This is an article I’ve been writing short chunks of for a few months now, and with the lull between relevant formats, this is as good a time as any to get it out there. Note that this is aimed at people newer to Magic Online or those looking to put the time in to play for free, not those that are already grinders on the program or people playing purely for a few drafts a month. For those of you interested in playing more than a handful of hours of Magic Online per week and doing it on the cheap (or free) then this is aimed at you.
What Formats Can I Play?
Theoretically, you can play any format, and as long as you win enough you’ll make money. However, Constructed offers the best return on your investment, hands down. Outside of Legacy, where the events struggle to fire, Standard or Modern Daily Events are by far the best and easiest way to make money from Magic Online by playing.
Standard in particular is the format of choice, because the initial investment to get a Standard deck can be very low, and if you do invest in a higher-end deck, it’s much easier to flip than in real life. Welcome to the one major advantage that Magic Online has—you can get instant payment for your cards.
Choice of Deck
Red, a.k.a. The cheapest possible tier 1.5 deck. There’s a reason this deck is around 10-15% of the online metagame at any given moment. It wins around 50% of its matches and the more you metagame it and better you pilot it, the more it becomes a realistic avenue. I play red because I find a lot of the combat and race situations to be interesting in a way I can’t really get from other formats. You should play it because it costs 50 tickets to build and even less depending on the number of [card]Mutavault[/card].
This concept is similar pretty much every year, even if it isn’t a red deck. There’s typically always a cheap aggro option that has just enough of a win rate to be worth playing and pays for itself after only a handful of Daily Event cashes. I’ve definitely seen players buy into MTGO with cheap RG and red decks costing around or less than 100 bucks between deck and events, and came out ahead after only a week or two. Just don’t buy a cute deck that ‘only’ costs 30-35 tix and only wins in the 2-man queues or needs large amounts of luck to cash Daily Events. I’m looking at you, Izzet Blitz.
Unfortunately for the more control inclined, finding a consistently solid control deck is difficult unless the metagame is clearly defined. The past year has not been friendly to control for more than a month at a time and the shells have changed constantly, making keeping up with the Johnsons rather difficult. They also tend to be focused around core mythics and rares that retain expensive prices ([card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] being the obvious and clear offender for the next year) that make it tough to buy in.
A good rule of thumb for buying into MTGO is that no matter what your initial budget is you never want to buy what is currently topping the charts in the Daily Events for that week. As you get closer to the end of a Standard season this matters much less, because everything flattens out in older blocks, and there’s a fair number of players dumping cards. If you just buy into the hot new deck when it’s been doing well for two weeks, you’ll pay a premium because those cards are hot and very few players will want to dump them.
One other note when buying decks and switching decks: It’s better to buy into a new deck very early and get a feel for it in the first few days it circulates around the internet and Magic Online. Not only does this make the price point lower when buying, but if you find you dislike the deck, you can often dump the deck at a minor profit within that same week if it gains a following online. You can do this easily with specific mythics as well—more on this later.
What Events to Play
Constructed (Standard) Daily Events, Release Events, and Premier events
As with everyone else who has ever considered the quandary of getting value out of Magic Online, the realization that Constructed Daily Events pay out very well for the investment came quickly. As far as I’m concerned, buying a cheap Standard deck and battling Daily Events is the number one way to get into Magic Online and not spend hundreds of dollars in the first six months.
To quote Michael Jacob’s FAQ on going infinite:
“Entry fee – 6 Tickets
12 Points – 11 Packs
9 Points – 6 Packs
With a pack price of 3.33, you can see that you just have to 3-1 one in three Daily Events to make a 2-ticket profit. This is VERY good ev.”
If you want a full breakdown on the EV, Chris Mascioli already wrote a good piece on the subject a few years ago.
Essentially, your return on investment is very good on Dailies, and ranges from OK to “Who plays these queues!?!” for the rest. Not only do they present you with a tournament with some room for losses, but they provide the best reward for the time invested. Playing in Daily Events and doing well means you will be playing against better competition as you play more of them. The better the comp and the more rounds you get to play, the better you’ll become at the game of magical cards.
The only issue I have with the common wisdom of only play Daily Events is that this requires a notable time investment. Unless you have a very good win percentage in 2 and 8-man queues, you really need to be able to battle 4-5 DEs per week. Most weeks I only get two or three in and I make money on Magic Online primarily because I speculate a bunch and buy in early to formats. This means when I need straight cash I can sell off whatever the most popular deck is at the time, make a profit on whatever I spent and reinvest.
When I did have the free time and drive to play a bunch of DEs, I was doing 6-8 a week and cashed right around the 65% mark. Considering you only need to cash one in every three to break even, I was making a tidy sum for myself and getting plenty of experience for real life events. It really isn’t that tough if you play a tier one strategy and if you keep track of the ever changing online metagame.
What Events Not to Play
Drafts, Daily Sealed, basically anything else
Limited is a black hole for tickets without any consideration for how good you are. There’s just no Daily Event equivalent for Limited play, and drafts in particular are just wretched considering how easy it is to drop a match. Even if you know for a fact you’ll draft and play better than everyone else in your pod, you’ll be hard pressed to have a big enough advantage to offset the inherent cost.
