The Expected Value of Battle for Zendikar
by SaffronOlive // Sep 22, 2015
I have to admit that the excitement I have for writing Expected Value articles varies greatly from set to set; sometimes before even crunching the numbers, it is pretty clear that the set is a dud value-wise. So instead of figuring out how much money can be gained by cracking a box, we are left to figure out how much we will lose. Fortunately for us today, Battle for Zendikar is one of the most exciting sets (in terms of value, certainly not in terms of constructed playables) to come along in years. Lands drive up the expected value of a box more than any other cards and Battle for Zendikar has some good ones at all rarities from the Expeditions, to the slowlands, to the very powerful uncommon "blighted" cycle. As a result, I'm really looking forward to delving into the EV of the set.
As Magic players, one of the first things we learn is to not crack sealed product outside of draft because it is a losing proposition and you are better off buying singles. While this works well as a rule of thumb, like all rules, there are exceptions. I think the "never crack sealed product" motto is almost too influential at this point. I had a long Reddit conversation this week and I was amazed how many people believe you should never crack a box period. While "never open sealed product" is definitely a better motto than "always open sealed product," holding too steadfastly to any rule of thumb is dangerous. Sometimes it is wise to crack sealed product, especially during release periods while supply is low.
Now this does not hold true for every set or even most sets. Over the past few years, discounting supplemental products like Commander decks, there have been two sets where (assuming you opened them right after the set released) you could expect to open more value from the box than you paid for the box (Return to Ravnica and Khans of Tarkir). There have also been a few sets where you could expect to (more or less) break even (Gatecrash, Fate Reforged, Magic Origins). And there are a bunch of sets where cracking a box is almost guaranteed to lose you money (Dragon's Maze, Born of the Gods, Dragons of Tarkir). Because of this uncertainty I like to calculate the expected value (EV) of a booster box every time a new set comes out to figure out for myself whether or not buying a box is worthwhile in strictly economic terms.
There are two more things I need to clear up before delving into the methodology and the EV. First, thanks to another Reddit conversation I had this week, I realized that some people misunderstand what Expected Value really is. In specific, someone expressed to me that they did not trust my EV because my prediction on Jace, Vryn's Prodigy was bad (I massively underrated him, just in case Chaz hasn't reminded you recently). As such, I should make it clear: any predictions I make in other articles have no influence whatsoever on the Expected Value. Calculating the EV of a set is not a predictive exercise. My belief that Gideon, Ally of Zendikar will be $10 in a few months doesn't even enter into the equation. The numbers used to calculate the EV are the actual, current prices of cards, not my speculation on what their prices might be in the future.
Second, there are many reasons why people buy a box. Some people buy boxes because cracking packs is fun. Others buy boxes to play limited with their friends. For some people, buying a box is a tradition or they enjoy the lottery aspect of the potential to open a foil full art Scalding Tarn. All of these (and I'm sure there are many more) are fine reasons to purchase a booster box, even a low-EV booster box. When it comes right down to it, Magic is a game — there is value in having fun and EV calculation can't account for this non-monetary value. So don't let this EV calculation be the only factor in your decision of whether or not to buy a box.
What is Expected Value?
While many of you are probably familiar with the concept of expected value, here's a brief refresher. Expected value tells us just how much value we can expect to open in a booster box. To calculate EV, we first determine the odds of opening a specific card (this is the "multiplier" you'll see throughout the article). Next we calculate the value of each card. Then we multiply the odds of opening a card by the card's value, which tells us how much value we expect that card to add to the box. Finally, after we do this for all the cards in the set, we can simply add up the total and determine how much a box is actually worth.
Most EV calculations use sell prices, things like TCG-mid or the prices vendors like StarCityGames or ChannelFireball ask for a card. But unfortunately these numbers do not mean much to me for a couple reasons: First, I (and most of you) can't get StarCityGames or TCG-mid prices when we sell our cards (wouldn't that be nice?). Instead we get things like eBay minus fees and shipping or buylist prices. As such, in calculating the value of the cards in the set, I'm trying to use the number that I realistically think I can get for the card tomorrow (this is important because new sets tend to decrease in value quickly). For this I use the higher of completed eBay listings minus 15 percent for fees and shipping or the best buylist prices (when available). This is why the prices listed in the charts in this article are lower than the MTGGoldfish price — I'm making deductions that takes into account the "hidden" costs of selling the cards.
