Even though the Cassie Calendar shows today as March 186, 2020, the (ugh) Gregorian calendar tells me that it's actually September 2, 2020. That puts us just fifteen days away from the release of Zendikar Rising and the next Standard set rotation. Guilds of Ravnica feels like it came out several lifetimes ago, but it's still going to be hard to say goodbye to the shock lands, Hydroid Krasis, Narset, Parter of Veils, Nissa, Who Shakes the World and even my old pal Pelt Collector. Standard is going to look very different in the coming months, that's for sure.

Financially, the fall sets are generally the most impactful Standard releases of the year. September is when Standard players decide to buy in (or not) for the next several seasons, since set rotation provides everybody with the opportunity for a fresh start. Standard prices tend to hit their yearly peaks in late September and October, as excitement for the format reaches a fever pitch and everybody wants to explore the latest tech down at their LGS. Even the bad environments seem kind of fun in the fall, because they're still so fresh.

Of course, this is 2020, and if some of my article introductions are starting to sound similar, it's because the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting every aspect of Magic finance in ways that are wholly unique to this year's specific set of unfortunate circumstances. Very little tabletop Standard will be played this fall, which means that Standard prices are unlikely to spike as hard in late September and October as they usually do. The pandemic hasn't depressed all Magic prices, of course—many Commander staples are worth more now than they were back in January, because people are still building decks in anticipation for the end of the pandemic—but with MTG Arena around to provide an outlet for socially-distanced Standard play, I wouldn't expect to see Zendikar Rising make the same sort of impact it otherwise would. A lot of people who would normally buy into Standard this September are going to give the format a pass instead.

Of course, saying "Zendikar Rising won't make the same sort of financial impact as most fall sets" is not the same as saying "Zendikar Rising won't make a financial impact at all." The best Standard cards in both Ikoria and Core Set 2021 still spiked from their early presale prices, and a few of them (Shark Typhoon chief among them) are still quite valuable despite Standard's yearly late summer price slump. It's also quite likely that the presale prices for Zendikar Rising will be cheaper than normal to reflect the expected lack of demand, as happened with Core Set 2021, which means that you'll still be able to make smart purchasing decisions based on relative cost. If the buy-in is cheap enough, the additional lack of demand shouldn't hurt as much.

I also think there might be some excellent Commander and Modern buying opportunities in Zendikar Rising. If prices at release are lower than they would be in a normal year due to the lack of Standard demand, it means that you'll be able to buy cards for your long-term collection without having to worry about paying a "Standard tax." And while waiting a few months is the overall best practice for speculation on new, Standard-legal sets, buying in ASAP is still sometimes the right choice. Pandemic or not, if you identify a powerful new card before everyone else figures out how good it is, the profits from a single spec purchase can pay for an entire Commander deck at some point in the future.

Lastly, I want to point out that LGS play should resume in earnest at some point during 2021, with large events hopefully starting to return toward the end of next year. It may be more of a trickle than a deluge, but when it happens, you can expect a massive price jump for all Standard-legal cards that were depressed during the pandemic. It's a bit of a fool's errand to predict what the Standard metagame will look like when the vaccine is rolling out, but this timeline is worth keeping in mind as we start perusing the key cards in Zendikar Rising. For example, I think we can pretty safely say that the pathway lands will be a major part of whatever Standard environment exists when the world begins to reopen.

Anyway—let's get into the first round of previews, shall we?

Mythic Rares

Narset, Parter of Veils is rotating out of Standard, but never fear—Jace, Mirror Mage is here to fill that utility role. Jace is not going to be quite as powerful as Narset in most cases, but Standard is overall being powered down right now, and three-mana blue planeswalkers that just sit there drawing cards and ticking up tend to be better than most people initially think.

Jace, Mirror Mage actually reminds me quite a bit of the original Jace Beleren, a card that was always better than most people gave it credit for. The fact that this planeswalker has the flexibility of being either a powerful on-curve three-drop or a powerful on-curve five-drop also gives Jace, Mirror Mage the sort of versatility that tends to be underrated (and underpriced) during preview season.

Of course, Jace, Mirror Mage is probably not going to see play in any format that has some of the truly busted Jaces to choose from. It's probably going to be a quietly powerful Standard staple for the next year or so, though. In a normal Standard environment, I'd be telling you to buy. This year… well, it depends where the initial price lands. Between the pandemic and the Expedition box toppers, (more on those later), I'm fading most of the pricey presales right now. But if you can pick these up cheap, you should. I think the card is better than most people are currently giving it credit for.

