Learning to Evaluate Cards

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Spoilers are starting to trickle in for New Phyrexia, and there is already a buzz surrounding the new Planeswalker, Karn, and his pre-order price. This is a good time to review the basics of pre-order pricing, and new set speculation. Evaluating cards is a big aspect of drafting, and most drafters are drooling over spoilers to start making evaluations of pickorders and archetypes. The finance guru, on the other hand, is evaluating cards to determine what their price point will be both immediately after the release, and for the upcoming seasons. While the drafter and the finance guru may have different priorities, the skill set of evaluating the cards is very similar. There is a lot of content out there about spoilers, pricing, and speculation, but it’s important to be able to judge for yourself, so you can make adjustments or filter the information you find on the Internet. To follow, is a breakdown of how to judge a card during spoiler season.

While this first step is obvious, one must start at the beginning. The rarity of a card will give an upper limit to the possible value of the card. In standard, a Mythic has been shown to hit numbers as high as $100, a rare around $20, and uncommons as much as $5 in recent years.

These are extreme cases, but it is important to have an idea of what the maximum possible value could be, so we can compare each individual card to that. Due to speculation, part of a cards current value is dependant on its potential maximum value in the future. In that vein, reprinted cards are going to depend a lot on the general availability and desirability of the previously printed copy. When Nantuko Shade was reprinted, they were already readily available, so adding more to the market simply did not have a strong impact on its price. If it had seen competitive play, it would have sat a dollar or two lower than it would have if it were not a reprint.

Obviously, if a card isn’t going to be played, it won’t have much (if any) value; however, how much does it have to be played to have some value? There are a few things to consider in this category. The first, in which formats will it see play? Mythics that are limited to standard playability rarely crack the $20 price point (Grave Titan, Koth of the Hammer). While rares that are playable exclusively in standard, typically sit below $10 (Creeping Tar Pit). Rares that are only playable in Vintage, sit even lower well below $5 (Lodestone Golem). The cards that can really grasp the full price for their rarity are multi-format all-stars, like Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic. A big indicator for playability is it’s mana cost, and many of the sources you find on the Internet reference this the most. The cheaper the mana cost, the more possible decks that can play the card, and the more possible copies that can be included. The 5cmc planeswalker rule, revolves around this idea, but Gideon Jura has certainly shattered that mold, but also will never be a 4-of in any competitive deck.

What role will this card play while it is Standard legal? Is it going to be a nice slot-in to an existing archetype? Will it be a miser’s one-of in a control deck? Will it require decks to be built around it? This will affect the way the price moves after release. Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas is a great example. It was clearly a powerful, playable card, keeping its price reasonable, but once someone found a way to build a deck around it, it quickly shot up, and then came about half-way back down. This is pretty common of cards in this group. People have their eye on them, and they overbuy on the sudden hype, and the price corrects. The miser’s one-of is comparable to a Martial Coup, which hit a max of $3.50 in its prime. This is a pretty typical patter,Black Sun's Zenith falls in this group too. It’s only used in a small number of decks, and not as more than 2 copies. That’s not to say all sweepers hit this level, just that control decks tend to be the only ones that can take advantage of a high-cost high-reward spell, like those. Keep in mind, those are both rares, a mythic in that same role, like Avenger of Zendikar, hit a peak of $15 but settled around $8.

Casual Appeal
Even if a card doesn’t fit any of the above categories, it’s price may stay up due to the casual market, which we all know is a powerful one. In current sets, it isn’t often enough to keep the price at any noticeable level, if it’s the only factor, but can certainly add a few percentage points to a card that is already in high demand. Cards that fit this category often have splashy effects, or fit in to common theme or tribal decks. Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, has never seen much competitive play of any kind, and has wildly bounced around between $7-20. Cards like this are great to pick up when they dip, because that same casual market will swing it back around eventually.

Great, so we have some things to look at while evaluating cards, let’s put it to practice.
The new incarnation of Karn is upon us, in the new set, and pre-sale pricing is about $50.

For reference, here is his (unconfirmed) oracle text:

(mana cost) 7
Planeswalker - Karn
+4: Target player exiles a card from his or her hand.
-3: Exile target permanent.
-14: Set aside all non-aura permanent cards exiled by Karn, then restart the game. After that, put into the battlefield under your control all cards set aside this way.
(loyalty) 6

No doubt, a set of powerful effects. He also has no color requirements, which is of note. Let’s apply what we’ve learned to this card, and see if a $50 pre-sale price is worth speculating on.

