Blog Fanatic: The Box Draft

Box draft is my favorite Magic format. I’ve been doing box drafts for five years now, and the games have stayed fresh and interesting. Pete Hoefling has stated that box draft is the most fun he’s had playing Magic, ever. I agree. There’s just something about drafting from the Big Box that really takes you back to the roots of the game while simultaneously teaching you new strategies each time out. What is box draft, you ask? Check inside, my friends, check inside.

Box draft is my favorite Magic format. I’ve been doing box drafts for five years now, and the games have stayed fresh and interesting. Pete Hoefling has stated that box draft is the most fun he’s had playing Magic, ever. I agree. There’s just something about drafting from the Big Box that really takes you back to the roots of the game while simultaneously teaching you new strategies each time out.

What is box draft, you ask? In 1999, I began a project to make a draft box with one of every card in Magic as part of the card pool. Two years later, the box was completed, and has been updated with each new release. The Big Draft Box, as it’s come to be called, contains one of each unique card in Magic – that is, there’s one Stone Rain in the box (not one from each set that had a Stone Rain), along with one Black Lotus, one Morphling, and one Chimney Imp.

Box drafts started with just two people – myself and Eric Lewandowski. We’d make random packs out of our leftover commons, and the drafts would feature horrible stalemates ended by throwing Holy Armor on Scryb Sprites and swinging for ten turns. The games were that bad. Eventually, I hit upon the idea of paring the box down to one of each bad card. That expanded to making the box one of each card, period. And so the Jank Box was born. The Jank box came to be known as the Big Draft Box after my MagictheGathering.com article a couple of years ago, and the name has stuck since.

Today’s column was supposed to be part of a week-long top 100 list. This list would have been the top 100 cards in the Big Draft Box. Unfortunately, I quickly found that was an impossible task! This came as quite a disappointment, because I’d be working on this list, on and off, for a couple of months. In the end, I faced way too many dilemmas to feel comfortable exposing this list. It’s on the backburner for a later date, but how can I justify cutting cards like Dark Banishing, Serra Angel, and Shadowmage Infiltrator? Surely these are among the best Limited cards of all time, yet they weren’t cracking the top 100 of the big box list!

The Big Draft Box is an indelible part of my reputation as a Magic player. Most of you have probably caught wind of it in the past – if you have not, let me answer a few of the more commonly asked questions. There really is one of each card in the box, including all of the power nine. I insist that these cards get played without sleeves and shuffled thoroughly. About half of the basic lands are played and half are rotated in with each new base set, so the lands and cards are not that marked next to one another. I try to keep the box current with the most recent versions of any given card, so I have the 8th Edition version of Mana Leak, and will rotate in the Champions of Kamigawa version of Stone Rain when the time comes to get my hands on Champions of Kamigawa.

Big Box Drafts took over virtually all Magic play in our group New Orleans once the format hit the scene. We used to do a lot of block drafting, but slowly we stopped drafting Masques (which wasn’t very fun) and Invasion (which was) and started doing more and more box drafts. Many nights were spent in Monroe Hall or Butler Hall, with a group of six of us sitting around a table mixing up with a card pool of everything.

Is there skill in box drafts? Absolutely. One might think that drafts end up haphazard and random, but that notion could not be further from the truth. Many themes are reiterated set after set in Magic – Black gets removal. Red gets direct damage. White gets damage prevention. Because the box has about a third commons, a third uncommons, and a third rares, the power level of drafts even out – even though there’s a lot more flotsam in the mix, the higher concentration of rares tends to compensate the overall content of packs. I’ve had few to no drafts where decks came out unplayable. More often, you end up with quite a few bombs or a very comprehensive deck that took a lot of skill to draft and will take a lot of skill to play.

Signaling and reading signals takes on a lot of importance. Again, since the packs are random, you cannot tell for sure that there is a good mix of colors in any given pack coming to you. However, you will be able to read, after a short time, what colors are being cut off. This skill hasn’t really been used much since Odyssey block in real life drafting, so it’d good to keep it honed through the box draft.

Certain cards become more important in box draft than they otherwise had been – Shattering Pulse and Dismantling Blow are often first pick cards. There are more artifacts than you might ordinarily find outside of a Mirrodin Block draft, due to the high rare and uncommon concentration. Because of this, artifact removal comes at a premium. Reusable creature effects, like Tradewind Rider and Avatar of Woe, are also highly coveted. Power isn’t the sole determination of winning – it’s the ability to get cards to work well together. Me and a couple of New Orleans guys did a three-on-three draft versus Huey, Brock and PTR. While the three of them were unfamiliar with the format, me and my players had been box drafting for years. The three of them were infinitely better drafters and players than us, but we were familiar with the format. Because of this, I drafted a deck based around The Abyss, complete with ways to tutor for the enchantment, and artifact creatures that would not die to The Abyss. My teammates, knowing how the format worked, prioritized taking artifact and enchantment removal. Huey, Brock and PTR went down 5-1.

