Holiday Hodgepodge

By Guo Heng Chin

There are a few topics I would like to write about, but neither had sufficient fodder to be expanded into a full-fledged article. So I combined them together into one article, a sort of holiday hodgepodge of an article. The first part deals with the shifting paradigm in Modern speculation. The second discusses the first trickle of spoilers in the Fate Reforged spoiler season.

Modern Paradigm

Modern used to be a veritable speculator’s heaven. It was a relatively new format with plenty of unexplored deckbuilding space. Breakout cards spiked overnight by order of magnitudes when they received coverage during a major event. Bulk and near-bulk rares shot up to insane heights when a home was found for those once unloved pieces of cardboard wasting away in bulk bins. Modern staples resembled blue chip shares. However, that era is coming to an end.

Wizards stated over and over again that they are serious about supporting Modern as a Pro Tour format. Modern was a non-rotating format unshackled by the reserve list. We passed the era when the power level of the format was being tuned by frequent bannings, and the format has since evolved a distinctively unique flavor – midrange value grinds with a splash of combo – and a plethora of viable tier one decks in the format at any one time. Wizards is currently in the stage of keeping Modern’s entry barrier sufficiently affordable to be inclusive of the majority of the playerbase, while at the same time remain a premier non-rotating format.

From the reprint of in-demand, expensive staples like Remand and Wurmcoil Engine in supplementary products like Duel Decks and Commander decks to reprinting Thoughtseize and fetchlands in normal sets, Wizards made it abundantly clear that they are taking their promise to ensure that Modern staples remain affordable seriously. While Wizards’ dedication is great for the game and playerbase overall, it increased the risk for Magic financiers invested or planning to invest in Modern staples.

I would not have it any other way: I am a player first, a financier second. I got into Magic finance because Magic is an expensive habit. A little speculation here and there helped eased the financial pressure of grinding competitive Magic.  If Wizards goes gung-ho in reprinting Modern staples, that negates some of the cost associated with staying at the forefront of competitive Magic. Every wave of reprints help me get one step closer to completing my gauntlet of tier one Modern decks.

That does not mean I am jumping overboard from the invest-in-Modern ship. I still have a decent amount of vested interest in terms of Modern investment. That just means I have to change my outlook towards investing in Modern cards to fit the new paradigm. Adapt or die.

I. Shorter Hold Time

Thee Modern staples I bought at the inception of the format in 2011 just kept on going up and up. Those $8 Vendilion Cliques I bought on eBay doubled to $20, $40 and then $80. I bought my fourth non-foil Cryptic Command at $35 in January 2014 because I needed it for the Modern side event at Grand Prix Kuala Lumpur. $35 must be the ceiling for a Modern staple reprinted in Modern Masters as a rare, I consoled myself as I mentally punched myself for not completing my non-foil playset back when it was a $15 card. Cryptic Command is now at $60. Don’t even get me talking about the Liliana of the Veils and Scalding Tarns.

Most of my Modern investments remained with me today as I kept on convincing myself that they have more room to grow. The fact that my holdings got more expensive after Modern Masters emboldened the greedy me. My Modern stakes were invincible.

It's got to keep going up. From Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby.
It’s got to keep going up. From Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

My approach to Modern speculation was untethered from the realities of Magic finance and investment in general. Even the mighty crude oil eventually fell in price. Earlier this year my Remands took a hit when it was reprinted in Jace vs. Vraska. Fine, Remand was still a double-digit uncommon and I dug them out from my bulk box anyway. But I still held on to them, hoping that they will return to their near-$20 price.

Late last year Birthing Pod was hovering around $6 – $8. I bought my second playset of Birthing Pods. And traded for a few more. In the post-Bloodbraid Elf era of Modern, Pod decks took down more Grand Prix than every other archetype in Modern. Surely $6 – $8 was way too low for the namesake piece of Pod decks. I was right. Birthing Pod spiked to $18 – $19 spring this year. Yet I was reluctant to liquidate my Birthing Pod holdings. Phyrexian mana cards must surely be hard to reprint. I am sure Birthing Pod has more room to grow as the centerpiece of one of the most important archetype in Modern! I told myself that even though I knew they were printed in the New Phyrexia event deck. The spike did not last long; Birthing Pod dropped to $10 over the summer and with Modern Masters 2015 coming up, I doubt Birthing Pod will be able to break $15 again. Let alone the lofty heights I had hoped for previously.

Modern is no longer a hold and wait game. If you are interested to invest in Modern staples, you must be willing to liquidate them rather than holding onto them like blue chip stocks. Some time ago, Corbin Hosler wrote about liquidating his fetchlands when the blue ones hit $35. When Scalding Tarns broke $100 during spring this year, I thought to myself Corbin could’ve made so much more had he held them just for another year. Every time I considered liquidating my Modern holdings that are already in the profit, I hark back to Corbin’s article and told myself to wait just a little bit more.

