The Metaworker: Rich Man, Poor Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief

Over some of my previous articles, I’ve received a fair bit of feedback regarding budget deckbuilding. I’m fairly blessed with a big collection and a decent amount of disposable income, so my first instinct when I’m brewing isn’t to cut costs. I do want to talk about some concepts of budget deckbuilding, though, because I see a lot of suspect advice on the topic.

 

Diabolic Tutor – my muse

Diabolic Tutor – the 3rd most-played black card according to EDHREC.com – is what inspired me to write this article. I’ve had quite a few discussions recently over whether it’s a good budget replacement for Demonic Tutor – undoubtedly one of the most powerful tutors ever printed. I, personally, don’t like Diabolic Tutor, despite the fact that I’m head-over-heels in love with Demonic Tutor. This might seem confusing, because they’re both sorceries and they have identical Oracle texts. The only difference is the casting cost, and some people place more emphasis on that than others.

If the definition of “budget replacement” is to get a card with identical card text at a cheaper dollar-value, Diabolic Tutor absolutely fits the bill. We’re able to pay less out-of-pocket to accomplish the same effect in-game, right? Well, that’s actually where I start to disagree.

 

Demonic Tutor’s utility

Demonic Tutor’s utility comes partially from its card text and partially from its mana cost. The low casting cost of 1B means that you can:

  1. Cast it as early as turn 2 (or earlier on a good draw)
    This means that you can use it to tutor for land – one thing that is woefully overlooked when evaluating this card. If you’re running Urborg/Cabal Coffers or other high impact lands, Demonic Tutor in your opening hand means you can get a little greedier that you might otherwise. Even if you’re not, this helps to ensure that you have consistent access to the right amounts and right colours of mana to cast your spells in the early game.
  2. Cast it to tutor something that you intend to cast before you untap
    This is one of the most important things you can do with Demonic Tutor. If you’re staring down the barrel of a big threat on board that you need to deal with, or you suspect someone is about to win the game, tutoring for an answer can be incredibly effective. The main problem with this is that you have to be able to reasonably cast whatever you’re tutoring for after you tutor for it, which means that every additional pip on your tutor reduces the number of useful targets in your deck. In the early game, this could be the difference between being able to interact when you need to and not being able to interact when you need to. In the mid- or late-game, this could mean the difference between being able to tutor and advance your board while holding mana up, and only being able to tutor and hold mana up.

To expand on 2. a little, we can explore Diabolic Tutor’s utility using an example:

Turn 4 – we’ve hit all our land drops and were lucky enough to drop a signet for acceleration sometime on a previous turn, meaning we’ve got access to 5 mana. One of our opponents plays a must-answer threat that could have a significant impact on the board if it goes unanswered. We cast Diabolic Tutor and will have one mana available after it resolves. Better hope we’re also in white or blue, because efficient instant-speed creature removal at 1 mana is difficult to come by. More often than not, our responses are going to be at 2, 3, or even 4 mana.

Contrast this scenario with one involving Demonic Tutor, and we can see that the mana cost significantly changes the utility of the card – and that’s without even getting into the idea that you might be running a budget threat response suite whose ACMC is similarly high! Being able to leave 2 extra mana up increases the number of options we have available to us during gameplay. None of this should come as a shock – we all know Demonic Tutor is a much better card, and that’s one of the driving factors behind its price tag.

What we can see, plain as day, using this example, though, is that despite the two cards’ identical costs, they serve much different purposes in the deck. Diabolic Tutor excels in situations where you want to tutor for a card that you’re not going to cast until your next turn, whereas Demonic Tutor does all that and adds early-game utility, and the ability to maximize your options when you tutor for responsive cards.

 

But what if I can’t afford it?

That’s a damn good question, and it’s the whole point of this article. If managing the budget by swapping card-for-card doesn’t offer us the same utility in-game, why, then, are we focusing on cards with identical rules text? I’d like to propose an alternate way to find “budget replacements” – focusing on replicating the utility at a lower dollar-value.

