Hey there! If you're just joining us from a hiatus, I recommend checking out a little article that went up last Tuesday; this one's especially useful for those of you who want to keep up to date on market trends immediately following a banning or unbanning. While Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Bloodbraid Elf were the talk of the town, there's still plenty of buying opportunities for those who do a little bit of digging. Sealed product can still be incredibly lucrative because it removes all of the variance from the buying and selling guessing game. Today, I want to swing the finance article pendulum to the other side of the spectrum; instead of discussing $150 planeswalkers and expensive sealed product, I want to bring you a variation of the "Hidden Gems" series that I've been doing here on TCGplayer.
For those of you who haven't read or watched one, the Hidden Gems pieces are where I pick a specific plane, and delve into the commons and uncommons that you might not know are worth more than true bulk. If you purchase a collection from a friend (or simply have a lot of bulk commons and uncommons at home), it is worth knowing which cards are the Burnished Harts and Stonybrook Bannerets. Unfortunately, I can only make so many Hidden Gems videos. It can be hard to know which non-rares are the actual gems and which ones you shouldn't bother with, especially if you're a player focused on a specific format or two. Even someone experienced like myself ends up missing a card or pulling a dud out of bulk.
So how do you determine which cards are worth pulling? Even if you're knowledgeable about one or two formats, there can still be gaps in your expertise. Someone who competes only in high-level Modern and Legacy events might not know that Essence Warden is a gem to pull, while they're more likely to pull out Sinew Sliver and Conflagrate from the same block. A Commander player might be blissfully unaware how popular Gurmag Angler has gotten recently with the rise of Pauper.
Thankfully, we can work with data when it comes to Constructed formats like Modern, Standard and even Pauper. We have competitive decklists that get submitted and uploaded daily, professional players who write articles and event coverage that shows us which cards are performing well at the top tables. Competitive formats are often in the spotlight, which makes it easy to understand and pull cards like Opt, Abrade and Dismember out of bulk.
Thankfully, even a less competitive format like Commander has data-driven articles from a website called EDHrec.com, allowing us to make buying and selling decisions with real numbers and math. EDHrec tells me that Kodama's Reach, Cultivate and the Signets are statistically some of the most played cards in the format. Even cards whose retail value have been crushed (Putrefy, Terminate, Coiling Oracle) by reprints are still worth pulling out of bulk, because I have the data to prove that they're in high demand.
Maybe it's because I used to be a casual player that I have a strong eye for what ends up being considered a pick. Deckbuilding strategy at a casual level is much more focused on synergy instead of raw power, so you can start to notice trends that make entire archetypes much more likely to be worth pulling out of bulk. This can boil down to just tribal support (if you're going into a bunch of bulk while blind, pulling every card that reads "choose a creature type" will rarely steer you wrong); There's nothing wrong with just taking a blanket approach by pulling all of the interesting Vampires, Elves, Slivers, Zombies and Goblins, then doing a double take to see which ones you got right. That said, you can also take that sort of scattershot< approach when it comes to themes that aren't just tribal. The alternative is of course to just look everything up with an app like TCGplayer's, but scanning thousands of cards will take up a nonzero amount of time.
Again, we can use the assistance of EDHrec to determine some of the more popular non-tribal themes, then speed up our picking process. If you're a Spike, Tournament Grinder, and decide to paw through some bulk, you can use themes and tribal archetypes to get a rough sketch of what the less competitive players are really excited about building. Understanding these archetypes will provide a better feel of which commons and uncommons are worth pulling out of bulk, which leads to increasing the value of your collection in the long term! If we really want to speed up and streamline the process, we can even break common/uncommon picks down to a color (to a degree). You can look for specific themes within colors to reinforce your knowledge of hidden gems, even if the strategies that I encourage in this article aren't usually seen at the top tables of competitive play.
Life gain has always been a popular, albeit weak strategy in competitive Magic. Thankfully, popularity is what really drives prices home when it comes to the more casual cards. If you have a few thousand bulk white cards that you got from your friend's collection and don't know where to start, try picking out the cards that either offer repeatable life gain at a fair cost, or cards that grow in strength based on your life gain. I've been pulling Ajani's Pridemate out of bulk for close to a decade at this point, and I've never had a vendor decline to take them off my hands. Sunbond is one of the most overlooked cards in Theros block, even though the card would never make the cut of a streamlined 75-card list. Drana's Emissary works triple duty on creature types, while also providing incremental life gain advantages for a budget Commander or casual player. Don't even get me started on the value of Suture Priest…..
