Explorations #49 - Budget Alternatives
Before I start this article I want to make a quick announcement. Moving forward, I am not going to be publishing a weekly Explorations article. That doesn't mean I won't be writing moving forward, but I will not be locked into a weekly schedule. This decision is almost 100% driven by time considerations. I try to bring a quality article with every Explorations, and to get the quality I'm looking for takes a whole ton of time each week. I just don't have enough free time to continue this effort week in and week out. Kind of a bummer, but I've got to do it.
I am definitely planning on continuing to write, so definitely look for plenty more articles from me in the future - just not on a regular weekly basis. If I had to guess, I think I'd be moving towards closer to a bi-weekly schedule... but this will depend big time on my commitments.
Alright enough of this, let's get down to it!
Regularly Scheduled Programming
Here's an article that I wrote the bulk of while on a plane. I won't do much of a "November 2009 update", since it's reasonably recent. Let's get started!
Right now I'm on my way home from a conference at Stanford, enjoying a wonderful six hour flight back to Boston. Since I've been away my time to write has been limited, and I really wanted to use these six hours to get an article together. Of course, being on this particular plane limits the type of article I can write since Magic Online requires an internet connection... and the helpful yet mysterious 'airplane voice' just apologized for the fact that in-flight wi-fi would not be available today. Kind of a bummer, but as long as the plane lands safely I'm going to be going home happy.
If you've been reading my articles for any length of time, you know that I make a lot of decks - and I always try to make budget versions of the decks that I present for the cheapskates out there. This has given me a decent amount of experience scrounging through Gatherer in search of cheap replacements for more expensive cards. I've been meaning to write a full article on this subject for quite some time, so it looks like today's the day!
Here's the basic gameplan: I'm going to go down a list of expensive cards that you may want to play in a casual-ish deck, and then discuss the pros and cons of a few different budget options. I think this should be a lot of fun to put together, will serve as a decent reference sheet, and will hopefully spark ideas for a few decks out there. So how did I choose the list of cards to cover? I made it up off the top of my head! If I missed something then remember that I was on a plane when I wrote this damn thing - cut me a little slack. If I missed something good and you've got a good budget alternative in mind, then sound off in the comments.
Here's how it's going to look:
PIC OF NON-BUDGET CARD
PICS OF A COUPLE OF BUDGET ALTERNATIVES
... and repeat
Let's get started!
Actually, before we start, I have one more thing to make really clear - the budget alternatives I present are sometimes going to be weaker than the non-budget alternatives. If the budget ones were as good (or better), then they would be the ones in the expensive pile! What I'm shooting for here are alternatives that are in the same spirit, and will provide somewhat of a similar effect, even if they're not always as powerful. Sometimes they have advantages over their non-budget brethren, sometimes they have disadvantages. Some in this list are greater stretches than others. Ok, let's go!
One last note: All of my prices listed are approximate, since the market fluctuates daily. I use the word 'bulk' to mean pretty cheap. Time to start for real!
So after my little lecture about providing weaker budget alternatives, I'm going to start off with an alternative that's an exact equivalent. Armageddon is an iconic card, and is much more expensive than the functionally equivalent Ravages of War. This drops the price from 4 tickets per copy to 1.5 tickets per copy. The funny thing here is that in paper, Ravages of War comes out of the under-circulated Portal set and is super-expensive - one copy can sell for $150!
Back in my paper Magic days, I used to play a mono-white Legacy deck based on Smokestack. This deck ran lots of Armageddon effects, and since I was lucky enough to find two copies of Ravages of War on the cheap, I was able to run a split between these cards to guard against something like Meddling Mage. If Ravages of War is good enough for my competitive Legacy deck, then it should be good enough for a budget land-sweeper =)
Speaking of iconic white spells that wipe out a bunch of stuff, the second card I want to cover is Wrath of God. This card has spawned a whole ton of knock-offs throughout the year, and famously left Standard for the first time ever with the release of M10 earlier this year. Even though it's out of Standard, copies still go for around 4 tickets.