When it comes to making a profit by opening boxes, timing is everything as prices drop quickly once a new set starts being opened. A set can go from positive EV to negative EV in less than a week, sometimes even overnight. Basically, by opening boxes on release day (or release weekend), we can take advantage of the excitement for the new cards (new demand) and the fact that the freshly-opened cards haven't had time to reach the market yet (lack of supply).
- Commons (except in very rare cases) are considered to be bulk, which I value at $5.00 per thousand. This means that an entire booster box worth of commons adds $1.80 to the expected value of the box.
- Most uncommons are also worthless for the purpose of calculating EV since they cannot be reliably sold as singles. Apart from a handful of "chase" and "semi-chase" uncommons, everything else at this rarity goes into the bulk pile along with the commons.
- In the past I didn't include/list foils in the EV for a couple reasons. First, they are fairly rare, so there is a ton of variance in what you open. On average, a booster box contains three foil commons, two foil uncommons and one foil rare. Second, foil mythics (typically the most valuable foils) are extremely rare. The odds of opening a foil Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is so slim (one in every 3,240 packs) that it's barely worth considering when crunching the numbers. I consider the possibility of opening a valuable foil like a bonus lottery ticket you get for free with the purchase of a box; when it happens, it's great, but don't count on it. However, since Magic Origins I have been including foils because getting a few bulk foil commons/uncommons does add guaranteed value to a box — just don't expect to open a foil mythic.
- These prices won't be good for long. Remember, the idea is to determine if Battle for Zendikar is worth opening on release weekend. If you buy a box six weeks from now, don't blame me when these prices are wrong because I can tell you right now they will be wrong, and likely very wrong. Remember the EV is a snapshot based on current prices, not a prediction of where prices will be in the future.
- Based on some confusion in the comments to past EV articles, let me make sure this is clear: calculating EV is not a predictive exercise (if you want my predictions, check out my The Financial Impact of BFZ series) — it is a snapshot of value at a specific point in time. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar could spike to $40 at the Pro Tour (or crash to $10) and it wouldn't make this EV calculation any more or less true because the one and only thing we are concerned with is the current value of the cards in the set.
- Another reminder: You don't actually make a profit until you sell the card. So just cracking boxes on release weekend isn't enough; you need take the next step and actually trade away the cards, list them on Ebay/TCGPlayer or sell them to a buylist.
- Finally, be aware of variance. If you open enough packs these numbers will be accurate. But like most aspects of Magic, variance can have a huge impact in small samples. In theory a booster box could contain zero mythics and all bulk rares, or it could contain a complete set of foil mythics. The more packs you crack the more accurate the EV becomes because you smooth out these outliers. We'll talk more about this towards the end of the article when we discuss the Zendikar Expeditions.
Battle for Zendikar: Mythics
|Drana, Liberator of Malakir||$9.85||0.3||$2.81|
|Gideon, Ally of Zendikar||$16.15||0.3||$4.85|
|Greenwarden of Murasa||$4.25||0.3||$1.28|
|Kiora, Master of the Depths||$11.90||0.3||$3.97|
|Ob Nixilis Reignited||$12.33||0.3||$3.70|
|Omnath, Locus of Rage||$3.40||0.3||$1.02|
|Part the Waterveil||$3.40||0.3||$1.02|
|Sire of Stagnation||$5.95||0.3||$1.79|
|Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger||$12.75||0.3||$3.83|
|Average Mythic Value||$6.81|
|Total Value Added to Box||$30.91|
Unlike Magic Origins which had 16 mythics thanks to the flipwalkers, Battle for Zendikar goes back to the tried and true formula of 15 mythics. This means that to open one copy of each, on average you'll have to open three and one-third boxes (120 packs).
