Category Archives: Mastering Speculation

New Horizons: What Modern Horizons Means for MTGFinance in 2019

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On Feb 28th, Wizards of the Coast announced the first details of an “innovative” new product for Magic: The Gathering. The new set, entitled, Modern Horizons, represents the first time that WoTC has designed an entirely new set with the intent of pushing a plethora of new cards into the Modern format all at once.

The product announcement landed at an especially interesting moment, not long after many players had been publicly wondering whether the push to boost digital magic through the new MPL and Arena was going to come at the expense of paper magic in general, and support for Modern and other non-rotating formats in specific. Theories have been circulating that the launch of a post-modern format on Arena in 2019 or 2020 would relegate Modern to the same slow decline that Legacy has experienced since Modern became the dominant non-rotating competitive format nearly five years ago. The announcement of Modern Horizons however, puts test to the common understanding of the issues at hand, and reinforces the reality of the situation: that WoTC will support whatever formats they can figure out how to sell cards into consistently. Until now, non-rotating competitive formats were economically burdened with a reliance on reprint sets to justify their support. Modern Horizons however takes a page out of the playbook that brought us annual fall Commander decks, borrowing from their successful launch of new cards into that more casual non-rotating format to experiment with feeding Modern players a stream of products aimed squarely at their wallets.

Here’s what we know about the set thus far:

https://media.discordapp.net/attachments/522564825889374209/550804164737761321/Screenshot_2019-02-28_Twitch.png?width=481&height=282

This set of bullets deserves a bit of further discussion. Firstly, the word from our vendor contacts is that this is likely a 36 pack booster box set (as opposed to the 24 pack Masters sets), without any Masterpieces or premium box toppers, and without the guaranteed one foil per pack we are familiar with from Masters sets. It is likely no coincidence that WoTC just announced a couple of weeks ago that they would no longer be publishing MSRP for paper magic sets, but the $6.99/pack for MTGO packs suggests that the retail price of these boxes may be pretty close to that of a Modern Masters set, or around $240 USD. Practically speaking that may mean that the cheapest pre-orders from volume focused Ebay vendors could end up in the $170-180 range, with even lower prices if the print run is particularly deep, or higher ones if it becomes scarce for an extended period based on rampant player demand.

The Opportunities

From an MTGFinance perspective, Modern Horizons is likely to represent a landmark set of opportunities for 2019, much as Ultimate Masters and the first Mythic Edition did in the last quarter of 2018. Those opportunities arise as much from what IS in the set (brand new cards for Modern + old cards that were not previously Modern legal) as from what definitely ISN’T (any current Modern legal cards other than five basic lands).

The first opportunity is related to the original printings, especially foils and old border printings, of the cards that are being brought forward into the Modern card pool from their original sets. If Counterspell or Daze were to be printed into the format for instance, some players will be inclined to take a fresh look at 7th edition foils of the first and perhaps the Masterpiece version of the latter. Figuring out which cards strike the right note for Modern (not top tier in Legacy, but about the right power level for Modern) and identifying the most likely versions for players and collectors to target once they are confirmed in the set is going to likely to make or save you plenty if you get it right.

The second opportunity will arise from early identification of the cards revealed during spoiler season in May 2019 that are most likely to develop into new staples of the format. Given that the set is not a limited print run, and is being released in the bonus set slot that has been used in prior years for products like Battlebond and Conspiracy, we can likely expect Modern Horizons to be very popular and readily available for 3-6 months. The way the Modern player population is likely to respond to this product could be explosive, and it would not surprise me to hear tell of smaller stores running out of product in the early weeks of release, especially given the WoTC tendency to make product a bit more scarce in the first wave to drive hype through perceived scarcity.

The circumstances around this release are truly unique, with the Modern community being forced to parse the implications of up to 250+ cards that could possibly shift the metagame. Attempting to think three steps ahead, beyond which decks get better and on to which decks end up best once a bunch of decks get better (or worse!) based on the fresh additions to the card pool is a fairly mind boggling scenario entirely fresh to the format.

