What if you didn’t own a single Magic card?
It’s hard to imagine that dark reality ever coming to pass while sitting in a room filled with piles of half-built decks and the remnants of 2-1 drafts,
but it happens to most of us at some point. Collections get stolen. Houses burn down. Decks are sold to finance a baby, a wedding, or an emergency medical
procedure. Some people sell their collection every couple of years, swearing off the game, only to get sucked right back in a few months later. For one
reason or another, most of us will start from scratch several times over our Magic-playing lives.
And when it comes to learning a new format, we’re all starting from scratch. The leap into Modern can be daunting if you started playing Magic during
Innistrad, and Legacy is an even bigger hurdle. Even competitively casual formats like Cube and Commander can feel like they have a serious barrier to
entry if you’re looking to take them seriously.
Most of my articles are about maximizing value over time, and the majority of my advice requires you to have an established collection and enough extra
cash to buy cards on spec at least every couple of weeks. This article is different. It’s about a concept that is just as important for Magic finance, even
if it isn’t discussed as much: efficiency.
It isn’t hard to make your collection more valuable if you have enough time and money: buy cards when they’re undervalued, wait until their value matures,
and then sell or trade them for whatever you need. Making your collection more efficient requires weighing cash value, trading time, and acquisition effort
against the overall usability of a card.
In theory, a player with a perfectly efficient Magic collection uses every one of his or her cards whenever they play a game. Whenever you use your limited
time and trade resources to acquire a card that ends up sitting in a binder for five years without ever seeing play, you’re reducing your collection’s
efficiency and preventing yourself from using those resources to acquire cards that would be more useful to you.
Efficiency isn’t that important if your collection spans multiple rooms of your house. If you need a staple on short notice, you’ve either got it already
or can trade for it easily enough. If your collection is tiny and you’re just starting out, however, efficiency is an absolutely critical concept to
leverage. It’s the difference between owning a finely-tuned $1,000 Modern deck or $1,000 worth of scattered and useless staples across six different
What’s the best way to craft an efficient collection? Well, let’s start at the very beginning: a place that all of us found ourselves in at some point, and
many of us will find ourselves in again someday.
With Magic, it’s easier to start from complete ignorance than from a partial and outdated knowledge base. I’d certainly rather teach the game to someone
who has never seen a card before than try to explain it to someone still stubbornly clinging to memories of his 4th Edition rulebook.
One of the biggest mistakes returning players make is pulling out to an old favorite deck and attempting to retrofit it to today’s competitive Magic scene.
“Want to check out my awesome Spiritmonger deck?” the guy will ask me, and I’ll be handed a pile of dusty un-sleeved cards before having a chance to
respond. The deck will have four beat-up copies of Spiritmonger alongside all-star constructed staples like Ebony Treefolk, Llanowar Dead, and Consume
“Seems…fun,” I’ll say, handing it back.
“Yeah! I can’t wait to play it in tournaments again!”
After I inform him that 95% of his deck is ineligible to play in Standard or Modern events, he’ll invariably ask me which formats he can play his deck in.
“Legacy,” I’ll say, “and Vintage, but those formats are full of powerful, established archetypes.”
“No problem, I’ll just add some new cards. Hey, what do you want for that Reaper of the Wilds?”
This mentality leads to months of inefficient trading, burning cash in order to enter tournaments without a shot at a high finish, and a cascade of
demoralizing losses. The problem is that most of these returning players are attempting to make two leaps at once. The first is the transition from 2002
Magic to 2014 Magic, which might as well be an entirely different game. The second is from schoolyard Magic to the semi-competitive tournament scene, which
brings with it an entirely different set of challenges. Many returners played their last game of constructed with a buddy or three in their school
cafeteria or while waiting for the bus. If they stroll into an FNM and assume that they’ll be able to stomp everyone just because they’re an adult now,
they’re going to be in for a rude awakening.
