All posts by James Chillcott

Pet Cards: Hardened Scales

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PET CARDS

Khans of Tarkir: Brimming with Potential (Pt1: Hardened Scales)

By James Chillcott (@MTGCritic)

With the forthcoming release of Khans of Tarkir Wizards of the Coast has given us a fresh new take on an Alara style gold set, complete with a bunch of cards that would seem unplayable if we weren’t overloaded with mana fixing options. As with M15 this set is positively brimming with cards that could make a big splash IF they find the right complementary cards in the format, and IF the deck ends up doing well at a significant event. With the Onslaught fetchlands taking up a significant chunk of the set’s EV (estimated value), many of these potential winners will be great pickups next summer when they’ve failed out of standard. A few however, will become triumphant underdogs, just as Goblin Rabblemaster did in M15.

Now most of my investments in MTGFinance rest firmly in the “obvious winners” category, with specs harvested from my own research and tips from the top minds in the game. I spent most of my spring/summer acquiring cards like Mana Confluence, Eidolon of the Great Revel foils, Soldier of the Pantheon, Courser of Kruphix, Keranos and Goblin Rabblemaster.

With every set however, I like to dig for 2-3 cards that seem wildly undervalued, often because they are hard to evaluate or seem underwhelming at first glance.  I tend to go deep on these cards using math that requires at least 1/3 to triple up or I lose money. My time horizon is often targeted at 1-2 years but I try to pick cards that have a shot at imminent success whenever possible.

As with any good MTG spec we’re ideally looking for cards that are:

  1. Multi-format playable
  2. Mythic or Rare
  3. Preferably from small sets (making all KTK and future fall/spring big set specs worse in general)
  4. Can benefit strongly from the printing of future complementary cards
  5. Strongly undervalued vs. rarity average

For the next few weeks I’ll be selecting one card per week to explore more fully and try to establish whether it has true potential or a destiny in the bulk rare bin.

This week we’re going to be talking about an innocuous little green enchantment that goes by the name of Hardened Scales.

Tail of the Tape

  • Casting Cost: At G Hardened Scales is well positioned to come down early ahead of the cards it aims to boost and is easy to cast in any deck with access to the color.
  • Resiliency: Post side-boarding enchantments can draw some hate in certain metagames, but at the kitchen table they’re one of the card types most likely to stick around and do their job.
  • Usefulness on Curve: A late game Scales into an empty board may be just the stumble an opponent needs to finish you off, but early and mid-game it easily fits on curve among other activity.
  • Rarity: This could have been an uncommon in a set with a broader +1/+1 theme, but it’s to our benefit that it’s a rare in KTK.
  • Valuation:  Averaging just .75-1.00 USD in pre-orders this card is poised for solid gains if it ends up in a successful standard or modern deck this fall. The potential price range from strong standard play alone is $3-5, but growth beyond that is limited due to the linear nature of the strategy the card suggests. It will need Modern or strong EDH/Casual support to get much further.
  • Availability: KTK may end up the most opened set ever, and that will mean continuing bulk status if it doesn’t find a home this year. In that case next summer will be the all-time low, and the time to snap up some copies for decks and specs at .25-.50.

Standard

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In standard this card’s future rest squarely in it’s ability to find a home in a few possible decks (in order of likelihood): Abzan, Green Devotion, or Temur.

On first review there doesn’t seem to be anything truly degenerate to do with Hardened Scales in Standard so far, but there are more ways to gain value from it than you probably realized. Actually, dozens more.

So far in Abazan or G/W (the most likely shells) we have the following cards to work with, listed in order of natural affinity. (Warning: this list is exhaustive in the hopes that it will inspire one of you to do something grand with Scales and but may also just result in you losing your FNM games while you durdle around.):

The Green Devotion Players

Working with the pre-existing Green Devotion shell may mean messing with a good thing unnecessarily but it’s certainly worth a look to see whether Hardened Scales can rate a slot in a deck that’s already proven itself Tier 1, perhaps with some previously ignored cousins:

Living Totem      Genesis Hydra

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  • Genesis Hydra: I like getting a slightly better rate on this guy when he was already playable. For 5 mana, we’re getting a 4/4 that digs 3 cards looking for a Banishing Light or Suppression Field to help clear a path.
  • Bow of Nylea: Already played in Green Devotion decks this year, it now provides +2/+2, making it that much better.
  • Mistcutter Hydra: Gets a bit bigger, and his presence in the main will depend on how the metagame shakes out regardless, since Mono-U is likely done for now.
  • Polukranos, World Eater: Getting an extra +1/+1 from his monstrosity trigger isn’t a big deal, but he didn’t really need the help to be good. The rest of the playable Monstrosity guys like Hundred-Handed One and Arbor Colossus are a bit better too.
  • Heroes’ Bane: This guy has more fun with Scales than Polukranos, increasing your rate to 5/5 for 5 and allowing him to hit for 11 for 2GG a turn later.
  • Hornet Nest: Maybe, just maybe, Hardened Scales into Nest into either Ajani is a disgusting way to slaughter decks without flyers.
  • Living Totem: Suddenly this limited staple reads 3G for a 2/3 that boosts a buddy +2/+2 permanently on entry. Not bad.
  • Scourge of Skola Vale: He’s now a 3/3 for 2G that gets very large indeed if you give up a dying companion to his hungers. Likely not good enough.
  • Hooded Hydra: Gets an additional counter, which is not that exciting and a dubious Standard card regardless (except with Purphoros, where he might win games).
  • Nature’s Panoply: For 2GG you now get 4/4 of fresh power/toughness on the table, but you need guys in play first.
  • Hunt The Weak/Temur Charm: Now beefs up a creature +2/+2 and makes it that much more likely to win the fight. Hmm. Banishing Light and Suppression field are likely still just better, but perhaps a single copy for the road.
  • Nessian Demolok: Bet you didn’t know this card exists. With Scales you get a 3/3 for 3GG that destroys a planeswalker or Banishing Light or you get a 7/7 for 5. They’ll give you the big guy then kill it. The rest of the tribute cards have the same issue. Moving on.

