Dreamborn Musings: Spoilers and Speculation

In the past five years, speculation has become a significant part of Magic: the Gathering finance. Thought-quick communication, a sleepless online community, real monetary incentive and vocal Magic financers have coalesced into the perfect storm of speculators, and it is no longer surprising to see a card jump from 2 bucks to 12 overnight. While this doesn’t happen every evening, card prices are changing much more rapidly than they have in the past. For reference, here’s a list of events that constitute a large portion of the fuel that feeds the fire of speculation.

-Banned/Unbanned Announcements

-Pro Tour/GP Results

-Spoilers

The DCI announces banning and restrictions every three months. Pro Tours take place 3 times a year, and GPs take place… jeez, almost weekly now. Spoilers are also a quarterly occurrence, although they tend to enjoy a 2-3 week lifespan. This means that it is now uncommon for 3 weeks to pass without the potential for some for some serious speculation, and the resulting flux of card prices on the secondary market.  Each of these events spawn a different kind of speculation, so today, I’d like to focus on the speculation that results from the spoiling of a new set alone. It just seems timely.

I love spoiler season. I just like seeing the new cards. The thinker in me enjoys the slow, intoxicating  immersion into new flavor and new design, and making connections to the flavor and design that preceded the new set. The competitor in me enjoys the challenge of divining new tactics and eking out an advantage by ascertaining the right strategy to employ in an untested Limited environment. The trader in me is just giddy with the potential of finding the diamond in the rough that turns my pennies and quarters into Legacy staples.  I’d imagine that those reasons cover the excitement that most players feel, but I’d also like to discuss one more aspect of spoilers, one that is somewhat related to the trader’s quest, but also seems to belong to the thinker. When Pre-order options begin to appear on the major retailer’s websites, the Magic community begins to engage in one of the best real world examples of Expected Value that I can think of. It’s almost platonic in its form. For about 3 weeks, the prices of the spoiled cards rise and fall based on nothing but what people think of them. You weren’t too keen on that red-green wall? Well neither was the rest of the community, but that rising hotshot whose been dominating the Standard Open Series praised it in his most recent article, and now the price of the card has doubled. Did you go all in on the first price of Jace v. 18? It’s a shame that more people didn’t agree with you, that thing has dropped ten bucks since Tuesday.

During spoiler season, these cards do not exist. No one has them, no one is playing with them, but everyone is thinking about them. The cards aren’t dominating tournaments, putting up results, or moldering in trade binders. It is this thought alone that controls the value of the nascent cardboard, which commands high prices despite the fact that it doesn’t actually exist in the player’s reality until their orders are shipped upon release date. As a philosophy lover and fantasy world enthusiast, interacting with this purely theoretical form of EV really blows my hair back.

OK, OK, dollars and cents. How can you and I benefit from this projected speculation that is supported only by the pillars of thought alone? Here are a few rules that I follow when choosing whether to put my money into a speculation, or when I decide that the card just isn’t worth. Please bear in mind that the rules of finance, just like the rules of Magic and many of the rules of life, are supposed to be broken, given the presence of a variety of factors. Rules set in stone are seldom as useful as those that can be applied fluidly, and you should use these examples only as long as they do not cut off the perspective that other avenues might offer.

  1. 1.       Do NOT Pre-Order Planeswalkers

Seriously. You don’t want to do this. You really, really don’t. Planeswalkers are in a weird spot nowadays. They are intrinsically the most powerful type of card in existence, offering the player a host of options and forcing an opponent to play differently simply because they are in play, regardless of what they are doing. They are also the epitome of flavor, projected as the protagonists of a given set’s storyline. They are always Mythic rares.  They are easily the most popular and most exciting cards that can appear on a list of spoilers, and everyone has something to say about them. These attributes combine to make a high, sometimes truly absurd Pre-order price. Walkers generally debut at 40+, and very rarely fall during the speculation of a Pre-order season. They are just that popular, and in addition to that popularity, they are notoriously difficult to evaluate. Most retailers decide to play it safe and cater to the hype, as well as to the rabid desperation that grips many players at the thought of missing the next Jace, the Mindsculptor.

