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Swimming Upstream: Seven (Potential) Salmon in KTK

About a week ago, I published a piece on Reddit (found here) explaining why Khans of Tarkir, as a whole, is going to lose between $50 and $100 of its total set price between now and the release of Fate Reforged this winter. This should not come as a surprise to any of you who have been following MTG finance for any period of time, because this is the normal. It happens every year. The release of the big fall set (and smaller non-fall sets to a lesser extent) follow the same three part pattern.

Part 1: The set is spoiled over a period of a few weeks. Vendors pre-sell cards at prices which are, more or less, an educated guess at what the market will pay. Unsurprisingly, vendors tend to guess high, because if no one buys card X at price Y they can always lower the price (the problem with starting low and raising prices is that once a card is sold, it's gone forever). Due to the excitement about playing with new cards, people pay these inflated prices to get their copies ASAP.

Part 2: The Pro Tour. The week surrounding the fall PT is when the total value of the set peaks. Our pro overlords tell us what we should be playing for the next few months. Speculators speculate. The hype reaches a fever pitch and any cards that are good, might be good, or even clearly are not good (but might be played by Conley Woods or Travis Woo) spike. The total set value increases about 10 percent on top of the already inflated pre-release prices.

Part 3: The lull. Over the next three months, several things happen. First, players who bought their plays sets during part 1 or part 2 of this pattern already have their cards and the hype over the newness of the set decreases, so demand starts to drop. Second, thousands of packs are opened every day, so supply increases. During this three month period, almost every card in the set will lose value until the total value of a set is between half and two-thirds of its pro tour week peak. Check out the chart below to see the value of Return to Ravnica, Theros, and KTK to see an example of this pattern.

Set Release Oct Peak Early Nov Release of Winter Set Peak Date Bottom Date
RTR $350 $360 $320 $200 Oct 10 Mar 8
THS $350 $380 $320 $260 Oct 14 July 20
KTK $342 $360 $307* ?? Oct 13 ??

*Current total set price as of 10/23/2014

There are 136 rares and mythics between Return to Ravnica and Theros. Care to make a guess at how many of these cards increased in price during part 3 of this pattern? Only 5. This means 131 of the 136 cards ended up being worth less at the release of Gatecrash (or Born of Gods) then during the PT peak.

However, today's goal isn't to tell you that you should be selling your KTK cards now, everyone is telling you that. Instead, we are going to look at the five salmon in RTR and THS. These are cards that managed to swim against the current of their falling set prices and increase in price during the lull. After trying to identify why these cards were able to buck the trend, we will talk about seven cards that I believe have potential to the salmon of KTK.

The Salmon of Theros and Return to Ravnica

While Mistcutter Hydra did not increase dramatically during the lull, it did tick up from a low of $2.90 to $3.50 by the time Born of Gods released. The reason for this increase actually has very little to do with the power level of the card itself, but rather the power level of Thassa, God of the Sea and Master of Waves. Basically, Mistcutter Hydra proved to be the best sideboard option against Mono-U Devotion, which at the time was probably the best and one of the most played decks in the format. It also didn't hurt that Green Devotion was a reasonable deck choice itself, and that Mistcutter Hydra slotted perfectly in the 75.

What We're Looking For In The KTK Salmon: A card with low opportunity cost that helps the second or third best deck in the format beat the best deck.

Prophet of Kruphix could be had for a mere $1.60 near the beginning of the lull. By the time Born of Gods released, it had more then doubled to $3.40. This is despite that fact that Prophet of Kruphix was never part of a tier 1 deck. Obviously, Prophet of Kruphix is a casual/EDH hit in the line of Seedborn Muse, but most casual cards don't spike while their set is still being actively opened. If you look at Prophet of Kruphix's price history, you can see that most of the gains were had in the couple weeks before the release of Born of Gods. Considering this, the only thing that really makes sense is the spoiling of the Inspired mechanic. While not constructed worthy, the combo of a mechanic that trigger on untapping and Prophet of Kruphix's ability to untap everything is apparently enough to make casuals everywhere say "sploosh," and also enough to cause Prophet of Kruphix to double in price while 66 other rares and mythics from the set were plummeting.

