Insider: The Hydras of Tarkir

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Last week I got into it a little bit regarding the overprinting of dragons lately, and how even good dragons have limited upside in an environment where dragons are no longer a novelty.

Competition for a finite number of deck spots with the other tribal monsters makes cards that seem like obvious slam-dunks have upside that’s more limited than you think.

The best dragons printed are going to slot into a dragon tribal EDH or casual deck, obviously, but how do we know which those are?

It was suggested in the comments last week that we could rank dragons (and hydras, vampires, zombies, angels, etc.) and that way we could see which ones would get “bumped” off the list when new ones were printed, but I think that’s a little less instructive than exploring some criteria to use when we evaluate new tribal cards when a new set comes out.

Hopefully we can arm ourselves with some tools, because we’re going back to Zendikar soon, and if you don’t think we’re about to get hit with a vampire sledgehammer, you’re fooling yourself.

Instead of trying to see which vampires might be worse than the new vampires they might print, let’s instead look at a few points to consider any time a new card comes out.

Will Casuals Care?

Or EDH players, or whomever.

Well, will they care about Stormbreath Dragon?

What are the long-term price prospects for a card like this? This tanked even harder than Thundermaw Hellkite, and while it’s showing a few brief glimpses of a rally, it’s mostly circling the drain.

Could we have predicted this? I think so. It is nuts in a Standard environment that saw people use multicolored removal spells and cards like Chained to the Rocks to deal with dragons, and it scales into the late game the way a card you want to lean on and have be your finisher needs to.

Still, is this knocking a dragon like Bogardan Hellkite or Utvara Hellkite off of its pedestal? There are dragons that impact standard and go on to live long, prosperous lives in EDH, but those cases are rare.

One indicator that almost sorts the cards for us without us having to really assess the cards?

What’s the Converted Mana Cost?

A 5 mana dragon is affordable enough to play in a fast, 1-on-1 format like Standard. A 9 mana dragon is too slow to be hardcast in a fast, 1-on-1 format like Standard.

A 9 mana dragon is likely equipped with powerful abilities that make it worth playing and powerful enough to end the game in a slow, multiplayer format like Commander or casual. A 5 mana dragon likely isn’t powerful enough to get there.

Sure, you can menace some people with Stormbreath, especially after you use its monstrosity ability, but that’s a little like saying Shivan Dragon is going to terrorize them if you have 35 red mana floating.

Dragons with CMC 6 or less are almost always relegated to competitive formats and the trade-off for their reasonable cost is their low impact. Utvara Hellkite was too slow for Standard, but once it gets going in EDH, it’s a terror. And rightly so.

Hydras are a little tougher to sort, but I imagine the number of colored pips in their casting cost after the X (if they have one) can help us out.

Kalonian Hydra seems like it may be an exception until you realize that, despite being good in EDH, its price has fallen significantly. It has upside, but it has a while before it gets to where we’d be unhappy we sold out too early.

More than two green pips or a fixed cost of more than 5 and we’re likely looking at a card that is going to go up in price later.

Does it Matter That It’s a Dragon?

This can affect its upside in either the “right now” formats like Standard, and possibly Modern, and it can also affect EDH and casual upside. Let’s look at one of my favorite dragons:

Does this matter that it’s a dragon? Yes.

And no.

In fact, “yes and no” is the correct answer, I think. When it was announced that this block would be lousy with dragons, people started taking a look at the cards that had upside.

Scion of the Ur-Dragon was a card that was identified because people might want to build dragon tribal out of all of the new dragons. This card is one that was getting played already, though, which is why it wasn’t total garbage.

If there were no other dragon cards in all of Magic, this card would still be good and still be playable. Mayael decks can cheat it into play. Maelstrom Wanderer decks can cascade into this and swing with it right away and steal some artifcats. This is basically an artifact-based Battle of Wits or Test of Endurance in a Daretti or Bosh artifact deck.

This card is solid. Let’s look at two things.

The first is that despite being very good and being a mythic, it was a very recent card and EDH demand alone was making this a $1ish mythic. That’s poor performance for a card that came out two years ago. Being a very, very good dragon and being a mythic wasn’t enough to buoy its price much.

It would have crept up on its own eventually, but it leapt instead. Why?

An event made it jump. People identified it as a very good EDH card and one that had significant upside already, and being a dragon made it go up along with a lot of other good dragon cards when there was renewed interest in building dragon EDH decks. It was able to experience the upside of all dragons at the announcement of an incoming dragon set because it’s a dragon.

So does it matter if the card is a dragon (or angel or demon or whatever)? Yes, and no. If the card is good enough to get played in non-tribal decks, the card has upside attached to its playability. It will go up on its own merits, so pay attention to tribal cards that are still good if their tribal alliance isn’t a factor.

Also, it should matter if the card is a dragon because anything that affects all dragons will affect it. It has upside that has nothing to do with its own inherent playability and that matters, too. Cards that can answer the question “Does it matter that this is a [insert tribe]?” with “Yes, and no” are the best horses to bet on. Or angels. Whichever.

Does it Have or is it a Lord?

Having a lord, or several of them, will go a long way toward exposing a card to upside. Innistrad brought us a bunch of zombies and that was good for everyone. They had lords waiting. Lots of them.

