Builder's Blessing | Illustration by John Stanko
We’re lying to ourselves if we don’t admit that Magic is an expensive hobby. I shudder at the thought of my significant other finding out how much I spent during my last prerelease weekend. Thankfully there are ways to mitigate the cost of deckbuilding, and no, they don’t involve skipping meals to save some scratch for a new card.
The tips I’m presenting today won’t help you pocket a fancy near-mint judge promo Gaea's Cradle, but they just might get you playing a new budget Commander deck by the time your next Friday Night Magic rolls around. Let’s jump right in!
Buy Singles, Not Sealed Product
Seal of Strength | Illustration by Noah Bradley
To start off I’ll offer a piece of advice that I rarely follow myself but urge others to do—you know, do as I say, etc.; if you want specific cards from a set, it’s almost always better to buy the singles you need than to buy sealed product.
The most obvious reason is that you guarantee getting the cards you wanted instead of trying to pull them by luck. Look, I know it’s fun to open boosters, I’m surrounded by stray plastic booster remnants as we speak. However, sealed product is a poor investment by design.
You might spike a box worth more than what you spent on it, but most sealed products have low EV compared to their price point. If you’re building on a budget, decide which cards you want and buy those directly instead of gambling on boosters.
Avoid Presales & Wait on New Releases
A crucial part of building decks on a budget is knowing what not to spend your money on. The worst time to buy most singles is right before they release. Presale prices are usually heavily inflated and most cards see a drastic drop off in price once they’re out in the open.
There’s always a handful of cards that increase in price, but those are usually outliers or sleeper Constructed hits. For reference, I’m writing this during release day weekend for MOM, and 12 of the 19 main-set mythics have decreased from their presale prices while only one has increased. 24 rares have decreased in value, while four have increased.
Unless you have reason to believe a card will spike in price after it releases, it’s best to wait for everyone to open their collector and set booster boxes to flood the market and buy the cards you need when they bottom out.
Proxy When Possible
Proxying in Magic is the act of representing a card with something that’s not an official game piece. Proxies can be anything from an index card with rules text written on it to a professionally done replica of the actual card. Either way, if it fits in a sleeve without giving itself away, it’s a viable proxy.
Proxies aren’t tournament legal, so they won’t help you bring the deck you want to a sanctioned tournament. They are, however, a good way to playtest a card before buying it, but more on that in a moment.
Proxies are most common in Commander, but be aware that some players have a stigma against them. I’ve encountered many players who welcome proxies at their table, as well as those who strongly dislike them and prefer not to play against them. It’s polite to mention when you intend to use proxies as part of a Rule 0 conversation. As always, if a player refutes your Rule 0 proposal, the onus is on you to oblige.
Playtest Before Buying
Back to playtesting. It’s a terrible feeling when you purchase a card and find out it’s an underperformer or not a good fit for your deck. Playtesting with cards ahead of time can inform your decision on whether to buy the actual cards.
Everything I said about proxying holds up here too because you’ll often playtest with proxied cards. If that’s not an issue, get your reps in with your playtest proxies to give you a better idea of how cards perform in your deck, then make purchases based on that info.
Arena and MTGO can also be good playtesting grounds. Those platforms have their own economies and card acquisition systems, but if you have an expansive collection on a digital platform, you can playtest certain cards online before investing in paper versions. This is especially useful for Standard, which can be tested through Arena but can be quite expensive in paper.
Accept Lower Condition Cards
As with any purchase, shopping around is an important part of finding what you want. If you’re fine with cards that aren’t physically perfect, you might be able to find some surprise deals. Card condition is generally graded on a scale of damaged/unplayable to near mint/perfect, with card prices affected by card condition.
“Slightly played” versions have a few minor blemishes or scratches but should be cheaper than the near mint version. “Moderately played” usually means the card has significant wear and tear, which is usually noticeable at a glance. If you don’t care about having pristine Magic cards and you just want the game pieces, SP and MP cards might be the way to go.
I’ll caution against buying “damaged” cards. They’re usually borderline ruined, and too much damage or wear on a card can invalidate its use in a sanctioned tournament. I suggest sticking to SP condition cards if you’re looking for cheaper versions, with MP being okay depending on your preferences.
Invest in Lands
If you want to start building a collection but you don’t have a concrete idea of which cards you want or what type of decks you want to build, I suggest investing in a good mana base first. This doesn’t mean go out and buy a Tropical Island, but maybe look to pick up some lands that fit multiple decks.
This is especially true in Constructed, where the lands are the most versatile cards in your collection. Maybe you build Abzan () Greasefang in Pioneer only to find out the deck doesn’t suit your playstyle well. Sorry, but Parhelion II and Skysovereign, Consul Flagship don’t fit very many other decks. However, your lands like Temple Garden, Mana Confluence, and Blooming Marsh are bound to have a home elsewhere.
The same is true in Commander, where a good mana base is the foundation of any deck. If you’re looking to invest into your long-term collection, look for cards you’re most likely to play across multiple decks. If you disassemble a deck to build a new one, you can transfer your lands over and avoid purchasing a brand new mana base.