Oh, hey, another planeswalker that I like—good, without being broken. While Jace, Mirror Mage should be a well-balanced card draw engine for multiple archetypes, Nahiri, Heir of the Ancients is the kind of card that's great in exactly one sort of deck. You need a deck full of Equipment and Warriors to even think about playing Nahiri, but if you've got that? This is a heck of a card. Nahiri will definitely see play in Commander, and I suspect it'll be powerful enough for Standard, but that'll depend entirely on the future metagame.

Financially, I'm less interested in Nahiri, Heir of the Ancients herself—narrow planeswalkers are usually overpriced and overhyped at release—but I'm incredibly interested in possible spec targets for a Nahiri deck. Even if Nahiri doesn't pay off, all it takes for your spec to hit is enough people getting excited about building around the card. Hmm—if only there were some powerful underpriced mythic rare Warrior and/or piece of Equipment in Nahiri's colors…

Oh wait, there's at least one of each! Check out the 2020 price charts for Winota, Joiner of Forces and Embercleave:

Both of these cards are solid "buy" targets to me right now. Embercleave is only down to $10 because of the Challenger Deck reprint, which is pretty far in the past at this point. Winota, Joiner of Forces has more than proven itself in Historic, and the only reason it hasn't made an impact in Standard yet is that the environment hasn't quite broken in its favor yet. Heck, there's already a Mardu Winota deck kicking around in the format's third tier that could provide a viable template for anyone who wants to make Nahiri, Heir of the Ancients happen. It'll have to find replacements for cards like Tajic, Legion's Edge and Legion Warboss, but that seems eminently doable to me. The potential is real enough that I'd snap these mythics up ASAP.

It's hard to go from Winota, Joiner of Forces to Tazri, Beacon of Unity without feeling like Tazri is a strict downgrade. I know they're not quite comparable, and Tazri, Beacon of Unity can be quite a powerful mana sink, but I have to believe that the upside here is less about going deep and more, like, a two or three-mana 4/6 with upside in the late game. That's decent, and I don't ever want to sleep on a card that gets cheaper to cast over time, but Tazri still has that narrow and underpowered bulk mythic look to me. I'm staying away.

Omnath, Locus of Creation could easily see play in a top Standard deck, especially with Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and Lotus Cobra kicking around the format now. I'll talk a bit more about Lotus Cobra later on, but Omnath, Locus of Creation and the cobra seem pretty linked to me—both have incredibly powerful best-case scenarios, and both are underwhelming at best if you can't get your engine online. That's not the sort of card that I like to speculate on, but if the price is right? This thing could be an absolute monster—at least until Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath is eventually banned.

As with Nahiri, Heir of the Ancients, I'm less interested in the card itself and more interested in what else might spike due to Omnath, Locus of Creation's arrival in our lives. And while both cards have a shot at making an impact in Standard, all of the cards that are good with Omnath, Locus of Creation in that format are already pretty well known. Because of that, I want to highlight some potential Commander specs. Even though we've only seen a small fraction of the cards in Zendikar Rising so far, I suspect that Omnath] will be one of the two or three top new commanders in the set when all is said and done. And you know what that means: secondary spikes aplenty!

First off, Omnath, Locus of the Roil seems like an obvious buy. It's a Core Set mythic rare that's more than a year old now, so it can get expensive in a hurry if folks want in. There hasn't been much movement in 2020 yet, but that should change at some point:

The new Omnath, Locus of Creation also plays terrifically well with Azusa, Lost but Seeking. That card was just reprinted in Core Set 2021, but it appears to have already bottomed out, and I don't think it's going any lower. Not only is Azusa, Lost but Seeking a great spec buy for Omnath, Locus of Creation decks in Commander, but it's a solid bet that she will play well with Zendikar Rising as a whole. A potential top-tier Standard staple that has already bottomed out from a reprint and is probably going to see a Commander-related spike? Sign me up. If you're going to buy one card based on my advice today, make it this one.

Lastly, I wouldn't be surprised if Ramunap Excavator gets a nice boost at some point soon. While this seems like the sort of card that Wizards of the Coast will reprint sooner rather than later, I bet Ramunap Excavator will see a bump from people building around Omnath, Locus of Creation and the other Zendikar Rising "lands matter" cards first. Ramunap Excavator is already up a bit from early spring, and it has a good path toward being a $10-$15 by the end of the year.

Rares

When the dust eventually settles on Zendikar Rising, I wouldn't be surprised if the pathway lands end up being the most iconic and impactful new cards in the entire set. It's hard for WotC to print a new land cycle that can sit right up there with the shock lands and fast lands, but here we are. Don't sleep on the pathway lands—they're going to make an impact across several formats.

It's hard for me to say whether these cards are a good buy or not without knowing where the price will settle, and as of now they aren't even available for preorder anywhere. My hope is that they spend a decent amount of time in the $4-$5 range, because I suspect these are closer to $10-$12 lands long-term and I want everyone to have the shot to get them while they're cheap. They're strict upgrades to basic lands in all formats without fetch lands, and I'd be hard-pressed to imagine building a two-or-more color deck in any of those formats without wanting a full complement of these. These lands will see some play in Modern as well, especially in more aggressive builds.

