Planning For Rotation

Is the “all your cards will lose value on rotation, so sell them now” heuristic a myth in the current era? Using trends from the past, Chas Andres takes a look at the expensive cards in Scars of Mirrodin block to see which ones you should keep and sell.

Back in the pre-Commander and pre-Modern era, set rotation meant that cards had a very short day in the sun. Other than the two and a half months out of the year that a couple people played Extended, the only cards that held their value were those that saw significant play in Legacy or Vintage.

In late October of 2010, I was writing a financial article when I discovered that there was just one card in Time Spiral—Akroma, Angel of Wrath at two bucks—that was worth more than a dollar on the secondary market. Those prices were based on eBay averages, not retail, but my point remains: old sets without Legacy staples were a dead zone for value.

Today, the following cards from Time Spiral sell for at least four dollars on StarCityGames.com:

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to affect the price of a card. Vesuva, for example, was easily available in the $4-$5 range before Modern was announced and the price jumped to $35 overnight. Even though it hasn’t seen any play since Cloudpost was banned, price memory and continued Commander demand has kept the card at a solid $10. Serra Avenger is mostly expensive because it’s cool and an Angel, though it does see occasional play. Most of these others see play in causal formats or fringe Eternal decks.

In recent years, set rotation has barely affected the price of some high profile cards. While Kozilek, Butcher of Truth and Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre had dips into the $5 range the summer before they rotated, they quickly popped back up to the $12-$14 they sold for during their time in Standard. The Zendikar fetchlands barely made a blip on rotation and still sell for the same price they always did.

Is the ‘all your cards will lose value on rotation, so sell them now’ heuristic a myth in the current era? Let’s see for ourselves. Taking a look at Andre Coimbra Naya Lightsaber deck that took down Worlds in 2009, we find the following rares:

Dropped in Price

Value Neutral

Increased in Price

Hmm…so maybe there is something to this ‘rotation’ thing after all. That said, Baneslayer Angel tanked well before set rotation, and most of the other cards that lost value were cheap role-players. Noble Hierarch nearly doubled in price, too, so there would have been some significant value gained there.

What about the Jund deck that was so popular at the time?

Dropped in Price

Value Neutral

Increased in Price

  • None

We can keep going, too. Systematically, all of the top decks in Standard still tend to lose value upon rotation. Rarely do enough of the cards survive to make as big an impact in Eternal formats, so the price of a set drops across the board. An errant Noble Hierarch isn’t enough to make up for all of the value lost in Maelstrom Pulses and Baneslayer Angels.

But not all cards should be sold prior to rotation. In fact, some keep rising in price. In order to figure out which cards you should hold on to, I’ve divided each set into different categories of rares, each of which behave differently on rotation:

Bulk/Unplayable (Ex: Mirrorworks, Shimmer Myr)

This section covers all those rares that you can pick up for a quarter without too much trouble. As someone who truly loves random cards, I recommend trying to pick up a playset of every single rare printed, so long as you can get them for almost nothing. This is generally pretty easy when the cards are being drafted, but it gets harder with every passing day. Bulk never really goes down in price, but it can go up when new cards are printed and old abilities suddenly become relevant. Sometimes casual hits are discovered years later in this section, too. You just never know.

Low Value Casual/Commander (Ex: Caged Sun, Nim Deathmantle)

These are cards that trade well, often for more than their retail amount. For years, these were the bread-and-butter of my trading strategy. I’d pick up cards like Mana Reflection from tournament players for the $0.50 it sold for and trade them away at $2-$3 to casual players who were happy to go shopping for entire decks at a time in my giant casual binder. Then Commander got absurdly popular and most of these cards shot up to double the amount I had been getting for them.

In recent sets, many of the causal staples are still available at bargain rates. This will change as fewer packs of these sets are opened, and the cards in this section will gradually keep climbing until/unless they are obsoleted by newer tech.

High Value Casual/Commander (Ex: Sheoldred, Whispering One, Blightsteel Colossus)

Often, this category overlaps a little with tournament playability. Consecrated Sphinx, for example, has a high value floor thanks to casual demand even though it saw a lot of play in Standard control decks. Ditto for Ulamog and Kozilek. These cards will likely not lose value, and many of them will probably rise. I’m convinced that Blightsteel Colossus, for example, is at least a $10 card long term.

