All posts by Travis Allen

Travis Allen has been playing Magic on and off since 1994, and got sucked into the financial side of the game after he started playing competitively during Zendikar. You can find his daily Magic chat on Twitter at @wizardbumpin. He currently resides in upstate NY, where he is a graduate student in applied ontology.

How to be a Jackass

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By: Travis Allen

You know the guy. There’s always one or two that float around a local community. Even if they’re likely to have the card you need it’s easier to just not trade for it. So unpleasant is the trading experience that when faced with trading with this person or not having the 75th card you need, you go ask your friends what you should run in that slot instead. From start to finish the process is agonizing, uncomfortable, frustrating, and almost always expensive. There’s no doubt the guy has one of the best binders in the room. The problem is that his method of getting there makes him the scummiest guy you know.

Don’t be a shark.

Trading as a spike is 100% totally acceptable. Go for it. Be competitive. Want to have the best binder and collection of anyone you know. Ask every person in the room if they want to trade. All of that is totally fine. Just be ethical about it. Grind towards the best binder within the rules of the social construct. Once you step outside acceptable civilized behavior at the trade table you become that which gives us all a bad name: a shark.

A shark is one who engages in trade practices that are considered unethical. I’m not going to debate the philosophy of ethics and morality because several thousand years after first discussing it we still don’t have a universal answer. We’ll simply use the gold standard: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you wouldn’t want someone to do that while you’re trading, then don’t do it to them.

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Any self-aware trader will have times they’ve wondered if they were crossing a line and sharking someone. My plan today is to create a (non-exhaustive) list of activities that will flag you as a shark. Some of these you may have done before, some you may in fact still do. So long as you’re willing to reform we can forgive past transgressions.

Don’t Lie

This one seems like it should be pretty straightforward. Don’t lie to people. Here’s the most common way this comes up:

Them: “Sure, my Courser is for trade. What’s it worth now?”
*Liar knows that the card is on SCG for $15*
Liar: “I think it’s about six dollars.”
Them. “Ok that sounds good.”

The temptation to do this is greatest right after a card sees a huge spike. Ensnaring Bridge is $5 and then someone wins a Legacy event with the card and it sells out overnight. You’re flipping through someone’s binder hoping to pick them up cheap because you doubt anyone in your local shop has figured it out yet. There’s a Stronghold copy tucked in with some Scars of Mirrodin artifacts in a random trade binder and you pull it out of the sleeve, knowing full well this guy has no clue how much they are. He’s glad to trade it because nobody has touched it since he put it in there months ago. “Ensnaring Bridge is definitely for trade!” You’re cheering inside your head because you know you’re going to grab it real cheap then take it home and buylist it for $10. You each turn a few more pages when he asks. “Any idea what the Bridge is at?”

Here’s the opportunity. Right here is where it strikes. There’s nobody standing over your shoulder to call you out on lying. He certainly isn’t going to know. It just went up last night so there’s complete plausible deniability. Even if someone said something you could claim you had no idea. It’s easy money. Only you and God will know, and he isn’t going to interrupt the trade.

“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

There are right ways and wrong ways to handle those types of situations, and flat out lying to the other guy is most definitely the wrong way.

“What’s this worth?”

This is a game nobody enjoys. If you’ve ever traded at a GP you’ve definitely had to go through this before. You sit down, swap binders, and suddenly you’re in the middle of a pop quiz. He points to a Vraska. “What’s this worth?” It turns out that from where you’re sitting there is actually no right answer.

Let’s say Vraska is worth $5. (Whatever that means.) If you say three or four bucks he’s going to pull it out. If you say $5 or more, he leaves it in the binder and keeps going. The only time the shark takes a card out of your binder is if you think it’s worth less than it actually is. He isn’t looking for any particular card he needs for an EDH or Legacy deck. His goal is only to pit his encyclopedic knowledge of card prices against yours and take any card that you improperly value as too cheap. Each time he slides a card out of your binder after you give him a number you know you messed up. By the time he’s done, each card removed says “you done goofed.”

The common reason for this game is that the victim wants some cards from the shark, but the shark wants nothing in particular from the victim. He then switches into value mode, looking to take near anything that will increase the value of his binder a few bucks. The resulting behavior will alienate your trade partner with astounding swiftness. They’ll feel terrible, they won’t want to trade with you again, and anyone watching will similarly be turned off to trading with you. Plus it makes you a jerk.

When you find yourself in the situation of needing to find cards to trade for and they have nothing you personally want, set your sights on items of high liquidity. Even though they’re nothing you need in particular you can still flip these types of cards easily and there’s always room to haggle some value out of the deal once each party has their options laid out on the table.

Keep Things Reasonably Fair

For most of us the goal when trading is to make value every time. We’re all on the same page on that. And that’s fine. Making a few bucks or a reasonable percentage gain on each trade is the payoff you get for having a large, well-stocked binder and better market knowledge than the next dude. The other guy gives up a little value in exchange for a wide selection.

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The issue comes up when that value you’re grinding is less of a grind and more of a smash-and-grab. What do I mean?

