In World War Z: The Oral History of the Zombie War, a satirical novel by Max Brooks, the author writes about why the Israelis were more adaptable to the zombie virus.
Bear with me, this has to do with Magic.
The reason was that they made sure all policy-making included a Devil's Advocate who, no matter how outlandish the position, would take a contrary voice against the mass of deciders. As a result, this made sure people heard uncomfortable truths and pondered worst-case scenarios (in the book, a zombie attack). There's a lot to say about the two new Magic formats being batted around, and a negative voice is valuable to safeguard your money and trading success. These formats are Modern (everything with a new card frame) and Overextended (Invasion to current).
These formats, still in their nascent stages, span huge swathes of Magic. Their proposition has caused a lot of spirited debate and interest for players. Because of the depth of the pool, speculators are also wondering when and how to get in on the action. In this article, we'll look at the two formats and what directions they can go in, as well as why now is not the time to start speculating. Finally, we will look at what to pick up when the time is right.
Understanding The Modern and Overextended Formats
The Modern format is the easiest to explain. It is part of the Wizards Community Cup, a promotional event played between members of WOTC and selected members of the Magic online community. Like Invitationals of seasons past, this event needs some eye-catching formats to get people interested. The sets in Modern were chosen, as Tom Lapille said on Twitter, because nobody would be unsure of whether a card was legal when the format only includes new-frame cards. Let me reiterate: this is a Community Cup format, not a GP format. This is more like Build Your Own Standard or Alphabet Deckbuilding, which challenge casual and creative people, instead of a new, intense, serious format. The teams are even limited to four of a copy of a single card among all their decks, so there will only be four Cryptic Commands, four Urza's Towers, four Dark Confidants on each side. The resultant decks will be expressions of specific design constraints for that particular format, not representative of what Modern could actually do.
The $64,000 question, though, is whether Modern is actually here to stay. My honest guess is that Modern will not become a format any time soon. Wizards is, frankly, not an ambitious company when it comes to deviating from their usual R&D/print cards/host GPs and PTs mode. They just fired up Extended, which has been a failure of a format because... no store support? The first large Extended event was a lame-duck event because the sets involved would rotate right after it. Thus, people didn't get a great sense of what this new Extended was, they just saw more goofy Goyfs and decided to skip it. Because Extended wasn't announced with much lead time, people didn't know to hold onto their Kithkin or Faeries before selling them for more Standard cards. I'd wager that a lot of people wanted to skip Extended at the beginning because they didn't like the prospect of rebuying things like Bitterblossom at a premium.
I am also not sure what will make Modern any different than Extended in terms of popularity. Modern encompasses some big parts of Magic and has cripplingly-expensive cards that are staples. When you look at what's involved to make good decks, it's nearing the price of Legacy at points. Thus, you get the same result as rebooted Extended; people are uninterested in another hyper-expensive format. They'd like to sell their Ravnica duals and just move on in Standard.
Overextended is a community-driven attempt to make Legacy-lite. The idea is, let's cut out the dual lands, the Force of Wills, the Lion's Eye Diamonds and the Sensei's Divining Tops and see what shakes out. Starting from Invasion onward and basing the testing of the game on MTGO means that one hits serious card access issues (especially with Vindicate). Overextended has received no official support and has no sanctioning mechanisms, but it has enthusiastic promoters who say that WOTC is watching the format's progress.
In The Grim Darkness of the Deep Formats, There is Only Blue
Modern and Overextended sound really cool, let's make no mistake about that. Right now, people are rebooting Kithkin, Aggro CAL, Wake, Hustle n' Flow and all manner of other neat decks. You'll see UR Tron, UW Tron, MartyrTron and more. When it comes down to it, though, these formats lean hard on the strongest cards in Magic, which are often strong enough on their own to overcome weak-but-synergistic cards like Urza's Tower.
In other words, I expect this to be another format dominated by Blue. Here's why: though we're out Top (and thus, Counterbalance), we've still got Tarmogoyf, Engineered Explosives (with Academy Ruins), Dark Confidant and the mother of all blue annoyances, Cryptic Command. How does Kithkin plan to beat a Blue deck that peels out an Engineered Explosives to wipe the board, then Cryptics their Cloudgoat Ranger? Does a Wake deck stand a chance with tapping out for five main-phase mana? Your Astral Slide deck just won't cut it against untapped Islands. Overextended even includes Counterspell!
Adding to the grim future of both of these formats is Stoneforge Mystic, a card with an enormously negative pull onStandard right now. Thanks to a Fetch/Shock manabase, Stoneforge goes in just about everything. Once she hits, expect Umezawa's Jitte, Batterskull or whatever Sword you fear most. We have seen Tarmogoyf alongside Cryptic Command; we've seen Bitterblossom there, too. We have never seen a Stoneforge linked up with the blue Command, though, and its power rivals or beats both Goyf and Bitterblossom.
The end result of this is that you either pay a lot to play or lose. Players have made it clear over and over that these scenarios aren't fun. I see little to no hope for a Goblins or Kithkin or Affinity budget deck to compete against a deck that you can pour money into. If these formats are going to work, they need enough people who come in with a W/R Astral Slide deck, realize it sucks, and then still stick with the format and buy into blue or the designated blue-killer deck that month. I don't see people casually attending these events for fun. No fan support, dead format.
When to Start Speculating On These Formats (and what to get!)
The short answer on when to dig out your cash for this is "as soon as Wizards officially recognizes it."
However, the more nuanced suggestion is to get into it when people are picking up the format. That means when you hear about stores hosting it, when a vibrant online community emerges to discuss it, when it develops coherently good decks, and more. Sure, you can stock up on Rav duals right now and probably be pretty safe, but I don't like tying up my money on long-term bets like that.
