Magic the Gathering Guide for Keeping Costs Low While Still Having Fun

Magic the Gathering is a very popular collectible card game. Kids and adults who seriously pursue this game will stretch their minds and have loads of fun. However . . .

Magic the Gathering can be very expensive.

Some people end up spending thousands of dollars per year buying cards or participating in drafts. There is a collectible aspect to the game that can become more like addictive gambling or playing the lottery, leading to the phrase “cardboard crack.” Some people open hundreds or even thousands of packs of cards per year.

This post was inspired by a conversation with a worried parent and was initially intended as a parent guide, explaining how to get most of the fun and benefits of playing Magic while spending no more than the cost of a typical board game along with several expansions. The intent was also to approach the cost aspect of Magic as a tremendous financial learning experience far beyond the typical benefits of games.

However, now that I’ve finished this guide, I think it’s also useful for newer Magic players of all ages who want to maximize fun and minimize cost.


This is a long post, because a bit of background is needed in order to keep costs reasonable while still having fun building and playing many decks. Therefore, this is organized in sections with a table of contents:

The Basics of Magic the Gathering

Magic the Gathering is supposed to represent magical duels, where players summon creatures and spells to battle each other. Magic can be played very competitively both locally and globally at officially sanctioned tournaments (“competitive”). But more often the game is played for fun among family and friends (“casual”). The feel of the games and the way an average game plays out can be quite different between casual and competitive play. However, the rules are the same:

Each player begins with a life total of 20 points. A player whose life drops to 0 points loses. A player may also lose by running out of cards to draw. The game is most often played with two players, each with a 60 card deck, though there are many other variants.

A deck consists of a variety of types of cards, including lands, creatures, and spells. Each player starts with a hand of seven cards. Players take turns. On your turn you draw a card. You may then place a land from your hand onto the battlefield. You may also cast spells or creatures from your hand onto the battlefield.

In order to cast a spell or creature, you need “mana” which is obtained by tapping lands (you turn a land sideways to indicate it is tapped). For example, if you have 3 lands on the battlefield, and you have a creature in your hand that costs 3 mana to cast, you can tap your 3 lands and cast the creature. You can only tap each land once per turn, so in this example you would not be able to cast any more creatures or spells until the following turn.

The land and mana system is designed to have each duel start with weak, low-mana-cost creatures and spells, gradually building up to powerful, high-mana-cost creatures and spells.

What makes the game so varied and interesting is the wide variety of cards. Over 20,000 unique cards have been printed since the game was first published in 1993, with hundreds of new cards added each year, packaged into expansions or core sets. Combining these cards in creative ways to make new and exciting decks is one of the key appeals of the game.

The simplest form of variety is tribal, such as Elves, Goblins, Faeries, Beasts, Warriors, etc. Putting many cards of the same tribe together into a single deck can create a group of creatures that fit together well, both in terms of theme and effectiveness.

Other forms of variety include the rules-altering abilities that appear on different cards and the roles different cards play during different situations.

There is also a variety of game strategies. “Aggro” applies pressure early and quickly. “Control” stops other players for much of the game. “Combo” attempts to combine together several cards to end games suddenly in spectacular fashion.

However, the variety which matters most in terms of game cost is caused by “rare” and “mythic rare” cards. Therefore, I cover rare cards in great detail in the next section.

The Levels of Rarity in Booster Packs

In order to understand the economics of Magic the Gathering, you must understand the levels of rarity.

Partly to limit complexity to new players, partly to balance the game in Limited formats, and partly to boost sales, cards are printed at different levels of rarity: common, uncommon, rare, and mythic rare.

A typical way to purchase Magic cards is to buy booster packs, either individually or bundled as part of fat packs or booster boxes. These days, a booster pack consists of a semi-random assortment of cards from a specific set, usually containing the following quantities:

  • 10 Common Cards
  • 3 Uncommon Cards
  • 1 Rare Card (1 in 8 chance this is a Mythic Rare instead)
  • 1 Basic Land
  • 1 Token or Promotional Card

Basic lands and tokens are inexpensive and not a part of the economics of this game, so I’m not going to discuss them further. I’m also not going to discuss “foil” cards (parts of the artwork are glossy with a foil layer), which are even rarer and thus more expensive.

As you can see from the distribution, acquiring cards via booster packs gets you 10 commons and 3 uncommons for every rare you get. The commons and uncommons are usually worth pennies each, though occasionally worth over a dollar for an especially desirable card. Rare or mythic rare cards can be worth anywhere from a dime to over $100. The possibility of getting a powerful, rare card worth $20 or $30 in a pack can lead to a gambling mentality similar to that of a slot machine. “If I open just one more pack, maybe this will be the one . . .”

Let’s say you’re not a gambler but you take the game seriously. You want to collect at least 1 copy of every card in a particular set. How many booster packs would you need to open? There’s a great answer for this for the specific case of the Khans of Tarkir set. On average, you’d need to open 400 booster packs at a total cost of $1,600 before you’d have at least a single copy of every card in the set. In 2015, you could drop that to $1,100 by purchasing 36-pack booster boxes (bringing cost down to approximately $2.75 per booster pack). You wouldn’t even be guaranteed a copy of every card, though, and you’d have a massive amount of duplication of common and uncommon cards.

Few individuals buy 400 booster packs for a given set. It would result in owning approximately 40 copies of each common card and 15 copies of each uncommon card from the set. Far more typical would be to acquire booster packs by going to drafts or perhaps buying one or two fat packs which includes 9 booster packs each and some minor game accessories. Missing cards would then be obtained by either trading with other players, or by purchasing cards one at a time on an as needed basis (buying “singles”).

This is where the Magic the Gathering economy originates. People have reasons for wanting certain cards, while others create a livelihood by offering cards for sale. There is a booming secondary market for Magic the Gathering cards, much like there is a secondary market for publically issued shares of stock in corporations (NYSE, NASDAQ). Prices fluctuate daily based on supply and demand. Those who understand the price patterns can actually profit off this market, much like investors are able to profit off stock trades.

