A few days ago, the top post on the MTG Finance subreddit asked a very interesting question: why did we all get Jeweled Lotus so wrong?

When Jeweled Lotus was first previewed and began pre-selling close to $130, finance community consensus was that it would eventually drop into the $20-$25 range. Everybody urged patience, and some even made fun of Commander players willing to pay outrageous prices for a card that can only be played in casual Magic. I was a little less equivocal, but I certainly wasn't a contrarian on this issue. Here's an excerpt from my set review blurb on Jeweled Lotus:

The odds of Jeweled Lotus still being worth $130 by mid-January are very low. I don't know how far it will drop, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if it's closer to a $30 card than a $100 card by year's end. A hundred and thirty dollars is so wildly expensive that Jeweled Lotus can end up being the most expensive card in the set AFTER experiencing the biggest pre-order price drop of any card in the history of the game. The card is good, but not this good. Don't go anywhere near Jeweled Lotus during the pre-order period.

Well, I was (mostly) wrong. Take a look at Jeweled Lotus price chart since the day it was first previewed:

It's true that you probably didn't want to pre-order Jeweled Lotus, especially not for $130, but the price bottomed out at a whopping $50 the day Commander Legends hit shelves. That was pretty much the only day that my prediction of the Lotus being worth "closer to $30 than $100" ended up being true. Jeweled Lotus immediately rebounded after that, and it is currently difficult to find copies for less than $80.

So why did everybody miss on Jeweled Lotus? A few big reasons.

First, Commander Legends was a totally new kind of set. One of the reasons why I feel pretty confident predicting Strixhaven prices is because it will be printed and distributed in roughly the same way that Kaldheim and Zendikar Rising were printed and distributed. If a Strixhaven mythic starts pre-ordering for $100, I can pretty confidently say that it will not maintain that price tag going forward, no matter how powerful it is.

WotC never really tells anyone how big or small their print runs will be on their supplemental sets, though. For example, Double Masters was printed in higher quantities than expected, while Jumpstart was printed in lower quantities. Commander Legends (and especially Collector Boosters) were under-printed relative to expectation. The size of the mythic rare pool and overall mythic distribution was brand new and quite unusual in Commander Legends as well, which made every mythic far scarcer than it would be in a normal set. This threw everybody off, including me.

More importantly, however, there was a lot of digital ink spilled over the question of how good Jeweled Lotus actually was in Commander. There ended up being a pretty strong consensus among the top Commander players that the card was good in Competitive Commander (cEDH), but not so much in the casual game. If you're playing a casual multiplayer game with friends, Jeweled Lotus either puts a massive target on your back in the early game or ends up being a really bad draw in the late game. It's generally better to have repeatable mana acceleration, like Chromatic Lantern or even Gilded Lotus.

Here's the problem with that line of thinking, though. Most casual Commander players don't care if Jeweled Lotus is bad a lot of the time, because it's basically a freaking Black Lotus! The games where you get to play with Black Lotus tend to be memorable and fun, whether you win or lose. Playing cards like this feel like having access to a classic, historic cheat code. It's not about how good the Lotus is, it's about how epic and legendary it feels.

The truth is that most Magic finance people, even those of us who focus a lot on Commander, still underestimate just how important and popular this format is right now. It isn't just the most popular format in Magic, it is almost certainly more important than all the other formats combined. I don't think it's particularly close, either.

In many ways, tabletop Magic in 2021 is Commander. The rest is all window-dressing.

The Commanderization of Tabletop Magic

The competitive Magic scene has been in flux for years now. The switch from the old Pro Tour model to the current Magic Pro League grind was seismic, as was the introduction of Magic Arena. In the old days, it made sense for tournament grinders to travel around the country (or even the world) on a weekly basis, chasing Grand Prix and Pro Tour wins. And while the pros weren't paid very much, it was possible for thousands of top players to stay on the train week after week, year after year, grinding events. Thousands of other players dreamed of spiking the right event and making it on the train, eager to test their skills against the best in the world.

The MPL model changed that. While the top players have a better deal, fewer people are able to eke out a living as a professional Magic player now. The path to professional play is also a lot narrower and more ill-defined. More importantly, a lot of the grind moved to Magic Arena, where it's possible to play hundreds of matches over a weekend instead of just 10-15 rounds in a main event. Arena is also a lot more legible from a spectator perspective, so it makes sense that WotC is privileging Arena in their "esports" push.

Then came 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the rest of the competitive scene online. I didn't lead with this, because I want to be clear that things were trending this way before COVID hit. While I expect that many things will "return to normal" after the pandemic ends, the writing was already on the wall for competitive Magic. It might have taken longer if the pandemic hadn't hit, but this is where things were already heading. Most competitive play will likely remain online for the foreseeable future, no matter what happens with the pandemic.

