Magic: The Gathering Budget Play - A Response

Tabletop article by on Friday, June 17, 2016 - 11:00
Topic(s): Hasbro

Hello, fellow TechRaptor readers and Magic: The Gathering players.  Today's editorial is a response piece to an article written last week by Gavin Verhey, titled "Five Steps to Winning on a Budget."  As my editorial will be touching on themes and ideas in Verhey's article, I recommend reading his article on the Wizards of the Coast home page before continuing.

Before I get into my own thoughts and observations, I want to say I have no ill will towards Verhey, nor do I intend for this editorial to be a criticism of him.  I understand that his own intentions towards budget play aren't the same as those held by Wizards of the Coast, and that writing for them means writing about their intentions, not his.  What this editorial is directed  at is the intentions and polices that Wizards of the Coast has in regards to Magic: The Gathering, and what it regards as budget play.

With that out of the way ... I'm starting to think Wizards of the Coast may not be in touch with reality, for a variety of reasons. Let's first start with how they choose to define "budget,"  because this is something that absolutely needs to be explained.

When a person thinks of the phrase "budget," the immediate thought is of prices.  "Is there a competitive deck that doesn't cost a fortune to purchase" is something that players, particularly new players, are very interested in knowing.  Competitive decks can, depending on the format that they're in, cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars (this applies more to the paper version of the game and not Magic: The Gathering Online, although similar issues do exist in that medium).  Knowing that viable alternatives to high-priced decks exist is extremely beneficial to new players—who don't have access to the same resources that enfranchised players do—as well as players that don't have a high disposable income.

However, looking through Verhey's article, I don't see any mention of card prices, or discussion of the secondary market, both of which are  necessary knowledge for building decks.  Instead, Wizards of the Coast has decided that "budget" refers not to card prices, but the individuality rarity of the cards and the odds of opening that card in a booster pack—i.e., using "mythic rarity" cards isn't a budget decision, but using "rares" is, as is using "uncommon rarity" cards over "rares."  The effect this has in the article is that, instead of getting information on decks that are cheap while still being competitive, we get information on watered-down versions of actually competitive decks, with dubious viability.  This isn't the first time that articles from Wizards of the Coast have used this definition of "budget"; it was also used in a recent article on budget Modern format decks.

Now, there's a reason they've chosen to omit the disparity of value in cards, and that's because if they did the company would be subject to gambling laws.  When a player buys a Magic: The Gathering booster pack, Wizards of the Coast treats it like they've bought fifteen cards that all have the same exact value—in other words, players paid a fixed amount for a fixed payout, which isn't gambling.  If Wizards of the Coast acknowledged that yes, some cards have a higher value associated with them in secondary markets, and yes, not every booster pack will contain those more expensive cards, then they would have to acknowledge that players are paying a fixed amount for Magic: The Gathering booster packs and getting a random payout.  This would mean acknowledging that buying booster packs is a form of gambling and would make Wizards of the Coast liable to the various gambling laws and regulations of the countries where Magic: The Gathering products are sold.

But by ignoring card prices in the secondary market (and by pretending the secondary market doesn't exist, for the most part), Wizards of the Coast isn't subjected to stringent gambling laws and regulations.  I said "for the most part" there because the existence of the Reserved List does indicate that Wizards of the Coast is aware of the secondary market and cares about the price of cards.  If that wasn't the case, then the Reserved List wouldn't exist. 

Wizards of the Coast defining "budget" in the way that they have done makes the article absolutely useless to players.  Players don't care that a card is "less available" than others—competitive decks have made use of just as many common and uncommon cards as rares and mythic cards.  Many format staples are cards with low rarity from the sets they were printed in.  However, by Wizards of the Coast using "budget" to refer to watered down versions of competitive decks, it creates the impression that new or otherwise unsuspecting players will be able to get the same results using these decks as they would with the "non-budget" versions.

Which ties into my next point.

Watered down decks almost never win.

This isn't an absolute fact.  Sometimes there will exist a meta environment at a store where the other decks are ill-equipped to deal with it, or maybe the other players aren't playing well.  Maybe it just isn't too competitive of a store and watered down decks and off-the-wall deck builds (referred to as "jank") are the norm.  But far and away these types of stores are in the minority; despite being thought of as casual when compared to big events like the Pro Tour and Grand Prix, Friday Night Magic and other local store events can be just as competitive as the big name events.

This creates a problem for players who are just starting off.  Here they are, with a deck that Wizards of the Coast tells them is a good deck, going to their first Friday Night Magic event, excited to take home their prizes for winning.  After being crushed 0-4, they find out that actual budget decks exist, with proven performance records, and wonder why Wizards of the Coast didn't talk about those decks.

Wizards of the Coast trying to avoid gambling restrictions by not talking about card and deck prices doesn't help players who are looking to build budget decks.  Pretending that players can do well with watered down decks only ends up hurting players in the long run.

Want to play a budget deck?  Then do your research—look at the price of the deck, look at it's performance record, and see what everyone else in your environment is playing.  Just because you have to play on a budget, doesn't mean your deck can't be good.

Leave your thoughts and feedback in the comment section below.