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Don't Be A Spike-Centric Sneetch: Understanding Kitchen Table Price Trajectories

As a financier, it is easy to become obsessed with the latest SCG Open decklists, twitter feeds from the floor of the PT, and scanning spoilers for potential sleepers. While keeping up on the latest and greatest in competitive Magic is great and beneficial for anyone involved in MTG finance, taking this nationalistic and isolationist attitude towards this "spike" nation is also short-sighted. The Magic finance world is really, really big, and spike nation is only a very small part of it. For every spike and pro "on the grind" there are 10 players out there playing casual on their kitchen tables, building commander decks, and actively looking for cards that members of the spike nation probably haven't thought about since they wrote some snide pun bashing it in the forums during spoiler week. While there is money to be made selling Siege Rhino to spikes at a PTQ, there is just as much money, or maybe more, to be made selling Nirkana Revenant to your local casual community.

Now let's talk about sneetches. If you're not up on your Dr. Seuss, the sneetches were a group of yellow creatures - some of which had green stars on their bellies and others who did not. The sneetches with green starts looked down on and shunned the no-star sneetches, until an enterprising outsider named Sylvester McMonkey McBean built a machine that, for only three dollars, could put a green star on a sneetch belly. Before long all the no-star sneetches were getting stars, which made the first group of sneetches, the ones with the authentic stars, angry. So McBean built another machine. A machine that, for a price of course, could remove stars from a sneetch belly. So the star-belly sneetches, looking to maintain their group identity, started getting their stars removed. This cycle repeated itself until McBean had all of the sneetch money.

While Dr Seuss's moral to his story was that the belly-stars didn't matter and the sneetches should all just get along, my moral is a little bit different. As a MTG financier, you want to be a McBean and not a sneetch. When it comes right down to it, it doesn't really matter if a card is gracing the top tables of a PT or making its home in an 80-card kitchen table special; what matters is making money. McBean could have just sold stars to the starless sneetches and then hit the road with his profits - but he realized that the sneetch world was bigger then just one group - just like the Magic world is bigger then just the competitive scene. Making money off standard staples is fine, but you are leaving perhaps 90% of the market untapped. To really maximize your potential profits, you need to understand how to both put on and remove stars. So today, we will be examining the price trajectories of some rares and mythics from Rise of the Eldrazi through Innistrad block that never left their mark on the top tables, but would have made you a bundle if you had bought in during the right window.

What Do Casuals Want?

In reality, the MTG world is not as simple as spikes versus casuals. While the spike community is rather homogenous, there are many different flavors of casuals, with the two most important groups being EDH/commander players, and true-kitchen table casuals. While there is some amount of overlap between these groups (especially in Epic Effects, Fabulous Fatties, and excellent enablers categories), EDH also cares about cards that impact more then one player (Multiplayer Madness) which may or may not appeal to the kitchen table crowd.

As we move forward, we are going to look at several different grouping of casual cards, talk a bit about why the cards are in demand even though they see no competitive play, examine the price trajectories of these cards, and discuss the window in which buying these cards can make you the most profit.

Epic Effects

Epic Effects are non-creature, non-land spells which have a major impact on the game. Generally these spells don't make waves in competitive formats because they are either too mana intensive or too slow - but in kitchen table (or commander) Magic, speed and cost are not major concerns (see: forum comments on every unplayable spoiler stating "it's good in EDH") - the entire idea of both formats is to do things that are as big, splashy, cool and powerful as possible, mana-cost be damned.

Praetor's Counsel is, without a doubt, epic. In a deck that is filling it graveyard, it can easily be a draw-20 in the late game. Too expensive and hard to use for standard, Praetor's Counsel spent its entire standard life as a bulk mythic, floating between $1.10 and $1.30 for a year and a half. Praetor's Counsel was at this low from the summer before rotation through the release of Gatecrash (the post-rotation winter set). By the release of Theros (one year after rotation) Praetor's Counsel had gradually increased 72% to $1.90, and by the release of KTK it was up to $2.90, a cool 163% increase in two years.

Rarity: Mythic

Set: Small, Winter.

Casual Characteristics: Graveyard Interaction, "Spellbook" Effect.

Window: From the summer before rotation through the winter set post rotation, although even if you bought in one year post rotation, you would have seen a 61% increase over the next year.