Trade A
Your: $1 card
His: $3 card
Ok

Trade B
Your: $100 worth of cards
His: $130 worth of cards
Ok

Trade C
Your: $8 worth of cards
His: $56 worth of cards
Not Ok!

In Trade A you’re getting 300% but it’s only an absolute net gain of $2. While the percentage is high, the actual dollar value is low. I’ve been on both sides of this trade many times. Often the guy with the $3 card is well aware of what’s going on but he really needs that $1 card so he’s fine with it.

In Trade B you’ve made $30, but you’re seeing only a 30% increase. That’s a healthy profit margin for sure but it’s not something you need to feel bad about. If that $100 is a dual land and the $130 is all Master of Waves and Brimazs, the other guy is probably fine with what’s going on. Regardless of whether or not your trade partner is aware of the difference in the value nobody is going to think poorly of you here. Even if it’s not a dual land and it’s just two piles of Standard cards there is no abuse occurring.

Trade C is where there is an issue. You’re making $48, which is a good chunk of change but not unreasonable when the trade piles are several hundred on each side. The real problem is that his pile of cards is worth 700% of yours. This is a situation where clearly the other guy in the trade doesn’t know something you do, and you’re taking him to the cleaners for it. Making profit on someone else’s lack of information or knowledge is fine, but something this severe is very much pushing the boundary of what is acceptable behavior. You could easily cut his pile down to $30 or bring yours up to $25 and still make a healthy profit without being the sleaziest guy in the room.

There’s no algorithm or clear line that establishes exactly when a difference in piles is too great. You have to do it by how it feels. A good rule of thumb is to consider how willing you would be to tell others about the trade afterwards. When considering how much profit is too much, ask yourself if you would feel comfortable telling your friends and peers about the trade. Would they pat you on the back for a good trade, or would they tell you it was a crummy thing to do to someone?

I’m aware that there are economic lessons that would tell you that any trade you can arrange is an acceptable trade, and that if the other guy is unwittingly taking that much of a loss it isn’t your problem. I’m not going to discuss economic theory here. Instead I’ll point out that when you’re trading locally it isn’t some theoretical market with no faces and no repercussions. These are local players that are needed to support a community. If you and a few other people start dragging huge gains out of the binders of the naive, pretty soon there won’t be enough people left to support your FNMs. Think “sustainable farming,” not “scorched earth.”

Leave Minors Alone

Do you remember being thirteen, fifteen, or seventeen? Do you remember having no money? I can recall not wanting to spend a dollar on a McDonald’s burger when I was in my teens. Kids in general are poor. While it’s easy for many of us to look at a card and go “it’s a few bucks,” to some  fourteen-year-old kids there’s a big difference between $.80, $1.70 and $2.65.

Young kids don’t necessarily have regular access to smartphones or internet access so the knowledge playing field isn’t fair at all. It is super scummy to punish a kid in trade because his parents don’t have the resources to provide him with regular access that you have.

I don’t really feel like I need to discuss why raking kids over the coals is a crummy thing to do. There’s a reason minors are protected under so many state laws.

When a kid’s collection is meager at best and format rotations can knock 85% of the value out of his entire collection, there’s no need to scrape a few extra bucks off him in trade. In fact, you should be trying to help establish their collection, not gut it. Instead of grinding value on minors look to give them just a bit more than you’re getting back. You don’t have to feel bad about trading for a pair of Thassas, just leave him with a Courser of Kruphix or another solid $15-17 in product.

Once you accept that trying to value trade kids is a bad idea, there’s two more groups you should include in your ‘protected’ status: the mentally challenged and those that are in noticeably worse socio-economic standings than you are. There are plenty of enfranchised individuals at the trade tables to make money on. Don’t do it to those that don’t have the wherewithal to handle themselves appropriately or those that look like they have pretty poor financial outlooks. Remember, you’re part of a community. Treat it as such.

“Oh I’ve got a set of those too.”

You’re trading with a guy who has a foil Temple of Malady you really would like. He asks if you have any Kioras. You inform him that you don’t, and he starts to look back through the binder. A bystander overhears and chimes in. “I’ve got some Kioras and I’d like your foil Temple too.” The guy with the Temple pushes your binder back at you and starts trading with the third dude.

That third dude is clueless at best and a total jerk at worst.

If two people are trading leave them alone. Here’s some things you should not do as a bystander:

  • Offer unsolicited information about card pricing
  • Make suggestions on what is/is not good to trade for
  • Say things like “Man did you see how expensive that got recently?”
  • Wonder aloud why someone is trading for such a bad/useless card
  • Tell someone that you too have a card that the other guy may or may not have and that you’ll gladly trade it
  • Comment on whether a trade is good/bad

I know a guy that does literally all of these, and if you’ve traded at more than one or two major events in the North East in the last two years chances are you do too. He’s typically a nice guy but I want him nowhere near me when I’m trading because any of those comments, offered unsolicited, is infuriating. 

There is a right time to chime in and it’s typically after the trade is over. If someone is looking for Kioras, feel free to tell him you have some – after he’s finished with his current trade. If your buddy is picking up an odd card, question him about it once he’s away from the trade table. You don’t want to tip off his trade partner that the card he’s grabbing is actually buylisting for 95% of it’s trade floor value or that the card is the hottest paper around ahead of the Legacy event tomorrow.

