Talyor flashed two cards from his hand in Joel's direction. "Whaaat is this?" I said disapprovingly. Taylor took note, and offered me an olive branch, "You want to see some cards? I'll show you two different ones." I nodded, “OK”. He flashed me an Elspeth, Sun's Champion, and Mortify. "Those are nice ones!" I wasn't impressed, but I was sure he had some juice, since he was sitting on an eight-card hand thanks to the Oblation that was just played.
I played Fact or Fiction in my main phase, and immediately named Joel to pick the piles. We all chuckled at my clear aversion to letting Taylor (the more experienced player) pick. Joel agonized over what piles to make. Taylor let him off the hook, “There’s never a good choice.” “I guess not.” Joel said handing me two piles. I snap-picked the one with three cards and then surveyed the graveyard. I was shopping for what to get with my Restoration Gearsmith. I took the Medomai the Ageless. It seemed too threatening to leave in the shared graveyard, and who knows, maybe I could get a hit in with it later.
“Should I play Spiteful Visions?” I said aloud to myself. I never liked these kind of cards, but it is a way to get more cards next turn, and to keep anyone from going crazy on their turn. I was still reasoning in my mind when Taylor chimed in.
"Why not?" he shrugged.
I couldn't contest Taylor’s rhetorical question. "Why not indeed?" having more cards is good, right? After all, what's the worst that can happen? I tapped out to cast the Visions.
Taylor happily took his two damage and drew two cards. His eyes swept over my board. "I don't like the looks of this.” I thought to myself. I looked over at Joel's board, then up a Joel. He smiled. Taylor’s voice carried my eyes back to my side of the table.
He announced his targets, "Creature, Artifact, Enchantment, Land" pointing at my permanents. "All at me!?" I protested. "Yeah." Taylor reiterated his targets as I processed the play. I picked up my Restoration Gearsmith, Soul of New Phyrexia, Spiteful Visions, and Mana Confluence, and put them in the graveyard. Pro tip, if you have Soul of New Phyrexia on the board, don’t tap out. That would‘ve been a satisfying turn by most measures, but Taylor wasn't done yet.
He delved all the cards that I’d just put in the graveyard to play Tasigur, the Golden Fang for one black mana. This was followed by a Sword of Feast and Famine and he equipped it to his Tasigur. I cringed as I looked over at the Slayers' Stronghold on Taylor’s side of the table. “Give him haste?” Joel summed it up in one word. “Gross.” Taylor started laughing, “Yeah, I guess that’s the good play right?” With a Dictate of Karametra on the board, Joel and I were not looking forward to watching Taylor untap.
Taylor aimed his Tasigur at me, “Smash Medina for eight.”
. . .
As you might have gathered from the story above, I had a chance to test the Commander Battle Box. Spoiler alert, it was awesome! I played three games, each with three players. I wanted to test with more players but we had some people bail on the sessions (Booo!). Overall, the games went well, and I think the box would scale up nicely to accommodate four to five players. Since I’ve gotten a feel for the box, I want to dive into the observations that I made during the games, then talk about some changes and adjustments that I’ll be trying. I’ll close this installment with how the above game ended — it was one of those “only in Commander” moments.
Laughter is Good Medicine
If you ask your friends to evaluate something that you’ve made, you might get an honest answer, and you might get the friend answer. That’s why it was so great to see my friends laughing while they tested the Battle Box. It took my back to a comment that Mark Rosewater made on one of his Drive to Work podcasts (Mark quota met). He was talking about watching people play-test Magic sets (while they’re in development), and he said laughter is one of the ways that you can tell if your design is fun. As one of the people sitting at the table I can agree, these games were fun! Joel even went as far as saying “I don’t think I can go back to playing normal Commander.” Maybe that’s taking it too far, but at the least it confirms he enjoyed himself. Fun was at the top of our list of design goals from my previous article, and we did well in this area. We also did well with the pregame selection options.
Choose Your Own Commander
Choosing the Commanders did exactly what I was hoping it would. After the first game, I asked the guys to switch Commanders. Joel was hesitant. He really liked playing with Rashmi, Eternities Crafter. His resistance didn’t last long, but the attachment that he felt to the Commander is exactly the feel that we’re going for. Taylor loves playing aggressive decks in competitive Magic, but based on his Commander selections, I learned that he likes slower more controlling decks in Commander. Our first game, he went with Oloro, Ageless Ascetic, and Zedruu the Greathearted in the second. The fact that Taylor was able to switch Commanders while still staying in the playstyle that he likes shows that we have some level of depth in the Commander pool.
