Next Level Spec – Battle Spec Basics And Planeswalker Ponders

Ted Knutson is back with advice on how to speculate successfully on Magic Online. He goes over some basics and also maps out the values of planeswalkers according to what set they’re in and how much play they see.

When last we left you, our speculative padawans had just embarked on their journey into the wild, unknown world of card speculation. Their mission? To end up with more tickets than the other contestants while hopefully contributing useful questions and knowledge to our audience of readers.

I asked the boys what they had been speculating on around the Pro Tour, curious to see if they had found any gems, but also wanting to help out with any questions and correct any early mistakes. This is how they fared.

Valtteri Wallden

Walt (as I like to call him) dabbled in Birthing Pods, Champions of the Parish, Ratchet Bombs, and Massacre Wurms, though strictly in small numbers to get his toes wet. He felt that all of these had a chance of picking up a spike after the Pro Tour, which is a fair perspective. On the other hand, aside from Massacre Wurm, these aren’t cards that I would speculate due to one overriding principle.


The picture you see here is designed to describe potential and kinetic energy, but when turned on its side, it looks like a simple price curve which works for spec profits. At extremely low prices (which typically only come when a card is not seeing any play or speculation), the potential windfall you can reap from a particular card is large. A Mythic rare at 2.50 can easily bump to 15 tickets if it becomes popular, but a mythic at 18 is much less likely to see a jump to 30+. This is one reason why knowing your price histories is so important when it comes to buying and selling cards. Is your spec at or near the bottom of the market, or is it floating near its peak? Knowing the difference will have a massive effect on your ability to turn a profit.

Modern is perhaps the easiest format to examine with regard to potential because so many of the cards in the format were basically at zero demand before the format was announced. For those of you who recently crawled out from underneath a rock, in June of last year Modern didn’t exist outside of being a goofy Community Cup format (but one that certain people like Sam Stoddard read as a potential replacement for the dying Extended format). Since Extended was "teh suck," many of the cards in Modern had no demand whatsoever outside of casual decks. Here are some current Modern staples that were not in Standard at the time.  The dates chosen are around the time format was announced for the PT (July 15), shortly before the Modern Pro Tour (August 22), and today during the Modern PTQ season.

The first thing I want to note here is that these prices are not the peaks. Steam Vents went north of 20 for quite a while, Kiki-Jiki has been north of 16, and Ravager has been around 20 during this PTQ season. The other thing to note is that even the starting prices vary dramatically, despite the fact that all of these cards are rares. Some of them saw regular play in Classic and Legacy at the time, some still had Extended price bumps, and a couple others are casual/Commander staples. That said, you can see pretty clearly that these cards weren’t remotely near their potential price peaks, but they definitely started at different points along the curve.

Gifts Ungiven, despite being one of the best blue cards printed in the last ten years, was under 1 ticket each. Right now, in the heart of the Modern PTQ season, it’s 16 times the price it was last summer. Am I kicking myself for not buying these back when it was obvious? Yes. Do I have a good excuse for not doing it? Uh…no. I don’t even have a bad excuse for not buying Gifts. Maybe I don’t like money or something. #Fail Meanwhile, during the height of the Modern speculation craze, Tarmogoyf just about doubled in price, but—and this is key—it would’ve been nearly impossible for Goyf to do much more than that. To put it another way, Goyf was probably around 50% of the way up the price curve already, while Gifts Ungiven was hanging out down near the bottom. If you guessed that these two cards are equally likely to become popular in the new format, Gifts would’ve been the clear choice to buy.

With this in mind, let’s go back to the cards Walt bought before the Pro Tour. The problem with these cards is that they are already well known (minus Massacre Wurm, which has a different problem), which in turn means they’re all reasonably far along the potential price curve. In order for the price to actually move at this point, you’d need a huge finish from decks packing those cards to drive a new price spike. This isn’t impossible (though it didn’t happen here), but it’s not a regular occurrence and thus something you want to avoid counting on when trying to make money from speculating.