Several of these cards may also be better off joining the Abzan posse below.

The Abzan Crew

Ajani, Mentor of Heroes       Cruel Sadist

  • Incremental Growth: With Scales this now reads 3GG, Sorcery: Put 2 +1/+1 counters on a creature, 3 on another and 4 on another. That’s adding 9 power/toughness to the table for 5.
  • Ajani Steadfast: Putting +2/+2 permanently on each of your creatures and boosting any planeswalkers you happen to be playing seems great since it makes it that much more likely that your Ajani can hide effectively behind his friends.
  • Ajani, Mentor of Heroes: Similarly to his other incarnation, the GW version of Ajani coughing up a maximum of 6 +1/+1 counters as his +1 seems excellent.
  • Retribution of the Ancients: This is the kill spell this deck needed, turning all those +1/+1 counters into lethal -1/-1 counters on the opposing side for a very low cost and with extreme flexibility. Bad in multiples so it would be 1-2 copy thing.
  • Abzan Charm: As if this charm wasn’t useful already killing Sarkhan and drawing cards, now it potentially adds 4 power/toughness to the table instead of 2
  • Cruel Sadist: B gets you a 1/1 that ramp easily to 3/3 and 5/5 in two turns and starts picking off small creatures with ease.
  • High Sentinels of Arashin: It’s a 3/4 flyer that gets +1/+1 for each other creature you control with a counter on it and it can even provide 2 counters for 3W when necessary. Lovely.
  • Feat of Resistance: Putting a two +1/+1 counters on a guy while countering a kill spell or trumping a combat trade for 1W at instant speed looks worthy.
  • Mer-Ek Nightblade: 2/3 for a guy that can make himself 2/2 bigger per turn and give everyone Deathtouch seems worth testing.
  • Anafenz, the Foremost: Already a great beater at 4/4 for WGB, suddenly she’s permanently boosting a fellow attacker by +2/+2. Seems solid.
  • Abzan Ascendancy: Doubles in power adding +2/+2 to every creature on your board, along with the 1/1 flyers you get when your dudes die.
  • Ivorytusk Fortress: This card has been written off as limited only, but 5/7 for 5 is an ok rate, and untapping your Outlast/counter guys for defense could be what they need to succeed.
  • Athreos, God of Passage: No interactions with Scales directly, but a fantastic value card if we’re trying to recycle Heroic dudes, Sadists and Chroniclers.
  • Grim Haruspex: No direct interactions, but in combination with Athreos, could be the foundation of a solid draw/drain engine.
  • Fleecemane Lion: A great card gets a bit bigger and still outranks Satyr Grovedancer.
  • Ainok-Bond Kin: 1W for a 2/1 that has T, 1W: Permanently gain +2/+2 that gives all your other counter laden creatures first strike might get there.
  • Herald of Anafenza: W for a 1/2 that can gain +2/+2 and make a 1/1 for 2W every turn. Again, seems workable though the tap cost on Outlast makes it much worse.
  • Feast on the Fallen: for 2B, you get a +2/+2 upgrade on a creature of your choice every turn (I’m assuming you’re attacking hard yeah?)

