Over the long weekend, I had the opportunity to meet a fellow Magic player! They have been playing on and off since around 2000, so they are most certainly not new to the game. When I asked them what formats they played they mentioned that they would like to play Standard competitively and stay up to date with the game but it's just too costly. I dug into that statement a little deeper and asked if they were interested in Commander or budget options for competitive.
Their Response Surprised Me
Essentially, they only wanted to play if they had access to perceived top meta cards and the expense of such an idea dissuaded them from playing. I was floored. Not only am I a big advocate of budget cards I think that deck expression and counter meta picks can be strong for competitive play.
This player, however, perceived they were at such a huge disadvantage that sitting down to play did not even make sense. I thought back and just a few weeks earlier I was talking to some newer players and they essentially said the same thing. They felt that without certain, key meta cards, their decks were hopelessly outclassed and there was no point to playing. As the saying goes, "perception is reality." The question then becomes is it possible to alter such a perception?
This Is NOT Another Budget Article
While I am going to mention card value and show some examples of options at different price points the primary consideration here is showcasing relative strength. Cards have dollar value not only for power but also for a wide variety of outside factors like low print runs, unique artwork, and card condition. Yes, many powerful meta cards tend to be higher dollar value but only when they have somewhat limited print runs. In the EDREC top 100, you can see a huge amount of the most played cards are priced at $1 or less. Does that make these cards any less powerful, competitive, meta, or playable? No.
Your Local Meta Is Unique
The beauty of Magic since Alpha has been, in a word, interaction. If everyone in your local group plays blue then Tsunami and Carpet of Flowers are going to be exceptionally powerful. If no one plays blue at all then those cards are absolute duds. Just because Carpet has some monetary value to it does not make it a superior card. Just because Tsunami is only worth pennies does not make it unplayable. Your local meta is responsible for the relative power of these cards and your local meta is entirely unique.
If everyone is playing Dockside Extortionist and you don't want to play that card or cannot afford to play that card, then, why not play cards that beat it? Hushwing Gryff and Hushbringer do so rather nicely. Not playing white? Green offers compelling cards in Viridian Revel and Titania's Song. There's always Torpor Orb for any deck. Need I mention blue with a laundry list of counterspells or Stifle effects? All of these cards cost less money and many of them are the same two mana or less than Extortionist.
Fancy Lands You've Got There
A very common complaint along the same lines as above is about the expensive mana bases that competitive Commander in particular employs. The fact is if you feel you absolutely must have the same lands as your opponent's to stand a chance, but cannot acquire them, can you even compete? Well, why not play cards that absolutely hose players that rely on their nonbasic lands? The goal in competitive is to win, right? So many three-color-plus decks cannot play Magic if all their lands are Mountains. The monetary and mana cost of a slew of cards that do exactly this is minimal while their impact is high.
If you are part of a four-player pod merely copying what two of the other three players are doing you are also at risk of eating a Blood Moon effect and potentially being shut out. The more a local meta rewards a greedy mana base, the more someone should come in and counter that meta with large amounts of land hate. There's always a ratio between risk and reward. It is up to the playerbase to discover and take advantage of weaknesses in strategies, not just copy what everyone else is doing and hope you draw better.
Is This The Part Where I Mention Stax?
I've written a bit about Stax before. Some things I did not speak about enough were player population, deck distribution, and meta trends. I mentioned an overall trend towards greedier decks and going ever bigger than the next player. What I did not mention is that the more a meta pushes into greed, the more attractive Stax becomes. If your primary aim is playing to win, then chasing after cards that are played just because they are meta is not necessarily a winning move. In this case, finding cards that can shut down the meta is potentially a far more optimal choice on several levels.
True Degeneracy As Another Option
Degenerate decks are a gambit, one that should win very infrequently in a competitive setting. However, degenerate decks punish greed and take advantage of surprise. If everyone in your local meta is busy following the same trends, it's possible every once in a while to steal wins. Some nice side effects of these decks are the fact that they are generally easy to play, and also extremely inexpensive. Changing decks for competitive events can be costly so a deck that can win as early as turn three that costs less than one chase card is a nice option to have at your disposal. Furthermore, simple decks do not require a lot of practice to pilot perfectly.
This One Time At A Tournament, A Story by Beardymagics
The date is circa 1995. The place? A proto-typical Local Game Store (LGS) in Connecticut called The Epic. I'm playing a deck archetype that came to be known as Suiblack with Dark Ritual, Hypnotic Specter, Hymn to Tourach and Necropotence. I quickly took three match wins by accelerating out either hand destruction, card draw, or an enchanted-up creature. I got into the semi-finals, won the die roll, kept an awesome starting hand, and proceeded to play Swamp Dark Ritual, Hypnotic Specter.
What Beats Turn One Specter? Turn One Removal
My opponent played a beta Badlands and Lightning Bolt'ed my Specter. I dropped another Swamp and cast a Black Knight. My opponent Bolted that one as well. I played a third swamp and another Specter. My opponent? Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall, Mox Jet, Sinkhole, Lightning Bolt. A few turns later I had no lands in play and my opponent had a full grip of cards and multiple dual lands and Moxen in play.
In game two, I came out strong with a double Dark Ritual into a Specter and Knight. My opponent? Swords to Plowshares and Bolt. A few cards later and I was again landless and drawing dead. While I was disappointed to not win the event I showed up with something that performed well and had a good chance to win games. I had no power nine cards and Necropotence was probably the most expensive card in my deck. I still remember to this day, though, what my opponent said to me.
"You Got This Far With That?"
It wasn't what my opponent said, it was how they said it. The disdain in their voice was palpable. They could not believe that my deck could or should top four in a field of 40 or so players. It was abundantly clear that there were much more powerful cards that existed at the time. While those cards were out of reach for me as a player because of their price, I never let that distract me from my goal of trying to win.
Yes, Mox Jet and Black Lotus would have made my deck stronger. I would have obviously played power had I owned it. Were those cards absolutely essential to my game plan, strategy, or the only way I could win? No. Would I have played the exact deck or archetype my opponent played? Definitely not. Necropotence is and was a very good card and they were not playing it. Furthermore, the Suiblack archetype sliced through everyone else I faced. Did other players at this event have power? They sure did, and I stomped some of them.
Improving At Magic Is More Than Copying Decklists
Unless you're playing Arena, that is. Wizards is just trying to be helpful but my first take was a sarcastic one. Arena is a great example as it has its own unique metagame and banned list. The best cards for your paper games will certainly be much more unique. Sure you can look at other decks and get inspiration and information but blindly copying a decklist from a website, a stream, or a video on YouTube is unlikely to solve your local meta. At worst it might feed the perception that you need specific cards or you can't even play. It's simply not true and that kind of thinking is not to your advantage.
In Closing, Almost Every Card Is Playable
Cards do not exist in a vacuum. They exist within a matrix of interaction. You'd be surprised how many cards are competitive beyond being merely playable. It's your goal as a player to figure out what cards truly rise to the top, when to take bigger risks, and when to bring unexpected strategies to the table. When you are defining the metagame instead of chasing after it, you will see cards in a new light. Oh, and you'll win more games too!