Recurring Nightmares – Goldilocks

With the introduction of Born of the Gods to the card pool, and the turmoil to Modern caused by the ban of [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] and return of [card]Bitterblossom[/card] and [card]Wild Nacatl[/card], there is a ton of change going on in Magic right now. Times like these can leave players feeling nervous and anxious as well as excited. It’s a reality (albeit an unfortunate one in most cases) that these pieces of cardboard we shuffle up and play are sometimes worth more than the card stock they’re printed on. Turmoil causes instability in prices, and the fact that a portion of our cards’ value is derived from the strength of those cards in Constructed (and the subsequent ability to actually play with those cards), and when there’s uncertainty about what decks will be viable in the coming weeks, there’s concern that we’re at risk of losing value in our cards.

A friend of mine, recently returned to Magic in a more serious way after driven back into the game by the excellent flavor of Innistrad, asked me to share my thoughts on the merits of the primary Constructed formats. He asked me to explain their relative volatility and entry costs, to help him understand the risks and opportunities available from investing into the major cards in each. I think this is a subject that can stand to be revisited on occasion, and it’s one I’m particularly aware of these days, as my personal focus has shifted my attention from playing primarily Legacy toward the current PTQ season—in this case Standard. As this experience is relatively new to me as well (although I’m moving against the current in terms of most common directional shift), I find the topic interesting.

Standard

Of all the traditional Constructed formats, Standard is the most volatile. Because of the small card pool, each additional set added to the format will have a great impact. Even a set like Born of the Gods, which is widely regarded as being an underpowered set, will have far-reaching impacts beyond the individual effects of a specific card. For example, the presence of [card]Bile Blight[/card] in Standard will change the dynamics of the Mono-Black mirror, and potentially reduce the number of [card]Pack Rat[/card]s and [card]Nightveil Specter[/card]s seen in the format overall. This means either the black deck will adapt or reduce in overall metagame presence. Other decks with marginal Mono-Black matchups may emerge, as their main predator is less prevalent.

Standard is, of course, the most popular Constructed format. It’s the format featured in most of the strategy content online, and it has the strongest players focusing the majority of their attention on it—unless otherwise incentivized by a different format being featured at an impending professional event. It has the most opportunities to be played, as most FNM events are Standard, many Grand Prix are Standard, and every Open Series event has a Standard day. In fact, if you’re looking to test out your most recent Standard brew, you’ll likely be able to find a game at any given time with nearly any Magic player—almost every person plays Standard.

The driving force behind the popularity of Standard is simple and intuitive. You can get the cards you need for Standard out of booster packs. While most would be quick to tell you this is not an efficient way to go about getting cards for your deck, the potential is nonetheless there. Your whole card pool is still in print (usually), and limited events feed into the relevant card pool. Trading is easier, as most people have some amount of Standard cards if they’re looking to trade, and you don’t need to look for obscure uncommons and rares from ten years ago to compete.

On the other hand, your cards are only legal for a few years before they rotate. When they do rotate, the vast majority of them will tank in value in the blink of an eye. Unless they happen to be both rare or mythic, and have playability in Modern or Legacy, the most cards go from Standard staple to dollar bin fodder essentially overnight. This makes Standard incredibly time-sensitive, and in order to get the most out of your Standard collection, you need to time your trades and buy-ins/sell-outs accurately to stay afloat. You can’t be passive with Standard cards unless you’re the proud owner of a giant bankroll, and can afford to effectively buy into the format once a year or more.

In practical terms, Standard is a hostile environment to keep up with. Hostile to your pocketbook and collection value, and hostile for a given deck week to week. Beyond the limitations imposed by rotation, the success (or lack thereof) of a deck one week can have dramatic implications on the deck you select to play. It may not even be the deck you play that causes the chain reaction, it could be as simple as a deck your choice has a bad matchup with winning a Grand Prix. Suddenly it becomes a popular choice, and your deck (that you’ve invested in over the course of some time) is not viable until the hype dies down or the deck is preyed out of the metagame.

Fortunately, compared to the other formats, it’s relatively inexpensive to jump ship from one deck to another. As long as the deck you’re trying to move away from hasn’t become completely marginalized, your cards should hold most of their value. In combination with the relatively low ceiling of cards in Standard in general, trading off the staples of one deck to acquire those of another is not an overwhelming task.