Realistically, the fact that the set has also been designed to be drafted suggests that a healthy portion of the set list will fall below the power curve for Modern, but figuring out which cards fall on either side of that line will require deep format knowledge and a willingness to think outside the box. Leveraging that knowledge to save or profit will additionally require quick wits, a healthy wallet and a strong sense of when the new cards reach peak supply and probe the price bottoms they are likely to accelerate out of in the coming months or years as the set fades from the common supply.

Yet a third opportunity for players and speculators arises out of the certainty that Modern Horizons contains exactly zero reprints of cards that are already in the Modern card pool. That means no fetchlands, Mox Opal, Surgical Extractions or Manamorphose reprints for at least another six months. This fact alone will embolden vendors and players alike to invest in current staples and in fact we are already seeing some pretty spicy buylists published:

This board may be tongue in cheek, but the fact remains that vendors will have little reason to avoid going deep on the plethora of Modern staples that now seem safe from reprint for much of 2019.

As such, those players that may feel uncomfortable predicting the potential of new cards may be better served investing in a small pile of Cavern of Souls, as key staples stand to post significant gains from both safety from reprint and renewed format interest. Ironically, Modern Horizons could end up so disruptive that it changes the entire landscape of the metagame, invalidating prior staples as spec targets while elevating previously unplayable cards to all-stars. Navigating these waters will be tricky to say the least.

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New Cards & Set Themes

In attempting to wrap our heads around Modern Horizons, and possibly predict what it might include, we should likely start with reviewing what has been revealed thus far, and what that means for the likely themes of the set.

Here are the two cards Wizards of the Coast chose to show off during the announcement stream:

Right off the bat, those are some fairly interesting new additions to the Modern format! Cabal Therapist is likely the more important card of the two, representing a fresh way for token decks to dismantle opponents hands turn after turn. Just at first glance this card seems tailor made to bolster the B/W token strategies that have largely fallen out of favor in the format, with both Lingering Souls and Bitterblossom looking like solid partners for the card.

Serra, the Benevolent is a bit tougher to evaluate. From a flavor, lore, and art perspective the card is a clear win and casual demand from angel lovers alone will likely make the foils big winners in the long term. When asking whether the card is good enough for Modern we end up considering a fairly disparate set of abilities. The +2 ability is seems fairly benign at first glance, but could potentially double the damage output from the flying tokens generated from the aforementioned Lingering Souls or Bitterblossom. Perhaps more importantly, using the +2 even once, sets Serra’s controller up to use her ultimate on the following turn if unmolested, thereby gifting their side of the table with a Worship emblem that could be very difficult to work around for a lot of decks in the format. In a deck that would also be likely to be running Intangible Virtue, the -3 ability can end up putting a 5/5 flyer with vigilance into play, that could end up attacking for 6 on the following turn and getting joined by her twin the turn after. Put another way, Serra could be viewed as a Serra Angel, that for one mana less than usual, also happens to put a planeswalker into play when it enters the battlefield.

Taken together, both of these cards suggest that at least part of Modern Horizons is designed to bolster token themes in Modern. Having played a few seasons with B/W tokens a few years back, I would imagine that Cabal Therpist upgrades a few of the slots typically reserved for Inquisition of Kozilek or Thoughtseize, leveraging fresh synergies with early token production to further pressure our opponents hand. Serra the Benevolent on the other hand likely challenges slots usually reserved for Sorin, Solemn Visitor or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.

Perhaps most importantly, if tokens is one of the themes of the set, it becomes worthwhile to establish what other Modern strategies that are currently under-powered might be bolstered by a fresh influx of synergistic cards.

