Where We Went Wrong: Dragons of Tarkir

Chas looks back at his predictions for Dragons of Tarkir now that the cards have had a chance to flourish in Standard and Modern. How well did his predictions hold up, and what lessons (if any) should be taken away from the experience?

When Dragons of Tarkir was released, Narset Transcendent was worth as much as eight copies of Dragonlord Ojutai. Den Protector cost two dollars, Dromoka’s Command was three bucks, and a copy of Ojutai Exemplars would set you back twice as much as a copy of Deathmist Raptor.

While many casual players were excited about Dragons of Tarkir, the competitive community shrugged their shoulders in a giant, collective ‘meh.’ Calling Dragons of Tarkir “the new Dragon’s Maze” was a popular Twitter pastime, and many in the finance community wondered whether pack values were going to plummet as soon as chase mythics Narset Transcendent and Sarkhan Unbroken began their inevitable fall.

Yeah, I know. I’m in the future also.

What happened? Where did we go wrong? I’m not sure if I could properly rank the most misevaluated sets in Magic history, but Dragons of Tarkir is certainly up there with Avacyn Restored, Worldwake, Future Sight, and New Phyrexia.

What caused us to whiff so hard on Dragons of Tarkir, and are there lessons in it that we can use to try and avoid missing so badly in the future? Let’s find out.

The Command Cycle: Cost And Flexibility Are Underrated, Familiarity Is Overrated

  • Dromoka’s Command – $8.15 ($2.99 at release)
  • Atarka’s Command – $6.89 ($4.99 at release)
  • Kolaghan’s Command – $6.69 ($2.99 at release)
  • Ojutai’s Command – $0.89 ($5.99 at release)
  • Silumgar’s Command – $0.55 ($3.99 at release)

Yuck. A blindfolded monkey throwing darts would have done a better job of figuring out which of these were good than we did.

Let’s talk about Ojutai’s Command and Silumgar’s Command first. These are the new commands that are most similar to the Lorwyn cycle, and Ojutai’s Command does a passible Cryptic Command impression at first glance. My biggest worry about their playability at release was the lack of a strong UW or UB control deck in the format, but that fear ended up being totally unfounded. There have been UB, UW, and Esper Dragons decks floating around the format since Dragons of Tarkir hit shelves — they just don’t play either of these cards because they’re too expensive to cast and they don’t do enough.

Cards that look kind of like older, more powerful cards are usually overrated. How many black 2/1s for two with some kind of marginal card drawing ability will WotC have to print before we realize that Dark Confidant isn’t walking through that door? Seeing ‘Counter Target Spell’ and ‘Draw a Card’ on this next to a pile of significantly-worse abilities should have tipped us off that Ojutai’s Command was likely to be a trap.

Silumgar’s Command doesn’t suffer from a lack of good modes, but the five-mana price tag is brutal. UB-based control decks often play from behind in the early game, and you can’t sit around with a reactive spell on turn five. In today’s game, you need to be wiping the board with Crux of Fate or dropping a Dragonlord that can help stabilize on defense while providing you with a heavy hitter later on. Silumgar’s Command has a ton of raw power, but that doesn’t mean it does what a control deck needs to be doing most of the time.

What about the successful commands? They all have one thing in common — a converted mana cost of three or less. While part of the cards’ success can be attributed to a friendly Standard environment, flexibility and raw card advantage takes over at a certain point. If you’re trading one card and just two or three mana for your opponent’s two cards and usually more than two or three mana, it almost doesn’t matter what else you’re doing. That’s a big part of why Kolaghan’s Command has become such a key card in Modern recently. It’s a two-for-one almost a hundred percent of the time, so you can buy it back with Snapcaster Mage to four-for-one your opponent without much effort. The fact that it provides maindeck hate against Affinity and several other decks with lots of artifacts is pretty clutch, too.

We underrated the cheap commands because their abilities weren’t nearly as powerful as the modes on, say, Silumgar’s Command. In doing so, we underrated just how good a flexible two- or three-mana spell can be. Lesson learned: place your bets on the cheaper card.

How Accurate Was My Set Review? I beat the field here, suggesting that Dromoka’s Command was likely to be the most valuable of the cycle by early April, giving Kolaghan’s Command a soft buy, and panning Ojutai’s Command. I was a big fan of Silumgar’s Command, though, and I was also pretty bearish on Atarka’s Command. Oh well. Three out of five isn’t bad?

