The Keynesian Beauty Contest


Last time we delved into how to behave when you think the market is being irrational. I talked about the virtues of selling before a card peaked to maximize the number of people who would be buying as the card was rising and therefore would have more confidence in their ability to make money as the card had not yet peaked. Those buyers are the eponymous greater fools and they are an essential part of the market, both rational and irrational. I mentioned then that this theory correlated with something called the “Keynesian Beauty Contest” and I spent the last week or so thinking about that concept and how it applied to the market. Let’s dig in.

The Name of the Game

The simplest possible example, albeit not the most illustrative, was Keynes’ original example, the “beauty contest” example. Imagine there is a contest in a newspaper with several photographs of women. The rules state that you mail in a selection of one of the photographs and whichever gets the most votes will be deemed the most beautiful and every person who voted for the winner is eligible for a prize. In a scenario like this one, there is no incentive to behave irrationally, you’re simply trying to pick the winner.

This example and the subsequent theory associated with it got me thinking about the dozens of examples in the Magic market. We said it’s best to behave rationally and that’s true. However, there are multiple dimensions we need to consider and it may not be as simple as we think right off the bat.

The Different Levels

A first-level thinker will pick the girl he thinks is the most beautiful. “Snap asian girl, not close” he says, using Magic community slang because I invented him and I can make him say whatever I want. He’s a rational guy after all. Asian women appeal to him so he sends off his answer and waits for his prize to come in the mail.

A second-level thinker is going to really delve a bit deeper into the heart of the problem. The actual name of the game isn’t to pick what you like and hope your tastes correlate with the norm. That seems risky and there is too much variance in what people might think. Provided there are enough second-level thinkers they are in a better position here because they tend to behave the most rationally. I’ll explain. Say a second-level thinker also prefers the picture of the asian woman. I am beginning to regret going racial with this and I probably should have just separated them by hair color, but stay with me. The best part about this is that the second-level thinker is going to pick the girl he thinks the majority will go for, irrespective of his own personal inclinations and if that’s not wild enough, think about what will happen if there are mostly second-level thinkers in the contest. A second-level thinker will assess all of the photos, determine that the blonde, western-looking woman is closest to the traditional Western definition of beauty and make the determination that she is the one who will get the most votes even if they prefer another girl. The even more wilder part is that you could get a situation where 100% of the people personally prefer the asian, or redhead or whomever, but the first-level thinkers who pick her will lose because all of the second-level thinkers will think that the others will pick the more traditional-looking girl. They will either think that the others will think she is the most beautiful, or they will think the others will think that everyone will think that. In other words, they know the “right” answer and pick that even if it’s not the true answer.


In practice, many people are second-level thinkers provided the example is as straight-forward as the beauty contest. It could be anything, pictures of cars, flavors of ice cream; NPR’s Planet money did it with internet videos. Enough people know that the “right” answer is always “cat video” even if there is a hamster sneezing or something equally adorable. It’s not about the “true” answer, it’s about what everyone else is likely to think everyone else will think.


Adding More Levels

You can go beyond first and second-level thinking by making the problem more complex. This is better for our purposes because the way cards fit together in the vast framework of a metagame and multiple formats is more complicated than “pick the best removal spell out of a list of three spells.”

Imagine you are asked to pick a number between 1 and 100, but the number you pick isn’t just a random number because the winner is the person whose number is the closest to 2/3 of the average of what everyone says.

In this case, we need to make the first-level thinker dumber. He’ll snap 27 because it’s his favorite number.

Second-level thinkers will likely say 2/3 of 50. They’ll reason that everyone else is a moron, guessing randomly. The random distribution should, in theory, average out to 50 and therefore 2/3 of 50 is the right answer.

Third-level thinkers will reason that everyone else is likely a second-level thinker and therefore the answer will be 2/3 of 2/3 of 50. If you think everyone else is a third-level thinker, maybe you want to go 2/3 of 2/3 of 2/3 of 50. Maybe not.

