It is not too long ago that I was first introduced to the concept of Battle Boxes by my good friend Dominic Sanders – he asked me whether I would like to play Khans Pauper Battle Box against him. Given my predisposition to be extremely boring, I am normally loathe to waste time playing “nonsense” formats, particularly when I don’t know what they are. However, Dominic’s charmingly persuasive nature coupled with him explaining that it was essentially a game of Khans of Tarkir Limited convinced me to give it a go (and perhaps the fact that we had the odd hour to kill with nothing else to do before going to an actual draft gave me the final nudge).
So what exactly is a Battle Box, some of you might ask - it’s simply a stack of Magic cards, typically with some sort of theme, that you can play a regular game with, except that the stack contains no lands. Instead, once per turn, you can play a card from your hand face down as a land that produces any colour of mana (other versions have lands set aside that you can play). Khans Pauper Battle Box then simply is a stack of one copy of every common in the set Khans of Tarkir. Some other examples that Dom hauls to tournaments are DOMinaria Pauper Battle Box, Iconic Masters Pauper Battle Box, and the more experimental Kev Walker Pauper Battle Box, which features a copy of each non-land common that Kev Walker has illustrated. In regards to gameplay, they all work the same way, you shuffle them up, divide the stack into two decks of equal size, draw an opening hand of 7 cards and play a normal game of Magic from there, playing lands as described above.
My notorious inability to enjoy a game of Magic for its own sake kicked in when Dom and I played our first couple of games of Khans Pauper Battle Box, and it made me think of how games of Battle Box play related to normal Limited play. Every game we played made me realise more that many concepts that lead to success in Draft and Sealed also help you win in Battle Box. In fact, some of the more subtle intricacies of Limited seem to be amplified and more readily visible in Battle Box, and therefore easier to process, as I will attempt to illustrate.
One of the important aspects of Battle Boxes like these ones is that you are using a fixed and known set of cards. This means that you have access to perfect information at any stage about what cards your opponent could have, which lets you minimise their impact. At first glance, this is a big difference to regular Limited play, but in fact, the concept does carry over to some extent. After all, Limited formats are nothing else but a fixed and known set of cards, with the only difference being that your opponent will only be utilising a relatively small subset of them (and with different likelihoods, due to rarities). What you can naturally and somewhat straightforwardly do in Battle Box, i. e. constantly track your opponent’s options, you can apply on a bigger and slightly more complicated scale in regular Limited games. Additionally, the focus on commons is exactly the right approach to Limited, as while the rares might be flashy and what you remember, the commons make up the overwhelming majority of cards you encounter in a match of Draft or Sealed.
Situationally broken cards that an adept mage will be able to use craftily
On the other hand, drawing your cards from a fixed set also often forces you to make do with what you are given, since unlike in Draft or Sealed, you cannot choose to not put perceived unplayables in your deck. Of course, you do have the option of playing bad cards as lands, however, you often do have to try and get value out of some cards that you would normally avoid. That’s when you have to be a bit creative and realise where certain cards can find value. A good example is Broken Bond in Dominaria, as there are a smattering of targets such as Pardic Wanderer and Aesthir Glider as well as the common equipments, Short Sword and Jousting Lance, which are quite strong in an all-commons format, especially the latter. Playing a Broken Bond early as a land, only to later lose to Jousting Lance should therefore be avoided. Similarly, cards like Arbor Armament from Dominaria or Swift Kick from Khans can situationally swing games; therefore holding on to them for a while can be useful. Even a card like Feed the Clan can be game-winning in a race!
Beyond that, you can also get decent mileage out of two card combos that are perhaps not at their strongest individually. Arcane Flight + Coldwater Snapper is an example from Dominaria (though Snapper is already decent on its own), and in Khans, Whirlwind Adept + Siegecraft or Molting Snakeskin comes to mind, both based on everyone’s favourite mechanic Hexproof. Equally, there will be the occasional game where you can assemble the Act of Treason Kheru Dreadmaw wombo combo, or get value out of Bloodtallow Candle + Excavation Elephant and if you are really “lucky” a follow-up Rescue.
If you recognise and remember interactions such as these, it can be of benefit for your Limited play in general, especially in regards to two aspects: Firstly, sideboarding. This is a point that gets brought up again and again in articles about Limited, but it is absolutely true that utilising your sideboard is a very important skill in Limited. Experiencing positive interactions of niche cards will make you more aware of which cards in your sideboard will be worth considering to gain an edge in postboard games. This applies not only to the fairly obvious sideboarding of Naturalize-style effects when appropriate, but also for instance, boarding in Short Sword or even Arbor Armament if you notice that most of your and your opponent’s creatures are the same size.
Secondly, these kinds of observations can help you during the actual drafting process as well. Some drafts simply don’t go that well, and if you are aware of certain combinations of lower pick cards that can cheese wins, this can help you salvage it. The hexproof examples from above come to mind - it doesn’t really matter if most of your deck is subpar, a Coldwater Snapper with an Arcane Flight or a Whirlwind Adept with a Molting Snakeskin could just win you a game all by themselves. Or perhaps you have ended up in Red/Black in Dominaria draft and need to rely on a loop of Soul Salvage and Ghitu Chronicler to grind out games.