Budget Mana Bases
You’re taking a big hit in Constructed formats when you play a toned-down mana base compared to other players. For that reason, the concept of a “budget mana base” is more for Commander than Constructed.
A cheap mana base can go surprisingly far in Commander. Having your colored mana consistently is much more important than having individually powerful lands. The delta between a land like Godless Shrine and Scoured Barrens is smaller than you’d think. A shock land is obviously an upgrade over a tap land, but the most important thing is that you can cast your spells.
Here are some recommendations for a cheap but effective mana base: pain lands like Llanowar Wastes, check lands like Sulfur Falls, and scry lands like Temple of Epiphany get the job done and are all fairly inexpensive.
Evolving Wilds and Terramorphic Expanse are your best budget friends for 3+ color decks. The “hideouts” from SNC like Obscura Storefront and the panoramas from ALA like Bant Panorama are dirt cheap and fit your 3-color needs just as well. I’m also a fan of the tri-lands like Sandsteppe Citadel and Crumbling Necropolis. They’re not as effective as Triomes, but they’re also not that much worse.
The glory of a budget mana base is that it’s easy to upgrade over time. It’s a starting point to get you playing your deck, so it doesn’t need the best possible lands from the start. Work on getting a functional mana base so you can cast your spells, then work on upgrading those lands as you expand your collection.
Invest in Staples
I recommend investing in your mana base first, then investing in staples before deck-specific cards. For Commander, this means spending your money on cards that are easy to transfer from one deck to another.
Good examples include format all-stars like Solemn Simulacrum, Eternal Witness, or Blasphemous Act, which are easy to slot into any deck that can play them.
If you’re a fan of tribal decks, it’s usually smart to prioritize generic tribal support. Cards like Herald's Horn, Mirror Entity[card], and [card]Kindred Discovery are flexible enough perform in just about any tribal deck, and you’ll be glad you have them if you disassemble your tribal deck to make another.
This is also important for Constructed players who switch up decks often. If you’re a Modern player who likes brewing in the format, I suggest investing into cards that fit multiple decks (Thoughtseize, Fable of the Mirror-Breaker) rather than highly specific cards. This’ll save you a headache in the future when you’re looking to build a new 60-card deck from scratch.
Pay Attention to Reprint Sets
Wizards has increased the rate at which they reprint cards. This means that there are less individual cards with extremely high price points, but it also means cards are generally more accessible and affordable. A big contributing factor is the increased number of “Masters” or “Remastered” sets we’ve seen lately.
2022 had D&D: Battle for Baldur’s Gate, Jumpstart 2022, Dominaria Remastered, and a slew of Commander precons that all included significant reprints. The “bonus sheets” from The Brothers’ War and March of the Machine also caused huge price drops for reprints. If you know a set full of reprints is coming out soon, it’s a good idea to wait and see what those reprints are before making any purchases.
Take Kenrith, the Returned King, for example. You can get a Multiverse Legends version of this card for $4 right now, whereas it was pushing $10 before the reprint. Lyra Dawnbringer is another great example. It was between $10-15 a year ago, but after two reprintings you can grab a copy for under $3.
Upcoming reprint sets are also a good reason to hold off on buying expensive cards. For example, there’s speculation that Commander staples like Deflecting Swat and Fierce Guardianship will be reprinted in the Commander Masters set, which would almost definitely drop the price of those cards. If you believe the speculation, you might want to wait until that set drops to get those cards at a cheaper price.
Wait Until Standard Rotation
Various formats affect card prices differently, with Standard dictating many of the more recent card prices. But those prices are often tied to how viable the cards are in Standard, and once they rotate out, they drop to less than the price of a store-brand potato.
As a rule of thumb, don’t invest in Standard staples unless you have good reason to assume they’ll maintain their price post-rotation. Yes, some cards remain in Standard for well over a year, but if it’s not a card you’re dying to have, you’ll get a much better deal for it down the line.
Hero's Downfall from Theros and Vraska's Contempt from Ixalan are perfect examples. These were heavily-played role-players in their respective Standard formats, and both peaked around $15-20. But it’s clear that these had no appeal for any other format, so there was no chance they’d retain those prices. Sure enough, both cards tanked after leaving Standard, and you can get them for a cool quarter these days.
This also works in reverse. If you already own copies of cards like this and you expect their prices to tumble after rotation, you’d best sell/trade them while the fire’s hot if you don’t need them. A card like Shivan Devastator clocks in at $5 right now but has almost no demand outside of Standard. Unless it’s crucial to your deck right now, it might be worth offloading, investing that money elsewhere, and buying it back down the line if you need it again.
Clearly this all takes some amount of research and financial savviness, so make educated decisions when it comes to what and when to sell. If you do it right, you can liquidate cards you don’t need and build the decks you want to play without pulling any additional funds out of pocket.
