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The Least Expensive Standard Since Caw Blade?


Almost exactly a year ago, I published an article talking about how the Standard format was the Most Expensive Since Caw Blade, with the weighted average price of one of the Top 8 decks in the format costing nearly $700. The format was completely void of budget options, just about every deck was running between 10 and 14 fetch lands, and the super-expensive Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar were showing up in a huge percentage of decks. Those were dark times, and Magic players were justifiably concerned (and some were even outraged) about the cost of playing what is intended to be Magic's most accessible format.

In the past year, there have been several significant changes influencing Standard. First, we had the Zendikar Expeditions (which weren't making much of an impact last year—even though the prices of Battle for Zendikar cards were low, they weren't heavily played in Standard, so they didn't do much to the price of the average Standard deck) and then the announcement that, with Kaladesh, we'd have Masterpiece Series cards in every set. Wizards actually said, in their own roundabout "we can't talk prices" way, that this change was at least in part to make Standard less expensive. We've had the rotation of fetch lands and the return to normalcy, as far as the cost of building a tier-one mana base and the end of the Jace, Vryn's Prodigy insanity. Finally, while we haven't really felt the full impact of the changes yet, just recently, Wizards announced they were scrapping the twice-per-year rotation schedule to return to the old once-per-year rotation in an effort to help players keep up on Standard. 

More recently, in just the past few weeks, I've seen a lot of grumbling about how Magic is too expensive, both on my Twitter feed and on Reddit. This struck me as strange, because in the dark (i.e., without doing any real research), it felt like the price of cards (and of playing Magic) was actually in decline. While a year ago I was completely on board with the complaints (and in some sense, even leading the charge), the fact that the same complaints were still rolling in was discouraging. If we raise our voices when there's a real problem (like the $700 price of Standard decks) and then raise our voices almost as loud when there isn't a problem, at some point Wizards is simply going to tune us out as the community that cried wolf. That said, I didn't really know for sure, so I figured that it was time to do some more research and check in on the price of Kaladesh Standard. As such, today we are going to revisit The Most Expensive Standard Since Caw Blade and see what's actually going on with the price of Standard. Are all the changes and reprints actually having their intended effect? Let's see!

The chart above is the same one we used last year to display the weighted average price of the Top 8 decks in various Standard formats over the past few years, with one big addition: the black line represents the price of Kaladesh Standard, calculated a few days ago, with the weighted average price of one of the Top 8 decks in Kaladesh Standard being $319.21. If you just glance over the chart, you'll see that this appears to be on the low side of average but still in the normal range. However, if you look a bit deeper, you'll see that the numbers are even better than they look. 

If you analyze the chart of Standard prices, you'll see a pattern. The time between November and January (and sometimes lasting longer, towards the end of March) is typically the peak format price, which means that the price of Kaladesh Standard will be at its highest now and for the next two or three months. This is because right now, today, the cards in Standard are still far away from rotation, but by the end of winter, people will slowly start preparing for rotation and prices will drop. So, maybe the best way to examine the price of Kaladesh Standard is to look at other Standard formats at the same point in time. 

Let's start with the good news before moving on to the great news. First and most importantly, the current price of a Top 8 deck in Standard is significantly cheaper than any format since our sample starts, back in Return to Ravnica. The next closest is Theros, which was still 16% more expensive than Kaladesh. Meanwhile, Kaladesh Standard is 30% cheaper than Return to Ravnica and Khans of Tarkir at the same point in time. Secondly, the great news is that a tier Standard deck today is less than half of the price of the tier Standard decks a year ago during the peak of the fetch land / Jace, Vryn's ProdigyBattle for Zendikar-fueled madness. 

Taking this data as a whole, depending on your interpretation, at the very worst you could argue that Kaladesh Standard is on the low side of average in price, while at best our headline could be the exact opposite of last year's. Rather than being the most expensive Standard since Caw Blade, we could be looking at the least expensive Standard since Caw Blade!

