What a fun surprise!
I figured we’d have to wait until the new year to get our first look at Theros Beyond Death, but Wizards of the Coast (WotC) was kind enough to give us a couple of previews before the holidays, including two of the set’s marquee planeswalkers.
Since I write a finance column, I usually don’t review new cards until after Star City Games has begun pre-sales. After all, I’m going to have a vastly different take on a card like Elspeth, Sun’s Nemesis if you have to pay $40 for it than I will if its pre-order price is $15.
I’m breaking my rule this time around, though, because I don’t want this first round of preview cards to get lost in the shuffle. Oko, Thief of Crowns was one of the first cards that was previewed in Throne of Eldrane, and it was readily available for $25 throughout the majority of pre-order season. Standard finance is all about expensive and overpowered planeswalkers these days, and I don’t want to risk underselling a card that might become the next Oko. I’ll give you my updated thoughts on Elspeth and Ashiok once they formally go on sale, but let’s discuss them in abstract now.
Elspeth, Sun’s Nemesis
Elspeth, Sun’s Nemesis is incredibly powerful. Even though we haven’t seen a planeswalker quite like her before, it isn’t hard to visualize most of the things she’s good at. We know that making a suite of 1/1 Humans is good, we know that pumping your army is good, and we know that recursion is especially good. Elspeth is a card advantage machine; it’ll be rare that she won’t generate several cards’ worth of value whenever she hits the battlefield, and getting her back from your graveyard for a second go-round is going to be fairly trivial most of the time.
The only problem with Elspeth, Sun’s Nemesis? It’s hard to see how she fits into the current Standard metagame. She’s similar to History of Benalia in many ways, and that card went from format-defining to unplayable and back again a couple of times during its run in Standard. Elspeth seems like a solid metagame call against classic aggro and control decks, but I don’t think it matches up well against the Witch’s Oven engine or, say, Questing Beast, a point on which Sam Black and I agree. Furthermore, the only white decks anywhere near the top of the metagame right now are Jeskai Fires and Azorius Control, neither of which is likely to want Elspeth.
Of course, we’re only at the very beginning of Theros Beyond Death preview season. Chances are, WotC has provided us with a handful of supporting pieces for an Elspeth deck that we just haven’t seen yet. If they’re good enough to catapult the deck into the metagame’s top tier, Elspeth will be a $40-$50 card. If not, then she’ll end up kicking around in the $15-$25 range for a while.
Regardless, I do expect Elspeth to find a home at some point during her two-year run in Standard. If you’ve got a chance to buy in cheap, you should take it. Just don’t be surprised if she seems like a bust early on.
Ashiok, Nightmare Muse
Hmm. A five-mana planeswalker that you can play in an Esper deck with a +1 card advantage ability, a -3 permanent removal ability, and a game-winning ultimate. Where have we seen this before?
Okay, so Ashiok, Nightmare Muse isn’t quite as good as Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Teferi’s +1 has a little more variance, but it was perfect in a deck with a lot of cheap instants. Teferi’s -3 is also a little better at getting rid of permanents in most cases. Its ultimate is also a lot easier to set up.
Of course, the old Teferi can’t come to the phone right now. As Shaheen Soorani wrote last week, Esper Control has been looking for a Teferi replacement since rotation. Ashiok is unlikely to be as overpowered or format-warping as their predecessor, but they don’t have to be. They just have to fit into the deck and do their job.
Financially, Ashiok doesn’t have high odds of becoming the set’s marquee $40-$50 planeswalker. It just doesn’t look like it has enough raw power. But I’ve seen people saying that Ashiok is similar to disappointing Ral, Izzet Viceroy, and I don’t think that comparison is apt, either. Ashiok will see play right away, and it should be stable in the $20+ range as long as it does.
Athreos, Shroud-Veiled is the Buy-a-Box promo for Theros Beyond Death. I’d say that this shouldn’t matter much since Athreos isn’t much of a competitive card, but I said the same thing about Kenrith, the Returned King last time around and I was wrong.
