Card Phases, Modern Results, & A 1916 Quarter

In his 100th article for StarCityGames.com, Chas Andres tells you how Pro Tour Born of the Gods has affected Modern card prices just in time for Grand Prix Richmond this weekend!

GP Richmond

Before we dive into Modern, I’d like to talk fundamentals. It’s too easy to get caught up in the excitement of a cool format and forget why the market works the way it does. Let’s go back to the beginning for a few paragraphs, shall we?

Here’s a finance story for you. I’ve paraphrased it from a fantastic Uncle Scrooge comic book that was originally written by Carl Barks in 1954.

Uncle Scrooge owes Donald Duck a nickel. Wanting to screw him over (Scrooge is kind of a jerk), he gives Donald a nickel from the defunct country of Bolonia instead of paying him what he’s owed. Upon taking it home, Huey, Dewey, and Louie look it up in a price guide and tell Donald that his "worthless" nickel is actually valued at $5 as a collectable. Donald takes it back to Scrooge and rubs the mistake in his face (Donald is also kind of a jerk).

Not wanting to be outsmarted, Scrooge pulls a common 1916 quarter out of his pocket (remember, this was written in 1954) and declares that he will turn it into the rarest coin in the world. He buys ad space on radio, on TV, and in the newspaper, declaring that he will pay double for all 1916 quarters. Once he has every 1916 quarter in circulation, he dumps all but one of them in the middle of the ocean. After a multi-issue undersea adventure where Scrooge accidentally destroys his quarter and the gang has to retrieve one of the others from a kingdom of irate merfolk, he brings his 1916 quarter into a coin shop to get it appraised. "It’s worth ten skyrillion dollars," he’s told, "but the only person rich enough to buy it is an eccentric old jillionare named Scrooge McDuck."

This story has multiple applications when analyzed through the lens of Magic finance, but the one I’d like to talk about today is the idea of who decides what cards are worth and how. As a card ages, it goes through different phases where a different part of the market is responsible for setting the price. Not all cards act the same way of course—some only progress through one or two phases ever, while others can rocket through three of them in a single weekend. I use this list as shorthand when evaluating a possible spec because cards in a given phase all tend to behave in similar ways.

Initial Hype: When a card is first released, the price is set by closed auctions on eBay. Most retailers use this data to inform their preorder prices, which provides their initial value. For example, StarCityGames.com usually opens their preorders on the low end of things and then raises the price toward the eBay completed median over the next few days as they keep selling out and restocking.

Regardless, I never buy cards during their initial hype phase unless I am blown away and have a deep belief that I have some hidden knowledge of how the card will do that no one else has, as was the case with Angel of Serenity and Hellrider.

The Long Race To The Bottom: Whenever supply outpaces demand, retail sites and individual sellers alike keep making their prices more and more competitive until they reach a point where sales become steady. This generally occurs with 95% of new cards starting a week or two after release. Bulk rares start here and can stay here permanently. In fact, most cards exist in this state most of the time. Long race to the bottom cards can catch fire in an instant and become the best specs, but they also have the biggest risk of not panning out because an actual increase in demand must come from somewhere.

Sometimes, especially in late summer, format staples will fall out of favor due to rotation or seasonal boredom and will join the long race to the bottom. This is the time to buy them because copies are both cheap and plentiful. In fact, you can be very successful ignoring most Magic finance advice and just buying rotating staples in September to sell the following March. You would have done well with cards like Snapcaster Mage, Geist of Saint Traft, Cavern of Souls, Restoration Angel, and Liliana of the Veil.

The Slow Gainer: These cards tend to be casual favorites or tournament fringe players, and the market is driven almost exclusively by player demand. These are the cards that go up a dollar every couple of months for a year at a time without many people noticing. There used to be a lot of cards like this, but in recent years most of them have been called out by the speculation community. People buy in, and the card spikes immediately because the market cannot handle the additional speculator demand without a comparable price increase. Since there was real increasing demand present before the buyout, however, the prices of these cards tend to stay fairly high.

