The Life of a Card

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Welcome back to Whinston’s Whisdom on the ever informative Today, I want to guide you through pricing trends that apply to certain subgroups of cards, and how you can use these trends to predict how a card’s price will change in the future. I’ll be examining how these cards are viewed on release, and how that changes throughout their lifespan.

1)      The underrated role-player

Example: Stoneforge Mystic

A role player fills a specific need in a deck. It doesn’t create a new archetype around itself, and isn’t great when not in conjunction with other cards, but still plays an important part in a deck’s success. Stoneforge fits this description because it requires a deck to be committed to equipment, yet if that is the case, it is very powerful. Let’s take a look at Stoneforge’s life to this point:

--Underrated release:

On its release, Stoneforge was greeted as a good but not stellar card. At the time, the only worthwhile equipment to fetch was Basilisk Collar, and while this was good, it wasn’t enough to turn heads. As such, Stoneforge remained a card only for white based aggro rather than the big stage

--Price spike #1:

At Pro Tour San Diego, LSV and other members of his team utilized Stoneforge Mystic with Basilisk Collar and Cunning Sparkmage in the “Boss Naya” deck, named after Tom “The Boss” Ross. After the results from the PT came in, the Mystic’s price spiked.


Between PT SD and the release of Scars of Mirrodin, there wasn’t much for Stoneforge to do. It was still good with Sparkmage to serve as a machine gun, but no new playable equipment was printed, causing it to remain at the same price for an extended period of time.

--Small peak with high potential:

At the release of Scars and the printing of Sword of Body and Mind, speculators and players saw that Stoneforge would gain in playability. While its original peak was small, because the new sword was good but not amazing, many saw the printing of the first sword as a trend, heralding more swords down the line, and increasing Stoneforge’s potential.

--Price spike #2:

And finally we come to the modern day, with Stoneforge sitting high after its success at Pro Tour Paris in the Caw-Blade UW deck piloted by Ben Stark and many others to great success. The printing of another playable sword only increased the amount of value Stoneforge could generate.

So what does this path show us? Always be on the lookout for a card that can be a roleplayer in popular archetypes. While it may not be good at the moment, all it takes is a few good tools before it becomes good, opening up an avenue for profit.

2)      Underrated flagship

Example: Jace, the Mind Sculptor

A flagship is a card that defines an archetype as a whole, not just a variant. Without a flagship, that archetype could not exist because it would not be able to compete. Primeval Titan in Valakut or Bitterblossom in Faeries are also good examples of this. And on to the life of everyone’s favorite ‘walker…

--Underrated release:

Before Jace’s release, debate ran wild about whether he was good enough to see play over his 3 mana infant sidekick. Even those who expected him to be excellent valued him at $40-50. Hindsight is 20/20, so I think it’s safe to say that we were all pretty wrong.

--Price Spike:

At PT San Diego, Pat Chapin piloted his UW Control deck with Jace to a top 16 finish. Though the list didn’t disseminate very quickly, it still got around and soon everyone was clamoring to build it, sending Jace’s price upwards a significant amount.

--Steady increase until price becomes stable:

After its spike, unlike many other tournament staples, Jace didn’t sink back down. Instead it continued to rise steadily as its playability was discovered in other formats, especially eternal, until it reached a high price of $100. at the moment, I feel that this price is stable, and Jace will not see too much more of a rise in price in the future.

And what does this teach us? A potential flagship should never be underestimated. Even if the archetype is not currently powerful, it still can be in the future. I’ve made my own mistakes on this front. I underrated Tezzeret, despite him being a flagship, saying he was not worth more than $20, and look at the U/B control decks coming out of Paris! Flagships may be fickle, but they are always powerful and expensive.

3)      Overrated:

Example: Sarkhan Vol

This pretty much speaks for itself. An overrated card is over priced on release and quickly falls after it never puts up any numbers.

--High Hype

The driving force behind overpricing, hype is a fickle and dangerous foe. No one wants to miss the next big card, so they buy everything they can hoping to get lucky. This leads to ridiculously high prices on some not very good cards. Sarkhan started at $40+ apiece, just from the hype surrounding him.

--No Results:

Despite the hype, Sarkhan never put up a decent result, let alone a win at a major event. All the tokens decks at the time were either G/W or B/W, so Sarkhan just didn’t fit in with their strategies, and so was ignored.

