Modern on a Budget: A Primer
Budget Modern decks are frequently sought after. There are countless lists and requests for lists on the internet because not everyone has over $1,000 lying around to throw at Magic: the Gathering. In this article, I hope to provide a guide to prospective Modern players with a limited budget. I will consider “Budget” to include $100+ - $300+ decks. $50 decks are technically possible, but if that is all that you have access to, then I would recommend staying away from Modern, or constructed in general, for the time being, as you will not end up with a deck that is competitive in just about any setting. Now, the 5 steps to getting into Modern on a Budget!
Step 1: Know your budget!
Well duh. Figure how much money you are working with before you start planning what deck you want to buy. Simple stuff. Next!
Step 2: Where are you planning on playing?
I’ll answer this one for you: you are playing at FNM. You can take budget decks to GPs, but they are not going to put you into a good position to make Day 2, much less Top 8. It can happen (and has), but it is not the reason you should buy a budget deck. The decks I will discuss in this article are going to be competitive at most FNMs, but if you are a Spike like me you will not be satisfied with them for Competitive REL tournaments.
Step 3: What do you want from your deck?
When it comes to budget Modern decks, you have two options. You can get a deck that is an archetype not present in the top tiers, but is especially powerful for its price. Or you can get a deck that is a budget version of a higher tier archetype, one that sacrifices some power in the short term for the ability to build on it over time and end up with an established deck.
The distinction between these two types of decks is not made clear enough in discussions about budget Modern. Knowing what you want out of your deck is essential to, well, getting what you want out of it. If you don’t want to be nailed down into one archetype as you move forward or don’t plan on moving forward soon at all, then look into getting a deck that maximizes the power for the budget, without necessarily being upgradeable down the line. If you want to get started on building a top tier deck, then be sure that the budget deck you start with can be upgraded into something you want to play.
Step 4: Look at Your Options
In this section, I will outline some of the many viable options that are available in both of the aforementioned categories and at various price points. Feel free to read through the entire section, or just look for the price point/category that most applies to you. Let’s get started!
Note: The prices here are approximate, actual prices (as of the publishing of the article) can be found below. The prices posted here correspond with the versions that I feel are at the sweet spot between price and viability. Therefore, the decks can be adjusted somewhat based on your available funds or cards already owned.
|Standalone budget archetypes||Mono-Red Goblins
|Budget version of major archetypes||Blue/White Steel
(Deck names linked to their spot in the article)
Section 1: Standalone Budget Archetypes
Also known as 8-Whack, this is the deck popularized by Saffron Olive over at MTGGoldfish.com. His article about the deck, including extremely budget and optimized versions, can be found here. Unsurprisingly, attacking with a swarm of 1 drop Goblins boosted by bushwhackers and backed up by efficient burn can win games against a variety of opponents. If you enjoy Goblin tribal decks, then this is, without a doubt, the budget deck for you. It has been widely played and somewhat successful on MTGO in recent months, so you will have a good chance at your local FNM or PPTQ.
- Extremely fast, aggressive, and consistent
- Is difficult to contain without specific hate cards
- Can win out of nowhere
- Does not fold to a lot of anti-burn hate cards
- Is very weak to sweepers, especially Pyroclasm
- Cannot interact with combo decks
Money Cards to add: Goblin Guide
This is a deck that I feel is just one solid upgrade away from asserting itself as an upper tier deck. It is incredibly fast and consistent, with the ability to crush other fast creature decks and fight on even footing with midrange decks due to how impactful most of the creatures are. The price of this deck can be lowered as far as $60 and remain reasonably effective, with cards like Boggart Ram-Gang doing a pretty good job of winning games. If you make budget cuts, be sure to maintain the approximate creature / noncreature ratio.
- Fast and consistent
- Good against control decks that rely on damage-based removal
- Good against creature decks that don’t go as big
- Decent against most aggro sideboard tech
- Little interaction with combo
- Weak to tribal decks (even bad ones) like Merfolk, Elves, and Werewolves
Money Cards to add: None. This is close to the most expensive version of the deck.
