Ultra Budget Brews - The Exploding Cost of EDH: A Budget Brew Review

(Land Tax | Art by Chuck Lukacs)

A Room with a Review

Hello and welcome back to a special edition of Ultra Budget Brews! I've been building budget decks once or twice a month for EDHREC since March 2017, and over that time, I've noticed some trends. Anecdotally, it has become significantly harder to build decks that both meet my self-imposed criteria (every non-commander in the deck must cost less than $1) while also meeting the obvious criteria that the decks I build feel some combination of competitive and fun. Few people enjoy taking an underpowered pile of draft chafe to EDH night. It can be fun to be the obvious underdog for a bit, but after awhile, it becomes wearisome to be playing in a game, while having no real chance of affecting the outcome in a meaningful way.

I like to think I've (mostly) succeeded at this and have heard from many of you over the years that you've been able to take my lists, edit them to your liking, and end up with a deck you enjoy. If any of you are able to do that, then I consider this series a success.

As I stated above, building budget decks has become quite difficult. Today, I want to look at why this is and, most importantly, where do we go from here? The fact that it's become more difficult makes series like this all the more important, as the cost of Magic has always been one of the biggest hurdles to new players picking up the game, and that doesn't appear to be changing.

A Comparison

Finding the price history of a single card is not particularly difficult, and websites like MTG Stocks and MTGGoldfish are quite helpful in this regard. What can be difficult (or at the very least, time consuming) is to find the costs of entire decks at a specific point in the past, allowing us to compare that past to the present. Thankfully, as mentioned above, I've been doing this for a few years, so I actually have access to that information, at least in regards to the specific decks I wrote about. To avoid any accusations of cherry-picking data, I decided to take the first 5 decks I ever wrote about and to compare the total cost when I built them to what it would cost to build the exact same 100 card deck today.

There are flaws with this, which I would like to address now:

  • I can't see if card prices dropped and if they did, by how much. There are certainly cards that went from $0.90 to $0.25 during this time period, which, if done to enough cards, would have a sizeable effect on the cost of the deck. Without manually going through every single cards price history, I simply don't have a way to look at this, but if I had to guess, maybe 10% of the cards in each deck dropped an actual meaningful amount.
  • Large spikes of single cards will have an outsized effect on the costs of decks. If this is the case, we should see a low percentage of cards that jumped in price which should help highlight the fact that a few jumped a lot.
  • The first prices all reflect total cost from CardKingdom.com as that was what I had to go on back in 2017. The prices in the present mostly come from TCGPlayer.com, because those are typically cheaper. This means that it is likely that some of the total costs of decks could have been lower back in 2017.
  • This is an incredibly small sample size and because all the decks were built by me, there are certain to be specific deck-building prejudices inherent in the data. Perhaps in the future, other budget EDH content creators could collaborate to give a more holistic view of the issue, but that's "Future Andrew's" problem.

With all of that out of the way, let's see what information we can glean!

3/16/2017: Borborygmos Enraged

This is the first article I ever wrote, and frankly, one of my favorite decks I've ever built in paper, period. This deck is a bit of an outlier. It was very cheap partially because it runs 42 basic lands, which ends up being an additional 10-15 cards in your deck that cost you nothing.

3/16/2017 cost: $26.23

10/7/2020 cost: $80.55 (207% increase)

Number of cards that are not basic lands: 58

Number of those cards that are no longer under $1: 19 out of 58 (33%)

Notable price increases: Reforge the Soul, Horn of Greed, Splendid Reclamation, Rishkar's Expertise, Heroic Intervention

A quick look at the cards that have gone up reveals some of the most powerful and popular cards in red and green. Reforge the Soul, Rishkar's Expertise, Heroic Intervention, and Splendid Reclamation are all in the top 100 most popular cards in both color and type. They are all generically powerful cards, so this shouldn't come as a surprise. Horn of Greed is a bit of an outlier here, but it was last reprinted more than 4 years ago in Conspiracy: Take the Crown and is a popular inclusion in a popular archetype, Landfall.