--Rapid price drop:

After everyone saw that Sarkhan wasn’t good enough to make the competitive cut, he quickly fell in price.

The lesson? Don’t buy into the hype. Hype is the rationality killer, and never brings about good things. Letting the instincts of others determine your own actions is a recipe for disaster and financial heartache.

4)      The diamond-in-the-rough or the rediscovered gem

Examples: Dark Depths, Time Spiral, Power Artifact

The rediscovered gem is usually an older card that becomes competitive and playable with changes in the format, either unbannings or the printing of new, synergistic cards. Rather than tracing the lifespan of any of my examples, I just look at how each of them fit the definition of a rediscovered gem.

Time Spiral: perhaps the most basic of rediscovered gems, Time Spiral rose in price after it was unbanned in Legacy, adding another format in which it could be played. Though it has yet to put up any results, just the fact that there is a whole new market of players looking for it causes the price to increase.

Dark Depths: gained in playability with the printing of a new card, Vampire Hexmage, that opened up the possibility for a turn two 20/20, obviously a powerful combination. When looking at a new set, evaluating which previously printed cards improve with its release will allow you to pick up the cards that not everyone is thinking about, and avoid getting caught in a tide of other speculators all rushing for the same card

Power Artifact: this one is much like Time Spiral in that it involves unbannings, but in a more subtle way. With the unbanning of Grim Monolith, Power Artifact experienced a price increase because it was a part of that two card combo, somewhat like a combination of Dark Depths and Time Spiral, due to it involving an unbanning of a different card, but one that still made an impact on Power Artifact’s price.

Predicting a rediscovered gem is difficult. Obviously, staying up ‘til midnight on the night before banning and unbanning announcements go up is a good way to get a leap on seeing which cards will shoot up, but before then, it’s very hit or miss. I wouldn’t recommend buying up older cards that only have a small potential to be big.

That’s all for looking at trends in card pricing, so let’s move on to our tip of the week…

Tip of the Week: Inferno Titan/Basilisk Collar

Buy buy buy. Both these cards played important roles in taking Gerry Thompson to the top slot in the most recent SCG Open in Washington DC. Gerry played a W/U/R Caw Blade variant, utilizing the Red to have better matchups against aggro and the mirror. Inferno Titan and Collar are both key parts to the post board strategy, so I recommend trading for them.

The comment contest will continue for another week as once again there was only one person who submitted a full response, but by the next article a definite winner will be chosen. Remember, comment under the article or tweet me (nwhinston on twitter) with one positive comment, one constructive criticism, and one future article topic.

Don’t hate, innovate,

--Noah Whinston

Nwhinston on Twitter

Arcadefire on MTGO

Baldr7mtgstore on ebay

9 thoughts on “The Life of a Card

  1. Hi, thanks for the advice. Should I spend some more money to invest on a foil Inferno Titan? Which is according to you the maximum buy price for the regular and the foil one to be considered an investment?
    Finally how does the reprinting or not reprinting of the titans cycle in M12 could impact the prices?


    1. i don't think a foil one would be worth picking up, traditionally foils in type 2 are not as good. i have no idea about max buy prices, i don't tend to deal with cash when i trade for cards.

      and as for reprinting, if they are reprinted, they will take a slight price hit, if they aren't they will plummet

  2. I do most of my trading on MTGO, so I'd love to see more tips about which cards are hot on there. There is a fairly good correlation between paper and digital, but with important exceptions (see Twilight Mire, for example). I liked your take on the lifecycle of a card, and thought it might be interesting to do this taking MTGO into account. For example, since MTGO enables 24/7 drafting, typically card prices are lower due to much more product being opened relative to the player base. However, cards exit the system rapidly once a set rotates, as players redeem their complete sets for paper cards. This can create temporary shortages, as previously mediocre cards (like Prismatic Omen) suddenly become valuable. By timing your purchases around releases and rotations, you can make quite a bit of money, even if you are just buying and selling from bots.
    Another phenomenon unique to MTGO is the release of classic sets like Urza's block, which are relatively short and often underdrafted, because the limited environment is not as good as more recent sets. It might be interesting to see an analysis of the value of drafting classic sets from a trader's perspective, or even (shudder) simply cracking packs. Once these sets go off sale, the card prices often go through the roof (see Force of Will).
    So, in short, my positive comment is: I really like the lifecycle concept; my constructive criticism is that I'd like to see more MTGO coverage; and my article suggestion is that you apply the lifecycle concept to MTGO.