One obvious possibility would be upgrades aimed at a handful of tribal strategies that are currently lurking on the fringes of the format. Goblins got a lot better over the last couple of years with the reprinting of Goblin Piledriver and the freshly minted Reckless Bushwacker. Fanatical Firebrand and Light Up the Stage also represent key recent upgrades, and the deck might only be one or two more cards from evolving into a serious Top 8 contender. Could Goblin Lackey, Goblin Ringleader or Goblin Bombarment be on the way into Modern or might they be approximated through fresh Goblin cards designed specially for the format?

Fanatical Firebrand

Merfolk, Elves and Faeries could likewise be targeted for greater competitiveness via new card options, as could strategies as diverse as Reanimation, Snow and Enchantments. Since we know none of these themes will include reprints of existing Modern cards, targeting the cards that are made better by the new cards will be key to a successful summer of MTGFinance.

I could also see them including some or all of the missing allied color pair swords to finish the cycle started back in Darksteel.

Finally, it is important to understand that while this set is likely to have a print run somewhere between (best guess) Battlebond and a Standard legal set, a couple of years out, these boxes are likely to be fairly hard to come by. With Standard boxes, the wholesale cost between $60-80 of boxes tends to limit the maximum prices the average rare or mythic can achieve while the set is in print. With Modern Horizons we are dealing, for more or less the first time, with a brand new set of cards priced at a premium during THEIR FIRST PRINTING. The implied MSRP of Horizons looks to be $200 or more, so there will be far less of an economic limiter on singles prices. This could allow for some very expensive rares and mythics as soon as a few months after the set release, essentially once we pass peak supply.

Possible Reprints

One of the biggest challenges with evaluating Modern Horizons will be establishing in advance of preview season which cards from outside Modern are most likely to make sense for fresh inclusion in the format. Right off the bat we can exclude anything on the Reserved List, since nothing has changed on that front, and we should likewise ignore cards that are clearly too powerful outside of the highest power bands in Legacy and Vintage.

As such, we can likely safe exclude cards like Necropotence, Balance, Armageddon and Wasteland either because of extreme power levels or a tendency to reinforce play patterns that make for unfun games. Further, I would expect cards that might serve to make the best decks in Modern even better to get a pass. A card like Lotus Petal for instance, might seem innocuous at first glance, but could be just the kind of free mana acceleration already great decks might need to be nearly unbeatable. Likewise, cards that would help the graveyard-centric strategies such as Dredge, Arclight Phoenix and Hollow One would likely be limited in their fresh support given their current dominance.

Ultimately then, when looking for likely reprint targets we are looking for cards of medium to medium-high power level that either reinforce existing strategies or create entirely new archetypes in the format. Given that the set reveal stream mentioned that the box topper for the set will be a blue spell, many people are wondering whether an all-star counterspell will be entering the format for the first time. Some options here might include Counterspell itself, Daze, Arcane Denial or possibly even Force of Will. I honestly don’t know which of these are viable in Modern, especially given all the new goodies we’ll be getting in June, but if I had to guess I would think Counterspell is the most likely choice for inclusion.

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Other possible targets for reprint could include anything from Mother of Runes, Containment Priest and Invigorate to Oubliette, Patriarch’s Bidding, Innocent Blood or Unearth. Multi-color spells could include Undermine, Psychatog, Baleful Strix, Fire//Ice or Vindicate. Might WoTC choose to push a cycling theme with Astral Slide and Lightning Rift? Could Elves be given a couple of key pieces from their Legacy build (Birchlore Ranger?) to make them more viable in Modern? Does Tom Ross on the design team for the set meaning Infect is getting Invigorate? Is Impulse good enough or too good for the format? While predicting the mix of reprints is going to be pretty tough, the rewards for successful predictions will be impressive as the community snaps up the best versions of the reprinted spells, including Judge Promos, Masterpieces, and the coveted 7th edition foils.

(Note: The MTGPrice Pro Trader community is building out a constantly evolving list of potential targets in our Pro Trader only Discord channels. Join MTGPrice today to contribute and leverage the collective knowledge of our most experienced community members.)

