Friday, October 28, 2016

Making Money on Rotation - RTR Edition

It was just over two years ago that we saw the release of Khans of Tarkir, the addition of Onslaught Fetches into modern, and the rotation of Return to Ravnica out of standard. This represented the rotation out of the second set in the Magic Boom era of the early 2010s which is generally considered to have begun with Innistrad. Historically there rotation has been considered the best time to pickup eternal playables for long term gains a couple of years after rotation. 

Innistrad stood as a fairly major aberration as far as the unprecedented growth of Magic colliding with a printrun that struggled to keep up with demand. The following sets saw a much greater print run and a generally more stable power level of cards. Return to Ravnica represents the first block in the Magic Boom era that was printed to meet the rising demand levels. Surprisingly, four years after release. Boxes of RTR still run at approximately the same price as they did while they were in print.

The question I want to address here is if there is still money to be made in purchasing cards at rotation. The current changes to Standard rotation matter only a little when looking at this overall perspective since cards will still be rotating out. Someone picking up Snapcaster Mage and Liliana of the Veil at rotation could have easily seen a 150% gain. I believe that the future sets will have far more in common with RTR than they had with Innistrad with regards to print quantity. For comparison we’ll be looking at three different groups of cards. Rotating standard staples, eternal staples not relevant in standard, and casual cards.

Rotating Standard Staples

While looking back to the end of 2014 may not be the joy of anyone who was involved in standard at that point. We have a pretty clear picture of the metagame throughout the Theros Block revolving around three colors, and three decks. Theros was the age of Mono-Black Devotion, Mono-Blue Devotion, and Esper Control. By the end of the block we actually did begin to see the growth of a few other archetypes that were a derivative of these decks (Azorious Control and Orzohov Midrange) there was only ever fringe decks that existed outside of these colors such as R/G Monsters.

Interestingly enough the majority of these decks were heavily based on devotion cards from Theros block and only somewhat reliant on cards from Return to Ravnica outside of the Esper Control deck. The key cards from RTR for these decks include standard wonders such as Packrat, Nightveil Specter, Desecration Demon and Underworld Connections which have all fallen to essentially worthless in the modern era as they had no application outside of standard.

The cards in the Esper Control build were somewhat more durable but have suffered a number of other setbacks. Jace, Architect of Thought received a duel deck printing and has only been a rare occurrence in the sideboard of Modern decks essentially killing it’s value. Sphinx’s Revelation dropped off sharply and sees occasional play in Legacy. Of the heavily played RTR cards it seems that only Supreme Verdict managed to maintain significant comparative value. It has managed to spike to match it’s standard high price of almost $7 dollars and is now worth around $5 compared to its rotation price of $3 making it a fair investment but not a particularly good one.


The Shock Land cycle in RTR block was a significant reprinting that likely pushed sales heavily throughout the print cycle. Not surprisingly these remain some of the most valuable cards from the block. Perhaps more surprising is the limited gains these cards have had. Near rotation the majority of the shock lands were available for between 7-10$. At peak supply they were between 4-7$. Comparing Steam Vents’ rotation price to the current price we see only about a $2 gain from 10$ to 12$. While there was a spike putting it into the $15 period, but even this 50% gain requiring perfect timing is pretty insignificant considering the price of the card and the time it would have to be held.
This same story plays out pretty similarly for the other lands with several not even receiving such significant gains. The land cycle still represents the best investment of standard cards for long term holds but the belief that they would become $20 within a year seem to have been largely unfounded. We see only moderate gains two years out and in several cases cards have trending downwards for the past few months, even though it has been modern PPTQ season. While I wouldn’t advise against picking up your playsets of lands like these around rotation. I have my doubts that it’s the best place to sit investment money.

Sideboard Cards

One other area to look at are the Standard sideboard cards, several of which have found a home in sideboards of eternal decks. Cards like Rest in Peace and Pithing Needle maintained fairly low prices throughout Standard being available for a dollar or less at rotation. Now these cards have seen a significant rise with Pithing Needle at around $2.5 and Rest in Peace around $5. Additionally, Cyclonic Rift has seen a bounce from around $3 to about $6 for a decent double up. Much like Stony Silence out of Innistrad, sideboard cards don’t tend to hold significant value in standard but have a lot more potential to grow outside of standard. To me this signifies that in the future I’d be interested in looking into sideboard cards with eternal playability as significant post rotation gainers.

Cards Not Relevant in Standard

There’s this weird issue in standard where there are some really powerful cards that don’t find a deck to slot into in the format. These cards often times make an immediate impact on Modern or Legacy without being relevant in the standard metagame. This isn’t for cards like Snapcaster Mage which have a broad impact on multiple formats. The best example of this kind of card is Abrupt Decay. While clearly a powerful card, the impact on Legacy has been much more significant than the impact ever was on standard. 