What seals the deal for many is that Draft is also by far the easiest way to incinerate tickets in a short period of time. You can easily blow 24ish tickets in an hour and a half with back to back bad drafts. Losing in a DE not only gives you more experience and prizes, but more play time as well. Drafting is a lot of fun and I wholly recommend doing it with the understanding that any money you sink into it is as good as lost the moment the draft starts.
Sealed events are a little more interesting in the sense that they typically pay out closer to Constructed, which helps offset the much larger entry fees involved. This is why people love release events, you actually get decent ROI instead of just paying Wizards’ rake.
8-mans, Gold Queues
It’s debatable whether or not these are worth the investment. Gold queues are inherently miserable because of the swings and supposed player skill jump compared to 2-mans. I mean who else would just spend 10 tix for one match with an average deck and less than 50% to win? As it turns out, lots of people! They aren’t nearly as hard as one might expect and thanks to the larger payout you can actually make money and streak pretty easily. The downside is the appeal of the gold queues go away the longer they’re left on for. Massive influx of current boosters traditionally overwhelms demand and sinks the pack prices making them miserable after a day or two, since you spend 10 tix to try and win 14-15 instead of 17-18.
8-mans are in the same boat—Daily Events are way better to play, but 8-mans at least can pay out a fair amount when the pack prices are above 3.5. Plus they take 1-1.5 hours typically instead of the three-hour time investment that DE’s have.
The Role of 2-Mans and When to Play Them
Some people will tell you never to play 2-man queues because over time it’s likely the best you can do is break even. Even if you come out ahead it’ll be by tiny margins because of the low ROI involved and natural variance. You also don’t play against a high level of competition in them because of how the skill curve plays out (one match against random opponents versus winning competition over the course of a four-or-more-round tournament).
Yet, I would recommend people play them if they’re time strapped and need some way to practice or enjoy themselves without devoting a three-hour block of time. What these evaluations often don’t take into account is the time necessary to play a sufficient quantity of Daily Events and what this means in terms of your own skill development, especially with new decks. Ideally you practice in a few random 2-mans and jump straight into Daily Events, where you get more play time and better prizes for your buck.
For some of us the idea of playing Daily after Daily simply isn’t realistic either because we just don’t have the time, we have three hours but don’t want to spend said block of time on Magic Online versus other activities and/or our schedule simply don’t sync up with Magic Online scheduling. For these people the two man queues are a great way to not only get familiar with a deck, but a way to at least try out a wide variety of matches in a shorter period of time without wasting precious dailies.
Same goes for when you want to switch over to a new deck, practicing is better suited to the 2-mans if you only have a limited amount of time. Once you get good enough you’ll almost never lose money playing 2-mans, but you sure as hell won’t make any.
Other Ways to Make Money on Magic Online
Speculating and flipping cards is a pretty normal tactic to keep the money flowing, especially during losing streaks or to make up for incinerating a bunch of tix on draft. If you bought into Standard early then you can dump extra decks you don’t really like, or cards that aren’t exactly necessary for the continued success of the deck. A good example of this is dumping [card]Liliana of the Veil[/card] when she hit 40ish and still battling with Jund. You probably reduced your win percentage a few points in some matches, but outside of cards like [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] or [card]Thragtusk[/card] you can cut a lot of cards from Standard decks and they’ll function nearly the same.
Buying into rotation cards early is an easy way to save a handful of tix on rares ([card]Mutavault[/card], [card]Boros Reckoner[/card]) that’ll see play, can save 5-10 tix on mythics ([card]Obzedat, Ghost Council[/card], [card]Jace, Architect of Thought[/card]) that find a home in one or two decks, and a boatload on sleepers that explode. Even cards worth a fair amount already like [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] and [card]Voice of Resurgence[/card], buying them at 30 is a lot better than waiting until they get to 45-50 if they end up in tier one strategies. These types of cards will often sit lower than their actual value for months on end because of low play in Standard.
In real life the rule of thumb for selling before rotation is about three months ahead of time. Standard PTQ season is still going and people are still interested in playing the format for a couple of months. Online there tends to be a longer shelf life because Standard is always relevant as a value format, so mythics retain value longer and can spike wildly. Look at [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] which went from around 30 in March and started a slide to 15 that it never recovered from. Online Thundermaw went from 30 to 25, leveled out, spiked for 3 days, dropped down to 15-16 and spiked back up to 25 in both July and August respectively. You could’ve gotten months of extra play out of Hellkites and still sold at 20-22 easily.
The window for drops also tend to have far more wiggle room thanks to the sheer number of bots and the speed at which they get updated. Often if you catch a downward trend within a day you can still find bots to dump your cards at before they crash. Even crashes tend to be spread out over the course of a week compared to real life, where if one large dealer jumps ship, many others follow suit and you have to dig for someone to buy your stuff. This isn’t even taking into account the time lag between submitting a buy order and the cards getting there for less reputable dealers.
Is That It?
Yeah, pretty much. All you need to do to play Magic for free online is buy a reasonably-priced Standard deck, practice with it until you play it well, and then battle Daily Events. Stay away from Limited for the most part and adjust your deck as needed. Have fun!
Email me at: email@example.com
P.S. Please don’t double queue until you feel comfortable with your deck, and preferably only with fast aggro until you’re confident in your abilities. There’s nothing worse than running into people trying to double queue with decks like Esper unless they happen to be LSV.