What We're Looking For In The KTK Salmon: Since we have no idea what mechanics are in store for Fate Reforged, let's just say a powerful but underplayed casual sleeper.

On 11/03/2013 you could have bough a whole stack of Rev's for $6 and change each. When Gatecrash release, Rev was up to $17.50, and it peak later in the season at almost $30. What happened? For one thing, control generally lags behind aggro at rotation because it is easier to find good threats then find good answers to the hodgepodge of threats your opponents will play in a wide-open format. Maybe more importantly, people just underestimated the card. At first, most people saw Rev as a harder to cast Blue Sun's Zenith instead of the most powerful control finisher printed in years.

What We're Looking For In The KTK Salmon: Here there are two answers. 1.) A potentially dominant control finisher that no one has figured out. 2.) A mythic that is underestimated because of a past card or cards.

Ash Zealot is another card that posted most of its gains leading up to the release of the winter set. While this is probably attributable, in some part, to the printing of Boros Reckoner, there is a simpler way to look at it. It does not take much analysis to realize that Ash Zealot is powerful, everyone pretty much figured that from the day it was spoiled, but during the fall of 2012, red aggro was floating in their tier 1.5/tier 2 range. While it had some powerful pieces, the deck as whole just wasn't quite there. It needed something to push it over the top and up into tier 1 (in this case, that something was Boros Reckoner).

What We're Looking For In The KTK Salmon: A card that is above the curve and powerful on its face, but is lacking a tier one home at the moment.

Deathrite Shaman was infamously spoiled with no fanfare (just appearing on the card image gallery) on the last day of RTR spoilers. While the cards was obviously powerful, it didn't really have a home in standard. It was clearly designed with eternal formats in mind (thanks to its interaction with fetchlands), but it takes a lot for a new card to break into legacy, or even modern - the card pool is just so big that many very powerful cards are outclassed by something even more powerful. It quickly became clear than rather than being outclassed, it would be Deathrite Shaman outclassing long-time standbys like Birds of Paradise and Noble Hierarch. Within a few weeks, Deathrite Shaman found a home in modern jund, eventually being lauded as the most powerful card in the deck (and maybe in modern all together). Shortly after that, Shardless Bug - made possible by the release of Deathrite Shaman - became the most played deck in legacy thanks to Gerry Thompson, and Deathrite Shaman tripled in price from $5.20 to $15.00.

What We're Looking For In The KTK Salmon: The best card in legacy and modern, or at very least eternal playability.

Now that our history lesson is over, but before getting to my picks for the salmon of Khans of Tarkir, I want to briefly mention two categories of cards that are almost certainly not salmon, and therefore should be expected to decrease - perhaps drastically - in price leading up to Fate Reforged.

First we have the fetchlands. Ravnica had an eternal playable lands cycle in the shocks, Theros had the initially underrated scrylands. What do these two land cycles have in common? They both lost a ton of value during the lull. For instance, the average price of single shock during the PT peak was $15. The average price of a shock at Gatecrash release? $9.80. The fetchland cycle will suffer a similar fate.

Second are the planeswalkers. Ever since getting burned by Jace, the Mind Sculptor during the release of Worldwake, vendors have been very cautious about under-pricing planeswalkers. As a result, every planeswalker in recent memory has decreased from its release price (although some rebound later). While Sorin, Solemn Visitor probably has a better shot then Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker, simply because he started at a lower price point, the odds of either of these cards being salmon is very low, so I would get out now if you're not playing them.

Saffron's Picks For The Salmon of KTK:

(Remember, only two cards from Theros and three from Return to Ravnica increased in price during this period, so while I am going to talk about seven cards, it is close to impossible that all of them are salmon. If I happen to hit on two, I will be more than happy, but these are the only cards in KTK that I would even consider speculating on right now.)