First Level Magic

A Commander deck was printed with a card in it that sells for more than the total cost of the deck. Obviously you go buy Mind Seize and crack it to sell True-Name Nemesis for value. You’ll spend $30 and make $5-$10 on top of recouping the initial $30 and have 99 free cards. Repeat Ad Nauseum. Might I suggest that that’s first-level thinking?

If you want to think second-level and above (if there is a third level to this example) you need to imagine that everyone is going to be cracking Mind Seizes and selling the Nemeses. What can you do to capitalize on a market behaving this way? For starters, they will undervalue the other 99 cards they get. Some people are doing this to get free cards, most just want the Hamilton that comes from the quick flip. This behavior is going to put downward price pressure on the value of Sol Ring and Baleful Strix for starters. Second-level thinking involves picking up cheap Sol Rings from people who are undervaluing them. We’ve seen the price of Sol Ring dip and rebound before, there’s no reason to think it won’t again, even with all of the copies hitting the market. Since the decks are only getting reprinted at the rate that the worst-selling deck needs reprinting, there won’t be infinite Sol Rings injected into the market. The price will recover, and you’ll be glad you bought very cheap. The same can be said of Strix which sees more and more play every day. Buying cards that are likely to be undervalued is a good way to capitalize on a market with a lot of first-level behavior going on.

A first-level thinker will often speculate on a card based on their own interpretation of its power level. “I think Biovisionary’s effect is powerful” is a good example. Sure, you might like it, but there’s no money in hitching your wagon to Biovisionary, the asian woman of card picks. Here’s the painful part for me; I have been guilty of first-level fallacies myself and a lot of us still are because we don’t realize that we’re thinking on such a primary level. You want to know the battle cry of the first-level thinker? You won’t like this, I didn’t.

“This has been insane in our testing”

I get teased for throwing my support behind the card Seance even though I made some money on that card. I fell victim to the “this is insane in our testing” mentality and I thought that all I needed to do was tell enough people how good it was and they’d eventually test it and come to the same conclusion. I was thinking about how much I liked the picture of a Seance and not thinking about how everyone else was going to pick something else. Second-level thinking would have been noticing that Brad Nelson had brewed a deck that was nearly identical to ours but ran 0 Seance and was winning without it. Irrespective of how much that card improved the mirror, the winner of the contest was going to be Brad Nelson’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl next door, and thinking different was, well, first-level.

Finally, the MODO “crash” when a lot of prices tanked and people threatened to quit over the temporary suspension of daily events, a lot of first-level thinkers saw opportunity. With prices tanking, there was a chance to buy low and sell high later. The best part about this example was the conclusion that second-level thinkers came to. The real beauty here is that first-level thinkers aren’t always wrong, what they are is useful.

A second-level thinker saw that opportunity and reasoned that a lot of people were going to buy into MODO for the sake of potential profit. Regardless of MODO continuing to be a good gaming community, Redemption is coming up and was unlikely to be affected by the downtime. Second-level thinkers reasoned that all the first-level thinkers buying in for profit were going to stabilize prices. This made it safe to buy in on Theros block staples that would be essential come rotation and speculate on booster packs because they would be more scarce with fewer being won as prizes in events.

Heck, third-level thinkers probably imagined some of the second-level thinkers were going to stabilize booster pack prices despite them tanking initially, making early booster investment a safe bet.

Wouldn’t you know it? That’s exactly what happened.

How to Be Going Forward

If you can stay away from some of the pitfalls that beset the first-level thinker and reason what the herd behavior is going to do to the market, you can stay ahead of it and really make some good decisions. Remember, there’s no money in being average. Not when 2/3 of average is the name of the game.

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Grab Bag #1

Nothing has really struck me this week as a topic I want to devote an entire article to, but I’ve got a few small ideas floating around and some short-form questions on Twitter to answer. So today is the first in what will likely be an infrequently recurring series that are a collection of mostly-disparate topics.


