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Design

A Guide to Battle Box

April 26th, 2022 — Anthony Mattox

Battle Box is a unique twist on Magic. It’s a self contained way to play, perfect for picking up quick games between rounds or wherever you have a friend and a few minutes. The format removes resource variance and highlights novel card interactions and board states, making it great for casual players and spikes alike.

How to Play Battle Box

A Battle Box consists of a set of spells, including any and all kinds and colors, and a set of lands for each player. Players draw from the shared deck of spells, and can play a land of their choice each turn. Land sets typically include one of each basic land and five tapped dual-lands. The starting hand size is 4 cards. Since you always have lands and spells and evaluating hands can be challenging, no mulligans are allowed.

Plains
Island
Swamp
Mountain
Forest
Coastal Tower
Salt Marsh
Urborg Volcano
Shivan Oasis
Elfhame Palace

A box doesn’t need to be a particular size but are generally 100 or more unique cards. They can be as large as you like and more cards means more variety, but at the cost of portability.

Battle Boxes are self contained so they don’t need to follow any structure strictly. These rule sets and suggestions are a solid baseline, but designers have full freedom to experiment. Everything from the particular lands included, how the shared deck is used, and, of course, the spells included is up to the designer.

Building a Battle Box List

A Battle Box can contain any cards you like, but the altered rules, and common gameplay goals, affect the play patterns and power level of the included spells. As a result, there are some categories of cards that work well and some that are typically excluded.

Typical Structure

While it doesn’t need to be precise, boxes usually include a roughly equal distribution of colors. It’s nice to see a variety of colors and effects, and, in theory, a very lopsided list would eliminate some of the decisions around sequencing lands and give an advantage to players familiar with the list.

A flat power level is generally preferred. Wherever the average power of the box lies, cards don’t deviate too much, so players don’t win or lose on the back of a single power outlier, whether that’s an overwhelming threat or a dead draw.

Lists are almost always singleton, including only a single copy of any one card.

White

Cenn's Tactician
Benevolent Bodyguard
Kitesail Cleric
Loyal Pegasus
Whitemane Lion
Kor Skyfisher
Fencing Ace
Cavalry Drillmaster
Grateful Apparition
Angelic Page
Fairgrounds Patrol
Trusted Pegasus
Makeshift Battalion
Stonecloaker
Bant Battlemage
Leonin Battlemage
Scout's Warning
Ephemerate
Shelter
You Hear Something on Watch
Slaughter the Strong
+2 Mace
Dancing Sword
Barbed Spike
Gryff's Boon
Sentinel's Eyes
Spirit Mantle

Blue

Wingcrafter
Cloudfin Raptor
Stormscape Apprentice
Shipwreck Looter
Looter il-Kor
Jeskai Elder
Man-o'-War
Frost Trickster
Academy Drake
Esper Battlemage
Archaeomancer
Sage of the Falls
Syncopate
Twisted Image
Censor
Miscalculation
Think Twice
Into the Roil
Peel from Reality
Radical Idea
Teferi's Time Twist
Startling Development
Complicate
Thirst for Knowledge
Bubble Snare

Black

Dreadmalkin
Child of Night
Doomed Dissenter
Reassembling Skeleton
Brain Maggot
Liliana's Devotee
Nantuko Husk
Ravenous Harpy
Wakedancer
Doomed Necromancer
Fleshbag Marauder
Grixis Battlemage
Thallid Soothsayer
Keening Banshee
Manticore
Ulcerate
Tragic Slip
Fungal Infection
Vicious Offering
Murder
Unearth
Bone Shards
Bloodchief's Thirst
Murderous Compulsion
Wander in Death
Ichor Slick
Stir the Sands
Dead Weight

