Here's a hot take: the key to Magic finance has nothing to do with the cards themselves.
Oh, sure, predicting the ups and downs of the competitive metagame is important, as is attempting to figure out what Wizards of the Coast is going to do next and why. But for me, the most important factor in Magic finance isn't made of paper. It isn't even quantitative.
It's human behavior.
Markets don't move themselves, nor do they behave in perfectly rational ways. Instead, card prices rise and fall based on all sorts of contradictory and confusing factors—a fun internet meme, perhaps, or a coordinated buyout, or a herding effect. And while some of these odd trends are completely unpredictable, the more we learn about how the human mind works—especially the cognitive biases that lead to people behaving in strange and irrational ways—the more accurately we can predict what will happen in the world of Magic finance.
One of the cognitive biases that I've been thinking about recently is…well, recency bias. Recency bias may be hard to notice in yourself, but it's pretty simple to understand. It's the idea that people generally give more weight to things that have happened recently over things that happened a long time ago. This is why people tend to overrate the best player on their favorite sports team right now while underrating the best player on their favorite sports team from ten years ago. It also might be why you have so many TV shows that you watched this year in your list of all-time favorites, or why you think that cool new takeout place has the best food in the state. (People also have nostalgia biases for things from their childhood and adolescence, but that's a topic for another day.)
Recency bias is already well known in the world of high finance. It's what leads people to believe that the boom times will never end, causing them to shovel money into a bull market even after the red warning lights have started to flash. It's also what discourages people from investing in bear markets, worried that the downturn will last forever and ever. Since so much of successful investing involves being a contrarian, it's important to be constantly checking and re-checking your recency bias.
People also have recency bias about the pandemic. Back in March of 2020 (which I'm still not certain has ever ended), it was hard for most people to imagine COVID-19 lasting past Memorial Day. While some medical experts and journalists were raising the alarm about a fight that might last for 12-18 months, the vast majority of us believed that we'd find a way back to normal by early to mid-summer because…well, things have always been normal, right? So certainly, things would return to normal again soon. I definitely believed in this quick reversion to the mean myself, and I'd challenge any of you to actually think back to your mindset at the start of quarantine, because I bet you did, too.
These days, the bias has flipped. We've lived with COVID-19 for almost a year now, and it's getting hard to imagine a world in which we're not scared of crowds and human contact. The world of February 2019 seems almost comically distant and naïve, despite the fact that it was our reality less than a year ago. I've talked to many people who honestly don't know if they'll ever be able to feel comfortable in crowded spaces again, even after the pandemic ends.
Other people don't believe it will ever end at all. I polled my Twitter followers on how they expect their approach to masks will change after the pandemic ends, and over a third of them proclaimed a desire to keep wearing them in public forever. I actually really hope this comes to pass—masks are a great way to keep fatalities down in flu season—but I still think that these mask-loving numbers are being somewhat inflated by recency bias. After all, we've had to wear masks for the past 10 months, so it's easier to imagine a world in which they stick around forever than a world in which they are no longer required.
Regardless of whether or not we are all wearing masks in 2022, I firmly believe that recency bias is keeping people from realizing that competitive tabletop Magic will be back in 2021. When my editor pitched this article to me back in mid-October, it was titled "cards you should buy *just in case* the vaccine works." Well, the vaccine works In fact, with the latest news coming out about the yet-to-be-approved Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine , it appears that all three major vaccines have close to 95% efficacy at preventing COVID-19 infection and 100% efficacy at preventing serious COVID-19 infection. While we aren't nearly out of the woods yet, and a lot of needless deaths are heading our way over the coming months, this is still the best possible news for those of us who are hoping for a return to normalcy at some point next year.
It's still possible that things will go wrong, of course, but I feel like recency bias is preventing people from seeing that we're actually on track to some sort of "return to normal" in 2021. In today's article, I'm going to assume that the vaccine works as intended, that the roll-out recovers from some of its early stumbles and proceeds relatively on track, and that no major complications will set our timeline back significantly. I'm going to assume that tabletop Magic will be flourishing again by this time next year, as players revel in the simple joys of human interaction and in-store play.
