Better Cards! Better Games! More Glory!

Posted in Serious Fun on November 1, 2005

By Anthony Alongi

As I approach my 400th Magic-related article (about 200 here, plus another 150 Casual Fridays columns from Star City Games and the late Dojo, plus a few extras here and there for those sites), I hope my readers will forgive me if I return to a topic I've written about before.

I want to help you all get the most out of your cards.

My timing is intentional – I know many of you are just now getting your first Ravnica packs (or boxes, for those of you lucky enough to have the means). I also know many of you will buy quite a few more before you're done, since the set is new, the block is new, and there are even one or two formats out there that are entirely new, especially for multiplayer enthusiasts.

Magic is an expensive game. Will you let me help you get the most out of it? Why, thank you. I'm sure we'll both feel better by the end of this article.

How To Waste Your Money On Magic

(I was going to use that subtitle there as the article's overall title; but I just didn't think editing would think it would be a swell Tuesday headliner for the site.)

Let's say no matter what happens to you – your job, the price of Magic cards, your other hobbies and interests, your girlfriend's dirty looks whenever you crack open a pack of cards – you are going to spend $100 on Ravnica product between now and December 31. (I know many of you will spend much less than that. Would you believe there are tons of people who'll spend more? Also, would you believe that the folks at Wizards will send you a free kitten if you're in the second group? Wizards reserves the right to use imaginary kittens in this promotion. Anyway, 100 is a nice round number.)

When you spend that $100, you could opt to get as little enjoyment as possible out of it. What might that look like? Well, enjoyment is a very personal thing – some folks might get a great deal of enjoyment in spraying beef flavor all over their booster packs and letting the dogs chew them up. But if you're a typical Magic player, you could really deny yourself a lot of enjoyment if you just:

(a) ripped open the packs as fast as you could;
(b) took all the cards and put them right in your collection box; and
(c) in fact, didn't bother to do this yourself, but let someone else open the packs so that you didn't even see the cards in their pre-box glory.

Then, eventually, you might get around to building constructed decks and playing with the cards, 90 percent of which you'll never use or even see. Certainly you won't enjoy them as much as you could, because you'll be too busy grumbling about how you're only using one out of every ten cards you bought. You might follow up a game with a message board rant about how you feel it's awful that Wizards doesn't put an awesome, constructed-tournament-worthy rare in every pack and web site preview. (None of you have ever done that, have you?) Incidentally, if your spare time is worth money (and for most people in America who are at least 14 years old, it is), the time it takes you to build your angry deck, play it, and then spread word of your dissatisfaction on fancy message boards represents an additional cost – an opportunity cost, since you could probably have made anywhere from $5 to $500 working instead. (Depends on what you do for a living.) Even if you didn't want to work, your leisure time is worth that much because you could be working.

Economics is very depressing.

In any case, you've almost completely wasted your $100, and perhaps a little more. Don't you feel like a complete schmuck?

Maybe we can do a bit better than this.

How Not To Waste Your Money On Magic

(Ironically, this subtitle would also have been disastrous on the front page of the web site. Isn't the English language cool? It's like that whole flammable/inflammable thing. No matter which way you go, you're likely to burn someone.)

Start over with that $100 worth of Ravnica product. It's just as many packs, but you feel that somehow, somewhere, you can do better.

Just how will you do this?

Well, it's not just about you, sonny. It's about your whole group.

Fun, like strength, comes in numbers. To get the most out of your cards, you have to act within a group. Get your friends in on it, and getting the most out of your cards becomes a great deal easier.

My six-point plan for achieving maximum utility and enjoyment out of your new Magic cards:

1) Buy in bulk, together. If you have five Magic-playing friends and all six of you are going to spend $100 each on Ravnica, you could buy your boxes through the Internet (or a willing local store) and spend less. Like beans, ice, or economic textbooks, Magic cards cost less to consumers who buy more. There are several reasons for this; bust open one of those dozens of economics textbooks you just purchased to find out what they all are.

Our group, which has many responsible adults with adult salaries (read: don't do this if you're under 18), just bought over a dozen cases of Ravnica. That's just plain crazy, isn't it? Well, not so much, if there are about 16 of us anyway, most of us want full sets, and we'll be playing casual sealed and draft formats for the next year. Read on to see just how crazy we are – crazy like a legendary fox, that's how!

As a result of our bulk buying, we spend about $2 per pack. That's a pretty good deal, for cards we were going to buy anyway. But it only works because we work together.

Even if your group of six buddies will only buy, say, six packs each between now and January, that's a full box. Sometimes you can get a discount for buying one box. Shop around local stores and ask. Use the Internet if you have to. You never know until you try.

2) Do not open your boxes right away. This gets its own bullet, because it's really freaking hard to do.

