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Traderous Instinct – Packing it In

Let’s face it – one of the best things about Magic is the thrill of ripping into a fresh pack of cards. Whether you palm through every last common or flip right to the rare, that moment before your prize is revealed is an awesome feeling.

And who doesn’t love the smell of freshly opened product?

My very favorite aspect of Magic, though, is draft. It’s the thrill of opening a pack mixed with the slow burn strategy of deck building. I will draft any time, anywhere, and I know many of you share my passion for limited play.

Us drafters, we each have different expansions that define us – the sets we first learned to draft with, the blocks when everything just seemed to click, the top 8 draft we took down at the PTQ for that first taste of the tour, or the time we opened that sweet foil rare in a re-draft with friends and went 3-0 to win it for good.

There are also many disappointing draft environments – blocks when luck seems to triumph over skill, or only a few archetypes are good enough to take down a pod.

One of my big lamentations about Modern was that I thought I would never get to play Ravnica block draft again – at least not outside of MTGO. The rising price of shocklands would make the packs cost too much forever.

Ravnica, for me, is THE block. Every card speaks to me in different ways, and the strategy of setting up your guilds in pack 3 while making good decisions in pack 1 was so much more fun than getting cut out of white for the 90th time in M12 or choosing poorly in the Scars block poison lottery.

A few weeks ago, though, I came upon a deal. For $900, I could buy two boxes each of Ravnica, Guildpact, and Dissension. That’s enough product for NINE eight-man drafts.

My first thought was immediately to turn it down. At $900, the chances of me making my money back on singles is close to impossible. There are about 3 shocklands per box, and I’d have to get multiple [card]Dark Confidant[/card]s to even think about doing well on the deal.

Of course, I could pretty much guarantee $300 worth of singles at this point. Hitting $400 would be possible. Hitting $500 would be lucky, but not out of the realm of possibility.

That drops the per-pack cost just for the pleasure of drafting down from $4.16/pack to $2.80 a pack or less – possibly much less.

Here’s an even better way to look at it, though:

Both of my local stores charge $15 for an FNM draft of the latest set.

That’s perfectly fine if there’s an event to practice for, you need cards for Standard, the set is really fun to draft, you want to get your trade on, or you REALLY care about planeswalker points for some reason.

But let’s be honest, the entry fee is mostly just funding the experience.

For that $15 you get a shot at possibly opening a planeswalker or probably opening a lot of nothing. If you go 3-0, you’ll either get a free draft or two free drafts depending on how good the prize payout is. If you go 2-1, you’ll generally get nothing at most stores.

If a cool guy (like you) bought a bunch of Ravnica packs, though, he could charge $15 for his friends to enter his very unsanctioned retro draft event.

For the same price as a draft at the good ol’ LGS, his friends would all have a shot at playing for the best rare in the prize pool – which could be a shockland, a [card]Dark Confidant[/card], [card]Life from the Loam[/card], or more. You also have a reasonable shot at getting Modern staple uncommons like [card]Lightning Helix[/card], [card]Putrefy[/card], [card]Spell Snare[/card], and [card]Ghost Quarter[/card].

And oh, by the way, the draft format is one of the best of all time.

And if you ran all nine drafts like that over a couple months, you would recoup all $900 you laid out AND have $45 at the end to buy everyone who participated in multiple drafts a pizza dinner.

Oh, and all nine of your drafts would be free for laying out the money and organizing the events.

That’s right – you wouldn’t even have to pay for your packs.

Granted it is important to support your LGS, and most people want to draft whatever the latest set is for the first few months of each format. But I bet every last one of you has had the experience of wishing that the draft format would hurry up and change already.

Those are the best times to run retro drafts.

So yeah, I bought the packs. Ravnica for everyone! Packs being drafted in consecutive set order! Damage back on the stack! Who wants to come over and try to win a shockland?

Of course, you don’t need $900 laying around to try your hand at organizing a retro draft of your own. Some sets and boxes are under $100 and still offer a great format and a bunch of now-expensive eternal singles.

