Commanding on a Budget

July 4, 2014

mahler, mark - headshot Guest article by Mark Mahler

It’s the perennial problem with our collective habit: cool cards cost cold-hard cash and you need to feed, clothe, and shelter yourself, too.  What’s an average EDH junkie to do?

Three words: Budget, baby, budget.

It’s not so much that you can’t have nice things in Magic, it’s just that the really nice things cost redonkulous amounts of money and there is only a finite amount of that precious resource that each of us can justify spending each month on shiny new cardboard.  I feel ya, brother (or sister), because I’m right there with you, so I’ve drawn up a list of cards that are worth your blood and treasure, some that aren’t, and some big money ballers that could easily be swapped out for some small money alternatives without setting back either your game plan or your bank account.

Now, individual evaluations of specific cards will vary greatly from person to person, but I did my best to tailor this list to the widest swath of the Commander community as I could.  Whether you’re building your twentieth EDH deck or your first, I hope you’ll find something of use below.

Also, a big shoutout goes to the CommanderTheory blog’s list of “Top Cards in Commander” for a lot of my inspiration to write this article. Granted, I mostly used his list to say, “Who the hell can afford to buy ——-?”, but he was also very upfront with the fact that he built his list with absolutely no budget restrictions.

If you’ve got a trust fund, copy and paste his entire list into the order form on Star City Games or TCGplayer and go nuts; if you want to build a fun and powerful (if not completely optimized) Commander deck, read on.

Not Worth the Cash for this Cardboard

Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Granted, you couldn’t see me do it, but I physically braced myself for the tidal wave of internet hate to wash over me as I wrote those words. I feel like the Magic Inquisition might be set loose upon me at any moment (mental note: skip the next GP Barcelona).

Yes, crazy Jace was amaz-balls in standard and modern until he got smacked with the ban hammer, but he’s just meh in EDH.  You could buy an entire deck for the cost of a single planeswalker who’s one Vampire Hexmage away from landing in your graveyard. Worth it? Nope.

Also, in true CommanderCast style, hitting Jace with the Hexmage is the definition of drinking your opponent’s tears. And those tears are made of money.

Cryptic Command

Hate flood, round two. This card is astoundingly versatile. It literally does everything you want to do in blue on a single card. It’s also not worth $50 to save a card slot or two in your deck unless you’re playing in a Modern or Legacy tournament. You may resume cursing my name now.

Crucible of Worlds

Yes, it has a unique effect that is irreplaceable in decks that can abuse it OR you could save $30 and not be the guy/girl that blows up your opponents’ lands and recurs your own Strip Mine. If you’re about to pull the trigger on this card, do yourself a favor and borrow/proxy one to see how it feels to play that combo first.  Fair warning: you might need a shower afterwards.

Imagine the following completely hypothetical scenario, which I may or may not have been guilty of in the past, if you will:

It’s turn five and you’ve got your fancy new Crucible on the board. You float a combination of five green and white mana to cast that Armageddon that’s been burning a hole in your hot little hands ever since your drew it in your opening seven.  After crossing the Rubicon of Magic and pissing off the entire table, you then do your playgroup another solid by using that single remaining green mana in your pool to cast Exploration upon the newly landless board, playing a plains and a forest from your graveyard for your turn. Then you cast Rampant Growth and watch everyone walk out on you before it resolves.

Note: I forgot to mention that I cast Nature’s Lore on turn two, which is what allowed me to play two lands after the Armageddon on turn five—er, I mean, someone played Nature’s Lore on turn two…

If that combo appeals to you, please save the cash you would have spent on this three mana fun-suck of an artifact and put it towards your next counseling session instead.

Iona, Shield of Emeria & Linvala, Keeper of Silence

These two are the twin angels of “sit there and watch someone else play Magic.”  If you really want to piss people off, I will give you a dozen better ways to spend $70 (combined) to seriously enrage your friends.


Unless you’re a hardcore collector, just buy a playset of Strip Mines instead. This might be the only one in this list that’s technically better than its pricey older brother, too, as the Mine hits any land, not just nonbasics.

Budget Card Swaps: your bank account will thank me later

Now, I’m not going to argue that my substitutions are in any way strictly better within the game than any of their bigger, more expensive brothers—they are pricey for a reason, you know—but if we’re talking bang-for-your-buck, you can look elsewhere for similar effects without losing much in terms of sheer power.