The Heroic Shell Cards

Phalanx Leader      Reap What is Sown

  • Phalanx Leader: WW and some heroic triggers starts building up our entire army in +2/+2 increments.
  • Fabled Hero: If you were going to try and play a Heroic guy, this might be it, since the first trigger would give you a 4/4 Double Striker for 1WW.
  • Hero of Iroas: If we’re going the Bestow route a 4/4 for 1W with cheap trigger costs seems about right.
  • Wingsteed Rider/Akroan Skyguard: A 4/4 flyer for 1WW is playable, with the right triggers. So is a 3/3 flyer for 1W. Perhaps both?
  • Battlewise Hoplite: A WU 2/2 that Scrys for 1 and becomes a 4/4 on it’s first targeting is interesting if UWG can be made to work.
  • Favored Hoplite: I spent most of the spring tooling a W/U deck with Battlefield Thaumaturgist, Favored Hoplite and Triton Shorestalker where I would use Launch the Fleet and Hidden Strings to do dumb things on turns 2/3 and then get blown out by real magic cards. Still, he’s a 3/4 for W off the first trigger so I’ll be testing him again.
  • Reap What is Sown: A couple of Heroic guys and a Scales, and then you cast this during combat? Yeah, that’s +4/+4 per guy, permanently…
  • Solidarity of Heroes: So then, the next turn, we cast this for 2GG and our 6/6 guys become 11/11s? WTF. Call it win more if you like, it’s still hilarious.
  • Chronicler of Heroes: 3/3, Draw a card for 1GW starts to look almost playable in the presence of so many counters.
  • Ordeal of Nylea/Erebos: The plethora of kill in this new format makes this pretty dubious, but Ordeal of Nylea on an early Sadist after Scales, could be attacking for 5-7 and fetching 2 lands. The black one makes them discard 2 cards the turn it’s played. Worth fooling with?
  • Eidolon of Blossoms: Getting a card off your late Scales to turn them into cantrips with upside is good if there’s already a high enough density of “counters count” cards and enchantments to make Eidolon worthwhile.
  • Armory of Iroas: An equipment that gives any creature a permanent +2/+2 for 2 equip cost is possibly playable. It would help push though Courser and Sylvan and that’s important right now.

The Temur Tribe

In Temur we maintain access to the interesting mono green cards above and gain additional access to a few extra toys, at the cost of a lessened overall focus on +1/+1 counters:

Chasm Skulker        War-Name Aspirant

  • Chasm Skulker: Gains 2 +1/+1 counters per turn, necessitating kill sooner lest it get out of control.
  • Trap Essence: Countering a key creature on turns 4-6 and getting 3 counters on Chasm Skulker at instant speed seems like something I should at least be trying to do.
  • War-Name Aspirant: Could potentially come in as a 4/3 for 2 that can’t be blocked by Elspeth, Brimaz or Mardu tokens.
  • Sage of Hours: Taking extra turns is good but this guy needs more help amidst a see of good removal, pressure and sweepers.
  • Adamant Negation: If you can get a guy up to 4 power with your token work (or you’re just playing Savage Knuckleblade), this card starts countering other counters, kill and planeswalkers for one blue, and still steals turns early on causing maximum feel bads. Absolutely worth a shot.
  • Disdainful Stroke: This is the other half of a wicked good counter package where Adamant Negation handles the early and late game and this card shores up the middle by preventing Xenagos, Sarhkhan, Nissa, Stormbreath, Stoke the Flames, Utter End, etc.
  • Treasure Cruise: If U/G Delve can be made to work, using Treasure Cruise to dump 6 counters onto a Chasm Skulker may be a central anthem.
  • Temur Charm: As a more flexible Hunt the Weak, a mediocre counter spell or the falter you need to get in there for critical damage, this may have a role to play.

Personally, with Chasm Skulker being one of my pet cards from M15 I’m most excited to see if gaining 2 counters per turn is enough to put it over the top in some kind of UGx shell. There’s an outside chance that it’s actually UGB that is more set to support Skulker with some kind of Sidisi, Treasure Cruise, Jace brew, but I haven’t had chance to look at it very hard yet and figure out if Scales would even make an appearance in such a deck.

Modern

Moving on to Modern we immediately have access to many more options for attempting degeneracy with Hardened Scales.

Option A: Play it in Affinity

Arcbound Ravager    

Imagine the following turn sequence:

  • T1: Ornithopter, Memnite, Mox Opal, Darksteel Citadel, Signal Pest
  • T2: Glimmervoid, Hardened Scales, Steel Overseer
  • T3: Land, Arcbound Ravager (as a 2/2 out the gate), activate Overseer: 2/4 Ornithopter, 2/3 Signal Pest, 4/4 Ravager (with the potential to go to 14/14)

Being able to ramp Ravager this hard really stretches the value of burn spells and leaves him exposed mostly to Path to Exile and counters pre-board. Clearly Modular and Hardened Scales is at least worth fooling around with but it could just be bad to have a non-artifact in the main.

Note: The oft-overlooked Chronomaton goes up +2/+2 per turn with Scales in play, and can take counters from Ravager. Clockwork Beetle would enter as a 3/3 with potential to stay in play through other interactions. IE Energy Chamber which would dole out +2/+2 to your most needy artifact creature every turn for 2  up front and could be converted into +2/+2 for Ravager in a pinch.

