It’s been a long and grueling ten weeks, but we’ve finally reached the end of our journey. Don’t get me wrong; the road was riddled with as many high notes as low, but our little project has now come to an end. I’ve learned much about myself as a Magic: the Gathering player in the process and got some unique insight on what it’s like to be constrained by a budget, which I may not have been privy to should I have never started Game Day Grinder in the first place.
I can rest on my laurels now that everything’s said and done, with fond memories of my undefeated record and Game Day victory.
Some of you have been with me every step of the way, while others may be reading this article series for the first time. For those just joining us, let’s start off with a quick summary of the Game Day Grinder project and what I had hoped to learn these past two and a half months.
I. What is “Game Day Grinder”?
Game Day Grinder is loosely based on Jonathan Medina’s “FNM Hero” concept from 2012. In his article series, Jonathan gave himself a budget of $100 and played in weekly FNM events, updating his deck list through trades and any store credit he would win from tournaments. He wanted to see if he could “go infinite” with a limited budget. His definition of “going infinite” was being able to build a Tier 1 Standard deck with $200 left over (doubling his initial investment) to keep grinding with.
I wanted to do something similar, but with a slightly different focus. While Jonathan set out to prove that it was possible to “play with the big boys” while also gaining a long-term profit, I wanted to focus on the overall experience of budget limitations and how it would affect my outlook on the game and the people playing the events around me.
Game Day Grinder focuses more on the player experience rather than hard facts and financial statistics. My goal was to test whether it was possible to change my mindset and approach to playing Magic and seeing if I would think any differently at the end of the series. I’m a big proponent of “putting ourselves in other peoples’ shoes”, as empathy can go a long way in life. While the conclusions drawn from my results are somewhat subjective, I hope that you can still learn something from the project.
If you’ve yet to read the past Game Day Grinder articles, I urge you to do so before continuing.
A link can be found here.
If you’re already up to speed, then let’s start by taking a look at three important concepts: the financial aspect of “Game Day Grinder”, our quest to find a budget deck that could compete at local events, and a self-evaluation of how my mentality and outlook has changed since the article series ended.
II. Money, Money, Money – Why Numbers Matter
Magic: the Gathering, the game we all know and love, cannot be said to be an inexpensive hobby. Playing constructed formats such as Standard, Modern, Legacy, or even Vintage can leave a gaping hole in one’s pocket, especially since the metagames are ever-changing and require players to keep buying, trading, and collecting in order to stay relevant and competitive. The argument can be made for enjoyment and personal fulfilment from playing casual or kitchen table Magic without having to spend boatloads of cash, but even then, certain cards can be out of reach.
Do you like the artwork and effects of cards such as Vigor, Avacyn, Angel of Hope, and Wheel of Fortune? With Magic’s popularity and player base growing at a steady rate, with older cards seldom reprinted or made readily available, and with the surge of popularity of Commander and personal Cubes as casual formats played at home, even cards that see little to no play in sanctioned, competitive formats can leave a casual player wanting.
For those with limited spending cash, it can be hard to play competitive Magic and still have fun in the process. Winning isn’t everything, but it’s a terrible feeling to lose time and time again, not due to a lack of skill or ingenuity, but because the reasonably priced cards you’re playing are grossly outmatched by the expensive staples of the format.
Since I had never really been concerned with budgeting when it came to playing Magic, I felt as though it would be an enlightening experience to impose a weekly budget on myself and see how difficult it would be to play competitively. After doing some quick calculations based off of an estimated budget for someone working full-time at a minimum-wage job, I decided that a budget of $10 a week was a reasonable amount. Half of that budget would be spent building and tweaking my deck, and the other half would cover any tournament entry fees. I decided to play Standard rather than Modern and Legacy, since it would be nigh impossible for someone to start playing Modern or an Eternal format whilst constrained by a budget and with no previous collection to work off of.
So, how did I fare? Let’s take a look at some numbers.
