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TGN Feature - Magic on the Cheap

Mike Eaton guest stars in another TGN Feature. This time, it's a bit of information on how to play Magic (or any CCG or TCG) without having to sell an arm and a leg and a hand and a foot.


I'd love to play more CCGs, but my gaming budget is already stretched as thin as it can get.

TGN Feature

So check out his strategies to help bust out the spells without bursting your wallet.

Mike - One type of tabletop game, perhaps more than any other, strikes fear into the gamer’s wallet. One cannot simply tune out the arrhythmic, fearful pounding of the magnetic strip on any credit or debit card whose bearer intends to use it for collectible card games (CCGs).

The makers of a CCG or trading-card game (TCG) expect at least some of its players, ideally most or all, to purchase and keep the cards that are its building blocks. Trading and collecting leads to buying more product and to a fully customizable play experience.

However, as I often lament, we do not live in the moneyless utopia of the United Federation of Planets. This leads to the main thing that can turn a gamer off to learning and enjoying a CCG, especially one that clocks in as one’s third, fourth, or fifteenth hobby: cash. This happens for two main reasons:

• CCG packs are randomized, with different print runs of different rarities of different power levels of cards. The most sought-after cards are rarely included in products with guaranteed card lists. And when they are...

• The cards from a successful, living game acquire secondary market value. The most popular and best cards (or products known to contain them) cost us as much as the richest or most dedicated bloc of players will pay for them. This means that your potential favorite pieces of a collectible card game may be out of your financial reach, sometimes (in the case of Magic: the Gathering or Pokémon TCG) costing more than entire other games you enjoy even more. That seems like a barrier there’s no need to cross. You’ll just play something else.

What I am excited to have the chance to discuss today is how to play a timeless and worthwhile game that happens to be a CCG without signing away your life, three paragraphs of your will, and the future wages of your family’s next six generations. (Or waiting for a boxed set like Netrunner or Doomtown, although those are awesome.)

Option 1: Pauper

In Magic terminology, the Pauper format usually means that players can only use cards of Common and Uncommon rarity -- cards that, for the most part, can be picked up for no more than fifty cents apiece. As of this moment, there are 9,960 cards in existence that can be used in the Pauper format, the *vast* majority of which can be gotten for $0.25 (or cheaper in bulk).

Many of these cards are among the most beloved or useful in the game, but because they’ve been generously printed, they’re simple to find cheaply. (Some are not, of course, but every rule has exceptions. And seriously, expensive cards like Wasteland are extremely rare.)

How does this help?

If you and your friends pool your resources, or you know folks at a shop who are giving excess cards away (it’s more likely than you think) and are excited about playing Pauper decks, you can play for as cheaply as... free. Even just the current Magic set, Khans of Tarkir, has some amazing and powerful Pauper cards (for the right deck), like Ride Down and Raiders’ Spoils, that will cost you a quarter or less at most shops -- or even cheaper online. eBay has more CCG cards than it knows what to do with and a decent buyer-protection policy, along with so many other games and game components. There is no need for a casual player to sign up for one of those Magic-only sites.


If an optimally-sized self-constructed deck is 60 cards, and roughly 24 of them are basic lands (the game’s main resource, which are “more common than common” and often found cheaply in chunks of hundreds), that leaves you with about a $10 investment in the most personalized Pauper deck you can come up with that can translate into hours and days of enjoyment. The mini for my last D&D character cost me almost that much (after tax and before paint). The last burger and drink I bought on the way home cost even more.

Option 2: Drafting for Others

This option works best if you have friends who buy packs and you have a selfless streak. Essentially, anytime someone else buys packs of cards, instead of that player just cracking them open and shoving the wrapper down some trashcan’s gullet, you can help your fellow gamer get some life out of their new possession beyond the hopeful sought-after Rare cards inside -- because, hey, Pauper decks aren’t for everyone. Here are some ways you can get in on the fun:

Pack Wars - One 15-card pack + 3 of each basic land - looking at your cards before you play = a surprise every turn. This is a fast, simple, and honestly fun way to play that fulfills the original vision of Magic as a game to play to kill time between other games and to bond with other gamers.

1v1 Draft - Pick a format and choose your weapons! Just remember that your cards belong to your opponent(s), so treat them kindly.


How does this help?

When you help other people open their packs, you get to play with zero investment. Each game is fresh, helps build tactical skills, and adds personal value to all the cards -- even ones the owner might already have 447 copies of in a pile marked for the furnace. And if you decide you want to pick up some packs of your own, you can find some friends to help you open them and return your favor.

Option 3: Cube

Let’s say you found yourself roped in by a CCG for a while. Or perhaps you found a ton of cards at a great deal (as with many older and out-of-print CCGs) and couldn’t pass them up. Now you have all these cards sitting around that you’ve invested in and no one else plays the game.

Might I suggest to you a cube?

In essence, a CCG Cube functions as a self-contained deckbuilding game: someone has put a few hundred cards together and however you fancy, you can open the box and play a game with them. If you build a cube, you can treat it as your own, personalized, perfect version of your CCG. Make it up of cards that you know you’ll appreciate and will want to play for a long time to come; when you see how they play with each other, you can adjust it to keep power levels even. (Or don’t! Maybe you think some cards deserve to be bombs.) If you have a few other friends with cards, and you folks don’t feel like pre-building decks anymore, you can pool your cards together and build your playgroups’ perfect personal experience.

How does this help?

Cube is also a great way to reduce and focus your expenses, even if a CCG is your #1 game (as Magic is mine). If you don’t find yourself playing competitively and are just putting things together for fun, you only have to pick up single cards that speak to you and weave them into your drafting/deckbuilding environment as they come. Your box of Cube cards takes up about as much footprint as any of your other tabletop games, with one important distinction: you developed it. The cards inside were made for their original time and place, but your cube is your world. It’s a game you can teach to your children and grandchildren, even if you set it in stone with your current collection and never change it again.

I have only experimented with Magic and Legend of the Five Rings Cubes, but with enough preparation and thought, I’m sure you can find a way to box any classic CCG. (If anyone comes up with a worthwhile Cube format for the Decipher Star Wars CCG, please let me know. Please.)

Money Don’t Get Everything (It’s True)

Hopefully, one or more of these options has given you something to do with CCGs. Whether you feel up to playing Magic at your Local Gaming Store next Friday, or you’re ready to build a Cube out of those old Spellfire or Highlander cards in your shoebox. Just know that you can do it without needing to give up your dreams like that summer home, the new Cobra Commander statue, or brakes for the car.