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

Sideboard
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

Sideboard
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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