Let’s look at a pair of examples to establish a baseline of cost for the current Standard. Note that because this weekend presents the first time to use Born of the Gods, the new set is not factored into the deck lists presented here.

**All prices are pulled from the ChannelFireball.com store, using Slightly Played pricing for all relevant mythics, rares, and expensive ($2+) uncommons. We’re working from the assumption that commons and basics are not difficult to obtain, and so they aren’t factored into the pricing.**

Mono-Black (Jon Stern) – Total cost: $415

[deck]Main Deck
4 Desecration Demon
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
4 Nightveil Specter
4 Pack Rat
4 Underworld Connections
3 Devour Flesh
4 Hero’s Downfall
2 Pharika’s Cure
1 Whip of Erebos
4 Thoughtseize
18 Swamp
4 Mutavault
4 Temple of Silence
Sideboard
3 Lifebane Zombie
2 Dark Betrayal
1 Devour Flesh
1 Doom Blade
2 Pharika’s Cure
2 Erebos, God of the Dead
2 Duress
2 Shrivel[/deck]

The nearly undisputed king of Theros Standard, Mono-Black is also one of the cheaper decks in the format, requiring very little in the way of mythics or expensive rares, and the single-color mana base means you get the benefit of not needing dual lands (though [card]Mutavault[/card]s are expensive anyway). That the two most expensive cards in the deck are reprints ([card]Thoughtseize[/card], [card]Mutavault[/card]) means they’re easier to come by than they may otherwise have been, as many players either still have sets from the respective first printings, or seek out the original printings as a matter of style.

UW Control (Andrew Shrout) – Total Cost: $563

[deck]Main Deck
1 Aetherling
3 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
4 Jace, Architect of Thought
4 Detention Sphere
2 Azorius Charm
4 Dissolve
4 Last Breath
4 Sphinx’s Revelation
3 Syncopate
4 Supreme Verdict
5 Island
5 Plains
3 Azorius Guildgate
4 Hallowed Fountain
3 Mutavault
3 Temple of Deceit
4 Temple of Silence
Sideboard
1 Pithing Needle
4 Archangel of Thune
3 Dark Betrayal
3 Doom Blade
3 Gainsay
1 Opportunity[/deck]

Andrew Shrout’s UW list is about as expensive as it gets in Standard, with the possible exception of Esper Control. It runs the most expensive planeswalkers, plenty of dual lands, a full set of the best draw spell in the format, the hottest new technology in [card]Archangel of Thune[/card], and a bunch of [card]Mutavault[/card]s to boot. And with all of that, it’s still less than 150% of the cost of the previous deck, which is on the cheap side of cost. In essence, the floor and ceiling of Standard are not extremely far apart, and you can expect to spend about $500 to build an average Standard deck from the ground up. Of course, the UW deck plays a multitude of cards that were popular last season of Standard, and the Mono-Black deck plays a ton of cards that spiked in value after spending that season in the bulk bin. That’s where the volatility comes into play, and how you can reap significant rewards for identifying sleeper picks.

Modern

The newest of the three major Constructed formats, Modern is a horse of a different color. Unlike Standard and Legacy, where bans occur largely because something specific has thrown off the balance within the format, or is so powerful that it edges out the viability of playing large subsets of strategies, Modern’s banned list is a living document where Wizards of the Coast will add or remove cards with the intent of “shaking up” the format.

Comprised of all the sets with the Modern card frame (hence “Modern”), a few notable cards are banned for having a power level unreasonably higher than the rest of the card pool. These spells, like [card]Skullclamp[/card], [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card], and [card]Glimpse of Nature[/card], are banned to create a format that is interesting and dynamic, but not so powerful as to seem a Legacy-lite. On the other hand, Modern is intended to be a format that can be showcased as a Pro Tour or PTQ format, and as such it can stagnate due to the large card pool and relative difficulty of new cards making a serious impact to the format’s shape. For this reason, Wizards has demonstrated a willingness to add or remove cards on the Banned list, to encourage innovation and discovery.

