Removed From Game — More Bang For Your Buck

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In today’s only Charles Dickens reference here on StarCityGames.com, it’s time to go all Scrooge-like with Rich Hagon, as he starts to explore ways to get the best value out of your cards. Now’s your chance to learn all about Snooker Draft, Triple Sealed, The Joys Of Saturday, Hunger Pangs, and much more. It’s time to get More Bang For Your Buck.

Those of you thinking from the title of this week’s article that the spirit of Craig Jones lingers on here at Removed From Game may be slightly underwhelmed, since this week’s episode is set in neither Tijuana, Amsterdam, or indeed any other highly salubrious location, but instead comes to you from Scunthorpe, Industrial Garden Town (as the sign says).

This week, I’ll be bringing you lots of ways in which you can make sure that your hard-earned or stolen cash gets you more Magic than you’re currently getting. Think of it as a fuel efficiency check-up, if you will. Whilst some of these ideas are ideal for aspiring Pros, others are strictly for the casual end of the market. Either way, one fact is inescapable. As a miniatures painter explained to me at a major games convention here in the UK,

“When you’re young, you have all the time in the world and no money. When you’re older, you have all the money in the world and no time.”

As far as I can see, this relationship between money and time cannot be circumvented, so the deal is very straightforward. If you do some of the stuff I suggest in this article, I absolutely guarantee that you will save money and get vastly more “miles” out of your Magic cards and collection. Unfortunately, you will need to spend time to do these things. If you are Richard Branson, you may prefer to continue to pay retail on a few boxes every three months, have your Personal Assistant open them for you, catalogue them and insert them in your gold-plated sleeves. Come to that, you could just buy Hasbro and have done with it. For most of us, since we probably already devote a lot of time to the game, I’m going to assume that money is the scarce resource.

Let’s get started.

Rule Number 1: Never, ever, ever open a booster just because your fingers haven’t got anything better to do.

I’m rarely lost for words, but I can clearly recall being in a local games store a while back, waiting to do an interview for some coverage. A guy walks into the store, comes up to the counter and asks if they have any 9th Edition boosters. He stands in front of the display for a moment, then selects three boosters. Intrigued, I ask if there’s a draft about to happen, as there are more than enough Magic players in the shop to run one. It just seems like 9th is a fairly unexciting format, but hey, Magic is Magic, and what else am I going to play that night? He looks at me as if I’m mad, spends roughly 30 seconds opening his three boosters, and leaves the store. Don’t get me wrong, if that’s what works for him, fair play. From a value point of view though, this is hideous behaviour, since it cost him something like $13 for, ooh, one minute of Magic fun, plus of course the 45 cards from his three boosters. It’s possible that he was passing the store on his way back to the wife and kids and was getting a quick fix. Like I say, if that’s what works for him, fine, but here are just some of the things you could do to make those boosters work harder for you:

Heads-Up Play

For our first bit of bonus Magic action, you only need one willing partner. They buy three boosters too. Then you sit down and do a one-on-one draft. What kind of draft? If you look around the Internet, you’ll find lots and lots of formats. Even at it’s most simple, heads-up draft can be strategically useful. Open your pack, choose one, pass the rest across. Get that pack again with 13 cards left. It should already be clear how this can be a helpful exercise in improving your Magic. What card did your opponent take second pick? What rarity is missing from the first pack he passes you? Do you know the print runs of the set you’re drafting? Once you know where the draft is heading, how heavily do you attempt to counter the opposing strategy by hate drafting? If you’ve never hated in a draft before, heads-up is a great way to see how hideously messy two decks can get when you’re both busy trying to destroy each other’s chances. Then, of course, we’ve got the quality of the cardpool. With only six total boosters, you’re going to be playing with some really sub-optimal cards. And that’s another good reason to do it, because at the Sealed PTQ three weeks later you’re going to be looking at a pair of poor cards to finalise your deck. One of them makes it in. If you’ve played plenty of this low-budget, low-power format, you’re not just going to theorise about Detainment Spell and the like, you’re going to know.

