Magic: The Gathering has changed a lot since its debut in 1993, but one thing has proven almost eerily continuous: people adore playing with decks based around their favorite tribes. I guarantee you that someone was talking about how good their Elf deck was within weeks of Alpha hitting the convention floor, and I still update my own Elf Commander deck with a couple of new cards every set or two. There's something satisfying about playing with so many synergistic cards from throughout the game's entire run, especially since tribal synergies are often quite powerful.
From a Magic finance perspective, tribes are also quite lucrative. Whenever WotC spotlights a popular tribe in a new set, the best cards from that tribe tend to spike as both speculators and Commander players rush in to pick up their copies. As an example, take a look at what happened to Admiral Beckett Brass when the Commander Legends leaks began to circulate:
Even though Admiral Beckett Brass is still under $5, you could have picked these up for about $0.70 back in September. That's a 500% price increase, which is plenty of room to make a profit.
With these sorts of spikes in mind, I want to spend today talking about Magic's most popular—and profitable—tribes. We're going to delve into the game's history, look at each tribe's most expensive members, and highlight some potential spec buys as well. I guarantee you that some of these tribes will make a triumphant return in 2021, and it's worth knowing what each tribe is all about before that happens.
Let's start with one of Magic's oldest tribes, and one that has never fallen out of popularity throughout the game's entire history.
Dragons might well be the most iconic tribe in all of Magic. Even though Dragons are usually depicted as solitary creatures, having a fleet of them on the battlefield under your control is quite the powerful feeling. And since Commander is the most popular format in Magic right now, no number of Dragons can truly feel like overkill.
Dragons have existed in Magic since the very first booster pack rolled off the presses, and Shivan Dragon was arguably the game's first chase card—yes, even before Black Lotus caught on. The Elder Dragon cycle in Legends inspired quite a bit of awe back in 1993, and the Shard Dragon Cycle in Invasion was iconic for its time. Dragons finally got their first spotlight tribal expansion in Scourge, and their second in Dragons of Tarkir. WotC has rarely printed a set in the past twenty years that hasn't had at least one Dragon.
You might think that this constant parade of Dragons would rule out the possibility of timed buying windows, but there is precedent for Dragon-related speculation. In the months leading up to the release of Dragons of Tarkir, a lot of the best casual Dragons in the game saw some pretty major price spikes. It's ancient history now, but take a look at what Scion of the Ur-Dragon did between the start of 2014 and the end of 2017:
Scion of the Ur-Dragon's value eventually tanked due to a reprint, which seems inevitable these days, but this chart speaks to the power of buying Dragons before the release of a Dragon set.
Most Expensive Dragons: Shivan Dragon (Alpha), Zodiac Dragon, Nicol Bolas (Legends)
I'm not counting the most expensive Dragon of all time, of course, because only one of those was ever printed. That would be Shichifukujin Dragon, a promotional card made to commemorate the opening of a tournament center in Tokyo. Along with the 1996 World Champion card, it's one of only two Magic cards in the world that are truly one of a kind. I have no idea how much Shichifukujin Dragon is worth, because it has never come on the market, but I have no doubt that it would sell somewhere in the six figures.
Alpha (and Beta) copies of Shivan Dragon aren't quite that scarce, but it's close—especially if you want an Alpha or Beta copy in really nice shape. An LP Alpha Shivan sold recently for close to $2,500, while a BGS 9 Alpha Shivan sold for $6,500 last month. In Beta, that same Dragon would have probably been worth closer to $3,000—not quite as good, but close.
Zodiac Dragon is from Portal 3 Kingdoms, and it's one of the only truly exciting cards from that set that hasn't been reprinted yet. Portal 3 Kingdoms is mostly forgotten now, and most of the cards from that set should be worth more than they are considering how scarce they truly are. In fact, Zodiac Dragon is so rare that it has only been sold a handful of times since 2010. Here's the card's entire price chart over the past decade:
Why hasn't Zodiac Dragon increased in price much over the past decade? Part of the problem is that it's not actually that good, and it's really only worth sticking in your Dragon deck for the sick brags. Also, since most of the good Portal 3 Kingdoms cards have been reprinted already, I imagine that most people don't want to pay $200-$300 for a card that will eventually show up as a bulk rare in some future Masters set.