In late 2015, it was possible to buy a complete set of Khans of Tarkir cards from one seller for $199. That is far less expensive than the $1,100 required on average to obtain 1 or more cards of each from booster packs, though you do get fewer cards. What this shows is how inefficient it is to obtain mythic rare cards via booster packs. Almost any form of analysis yields the conclusion that buying booster packs is not a cost-efficient way to collect Magic cards, regardless of rarity level (June 2020 edit: Some people spend a lot of time learning how to invest/speculate in magic cards. Making money opening booster packs and timing individual card sales for gain is possible, but require requires effort and expertise similar to that of investing in stocks).

So why do consumers buy booster packs? Mostly because it’s fun to open them, so fun that it can become addicting. There are also variants of the game which require unopened packs to be opened as part of play. In the next section I will explain the “Limited” variants of Magic that require opening booster packs, as well as other variants. Once you understand the different ways the game is played, you’ll be able to understand how kids can enjoy the game as much as they would with expensive variants, but without the high cost.

Different Ways to Play Magic the Gathering

As I described above, the most common way to play Magic is with 2 players, each with a 60-card deck. However, there are many ways to generate a 60-card deck, and there are other variants that use 40 cards or 100 cards in a deck. What matters more than the number of cards in the deck is which cards are permitted.

There are a number of different sets of rules, or “formats,” defining which cards are permitted. Most formats allow no more than 4 of any given card in a deck, except for basic lands (any number permitted). In tournament play, there are two categories of deciding which cards are permitted: Constructed and Limited.

Constructed means that a player can spend as much time and money as they want to figure out what to put into their deck, within certain limits. Few kids play an expensive constructed format, but a basic understanding of these formats is needed in order to understand the economics of the game and suggestions later in this article.

Vintage and Legacy (“eternal” formats) are constructed formats that allow almost any card ever printed to go into a deck. Each of these formats has a small number of cards that are banned, to keep the game interesting. Banning occurs because certain powerful cards create imbalances that ruin the game. In the Vintage format, some cards are also “restricted” to no more than 1 copy in a deck.

Some of the key older cards needed to make a deck competitive at tournaments are very expensive and difficult to obtain at any price, sometimes thousands of dollars for a single card. These formats are so expensive that even most diehard enthusiasts of Magic stay away, unless they already own the cards. Given that a single deck costs thousands of dollars, few new Magic player have interest in these two eternal formats.

Modern is another constructed format that uses cards starting with the Eighth edition, which was released in 2003. It is less expensive than the Vintage and Legacy formats. Competitive decks can and do cost over $500, though some people pride themselves in being able to put together a “budget” Modern deck for under $100 that is almost able to do as well as one of the top decks. It is possible to choose, purchase, and solely play a single Modern deck. Those who do this will only have a one-time cost of acquiring the cards for this deck, but will miss out on the joys of building and playing a wide variety of decks.

Standard is a constructed format that changes over time. It allows only the most recent few sets spanning the last year or two, and rotates when a new set comes out, with the oldest 2-3 sets dropping off.

Standard is very popular and has a big impact on the secondary market for Magic cards. As with any other constructed format, if you want to compete in a tournament setting, you’ll need to obtain some rare or mythic rare cards at a high cost. Therefore, when a new set comes out, some rare cards not yet widely available are temporarily expensive. However, prices decline as supply increases. Then, when a set is about to rotate out of Standard, prices rapidly fall for most rare cards.

It is usually less expensive to get a good deck for Standard than for the constructed formats described above. However, it can be much more expensive in the long run. This month’s deck is no longer legal a few months later when the oldest set rotates out. So you have to invest in a new deck. Think of it as the game version of keeping up with the Joneses.

So far I’ve just covered a few popular Constructed formats. The other category of formats is Limited.

Limited restricts the card pool to what you get by opening booster packs. The two popular ways of doing this are “sealed” and “draft.” In sealed, each player opens a few booster packs and makes a deck from those cards. In draft, there are typically 8 players who open 1 pack each. They take a single card from the pack and pass the remaining cards to the player on the left. That player draws one card then passes the remaining cards to the left. And so on until there are no cards left. This is done with a second pack and third pack until each player has 42 cards. Then, 40 card decks are made from approximately 17 basic lands (supplied by tournament organizer) and 23 of the 42 drafted cards.

After a Limited tournament ends, players may keep the 42 cards they drafted. Some people just keep the rare and mythic rare cards, abandoning the rest. This last little detail is important for those who want to play the game inexpensively—unwanted commons and uncommons are generated frequently from these Limited drafts, and can therefore be obtained for a very low cost.

Limited has a very different feel to the game. Not being able to (take months to) construct a deck from any card means that decks will be weaker, but more creative and varied. There is a time limit for putting together the deck so people have to quickly figure out both how to draft their cards and how to put together their deck. The financial component of spending several hundred dollars on a single deck is removed from the game. With the financial playing field evened out, the game becomes more a matter of quick thinking and skill. For many Magic players, this is by far their favorite format.

While less expensive than all the constructed formats mentioned above, there is still the cost to participate, which is generally around $15 for a several hour tournament. That $15 pays for the cards you keep and provides prize support (i.e. in an 8 person tournament, perhaps first place wins 4 booster packs, second 3 packs, third 2 packs, and fourth 1 pack, while other players win nothing). Some people think of this as a bargain given all the cards you get. But if you never sell cards, you’ll end up spending $15 each draft. Do that 50 times per year and you may end up spending $750 for approximately 3,000 cards each year (2,100 plus more from prizes). I don’t want to discount the fun factor. But it’s still $750/year, as compared with fun you can get from other games for quite a bit less.

You may be wondering at this point what all this has to do with your kid. Most 10-year-olds rarely, if ever, attend tournaments. They just have fun around the kitchen table playing Magic with a friend, or in some cases a family member. If they attend tournaments at all, it’s just the occasional draft. So why does it matter if some people go crazy spending thousands of dollars per year to stay competitive in tournaments or attend a lot of drafts?

You need to know all this in order to make sense of the next few sections, which explain how kids usually get into Magic in the first place, how it often leads to high costs, and how to steer the game towards lower cost alternatives that are just as much fun.

