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Insider: An Early History of Market Bubbles

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Speculation and market investment in Magic is in its Golden Era right now. We have access to information at a speed that we never had before in Magic. If you're spying for new tech, you don't have to wait for a tournament report on the Dojo or read about it a month later in Inquest - you can hustle over to GGSlive and watch Kibler cast Huntmaster of the Fells in real-time. This article is about Magic speculation and price bubbles in what I am calling the "early modern" era. This is defined as the era that began with mass Legacy support. That takes us all the way back to Grand Prix: Philadelphia, which is nearly ancient history at this point. I think that's a good place to start looking because it was the first time that there was a serious amount of money on the line for a format that depended on old cards. It also was the first time we saw the attendances that are now commonplace - over a thousand people playing Eternal formats.

Today, we are going to look at banner cards through the era - why they bubbled, what happened to them, and where they are today. This is loosely chronologically organized and my hope is that it aids in training you to identify when the conditions are right for another boom card.

Time Vault, Part 1

Background: Time Vault is the black sheep of Magic. For over a decade, TV had errata so that you could not use something like a Voltaic Key to untap it. The DCI accomplished this by making up Time Counters, adding a phantom step in between turns (Wall of Boom, #4, pops) and all sorts of other activated abilities. At one point, Time Vault had language that basically stated "Skip your next turn: untap Time Vault." It was only a matter of time before a card would come along that made this actually matter. That card was Flame Fusillade and the event was GP: Philadelphia. The problem was that the deck needed three or four Time Vaults, which were both expensive and worthless at the time.

The Bubble: When this combo was discovered, people thought that it would ruin the first-ever Legacy GP. However, the combo was not as resilient as people first thought, and many players passed on the deck before the GP. Time Vault, nonetheless, jumped from a $30 card to about $65.

Where is it now? After the GP, Time Vault settled down to about $50... but more on that in a little bit.

Flash

Background: Many of these bubble cards are the result of strange, new card interactions. Some of them get dusted off or changed in an Oracle update. Flash is one of those cards. Flash would, when printed, let you put a guy into play and then into the graveyard if you did not pay the full mana cost. This was dangerous with Academy Rector and Yawgmoth's Bargain, so Flash got its wording changed. There, it languished for years until the errata came off of the card and Protean Hulk was printed. Protean Hulk could grab several different combinations with which to kill an opponent.

The Bubble: The Flash deck was incredible in Legacy, which was a departure from the Time Vault business. You had Merchant Scrolls for Force of Will and Flash, you had Brainstorms galore, and you had enough creatures to assemble instant kills. Flash jumped from a quarter to over $10 in about a week, and I would attribute that to the upcoming GP: Columbus. Flash was known early enough that people could try to hate it, but it was the #1 best deck going into the event anyway. On Day 2, Future Sight became legal in side events and I remember people just massacring opponents with the Green and Blue Pacts. Flash had to go.

Where is it now? After the GP, Flash was banned in Legacy. It also was restricted in Vintage, since that format also let you play four Merchant Scrolls and four Brainstorms at the time. Flash is now a dollar or two, but it's not worth it unless and until Flash ever gets unrestricted in Vintage.

Show and Tell

Background: The real impetus for S&T's rise was the unbanning of Dream Halls. S&T let you get the card out on the first turn with Ancient Tomb and Lotus Petal if you needed it. From there, you could discard Progenitus to Conflux, get Beacon of Creation and False Cure and eventually kill the opponent. Dream Halls was kind of a sloppy deck, but S&T stayed high in price because people realized that you could just sneak out Progenitus and still stand a chance of killing the opponent. One need not mess with big, convoluted combos.

The Bubble: When Dream Halls first showed up, people ran over each other to buy the Enchantment and accompanying Sorcery. Dream Halls went from about $3 to $15, while Show and Tell went from $4 to $8 to $16 to $20, with no signs of coming down when people moved past the Halls. A big factor in keeping this card expensive was that the Eldrazi were printed soon after this card saw more attention. Along with Eureka and Sneak Attack, people picked up Show and Tell for cut-rate fattie production.

Where is it now? Show and Tell, unlike our other cards above, is still an expensive card. It's played in Sneak and Show decks and, with Emrakul, forms a sideboard plan in other decks. It also helps power Hive Mind out far before that Enchantment should hit the board. Sometimes, it's not the unbanned card, but its quiet support card, that shoots up in price.

Time Vault, Part 2

Background: Remember how I said that the DCI tried to nerf Time Vault for years? Well, persistent articles and argument from Steve Menendian got the DCI to remove all the power errata from Time Vault and allow it, as a one-of, into Vintage.

The Bubble: Time Vault went from about $50 to the near $300 that it is now. I still kick myself for balking at paying $35 for one the night that the card was changed. Tezzeret, The Seeker made Time Vault a heck of a card, though Jace has proven to be much better in Vintage.

Where is it now? Time Vault was on the precipice of ruining Vintage. There are those who argue that its existence and unerrata-ing has killed the format. One cannot be sure, but the general tone I hear from other players is that they are unhappy that the card exists as it does in Vintage. It's one of the Power Nine right now (nobody loves you, Timetwister!) and it isn't going away. It's as expensive as a Mox and it will likely stay that way.

