Picture this. You're in a game store, looking out over a dizzying display of booster boxes. Dozens of brightly-colored Angels and Dragons and Wizards look back at you, each enticing you to choose their product. "Pick me!", they all seem to say. "You might open my card, or perhaps something even better! Don't you want a shiny new chase mythic for your favorite deck?"
Decision paralysis sets in. You have no idea whether to buy a Strixhaven Collector Booster or a Theros Beyond Death Theme Booster or a Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms Set Booster. They're all so different. Even if you manage to narrow your choice down to a single set, you're still selecting between three very different types of booster packs, at very different price points. They all seem cool, but which one should you buy?
We're going to spend today answering a question that has vexed many of us since the introduction of Project Booster Fun: Which booster is best? Is it the Collector Booster? The Set Booster? The Draft Booster? Could it even be the oft-maligned Theme Booster? Will the answer differ for different types of players? Does it change from set to set? Does it matter if you're buying boxes versus individual packs? What if you want to hold onto boxes as long-term investments? These might seem like daunting questions, but don't worry — I've got you covered.
Before we can figure out which booster is best, it's important to understand the differences between them. Otherwise, phrases like "Set Booster" and "Collector Booster" will seem pretty meaningless.
While the actual content of these booster packs changes from set to set, there are several things that remain true across all (or at least most) of their iterations. Let's cover the boosters one at a time, and see if we can nail down most of their commonalities and differences.
Let's get Theme Boosters out of the way first, because I'm not going to talk about them again in this article. These packs contain a whopping 35 cards, most of which are common and uncommon. Most Theme Boosters contain just a single rare or mythic, though some (usually about 1 in 10) might contain two rares.
These boosters are aimed at new players who really need the commons and uncommons. Because the 35 cards are crafted to work together, you can make a fun kitchen table deck right from your Theme Booster. Otherwise, you're paying a lot of money for a bunch of chaff and a single non-foil rare. These boosters come in boxes of 12, which generally sell for about $60. That's roughly $5 a pack, which is a lot more than either a Draft or Set Booster. Considering the contents of these boosters, I don't recommend them for anyone who has been playing Magic for longer than a few weeks.
If you've opened a Magic: the Gathering pack at any point over the past two decades, you know all about Draft Boosters. While the content of these has changed slightly over time, these booster packs are more or less the same as they've always been. They currently contain ten commons, three uncommons, a rare or mythic rare, a basic land, and a marketing card or token. Approximately 25% of the time, a foil card of any rarity will replace one of the ten commons. They come in boxes of 36 booster packs, and those boxes usually sell for about $100.
Set Boosters vary a little from expansion to expansion, but the general idea behind them is usually the same. There are somewhere between 7 and 10 commons and uncommons, a guaranteed rare or mythic rare, a guaranteed foil, a guaranteed "booster fun" card (usually a showcase card of some kind), an art card or foil art card, a basic land or foil basic land, and either a marketing card, token, or a card from The List (25% of the time). These packs sometimes come with a shot at a second rare or mythic rare as well.
Unlike Draft Boosters, which never change, you will have to look up the potential contents of Set Boosters each time a new expansion is released. For example, Strixhaven Set Boosters each contained a guaranteed Lesson card and a guaranteed Mystical Archive Card, but did not have randomly inserted second rares, unlike Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. These set-by-set differences can lead to meaningful shifts in the expected value of Set Boosters versus Draft Boosters, so the value-conscious should be aware of them.
In general, though, Set Boosters usually contain slightly more value than Draft Boosters. They also tend to cost slightly more. A box of 30 (not 36) Set Boosters generally sells for about $95 — just a little bit less than a Draft Booster box. This also isn't universally true, though, as we're about to learn a little later.
Collector Boosters are chock full of incredibly cool stuff…if you're willing to pay the price. They generally all contain a foil double-sided token, a foil basic land (sometimes two, if cool basic lands are a focus of the set), a small number of foil commons and uncommons, a couple showcase commons and uncommons, a foil rare or mythic rare, an extended-art rare or mythic rare, and then a couple of elite slots that generally have two or three foil extended-art or borderless cards, as well as foil showcase rares or mythics.