Austere Command also just rotated out of Standard and now sells for well under 1 ticket. Command is more expensive mana-wise, but it's also a lot more versatile. Solar Tide is a bulk rare and again adds versatility at the cost of more mana. Sunscour is half of a ticket and can be cast for zero mana, which is always a powerful ability in Magic. Winds of Rath in Classic is a pretty close replacement for Wrath of God at an additional mana, but sells for well under 1 ticket.
Wrath of God's evil twin Damnation has remained a 7 ticket card even though it is long gone from Standard and not really used much in Extended or Classic - at least when it comes to competitive decks. Since you're probably playing a bunch of Swamps anyway, why not check out Mutilate? This one kills pretty much everything and will run you about 2.5 tickets. Infest costs under a quarter and can take down early aggro creatures for three mana.
Replacing the ridiculous versatility of Umezawa's Jitte (7 tickets) is tough, but Loxodon Warhammer supplements a creature with power and evasion along with life gain for between 0.5 and 1 ticket per copy.
Stifle is a cheap and powerful card that produces a fairly unique effect, but goes for 6 tickets. Trickbind (1/3 of a ticket) costs an additional mana, but has the added ability of split second for your trouble. Squelch is a bulk card and gets you a cantrip, but can't be used on triggered abilities. If you want this ability in creature form, then Azorius Guildmage is probably your best bet. The Guildmage can't handle triggered abilities either, but is also a bulk card and can beat for two.
The traditional fetchlands are super-powerful and played in every format where they are legal. The originals can run around 8 tickets. Terramorphic Expanse is practically free, but can only put basic lands into play tapped. There was also a cycle of "fetch" lands in Visions (Mountain Valley) which are under half of a ticket and allow you to grab dual lands... but they come into play tapped.
People have been searching for budget replacements for the original dual lands for a very long time, and Wizards has printed about a million different options. The tri-lands from Alara are very strong options for polychromatic decks and can be picked up for well under a ticket, as long as you don't mind coming into play tapped. Auntie's Hovel (and the other tribal lands) can be equal to the original dual lands in the right deck with the right draw, so if you're playing Giants or something then this might be a good budget options. The new Refuge cycle from Zendikar is cheap and provides a bit of a life gain incentive for the friendly colors when it comes to comes-into-play-tapped dual lands.
Finally, it's easy to forget that just a few years ago the Ice Age pain lands (Adarkar Wastes, Sulfurous Springs, etc.) were manabase staples. The pain lands are cheap nowadays that it's clear they're out of Standard and not likely to return any time soon - but can be picked up for cheap if you're into other formats.
Glimpse the Unthinkable is a casual favorite that's never really made it into the top tier of constructed Magic, but remains at 8 tickets regardless. Mind Funeral costs an additional colorless mana, and has the potential to mill away more than ten cards. Of course it also has the ability to mill less than ten cards, and comes with some terrible art, but what can you do?
Cryptic Command was omnipresent in Standard until its recent rotation, and why wouldn't it be? Any card that gives you this many powerful options has got to be pretty good. Even though this one is only in Extended now, it's still around 4 tickets. Dismiss can provide two of these effects at a slightly easier casting cost for a bulk price.
Bant Charm or Naya Charm (or any of the other charms) provide some of Cryptic Command's versatility, and can potentially be more powerful depending on the exact effect you're looking for.
Discombobulate is another bulk option. This one counters the spell while allowing you to arrange your next few draws. It doesn't actually draw you a card, but it increases the quality of what you have coming up a bit.
Vindicate is one of my all time favorite cards. This one costs three mana and takes care of anything, but costs between 25 and 30 tickets. Oblivion Ring costs three mana and takes care of almost anything (other than lands), but costs about a nickel.
Wizards has been trying to balance the zero mana artifact that produces mana for a bunch of years. Chrome Mox (12 tickets) and Mox Diamond (32 tickets) are the closest that they've come, and they did it through card disadvantage. (Gemstone Cavern) is a bulk rare that is pretty much functionally equivalent to either of the aforementioned Mox cards... IF you have it in your opening hand on the draw. Those are two big "ifs", but at least you can play it as a regular colorless land if you don't meet the preconditions.
Lotus Petal isn't very budget at 2.5 tickets, but it provides a one-shot Mox-style mana boost.
