Jason’s Article: Champions of Avacyn

Greetings, Pontificators!

Who else played in pre-release events over the weekend?

What We Learned

When I heard they were going to do a block based around Greek mythology, I immediately thought back to the last “flavorful” block, Champions of Kamigawa.

Sure, there is flavor in every block, but Kamigawa was the block that sticks out the most because it almost felt forced. As much as a lot of us like Japanese culture (read “anime and vending machines with questionable wares”), Kamigawa block felt weak at the time, sandwiched between the absurdly-powerful Mirrodin block and the limited format home run that was Ravnica. In a lot of ways, Kamigawa block was a Nicolas Winding Refn film–all style and no substance.

Not even God can forgive this movie.

Not even god can forgive this movie.

What’s the Problem?

I don’t know that there has to be a problem with more style than substance. I actually like Nicolas Winding Refn movies. Drive may have lagged a little in the middle, but the man wanted to include a little exposition in between car chases.

You all know the caption.

You all know the caption.

A lot of critics walked out of a screening of Only God Forgives because they said it was all style and no substance. Guess what? It’s a visual medium, assfaces. I really enjoyed that movie, and walking out of it like it’s Final Destination 5 is pretty lame, especially if watching the movie is your only job.

So, since I really don’t mind the concept of “style over substance” in movies, is it a problem to have a block like Kamigawa every once in a while that focuses heavily on the lore but doesn’t contribute too much to Standard?

As a financier, I especially don’t mind because Kamigawa block has contributed so many accidental $5-$10 cards that were bulk during Standard but now buoyed by EDH. Also, there were a few Kamigawa block PTQs and those were a blast to play in. While you don’t get many Block PTQs outside of MODO, Theros taking after Kamigawa wouldn’t be all bad. There were a lot of things to like about Kamigawa block despite it being widely regarded as one of the worst blocks in the game’s history.

I took the mindset of the set’s similarity to Kamigawa block into everything. When I updated the Quiet Speculation Spoiler page, I was cognizant of the fact that flavorful cards are better in the long term if they don’t contribute much to Standard or Modern but appeal to casual players.

I identified cards like Bow of Nylea as potential pickups with upside, but for the most part didn’t see a whole lot that will get played in Eternal (there are very obvious exceptions, though, like Swan Song). I told myself that this would be an interesting limited format, just like Kamigawa block draft was and that will keep people opening lots of packs and getting cards into the market. I predicted the gods would maintain a decent value because of casual appeal and thought about which cards would be this set’s Azusa, Lost but Seeking or Hall of the Bandit Lord. I prepared for potential EDH sleepers to dip so I could scoop them for cheap and wait for the EDH crowd to start ramping up their demand.

There was just one, teensy flaw in my logic.

This Is Avacyn Restored 2.0

Anyone who played in the prerelease can tell you the same.

I suppose I should have seen it coming–the bestow mechanic being so similar to soulbond in some ways, the lack of removal, the giant, haymaker cards like monstrous creatures that would make players feel bad to have nuked after they invested 12 mana into playing and growing them. I was so focused on the financial impact of the rares and mythics that I didn’t take a second to think about cards like Ordeals and how much they would matter.

Blinded by my financial bent, I went into the prerelease expecting a Kamigawa-esque experience. Don’t get me wrong, I went X-1 at the event I played (I’m really cutting back from the five events I played for Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash) but it “didn’t feel like playing real Magic.”

And it wasn't just me who thought so.

And it wasn’t just me who thought so.

Now maybe it’s fine for auras to be good for a while. It was certainly conventional wisdom for them to be bad in Limited, and sets lately have aimed at making auras a little more playable. Mark of the Vampire and Trollhide, cards that would have never seen play in M11 Limited, are routinely the lynchpin in powerful limited archetypes in M14, a trend which continues with the Ordeal cycle and other non-bestow auras laughing at the pitiful amount of removal, and bestowed creatures closing the game out quickly.

