From FNM Hero to MTGO League Zero: How To Improve

I have been taking my Pioneer decks to my local FNM ever since in-person play returned and have steadily secured myself as “that guy who usually goes 3-1”, and I am just fine with that! So how can I test and create content using a variety of decks without breaking the bank and buying new cards each week? The answer is MTGO.

Getting Your Feet Wet

I have been taking my Pioneer decks to my local FNM ever since in-person play returned and have steadily secured myself as “that guy who usually goes 3-1”, and I am just fine with that! I love my local Pioneer meta because it contains such a wide variety of decks and players. We have the top-tier spike, the B-tier brewers, local high schoolers getting into the game, and returning MTG players forcing old standard lists. Playing paper Magic does have its limitations however – specifically in a financial sense. As a content creator (and even as a player) I like to test and highlight a variety of decks and while I can proxy cards for playtesting… these are not legal in local tournaments. So how can I test and create content using a variety of decks without breaking the bank and buying new cards each week? The answer is MTGO. 

For those unfamiliar MTGO stands for Magic the Gathering Online and is an online client that allows users to play any format of Magic they desire as long as they own the electronic versions of the cards. You may think this leads to the same issue we faced before, having to purchase new cards for each deck, but there are two elements of MTGO that circumnavigate this issue. First off, many MTGO versions of cards are mere pennies compared to their paper counterparts. This is not always the case (see Den of The Bugbear: $7 in paper // $51 in MTGO) so there is another solution. “Loan Programs” such as the ones offered by Cardhaorder and Mana Traders, allow you to rent the cards up to a certain limit for a monthly fee so you can try multiple decks without ever having to buy them. For someone like me who wants to try a new deck every week this seemed like the perfect solution to my problem, so I activated an account and started renting cards to my heart’s desire. 

Now this isn’t going to be an in-depth look into loan programs (though maybe a good idea to do in another article) so for now all you need to know is that I signed up for an account that would allow me to basically play any deck in the Pioneer format. I started taking my janky brews to the “Tournament Practice” queue where you can play best of three matches with opponents for no cost. This is a great place to test your deck and though you will play against meta decks in this queue – many measure the true viability of a deck by its showing in a League. Leagues are competitive events with an entry fee but offer prizes to those who perform well in them (see prize chart below). 

I quickly found myself conflicted. I wanted to play in these leagues to win prizes and to test the viability of my decks, but was I really prepared to lose that money if I didn’t perform well? I eventually decided to just take the plunge and pay the entry fee in order to play a league with the deck that I played most at FNM, Ensoul Artifact. That past weekend I had ended up winning my FNM with a 4-0 record so I figured a league should be a piece of cake. In fact, I was almost certain I would win enough prizes to pay for my next entry and continue to cycle through leagues netting profit and becoming MTGO Grinder Jake in the process. 

I queued up for my first match, hit “Go Live” on my stream and…we went 2-3. A respectable showing but I was definitely less than happy with the results. After that I took a break from leagues and stuck to the practice queue. I figured if I found a meta deck I enjoyed and practiced with it for a few weeks I could return to the leagues and show out, so that’s what I did. I rented the Izzet Control list and spent my time grinding the practice queue, and I was doing well. I would come up against Winota, Lotus Combo, and all the decks on Darth Jacen’s weekly tier list and – better yet – I was winning! Surely my next foray into MTGO Leagues would be the triumph I felt I deserved. We paid our entry fee, hit “Go Live”, and this time we went 1-4. 

I was taken back! How could this happen again? I had practiced, I had the right deck, I hadn’t faced my worst matchups… how could this be? Well after some self-reflection and a few conversations with other MTGO players I have come here to tell you that I was actually destined to lose those first few leagues. This isn’t a doomsaying article written to warn you of the treacherous MTGO league, but rather one to detail my experience and give you tips on how to successfully make the transition from FNM to MTGO. 

