It’s Time To Buy These Modern Staples

What good are great speculation buys if you don’t cash in on them?! For a number of reasons, now is the time to get those Modern value gains! Chas explains why in this multifaceted look at the most popular format in tournament Magic!

I was going to make you suffer through a really convoluted metaphor at the
start of this article. Be thankful I decided against it. It had a bunch of
stuff about how watering grass is like Magic finance, and there were a
bunch of hoses and lawnmowers and other nonsense. I think we’re all better
off for me deciding to spare you the bad poetry and get down to business.

So here’s the business.

The trick to doing well in Magic finance is simple: buy when everyone else
is selling and sell when everyone else is buying. That’s it. If you can
figure out how to do that over and over again, you’re golden.

Sure, the occasional moonshot score like Arclight Phoenix is great, but
turning $3 into $20 over and over again is simply not a realistic goal.
Unless you’re either incredibly active or incredibly lucky, the speculation
market is not going to provide you with enough consistency to give you
anything more than an occasional bonus. This is why I harp on seasonal
trends so much. If you’re dropping money into cards near their yearly price
floor, it’s very hard to lose. These buys are significantly less sexy than
hitting on the next big breakout mythic, but it’s the best way to build
long-term collection equity on the cheap.

Which brings us to the current state of the Modern market.

You may have noticed that Modern prices have been slowly declining for
about six months now. Here’s what’s happened to the ten most expensive
cards in the format since May 1st, 2018, according to MTG Goldfish:

Okay, so some of these cards haven’t lost much value – a dollar is a
rounding error for a tier one staple like Noble Hierarch – but the fact
that all ten of the priciest cards in the format are down from this spring
tells me that this is a definitive trend. In fact, the overall Modern index is down about twenty percent from
its yearly high back in early May. That’s a pretty significant drop.

Why has your Modern collection lost so much value? Well, one
possibility is that Magic and/or Modern is dying and everything is horrible
and prices will continue to drop and EVERYBODY NEEDS TO PANIC!

This doesn’t seem all that likely to me, though. While I can no longer find
the source, I remember reading a few weeks back that Guilds of Ravnica had the highest Prerelease attendance figures of
any set ever. Anecdotal evidence certainly backs up the popularity of this
set, and it’s pretty clear that Magic is not facing any sort of imminent
attendance crisis.

It doesn’t seem like Modern is facing any sort of popularity reckoning
either. The format is still deep, challenging, interesting, diverse, and
popular. It’s not like WotC printed or unbanned some crazy combo that has
made Modern suck. In fact, Modern has been awesome for the past couple of
years, and the format doesn’t show any signs of becoming either stale or

It doesn’t seem like Modern is facing any
sort of popularity reckoning either. The format is still deep, challenging,
interesting, diverse, and popular.

Are reprints to blame for your collection’s overall loss of value? Not this
time. Modern prices were still rising back in the early spring,
concurrently with the Masters 25 release, and there haven’t been
any significant Modern reprints released at any point over the past couple
of months.

So if Modern is still great, Magic is still popular, and there haven’t been
any reprints recently, why did your Modern collection lose 20% of its
value? It’s mostly because the eyes of the Magic world have been elsewhere.
We went from an all-time great Standard set (Dominaria) into the
summer lull and then into another all-time great Standard set ( Guilds) coupled with the yearly rotation. With all of that, who’s
had any time to think about Modern?

Modern won’t be out of the spotlight for long, though.

For starters, it’s quite likely that we have a new Masters set coming up in
just a few weeks! While WotC isn’t going to formally announce Ultimate Masters until the morning that this article goes live, a
bunch of really exciting promos were mailed to folks who purchased copies
of Guilds of Ravnica: Mythic Edition late last week. I’ll be
talking about these cards a little bit later in the article, but suffice to
say a new Masters set would absolutely help stimulate the Modern market.