Coming in at an average price of $6.81, the mythics of Battle for Zendikar are priced fairly typically for a pre-order period, nearly $2.00 less than the mythics from Magic Origins or Dragons of Tarkir, but nearly $2.50 more than the mythics of Khans of Tarkir. This is especially stunning considering the makeup of the set with ample value concentrated at rare with the dual lands and at the special rarity with the Expeditions. Although pre-order prices are not always rational, typically, having value in other places decreases the value of mythics (as we saw with KTK), so simply coming in at "average" is a big boost to the EV of Battle for Zendikar.
Battle for Zendikar: Rares
|Zada, Hedron Grinder||$2.34||0.59||$1.38|
|Scatter to the Winds||$2.30||0.59||$1.35|
|Bring to Light||$1.28||0.59||$0.75|
|Conduit of Ruin||$0.66||0.59||$0.39|
|Noyan Dar, Roil Shaper||$0.81||0.59||$0.47|
|Shrine of the Forsaken God||$0.49||0.59||$0.29|
|14 Bulk Rares||$0.10||0.59*13||$0.77|
|11 Semi-Bulk Rares||$0.25||0.57*11||$1.62|
|Average Rare Value||$1.26|
|Total Value Added||$39.61|
The rare slot of Battle for Zendikar is, predictably, dominated by the seven expensive rare lands in the five slowlands and two manlands. In fact, over half of the EV from the rare slot comes from these seven cards. As a result, having an fairly typical average value is a bit disappointing. Having an expensive land cycle is typically the most important characteristics of sets that have a high EV on release weekend, and while the slowlands are not in the same league as shocks or fetches which were worth two or three times as much at release, they are certainly better and more valuable than scrylands in Theros block or the painlands in Magic Origins. However, the average value of a Battle for Zendikar rare is actually significantly lower than Magic Origins despite the lands.
Part of the problem is there really isn't a chase rare on the level of Goblin Piledriver or Thoughtseize. Assuming you open a pack with a rare, the best you can really hope is to (basically) break even. Even if you are only paying $3 a pack, less than 20 percent of packs will make you your money back. All in all, having the rare slot add $39.61 to the box EV is acceptable, but really not exciting.
Battle for Zendikar - Uncommons/Commons/Bulk
|Transgress the Mind||UNC||$0.59||1.35||$0.80|
|Crumble to Dust||UNC||$0.41||1.35||$0.56|
|Herald of Kozilek||UNC||$0.28||1.35||$0.38|
|Total C/U/B Value Added||$5.74|
The big problem with the common and uncommons from Battle for Zendikar is that they lack depth. After Sylvan Scrying, Transgress the Mind and to a lesser extent Crumble to Dust, there really isn't that much going on. Sure there are a handful of cards you might be able to sell for $0.10, but they are all uncommons; I couldn't find a single common that was even worth adding to our chart. The commons and uncommons you'll open from a box (including all the bulk cards valued at $5/thousand) will add about $5.74, slighly less than a typical set.
|Rarity||Average # Per Box||Average Value||EV Added|
|Mythic||One every six boxes (0.17 per box)||$17.64||$3.00|
|Rare||One per box||$4.21||$4.21|
|Uncommons||Two per box||$0.20||$0.40|
|Commons||Three per box||$0.10||$0.30|
|Foil Value Added to Box||$7.78|
As I mentioned in the methodology, I don't really like to count foil mythics as part of the EV just because your odds of opening one is quite slim (one per case). This said, the possibility of opening one does exist, and since including foil mythics doesn't actually impact the box EV in a significant way (in this instance, adding foil mythics increases the box EV by less than 3 percent), I figure I might as well throw them in.