Overall, 33% of the deck now costs more than $1. This deck is a strange mix of very niche cards (most decks don't want cards that put lands into hand, preferring to put them directly to the battlefield) and staples and the staples all increased in price, sometimes dramatically.

4/6/2017: Jalira, Master Polymorphist

My second article was one that is built around turning harmless tokens into terrifying monsters. A lot of the token producers are fairly niche, but because it's a blue deck, I was expecting to see a sizable increase in cost.

4/6/2017 cost: $31.31

10/7/2020 cost: $71.70 (129% increase)

Number of cards that are not basic lands: 70

Number of those cards that are no longer under $1: 15 out of 70 (21%)

Cards that went up the most: Swan Song, Swiftfoot Boots, Stormsurge Kraken, Breaching Leviathan, Roil Elemental

Overall, 21% of the cards would no longer be eligible to see play in this budget series. If I'm being honest, I expected this to be higher, but a quick look through the deck reveals a lot of cards that are good with this particular commander, and basically nowhere else.

Some of the notable increases include one of the most popular cards in the entire format, Swiftfoot Boots which sees play in a staggering 100,000 decks. Swan Song is one of the most popular blue cards as well as one of the most popular instants, while Roil Elemental is one of the top blue creatures in the format. The price of Stormsurge Kraken and Breaching Leviathan can be explained by the fact that both are cards that were only printed in Commander 2014, which was released before a number folks reading this very article may have even begin playing Commander.

4/20/2017: Heartless Hidetsugu

A deck built to show that burn and aggro can find a home in EDH, Heartless Hidetsugu ends games in a hurry. The deck is filled with haymakers, cards that grant haste allowing your commander to halve people's life totals with impunity, and group slug cards that ensure the damage keeps coming.

4/20/2017 cost: $36.74

10/7/2020 cost: $93.64 (155% increase)

Number of cards that are not basic lands: 71

Number of those cards that are no longer under $1: 24 out of 71 (34%)

Notable price increases: Vandalblast, Zo-Zu the Punisher, Heartless Hidetsugu, Grafted Exoskeleton, Gratuitous Violence

This was the opposite of the Jalira deck. I suspected this wouldn't have risen too much in price, but the opposite ended up being true. 34% of the deck is no longer under $1, with a large overall cost increase of 155%. According to the data, Vandalblast is one of the top red cards and sorceries in all of EDH and it hasn't been reprinted since Commander 2015, but with this exception, none of the rest of the cards on this list are particularly popular. All of the red cards do crack the top 100 for the color, but that has more to do with the competition than anything else. These cards suffer from two issues: they haven't been reprinted recently and are the sorts of cards absolutely gobbled up by the folks who only buy packs at Walmart and will never darken the doors of an LGS.

5/17/2017: Anax and Cymede

This deck attempts to utilize the Heroic keyword to shotgun players out of nowhere, hoping to reload before being overwhelmed by the remaining players.

5/17/2017 cost: $34.68

10/7/20 cost: $42.63 (23% increase)

Number of cards that are not basic lands: 80

Number of those cards that are no longer under $1: 10 out of 80 (12.5%)

Cards that went up the most: Reforge the Soul, Swiftfoot Boots, Hanweir Battlements, Spear of Heliod, Slayer's Stronghold

If there was a deck I would have bet barely moved in price, this would have been the one, and boy, did it deliver. Sporting a total price increase of 23% with only 12.5% of the cards no longer being considered budget, bad Feather, the Redeemed gives us a bit of hope.

Reforge the Soul hasn't been reprinted in roughly a billion years and covers the entirety of the price increase all by itself. Swiftfoot Boots was already discussed, and Hanweir Battlements is a cool card is from longer ago than you think and is almost impossible to reprint. Spear of Heliod and Slayer's Stronghold aren't particularly popular, but are "CASUAL CATNIP" (trademark pending) and as a result, seem to always be worth something.