Initial Investment (Intro Pack, Binder, Deck Box, Sleeves): $33.50
Game Day Event Entry Fees: $10
Weekly Tournament Entry Fees: $50
Weekly Budget Allowances: $50
Total Expenditures: $143.50
I had built both a small collection and a somewhat competitive deck by spending approximately $145 within ten weeks. I had also purchased some essential accessories such as a binder to protect my cards, and a deck box and sleeves to house my deck. I had stuck to my budget and paid the necessary entry fees for a dozen local tournaments, winning booster packs at various stages which helped grow my collection.
In the end, the total market value of the cards in my deck and collection was slightly above the $145 I had invested. This means that, although selling the cards back to a store or large retailer wouldn’t get me the full cash value back (as they only purchase cards at a percentage of their market price), my collection was worth more than my initial investment considering the secondary market price for cards. Not only that, but I had also participated in many events in the process, spending time playing my favorite game and continuing to be involved with my favorite hobby. All in all, I was extremely pleased with my financial position at the end of the project. This is an especially important feeling (the feeling of being ahead financially) for those with budget restrictions and who are looking to reinvest, grow their collection, and branch out to different formats.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to make accurate generalizations based off of such a small subset of data, as luck and skill played a large part in the process. My skill and ability to win games throughout the experiment led to me winning more booster packs, which upped my chances at opening valuable cards. For some players constrained by a budget, winning more booster packs and opening more valuable cards is a definite possibility; for others, it might not be as easy.
Although everyone’s journey may be different, I had done more than break even in my investments, proving that, for some, financial stability is possible, even when constrained by a budget and trying to play competitively.
III. Playing Competitively on a Budget – Is Winning Difficult?
Everyone learned to play Magic: the Gathering at a different point in their lives, everyone’s skill level and skill set is slightly different, and everyone has been playing for a different amount of time. Players also prioritize different things and get enjoyment out of the game in different ways. Some players love winning no matter what deck they play; as long as they’ve won the match and tasted victory, it doesn’t matter how they achieved the win. Other players enjoy winning in different ways. They might not mind losing so much, as long as they sometimes get to win while playing their favorite strategy, be it beating down with huge monsters, slinging burn spells at an opponent, playing an intricate combo, or taking complete control over a game. There are even some players who don’t care at all about whether they win or lose, as long as they’re having fun in the process, be it by interacting with others and socializing, or just playing the coolest looking or most flavorful cards.
Everyone is different, and I urge players to pursue what makes them happiest.
Are you a player who wants to win, no matter what deck you’re playing? Who cares if others complain that you’re constantly net decking or playing the most streamlined, competitive deck available at the time? As long as you’re getting enjoyment from winning matches, that’s what matters.
Interested in winning with a deck built around a pet card of yours that doesn’t see much play? Go for it! If anyone puts you down for playing cards that they think are underwhelming, just ignore the haters and build the coolest version of that deck that you can.
Want to make an entire singleton deck based around a weird, unique concept and bring it to your local FNM event? Spend every waking moment crafting a ridiculous, nutty deck that just oozes flavor and find others who appreciate your ingenuity. Maybe you’ll even tickle someone else’s fancy by playing that five-color deck with one copy of each God in the pantheon!
Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy doing what makes you happiest whilst constrained by a budget. You may want to play the deck that makes you happiest, but some cards may be out of your price range. That was one of the first things I learned during the Magic 2015 Game Day event, when I picked up an Intro Pack and started my experiment. My goal was to win as many games as possible while playing a deck archetype that I enjoyed, but it wasn’t as easy as it was when I had access to every card in the format.
Let’s take a look at how my Game Day Grinder deck changed throughout the last two and a half months.
Aside from picking the most interesting M15 Intro Pack on the market, I didn’t have much flexibility when I first begun my quest to be crowned Game Day Champion. I swiped a Green/White token deck from the shelf, cracked the two M15 booster packs that came with it, and made some very minor tweaks before playing in my first event. I put my faith in the hands of the Wizards of the Coast employees who crafted the M15 Intro Packs.