Let's get optimistic together, and figure out what Magic finance plays we can make now that should pay off once COVID-19 becomes a thing of the past. We may still be in the darkest part of the night, but dawn is coming.
This is where things get a bit tricky. While I'm optimistic about being able to play competitive tabletop Magic in 2021, it's quite likely that it won't start to feel safe—at least here in the US—until this autumn. Even on an optimistic and accelerated schedule, I don't think it'll be safe for a critical mass of stores to open until summer.
Even under an absolutely best-case scenario, then, we'd only have a few months of post-pandemic Standard legality for Throne of Eldraine, Theros: Beyond Death, Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, and Core Set 2021. Will people really go out and drop a few hundred bucks in the shaky post-pandemic economy on a deck that will rotate in a few months? I'm guessing not. The only way this ends up being a strong play is if enough other countries get their act together faster than we do here in the US. That's not a chance I'm going to take, especially since I'd rather not ship my spec buys overseas unless I don't have another choice.
In that case, we're looking at a fall 2021 post-rotation Standard environment that will consist of Zendikar Rising, Kaldheim, Strixhaven: School of Mages, and Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. And as of now, only one of those sets has actually been released. Because of that, I'll be focusing the bulk of my analysis today on Zendikar Rising cards. It's a great set to buy right now for a lot of reasons: cards from Zendikar Rising are at the absolute peak of their supply, yet they will be Standard legal through September of 2022. Even if you think that my "stores will be open next fall" prediction is too optimistic, you'll still have a whole second year of Standard legality to fall back on. With that in mind, here are my Top 8 Zendikar Rising buys for post-pandemic play.
Kazandu Mammoth // Kazandu Valley is the most-played Zendikar Rising card in Standard, so recommending it here is kind of a no-brainer. Of course, this elite status is mostly due to green's current dominance in the metagame, especially the Gruul Adventures brew that makes up nearly a third of all decks at the top tables. Green might not be on top next fall, however, and this particular deck will be a thing of the past by the time we can all gather for tabletop Magic again.
It's hard for me to picture a world in which Kazandu Mammoth isn't a crucial part of the Standard metagame in nine months' time, though. The card is currently a 4-of in every top tier green deck right now: Gruul Adventures, Mono-Green Food, and Temur Ramp. These decks all play out differently, yet they all still rely on the Kazandu Mammoth // Kazandu Valley. That's the sign of a true format staple.
Dang. Kazandu Mammoth // Kazandu Valley currently sells for less than a buck, which is absurd. In fact, you can pick these up for thirty cents apiece on the right day. Thirty cents for the most-played rare in Standard. That means Kazandu Mammoth // Kazandu Valley really just has to hit $1 for it to be a lucrative spec at current retail. I'd be shocked if that fails to happen at some point next year, and you can buy this one with confidence.
Shatterskull Smashing // Shatterskull, the Hammer Pass isn't quite as dominant as Kazandu Mammoth // Kazandu Valley, but it still sees play in Gruul Adventures and Mono-Red Aggro, the only two aggressive red decks at the top of the current metagame. While it's impossible to predict a future meta where 80% of the cards will be from sets that haven't been released yet, it's likely that there will be some kind of mono-red or aggressive red deck kicking around the top tables. This is a strategy that WotC loves to support, and the number of metagames with some sort of aggressive red deck far outpace the number of metagames where that strategy isn't viable. And since that deck will likely be running Shatterskull Smashing // Shatterskull, the Hammer Pass as a 4-of, it's worth picking up today.
There's another reason to pick up Shatterskull Smashing // Shatterskull, the Hammer Pass, too: it's really good in Historic. While Historic's currently an Arena-only format, it's caught on in a major way this year. I'd be surprised if WotC doesn't bring Historic to paper at some point, and this card should spike when that happens.
What a stable chart. Shatterskull Smashing // Shatterskull, the Hammer Pass has seen enough demand to remain above $5 all year long, despite hitting peak supply and despite the lack of competitive tabletop play. Even if its eventual price doesn't take off in the way I expect it will, this card has a proven high floor and is an incredibly safe buy.
