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Your System, or Lack Thereof

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Trick Jarrett posted a tweet about something near and dear to my heart.

Card organization is something I enjoy. When I am looking for a particular card, I know in seconds if I have it, and can locate it just as fast. This is very satisfying for me in a very tangible way. It irritates me when I have cards that I haven't sorted and included into my system yet. As someone who has used a few different systems, I reached out to Trick with a tweet offering up my thoughts and recommendations.

While I gave a short response there, I want to explain it a little more. Most anyone playing Magic for more than a year has a significant stack of cards and getting it organized will save you time (and possibly money) in the long run.

Pick a System...

That Works for You

If you are going to organize your cards, you aren't going to jam them in 15 shoe boxes in a random order if you want to be able to trade them. That "system" wouldn't work for you. Before you start, consider what you want from your system. If you are a regular tournament player, you may want to organize your cards by set. This would make it easy to determine which cards are currently legal in Standard or Pioneer. If you are a Commander player, knowing the set is less valuable, so perhaps grouping by color makes more sense.

Note: The essential part is to know what you want from your system before you start. I started sorting my cards by set because that was what I had seen others do, but for me as a casual player that was pointless. Don't spend a ton of time organizing into a system that you are going to scrap as useless.

Grouping by set or color are two ways to go, but the size of your collection is something else to consider. I know several players who organize their cards using binders. The system works well for them as they can move through binder pages quickly and see things at a glance. It also allows them to keep big chunks of their collection mobile. Other friends use boxes as their collections are simply too big for binders and the binders are easier for them to store.

Once you determine what you are storing your collection in, you need to determine how you are going to store them. This again depends on your needs and the size of your collection. If you have a thousand cards, putting them all in a single long white cardboard box is an easy, low-maintenance solution. When you want a card, just flip through them until you find what you want. When you have a ten thousand card collection, just flipping through it to find a card is ineffective. Do you want to group the cards by color? Are you looking to sort by creature type? Do you want to alphabetize the entire thing, or will breaking the cards down into more manageable sections be enough?

So what do I do?

I started out with five small white boxes that held all my cards. Being who I am, I alphabetized all the cards in each box, then got a sixth box so all the cards that weren't one of the five colors would also have a place. My collection got bigger and the boxes got bigger. Pretty soon I had two boxes that each held five rows of cards.

About ten years ago I bit the bullet and bought a library card catalog.

An image of a library card catalog.

With my system I put creatures in the first few rows, separated by color, then mana cost. After that, the other spells are stored alphabetically.

A drawer of the card catalog sits on a table, filled with organized Magic cards.

This setup works for me with my collection. You may not need this level of organization with your collection, but it works for me.

That You are Willing to Maintain

Once you have a system worked out that makes sense for you, ask yourself if you are willing to maintain it, or if you can maintain it. Are you adding and removing cards from your collection all the time? Perhaps an elaborate system is more than you want to do. My system is fairly elaborate and can take some time to get everything where it is supposed to be, but I trade very infrequently and have a big enough collection that this makes sense for me and I have the time and willingness to maintain it.

If you have developed a system that works for you, but once it is done you don't want to pull out cards to make a deck because you'll have to put it all back in, then your system isn't working for you. You want your system to let you find your cards easily, but not make you grimace at the thought of having to put them back. It is far better to have a system where you have to flip through some cards to find what you are looking for, if maintaining an alphabetical file means you stop using your system altogether. Don't waste your time organizing your cards into a system if it is something that you aren't going to maintain. Having half your cards in a system is miserable since you spent the time and still aren't sure whether you have the card or where it is!

Using a Database

Using a database is a game changer, particularly as your collection grows. My system is extensive because I started it before I started using a database. I needed something that would allow me to find certain types of cards quickly, so breaking down creatures by mana cost just made sense. Why search through two thousand Green creatures when I could look at three hundred three mana creatures?

With a database, that level of organization isn't required. A database does all the sorting automatically for you! A quick search shows you the cards that fit what you are looking for, and whether you own them. Using a database means that you simply need to organize the cards in such a way as to find them. In theory, a Commander player like me only needs to sort the cards into alphabetical order. This will allow me to find the card easily since I'm relying on the database!

There are several options out there and the one you choose will depend on what you are looking for. I chose the Decked Builder app because it updates quickly and I can look at my database on my phone. This means that I can build decks online and know exactly which cards I own. It means that when I'm not at home, I still know which cards I have. Someone else might prefer a database that is not an app. They tend to be more robust, but lack a little in mobility as they don't show up as well on a smartphone screen.

Beyond the mobility question, check out how long the database has been around and how quickly they update when new cards come out. Loading everything on to a database that updates a month after the new cards comes out is only going to lead to frustration as your cards sit in piles waiting to be added to your system.

This also addresses the reason why I haven't shifted my system. While I use a database, I still sort the cards all the ways I described. This is fairly redundant with a database, but I'm not going to change it. Going to a system that is completely reliant on a private company updating their system for as long as Magic is alive and producing cards is a frightening thing for me. I don't want to be left with a collection that would need to be inputted all over again in a new system. Even if the inputting involved two seconds of sliding a card under a viewer, I have over 30,000 cards. That would take more than eight hours nonstop!

Your system may not even need or want a database. Someone with fewer cards probably doesn't require a database. While there is a significant convenience factor, it does add another layer to my system and that may be what discourages someone else from taking up the task.

Storage

Your storage choice will play a big part in how you choose to organize and how long it takes to add cards into your system. Drawers can be quick, but if you can effectively use binders, that could be even better. Does your storage system sit on an easily accessible shelf or is it tucked away in a closet? These are all things you need to consider. A card catalog works well for me, but for someone with a couple thousand cards, it is probably overkill (note: it is not overkill. Get the card catalog if you can! You will not regret it!). For someone with collections over 100,000, it is probably too small, so other options might be needed. Find what works for you with your collection, your demands, and your budget, and go from there.

Understanding the Undertaking

I wanted to end with this. I mentioned the eight hours it would take to load all my cards into a database specifically as an eye-opener. When your collection drifts into five digits, everything takes more time. Your collection may not be that big, but understand that sorting all of your cards into the system you want will likely take time. You are going to be handling every card you own several times to sort them into piles, then smaller piles, and finally alphabetic (assuming you choose to go that far). For many of us, this is not something that can be done over a weekend. I estimate that I spent three hours adding the four new Commander decks into my system. Expect this to take longer than you think it will. If you think you are going to give up in the middle of it, start thinking of an easier system that you can use. I don't want to deter you, I just want to warn you that this is not a minor undertaking. Keep the time in mind more than anything else when determining how deep you want (or need) to go to stay organized!

Bruce Richard

@manaburned

PS. Trick, if you're reading this, I'll be happy to organize your cards however you want. Just fly me out to Seattle for a couple of weeks, pay my expenses and a stipend, and we'll get everything up to speed!

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