Pretend for a moment that you work in the internal affairs division of a large police department. Part of your job is evaluating instances of police
misconduct and trying to determine if the officer made the right decision at the time of his or her error, regardless of the outcome.
A case crosses your desk. A SWAT team had raided what they thought was a stash house. The initial report had come from a confidential informant who had
provided good intelligence in the past. Surveillance revealed several wanted drug criminals coming and leaving at odd hours. A circuit judge heard all of
this and issued the squad a warrant to search the place. The SWAT team announced themselves before entering and burst through the doors at 5:30 AM, hoping
to catch the inhabitants unaware. What they didn’t know – the missing piece of information – was that the house had actually held a support group for
junkies trying to get clean. It had been a safe and judgment-free space in a city with few other options for felons to go.
The police made a mistake. Was it a mistake that should have been caught beforehand though? Did someone fail to do their due diligence and ignore the
obvious signs, or was it the kind of failure that inevitably happens in a complex bureaucracy like the police force? That’s where the evaluation gets much
This is a Magic finance column, of course, and our focus today isn’t on whether a fictitious police officer might have made the wrong call in a fictitious
raid. What interests me here isn’t the process that leads to failure; it’s the narrative that coalesces after the fact – the idea that people see events as
having been predetermined regardless of whether or not there was any objective basis for believing so beforehand. This heuristic is called creeping
determinism, and it’s very problematic when it comes to card evaluation and price prediction. I’ll explain exactly why a little bit later on, but first I
want to return to the story about the internal affairs officer and the wayward SWAT team.
I had already biased you-purposely–before you started reading the story of the raid gone wrong. Not only did I tell you that the case had gone to internal
affairs, but I also couched the story in the language of failure analysis, using phrases like “what they thought” and “hoping to,” giving you clues that
things ended poorly for the police. If I had ended my story with the line, “and it was a successful bust where ten kilos of cocaine were captured along
with several local dealers,” you would have been surprised, right? It would have challenged the frame of narrative reference that you had built around the
story – namely, that of a drug bust gone wrong.
People build these narrative frames of reference around everything in their lives. Things that come to pass feel inevitable in hindsight, and the other
outcomes that were just as possible at the time are quickly forgotten. In addition, we also forget the doubt and uncertainty we had about a particular
thing coming to pass before it happens. Not only do we believe that what happened was somehow inevitable, but we also believe that we had seen it coming.
In 1973, psychologist Baruch Fischhoff – the man who discovered and named the phenomenon of creeping determinism – decided to test his theory.
Then-president Richard Nixon was preparing for a landmark diplomatic mission to Moscow and Beijing, the capitals of two communist countries that were, at
the time, America’s main enemies. Fischhoff asked his test subjects to state what they felt was the likely outcome of the trip – would Nixon be successful
in easing tensions with Moscow? Would he even get a meeting with the leaders of China? — as well as to grade the certainty of their prediction.
Luckily for Fischhoff, Nixon ended up reaching an unprecedented trade agreement with China, a 99th percentile outcome that very few would have predicted.
He went back to his subjects and asked them how they felt about their predictions now that the outcome was known. Across the board, his subjects
overestimated their predictions that Nixon would be successful by a huge amount. Not only did they believe that Nixon’s success was reasonably inevitable,
they believed that they had known it would happen all along.
One of the places where creeping determinism poses the biggest threat is in evaluating the mistakes that doctors make. Time and time again, it is shown
that people are biased against doctors’ decisions once it is known that the outcome of their actions was negative. If you give the same group of medical
evaluators the same chain of symptoms and treatments without telling them that things went wrong, or if you lie to them and tell them that the outcome of
the mistake was neutral, they are much more likely to agree that the doctor made the right call at the time. Once the evaluators know the negative outcome,
they start to believe that the doctor should have known better at the time.
I’ve written about narrative-oriented thinking before, but the
idea that we remember our predictions differently from how we actually made them is something I had never given much thought to before learning about
creeping determinism while reading a fascinating New Yorker article last
week. Interestingly enough, I came across the perfect example from my own life last summer and used it in an article in order to make a completely
different point. Here’s an excerpt from last September’s Predicting Stuff is Hard. It’s important to note that at the time
this was written, Scavenging Ooze had just risen from $15 (its pre-order price) to $25 and seemed poised to dominate Standard:
A few weeks ago, I came across u/fyawm’s review of M14 predictions on the Magic finance subreddit. I got excited because I felt like I really nailed
; I was high on Mutavault, Scavenging Ooze, and Archangel of Thune
; I pegged Burning Earth to break out
; and I panned most of the overpriced planeswalkers.
Then I saw this:
: “Scavenging Ooze will settle in the $10 range-Fauna Shaman territory-before rising toward $20 next spring.” (-2) – wrong call, should have bought.
Wait a minute – really? I didn’t even remember making that prediction! Did I really deserve to lose two whole points for failing to predict a card that
did exactly what I thought it would do?
