Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Upgrading Your MTGO Budget Deck (Part II)

My last article covered a lot of goal setting, specifically where to start when you’re about to jump into a format like Modern but you’re on a budget. Today we're continuing that thought process, but moving from the broader goal setting to the actual decisions we make about cards. Which ones should I buy first? Which ones are the safest investments? When might my budget option actually be better than what's most commonly played?

Evaluating Cards for Budget Play
When you’re purchasing cards for a nonrotating format, there are a lot of things to consider. If budget isn’t a concern, the only three questions that matter are: Does this card help me execute my game plan? Does this card adequately disrupt the game plan of my opponent? Is there another card that accomplishes the same goal in a better way? These three questions are crucial for deck building, and if you’re just building a list that someone else posted, much of this has already been answered for you.

For most of us, though, budget is a concern. The power and efficiency of a card are not the only standards we have to take into consideration. The following questions also need to be considered:

Is this a card I can reuse if I switch decks?
Some cards are incredibly narrow, and are only used in niche strategies. Others are very broad, and are used across several archetypes. It is worth considering whether a given card will still be useful to you later if you decide to switch decks later on. (see Format Staples below for more) Being able to reuse a card later doesn't change its actual price tag, but it does affect how much value we will get out of the card as we continue using it over time.

Is this a card that is likely to retain its value?
Cards that were recently printed and are either greatly hyped at release or just made a big splash in standard are going to be expensive. However, only a handful of these will stay expensive once the hype dies down and/or they’ve rotated out of standard. It sure feels bad when you invest 80+ tix in a playset of cards only to see their value fall dramatically within a month or two. For example, I was really excited about Arlinn Kord when it was spoiled, and I purchased a few as soon as they were released. Now I can get a playset for less than what I originally paid for just one. It can be difficult to predict how valuable a card will be over time, but it’s worth keeping in mind. A card that is still standard legal is likely to fluctuate a lot more than a card that has been in print for quite some time.


Is there a cheaper alternative that I can play now while I save up to buy this later?
Many chase cards have slightly less powerful versions that are much less expensive. Need a Blood Moon effect but don’t have $80 for a playset? You could get four Magus of the Moon for $32 instead, and some decks play eight moon effects anyway, so they might not be useless even after you've saved up for the real deal. A better example is probably Avacyn’s Pilgrim. It’s clearly worse than Noble Hierarch, but you can pick up a playset for less than a dime while you save up for those $20+ Noble Hierarchs.

Prioritizing Purchases
So now you’ve set some goals, you know what deck (or at least what style of deck) you want to play, and you’ve asked (and answered) some tough questions about the cards you want to purchase. Now it’s time to actually start buying them, but since you’re on a budget, you probably can’t afford to buy all of them at once. So which ones should you start with? Here’s the order I recommend:

1. Cards that are necessary for the deck to function
This might sound obvious, but it’s important to note just in case. If your ultimate goal is to build a Death’s Shadow deck, there is absolutely no point spending money on cards that reduce your own life total if you don’t have the payoff card for that strategy. Buy those Death's Shadows first. Similarly, if you’re planning to play Troll Worship, buy a playset of Worship and some hexproof cards before you do anything else.

2. Penny rares
There are rare and mythic cards out there that you can get for less than ten cents. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that every single one of them falls into one of these categories: unplayable, playable only in niche strategies, or so over-printed that everybody has a few already. For budget lists, this is our gold mine. There are a lot of powerful cards out there that just aren’t heavily played - maybe it’s because the strategy they promote has a terrible matchup against a top deck, or maybe a card has since been printed that is strictly better. That doesn’t make these cards invalid, but it does mean that their prices plummet. If your deck does include any cards that fall into this category, pick them up immediately. Their prices probably won't ever go up, but they can't go down either, so these are the safest purchases you can make.

3. Lands
In a format like Modern, a significant cost of building almost any deck is the mana base. For single color decks the cost is significantly less, but very few mono-X decks are considered viable. In fact, we might be down to just Merfolk, since even burn splashes for something nowadays (Atarka’s Command, Boros Charm, Bump in the Night, etc.). Pay attention to some of the budget alternatives out there. Sure, a fetch- and shock-land manabase is going to be very efficient, but it's also incredibly expensive. Those M10 checklands and Ice Age-style painlands are still cheap in comparison, and are quite effective.

