So You Want to Play Magic for Free?

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Greetings! Today is a big day for me: my first article on MTGPrice. I am humbled and honored to be part of this top-notch team of some of the best minds in MTG finance.

Goals and Expectations

When I first started writing about MTG finance, I felt woefully inadequate compared to many of my peers, and to some extent, that’s still true. Many of the writers on this site make a living exclusively by buying and selling Magic cards. Others have experience in real-life finance and stock trading. Some are funding their college educations through MTG.

By contrast, my primary goal in MTG finance is just to play for free. That’s it! Sure, every once in a while, I’ll buy in to a card and make some real-life cash profit. Those times are nice, but they’re not frequent, because constant speculating is time-consuming, and most of my free time is taken up by this little dude:

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The time I do have outside of my full-time job is precious, and the fact is that constantly buying and selling Magic cards is a pain. Maintaining a large inventory, the daily packaging and shipping of cards, having to travel to large events in far-off locations every single weekend… these things can be rewarding and profitable, but they’re a grind. Could I do it? Maybe. Do I want to? Not in the slightest.

I’ll tell you straight up: the perspective I’m bringing is of someone who worries over when the best time to buy a single copy of a card for my cube is, or maybe a playset for a Constructed deck. My definition of “going deep” on a card is 20 to 30 copies. If you’re a store owner or someone who goes hundreds deep on most speculation targets, I like to think my insights will still be applicable, but  there may be other columnists on this site whose objectives more closely align with yours.  Rather than feeling inadequate compared to those other writers, though, I’m just going to own it: my goals are different than theirs.

Namely, I’m looking to spend as little time as possible on Magic finance so I can spend the most time possible actually playing Magic without spending money to do so. Does that sound similar to what you want? Then we’ll get along just fine. Read on.

Why MTG Finance Matters

If you’re new to Magic: The Gathering, I hate to break it you, but you are going to have to spend a significant amount of money if you want to be competitive in basically any format. I know it’s rough, but unless you’re lucky enough to have inherited an old collection from a family member, you are just going to have to accept that this is an expensive hobby, and it’s at its most expensive of all when you’re just starting out.

Now, you’re currently on a Magic finance website reading an article about playing Magic for free, and that shows that you’re at least interested in mitigating these start-up costs. That’s awesome. Deciding you want to spend as little as possible to get as much as possible out of this hobby is an excellent first step.

I have good news for you new players, and it applies to the established players, too: once you have a decent-sized collection, the world of MTG opens up to you exponentially. Why? Because Magic cards are probably the most liquid, easy-to-sell assets that you own (unless you’re involved in commodities markets or drugs or something). There are buylists all over the internet, many of them featured on MTGPrice, waiting to buy your cards at a moment’s notice. Most adults don’t often work in the barter system, but trades of cards for cards happen every day in every LGS across the world. You can use a service like PucaTrade to turn the cards you have into cards you want from the comfort of your own home, or turn to eBay to try to sell individual cards for a little more than buylist pricing. There are many, many ways to get rid of cards for either cash or different cards.

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So once you have a collection, it’s not hard to turn that collection into a specific group of cards you want—for play, for speculation, for collecting, or for chewing on (in my son’s case). Of course, you can only leverage your collection into the exact cards you want if you understand how MTG finance works: how seasonal price patterns work, how rotation works, how Standard pricing works, how eternal format pricing works, how casual formats impact the marketplace, the best ways to out your cards, and more.

That’s why Magic finance matters: because almost anybody can play almost any format with enough knowledge, time, and dedication. There’s no reason you need to resort to less powerful budget decks to get your fun out of this game, but there’s also no reason for you to overspend in acquiring top-tier staples in your favorite format. You just need to develop a couple important attributes.

Two Crucial Attributes for a Finance-Minded Mage

I can’t stress enough the importance of patience for the finance-inclined player.

It has been literal years since I preordered a card. Yes, occasionally there’s a Bonfire of the Damned or a Sphinx’s Revelation that blows up and makes those who got in early a ton of money, but in the vast majority of cases, cards fall steeply from their preorder prices. If we’re spending as little time as possible on MTG finance, that means just assuming everything in the set will fall and not worrying about the potential of underpriced cards.

Some players collect as much as possible from Standard-legal sets to allow the biggest pool possible when building a deck for FNM or other events. I’ve seen countless players who immediately start acquiring playsets of every card in the new set as soon as it’s available on shelves.

If you’re trying to stretch your MTG dollars to the max, though, you need to stop doing this. Between WOTC’s marketing and best-case-scenario mentality in a large portion of the playerbase, new cards are almost always over-hyped. So few of them end up being competitive staples, and those that do often still end up cheaper than their preorder prices.

Just wait. Observe what’s competitive, figure out what you want to play, and obtain the cards that apply. Picking up cards blindly—especially Standard cards—just because “I might need it someday” is a quick way to end up with a bunch of cards that are dropping in value quickly and don’t have a deck.

If you’re acquiring a card for a casual format like Cube or Commander, there is no reason to ever preorder. In fact, if a card is a Standard-only staple, I tend to not pick it up until it’s rotated. For example, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion could not be more of a staple in Standard, but at a mana cost of six, it will never see play in competitive eternal formats. This means it will drop steeply at rotation, when I will pick a copy for my cube. (Off topic: it was such a missed opportunity to go with “Sun’s Champion” instead of “Champion of the Sun.”)