True-Name Nemesis

As was expected, TNN put up solid results at Grand Prix DC this weekend. He was all over the winning grinder lists and X-0 day one records, with 9 copies in the Top 8 and 3 in Owen’s winning list. Not surprisingly, his price has now reached a comfortable $40. Remember last week when he was ~$33 and I told you not to sell until after DC? Hey, well look at that! True-Name Nemesis

He’s absolutely the real deal, so don’t expect him to fade away anytime soon. Demand from Legacy players will persist, and he’s a three-of or four-of type of card, which helps significantly. I doubt he gets below $30 anytime before a second printing, and I would guess $35 is a soft floor. Copies are still flowing from people that snatched up cheap decks at Target which will keep him from inflating too much in the coming weeks, but after a few months there will be a far less liquid supply. At that point, his price will begin to rise more reliably once everyone that wanted to sell theirs has. If you want to profit, feel free to sell, as his price may slip a bit in the short term. Don’t feel bad about holding on though, especially if you may actually play with him, as I don’t believe we’ve reached his ceiling yet. A limited-run card that’s a four-of in Legacy with tremendous casual appeal (protection from players is a really nifty ability) is a conflux of valuable factors.


Magic the Gathering Offline

The MTGO partial shutdown will have far reaching ramifications that will take months to unfold and see the full implications of. I will try my best to make a guess at what the immediate impact will be though.


That tweet is showing the prices to complete a full set (1x) on MTGO before and after the announcement. At this point, there has been a 10-20% drop in prices on Theros and RTR block cards. Players apparently don’t expect premier constructed events to be returning in a week or two, which is why prices are taking such a hit. If the expectation was that events will only be gone for a few weeks, then prices wouldn’t have seen much of an impact. But with the announcement about how long of a downtime to expect not being promised until sometime before the end of the year, it’s safe to assume that this is a several month – or, Worth forbid, a several year – project.

With a significant drop in value of cards online, as well as the upcoming Standard PTQ season in meatspace, we may see an above-average amount of redemptions occurring. This means a greater number of Standard cards becoming available in paper, suppressing card values in the real world by some amount. I would especially expect a greater supply of RTR block cards relative to Theros, as Theros will remain relevant beyond the summer, while RTR mostly will not. It’s also worth noting that apparently cards for Modern, Legacy, etc have not dropped much/at all in value, meaning players don’t expect this to be the death of MTGO, but rather a medium-term disruption in service. They may not know what Standard format we’ll be in when dailies return, but they know Modern ones won’t have changed much.

As per how much redemption will occur, we really don’t know, and Wizards won’t be in a rush to tell us either. I don’t expect it to have a severe effect. A (very, very) rough guesstimate is that the extra redemptions may account for a percentage point or two of additional product in the real world, but I wouldn’t fault a knowledgeable party for expecting the impact to be ten times that. It’s just very difficult to get a bead on it.

An interesting side effect of all of this is that RTR block cards may hold their value quite well on MTGO going long. If a large percentage of RTR cards get taken out of MTGO during this period, in two years there will be a lot less digital Supreme Verdicts, Abrupt Decays, and Deathrite Shamans running around.


What Happened with FTV:Twenty?

When FTV:20 was announced, preorders were in the ~$150-250 range. That was typical for a new FTV. Hype was high, as this FTV had five extra cards compared to previous years, as well as an air of excitement surrounding it, as players were eager to see what the 20th anniversary of Magic would bring. We hadn’t seen much marking this year as a celebration, so players were hoping FTV:20 would be something special.


I don’t recall at which event Jace was spoiled, but I seem to remember he was among the first three cards. Imagine the excitement at the time – three cards into twenty, and Jace is in there?! Preorders skyrocketed to $450. Who cares what else is in the other 17 cards? They can’t all be bad, and Jace! Don’t you understand? JACE! JAAAAACE! JAAAAAASGghghhhhhhh Fyndhorn Elves

Then the other 17 cards trickled in, and whoops, turns out they’re all boring. Which other cards were people supposed to get excited about? Kessig Wolf Run, a $2 land that was just in Standard? Or perhaps Char, which approximately zero people have cast in 2013? The third printing of Cruel Ultimatum not doing it for you? Well, check out Dark Ritual! Sure, it’s had roughly 80 printings, was foil twice, and this is terrible art, but DARK RITUAL! Guys? Where are you all going?

