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By: dangerlinto, Mike Linton
Dec 12 2012 12:53pm
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For what seems like years uncounted, people have been complaining about the cost to play Magic. In any format, there is going to be a threshold of acceptable costs for the demographic most likely to play it. For standard, that cost is usually kept reasonably low both naturally as the cards in the format are always in print, and arbitrarily at certain junctures by Wizards printing decisions (i.e. making all the constructed powerhouses Mythic Rares could make it more expensive). In eternal formats, that same natural process generally leads to more expensive cards and decks, simply through attrition, and other time more arbitrarily through reprinting making things cheaper.

As an aside to this entire article which will be about the cost of joining Vintage online, I think it's important to note how little complaining there is in the cost to maintain one's place in the format. That over a certain number of years, that cost to maintain one's place in standard is far, far more expensive than doing so in an eternal format. Die-hard eternal players bring it up all the time, but it is pushed aside.

Vintage players have a new beast to worry about these days though, and that is not about choosing one format over another - now it's about choosing one medium over another. With the announcement that P9 will be coming online in 2013, Vintage enthusiasts will have to look hard and long at the choices of the past and the choices they can make going forward. I opened up a dialogue over on themanadrain.com, the go-to forum for Vintage play and asked a simple question: "Will you be playing Vintage online?"

The answers I got were, for the most part, what I expected. For some they felt that the online medium was certainly not for them. There's really no arguing with that point - at least not in this article. This kind of personal preference to "not play with 1s and 0s" is difficult to overcome. Others decried the online experience as offered by MTGO. Again, I'm definitely not going to take issue with that, even though I feel some of the responses were not, shall we say, entirely representative of the state of affairs on MTGO or the client. Others thought, very reasonably, that since they had invested so much into their paper Vintage collection, they couldn't stretch their budget around also playing online. This is a perfectly cromulent (represent, Ms. Hoover!) objection to playing online if you ask me, and to boot, many of the people with this objection said they hoped the online Vintage went well. All in all it was quite possibly a cornucopia of reasonable and pleasant responses, which in my experience online happens pretty damn rarely.

Thankfully, few cited the price of Force of Will as the sole detriment to entry, that red herring of an excuse to put aside the entire eternal online experience. I'm not going to waste a lot of time on this, but it was nice that the thread didn't devolve into bickering over the one card (take note, denizens of forums dedicated to online play). Perhaps that is because there would something massively hypocritical about people complaining about the price of a card online being $100 when something like 20 cards in their paper deck cost more than that.

However, getting back to the people who would not play online because they couldn't fit more into their budget, I began to wonder how much more? I mean, isn't there a single deck they could afford online? Maybe they could sell a Moat they owned and come close to getting a deck just to have an online play option. Looking for that answer naturally led me to other questions: How much more expensive is Vintage in paper than online? Is every deck more expensive? How much of the P9 makes up the price difference? What about (10 or 15) proxy Vintage? Is it less expensive to play unsanctioned paper Vintage than it would be to play sanctioned online?

Of course, the only way to answer all these questions is to do a lot of leg work, and so I set out to do so. Getting sample of deck data, I quickly realized using a single tournament top 8 would not cover most of the bases - I noticed a distinct lack of some of the outliers in price difference between the two mediums. For example, the first tournament had no Tangle Wires or Metalworkers, which seemed like I'd be trying to skew in favour of online, so I then extended it to a second tournament which I saw had at least one deck with those cards, and felt with the two tournaments I had a much better random sample. I do wish I could have used more tournaments so I could have ended up with a storm list, which was notably absent, but honestly transcribing the decklists from these reports was work enough.

For price data, I used StarCityGames current pricing and MTGOtraders current pricing. There is always some consternation, usually from paper supporters, that it's possible through eBay auctions and other venues to get cards cheaper than SCG. To that I have to say that it's also possible to get better than listed prices on MTGOtraders as well if you give yourself enough time, and that you pay for convenience on both sites. Also, I like to remind people that getting scammed online usually involves doing something through massive ignorance on your own part, while getting scammed with paper & cardboard is much more possible, and if you want to avoid that by getting a PSA graded card, you're probably paying SCG's price or more anyway. I also used NM/M-only, non-foreign cards (which match online's always pristine and always English cards) but wherever possible on both sides used the least expensive version of the card. (eg. Revised Dual Lands over any other)

Once I had all the price data, it was simply a matter of plugging it in. So without further ado, here are the decks. To see a decklist, simply click on the deck name and it will open the decklist below the decks line information.

