In the past, Un-set finance was incredibly simple. The stuff that's normally tossed aside during a draft (lands and tokens) was worth money, while the actual rares and mythics were pretty much worthless. The only rares from Unhinged worth more than $3 are City of Ass, Mox Lotus, and Richard Garfield, Ph.D. For a set released more than ten years ago (that hasn't been hurt by a single reprint!), that's terrible.
The big knock on Unhinged is that the cards weren't all that fun to play with once everyone got the joke. I don't think that was the set's only problem, though. To me, another big knock on Unhinged is that the set is really, really underpowered.
For example, why couldn't Meddling Kids have just cost UW? Why didn't they make cards like Greater Morphling and Mox Lotus reasonable to cast? It's not like you had to worry about them destroying the balance of Standard or Legacy (Modern didn't exist yet, remember). Cheatyface is still one of my favorite cards, but I'm always disappointed when I realize that it's just a generic 2/2 flier in the end. Unhinged was a chance for Wizards of the Coast to push the envelope a bit, but they failed to do so even slightly.
And then, yeah, a lot of the cards in Unhinged just aren't any fun to actually play with. Form of the Squirrel is neat until you cast it and instantly lose. Yet Another Aether Vortex and Zzzyxas's Abyss are kind of cool in theory, but does anyone really want to go to the trouble of building around them? The payoff is just so tiny. Looking up and down that image gallery, it's hard to find a single card that's actually fun to play with, not just fun to look at once or twice.
On the Bright Side!
The good news is that Unstable isn't like that. Sure, there are still plenty of spells that are jokey, parasitic, or will otherwise probably not do all that much beyond Unstable's short-lived time as a draft set, but there are also a bunch of interesting cards that will make the leap into Commander and Cube.
I hate to keep comparing Unstable to Unhinged, a set from before Magic's 2011-2014 player base explosion, but for all its faults, Unhinged has loads of valuable foils. Richard Garfield, Ph.D. is a $180 foil, Who/What/When/Where/Why is $50, City of Ass and Mox Lotus are both $40, Gleemax is $35, and Blast from the Past is $25. There are plenty of others in the $15-$20 range, too. Richard Garfield, Ph.D. is a special case—people want to get the card signed by the creator of Magic—but Who/What/When/Where/Why and Blast from the Past are expensive because of Cube. There's real demand for silver-bordered foils…if the cards are good.
I also wouldn't be surprised if most Commander playgroups permanently lessen their objection to silver-bordered inclusions now that Unstable is here. That's already happening on a temporary basis (most Un-cards will be Commander legal from now until January 15th—more on this a bit later!). While many Unhinged cards tended to be deliberately confusing (Ambiguity, Staying Power, etc.) most of the best spells in Unstable are just a breath away from being able to be printed in a black-bordered set, and I doubt too many casual playgroups are going to mind if you play with them. I wouldn't even be shocked if the Commander Rules Committee allows Un-cards to be played on a more or less permanent basis. More people are going to find ways to use those cards than you think.
Before you go too crazy with the preorders, though, there are still a couple of factors that should keep the price of Unstable's best rares pretty low.
First, let's not forget that each pack of Unstable comes with a full-art land. Right now, these are retailing between $2 (Mountain and Plains) and $4 (Island). A booster pack of Unstable retails for $4, so right now these are making up between 50% and 100% of the overall pack value. Oh—and you have to factor in the value of sometimes opening a foil full-art land as well.
Second, each pack of Unstable comes with a foil token. Half of them will have full art on the back instead of an ad, and these variants are going to be incredibly desirable. I can't see the better ones (Zombie, red Elemental, Angel, maybe Spirt and Beast) selling for less than $1 each. If we call the APV of a land slot $3 and the foil slot $1, that gets us to $4 without even factoring in the rares. Since you can buy a box of Unstable from StarCityGames.com® for just $2.64/pack, something's gotta give, and it probably won't be the lands or tokens.
And we haven't even discussed the size of the print run, which will determine the real future value of these cards. Mark Rosewater has already said that the Unstable print run won't be limited—if it sells out, they'll print more. Of course, that still doesn't tell us much about how long the set will remain on sale, nor how popular it will really end up being. If Unstable doesn't sell well initially, we might not get a second print run, and the set's best cards will end up being worth more over the long haul.
