Category Archives: Going Mad

Going Mad – Why Standard is Becoming Less Relevant

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By: Derek Madlem

A cold wind blows in from the Northwest as the last dying leaves succumb to the paralyzing reality. Winter is knocking at our doors and the foliage is not the only thing in a state of torpor. The holiday season has always been a hard time to get any real wizarding done and this year’s event calendar is certainly not any help. December has always been light on premiere level events, but this year we have zero Grand Prix events. This comes after five straight weekends of constructed Grand Prixs…maybe we’re just hungover.

Local Magic is suffering as people are abandoning Standard in levels not seen since Caw-Blade summer. This is where I should chime in with an analysis of the competitive Standard environment to explain that it’s much more diverse and competitive than it was when those four little birds were the crux of competitive Magic, but I really can’t. I don’t know what’s going on in Standard because I just don’t care about Magic right now. I said it. I’m bored with Standard and hardly care to attend the dwindling weekly locals.

But I’m almost certainly not alone in this regard; FNMs and local weeklies everywhere are suffering with the main culprit being that players simply can’t (financially or mentally) afford to buy into the current Standard format. Mono-red, the game’s perpetual budget deck, is sporting a mana base that’s approaching $200, and that’s before you even throw in your first copy of Atarka’s Command. We’re playing a format that features the first $1,000 Standard deck, this is anything but an entry level format at this point.

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Magic is ultimately a social game and our excitement, or lack thereof, to play is contagious. If you’re used to 32-man FNMs and you show up to a paltry nine players, there’s a good chance that you’re going to consider other options the next weekend, and your absence only adds to the snowball effect of people abandoning weekly tournaments.

Five Stupid Lands

The lion’s share of blame for the current state of Standard lies in five stupid lands. The irony here is that these five lands were so successful at making Modern more accessible that people decided to just go play that format instead. After acquiring a few fetches, people took a look around and saw that they could play Siege Rhino mirrors for 18 months, or they work toward finishing their Modern decks and ignore Standard completely.

Then the fetches started climbing. Players that had acquired a “playset” of Khans fetches started cashing in the extras to acquire the newly cheapened Splinter Twins and Cryptic Commands to gear themselves up for tournament play, and it was all over. Tarmogoyfs becomes a lot easier to acquire when you can just hand over fetch lands to acquire the mythic two-drop.

Despite popular belief, Magic players are constrained by budgets. With the Pro Tour, we’ve heard players talking about “getting on the train,” which is to say that once you achieve silver level in the Pro Players Club the first time, it’s easier to achieve the next time and easier to make the jump to gold or platinum. The same is true for constructing top-tier Standard decks. If you had a tier-one deck in Theros / Khans / Dragons Standard, you probably have one in Khans / Dragons / Battle Standard; but if you started or attempted to return to the game at Dragons of Tarkir or Magic Origins, you’ve been playing catch up this whole time. And if you came into the game at Battle for Zendikar, I’m sorry about your luck, kid, the train has left the station.

Something Dismal Stirs

By now you’ve heard this next line dozens of times, but I’m all for repeating myself just to up the word count: Battle for Zendikar sucks. It’s painfully apparent that Battle for Zendikar is one of the worst sets of the modern era and that the Expeditions lottery is one of the set’s few saving graces, and even they’re not looking incredibly impressive right now.

Compounding the problems that were already bubbling just below the surface with the expense of Khans fetches is the absolutely dismal power level present in BFZ. Normally when a new set is released you’ll see some reasonable deck alternatives popping up to give players somewhere to start leading into the next block. These decks are rarely tier one, but they’re usually powerful enough to at least battle through a few FNMs without getting repeatedly curb stomped into the 0-4 bracket while we wait for new cards to get printed.

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This time, not so much; we have a set full of Wasteland Stranglers. Cards that rely heavily on synergies (that are hardly obtainable in draft) to do mediocre things. The best comparison is I can make is the Rise of Vigil expansion for Ascension; the set contained dozens of cards that did the exact same thing as existing cards only after jumping through hoops to activate them. Why?! This is reverse power creep in it’s worst form. This is Kamigawa… and Rosewater said we wouldn’t ever be returning.