I adore the pathway lands; they're just plain good at what they do. They're not as good as the Ravnica shocklands in 3+ color decks, admittedly, but they're still incredible in 2-color decks or on the splash. Cragcrown Pathway and Clearwater Pathway are the second and third most-played non-basic land in Standard right now (after Fabled Passage, of course), which speaks to the potential that all of these lands have in the right metagame.
My worry about investing in the pathway lands right now is two-fold. First, Zendikar Rising's prices are always going to be somewhat depressed due to the incredible value present in the Collector Boosters and box toppers, especially the fetchlands. Since these pathway lands aren't seeing any play in Modern, I worry that they'll end up like the Standard-centric rare land cycle in Battle for Zendikar. That cycle of lands was also quite good in Standard, but they didn't see any eternal play and their prices were sunk by the presence of the extraordinarily good masterpieces in that set. Sound familiar? Yeah.
My other issue? Challenger Decks. These often contain 3 or 4-ofs of lands like this, and that could tank the price pretty hard next spring, well before tabletop Magic is back. We won't know if there will even be Challenger Decks this year, much less what they'll contain, for another few months. That certainly complicates things.
That said, I think Commander playability more than makes up for those two factors. Unlike that Battle for Zendikar land cycle, the pathways are true Commander staples that I want for basically every Commander deck I own. I know this is primarily an article about Standard speculation, but the fact that we can lean back on Commander demand to help backstop our play shouldn't be ignored.
Here's the price chart for Cragcrown Pathway, the most-played pathway land right now. You can snag LP copies for right around $2, which is going to make it pretty hard for you to lose. If you missed picking these up on Black Friday, be sure to get them now. You'll want four of each in the cycle, because there's no way to know which color pair will dominate in fall of 2021. Worst case, you'll never run out of extras for your Commander brews.
Is Skyclave Apparition the best competitive card in all of Zendikar Rising? It has to be close. This is the best Fiend Hunter variant ever printed, and Skyclave Apparition quickly become a Modern staple in addition to a Standard all-star. Its price chart is pretty sexy, too. Take a look:
I certainly wish I'd picked up more Skyclave Apparition during the pre-order period—I was pretty high on the card in my set review—but even now, the price is pretty good.
The biggest issue I have with Skyclave Apparition is that white has been a pretty weak color for a while now, and it's possible that this issue will persist through 2021. The community's been pretty loud about white's issues for about a year now, though, so it's likely that we're about to see sets where the balance has been restored a bit. If white does end up being a key color in upcoming metagames, Skyclave Apparition could end up being one of the 2-3 most important cards in the whole format. Seriously—it has that kind of upside. Combine that with the card's Modern playability, and you have a pretty solid buy in my mind.
Let's talk about one of the other key eternal cards in Zendikar Rising. Agadeem's Awakening // Agadeem, the Undercrypt made some modest waves early on in Modern, and it still sees a tiny bit of play in that format as well as a lot of play in Historic. It's also a powerhouse in Standard, showing up in Dimir Control as well as Dimir Rogues.
Agadeem's Awakening // Agadeem, the Undercrypt become the most expensive card in Zendikar Rising right now, and it's done so without really seeing much Commander buzz. That's pretty remarkable for any card in 2020, where Commander playability is just about the only thing driving the market. That tells me Agadeem's Awakening // Agadeem, the Undercrypt has some pretty stellar potential once competitive tabletop play returns. If any card in Zendikar Rising has what it takes to end up in the $30-$40 range, it's this.
Let's jump from one black mythic to another and take a look at another eternal staple in Scourge of the Skyclaves. Unlike Agadeem's Awakening // Agadeem, the Undercrypt, which sees play in Standard, Historic, and Modern, Scourge of the Skyclaves only sees play in Modern and Historic. And since Historic isn't a paper format yet, that means that this card's basically a one trick pony. Is that good enough for me to recommend it, especially since I don't expect Scourge of the Skyclaves to make the jump to Standard next fall—or ever?
Yes. Rakdos Death Shadow's currently the #2 deck in Modern, and that deck runs a full four copies of Scourge of the Skyclaves. That makes this a flagship mythic in a top tier Modern deck that's currently available for less than $10.
