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Preparing for Rotation: Battle for Zendikar


While Standard rotation is still six months away, the fact of the matter is that most Standard cards peak in price between the January and March before rotation. After this time frame, both vendors and players start preparing for the huge drop in demand that comes along with rotation—vendors by decreasing their buy prices and players by selling off the cards they aren't using—which means that all but the very top cards in Standard will spiral downwards in price.

Because of this, one of the best things that budget-conscious players can do is to prepare for rotation by selling off or trading away cards that they aren't using. Just how extremely you take this technique is up to you. At one point in my life, I would literally sell all of my rotating Standard cards except for maybe one deck, play Modern and limited for a few months, and then buy back into Standard after rotation. This is one extreme. A more common path might be to just make sure you get rid of cards that are cluttering up your trade binder and aren't being used in your Standard decks.

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At the same time, rotation creates a double opportunity. While selling / trading away your rotating cards is the first way to save money, the second opportunity is to look for rotating cards that may be underpriced and pick them up, in the hopes of cashing in two or three years down the road. On this front, things have changed a lot in the past few years, and while changes to Magic Online redemption could change things again in the near future. At this point, the best rotational pickups are often high-demand casual cards that are currently depressed in price thanks to being in Standard. If you look at Theros, for example, if you bought Thoughtseize (under the old wisdom of "buy Modern cards at rotation"), you were probably disappointed. Even though the sorcery is among the most played cards in the Modern format, its price is lower now than at rotation, even with a recent spike from $10 to $15. On the other hand, if you bought the various Gods, which don't see any real tournament play, things are looking good. Many of the most popular Gods for Commander and casual play have nearly doubled in price since Theros rotated, and even the less popular cards have maintained their price or increased slightly. 

Anyway, today we are bringing back the Preparing for Rotation series. While I did this series a while ago and it was pretty popular, I missed the last couple rotations because I was simply too late. The weird thing about writing these articles is that if you wait until people are thinking about rotation (in the summer), prices have already decreased and the article isn't that valuable, but if you write the article when it really matters (right now), nobody is really thinking about rotation—instead, they are focused on Modern Masters 2017 and the impending release of Amonkhet. The good news is that, while prices will begin to drop, the information shouldn't really change. Cards that are holds today will likely be holds in a few months, the good casual cards will still be the good casual cards, and so forth. 

So, here's the plan: today, we'll look at Battle for Zendikar; then, over the next couple of months, we'll try to cover the other sets that will be rotating in the fall. Our focus will be on three things: cards to sell (as soon as possible to get maximum value), cards that might be worth holding, and any cards (likely casual / Commander cards) from the sets that might be worth buying as rotation nears

Battle for Zendikar—Sell

Gideon, Ally of Zendikar

Gideon, Ally of Zendikar has proven to be both Legacy and Modern playable, but I'm not sure this is a reason to hold onto the card. Right now, the planeswalker's price is inflated from being the seventh most played card in Standard and being a four-of in over 40% of Standard decks. This means that it will see a massive drop in demand at rotation, even though Gideon, Ally of Zendikar will still show up in eternal sideboards. With buylist prices currently near $17, unless you have big plans for your Gideon, Ally of Zendikars over the next few months, selling now seems like a good plan. If you wait for this summer, you should still be able to get something for your copies, but buylist prices have already dropped from close to $22 only a few weeks ago and will likely continue to fall. 

Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger

Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is one of the most interesting cards we'll talk about in all of Battle for Zendikar. On one hand, its price is clearly propped up by Standard—you can see the huge spike in its price chart when Emrakul, the Promised End was banned and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger became the default "I'm going to kill you with a big Eldrazi on Turn 4" card for Standard. Based on this, we'd expect a meaningful price drop from the Eldrazi heading into rotation (we've seen Emrakul, the Promised End drop below $10 as a result of the banning). 

One the other hand, Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger has a lot of demand from everywhere. Eldrazi are among the rare creatures that get an odd casual price bump from collectors and kitchen-table players; it's in the top 400 Commander cards, and it shows up fairly regularly in various Eldrazi and Tron lists in Modern. As such, there are actually several different groups of players that will want copies of Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger even after it has eaten its way out of Standard. 

Right now, the retail price is about $17 and buylists are between $10 and $12, and based on Emrakul, the Promised End (which doesn't have the same casual or Modern demand as Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger but is an even more iconic card), it seems likely that, come rotation, retail prices need to be at or below where buylist prices are now. This would mean a buylist in the $5–6 range and retail price in the $8–10 range. It could go even lower, but it's hard to bet against Eldrazi in the long term. Right now, Kozilek, Butcher of Truth is over $20 with two printings and only a bit of Commander demand, so even considering that Battle for Zendikar likely has more supply than Modern Masters 2015 and Rise of the Eldrazi put together, Ulamog certainly has more demand than Kozilek, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger back near $20 again someday, assuming it doesn't get reprinted. The problem is that by the time it could be $20 again, it will be time for Modern Masters 2019

All things considered, I'm happy to take $12 a copy for my Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hungers now, but I'll keep an eye on how low prices go at rotation. If the Eldrazi somehow falls to near $5, it is likely worth picking up as a casual / fringe Modern card with a ton of casual demand thanks to its creature type. 

