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Posted by on Apr 27, 2011 in Articles | 12 comments
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How to Play MTGO While Being a Cheapskate

How to Play MTGO While Being a Cheapskate

For this week’s article I had originally planned on writing an update to my Scars of Mirrodin Block metagame article from a few months back, but it appears that I’ve been scooped.

I guess I’ll have to seek out another Magic Online-only format no one else is writing about…Classic Singleton, here we come!

Ok maybe not.  Instead I’ll focus a bit on Magic: the Gathering Online (MTGO) Economics a.k.a. how to be a cheapskate and still play on MTGO.

The only reason I got into Magic Online is because I got laid off at my job, suddenly had a lot more time on my hands and I wanted to fill that time with Magic cards.  I started with drafting Rise of the Eldrazi because it looked like an awesome good time when Luis-Scott Vargas and pals over at Channel Fireball were doing it.  Sadly, because I am not LSV, the cost of drafting became quickly unsustainable.  The ticket value of most cards on Magic Online is very low, so selling your draft picks will only earn you about 1-2 tickets on average, and unless you can maintain an average winning of 3 booster packs per draft (i.e. making the finals of an 8-4 or 4-3-2-2, or winning a Swiss Draft), you will have to purchase more booster packs to draft with; money straight out of your own pocket.

After some googling on how to escape the cash crunch problem (I was unemployed after all), I discovered the concept of going “infinite,” which means being in a position where you are able to pay for the cost of playing on Magic Online (entry fees into events, purchase of cards, etc.) with the money (or “tickets,” as the currency is called on MTGO) you’ve earned from playing in and doing well in Magic Online events.  The experts will tell you that the best way to go infinite is to play a constructed format, and to play in the largest tournaments you can.

Getting Started

The problem with constructed Magic is that you need a deck.  In order to build a deck, you need cards.  If you’ve got super cool buddies with tons of cards online, you might be able to borrow a deck, otherwise you’ve got to get a hold of them yourself and again that means an upfront investment.  To use the example of SoM Block Constructed: Inkmoth Nexus is run as a 4-of in almost every deck in the format (manlands are good, who knew?) and they cost about 9 tickets each.  The most popular deck in the format, Tempered Steel Aggro, costs around 125 tickets for the mythics and rares.

After my own first forays into Magic Online, I had only managed to draft a few crummy rares like Awakening Zone and Student of Warfare, and thus I had only a couple of tickets to rub together.  Luckily for me, this was during the “Pack to Power” craze initiated by Jonathan “I Prefer Jonny” Medina’s article series.  Another writer on the website MTGO Academy had started his own “Pack to Power” –esque quest with an article series entitled ”Rags to Riches,” which was specific to MTGO.  Reading that article series introduced me to the money-making opportunities available on MTGO, the simplest being arbitrage.  Arbitrage is defined as “the practice of taking advantage of a price difference between two or more markets,” and has the exciting possibility of “risk-free profit at zero cost.” In the case of MTGO, the two or more markets are humans and bots.  Bots are trading accounts run by sophisticated automated scripts (programmed in scripting languages like AutoIT) that buy and sell cards to generate profit for an individual or company.

If you’ve ever looked at the Classifieds on Magic Online, you will quickly discover that it is a train wreck.  It is honestly amazing that any form of commerce is capable through the Magic Online interface.  Thanks to the unwieldy interface, and the fact that there is no such thing as a fraction of a ticket, the market for magic online cards is inefficient.  Many price gaps exist for patient individuals like you and I to exploit.

Here’s how you do it!

01 – Find a Human or bot buying a card at a certain price.

02 – Find a Human or bot selling that card at a lower price than in step 1.

03 – Buy the card from Mr. 2, and Sell it to Mr. 1.

04 – Profit!

I didn’t even need the classic comedic “???” for Step 3!

Step 1 is the easy part.  There are tons and tons of Bots and Humans with buy ads in the classifieds.  My personal favourite (and soon to be yours) is the bot chain ran by www.supernovabots.com.  The reason they are my favourite is that the fine purveyor of SupernovaBots has decided to step outside the shackles of the MTGO interface and has instead posted his bot’s full Buy and Sell prices and card inventory online, updated every 15 minutes.  Selling a card to a bot is usually not the best way to maximize your profit, as bots typically have a lower buy price than the market value of a card (they’re in it to make money too!).  However this is offset by the fact that with a bot you can identify a (mostly) guaranteed market for a card before you’ve bought it from someone else at a lower price for resale; that “risk-free profit” part I was talking about earlier.

Step 2 is where the work comes in.  I approached it in two ways.

First, I constantly scanned up and down the classifieds looking for [SELL] ads made by actual human players.  The Classifieds on Magic Online continually refresh and are posted in Alphabetical order by player name.  Bot owners typically throw a bunch of underscores and apostrophes at the start of their account names in an attempt to get their bot near the top of the list, thus you can scroll past a bunch at once and speed things up.  The reason I mostly ignore bots for Step 2 is because most of them sell cards at higher than market value, again to make money.  Actual human players made up 99% of the supply of cards I bought for arbitrage purposes.