Heads-Up with bonus Brain Activity

Now let’s ramp things up a little. If there’s a new set, there’s a good bet that the overwhelming majority of cards won’t see Constructed play. So rather than drafting one card at a time, why not play the draft format covered, if memory serves, by Kelly Digges? Here, you get to play with every card in your booster straight out of the pack. You’re allowed to take one basic land from a central pool each turn, and then play anything from your hand that you like. Of course there are awkwardnesses to a format like this — library manipulation spells are, shockingly, not all that good. But in terms of fundamental skills like utilising all your spells to the best of their humble abilities, and good mana management, and planning ahead, and tempo, and curve, and multiple choices — this is a great Magic workout that gives you up to half an hour of gaming with a lone booster. Quite a lot better than three seconds.

Timing Your Trip

If you’re determined to open three boosters at your local store, at least have the good sense to do this on a day or night when there will be other Magic players to interact with. If you spend ten minutes chatting about Block Constructed, if you note down a PTQ-level decklist you’ve not seen before, if you stand and watch the best two players in the store playing Extended, if you do some trading, these are all ways to add value to your booster-buying experience. To me, there are few things more desolate in gaming than an empty store. Gaming is a social experience, so make it one. Since most store owners understand this, they will most likely be more than willing to help you get involved in the local scene. Even if you’re new to an area, there really is no excuse for the lonely trek to a deserted store and the almost furtive in and out with the telltale ripped silver in the pocket. “Play the game, See the World” is a current Wizards slogan, but “Play the Game, See other Humans” is a start.

Since we’ve still got our three boosters in hand, the classic way to dispose of these is to find seven other willing souls and Booster Draft. I accept that even amongst a playgroup of serious intent organising one of these things can be a nightmare, but that’s frequently where Friday Night Magic steps into the fray. A successful store running FNM is a place where you can very quickly work out the likely days and times where a draft is, pardon the expression, on the cards. When it comes to weekend play at your local store, there’s a good chance that the demographic may change somewhat. Whereas FNM is more likely to appeal to an adult crowd, the folks banging the door down on Saturday morning are more likely to be young teenagers, full of the joys of having graduated from Yu-Gi-Oh and spotting pubic hair for the first time, sometimes even their own. I can’t believe I’m about to reveal all the wonderful, near-miraculous things about playing in stores on Saturdays, but I guess that’s what you pay me for.

The Joy of Saturday

One, the standard of play on Saturdays is lower. This is a day out for most Saturday players, and the whole point is to meet up with a bunch of people and have fun. Your chances of winning on Saturdays are higher than at FNM, and a lot higher than at any other form of competitive play. Two, Saturday players frequently have very little money. Mum or Dad has dropped them off in the store, and is picking them up again at five. That’s seven hours to survive on $10 and a trade binder. It should be clear that these are intensely vulnerable people from a trading point of view. “Your Chrome Mox for my egg sandwich and a diet coke?” may not seem the best deal in the world, but it is when the store owner’s only offering the diet coke. Plus, some Saturday players simply want to turn their booster prizes straight into cash. I’ve thought about this a good deal, and as far as I can see, apart from the ever-present possibility of being blown up, only Baghdad FNM has more favorable trading conditions than Saturday at your local store.

We’re nowhere near done yet with the goodness of Saturdays. Because the market tends to be aimed more at casual play, the players may have slightly different values for cards than you, cold-hearted serious player that you are. Using the Chrome Mox example again, lots of players think cards like this are rubbish. It doesn’t kill a monster. It doesn’t burn out an opponent. It has no power and toughness. It isn’t Green. The art isn’t especially cool. It doesn’t fit in any theme deck. If the player is on his or her way to being serious about the game, they may add things like the fact that it makes you lose a card, or that it doesn’t generate card advantage. Autochthon Wurms should be prominently displayed in your trade folder on Saturdays, as befits their status as a Money Rare (!?!?!)

Although what I’ve said about the Saturday crowd is genuinely true in my experience, I am now going to surgically remove my tongue from its position wedged firmly against my cheek, ready for this next paragraph.

