The past two weeks have each felt like they were about a decade long, and I’m beyond ready for Wizards of the Coast (WotC) to release Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths. It has actually only been about two-and-a-half months since Theros Beyond Death hit shelves, but that set already feels like a relic from a previous era of human civilization.
At any rate, I’m champing at the bit for something new to focus on right now, and Ikoria certainly fits that bill. Previews are going to start this Thursday, April 2nd, and even though the tabletop release has been pushed back to mid-May, it’s crucial that we start making our Magic finance plans now. Cards are going to start going up in price as soon as Ikoria previews begin, and I want to figure out the best spec buys during the calm before the storm.
The world of tabletop Magic is somewhat on hold right now, but the Standard metagame will continue to rapidly evolve throughout the era of social distancing. Tons of people are still playing Magic — mostly on Magic Arena and Magic Online (MTGO) — and even though demand for physical cards should continue to be relatively soft for a while, many people are still going to want to own the decks they’re falling in love with on WotC’s digital platforms.
I also have hope that the social distancing measures will be able to be relaxed at some point late this spring or early this summer, which will lead to a surge in demand for physical cards. There’s no way to know for sure, but the market is pretty soft right now, so there’s money to be made if optimistic things happen. And even if you’re not optimistic about that sort of timeline, I’m going to focus entirely on cards that will be legal in Standard until September 2021. You’ll still have plenty of time to sell or play with these cards while they’re Standard-legal, even if we’re all trapped in our homes for the next few months.
What We’re Looking For In Our Spec Buys
The logic behind speculating on cards now is simple: the Standard metagame is likely to see significant changes when Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths goes live, which is going to cause some currently-underplayed cards to spike. This happens every time a new set is released, and there’s always money to be made. For example, my #1 pick the last time I wrote this article (right before Theros Beyond Death preview season) was Robber of the Rich. At that point, the previously hyped mythic rare was just $3.50. If you bought in, you’d have had plenty of time to double your money at the very least.
It took a little while for Robber of the Rich to spike, but these kinds of specs usually peak pretty early. In fact, it often happens during the next set’s preview season. People love to dream about possible new decks, especially if it looks like it’ll unlock the potential a previously underperforming card.
That’s why we need to start looking at potential spec buys now. If it looks like Ikoria has competitive support for a “bust” like Calix, Destiny’s Hand, you won’t want to wait around for that deck to prove itself. You’ll want to buy in ASAP, while the planeswalker’s price tag is still incredibly low.
What sorts of cards are most likely to spike? Here are some of the qualities I am looking for:
- Mythic rarity. The non-mythic rares that tend to be worth money are already staples in Commander (like Nyx Lotus and Dryad of the Ilysian Grove) or see play in multiple top Standard decks (like Fabled Passage and Murderous Rider). It’s hard for a non-mythic rare to go from seeing no play to seeing enough play to cause a price spike. Some cards will jump from $1 to $3-$4 when a new set is released, but that’s usually about it.
- A high price memory. If people were spending $20+ for a card when it was first previewed, it’s more likely to end up back in that range again once people think they’ve unlocked it in a new metagame.
- A clear path toward high-level playability. Combo pieces are great, as are staples in decks that seem like they’re just one or two pieces away from viability. For example, it seemed like Robber of the Rich and Embercleave (two of my picks last time around) were only cheap because Mono-Red Aggro wasn’t a very good deck during December 2019. Once that changed, those two cards shot up in price.
- Potential synergy with the new set. If a card looks like it’ll play into a theme that the new set is going to explore, you can expect its demand to increase during preview season.
With this last point in mind, let’s take a moment to talk about the possible contents of Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths before we get into my specific spec calls. Do we know anything about this set that might help us identify any potentially synergistic buys? Let’s find out.
What We Know About Ikoria So Far
We don’t know much about Ikoria beyond the broad strokes.