So if your store doesn’t have Innistrad in stock yet, you’ve got an itch to open some Modern cards, or you just want to revisit a favorite expansion, maybe retro drafting is for you.

Boxed Out

One of the things you’ll notice first if you look into buying classic boosters is that loose packs are WAY cheaper than sealed boxes.

One of the prime reasons for this is a practice called box mapping.

The theory behind box mapping is that the packs are not properly randomized before being put in booster boxes. If one person were to open enough boxes (or a ton of people each opened one box and posted the results online), it is possible to go through a box and pick out the money cards with, say, 70% accuracy.

It seems like everyone has a friend who knows a guy who used to do this, but I’ve personally never see it happen in person. There are videos on YouTube showing people doing this with frightening accuracy, though the veracity of those is questionable.

I personally believe it does happen, especially with older sets, though not as often as some people believe. It is certainly common enough to tank the price of loose packs, and I can’t really recommend that you buy any retro product other than factory sealed boxes.

Sometime in the last year or two, the manufacturer switched their distribution process and now fills booster boxes in one-third increments as opposed to all at once. This make box mapping far less effective, and I’d imagine that far fewer people do it now. If you must buy loose packs, limit yourself to Scars block and up.

As a final note, don’t ever buy loose packs from Revised and earlier. The wrappers on these packs aren’t perfectly opaque, and it is possible to peak at all of the cards while keeping the booster sealed.

Learning to Fly

One of the biggest issues I expect people will have is the large initial cost associated with setting up a retro draft league.

Buying a box of Innistrad for $100 is one thing, but dropping $400 for three boxes of various older sets is a much more daunting proposal.

I recommend getting together a couple of friends – or even better, a full group of 8 – and commit to several weeks of drafting. Not only will it allow you to collect the money in advance, having the drafts a week or two apart will allow everyone to get a good sense of the format.

Awkwardly, three boxes (one from each set in the block) only gives 4.5 drafts to a group of 8. When possible, you should try and ‘go big’ with six boxes equaling nine full drafts.

If that feels even more daunting, I suggest starting with a retro draft format that is still fun with just the base set. That allows you to do a couple drafts out of one box and see if your group enjoys it.

In terms of buying boxes, most retail stores don’t keep the older ones in stock. I recommend using eBay, and have calculated all prices based on the average of recent completed listings. Shipping is often cost prohibitive, so I recommend buying multiple boxes at once when possible and establishing a rapport with your favorite sellers.

Below I have compiled a list of retro draft formats that seem kind of awesome. (Excluding Ravnica, which I mentioned earlier, and is obviously the best one.) You might have different ideas for great draft formats, but in my opinion you can’t go too wrong with any of the ones on this list.

I’ve used Invasion block as my cutoff, because it’s very hard and expensive to get boxes of sets that are older than that. But, uh, if you want to draft triple Legends, more power to you!

Rise of the Eldrazi

Top Rares/Mythics: [card]Gideon Jura[/card], [card]Vengevine[/card], [card]Emrakul, the Aeons Torn[/card], [card]Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre[/card], [card]All is Dust[/card], [card]Splinter Twin[/card].

Top Uncommons: [card]Inquisition of Kozilek[/card], [card]Joraga Treespeaker[/card].

Box (eBay shipped price): $95

Draft Set Cost: $7.50

Rise of the Eldrazi is considered by many to be the best single set draft format of all time.

This means that you can draft with impunity without having to worry about buying two more boxes of different expansions to get a ‘full block’ experience.

Since it is a relatively recent set, you get to play with cards that have modern design principles and a high overall power level. Every color is playable, and there are several distinct archetypes that all have a fairly high power level. There are very few totally unplayable cards in this set, leading to deep and powerful drafts.

While there aren’t any huge money cards in the set, most of the mythics are still pretty good and there are two solid uncommons.

