In many ways, beginning in the Modern Era tackles those decks which pose some of the greater challenges to building a collection of preconstructed decks. While it's fair to say that supply is on your side (there are simply more of these floating about the market) there are some other factors ain play here not present in the earlier sets. This was also the era that introduced significant changes to the preconstructed format, and understanding these is critical to keeping your costs low.
Theme Decks had been part of every expansion since 1997's Tempest, and ran without interruption until they were discontinued in 2008. Billed as a complete deck in a box, each theme deck was crafted around a certain mechanic or element within a set and were marketed in some ways for the convenience of the established player. They contained no rulebooks on how to play the game, instead only coming with a small insert explaining the deck and the set's new mechanics and, for some sets, a storybook.
For 2008's Shards of Alara, Wizards decided to reposition them as Intro Packs and angled them more toward the beginning player as way of introducing them to the game. A "How to Play" insert was developed and added, and the decks were pared down to 41 cards. To make up for the deficit in card quantity, a booster pack was also included to expose newer players to the joys of cracking them, and to give them a few more cards they could throw into their deck. For aesthetic flourish (and marketing), one of the deck's two rare cards would be designated its 'premium rare' and included as a foil version that showed through the front of the box.
In looking to acquire preconstructed decks, you'll generally be leaning quite heavily on two things: eBay and online retailers. For some, there may be some on offer at their local gaming store, but in all ways the approach is the same: find it for the cheapest price you can.
This being the age of the internet, there are no shortage of online retailers ready to earn your business. But also with this being the age of the internet, most shoppers tend to evaluate retailers based on two criteria: price and inventory. It's a sad state when things like service tend to take something of a back-seat to bottom-dollar, but as Wal-Mart has shown consumers usually don't mind getting shorted on service if it means paying less money at the cash register (or more accurately, they mind, but just not enough to shop somewhere else).
We'll be looking at some of the major players in today's marketplace, how much they charge and whether or not they carry a given theme deck. In alphabetical order, here are today's players:
Abu Games (ABU): Boise, Idaho's "Alpha Beta Unlimited"
Channel Fireball (CFB): Well-established game store and top-tier article site in San Jose, California
Card Kingdom (CK): Game store in Seattle, Washinton looking to expand its brand. Recently became sponsor of Limited Resources podcast.
MTG Fanatic (Fanatic): A game store and article site/forum community in Houston, Texas
Star City Games (SCG): One of the leading presences in the game right now, from store to articles to the SCG Open Series of cash tournaments. Located in Roanoke, Virginia
Troll and Toad (TT): Located in Corbin, Kentucky, they claim to be the largest retailer of Magic cards in the world (in both stock and sales)
Amazon (Amazon): Amazon acts essentially as a brokerage, putting the consumer in touch with the inventory of a large number of smaller, independent retailers for precon decks. Rather than identify any specific retailer (since they vary from deck to deck), I'll be using the best price available for that item, but as you'll see these often act as something of an outlier and don't reflect a serious cost.
One more thing before we begin (DISCLAIMER): The following data tables reflect a good-faith effort to collect retailer pricing from the retailers' websites directly. These figures are a snapshot taken no earlier than April 5th, 2011 and may not reflect current pricing and stock with completeness or accuracy. Many sites list their price for an item even if they do not carry it in stock. I will not be reporting these, not least because they can often be inaccurate; the retailer will update a price if there is demand, but often wait until they update their inventory.
Will there be the odd error, either by typo or omission? Sure, as I've had what appears to be pneumonia for three weeks at the time of this writing. This should give you a very good idea of the market conditions you'll be facing in your quest for Modern Era precons.
With that out of the way, let's get right into the sets!
If it looks strange that outlets like Channel Fireball aren't carrying these intro decks, you needn't worry- some outlets on occasion will only have a bundled package of all five together rather than selling them individually. Retailers like Star City Games, which often tend to look at deck quality when establishing a price, clearly have identified the frontrunners here- Battle Cries and Path of Blight, leaving behind the more gimmicky Mirromancy and Doom Inevitable. Overall you can find these for a fraction lower than retail, a concession most online vendors are willing to make to entice your business knowing they have to charge you for shipping as well. Nothing shocking one way or the other here, and a good place to start.
The first thing that jumps out at you is the inflated price of Phyrexian Poison, the infect-in-a-box deck. Because these decks are often pitched to the newer players and casuals, they'll frequently reflect what's in casual demand. Infect might not be tearing up any Top 8 finishes in competitive play (yet), but it's plenty popular with the kitchen table set. Note the relatively higher price of Myr of Mirrodin; tribal decks too tend to have casual appeal and follow suit.
It's impossible to say here whether the inflated price for Invading Spawn is due to the fact that it is occasionally misinterpreted as Rise of the Eldrazi's "Vampire" deck (it's not), or because of the appeal of the foil rare Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief. Wizards of the Coast has started learning how to market to the burgeoning EDH/Commander demand, and foil legends are certainly one of the better. Leveler's Glory was the first of these decks to see some bump in pricing due to the value of its own foil rare, Student of Warfare. The Student hasn't really found a home that lives up to her early hype (few levelers outside of perhaps the Kargan Dragonlord have), but as is often the case precon prices tend to be quicker to rise and much slower to fall.
That's no typo: the Amazon price for Fangs of the Bloodchief really is that absurd. Again, this reflects the confluence of two factors popular with the casual set: tribes in general, and Vampires in particular. The MTGFanatic.com price is much more down-to-earth for this hard-to-find deck, but you can save some scratch just by assembling it yourself out of singles- there's nothing in it that is particularly valuable (rares: Anowon, the Ruin Sage,Butcher of Malakir). Like the Zendikar decks before them, these tended to be a pretty suboptimal lot, I wouldn't recommend paying any higher than what Fanatic's got them for, if only because the blow is softened by the inclusion of a booster pack of Worldwake (currently sold out at $5.99 apiece on Star City Games).
