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Insider: Speculating on the Unplayable

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Recently, I’ve been hearing a particular phrase more often. It’s a statement used to evaluate a speculation opportunity. And while it makes perfect sense to apply to more recent formats, such as Standard and Modern, the phrase has gradually lost its relevance in the realm of Magic’s oldest sets. This is especially true when the Reserved List is involved.

That phrase is, “Card XYZ doesn’t see any play and isn’t good, so I won’t bother.”

This statement is perfectly rational and I wouldn’t fault anyone for applying it. If you’re the type that likes to play with your Magic card investments you would have no interest in some of the more obscure cards from Arabian Nights, Legends, The Dark, or Antiquities. Perhaps your sole strategy for evaluating opportunities is to investigate the card’s utility during gameplay. It’s a sound strategy.

An Alternate Universe

At this point, you have to admit you are sacrificing numerous weekly opportunities to profit if you limit yourself to playable cards. As Magic approaches its 25th year, older Reserved List cards are becoming quite sparse and collectors are devouring copies like a Dyson vacuum consumes dirt. Playability is becoming less important of a factor as rarity and nostalgia reign supreme.

Consider the largest price increases on TCGplayer according to MTG Stocks over the past week.

Interests

There are no dual lands on this list. I don’t see Wasteland, Lion's Eye Diamond, or even Flusterstorm. There’s also no Modern staples despite the weekend’s Modern GP. No shock lands, Path to Exile, or Thoughtseize. Instead, the top five movers of the week come from a different class of cards.

For one, notice that they’re all on the Reserved List. It would appear there is another surge in speculation on these classic cards. Except instead of being playable cards, we’re seeing stuff like Stone Calendar and Mana Vortex show up. While I’ve seen the latter show up in the occasional Old School list, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Stone Calendar cast in a game of Magic.


I started wondering if the card was popular in EDH. Unless you think 160 decks is significant, there’s no thread there to pursue. It turns out this is just an old card folks wanted to speculate on despite it being “no good.”

Next I looked up Mana Vortex on EDH REC: 331 decks. Maybe for something rare from The Dark, that’s old enough to move the price? I don’t know. I can just say that the price spike is at least partially real: I sold my one copy for $11 on Friday. Apparently I could have gotten more.

Planar Gate shows up in 102 decks on EDH REC and In the Eye of Chaos is in 112. Neither are relevant in Old School MTG as far as I’m concerned. So again, for cards that are seemingly unplayable, these cards are moving awfully swiftly in price!


Lastly there’s Lodestone Bauble. I think this card is spiking because Urza's Bauble spiked and people wanted a similar zero-mana artifact at a lower price point. And while Lodestone Bauble is on the Reserved List, the card is definitely not as good as its Bauble counterparts for one major reason: it costs a mana to use. Playing four Mishra's Baubles and four Urza's Baubles in a deck is like playing a deck with 52 cards because they cost zero and cycle for zero. Lodestone Bauble costs one to use.

Since it targets only basic lands, I don’t think its utility in Legacy justifies the crazy new price. But again, it’s not about playability here. I buylisted three copies to Card Kingdom over the weekend at $1.50 each. I’m not funding my son’s college education from this spec alone, but this was a shocking source of profit if you ask me!

What’s Next?

Let’s assume for a moment that I’ve convinced you to consider speculating on cards for their rarity and collectability rather than their playability. Let’s assume you now believe me when I say that there are enough collectors out there to generate sufficient latent demand for these unplayable cards. Therefore, when a card starts to move in price, those procrastinating collectors decide they had better jump in and get their copies ASAP before the price triples.

It’s not really that far-fetched, is it?

If so, then I can open up a world of possible speculation targets for you. Cards you probably never heard of and you certainly would never think to put in your decks. They’re all pretty much “unplayable.” But because of their age, they provide plenty of opportunity for that sudden buyout.

First, I’ll start with the card I was touting recently in the Quiet Speculation Discord: Ali from Cairo.


You could argue that this card is “playable,” but I’d counter that it hasn’t been relevant since people played Spectral Cloak on the creature to win games back in the mid 1990’s. Still, the card is one of Magic’s more iconic creatures and collectors appreciate the card’s more dominant days. This has driven the card’s price of late and it appears it may have just hit an inflection point. It will be bought out very soon, and suddenly we’ll be talking about another useless card gaining over one hundred percent in value.

Want something less expensive that maybe hasn’t been put on folks’ radars yet? I got plenty of them! Let’s start with Quarum Trench Gnomes.


Here we have a Reserved List Legends creature that does very little in most games. Even against mono-white decks like White Weenie in Old School this card comes up short. By the time you’re sticking a four-drop, your opponent will be attacking with numerous white creatures. No, there’s no use in trying to justify playing this card. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a viable spec target. There are only 20 sellers of English versions of the card on TCGplayer and those $2-$3 copies won’t be long for this world.

Another Legends card I like even more is Cleanse.