“Same-sleeve rotation” is my name for the act of sleeving up a single physical card and transferring it between decks. This is already a practice most players follow for Constructed. Once you have a playset of a card, you don’t need additional copies even if you play more than four copies across multiple decks. Instead, you just swap the playset you own between your decks when you need to.
This also works in Commander but involves some upkeep. Let’s say you have four blue Commander decks, and you want a copy of Rhystic Study in each but only have the budget for a single copy. Well, you can take that single copy and rotate it between decks instead of buying extra copies. Using the same sleeves for each deck makes interchanging cards much easier, so long as you stay organized and remember where your one copy is.
Another way to approach this is to have a separate box or storage for your interchangeable cards and use proxies or checklist cards to mark that card’s presence in a deck. You can sub out the proxy for the actual card from your side storage when it becomes relevant, making it available to all your decks. It’s more work, but it’s a solution.
Try Budget Formats
Budget builds are usually at a disadvantage against non-budget, fully optimized decks in the same format. If this bothers you, there might be some merit to checking out alternative budget-friendly formats.
Pauper is the first that comes to mind. This is a format where the only legal cards are ones that have been printed at common in any of their iterations. You’d be surprised at just how powerful a format full of commons plays out, especially when everyone’s playing by the same restrictions.
Pauper EDH (PDH) also has a small following. A Pauper Commander deck consists of an uncommon legendary commander and a deck full of cards that follow the Pauper format restrictions. My local game store has a resident PDH player, and I’m always intrigued by how well their decks stack up against normal casual EDH decks.
Penny Dreadful is another option for MTGO users. I don’t know much about it or what kind of following it has, but the basic concept is that only cards that are $0.02 or less are legal in the format. It sounds ridiculous, but remember that the vast majority of bulk-box cards on MTGO are worth virtual pennies.
Rummage Through Bulk Boxes
Most game stores have a bulk box or two full of forgotten cards and Draft chaff. I’m a certified Magic bulk dumpster diver, and I’ve found plenty of useful and unique hidden gems hiding in bulk boxes. Not to mention that you’ll occasionally find forgotten cards that have spiked in price.
You won’t necessarily find the Commander staple you’re dying to have in a bulk box, but you might get some interesting ideas or discover a $0.50 card that’s perfect for your deck.
Play the “Next Best Thing”
I’m a big believer that Commander decks don’t need to be power optimized and are actually more fun when they’re intentionally toned down or play lesser-known cards. The “next best thing” mentality helps put underplayed cards in the spotlight and does so in a way that’s usually very affordable.
Some cards don’t have an analog or are so powerful that the effect they provide is basically irreplaceable. Cards like Dockside Extortionist and Esper Sentinel are best-in-class at what they do, and you’d be stretching fairly hard to find an effect that’s even close. However, many cards have analogs that are clearly worse but still effective.
For example, let’s say you’ve identified Cyclonic Rift as a card you want in your deck, but you can’t justify the $40+ purchase on one card. Ask yourself, “What’s the next best thing?” Sure, Evacuation isn’t as good, but it’s in the same ballpark and it costs a tenth of the price. Wash Out is literal quarters and always performs well for me. It’s a step down from Cyc Rift, but not every deck needs a Cyc Rift.
Teferi's Protection is the posterchild for mass board protection, but maybe you only have $5 to put towards Commander upgrades this week. What’s the next best thing? You can choose from a wide variety of protection effects, from Your Temple Is Under Attack to Eerie Interlude. There’s probably a power disparity between whatever card you choose and Teferi's Protection, but you’ll get to play with a similar effect and maybe even expose your opponents to a new card for their decks.
Trade & Sell Towards Your Format
Some players play one format exclusively and have no desire to play anything else. This is perfectly fine, but it does mean that player is probably holding onto cards that don’t have much use to them. People who only play Commander don’t have much use for the hot new Modern and Pioneer staples, and Constructed players probably don’t care about the new must-have Commander cards.
If you self-identify as one of these players, you should consider selling or trading the cards you never intend to play and turn your profits into cards that see play in your format. Cards like Murktide Regent and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn don’t have much utility for a Commander-only player. Likewise, Smothering Tithe and Burgeoning don’t have much of a home for the Constructed player.
Identify the big-ticket items in your collection that you have no real use for and find a way to turn those into cards for your format. If you can acquire the cards you need without spending any money out of pocket, I’d call that a win.
Don’t Break the Bank: Wrapping Up
Explosion of Riches | Illustration by Chris Seaman
Cha-ching! Do you hear that? That’s the sound of extra money in your pocket! It’s 2023, so I don’t know why you’re carrying loose change, but at least you saved some money on your latest Magic purchases.
Hopefully these tips can help you build your collection or your next deck without digging deep into the wallet. There’s plenty of fun to be had without investing in expensive tier-1 staples, as long as you’re willing to accept the slight hit in power level.
Do you have any budget-friendly deckbuilding tips that weren’t covered here? Do you have any “next best cards” that you want to highlight? If so let me know in the comments below, or over in Draftsim’s official Discord.
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