Does this mean that we won't have a return to massive, event hall Magic? Of course not! I fully expect convention centers to fill back up again in 2022, and I can't wait to hear the garbled loudspeaker voices of all my judge friends again. I just don't think we're going to see a return to events where hundreds or thousands of players are all playing in the same massive open in order to make it to Top 8 and secure a coveted pro invite. Instead, I expect big tabletop events to look more like CommandFests. There will be dozens of "side events," including Standard, Modern, Legacy, Draft, and, yes, Commander. People will show up for the thing they missed in 2020: The Gathering, not the grind. The grind has moved to Arena, and it's not coming back.

I've also been shocked at how much Commander has grown during the pandemic year. It's nearly impossible to play the format online, because you need so much screen-space to see all the cards, so folks picked up webcams and built a robust network of webcam Commander players. It's also the perfect format to play within a quarantine bubble, since play varies wildly from game to game, even with the same decks. You can also play a fun and successful game of Commander with any number of players, unlike most other Magic formats.

The result? Most Standard play has moved online, Modern is struggling mightily due to the pandemic as well as Magic's current design philosophies, Vintage, Legacy, and Pioneer are incredibly niche formats, and Commander has absolutely exploded in popularity. It is both the present and the future of tabletop play, and you need to be treating it as such.

How I've Changed My Card Evaluation Process

As recently as a few years ago, it was possible to pick up the best Commander cards in a given set a few months after release at a bargain, hold them for a few years, and cash out. This is no longer possible in most instances.

The shift happened close to the start of 2019, and the first Commander staple that really shocked me in this way was Smothering Tithe from Ravnica Allegiance. Take a look at this chart:

It was pretty clear from the start that Smothering Tithe was a can't-miss Commander staple, but I remember being surprised that pre-orders started in the $8 range despite seeing zero competitive play. I'm sure I recommended that people wait a few months and pick up their copies for $2-$3.

That didn't happen. Smothering Tithe kicked around the $8-$9 range for a while, then spiked. Then it spiked again. Then it spiked a third time. Now it's a $30 card despite being printed at rare—not mythic—in a set printed just two years ago. Five years ago, this would have been absolutely unheard of.

Meanwhile, here's the price chart for Bonecrusher Giant, the most-played card in Standard right now:

A few caveats here, of course. You can see the exact moment that COVID hit in this Bonecrusher Giant chart, and it definitely makes sense that nobody would really want to spend money on a Standard-only card during the middle of a pandemic. It's also really heartening to see the price finally start to tick up, because it likely means that people are hopeful about playing competitive tabletop Magic again in the near future.

That said, Bonecrusher Giant has never once broken the $4 mark. That's absurd. You could have predicted this card's elite quality during the preview period—which my long-time readers know that I did—and still never had a shot to sell for more than $4? This would have been unheard-of for a Standard staple of this caliber between, like, 2005 and 2018.

The tabletop Standard market will perk up again in 2021 and 2022, but I wanted to illustrate my point as clearly as possible. Over the past few years, you would have been so much better pre-ordering a hyped-up Commander staple like Smothering Tithe than an underrated Standard staple like Bonecrusher Giant. Wild, right?

Because of this, I've created a few new guidelines for evaluating cards in a Commander-centric world.

First, Commander needs to be your primary, secondary, and maybe even tertiary consideration when evaluating new cards. The best Standard and Modern cards in a given set are going to have some value too, and perhaps this ratio will go up as the world returns to normal, but right now? If your primary price evaluation tool involves a discussion of the competitive metagames, you're missing the forest for…well, for the much smaller forest next door.

Second, it's time to stop writing off expensive cards that are hyped up by the Commander community. Call this the Jeweled Lotus rule. Both Jeweled Lotus and Smothering Tithe were hyped up early, hit their lows on release weekend, and then continued to gain value for months and months after that. We knew these cards were going to be popular because the pre-sale numbers were so eye-popping. It's time to stop discounting this.

Speaking of discounting things, it's important to remember that "good" in Commander isn't the same as "good" in competitive play. Competitive players only want the best, most efficient cards. Commander players care about this, but only to a point. Cards that are flashy, fun, exciting, or have a high "wow" factor are also popular, even if they're technically less powerful. Cards that solve a previously-unaddressed problem or create a new potential archetype also tend to be underrated, especially relative to their overall power level.

