Magic Online is expensive—but it doesn’t have to be. This is part three of my series on how to play more Magic Online for less money.
Part one focused on some tools for your toolbox. Part two focused on the folly of drafting, and ways to slow the bleeding. Today we’ll talk to some MTGO grinders to learn how they maximize the value of their time online.
If you draft, the deck is stacked against you in the long run. But it is possible to go infinite online. You just need to get acquainted with 60-card decks.
At GP Philadelphia I had the chance to speak with two elite MTGO players, Bing Luke (@prolepsis) and Brian Braun-Duin (@BraunDuinIt), about how you can reduce the costs of playing Magic Online. They each offered a slightly different path, but there's a lot in common between the two.
Play Daily Events (DEs)
Both agreed that players who want to maximize their value should play Daily Events. These scheduled tournaments are a grinder’s bread and butter. They cost 6 tix to enter, run four rounds, and have excellent payouts. Go 4-0 and you take home 11 boosters and 3 MOCS Qualifying Points (QPs). Even a 3-1 record nets you 7 boosters and a QP.
Let’s compare the EV of these Daily Events with the EV of Draft:
As we noted last week, to break even in Draft you need roughly a 65% win rate.
What win rate do you need to break even playing Daily Events? A mere 41%.
A 50% win rate will earn you a couple tix for each event you enter, and if you can achieve a 65% win rate in Daily Events you will net over 10 tickets per event. And these calculations are at today’s depressed ticket prices; if you can sell your packs at 3.3-3.5 tix, the numbers are even more favorable.
Wizards is essentially subsidizing you to play Constructed by offering a much better payout scheme—one that, on average, nets you tickets just by playing. What’s happening here is Wizards wants to encourage players to maintain an online card collection. That helps support the price of singles, which in turn fuels drafting, which generates revenues.
It’s worth noting that the Constructed payoff declines pretty steeply when you move into the fire-on-demand events. The 8-man queues are barely a net positive EV, and the 2-man queues are negative EV. You could do worse than play these events, and I often do. But the value really shows when you look at the Daily and Premier Events.
Not surprisingly, Bing and BBD told me they play a lot of Daily Events. Premier Events (PE) are another high-EV tournament, but Bing noted that they have much higher variance; he did not recommend the boom-or-bust experience for those getting started.
You also need to free a massive chunk of time to play, which is not an option for most Magic Online players.
It’s worth noting that MTGO also offers Sealed DEs, but they are fewer and farther between and have lower EV (though they are still much better than draft). If you really want to minimize the cost of playing and build your portfolio, you’ll want to acquire and master a constructed deck.
Choosing a Format
So you’ll need a 60-card deck. Where do you start? This depends on your goals and preferences as a player, as well as your budget. There are several good options for those who are just getting started in Constructed on MTGO.
In the past, MTGO offered DEs in Pauper and Momir, two formats that are only played online. These formats were a great way to get started, since the decks were cheap and they offered a perfect gateway for new players. Unfortunately, these offerings were phased out last year, and now Pauper and Momir are only available as Premier Events (and only a few times each week.)
I’d still recommend Pauper and Momir to new players, as the cost to entry is low and the decks are fun to play. But to capitalize on high-EV Daily Events you’ll need a different weapon.
That leaves four options: Standard, Block Constructed, Modern, and Legacy. Each has pros and cons. Today we’ll examine Standard and Block.
Standard remains the most popular format both in paper and online. There are several budget decks that make it a viable entry level option.
- Convenience: There are 39 Standard DEs scheduled each week, which basically translates to one event every four hours. That means it’s much easier to find one during your preferred window of playing time.
- Portability: Bing recommended Standard as the best option for players who play both in paper and online because “the skills are portable”. That is, if you’ve been playing Standard at FNM or on the SCG circuit you can just pick up the deck and run with it, and the hours you put in online will translate directly into skills for paper Magic.
- Cost of Entry: Standard decks will cost you significantly more than Block decks. This can get especially expensive if you like to switch between decks, or if shifts in the metagame invalidate your investment. The top decks cost between 170-340 tix, which is a lot less than their paper counterparts, but does require an upfront investment.
- Rotation: Managing a Standard collection requires constant vigilance. Cards fluctuate quickly in value, especially as we approach the fall rotation. On MTGO, prices for Return to Ravnica block cards have already started falling, and purchasing a Standard deck now means you are buying a wasting asset—never the best approach if you want to build your portfolio. Unless you are vigilant, any tickets you win will be offset by depreciation or by transaction costs (as you buy and sell your deck to avoid losing value.)
On Magic Online, Block Constructed is a real format and provides an on-ramp for new players to play a competitive deck.