This deck probably requires a bit more explanation that those boring old aggro decks. The trick is to play a bunch of borderposts, ideally suspend a win condition, and cast a cascade spell to cascade into Restore Balance. When this works, it is absolutely busted. There are a couple of backup plans as well. You can suspend Greater Gargadon, float 3 mana, sacrifice enough permanents to put Gargadon down to 1 counter, then cascade into Balance. This can be just as good, but if your opponent finds an answer then you are dead in the water. March of the Machines can be very effective in some situations, turning all your borderposts into 3/3 beaters.
- Stupid when it works
- Is very, very good against midrange, non-blue control, and some aggro decks
- Can lose to itself
- Bad against counterspells, especially Remand
- Bad against the fastest aggro decks, and terrible against Affinity and other artifact-based decks
Money Cards to cut: Simian Spirit Guide
There are a lot of different directions you can take this deck, from an Honor of the Pure version to an Archangel of Thune version. This is the grindier version that I believe shores up the deck’s weaknesses better than other builds. This deck is undoubtedly powerful, but suffers from the many of the problems that lifegain decks tend to suffer from.
- Can’t lose against most aggro decks
- Can run people over when it works right
- Is mana efficient yet great at grinding
- No interaction with many combo decks
- Hard loses to infect
- Lifegain is often insufficient against big creature aggro decks
Money Cards to remove: Serra Ascendant
If you really want to play control on a budget (or in Modern at all, for that matter) then you have limited options. This is one of the best. It uses the well-established power of the Urza lands to gain an enormous mana advantage over the opponent, but it doesn’t go about it the same way as other Tron decks. Instead of going all-in on getting lots of mana and casting big spells, this deck uses a heavy mono-blue control element while setting up its lands and its win conditions. One of the most powerful things this deck can do is Mindslaver-lock the opponent. You do this by assembling 13 mana (including Academy Ruins) and casting+activating Mindslaver. You control your opponent’s turn, put Mindslaver back on top of your library, draw it, and repeat the process. Even if, by some miracle, you can’t kill them by controlling their turns, then you just mill them out, as you never draw a new card. If you are a control player like me, then you will have a blast with this deck.
- Obliterates midrange decks
- Usually beats control decks
- Does some very powerful things
- Is very weak to most aggro decks
- Takes splash damage from Red/Green Tron hate
- Takes splash damage from affinity/Thopter-Sword hate
This is very, very good at what it does. You can put your opponent off of casting any spells while you attack with Goblin Dark-Dwellers and Inferno Titans. When the deck works, it totally overruns the opponent, but when it doesn’t work (it can be draw-dependent or matchup-dependent) it doesn’t quite do enough to win consistently. If you are looking for a land destruction deck in Modern, then this is it, regardless of budget.
- Destroys midrange decks
- Has some “free win” matchups
- Has some “free win” games
- Is not the most consistent
- Has some very, very bad matchups
- Has little interaction beyond land destruction
Money Cards to add: more green fetchlands, Blood Moon
Money Cards to cut: Thrun, the Last Troll, some of the manabase (be careful with this)
This is the grindiest of grindy control decks. It is built to take maximum advantage of the power of Sun Titan, including some weird cards like Bound by Moonsilver to do this. Most of the creatures can be bought back when the titan enters the battlefield or attacks, letting you quickly overwhelm your opponent with card advantage. If that isn’t enough and the game goes really long, then Emeria, the Sky Ruin provides a late game that no other deck in Modern can realistically compete with without specific hate. To get to the late game, it plays a swarm of value creatures (many with lifegain attached) and removal.