Rule Number 2 — Never rip people off.

Sometimes the temptation can be overwhelming, and most of us can remember the best trade we ever did, involving any number of Power 9 cards for a Spellbook or whatever. The trouble is, the guy you traded with remembers that trade too. Quite where the line gets drawn is a movable feast, but if someone wants my Krosan Cloudscraper and I want his Hallowed Fountain, I am at the very least going to make sure that he gets a few other random rares I don’t really care about in addition to the enormous Green man that I really don’t care about. In addition to improving your collection, you get the chance to trade with them profitably again in the future, they don’t hate you, and you may even find a friend.

Ah, Bless.

This brings me to the best thing about Saturday Magic (cue warm and fuzzy music). I spend almost all of my Magic life either with players who want to be Pros, or players who are Pros already. Of course these guys have fun too — who wouldn’t want to be paid for travelling the world doing something you’re good at? However, the winning imperative necessarily confines this fun to the sidelines. At the table, with a few notable exceptions, it’s all about winning. On a Saturday in your store, you’re likely to be reminded of why you started playing in the first place. On Saturdays, players laugh when you kill their team. The sound of a booster being ripped open is often followed by “How cool is that?” And when players win two boosters for winning an 8-man, they don’t remember the Good Old Days where that would have been 6. They’re grateful to be playing the game. So, if you absolutely must go out and buy a few boosters to feed the craving, for the love of God go and do it at your local store on Saturday.

Historic Draft

Let’s stick with draft. One of the problems with all forms of draft is that almost all the cards become disposable afterwards. New players are astonished when they see hundreds of cards literally discarded at the end of a draft. Eventually they too will come to understand that 93 Benalish Cavalry is at least 89 more than they’ll ever need, but to start with there are plenty of free post-draft pickings. Why not do the community a service and find someone who could use some free cards? At my daughter’s school, the playground is packed full of kids swapping Yu-Gi-Oh cards. Soon, these will be replaced by free piles of Time Spiral commons. Even if you really want to keep every card you’ve ever drafted, there are ways to get more value from them. One of the most popular events I run is called Historic Draft. This doesn’t mean players get to play with especially old booster packs. Instead, you put together every card from a particular high-level draft, and then you sleeve them up, and have that draft set available for repeat play. Currently, I run the Pro Tour: Geneva Top 8 draft, won by Mike Hron, but there are plenty of others with complete packlists on the official event coverage over at MagicTheGathering.com. What’s so great about this format is that you’re basically setting aside cards that you would never miss. I’ve played in all kinds of formats since February, and I’ve never had the need to “unlock” my Geneva Top 8 box in search of a particular rare. In total of course, you’re only needing 24, and it’s far easier to put together one copy of 24 rares than four copies of six that everyone’s after. Even if you’re unlucky, you’re only going to need one Tarmogoyf. This is a format that really shines once the cards rotate out of Standard. Only the best of the best are going to be Extended chase cards, and again, when you only need one of them, chances are that you’ve picked up a copy already. As we head towards Lorwyn, that means that Pro Tour: Prague is ripe for this Top 8 treatment. Here’s the link to the packlists.

As you can see, getting hold of the rares isn’t a major problem. Your Ravnica requirements are Gleancrawler, Brightflame, Hammerfist Giant, Char, Light Of Sanction, Doubling Season, Dream Leash, and Woebringer Demon. Not exactly a budget-busting selection. And, guess what? If you still have no Char in your collection, take a basic swamp, write the word Char on it in large letters, and now you have. If you’re a cynical type, you may have spotted the problem with this draft format, which is that in theory players could go online beforehand, memorise all 24 packs, and then draft accordingly. Yes, they could. And if they do, surely you just tip your hat and say well done.