  3. The article was great except I think you should have mentioned the overrated role-player, the card that sees a t8 in a pro tour then does nothing alot of people dont understand when a deck is designed for the PT its not designed for longevity instead it is designed for the current metagame *looking at you conley woods* Cards featured in decks like Frosty the Snowman are cards I feel fit this category.
    So that was the negative, the positive was that you covered something so many people miss, trends, seriously as someone who makes money off this game trends make your margins, its not all about picking up the newest and greatest card now its about picking up the best card in a month for cheap, being able to keep up with these trends involves reading and seeing where the metagame is and then figuring out what beats that and start picking those cards up (Looking at you Leonin Arbiter).

    Idea for the next article or future article. I would like to see something that compares cards for example here you use specific examples for flagships (Jace) Role Players (Mystic) and truthfully these cards have the same roles as many other cards in the past (Tooth and Nail, Gifts Ungiven, Umezawa's Jitte) for Flagships and cards like (Thoughtseize, Bitterblossom) that took decks that to the next level. You can almost always compare these trends, this allows you to pick the cards from the sets when they first release and find thier roles and assess future values. Perhaps writing about how that could be charted and where each of these cards fits price wise (If you look at the cards they have many price trends though mythics screwed this up).

  4. Nice article. I like how you elaborated on a sound strategy for speculating. Predicting the next hot card is difficult, but identifying cards with strong potential, but currently under appreciated, is the way to go. In the stock market, this is called value investing and the principles of value investing for stocks also apply to magic.

    As a constructive criticism, I think using recent examples is handy, but I think you should delve into more general guidelines for identifying what is a role player and what is a flagship. This could be a future topic too.

    Looking out into the future, a long range forecast would be a good article I think. The seasonality of magic is the easiest way to speculate successfully on magic I think.

    @Aaron, I also do all most of my speculating on MTGO, and I try and post regularly to the forums on my latest ideas. If you are interested in learning about the value of classic sets and drafting them, check out The Regular Gangster's writing over at puremtgo, he's excellent from a strategic and financial viewpoint.

  5. Great article. I liked the simplicity and clarity you used to discuss these card archetypes. I'm always a big fan of tips, like Inferno Titan/Collar.

    For constructive criticism, this is pretty minor, but for tips, could you give a buy price? How much should we spend on an Inferno Titan before we've spent too much and won't be able to see much of a spike?

    Finally, for a future article, I'd love some speculation about the final scars set, not in terms of what will be printed, but about what types of cards would have to be printed for certain things to rise and fall.

  6. I really enjoy your pieces, as I'm new at trading / speculation and they help me get a handle on the broader view when my tendency is to react more as a "day trader" rather than thinking about the long game. Your work strikes a nice even balance of introducing basics to the newer reader without turning off people who have been at it for years.

    Constructive Criticism: Ok, this is nitpicky, but I would appreciate it if you spend a little more effort on your articles' layouts. Specifically from this one, using boldface or underscore to separate out each example or subheading would be much nicer when casually referencing the article again at a later time. Throw in a little center-justification for subtitles, maybe a text box here or there, that kind of thing. Then put your final, summarized points at the bottom in a little text box or something. I often go back and reference articles from months ago, and it's always easier to find "that great point Whinston made" if I remember in my brain what the article layout looks like visually rather than scanning through pages and pages of identical-looking typeface.

    Three future article ideas:
    1) An MTGO article comparing digital & paper versions of the same card and talk about why prices sometimes maintain consistency across platforms and sometimes vary wildly.

    2) The value of "everything else" – that is, tokens & rules cards, non-card prize schwag, countdown dice, etc., including some "snag these if you see them" gems from the olden days of Magic. Is there any value in keeping empty boxes? Should we add fatpacks to our buying strategy just to get the cool box & fun stuff it has inside?

    3) A cost-analysis breakdown of labor and materials and how outside stuff like tournament & hotel fees or even low cost stuff like toploaders, binders, etc fit into your profit margins.

  7. I like how this article taught us the theory behind why cards are the price they are, instead of just being stock tips. That said I would have liked it to go more in depth than it did, especially the overrated section. Maybe look at two or three cards instead? For a future article I would like to see someone talk about promo cards. Odd versions to look out for when trading, ones to avoid, etc.

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