Some of you aren’t going to like my article this week. Come to think of it, I hear you say, some of us don’t like your article every week. Yeah, yeah, guess I laid myself open to that one. The trouble is, this week I’m taking on the task of making Constructed Magic better value to you, the paying punter, and to do that I’m going to be slaughtering one or two sacred cows. So here it is, the most important fact you can ever know about getting value from Constructed Magic:
Your card collection is worth nothing.
As I’m writing this, I’ve just finished a sixteen-hour stint at Grand Prix: Florence (more of which next week), so I trust you’ll forgive me if I fail to take up the opportunity to savagely digress onto red-hot technology topics like Belief Systems.
For now, in this slimmed-down make every word count version of me, assume that I do actually comprehend that the “fact” I’ve just presented to you isn’t strictly true. However, if you want to get better value from Constructed, if you behave as if it is true, you’ll be doing yourself a serious favor. Why? Simply put, all cards fluctuate in value, not only between sources (different traders, small children, Wizards, rich people, homeless people etc.) but also over time. You all know this to be true. There are hundreds, even thousands of rares you could insert into this next sentence. “I was so excited when (insert set name here) came out. That (insert rare name here) was just the best thing ever, and I got four of them for (insert price here).”
Well done, I’m proud of you. Most of the time, these cards turn out to be, essentially, rubbish. They don’t do what they promise to do, the metagame mitigates against them, the following set produces a similar card but better for the same slot in your deck – whatever the reasons, most rares are essentially worthless. The quicker you accept this, the better we’ll get along this week.
So, if rares are basically worthless, what am I doing paying money for them? Of course, God didn’t create all rares as equals, and we all know that Tarmogoyf and Hunted Lammasu aren’t the same thing at all. Already, we can see one avenue of improving value. It’s time for the first of today’s ruels:
I’ve been waiting to do that joke for years.
Seriously, here’s rule number one this week:
Know your Rares.
The absolute best time to buy rares is before they exist. Huh? Well, before anyone has any. Tarmogoyf is a good example of so many things I want to talk about that it could be a whole article all to itself, but here let’s concern ourselves with this – until a set actually comes out and gets played with, most people either don’t know what the rares do, what that might mean within a broader context (beyond Limited and heading increasingly steeply towards the Eternal formats) or haven’t understood the words on the card. This last one actually will be an article all to itself, tunefully titled, “Experiential Learning Disorder,” coming soon to a StarCityGames.com Tuesday near you.
If you look at the cardlists, ask your more experienced friends what they think of the upcoming rares, take a look at what dealers are asking for on a pre-order basis – all these things will get you in shape for when the Prerelease comes around. This leads me to rule number two. (You’re waiting for the follow-up gag. Patience, children, patience.)
Prereleases are Compulsory.
Most of you have probably heard about holidays, hi-fi systems, cars, furniture, whatever, all sold on some company website for next to nothing, owing to some poor joker in web design typing $1.00 instead of $100. Turns out that dot is pretty important for trading regulations. But you only hear about this marvelous event after it’s too late. When you get to the website it says, “owing to our Internet monkey being eviscerated earlier today, Happy Luxury Holidays Ltd. has ceased trading. Why not visit our sister site, ‘superexpensivesofas.net’.” No thanks. Prereleases have the dot in the wrong place. Not only do most players not know what impact rares are going to have on the game (by which we generally mean here Block Constructed and Standard), the Prereleases are packed full of different agendas to yours, and that’s where value begins. Here are just some of the players you will find at every Prerelease, and what they can do for you:
The Set Collector – if they’re serious about this, these guys want to complete the new set as soon as humanly possible. That means they want your cards, and they want your cards more than they should. That means you should give them what they want. By all means, if you think you’ve spotted a Tarmogoyf, keep it back, but the likelihood of you ever wanting to cast a 10th Edition Rhox in Constructed Magic is almost over the event horizon. Give that man your Rhox, and let him give you, well, something more useful. And while you’re trying to think what rare you can gouge out of him in exchange for that pitiful Green waste of space, be open to uncommons as trades – plenty of players will give you any number of Lightning Helixes for a Brightflame, and cards like Lightning Helix, Isochron Scepter, and Fact or Fiction are worth actual money. Okay, who else is at the Prerelease?
The Creche – we’ve touched on this before, but there are players who are given a crisp $50 note by Mum and Dad and told to have a nice day. These players typically want to get maximum enjoyment for minimum outlay, since they will probably get to pocket the change themselves, in order to spend it on dance lessons. (Yeah, I know, but I didn’t think Craig would let me say “drugs.”) These players, ironically (since we’ve established their cards are “worthless”) actually attach too little value to their cards. If their entry fee for the Sealed tournament was thirty bucks, there’s a good chance you can get the whole kit and caboodle for less than half that. Have a flick through first to make sure there’s at least something usable, and bear in mind that the Set Collector will be looking at the rares differently to you.