Basically, this deck is full of niche cards that don't see play outside of this specific archetype, and this archetype isn't a popular one.

6/16/2017: Horobi, Death's Wail

In this article, I attempted to build an off-the-wall control deck that eschews things like card advantage, counterspells, and the color blue.

6/16/2017 cost: $30.55

10/7/2020 cost: $61.62 (102% increase)

Number of cards that are not basic lands: 67

Number of those cards that are no longer under $1: 19 out of 67 (28%)

Cards that went up the most: Veilstone Amulet, Magus of the Coffers, Phyrexian Reclamation, Charcoal Diamond, Touch of Darkness

I almost didn't include this deck because so many of the cards are truly bad in literally any other context. EDH All-Stars Baton of Morale, Helm of Chatzuk, and Squee's Toy kill everything the light touches while Tower of Coireall, Scuttlemutt, and Crenellated Wall murder anything the first 3 may have missed. God bless EDH.

28% of the cards in the deck are no longer budget, for a total cost increase of 102%. Magus of the Coffers, Phyrexian Reclamation, and Charcoal Diamond make total sense to have risen in price, as the first two are in the top 100 cards of their color, and Charcoal Diamond is a two-drop mana rock. I have no idea what to say about Veilstone Amulet or Touch of Darkness besides that they are both great in this deck, with Amulet seeing some additional play in Feather, the Redeemed decks. I suppose the cost increase can be chalked up to the fact that they're old and will almost never see a reprint, because who in the world is champing at the bit to go and buy a booster pack in hopes of cracking either of these?

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The Problem

As stated in the introduction EDH has a price problem. I can't in good faith point to a number and say "Ah yes! I have discovered the ideal cost of an EDH deck!" Anyone who says they can is either horribly misguided or trying to sell you something, but what I can say is that prices continuing to rise is going to become more of a problem, not less of one, and in my opinion, is one of the few truly serious long-term threats to the game.

The 'why' of the problem is a bit more complex, but typically can be summarized in this: EDH is incredibly popular. WotC estimates that in the past few years, the player base of EDH has roughly tripled. When an item that is limited in quantity becomes popular, price goes up. For the sake of this article, whether or not this should be the case is irrelevant, because that's the world we live in. A popular way to garner clicks and views is to blame the dirty speculators in the #MTGFINANCE cabal, but in most cases, I think the explanation is far simpler than anything like that.

No raindrop thinks they caused the flood, and if they were talking about just themselves, they'd be right, but chances are really high that if you want to buy X card for the new splashy commander that was just spoiled, literal tens of thousands of other people are thinking the exact same thing, at the exact same time. If even a fraction of those people decide to act on that information, it's going to have a significant impact.

Another culprit that is often pointed at is lack of meaningful reprints, and while there were certainly some examples of that in my decks above (Reforge the Soul, Swan Song, and Vandalblast spring to mind), overall, I'd argue the reprint situation has really improved in the last couple of years. Desired reprints may no longer show up in Commander precons, but they are still coming and prices are still dropping when they do.

So, the problem isn't a simple fix, and it's likely not something we would want to "fix" even if we could, because the fix would involve the game we love being played by less people. And yet, the problem persists. Building an EDH deck on a budget is more difficult than ever, so what lessons can we take away from the decks we looked at and the cards that are now prohibitively expensive?

Lesson 1: Pick a Deck that Utilizes Niche Cards

If we look at the five decks above, I'd label three of them as very niche. The Anax and Cymede deck is an aggressive Heroic deck that plays a bunch of Auras and instants that are nigh unplayable anywhere else. Jalira is a Polymorph deck that uses niche cards to create tokens that no other blue deck wants much to do with. Horobi, Death's Wail is the very definition of niche, using cards that are truly unplayable in any other context. These above commanders actually work better with the niche cards than they would with most "staples".