1. The Card That Helps the Second or Third Best Deck Beat the Best Deck (aka: the Mistcutter Hydra Award).

This might seem like a stretch, but bear with me. Currently, I have Abzan Midrange as the best deck in the format, followed by Jeskai Wins, and Green-x Devotion. Now what are both Abzan and Green very good at? Clogging up the ground (thanks to Polukranos, World Eater, Courser of Kruphix, and Siege Rhino) and the air (thanks to Wingmate Roc and Hornet Queen). What does Jeskai want to do? Beat face with powerful and efficient threats and then burn the opponent out. The problem is, if either Abzan or Green can go Sylvan Caryatid into Courser of Kruphix into 4/5 drop, the beat face part never really happens and the Jeskai player is stuck trying to burn an opponent out from 18 - which generally isn't going to happen.

The idea here is that a couple copies of Icy Blast out of the board will allow Jeskai to get in one (or even two) big swings, which make the burn-them-out plan much more achievable. Although the lack of four powered creatures to trigger Ferocious is worrisome, one potential line to achieve full value is to attack with Goblin Rabblemaster and some token and then cast Blast on the declare attack step after Goblin Rabblemaster's power-boosting trigger resolves. Plus, with the price of Icy Blast only just above bulk (meaning you can always buylist your way out for little loss) picking up a few copies is a low-risk high reward proposition.

2. The Powerful But Underplayed Casual Sleeper (The Prophet of Kruphix award):

Here I have to card sharing the award, based on the fact that, at least as far as I can tell, it was the Inspired mechanic in Born of Gods that made Prophet of Kruphix spike.

Trail of Mystery is an obvious choice, simply because if there is one mechanic that I expect to see the rest of the KTK block, it's morph. While I have no idea how much morph will be supported in Fate Reforged, if there is something that makes casuals say "sploosh" Trail of Mystery could be the card that spikes as a result.

Hardened Scales is a bit more left field, just because there may not be any +1/+1 counter support in FRF. One thing I do know is that casual players like counters and creatures, so something that increases the number of counter on creates has potential to be a sleeper. The second thing is that Wizards makes +1/+1 blocks and -1/-1 blocks, and generally does not mix the two types of counters for the sake of simplicity on the battlefield, so while it is possible that the use of counters is exclusively tied to Abzan in KTK and it gets no more support the rest of the block, it's far more likely the rest of the block will have some sort of +counter theme then a -counter theme. I mean, Parallel Lives (which usually grants more counters, but also has a much higher mana cost) is currently a $4 card (although it took about a year to start to climb) so why not Hardened Scales?

3. A Mythic Control Finisher That Is Underestimated Due to Looking Like a Past Card (The Sphinx's Revelation Award).

This is probably the easiest pick on the list. If there is one mythic in KTK that could go from unplayed to premium control finisher it's Empty the Pits. Part of the problem is that Empty the Pits looks a little like Army of the Damned - a card that simply wasn't good enough for constructed. The other part of the problem is that no one has figured out the right way to use Empty the Pits yet. While some of the SCG guys tried a BUG Delve shell on week 1, no one has put Empty the Pits in the right control shell yet. Is this shell out there? I don't know. But the combination of fetchlands and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth make the BBBB mana cost almost a free-roll in the right deck. I'm not saying this is a slam dunk, but Empty the Pits is the only mythic in KTK for which I can envision a scenario where it is triple its current price by the release of FRF.

4. Above the Curve and Powerful On Its Face, But Without A Home (The Ash Zealot Award).

Here we have another shared award, and let me explain why.

