I was bored one afternoon in the summer of 2008, so I decided to head over to the Wizards site and re-read everything they had posted about the upcoming block, Shards of Alara.
It was that wonderful time of the year when we knew general details about the next set, but none of the cards had been spoiled yet. The product description page had a blurb about each of the shards, and my mouth was watering thinking about a set I hoped would be similar to my beloved Ravnica.
While I can’t find the actual words I read that day, I remember taking careful note that Grixis was going to be a plane filled with something like “…malice, death, and assassins.”
Grixis was going to be a whole shard filled with assassins!
You know what card cares about assassins?
Knowing how popular Mono-Black Control is every time it’s viable and how kickass an entire deck of assassins would be, I figured Scarblade Elite might have a reasonable chance of making the jump from zero to hero. He was available pretty much everywhere for fifteen cents as long as I could handle the shame of knowing how much laughter would be going on as the store packed up my order.
I bought a hundred of them before crossing my fingers that Shards block wouldn’t let me down, and you can guess the rest of the story.
While Grixis did end up containing exactly one assassin, the great and mighty Thraximundar, he didn’t exactly spawn a new archetype. And for the following year, each and every person who bought a stack of bulk rares from me could be certain that their order contained four NM copies of Scarblade Elite.
This week I am writing a primer about how to speculate on cards. Speculation is something that is talked about often in financial articles like this, but I have yet to see anyone step back and look at the big picture.
How do you know what cards to buy?
How many copies of each card should you get?
Where should you get them from?
Let’s tackle these questions one by one in what I hope is a comprehensive guide to spending a lot of money on cards you don’t actually need!
Pay Attention to Results
The most likely way for a card to “hit” is for it to show up in a winning deck. Thus, it is important to stay on top of event coverage in order to make sure you are first on the scene when a brand new deck posts results.
I’m not saying that you need to comb through the Top 8 lists for every local and regional tournament looking for outliers, but you should be aware of what is winning at the major tournaments. Every time there is a constructed GP or Pro Tour, check the coverage page and your twitter feed looking for surprises. Nationals & Worlds are also important, as are Opens and 5Ks early in a season.
There are two types of situations you should be on the lookout for:
1) The “Stoneforge Mystic at PT: San Diego” scenario: Anyone who was in San Diego on day 1 can tell you that the card came out of nowhere and was very effective. The fact that the deck was being played by team Channelfireball and helped spur LSV’s fabled run was icing on the cake. In this case, a team everyone loves (CFB) began using a dollar rare to great success in a very popular archetype (Naya). The perfect storm.
2) The “Eldrazi Green in Nashville” scenario: Back in the earliest days of Zendikar, the format was very new and no one had really figured out which of the new cards were a hit. Enter Kali Anderson at the Star City Open in Nashville, where she introduced the world to a deck that won it all with Eldrazi Monument, Nissa Revane, and a bunch of tokens. Not only did Kali’s victory make waves because it is rare for a woman to take down a major tournament, but the fact that she did it with a unique deck filled with (at the time) cheap rares and mythics made her finish legendary. Even though I don’t think the deck ever put up another top finish in anyone’s hands, the appeal for the Eldrazi Green cards among the casual/FNM crowd was enormous. Another perfect storm.
Eldrazi Green and Boss Naya were both unknown decks going in to their respective tournaments. In both cases, the decks either won or put up excellent numbers. Both decks were updates on popular strategies that could be easily emulated by the FNM crowd.
And in both cases, a lot of money could have been made if you were paying close attention.
Pay Attention to the Experts
While the most common reason for a price jump is due to a deck performing well, that isn’t the only way a card can climb in a hurry.
Magic innovation is a little bit like a game of “follow the leader,” where the pros that write strategy and deck building articles have a massive amount of sway over the metagame. Consider, for example, the price jump in Karakas about a year and a half ago after Stephen Menendian talked it up as tech against Reanimator or Gerry Thompson’s long crusade on behalf of Frost Titan earlier this year.
Of course, speculating based on a writer’s opinion is rather dangerous unless you either have complete faith in them or a good knowledge of the deck yourself. In order for the price to really move on a card, the demand for it has to go up in a meaningful way. This means that the card has to be included in either a successful or a popular deck. Listening to experts can certainly put you ahead of the curve, but be prepared to buy a ton of cards that don’t end up doing much as well. These investments are far from a sure thing.
The Magic Online Factor
It is important to note that online speculation works entirely differently than paper speculation. People online want to immediately brew up whatever the latest tech is, even if it’s not proven. This is why Archive Trap jumped 300% a few months back on Magic Online based solely on a Mike Flores tweet saying that he was building a deck with the card. The price of the card in paper was unaffected because the deck never ended up making waves.
The other good thing about Magic Online speculation is that bots make it easy to buy and sell large amounts of stock. While it might be hard to find a buyer for your 80th paper copy of Necrotic Ooze, you can dump all your excess digital copies to a bot with just a few mouse clicks.
