Insider: Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em

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Welcome back, readers!

Today's article is on a subject I like to circle back around to every once in a while. In order to grow as a speculator (or investor), you need to self-evaluate. Every card you speculated on you had a reason for doing so at the time—it's important to look back over those reasons and determine if they were valid or not.

With eternal formats this is a bit more difficult, because your reason could still be valid but just not have come to fruition yet. (Of course, it may never, but that's something you can only figure out in retrospect.) With Standard, however, it's an easier affair—there is a deadline, and once it's past you know the opportunity is gone.

It's important to keep in mind that good self-evaluation can make you feel a bit uncomfortable. The brain naturally wants to protect us from harm and reviewing mistakes can make us feel bad (i.e. harm). We have to push past that and try not to make excuses for bad decisions, lest we repeat them and lose more money.

And for those wondering where the article title comes from, it's a famous lyric from Kenny Rogers's "The Gambler."

The great Kenny Rogers

Failed Standard Specs

With all this in mind, today I'm going to look my notable speculations from last Standard season that didn't pan out. I'll explain what my logic was at the time of purchase, lay out what the losses (if any) amounted to, and discuss what went wrong.

Shadows over Innistrad Duals

Despite a poor showing with the Theros scry lands, I continued my strategy of investing in Standard dual lands. I believed that the scry lands were an exception to the rule, and that we would return to normalcy with the Battle for Zendikar (BFZ) and Shadows over Innistrad (SOI) duals. I was wrong.

If I can be perfectly honest, before typing that last sentence my brain immediately jumped to, "well, when I picked my extra copies up, the BFZ lands were expected to rotate sooner, and WoTC changing the rotation may have killed this spec." But reading over that, it just comes off as a bad excuse. WoTC announced the shift back to one-year rotations on October 16th, 2016. On that day, the prices of SOI duals were as follows:

You may be wondering why I didn't include any Game Trails on this list—I did in fact pick up extra copies of them, but I actually outed them at a profit. However, I held onto the others hoping they would turn positive. The worst part is that for the first three, if I'd unloaded them at their high point (after the announcement), I could have made at least a little profit. But I didn't.

Now they are all sitting under $1 and I lost about $23 on this spec (luckily my cash investment was minimal and most copies were picked up in trade). While not the end of the world, it still goes to prove that when the rules change, you need to adjust and not continue to plod along hoping for better.

Battle Lands

Speaking of my Standard-legal land investment, let's jump onto the next group: the BFZ duals. While my SOI dual speculation was relatively small, my BFZ one was considerably larger. To make matters worse, I purchased a good number of these off of eBay and TCGplayer in late 2015 (so these were a definite cash investment as opposed to coming from trades).

BFZ Dual Qty Purchased Qty Remaining Avg Purchase Price Current Price
Canopy Vista 17 7 $3.04 $1.39
Cinder Glade 10 - $2.62 -
Prairie Stream 21 18 $3.65 $1.87
Smoldering Marsh 20 11 $2.16 $1.65
Sunken Hollow 9 18* $4.46 $1.80
* At some point I traded for 9 more copies of Sunken Hollow.

My total investment was $237.99. To find the total loss we just look at the difference between current and purchase price, and multiply that by the copies I'm still holding. (I won't count those nine extra copies of Sunken Hollow that were traded for). This equals a total cash loss of $73.20—likely even higher, as I'm unlikely to get retail value on any of these lands now. This one hurts.

The lesson I learned here was that, as I'm not a big Standard player, I need to dramatically cut back my Standard speculation. I shouldn't be going really deep on anything unless I'm extremely confident about a card (which again, because I'm not devoted to the format, is going to be extremely rare).

I thought that the fact that these lands could be found with fetches and that they were likely to enter untapped later in the game would make them desirable for Standard (while the Khans fetches were in it). This was true, of course, but not sufficient for price gains.

I strongly believe that the Expeditions in Battle for Zendikar (including both the shocks and fetches, which see a lot of eternal play) dramatically increased the amount of product opened and flooded the market with BFZ cards. That's why we had so few valuable rares in the set. Hence the price ceiling on these lands was very low, and I failed to take that into account.

Drownyard Temple

Thankfully my actual cash investment on this card was a single $1.20 purchase for one copy (for a Commander deck). However, I did trade for a lot of them and currently have 10 copies. I know that I picked up a lot of copies in trade shortly after seeing the card on camera on the SCG Open (I believe it was Todd Anderson who was playing it) and had hoped it would prove a cool combo with Thalia and The Gitrog Monster in Standard.

