The 10 Commandments of Building on a Budget

Shalt Thou? Thou Shalt

Hello! I’m Andrew Cummings, and normally I’m the guy that writes the Ultra Budget Brews article series. Today, however, I want to do something a bit different. I want to talk about ways to make the game of Magic a bit cheaper for you. Before I begin, I think it’s important to explain why this is even worth writing about, outside of the fact that making hobbies cheaper = better.

If you’ve played Magic for any amount of time, you’ve probably noticed that there’s a continuous flux of players both joining and leaving the game. This is a natural part of any hobby; seasons of life change, interests change, and time marches inexorably onward. That said, one of the things I often hear from players leaving Magic is that they can’t afford to keep up with the game. The hobby they enjoy becomes such a strain on their finances that they can’t responsibly continue to pursue it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, of course. My goal is simply to help this happen less often.

In the articles I typically write, I try to help by demonstrating ways to build decks with cards that only cost $1 or less. Today I want to take a more holistic approach and find other ways that we can stretch our budget further. The below tips are part anecdote, part common sense. Some of them may apply to you, some others may not, and that’s okay. The goal of this article is to remind you of things you already knew, to help you do those things more effectively, and to give you ideas that you might not have considered before.

I came up with a list of 10 tips, because the only thing our culture loves more than lists are lists that achieve an arbitrary number that we consider absolute. The below list is in no particular order.


Thou Shalt Trade

Trading, particularly at your local game store, has appeared to have gone out of vogue. The ease of accessing a large variety of different websites (and prices) has led to a certain amount of paralysis when it comes to trading. Once you actually find someone to trade with, you have to decide which website you want to use to measure the value of your cards, decide if you are using market price, high, low, or mid, and then try and get the cards you want and the cards they want to equal a similar value. To say that this can be overwhelming is quite the understatement. There are a few things you can do to make this all a bit easier for yourself.

  1. Always bring your trade binder with you. If you always have it and are actively interested in trading, others are more likely to bring theirs as well. People are much more likely to lug it along if they know at least someone else will have a binder as well.
  2. Initiate the conversation. Sometimes people are willing to trade, but feel awkward about approaching others. If you are willing to initiate the conversation, you’ll be surprised how often people are actually interested in trading. Shockingly, “Hey, have anything for trade?” is often a pretty effective opener.

    This probably describes most of us

  3. Know what you want. I always have a list of cards that I’m looking for. Sometimes the list is in my head, but it’s often in a note on my phone. This helps speed up the process. It can also be helpful to have a list of cards you’ll accept as ‘filler’ to even up a trade. My go-to for this recently has been Mirage Mirror and the Cycling lands from Amonkhet.
  4. Be easy to trade with. Don’t have a bunch of cards in your binder you aren’t actually willing to trade. Don’t insist on each side of the deal being perfectly equal. If you are getting cards you need, but are down a dollar in the trade, make the trade. If you aren’t a horrible stickler when it comes to this, other people (typically) won’t be either. If they insist on the trades being perfectly even or in their favor, it’s unlikely to be worth the headache.
  5. Closely related to the previous point, you never have to trade. If you can’t find anything you are looking for, or the other person is being difficult, say you couldn’t find anything and move on. Just because you initiated a conversation about trading cards does not obligate you to actually trade any cards.
  6. If you don’t frequent your LGS, or if it doesn’t have a culture that’s friendly towards trading, check out Facebook. There are a variety of pages dedicated to trading cards. Yes, you can get ripped off, and basically anyone that’s traded on there will have at least one horror story – myself included – but people keep doing it for a reason. You are more likely to find someone with compatible wants. Take precautions, ask for references, and if something feels fishy, don’t trade. (I have personally had success with ‘MTG Trading Only’ and ‘Magic the Gathering buy/sell/trade’). I know a number of people have had a fair amount of success with Cardsphere. I personally haven’t used it yet, but I thought I’d mention it here as a possibility if you are interested in that sort of thing.