  Paper Cost Online Cost 10 Proxy 15 Proxy Paper (no P9) Paper Diff 10 Proxy Diff 15 Proxy Diff
Shops $6,638.03 $472.78 $1,388.13 $508.18 $3,338.08 $6,165.25 $915.35 $35.40
Dredge $1,473.67 $163.86 $193.77 $148.82 $1,473.67 $1,309.81 $29.91 ($15.04)
Bomberman $9,423.48 $959.31 $2,373.58 $1,623.63 $3,023.56 $8,464.17 $1,414.27 $664.32
Landstill $6,468.58 $1,049.41 $1,588.68 $1,008.73 $2,568.62 $5,419.17 $539.27 ($40.68)
Bomberman $8,713.81 $961.28 $2,013.91 $1,353.96 $2,313.89 $7,752.53 $1,052.63 $392.68
Landstill $7,226.33 $1,021.73 $1,556.43 $1,016.48 $2,126.39 $6,204.60 $534.70 ($5.25)
Oath $8,874.36 $936.55 $2,024.46 $1,294.51 $2,474.44 $7,937.81 $1,087.91 $357.96
Painter $7,831.54 $808.11 $1,151.64 $651.69 $1,431.62 $7,023.43 $343.53 ($156.42)
Shops $5,620.03 $549.55 $650.13 $395.18 $2,320.08 $5,070.48 $100.58 ($154.37)
Snapcaster $9,392.62 $986.69 $2,442.72 $1,692.77 $2,992.70 $8,405.93 $1,456.03 $706.08
Landstill $7,247.89 $1,050.20 $1,577.99 $1,038.04 $2,147.95 $6,197.69 $527.79 ($12.16)
Landstill $7,184.89 $1,001.41 $1,514.99 $975.04 $2,084.95 $6,183.48 $513.58 ($26.37)
Dredge $1,551.11 $232.41 $246.21 $191.26 $1,551.11 $1,318.70 $13.80 ($41.15)
Bomberman $8,514.33 $1,005.29 $1,814.43 $1,204.48 $2,114.41 $7,509.04 $809.14 $199.19
Snapcaster $9,546.07 $1,039.04 $2,596.17 $1,846.22 $3,146.15 $8,507.03 $1,557.13 $807.18
Fish $5,532.07 $1,079.49 $1,352.17 $872.22 $1,932.12 $4,452.58 $272.68 ($207.27)
Average Cost $6,952.43 $832.32 $1,530.34 $988.83 $2,314.98 $6,120.11 $698.02 $156.51
Mininum $1,473.67 $163.86 $193.77 $148.82 $1,431.62 $1,309.81 $13.80 ($207.27)
Maximum $9,546.07 $1,079.49 $2,596.17 $1,846.22 $3,338.08 $8,507.03 $1,557.13 $807.18

As you can see, the results are startling in that, depending on what sort of predilection you have to playing Vintage, you may or may not want to join online. Of course, if your goal is to play sanctioned Vintage, there is nothing for it. Unless you already own a large chunk of old cardboard, you either have more disposable income than the vast majority of people do, or you are playing online. With the average deck costing $6120.11 more and a minimum of about $1,300 more for paper than it does online, that kind of price difference is difficult for anyone to overcome with any objection.

If I were a more stubborn man, I'd suggest to everyone that that's where the comparison should end. After all, Magic Online really doesn't offer unsanctioned play. You can play in the Just for Fun room or in Tournament Practice, but you certainly cannot play with a card if you do not have that card in your collection online. However, this is Vintage we are talking about. And for many years, people have been playing in Vintage tournaments using proxy cards. For those unaware, most Vintage tournaments in North America are played in an unsanctioned manner because they allow the use of proxy cards - cards you do not own, but want to play with. The Vintage community felt that the only way to keep their format going with the ever escalating price of older rare cards - in particular the Power 9 - was to simply allow people to pretend they owned them and play with a plains with "Black Lotus" written in with a marker. From what I can see, most of the tournaments in North America are this way with a few exceptions, and over in Europe they also run these tournaments (though there seems to be more available sanctioned tournaments). This means that as long as you don't care about Wizards organized play incentives (including rankings, prize support, etc…) that you can play paper Vintage much more cheaply than if you had to actually own all the cards.