If Atheros, Shroud-Veiled sees play, it’ll be as some sort of inevitability engine in a control deck. If you can stick this and slowly start putting coin counters on your opponents’ creatures and bringing them back under your control, it’ll be hard for them to come back. I think this will prove to be something of a win-more most of the time, but that doesn’t mean Athreos won’t show up as a two-of or a sideboard card now and then. Athreos also seems like a solid Commander card, though it probably won’t be spawning any new archetypes. The $8-$10 range seems about right here, so buy a box from your LGS if you want, but I don’t think this God is going to end up being the next Nexus of Fate.
The 8 Standard Cards You Need To Buy Before Theros Beyond Death
The Standard market is going to surge in January. Prices always increase during preview season, and a lot of folks who dipped out during the Oko era are going to check back in once a bunch of new cards are revealed. Coincidentally, late December is a great time to be buying cards. Not only are prices depressed due to the end of the Standard season, but prices are always down during the holidays.
All of this adds up to a pretty simple recommendation: if you’re a Standard player, you should be buying cards right about now.
If you want to pick up an established deck like Jeskai Fires, Simic Flash, or Golgari Adventures, go for it. We haven’t seen enough of Theros Beyond Death yet to know which decks will survive the influx of new cards, but the chances are good that most of them will be able to adapt. Unless a massively overpowered card like Oko or Aetherworks Marvel shows up to warp the format, today’s winning strategies will still be viable tomorrow.
Of course, you’re not likely to make much money on cards that are already Tier 1 staples. Teferi, Time Raveler and Cavalier of Flame should still be sought-after in late January, but there’s only so much financial upside with cards like that since everybody already knows that they’re top performers. Instead of focusing on the format’s elite staples this week, I’d rather take a look at the best cards in Standard that seem underpriced and underrated to me.
Some of these cards seem like total busts so far, while others are clearly powerful but are currently at their short-term price floor for one reason or another. Some of these cards will find a home in post-Theros Beyond Death Standard, but even the ones that don’t pay off right away will have another shot when the spring set is released, and again in the summer, and potentially for an entire year after that. Worst case, you should be able to recoup most of your money in a couple of years. Best case, you’ve picked up a future pillar of Standard for a fraction of the eventual cost.
Let’s begin with a card that probably fell off your radar entirely. I certainly hadn’t thought about it in a while:
1) Robber of the Rich – $3.50
Robber of the Rich was one of Throne of Eldraine‘s biggest busts. The mythic rare seemed like a safe bet during the pre-order season, but it quickly became an afterthought in the Oko-ridden metagame. The post-Oko meta hasn’t been any more friendly to aggressive red decks, and you can currently pick up a full playset of these for less than you would have had to pay for a single copy back in October.
Robber of the Rich might not ever live up to its potential, but it’s easy to imagine this card finding a top-tier home in Standard at some point regardless. Mono-Red Aggro will see a resurgence at some point during the next year and a half, and I’d be surprised if Robber of the Rich isn’t seriously considered. I also wouldn’t be surprised if WotC prints at least one more powerful Rogue between now and when this card rotates out of Standard, which could cause Robber of the Rich to have a hype-related spike. This is one of the safest buys on this list, and it has some of the highest upside as well. I’m in for a couple of sets on spec.
2) Garruk, Cursed Huntsman – $6
Remember when Garruk, Cursed Huntsman was selling for $10 more than Oko, Thief of Crowns? Yeah, card evaluation is pretty darn hard. While Garruk isn’t nearly as good as it looked at first, there’s still a shot it’ll see play in Standard at some point anyway. Garruk shows up in Golgari Sacrifice every now and again, and it’s possible that Jund Sacrifice will adopt the powerful planeswalker as a sideboard option depending on how the metagame evolves in 2020.
Garruk, Cursed Huntsman lacks the breakout potential of Robber of the Rich, but it’s got something else going for it: casual demand. Six-mana planeswalkers are great in Commander, and this card is still worth $6 because a lot of kitchen table and 100-card mages love playing with Garruk. Even a little bit of Standard play would cause Garruk’s price tag to double, which makes it a pretty solid spec at current retail.