Not only do I believe that these lands will be financially impactful for years to come, but I bet they'll give Standard aggro decks a major boost in the coming months. Aggro loves dual lands that come into play untapped, while control decks are going to feel the pinch in moving from shock lands to modal duals that don't allow you to cast giant three-color spells as easily. Keep this in mind as you make your other Zendikar Rising purchases and predictions—the days of jamming four colors into your deck without a care in the world might be coming to an end.

…or maybe not. Hype for Lotus Cobra is off the charts right now, and I get it. The card looks tailor-made to exist alongside Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, despite the fact that it was first printed way back in 2011. Simic has been the strongest color combination in Standard for a while now, though, and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath isn't going anywhere unless WotC decides to ban the frustrating Titan. Until that happens, I suspect we'll be seeing a lot of Lotus Cobra. Like, a lot a lot.

I do want to caution people a little, though. Lotus Cobra was a powerful part of the metagame the last time it was released, but it didn't quite live up to its initial hype, and that was in an environment with five Standard-legal fetch lands. It has seen some play in Modern over the years, of course, but that has also been alongside fetch lands. So yes, Lotus Cobra will be good alongside Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath—it might even be one of the top cards in all of Standard for a time—but historically most people have overestimated the number of times they'll actually get to make a meaningful amount of mana with their Cobra. I mean, this is the card that literally inspired the phrase "Magical Christmasland." The good draws are good. The bad draws? Not so much.

Regardless, Lotus Cobra is a sell for me at current retail. Here's its 2020 price chart:

That's a price driven by scarcity, and even if demand increases ten-fold, the supply is going to be overwhelming. Remember: Lotus Cobra used to be a mythic rare, so this is a rarity downgrade that's going to flood the market. Even if Lotus Cobra breaks the format in half, it's a $15 card maximum. Worst case? It's $3 by late October. If you can sell your copies at a premium right now because of the hype, you should do it.

Zareth San, the Trickster reminds me of Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni—a powerful card, but one that requires extremely specific circumstances to pull off. It might end up being the key part of a Standard Rogues deck, or it might be limited to Commander, but either way it's too underpowered to see play in Modern and it's too narrow to show up in multiple top-tier Standard decks. Future $1 rare.

I loved playing kitchen table Cleric decks back in the Onslaught days, because you could basically set up a wall and sit behind it forever no matter what everyone else at the table tried to do. This is the exact sort of card that doesn't translate to competitive play, though—it's too underpowered as a value card, and too inconsistent as a combo engine. Future bulk rare.

Ignoring the "full party" text, which is unlikely to matter much in competitive play, Linvala, Shield of Sea Gate is a 3/3 flier for 1WU who you can sacrifice to give your entire team hexproof or indestructible. That's not half bad. Selfless Spirit was a playable card back in Eldritch Moon Standard, and this card has quite a bit more raw power as long as you've got the means to spend an extra blue mana.

Ultimately, of course, Linvala, Shield of Sea Gate's playability will come down to how the metagame evolves. If there's some kind of Azorius-based tempo deck, Linvala should slot right in and could end up in the $5-$6 range for a bit. If not, she'll probably end up in the dollar bin. This is a decent Commander card, so it's not true bulk, but it's more of a long-term spec than the kind of Commander staple that randomly ends up being worth $10 a few months after set release.

Box Topper Expeditions: The Key to Zendikar Rising

Financially, the biggest piece of news this week—by far—is the fact that each box of Zendikar Rising will come with an Expedition box topper. There are going to be 30 different potential pulls, and all the ones I've seen so far have been killer. Not only will you have a 1 in 3 chance of snagging one of the ten fetch lands, but the rest of the pool includes Wasteland, the five Battlebond lands, Cavern of Souls and Prismatic Vista. These are not cheap cards to begin with, and the box topper and collector booster versions should be worth even more.

If you were around for Battle for Zendikar, you probably remember how cheap all the cards in that set were during its entire run in Standard. That was partially because the set was underpowered, but primarily because the set was seeded with Expedition lands that were worth between $30 and $300 each. Those lands showed up at the rate of roughly one per every three or four booster boxes, making the Zendikar Rising Expeditions more than three times more common.

Granted, the Zendikar Rising box toppers probably aren't hitting $300. There are foil versions in the collector boosters, and these will be far more common than their Battle for Zendikar Expedition counterparts. But these aren't cards that are likely to lose most of their value to this sort of reprint—premium versions of Misty Rainforest, Wasteland, etc. are pretty much always going to be worth at least eighty to a hundred bucks. And since you can more or less hope to recoup the entire value of your Zendikar Rising booster box by opening the right box toppers, and those box toppers are actually quite plentiful, we can expect to see the non-box topper cards in this set are going to be devalued across the board the same way they were in in Battle for Zendikar.

