This autumn, Magic: The Gathering returns to the fan-favorite plane of Zendikar in the Zendikar Rising expansion, and today’s article will explore the application of the cards from the upcoming release for Battle Box play. I’ll also, as always, bring an update to my personal stack: The Danger Room.
The article you’re about to read has become my longest-standing MTG tradition: The Battle Box / Danger Room review. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, a need for social distancing, a turbulent political climate, and a design as well as gameplay that has out of necessity responded to our changing world by trending toward online players more so than the dormant cardboard contingent, I recognize this article series is what connects my past, present, and future MTG experience into something familiar and recognizable, at least to me, in a moment where everything is changing fast.
I came up with the idea for my first Battle Box over a decade ago when I played a ton of competitive Magic. Over and over, I see people posing the question on social media: “What is the difference between casual and competitive MTG?”
For me, the delineation is simple, the most important attribute of competitive Magic is whether you win or lose; in casual Magic, winning and losing take a backseat to the enjoyment of the gaming experience and having fun.
The Danger Room was designed to be my MTG “Happy Place.” Back when I traveled and competed in a lot of tournaments, it always came with me and was the compartmentalization of the elements of Magic I truly loved that didn’t directly translate to competitive tournament results. The purpose of traveling across the country may have been to scrape together more Pro Points, but what I really looked forward to getting to sit down in a cafe or hotel lobby and play some fun, friendly games with other skilled Magicians where the pass or fail of wins and losses was replaced by fun, friendly games full of completely unfamiliar and exciting play patterns.
If you’re just poking in, or new to the format, and would like a more formal introduction to how to get started, I wrote an intro article back in January about the fundamentals of the format, as well as a list for a very good, compact, budget starter stack.
Speaking of budget friendliness, I’ve made a concerted effort over the past several years to be cost conscious in my content. Collecting the cards is a fundamental part of the MTG experience and when I add new cards to the Danger Room I try to give players the absolute most bang for their back. Magic, especially competitive Magic, has become increasingly cost-prohibitive for many players, and not only is investing into individual cards expensive but those investments tend to be fleeting, as these cards are now frequently banned or replaced in metagames by even more powerful designs.
The great thing about a Battle Box (or, Pauper, the other format I choose to write about) is that it tends to get a ton of play for a relatively modest investment. Building and writing about Danger Room, at least for me, is the best gig in MTG because it ultimately boils down to exploring which cards I think are objectively the most fun and putting them into the most interesting context possible!
I’ve been tuning, updating, and exploring my own format for a decade and the blueprint has always been:
If I could sit down with a friend and just start playing super fun, intriguing games of Magic, what would those games look and feel like? How can I continue the evolution of making my format even better, more fun, and more accessible to more players?
One way has been to participate in dialogue with other Battle Boxers from all around the world and take input and feedback about various cards they enjoy or don’t enjoy. I love to play other player’s stacks to see how their vision of idealized fun MTG plays out on the battlefield. If you have ideas, suggestions, or feedback I’m always interested in hearing it, so feel free to drop me a comment below or hit me up on social media, @briandemars1.
Zendikar Rising in the Battle Box, Abstract
Zendikar Rising, by most observable metrics, seems like it should be a terrible Battle Box set, as the majority of the set are built around three synergy keyword mechanics that range from poorly positioned to unplayable for my Danger Room stack.
- Double-Faced Land Cards
The reason the land-based mechanics don’t work is that in a Battle Box the cultivation of mana is a fixed resource. Each player has equal access to the same mana production at all points in the game:
- Thriving Isle
- Thriving Moor
- Thriving Heath
- Thriving Grove
- Thriving Bluff
FYI, I really like what the Thriving Lands bring to the table as opposed to the Invasion Lands.
While I do think landfall cards are potentially playable in a stack, I don’t like the dynamic where there’s no way to generate more than one trigger per turn, nor do I like how once all ten lands are deployed there’s no way to generate additional triggers.
The third keyword, party, is a deckbuilding keyword that requires players gravitate toward a tribal theme to ensure their cards do what they are supposed to. In a format like Battle Box where players share a stack and don’t preselect which cards to include or omit, a mechanic that is informed by drawing specific synergy cards for support is too unreliable.
I certainly think somebody could build a very cool Zendikar trilogy Battle Box that brings these and other Zendikar mechanics to the forefront, but that’s not the particular flavor of my personal stack, as I try to encompass broader and more abstract MTG themes from across the games entire history.
With that said, Zendikar Rising has a surprisingly large and quality selection of off-mechanic cards that to me feel Classic MTG and will be right at home in my Danger Room stack. So, let’s get to it!