The hottest and most expensive variants in a given set are generally only found in these Collector Boosters. They are extremely cool and an absolute blast to open — and they're very expensive. You'd be paying $185 for a box of 12 Adventures in the Forgotten Realms Collector Boosters right now, which is actually pretty low compared to some previous sets. That's still more than $15 per pack, compared to $2.77 for Draft Boosters or $3.16 for Set Boosters.
The question you have to ask yourself, then, is this: is a Collector Booster worth more or less to you than 5 or 6 Draft or Set Boosters? The answer, to me at least, is that it depends a lot on what you're looking to get out of your booster-cracking experience.
WotC created each booster to fill a niche. Here's how I see them:
Why would you buy a Draft Booster? Well, the name is right there: they're for folks who want to play draft or sealed. The other two booster packs tend to provide better "I wonder what I'll get!" experiences, as well as a little more bang for your buck in most cases. Draft boosters are necessary, though, because they are the only booster packs that are properly balanced for limited play. Since limited is one of the most fun formats to play, draft boosters are still really important. In fact, there's anecdotal evidence that WotC is systematically underestimating the demand for Draft Boosters right now, at least compared to Set Boosters.
Despite having a little less per-pack value, I suspect that Draft Booster boxes will end up being better long-term holds than Set Booster boxes. While some people do buy older booster boxes to crack, a lot of that demand actually comes from folks who are nostalgic about the draft format. While Set Boosters will only appeal to the former kind of buyer, Draft Booster boxes have appeal to both. That increased demand should lead to higher prices once these sets leave print. If you're going to stash booster boxes in your closet, these are still the ones I'd buy.
Set Boosters are like Draft Boosters, but for folks who just want to crack packs. Unlike Draft Boosters, however, you can't really use them for limited play. The commons and uncommons are generally related in some way, which creates poor draft signals and unbalanced sealed deck pools. Seriously: don't play limited with these packs unless you are prepared to have a subpar experience at least half the time.
While Set Boosters fail at being good for limited play, they honestly do excel at being fun to open. The addition of The List helps a lot, since roughly 25% of packs contain a fun (and possibly valuable) card from Magic's past. These odds might seem poor, but I feel like I've seen at least one good List card in every box I've watched get opened. The increased foil and rare odds are nice, too. If all you care about when you open a box is the stack of cards at the end, I'd opt for Set Boosters over Draft Booster nearly always.
Generally, I don't recommend holding onto Set Boosters for the long-term. At this price point, collectors are typically going to prefer sealed Draft Booster boxes because of how much more versatile they are. Folks who want flashy, premium opens are going to opt for Collector Boosters, because that's where you have the best odds of opening each set's chase cards. That makes Set Boosters stuck in the middle, where I expect they'll lag the field a bit.
Collector Boosters are for people who covet shiny things — and have the money to back that habit up. While many Set and Draft Boosters will end up being a bust, virtually every Collector Booster has something incredibly cool on the inside. These are the most fun packs to open, by far, and they also have all the best cards. Seriously: most of the value in a given set these days is only found inside these Collector Boosters. If you want to experience large swaths of what WotC is giving us, you pretty much have to buy these bad boys.
There are two issues with Collector Boosters, however. First, they are just about as useless for limited play as Set Boosters. This isn't a big issue, especially since you'd need two full boxes of Collector Boosters for just a single 8-person booster draft, but it's worth bringing up since we just talked about this in our Set Booster conversation.
Second, and most importantly, these boosters are very expensive. They are at least $15 and usually more like $20. They are splashy and fun to open, but here is the full list of Standard legal cards that cost comfortably more than $20 right now:
That's it. And remember: right now, we're looking at a massive Standard format containing a full eight sets. Only seven cards during that span are worth comfortably more than $20, and you can buy any other non-foil, Standard legal card released over the past two years for less than the cost of most Collector Booster packs.
Paradoxically, this argument works both for and against Collector Boosters. On the one hand, they are not great investments for anyone who simply wants to play Standard or check out the new cards. If that is your goal, go buy singles. They are always going to be the best bang for your buck. And heck, you can do that right here on TCGplayer.com!
If you do just want to crack packs, though, Collector Boosters are where the fun is. With only 7 "wow factor" cards in two years of normal boosters, and foils feeling less and less special thanks to the existence of Collector Boosters, there's a lot less excitement to opening both Set and Draft Boosters than there used to be. When you crack those lesser boosters, you're essentially shutting yourself off from 90% of the pool of exciting and valuable pulls. That makes Collector Boosters the only real game in town for anyone who wants to open a godly booster pack.