Mind Twist finally made an appearance on Magic Online during Master's Edition III, and currently goes for around 1.5 tickets. If you're looking to save some cash here then Mind Shatter and Mind Sludge are roughly comparable and go for 0.1 and 0.05 tickets respectively.
Wasteland is an uncommon from Tempest that is run in pretty much every Classic deck that can support it, due to the ridiculous quantity of nonbasic lands that the average Classic deck packs. Ghost Quarter isn't nearly as good as Wasteland, but it can sure take out specific nonbasic lands. If your opponent is running a deck light on basics, then it can occasionally function as a straight up Strip Mine. That's what you get for $0.15.
Force of Will is the king of eternal formats, and probably the best Counterspell that will ever be printed. Why? Because it lets you counter a spell and costs zero mana. That's very good, and that's why FoW goes for 65 tickets). There aren't many cards comparable to this, but I'll throw a few out there anyway.
If you've got a hand with compatible casting costs, then Disrupting Shoal can possibly be better than Force of Will. The bummer is when you're trying to counter a spell and don't have a card to pitch with a matching casting cost. Disrupting Shoal doesn't do anything for you in this situation, but you can afford about 200 copies for the price of a single FoW!
Commandeer costs 1 ticket and can redirect (instead of counter) non-creature spells instead of countering for a pitch of two blue cards. This is much more situational, but can sometimes be more powerful than FoW. Doesn't do anything about Tarmogoyf though!
Here's another straight-up replacement, although Temporal Manipulation is only legal in Classic. Saves about 10 tickets per copy though.
These two cards are very close in functionality, but that little word "instant" is what makes Vampiric Tutor a 37 ticket card. If you're ok with searching up solutions at sorcery speed, then you can save yourself about 35 tickets.
Dark Confidant is heavily played throughout Eternal formats for its ability to provide card advantage at the cost of life, while beating down with two power. Phyrexian Arena costs an additional mana, makes the life loss more consistent (although never zero), doesn't get in there for damage, but is tougher to remove. Confidant goes for about 3.5 tickets, Arena is 1 ticket.
Pernicious Deed used to cost well over 100 tickets on MTGO, but has come down now to around 20. Crime/Punishment provides a somewhat similar effect for around 3.5 tickets. Plague Boiler is a permanent that blows up non-lands, while giving you a bit of control over when it goes off. Plague Boiler is a bulk rare.
Orim's Chant sells for nearly 40 tickets, and Abeyance sells for about twenty. In M10 they printed an inferior, but still awesome, replacement in Silence - which currently goes for about 1/2 of a ticket.
Demonic Tutor is the original tutor, and I really wish there was a way to get it with the original art. Sub-par art aside, this one also comes with a 16 ticket price tag. Grim Tutor costs an additional black mana and three life, but has the same functionality for 1 ticket. If you want to pay an additional mana, then you can save the three life and an additional $0.75. If you don't mind a restriction plus some risk, then check out Demonic Consultation for under 1/2 a ticket.
A while back I made a deck that wanted to run Miren, the Moaning Well and I was surprised to find that it goes for 3 tickets. Diamond Valley is the original Miren, sells for 1 ticket, but doesn't tap for mana. Life Chisel costs 4 mana to play, but sells as a bulk rare.
Mystical Tutor sells for 4 tickets, and allows you to setup your next draw as an instant or sorcery. Merchant Scroll costs an additional mana and only finds blue instants, puts the card directly into your hand, and sells for a nickel. Personal Tutor can be useful to find a sorcery that you need, for less than a quarter.
Null Rod is a cheap and powerful 30-ticket card that shuts down a huge amount of cards in just about every Eternal metagame. If you want a similar effect, then Damping Matrix is probably the best you can get for a dime. The Matrix costs more, shuts down creature abilities in addition to artifacts, and doesn't do anything about mana abilities.
When Shivan Wurm was first released, it had a ridiculous amount of hype behind it. Now a few years later it's basically just a 2.5 ticket card that nobody ever seems to really play. If you're looking for something similar, then check out Thunderblust for just under a ticket or Blitz Hellion for a quarter.
