Magic the Gathering can be expensive. This is doubly true when one learns that a Magic the Gathering Online (MTGO) collection is an entirely separate entity from a paper collection, and this often is a major reason players with a budget will choose to play either online or offline, but not both. Despite Magic’s reputation as a luxury hobby, it can be enjoyed on nearly any budget. Furthermore, MTGO has many unique aspects that enable and encourage budget play. This article will explore playing MTGO within budgetary constraints, and will serve as a guide to getting the most out of your money on MTGO.


Establishing Your Budget

Planning ahead is critical when it comes to a financial investment like Magic Online. This doesn't mean you need to have every dollar accounted for, but knowing your general limits can assist in many early decisions that will allow you to stay on budget in the long-term. This is even more true on Magic Online because (1) all the games you could possibly want are at your fingertips and (2) it is very easy to both buy and sell cards and enter into events without considering the fact that you are effectively spending money. There is one very important redeeming aspect of MTGO, and that is the fluidity of the market. This fluidity offers two benefits:

  1. Once an initial investment has been made within your budget, it is quite easy to jump between constructed formats without much value loss because the margins on MTGO are significantly smaller than paper magic. For example new, very in-demand cards can be as low as 3-5%.
  2. When it comes time to sell your collection, you can recoup a sizable portion of your investment very easily using our guide to cashing out of MTGO. It is advised that this be used as an added bonus when leaving the game, rather than part of the budgetary determination since there are a variety of other external factors that could affect the value of your cards.


New MTGO Accounts – Making the Most of the Minimum Investment

Whether your budget is the absolute bare minimum, or thousands of dollars, everyone must spend $10 to open a MTGO account. This $10 investment is the minimum amount of money you need to spend to start playing MTGO; you could never spend another dime. To help you decide whether or not spending that $10 is worthwhile, you should check out our comprehensive MTGO Beginner’s Guide. Once you have decided to go for it, the next step to making the most out of your $10 account purchase is effectively using everything that comes with it.


Event Tickets

Event Tickets are the quasi-currency of Magic Online, and therefore the most valuable items included in the New Account Start Kit. Each new account comes with 5 Event Tickets. Event Tickets should be saved until you know what direction you want to take with your Magic Online, and you’ve used your New Player Points.


New Player Points

Each account receives 20 New Player Points. These points may be used to enter one of three special new player events; because the entry fees of these events require New Player Points and you cannot purchase any additional New Player Points, these events are generally filled with – you guessed it – people with newly created MTGO accounts. It is important to note that not only do these new player events offer some small amount of prize value, but they are a great opportunity to learn the MTGO interface without much at stake.

Editor's Note: WOTC has recently made extensive changes to the New Player Events, including the removal of 5-card Boosters from the prize support.  The details of these changes are available here."


5-Card Boosters

These boosters are special to new player events. They are not tradable, and thus are the only booster on MTGO that is an exception to the cardinal rule that you do not open boosters on MTGO (because you lose value on average). 1 out of every 5 (on average) of these 5- card boosters will contain a rare or mythic rare, and foils are even less likely. For our purposes, we can equate every five of these 5-card boosters as "worth" one real booster that is opened (this value can vary, but generally will be between 0.5 and 2 tickets depending on how recently the set was released). Remember, this is the average. You could certainly get lucky and open something worth money, or open 20 of them and get nothing of value.


New to Magic Online Phantom Swiss Sealed Queues

These sealed events cost 5 new player points to enter and are three rounds. They offer the best opportunity for value because going 2-1 or 3-0 wins you a Deck Builder’s Essentials product, which includes 2 Event Tickets (and some cards which aren’t valuable, but expand your collection somewhat). In addition, you can earn 1, 2, 2, or 5 5-card boosters for 0, 1, 2 or 3 wins during the event. The biggest downside to these events is they are scheduled for a specific time, rather than firing on demand like the other two options.