The Danger Room by Brian DeMars
The sheer magnitude of cards in the stack has typically led to some mistakes in the list. I’m going to try my best to get everything as correct as possible this time around. If you notice three cards being added, and only two cards coming out, it’s because the list from the previous article was one card short, that kind of thing.
Artifacts & Colorless: 60 Cards
Phyrexian Furnace was a placeholder card until something more useful came along and I was also short an artifact in the previous article – I’m stoked to add both new Zendikar Rising artifacts! I like the dynamic that cheap equipment like Cliffhaven Kitesail brings to the stack, but it’s a little awkward to have another card that’s similar to Kitesail. I could see eventually replacing whichever one I like less to make room for a more unique artifact design in the future.
Myriad Construct, on the other hand, seems extremely unique especially for an artifact creature. Also, not the fact that its triggered ability only recognizes being targeted by spells and not abilities, including ETB triggers. It’s also a nice upside to have a four-drop that can scale as a big mana sink in the late game.
Danger Room – Artifacts & Colorless
Multicolored: 280 Cards
3-Color Shards & Wedges: 30 Cards
- No Changes
Danger Room – 3-Color Shards & Wedges
Guild (2-Color) Multicolor Spells: 250, 25 of Each Combination
Azorius: 25 Cards
- No Changes
Danger Room – Azorius
Boros: 25 Cards
I was one Boros card short last time and so I’m able to free-roll Akiri, Fearless Voyager. It’s lucky there was such a nice Boros addition in the set!
I absolutely love the power level of multicolor CMC = 3 for a 3/3 with relevant, but not dominant, abilities in my stack. It’s sort of a baseline staple that I think about when adjusting the stack (in the same way that guildmages serve as my baseline CMC = two creatures).
Efficient equipment is something I’m always on the lookout for when reviewing a new set because I think it plays nicely with my combat-oriented stack and gives players a relevant mana sink in the later stages of the game. With that said, I’m a little bit short on great equipment and so I think Akiri is a solid inclusion that will likely improve in value over time as I’m able to reach a higher critical mass of relevant equipment.
Danger Room – Boros
Dimir: 25 Cards
- No Changes
Danger Room – Dimir
Golgari: 25 Cards
I’ve already talked about CMC = 3 for a 3/3 with a solid ability being a guiding baseline of my stack and I see Grakmaw as a well above average three drop for my stack. I’m always a fan of creatures that leave something behind when they die, as that tends to serve as a form of checks and balances against sweepers, which while I think are necessary, tend to be among the most powerful and impactful cards in the stack.
I’m also a sucker for a cool looking hydra! It’s also of note that Grakmaw generates some synergies with +1/+1 counters. I’ve never found there to be enough modular style cards to make that mechanic something I’d consider to be supported in my Danger Room, but I’m approaching the critical mass of flexible counters cards where some of the counters matter tagged on abilities that felt arbitrary before are starting to feel more relevant.
One of the biggest things I look for when adding Battle Box cards is how flexible and synergistic a card can be with as many different types of cards as possible, while also maintaining an acceptable power level where a card doesn’t stand out as being too weak or too game warping.
Danger Room – Golgari
Gruul: 25 Cards
- No Changes
Danger Room – Gruul
Izzet: 25 Cards
- No Changes
Danger Room – Izzet
Orzhov: 25 Cards
- No Changes
Danger Room – Orzhov
Rakdos: 25 Cards
- No Changes
Danger Room – Rakdos
Selesnya: 25 Cards
- No Changes
Danger Room – Selesnya
Simic: 25 Cards
The elusive, and seldom seen, Simic card that doesn’t make mana and draw cards at the same time!
I’m just happy to get Ice-Fang Coatl out of my stack. I’ve never been a fan of doing the dance between pretending cards work or rebuilding the mechanics of my game for specific cards. Either it works, or it doesn’t!
Verazol also facilitates some +1/+1 counters themes and there are a fair number of kicker spells to potentially copy as well. In general, creatures like this that scale to fit every possible spot on the curve tend to be pretty good in Battle Box. It’s so important to use mana as efficiently as possible that cards with flexible costs tend to be solid.
Danger Room – Simic
Mono-Color Spells: 500 Cards
White: 100 Cards
I’m a big fan of Luminarch Aspirant, it seems fun and powerful. The ability to net a +1/+1 counter on any creature you control each turn is great and as long as the card is deployed pre-combat it generates a counter the turn it enters play for immediate impact.
The thing I like most about Luminarch Aspirant is that it generates ongoing advantage for was long as it remains in play without requiring additional mana to be spent. It’s extremely important especially in the early turns when Mana is tightly constrained.
Brightling is the exact opposite! It simply requires too much mana to be effective at any point other the endgame when both players are low on cards to leverage.