Here is where it gets interesting. As you can see, although there isn't a single deck that is actually less expensive than once you take the 10 most expensive cards out, some are very close, and then you have to factor in what the cost of online P9 will be in those decks. So the Noble Fish deck is only $272.68 more expensive than the online versions of those cards, which means if the 5 pieces of power (3 Moxes, Ancestral, Walk) which are in that deck were to cost ~$272 online, the decks would be about even. I can't sit here and tell you for sure that those cards won't cost that much. I surely hope they don't, but I don't expect them to come cheap, however they are released. If you enjoy playing Noble Fish decks, playing online might not be for you.

It gets even more interesting if you start to look at decks with 15 proxies. Yes 15. Many of the tournaments I found available would let you have 10 proxies, and pay an extra $1 (up to $5) to get 5 more proxies allowed. When factoring this into play, 9 of the 16 decks played were at least a little cheaper in paper than it would be online. That's not even taking into consideration whatever cost the P9 online will cost.

Sufficed to say, if you are the type of person who enjoys playing only a couple of different archetypes, and you simply don't care about WOTC's sponsorship of your tournament, you definitely have options that say playing with paper is cheaper for you.

However, I'm not really sure that there are that many people out there who actually play Vintage like this. And to be fair, I'm really not sure there are many people who get into a format with the idea that they'll only play one type of deck, ever, to the exclusion of all others. The problem is that by far the most agile of collections would be based around the Power 9 and dual lands, and as you can see from the list above, some of those lists are still significantly more expensive. So in another effort to view the entire question of the Price of Vintage from the angle of how much it would cost to be able to play every deck in those tournaments, here are the costs involved:

Paper: $17654.37
MTGO: $3068.61

In other words, if "playing Vintage" means being able to bring several decks to the table, the price difference is about the price of a brand new car. About $6400 of the paper cost is in the price of the Power 9 (again, minus Timetwister), so even if we simply compare prices of all the other cards, all of which had online versions, the price is still a little more than $8,000 in online's favour. I'm also fairly certain that whatever method WoTC decides to release the P9 with, that 8 pieces of power will not cost you $8,000 online. With numbers like these so drastically weighted in online's favour, it's hard to envision people starting from scratch joining paper. There simply can't be that many people out there for whom the prohibitive cost won't steer them toward the online game, and it seems unlikely there are that many people who would join Vintage just to play on the cheap with Dredge.

That being said, the $3,000 price tag for a complete online collection is no small number - and that still contains no power 9. It's certainly well above the normal price threshold for anyone who hasn't organically grown their online collection through the years, and it's certainly out of the price range of a sizeable chunk of the Magic playing demographic. And permit me to say that even if the price of Force of Will was half of what is now, that bringing that $3,000 price tag down so little wouldn't suddenly make the format that much more attractive.

Of course, you could play just one or two decks. But while Dredge remains cheap, it's not really a good gateway deck into the format long term, as almost none of the cards it uses are playable in any other deck. Shops, as the next step up price-wise is not too bad, and I would think it will be the leader as a gateway deck with the current price standing at around $500-600. Though that price stands without the Power 9. Shop decks offer several configurations that allow the player to experiment. The rest of the blue decks all come in at close to $1000 or more and will probably all top that price once the price of the Power 9 becomes known. All in all, very few people who play Vintage online will be doing so cheaply, barring a massive and completely unprecedented reprinting of most of the expensive cards in the format.

There are still other factors to consider when it comes to the cost of playing Vintage. The price of the cards is by far the biggest factor, but it's not the only one . Another is the availability and frequency of tournaments. What then is the expected return of your cards? While I thought about using the examples in the paper tournaments - these often cost about $20-25 or more and offer prizes ranging up to a piece of the Power 9 and are usually top-heavy on prizes - but it would be difficult to compare to online's tournaments. MTGO generally run the opposite way - the entry is small, the prizes smaller and much flatter, but there is a DE practically every day.