The Way Many Kids Get Started with Magic and How it Leads to More Cost, Less Fun

A typical kid learns Magic from a friend, perhaps starting after receiving some Magic cards as a gift. The rules are complicated. Typically, they’ll get some of the rules wrong.

In some cases, kids purposely play with home rules to facilitate their favorite kind of play, which is usually big creatures duking it out on the battlefield. Creatures have two numbers to represent power (attack) and toughness (defense). A 1/2 creature is small with only 1 power and 2 toughness. A big 6/7 creature can deal out 6 damage, and take up to 6 damage in a given turn without being harmed.

The home rule most frequently played by friends of my son is “Mana Drop” (I like to call it “Drop and Draw”) which allows every land in hand to be placed onto the battlefield and immediately replaced with another card. This causes duels to quickly skip to the end when large creatures come out, and makes most low-mana-cost creatures or spells irrelevant.

All too quickly, kids notice that some big creatures or spells are better than others, and more often than not these are rare cards. So they decide to acquire more rare cards to make their decks better. They will typically do this by buying booster packs (or fat packs that contain 9 boosters and a few game accessories). They may also get such cards by trading with friends. They may even know how to check online for the current worth of a card. However, they know little about the formats I introduced above and have no idea what drives card prices on the secondary market, sometimes leading to poor trades (such as trading a valuable rare land such as Mana Confluence for a rare big creature like Terra Stomper).

What they do know is that rare cards are more valuable than other cards, and that some rare cards are worth a lot. They know that each pack contains one rare card. They hope to get a really good rare when opening up the next booster pack. The slot machine aspect of the game begins.

Most kids or any other beginners to the game don’t know how to build good decks. Sure they may understand that some cards are very obviously better than others. A rare 8/8 Terra Stomper with Trample is clearly better than a common 6/7 Axebane Stag with no special abilities. But few understand much beyond that.

They do understand that they keep getting beat by their friend who has 8 key rare cards in their deck: 4 copies of Terra Stomper and 4 copies of Garruk’s Horde. So now they start down the road of acquiring more and more powerful, rare cards. Starting a Magic the Gathering arms race like this will lead to escalating expenses. At first this can feel kind of fun, but . . .

It gets worse. If you can acquire any expensive card from any set, it eventually turns into a money war between friends. The player with the deepest pocket wins. I haven’t personally experienced this, but I’ve read many stories of how this arms race dynamic destroyed fun for everyone and caused people to quit the game and in some cases destroyed friendships.

Turning Magic into an unconstrained financial arms race is the worst way to play Magic the Gathering. Having access to any card from any set at any cost can lead to decks that win on turn 1, with the opponent never even having a chance to play. How is this fun? The arms race dynamic is responsible for the poor reputation Magic has among some people, who can’t understand why anyone would play a game where the person who spends the most, wins.

Experienced Magic players don’t do it like this. They use formats to constrain the game.

In order to keep the game fair and balanced, players agree to play within one of the carefully defined formats, so that everyone’s decks are created from the same set of allowable cards. In the prior section, I described a number of the more popular formats that do this. It is true that most of these formats can be very expensive. But these are mature, refined formats that make for interesting games and provide a creative outlet for deck building. Constraints breed creativity.

In my opinion, it is creative deck building that makes Magic the Gathering such a fun, interesting and varied game. There are thousands of great card and board games that can be played. There are very few that allow you to build different versions of the game. Magic appears to be the best of these erector-set styled games, and it is an awful shame when the game is played in a way that stifles creative deck building.

The typical way that most 10-year olds start playing Magic stifles creative deck building. The lack of creativity comes from the (incorrect) understanding that the main way to improve decks is to obtain powerful, rare cards. And, for those groups which employ the Mana Draw house rule, deck building becomes further stifled as most cards become useless.

It is very interesting to see what happens when a 10-year old plays against an experienced Magic player for the first time. The kid may have assembled a deck with 20 rare cards that consistently beats other kid decks, which all have fewer than 12 rare cards. So they think their deck is really good. So what is the usual result of playing this so-called “good deck” against a deck that is carefully constructed by an experienced player with no rares? The 20-rare deck loses over and over. The experienced Magic player may graciously choose a deck made only out of common cards to give the kid a chance. The kid still loses.

I am by no means a highly experienced Magic player but if I use my all-commons deck built around cards like 1/2 Kiln Fiend and 1/4 Nivix Cyclops, I usually win by turn 4 or 5 against a typical kid’s deck full of rares such as 7/7 Garruk’s Horde and 8/8 Terra Stomper. The deck wins because of a supporting cast of low-mana cost instant spells that combines well with Kiln Fiend or Nivix Cyclops, usually bringing the opponent’s life total from 20 to 0 on a single turn.

A 20-rare deck can lose to an all common deck because the rares take too long to come out, don’t work well with each other, and/or don’t work well with other cards in the deck. One of the earliest lessons in deck building is to assemble cards that work well together. This learning comes slowly to players who emphasize acquiring better individual cards and frequently play with the “Mana Drop” variant.

The Most Important Concept for Keeping Costs Down While Still Having Fun

If you’ve read everything above, you’re ready to understand the solutions to the cost issue.

By far the most important concept is to consciously decide how you want to play the game. Be deliberate. Don’t let the random manner in which you were introduced to the game dictate how you play it.

If you are the parent, and your kid is starting to engage in an arms race for rares, it’s time to have a series of conversations about where they want this Magic hobby to go. You will not be exaggerating if you explain that what they are doing will eventually cost them thousands of dollars, and end up not being very fun if the player who ends up winning the most is the one who spends the most money. U.S politicians get elected this way, but it’s no way to play a game.

You’ll need to ask a few questions about what your kid likes most about the game. They may enjoy titanic battles between big creatures. They may care most about beating their friends with a really good deck. Maybe creating new decks is most of the fun. Maybe they want to increase their skill to the point where they can be competitive in tournaments at a local game store. Maybe they like collecting and want to own and take proper care of many cards.

Once you’ve figured out what it is your kid likes about the game, you can help him or her think about the various formats and ways to play the game at a reasonable cost, as described in the next few sections.

