What Makes A Bad Spec Bad?

 I’ve written hundred of articles about cards worth buying, but I don’t think I’ve ever done a handy summary of the main reasons why I avoid buying cards. James and I talk about this on the MTG Fast Finance podcast, where we go over our picks and reader picks, but I felt it was high time for a compilation of things that steer me away.

Plus, we’re in a perfect storm of buying opportunities. We know a lot about what’s coming (Tom Bombadil, Slivers, a sheet of Legendary reprints, etc.) and we know there’s a lot of reprints coming up as well. Time to examine the categories and qualities that make for a bad spec!

One joke we make is that there’s no bad specs, only long-term ones. I can attest to this, having made multiple purchases of cards that just didn’t get there. Perhaps I’ll examine the longest-term holds I currently have in the future, but when you’re speculating on cards, one of the risks is that you buy a hundred copies of Yawgmoth’s Vile Offering and they go nowhere.

Red Flag #1: Preconstructed deck reprints

Wizards puts a certain amount of value into the Commander-focused precon decks. Needs to be enough that people feel they are getting their money’s worth, but not so much that big operations can just take all the decks and crack them for singles. It’s a fine line to walk, made worse by the timing. They have to decide months, sometimes years in advance what to put in these decks. 

One of the things that we talk about a lot is getting premium versions of a card, because those are less likely to be reprinted. The worst feeling for me as the owner of 104 copies of regular frame, nonfoil Yawgmoth’s Vile Offering is seeing that card in a precon deck. The only difference between what I have and what’s in the deck is a symbol. Sometimes that symbol is worth a lot due to scarcity factors, but generally it’s a dollar or two at most. 

So one of the things I watch out for, especially when there’s many things on the horizon, is what version of a card I’m going for. There’s often profit to be made in the basic versions of cards, but safety is found in the premium versions.

Red Flag #2: Too many premium versions 

A card can be a good spec but if there’s several options to choose from, it can be very tricky indeed. An example of this can be found in Modern Horizons 2: the enemy fetchlands.

That’s a card (and a cycle of cards honestly) that are crying out to be purchased. Modern Horizons 2 was opened for a long time, longer than anyone expected, and while some of the chase mythics are hot as can be (Ragavan and the pitch Elementals) a lot of the other cards and reprints have become quite reasonably priced.

Question is, do you buy the old border foil? The textured retro frame? The FEA versions? This is to go with the OG Zendikar ones, or the Expedition frame from Battle for Zendikar? Maybe the Zendikar Rising Expedition? Perhaps the unique art and lower supply present on the Secret Lair nonfoil?

Whenever possible, we want to focus on one special frame. Cards that have gotten a retro foil, a Secret Lair, and a FEA version mean that while all of them might well rise, they’ll all move together and move more slowly. For example, Sram, Senior Edificer:

The Retro foil from Time Spiral Remastered is the only special version, everything else is a foil regular frame. Focus on cards like that.

Red Flag #3: Regular foil versions

In the Collector Booster age, it’s become obvious that players don’t want just a shiny card, they want a rare shiny card. For cards that have a regular, a foil, an Extended Art and a FEA, the first three versions of the card tend to be close together in price. Foil cards in the regular frame might as well be regular nonfoils, in terms of their price. 

Foils are just not prioritized the same way other versions are. Nonfoils are better for sanctioned play, as there’s no curling issues. Special-frame nonfoils are often more valuable than original-frame foils, making the choice that much simpler. The only time I’ve ever gone after regular foils has been when they are the last to spike, the leftovers. Otherwise, I’m staying away.

Red Flag #4: Cards that have been outclassed/obsolete 

Magic has had something like 25,000 unique cards printed in its lifetime. Power creep renders some cards worse than others, or just not good enough for the modern times. That’s perfectly okay, that’s the sign of a healthy game, it’s evolving past its origins. 

Some cards from early sets are ridiculously strong, undercosted, or did broken things. Others were too synergistic, and will never be reprinted. Consider a card like Ancient Ziggurat vs. Unclaimed Territory. Why would I ever spec on a strictly worse card?

Exceptions here can include things like a tiny supply or being on the Reserve List. there are some breathtakingly bad cards on that list, and some of them have gone through notable spikes for that reason and that reason alone. Would you believe me if I told you that in 2016, Narwhal spiked to ten bucks on RL hype?

I hope this list of what not to do helps guide your future efforts, and explains what we’re up to when we’re making picks. It’s important to avoid the bad, as well as buy the good stuff!

Cliff (@WordOfCommander) has been writing for MTGPrice since 2013, and is an eager Commander player, Draft enthusiast, and Cube fanatic. A high school science teacher by day, he’s also the official substitute teacher of the MTG Fast Finance podcast. If you’re ever at a GP and you see a giant flashing ‘CUBE DRAFT’ sign, go over, say hi, and be ready to draft.