Standard Role-Players (Ex: Mirran Crusader, Lashwrithe)

These cards either saw play in fringe decks or a little bit of play in good decks. Often they weren’t the flagship of their specific deck but were instead the glue that held it together. While a deck may not have been good without these cards, nothing in this section is good enough to build an entire deck around.

Often these cards are the ones that take the biggest fall. They are usually outclassed in Eternal formats and are uninteresting to casual players. Cards on this list should be sold prior to rotation.

Block Effects (Ex: Black Sun’s Zenith, Darkslick Shores)

Every set needs a riff on several key concepts in order to create a balanced play environment. This category includes Rampant Growth variants, Wrath of God variants, red’s one-drops and burn, and the block’s cycle of rare lands.  

Cards in this section lose value—sometimes the most value of any section—based on how well they measure historically. For example, the Ice Age/Apocalypse painlands were worth between $5-$8 when they were Standard legal and there weren’t better options. Once a bunch of better lands were printed, that cycle fell far out of favor and the price went through the floor. Fetchlands, on the other hand, are among the best lands ever made, so they maintain value no matter what.

Luckily, cards in this section are fairly easy to compare historically. The M10/11/12 lands, for example, are obsoleted by the original duals, fetchlands, Ravnica shocklands, and filters. It’s easy to project, then, that these cards will never see play in Legacy. Block Wraths are usually pretty easy to analyze, too. It’s not hard to realize that Day of Judgment is obsoleted by Wrath of God while Damnation provides the affect in a much-needed secondary color.

Standard Flagships (Ex: Mox Opal, Sword of Feast and Famine)

This is the most important section, and it covers almost every card that defines Standard in a given season. These cards are the trickiest to consider; you have to take each one on its face, and historical comparison is generally difficult. A good rule of thumb is that any of these cards that are in tier 1 decks will probably drop between 30% and 70% in value. If they spend multiple months taking down tournaments, supply will greatly outstrip demand following their rotation. Cards that have fallen out of favor earlier on and have dipped a lot before rotation don’t have as far to fall and might not lose any value at all.

This isn’t a perfect rule, though. Some cards make a seamless transition into Eternal playability and don’t lose a step. That’s why you have to examine each card in this section on its own merits.

Now that we’ve broken down sets into categories, I’d like to take a look at the expensive cards in Scars of Mirrodin block and see if we can figure out which ones to keep and which we need to sell before September rolls around. I’m going to analyze every card in the set that sells for $4 or more and then give a selection of my favorite low value casual cards to pick up before they disappear from binders.

Scars of Mirrodin

Mox Opal — Standard Flagship – $14.99

Much like Chrome Mox and Mox Diamond before it, this card is better in concert with broken things in older formats. Mox Opal hasn’t seen significant Standard play in a long time, and I don’t think rotation will affect it much. HOLD

Wurmcoil Engine — Standard Flagship – $14.99

This guy is good in Commander and will still see play in Modern. I’ve even run him in a mono-brown Legacy deck that was more fun than good. Expensive creatures keep getting better, though, and Standard is still propping up his price by at least 50%. SELL

Elspeth Tirel — Standard Flagship – $11.99

Elspeth’s playability in Commander and status as a planeswalker will keep her from dropping off too much—check the price on Sarkhan Vol if you don’t believe me. That said, it feels safe to project a 30-40% dip before she rises back in to the $10-$12 range again. SELL

Sword of Body and Mind — Casual/Commander – $7.99

Not only is this the worst of the five Swords, there were far more of them printed than any of the other four. It was in a large fall set as well as in From the Vaults: Relics. Of course, it’s still part of this near-mythical cycle and it has stayed above $5 without having seen tournament play in ages. I don’t think its value will drop off too much more. HOLD

Venser, the Sojourner — Standard Flagship – $7.99

Venser only saw play in decks that Conley Woods thought were sweet, but he was quite a good man from time to time. His appearance in a heavily printed Duel Deck lowered his price to what I believe his post rotation casual value will be, so I don’t think he’ll have much further to fall; maybe another buck or two, if that. HOLD

The Scars of Mirrodin Fastlands — Block Effect – $6.99 – $11.99

These lands shot up overnight last fall, jumping from the $2-$5 range into the $8+ range during their second year of legality. At their height, Seachome Coasts and Darkslick Shores were worth $25 each. They’re down quite a bit from that, and rotation anxiety has set in. The demand for these cards has trickled to a halt from everyone not currently playing with them in Standard.

