Fun in Commander comes from the community where we play. Even though in each individual game we should be trying to win, we serve our community best by being team players. More experienced players we have an obligation to help make sure everyone understands what is going on in a game and has a way to participate. Giving advice helps, but usually it is a delayed kind of help. A player with a weak deck will have to wait until a week or two after getting advice to really be able to implement the suggestions. There is a way to get around this delay.
The Battle Box
A Battle Box is something you can keep at your house or in your car. In this box you keep a deck doctor’s kit comprised of inexpensive yet helpful cards. These cards can be donated to players who are disappointed with the performance of their decks. On the more selfish side, this also gives you a place to start building budget decks. It also provides an area to store cards that are useful, but not valuable enough to take up space in a trade binder.
Building a Battle Box is cheap and easy. You can make it from your dollar rare box, bulk cards, and draft leavings. The hardest part about building a Battle Box is knowing what to look for. Personally, I split mine into 10 categories of cards that I keep an eye out for;
- Spot Creature Removal
- Spot Enchantment/Artifact Removal
- Mass Removal
- Card Draw
- Creature Buffs
- Loop Utility
Spot Creature Removal
Unless a player is building a control deck, one of the primary weaknesses I see in newly built decks is a lack of answers. Players tend to prefer to play fun cards over cards that keep them alive. If we plan to help out decks that can’t seem to win, we should pack some ways not to lose.
I find that it helps to be a bit selective with removal that kills a single creature at a time. The inherent disadvantage that comes with trying to remove a single creature is that you will generally be trading one for one. In a group of four that means you and the player who’s creature you kill are each down a card relative to the other players at the table, who enjoy sitting there, watching as you burn resources that help protect them from a threat. So you want spot removal to come with card advantage whenever possible. Utility creatures are the most obvious option for soft card advantage. So for white, you can put Banisher Priest, Fiend Hunter, or Luminate Primordial into your box.
The other type of spot removal to look for is tuck. At more affordable mana costs they efficiently counteract the advantage a general can bring to the game. They also are a decent answer for the increasing number of indestructible permanents running around in games. Look for cards like Spin Into Myth or Condemn to help out your friends who keep getting destroyed by unopposed generals.
Spot Non-Creature Removal
Good non-creature removal has all the attributes of good spot creature removal. The difference here isn’t so much in the selection of cards as how you have to present them to new players. Commander games are flooded with awesome artifacts and enchantments. This makes figuring out which ones are truly threatening a daunting prospect for newer players. You can hand a player with a Kemba deck a Leonin Relic Warder, a Return to Dust, and an Oblation, but those cards won’t help if the player doesn’t know what to target.
Here is the logic I tell new players to look out for on artifacts and enchantments;
“Whenever x happens, y happens.”
Look at cards like Rings of Brighthearth, Sanguine Bond, Mana Reflection, Mana Echoes, Intruder Alarm, or Cathar’s Crusade. Getting effects without having to exhaust a card (tap it) means that even if something is currently innocuous, it can and will be abused. There are other threats, but that is a great starting point for cutting down on surprise losses.
Something I catch myself being short on a little too often is mass removal. Newer or budget decks may continuously lose when the table gets into an arms race and they are not equipped to keep up. It is incredibly difficult to fix a deck to put it on par with these arms races. It’s much easier to suggest and donate a handful of spells that reset the board and bring everything down to their level.
Prior to New Phyrexia/Return to Mirrodin, mass removal spells where few and far between. Since then, Wizards has printed several new options and they can be included on a budget. Outside All is Dust, Damnation, and Austere Command, most Wrath of God variants run below $5. Personally, I like cards like Life’s Finale and Phyrexian Rebirth for donating. They are a little expensive mana-wise, but they get the job done and have a little extra utility to spare.
Tutors serve two major purposes in Commander. They give spike players a way to make their decks nearly as consistent as 60-card competitive decks. They also give newer players the option of running just a few expensive cards, but still having a way to find them. There are a few tutors that are highly expensive, but most are very cheap. Affordable tutors tend to have higher mana costs, like Rune-Scarred Demon and Brutalizer Exarch, or have them be corner-case tutors such as Flamkin Harbinger or Artificer’s Intuition.