As noted above, Massacre Wurm has a different issue in that, while it’s a solid card by itself, it’s basically a response card to Tokens decks. By speculating on this card you’re not only a) expecting that Tokens is going to have a huge presence in the new metagame, but you’re also b) expecting that Massacre Wurm will be the answer of choice, making it a compound probability and a bit of a longshot. (In this case, Elesh Norn provided the immediate answer for the ChannelFireball team.) In general, you should avoid making specs that have compound percentages unless the payoff is excellent and the odds of your bet coming through are really good.

With a new set released on Magic Online, when should I buy cards I think have potential?

Excellent question! Here’s a chart with the overall prices of Dark Ascension from Supernova as well as a few specific cards out of the new set I wanted to track from the start.

As you can see, the initial prices on these cards were crazy, which was caused by short supply. Seriously—Dungeon Geists is only rare, and they were 10 tickets for a day and over 5 until this weekend. Then as the massive amounts of product being opened caught up, prices gradually crept down and seem to have stabilized the last couple of days (though I think the rares especially will go far lower.

Last time I looked at this question, I figured that prices would have a small bottom at the end of the release weeks, then recover, and then gradually go back down until the set stopped being drafted. Now I think that first bottom actually occurs closer to when redemption for the set opens. So basically, if you were buying cards to play in events and the like, you want to wait at least until a week of release events have gone by to avoid the initial enormous price points, but if you’re trying to value spec undiscovered cards for medium- and long-term, it’s better to wait a little longer before you buy in.

This is what Kevin An had to say about his first couple of weeks:

Like everyone else in the world that wasn’t at the PT, I was glued to the streaming coverage for basically its entire broadcast. It was at this time I bought some things like Slagstorms (2.25), Snapcaster Mages (6.9ish) and Isolated Chapels (2) for a little long term investment at a price I could live with. I didn’t buy huge amounts of them however (playsets or less), because I didn’t want any poor decisions made early in this competition to hinder me later on.

Another reason I didn’t buy more was that I felt that the optimum time to spec on cards that were going to be played at the PT would’ve been seven-to-ten days before it, and I just was unable to dedicate enough time early on. Slagstorm seemed to get ignored for a little while, getting a bump post-PT, but I missed it on things like Darkslick Shores.

Don’t feel bad, Kevin—I think just about all of us missed the boat on Darkslick Shores (up to 9 tickets as of this writing!).

Planeswalker Expectations

Before we wrap up this article, about a month ago I wrote up some research analyzing planeswalker prices in specific, and what we can likely expect from here on out. Unfortunately, it didn’t end up being long enough to fill an entire article, but it needs to run and this seems like as good a time as any to get it out there.

One of the things that drives me nuts about Maginomics is the absolutely insane prices that get bandied about for new planeswalkers. The sequence goes something like this:

1) A new planeswalker gets spoiled.
2) Evan Erwin gets excited and freaks out. (It was more fun when he did this on camera every week.)
3) Twitter blows up, brewers start brewing.
4) The Prerelease price of the planeswalker is posted at 150-300% of its final equilibrium price.
5) The set debuts, prices stay high for a little bit, but once supply starts flowing the planeswalker settles at a normal spot for how powerful it is versus what type of set it came out in.

The strange part (to me anyway), is how this cycle repeats itself again and again, despite the fact that it is clearly wrong. Irrational exuberance on the part of buyers who freak out like Evan is likely to blame, but it does beg the question:

What should we expect when evaluating new planeswalkers?

First of all, why am I talking about planeswalkers in particular and not the more general category of Mythic Rares? Well, because planeswalkers are different. While unplayed mythics can actually dip below 1 ticket in value, unplayed planeswalkers rarely go below 5 (assuming they haven’t been reprinted). Thus planeswalkers appear to have an economy all their own, and they deserve special attention when trying to evaluate them.

Left to your own devices, most of you would likely start by developing some metric for how powerful the planeswalker actually is. This isn’t a bad idea, but the problem with this is that the answers would be all over the map. Magic is an incredibly complex game, and distilling this type of evaluation into one simple number is nearly impossible.