Even if that Masters set tease turns out to be something else, we’ve got
the inevitable Modern unbanning hype to look forward to. It happens every
winter, usually in conjunction with the release of the January expansion,
and it gets everybody thinking about the shifting Modern metagame. We’ve
also got the inevitable announcement of a Modern Pro Tour at some point in
the first quarter of 2019 to consider. Eternal prices always seem to peak
in the spring, too, either due to tax refund season or simply because
that’s the time of year that people seem to have the most time and money to
dedicate to Magic.

I’m going into depth on this stuff because I want you to understand where
I’m coming from when I tell you that now is a great time to buy Modern. We
can paint a clear picture of why Modern cards lost value this year, and we
can also look to the future and see exactly why they’re likely to start
gaining value before too much longer.

But which Modern cards are the best buys right now? Heck, what is the
Modern metagame even going to look like in four or five months? Let’s begin
our discussion by talking about:

The Most Important Cards In The Safest Decks

Trying to guess the future of the Modern metagame is incredibly difficult.
A year ago, there was virtually no Dredge deck in Modern at all. Six months
ago, Vengevine was ripping through the format like a knife through butter.
Now there’s a tier one Dredge deck that circumvents the Vengevine
shenanigans altogether.

One of the hardest things about predicting the future is trying not to
overreact to the current moment. For example, Infect is on the rise on MTGO
and looks like it might be a great deck again, but the numbers simply
aren’t there yet. Ditto for Runaway Red and Izzet Phoenix. Will either of
these decks prove good enough? Will both? It’s just too early to say.

On the other hand, Hollow One’s popularity has been on the wane recently,
but it has enough of a track record to make me feel like it will continue
to see play through the start of 2019, albeit probably not at the level
that we’re used to.

Let’s leave these new hotshot decks aside for a moment. If I had to pick
the decks that I’m the most confident will still be top metagame choices
six months from now, this is my list.

  • Dredge
  • Humans
  • Jund
  • Mono-Green Tron
  • Azorius/Jeskai Control
  • Hollow One
  • Affinity
  • Ironworks

None of these decks should be too much of a surprise.
I wrote about five of these decks in my article about Modern’s top tier
back in August.

The sixth – Dredge – is occupying the same sliver of the metagame that
Rakdos Vengevine had back then, which is why I’m so confident about its
success going forward. The seventh – Affinity – has a track record as long
as the format itself. The eighth – Jund – as an equally long track record,
a new piece of tech in Assassin’s Trophy, and some decent MTGO results
backing it up. Seven of these decks are in the top twelve of

MTG Goldfish’s Modern metagame share

. The eighth, Ironworks, continues to win big events as long as it’s
piloted by someone who knows the deck really well.

Now that we have our eight key decks, let’s see if we can identify their
key staples. For this, I’m going to use the following two criteria:

  • A retail price of at least $15.
  • At least three copies (according to the MTG Goldfish default lists)
    across all eight decklists.

My reasoning here is that sub-$15 cards are going to be easy enough for
Modern players to acquire as an afterthought, and thus won’t be subject to
the same type of gains as the cards that define the metagame. Meanwhile,
cards that only show up as one-ofs or two-ofs in a single deck are far more
likely to be replaced or phased out due to metagame considerations since
they’re clearly not the focus of the deck.

So, once we filter out the chaff, here’s what we get, organized by price in
ascending order:

At first glance, this just looks like a list of the most expensive cards in
Modern. I’m sure you scanned it, nodded sagely, and then moved on to this
paragraph. But the reason why I actually went through all those decks and
recorded their prices one at a time is precisely because this isn’t just a list of the most expensive cards in Modern.

Misty Rainforest isn’t on here, for example. Neither are Chalice of the
Void, Ensnaring Bridge, Through the Breach, Marsh Flats, Vengevine, or
dozens of other $20+ Modern staples. And while there might be decent
reasons to buy each and every one of those cards, I think it’s worth having
a list of the safest top tier Modern staples to fall back on when you’re
making decisions about what to buy or trade for.

