Play Patterns: Playing on a Budget

You’ve just finished watching Reid Duke make the Top 8 at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan with Abzan. It was awesome. You start looking up YouTube videos of other players crushing the competition with Abzan, Jund, and G/B Rock; players like Willy Edel, Yuyu Watanabe, and Jadine Klomparens. You decide,

“This is it! This is the deck I’m going to play in Modern!”

You go online to look up the most recent list and find something a bit discouraging.

 meta.png

Notice anything about Jund compared to the other decks in the meta? It’s nearly $1,000 more than any other deck among the top most played decks in Modern. G/B decks are notorious for being expensive. Tarmogoyfs have only recently dipped below $100 this past year. With Bloodbraid Elf’s unbanning and the resurgence of Jund, almost every staple has doubled in price. Cards like Liliana of the Veil have shot up from $70 to $130 and Dark Confidants have gone from $40 to $80. Why is the deck so expensive?

The deck has a very low synergy with itself. All of the cards are capable of standing on their own as powerful and strong. They don’t require other cards to make them good and don’t need any kind of set up to be effective. Compare this to a card like Thalia’s Lieutenant:

Thalia's Lieutenant

The card is very powerful, but only under certain circumstances and in certain decks. The card requires you to play a decent amount of Humans in your deck to fully take advantage of its enter the battlefield trigger. On a board full of humans, this card could add a lot of damage to that turn’s attack. By itself though, on an empty board, it’s just a two mana 1/1. Yes, it can grow from there, but again, your deck needs to have humans in it for that to happen.

These kinds of cards have narrow applications,  therefore their price tends to stay fairly low even though they’re considered very strong cards. Other examples of cards like this are Prized Amalgam, Baral, Chief of Compliance, and Cranial Plating.

 Prized AmalgamBaral, Chief of ComplianceCranial Plating

Now let’s look at a card like Dark Confidant, and why it’s so expensive compared to other Modern staples. A two mana 2/1 is a fine rate, it’s easy to cast with its only restriction being that you play black-producing lands, and it doesn’t require other specific cards to be good. It can come down on turn 2 by itself, or be similarly just as powerful on a complicated board turn 7. It’s only downside is its life loss, which means it has a small deck building restriction when it comes to the CMC of your cards. In any deck it’s played, it’s a threat poised to take over the game. Nothing feels quite as powerful as keeping your opponent’s hand empty with Liliana of the Veil while drawing two cards a turn with Dark Confidant.

Dark Confidant

Not only is Dark Confidant incredibly good but he’s also leaps and bounds ahead of his imitators. Wizards of the Coast has tried for years to make Dark Confidant look-a-likes but in the end, nothing sticks. They just can’t seem to make a card similar to Dark Confidant’s power without falling miserably short.

 Pain SeerBlood ScrivenerDark Tutelage

Most of these imitators have the same CMC as Dark Confidant, have a similar power and toughness, and may give you a sense of familiarity, but none of them come close. Their restrictions and clauses are too much to make them reliable. Confidant’s ability is essentially free and nothing beats that. In the case of Dark Tutelage, you’re not even getting the option to attack and block.

Because Dark Confidant is so unique and efficient at what it’s trying to do, it demands a big price tag. The same thing could be said about most of the cards in Rock decks. What can replace Tarmogoyfs? Sylvan Advocate? Lotleth Troll? Grim Flayer being perhaps the best option, and yet still not as good. Don’t even get me started on Liliana of the Veil; the card encompasses multiple different cards every turn.

Powerful, unique, and impossible to replace; its no wonder these cards come with a hefty price tag. So to create  a budget deck in these colors, where do we begin? When building a deck without Dark Confidant, but with Dark Confidant in mind, the best questions to avoid here are –

“What looks like Dark Confidant?”

“What cost the same as Dark Confidant?”

“What other cards reveal the top card of my library, put the card in my hand, and make me lose life equal to it’s CMC?”

Instead we should look at what role Dark Confidant is playing in these decks. What’s its purpose? Why are we playing it? When you realize that the answer to that question is recurring card draw, you can begin to look at a broader range of good options.

Tireless Tracker

The best example of this is Tireless Tracker. If you ask someone what card most closely resembles Dark Confidant, I would bet next to no one would guess Tireless Tracker. One is green and the other is black, one is larger than the other, and one generates card advantage on your upkeep while the other does it via land drops. That’s okay though, remember: we’re not directly substituting for Dark Confidant but rather playing a different card for the role. A deck playing Dark Confidant probably can’t swap one for one with Tracker. Confidant decks play a low curve and has been heralded as an early tempo play as much as it card advantage. Conversely, a Tracker list probably wouldn’t want to swap one for one with Confidant. Tracker lists tend to play a more painful manabase with more fetches and have a higher curve making Confidant too painful. It’s important to understand that the cards are very different even though they are filling similar roles. To further prove the point that they are as wildly different as they are similar, some decks even opt to play both; Dark Confidant as early tempo card advantage and Tracker as an end game finisher. Of course another big advantage of Tracker, and what we’re focusing on in this article, is that it’s 1/8th the cost of Confidant right now.