Using this definition, I’d start by asking an entirely different question – “what is it that you’re most likely to tutor for?”. Tutors are a way of increasing consistency in your deck by functionally serving as second copies of key cards, so it’s time to take a look at your deck and figure out what it is you’re actually trying to accomplish. Proactively, you might use it to advance your own game plan. Reactively, you’re looking to hinder your opponents from advancing their own game plans. This means that you can functionally replace a tutor by doing one of several things:

  • Increasing the number of cards that accomplish the effect you’re looking for
    If you find you’d mostly want to tutor for early game ramp, you can accomplish this by actually increasing the number of early game ramp pieces in your deck. This doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of having it when you need it, but it does increase the likelihood that you’ll have it at all points in the game.
  • Including narrower, conditional tutors that hit most of the things you’d want to tutor for.
    I do this in my Nin, the Pain Artist deck (which can’t run Demonic Tutor due to colour identity restrictions) by running Muddle the Mixture and Tolaria West. These search up four distinct combo pieces (Power Artifact / Grim Monolith and Dramatic Reversal / Isochron Sceptre), the best infinite mana sink (Walking Ballista) as well as a host of reactive 2-drop spells. I also run Mystical Tutor and, Gamble. Given that I have a significant artifact theme in the deck, I also run Transmute Artifact, Fabricate, Tezzeret the Seeker, Whir of Invention, and Trinket Mage. Not all of these are budget options, but just know that it’s possible to nearly-replicate the utility that Demonic Tutor has by using a combination of narrower cards that accomplish what you want to accomplish, as long as their mana cost is low enough that you don’t have to expend a ton of resources to cast them.

  • Increasing card draw and selection
    This is one method that I don’t think gets enough credit. Sure, it’s not as sexy casting Ponder on turn 1 as it is Demonic Tutor, but card selection and velocity in your deck play a huge role in being able to do something even if it’s not the perfect thing. There are plenty of budget card draw and selection spells that you can include in your deck, and collectively they can increase consistency and responsiveness similar to a top-tier tutor suite. Break out your Windfalls, because they absolutely fit here as well.

With all that in mind, my answer to the question “what’s a good budget replacement for Demonic Tutor?” should start to make a little more sense. It’s often impossible to make a budget version of a deck by making card-for-card replacements when you’re working with a restrictive budget. If someone came to you wanting to build Legacy MUD, I definitely wouldn’t tell them to run Thran Dynamo and Temple of the False God in place of Grim Monolith and City of Traitors. You often have to take a look at the deck holistically and use a combination of methods to replace the 1-card utility that something like Demonic Tutor provides.

 

How about countermagic?

Moving right along to different types of utility you might be looking at, countermagic is one of the ones I see quite frequently. I’ve pointed to it in the past, but Reddit user SirOzzsome of the Laboratory Maniacs has assembled one of the finest lists of countermagic I’ve ever seen. What makes this list outstanding is that it separates counterspells by analyzing their utility, just as we’ve done here with tutors. It acknowledges the fact that there are six major categories of countermagic:

  • Free
  • Universal
  • Conditional
  • Activated / Triggered Abilities
  • Gets around “cannot be countered”
  • Non-mono-blue

Is the newly-spoiled Spell Swindle a good budget replacement for Mana Drain? Well that depends an awful lot on what you’re using it for. If you need a counterspell at 2 mana, Spell Swindle absolutely does not fit the bill. It’s relatively easy to leave up two mana and make your opponent sweat when they cast their 6-drops, knowing that you could have an explosive follow-up turn. Less-so with 5 mana, because it’s going to have a serious impact on your ability to advance your board. If you’re interested in efficiently policing the board, it’s generally better to keep the mana cost low and accept the fact that you won’t see a $1 counterspell with the same Oracle text as Mana Drain. This might mean moving into the conditional category, because you generally get a bit of a discount for accepting conditions.

 

How about land bases?