More importantly, lower-rarity foils are, more or less, guaranteed value. You are very likely to open at least one foil rare and about five foil commons and uncommons from any given box. I calculated the average value of a foil rare by using SCG retail prices and deducting a 30 percent spread. For uncommon and common foils, the average value is an approximation of bulk prices with uncommons getting a slight bump because of the potential of opening one of the ten semi-valuable uncommons.
|Full Art Basics||$0.17||36||$6.12|
Normally basic lands are included in the bulk, but Battle for Zendikar isn't a normal set. Players love full art basic lands, and over the course of the game's history, these lands have commanded a significant premium. Figuring out just how much the BFZ basics are worth is tricky. Probably the best way of doing this is with the help of eBay completed listing where basics are being sold in lots of ten (with matching art). Unfortunately, even here the prices are mixed. The absolute floor seems to be $0.10 each. Basically every lot listed at this price has sold, but there are also lots showing significantly higher prices, with a decent amount closing in the $0.20/each range, and the Noah Bradley cycle selling for as much a $0.65/each in lots of 10.
All things considered, I'm going to take a relatively cautious approach and use $0.17 each as the value of basics. This should be high enough to account for the more desirable and expensive members of the group while still taking into consideration the "bulk" price of $0.10 each. As a result, at an average of $0.17 each, full art basic lands add a total of $6.12 to the box EV.
Putting it All Together
|Rarity||Average Price||Number||Value Added|
|Foils||6 (per box)||$7.91|
|TOTAL BOX EV||$90.29|
So, there you have it. If you buy a booster box of Battle for Zendikar, you can expect to open just about $90.00 in value, which is just about the break-even point depending on how much you spent on the box. This is almost exactly the same EV as Magic Origins and several other good-but-not-great sets over recent years. I am leaving something out (the Expeditions), and while we are going to talk about the ultra-rare lands in just a minute, I thought it was important to stress the non-Expedition box EV first.
As a player thinking about buying a single booster box of Battle for Zendikar, your expectation should be that you will not open an Expedition — just like you should not expect to open a foil mythic. While the odds are not horrible (about one in every six boxes should have an Expedition - so just under 17 percent of boxes), the odds are also not in your favor. As a result, when buying a single box, I think it's best to prepare yourself for an Expedition-less opening, and if you happen to have a "lucky box," enjoy your lotto winning experience. However, in purely mathematical terms, the possibility of opening an expensive Expedition does shift the EV quite a bit, so let's break it down.
|Card/Group||Average Price||Multiplier||Value Added|
|Non-Blue Fetches (six cards)||$157.25||0.0067*6||$6.32|
|Shocks (ten cards)||$119.00||0.0067*10||$7.97|
|Slowlands (five cards)||$51||0.0067*5||$1.71|
|Average Expedition Value||$137.25|
|Expedition Value Added to Box||$22.88|
|BFZ Box EV with Expeditions||$113.17|
Right now a playset of Expeditions will set you back an incredible $13,724.64. If you want to do it the hard way, you could always open 21,600 boosters (which would set you back around $80,000). The thing is, while the Expeditions are incredibly expensive, they are also incredibly rare. So the fact that they add nearly $23 to the EV of a box (pushing the total EV to a profitable $115) is slightly deceiving.
Khans of Tarkir and Return to Ravnica had a similar EV during their release periods, but there was on very important difference. The variance was much, much lower because of how the value was spread through the set. With Khans of Tarkir, a big portion of the expected value was from the three fetchlands you would open per box. Of course there is still variance here — some boxes will have two fetches, while others will have four — but the range is much smaller than with BFZ. If you opened a case (six boxes) of KTK, the values would be something like $90, $105, $115, $120, $125 and $135. If you open a case of Battle for Zendikar, the breakdown will be something like $75, $80, $90, $100, $105 and $240.
Here's the Deal
Let's wrap up by looking at the different possibilities in opening a single box of Battle for Zendikar:
- 83 percent of the time you'll open a box without an Expedition. These boxes, on average, will yield slightly less than you paid for the box, giving you about $90 of cards at eBay prices, minus fees and shipping.
- 3.4 percent of the time you'll open a box with a slowland for your Expedition. These boxes will make you a little bit of money, giving you about $140 of cards at eBay minus fees and shipping.
