The broad mechanics behind Magic speculation are actually fairly simple. Since supply and demand rule the day, all you need to do is identify cards that will either see an increase in demand, a decrease in supply, or both. Most short-term speculation focuses on the demand side of the equation, where folks gamble on cards that are likely to gain popularity in the metagame. Meanwhile, long-term speculation tends to focus on the supply side, where people gamble on cards that are likely to increase in price due to steady demand working against a slowly-decreasing number of available copies.
Every once in a while, however, you can gamble on something very rare: a low-supply card facing a massive surge in demand. When these older cards are thrust into the spotlight, the available supply tends to dry up instantly. Anyone who has copies on hand will list their extras for some exorbitant price, and the folks most worried about FOMO will snap them up before the market stabilizes. You don't need me to tell you that you can make a whole lot of money if you're on the seller's side of these lucrative transactions.
Unfortunately, these opportunities only come around once every few months. Most often, they're triggered by some exciting new Commander that synergizes with an obscure card from the nineties that gets plucked out of obscurity and into the spotlight. The rest of the time, it tends to be a Modern or Legacy staple, roaring back from the lower tiers of the metagame due to a new staple being printed or some other shift in the format.
The problem with both of these scenarios? They're basically impossible to predict ahead of time. You might be able to get in a few hours ahead of the pack if you're glued to social media, but nobody has the context to buy in before that additional information is available. The best you can do is pick up a wide array of underrated Commander and Modern cards, store them in a box in your closet, and wait.
But what if I told you that there was a small group of cards that had a higher-than-average chance of seeing a major price spike? And what if I then said that these cards tended to be relatively cheap to purchase? Instead of waiting for some random Commander to get previewed and trying to buy in ahead of the pack, you could simply pick up some of these cards now and carefully bide your time. You'd be excited, right?
Welcome, my friends, to the fun and exciting world of speculating on banned cards.
There are several reasons why banned cards make for really solid speculation targets.
First, they tend to be dirt cheap. Since current demand for these cards is incredibly low, you aren't competing with too many other buyers when you go to secure your copies. You can go deep with relatively little cash, which could lead to a pretty massive cash-out if you hit big.
Second, these cards tend to have an incredibly low supply, along with a lowered chance of being reprinted. WotC doesn't like to reprint cards that can't be used in popular formats, so they tend to be left out of Masters sets and supplemental products like Secret Lairs. This reduces the chance that you'll be blown out by a timely reprint, and it also means that the available supply will dry up incredibly quickly if the card is unbanned.
Third, we already know that most banned cards are extremely powerful. When new cards are printed, we generally have to guess whether or not they're actually powerful or if they just look good on paper. That's not the case for cards that were good enough to get hit with the ban hammer, which have already proven themselves powerful enough to get the axe in at least one format.
Fourth, cards getting unbanned tends to be huge news. When it happens, that's all the community talks about for at least a couple of days. Folks immediately start brewing up new decks, and expectations are massively high. Even if the card in question doesn't end up doing all that much in actual play (which is honestly pretty common), you can sell during this hype period and make a lot of money.
Lastly, you often don't even need to wait for the card to actually be unbanned to cash in. All you have to do is wait until there's speculation about a card being unbanned, and the price might go up as other speculators move in to capitalize on the potential rules change. If you don't want to risk waiting it out, you can simply sell your copies at a modest profit to other speculators who are willing to pay more for a shot at the huge post-unban price gain.
While there are plenty of reasons why I like speculating on banned cards, there's really only one major risk. Unfortunately, it's a big one. Check out this price chart for Hypergenesis:
There's some movement here, but it's not much. Hypergenesis has been as low as 40 cents and as high as $3.50, but that's nothing once you realize that this chart illustrates the past decade(!!!) of Hypergenesis' price history. Unless you bought in around 40 cents and sold around $3.50, chances are your Hypergenesis spec has sat around doing nothing for about ten years. I can't think of too many other places to stick your money that would have been more useless.