These are the cards that Magic finance experts, including me, tend to consider the best and safest specs. The issue most of the time is that very few copies of these cards tend to be available at the time of the spike, so most of the people who make money either have to buy in on the way up (a risky tactic) or had to have bought in back when the card was on its long race to the bottom.

Hot New Tech: When something cool and new breaks out at a tournament, especially on video, previously unknown cards suddenly take off. Speculators buy in for the quick flip. Stores snag copies to fill orders. Players get sets to build decks. For a brief shining moment, these cards become the hottest retail item on the planet. The price increase is driven by everyone, and it is based on a universal desire not to miss out on the next format staple.  

Most finance writers recommend against buying into hot new tech, but there is a lot of money to be made if you are the first one in. I have made hundreds of dollars flipping cards on the day of a Pro Tour, and it is rare that one of these cards will quickly settle at a lower price than it started at. The trick is not to buy in at the elevated price, which now can peak even ten or twenty minutes after this tech was discovered. If you aren’t the first one in, you’re better off waiting weeks or even months for the price to drop again. Once the speculators start selling—usually a day or two later—this card returns to being part of the long race to the bottom.

The Random Buyout: The Magic equivalent of Scrooge’s 1916 quarter. One day all the $2 copies disappear and are relisted for $20 each. If the card is from Legends, Antiquities, or is something obscure like a judge foil, the price never comes back down. If enough other copies turn up, the price slowly starts to drift back toward where it was.    

There is no real way to predict these buyouts, and starting your own is not very profitable thanks to how much capital you have to invest solely in hopes of manipulating the market. The best thing to do in light of one of these buyouts is sell your copies into hype as it happens. If you want a copy for personal use, stay away until the long race to the bottom begins once more. Because the market is being driven by one person or store in these cases, it is rare indeed that actual demand will increase, and the price will fall over the long run.

The Tournament Staple: Stoneforge Mystic. Snapcaster Mage. Scalding Tarn. Tundra. These cards are established multi-archetype all-stars. Most of these cards are too expensive and plentiful to be the subject of random buyouts, but they are very susceptible to price increases by larger retailers and dealers. Because demand for these cards is rabid and the price is already fairly high, these are often the biggest gainers in a bull market. The market for these cards is driven by everyone, giving them a very low floor and a very high ceiling.

These cards are the blue chip stocks of the Magic finance market. They rarely go down in price even when they fail to put up recent results—see Liliana of the Veil for example. If you can ever trade into these out of riskier cards, it is almost always worth it. Most of the money I’ve made in Magic finance has simply been due to randomly holding on to cards like these for years as the price keeps going up.

The Format Push: We saw this with Legacy in 2010, and we’re seeing it with Modern right now. Once in a while, an entire format becomes white hot, and the rising tide lifts all boats. The staples explode in price, people start buying out the fringe players, and random cards spike thanks to rogue decks doing well in tournaments. Before long people become unwilling to trade cards that see play in the hot format for cards from other formats. After that people become too afraid to trade or sell their modern cards at all. This is when the prices really get out of hand because available copies dry up fast.

Getting in early is among the most profitable things to do because for a few months at a time the market will be driven by players, speculators, and retail stores alike. Once people begin treating rogue deck results on Magic Online like the top tables of a Pro Tour, though, you end up with a market like the one we’re in now.

When a push like this happens, you have three reasonable paths to follow:

Continue to speculate on undervalued cards. We’re in the middle of a format-wide bull market, so there’s plenty of short-term money to be made. You’ll need to pay a lot of attention, though, because you don’t want to be left holding the bag at the end of Modern season.

Sell into hype. Cards like Snapcaster Mage and Cryptic Command have doubled since last year. That’s sort of nuts considering how expensive they were to begin with. At a certain point it’s just common sense to sell cards at prices you would have killed to get a few months ago. Even if we’re not at the top of the market yet—and I don’t think we are—the prices are still quite high. There’s nothing wrong with locking in your profits right now and waiting a few months to buy back in.