The third Dragon on this list is Nicol Bolas—specifically, the Legends version. All three of these cards are expensive primarily due to their collectability, not so much their power level. This speaks to how old and venerable a tribe Dragons really are, though, which is why I wanted to highlight them all in detail. Nicol Bolas was not only the best of this initial cycle, and it was certainly the scourge of many a kitchen table game in the mid-nineties, but it was also the seed for one of Magic's most popular and enduring villains. I see no reason for this version of this card will drop in price anytime soon.
Potential Spec Buy: Dragon Broodmother
Dragon Broodmother is an amazing Commander card that had been steadily increasing in price for years before being reprinted in the Mystery Boosters. Remember those? Jeez, there have been so many sets released over the past year. Anyway, the Mystery Boosters were a bit more limited than you probably think, and all the cards reprinted in them were essentially printed at mythic rarity. Considering how big a tumble this card took last winter relative to how few copies actually entered the marketplace, I wouldn't be shocked if Dragon Broodmother went soaring back up in price before long.
Zombies are another of Magic's oldest tribes, though they didn't catch on quite as fast as Dragons. While there were Zombie lords in the game as early as Alpha's Zombie Master, Zombie decks really started taking off when Planeshift gave us Lord of the Undead and Onslaught Block brought us iconic cards like Undead Warchief and Shepherd of Rot.
While Zombies have never had a spotlight set like Dragons of Tarkir, there are still one of Magic's iconic evergreen tribes. You can generally count on at least a few good Zombie cards in every set, as well as a spell or planeswalker capable of making a whole bunch of Zombies at once. Zombies like Gravecrawler and Relentless Dead have proven themselves tournament staples, but Zombies generally stick to the casual and Commander tables, where their ability to easily come back from the graveyard makes up for their small stature.
What could cause a whole bunch of Zombies to spike all at once? A third return to Innistrad might do it, which we know is on the calendar for Q4 of 2021. Innistrad is already a heavy tribal environment, and each of the first two sets have brought their fair share of amazing Zombies. If you're looking for a good tribe to invest in this winter, Zombies are my top pick. As long as you diversify your spec portfolio enough to avoid getting blown out by potential reprints, you should be able to make a fine profit buying Zombies now and selling them to Commander players next September.
Most Expensive Cards: Zombie Master (Alpha), Khabal Ghoul, Mikaeus, the Unhallowed
I'm not going to get too far into either of these first two cards, because their value is pretty obvious. Any Alpha/Beta card that can be played in Commander is going to have a ton of value, while Khabal Ghoul is on the Reserved List. These cards are expensive because they are both exceptionally cool and exceptionally scarce.
On the other hand, Mikaeus, the Unhallowed is one of the best Commanders ever printed. You don't even need to play Mikaeus in a Zombie deck—any non-Human will do, since undying is such a powerful ability. In fact, take a look at how well Mikaeus has recovered from its Ultimate Masters printing:
I'm sure another reprint will come for Mikaeus, the Unhallowed before long, but this is still a pretty impressive recovery. The card is just that popular and good.
Potential Spec Buy: Death Baron
Death Baron was a $20+ card until its reprinting in Core Set 2019. These days, you can pick it up for about $3. Take a look:
Admittedly, I did expect this card to start rebounding by now, but I think our third return to Innistrad will finally cause that spike. Death Baron might not make it back to $20 again anytime soon, but $10 seems likely to me. Death Baron is a must-play in any Zombie tribal deck, and we're definitely getting a whole bunch of new Zombies in 2021. Stay away at your own risk.
Elves have been the iconic green creature type since the very start, and one of the few "go small" tribes that has survived the transition into Magic's Commander era. While the people who like Elves REALLY like Elves, the tribe also benefits from being incredibly good at taking on supporting roles in other decks, like Ramp or Simic Flash. Unlike Zombies, which pretty much only show up in dedicated Zombie decks, Elves can (and will) show up everywhere.