There is an incredible amount a kid can learn as you’re having these conversations. I know from first-hand experience as I’ve had conversations like this with my own son. He’s learned a lot about how supply and demand drives market prices, how gambling mentality leads to poor decision-making, how an arms race can lead to economic ruin, how slot machines work, how scarcity induces desire, etc. And yes, there’s a lot of joking about the “Black Lotus” card from the first set. A single alpha edition Black Lotus card costs well over $10,000.

Once your kid decides on how he or she wants to play this game, the next step is to find other players who want to play the same way . . . or maybe persuade current game buddies to adopt the same play style.

One particularly interesting teaching moment happened with my son, with regards to paper wealth versus real wealth. He bought a Dragons of Tarkir fat pack (9 booster packs, box, booklet, and a life counter) with a gift card he got for his birthday. He felt like he’d won the lottery when he looked at the last card of the last pack he opened. It was Narset Transcendent, a mythic rare planeswalker, worth $38! He had used $32 worth of his gift card for the entire fat pack, so he felt like he’d received all the rest of the cards for free, and some of them were rares worth $2 or $3.

He purchased Dragons of Tarkir just a couple weeks after the set was released, when most rare and mythic rare cards are near their maximum price. We didn’t know at the time, but I now understand that this is driven by the Standard format. Those who play Standard competitively buy the rare and mythic rare cards they need very soon after a set is released. However, over the following few weeks, players discover which cards work together best to form the most competitive decks. The vast majority of rares and mythic rares turn out to be not very useful for competitive players, and are therefore not in high demand. Prices rapidly fall.

Narset Transcendent fell even more than usual. Speculators predicted that this would be a key card for many competitive decks in Standard. They were wrong. Demand was low, so the price of the card fell by several dollars per week. Several months later, the price finally stabilized at $9/card. Though still a high price, it was worth less than 25% of the initial paper value.

We had many conversations about that card. I explained how it’s just “on paper” until you actually sell or trade it. I explained how the Standard format works and the impact it has on the supply and demand for cards, and therefore prices. I explained how fat packs are generally poor values unless you buy them just after release and quickly sell or trade the most valuable cards. Many lessons learned.

My son is going to understand the basics of the stock market in no time when he becomes old enough to care about such things. Thirty dollars is a small price to pay for financial lessons truly learned at a gut level. (June 2020 edit: Years later, my son played the PS4 game “MLB the Show” with an online baseball card trading mechanism. He quickly mastered the supply and demand dynamics for that market and learned how to very efficiently collect the best baseball cards without having to spend additional money on the game).

How to Keep Magic Inexpensive by Treating it Like a Regular Game

Like a regular game, you can buy Magic once. You just buy pre-made decks and play. A few ways to do this in 2015 included:

  • Sample Packs (game stores give these to brand new players for free)
  • Intro Packs(inexpensive decks associated with Core packs)
  • Clash Packs/Event Decks (interesting decks drawn from recent sets intended to be Standard playable, but aren’t)
  • Duel Decks (even more interesting decks for experienced players with cards from many different sets)
  • NOTE: Since this article was written, most of these sets were discontinued in favor of other types of products for beginners. However, many of them are still available at low cost on Amazon, and there are other similar products by different names. Wizards of the Coast changes how they do products for beginners frequently.

While each of these deck types have different design goals, there is some overlap. Sample and Intro packs are designed to be as easy as possible to play for brand new players. While they do accomplish this goal, the cards are worth little so new players may as well learn the game with free sample packs (of course, receiving a gift of intro packs also works). Experienced players should avoid these packs because the play is dull and the cards have no value.

Clash Packs are a pair of decks that are more interesting for the valuable rares and for the close, interactive matchups. Event Decks are intended to be decks that can be played at Standard events out of the box, but they are usually not very competitive. If either of these are purchased shortly after release, there are typically some rares that can be used in constructed Standard decks, though the value of such cards will fall when they get rotated out of Standard.

Duel Decks are by most accounts the most interesting to play and the most difficult to master. They contain a wide variety of cards drawn from many sets.

A new player who masters the basic rules with a sample pack or intro pack will naturally want to play more complex and interesting decks. The next step could be a Clash Pack or Duel Decks product. These decks have interesting card combinations which lead to very interactive play with multiple lead changes. Duel Decks especially are intentionally balanced to make for even matches. Experienced Magic players may enjoy Duel Decks as a way to remember the fun of casual Magic that can sometimes be lost after years of competitive Magic, while brand new players will find them challenging to master.

You can pay $15 for a couple of decks and play them against each other hundreds of times without having to spend another penny. However, I don’t know anyone who does this. A huge part of the fun of this game is to build and play a wide variety of decks.

How to Acquire Thousands of Magic The Gathering Cards for a Penny Each

So let’s assume your kid, like most beginners, wants to try building new decks . . . maybe even dozens of decks, frequently building and disbanding decks to test out new ideas. Sounds fun! However, building a wide variety of decks will require obtaining thousands of cards.

Let’s assume the target is to have 20 different decks built at any given time. In order to be able to support this number of decks, perhaps 4,000 cards (500 lands, and 3,500 other cards) are needed. Even if you create and disband decks frequently like we do, you’ll need at least 500 lands if you’re going to have 20 decks going at a time (alternatively, you could get by with fewer lands by storing most decks without lands).

How can you buy thousands of cards at a reasonable price?

Buying booster packs is not the way to go. You’d need to buy 250 booster packs to obtain 3,500 non-land cards. Buying booster packs 9 at a time as part of fat packs, you’d automatically obtain well over 1000 lands. However, buying 28 fat packs in 2015 costs around $1000.

You might be able to obtain a several thousand card collection off craigslist or eBay from someone quitting Magic. This may work, but could take quite a bit of time and effort before a seller came along that happened to be selling the numbers and types of cards you want at a price you’re willing to pay.

The simplest way I’ve found is to focus on common and uncommon cards.

