This entry is part 3 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

A budget for Magic is no different than it would be for a business. Creating an efficient budget maximizes the impact of your existing collection and builds value in your collection over the long term. Much of the advice in this article will sound obvious or even silly, but I promise it works. I use these strategies in my personal life and in my business, so my money is exactly where my mouth is.

 

What is a “Budget”?

Within the lingo of Magic, I find “budget” to be one of the most frustrating buzzwords. The irritation stems from the fact that the budget moniker is often applied to card or deck expenditures that are not making a positive contribution to someone’s budget at all. Most frequently, I hear the term “budget” applied to a fringe deck built for a competitive format. These decks are generally not competitive and the cards in them are not in high demand, thus unlikely to appreciate in value.

 

This is the exact opposite of what you should buy if you need to maximize the efficiency of a tight budget. “Budget” is used as shorthand for “a deck that is less costly to acquire,” but that’s horribly misleading. Buying the cheapest of everything is not a good way to participate in a current market and it’s certainly not going to get you ahead in the long term.

 

For the purpose of this article, I need to undermine that definition of budget. “Budget” isn’t buying cheaper items; budget is being conscious of how your purchase decisions fit into your overall fiscal plan.

 

Of course, in order to stick to your fiscal plan, you first need to make one.

 

Steps To Building A Budget:

Here are two things I know about myself: First, if I write something down, I will remember it. Second, if it gets scheduled, it gets done. A budget is a written schedule of expenditures, making it the perfect tool to make sure these tasks get accomplished. Thinking about your budget is a waste of time unless you write it down and implement it. Break out that ledger/spreadsheet and actually create a physical/digital budget. This step is functional and practical, but it works because it’s also symbolic and emotional. Post the budget where you and others can see it: on Twitter, on your phone, on your fridge. Don’t worry about feeling like a dork. Once you are successful, others will be clamoring to emulate your dorkiness. Trendsetting is the essence of cool.

 

Step 1: Define the Objective

Contrary to popular belief, the leading concern when designing a budget is not setting an amount for total expenditures. That’s actually pretty far down the list. The objective of a budget gives voice to your purpose for creating it and lays out a plan for how to proceed when you’re faced with tough choices. When you have to make a difficult decision about how to spend, you can ask yourself if what you’re doing actually helps you achieve your goal.

 

For example, I have a fast food budget. The goal of my fast food budget isn’t to spend less money; the goal is to eat less toxic garbage. By setting a restrictive limit on how much unhealthy eating I do, I can limit my weight gain from my raging Arby’s addiction. When I get a craving to eat something I shouldn’t, I can look at my budget and know with complete certainty that eating more fast food than I allotted myself will not help me stay thin and healthy. No willpower necessary.

 

Step 2: Set the Time Horizon

Specify the time frame for which you need to monitor and control your expenditures. If your budget restriction needs to last “forever,” “for the foreseeable future,” or “until you get a raise,” then you need to plan for your budget to be in effect that long. Falling off the bandwagon is the easiest way for any project to fail. Looking at your timeline can help you stay on track and give you perspective. You’ll be much less likely to quit if you can see the next milestone coming up on the horizon.

 

Step 3: Specify Fiscal Goals

This is where you “set your budget.” It might be a dollar limit for your total expenditures, a goal to reduce expenses, or even a just a reallocation of your current finances from one category to another (like my “fast food to healthy food” budget). Whatever your goal is, it must be simple and concrete. Don’t give yourself any wiggle room. You need to fully script out the decision-making process so that you don’t get soft when faced with a difficult or emotionally-charged decision.

 

“Decrease spending” or “save more” are terrible goals. “Contribute 3% of your salary to your 401K” is better, but still leaves room for interpretation when it comes to day-to-day decisions. “Put $200 of each paycheck into your savings before making any other purchases” is much better. If I want to buy something, I can ask myself: “Have I put money into savings yet?” If not, I can’t buy the thing. Making decisions simple and straightforward ensures that I can’t screw up the plan, because I lack the resolve to stay disciplined.

 

Be specific with your goals and, whenever possible, try to monitor your fiscal goals at regular intervals. If your fiscal goal is to spend $20 on Magic for every $200 you put in your savings account, you’ll know exactly when and where it’s okay to spend that $20. If you get paid every two weeks, design your budget to revolve in two week increments. Matching up income and expenses into the same period will make monitoring and evaluating your success much simpler.