Tutors aren’t something I normally recommend people play in their decks. I will suggest them in decks that contain a toolbox of options, but currently have no way of grabbing specific tools. One of my friends was playing a Kemba deck with lots of fun equipment. I recommended adding Taj-Nar Swordsmith, Stonehewer Giant, and Steelshaper’s Gift so that he wasn’t relying solely on luck to get the equipment he needed in any given situation.
If a player has a pretty balanced deck, but continually runs out of gas I turn to the card draw section of the box. I don’t keep many single use spells in this section. I’d much rather hand someone a Puresteel Paladin, Sphinx of Magosi, or Diviner’s Wand than something like Brainstorm. When we decide to help people out, we want to try a lesson at the same time.
If someone uses the cards we give them and doesn’t notice much of a difference, they miss the lesson. In the Brainstorm example, they might play it and have a little boost but gas out again soon after. That could lead them to conclude that what their deck needs is just more card draw. If they have a Sphinx of Magosi and still can’t seem to keep the deck moving, it suggests that instead of more gas, they need gassier gas. Their problem is not card draw.
Ramp is something that I play a lot of. Most of the time when I give advice, I recommend more ramp in one form or another. The nice thing about putting ramp into the box is that 90% of it is cheap. For this, I like to load up on the older stuff that newer players may not have seen before. Signets, Wayfarer’s Bauble, and Talisman are nice to have on hand. Also, having a few of the color specific ramp cards can help teach new players to break free from staples. I really like cards like Kor Cartographer, Skirk Prospector, and Magus of the Coffers for showing players that there are options for ramp outside green and artifacts.
In a similar vein to the previous categories, players often forget to include utility cards when they are first building Commander decks. Many developed Commander groups have the mindset that if you aren’t abusing your graveyard, you are doing something wrong. New players often need to learn this lesson.
I prefer recursion cards that can either get back a lot of cards, like Marshal’s Anthem or that can continually bring back cards like Phyrexian Rebirth orNim Deathmantle. To be honest, you can’t go wrong with what you store in this section. If you are helping someone whose deck lacks recursion, anything that does the job is valuable to them, regardless of the sticker price.
Unlike recursion, we need to be very selective when deciding which creature pumps, or “anthems” we keep in the box. We will want to recommend these cards to players who have a decent deck, but just can’t punch through that final bit of damage. For example, I had a friend who was using Glorious Anthem style effects in his token deck. The deck ran decently, but couldn’t seem to come out on top during group games. I shared [my rule for mass creature buffs. I try to always get either three or more power from a spell ]or double damage. Cards such as Cathar’s Crusade and Mirror Entity pull so much more weight in Commander than the traditional anthems.
This section is all in the name. I store all my extra non-basics here so I can donate them to people who need color fixing or additional utility in their deck. You would be surprised how many decks can be fixed by simply adding a handful of lands that tap for more than one color or have a marginal spell ability.
Once a deck has been stabilized and can punch through every now and then, we can turn to the hidden gems in the battle box. In my last slot I keep cards that are components in various value engines. In the case where someone has half of an engine, this section allows me to show them why other people may like a card that they aren’t getting much use out of.
If someone just bought a commander precon that has Well of Lost Dreams inside it, I can pull out Words of Worship to show them why both of those cards are awesome. I love to include cards that allow players to untap permanents in this section, such as Clock of Omens, Umbral Mantle and Filigree Sages. It’s always a joy to see the look on a player’s face when they discover what their Lux Cannon or Avatar of Woe can really do.
There are quite a few cards currently sitting in my battle box. I’ll try to get an example of a box up in the next few weeks in case anyone would like to see anymore examples of cards I recommend including.
As always, if you are having any issues with your deck or would just like another set of eyes to go over it, please feel free to email me at email@example.com