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Defining Budgets

A wise man once said that "The beginning of knowledge is the defining of terms"

Traveling Philosopher [THS]

What is "budget"?

When I read the plethora of literature that exists about building budget decks for Magic, my first question is, what do people mean when they use the word "budget"? What do I even mean when I say the word "budget"? It seems that budget is a word that players use in reference to different deck lists frequently, but there is very little existing information which defines what budget is supposed to mean. I personally feel that the discussion of budget builds could be greatly advanced if the community as a whole could reach some sort of consensus on exactly what the word "Budget" means. A first stab at a definition could be, "Budget: A deck that a player can use effectively and also afford to play". However, this basic definition tells us very little about how much a budget deck should cost or what a budget deck might do.

In Blue-Green Threshold, the first installment of Wizards of the Coast's now dead column "Building on a budget" (which you can read here) Nate Heiss set a goal of providing constructed deck lists for Magic Online that cost "30 tickets or less." I think the financial target of $30 is much more difficult now than it was when Blue-Green Threshold was published eleven years ago. It's no secret that Magic has been steadily growing in popularity each year, and as more players flock to the game the demand for cards also grows, driving up the average price of cards. Despite the pricing disconnect, Nate's goals for his column provide a wonderful mission statement for anyone designing a budget deck-list.

  1. "Provide a fun playing experience"
  2. "Stand a chance in their respective environments"

While the first goal may seem obvious at a glance, I feel it is important to never lose sight of the fact that Magic is first and foremost a game, and should always be enjoyable to play. The second goal is less precise. When Nate said "Stand a chance" it's difficult to say what he intended that to mean. It is important to note the difference between the words chance and certainty. Nate did not claim to be publishing deck lists that were unbeatable nor did he expect his lists to be incapable of winning. Perhaps Nate meant that his lists should stand an even chance of winning, or a minimum of a fifty percent expected win ratio. That seems like a reasonable goal to reach for.  

The 20% Rule

Now that we have a defined purpose for budget lists, we still need some way of finding a concrete price. As I previously mentioned Nate's $30 mark seems to be too low for today's card prices. The $100 price point seems to be the ideal number for many people. Published writers and home brewers alike frequently attribute great significance to decks which can be built for $100 or less. What makes $100 so special? Perhaps it's the appearance of a third digit that causes the number to feel so significant. It's easy to admit that a playable deck for any format that prices out at $100 feels worthy of the budget title. However, that doesn't mean that this is the ideal price point for budget decks. Aside from the psychological barrier of passing the $100 mark on a deck list, I personally feel that players should assign no extra significance to it. For that matter, choosing any single number as an ideal budget price seems flawed. It's important that any target price a player chooses for a budget deck takes into account expected cost for building a deck in the desired format and be relative to the price of those existing successful deck lists. For now, Standard seems like as good a format as any to work with while developing a frame-work for proportionate budgets. The same approach can be applied to other formats later if this approach seems effective. On that note, let's dust off the old slide rule and give mathematics a whirl. 

The first step to take towards finding a proportionate budget price is to look at the typical price of a competitive standard deck list. An easy way to approximate that typical price is to find the average price of the ten most popular deck lists in the format. A look at the Standard Metagame and some quick addition puts the top ten deck-lists at $3,735 dollars (as of November third) total, or an average of $373.50. Spending nearly $400 is not budget friendly, but it does provide a frame of reference for what we're brewing against.

Earlier I mentioned the $100 mark as a popular number for budget builders. Compared to the current average price ($373), $100 weighs in at well over 25% of the average cost of a standard deck. Is 25% the ratio we're looking for? I personally feel that 25% is a bit higher than a budget target needs to be, especially when we apply it to the significantly more expensive eternal formats. Perhaps a flat 20% is a more appropriate target. 20% would put our current standard budget price at around $75; that's only $18 lower than our 25% budget for Standard. The drop in target percentage should help keep our budget manageable in more expensive formats, but it will also help our proportionate budgets insulate themselves from the day to day changes in the average price of competitive deck-lists 

So if 20% is an acceptable goal, then the definition for budget decks would become as follows. Budget decks:

  1. Are fun and rewarding to play
  2. Stand an appreciable chance against established decks in the format
  3. Cost no more than 20% of the average competitive deck.

Now we have a definition and it sets out some clear goals, but are we operating in the realm of posibility? Is it really feasible to build a viable standard list for 20% of the average cost? My best answer is that I do not know, but here is a first attempt.

I think this list has a lot of potential for explosive wins in a Standard format that is generally pretty slow. Most importantly, this list shows that it is possible to make a deck that meets our criteria. 

It seems to me like we've found an acceptable definition, but I would like to know what other people think. If you have any thoughts about this approach for determining budgets, budget brewing, or anything at all, give me a shout at

Until next time.

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