Juzam Djinn is one of the most iconic cards in all of Magic, and still costs $200 or so in paper. The 2 ticket price tag online may not sound like a lot, but if you want to play this guy then there are some cheaper options. Plague Sliver is a bulk rare, close to the same card, and also punishes Sliver players. Phyrexian Scuta will save you a ticket, and can be better or worse than the mighty Juzam depending on game state.
Tithe is a great way to grab lands out of your deck in white, assuming you're ok with paying 8 tickets per copy. Land Tax is potentially FAR more powerful and currently comes in at just over 1 ticket. Wanderer's Twig is a bit more expensive mana-wise than Tithe, but can be searched up with Trinket Mage, recurred with Auriok Salvagers and grab non-Plains basic lands. Weathered Wayfarer is one of my favorite cards of all time, and can be had for under half of a ticket if you're looking for a Tithe-ish effect with legs. There's also Knight of the White Orchid, which is a powerhouse.
Meddling Mage used to be a super money card, but since being converted into a woman and printed in Alara Reborn the price has gone down significantly. It's still $3 though. If you're interested in something cheaper than you can check out Declaration of Naught, which will cost you about a dime. This card is basically Meddling Mage in enchantment form, that's a bit more mana intensive. Runed Halo and Pithing Needle are also both under 1 ticket now, and can fill some variation of the role of Meddling Mage, depending on what you need exactly.
(pic=Might of New Alara)
I'm throwing this one up there, just because it's another example that jumped into my head of functionally equivalent cards at a different price. Why pay $1 for your playset when you could pay $0.08? I guess when you need redundancy, or are playing Invasion Block Constructed.
Tarmogoyf (probably the best creature ever printed) is basically impossible to replace completely, which is why it runs at 32 tickets and sees play in every legal format... but I'll throw out a few ideas anyway.
Nimble Mongoose comes down before countermagic, grows based on the graveyard, and has the added bonus of shroud - but almost always loses to other Tarmogoyf in a fight. If you have five lands in play, then Scute Mob is often just superior to Tarmogoyf. Tombstalker is another ridiculous two-mana threat, but only under the correct conditions.
The reason Tarmogoyf is so good is that it doesn't rely on any of the conditions that these other do in order to be awesome. He's just pretty much always good. That's why he makes the big bucks.
Thoughtseize has left Standard, but it's still around 2.5 tickets. I wouldn't expect this one to drop by a ton, since it's really popular in Eternal formats. The first alternate option here is the original Duress, which doesn't grab creatures but also doesn't cost you any life. You can pick up a playset for well under 1 ticket. Distress is even cheaper (bulk common) does have the ability to grab creatures, but costs couple black to cast.
Occasionally you see someone running Blackmail, which is another budget option. Blackmail is fantastic in some stages of the late game, but not quite so hot on turn one. One of the great benefits of the aforementioned options is that you're guaranteed to know your opponent's entire hand afterward. This is not the case with Blackmail.
Moat is one of Magic's early iconic cards, and one of the major players in the original control deck. A near-mint copy in paper can cost you $160, so the 4.5 ticket MTGO price seems pretty tame by comparison. If you don't want to shell out 18 tickets for a playset, you could try Magus of the Moat - which is Moat in creature form for about 1/2 of a ticket. Teferi's Moat also goes for 1/2 a ticket and can stop one color worth of non-flying beatdown from your opponent, and has the added benefit of not affecting your creatures. Requires five total mana (one blue) though.
Ghostly Prison and Propaganda don't stop creatures from attacking completely, but they certainly make it a lot more difficult. I'm a huge fan of both of these cards, they work fantastic to stall an early aggro assault. Propaganda costs 1/2 a ticket, Ghostly Prison is bulk.
Speaking of "Magus of the..." cards, Cursed Scroll is another somewhat pricey iconic card. If you can stand having your Scroll in creature form, you can save about 5 tickets per copy here. Magus of the Scroll also gets in there for one if you need him to. Easier to kill though.
(Nevinryyl's Disk) was popular in the early days of Magic as a colorless "reset button" that could take care of everything on the board. While it doesn't take care of everything on the board anymore (Planeswalkers, for example, stick around), it still runs close to 6 tickets. Another Magus, Magus of the Disk, can replicate the Disk's behavior in creature form - but is only available in white.