We see the same thing here: silly-high pricing for Rise of the Vampires, which has gone out-of-stock most everywhere else. The only other deck in my estimation that's a solid purchase (in terms of fun) is The Adventurers, an Ally-based construction that's almost strong enough to be considered more of a theme deck than an intro pack. Collectors with patience will want to wait until after the Standard rotation this October when Zendikar exits and Innistrad takes its place. Although the price drop isn't quite as fast as you'd think (it can take some months for them to depress to the near $5 realm), most will eventually get there. Because of the casual appeal of the Vampires-based decks, don't hold your breath for any drop in prices from them as the casual market moves at a much slower pace and doesn't much care about something being "Type II".
Note what I said above about prices being slow to depress? You'll see that reflected in the prices from online retailers here for Alara block decks. If you're looking for more market-reactive drops in prices once a block leaves the Standard environment, you'll usually want to check out eBay first. That said, a few retailers will get caught with overstock and price them to move. Troll and Toad is one such retailer, and I've filled out my Alara block collection mostly through them. Part of Eternal Siege's price-spike can be blamed on the inclusion of a Path to Exile amongst its removal suite, which at one point was a $5 uncommon.
Generally speaking, when it came to the shards there were some winners and some losers. Bant was very popular due to its exalted mechanic and the fact that its decks tended to be filled with Soldier creature types. Grixis spoke to the inner necromancer in many of us, but fewer players seemed as attracted to the cannibalistic Jund decks with their devour mechanic (somewhat ironic, given the situation in Standard for some time, when Jund decks were the top dog). Naya was also given a somewhat lukewarm reception with their "big critters matter" focus that was more of a theme than an actual mechanic. All of these prices are too high. The Alara block is one I'd recommend playing a waiting game for to save a few bucks per deck on eBay if you're in no particular hurry.
Esper Artifice had a very strong and popular foil rare, the Master of Etherium, which on the market today still holds value at around $5.00 for foil. Its other rare (Sharding Sphinx) was a playable beater in these intro packs, though itself is worth only a fraction of the Master. Amazon, like always, should be entertained for comedic purposes only. Again, inflated in their day to levels that they're remained at, as if the retailers' price gun only operates in one direction. They'll collect dust for a long time at these prices, and rightfully so.
Unlike the preceding Shadowmoor, Eventide's decks always seem to be floating around and they're always relatively cheap- a number of these are on eBay right now for $7.00 a pop. There are no real standouts here, and as you can see the pricing is fairly stable with the usual odd outliers.
Much harder to find at a reasonable cost are the Shadowmoor decks. With a sealed box of decks going on eBay for around $85, this is a good candidate for the trick I mentioned in an earlier article: buy a box, pull out your decks, and sell off the rest to recoup the bulk of your outlay. As I was not playing at the time, more experienced minds than mine might be able to shed some light on the curious case where both Morningtide and Eventide's decks are relatively cheap and abundant, while Lorwyn's and Shadowmoor's are themselves the very opposite.
Again, these are cheap and relatively abundant. You can often save even more on these decks by snapping them up as a package deal on eBay. Note that there were only four decks released with this set.
Somehow, somewhere in some dank cellar Wizards of the Coast has a cadre of slaves still cranking out copies of Boggart Feast for reasons perhaps better left unknown, for it approaches levels of ubiquitousness and cost seldom seen outside of the later Kamigawa sets. In part because of the heavy tribal themes in these decks, they have been coveted by players and are now hard to find. Expect few bargains on eBay as they tend to be rather contested affairs. Some may find better success reconstituting the decks out of singles cards.
Future Sight was the last set where the four-per-set theme deck release was the standard. Beginning with Lorwyn, most sets with rare exception would come equipped with five different decks. As you can see, there was no especial demand for these decks in particular, and the block itself was something of a mixed bag in terms of reception. Those keeping score at home may have noticed that Channel Fireball would appear to have very little in stock, but we're now entering the time period where they appear to have invested in their theme deck stock a bit more heavily than today. We'll start seeing them put up some impressive numbers before long.
Again, more of the same here. One deck seems to have a mild advantage in value over the others (Rituals of Rebirth), in part because it employs a popular strategy (graveyard recursion) and perhaps because one of its rares is Teneb, the Harvester, a wedge-coloured dragon familiar to Commander players.
We'll be ending on a high note today: Time Spiral and its Sliver Evolution. Remember the Vampires decks from Zendikar? The exact same principles apply here. Casual players have had a longstanding love affair with Slivers, and making a theme deck around them is little different than printing money from Wizards' perspective. You'll be hard-pressed to get these decks at a bargain, but considering that you can get both the deck's rares for somewhere around $1.25 (Fungus Sliver,Pulmonic Sliver), you're probably better off just building it out of singles. Each of the three "Eras" I've delineated has its own Sliver deck- The Slivers from the 'Vintage Era,' Sliver Shivers from the 'Classic Era,' and of course, the Modern Era represented here. The other deck of note, Fun with Fungus, is a tribal deck of the Saproling/Thallid variety, and clawed ahead mainly through novelty.
And there you have it, the Modern Era. Join us next week when we pry into the Classic Era, from Onslaught to Coldsnap! Due to space considerations, we'll be giving the Core Sets their own treatment later as well. See you then!