Savage Knuckleblade is an extremely powerful card. It is pretty much the best thing a RUG deck can cast for 3 (play it) or 4 (play it with haste) mana, and still an above the curve play at 6 (play it with bounce protection), or 7 (play it as a 6/6 with haste). Temur is currently fighting with Sultai for the right to be called the least played clan (although Kibler is giving it his damnedest to keep Temur our of the cellar). The trouble is Savage Knuckleblade is already $3 and it is in a set full of powerful cards seeking their share of a finite set price. What this means is that, for Savage Knuckleblade to double in price, Abzan (or Jeskai) would have to trade their tier 1 status with Temur, making Savage Knuckleblade a 4-of in one of the best three decks in the format, which seems doubtful given the powerful black cards from Theros and red cards from M15. More likely is the possibility that Temur becomes a real tier 1.5 deck and Savage Knuckleblade picks up a dollar or two made available by decreasing demand in Siege Rhino or Mantis Rider.

Grim Haruspex although, on the other hand, is more of a deep sleeper, even though it is powerful. A 3/2 for three is playable if unexciting, but its death trigger has potential to create some serious, game changing value. One thing it has going for it is that Xathrid Necromancer and Rotlung Reanimator have proven that in the right circumstances, a 2B creature that does something when other creatures die can be good enough for standard. Although probably more powerful in a vacuum, Xathrid Necromancer held $4 pretty consistently during its entire standard life. While I have a hard time seeing that for Grim Haruspex, even if it finds a home, hitting $1.50 would represent a huge win if you buy in for the current TCG low of $0.15. And like Icy Blast, you are not risking much since you can always bulk out copies for $0.10 if things don't fall Grim Haruspex's way.

5. The Best Card In Legacy and Modern, or at Least Eternal Playability (Deathrite Shaman Award).

While KTK may actually contain the best card in legacy and modern, unfortunately it is a common, which pretty much makes Treasure Cruise worthless for our purposes. Even foil copies of Treasure Cruise are already priced extremely high (compared to, for instance, Delver of Secrets while Innistrad was in standard), so there is really nothing to see here from a financial perspective, at least in the short term. The second best card for eternal formats is likely Dig Through Time, but unfortunately, Dig Through Time is already priced like it's Deathrite Shaman (at the same point in Deathrite Shaman's life cycle), although it's only seeing Slaughter Pact levels of play in modern, and fringe play in legacy. So unless significantly more players start putting Dig Through Time in their eternal decks, it seems likely that it is overpriced as well.

This leaves us with very few good options for eternal playables which could be salmon (with Fetches, perhaps the only other rares or mythics with real eternal potential), but Altar of the Brood intrigues me, especially in foil. Probably the best comparison for Altar of the Brood in regards to eternal playability is Amulet of Vigor.

Both Amulet of Vigor and Altar of the Brood are priced as cheap as they can be mana wise. Both are artifacts, so the entire color-wheel is open while building around them. Both are powerful, if not on their faces, in their uniqueness - both Amulet of Vigor and Altar of the Brood do something that none of the other 14,000 magic cards can do, which means once (or if) someone finds a deck that needs Altar of the Brood's effect, as with Amulet, there is no substitute. 

While it took a while, Amulet of Vigor ended up finding a deck and become the broken combo piece it always had potential to be. Even though the deck is fringe and not very good, simply finding this tier 3 home pushed foil copies of Amulet of Vigor to over $10, where they still sit today.

I believe that eventually, this is what will happen with Altar of the Brood. Someone will figure out some janky combo, take a modern or legacy event by storm, and the price of Altar of the Brood will spike. Will this happen by the release of FRF? I have no idea, but I would be surprised if it did not happen eventually - and even if it never does, mill is another thing that makes casuals "sploosh," so in the long run Altar of the Brood is likely a winner either way.

So, in summary, while about 98% of the cards in KTK are going to lose value in the next three months, there will also be a couple salmon, who manage to swim upstream and increase in value during this time. The trick is finding them. You now know my picks, what are yours? What two or three cards from Khans will be salmon and increase in price heading towards the release of Fate Reforged? Let me know in the comments, or @SaffronOlive on Twitter.

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