Not only is True Conviction an epic effect, but it also has one of the most common characteristics of kitchen table all-stars: life gain. When you combine this with making your team unbeatable in combat, this too-clunky-for-standard-just-above-bulk rare has nearly increased by 500% in price over the past few years.

Rarity: Rare

Set: Big, Fall.

Casual Characteristics: Life gain, Creature Buff.

Window: The low point for True Conviction was actually the summer after the release of Scars of Mirrodin, when it sat at a mere $0.50. By rotation it had ticked up to $0.70, but the real gains were to be had in the year following rotation. By the release of Theros, True Conviction had more than doubled to $1.70, before packing on another 35% in the next year leading up to Khans, where it now rests at $2.30.

Parallel Lives proves that being half of a casual all-star (Doubling Season) is still good enough. This illustrates an important aspect of casual Magic that is often missed by spike-centric financiers; namely, having an (almost) strictly better option available does not obsolete a card like it does in competitive formats. True competitive Magic is about finding the best possible card for a given deck and then playing it. Gaining a couple percentage points is a given matchup is almost always more important than financial cost. In casual Magic, on the other hand, deck building is based around budgets and opportunity costs. While a spike will gladly pay magnitudes more to have the absolute best option (see: Legacy, where Hallowed Fountain is basically unplayed, although it is likely only a couple of percentage points worse than Tundra in a deck like Miracles), to a casual player buying Parallel Lives instead of the almost-always better Doubling Season is often preferable, because the cards they can buy for the money they save is worth more then giving up a bit in certain matchups.

Rarity: Rare

Set: Big, Fall.

Casual Characteristics: Counters, Doubling Stuff.

Window: Parallel Lives lowest point was the July after Innistrad's release, where it could be had for $1.40. It spiked that winter, before falling back to $1.80 the summer before rotation. In the past year, it has climbed to $3.60 - a 100% increase from its pre-rotation price.

Fabulous Fatties

There is nothing that screams kitchen table or Commander louder that huge creatures, with big splashy abilities and massive mana costs. It has been this way since kids were gladly trading their Underground Sea for Force of Nature back in the early days of the game, and will continue to be this way for as long as people are playing Magic. Wizards realizes that a huge portion of their player base loves these cards, so now every set has some number of huge creatures aimed straight at the kitchen table crowd.

Mikaeus, the Unhallowed, stats wise, is actually on of the smallest creatures in the Fatties category. While a 5/5 for 6 mana is fine, it's not quite big enough to simply jump off the spoiler list and into a casual's heart (like Worldspine Wurm for example). On the other hand, apart from his stats, every other line of text on Mikaeus, the Unhallowed is a huge casual hit. Right off the bat Mikaeus, the Unhallowed is a Zombie Cleric. Zombie is currently one of the most popular casual tribes, and Cleric - while perhaps on the downswing in recent years - is a former casual favorite. If you're building either of these decks, Mikaeus, the Unhallowed is a must-have. Mikaeus, the Unhallowed also randomly hoses your opponent's humans while not only protecting your team from removal, but actually making your creatures stronger after he brings them back to life. An all-around casual hit.

Rarity: Mythic

Set: Small, Winter.

Casual Characteristics: Tribal, Creature Buff, Removal Hoser.

Window: While Mikaeus, the Unhallowed hit his bottom the summer post release (at $3.50), he didn't really start to climb until a few weeks before the release of Born of the Gods (the post rotation winter set). In the past 10 months he has shot up 107%, from $4.10 to $8.50.

Balefire Dragon is big and has a splashy Plague Wind effect when it deals damage. It is also a dragon, which along with angels get an automatic price bump for their creature type alone. As a mythic dragon this should have jumped off the page as an easy long-term buy for any financier with an eye on the casual market a couple years ago, and percentage-wise, Balefire Dragon represents one of the biggest gainers on our list.

Rarity: Mythic

Set: Big, Fall.

Casual Characteristics: Mythic Dragon.

Window: Balefire Dragon was the definition of a bulk mythic the summer after Innistrad's release ($1). Between the release of RTR and Theros, it more than doubled from bulk to $2.20. Now, a year post rotation, it is sitting at a solid $5, a massive 400% increase from August 2012 to September 2014. If you waited and bough in at rotation you would have left potential profits on the table, but still would have doubled your investment.