Other Notes

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  • Battle for Zendikar is a really bad set. Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and (just barely) Drana, Liberator of Malakir are the only cards in the set worth more than $5. Because of this, there aren't a lot more "must sells." When it comes to cards that are only worth $2–3, you'll probably come out a bit ahead selling early, but it doesn't make a huge difference for any individual card.
  • Conversely, if you have a bunch of Transgress the Mind, Dragonmaster Outcast, Ruinous Path, and the like, you might as well sell them now for about $1 / copy because they will end up being close to bulk once rotation hits. Even though this doesn't make a huge difference on a card-by-card basis, if you have 50 of these cards sitting around, selling them all will end up being worthwhile. 

Battle for Zendikar—Modern Potential

BFZ Dual Lands

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When it comes to Modern potential, disregarding Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, which we've already talked about, the only relevant cards from Battle for Zendikar are the lands. First off, we have the dual land cycle. Here, I have mixed feelings. When these cards were first spoiled, I pegged them as budget substitutes for shock lands, but I failed to account for the fact that having basic land types isn't really that important unless you have fetch lands, and if you have money for fetch lands, you probably have money for real shock lands as well. While I still use them often in Budget Magic decks because they are cheap and often among the best of the budget options (especially for two-color decks), the best comparison financially might be the scry lands from Theros, which are all in between $1 and $2 after being $3–5 during their life in Standard. Both cycles see a similar amount of play in Commander (coming in the top 200 most played cards), and both see fringe play in non-budget Modern, but only in specific decks (the scry lands in Ad Nauseam, the BFZ duals in various Scapeshift decks).

Personally, I'm comfortable holding onto these lands through rotation. While I might lose a little bit of value, I know I'll get enough use out of them that it probably isn't worth selling them, only to rebuy for a dollar less. That said, if you don't play Modern at all, then the equation might be different for you, and the right plan might be to just buylist them out as soon as possible, even though they aren't especially valuable.  

Shambling Vents and Lumbering Falls

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As for the two creaturelands, they both seem like solid holds with some long-term potential. Shambling Vent actually sees a decent amount of Modern play in various Abzan, Death and Taxes, and Esper builds, and while Lumbering Falls doesn't really see play at the moment, $1 is super cheap for a rare creatureland. Both are also among the top 700 cards in Commander and are easy to include in just about any deck running their colors. Based on all of this, I would certainly hold my copies and, if prices drop even more as rotation approaches, I would consider picking up some extra copies. While a quick spike is unlikely and the massive supply of Battle for Zendikar means these creaturelands will never reach the highs of the Worldwake cycle, it's easy to see these cards worth twice as much in three years. 

Battle for Zendikar—Casual Cards

Drana, Liberator of Malakir

While I didn't realize this until I started writing the article, Drana, Liberator of Malakir is somehow the third most expensive card in Battle for Zendikar, despite the fact that it has never really seen any play in Standard, let alone eternal formats. While she sees a bit of play in Commander (coming in at #811 in the 1,000 most played cards in the format), this isn't enough to support this price (for comparison, both Omnath, Locus of Mana and Void Winnower, which we'll talk about later, see nearly twice as much play but are less than $2). So, what is happening with the price of the Drana, Liberator of Malakir? As far as I can tell, she is just the ultimate casual card. 

First off, Drana, Liberator of Malakir has not one but two extremely popular casual creature types. I expect that if we could somehow rank the tribes of Magic in terms of casual play, Vampire would likely be in the top five (with stuff like Angels, Dragons, and Zombies), while Allies might sneak into the top 10. As such, if you are playing either of these tribes, you will likely have at least some interest in Drana, Liberator of Malakir. But the fun doesn't stop here. Not only does Drana, Liberator of Malakir have two all-star creature types, but her mechanics deal with +1/+1 counters, and if there's one thing we've learned from the massive price spikes surrounding Commander 2016, it's that +1/+1 counters might be the single most popular mechanic in casual Magic. So, even if you don't care about Drana, Liberator of Malakir's creature type, you very well might care about her ability. When you combine this together, you have the third most expensive card in Battle for Zendikar, even with the complete and utter lack of competitive play. 

Because Drana, Liberator of Malakir's price is almost exclusively due to casual demand and it's unlikely that casual players are going to stop loving Vampires, Allies, and +1/+1 counters any time soon, it's also unlikely that Drana, Liberator of Malakir will drop much at rotation, and it will likely continue to grow slowly until it is eventually reprinted. While I'm not sure this is enough to make me want to buy copies at $5, I don't really see a reason to rush out and sell copies for $3 either. While Battle for Zendikar is not a great set for casual play, Drana, Liberator of Malakir is the closest thing we have to Theros-block Gods in the set and should be treated as such. 