For players returning after a long absence, letting go of the past is just as important as acquiring new cards. If you spend months worth of your energy
fighting against ‘net decking’ and attempting to revitalize draw-go in Standard or win with your RUG Zombie deck in Legacy, you’re going to have a
miserable time. Your best option is to mine your collection for current Modern and Legacy staples and then stick the rest of your old cards back in the
closet. That Spiritmonger deck will be fun to pull out for a nostalgic game night now and then, but it has no place at today’s FNM.
The best way to maximize your efficiency is to reduce your collection, boiling it down to just the tournament essentials. You’re better off going to war
with twenty decent cards in your binder and no deck than with several boxes of Ice Age chaff and a bad discard brew from 1998.
So you’ve got nothing. If you’re lucky, your old collection had a couple of Lightning Bolts and a set of Hymn to Tourachs. Maybe there’s a high end staple
like Intuition or Force of Will in there somewhere, but that’s it. In terms of Standard and Modern play, it’s the big goose egg. What now?
If you’re looking to expand your collection, the most efficient thing you can do is to identify your Magic goals. Do you want to play Standard? Modern?
Casual? Cube? All of the above? Are you okay sticking with a single deck, or do you want the freedom to build whatever you want? It doesn’t matter whether
your collection is worth $10 or $10,000–knowing what you’re aiming for is the best way to improve your Magic finances.
Most people make this decision with the zeal of a fat man staring down a hamburger menu and decide to go for it all at once. Others pick a format or two
that they think looks cool and go from there. Your deciding factor shouldn’t be what format seems best though–it’s what format you have access to play on
a regular basis. That way, your buying and trading efforts won’t go to waste. Owning a Vintage deck is nice, but if no one in your town plays Vintage, all
you’ve got is a pretty stack of cards.
I know several newly-returned players who wanted to jump right into Modern, thinking that a format with older cards might be an easier and more familiar
return to the game, but that never goes well. Modern is expensive, skill-testing, and there are fewer opportunities to play. Modern is a fantastic format,
and I’ll talk about how to transition into it later in this article, but it’s not a great place to start.
If you want to maximize your efficiency, the best way to build a Magic collection from scratch is to draft every week. If your local store has a draft FNM
and you like playing limited, this is the way to do it. Drafts at most stores cost between $12 and $15, roughly the price of a Friday night movie ticket.
Instead of having to bring a $400 deck with you, though, you get three lottery ticket shots at an expensive staple plus the possibility of winning packs or
store credit at the end of the night.
If you’re looking to turn your draft leftovers into a collection, I recommend keeping your cards as well-sorted as possible. Until your collection reaches
critical mass, efficiency is all about leveraging value and collecting as many staples as you can. Here are a couple of different card storage methods that
I like, depending on your goal:
The Competitive Box
: Are you looking to build as complete a Standard collection as possible? Buy a few hundred penny sleeves and an 800-count cardboard box. Use that box only
to store Standard staples, including commons and uncommons, with a maximum of four cards per sleeve. Sort all chaff commons and uncommons into a bulk box
and ignore them. Sort all casual rares and competitive cards beyond your first playset into a binder that you can use for trading at FNM. Trade casual
cards for competitive ones, even at a small loss, whenever possible.
The Commander Binder:
Are you looking to play a ton of Commander? If you aren’t worried about competitive play at all, build Commander binders: one for each color, one for
lands, one for artifacts, and one for gold cards. I have one or two pages per color per set, and I only keep two of each card. You can use the reverse side
of the page to store the second card so they’ll fit back-to-back and be easy to store and browse. All rares and mythics beyond the first two go into your
trade binder and can be used to fill out holes in your collection.
The All-in Binder:
If you’re laser-focused on building a single deck, all of your other tradable assets should go in a single trade binder. Print out a decklist and stick it
on the first page with all of the cards you already have crossed out. That is your want list. Don’t trade for a card that isn’t on your list until your
deck is done. When you get close, people in your local store might even get into the hunt, helping you track down those last couple of elusive cards too.