The Magus cycle for…any of the originals

This cycle of creatures out of the Time Spiral block is the original budget option for their overpriced permanents of a different type. It’s like WotC woke up one day and said to themselves,”Gee, mere mortals will never be able to afford some of these cards. We should do something about that.” Chuck the reserved list? Never! But we stapled some cool abilities onto crappy creatures. You’re welcome.

Now, I’m not going to delve too far into the actual playability of each of the Magi (this article just took on an odd Xmas-y feel all of the sudden), because CommanderCast has thoroughly covered this cycle in the past—Season 3, Episode 11—but I will tell you which ones are worth the trade for their more costly cousins and which ones you should pass over in favor of the originals.

If you’re type of person that likes their media in sound bites, all of these cards are a better dollar-for-dollar value than their counterparts. That’s kind of the point behind Wizards’ printing them in the first place.  There are a few that warrant a closer look, however, and a few that you should pass over in favor of the oldies-but-goodies.

Magus of the Abyss: Pass.

The savings here is undeniable, but Braids, Cabal Minion is clearly the much more powerful effect for the same mana.  If you’re the diehard Stax player that just can’t stand to see creatures survive more than a single turn on the board, I guess you could run him, but don’t be surprised when everyone asks, “Why?”

Magus of the Arena: Pass.

The price of the original is under $1 and the art alone is reason enough to go for the land over this dude. I mean, just look at that pose! There are only two possible outcomes here: that lizard/dragon-thing’s skull is about to eat about a giant axe sandwich or that guy is totally going to get his junk bitten off.  My bet’s on lizard for the win.

Run the original in any deck that wants this wacky, “opponent chooses” fight effect; so, none, really, unless you’re looking for laughs (or deathtouch shenanigans). If you do, though, be sure to put on the big cage match scene from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome when you bust this out and then start chanting, “Two men enter! One man leaves!” at the top of your lungs. Your friends probably won’t appreciate it, but whether your creature lives or dies, we all know who the real winner will be.

Magus of the Bazaar: Pass.

If you’re reading an article about budget options in EDH, you never had any intention of shelling out X hundreds of dollars for the Bazaar of Baghdad anyway, and because you’re in blue you have a lot of better options for drawing cards than this fella. Even if he’s still a much better value at fifty cents than the original, there’s not much here that’s even worth half a buck.

Magus of the Candelabra: Buy.

Tawnos’ fancy candlestick is so far out of my budget it might as well say “Mox” at the top of that card. This guy’s an underplayed utility dude in ramp decks that’s likely to eat removal once your opponents see you use him more than once–which is apparently the only thing this guy has eaten in a long, long time, by the looks of him–but he can be powerful and a lot of fun.  Use him to untap Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and/or Cabal Coffers and enjoy.

Magus of the Coffers: Buy?

It’s a nice effect on a creature, but since even people who hate LD with a fiery passion have no qualms about blowing up Coffers the second it hits the board, what do you think the odds are that Mr. Magus here will survive a full round until you can use that sweet tap ability? Run him if you want a change of pace, I guess, or if you can’t justify buying another copy of the land for your sixth or seventh black deck. Honestly, you’d probably be better served by sticking in a Vesuva or a Thespian’s Stage instead.

Magus of the Disk. Pass.

The sweet new art on the artifact just got a reprint in Commander 2013, so there’s no reason to pick up this guy over the old, colorless standby.

Magus of the Future: Buy.

Future Sight can be very relevant ability in the deck that wants it, so having some redundancy could be useful.  For that matter, you might as well go buy the enchantment, too, as it’s only a dollar more than this guy.

Magus of the Jar: Buy?

Are you playing Niv or Nekusar? If you answered “yes,” go buy this dude. He’s cheaper than a Sculpting Steel or a Phyrexian Metamorph to copy the draw/discard ability, and you’re probably already playing those cards anyway. He also has a jar for a head, so you have to respect that level of dedication to your job.

Magus of the Library: Pass.

I’ve seen this guy become relevant before, but that doesn’t justify playing or buying him. The only thing that really ever impressed me about the original was its price tag.

Magus of the Mirror: Buy?

Even though the Oloro, Ageless Ascetic lifegain deck is a thing nowadays, and it would be ultra cool to seriously screw over that player with this effect, it’s not going to happen as often as it does in your hate-filled dreams. He only costs about forty cents, though, so go nuts and pamper yourself, kid. You deserve to get yourself a little something.

Magus of the Moat: Buy.

It’s an old school way to frustrate your opponents stapled onto a fragile body, but he’s definitely a worthwhile buy at less than 1/100th of the cost.

Magus of the Moon: Buy?