The Marquee Planeswalkers: Planeswalkers are Overrated

Unlike the command cycle, the planeswalker price drop shouldn’t have surprised regular readers of this column. The last two planeswalkers that were worth pre-ordering were Liliana of the Veil and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and I doubt that streak will be broken anytime soon. WotC is much better at balancing planeswalkers now, and there will always be a large group of casual players and early adopters who are willing to play big bucks to get these guys mailed to them the day the set hits stores.

At some point, the tide will shift and both of these cards will become good medium-term spec buys — Narset does see a reasonable amount of Standard play. That day hasn’t quite arrived yet, though.

How Accurate Was My Set Review? Spot on. I called $15-$20 for Narset and $10 for Sarkhan Unbroken, and I suggested that people sell their copies ASAP. That turned out to be the correct call.

The Dragonlords: Not Just For Casual Players, Rethinking Finishers

Toward the beginning of Dragons of Tarkir spoiler season, a whole lot of Dragons were spoiled in a very short amount of time. Most of them were clearly not good enough to see play in Standard. In addition, the Fate Reforged Dragonlords had been Standard busts (with the exception of Silumgar, the Drifting Death out of sideboards). The last cycle of giant mythic creatures (the M15 ‘Soul Of’ cycle) had also been disappointing from a competitive perspective. With all that baggage, it doesn’t surprise me that most Standard players saw the mythic Dragonlords for the first time and lumped them into the ‘these are for casual players, not me’ category.

In addition, the Dragonlords don’t really profile as the kind of finishers that have been multi-archetype staples in recent years. A quick history lesson: back in 2009, Baneslayer Angel ruled Magic’s skies. She was big, hard to kill, and provided a ten point life swing with each hit. People even called her ‘Walletslayer Angel’ because her $50 price tag made her far and away the financial lynchpin of Standard.

By the fall of 2010, though, Baneslayer Angel was seeing very little Standard play. This is because Magic 2011 gave us five brand-new finishers in the form of six-mana Titans. Not only did these cards hit hard, but they provided massive card advantage whenever you played them as well as every time you attacked with them. This idea of having a suite of finishers that do something useful even if an early removal spell was cast on it has persisted since then, giving rise to decks built around Thragtusk, Restoration Angel, Hornet Queen, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, and even the hasty Stormbreath Dragon.

For years, my set reviews panned every 5+ mana creature that didn’t do something right away. More often than not, that call has proven to be the right move. Over the last year or so, however, I’ve been noticing that this rule has been getting looser. WotC hasn’t been handing us obviously great finishers like the Titans, and we’ve been forced to work a little harder for our lunch. Polukranos and Stormbreath Dragon provide additional bonuses as long as you’ve got extra mana you’re willing to sink into their abilities, and cards like Prognostic Sphinx and Pearl Lake Ancient have ridden the power of their self-defense abilities all the way to the Pro Tour.

Based solely on an evaluation of comes-into-play abilities (thinking with Titans), it’s clear why Dragonlord Atarka and Dragonlord Silumgar are so impactful. Stretch your thinking to include hexproof as the elite Constructed ability that it’s proven to be time and again and you can see why Ojutai has been the best of the five. The fact that its converted mana cost is the lowest of the five cards is relevant here too. It’s no coincidence that the cheapest commands and the cheapest Dragon have all performed the best.

How Accurate Was My Set Review? I told people to hold Dromoka and buy Silumgar, which was the correct move for those two Dragons. I also told people that it was fine to buy a few copies of Ojutai — I thought that it would see some Constructed play in an Esper control deck (I called it ‘a stronger Prognostic Sphinx’), but I vastly underestimated how powerful that card and that deck would end up being. My other big whiff was Atarka, which I thought was too expensive to see play.

Collected Company: Home Run Swings Sometimes Connect

This is the paragraph that ended my set review section on Collected Company: “There isn’t any real middle ground for Collected Company. It’s either going to be a $10-$12 multi-format staple, or it’s going to be a bulk rare. I’m not buying at $5 because the risk is too high, but there’s a very real possibility that this ends up being the marquee card in the set.”

Most people knew that Collected Company might end up being great. The card wasn’t $5 because people thought it would end up being $5 card — it was $5 because people thought that it was either a $0.50 card or a $10 card and no one knew which it was.