Aside: buying cards from small children or anyone else is thoroughly naughty at DCI sanctioned events, so don’t be naughty, okay?
Onward, and we find:
Mr. Foil – Mr. Foil is like the fairy godmother of Prereleases. Although he’s aware that he’s notionally being taken advantage of, the fact remains that all he cares about is generating 24 of the new 10th Edition foil Islands to pimp his deck. He may not kill for them, but armed robbery isn’t out of the question. In the early days the going rate in deals with Mr. Foil was one foil equals at least two normal rares. As a Constructed player, and I don’t know how you feel about this, but correct me if I’m wrong… turn 4 feels like the time to go Tarmogoyf, Tarmogoyf, rather than foil Tarmogoyf and a Grizzly Bear. Anytime you get foil rares that are remotely playable you should instantly regard them as two copies of the rare stuck together, and go about the business of unsticking them as quickly as possible.
Over time, the Mr. Foils of this world have grown increasingly savvy, and will feign indifference. Since Mr. Foil is mostly middle-aged, overweight, under-follicled and driving a Jag, don’t be fooled. You have what he wants, and he has the disposable income to pay for it. But the Prerelease fun doesn’t stop there. Remember the Joy of Saturday from last week? Those same wonderful souls are here again, ready to exchange their dual land for your 12/12 for 56 mana. Interestingly, the Joy of Saturday crowd behaves somewhat differently than the Set Collector. In a way, once one of them has the aforementioned enormous Green man, the rest don’t care. After all, they can already look at the one their friend’s got. The time to really get value out of your Jhovan SkyQueen is when everyone’s got one in the group except poor old Billy (yes, Billy grows up into Billy with baby on the way… who knew?) and he feels all left out. You can’t play the well-known variant Jhovan SkyQueen (all players start with Jhovan SkyQueen in play) if you haven’t got one. Billy wants, you got, Billy’s got power cards, you want, everyone’s happy.
Rule number three:
What a great rule for life in general. It’s basically a reminder to you that ripping people off is a bad thing, and giving them a better deal than they were expecting guarantees that the lines of trading communication are likely to remain open for a long time to come. I’ve given boxes and boxes of cards away before now, and years later those same players come back to the game and give me first look at their folder for some choice “thank you’s.” Any half-decent trader will tell you that price-gouging gets you nowhere in the long term, so play nice.
Let’s move on. We’re past the Prerelease, the new set is firmly established. How can we best obtain the cards we need?
Rule number four:
It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re talking about a formal “team” as such, but belonging to a loose-knit group of friends who frequently share travel to events, spare sleeves, dice, and (most importantly) cards, is a great way to drive down the cost of Constructed Magic and drive up your enjoyment. Virtually the definition of good value. It’s important to make sure that you plan ahead. I’ve seen otherwise rational people come close to blows over cards that both thought were available exclusively to them on the morning of a Pro Tour Qualifier, only to find that four Orim’s Chant isn’t quite the same as eight Orim’s Chant. The tiebreaker here is that the guy who wants them for his sideboard loses, should you need to referee this dispute. Just ask any certified judge like me, they’ll tell you.