In breaking down Battle for Zendikar Standard, there were four main problems that caused prices to spiral out of control. First, there weren't any tier budget options for the format, which means that if you wanted to play competitive Standard, you pretty much had to pony up at least $400 and often much more—even the cheap decks were expensive. Second, the combination of Battle for Zendikar duals and fetch lands made building a mana base prohibitively expensive. Third, the insane mana allowed players to simply jam all of the most expensive cards in the same deck, driving up the cost of a deck even further. Finally, there were two gatekeepers to the format in Jace, Vryn's Prodigy (about $70 last fall) and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar (over $40 last fall), and if you wanted to play Standard, you needed a playset of at least one of these cards and often both. Let's take a minute to examine how Kaladesh has impacted each of these issues. 

Budget Options

Just so there's no confusion, I should make it clear that we're not talking about the Budget Magic decks we publish every week—those options exist in every Standard format. Instead, we are looking for a tier deck that just happens to be inexpensive. In the past, we've seen Standard formats that are extremely expensive (for instance, the Thragtusk, Huntmaster of the Fells, Restoration Angel-fueled format right after the release of Gatecrash back in 2013, which held the record for most expensive Standard, with a weighted average deck price of about $500, until Battle for Zendikar broke it last year), but some of the pressure was relieved by having a good budget option (in the case of Gatecrash, a strong Mono-Red Aggro deck that only cost about $100). A good, tier budget option is essential to Standard because it gives players who don't want to (or can't) put out for the most expensive cards and decks a way to play competitively at their FNM or even have hope of keeping up at a GP or SCG Open if they desire. Battle for Zendikar Standard was lacking this option, but in Kaladesh Standard, we see the return of a really good, tier budget option.

While GR Energy Combo (or Poisonless Infect) has slipped down the deck ranking a little bit recently (it was the fourth-most-played deck at Pro Tour Kaladesh but is currently tenth, placing it solidly in the second tier of the format), it is without a doubt a deck that can keep up with the other powerful decks in Kaladesh Standard and even win on the tournament stage. Most importantly, you can buy a build that has recently 5-0ed multiple Magic Online leagues and made the Top 8 at several SCG Invitational Qualifiers for right around $100. As such, if you want to have a chance at winning a tournament, you don't have to pay $400 for UW Midrange or GB Delirium, or even $300-something for a Vehicles deck; instead, you can plunk down $100 and have a realistic shot of winning an event. 

Mana Bases and Colors

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A year ago, the biggest problem as far as the prices of Standard decks were concerned was the cost of building a tier-one mana base. If you look at the decks right after Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, simply getting the lands needed to play a Top 8 deck cost somewhere between $250 and $350. What this means is that you can buy most tier-one decks today (in Kaladesh Standard) for the same amount you paid for your lands a year ago in Battle for Zendikar Standard. However, there are two sides to this story. We know that lands were incredibly, insanely expensive during Battle for Zendikar, but what about the cost of lands today? 

$ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00

Now, it's worth mentioning that the cost of building a mana base in our current Standard is aided by the fact that most decks are two colors (with a couple of three-color decks), compared to last year, when the norm was four or five colors. With this in mind, the price of building a mana base today is amazingly cheap. Building the ideal mana base for the six two-color decks among the Top 8 decks in Kaladesh Standard will only set you back between $30 and $40 depending on the color combination, and even the mana for three-color decks (which play twice as many dual lands as the two-color decks) will only cost you between $70 and $80. This amounts to a massive 80% decrease over last year. 