I’ve spoken before about unopened boxes of this set being a good long term investment, and I still believe it. The mythic Eldrazi titans will be casually desirable for years to come, and I believe they are excellent candidates to slowly creep up in value as time goes on. Because so many people loved the draft format as well, it’ll soon be a seller’s market for unopened ROE packs.

With many boxes still selling under $100, this is currently one of the best retro-draft options available.

Shards of Alara Block

Top Rares/Mythics: [card]Elspeth, Knight-Errant[/card], [card]Noble Hierarch[/card], [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card], [card]Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker[/card], [card]Progenitus[/card], [card]Maelstrom Pulse[/card].

Top Uncommons: [card]Path to Exile[/card], [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card], [card]Mind Funeral[/card], [card]Reliquary Tower[/card], Tri-lands.

Shards of Alara Box (eBay shipped price): $95

Conflux Box (eBay shipped price): $125

Alara Reborn Box (eBay shipped price): $125

Draft Set Cost: $9.45

Shards block draft had its share of both fans and detractors.

Triple Shards was a fairly well loved format, but Conflux was pretty well reviled despite having the best constructed rares in the entire block. While some loved the heightened power level of the Reborn cards, others felt that it negated the strategy they’d been trying to set up for the first two packs.

If you’ve never drafted in a multicolored environment, though, I recommend trying this one out. There are still a bunch of different successful draft strategies available, and the boxes are relatively cheap.

Of course, Shards is a notoriously poor format for opening valuable cards. Not only is there almost no money in the large set, the wide availability of the premium foil boosters meant that foil values block-wide are universally depressed. Heck, there’s not even a reasonable rare land cycle to enable eternal play.

By all means, buy into Shards if you like the format – just don’t expect to get much out in the way of pricey singles.

Shadowmoor/Eventide

Top Rares/Mythics: [card]Reflecting Pool[/card], Filter Lands, [card]Divinity of Pride[/card], [card]Demigod of Revenge[/card], [card]Figure of Destiny[/card], [card]Woodfall Primus[/card].

Top Uncommons: [card]Cursecatcher[/card], [card]Kitchen Finks[/card], [card]Firespout[/card].

Shadowmoor Box (eBay shipped price): $120

Eventide Box (eBay shipped price): $120

Draft Set Cost: $10

Shadowmoor was a fun set with scads of available archetypes.

Even though the set was heavily multicolor, the best strategies were often heavy in a single color and taking advantage of the strong hybrid cards. The set had some absurdly powerful auras, and many times the evasive U/W decks packing [card]Steel of the Godhead[/card] went up against powerful R/G decks with [card]Runes of the Deus[/card].

There were also lots of fun, greedy things to do like powering out a large [card]Jaws of Stone[/card] with multiple [card]Elsewhere Flask[/card]s as well.

Money-wise, Shadowmoor block is pretty good. The Filter lands always have buyers, and fit into pretty much any multi-colored Commander decks. All of the Lieges and some of the Demigods are more valuable than you’d think, too.

Eventide was a very under drafted set, and it was only opened as one-pack-per-draft from mid-July through late September that year. Look for this set to continue providing potential big money casual and Modern cards for years to come.

Lorwyn/Morningtide

Top Rares/Mythics: [card]Thoughtsieze[/card], [card]Cryptic Command[/card], [card]Sower of Temptation[/card], [card]Jace Beleren[/card], [card]Mutavault[/card], [card]Vendilion Clique[/card], [card]Bitterblossom[/card].

Top Uncommons: [card]Imperious Perfect[/card], [card]Heritage Druid[/card], [card]Merrow Reejerey[/card], [card]Elvish Promenade[/card], [card]Knight of Meadowgrain[/card].

Lorwyn Box (eBay shipped price): $200

Morningtide Box (eBay shipped price): $155

Draft Set Cost: $15.50

Lorwyn gets us to our first $200+ box, and our first really cost prohibitive draft format.