Battle for Zendikar had fewer cards show up in its own Pro Tour than any set in the modern era. But it’s not just what’s in Battle for Zendikar that’s making Standard miserable, it’s what was left out.

lightning strike

Theros may not have been the most compelling block in the history of Magic, but it featured a set of checks and balances that leveled the playing field. Certain archetypes rely on certain cards existing, and shifting the power level of commons and uncommons down closes the door on those archetypes, creating an environment where people have no choice but to play a pile of rares and mythics. We now have a format where Siege Rhino and Woodland Wanderers are rampaging the countryside, but Lightning Strike is somehow too powerful.

Against the Tide

Traditionally, at this time of year we see the tide lowering and prices across the board dropping, both in Standard and Modern. The January after release has long been pegged as the low water mark for fall sets, but if you’ve been watching the weekly interests page, you’ll notice that Standard and Modern cards just aren’t moving. Most of the big movers have been in nonsense Legends and Arabian Nights cards that show up in ’93/’94 decks and other cards with low inventory levels.

Part of this is likely due to the lack of premiere level events and their ripple effect on buy and sell prices, but the majority of it is likely due to a widespread attitude of “let’s wait it out” as players hope that the release of Oath of the Gatewatch will be the shot in the arm the format needs moving forward. I’m not optimistic (am I ever?) that Oath is going to bring any real substance to the mix.

We have little to go on as far as Oath speculation goes, but we do have a gimmicky mana symbol and the promise of “the most cards designed for Two-Headed Giant ever.” Neither of these are selling points for me. Short of tacking “exile the top card of your opponent’s library” to every card in Oath or devoid somehow becoming relevant, this block feels close to a complete loss. These might be the best prices we see for any card in Battle for Zendikar and I’m frankly kind of amazed that they’re holding at current levels. There are only two cards I see any upside on: Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, and even those are tenuous at best.

Dragons of Tarkir / Magic Origins

Here’s where we are likely to part ways, but I’m of the opinion that it’s all downhill from here for Dragons and Origins cards. Pretty much everything from these blocks peaked the second week of October and has been on a slow and steady decline ever since. The chart for pretty much every rare looks similar to Deathmist Raptor’s:

Screenshot 2015-12-06 at 12.02.47 PM

While there’s a chance that we see a second spike on these cards around the release of Shadows Over Innistrad, I’m putting my money on a response similar to what we saw in Khans as BFZ showed up. I’m operating on the assumption that sets are likely going to peak six to nine months after release moving forward, and I have already dumped everything from Dragons / Origins that I don’t expect to play in Modern.

Watchful Eyes

Going forward, we have a couple things to watch for. Chances are good that Oath is going to be just as bad as BFZ, and this sustained “player recession” is going to put pressure on a lot of retailers and organized play in general. Many players are just going to sit out completely until Shadows Over Innistrad or shift their focus to Modern.

If the return to Innistrad follows the same pattern we’ve seen in the last two “return” blocks, we’re in for another shit show. Return to Ravnica was serviceable as a return block, but succeeded mostly on the strength of a few guilds carrying the weakness of others…I’m looking at you, Simic. BFZ has been a pile of gimmicks that are neither cohesive nor compelling and we can expect any return to Innistrad to be laden with mediocre demons, angels, and vampires taking up more than their fair share of the rare and mythic slots.

Shoehorn in some werewolves and a couple watered-down graveyard mechanics and there’s little room left for anything fresh and new. If we’re lucky, we’ll get an Avacyn’s Pilgrim reprint so we can play with a reasonable mana dork again, but it’s becoming apparent that Wizards is moving away from mana dorks at one mana in the same manner that we’ve moved away from Rampant Growth effects at two.

The other issue we can expect to rear it’s ugly head going forward is the two-set dynamic does not leave room to both pay homage to the previous block and introduce something new, leaving us without the critical mass to power the synergy strategies and shifting Standard to solely be a “best cards” format.

If Shadows falls flat like BFZ and lacks the full-art lottery tickets, we might see the first year with a decline in Magic sales and a stagnating Standard player base, which is only going to put more focus on Modern—the format that players demand and goes against Wizards’s entire primary business strategy.

I’d love to hear what Standard looks like in your area. What’s attendance like? What are players saying about the format? How many have dropped the mic, never to return?


