Getting Organized

Greetings. I’m Lev, a long-time Bay Area Magic player with little talent but great fascination for the game. I’m here to share the single most useful bit of tech that I’ve encountered in my near decade playing Magic. I’m going to show you how to organize your cards.

Why organize?

Some of you may consider organizing cards a boring waste of time that’s better spent playtesting. To you (if you’re still reading), I humbly submit that searching through giant messy stacks of old draft sets for your fourth copy of Spreading Seas (who knew that card would be good?) is also a boring waste of time, especially if you have to do it for every single card in that sweet Extended deck that LSV wrote about last week.

The upshot is that organizing your cards saves you a lot of time in the future. Would you play a card that read: “1: put a charge counter on this card. 1: Add mana to your pool equal to number of charge counters on this card?” Now replace the word “mana” with “time.”

Others of you may have an earnest desire to organize your vast hoard of cards but are daunted by the task and don’t know where to begin. I assure you that even this seemingly Herculean feat can be approached with the good preparation, a solid plan of attack and the right drugs attitude.

And yet others of you have already developed your own ingenious, highly structured filing system based on your Rain Man-like memory for small figures in the background of card art or some other autistic quirk talent. This article isn’t for you.

For those of you who like lists, here are the Top 5 reasons to organize:

5. You’ll see the floor of your room again.
4. You’ll be able to find any card you own in under a minute, much faster than the hour you spent this morning searching for two Esper Charms.
3. You’ll discover lame cards from the past that suddenly seem good.
2. At the next limited PTQ, you’ll be able to quickly and effortlessly sort and register the sealed pool that you open, leaving you ample time to imagine the deck you would build from the malodorous pile of excrement insane pool you have before you.
1. Organizing your cards will give you the advanced collating skills you’ll need for the dreary office job you’ll rely on to keep your Pro Tour dreams alive.

Before we get into the method, let’s briefly discuss the theory.

The natural state of cards

Cards are intrinsically messy. According to the Second Law of Magic Thermodynamics, cards will naturally drift into chaos and disorder unless mana is spent to keep them orderly.

For most people, the ancient evil of Card Chaos applies primarily to commons and uncommons. In contrast, rares have a perceived (and sometimes real) monetary value that encourages you to keep track of their whereabouts.

Many players keep their rares in a binder, displayed en face for easy visual inspection. This system breaks down when dealing with vast quantities of commons and uncommons. Firstly, there’s too darn many of them. With nearly 1000 cards printed each year, putting commons and uncommons into binders is spatially and temporally unfeasible, not to mention noobish. Secondly, logically grouping cards in a 3 x 3 matrix is tricky. Thirdly, binders and binder sleeves cost money.

Wise to the limits of binder technology, many players keep their commons and uncommons in stacks of various size on shelves, tables, altars or some other flat surface. Others cram their cards into shoeboxes, plastic bins, sarcophagi or some other receptacle. Even if this approach staves off complaints about your chronic messiness from your mom/girlfriend/chief cleric, such methods don’t really solve the problem.

Why not? Sure, you may think you know where your cards and can find anything you need. That may be the case today, but think a few years down the road.

Perhaps you will have moved to another apartment and your piles of cards were thrown into a box and exiled to the back of the ministorage unit. Or perhaps Memory Erosion has taken its toll and you aren’t sure anymore which of those stacks is Lorwyn. Or perhaps your modest pile of Eventide cards got mixed up with hundreds of Betrayers of Kamigawa packs you opened in search of Umezawa’s Jitte and your current quest for a singleton Quillspike turns up endless Quillmane Bakus.

The point is that neither stacks nor boxes are good for searching through and thus cost you undue time and effort in the long run.


frantic search 

Necessary material

What you really need is a hybrid of the box and stack technologies—the cardboard storage box, the choice of card shops everywhere.

Storage boxes are cheap, durable and are easily stowed under beds or sofas, making it easier to conceal your little hobby from prying Muggle eyes.

You’ll want the 4- or 5-row variety. Each row holds about 1000 cards, enough for a full playset of a modern big block, with room to spare. If your cards are arranged in a logical sequence, you can quickly flip through a row to exactly the right card.

C’mon, what did you think the guys at Channelfireball do when they go to that mysterious back room to fill your order? Crack packs ‘til they find what you’re looking for?

If your local card shop doesn’t stock long, multi-row storage boxes stock them, you can buy them in bulk online and give the extras to your friends in a sanctimonious display of do-goodery (“I organized my cards and so should you!”).

Step 0: Mental Preparation

I will now walk you through the steps of organizing your cards one block at a time so that you can put them into multi-row storage boxes and thereafter find any card in your collection with ease.