3) Mu Yanling, Sky Dancer – $4
Speaking of planeswalkers with upside, Core Set 2020 has a three-mana ‘walker that has mostly been forgotten over the past six months. Despite pre-ordering for $25 and being initially considered one of the most powerful Core Set 2020 planeswalkers, Mu Yanling has taken a backseat to Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord; Chandra, Awakened Inferno; and now Vivien, Arkbow Ranger.
But the times might be changing. Mu Yanling, Sky Dancer has started to show up in some Simic Flash sideboards, and it’s possible that her +2 ability will line up better with Standard in the post-Theros Beyond Death metagame. The last Theros block pushed Standard toward monocolored decks and midrange battles, both of which would be good things for Mu Yanling’s playability.
I’ll admit, the odds of a payoff here feel longer to me than they do for most of the cards on this list, but the upside is undeniable. A mythic three-mana planeswalker from an under-opened set like Core Set 2020 would immediately surge past the $20 mark if it were to start seeing significant play, which is a pretty tantalizing possibility for a $4 card.
4) Kaya, Orzhov Usurper – $6
Kaya, Orzhov Usurper is my favorite buy on this list. $6 is almost certainly the bottom of the market for Kaya, a card that has quite a few homes in Pioneer, Modern, and even Legacy. As a three-mana planeswalker that interacts with graveyards, Kaya is going to be playable in eternal formats for years to come. And even if I’m wrong about Kaya showing up in Standard next season, Kaya is almost certainly going to double in price over the next year or so simply due to Modern demand. If the Pioneer metagame breaks the right way, the surge will happen even faster.
Kaya hasn’t seen much play in Standard to date, but that might be about to change. Her +1 ability is a whole lot more powerful when it has relevant targets, and targets don’t get a lot more relevant than Elspeth, Sun’s Nemesis. Elspeth isn’t the only card in Theros Beyond Death with escape, either; escape appears to be one of the set’s major keyword mechanics. If enough of those cards end up being Standard-playable, Kaya is going to surge in popularity.
High short-term upside? Check. Low long-term downside? Check again. Yeah, I’d snap these up ASAP.
5) Embercleave – $12
Embercleave is the most expensive card I’m going to talk about today, but I didn’t want to leave it off the list. This powerful piece of Equipment was hard to find for less than $20 back in late October, and $12 appears to be this card’s short-term price floor. It hasn’t been a big part of Standard for at least a month now, but the price simply refuses to drop any lower than this.
Embercleave’s hefty price tag is in large part due to Pioneer, where the Equipment is a big part of solid decks like Gruul Aggro and Izzet Aggro. Embercleave has even shown up in Mono-Red Aggro in Modern. This gives the card a pretty solid price floor, similar to both Kaya and Garruk. If you’re buying in now, you can be pretty sure that your investment is in no danger of tanking over the short-term.
Embercleave has upside, too. Robber of the Rich might end up seeing more play once a red-based aggro deck returns to Standard, but Embercleave is basically guaranteed to be the key mythic in that deck. Heck, the card is so good that it even shows up outside pure aggro decks in the current metagame simply because it can win a game out of nowhere. Chances are high that Embercleave will be a four-of in at least one Tier 1 deck between now and when it rotates out of Standard, at which point the price should hit $20+ again. Buy low while you still can.
6) Gadwick, the Wizened – $1.50
Gadwick, the Wizened looked excellent at Mythic Championship VII, and it has quickly become one of the key cards in the Standard metagame. Its price has gone up a little over the past few days (it was still a bulk rare the week before last), but I’m including it here in part because it will continue to rise in price once people check back in on Standard after the holidays. Gadwick would be an easy $4-$5 by now if Mythic Championship VII had taken place in early October, and you should take advantage of that price lag now if you can.
I also wanted to talk about Gadwick here because it’s the best poster-child for a group of cards that have a lot of upside right now: high-devotion permanents. Devotion was one of the key mechanics in the first Theros block, and Athreos, Shroud-Veiled confirms that it’s back for another go-round. Once the first few powerful Standard cards with devotion are previewed, expect a series of devotion-related price spikes as people buy what they need to brew with Theros Beyond Death‘s powerful Gods.
