A Pauper's Guide To Playing Modern

Produced and performed by Tolarian Community College, written by Jesse Robkin, published 2023-01-04, transcribed by yours truly

Many Magic: The Gathering players ask the question, is it possible to play Modern without going bankrupt?

Modern is the most popular 60-card constructed format for a reason. Gameplay is fast-paced and exciting. The range of viable decks is vast and the card pool is even vaster. Most importantly, there's no rotation, which means the cards you buy in Modern will always be legal in Modern -- unless they get banned or power-crept out of the format, but that's another video.

Unfortunately, for as fun as Modern is, many Magic: The Gathering players are priced out of the format due to the steady rise of staples and because Wizards of the Coast is apparently allergic to reprinting cards at a sufficient rate to keep their games accessible to people of all income statuses. This is a problem that isn't likely going to change anytime soon, if ever.

So does that mean it's simply not possible to buy into Modern without forking over an arm and a leg and a sack of gold and selling your plasma? Well, not exactly. It is actually possible to experience the Modern format by paying only an arm, budgeted across an extended period of time. Between Double Masters 2022 reaching its floor as we exit the holiday season, Jumpstart 2022 and all of its Modern reprints recently hitting shelves, and the continued printing of Modern Horizons 2 keeping the price of enemy-colored fetchlands as low as they've been in half a decade, this is actually a great time to pick up many of the Modern staples that may have been on your list.

This video will serve as a financial guide for the budget-minded Magic: The Gathering player who is interested in Modern. It will cover the many ways that you can take this prohibitively expensive format and make it more accessible. Remember, two things can simultaneously be true: Modern is too expensive; and there are ways for players who do not want to break the bank to still play and enjoy Modern. So with all that being said, let's begin.

Part 1: "Cheap" decks

Despite the format's reputation, there are actually fully optimized archetypes in Modern that don't cost over $1000. In fact there are several that cost in the neighborhood of $400-600. Of course, $400-600 is still expensive for a stack of game pieces, but relative to the rest of the Modern format these decks are cheap. Not only are they relatively cheap but they're all capable of performing well for you at your local Modern Friday Night Magic once you get a hang of them.

The biggest problem with this category of decks is the gameplay they offer doesn't always appeal to every player. The majority of these cheaper decks are either aggro decks or combo decks.

If you are a fan of either of these macro archetypes, you're in luck: everything you could want out of Modern is available to you at a reasonable price. Decks like Boros burn and the various flavors of red prowess are fast, assertive, and highly punishing of painful Modern manabases full of fetchlands and shocklands. These are the two most common decks that people recommend when recommending cheaper decks to newer players or just recommending a great way to start the format.

Currently the top Boros burn deck on MTG Goldfish costs just under $400. After years of Goblin Guide sitting around the $20 mark, a series of reprints have brought the price for the powerful one-drop down to about 5 bucks apiece.

The top Izzet prowess deck, which has been on the rise in the Modern metagame recently thanks to the new card from Brothers' War, Third Path Iconoclast, costs only about $575 dollars. That price total includes a playset of Flusterstorm, a card which could easily be replaced by Spell Pierces, thus saving you $120.

Dimir mill, which some affectionately refer to as blue burn, will run you just under $500 for an optimized version. Mill is a great deck for the local-game-store level because many Magic: The Gathering players won't be prepared for your angle of attack. If you squint, mill is a control deck packing removal and countermagic to complement your suite of mill cards.

Mono-blue affinity is an awesome choice for budget-focused players who love artifacts. The optimized version will run you just $250 and you even get to invest in a playset of the powerful land from Modern Horizons 2, Urza's Saga, which lets you begin building towards other, more expensive Modern decks.

A recent addition to the category of affordable Modern decks is mono-green tron. We can thank back-to-back reprints of Karn Liberated in Double Masters and Jumpstart 2022 for that. Tron has been a staple of the Modern format for years. It's the perfect Modern deck for "timmies" as it's one of the only Modern decks that gets to play creatures and planeswalkers with massive mana costs.