It was pretty easy to predict what Theros Beyond Death might bring to the table, and the same will probably go for Zendikar this fall, because we’ve already been to those settings. But Ikoria is an entirely new plane that we’ve never seen before — not even in Planechase. The best clue we’ve got right now is the set’s subtitle, “Lair of Behemoths,” which is admittedly pretty darn evocative. We’ve also got a piece of WotC ad copy calling Ikoria a “rugged plane of powerful monsters,” furthering what I believe to be the set’s overall theme. The key art we’ve seen already also backs up the idea that skyscraping monsters will be front and center on Ikoria.
If I had to guess, I’d say that Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths will have a strong, top-level “big creatures matter” theme, similar to the Naya shard from Shards of Alara, only with even larger creatures. We also know that there’s going to be a mutate ability, which could be similar to how monstrosity played out in Theros — or, perhaps, a creature combination ability similar to how Brisela, Voice of Nightmares played out in Eldritch Moon.
It’s possible that this sort of theme will privilege the “big creatures” colors — red and green — but if the theme of Ikoria really is Big Creatures Matter, we’ll likely see pushed Titan-style mythics in all colors. Instead, it might be worth looking to cards that that promote ramp and/or midrange strategies. This set might also mark something of a return to “battlecruiser Magic,” a term that was pretty zeitgeisty back during Rise of the Eldrazi. If so, expect the value of unconditional creature removal, especially spot removal, to increase.
That’s about all I can say for now, without having seen a single card from Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths. It’s not much, but we’ll keep it in mind as we go through our analysis.
The 8 Cards I’m Buying
1. Ashiok, Nightmare Muse — $6
This is an easy one. Ashiok, Nightmare Muse is a very good card, and it has already proven itself in both Modern and Pioneer, where it sees play in decks like Dimir Inverter, Dimir Control, and Sultai Delirium. Ashiok doesn’t see much play in Standard primarily because there’s no Dimir or Esper-based control deck anywhere near the top of the metagame. If Ikoria disrupts the metagame enough, it’s easy to imagine Ashiok finding a home.
The other thing I like about Ashiok, Nightmare Muse? Its -3 ability could play exceptionally well in a format defined by lumbering “battlecruiser” creatures. If that is indeed what Ikoria brings us, this powerful planeswalker could become a key part of the metagame. For just $6 each, I’d snap up a few copies over the next week or so.
2. Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded — $3
Did somebody say big creatures? Not only does Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded give all your creatures haste — the most underrated competitive ability in all of Magic — but it enables you to cheat massive creatures onto the battlefield a la Sneak Attack. There’s a reason this card looked like it was going to be worth $20+ during the early days of Theros Beyond Death previews.
Why hasn’t Purphoros paid off yet? It’s partially because there aren’t a ton of good high-end red creatures, partially because you have to pay five mana to put this thing onto the battlefield, and partially because Fires of Invention does a similar thing but faster and better. The release of Ikoria won’t fix the latter two problems, but if it gives us a couple of super-powerful high-end red creatures, it might be enough to let Purphoros break through.
Regardless, the Theros Beyond Death Gods are backstopped by enough casual demand that I feel pretty good about buying in. Worst case, it’s a solid long-term hold that’s currently available for less than the cost of a booster pack.
3. The Great Henge — $20
The Great Henge is the most expensive card that I’m going to recommend this week, but I didn’t want to ignore what might end up becoming the most impactful Throne of Eldrane card in the new Standard metagame.
Seriously — The Great Henge is a wildly expensive card right now almost entirely because of Commander demand, but the card still sees a decent amount of play in Pioneer and has shown up in some Standard ramp decks as far back as October of last year. The only problem with The Great Henge is that you really do need to have an easy way to consistently get a couple of expensive creatures onto the battlefield quickly, and then you need a steady stream of creatures to cast after that. Hmm… sounds like something Ikoria might be able to help with!
Speculating on a $20 card seems like it might be a bit much, but highly sought-after Commander cards are holding their value better than most competitive staples right now. I strongly suspect that The Great Henge will always be easy to find a buyer for, regardless of how the competitive metagames evolve from here. In fact, demand will likely continue to increase as Throne of Eldrane fades into the background.
The Great Henge is one of the safest $20 cards out there, and its price will double if it ends up as a four-of in a competitive Standard deck. That’s the kind of high-end gamble I’m willing to take.