This sure has been printed a lot of times for a card that’s worth money. Lords are obviously great and you should pick up any and all lords. Even durdly, bad lords trade out well to casuals, can trade out four at a time, and can experience upside from subsequent printings.

I don’t advocate buying these for cash, but I don’t ship any lord in bulk. If we got a ton of decent birds in a subsequent set, these would shoot up. Is the likelihood high? Nope, but the risk is low if all you are doing is just waiting to ship them in bulk. You can either get a dime now or experience potential upside and you always have the option to move these as a bulk rare.

Not being legendary doesn’t even really matter because this can be a 4-of in the deck it goes in because casual players like tribal decks. This can even go in a deck as a soldier lord, which I’ve actually seen someone do.

Grab lords. For the most part, they have upside over time, barring a reprint.

See? This card was never particularly exciting when it was legal in standard, but the desire to play it in any durdly tribal deck is strong. Not being EDH playable doesn’t hurt its upside either, as cards like this can be bought four-at-a-time.

When a card already has lords associated with it, it has more upside. Hydras and dragons are actually the big losers here. While cards like Zirilian of the Claw and Vorel of the Hull Clade can be used to build a deck of that tribe around, not having a four-of, obvious lord card hurts its upside for 60 card casual.

I think, looking ahead to Zendikar, we know we have good vampire lords and this means we will evaluate vampires differently than we would dragons in some respects.

Some cards are a bit of both, like Risen Executioner. Does it matter that this is a zombie lord? Yes and no.

Is its price of $3 correct? No, there’s no way it is. But does that make it a snap buy now? Not necessarily.

What Do We Do?

I am a big fan of waiting for cards to bottom out. Rotation really hits casual cards hard if they don’t get played in Standard and don’t really have applicability in Modern. This is a fairly obvious consequence of Standard being the format that rotates the most often. But people dump cards after they rotate if they don’t want them and that can make prices of casual cards very attractive.

It’s obviously best to buy at the absolute floor, and since there is no real hurry to snap up casual cards right away, you can just wait until they rotate and see if the prices bottom out.

It’s possible Risen Executioner goes above $3 in the short term, but it’s likely to go below $3 at some point. Could this be a $9 card in two years? I think that’s possible, given what it does.

Does it matter that it’s a zombie? Yes and no. It has a cool ability regardless and it plays well with graveyard strategies.

Does it have or is it a lord? Yes to both. This can be both a beater and a lord and it’s a great zombie card.

The converted mana cost is 4, which makes this a bad EDH include but a great 60 card casual include. That means that, unlike dragons and hydras, which thrive in a slower format, this will thrive in a faster format, and it will be sold 4 at a time to boot. Zombie tribal EDH may want this, but 60 card decks are much more likely.

These factors muddy the waters. On one hand it looks like a card that will peak in price now due to the fact that it’s not great in EDH and looks more like a Standard card. On the other hand, it has some characteristics that make it look like a card that will peak in price later.

The truth is that it is pretty similar to vampire lords we’ve seen in the past.

With four printings available, upside is limited here. It’s also maintaining value nicely which means there is no real hurry to sell. I think this is a good corollary for Risen Executioner. But I also think it has potential upside if we see good vampires come around in the next block and rekindle enthusiasm for vampires.

Maybe Executioner at $3 isn’t such a bad buy.

One thought on “Insider: The Hydras of Tarkir

  1. This article is ten times better than the DARGONS article last week. I’ve got nothing bad to say about it 🙂

    There are a few other points to make when you’re looking at the long-term impact of a card. As you put it, EDH looks for very different things in a card than tournament-played constructed formats. You discount the mana cost dramatically when you’re looking at EDH and focus instead on the effect. That’s why you like Tyrant so much; it’s expensive, but you get a huge beatstick AND an ability to disrupt artifact strategies AND a alternative win condition all in one card. The effect is enormous. Similarly, Hydra Broodmaster is too expensive for actual constructed play, but it, too, is a big beatstick AND the effect you get out of it if you pump tons of mana into it in constructed is game-ending.

    Some other critical questions to ask about cards for long-term demand include:

    1. Does it die to removal? (All else being equal, a creature that gives you a benefit even if it eats a cheap removal spell after being cast is better.) Lifeblood Hydra passes this test with flying colors, making it very appealing for EDH. Stormbreath gives you a much smaller impact (maybe 5 damage) so it scores less points here. Some, but not tons.

    2. Does it threaten to end the game on its own? Alternative win conditions or massive effects attached to creatures that are not otherwise useless (hello Tyrant) are going to have some demand.

    3. Is it a combo piece? Generally, I always buy playsets of potential combo pieces in any new set. These usually include cards that have relevant activated abilities that do not require the creature to tap, an ability that untaps a creature, an ability that returns cards from the graveyard to play, abilities that allow you to cheat the mana cost on getting permanents from your hand or graveyard into play, or cards with triggered abilities where the trigger is something that it’s not hard to do infinitely in EDH. For example, Hydra Broodmaster is a win condition with infinite mana. Selhoff Occultist is a win condition with infinite LTB triggers, like you get in Sharuum. (Obviously, not all combo pieces are created equal.)

    4. How well does it work with Nyxthos? I don’t think this is a trivial question. Like you, I suspect Nyxthos is a powder keg waiting to do some damage in constructed at some point. Cards that feed the Shrine and translate the Shrine into a win once it’s fed seem like they bear watching.

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