This is the problem with banned card speculation. If your card doesn't get unbanned (or is heavily rumored to be unbanned), it will just sit there, doing nothing, forever. This isn't a problem that most other cards have. Even silly and underpowered Commander and Modern cards will occasionally show up in a cool decklist now and again, and most cards tend to slowly increase in price unless they're reprinted. Nobody wants banned cards unless they're other speculators, though, so their price is reliant on one thing and one thing only. If that thing doesn't happen, you're totally out of luck.
Of course, Hypergenesis has never really been close to being unbanned in Modern. Not only is the card incredibly powerful, but that particular style of combo deck is generally not the sort of thing that WotC likes to encourage. The trick to avoiding this downside, then, is to try to be smart about which banned cards you speculate on. If you can focus on the handful of cards most likely to be unbanned in each format, then you can position yourself to at least take advantage of potential unban hype, as well as an increased shot at the main prize: having a whole bunch of copies of a card the day it comes off its banned list.
Since speculating on the entire banned list of every format is both impractical and ill-advised, let's see if we can figure out which cards are likely to end up being the best spec targets.
First, it's only really worth looking at cards that will see a significant bump in value if they're unbanned. This generally means rares and mythic rares, but it could also include some older commons and uncommons. For example, both Oko, Thief of Crowns and Krark-Clan Ironworks would explode in price if they were unbanned, but Faithless Looting probably wouldn't.
Second, it's not really worth speculating on cards that are clearly too powerful to ever come off the list. It's honestly a lot harder to find cards that you can't make at least a weak case for adding back into the format, but I'm talking about things like Mental Misstep and Tibalt's Trickery that do nothing but create problems for everyone. Things would have to look very, very different for WotC to ever consider unbanning these cards in Modern.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, you need to think about the reasons why someone might remove a card from a banned list. This is where a lot of people mess up, because there are definitely cards out there that could theoretically be removed from a banned list due to power level, but nobody in charge has any incentive to do so. In Modern, for example, you can make a case for unbanning one or more of the blue cantrips, especially since there are cards at a similar power level in the format today. But why? It wouldn't lead to a new deck, or more interesting decks, or more format diversity. There is no incentive for WotC to consider unbanning these cards unless they think it will lead to a better version of Modern.
The same is true for obvious combo pieces, like Bridge from Below and Mycosynth Lattice. WotC knows exactly which sorts of decks will emerge from either of these cards being unbanned, so they're not going to unban them unless they want those decks in the format. Since they were banned in the first place, it would likely take a major format upheaval for anyone's minds to change about whether or not those cards belong on the banned list.
This goes double in Commander, where there is even less incentive to unban cards. Since the goal of that format is mostly just "be really fun," it doesn't make sense for the Commander Rules Committee to start plucking powerful cards off the banned list willy-nilly. There's also less reason to unban anything in that format, since it's already so deep that a single unban won't really shake anything up. The Commander Rules Committee are also not WotC employees, so they aren't incentivized to increase hype for their format in order to sell more product. Because of that, cards only come off the Commander banned list every couple of years.
Despite the entire previous section, cards actually are unbanned in both Modern and Commander. It's true! That rate might be slowing down as most of the safer cards have been unbanned already, but there are still some juicy spec targets sitting out there. Here are a few interesting ones:
It's possible that the current iteration of Modern is too fast for Jitte to take over games the way it used to in Standard. There are tons of super powerful equipment cards already available in the format, and Jitte would just be an additional way for aggressive decks to race against combo and control. Unbanning this card concurrent with the release of the new Kamigawa set would be a sweet move, especially since WotC would almost certainly slot it into a Secret Lair with cool new cyberpunk art. Honestly, the only thing holding me back is that this card is super miserable to play against, and it's hard to suggest speculating on a card that would likely lead to poor play patterns and no additional decks.
Birthing Pod decks were definitely at the top of the Modern metagame a few years back, but the ban was still somewhat shocking, since they weren't dominating to the level of most obvious ban targets. Since then, the Modern metagame has changed considerably, especially since the last two Modern Horizons sets have increased the power level by quite a bit. Not only is Birthing Pod likely a safe unban at this point, but it's a beloved card that would instantly enable a new top deck. I expect this card to come back at some point, and it's a solid spec target in the meantime.