With a little effort, you should be able to find a store that sells unsorted common and uncommon cards at a penny each. Cards that a store doesn’t care about are relegated to an unsorted “commons bin.” These are mostly discards from draft nights. There may also be older cards from a collection that the store purchased. Store employees will pick out the more valuable rare cards, but it’s usually not worth their time to sift through the other cards to find the occasional common or uncommon card that is worth more than a dime. So they’re happy to let customers do the sifting and keep cards for a penny each.

What you save in money, you do lose in time. It gets harder as the size of your collection increases, as you won’t want more than 4 of most common cards (takes up too much space). You’ll therefore get more and more selective as the size of your collection increases, which makes sifting through unsorted commons ever more time consuming. Obtaining your first few thousand cards is pretty quick, though.

Many stores don’t offer unsorted commons for a penny each. I only know of one such store within a 10-mile radius of our home, Comic Cards Etc. Over the course of a year, I have purchased approximately 8,000 common and uncommon cards from their commons bin, for around $80. I don’t find every common I want this way so I sometimes buy individual common cards (“singles”) from Comic Cards’ extensive collection for 10 cents each (or occasionally more, if the market price is higher).

Playing Magic the Gathering Competitively Yet Inexpensively: Peasant and Pauper

So your kid has thousands of common and uncommon cards. The next question is how to keep the game fun and interesting without rare cards? And for those who choose to transition from playing casually to playing competitively, how is it possible to compete without rares?

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Having rares doesn’t make the game any more or less exciting. All it does is change what decks can play each other.

Remember the detailed explanation of formats in Different Ways to Play Magic the Gathering? If someone with one of the best Modern decks played against someone of equivalent skill with a really good Legacy deck, they’d get wiped out. But the Modern deck is still a great deck for playing against other decks in the Modern format.

It’s the same thing with common and uncommon cards. Just even the playing field by using a format without rares. The two most well-known formats without rare cards are Peasant and Pauper.

The Peasant format allows up to 5 uncommon cards, while the rest must be commons. It’s is not nearly as popular as the Pauper format and I don’t have experience with it, so I won’t discuss it further.

The Pauper format uses only commons. You can only use an uncommon or rare if it has been printed at least once as a common. Just like the other formats, there are some overpowered cards that are banned.

Pauper receives modest support from Wizards of the Coast at its Magic Online site in the form of tournament sponsorships and a ban list. However, Pauper with paper cards is not an officially sanctioned format. In spite of this, paper Pauper is growing in popularity and sees play at many local game stores around the country, including our own Comic Cards Etc.

Since 2018, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) and tournament organizers have have been much more supportive of the Pauper format, which has caused Pauper to become even more popular. There’s a wider variety of (support for) tournaments available both online and and in paper. WotC has been purposely taking pauper into consideration when coming out with new sets. Most importantly, WotC officially unified the online and paper commons, which makes the definition of what is legal in Pauper much simpler for beginners:

Any card ever printed at common can be used in Pauper, unless it’s on the ban list.

Many players, both beginners and veterans, have no idea how varied, interesting, and powerful Pauper decks are. The best Pauper decks easily beat most Standard decks and are at approximately the same power level as Modern decks. This doesn’t mean they’re any better or worse. However, being common sure means they’re cheaper!

Putting together one fo the top Modern deck can cost over $1000. It’s possible to put together dozens of really good Pauper decks for that kind of money. Once you get a play set (4 copies each) of the most important 200 or so common cards, it becomes possible to put together any Pauper deck for little additional cost. This can be attractive for Magic players at any skill level because it opens up endless opportunities for deck building and experimentation.

There are quite a few common cards worth over $1, though very few are worth more than $5., online inventory management software for Magic cards, makes it easy to see a list of every common card ever printed, sorted by value.

Low cost doesn’t just mean saving money. It also opens the floodgates of creativity for building new decks. One can get a sense of the wide variety of Pauper decks in reddit’s excellent Pauper subreddit. There is always a pinned top post describing how to convert many specific decks you love in a more expensive format into a similar, playable deck in Pauper. Another post describes the cards needed to have all 53 of the top Pauper decks in the format in 2015. You can also get a great overview of the Pauper format and a good feel for the most competitive Pauper decks by reading this outdated yet still relevant overview.

Like any Magic format, you can play Pauper casually or competitively. My son and I went to several Pauper tournaments at our favorite local game store in 2015. We paid $5 to enter for prize support. Each of us has placed high enough to win the occasional booster pack or two, though both of us have yet to come in first. But we really appreciate the opportunity to enter competitions and hone our skills at a modest price.

While I’ve been super excited about the Pauper format myself, my son has only a moderate interest, and my wife has no interest. Pauper duels don’t tend to be about really big creatures duking it out, the kinds of decks kids love, as the game is usually over before large creatures can be cast. As for my wife, she lost interest in all constructed formats. Though she enjoyed deck building, she found choosing from a pool of thousands of cards too time consuming.

There some styles of Pauper decks that kids may prefer, such as Goblins, Elves, Slivers, and decks which ramp up quickly to bring out Ulamog’s Crusher, Hand of Emrakul, or other large creatures. My son had fun with his Eldrazi Spawn deck that quickly ramped to the two big creatures I just mentioned, which then annihilate the opponent card by card, if left unchecked. He managed to place fourth with it at an 8-person Pauper Classic tournament.

Drafting Magic the Gathering Inexpensively

For some players, nothing beats the fun of Limited formats, where you get to open packs and build your deck on the fly. And for some players, such as my wife, building decks out of a few dozen cards is far more fun and less time consuming than building decks from a pool of thousands. There are several ways to keep the cost of drafting low.

If you participate in tournament drafts at your local store, you typically have to pay $15 for a several hour session. Costs will mount if you do this every week throughout the year. However, some people immediately trade or sell their most valuable cards after each draft is over. Stores will typically offer store credit at 50% to 70% of current value. You can then use that store credit towards future draft nights, offsetting a sizable portion of your expenses. Notice an additional opportunity here to teach kids how stores make money and provide incentives for customers to keep coming back.

Those who time it right may be able to offset nearly all drafting expenses. Prices are highest for new sets within the first few weeks after they come out. So you could purposely attend draft nights for new sets only, within a few weeks of release.