FTV:20 preorders hit $450 on a swirling mixture of hype, expectations, and the thrill of the unknown. Once the veil was parted, all of that dissipated and we were left with Jace and 19 other cards that were mostly entirely unexciting. By the time FTV:20 finally hit shelves, it was maybe $150. Today, sealed copies can be had for ~$125 on eBay, and Jace:20 is about $90, $10 less than WWK Jace.

What’s going to happen with Jace in the long term? Well, probably not a lot. His peak came and went this past summer. The amount of play he is seeing hasn’t increased at all, he’s absolutely not getting unbanned in Modern, and a slew of new copies were added to the market for anyone that really wanted them. Pack foils will stay absurd as a collector’s item, but that’s about it.


What Standard playsets should I pick up now?

I can’t tell you every Standard card you should own today, but I can give you a few pointers.


Master of Waves

Our new Merfolk overlord has proven he’s here to stay. Variants of blue devotion continue to put up strong results week after week in Standard, he’s revitalized merfolk in Modern, and I’ve even seen him pop up in Legacy. Despite all of this, he’s snuck down to ~$12, and I spy a few retail copies for under $10. I would not hesitate to trade for this guy, and don’t be afraid to pick up more than just a playset. His floor can’t be much lower than $7 or $8, and his ceiling is in the ballpark of $20-$25.


Chandra, Pyromaster

Chandra, Pyromaster

Immediately after release Chandra burned all the heretics at the stake, but since then has been relatively quiet. Devotion decks and various forms of control have taken the spotlight, leaving Chandra without much to do. She’s now around $20-25, nearly half of what she once was.

I’m optimistic about Chandra’s future. Keep in mind that she’s got two red symbols in her mana cost, which is good for Nykthos fans. That middle ability also plays well with Nykthos, as generating big mana is a lot easier than it used to be. We certainly haven’t seen the last of her.

Pick up a playset, but don’t go much deeper than that. While $20 is close to her floor, breaking $30 again will be very tough. She’s also as close to a guaranteed reprint in M15 as a card could be at this stage (along with Garruk), so you don’t want to end up too deep when the inevitable price drop comes. Pick up your four ahead of PTQ season, but remember that any you keep past March will become a liability.


Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx

Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx

Have you figured out this land is legit as hell yet? Because it is. It is legit as hell. Wizards has been telling us for years that they want us to play on the board, not on the stack, and Nykthos pays you hard for doing such. There are plenty of adorable combos floating around out there that haven’t broken into the mainstream yet either, meaning there is a lot of untapped (heh) potential in the card. Just this week MTGO personality Bing Luke (@prolepsis9) linked an event with Nykthos in Modern doing dirty business with Genesis Wave, which I can absolutely get behind. MTGPrice is showing the card around $10, and there are a few purchasable copies out there for under $9. Any that you can pick up in trade under $10 should be golden. Nykthos feels like a $15-$20 card to me.

Filling in the Gaps

By: Jared Yost

A great deal of new Standard decks will be available once Born of the Gods is released. Why is is this? Because another chunk of mana fixing will have become available. Once the rest of the the Theros block Scrylands are printed, those color pairs that were lacking critical mana fixing will see help. As soon as these pairs have better mana, new strategies will open up for deck builders to take advantage of less used color combinations.

Which Scrylands have we yet to see?

– Golgari (G/B)
– Selesnya (G/W)
– Izzet (U/R)
– Azorious (W/U)
– Rakdos (B/R)

We aren’t exactly sure which lands we’ll be getting in Born of Gods and which will be in Journey into Nyx. That doesn’t stop us from planning ahead, though. Based on these missing Scrylands, I am going to offer my insight into what cards could benefit the most once once their respective fixing is available.



Gaze of Granite

Gaze of Granite

Gaze of Granite is a powerful removal spell that could see play in B/G control shells that might start popping up once the mana is available to support it. I like this card as a target because it is from Dragon’s Maze, a set that wasn’t opened a ton. I’ll be keeping my eye on this card once the spoiler season for Born of the Gods comes along.


Lotleth Troll

Lotleth Troll

My colleagues and I at this website have discussed Lotleth Troll from time to time and I still think that he has a bit of room to grow. Especially since Kibler has this zombie on his radar, I think it is safe to say that it can be a powerful card in Standard. $1-$2 is still a cheap price for him.


