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About a year ago, a friend introduced me to MTG Arena. I played very often over the course of the pandemic and as a result have gotten pretty into Magic. My friend has been playing for three or four years, both tabletop and Arena and has a decent collection of cards.

Fast forward to a couple months ago and I discovered another friend of mine also plays Magic, mostly tabletop. He has been playing for over 10 years and could probably become a Magic judge if he put some time into it. He has a massive collection of cards and 15-20 constructed decks for standard, modern, and commander.

Realizing we all played, I got everyone in contact with one-another and we decided to try commander. I bought two precon commander decks just for this, watched a bunch of videos on how to play commander (I'm more familiar with standard), and even bought a couple singles to upgrade my precons. Needless to say our 10-year friend completely dominated with a couple really powerful combo decks, but it was such a good time. Our group got along great and we all had a blast despite the games being pretty lopsided. We had so much fun that we've continued doing a commander night each week, and even found a fourth friend on par with my 3-year friend skill and card collection-wise.

Over the past two months, I've invested a fair amount in MTG cards, all of them singles, and tried to put together a deck that can at least hold its own. I'm not super competitive, I just like being able to play and see my deck do a cool thing or two each game. My decks are budget in the truest sense, and I think the market value between my 4 decks is less than $200 (thank you Commander's Quarters!). I'm in a tight spot financially, so I'm maxed out on upgrades for the time being.

The problem has only started to arise in the last few weeks. Each week, everyone plays mostly the same decks, but recently everyone has been bringing some significant upgrades. For example, one person came this week with The Great Henge (~$50), Hullbreacher (~$28), and Rhystic Study (~$40) added to their deck. I am the only person in the past couple weeks that hasn't spent a lot of money on singles or packs to upgrade their decks, and I'm starting to be completely outgunned. I haven't won a game in the two months we've been playing, which doesn't bother me by itself, but its to the point where I'm out first pretty consistently. If I stay in any longer it's because I'm a non-threat not worth being dealt with, and even then any of the tiny combos I manage to produce get shut down easily.

I know it's not 100% the power of the cards that's causing this as I am pretty new, but I can't help but feel a little defeated. I'm watching a bunch of videos on how to get better at magic, watching them play and trying to learn, and trying to learn about historic cards to know what's out there for reasonable upgrades. But I know that my budget is definitely "holding me back", as I need to settle for the budget versions of particular cards that just make them less effective. For example, I run Verdant Force (~$0.80) instead of Tendershoot Dryad (~$16) as a token generator in my green token deck. Tendershoot is objectively a better card, but I could never justify spending ~$16 on a single card I may never play, let alone draw, in a game.

My question is, what can I do to address the power creep in our weekly play group when I can't afford to keep up? I really want to stay involved because I love playing with everyone and they're all really good friends, but I also don't have the most fun sitting on the sidelines for an hour or more each game. Some of the solutions I've thought of are:

  1. Asking to play my friend's decks instead of my own
  2. Asking to do a "budget challenge" one week, where everyone's decks must be below, say $50
  3. Finding a new playgroup to play with in addition to my current group that is more my level

I'm not particularly fond of any of those solutions because for (1), my friend's decks are so combo-heavy that I don't know what cards are in them/how to use them. It isn't really fun to play when it's constantly being pointed out which triggers you missed, which card you could have played instead, or just topdecking through a deck to figure out what there even is. For (2), that's more on me because I'm probably too proud to admit I don't have any money to spend. I'm also afraid it could come off as me asking to play my custom budget deck against something less powerful for the sake of trying to win a game. And for (3), I do really like my friends in my current playgroup and I don't want to ditch them because "I'm not winning". I want to play with them but also find a way to not get functionally shut out because I'm not spending money on upgrades.

All my research yields questions from the opposite perspective, like, "What do I do when my decks are too powerful for my playgroup?". I don't even know what other solutions there might be, especially because I'm newer at the game.

I know there's probably not a best answer to this question, but given I can't find any other solutions and given that this is likely a common problem, I figured it would be a good question.