This means that the first price a Planeswalker carries is normally the highest that it will ever carry.  Here are a few examples: Garruk, Primal Hunter, Chandra the Firebrand, Jace, Memory Adept, Liliana of the Veil, Garruk Relentless, Sorin, Lord of Innistrad, Tamiyo the Moon Sage, Tibalt the Fiend-Blooded, Koth of the Hammer, Elspeth Tirel, Venser the Sojourner. None of those cards where ever worth more than their pre-order price, and only a few of them saw slightly more than fringe play. Jace the Mindsculptor has cast a long, dark shadow over the average Magic player’s mind, and it isn’t going to be dispelled any time soon. Paying or trading for a Standard card that ranges from 70-110 bucks is miserable enough to become legendary, and the high prices are the children born of popularity’s marriage to resentful caution.  That being said, the Mindsculptor also taught Magic players and Magic designers something critical about the power-level of Planeswalkers, and that lesson is another strike against Planeswalker speculation. R+D learned what a dominant PW does to formats, to wallets, and to tournament attendance. These are smart, talented, committed individuals. I can’t imagine them making a mistake like JTMS again anytime soon, and I’d imagine that all PWs designed after Jace’s reign have had their power much curtailed by the caution and reservation of the design team. Want another negative about PW specs? Even if you believe that there is a newly spoiled Walker that defies the reason laid out above, how much money are you going to make buy buying a bunch of high priced cards? If a Walker starts at 40 bucks, even if it is really, really good, how much room does it have to rise? Ten bucks? Twenty? At an initial investment of 40 dollars per card, I would need to expect a profit of at least 25 dollars, simply because of the large amount of capital required for the initial investment. The appearance of a PW that can boast a sustained value of 65 dollars doesn’t seem like a reality to me. While the printing of Tibalt proves that R+D is still exploring the limitations of PW design, they are being much more cautious than ever before, and I don’t think that a format-defining PW is something they are interested in subjecting their player base to anytime soon. Even if a PW does break the current mold of expectations, it will likely be instantly recognized for the beast that it is, and the first price that it is posted at will reflect that recognition.

  1. 2.       Be wary of “Answer” cards

“Answer” cards are cards that are printed as obvious counter strategies that seldom do anything other than nullify a card or specific strategy, also referred to as “hosers”. The cards are printed to correct some form of degeneracy within a format or two, or possibly to prohibit the degeneracy of cards that will be printed later in the year. Recent examples of these “answers” include Grafdigger’s Cage and Phyrexian Revoker. The Cage actually does nothing other than reduce the functionality of other cards, and seems like more of a failsafe included to limit aberrant possibilities rather than inspire new strategies.  Revoker is one of the many members of the Meddling Mage family, all of which are  supposed to shut down the one card most critical to your opponent’s strategy.  They are, for the most part, extremely narrow, predictable answers. These “answer” card’s initial price is always the highest that it will ever be. Remember, these are cards that Wizards intends as counters to a strategy that they believe has the potential to become oppressive, or to provide avenues of interaction with certain strategies that are often un-interactive outside of specific hate cards ( Mill and Graveyard- based strategies.) They are intended to be used as sideboard cards, and will rarely be the foundation of any streamlined, tournament worthy deck. This means that they really aren’t worth the 8 dollar price tags they seem to begin with, and are poor targets for speculation.

  1. 3.       Mythic Madness

When I speculate, I seldom look at mythic rares.  Those cards are supposed to be good, and almost everyone who writes anything about Magic on the internet will address them to some positive or negative degree within a week of their listing on a spoiler website. My point is that the value of these cards can generally be agreed upon and becomes a known entity very quickly, and there isn’t much to be gained by purchasing them at their initial price. Retailers are also cautious about mythics, and start them higher than they are actually worth. Speculating on mythics can be a steep gamble, one that I usually avoid making. That doesn’t mean, however, that caution should rule your dealings with these red rares. Both Entreat the Angels and Bonfire of the Damned began much, much, much lower than they are currently, and quite a few people made some good money off of these cards. If there is a mythic with a powerful effect that appears at under 10, I’m willing to nibble. Nibble is the key word here, because generally, I’ll only pick up a playset or two, to avoid getting burned too badly if my gut call doesn’t pan out. Remember, Temporal Mastery was a mythic alongside Bonfire and Entreat, and I’m sure there are more than a few speculators who lost as much as the others gained.  I much prefer lower risk, lower gain card speculations. When a spoiler is almost complete, I spend some time poring over all of the cards that are listed at 5 dollars and under, trying to sniff out a sleeper. I would recommend this approach to anyone attempting to try their hand at speculation, or merely as a skill test. Do you know what makes certain creatures better than others? What abilities do these new cards have that seem to break the rules of the color pie? Which of these cards provide card advantage in new or better ways? Does this land do something that lands rarely do? Does this card have an effect seldom seen at low mana costs? Is this drawback really much of a drawback? These are important questions to bear in mind while scrutinizing a spoiler. The most recent example I can offer is that of Restoration Angel, a card that was first listed at 4.99-5.99 by most major retailers, and has since become one of the best creatures in the current standard format, one that seems poised to gain even more popularity from the various ETB effects sewn throughout M13. It has doubled in price since it’s debut, and I’m betting that it still has some room to rise.

Spending time dealing with these lower priced rares probably won’t make you a ton of money, but it is a great way to learn how to evaluate power levels and acquire some good trading material at very little risk. Even if you choose not to purchase any of the cards that you think are being undervalued, keep an eye on them. If they rise in price, fall in price, or merely remain stagnant for a significant amount of time, make a mental note. If you keep making good calls, then maybe you’re ready to trust your gut when the next big card is being missed by others.