 

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Going Mad – GPs, Waste Lands, & Expeditions

By: Derek Madlem

The Search

So I’m looking over the decklists from Grand Prix Pittsburg and there’s something noticeably absent: Protean Hulk. While I’m disappointed that all the hype didn’t result in a top finish, there is a lesson here that should already have been learned in the distant past. Cards that search for free things will always break. We should have seen this one coming, well I should say YOU should have seen this one coming, I already have a FOIL playset and 6 or 7 regular Hulks in my Mulch Box.

Cards like this aren’t always beat us over the head obvious because they aren’t usually printed in preconstructed decks with everything needed for a ridiculous combo printed around them. Sometimes that combo is super simple: Stoneforge Mystic + Batterskull. Other times that combo is part of larger synergies like we saw with Ranger of Eos + Goblin Guide or Goblin Bushwhacker in Standard and eventually the various roles the Ranger has performed in Modern. We recently just learned this lesson again with Knight of the Reliquary. How many times have we forgotten about this gal?

If a card can search for something and play it for free or a reduced cost, it’s not a matter of if it breaks, but when it breaks. That’s why I’m still holding out hope for these Woodland Bellowers, but this devoid nonsense is definitely not helping.

Top 8

Modern can be an incredibly diverse format, but it’s always in a state of expansion and contraction in terms of which decks are truly viable in a fifteen round tournament. When we look at this week’s top eight decklists we see a hefty presence of two of the format’s boogeymen.

Splinter Twin and Affinity, along with burn,  form a trifecta of terror within Modern. Loading up on sideboard hate for one opens you up to a browbeating from the others. This is before your sideboard gets stretched into other directions to curtail the threat of Blood Moon, graveyard shenanigans, or garbage decks like Infect and Bogles. This weekend’s top eight featured three Splinter Twin decks and two Affinity, with more of each rounding out the top 32.

For us this presents a format that is ripe with investment opportunities. For example, there was only one copy of Tron in the top 32 decklists this weekend, so the deck is likely to garner less attention than it has in the past. We have another round of Eldrazi showing up in less than two months with a pretty decent likelihood that SOMETHING ends up being good in Tron; that Kozilek is already looking pretty sweet depending on what those stupid diamond mana symbols mean (more on that later).  With Tron falling out of favor, it’s easy to grab a few staples and ride the rising tide as players flood back into an archetype…it also doesn’t hurt that you’ll have no problems shipping cards like Karn Liberated and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon for years to come.

After this past weekend you’d traditionally see an increase in demand for Splinter Twin and Affinity cards, but with the holidays coming up, it’s typically the season for all prices to slip a bit as attention shifts away from spending money on Magic to spending money on turkeys and appliances our family members will never use.

Once we get past the holiday season the trick is to jump into the right boat at the right time, which is easier said than done. Let’s take a look at a breakdown of each archetype to see where we’re at THIS week:

Affinity – 5
Grixis Control – 2
Splinter Twin(s) – 5.5 (Living Twin)
Titan Scapeshift – 1
G/W Aggro – 1
Amulet Bloom – 3
Living End – 1.5 (Living Twin)
Burn(s) – 3
Abzan Company – 1
Faeries – 1
Elves – 1
Zoo – 1
Infect – 2
G/R Tron – 1
Jund – 3

With fifteen different archetypes (arguably 16 with “Living Twin” (Twinning End -ed.)) we have a pretty diverse top 32 and will have a real hard time convincing anyone (other than PVDDR) that Modern is an unhealthy format. I’m hoping that this means we’ve finally found a “settled” Modern and Wizards will lay off the “shakeup bans” going forward and start unbanning the rest of the more questionable offenders on the ban list.

Hype and Speculation

So this is a thing that happened:

Kozilek

We still don’t know exactly what this means. There are theories floating around that basically range from this being Magic adding colorless as it’s sixth color to snow mana 2.0 to basically anything. I have to believe in that Wizards isn’t stupid enough to create a sixth color and releasing it as a gimmick mechanic in a small set, but that’s a real possibility at this point.

My theory, the one I have to believe is true if I’m going to take Wizards seriously moving forward, is that these new mana symbols should be read as “colorless that has to be devoid of color”. For example, you could cast this Kozilek with eight forests and a Shrine of the Forsaken Gods but not ten forests. This would also go a long way to explain why we still have the pain lands in Magic Origins since they do add colorless mana in addition to the two colors.