Collected Company isn’t the first card with this amount of uncertainty baked into its pre-order price. Heck, it’s not even the only card like that from Dragons of Tarkir. Check out Myth Realized, which started life at $4 and is now just $0.85 despite some people believing that it had Tarmogoyf-level upside in Legacy.

If you’re a results-oriented thinker, you might be tempted to look at Collected Company as a reason why you should go deep on the next risky, high-upside preorder spec. This is the wrong way of looking at things. WotC takes a couple of home run swings in every set, and they’re easy enough to spot. These cards are always intriguing spec opportunities because they generally pre-order in the $3-$5 range and they look like they could either be bulk rares or $15 staples in two months.

It would be fine to buy in on these home run specs if even half of them paid off, but reaching a Collected Company-level of success is actually quite rare. That’s why I suggest waiting until you start to see the initial surge of successful results come in. Even Collected Company was looking like a bust for its first few weeks of Standard and Modern legality, and there was plenty of time to buy in before the spike.

It’s not that big a deal if you miss out and have to pay up later on, either. Collected Company was $5 at release and it’s $14 now. Paying that extra nine bucks a card isn’t ideal, but would it really have been better to spec on the four or five other $5 rares that ended up going to zero just to ‘win’ on Collected Company? This is why tracking your specs via spreadsheet is so important — if you take too many risks, the whole endeavor can cost more than simply buying the cards you need at peak value.

How Accurate Was My Set Review? I clued people into Collected Company’s potential as well as its risks. Even though I shied them away from buying the card at what would have been a great price, I made the best decision I could with the information available to me at the time.

Deathmist Raptor: Cards Need A Home—And A Chance At Multiple Homes

Unlike Collected Company, which needed an entire archetype built around it in order for it to be good, Deathmist Raptor already had a clear home in the Whisperwood Elemental/Mastery of the Unseen decks that were running around the top tables during Dragons of Tarkir spoiler season. It was easy to see where Deathmist Raptor would slot in to that deck.

Megamorph was also being pushed in Dragons of Tarkir, so it wasn’t hard to make the leap into believing that Deathmist Raptor might find a few more homes if even one of those cards (like Den Protector) ended up being good. After spending the whole year in multicolor land, I think we all underrated how good single-colored cards are as well.

Even though Collected Company and Deathmist Raptor both ended up being successful cards, Deathmist Raptor was the card whose success was significantly easier to predict.

How Accurate Was My Set Review? Here’s what I wrote: “If Deathmist Raptor does end up as a four-of in G/W Devotion, it should hover in the $10-$12 range. If it ends up in multiple decks, we’d be looking at a $15-$20 mythic. If neither pans out, it’ll fall to $2-$3. I’m not buying in as a speculator, but if you’re already running four Whisperwood Elementals in your primary Standard deck and you’re itching to try this out, pre-ordering at retail is fine.”

In retrospect, I underrated just how likely this card was to find at least one home and provide a solid return on investment. Considering the pre-order price and potential upside, the information was there for me to call this a solid buy and I missed it. Of course, there’s no way I could have predicted just how good Deathmist Raptor would end up being without having predicted the power of this next card, which is quite possibly the most important in the entire set:

Den Protector: All Of The Above

At first glance, it appears as though Den Protector violates the Ojutai’s Command rule I mentioned at the start of the article. After all, Den Protector is just a worse Eternal Witness, right? You can’t fool me, Wizards! Let’s take a look at the lessons we’ve learned, though, and apply the relevant ones to Den Protector:

When in doubt, opt for cheaper cards: Den Protector is two mana in her simplest form, and five mana (paid out over multiple turns) at her most powerful. That’s plenty cheap enough.

Flexible cards are better: You don’t want to play Den Protector as a 2/1 most of the time, but it’s very good in the situations where you do. The fact that it can return any card in the graveyard while also providing a relevant and evasive body means that it’s never a dead draw.

Easy two-for-ones are great: Much like Kolaghan’s Command, you don’t really have to do any work to make this a two-for-one that also develops the battlefield. With Deathmist Raptor hanging around, it can even act as a backbreaking three-for-one in many games.

Not just for casual players: I heard a lot of buzz about Den Protector during the preorder period, but all of it was about how good the card will be in Commander. Everyone knew that this card would have its audience, but most of us suspected that it would largely be made up of kitchen table mages.