The rule of thumb is that if two people are trading, keep all commentary and questions to yourself. Treat it as a Competitive REL match of Magic. Feel free to discuss all you want afterwards, but be aware that even asking seemingly harmless questions can change the dynamic.

Sharks give anyone into Magic finance a bad name. Irreuptable behavior and predatory tactics perpetrated by some do not reflect the nature of all. At this point I actually have to avoid talking too much about my interest in the field during a trade because I’m concerned about how my partners will perceive me.

As long as you keep what in mind what I’ve outlined above you should be able to avoid most of the major unintentional sharky behaviors. There are of course many more, but those tend to be actively and maliciously decided upon rather than accidentally performed. If there are other trading behaviors you can’t stand to see feel free to share with all of us.

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Is Worth It?

By: Travis Allen
@wizardbumpin


Don’t miss this week’s installment of the MTG Fast Finance podcast, an on-topic, no-nonsense tour through the week’s most important changes in the Magic economy. And watch this YouTube channel to keep up to date with Cartel Aristocrats, a fun and informative webcast with several other finance personalities!


My girlfriend just paid her car off in full last month. It’s up towards 80,000 miles and she’s wondering if she should keep driving it for awhile or buy a new one. We were discussing it the other day and she relayed a story of having told a coworker her dilemma. She really likes the Prius and has been considering that car specifically. “He said that I would save the most money by continuing to drive my current car for awhile, but I really like the new Prius. I could keep driving my old boring car, or take on a monthly payment again for a car I really want. I guess it would be kind of a luxury, right? Do you think it’s worth it?”


It’s in between rounds at FNM and you’ve got your binder set out in front of you; a hook with which to fish. A young girl, maybe nine years old stops by. She folds her knees underneath her on the chair as she flips page over page. Her mom is sitting at a table on the edge of a room engaged in a Kindle. The little girl stops at a page of red cards, spotting Utvara Hellkite. Her eyes grow wide. She’s giddy. She’s heard about this dragon but has never actually seen the card in real life. “OH MY GOD you have that cool dragon that makes more dragons! That is soooo coool. Will you please trade it to me?” She thrusts an unsleeved pile of cards at you. Amongst the tattered edges of a motley assortment of boosters you spot a fresh Temple of Enlightenment, setting it down on the edge of your binder. “I just opened that earlier. I don’t like blue or white. Those colors are boring. I like dragons.” She’s visibly excited. “Do you think maybe I could give you the land and some other cards for the Hellkite?”

You’ve been that little girl before. Memories of an age of Magic long lost to you shimmer like a heat wave somewhere in the back of your mind. You have a flashback of peers in third grade in awe of Sengir Vampire. It was terrifying. Only one boy in school had it and he never lost a game where he cast it. Everyone coveted it. The thirst to own Sengir yourself is nearly palpable once again. You envy the girl, in a way. She covets this card with a passion you haven’t experienced in years.

The girl’s mother has wandered over. You introduce yourself and tell her that the young woman across from you would like to trade her card for your card, but that her daughter’s card is worth several dollars more than yours is. The mother looks at her daughter, youthful unbridled excitement plainly visible across her face. “I don’t know Sarah. He says your card is more valuable.” “I don’t care. The dragon is so cool. Greg is going to be amazed I have it. Please let me trade it? It’s so worth it!”

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What is the value of a scooped game? How much is a round one concession worth at FNM? How much is that same act of concession worth to you in the last round of the final GP of the season where you just need a few more planeswalker points to lock up your second bye for the entire next year? How about a concession in the finals of a PTQ?

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At a Legacy tournament a few years ago, Alex Bertoncini had registered Manriki-Gusari in his sideboard as tech against other Stoneforge decks. This was during the days of three-round byes at SCG events, so Alex used the time to put together his deck. It was common for players to register decklists they didn’t have all the cards for yet. (This still happens today.) He discovered that not a single vendor on site had a copy of the card available. He began asking players on the floor if they had a copy. He eventually managed to find someone that had the card in his binder. “Great,” Alex said. “It’s in my sideboard for the Legacy open and I’ll get a game loss  and lose a sideboard slot without it. What do you want for it?” The player smiled. The card cost maybe $1 on TCG at the time. “Twenty-five dollars.” Alex paid. Was it worth it?

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I’m known at my local store as a finance guy, and subsequently get asked how much cards cost frequently. “Travis, how much is Courser worth?” I’m never quite sure how to answer this question. Worth is a funny concept. We’re so used to bandying the term around, but what does it really mean? When I’m asked “how much is Tarmogoyf worth now” what am I supposed to draw upon to answer that? Take a look at the price of Tarmogoyf on Starcity and TCGPlayer.

Capture

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The exact same card, exact same condition, is $200 at SCG and $185 on TCG. The question remains: it worth $200 or $185? Sitting in front of your computer right now, knowing that the card is available for those two prices, what is the right answer? One could argue that SCG’s higher price reflects their customer service, reliability, and all the other intangibles. But does that affect the actual value of the card? If you’re talking about trading for a Tarmogoyf at a local Modern event should SCG’s additional services dictate that you throw another Courser of Kruphix into the pile?

