Pharaoh Bolas

Next Friday, the Amonkhet set will release to the world. I for one am glad we are leaving the incomprehensible Eldrazi behind for a more tangible villain, the evil Planeswalker dragon Nicol Bolas. And while there aren’t that many cards yet that explicitly hint at his presence, I’m sure Hour of Devastation will bring him fully into the picture. Amonkhet, a land of Pharaohs, animal headed gods and pyramids provides a colorful if haunting background to all this.

The Goodies

Amonkhet is an original set that introduces a new card frame (which is either exciting or annoying, depending on your disposition) and re-introduces an old favorite, cycling. I think Wizards has hit the mark on most new abilities, and I think Amonkhet limited will be a blast to play. Cycling is a great ability for Battle Box, as it gives players options that are clear yet challenging. As always, I will give the caveat that drawing cards is more powerful in Battle Box than it is in regular Magic, so the most powerful cycling cards are likely too powerful (powerful measured mainly by how cheap the card is to cycle, more than the power of the effect you’re getting). Embalm gives us a way to use creatures a second time and Exert is a great Battle Box mechanism because the trade-off gives interesting decisions that will work exactly as designed (because no card draw or library manipulation is involved). I was a bit down on the brick mechanic at first, but I’m starting to come around on it. I still think the current brick cards have little place in Battle Box, but that has more to do with the individual cards than with the mechanic in principle. Finally, the new split cards give us a new way to get two uses out of a card, which is something I can always get behind. Let’s dig a little deeper into each mechanic and see what we can find.


Besides Black and Blue, zombies have now gone full Esper and are appearing in white for the first time. Partly, I’m a little sad they didn’t decide to make Mummy a proper creature type, but I do get the need for backwards compatibility. I think Embalm is a simple mechanic which works similar to Unearth, except the token stays around. It also works nicely with Cycling, obviously. The big downside to this is that Amonkhet now necessarily comes with a big load of tokens. For a token fetishist like myself this is a problem, as I now need to make extra room in my token section for every Embalm creature I include. That said, I do like the mechanic, and I think it will be easier to include than Unearth. As always, I must caution against overloading your Battle Box with cards that have high activation costs, because in Battle Box your hand often has so many options that the secondary uses of cards (designed by Wizards mainly to generate card advantage in the later stages of the game) are often the worst choice. I think Embalm has a place in Battle Box, but use it judiciously.

Exert and Bricks

In principle, Exert should be great. You get to trade in a creature’s next untap for an additional effect this turn. I think exert will be difficult to properly evaluate at first, because of the human tendency to prefer rewards now instead of later. It will take some getting used to, but I think when we get the hang of it, the choice to Exert or not will become ever more interesting.

Bricks are a tricky one. Initially, I thought the bricks suffered the problem of multiple activation costs before getting a reward (like for example Grimoire of the Dead), usually a recipe for Battle Box disaster. Bricks are slightly more subtle though. You get a reward with every activation, but once you’ve gone through 3 activations further activations become cheaper and/or more powerful. Unfortunately, two out of the three current Brick cards center on card draw and mana ramp, both of which are tricky in Battle Box. Regardless of current playability, the Bricks cards are great news because I think they are a plant for the return of Proliferate in either Hour of Devastation or maybe Ixalan (the fall set). If Proliferate isn’t back within the next half year, I will eat each and every copy of Nicol Bolas I have.

The new split cards

It feels like the new split cards would have worked great with some sort of universal cycling enabler, but either Wizards wasn’t able to balance that design or it will come up in the next set. I like the split cards, although similar to Embalm they come with the disclaimer that too many play options outside a player’s hand don’t make for a good Battle Box experience. So pick the cards you like, but keep their numbers modest. On a slightly related note, the sheer number of new useful graveyard mechanics might necessitate the inclusion of a little extra graveyard hate into Battle Boxes. Ideally, this would be pinpoint removal like Scavenging Ooze rather than blanket hate like Rest in Peace.

The Amonkhet Top 20

As usual, I will finish my set review with what I think are the best Battle Box cards. This is certainly partly down to taste, so your list may look completely different. If you feel I’ve overlooked an obvious winner, please share this in the comments.

20. Cartouche of Knowledge
I have no clue what a Cartouche is, but I think giving a creature a permanent +1/+1 and flying with a cantrip is definitely worth 2 mana. It looks very innocuous, but I think it will likely be a powerhouse.

19. Prepare – Fight
The first split card on this list. Because the top half is an instant, you want your guy to live through combat so you can use the second part later during your turn. You could of course hold off using the second part, but that would make you miss out on the possible lifelink bonus.

18. Stir the Sands
Straight up token makers are usually nice in Battle Box. And although 6 mana is a little high, you can easily cycle it earlier in the game to get one zombie and a card.

