Buying Shards of Alara

Now that Shards of Alara is fully and officially spoiled (you can check it out the way I do by clicking here), it’s time to look at buying some cards. Ben Bleiweiss over at Star City Games runs a regular feature in his Insider Trading column called “The Financial Value of X” for each new set. This is premium (that is, paid) content, but if you have an SCG subscription, it’s one of the more valuable ways to countercheck your own thoughts on what might be worthwhile. Click here to read “The Financial Value of Shards of Alara”.
How I buy from a set
I have a standard procedure I now follow when each new Magic expansion comes out. First, I buy a full playset of commons and uncommons from the set (a playset is, conventionally, four of each card). This is by far the most affordable way to pick up these cards, and it saves me the hassle of trying to decide which commons and uncommons may be useful — this is especially important since cards in this rarity range can unexpectedly turn out to be really important to a build, and traders on-site at events like PTQs often don’t stock many or even any cards that aren’t rare. Second, I review the set and decide which of the rares I plan on buying separately. I pick up rares based on the formats in which I expect to play, as well as what I might play in those formats. For the moment, for example, there isn’t a block season or a lot of block events going on, so I haven’t given much thought to what the Shards block environment would be like. Standard is pretty wide open, so I’m likely to think about the full range of deck options there, even though I tend toward certain archetypes more than others. Over in Extended, I know I will be playing some Rock-like build, so I’m not even thinking about picking up cards from Shards that will work well with Affinity.
Whenever I talk about buying here, I am talking about Ebay, by the way. Ebay has consistently been the cheapest, most reliable source for playsets and singles since I returned to the game. I know some people are generally suspicious of Ebay, but I have had no bad experiences there. I imagine it helps to pay assiduous attention to the feedback people have received. The one “neutral” experience I had was a guy who lagged in sending cards out until I opened a Paypal complaint against him. That strikes me as a fine and low ratio of “problem to good experience”, given how often I used the service.
How I review a set
When I’m looking at some grouping of cards, whether it’s a new set, all the cards in Extended, the cards available in Lorwyn-Shadowmoor block, or something else, I go to Gatherer and sort the cards by cost. After some tinkering around, I found this was the most useful sort to go with, as it most directly serves the needs of figuring out “Which of these cards am I actually going to play, and how often?” Utility cards tend to live toward the low-cost end of things, whereas once you’re crawling up toward the top of the cost (the bottom of the Gatherer list), you’re looking at either the full-on casual-only Timmy cards, build-around-me cards or finishers that you use sparingly.
I look through the whole set to get a feel for what’s useful, then check out what Ben Bleiweiss has to say about it, then return to Gatherer review things a second time, noting which rares I want to buy, and how many copies of each.
Click through to the extended entry for my current buy list, with explanations.

The buy list
I’ve listed the cards in the order I reviewed them, from low to high cost. For each card, there’s the name, followed by how many copies I think I’d want to own, and then an explanation of why I think the card is worth picking up. Once again, these are only the rares, as I will be buying a full playset of commons and uncommons from this set (and happily, many very useful cards live in that range in Alara).
Ooze Garden (4) – The first rare on the buy list is a “fun” card. I have visions of showing up for an Extended tournament with a deck packing Kokusho and Ooze Garden, just so I can do the move of “swing with Kokusho, then sacrifice Kokusho to the Garden to get a 5/5 Ooze and do 5 to you.” Of course, it tends to make more sense to play Greater Good in that case, but the idea of getting a replacement creature is just funny.
Cunning Lethemancer (4) – Ben Bleiweiss doesn’t think much of the Lethemancer, but I appreciate the possibilities for this as a build-around-me card. It has a symmetry that’s just waiting to be favorably broken, perhaps with Retrace cards.
Ranger of Eos (4) – Oh, hey. Antoine Ruel’s Invitational card. Nice. This card offers significant card advantage, although I’ll have to scope around a little more to figure out which creatures I’ll be pulling out with it. It may, perhaps, be a goofy idea, but I like the thought of grabbing two Sakura-Tribe Elders with a Ranger in Extended.
Yeah, that’s silly. Still, the Ranger looks like a good card.
Elspeth, Knight-Errant (3) – A continuous source of counters starting on turn four (or three), with an ultimate effect that is just darn pesky. I agree with Ben Bleiweiss on this one — it comes in a little later, and lacks evasion, but it’s rather like a Bitterblossom without the life clock. Also, Elspeth + Garruk is impressive. Also, also — the art on this one is beautiful. I like it. That said, I’ve never played more than three copies of any planeswalker in a deck, and wish more people were selling Elspeth in threes.
Stoic Angel (4) – I tend to agree that the Stoic is not as good as people currently think it is, but I still really like it as a control or a tempo-control creature.
Battlegrace Angel (3) – Swings as a 5/5 Lifelink Flyer. As people have been saying, this is close to a modern-day Exalted Angel, and potentially a great finisher in control-oriented builds. I might stick to just two Battelgraces, but three is just in case I end up putting it in the role that Angel of Despair had in some Solar Flare builds. I don’t see wanting four in a deck.
Flameblast Dragon (2) – It might be worth having a couple of these as finishers in an appropriate deck. It’s likely either swinging for 11+ damage the first time it attacks, or clearing out a blocker and coming through to hit your opponent. Either way, one expects the Flameblast to end games very, very quickly.
Realm Razer (4) – I recalled long-distant memories of Ernhamgeddon decks when I read this one. It’s a less stable body than the Djinn, but that might not matter since it does its RFG business as it comes in, rather than a turn later.
Cruel Ultimatum (3) – Oh, this one was spoiled wrong, and it matters. In the last spoiler I read, Cruel Ultimatum returned “target creature card” from your graveyard. That’s an annoying limitation. The real card, however, just returns “a creature card” from your graveyard, meaning that the sole target on the card is your opponent, and you aren’t stuck if you don’t have something in the bin. With that in mind, many-for-one-ing your opponen is potentially gamebreaking, and the Cruel Ultimatum is a worthy build-around-me card.
Violent Ultimatum (3) – Another solid card. For seven mana, you can have Vindicate + 5/5 flyer or you can have triple Vindicate. Both seem good, in the right build.
Invincible Hymn (4) – If this is as cheap as I expect it to be, I’ll pick some up. It looks like a fun card, and I might (might, might) stick one or two into a control deck’s sideboard as a hilarious icer against aggro decks. “Oh, I made it to turn eight with one life left…Invincible Hymn, go to thirty-five.” As Bleiweiss points out, of course, it’s only truly hilarious in a Battle of Wits deck. Four for the Hymn here because I expect it to be so cheap that you might as well. Unless I’m flipping them up from Hideaway lands, though, I won’t be playing four.
Empyrial Archangel (2) – I’ve seen this written up as a win-more card (that is, a card that doesn’t win you the game, but comes in after you’ve basically won and makes the win 100% instead of 99%), but I think it can take the place of Platinum Angel, with some potentially significant advantages over Plats. Although the Platinum version keeps you from losing no matter what, it is vulnerable to a whole host of removal spells and requires counterspell backup. The Empyrial, on the other hand, is more limited in scope — sucking up damage in your stead — but is also a better finisher (as a 5/X) and harder to remove both by dint of Shroud stripping away all the targeted options and its high toughness making it harder for stuff like Firespout to get it.