There are a lot of great players out there looking to play in PTQs but who have to limit their Magic spending. How are they going to compete if they
can’t afford cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor? Well, fortunately, there are several things they can do to build decks on a budget and still pick up a
Pro Tour invitation.
But let me back up first.
Unsurprisingly, one of the most common kinds of e-mails I receive is from people who want me to look over their deck and give them some feedback.
Perhaps more surprising are the number of e-mails I receive asking for advice on how to build a particular deck on a budget.
As a more cutthroat, tournament-focused column, I’m often surprised at how many people ask me, but I always try to help regardless. To all of you guys
who fit into that category: this one’s for you. I’m going to try and set you on the path to doing well despite monetary constraints and help you avoid
some common building-on-a-budget issues.
Different people use different definitions for “building on a budget.” The money amount changes — some people think $50 is budget while others think
$200 is budget. The available cards change — some people happen to own a playset of Lotus Cobras already; others don’t. The perimeters even change —
some people want to play the best decks and just want to find alternative cards; others want to build something unique as part of the
building-on-a-budget process. Writing for any one of these people excludes all of the others.
If you’re reading this column, I feel your goal is likely to win a PTQ, regardless of budgetary concerns. Taking all of this into account, this is what
the idea of building on a budget is going to mean for the rest of this column:
Building on a budget means you want to acquire the cards to build a strong deck that can win a PTQ while spending as little money as possible
I think that covers most of the bases. Some people will have personal money limits transposed on top of that rule, but more or less that rule is
With that out of the way, let’s dive in.
Find Other Ways to Get the Best Cards
Tournament players who have been around for a while and know a lot of players are in a fortunate position. People know them, and people trust them.
Between a network of friends and falling into general good graces, AJ can ask for a Caw-Blade deck on Facebook the Friday night before a
StarCityGames.com Open three consecutive Opens in a row all across the country and have the deck ready for him the next morning, freshly sleeved and
with a full assortment of Unhinged basic lands.
However, for many players, this isn’t reality. They can’t just snap their fingers and have every mythic rare on command. What’s a good player looking
to limit their spending to do?
Well, wait — why can’t you just do what the pros do?
The fundamental cornerstone of being lent cards is that people know you. People won’t want to lend you cards if they don’t know who you are because of
trust issues and, frankly, because other people are higher up on their list. But all that can change — and you don’t have to be a pro to do it.
One major avenue is by building yourself and getting your name out there. I talked about this a few weeks ago, but there are plenty of
good ways for people to know who you are without having finishes. I would lend cards to a lot of Twitter personalities I’ve never met before based on
online interaction alone. I trust them because they have a good image in the community.
Moreover, they have to protect that image as well. For example, if Norbert88 takes my cards and refuses to respond to me, it’s going to be all over
Twitter, and, if action isn’t taken fast, it’s going to ruin his image forever. There’s a reason why he would want to get his cards back to me, and
therefore I feel like I can trust him.
Another avenue is just doing exactly what pros do on a smaller level. Regardless of whether you’re just starting or have been around for a while,
there’s a good chance you have a local card shop. Go there enough and people at the shop will begin to recognize you. Don’t be a jerk and hang out with
the other players for long enough, and there’s no reason why the players who have cards at that shop wouldn’t be willing to lend you some cards for the
upcoming PTQ. Far before I had a network of PTQ level players I knew, I used to just borrow cards from players at my local shop, and it worked out just
Additionally — and this is important — having some of your own cards to lend out can also really accelerate the situation. Very little makes people
feel more trusting about lending you cards than if you have lent them cards in the past. Mutual trust is powerful.
But let’s say, for whatever reason, this route isn’t reasonable. Fortunately, there’s another great way to acquire cards you want: trading.
StarCityGames.com own Jonathan Medina is a product of this route. He was told he needed to limit his Magic spending, and so he found another route to
get all of the cards he wanted. His trading prowess quickly grew, but, just like you don’t have to be a well known pro to borrow cards, you don’t have
to be a master trader to trade for the cards you want. I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of trading — you can read Medina’s articles for that
— but even just a handful of normal rares can go a long way during a PTQ or Prerelease afternoon.
Finally, you can sell some cards to work toward purchasing new ones. Now, I know this may make some players groan, but keep reading. The secret is that
a lot of players have cards in their collections they didn’t even know were valuable.
Been playing for a while? Did you know that tons of older cards like Aether Vial and Sensei’s Divining Top are being bought by StarCityGames.com at $10
each? That means if you just have a playset of each lying around from when they were in Standard, you can pick up $80 toward a new deck — or more, when
you factor in the 25% trade-in bonus.