Let’s look at another example with Tarmogoyf. What questions should we be asking ourselves?

Tarmogoyf

“What other creatures have */* in their power and toughness?”

“What other creatures cost two mana?”

“What other creature’s power and toughness are based on graveyards?”

Nope. Like with the Dark Confidant, instead of trying to find the cheap knock-off, we want to figure out what role the Goyf fills. What’s its purpose? Tarmogoyf’s role is simple: to be a big stupid idiot that hits your opponent hard. The card doesn’t have any cool abilities and doesn’t even have any key words like Trample. It’s expensive because it’s the best big stupid idiot in the game, and that’s all.

A two mana 4/5 or 5/6 is an incredible rate of efficiency. When looking at your own deck, if Tarmogoyf is a card you don’t have access to, you’ll need to find your own efficient beater. Remember that it doesn’t have to resemble Tarmogoyf at all to be good. An example of this could be Tasigur the Golden Fang. The card can be cast for very cheap with a graveyard full of cards, hits hard with a 4/5 body, and even has the ability to generate some card advantage. It can be a very powerful finisher and dodges a lot of popular removal in the format like Fatal Push, Abrupt Decay, and Lightning Bolt. Like Confidant and Tracker, comparing Tasigur and Goyf is like comparing apples and oranges. The cards are very different but they can both fulfill the same role as a strong finisher.

Tasigur, the Golden Fang

Now, repeat this process for other cards you may need. What’s your choice in discard spells? Removal spells? Hard-to-handle threats like planeswalkers and creature lands?

Once you have all your spells, you’ll want to evaluate your mana base. This is where budget decks get hit the hardest. Lands are expensive, especially fetch-shock mana bases. Since most Rock decks are 3 colors, it can be difficult to deviate from this at times. Modern has a very large card pool though, and every block has a land cycle that you can evaluate for your own deck. Some of the more budget friendly cycles of lands that are under $10 are Battle for Zendikar creature lands, check lands, cycle lands, Kaladesh fast lands, battle lands, and pain lands.

Shambling VentIsolated ChapelSheltered Thicket

 Blooming MarshSmoldering MarshLlanowar Wastes

Preferably, I would say you should prioritize lands with the ability to enter the battlefield untapped so you can use the mana right away. Generally you want to stay away from lands that enter the battlefield tapped unless they do something very powerful beyond mana fixing. Creature lands or cycle lands that turn late game draws into relevant spells can be worth the slight delay. If you can, try to avoid the land cycles that include Jungle Hollow, Sandsteppe Citadel, Forgotten Sanctuary, and Rakdos Guildgate. These lands will slow down your game-plan and don’t balance the downside of coming into play tapped with any relevant advantages.

So let’s put these techniques to use and look at some possible budget lists. Here are two separate Jund lists, the first one’s budget is $550 and the second one is $100.

Jund 550.png

This list looks pretty similar to a lot of optimal Jund list. We even get to squeeze in two Lilianas! Many of the cards are popular and powerful, including Thoughtseize, Bloodbraid Elf, and Fatal Push. The mana base takes the biggest hit here to preserve some of the more powerful cards in the mainboard. In the end, we still get to have a playset of fastlands and 5 creature lands despite the budget restrictions. I should clarify that the mana base should absolutely be the first thing you upgrade, even over more Lilis or Tarmogoyfs. Modern is built on the fetch-shock mana base and G/B decks are no exception. Once you start assembling those pieces, it becomes much easier to build decks in the future.

Jund 100.png

This list is ultra budget, sitting at around 5% of the cost of an optimal Jund list. If you have next to zero cards in Modern, this may be the place to start. Bloodbraid Elf is the most expensive card in the list but I wanted to prioritize it because it’s such a fun card to cast and play with. Blightning makes for a great budget cascade, and creatures like Skinshifter can be fun threats to interact with. Garruk Relentless is in here because I think it’s important to keep a planeswalker slot. It’s good practice for anyone new to Magic or just new to Modern, and maintains the threat diversity that Rock decks employ. Players should get used to having one on the field and the strategical implications they bring with them. We’re still trying to keep the heart of the strategy alive here with discard, removal, creature lands, and other big threats.