If mono-red is your jam and you want an extra copy of Blood Moon’s ability, I could see the justification for buying this guy, even if he’s only slightly less expensive than the enchantment nowadays.  Side note: when did Blood Moon become a thing?

Magus of the Scroll: Pass.

You know that one really crappy card that they print in every set that makes you wonder aloud, “What were they thinking? Who would want this piece of trash?” Guess what? You found it. Oh, and the original is garbage, too (at least in EDH).

Magus of the Tabernacle: Buy.

This ability isn’t exactly unique, because WotC has made functional reprints of the most expensive church in all of Magic a couple times over the years in various different hues of the color pie, but if it’s worth less than $1 to you to watch the token guy in your playgroup cry like a baby when you play this card, consider it money well spent.

Magus of the Vineyard: Pass.

This card is awful and so is the original. Save your money.

Fetch/Shock/Filter/Scar/Tap/&Pain lands (in that order) for… Duals

I get it. You want to play your multicolor lands that same turn that you drop them. I do, too. I just don’t want to mortgage my house to do so. In the immortal words of Andy, I’m a super-casual Magic scrub and I don’t own anything fancier than the Scars lands and probably never will until reality or more reprints settle upon the good folks at Star City Games. (I do own a single Cavern of Souls, but I pulled that out of a box of Avacyn Restored back when I still played standard, so I don’t think that counts.)

You don’t need a fancy mana base to play Commander and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying too hard.

Weathered Wayfarer for… Land Tax

This creature is both more vulnerable and more versatile than the enchantment at a similar mana cost, because he lets you fetch any land, not just the basics (his activated ability costs one white, which technically makes it more expensive over the long haul),.

Gift of Estates for… Endless Horizons

If you’ve ever had Horizons blown up on you before you could pull the plains out of it, you’ll appreciate both the immediate value and the monetary value of this little two drop sorcery.

Reap and Sow/Crop Rotation for… Scapeshift

Scapeshift is amazing, but let’s be honest: when’s the last time that you saw anyone ‘shift for any lands that didn’t rhyme with either Shabal Shoffers or Turborg, Womb of Bagmouth (Yes, I know that doesn’t rhyme, but what else did you expect me to do with Yawgmoth? Let’s see you try to rhyme made-up fantasy names and see how far you get.)

Wait until you draw one of these lands, then cast either of these spells and save yourself $20.

Toxic Deluge/Life’s Finale for… Damnation

Yes, the ability to sweep the board in black is a rare and wonderful thing, but you don’t need to spend $40+ to do it.

Scorched Ruins for… Mishra’s Workshop

My absolute favorite deck of all time is my colorless Karn deck and yet, even in the deepest throes of my nerd passion, I wouldn’t even consider laying down the $500+ for the Workshop for even a second.

Well, that’s not exactly 100% true, but I’ll still gladly sac two lands instead of missing a car payment to buy this baby.  Plus, you can use Thespian’s Stage to copy it without sacrificing two additional lands.

Burgeoning/Gaea’s Blessing/One With Nature/Centaur Rootcaster for… Exploration/Azusa, Lost but Seeking

Can you really put a price on playing two or three lands on your turn? Yes, it turns out you can, and that price is $25.  Or you could pay half that price and drop them on your opponents’ turns.  Or drop an extra forest for free each turn. Or you could do some shady stuff with Centaurs and pay about $1.

That last sentence should not be taken out of context.

Steelshaper’s Gift/Stonehewer Giant for… Stoneforge Mystic

I’ll cop to being a total hypocrite on this one, because I run all three in one of my Voltron decks, but if funds are tight, you can certainly make do without the Money Mystic.

Fauna Shaman for… Survival of the Fittest

Similar to the Magus cycle, the Shaman is just an old enchantment on a newer, cheaper body. The effect is just as powerful and the price is right, even if the elf they stuck it on is more likely to eat removal than any other two drop in green.

Draining Whelk for… Mana Drain

Yes, this swap is a bit on the sketchy side, because stealing your opponent’s mana to cast your own spells next turn is 1000% better than getting a giant flying mollusk on your side of the field, but the Whelk is still a win on both the financial and flavor ends of the spectrum.

Blanket of Night for… Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

A great sleeper enchantment that got a rules update to let you tap your utility lands like swamps, too. A great budget option that still enables all the swampwalk/Coffers shenanigans you can think of, even if its card type makes it less tutor-able in black than its more infamous cousin. Orzhov/Esper enchantress, anyone? (UPDATE: I just saw the M15 spoiler today where they broke the news that they’re reprinting Urborg, which is awesome, but you know it’s still going to be pricey for a bit.)