Stand pat. With Modern season not even here yet, Modern staples are already the hottest things in my binder. At some point you just have to reevaluate your projected ceilings on some of these cards. Why can’t Snapcaster Mage join Dark Confidant at $80 in 2015? Why can’t Cryptic Command be the next Force of Will? These cards are proven playable stapes, so I don’t blame anyone for rolling the dice and sticking with them at least through the end of spring. Plus this way you can play with them yourself.

To me, the only real mistake you can make in Modern right now is to buy fringe cards while they’re still the hot new tech or pay full value for staples that you aren’t going to be using. Everything else depends on your appetite for risk and how many of the cards you’ll need to actually play with this season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the results from Pro Tour Born of the Gods and see how the format is shaping up with Grand Prix Richmond right around the corner.

Modern Results

As we discussed in our analysis of Legacy last week, the best predictor for a card maintaining its value over the long run is a solid showing in the Top 8 of a big event. Even though some winning decks were built as specific metagame calls, these are still the lists that prospective deckbuilders will use as their templates. That’s why I always make a big deal about actual results. If you Top 8 at Richmond, you’ll probably see me analyze your deck in this column too!

As I predicted last week, Snapcaster Mage was indeed a big winner coming out of the Pro Tour. This has been a hot spec for months, and now it’s paying dividends. Tiago is sold out here at $40, and I can’t find a single copy under $35 anywhere. If you want to play Snapcasters this Modern season, buy in now. Otherwise I recommend holding off until late summer when I expect the price to dip back toward $30-$35. Long term, though, the sky is the limit for this guy. $50 or more next season wouldn’t shock me. If things keep growing like they have been—far from a given, mind you—Snapcaster Mage could even soar past $80 at some point. It’s in an elite group of very powerful and iconic Magic cards.

Ajani Vengeant spiked last year when Team CFB introduced the Ajundi deck, but multiple printings have kept him fairly stable since then. Even still, I could see this guy reaching $15 at some point during the upcoming season simply because in-demand planeswalkers are high velocity cards. Its ceiling is limited by the aforementioned multiple printings and the fact that it can only really go in a U/W/R or G/B/R/W shell.

Did you know that Celestial Colonnade was already up to $15? It’s a crucial card in all U/W-based Modern control decks, so I’m not too surprised, but I suspect most people will still be willing to trade or sell these in the $8-$10 range where it sat for so long. Regardless, I’m happy trading for these at current retail and consider the card to be a safe long-term hold.

Speaking of real estate, Scalding Tarn is sold out at $80! It will be reprinted at some point, though it’s possible we get the Onslaught fetch lands first. Perhaps one set or the other will be in the fall set—or even in M15 this summer? The price of the Zendikar fetches is clearly Modern’s biggest barrier to entry, so I’d be shocked if another year goes by without an answer from Wizards. I’m keeping my personal set of these, but I’m trading away my extras into Modern season hype.

Cryptic Command is sold out here at $50, and the restock might be closer to $60 based on the prices I’m seeing everywhere else. This card is a crucial format staple, but keep in mind that it was just reprinted at rare in Modern Masters last summer and can only be played in blue-heavy control decks. That should keep this counterspell from getting too much higher. While other speculators have recommended a buy at $40, I would be more interested in putting that money into sealed Modern Masters boxes, which contains far more upside.

Cryptic Command is the first Modern Masters rare—not mythic—that has peaked since the set’s release. It proves that any card from that set can spike at any point. I thought we had another year before random Modern Masters cards shot up in price, but the craziness of this season so far has me rethinking that. I would buy any Modern Masters singles you want ASAP, especially commons, uncommons, and rares.

Porphyry Nodes was a two-of sideboard card here, and it spiked to $5 and has stayed there. SCG is sold out at $4, but I expect the restock to be higher. This is a strong sideboard card in Legacy control as well, so I think it will maintain stability in the $5 range.

Anger of the Gods was a clutch sideboard weapon in this and other decks. It made a fairly large overall impact at the Pro Tour. I’m not a buyer yet though—it’s still a $3 rare from a current set. If it dips to $1 this summer or at rotation, I’ll stock up for the long haul.