- Lowest cost to entry: Block Constructed decks tend to be significantly cheaper than Standard decks. The top decks can be had for 70-130 tix. Only one deck, Naya Monsters, comes close to 200 tix.
- Preview of coming attractions: When I spoke to Brian Braun-Duin he recommended Block as a good way to get into the game. “This year’s Block strategies are next year’s Standard strategies, so you’re ahead of the game,” he said. “I probably played more Innistrad Block Constructed than just about anyone, which meant that I had played more Ravager of the Fells mirrors than just about anyone.” These small advantages can provide a meaningful edge down the line.
- Potential growth in deck value: Right now Theros and Born of the Gods singles prices are about at their historic lows, and there is nowhere to go but up (see THS and BNG indices). If you buy one of the top decks for 100 tix, it is likely to be worth that much or more in a few months. BBD mentioned that this was certainly the case with his Innistrad block decks, especially the lands. (By the way, BBD recommended acquiring Temples, which should go up once Ravnica lands rotate; I couldn’t agree more. THS and BNG Temples should hit their low point during Journey Into Nyx release events when tickets become scarce.)
- The Pro Tour: This month is a good time to buy into Theros Block Constructed because Block Constructed is the format for the coming Pro Tour May 16-18. Competitive players will build their gauntlet and this should cause a modest rise in demand. More importantly, cards that see time on camera during the Pro Tour could see online spikes, and coverage should stimulate short-term interest in the block format in general. That said, Block prices can be hard to predict, so make sure to read Sylvain’s article on the topic.
- Fewer events: There are 20 Theros Block Constructed events each week, which is half as many offerings as Standard. So Block is not nearly as convenient.
- Lack of portability: No doubt you enjoy heading to your local game store to play some matches of Block Constructed. Wait, no one at your game store plays Block Constructed? Me neither. Block is a dead format except on MTGO and the Pro Tour.
- Esoteric cards: To play the best decks in the Block Constructed metagame, you’ll need to invest in some esoteric cards that only see Block play. These cards can be quite expensive compared to their paper counterparts, and once they rotate they will not hold value. A good example is Comet Storm, which was a staple of Zendikar Block Constructed. I bought a bunch of them at 3.5 tix and, because I was much less savvy then, they rotted in my virtual binder before I sold them for cents on the dollar. Imagine if I had invested that 3.5 tix in Zendikar lands instead…
Choosing a Weapon
Block presents the best value for the player/speculator on a budget. But if you have experience playing Standard in paper magic, or want “portability,” Standard is a better choice.
For both Standard and Block there are a few good budget decks.
- Blue Devotion (177 tix) consistently puts up good numbers.
- Black Devotion (188 tix) is a little pricier, but remains one of the decks to beat.
- B/G Dredge (103 tix) is a decent option for those on a tighter budget and looks like a lot of fun to play. It also has fewer rotating cards.
The biggest hit will be to Mutavault, which has already dropped from 30 tix to 25 tix and will continue to fall (I expect it to be well under 10 tix after rotation.) If you can avoid Mutavault decks you’ll be better off.
- Junk Reanimator (113 tix) is the current deck to beat, comprising 38% of the metagame according to MTGGoldfish. Seems like a good place to start.
- Mono-Black Aggro (62 tix) and B/W Aggro (59 tix) give you a competitive aggro deck for almost half the price.
- Red Aggro (11 tix) is the cheapest viable deck, though it won’t win too many DEs.
BBD and Bing agreed that having a bankroll is not necessary, but certainly helps. Don’t blow all your money on a single deck—you want to make sure you have a significant cushion, if possible. A good bankroll can tide you over and avoid swings in pack prices, which makes a major difference in your bottom line. This is a topic I will cover in a future article.
Right now Magic Online prices are down across the board, and will continue to fall as we head into Cube events and Journey Into Nyx release events.
As a result it’s a great time to buy into Block Constructed. If you buy some event tickets now (don’t go to the store—read Sylvain's article here) and pick up a deck or two during Journey Into Nyx release events you will be basically catching these prices at their bottom. This is a great way to position yourself to play these high EV Daily Events while building your portfolio.
For Standard, it’s more of a mixed picture. Cards that are rotating this fall are going to see a big hit, and many will take a hit during Journey Into Nyx release events (and again in June with Vintage Masters.) So I would not recommend an investment in Standard from a purely financial perspective. That said, if you know Standard well in paper it should be easy to make the move. And if you can afford it, getting both a Block and Standard deck will allow you to play in more DEs (and net more tix and QPs.)
Next week we’ll discuss options for Modern and Legacy. These two formats have a high upfront cost, but in the long run might be the best bargain in MTGO…