There is still the nightmare scenario where these guys are required:

Wastes

While these would technically be searchable off an Explosive Vegetation thanks to being a “basic land”, they don’t have a basic land type listed so they won’t do anything for all those domain decks you kids like to build. Luckily these were easily explainable within my mana theory as big number “1” looks stupid on a full art card. But then this card showed up:

Mirrorpool

You see that? No “T: Add (1) to your mana pool” on this card, it’s that diamond, so my whole theory gets thrown right out the window and I’m left here banging my head on the desk crying out “WHY? WHY? WHY?” Sure, there’s still the possibility that at common we have a plethora of cards that flesh out the rules for “Wastes mana” but why not include all of this in Battle for Zendikar from the start if it’s just “colorless finally gets it’s own mana symbol”?  This is the question I can’t really answer without immediately asking myself what they were thinking.

It’s all starting to make a lot of sense why Wizards chose to include Expeditions; this block is trying really really hard to just be a massive steaming pile of Eldrazi turds.

Speaking of Expeditions

@nqtnguyen "decided to buy a few expeditions #gpppitt"
@nqtnguyen “decided to buy a few expeditions #gpppitt”

We’re probably about as close to bottom as we’re going to get with the expeditions and @nqtnguyen’s photo above really brought this to the forefront of my mind moving forward. While I still think there is time left to get in on the ground floor for these, I have a feeling that once these start disappearing, that it’s going to happen very fast.

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My initial thought was that informed buyers were waiting for bottom to buy in to these, but after further consideration I’m revising my timeline a bit, we’re pretty much at bottom now and these aren’t flying off the proverbial shelves quite yet, but we’re left with a gap in our knowledge base that’s going to be filled in soon: Oath of the Gatewatch. There’s twenty more coming and I think many people are waiting to see what they’re going to be before pushing all their chips into the middle of the table.

Once we reach Oath, we’ll see those players that held onto their Expeditions way too long start to begrudgingly sell them off to buy the new hotness but less will be entering the market as the limited format will shift to a single pack of BFZ vs the three we’re seeing now.

Ultimately prices are settling out to be pretty close to my initial feelings. I didn’t see a reality where the Expeditions Scalding Tarn was going to cost 100% more than the original FOIL and we knew it was going to form the upper ceiling when it came to pricing the rest of the lot. We’re looking at a world where the Expeditions Scalding Tarn is around  33% more expensive than it’s predecessor rather than 133%. Here’s a breakdown of where the relevant expeditions are sitting now:

Scalding Tarn $250
Polluted Delta $215
Misty Rainforest $210
Flooded Strand $185
Verdant Catacombs $160
Bloodstained Mire $110
Arid Mesa $105
Wooded Foothills $105
Windswept Heath $100
Marsh Flats $100
Steam Vents $100
Hallowed Fountain $75
Breeding Pool $70
Stomping Ground $70
Watery Grave $70
Overgrown Tomb $70
Godless Shrine $70
Sacred Foundry $65
Blood Crypt $60
Temple Garden $60

I would expect these to dip maybe another 10% over the holiday and upcoming spoiler season, but after that it should be a slow and steady climb upwards. That said, it’s probably going to take a while (years rather than months) for these to catch up to the insane prices we saw during the prerelease and first week of the set’s release. Remember those $440 Scalding Tarns? That WAS a good laugh wasn’t it?

The reality is that a lot of vendors and retailers have been buying these up and squirreling them away because the prices as they are currently are “too low” in their opinion. Even if there isn’t an organic groundswell in demand for these cards coming, there is an artificially tightening of supply coming so we’re likely to see some decent price movement on these in the coming months.


 

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Going Mad – One Blood Crypt

By: Derek Madlem

In a recent article I asked for players to leave questions / future topics in the comments and a handful of you did. The question that sparked the most interest (for other commenters and me as a writer) was how you should go about choosing what cards to acquire first in Modern.

Most people will tell you to acquire the lands first, because they give you the most options going forward. For example your Temple Garden can go into a variety of Bant decks, Bogles, Naya, G/W hatebears, assorted Abzan decks and much much more. Getting cards that you can use in a number of places is always a great way to start. But approaching the format this way put’s a big fat wall in front of new players as lands are not always the cheapest thing to acquire and there’s a good chance that if you go in blind, you’re going to end up with some extras that you don’t really need.

Fetch Lands

For the last year and some change it’s been a great idea to pick up the fetch lands from Khans of Tarkir. You’ve already missed “bottom” on these, but they’re still extremely useful going forward, but which ones are the most useful?