Staples On The Rise?

Finally, we must turn our attention to the possibility that Modern Horizons is quite likely to push the most important cards in the format back toward their peak pricing as a rush of format interest increases demand across the list of the most played cards in the format. Cavern of Souls immediately comes to mind as a recent reprint that likely has at least two years before the threat of another printing and would stand to gain significantly should even a single tribe get pushed into the spotlight. Given that Humans & Spirits already generate strong demand for the tribal powerhouse, additional tribes landing Top 8 finishes would almost guarantee the card lands back close to $100 before the next print run

Cavern of Souls

Many people were hoping that cards like Surgical Extraction & Manamorphose, both top 10 cards in the format at present, would end up in this set, but now that we know that isn’t possible their peak pricing is likely to be impressive. Cards without recent reprints are likely to hit fresh highs, and even key cards from maligned sets like M25 and Iconic Masters are likely to be major gainers. Mox Opal, Horizon Canopy, Snapcaster Mage and Noble Hierarch are also quite likely to gain ground in 2019, as should Leyline of the Void, Aether Vial, Thoughtseize and Chalice of the Void. You can also add Death’s Shadow, Cryptic Command, Walking Ballista, Bloodghast, Liliana, The Last Hope, Liliana of the Veil, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Kolghan’s Command, Celestial Colonnade & Thing in the Ice to that list BUT you must also allow for the possibility that some of these cards will get pushed off the podium as strategies both new and old emerge to set up a fresh new phase in the evolution of the Modern format.

Whether you spend the next few months triangulating meta shifts or buying Modern collections on the cheap, Modern Horizons is likely to end up as one of the biggest pivot points in MTGFinance this year. Happy hunting as we all try to gain an edge in predicting a fresh new market era with plenty of moving parts!

MTGPrice helps keep you at the top of your game with our daily card price index, fast movers lists, weekly articles by the best MTGFinance minds in the business, the MTGFastFinance podcast co-hosted by James Chillcott & Travis Allen, as well as the Pro Trader Discord channels, where all the action goes down. Find out more.

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Speculating on Magic Cards: Introducing SpecScore


Magic: The Gathering boasts a long and storied history of financial highs and lows. Seemingly every time Wizards of the Coast announces some new policy shift or set, it feels as though half of social media is running around like Chicken Little calling out that the sky is falling and Magic is dying.

The last year in MTGFinance has not been immune to shake ups. The shortening of the Standard rotation periods from 24 to 18 months (and now back to 24 months!), the increased volume of supplemental product printings (and their associated reprints), as well as the standardization of Expedition/Masterpiece style promo cards in Standard legal sets have all had a significant impact on the financial landscape of the game.

Some methods of making money on Magic have gotten more difficult, with a more limited profit potential, or a longer likely period of investments to achieve returns. Other opportunities have continued to provided reliable returns.

If you speak to the people that actually work in the industry on the retail or e-commerce side of things, they will tell you that the buying and selling of collections on retail margin, or the purchasing and sorting of bulk collections, are much more reliable and profitable avenues than the purchase of sealed product, or individual card speculation.

And while there is certainly some truth to those opinions, some of us are still putting up solid gains on speculative activity month after month, year after year, simply by putting in the hours on the research, and adhering to a loose set of principles learned through trial and error and a deepening knowledge of Magic: The Gathering as both a game and an economy unto itself. Certainly, one’s expectations of success must be tempered by the very real constraints that now exist in the market,  but for the diligent and adaptable, good specs are still plentiful.

This article is my first step towards attempting to codify the instinctual and statistical tools that I used to repeatedly identify strong targets for speculative activity, to maximize gains and minimize the time and expense spent on realizing those gains.

Welcome to the MTGPrice Spec Score.

Spec Score is not meant to be used or interpreted as a precise method of assessing speculation potential. Rather, it is presented as a general methodology for evaluating speculation targets that should add some necessary rigor and discipline to your speculation activities.