I have no idea how many people routinely sell their cards back, because I have yet to participate in a paid draft. Instead, our family does something that costs nothing once you own the cards: home drafts.

There are several ways to do home drafts. My son loves opening booster packs. Luckily, he likes it almost as much if the booster pack is a simulated, home made pack. Put together 10 commons, 3 uncommons, and 1 rare and you’ve got a booster pack ready to be drafted. We make 3 packs for each player who will be part of the draft. Then we follow the usual draft rules, except that most home drafters use 15 card packs. While drafts typically have 8 players (meaning at least 8 x 3 x 15 = 360 cards), we usually draft with just the 3 of us and we like the results, though the dynamics are a little different.

Our first few drafts were too much work, especially sorting and putting away the cards afterwards. For that reason, we created a “cube.” A cube is simply a preset pool of cards. Players draft from packs randomly created from this set of cards, then return the cards to the cube afterwards. Most people use cubes as a way to gather together cards that can lead to interesting drafting, decks, and play.

While my primary reason for starting a cube was ease of set-up and clean-up, I also attempted to create a collection that would be fun and appealing for all 3 of us. Since most of our cards come from 2014 and 2015, our cube is a collection of many of the more interesting cards we’ve acquired from that era. The 8 sets from which our cube is drawn are the 8 sets that were in Standard just prior to October 2, 2015. I placed a particular emphasis on certain abilities such as “heroic” and “prowess”, while leaving out most weak cards. Like other cube creators, I balanced the five colors of Magic.

We keep our cube separated into 3 boxes for rares, uncommons, and commons. That way, we can put together home-made booster packs quickly by drawing cards at random in appropriate portions: first deal a number of upside-down piles of 10 commons. Then 3 uncommons. Then a rare. It takes about a minute per pack.

The results of our cube greatly exceeded our expectations. We’ve had a blast, and each draft comes out very differently despite drawing from the same cube. Drafting from this cube was the most enjoyable way we’ve played Magic the Gathering together as a family.

Obtaining Magic the Gathering Rares for Cheap

Despite our aim to keep costs low, we do have some rares. We started with a 2015 Deck Builder’s Tool Kit, then obtained a few Fat Packs over the past year as we got into the game, mostly as birthday or holiday gifts. We don’t have all that many rares, given that the vast majority of our cards were obtained from the penny commons bin. Going forward, gifts and Pauper tournament prizes are likely the only way more booster packs are coming into our home.

You do get 1 rare with each booster pack, but that’s the slow, random, and expensive way to do it.

You can get “bulk rares” for cheap. These are the rares nobody wants because they’re not good enough to be included in a top deck in any of the popular formats. My family got me 100 bulk rares for my birthday earlier this year. While many of these rare cards are bulk for good reason, there are some that we’ve had a lot of fun with despite their low price. Some are actually outstanding cards in the context of a draft.

Another way to spend less on rare cards is to buy only rares from sets that are about to exit Standard. Just before a set becomes illegal for Standard, prices drop very low, sometimes to the lowest they ever get. You can get exactly the rares you want, sometimes for as little as a dime.

It’s also possible to set up a page of rare cards and print them out as “proxies,” with services such as You’ll end up with paper instead of card stock. Do note that you’ll only be able to use printed-out cards for home and casual use. They are illegal for tournament or commercial use.

You can use card sleeves for your whole deck, and then you won’t know the difference between the printed cards and the real cards, especially if you include a real card behind the paper to give it thickness.

I’m not going to discuss card sleeves at length here as you can find plenty of discussion about them if you Google card sleeves for Magic the Gathering. I’m just going to say that the main reason they exist is to protect valuable cards from value-reducing wear and tear. After reading various reviews, I chose to go with double sleeved cards using KMC inner and Dragon Shield Matte outer sleeves. Dragon Shield Matte is considered to be the most durable, and that has been my experience.

So What About the Kinds of Decks Kids Most Want to Play? Engineering Decks For Exciting Play

Most kids prefer big battles between numerous creatures, (some big) between relatively balanced decks. How do you make this happen?

One way I already mentioned is to buy pre-built decks. Event Decks, Clash Packs, and Duel Decks are designed in a way that most kids would enjoy. If you’ve found that the enjoyment of Magic among your friends and family is waning, I strongly recommend buying one of the Duel Deck products such as Magic the Gathering – Duel Decks: Zendikar vs. Eldrazi, which my son and I enjoy so much. (Note – Though no longer produced since 2018, some duel decks on Amazon are still available inexpensively). Duel decks demonstrate how much fun Magic can be with balanced, interactive decks. My son had nearly lost interest in Magic but playing the Eldrazi deck was fun and temporarily revived his interest. At first we thought the Eldrazi side was stronger, but after many plays we’ve decided it’s about even, with the Zendikar deck more difficult to play well.

You can try to make your own balanced decks. I haven’t done this myself, so I can’t pass on first-hand experience on the art of making really fun, balanced decks.

The path our family is settling into is using and improving our cube. The very first time we played our cube we happened to really luck out with three very balanced and interactive decks.

We have not seen such perfectly balanced decks since that first time, but we’ve still had fun with most drafts. We expanded the cube from its initial 360 card size to 426 cards. Our initial version had only 1 copy of each card except for evolving wilds and dual lands. We increased to 2 copies of many commons and a few uncommons in an attempt to improve variety, balance, interactivity, and fun. We’ll keep tinkering if we think it will help.

You don’t have to do cubes like we do it, or like anyone else does it. Some people do cubes with just Pauper cards. Some people like to constrain cards to a certain set, a “block” of related sets, or cards that were in Standard at a given point of time. Many like cubes that collect many powerful cards together (which will be costly unless you use proxies). Most don’t construct booster packs like we do, which means less predictable proportions of commons, uncommons, and rares.

It’s hard to design a poor cube, because the drafting process self-corrects for most cube-making mistakes. Weak cards will rarely be drafted. An overpowered color will be so desirable that there will be heavy competition for those cards, causing the color to be effectively weakened by being spread among many players. So don’t worry about a lack of cube-making skill. Just do it!