Reaper of the Wilds

Reaper of the Wilds

I’ve mentioned Reaper of the Wilds in my set review for Theros and it looks like Kibler and a few others have played with this card since then. I’ve seen some other builds online that put this card into both a control and aggro shell.

I’m not sure if the fit for Reaper is an aggro or control yet. Depending on the match-up  the card can be good in the mid-game as a blocker against an aggro deck, and can also be useful if played on turn six with two mana up to activate hexproof against removal-heavy opponents.


Varolz, the Scar-Striped

Varolz, the Scar-Striped

I really wanted Varolz to take off in price, but he never did. I feel like as more cards enter Standard the potential synergies for Varolz will only increase. Exava is being played alongside of Xathrid Necromancer, so I don’t think it is too far of stretch to see Varolz in these builds once better mana fixing is available.



Advent of the Wurm

Advent of the Wurm

I really like Advent of the Wurm and will be watching the card moving forward. This is another card that I’ve been watching for a while because I feel that Selesnya decks have a lot of synergy and power in Standard. What they are currently lacking is mana fixing, and once the G/W Scryland comes out, a lot more players will be comfortable slinging the more powerful Selesnya spells.


Armada Wurm

Armada Wurm

Armada Wurm packs a lot of raw power. Unfortunately this just isn’t enough to make it good in Standard. The synergy with other similar effects, like Populate and mana fixing, must exist to complement the power. In addition to being a possible tournament staple, Armada Wurm will be a popular casual card in the future which is another reason I like picking them up.


Fleecemane Lion

Fleecemane Lion

I predicted that the Lion would dip heavily once more Theros was opened and it looks like that is the case. There hasn’t been much financial chatter about Fleecemane since his debut except the advice of stay far away. However, I feel like now that the Lion has dipped down into the $3 range that he could be a good pickup. Will the G/W Scryland make this card better? Will it only be a casual hit? Either way, $3 is pretty low for a strictly better Watchwolf.


Loxodon Smiter

Loxodon Smiter

I feel like at this point Loxodon Smiter should have taken off if it was supposed to. When he is played, either in control or aggro, there are always three or four copies. There have been plenty of decks that have top-eighted or won that featured three or four copies of the Elephant. At $2 this still feels undervalued to me.



Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice

Trostani has had an interesting financial life. Having started out near $20 in October 2012 and then falling to $4 in the spring of 2013, this mythic rare took quite a tumble. She went up to $8 this summer, and now Trostani is back to the $4 range.

A card that fluctuates this much in price is definitely one to keep an eye out for. Clearly, there is potential here for her to be a tournament staple and also to be a casual all-star hit. Once the G/W Scryland is printed it could be enough to really push Trostani’s price up until the end of her standard life.



Ral Zarek

Ral Zarek

Ral Zarek is my only pick for U/R that could see a big price increase once the new Scrylands are available. Ral Zarek is kind of insane with Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx – tapping down an opposing blocker whilst untapping my Nykthos? He might find a home in some sort of U/R devotion.

Unfortunately, Ral Zarek is currently my only pick for U/R because there aren’t a lot of powerful spells at rare and mythic rare in Standard for Izzet. U/R seems to have fallen out of a favor as a color combination utilized – Born of the Gods could change that.



The Azorious Scryland will only add to the power of the existing W/U Control deck that exists in Standard. All of the staples of that deck from a financial perspective have already reached their peak values. I do not believe that the Azorious Scryland when printed will affect the price of any particular W/U rare or mythic in a significant way. The only change I could see it making is increasing cards that mesh well with Esper control lists, such as Obzedat, Ghost Council.



Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch

Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch

Exava was able to take down a GP, so there is clearly a lot of power in her ability to strike fast and hard. Since she was printed in a preconstructed deck there is a cap on the price she will be able to command. Despite this, I could easily see Exava creeping up to $5 or $6 once more Rakdos builds are available when the new Scrylands are released.