Put simply, when considering where to put your money, run your options through the Spec Score calculator (coming soon to MTGPrice) and perhaps consider prioritizing higher scores over lower ones. If all the scores are coming out low, you might want to rethink your options.

A card’s Spec Score is composed of the following eleven attributes:

  • rarity
  • inventory levels
  • power level
  • casting cost
  • color intensity
  • # of copies played
  • # of formats played
  • uniqueness
  • current price vs. potential
  • recency of last printing
  • # of printings (# of foil printings)

Let’s dive in on the necessarily rough logic behind each of these contributions:

RARITY

Black Lotus

This one is pretty straight forward. Magic started with four distinct rarity levels: Rares, Uncommons, Commons and Basic Lands. Mythic Rares were introduced in the Shards of Alara block in 2008, and have had a dramatic impact on the financial landscape of the game, draining value from the lower rarities in much the same way that Expeditions (Battle for Zendikar/Oath of the Gatewatch) and Masterpieces (Kaladesh) do to the expected value of booster packs in their respective sets.

In recent large sets, the breakdown of printed rarities has looked something like this:

Kaladesh: 15 mythics, 53 rares, 80 uncommons, 101 commons, 15 basic lands

And of course, the various rarities are distributed in booster packs in a 1:3:10 ratio (rare:uncommon:common), with mythic rares appearing in 1/8 packs, or about 12.5% of the time. The new Masterpiece rarity appears at a rate of just once per every four booster boxes, or 1/144 packs (just a 0.7% in a given booster).

All of this underlines what we all already know: the higher the rarity, the better the chance for a significant spike in real dollar terms. Before you ever consider common or uncommon specs, consider your options in mythics, and then rares where you can cycle fewer sales for bigger profits per sale, reducing your time spent per transaction and lowering your incidental transaction costs such as shipping and materials.

Note: Foils are a special case, since they represent higher levels of rarity vs the non-foil version, but are much more desirable in some formats (Vintage, Legacy, Modern, EDH), than in others (Standard, Casual). Generally speaking, foil premiums have been on the decline, likely due to a mixture of reprint action and the speed with which formats are rotating (Standard), changing (Modern), or stagnating (Legacy/Vintage). Nevertheless, if you are looking at a foil card and foils are relevant in the format(s) exhibiting demand (usually Modern, EDH/Cube or Legacy in that order) then add +10 points as foils of high demand rares or mythics can be drained out of the market much more easily than regular copies.

It should also be noted that certain cards, while they are published with an assigned rarity, are in fact released in products like Commander 2016 that have no relevant rarities since each sealed product is the same and contains exactly one copy of each card.

*Rarity Point Assignment:

  • Super Mythic (Expeditions/Judge Foils/Masterpieces, etc): +15pts
  • Mythic/Pre-2008 Rare: +5 pts
  • Rare (Post 2008): +0 pts
  • Uncommon: -10 pts
  • Common: -20 pts

*+10 points for foils in a relevant format.

INVENTORY LEVELS

After rarity, few factors are more likely to signal an incoming card spike than low inventory levels. Diligently tracking the falling inventory of a high demand card and finding the correct entry point is more art than science, but definitely pays off for those that do their research. Ideally you want to be looking for a moment when inventory is very low, but not so low that all sellers have raised their price to a new plateau.

It is important to consider all major platforms for Magic sales, including Ebay, TCGPlayer, Amazon and the major vendors listed on MTGPrice.com. There’s a big difference between a single speculator clearing out the last seller on Amazon, and a card that has zero copies posted for sale anywhere after a major spike. Having some little known sources on hand to target, such as local shops or smaller online retailers, can be a major boon in these scenarios.