My journey began with the “Will of the Masses” Intro Deck.
Deck Snapshot – Magic 2015 Game Day Event [First Deck Iteration]
By the sixth week, I had crafted a solid Green/White aggro deck that was putting up decent results. Luckily, Green/White decks had fallen out of favor and many of the Return to Ravnica block staples would soon be rotating, so I was able to grab many of the cards at a reasonable price. This allowed me to snag some wins with an average deck and grow my collection.
The only problem? I had the Standard rotation to worry about.
Deck Snapshot – Weekly Standard Event #6 [Last Tournament Pre-Rotation]
The looming Standard rotation was a thorn in my side. Not only were many of the most powerful cards in my deck rotating out of Standard, but there weren’t enough good Green and White cards (which were within the price range of my measly budget) in Khans of Tarkir to warrant crafting another midrange or aggro deck in those colors, forcing me to prematurely retire my copies of Soldier of the Pantheon, Fleecemane Lion, and Boon Satyr.
Luckily, I had stumbled upon another reasonably-priced alternative that had a lot of potential. I had been collecting the staples weeks in advance, and I quickly built a Blue/White Heroic deck which I hoped would help me clinch a Game Day championship title.
Deck Snapshot – Weekly Standard Event #7 [First Tourament Post-Rotation]
After several successful weeks playing my Blue/White Heroic deck, I got lucky enough with the contents of my booster packs that I was able to afford some of the pricier cards, such as a copy of Brimaz and a playset of Temple of Enlightenment. I had also stumbled upon one of the best two-drops from the new set. With a full set of Seeker of the Way finding a home in my Heroic deck, I was able to fight my way through many skilled opponents and win Khans of Tarkir Game Day.
Deck Snapshot – Khans of Tarkir Game Day Event [Final Deck Iteration]
Playing competitively on a budget is difficult, and it wasn’t always easy putting up a winning record at our local events. However, in the end, I think I did pretty well for myself:
Magic 2015 Game Day Event ~ Record: 2-2
Weekly Standard Event #1 ~ Record: 2-2
Weekly Standard Event #2 ~ Record: 3-1
Weekly Standard Event #3 ~ Record: 2-2
Weekly Standard Event #4 ~ Record: 0-3 (ONE ROUND BYE)
Weekly Standard Event #5 ~ Record: 3-1
Weekly Standard Event #6 ~ Record: 1-2 (ONE ROUND BYE)
Weekly Standard Event #7 ~ Record: 3-1
Weekly Standard Event #8 ~ Record: 2-2
Weekly Standard Event #9 ~ Record: 3-1
Weekly Standard Event #10 ~ Record: 4-0
Khans of Tarkir Game Day Event ~ Record: 6-1-1
Overall Record: 31-18-1 (Win Precentage: 63.27%)
Not too shabby for a player on a tight budget, right? Not only did I manage an undefeated record at one of our Friday night Magic events and been crowned Game Day Champion, but I had an overall win percentage of 63%!
IV. The Road Less Traveled By – My Unique Experiences and What I Learned Playing on a Budget
To preface, the following conclusions and results are solely based on my personal experiences from the past two and a half months of playing competitively on a budget. For more accurate results and more relevant data, I would have likely had to continue the project for much longer, also trying my hand at playing competitively in Modern, Legacy, and multiple Limited tournaments (both Sealed and Draft) in order to obtain more relevant information and to compare experiences and results spanning multiple formats.
While I may continue the project at a future date, for now, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with the findings and results from the past ten weeks in a competitive Standard environment.
i) How much did budget restrictions affect my competitive edge?
It’s tough to tell how well I would have done if I were to have had access to any Tier 1 deck in the Standard format, as luck and variance also play a role in a player’s win percentage. However, taking into consideration my skill level and comfort with the format compared to the average FNM player, I sincerely believe that my average results at a four round tournament would consistently remain 3-1 throughout the ten week period.
