I am betting that a lot of you reading this article can see a stack of random cards nearby. Perhaps more than one. I have friends who tell me that they often order cards simply because they can't find the card in their collection. If there was a cost-effective way to transport either myself to people's houses, or Magic cards to my house, I am convinced I could make a lot of money organizing Magic collections for the rest of my life.
If you are someone with cards stacked everywhere or you are unhappy with how your collection is organized, you have come to the right place. As someone who has helped plenty of friends organize their cards, and has organized (and reorganized) their own collection, I have a few helpful hints to minimize your efforts and maximize your results!
This is your first question, and you really want to answer honestly here. If you know that you aren't going to maintain the work you are about to do putting your collection in order, then you are only wasting your time. Organizing your current collection is great, but if you don't maintain it then in a year's time you still aren't going to know how many copies of Etali, Primal Storm you have, since only some of your cards will be organized. Organizing half of your collection is a route to madness. Knowing you have the card but not being able to find it because it is in the half of your collection that isn't organized will lead you to question your life choices, or at least your IQ. Setting up an ambitious system is great and can be very helpful, but it can be a time-consuming burden later on that you won't be willing to maintain.
My system is somewhat complex and cumbersome but it is something I'm willing to do as I don't trade much. I add (or delete) cards from an app that tracks my collection, then add them into my storage system. It is a multilayered system that isn't for everyone, it works. I don't track my basic lands because there is little reason for me to do so. If you want all the same art for the Islands in your deck, perhaps that is something you want to do – it was something I definitely wasn't willing to do.
You want to choose a system of organizing that makes sense to you and will be something you'll follow through with months and years down the road as your collection grows. I have a rather time-consuming system, but it is something I am committed to. If you trade a lot, or your collection changes frequently, know that some levels of organization are just going to be such a burden, it is not worth the trouble. Perhaps all you are prepared to do is organize your cards by set. If that is helpful for you, then you have found what you are willing to do! When it comes to organizing collections, one size does not fit all!
You only want to have a system that handles what you need it to. Why organize spells by type, if that isn't going to matter to you? These extra levels look good, but they only add to the burden later when you add cards to your system and you ask yourself why you are doing all this extra work. You don't want to create a system that is just going to make future you cringe at the work involved and not continue to maintain it. Alphabetizing your cards per set is great, but if you only have 50 cards of each set, it is likely something you don't need to do.
My current system is like a warning beacon to all of you of the dangers of doing too much. I have my collection broken down into colors, then creatures, then mana costs of creatures, then alphabetized. That was great for a while, but then I loaded my entire collection into an app, so all those layers are pointless now. I could simply alphabetize my collection, and still find any card. All these extra steps simply add to the amount of time that I spend organizing my cards and can deter people from continuing to maintain the organization you worked so hard to set up initially. In my case, I continue to do it this way as the work involved in taking apart the organization doesn't seem worth it, and I live in fear of the app shutting down.
This is a part of the bigger "What do you need" question, but it is a significant question itself. If you have 1000 cards or less in your collection, you probably don't need more than a couple long white boxes. Flipping through a couple hundred cards is practically no work at all. However, as your collection gets bigger, you'll want to break it down further. Separating by set or color starts to make sense. Perhaps you want to sort your creatures together. Are you prepared to go all the way and alphabetize? So much of this is determined by how many cards you have.
My current collection is over 25,000 cards. I have long moved past the point where I could just sort the cards by color, then peruse through my entire collection and put together a casual deck that would be fun for me to play. My collection demanded I break down the cards further and further. At one point before I had the app, I had a section that had every green card that could destroy an enchantment and/or artifact grouped together. It was glorious and miserable at the same time!
For many of you, this sounds like a silly question, but having a database with all your cards listed in it means that you can know with a few keystrokes if you have a card and how many you have. This also means that you don't need to pull out half of your collection every time you want to build a deck. This can be very appealing to those of us with parents or spouses who roll their eyes when Magic cards end up scattered everywhere. A database means you only take out the cards you need and not anything extra.
A database means you need significantly less effort to organize your cards – it will tell you if you have the card, then your system only has to locate the card. Without a database, you want your system to group cards in such a way that will be most helpful to you. If you need a green creature that can draw you a card, you are going to want to have a system that at least has green creatures sorted together so you can quickly go through them to find something that fits the bill. With a database, you only need to find a single card. Sorting your entire collection alphabetically will be all you need to do (he says, as though alphabetizing 10,000 or 100,000 cards is something you can do in an hour or two!).
It should be noted that a search engine will also find cards, and often it will do it better than your database. However, you then must go through and see if you have every single card you need. A database can dramatically reduce that time!
I currently use an app called Decked Builder to maintain my collection. The app updates quickly with each set. It is designed to help you build decks and if you intend to use it to maintain your collection, there is an in-app purchase, but I love it. Given how my cards were already organized, it was easy to load everything into the app. I regularly build my decks in Decked Builder, then look to see which cards I don't have and try to find alternates that I do own to replace them. The app means that I always know what cards are in my collection, no matter where I am, and I even know when those cards are in another deck!
This is me searching for ways to destroy artifacts, in black, using only cards I already own.
This picture shows the results. Avatar of Woe says "destroy target…" and fear includes the word "artifact" in the description. Not a perfect system, but it works for me.
While I would answer that question by saying, "badly," what I'm really asking is whether you primarily play in tournaments or just casually. If you play in tournaments, it is likely that you will want to organize your cards by set. You want ready access to the cards you own that are still legal in Standard, Modern or whatever format is your format of choice. Generally, the best way to do that is to organize by set. Grouping all your Kaladesh cards together will allow you to more easily find those cards when you need them, and more easily remove them from your selection of Standard cards when the set rotates out.
If you are a casual player like me, organizing by set is somewhat pointless. I use all the cards all the time. Organizing by set just means that I will have to remember which set the card is in to find it in my collection. Since my collection goes all the way back to Revised, this could get very tedious very quickly. Add in the cards that are reprinted in different sets, and it means that I'm looking in more than one place for the same card. The whole point of organizing your collection is to make things easier to find, not to force you to look in multiple places in your collection for the same card.
Now that you have answers to all the questions above, you should have a pretty good sense already about how you are going to organize. Most people organize in binders or white card storage boxes. I love a binder, as you can see all the cards as you flip through it. Most binder systems involve inserting pages as needed. This system works well if you are breaking your collection into smaller (100 cards or less) sections. You can flip through easily to find the cards you want. The downside comes if your system involves putting cards in precise locations. I organize my cards alphabetically, so using a binder doesn't work for me as it would constantly demand shifting cards into different slots throughout my binders. That is too much work.
Card storage boxes aren't as pretty as a binder, but they give you more flexibility. You can insert a new card to your collection in an exact location so you can find it again later simply based on your system. In my case, if I need Bloodbraid Elf, I go to its section, then to the creature spells section, then search alphabetically.
Finally, a suggestion to those of you about to take the plunge. Organizing a collection of thousands of cards is going to take time. If you are anything like me, you can't spend hours at a time getting it set up. Understand that this is going to be a project that will likely take you a month or more to set up. Like any job, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of it and choose not to do it. Break it up into smaller parts and consider completion of each of those small parts a success. I had over 12,000 cards when I set up my current system. My initial goal was to just get the cards sorted by color. Then I organized creatures and other spells. And onwards. I did the same when loading all the cards into the Decked Builder app. That took two months. Now that it is done, I love it and make every effort to ensure that it is maintained. There is significant work, but the time you save and the peace of Mind you have (particularly those of us who tense up when they see a stack of random cards) is well worth it!