- 6.8 percent of the time you'll open a box with a shockland as your Expedition. These boxes will make you a good profit. You should be able to double your investment and sell the contents for right around $200 at eBay minus fees and shipping.
- 4.08 percent of the time you'll open a non-blue fetchland as your Expedition. These boxes will make you slightly more than the shockland boxes, and you should be able to sell the contents for about $250 at eBay minus fees and shipping.
- Finally, 2.72 percent of the time you'll open a blue fechland as your Expedition. These boxes should allow you to triple or even quadruple your initial investment and sell the contents for somewhere between $325 and $425 at eBay minus fees and shipping.
The point is, opening a single box is incredibly risky. While getting $90 is fine, it isn't quite to the break-even point. Even if you get lucky and open an Expedition, 20 percent of the time this will be a slowland which will turn your box from a slight loss into a slight gain. It's really the 13.6 percent of boxes that contain a shockland or fetchland Expedition that make the entire process of opening boxes a money winner.
What this means is that until you are willing to open one and a half or two cases, you really can't feel safe opening a box to make a profit. While it is still possible to get unlucky at this point, once you start opening BFZ by the case you are likely to even out the variance. As a result, Battle for Zendikar is great for big vendors, or even mid-sized dealers who will be opening case upon case of Battle for Zendikar. They know that every single box they open is money in the bank. On the other hand, for a player buying a single box there are two ways to look at Battle for Zendikar:
One way to look at buying a box of Battle for Zendikar is that, odds are, you will lose a little bit of money (although it is close enough that the joy you get from cracking packs might be worth the small loss). The other way to look at Battle for Zendikar is as a wager.
Let's say someone offers you a bet. You wager $20. 83 percent of the time you lose, 4 percent of the time you will win $20, 10 percent of the time you will win $100 and 3 percent of the time you will win $300. Even though you are going to lose more times than not in strictly mathematical terms, this is a great bet. A professional gambler would spend their entire bankroll at these odds because over the course of time, you will win. However, if you are risk averse, you might not be interested.
This is the equation for Battle for Zendikar. Even when you open a horrible box, you'll still be getting back some value so you really aren't risking that much to take a shot of having your bet pay off huge. Of course this also assumes you willing to put in the time and effort to actually sell all the cards you open (which is where the bet analogy falls apart).
My advice to you is this: if you are alright with (likely) losing a little bit of money and if you are willing to spend the time and effort to sell the cards for a small chance of doubling or tripling your initial investment, buy a box of Battle for Zendikar. Likewise, if you are willing to buy at least a case-and-a-half of Battle for Zendikar and have the time and network to sell a significant number of mid and low-tier rares and mythics, definitely buy in. On the other hand, if you are just a regular player without much experience selling Magic cards who is trying to figure out if you should buy a single box in hopes of making a quick dollar, it's probably not worth it. Not only will you lose unless you hit the 10 percenter, but your potential gain is low enough that working almost any other job (even a minimum wage job) will likely be a better (and more profitable) use of your time.
If you are looking for an excuse to crack some boxes, Battle for Zendikar is the set for you. Odds are you won't get rich and you'll probably lose a little bit, but if you enjoy cracking packs, the almost break-even box EV without Expeditions and the chance of winning the Expedition lotto means it is more justifiable to crack boxes of Battle for Zendikar than any set since Khans of Tarkir, and before that Return to Ravnica.
Personally I'm planning on buying and cracking some boxes (and maybe cases) from my LGS simply because I love the thrill of cracking packs. While I'm usually all about the numbers and value, sometimes the little kid in me just wants to have some fun and hope he gets lucky. While I can't talk myself into this with low-value sets like Dragons of Tarkir or Dragon Maze, Battle for Zendikar is close enough that the kid in me can crack some boxes without the value-conscious, adult MTG financier in me dying too much inside.
Anyway, that's all for today. As always, leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter (or MTGO) @SaffronOlive.
NOTE: You can currently find Battle for Zendikar Booster Boxes on Ebay for ~$105 shipped.