Kamahl, Fist of Krosa for… Craterhoof Behemoth

Any green player worth his/her salt can afford to double overrun with Kamahl instead of the ‘hoof.  No, the druid isn’t the insta-win that the behemoth is, but his extra utility as wrath insurance helps to make up for his lack of speed.

Birds of Paradise for… Noble Heirarch

Do you enjoy paying over $50 for an extra Exalted trigger? If so, you can skip this part.

Pattern of Rebirth for… Natural Order

Yes, you have to actually wait for the creature under Pattern to die before you get your Eldrazi, but at least you’ll save money while you wait. Of course, if you’re Captain MoneyBags of the S.S. Power Nine, you could always use Natural Order to sac the creature under Pattern of Rebirth and get two Eldrazi instead. VALUE!!

Good for your wallet and only slightly worse for your deck

Crystal Ball/Mirri’s Guile for… Sensei’s Divining Top

The Ball is the Jesse Pinkman to the Top’s Walter White, but sometimes you’ve got no choice but to roll with the second stringers. Mirri’s Guile is an easy splash in any deck that runs green, and costs less than half of what a NM Top does. Yes, Sylvan Library is the more obvious choice here, but MG also fits nicely into any sweet Cat-themed deck.

I blame you for that idea, Mr. Bonvie.

Bear Umbra/Nature’s Will for… Sword of Feast & Famine

Even with the event deck reprint, I have a hard time coughing up double digits for any sword that doesn’t end in “Fire and Ice.” The Umbra is a solid replacement that has the added benefit of saving your creature from certain death (and the untap ability isn’t dependent on combat damage to trigger, which is sweet), and Nature’s Will is the nuts with tramplers or tokens. For a great list of reasons why you should be playing Nature’s Will instead of/alongside Sword of F&F, bust into the archive section of CommanderCast and listen to the Secret Tech picks from season 4, episode 13.

Retether for… Replenish

Nine times out of ten, the enchantments I want back—in any deck so chock full of enchantments that I’d even consider running Replenish in the first place—are going to be auras anyway. Try giving Retether the taste test challenge next time and see if you don’t come to the same conclusion.

Hibernation’s End for… Birthing Pod

Hibernation’s End is one of my favorite bits of secret tech. Yes, it’s slower and clunkier than the Pod, but it also draws more confused looks than hate around your average Commander table.

Also, bears.

Mana Tithe/Withering Boon/Forbid for… Force of Will

Hear me out on this before the hate train leaves the station. What effect are you really looking for when you play Force of Will? The “out of nowhere” counterspell, right? Well, that’s what both Mana Tithe and Withering Boon give you, plus style points and a savings of roughly $75. When was the last time your opponents worried about you leaving up white or black mana when they were getting ready to cast a spell? They will next game.

If you’re still not convinced, or you’re in mono-blue, Forbid is a great option for recurrable counterspell action, assuming that drawing and discarding cards in not an obstacle for you.

Oh wait, you’re playing blue. Of course it isn’t.

Crovax, Ascendant Hero for… Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite

Curse-less Crovax might be color-dependent and give a smaller pump (and take a smaller bite) than the Praetor, but at approximately $28 cheaper and with a nice bit of built-in instant-speed evasion tacked on, there are compelling reasons to at least give this guy a shot at the big game, coach. Think Rudy, but less inspiring.

Sol Ring/Mana Vault for… Mana Crypt

One is more than zero, but $75 is also more than $4.

Memory Jar for… Scroll Rack

No, it’s not a repeatable effect like the Rack, nor does it allow you to choose what you keep and what you pitch, but I have it on good authority that there are a few ways to recur artifacts in EDH and the jar is 1/4 of the price.

Necrotic Sliver for… Vindicate

I hate to trot out the “Do you play Legacy?” test again, but if you didn’t pass that one earlier you’re still going to want to pass on this permanent killer, even if its price did recently drop from ridiculous to merely unaffordable.

Lim-Dûl’s Vault for… Demonic Tutor or Vampiric Tutor

It’s slightly off-color, but the effect is more versatile than a straight tutor, if more painful to your life total. The Vault also just got a sweet reprint in the new Commander set. Give this one a try, particularly if you’re in Dimir or Esper colors.


Thanks for taking the time to read my article.  I hope some of this helped you pad out your deck or avoid the temptation to blow your wad on some pricey cardboard.  Either way, let me know your thoughts in the comments section.