I decided to check the tape. Below is my entire Scavenging Ooze call, re-printed from my M14 set review. I bolded the parts that stuck out to the guy
who reviewed me:
Scavenging Ooze –
This card is also the real deal. I think people are underestimating
because it has fallen slightly out of favor in Legacy. Don’t hold that against it-you can say the same thing about many other cards that absolutely
dominated Standard. The fact that
came to us by way of the Commander pre-con and hasn’t yet had a chance in Standard or Modern is intriguing, and it is possible that the card is being
way underrated right now.
I see this dropping to $6-$8 if it doesn’t see immediate play-the promo is helping saturate the market-but if it becomes a tier 1 staple, it should
stabilize more in the $20-$25 range. My guess?
will settle in the $10 range-Fauna Shaman territory-before rising toward $20 next spring.
Much like with
, it is perfectly fine to grab a set of these now if you think you’ll need to
At the time, I used this anecdote to discuss the difference between set reviews written with certainty (clear predictions are made, shots are called) and
set reviews written with uncertainty (many possible trajectories of a card are discussed, with the author highlighting his or her pick of the likeliest).
What I glossed over was my own bafflement at seeing a prediction I had considered a hit to be graded as a miss. I clearly remember seeing Scavenging Ooze
tick up from $15 to $20 to $25 and feeling giddy that I had made the right call in my article. It never occurred to me that I had qualified my prediction
with so much uncertainty. Creeping determinism colored my analysis of what had actually happened, making me think that I had shot a bull’s-eye when in
reality I had barely hit the target.
Creeping determinism is a problem when it comes to Magic finance because it prevents us from objectively analyzing our predictions. It gives us more
confidence in our methods than we should have. In January of 2013, for example, the Magic finance community was in near hundred percent agreement about one
fact: invest in shocklands. At the time, the five Return to Ravnica shocks were trading between $9 and $15, and people had just stopped drafting the set
until late Spring. Speculators began hoarding shocks, assuming that the supply was going to keep dwindling while demand steadily rose. Shocklands rising
was a reasonable call to make, and I fully supported it at the time.
About a month later, of course, Wizards of the Coast announced that Dragon’s Maze would contain all ten shocklands. It was an unprecedented move that no
one could have hoped to predict. As a result, shockland prices continued to drop and they were trading between $6 and $12 by midsummer.
At this point, many of the people who had spent the winter trading for shocklands had changed their personal narrative. Their new story was about how the
price drop was inevitable for any number of reasons – a lousy Standard format, proximity to set rotation, or the sheer popularity of RTR block. Even still,
many of them doubled-down on their call to buy shocklands (again, myself included) believing that they would still climb toward that $15-$20 range during
Again, however, the speculators ended up disappointed. Shocklands are currently trading a buck or two higher than they were last summer, but no one has had
a chance to make much money on them. I’ve got a stack of them collecting dust in my closet, and I imagine many of you are in the same boat. They may still
pay off long term – I expect they will, in fact – but to date, my shockland speculation endeavors have been unsuccessful.
The reason that shocklands never spiked was because the overall supply ended up being much larger than most of us assumed it would be. This is partially
the result of leftover supply from the original Ravnica block and the popularity of RTR, two predictable variables, and partially because of the Dragon’s
Maze reprint, a completely unpredictable variable.
Those of you sitting on stacks of shocklands know the pain of their inaccurate prediction all too well and are unlikely to have fallen victim to creeping
determinism in this case. Those of you who chose not to speculate on shocks, however, are at risk of overvaluing your own analysis of the situation. Did
you stay away from shocklands last winter because you thought they were a bad investment, or did you just get lazy or lucky? Are you sure?
It seems inevitable now that shocklands were going to stay in the $10 range during their entire time in Standard, but we’re looking at that question
through the lens of hindsight. At the time, the argument that shocklands were due for a spike was very compelling and well-reasoned. In fact, we didn’t
even know about one of the key variables – Dragon’s Maze – until very late in the game. It is very possible that without this additional supply influx, the
lands would have spiked last summer as predicted. After all, that’s what happened to the Innistrad block lands the year prior and the Scars of Mirrodin
lands the summer before that. That’s what might happen to the Theros scrylands in a few weeks too.
Creeping determinism is an even bigger problem for people who follow Magic finance without doing much speculation themselves. Putting your own money down
on a spec forces you to follow through, and often times you’ll get a clear win or an obvious loss – no chance of self-delusion. If you only speculate in
theory, however, it is easy to pat yourself on the back for a call you ‘got right’ when, in fact, creeping determinism is preventing you from remembering
what your true pre-spike opinion of the card was. This is partially why I shake my head whenever someone decides to “become a speculato” and immediately
dumps all of their capital into a couple of risky picks straight away. It takes practice and a lot of self-analysis to learn how to actually evaluate
If you’re new to the game, build a fake portfolio with a spreadsheet app. Give yourself some starting capital – $1,000 is usually a good number – and
pretend that you’re buying and selling cards just as you would with real money. This will help you grow your speculation skills much faster than reading
any column, mine included. Your brain might not tell you the truth sometimes, but the numbers will always be brutally honest.