Don’t have a ton of old, powerful commons/uncommons? Well, that’s fine too — did you know you can turn your thousands upon thousands of draft chaff
commons into cash? StarCityGames.com buys bulk rares at 10 cents each, and bulk commons/uncommons at $5 per 1,000. That may sound like a lot of cards,
but when you think about how any given booster draft has 360 cards opened, and only ~30 of those are desirable, it leaves a ton of commons and
uncommons up for grabs.
If your local drafts look anything like mine, people leave tons of draft chaff all over the tables that just gets thrown away or stuffed into closets.
That doesn’t even start covering Grand Prix and Pro Tours, where come Sunday night the tables are literally littered with Magic cards like some kind of
cardboard warzone. Assuming it’s okay with your local playgroup/TO, you can just start grabbing those cards and then sell them for money that funds
your Magic expenses.
Most people don’t know that you can sell bulk commons and uncommons for anything at all. I didn’t even realize what some of these old Legacy cards were
worth until I looked over the buy list myself. The goal of this article is to help you play the decks you want, and selling/trading in cards is a great
way to make your Magic playing self-sufficient.
Don’t Look for Replacements
All right, so now that I’ve talked about how to help acquire cards, it’s time to talk about what happens when you actually get down to working on a
But first — by far the most important tip I can ever give for building decks on a budget.
A lot of people operate under the idea that building on a budget means you have to find replacements for the cards you can’t afford. This is a guaranteed recipe for failure. Whenever somebody sends me an e-mail saying they are looking for a card to play instead of a Primeval
Titan or Jace, the Mind Sculptor, I have to let them know that it’s time to investigate other decks. Why? Because you don’t want to bring a knife to a
Assuming your goal is to stay competitive, you can’t just decide to make your deck worse than other decks of the same variety. Let’s say you want to
build Caw-Blade on a budget in Standard, based off of the list Edgar Flores used to place second in the Memphis Open Series.
Most people would start by swapping Mind Sculptors for Belerens. Beleren can’t bounce or win the game on its own, but at least it still draws you cards
and is a planeswalker — Jace. You can’t afford Gideon, so you’re going to play Condemn for creature control instead. Maybe you’ll add an Ajani Goldmane
for good measure to keep your planeswalker count up. Those Baneslayer Angels in the sideboard will have to become Kor Firewalkers. And before you know
it, you’re swapping Swords for Skinwings, and your deck is fundamentally much worse in every matchup.
There are no replacements for most high priced cards. They’re expensive for a reason. You can’t find 5/5 flying first striking lifelinkers or
planeswalkers that negate the opponent’s attack step lying unwanted in sewer drains. If you’re playing with Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, there is no
other Primeval Titan. Walking onto a football field with an awesome-looking helmet but no padding is just an invitation to have every bone in your body
Don’t despair; there is still hope for you to build on a budget — it’s just not going to be with a knockoff of the most popular deck.
Budget doesn’t mean bad — it should just mean cheap.
Never Compromise your Mana
I want to make this as an addendum to the last point. A lot of players will look at a decklist and figure out a way to get all of the spells, then just
end up cheating on the mana base. “At least I have the spells for the deck.”
Cutting corners on your mana base is just as bad as playing down on Jace. Maybe if you’re missing one land, it’s somewhat tolerable, but often it’s far
worse than that. A stable mana base is the cornerstone of consistency, and if your deck isn’t consistent, you’re going to run into problems in the
long, grinding road of a tournament.
Top all this off with the fact that many lands now are manlands like Celestial Colonnade, and you really can’t afford to cut on mana bases. I’ve
done this before and been burned every time.
Don’t look for replacements, especially when it comes to how you’re going to cast your spells.
Look at What Cards Are Underpriced
No, not in the “Tarmogoyf costs 1G” sense of the word — I mean value-wise.
Near the end of last year, StarCityGames.com held a Battle Royale among four writers. We would all build decks and duke it out. The stipulation? Our
decks had to cost 20 Magic Online tickets (essentially equivalent to a dollar) or less.
75 cards in less than 20 dollars is a pretty steep restriction. Yet it’s doable. I ended up winning the battle, thanks in part to doing research on the
cost of cards. (For those interested, you can
read all about it here
What was my process? Identifying which cards were undercosted for their deckbuilding potential.
Thanks to mythic rares, a lot of great normal rares are incredibly undercosted. We live in a world where Day of Judgment is less than $3, and
mana-fixing manlands are less than $10. The first thing I did was go down the list of rares and figure out which ones were great value. Looking for
some jumping points? Here’s a list of interesting and/or established Standard legal rares currently priced at $7 or less on this very website:
Birds of Paradise
Black Sun’s Zenith
Consume the Meek
Contested War Zone
Creeping Tar Pit
Day of Judgment
Emeria, the Sky Ruin
Ezuri, Renegade Leader
Hand of the Praetors
Honor of the Pure
Mul Daya Channelers
Oracle of Mul Daya
Sphinx of Jwar Isle
Sphinx of Lost Truths
Student of Warfare
Thada Adel, Acquisitor
Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
Looking through the above list, there are plenty of cards that caught my eye; there is plenty in there to be explored. If you’re looking to win a PTQ,
there’s an even longer list for Extended. There’s tons of potential to just find an underused strategy and take it to new heights. I did it with
Vampires. Why can’t you be next?