Of course, if the set doesn't sell well initially, that probably also means that demand for silly things like Baron Von Count is lower than I think it'll be.
So yeah, you aren't going to get rich pre-ordering Unstable singles. There's a reason why even the best mythic rares are selling for just $2, and it's staring back at us from the land and token slots. That said, I do expect some of these cards to eventually end up in the $5+ range as the rest of them fall towards bulk. At the very least, it's worth taking a lot at the set to see if we can find some sweet foil specs.
I don't love the MTG Salvation Cube forums—they're prone to herding, and they don't always have a great sense of fun—but it's still the best place to get a good sense of what the greater Cube community is excited about. Right now, these look like the best Cube additions from Unstable:
I'd consider snagging foil copies of all these cards sooner rather than later. If I had to pick just two, I'd go with The Grand Calcutron ($15 in foil) and Ineffable Blessing ($5 in foil) as the cards most likely to end up becoming Cube staples.
New Commander Favorites
For a silver-bordered card to make it in Commander, it has to hit a pretty small window. It can't make people groan when you play it, it can't be too overpowered, and it can't be too confusing. First and foremost, you can't betray the format's social contract.
Second, the card either has to do something awesome on its own or play nicely with a theme that's already popular. Tokens-matter cards are good. Dr. Julius Jumblemorph probably isn't. A few people will build decks around the set's cool parasitic themes, but what we're looking for are cards that people will slot into their existing brews. Here are my favorites:
He threads that fine line between silly and reasonable pretty well, and this is the exact sort of slow, powerful card that people love to play in Commander.
I can imagine Kaalia decks and other casual Angel and artifact decks wanting this, especially in foil.
This thing just looks plain fun to cast. +1/+1 counters are a common theme for R/G decks, and this is the sort of shenanigan that a fun Commander playgroup will approve of.
I have a U/B Commander deck that might even want Phoebe as its commander. This is exactly the sort of card that I had in mind when I set out to write this article.
All of my five-color Commander decks are getting a copy of Urza. What will it do? Who knows! This is the most valuable card in the set right now, and I suspect it's going to remain near the top of that heap until Wizards of the Coast takes AskUrza.com down at some point in the 2020s.
This is a counter creator, a token generator, and a sacrifice outlet. If you're looking for the intersection of cool Commander goodness, you've found it.
If Unstable were a black-bordered set, this would be a $4 card due to Commander interest alone. This is a very long term spec, but I have no doubt that it'll end up being worth far more than its current $0.25 price tag at some point.
Repeatable reanimation is awesome in Commander, and this one's pretty dang flavorful on top of that. Much like the last two cards we talked about, would you really have been shocked to have seen this one in Commander 2017 instead? Is it really that much crazier than The Mimeoplasm?
Much like Phoebe, Head of S.N.E.A.K., X strikes me as the sort of card that can slot right into a flavorful U/B Commander deck without breaking the game too much. I'm in.
Much like Cheatyface, people are going to enjoy sneaking this onto the battlefield. It won't be as iconic as its predecessor, but many of the same people are still going to want these.
Unstable Cards to Avoid
If you believe that a subset of Unstable's rares and mythics will be worth something in addition to the lands and tokens, it stands to reason that a bunch of the set's other cards are going to end up being worth almost nothing in the end. Here are my picks for the set's big misses:
1) All the Contraptions. A few people will build wacky casual Contraption decks, but these things don't mesh well with black-bordered play, nor do they look like new Cube staples. Parasitic mechanics like this never do well on the secondary market unless they end up in a top competitive deck.
2) The host/augment cards. These things have the same problem as the Contraptions—you're either going all-in on them, or you're not putting them in your deck at all.
3) The more parasitic "dice rolling matters" cards. There aren't enough other die roll cards in the game to combine these with, and the ones that do exist aren't all that fun.
4) The "watermarks/flavor text/border matters" cards, or at least the ones that aren't interesting or powerful on their own merits. These could easily be implemented in black-bordered magic, and no one is going to seek these cards out because they care deeply about watermarks or whatever.
The Real Estate Conundrum
Unless you're a Commander or Cube player, your interest in Unstable probably begins and ends at the full-art lands. Should you buy them now, or wait a few months? How cheap are they going to get? Will they end up being worth as much as their Unhinged counterparts, or will they always be $2-$4 cards?