Regardless of which path you pursue, you’ll have the start of a decent collection within six months if you draft and trade aggressively each week. This
isn’t the sexiest way to dive back in to Magic, but it is the cheapest and most efficient. Think of it like a calorie counting diet: there are no tricks,
there are no shortcuts, and the progress will be incremental. After a couple of months though, the gains will start to add up. You just have to be patient
Of course, many local stores don’t offer weekly drafts. Some people prefer to play Constructed Magic and aren’t interested in the attack-and-block nature
of limited play. If draft isn’t an option or you’d prefer not to do it, don’t fret. You can still play lots of Magic right away, and you don’t have to pay
a lot to do it.
Instead of buying a box of the latest set or hitting up your prerelease hoping to get lucky, hit up the Star City Deck Database (it’s right on the
sidebar!), and take a look at Top 8 decklists from the last few tournaments. Find a deck you like, preferably one that’s either cheap or can function
without a few major staples, and buy it. Tune it, optimize it, learn it, and love it. Don’t panic if it falls out of favor: a tier two deck piloted by
someone who knows it inside and out can beat a tier one deck piloted by someone who doesn’t know how to use it properly any day of the week. I wouldn’t
recommend doing this right now–the format is going to rotate in a few months–but if you wait until late October, about a month after the fall set hits
the street, there will be an awesome window where buying an entire Standard deck at once makes a ton of financial sense.
Look Wide, Or Build Narrow?
The question everyone has when starting from scratch is this: Is it better to build the full, powered-up version of cheaper deck that only requires a few
format staples, or should you build a sub-par version of an expensive deck and slowly improve it? This applies not only to new players building their first
deck in Standard, but to experienced mages looking to get their start in Modern.
There are compelling arguments for both sides. Affinity is one of the best decks in Modern, and while it’s not cheap, the fact that it doesn’t use
fetchlands makes it more affordable than, say, Birthing Pod. If you want to build Jund, you need to pick up expensive cards that fit in multiple decks. If
you’re looking to win through infect, you can do it without too many staples.
The problem, of course, is that staples are expensive precisely because of their versatility. If you get bored of your Zoo deck, you can use most of those
fetchlands to play Pod or Jund. If you get sick of playing Affinity, or the deck is banned, or it stops winning tournaments, your Ravagers and Opals aren’t
going to help you switch archetypes.
The problem with building a stripped-down version of a tier one deck is that you will lose in embarrassing and un-fun ways. Losing because a crazy combo
didn’t fire is one thing, but scrubbing out because your mana didn’t come together or your Duress couldn’t snag a card that Thoughtseize could have is
completely demoralizing. It feels like you lost the game thanks to your bank account, not your skill, and it’s a good way to burn out on a format.
Most people understand this which is why the narrow budget decks are so popular. It’s better to lose with the best possible version of a $500 tier two deck
than with a stripped-down $500 version of a $900 tier one deck, right?
I liken that situation to someone renting a really nice apartment while saving up to buy their dream house. If your ultimate goal is home ownership, but
you don’t want to live in a tent in the living room of a fixer-upper with a leaky roof, you’re going to have to rent for a while during the lengthy
construction process. If cash flow is a concern though, isn’t it better to rent the smallest possible apartment and use that extra money toward the house?
In my mind, the best way to efficiently explore a new format is to start out with the cheapest budget list you can find that still interests you. I’m not
talking about an Infect list that uses Noble Hierarchs and Misty Rainforests; I’m talking Mono-Red Goblins, Mono-Blue Illusion Aggro, or UB mill with
maindeck Crypt Incursions. Decks like these are under $50, and you can find lists for them everywhere. You can build two or three of them if you want, and it won’t break the
bank. These decks are a blast to play, they’re optimized for what they are, and if you do take down a tournament with one, you’ll feel like a legend. In
the meantime, work on your dream home–that tier one Modern deck that gives you goose bumps–and don’t play it until you feel like it’s ready for prime
Another good option is to approach the format in the way WotC originally intended. The only reason that eternal formats are promoted at all is to ensure
that cards have value beyond Standard, preventing the market from crashing completely every summer and encouraging long-term collecting. This was a shrewd
move and is part of the reason why Magic is healthier and more robust than games where cards can go from $20 to $0.20 in a single month.