Green Sun's Zenith
Green Sun's Zenith is a popular spec target every time the banned list discussion comes up. Folks usually say that it is safe to unban, with the caveat that Dryad Arbor is banned in its place, because fetching that card is the most degenerate thing that Green Sun's Zenith can do. It's certainly possible that WotC will do that exact thing, especially since a Zenith unban would likely spawn a new deck, but I feel like Birthing Pod is the toolbox card more likely to be let back into Modern. Either way, this card will spike the next time WotC hints that they're thinking about a potential Modern unban.
At this point, I can't imagine the Punishing Fire/Grove of the Burnwillows combo is too problematic to be worthy of a ban in Modern. That engine was very powerful in a much earlier iteration of the format, and at this point it seems like it would merely be on par with many of the other things already going on in Modern. If you want to speculate on this unban, the card to buy isn't Punishing Fire itself, but rather, Grove of the Burnwillows. This card was readily available for $5 or $6 until yesterday, when it appears as though a bunch of people bought copies and raised the price to about $15. Perhaps they know something I don't? If Punishing Fire isn't unbanned soon, definitely try to snag a few copies of Grove the next time it's cheap.
Unbanning Faithless Looting now would essentially be WotC admitting that they made a mistake a few years back, but I honestly feel like they did. Looting enabled a whole bunch of different cool and fair decks, many of which haven't been able to find footing again since the ban. Cards like Goryo's Vengeance and Arclight Phoenix would be solid specs if you're angling for a Faithless Looting unban.
Splinter Twin is a fan favorite combo piece, probably more popular than every other card on this list put together. It's a miserable combo to play against, but boy, oh boy do the folks who love playing Splinter Twin LOVE PLAYING SPLINTER TWIN. It was banned for "competitive balance reasons" back in 2016, and it's certainly possible that the format is powerful and diverse enough to let it back in at this point. At the very least, demand spikes every time there's a rumored unban. Take a look at this chart from the start of 2017 on:
See all those green demand spikes? Most of them are the days right before a Modern unbanning, when folks bought as many copies of this card as possible in anticipation. I have no doubt that this will happen again, even if Splinter Twin never comes off the list.
Glimpse of Nature
I don't actually think that Glimpse of Nature will be unbanned, but Saffron Olive from MTG Goldfish was tweeting about it yesterday, and he holds a lot of sway in the community. Not enough to get a card unbanned, certainly, but definitely enough to inspire folks to speculate on a card or at least drive interest in asking why a card is still on the banned list. It also seems as though one or more people are slowly buying this card out, as seen by these demand spikes every few days, including last weekend:
Again, it's worth remembering that a card doesn't actually have to be unbanned for you to make money on it. It just needs to spike due to other people's speculation on a potential unban.
Of course, Modern isn't the only format where you can make money on potential unbans. Commander is the most popular Magic format out there, and it's a huge deal when cards are unbanned in that format. Remember how Worldfire jumped from $1 to $30 last summer? I know I'd love to cash in on that rate of return.
Why on Earth is Coalition Victory still banned? It's an eight-mana sorcery spell that can easily be countered. Yes, you can play it with a five-color Commander and a bunch of Triomes or whatever, but getting all of that stuff in play and then resolving this card is far easier said than done. In fact, there are many combos currently in the format that are far easier to pull off. Add that to the fact that Coalition Victory is a super fun card to cast, and I think this card is an easy one to unban. Unfortunately, Sheldon Menery of the Commander Rules Committee disagrees with me. This doesn't mean that the card will never be unbanned, but it's hard to recommend speculating on a card that the person who is in charge of unbanning cards has recently said they aren't really considering. If you make this play, consider it very long-term.
Sway of the Stars
In the same article where Sheldon Menery justified unbanning Worldfire (and keeping Biorhythm and Coalition Victory banned), he spoke about Sway of the Stars as, essentially, a more powerful Worldfire. As with Coalition Victory, it's hard to justify speculating on a card that the unbanner-in-chief basically just said wasn't going to be unbanned. That said, Worldfire has basically done nothing in the format since it was unbanned, so perhaps he'll be ready to let its older, more powerful cousin loose at some point? It's certainly possible.
