Insider: Three Modern Finance Lessons from 2015

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What a year to be a Modern player! Even though I've been slinging Modern decks since 2011, I don't remember the last 12-month period that brought this much fun in the format.

Whether tracking new decks (yes, you can win a Grand Prix with Ghoulcaller's Bell), watching the metagame change, brewing with spoilers, or sitting back and relaxing to some Star City Games or Wizards coverage, every month of 2015 brought exciting developments to the format we love.

This was especially true for buyers, sellers, speculators and anyone else with a financial stake in Modern. Every innovation and metagame shift brought huge market changes as cards rose and fell (mostly rose) and even the smallest speculations paid off in big ways.

Also: buyouts. Holy buyouts.

The 2015 Buyouts are Real

The last time I seriously speculated on a card was in 2011 with Blazing Shoal, but it was hard not to drop $20 here or $30 there throughout this dynamic year of Modern price changes.

As I experienced, and as I'm sure anyone else who bet on the Modern market experienced too, 2015 both set new rules and affirmed old ones when it comes to the Modern economy. We'll need to understand those lessons if we are to enjoy profits in 2016.

In my last article of the year, I'm going to identify three of the most important Modern finance lessons I observed from 2015.

These findings will serve you well in 2016 regardless of whether you are buying new staples, selling old investments, building your first Modern deck, or switching strategies to adapt to a new metagame. If you don't want to miss out on the next spike, buyout, or once-in-a-year opportunity, this is the article for you.

Lesson 1 - Major Finish, Major Spike

I'm a major proponent of metagame-level data to determine the importance of decks. Single finishes can be telling, but ultimately a deck needs sustained performance across numerous events to cement its status in a given Modern tier.

The Modern metagame might behave this way, but the Modern economy definitely doesn't. Throughout 2015, it only took a single Top 8 showing to spike cards through the roof. I fully expect this behavior to continue into 2016.

It Just Takes One Finish

Every card shown above (and a dozen unlisted ones) had a 2015 finish in advance of their spike. And every one of those 2015 finishes was almost entirely isolated in the broader metagame context, with no major follow-up of any kind. Or any follow-up period!

For instance, Lantern Control made waves in September after Zac Elsik's win at Grand Prix Oklahoma City. Cards like Ensnaring Bridge, Lantern of Insight, Glimmervoid and others saw considerable price increases in the immediate aftermath.

Bridge, like Blood Moon in June before it, was the biggest winner of the lot, as an integral component of the Lantern lock with few printings. It spiked again as recently as early December, but what performances were behind this newest jump or the sustained price-tag? The answer is, basically none at all.

Ali Aintrazi brought Lantern Control to a mediocre 2-2 finish in the Modern rounds of the SCG Players' Championship, following a Top 16 finish by Marcos Portugal at Grand Prix Porto Alegre and Michael Donahue's Top 16 run at the SCG Premier IQ in Denver. These are the three biggest wins of the 14 total performances tracked in my Modern Nexus Top Decks dataset since September.

Is Lantern Control a bad deck? Certainly not, and it has the internal synergies and the external finishes to prove it. But is Lantern Control a top-tier contender? Unfortunately for those speculators sitting on 20 copies of Bridge, not really.

Lantern's share has dropped precipitously since October, with seven finishes in that month, and just two each in November and December. The deck makes up less than 0.5% of the metagame, and with the exception of Ancient Stirrings and Glimmervoid, its big staples see virtually zero play elsewhere.

Despite this, Lantern Control staples remain decent investment targets that continue to be spike-prone even with no finishes behind them. We would see similar trajectories in Grishoalbrand after Grand Prix Charlotte, Bubble Hulk after Zac Elsik's run at Grand Prix Pittsburgh (not even making Day 2), Slivers after all their random Premier IQ wins, and in a variety of other case examples.

Action Steps for 2016

Consistent performance over numerous events will continue to define Modern's Tier 1 and Tier 2 decks. Keep making maindeck and sideboard decisions based on this during 2016. In terms of investments, however, don't worry about metagame profile if you want a short-term profit. Cards are going to spike after lone finishes even if their home-deck never repeats a Top 8 again.

2016 is going to see plenty of isolated performances that will never translate into big metagame movement. While you don't necessarily want to play these decks, you should definitely look into speculating on them.

B/x Eldrazi could be an up-and-coming example of such a strategy (although, admittedly, some its pilots think it has tiering potential).

If a new deck steals Top 8 at a Grand Prix, then buy, buy, buy! A few days later, go into selling mode as you offload cards before they lose value. Or hope for a second-half jump, as in Bridge's case, later in the season. This investment strategy might not make a fortune in the long-run, but it should net you healthy profits over a short time frame.

Lesson 2 - Old Staples, Big Profits

As we saw in Lesson 1, it's easy to chart Modern's 2015 finance history in shiny new cards and their format-wide impact. Almost every set brought at least one new synergy to the metagame and investors responded accordingly, jumping on hype trains and drumming up interest in their ill-speculated gains.

On the other hand, some of Modern's biggest gainers weren't hot technology from the latest set. They were veteran Modern players with years of experience under their belts.

2015 taught us to respect the longtime format staple, and anyone who understood this has the year-end profits to prove it.

Old-School Modern Gainers

It's surprisingly difficult to identify a common thread between the rising staples. Some of them enjoyed relatively recent reprints, such as Arcbound Ravager, Inquisition and Aether Vial. Others are old rares with zero reprintings: Inkmoth and Guide are in this category. Then we have cards like Blood Moon and even Lightning Bolt with an extensive reprint history that still managed to rise over 2015.