Option B: Try to make “Ooze One Out” a thing

Yeah, so here’s a potential modern deck shell that tries to gather together some of the better +1/+1 oriented cards in the format:

Ooze One Out (Deck Shell, James Chillcott, Sep 10/14)

Bloodhall Ooze     Scavenging Ooze

  • 4 BloodHall Ooze: This + Scales + Cackler or Dark Confidant = +4/+4 per turn!
  • 4 Rakdos Cackler: Comes in as a 3/3 for R/B!
  • 4 Scavenging Ooze: As if this card wasn’t strong enough, now it gets +2/+2 when it removes creatures from the graveyard.
  • 4 Dark Confidant: Low casting cost decks with low redundancy on their primary catalyst need cards like this.
  • 2 Kavu Predator: Assuming we’re playing Grove of the Burnwillows for our red splash, this guy boosts +2/2 permanently on the first activation and just gets uglier from there.
  • 1 Ashling the Pilgrim: This guy is a 1/1 for 1R that helps with Bloodhall Ooze and can gain +2/+2 permanently for 1R and then threatens to blow up the world if left unchecked. I look forward to stealing a game with this out of nowhere.
  • 2 Thrill-Kill Assassin: 3/4 Deathtouch for 1B seems suddenly modern playable.
  • 3 Strangleroot Geist: A 2/1 haste for GG, that comes back as a 4/3 haste when it dies is just nasty.
  • 1 Predator Ooze: If ever there was a shell for this guy, this might be it. Path and counters still get him but he’s an indestructible creature that grows by either +2/2 or +4/+4 per turn depending on who you’re playing against. Could be tough to cast depending on how we balance the mana.
  • 4 Hardened Scales: Our main man in Japan.
  • 2 Ulcerate: Cheap and effective removal.
  • 2 Tragic Slip: Ditto.
  • 2 Dismember: More of the same.
  • 1 Bow of Nylea: A dubious addition I’m testing just to see if the flexibility is worth it.

Notes:

  • Corpsejack Menace: As a potential top end for this deck he’d cause mayhem with Scales, making all inbound counters go 2(n+1) (1 counter becomes 4, 2 counters become 6, 3 counters become 8.) With Bloodhall Ooze the math is actually doubled to 8 +1/+1 counters per turn because Bloodhall carries two separate triggered abilities!

Corpsejack Menace

  • Falkenrath Aristocrat: Going to 6/3 on the first trigger and 9/5 on the 2nd is tempting but you’d need to up the synergistic human count.
  • Countryside Crusher: Flipping 2 lands off the top with this guy would turn a 3/3 into a 7/7 for 1RR.
  • Bond Beetle: Could be a 2/3 for G.
  • Young Wolf: 1/1 for G that comes back as a 3/3.
  • Solidarity of Heroes might be insane in this deck.

In all likelihood I’m missing some fantastic deck options in Modern. (Brew something up and send it my way and I’ll include it in the next article!)

A few other potential Modern interactions:

  • Archangel of Thune now grants +2/+2 to all of your creatures permanently when you gain life.
  • Kitchen Finks go “infinite” with a way to get +1/+1 counters onto them easily since -1/-1 counters cancel each other out. Some kind of WGB Aristocrats brew?

Archangel of Thune   Kitchen Finks

EDH/Casual

With every card ever at our disposal the broken things we can do with Hardened Scales gets out of control pretty fast. It’s worth noting that in situations where you were only trying to double a single counter anyways, Scales is strictly cheaper than Doubling Season so it should find an auto-home in those pre-existing EDH decks that are already abusing counters.

Tangent 1: Unleash Creatures

Thrill-Kill Assassin   Hellhole Flailer

Check out what a Hardened Scales does to creatures with Unleash:

  • Rakdos Cackler: 3/3 for R or B
  • Gore-House Chainwalker: 4/3 for 1R
  • Thrill-Kill Assassin: 3/4 Deathtouch for 1B
  • Splatter Thug: 4/4 First Strike for 2R
  • Hellhole Flailer: 5/4 for 1BR w/ Sac, 2BR: Deal 5 to player.

 

Tangent 2: Simic/Doubling Season Decks

Cytoplast Root-Kin   

  • Doubling Season: I tried doing the math on this and my brain started to hurt. Suffice to say your creatures are getting massive. Just remember to stack the triggers correctly for maximum benefit.
  • Cytoplast Root-Kin:  Goes totally mondo and now reads 2GG, Graft 4, 4/4. ETB: Put an extra 2 +1/+1 counters on every creature that already has a counter.  Another creature ETB: Take a +1/+1 counter off Cytoplast Root-Kin and put 2 on the ETB creature. 2: Remove a +1/+1 counter from a creature and put 2 on CRK. (Wow.)
  • Forgotten Ancient:  Gains 2 +1/+1 counters per spell cast by any player. Those counters double again when split to other creatures in your upkeep!
  • Vorel, of the Hull Clade: I need a ruling on this one. Does this guy triple +1/+1 counters or just 2N+1?
  • Hunting Moa: Is now a 3/2 that puts 2 +1/+1 counters on a creature on ETB, and another 2 when it dies for just 2G.
  • Vigean Hydropon: Can distribute up to 12(!) +1/+1 counters to future incoming creatures for 1UG.
  • Afiya Grove: Now provides +8/+8  permanently to your board for just 1G. Hot.
  • Blessings of Nature: Wow, if you miracle this, you get up to 8 +1/+1 counters for just a single green mana. Gross.
  • Curse of Predation: The guy you do this to with Scales on the table is getting him for an extra 2 from every creature. He will hate you for it.
  • Simic Guildmage:  Turns a +1/+1 counter into 2 on someone else with every 1G activation.
  • Plaxcaster Frogling: Is now a 4/4 for 1UG that can remove a counter when another creature ETB to put 2 on the new creature. It also defends itself and it’s friends for 2.
  • Simic Fluxmage: Gets really sexy as a 1/2 that becomes a 3/4 on the next ETB trigger and can reset itself for further growth by removing a counter to place 2 on another creature.
  • Elusive Krasis: Goes from 0/4 Unblockable to 2/6 and 4/8 in a hurry with Hardened Scales around.
  • Evolution Vat: Upgrades to boosting a creature by +2/+2 and then doubling+1 the resulting total counters.
  • Fathom Mage: Gets +2/+2 and draws 2 card per Evolve trigger? Nuts.
  • Ghave, Guru of Spores: For 2 mana add a counter to any creature at instant speed.
  • Grimgrin, Corpse-Born: Gains +4/+4 in his normal cycle of abuse.

