Magic is a game designed to tantalise you with the prospect of winning to entice you to spend more money. This is to some extent capped by formats which are reduced card pools allowing players to compete more cheaply because you only need to own the cards in that set, and even there, just the ones you use in your decks.
The cheapest format is called Standard Pauper. Pauper means decks built using only Common cards. Standard means decks built using only cards from recent sets. So Standard Pauper means decks built only using Common cards from the most recent sets which is about as cheap as it gets.
Another cheap way to play is using the new player system. When a new account is made your starter pack comes with 5 Event Tickets and 20 New Player Points. Event Tickets (tix) players use as the currency of the secondary card market where you will want to trade for the exact cards you need to use your decks and you also use them to enter official events where prizes can be won. (There are also player run events which generally have a low prize value but are great when new to the game). Your New Player Points allow you to enter a variety of events open only to players with these points from opening a new account. The most lucrative of these is the New to Magic Online Phantom Sealed, a scheduled event which is run in several time slots on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. In these events you will win a useful prize if you can get 2 or 3 wins from 3 games, so it's about 50/50. Opponents range from newbies who are obviously struggling to work out how to cast a spell (one poor chap pulled out a powerful creature destruction spell against me - but then proceeded to cast it on his own creature!) to obvious veterans who are brutally farming the noobs for easy tix.
Competitive Magic is very rewarding if you can be a big fish in a small pond. In this case if you can average 2.5 wins from the 4 events you have made as many tix as you would have done buying tix directly from the WotC store (10 tickets for your ten bucks new player fee). I've played 3 of these and have gone 2-1, 2-1 and 1-2. I lost a crucial match by running out of time so once I know the game a bit better hopefully I can consistently get 2-1s or better here.
The downside of farming these events is that it costs $10 plus tax to enter (that comes to $12 in the UK) and you are generating in-game assets so unless your budget is completely open you will have to move on after a while. My initial budget for MTGO is about £40 so I'll do this 4 times then assess. 4 times with 4 events per go and 3 matches per event is a lot, potentially 144 hours of playing time. Even without the prizes it's pretty cheap entertainment.
It's also crazy fun!
There are also Player Run Events which generally have threads on the WotC official forums and have postings on a very impressive Event manager website run by fans called Gatherling. Another useful site for events and news is the Pauper site, PDCMagic.com. These events are great for new players as they're free to enter. The players are pretty competent though, be prepared to get destroyed a lot while learning!
I've played one tournament so far. I actually beat my first opponent but then got trounced firmly. I did get given a few spare cards though by kind players.
So after you've farmed noobs a bit until you've hit your budget and have mentally allocated a night or two a week to regular tournaments what comes next?
The next goal is to start farming and being farmed in Constructed competition. To do this you will need a deck. Decent decks generally have two elements in common - someone else will have figured the deck out and you just steal the idea from the internet and the cards are more expensive than is typical for the format. For instance in pauper a very popular spell that hasn't released for years might be as much as $20. You can get deck ideas and valuations from sites like mtgo-stats. Currently the cheapest deck that's done well in a Pauper tournament is $7.02, so you don't need to break the bank to have a competitive deck.
It might seem tempting to get a lot of cards that seem good and try to figure out your own strategies. This is certainly a very healthy element of Magic but from an efficiency point of view now is not the time. You're at the bottom of a huge learning cliff. Your notion that a certain combo might be good has almost certainly already been thought of and tried by other people and guess what? no one's winning tournaments with that deck.
There's also a huge financial difference between copying a cheapish deck off the winner's list at MTGO-stats and aspiring to collect all useful cards so you can build and test every deck type and all their variants.