Despite its success, there are a few minor changes that I’ll make to the Commander Pool. The first one is related to the Commander that I chose for the first game. I picked Mizzix of the Izmagnus, because I’m an Izzet kind of guy. The problem with this Commander is that there are not enough low cost Instants and Sorceries to get the experience counters high enough to make a difference. You really need to build around this card to make it work and that makes it poor for the Battle Box.
I also added some of the new four-color Commanders, to deepen the pool.
Lastly, I added Queen Marchesa to the Commander Pool. She offers a consistent way to introduce the Monarch mechanic into our games, which is something that I want to try out. I have a couple more Monarch cards in mind, but that’s for another day. Queen Marchesa’s ability also support token synergies, which is needed as we try to support a broad range of playstyles. This is the reason that I didn’t remove the other Mardu Commander (Zurgo Helmsmasher), because they both support different playstyles.
The utility lands also tested well. The ones that we played had a strong impact on the game, and they gave us the ability to personalize our experience a bit. Things like slowing down the game with Maze of Ith, or giving Tasigur haste really adds accents to the gameplay. The other great thing is that we’ve purposely been sparse on the land destruction options, so these utility lands typically stay in play for the whole game. I’m happy with the selection of lands in this section, but I did add one to lineup. I added a Westvale Abbey which should make for some interesting situations, and give more token support.
On the topic of lands, there’s a small adjustment that I made to the land set. Nobody had problems casting the cards that they had, but there was a bit of time dedicated to planning and arranging your mana, especially when there’s a mana flare effect in play. In the 1v1 Battle Box, I like this aspect of depth that the land set brings, the player that plans their mana deployment well, will be rewarded. I have a different philosophy for the Commander Battle Box. I want to be careful about how much I ask of the players, in terms of complexity and time. If I can reduce the time of a turn by 30 second for each player, then games will be exponentially shorter, this frees up more time for actual game play and we don’t lose too much strategy or depth to make changes in this area.
Both my buddies Nick and Jake offered the suggestion to replace the Guildgates with “Shard” lands. This would take some strain off the mana base, and make decisions quicker since your colored mana is more available and it’s easier to see combination. Incidentally, this will also give players the ability to cast more complex color combinations in turns two and three instead of locking them in to certain color combinations based on early land drops. With more colors available players will more easily be able to switch their game plan during the early turns. We’ll talk more about the importance of the early game plays in the next section. I removed the Guildgates for the Khans of Tarkir tri-lands (since those are cheaper than the Shards of Alara tri-lands).
Turns Two and Three, You’re a Problem!
No play-testing session would be complete without some issues. While I don’t feel like these issues were deal breakers, I do want to make some adjustments in a couple of areas. The brunt of the problem rests on the fact that the format can be very “bomb” driven, and there’s very little early-game interaction. I understand that Commander typically leans toward this type of “Battle Cruiser Magic” format, but I’m satisfied with the level of it in the Battle Box. My hope is to give more room to “engines” and textured plays that are deeper than just tapping out every turn. This comes back to, something we talked about last article — giving players access to the play experience that they enjoy. Some players enjoy “Battle Cruiser Magic” and I want to offer that, but other enjoy a more sophisticated fare, and I want to make room for that also. This starts by giving more options in the early game so that there is more happening than player just waiting to drop their big threats.
The early game is very hard to sculpt in a format like Battle Box, because you need to find low-cost cards that can also have an impact if they’re drawn later in the game. A card like Insolent Neonate is better than Goblin Guide in the Battle Box because it offers something more than just early pressure. The Neonate can get a little bit of damage in (not as much as the Guide), but it can also be “cycled” when it becomes irrelevant. The Guildmages are another great example of this. They can be played early and they offer a way to spend your unused mana as the game progresses. I’m not going to go gangbusters here, but the Guildmages are a consideration, and I know that Aether Revolt will bring some nice low-cost additions (tune in two weeks from now for that).
The one change that I will make in this area, is to swap out Dictate of Karametra with Heartbeat of Spring. In my opinion the Flash ability is not worth 2 mana, and this change allows players to play this effect earlier which is in line with our current focus on sculpting the early game.
Radical Signet Changes
In testing we noticed is that the Signets suffer from the issue described above, they’re great early game, but dead later. The trouble is, there are plenty of good reasons to include Signets in the box. For 2 mana, they’re some of the best ramp options available — they both increase your mana and smooth your colors. Signets are also iconic hallmarks of the Commander format. On the other hand they are the weakest form of artifact ramp in the box, and they are lack luster in the late game. While wrestling with this tension, Taylor offered and interesting solution.
He suggested removing the Signets from the Battle Box, and allow players to select one during the pregame Commander selection. This would give everyone access to a signet in the early game, and no one would have to draw them in the late game. This idea influences the environment in interesting and positive ways.