While I expect them to keep trending downward, I do think they have some long-term viability. They’re perfectly playable in formats all the way back to Legacy, and they were criminally undervalued at $3-$5. Their current price is probably closer to where they will eventually settle, probably in a place similar to—or a bit above—the Shadowmoor/Eventide filter lands. While I expect these to drop a bit more before rotation, I don’t think they’re horrible to keep if you plan on playing any Eternal formats. I’m calling them a SELL if you have a couple spares that you don’t care about, but a HOLD if you’ve got a playset that you want to keep for your own use.

Koth of the Hammer — Standard Flagship – $6.99

How the mighty have fallen! Unlike Elspeth and Venser, Koth is not likely to be popular in Commander decks, and he is competing against a lot of other good cards in the four-mana slot in Modern. He is a planeswalker, though, and he’s just had a second printing so I don’t expect him to drop off too much more. He’s already not being used too much. If you have a set and like the card, I’d HOLD.

Ratchet Bomb — Block Effect – $4.99

This card never really developed into the powerhouse removal spell some thought it would be. The rise of Lingering Souls helped and it certainly sees play, but I don’t think it will be more than a sideboard card in Modern or Legacy—and a fringe one at that. If you’re not using your Ratchet Bombs, SELL.

Skitheryx, the Blight Dragon — Casual/Commander – $3.99

Skitheryx hasn’t seen much play this year, and he’s not great in Commander considering there aren’t enough infect cards to really build around him. He’s pretty cool and is a mythic Dragon, though, so casual demand will be enough to keep him in the $4-$5 range for a very long time. HOLD

Low Value Cards to Target:

  • Asceticism ($1.99) — Most people consider this a sub-$1 rare, so you can pick them up cheap.
  • Mimic Vat ($1.99) — I have a box of these in my closet. A Commander staple.
  • Genesis Wave ($1.49) — A fun card that sees a ton of casual play.
  • Nim Deathmantle ($0.75) — Rare is the Commander deck that shouldn’t run this card.
  • Steel Hellkite ($0.75) — I feel like I’m always playing this in one casual deck or another.

Mirrodin Besieged

Sword of Feast and Famine — Standard Flagship – $24.99

This is the second best Sword in the cycle for casual play after Sword of Fire and Ice. Light and Shadow is more expensive than this, though, because fewer of them were printed and it is quite a bit older. While I do expect Sword of Feast and Famine to drop a little—perhaps down to $19.99—I don’t think it will tank. Players love these cards, and most people who own them aren’t going to sell. Even though it might dip a bit, I’m going to call this a HOLD.

Hero of Bladehold — Standard Flagship – $14.99

This is a good example of a card that is awesome in Standard but will have issues transitioning to older formats. The four-drop slot is arguably the most crowded and powerful spot on the entire mana curve, and there are lots of other cards competing with this one. Further, this card isn’t great in Commander, and it was a prerelease promo. All signs point to SELL.

Thrun, the Last Troll — Standard Role-Player – $11.99

Poor Thrun. People have been underestimating this guy in every format for two years now. While he’s not as intrinsically powerful as the Hero, Thrun has the advantage of straight up trumping some decks and stomping his way to a quick victory. He’s one of my favorite under-the-radar Cube cards, and he’s even made some Legacy sideboards. I like Thrun long term, but I think he’ll take a major dip—maybe as much as 40%—before rising again. I’m going to mark him a SELL.