More importantly, the lands in Kaladesh Standard are incredibly cheap thanks to the Masterpiece Series. In fact, if you had to pick one group of cards that have seen their price suppressed the most thanks to the addition of the expensive ultra-rares, it's likely the rare land cycles from Masterpiece sets. If you look back over the history of land cycles, you'll see that the original fast lands from Scars of Mirrodin were at least $8 and the most expensive members of the cycle peaked at $20, while the buddy lands from Innistrad were $10 to $15. Meanwhile, the dual lands from Battle for Zendikar and Shadows over Innistrad are between $3 and $4, while the fast lands from Kaladesh (which are Modern playable and haven't yet reached peak supply) are mostly under $5 (with the exception of Spirebluff Canal). 

While there is some natural variance in the price of rare lands thanks to power level and playability, it's clear that the Masterpiece cycle is helping to keep these prices in check. Without the Masterpiece Series, it's probable that the Battle for Zendikar duals would be nearly double their current price, and over their life in Standard, I expect we'll see that that the fast lands are much lower than they would have been without the Masterpieces as well.

The Gatekeepers

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Last year, it was Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar that performed the gatekeeper role as expensive cards that you simply had to have to be able to compete in Standard tournaments. Jace, Vryn's Prodigy was $70 at the time, and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar was over $40. When you combine these two cards with the cost of the mana base, you have the receipt for extremely expensive decks. Kaladesh Standard has its own gatekeepers, with Smuggler's Copter joining Gideon, Ally of Zendikar as the "must haves." The thing is, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is currently down to $30 (and was significantly cheaper until a couple weeks ago, when Wizards announced the rotation changes), and Smuggler's Copter is only $15. While it's not that these prices are cheap in an absolute sense, the gatekeepers are significantly cheaper than they were a year ago, which makes Kaladesh Standard four-for-four in solving the problems of Battle for Zendikar Standard

Putting It All Together

As you probably know, I make Budget Magic decks every week, and one of the criteria for decks on the series is that they cost $100 or less. This $100 or less rule has always been a point of contention—some people think it's not budget friendly enough, while others say that the limit should be raised (especially for formats like Modern, where the average deck cost is significantly higher). So, who is right? I have no idea, and that's the point. Talking Standard prices is similar. I can look at the format, break down the numbers, and discuss the "why," but I can't really tell you, personally, that Standard is cheap or expensive because it's so relative. If you are in college and just scraping by, $300 is probably a lot of money; on the other hand, if you are a bit older, work full time, and have more disposable income, buying Jace, Vryn's Prodigy probably wasn't a big issue. 

What I can say with certainty is that our current Standard is less expensive than normal and quite possibly the cheapest Standard format we've seen since Caw Blade, which means that if you feel the current Standard format is too expensive, your gripe isn't with Kaladesh or any of the other factors people like to cite for the high cost of Magic—it's with the game in general. Basically, if Kaladesh Standard is too expensive, than every Standard format ever is too expensive. Furthermore, if Standard in general is too expensive, Modern and Legacy are too. 

As a community, we've spend years making noise about the cost of playing with the game, and from my perspective, 2016 was the year when things really, truly started to change. Conspiracy 2 was the best reprint set of all time and had a major impact on the prices of not just casual cards but also tournament staples for Modern and Legacy. Commander 2016 decks were the most valuable decks in the history of the series, reconfirming Wizards' focus on making Magic cards cheaper through reprints. The announcement of Masterpieces Series cards decreases the cost of Standard by at least 20% and, in some cases (like Battle for Zendikar), significantly more. We haven't even seen the full impact of this change (since Shadows over Innistrad block doesn't have Masterpieces), and we're already talking about the cheapest Standard format in years. We have more supplemental products than ever, which means more reprints and lower prices. Wizards even walked back a change that increased the cost of Standard by speeding up rotation. So, all around, if your goal is cheaper Magic, 2016 was your year, and there's no reason to think that 2017 will be any different.

My only worry is that if we yell just as loud when our Standard decks cost $300 as we do when they cost $700, our complaints will eventually fall on deaf ears. While everything isn't perfect yet, the last year has been an amazingly huge step towards making the game more accessible. Let's enjoy it and save our complaints for other, more important battles, because we are already winning this war.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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