Casting a near-Thragtusk’s worth of extra damage at instant speed is a pretty nifty combat trick, and it feels even better if you get a 4/2 if they manage to deal with the creature. I managed to ride a pile of Purphoros’s Emissary to victory because no one could deal with them. Two-Headed Cerberus with any bestow guy enchanting him closed games out more quickly than games should have been closed out. I found myself agreeing with my opponents that this was not real Magic as I was pulling their pants down. I wouldn’t say I outplayed anyone, but I really didn’t have to.

I was reminded of the Avacyn Restored prerelease where I went X-0 and split for first because I had a deck with Dark Impostor in it. If I drew Impostor I just couldn’t lose the game and it felt really bad.

The next day I had Craterhoof Behemoth and a pile of angels, and results were similar. No one was able to stop me from riding a 2/4 flying lifelink to victory and it felt really non-interactive and boring. In many ways, Avacyn Restored is a much better comparison for Theros than Champions of Kamigawa. Wizards R&D didn’t want players to contend with too much removal and turn off their souldbonded guys; similarly a monstrous creature eating a Doom Blade would make people ragequit.

Avacyn Restored offered a lot of powerful cards to the Standard format and a lot of solid casual cards that are only going to go up in value over time. It’s with this frame of mind we need to take a second look at Theros for financial potential.

Courting Controversy

There is one more topic I want to bring up and not discuss at length too much. This was something I was keeping relatively mum about because I feel like the entire finance community is against me on this one, but since it blew up on Reddit today, here goes.

I don’t think shocklands are a great investment.

I know some QS insiders are 1,000+ deep on these things, and I know you’re going by the old “invest in real estate” adage, but I can’t get behind it. I stayed quiet about this for a long time because I felt like there was no real upside to disagreeing with everyone I have ever met or will meet in the future in MTG finance.

Shocklands have been a boilerplate, conspicuous, safe-seeming investment strategy for new financier and veteran alike and I really didn’t want to have to argue with everyone for months. I was content to let it lie until something in me snapped today and I finally blurted out how crazy I felt that I don’t agree with everyone.

Either I’m the worst person at MTG finance in history or you’re all basing your investment on a few faulty assumptions and building a gigantic house of cards. Since there were no dissenting voices out there, I didn’t want to be the first to stick my neck out.

Well, the neck’s out now. I mentioned something on reddit and withing 15 minutes my inbox blew up. A lot of it was people asking the same questions, and the rest of it was really smug &*$% talk from people who loved to tell me what a moron I was. My entire credibility as a financier was suspect, apparently, and I decided that I didn’t want to sift through all that garbage every time I logged on to Reddit. I deleted all the postings with mentions of shocklands, but the bell could not be unrung.

The Argument

Since apparently this is my new finance cross to bear, I better get my position down in writing so I can just link to something and not have to answer the same question a million times.

I think there are a lot more shocklands out there than people realize. With their printing in a block that was drafted quite a bit and their inclusion in Dragon’s Maze (admittedly not drafted as much as it should be) in the land slot, there are quite a few copies out there. I have seen people cite the shocks climbing to $50 in the short term when Modern was first announced as a format, but they dropped to around $25 even before their reprinting was announced in Return to Ravnica (even before the announcement of the set). If you think they can hit $25 again with a much greater supply, I can’t agree.

The craziest part to me was around GP Philadelphia when Scalding Tarn and Misty Rainforest went to $30, people were buying shocklands at $15 and not Verdant Catacombs at $15. I bought Catacombs, Flats and Mesas at $15 and sold at $30, and it turns out even that was incorrect as Scalding Tarn and Misty Rainforest are approaching $60. In the time it took Misty Rainforest to go from $15 to $60, an Overgrown Tomb went from $25 to $15. Not a great return.

“Well, Jason, I thought the plan was to hold these until they spike.” Well, yes. That’s everyone’s plan. If a shock does approach $25, we’re going to see a massive sell-off from all of the speculators who were waiting for that price point. A huge glut would hit the market, and with no real increased demand to soak up the excess supply, the price is bound to free-fall. With no buyers and an abundance of sellers, the values will plunge and people will be lucky to get out for what they paid to get in.