Green Sun’s Zenith — Standard Role-Player – $9.99

If this hadn’t gotten the axe in Modern, I would have felt comfortable predicting the Zenith to keep rising even after rotation. Unfortunately, Legacy and Commander won’t be enough to keep this in the $10 range; it’s only high now thanks to the fact that it sees a ton of play in Standard. Long term, this will settle in the $4-$5 range. SELL

Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas — Standard Flagship – $7.99

This is one of the most fun planeswalkers ever, and it hasn’t been good in Standard for a year now. This guy will probably follow the Sarkhan Vol trajectory, and it might even be a Modern or Legacy sleeper if the right combination of artifacts is printed. HOLD

Consecrated Sphinx — Standard Flagship – $5.99

This guy has already dropped off from its height in the $15-$20 range, and I don’t think it’ll go much lower. This is a killer card in Commander, and it might even be good enough for a Modern deck or two. HOLD

Black Sun’s Zenith — Standard Role-Player — 4.99

Black Sun’s Zenith is a great example of a role-player that doesn’t compare well to historical board sweepers. While it might see a little play in Modern, most of the time it’s going to lose out to cards like Damnation. If you have them, SELL.

Blightsteel Colossus — Casual/Commander — 4.99

Being the best at something is a sure-fire way to maintain value. Blightteel is the best giant robot there is, and sometimes that’s enough. He feels both legendary and epic, and he will show up in Commander and Legacy from time to time. He’ll also make children gasp in amazement the first time they see one. HOLD

Inkmoth Nexus — Standard Role-Player – $4.99

You’re kidding me—this card is only $4.99? I know it’s been reprinted in nearly every FNM pre-con, but it’s still a world-class card in every single format. You’re telling me this won’t be played in Modern, Legacy, Commander, and every other format it’s legal in? If you don’t have your set yet, now is the time to buy. If you do, HOLD.

Mirran Crusader — Standard Role-Player – $4.99

Aggressive three- and four-drops don’t age well. Power creep has affected these more than almost any other class of Magic cards, and Commander players don’t want them. SELL

Low Value Cards to Target:

  • Darksteel Plate ($1.49) — A casual favorite. I never have trouble trading these.
  • Phyrexian Revoker ($0.50) — This seems too good to be a $0.50 rare. In the right environment, it’s Eternal playable.
  • Spine of Ish Sah ($0.50) — This is another card I’m constantly trying to jam into my durdly Commander brews. I’m not saying it’ll ever make you a ton of money, but demand outstrips price.
  • Bonehoard ($0.50) — I really thought this was going to make it in Standard at some point during its time in the format. Oh well. Good, slow equipment will always be popular with the casual crowd, and this is a nice one.

New Phyrexia

Sword of War and Peace — Standard Flagship – $39.99

The difference in price between this and Feast and Famine is almost entirely a result of Standard viability. I think this card is a tiny bit worse in a vacuum, and I expect it to drop to $20-$25 range long term, much like the other Sword. If I had a set, I’d SELL.

Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite — Standard Flagship – $24.99

Elesh Norn’s secondary market value has been ticking down for about a month now, and she’s no longer the hottest trade target on the floor. She does, however, fit the Ulamog/Kozilek/Progenitus mold of casual finishers that will be trading well for years to come. Beyond that, Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite has some potential as a finisher and reanimation target in Modern. Of course, while those things should keep the card expensive, I doubt she’ll stay in the $25 range. Long term, Elesh Norn feels more like a $10-$12 card. SELL

Karn Liberated — Standard Flagship – $15.99

Karn is often the best way to go over the top in a control on control matchup. An answer to nearly everything, I can rarely think of a card I’d rather draw late in a game. And I’m not just talking about Standard; Karn is awesome in everything from Commander to Cube. I’ve been banging on the Karn drum for over a year now, telling people to grab them when they were selling for $8-$10, and the planeswalker has finally stabilized in the $15 range. While I don’t think rotation will tank the price much, I do think that a Karn vs. Someone Duel Deck will affect the price and temporarily drop him into the $7-$8 range. I don’t know when that’s going to happen, but until that announcement Karn Liberated is a HOLD.