This is a blessing and a curse from a player’s perspective. On one hand, there are enough dynamics to the format to make it an evolving metagame, and keep it interesting beyond a single Grand Prix. On the other hand, selecting a deck to invest into is a risky prospect, especially if your intention is to buy into the “best deck,” and play it until something changes. There’s a real risk of losing large portions of your investment when doing so, as you run the chance of having a key card in your strategy find itself banned.

Unfortunately, in this format, some cards are actually expensive—in a way no Standard cards are. Because of the non-rotating nature of the format, there are cards legal in Modern that are over 10 years old. These, along with some more recent cards that are difficult to come by due to small-set scarcity, can be upward of $50 each, and unfortunately are present in multiple decks in Modern. Their power level and versatility is in no small way a part of why they cost what they do. While these expensive cards are unlikely to find the banned list, the fact that they theoretically could is a very real deterrent to investing in them.

Compared to Standard, it is much more difficult to find a Modern event to play in. In fact, because of the SCG Open series featuring Legacy, Modern is the most difficult format of the three to find high-level play. The exception to this rule is during Modern PTQ season, in which everyone interested in qualifying for the Pro Tour has a Modern deck available. Of course, during this time, the price of individual Modern staples soars through the roof, and buying into the format is an enormous endeavor and risk. A card like [card]Noble Hierarch[/card] is poised to make a giant leap during Modern season, but its relative obscurity in Legacy means you’ll be taking a giant hit if you buy in during that season and try to dump them after you’re done with PTQs.

What Modern does offer is a midpoint between Standard and Legacy, that can represent a transition between investment in the two. Since the cards retain most of their value barring any bannings that directly impact their price, it can serve as a stepping stone for someone interested in playing older, broader formats without wanting to jump in with both feet.

It also represents a balance in power level between Standard and Legacy. While there are certainly broken combo decks in Modern, it’s largely dominated by midrange strategies. If you’re looking to do something more powerful than playing and attacking with creatures, there are decks available to play. If you’re looking to play a tempo game, you can. If you want to play big dudes that cost little mana and protect them with disruption and removal, there’s decks for you. The broad range of options allows a player to find their niche, though the discovery process is much more financially draining than doing the same thing in Standard.

Here are a couple of examples from the Top 8 of the most recent Modern Grand Prix.

U/W/R Midrange (Vjeran Horvat) – Total Cost: $1176.50

[deck]Main Deck
1 Restoration Angel
4 Snapcaster Mage
1 Thundermaw Hellkite
4 Geist of Saint Traft
3 Vendilion Clique
3 Cryptic Command
3 Electrolyze
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Lightning Helix
2 Mana Leak
3 Path to Exile
3 Remand
1 Island
1 Mountain
1 Plains
1 Snow-Covered Island
4 Arid Mesa
4 Celestial Colonnade
1 Glacial Fortress
2 Hallowed Fountain
1 Sacred Foundry
4 Scalding Tarn
2 Steam Vents
1 Sulfur Falls
2 Tectonic Edge
Sideboard
1 Batterskull
1 Damping Matrix
1 Engineered Explosives
2 Aven Mindcensor
1 Thundermaw Hellkite
2 Stony Silence
2 Threads of Disloyalty
1 Celestial Purge
1 Counterflux
1 Path to Exile
1 Wear
1 Sowing Salt[/deck]

URW Midrange is not a cheap deck. It has a number of duals and fetchlands (which have skyrocketed in the course of the last year), and a number of blue staples that are trending upward. [card]Cryptic Command[/card], despite being part of the former Player Rewards program (they literally handed the textless versions out for free), has seen an upswing in price, and should go even higher if Faeries ends up being a real deck. The same is true of [card]Remand[/card], which is currently a $16 uncommon. [card]Vendilion Clique[/card] takes the award for most expensive non-land card in the deck, topping off at $55 per copy. No card in Standard comes anywhere near that price point. Interestingly, this deck demonstrates the capability of Standard staples finding a home in Modern, as three of the cards in URW Midrange rotated within the last year.