If you are an Magic Online player, then, it makes sense to buy up any cheap rare that an expert talks about as soon as possible, and then flip those cards immediately. As a paper player, I haven’t done much of this, but I’ve been told it can be really lucrative.
Common Pitfalls When Deciding What to Buy
Ignore hype during the “spoiler” phase of the season. It doesn’t really matter that Koth was at $30 when he was first spoiled and went to $50 within a week. Why? Chances are if you pre-ordered the card, you won’t actually receive it until it’s too late to benefit from the immediate price jump.
I am going to devote a whole article later on to analyzing when it is right to pre-order a card, but as a rule of thumb I wouldn’t spend money on any pre-order that isn’t an immediate need or a bulk rare that you think has real potential.
I am also wary of cards that don’t have a home. Cards are never judged in a vacuum – they’re only good if the players around them can gel into a cohesive deck.
It is better to buy in on a rare that makes a tier-1 deck even better than to buy in on a card that looks powerful and undervalued but which never breaks out.
I am also wary of cheap cards that help enable expensive decks. Valakut, for example, is probably the best deck in the format right now. Because that deck needs four copies of Primeval Titan to function, though, I’ve had almost no interest in the copies of Valakut I have in my binder. They only went up from $0.99 to about $2, and I don’t know anyone who wants them at that price. Why? Every player who has four Primeval Titans already has four Valakuts!
If Valakut were a budget deck, however, I would bet that the card would be drawing a ton of interest.
It is also important to remember that in today’s Magic economy, rares rarely go past $5 or $6, and the ones that do are generally hyped during the pre-order phase like Zendikar fetchlands. Buying $3 rares for speculation is usually a bad gamble. Stick to $1-$2 rares and low-cost Mythics and your misses won’t sting very much.
How Many Copies Should You Buy?
If you are going to start speculating on cards, it is important to establish and maintain a budget. No matter what the budget is, make sure to stay within it.
You also want to be careful not to put all your eggs in one basket. (Unless that basket is made of gold and is encrusted with those upside-down biplane stamps or something.)
Otherwise, one wrong decision can bankrupt you.
If the card you are investing in is a bulk rare and copies can be had for $0.25 or under, there’s no reason not to buy 50-60 copies of the card. While my Assassin purchase didn’t pay off huge, I still recouped my entire investment just by bulking the cards back out again. Bulk rares are as low-risk an investment as they come.
If the card is mid-value, consider investing in 4-5 playsets. This gives you enough room to make some real money without breaking your bank.
If the card is already worth quite a bit, 1-2 playsets might still be worth it. Doubling up on a $100 investment is excellent no matter how many cards change hands.
Where Should You Buy the Cards?
This seems like it should be the easiest step of them all, but I’ve found that it is actually the hardest.
Your first option is to buy your cards from one of the large and reputable dealers. (Channelfireball.com comes to mind for some weird reason…)
The advantage of doing this is that you can feel reasonably certain that the transaction will take place. The large dealers don’t place a limit on how many copies of each card you can buy, and they usually won’t cancel your order later on if the price goes up. As long as the card is in stock, you just have to plug in how many copies you want, pay them, and get the cards a few days later.
That said, there is a disclaimer on this very site as well as on those of the other major retailers saying that they may limit or cancel orders that contain more than 4 of a single card. This has never happened to me, but it is worth being aware of.
I can tell you that none of the major dealers canceled my Stoneforge Mystic orders on the morning of PT: San Diego, but I suspect that if I had purchased 30 copies of Glimpse of Nature for a buck each the day it jumped to ten dollars, I might have gotten a phone call.
Off the Beaten Path
Of course, since the object of this endeavor is to make money, there is a chance that paying full retail for the card isn’t going to be your first choice. There are other options, but they all have major drawbacks.
First, you can try your local brick & mortar game store. If you go this route, though, I would either limit yourself to a single playset or make sure your store owner is ok with speculators. While most store owners shouldn’t have a problem with this, the last thing you want is to get banned from the place where your reputation matters the most.
Of course, I have yet to find a retail store that sells their cards cheaper than this site, but your mileage may vary.
Another option is to go to auction sites or other places where individual collectors/sellers can post cards for sale. When I’ve done this in the past, I’ve had about a 50% success rate in terms of actually receiving the cards I’ve bought. The other 50% of sellers will make up an excuse to not send them. Most will return my money, but I’ve had to fight plenty of others through PayPal in order to get anything back.
If you do go this route, make sure you plan ahead and don’t order all your cards from the same seller.
I actually haven’t had much better luck dealing with the websites of stores, either. In fact, some of them have treated me downright poorly.
When Mindslaver was first spoiled as a reprint in Scars of Mirrodin, I decided to buy a few copies of the original so that I could trade them before the hype died down. I purchased one of my playsets from White Lion Games, a reasonably popular online retailer. They charged my credit card, and three hours later I received an email that my order had shipped.