Actual Record (10 FNM events – with budget): 23-15 [60.53%] Projected Record (10 FNM events – no budget): 30-10 [75.00%]
Although I may not have won either Game Day event, even if I were armed with a tier 1 deck of my choosing, I would have surely more consistently won booster packs throughout the ten week period. With more booster packs to open, and without a need to trade the contents of said packs for specific cards to build a deck, I would have been able to amass a collection of higher market value than what I had actually obtained.
Although my overall win percentage may have been higher without budget constraints, there were some positive aspects to the self-imposed restrictions. Having to stick to a budget not only bred creativity, but also forced me to think and plan further ahead than I would have without budget constraints. Having to constantly worry about finding undervalued and underplayed cards or deck archetypes to fight the Standard metagame actually gave me an edge, not to mention the upper hand gained by my opponent’s being unfamiliar with the matchup.
All in all, I am extremely pleased with my results. I managed to obtain an undefeated 4-0 record at one of the FNM events and miraculously won Khans of Tarkir Game Day. Although other players’ results would likely differ from mine if they attempted the same experiment (due to luck, variance, a different local metagame, and a different personal skill level), I managed to prove that it’s possible to play competitively, and still put up commendable results, whilst constrained by a budget.
ii) Mental and Physical Fatigue
Although it’s possible to do well at a competitive level whilst constrained by a budget, I believe that it takes a lot more time, effort, and energy to do so than would normally be the case if budgeting wasn’t an issue.
From here on out, I will be referring to the “average player” as an individual who enjoys playing competitively, who has access to a reasonable amount of cards and decks, and who is not playing at a professional level requiring weeks of deck building and testing for high level events.
The mental and physical fatigue I experienced while completing this project was like none other I had felt before. Granted, having to take detailed notes of each match and writing a weekly article added a new level of stress that wouldn’t be an issue for most other players, but fatigue would have been more of an issue even if those factors were removed from the equation.
Without worry of proper deck choices or budget card options, the average player can settle on a competitive deck, build it from cards from their collection or trading/purchasing them from a store, and have a relatively painless experience piloting the deck at a local tournament. Playing with a budget deck is drastically different, especially if you’re trying your hardest to put up good results. I must have spent double the amount of time thinking about matchups and card inclusions in order to gain even the slightest edge from having the handicap imposed by budget restrictions, and the level of concentration and mental effort put into all of my games left me exhausted by the end of the day.
I’ve concluded that I could have put up similar results to that of the past ten weeks with little to no effort should I have had access to Tier 1 Standard decks or any of the more valuable cards that would have been at my disposal. I also believe that being so invested in each and every match and being as mentally prepared as possible was somewhat of a double-edged sword. In most early matches, the level of concentration and mental energy I had was a blessing; I was more alert and playing more skillfully. However, I was mentally and physically drained by the end of the tournament, which affected my performance more often than not.
For a player who’s not used to putting in so much effort in producing good match results, I was miserable having to go home with muscles aching and head pounding. I would have had more fun without the stress of having to do well and without draining myself of all energy if I had access to a more competitive deck.
iii) Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover
By the end of the ten-week period, I had built a solid deck that was able to compete with other Tier 1 decks in the Standard format, and people knew that I was a force to be reckoned with whilst piloting my Blue/White Heroic build. The respect from fellow Standard players was not easy to obtain, and was practically non-existent towards the beginning of the project.
Within the first couple of weeks, I knew how it felt to be looked down upon. I knew that I was a skilled player that deserved to be treated with a certain level of amicability and respect from my peers, but I wasn’t being taken seriously. Each time that I would play a card from the Intro Deck that would never have otherwise been played in a competitive setting, I could feel my opponent’s pre-emptively gloating about their easy match win. What’s worse is that I knew that some players who lost to me due to bad luck or getting mana flooded had probably complained to their friends about losing to a “newbie deck” and whining about how unfair their luck had been.