Thou Shalt Buy Singles, Not Packs

If you’ve been playing for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard the advice to buy singles instead of packs. Overall, you’ll save a ton of money this way. If you’re on a budget, you need to make the money you have access to really count, and buying a pack of Guilds of Ravnica hoping to pull a Steam Vents is unlikely to work out for you.

If I had the skill, I’d put a Tree of Redemption in the box. Just imagine it.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t ever buy packs. I personally only buy packs when I am drafting or doing a prerelease because I am getting an experience out of the packs (Limited is the bee’s knees) as well as new cardboard. As an added bonus, doing drafts and prereleases support your LGS and the overall magic community more than buying loose packs from Walmart and Target.


Thou Shalt Follow #MtgFinance

One of the best ways I’ve found to save money is by keeping up with #mtgfinance. I don’t do this to make money, but rather to maximize the value of my collection, allowing me to get the cards I need to build the decks I want to play without spending tons of money in the process. Mtgstocks.com, Mtgprice.com, and Brainstorm Brewery are all resources that can aid you in knowing what cards are worth, if they’re going up or down in value, and so on. Times of particular importance are set rotation and prereleases. Generally, after prereleases, trade away anything you aren’t planning to use and try to trade your Standard legal cards (that you aren’t using) before rotation happens. There are exceptions to these rules, but doing both of those things will be correct a solid 90% of the time, allowing you to squeeze the most proverbial juice from your cardboard.


Thou Shalt Think Before You Acquire

This next tip is one that I personally struggle with: before you buy/trade for cards, have a decklist finished first. Recently, I wanted to build a Cycling deck based around Zur, the Enchanter. I had a general idea for the deck; I wanted to Faith of the Devoted, Astral Slide, and Drake Haven people out of the game. The problem? There are so many Cycling cards. A quick search shows there are 144 cards with Cycling or that interact with Cycling in White, Blue, and Black. Before I even add lands, I’d still need to cut out more than half of the cards available to get a real decklist.

I was overwhelmed, and instead of sitting down and really thinking about what cards I wanted, I went to the LGS and spent $15, buying basically every old card that had Cycling on it. When I put the deck together a few days later, almost none of those cards made the cut (except for the Rune of Protection: Red cycle. Those are hilarious). I essentially threw away $15.

Everything burns, but mostly my fun money.

Don’t be me. Know what cards you want to use before you start buying.

The second part of this is to make sure you’re actually interested in the deck before you start buying or trading. My wife is one of the most disciplined people that I know. For years, she wanted to get a ‘Deathly Hallows’ tattoo and had been slowly saving money to be able to pay for it. Once she had the money, she waited an entire year to make sure it was something she really wanted to have on her body for the rest of her life. After the year was up, she found it was something she still wanted, and now she has a rad tattoo.

I may have married a nerd

The above example is obviously extreme, but it’s prudent to wait a week or two to make sure the deck that piqued your interest is still something you want. Continuously switching decks is expensive, so don’t.


Thou Shalt Stick to Your Budget

If I could choose one thing for people to take from this article, it’s this: stick to your budget. It doesn’t matter if your budget is $10 or $1,000, know what you are willing to spend, know what you’re finances allow, and stick to it. This requires taking an honest look at your financial situation before you see that sale online or that awesome new planeswalker in the case at your LGS. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t spend money on Magic. Just don’t be that person that buys a card on Monday and then sells that same card for pennies on the dollar on Thursday because they have to pay rent. Obviously emergencies happen, but monthly bills? You might have known that was coming.

“…I have to pay rent?!?”

One of the quickest ways to burn out of this game is to overspend, harming your financial situation to the point that’s it’s no longer sustainable. A budget will help your longevity playing a game you enjoy and will allow you to not be stressed, or feel guilty, every time you buy something Magic-related.


