Magic: The Gathering (MTG), the first official collectible and trading card game, now 28 years old, is still the best card game of all time. That’s not only my opinion, but also that of millions of other players, across more than twenty different countries. Every major city has a few dedicated game stores where the weekly iconic Friday Night Magic (FNM) takes place.
The trouble is, weekly FNMs—and MTG in general— is costly. You usually end up drafting the current expansion set to get to know the latest cards. Wizards Of The Coast nowadays releases four expansions yearly. With more than 250 cards per expansion set, the card pool keeps on growing and growing. That is one of the reasons why I love MTG: with currently over 20000 cards, the combinations are endless. Yet, the steady stream of expansions is also a clever move to convince MTG addicts to keep on reaching into their pockets. This is what Magic players like Shivam Bhatt mean when they say “I’m heavily invested into MTG”.
FNM drafts are only the beginning. Each
$5 booster pack, of which you’ll need three, contains 15 cards: 11 commonly encountered and low-powered cards, only three uncommons and one “rare”. I assume no one is surprised when I reveal the Big Secret: most cards are useless, only the hard-to-find ones are heavily played at tournaments. Scarcity combined with demand? You guessed it! MTG is expensive.
Or is it?
I’ve been playing MTG on and off since 2002 when the Onslaught expansion was released. It’s been mostly on the “off” side until 2017 when I got enthusiastic again thanks to a couple of friends who also play, when the Amonketh and Hour of Devastation expansions were released. A lot has happened since then: the Magic logo has transitioned from blue to yellow to orange—to highlight the new ultra-rare and usually even more expensive “mythic” cards—to a sudden modern look with the Planeswalker symbol.
But one thing has remained clear: good cards have gone up in price. Jeff McAleer writes about maintaining his Legacy collection and how much money he puts into it yearly. In the 2015 article, a Snapcaster Mage card is priced as
$18. Now it’s at least
$70—a price increase of
389% in six years! Coincidence? One-off? Nope. Well, yes. No. Wait.
Competitive Magic can be played in a lot of different “formats”. One of those is called “Standard”: in it, only cards from the last few expansions are allowed to promote investing into the game and to show off the new cards. This means valuable strategies and cards are once in a year what is called rotated out, as they are no longer tournament-legal. These cards lose their value very quick. That is, unless they’re that good that they are regularly played in “Modern”, a format in where cards from 2004 and up are allowed. Modern decks are more stable, but overpowered and broken combos from yesteryear that are still legal are very expensive since they’re older and highly sought after. Hence the expensive Snapcaster. Now and then, Wizards reprints these cards in special—and costly—sets to “reduce the price” (read: to bait you into buying the whole box!), but not too often.
What are some common prices for complete decks, if one had to buy cards piece by piece—as singles? MtgGoldfish.com keeps track of these things. The following deck types are the most popular ones right now:
- Modern: Hammer Time,
$788. Izzet Tempo:
$1349. Rakdos Lurrus:
$475. Urza’s Kitchen:
$1138. On average:
- Standard: Sultai Control,
$363. Mono-Green Midrar:
$330. BGx sacrifice:
$209. Mono-Red Aggro:
$127. Dimir Rogues:
$178. On average:
- Legacy (almost all cards are allowed):
$4000+, Vintage (really all cards):
A thousand bucks for sixty cards? Are you nuts? I’ll let The Professor from Tolarian Community College explain this:
Standard looks more affordable but don’t let that fool you as next year the deck list will look completely different and Standard players will have to reinvest. Again. And again. Legacy and Vintage is completely off the charts, with crazily expensive dual lands and the iconic Black Lotus. Those decks kill opponents within one or two turns. Not a lot of fun in that.
I am not a professional Magic The Gathering player. I’m not even that much of a casual gamer: I’m an sometimes-on-and-mostly-off one. I have no interest in competing, I’m here for the fun parts, the parts where I get to rummage through shoe boxes full of cards, on the lookout for crazy combinations that are not powerful but joyful. And luckily, that is affordable.
So how much should I spend?
As I was mulling all this over, I was wondering what my personal strategy for this would be, if I were to invest more into the game. Because, believe me, I want to. I love looking at cards. I love spending too many hours digging through https://scryfall.com/ or staring at deck lists. I’ve been super hyped for the upcoming Dungeons and Dragons expansion as a D&D fan. I want to take out my cards more often, but I realized I’d have to come up with a financial plan to restrain the craziness.
First, I noticed that I don’t really like conventional games of Magic. Players throw four copies (the maximum allowed of duplicates) of the best combinations into their pile and call it a day. That gives you a very consistent game, one where you know what’s to come and know what is needed to close out a game. That’s boring. And then I discovered the Commander archetype: one where you have a hundred cards, and they all need to be something else: a singleton format. That means every game is slightly different as chances aren’t that high of one card appearing again in the next game. More chaos, more fun. But the best part of Commander is that it’s designed for casual play with four instead of two players: more chaos (and possibly politics), more fun! The board state in a four-player game is so crazy, I love it. And even if you have a crappy deck, chances are still one in four that you’ll end up winning because of politics.
Next, I wondered how much to spend on new expansions and MTG products. My spending tracker tells me that the upper monthly spending limits for some of my hobbies are:
$60for video games. One new Nintendo Switch game costs exactly that.
$60for books. Three books a month is not too crazy and we love reading.
$60a month for MTG—would that be feasible?
But what does that mean? Suppose you play FNM every Friday at your local game store. Entry fee and three boosters will be around
$15—although recently, boosters have gone up in price. That makes
$60 a month or
$720 a year. As said before, Wizards releases four expansions a year. Buying a whole booster box, containing 36 boosters, sets you back for around
$1001. When playing FNM every week, you also buy three boosters weekly. Do that three months, the lifetime of a single expansion set, and you’re also at 36, only that costs
However, I lack the MTG friends and time to draft every week. I’d rather buy a box together and have fun at a friend’s place. If I’d want to follow every expansion (of course you want to, Wouter), buying one box every three months together with a friend means
$200 yearly. 18 boosters for every set will net you 270 cards, more than enough to have a taste of the set atmosphere and possibilities to expand your decks. A whole box allows for 12 draft sessions per player, meaning four friends can draft three times. Who am I kidding, where am I going to get three nerdy friends from?
But boosters and booster boxes are designed for drafting: they contain a lot of useless cards when it comes to deck building. Furthermore, buying boosters of older sets is very expensive. A solution would be to provide a budget for buying single cards at cardmarket.com: after all, it is supposed to be a trading card game, right? Besides boosters and singles, my wife and I also enjoy buying and playing ready-to-play “preconstructed” decks, as their power level is usually well-balanced. There are the yearly Commander precon decks for
$40 and the Planeswalker decks that accompany each expansion release for
Putting it all together, do we reach our target of
$16.7, half the price of a booster box every three months
$15.0, random “affordable” singles (no Snapcasters…)
$03.5, one Commander deck a year
$05.0, one Planeswalker deck every three months
$05.0, protection sleeves/boxes/whatever
$45.2 a month, as much (or as little) as an average bigger board game! This proves that Magic does not need to be expensive. Even if you decide not to share the booster box, you’re still in the sixty range. This sounds more than reasonable for a hobby that stimulates both the brain and social interaction.
Remember, Magic is about The Gathering, not the cards.
To make things even more complicated, Wizards released Set Booster Boxes (30 boosters,
$110) and Collector Booster Boxes (12 boosters,
$220). These products are outrageously expensive and not worth it as a casual player. ↩︎