Probably the least powerful member (at least of the rares and mythics) of the most powerful tribe in Magic, It That Betrays clearly shows the impact the casual market can have on the price of a card. A spike-centric financier during ROE standard would have been all over the three obviously overpowered and constructed worthy mythic Eldrazi, but likely would have missed the potential of their lesser brethren. From a casual perspective, It That Betrays is actually far more fun then a card like Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre. A kitchen table player would much rather steal the two permanents their opponent is forced to sacrificed than have the opponent sacrifice four to the graveyard. It creates a similarly satisfying feeling as using Bribery to beat your opponent down with their own Inkwell Leviathan in a cube draft. Basically, the only thing more fun then killing your opponent with your cards is killing them with their own cards.

Rarity: Rare

Set: Big, Spring.

Constructed Characteristics: Tribe, Mind Control, Simply Huge.

Window: It That Betrays hit its lowest point the end of fall/early winter after the release of Rise of the Eldrazi (remember, ROE was a spring release) at $1.10. It had doubled to $2.20 when Zendikar block rotated at the release of Innistrad. By the release of RTR it was up to $5.20, by Theros $8.30, and now its nearly $12. If you had bought in around January 2011 you would have seen your investments increase over 1000% in four years. Take that Dow Jones.

Multiplayer Madness

Cards under the multiplayer madness heading often has some amount of overlap with Epic Effects and Fabulous Fatties, except that have some quality that makes them especially suitable for multiplayer games (especially EDH/commander). The keyword here is often "each" as in, "each player," "each opponent," or "each upkeep" although not every multiplayer staple is formatted this way.

Unwinding Clock is far from the biggest gainer on the list, but it does provide a good example of the power of "each player" in multiplayer. Another thing that casuals love are combos: the jankier the better, and for some EDH players, nothing makes them "sploosh" harder then managing to get Unwinding Clock, Mycosynth Lattice, and Kill Switch on the table at the same time.

Rarity: Rare

Set: Small, Spring.

Casual Characteristics: Abuses "Each," Combo Piece.

Window: Unwinding Clock stayed at bulk for pretty much its entire time in standard. In the year after rotation, it shot up 250%, to its current price of $2.

Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger, which during its time in standard was probably the least playable of the Praetor cycle, now sits only behind Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite (which see's constructed play in both modern and legacy) as the most valuable of these fabulous fatties. Basically, Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger double your mana, while also halving the amount of mana each of your opponents have available. In a format like Commander that revolves around huge spells, Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger is just what most green decks are looking for.

Rarity: Mythic.

Set: Small, Spring.

Casual Characteristics: Abuses "Each," Fabulous Fatty, Ramp-tastic.

Window: Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger hit a low of $2.40 the November between Innistrad and Dark Ascension, although he was available in the $3.50 range as recently as the release of Gatecrash (winter set post rotation). In the two years since, the praetor has increased a whopping 261% to its current price of just under $13.

While we are on the topic of the praetor cycle, I might as well mention Sheoldred, Whispering One. Much like Vorinclex, Sheoldred, Whispering One manages to abuse "each" by making every opponent sac a creature every upkeep, while also giving its controller a free Reanimate every turn. It is quite possible that Sheoldred, Whispering One would cost more then Vorinclex if he was not also the New Phyrexia pre-release promo.

Rarity: Mythic

Set: Small, Spring.

Casual Characteristics: Abuses "Each," Fabulous Fatty.

Window: Perhaps because of the promo printing, Sheoldred, Whispering One took a bit longer to start his ascent than Vorinclex, hanging right around $4 until after the release of Dragon's Maze. By the release of Theros (one year post rotation) Sheoldred, Whispering One has ticked up to $5.4, a small but not insignificant gain. The real money was to be made during the second year (between the release of Theros and KTK) when Sheoldred, Whispering One posted a solid 80% gain in one years time.

Exceptional Enablers

The final group of casual cards I want to talk about today are exceptional enablers. As I said before, casual formats are all about big, powerful, and expensive spells and creatures. Exceptional enablers are the cards that make these huge, splashy effects possible, most often by providing mana, but sometimes by gaining life (letting you life long enough to cast your expensive spells) or providing card advantage (helping you find your fatties and epic effects).

Venser's Journal, at least from a spike's perspective, does not look like much. It is relatively expensive, and has does not impact the battlefield. From a kitchen table perspective, Venser's Journal is awesome. Not only does it gain you life (and sometimes a whole lot of life) every turn, but it ensures that you don't have to bin some of your sweet spells like when you Stroke of Genius for 15 cards.