Veteran players and speculators are just as easily affected by creeping determinism, and it’s much harder to catch your brain playing tricks on you when
you feel confident in your own abilities. Checking the numbers works just as well for those of us who have been doing this for a long time, but if you have
an opinion about nearly every card, as I do, it isn’t nearly enough.
On my best days, I am a process-oriented thinker, not a results-oriented thinker. If I tell you that Mana Confluence will be a $35 card because of Standard
play, and it jumps to $35 because of a weird new Modern deck while seeing zero play in Standard, that’s a miss for me. I also don’t like making simple
predictions – I prefer to draw invisible lines of probability, trying to figure out where a card will end up depending on dozens of other variables. Often
times, this is where I’ll trip myself up and fall victim to creeping determinism. Going back to my Scavenging Ooze review, I was more or less right – it
was $20-$25 when it saw play in Standard, and $6-$8 when it didn’t. This is the call I had remembered making and why I had decided to pat myself on the
back when the card jumped in price. Where I failed was in my prediction of what Scavenging Ooze’s immediate future would be which is the key actionable
element. This is the part that I had conveniently forgotten about and rewritten in my mind.
Now that I know about creeping determinism, I have a much stronger urge to “check the tape” before claiming victory on a speculation call. Thinking that a
bad call was good leads to a bad process, which can create a cascade chain of further bad calls. It’s hard to own up to mistakes – especially when you
remember them as successes – but it’s one of the most important things you can do. Otherwise, you might find yourself trading with unearned confidence
because you believe yourself to know the market in a way that you objectively do not.
Creeping determinism is also worth thinking about in the greater context of our lives. It often seems inevitable that we’ve ended exactly where we have –
living in this house, doing this job, surrounded by these people. On the best of days, this feeling approaches the blind joy of destiny, that little shiver
of affirmation that comes with knowing that you are sitting across from the love of your life or that years of hard work and discipline have finally given
you the chance to do something truly wonderful. On the dark days, creeping determinism can make you feel trapped in a chamber of self-loathing, shackled to
the seeming inevitability of a life that you never wanted but somehow cosmically deserve.
Neither outlook is true – not really. Our lives are partially the result of our choices and partially the result of dumb luck, random chance, and an
infinite number of things that happened completely outside of your control. This doesn’t excuse bad behavior, nor should it cheapen life’s victories, but
it does mean that you are free of having to endure any kind of negative destiny that you might ascribe to the rest of your life. The past was not as
predetermined as you think it was, and the future is not as predetermined as it appears to be. Actions have consequences, but actions can change. The only
question is how badly you want things to be different.
This Week’s Trends
– The uncommon cycle of tri-lands from Khans has been confirmed. This doesn’t rule out a rare cycle of lands in the set, nor does it hurt the value
potential of the Theros block Temples or Mana Confluence. It does make it slightly more likely that the most powerful three-color cards in Khans will be
Standard playable, and it might cause the five uncommon Shards lands to rise in price slightly as casual players attempt to complete a full set of ten.
– The first World Magic Cup Qualifier foil promo Geist of Saint Trafts have hit the streets, and they’re pretty cool. I expect the price to start high –
possibly in the $50 range – before dropping toward $30-$35 retail as the supply picks up. If you have one, sell it soon. If you want one, wait.
– Last week, Sam Stoddard said that the days of the
unconditional four-mana wrath may be over. Wizards seems to be moving more toward conditional three and four mana sweepers supplemented by five and six
mana unconditional nukes. If this comes to pass, expect non-creature control to suffer slightly in the near future – getting that wrath down on turn 4 was
crucial for a deck like U/W Control. Creature-based control should improve, as should the better conditional wraths. I liked Anger of the Gods a lot as a
spec before, and I like it even more now.
– As expected, Xenagos, the Reveler doubled in price from roughly $7 to roughly $15. Even though a big part of this rise seems to have been a coordinated
buyout, I expect the new price point to stick around at least through the first couple weeks of the new Standard environment. If Xenagos sees no play,
he’ll drop like a stone. I doubt this will happen, however. It’s okay to buy or trade for copies at $15 if you actually need them, but as a speculator I’m
staying far away.
– If I needed to pick a card that would follow the Xenagos spike, it would be Kiora. She’s been trending upward for a couple of weeks now, and I expect
that her price floor is behind us at this point. Pick up copies now if you need them.
– Need M15 cards for your casual and Commander decks? Continue holding off. Most of these cards are still steadily dropping, and they should hit their
short-term price floors in a couple of months.
– Did you know that Orzhov Pontiff was an $8 card now? It jumped from $1 to $4 earlier this year and from $4 to $8 earlier this month. Check your bulk rare
boxes if you’ve got ’em.
– The Abyss may spike soon. Someone tried to buy them out, jumping the price from the $170 range to the $220 range. Since then, several have shown up at
the old price without selling. If someone decides to throw a lot of cash at the problem, the new price may take. If you’ve been holding off on snagging a
copy for a while, I’d do it sooner rather than later.