While not every Standard deck makes the transition into Modern, some of the best ones do. If you are smart about buying older staples when they come back
around in Modern Masters sets, and you keep your old Standard decks through rotation, you’ll eventually have a solid Modern collection without having to
try that hard. This isn’t a very efficient way to get into Modern, but it’s what most of us older players did. Eventually, today’s hot new tech will become
tomorrow’s impossible to find eternal staple. Do you have your shocklands, Thoughtseizes, Coursers of Kuprhix, and Abrupt Decays yet?
If you have a tournament-centric goal–the desire to get into Modern, say, or a burning interest in building the best deck in Standard–efficiency is
crucial. When you’re starting from scratch with a destination in mind, you need both patience and focus in order to succeed. If you just want to play Magic
and have a good time, however, I recommend going with the flow. Draft as much as you can, turn your winnings into Standard decks, and eventually those
staples will turn into a pretty solid Modern collection. And if you throw smart trading and creative speculation into the mix, that day might happen sooner
than you think.
This Week’s Trends
– Hey, did you hear the news out of Comic-Con on Saturday!? I’m so excited that the new block is going to be built around that sweet mechanical conceit we
haven’t seen before! Hey – did you see the art for that angel and/or planeswalker? I bet she’s going to be great for Commander! Also, isn’t that new block
structure going to be crazy? And what iconic land cycle might that one piece of art been representing? I can’t wait for the fall! (Note: I’ll talk about
whatever was announced at SDCC in the comments. This article was written a few days before the panel occurred.)
– Hasbro had their second quarter investor call last week, and you can read the full transcript here. Apparently, Hasbro does not consider
Hearthstone to be a major competitor for Magic, likening it to a more casual Duels of the Planeswalkers-style game. That’s a fair comparison, but
I hope they don’t forget how important Duels was in bringing record growth back to Magic. Hearthstone has the potential to sap that player base, at least
from Magic’s digital properties.
– Also of note, Magic sales are even from 2013 which means that the player base may have stopped growing. The Hasbro exec theorizes that some of the lack
of growth may have to do with the fact that Q1 from 2013 had a large set (Gatecrash), and Q1 from 2014 had a small set. (Small sets nearly always sell
worse). I’d wager that Conspiracy didn’t generate as much revenue as Modern Masters either. Even still, this trend is worth monitoring going forward, and
could lead to the current bear market sticking around longer than it otherwise would.
– Wizards of the Coast released a new statement detailing
their efforts to stop counterfeit cards from entering the marketplace. The statement doesn’t really go into detail, but it’s nice to see them responding to
this issue. I’ve seen many pictures of new counterfeits leaking onto the market over the past few months, but all of them are still relatively easy to tell
apart if you’ve spent enough time around Magic cards. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still worried about this issue long-term, but I don’t think that the
problem is an immediate one. I’m still buying singles with confidence.
– No one seems to like the new MTGO client, but everyone seems to have faith that it will be improved. Tournament attendance online is down, but no one is
panic-selling their collection. Instead, the people who aren’t playing right now are simply holding onto their cards and hoping that things will improve.
At this point, I doubt there will be a major selloff unless something major happens on V4 that scares people into jumping ship.
– The Standard market is finally showing signs of life again, with Ajani Steadfast, the painlands, and Genesis Hydra all gaining this past week. Galerider
Sliver is up a bit too as people brew with all the Slivers while they’re still in Standard together. The Modern index, other than a few casual and corner
cases like Goblin Guide and Swarmyard, is still losing ground. The bear isn’t dead yet, but a couple of cards have started to fight back.