I will assume that your cards and your thoughts about them are highly disorganized. For some readers, certain steps in my method will seem trivial. Feel free to skip ahead to the part of the method that matches your current degree of disorganization.

The amount of time you will spend on this project depends on the size and degree of disorganization of your card collection. The process can be slow going at first but with practice you’ll find that organizing a full block of cards is no more than an evening’s work (2-4 hours with breaks).

As you will see, the task involves a series of hierarchical sorting operations that can be done more or less mindlessly. You will thus need some form of mental diversion to avoid ending up like this guy (he never finished sorting his cards).

I recommend music, which seems to use a different part of the brain that the one you’ll need for the task at hand. Here are a few suggestions:

-Put on the weirdest 1970’s prog rock album you can find. “Three Friends” by Gentle Giant, an album I found at Aquamoeba Records filed under “Hobbit Rock,” did it for me. See where that takes you, maaan….

-Local aggro champ Phil “The Yammer” Yam listens to Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” while sorting cards. “It’s music that you can really whistle to,” said Yam.

-Channel Fireball’s David Ochoa sorts his cards while listening to John Cage’s 4’33” on repeat.

Step 1: Taking stock

If you have a very large and very messy collection, the first step is to consolidate your cards into a relatively confined place, such as a corner of your room.

This consolidation step is very important. First, surveying the size of your hoard will give you a sense of how much time you’ll need to put into the project and will help you to measure your progress (“I can now see half of my floor! I’m half-way done!”).

Second, making an effort to herd all of your cards together at the outset will save you the tedious chore of returning later to sort and file more cards into a storage box row that you thought you were done with. I’ll be referring back to this important and time-saving idea. Let’s call it the Plow Under rule (“Oh no, not these cards again!”)

Along these lines, this is also the time to crack all remaining packs from bygone blocks that you may have lying around. Face it, old product is just dead weight. Unless you plan to sell your trove of extra Future Sight boosters to Tarmogoyf-craving pack fiends or a run a crazy all-night chaos draft you might as well put those cards where they belong—in your collection.

Step 2: Sort by set

The purpose of the first round of sorting is to separate one block from another. This can be quite time-consuming if you have a very large and/or very randomized collection. Here’s how to break it down into manageable chunks:

-Clear a flat space such as a tabletop where you can leave many piles of cards unmolested for several days, weeks or months, depending on your speed and motivation.

-Re-acquaint yourself with the expansion set symbols, shown here.

-Grab a fistful of cards. If you’re right-handed, turn the cards upside down so that the expansion symbol is on the left side of the card (this makes it easier to scan the expansion symbol while quickly flippng through a pile of cards). Deal out the cards into different heaps, one for each symbol/set.

-Continue dealing out your cards in this manner until you have no more. Yes, it’s tedious. This is the hardest part, really. The rest will seem easy in comparison. Take frequent breaks to avoid repetitive stress injuries. Try not to hunch over. Drink water.

-Don’t proceed further until you’ve completely sorted all of your cards into set-specific heaps. Once again, check under your couch, in your closet and trunk, the top of your bookcase or wherever else random cards may lurk. Getting them all together now will save you pain and suffering in the future (see the Plow Under rule above).

Step 3: Sort by color

-Pick a pile containing all of your cards of a particular expansion set. At this point, you may have several unsorted stacks, looking something like this:

I should note that I’ve illustrated this sorting step with Scars of Mirrodin cards, I don’t recommend sorting the current block until you’re done acquiring new cards (i.e the end of the block season), as per the Plow Under rule.

-Sort the cards by color. It’s convenient and (as you’ll see later) logical to follow the Magic color wheel— WUBRG— then gold cards, artifacts and lands. The result will look something like this:

Step 4: Sort by name

-Clear your workspace. Starting with the pile of unsorted white cards, lay individual cards in alphabetical order, leaving some space in between as you go along. You’ll most likely need to make several rows.

-If you haven’t already segregated your rares away from unwashed rabble of commons and uncommons, this is a good time to decide what to do with them. If you’d like to gaze dreamily at your precious rares arrayed in a binder, set them aside as you come across them and have your wicked way with them later. If you don’t care for displaying your rares in binders, you can treat them like any other cards— sort and box them up together with their common and uncommon brethren.

-Put identical cards into a stack of no more than four cards. When you’ve added the fourth card, mark the completed playset by flipping the top card or turning the pile 90 degrees as if to tap them. If you find the more cards of that kind, deal them into a discard pile.