Red

Monastery Swiftspear
Thunderscape Apprentice
Abbot of Keral Keep
Dismissive Pyromancer
Burning-Fist Minotaur
Rimrock Knight // Boulder Rush
Stormblood Berserker
Fireslinger
Underworld Rage-Hound
Goblin Smuggler
Jund Battlemage
Merchant of the Vale // Haggle
Arcbound Tracker
Khenra Scrapper
Boggart Brute
Enthralling Victor
Barge In
Lightning Axe
Shock
Thrill of Possibility
Fists of Flame
Lightning Strike
Fiery Temper
Stoke the Flames
Go for Blood
Alchemist's Greeting

Green

Thornscape Apprentice
Almighty Brushwagg
Wasteland Viper
Nessian Hornbeetle
Pollenbright Druid
Scrounging Bandar
Treetop Ambusher
Jade Mage
Naya Battlemage
Yavimaya Sapherd
Loathsome Chimera
Arlinn's Wolf
Yeva's Forcemage
Reclamation Sage
Overgrown Armasaur
Arrogant Wurm
Giant Growth
Verdant Rebirth
Band Together
Saproling Migration
Smell Fear
Hunt the Weak
Kenrith's Transformation
Fungal Plots
Rune of Might
Feral Invocation

Other

Ravenous Squirrel
Qasali Pridemage
Goblin Legionnaire
Applied Biomancy
Depose // Deploy
Gingerbrute
Metallic Mimic
Perilous Myr
Juggernaut
Zephyr Boots
Alchemist's Vial
An example Battle Box list. View on Cube Cobra
Common Restrictions

There are a few types of effects that are generally excluded because of the structure of the format and some that go against the nature of removing resource variance.

Effects that search or shuffle the library are generally excluded. The deck may be large and include many cards players are unfamiliar with, so Demonic Tutor can be impractical and daunting. Excluding tutors is also in the spirit of keeping the games quick and accessible.

In line with removing the variance of land draws, Battle Boxes typically don’t include any mana acceleration or land destruction. Players can rely on being on an equal footing with their opponent in terms of mana.

Synergy and Build-Arounds

Without constructing decks, players don’t have control over the cards they play together. Cards you’d think of as a “build-arounds” or highly synergistic in a normal environment are difficult to support. This includes explicit synergies like life gain, discard, or tribal mechanics, as well as more emergent synergies like cards that only function well in very aggressive or controlling decks. The power level of these kinds of effects is lower, sometimes considerably, and often makes them not great fits.

For cards that are synergistic, their effectiveness is shifted from the player, as in a typical draft, to the designer of the Battle Box. For example, in a particular box the density of spells can be balanced so Talrand, Sky Summoner is at an appropriate power level compared to the rest of the cards included. The format gives designers the power to fine tune interactions and how particular cards play.

If there are specific synergies you’re interested in that require a density of effects, another option is to build a whole box around one or a few themes. Just keep in mind every game will be a mirror match!

Prioritizing Flexible Cards
Bant Battlemage
You See a Pair of Goblins
Kitesail Cleric
Nantuko Husk
Metallic Mimic

Similar to the effect on synergistic cards, players aren’t building a focused deck to prioritize the early or late game. Flexible cards that are meaningful in your opening hand or when drawn late in the game give players options and reduces feel-bads from drawing the wrong card at the wrong time. Consider effects that scale with the game like kicker and creatures with a variety of forms of evasion.

Some effects more supported in Magic as a whole than others. “Lifegain matters” operates on a pretty narrow axis, but “power matters” easily interacts with other effects like +1/+1 counters, equipment, and combat tricks.

Accounting for Never Missing Lands

Because players always have lands to play, more expensive cards get a noticeable boost in power. In a typical game of Magic you’re unlikely to have your sixth land on turn six, and cards are designed and balanced with that mind. Changing the rules means expensive spells become disproportionately more powerful.

Adjust your power level evaluations and consider slanting the power curve so your cheap spells are impactful and choose less extreme options as you go up the mana curve.

Mana Costs

It’s worth considering the color requirements of cards in addition to their total mana value. When playing with all five colors, players can be put in a tight spot and be punished arbitrarily for drawing high devotion spells they happen not to have played the right lands to cast. Color demanding spells can also make casting multiple spells a turn a challenge. I’ve found more success and enjoyed the small amount of sequencing tension that comes from prioritizing low devotion cards.