Rakdos's Return

Rakdos’s Return

Rakdos’s Return is a powerful spell that hasn’t been given a lot of love lately. It appears from time to time in Standard decks but that hasn’t been able to earn it more than a $6 price tag. Rakdos’s Return could be a good pick for the future because once more B/R is played.


Tymaret, the Murder King

Tymaret, the Murder King

Tymaret represents a lot of what “could be” in Standard. It only needs a few more pieces (and better mana fixing) to really make him take off and become the centerpiece of a Standard deck. Since he can only hit players, the deck would need to be focused around a lot of graveyard recursion or token generation in order to really maximize the effect of sacrificing creatures. From a financial standpoint, Tymaret is currently bulk and can be had as a trade throw in. Not a lot of downside and a lot of potential upside if more support is added.


Underworld Cerberus

Underworld Cerberus

Could my speculation on Underworld Cerberus actually pan out after all? I have been seeing a lot of buzz online for the power of Cerberus, and it will only get better once more optimal mana fixing is printed for the Rakdos. It has gotten super cheap to pick this card up, so it could very well be a huge winner when the new Scrylands are revealed.



There is a lot of unused potential in Standard because of the missing Scrylands. There is still plenty of opportunity abound for the savvy trader or player to pick up cheap copies of spells before they potentially spike. Once the new Scrylands are printed the landscape of Standard will change, and currently underutilized cards may see a huge surge in play.

Replacement Effects

When you’re looking at new cards, the immediate impulse is often “Holy crap that would be amazing in my Standard/Modern/Legacy/EDH/Cube list, it works so great with this and that!” I’m sympathetic to this, since I have nine EDH decks, and that means every new card has a potential home.

However, Magic is a game of rules. EDH has a hard rule about 99 cards in the main deck, and only the bravest of souls play Constructed formats with more than 60 cards. For every new card that gets added to a deck, something has to come out. There lies the problem.

I have a very bad habit: I trade for cards that I think will be good in a deck before I think about what has to come out of that deck. This process of “making room” has several complications.

Quantity Conundrum

Conundrum Sphinx

In Commander or Cube, seems easy on the surface. You need one. Unless…you need several. Command Tower and its new cousin, Opal Palace, are something that can really go into any Commander deck.  Very few people can say they have only one EDH deck; we tend to have multiples. There are certainly exceptions to ‘staples,’ but you need to have a reason not to play something as universally good as Solemn Simulacrum in every single deck.

Alternatively in Constructed formats, you’re almost always forced to trade for a playset because it’s better to have that option. You want to be able to slot in the full four if needed. And even if a deck doesn’t play four copies of a specific card this weekend, it very well may next.

The Agony of Choice

In competitive decks, adding a card is often a matter of playing the “which is better?” game, with the loser being removed from your deck. There’s a certain amount of figuring out what to add or subtract for synergy as well. Depending on your deck, you’ll find out in the course of playing if a card needs to stay or go.

In the casual formats, a lot of people like to make changes merely for the sake of making changes. That is valid and can be a lot of fun, but you wind up making changes constantly. One thing that I do, and I know others do, is keep a separate box/binder for cards that are no longer in decks, because I might go back to that card down the road.


This is something I’m terrible at, and I refer you to others more experienced. Suffice to say that if there is some hot new card you want to be the guy running it the first week, but by the time everyone adapts to it, you may need to be off it in order to stay ahead of the curve.

Strategic Planning

I have a small binder full of cards that I traded for to put into EDH decks but never found their way there. I just wasn’t able to find something to take out in favor of the new cards! Primeval Bounty

Such wasted effort in a trade is something I want to avoid. I’ve learned that in Commander at least, it’s possible to plan ahead. Before I trade too hard for a new card, I sit down and look at the deck I want to put that card into. I have to decide what I would take out in favor of that new card – and if I can’t make that decision, then I’m not trading for that card.

Case in point: Primeval Bounty. In light of examining why the price of this card never fell as far as I thought it should, I decided not to trade for all three copies I planned on needing initially. I settled for one that I tried in three different decks, and came away unimpressed.

So when the next big thing hits (we aren’t that far from Born of the Gods spoilers,) be realistic about what you can use. You’ll save yourself some time and effort if you do.