UR Twin (Marcel Kachapow) – Total Cost: $940

[deck]Main Deck
2 Deceiver Exarch
3 Grim Lavamancer
4 Pestermite
4 Snapcaster Mage
2 Vendilion Clique
4 Splinter Twin
2 Cryptic Command
2 Electrolyze
3 Izzet Charm
4 Lightning Bolt
3 Remand
4 Serum Visions
3 Island
1 Mountain
1 Desolate Lighthouse
4 Misty Rainforest
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Steam Vents
1 Stomping Ground
3 Sulfur Falls
2 Tectonic Edge
Sideboard
2 Batterskull
1 Engineered Explosives
2 Relic of Progenitus
2 Ancient Grudge
1 Dispel
1 Mana Leak
1 Remand
2 Anger of the Gods
3 Molten Rain[/deck]

As the combo deck that has the most overlap with other decks, Twin gives you a solid bang for your buck. While some of the spells are specific to Twin, many (like Cryptic, Snapcaster, and Clique) can be used in other decks as well. The hefty portion of this deck list is its mana base, which despite being a mere two colors contains a full 8 blue fetchlands. Still, aside from that expense along with the Cliques, Splinter Twin is a relatively inexpensive deck to build from scratch.

You’ll note two things: First, the average price here is around double the average price of Standard decks. This is to be expected, because of the age of the cards involved. Second, the most expensive cards in each of these decks are the ones that are also played widely in Legacy—being a multi-format staple comes with a hefty price tag. The good news is, once you’ve bought your [card]Scalding Tarn[/card]s for your Splinter Twin deck, there’s no reason you can’t use them for your RUG Tempo deck, too.

Legacy

Legacy is expensive.

Legacy is powerful.

Legacy is dominated by Blue decks.

Legacy is stale.

One of the greatest benefits of owning a Legacy collection is also one of the worst parts about the format. You build a deck, and you’re able to play it forever. Because of the high power-level of the format, it’s very difficult for a new card to have a profound impact on the format unless it is of particular strength, or interacts with the format on a plane that hasn’t previously been explored. In Born of the Gods we see an example of the latter in [card]Spirit of the Labyrinth[/card], which exists as a targeted hoser for many of the most powerful cards in Legacy.

Of course, because of the power disparity, it’s easy to determine what cards will be important from each set. This allows you to predict what will be important and get in on the ground floor. There aren’t that many [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]s and [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card]s in this game, and when something feels very good, you’re usually better off jumping sooner rather than later. If you’re interested in one particular strategy, reading the new sets become even easier, and you can often preorder or trade for the one or two cards you’ll require at a marginal cost.

And this is the benefit of Legacy. Despite the extreme initial expense of buying into the format, the maintenance costs are minimal. While you may need to drop much more money to buy the mana base and spells for a deck, you’ll be able to play that deck with minimal upgrades for the next five years or more. I spent over 6 years playing UWG Threshold with only minor changes until the printing of [card]Noble Hierarch[/card] and [card]Progenitus[/card], which changed the dynamics of that deck drastically. Prior to that, it was a tempo deck running [card]Nimble Mongoose[/card], [card]Werebear[/card], and [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card] for as far back as the format went. The most recent iteration of that strategy, RUG Delver, has gone largely unchanged since years before Delver was a card, and at its roots the deck is still just a pile of counterspells supporting some 1- and 2-mana creatures.

The downside of playing Legacy is in the margins. You’re unlikely to find major Legacy events in your area, unless the Open Series comes to town. With only a token GP each year, it’s very difficult to play high-level Legacy against top-tier opponents. There’s a ceiling to how skilled you can become playing only Legacy, because the axis the format plays on is very different than the rest of Magic. Still, the format is excellent, and if you have the capability of playing Legacy, there’s nothing else like it.