  • Total Matches: 12 (4 events)
  • Maximum earnings: 20 5-card boosters and 8 Event Tickets
  • Minimum earnings: 4 5-card boosters


New to Magic Online Standard Queues

These constructed events cost 2 new player points to enter and are a single round (1v1). The upside to these events is that you have the best opportunity to win the most number of 5-card boosters (3 for winning a match, and 1 for losing); as discussed above, this may or may not translate into actual value for you to use later. The downside here is you need to own a standard deck to play in the event – which costs money. You might choose to build a budget standard deck using the 5 Event Tickets that come with your account; or, if you’re planning on playing standard later, you can build your deck before you use your points to maximize the number of 5-card boosters you win (which is a shaky value proposition) and maximize your practice with your deck (learning how the cards work on MTGO).


  • Total Matches: 10 (10 events)
  • Maximum earnings: 30 5-card boosters
  • Minimum earnings: 10 5-card boosters


New to Magic Online Phantom Swiss Draft Queues

Although these drafts are likely to offer you the worst value proposition of the three event types, they are a perfectly fine way to use your New Player Points if you just like drafting, or don’t want to pay for a standard deck, or can't make the start times for the sealed events, The upside is that they don’t require any additional investment and start more frequently than the sealed events. The downside is they offer the worst prizing and don’t mimic drafts on MTGO (all other drafts are done in 8-person queues; these drafts are done in 4-person queues).


  • Total Matches: 10 (5 events)
  • Maximum earnings: 25 5-card boosters
  • Minimum earnings: 5 5-card boosters


Free Cards in New Account Starter Kit

Every Magic Online account comes with 700 free cards. For the most, part these cards have little or no value. However, it is possible to build a deck out of these cards and play with friends Additionally, basic lands are included so you won’t need to buy basic lands for constructed decks.


Free Cards

In addition to everything you get in your New Account Starter Kit some Magic Online dealers and bot chains offer free cards to MTGO users. In addition, Cardhoarder offers 2 free bot credit to every new MTGO user, which is the equivalent of 2 Event Tickets worth of cards. The bots offering free cards to players include:


MTGO Username Service
CardhoarderFreeBot Courtesy of Cardhoarder; get up to 64 free cards per month
CardhoarderFreeBot2 Courtesy of Cardhoarder; get up to 64 free cards per month
CardhoarderFreeBot3 Courtesy of Cardhoarder; get up to 64 free cards
ClanTeamFree Courtesy of ClanTeam; get up to 4 commons OR 1 uncommon free per day
MTGOTradersFreeBot Courtesy of MTGOTRADERS; get up to 64 free cards per month
_DojoTradeFree Courtesy of DojoTrade Bots; get up to 4 cards per day for free
Academy_Quizbot Courtesy of MTGO Academy; get free cards for answering trivia questions


Although these free resources don't offer much value, they offer a good way to pick up new cards not otherwise included with your account.


Summary

After using all the resources that come with your new account, you will have the following:

  • 5 Event Tickets (up to 8 more from Deck Builder’s Essentials)
  • 4 – 30 5-card Boosters (20 – 150 cards)
  • At least 4 events/10 matches played
  • 700 free cards (+130 more from Deck Builder’s Essentials)
  • 2 bot credit with Cardhoarder
  • 200+ free cards from bots


Choosing the Right Format(s)

Magic Online can technically cost nothing to play beyond the initial investment. Using the cards that come with the account (as well as the Boosters, Event Tickets and Bot Credit earned) and playing freeform (i.e., a non-set format) with friends is a perfectly legitimate option. However, one of the best parts of Magic is playing established formats.


Popular Budget Formats

Two of the most popular budget formats on Magic Online are Pauper and Momir Basic.

Pauper is a format where only commons are legal. It has its own banned and restricted list, and is quickly becoming a popular format on MTGO with the introduction of Pauper Leagues. The format is very diverse and a great way to enjoy a competitive format that doesn’t break the bank; although some top decks can be expensive (more than 50 event tickets in some cases), there are tier 1 decks as cheap as just a few event tickets.

