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I'd like to get back into this game, but the real appeal for me is the collecting aspect, especially trading cards and not knowing what to expect from a foil pack. It seems there are a lot of different options for online play, but what is the best way to replicate the experience of real-world collecting, deck building and playing online?

If you could perhaps detail some of the most popular methods of play and the kind of features they have, it would be appreciated. I don't imagine there's a client that supports all the cards yet? It would appear the only way to build a collection like in real life would be to play the official Magic: Online game. But it would be ultra swell if there were some free way of collecting cards.

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What do you mean a free way of collecting cards? If it's legal, then it's not going to be inherently free, because that's their source of money (though a smart trader might be able to slowly work his way up), and if it's illegal or otherwise completely free, then there's no point in collecting; you can just have everything. –  Jefromi Feb 3 '12 at 16:02
    
Yeah sorry, bit of a silly statement in retrospect. I was thinking that there might be a client that just interacted with Gatherer that could simulate booster packs -- and that it wouldn't be a problem due to the absence of manufacturing costs. But yeah, nevermind. –  persepolis Feb 3 '12 at 16:08
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1 Answer

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There are two typical ways to play MTG online:

With the official client, where you spend money and build a collection of cards, just like with paper cards, except virtual. The community is very strong. The last number I seem to recall was that MTGO creates about as much revenue as the global paper MTG (and that was back in 2007), so the online player population is about as large as the offline population, except everyone is in one place, so it is infinitely easier to find a game at any given time. Managing large collections and building decks from it is of course also much easier.

The other way is to try one of the countless free clients out there, some of which provide rules checking. I'm not well informed of that scene, but a quick google search should get you started in no time. Of course, there is not much of a collecting aspect there, because you just put together your deck from the whole pool and play, but OTOH it's absolutely free, financially.

As for having a collection aspect AND doing so more or less free: AFAIK you could do that in the official online game. Money buys you tokens, and tokens buy you cards and entry fees to tournaments. In tournaments, you can win tokens. So, as the legend goes, if you're good enough, you can "go infinite", basically playing and increasing your collection for free. The existance of such players has been doubted, however, and I've never played MTGO, so I wouldn't know for sure.

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I think "going infinite" is a nearly unachievable dream - I'm pretty sure very few people make a decent living solely out of playing Magic competitively - but certainly drafting MTGO is a lot less expensive than it looks. If you keep an eye on card values and sell back what you've drafted at the end of every game, you can recoup a good percentage of your costs. (If you're lucky and open a chase rare, you can pay for your draft with a single card.) And then, if you win more games than you lose, you win prize boosters too which you can put towards your next drafts... –  thesunneversets Feb 3 '12 at 18:00
    
It should be noted though that selling cards to pay for playing more Magic is pretty much the antithesis of the OP's stated collector impulse. If you get attached to your collection then it's going to be a lot harder to make money out of it: it's comparatively rare for the value of Magic cards to go up instead of down. –  thesunneversets Feb 3 '12 at 18:02
    
It's my understanding that only the very best pro players (like, top ~20 in the world) have good enough win percentages that they can sustain their MTGO activities solely through winnings and selling drafted cards. For the vast majority of us, it requires some input of money to keep going, although the better a player you are, the less your average cost is. –  David Z Feb 3 '12 at 19:44
    
It's very hard to go infinite just by drafting. However, you can do a lot better if you play Constructed daily events, since you only have to build your deck once and can enter it into as many events as you'd like. –  JSBձոգչ Feb 5 '12 at 3:50
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