Speculation depends at its core on your ability to make a decision quickly and then act on it. Sometimes, the window is hours or days, but other times, it's mere minutes. Land Tax has been unbanned. It's 12:06am when your friend texts you to wake you up. You need to make decisions on whether you want to get out of bed and buy some white enchantments. Are there are other angles to play on the card? Should you get Scroll Racks, Mox Diamonds? Truth is, this happens a lot more than just with unbannings, because spoiler season is full of this sort of thing. Spoiler season happens four times a year, and typically lasts a month. Wrap your mind around this: for about a third of the year, you can actively speculate just on spoilers. Beyond that, there are enough SCG Opens and Grands Prix to make the speculator busy.
What I'd like to share with you today are some case studies on cards that I think will help develop some basic heuristics. "Heuristics," by the way, means a set of problem-solving skills that you develop through experience. Let's shortcut some of the experience needed to get some of these simple concepts. Look, a lot of speculation is just short of voodoo, but good speculators fall back on a few predictive rules, even at a subconscious level.
Battle of Wits was spoiled to big fanfare in M13. Why not, this was one of the few alternate-win cards that actually saw play. It shook up what it looks like to play tournament Magic in a physical way. Your opponent sits down with a huuuuuge pile of cards and you know it's one and only one thing. Battle is fun and it's also been competitive in climates more suited to blue spells like Repulse (woof!). So when Battle was announced, I wondered whether there was any dough to be made on the card. Unfortunately, I concluded that there wasn't room to make a profit, and here are the steps I went through mentally.
Does it exist in an earlier set? Yes, Battle popped up first in Odyssey and then in 9th Edition. This is typically a bad thing, even if that card was nuts in the previous printing. Reprinted rares tank in value (but we'll look at this a bit more). The two crucial facts that made me keep investigating were that it was printed in a set with an old frame and there were foil versions of that set. So original foil Battles exist and were cheap - about $2 when it was announced. If there was money to be made, it would really only be on those foils. Nobody wants ugly 9th edition cards when they can get slightly-less-ugly ODY cards.
How powerful is this card? Battle of Wits says "win the game" so yeah, it's powerful when you read the card. However, Battle did its best when Magic was much different. William Jensen ran it in 2002 to a 1st place finish at GP: Milwaukee, but his deck was ABSURD. Take a look at this. You had so many powerful cards in standard that Battle just gave you an excuse to run them all. Exclude, Flametongue Kavu, Dromar's Charm, Fact or Fiction... those cards are just too good to be reprinted and Baby Huey had all of 'em. Of course you're going to do well with Battle when you can run 240 really, really good spells. Since his victory, creatures have gotten better and spells are worse. Battle doesn't have crazy cards for you to cram into your deck, it has Birthing Pod and a bunch of medicore kill spells. In short, Battle isn't what it was a decade ago.
Are people going to love to play this card? Even if a card kind of blows, it can be part of a second-tier strategy if it's well-loved. People love Battle of Wits, let's not be mistaken on that. However, far less people own the actual cards to play Battle. You need 240 really playable, good cards to make a deck out of the card. Now you've got Mythic rares to work into the cost, too. You'll end up with a few people looking to make a pimped-out and awesome Battle deck, but they won't move the market enough to make foil Battles a real card.
Conclusions: Battle was just printed far too much and isn't the right card right now - I didn't buy into it and I'm happy with that decision.
Meddling Mage is another fan favorite that made a reappearance in Shards block. Let's look at the same factors applied to that card.
Does it exist in an earlier set? Yes, Meddling Mage was an iconic card of Planeshift. It was an invitational card with a seriously cool ability. It's a card like Jester's Cap in terms of fan love - you can stop the opponent totally with it! Further, it was printed in a middle set. There are few cards that can sustain a value above $5 long after they rotate out, and Meddling Mage was one of them.
