The Business of Bulk
It's been a little while since we talked about the metrics and "how-to" of sorting bulk, if we exclude my set reviews. I've been taking a couple days each week to visit the bulk lair that is my father's basement where I store all the commons and uncommons I've accrued over the past year (my apartment in Utica is just too small and on the fourth floor with no elevator). Now that my internship is over and my schedule is freed up a lot more, I've had some extra time to delve into the stuff that I've sort of dropped off without, well, sorting.
I've found a lot of juicy stuff, and it hasn't really taken me that long to skim through the boxes for picks. I've been doing this a long time, and again, I've sort of become desensitized to exactly what kind of work I'm putting in. My dad came down to see how I was doing at one point, and he was shocked at the size of the "done" pile in the few hours that I had been chugging along at bulk picks. I had gone through over 20,000 bulk commons and uncommons in only a few hours, and he was curious at how I had managed to do that while still actually looking at the cards and pulling out the ones I wanted to keep.
What I explained to my dad that day is what I'm about to explain to all of you, and relates to the title of the article.
When you buy bulk, it's usually already organized in some shape or fashion. Sometimes it's color sorted (usually it's color sorted), sometimes it's carefully set sorted. Sometimes the bulk is unintentionally set sorted (usually when it's the remnants of several booster boxes, with lands and token cards left in). I've been picking a decent chunk of bulk that's been parsed out by rarity; all of the commons are in X boxes, and the uncommons are separate. Once you understand which box you're going through, you can start to make hypothesis about the remainder of the cards in the box without having to go through every box of bulk equally.
Take the above picture as an example. After thumbing through a couple hundred upside-down cards in each row, we can see that it's all commons. This is bulk that someone has already gone through (although when that happened is unknown), and they separated it into boxes of all commons, and all uncommons. According to the fistful of cards that I pulled from the artifact section (they also color-sorted it, lucky us), we can figure out that it's mostly Scars of Mirrodin block. Those of you in class that did their homework know that SOM bulk is just juicy with picks, even when it's simmered down to just commons. While there won't be any Palladium Myrs or Exsanguinates in the box, this block still has some powerful picks with a black symbol. Ichorclaw Myr, Grasp of Darkness and Galvanic Blast in SOM itself make this box worth pulling through; the former two are especially unlikely to be previously picked by a competitive player.
SOM Bulk Common Picks
NPH Bulk Common Picks
This strategy can be applied to most bulk that has been "sorted" by color and/or rarity to an extent, and you can use your own judgment to determine whether or not it's even worth picking through. Let's look at a couple more fistfuls of bulk.
Alright, so this looks promising in terms of sets. Time Spiral, Mirrodin, Zendikar, and I even see a Shadowmoor symbol in there on the back of a Devoted Druid spiking. I guess this box will be worth my time, especially those insane TSP commons.
Do you see the relevance in this pic? It's hard to catch because of the poor lighting, but there's a small batch of uncommons in this one. When I realized that the grey and black symbols were clustered, it became a lot easier to piece out for the grey symbols and look for the actual relevant uncommons in Rise of the Eldrazi. Hint: there's a lot of them.
Unfortunately, there are some sets that might not be worth your time to pick through if you're hoping for haymakers like Hada Freeblade and Soul's Attendant. Many of the recent fall sets that have been released in the past four years are simply lacking in common picks, making it easy for you to skim through them at lightning speed. No uncommons? It's probably safe to ignore KTK or BFZ. I'll show you those two sets on Trader Tools, with uncommons hidden.
As you can see, KTK pretty much only has the common dual lands to pick from. While that's fine for some, not everyone will be satisfied when they're hunting for Monastery Swiftspear and Vampire tokens. This is obviously not a perfect practice if you're trying to get blood from a stone and drain every ounce of value from your bulk, but it does give you an alternate tool in your arsenal if you have 400k bulk to pick through in a limited amount of time, especially if you realize that some of your bulk is already sorted by rarity or color.
I have one more little tip that didn't really fit in with the rest of the article, but still could save you time in the long run for those of you who really want to go through bulk like it's a speed run, and don't care as much about pulling out every nickel. I don't have any physical evidence to support this, so you'll just have to take my word for it as the bulk guru.
In my experience, there's a tier list to the five colors in Magic and how many pickable cards each color has. I'm sure this would be a fascinating article if I had a decent way to process the data from a spreadsheet like the Blueprint or Cardkingdom's buylist, but that can be tackled another day. I've noticed over the past several years that some colors have more pickable commons than others. The following list goes from weakest to strongest.
5. White: Most sets just don't have strong white pickable commons. I think part of that has to do with white's role as the second weakest color in Commander, and some of it has to do with the fact most of the high-powered weenie creatures that give white its trademark identity are uncommon. While white gets Path to Exile, Swords to Plowshares and Mother of Runes at uncommon, these are all also very old cards and really rare to find in bulk. White doesn't have universal powerhouse commons like Lightning Bolt, Cultivate, Preordain, or Ponder.
4. Black: Again, black just doesn't have as much in the common slot. Shadowborn Apostle and the previously mentioned Grasp of Darkness, sure, but nobody is picking out Doom Blade. Go for the Throat is uncommon, and while Viscera Seers are welcome, they're harder to come by. (I repeat: this is just a hypothesis based on my own experience.)
3. Red: Red gets some of the good old Modern/Legacy playable burn spells at common, which helps a lot. Lava Spike, Faithless Looting, Searing Blaze, and Insolate Neonate make red more appealing than the two previous colors.
2. Blue: For some reason, I feel like blue has a lot more playable commons than people give it credit for. The various one-mana cantrips all hold value extremely well (Brainstorm, Preordain, Ponder, Thought Scour, etc.), and it also gets Spell Pierce and Vapor Snag. Spreading Seas at common is fine, and the list goes on. When I pick bulk, I very rarely pass over a box of "blue commons," where white often gets dismissed entirely unless it's from a select few sets.
1. Green: I find it hard to guess whether blue or green takes the crown here, but the variety in common ramp really pulls through here. Green just has so many common Commander staples that pull the color together, from the dynamic duo of Cultivate/Kodama's Reach to Modern pump spells like Mutagenic Growth and Groundswell at common. Lastly, elves do a huge amount of work here. When you pick nickels and dimes, a box of green commons can yield massive gains from just Elvish Visionary and Nissa's Chosen. Don't even get me started on Lorwyn block elves.
Okay, I guess that's it for now. Hopefully I saved some of you some time in picking bulk. My dad thought I was picking at superhuman speed, but in reality I just knew that the EV of digging through a box of white commons from 2012 onward was basically zero. I had a 5k of BFZ commons, and knew that skipping it was worthwhile because there would be no Zulaport Cutthroat or Sylvan Scrying. Let me know what you think of this strategy in the comments, or if you have your own secret techniques for picking bulk!