Esper Deathblade (Rudy Briksza) – Total Cost: $3353

[deck]Main Deck
4 Deathrite Shaman
3 Snapcaster Mage
4 Stoneforge Mystic
4 True-Name Nemesis
1 Vendilion Clique
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
2 Liliana of the Veil
1 Batterskull
1 Sword of Fire and Ice
4 Brainstorm
3 Force of Will
1 Spell Pierce
4 Swords to Plowshares
1 Umezawa’s Jitte
1 Ponder
2 Thoughtseize
1 Bayou
1 Creeping Tar Pit
4 Flooded Strand
3 Marsh Flats
3 Polluted Delta
1 Scrubland
1 Tropical Island
2 Tundra
3 Underground Sea
2 Wasteland
1 Karakas
Sideboard
1 Manriki-Gusari
1 Pithing Needle
1 Notion Thief
1 Oblivion Ring
2 Abrupt Decay
1 Flusterstorm
1 Force of Will
3 Surgical Extraction
2 Swan Song
1 Zealous Persecution
1 Venser, Shaper Savant[/deck]

BUG Delver (Jeremy Hsu) – Total Cost: $3128

[deck]Main Deck
4 Deathrite Shaman
4 Delver of Secrets
4 Tarmogoyf
2 Tombstalker
1 Liliana of the Veil
2 Bayou
4 Misty Rainforest
2 Polluted Delta
1 Tropical Island
4 Underground Sea
3 Verdant Catacombs
4 Wasteland
1 Sylvan Library
4 Abrupt Decay
4 Brainstorm
4 Daze
4 Force of Will
4 Hymn to Tourach
4 Ponder
Sideboard
1 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Engineered Plague
3 Disfigure
2 Golgari Charm
3 Spell Pierce
1 Submerge
1 Vendilion Clique
2 Liliana of the Veil
1 Creeping Tar Pit[/deck]

Each of these two decks represents the top-end of dollar value for a Legacy deck. Without a doubt, someone will post a comment about how X deck costs Y-thousand dollars, but for all intents and purposes, you’re looking at the top of the heap here. They both play a blue base, which comes with all the [card]Force of Will[/card] and [card]Brainstorm[/card] goodness Legacy is known for. They both have robust mana bases full of Revised dual lands and fetches. Where Stoneblade has [card]True-Name Nemesis[/card], [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card], and [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] to up the dollar value, BUG has [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]. Each of these decks are triple the cost of the Modern decks we considered before, and are not for the faint of heart or light of wallet. And yet, both of them, upon completion, will be the same—or nearly the same—for the foreseeable future. No additional investment required. Meanwhile, six months from now, Standard players will still be scrambling to jump at the hottest new tech from Huey Dewey and Louie block.

Death & Taxes (Travis Cowley) – Total Cost: $1468

[deck]Main Deck
4 Phyrexian Revoker
2 Aven Mindcensor
4 Flickerwisp
1 Mirran Crusader
4 Mother of Runes
3 Serra Avenger
4 Stoneforge Mystic
4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
10 Plains
1 Cavern of Souls
1 Horizon Canopy
4 Rishadan Port
4 Wasteland
3 Karakas
4 Aether Vial
1 Batterskull
1 Sword of Fire and Ice
4 Swords to Plowshares
1 Umezawa’s Jitte
Sideboard
1 Cursed Totem
1 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Manriki-Gusari
1 Relic of Progenitus
2 Ethersworn Canonist
1 Fiend Hunter
1 Leonin Relic-Warder
2 Oblivion Ring
1 Rest in Peace
2 Celestial Flare
2 Enlightened Tutor[/deck]

To provide some balance to the exceptionally expensive decks above, Death and Taxes represents what many consider to be a “budget” option in Legacy. It happens to be both one of the most powerful decks in the format, along with the one that is most capable of taking advantage of the Great White Hype, [card]Spirit of the Labyrinth[/card]. The bulk of the budget for D&T is unsurprisingly in its mana, where it runs more [card]Karakas[/card] than any other deck, and a set of [card]Wasteland[/card]s and [card]Rishadan Port[/card]s which fetch a cool hundo each on a good day. This deck is still more expensive than any given Modern deck, but considering the age and scarcity of some of the cards in the deck, that’s to be expected. It still comes much closer than many other decks (though to my knowledge, not much is cheaper than LED-less Dredge).

Each of the formats pose some risk, whether it be constant price changes due to dynamic metagames and rotating legality, potential bans and a high up-front cost, or scarcity and dubious buy-in pricing. The reality is, Magic is an expensive hobby, and competitive Magic even more so. The choice really comes down to how you particularly weigh the benefits and costs of each format, and what you’re looking to get out of your investments.

Adam
@AdamNightmare

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