  • Gyre Sage: Starts generating silly amounts of mana in a hurry.
  • Kalonian Hydra: Hardly needs the help, but he starts at 5/5 and goes to 11/11 while doubling everyone else’s counters +1 on attack. Mental.
  • Kavu Predator: With a Grove of the Burnwillows now reads: 1G, 2/2, Trample. Tap Grove to put 2 +1/+1 counters on Kavu Predator.
  • Jenara, Asura of War: Gets big fast for 1W per 2/2.
  • Fertilid: is a 3/3 for 2G that can Rampant Growth 3 times.
  • Lumberknot: is a 1/1 Hexproof creature for 2GG that gains +2/+2 permanently whenever a creature dies.
  • Advocate of the Beast: now boosts a Beast by +2/+2 every turn for 2G

Tangent 3: Other Fun Interactions

Animar, Soul of Elements   Etched Oracle

  •  Ajani Goldmane: His -1 now places +2/+2 on each creature you control.
  • Ajani, Caller of the Pride: Does it for one creature with his +1.
  • Ajani’s Pridemate: Now gains +2/+2 whenever you gain life.
  • A fully kicked Analvolver is now 4BUG for an 8/8 flyer with regeneration.
  • Bramblewood Paragon: Warriors enter the battlefield with +2/+2 and gain trample for 1G. My casual Elf Warrior decks rejoices. Elvish Vanguard plays nicely here too.
  • Avenger of Zendikar: The landfall ability now puts +2/+2 on all the plant tokens.
  • In your Animar EDH/Commander deck, your commander now gains +2/+2 whenever you cast a creature, and reduces creature costs by 2 for every time this happens. Hot.
  • Arcbound Stinger is a 2/2 flyer for 2 that gives another artifact creature +3/+3 permanently when it dies.
  • Cathar’s Crusade: In EDH/Commander this card starts giving ALL of your creatures +2/+2 for every creature that comes into play for 3WW. So yeah, that would be +8/+8 from a twice resolved Lingering Souls.
  • Carrion Feeder: Gains +2/+2 for every creature sacrified, perhaps in a G/B Zombie deck leveraging Scavenge.
  • Champion of the Parish: Likewise, this guy gets +2/+2 for every incoming human. That’s +4/+4 for W if you cast Raise the Alarm into a Scales.
  • Cenn’s Tactician: Doles out +2/+2 to a creature per turn for W and lets them block two creatures each.
  • Dack’s Duplicate: Boosts +2/+2 every time it attacks the leading player.
  • Deathbringer Thoctar: Turns into a machine gun accumulating 2 counters when something dies and taking them off at will to deal 1 damage. Savage.
  • Descendant of Musamaro: Suddenly becomes playable as a 2G guy who gains 2n-y counters per turn where n = your hand size and y = the hand of the opponent with the least cards.

  • Dirtcowl Wurm: A 3/4 for 5 that gets +2/+2 every time an opponent plays a land will get out of hand fast in EDH.
  • Dragon Blood: Doles out +2/+2 counters every turn for 3, presumably for massive value in combination with some of these other cards.
  • Etched Oracle: This guy gets easier to cast for full value, easily coming in as a 5/5 that can go to 1/1 to draw you 3 cards for 1 mana.
  • Experiment Kraj: Gets all fiesty doling out the +2/+2s every turn.
  • Experiment One: Being able to boost him for double value and ditch the counters at will to ensure he gets the next Evolve Trigger or dodge removal/combat damage is great.
  • Mikaeus, the Lunarch: Comes in one +1/+1 counter bigger, taps to get 2 counters, and trades a single counter from himself into 2 for the whole team. Excellent!
  • Borborygmos: Puts +2/+2 on each creature if he connects.

So as you can see, Hardened Scales, though linear and from a set with dominant fetchlands, may well be usable in multiple formats.  Go forth and break my pet card please. My 100+ copies will thank you.