Are people going to love to play with this card? Yes, people wanted to play Meddling Mage in everything they could! Meddling Mage was about $6 for a very long time and as soon as its reprint was announced, the card nearly doubled in price. Take a look:
How powerful is this card? Meddling Mage is potentially really strong, since it can lock out huge haymakers from the opponent. In Standard of years past, though, Meddling Mage usually just chanted away the removal spell that you could count on. At the time, it was frequently Repulse or Urza's Rage. You could reasonably predict which of the two or three playable kill spells would be aimed at the Mage. That basically just gave the first one Shroud, which was still a rare ability in those days. Shroud or the option to close off cards in their deck was and is decent. However, Meddling Mage had a few issues at the time that limited its power. Remember again that creatures got a lot better! A 2/2 bear with a good ability was way above the curve in Invasion, but two mana gets you much more these days. In Alara block, it got you Putrid Leech, for example. Jund was the big menace at the time and if you played out Mage and then they answered with the Leech or Sprouting Thrinax, well, you really have not done anything to change the board, have you? If 5-color Control gets its Cruel Ultimatums cut off, they can still Wrath away your little man. Meddling Mage saw nearly zero play because the environment wasn't right for it and the card isn't as good as it once was.
Conclusions: I'm torn on reporting a concrete lesson from Meddling Mage because if you bought up copies as soon as it was spoiled, you would have made a very tidy profit. However, look at how quickly this card nosedived when the Shards version came out:
In one month, it dropped $4, and by the end of June, it was worth half of what it was at its peak. If you had gotten into these any later than "as soon as the spoiler was announced," then you would have gotten burned hard. The best lesson from this is that a reprint rarely makes a card's value go up, and if it does go up, it won't hang there for long.
Bonfire is currently one of the hottest cards around and there's a lot of talk about what ceiling it has. When the card was first announced, people were lukewarm on it, which adds to the mystique - it's the Tarmogoyf effect of spotting a hidden gem. Let's make it our final study.
Does it exist in an earlier set? No, and we could be done with that, but I have to mention that Bonfire looks a lot like some other cards we'd seen - cards that negatively influenced what we thought of Bonfire. For example, it looks kind of like Pyroclasm - but Pyroclasm costs 2 and Bonfire costs 5 to get the same sweep. It looks like Earthquake, but Earthquake always costs XR. The thing we were missing about Bonfire, thinking it was just a bad Earthquake, was the value in only sweeping away an opponent's creatures. You see, we said "Earthquake was never played and this is no Earthquake" and we ignore that this card was not an Earthquake! We've never really played with a card that can selectively sweep away just the opponent's field. That negative historical bias influenced a lot of people, including myself.
How powerful is this card? Turns out, really powerful. Ramp decks can play it because it won't kill their own guys - au contraire, a weenie like Avacyn's Pilgrim actually helps cast it. Bonfire at retail is not great - but it's not bad, seeing as how all of Standard's monsters are usually X/2s or less. Casting this at 4R is painful but effective. We play Blasphemous Act for that price quite frequently. I think it took testing to see how gamebreaking the Miracle was, though.
Are people going to love to play with this card? Honestly, no. It's clunky for casual players. It's just another variant burn spell for Standard, but with some new qualities. It's not a banner Planeswalker or a beloved reprint. We cannot factor in the love appeal on this card's price.
Conclusions: Bonfire escaped notice for at least a week after being spoiled. I think this was in part due to people misunderstanding the card as printed and not looking to see if casting it for 4R was still a decent value in Standard. It's still a hot card, even though I don't think it'll hit $45 in its Standard run. It's one of those cards that got away from me personally - it takes a bit more work for me to buy into an $8 Mythic than an uncommon that's only a dime, and I think a lot of other speculators held off for the same reason. After all, Entreat the Angels is down about 30% from its peak during spoiler season and that card is going to keep going downward. Speculating on Mythics is especially risky.
If you have analytic tools you use, questions in mind that you always ask, or danger signs that you look for, let me know in the feedback here! If you appreciated an article that went back to the basics, let me know and I'll work on some more.
Until next week,
As a bonus tip, Shardless Agent is seriously, seriously powerful in Legacy. Start picking these up for under $8, I don't think you'll regret it. I'll explain more next week (in respect to my source).