Fetch lands are an oddity when it comes to deck construction, you’re going to get 95% usefulness out of a fetch land that is one color off in most decks, but that 5% reallly matters if you’re playing competitive level tournaments. You can easily substitute a Flooded Strand for a Scalding Tarn if you’re playing Splinter Twin, and for local weekly tournaments it’s hardly ever going to make or break many games for you. Burn decks generally don’t even care which red fetchlands you use.

MTGGoldfish.com has tool that ranks lands by how many archetypes they’re played in and you might be surprised that the most expensive isn’t the most commonly used. While I would recommend strictly following the percentages if you were a deckbuilding robot looking to optimize the order in which you completed ALL decks, I think it’s better to pick what types of archetypes you enjoy and see where the overlap is:

Scalding Tarn – Grixis Control, Splinter Twin, Pyromancer Ascension, Storm, Jeskai
Misty Rainforest – Infect, Splinter Twin, Temur Twin, Temur Aggro, Scapeshift
Verdant Catacombs – Abzan Company, Abzan Midrange, Jund, Infect
Arid Mesa – Zoo, Burn, Naya Company, Jeskai Control
Marsh Flats – Abzan, Abzan Company, B/W Tokens
Polluted Delta – Grixis Control, Grixis Twin, Ad Nauseum, Esper Control, Esper Gifts, Dredgevine
Flooded Strand – U/W Control, U/W Gifts, Jeskai Control
Wooded Foothills – Zoo, Burn, Jund, Kiki Chord, Naya Company, Jund Dredgevine
Windswept Heath – Bogles, Abzan Company, Abzan Aggro, Kiki Chord, Naya Allies
Bloodstained Mire – Living End, Jund, Grixis Twin, Grixing Control, Jund Dredgevine

As you can see, there is a lot of overlap between the fetch lands and you’re not going to be disappointed owning four of any of them. That said, you don’t necessarily need four copies of all of them. If you’re looking to play Abzan decks, for example, Verdant Catacombs and Windswept Heaths are your primary choices and Marsh Flats is your tertiary fetch – you only really need two copies in most builds. Arid Mesa is in a similar position in most decks that include it outside of Burn, which doesn’t care which fetches you use.

By just shaving two copies of each of those out of your “Modern playset” list, you’re freeing up $160 in value that you can be allocated elsewhere.

Shock Lands

Shock lands are interesting to look at because the numbers ultimately reflect something that emotionally we’re blind to: you don’t need them all. When Return to Ravnica rotated out of Standard we all snatched up as many shock lands as we could because they “were a sure thing” just like those Zendikar fetches that we’d seen skyrocket. As it turned out–not so much. This was mostly due to the fact that in Standard we were playing four copies of each and that is not the case at all in Modern.

Especially with access to all ten fetch lands, the need to run more than two of any shock land is rare and typically only shows up in the strict two-color decks. Even then, it’s more likely that you’re going to run three copies rather than four. So let’s take a look at how many of these you actually NEED for Modern:

Watery Grave:
Esper Gifts – 2
Grixis Twin – 1
Grixis Control – 1
Sultai – 1
Steam Vents:
Scapeshift – 4
U/R Delver – 3
U/R Storm – 3
U/R Twin – 2
Grixis Twin – 2
Grixis Control – 2
Jeskai Midrange – 2
Jeskai Control – 2
Temur Tempo – 2
Breeding Pool:
Infect – 3
Scapeshift – 2
U/R Twin – 1
Sultai – 1
Temur Tempo – 1
Hallowed Fountain:
Jeskai Midrange – 2
Jeskai Control 2
U/W Control – 1
Esper Gifts – 1
Godless Shrine:
Abzan – 2
Esper Gifts – 1
Goryo’s – 1
Stomping Ground:
Scapeshift – 4
Through the Breach Valakuut – 4
Naya Zoo – 3
Naya Burn – 2
Temur Tempo – 1
Jund – 1
Naya Company – 1
U/R Twin – 1
Living End – 1
Temple Garden:
Bogles – 4
Naya company – 2
Naya Allies – 2
Naya Zoo – 1
Abzan – 1
Overgrown Tomb:
Sultai – 3
Abzan – 2
Jund – 1
Living End – 1
Sacred Foundry:
Naya Burn – 3
Naya Allies – 1
Naya Zoo – 1
Naya Company – 1
Jeskai Midrange – 1
Jeskai Control – 1
Blood Crypt:
Jund – 1
Living End – 1
Grixis Twin – 1
Grixis Control – 1
Goryo’s – 1