The main point to grasp here is that casual players are going to get more out of this hobby by purposely trying to create pairs of decks or cubes that lead to the style of games they enjoy. They’re likely to find these decks or cubes by experimenting and being conscious about their design choices. They’re unlikely to experience such decks by emphasizing an arms race for rares.

Some Magic Options Not Currently Covered Here

I could have added a section about multi-player Commander (EDH) decks, both the normal kind and the Pauper kind (Uncommon Commander, 99 commons). EDH has grown into the most popular format for kids so it’s certainly worth exploring. Maybe I could add a section going into more detail on the secondary market for Magic cards. I could talk about collecting Magic cards as an investment. Years after writing this article, I decided to leave it as is, as I think I’ve addressed my main points and it’s already quite long.

The one form of Magic I very purposely omitted is online. Magic can be played online against other opponents, another venue for potentially spending thousands of dollars to collect electronic versions of the cards.

I omitted online because my kid and most kids are already doing way too much screen time. A lovely thing about Magic and other board and card games is that our family can get away from screens. We already use screens for work. I don’t want most of our recreational time to require screens as well. Avoiding online also means kids get to socialize in person, learning skills such as sportsmanship, controlling facial expressions, and fair play.

Final Words

Some Magic players may wonder why I singled out Magic as an expensive hobby. There are plenty of other expensive hobbies out there, such as skiing, golf, and wine. Or if you want to focus on hobbies kids often participate in, there’s youth baseball, owning a pet, or family vacations. So why single out Magic?

Magic is expensive relative to other board games, which provide a similar type of fun at a fraction of the cost. A typical board or card game costs $20 to $50 or at most $200 or so if you buy a game with all of its expansions. You pay once, but you get to play many times. A game-loving family with a closet full of 50-100 games may have spent $2000 to $3000 on games over the course of many years, which is a fraction of what some players ultimately spend on Magic cards. And you could have plenty fun by just buying a few of the very best family strategy games, as I describe in Best Strategy Games for Families.

But Magic can be a great game, perhaps even a better game, with only modest spending. The main cost of Magic is rare cards. Rare cards are only needed in order to participate in tournaments against other players using rare cards. They are not required for variety’s sake, and they are not even needed to play competitively (if competition is restricted to Pauper). And, if you are playing among friends and family at home and you really want to play with some rares, just print them and sleeve them up at a fraction of the cost.

Competitive play may get the lion’s share of attention and have the biggest impact on card prices. But casual players vastly outnumber competitive players. Casual and competitive players don’t want the same things, and this is most obvious with kids.

The main point of this post is that, as a casual player, it’s unnecessary to let the price of a Magic the Gathering hobby be dictated by what happens in the competitive world of Magic. You choose what’s fun for you, and it doesn’t need to cost you thousands of dollars.

If there is one thing to take away from this article, it should be this:

Constraints breed creativity. And fun!

Unconstrained Magic leads to increasing costs and less fun. Constraining the game doesn’t just save money, it also makes it more fun. While eliminating rares altogether is the simplest constraint to keep this hobby inexpensive, I mentioned several ways above that rares can be included for a reasonable cost. But whether or not you use rares, all you need to make this game great for you, your family, and your friends, is your intent and your imagination.

Choose what is fun for your group, and then use your creativity to get there. You’ll have a great time.

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

10 thoughts on “Magic the Gathering Guide for Keeping Costs Low While Still Having Fun”

  1. Hi Joe,

    I just wanted to thank you for explaining, clearly, accurately, and patiently, all of the negative issues associated with MTG and with the culture that the game, its developers, and the competitive ‘community’ cultivate. I relate to your article as someone who played the game before the internet introduced a ubiquitous foreknowledge of the contents of sets and allowed people to buy and trade specific cards online.

    As someone who has come back to the game almost twenty years later, I’ve been appalled, not only with the cost of cards, but with the kinds of sacrifices and lifestyle compromises people adopt – for the sake of a game. I don’t mean to imply any judgement on people who want to spend their salary on ‘cardboard crack’, who don’t mind the over-inflated prices of new sets, and who playtest decks against every strategy prevailing in a current ‘metagame’ at a cost of hundreds of hours of time. But as an adult wanting to return to the game, I found that the only other adults I found playing it were heavily invested in this kind of way. It was their lifestyle, their life. Whereas, I just wanted to recreate the rather chaotic fun I remember having when I was eleven and twelve.

    I discovered – by a slow trial and error – some of the things that you very sagely recommend in this article. I wish I’d read it sooner! I now have the most fun playing Magic where all concerned pre-agree to resisting the draw of the most powerful cards, and therefore the most predictable patterns of gameplay. Even pauper can be ‘broken’ (and for many, the fun lies in breaking it).

    The kinds of game I enjoy – long back-and-forth rallies where the outcome hangs in the balance (an experience, I should add, that seems to be very rare amongst players in unconstrained game environments) – are the outcome of tinkering two or more decks to fit one another as a pair or set, where the cards included are only those with which the player can connect. It’s a game of ‘personal faves’ (invariably singleton) where players enjoy just picking up and looking at (and playing with, however briefly) their favourite cards. Once a pool of ‘faves’ is established, synergies and strategies that allow for maximum variation can be woven in. It’s a long process, but at the end you have something that plays like your favourite boardgame, with all the variety and permutations that Magic offers as well as the excitement of knowing that with each new set there may be a new card or cards that will fit those extremely narrow criteria.

    It’s now the kind of game my partner and I take on long train rides or to play in airports while we’re waiting to board. Low in cost, totally portable, no collection required.

    Anyway, thanks again for your insight, Joe,
    Best wishes,

  2. Sebastian – Thank you for sharing your passionate comments. I’m much newer to Magic so I don’t feel much negativity, but I can imagine that had I gone through a “pay to play” phase of this game (or at least been around people who had), I very well might feel as you do.

    By the way, if you’ve never played Cosmic Encounter, you might want to give it a try some time. Magic’s creator/inventor was heavily inspired by Cosmic Encounter, which was the first game to emphasize the exception-to-the-rules mechanic. The game has gone through 5 editions with the latest (Fantasy Flight) being probably the best of all the editions, though I have a fondness for the original as well.