The second way I approach step 2 is to create a classified ad of my own.  I had most success making an ad offering to buy cards at a price rounded down from the buy price of a known bot.  For instance at the time of writing (and sure to change by the time you read this), SuperNovaBots.com is offering to buy Thrun, the Last Troll for 5.6 Tickets.  I would make an advertisement offering to buy Thrun for 5 tickets, and then sell any I purchased to one of the SuperNovaBots for that sweet sweet 0.6 of a ticket.  As I mentioned before, there is no such thing as a fraction of a ticket within Magic Online, but what most bot networks will do is remember your account name when you do business with them, and keep a record of fractions of a ticket that they were unable to pay you.  Once you’ve got enough fractions together to make a full ticket, you just grab one from them in a trade and clear out your “account”.  I used Microsoft Excel to parse the buy lists and create an ad for myself containing cards I could get at least half a ticket of profit off of while rounding down.

Now I’m not going to lie, this is a pretty slow and boring way to make tickets.  But at the same time, it costs nothing but time.  You would probably be better served by working an hour at McDonald or out on the street panhandling and using that money to buy your online cards, or better yet programming your own bot, but this is a way you can do it without leaving your chair and it won’t take you too long to get to a high enough ticket total where you can build a constructed deck and have enough left over to pay for entry fees.  I personally made 84 tickets using these methods, a good chunk of that during SoM’s pre-release (lots of impatient sellers, eager to accrue enough tickets to jump into the next sealed queue).  The author of Goinginfinite.com used similar methods to raise 75 tickets, enough to build a budget SoM Block deck and start running tournaments.

Playing in Tournaments and Earning Money

So, I’ve covered how to raise money to buy a deck.  If you’re not as frugal as me, you probably skipped the last section and sprang for the deck with the best win % in the format you’re interested in (which deck that is in SoM Block will be the subject of my next article).

If you’ve been reading articles like this, you’ve probably encountered the concept of EV, or Expected Value.  It’s fairly easy to determine the EV of Magic Online tournaments, as the tournament entry fees and payouts (in Booster Packs) are all available online at www.mtgonline.com and by clicking the tournament’s description while in MTGO.

Since tournaments pay out in the form of booster packs, the EV in tickets of a particular tournament hinges on the market value of a booster pack.  Since booster packs can be purchased from the magic online store for $3.99 an individual might make the assumption that that is their market value.  Unfortunately it’s not that simple, since the MTGO Store is a one-way street, they do not buy packs.  The market value is dictated by the price people are willing to buy packs at.  If I look at SuperNovaBots’ buy price for an MBS Booster, its currently 3.08 tickets, to give you an idea.

You can calculate a tournament’s EV by dividing the average prize payout by its entry fee.  For example in an 8-4 Booster draft, 1 person wins 8 Boosters, 1 person wins 4 Boosters, and 6 people walk away with squat.  The average prize payout is 1.5 Packs (12 divided by 8, Not including the value of cards you’ve drafted, which is likely quite low), and the entry fee is 3 Boosters plus 2 Tickets.  Not great E.V.

After the initial investment of a deck, constructed tournaments have higher EVs than limited tournaments because there is no product required to enter.  The EV of a constructed Daily Event can be calculated in this way.  Daily Events are 4 Rounds.  Assuming equal probability of losing or winning each round (a.k.a. a 50% win percentage), there are 16 equally possible outcomes for you once you join the tournament.  Lose all 4 Rounds, Win the 4th Round Only, Win the 3rd Round Only, Win the 3rd and 4th Rounds Only, etc. and so on.  4 out of your 16 possible outcomes involve winning 3 rounds and a corresponding 6 Booster Packs, and 1 out of the 16 possible outcomes involves winning 4 rounds and a corresponding 11 Booster Packs.  4 Times 6 (24) plus 1 times 11 (11) is 35.  Divide 35 by 16 and you get 2.1875.  So the average prize payout of a Daily Event is 2.1875 packs, and the entry fee is 6 Tickets.

As long as the price of a booster pack is greater than 2.74 tickets (which it almost always is) you are actually expected to earn money in a constructed daily event over the long run assuming you can maintain a 50% win percentage or higher.

Enough with all the hypotheticals, how about a real life example!  To give you some context I am a decent to mediocre Magic tournament player.  I have a constructed DCI rating in the 1800s.  I am not crazy good at Magic in any way shape or form.  Like any aspiring magic online grinder, I recorded my wins and losses in pay-to-play Magic Online tournaments so I could see whether or not I was gaining or losing money.