Are you going to be having a blast?
Or will you be blocking for future returns?
Another thing that Battle Box teaches you is to develop a game plan. Your opening hand is extremely important, as it defines the options that you know about (given you only have limited information about your deck and topdecks), and it is crucial that you develop a game plan from this set of cards. Your hand may contain rather measly creatures and an Aura ‑ then perhaps your best way to victory is an aggressive approach, trading cards for damage liberally, leveraging combat tricks for tempo swings, while playing slower cards as lands. Or your hand may contain ways of generating card advantage, then you will typically want to trade creatures wherever possible, play low impact cheaper cards and/or combat tricks as lands and pull ahead with two for ones later in the game.
In any case, you should have an idea of what you want each card in your opening hand to achieve. Again, knowledge of potential cards your opponent might play factors into this, e.g. “I am going to try to blow out his Kill Shot with my Feat of Resistance”). Adapting your plan according to the expected state of the game is another relevant aspect in this context. If you are likely to be ahead, keeping a Cancel in your hand rather than playing it as a land can be excellent, as you can afford to keep mana up to counter the play that your opponent wants to make to catch up. Conversely, if you are looking to play a longer card advantage based game, you may, funnily enough, want keep a bad but cheap creature such as Rat Colony in your hand, just so you can play it to trade in case your opponent opts for an aggressive start.
In regular Limited, you do know what your deck contains, and if you built it well, it will already be skewed towards more or less aggression. However, you do have to make similar considerations about your opening hands and potential mulligans – when your aggro deck presents you with a slower draw, do you automatically have to mulligan? Or can you perhaps envision a longer term gameplan that can lead you to victory, e.g. taking a more defensive stance early and declining trades to develop a wide board and then winning with a big attack and a Trumpet Blast style effect. Even before you play any games, laying out a plan can help, as your drafting will benefit from taking these concepts into account. If you have a game plan for your deck in mind during the draft and you understand what cards in a format are important for enacting that game plan (perhaps due to having experienced this in games of Battle Box), you will begin making picks based on this, rather than raw power level alone, and will often end up with more cohesive and better decks.
On an even more overarching level, a Pauper Battle Box also provides a rough snapshot of what matters in the format. We already talked about Dominaria’s Jousting Lance previously and in my opinion the strength of this card transcends Battle Box to the extent that it is absolutely key for (most often white) aggressive decks in that Limited format. More general observations can also be useful: In Khans Pauper Battle Box, games often are quite slow and it is hard to develop a strong aggressive game plan that doesn’t peter out in the midgame. You can conclude that the Khans Limited format is rather slow and that you have to make sure to build your decks with longer games in mind, which is often realised by morph cards with expensive morph costs as their impact scales with time.
Fantastical win conditions…
...and how to protect them.
In slower formats such as Khans, a large number of Battle Box games might even eventually reveal to you what the format as a whole boils down to. For instance, while the ground creatures are not wholly ineffectual in Khans, the ground tends to trade or stall, and the real game winners tend to be the evasive cards like Mystic of the Hidden Way, Abomination of Gudul or Sultai Scavenger. As a result, games tend to revolve around sticking one of these cards, which in turn means that you will often wait to play them until you can protect them in some manner, e.g. using aforementioned Feat of Resistance, Disdainful Stroke to counter or Force Away to bounce them in response to the expensive removal (which your opponent is likely to have due to the slow pace of the game).
Of course, in regular games of Limited the uncommons and rares make matters more complicated, but nevertheless, these macro-level observations about the format tend to remain valid. These observations are of course not limited to pace of the format and the role of evasion but also include general creature sizing, if certain toughnesses get especially punished (often there are effects that incidentally kill 1 toughness creatures), cards in certain colours that interact particularly well (of course there are no mana constraints in Battle Box, but you can still pay attention to this) and more.
So, as we head into this new M19 Limited format, which is particularly relevant given it is the draft format at Nationals, maybe you would like to consider putting together an M19 Pauper Battle Box to explore the format in the manner described. Perhaps you will learn to appreciate certain cards more than you did initially, perhaps you will discover your favourite composition of a certain archetype, perhaps you will even learn the very inner workings of the format. At the very least, you will have a fun diversion to pass the time between the rounds at your next tournament (just don’t tell anyone I said that).
About Raoul Zimmermann:
Raoul started attending GPs in 2007 with Time Spiral block. Following their World Magic Cup appearance in 2015, he co-founded Team Axion alongside Kayure Patel and Tom Law. Within the team, he enjoys collecting the data from testing and making it presentable. Raoul is from Germany and currently lives in Poland; his Magic home, however, is still very much the UK. He travels to UK events where possible, including Nationals, where he made the Top 8 in 2018. He has a few Pro Tour appearances and is eagerly looking to requalify. His favourite Magic format is Draft, as he enjoys the theoretical overlap from format to format, while the change in individual cards keeps things fresh. As such, he is always eager for a team draft with friends and has 18 boosters of various formats stocked up at home.