There are also some negative aspects of using this suggestion. At first glance the idea comes off inelegant and cumbersome, though I’m not sure it will play that way. I do want to keep the things that we select at the beginning of the game to a minimum. My inner monologue is asking. “How many things are we going add to the pregame selection? Next thing you know, we’ll be drafting this Battle Box!”I’m also worried that this will destroy the curve that we’re working so hard to support. With a Signet guaranteed on turn two, the game essentially skips turn three. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I’m willing to test it out for the next few games.
Getting the Engines Started
With the Signets moving out, this makes room for non-mana artifact, which we can use to support an important area of the design. As I said above, I want to make more room for engines and sophisticated lines of play. Currently, there’s a lack of things that encourage this kind of play, like sacrifice outlets, and permanents with activated abilities. During my next big edit of the box, I’ll be reviewing each card and looking at what to cut or swap out that will support this philosophy. There are some cards in Aether Revolt that will help, but not enough to get us all the way there. We’ll save this rabbit hole for another day, for now let’s get back to the sweet Battle Box action.
. . .
Joel had been gunning for me since his first attack with Jenara, Asura of War. He’d already stacked seven commander damage on me and he was coming in for five more. “Are you sure you want to attack me?” I threatened. “Why wouldn’t I?” It’s not usually my style, but I’d been listening to the “Politics & Negotiation” episode of Command Zone, so I pressed the threat further, “ . . . Because if you attack me there’s going to be consequences!” I had Medomai the Ageless, and Word of Seizing in my hand, ready to back up my threats. “Let’s see what happens!” Joel said smiling.
After hitting me for five, Joel played an Avacyn, Angel of Hope, and ended his turn. This rendered all my previous threats empty. “Taylor, do you have any flyers?” I asked, looking for a way to make good on my promise to make Joel pay. “No.” Taylor responded. I played out the Medomai and cast Word of Seizing on it to give it haste. Thanks to Dictate of Karametra, I had the mana to also activate my Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion and give Medomai double strike. I crashed in with my team putting seven Commander damage on Taylor (with Zurgo Helmsmasher) and scored two extra turns. “I don’t mind losing like this.” Taylor said laughing. He could see the writing on the wall. Joel sat back to see how I’d spend my turns.
During my first extra turn, I used my the looting effect from my Jeskai Ascendancy to dig for a way to deal with Joel’s Avacyn, then smashed Taylor’s helm with a double striking Zurgo. I untapped for my second extra turn, and bounced Joel’s Avacyn with a timely Silumgar's Command. With the path clear I smacked him for 14 with Zurgo. “Your go.” I said with a hint of I-told-you-not-to-hit-me in my tone. Passing the turn exposed me to a lot of potential problems, I was crossing my fingers that he couldn’t deal with my board. Joel shuffled his cards. The anticipation was killing me, “Whaddya got?” I probed. Joel recast his Avacyn then started to arrange his lands. “You know the Dictate is gone now right?” Taylor controlled the Dictate so we no longer had extra mana. This left Joel was left with a paltry 4 mana. He parsed his hand again and then passed the turn.
The combination of Garruk Wildspeaker’s ultimate (trample) and my Sunhome ensured that no matter how Joel blocked, he would either die from Commander damage, or give me an extra turn . . . then die to commander damage. I attacked and snatched the final victory of the day!
“Come play Commander Battle Box, he said” Taylor said mockingly.
Joel followed up, “It will be fun, he said.”
We all laughed.
. . .
My hope is that this small glimpse into the Battle Box games has given you an idea of what a Commander Battle Box is like. I’m very happy with how the first draft turned out, and I’m looking forward to testing the box with the new changes that I talked about above. Join me in next time for a look at the Aether Revolt and what additions and changes that I’m considering!
Let’s handout some love to all the lovely people.
Jake, Joey, Joel, Taylor — Thanks for all making yourselves available to test this crazy idea. Good games!
Taylor(Double Shout-Out) — After our epic battles Taylor asked, “Can I gift you something?” he came back in the room with a Foil Promo Progenitus to replace the lame paper proxy that I had in the box. This is one of the first blinged-out cards that I get to add to the box! Thank you my friend!
Expropriate – Without going into too much detail, this card ended one of our other games. Two extra turns is pretty good when you have a Craterhoof Behemoth in hand. OK, OK, two extra turns is always good. As we seen above!
You — I appreciate those of you who are reading along. Some of you have been inspired to build your own Battle Boxes, which I think is awesome. I enjoy reading about your adventures and your questions in the comments section.
See you next time. As always thanks for reading.