Building Box Draft – Ever Ready For Summer Doldrums

It’s summer time for the majority of the world, and with Tenth Edition out and some of the most prominent Nationals wrapped up, most players are taking time hammering out the new Standard format or getting their Tenth Edition Limited on. Tenth Edition is a fine set to draft with, but it’s a little too straightforward for some. Box Draft is a fine way to break the tedium. It’s a great way to spend some time without dropping a ton of cash.

[Editor’s Note: The Ferrett and I are having hideous computer problems at the moment… and both of us are without MTGO access. As our columns largely revolve around online play, we’re stranded. Don’t worry, we’re on the case to fix things… hopefully, we’ll be back to normal soon. Until then, here’s Eli. – Craig.]

It’s been a hard week to write, as I’ve been digging through old Warner Brothers cartoons, looking for Road Runner shorts to use in class. I’ve been working with a lot of engineers who require rather complicated English to describe their work and processes, and using the blue bird and the crazed Wile E. Coyote to practice explaining convoluted situations seems like as good a method as any.

It’s summer time for the majority of the world, and with Tenth Edition out and some of the most prominent Nationals wrapped up, most players are taking time hammering out the new Standard format or getting their Tenth Edition Limited on. Tenth Edition is a fine set to draft with, but it’s a little too straightforward for some. Box Draft is a fine way to break the tedium. It’s a great way to spend some time without dropping a ton of cash.

What is Box draft? Since I’m standing on the shoulders of other writers, I ought to thank them for their previous contributions, even if I’ve had a draft box around since 2001. Ben Bleiweiss wrote a nice little piece on his giant Big Box, while StarCityGames.com casual genius Abe Sargent chronicled his most recent thoughts on box drafts here and here. Building a box draft takes a little more care than Minimaster, though in theory you could do okay by just randomly throwing cards into a box. We’re going to take a look at how to create subtle trends and patterns hidden within the chaos.

Box Limited formats are your personal opportunities to play the role of Wizards R&D. You get control over the range of cards that shows up, and take a random subset of those cards to play out Limited games. The idea is very straightforward.

I’ll get to the basics. Everyone should follow these guidelines for better games, no matter how they’re building their box.

1. Respect the staples.
You can’t have proper Limited Magic without creatures, tricks, and removal. A draft box where Green has all creatures, Black is entirely discard and removal, Blue is all card draw, Red is all burn, and White is all restrictions is a poor draft box. Give every color the regular tools it needs. Limited is usually about creature interactions and card advantage, so start from there.

2. Give everyone a piece of the pie.
Make sure each color excels at doing what it does best. If you’re going to theme Blue as excelling in theft, go ahead and toss Persuasions in as well as the pricier Confiscate. If you’re going to give Red a lot of big, splashy X spells, give them a Kaervek’s Torch or Magma Burst or Fireball. Give Green a critical mass of efficient, powerful men such as Sporesower Thallid, Nessian Courser, and Nantuko Disciple. But don’t be too lavish with the ladling out of goodies. Make sure that almost every card does something.

3. Balance your colors.
You don’t have to be perfectly fair in giving colors bombs. But try to make it equitable. Try to include the same number of cards in each color, but since you’re working with such a large number of cards, you should give yourself permission to deviate slightly. If you’re going to include a lot of multicolored cards, find ways to make it possible for players to play them with a modicum of regularity. Alternately, make the multicolored cards more powerful than the norm in order to reward players who take risks with their manabase.

Incidentally, I build my cube for two-player Winston drafts. The usual schtick is having an unknown pile of 88 cards. One player reveals four cards. That player takes one card, letting the next player take two. The revealing player picks up the last card. Then the next guy reveals four cards and takes one. And so forth. Looking at four cards is not a daunting amount of information most of the time, so the picks go fast. The emotional peak of snatching up goodies when leading gets bundled with the agony of being first when there are three solid cards. Which bomb do you deny your opponent? Why do good cards slip through your fingers?

That isn’t to say that the box doesn’t make for fun booster drafts or Sealed decks. My box’s sitting pretty at 1200 cards. (I picked the number in honor of the legendary Technics turntable series.) There’s a lot of diversity in the box. I also love using it in Minimaster (that’s 15 face down cards shuffled with 2 or 3 of each basic land) to teach new players the range of the game. But every Limited format should have at least a little rhyme and reason. We need some structure to have fun.