- Obliterates midrange decks
- Is good against a lot of aggro decks
- Has more inevitability than most control decks
- Has little interaction with combo decks
- Is soft to decks like Infect
Storm is an age-old archetype that exists in some form in all eternal formats. The DCI has always been bent on keeping Storm from being too powerful in Modern, banning all manner of pieces, but the deck is still quite good. It can go infinite as early as turn 3, and fairly consistently on turn 4, if you know how to pilot it. If you are a fan of Storm decks, then absolutely play this, but if you aren’t that into it then don’t.
- Has a fast and fairly consistent combo
- Not a lot of hate is commonly played
- Can lose to itself
- Folds to hate if hate is present
Money cards to add: Blood Moon, blue fetchlands
Money cards to cut: None
This deck does some unbelievably powerful things. It can turn its library into its graveyard blisteringly fast with the help of some powerful and not-so-powerful card filtering. It can reanimate some of the most powerful targets in Modern. It can render the opponent’s aggression fruitless. It can grind the opponent out of their resources. If you love Life from the Loam, using the graveyard, and having multiple powerful axis of attack, then this deck is the deck for you.
- Grindy like it’s nobody’s business
- Does several powerful things very well
- Is weak to commonly played Graveyard hate
- Does not have a lot of ability to interact with combos
Money Cards to add: Verdant Catacombs
Money Cards to cut: the manabase can be tweaked to be a bit cheaper
This deck is the closest to the line between decks that can be built on to be top tier decks and decks that are just budget decks. Ad Nauseam is a reasonably competitive combo deck that is frequently played at the top tables of Grand Prix or Invitationals. Here’s how it works: you set up with filtering and mana, then you cast Ad Nauseam with an Angel’s Grace or a Phyrexian Unlife. This lets you draw your entire deck. Once you do that, cash in Simian Spirit Guides to cast a Lightning Storm or flash back a Conflagrate for significantly more than lethal.
- Fast and consistent
- Hard to hate out
- Renders most of your opponent’s deck useless
- Can go off at instant speed
- Vulnerable to hand disruption
- Does nothing without the deck’s namesake card
Money Cards to cut: none
Section 2: Budget Versions of Major Archetypes
Tempered Steel is a powerful card, one that is criminally underplayed in Modern. This deck plays like a slightly slower, slightly bigger, and significantly worse Affinity deck. It is a strong deck, but it suffers splash damage from sideboard cards that are meant for bona fide Affinity decks. This deck does not deserve that hate, but it gets it anyway. It can win a lot of games, but if you do choose to start here you will have to be prepared to lose some games to overkill hate cards.
How to upgrade:
Eventually, the deck should end up being Affinity: http://www.mtggoldfish.com/deck/370901#paper
However, if, during your time playing with Steel, you find that you want to keep playing with it, it has seen success in the past: http://www.mtggoldfish.com/deck/266031#paper
The process is fairly straightforward: you just keep buying cards for Affinity until you either end up with an optimized version of the Tempered Steel deck or the deck loses the ability/want to cast Tempered Steel and you switch to Master of Etherium, completing the transformation. The following cards should be your first priorities:
Faeries are so much fun. Being both the aggressor and controller at once is not something that can often be done in Modern, but this deck can with its better draws. Mono-Blue Faeries (and the UB version) reward excellent play and deep format knowledge. Don’t dive into the Faerie train if you don’t have or aim to have that. If you do, and you like Faeries, then this is the perfect deck for you.
The finished UB Faeries list should look like this: tappedout.net/mtg-decks/06-05-16-blueblack-faeries/
The first order of business is to buy Cryptic Command, Vendilion Clique, and Mutavault. Those are the three cards most important to the Mono-Blue deck that are not in the budget version. A few Ancestral Visions and two Snapcaster Mages are probably good at this level as well. After that, it will take a pretty big jump to get to the full UB version, with a lot of expensive cards on the shopping list.
Mono-Red Burn has long been an entry point for new Modern players. It is simple, cheap, and fast. It’s very easy to steal games with the deck, even if it won’t do that well at competitive events. If you want to play burn and are on a stricter budget, then this is the deck for you.
