Method to the Madness

Posted in Building on a Budget on August 20, 2008

By Jacob Van Lunen

Jacob Van Lunen began playing Magic in 1995. He has participated in organized play at every level of competition and was a member of the winning team at Pro Tour San Diego in 2007, thanks to an innovative draft strategy. As a writer, Van Lunen has had more than three hundred Magic strategy pieces published

On any given week, there are probably sixty articles written about Magic strategy. I, like many of you, find myself reading just about every one of them. Not necessarily because of the strategies I might learn, though I do learn a great deal, but the major reason I end up reading all these articles is out of boredom. When I was first presented with the opportunity to write about Magic I wanted to do more than show you the excel spreadsheets my team made for Pro Tour–Hollywood. I'm a storyteller. I miss reading Zvi Mowshowitz's articles because they weren't just piles of information. To Zvi, every deck list was a story, every draft was an epic tale. I've tried to capture that spirit in my articles.

When I was offered a chance to write Building on a Budget this week, I decided to give you the big picture. I don't think people can really learn anything from me saying, "I can replace this good card with this slightly worse inexpensive card." I think people can get a great deal of useful information if I walk them through one of my experiences with budget deck-building out of necessity.

I came back home from the public pool one day when I was 16 and found my brother and his friends playing Magic. I hadn't played in almost a year because the prior summer most of my collection was lost. I was so excited to see my brother playing again that I immediately re-immersed myself in the game. There was a problem, though: all the local stores in my area at the time only ran Constructed tournaments. I didn't have a car, so driving even 15 minutes to draft wasn't a possibility. I needed to build a deck, but I was an unemployed 16-year-old. I had a mission: I needed to build a competitive deck without spending any money. Thus, the Jacob Van Lunen Super-Effective Budget Deck Method, or JVLSEBDM, was born.

A great deal of Magic players have this problem at one point or another in their lives as planeswalkers. I'm going to supply a step-by-step method for building fun, competitive decks (at least at the FNM level) without breaking the bank.

The Method

I was playing Magic again. So, naturally, I was reading all the tournament coverage on (before it was integrated with I saw a deck list that really got my fans spinning.

Warren Marsh

Download Arena Decklist

Twelve two-drops, ten cantrips, oh the card advantage! Over half the spells in this deck automatically 2-for-1 your opponent (Mystic Snake, Penumbra Bobcat, Flametongue Kavu, and Prophetic Bolt) The second I saw this deck, I knew wanted to sleeve it up and bring it to war.

Step One

Find a deck list on the Internet that has done well in a recent tournament.

Make sure the deck fits your style of play and make sure it is legal in your desired format. I was trying to find a good aggro-control deck for Standard. Marsh's deck was for Invasion Block Constructed, but that just meant I'd have more room to find replacements for the cards I didn't have.

"Why are you telling me to netdeck, Jake? The only reason I'm reading Building on a Budget is so I can make an AFFORDABLE deck."

Just hear me out, folks.

Step Two

Mystic Snake
Make a list of all the cards you can't borrow or find in your own collection.

There were a lot of cards in Marsh's deck that I couldn't realistically get my hands on. I decided to jot down the cards from the main deck I didn't have:

4 Shivan Reef
4 Yavimaya Coast
4 Blurred Mongoose
4 Kavu Titan
3 Prophetic Bolt
4 Mystic Snake

My brother and his friends had been buying lots of packs and drafting so I was confident I wouldn't have a problem finding the commons and uncommons I needed.

You need to make sure that the deck doesn't completely function around one of the expensive rares. In this case, I came to understand that Mystic Snake was absurdly powerful in a deck with four Repulse and probably wasn't replaceable. Standard was different back then, and 2 toughness was the norm; Mystic Snake would often come down countering a spell, block and put damage on, then get Repulsed back to my hand for Ancestral Recall–like card advantage in the midgame. My brother and his friends had two excess Mystic Snakes they could give me, and I had to swallow my pride and spend six dollars at the local store to buy the other two.

