"Leave your backpack in the car" Eric advised me. "Casual players don't carry seven trade binders."
"What about a hat? Should I put on a hat?"
"Do casual players wear hats?"
"Some of them."
"Do you have a hat?"
I opened Eric's trunk and glanced around. There were the usual trappings of a serious Magic player's vehicle—scuffed sleeves bent commons booster foil and draft decks gone wrong—but no hat.
"We'll have to make do without" I told him.
We were standing in front of a game shop in Pasadena the fifth or sixth we had been to that morning. Eric had driven down from San Jose the night before and we had decided to spend our morning doing a shop crawl. The objective on our sojourn was simple: acquire as many copies of the card Glimpse of Nature as possible. The previous day's Pro Tour results had resulted in the card jumping from one dollar to ten dollars overnight. Finding Glimpse of Nature at the old price was free money.
The biggest challenge we soon learned is that buying a dozen copies of a bulk rare is suspicious behavior. It wouldn't be a problem if the clerk wasn't a Magic player himself but if he was he might decide to check online and see what the fuss was about. And if he did we were out of luck.
We had decided to adopt covert personas for the mission posing as two casual Magic fans that were looking to improve our Elf decks. We'd ask about a few other cards first and then go for the Glimpse.
Sans hats we entered the store and gawked at the counter.
"Dude!" I shouted. "They have Force of Will!"
"Oh MAN!" Eric lied. "I've heard of that card but I've never actually seen one!"
After a good five minutes of hamming it up and amusing ourselves to no end we dropped the hammer.
"What's that card?" I asked the clerk. "It's like a rare. And when you play a guy you draw a card? Glimpse the Unthinkable?"
"Glimpse of Nature" Eric clarified. "I need ten of them for my Elf deck."
"Me too. We each need ten for our Elf decks."
"Let me see how many I have" the clerk told us walking over to a binder in the back. After flipping through a dozen pages he came back to the counter. "We've got twelve of them in stock. They're a dollar each."
"We'll take them" I replied my heart racing.
"Hang on" he told me walking over to a laptop. To this day I don't know what prompted the action but I had a sense of what was coming. After a moment he walked back over with a grim smile.
"One of my buddies says that the price just went up" he told me. "They're ten dollars now."
"T-Ten dollars?" I stuttered false confusion in my voice. "For one Magic card? Gee whiz mister I guess we'll have to find something else for our Elf decks."
And with that we set off for the next store.
Our day was less than fruitful. At most places we missed their stock of Glimpses by less than half an hour. By lunchtime I had only managed to secure four copies of the card but they had all been from a purchase the previous evening. Eric had scored a playset of eight-dollar Wastelands though so all was not lost.
The point I'm trying to make—other than the obvious one about how pretending to be durdles and going on secret missions is lots of fun—is that you have to act fast if you have information about a can't-miss spec. There aren't many of these opportunities—perhaps only a half-dozen in a given year—but they are the most risk-free and lucrative chances you have to make money in Magic.
This week we'll be taking a look at where to identify these can't-miss shots how to buy when to sell and see if we can't peg a few cards might be due for a meteoric rise.
The Gut Call
Anyone who has done significant Magic speculation knows the range of emotions you go through when pulling the trigger on a large buy. Right after you sink your money into a couple dozen copies of a card you start wondering if you made the right call. What if your tip was wrong? What if the card gets banned? What if it's good but no one cares? If you're anything like me you start obsessively checking prices waiting to see whether the upward trend you predicted is coming to fruition or not.
Buying into a can't-miss spec causes a whole different set of anxiety reactions. When you buy a dozen copies of one of these cards your first thought isn't "What if they card doesn't go up?" Instead it's "I can't believe I got away with that. What if the seller doesn't honor my purchase?"
In a can't-miss spec the new value feels so concrete that the price point has already moved in your mind. Glimpse of Nature was no longer a $1 card that might hit $10; it had instantly become a $10 card that some people still might sell you at $1 if you were very lucky. Finding copies of that card was no different than the time I found a Vampire Nocturnus in a bulk box.
There are four scenarios that lead to most can't-miss specs:
- The Unbanning – When the DCI announces that a card that was previously banned for power reasons becomes unbanned it will triple in price within minutes.