In order to draft LLM, you’ll likely need two boxes of the eponymous set, meaning that your initial investment just to try out the format is over $500.

It’s true, the set does contain a $4 uncommon in [card]Imperious Perfect[/card] and a $30 rare in [card]Thoughtseize[/card], but overall the investment is pretty far out of line with what you get.

That said, Lorwyn was a blast to draft…providing you had a full pod of 8 and getting into one of the ‘smaller’ tribes (Giants, etc.) was possible. If not, it often became an exercise in making sure you moved in on whatever tribe was being under drafted.

Fans of slow, subtle, non-linear formats like Ravnica may not like Lorwyn draft, as the decks often felt handed to us by WOTC. (You’re in elves? Take more elves!) It is, however, a great format for beginners and was a fun world to spend some time in.

Time Spiral

Top Rares/Mythics: [card]Vesuva[/card], [card]Academy Ruins[/card], [card]Lotus Bloom[/card], [card]Gauntlet of Power[/card].

Top Uncommons: [card]Krosan Grip[/card], [card]Dread Return[/card].

Time Spiral Box (eBay shipped price): $140

Draft Set Cost: $11.60

With Future Sight boxes tipping the scales at $250+, it doesn’t make too much sense to draft the block looking for those elusive ‘[card tarrmogoyf]Goyfs[/card]. Further, the pro consensus generally states that TTT or TTP were better formats anyway, mostly due to the oppressive nature of Sprout Swarm decks in full block draft.

There’s a lot to like about triple Time Spiral draft, starting with the Timeshifted cards. Much like Innistrad’s double-faced slot, Time Spiral packs all came with a purple Timeshifted card in addition to the rare. This lead to some pretty sweet opens, as roughly one out of every two or three packs would contain a Timeshifted card that was rare in its previous printings.

As for the draft strategy, there was a lot going on here. Both aggro and control were viable, all five colors were pretty decent, and it was even possible to draft a 4 or 5 color Sliver deck that was utterly dominant in the right hands. This was a tempo based format, not a bomb driven one, and is one of the most underrated draft environments of all time.

While there aren’t many financial heavy hitters in this set, there are quite a few EDH favorites and a bevy of fun, nostalgic cards that are easy to trade. If you haven’t opened any Time Spiral before, I recommend that you do so.

Champions/Betrayers of Kamigawa

Top Rares/Mythics: [card]Glimpse of Nature[/card], [card]Gifts Ungiven[/card], [card]Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker[/card], [card]Kokusho, the Evening Star[/card], [card]Through the Breach[/card], [card]Umezawa’s Jitte[/card], [card]Kira, Great Glass-Spinner[/card], [card]Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni[/card].

Top Uncommons: [card]Sensei’s Divining Top[/card], [card]Ghostly Prison[/card].

Champions of Kamigawa Box (eBay shipped price): $150

Betrayers of Kamigawa Box (eBay shipped price): $110

Draft Set Cost: $11.40

Champions and Betrayers of Kamigawa are the two most underrated sets of the last ten years, and it’s not particularly close.

There are four reasons why Kamigawa block is kind of a punchline in Magic history:

– Its main spiritcraft and splice mechanics did not play well with cards from any other block.

– It followed up the ludicrously overpowered Mirrodin block and came right before the beloved Ravnica block.

– The block introduced freakin’ NINJAS and there were only, like, five of them.

– Saviors of Kamigawa is in the running for worst set of all time.

While I can lament the lack of more ninjas until the cows come home, (Or, more likely, until my fingers get cut off for not knowing that the plural of ‘ninja’ is ‘ninja’) the other three reasons no longer matter for our purposes.

While you may not find a use for many of the spiritcraft cards beyond limited play, there’s a ton of value in these two sets including – and this can’t be understated – an EIGHTEEN DOLLAR UNCOMMON.

The ‘legendary’ subtheme of the block also means that you could open one of the handful of EDH foil rares that go for $50+ on the secondary market.