The situations aren't identical, but it's worth looking at the difference between the original Zendikar full-art lands and their Battle for Zendikar counterparts. A random full-art Forest from Zendikar is worth about $1, and the foils are worth about $15. You can buy a Battle for Zendikar Forest for $0.40, and a foil for $4. That's a pretty steep drop, and it's mostly due to increased supply—it's not like the Battle Forests are uglier than the Zendikar Forests or anything.
The point is, I wouldn't be surprised if the Unstable lands end up remaining a lot cheaper than the Unhinged lands, at least while the set stays in print. I'm certainly not dropping $4 on the Islands when I can buy an entire booster (with the chance to open a foil Island) for $2.64. I think you'll have a chance to buy the Mountains and Plains for about $1.50, and the Islands for $2.50-$3 at some point over the next couple of months. Or just buy a box or two—that's what I'm going to do.
That said, it's worth paying close attention to how well the set sells. Regardless of what Mark Rosewater said, it's very possible that Unstable comes and goes without much fanfare at all. If that happens, then the lands (and, eventually, sealed boosters) will start increasing in price. I'll do my best to let you know ASAP if it's time to buy in en masse.
Temporary Commander Legality
Before we all start buying out the world, it's worth noting that the social media reaction to this has been mixed at best. The top comments on the Reddit thread are all critical of this move, as many of the format's loudest advocates are worried that Commander will devolve into "Un-set nonsense" over the next couple of weeks. It'll be interesting to see what happens once the games are actually played, though. I really do think that most of the Unstable cards are fine, but boy oh boy do I not want to play against any "gotcha" spells ever again.
I read a bunch of forum threads looking for cards from Unglued and Unhinged that Commander players were eager to try out, but the pickings were pretty slim. It's absurd that Chaos Confetti is legal in a Magic format now, but I'm gonna have to try that one out at least once between now and mid-January.
This is Magic finance, though, and both Unglued and Unhinged are older sets that have flown under the radar for years. I wouldn't be surprised if there are two dozen buyouts between the time I write this and its posting. As of midday Friday, Strategy, Schmategy; Jack-in-the-Mox; and Now I Know My ABC's all jumped in price due to finance community buyouts. You probably won't lose money buying any $1 or so Un-set rare with a unique effect, and you might hit it big, though you'll most likely have to sell into immediate hype if you want to reap any real rewards. As we discussed at the start of this piece, most of those cards just aren't all that powerful.
This Week's Trends
There was virtually no upward movement in Standard this week. The format's biggest staples (The Scarab God; Angel of Invention; Chandra, Torch of Defiance) all continue to slowly fall as we tumble toward Magic's yearly December lull. There were some pretty good Black Friday sales, but if you missed that, I'd still hold off on buying into Standard for another couple of weeks. I don't think we've hit bottom yet. A new deck or a format shake-up might change that math, of course, but things seem pretty staid right now.
Modern is a little more interesting.
The index is pretty stable at the moment, with an equal number of high-profile cards either gaining or losing a couple of bucks here and there. Tarmogoyf has finally started to rise again after spending the last few months in free-fall. I'd be really bullish about this card right now if I didn't think there was a reasonable shot that it'll show up again in Masters 25. If you're okay with that possibility, though, this is the time to buy in. If Bloodbraid Elf is unbanned in Modern, Goyfs are going to be pretty hot commodities again.
I'm still not quite sure if it's time to pick up Iconic Masters singles yet. The fact that these packs are on sale at Target and Walmart is worrying in terms of market saturation, and it's unclear to me whether packs are selling so far beneath retail (SCG was selling boxes for $150 on Black Friday) due to a lack of demand or a massive supply glut. If it's the former, you should buy in now while everything is so cheap. If it's the latter, we haven't even come close to hitting bottom yet. I'm going to hold out a little bit longer myself.
As for the coming week, I expect most of the movement to be in the silver-bordered arena thanks to the Commander Rules Committee decision. Don't forget—it's not just Un-cards that are affected, but the WotC holiday and HASCON promos, too. Cards like Gifts Given are going to see an uptick in interest and their supply is so low that it won't take much to trigger a spike. As always, you should sell into the hype if you can.