Step Three

For each card you can't acquire, make a list of playable and attainable cards that have similar or the same functions and don't disrupt the curve. Shivan Reef and Yavimaya Coast were definitely going to be the hardest cards to replace. Luckily I had an old play set of City of Brass, which had been reprinted in Seventh Edition. Four City of Brass and four Island seemed like a reasonable replacement. The old list had eight sources of red mana so it could splash Prophetic Bolt, Flametongue Kavu, and the Fire side of Fire. It had fifteen sources of green mana to support its two-drops, and it had thirteen sources of blue mana for its mid- to late-game card advantage and tempo spells. The new list had the exact same numbers. The mana was still great. It's important to look for these things when trying to build decks for value. See what lands you have access to in your collection and try to preserve the consistency of the mana base when building your budget version of a competitive deck.

The next step was finding a replacement for the eight two-drops I needed to replace. I probably had about twenty Elvish Archers sitting in my desk in a pile of rares gathering dust. I figured those would do pretty well, so I threw four of them in. The other four were a bit harder to replace. I wanted to use Yavimaya Barbarian, but my deck's mana base really couldn't support him. I ended up deciding that a generic bear was probably good enough. I put in a playset of Nomadic Elf.

Nomadic Elf
Fact or Fiction

Now I needed to replace to Prophetic Bolts, I decided that I wanted my replacement spells to at least cantrip or provide some type of card advantage, so I found a fourth Fire and two copies of Fact or Fiction.

Now my main deck looked like this:

Budget Green-Blue, Version 1

Download Arena Decklist

Step Four:

Make adjustments as you see fit.

After playing a handful of games with the deck, there were a few things I decided could change. I wanted more counters. Invasion block Constructed didn't really offer more counters, but Seventh Edition gave me the almighty Counterspell, I really wanted 4 Counterspells in the deck, but I needed to figure out what I could cut.


The deck really wanted to play a threat on turn two, but even with its reliance on a two drop twelve of them seemed like a pretty high number. History has shown that eight probably would have been fine, but I wasn't sure at the time so I decided I could go down to nine and I cut three of the nomadic elf. A card that was always okay, but never amazing, was Penumbra Bobcat. I knew I wanted to cut at least one of it. I now had a deck that looked like this.

Budget Green-Blue, Version 2

Download Arena Decklist

I played some more games with the deck and it had improved dramatically. Unfortunately though, now that I had added Counterspell to the deck, I rarely wanted to tap out on my third turn for fear that someone might play something I had serious problems with, like Rising Waters. The cards that seemed especially bad here were the Bobcats. I decided to add another Fact or Fiction, but I didn't have access to a fourth so I threw in a pair of Force Spikes. Now the main deck looked like this:

Budget Green-Blue, Version 3

Download Arena Decklist

I really like playing one or two of a card like Force Spike. It makes timid players play around it at all stages of the game. Better yet, good players will play around it on a "big turn" (when an opponent plans to turn the tides with a complex series of plays that leave the board completely re-landscaped) which means you'll have one more turn before they go for the big turn-around.

Step Five

Sleeve and smash!

I needed to get a sideboard together for the tournament, and I think it looked something like this:

4 Gainsay
4 Disrupt
2 Force Spike (for when I was on the draw)
4 Tangle (for decks like Fires)
1 Flametongue Kavu

I showed up to the tournament and everyone seemed to be playing some type of blue deck, so I audibled to main-deck Gainsays by taking out the Excludes and the Nomadic Elf. I ended up having a very awkward sideboard.

I played blue mage after blue mage and just trounced them with my maindeck Gainsays. People would get a bit frustrated playing against a deck with sideboard cards in the main. But I had outwitted the field; they became streamlined, so I found the outs.

There's a valuable lesson to be learned here. You don't need a play set of Tarmogoyfs to be competitive; you need to know what people will be playing. Any powerhouse monstrosity of a deck has a poison that can be found in a cardboard box of stinkers.

My final list looked like this.

Budget Blue-Green (Final)

Download Arena Decklist

Help Me Help You

One of the things I really enjoy about writing is the feedback. You, my readers, have been great about sending me e-mails and filling up the forums. I've tried to respond to all of you, but I've had a pretty hectic past couple weeks. I'd really like to hear some of your similar stories. I've learned a lot about Magic and a lot about myself from what you guys have had to say.

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