Here’s a look at some possible Abzan lists with the same budget restrictions.

abzan 550.png

Again we can see a lot of heavy hitters in this list despite our budget and again the mana base takes the brunt of the cuts. While I believe most would say that buying Modern mana bases is the first and biggest step when getting into Modern, I understand that players don’t want to play Verdant Catacombs and Overgrown Tomb just so they can cast their Lotleth Troll or Putrid Leech. I get it, people want to be casting powerful spells and would rather do that than fetch for shock lands. I just want to emphasize that it really needs to be the first upgrade for these lists before switching out threats for more powerful ones.

Abzan 100.png

This list is going a little bigger on the curve than the $100 Jund list with Smiters, Lieges, and Siege Rhinos. Sorin, Solemn Visitor is the Planeswalker of choice here and pairs very nicely with Lingering Souls. I gave up some of the more powerful interactive spells to hold on to Path to Exile as I think its a good card to buy that can go towards all future builds and iterations of the deck.

Lastly we’ll look at G/B Rock with all the same budget restrictions.

GB 550.png

Two things were important to keep here for me: one, to ensure I could fit four Tireless Trackers in with the Field of Ruin and Ramunap Excavator package and two, to make sure the full four Fatal Pushs are included since it’s the best removal spell for the deck. Like the other lists at $550 we get to play two Lilianas, a good diversity of threats, a good discard package, and good removal spells. Compared to all the other lists, this one requires the least amount of upgrades to the mana base. By swapping out the Cemeteries, a Swamp, and the Ghost Quarters, you only need two Overgrown Tombs and four Verdant Catacombs for an optimal mana base.

GB 100.png

This ultra budget G/B Rock deck maintains the Tracker package even while on a $100 budget. This deck also gets to play an awesome grindy combination of Den Protector and Deathmist Raptor with Whisperwood Elemental to tie it all together. Deathmist Raptor can be nearly impossible to get rid of for good and Den Protector gives the deck a lot of late game play. The removal spells suffer here a bit without Fatal Push, but other budget options could include Hero’s Downfall, Smother, and Victim of Night.

 Victim of NightSmother

Depending on what cards you already have and how much money you can invest, these lists may prove to be fairly decent places to start. I tried to include as many cards as I could that can go towards the final iterations of these decks. It’s important you’re not wasting money on expensive cards that won’t be in the final versions. If you can invest more, you can take the $550 lists and start improving the mana base. If you can’t afford the $100 list, you can take the shell of it and eliminate some of the more expensive cards.

The point I want to make with these lists is that regardless of budget you can still play a Rock deck with threats, removal, and discard without playing the most popular or optimal versions. Everyone has to start somewhere and not everyone can dish out $2,000 before next week’s FNM. I find that most people, including myself when I started, were more than happy to throw something together that had a resemblance of tier 1 Jund or Abzan. I remember I just wanted to grind games and out maneuver my opponent, regardless of which cards I could do it with at the time.

bloodbraid-elf
“Bloodbraid Elf” by Steve Argyle

It can be disheartening when newcomers trying to join the community, looking for a place to start, prefacing that they do not have the money for tier 1 versions, are being turned away. Often times, you’ll see people say things like this:

“Just play Tron or affinity, those decks are cheaper.”

“If you can’t afford Goyfs or Lilianas then you shouldn’t play this deck.”

It’s hard to see someone who is trying to play a Rock deck, a strategy we all love and enjoy, be given the advice to play something else.

Could you play a different tier 1 deck for a 1/3 of the price of Jund? Yes.

Does this help you take steps toward playing the deck you want to be playing? No.

What this suggests is that somebody on a budget spend $600-$800 in the opposite direction of Rock decks. One of the biggest mistakes I made when getting into Modern was buying decks and playing them because they were cheaper than the ones I actually wanted to play. I enjoyed playing sub-optimal versions of Abzan ten times more than when I was playing cheaper, more linear decks. The advice to play other decks with no crossover cards is just not helpful. If someone wants to play a Rock strategy,  we as a community should welcome them and help them do just that, even if it means playing it for $50.

Not everyone is trying to play in a Grand Prix or a Pro Tour and if they are, it’s possible they may just need a place to start. When helping someone with their deck,  it shouldn’t be assumed that it’s always at the top tier of competitive play.  Some people just want to play with their friends at the kitchen table, and why shouldn’t they be able to call their decks Jund or Abzan just because they don’t have Tarmogoyfs in them?

Regardless of which direction you choose to take your deck or whether it ever evolves into the tier 1 versions, the most important thing, is that you enjoy what you play.

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