Elves are another evergreen tribe that tend to show up in nearly every set, though they're rarely the focus of a set like Dragons can be. We've seen quite a few Elves in sets as disparate as Zendikar, Lorwyn, and Onslaught, though we've had very few dedicated Elf Tribal cards in recent years. It's possible that Elves will experience a spike at some point, but as of now WotC has more or less been okay releasing a steady drizzle of them as needed. I'm sure Elves are here to stay, but I have no idea when or if I'd recommend speculating on a bunch of them at once. We'd probably need an exciting new Elf Commander to be previewed at the very least.
Most Expensive Cards: Llanowar Elves (Alpha), Allosaurus Shepherd, Norwood Priestess
The most expensive Elf is another Alpha/Beta card that's expensive due to scarcity, while Norwood Priestess is pricey because it's a rare from Portal: Second Age. Allosaurus Shepherd is a surprising addition to the list, though perhaps it shouldn't be. It's one of the best cards in Jumpstart, it's only in one of the 121 possible sets that you can open, and finding packs of Jumpstart continues to prove difficult.
Based on this chart, Allosaurus Shepherd's price is down a bit, likely due to the end-of-year lull as well as a possible increase in Jumpstart allocation. Picking up a copy now seems solid to me, though it's always possible that WotC will release a whole bunch of packs into the world and the price will tank. If you don't think that's going to happen, then you might be looking at the last time this card is available for less than $80 for a while.
Potential Spec Buys: Elvish Promenade
Elvish Promenade is one of those uncommons that has been worth between $2 and $5 for what feels like forever. It has only been released in one major set, Lorwyn, before appearing in a couple of Duel Decks eight or nine years ago now.
This is a risky spec, because we're talking about a sub-$1 card if it's ever reprinted in a main set or even a Masters set, but imagine the surge in price we'd see if WotC put out an "Elves Matter" set or even an Elf Tribal Commander deck without reprinting Elvish Promenade. It's not the kind of card I'm going to pick up right now, but it'll be in my shopping cart real fast if I catch wind of WotC leaning into Elf Tribal at some point soon.
Goblins are just as old and venerable a tribe as Elves or Dragons, though they've had a bumpy ride for the past decade or so. Goblins were a highly competitive tribe for most of the 1990s and early 2000s, with cards like Goblin Piledriver and Goblin Lackey leading the way, but things have been a lot worse for our little red friends since Goblin Guide rotated out of Standard back in 2013. Goblins have also been more or less absent from Commander over that time, because beating multiple players down from 40 life with a couple of non-recursive 2/2s is a tall order.
2020 was an amazing year for Goblins, though, with Muxus, Goblin Grandee and Conspicuous Snoop leading the tribe back into the competitive realm. Goblins is currently a top tier deck in Historic, with Autumn Burchett bashing and crashing their way to 2nd place at the Zendikar Rising Championship last weekend with their Goblins deck. Muxus has even helped cause a surge in Commander popularity for Goblins, so the long-dormant tribe's future looks pretty bright at the moment.
Most Expensive Cards: Goblin King (Alpha), Goblin Wizard, Goblin Settler
Here are three more cards that are mostly expensive due to scarcity. Goblin King is expensive for the same reason that Zombie Master is expensive: it's an Alpha/Beta card that's still playable in Commander. Goblin Wizard is a Reserved List card from The Dark that gets better and better with every cool new Goblin printed. Goblin Settler is a Stone Rain effect that can be blinked or cheated into play off an early Goblin Lackey. It also hasn't been printed since the impossibly scarce Starter 1999, so good luck even finding one of these if you want a copy.
Potential Spec Buys: Goblin Recruiter
Goblin Recruiter has actually spiked already this year. It happened back in June, when Conspicuous Snoop was previewed. Its price tag has settled down a bit since then, though, and I wouldn't be surprised if it sees another surge of demand at some point in 2021 or 2022:
Why do I like Goblin Recruiter so much? Because it's kind of hard for WotC to print this card outside of a Secret Lair, and they just did a Goblin-themed Secret Lair last winter. Recruiter has been banned in Legacy, and it hasn't been printed since Classic Sixth Edition. It's an absurdly powerful card, though, and it's a must-play in any Commander deck that wants to run Goblins. The more Commander-centric Goblins are printed, the more demand there will be for Goblin Recruiter.
