After mana burn was removed from the rules of the game in 2009, no Magic player in their right mind would elect to cast Counterspell instead of Mana Drain. Considering only card quality, (and ignoring price), Mana Drain is clearly better than Counterspell in every possible way, right? Not when your opponent is raiding your deck, stealing your cards, or copying them. In this case, it's often better to play a less-powerful card, such as the simple and unassuming Counterspell, rather than go for the "most powerful" card in Mana Drain.
Surely You Can't Be Serious?
Oh, I am most certainly serious, I even wrote about it a bit here. There is, of course, another factor I mention and that is budget. When you steal you are playing with your opponent's budget and not your own. The theoretical Xanathar, Guild Kingpin with only Basic Lands versus a Xanathar full of expensive cards would be more of a challenge for the non-budget player.
"Theoretically" Budget Can Be Better
But *only* in theory, and only against stealing-based decks, right? Yes and no. Consider the following cards.
In one way or another, all of these cards generate Buried Treasure, but three of these cards are $0.50 or less. If you were to compare the amount of Treasure made per USD spent you would find that the budget cards are killing it from a Treasure per dollar perspective. To put a finer point on it Goldvein Pick turns any creature into a Treasure generator for very little mana and virtually no dollars. Magda, Brazen Outlaw turns all your Dwarves into Treasure creators and they merely have to tap to do so whereas Old Gnawbone makes all your creatures potential miners. However, the Dragon is $40. I had better win every game Gnawbone hits the table, or I am going to regret that purchase.
The Notable Difference
In this example, Magda does not require combat but Gnawbone does. Not only is Magda less mana and fewer dollars but it is also easier to activate. Both creatures can impact the board immediately if you have Dwarves or creatures already in play. On top of that, Magda has an *additional* ability that is extremely powerful while Old Gnawbone has...Flying. The five mana and $40 price differential are enough for me to declare that Magda is a powerful budget option.
Fine, Now Sell Me On The Ogre
Hoarding Ogre is priced at a literal penny (with .99 shipping). This card is not good. I will make no such claims to the contrary in this case. However, I do want to say that I have played more than one SpellTable game with the Ogre on the table and I was surprised at how *decent* it was. Keep in mind that 50% of the time it is generating two or more Treasures and it activates on attack, not on damage. Compared directly to Goldspan Dragon it's obvious the Ogre is not as good but the Dragon costs you one more mana and $20 more dollars and one in 20 times the Ogre makes three Treasure to the Dragon's "effectively" two.
Pilfering Is Worth It
Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer tends to get killed immediately when it hits the table. It's also very easy to block. Granted, in the normal multi-player nature of Commander, there's almost always one player that does not have a blocker and Ragavan does have dash potential. However, once it's a known factor the shields never come down. So the real question here is are you willing to pay $60 or more for the potential of a couple of Treasure? Here it's obvious that Ragavan is a good card and if the monetary cost was lower you would see it in far more Commander decks. Of course, this is primarily a Modern card but hey it's Commander legal. Speaking of $60 or more...
This Isn't The Extortion We Need
Dockside Extortionist is plain busted. It's best in any kind of combo deck, where it's usually a game-ender. I feel like Extortionist is a kind of virtual "cheat code" in Commander. I have seen it fail only once. Every other time it's been close to a spell that for only two mana says "add eight mana to your mana pool," and occasionally also says "copy this spell as much as you want," and "you win the game." Many budget cards are not that much less powerful than their expensive counterparts. This card though is just on another power level and you are paying for it monetarily speaking.
If It's True For Treasure...
Sensei's Divining Top is a really good card. It's super-low mana, has the ability to draw a card, is hard to remove, and has a great additional ability for just another mana. As an Artifact, it can go in pretty much any deck. The only downside? $50. I purchased *three* Commander decks for $50. It's not merely about power but also the opportunity cost involved. The vast majority of Magic players spend $50 on cards but it's a lot less common to spend that much on any single card. For me, it's a tough sell to conclude that I am going to get more fun, more playability, more interaction, and more memories out of one card than three entire decks. Also, the numbers say that the three decks were *technically* more valuable from a monetary angle as well.
But The Combos, The COMBOS!