4. Polukranos, Unchained — $2.50
Polukranos hasn’t lived up to its initial hype — remember when it looked like this might be a $15-$20 card? — but it has started to see some high-level competitive play recently, showing up as a two-of in Sultai Midrange. With the potential for bigger, beefier creatures on the way, Polukranos looks like it might be the perfect combination of threat and speed bump in the new format. Its fight ability should also become a lot more important in a more creature-centric metagame.
I’m also sticking Polukranos on this list because it’s underpriced relative to the amount of play it’s seeing right now. Even if Ikoria isn’t kind to Polukranos, it should still trend toward the $5-$6 range before long. And for a card that’s just $2.50 right now? That’s an easy double-up.
5. Nylea, Keen-Eyed — $4
Nylea has yet to find a home in any of the current Standard ramp decks, most of which are incredibly spell-heavy and nearly devoid of creatures that will activate Nylea’s devotion. The latest builds of Temur Reclamation don’t have any maindeck creatures save Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, while Bant Ramp does what it can to cast Dream Trawlers and Teferis. If Nylea, Keen-Eyed is going to find a home, it’ll be in some updated version of a deck like Sultai Midrange, which already runs a full playset of Cavalier of Thorns as devotion catnip.
Nylea is a bit of a long shot, but both of her abilities seem well-positioned to thrive in a format with a brand-new “creatures matter” set. Being able to draw loads of cards while also making most of the cards in your deck cheaper to cast is a pretty big game, and I can imagine Nylea being a key card in a brand-new archetype. At any rate, this is a solid Commander card at its price floor, so buying in for $4 seems like a good call regardless. If it doesn’t pay off later this summer, just stick it in a box for a couple of years and you should be able to trade out of it in the $8-$10 range eventually.
6. Harmonious Archon — $1
Harmonious Archon might be a little too cute, and it’s definitely the biggest long shot on this list, but I’ll always take a second look at a Standard-legal mythic rare that I can pick up for just $1. Heck, you can buy them for less if you’re willing to speculate on played copies, which I often do.
Why Harmonious Archon? Because of its static “non-Archon creatures have base power and toughness 3/3” ability. It’s possible that there will be enough removal to invalidate this six-mana creature that dies to just about everything regardless, but if we end up in a world of midrange, ramp, and battlecruiser decks with lots of creature combat? Harmonious Archon might be the ticket. I wouldn’t go too deep on these, but with the buy-in so low, I can’t resist snagging a couple of sets just in case.
7. Thassa, Deep-Dwelling — $13
Thassa, Deep-Dwelling reminds me a bit of where Embercleave was at back in November. Thassa was one of the first breakout cards in Theros Beyond Death, spawning a whole new archetype and spiking as high as $45. Then, nothing. It sees a little bit of play in Azorius Midrange brews, but that’s about it.
Was Thassa simply overrated, or is the current metagame just overly hostile to that sort of strategy? My guess is that it’s a bit of a mix of the two. This card isn’t the $45 flagship that some people thought it was when Theros dropped, but I can easily imagine the metagame letting Thassa back in. If we get a cheap blue creature or two with a solid enters-the-battlefield effect, Thassa might end up back in the $20-$25 range.
8. Klothys, God of Destiny — $4
Klothys, God of Destiny might absolutely explode in value, but we might have to be patient, and we might have to get a little lucky.
So far, Klothys hasn’t found a home in either Standard or Pioneer. That’s because those formats don’t have any fetchlands in them. In Modern, where fetchlands still reign supreme, Klothys has started to show up all over the place in sweet little brews like Gruul Midrange and Naya Zoo. It’s not a staple in any of the format’s best decks, admittedly, but there’s still time for that to change.
I don’t think WotC is going to print fetchlands in a Standard-legal set again, but I suspect there will be some hype around that possibility later this summer, especially right before Zendikar Rising preview season begins. Klothys is worth buying now, though, because the price is absurdly low for a mythic rare that sees play in Modern. I’ve already seen its price chart bottom out and start to tick up, so by the time I write the Zendikar Rising version of this article, this might be an $8-$9 card that still has room to grow.
