What if you could play hundreds of the best cards in Magic and not worry about mana? Isn't it cool to think about drawing off the top of a giant deck and playing what comes up?
The Danger Room is a new way to play Magic. It uses a shared box of cards, meaning that you can play it with everyone, and it is very simple to learn. It was designed by my teammate Brian Demars to evoke a certain kind of Magic game. The Danger Room excites me more than just about any other format at the moment and I am eager to share the game with you.
Brian plays a lot of Magic and observed that most of the time, he wasn't getting what he came for in his games, no matter what the format. He concluded that:
25% of the time, one player wins a game of Magic because the other player got mana-screwed
25% of the time, one player wins because the other player got mana-flooded
25% of the time, one player wins because they played a huge bombastic unanswerable spell, like Cruel Ultimatum
The last 25% of the time, both players get to cast a lot of spells, they trade monsters in combat and play an enjoyable, long game of Magic.
The Danger Room aims to slice off that last quarter of games and maximize their potential. This means that the games typically last awhile – 20 minutes to half an hour, at least. They are filled with interesting combinations and card trades and they don't have the hallmarks of frustration that can plague a typical game – you're stuck on two lands while an Insectile Aberration is crashing into you, for example.
The variant rules are simple.
1. Each player begins with the following ten cards in a pile off to the side:
Each turn, a player can select one of these lands and put it into play.
2. Players start the game with six cards and have a maximum hand size of nine cards.
3. Since both players are technically playing off the top of the same, giant deck, cards that are shuffled in or put on the bottom of the library are exiled instead for expediency.
And that's it! The rest of the game is played as normal.
How is The Danger Room deck designed? What makes it different from other formats?
Players use a big, shared deck that looks sort of like a Cube deck. It contains hundreds of cards and the player isn't sure what they'll draw that turn. It contains no lands. The Danger Room deck is crafted to be at a certain power level, which is what makes the game really interesting. The power level is above an uncommons-only Cube, but far below a regular Cube. It's sort of like a really, really good draft deck. There are plenty of rares in the deck, which is a deckbuilding aspect that gives it a huge edge over peasant and pauper Cubes; you can play the good sweepers. Cards like Wrath of God and Pernicious Deed act as useful and necessary safety valves on the board. People who have played Pauper Cube can sympathize with the unfortunate board gummed up with lots of weenies and no way to break out. The Danger Room uses all-star cards from Limited, workhorse uncommons and unloved rares from Magic past. You'll never draw a card in the format and wonder why it's so crummy, why something more powerful wasn't included.
The most incredible part of the deckbuilding aspect is that there is absolutely nothing that alters the way you play lands and cast spells on sequence. There is not a single Signet nor Stone Rain. Nothing either player does can accelerate them or slow their opponent's mana production. This is a major appeal for me because it means that you can cast the things that you draw, make plans, and not have to outrace the opponent's mana production. In a format with no other acceleration, a card as simple as Avacyn's Pilgrim can be highly distorting to gameplay. I get that Signets are a big part of the Cube experience, but I want to play awesome spells and not draw mana fixers. Danger Room decks draw business every single turn and the power each player wields can change dramatically in a draw step.
To advance the goal of long, interesting games, The Danger Room is built with a defensive mind. If there are cards that are a little too powerful, it's better that they are defensive and not offensive. For example, Ivory Tower and Fog Bank are excellent defensive cards, and they're both in the deck. However, Overrun effects can potentially end a game, off the top, with a single card; there are far fewer of them. I'd rather have a Grizzled Leotau than Geist of Saint Traft come up. Of course, there are plenty of cards that can and do win stalls and games. Evasion of all forms, be it landwalk, shadow or flying, see enough play to make things lively. It's pretty cool that Bog Wraith is a playable card, even when the power level of the rest of the box is markedly higher.
One common gripe about Commander and Cube is that there is too much tutoring and searching; decks end up being made to run the fewest number of “real” cards, oriented to getting that Mirari's Wake or Recurring Nightmare in play and grinding it. This is fun to an extent, but we found that drawing high-quality but random spells each turn makes the game much more engaging. Thus, there is nothing in the deck that tutors. Since you're using a shared deck, the combos that come up are delightful surprises and not planned-in machines. That Cavern Harpy you drew is going to go great with Sea Gate Oracle, for example. The Nantuko Disciple will give Intrepid Hero many more targets. These sort of things feel more like the old-school Inquest “killer combos” and not actual lethal combinations, and they enrich the game without dominating it.
Want to see what this looks like in action? Here are some sample opening hands:
Do you get a sense of the power level from this? I love this sample hand; it's got really good spells from every Magic age. I love that cards like Wall of Heat can see play in this format, where they are simply not good enough for other game variants. Having access to interesting rares like Orzhov Pontiff and Masked Admirers also boosts the fun and intricacy of The Danger Room. This hand has layered value in it; imagine, for example, putting that Quicksilver Dagger on the Wall of Heat and having a reliable blocker and draw engine.
This hand is gold to a player who wants a long-form game with lots of interaction. Look how it can set up a Darkheart Sliver/Disturbed Burial combination; how the Kannushi (did you have to read it, too?) is a versatile early blocker; and think of the extended value you get from casting the Page on the fourth turn!
