EDIT: Added "Is Limited for you section"
TLDR; It's cheaper than paper - playing for free with a 10$ buy in is very doable, if you want a good deck per set release immediately, it's ~200$ buy in and 100$ per set and if you want all rares, it's around 200$ per set.
With WotC deciding to follow the semi predatory modern design of pricing structure and virtual currencies in Arena, I am sure I am not the only one who is confused about how much Magic Arena actually costs to play. Here I try to answer that question for three different scenarios:
All you want is to have a good deck to get started and grind out the rest.
In that case your best shot to get started is Mono U Tempo which is arguably the best deck in the format anyway and with Arena offering a variety of best of one game modes, you don’t even really need a sideboard. Autumn’s awesome build
requires 4 rare and 23 uncommon wildcards to craft the mainboard assuming you don’t get lucky and open any of the rares you need that means opening 23* packs, if you want to get those via a one time purchase you probably want to buy the Welcome Bundle and the cheapest set of Gems for 10$ total. After your first 15 wins you will have all the rare wildcards you need.
So 10$ entry doesn’t sound so bad, and in fact that happens to be exactly the buy in of Modo, but can you actually grind on arena? The answer is yes! If you reroll a 500 gold quest every day (In the hopes of getting a 750 one) and always complete all your 100 gold win bonuses, you will within 3 months have generated around the same number of rares that are in a normal set.
The Meta Player
To be honest I didn’t really know what to call this… Here you want to start every “season” with a “tiered” deck, you spend money once at set release, make a big opening of the new set and grind out the rest over the season. Here the costs are two fold, the entry cost for buying into a deck that is not quite the least expensive one out there and the cost per set release.
Sultai Midrange is probably the “stock good” deck of this season so let’s use it as an example. The list that won the SCG IQ Clarksville
has 8 mythics and 36 rares in it. You get one mythics wildcard for every three rares, so it’s still the rares that limit you here. You would need to open ~216 packs if you get really unlucky and don’t open any wanted cards in the packs, but that is next to impossible. Currently I would suggest buying GRN packs, the reasons are threefold, one, GRN will not be among the sets that rotate out this fall, two, GRN packs aren’t acquired through the weekly wins and three, shocklands will be the backbones of manabases until fall 2020, so even if all spells get obsoleted, there will always be value in your GRN lands. Spending 205$ in the form of the welcome bundle as well as two times the largest set of gems will buy you all of Sultai Midrange, leave you with 6500 gems in the account and in the process, you will have acquired almost the entirety of the rares of GRN. Spending 155$ is slightly too little unfortunately unless you get a little lucky and open a few more useful cards than expected, but doing a few minor budget swaps will fix that for you. Also make sure you play through all of the new player experience before crafting the checklands, you will receive one of each through those quests.
And how much will it be to keep up? Well unless rotation happens the top dogs of one season very likely have close analogues in the new one. Let’s just say you want to jumpstart your collection by crafting 3 playsets of rares and one playset of a mythic (for RNA and golgari->sultai those might be Breeding Pool, Krasis and GCG). For that you need to open around 72 packs, but the cheapest way to get to 72 is buying 75 packs for 15000 gems and the cheapest way to get that is 16000 gems for 90$. At that point you are probably better off spending 100$ on the biggest set of gems which will buy you 99 packs. So yeah, having a meta deck at the beginning of the season every season and grinding out the rest is about as expensive as buying a box per set, or upgrading your previous standard deck. The difference is that A: you can’t resell your arena cards and B: instead of only getting the cards you wanted you also grow your collection and as I said in the “Grinder” section it is quite feasible to hold a complete or nearly complete collection of rares on arena.
It’s important to note here as well that while your first “tiered” is quite expensive the following ones will be a lot cheaper, you will own several of the cards in them and have acquired quite a few cards through the weekly rewards. I personally follow this model, having dumped in 205$ at GRN release and 100$ at RNA and most decklists I import have me lacking between 4 and 12 rares, taking advantage of the steps suggested in the “Grinder” section you get around 1.5 rare wild cards a week meaning that around every moth or so I get to complete a new stock good deck. At some point you expect mythics to become the bottleneck though, so don’t go into it with the goal in mind of getting all the playable cards in a set by the release of the next one.