This isn't great news for those of us who don't love the idea of spending $15 to $20 on a booster pack, but that doesn't make it less true. If I'm going to go crack packs, and I want to feel the rush of "what if I open something awesome?," I'm cracking a Collector Booster 100 times out of 100.
So far, my analysis in this article has been more anecdotal than analytical. For those of you who'd prefer I stick to the numbers, this part is for you.
First off, the folks at MTG Goldfish have recently started posting EV calculations for all new booster boxes. They have an algorithm that uses probabilities and current prices to spit out a number that represents the expected value of the average booster box, given current price tags.
Here's what it tells us about the past few sets:
Adventures in the Forgotten Realms
This is an interesting set of numbers. For one thing, you can see that Draft Booster boxes are more expensive than Set Booster boxes right now, despite usually selling for less. This is likely due to complications surrounding this anecdote that I linked earlier, stating how WotC under-printed Draft Boosters and over-printed Set Boosters for Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. Here's hoping that they go back to a better balance in the future, because it seems pretty clear to me that the demand for Draft Boosters is still quite real.
That said, we have a surprising response here for those of you who want a purely monetary answer to the question of which booster is best. For Adventures in the Forgotten Realms right now, Set Boosters are on average going to return $27 in profit for every $100 spent, while Collector Boosters will only return $14 in profit for every $100 spent.
Just remember that this particular EV algorithm accounts for every card in each of these boxes that is worth more than $1. Plenty of $1.50 cards are going to be very hard to sell effectively, so the true saleable EV for most people that open these boxes will probably be at or just below what you spend. As always, cracking packs to re-sell is usually a poor idea unless you happen to own a store.
Strixhaven: School of Mages
Wow, would you look at that! The EV for both Draft and Set boosters is almost identical to the cost of a sealed box right now. In this case, the contents of a Draft Booster Box is actually higher than a Set Booster Box, speaking to that set-by-set variance I talked about a bit earlier on. Neither box is bad, though neither provides any surplus value right now.
On the other hand, Collector Boosters remain a solid buy. You're still profiting roughly $14 for every $100 invested, assuming you can get fair market value for every $1+ card without fees. In this case, buying Collector Boosters seems like the absolute right call.
This is the only other set that MTG Goldfish has done an EV calculation on so far, and doing the math on another set by myself without access to those algorithms would take the better part of a day, so I'll have to leave it here for now. Regardless, it appears as though there is some set-by-set variance that is worth factoring into your buying decisions. That said, most booster boxes tend to sell roughly in line with their expected values, so the answer remains: buy what you want.
You can't really go wrong with any of the three major booster types: Draft, Set, and Collector. All of them are "worth" roughly as much as they sell for, so you're not making a huge mistake no matter what you buy. There are minor EV differences on a set-by-set basis, and it's worth looking into those if you're incredibly value-conscious. Otherwise, go nuts.
If you're looking to hold sealed booster boxes over the long term, Draft Boosters are probably going to be the best bang for your buck simply because of the added demand from nostalgic drafters. Collector Boosters are also good holds, simply because of how many expensive cards they might contain. I wouldn't recommend holding onto Set Boosters for the long haul.
If you want to buy a booster to crack, snag either a Set Booster or a Collector Booster. I prefer the Collector Booster experience, and recommend those if you have the cash, but it can be hard to justify dropping $15 to $20 on a single pack. The expected value for a Set Booster is roughly the same (when purchase price is factored in), though, so both options are fine. I probably wouldn't crack a Draft Booster, simply because the experience is less evocative, but buying them to draft with is still a great call.
At the end of the day, buying singles is always going to be the best financial bang for your buck. If you want my recommendation on a purely economic level, that's what you should do. Your second-best option is to buy a box of Draft Boosters and draft among friends, because that experience adds value to the price you're paying for a box. If you simply want to crack packs, snag Collector Boosters if you can and Set Boosters if you'd prefer that experience. As long as you're having fun, you can't really go wrong.
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Last week's newsletter was an exploration of Mark Rosewater's annual State of Design column. We took a look at the most anticipated Magic column of the year and tried to make some predictions about the future of Magic Finance. Will 2022 mark the end of heavy reprints, or will Magic start reprinting more cards than ever? You'll have to subscribe to my newsletter for answers to questions like this!