Lastly, it's important to recognize that most price spikes—other than Reserved List nonsense—are Commander-related at this point. Those secondary Commander spikes aren't just a fun thing to consider during preview season, they're a major driver of financial gains. If you want to make money during preview season, this is the way to do it. Figure out the popular Commander cards as soon as you can, and pick up the underrated synergistic pieces in that deck. That's the game.

Anatomy of a Commander Staple

Not enough people treat Commander as an Eternal format, even though it is.

Every new removal spell that might see play? It has to compete for real estate with Swords to Plowshares, Path to Exile, and Assassin's Trophy. Every ramp spell competes with Birds of Paradise, Kodama's Reach, and Sol Ring. Every counterspell competes with Counterspell. Every tutor competes with Demonic Tutor and Vampiric Tutor. Every cantrip competes with Ponder and Preordain. Every finisher competes with Craterhoof Behemoth.

Because of this, it's really hard for a new utility card to become a top Commander staple. It certainly happens—Smothering Tithe, Arcane Signet, and Rhythm of the Wild are all recent additions to this list—but if a card is going to enter this list, it has to be an all-time great. Ditto for finishers. There are lots of massive creatures in the history of Magic. What makes this one so special? You can't just look at a splashy card and say, "well, this will be good in Commander."

This becomes really clear once you start building Commander decks. After you account for your lands and elite utility cards, you're basically only going to have room for additional cards that are extremely on-theme. I can't tell you how many times I've had to cut every single card that isn't either a necessary utility spell or something that fully synergizes with my Commander. There's just not room for much else. This is why cards that are powerful but unspecific tend to be poor Commander specs.

Granted, it's worth investing in elite utility cards when they make themselves known, because that's how you end up with Cyclonic Rift and Smothering Tithe. But because every new removal spell has to compete against all the existing removal spells, only the best utility cards are going to remain in high demand. The rest of them will end up being poor specs.

Instead, the best cards to focus on are spells that do something unique and synergistic. For example, two of the most popular Commander strategies are Wheel of Fortune decks and "Tokens Matter" decks. Because of that, any new card that plays well with a Wheel effect or a creature token generator is practically guaranteed to have a high level of built-in demand. Ditto for cards that belong to a popular tribe, like Elves, Slivers, or Pirates. These are the true can't-miss Commander staples, because anyone building around these themes in the future is going to strongly consider playing with these cards.

On the flip side, it's important to recognize new flagship Commander cards as soon as they're printed. These are usually going to be splashy new legendary creatures, but cards like Commander's Plate can occasionally spawn new archetypes or rejuvenate older ones.

If you're curious which Commanders are proving popular in the early going, EDHREC has a nifty search page that keeps track of this for you. For example, here's Kaldheim. You can see that Esika, God of the Tree, Tergrid, God of Fright, and Orvar, the All-Form are the three most popular Commanders in that set, while The World Tree is by far the most popular new utility staple. If I had to pick four cards that are going to hold their value best out of this set going forward, why would I pick anything other than those four? They've already proven their worth.

EDHREC is also a great place to research potential synergy-related spikes. For example, the top "high synergy" card in Esika, God of the Tree decks is Kruphix, God of Horizons. Lo and behold, check out its price chart over the past few months:

I want to be clear: I did not know that Kruphix, God of Horizons had gone up in price before I searched up this price chart. I just paged over to the Esika, God of the Tree page on EDHREC, looked up the top card on the synergy list, and ran a price search. That's how useful this database is for evaluating potential secondary spikes.

Of course, a lot of these cards will spike before the EDHREC data is robust enough to be useful. For example, Bottomless Pit is one of the top synergy cards in Tergrid, God of Fright decks. Here's what its price chart looks like:

If you wanted to make money on this card (or on Kruphix, God of Horizons, for that matter) you really did have to buy in right away, before we knew for sure that these cards would be big deals in the Commander community. That means reading Commander subreddits, talking to Commander players on Twitter, reading cutting-edge strategy articles, and making educated gambles. In other words, exactly what you had to do to get ahead of the Standard and Modern markets back when these were the two formats that drove Magic finance.

To that end, Commander finance isn't actually all that different from the way things used to be. You just have to take Commander seriously as a format, and understand the ways in which it's different from Standard, Modern, and even Legacy. If you aren't doing this, then you aren't just missing out on the most lucrative part of the Magic finance market—you're missing out on the whole game.

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This week, I covered the impact that the stimulus checks are likely to have on the Magic marketplace, talked a bit about Time Spiral Remastered booster box allocation, found a couple of obvious buyout spikes, and took a look at a hot Commander card that has doubled in price in recent weeks yet still has room to grow. What will I cover next week? Subscribe to find out!