In some respects, Wizards are the tribe that WotC has had the poorest luck getting the payer base to embrace. Wizard Tribal was first pushed during Onslaught block, though it was by far the least popular causal tribe in that set—at least among the people I was playing with at the time. Wizard Tribal was pushed again in Dominaria, but they still haven't become a popular Commander tribe like Zombies or Elves. The best Wizards are still quite good on their own, of course, but I've seen fewer people interested in running a whole bunch of them in the same deck than you might think, considering how cool Wizards are.
Why bring them up here, then? Because the Q2 set in 2021 is called Strixhaven: School of Mages. WotC couldn't be telegraphing "THIS IS A WIZARD SET" any harder if they'd tried. I have no doubt that Wizard Tribal cards will spike at some point early next year, probably when the first Strixhaven previews hit the net, and I want to be prepared.
Most Expensive Cards: Rasputin Dreamweaver, Dark Confidant, Snapcaster Mage
Not much to say here, but you can see what I mean about most Wizards being good on their own more than in a tribal setting. Rasputin Dreamweaver is a Reserved List card, while the other two are Modern staples. None of these cards are worth picking up based on their creature type.
Since none of these cards are that interesting to talk about here, I'd like to also highlight Patron Wizard, one of the best Wizard Tribal cards ever printed. It's been bouncing around between $8 and $10 for years now, and it might finally get its day in the sun when Strixhaven releases. I'm a little worried about calling it an amazing spec buy since it is on The List, but that's its only reprint since Odyssey. If Wizard Tribal does take off, Patron Wizard could easily double in value overnight.
Potential Spec Buys: Azami, Lady of Scrolls
This might be my favorite spec in the entire article. Azami, Lady of Scrolls is one of the top 2-3 "Wizards Matter" cards ever printed, and it has only ever been in Champions of Kamigawa and a couple of Commander sets. You can still buy in for less than a buck, but the price has been slowly going up for months now. We know that Azami is probably not going to be on Strixhaven for flavor reasons, which means that demand is going to surge for this card at some point in March or April. Even if Azami only hits $5, we're talking about another Admiral Beckett Brass situation.
Azami is far from the only Wizard worth buying, though. Naru Meha, Master Wizard, Naban, Dean of Iteration, Docent of Perfection, Barrin, Tolarian Archmage, and Gadwick, the Wizened are all on my Strixhaven spec list, and now is the time to buy.
If Dragons are the first iconic Magic tribe, Slivers are the first iconic tribe to originate within the confines of the game. Elves and Dragons both trace their lineage back to D&D, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and thousands of years of societal mythology. They were popular long before Magic began, and they'll remain popular long after the game disappears from the cultural consciousness. On the other hand, Slivers started in Tempest block and became instantly popular. They've been back a few times since then, though, most famously in Onslaught Block, Time Spiral Block, and Magic 2014. Slivers have popped back up here and there over the past seven years, but they haven't gotten a spotlight of a set in quite some time. I expect that to change in 2021 or 2022.
Slivers are incredibly popular, WotC hasn't shown any signs of turning on them, and we've gotten a smattering of Slivers and Sliver Enablers here and there over the past couple of years—just enough to keep them in the public eye. If nothing else, Time Spiral Remastered will bring back quite a few Slivers and should cause some small spikes early in 2021. Best case, one of the other 2021 sets also has some Slivers, and we see a boom market for members of The Hive at some point next year.
Most Expensive Cards: Sliver Queen, Sliver Legion, Synapse Sliver
Not too many surprises here. I could have chosen to highlight some alternate printings of Slivers that tracked a little bit higher than Synapse Sliver, but this seems like a pretty good snapshot of top-end Sliver Finance. There's Sliver Queen, a large gap, Sliver Legion, another large gap, and then every other Sliver ever printed.
Sliver Queen is a Reserved List card, so it's going to remain absurdly expensive as long as Slivers stay popular. I regret every one of these I've ever sold—it was quite a few over the years—and I wouldn't be shocked if Sliver Queen ends up in the $400-$500 if WOTC goes all-out with Slivers at some point in the next few years. Seriously—the card has Gaea's Cradle potential. It's so good in any five-color Sliver-based Commander deck, and they aren't making any more of them.