Like most things, this can also be turned into a feature. Some lists intentionally include difficult costs ({G}{G}{G}) to reward players for going all-in. In either case, be aware of the hard limits on resources. With the typical set of lands, players can never have more than 3 mana of a given color.

Considering Built in Card Advantage

With free lands and only spells in the deck, players effectively draw many more cards over the course of a game, as every turn you get to draw a card normally and play a land from outside the game. This has a substantial effect on gameplay and introduces a few considerations.

Card that draw multiple cards become much more powerful. Players are always drawing “action” and always have mana to cast the cards they’ve drawn. With other resources fixed, card advantage becomes a major axis of competition. Straight card draw spells also don’t fit the feel of the format especially well. Normally players make choices about card draw balancing the importance of tempo or value in a given deck or match. In Battle Box it can just feel like an extra step that happens to put a player ahead in an important resource.

Having access to more cards is another great reason to emphasize cheaper cards so players don’t end up with a glut of cards stuck in their hand. Plus, having plenty of cheap cards and casting more of them is fun!

Card Selection

While card draw may not be desirable, some card selection can be. Players are drawing a variety of cards it’s up to them to formulate a plan for how to use them. Even if the designer has focused on keeping the power level flat and cards relevant, players will still fom different plans around their cards each game. Having some access to card selection, including looting, modal spells, and cycling gives players more opportunity to play towards a specific gameplans.

Scry, Surveil, and similar effects can have the same effect if you plan to play by splitting the box into two separate lists. With the shared library, these effects offer a different, very novel, experience.

Logistics

A battle box has a few components: the deck of spells, at least two land sets, and potentially tokens. Sleeving each land set, the deck, and tokens in different colors makes it easy to set up and pack up. If portability is a goal, reducing the number of unique tokens, or excluding cards that make tokens altogether, cuts down on necessary pieces and speeds up gameplay. A box needs at least two land sets, but a couple of extras let you play multiplayer games or multiple two-player games at once.

Rules Details

If you want to get technical, start with lands outside the game and the rule “players can play lands from outside the game”. Players can choose to play any of their available lands and are still restricted to playing one land on each of their turns.

Plan to either play with a shared library or by splitting the box into two decks. The shared library has a nice effect on the feel of the game: making it immediate and almost no setup. It emphasizes that players are equally at the whims of the box, but it does change how cards that manipulate the top of the library function. It can be a fun thing to explore, or may be something you’d prefer to avoid by excluding these cards or splitting the deck.

If the list includes effects that shuffle cards back in the library consider beforehand if you want to simplify this effect. You may prefer to replace those effects by putting cards on the bottom of the library instead to keep things quick with a large library.

Cards are considered ‘owned’ by the last player to draw them which is usually intuitive. If you Threaten and then Unsummon a creature it returns to the player who cast it.

No other rules are altered, so the maximum hand size and graveyards work normally. Cards go into the graveyard of the player that ‘owns’ them.

Variations

There are countless variations on Battle Box. Even without changing the rules, there’s a ton of design space to explore just in what cards are included, including focusing on different themes or embracing top-deck manipulation. Common variations include excluding particular colors and changing which lands players have access to.

Another variation replaces the land set with the ability to play any card in your hand as a land. Logistically you can either play cards face down as lands, or exile a card from your hand to play a land from outside the game. Removing the land sets simplifies the Box and gives players even more control over their hand. It does add considerable complexity by turning every cards into a modal card.

Build a Battle Box

Battle Box quickly became one of my favorite ways to play the game. The ‘fixed’ mana is by no means fixing the game — the variance and risk-reward tension of building mana bases is part of the fun of Magic. Battle Box highlights other aspects of the game. It can’t be beat as a portable, quick way to casually sling some spells. Like Cube, It’s a great opportunity to make use of cards you love that might not have a home otherwise and construct an environment that plays into something you love about the game.

More Battle Box Resources
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Nightscape Master — Andrew Goldhawk