But hey, you read this site for card tips and I don't blame you. At some point, one of these formats will get enough attention so that it influences secondary markets. When it does, these are going to be the hot cards:
No Explanation Needed:
Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, Cryptic Command, Bitterblossom, Ravnica duals, fetchlands
Vedalken Shackles: The Shackles have gone up recently thanks to being in a winning Legacy SCG$5K deck, but they'll see a lot more attention in one of these formats. They fit so well with decks like Faeries and X-Level Blue that they're worth picking up when things get rolling.
Baneslayer Angel: I am not as sure on this card, but if there's a Tron deck to be had, it will be tapping out for this woman. Exalted Angel was a fine friend in older Extended Tron decks, after all.
Engineered Explosives: My boldest prediction is that both of these formats will be dictated in a large way by the interaction of this card with Academy Ruins. EE is a super-efficient sweeper that kills Planeswalkers like a champ. The easy mana with fetch/shock configurations makes EE a malleable removal spell.
Thirst for Knowledge: Thirst is more of an element in Overextended than Modern, where the banning of Seat of the Synod blunts the card. I predict a lot of blue decks tying TFK and a Seat together at the end of a turn for a refuel. It's cheaper than Fact or Fiction and not hard to set up when you've got Trinket Mage floating around. Instant-speed draw like this is worth stocking up on.
Grove of the Burnwillows: With Punishing Fire, this is perhaps my favorite interaction in much of Magic. Grove and Fire necessarily limit decks development, since you cannot really rely on x/2s unless you can make them so quickly that the opponent cannot Fire them. Grove sits at about $2 right now, so this is going to be one of the first stock-ups to grab.
Why Event Decks are not The Answer to Card Supply Problems
On June 1, Aaron Forsythe tweeted:
It is hard to imagine a reasonably-priced Legacy Subsidy Kit that isn't just busted for singles by every retailer worth his salt.
If you're reading this, you probably know that Aaron is high up at Wizards and has a lot of influence on their projects. That Aaron himself is doubtful that an Eternal-focused promotional deck would effectively reach the right customers is telling. While we recently saw Stoneforge Mystic appear in the white Event Deck for New Phyrexia, please be aware that this was most likely completely unintentional. The decklists for these products must be solidified months before printing. That's because the decks have to be tested, tweaked for fun play and then sent to the printers for layout. After they are printed, they have to be shrink-wrapped, bubble-wrapped, sent to distributors and then sold to local gaming stores. That kind of backlog time makes me think that the decks were figured out about three or four months ago, when Stoneforge Mystic was about $7. In no way was Mystic hitting the event deck engineered to be a benefit to tournament players. Wizards doesn't want people buying a deck for two cards and then tossing the other 58.
Aaron's point is worth more reflection. A Subsidy Kit, be it for Modern or Eternal formats, would only function if retailers charged the MSRP for the product. What's more likely is that Wizards prints up an "event deck" containing Wasteland and Aether Vial and Sensei's Divining Top and then 90%+ of retailers mark the product up from the $25 retail price to $100 or more. Asking a retailer to stick to a $25 pricetag for something that could be divided for much, much more is terrifically bad for the game - these decks wouldn't even be sold to the public, they'd be cracked and subdivided. The end result is that you're looking at adding more $60 Wastelands to the environment. So ultimately, our big issue with Event Decks is that their distribution is not controlled by WOTC, it is controlled by retailers who have an interest in getting the most for their product. The best vehicle for getting good Eternal cards to players was the Magic Player Rewards, a program that was recently killed. That's grim for format promoters that want good cards to get into the hands of players. The near-complete inability of Wizards to get cards into the hands of players doesn't seem to matter for established Eternal formats, but it is crucial for getting people to pick up a format in a crowded field of options. Currently, Wizards' opinion on formats requiring a $1000 outlay is a limp "oh my, we care, oh yes we do" with no followup about how much they care or what they are doing to fix things.
Let's be clear, Wizards has no problem reprinting really expensive cards. Just this month, they reprinted Mana Crypt as a judge promo, and that card is worth $50! However, judge promos have a very limited distribution, so they rarely effect the secondary market by very much. People clamoring for a limited reprinting of staples ("let's give a reprinted set of Duals to all the T8 of the Legacy Champs at GenCon!") will do nothing to lower the price of cards. Instead, it introduces a small number of cards that are just priced the same as everything else on the market, if not more. So if you want to get lots of good cards like Dark Confidant into the hands of players, you must give enough away, which has the side effect of putting a dent in the market.
The one possible solution is to give away seriously good cards as FNM prizes. I don't know whether WOTC purposely gives out doofus cards like Rhox War Monk to make sure sharks don't show up and ruin the fun of the event (as if that wouldn't happen now). One could predict a much bigger FNM showing at every store hosting if, for example, the T8 got a Dark Confidant instead. $160 in prize money in a weekly event is something to talk about and it gives newer players who might win a FNM but not be at PTQ level yet a valuable item to trade for good Standard cards. If WOTC decides to get these kinds of cards out, though, they must give away enough promotional cards to make it meaningful. Further, so as not to totally upset collectors, they should announce the promotional cards more than a month in advance - with four months of warning, for example, collectors have nobody to blame but themselves.
The Long Call
I've laid out my reasoning on why I will not be investing in hopeful formats quite yet. It is lovely to want to be on the cutting edge of a speculator's market. The markups are enormous if you can get in at the right time. This is a time to be calm in the face of hype and realize that if these formats actually do get recognition, you'll still have a lot of time to profit from them.