If you look at the cards that spiked, listed or otherwise, a solid 75% of them spiked because of popularity, and their popularity seems to be connected to how generally efficient and helpful the card is. A few years back, Wizards started designing cards with an eye towards EDH, so this problem is likely only going to become more pronounced. Cards that are over-the-top efficient can be played in basically any deck that shares a color with it; you almost need a reason to not play them, and this effect is seen in the price. If you are building with an eye on your budget, you simply aren't going to be able to play many of these.

Lesson 2: Alternatively, Pick Something Broad, with a Lot of Options

Some decks, like mentioned above, encourage you to play cards that basically no one else wants. Others are so broad that you can easily get away with playing the second string and still be playing a powerful deck. For example, the more popular tribes (Zombies, Elves, Goblins, etc.) often have such a deep well of cards to draw from that you can skip the most powerful and still build a functional, powerful deck. For every Lord of the Undead, Joraga Treespeaker, and Muxus, Goblin Grandee you can find a Liliana's Devotee, Gempalm Strider, or a Skirk Drill Sergeant. Are they as powerful? No, they aren't, but they can certainly get the job done for pennies on the dollar.

Another of example of this is artifacts. Artifacts are always popular, can be amazingly powerful, and there are many, many options to choose from. You might not be able to play with Breya, Etherium Shaper, Krak-Clan Ironworks, or Darksteel Forge, but you can certainly play with Teshar, Ancestor's Apostle, Workshop Assistant, and Salvager of Ruin.

+1/+1 counters are yet another example of an archetype that is flush with options. Branching Evolution, Pir, Imaginative Rascal/Toothy, Imaginary Friend, and Doubling Season may be far outside of your budget range, but Mowu, Loyal Companion, Invigorating Surge, and Conclave Mentor certainly aren't.

Lesson 3: Find Underused Gems

One of the most enjoyable aspects of EDH is playing cards that could never see play in any other format, your opponents asking to read said card that they've never heard of or seen before, and then absolutely ranching them with that card. Everyone who has played EDH for a long enough time has been killed by a Berserk, but have they been one-shotted by a Soulshriek? Seems unlikely. Blood Artist is probably responsible for as many deaths as any other single card in all of EDH, but Last Laugh lets you do Aristocrat shenanigans without paying Aristocrat money. Arachnogenesis is a fantastic card that allows me to exclaim "Pocket Sand!" like the southwest Missouri yeehaw I've become, but Winds of Qal Sisma does the job for pennies on the dollar.

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Unless you have played for decades and have an encyclopedic knowledge of the 20,000 cards available in Magic, there are going to be cards you simply have never heard of, or forgot existed. There are three ways I typically try to find these.

  1. Go to Scryfall and use the advanced search filter to find cards that do specific things. Looking for a card for that weird charge counter deck you're building? They've got you covered! Need to find something that has an interesting enters the battlefield trigger? Look no further! Need to find a card for a specific tribe that doesn't cost all of the dollars? Do it!
  2. EDHREC has set pages!

    Click on a set you didn't play during, and just scroll through all of the cards that are on there. I promise it'll be more interesting than doomscrolling on social media.
  3. If you are looking for cards for a particular commander, click on the budget option on their page. This will weed out the most expensive decklists and often shows you cards that are less popular while still being effective.

If you have other strategies, definitely let me know in the comments below! I'd love to hear them and I'm sure it would be helpful for other readers as well.

End Step

Everyone knows that the cost of Magic has been rising, but I hope that this article will aid people looking to build on a budget. If you are looking for other tips for playing on a budget that are less focused on deck building, check out my article, The 10 Commandments of Building on a Budget. It's almost 2 years old at this point, but I think the advice contained within is still applicable today. Thanks for reading! Until next time!

Andrew is a life-long gamer and has been playing Magic since 2013. He works as an ASL interpreter, enjoys running, and sitting on his porch reading, while simultaneously silently judging his neighbors. He lives in Joplin, MO with his wife.