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Why does a Modern Masters Tarmogoyf cost over $165 while a Swordwise Centaur is left behind on card tables worldwide without a single thought given to keeping it? They’re the same quality of cardboard. If you manage to wring all the ink out of the cards you’ll find that neither uses appreciably more. The actual physical presence of the cards, disconnected from whatever demand Magic players place on them, is essentially identical. Without people to place different amounts of external demand on the cards they are worth the same. To say a Tarmogoyf is worth $200 while a Swordwise Centaur is worth $.02 means that there is much more to worth than the physical components. This seems obvious enough, but it has implications that we don’t always appreciate.

Take the young girl from the example above. She wants that Hellkite something fierce. The card represents something that many of us find incredibly difficult to experience after so much time invested in the game. Money means little to her. Cards are valued based on how easily they kill the opponent and how many kids in her grade own a copy. Utvara Hellkite is a card spoken of as a legend amongst her peers. She would immediately have the best deck of all her friends were she to acquire the dragon. The Temple of Enlightenment is essentially valueless. She will never use it. It will collect dust, the edges exposed to wear as it is jostled around in shoeboxes and backpacks. Eventually it will be thrown out when she moves on from the game and her father is cleaning out the attic. To her the dragon is easily worth more than the land. The dragon represents all that is exciting about Magic. But the Temple? What does she care? In her eyes the answer is crystal clear: The dragon is worth far more than the land.

The reason why an object’s worth is so difficult to pinpoint is that it is entirely contextual. If you’re just doing some light trading at an FNM, a Scalding Tarn is probably ‘worth’ the $80 MTGPrice says it is. When it’s early Saturday morning fifteen minutes before the PTQ starts and you still need one for your deck, I bet it’s ‘worth’ more than just the $80 to you. You’d trade $85, $90, maybe even $100 or more for it if it’s necessary for your deck. I remember paying $2 apiece on Might of Old Krosa’s at GP Chicago last year when they were $.40 on TCG because even though I was paying five times what I would online, in that moment they were easily worth the markup because without them I couldn’t play Magic.

Value is found in all of this by identifying what worth means to others. Aside from the most veteran traders, most of us have cards in mind that are worth more than their sticker price indicates. It’s a card we really need to finish foiling an EDH deck or it’s the last dual to finish a playset for an in-the-works Legacy deck. Whatever it is, when we find it we’re often willing to give up more than retail because having the card in our possession is worth more than the markup we pay to acquire it.

Worth is more than the dollar value assigned to a card by any given retailer. Worth includes the time, the day, the location, the temporal necessity, the experience, the story. Understanding in what ways worth is transient and nuanced will help you make better trades and purchases.

Humility is $17.11 on MTGPrice right now. Courser of Kruphix is $16.30. Which card is worth more? Which would you rather have in your binder on Friday at 5:45pm?

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Modern Minneapolis Monster Madness

By: Travis Allen

Now is a time of rejoice. Magic players have an especially good reason to celebrate and drink deep the joys of the season. In just a few short days, we get to say goodbye to Theros sealed PTQs permanently. On the first of June we wave goodbye to that godawful format and are rewarded with quite possibly the best constructed format in Magic: Modern.

We’ve got two things on the agenda for today. First, we’re going to chat about GP Minneapolis, a recent Modern event. Second, we’re going to consider our overall strategy heading into PTQ season.

GP Minneapolis came and went without a lot of fanfare. I didn’t see too much discussion on Twitter as we saw the Top 8 emerge, nor did i see much in the way of a post-mortem. There simply wasn’t anything too exciting for the community to take note of. But while the Top 16 was fairly predictable, there’s still some things we should paying attention to in the coming season.

The first thing that jumped out at me is the quantity of UWR decks that showed up in the Top 8. Three UWR lists and a PT win not long ago tells me that Bolt Snap – Bolt is still pretty insane. Snapcaster Mage is clearly a major pillar of the format, and should be respected as such. He’s not at Dark Confidant levels yet, but he will be in due time. He’s certainly seeing more play than Confidant is at this point.

Restoration Angel has also firmly cemented her place in Modern by now. I’m kind of surprised she isn’t well over $10 already. Aside from being an angel, and therefore getting a big ol’ checkmark under the casual demand column, she’s quite obviously competitive. Her interaction with cheap value creatures like Snapcaster and Kitchen Finks is well known, she enables an EOT combo kill, and she only stands to get better as more enter-the-battlefield guys get printed. As we march forward into the season, be on the lookout for any in the binders of those emptying their Modern stock. I’ll be happy to trade for any copies people want to ship me.

Cryptic Command continues to be the best 1UUU spell in the format. While I won’t be picking up normal copies, I especially like the MPR printing since we’re unlikely to see those return in a very long time, if ever. Even if you aren’t personally wild about fishhand art, plenty of others will be. Demand exists for several MPR promos that look like butt.