Momir Basic is a MTGO-only format that requires just 60 basic lands and a Momir Vig, Simic Visionary Avatar to play. In a nutshell, each turn consists of creating a token copy of a randomly generated creature card equal to the converted mana cost spent that turn. Each game is totally unpredictable as a result, and by its definition is something that can only be played online. The Momir Vig avatar costs about 11 tickets, and the basic lands are included in with your account.

Both Pauper and Momir Basic can be quite intricate to play. Given the low cost of these formats, you could very likely play either format using the Event Tickets and Bot Credit you got with your account and not spend anything else since they are available to play for no entry fee. For those looking to play competitively and have the opportunity to win prizes in events, there are also pay-to-play events and leagues available for these formats.


Other Formats

The general rule for the other formats is the same as it is in paper Magic: the older the format is, the more expensive it will be to buy in. Cards in older formats are more likely to retain their value since, generally, only new bannings or restrictions significantly affect their pricing. Of course, metagame shifts can also affect things, but that tends to be for individual cards or decks rather than entire formats. Further, set rotations for formats like Standard typically temper overall format cost.

There are exceptions to this general rule. For example, some cards may have had limited printings online or are playable in many formats. Either being true can drive up the value of individual cards immensely compared to cards that have been reprinted many times or are only popular in a single format. This can even apply to recently released cards still legal in Standard.

The best advice that can be given is to always check prices of decks before buying into a format - especially if there is a particular style of deck you prefer. Even Pauper can have some expensive decks, and even Vintage can have some surprisingly (comparatively) cheap decks. Keep in mind that the price paid for a deck does not necessarily determine how good that deck is. It is certainly possible to play decks on the lower end of the price spectrum that are still tier 1, underscoring the importance of picking the right format before you spend money.


Constructed Deck Selection

Once you’ve established which format(s) you will be playing, it is time to select the decks you want to build. Choosing a deck can be one of the most important factors in determining not only how competitive you can be in a format, but also how much fun you have. If you're not sure which deck to choose, the best advice is to select a deck that you find fun and that fits your play style. This is especially true if your intent is to avoid events with an entry fee. Your deck selection comes down to two primary questions: (1) Will you be paying money to enter into events? And (2) What is your budget?


Playing for Free vs. Pay to Play

Playing for free (non-entry fee matches) is absolutely possible on MTGO since you can challenge another user to a match or create/join a game in the "Constructed Open Play" area. A word of caution about playing in these areas: like all things on the internet, the anonymity people have online causes you to run into very rude people frequently – anything from people who will concede a match the instant they see an island played, to people complaining about every play you make (or worse). The best approach to playing free matches on MTGO is to find like-minded individuals you can duel with; admittedly, MTGO does not make this easy, and so it can take a lot of effort. However, if you are on a very tight budget, it is an extremely worthwhile use of your time for your long-term enjoyment of the game.


Player Run Events: Not only can you play individual matches for free, but MTGO is also home to Player Run Events (or PREs). While it is against the MTGO Terms and Conditions to hold PREs that cost money to enter, there are numerous PREs held on MTGO that are free to enter and also offer prizes for winners (typically in the form of bot credit or store credit from the sponsoring dealer). PREs are an excellent opportunity for those on very tight budgets to play in competitive events and win prizes. The downside with PREs is that they can be difficult to find; WOTC does not allow advertising their existence on the client. The best bet to find them is via Gatherling.com or general awareness of announcements on social media regarding the events (until a better solution is developed by the community).


Pay to Play Events: If you’re planning on playing events that have an entry fee, picking a deck that can win becomes significantly more important since losing in the event impacts your budget. Most formats have a wide array of top tier decks that can satisfy many play styles. However, sometimes a sacrifice needs to be made in either fun or competitiveness. This is up to each individual to decide which is more important, but as competitiveness decreases, so should the amount of money spent on tournaments.


What is your Budget?

Having determined whether you’ll be playing free to play or pay to play events (and whether some of your budget needs to be allocated to entry fees), the final and most important factor to choosing your deck is how much money you have left.

Balancing your deck selection between your budget, its competitiveness and the amount of enjoyment you’ll have with it can be quite difficult. However, the budget available is the most important factor as it is likely the hardest to change. First, narrow down a selection of decks in your desired format that fit your budget. Then pick either the most fun or competitive from that pool depending on what is decided to be most important.