You’re not going to be getting one over on anyone by acquiring any of these
cards, and I don’t expect any of them to suddenly double in price because
they’re already so expensive. But when the market is down overall, there’s
something to be said for simply targeting the most important cards in an
effort to build your collection through incremental gains. All these cards
have extremely high floors, and if they’ve been on your radar for a while,
now is the time to finally make your move.

Revisiting Iconic Masters and Masters 25

Investing in Modern’s safest staples is one good approach to a down market.
Another one of my favorite moves is taking a look at the latest Masters set
and snagging the best cards from them before they rebound. Remember the
disappointment that was Iconic Masters? Well, that set had Horizon
Canopy, Aether Vial, Cryptic Command, Bloodghast, and Grove of the
Burnwillows in it. Those five cards are on my list of key staples from the
last section, and all of them have gone up in price since their
post-reprinting low.

I don’t think Iconic Masters is fully tapped out, either. While
some cards from this set might be reprinted in one of the next few Masters
sets, it’s far more likely that they’ll hold off for another few years
until they cycle back in. Nothing is reprint-proof, but most cards have a
nice window of time to gain value before they headline another Masters set.

While Iconic Masters doesn’t have too many other key Modern
staples, a few cards do jump out at me. Thoughtseize, Ancestral Vision,
Primeval Titan, and Oblivion Stone are all fairly important cards that
could be primed for a jump. The first three feel like they’re always on the
cusp of seeing a lot more play, while Oblivion Stone would have made my key
staples list were it slightly more expensive. At the very least, these four
cards are decent trade targets at current retail.

Unfortunately, Masters 25 only has one card on the key staples
list: Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Gosh, what a disappointing set! Jace is a
very good card, though, and I suppose this does underscore the importance
of snagging your copies now. While I wouldn’t be shocked if Jace makes a
Tarmogoyf-like appearance as the face of another Masters set before too
long, it’s equally possible that they’ll wait a while to build the hype
back up again. Regardless, I don’t think another Masters reprint would
cause Jace to drop all that much, making it a pretty safe snag.

Are there other solid buys in Masters 25? Yes, but they’ll require
a shift in the metagame. Chalice of the Void, Ensnaring Bridge, Azusa, Lost
but Seeking, and Blood Moon are all very good cards that just aren’t seeing
a ton of play right now. If that changes – and it very well might,
especially with Blood Moon showing up in Runaway Red – then you’ll wish you
bought into these cards back when they were at their post-reprint lows.

Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Eidolon of the Great Revel are also great
Modern cards that are simply below my fairly arbitrary $15 cut-off. It’s
worth making sure that you have playsets of these before the end of the
year as well.

The Latest Tech

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that the Modern metagame six months from
now will feature at least one (and probably more) hot new deck. The fact
that everything changes is one of the only certainties in life, and that
goes double for Magic finance. Correctly predicting the next big thing is
difficult, but it also leads to the biggest potential profits.

With Dredge and Mono-Green Tron claiming large shares of the metagame,
we’ve begun to see fewer pieces of cheap spot removal floating around the
top tables. You know what’s good against a field of decks that don’t run
Lightning Bolt or Path to Exile? Infect. Infect is good.

You know what’s interesting about Infect? It doesn’t add any cards to our
list of $15 three-or staples. Noble Hierarch is already expensive because
of Humans, Inkmoth Nexus is in Affinity, and Wooded Foothills is in several
top decks. If you’re looking for a spec out of this deck, Spellskite is
probably your best bet. It’s a sub-$10 rare now, but it was as high as $40
back in Infect’s heyday and it hasn’t been reprinted since then. Seeing it
jump back up into the $20-$25 range doesn’t seem like a huge stretch.

Runaway Red also seems to have quite a lot of potential, but it’s such a
new deck and I’m not really sure how the metagame will react to it yet. It
doesn’t have any expensive staples in it other than Arclight Phoenix and
Surgical Extraction, though Blood Moon certainly has some rebound
potential. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Bedlam Reveler and Manamorphose
end up making gains if this deck starts catching on more.