Sweepers, efficient cards from Magic past, and fun cards like Belfry Spirit that often don't see play, even though they're objectively good cards. If you look at these hands and want to start slinging these spells, then The Danger Room is definitely made for you.
Deck Construction Goals
If you are assembling The Danger Room, these are the general rules to follow in construction.
1. It should be at least 300 cards, and preferrably 500 or more.
2. No searching, tutoring or Scrying. These slow down games and make them unfun when you're playing off the top.
3. Nothing should affect lands; Grixis Charm can bounce a land, so it's out.
5. Play a bit of draw spells, but make them big and make them count. Nothing weaker than Concentrate should show up. People cast draw spells less than you'd think.
6. Enough equipment makes every monster a star. Again, bear in mind the power level you're working with. Sword of X and Y is too good, but Vulshok Morningstar is just fine.
7. Pack enough removal in the deck. I try to make sure there are about 10% burn and kill spells and 5% artifact and enchantment hate.
8. It can be a challenge to find good fatties that aren't simply too good. We designed our Danger Rooms so that cards like Shivan Dragon and Air Elemental are at the curve and good enough to play. These nostalgic cards are fun and it should be an event to draw and play them. However, a card like Dragonsoul Knight or Wurmcoil Engine will dominate a game on its own and should be avoided.
9. You will naturally have more of certain colors than other colors. This is fine; some colors are just better. You don't have to have an exact mix of colors and gold cards, the way one typically does in Cube. Simply run what's good - it's liberating.
10. Prioritize fun. Fun for me is older cards from the classic era. This nostalgia plays out with cards like Banshee, Storm Seeker, Lurker, Wall of Bone, Royal Assassin, Cursed Rack, Giant Spider (Beta is only $1), Abu Ja'far and Nettling Imp. Beyond just being fun, these cards also make a good touchstone for power. Is the monster you're adding drastically better than Sengir Vampire? If it is, you might not want it in the stack. I run Black Vise for the throwback appeal, even though it's brutally good, and I run Icy Manipulator, though it can tap a land, because their nostalgia value is just so good.
What cards did not make the cut? Which ones were too good?
Since it is a new format, it took awhile to figure out what was a dead card, what was fun to play with, and what was simply unbeatable. Here are some illustrative examples of each category. These cards were just not good enough: Maul Splicer (too small for the mana), Reparations (didn't trigger often enough), Cautery Sliver (not fun enough), Repel Intruders (too much mana to hold up for a weak effect). On the other hand, these were just too good: Jiwari, the Earth Aflame (casting it with any board advantage meant you were unbeatable), Deathbringer Thoctar (too strong in a longer game), Skullclamp (card drawing too frequently), Loxodon Warhammer (too swingy for my taste, though I run Behemoth Sledge).
Cards that are 100% super fun all the time:
After each game, it's worth asking yourself and your opponent what cards they thought were too good and if they had any stinkers in their hands that they didn't want to see.
Assembling your own Danger Room is cheap and easy
The great thing about putting this deck together is that you already own many of the cards that are good in the format. Most of the cards you'll have to hunt down or buy are cheap. Giltspire Avenger and Mask of Riddles will not break your bank. I had about 300 of the cards in my deck already and ordered another 200. I've sunk about $60 into the cards and another $35 for 500 sleeves. This is less than the cost of a lot of opening hands in Cube, and it gets you a whole box of cards to play with. It really, really pays to shop around for the best price on the cards. Most stores charge 10 cents for bulk commons, but I found that AdventuresON, for example, had most of these cards at 2 and 3 cents. At that price, I'd rather pay someone two cents to look for the card for me, even if I have one in my collection! You can find other discount retailers by going to TCGPlayer and searching for junk commons; if they list at 3 cents, that store is worth further investigation. Most of the rares are cheap; Coffin Queen, Exalted Angel, Spellskite, Shadowmage Infiltrator and Dark Suspicions are easy to find and economical to purchase. Buy English-language cards so that newbies can actually read and understand your cards. I'll note that you shouldn't go nuts with buying foil commons until you've got a good grasp of what's playable. I seem to cut the foils more than the nonfoils after awhile and I've got an unfortunate pile of cards like Cloistered Youth sitting around. Since they're foils, I was less eager to cut actual bad cards. I counsel that you avoid this pitfall.
On a practical note, this makes your deck much less of a theft target. I am fine lending it out to people and letting strangers sit down and play with a stack, where this can be risky to do with a regular Cube. If you don't foil everything out, you further diminish the chances of having a fun deck get swiped.
You can use the Invasion lands or you can use the Coldsnap duals, though I find little reason to run "snow matters" cards outside of Skred. I also suggest getting multiple copies of these lands, so that people can jump in and play with the same stack.
My Current List
It's a beast to type this whole thing up, but THIS is my current list. I'll be tracking changes on it so you can return to view it at any time and see the newest iteration of it. The lists are easily pasted into any deck-builder tool on an online store. Expect discussion on what cards individually are good and bad in the future. If you'll be at GenCon, track me down and we'll play some games!