How to upgrade:
A finished Naya Burn deck should look something like this: http://www.mtggoldfish.com/archetype/modern-burn-26079#paper
The first card to acquire when upgrading the deck is, without exception, Goblin Guide. GG is just the best card after Lightning Bolt in any burn deck. Spark Elemental leaves much to be desired. After that, red fetchlands should be in your shopping cart, as they are the most expensive pieces for adding new colors, which is how you end up with a top tier deck. The first color I would add is white, as that gives you access to Boros Charm, Lightning Helix, Wear//Tear, and a multitude of other great white sideboard cards. After that, you can either move to Naya Burn, like the list posted above, or Mardu Burn if you are feeling particularly innovative.
BW Tokens is a very strong deck, and the budget version doesn’t really miss much. The idea of the deck is to make a lot of tokens, make them big, and kill your opponent with them.
How to upgrade:
This is a solid tokens build: http://tappedout.net/mtg-decks/swarm-and-conquer-v-20/
Aside from the manabase and better hand disruption, the main thing that this deck misses is Bitterblossom. It is extremely flexible what order you get cards in: buy a couple of fetches today, a couple of Inquisitions next week, and some Bitterblossoms next month.
Living End is a very powerful linear deck that has some absurdly good matchups and some absurdly bad ones. It has almost no interaction before turn 3. But on turn 3, it gains a game-winning advantage against creature decks. The deck works by cycling a bunch of creatures into the graveyard, drawing into one of 8 cascade spells so that it can cascade into Living End and wipe the opponent’s board while getting back a bunch of creatures. This can be almost impossible to beat if you aren’t prepared for it, and the deck wins most game ones against much of the field. It is very bad against most combo decks, and folds to a lot of sideboard hate (though it is trickier to hate out than you might think).
How to upgrade:
This is what a finished Living End deck should look like: http://www.mtggoldfish.com/archetype/modern-living-end-21637#paper
This deck is the least in need of upgrades of any here. All the important pieces are very cheap, the only major thing that this deck wants being a better manabase. And even that isn’t overwhelmingly important, due to all the cycling cards with hybrid or colorless costs.
Money Cards to add: Fulminator Mage
UR Delver has always been a decent deck in Modern. While it is a mere shadow of the Treasure Cruise version, it is still a very good deck. As an Aggro-Control deck, it is a challenge to play and is highly customizable.
How to upgrade:
A finished UR Delver deck is essentially the above list with fetchlands, Snapcaster Mage, and Blood Moon. http://www.mtggoldfish.com/archetype/modern-ur-delver-23447#paper
It gets interesting when you consider adding new colors. Here are some directions you can take the deck:
- Temur: http://www.mtggoldfish.com/deck/365631#paper
- Grixis: http://www.mtggoldfish.com/deck/311470#paper
- Jeskai: http://www.mtggoldfish.com/archetype/modern-jeskai-delver#paper
Zoo is a very strong deck that has a solid spot in the metagame. Reckless Bushwhacker/Burning-Tree Emissary Zoo is, in fact, a bona-fide deck that this is just a budget version of. It is prone to nut draws, like a 1 drop into 1 or more Emissaries into a bushwhacker. It is actually possible to deal 18 damage on turn 2 with this deck. While Reckless Bushwhacker can be a little clunky, it enables extremely fast kills
How to upgrade:
This is about where the deck should end up: http://www.mtggoldfish.com/deck/371299#paper
The very first card you will want to acquire to upgrade this deck is Goblin Guide. After that, Windswept Heath, Sacred Foundry, Temple Garden enable the white splash and Wild Nacatl. Once you have that, upgrades become flexible.
Budget Infect is not as good as fully fledged infect. But it isn’t too far off. The deck still has almost all the pieces, and still has the ability to win very fast and very consistently. Your success with the deck will depend largely on your practice with it; it is a very challenging, unique deck to play. If you put in the practice (and, over time, the money) you will be rewarded with a highly competitive deck.