These are just five examples, but there are several other Modern decks that cost less than $600: dredge and crabvine for lovers of self-mill and graveyard recursion; Izzet storm and Goblin Charbelcher for pure combo lovers; death-and-taxes is an option for players who enjoy midrange decks; Enchantress, a prison deck built around, you guessed it, enchantments. Any one of these decks will cost you roughly what you might spend on a new Commander deck or a competitive Pioneer deck or two.

Now if you're only interested in playing Modern if you can play one of the several $1000 tier-one strategies, I understand. Those decks are indeed cool and their expensive cards are fun and exciting. As much as I wish I could simply wave my hand and make those decks not cost $1,000, I can't. What I can do is offer you a plan for how to play versions of these decks for a cheaper price.

Part 2: Budget builds of expensive decks

One reason for the high prices of Modern decks is that virtually every deck in Modern currently plays at least some of the expensive mythics from the Modern Horizons sets. It's hard to get around this obstacle. These cards are widely played because they are better than other similar options, but that doesn't mean other options don't sometimes exist or that the alternatives can't themselves be competitive at the local-game-store level.

Take Ragavan for example. One of several scourges of the Modern format over the past two years, this little monkey is arguably the best creature ever printed, but he's not the only one-mana creature available to play in a deck like Izzet Murktide. Swapping Ragavans out for Delver of Secrets, for instance, will save you nearly $300. Yes, Delver of Secrets is a much worse card than Ragavan, but if you're not trying to win a Modern Pro Tour -- is there a Modern Pro Tour? -- Delver does a decent budget imitation of Ragavan.

This is an example of what a budget Izzet Murktide list might look like. You still have your Murktide Regent and your Scalding Tarns, both of which are at all-time-low prices. Murktide Regent is sitting at about $12 apiece right now, while you can pick up Scalding Tarns for between $15-25 (oh my goodness) depending on where you look. These are, of course, still expensive, but both cards will be Modern staples for as long as Modern exists and the total cost of this Murktide list is only about $350, which is the same as most tier-one Pioneer decks cost. This deck will serve you well at your local Modern Friday Night Magic. You'll even find that there are match-ups like Golgari Yawmoth where Delver of Secrets is better than Ragavan would've been due to your opponent clogging up the ground with cheap blockers.

In order to find appropriate budget replacements for Modern staples, think about what it is that makes something Modern-playable. Generally cards with low mana costs are going to be better than cards with higher mana costs. This includes cards with artificial cost-reduction mechanics such as delve or affinity, as well as cards that can be cast without paying their mana cost. A good rule of thumb to follow is that creatures and disruptive spells should be one or two mana and planeswalkers should be three mana. You can play more expensive creatures but they need to have an immediate impact on the board state. Consider Seasoned Pyromancer, a three mana card but with a powerful enters-the-battlefield effect. Omnath, Locus of Creation is a four-mana card but not only does it draw a card on entering the battlefield, it also immediately replaces its own mana cost with its second landfall ability if you have a fetchland to play on the same turn it enters the field.

Solitude's printing in Modern Horizons 2 has effectively made Path to Exile, a once dominant removal spell, obsolete in Modern, but just because Solitude is better, that doesn't mean you can't replace Solitude with Path to Exile in a budget build of an Azorius control deck. This budget Azorius list gets to play two copies of a planeswalker beloved by Azorius mages everywhere, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. The deck also brings a ton of interaction in the form of countermagic and removal spells, a few finishers in the Shark Typhoons and creature lands, and even the devilish Narset plus Day's Undoing combo to strip your opponent of their hand, all of this for less than $350. Concessions made to build this deck are the four Solitudes, the other two Teferi, Time Ravelers, the mana base, and the Chalice of the Voids that sometimes get played in Azorius sideboards. But those downgrades don't hurt the deck so much that you can't still suffocate the morale of your LGS opponents in card advantage and interaction. And by cutting these cards, you save yourself 500 bucks.