Thou Shalt Be Generous With Your Playgroup

If you are reading this, you likely play a fair amount of EDH. It’s also possible that you have a group of friends with whom you play on a regular basis. One of the easiest ways to play Magic on a budget is to be generous with your playgroup. If you are anything like me, you probably have a ton of cards that, for whatever reason, you have no intention of ever using. They sit in your binder or in a box in your closet, taking up space, literally and figuratively collecting dust. You also probably know what kinds of cards interest your friends, what cards they might be searching for, or what deck(s) they are building. Help them out. If you aren’t using the cards anyway, let them have them. When you do this, they are likely to do the same for you.

Cultivating a culture of generosity in your playgroup can be a little scary at first, but it can be very rewarding. Helping your friends acquire the cards they’re looking for helps them be able to play the game, which is probably what you want in the first place, since this is a game that requires other people. I’m not necessarily advocating giving away a bunch of shocks, fetches, or other valuable cards. Rather, I’m urging you to help each other.

Some people in your playgroup may not be comfortable with this, and that’s okay. Maybe they’ve had bad experiences with this sort of thing in the past. Don’t force the issue. If they come around eventually, that’s fine. If not, that’s equally fine.


Thou Shalt Side Hustle

This one is the most obvious, and as a result, possibly the least helpful. It’s also one that I have a fair amount of experience with. I work in education. I love basically every part of my job… except for the financial part. This is not to complain, since I knew this going in, but simply to say I’m not exactly well-off. I have never had to get a second job, but I have sold a lots of plasma. So much plasma. I have fairly large scars from getting a needle shoved into my arm twice a week, every week. Getting paid $250 a month to sit and read for 45 minutes (albeit with a length of metal in my arm) twice a week is a decent gig. Once I had managed to pay down most of my debt, I was able to use a percentage of that money to help subsidize my Magic habit.

Another thing you can do is sell cards. In my area, there’s a shop that buys bulk commons and uncommons at $4-$5 per thousand. When I start to reach capacity, I sort through my cards, pull out anything I think is remotely playable or interesting, and bulk out the rest, allowing me to get whatever cards or paraphernalia I might need. You can also sell cards on local buy/sell/trade groups or on the aforementioned Magic Facebook groups, though you’ll likely have an easier time selling more desirable cards there as opposed to bulk.

It’s not glamorous, but when you are trying to stretch your budget, extra avenues of income can do the trick.


Thou Shalt Know What You Want Out of Magic

When I first started playing Magic, I typically played giant 6-player games where everyone has slightly upgraded one of the 60-card intro decks and crashed cards into each other for a couple hours. Looking back, we were clueless, but in the best way possible.

It was amazing fun. Eventually, we discovered Standard and attempted to build decks. We played in a few FNMs until something called ‘rotation’ hit, dismantling all of our hard work. It became clear to me that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with Standard; I didn’t have the capital to do so and didn’t get to play at FNM often enough to justify it even if I did. So, I looked at Modern.

Fellow EDHREC author and EDHRECast member Matt Morgan is a Modern aficionado and got me into that format. I built budget decks: Mono-Red Storm, Mono-Red Burn, and Taking Turns. Eventually (read: over the course of more than a year), I actually was able to acquire the shocks and fetches required to build Mardu Burn, which was pretty close to a stock competitive burn list (except I added in Thunderous Wrath, because top-decking wins out of nowhere is hilarious). It was an absolute blast. Sadly, for a variety of reasons, I stopped being able to attend my shop’s Modern events with any regularity. Last year, I looked back and realized I had played Modern twice in the prior calendar year. It was simply not worth it to me to keep that much value in cards that I almost never played.

I had to decide which format was most plausible to keep up with and what was most important to me. In short, I had to decide what I wanted out of Magic. I knew that playing in tournaments regularly wasn’t an option, or rather, that it would require sacrifices I was unwilling to make. I did know that I would be able to make EDH happen much more regularly, and that it would help me get what I really wanted out of Magic, namely having fun and hanging out with friends. It would also allow me to be as competitive or uncompetitive as I wanted. It was a natural fit and has allowed me to focus all of my resources on EDH instead of spreading them out over multiple formats.