Because I was nervous at the prospect of slapping down 6 tickets for a Daily Event, I started in SoM Block Constructed 2-Man queues.  They have the simplest E.V. of all to calculate.  2 Tickets gives you a 50% chance at earning 1 Booster Pack.  Thus 2-Man Queues actually have a negative E.V. as long as the prize payout booster packs have a market value of less than 4 tickets (Which they almost always do).  If we use the figure of 3.08 Tickets for a Booster, you have to have a win % of 2 divided by 3.08 or 65% to break even.  Eeep! Luckily when I was running 2-Man queues the price of a booster was a bit higher, around 3.66 tickets, so the demands on my skill level were less high.

I played 75 matches in the SoM Block 2-Man queues with a variety of Decks.  I won 44 Matches, and lost 31, for a dazzling 58.67% win percentage.  As mentioned, at the time the price of a Scars of Mirrodin Booster was about 3.66 Tickets, thus I made a profit of 11.04 tickets, or at about a rate of 0.15 tickets per match. 11 tickets in profit! Finally playing Magic and actually having fun!

But as mentioned, the larger event the better, as the EV increases the larger the event you are in. They obviously come with a bigger upfront investment in entry fee and time to finish the tournament, but it’s not all bad.

I played in 14 SoM Block Constructed Daily Events.  I got a prize split in 3 of them (When two 3-0 opponents agree to a prize split ,they each get 8 boosters and ~2 Tickets), a 3-1 in 2 of them, and X-2 in 9 of them.  Again using a booster price of about 3.66, I ended up earning 53.76 Tickets in pure profit!  Playing Magic!  My match win percentage in daily events actually dipped to 55.56%, but that was still enough to generate a rate of profit of around 3.84 tickets per daily event.

Again that’s only about 4 bucks earned for about 3 hours’ work, absolutely pitiful from a pure income perspective, but that’s not the point of playing in these MTGO tournaments.  The goal is to just be able to have fun playing magic, while at the same time being able to support your hobby.

If I can do it, so can you! So get out there and start grinding!

  • crlachlan

    Do want: an Excel template for your arbitrage scheme.

  • http://twitter.com/TankofJank TankofJank

    ^^^^^Second that^^^^^
    This article really made me want to get back into MODO! Really enjoyed it. :-D

  • http://60cards.com Smi77y

    Had to comment that this is a fantastic article for those on a budget. I’m an avid MTGO grinder, and although I don’t penny pinch for tickets/cards I must say this is spot on for how you want to get ahead if the wallet is light. It will also up your game a lot from the amount of Magic you are playing against generally good competition and not your Joe shmo kitchen table friends.

  • Grinder

    Sick article :P Now make one on how to profit or: How Play 4 Constructed matches at the same time and make people tilt because I win with 0.01 on the clock : P

  • Jangles

    I have been looking into playing MTGO but was worried I would have to spend a lot. I will really consider joining up now.

  • TJ

    I just started MTGO last night, and was also worried about the $$$ since I’ve already gotten in trouble for the $$$ I spend on paper cards. I quickly noticed how I could manipulate the market (one of my favorite things to do in the AH on WoW) when I sold 3 of my cards from my initial booster pack for 9 tickets. I was then able to use those 9 to build a pretty solid Myr Deck, I’m going to start implementing these suggestions this evening and see how things go.

    Really well written and informative.

  • me

    I finally found an article that linked my knowledge of stock trading to MTGO. TY

  • Tdawg

    Would you mind sharing your spreadsheet? :)

  • martinscabbin

    Game for the rich or those with too much time on their hands – sad.

  • wwrkwrd

    I found another cheap way to play magic online. Find a set which one wants to play constructed. Look all commons and some not so much expensive rares, uncommons. Build a deck for some 10 tickets (my first deck was about 4-5 tix) and enjoy it in casual room where there is no playing fees, no need to buy anything. When it’s get boring sell old deck and build new one. This way somebody who do not want to pay a lot can enjoy game fully for very little money at all. Plus, one does not need to net-deck, and in casual room most people are just like that playing their own decks they build ourselves, which might be even more interesting than playing other people built expensive decks from tournaments.

  • b1nary0mega

    Hi Sean, Would you mind sharing your spreadsheet? Seems pretty great and I’d love to be able to use it to keep track of my wins/losses as well.
     
    Thanks,
    James

  • Alex Drennen

    wow mate hope you got a new job cos that is actually pretty fuckin impressive and so with any luck that brain of yours could make you bundles. however, it does seem a lot of work. i am getting into magic cus of health issues and i don’t want it to be too much of a headache. personally i have always been put off by the plutocracy of constructed, and don’t want to have to slap down a shitload for decks, when i could just pay a few bucks a time and play limited. and like the level playing field of limited, so i am thinking of doing mtgo and fnm limited for fun. i have only really done dotp so im not sure what im getting myself into or what im talking about lol, but to me playing limited and then hopefully selling any prizes for tickets sounds reasonable. i will probably stop mtgo when i move back to manchester as i could then play hardcopy magic, which i think is more sociable and gets me out of the house so limited is probably better if you only want to play mtgo for a wee while. anyway ta