- The Breakout – When a previously fringe card becomes a powerful centerpiece in a GP or Pro Tour winning deck its price will at least double by the end of the weekend.
- The Shake-Up – When a new format (like Modern) is announced or an established format (like Extended) is changed radically the cards perceived to be new stables will skyrocket.
- The Combo – When a new card is spoiled that creates an instantly powerful combo with an old card the old card will become massively desirable.
A fifth scenario—the reprint—used to be grounds for a can't-miss spec. Thanks to the rise of Commander Legacy and Modern though most old cards that are reprinted actually go down in value thanks to increased supply that more than meets the influx of demand. There are exceptions—Solemn Simulacrum for example—but this is no longer a sure-fire way to make money.
All other speculation scenarios are filled with far greater risk. Preorder speculation is based not on results but on hopes that a card will perform. Speculation based on shifts in the metagame is contingent on things continuing to evolve in the expected direction. Speculation based on rumors from the trading floor rumblings of a new deck coming out of Team SCG Blue or some unknown cabal of Japanese brewers tend to be the most unreliable specs of all.
How do you know if your spec is can't-miss? Trust your gut. If you're running to the store in an attempt to buy as many copies of a card as you can it probably fits this category.
Floors and Ceilings
So you know your card is going up—the question is how high. When is the best time to sell?
Let's take a look at some historical data courtesy of our friends at The Black Lotus Project. As always I can't say enough terrific things about this site. It is one of the most valuable tools available to us as Magic financiers.
The first card I'd like to look at is Grim Monolith a rare from Urza's Legacy.
As you can see the card was nearly worthless in 2008. Commander hadn't broken into the spotlight yet cubes were scarce and it was banned in Legacy. By June of 2010 though the value had come up to just over $5 thanks to increased demand in casual circles.
Then it was unbanned in Legacy. The following day the card was retailing on all the major sites for $20-$30. While a few sellers were asking $50+ in the chaotic aftermath I don't think too many copies sold at that price. Over the next few months the value leveled off around $15. The next year Welder MUD became a reasonably popular deck and Legacy prices across the board went up by 20%-50%. Only then did the card claw back up to its hype-driven value.
When was the best time to sell? It was either the day following the banning or a year later when the card finally found a home.
Next up let's see some data on the card I lead the article off with: Glimpse of Nature.
It's a little hard to see on this graph but the initial rise in value is pictured on the far left. In a single day Glimpse of Nature jumped from an eBay value of $1 to one of just under $9. The price wouldn't return to that lofty height again until—surprise—March of 2011 over two years later.
Let's switch gears to one of the poster children for Modern speculation Breeding Pool.
The announcement of Modern was a year after Grim Monolith was unbanned and two years after Glimpse of Nature was released. While some of the data on Breeding Pool is missing (check out the plateau in late 2011; there were a few months when The Black Lotus Project was down and not collecting data) the trend is still very clear. The price peaked immediately after the announcement of the new format and has been trending downward ever since.
This is just too easy. What about a card like Splinter Twin where a new combo was discovered (with Deceiver Exarch) that actually became a dominant deck in Standard? Surely it made sense to hold some copies of the card until later in the season right?
Nope. The price peaked right as the deck's hype was reaching critical mass and has dropped consistently ever since.
While this may seem like common knowledge to some of you I was still inundated with people on Wednesday last week asking me how high Land Tax might go when they should sell or whether they should buy additional copies. These graphs should help answer that question.
Historically these can't-miss specs are never higher than when they first heat up. While they may rise in price again later that tends to be at least a few months down the line after a significant price dip.
On Tuesday night Land Taxes were available everywhere between seven and eight dollars. By 3 AM they were up to $25 and rising. Wednesday morning retail stores were asking almost $60 for 4th Edition copies and over $80 for Land Taxes from Legends.
Right now the card has dipped to $30 retail and $22-$25 on eBay. Unless it shows up as a four-of in the next Legacy GP winning deck I'd expect the price to start slowly dipping toward $20.
How To Buy
For the past three years the stars have aligned against my speculation free-rolls.