Phyrexian Obliterator — Standard Flagship – $14.99

Obliterator’s value is tanking hard. Avacyn Restored gave the mono-black deck almost nothing, and the card’s value was propped up by the FNM casual crowd for months even though it’s not really all that good. While Obliterator might make some minor waves in Modern, I expect this card to drop into the $5-$6 range on rotation. SELL

Batterskull — Standard Flagship – $14.99

Batterskull hasn’t seen much Standard play for a year now, but the card does have uses in both Legacy and Modern. Its popularity with the Commander crowd hasn’t waned much either. One of the things I’ve been using to gauge my picks (beyond value trends) is how willing people are to trade away certain cards. I have an online trading profile with a want list on Deckbox.com, and 5-10 people propose trades to me every day. Over the past month, I’ve gotten twenty or more offers that have contained Elesh Norn, Phyrexian Obliterator, and/or Sword of War and Peace. You want to know how many people have offered me a Batterskull? None. HOLD

Phyrexian Metamorph — Standard Role-Player – $6.99

This card is kind of like Batterskull junior. Modern/Legacy application? Check. Cube and Commander application? Double check. It may drop into the $4-$5 range, but I don’t expect it to dip beyond that. HOLD

Surgical Extraction — Block Effect – $5.99

This card has already started a major dive. Demand has fallen off, and the eBay price has dropped by about 20% this month. This is the textbook example of a card that should be sold now and picked up later. Because it doesn’t have much casual appeal, you should be able to find these for $2-$3 in a couple of months from a panicked trader who missed their window. Then, a year or more from now, people will realize that they need a set for Legacy or Modern and the card will be $6 again. Buy these later, but for now it’s a SELL.

Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur — Casual/Commander – $4.99

Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur’s value has almost nothing to do with Standard. People love this guy as a Modern/Legacy reanimation target and a massive finisher in Commander. I don’t expect rotation to drop Jin-Gitaxias’ price at all. HOLD

Sheoldred, Whispering One — Casual/Commander – $3.99

Much like Jin-Gitaxias, Sheoldred’s value has nothing to do with Standard. Unlike Jin-Gitaxias, Sheoldred isn’t quite as powerful a reanimation target and probably won’t see much Eternal play. Of course, the card makes up for that by being far better in casual formats. I’ve managed to fit this into every single Commander deck I have that runs black, and I’m never sad to see it. Remember that the market is a bit more saturated thanks to Prerelease promos, but I still think this card is a good buy right now. I can see Sheoldred being a $7-$8 card long term. HOLD

Low Value Cards to Target:

  • Caged Sun ($0.99) — Gauntlet of Power is better, but that one is $5.99 and this is a reasonable facsimile. It should be a $3 card easily.
  • Melira, Sylvok Outcast ($0.75) — This is flagship card in Modern. Granted, it doesn’t do much outside of one specific strategy, but it’s interesting enough that someday something could be printed that would make this a very hot card.
  • Hex Parasite ($0.75) — This card gets better with every planeswalker printed.
  • Phyrexian Ingester ($0.49) — Chomp! Similar to Spine of Ish Sah, this is a fun casual card that will easily trade for a buck right now.

Magic 2012

The problem with the yearly core set is that it’s impossible to know which cards are coming back and which cards are going to rotate away until it’s too late to capitalize. The best we can do is guess and hope. Here are my picks for which M12 cards over $4 are likely coming back:

Phantasmal Image
Jace, Memory Adept
Garruk, Primal Hunter
Chandra, the Firebrand
Gideon Jura
Sorin Markov
– The M10/M11/M12 lands

I think the revamped core set planeswalkers are close to a lock. All of them are still good reasons for a casual player to open a pack, they haven’t gotten stale, and none of them have made too many waves in Standard. They’ve only been out for a year, and we’re going to see them again for at least one more.

The ‘phantasmal’ ability has been blue’s core set identity since M10, and Phantasmal Image is a really elegant card to show off the mechanic at rare. It’s fun and powerful without feeling horribly unfair. I think it will be back.

While it might be time for new core set lands, these ones resonate well with casual players and are good enough for tournaments. I think they’ll debut powerful new lands in Return to Ravnica, though it’s still possible (though unlikely) that we’ll see allied color shocklands show up in M13. I doubt it, though—Wizards has said that casual players hate paying life for lands, so they’ll probably leave that for an expert level expansion.

As for the other cards…here’s what I’d do.