Obviously that didn't pan out, as the card steadily declined pretty much its entire life in Standard. While I still like it for Commander (especially in any deck that sacrifices lands), trading for them later would have kept me from overpaying (or over-trading) for the copies I am still sitting on.

Sylvan Advocate

My cash investment in this card was $0, but I traded for them when they were around $5 because I was having success with Abzan decks in Standard (and really loved how this card made Shambling Vent a powerhouse). I fell into the hype when there were whispers that this card might be Tarmogoyf numbers 5 and 6 in some Modern decks, and I wanted to make sure I had an extra playset just in case. Now this card is sitting at $0.75, hasn't found a home in Modern, and isn't likely to anytime soon.

Ulvenwald Hydra

I believed enough in this card to buy nine copies for $20.44. It was a mythic that could fetch any land and seemed like a much less broken, but still powerful, Primeval Titan. Of course, the difference between fetching up one land and two lands is significant, and Titan getting to do it repeatedly even more so.

The Hydra never found any home at all in Standard (beyond the occasional one-of) and my nine copies are now worth a whopping $10.44—a good solid $10 loss. I'm still a bit surprised at how little play it sees in Commander decks given all the great utility lands in the format, but so far he's not making the cut in a lot of decks.

Planar Outburst

I purchased eight copies of Planar Outburst as a spec. Luckily, I only paid $0.25 per copy so their current price of $0.36 implies no loss, and I only risked $2 for this spec. However, it didn't pan out and I'm still sitting on those eight copies. If I hadn't gotten them insanely cheap and had actually paid anywhere near retail at the time, then this would have been a loss (note that the graph is pretty much only negative).

I figured that $0.25 was just too cheap for a wrath effect and that eventually it would rise in value. My reasoning was that this type of effect is powerful enough that some deck usually ends up needing it (typically a control deck). However, that never really materialized, and this card just fell by the wayside. This is another BFZ rare that I feel had its price ceiling dramatically reduced thanks to the Expeditions.

Sin Prodder

I purchased four Sin Prodders for $1.83 each one night after getting back from my LGS. I had seen they were out of stock, and one player had done really well at FNM using four copies in an aggressive red deck. I viewed it as a bad Dark Confidant impersonator, but one that was Standard-legal.

I fell for the trap that many players do when it comes to cards that look overpowered but give the opponent a choice. It doesn't help that every time you reveal a land there's no harm to your opponent, so they can have you bin it and you gained nothing but a card in your graveyard. This card seems like it would have fit well into a midrangey deck with a lot of four- to six-drops, and while those decks did materialize, this card didn't make the cut.

While we at QS often advocate to "sell into the hype," the lesson learned here was never to "buy into the hype."


There you have my failed specs from this past Standard rotation. I hope that after reading this you learned a few lessons (or at the very least don't feel as bad about your own failed specs).

As I stated in the beginning, self-evaluation is critical to speculation, and post-rotation is a great time to do it. Make sure you're looking at both success and failures. Look for the reasons you picked a card in the first place, and why it did or didn't pan out (or, if you missed the window, why that happened). This will prime you to make better decisions moving forward.

3 thoughts on “Insider: Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em

  1. Nice work! A lot of times selling failed specs helps to clear my mind and get me focused. The mental energy they require is not a lot, but it’s something. Thanks for writing this.

    1. No problem Matt. I always find it important to do a self assessment every once in awhile. It’s especially important in the world of finances, when it’s easy to ignore wasted money or poor investments because they make one feel unhappy/uncomfortable.

  2. Everyone loves to talk about the good, but it is necessary to talk about the bad once in a while. I also took a huge hit on BFZ and SOI lands, but on MTGO not paper. I had at least 100 copies of each at one point. I had a massive 225 copies of Sunken Hollow since I was counting on Nicol Bolas to be the most pushed broken PW all time. Everything up to that point had indicated that story cards were crazy broken, and with 2 entire sets and like 10 years of story devoted to Bolas I really thought it was going to be pay 1RBU win the game type of stuff. Oh how wrong I was.

    I have thought about these losses quite a bit as well, and I believe that these lands would have been great specs had the rotation schedule not changed. The problem was there were just too many dual lands in standard, and there wasn’t a super convincing reason of why you need to run one set vs another. Also combine that with lower tournament and FNM attendance cause the formats were just awful.

    Failed specs make me want to drink.

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