Celestial Colonnade has made it to $20 and I see no reason why it shouldn’t keep going. It was a Buy-A-Box promo which means there’s an increased quantity available, but that was all the way back in Worldwake. Anything UW in Modern is running the full set. It definitely has the pedigree necessary to be the most expensive land in the format that doesn’t fetch. The tricky part is trying to figure out what it can/should reasonably cost. There isn’t really anything with a similar demand profile in Modern as best as I can tell. Grove of the Burnwillows is probably the closest, of which both printings are currently over $40. Of course Grove has Legacy demand which Colonnade doesn’t, but Colonnade has also been used much more in Modern than Grove since The Fall of Tron. (I’m capitalizing that because it sounds like a cool story). At the end of the day I’d say Colonnade should be at least as much as Grove, if not more. I also don’t see Colonnade showing up in an expert set this year or even next year. If you see a single dual-colored manland spoiler though, ship your copies on eBay that day.

Jund snuck two copies into the Top 16 with a playset of of Courser of Kruphix between them. I expect Courser is going to be around for awhile. Other than that, there wasn’t too much spice in the lists. I’m still seeing Pyromaster as a one-of but I don’t know how long that will last, and her value is only going to be dropping between now and September anyways.

The winning list was Scapeshift, but didn’t show us anything we didn’t already know. The namesake card made an immediate jump, but we’re way past capitalizing on that. Beyond Shift itself, it’s commons, Snapcaster, and Cryptic Command.

The other big showing was Pod, and boy did it ever. Seven of the Top 16 was Birthing Pod, so be dang sure you can beat it when you show up to a PTQ this summer. How that card is still only $12 is kind of a mystery to me. We saw it jump pretty drastically before Richmond, as well as many other Modern staples, but it has since settled quite a bit. Why is what is clearly the best card in both versions of the deck, decks which don’t seem any more expensive than many other tier one lists, under fifteen dollars? I literally do not have a good answer. Is it really just that New Phyrexia had enough supply in the market? That doesn’t seem likely. Is it a fear that the card will be banned? I do think that Pod is on the edge, but many competent strategists don’t seem to think we’ll be at that point before the next B&R change.

Gavony Township is nearly $4 at this point. It’s great in any deck that generates both green and white mana and has dudes, which surprisingly most decks that make those colors of mana do. It’s up from under a dollar a year or so ago, and probably stands to keep climbing into the $6-$10 range. If Pod does in fact get the axe, it’s not hard to imagine another GW list appearing at some point that wants it. It’s also pretty heavily tied into Innistrad flavor, so don’t expect to see more copies anytime soon.

While we’re chatting lands, Razorverge Thicket is both cheaper and more played than Blackcleave Cliffs at this point, with a better outlook to boot.

Linvala terrifies me as a hold. I have a single copy in my “never trade” binder and I’m half considering pulling it out and getting rid of it. This is absolutely getting reprinted at some point and it’s going to hurt when it does. If it crests $50 I may break and ship it. Avoid at all costs unless you 100% need it for your deck. There’s no real reason for it not to keep trending up as it has been, basically making her an expensive game of chicken.

Affinity only put a single copy in the Top 16, but that doesn’t mean the deck has fallen in popularity, just that enough people had a dedicated sideboard for it that weekend. There’s nothing really new here to work with. Arcbound Ravager is probably still a little lower than it should be, but not by much. The deck can’t get much better without running face first into a ban. (By the way, did you know how expensive Steel Overseer is? Hah.)

The bigger question to consider is just what to do with all of our Modern holdings. Earlier this year and late last year I was advocating near-complete liquidation in the coming weeks, but I’ve eased up on that a bit. I keep coming back to the notion that the game has grown beyond what any of us really fathomed a year ago, resulting in a surprising amount of demand for a relatively small supply. With so many Modern cards only getting less available by the day, is it really the best course of action to sell them all when they could gain anywhere from 20% to 300% by next year?

I’ve been pondering this quite a bit lately. I’m not sure how much others will share my opinions. I believe it has a great deal to do with how you manage your portfolio. Some individuals have cases at their local store that they buy/sell out of, which means churning through inventory is assuredly lucrative. Even if a particular card looks like a lock to rise in the future, they may find themselves better off selling it now and moving the profits into other cards that can do more in the shorter term. Meanwhile, those that operate with a much smaller number of transactions per week and less overall time in the market may find that they can’t capitalize on high turnover, and prefer to make their money with the slower sit-and-hold strategy. When to sell also depends heavily on how badly you need the cash, of course.

I’m finding that I’m looking to move some of my cards, but there is a chunk I may be holding onto unless they see enough of a rise. Format staples like Snapcaster I’m not going to mind holding onto if it’s a slow season for them. Let’s consider two possible futures for everyone’s favorite blue two-drop:

Timeline A: Snapcaster hits $45 during this Modern season and I choose not to sell. He settles to around $35 in the off-season. Before next year’s Modern PTQs, Modern Masters 2 is announced and Snapcaster is in. Like Cryptic Command before him, he drops to ~$20. All looks bleak. Though still like Cryptic Command, copies dry up as players acquire their sets. Demand steadily rises as less and less copies are available on the market, and eventually original copies are worth more than they were before MM2. The card is $55-$60+ in two years.

Timeline B: Snapcaster still hits $45 and I still choose not to sell. He dips to $35 in the off-season. There is no Modern Masters 2, and this time next year no new copies have hit the market. His price is now $60-$70 as he continues to be a the best blue card in Modern and a role-player in Legacy.