So, I dismantled my Modern decks, traded the parts out for a variety of cards for a bunch of EDH decks, and haven’t looked back.


Thou Shalt Get the Best Bang for Your Buck

This is the section that (hopefully) my regular articles help with. To be able to build on a budget, you need to know what cards are most important for your deck. Sure, every deck would probably be better with a Mana Crypt, but is it the most important card? Nope. However, if I want to brew a Breya, Etherium Shaper deck built around sacrificing all of my artifacts and killing everyone in one giant turn, I do probably need to spring for a Krak-Clan Ironworks.

Acquire the cards that will allow you to do the thing you want your deck to do, whatever that might be. For most strategies, there are ways to make more of a lateral move as opposed to a strict downgrade in power, but that’s not always the case. Do you really want to play lands off the top of your library, but don’t want to pay $30 for an Oracle of Mul Daya (seriously, why hasn’t this been reprinted)? Courser of Kruphix can do a decent impression for a fraction of the cost. Want to simultaneously play solitaire and make everyone in your group email Sheldon about banning Paradox Engine? Well, there isn’t an easy replacement for that, and you’ll have to either acquire the card or change your plan.

Knowing when and how to optimize your deck is important as well. For my personal decks, if I’m really interested in optimizing my list, I typically try and improve the mana base first. This is typically the most expensive part of any deck, but there are two huge benefits: If you ever decide to take the deck apart, you will either have a functioning mana base to easily pivot into whatever you might be interested in, or you have highly desirable cards that will allow you to trade for most anything you want.

Other than lands, I typically try and optimize my win conditions, because I’m secretly a huge Timmy that likes doing big, splashy, memorable things, but it’s probably more prudent to upgrade your ramp and removal suite first. I’m told that removal allows you to survive until the later turns to actually do the cool things you want to do, and that ramp helps you cast your giant spells, but that’s like eating your vegetables; equal parts healthy and boring.

The cop is your friend that’s actually good at Magic

In possibly unrelated news, I’m a total scrub and have no idea why.


Thou Shalt Know How Many Decks You Want to Have

I am constantly brewing, whether that be in my head or building decks on MTGGoldfish. There are lots of decks I want to play, lots of strategies I want to try, and lots of cards I want to break. Unfortunately, I have both a limited amount of time and a limited amount of finances to use playing Magic. With the cards I have available, I could build 15 low-powered, budget decks, but what would be the point of that if I only play a couple games a week? It would take me forever to cycle through them all. I’ve found that for the amount I actually get to play, having 5-6 decks has worked out well. It allows me to have a variety of power levels and strategies and still have few enough decks to get to play with them all semi-regularly.

Part of this is being willing to take decks apart. If you find yourself never playing a specific deck, scrutinize it, and ask why you play it so rarely. Is the power level off? Do you not enjoy it anymore? Does it play out differently than you thought it would? Do you need to upgrade it? There can be any number of reasons. Building a new deck is much easier for a budget-conscious player if it’s replacing an underplayed deck as opposed to adding another to the stable. Scrapping a deck for parts isn’t always enjoyable, but it gives you extra cards to trade with and it allows you to use those cards in new decks that you are actually excited to bust out and play.


Thou Shalt Leave Feedback

What ideas do you have for saving money when playing Magic? Have you experienced any success or failure with the above? I would love to hear what you all have to say in the comments below. I’ll be back with a normal edition of Ultra Budget Brews soon. Until next time!

Andrew is a life-long gamer and has been playing Magic since 2013. He works as an ASL interpreter, enjoys running, and sitting on his porch reading, while simultaneously silently judging his neighbors. He lives in Joplin, MO with his wife.