Deck selection doesn't need to be made in a vacuum though. Since so many formats are supported on Magic Online, one can simply switch to a cheaper format. That way, it is possible to satisfy the other two factors (competitiveness and entertainment value) with a smaller investment, then work up to the more expensive formats (as more money in your budget is available, or you manage to earn prizes).


Building Budget Decks


What if you don’t want to switch formats or deck type, but still want to bring down your cost to match your budget? What if there was a way to build a tier 1 deck of any playstyle that is cheap? The common answer to these questions is building a budget version of popular decks. Often, switching out a few of the more expensive cards can massively bring down the cost of a deck. The issue with this approach is that it significantly affects the competitiveness of the deck, as well as potentially the amount of enjoyment with the deck since the expensive cards are often key pieces to the viability of the archetype. Building budget versions of existing decks is perfectly acceptable, you just need to be wary of the potential hype of purely budget decks and be sure to make informed decisions, especially before joining tournaments with entry fees.


Another popular approach to building budget decks is to build an entirely new archetype/strategy using less popular (and therefore less expensive) cards available in that format. While you still need to understand the competitiveness of the deck (and be wary of joining events with entry fees), this approach can avoid some of the same issues you face when trying to make existing archetypes budget decks; namely, removing key pieces of a deck that make it do what it is supposed to do. There are many resources available to the budget brewer, but one of the best available is SaffronOlive’s Budget Magic series on MTGGoldfish.

A word of caution: due to the popularity of the series, particular cards or entire decks may spike in price in response to being featured or included in the series. If you can, try not to buy it immediately after its release – wait for the prices to come back down after the initial hype.


Investment vs. Expense

There is one final trick you can use to satisfy your budget, competitiveness and enjoyment: simply change your perspective. It is possible to invest in Magic Online product and, assuming it is done correctly, lose very little money when selling product back for cash (for example, if your budget is $30, you could spend $300 on a deck and later sell that deck for $270 and still be within budget, ignoring the cash flow requirements associated here). In this sense, it is like renting Magic Online product contingent on buying and selling properly. Some people even do this for profit, but that is significantly more difficult and can require speculation. This approach to budget is outside the scope of this article, and as noted above in the establishing your budget section, the best approach for most players is to use the residual value of your collection as a bonus rather than something factored into your budget.


Drafting on a Budget

Any discussion pertaining to "drafting" and "budget" has to start with a frank discussion about how expensive drafting can be. Absent a high win rate, drafting is expensive; on MTGO, it costs $10-14 per draft, depending on the format and several other factors. The long-term average of the cards you select in drafts will not be close to enough to cover the cost, and at best will curtail the cost to some degree. So, unless you can win enough against some of the best players in the world, a budget discussion of drafting has to center around how to make each draft as cheap as possible. Further, most players on MTGO that play in drafts enjoy the format; that is, there is some amount of entertainment value. One of the best ways to justify the cost of drafting is to allocate at least some portion of the cost to entertainment – the same thing you’d do if you went to see a movie. After all, despite its cost, drafting can be one of the best ways to enjoy Magic Online.


The Cheapest Way to Draft

As noted above in the discussion of New Player Points, each new account comes with enough New Player Points to draft 5 times. With the cost of a new account sitting at $10, and 5 Event Tickets also included in that cost, this comes out to about $1 per draft – regardless of how well you do in the draft (there is a small chance the 5-card boosters you win will have something of value, but likely not enough to count on). When a regular draft costs $10-14, this approach is by far the cheapest way to draft on MTGO. Of course, the regular drafts give you the opportunity to win back your entry fee and more – but this requires that you are very good at draft. The biggest downside to this approach is that the new player drafts are 4-player pods, not 8-player. If you’re looking to gain experience drafting cheaply, this variance could matter. Further, the new player drafts are only available for the most recent set – so the variety available to you drafting in this manner is very limited.