3) Use your cards for the group limited events you will play for the next few weeks. While I don't expect you to restrain yourself for months, certainly you can wait a few weeks to find out the contents of every pack you just bought, right? Try the following three formats:

  • Two-Headed Giant. Our group is beginning to swear by this one. Yes, two-headed games can be long – but since the Dimir guild is good at milling, a single game can come down to the same length as a typical four-player effort. Also, since more experienced players will all be diving after Dimir, that leaves lots of aggression open to the other teams – so whittling down 40 life suddenly becomes doable. You can achieve balance in this format, if you look for it.
  • Emperor. Don't bother with range of one; keep all players with a range of X-1, where X = the number of players on each team. Creature movement is optional – works either way, for us. (I think Emperors have more fun when they can draft and play creatures; but there's also something to be said for forcing some unusual strategic decisions on the team leader.) There are cards out there that are simply insane in Emperor format. To every tournament junkie who opens a pack, sighs in disgust, and tosses Hex aside, I say: next time, open your packs with five other people and draft that sucker!
    Readers often email me after articles like this with questions about Two-Headed Giant and Emperor formats. So, here are some helpful links to get you caught up.
    Lots of groups vary from these rules and that's fine for casual play. Do what works for you. I'm still eager to hear from you if you have an interesting variant, of course.
  • Duels. If you and your friends just can't bring yourself to try multiplayer formats, there's still nothing stopping you from busting the packs open at a slow enough pace to simulate sealed tournaments. Just do a round robin. If you don't have those big starter packs, five packs per player substitutes okay for simulating a sealed environment.

4) Redistribute the cards. This is a post-game activity. You can do this one of two ways. First, everyone can bring their own packs to the event and just remember what they busted open. (This works best for sealed, but is certainly possible for drafts…just write the rares and uncommons down in the packs you open, and get them back at the end.) You can also have one person supply all the cards for a given night, so there's no guessing.

Or, if the cards come from multiple sources, you can redraft the cards at the end of the night. Once you're done playing your draft matches, take turns picking cards to keep, in the order of how each player placed in the draft. Our group loves doing this. It means you don't care who supplies the cards – those who want to draft at the end of the night pay their fair share. (If someone pays for someone else to draft/play, they draft in that player's spot when the time comes.)

What post-game drafting does is encourage players – especially newer players, who don't understand why rare-drafting is against their own interests – to pre-game draft the best card they can out of each pack, regardless of rarity. Because drafting that foil Birds of Paradise in a deck that can't use it before you play any games does no good – you have to win with your deck, and then you draft for ownership based on how well you do.

It's good practice for a real tournament, where you win additional packs for drafting good decks (and therefore stand to win more quality rares for your effort than you get from just pulling gold symbols randomly at the beginning of the night). It's also good for your collection, too, since by redrafting cards at the end of the night, you smooth out the "bumps" in drafted card quality. The average player within a group can be reasonably sure they will get a normal distribution of quality rares as they draft.

There is a minor drawback to this plan in that regularly bad players – people who try and try to improve, but never seem to get over the hump – will consistently get low picks. To offset this problem, you can structure your draft like most fantasy football leagues: in an eight-player draft, give the eighth pick the start of the next round (so they get the 8th and 9th pick), and the rest of the table then picks in reverse. So the first pick gets that lovely foil rare, but then gets stuck with the 16th (and 17th) pick.

WotC employees having a ball last year playing 'unplayable' cards.5) Create a spare rares box. Other writers here on the site (especially Mark Gottlieb - just do a search for "Reject Rare Draft") have written about drafts done with random rares.

If your group is willing, you can have a "joint ownership" box that everyone contributes to. Or maybe one player just happens to have enough odd rares where she can just add her new acquisitions to it, and everyone borrows. Whatever works.

Just think – if you had started such a box two years ago, you could be revisiting weird Mirrodin and Kamigawa rares alongside your new Ravnica rares! It doesn't take long to get something eclectic going.

If rares are too rich for your blood, start an uncommons box. There aren't hard and fast rules around these things – just do what you can to suck as much value as you can out of those cards!

How To Open Packs Like A Hypocrite

(This subtitle, in competition with the other two, would have been the clear winner for a headliner. But instead of this one, or the other two within this article, I went with the super-happy cheerleader one that got you to crack open this link in the first place. Wow, that was manipulative. Can you still trust me? Is my advice still sound? Do I still love you? Yes, yes, and sorta. Come here, you. Big e-hug, coming your way. You're a super person and I'll never steer you wrong, even if I don't necessarily want you over at my house!)

This section is simply here to (a) close out the article and (b) serve as a suitable place for me to admit that I often open my packs in a big rush, without using the crafty methods I've explained here. Like, boxes at a time. Just did it last week, in fact. But that doesn't mean you should do the same thing. See, I'm different. Since my beautiful but devious wife became a New York Times bestseller, I lead a different lifestyle, and…

…okay, that's no good, either, because I did the same thing when she was a dirt-poor secretary who hated her boss and wished he would die, several times, every day, painfully. (She wasn't too keen on her under-earning husband 100 percent of the time, either; but I escaped the worst of her wrath with my brilliant sense of humor and irresistible, ugly-puppy-wearing-a-necktie sort of charm.)

Here's the deal. Sometimes, you just wanna open the packs. I get that. At the very least, do what I do and go in on your packs (or boxes) together. Open them together, sort and separate them, and then make sure you each get an equal set of cards. Whatever you can't split equally (e.g., there's only one dual land), you flip a coin and draft for. Like the post-game draft I noted above, this smoothes out your collection over more than one player, so instead of one super-lucky player and one super-unlucky player, you have two reasonably happy players. Then, while the glow of happiness is still reasonably warm, you trade off your foils to a third party and split the booty the same way.

That I do. I promise.


Anthony has been playing multiple Magic formats for several years, and has been writing for much longer than that. His young adult fantasy novel JENNIFER SCALES AND THE ANCIENT FURNACE, co-written with wife MaryJanice Davidson and published by Berkley Books, is available now.

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