Karakas

Background: Karakas was an unloved land; it couldn't even be played in Commander, since it inadvertently bounced Generals. Its moment in the sun began precisely with the confluence of Entomb being unbanned in Legacy and Iona, Shield of Emeria being printed. Karakas was the one and only answer to Iona for a lot of decks, so people slowly started picking them up. One can tutor for Karakas with Knight of the Reliquary, and the land comes into play untapped - not a big tempo loss, even if you don't need the White mana.

The Bubble: Karakas was about $7 in Italian and $11 in English when Iona started making a big impact on Legacy. I warned people on Twitter that they would be happy to pay $20 for Karakas in two months, and by that time, the card had jumped to $30. Though Entomb's power waxes and wanes, the downside of running Karakas is very low and its power level is increased by the existence of Thalia.

Where is it now? Karakas has become an unlikely staple of Legacy. Much like Mana Crypt, it's the goofy, rare card that nobody really wants to have to pay real money for. I expect to see it reprinted in From The Vault: Realms. If it is not, Karakas will continue to rise in price as long as Legacy is played.

Dark Depths

Background: Dark Depths was this silly land that you tried to use Aether Snap on. It was a junk rare from a junk set that nobody cared about. Then, Vampire Hexmage was printed and people figured out Dark Depths pretty quickly.

The Bubble: From $1, Dark Depths shot to over $25 in the frenzy over the card. Extended season was in swing and people paired Dark Depths with Vampire Hexmage and the Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek combination to add backup. Muddle the Mixture and Pact of Negation added tutoring and protection; one could make a turn-1 Marit Lage token with a lot of work, but a turn-2 token was entirely reasonable, too.

Where is it now? Dark Depths got axed in Modern and the Extended rotation killed the deck. It still gets a bit of attention in Legacy, but every deck seems to pack Swords to Plowshares and Wasteland to answer the giant flying monster. Dark Depths is still an expensive card despite lacking a proper home, proving that when a card gets up, sometimes it just stays up.

Candelabra of Tawnos

Background: The rise of the Candlestick is directly correlated with the unbanning of Time Spiral. Before Time Spiral came off The List, Candelabras were about $45. That means that they were available, but only for dedicated casual players who wanted really hard to make High Tide or Mana Flare decks work. When Time Spiral came off the list and a High Tide deck did well at a Starcity event, the race was on to snag Candelabras.

The Bubble: Candelabras shot up to $115 nearly overnight and people thought that the price was ridiculous. However, High Tide decks just kept winning and doing well. It was a fascinating and fun deck to play. Candelabras climbed up to $200 and sustained that price for quite awhile. Much like with Show and Tell, it was the enabler, and not the banner card, that saw the most consistent high-dollar spikes.

Where is it now? Mental Misstep did a huge number on High Tide decks; the deck basically could not win through two or three Missteps. With the free counterspell gone, High Tide has come back in small ways. Candelabras dropped by about 25%, but they still get a bit of play. I don't think it's wise to sink $600 into a playset of these for a deck that isn't always good, but on the other hand, you don't have to sink that money into fetchlands and dual lands if you're playing High Tide, either.

Takeaways

Aside from that one Time Vault blip, Vintage does not move Magic bubbles. Legacy and Modern do. Modern has not caused ridiculous price swings (yet), but it moves markets. Look at how Plow Under went from $1 to $4 in a week after people figured out that Cloudpost was a great deck and they needed something for the mirror. Heck, Vesuva went from $4 to $20, thanks to Cloudpost. Standard tends to cause big price swings as well, but they are not the $100 jumps that we sometimes see in Legacy. As I have mentioned before, I am unsure that enthusiasm for Legacy is sustainable as a format. That is unfortunate, because it's a nice format to play in. Modern does not have the same deep pool that causes card rarity, though Mirrodin is what, eight years old at this point?

Another big point is that most of these price swings did not happen overnight. Some of them happened over weeks and took awhile to break big heights. A lot of people thought Time Vault would top out at $70 like it did the first time around. The savvy and gutsy speculator can throw their funds behind a card early in its rise, but one can still jump on a little later and gain some profit. If you got on Show and Tell at $12, you were a happy camper a week later when they hit $18. This should embolden you to pick up hyped cards early. When it comes to older formats, they almost always pay off.

Until next week,

Doug Linn

canshepherd@gmail.com

One thought on “Insider: An Early History of Market Bubbles

  1. Loved seeing Wall of Boom get mentioned. People whispered stories of such a deck when I got started. I know there must be an old article by Peter Jahn in the SCG archives somewhere that does have a decklist. I didn't know that the between the turns phantom step was related to Time Vault.

    I thought Hulk got printed before Flash got updated?

    Because Karakas doesn't really play nice with their previous FtV release, both because of the card not being allowed in Commander and simply because of what it does to all those legends, I would estimate the likelihood of it being in the next FtV at a coinflip at best. Maze of Ith has a bigger chance if they want to print a nice old, expensive land in my view.

    I was trying to obtain a Candelabra about a month before the unbanning, it was already almost impossible to find them anywhere. I remember the only avaialable NM copies being around $65 back then.

    One thing I missed was the whole Portal sets unbanning, but maybe that was too long ago? I know the signs were there back then, many Vintage players seemed to see it coming. A savvy investor could have made a ton of money back then.

    Anyway, cool read!

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