Determining the optimal exposure should take no more than one test strip. That much is pretty easy. Whenever I get a new box of paper I cut up one sheet into strips for this purpose.
If it were me, and if I were on a tight budget, I'd forget the MG/VC paper and learn how to get the right CI in your negs so that you can use graded paper. Bear in mind that you can do some minor tweaks to the CI of your neg with selenium, intensifier, or farmer's reducer on your neg. You must not let those things become a crutch, but they are there if you need them and almost every photographer uses them at some point!
If you do use VC/MG paper, bear in mind that the contrast filters do affect the exposure time. Thus if you need to do contrast adjustments, you'll need to test exposure and contrast in tandem, if you want to place your white and blacks precisely. The filters will have recommended exposure adjustments on the box, and I find that those are good starting points but not always correct. So... it still pays to know how to control your CI via optimal exposure and development.
If you really want to get the most out of VC/MG paper then you should try split grade printing, that is the state of the art as far as I am concerned. It is the analogue equivalent of the levels/curves adjustments that have become de rigueur in digital printing. It's not as hard as you might think- there are helpers that your darkroom may have, and even if not, basically all you do is pick your two filters and make a matrix of exposures in which you vary the ratio of the exposures. As long as you have the overall exposure about right, you'll get the answer in one or two sheets and you'll have the optimal black and white points determined for your 'real' prints. The problem with split grade is that it will inevitably go through a fair amount of paper before you get the hang of it.
If you're using all Ilford materials, you can get away with doing some testing on RC then move to the fiber. However as consistant as Ilford is, there are variations in emulsion batches, and the paper surface is rather different. So I don't think you'll really save much. I make my initial prints on RC when I'm printing on Ilford, then switch to fiber for "keepers". I use the RC prints to show around and stick on the wall for a few days to decide what really should be a keeper. But in that process I've made the best print I can on the RC. It does cut down some on tests on the fiber, but doesn't eliminate them.
For large prints, little 1 inch test strips really don't make it. If you want to go that route, use 4x5 or 5x7 test sheets at least. But I'm with Peter, full sheet tests are best, especially for 8x10 and smaller.
But the best way to conserve paper is to hone your process so your negatives are right, then do the tests for minimum time to max black, and dry-down. Once you get all that nailed, test strips won't be very useful, and you'll be making making one or two full size prints to figure out any burning/dodging to get to your final print, and there's no getting around that anyway.
As for paper choice, if you can get Ilford that cheaply, go for it. For learning, the consistancy will pay you dividends in the long run.
I have been using Oriental Seagull for neutral and cold tone prints and Adox Vario Classic toned to make a warm print. The Oriental goes quite cold in a dilute selenium bath and the Vario warms nicely in Fotospeed's ST20 variable sepia toner. Both provide a good savings over Ilford. If you don't want to do the toning then I would stick with Ilford Warmtone as there is not much of a savings over the Adox warmtone.
"Fundamentally I think we need to rediscover a non-ironic world"
I have found that testing on RC paper and then switching to FB doesn't really work, even if it is the same brand.
I don't quite get what you are after. You say you are taking a course in printing with fibre-based paper, yet you want to buy 11x14 and 16x20 paper. In my opinion, if you are learning, you should be using no more than 8x10. The larger papers are for final prints, once you have established all of the tonal relationships and the printing strategy (dodging, etc.).
Although the best test prints include the entire image, some prints can have areas that are problematic or absolutely key to the image, and it does seem a waste to use a full sheet to work them out. I often cut sheets not into strips but into small shapes to test particular areas. For example, let's say the face is the most important part of a photo and I need to test it, but I also want to see the overall effect. I cut a chunk for the face, tape it to the easel, and tape another chunk in a "control" area to see the effect on the values there. It is tedious, but I am pretty frugal (ok, I am cheap) when it comes to paper.
One thing that I have found extremely useful and which has saved me a lot of paper while testing is f-stop printing. Ralph Lambrecht has a really good chapter on it in his book "Way Beyond Monochrome."
"The beauty and profundity of God is more real than any mere calculation"
The thing that eats up paper for me is getting the contrast just right, along with the exposure time. Look into split grade printing and it will save you both paper and time. Combined with f-stop printing you should be able to reduce your wasted time and materials significantly. I would recommend Ilford FB Multigrade to start with as it is a very good paper. That way when things don't work, you can be pretty sure the problems aren't the paper.
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The price you got for Ilford MGIV is GREAT! Take it. It's one of the finest photo papers there are. And it will tone if you ever get into that, you can ask me how later. I've attached a scan of a split toned print to this message just to prove the point.
Regarding film. Continue with Plus-X and D76. If you know how it works and it's not broken - don't try to fix it. Rodinal is a different creature. Now you're changing films and going into printing at the same time. Bad idea.
It's not until you actually print your negs that you come full circle and can understand what you did to your film when you processed it and how you need to tweak it. When you break new territory, keep as many things as you can constant.
What else is that Ilford is consistent, meaning it will stay the same from box to box.
Finally, one piece of advice. It's better to get one fantastic print out of a box of 50 sheets of paper than a handful or more of average ones. Challenge yourslef to print less. Spend time with one negative at a time, at least in the beginning. Always always always do your utmost with each print, don't settle for 'good enough'.
I understand that your school might have different expectations, though, and they may want to see 10 prints for critique. In my opinion, that could be too many for a box of 50 sheets.
Peter Schrager's advice is a good one. If you use a thin strip to test with you will end up doing a full sheet that will need re-doing anyway.
My method - I print one full sheet too dark and one too light on purpose, and go from there. Usually I use three or four sheets to get to the end result.
You can also use smaller pieces of paper, like 5x7 (of the same kind) and dial in the contrast and use that as your 'print map'. When you then increase your magnification to the larger paper, you have a really good idea of what you need to do. You will have to adjust your exposure time, of course, because the light intensity is spread over a larger surface area. And you may need to tweak your contrast also as there is a clear difference in viewing a 5x7 compared to an 11x14.
But usually you can, after a while of doing this, directly translate your exposure times almost mathematically from 5x7 to 11x14 fairly painlessly, and that way you do all of the 'wasting' on smaller and much less expensive paper.
Originally Posted by brofkand
"Make good art!"
- Neil Gaiman
"...the heart and mind are the true lens of the camera".
- Yousuf Karsh
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit".
Thanks everyone for their input.
I'm going to stay with Plus-X and D-76, and keep the Rodinal and Arista film for out-of-school work (I don't much mind if that is printed on RC paper, unless I get a gem).
I may ask my professor to order a few more boxes of that paper for me. I may as well use that resource while I have it available; in a few years that box of paper may cost $90 and I won't have a school that is locked into a supply contract to get it cheaply anymore.