Mythic. Obviously, any card in this price range would have to be a mythic in the modern sets.

The abilities Karn brings to the table are nothing to scoff at, but his cost of 7 mana is a bit prohibitive. The fact that he costs only colorless mana, means its possible to crank him out using Everflowing Chalice. But he isn’t an Artifact, so he won’t be powered out by a Grand Architect. More importantly a Mishra's Workshop or Aeronaut Tinkerer, won’t work either. At his best, he’s playable only in standard, or as a fringe playable in a 12-post Legacy deck. This puts our best case price in the $20 range. Also, not that I expect it to happen, but if a card were to be banned based on how long its effects take to resolve in tournament play, this card would be it.

Here is the interesting part of this card. His cost is high enough, that most decks that would want him, couldn’t afford to play more than a couple. On the other hand, some decks may want to be built around him, and might require 4. If such a deck arises, it won’t be the entire format, and will actually be a narrow application of him. It’s more likely a few decks in the format run one or two copies of this guy, at best.

Casual Appeal
Casual Appeal for Karn is through the roof. He’s playable in all colors, hearkens back to a classic time in magic, and his cost is much less a factor in multiplayer games, while his effect is all the more powerful. When availability of a card is low, the casual appeal has a bigger impact on moving the price. Even if that section of the market is only buying one copy for an EDH deck, there simply isn’t ANY availability of the card, because it hasn’t been released! Online retailers, and ebayers are only willing to pre-sell (See: Sell Short) a certain quantity of this card, so they don’t risk either not having enough, or missing out on further profits if it continues to climb. This is why pre-sale prices shot up to $50 so quickly, but will likely drop back down soon.

Using our facts, our initial price is given as a best case of $20, and since its role is expected to be fairly narrow, we can bring it down to around $15, The casual appeal however, will get this guy flying off of shelves just as fast as he’s opened, so He may stay between 40-50 for the first month or two. This same Casual Appeal will probably keep this card around $15 even after it rotates from Standard. In this case, I predict a long term equilibrium price between $15-20.


Now, how do we use this type of analysis going forward? You use it to make your own adjustments to the information you find. Where did I miss the mark on Karn? The information on the Internet is everywhere, and lots of people have access to it. The cards you’re going to make the most money on is the ones where you see something that no one else did, or at least no one else is giving enough weight. Find that one card where you think people’s expectation doesn’t fit this model, and capitalize on it. I made a killing on Frost Titans by sticking to my guns and continuing to trade for them until I dumped them at a PTQ for $17 a piece, when I had be trading for them actively for under $10.

Happy Speculating during spoiler season!
@torerotutor on twitter

10 thoughts on “Learning to Evaluate Cards

    1. Try to think of it as a free look at what you'll be missing when they get the requirements working. For the record, I had to login to see this article.

  1. I wonder if going forward EDH will continue to affect the market more. It seems he would be in about any and every EDH deck because of his path/vindicate ability for colorless mana. I wonder if that could drive him slightly higher maybe a 20-25 mark. How do you view that possibility (or a lack of)?

    1. Thanks for the comment, JC. I think you're definitely on to something, i could see that being the case while its also in standard, and so there's a mixed demand from both standard and EDH. But i still line it up with Nicol Bolas levels as far as EDH goes, while way more decks can play him, Nicol Bolas is the biggest bad-ass ever and lots of kitchen table guys go bonkers for him. Karn has a similar appeal, but people like the bad-guys better (also dragons). I dont think you're on the wrong track though, the difference form $15-20 and 20-25 is pretty small, but these are the types of things you want to be picking up on. When you identify one of the factors to be heavier than what your information sources are annotating, its time to put your own prowess on the line, and make trades/buys accordingly. I've found that I make the biggest speculation moves on that one card per season that I feel people are under (or over) rating. Maybe this will be yours to steal? With Karn, you'll have some time before you can get in below your predicted range of 20-25 and you may find another card worth jumping on.

  2. Thanks for the response. I know exactly what you mean about Nicol Bolas, casual players do LOVE that guy. I am more of a casual player than competitive and I never really cared for him but it's more color combo preference for me. I will definitely be looking for a sleeper when we get more cards spoiled. Ironically with Besieged I didn't really love anything as a sleeper, but I definitely didn't think Thrun would be anywhere near his price early on. Fortunately I pulled a few and traded/sold them early on. Again I really enjoyed how you broke down everything in evaluation.

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