Ultimately, the trigger points are pretty subjective so let’s use the following:

  • 100s of copies available: 0 pts
  • 1-2 dozen copies available: +5 pts
  • A handful of copies available: +20 pts

POWER LEVEL

Sol Ring

After rarity, the relative power level of a given card in constructed formats vs. other similar cards at it’s casting cost and color requirements can be one of the most important signals of a good spec target. Power can be highly contextual format to format, and also fairly subjective, so we’ll keep this one pretty simple. For our purposes, high power cards break open games, average cards are contextual role players, and low power cards require very specific circumstances to be good. When choosing a point level for this attribute, ask yourself whether the card feels under or over-costed given it’s effect and card type.

For example, Sol Ring and Ancestral Recall are high power cards in any format. Incinerate and Fleecemane Lion are playable. Codex Shredder is a low power card that happens to work in a very specific deck.

  • High Power: +10 pts
  • Playable Card: 0 pts
  • Low Power: -10 pts

CASTING COST

This one is pretty straight forward as well. Cards with lower casting costs are much more likely to find a home in multiple formats. Given how fast Modern, Legacy and Vintage are as formats, and the general benefit conveyed by being able to cast a given spell early and often, casting cost is a major factor in selecting a card to speculate on. Naturally, cards like Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Dig Through Time or Metalwork Colossus need to be evaluated in the context of their likely real cost in terms of likely mana expended or the turn they are likely to be cast, rather than their casting cost as printed on the card.

Casting Cost Point Assignment:

  • 0: +10 pts
  • 1-2: +5 pts 
  • 3-4: 0 pts
  • 5+: -5  pts

COLOR INTENSITY

If you fancy yourself a Magic deck brewer, this concept will resonate. The more intensive the color requirements of a card are, the less likely it is to find a home in multiple decks, and the larger the drag on it’s speculation potential. A great card with intense color requirements (as defined by the number of total and/or seperate colored mana symbols in the casting cost) is going to have trouble being used in multiple archetypes, since many of the key decks in formats like Standard, Modern and Legacy need to run multiple colors in order to source the tools to form a competitive deck shell.

Smuggler's CopterPhyrexian Obliterator

Smuggler’s Copter showing up as the maximum thirty-two possible copies in the top eight of GP Indy at the start of the 2016 fall Standard season is a great example of how an overpowered card with low color intensity and a low casting cost can make for an excellent speculative move.

Color Intensity Point Values:

  • No Color/Land: +10 pts
  •  1 color/1 symbol: +5 pts
  • 2 colors/2 symbols: 0 pts
  • 3 colors/3 symbols: -5 pts
  • 4 colors/4 symbols+: -10 pts

Copies Played

The more copies of a card the average deck wants, the more likely it is to be a great spec target. How many copies of a card get played depends on several factors, including casting cost, color requirements, available color fixing in the format, whether the card is legendary and whether multiple copies are redundant if played into the current board state. Regardless of why they want them, a card that is almost always played as a 4-of is a much more interesting spec than a card that is usually a 1-of. For instance, Skysovereign, Consul Flagship being a 5-drop legendary artifact was always likely to mean it would see less play than a card with early and late game usefulness like Grim Flayer.

  •  1 copy: -15 pts
  • 2 copies: -5 pts
  • 3 copies: +5 pts
  • 4 copies+: +15 pts

Format Dominance

When we refer to format dominance, we are mostly counting up the number of formats that are likely to generate significant and persistent demand for the card in question. Generally speaking I only care about the Top 100 cards in a given format, though in broad formats like EDH, this might need to be a more elastic measure.

Elspeth, Sun’s Champion for instance would definitely get points for Standard dominance during her time there, but would not be considered a Modern staple despite seeing occasional play in that format. Lightning Bolt on the other hand is a cross format super-star and would earn full points during any period where it was legal in Standard.

Jace, Vryn's ProdigyCollected Company

Note: I believe Multi-Format Dominance while a card is in Standard to be one of the most important factors in identifying a solid spec target in the current environment. Think Kolaghan’s Command, Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Collected Company or Dig Through Time foils at their peak dominance/price while in Standard. This is where a lot of the speculation money is being made, hence one of the only chances to pick up more than 10 pts in this entire model.