 

Step 3: Monitor Cash Flows

You need a way to record your transaction history so that you can properly account for each dollar you spend. If you allow yourself to cheat by not monitoring certain transactions, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Reconcile your budget to the penny–no exceptions. This sounds like a lot of work, but with online banking and an Excel spreadsheet, it takes maybe an hour to set up and then about five minutes to update each week. Given the amount of economic benefit this process will add to your life, this is most valuable time you will ever spend.

 

Budgeting doesn’t need to feel like a punishment for your poor spending habits. Instead, reframe it with a positive mindset. Proper accounting is a way to track your progress and give yourself credit for achieving your goals. To enhance the impact of that good feeling, make a little reward for yourself when you achieve milestones.

 

Step 4: Evaluate and Iterate

So you followed the steps above, but how do you know if your budget was a success? If you did a good job of defining a clear objective, setting concrete fiscal goals, and properly monitoring your budget, then evaluating your success should be simple: did the plan fulfill the objective?

 

The tricky part comes when you don’t meet your goal despite having a solid process. What metrics will you be using to evaluate your progress towards the goal? If you saved more money last month, but you didn’t use a good tracking process, you aren’t likely to sustain that improvement for long.

 

The evaluation step is all about examining what’s working about your budget and what needs to be improved. Habits always win out in the long run and you want the improvements to become a permanent fixture of your daily life, so try to keep those good habits foremost in your mind.

 

If you find that the reason you didn’t meet your budget goals was that you didn’t change your spending habits enough, don’t be alarmed. That’s a normal first step. I can tell you from experience that the hardest part about budgeting is actually getting the wheels turning. You have to adopt the habits first, then the successful results will start to show up later.

 

It’s important to get your budget working as soon as possible. Assembling a minimum viable product is the first thing you should do. Once your budget is functioning, you’ll start to notice problems and make changes. That’s perfectly fine. You just need to get it started. It won’t be perfect, but if you don’t get the plan in motion then it won’t work anyway, so start immediately.

 

Budget-Friendly Ways To Play Magic

For most people, playing Magic on a budget means their objectives are going to look something like this: “I want to play Magic as a hobby, but I only have $X to spend” or this: “I need to lower my discretionary spending on Magic by $X to afford important necessities.” The key here is that we’re trying to fit playing Magic into an existing fiscal restriction.

 

When I advise people about refining their budgets, I caution them that giving up too much discretionary spending can actually cause the budget to fail. If you try to quit all the things that you love cold turkey just to save money, you’re going to be eliminating access to important stress outlets. Without a healthy way to relax and vent that stress, those money problems are going to continue to pop up in other areas of your life. This makes the emotional game of building good budget habits that much harder.

 

If your primary budget objective is to play the most Magic you can for a given level of spending, look no further. I’ve been there and I made every mistake you can possibly make along the way. After almost twenty years of gatherin’ the magics, here are the best ways I’ve found to play on a budget.

 

0$/Year: Network

If you want to play more Magic and have absolutely nothing to spend, you are still golden. You will just have to do a little of that social hustle and get your connections built. If you hang around the local game store in your free time, you will probably meet people who have extensive collections that you can leverage to play Magic without owning or spending a thing. Being a solid human being: friendly, helpful, presentable, and trustworthy – that will get you a ton of free value. As with many things in life, the key is respect. If you become an expert at giving and receiving respect, others will be much more willing to lend you a hand.

 

There are usually people who are looking to play and can lend you a deck to use, especially in Commander. I love Cube, and basically anytime someone asks me to play Cube, I’ll show up at their house and provide the cards. I’ve also met half a dozen or so people who’ll sponsor other players to play in a tournament on their behalf, like a prerelease or a FNM draft, on the stipulation that the player who puts up the cash keeps all the cards. I know many close friends who’ll lend each other cards or entire decks for use in an upcoming event. These ideas won’t build your collection up, but you can get a surprising amount of hobby gaming in without spending a dime.

 

$50/Year: MTGO

$50 per year comes out to around $4 per month. I have a lot of experience with this budget, because when I was a kid my allowance really only covered one booster pack a month. Unfortunately, when I was really young, that’s exactly what I did with my Magic spending: crack a booster. This is a horrible way to spend money on Magic. It suffers from massive price inflation and builds almost zero value over time. If only the internet were such a big deal when I was in elementary school, I could have been playing Magic Online instead. There’s a thriving community of players online and you can find an opponent to play a casual game any time day or night. The best part is that it lets you play as much as you want, there’s no monthly subscription.

