Is Magic: The Gathering Pay To Win?

As someone who hasn’t played the game since middle school on account of it being too darn expensive for my tiny wallet, I’m initially inclined to say “yes”. And even after hearing a number of friends who are more involved in the game tell me it’s not, I still look down at their coveted Card Binder with $400 worth of “Mythic Rare” cardboard and refuse to reconsider my initial assumption. And that’s because, from the most basic of perspectives, I don’t have to.

But first, let’s define what “Pay To Win” means…

“Pay To Win” is a term often overused in modern gaming journalism. Technically speaking, a game that is Pay To Win allows a player to spend real money in order to acquire some kind of tangible, numerical advantage over another player that cannot be acquired through playing the game normally.

Obviously, when talking about a paper card game, this definition gets a lot simpler. Unlike in video games, you can’t earn Magic Cards by playing with your existing cards. That just doesn’t happen. So that allows me to end this topic pretty easily.

Is Magic: The Gathering Pay To Win?

Yes.

Because there are some cards that are objectively worse than other, more expensive cards. Examples:

Good / Bad | Good / BadGood / BadGood / BadGood / BadGood / BadGood / BadGood / BadGood / BadGood / BadGood / Bad

And then there’s card that are great, and amazing in almost any deck, but cost absurd amounts of money.

Ha. Black Lotus.

But then I asked myself a second question:

Is Magic: The Gathering Pay To Win?

Well, no fucking shit. It’s a Trading Card Game.

There’s something like 12,000 unique cards that have been printed – some of which are bound to be better than others. What’s more than that is you get the cards at random, so there’s pretty much no guarantee you’ll even be able to build a deck that works.

Even if there weren’t overpowered cards, buying more of them would let someone build a more tailored strategy that’d probably beat someone else who just threw together everything they owned.

Of course it’s pay to win. It’s pay to play! You can’t play it without buying a deck first, and seeing as a good bit of the “skill” in the game comes from building the best deck you can, its no wonder that the better cards cost a whole lot more.

So after ranting to myself for a few minutes, I decided to change up my way of thinking about “The Problem”.

Because, in reality, I approached this question to solve a “Problem” in my own mind: That Magic: The Gathering is an endless pit of money spending with upper limits far beyond the reach of a normal person. According to MTGDecks.net, the current competitive modern decks cost about $500 – $1,000 total, but seeing as that can trigger an arms race between two people who are constantly buying decks to counter each other’s playing style, that price can easily get way, way larger.

Not to mention that “modern” is only one set of rules. There’s a lot of different rulesets out there. Which means a lot of different decks, and a lot more money. That’s all assuming you’re only buying set decks and no random decks, and at that point it’s literal gambling – You get where this is going.

So the question is: Is it possible to preserve the fun of Magic: The Gathering without the “game” becoming a question of who is willing to dig deeper into their savings accounts?

The first solution that came to mind is ‘Buy one deck and stick with it’. But I’m not sure that works here.

Because arguably the most interesting part of the game is building a deck – it certainly seems to occupy half of the time my MTG-Loving friends pour into the game. So sticking to only a single deck per person isn’t a solution here.

The closest I’ve been able to find is a series of game modes called “Pauper”. These game modes disallow players from using cards rarer than uncommon in their decks. As the rarity of a card decreases, the card becomes more common, and due to supply and demand, far less expensive – so this works to a degree.

There are still some fairly expensive uncommon cards out there, but if you’re able to resist the allure of the much-stronger Rare and Mythic cards, this is the mode for you. And for your wallet.

Even better: If you’re able to find a group willing to play on these terms, the lower-power games would probably lead to more fair, strategic engagements as well, which might be just what you’re looking for.

But there’s still one more solution: Buy a bag of regular playing cards, search up your favorite $1000 MTG card on Google Images, print that baby and paste it right on.

NO ONE plays this way. And I can’t figure out why. 

It’s totally legal so long as you don’t attempt to pass the fakes as real and sell them. And it allows Magic to be played as a game centered around deck building rather than a game centered around money losing.

But all my MTG friends say it’s “cheating”. I don’t really see that.

What I do see is someone who’s very pissed off at the notion of me being able to do for free the same things that they can do only after dropping hundreds of dollars on pieces of painted cardboard.

Kids these days.

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I’m a nerd with a wild sense of humor. I’m very good at running tabletop games (Like Dungeons & Dragons), or at least that’s what my players would tell you. I spend about as much time writing new content for those games as I do working on jobs or internships, and love every second of it. I'm a lover of dogs and mint chocolate chip, and my favorite dinosaur is the ankylosaurus. I also play racquetball with friends at least four times a week, go to the gym six times a week, and go for jogs around the neighborhood when I have time, because health is important and stuff. Eat them greens, yo.
  • Maya Asregadoo

    Your suggestion that players simply print out the cards is genius!