I've been writing about Banned & Restricted announcements for years now, but I'm still at something of a loss when it comes to analyzing the edict that WotC dropped on Monday. It wasn't so much about the contents of the announcement, though we'll get to that in good time. No—like everything else in this Hindenburg of a year, the COVID-19 pandemic looms large over this week's B&R announcement and my subsequent analysis. It's hard to know what to write about the ebbs and flows of competitive tabletop Magic prices when nobody can play competitive tabletop Magic.
Prices are still going to rise and fall based on the announcement, though. In fact, they already have. Even though WotC has suspended tabletop play yet again, and COVID cases are spiking across the US, people are still buying decks and planning for the future. Speculators are always going to do their thing whenever there's a major shake-up, and I think we underestimate how many people simply want to have a top tier eternal deck kicking around, regardless of their ability to actually play with it any time soon. Also, we often cling to the things that give us comfort in times of major uncertainty, and Magic is a source of comfort to a lot of us right now.
Of course, not all competitive formats are in a good place, even after the B&R announcement. The Arcum's Astrolabe ban in Modern has people pretty excited about the format's future, but WotC's mismanagement of Pioneer has a lot of people up in arms. There was also some clamoring for bans in Standard, though rotation should take care of that format in a few months. At any rate, let's take a look at the financial fallout of WotC's announcement, starting with—
Whenever WotC announces that they're going to make a change to Modern, speculators and players alike start to snap up all the most obvious unban targets. This causes the price to spike. This type of pre-announcement activity has happened since the very start of Modern, and it's one of the easiest ways to make money on Magic. All you need to do is buy a bunch of potential unban targets during their seasonal lows, then sell them a day or two before the next Modern-centric B&R announcement. It's that simple.
For years, everyone's favorite unban target was Bloodbraid Elf. Then it was Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Then it was Stoneforge Mystic. These days, it's Splinter Twin. Take a look at the card's price chart over the past month:
As you can see, Splinter Twin sales were low until WotC's announcement on Twitter, at which point speculators flocked to TCGplayer and began snapping up all the $8 copies. By the following morning, the card was selling regularly for $15+. That's a nice little profit if you have enough copies to move, even with shipping and fees.
Of course, if you'd bought your Splinter Twins on the 7th, you wouldn't have had time to turn around and flip them for $15 before the announcement on the 13th. That's why you shouldn't wait until the last minute to pick up these specs. It's better to buy cards like Splinter Twin when nobody is talking about Modern unbans, so you have them on hand when you need them.
Also, each subsequent buyout is likely to leave the card a little higher than it used to be. Here's Splinter Twin's full 2020 chart, complete with multiple spikes:
Honestly, I expect Splinter Twin's spike-and-drop trend to continue for a while yet. I don't think WotC is close to unbanning Splinter Twin in Modern, but I also don't expect them to reprint it anytime soon—not while it's still banned, at least. That means people are going to keep hyping this card up every few months, causing buyout after buyout. Grab a few copies next time it hits a low.
This time around, however, Splinter Twin wasn't the only card to spike thanks to unban hype. Check out Birthing Pod:
Why Birthing Pod? Well, there was actually some pretty sound reasoning behind this spec. Birthing Pod was announced as a 2020 Judge Foil last week, making some people believe that WotC was taking another look at the card's place on the Modern banned list. After all, WotC tends to print useful judge foils. This mirrors what happened with Jace, the Mind Sculptor, who got a Modern unban and a Masters set reprint right around the same time.
Unfortunately, that speculation proved fruitless. Birthing Pod is a fantastic Commander card, and that was likely the sole rationale behind the Judge Foil reprint. With that reprint still coming, I'd expect Birthing Pod's value to trend back down toward that $13-$14 mark again before too long. Birthing Pod might still be a buyout target the next time WotC announces they'll be fiddling with the Modern B&R list, but be careful. Splinter Twin doesn't have much casual use, so it probably won't be reprinted until it's inevitably unbanned at some point. But Birthing Pod could easily show up in a Commander product at any point, which would send the card spiraling down toward the $4-$5 mark.
Since Magic Twitter is Magic Twitter, most of the B&R reactions (including mine!) weren't about WotC's sensible ban of Arcum's Astrolabe in Modern. Instead, people were upset that WotC didn't do anything to address the proliferation of the top tier combo decks like Dimir Inverter and Lotus Breach in Pioneer.