We ran an eight man draft in Nice with many members of Wizards R&D in attendance. Everyone had a blast! Aaron Forsythe drafted a prison deck, and was able to lock people down with Rising Waters, Ring of Gix, and The Tablernacle at Pendrell Vale. Alan Comer grabbed Eureka and proceeded to take every seven to nine drop creature that passed his way. I believe that he dropped forty power worth of creatures on turn 4 one game! Other players opted for a more traditional draft, valuing a good curve over a theme or bombs. One player thought he could draft a weenie deck and rush people to death – it worked against some, but against others he fell to superior card selection. The box isn’t always about dropping bombs (though bombs can win you games) or about drafting a curve (though a curve is always good) or about getting a great set of combos (though these too can spell victory) – it’s about reading the draft and draft in its purest form.

In 2001 and 2002, right before I moved out of New Orleans to work for StarCityGames.com, we used to get together at a bar called The Buddha Belly on Magazine Street, and do our box drafts over burgers and beer. We had a lot of players coming out, including Eric, Jeff Taylor, Whitney, Adam, and Marcel. Sceadeau D’Tela, a friend of mine from Mississippi, would travel with his crew once a week to play. These players would include Brian, Ryan, and occasionally John Klauk (the StarCityGames.com contributor). I valued those days – it really epitomized what Magic is all about. It was a bunch of friends, some good, some casual, getting together for a good time with a bunch of cards that came from both the past and the present. Some people would need to read the cards every time a pack was passed. We had some pro players, some semi-pro players, and some players that could care less about playing in a sanctioned tournament. We all came out, on those nights, and played as one group.

Granted, and this is a big granted, some players were better than others. We always tried to make the games into either three-on-three or four-on-four team drafts, with an even talent level on each side. This meant that Eric, Jeff, Sceadeau and myself usually were split two and two on opposite teams, with everyone else divvied up accordingly. It was during these times that we discovered the one strategy that does not work in box draft: Ryaning.

Ryan Adams is a friend of mine from Mississippi. He’s a likeable guy, but he was born with a bad hand and is very self-conscious of this fact. Because of this, he doesn’t have the world’s highest self esteem. This led him to really getting down about box drafts, because he’d make really bad mistakes and would take criticism about his play to heart instead of learning from it. Ryan is a smart guy – he sells himself very short, and is capable of a lot more than he gives himself credit for. He was really bad at Magic when he first started playing as part of Sceadeau’s crew, but has improved to such a degree over the years that he qualified for Pro Tour New Orleans in 2003 – you can find him under Christopher Adams (his middle and preferred name is Ryan). This is no mean feat, and I hope that Ryan realizes that very few Magic players ever accomplish a qualification on the Pro Tour.

Back when Ryan was really bad though, he had a propensity for drafting White/Green decks. White/Green decks can almost never win in box drafts, because the two colors really do not cover each other’s weaknesses well – every now and then you will get the White/Green deck with multiple removal spells such as Swords to Plowshares and Arrest, but more often than not a White/Green draft from the box will result in a pile of flying White creatures and non-flying Green creatures with few to no combat tricks, no removal, no card drawing, no bounce, no nothing. Ryan kept taking these decks over and over again, and ending each draft 0-3. It got the point where we renamed every W/G gold card after him – people would taunt each other with Ryan Nishioba, Ryandillo Cloak, and Ryanshida Scalebane! It’s fine to splash White in your Green deck or green in your White deck – who doesn’t want to run Ryan’s Wake? – but as two primary colors wedged together, they just don’t work in the box.

The Big Draft Box is something close to my heart, and I encourage everyone who has a steady playgroup to try to put one together. You don’t need to have the box 100% complete to enjoy it, and 95% of the cards are commons, uncommons, or bulk rares. If everyone chips in a few cards here and there, you should be able to make up your own Big Draft Box in no time flat! The format is a ton of fun, and I can’t say enough good about it to really do it justice. When people ask”Ben, do you play Magic anymore?”, I can answer yes – I play Magic Online, and I play box drafts in person. With a format that never repeats itself yet always has a ring of familiarity, who could want anything else?

Ben can be reached at [email protected].