If your friends are busy keeping track of exactly how many cards are being swapped each way, they probably aren’t the kind of friends worthy of the name. This “I gave you more than you gave me” attitude should in no way be confused with the thoroughly healthy “let’s write down who got what, so we can sort it afterwards.” You may notice that different friends tend to have different sorts of cards in their trade folder, and this leads me to rule number five:
Know your Playstyle
I’m generally going to play Combo or Control, assuming that the format has competitive decks to offer me. That means it’s very rare that I play Aggro decks at sanctioned play. Frankly, all that power and toughness business does my head in. Now Cancel, that’s a spell. This means that I’m never going to want four copies of Magus Of The Scroll. In the unlikely event that the format mutates such that only Aggro decks are worth playing, one of my Aggro friends is likely to have the spare cards I need. Since Aggro players are after cards like Magus Of The Scroll, you have a perfect fit. Trade away yours, and get a Draining Whelk, a Teferi, and a Rain Of Tears. Remember that to the other guy, these are all dead cards in his folder. You couldn’t pay him to play U/B Teachings in Block. Once again, everyone’s happy. Because this is such a straightforward good way of going about your business, I strongly recommend limiting yourself to only one or two of the three major playstyles for Constructed. Whilst this may not be the route for becoming the Ultimate Player, in terms of value it’s so good that you should not ignore it. Sometimes however, the opportunity presents itself to dip a toe into the third group. Here’s rule number six:
Wait, Wait, Wait
As I explained in my series on the Cost of Lorwyn, there is a potential bottleneck problem heading your way when Morningtide comes out. Too few boosters opened, not enough time to piece together the necessary cards, too high prices – the chase rares in Morningtide are going to be big bucks. Suppose you’re quite new to the game. Right now, Ravnica block cards have only eight weeks to live, as far as Standard is concerned. It’s possible that the Ravnica duals may be the best Extended has to offer at some point in the future. It’s also possible that Firemane Angel will be the cornerstone of some Legacy deck down the road, but if you pay any attention you probably think, like me, that hell will freeze over before that happens. What this means is that now is the perfect time to invest very little money in a lot of good cards. Many players look to offload the part of their collection that is rotating out of Standard. It is, as they say, a buyer’s market. Where this becomes especially good news is when a dominating deck from a format is rotating out and clearly won’t be making the jump to a higher (Extended backwards) format. Even if the deck is strong enough to leap the Standard-Extended divide, many players won’t play Extended, and therefore value those cards less highly. Take Affinity for example. If you wanted to play Standard in November 2004 with four copies of Arcbound Ravager and four Chrome Mox, you’d be looking at a bill of maybe $200. I don’t even need to bring starving children into this to convince you that’s ridiculous. On the other hand, if you wanted to get hold of these cards at the back end of their life (and of course Ravager was eventually removed from Standard), you could get them for a tiny fraction of the price. An even better example takes us all the way back to the Fall of 1998, when Mirage Block was leaving Standard. Throughout the previous year, the Cadaverous Bloom Combo deck had been, frankly, obscene. It was clearly the most stupidly complicated thing I’d ever seen to that point, and I had no realistic hope of being able to play it correctly. Nonetheless, having played for almost a year, I began to notice that the price of all those Squandered Resources and Meditates and friends were really coming down. The Mirage regulars were offloading their power rares that weren’t going to be useful in the future. For two months, I was able to experience one of the most powerful decks in the game’s history, in a playstyle I wouldn’t touch again for another seven years.
I’ve shown you why it’s sometimes good to be on the buying side of this equation, but if you don’t have a pressing need to do this, you can invoke rule seven:
Watch the Rotations
Unless you have a hotline to R&D, you aren’t going to know everything about an upcoming set. You are however, going to know everything about current sets, and more importantly, past sets. So let’s play the guessing game with Time Spiral Block. You still have more than a year to play with these cards in Standard of course, but let’s make a long list of all the rares that are going to stand the test of time. I promise I’m not cheating and looking through a list, so I’m just thinking of the rares that instantly spring to mind. In 3-5 years time, how many TS Block rares will be clamoring for space in an Extended deck? Here’s my massive list:
Tarmogoyf, you betcha.
Flagstones Of Trokair, probably.
Call Of The Herd, very likely.
Slaughter Pact and Pact Of Negation, absolutely.
Lotus Bloom, yes on balance.
If I did look at a complete list, I could probably find a few more, but these will serve to highlight a couple of important points. In fact, they’re so important they get rules all to themselves. Rule number eight:
Chase Cards are Cheating Cards
I’ve listed seven cards. Six of them “cheat” the game in some fundamental way. When you’re looking at Lorwyn, you should instantly be searching for the cards that cheat. If you’re not sure what I mean by “cheating,” here’s how six of the seven listed above go about their business.
Teferi – I’m a monster. Monsters are cast at Sorcery speed. I’m cast at Instant speed. This is cheating. Then I stop Suspend. This is cheating. Then I stop all instant windows for my opponent, removing the word “response” from their vocabulary. This is cheating. I’m also Blue, which although not technically cheating makes me even more foolish. Cheating, cheating, cheating.
Tarmogoyf – Monsters have a cost designed to balance their power and toughness and abilities. I cost 1G. In a core set, that buys me a Grizzly Bear or a Glory Seeker. In Standard it might buy me a 2/2 with a middling ability, like Riftsweeper. If there are tough mana restricitions, like GG, it might buy me an Elvish Warrior. Even without trying particularly hard, I’m a 3/4 for 1G that often becomes 4/5, 5/6 or even 6/7. Make no mistake, all four of these are cheating. And when Lorwyn turns up, I can cheat even more and be a 7/8. Cheating, cheating, cheating.