Gadwick, the Wizened is one of my favorite devotion-related specs, but it’s far from alone. Vivien, Arkbow Ranger will probably see another bump in value thanks to green devotion hype, and all five of the Core Set 2020 Cavaliers could spike as well. I also really like Ayara, First of Locthwain; Torbran, Thane of Red Fell; Yorvo, Lord of Garenbrig; Linden, the Steadfast Queen; and Feasting Troll King. Not all of these cards will spike, but if you see a powerful devotion card previewed in a certain color or color pair, I’d take a long look at the high-devotion permanents that play best with that new piece of tech.
7) Emry, Lurker of the Loch – $4
Theros wasn’t very artifact-heavy last time around, but I want to highlight Emry here because this was one of Throne of Eldraine‘s chase cards and I wouldn’t be surprised if it sees a pretty big resurgence in the new Standard metagame. Theros Beyond Death might not bring us too many cheap and powerful artifacts, as that certainly didn’t happen in the last Theros block, but Emry’s self-mill trigger could end up being one of the better escape enablers in the format. I’ve seen a lot of people excited about building a deck that wants to mill toward Elspeth, and if that takes off, it could be Emry’s time to shine.
This seems like a bit of a long shot to me, but like most of the cards on this list, Emry’s price is backed up by other factors. We’re all but guaranteed to get at least one artifact-heavy set during Emry’s time in Standard, and the card should spike in price once that set is revealed. More importantly, Emry actually does see quite a bit of play in both Modern and Legacy, often as the flagship of her own deck. For just $4, you’re buying a card with potential in Standard and a solid track record in eternal play. What’s not to like?
8) Starfield Mystic – $1.50
Let’s end this list with the most obvious spec target imaginable. Starfield Mystic was an obvious Theros Beyond Death plant when Core Set 2020 was released, as its flavor and mechanics are both tied directly to everything that Theros is all about. A card that makes enchantments cheaper while also growing into a threat in the late-game? Yeah, this card is going to see some play.
Starfield Mystic has jumped from $0.50 to $1.50 over the past month and a half, and it’ll spike even higher once the Theros Beyond Death hype cycle begins in earnest. It might not end up seeing play, but it’s powerful enough in a vacuum that plenty of folks are going to want to try it out. Sometimes, it’s best not to overthink things like this. Starfield Mystic was created to work well with Theros Beyond Death, and you should buy a set before more people remember that the card even exists.
This Week’s Trends
It was another slow week in Magic finance, as is customary this time of year. The Great Henge, Casualties of War, and Gadwick, the Wizened all ticked up a little bit after their super showings at Mythic Championship VII, but we’re talking about less than a dollar per card, only a fraction of the gains they would have seen had the event taken place earlier in the year. Like I discussed in last week’s article, a lot of these price increases are muted by the fact that we’re heading toward the holiday season as well as the end of the Standard season.
There weren’t many gains of note in Pioneer or Modern this week, either. Rhonas the Indomitable continued last week’s slow upward trend (it’s seeing play alongside Oko, Thief of Crowns in Pioneer) but even that trend seemed to top out and stabilize toward the start of the weekend. Other than that, the most meaningful gainer of the week was Sliver Hivelord, which jumped a couple of bucks thanks to folks who ordered the Kaleidoscope Killers Secret Lair drop looking for additional Slivers to build around.
There weren’t too many significant losses this week either, though the entire Magic index is down a bit as we get deeper into the holiday doldrums. Oko, Thief of Crowns lead the downward charge, dropping about $5 this week just like I predicted. Based on Oko’s omnipresence in the Modern metagame at the Star City Games Players’ Championship over the weekend, as well as the way things have been trending on MTGO over the past few months, I fully expect an Oko ban in Modern at some point in January. I’d sell your copies before then if you’re not planning to use them anytime soon.
Lastly, it looks like Magic: the Gathering is getting an MMO! This has been in development for the past couple of years, but I’d kind of assumed it was dead because, y’know, it’s an MMO. Not so! Magic: Legends is coming soon, and a wildly popular game could absolutely drive new and returning players toward tabletop Magic, which would in turn cause prices to rise. This is something of a long shot — when’s the last time a successful MMO of any kind has launched? — but it’s worth keeping tabs on regardless.