Part the Waterveil

Part the Waterveil is about as cheap as a card with the text "take an extra turn" can be. Even Temporal Trespass is nearly $3 and is significantly worse than Part the Waterveil in most decks. While it does sneak into the top 1,000 Commander cards (just barely) and it sees a tiny bit of Modern play in the fringe U-Turns deck, combining this with the long history of extra-turn spells being expensive from casual demand, Part the Waterveil is an easy hold, and if you can get copies for $1.50–2.00, it seems like a solid mid-term buy. 

Kiora, Master of the Depths

Another top 1,000 Commander card that is cheap for its card type at about $2.50, Kiora, Master of the Depths has the additional upside of dodging the Duel Decks, so it only has one printing. While the floor on planeswalkers has changed recently (it used to be that having any planeswalker under $5 was shocking, but now it's common, thanks in large part to Masterpieces), at current prices, Kiora, Master of the Depths is a low-risk planeswalker with some casual demand to back it up.

Casual Bulk Mythics

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Coming in just outside the top 500 most played cards in Commander, Omnath, Locus of Mana has everything you look for in a low-risk casual buy at rotation. At just over $1 a copy, it's pretty close to the floor for mythic rares, so even if things don't pan out, you don't risk losing much by holding (or buying) a playset. It ranks near the top of its set in terms of Commander play. It can be used as a Commander, which is always a benefit, and it has a semi-popular tribal subtheme. Considering you can't really sell your copies for anything right now, you might as well stick them on a shelf for a few years and see what happens. In the worst case, you can buylist them for the same price as you can today; in the best case, it ends up being a few dollars thanks to Commander (which has sneakily became one of the most impactful formats as far as finance is concerned). 

The same is true of Void Winnower, which comes in at #413 on our most played Commander cards list. Just about everything I said about Omnath, Locus of Mana holds true, except the upside of Void Winnower is that it's colorless (so it can go in any Commander deck) rather than legendary. Meanwhile, Greenwarden of Murasa is close to a Commander staple, and as a double-Eternal Witness, it has plenty of room to grow from its current $0.99 price. Getting stuff back from the graveyard is extremely popular in Commander, and being six mana isn't the same drawback that it is in other formats. I'm a huge fan of holding / buying these types of mythics at rock-bottom prices and just waiting for three years for the payoff. The risk is so low, and the reward is an easy double up (or more) for very little work. 

Random Bulk-Rare Eldrazi Cards

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There are certain creature types that I simply won't sell for bulk prices, including Angels, Dragons, and Allies. While the odds of these cards paying off might not by high (partially because they tend to show up in supplemental products), there's next to no risk in holding onto cards that are already bulk, and when it comes to popular casual creature types, the rewards can be high if you get lucky and dodge a reprinting. Eldrazi are high on the list of "never sell" creature types and even higher after Battle for Zendikar block, because we now have enough Eldrazi that casual and Commander players can actually build a tribal deck. 

Conduit of Ruin, From Beyond, and Desolation Twin are the best of the bunch when it comes to the rare Eldrazi from Battle for Zendikar. All are in (or near) the top 1,000 cards in Commander, and all get additional demand from kitchen-table casual decks. More importantly, all are around $0.50 retail, which means you wouldn't get anything for selling them right now. As such, I'd definitely hold onto all of your copies, and because the risk is so low, I'd considering picking up a few extras, especially if you can get them as throw-ins when trading. While the odds that these cards pay off aren't great, each has potential to be at least a couple of dollars in the future based on casual demand alone.

Other Notes

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  • Oblivion Sower cracks the Commander top 1,000 list at #732, and it's cheap like Void Winnower and Omnath, Locus of Mana, but I'm not all that excited about the six-mana Eldrazi as a buy because it was in a Duel Deck, and it can be pretty hard for Duel Deck cards to overcome the increase in supply. 
  • One card I don't understand is Quarantine Field. Oblivion Ring is an absolute Commander staple, coming in among the top 100 most played cards, but Quarantine Field—which is one just more mana but with a ton of upside, especially in a big-mana format like Commander—doesn't even crack the top 1,000. Perhaps it's just the blowout potential of giving opponents back several permanents at once, but Oblivion Ring has the same downside of returning the permanent to the battlefield once it gets hit by Return to Dust or Abrupt Decay. I still plan on holding my copies because retail is only $1.30 and buylists are closer to $0.50 (near bulk for a mythic), and it seems like this card could catch on in Commander eventually, even if it doesn't have the numbers to back it up right now.
  • Ob Nixilis Reignited is fairly heavily played in Commander but is already $3.50 and was in a Duel Deck. Because of this combo of comparatively high price and massive supply, you might as well sell your copies now if you can get anywhere near retail.
  • Finally, as far as Commander uncommons, the staples are Sylvan Scrying, Hedron Archive, Zulaport Cutthroat, and Blighted Woodland. Pull these from your bulk and set them aside. While they might never pay off, they are good enough that you don't want to sell them for $4 / thousand. 

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. What cards are you buying, holding, and selling from Battle for Zendikar? Did I miss anything else with potential? Let me know in the comments, and we'll have the Oath of the Gatewatch edition of preparing for rotation in a few weeks. Until then, you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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