This is by no means EVERY shock land played in Modern, these are just the top 40 or so most common decks appearing on MTGO in daily events. As you can see the number of each shock land you NEED depends heavily on which archetypes you were hoping to play, but if you were to make a master list of shock lands that covered every deck you could want to play it would probably look a little bit like this:

Watery Grave – 2
Steam Vents – 4
Breeding Pool – 3
Hallowed Fountain – 2
Godless Shrine – 2
Stomping Ground – 4
Temple Garden – 4
Overgrown Tomb – 3
Sacred Foundry – 3
Blood Crypt – 1

As you can see, approaching your Modern shock lands with a plan rather than just acquiring four of each will save you significant resources that you can direct elsewhere. This list can be shaved even further if you decide that there are some decks that you will just never play.

Watery Grave – 2
Steam Vents – 3
Breeding Pool – 1
Hallowed Fountain – 2
Godless Shrine – 2
Stomping Ground – 3
Temple Garden – 2
Overgrown Tomb – 3
Sacred Foundry – 3
Blood Crypt – 1

I know that I’m never going to play Scapeshift, Through the Breach Valakuut, Bogles, or Infect so I can go down to three Steam Vents, Three Stomping Grounds, two copies of Temple Garden, and a single copy of Breeding Pool and trade the rest of them away at my local shop or on Pucatrade. This is going to give me around $65 worth of value that I can direct elsewhere – or nearly one half of a Tarmogoyf.

Fork in the Road

Entering Modern can be a daunting task. You don’t really know where to start and the best path often seems to be to get one of the “cheap decks” to start out with just so you can play. This seems like a great strategy on paper when you’re starting from zero, but how many of us are truly in that position? It’s enticing to throw resources at decks like Affinity, Tron, Elves, or Merfolk but you end up putting all your eggs in one basket as many of these cards don’t translate to other decks. Take a look at an UrzaTron list for example:

Creatures (6)
1 Spellskite 
3 Wurmcoil Engine 
1 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
1 Emrakul, the Aeons Torn

Spells (34)
4 Ancient Stirrings 
4 Chromatic Sphere
4 Chromatic Star
4 Expedition Map
2 Relic of Progenitus
3 Pyroclasm
4 Sylvan Scrying
3 Oblivion Stone
4 Karn Liberated
2 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon

Lands (20)
1 Eye of Ugin
2 Forest
1 Ghost Quarter
4 Grove of the Burnwillows
4 Urza’s Mine
4 Urza’s Power Plant
4 Urza’s Tower

All of those cards highlighted in red? Oh, those are the cards that essentially see play in zero other decks in Modern. Tron is an awesome deck to play and there are few things I’ve done in Magic that were more satisfying than turn three Karn Liberated into turn four Ulamog, the Infinite  Gyre into turn five Karn but the deck is highly specialized and if you get sick of it, the cards just aren’t useful in anything else. 

Starting in the middle and radiating out from there as you have more resources at your disposal is going to give you the most bangs for your bucks. Do you like casting Lightning Bolt and Serum Visions? Grab  a couple copies of Steam Vents. Fancy yourself a Noble Hierarch man? Temple Garden is the place to start. Did you trade your Standard deck into a playset of Tarmogoyfs? Overgrown Tomb is the probably the land for you.

Knowing your play style is the most important thing, Modern is much more of an open field than Standard so you can play almost anything you want to a fairly reasonable win percentage assuming you learn the deck well. Owning Tarmogoyfs helps, but Young Pyromancer and his elemental friends can often do just as much damage while clogging up the board with a swarm of blockers, so it’s not at all about who has the most money at their disposal.

No matter what current or past Standard decks you’ve enjoyed, there’s a deck in Modern that will match your play style. If you need suggestions for where to start your upgrade path, just post in the comments below and I’ll do my best to advise you on a path forward. But if you only take one thing away from this article it’s this – you only need one Blood Crypt.