In either case, it’s likely that Snapcaster is worth more in one to two years than he is today. Being printed in a fall set would certainly hurt, but that is a very unlikely outcome. They won’t be in a rush to flashback Flashback. (Sorry). There is incentive to sell at $45 so that I can get my money out and move it somewhere else that will do even better, accepting the fact that the card will likely be worth more than I’m selling it for in a year or two. If he gets to $50-$60 I should probably sell because even in the best of circumstances he probably isn’t rising beyond $70 or $80, especially as reprints loom. If he doesn’t break $40, then I really should hold since in either scenario I make a good chunk of change on each copy in a year or two.

Cards that were in Modern Masters need to see an even greater rise for there to be sufficient reason to sell. By now everything has hit its floor. We’ve moved past the decline in prices and are into the stage where they’re either flatlining or rising. You can see the rise on Cryptic Command, Tarmogoyf, etc. Since those cards were just printed last year, I don’t think Wizards is going to be flooding us with even more copies of all of them. Assuming there’s a MM2 next year it’s likely some will come back, but not all. The stuff that doesn’t get reprinted between now and next June is just going to keep rising. If we don’t end up with more copies of Vendilion Clique or Dark Confidant before next June, they could easily gain 10%, 40%, or even more. This of course runs into the portfolio management mentioned above. If you’re a higher-frequency seller, it may be worth it to out your copies now and hop on the next card you see gaining that much in a quarter of the time. If you prefer to play it slow and sit on sure things, format pillars aren’t a bad place to camp. It may not make as much money overall, but it’s less risky and doesn’t require you to be able to identify the next big gainer.

If I’m not in a rush to sell format staples, what AM I looking to get rid of? Anything in the “flavor of the month” category can go. Amulet of Vigor. Azusa. Porphyry nodes. Scapeshift. Uncommons that people really need to play their decks that keep getting reprinted, such as Kitchen Finks, Lightning Helix and Path to Exile. Cards that have been floating around long enough that they may see a reprint, such as Spellskite, Damnation, Fulminator Mage, Threads of Disloyalty and Tectonic Edge. Cards that are pushing their effective ceiling, such as Mox Opal. Probably Fetchlands, although those are complex given that they’re format staples like Snapcaster and thus asking to be held while at the same time playing the “will they/won’t they” reprint game. (I’ll probably sell mine and move onto greener pastures, even though I don’t expect them in Khans). Odds and ends like Shadow of Doubt.

All of those cards I mentioned above could easily gain significant value by the time next Modern rolls around, but the risk of them losing value because of some unforeseeable cause – reprint, meta shift, ban change, etc – is too great to make it worth holding out for a few extra dollars. I’d much rather sell all my Threads for a good $20 today, completely willing to accept that I’m passing up the possibility of $30 next June, rather than get blown out by a Khans reprint and see them at $6.

Even though I’m not in a rush to sell cards like Snapcaster or Liliana of the Veil, I’m not necessarily looking to get further into them. The issue is that they’re gigantic question marks at this point in time. On a long enough time scale you’re unlikely to lose money on those types of cards because they will almost definitely end up more expensive than they are when you pick them up, but you may not be in the market to sit on Snapcasters for a few years because he got stuck in Speed vs. Cunning. 

That leaves us in an awkward spot of looking to out 70% to 90% of our Modern holdings, but unlike the last eighteen months, we don’t want to just move all in on any card legal in that format. Where do we put our money now? The most available place is Standard. Standard cards are going to be ubiquitous, and people will be quite eager to ship Temples for Primeval Titans. Grabbing Standard cards requires a certain level of knowledge though, both of a myriad of prices and what is/isn’t a good pickup. The latter is tough in a format where there are so few slam dunks. Moving hundreds or thousands of dollars in Modern cards into Standard also has the added risk of making your portfolio considerably more volatile. Spellskites have been gold for months now, and you knew you could pick them up in trade and not have to worry about them hitting their peak and dropping in the span of three weeks. They were safe and easy. Very few Standard cards are going to have that feature. Instead, you’re going to need to keep close tabs on both your inventory and the format so that you can ship as soon as prices move in your favor. Not all of us enjoy watching Standard prices like a hawk week in and week out, so that’s quite a chore.

Another option is foils. Pack foils are incredibly tough to crack the value on, especially anything unique. Innistrad foil Lilianas and Snapcasters are likely to only maintain their value, no matter what happens. Deathrite Shaman foils didn’t take a hit at all when they were banned, and many seem to think he’ll be unbanned down the road. Foil casual staples like Temporal Mastery are fertile ground. If you’re moving enough to generate serious cash, big-ticket items are excellent places to put your money. Pack foil Onslaught fetches, duals, and even Power are all great options. Of course these are clearly difficult to trade for. Chances are that if you’re getting rid of enough product to have enough to afford those, you’re probably selling instead of trading though.

Sealed product is as safe as Modern staples were circa August 2013, but don’t expect as fast a return. Boxes of Return to Ravnica are a great target at the moment, but it will take some time before you really get paid on that. Sealed Innistrad boxes have only recently started breaking $200 on eBay, and those were one of the fastest rising booster boxes since the borders changed. Sealed Ravnica cases certainly do handle scale well though. It’s easy to sink money into, and I don’t even see sealed Innistrad cases in a cursory glance.