I would say practically the whole MTGO system is built for people to grind out tournaments - there are so very few large-scale tournaments and even most of the large-scale tournaments (MOCS - Magic Online Championship Series) are populated essentially by grindin. There is always a qualifier tournament, but it doesn't qualify nearly as many as the people who've ground out enough drafts and small constructed events to qualify at the end of every season. Not to mention it's only once a year at best that one of the tournaments is in Legacy. So if you are a Vintage player, this style of online play doesn't often attract the demographic of the format, which is thought of as generally older and with less time and more money. This may be a big factor in your decision about the value of your cards - if you can't make good use of them, what good are they? And that goes for either medium.

So what was the point of all this exercise? As I tend to do from time to time, I like to make a stab at predicting where the game is going. And I think it comes down to this - while Vintage enthusiasts online are excited about the release of the Power 9, the numbers above don't lead me to believe that on release day there will be a flood of players online with a vibrant Vintage meta. To be sure, there are people who've got online collections who have used foresight over the years to build them up even though they weren't going to play until Vintage was available, but I don't think there are so many of these that we'll be firing a DE a day to start. Neither is the cost of playing Vintage online cheap enough that it is going to attract people who don't already have a significant cadre of Vintage staples to start playing out of the blue. Proxy tournaments still offer people a method of playing offline that compares favourably to the price online, which means anyone who thinks little of ownership will have little reason to play online. Lastly, the paper players aren't going to dump a chuck of their collection to start playing online - at least maybe not right away. And MTGO organized play is going to have to take a long, hard look at the kind of offerings they give to Vintage players. None of these things will happen in a flash.

No, the release of the P9 will only be small start. A good start, I think, but a small start. Without a reserved list standing in the way online and with MTGO coming in significantly cheaper, if Vintage stands a chance at all of getting a larger community, it seems to me the clear choice will be for people to do so online. It'll just take a while to get there. Meanwhile, if you are thinking of getting into Vintage now or in the near future, I hope the information above will help you make some of the choices of how and where you'll be playing.


I have found that I prefer by KaraZorEl at Wed, 12/12/2012 - 20:04
KaraZorEl's picture

I have found that I prefer paper play because, while it hits my wallet a lot more, it offers a more casual environment in which you don't feel bad about getting tromped by a really strong deck. Online, people don't say anything but just sit there and play cards. It's frustrating at times. There are also issues like system crashes, lack of communication from Wizards and so on and so forth. Most people don't even know that magic online exists. People comment on my youtube videos of magic online games saying, "Where can I get this program?"

I am also 100% sure that if Vintage and/or Legacy took off to the extent it has in paper, the majority of those cards would skyrocket. I can't see sellers offering a Black Lotus for 15 tix, not when its paper price is considerably higher. So who will be playing Vintage online since there are no proxies? Answer: people who play dredge or people who already have their decks that don't require P9. This will obviously make for a broken environment in which only a few decks dominate, as all formats tend to follow this pattern- even Modern which has 20+ tier 1 decks but is dominated by Jund at present.

So yes, enjoy your cheap(er) cards, but at the end of the day, count me out for online play. Wizards of the Coast needs to do a considerably better job at it before I'm willing to come back. So far, it doesn't seem like they are.

Great article. Kudos to you by caliban17 at Fri, 12/14/2012 - 10:31
caliban17's picture

Great article. Kudos to you for doing an honest analysis including proxies - how Vintage is really played these days.

I'm still hoping for an ME5 with P9 as Mythics and Force of Will reprint to bring down the prices online to even more reasonable levels.

dangerlinto's picture

I mean, I'd like to see someone do a comparison of what it would cost across the board like I did for standard and modern. Standard cards are pretty pricey these days too.

So what's reasonable? I'm afraid that definition is highly dependent on your situation and point of view. If you had been collecting these cards since Mirage's release 7 years ago, you'd probably have found almost all the cards at a "reasonable" price.

There are so many factors to consider, it's very hard to put it all in one post - long story short - reasonable for *some people* buying in from scratch right now probably isn't going to be close to what WoTC is going to see as reasonable.