4. Format staples
These are the cards that you answered “yes” to the, “Can I reuse this later?” question above. Cards like Path to Exile are played in almost every deck that plays white, even when they’re relegated to the sideboard. The same could be said for Thoughtseize in black decks, Lightning Bolt in red decks, plus Tarmogoyf, Snapcaster Mage, and others. These cards are almost as safe to invest in as the lands. They have proven their usefulness, and are highly unlikely to lose value over time. Prices fluctuate, of course, but the power level and flexibility of these cards is unlikely to be challenged with a new card that is better. Most of these are also utility cards, so they are not oppressive enough to be considered for bannings. The best part, though, is that you can switch decks and they'll still be useful. If you decide to start out with Soul Sisters, switch to Death & Taxes after a few months, then switch over to Kiki Chord, and finally settle on Abzan after a few years, you will have more than gotten your money’s worth out of that playset of Path to Exile you purchased at the beginning of the journey. The same can't be said for Serra Ascendant, which will have been in the trade binder so long by that point that you probably forgot you purchased any.

4. Key sideboard cards
There are a few sideboard cards that are absolute hosers against certain archetypes, and these can be vital for your long-term success in the format. Also incredibly important are those sideboard cards that are handy catch-alls for decks you might not otherwise have answers for. Rest in Peace and Shatterstorm fall into that first category, doing heavy lifting against graveyard strategies and affinity/robots respectively. The latter category includes cards like Engineered Explosives and Maelstrom Pulse, which can answer lots of cards that might otherwise have caught you off guard.

6. Everything else
If it doesn’t fall into one of the above categories, it comes last. Maybe it’s a card that's a nod to the metagame as it stands, or maybe it’s one of eight removal spells that could be something else. Maybe it’s a card that isn’t absolutely necessary, but that slightly improves your win percentage in those long grindy games. Whatever it is, you’ll probably want to purchase it last.

When to get innovative:
This could be an article of its own, but since I said in my last one that I’d touch on this topic, I’m going to dip my toe in the water. The process of growing your budget list into a competitive deck requires a lot of thought, card evaluation, and playing with cards that are a little off the beaten path. While much of this process involves playing inferior cards and then setting them aside when you can afford the better ones, you might find hidden gem that nobody else has noticed.

The issue, of course, is that you’re playing on a budget, so you don’t have the resources to purchase extra cards just to try them out and be innovative. It might seem counterproductive when you're on a tight budget to spend money on a card that might turn out to be absolute poopy. The upside, though, is that these innovations can actually provide the advantage of catching an opponent off guard. Nobody can play around everything, and if your deck sports a few zingers that opponents won't expect, you can use that to your advantage and generate extra wins.

I would advise you to keep this in moderation, though. If you go all-in on a fringe hate card or weird alternative to a format staple, you might also find that everybody else's reasons for not playing the card are 100% justified, and then you spent money on a playset of trash. This isn't the outcome you want either, so let me suggest a system that has worked for me over the years. If you stick to this system, you'll still get to be innovative, but you'll avoid investing in too many cards that just don't pan out.

Here’s what works for me:

  • Decide on the effect you want.
  • Play three copies of something tried-and-true.
  • Play one copy of a similar effect that has a unique spin.

This gives you the opportunity to be creative, but the majority of your investment will still be in cards that you know will pay off in the long run. Say, for example, that you plan to play Anger of the Gods in your sideboard once your deck is fully fleshed out, and you’re about to grab a playset of Pyroclasm to hold you over until you can spend a little more. You remember, though, that Blasphemous Act was a thing back in Innistrad standard, and you check the price. It’s not much more expensive than Pyroclasm, but it's significantly cheaper than Anger of the Gods, and it conveniently kills Death’s Shadow, which neither of your other options can do consistently. You might find that the mana cost doesn’t hinder you as much as you thought, and it ends up being better in the current metagame than the card you originally wanted to run. Is it worth running a 3/1 Pyroclasm/Blasphemous Act split? I don’t know… but if you’re building up from a budget list, you’re already running some cards that are considered sub-par. Why not give it a shot?