I don't have an extensive social life—I don't go to clubs and I generally just go home and relax after work each night—but I do see my friends a couple times each week. It just so happens that the last few times a card was unbanned I was unable to get to a computer.
Whenever I can though I make certain to spend the ten minutes leading up to each Banned and Restricted Announcement glued to the Wizards home page. That way I can be the first to react to the news. I do the same thing for the first few rounds of Standard Modern and Legacy Pro Tours as these are the days when most breakout cards will first be revealed to the world.
Before Pro Tours became private getting news from the floor was easy. I'd simply turn to my favorite grinders and traders on Twitter and they'd tell me what was running hot in the first few rounds. Nowadays getting that information is far tougher. Some of it will be on Twitter but the rest will have to be gleaned from the official site and video coverage.
You don't want to be too early though. Getting cute with speculations during the early rounds of a Pro Tour can lead to having a binder full of Urabrasks that turned out to be a sideboard one-of that just happened to take down a game in round 1. Even though information is harder to come by now you have to wait for it to be disseminated for it to be useful. Once the buzz starts up on Twitter in earnest it's time to think about making a purchase.
In any case StarCityGames.com is the first place I turn to when I'm ready to make my buy. Accuse me of cronyism if you want but the facts are indisputable: SCG has the largest available stock anywhere online and a sterling reputation of not cancelling large orders. While you might be able to shave a few cents off your purchase elsewhere you run the risk of having them cancel your order the following day after the price has doubled. I'd wager that well over 50% of can't-miss spec cards are never shipped.
Regardless you should build up a collection of online retailers you trust. You need to find businesses that won't cancel orders and won't limit you to four copies of a card per purchase; if you're limited to four copies you may well lose half your margins to inflated shipping costs.
Even better are a list of local game stores that have a good price on singles and are slow to react to community news. You should have a list of these stores in your back pocket and you should drive there immediately when a card shoots up in value. Of course you should be supporting your local game stores with other business as well. Whenever I go on runs like this I try to buy other things as well: board games books or other cards I've been eyeing. Making 'free money' on card purchases is a good excuse to go on a geek shopping spree.
The other good thing about using a trusted retailer or an LGS is that you can immediately flip your cards while the hype is still going. If you have to wait a week or two until they arrive you'll miss the top of the market and your cards will hit the floor at the same time as everyone else's. If you can fully trust that your stock will show up by the time you need to ship you can sell your cards before they're even in your possession. Of course you risk a massive hit to your reputation if you can't deliver so you need to be certain they'll show up if you're going to do this.
This kind of buy gets harder every year though. More and more people are refreshing the B&R page at midnight and sniffing out every little hint of value at the Pro Tour. At some point then it makes sense to try and get far ahead of the curve.
Predicting breakout tournament cards is a high-risk gamble though. I've heard dozens of different cases for almost every card out there and most of them don't pan out. Partial combo pieces are impossible to predict without a new card being spoiled and I doubt Wizards is going to be introducing any new formats this year.
Unbannings however are a different story.
A Stroll Down The Legacy Banned List
Buying Land Taxes at 12:01 AM last Wednesday morning was an exercise in frustration. Sites sold out quick—most didn't have many available to begin with—and hundreds of orders were cancelled. The smart thing to do then would have been to have bought into Land Tax the week before right? If you had a sense that an unbanning was coming you could have cleaned up. In fact I know a few speculators who did exactly that.
While researching for this article I came across two great pieces on possible unbannings in Legacy. The first written by Steven Menendian in 2010 offered up six cards that he felt could be safely unbanned in the format. Of those six cards three have now been made legal and all three skyrocketed in price.
While there isn't a card out there that's as much of a slam-dunk for unbanning as Land Tax there are still a few cards that might be worth investing in if you want to get a leg up on the future of the format.
I've identified a few of them below and tried to outline an argument for why Wizards should and should not unban each card. Of course while I love Legacy I don't eat sleep and breathe it like some of the writers on this site. If you see a card on this list that you are curious about investing in as a possible unban target I would ask as many Legacy-centric pros as possible before diving in.