One caveat is when a card is too good. Think Eye of Ugin once the low casting cost Eldrazi were printed or Dig Through Time/Treasure Cruise in Modern. Each of these cards had excellent entry and exit points, but you had to move quick to dodge the ban hammer.

Format Dominance Point Values:

  • Multi-Format All-Star (at least three of Standard/Modern/Legacy/Vintage/Casual/EDH): +15 pts
  • Modern + Standard Staple (Same Time): +10 pts
  • Modern or Standard Staple: +5 pts
  • Old Card: EDH or Casual Staple: +3 pts (+10 pts if foil)
  • Legacy or Vintage Staple: +1 pts (+10 pts if foil) 
  • New Card: EDH or Casual: +0 pts

Uniqueness

The uniqueness of a card’s effect or impact on the game is a solid indicator of it’s suitability as a speculation target. Note here the difference between power level and “special snowflake” status. Treasure Cruise was just one of dozens of card draw spells, but its ability to cost as little as a single mana to draw three cards set it apart from the crowd on the basis of power level to potential casting cost.  Doubling Season on the other hand, is one of the only cards in the history of the game to change the starting loyalty of a Planeswalker, as well as doubling tokens on counters of all kinds on permanents you control. No wonder then that the card has rebounded more or less consistently since it’s first reprinting in Modern Masters 2013.

A very resilient and unique card.
A very resilient and unique card.

The point values on “uniqueness” must be taken with a grain of salt, for certain, but for instance, Blood Moon would be considered “Very Unique”, Treasure Cruise would be “Somewhat Unique” and Shock would be “Common”.

Uniqueness Point Values:

  • Very Unique (Only Card With Effect): +10 pts
  • Somewhat Unique (Best Card of Limited Options): +5 pts
  • Common Effect: 0 pts

Current Price vs. Potential

The premise of this attribute is fairly simple, but the assignment of point values should be considered preliminary until we’ve run some statistical analysis. Basically, at any given rarity (and considering the era of the card in question), we must compare it’s current price to other cards at the same rarity (and ideally set) that have already peaked more than the others. With this set as the ceiling, all other things being equal, we can then establish the potential size of the gap our spec may fill.

For example, if we were considering a rare or mythic from Innistrad block, we might decide to look at the peak prices for Snapcaster Mage and Liliana of the Veil respectively. Assuming we could convince ourselves that the card under consideration was secretly the equal of these cards (a stretch to be sure, but perhaps some new mechanic is announced that “turns on” our spec), we could then use those peak prices to evaluate our potential for success.

One of the most useful scenarios where this kind of comparison is useful is when evaluating the potential of Standard cards. For instance, in a fall set, there is generally room for just one mythic to soar over $30 for any length of time. In the last few years, these high flyers have included Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and most recently Chandra, Torch of Defiance. Not only do these cards set the ceiling on potential, they also require (because of the need for EV (Expected Value) to find equilibrium),  some degree of value exchange with any card in the same set we hope to see a jump. Put simply, we cannot have every mythic in a set worth more than $20, because it would trigger a rush to open sealed product until supply overcame demand, and the prices came back to a reasonable level. For mythics in Standard as of late, this might mean a price in the $5-10 range, with a few stand outs between $10-$15. As such, for a card like Torrential Gearhulk to claim the top spot in Kaladesh, overvalued cards like Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Doven Baan will typically fall.

Torrential GearhulkChandra, Torch of Defiance

Ultimately, by examining this rough ratio, we are both challenging our resolve in not chasing specs that have already been drained of most of their profit, and reinforcing the need to establish how value must drain from the rest of the set to make room for our spec to succeed.