  1. 4.       Know Your Role

What are you trying to do by speculating? Are you trying to learn how to evaluate cards, or save some money by buying staples before they become staples? Maybe you’re trying to cash out as soon as you have the big hype card in your binder. Whatever goal you are seeking to achieve through speculation, keep it at the forefront of your mind as you make a decision. This helps prevent rash action. If you found a card at low value, but don’t have any dealers to flip to or enough salesman savvy to turn it online, you could easily miss your window of opportunity, and the card could be worth less than what you paid by the time you’re ready to move it.  If you are actively looking to make some quick cash by speculating on Magic cards, be at peace with quick risks and big downsides. If you are just starting to test your speculation skills, then wait until you’ve been vindicated a few times before you start buying. When everyone is excited by certain cards and the forums are burning with hot new tech, it’s easy to get trigger happy and either buy in too early, or delude yourself into thinking that something is better or worse than it actually is.  Know exactly what you are trying to do by speculating, and make sure that you don’t act outside of what you know. This is where all of the financial advice, deck building strategy, and new Commander articles can be both a blessing and a curse.  Each of the authors writing about these new cards is examining from a different perspective. Make sure you are aware of their intent to examine Standard, or Limited, Commander or Legacy. If someone is says a card is a good Commander buy, than you should know that it is going to take at least a year or two for the card’s price to become anything meaningful. Just because someone is raving about Legacy applications doesn’t mean that those same applications exist for Standard. Be a judicial reader, and use such articles for perspective, perhaps guidance, but not as dogma.

 

Keep these thoughts in mind during spoiler season, and try your hand at speculating! Even if you don’t plan on making any purchases, keep track of the cards that you think will rise or fall. Your hunches just might be better than you think. As an aside, I’d like to ruminate on Thundermaw Hellkite for a short bit.

 

 

 

This is one of the most recently spoiled Mythic rares that has the internet abuzz with speculation. Would you believe that this card was first listed at 6 dollars on Starcitygames.com? From the 20 dollar tag it is currently wearing, probably not. The Hellkite’s already divergent price listings tell an interesting tale about the current state of speculation within Magic the Gathering.

The card sold out on Starcity within an hour of its first listing, and was then relisted at 8. It sold out just as quickly, was relisted at 15, and promptly sold out again. This, mind you, is taking place before any articles had been written, only half a day after the card first appeared on spoilers. From 15, the price jumped all the way to 35, and only then did the fish stop biting. It fell to 15, and as soon as it did, it sold out again. At this point, Thundermaw Hellkite was a preview card that Mark Rosewater unveiled, and had appeared in a few articles by prominent Magic writers. Up to 17. Sold out. Up to 20. Sold out. It has been sold out on Starcity at 20 since Tuesday, and they haven’t relisted it.  The card first appeared on June 21, and in the course of a week’s time, went through massive increases and decreases as speculators both big and small tried to ascertain its worth. Regardless of any other applications that this card might have, it can already be used as an example of a burgeoning aspect of Magic: the Gathering finance. Were you one of the few quick enough to snap this dragon up at 6 or 8? If so, you either made or saved a nice fistful of cash. Here is the real question- Is Thundermaw Hellkite a good card to speculate on?

At 6 and 8, absolutely. This card is comparable to Demigod Of Revenge, gaining a tapping ability and an easier casting cost, but losing the reanimation ability. Demigod was a force to be reckoned with when it was in Standard, and was worth around 10-15 during its tenure. As a Mythic, if Thundermaw is any near as popular as Demigod, it should fetch 15 easily, with a reasonable possibility of rising higher.

What about buying this card at 15? Here I start to get a bit wary. While I know this card is powerful and will be played in Standard, I don’t expect it to rise much past 20, And I’m not saving or gaining much by going in on it at this point. I also don’t buy the Baneslayer Angel comparison that has been flying around. While both the dragon and the angel cost 5 to play, have powerful abilities, beautiful art and sweet flavor, they don’t do the same thing. Baneslayer almost singlehandedly shut down any offensive board state that your opponent had mustered, in addition to being a great attacker herself. If you were at 6 life and dropped Baneslayer, your opponent needed a removal spell immediately, or you had achieved stability. Thundermaw doesn’t do that. It only has one mode, and while it excels in that one area, it simply isn’t as versatile, which is what made Baneslayer what it was. I don’t think this card will rise above 25, and if it does, I doubt it stays above that line for more than a few weeks. That being said, it is a mythic in its first print run, so if it takes off, it will do so quickly. For me, that  potential doesn’t outweigh the likelihood of it already being as valuable as it will ever be.

I hope that this article has been helpful, at least in drawing attention to another aspect of the game. Playing and trading have long been the cornerstones of Magic’s appeal, and speculation is sort of the new kid on the block. Try it out, in whatever capacity you can. I’ve found it to be an engaging and rewarding way to play with Magic. Thanks for reading!

-Christian Sauer