My draft box rules:

1. I like playing with powerful, swingy, yet fair cards.

Gray Ogres stink. If they’ve got a fun or powerful mechanic that’s unusual, they’re cool. Slingshot Goblin? He da man.

The overall power level I shoot for is comparable to Time Spiral. Fifty percent solid, forty percent less than optimal but with a shot at brilliance, and ten percent poor.

Hill Giants need to be around in some capacity, and I’m fine with them having a positive ability or drawback that occasionally turns out to be positive. The same goes for Grizzly Bears.

Creatures make up slightly over half of my pool.

2. Cards in colors with out-of-flavor mechanics get priority.

Why do I have this tendency? Because I’m a teacher, and I love seeing people’s reactions to older cards. Hand of Justice is a great example. When has White been all about capitalizing on having more guys in play? They should work together to help each other, not drag the other guy down kicking and screaming! But sometimes, we get to break the rules in a way that makes the game richer.

Sacred cows make delicious hamburgers.

3. Artifacts should be weak, gold cards should be punchy.

Want to see a splashy, colorful card I’ve always had three or four of in my cubes? Try Fire Covenant. This Ice Age uncommon was the first gold card I really loved. It’s a very, very painful Wrath of God that takes out only the creatures you want to get rid of. Yes, it’s swingy. But it hits the nail on where Black and Red make perfect neighbors, and it beats the snot out of the other guy. And it’s an instant, for crying out loud!

Artifacts that do odd, unusual things that don’t fit into the colors are awesome. But what’s so exciting about Rod of Ruin? Yes, it’s a pinger that’s available to everyone, though it’s awfully pricey. I’m much happier with giving Red a favor by including Granite Shard instead of the classic Tim on a Stick.

Another corollary is that you want to keep in mind how many cards in your box are designed to highlight multicolor cooperation. It’s so much easier to bias towards allied cards, simply because there’s so more of them than enemy-aligned gold cards. One way to fix this problem is through morph. Morph is a great fix for adding 23rd cards to low-powered pools. Unfortunately, if you’re playing Winston draft like I am most of the time, the surprise level of a morph is low if you’ve only drafted one. Which is why I bias heavily towards including them.

4. Linear mechanics should get the short end of the stick.

Looking for a skill tester? Throw in a card that is generally recognized as a bomb in a linear-heavy format. Sire of the Storm was a vicious engine in Kamigawa Limited. But in most box drafts, it’s usually an inefficient but still significant flier, and it’s card draw. Arcbound Ravager is a piece of junk.

That isn’t to say that I shouldn’t put in Johnny cards. It’s just that I believe Johnny should be engaged by the wide variety of mechanics interacting with each other rather than looking to exploit a specific one.

5. Have fun by stretching the boundaries once in a while.

It’s important to have the tools to have tense, hard-fought duels. Too many cards that allow blowouts make for tedious games. But it’s important to make sure that everyone gets a chance to laugh. When people read Get A Life for the first time, they groan, then laugh. How horrible a card can you get? The card doesn’t even pretend to be playable. And that thought’s a fun part of Magic too.

A little dash of breaking the fourth wall is great.

6. Worry about fun, not rarity.

That’s my rule. I don’t need to establish verisimilitude to a specific Limited format that I consider ideal. I’m not trying to engineer the most skill-testing, or high-concept, or casual box. I’m just trying to make games as viscerally fun as possible. This draft box bleeds Timmy.

210 White cards (125 creatures)
210 Blue cards (95 creatures)
210 Black cards (110 creatures)
210 Red cards (120 creatures)
210 Green cards (130 creatures)

80 artifact cards (30 creatures)
55 multicolored cards (25 creatures, 20 enemy or three color aligned)
25 non-basic lands

Okay, so the card count got bumped to 1210. Sorry, Technics.

Here’s a random booster I pulled from my box. No, the rarity doesn’t match a real pack. Check out how much awesomeness is in here.

Ancient Hydra
Fading, vanishing, po-tay-to, po-tah-to… okay, this is not the time to argue over nomenclature. Besides, we should all ally together and beat people who pronounce it po-tah-to over the head with baby seals. This tight little package comes with a whole lot of shootiness. You can get two turn’s investment of ten mana for a Rolling Thunder-like effect, and possibly sneak a swing or two in.

Playing Ancient Hydra reminds me of playing Civilization II. The ability to manage sharply restricted resources is an exciting one.

Dauthi Jackal
This is the sort of three-drop that excites me. Yes, it has shadow, a mechanic that I don’t care for. Shadow reduces the amount of interaction in creature combat, and I enjoy a good tooth and claw scrap. But Jackal makes up for the blah interaction by adding the potential to take out a nasty blocker. Smell the options.