Rarity: Rare.

Set: Big, Fall.

Casual Characteristics: Life gain, Spellbook.

Window: Venser's Journal spent its first year as bulk. During its second year, leading up to the rotation of Scars of Mirrodin, it ticked up slightly to about a dollar. Post rotation has been a different story. In the time between RTR and Theros, Venser's Journal more than doubled to $2.40. From Theros to KTK it nearly pulled off the doubling feat for a second year in a row, peaking at $3.60, where it sits today.

Bear Umbra is a killer kitchen table card. Not only does it double your mana on turns where your enchanted creature attacks, but its totem armor ability also defends one of your fatties from an opponent's Doom Blade. Plus, as Savage Punch has shown, people love bears.

Rarity: Rare

Set: Big, Spring.

Casual Characteristics: Creature Buff, Ramp-tastic.

Window: Bear Umbra stayed at bulk levels from the time it was printed all the way through rotation. Right about the release of Dark Ascension (post rotation winter set), it started its slow climb upwards, taking nearly two years to double in price from $1 to $2. After the release of Theros, things started moving a bit faster, with Bear Umbra climbing from about $2 to $3.30 in the matter of a few months. 

Especially awesome for mono-colored decks, Caged Sun is pretty much a colorless Glorious Anthem stapled to a Gauntlet of Might that doesn't care if you're running mountains.

Rarity: Rare

Set: Small, Spring.

Casual Characteristics: Ramp-tastic, Creature Buff.

Window: Hit a low of about a dollar in the winter following the spring release of New Phyrexia. Crept up slowly heading towards rotation. Increased 142% from $1.40 to $3.40 in the year post-rotation. Added another 33% in year two up to $4.40.

What Does All this Mean?

These twelve cards are far from the only casual hits printed from Rise of the Eldrazi through Innistrad block, but they do provide a good cross-section of the types of cards that post big casual gains. Looking over all of this information, here are a few suggestions that will help you be a McBean - making money of both sides of the Magic nation - rather than just being a spike-centric sneetch.

1. Unlike standard cards, which generally hit their low just before or after rotation, casual cards almost always hit their lowest point six to ten months after the release of their set. For fall sets like Innistrad, Return to Ravnica, and Theros, this means the next summer. For winter and spring sets, this means the following October through January.

2. With this in mind, it is still generally worth buying in on casual cards at rotation. While most of the cards on this list increased during their second year in standard, the majority of the gains are made in the year or two after rotation.

3. With a few exceptions, you want to buy your casual speculations before the release of the winter set following rotation. This means that if you do not buy your casual RTR specs before the release of Fate Reforged, you are likely going to miss the boat.

4. Always, always, always buy mythic dragons and angels that do not see heavy play in standard. A card like Stormbreath Dragon is a no-go, because its price is already inflated from standard demand. A card like Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius, on the other hand, it a very appealing casual target.

5. If it doubles your mana, you will double your money if you buy at the right time. As we speak, we are entering the three month window where Dictate of Karametra, and all JOU casual cards, will hit their all time low (the winter after a spring release). Not only does Dictate of Karametra have one of the main characteristics of casual all-stars (mana doubling/ramp), but Journey into Nyx is a relatively unpopular and under-opened set, which makes casual targets from the set even more appealing.

Seriously, buy it now. There is no way this card is not between $3 and $5 two years post rotation.

6. Always keep tribes and creature types in mind. While minotaur are not zombies, they do have a cult following so don't sleep on Rageblood Shaman.

7. Likewise, keep an eye on cards that abuse "each," gain life, Spellbook, or mill (even though we did not cover any in-depth today), they always have potential to be casual hits.

8. A word of warning. Don't expect too much from rares - especially rare creatures. Simply being a dragon, angel, or a fatty is not always enough for rares - almost all of the Fabulous Fatties that posted big gains within a couple years of rotation were mythics.

9. Finally, just to reiterate because this is important: The window for buying casual cards from Return to Ravnica block closes with the release of Fate Reforged. This same time period also represents the low point for whatever future casual all-stars are in Born of the Gods and Journey into Nyx. With this in mind, what casual cards from RTR, JOU, and BNG do you think we should be buying now, with an eye towards big gains over the next couple years? Let me know in the comments, or on twitter @SaffronOlive.

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