Cheap as Chips, Ep. 1: Fun Modern Lists for Under $5

With over one zillion cards to chose from, the game of Modern Magic should be almost completely unpredictable. Every deck you face should boast a unique strategy and reveal card combinations you’ve never pondered. Sounds exciting!

Alas, reality creeps in.

The Magic online playrooms are stuffed full of net-decked lists that look and play the same. The same tier 1 and 2 decks that cost an arm and a leg, over and over again. I sometimes get bored of that. I don’t begrudge people for wanting to win, and there are only a few archetypes in Modern that will reliably pile up victories. But I aspire to a higher calling. Maybe it’s a fresh take on an old mechanic, a unique twist on an established archetype, or playing a card with a really cool name and great art.

Also, I’m cheap. Really cheap. How cheap you ask? How about three tickets to build a deck that can crush people’s dreams and spit on their world-view? No? Well I’m up for scaling that mountain even if I slip and fall two steps from the peak. My mommy told me to dream big.

Ergo, this series will highlight the mental and financial health benefits of uber-budget brewing for Modern Magic.

Can you brew a competitive deck for under five tickets? Yes you can! Can you win tournaments and make the Pro tour with a five-ticket deck? No you can’t! But as long as you manage your expectations, you may find that brewing and playing your sub-five-ticket deck will unlock the childlike fun and wonder that Magic the Gathering is intended to generate.

First, let’s set some expectation-managed goals.

We are not trying to make the Pro tour here. So what are we trying to accomplish?

1) Win over half our games.
2) Be competitive in the half we don’t win.
3) Rarely suffer ‘blow-out’ losses.

If ‘winning half’ sounds like ‘losing’ to you, I can understand that. But as the great military strategist Sun-Tzu once wrote, if you win 50.5% of your battles, you will eventually win the war.

Ok, I made that up.

So why would we actually play such mediocre lists?

Let’s use a French word:

Raisons d’être:
1) Save more money for your education, or your children’s education.
2) Have fun, be social, enjoy the game and the Magic Online community (no really).
3) David vs Goliath. Joe vs the Volcano. The Alimo. Any of my decks vs Splinter Twin. Write your own chapter in the ongoing saga of the hero’s journey.
4) Be original, unique and special. Again, think of what your mother would want.

Point two above is not a joke. If you play an original list, your opponents may actually say more to you than just ‘hi, gl’. They may say ‘cool deck’ and start an actual human-to-human interaction with fully spelled-out words. In this era of bots, Siri, and pre-recorded messages, I feel any human contact is to be treasured and promoted. If you disagree, play Jund.

So, how are we going to build decks for under five tickets?

You should, to be sure, ask a Magic expert. But here’s what I would say:

1) ‘Win more‘ – Troy Drinkard has already told the MagicGatheringStrat faithful how to win, and his articles top my recommended reading list, right after James C. Scott’s Weapons of the Weak. In a nutshell – play small, fast creatures that can grow. This is obviously a budget friendly approach as well. There are lots of good weenie options out there.

2) Tribal – The fastest, easiest, cheapest (but least creative) way to build a budget deck is to stick to a tribal theme (elves, goblins, zombies, soldiers, faeries, etc). The built-in synergy of a tribe makes this easy and solid – although a really good elves or goblins deck is still an expensive proposition. My advice: the Lorwyn block had the best built-in tribal decks in budget Magicland. Cheap to build and fun to play. Not super powerful but a good place to start and they can get new players thinking about interactions not based on a tribe. Experienced players don’t really need the help a tribal theme offers. You all know how to advanced search your way to cool interactions among unrelated cards.

3) Pick a theme – Your deck, even if not tribal, should have a secondary theme beyond the ‘win more with weenies’ approach. Whether it’s gaining life, ramping mana, drawing extra cards – whatever synergizes best with your creature base. But be consistent, because it’s hard to build a life-gaining, poison-infecting discard deck. Pick a theme, not three. My advice – forcing discards and disrupting your opponent’s hand is easy to do on a budget, and if combined with a decent weenie attack it can win you games you would otherwise lose. Go ahead and put your opponent’s expensive cards straight into their graveyard or out of the game, it’s fun! They key part here, please make note, is that you already have a weenie attack going.

4) Counterspells – Always a powerful choice, and countering your opponent’s juiciest cards is a great budget-friendly way to stay in a game. The very best counters are expensive, but lots of good budget options exist. Mana Leak and Dispel are the industry standards, but there are others that offer interesting additional benefits at no extra cost – I’m thinking of Soul Manipulation, Hindering Light, Render Silent, Trickbind… there’s quite a few counter spells that support particular gameplans. Search them out.

5) Strippers – Eh, strippers you say? Yes, and by this I mean extreme hand disruption cards that pull an entire playset out of your opponent’s Fortune-500 deck. Extirpate, Quash, Earwig Squad, Memoricide, Shimian Specter and Slaughter Games are all budget-friendly cards that offer lots of combo-destroying potential. They are typically slow to enact, however, so they fall mainly into the sideboard category. Even then you don’t just throw them into a deck blindly. Integrate them into a coherent plan. My experience with Earwig Squad has been nothing short of dreamy. Loads of people (rage) quit when on turn three you take a crucial combo piece or remove 3x Liliana of the Veil and then Mana Leak the fourth the next turn. It’s a great feeling to know you’ve ruined someone’s day.

6) Removal – I’m always searching for a quicker picker-upper. Should you pack loads of kill spells? No, this is probably not the best approach for most budget decks. Lots of the top decks in Modern can protect or recur their creatures, so piling on the budget Doom Blades and Murderous Cuts is perhaps not the best choice in most cases. It’s a one-for-one that will end in favour of the more powerful deck. But the right sweeper can keep a budget deck going the one or two extra turns needed to end a game. My advice… I can’t tell you. That would be killing the goose to feed the gander.

Now, let’s get started!

For my first trick, I will wave my Magic brewing wand and… Poof! Presto! Shazam! A 4-ticket tribal list that hits fast, disrupts what it doesn’t counter and strips anything that’s still left, before it wipes the deck with the quickest picker-upper of them all! I’m sure you’re dying to know what it is.

So check back soon for the first Cheap-as-Chips deck tech (and hopefully some gameplay videos).