A Boy and His Box: What’s in the Box?

We have a difficult task ahead of us. We need to capture the fun, and feel of Commander inside a 400-card Limited format. You'll noticed that I said "we", that's because I'm recruiting you to help me. If there’s one thing that Magic Players are good at, it’s critical analysis — I’ve read enough posts in the r/magicTCG/ sub-reddit to know that. It’s my hope that after reading about my goals, and checking out the list at the end of the article, that you’ll weigh in with your opinion in the comments. Am I on the right track here? Did I leave out important cards? Before we get to that, I’m going to repost the rules for Commander Battle Box from my last article as a refresher.

  • Each player starts the game with a land pack. The land pack contains one of each allied-colored Guild Gate, one of each basic land, and 1 Mana Confluence. The normal rules of Magic for playing lands apply.
  • Each player starts the game with 4 cards. There are no mulligans (this is mainly because five people shuffling a 400 card deck takes forever).
  • After each player has reviewed their starting hand, they must select a Commander from the Commander Pool. The person who plays last will get first choice, then work your way up to player one.
  • After the Commanders are chosen, each player choses a utility land from the utility land pool. Use the same order that the Commanders were chosen.
  • You will play from a shared library. The shared library is considered “your library” and “your opponent’s library”. This means that effects that rearrange the top of your library will affect your opponent’s draw. This also means that casting Memory Lapse to place your opponent’s Terastodon on the top of “their library” then drawing a card (or manifesting it) will make you smile.
  • You will play with a shared graveyard. The shared graveyard is considered “your graveyard” and “your opponent’s graveyard”. This means that you can Putrefy your opponent’s Consecrated Sphinx, then play your Karmic Guide to make the whole table hate you.
  • Because lands are capped at eleven, you commander can never cost more than eleven to cast. If your commander would cost more than eleven, it costs eleven instead. This includes commander tax.
  • All other Commander rules apply.

OK, now that you’ve been officially refreshed, let’s dig into the design of the box. I set some design goals to act as a compass while making card choices for the initial list. These goals are simple, but I spent a lot of time thinking about what each of them means. I'll walk you through these thoughts below. Sometimes my thoughts are like a thick jungle, so bring a machete and feel free to skip the parts that bore you. Here are the three design goals that I set-Imagine the words, "The Commander Battle Box should . . . " before each goal.

  • Be Fun
  • Feel like Commander
  • Support 3-5 players

Be Fun (Design Goal 1)

Fun is number 8 on Mark Rosewater's list of "10 Things Every Game Needs."And even though we're not designing a game,it still applies to designing an environment. Plus I needed to get my Mark Rosewater plug in. Fun is one of those seemingly obvious things that we take for granted. If we’re playing Magic, it’s probably going to be fun. The goal is not just fun; the goal is the most fun; and, the more intentional we are about it, the better the result will be. There are a lot of knobs we can turn and switches we can flip to turn up the fun quotient in our box. I’ll talk about a couple here; notably, keeping fun-killers out, and telling great stories.

That’s Not Fun!

Fun can be a hard thing to put your finger on, by nature it is subjective. Fun means different things for different people. For example some people find this fun . . . 

Armageddon

Or this . . . 

Gaddock Teeg

If you're one of these people, I'm not here to shame you — I may, or may not, have foiled-out my Legacy Mono-White stacks deck. Even though as a player I like jamming Armageddon (or Realm Razer), as a designer I need to consider what’s best for the box. From a design perspective, these type of cards have issues:

  • They minimize the amount of fun that the table (as a whole) is having. One player might be having a blast, but everyone else is not. This goes against my design philosophy, which is to give the most fun to the most people.
  • This type of cards is ineffective. Typically when you play a card like Gaddock Teeg in a normal Commander game, your deck is crafted to take advantage of it. Even though his effect is symmetrical, you’ve built around it and can capitalize on it. In this format however, the cards you draw are not from a deck that you carefully constructed, but instead from a shared pool. This means that playing a Gaddock Teeg would truly be symmetrical making the game equally miserable for you, and everyone else at the table.

I’m not only picking on Gaddock Teeg andArmageddon. There’s a whole host of cards with these kind of effects — Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Decree of Annihilation, and even Void Winnower to name a few more. I’ve set rules for myself to exclude any cards that puts a blanket restriction on spells you can cast, and cards that destroy (or exile, or bounce, or whatever else) all lands. This should help keep the level of fun high.