Gone are those days when we laughed at the idea of predicting a ceiling for Modern staples. Today, as I write this, I looked back at Corbin’s article as a good paradigm to follow for investing in Modern staples: liquidate once you have made your profit.

Be willing to liquidate your holdings that have grown into profit instead of waiting and hoping for another spike. It took a while for Wizards to go full steam ahead with their promise on reprinting Modern staples due to their multi-year-long development cycle and a conservative approach to prevent Chronicles 2.0, but Wizards seem to have grasped the pace for Modern reprints now. This year alone saw Modern staples like Wurmcoil Engine, Remand, Chord of Calling, Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth and fetchlands fall in price.

In Bayesian terms,  it is better to liquidate at 130% profit rather than stake out for a 200% profit and risk making a loss instead in the current climate of Modern reprints. As Corbin said, leave the last 10% to others. Expanding on that for contemporary Modern speculation, I would say you have to be willing to even leave the next 20% – 30%.

Set a reasonable exit price for your Modern speculations and adjust existing exit targets. I am no longer holding onto my Snapcaster Mages until they hit Dark Confidant price; I am happy to liquidate them once they hit $50 and take home the $30 in profit rather than risk a reprint while I am gunning for a $60 paycheck.

II. Every Product Spoiler is Relevant.

I used to ignore supplementary product spoilers as they were not relevant to the competitive metagame. I prefer to discover those items at my own pace like shuffling up freshly-unboxed Commander decks with no knowledge of the decklist and finding out myself the surprises R & D had in store for me as I play that deck. It was a pleasant surprise to discover the dragons subtheme in the Daretti Commander deck as I drew dragon after dragon.

Wizards is now willing to reprint expensive Modern mythics in supplementary products like Wurmcoil Engine in the red Commander 2014 deck, Built from Scratch. Keep a close finger on the pulse for Modern reprints.

III. Hit it Low

Look for obviously underpriced Modern staples rather than buying already expensive Modern staples and hope for the next bump. It is harder to predict if another bump would happen with Wizards churning out so many reprints. The increased risk is not worth it.

Hunt for Modern cards no one is looking at because it is not seeing much playing  at the moment or a recent reprint crashed its price. $3.58 Chord of Calling is a good example. You are unlikely to regret buying a Modern staple at this price.

That Time of the Year

One nice thing about being in charge of the column that goes up slightly after midnight on Tuesday is getting to write about the spoilers right away.

The first spoiler that manifested itself was:

Whisperwood Elemental by Raymond Swanland.
Whisperwood Elemental by Raymond Swanland.

Whisperwood Elemental was Mark Rosewater’s preview card on the first day of spoiler season. When I first read through the essay of a card, I was underwhelmed. Mark Rosewater’s spoilers were usually the cream of the crop for the set, the marquee cards of the block designed to whet our appetites and rev up the engines of the hype train. A five mana for 4/4 with no enter the battlefield ability felt a little disappointing.

While Whisperwood Elemental’s triggered-at-your-end-step ability may not always net you the extra value with Hero’s DownfallMurderous Cut, and Stoke the Flames being popular removals in the format, Whisperwood Elemental rewards you with a snowballing board state if it is left unanswered. Sticking a Whisperwood Elemental on board for a few turns might just put you too far ahead for your opponent to catch up, especially with its second clause that acts as an insurance against board wipes. Financially, I am not (yet) sold on Whisperwood Elemental as it feels fragile in the current state of Standard. It has the making of an expensive rare, but I think Whisperwood Elemental might be more Duskmantle Seer than Wingmate Roc. Okay, maybe better than Duskmantle Seer, but definitely not as good as Wingmate Roc.

The Storm's Fury is not that high up on the Storm scale.
The Storm’s Fury is not that high up on the Storm scale.

Ah dragons. I missed them. Competitively costed? Check. Solid stats? Check. @rezaaba reminded me during our usual flurry of spoiler season discussion that Kolaghan is actually a 5/5 when attacking. I am not sure how relevant Kolaghan’s anthem trigger would be at five mana: Kolaghan could see play as a top-of-the-curve alpha striker in aggressive RB shells. Or perhaps a midrangey Mardu deck that relies on token-makers to create an overwhelming number of creatures to make Kolaghan’s anthem worth the five mana you tap for it. Note that Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker, another key-piece of Mardu midrange tokens,  triggers Kolaghan’s anthem too.