Dragon Scales
Limited Magic is often a battle over inches. Dueling back and forth for supremacy, monsters go head to head and knock each other out. Dragon Scales has remarked impact for two mana by allowing a guy to attack and stick around, doubling a typical Limited creature’s efficiency. It allows Gray Ogres with tap abilities to get involved in the fray. And if worst comes to worst and the opponent gets rid of your scaly beater, then you can just wait until you drop an authentic fattie, and that fattie gains that much more of an edge. Rinse and repeat for best use.

I love a stealthy little bargain. Dragon Scales is a gem and should be in your draft box. Throw in a Holy Strength or two and teach people the value of good investments.

Can you believe that this Core Set staple didn’t see the light of day until Tempest? This guy’s blacker than a Spinal Tap album cover. He’s reasonably costed, and an absolute staple of Black. Gravedigger is a staple and far more fun than moldy old Raise Dead. Then again, Raise Dead is a whole lot cheaper to play.

In a box of 2000 cards, I’d include 3 Gravediggers and 2 Raise Deads, to highlight the mana cost quandary.

Hanabi Blast
There’s a game within a game here. What’s not to love? Every time this card sees play, the table’s tension rises.

Hurloon Wrangler
Well, there’s something to be said for Red evasion creatures. I once made a draft box for a Canadian couple living in Osaka who wanted to have a new game to play with each other. I made sure to add three of these in there.

Magic cards as incitement to romance? Who knew?

This is a singleton in my box. Really. Hurloon Wrangler is not something you want to break out on the general population for the most part.

Magus of the Mirror
I’ve seen the eyes of players who manage to sneak this into play light up as they realize all the chicanery they can pull off with this guy. This guy makes for fantastic stories.

Nantuko Vigilante
Friendly to multicolor decks, this card is a fine replacement for Naturalize. I love playing this guy in Prismatic. The Vigilante is a surefire crowd pleaser.

When there are so few ways to give Dr. Teeth evasion in Limited, he’s quite fair.

Sakura-Tribe Springcaller
This guy is much beefier than lowly Wood Elves, and gives similar acceleration. Hitting five mana is never a bad thing, and you never have to burn.

Shoreline Ranger
Nothing beats the pleasure of choosing a passably-costed flier or grabbing an Island from your deck now. Then again, maybe I have low standards. This guy is a great tool for building forgiving manabases. It’s a great object lesson for new players.

Spike Colony
Are you good at resource management? You had better be, because once Spike Colony hits the table on the opponent’s side, there’s no room for error. Green mages will fall in love with this card because they’ve finally got something to do with all that mana! I can’t believe the Colony was a common.

Splurge a little and buy a few from Pete. You’ll thank me for it.

Sylvan Might
An amazing near-Constructed level combat trick that reincarnates itself as a potent on-board trick. The bit about giving Trample is what puts it over the top. Be careful. A little flashback goes a long way in a draft box, as it’s rare to have graveyard hate in such a broad format.

Timberwatch Elf
There are so many Green creature types printed that it’s unusual to see more than five elves in a draft box format. Timberwatch Elf is nothing near the bomb that it was in Onslaught Limited, but it’s still a decent value for the price. The real tension comes when your opponent has to decide whether it’s worth it or not to play Elves of his own.

Heh heh heh. Mana Short, tap all your men at the beginning of your combat phase, a mass untap of blockers, mana acceleration… pick one. There’s always going to be a vicious option.

I wouldn’t put four Turnabouts in a box. One is plenty. This trick’s a little too hefty to see regularly for my taste.

Pretty awesome pack, isn’t it?

This summer, Wizards handed me the most awesome set of all time for this particular draft box… Future Sight. Future Sight is filled with unique, flavorful mechanics like Transfigure and Delve. I love innovation, and Future Sight is crammed with it. Dryad Arbor immediately gets the nod for the box for its uniqueness. (And to be frank, I don’t think it should be ever promoted to a cycle.) Tombstalker and Death Rattle blend seamlessly into the box, with delve just as natural and flavorful for Black as any other Black aligned mechanic.

Don’t walk away thinking that this is the best style of draft box out there. Make your own and test it out with your friends. Building a draft box is a great way of uncovering territory in Magic you haven’t explored before.

Eli Kaplan
turboeli on MTGO
(Who really wants to see a draft box system implemented in 3.0…)