Truthfully, even though I was stuck playing a budget deck myself, even I was looking down on other players who had underwhelming cards towards the beginning of the experiment. It took me a while to realize that someone’s skill level and love for the game is not necessarily dictated by the cards they play. I was constrained by a budget and nothing could be done to change the situation.
Please remember that some players may not have the luxury of playing with the best cards or the best deck. Don’t look down on others for playing underwhelming cards or having unorthodox deck inclusions, because sometimes these things can’t be helped. Try to take all of your opponents seriously, no matter what deck they’re playing, and try not to complain so much about getting unlucky or losing to a crappy deck, as it sometimes feels belittling to the player sitting across from you. No one should feel shunned from the Magic community, regardless of their financial situation. Just play Magic and, win or lose, good cards or bad, just have some fun. At the end of the day, that’s what matters most.
iv) Trading Sucks
My trading experience throughout the past two and a half months was miserable. Personally, trading has always been too much effort for what its worth. With market prices and other card details readily available, it’s easy to stay protected. However, it feels as though, for most players, trading has become a means to an end; it’s become a way to try to gain value rather than acquire cool new cards for a new deck or for a personal collection. Everyone wants to make sure they’re not being sharked, squeezing every penny out of a trade, or to be the shark themselves.
Gone are the days when a player will trade their cool looking dragon for an even cooler looking angel, regardless of price. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as this prevents those players who actively search for suckers to screw over those with less inherent knowledge about secondary market prices, but it also means that the fun of trading is dying. Now, everyone is constantly on their phones compiling prices and doing lightning fast calculations in order for trades to be as equal as possible. This complicates things even more when you get players in the mix who are picky about what they want and refuse to add or remove cards from an ongoing trade because they’re inflexible.
That’s how I felt when trading. Most players just wanted to unload their undervalued rares, which was helpful towards the beginning, but got annoying really fast. Towards the end of the project, I just started trading my cards to the store for lower amounts because it was way easier to unload them than to have to deal with stingy traders.
For people like me, who are lazy when it comes to trading or who don’t want to have to deal with potentially annoying traders, it’s probably just better to sell/trade cards to a store or offer them up on a site like PucaTrade to make things easier.
If you’re part of the slowly dying breed of players who loves trading, then more power to you! It’s a jungle out there.
v) Final Thoughts
I feel as though I learned a lot throughout this entire experience, and am grateful for my shift in perspective and mentality. I now have a fresh, new way of approaching deck building in tackling a constructed metagame, and realize how important it is to stay positive and enjoy yourself while playing mentally taxing games of Magic. I also have a newfound respect for the players who are limited by a budget, but still choose to play in some of the most cutthroat and competitive local tournaments around, even if they’re disadvantaged, rather than sticking to a more casual format.
Would I play Standard again if the same budget was imposed?
Definitely not. Although I did very well and proved that being competitive whilst constrained by a budget was possible, it was way too taxing. If ever I had to budget again in the future, I would either use my disposable income to invest in more casual formats such as Commander or Cube, or draft each week instead. That way, I can enjoy myself more and be less stressed about gaining incremental advantages due to very specific card choices, and I’ll no longer have to worry about Standard rotation or my cards losing value.
What would have happened if I had never attained that 4-0 record at an FNM event? What if I had never won Game Day? Would I still feel the same way?
Absolutely. All the lessons I learned would still apply, and I would have been even more certain that my money could have been better invested in a casual or limited format and making it more fun for me in the long run.
V. U/W Heroic – “I Wanna Try!”
Want to try out Blue/White Heroic at your next Friday Night Magic event?
Use these deck lists as a basis and feel free to make changes if you want to try out new cards!
U/W Heroic – Budget Version
U/W Heroic – Non-Budget Version
VI. Last Remarks
Once again, I want to thank all of you for following my journey and giving me so much love and support. I couldn’t have written this weekly article series without your words of encouragement!
Good luck in all of your Magic endeavors and remember to have fun in the process!