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  • Budget variants of Magic are not too uncommon. I think rarity-based is the most common (no rares or commons only, e.g. Pauper), although that's a lot more limiting that simply excluding expensive cards. Max-price-per-card/deck could also work, although that might cause some issues if players aren't inclined to check and keep up to date on prices. Magic is expensive. It's perfectly reasonable to not want to spend that much on it, even when one can afford it, or to want to experiment and mess around (which is more viable when everyone's playing cheap decks). – NotThatGuy Jun 11 at 8:02
  • Drafting is a nice way to level up the field, as everyone starts with unknown cards, and gets to keep some good (well, rare at least, no necessarily good per se) cards at the end. – Guillaume Jun 11 at 10:16
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    And to make it even cheaper, your group could build a draft cube to draft from. Then everyone one is on the same footing every time and no one needs to spend any further money. – Shufflepants Jun 11 at 18:21
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    @Shufflepants I think that could potentially be an answer rather than a comment. – nick012000 Jun 11 at 19:10
  • Have you mentioned this problem to the group? What did they say about it? – Tanner Swett Jun 11 at 20:36
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It's time to have a Session 0 or power level discussion. It sounds like the members of your group are showing up to the Commander table with different expectations. There are a few likely scenarios, and each would benefit from a different approach. But regardless of which scenario is true, communication with your playgroup is the most important. They can't help you if you don't tell them what's wrong.

Scenario 1: You each want to play at different levels of competitiveness.

It's worth making sure that you have that power level discussion and figure out what you each are expecting from a game of commander. You mention that one of your friends has a highly tuned, technical combo deck. That player may be wanting to play very competively while you might prefer just hanging out and playing cool cards. These approaches to gameplay and deckbuilding are different and can lead to unbalanced situation like what you have described.

Ask your play group what power level they want and expect to play at. The answers might surprise you. And even if the answers are different, this doesn't mean you have to find a new group. It just means that you can request playing at a lower/slower power level for one game and then move on to the "anything goes" high power game later. Then your group will have a mix of games that should give you a better opportunity to enjoy the game.

And it might even be the case that you really will want to find another group to play a different kind of magic. You'd play with your new group for more casual games and go back to your current group for high-powered games (expecting to be destroyed).

Scenario 2: You all want to play at the highest level but have different card access.

The other members want to play powerful magic with high impact cards. You might also want this but don't have the financial means to do so. If you are all on the same page in wanting to play high-level magic then the solutions will be more about balancing budgets. There are a few approaches that you could take here:

  • Request budget limits for some of the games. Obviously, your friends will likely want to play their "best" decks, but it shouldn't be too hard to request a budget game to be added to the rotation.
  • Borrow a deck. Many players are very happy or even eager to let their friends borrow a deck. It's kinda a win-win for them since they get to set another of their creations at work.
  • Proxy the expensive cards. Frankly explain to your playgroup that certain cards are outside your budget and ask if they would be ok if you proxied some cards. This might be a long discussion since they might want to proxy even more expensive cards, but proxying does level the budget playing field. And if you all truly want to play high-level competitive commander (CEDH), then proxying thousand dollar dual lands and such will allow you as a group to do so.
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    If you do go the proxy route, you should establish price limits as to what everyone will proxy. Sure, you could all stock your decks with the hundred most expensive cards in magic, but it probably won't improve your game experience. – Arcanist Lupus Jun 11 at 0:32
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    @ArcanistLupus Sorry, it's probably a silly question, (because I have played Magic about twice in my life), but why would it be no fun to let everyone play with (proxies of) the most expensive cards in the system? Naively I would have assumed that this would make a perfectly reasonable game. – Clumsy cat Jun 11 at 7:47
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    @Clumsycat Because it tends to make games rather boring due to how quick they finish. The norm in competitive Commander when unaffected by budget is games that last ten turns or less, and they tend to be rather boring after a while unless the players enjoy gambling (because that’s essentially what the game becomes). Also, unlimited budget leads to a distinct advantage for anyone who is especially good at deck construction. – Austin Hemmelgarn Jun 11 at 11:12
  • @AustinHemmelgarn Thanks, that's really interesting, it adds a new dimension to the discussion around Magic being an expensive game. – Clumsy cat Jun 11 at 13:01
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    There are a ton of really good answers here, but I think this one captures the communication aspect of it the best. We talked at the MH2 prerelease event about power levels etc. and essentially had our session 0, which cleared a lot up. We decided to (a) try to match the power levels of our decks each game, (b) play at least one other variant of magic per week (e.g. pauper, two-headed giants, etc.), and (c) allow for some restricted proxying of certain cards. But communication was what made that happen! – thelittlepodguy Jun 13 at 16:49
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So in my group, I'm the long time veteran of Magic with the crazy decks. What we do to balance things in my group is:

  1. I'll loan out decks - the trick here is using decks that you don't have to be intimately familiar with the strategy to pilot properly. So you might have to ask your friend for a comparably powerful deck that isn't combo centric.
  2. I'll play my lower powered decks - just because I have some bonkers decks doesn't mean I have to play them every time. Yeah, everyone wants to play their shiny new beater cards and see them go off, but you don't have to do that every game.
  3. Play different types of Magic - look into playing 2 headed giant, archenemy, star or other variants.