If you skip Saviors of Kamigawa altogether, (and I recommend it – that set was no better in limited than it was in constructed), there are tons of sweet draft strategies available to you. The [card]Dampen Thought[/card] archetype was alive and well through the first two sets of the block, and the ninja from Betrayers are all pretty sweet in Limited. Samurai aggro is a fun archetype, as is burying your opponent under an avalanche of soulshift.

If you do draft this format, keep in mind that the common and uncommon creatures are massively underpowered compared to modern sets. But by the time you get into the swing of things, you’ll be powering up [card]Waxmane Baku[/card] like the best of ‘em!

Famous Original Mirrodin Block

Top Rares/Mythics: [card]Tooth and Nail[/card], [card]Chrome Mox[/card], [card]Solemn Simulacrum[/card], [card]Chalice of the Void[/card], [card]Gilded Lotus[/card], [card]Sword of Fire and Ice[/card], [card]Sword of Light and Shadow[/card], [card]Arcbound Ravager[/card], [card]Darksteel Forge[/card], [card]Crucible of Worlds[/card], [card]Vedalken Shackles[/card], [card]Mycosynth Golem[/card], [card]Engineered Explosives[/card], [card]Staff of Domination[/card].

Top Uncommons: [card]Isochron Scepter[/card], [card]Lightning Greaves[/card], [card]Aether Vial[/card], [card]Skullclamp[/card], [card]Eternal Witness[/card], [card]Paradise Mantle[/card].

Mirrodin Box (eBay shipped price): $150

Darksteel Box (eBay shipped price): $175

Fifth Dawn Box (eBay shipped price): $100

Draft Set Cost: $12

Oh, you have got to be kidding me. Seriously – I just did a spit take. Were you watching? No? Good.

For twelve dollars per draft set, you have access to one of the most fun draft formats ever. Awesome equipment, swingy two-for-ones, sunburst, affinity…both sunburst AND affinity in the same deck…it’s techy and tricky and all the kinds of fun that Scars block wasn’t.

This format also has to be the best possible ROI you could ask for. Not only are there a bevy of $10+ rares in all three sets, but you get a $15 uncommon in [card]Aether Vial[/card] along with a veritable butt load of artifact lands at COMMON. Yowza!

Seriously, why are Lorwyn boxes $200+ when you can buy every single set in Mirrodin block for less? You know what, don’t answer that. Just go get yourself some of these cards.

Onslaught Block

Top Rares/Mythics: All five fetchlands, [card]Goblin Piledriver[/card], [card]Riptide Laboratory[/card], [card]Akroma, Angel of Wrath[/card], [card]Stifle[/card].

Top Uncommons: [card]Heedless One[/card], [card]Brain Freeze[/card], [card]Daru Warchief[/card], [card]Goblin Warchief[/card], [card]Undead Warchief[/card], [card]Wirewood Symbiote[/card], [card]Alpha Status[/card], [card]Dragonspeaker Shaman[/card].

Onslaught Box (eBay shipped price): $165

Legions Box (eBay shipped price): $100

Scourge Box (eBay shipped price): $150

Draft Set Cost: $11.50

I cut my limited teeth on Onslaught and have still probably drafted more of this than any other set, so it holds a special place in my heart that most of you probably don’t share.

For starters, it seems really tempting to buy this in the hopes of cracking all manner of fetchlands, but I suggest against that – in my experience, you get about 2 per box if you’re lucky, making it hard to recoup your investment that way. The better bet was always going after rares in the small set, but both of these small sets are lacking in terms of valuable rares. (Though Scourge has a ton of ~$3 uncommons.)

As for the draft environment, it’s classic tribal, meaning that there are five tribes and they’re all firmly in one color. Mono-tribe is generally the way to be, though splashing removal is always a possibility, and [card]Mistform Wall[/card]/[card]Lavamancer’s Skill[/card] was pretty much the nuts against all the tribes.