Wizards will unban this because: Would it even see play in Legacy if it were unbanned? It might be a potent weapon in the hands of players who are already slinging Hymn to Tourach but Hymn is probably a better overall card. It's great with fast mana of course but that's kind of a glass cannon.
Wizards will leave it alone because: Mind Twist is patently unfun. It is also best against the kind of decks that Wizards is trying to help survive in Legacy—ones without Islands to Force of Will or Misdirect it.
Current Price: $3.49 for the 4th Edition copy. Revised versions will run you an extra $0.50.
Estimated Price if Unbanned: $10-$15.
Wizards will unban this because: Is this two-card combo any less fair than Painter/Stone? What about Hexmage/Depths Thopter/Foundry or Goblin Charbelcher? Heck it needs a four mana green enchantment to work!
Wizards will leave it alone because: Both halves of the combo are enchantments and Enchantress decks can use this as their new kill condition. Those decks are already pretty good and this would give them a faster more consistent way to win.
Current Price: $11.99. Yow! Casual players sure love their Squirrel cards.
Estimated Price if Unbanned: $30-$35.
Wizards will unban this because: I think that Goblins should always be a top deck in Legacy and this card—which requires combo pieces to be good—gives them a ton of resilience without breaking the game open.
Wizards will leave it alone because: It's like a repeatable Tutor which are the types of cards Wizards has the least amount of tolerance for. It also turns Goblins from a pure aggro deck into kind of a combo deck in conjunction with Food Chain.
Current Price: $1.99
Estimated Price if Unbanned: $8-$10.
Wizards will unban this because: I had a dream where it was unbanned. Also every time I see it in a pile of bulk I think to myself "I wish Wizards would unban this card because then it would be worth $40."
Wizards will leave it alone because: It is too good.
Current Price: $1.99.
Estimated Price if Unbanned: $40
Wizards will unban this because: It's honestly not all that powerful. It's also a great weapon for aggro in its never-ending battle against blue.
Wizards will leave it alone because: The card basically exists to punish people who are mana screwed. It's a flip-the-table-rage-quit level of fun to play against if you're stuck on lands.
Current Price: $0.99
Estimated Price if Unbanned: $5-$7
Wizards will unban this because: It's been a while so maybe we've collectively forgotten what this card can do. Unbanning it would probably create a ton of controversy and open up the format to a style of deck that hasn't been good in a very long time. It's super iconic and fun to build around.
Wizards will leave it alone because: It's freaking Balance—the card does the opposite of what the name says it should do.
Current Price: $1.99 for 4th edition. 2.99 for Revised.
Estimated Price if Unbanned: $12-$15
Wizards will unban this because: It's nothing more than a two-card infinite mana loop—Legacy has those in spades already. This one is even kind of clunky.
Wizards will leave it alone because: This card adds another way to go off for the Renaimator decks that are already tier 1. It is unlikely to spawn a new archetype; it merely strengthen an existing one. It also gives them a way to stall out games that they can't otherwise win.
Current Price: $1.99.
Estimated Price if Unbanned: $20-$25
Wizards will unban this because: A lot of the enablers that made this card good are already on the banned list and hard casting this for five mana isn't exactly unfair. It's never had a chance to prove itself degenerate in the format and it's another iconic card.
Wizards will leave it alone because: They had to emergency ban this card at one point remember? Most cards with the text 'draw seven cards' are wildly abusable and this one has a history of turn 1 kills.
Current Price: $2.99
Estimated Price if Unbanned: $25-$30
All told I think Mind Twist and Earthcraft are probably next cards to come off the list. If you have long-term money you want to put into Magic you could do worse than those two. Of course it'll probably be another full year before they unban anything else and a lot can change in that amount of time. As always invest at your own risk.
I don't know what card is going to be the next can't-miss spec.
Chances are you and I will find out right when everyone else does—and we will only have moments to react.
If you know where to buy and have studied the trends of similar cards you'll be in better shape than 99% of the other speculators. Buying quickly smartly and with confidence is the name of the game. If you identify a can't-miss spec and get in on the ground floor the sky's the limit in terms of profits.
Some people made a few thousand dollars last week thanks to Land Tax. Next time a card is unbanned will it be you?
Until next time–