Traditional Drafting on MTGO

There are currently 3 primary ways to draft the recent formats in pods of 8 players, and they are known by their prize structure: Swiss, 4-3-2-2, and 8-4. Each of these queues serves a purpose, and selecting the correct structure can be important in minimizing the overall cost of each draft.


Swiss

Swiss queues provide the opportunity to play the most games. Both 4-3-2-2 and 8-4 queues are single elimination, so the only way to play 3 guaranteed matches is to play Swiss. Playing more matches is not only good for learning a particular draft format, but it is also more forgiving because there is more opportunity to win prizes (1 booster pack per win). If you are not comfortable with your ability to win all three matches and want maximize the number of matches you play, Swiss queues are for you.


4-3-2-2

4-3-2-2 is where the competition begins to become a bit more challenging since there is no safety net – one match loss and you are eliminated from the event. "4-3-2-2" refers to the number of booster packs awarded based on the final standings. Most notably, compared to Swiss, a person gets 1 extra booster pack per win, but the wins have to be consecutive. This is where most people will choose to play as it offers the most consistent prizing based on performance.


8-4

Finally, the 8-4 format is absolutely unforgiving and will reward only the finalists of the draft. 8-4 is for people who are supremely confident in their ability to win, and so generally is filled with some of the best drafters on MTGO. Avoid this format unless you want the highest level of risk and reward. A common question drafters ask when deciding what queue to join is "when am I ready for 8-4 drafts?" Speaking strictly from a value perspective, if one has to ask that question then they are not ready. Of course, if you want to be a better drafter, playing against better players will improve your game faster (though will be a very expensive proposition indeed).


How to Buy Cards

Once you’ve determined what to buy, how you buy those cards is your last step to conserve your budget. Buying cards and boosters for draft can be as simple as going to the Trade tab on Magic Online, putting in the name of a card into the search box, and finally buying the card. Notwithstanding the difficulty in effectively using the Trade tab, this is probably the least effective approach to finding the best value.



Shop around

First and most importantly, shop around to find the best price for the cards you need to buy. This might mean you buy cards from multiple sources. Doing this for each card you need to buy, and any future cards you need to buy, can save quite a few tickets in the long run. When it comes to buying cards, there is always a give and take between time spent shopping, and getting the absolute lowest price. The more strained your budget it, the more important it will be to check all available sources for the best price (at the sacrifice of spending more time on it). Ironically, doing the opposite once you have bot credit saved up can also save you from investing additional tickets because of the prevalence of bots on MTGO. Rather than taking whole tickets from your collection to pay for cards that cost less than a full ticket, you can use the fractions of tickets saved on bots to pick up cards without using your actual tickets, even if they are technically a little bit more expensive. In this way, it can be advantageous to favor certain bot chains that consistently offer competitive pricing in the formats you play.


Timing

Second, the timing of your purchases (and sales) is critical. It is easy to buy into hyped up cards and decks due to the excitement surrounding them, but it can be a very expensive proposition to do so – especially if that hype is short-lived or underserved. It is certainly possible that you may miss out on the next big thing, but overall, many tickets will be saved by simply making safe buys. Should a new, popular deck be appealing to you simply wait a few days for the prices to normalize. It is very rare that something hyped up will continue to increase in price, and in fact they often decrease in price shortly after the spike (as a great example of this, SaffronOlive’s budget decks typically see an immediate jump in price, followed by normalization anywhere from later that day to two weeks later).

Throwback Drafts

For those interested in older cards, Magic Online offers flashback drafts of older draft formats, which results in additional supply of those cards being put into circulation. You can buy cards from these sets when these flashback drafts are happening since cards will often drop in price as the supply is increased (sometimes the price actually drops in anticipation of this happening, as well). The important thing to remember when it comes to timing is that MTGO is a very fluid market. Price changes happen rapidly, and often in somewhat predictable ways.

Different Versions

As a final tip to save tickets when buying cards, make sure you search for all versions of a card. As a budget player, the version of a card is unlikely to be of any importance, and certain editions of the same card can be significantly cheaper. Generally, the newest version will be the cheapest, but sometimes there are promotional versions that are even cheaper.