A finished infect deck: http://tappedout.net/mtg-decks/ug-infect-17-06-13-1/
The two lists are really not that far off. Replace Birds of Paradise with Noble Hierarch, add more Spellskites, optimize the mana and finish the set of Inkmoth Nexus. The order in which you do this is flexible, though I would generally want to do it in the order I just stated it in.
Hatebears is Modern’s resident White Weenie strategy. As any Legacy player should know, White Weenie is strongest when it can effectively disrupt the opponent while it mounts its offensive. The two flagship hatebears of the deck, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Leonin Arbiter, let the deck disrupt the opponent’s mana development quite effectively. Thalia makes it harder to interact with your creatures, and Arbiter makes fetchlands unwieldy, turns Ghost Quarter into Strip Mine, and removes the downside from Path to Exile.
How to upgrade:
Traditionally, Green/White Hatebears is the best version of the deck. http://www.mtggoldfish.com/archetype/modern-gw-hate-bears-16655#paper
Upgrading the deck is fairly simple: get the lands necessary to support the splash and get the cards for the splash. There isn’t a lot of incremental upgrading to do, other than a few small tweaks to the Mono-White list.
Bogles is a very unfair deck. If the opponent doesn’t have enough ways to interact, they will be utterly crushed. The deck can kill on turn 4 without much difficulty. It is fairly simple to pilot, though knowing when and how to play around your opponent’s relevant interaction can be quite difficult.
How to upgrade:
This is what an optimized deck generally looks like: http://www.mtgtop8.com/event?e=11944&d=268365&f=MO
Horizon Canopy is a very good and very important card for the deck, I would make that top priority. The rest of the upgrades are mostly sideboard cards, which, while important, are nonessential.
Elves is an extremely powerful tribe in both Modern and Legacy. Mono-Green Elves is the simplest, most streamlined Elf deck in Modern, one that is capable of winning on turn 4. While it is an incredibly powerful deck capable of ridiculous plays, it has very little interaction. Collected Company revitalized the Elf deck with its printing, but at the time of writing this a playset of those costs almost $100. When it rotates out of Standard in several months it should go down by half or more, making this deck significantly more budget friendly.
How to upgrade:
Elves decks generally splash white or black. White grants powerful sideboard cards and Horizon Canopy. Black provides damage that can be dealt without combat in Shaman of the Pack and effective disruption in Thoughtseize effects. It is up to you which direction you want to go with a splash.
Additionally, there is a very interesting Beck//Call list that combos off with Cloudstone Curio. You can watch Luis Scott-Vargas deck tech and play it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_y4S_KbtTVo
Step 5: Pick a Deck!
After you have gone over your options and picked a few decks you are interested in, you need to actually decide what deck you want to buy. This is crucial. If you do this wrong and end up spending your Modern budget for the year on a deck you don’t end up liking, then you will be a sad, sad camper.
So test! Use a free application like XMage, Cockatrice, or Untap.in to test the decks you are considering. If you have friends readily available to play, then proxy up your deck and grind some games. You goal is to get enough reps in with each deck to feel proficient with its inner workings and have a feel for whether or not you like it.
Note: The lists in the previous section are not fine-tuned but are rough outlines. You should absolutely tweak them based on your research, testing, budget, and/or preferences.
When you have decided which deck you want to purchase, be sure to shop around, look for deals, and manage your carts so that you get the best deal possible. The prices for the lists above are TappedOut or MTGGoldfish price estimations, not the actual price you may be able to get them for. If you are resourceful enough, you may be able to make some upgrades right away.
Once you have acquired all the cards for your deck, go out and play with it! I hope this primer has been useful to you, and that you enjoy playing Modern! If you have any feedback about this article or have any further questions, let me know in the comments or on Twitter @CalebYarbrough1. Thanks for reading!