Summing Up
The path from budget to competitive is not easy, especially in a format as expensive as modern, but it can be incredibly rewarding. It can also be a fun challenge. If you love the opportunity to solve puzzles, the "How can I remain competitive without breaking my bank account?" conundrum is one that I've been trying to solve for years. In paper, I've already gone through this whole process several times for various formats, usually with at least half of a competitive decklist on hand already.. On Magic Online, though, I'm excited to be at the actual beginning, with almost nothing and working my way up. I sincerely hope that your journey from budget to competitive is as fun as mine has been, but I'm sure I don't have all the answers. What advice do you have? How do you intend to work your way up? Or if you've already made it to the top, what advice do you have for those still making the climb?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Upgrading Your MTGO Budget Deck (Part I)

A few months ago, I decided to resurrect my dormant Magic Online account and start streaming on Twitch. I have rarely played MTGO over the years, so even though I have a pretty respectable collection in paper, my resources online were quite limited. I’m making some strides toward playing more competitively online, and I want to share my strategy for getting there, and I want to invite you to share your tips in the comments below as well.

Side Note: Please note that these tips are given with non-rotating formats in mind, particularly modern. Applying these strategies to a format like standard is unlikely to work. At best, it’s considerably riskier, as the format shifts much more often. That being said, let’s jump right in, shall we?

Everybody starts out on a budget. Sure, budgets vary, but it’s rare to see a player with enough cash to purchase an optimal list outright. Whether we’re just learning the game, just starting to play competitively, just getting into a new format, or building toward a new deck, most of us start with something sub-optimal. We challenge ourselves to be competitive without breaking our bank accounts, trying to find hidden gems or sideboard hate or budget brews that can give us an edge against the more mainstream competition... but there's only so much you can do, and even if you do find the magic sideboard tech that gives you an edge against the number one deck, you can only keep it a secret for so long. Other people will see what you're doing, or discover the same strategy on their own, and the format will adapt... leaving you right back where you started, trying to find an edge with limited resources. There was a time in my life that I enjoyed that challenge, but I'm over it now. Now I just want to find the quickest, most reliable way to move from my halfway-decent budget list to a more respectable tournament contender.

Unfortunately, a lot of Magic: The Gathering articles don't help with this much. There is a lot of disparity between budget entry points and winning tournament lists, and most strategy articles tend to focus on one extreme or the other. Articles about budget lists often have a section on, “How to Improve This Deck,” and occasionally a primer for a tournament list will have a section on viable replacements if you can’t afford the most expensive cards in the list. However, I’ve found that these tips are shortsighted at best. Improving your budget GB zombies list into the most competitive version of GB zombies still won’t leave you with a top tier deck. Similarly, running an incredibly watered down version of a popular deck is likely to just leave you unsatisfied.

Step One: Choose a Direction

Find a powerful strategy that you can be satisfied with long-term. You’re slowly building up a hefty investment, so careful planning can save you a lot of cash (and headaches). Make sure the strategy you choose is one you enjoy. Building to it may take some time, and you don’t want to finally “get there” just to realize that you’re not enjoying the deck. To help with this, I recommend getting in some solitaire games using one of the many free tools out there (Cockatrice seems to be a current favorite, but I’m personally still attached to Magic Workstation). It's not actual competition, but goldfishing can give you a feel for how a deck plays out.

If you can't find a particular list you want to play, that's okay too. Your goal doesn't have to be that specific, but it does help if you know the general direction you intend to go. Choose an archetype (maybe a pair of colors and a general gameplan, for example), so you can focus on buying cards that will support that strategy. Maybe you like blue control decks, for example, so it’s obvious that you need to be picking up Snapcaster Mage and Cryptic Command. Or maybe you like really aggressive red decks, so you know you’ll be spending your money on Goblin Guide and Eidolon of the Great Revel.

My goal is not a particular list, but a handful of lists that have a lot of overlapping cards. I’d like to be able to choose between Kiki Chord, Abzan Company, and Coralhelm Combo whenever I join a league. All of these are green-white creature decks that can be somewhat aggressive when needed, can grind out long games with resilient creatures, and can win with their respective combo backup plans. The key to these decks not breaking my wallet, though, is that the three decks have so many cards in common: Birds of Paradise, Noble Hierarch, Wall of Roots, Voice of Resurgence, Chord of Calling, Path to Exile, all the green-white lands, targets for various tutor effects, etc. Once I build up to one, it's not too much of a jump to get to the next one.

Step Two: Choose a Starting Point

Once you determine your finish line, it’s time to consider where you’ll start. It might be tempting to just build a really watered down version of your desired deck, but I would advise against this. Say for example, that you love GBx decks, and you hope to be able to play classic Jund. A watered down Jund deck might include Duress instead of Thoughtseize, Disfigure instead of Fatal Push, Liliana of the Dark Realms instead of Liliana of the Veil, etc. The resulting pile, however, has the same general strategy that Jund has, but lacks the powerful effects to actually accomplish that strategy when faced with stiff competition. In other words, it's just a mediocre deck in a field full of powerhouses. However, a deck like Death Cloud is super cheap, gives you a starting point in colors you enjoy playing, and has a powerful (if inconsistent) strategy of its own. The game plan itself is slightly different, but there is enough overlap (especially in the mana base), that you can start there and work your way up. This is far more likely to get you started with some wins than playing Jund-lite.