Void Winnower

Telling Stories

Another way to make your box funner more fun to play (I hope my editor lets me keep that)* is to draw your players into a story. This means empowering them to both; do awesome things, and answer awesome things that other people are doing. This may sound a little bit game-design-nerd to you, but if you listen to the conversations happing in game stores, many are telling the stories of the games that were just played. The interactions that we build into the box will create the structure for these stories. It’s our goal to make sure these stories are good. Imagine telling this story:

You: Dude! You should've seen the insanity that happened in Commander last night!
Jimmy: What happened?
You: Well, Josh tapped 10 mana and dropped a Kozilek, Butcher of Truth!
Jimmy: Good card, then what happened?
You:  . . . Then he just kept swinging, until everyone was dead.

That's not a story worth telling! It would be like Greedo shooting (and killing) Han Solo before he could take Luke on adventures all over the galaxy. That would settle the “who shot first” debate, but The Empire would’ve probably crushed The Rebellion. We need the story to continue past, "They played a bomb and then won the game." Think about how much more exciting that story would be if it included you countering the Annihilator triggers with Summary Dismissal, then Gabby stealing the Kozilek with Zealous Conscripts and hitting Josh in the face with it, before sacrificing it to Phyrexian Altar! This kind of interplay between threats, and answers makes for good drama, and good drama produces fun.

On the flipside, it's possible to have an imbalance in the opposite direction with too many answers, and not enough threats. If this happensthen games will devolve into a sluggish, and grindy crawl to the finish line. Some of you might like that, but for the sake of the rest of us, a delicate balance needs to be struck. You'll notice that I'm erroring on the side of "less" removal in the initial list. Wrath effects and spot removal combined only make up 15ish percent of the box. I expect to make some changes after the first play through, but I want to give the threats room to breathe during this evaluation.

Feels like Commander (Design Goal 2)

Meeting this goal forces us to ask the question, “What is the essence of Commander?” What does it offer that makes it the second most played format in all of Magic? I think it boils down to two things. The first is what I call “Commander Hallmarks”. These are strategies and cards that make up the landscape of Commander. The second is self-expression. It’s the ability to play in a way that says something about who you are. The trick will be capturing this essence, and overcoming the challenges that they present.

Command Hallmarks

When you think about Commander, what specific cards come to mind? For me, it’s cards like Grave Pact, or Consecrated Sphinx that don’t see play other formats — though I did play Consecrated Sphinx in Vintage once, it's pretty good on turn two. Adding these signature Commander cards is the easiest way to make the Battle Box feel like Commander. If I did my job right, you should see a lot of your favorites on the list. Beyond individual cards, there are two classes of cards that are also hallmarks of Commander: Tutors and Mana Ramp.

No Flashlights on this Adventure

"Search your library  . . . " is a line of text that I love to see when I'm building a Commander deck, and I'm not the only one. In Commander, tutoring helps to overcome the singleton deck-building restriction, and make a more consistent deck. Some would even argue that tutoring is one of the major problems in the Commander metagame. This is not why I've excluded them from the box. I've cut them because tutoring a 400 card deck is a logistical problem. Some people already take forever to search a 100 card deck that they built — you know who you are. Can you imagine how long it would take to search a library that is four times the size? That’s not to mention the fact that the contents of the Battle Box would be largely unknown to the person tutoring. The sheer mental processing power needed to parse hundreds of options on the spot is not something people have access to, unless your name is Alex Hayne.

I’ve considered some options to help make tutoring work in the Battle Box. These ranged from developing a multi-stack model (with my friend Eugene), to designing my own cards for the box (I may talk about these in future articles), but in the end it was cleaner to cut it completely. Of course, every rule can have exceptions. One exception that I'm considering is the card Dragonstorm. As I said in my previous article, “Commander” will always be Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH) to me and I’ve included a healthy amount of Dragons in the box, as an ode to that. Dragonstorm is an epic spell that adds the drama that I talked about above. It also helps raise the power level of the Red section, which is welcome since Red is one of the weaker colors in Commander. I’ll be looking for ways to build in support for Dragonstorm, but until I find the sweet spot, it will rest with the other tutors in the banned bin.

Building Ramps

The second class of cards that I consider a Commander hallmark, is mana ramp. It may not be apparent a first, but many ramp spells are actually tutors. As we discussed above, we’ve relegated those card to the banned bin. Thankfully there are a lot of cards that ramp without tutoring. I’ve focused on adding three types of these cards to the box. The first of these type of cards are cards that say "you may play an additional land . . . " these interact well with the land set. This next card is a perfect example of this type. It also has the added fun of showing the top of the shared library to whole table.

Oracle of Mul Daya

The second type of tutorless-ramp cards are artifacts, and many of them fall in the also fall in the Commander hallmark category. These not only provide ramp, but they can also take some stress off your mana base.