Home run swings sometimes connect: While Den Protector isn’t a home run card in the same way that Collected Company is, the easy comparisons to Eternal Witness showed us that the card had a massively high ceiling that most of us proceeded to ignore.

Cards need a home — and a chance at multiple homes: Abzan aggro, Abzan midrange, G/W Devotion, and G/x ramp were all very good decks before Dragons of Tarkir hit the streets. It shouldn’t have been hard to imagine this card seeing universal play if it caught on.

How Accurate Was My Set Review? I wasn’t effusive in my praise of Den Protector, but I did single it out as a buy. Here’s what I said: “People are underrating this card because it isn’t as good as Eternal Witness, but it can still be a format staple at 75% strength. I’m in for a playset on spec at $2 each.”

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the card evaluation work that I did for Dragons of Tarkir. While I did make a couple of high-profile misses, I managed to identify several of the set’s breakout cards while panning most of its busts. I was much higher on the set than most, though I still didn’t anticipate the extent of the breakout that either the Dragonlords or the marquee green creatures would have.

I don’t think there was any one thing that caused the community to misevaluate Dragons of Tarkir to the extent that we did. In the past, most set evaluation failures can be traced to the community underrating a new or previously-underappreciated ability (Phyrexian mana, Soulbond, Miracles, Delve, etc.) The Dragons were the biggest evaluation miss this time around, but most of the other cards were dismissed for the same benign reason that people underrate cards in every set. Sometimes, you just can’t appreciate the power level of a card without playing it in a high-level game of tournament Magic. There’s no quick fix for that, no secret card evaluation tool that only a few people possess. You just have to use logic, stick to a few basic rules, and play as much Magic as you can. There’s simply no substitute for critical thinking and hard work.

This Week’s Trends

  • Several high-profile Modern cards have been spiking to ludicrous new highs recently. While the Blood Moon and Omniscience spikes have leveled off somewhat, Oblivion Stone, Snapcaster Mage, Huntmaster of the Fells, Olivia Voldaren, Creeping Tar Pit, and Inquisition of Kozilek have all seen massive price increases over the past few days. Fauna Shaman, Engineered Explosives, Glimmervoid, Blackcleave Cliffs, Kitchen Finks, Damnation, Crucible of Worlds, Cavern of Souls, Goblin Guide, and Inkmoth Nexus are also making significant gains. Deceiver Exarch is a $3 uncommon now, too.

    At this point, anything that sees regular play in Modern but wasn’t in Modern Masters 2015 is either spiking or threatening to spike. There really isn’t anything safe right now. While I think that the prices will stabilize at some point later this summer, I also think that many of these cards will keep large portions of their gains going forward. Snapcaster Mage, for example, isn’t going back below $50 unless it is reprinted. If you need any Modern staples that haven’t spiked yet, buy them now. If you’re in the market for a spiking staple, see if you can hold off until the prices stabilize in a couple of weeks.

  • Last week, someone bought the internet out of copies of Dramatic Entrance and then proceeded to fabricate tournament results by creating a Modern deck with four copies of Dramatic Entrance and having it ‘win’ two European events over the weekend. In reality, these tournaments never existed and the deck was pure fiction. Let’s hope that the major dealers weren’t fooled and whomever did this is sitting on several thousand copies of a pretty worthless card. It’s worth knowing that this stuff is happening now, though. You should be wary of tournaments results from events that aren’t verifiable when making your spec buys. Stick to the SCG feed, official Wizards coverage, and MTGO results and you’ll be fine.
  • Interest in (or at least speculator attention directed toward) the 93/94 Old School format has caused cards like Juzam Djinn and the Arabian Nights version of Erhnam Djinn to make gains after years of stagnation. This situation is worth monitoring over the next few months. The format doesn’t currently have a large-enough player base to support a true demand-based price spike, but that doesn’t mean it won’t catch on at some point. Right now, I think most of the price hikes have been due to speculators buying up the underpriced copies of these cards just in case.
  • Standard is still a complete bear market, though that should change a little once Origins spoilers begin to roll out. I expect the set to make more of a splash than most other core sets simply because of the hype around it being the final one. This is always the quietest time of the year for Standard, though, and there are going to be some awesome Khans block spec buys available in a couple of weeks.