Here’s what my recent sorting of my M11 cards looked like at this stage:

-If you have a sizeable number of cards, you will eventually have a playset of each card in a color, turned sideways or otherwise marked as complete. This step goes fairly slowly at first but picks up speed as you go on since there are fewer and fewer “missing” cards.

-If you started with a relatively modest number of cards, you may run out of cards to sort without completing each playset. If you care for such things, note which cards you’re missing and try to obtain them later (this is somewhat of a chore, but hey, nobody forced you to be such a completeist).

-Alternatively, you may have complete playsets of everything and still have a pile of unsorted white cards, as well as the discard pile. These cards are dead to you. You may throw them away, give them to the kid next door, sell them in bulk to a card shop, use them as proxies, etc.

Of course, you may want to hold on to or sell extra copies of oft-used cards or valuable cards like Path to Exile or Lightning Bolt. Search the remaining unsorted cards for these high value/utility cards. A glance at the Channel Fireball buy list tells you which cards are currently salable (see also Brian Grewe’s article on how to monetize unwanted bulk cards). You can quickly flip through your remaining unsorted cards to find and set these cards aside.

-Arrange the sorted white playsets alphabetically into a stack, from A (top) to Z (bottom). Set this stack aside. Now take a break.

-When you’re physically and morally ready, repeat this with the blue cards. Then the black cards. Then red. Here’s what my M11 sort looked like in the middle of the red stage— note the alphabetically sorted piles of white, blue and black cards set aside at left.

Continue through green, gold (if any), artifacts and lands. The final result will be a set of stacks of color-sorted, alphabetical playsets for each color.

Step 5: File into boxes

From here on it’s very easy.

-Place the stacks into a box row in WUBRG/gold/artifact/land sequence. Voila! You have sorted your cards. You may also have noticed that the resulting sequence of cards matches that of the series number in miniscule print at the bottom of each card. You can always check your work this way if you’re unsure of your alphabetizing.

-Some people group playsets together in cheap transparent penny sleeves, which supposedly makes it easier to pull entire playsets out of the box in one motion. I’ve tried this and found the sleeves annoying to fuss with and ultimately more time-consuming than beneficial.

-Now that your cards are in a box, mark the beginning of each expansion with a tabbed card, which can be made by taking a superfluous card and affixing masking tape to the top. Here’s a picture of my box with white-bordered and core sets:

-A note about Alara block. In Shards of Alara and Conflux, the gold cards can all be sorted alphabetically after the WUBRG sequence, but this breaks down in Alara Reborn, which is all gold and hybrid colors. The order by sequence number is as follows:

First the gold cards in the following order:


Then the hybrid cards:


Step 6: Repeat

Now, return to Step 2 for the next set of cards. If you began with a large expansion set, the next two smaller sets will go relatively quickly. Once you have sorted out a playset of the next expansion set according the manner above, put it in the box behind the previous set. Do it one more time and you’ve sorted the entire block. Congratulate self. The go backward in time to the previous block. Repeat as necessary.

Maintaining order

If you’ve followed the instructions above, you should feel pretty good about having wrestled your card collection into shape. Indeed, you’ll find the task of searching for cards to go very quickly now that you know exactly where everything is. Deck building is simply a matter of breaking a list down by block and color, then flipping to the appropriate place in your box rows and pulling the cards.

But you can never rest on your laurels— Card Chaos lies in wait, ready to devour those who stray from the path of righteousness. In the ancient days of Magic, primitive tribes offered sacrifices to Yawgmoth to ward off the greater evils of Card Chaos. In today’s more enlightened times, the most pious and devoted mages pray to Apycbwydut, God of Order.

Your best hope for salvation is to obey the Golden Rule of Apycbwydut and to always put your cards back when you’re done using them.

Yes, it’s a chore and not nearly as much fun as building the deck, but after investing so much time and effort into organizing your cards, the upkeep cost of maintaining that order is small compared with the continuing benefits.

Though the most of righteous/obsessive among you may put their cards away immediately after using a deck, it’s inconvenient to constantly go back and forth from long boxes with every card you’ve experimentally tried out in your sideboard.

One solution is to designate a spare deck box as the Department of File Me whose contents you periodically put away, such as at the end of a PTQ season. Just don’t put it off until your unsorted cards themselves become an intimidating, messy pile of randomness lest you devoured by Card Chaos.


I hope this article gave you a scheme for tackling the problem of card organization. It’s definitely a chore to do it, but your time investment pays off in the long term and you’ll be glad you did it.

If you have any card organizing tech you’d like to share or if you think you can improve on my proposed methods, please post it in the discussion below.

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