At this stage it's important to manage your learning and your development. Your free resources are basically practice games in the Just For Fun room, weekly sponsored player tournaments (PREs) where you may sometimes win prizes and your event ticket budget. Each competitive pauper match costs 2 tickets to enter and pays nothing if you lose, 1 booster (currently worth 2.45 tix from the trade bots) if you win. The amount the bots pay for boosters varies. It's currently low because the Holiday event does not take this type of booster as entry free and so demand is low but will pick back up after the event closes. With the current depressed value of prizes you would need a 61% win rate to break even (to win boosters worth as many tix as it costs you to enter events, also called "going infinite"). The going infinite win rate goes down if the value of the boosters is higher but there's a ceiling - the store sells them at $3.99. $4 is break even, a competitive match costs 2 tix (worth $1) per player and awards 1 booster to the winner so if a booster is $4 then a 50% win rate is break even. The swings and fluctuations of the Magic secondary market are fascinating and another huge learning cliff in and of itself. In fact there are players who barely actually play the game itself, just play the market, much like auctionhouse players in WoW.
OK so here's my starter strategy, for what it's worth:
- establish goals and resources. It's very important to set a budget in Magic otherwise it becomes a money pit.
- invest your real world cash into multiple accounts farming newbies in the Sealed Deck events in order to win bonus tickets. The cards you win are a nice bonus as is the extensive experience of playing in this Limited format. (Normally Sealed deck events are a really expensive way to play Magic).
- research and plan for participation in regular tournaments. I'm interested in Pauper and Standard Pauper for now. It's a mistake to play too many different formats as you need to learn a lot to even be competent at one.
- invest some tix in a competitive deck that you stole from mtgo-stats. If you like deckbuilding you can do some if you like but you won't really know what you're doing so make sure it's just pauper decks or standard pauper using cheap commons.
- practice practice practice with your deck.
- spend the rest of your tix entering Constructed pauper 1v1 matches and keep track of your win rate. If you can get over 50% consistently you may want to enter the Pauper Dailies. These events pay out more prizes per ticket but you get zilch unless you can manage 3 or 4 wins from 4 games. If you have over 50% win rates in Constructed that should be possible but it's astronomically unikely if you're under 50%.
- at this point you need to keep playing and praticing and getting better. It's quite important to not get distracted by other ways to play like Standard where you can use rares or sealed deck where you get to open boosters. I mean do it if you find it fun and want to spend the money but it has no place in an efficient cheapskate approach.
- this point may be a good time to buy and test other decks. You may find there's a deck that works better for you than the one you've been using so far.
- the pauper meta is almost immune to the release of new sets. Occasionally a card will come in that's worth including (notably Treasure Cruise in the last release), but generally the strong cards all got released years ago and WotC is careful not to introduce more powerful cards in new content.
- the profitability of playing pauper will fluctuate wildly. When a new set is released there's going to be a rush of interest and booster price will be close to $4.00. This means you can make a very good return on playing if you have over 50% win rate. In fact in the longer term leaving Magic for a while then coming back to farm when there's a new release is probably a pretty decent strategy. Sell your boosters quick as you win them.
If you become very good at pauper you can use your baseline profitmaking ability to get further into the hobby. Farm tix and use them to buy obscure commons for deck tech or use them to buy a netdecked Standard deck and then you can start over learning a new meta.
- it's never economic to play Limited unless you're astoundingly good. If you like Limited the most efficient method economically is simply to open more accounts for the newbie events.
- if you're really good at Pauper the game insidiously lures you into deeper waters. Some pauper events give you QPs (qualification points). These allow you free entry into advanced tournaments. These tournaments don't use Pauper format. So you have the choice, do I waste my points or do I need to learn the advanced formats and compete there. At this point the notion that you could become a seriously good player, going professional and earning thousands in tournaments all over the world starts to seep in.
It's all nonsense except for 0.0001% but it's very very cleverly marketed. Magic has over 12 million players, earns its owners $400 million per year and has never had a year in which it didn't grow. Most astonishingly perhaps the average player age is 9 years. Even Eve Online probably has an average player age around 2 years and games like Swtor may measure such things in months.
I digress. I think I've given enough to allow people to participate cheaply without getting sucked in to spending hundreds of dollars. If you do give it a try add me, I'm Callduron1, and read this New Player Guide.