The card's cheap right now for two reasons: first, nobody's playing tabletop Modern. Second, Zendikar Rising's at peak supply. Take advantage of this unique confluence and grab this card while you can. I'd be surprised if it doesn't hit $20 before it's eventually reprinted.
This is an easy one. Lotus Cobra been a multi-format all-star for a while now, and cards like this are always worth picking up when they hit peak supply. I actually recommended that y'all get on board right before Black Friday, when Lotus Cobra bottomed out at $1.80, but the current price tag of $3.25 is still solid. This card should bounce around the $5 range for a while, but it could break $10 if there's a top tier ramp deck in Standard next fall. Its long-term future looks pretty rosy as well. Take a look:
Lotus Cobra already ticking back up, and you can always fall back on Commander and causal demand if Standard ends up trending in a different direction. Another very safe buy.
I could have put any number of cards into my #8 slot. For example, you should honestly consider buying up the rest of the modal double-faced cards, because they're all pretty good. All of the other mythic members of the cycle see at least a little Standard play, as does Glasspool Mimic. Many of these cards are solid in other formats as well. If you're buying a bunch of Standard stuff, give all of these cards at least a passing glance.
Drana, the Last Bloodchief is more interesting to me. Granted, it's not actually all that good in Standard—I panned Drana, the Last Bloodchief pretty hard in my set review—but it is a Vampire that makes other Vampires. It's also a mythic rare. It's also available for less than $1:
Why does this matter? Because we're returning to Innistrad late next year, and that plane is chock full of Vampires. It's likely that we'll get a Standard-playable Vampire from one of those sets that will play nicely with Drana, causing people to dream on this card as a potential Standard staple itself. And even if that doesn't come together for Standard, it's almost a guarantee that it'll happen for Commander. At less than a buck, you can't lose. Go buy twenty of these, stick them in a drawer, and wait.
I feel like half of my "trends" section every week is just me debunking buyout claims. Some random card will spike, the internet will scream about how greedy Magic finance people are buying up all the extra copies, and then I'll dive into the sales data and show you that, no, these cards were all bought one at a time by Commander players.
Well, today I've got the opposite for you. Here's what has happened to Jester's Mask over the past few weeks:
Was this a Commander buyout, perhaps due to Jester's Mask interaction with Archelos, Lagoon Mystic? Nope. Literally all of those spikes were due to a single person buying up every available copy. This is a truly artificial spike, and it's okay to yell about it. I mean, I'm not sure why you'd waste your time yelling—Jester's Mask is a mediocre card from Ice Age that we all had 20+ years to pick up for less than nothing—but if you want to get outraged, you finally can!
As for Jester Mask future price, I expect that it will tank. It's fine with Archelos, Lagoon Mystic, I guess, but I don't trust cards to maintain their value when they've spiked due to single-source buyouts. Sell your copies ASAP if you can.
Let's compare Jester's Mask to another card that spiked this week, Deranged Hermit:
Is this another artificial buyout? Nope. That big orange bar is almost entirely full of singleton copies purchased by Commander players who saw Toski, Bearer of Secrets previewed in Kaldheim. Toski, Bearer of Secrets the first-ever Squirrel Commander, so of course the best "Squirrels Matter" card on the Reserved List shot up in price overnight. This one won't be back to Earth any time soon, either, and I'm not even sure that Deranged Hermit is done spiking. I'm holding mine.
In fact, all the good Squirrel cards are spiking right now. Here's Nut Collector:
Nut Collector might not be on the Reserved List, but it's only been printed once, back in Odyssey, and thus is incredibly scarce. I don't think it'll hold its value quite as well, because the Reserved List cards always carry a bit of a premium over cards like this, but expect everything Squirrel-related to continue being hot for weeks to come. If Kaldheim has any more Squirrels, these cards might even spike further.
Lastly, I just want to highlight a card that's continued to slowly grow, week after week, for months at a time now. We spend a lot of time reflecting on cards that spike in this column, but it's also important not to forget cards that show slow and steady growth over time. To that end, take a look at The Great Henge:
This is the most popular Commander card in Throne of Eldraine, and it's gone up by about $10 since late summer. While this card will eventually be reprinted, we're looking at a card with easy $50+ potential until then. Sleep on it at your own risk.