Now, given that Master Keys cost $1.25 each (well, less if you buy 10-packs), you might be hesitant to go after them. You might also be leery of the whole lockbox scheme. And, that's understandable. Goodness knows Pavlovian responses aren't limited to just dogs!
So, how to play without paying...?
Subscribers and Lifetime players get their 500 Zen per month stipend. Understandably, you might be hesitant to gamble away those Zen on a chance for something when there's so much in the Store you can simply buy. For instance, I'm the happy owner of an Excelsior Retrofit and an Atrox Carrier! There's also Duty Officer Packs, costumes/outfits, and tons more. So, lets pretend the stipend doesn't exist.
There also players who can't, or won't, buy Zen. Maybe its not in the budget, perhaps they don't have a credit/debit card, and just as likely there's no place they can buy PWE cards from. So, effectively speaking, you've got a bunch of players in the same boat; they want keys, but buying Zen isn't an option.
There are two ways to buy Master Keys, and the one thing they have in common is time. Instead of money you'll be spending time. So, this won't be an overnight process.
Dilithium to Zen.This is probably my favorite way to get things in game. I like the activities I engage in to earn Dilithium Ore, and I like the flexibility that Zen gives me. The ever handy STOwiki has a page on activities that earn Dilithium Ore, so give yourself some time to look it over and find things you enjoy. Its really important that you change them up just to keep your interest going, though. Also, keep in mind that you can only refine 8,000 Dilithium Ore a day, so while its perfectly fine to bring in more Ore than that, you'll have to wait to use it all. There is a special DOFF assignment for 800-day Veterans that will let you get an additional 1,000 refined above the limit, so keep that in mind if you qualify.
If you decide to make your Dilithium using Duty Officer Assignments, look for assignments that you're more likely to have Critical Successes with. The more of the Success and Critical Success criteria an officer can fill, the better. The higher the quliaty of the officer on top of that? Better still!
Once you've amassed a good quantity of Dilithium, head to the Dilithium Exchange. Simply enough, you'll be buying Zen with the Dilithium you've earned. You want the buying rate to be relatively low so that you spend less Dilithium to get Zen. Keeping an eye on the Market for a few days will help; the weekends seem to hold the most potential in terms of getting a favorable rate.
Again, this will take time! You might be looking at relatively low payouts in your mind, but they do add up quickly so long as you're consistent with it. An 8,000 Dilithium sale can fetch around 50 Zen depending on the exchange rate. Do that three times and you'll have enough for a Master Key, plus enough to get started on the next go 'round.
Remember too; the Lockboxes might stop dropped after a while, but you can hold onto them. So keep collecting them, and unlock them at your leisure.
The Exchange.If you're a player who is good at earning Energy Credits, this might be your preferred method. Maybe you play often and can sell your really good drops. Maybe you scour the market for deals and flip them. Maybe you've just been playing for a long time and have amassed a dragon's horde of Energy Credits! Whatever the reason, you're sitting on Credits, and for this? Millions of them.
Simply put; the beauty of the Master Key is they are tradable. So, a player who bought one could just as easily sell it to another player as use it themselves. By doing this, players can effectively buy Energy Credits, but without the scummy 3rd party who will later steal your account. Likewise, there are other salable items like Fleet Modules that you can buy then resell.
If you go to the Exchange, simply type select "All" and search for Master Key. This will produce a list of all the keys for sale. I've seen them ranging from 1.2 million Energy Credits (which I consider to be a deal) to 5 million (which I think is horrific gouging) per key. Sometimes you'll see bundles of keys together, so remember to figure out the per-unit cost to make sure you're paying a reasonable amount.
As before, Lock Boxes stick around even after they stop dropping, so feel free to buy keys as it suits you.
A Blended Approach.Its well worth noting that this is not an either/or situation. If you're playing through content, then you can earn Energy Credits, Drops to sell, and Dilithium all at the same time. So, don't feel restricted to just one type of activity! The more assets you have, the faster you can buy the keys, and the sooner you can get the things you want (or chances at them).
Why Buy Keys?A good question here is, "why buy the keys?" Chances are the ships themselves will show up on the Exchange! This is quite true, and depending on what you want, might be the preferred option. If you want the ships, be prepared to amass close to 100 million Energy Credits at least. However, there are often other things in the Lobi store that can only be bought there (costume pieces) and/or are bind on pickup.
As a result, even if you don't win what you specifically wanted from the Lock Box, there are still things you might want to get anyways. Personally, I'd really love to get that Ferengi Equipment set for my ship! There are even ships available which appeal to me as well. But, those cost 300 Lobi Crystals and up!
Don't Spend a Dime; Someone Else Is.So, if you're patient, you can get what you want without spending a dime or wasting your stipend. Does this hurt Cryptic? Not really. Sure, they'd rather you buy them, but because Dilithium/Zen and Master Keys can be bought and sold by players, it works out in the end. Moreover, even if a player buys something without spending a dime, their activity with other players helps keep the game interesting and alive for other people. And that's really the trick with the whole thing; you can spend either time or money, or go for both and get where you're going faster. Regardless, you're not locked into strictly one way of getting what you want.
And that, to me, is a win/win.