Investing in Real Cards

Let's get the hard part out of the way: Magic is, ultimately, a hobby and if you're reading this you enjoy it as such. Yes, there are competitions where chunks of money are awarded to winners. Sure, there is a thriving business in moving paper and digital commodity. But the fact is that the majority of us do this for fun, enjoyment, socialization, and kicks. This is "fun side stuff" for us, not a job or duty to perform.

And cost of playing, therefore, is a very real constraint on our choices.

There are budget ideas, decks, and articles out there but it's one from several years ago that made the biggest impact on my approach to Magic: Investing in Real Estate by Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar. I'm not here today to rehash his idea – one that I happen to believe in – but to talk about taking it further: the tools needed for decks today are different but just as valuable as the dual lands of yesterday.

Orange Diamonds

Let's preface with a little vetted mathematics. While the voodoo of how, exactly, which cards end up in which booster packs is a science known only to those inside Wizards, the results can be quantified in broad strokes. While Mark Rosewater's article The Year of Living Changerously is often cited in arguments about Vengevine and other mythic cards being, well, mythic, there were some fascinating facts (about "large" sets) that my mathematical mind grabbed onto:

  • Mythics are about twice as rare as rares
  • Individual rares appear 25% more often than previously
  • The appearance of premium foil versions of rares and mythics is artificially inflated

While nearly every author with put errors and mistakes through (and I've certainly had my share) it's clear that Mark was using some notes and highlights that were provided for him. These facts aren't trivial calculations or easy to obtain information: Wizards did their homework.

What's important here is that these changes affected two very powerful considerations originally underlying Jay's article:

  1. Rare dual lands are now significantly easier to acquire
  2. There are far more options for dual lands than when Jay wrote his piece

While Mark had the luxury of an internal team to assist in his numerical hijinks, I have a little backing up to provide for my assertions.

The first is easy to handle: Mark did that for me by clearly explaining set reduction and increased normal rarity appearance. There are (fact) less cards total and (fact) the same amount of product will yield more copies of individual rares. If you want to look at costs, how are the Scars of Mirrodin duals doing?

And I would be remiss to not point to the other set of dual lands in Standard today:

Or how about those dual manlands?

While the new Core Set duals originally premiered in Magic 2010 with a bit of a premium attached to the price (see a chart for that printing of Dragonskull Summit here) it was still lower than the price of most of the shocklands of Ravnica block despite being cut from Extended. And, no, they aren't played in Legacy.

These shocklands were the exact cards Jay was pointing to coming down the road as something to invest in.

My second point is already given through demonstrating the first: I've listed four more sets of dual lands (well, allied color pairs at least) than existed during Jay's days. Complicating things further are the Shards of Alara tri-lands, the Ravnica block bouncelands (karoos), the filter lands from Shadowmoor block, and the Vivid lands from Lorwyn.

The ability to construct a manabase for any color deck has never been easier, and the prices associated with these cards are significantly less than they were just a few years ago.

Yeah, We All Remember (And Still Play) Four-Color Control

Manabases have dramatically shifted towards the more consistent since Jay's article debuted. The effort required to have a consistent, if not necessarily optimized, set of lands in play is at an all-time low. The cost requirement is mostly trivial.

But the idea of investing in what makes decks work is a concept that's still vitally important today. The face of this idea is no longer clusters of cards with the type "Land" but an expansion symbol that's richly burnished orange.

That is, it's the Garruk Wildspeakers, Gideon Juras, Vengevines, and Jace, the Mind Sculptors of the game that cap a player's ability to make decks.

I'm not talking about tournament decks but casual decks that simply work. Yes, Cultivate ramps, but Garruk Wildespeaker does much the same effect, creates 3/3 Beast tokens, and serves as the Overrun needed to put the game away.

I'm talking about scales of economy within Magic. Before, the consistency afforded by powerful (and expensive) manabases permitted decks to perform at a level significantly higher than others. I scarcely remember any reasonable monocolor deck during Ravnica's time in Standard. As long as there are a collection of effective lands within it, Extended with be rife with multicolored machines.

But the mythic rarity has did something unprecedented in Magic: created a true, new tier of power.

Every competitive Standard is using multiple copies of mythic rare cards. While the individual cost for these cards can vary dramatically (from Demon of Death's Gate to Jace, the Mind Sculptor) it's the power they bring to any deck that's relevant.

Or, as Mark Rosewater so elegantly put it:

"We want the flavor of mythic rare to be something that feels very special and unique. Generally speaking we expect that to mean cards like Planeswalkers, most legends, and epic-feeling creatures and spells."