I also wanted to share Sway of the Stars' price chart over the course of 2021:
See that massive spike in September? That's when Worldfire was unbanned and folks bought Sway of the Stars out of a fear of missing out on the next big unban. This was silly at the time, and it looks even sillier in retrospect. This is why it's worth holding onto some of these cards even if it seems unlikely that they'll actually be unbanned.
The "Banned as a Commander" Cards: Braids, Cabal Minion, Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary, Erayo, Soratami Ascendant, Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, Griselbrand, and Leovold, Emissary of Trest
Prior to 2014, there were actually two separate Commander banned lists: cards that were banned in the entire format, and cards that were only banned as your Commander. When the Commander Rules Committee switched to a more streamlined banned list, Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary, Erayo, Soratami Ascendant, and Braids, Cabal Minion were banned — not because they were too unfair or unfun as 1 of the 99, but because they were unfair as Commanders.
There have been many calls to bring back "Banned as a Commander" over the years, and it's very possible that it will happen someday. If it does, several of these cards will come off the general Commander banned list. In another Sheldon Menery article from February of this year, he highlights the above six cards as potential additions to the "Banned as a Commander" list. He goes on to state that he'd probably keep Erayo and Griselbrand banned regardless, leaving the other four as potential unban targets. If that were to happen, all four of them would immediately skyrocket in price.
Prophet of Kruphix
If you visit any Commander forum, you can invariably find a massive thread on the pros and cons of unbanning Prophet of Kruphix. The pro camp claims that it didn't really cause a problem in their playgroup, and it isn't really more powerful than cards like Deadeye Navigator and Seedborn Muse that remain legal. The con camp claims that the card was in fact absurd in the right decks, and just because the pro group didn't play against them didn't mean they weren't out there. On and on it goes.
Will Prophet of Kruphix be unbanned? I doubt it, but there's enough speculation out there to make it a solid buy at less than $1. Just like with Sway of the Stars, all you really need is the right rumor, and bam — it's a $10 card overnight. Having a few sets kicking around is a low-risk, high-reward play.
Let's take a look at the past few unbans in both Modern and Commander and see if we can figure out the best time to sell your copies. Let's start with Worldfire, which was unbanned in Commander on September 13th, 2021:
I marked the unban date in lavender on this chart, and as you can see, the price peaks on the very next day. After that, the card's value fell and fell hard. In this particular case, the best time to sell was ASAP.
The next-most-recent unban across these two formats was Stoneforge Mystic, unbanned on August 26th, 2019:
In this particular case, Stoneforge Mystic actually stayed at its post-unban high for about a month before collapsing in price. It was then reprinted the following summer, and has since climbed back up to the $70 range as recently as this summer. You could have made a couple of extra bucks by cashing out at the absolute peak, but selling ASAP wouldn't have been a bad call at all.
Moving back to February 12, 2018, we've got both Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor in Modern:
It's harder to see now that the chart is several years long, but those initial spikes very close to the left side of the screen are the unban dates. Bloodbraid Elf has never again come close to those figures, while Jace did surpass it for a while before dropping off due to a reprint as well as a shifting Modern metagame. Again, selling ASAP would have been a good move in both cases.
I can keep going, but I assure you that it's hard to find exceptions to this rule. Selling ASAP after the ban announcement is a great way to lock in an incredibly high price for your spec targets. Even the cards that do spike past their post-ban highs rarely do so by more than $5 to $10, unless you're looking five or six years down the line when hundreds of other factors have changed the market entirely. My recommendation? Always sell your banned list spec wins immediately. Don't wait. List them ASAP, and do it slightly under market so you can sell them all in the first day or two. Lock in your profits, and worry about the rest later on.
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Last week, we took a look at a couple of cards that have spiked thanks to shifts in the Modern metagame as well as popular new Crimson Vow Commanders driving some pretty wild demand. Did a popular Commander cast really cause the price of several cards to double, and did the MagicFest in Las Vegas really affect the Modern market? If you like my card-by-card analysis, you should really check out the ol' newsletter!