Flagstones Of Trokair – Some of you may think this isn’t a cheating card. Okay, let’s take a bunch of Plains each. I’ll take a pen and scribble on mine, “If anything bad happens to my plains, I get to act like it hasn’t happened, and improve every draw step from now until the end of time.” But of course this only works if something bad actually happens to my Plains. I know, I’ll make it Legendary, so that I can make something “bad” happen to my plains. Cheating, cheating, cheating.
Call Of The Herd – I’m a 3/3 for three mana, without double mana to play. That’s fair. Then I’m a 3/3 for four mana, without double mana to play. That’s fair too. But Hill Giant is playable, and Nessian Courser is playable, but they’re not great because they both cost you a card. I give you both. In essence, I’m a split card where you get to play both sides. Cheating, cheating, cheating.
The Pacts – If you’re a regular reader here, and you don’t know that the Pacts are cheating spells, something’s disconnected somewhere between your eyes and your brain. Of course the Pacts are cheating spells. All free spells are cheating spells. Some free spells aren’t worth the card for the amount of cheating you get out of them (the Red Pact, for example – and don’t you go all Angel’s Grace on me, thanks very much). But if free spells are cheating spells, powerful free spells must be super-cheaty spells, and powerful free spells that are super-cheaty that you can tutor for are off-the-chart cheaty-spells. Cheating, cheating, cheating.
Lotus Bloom – If anyone fancies having a really deliciously spurious argument with me, come and find me at a GP or PT, and I will explain to you exactly why Lotus Bloom is clearly a better, more insanely cheating spell than the original Black Lotus. There are many, many reasons, but as long as we’re all clear that three mana for zero mana = cheating, we can move on. Cheating, cheating, cheating.
The only card on my list that is merely “powerful” is Damnation, and as a result I am by no means certain of its place in the list. Wrath has sometimes been too slow for Extended, and with cards like Tarmogoyf around, only the reprint of Fireblast would make things seem worse for a four-mana sorcery.
I trust the point is made, even if you’re new to the concept of cheating spells. If you don’t trust yourself to accurately evaluate the Lorwyn cards, get together with the best players you know and get them to go down the list. Van Gogh may only have had one ear, but you have two. Use them.
Meanwhile, we’ve come full circle. My list has seven cards on it. There are over two hundred rares in Time Spiral Block, which means that the genuine power cards may represent, let’s say, 10% of the rares. This is being generous, and takes account that I will have forgotten some cards, and also that there are niche rares which may be useful down the line – Extirpate springs to mind as a deeply unexciting card that doesn’t cheat but has applications. 90% of the rares are not good times, and that’s before Lorwyn, Morningtide, Jelly, Doughnut, Ogden, Stills, and Nash come along to further tarnish their reputation. So here’s where we came in. Rule number nine:
Your collection is worth a lot less than you think.
What should you do with these rares? Trade them or sell them, clearly. The characters we highlighted earlier from our Prerelease discussion obviously exist year-round, although it isn’t always easy to find them. As for the middle of the road player, who would like the cards that you’d like too, your value-for-money edge is simple. Most people will readily identify a Tarmogoyf as being worth $10, or $15, whatever… the point is that the price is moderately well known and has little variance. Since almost all players over-value their collection, consider this – if they want to add some of your cards to their collection, they are essentially over-valuing those cards in your folder. You on the other hand have zero emotional attachment to 90%+ of the garbage on display, and that means you can happily trade two for one, three for one, more, in order to wrest the key rares from your “opponent.” Following rule number three, Everyone’s Happy, it’s easy to see how happy people are likely to be if they give away one card and get five back. That’s how collections grow, which is something you should bear in mind when you’re on the other side of the negotiating table, trying to complete your set of Mirage. In terms of Constructed value for money, you should regard all but the most vital parts of your collection as cannon fodder, destined to clog up other trade binders while you quietly go about the business of putting four Damnation, three Teferi, two Pact Of Negation and a Slaughter Pact into your Block PTQ-winning Teachings deck.
Now I reckon it’s at about this point in proceedings that some of you think I’m banging on about this whole “cards are worthless” vibe a bit too much. Never one to do things by halves, I have, today, across multiple time zones, aircraft, airports, trains, and taxis undertaken not one, but two gloriously accurate scientific experiments designed to empirically prove my argument. Crikey, I’ll be on Game Theory next.
WARNING – You should not try these experiments at home. They are extremely hazardous to value Magic, and violate any number of DCI, EU and UN regulations, since they involve the senseless opening of “random” boosters. I repeat, DO NOT DO THIS.