There’s better value to be found in other blocks, so I recommend Onslaught draft only to those really yearning for a nostalgia kick.

Or people that love ending games in a draw with a really insane [card]Shepherd of Rot[/card].

Invasion Block

Top Rares/Mythics: [card]Orim’s Chant[/card], [card]Vindicate[/card], [card]Pernicious Deed[/card].

Top Uncommons: [card]Sterling Grove[/card], [card]Aura Shards[/card], [card]Fact or Fiction[/card], [card]Dragon Arch[/card].

Invasion Box (eBay shipped price): $145

Planeshift Box (eBay shipped price): $170

Apocalypse Box (eBay shipped price): $170

Draft Set Cost: $13.50

It’s interesting how fondly remembered Invasion block is considering the dearth of Legacy playable cards in it.

Seriously, Invasion doesn’t have a single card that retails above five bucks, and Planeshift only has [card]Orim’s Chant[/card], a card that is theoretically worth money but mostly just sits in my trade binder forever. Apocalypse has [card]Pernicious Deed[/card] and [card]Vindicate[/card], but that’s basically it. Seriously – don’t buy these packs expecting much more than a [card]Shivan Reef[/card] or two.

Of course, this is pretty good news for those of you draft purists who just want to have a good time playing limited.

There was draft before Invasion block, but it is considered by most to be the first true amazing, knock-it-out-of-the-park skill testing format. Before Ravnica came out, this was the draft format that was widely considered the best by the pro community. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who still feel the same way.

I haven’t played much Invasion draft, but from what I understand there were dozens of available color combinations that worked, up to straight five-color domain decks. Fixing was much less prevalent than it later sets, though, so it took on added importance here.

The format is also filled to the brim with two-for-ones, making it possible to assemble absurd chains of value and card advantage.

Invasion may not be the best value from a sweet opens standpoint, but it may be second only to Ravnica in terms of the amount of fun you’ll have cracking packs.

Week of 9/26 – Buy, Hold, & Sell

Buy

Since we’re all just waiting for results in the brand new Standard, Legacy, and Modern, I haven’t seen a lot of movement in the markets this week.

I’ll issue a ‘buy’ on the Eldrazi titans, though. As I mentioned earlier, they likely won’t go down much due to casual demand. Tournament players might not see a use for [card ulamog, the infinite gyre]Ulamog[/card] in Modern or Legacy, though, and you might get a set rotation bargain.

Hold

Low level mythics & double-faced cards from Innistrad.

And by ‘hold’ I mostly mean ‘hold out for a good deal.’ Most of these will go down, but if there’s a true sleeper in the set (I haven’t found one yet) it’ll likely be here.

So until we know a little more, hold these unless you’ve got someone who will give you something great for them.

Sell

[card]Snapcaster Mage[/card].

LSV gave it the first 5.0 in Constructed since…when? I don’t even remember another 5.0 he gave out. The Zendikar fetchlands maybe?

Patrick Chapin wrote an entire article that is basically just a love song to little old Tiago.

Jonathan Medina over on SCG predicts that the price will go UP from its current price point of $30!

Ben Bleiweiss is a little more bearish, but he still predicts Snapcaster to wind up as a $20 card.

Look – this card is the stone nuts. In five years, it might well be a $50 card. It will see play in Standard, Legacy, Modern, and possibly even Vintage.

That does not mean it will even come close to retaining its current price tag.

Look – Snapcaster Mage is a rare in a major fall set. And considering the prerelease attendance numbers, a very popular major fall set. People are going to be drafting packs of this every single week from now until NEXT JULY.

Do you know how long that is???

By all means, get your set now if you’re going to play him soon. He really IS that good.

But will he be more ubiquitous in Standard than any one of the fetchlands, which didn’t top $10-$12 for most of their lifetime in Standard? Even if he is, I predict this guy to be readily available for $12-$15 in a couple of months.

Feel free to mock me if I’m wrong.

Until next time –

– Chas Andres

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