The lazy among you probably skip ahead of the step of creating one rational metric and instead answer, "However powerful Luis Scott-Vargas and Patrick Chapin say it is." Clever kiddies, but again, not quite the place to start. This would be my second step in setting planeswalker price expectations, but my first step is answered by the following question:

What type of set is the planeswalker in?

There are actually four potential answers to this question: Core set (M12), big expansion set (Innistrad), small expansion set (Dark Ascension), and big stand-alone set (Rise of the Eldrazi). If you wanted to add additional complexity, you could also add a modifier for how well-drafted the set is  (which would drive supply on Magic Online for redemptions as well as providing impetus for packs to be opened in real life), but I’m going to skip that here because the impact is difficult to evaluate. Anyway, by breaking this into four tiers and looking at some real-world data from previous sets, we can start to come to a conclusion—regardless of the card’s actual power—for what the value of a new planeswalker might be.

Core Set

Evaluating core set planeswalkers was pretty difficult until M12 came out, since the ones appearing there had been heavily reprinted within my data window (about two years). Thankfully M12 gave us three shiny new ones, including one that was reasonably popular in Constructed earlier this year. M12 looks like it was a poorly-drafted set overall (this is an educated guess, not a fact), which means the online prices carry a small premium, even for unplayed cards like Chandra, the Firebrand.

Unplayed: 5-10
Moderate Play: 12-18
Heavy Play: 20-30

Best Card in Multiple Formats: 35-50

Big Expansion Set

This is Innistrad, Scars of Mirrodin, and the like. Prices here are driven down by the fact that the cards will be in extremely heavy draft rotation for at least six-to-eight months. You’re also less likely to find super-powered cards buried in this type of set, as R&D seems to save those for smaller sets (presumably because they will have less time to distort formats this way).

Unplayed: 5-8
Moderate Play: 12-18
Heavy Play: 20-30

Best Card in Multiple Formats: 30-40

Small Expansion Set

Yes, technically there are two types of small second set—middle and end—one of which has considerably lower supply overall than the other. I am lumping them together here for simplicity, but be aware that Mythics in end small sets like New Phyrexia or Dark Ascension can (but don’t always) carry a large premium over ones in the middle. The Jace, the Mind Sculptor phenomenon is what everyone is familiar with, but as it currently stands he’s the only card in recent times to crack 60 for any sustained period (Jesus, Tarmogoyf was five years ago now! Magic is so old! I am so older!), and did so by being part of the most dominant Standard deck of all time and being awesome in Extended, Legacy, and Vintage. Seriously. The fact of the matter is Jace was a mistake, and the only way we’ll get another card as powerful as Jace is if R&D makes another mistake, which seems unlikely. That said, Elspeth, Knight-Errant was not a mistake and she slotted nicely into the high end of this range. Sorin, Lord of Innistrad is probably going to see moderate to heavy play, but isn’t powerful enough to dominate formats on his own. 60 is too high for him, but if he sees a ton of play I could see him settling into the 30-40 range.

Unplayed: 8-12
Moderate Play: 15-25
Heavy Play: 30-45

Best Card in Multiple Formats: 70+

Large Stand-Alone Set

We haven’t had many of these, so there isn’t much data to go on. If Gideon Jura hadn’t been reprinted in M12, he probably could’ve hung in the 25-35 range for most of his time in Standard, so he sets the baseline for heavily played planeswalkers out of this type of set. Because these sets are so heavily drafted, you tend to get a decent supply of Mythics available, which drives prices quite a bit lower than they would be in small expansions. On the other hand, supply will typically be lower than a large expansion because the set is drafted for a shorter time, hence the minor differences in price bands.

Unplayed: 6-10
Moderate Play: 12-24
Heavy Play: 25-40

Best Card in Multiple Formats: 45-60

I hope you’ve enjoyed the various topics covered here today. If you have specific questions you’d like answered or topics you want me to take a look at in the future, let me know in the comments section and I’ll see what I can do.

–Card Game

@NextLevelSpec for finance
@mixedknuts for everything else