There is demand for them in Modern, but not near the level of demand in the current Standard, so their price would potentially maintain or only dip a little, but the transition from Standard to Modern will hardly make the price spike. Fetchlands make shocks good in Modern, but M10 lands made them good in Standard, and greedy mana bases were possible. Standard routinely had four-color decks with shocks doing a lot of the work.

That’s another point. With some of the mana fixing from Innistrad and M13 gone, mana bases are going to get much less greedy. Two-color decks will be the new norm going forward when three or four were the norm before.

Some predicted the disappointing Theros temple cycle would make shocks go up because the shocks are so much better by comparison. I disagree. I think the disappointing–only as mana fixers, though, they are good, especially in non-blue decks–Theros temples cycle means that three-color decks will be nearly impossible, leaning on Caryatid very hard. The average number of shocks per deck in Standard is only going to go down post-rotation, and that bodes poorly for their even maintaining their current, modest price.

Buying these at $15 seems atrocious if you’re never going to be able to sell them for $25 because that’s when tens of thousands of copies are going to come pouring out of spec boxes, and if you can buy them at $5 now, why not just snap-sell them for $12-$15 on eBay or TCG Player and re-invest that money? I love to buy shocklands, but I sell them in twenty-four hours because I don’t want to be holding the bag when the market crashes.

I truly believe a bubble is building with regard to these lands and I don’t want to be underneath when the house of cards comes down. That’s how insane you people are–that wasn’t even a result of me making a crazy mixed metaphor, I think what you’re doing is building a house of cards…on top of a bubble.

On second thought, maybe I do want to be underneath when it happens. It’s going to be raining cards. Shocklands, probably. I’m sure people are going to be happy just to recoup their initial investment, and I’d be delighted to buy up all those copies and flip them, just like I’m doing now.

Cautious for Once

I’m not typically someone who plays it safe when it comes to investing in this game, but I’m playing it safe now. I think there is little more upside to buying shocks at retail and hoping to flip them later than there is just buying at buylist now to sell immediately, and I think the potential downside could be the first true MTG financial crisis.

Every time I think there is no way I could possibly be right about this, I remember that big-eared, smug douchebag Ben Stein laughing at Paul Krugman on Fox in 2008 when Krugman predicted the housing crisis. Did I just compare myself to Paul Krugman? I mean, kind of, but only to illustrate the point that someone has to be a doomsayer.

I don’t think I understand MTG finance as well as Krugman understands mortgage-backed securities, but I think when I see so many people with the exact same plan, I have to wonder what’s down the road when they all execute that plan and try to divest on the same day. I’m betting it’s going to be bedlam, and I’d rather miss what I consider modest potential gains to avoid the risk of being part of that crash.

In short,

  • I see little upside to buying shocklands now.
  • A selling spree will trigger long before there is real growth on the price.
  • Demand is waning, not increasing.
  • Modern can’t sustain the demand Standard does.
  • The return is not much greater than just buying cards at buylist and flipping.

I’m sure I am going to get a million comments on this article telling me how wrong I am. Fine. Convince me. Ignore what I’m saying. As long as you don’t just go on your merry way, scooping these up and waiting for the selling frenzy in the future without taking a second to consider you may be making a grave miscalculation.

There are plenty of other cards I can buy with the money I’d use to buy shocks now, and I wonder what will look better in a year, $35 Verdant Catacombs, or $15 Overgrown Tombs. Only one way to find out.

Jason Alt

Jason Alt

Jason Alt is a value trader and writer. He is Quiet Speculation's self-appointed web content archivist and co-captain of the interdepartmental dodgeball team. He enjoys craft microbrews and doing things ironically. You may have seen him at magic events; he wears black t-shirts and has a beard and a backpack so he's pretty easy to spot. You can hear him as co-host on the Brainstorm Brewery podcast or catch his articles on Gatheringmagic.com. He is also the Community Manager at BrainstormBrewery.com and writes the odd article there, too. Follow him on Twitter @JasonEAlt unless you don't like having your mind blown.

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