While my playgroup usually doesn't need to do this, you could always ask your friends about proxying the more expensive cards you'd like to have in your deck. That way you (and everyone else who would like to) can play with the expensive cards but not have to spend a ton of money to do so.

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  • This is good advice in your situation, but points 1 and 2 especially don’t really help the OP. – Fivesideddice Jun 12 at 11:35
  • Playing the other types of Magic is really good advice, we decided to play pauper, two-headed giants, etc. once per week. I think that will allow for some really fun group dynamics even with my restricted budget. Thank you for the answer! – thelittlepodguy Jun 13 at 16:51
  • In my experience, Two headed giant and Star are more sensitive to disparities in deck power levels than free-for-all multiplayer. In free-for-all, players have much more ability to gang up on stronger players. Bringing a weak deck to a two-headed giant game will just drag down your teammate, and bringing a weak deck to a star game likely hands the game to one of the two players opposing you. – Zags Jun 17 at 18:26
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My group used to play a lot of magic; but none of us wanted to spend a lot of money. This is what we did:

When we started out; each person either donated random MTG cards that they had lying around to the group, or threw in a little money. The money was used to purchase booster packs.

This gave us a nice-size collection of cards which were collectively owned by the group; not by any one person. From this collection we would do mixes of drafts and passing out random piles. The cards you got would be considered ”yours” and players could trade with each other and build decks. While of course not getting any crazy powerful tournament style decks this way, it didn’t matter because we were on equal footing.

Every once in a while we would recombine all the cards and start over with a new draft.

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My friends and I bought around 10,000 cards on ebay for ~0.5 cents each (so, $50 total). We then organized them by color and type. Whenever we want to play Magic, we all sit down and make decks from that pool.

This only works if your friends are willing to play and make decks consisting entirely of cheap common/uncommon cards, rather than the overpowered $16 cards. It also takes away from time playing together, since everyone needs to dig through tons of cards and make their decks on the spot. But it is fair, and cheap for everyone.

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I have a similar issue in my usual play group in that I am significantly less willing to shell out on cards to upgrade my decks than most of the rest of the group.

So what I do is a bit different from most people: I intentionally build decks that I have fun playing whether I win or lose. For example, one of my favorite Commander decks is a heavily modified version of the old Mimeoplasm precon deck built around Laboratory Maniac as the primary win condition. It doesn’t have any complicated, hard to disrupt combos, it doesn’t look threatening at all if you don’t know how it works, and it has a bunch of ‘decoy’ win conditions that still need to be dealt with by opponents even though them not working usually puts me in a better position overall in the long run. Within my typical play group, it wins only about 40% of the time, but I always have a blast playing it because while everybody knows it’s a ticking time bomb, none of them can seem to decide what to do with it and prefers to deal with more immediate threats.

As an alternative suggestion that has been received well in my group, consider suggesting playing some games using the Pauper variant. The general rules for Pauper are simple: only common rarity cards are allowed, with the exception of your commander which can be uncommon. This leads to a much lower powered game that’s still generally interesting, and often requires little to no investment from any of the players (for anybody who has a decent collection of cards, they can usually throw together an acceptable pauper deck without having to buy a single card).

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Once upon a time I was the player with a lot of disposable income and the ability to make a lot of decks. I would buy a case (6 display boxes) of a set for several hundred dollars and I usually ended up with a couple complete sets. This was fun for me, but less fun when I was playing against kids at the local shop.

Ultimately, I realized the onus was on me to bring my deck to something that was enjoyable for them. But how could I make it still enjoyable for me? It boiled down to two things:

  1. Make the big, powerful decks, but don't play them against the kids all the time. It's a little fun for the kids to see them, but they don't want to play against them every game.
  2. Make unusual decks. I made a pretty good deck out of nothing but green common cards. This was an example of a pretty decent deck that even the kids could probably get their hands on. I also made a Mercadian Masques block "sparkler" deck (no creatures). Not too many people were expecting this.

Ultimately, make sure that the players with more money to spend have a little chance to show off, but also challenge them to build decks out of cards that are on everyone's level.

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If the other players always want to play the same competitive combo decks, then you'll need to convince them to try something new. Either appeal to them to change it up, or become the "fun police" and force them to change.

Look for cards that say "can't":

It may be a forced power-down, but it could lead to more interesting games.

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  • This is great! I actually picked up Weathered Runestone because of your answer (my group does a lot of graveyard/cascade shenanigans). That should give me at least a turn to play catch up if I can't protect it right away. – thelittlepodguy Jun 13 at 16:54
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In general being much weaker in a multiplayer game isn't a problem. As you wrote, everyone knows you're a non-threat not worth dealing with. As that sinks in they'll realize that attacking you early is a losing strategy. In my group the person we knew was playing a weak deck was almost never the first out, for that reason. In fact, sometimes the really weak player got to the final-2 and won by pulling out a few lucky cards.