 

First things first: it costs $10 to start your account. Bummer, but you get a bunch of stuff with your starter pack which you can find listed on Wizards website. It includes five event tickets, which is literally five dollars, so that’s a bonus. You also get some “new player points” which you can use to do things like join a Swiss draft for new players.. All together, you get good value on your $10, but you aren’t exactly ready to start playing right away. The collection of singles they give you is large, but lacks the necessary pieces to jump right into any Constructed format. Unless you’re content playing with a hodgepodge of random cards, you’ll probably have to purchase an additional Event Deck for Standard/Modern or maybe a Commander Precon. I’d recommend against that nonsense. Instead, play Momir.

 

Momir Basic is a wonky and hilarious format where you play a 60-card deck consisting of only basic lands. Momir is one of my favorite ways to play and it will be one of yours, too. It’s incredibly fun, has lasting appeal, and the best part is that it’s very inexpensive to get into. You can buy an original Momir Vig avatar for around 16 tickets and build your own deck like a fool, or you can go to the MTGO store and purchase the Momir Basic Event deck for $10.

 

Another excellent MTGO format is Pauper, where you make a 60-card deck consisting of only commons. There’s full event support for more competitive players including tournaments and league play, if you’re willing to pay the entry fees. Pauper is a remarkably diverse format where dozens of decks are viable. There are ten or more decks that can regularly go 5-0 in a league, which is more open than any other Constructed format out there. A deck like Goblins can easily sweep a league for under 10 tix, if you make some changes to the sideboard.

 

$200+/year

This is the top end of what I’m willing to consider budget. Applied to the right formats, $200 a year can put you in competition with top decks and let you play as much Magic as you want.

 

Build a Commander deck: You can make a highly competitive Edric, Spymaster of Trest deck for very little money. Several years back I did a video set with a budget Edric deck and embarrassed a lot of people, including myself. On MTGO you can build a top quality Commander deck for well under $200, and that deck will provide you tons of mileage because the format rarely changes. In paper, you might have to stretch the build over a couple of years to acquire key cards in the mana base, but luckily for you there are great resources on CommanderCast.com to help you find suitable alternatives for cards you can’t afford.

 

If you liked Pauper, you can basically purchase the entire format minus 4x Daze for $200. This will get you a copy of the top 5-to-8 decks and every conceivably playable card that isn’t in a top deck. I did this exact thing a couple of years back and it was a great price point to invest in an eternal Constructed format that’s welcoming for both casual and competitive players.

 

MTGO is also a great tool for drafting, and MTGO makes Limited easy, if you’re up for it. Costs range between 14-to-16 tickets to draft, depending on the format in question, which is pretty expensive on a tight budget, but you get some help in the form of prize payouts. If you can consistently finish first or second in a draft pod, the prizes can help fund future drafts.

 

I don’t really recommend this approach as a budget conscious option, but some people can make the economics work. I’m a savvy and experienced Limited player who drafts frequently and I’ve managed to get my total cost of drafting down to about 6 tickets per draft. That totally fits within my budget, but getting the costs down below 4 tickets requires that you become a bonafide Limited guru. Even then, 4 tickets per draft on a $200/year budget means you’re drafting a little less than once a week, which isn’t much Magic.

 

If you really have a passion for Limited you could start putting together a Cube. If you get a group of like minded individuals together in your local play group–and you each regularly contribute some money to make purchases for a shared Cube–you can build one surprisingly quickly. Including sleeves, a carrying box, lands, and other supplies, you can get a Pauper Cube together for under $500, easily.

 

This, by the way, is my number one way to play Magic. It’s just the most fun you can have. With the same set of supplies you can get a C/Ube of the best Common/Uncommon cards for $800-1000. Shared with a group, you can get things going pretty quickly and have tons of fun drafting regularly with your friends. A particularly entrepreneurial individual might even get some hook ups with a local game store and have players contribute money for a store-owned Cube that could be rented out and used at the shop.

 

These options requires some level of up front investment, but they’ll let you play as much as you want without any ongoing expenses. If you’re willing to regularly spend money on Magic, next week I’ll share some ideas on how to optimize your expenditures to get the most value out of your collection.

 

For now, get to work on building your budget and feel free to share your goals in the comments below, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and be sure to support Commandercast.com on Patreon.

 

-GG

“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.

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