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Now, let me state that it’s absolutely a fair stance to take to pay more for a card because you desperately want to play with it and are willing to pay the extra cost. You also should be playing optimized decks in major tournaments, and if that means overspending on a card, you gotta do what you gotta do. And if you’re speculating on a card, then as a matter of course, you think the price you’re paying is fine and that it’s likely to go up. These are situations where patience doesn’t really apply. But if you’re looking to spend the minimum amount on Magic that still allows you to be competitive or just have a fun-to-play-with collection , it’s the most important attribute you can develop. Wait until a card is at its floor price before buying in. If you need it beforehand, sure, buy it, but until then, there’s no rush.

Speaking  of needs, the second key attribute I’ll be mentioning today is developing a good sense of the concept of wants versus needs. You need to be able to look at that Sower of Temptation foil in your LGS’s display case and say to it, “It’s you I want, but it’s [the non-foil copy] that I need.”

It’s hard to think of two less related things than playing Magic for free and acquiring foils and other high-value cards. This is 100 percent a matter of personal opinion, but to me, there’s no sense in acquiring anything other than the least expensive version of a card to play with (within reason—I’ll pay a little more for an old-bordered version of a card, for example). I believe that it’s easier to have fun with 30 cards worth $30 each than with one card worth $1000, and that’s how I treat my own collection.

Now, I’m not saying you’re not allowed to like foils, and you can even incorporate the acquisition of foils into this whole “playing Magic for free” thing, but you’re almost never going to see me talk about them or advocate buying them. They’re a facet of the market that  I don’t fully understand, appreciate, or even like. My advice is to simply focus on non-foils until you have every card you could ever want to play with and are ready to start upgrading. Until then, high-end cards just don’t make a lot of sense.

And frankly, even if I ever reach the point of owning every card I could possibly want, I’ll just keep my non-foils and spend that extra money on things unrelated to Magic, thank you. That is allowed, you know.

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Pass the Turn

Again, I’m looking forward to being here at MTGPrice for the foreseeable future, and I’d love to hear your feedback on both what I’ve written already and what you’d like to see me write moving forward. Always feel free to leave a comment below or reach out to me on Twitter at @dbro37.  See you next week!

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8 thoughts on “So You Want to Play Magic for Free?”

  1. You and I have a lot in common when it comes to strategy. Patience is SOOOOO crucial if one is trying to minimize costs to enjoy playing Magic. I collect Angels, so every time there is a new one I acquire it. But sometimes new Angels are expensive, and I know that high price won’t last. So I wait. And wait. And wait.

    In one case, I actually bought a Baneslayer Angel for $20 and then sold it for $40 or so during it’s peak in Standard, only to get it back again at a much lower price. It was painful to have a gaping whole in my Angel binder, but I was in no rush to get one so I waited patiently and was rewarded.

    Another example is when the Judge Promo Karmic Guide came out. I ALMOST (makes me sick to think this almost happened) traded a Tarmogoyf for one of these when they first came out. The values were even straight across at the time. But I decided to sit back and see what the market did. VERY lucky I did, because I was able to grab a copy for substantially less a few months later. Meanwhile, we all know Goyf’s trajectory over the past couple years.

    Great introductory piece, and look forward to reading more of your column!

    Sig

  2. Getting the cheapest version of a card only to upgrade later is not without its cost. Many fancy cards keep growing in value. You may have to pay shipping twice. You may not be able to get rid of the cheaper copy, or only at a loss.

    Some cards are simply out of my league and thus I get a cheaper version (Beta Duals come to mind), but when cards are within my price range and I can afford the fancy copy I know I would ultimately want then that’s the version I’m getting and in the long run it will be cheaper to do so.

  3. Thanks for talking about your background and where you are coming from in your writing. I couldn’t disagree more about foils with you but apparently it’s my form of bling. Guys at my local gamestore are also very polarized, older players don’t seem to like them and most of my friends would agree with you. Younger players seem to want them to foil out their commander deck or cube, and as a collector I’ve noticed that foil cards don’t depreciate like non-foils when reprints occur. For example, Snapcaster Mage will get reprinted and unless it is in Modern Masters 20XX as a mythic (it might) it is likely to tank in price like Thoughtsieze and the onslaught fetch lands (even the zendikar fetches). However the foil prices don’t suffer nearly as much, this is why I personally ‘invest’ or acquire foils. Plus if you initially bought foil shock lands, foil abrupt decay, foil deathrite for just double the non-foil price during RTR block in standard you’d have a much more valuable collection that if you only bought the non-foil versions. Theros Thoughtsieze was roughly $15 and foils at $30 for a short time, the non-foil is $18-20 and the foils are $60+

    I’m obviously not a writer on here, but this is my view and opinion on the “value” of collecting foils and why I’m more interested in them than non-foil versions of cards (within reason). However I agree if you are trying to play for as cheaply as possible you or others should A. not buy foils, and B. Play Mono Red Aggro…it currently is a deck of all non-rares and is solid or you can add 4-8 $2 rares 🙂 I should add I have no interest in acquiring foil Goyfs, foil Jaces, even the afformentioned foil decays and deathrites etc that have peaked just because they are foil…i’m not insane or made of money

  4. Great article, Danny! I recently shifted from a perspective identical to yours. As part of my strategy, I used to buy played copies of the cheapest edition for my decks. The caveat to this method was that I am now left with a collection of cards that are much harder to move, as people generally want NM+ copies. Perhaps you can touch on the pros/cons of card conditions within the lens of a budget player for your next article?

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