Modern on a Shoestring – Building a Collection

Welcome to Modern on a Shoestring, a new article series designed to help ease people into a format that can be quite punishing on the old pocketbook. This series will highlight and examine budget decks that are putting up the numbers, look for ways to cut corners on existing decks without incinerating power level or win rates and explore strategies for building a Modern collection that won’t leave cartoon-style moths flying out of your wallet when you open it. 

In the coming weeks, I’ll be going over a few decks that serve as good entry points for the format. I’m looking for a few things – a low price tag, obviously, is paramount, but I’m also looking for decks that play generically good cards that fit into multiple decks. For example, a mono red aggro deck that runs cards like Lightning Bolt or Abrade; these are flexible cards that can help you transition from a cheap aggressive deck into a slower and more expensive deck later. 

Lightning BoltAbrade

If you’ve been crushing the MTGO leagues with your budget brew, make sure to send it my way so I can feature it as part of this weekly column. The best place to get in touch with me is via Twitter DMs. I’m looking forward to seeing what you’ve been cooking up!

Building the Foundations of Your Collection

Today, however, rather than focus on a specific deck, we’re going to talk about the sorts of cards you should be seeking out when starting a Modern collection. I’ll assume you’re starting from zero, although that’s almost certainly not the case as most Magic players have shoeboxes filled with cards, and you might be surprised to find what old playables you’ve got squirrelled away. 

For instance, if you’re a Standard player, I’ve got good news. As Wizards has been pushing the power level of cards printed for Standard, a lot of them have ended up becoming staples of older formats like Modern. If you’ve played Standard for the last couple of years, there’s a good chance you’ll already have a stack of Modern staples, such as Skyclave Apparition, Mystical Dispute, the companions, and cards that recently rotated (or were banned), such as Ashiok, Dream Render, Teferi, Time Raveler, Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath and of course Omnath, Locus of Creation (and that’s not even mentioning the shocklands). Your banned Standard cards still have a use!

Skyclave ApparitionMystical DisputeTeferi, Time RavelerUro, Titan of Nature's WrathOmnath, Locus of Creation

Outside of more recent cards, a sizeable number of the most-played nonland cards in Modern aren’t rares or mythics and command a relatively low price given how important they are as a backbone of the format. In fact, of the ten most-played nonland Modern cards at time of writing, just two of them are rares – the rest are uncommon. Combined, those eight uncommons are around $25 and that’s including the $10 price tag of Veil of Summer. Clearly, then, building a foundational collection of staple support cards isn’t what’s going to break the bank.

What’ll break the bank then? Quite simply, your mana base. Modern mana bases are where the prices of decks really start to ratchet up, especially when you start playing three or four colors. This is unavoidable given how scarce and expensive fetchlands – particularly enemy-colored fetchlands – are, and really can’t be avoided. We’ll talk about this column’s approach to mana bases later on in the article; for now, let’s get underway with starting a Modern collection from scratch. 

Leftovers From Standard 

Your first step in getting into Modern is to take stock of what you already have. As Standard is the usual on-ramp for competitive Magic players, it’s a reasonable assumption that a good percentage of anyone wanting to get into Modern will have already played Standard, and therefore have some number of Standard cards or cards that recently rotated out. Even if you haven’t, the supply of these cards – particularly the ones that have just rotated – is as high as it’ll ever be, so it’s a good time to buy into the massive power spike that 2019 and 2020 brought to constructed Magic. 

Many years ago, towards the conception of the Modern format, it was so rare for a new card to actually “make it” in Modern. It took a real powerhouse – a Liliana of the Veil or a Snapcaster Mage – to break into the format. Not these days, as sets from War of the Spark onwards are brimming with new Modern staples. A significant proportion of the most-played cards in Modern were printed in the last eighteen months. 