There’s also a chance that WotC will print some watered-down version of the fetchlands at some point soon, perhaps as early as Ikoria. There’s a lot of room for a land cycle to be less format-warping than the original fetchlands while still being Standard staples that will completely unlock Klothys. If that happens, this card will shoot up to $20 overnight — and you’ll want to have your copies in hand.
Bonus: Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath — $40
I’m making Uro a bonus card because it’s hard to justify recommending a $40 Standard card in the best of times, especially as a spec target. Cards that are already at the top of the market generally only have one direction they can trend, and that’s down.
That said, Uro is exactly the kind of card I’d target with a set like Ikoria on the way. It’s arguably the most important card in the entire format right now, and its importance might only increase as things move forward. That’s far from a guarantee, but if you’ve got a shot to pick these up at a discount right now, I’d go for it. If we’re going to be spending the next few months ramping into expensive creatures, Uro is probably going to be front and center.
This Week’s Trends
We’re still in early days of a what might end up being a fairly long bear market, especially for Modern and Pioneer. With tabletop Magic in the European Union and the Americas suspended until at least May 10th, it could be a while until prices start to rebound. The charts don’t look nearly as bad as the stock market, but staples like Cavern of Souls, Liliana of the Veil, and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon are all trending down right now. If things continue to progress in this direction, there will be some nice long-term buying opportunities in about a month.
Are prices falling because tabletop Magic is dying? No. The calculus is actually pretty simple: people can’t play Magic right now, so prices are dropping. When people are able to play Magic again, prices will rebound. The speed of the rebound will depend on what the overall economy looks like once the worst of the pandemic has passed — a lot of people are out of work right now, but many of those jobs will come back once people can eat at restaurants and go to the movies again. If there’s a fast economic rebound, Magic will follow. If the economy stays in recession for a while, Magic will be slower to rebound. It’s worth pointing out that the 2008 recession didn’t really impact Magic prices all that much, though, so the real issues here are the social distancing guidelines, tournament cancellations, and game store closures. Good things will start to happen once those are over.
Of course, there’s also the matter of local game stores being able to stay financially solvent through the worst of the crisis. While this is going to be a massive problem for some stores, WotC is at least attempting to help ameliorate the situation by allowing stores to host remote tournaments on Arena and by giving them boxes of Mystery Booster WPN Edition totally free of charge. It’s a small gesture, but it should help generate some financial solvency for local game stores when they need it most.
If you can afford it, I highly suggest doing what you can to support the places where you play Magic (and the places where you consume Magic content) as we all do our best to muddle through the next couple of months.
As for Mystery Boosters, this does finally confirm a second print run. We talked about this possibility last week, and it doesn’t change my thoughts on the set’s financial future all that much. The window to buy singles should last for a couple of months, though you can start now if you want, and sealed boxes are likely to hold their value quite well over the next few years. Prices will start to rebound quickly if this second print run is small, though they might drop off a bit more if each LGS gets multiple cases. I’ll do my best to keep you updated.
Lastly, there were a few individual cards that saw a bit of upward movement this week. Painter’s Servant is the first of these, and it’s up a couple of bucks because of a new Temur Painter deck in Legacy. Check it out:
The deck looks like a ton of fun, and I’d imagine that quite a few people will pick it up on MTGO (where Legacy is super-cheap) during the quarantine. Some of them will then want to pick up the tabletop pieces for their collection, which is why the price of Painter’s Servant is ticking up a bit. Just don’t expect any major spikes, as Legacy cards rarely make too many financial waves these days due to overall soft demand. Painter’s Servant might end up in the $50 range, but that would likely require this deck to quickly become one of the format’s best, and we don’t have the data to support that yet.
The other spike this week? Steal Enchantment, an uncommon from Tempest that’s seeing more play in Commander thanks to the rise of Theros Beyond Death and its powerful enchantments. It’s possible that there were some buyout shenanigans here, but this is a super-old card and I’m not surprised that the supply finally ran out. Steal Enchantment is currently out of stock for $3 here on Star City Games, and that’s about where it should end up when the dust settles.