I’ve mentioned this one before, but I am recommending it here yet again. This card has been worth $8 forever. Okay, not necessarily forever, but for as far back as MTG Stocks goes, which is about five years. There are more sellers of this one than the Gnomes, but this card has a little more fringe utility in Old School.

Now when I say “a little” I mean it: we’re talking extremely narrow circumstances. But I think this card has potential to pop over the next six to twelve months and I made sure to get my copy for collecting. It also helps that Card Kingdom's buy price is currently higher than the historical $8 price point!

In rapid-fire form, here are a few more cards worth considering. These are on my radar not because they’re playable, but because of their rarity, collectability, scarcity, and all-around coolness.

  • Damping Field: Under 30 sellers on TCGplayer, and most of the copies can’t even be purchased alone due to the $2 minimum imposed by the site. This is a Reserved List card from Antiquities, and it has a somewhat relevant ability. This card is outclassed by other artifact hosers, but in the right match-up it’s not unplayable. The art is bizarre, which I like as well.
  • Spiritual Sanctuary: This one has around 40 sellers on TCGplayer, and again has an interesting piece of art. Those two factors are what draw me to the card. It doesn’t really do anything relevant, but that hasn’t stopped Card Kingdom from consistently offering above market price on their buylist.
  • Urborg Justice: This is the newest card on my radar. It’s also on the Reserved List and there are under fifty sellers on TCGplayer. Again, many of the copies for sale are difficult to purchase because they’re under two bucks, and very few sellers can offer more than a couple copies. I’ve been tracking buylist on this card for a couple weeks now, and it has moved up gradually. It helps that the card has a relevant ability, and I think it’s underappreciated.

Disclaimer Reminder

I’ve said this multiple times, and I’ll repeat it again here. I never advise speculation on these older cards in large quantity. While I think they are positioned for a buyout, I would never advocate being the one purchasing massive quantities.

While there are occasions when buying a ton of a card pays off, most of the time you are going to out these gradually to collectors, and that is a slow process. I just mentioned how collectors can procrastinate on their purchases, and this will be even more true right after a card spikes. You think collectors who need Stone Calendar are going to rush out today and purchase copies? I don’t think so! They’re going to wait for the price to settle back down.

That’s why I advocate diversification rather than going deep on these obscure, older cards. By doing so, you increase your chances of getting that huge profit because you have exposure to many different cards. It’s much easier to move a couple copies of an unplayable card rather than a full stack. I tried this once with Storm Seeker, and I still can’t out the rest of my copies for profit.


It’s just not worth the hassle.

Wrapping It Up

After seeing all these recent Reserved List buyouts, it’s giving me reason to consider even the unplayable cards as worthwhile targets. They may be more difficult to sell, but aggressive buylists from sites like Card Kingdom offer a reasonable exit point. If nothing else, grabbing a few Reserved List cards, such as the ones I mentioned in this article, give you a near-zero-risk investment. These are my favorite types of investments!

Once you make your purchases, pay close attention to the market. Supply will gradually dwindle, someone will take notice, and the price will suddenly pop. That’s when you list your copy at a competitive price and reap the rewards.

I did this with Mana Vortex recently, and it was an easy triple-up. Turns out I could have potentially gotten even more money out of it because I see the card continuing to climb higher. But as I always like to say, no one ever went bankrupt selling cards for profit. That’s the mantra I’ll continue to live by, and it should drive prosperous growth in my portfolio for years to come.

Sigbits

  • I couldn’t help it: I bought Star City Games out of Anaba Spirit Crafter last week. There were 11 copies left and at $0.49 a copy, there really was no downside. I ended up buylisting them all to Card Kingdom for a modest profit because I had no interest selling these one at a time on eBay for $2-$3 before fees and shipping. What a hassle. But now I see Star City Games upped their price to $2.99!
  • Star City Games is sold out of Ali from Cairo, just like most major retailers. This is one of the reasons I think the card is due for an imminent bump. They will probably move their price to $149.99 or something like that, and it will coincide with market movement higher.
  • Since upping their price on Underground Sea, I see that SCG has finally managed to get a few Revised copies back in stock. Still, I count eight copies in total—hardly a quantity to get excited about. What interests me most though, is that they are still out of stock on Unlimited copies despite their higher buy price. At $799.99 for Near Mint, I’d expect any copies they acquire to sit in inventory and rot. But perhaps not. Perhaps their buy and sell prices still aren’t high enough?

8 thoughts on “Insider: Speculating on the Unplayable

    1. I’m sorry, did you tell me to go buy Damping Field? Cause I think not! Also, you mentioned Ali quite a while ago but it only just popped today. You were too early to the party. 😛

  1. Lodestone Bauble is a part of the Legacy Bomberman deck that Sean wrote about in “This week in legacy”, the thread on the source & was played on camera 1-2 times at SCGALT.

    1. Adrian,

      Thanks for mentioning this – I had no idea! Often times a card spikes and I don’t know it’s related to a new deck or sideboard tech. I suspect others who don’t pay close attention to Legacy may have also missed this. Did the deck do well? Do you see Lodestone Bauble climbing even higher?

      Thanks again!

      Sig

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