The long and short of it is that when Modern Masters came out, those of us looking to invest couldn’t have had it easier. Prices on staples guaranteed to rise were in a temporary valley. If a card showed up in a Modern decklist at any point anywhere it was fine to stash. You couldn’t lose money. I feel like with this PTQ season we’re crossing a border though, and between now and next summer it’s going to be a lot dicier to find cards that are as easy to trade for and as lucrative as Modern staples were. Cards that stand to gain as much now as the ones last summer did will be harder to find and will be riskier to hold.

I’m sharing all of this with you guys, but I’ll be completely upfront that I’m willing to adjust my plan if necessary. This is my line of thinking and how I plan on approaching the coming months. I’m happy to listen to alternative viewpoints backed by solid logic that suggest other lines of play though. I’m sure at least one of the other guys who do this day in and day out will disagree with me somewhere, and I’m curious to hear how.

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Something Clever About Scry 3, the Future, and the Block Pro Tour

By: Travis Allen

This is going to be one of those rare weeks where I teach you guys something actually useful that you can apply yourself to situations down the road. The Block Pro Tour in Hotlanta just happened and we’re going to separate the signal from the noise. These PTs are important because they are a possible sign of things to come. The future can be changed, but it isn’t always. Even when things don’t shake out quite like this, the role players are still typically big parts of the story, just in a different costume.

Let’s start with what’s worth noticing. In the first instance of someone winning their first Pro Tour after being inducted into the Hall of Fame (I’m too lazy to find out if this is true), Chapin took home a well-deserved trophy. He played Spirit Jund, aka “a three color pile of the best cards in the format.” It just happened to show up in BGW this time around.

Manabases at a PT are a little tough to evaluate because they’re so constrained by lack of options. I’m sure if Pat had access to shocks his mana would look a little different. Even still, that’s a full-on set of Temples and Mana Confluence. The Temples are well-worn at this point and should surprise nobody. They’re all good, trade for as many as you can, etc etc. Four Mana Confluence is the bigger deal. Mana Confluence is unquestionably powerful, but it comes at a great price. When Overgrown Tomb comes into play you pay your two up front and you’re done. Drop your envelope full of money on the gift table as you come in and hit the open bar as many times as you want. Mana Confluence is a cash bar though, and it’s not cheap. After two drinks you’ve paid the same as the guy playing Overgrown Tomb, which means if you play it on turn one you’ve lost more life by the time you tap it on turn three. There’s a good chance you’re going to have to tap it a few more times as well. That Pat would play four of them means he’s really, really in the market for hitting his drops on schedule and doesn’t mind paying a butt-ton (that’s a real unit of measurement look it up) to do it. The format has been a little cool on Confluence relative to expectations, but it looks like we may be in for more of it in the future.

There hasn’t been a more “well dang better grab a set of that” card at a Pro Tour than Courser of Kruphix in possibly ever. There were twenty-eight – TWO EIGHT – copies in the Top 8, of a maximum thirty-two. Seven out of eight lists ran the full set in the main deck. It probably won’t be this heavily represented once we get M15 and #MTGKTK, but dang that is a lot of centaurs. It’s easy to say the metagame was weird and CFB represented a big part of the Top 8 and blah blah blah. Courser has been holding his own in Standard already so we know this isn’t just a flash in the pan.

Boros Reckoner was a solid $20 at his height and Courser looks like he could pull the same thing. That price was mostly a spike, but Reckoner easily hung between $10 and $15 for months at a time and climbed into the $18 range more than once. Courser will have increased by several dollars at least by the time we hit November barring some catastrophic metagame.

There’s a similar saturation of Sylvan Caryatid and Hero’s Downfall, but those are Theros rares and are therefore far less likely to be financially noteworthy. Remember the 6:2:1. Courser is that 2, but Caryatid and Downfall are the 6. Much tougher to see huge spikes. They are still going to be a big part of the Standard landscape in the fall, but there will be better places for trade equity.

Elspeth was expectedly a big part of the Top 8 as well, although not quite like manhorse. Even though she’s from Theros, just as Caryatid and Downfall are, I like her much more than those two. Why is that? For one, she’s a mythic. Even though she’s a 6 in 6:2:1, there are still roughly 1/8th as many copies as any given Theros rare, meaning the total number of absolute copies is on the much lower end of the scale. She’s also a planeswalker, which comes with an automatic demand multiplier. While Caryatid and Downfall are (conceivably) replaceable by something else, it’s very unlikely something will come along and be better at what Elspeth does than Elspeth. She sees roughly the same amount of play as Domri Rade does/did, and Domri went from $10-$15 to $20-$25 at rotation. Elsepth is still just about $20 and isn’t dropping much/at all this summer, so she should be a solid $30+ come September or October. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her crest $40 if the format shakes out in her favor. (Did you know she died at the end of Theros? I found out yesterday. Good riddance.)