We did just have a major Modern tournament, though, and while I’m finishing
up this article before the Top 8 have been announced at Grand Prix Atlanta,
WotC did tell us that the following decks were piloted to an 8-0 finish on
Day One:

  • Humans (x2)
  • Azorius Control (x2)
  • Dredge (x2)
  • Jeskai Control
  • Hollow One
  • Jund
  • Hexproof
  • Storm
  • The Rock

This is yet another data point to help cement my opinion that Dredge is
already a tier one deck. Beyond that, though, most of these decks are known
quantities. Humans, Azorius Control, Jeskai Control, Hollow One, and Jund
all made my “best decks” list, while Hexproof and Storm have been solid
second tier choices for years; the sort of decks that can take down a
tournament or two without anyone batting an eye. I have no idea what this
Rock deck looks like, but it’s probably fairly similar to an existing Jund
or Abzan list but without the third color. [The Sol ring strikes again. – DWest]

So yeah. Feel free to go off the beaten path if you want to, but it’s worth
remembering that the existing good decks are good for a reason.

Predicting Ultimate Masters

I would have spent this entire article talking about Ultimate Masters if I thought it was going to be more useful to
you, but the fact that the official WotC article announcing the set is
going to be published in tandem with this article makes it difficult. Any
speculation I do here is going to be rendered obsolete the instant it goes

That said, there are several likely possibilities for the Ultimate Masters announcement, and I think it’s worth reacting to
each of them in turn. That way, you won’t have to wait until next week to
know how I feel about what might end up being one of the most important
sets in the history of the game.

Possibility #1: All of the
Ultimate Masters

cards previewed over the weekend are going to be released as the
mythics, rares, and uncommons in an amazing new Masters set called

Ultimate Masters
. It’ll have a fairly wide release just like
Iconic Masters
Masters 25.

In order to encourage players to buy boxes from their local shop, those
sweet full-art promos will essentially be Buy-A-Box promos for the set.

This is certainly possible, and I know it’s what most of you are hoping
for, but I don’t know how likely it is. It would be a massive reversal of
WotC’s Masters set direction after Masters 25, going from far and
away the least valuable Masters set to far and away the best. Are we really
getting Lilliana of the Veil, Snapcaster Mage, Tarmogoyf, Demonic Tutor,
Dark Depths, Bitterblossom, Cavern of Souls, Fulminator Mage, Ancient Tomb,
Engineered Explosives, Leovold, Emissary of Trest, Noble Hierarch, all the
Eldrazi Titans, all the Worldwake creature-lands, Karakas, and all
the rest in the same set? Maybe. If so, we could be in for a massive
devaluation – 40%-50% at least – of these cards due to how popular and
value-filled this set is going to be.

If this is the announcement, you’re going to want to sell your Engineered
Explosives and Celestial Colonnades ASAP while picking up key Modern cards
that aren’t in this set. This type of bombshell would shift the Modern
market considerably, likely causing the price of non- Ultimate Masters Modern staples to jump over the short term. If
WotC kept releasing sets like this, though, we could see the entire Modern
market drop in price considerably over the next couple of years as the
influx of good reprints goes from a trickle to a deluge.

Possibility #2: The same as Possibility #1, only with more restrictions
on price or availability. Maybe the set is a Hasbro Toy Shop Exclusive,
or a very limited LGS distribution, or the MSRP has jumped from
$10/pack to $15 or even $20/pack.

People are going to be miffed if Ultimate Masters is super limited
or super expensive, but this seems like a likely possibility to me. It’s a
great way for WotC to have their cake and eat it too, reprinting dozens of
expensive cards without devaluing them much on the secondary market. If Ultimate Masters is very limited-say, one box per person on the
Hasbro Toy Shop-you’re going to want to do everything you can to place your
order. As we learned from Guilds of Ravnica: Mythic Edition and
the Masterpiece series, the marketplace can easily handle a small
influx of high-end cards without the price dropping too much. We might see
some of these staples drop off in the short-term, but they’d probably
rebound fairly quickly.