17. Angler Drake
Paying 6 mana for a 4/4 flyer equals a 1 turn delay in Battle Box. For that extra turn, you get to bounce one of your opponent’s creatures, thus removing a blocker and forcing them to cast it again the next turn. I would probably not play this in a draft deck, but with the 1 land per turn guarantee of the Battle Box format, I think the card is fine.

16. Khenra Charioteer
A 3/3 trampler for 3 mana is a fine rate. Giving your other creatures trample will sometimes be meaningless but has the potential to be a blowout on some occasions. I have considered including Gruul War Plow before, and this is better by almost any measure.

15. Insult – Injury
I didn’t think damage prevention is a big thing, but Wizards keeps trying to cripple it with clauses (it reminds me of the “can’t be regenerated” clause they were using as if regeneration was the most oppressive effect in Magic). Anyway, doubling your damage output for a turn is nice, and if you have enough mana left for the second hand, you could easily take out a blocker and deal some serious direct damage on top.

14. Start – Finish
Three mana is a bit much for two 1/1 creatures, but vigilance could actually allow you to ping your opponent while still leaving up your fresh chump blockers. I like Bone Splinters as a card, and having a slightly more expensive one in my graveyard for when it’s needed is great.

13. Vizier of Many Faces
Clone variant you can get 2 uses out of. It is no secret that I like my Clones, so there should be no surprises here.

12. Cartouche of Strength
Boosting your biggest creature in a relevant way while also potentially removing an opponent’s troublesome creature is nice value. For a common, this seems quite strong.

11. Glorybringer
The first Exert creature that was spoiled, and certainly one of the nicer ones. A 4/4 flyer with haste is nice value for 5 mana, so the Exert ability is really just gravy. Evaluating the trade off between dealing 4 damage to an opponent’s creature or getting to swing with your dragon again next turn will be harder than it looks.

10. Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons
A fiddly value card, but the reward is quite substantial. As a 2/2, she probably needs some help to get the damage through, but most Battle Boxes have plenty of ways to do that. If you have any other -1/-1 counters in your Box, she will get more useful fast.

9. Edifice of Authority
The only Bricks card that I think works fine in Battle Box. Using one mana to turn off an attacker is actually quite a good rate, and once you have done this three times, it becomes even more powerful, turning off blockers and potential threats.

8. Mouth – Feed
Two words: Hippo token. Plus it’s not a bad card.

7. Never – Return
Both halves of the card are not cheap, and the two abilities are not very synergistic, so I expect the halves to be used at separate moments most of the time. Both halves are fine, although unconditional removal is quite powerful so if you already have many of these effects, consider cutting one of those to be replaced.

6. Heart-Piercer Manticore
It’s a lot of words to say fling on a stick, but I really like the card. It’s effect forces some tough decisions, and you even get to do it twice (for a hefty fee, but still). Make sure your creature count is at least 50% before including this.

5. Heaven – Earth
I think both Windstorm and Earthquake are great Battle Box cards, so having both at once seems like a great-great-card to me. If you can’t use the Heaven part, remember you can send it to your graveyard by just paying 1 green mana.

4. Sweltering Suns
I like Anger of the Gods and I don’t think the Battle Box format needs the Exile clause because it will hit both players equally. Adding cycling also prevents this from sitting useless in your hand, so I really like this.

3. Oketra’s Attendant
Nothing too flashy, but cycling and embalm make for a nice combination (which I’m surprised wasn’t used more) which gives this card a swiss army knife feel. I think unflashy, versatile cards are what fuels Battle Box experiences, which is why I put it this high on the list.

2. Cast Out
An Oblivion Ring with flash might already be worth 4 mana, but with cycling this is certainly a great card. The fact that it cycles very cheaply means you can almost always trade this if your opponent has no likely targets. Versatile and reasonably powerful, an admittedly obvious no. 2.

1. Champion of Rhonas
The last exert card. Even if the Champion can be blocked, there is no way to prevent a player from playing a creature card. When you can construct a deck around this, I would be worried about Griselbrands and Emrakuls clogging up the place, but in a Battle Box, the creature quality is usually more homogenous so I don’t expect big problems. Perhaps the best comparison is to Elvish Piper. This needs to attack to get the effect, but on the other hand it has a better board presence and is a little less vulnerable to direct damage. We’ll see how it plays, but my hopes are high.

Which once again brings us to the end of our Top 20. I really think Amonkhet has many great Battle Box cards, and I think it is a set with a lot of Mini Battle Box potential. I’m not sure when I can get around to it, but I am planning to add an Amonkhet Mini Battle Box in the near future. Until then, all hail Pharaoh Bolas!