 

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Going Mad – Upsetting the Ecosystem

By: Derek Madlem

At the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, we’re seeing coral reefs that took decades to develop dying off en mass because of slight changes in the acidity and temperature of ocean water. As these reefs die off, the plethora of life that sprung up in and around them are disappearing as well and their absence ripples out affecting creatures that rely on them to survive, causing imbalances in the entire ecosystem…all from a small change in the acidity of ocean waters.

What do Magic and the Great Barrier Reef have in common? Well not a lot other than the occasional turtle and the fact that changes in the ecosystem are going to have long term impacts on their existence.

What the hell am I talking about? Over the last year and some change, Magic has gone through a huge number of seemingly minute and innocuous changes that going forward are going to have an impact on the value of cards, how these changes ripple out is only beginning to come to light. We’re still learning what all of these changes mean for the game over time, but let’s start by taking a look at what I’m talking about:

Rotation Schedule

Rotation schedules have been changed. In the past we saw a large set released in October followed up by two expansions for that set being released in February / April, then a Core Set some time in July. The schedule of ancillary products slotted in around these releases, with Duel Decks featuring a late summer release that heralded the fall expansion and a late winter release that gave us a couple planeswalkers. Wizards was tying too much of it’s yearly success to the fall release and decided to try to make that April set matter as much as the October set, thus the new rotation was born.

Every six months we’re going to see two sets leaving Standard. Before a set like Khans of Tarkir would stay viable for 24 months after release, now it’s only going to be legal for 18 months. With the old rotation schedule we had a pretty easy time predicting when the peaks and valleys for card prices were going to be and we made easy money picking up cards like Elspeth, Sun’s Champion at $15 and getting rid of them at $30 when we knew the price would peak. We also knew that it was all down hill for cards rotating within the next 9-12 months.

I wrote an ill-received article about how this change could affect the annual price spikes we learned to count on and was basically laughed off the metaphorical stage with rotten vegetables and expletives peppering my psyche…but then here we are with very little movement in Khans of Tarkir & Fate Reforged (outside fetch lands) cards during rotation. I’m not ready to jump up and down proclaiming my victory on this idea quite yet as some cards did move, but overall this rotation is one of the calmest that I can remember.

Going forward we’ll have to see how Dragons of Tarkir and Magic Origins fare this April, my guess is that these sets will behave in a relatively similar manner. With only two sets appearing per block, we’re going to see many of the archetypes that rely on synergy unable to reach critical mass so it will become clearer which cards are powerful early in their lifespans.

Volunteering Abolished

For basically forever, judges at high level events have been compensated using the morally ambiguous Judge Foil program. It was fairly simple, you showed up to “volunteer” at a Grand Prix and you were rewarded with packs of sweet premium cards that you could immediately sell to vendors for a sizeable chunk of cash, or keep for your own treasure trove.

Some guy complained and the community at large joined in and reveled at the outrage, now judges need to be compensated by tournament organizers rather than by Wizards of the Coast and that cost is being passed on to the consumers. We now have the pleasure looking at $70 constructed format Grand Prixs, which is a significant increase from the the $40 we saw in the past.

How is this affecting us? Well for starters, many of us simply aren’t going to participate in these events any longer. Before I could look at the Grand Prix promo and playmat as a substantial subsidization of my entry fee, knocking an easy $20-25 off the cost, leaving me at $15-20 out of pocket, now I’m  out $50. At a $50 entry fee, I have to evaluate whether or not I’m actually a contender in a tournament; at $15, I can throw my money in the pot without second thought.

But players aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch, vendors are soaking up additional costs to vend these events as well. In the past we’d see more vendors (and more competition) because the table fees were so much lower. Tournament organizers have almost universally instituted a bid system (and a cap to the number of vendors able to participate) to determine who gets to occupy a reduced number of tables. This increased overhead is slowly bleeding many vendors out of the game completely. Now, one bad Grand Prix is enough to knock many of the smaller vendors out of the game completely.

The RPTQ

We’ve also now seen a year of the new PTQ system in action. Local PTQs used to be “free roll” events for many vendors and a good fallback to lick their wounds after experiencing a couple Grand Prix events. Being one of only a couple vendors at semi-local events meant that you could promote your brand and make decent money without shelling out a fortune. While it’s true that there was such a thing as a “bad PTQ”, it usually only took one “decent” buy to cover your entire cost for the event and everything beyond that was just gravy.