Sun/Frost/Grave/Inferno/Primeval Titan — Standard Flagship – $2.49 – $14.99

It seems like a thousand years since these guys changed the face of Standard, doesn’t it? Rest assured that if they leave the format, something else scary and game changing will be taking their place. Nothing fits the current Wizards design philosophy more than these dudes who single-handedly insure that creatures are better than spells.

While these cards have all been Standard flagships, they’re also all in demand in the casual sphere. If they aren’t reprinted, their value should remain relatively stable thanks to the influx of new players who want them. I can see Sun, Frost, and Inferno Titan falling a bit and perhaps Primeval Titan will drop into the $8-$10 range, but they’re still going to be powerful cards that should be easy to trade. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Primeval Titan make a play in Modern, too.

Given that and the fact that they may still be in M13, I’m calling these a HOLD.

Angelic Destiny — Standard Flagship – $14.99

Flagship? Perhaps. But this card hasn’t actually been seen much recently, and the price has dropped by a third since January. Of course, if it wasn’t a casual favorite and Angel related, it would have probably dropped by quite a bit more. Still, this isn’t a Commander staple, and I expect its days above $10 are numbered. SELL

Solemn Simulacrum — Standard Role-Player – $5.99

Wizards likes to keep their reprint-of-the-year fresh, so I expect it’s one and done for Solemn Simulacrum. This was a $5-$6 card before the reprint thanks to Commander, but the influx of so many new copies means that it’s really more of a $4 card if Standard wasn’t an issue. I’d issue a sell, but the price won’t drop much and you’ll be upset if you ditch your copies and it comes back. HOLD

Birds of Paradise — Standard Role-Player – $4.99

Last Wednesday, Aaron Forsythe went on Twitter and told us that exalted will be returning in M13, probably taking over the ‘expert’ mechanic slot that bloodthirst had in M12 and scry and in M11. This seems like a great chance for them to reprint Noble Hierarch, spelling a brief reprieve in Birds’ reign. If this does happen, I’d expect Noble Hierarch to drop to $14.99 on release and down to $10.99 or so after the set has been drafted for a month or two. If you’re not using your copies, selling them now wouldn’t be a bad move.

As for Birds, this card has been reprinted a billion times and it’s still worth five bucks. Of course, last time it wasn’t seeing much play it fell into the $2 range. If it takes a year off from Standard, SELL.

Chandra’s Phoenix — Standard Role-Player – $4.99

This is an awesome card, and I think it has at least a 50% chance of coming back. If you think it’ll return and you like to play a lot of red, hold on to your set. If it doesn’t come back, though, it’ll drop to about a buck fifty, so the rest of you should probably SELL.

Grand Abolisher — Standard Role-Player – $4.99

This is one of the best hate bears ever, but hate bears rarely last past their sell-by date. SELL

Primordial Hydra — Casual/Commander – $4.99

The four dollar price tag on this guy has nothing to do with Standard legality, and I don’t think this guy has ever seen play on a competitive battlefield. HOLD

Low Value Cards to Target:

  • Jace’s Archivist ($0.99) — This is an immensely powerful casual card that people haven’t quite gotten hip to yet. At some point, they will. Even still, this is an easy trade a $1 and it’ll steadily rise.
  • Visions of Beyond ($0.75) — Remember when we all thought this was a plant for Innistrad block and it was going to be the next Knight of the Reliquary? That’s why you don’t pay top dollar for unproven cards. Still, though, someone may break this one day. And when they do, you’ll wish you had picked up your set for seventy-five cents a card.
  • Archon of Justice ($0.50) — Another goodie in Commander, this was near the top of my speculation page before it was spoiled in M12. It may take a lot longer now, but this card will eventually be worth something.

If you are unsure whether or not to sell a card, I find that it’s worth spending some time checking out the current value trends on Blacklotusproject.com. That website maps eBay sales, and it provides a stock-market-style chart based on those prices. It’s a useful resource, but it’s not perfect. For example, it doesn’t measure the number of sales, so you won’t get a full picture of rising or falling demand. It’s also a lagging index, meaning that it’s no good for measuring quick trends. Instead, you’ll get a sense of what the market was like a week or two ago. Lastly, it had some major downtime last winter and some data points are missing on many cards. If you want to track the market since January, though, it’s quite useful.

Until next time —

— Chas Andres