Hi there! You might know me as "that guy who writes about finance for TCGplayer," or "that guy who tweets about finance from @Rose0fthorns." As always, my goal is to help you understand the workings of the financial part of the game and make it easier for you to afford decks. While a small part of that is predicting the ebb and flow of the Standard market, there's a huge percentage of casual cards that often swim under the radar until you notice how drastically their prices can change over time. Today I want to talk about a subgroup of those casual cards that almost always tend to be worth value, thanks to a single line of rules text.
As a competitive player, this doesn't raise your eyebrow much. Any Legacy spike knows that if you're discarding due to hand size after a couple of Griselbrand activations, you're probably already in a really good spot to win the game and you don't need a Reliquary Tower. Either that, or you're a Manaless Dredge player who choose to be on the draw because you wanna play a whole different game that's not Magic at all. Anyway, the point is that stuff like Reliquary Tower, Spellbook and Venser's Journal don't really see play at the top tables. So why do the prices of these cards keep rebounding and climbing?
Well, Tower sees a ton of play in Commander, to start with. According to EDHrec.com, one of the internet's primary resources for Commander data, it sees play in over 83,000 decks. It's the most popular utility land in the format that doesn't make colored mana, so there's clear demand in an established format that makes it worth $4-5 consistently. In fact, I consider Reliquary Tower one of my "Immortal" cards that refuses to be beaten down by repeated reprints. Every time this bad boy gets hit with a reprint, it goes to $2.50 in the short term and then eventually creeps back up to $4-5.
But what about Spellbook and Venser's Journal? While they only see play in a fraction of the number of decks on EDHrec, they both consistently maintain (and even gain) value over time. Journal rebounded from its' reprint in Commander 2016 nicely, and Spellbook has doubled from $.38 to $.80 over the past four years according to MTGstocks.com. While the latter has gone over a decade without a reprint itself, it's clear that cards like Thought Vessel are true casual powerhouses, regardless of their competitive viability. Did you know Thought Vessel is $7 now? That's a card that has quietly tripled over the course of a year. It started off 2016 as a $.75 pick out of bulk, and has steadily gained over the course of its lifetime.
I know there's been a lot of Pauper hype lately, but the price increase on this card hasn't been because of the commons-only format. Part of the price is because it's seeing play in over 31,000 decks on EDHrec, but it's not actually that good of a card. I only play it in Gonti as a way to cast my Commander on turn three, but I'm very rarely discarding to hand size. I have a couple of theories as to why cards like Reliquary Tower, Thought Vessel and Venser's Journal are a unique crowd of niche casual/Commander cards that refuse to go down in price, regardless of their actual power level.
I think this is the main reason these cards get jammed into so many Commander decks; In a format where casting a kicked Rite of Replication on a Mulldrifter while you have Panharmonicon is "normal," discarding your extra cards is often seen as losing value instead of just cultivating your hand of your best seven cards that will carry you to victory. Again; If you're far enough ahead that you manage to draw double-digit cards in a single turn, I think it's safe to say you're a favorite to win that game regardless of the extra few cards you might have had to throw away.
Regardless, making those decisions can end up being a painful choice that casual players feel frustrated with. Because of that, the cards that remove this obligation make it feel like your deck runs smoother, when in reality you could be playing a different utility land or mana rock that increases your win percentage more. I think most decks that currently run a Reliquary Tower could get more use out of a Thespian's Stage, Homeward Path, High Market, or even Rogue's Passage. In a format driven significantly more by having fun than cultivating a 100% win rate, I can understand how players would want to build their deck in such a way that would allow them to simply play more cards, rather than having to pick and choose which ones get tossed in the discard pile.
The cool thing about Tower and Vessel specifically is that they actually provide mana throughout the game. Even if you never hit the cleanup step with eight-plus cards in your hand, both of the aforementioned still provide mana on every turn, so you feel like you're getting value out of them. The same "value" is true for Venser's Journal; as long as you have a couple of cards in your hand. The fact that Spellbook doesn't provide any additional advantage is probably a good part of the reason that's significantly cheaper than the rest of its colleagues, even though all of it's printings are from ages ago.
When I play Commander, I try to keep a mental note of some cards that are working and some that continuously let me down. With Gonti as another example, I took Strionic Resonator out of the deck because it would continuously just do nothing; two mana for an additional trigger on Gonti was pretty much ever worth it, especially when it would only work once per turn. The card would sit in play for an entire game, and I would always have something else better to do with my mana, so it eventually got cut. Once in a great while I would pay seven mana for a Gray Merchant of Asphodel, but that was the exception and not the rule. The fact that hand size cards usually provide an additional (and more tangible) benefit means that they're often overlooked when players are considering cuts for a list.
We should really come up with an abbreviation or something for this collective group of cards… To be honest, it's not that large of a group. Searching "maximum hand size" on Gatherer only brings up 31 cards, and some of those (Glorious End/ Day's Undoing) are only on the list because of reminder text. Out of that small list, there are a couple of other hidden gems that I want to bring up before the end of this article; Graceful Adept and Library of Leng.
While these two hand size modifiers (is that better?) aren't Commander staples, they do have their niche; Graceful Adept certainly makes sense in an Azami list for synergy on multiple levels (Wizard? Check. Drawing lots of cards to make use of the hand size modifier? Check.). Library of Leng is strong in Nekusar, the Mindrazer lists where you're casting a ton of Wheel of Fortune effects that make everyone discard their hand, then redraw. While they're not ubiquitous enough to see play in every blue list, they're both definitely worth picking out of your bulk to buylist off to stores; you can buylist them for dimes, so they're effectively bulk rares.
As a follow-up, the fact that these two (and Spellbook) don't provide additional value beyond your hand size limit suggests that they're probably not great speculation targets. You can continue to buy Thought Vessels for $2-3 if and when they get hit in the next Commander precons, but I would hold off on picking up Library of Leng or Spellbook en masse. They're not as well-received as Tower/Vessel/Journal in Commander, and don't see much play at the kitchen table, either. They're great hidden gems, but they'll be staying there for a while.
We can look at a few of the other cards on that hand size list, and make similar remarks about their financial future. I don't want the takeaway of this article to be that all cards with the text "You have no maximum hand size." are good pickup targets, because I think that's far from true. There's a significant difference between our golden trio of colorless Commander cards, and something like Tishana, Voice of Thunder. While she technically frees up your hand size, I don't know of anyone jamming her into their existing Commander decks for that reason specifically. The same goes for other big creatures like Nezahal, Primal Tide and Kruphix, God of Horizons. Their appeal and price tag (or lack thereof) will come from factors other than their hand size restriction; it's just icing on the cake in those situations.
I want to give a shoutout to another hidden gem that deals with maximum hand size. If nullifying your own hand limit is popular in casual play, then reducing your opponent's' hand size must be just as fun, right? There aren't a whole lot of cards that play into that space (shoutout to Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur), but one of the uncommon gems you should be pulling from Kamigawa bulk is Locust Miser. He's the worthwhile one versus his common colleague Gnat Miser, but you can easily get $.25 a piece on buylist for this furry four-mana 2/2, because it plays into so many casual rat/hand disruption decks. Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next week!
- DJ Johnson