If you're looking for a cheaper, colorless reset button - then check out Oblivion Stone. Not only does this card take out everything (including Planeswalkers), but it's colorless, doesn't come into play tapped, and can be picked up for about 1 ticket.
Here's the last Magus that I'm going to mention, although you should feel free to check out the entirety of all three cycles. Bazaar of Baghdad is currently the hottest card in Classic, fueling the ridiculous Dredge deck. If you want to shave 9 tickets per copy, then check out the creature version. This is a particularly big downgrade.
City of Brass is another of my favorites from the early days of Magic. I still have two copies from Arabian Nights that I traded for back in 1994. They're still sitting in an old Legacy combo deck in my old bedroom at my parents' house. Lots of casual players love lands that tap for five mana, but don't want to pay 3.5 tickets per copy.
Vivid lands (Vivid Creek, Vivid Marsh, etc.) are the most contemporary (and cheap) 5 color land solution. I'm sure you're familiar with these, they helped create Standard manabases that could easily support both UUU and GGGG, remember? There are two minor problem, though: they come into play tapped, and they can only create 'rainbow' mana twice. If you want to solve one or both of these issues, then you should check out Mirrodin's Core, Grand Coliseum, Archaeological Dig, or Rupture Spire. These cards are each less than 1/2 of a ticket each, and have different pros and cons depending on exactly what you're looking for.
Nantuko Shade is one of the most vicious suicide black creatures ever printed, and sells for about 3.5 tickets. For budget alternatives, check out the "enchantment man-land" version in Genju of the Fens or take things old school with Order of the Ebon Hand for under a nickel each.
Eternal Witness is only an uncommon, but it's a pretty expensive card at around 4 tickets or so. While looking for alternatives for this one, I was really surprised to see how few cards in Magic can "Return target card from your graveyard to your hand." As far I can tell there have only been eight ever printed! It really is a rare ability, which is why having it on an efficient 2/1 is so coveted. Recollect is really the only thing I can find that's a functional replacement at all, and of course you don't get a 2/1 body along with this one.
Entomb costs eight tickets, and is a staple in Classic reanimator decks. For just over a dollar you can get triple the effect for triple the mana.
Crypt Rats is a common that costs 4.5 tickets due to its popularity in pauper. Withering Wisps can be used with in snow strategy to fill a similar role on the cheap.
Armadillo Cloak is another common that's pretty expensive (about 3 tickets) due to its value in the pauper format. Behemoth Sledge is Cloak in equipment form, and you can get a playset for way less than 1 ticket.
Ohran Viper is like a super-charged Ophidian, and so is Shadowmage Infiltrator - just in a different way. The Viper goes for about 3 tickets, and you can get Jonny Magic for well under 1 ticket per copy.
Enlightened Tutor is very versatile, finds a huge variety of cards, and only requires one mana - which makes it cost 8 tickets or so. Fabricate, Idyllic Tutor, and Trinket Mage can all be used to approximate some function of Enlightened Tutor on the cheap (budget-wise).
Birds of Paradise is the original creature-based, multi-color mana accelerator. While the price on this one has fallen over time, it still costs about 2 tickets per copy. Noble Hierarch is the new hotness, getting in there for damage or boosting your other creatures while still providing a mana boost in your one mana slot. The Hierarch has been seen in every format from Standard through Classic, and currently cost around 6 tickets.
If you're interested in a budget-friendly one-mana creature-based mana accelerator, then you can always go with the tried and true Llanowar Elves. If you're playing a BG deck, then Elves of Deep Shadow may fill your color needs better. If you're interested in trying out any sort of snow engine, then Boreal Druid may fit your style. Each of these options can be picked up as bulk cards.
Assuming you want access to all five colors, then you'll need to compromise a bit. Utopia Tree can be picked up for 1/2 a ticket and costs two mana, but taps for all five colors and can block one-power creatures. Springleaf Drum isn't a creature, but it teams up with any creature to replicate the Birds effect.
Ever since Bitterblossom (Bitterawesome?) has left Standard, the price has been falling and currently sits between 5 and 6 tickets. For between 1 and 2 tickets, you can get Goblin Assault which doesn't require a loss of life and produces hasty, must-attack, non-evasive beaters.
