This is all about the sets to buy when you don't have the money to get a lot of them. And I am not going out from the price of a booster here either.
When looking for a set for Budget Players, you need to keep on the lookout for a set where either most rares are bombs and worth a bunch of cash or the non-rares are great. Let's start from the beginning and work our way up.
Alpha/Beta/Unlimited: Like I said, for these purposes, I am ignoring the price of boosters. And being that Alpha goes for what, 100$+ a pack, you're probably never going to see one. But lets look at the basics here: Commons: crap. Sure, you might end up getting your hands on an elusive card like Lightning bolt or Sinkhole, But mostly, you end up with Mons Goblin Raiders or Mesa Pegasus.
The uncommons are almost as bad. Again, you could get a bomb, but it's usually not going to happen. The rares surprised me. At first, you might think, "Wow, I could pop a card worth $1200!" Then again, you could pop a 3/3 red flyer for four mana in your rare slot! That pissed me off. For every dual land or power nine, there was a card that was as bad as they were good. Not to mention the absolutely worthless ante cards. And the lace cycle. And Farmstead. And elvish archers.
Revised was a bit better, but buying base sets period was a crappy idea until tenth, when they finally pulled themselves together and put in good cards! Tenth is worth it, in any case. It is a very good set and has almost no crap rare cards. Its commons and uncommons are also above average, giving us Persuasion, previously a rare, in the uncommon slot and giving us tidings back, a great draw spell, just to name two.
Arabian nights was good, giving us cards like wyuli wolf, ruhk egg, and the like in common slots, with rares like library of alexandria and juzam djinn.
The sets through mirage were mostly chaff, but visions was half-decent. Tempest was where the game actually started to get good again, especially if you wanted to build a deck cheap. With non-rares like rolling thunder, mogg fanatic, lotus petal, harrow, goblin bombardment, overrun (a budget and limited staple!), and wasteland, not to mention the slivers, that's a closed case. I would say that the set is one of the best even without intuition and the like. Ditto Stronghold, although stronghold wasn't quite as good.
Exodus was a good set, but only because it had so many awesome rares. For the budget player, there really wasn't all that much there.
The urza sets ruled. STAY AWAY!!! Let's face it, there were a bunch of really, really nice rares, tinker, and what else? I'll just mention Priest of titania, Rancor, Rewind, Exhume, Duress, and Corrupt and be on my way.
Mercadian Masques has been written off by a lot of people, but let's face it: most of the rebel deck, excluding lin sivvi, is nonrare. That means, you could make a very good rebel deck with around twenty bucks. Not bad! I'll mention inviolability and brainstorm too, but I wish that there were better rares and better non-white cards. The rest of the block: Bleugh (although I love avatar of woe and plague wind).
This is dragging a little long, and I'm out of time on this lousy library computer, so I will do the rest of the sets next week.
Power to the poor!