No surprises here—this is a pretty standard Pod list. Its namesake card is still holding at $10 despite a strong performance, and I still expect it to trade closer to $15 as the season continues.

If you’re looking for a reasonable upside play here, Razorverge Thicket is still $6, up from $3-$5. There aren’t many sets of it left online, and it could easily trade at $8-$10 later this season or next summer.

Dickmann’s Twin list is fairly unique. In addition to the combo and some control aspects, it’s got a few alternate ways to win the game in Tarmogoyf and Scavenging Ooze. There aren’t too many upside plays here though—Splinter Twin itself jumped in price a few months back, and most of the rest of these cards are already staples. With Birthing Pod stuck at $10, I don’t see how Splinter Twin breaks past $20.

The fourth-place list, played by Anssi Alkio, is much more standard. It contains Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Vendilion Clique instead of the green splash.

I predicted a Remand reprint in either Born of the Gods or Journey into Nyx, but it looks like Wizards didn’t want the card back in Standard. Instead, we’re getting it in Duel Decks: Jace vs. Vraska. Here are the financially relevant cards you’ll find in there along with their current prices (SCG is already preselling singles from the box set):

This is pretty nice for the $20 MSRP, even if it’s really Duel Decks: Jace vs. Remand. Both of those cards see a lot of Constructed play, so it should be easy to buy this and trade away the singles you don’t want. This set should keep the prices of Underworld Connections and Reaper of the Wilds nice and low, so if you’re thinking about speculating on them, I suggest putting your money elsewhere. Long term I think this version of Body Double will go up since the new art is very cool. The opposite is true of Jace; I don’t care for the art on this version at all.

Here’s the U/R Control deck that made waves early on in the tournament. It’s far better in a format where Zoo is a dominant deck, but it probably has enough game to survive to some degree.

It’s worth noting here that six of the Top 8 decks are based in Izzet colors. This caused Scalding Tarn to go through the roof over the past few days, but it still hasn’t moved the price of Steam Vents. Remember, this was the most maligned shock land all last year, and it was the only one easily available at $8 retail. I even found a few for $5-$6! The card is up to $11 retail now, and if U/R continues to dominate Modern, I expect this land to pull away a bit in the coming years.

Steam Vents is a longer-term spec, but I don’t agree with the people who say that shock lands will be cheap forever thanks to Return to Ravnica block. One day you’ll blink and the card will be $20. Get your set before that happens.

In addition, I like Shivan Reef and Sulfur Falls as trade targets. These are still easy enough to find in the $3-$4 range, but the retail price for both is up around $6-$7. There are very few budget U/R lands, so people who want to build these decks without Scalding Tarns are going to need additional options.

Blood Moon itself went up a little, though you can still get it in the $10 range if you look hard enough. That’s a far cry from the $20 I heard predicted on the morning of the first day of the Pro Tour thank goodness. The price here is helped by the number of times the card has been printed, so I don’t suspect it will be a major gainer any time soon. In fact, my guess is that this is pretty close to the ceiling. I would sell or trade extra copies away now.

Vedalken Shackles is a spec I like a little better. It’s only been printed in Fifth Dawn and as a mythic rare in Modern Masters, so the supply is reasonably low. It’s also a very good casual, Cube, and Commander card. SCG still has copies at $13.

Threads of Disloyalty spiked before the Pro Tour in anticipation of Zoo. Even with a poor Zoo showing, there are quite a few copies of the card in the Top 8 which has legitimized the spike. SCG is sold out at $20, but I suspect a restock at $30. Unless the card is reprinted, the new price is probably stable in that $20-$30 range.

Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir is a sideboard one-of from this deck that showed up on camera during the first day of the Pro Tour. Someone bought out the Internet and began restocking at $35-$40. The card is down to $25, and I suspect it will continue dropping off until it gets close to $10 again. This is a pure race to the bottom scenario, and I’m happy to trade away my Teferis at retail all day long.