War of the Spark

Core Set 2020

Throne of Eldraine

Theros: Beyond Death

Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths

Core Set 2021

Zendikar Rising

Clearly, anyone who even has (or had) a modest Standard collection will have some number of Modern playables – and not just weird this-only-goes-in-one-deck fringe playables, either. Flexible, powerful workhorses of the Modern format which will offer a lot of mileage in different archetypes, which is precisely what we’re looking for with Modern on a Shoestring. Dust off those old boxes of Standard “chaff” and dig out your forgotten Modern staples, because it’s time to put them back to work!

Cheap But Omnipresent Utility Cards

Five of the six most-played nonland cards in Modern are uncommon, and, quite pleasingly, they’re evenly split across all five colors: Lightning Bolt, Path to Exile, Veil of Summer, Aether Gust and Fatal Push. Quite aside from being auto-includes in many decks of their respective colors, they’re all pretty cheap, available for $3 or less, with the exception of Veil of Summer and its $10 price tag. This means that this idea of building a foundational collection – a collection of cards that slot into many different decks – gets off to a great start. Collecting the format’s most popular nonland cards need not break the bank!

Here are the cheapest of the most popular non-land cards played in Modern, sorted into price categories. 

$0.01 – $1.00

$1.01 – $3.00

$3.01 – $5.00

It’s astonishing to realize that the overwhelming majority of these cards are flexible workhorses that can be slotted into many different Modern decks, with a few exceptions such as Temur Battle Rage or Gaddock Teeg. As you might have realized when we listed those five uncommons above, one of the reasons for this is because many of the cards are sideboard cards – Rest in Peace, Damping Sphere and Collector Ouphe aren’t cards you often want in your main deck. But hey, that’s fine – it means that building sideboard for the various decks we play with will be all the easier. 

This list is a useful tool to keep in mind when you’re looking to pick up new cards. When placing an order of new cards, see if you can pick up some of these on the cheap. If you’re in the middle of trading cards, try to get some of these thrown in as a little sweetener. The majority of the cards on this list require a very small investment for a sizeable payoff – they’ll serve you well throughout your Modern career, and fill out the corners of many of your decks. Any red deck you build will probably want Lightning Bolt; many sideboards will want Relic of Progenitus. These are good, cheap cards to have on hand – keep your eye out for them. 

Fetches and Shocks

Steam VentsOvergrown TombMisty RainforestArid Mesa

Finally, let’s talk about the elephant in the room – the worst enemy of the budget player, no matter the format: mana bases. Good mana isn’t cheap, and this is especially true in Modern, where the fetch-plus-shock mana base usually means that even the lands needed for a two color deck will run hundreds of dollars. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t really any way around it. You’ll probably see mono colored decks heavily overrepresented in this column, purely because the fact that playing ten or fifteen basics brings the price of any deck down enormously. Fetchlands are such a huge part of the format – having perfect mana, shuffling at-will, deck-thinning – that any deck that needs them and doesn’t have them is going to suffer. 

In future articles, we’ll talk in greater depth about how to go about collecting fetchlands – the ones to aim for first, making deckbuilding concessions to your restricted access to them, etc. – but for now, let’s call a spade a spade and recognize what we’re doing.

By playing without fetchlands, we’re making our decks worse.

Even a two color deck gets a considerable upgrade with fetchlands, but budget Magic of any kind necessitates compromise. Accept the few percentage points you lose and move on. 

As for shocklands, as they’ve just recently rotated out of Standard, many people reading this will already have them. For those who don’t, now is more or less the best time to just buy them if you’re so inclined. A reprint is a long way off, considering we’ve just left Ravnica for a third time, and the chances of better dual lands being printed any time soon are vanishingly small. While they’re not as prohibitively expensive as fetchlands, they’re still not cheap, but their prices are going nowhere but up in the short-to-medium term. 

Wrapping Up

In the coming weeks, you can look forward to budget deck techs, acquisition strategies, and the “budgetification” of various Modern decks. Most of all, however, I want to hear from you and how you manage a budget while playing Modern. It’s a terrific format with so much to offer and perhaps together we can bring the barrier to entry a little lower. Send through those sweet budget brews to me via Twitter and I’ll see you next week as we have a look at a red-hot budget list to get you started!

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