Possibility #3:
Ultimate Masters
is a lower quality Masters set, similar to
Iconic Masters
Masters 25

, and the cards we saw previewed over the weekend are simply part of a
Masterpiece-style run of promos that are given out as an added
incentive when you buy a box.

If this ends up being the case, then we’ll have to wait and see what Ultimate Masters actually looks like before we make any calls
about the set. As I said in the last paragraph, you’re unlikely to get much
of a discount on staples like Liliana of the Veil or Snapcaster Mage if
they aren’t given a wide release.

Possibility #4:
Ultimate Masters

isn’t a set with normal booster packs at all. It’s just a weird
sub-release of sweet full-art foils. Maybe these packs will replace
Buy-A-Box promos going forward, or maybe you can buy a “box” on the
Hasbro Toy Shop that’s really just 28 random cards, one in each pack.

Most of us are operating under the assumption that Ultimate Masters is a full set, but what if it’s just…not? What if
WotC is going to use these sweet foils as a way to incentivize you to buy
other products? Or what if they’re just going to sell them more or less
as-is, like a more bald-faced version of Guilds of Ravnica: Mythic Edition? As with the other limited
release possibilities, this would be a way for WotC to effectively print
money without affecting the secondary market all that much.

I’ll have more on Ultimate Masters next week, once we know more.
For now, all you really need to keep in mind is that you only need to sell
your Ultimate Masters staples if it looks like buying packs full
of Lilianas and Demonic Tutors and Tarmogoyfs is going to be easy. If not,
don’t expect too much of a long-term discount on these cards.

This Week’s Trends

  • First, let’s talk Standard. The metagame is still moving at
    lightning speed, and I’m not sure you can actually call Golgari
    Midrange the best deck at this point.
    As Sam Black pointed out in his article last week
    , a full two-thirds of the players with three buys at Grand Prix
    New Jersey chose to play the deck and not a single one of them made
    it into the top 8. That’s buck wild!

So what is good in Standard? Well, I hope you bought your playset
of Azor’s Gateway
back when I spent, like, a full third of an article shouting about it
, because it’s finally time for that card to shine. So much so that the
latest versions of Jeskai Control are being called Jeskai Gateway; they use
the interaction between Azor’s Gateway and Explosion to wreak all sorts of
havoc. Azor’s Gateway jumped from $5 to $15, and at this point its price is
going to depend on how the deck does at the upcoming Pro Tour. If this ends
up being the breakout strategy next week, the card will break $20 and could
even hit $30.

Carnage Tyrant was the other big gainer of the week. Hey,
I was all over that one, too!
I don’t mean to spend too much time on my victory lap, but if I’m going to
be hard on myself when I lost (like I was when I whiffed on Tajic), then
I’m going to celebrate my wins. Carnage Tyrant is probably going to fall
off from here, especially if Golgari Midrange starts waning in popularity,
but it’s still going to remain a cornerstone of the Standard metagame for
the foreseeable future.

Izzet Phoenix doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere, either. Arclight
Phoenix might not have gone up in price for the third straight week or
anything, but it’s very stable in the $25-$30 range. Arclight Phoenix has
proven itself in both Standard and Modern at this point, and it’s about as
safe from a price tumble as any card in Guilds of Ravnica.

Since there’s a Pro Tour next weekend, I don’t see a reason to spend too
much time trying to figure out the next big shift in the Standard metagame
right now. Is Boros Angels real? What about Mono-White Knights? Or
Mono-Blue? We’ll find out a lot more next week, and I’ll be glued to that
stream all weekend long.

  • Over in Modern, the key cards in Dredge were the biggest gainers of
    the week. Life from the Loam jumped about ten bucks, and I expect
    those gains to stick – or even increase – unless Ultimate Masters proves easy to get and we’re flooded with
    reprinted copies of the card.

Regardless, I absolutely love Copperline Gorge right now. The price has
been kicking around the $10-$11 mark for months, but the fact that it’s a
four-of in one of Modern’s hottest decks has caused the price to start
going up over the past couple of days. It’s at $13 right now, and I think
it has a shot at $20-$25. Grab your copies ASAP.