Yes, Sensei's goes really well with The Reality Chip and Helm of Awakening to draw your entire deck and likely win. But outside of that? While Top is highly efficient many of the budget options can be superior in the right situations. If you add infinite mana both Mystic Speculation and Soothsaying let you cycle through your entire deck, not too shabby! But you do not need *infinite* mana to dig deeper than Top; four to six is all that's required. Yes, every single mana is super important and valuable, especially in the early turns and most especially in cEDH. But if the game isn't over on turn five or six, it's very likely you will have enough open mana to appreciate your budget "Toptions." Furthermore, these other cards scry which the Top does not do. Getting "Top locked" happens occasionally.
Of course, if you are not playing blue you have fewer options but just how unplayable is Crystal Ball? Turns out it's extremely playable and is a perfect budget option. Maybe you have a lot of Commander decks and you own one Top but not seven. For fractions of a dollar, you can outfit multiple decks.
Are These Good Budget Cards?
Lands are essential to every deck and are usually costly. However, there have *always* been budget lands available. Thing is, those Lands were usually extremely bad...but only when compared to the absolute best. The vast majority of modern-day budget Lands simply enter the battlefield tapped and then are as good *or better* than even the best lands ever made. Don't believe me? Just look at Prismari Campus and Skybridge Towers. Once they have untapped they are now better than many other Land cycles because they have activated abilities. Does Volcanic Island scry? I think not. Are "The" fetch Lands strictly better than Naya Panorama? They cannot tap for colorless mana and they cost you one point of life. A lot better? Yes. Almost always better? Probably. Strictly better? No. While the price of the fetches has come down and is much more reasonable than ever, they are still fairly pricey when compared to budget options that are $0.25 or less.
Meandering River, Cloudcrest Lake, and Land Cap used to be some of the prototypical budget Lands that showed off the disparity in strength between better and more expensive options. Today, however, there are considerably better budget alternatives that have added utility. Just look at dual land cycles like the Gates, snow duals, and the Strixhaven campuses. Depending on your deck, you can honestly say that being a Gate matters, being Snow potentially matters, and having more inexpensive utility lands actually makes a deck both more powerful and more consistent, so, even budget options are good! Speaking of power and consistency...
We Haven't Even Talked About Power Level!
What really defines the power level of a deck? It's simply speed and consistency. Speed, of course, is a somewhat ambiguous quality. It's not solely about what turn you are doing something or exactly what that something is. More so it's about how close you are to ending the game on any given turn. Decks that are really powerful and consistent will get to a win condition that rapidly closes out the game very quickly and very often. Overall, these decks are required to use certain cards to achieve their goals. Thus those tend to be the most powerful and most expensive cards. Essentially in nine out of ten games these cards will stand out and have a high impact. Budget cards? Well, they tend to be good in maybe six or seven out of ten scenarios, comparatively worse than other cards in two and potentially superior only in one of ten situations. Who wants to use cards that are only good half of the time?
Answer: Casual Players And Deckbuilders
Racing to the win is not the only thing that matters for many commander players. They are looking for a gameplay experience and a potential story is more valuable than just a win. Many players, particularly new players, look at decklists online, fill decks with the absolute most powerful cards and then wonder why their games are not lasting very long or turn out to be no fun. Taking just a few steps like using tapped Lands can fix the pacing of a game and at the same time save you money. While your deck may "go off" one turn later it will still have the right amount of mana of each color and sometimes even give you extra benefits that another "better" deck might miss out on due to their narrowmindedness.
The final point for budget options is variety. If you start every deck build with the same ten "staple" cards and then mix in color-specific staples you are going to end up with many different decks...with many of the same cards. With many of the same cards in every Commander deck, you're going to get the same gameplay experience over and over again. I can't imagine buying expensive cards to *reduce* replayability. I have made a special effort to be mindful of using the same few cards in every deck and to really make sure that a deck is about an entirely different experience. Budget cards work wonders here!
Wrapping It Up
"Budget" should never be a dirty word. I feel like there is too much emphasis on only playing the absolute best cards which crowd out a lot of other options that are nearly as good and can be superior in the right circumstances. I agree that if you have a tournament mindset the evaluation of a card needs to be fairly strict and based on the win percentage of said card. However, for nearly everyone else it's a lot more important to evaluate a card on how often it will lead to a fun, interactive, and unique experience. On that scale no budget card is bad.
What's your favorite budget card that is just about as good as its more expensive counterpart? Let me know in the comments.