Note: Once a set is out of print, and especially if related sealed product has dried up, the equilibrium argument for a set’s total value and box/pack EV is no longer in play. The reason for this is simple: if there isn’t any fresh product to crack, the price of the cards in the set are free to float based on demand vs. dwindling supply that cannot be easily reinforced. This is why boxes of Future Sight, for instance, are over $800.

Price to Potential Ratio:

  • 1 to 10: +10 pts ($4 INN Rare vs. $40 Snapcaster)
  • 1 to 5: +5 pts ($8 INN Rare vs. $40 Snapcaster)
  • 1 to 2: 0 pts ($20 INN Rare vs. $40 Snapcaster)
  • < 1 to 2: -10 pts ($30 INN Rare vs. $40 Snapcaster)

Recency of Last Printing & Number of Printings

Clearly, cards that are printed more often are harder to make money on, as the window to sell into their peak pricing may be shorter, and their odds of experiencing a demand spike before being reprinted are potentially lower.

Most Magic products are “in print” and easily available at MSRP for about two years.  This puts a hard ceiling on how much the cards in booster boxes and mass market supplemental products can be worth while they are still in print.

Last Printing:

  • Currently in Print: – 5 pts
  • 2 to 3 years: 0 pts
  • 3-5 years: +5 pts
  • 5+ years: +10 pts

# of printings:

  • One printing: +5 pts
  • Two printings: 0 pts
  • Three or more: -5 pts

Sample Scores

Grim Flayer

Recently I decided to go fairly deep on Grim Flayer foils based on my having noticed that the card had quietly moved into the top fifty creatures in Modern, and that some Jund players were starting to talk about it as better than Tarmogoyf in the deck, all while GB Delirium was providing a consistent presence in Standard. Checking available inventory on foils, I found them low and ripe for a move upward from $25 to a new plateau in the $30-$40 range.

So what does the SpecScore look like on this card?

  • Rarity: Foil Mythic (+25 pts)
  • Inventory Levels: Medium Low (+5 pts)
  • Power Level: Playable (+0 pts)
  • Casting Cost: 2cc (+5 pts)
  • Color Intensity: 2 color (+0 pts)
  • Copies Played: Four (+15 pts)
  • Format Dominance: Standard/Modern Staple (+10 pts)
  • Uniqueness: Semi-Unique (+5 pts)
  • Price vs. Potential: 1 to 2 (+2 pts)
  • Recency of Last Printing: In Print (-5 pts)
  • Total # of Printings: 1 (+5 pts)

Total Score: 62 pts (of 120)

Keeping in mind that nothing short of a freshly printed unbannable Ancestral Recall is capable of a perfect score, the black-green beater looks fairly attractive as a spec target. So long as Grim Flayer sees continued play in Standard this year, it’s role in Jund or Abzan decks in Modern and mythic rarity make it a decent speculation target.

By comparison, let’s have a look at Lightning Bolt, a fantastic card, that is still a fairly poor speculation target. Here is the Spec Score for the perrenial best burn spell:

  • Rarity: Common (-20 pts)
  • Inventory Levels: High (0 pts)
  • Power Level: High (10 pts)
  • Casting Cost: 1cc (+5 pts)
  • Color Intensity: 1 color (+5 pts)
  • Copies Played: Four (+15pts)
  • Format Dominance: Multi-Format (+15 pts)
  • Uniqueness: Semi-Unique (+5 pts)
  • Price vs. Potential: <1 to 2 (-10 pts)
  • Recency of Last Printing: 2-3 yrs (0 pts)
  • Total # of Printings: Multi  (-5 pts)

Spec Score: 20 (of 120)

So there you have it. A first stab at establishing a reasonable scoring system for evaluating Magic: The Gathering speculation targets. Moving forward we’ll be looking to refine this system based on user feedback, leading to the implementation of a SpecScore Calculator posted on all of our card details pages. Next week we’ll use the spec score to evaluate some of my most recent speculation targets and try and get a feel for whether we’re on the right track.

Got thoughts on SpecScore? Hit us in the comments below!

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

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