Would Kolaghan be the Thundermaw Hellkite to the contemporary Thragtusk, Siege Rhino? I highly doubt so. The prevalence of reanimator strategies in the current Standard metagame is a twofold obstacle for Kolaghan. The amount of life gained by reanimator decks over the course of a game is too much for aggressive decks to handle, even if they have access to top of the curve beaters like Kolaghan. Second, the number of 1/1 deathtouch bees in the meta is too damn high. Slamming hasty five mana fliers is not something you want to be doing unless its called Thundermaw Hellkite.

I am happy to see a new, potentially competitive dragon being printed, but I doubt its financial potential. Even if Kolaghan sees play, small set rares have a low ceiling unless it is a ubiquitous linchpin of the format. Kolaghan is not a card I am inclined to preorder.

Manifest Destiny

I stole that pun off Twitter.

At first glance, manifest seemed like an underwhelming mechanic designed with limited in mind. For once I was actually excited for limited. Morph is already pretty fun by itself and manifest is going to push limited dynamics to a whole new level. Playing around face-down cards just got a whole lot more complicated (and fun)!

You could now legally have a face-down 'morphed' land.
You could now legally have a face-down ‘morphed’ land.

Upon closer inspection, manifest is a form of card advantage. It takes a card from the top of your library and turns it into a 2/2 creature, regardless of the card type. That extra land on top of your library could be conscripted to bolster your board presence, saving you one dead draw phase. Manifesting a creature from the top of your library is sort of like drawing it, except you do not use up your draw phase.

But enough about strategy, I am writing about Magic finance and there would be plenty of discussion regarding the pros and cons of manifest by other more esteemed Magic strategy writers. What I am concerned about is the financial impact of the mechanic on existing cards, and a card that stands to abuse the manifest mechanic in Standard is no other than:

The most fearsome hydra in the hood, it is always followed by a posse of 1/1 hydra wannabes.
The most fearsome hydra in the hood, it is always followed by a posse of 1/1 hydra wannabes.

Manifesting a Hooded Hydra allows you to turn it face up for just GG to become a 5/5 creature that leaves behind five snake tokens. That is a trip to valueland.

Of course that scenario assumes that Hooded Hydra is on the top of your library when the manifest trigger resolves. Working with the manifest cards spoiled so far, we can assume that manifest will draw from the top card of your library. Barring convoluted ways to get Hooded Hydra onto the top of your library (thereby negating the advantage from manifesting it) your best shot at manifesting a Hooded Hydra would be to run four copies of it and/or manipulate the top of your library with Courser of Kruphix and scry.

I am not saying that Hooded Hydra will shine with the new manifest mechanic. It just has a better chance of finding a home. Hooded Hydra is a card to keep an eye on as the spoilers are rolled out within the next few weeks. If Fate Reforged grants enough tools to build  decks revolving around the manifest mechanic, getting in on Hooded Hydra at under $2 would have a nice payoff as it is one of the prime candidates to be a four-of in manifest decks.

Another card that works well with manifest is Ashcloud Phoenix, which @rezaaba pointed out during our discussion. You get to unmorph the Phoenix at two mana less than its morph cost and still reap the benefits of turning it face up. Ashcloud Phoenix already proved to be a solid, difficult-to-remove card even at a morph cost of six; manifest decks would be inclined to run multiple copies of Ashcloud Phoenix shall those decks exist. Do not buy Ashcloud Phoenix right now, its current price of $4.33 is not a great buy-in. Keep an eye on upcoming spoilers for manifest enablers and just trade for your Phoenices at the moment.


11 thoughts on “Holiday Hodgepodge”

  1. Kolaghan would do well as a sideboard card against a control deck. So what if you sweep the board? Next turn you take 5 damage to the head!

    The Dash mechanic makes Raid much easier to trigger. It will be a good idea to keep this in mind as more Dash cards are spoiled.

  2. The old adages are still true: sell into hype. Buy low, sell high.

    I sold my fetches at peak to SCG and got $70 per blue fetch, $40 for each nonblue, which is basically their current market price. I acquired each for ~$10. Waiting would have hurt me greatly. I did the same for ONS fetches, and many other cards.

    I took the guaranteed profit and used it to make early payments on student loans, netting me even more guaranteed returns (approx 6%). Magic is hobby investing, and I’ll always take the cash.

    I am currently only keeping a bare minimum of high-cost reprintable cards. You are absolutely right: when you’ve made a profit you’re happy with, get out. It’s not about getting the maximum: it’s just about getting more than what you acquired them for. I’ve been burned before too, like selling Eldrazi titans for $20 and Bobs for $25, all acquired early and cheap. But the point remains the same: I still profited! It may feel like a loss thanks to their current prices, but that’s not how it looks in the books.

    This is a really important principle to understand in MTG, and one I see many hurting themselves over. It’s OK to not sell at peak; it’s hedging, and no one has the crystal ball to tell you when that maximum is.