If there is one theme uniting these kinds of cards, it's their consistent metagame performance paired with a (relative) lack of recent reprints.

Take Burn and its staples as examples. I've tracked Burn at Tier 1 in every single Modern Nexus update this year (see November for a recent example), and the deck regularly posts 8%-12% shares no matter what else is happening in Modern. We're playing a non-rotating format which increases demand for decks that are likely to stay relevant from month to month. Burn is squarely in that category.

On top of these metagame factors, all the top-tier decks have a few mandatory staples that don't benefit from large print runs or recent reprintings. For Burn, Guide was the huge winner here, an old Zendikar rare conspicuously absent from both Modern Masters 2015 and Battle for Zendikar.

Looking at another deck, Ravager takes the cake in Affinity---despite its Modern Masters reprinting, the card is still in the $45-$50 range after an awesome year for the robot horde.

In the cases of Ravager, Guide and others, the combination of deck performance and a notable lack of reprinting (neither card got a badly-needed Modern Masters 2015 slot) jacked up prices and kept them high. Speculators with sensitivity to metagame trends, and those with knowledge of what cards have lower volume, profited from these combined forces throughout 2015.

Action Steps for 2016

Barring major shakeups around the banlist, Modern's Tier 1 is likely to carry over into 2016. That means URx Twin, Affinity, Burn, BGx Midrange, and R/G Tron will continue to be the top format players, and their cards will continue to rise. Your job in 2016 is to identify cards in these decks with low circulation and then buy into them early.

Cards such as Ancient Stirrings and Steel Overseer are great examples of such targets, but there are certainly others between these Tier 1 representatives. Buy them when you can, especially during off-seasons when Modern interest wanes and big decks fall off the radar in favor of hot spoiler speculation and zany tech. Keep your eyes on the mainstream staples and get that profit.

Lesson 3 - Test Your Sleepers

When a hype train is rolling out of the station, there isn't a lot of time or even reason to test the cards in question. Buyouts happen in a matter of hours and meaningful testing takes days. Even if the spike doesn't last and the cards turn out to be bad, you can almost always secure a short-term profit.

This is not the case with sleeper cards that sneak through the buzz. These diamonds in the rough don't command massive price tags during the spoiler season and generally stay reasonable in the first few weeks. If you can identify these cards through some testing, even if only in a few games, you can get ahead of a jump and earn serious cash.

Easily the best example from 2015 came out of Magic Origins in the new wallet-sculptor himself: Jace, Vryn's Prodigy.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Jace, Vryn's Prodigy

Even if you don't know a thing about Standard (where Jace has become the format-defining staple) or Legacy (where Jace has enjoyed some play), Modern testing alone would have been more than enough to showcase his power.

On paper, Jace suffered from major Modern problems. He dies to basically every removal spell in the format, has no immediate impact if cast on turn two, and doesn't do much to stop the unfair decks even if you get him online. Jace excels in Standard largely because he dodges these issues by virtue of a different metagame and card pool (especially the removal problem). It seemed impossible that such a card could succeed in Modern.

Jace is no Snapcaster Mage, but he remains a lynchpin of the rising Grixis Midrange strategy, an evolution of Chapin's Grixis Control from Charlotte in June. If you had tested Jace in the Grixis shell, whether in a series of games or simply in a throwaway trial on a Sunday afternoon, you would have seen how strong the card becomes in the Grixis shell.

Most Modern players missed this, and consequently missed the Jace spike, which started at $10 before rising to $20, then $30, then $40, and onward and upward in leaps and bounds until today.

Whether Jace in Grixis, Pia and Kiran Nalaar also in Grixis, Hangarback Walker in Affinity or Jund, Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger in R/G Tron, or any other new card from the year, 2015 showcased numerous staples that got passed up early because they didn't look good on paper. Testing confirmed these cards as sleepers, and players, along with savvy investors, profited accordingly.

Action Steps for 2016

Oath of the Gatewatch is coming in just a few short weeks, and we're all going to make a collective resolution to test cards before making blanket statements. Some cards are going to ride a hype train irrespective of test results---feel free to follow Lesson 1 with regard to these cards. Other cards are going to slide under the community's notice, and you'll want to test these cards to see if people are missing out.

Throw the newest spoilers into existing lists just to see how they run. It doesn't matter if the list is perfect; you're simply looking to see if the card exceeds expectations and has potential.

By a similar token, don't dismiss cards out of hand because they look bad on paper! Test them in real lists and then choose to move or hold on the sleepers.

A New Year for Modern!

If you thought 2015 was a big year for Modern, I bet you can't wait until January 1. We're kicking off the year with a banlist upate, a new set, and a Modern Pro Tour, three huge occasions that are sure to have implications for Modern. I'll be back next year with some predictions for 2016 covering reprints, bans, financial trends and more.

What were some other lessons you learned from 2015? Were there any cards or decks you think deserve special mention? Do you have any predictions you're thinking about for the next year? I'll see you in the comments and until 2016, enjoy the holiday season and we'll be back soon with more Modern action.

One thought on “Insider: Three Modern Finance Lessons from 2015

  1. As a deck played by like, MAYBE five people in a room, I’d say GP Top 16s are fantastic finishes. Elsik also had a Top 16 prior to his win with the deck.

    Despite these great finishes and power of the deck, the real reason you won’t see a spike is because, well… only maybe five people want to play the deck. People seem to hate the deck despite it being one of very few decks that can only exist in the context of Modern, indeed making it among the purest “Modern” decks there are.

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