Danger Room – White
Blue: 100 Cards
I was somehow short a few blue cards last time and so I’m able to add without making cuts, which is great news as cutting blue cards always stings!
Thieving Skydiver is an incredible Magic card that is pretty clearly designed to be a powerhouse in Eternal formats. A 2/1 flier for two with the ability to take control of an opponent’s card for kicker X is sort of crazy. I’m also surprised the artifact that is “stolen” isn’t returned when or if Skydiver leaves play. I cut Steal Artifact a while back because it simply wasn’t flexible enough and so I’m going to give Thieving Skydiver a try.
I have nothing but high hopes for Windrider Wizard. I used to enjoy Murder of Crows, a card with a similar ability to generate loot triggers but paying five for a body that requires more work to generate incidental value is subpar in my stack. However, such an ability (better, even) on a smaller body three-drop is a better spread of stats for my stack.
Also, you know a card is going to be pure gas when it shares a name with a Warhammer 40K Eldar unit!
Danger Room – Blue
Black: 100 Cards
Skulls were overrepresented by one card last time and so I needed to cut an extra black spell to bring it back to an even 100. Black is the deepest color in the Battle Box, and I could easily name 75 acceptable cards that could fill a space if necessary. With that said, now it’s gotten to the point where I can be extremely picky about how I want to use my black spells because there are so many viable replacements.
You’ll also notice that I cut three cards with a casting cost of BB. Obviously, BB is a difficult casting cost to deploy on the second turn because of the tapped lands. I’m sad to see Hymn to Tourach exit, but with the added emphasis on combat and board presence, I didn’t feel like it was a great fit. In general, there’s enough new targeted discard (which plays better).
Bloodchief’s Thirst seems great. I love how it’s an efficient way to pull from behind against aggressive starts, but also scales up to be a flexible removal spell once bigger creatures start to appear.
Danger Room – Black
Red: 100 Cards
Red gets to add a couple of really solid two-drops this time around. Fissure Wizard seems like a great early drop that lets a player freely cycle away a card they don’t need in search of something more relevant. Magmatic Channeler seems absurdly great by providing presence and selection.
I’m big fan of looting effects in the format. It’s sort of a natural cap on situational cards since it provides players with opportunities to turn them into something more useful in situations where they don’t play well.
Danger Room – Red
Green: 100 Cards
There were a couple of other green cards I considered, but ultimately I only went with Inscription of Abundance in my stack. To be honest, I have no idea how good or bad this flexible combat trick will be in actual game play, but I tend to believe it will be pretty decent. Interesting combat tricks are hard to come by. For the most part the template for the best combat tricks are cards like Blossoming Defense which can also be used to counter targeted removal and/or push a creature over the top of another creature in combat.
I’m interested in Inscription because it does a few different things, including functioning as conditional removal, and I really like the lifegain sort of tagged on.
I ended up cutting Mouth // Feed because it’s one of the last bastions of over the top, irrecoverable card advantage left in the stack. I missed it as an oversight the last time I tuned up my box, but it was one of those cards where if you can stabilize the board and cast the second half – GG. I wanted to move away from having individual cards that draw huge quantities of cards in one efficient investment of mana.
Danger Room – Green
I was a little bit worried that all of the landfall, double-faced land, and party keyword cards would lead to Zendikar Rising being an uneventful set for my Battle Box, but it turns out to be quite the opposite!
I really like a lot of the designs I’ve added to my stack and think my stack will be more fun to play for the effort.
My Top 8 Battle Box Favorites from Zendikar Rising
- Windrider Wizard
- Grakmaw, Skyclave Ravager
- Inscription of Abundance
- Luminarch Aspirant
- Magmatic Channeler
- Myriad Construct
- Nighthawk Scavenger
- Akiri, Fearless Voyager
Windrider Wizard earns my checkmark for favorite card in the set for Danger Room, and also really enjoy Luminarch Aspirant for a similar reason. I’m a fan of creatures that sit in play and generate incremental advantage without an investment of mana. It’s something I’d like to see more of in my stack as long as it hits the sweet spot in terms of how much it costs to play relative to what it does. There’s lots of examples, such as Monastery Mentor, that provide a similar type of effect but at a rate that is just too outrageously powerful. A free loot or +1/+1 counter is good enough to make a difference in a game without immediately taking over the game by virtue of being deployed and not being removed immediately.
Overall, I’m impressed with the quality of the cards I put onto my top eight list. These cards are all sweet and I’m looking forward to adding them to my Danger Room and playing with them.
Are there any Battle Box staples that I may have missed that you’re excited to try out? Let the other readers and I know in the comments below, or feel free to hit me up on Twitter. I’m always down to talk #Battlebox – builds, card choices, and/or themes.