While WotC used win percentage to claim that the Pioneer metagame is more or less fine, a lot of folks pointed out the undeniable fact that Pioneer events simply haven't been regularly firing on MTGO lately. And while a lot of that can be chalked up to the pandemic—most folks who want to play digital Magic for fun gravitate toward MTG Arena, while MTGO is often just a place for folks to test for tabletop events—digital Pioneer events would still be far more populated if the format wasn't dominated by combo decks.
That's the thing about combo: having one or two combo decks in the format's second tier makes for a healthy and vibrant metagame, but it's never much fun when you have to play against them in half your matches. Dimir Inverter is also a particularly miserable deck to play both with and against—something that WotC should probably spend a little more time thinking about when they make these decisions.
Why discuss this sort of thing in a finance column? Because prices go up when people are jazzed about a format, and they sink when people don't want to touch it. Pioneer had a pretty vibrant fan base early on, and it was the primary driver of Magic prices during the fourth quarter of 2019, but the format has fallen on hard times lately, and prices have been flagging as a result.
Was this lack of aggressive bans "the final nail in the coffin for Pioneer," like I saw three separate people claim across Reddit and Twitter on Monday? Absolutely not. Pioneer is a mess right now, but it's eminently fixable. Dimir Inverter and Lotus Breach are easy enough to hit with a successful ban should WotC cave to public pressure at some point going forward, and I expect they will. It's certainly possible that WotC will just pivot fully into Historic as their post-Modern Eternal format, but I still think that format is better suited for Arena play, where it's a lot easier to keep track of what's legal and what's not.
In order for Pioneer to make a comeback, two things need to happen. First, WotC needs to better address the combo decks at the top of the metagame, likely through bans, but possibly by printing additional hate cards. Second, Pioneer will either need to be released on Arena or tabletop Magic events need to return in earnest. My guess is that these things will all happen within the next couple of years, which is why I'm not ready to abandon the format yet.
Does that mean you should aggressively buy into Pioneer right now, though? Probably not. The Pioneer metagame is going to look radically different by the time people actually want to play it again, so it's hard to know where to put your money right now. It might be worth starting to slowly amass staples if you can get them for the right price, but at this point you're looking at a longer-term investment/collection-building strategy, not a short-term quick flip.
Of course, WotC didn't totally ignore Pioneer on Monday. They actually unbanned a key card in the format: Oath of Nissa. Check out this price chart:
This is a pretty interesting chart, especially because it shows a couple of buyout spikes in the days before WotC's announcement. July 6th and July 11th both featured large orders from single buyers who clearly wanted to speculate on Oath of Nissa despite the fact that I didn't hear any rumblings about WotC unbanning it as part of their upcoming announcement. Hmm—did any of the other cards on the Pioneer B&R list get bought out as well?
Nope! I checked them all to be sure. So yeah. While I don't want to scream "insider trading!" without any hard evidence, and profiting on inside information from WotC isn't actually against the law or even against the rules of Magic, it's still kind of frustrating to see in practice.
Where might Oath of Nissa go from here? Well, the card was as high as $5 prior to its Pioneer ban, so $5 is probably the best you can hope for right now outside of a brief buyout spike. That $5 price tag occurred back when the whole world was excited about Pioneer, though, so it probably isn't quite as sustainable right now. Long-term, Oath of Nissa is probably a $3 rare until Pioneer is cool again.
As for other cards that might spike thanks to Oath of Nissa being legal, Kethis, the Hidden Hand is the card that excites me the most. It's a powerful mythic rare from Core Set 2020 that combos well with Oath of Nissa, as if the format needed another powerful interaction to disrupt. With a Market Price just over $2 and a decent amount of play in Commander, that's where I'd put my money if I wanted to try and profit off this announcement.
Arcum's Astrolabe is the rare ban that should help balance out the format without completely changing it. While all of Modern's top tier control decks relied pretty heavily on the Arcum's Astrolabe and snow mana, it's not like blue-based control is going anywhere. It remains to be seen whether or not these decks will still be 3-4 color monstrosities without Arcum's Astrolabe, or even whether or not they'll continue running snow permanents at all, but we haven't seen the last of Cryptic Command, Force of Negation, or Archmage's Charm (chart below).
What cards might see less play once control decks move out of the frozen tundra? Ice-Fang Coatl and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath seem like the biggest potential losses, though both cards should still see some play. How much? Well, that depends.
Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath is far too good to get shut out of Modern's top tier, though I no longer think it'll end up in the $60-$70 range over the short-term. I could be wrong, and it's possible that Modern control will simply pivot fully toward Simic, but my guess is that Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath's price tag will at least start to stabilize instead of continuing to rise.
As for Ice-Fang Coatl, that card is far more likely to see a significant downtick in play. Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath simply requires a top-tier control deck running blue and green, while Ice-Fang Coatl is only good if you have reliable access to Snow permanents. I still expect Snow-based decks exist in Modern, though they are probably not tier 1 without Arcum's Astrolabe. The market seems to agree with me, and Ice-Fang Coatl has already dropped from $8 down to $5 in light of the B&R announcement:
$5 isn't a bad price for Ice-Fang Coatl, even still—Modern Horizons has finally left print, and these cards were all about to start seeing an uptick in price regardless. Ice-Fang Coatl is also pretty good in both Legacy and Commander, and that's not going to change anytime soon. If this card drops too much lower, it might even be a solid buy. Just don't expect it to spike anytime soon, which was probably on the docket if Arcum's Astrolabe hadn't gotten the ban hammer.
As for Arcum's Astrolabe replacements, there really isn't any one card that can slot right in and do the same thing. Abundant Growth is the closest thing we have to a replacement, though, and take a look at how many people purchased copies on Monday, the day of the Arcum's Astrolabe ban. It's the last column on this chart:
Yeah, that's a pretty big demand spike for a card that has long been readily available for less than $0.25. Even if it doesn't take off as an Arcum's Astrolabe replacement, buying in now seems good to me. The card has actually seen a decent amount of demand for a while now, and it's a good enough common that it could easily end up being worth $1-$2 despite being reprinted several times.
What does the foil price look like? Well, that chart is a little harder to grok due to a couple of wild price swings, but let's check it out anyway:
As you can see, foil copies of Abundant Growth have been selling between $1 and $14 for a while now, depending on overall availability. I checked, and both the Eternal Masters and Avacyn Restored versions have sold for both $1 and $14 over the past few months, with the Avacyn Restored copy trending a little higher overall. My guess is that the price settles in around $10 with a shot at more, and if you can score one of the cheap copies in the interim, you should.
Other than the B&R announcement, the biggest news of the week was Mark Rosewater formally announcing that Jumpstart is not a limited run product. They will continue to reprint Jumpstart "within the time frame of the product's lifespan," which is usually about a year. He went on to say that COVID-19 has caused major delays in printing and shipping boxes of the set, which will be corrected before long.
What does this mean for you? Don't buy Jumpstart singles right now unless you really need them. Seriously—demand is far outstripping supply right now, and prices will almost certainly come down as the year wears on. The best time to buy these singles is going to be in late December. If you can wait that long, you should.
As for Double Masters, I'll be reviewing that set in full as soon as previews begin. There's been a lot of talk about whether or not you should pre-order a box ASAP so that you don't risk missing out if the set ends up being unbelievably amazing, and I can see the logic in that. If you know for sure that you want a box on day one and the money isn't an issue for you, you should probably order it now. Otherwise, I'd wait until the set hits peak supply about 3-4 weeks after release.
One thing you don't want to do: order a box of Double Masters during the first day or two of previews. WotC always tends to front-load these reveal weeks, so the set will look way better than it is after the first 48 hours of previews. Either order now, or stay strong and hold out for later.
I'm always interested to see how much of an effect Magic articles can have on card prices, and we had a pretty good case study this week. This article on the top ten Reserved List cards available for less than $10 was the top post on the MTG Finance subreddit on July 10th, so let's take a look and see if it actually caused any price movement.
Karn, Silver Golem:
Retribution of the Meek:
Yeah, I'd say the article had an impact.
These cards were all solid spec calls regardless—cheaper Reserved List cards are about as low risk as it gets—but if they spike over the coming days, it'll be because of the article, not because these cards began inherently seeing more play in Commander. Selling into these spikes is almost always correct, and it's probably correct here as well, but it is worth noting that the average copies/sale ratio for all those July 10th spikes was still at or under 2 copies/person. That tells me that most of the people who actually bought these cards were Commander players who didn't want to miss out on snagging a copy before the next big Reserved List rally. If most of those cards don't re-enter the marketplace anytime soon, any ensuing price spikes should be more sustainable than they would be if, say, one person had bought 100 copies of each card with the plans of dumping them right back into the marketplace.