The next morning, I got an email saying that they had “miscalculated” and were cancelling my order. I sent them two emails, each a day apart, asking for clarification. I received nothing. They decided that I wasn’t even worth an email reply.
An Aside on the Ethics of Speculation
Several store owners have spoken out in the past against speculation. Their argument is usually something like, “it’s not fair to stock a card for months and then miss out on most of the profits because some speculator bought out all 30 copies right before the price went up.”
What they’re forgetting about are all the people who bought out 30 copies of a silly rare that ended up going nowhere.
Personally, I wish store owners would do more to encourage speculation. I think if they did this it would actually lead to more sales! Heck, the price of Mindslaver went DOWN since I made that pre-order with White Lion! If they had sold the cards to me, they would have made more money. It was their loss, not mine.
If I knew that I was guaranteed to receive any cards I put in an order for, I would be more aggressive about speculation. I really hate spending hours online trying to figure out a good card to make money on only to have my order declined after it’s too late.
Casual traders should like speculators, too. The more cards that are desirable, the more their current assets go up. Want to trade for the fourth Eldrazi Monument you need from that sharky trader at your FNM? It’s much easier to do it if you have some cards that are hot speculation targets. Everyone remembers the Frost Titan they traded away at $5, but I bet they’ve forgotten about the Mind over Matter they got $8 for back when it looked like the combo with Temple Bell would make waves in Legacy.
Ultimately, I feel that stores that don’t want speculators buying from them should limit their orders to four of each card. If they did this, then they would be protected from one person buying out their stock on a rapidly rising card.
But most of them won’t do this. Why? Because then they’d lose the ability to sell 30 copies of a stagnant card to bad speculators!
That just doesn’t seem right to me.
(Note: for more on this, check out Kelly Reid’s excellent Mana Nation article Canceled.)
If you paid attention to the coverage coming back from Worlds, you were given a couple of smaller chances to speculate on cards.
Analyzing the tournament with my parameters in mind, we can immediately see that there weren’t any breakout situations like Stoneforge Mystic or Eldrazi Green. No single card from the event went from a $1 rare to a $6-$10 powerhouse overnight.
But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t money to be made!
On day one, the only unique deck to get much public attention was Caw-Go. If Squadron Hawk had been a bulk rare instead of a common we’d all be in business, but instead the card to consider from the deck is Gideon Jura. His Magic Online price went up immediately, and his paper price will probably see a small jump if the deck becomes popular at FNMs due to its quirky nature.
By the end of day 3, another small truth had established itself: Grave Titan had climbed back the top of the titan world. Since the value of these cards fluctuate more than the flux capacitor on an ’85 DeLorean, it’s good to know which ones are currently in the most demand.
Extended wasn’t shaken up that much either, which is odd for a new format. The early word out of Japan was that Conley had broken Necrotic Ooze, and if you had been able to pick them up for a buck or less that night you were given an easy way to cash out.
Unfortunately, since the Ooze deck didn’t end up doing all that well, I have doubts that the card’s long-term value will be affected. And since the card was already $2.50 or so on most major sites, there wasn’t really a lot of profit to be made on it anyway.
Digging deeper, we can look at cards like Prismatic Omen as a former casual rare that might see some demand from tournament players due to its appearance in extended Valakut decks. We can also look at the rares present in the new Tempered Steel deck as additions to our Extended binders.
Also of note is that most of the financial experts were saying Faeries would be a non-factor like they were in Amsterdam. I can’t count how many times I read over the past few weeks that faerie cards should be dumped ASAP because the deck would auto-lose to Jund and all the other tier-1 brews.
In Brian Grewe’s article from last week, which is worth checking out as he details the financial fallout of worlds in more detail than I am doing here, he stands by his recommendation to dump Faerie cards ASAP. His rationale is that LSV, Paulo and others felt that the deck was weak going into the tournament. While this may be true, Faeries did well enough at Worlds to cement them as a pillar of the new Extended metagame. Even if the pros eschew the Fae menace, they are such a popular deck that I guarantee you there will be demand for these cards at an FNM/PTQ level.
The results also bear out that these cards should not be ignored. Faeries did very well at the tournament, and should be considered tier-1 for the time being.
Overall, while there wasn’t a true breakout star to come out of Worlds, the landscape did shift enough to ensure that a speculator with a quick trigger finger could have made a couple bucks.
Pick of the Week 12/20: Prismatic Omen – Shadowmoor
There is always an opportunity to make money when a card jumps from casual-only to tournament playable.
Prismatic Omen is sold out here at $1.99, but you’ll probably be able to get them for a buck in trade if you’re lucky. Even at $2, the card is a very solid pickup. If Valakut ends up being a tier 1 or tier 1.5 deck in Extended, Prismatic Omen should be a solid $4 at FNM and $5-$6 on tournament day.
That’s all for now! Join me next week when I take a look at the Commander cards you absolutely, positively need to stock your binder with.