You Will Lose…a Fair Bit

So, it turns out that playing Magic on paper versus online is quite different. I would say it’s so different that regardless of how skilled you are on paper you will inevitably lose matches on MTGO that you normally wouldn’t lose in person. This is for a few reasons! First of all, the MTGO interface is not the most user friendly and you will simply lose due to misunderstanding it. Misclicks, forgetting to set stops, and missing out on sequencing are just part of the learning curve and no matter how many MTGO videos or streams you watch you will not be prepared to navigate the interface until you get into it yourself. This is why I HIGHLY recommend spending the majority of your time in the “Tournament Practice” queue when you first start out. I find many “metagame matchups” here but without the pressure of losing monetarily – allows me to relax and practice my deck. 

All of this to say that you are going to experience some frustrations when you make this switch. Just remember that it does get better and the more you practice the more efficiently you will be able to navigate the interface. I highly recommend watching Saffron Olive’s video “Getting Started on Magic Online (in 2022)” before making the switch as it offers a great overview on how to get started as well as the playfield and how to navigate it. 

To Rent or Buy?

An advantage that MTGO has to Arena is that when you buy a card in the program, that card maintains monetary value. Just like with real cards the value can fluctuate depending on the market but theoretically you could, at some point, sell out of MTGO and leave with actual money in your pocket at the end of it. That being said, I personally advocate that new MTGO players look into rental programs for a variety of reasons. 

  1. It allows you to test a variety of decks for a fraction of the price that it would cost to buy each one. 
  2. It keeps you from buying one deck that you may not even like or falls out of the Pioneer meta. 
  3. It allows you to evolve with the meta by renting new cards or whole decks to adjust to the ever shifting online meta. 

Of course, you should do your own research and decide which option works best for you, but I do want to offer my own experiences and perspectives for you to consider. I have a $10 a week account which allows me to play most viable decks in the pioneer format. Doing the math, this means I pay $520 a year to rent all my decks. If I were to buy the top 5 decks in the Pioneer metagame, it would cost roughly $2072 at the time this article is published. With my rental account I can play all 5 of these decks and any other brews my heart desires. Plus, I don’t need to buy cards for each new set, just update my list and rent them. If you want to do well in MTGO Leagues I believe renting is the way to go. 

The MTGO Meta is its Own Beast

I’m sure you have faced that person at your local FNM who is playing the “best deck” at the time. You came prepared for that matchup… but are you prepared to face that same exact deck three times in a row? Just as your local FNM tends to have its own unique meta, MTGO has an ever shifting and unique meta of its own as well. This is especially apparent when you log into a league and find yourself playing against nothing but the top decks each round. Of course, you will run into the oddity here and there, but it can be overwhelming to face the top decks of the format each and every round, and if you aren’t intimately familiar with the current metagame you are going to struggle. 

The first solution is to play in multiple leagues and discover the meta for yourself. Take notes on your matches and see what works and what doesn’t work. If you are playing a popular deck there is a good chance there is a deck primer explaining its strategies. Some lists even have great sideboard guides. I also recommend referring to the Playing Pioneer tier list as often as possible as it will give you a good idea of the decks you will encounter in those leagues. I was a fan of the website even before I started writing for them and it was because it was a one stop content hub for all things Pioneer and continues to grow every day. 

Seeing a Difference

It’s going to take some time before you see your desired results, but I believe you will see progress if you keep at it and practice whenever you can. Of course, results will vary depending on how often you can play but that’s another advantage that MTGO offers. You can log on at any time of the day that you are free, morning, afternoon, night – and you will always find people to play with. You can play Magic on YOUR schedule and for this second-year teacher who often picks up additional work outside of school hours – that is a blessing. The convenience of having people to play your favorite format with on your time is indispensable to many. It may start off with frustration, but I believe your journey with MTGO will lead to fond memories and a deeper understanding of the intricacies of Magic. Keep at it and you will find it’s not so bad going from FNM Hero to MTGO Zero, because you know it won’t always be that way.

  • Author

    Casual Jake is a music teacher and MTG content creator who caters to the FNM crew. Known for his love of off-meta brews and budget decks he focuses on making the game of Magic accessible for all players. While he primarily plays Pioneer, Casual Jake is an avid Commander player who also explores Pauper and Modern from time to time. In his own words, “I never said I was good, but at least I’m entertaining.”

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