Bonus MTGFinance notes:

  • M15 Pet cards Goblin Rabblemaster and Chasm Skulker are looking good for returns, with Rabblemaster already in 250% territory. I was in at $3 on Rabblemaster and $1.25 on Skulker and will hold 50% of my Skulkers for longer looking to squeeze some more profits in case he finds a role somewhere before starting sell-off post PTKTK.
  • Modern Masters boxes from last summer have ripened and I’m having little trouble selling cases of 3 for $1200 overseas, representing 55% profits over the entry point of $220/box after fees. With MM2 surrounded by so many question marks I recommend getting out on these boxes this fall and setting up for fresh profits elsewhere. I’ll hold only a single case past Jan 1/15.
  • Modern/Eternal/EDH playable foils from KTK to target so far include: Adamant Negation, Savage Knuckleblade, the Fetchlands, Narset, Enlightened Master and Clever Impersonator. I also like Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, especially if she doesn’t end up Tier 1 in standard, because then we’ll have plenty of time to get her excellent art in foil at lower cost.
  • MTGO specs from Vintage Masters selected using my preferred Card Evaluation Formula (% of metagame x # copies played/deck) have yielded very good returns in a very short period of time. My top two VMA picks, Jace, The Mind Sculptor and Force of Will have both achieved 40-45% returns in just 6 weeks, the equivalent of over 350% per annum. The most popular blue dual lands are already sliding up and should easily provide similar returns by October. Good luck getting that out of your mutual funds.

James Chillcott is the CEO of ShelfLife.net, The Future of Collecting, Senior Partner at Advoca, a designer, adventurer, toy fanatic and an avid Magic player and collector since 1994.

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The Ethics of MTGFinance

By James Chillcott (@MTGCritic)

Recently I’ve found myself being pulled into cyclical debates on the ethics of MTGFinance. With the increasing participation and interest in this side of the Magic: The Gathering community, it seems like a good time to get to the bottom of things.

The Price Is Always Right

So the other day I’m at a new nerd conference in Toronto and I notice halfway through day 2 as we’re promoting ShelfLife.net (plug: our next gen social commerce platform for collectors) that attendance is pretty dismal. Figuring the vendors may be in the mood for deals I locate an LGS dealer with a ton of binders in tow and no central pricing system. This is exactly the scenario where you are likely to find the best, and the largest deals, largely because only the biggest most dedicated vendors can possibly keep up with the increasingly rapid prices shifts in our community. Sure enough I locate over $2500usd in singles within 30min of binder browsing. I stack the cards in piles at various price points, the dealer signs off on a $1100cdn sale price after some haggling down from $1400cdn and we conclude our business with a handshake and a smile.

Now pause and ask yourself: did I rip him off? Or more to the point, was the transaction ethical?

MTGFinance In A Nutshell
MTGFinance In A Nutshell

I assert that it most certainly was, and here’s why:

1) No one was lying, causing distractions, fast talking or otherwise obscuring the action

2) We’re responsible adults responsible for our own decisions, and his decision was to publicly offer the products in question at the prices we both agreed to

3) Interest is the first sign of market shifts, and he waved it off, likely because;

4) He clearly saw value in the cash flow

Now let’s examine what could have happened had I chosen the opposite path, a path some people might demand I take to achieve perfect transparency.  I could have, for instance, tallied the cards, and engaged in this conversation:

  •  Me: I think these cards are worth essentially double what you have them priced at, about $2500.
  • Vendor: Thanks! My new price is $2500. So would you like to buy them at that price?
  • Me: No thanks.
  • Vendor: Oh, why not? Don’t you recognize them as being worth this price on average in the market?
  • Me: Yes.
  • Vendor: So then you’re backing out because you can get them somewhere else cheaper?
  • Me: No, I’m backing out because I believe these magic cards are investments, and as such, must operate under the principle of opportunity costs.
  • Vendor: How’s that?
  • Me: Because you’ve reset the price to market average, there are now other options I believe will yield better returns within the same time frame, and my role as a market maker dictates that to achieve an efficient market I must act logically and efficiently and pursue my goals while you pursue yours. When the value of my potential returns matches your value in cash flow, a market action will occur and we will both be equally happy. In this particular case I have clearly spent a lot more time than you tracking and memorizing current price averages. This knowledge has value, and I just conferred that value to you as a gift, creating an imbalance in our market making potential and ensuring we cannot achieve market action. You see, I came to your booth loaded with efficiency, free cash flow and risk taking potential. You were carrying inefficiency, low cash flow and lower risk potential, as expressed by your willingness at any time to convert cards that could potentially accelerate in value for cash that averages a much lower interest rate unless reinvested in greater prospects. This insinuated that any (or all) of the following was true:

a) your time was too valuable to make re-pricing your inventory to match current demand worthwhile

b) your potential reinvestment opportunities exceeded my perceived net present value of the cards in question

Further, our lack of prior exchange of social value through camaraderie, emotional support or familial ties makes my donation of value result in an unequal match. I’ve sacrificed over $1000 in value for no discernable benefit as other market actors were already willing to sell me these cards at the newly requested price, which I’ve only just now made you aware of. As such instead of heading home with $1100 cash, you’re heading home with $600 in booth fees, time wasted and no opportunity to reinvest.  I’m heading home with $1400 less profit potential at a risk level previously determined to be acceptable, and a non-friend I’ve donated goodwill to without any return on my investment.