    A rising price feels good, you’re making money! It’s hard and perhaps unintuitive to sell when you see it going up, you want to make more money! But that’s why it’s a skill we’re talking about.

    Thanks for the article.

    1. Yeah, I agree that is one of the harder skill to pick up in finance, for exactly the reason you mentioned. It is something I still have to consciously remind myself today as it is emotionally unintuitive to skip on all that extra money I could have made!

      Adding to your Bob and Eldrazis, I sold my extra Cliques for $20 and Hierarchs for $10. It was a bummer, but hey, 100% returns looked good on the books.

  3. Kologhan is a pretty safe buy right now at 0.49 at ChannelFireball – the cheapest price I found (some playsets are going for $8+ on ebay…why people?!). He may not become a Standard staple but he’s not likely to get any cheaper than that. Of course, with shipping costs, you may only want to pick him up if you’re already buying other stuff.

    1. I wrote this before any shops had any presales up. You’re right, Kolaghan would not get any cheaper than $0.49. I’ll probably toss a playset into my cart if I do any preorders this time. Kolaghan looks like a fun EDH card.

  4. Can you discuss how you think foil Modern Staple prices are or could be affected? For example, M15 Chord is under $4 as you noted and regular Ravnica Chord has plummeted from $40 to $10, but foil Ravnica Chord looks to be around $60 and didn’t drop nearly as much (hard to tell on mtgprice graphs) but it definitely did not lose 75% of it’s value.

    If/when Snapcaster Mage is reprinted (maybe different art and mythic ) how might that affect his price tag? Reprinting Serum Visions would drop the $7+ price tag significantly but how might foil prices be affected? I know regular Emrakul will take a significant dip (maybe not since Tarmogoyf didn’t) but will his Eldrazi set foil drop in price?

    To me the foil market is more stable and a better investment, but I’d really like your opinion. Thank you and Happy New Year

    1. Hi Spencer,

      Sure thing! I am planning to write an article about foils in general in two weeks time and your question would make for a good point of discussion in the article.

      In the mean time, the answer is mostly yes, but it depends on the a few factors alongside the two you mentioned. Original foils of Chord of Calling and Thoughtseize retained most of their price thanks to new art in the new versions. While MM2015’s Emrakul looks to be recycling the same art, note that foil Morningtide Vendilion Cliques did not took a hit at all when they were reprinted in a form that is pretty much identical save for their symbols, perhaps due to it being upgraded to mythic.

      I am not too optimistic about the short term fate of foil Serum Visions if the current art is retained in the new one. Foil Ravnica Lightning Helix took a big hit when Modern Masters came out. However it recovered and is now at the same level as before Modern Masters came out.

      The thing is, the supply of Modern Masters 2015 is going to be higher than Modern Masters, so that is another wild card.

      As for Snapcaster Mage, the method in which he is reprinted will also affect his foil price. Prices for foil Griselbrand and Batterskull took a battering (pardon the pun) when they were reprinted as Grand Prix foils even though the reprints featured new arts. Liliana foils took a dip with the announcement that she would be the PTQ participation foil, but I suspect that is only temporary and her foil price would rebound once people realize that is only an extra 1000 – 1500 copies, unlike Grand Prix promos. I dare not comment on the price stability of foil Snapcaster Mages due to that.

      I agree with you that foil market is generally more stable but only for EDH staples or cards that are unlikely to see a near-term reprint like Abrupt Decay and Deathrite Shaman. Or old border cards (the verdict is still there on whether people have any proclivity for the ‘old’ Modern border).

      1. Thank you for your detailed response. I’ve gone back on forth on acquiring Foil Snapcasters with store credit cause I love the card and it’s played in every legal format, but you are correct that the type of reprint will affect the price. I’m a bit more hopeful it won’t be a special promo as it was printed as a Rare and not Mythic and I think it will get Vclique treatment as a future mythic reprint and like Bob get new art, but wizards is cranking out Innistrad block special promos with Geist, Lili, and Griselbrand (all mythic however).

        I do agree that reprintings of things like serum visions, smash to smithereens, forked bolt, etc (guessing) will plummet the regular version of the card (like spell snare and paradise mantle) but your info about Foil Lightning Helix is interesting food for thought. I’m just having trouble moving cards that are likely to be reprinted and wondering if I get out now even though my profits will take a hit (or loss) or if I’m safe with certain cards in the long run. I look forward to your future articles.

        Thanks again and have a good 2015

    1. I don’t think Goblin Bombardment + Whisperwood works the way you think it does because Whisperwood Elemental’s second ability mentions “face up” creature cards. So no infinite shenanigans there unfortunately.

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