Experiment 1 – I took 4 Time Spiral boosters and 4 Planar Chaos boosters. I barely justified this wanton act of destruction to myself by the fact that they are Russian boosters and thus of relatively little interest to the bulk of the UK Magic scene. Since my wife speaks fluent Russian and I can read cyrillic, I find them nice souvenirs. So, take a guess at how many commons, uncommons, and rares I opened that could even halfway-seriously be considered “Constructed” cards? Go on, think of some numbers. Imagine for the purposes of this exercise that you own no TS Block cards, so anything useful actually is, er, useful. In total you have:
These numbers include Timeshifted stuff.
Here are the results:
Commons: 6 genuinely useful – Keldon Marauders, Dead/Gone, Mogg War Marshal, Empty the Warrens, Cancel, Terramorphic Expanse.
To be fair, there are another 10 that might see some kind of play: 2 Uktabi Drake (Block Haze of Rage Combo deck), 2 Whitemane Lion (if you simply must play Wild Pair, 2 Mana Tithe, a Sunlance, and a Shade Of Trokair (because you’ve forgotten white in Block got destroyed), Temporal Isolation, and Ancient Grudge (assorted Sideboard possibilities.) Let’s see how the uncommons get on:
5 out of 24 – Brine Elemental (a clear Block staple), Fungal Reaches (it makes mana), Urza’s Factory (Teachings etc), Calciderm (good times), and Kavu Predator (flavor of the month).
19 pieces of essentially blank cardboard fill out the uncommon slots. What about the rares?
4 out of 14 are remotely useful. Flagstones Of Trokair is niche, but it’s a nice niche. Plague Sliver is a Block sideboard card at best. Boom/Bust is thoroughly established in Block, and although I appreciate the numbers are slightly skewed by the Timeshifted brigade, ironically it’s here that the best pull came in the shape of Call Of The Herd. Anyone want a Russian Call? In total I have a pile of 25 cards that might arguably one day see Constructed play. If I want to put them into a deck however, I can probably only get 3 or 4 of them together. This is what I mean about choosing a playstyle. I will never play Call Of The Herd competitively, because it’s neither part of a Combo, nor likely to be, nor does it currently feature in any meaningful Control deck. Like I say, anyone want a Russian Call?
On to Experiment Two, and sadistic audience members will be delighted to learn that this one caused me physical pain. This time I took 4 complete Japanese TS/PC/FS Draft sets and callously ripped them open. That’s four evenings of outstanding Magical entertainment down the tube, and a direct notional cost of $50 or so. The useful cards:
TS 1 – Griffin Guide
PC 1 – Whitemane Lion
FS 1 – Riddle Of Lightning, Ghostfire
TS 2 – Fiery Temper, Looter il-Kor, Chromatic Star, Sudden Shock (wow, an Extended card!!!!)
PC 2 – Aven Riftwatcher, Mana Tithe
FS 2 – No
TS 3 – Benalish Cavalry, Prismatic Lens, Griffin Guide, WORD OF SEIZING!!!
PC 3 – Keldon Marauders.
FS 3 – KORLASH!
TS 4 – Mystical Teachings, Gemhide Sliver.
PC 4 – Aven Riftwatcher, Rough/Tumble
FS 4 – Haze Of Rage.
Believe me when I tell you that I have been extremely forgiving in compiling this list. There are literally zero other playable Constructed cards in these 12 fine packs of Magical goodness. Now assume that you don’t actually need your 37th Mystical Teachings or Mana Tithe, and the equation looks more like this:
Fiery Temper + Word Of Seizing + Korlash = $50 plus no fun for 4 nights.
In Medieval England, peasants had a hand cut off for killing the King’s deer. I wonder if I can persuade Andy Heckt over at the DCI to bring in a similar Penalty Guideline for opening boosters wantonly?
Well, it’s almost closing time. When I first thought about The Cost Of Lorwyn and More Bang For Your Buck, I wasn’t sure whether it was a topic worth a few short sentences, a paragraph or two, or the multi-part sprawl-fest it’s become. The news gets worse, because astute voyeurs will have spotted several glaring omissions – still no eBay advice, still no MTGO words of wisdom, and still no closure on the “Official Cheapest Way To Enjoy Constructed Magic For The Rest Of Your Life.” A literary friend of mine recently enquired whether I was doing the whole “1001 Nights” thing and trying to keep my column alive by pleading that I wasn’t finished yet. This is clearly untrue. Were I to find myself in Sheherazade’s position (kneeling), I wouldn’t have resorted to 1001 nights of Magical stories and fantastical creatures. I’d have just used my fabulous sex appeal.
Until next week, when the Pros make a welcome return to center stage.
As ever, thanks for reading.
Ooh, one last thing: Korlash (Japanese), Plague Sliver, Flagstones Of Trokair, Boom/Bust, Call Of The Herd (all Russian), all for trade. Offers in the forums…