Final score: No one is winning. The market is broken.

StarCityGames Is Not The Market Price

So having taken a closer look at the dynamics and difficulties of trying to manually price thousands of magic cards, let’s examine where these kind of scenarios have led the LGS/Vendor segment of our hobby ecosystem.

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Price Progress?
Price Progress?

Back in the pre-internet days, Inquest and Scrye magazine published monthly with card pricing lists taken from surveys of selected vendors around North America. This system led to many golden opportunities for savvy players who could spot a rising tide for certain cards at the tournament level and translate that into smart actions at their local gaming stores before the new issues came out the following month. It also tended to result in highly specialized local economies, with card pricing varying oddly from community to community based on local play styles, format focuses and house rules.

The advent of the Internet, and in particular the ability to view past transactions on Ebay yanked us all into an entirely new era, with easy access to global price data, a trend that has only accelerated in the last 5 years with big data sites like MTGPrice.com, MTGOGoldfish.com, mtgowikiprice.com and TCGPlayer.com. Better information, made widely available should be good for everyone but coupled with the rise of the smartphone has empowered players to take advantage of low margin (aka inefficient) vendors, as well as lazy players, who can’t keep up with pricing shifts. (Now to be fair, vendors have done this to players since the beginning, using buy list tactics that most would consider normal business.)

At the same time, the tendency for commerce to centralize within niches online, leads to the appearance of major market actors with high efficiency such as StarCityGames.com. SCG brand equity then leads to their price lists being used as a mutually agreeable reference point for market actors seeking to equalize value and achieve market action. Other vendors then go a step further, seeking to achieve efficiency and close more market actions through the simplest course of action: copying SCG pricing.

This has lead us to entirely new era of Magic pricing: The Age of Oligopolistic Tendencies.

As opposed to a monopoly which is typically defined as a single market actor holding unfair stores of value due to legal, procedural, resource access or other major advantages, an oligopoly is typically characterized by a relatively few market actors disguising their inefficiency by agreeing to fixed pricing that ensures certain margins and leads to permanently unequal value exchanges while maintaining a relatively stable model of market sharing for the vendors. These situations are especially exacerbated in the case of goods essential to living such as food, warmth, clothing and shelter. Though no true oligopolistic cabal exists in the MTG world, the tendency of inefficient vendors to leverage platforms like Crystal Commerce to track and average the prices of the largest vendors to set their own pricing, is leading us towards a magic ecology with oligopolistic tendencies. (It’s worth noting here that between TCGPlayer, Ebay and PucaTrade “true” market pricing is still widely available and in play.)

Put simply: If everyone uses the same pricing, originally set by the most efficient vendor, no actor will ever be able to achieve further efficiency or recognize the true value of their potential market actions. This is true because in theory and practice, the scenario for every market actor is unique, and their price should be uniquely customized to that scenario.

Eg) Store X has $2500 (SCG pricing) in singles for sale. They set their price on this pile of cards to $2500. A player enters the premises and offers $2300, and the LGS declines because Crystal Commerce says their price is on target. The problem here is that price comparisons only establish the cash value of a transaction, and utterly fail to establish the other forms of value and opportunity cost. For instance if Store X can achieve higher inventory turnover rates, lower overhead, lower product costs, enjoys different tax scenarios, or any number of other value stores, they may be economically incorrect to turn down the deal.

This is a key concept, so let’s dig deeper. Check out this table of value store calculations on a theoretical booster box of Conspiracy being sold by an LGS with greater efficiencies than SCG, but priced to match on the premise that SCG is using the “correct” price:

LGS X StarCityGames
Product Cost to Vendor $74 $72
Posted Sale Price $99.50 $99.50
Turnover Rate (Days to Retrieve Capital) 180 216
Investment Periods/Annum 2.027 1.689
Corporate Tax Rate 15% 35%
Overhead/Box/Days to Turnover $3.50 $7
Gross Yield%Gross Yield

Yield Net Overhead

%Yield Net Overhead

Yield After Tax

Effective Annual Yield After Tax**r = (1+i)^

$25.50/box34.45%

$22/box

29.72%

25.27%
51.89%

$27.5038.19%

$20.50

28.47%

18.50%
33.20%

So what exactly does that math demonstrate?

Price Efficiency Achieved?
Price Efficiency Achieved?

Well, in essence it demonstrates that an LGS with access to non-revenue value stores can achieve greater return on investment than a major market actor. In reality, some of these stores are quite possible (better tax scenarios) while others (think overhead/box sold) are highly unlikely due to economies of scale and scope. Even still, assuming we accept that an LGS could achieve more efficient capital returns, why does that matter?

It matters because higher yield would allow them to lower box prices on the premise that lowering prices below SCG pricing would increase overall sales, and because we already know the LGS has superior returns on those sales, they can make more money overall by undercutting their larger competitor. Here’s the kind of graph we’re talking about.

Note that the demand curve shifts out when the price drops, resulting in higher overall sales, because, duh, more players will buy more boxes if they’re cheaper.