  3. Joe – thank you for your prompt and considered response. Thanks, too, for the recommendation of Cosmic Encounter! I shall look into it straight away. Wishing you and your family a pleasant weekend and a happy and healthy 2016. I shall keep an eye out for your other posts!

    All best wishes,

  4. Very helpful article. Thank you very much. I played for 4 years at the end of high school into college (94-99) and always loved the game. I am now teaching my kids and this was a great help. I have a box with several hundred old cards from the years mentioned above. As it is not obvious which are Rare Uncommon or Common, it is hard to decide which of these cards i should keep in the pool for my kids to start experimenting with deck building from. Any advise? Or perhaps I should just set this box of cards aside and start a new collection of common and uncommon cards that are from the Modern format and later? Thanks again.

  5. Hi Paul – There are several reasons I would advise you to set aside your cards and start over with cards from the modern era:

    • It’s likely that some of your cards may be worth a lot of money. Rather than worry about your kids trashing them, you might consider selling off the rares. The easiest way to sort out which cards are worth something is to enter your cards into inventory software, such as You can keep the commons if you think you’ll get into Pauper at some point.
    • There’s a good chance you won’t have a large enough number of cards to satisfy everyone. When you start to acquire new cards, they won’t work all that well with the older cards as different sets emphasize different mechanics.
    • Another reason newer and older cards don’t work together well is that there was a very large philosophical shift at Wizards of the Coast that was rolled out in 1998, dubbed the “New World Order.” The idea was that the game had become too complicated. To make it more accessible to new players, starting in 1998, the aim was for commons and uncommons to be very simple to understand and use, while only the occasional rare would have a bit of complexity to it. Also, cards printed in recent years tend to have stronger creatures and weaker spells compared with the early years.
    • Lastly, your kids will play with other kids. They will all be familiar with cards printed in the last few years, not ones from 20 years ago. If you find a store with penny bins nearby, the cost to get a few thousand commons and uncommons will be minimal. Of course, you or your kids might not have the discipline to stop there . . .
  6. This article got discussed a bit on reddit on January 9, 2016. There were a couple of interesting thoughts there:

    • Another form of low-cost magic that can be a lot of fun is the “battle box” where you get together a bunch of decks that are competitive with each other (could be top decks from Pauper, or could be just be less competitive decks that just happen to be fun and playable against each other). Two players each randomly draw a deck and then play each other. Alternatively, you can have 4 or 8 players draw decks and make a tournament out of it.
    • I pointed out one way of keeping limited drafts low cost but Batfish_681 pointed out another way: . . . the upshot is that you do get some packs out of drafting and if you develop enough expertise to win prizes, eventually you can offset most of the cost of drafting while building up your collection. (Prizes are often in the form of booster packs or store credits.)
  7. I really enjoyed this article. I’m quite young and very new to Magic, and a huge fan of Blue decks. I’ve got a cheap deck that isn’t very good and am doing experimenting on Cockatrice to come up with interesting combinations. Only after sinking lots of time in did I check the price of some of the better cards in my deck – and wow, they’re really just way too expensive for me to consider playing Magic in any halfway serious way.

    I don’t actually mind ‘good’ cards being expensive at all, but it’s heartbreaking when an interesting card is expensive. I’m probably going to be sticking to Cockatrice to play with my friends in the long-term, but it’s really a shame because I like the local community! Limited sounds great, but $750 a year still sounds like a lot and I wouldn’t be able to play too much with friends (until we had a bunch of cards from drafting I suppose). I’m into a sport that’s considered quite expensive, but in the long run it’s actually cheaper than $750 a year, and I get some cardio out of that! It’s interesting because my understanding of the system is that WotC doesn’t earn money from the cards being expensive, but it is definitely driving me (and all my friends) away from getting invested.

  8. Cockatrice is one way to do it, for sure. Magic Duels is also low (or no) cost. I do encourage you to give Pauper a try, though, if you want to do in-person Magic the gathering. The crazy thing about it is that the “meta game” is arguably more interesting for Pauper than most of the other variants of MtG! Many different types of decks can do well in Pauper.

  9. Hi Joe,

    I’m reading this article in June 2020 and it is more relevant than ever. I’m a 21 years old student from Slovakia and I’ve accumulated a lot of cards since 2010. I remember the fun I had with my brother playing the crazy style magic with Core Set 2011 Intro Packs. We played like 100+ games with just two Intro Packs, no more than 150 cards. I witnessed the points in this article first-handed and they are true – it is a money race, especially when we were young kids. I’ve tried multiple forms of play and the best are Limited, Cube and balanced decks as you wrote. There is so much value in this article, thank you for it.

    I also want to add my latest experience… as I get older I am always minimising my collection, it is more practical. I play mainly Commander and I like the idea of only one card per all of my decks. Only one Counterspell per all blue decks! Crazy right… but as you wrote, it breeds creativity. 🙂 There are all the Dissolves, Dissipates, Negates and other counterspells waiting to be played. I minimised my 10,000+ collection to less than 4,000 by keeping only one copy of every card, selling the more expensive ones and selling the rest as bulk. I also kept only one version of Cancel, Negate, Naturalize and other reprinted cards. The best art wins!

    I realised just recently how expensive Magic can be an it doesn’t mean more fun. I’ve bought a few modern board games and they are 30€ on average, but the fun can be the same, maybe even more. They don’t have the depth of Magic, but they can be taught in a few minutes. This was the most eye opening moment for me. Some singles cost 30€ and you don’t have much fun from a single card. 😀

    Anyway… thank you for writing this post and sorry for my “not so English” English. Wish you the best. 🙂
    Michal Durovic

  10. Hi Michal – Glad you found the article helpful! I have gone down the Pauper path since that article was written for myself (29 decks, including all the top meta decks). At 26,000 cards, my collection is ridiculously big, but I’ve spent about the same money on this collection as the cost of 2 top tier decks in Modern (over the course of 6 years).

    What you’re doing sounds great – there are so many ways to get creative with this game without going down the path of spending thousands of dollars/year!

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