Let's talk for a minute about mill. Other than a few niche Modern lists (and I guess Lantern Control, technically…), traditional mill decks have never really been at the forefront of Grand Prix players' minds. Still, Jace's Erasure has always been one of my favorite cards to find in bulk. With the recent reprint in Iconic Masters, I'm going to be seeing them in bulk a lot more frequently as players assume the value has been crushed. Maybe competitive players have mill on their radar more so than life gain, considering Glimpse the Unthinkable was a $30 card up until its recent reprint. Let's take a look at some of the mill cards that casual and Commander players love and love to hate – Hedron Crab, Sphinx's Tutelage and Wall of Frost are always on my watchlist, because the Johnnies of the non-competitive world will always love searching for alternate win conditions.
Ever since the early days of Mind Twist and Hymn to Tourach, black has had a core color identity of destroying the cards in the opponent's' hand. This strategy is generally a little more well-loved in competitive play because of the ability to remove threats before they hit the field and gain perfect information over the opponent; but a completely synergy based list entirely devoted to discard is a much more niche strategy in Modern, and it's called 8-Rack.
While the competitive list is dedicated to squeezing people out with The Rack while the opponent is locked under Ensnaring Bridge, there are plenty of "discard matters" cards that fall more into the casual realm. Shrieking Affliction, Dark Deal, Liliana's Caress and Locust Miser are all black cards that I pull for value; can you let me know if I've missed any? As an honorable mention, Geth's Grimoire works really well in casual discard strategies. It's an oft-forgotten gem from Darksteel with no reprints.
Considering red's color identity is often just relegated to "damage and damage-related things," it can be difficult to pin down a specific mechanic or archetype to look for when learning which cards can be considered casual picks out of bulk. A casual players' Burn deck is hard to distinguish from that of a competitive player; you don't really get a better rate than Lightning Bolt and Lava Spike themselves. I suppose you can make an argument for Spark Elemental as a budget substitution for the previous two, but the similarities between Modern, Legacy and Pauper Burn make it hard to find a distinction from casual to competitive when it comes to burn spells.
In that case, I'd like suggest that, other than the top-tier burn spells and tribal Goblins, you also look for "area of effect" spells that scale well in multiplayer games for the red player. Considering how red is often regarded as the weakest color in Commander, some of the color's most powerful effects are those that let it take out multiple players at once. Just as Purphoros, God of the Forge is one of the most powerful Commanders for mono-red, you look for effects like Guttersnipe, Impact Tremors and Vandalblast. "Each opponent" is a powerful phrase in non-tournament play where you have a limited number of resources to take out more than one opponent, especially when you're at a disadvantage in terms of card draw.
As we wrap up the color wheel on "how to generalize and learn which cards are hidden gems," green is possibly the simplest color to discuss. Assuming we're already taking a closer look at tribal synergies (Elves, Saprolings and Treefolk), there's not much else to talk about in green other than its ramp. Three of the top five green cards in Commander (Not just commons and uncommons, but cards overall) are ramp spells in Kodama's Reach, Cultivate and Sakura-Tribe Elder. Explosive Vegetation, Rampant Growth and Wood Elves aren't far behind, and we can keep going with Farseek and Skyshroud Claim. I've mentioned before that I consider green to be the deepest color when picking bulk, and the incredibly diverse amount of cheap ramp spells at common and uncommon make sure I'm never dissatisfied when going through green sorted bulk. Nature's Lore, Yavimaya Elder, Harrow…. I could do an entire Hidden Gems video on ramp spells alone.
While the above methods will give you a better idea of what less-enfranchised players are interested in building, it's not a perfect method for understanding every single nickel pick. That only comes with a lot experience, or an uncomfortable number of hours scanning over a spreadsheet. I also understand that there may be some number of people who read this and decide that scouring through bulk for nickels and dimes isn't worth their time invested – that's fine too. There's a lot of methods in this game to grow the value of your own collection and make the game a little more affordable, and this is just one option that you have as a player. Let me know in the comments below if I missed one of your favorite bulk picks!
- DJ Johnson