Good mana fixing on lands is notoriously expensive, and more than a few people balked at my definition of a budget land base as “no more than $15 on a single land” (looking at you, Taylor). Is it possible to get the same utility as an expensive mana base while playing on a budget? Absolutely! One of my favourite ways to build budget decks is to go mono-coloured or two-coloured.

If you think about it, deliberately skewing towards commanders with fewer colours in their identity puts you in the same position of being able to cast your spells without having to worry too much about what colour of mana your lands produce. To do the same thing in a 5-colour deck costs a whole lot more money, so if you’re looking to increase your competitiveness, you can absolutely allocate your hard-earned skrilla towards more impactful non-land cards if you’re not taking out a second mortgage to buy ABUR duals.

 

But Jim, what about artifact ramp?

This one is probably the most difficult to reproduce, because very few things come close to the amount of early-game acceleration that a top-tier artifact mana suite provides. Some of the pieces like Sol Ring are reprinted annually, which does a great job of keeping costs down. For the more expensive pieces like Mana Crypt, Mox Opal, Mox Diamond, and Grim Monolith, there really aren’t a whole lot of functional replacements. These are specifically designed to accelerate you in the first few turns of the game. How do we replace these, then? Let’s take a look at a graph of the total mana available by turn using 3 different opening hands:

A comparison of 3 opening hands with different types of mana rocks. Assume we draw lands on turns 4, 6, and 8.

The blue line is a great fast mana opener – 2 lands + Mana Crypt + Signet. We’re able to use the Mana Crypt to cast the Signet on turn 1, and we’re even able to activate the signet using our land drop. This means that we’re actually able to start influencing the game by casting instant-speed responses on turn 1.

The orange line is what I see a lot on EDH forums – 2 lands + Chromatic Lantern + Gilded Lotus. This line actually has the highest end point of any of the three openers, mostly thanks to how bomby Gilded Lotus is. This is the type of hand that you feel really bad watching someone miss a land drop, because they’re likely to stare at an empty board while everyone is having fun. This gets even worse if someone blows up the mana rock they eventually play, or counters the first thing they try to cast.

The grey line is a nice tight low-curve opener. On turn 2 we’re casting Fellwar Stone. On turn three we’re casting Mind Stone. On turn 4 when we play the land we just drew, we’ve got 5 mana available and we’re off to the races. This is a pretty stark contrast to turn 4 on the orange line when we’re essentially tapping out to cast Chromatic Lantern!  In the later turns, we’re pretty closely mirroring the fast mana start because both hands are totally finished ramping by turn 3.

By keeping our mana rocks to a maximum of 2 mana, we’re not replicating the early-game explosiveness of the more expensive mana rocks. We are, however, curving out fairly nicely and ready to start playing the game by turn 4. Increasing the cost of our mana rocks past that point means we’re locking in big chunks of mana on turns 5 through 7 while people are starting to establish their strategies. It might not seem like a lot, but I can tell you that it feels a lot different playing a deck that has 5 mana available on turn 4 on a fairly consistent basis. It definitely reduces the number of games where you get buried for stumbling in your first few turns, and increases the number of keepable opening hands.

 

In closing

Really, what I’m trying to get at here, is that there are excellent ways to simulate the effect of expensive cards that don’t involve replicating them word-for-word at a higher mana cost. To do this, it’s a great idea to look at what the specific card effect is accomplishing in your deck, and making a list of the ways you can do that efficiently. Sometimes it’s as easy as taking a comparable effect with a little bit of downside at a similar mana cost, and sometimes it’s looking at your deck holistically to see if modifying your overall strategy can pick up the slack.

This is about all I have to say about budget deckbuilding for now. I’ll leave the brewing to folks like Reddit user /u/McCoreman with his budget deck series. He does an excellent job of replacing the utility of high-end cards as he pares lists down to their absolute bare bones. I would highly recommend reading these even if you’re not into the competitive meta, because it’s an excellent example of how you can overhaul expensive strategies to work properly at lower price points.

 

Do you have any experience tuning budget lists? Have you ever had to totally overhaul a deck to pick up the slack from a missing key piece that you just can’t justify buying? As always, hit me up in the comments!

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