A lot of players are simply reluctant to be innovative. However, there’s plenty of room to innovate. Every week, it seems like players such as Gerry
Thompson and Lewis Laskin are turning formats from Standard all the way back to Legacy on their head. A lot of people just don’t have faith in their
This is an area in which people who are building on a budget have the advantage. By nature, correctly built budget decks often aim to innovate in new
ways. If you can’t play an established archetype anyway, there’s nothing holding you back!
Look over the list of what’s out there, work on a new archetype, and see where it takes you. There’s no reason why you can’t find a deck just as
powerful as the top decks in the format. There’s a lot of room for innovation for a low price.
Find Cheap Archetypes
Maybe nothing’s working out in your brewing process. Maybe you just don’t have the time to put your brews through the paces and let them simmer.
Regardless of the situation, you’re looking to build a deck on a budget and want to go toward something already known.
This is perfectly fine — as long as it’s for the right reasons. Playing a bad deck just because it’s cheap is a disaster.Â Â
Fortunately, practically every format has its cheap, powerful decks. In basically any format, you can toss a bunch of red spells together and be okay.
(Just ask Patrick Sullivan.) In Standard, for example, Mono Red is fairly cheap, especially if you can borrow the Koths. In Extended, Elves is one of
the best decks in the format, and it’s made mostly of commons and uncommons you might have lying around.
But what about when the obvious decks fail? Fortunately, we can turn to history.
If you look at a format’s entire lifespan, you can often find decks that have fallen through the cracks and might be good depending on the metagame.
One example would be Pyromancer Ascension in Standard. Another might be all of the Tempered Steel decks running around when Scars of Mirrodin first
released. Those decks had a lot of work already done on them, and so you already have a shell to worth with. The innovating is half done! Now it’s just
time for you to fill in the rest.
It’s worth noting that the way card-pricing works is that when a deck is least played, the card prices drop. Supply, demand, and all that. It’s a
relatively well-known idea. What’s less known is that often decks are least played right before they pick back up again.
A common cycle is this. A deck is played, does well, and people build decks to beat that deck. As a result, the original deck falls out of popularity
for a while. However, later on when the decks that the original deck beat come out in full force again to beat the new decks, the original deck pounces
back onto the scene like a hungry jaguar. You can see this trend clearly in the past two StarCityGames.com Open Series events in Edison and Memphis,
with Mono Red and Valakut respectively.
While I’m not saying that Primeval Titan is going to drop to $7 anytime soon, it’s worth keeping an eye on historical format trends. The perfect time
for your budget to break in to a deck often lines up with the right time to be playing that deck! Â
Playtest. No, Really — Playtest
The absolute worst thing for building on a budget is when you waste money by buying cards you don’t need. If you’re changing your deck from tournament
to tournament or are even just constantly swapping out ten cards, getting all of the new pieces is going to be expensive.
As a result of this, make sure to playtest rigorously. I know you should be doing this anyway for tournaments, but the truth is that often people feel
okay skimping on this step if the deck has already had success. If they’re a good enough player, and the deck is good, why should they need to play two
hundred games first? Won’t twenty suffice?
Needless to say, no, it won’t.
Even if you’re just buying into budget decks, it’s still going to add up fast. Mono Red one week, Elves the next, Pyromancer Ascension the week after
that — for a PTQ grinder on a budget, it’s a bad idea. Your time and money would be better off sunk into one deck.
Similarly, a lot of people don’t play sideboarded games, meaning they’re continually switching up their sideboards. Sideboards already switch from week
to week enough based on the metagame — buying a new rare for a versatile slot is just going to add up. Play sideboarded games so you know the right
So brew up some ideas, grab some bulk commons (but not the ones you’re selling!), proxy up some decks, and get enough games in to figure out the best
budget route to take. Follow the advice in this article, and you’ll have what it takes to qualify for the highest levels of competition while battling
on a budget!
I’d love to know about your experience building budget decks! It’s particularly interesting because building on a budget is different for everyone;
each person has unique criteria to fill. Let me know either by posting in the forums, tweeting at me @GavinVerhey, or sending me an e-mail at
Gavintriesagain at gmail dot com.
Rabon on Magic Online, GavinVerhey on Twitter, Lesurgo everywhere else