The Hardcore Brewer
Let’s pretend for a second that you really want a full set of the rares every new set the day it releases, how much does that cost? Well in a set with 53 unique rares you need to open around 182 packs to get a playset of every one, 180 packs would set you back 36000 gems and the cheapest way to buy those is 40000 gems for 200$. You might be tempted to says that there is also the gold, the wildcards you acquired from weekly rewards over the season and the 4000 gems per set you end up with after getting all the rares and that those might add up over time making your future sets cheaper and that might very well be true. But remember, many decks play mythics, some, like Angles obscene amounts of them and after opening 180 packs the number of total mythics you get, wildcards included is around 15, that is only one copy each of the mythics in the last set. And if your needs require literally all the rares immediately, you will probably require most mythics decently quickly. So if that is you jam (or your job) I would suggest mentally setting aside at least 200$ per set.
The Limited Player
After all this stuff there is one elephant in the room: limited. I personally don’t play much limited so my understanding is a little… well… limited. I would highly suggest checking out Going Optimal
on twitch, they are very responsive to economy questions in the chat and even show how much limited you can get as a pure free to play player. However if all you want is a quick and dirty number I might as well give you one. Assuming all you ever play is Bo3 draft and your average finish is 3:2 and you have a full collection of the rares and mythics of the set, you expect to lose around 282.5 gems per draft, if you only ever buy gems in bulk that is around 1.40$ per draft, if you don’t get the refunds for the rares and mythics, you lose around 350 gems which is 1.75$. If you are terrible at limited (or pessimistic and don’t want to assume wins when laying out your finances), the pure buy in is 7,50$ not a lost cheaper than an FNM draft and pretty much the same price as drafting physically with packs bought in bulk. Make of that what you will.
Should I play Limited based on EV?
As many of you pointed out in the comments, I did neglect the option that you can help build your collection by playing limited. So I went ahead and did the maths of of. First off, I wanted to find out how much playing limited actually costs based on your winrate. Then I wanted to see if you get "value" out of it. The value of the Draft I put at the Gems received as a prize plus the price of the prize packs plus the cost of a pack for every rare you get that isn't in your collection plus the refund you get if it is minus the entry fee. You can check out if playing limited is for you in this spreadsheet
just check if the number for your winrate and collection size of the draftable set is positive or negative. The most surprising thing for me though was that drafting for gold is only positive EV for those who have better than 50% and have minuscule collection, you are almost always better off spending your gold on packs than on draft.
So, Arena is quite cheap in the sense that the dedicated cheapskate can grind the ladder with a good deck for next to free and even grow a sizeable collection doing so - that is awesome! I hope RnD will make sure there will always be a good deck as arena-budget friendly as mono U and gates are currently so I can whole heartedly keep recommending Arena as the best way to play MtG if you don’t have a lot of spare cash.
If you want to keep out to date with the meta to some degree, even when new sets release, you should probably treat arena as a 200$ program that comes with a 100$ quarterly fee. That is likely cheaper than maintaining a standard deck and you sure get a lot more play out of that money, however, remember that you can’t reasonably sell out of your arena collection.
Should money be no issue and you want to be able to play most anything, you will probably looking at something like 200$ per set, depending on how many mythics you want. So a full collection of rares and below comes in at a nice and easy 1200$ that is way less than it used to before duplication protection was introduced and is less than playsets of 2 sets in paper. If you need literally every card as a 4 off that price difference quickly dwindles though.
So finally I have to conclude that Arena is through the board cheaper or on par with paper magic, it likely offers you more playtime and variety, not to forget that playing videogames with animations and sounds is just a lot of fun. The cost you are paying for that is that you won’t be able to resell. I personally despise MtG finance, so that is more of a benefit than a cost, but your mileage may vary.
* One of your wild cards will actually be a mythic wildcard, but you also expect to open one rare wildcard in one of the packs at this number of packs. Neat how that evens out exactly.
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