Maybe you're more interested in something that kills a little more quickly than these decks but you aren't a fan of burn spells. How about a little hammer-time action? This budget version of the Modern hammer deck will run you less than $300 and that includes the playset of Urza's Saga you still get to play. Hammer time combines the one-mana equipment, Colossus Hammer, with various ways of equipping it without paying its eight-mana equip cost. This deck can even kill as early as turn two with the right draw: on turn one, play a Plains and cast Ornithoper and Sigarda's Aid; on turn two, play a second land, attack with your Ornithopter, then flash in two Colossus Hammers after blocks -- boom, 20 damage! Thanks to Urza's Saga, you can also get into the trenches and play a longer game as well. Urza's Saga finds your Colossus Hammer, your Shadowspear to push through blockers, or even a Gingerbrute for an unblockable haste threat. If you like playing this deck and you want to upgrade it over time, the big money cards it's missing are Inkmoth Nexus, Stoneforge Mystic, and Esper Sentinel. I recommend picking them up in that order as well: first get your copies of Inkmoth -- that's priority one -- then pick up Stoneforge Mystic and finally Esper Sentinel.

Something to keep in mind when getting into Modern is that it doesn't have to happen in one big investment. Buying into Modern is a daunting process and the high initial investment turns many Magic: The Gathering players off before they even begin. Which makes sense: most people can't afford to just drop $1000 on a deck that they've never played before. But what if instead of spending $1000 on a deck in one day, you spent $1000 on that same deck over the course of six months to a year. Maybe you forgo certain expensive cards until such time as they are reprinted to be more affordable, such as Ragavan; you're gonna make the decision to just not have Ragavan in your deck, and instead spend $700 over the course of six months. Let's take that budget Murktide list from earlier.

Part 3: Enter with a plan

Start fleshing out the mana base first, picking up Spirebluff Canals when you get the chance, then branching off into the other blue fetchlands. Eventually you can upgrade cards like Delver of Secrets for Ledger Shredders and before long, even without the monkeys, you'll have a very strong copy of Izzet Murktide.

There are a number of these sorts of routes you can take. Maybe you don't want to play a budget version of a deck, you just want to wait to play the real thing. In that case, start by acquiring a mana base in your favorite color pair. Pick up the shocklands and fetchlands as you are able to, through trades, store credit, or whatever finances you're willing and able to part with. Once you have that mana base you will have the foundation to play any Modern deck within that color pair. Now you can start refining your path, deciding which non-land staples you're targeting next. Pay attention to price trends of the relevant cards and try to pick up your copies when they reach floors, either after reprints or when the cards fall out of favor as the meta shifts.

Another route you can take is to initially invest in one or two playsets of the more expensive staples that form the bedrock of the Modern deck. Yawgmoth, Thran Physician, for instance, will run you about $120 for a playset but most of the other cards in the modern Yawgmoth deck are less than $20 for a playset and many are under 10. You really only have to get over that initial obstacle before the path to finishing your deck starts to look much more achievable. Several of the decks I've mentioned already in this video follow a similar model. Urza's Saga, Solitude, Fury: these are expensive cards that plug into a variety of decks and likely will never see a ban in Modern. Focus on getting these cards first and then start building around them.

Whether you start with a full budget deck, playsets of specific expensive staples, or with a fleshed-out mana base in the color pair of your choice, it's all up to you. What matters is that you have a starting point, an end goal, and a path to get there. Buying into Modern doesn't have to be a thing you do all at once. Treating it like a long-term project will not only be more financially feasible but it will also make the end result all the more rewarding. And despite what the naysayers may think, Modern isn't going anywhere. If playing this format is something you've been wanting to do for a long time, there's no rush to get into it right away. Take it slow, take it intentionally, and absolutely do not spend your money on cards you cannot afford. Magic: The Gathering and Modern in particular can be a very expensive hobby. I really wish that it wasn't, but Wizards of the Coast has made it clear that they have no plans to change this. If you cannot afford to buy overpriced pieces of cardboard even on a more extended timeline, then please, please don't. There are other format options out there that are just as fun and rewarding. And if you are only playing with friends at home or in casual settings, you can always just proxy these decks and enjoy them to your heart's content without spending a dime.

But if you can reasonably afford to dip your toe in, and the only thing stopping you is the initial investment, consider embarking down one of these paths into the format. The thrilling gameplay and a diverse metagame are waiting for you and the routes to get to them are not as daunting as they seem.

And I hope very much this video has been of some help to you. Remember: when you are buying these cards or just packs of the new upcoming set, sleeves, deck boxes -- when it is reasonable to do so, try and spend that money at your local game store whenever possible. You're supporting your Magic community.