My personal starting point was just an old standard list that I ported over to modern, one that focused on Dungrove Elder and equipment. It cost me almost nothing to get started because I already had most of the cards from way back. If you don’t have that convenient standard deck to transition to modern, though, it’s probably worth it to check out this list of budget decks. All of the decks on that page cost less than 100 tix, but most fall in the 20-40 range. There’s even one that can be built for less than a ticket, though… how crazy is that?

Modern Dungrove Elder
4 Dungrove Elder
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
4 Viridian Emissary
3 Treefolk Harbinger
3 Trinket Mage
3 Courser of Kruphix
1 Scavenging Ooze
1 Thragtusk
1 Solemn Simulacrum
4 Evolving Wilds
2 Halimar Depths
1 Terramorphic Expanse
1 Breeding Pool
1 Island
14 Forest
1 O-Naginata
1 Basilisk Collar
1 Aether Spellbomb
4 Savage Punch
3 Eldritch Evolution
3 Sword of Vengeance

4 Mana Leak
3 Beast Within
3 Creeping Corrosion
2 Relic of Progenitus
1 Rootgrapple
1 Reach of Branches
1 Lignify

Step Three: Consider Choosing a Midpoint

There is likely a strategy that cost-wise falls somewhere in between your budget starting point and your end goal. In modern, the highly played staple cards in each color (and color combination) make it relatively easy to shift between strategies once you've established a core card pool. Because of this, it is likely that as you accumulate cards for your end goal, it might take only a minor investment to build a different deck altogether that is more powerful than your budget starting list. For example, if you start out with a blue-red list like Possibility Storm, and you’re building toward Grixis Delver, it shouldn’t take that much to sidestep along the way and pick up the essential cards for Storm Combo. You’re going to be building a blue-red mana base anyway, and there are a number of staple cards that overlap (various cantrips and countermagic, for example).

So why not build Storm (a ~$200 deck) while you’re on the way to building Grixis Delver (a ~$400 deck)? There is a cost in waiting time, as taking a side trek into Storm country means you need to spend $20-$40 on cards you wouldn’t normally need. The exact amount depends on how willing you are to forego cards like Merchant Scroll that make the combo much more consistent but that aren’t absolutely necessary. Still, I think it's usually worth veering slightly off course, as long as the detour leaves you with a solid deck choice and not just another pseudo-budget option. To continue with the blue-red example, it might be worth it to be playing a solid competitive deck for ⅔ of the journey rather than being stuck on Possibility Storm with a really consistent mana base.

For me, the midpoint between Dungrove Elder and Kiki Chord is Troll Worship. This is a deck that is technically very budget-conscious (most versions ranging from 100-200 tix), but has so many cards in common with the three decks at my end goal, that I’m wasting almost no money at all to get there (aside from the 4 copies of Worship itself).

Budget Troll Worship
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Fleecemane Lion
4 Sylvan Caryatid
4 Troll Ascetic
3 Courser of Kruphix
2 Heliod’s Pilgrim
1 Qasali Pridemage
1 Scavenging Ooze
1 Eternal Witness
1 Thrun, the Last Troll
1 Sigarda, Host of Herons
5 Forest
4 Windswept Heath
2 Ghost Quarter
1 Brushland
1 Canopy Vista
2 Gavony Township
1 Plains
3 Stirring Wildwood
3 Sunpetal Grove
1 Temple Garden
4 Path to Exile
1 Dromoka’s Command
1 Unflinching Courage
4 Worship
1 Angelic Destiny

3 Eidolon of Rhetoric
3 Relic of Progenitus
3 Ratchet Bomb
2 Seal of Primordium
2 Creeping Corrosion
2 Primal Command

Once your goals are set, it’s time to hit the ground running with that budget deck. After all, the whole point of a budget deck is to get started sooner rather than later. So where are you in this process, and what's your budget deck of choice?

Next time, I’ll share some tips on how to prioritize which cards to purchase, which cards to save until last, and when to get innovative. Until then, get out there and beat the odds with your 20 tix masterpiece!
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