch any number of cards from your starting hand to draw that many new ones.

Simply put, it lets you put more conditional cards in the Box and not all of them need to have cycling or an alternative cost anymore. It also allows you to better craft a plan game to game instead of being locked into a set of actions. The goal wasn’t for everyone to freeroll perfect hands—the fact that you only have four cards helps with that—but rather that you could choose to build an opening around something.

Example: You have a 1-drop and 2-drop creature, your other two cards are a Disenchant and a 6-drop. Odds are pretty good that if you’re locked into that, your first two turns are deploying your creatures and then hoping for the best. Partial mulligans allow you to try to better support that early aggro start, or if you think the early creature plan isn’t that strong anyway, pitch those cards. You can even hedge and keep the 6-drop and pitch your conditional spell, hoping you don’t get jammed up later.

Unlike Constructed, there are few unbeatable curves, and because the cards in your Box should be similar in power level, mulliganing happens a lot less than you think. The most common mulligan number I’ve seen is 1, followed by 0.

Now I fully admit that this is a recent change, and that with more experience it could lead to a problem. But I think it plays well with the overall theme of trying to improve consistency and creating a lot of micro-decisions in each game.

Building Your Own

Once you’ve laid your ground rules, it’s up to you to decide how you’d like your Box to play out. The one we started from was too grindy for our tastes, and over time it cut down on sweepers and underpowered utility cards. As we got better with it, we noticed how bad cards like Loam Lion were, so the majority of creatures that were just a pile of stats remained only if they could stay relevant later in the game. Otherwise, they were replaced by similar aggro creatures with a little more depth, likeevasion or an ability.

Slagstorm is the perfect example of a card that some people will love some will dislike with a passion. 3 damage is enough to wipe most of the creatures in the format, which means that aggro draws are completely dead to it. Meanwhile, it remains relevant in the late game, but with less investment than Day of Judgment or Black Sun’s Zenith, which means that there are often scenarios you can wipe, play a threat, and still have mana left over to protect it.

The key isn’t that this type of Magic is bad, only that these types of cards (along with general power level) are going to determine how your Box plays out.

If you’re interested in this type of card-by-card analysis, I’ll take Mark’s Box and go over some of the reasoning and particular choices. Whether or not you use these specific rules, try out Battle Box. It’s a significant departure from an everyday game of Magic.

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