As for Sliver Legion, I expect the card to be reprinted in Time Spiral Remastered and take a significant price hit. Sliver Legion is so expensive right now that I'd be shocked if WotC left that opportunity on the table in their first tabletop "Remastered" set. The price is still pretty high right now, and I'm selling.
Potential Spec Buys: The First Sliver
As soon as the next Sliver set is revealed, all the exiting Slivers are going to spike. The spikes will probably begin with the five-color lord Slivers, which means that the cheapest members of this cycle are going to be really attractive spec buys. You can snag The First Sliver for right around $10 right now, and this card will be an easy $20-$30 as soon as that set is revealed. I'd be shocked if The First Sliver is reprinted before the next big Sliver set, so it's a safe buy right now.
Sliver Overlord is also a good buy right now. The card was reprinted in a Secret Lair last year, so I doubt we'll see it again anytime soon. Once that next Sliver set is revealed, you're looking at a $30+ card.
Back in 2007, Wizards of the Coast decided to try something called The Grand Creature Type Update. In one fell swoop, they reclassified a whole bunch of older creatures in order to enable them to play better in the context of the modern game. That's why creatures like Argivian Archaeologist now have "Creature—Human Artificer" on their virtual typeline despite the original printing saying "Summon Archeologist."
One of the weird side effects of The Grand Creature Type Update was that a lot of random Archeologists and Assassins and Lords and Enchantresses ended up with "Human" on their type line. Suddenly, making a Human deck wasn't just possible, it started to seem like a fun idea. A few years after that, WotC began actually printing "Humans Matter" cards like Champion of the Parish and Thalia's Lieutenant. The result? One of the strongest decks in the history of Modern, albeit one that has fallen on really hard times in the current metagame.
Unlike most of these other tribes, however, Humans is still mostly an afterthought in Commander. The tribe has its fans, but this is primarily a competitive constructed tribe. It's also a tribe that hasn't seen much play in Modern in a while. My suspicion is that Humans does have a future in Commander at some point, but its full potential has yet to be unlocked.
Most Expensive Cards: Dark Confidant, Snapcaster Mage, Academy Rector
This is an impossible list to make, because the most expensive Humans are things like Alpha Royal Assassin and two-dozen other cards that are kind of accidentally and incidentally Human. Even the cards I named above aren't all that interesting to talk about in relation to their Humanity. The truth of the matter is that Humans still don't have much of a tribal identity, and WotC will need to change that if they want Humans to catch on in Commander.
Potential Spec Buys: General Kudro of Drannith
General Kudro of Drannith is WotC's latest attempt at creating a "Humans Matter" Commander, and I fully expect this card to remain a staple in any Humans decks going forward. Since the card was printed this year, in Ikoria, the price is nice and low right now, too. You can pick these up between $3-$4, which is a steal as long as it spikes before its inevitable reprint. I'm willing to take that gamble, since all we need are one or two other cool "Humans Matter" cards printed at some point in the next year or two.
Much like Pirates, Cats are an incredibly new tribe that hasn't received a lot of love from WotC yet. The first real Cat Tribal cards showed up in Commander 2017 and Amonkhet, though neither release was exactly overflowing with cute kitties. 2019 brought us the OMG KITTIES Secret Lair drop, while Core Set 2021 gave us Feline Sovereign, Nine Lives, and a few other cool Cats.
I have no idea if Cats are going to be a spotlight tribe in a set anytime soon, but WotC is definitely going to be printing more of these, and the community seems to be lapping them up like a saucer of milk. OMG KITTIES is currently the best-selling Secret Lair drop by a pretty wide margin, which speaks to the current demand for this tribe. Cats are very much here to stay, and I wouldn't be surprised if they're one of the 2-3 most popular tribes over the next few years.
Most Expensive Cards: Savannah Lions (Alpha), Hunting Cheetah, Mirri, Weatherlight Duelist (Secret Lair)
There simply aren't that many expensive Cats yet. Savannah Lions isn't even worth running anymore, and it's only expensive because it was a rare in Alpha. Hunting Cheetah is actually pretty cool, though, and it would be nice if WotC brought this Portal 3 Kingdoms card back as a Masters set uncommon at some point.