The other non-problem is that the other players probably don't mind. Being the strongest by a wide margin ruins the game, but not the other way around. It's nice seeing different cards (the cheap alternates you use). All that matters is they can't completely ignore you. Look at it this way: without you they're playing against 4 other people. With you, it's against 4-1/2 people.

If you really want, a friend told me about a "2nd-place deck" in a group he played with. Circles of protection and healing and other defenses. They always made it to the final-2, but never had enough offense to actually beat anyone. Don't go that far, but adding defenses could help you stay in the game longer to where you might get lucky.

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I'm going to suggest another strategy that may work, though may be a little 'creative', and will only really work if you regularly play with the same group. I call this strategy the 'hall of fame'.

Hall of Fame

Each week, for each winner of a game, their most expensive card enters the "hall of fame". That is, it gets "retired" and cannot be used by anyone in the group for the duration that the card is in the hall of fame.

This solution has a number of benefits:

  1. It allows people to play expensive cards for those that want to and can invest in them.
  2. It reduces the value of those uber-expensive cards in the players deck, because they may only get to play it for one week.
  3. It keeps the gameplay fresh. There will be no two consecutive weeks where identical decks are played (though they will be only marginally changed).
  4. It still rewards players who are able to both deck-build well and play well. It can kind of suck to buy a fancy card then not be able to play it. Having that card be honored on a shared list with your name next to it though is pretty cool. The trade off that player is receiving for balancing out their deck with the rest of the pool is prestige.

There are a number of variables that can be applied to this formula though:

The "most expensive" card

It's possible that each player may just throw in a fodder expensive card that they don't actually care about. It will make their deck less perfect, but at the cost of just one card, could put a huge incentive to just keep throwing money at the problem. One possible solution is to instead have the X other players vote on that player's 'MVP'.

This is potentially fraught with problems though as some decks are really built around one particular combo, but counter to that , it may be reasonable for a group to say "that combo is too powerful". A good counter to this is that it can help keep games fresh while giving the nod to the combo.

Only one card inducted

The fact that only one card will enter the Hall of Fame per week means that change will happen slowly. If one person comes to the table with 5 $50+ cards, it will be months before your decks are remotely competitive.

One possible solution to this as well as the "most expensive" problem is to present an option: the group elects an 'MVP' card, and the owner of the deck can decide to induct either the MVP card chosen by the group or the top two most expensive cards. This gives them some choice as well as makes it a bit more prohibitively expensive (and hits the efficiency of their deck twice) to simply load their deck with expensive cards. You'll need an extra rule for if the MVP is one of the most expensive cards (maybe it's the 'next 2 most expensive cards' or 'next 3...'), but that seems doable.

Inductees affecting other players

If I have a competitive super expensive deck and get a card inducted with it, should other players not be able to use it? This is a good question. I think it's reasonable to say either way: either "yes, it keeps the playing field even" or "no, just because your deck did really well with this one card doesn't mean that I should have to stop playing with it." Honestly, I think either answer is reasonable. One other issue with inductees being per-person is that it slows the number of inductees.

In the end I think this one may have to be experimented with. I do know that it would absolutely suck to invest in a Sword or a fetch or something, only to have someone else's deck induct it. I think that downside would probably outweigh the other downsides the second it happened to me.

Commanders

The question then becomes, what happens if a Commander itself is the most expensive card? I think it may be fine to exempt Commanders from this query, but once again it's hard to balance when one's Commander is more expensive than another's entire deck (in the case sometimes of even 'spruced up' precons). This will have to be at the discretion of the group, or may be resolved with discussions of 'MVP'.

Too many banned cards

Eventually if this goes on long enough, it may be possible that too many cards join this list. It may be a good idea to have a maximum length that any one card can be on the list before it is allowed back in. Maybe like 13 weeks worth (one quarter). You could also say "if a card is inducted 3 times, then it's on there for good" or something.

Conclusion

Such a system may be difficult to implement, and any implementation will need to be flexible. Remember, the goal of the game is to be fun for the group, and it's absolutely possible for a set of rules to not be fun. That said, I think that the Hall of Fame solution may provide a tradeoff for making a more balanced playing field in acknowledging and rewarding those players that put in the effort to find those particularly powerful combinations or to invest more of their own financial utility into honing their decks. They can also keep the majority of their lists together to play with other groups, and only make limited swaps for balance. All in all, I think this could add more fun to the solution attempting to balance power vs fun, though your mileage may vary.

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