Think about it this way: if a booster box has 36 packs and costs $100, then the expected value of a booster pack should be no greater than $2.78. If the number is significantly higher, then it makes sense to open booster boxes and sell the contents until the EV of a pack is below that figure. But if that $100 booster pack always comes with a box topper that's worth an average of $35, a very conservative figure for this particular group of Expeditions, then the EV of the normal packs drops to $1.80. That's a pretty substantial loss of value, and it should be taken into consideration when making purchasing decisions for this set. Combine that with the lack of Standard demand due to the pandemic, and I'd be shocked if Zendikar Rising has any cards in it that regularly sell for more than $15-$20 by the end of the year.

As for the box toppers themselves, there's going to be a lot of pressure on the cheapest members of this cycle to drop, and drop fast. The fetch lands are unlikely to drop too hard, even with the knowledge of a Modern Horizons 2 reprint next spring, but there's no way every box topper can be worth $100 unless we collectively decide that the entirety of Zendikar Rising is just worth $0. I can't tell you which cards will drop the most until I see the full list, but I'd start selling my Battlebond lands now. They're amazing Commander staples, but something's got to give here, and that's the weakest link I see at the moment.

A Financial Look Ahead At 2021

While there's only so much we can predict from a vague announcement about 2021 has in store for us, there are a few pretty important things that we should talk about now.

First, it appears as if there probably won't be another Masters set in 2021. My guess is that these will move back to a once-every-two-years cycle, but WotC could change that again at any point. Heck, another Masters set could also be buried at the end of Q4 2021, or it might just show up one day out of the blue. We now know the identity of the special sets for late spring and late summer, though, so it seems unlikely that we'll get one in 2021. This means that next year might have slightly fewer high-profile reprints than this year, but the existence of Secret Lairs, box toppers, and now the Set Booster List means that no card is ever truly safe. Plus, both of next year's special sets should be pretty reprint-heavy.

Speaking of those special sets, let's talk about Time Spiral Remastered. I'd expect to see most of the interesting Time Spiral block cards make a reappearance, which includes some pretty sexy reprints—Vesuva, Gemstone Caverns, Damnation, Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, Tarmogoyf and the $100+ Sliver Legion among them. There are loads of expensive cards from this block, and you've got several months to sell them at or near their current price point. Take advantage of that nice long sales window, if you can.

As for the classic frame "timeshifted" slot in Time Spiral Remastered, we already know that non-Time Spiral cards like Chalice of the Void and Path to Exile are getting the old school treatment. We'll take a deeper look at this set as we get closer to its release, but my guess is that there could be quite a few interesting reprints hiding on this print sheet. These classic frame cards should hold their value well, and will be in high demand.

Lastly, there's Modern Horizons 2. The first Modern Horizons was light on amazing reprints, but we know that this set will at least give us the five enemy-colored fetch lands alongside what I can only assume will be another two or three dozen brand new Modern staples. Here's hoping WotC doesn't break Modern again the way they did with the first Modern Horizons set, because I don't know how much more upheaval that community can take. The additional fetch land reprint will be great, though, and all five of those cards should be readily available between $10 and $30 again, at least for a little while next spring. Sell your enemy fetches this year if you can, and hold off until that set comes out if you have to buy them. Modern Horizons 2 will bring the prices down—way down—and you'll want to have the money to buy in when you can.

This Week's Trends

It was another week full of Reserved List spikes, with Mox Diamond leading the way. This one caught me a little off guard, since Mox Diamond isn't exactly a multiplayer Commander staple. It is a godly card in cEDH, though, and it's one of the Reserved List cards with the most overall raw power. The result? A price chart that looks something like this:

As you can see, the latest sale was at $460—expensive for this card, but a step down from the $685(!) that someone paid late last week. The cheapest LP copy out there right now is $520, though, so the next sale is likely to be in the $500 range—roughly double what Mox Diamond was selling for back in April.

As with Gaea's Cradle, expect this price to slowly start eroding, especially now that Zendikar Rising is front and center. It probably won't drop below $300 again, but historically these Reserved List spikes are generally followed by periods of gradual regression to the mean.

Speaking of spikes, here's an interesting one. Check out what's been happening to Field of the Dead since May 1st:

Why the upward momentum, especially after the Historic ban? Modern. Field of the Dead is a major part of the Sultai Uro decks in that format, which is currently the most popular brew in all of Modern. Since Field of the Dead has only been printed once, in a poorly-received Core set, it's got plenty of room to run until its inevitable Masters set reprint. $20-$30 seems right to me.