Planeswalkers, legendary permanents, and epic-feeling cards all have something else in common: they do powerful things. While cards like Liege of the Tangle may not be lighting up the numbers in any tournament decks, ask yourself this: how do you handle the aftermath of being actually hit by it through combat?

You have exactly one turn to drop your Day of Judgment or the game is over.

The Year of Living Changerously is often cited for the following line describing mythic rares:

"They will not just be a list of each set's most powerful tournament-level cards."

While what, in the most precise of manners, that line meant is debatable the emphasis is not on "tournament-level" but the word "not" because, as it's become clear now, there are mythics that are tournament caliber.

We are talking about cards that specifically push the tilt of power, right?

How this all ties together is in exactly what Mark talked about:

"We've also decided that there are certain things we specifically do not want to be mythic rares. The largest category is utility cards, what I'll define as cards that fill a universal function. Some examples of this category would be cycles of dual lands and cards like Mutavault or Char. That also addresses a long-standing issue that some players have had with certain rares like dual lands."

The mission was accomplished: lands are easier than ever to acquire. Individual rares are likewise easier to nab. The amount of general grumbling for manabases has been reduced to a scant few remaining gripes about the fetchlands from Zendikar (Did you really expect anything else when printing the rest of that cycle of lands?) and the true duals legal in Legacy and Vintage.

Now ask a few random players what they think about the price of Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

The Ends Justify The Means

Name a card that provides the depth of potential and breadth of options as Garruk Wildspeaker. If it isn't another planeswalker please post your answer in the comments or forums.

What Jay wanted to convey wasn't the idea that a good manabase is the only to have fun, but that when the tools you have in hand aren't cutting the mustard games will go flop. Before, during Jay's time, it was lands that didn't let you do your awesome thing.

Today you can cast anything you want, yet your awesome thing just isn't awesome enough.

There is no substitute for Vengevine or Primeval Titan, Koth of the Hammer or Tezzeret the Seeker. Name any true utility spell and I can point to multitudes of alternatives. Naturalize? Try Slice in Twain, Sylvok Replica, Seal of Primordium, or Nature's Claim. Doom Blade? Terror, Vendetta, Hideous End, or Disfigure.

What about Frost Titan?

Hold on, let me get back to you on that later.

It would be easy to walk away thinking this is just another article ragging on mythics. It's actually quite the opposite: these powerful cards are the new-new dual lands. Decks of all varieties want them, regardless if it's for duels or multiplayer, Commander or Block Constructed, kitchen tables or Pro Tours.

Investing in the ability, not the card, is what Jay was truly getting at. If you want to do powerful things you need the tools that enable them. Before, lands were just those tools. Now it's creatures that have both "when this creature enters the battlefield" and "when this creature attacks" triggers and permanents of the type "Planeswalker" and subtype "Jace," among others.

Here's the real kicker, as put by Jay:

"In many ways, the 9th Edition lands aren't sexy. They aren't like the return of Hypnotic Specter or Verdant Force to 9th Edition. They're just lands, for crying out loud, and can never win you the game on their own. If you're going to spend your hard-earned money, it probably feels a lot better to blow it on Form of the Dragon than Brushland."

Unlike those dual lands of yesteryear, the new currency of power actually win games by themselves. Jace, the Mind Sculptor will destroy libraries if given the chance. Primeval Titan and Inferno Titan will dish out damage until your enemies crumble beneath your feet. Koth of the Hammer will make any red deck detonate with a metric load of explosiveness.

Scaling back, Novablast Wurm will wreck boards forever if unanswered. Liege of the Tangle will silly-stomp friends into oblivion. Cast Through Time will double such notables as Bribery, Blatant Thievery, Time Stretch, and Fact or Fiction.

Unlike Jay, who pleaded for players to get their duals in order regardless of the time, I have a much easier proposition for you: pull the damned trigger and get that Titan. Go ahead and snap up the Elspeth Tirel or Elspeth, Knight-Errant you've wanted. Yes, it's painful. Yes, it hurts. Yes, it might annoy you to no end.

But when you start dropping the firepower to match expectations you'll know you've made the right choice. Whether it's through trading and careful management of the resources you have to work with, saving up to get just one of those tantalizing powers, or portioning a sizeable chunk to finally quench your thirst, having these cards is going to make Magic more fun for you.

Five years from now, when every other casual player like you still wants Primeval Titan, the "Oh wow! You have him?!" moments you'll unleash will be rewarding. You aren't investing just in today's stock but in next year's it's-still-good-why-did-I-forget-this-card-existed awesomeness and a few years down to road's oh-yeah-that-card-is-still-so-awesome illuminations.

You have been challenged.