Snooker Draft

It’s almost time to leave Draft behind, although it’s one of the most fertile grounds for saving money, since it’s so fundamentally expensive. Actually, that’s not true, it fundamentally costs a lot of money, which isn’t the same thing. I’m not suggesting that Draft is bad value necessarily, merely that there are ample ways of making it better value. So I’d like to close the draft section with one of my favorite formats. It’s called Snooker Draft. It’s a great format for when the Draft itself is only a means to an end of getting on and actually playing the games. The reason for the title is because, at the start of a frame of snooker, there are fifteen red balls arranged in a triangle, thus:

We're all snooker loopy

So you open up your pack and pick one card as normal. You get passed fourteen, and this time you pick two cards that you want. Receiving twelve next, you take three cards, from the remaining nine you take four, and then you are passed the last five. In total, there are only twelve authentic “picks” in the Draft. On a strategic level, it removes a lot of the more refined elements such as evaluating whether cards will table and reading signals, but it has the huge benefit of being done swiftly. Crucially, it avoids the really dull bit of the draft where the slow guy on the end sits endlessly deciding between two cards he won’t play on pick 13.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Alright, let’s stick with Limited and move on to Sealed. There are so many ways to get value out of Sealed, so here’s a few:

Keep Your Sealed

More so than in Draft, Sealed pools tend to play well with other Sealed pools. In Draft, there’s often a high variance between tables in terms of overall card quality. That’s not the case in Sealed. Of course, you may end up with a weak or strong pool, but in every eight Sealed decks, chances are there are going to be five or six of a comparable power level. Generally speaking, Sealed decks don’t have the synergy of their Draft counterparts, and that means that it’s a good format for testing out the relative power level of cards in a vacuum. It’s often in Sealed where you’ll get to start evaluating whether that amazing monster is amazing enough that it might make it out of Limited and into Constructed. When Time Spiral came out, conversations about cards like Spectral Force, Greater Gargadon, and Serra Avenger led directly from having them in assorted Prerelease decks. Like the Historical Draft I spoke of earlier, you are unlikely to miss the cards from your collection if you keep your Sealed pools together. Rares are often not Constructed-worthy, most often because they are big dumb creatures like Rhox or Serra Sphinx, both prime examples of Sealed excellence and Constructed toiletry. As for improving your game, Sealed is the perfect format for combat interaction, since it’s often slow enough for complicated board situations to develop by degrees, allowing you to evaluate and learn step by step without being run over by flyers turns 2-5, as might happen in a Draft environment. For keeping yourself sharp, having half a dozen Sealed decks handy is hard to beat.

Use Your Boosters

Suppose that you’re opening two boxes of a new set. Invite seven friends round to your home, or failing that, your two friends and five homeless people. (The seven friends are generally better for this, since presumably they know how to play the game, but guarding against social deprivation should be taken seriously.) Five packs each, and you’ve got yourself a Sealed tournament, albeit with a slightly misleading print run that can lead to players having rather more copies of a given common than they should. Invite them to take out any Rares or foils and proxy them up, if you’re choosy about the condition of their new cards. If you want to avoid the print run issue, you could always….

Buy Starters

Especially when Sealed is an upcoming PTQ format, buying at least one box of Tournament Packs rather than regular boosters seems a given to me, but apparently not to many other people, which leaves me puzzled. The virtues of the Tournament Pack are many. You get to see the TP print run, which as we’ve seen before can be a significant edge for Limited events. You get a bunch of lands, which you can either use for your upcoming Constructed decks, or which make ideal proxy cards. You get a set of deckboxes to store your Draft and Sealed Decks in. And of course you get pretty much the same amount of cards as you would by buying boosters. Plus, and this is a really good one, once you’ve bought a set of Tournament Packs, take the time to:

Archive The Packs

I ran a tournament in Fall 2005 when Ravnica came out. I took the time to write down the cardpool for all 16 players. Should I ever feel the urge to play some Ravnica Sealed, it’s now possible to recreate any or all of those pools. Yes, this is going to take you some time, but for many people, wading through their carefully catalogued collection is all part of the fun. If you list the pools by color, it’s very easy to simply pull out the cards you need — I generally reckon about 10 minutes per pool. By all means proxy the few rares that you don’t have, but in less than an hour and a half you have a Sealed Deck 8 man tournament ready to go for the princely sum of zero dollars. I clearly recall feeling irritated when I “wasted” all that time making the lists, but at a time of year when saving up for Lorwyn is at a premium, Draft feels like a tired format, and you’re fed up to the back teeth of TSP Block Constructed, an evening of Ravnica Sealed for no money seems like a great way to spend your Magic time. As you may have spotted by now, I tend to run fairly exotic tournaments, allowing others to fulfil the “meat and potatoes” role of Standard and regular Draft etc. This next idea is comfortably the most popular tournament format I run. It’s called:

Triple Sealed

Most of the fun of a new set is exploring the new cards and seeing what they do. Although you get some feel for this from what your opponents are playing, for the most part the strategic insight comes from making your own choices from your own cardpool. As we’ve already mentioned, occasionally you can end up with a poor Sealed pool. At a Prerelease, this typically leads to you losing a couple of matches and then waiting for the Draft to start. In Triple Sealed, there’s no such problem. Here’s how it works:

Each player is given a cardpool with a decksheet already listing the entire pool. They make their deck, list the cards they’re playing, and then play two rounds with the deck. At that point, they reset the cardpool and hand it back in. That cardpool is then given to a different player, who gets to see what he makes of it, before playing rounds 3 and 4 with their second deck of the day. When they list their version, they get to see what the first player did with the deck, which leads to a lot of discussion at the end of the day. Rounds 5 and 6 are played with a third pool. For the same price as a regular Sealed event you get to build three decks, play three decks, and discuss three decks. Because the tournament is unsanctioned, players are much more likely to help opponents with card choices, play decisions etc, and the atmosphere overall is one of mutually beneficial learning. Since about half of my playgroup are either Pros or Very Serious Near-Pro level, this allows them to share their expertise in a setting that still provides them with useful “training,” if you will. Are there still prizes? Sure, the top few players get to choose which cardpool they want (the one with the Dual land and the foil rare for example) and everyone else gets one pool at random. The players get a proper workout, the cards get a proper workout, and particularly when there’s a PTQ season with the set, as there is with Lorwyn, every serious playtest group should be running events like these. Truly, they are a fabulous way to play Magic.

Talk To The T.O.

If you want to save some time as well as money, talking to your friendly Tournament Organiser is a great plan. At the Prerelease weekend for Lorwyn, my local T.O. will probably turn over something like 100 players over the two days. Since decklists are now de rigour for Prereleases, that’s 100 cardpools that are registered and sitting behind the T.O. desk. Not only is that 100 cardpools, it’s also 100 decks that people have chosen to play. Let’s be clear here, this idea is meant for the serious player who wants to qualify for Malaysia next year. This is not an affair for the fainthearted. Nonetheless, just imagine the possibilities of what you could do with this much data. Whilst you may not put much faith in any one player as to their skill level, taken across this many samples the chances are that you’re going to have a good guide to what cards people liked and the balance of the colors. If you used a cardpool a day as a Sealed building exercise, that’s over three months of building. If you just want to use the cardpools as a shortcut before putting them together yourself for a Triple Sealed event, that’s a lot of typing and ordering you won’t have to do.

What about Constructed?

“What about Constructed?”
“And you haven’t said anything about MTGO, or Magic Suitcase.”
“I want to hear more about trading.”
“Tell me about foils, Uncle Rich!”
“What’s eBay really like?”

Yes, all these and more are questions I haven’t been asked. But here’s a quick puzzle for you. Guess what next week’s article, cunningly entitled, “Even More Bang For Your Buck” is going to be about? Yes, we’ll be moving on into the seriously expensive waters of Block, Standard, Extended, Legacy and, God help us all, Vintage next time around. We’ll also work out how to use the wonders of modern technology to squeeze even better value out of your Magic experience, and exclusively reveal the absolute cheapest way to play Magic now and forever more.

Until then, get saving for Lorwyn, and, as ever,

Thanks for reading.