The third most valuable cat is the OMG KITTIES printing of Mirri, Weatherlight Duelist, which doesn't shock me. People loved the impossibly cute aesthetic of this Secret Lair drop, and Mirri is probably the best card of the bunch. Here's what Mirri's price chart looks like so far:
I actually think that this version of Mirri is a solid buy at current retail. Even if they reprint Mirri, they'll never print this adorable version again, and it's one of the few Secret Lair cards that really does hold an aesthetic premium. As Cats become more of an entrenched tribe, this card really might end up becoming something to brag about owning.
Potential Spec Buys: Highcliff Felidar
Highcliff Felidar is a Cat that was only released in the Magic Game Night 2019 Box Set. Very few people bought this set, making Highcliff Felidar one of the scarcest Cats on the market. Seven mana is a lot for a kitty, but this is a pretty solid multiplayer card that's making the 99 of my Cat-based Commander deck every time. Its price seems like it's on the rise, too:
This is one of those cards that the MTG Finance subreddit or some random Discord community will decide to buy out the next time WotC prints a couple of Cat enablers, and it'll randomly end up being worth $20-$30.
Rats off to ya! I wanted to end this article today with one of the most unique popular tribes in Magic, because "Rat Tribal" really doesn't work the way any of these other tribes do. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a deck filled with a whole bunch of different Rats and rat enablers. They're definitely out there, but they're not common.
Instead, most Rat decks rely on cards like Relentless Rats or Rat Colony to make up the bulk of their deck, with a smattering of enablers and a commander like Marrow-Gnawer to lead the way. It's hard for new Rats to break in, but when they do, they're usually a good buy.
Consider Rat Colony, a common from Dominaria. Most commons are literally worthless, especially commons from recent sets, but Rat Colony is a $2 card. These cards are also pretty resilient to reprints, because each printing brings a whole bunch of new fans, each of whom wants to own 40-50 copies of their new favorite Rat. Picking these cards up en masse in the months after a set release is almost always a good idea, which is why I wanted to bring it to your attention in this article.
Most Expensive Cards: Plague Rats (Alpha), Zodiac Rat, Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
None of the good Rat Tribal cards are expensive right now. We've just got an Alpha card, a Portal 3 Kingdoms Card, and a Rat Ninja that sees more play for its Ninjutsu ability than its Rattitude. If you want to invest in Rats for tribal reasons, you really need to wait for a card that reads "you can play with any number of CARDNAME in your deck."
Potential Spec Buys: Rat Colony (Secret Lair)
While this version of Rat Colony has had a really stable price tag since release, I wouldn't be shocked if it's bought out and spikes at some point over the next few years. I have no idea if WotC will print another special version of this card at any point, and the folks who want this card need at least a couple dozen copies in their collection. It wouldn't take much to get this version of Rat Colony above $10, and it's not like they're printing any more of them.
It was another relatively quiet week in the world of Magic finance, but one of the biggest risers of the week was Pariah's Shield, from Ravnica: City of Guilds. This card has been in the $3-$5 range for a while thanks to its interaction with cards like Stuffy Doll, but it's spiking now because of its interaction with Jared Carthalion, True Heir. Take a look:
There's no evidence of a buyout spike here. Even that large orange column was the result of many Commander players each buying individual copies for their own collections. And since Pariah's Shield is an old and scarce card that has never been reprinted, I wouldn't expect its price tag to tank any time soon.
There has also been some evidence of buyouts in the world of what I can only describe as "nostalgic old Magic cards." I'm talking about cards like Jester's Cap and Revised Shivan Dragon, which people remember from their childhood despite neither card being particularly good or particularly scarce. Here's the price chart for Revised Shivan Dragon over the past two months:
Each of those large columns represents a single-source buyout, where one person has decided to snap up a whole bunch of copies at once. That has currently caused the price to rise from about $7 to about $13, and I doubt we're done yet.
Why is someone speculating on these cards? My guess is that they're anticipating a surge in nostalgic demand for Magic cards similar to what's going on in the Pokémon market right now. If that does happen, then these forgotten gems from my childhood could soon end up surging in price. If not, then we should see Shivan and friends settling back down again soon. It's a pretty solid gamble, though, and you might want to pick up a Revised Shivan or three over the coming weeks just in case.