PTQs were also a good starting point for vendors trying to ramp up to doing Grand Prix events or running a significant online operation, now that the startup capital to break into the Grand Prix scene is almost insurmountable. It’s been said by many vendors that if you aren’t already in the game, it might be too late.

The other issue the RPTQ scene has brought to the forefront is the cannibalization of event participants. Previously, if your dream was to make it to the Pro Tour, you played a half dozen or fewer PTQs in your region spread out over a number of months. Now we’re barraged with multiple PPTQs available to us within a reasonable driving distance every single weekend.

These events are competing directly with each other and large regional events like SCG Opens or Grand Prixs for participants. Players are now being forced to choose between sneaking into an under attended PPTQ or attending a larger event.

While these numbers seem inconsequential, it’s easy for a handful of these tournaments to be occurring within a 3-4 hour radius of an SCG Open with each of them siphoning off a couple dozen players that would have otherwise probably attended the larger event. In a world with $50 entry fees, this can quickly add up to multiple thousands of dollars coming right off the bottom line.

The Omni-Vendor

The ride of TCGPlayer over the past couple of years has ensured the general public a constant supply of low-cost cards. TCGPlayer used to be a great tool for vendors to take their Grand Prix buys to market and reap handsome rewards, but now the flood gates have opened and there’s no turning back. With TCGPlayer becoming the storefront of every guy with a backpack and a few cards, traditional brick and mortar stores and GP Vendors are competing with guys that have essentially $0 in overhead costs. The race to the bottom is real and there are few real winners.

For example, I just searched for Blood Crypt and was returned 386 vendors. THREE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY SIX! How far down that list do you think I scrolled? If you aren’t in the five cheapest results, you’re likely not selling a Blood Crypt today.

This marketplace has created a new priesthood within the Magic community. Their places of power are Craigslist ads where you can usually find numerous ads all boasting the best prices paid for your cards and the hundreds of Facebook buy/sell/trade groups, many of which are created and moderated by people looking to skim any value out of the collections being offered before they even reach other readers.

While the race to the bottom benefits us as greatly as consumers, it puts pressure on the GP vendors and LGS owners that essentially subsidized every tournament table we’ve ever played on.

MTGO Changes

Paper Magic isn’t the only place we’ve seen massive changes in the past couple of years. We’ve seen significant changes to both set redemption and the way prizes are given out on MTGO. Personally I stay away from MTGO because I know it’s a rabbit hole that I would not fare well in, but as these conversations bubble up on the Twitterverse, I’m paying attention.

In the past you could pick up packs for as low as half of the retail price shortly after release as drafters found it easier to go infinite flipping packs than opening them, with the changes in prize payout this has changed and second hand packs are only a tiny fraction below the retail cost.

Set redemption also saw a hefty charge placed on it’s use. I’m not familiar with the exact procedure before and after the changes, but my understanding is that the redemption fee changed from $5 to $25 per set. When you’re in the business of grinding set redemptions, that additional $20 puts a significant barrier to profitability in the way. The increased fees has no doubt reduced the amount of sets redeemed to paper, which in turn decreases the overall supply of cards in circulation.

Large retailers were conscious of the redemption math, and before that tied paper and digital card prices in a sort of symbiotic relationship; if a set was worth significantly more on paper than digitally, you could easily spend the $7.99 to convert digital sets to paper in large quantities and the prices would normalize; but now you’re looking at $27.99 a pop for redemptions, a number that requires much larger discrepancies to be profitable.

Uncertainty

The hardest thing to know going forward is what all these changes mean for us going forward. Were Khans of Tarkir & Fate Reforged prices dampened by the changes in the rotation schedule or key reprints occurring in event decks and clash packs? Will increased entry fees to Grand Prix level events cause players to stop going or will we literally pay any price? How will Grand Prix vendors survive with increased competition from competitors with relatively no overhead while simultaneously paying more and more to set up at events?

One of  the things that made #mtgfinance so appealing in the past was the ability to capitalize on predictable patterns, but so much has changed in the last couple of years that many of those tried and true strategies are proving obsolete. One thing is for certain, the impact of these changes has not gone unnoticed at the highest levels; both Star City Games and Wizards of the Coast have recently acknowledged that significant growing pains are being felt and they’re dialing things back to better understand how to proceed.

While none of these changes have “sky is falling” impact on the game, there is a change in the waters and it might take a few bleached reefs before we begin to understand the impact on the ecosystem as a whole.


 

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