Here’s some more math on the two possible scenarios (for illustration only, since just how much demand may increase based on lowered pricing depends on many factors beyond the ken of this discussion).  We’ll even assume lowered box costs as volume increases, though the plateaus would be fairly broad in our ecosystem:

Cost/Box Revenue/Box Boxes Sold Total Profit
Scenario A: SCG Price Match $74 $99.50 186 $4743
Scenario B: Set Lower Price $73 $97.50 223 $5463.50

The LGS has dropped their price slightly, increased sales by about 20% and achieved a slight inventory cost reduction as reward for their higher volume (because they contributed to their wholesalers own inventory turnover rate), leading to an overall increase of 15%.

Surprised?  You shouldn’t be, because this is EXACTLY what a properly functioning free market economy is supposed to look like. A healthy economy needs the friction of market actors jostling for position to trend towards the most efficient combination of price and alternate value that maximizes both shareholder return for the companies and utility for the consumers.

Note that this is functionally identical to my trip to the LGS with noticeably lower prices because in encountering that actor I had no way to know whether they were:

a) seeking value through inaction (due to the value of their time)

or

b) deliberately lowering prices to increase inventory sell through and capture more market share.

The real point however, is that it just doesn’t matter why they were priced lower because whether their price positioning was intentional, representative of alternate value stores or representative of their inefficiency, the market needs the match tested to find equilibrium. If the match is efficient, I will return, repeat similar transactions and the vendor will thrive if their choices are in fact efficient, applying competitive pressures to SCG and other larger market actors to lower prices for more and more players. If it is inefficient, I may one day return to find the vendor closed, and I will move on to market matches with the most efficient vendor I can find, and the cycle continues. I mean I miss those Friday night hunts for value at Blockbuster, but I can’t argue that the shift from $30 in late fees/month to $10 unlimited access to content from my couch via Netflix isn’t the purest representation of market evolution in motion.

The Boundaries of Ethical Trading

Resist the Dark Side
Resist the Dark Side

First off, I’m a long standing liberal. In fact, up here in Canada, we have parties further left than the Democrats and I vote them with pride. Ultimately I consider myself a social pragmatist, but I reserve the right to skew the energy I spend on socially conscious commerce in favor of essential rather than non-essential goods. That means I tend to transfer value to causes that are improving the overall standard of living more efficiently than I ever could directly. As MTG is an upper middle class game with no essential utility, I am definitely on the side of economics vs. social good, but only so far as I believe they are in fact one in the same in terms of achieving market efficiency in the Magic commons. By this I mean that good economics will lead to the healthiest overall community, a fact I’m sure Hasbro drills into the WOTC exec at every opportunity.

Remember a few years back when they yanked global tournament support, ditched the old rating system and abandoned nationals? We all yelled a lot, but the game has only gotten better since, presumably because the internal reallocation of resources has made the entire operation more efficient at attracting users and increased the overall utility to our community broadly despite the painful transition.

Further, there is a huge difference between accepting a listed price, and engaging in more nefarious acts. Here’s some scenarios I DON’T support:

  • Duping kids is off limits, simply because they aren’t legal market actors at all and cannot be expected to act rationally.
  • Noobs are off limits, largely because being kind to new players yields social scenarios that largely outweigh any meager profits that could be made off their single copy of Jace. I’m not above dumping 1000 commons on someone in a swap for a $50 rare, but I always make sure they know the score, and they’re rarely concerned since variety > power in the early days of trading.
  • Switching price tags, confusing vendors when busy, lying about condition, delaying payments and failing to honor posted prices (a personal pet peeve) are all forms of theft because they represent non-voluntary transfers of value.

In the end, I’ve written this article to make one simple point: you are no more responsible to “correct” the pricing of a vendor than they are to “correct” their pricing when you need a Snapcaster Mage ten minutes before the start of the GP.

I’m also asserting that such acts of price adjustment, are in facts acts of economic and/or social charity, resulting in the transference of hard earned value from one market actor to another without justification.  And while you may feel good about doing it, you may in fact be injuring the health of the MTG economy as a whole by failing to exert the pressures that lead to maximum market efficiency and the lowest possible price for playing this beautiful game.

Now you may say “hey, wait a minute, I hang out at my LGS every day, I’ve known the owner for years and I need to look him in the eye when we trade. This guy gives me deals, runs a good scene and he’s always got snacks on hand for Commander night.”

My response is that you and the owner are not simple market actors, but something closer to friends (or at least peers), in your scenario, and are by definition engaged in a barter economy where you trade value in terms other than just cash, and in doing so you keep things just as equal as if you had bought him out of a common box worth of Simian Spirit Guides. When you notify him every time his pricing seems low, you are in essence investing the value of your knowledge into your favorite hangout and inevitably expecting that value to yield dividends. You may consider yourself the altruistic sort, but when push comes to shove, if you save him from buyout after buyout and he won’t even put aside a Conspiracy box for you, you are unlikely to continue the exchange.

To wit, nor should you.

 James Chillcott is the CEO of ShelfLife.net, The Future of Collecting, Senior Partner at Advoca, a designer, adventurer, toy fanatic and an avid Magic player and collector since 1994. 

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