There are a number of basic concepts that you learn when starting in Magic finance. These are the building blocks that make Magic finance predictable enough to be profitable—the fundamentals that dictate supply and demand. I’m talking about things like rarity, big set versus small set, draft pack ratios, scarcity of older sets, and rotation. I’ve always thought rotation was the most tenuous of these. Why? There’s just not enough data. Rotation happens only once a year and Magic finance, in it’s current form, hasn’t been around that long. Truthfully, how many rotations have you been through where you were totally focused on the financial ramifications? For most people, it’s less than a handful, or maybe just one or two. Sure, there are store owners and dealers who have been doing this for ten years or more, but the Magic economy, and thus rotation, has changed drastically over that time. It continues to change every year. It’s always prudent to question conventional wisdom. Rotation is not some kind of immutable truth. It’s an event that happens once a year. Unless you think Magic in 2014 is exactly the same as it was last year or the year before or in 2010, you should be challenging the assumptions that are based on those data points.
The Modern Era
Modern has only existed through three rotations. It’s impossible to have more experience with the format than that. Pre-Modern rotation trends are not nearly as valuable as they once were. Of those three rotations, the first one is almost a mulligan because it happened two months after the format was introduced (with Zendikar block rotating out). It was far from certain that the format was even a real thing at that point. So really, all we have to go on is last year and the year before. That’s it. Most of what we assume about rotation this year is based on two data points. In a lot of cases, those two data points don’t even agree with each other. When Scars of Mirrodin block rotated in 2012, the prevailing theory seemed to be that Modern would mirror Extended when it came to rotation. The cards would drop in price when they left Standard, jump back up when Modern season came around, and then drop again when the season was over. How did that work out? Last year, when Innistrad rotated out of Standard, the theme seemed to be “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” [cardLiliana of the Veil[/card] made a mockery of the whole idea of rotation. Not only did the card fail to drop even a little bit, it has increased around 50% in the year since rotation. Snapcaster Mage and Geist of Saint Traft weren’t quite as resilient as Lilly, but they never got super cheap and certainly didn’t afford us long windows to get in. Two Modern rotations, two critically different outcomes.
Don’t Get Comfortable
If you assumed that Innistrad cards would behave the same as Scars cards when they rotated, you probably got burned. It took Batterskull almost 18 months to get back to $25. It took Geist five months. I know I thought I had a lot more time to pick up Innistrad block staples, and I missed quite a few as a result. Let’s not make that mistake again this year. Return to Ravnica block is not going to behave exactly the same as Innistrad block. It’s certainly not going to behave the same as Scars block, or Zendikar block, or anything before it. Throw out conventional wisdom on rotation. I see a lot of opinions like this on Twitter and Reddit: “Shock lands will probably dip modestly over the summer before moving steadily upward starting early next year.” That’s copy-and-paste logic from years past. I’m not saying it can’t turn out that way, just that we shouldn’t assume it because that’s what would happen if this was 2011. Getting it right this year is going to take real analysis. It’s not going to be as easy as saying “it will probably look the same as last year except the timeline will be moved up a month or two.” If that seems like an oversimplification, it is. The truth is that every rotation is different and conventional wisdom may or may not apply. We need to roll up our sleeves and figure it out. So let’s do it. We’ll start by asking ourselves two questions. What is different about rotation this year? How do those things change our approach?
RTR Rotation: What’s Different?
Quite a bit, actually.
- Return to Ravnica had a weird block structure. This matters in a few ways. There is less Return to Ravnica out there than the usual first set and more Gatecrash out there than the usual second set. Check out my article here for more info on draft ratios. This is interesting because most of the good Modern cards in this block (other than shock lands) are coming out of RTR and not GTC. Will we see more upward pressure on RTR cards than we did with Innistrad? I don’t know, but I’ll make sure I’m ready to jump if we do.
- This block doesn’t have a format-defining Modern card. Well it did, but they banned it. Innistrad had both Liliana of the Veil and Snapcaster Mage. These were already two of the best cards in Modern when the set rotated, and that brought a lot of attention to their price movement. RTR has plenty of good Modern cards, but now that Deathrite Shaman is gone, it doesn’t have that high-profile Modern headliner (other than shocks, but see my next bullet). It is possible that this entire block slides under the radar somewhat when it rotates, which might give us a longer window to buy. Might.
- There were Modern-relevant reprints in a Standard set for the first time. The shock lands were significant for this reason. Don’t overlook that the Modern powerhouses of Innistrad and previous blocks were all originals. How does this change things? Well, you have to think that the market is pricing shock lands pretty efficiently. From the first day RTR hit the shelves, everyone knew that they needed a set of 40 shocks to hold if they had any interest in Modern at all. It has been clear for a long time exactly how good they are in Modern. For that reason, I’m really not sure if there will be any movement at all when these things rotate. That means I’m not waiting around to find out—when I see a price I like, I’m a buyer of shock lands.
- There were Modern-specific designs in this block. The Extended format was mostly just that—an extension of Standard. If a card or deck was very good in Standard, it had a shot to hang around. Deathrite Shaman was a game-changer in that regard, the poster child for Modern-specific design. It was invisible in Standard but was awesome in Modern (too awesome, I guess). There are actually lots of cards like this in RTR block if you look. Abrupt Decay is pretty obvious, but don’t forget about stuff like Rest In Peace and Counterflux. These cards were never big players in Standard (well, Abrupt Decay was at least relevant) but definitely see Modern and sometimes Legacy play. They are going to behave differently than cards that were also good in Standard. If there was never any Standard demand to begin with, can we really expect the price to drop when these cards rotate? I don’t think so. So when is a good time to start buying? Now sounds about right. We already missed the boat on foils.
- Dragon’s Maze was unpopular and was overshadowed by Modern Masters. I’m not saying there is anything from Dragon’s Maze you would actually want, but if there was, the supply would be tight. New Phyrexia was an insane set, but DGM was nothing of the sort. I still don’t think it’s totally clear whether Voice of Resurgence is that good or whether the supply is just ridiculously small. The DGM supply situation is certainly relevant if something like Beck // Call ever breaks out. It might be worth taking a flier on a cards like this or Breaking // Entering for that reason.
- Modern season is in the summer this year. Could this make rotating cards jump even before rotation? I actually have no idea what to think about this one. A big part of me believes that people are mostly stocked up on Modern after the rush last year, and also that people are going to want to go to the beach in the summer and not play Modern. I definitely don’t subscribe to the theory that everything is going to spike again just because Modern season is approaching. We will see.
- This year can’t be as crazy as last year, right? We have to at least consider the possibility that last year’s Modern feeding frenzy was a one-time thing. If not one time, then a periodic thing but not directly tied to rotation. I’m not convinced it won’t happen again but understand that it won’t necessarily happen. Like I said above, you can’t take one data point and call it a trend.
My conclusion on rotation is simple. The days when we could definitively say “wait until July or August to buy” are over. The factors that made that good advice are no longer in place. It will be bad advice as often as good advice in the future.
There is a good chance shock lands bottomed three months ago. Rest In Peace foils are $15. This is an article about rotation which will be published five months before it actually happens and it’s still too late on that stuff.
We’ll have to do this the old-fashioned way. When a card hits your buy price, buy. It doesn’t matter if it’s August or December or February. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m determined not to get blown out because I failed to see that this year was different.
Thanks for reading.