By: John McCurdy
Magic can be an expensive hobby. It’s a harsh truth that becomes more and more apparent as one digs deeper and deeper into the game and its any varied formats. And while other pastimes place the bulk of their “entry fee” up front - think buying a set of high-quality clubs for golf, or a table for pool - the costs here tend to balloon as one gets further along on their journey and wishes to experience higher levels of competitive play.
Thankfully, though, you don’t have to take out a second mortgage to play good decks and have a ton of fun with this game. There are strategies you can employ, decisions you can make and resources you can plumb that will make jamming games much more affordable, but no less enjoyable.
Before I expand, a few caveats. First, I’m speaking to Constructed formats, namely Standard and Modern, as playing Legacy and Vintage without proxies is nigh impossible and Pauper - a fantastic format built on the idea of playing powerful decks for less money - is beyond my expertise. Limited is near and dear to the People’s Republic heart (not to mention a great way to acquire cards for Constructed) but that’s for other posts.
Second, playing on a budget means accepting that your decks may not be optimal, and you may lose some games because the opponent “just had better cards.” I myself have never had an issue with this, partly because I am a “Johnny” - Mark Rosewater’s psychographic to represent players driven by self-expression - and simply enjoy the reps and practice of playing games, victory or defeat. That being said, if you’re a “Spike” - the psychographic for those driven by winning and outplaying the opponent - this article can still be for you. Indeed, playing with some sub-optimal cards can sometimes create more opportunities to take unique lines and steal a match that otherwise would be out of reach.
Lastly, this is not a “Magic finance” article. I will be speaking some of picking cards up at certain times to minimize your costs, but I have neither the interest nor the experience to discuss speculating or selling cards. If you do, knock yourself out, but it’s not my cup of tea.
Here are some tactics for putting together your decks and feeling out the metagame. These can and should be put to use continually during your time focusing on a format.
This idea emerges early for many players. The thought pattern typically goes “well, I don’t have that, but I do have this,” where that is an expensive rare that does something well, and this is a cheaper card that does something not quite as well.
Here’s an example: a newer player goes up against a grinder on the current Standard’s U/B Midrange deck and gets wrecked repeatedly by timely Vraska’s Contempts. That newer player might be inspired to put together a build similar to that which their opponent was running, but discovers that they not only have no Vraska’s Contempts, but that a playset will also set them back a cool $60.
They note, however, that they do have 4 Eviscerates picked up in Dominaria drafts. It has a similar effect and mana cost, so they jam it in to start getting reps with a deck that, while substantially less powerful than the optimal configuration, still plays a similar game plan and similar cards.
It’s important to note that finding more affordable replacements for costly pieces is a great tactic for making reasonable facsimiles of top-tier decks, but it’s very important to keep in mind that should you choose to do so, you’re accepting that you’re playing weaker, less versatile cards and will face tough situations and straight-up lose games because of it. But if you recognize that you’re doing all this as a temporary fix in order to gain experience and have fun, you’re in a good spot.
This is a sort of “step two” to follow the above, and again, it comes naturally to many. Say you’ve chosen to run some number of Eviscerates in place of Vraska’s Contempts that you simply don’t have. If your mission is to play competitive Standard with the ideal U/B Midrange list, you’ll want to prioritize buying or trading for those Contempts as you can, swapping out the Eviscerates as you score these chase rare removal spells.
There are some things to keep in mind as you go about “moving on up.” First, and this kind of goes without saying, only agree to trades you’re comfortable with. Know the fair value of all cards involved in a transaction (MTGGoldfish, TCG Player and other websites are your friend here) and never let someone pressure or rush you in a deal. Most Magic players I’ve met approach trading honestly - and some even like to give newer, cash-strapped players a leg up - but not all do, so never be afraid to walk away.
Also, when purchasing or trading for format staples, be prepared to accept price fluctuations caused by the metagame and rotations. Obviously, rotation only affects Standard, but the point is that the removal spell you spend $12 on today will not be worth the same amount a year and a half later, and it could even change substantially within the week. Just know that if your mission is truly to play the optimal deck with the best cards, you may lose value on cards in the long run, especially if Standard is your format of choice.
Unsurprisingly, the desire to play Constructed Magic for less money is a fairly common one, and thus several resources have sprung up across the Internet for people looking to do just that. These are my go-tos, though I will mention many others (e.g., The Mana Source and Tolarian Community College) are very worthwhile.
MTGGoldfish’s Budget Magic series is a weekly column and collection of gameplay videos showcasing a budget (less than $100, sideboard included) Constructed deck. While author Seth (probably better known as SaffronOlive) could certainly have been listed among my favorite content resources in my last post, I saved him for this write-up due to this particular column of his.
The builds featured here are consistently unique and intriguing, put together by Seth himself using creativity and extensive metagame knowledge. Their gameplans are varied - you’ll see some super-aggressive lists along with crazy combo strategies and more controlling decks - and between the lengthy explanation of card choices and quantities within the article itself and the gameplay videos (at least five matches on Magic Online), you really see the ins and outs of the deck and have it broken down on a level as deep as your average Channel Fireball deck tech.
While I’ve never gone the route of immediately ponying up for the cards in one of Seth’s masterpieces and jamming game after game with it, I have on numerous occasions taken inspiration from Budget Magic and did indeed base my first Modern deck off this particular U/R Prowess build. I’ll leave it at this: I’ve heard numerous tales of folks stealing Store Championships and FNMs with these lists, and while I don’t think any will ascend to Tier One status any time soon, there’s a reason the “SaffronOlive effect” (where card prices spike based on the latest column) exists - these are fun, competitive decks that can be built on the cheap.