One of the true strengths of Bitterblossom is that it can also be used on the defensive. Those little tokens can chump block a huge monster each turn, holding off a bunch of damage at the cost of one life per turn. Another card can do that is the old-school favorite Forcefield, which you can pick up for 1/2 of a ticket.
Stillmoon Cavalier found a niche in Standard for a while, and always cost a bunch more tickets than you would think. Still holding at around 3.5 tickets, you may want to check out Fallen Empire all-stars (Order of Lietbur) or Order of the Ebon Hand in order to replicate some of the effect. You can't get protection from black and white at the same time, but you can save yourself nearly 3.5 tickets.
Chalice of the Void is a very difficult card to replace. It allows you pinpoint control over which spells may be cast, all at the price of XX mana and about 4 tickets. If you're using Chalice to prevent smaller spells from being cast, then Trinisphere may be a valid replacement at under 1 ticket. Thorn of Amethyst costs about a dime and has a similar effect, which shows its true power in a deck with mostly creatures. Neither of these options actually prevents your opponent from casting their spells, but it at least makes it harder.
If you want to prevent larger spells, then Gaddock Teeg gets the job done while beating for two at 1/2 of a ticket. People don't ever really use Chalice to prevent large spells from being cast, since it would cost a million mana - but I figured I would throw it out there anyway.
Eternal Dragon is a big body finisher (3.5 tickets) that's really tough to kill and has utility even while not in play through the ability to plainscycle. Firemane Angel is one of my personal favorite cards, and approximates a lot of these functions for about half of a ticket. The Angel is an evasive finisher, can gain you life if you're able to dump it in the graveyard, and is really tough to finish off completely.
Path to Exile takes these two guys down though.
Mutavault was hot stuff in Standard for a long time, fitting into basically any tribal strategy, beating for 2+, powering up Spellstutter Sprite, and producing mana. This card's price dropped after the Standard rotation, but it still holds at around 7 tickets.
If you want to run the original colorless manland, then Mishra's Factory is always a solid choice at around 1.5 tickets. If you want to go even more budget, and you're not worried about your lands staying creatures permanently, then check out Gargoyle Castle or Stalking Stones which currently cost around .2 and .02 tickets respectively.
Also if you're not worried about breaking the colorless restriction on these lands, then you can always check out the Urza man-lands, or the Genju cycle from Kamigawa.
Solemn Simulacrum is Jens Thoren's Invitational card, and holds strong at $3 even though it hasn't been played in anything competitive for a long time. Sakura-Tribe Elder costs about a quarter, and at least somewhat recreates the ability of the Simulacrum. The Elder is a 1/1 instead of a 2/2, doesn't replace itself when it does, and has to sacrifice to grab a land - but it is 2 mana cheaper.
Undermine is a rare from the days of Invasion where not much product was opened, so this Counterspell variant still sells for around 6 tickets. If you want a cheaper, trimmed-down version that doesn't handle creature spells for around a nickel then check out Countersquall.
Here's a budget alternative that comes straight from the minds at Wizards of the Coast. Here's a really good example of what happens when you create two similar cards at the same casting cost, but different rarities... and the mythic version is a million times better. Reminds me of (Grey Ogre), Uthden Troll, and Granite Gargoyle from back in the day.
Banefire is an amazing card that currently sits at around 2.5 tickets. If you want to save some cash on your red X direct damage, then check out Blaze, Fireball, or Ghitu Fire on the cheap.
Sarcomancy is an old-school favorite from suicide black decks back in the day that will still run you 2.5 tickets. Vampire Lacerator is some new suicide black hotness that you can pick up on the cheap.
If you don't mine changing over to red and paying two extra mana, then you can save about 4 tickets per copy on all of your power-doubling needs.
That's It For Now!
Wow, that was a lot of cards. Hopefully this list serves as a decent reference for my budget-minded readers. Have fun slinging spells on the cheap-ish!
Next week I'm going to write an article with a bunch of different deck ideas that I've had kicking around. Remember that this will be the last regular weekly article from me, for now anyways.
Thanks for reading!
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