Mox Opal is the big dog here. If you look at the price chart, you’ll see a continual upward trend from $35 to $50 over the past year. There aren’t that many of these out there, and the demand for them is entirely player based. I wouldn’t be shocked if these continue to make a move toward $70-$80 as Affinity continues to be a tier 1 deck that isn’t in much danger of a ban.

If you want to speculate on other parts of this deck, I recommend taking a look at Arcbound Ravager. This card has made zero gains since the Modern Masters printing and is close to its all-time low. Cryptic Command’s recent jump proves that Modern Masters alone cannot hold a price back, and I suspect some of the other staples from that set in heavy rotation will be the next cards to make a leap. Blinkmoth Nexus, Inkmoth Nexus, and Glimmervoid could be due for a bump as well.

The biggest draw of Storm is how cheap it is other than the fetch lands, but several all-time greats proved last weekend that the deck can put up results in Modern if it’s played well. Pyromancer Ascension jumped from $2 to $10, but I expect this price will correct downward back toward the $5 range soon. Past in Flames should stabilize close to that point as well. Both of those cards are worth monitoring as we see how much of the demand is due to players "discovering" Storm thanks to the Pro Tour coverage and how much is speculator-driven hot new tech.

My favorite buy in this deck is foil Modern Masters Manamorphose. It is gorgeous and still very cheap compared with how much play it sees. It’s also very easy to trade above retail on the local level simply due to scarcity. I would start pulling foil copies of Goblin Electromancer out of the bulk foil box at your local game store as well.

With three copies in the Top 8, Splinter Twin was clearly the deck to beat in Valencia, though whenever combo gets too good, it’s taken out by either a ban or a lot of hate. This is yet another version, this time featuring a white splash for Restoration Angel, Wall of Omens, and some top-notch spot removal.

Restoration Angel bottomed out at $4 last summer, but it still has some room to grow at $8. If Tim had won the Pro Tour last weekend with this list, Restoration Angel would be back up to $15 already—that’s how quickly these things move. I’m not a speculator at $8, but I’d buy a personal set for Modern season if needed.

Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker is weirdly cheaper now than it was last year. This is another example of speculators staying out of Modern Masters cards, which has given players an extended window of time to buy. Even though the Twin deck without Kiki finished the highest, demand for this card is going to go up, and the fact that this was a mythic rare in Modern Masters means that the supply is still very low. I expect this to be a $30-$35 card in a couple of months if Twin keeps doing well.

Looking beyond the Top 8, there are a few other builds I want to highlight:

Here’s a totally different kind of storm deck, this one abusing Ad Nauseum. This has long been a crucial Legacy card, and I called it a top spec at several different points last year. If this deck had made the Top 8 instead of being stuck in ninth, Ad Nauseam probably would have jumped to $5-$6. I still love it as a buy at $2 retail.

How on earth is Master of the Pearl Trident still just a $3 card? Merfolk is a viable Legacy deck, and it did quite well in Modern last weekend as well. This lord was printed in a single core set and is primed for a jump toward $7-$8.

It’s nice to see Master of Waves in two of the Top 10 decks at Pro Tour Born of the Gods, and that’s worth remembering in a year or so when the card rotates. It’s a nice long-term Eternal prospect, though it will almost certainly drop in price before it goes up again.

Arjan was buried back in 54th place, but this is still a very cool deck that’s worth taking a look at. It isn’t a cheap deck to put together, but I can imagine several people will since it uses a classic and fun schoolyard Magic strategy to win. I would say to move in on Ensnaring Bridge, but apparently that card has already jumped to $20 based on this list, which is nuts. I’m a seller at that price.

I talked a lot about this deck last week, but it’s worth highlighting again. Azusa, Lost but Seeking has stabilized at $25 while Amulet of Vigor is $5, but demand started to fall off with Matthias not having a great second day. I still expect some people to attempt building this deck going forward, though it’s notoriously tricky to play. I think Azusa will stabilize around $20 and Amulet between $3 and $4.

This Week’s Trends

As a final note, this has been my 100th article for StarCityGames.com. Thanks so much for all of your support, and here’s to the next 100!

GP Richmond