Abrupt Decay represents one of the best opportunities from RTR block for significant profit after rotation, but there’s a difficult twist. From a standard low price of $5.5 the card had gone up to $12 at rotation with the birth of Abzan as a viable deck in Modern. While the card continued to spike to a price over $17 it has since cooled off significantly and finds itself back under the $10 range. Once again, a card seems to have dropped below its rotation price after a significant spike. Is there long term upside in Abrupt Decay? My feeling is probably not. It’s a card that is likely to be reprinted in Modern Masters 2017 which could put it around the $5 mark for the foreseeable future. While it is clearly a powerful card, the opportunity to cash in on it didn’t come at rotation and left fairly early. Most of the upside is gone at this point.

Another card with a somewhat similar trajectory is Voice of Resurgence. As the only notable card in Dragon’s Maze it has managed to hold its price despite being played very little in any format. Modern Zoo decks seem to be the main home for the card where it presents a certain level of protection against mass board clear but for the most part it is bolstered by being the only relevant card in a much maligned set. With a significant initial price of over $40 the price leveled out to around $18 for quite a while through rotation. It saw a significant spike back to the $40 price range as a response to the eldrazi menace and since has tapered off to around $27. Right now it’s not something I’d want to be holding long term as it is ripe for a reprint and it’s only real value comes from being the only decent mythic in bad small set. 

RTR block, overall didn’t add much to the overall Eternal metagame outside of these few cards. Unlike some sets where key commons or uncommons become eternal staples, there is very little attractive from this block to look at as long term holds. While some of the eternal playable cards offered the potential for a mid-term gain about a year out, none of them are places I’d currently want to have my money tied up. Other cards that see eternal play like Boros Charm, Experiment One,

Casual Cards

There hasn’t been huge casual appeal out of RTR. One card that looked poised to become huge was Sylvan Primordial which received a Commander ban insuring it would never hold significant value. Interestingly enough, it never actually held significant value. It sat under $1 for pretty much its entire life in standard. The one shining star of casual appeal has been Chromatic Lantern which is pretty much a staple of every multicolor commander deck. From a $4 rotation price to a $8 price today, this card pretty much emblematizes a perfect rotation investment.  There’s a couple other slow growth, casual cards that are approaching double up territory including Worldspine Worm couple Thespian Stage. But for the most part there isn’t a lot of appealing cards for casual play out of these sets.


Moving forward it looks like rotation is not the top time to pickup long term specs. The vast majority of cards from RTR with long term value experienced a significant drop in price during peak supply in the 6 months following release. For most of these cards, this was the ideal time to pick up these cards. It would have provided two different times to out them at a profit. First is during a spike in the new standard season, the second was during a spike about a year after rotation.
Overall, I have gained a fear of trying to pick up cards at rotation for near market price. The inevitable trajactory for the majority of these cards seems to be down rather than up. I’m especially not interested in cards that were standard staples at rotation as most of them have dried up into to nothing and the few that held value often times have ended up at below rotation price.
If I were going to invest in cards for the long term, I likely would be looking at powerful sideboard cards that see play in modern and I would be looking to pick them up at peak supply rather than rotation. I’d also be looking at incredibly cheap casual cards with long term appeal or playability in numerous decks.

Specs to Look At over the next couple of months

Ceremonious Rejection - Uncommon - Kaladesh
This is an incredibly powerful card with long term appeal. It’s also unlikely to see a reprint in a non artifact/eldrazi set. This makes it both an eternal playable as well as a difficult card to reprint. These will be left around after drafts, pick them up.

Thalia, Heretic Cathar - Rare - Eldrich Moon
At just over $2 for an eternal playable card that probably isn’t getting any cheaper, isn’t seeing major play in standard, this is a pretty good deal. Could this be $4 in four years, easily. Could it be $8 at rotation, definitely if there’s a deck. Seems like a good buy.

Out of Favor Man Lands - Rare - SOI
While these will probably drop as we move towards rotation, it turns out rotation is suddenly next fall instead of in spring. This gives these cards another chance to spike before rotation as well as being a decent hold long term. Lumbering Falls is a $1.

Kaladesh Fast Lands - Rare - Kaladesh
I wouldn’t look at picking up these cards just yet. I’d say after Aether Revolt and before Ahmonket spoilers is your ideal point, that should be peak supply.. I’m not in at $5 on these cards but I think that they’ll continue to work their way down and there’s likely to be one or two that are out of favor at any given point. At $2 I think you buy them all and at $3 you should be good for a few playsets.

Radiant Flames - Rare - BFZ
This card is essentially free at 50 cents. As a decent sideboard card it’s worth questioning whether this will ever take the place of Anger of the Gods as a sideboard card in Modern. The flexibility as well as the lack of double red in the casting cost means that it is a likely option. It can also wreak havoc against token strategies while not blowing up all your own creatures. With the number of three color decks in modern it feels like a home could exist for this card but it hasn’t proven itself yet.

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