Kiora popped her head in a few times which tells me she’s still going to be a reasonable option in the fall. She’s a lot less reliable than Elspeth is in terms of playability, but she’s certainly capable. I’m not as hot on her jumping as significantly as I am Elspeth, but she’ll definitely see a rise. If she’s around $15-$16 right now, then I fully expect $20+ with the best case scenario being $30 or so. Go ahead and trade for copies now, and if they get down closer to $12 trade for every single one you see.

Bringing up the rear are Ashiok and Xenagos. They saw the least play but I like them the most out of the four. They’re dirt cheap right now, scraping the price floor of playable Planeswalkers. If you trade for these  guys one of two things will happen in the fall: They’ll see no play and rise a little bit, or they’ll end up being awesome and rise a ton. Plan accordingly.

Thoughtseize is still good. It only stands to gain. Yawn.

Now we get to the part where I get to actually teach you something worthwhile. Block Pro Tours are a great look ahead, but there are always a few cards that look like they’re going to be a big deal in the fall and then fail to pan out. Anyone remember the four Devastation Tide and Tamiyo in Hayne’s Block-winning list from PT Avacyn? Finkel’s Dungeon Geists? Wescoe’s winning four Advent of the Wurms a year later? No? Not surprising. They were all nearly entirely absent from the following Standard. I got burned by the Advents but managed to dodge the rest. How?

The biggest factor in determining whether a break-out Block performance is sustainable is how well the card will fare when you add 500 more to the format. Let’s apply this concept to a card that was a big part of of the Top 8 that I didn’t talk about yet. How about, oh, Prognostic Sphinx. There were plenty of people out there on r/mtgfinance and elsewhere that were discussing it as a spec option. It was closing games on coverage and looking good doing it.

Prognostic Sphinx is a terrible spec.

Let’s start by looking at what other options the CFB team had for filling out that slot. They needed something that could close games, preferably with evasion, and it needed to do well in a grindy, slow Block format. Blue would be preferable, because they want access to Ashiok and Kiora.

What were their options besides Prognostic? Well, there’s Arbiter of the Ideal, a card that may do something for you the third turn it’s in play. You’ve also got Celestial Archon, which is expensive to bestow and doesn’t fit as well with the controllish GB shell they’ve got going. There’s also…Chromanticore? Medomai? Maybe one of the seven-drop black demons?

Prognostic Sphinx isn’t a bad card at all. In a Standard format with miracles it would be amazing. But in Theros Block, it’s just the best of a bad situation. What do you think the odds are that both M15 and Khans won’t bring a more powerful closer? They aren’t looking for the core of a deck here; they really just need a creature that get the job done. If Aetherling were legal, it absolutely would have been that. Hell, I’m fairly confident that Morphling would have been played instead of Prognostic if they had the option.

It also didn’t really have to be blue either. They were glad it was because it meant they got Kiora and Ashiok, but those may not be the right option in the future either. The core of the deck is clearly GB, and the third color could feasibly be anything, as evidenced by Chapin taking down the whole thing with GBW.

Furthermore, as card pools grow larger the decks tend to get cheaper and more aggressive. You can’t build a competitive aggressive sixty card deck with only twelve playable cards at two mana or less, but when the card pool doubles and you’ve got access to twice as many your deck gets lower to the ground and meaner. More cards smooths out mana curves as well. As a rule of thumb, the more cards you put in the pool the cheaper and faster the decks get. Need proof? Look at the speeds of Vintage, Legacy and Modern. What does this matter here? Prognostic Sphinx is slow. It’s on the pricier side of the mana curve. The conditional hexproof requires you to discard, meaning it’s probably going to take more time to kill your opponent. Scrying every turn sets up future turns, but it doesn’t actually put cards in your hand. It’s a slow, grindy creature at its best in a slow, grindy format.

All of this means that buying Prognostic Sphinx is just a complete waste of money. Remember that it’s a rare from Theros. Even if you got them at $.50, what’s your goal? What has to happen for you to make a reasonable amount of money? How many do you need to buy? Take a look at my article about my experience with Ghaves a few weeks ago. Even if you get in on Prognostic at $.50 each and it quadruples to $2, you’re probably barely making $10 an hour, if you even manage that.

Courser of Kruphix, Sylvan Caryatid, and Thoughtseize are powerful, inexpensive cards that can fit nearly anywhere. Planeswalkers are very powerful permanents that warp board states. Cards like Prognostic Sphinx are high on the curve and easily outclassed by other options. You can learn to identify the flashes in the pan by asking yourself directed questions about the metagame, the quantity on the market, and how easily it can be replaced in a larger format. Was there a weird Block meta that resulted in an odd card being well positioned? How many copies of the card in question are in the format? Was it printed in the large fall set, or the under-drafted third set? Could you imagine easily replacing the card with a card that’s legal in Standard right now? Is there casual demand? Are people likely to play it as a complete set?

Hopefully this walkthrough will give you the tools needed to make informed decisions when evaluating cards that show up at Block pro tours, and perhaps even speculating in general. It can certainly be tricky – the stack of Advent of the Wurm on my desk will testify – but at the very least, you should hopefully be able to dodge the obvious pitfalls.

And if you’ve got thirty or forty Prognostic Sphinx in your TCGPlayer order history, well, my condolences.

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