Azorius Signet

The last cards in this category are cards that reduce the cost of your spells. These type of cards can also support cards like Dragonstorm, and other cards with the Storm mechanic.

Nightscape Familiar

One final note on ramp. We have the option to add creature ramp, but I'd really like to see creatures that do more than just ramp. Noble Hierarch is an example of this, but even she might be too low-impact for the box. This is another area that we’ll have to keep an eye on for the first play through.

Designing for Self-Expression

My friend Wen wrote one of the coolest article series on Commander that I’ve ever seen. It was a series that correlated your Commander (and deck) with your personality type using the Myers-Briggs model. We’re not going that deep today, but it’s important to note that self-expression is at the core of the Commander format. If we want this box to feel like Commander then we need to somehow capture its self-expressive nature.

The easiest thing we can do to capture this is to allow player to pick their own Commander. We’ll have to do some work to make sure that all the major playstyles are represented (and supported), but I think we have a good starting point. Adding the utility land pool helps to strengthen the Commander choice because many of the lands support the Commanders. They also give a level of added personalization. For example, one of my pet cards is Alchemist’s Refuge. Selecting that at the start of the game, makes me feel like I’m playing with one of my own decks. The trick is carrying this feeling past the start of the game. To accomplish our goal we need to offer players access to their playstyles as they play the game.

Alchemist's Refuge

There are some subtle things that will help support different playstyles in the box. One of these is simply keeping the balance of colors tight. If there’s eighty Blue cards and twelve Red cards, then how will a Red mage ever express themselves during gameplay? Funny story, the numbers actually looked a lot like that when I did my first brain dump of the list. There’s a deeper level of this that I’ve yet to tackle, but I plan to. It’s defining a strong color wheel, and conforming the list to it. This will make the color balance more effective, because when you play a Green card it will really “feel” like a Green card. A balanced color count is important for the box, but it won’t be effective if we don’t give players access to the cards. If you’re a Black mage and you have a hand full of White cards, what can you do?

As you look over the list, you'll notice that I worked in a handful of cards that loot (draw a card, then discard one), or manipulate the library in some way. I’ve added these to increase the frequency of card selection for the players. Cards like Curse of Chaos, Merfolk Looter, and Crystal Ball (among others) give players the ability to better mimic their desired playstyle. If a token player can make a board full of tokens, or a combo player can assemble Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker / Pestermite, or a Voltron player can suit up a huge a threat, then we’ve done our job well. Players don’t need a deck specifically designed to do one thing to be satisfied, they only need a moment of doing that thing. It’s our job to help them find that in the Battle Box.

Support 3-5 Players (Design Goal 3)

There’s not a lot to this goal. We simply need to make sure that we don’t run out of cards, and that we don’t have any cards that “break” a 3-5 player game. A typical Commander deck has between 32 and 38 lands. That means it has 62 to 68 “business” cards. If our Battle box is 340 card, then we have as much “business” card as five Commander decks. The list is currently 387 cards, so we’re good on that front. As far as not “breaking” the game, I needed to axe some Commander favorites to keep things fun and interactive.

Cards that repeatedly manipulate the top cards of the Library have been omitted from the box. These have the ability to “lock” your opponents out of a draw, especially once the game hits three player mark. This means that cards like: Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Sensei’s Divining Top, and Scroll Rack will have to sit this one out. You’ll notice that I mentioned Crystal Ball above and typically this would fall into this category, but I’ve left it box as a way to test these type of effects. I’ll also note that the Scry mechanic is nowhere near as powerful as the Brainstorm ability from Jace. If Crystal Ball test well, I may introduce these other cards slowly as we get a better view of the format.

The List

If you’ve made it this far, I thank you! Let’s cut the jibber jabber and break out this list! I really want to hear your thoughts on it. Your suggestions for additions, and cuts will really help shape the final list.

The Land Set

The Commander Pool

Utility Land Pool

White

Blue

Black

Red

Green

Gold

Colorless / Artifacts

Shout-Outs

It’s time for one of my favorite parts of the article. I only have one for today but it’s a big one!

The Command Zone Podcast — Jimmy (@jfwong) and Josh (@JoshLeeKwai) make some of the best Magic content on YouTube. I can’t speak highly enough about their podcast and gameplay videos “Game Knights”. I listened to over 20 hours of these guys while designing this list. It’s like I had Jimmy on my right shoulder and Josh on my left helping me design this box.

Thanks for reading!
Jonathan Medina
@medinamakesgame

*Editor’s Note: Not a chance.


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