I don’t love the holidays. There’s the social mandate that prioritizes forced festiveness over actually communal experiences, the expectation of consumption beyond your means, the whole worship aspect of it that I push back against. But I do love this time of year—there’re fires, and winter beers, and the sun sets in weird russet bands right as I’m leaving work and flares within the clouds of breath I exhale. People you haven’t seen in a while come home to see family, and the raw weather and early dusk mean a lot of games and convivial table talk.

In that spirit, it’s been a holiday tradition in my circle to do a crap-rare draft sometime in December. Each player is encouraged to bring fifty or sixty rare cards of a good mix of colors to the table and a bottle of their choice, and then the giddy process of winning with nine-mana 6/6’s begins.

You can do it as a cube draft, but we always preferred a pack war style format: a fifteen-card booster of shuffled mythics or rares and three of each land. That way, each new draw is a gift—or a regret—and success is governed by randomness. There can be a bit of management on the behalf of the host to ensure there’s an equal number of cards of each color, but it’s worth taking the time to mix it up. I generally flip through everyone’s stack and take out bad lands (Ancient Amphitheater, for example, always seems to show up), boring cards (White Mana Battery), and parasitic cards (Rimefeather Owl, Slumbering Tora) and replace those with the heavy hitters that lead to absurd board states.

Five-color and Converge cards advance an entire magnitude in power. In a five-color format, Prism Array is a house, as is Planar Despair. Generally, multiplayer games are best—three is great, four is better. Anything to turn aggression and blunt targeting will make the games more fun and let you see more of your terrible, wonderful deck. One free mulligan applies, as does standard scry after a mull. In the format, each player starts with 30 life and a rainbow land (i.e., a land that taps for WUBRG and ETB untapped. Yes, it’s broken. Yes, you need it) in the Commander zone. The 30 life is because of the vagaries of the format—sometimes you’ll draw the right mana and the right cards to do something fun, and sometimes your opponent drops a turn six Carnival Hellsteed. You can also just give everyone a Worldknit, if you really want to mix things up or you have a preponderance of triple-color rares in your pool. We’ve also experimented with giving everything in hand Cycling (3), but that can strip out some of the fun of snatching a win with awful cards and lead to faster decking.

About those awful cards: each card must be below $.50 on your standard clearinghouse site of choice and ideally be a card that never saw a second of top-tier Standard play. Painful Truths or Rout, for example, would be discouraged, as they’re exceptionally powerful in this format, even if they do obey the letter of the law. You’re shooting, ideally, for Nantuko Cultivator-style cards. Decimator Web, Laccolith Titan, Scythe of the Wretched, Splinterfright—these are the style of cards that inspired the format.

Anything two mana too expensive, so cut those. Also cut anything too wordy to be universal and anything that requires a subgame. Cards with tribal benefits are also suspect, but can be useful seeded throughout (Deadapult, for example). Down-shifted cards are fine, if they were originally printed as rare (e.g., Auntie’s Snitch, Pyrewild Shaman). My house rule is that silver-bordered cards are fair game, although I curate those more than the ones that pass through Standard or supplemental products. Better than One, for example, will find its way into the stack A.S.A.P.

Removal is at a serious premium. Games are often decided by who was able to pick up a copy of Broken Visage or Retaliate. Obviously, there are no Planeswalkers, although I did once skim a Tibalt out of the stacks that some wag slipped in. Humorously, you sometimes have to retire cards for being too good. I recently had to take out Rishadan Brigand, once a paragon of the format, after it crossed the Blood Crypt threshold. In many ways, the format feels like the early days of EDH, when ramp-ramp-ramp-haymaker was the order of the day, and value was for Extended decks.

I recognize that not everyone has scoured through page after page of ten-cent rares, so here are some all-time powerhouses to get you started: All Suns’ Dawn, Minion of Tevesh Szat, Drifting Djinn, Aboshan, Cephalid Empress, Mana Flare effects (e.g., Zhur-Taa Ancient, Overabundance), Whirlpool Warrior, Witch Engine, Sacellum Godspeaker, any of the Invasion -Scape Masters, Soul Separator, and anything that encourages randomness (Spellshift, Stolen Goods).

These cards hide out in the bulk boxes of your local card shop or on the site of your choice for $.15-.49 a pop. You can fund your bulk rare draft for less than the cost of a draft of Ixalan. When you do, you’ll find moments of random synergy—like the one memorable game where I had out both Whetwheel and Worry Beads—and times where a Flow of Maggots gets in there for twelve damage. You’ll also experience the true bad-beats stories of having your opponents Riders of Gavony you out of the game, which is part of the glory. Games take fifteen minutes and can become loopy punch-outs or grinding deckings with little in-between.

In recent years, the release of supplementary sets and Wizards of the Coast’s willingness to reprint multiplayer cards has thrown off the power curve a bit. Aetherspouts may be a $.35 card, but it’s a powerhouse when your opponents are running top-heavy garbage boys. So like all holiday traditions, this is adaptable and mutable, and should be adjusted to your own taste. This year, I’m sure Unstable will be the pick for casual drafts; that’s going to be a blast, but it’s a set that’s designed to work. Bulk rare play is like gathering the whole family together—you may not have chosen the dynamics, and the rough edges bounce off each other, the experience spirals off in unpredictable ways, but there are moments of ragged joy as you discover new combos and forgotten, nostalgic gems.

Creating something imperfect out of imperfect parts is in line with the season, to me: as July Garland sang, “we’ll have to muddle on somehow.” To me, the holidays are inherently melancholy: celebrations only highlight the gaps between us and the people who don’t feel like celebrating, family events hinge around the empty seats at the table, and the closing of the year brings complicated feelings. I feel like that’s part of the point, though: you can’t have coziness without the darkness outside and you can’t have celebrations without the knowledge of their brevity. Feasts are meant to underline dearths and songs balance the silence. On a more superficial, but no less true, level, garbage rares remind us to celebrate the Vraskas and Scarab Gods in our lives and remind us that sometimes joy isn’t in what we want, but what’s in front of us right now, even if that’s a total turkey.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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