Yes, in your quest to find the right budget brews for you, you might want to turn to that website that's somehow both a mire of dubious worth and invaluable resource, Reddit. Generally, the folks at r/budgetdecks are an excellent bunch that generate neat ideas and useful feedback, and there’s plenty of insight to be gained even if you prefer to do nothing more than lurk and peruse decklists.
Naturally, folks’ definition of “budget” varies, so you’ll find everything from $10 Modern decks to top-tier Standard decks looking to swap a single mythic for a more affordable option on this subreddit. You will rarely find SaffronOlive’s level of analysis on a single build here, but there’s only so much that can be expected of a glorified bulletin board. Some people will go to the trouble of typing up a whole tournament report, which can be fantastic for more insight on how a particular list actually performs.
One of the strengths of posting to r/budgetdecks or reading the comments on a build you’re interested in is the power of the “hivemind” - you will very quickly see more options mentioned for every slot in a deck, and whether or not the suggestions are good, they get your brain going on all the possibilities. For example, a deck similar to my Modern U/R Prowess list was posted not long ago, and it was immediately suggested that the original poster swap 4 Unsummons for 4 Vapor Snags. The original poster admitted that they’d totally forgotten about the card (and I wouldn’t have ever have thought of it, not having played when it was in Standard), and while the discussion of Unsummon’s flexibility to bounce one’s own creatures versus Vapor Snag’s extra damage was thoroughly explored, the original poster fairly quickly took the suggestion and thanked the commenter. All in all, several great thought experiments were conducted, and I’d be hard-pressed to say that one could get that much varied feedback that quickly from many other sources.
These are simple decisions you can make up-front when it comes to acquiring cards for your Constructed pool. Think of them as your general modus operandi - break them when you feel it is a good idea to do so (perhaps when a great deal is presented to you, or when the cards you’re trading away aren’t in high demand themselves), but follow them in most circumstances.
Mana bases are, almost without exception, the most expensive part of Modern decks - and they frequently make up a good chunk of Tier One Standard decks’ value as well. There’s a good reason for this, though: those Shocklands and Fetchlands (and Fastlands, and Creaturelands) can and will be used for every deck that you build going forward. So once you acquire them, you know you’re going to get good use out of them.
As for mitigating the high prices of these goodies, one can only do so much, but you should of course prioritize picking up the Modern-playable varieties of dual lands (the aforementioned plus Checklands) when they are reprinted for Standard. This has happened a few times recently (allied Fetches in Khans of Tarkir, enemy Fastlands in Kaladesh, all the Checklands via Ixalan and Dominaria, and now Shocklands in Guilds of Ravnica) and helps lower prices for a time. Not to mention, it makes them available in MSRP-level boosters, so you can pull them in Draft and Sealed!
When trading for them, you should again try to do so when they’re in Standard. Outside of that, you may need to be prepared to “trade up” (put together a large package of lower-priced cards for a single land) or even take a slight hit on value (only do what you’re comfortable with, of course). Also note that some players are more likely to trade away one of these goodies if they’re getting another from the cycle in return - it may seem like you’re not making progress if you have to trade away your Blooming Marsh and another rare to get a Spirebluff Canal, but if that Spirebluff Canal rounds out your playset and you prefer those colors, you’ve made any and all decks you make playing blue and red that much more powerful going forward.
This goes hand-in-hand with the above - while I say one goes “first” and the other goes “second,” these groups of cards are more like “Priority 1A” and “Priority 1B” in my mind. Put simply, staples are cards that crop up again and again, in deck after deck. They serve a critical role in a format and likely do what they do more effectively than any other replacement.
A great place to find a constantly updated list is on MTGGoldfish’s Format Staples pages - I mostly peruse that for Modern, though the Standard equivalent is also very useful. These provide metrics for dominance, prevalence and density of cards and various card subtypes (creatures, spells and lands) across the entire metagame. One thing to note is that these include sideboard cards, so very common sideboard cards may appear very high on the list despite not being included in the basic 60-card configuration of any decks at all.
These lists reflect the painful reality that, many of any format’s staples are expensive cards. Knowing that Noble Hierarch is the most common creature in Modern does nothing to change the fact that they’re $80 per copy. But diving into the lists, you’ll find many affordable cards that every Modern player wants a playset of, pretty much regardless of their playstyle.
For example, any Modern player will likely want a playset of Path to Exile, as it’s not only the most commonly played white spell in the format but also one of the all-time best pieces of removal printed. At roughly $8 a piece, they’re relatively cheap and make for a great trade target as you wade in.
Knowing these staples and which you’re mostly likely to play based on your color and deck preferences allows you to create another sub-list of cards you should target with very high priority. There’s nothing wrong with going for the low-hanging fruit first, either; if you still haven’t managed to cobble together four Opt or Kitesail Freebooter while they’re readily available, you should try to do so now if you see yourself maybe building decks involving them in the future.
As Mark Rosewater recently told the New Yorker for this popular article, with Magic, “You can walk in and go as deep as you want — it will get deep if you want to go deep — but you can also just go up to your ankles.”
Playing on a budget is, to me, a way to go deeper while not breaking the bank. I’ve espoused the strategies and embraced the resources listed here during my journey and don’t regret a single step I’ve made. And while I look forward to the day I can click “order” on those four Scalding Tarns without a care in the world, for now I love sleeving up a relatively low-priced list and going to the table knowing I’ve got a puncher’s chance.