How to Pick Your Battles

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By: Travis Allen

Speculation is the sexiest of all Magic money-making endeavors. It is the perfect mix of the American dream and the allure of making a quick buck. Get a great idea or an inside lead on a card, dump a ton of cash into it, and make a 600% profit in two weeks that most stock portfolio managers would quite literally end the life of another human being to make. Not only does this require little effort to achieve, with the total sum of your hard work being putting cards into envelopes and taking them to the post office, it makes you look like a genius. Every time the topic of speccing comes up there’s that one guy that never fails to mention how he bought out Snapcasters at $6 during preorder or some such.

Of course, the reality of the situation is nowhere near that easy or glamorous, as few things are. Finding an angle on a card that nobody else has seen yet is tough when there are thousands of other people staring at the same finite card pool you are. Selling the cards is sometimes easy, but not always. If you don’t mind taking a smaller profit and just buylisting them it isn’t bad, but if you want to squeeze out every penny or the lists haven’t caught up yet you’re left spending time listing on eBay and dealing with overhead costs. None of that is too bad if you bought a few copies, but the times you make real profit is when you have hundreds of a given card. 

Knowing all this, how do we succeed in picking good specs? What is the magic formula for identifying the next hot thing that is going to go from $.80 to $7.99?

You already know the answer to this. There isn’t a magic formula. It requires constant awareness of the market, a pulse on multiple information sources, and no small dash of luck. After all, even if you get ahead of the market and buy 300 Krark’s Thumb, there’s no guarantee they’re all getting shipped to you if the price rises before the cards leave the warehouse.

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Today we’ll look at a few factors to consider when trying to decide if you should go deep on a card. The important thing to remember is that all of these headings are factors, but not necessarily deciding factors. Sometimes cards rise in spite of particular circumstances. If you have an eye on a card that looks great in most of these categories but not all, don’t immediately toss it out the window. Just be sure that you’re making the decision for the right reason.

Power

In a vacuum, how powerful is your card? Does it do something inherently broken, such as Birthing Pod? Is it just an excellent rate for its effectiveness, ala Tarmogoyf? Does it tutor as well as Infernal Tutor does? This is always one of the most crucial questions when evaluating a card, and also one of the most difficult. This is the one where you really get to say “I saw things different from the rest of you, and I made money because of it,” and it’s also the one that gets egos involved the most.

A lot of money can be made when you see things differently from others. Chapin saw the power of Jace and bought something like forty copies at $25 apiece when it was spoiled. More recently, there were people out there that realized Desecration Demon was a dangerous threat only being held back by the presence of Lingering Souls. They were rewarded after rotation for recognizing the card as being very powerful, even if the meta hadn’t borne it out yet.

Powerful cards aren’t always expensive and expensive cards aren’t always powerful, but in general the better the card the more likely it is to be expensive. If you spot a powerful card that isn’t already expensive, ask yourself why not. You may look at Isochron Scepter and think about all the dirty things you can do with it in Modern, but remember that artifact hate is all over the format, as is Abrupt Decay. Without even considering the quantity of copies available we already see why an inherently powerful card is basically metagamed right out of Modern.

Meanwhile, there are definitely very powerful cards that exist in that format that just haven’t been figured out yet, or whose crucial combo piece has yet to appear. If you can look at Vampire Hexmage in the spoiler and immediately realize Dark Depths is sitting out there at $2, you’ve got a leg up on the rest of us.

Quantity Printed

What’s the major difference between Precinct Captain and Auriok Champion? Thousands and thousands and thousands of copies. The price of a card, of any good, is a factor of supply and demand. Demand is an incredibly complex component but at least supply is easy to figure out. There are so many more Precinct Captains than Auriok Champions it’s no wonder they are separated in price by a decimal place. If demand for the two cards is equal and there are ten times more Precinct Captains out there, then it isn’t surprising that Captain is about 1/10th the cost of Auriok Champion. The more copies of a card that exist the harder it is for the price to rise astronomically. This is why very old cards rise much easier than new cards. 

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When judging how many copies of a card are in the wild the first thing to consider is what set(s) it is from. Assume for now it is a single printing in an expert expansion. The further back you go, the richer the vein. My three mental bookmarks are Mirrodin, Future Sight, and Innistrad. Mirrodin is a point of reference because then the card is legal in Modern. If we’re looking at a card from Onslaught or earlier, it is limited to Legacy and Casual formats. That isn’t a death sentence or anything, but it’s important to consider. Anything printed between Future Sight and Mirrodin is excellent territory, between Future Sight and Innistrad is solid, and after Innistrad the card has an uphill battle. There were just so fewer cards printed in sets prior to Future Sight relative to today. That is a major reason why many Modern staples have gone nuts; there are just so few copies available in the market compared to how many players are now in the game. Every set from Zendikar on has seen a growth in the player base, but between Innistrad and Return to Ravnica specifically we’ve added a tremendous amount of players.

Second and third printings complicate things a bit. Again, the older the additional printing, the better. If a card was printed in Mirrodin and then again in Kamigawa, we aren’t too worried. The price has had plenty of time to settle into where it is today. If it was in Mirrodin and then Gatecrash, that’s another story. Auxiliary product, such as Planechase or Commander decks, has some impact as well. These are much smaller runs than full expansion sets, so they aren’t exactly flooding the market. Special product printings will typically slow the growth of something, but not suppress it entirely.

When considering specs for Standard play, pay close attention to which set they’re printed in. The Return to Ravnica block had a unique structure in that the card pool was split pretty evenly amongst RTR and Gatecrash, while Dragon’s Maze was opened far less. This opened the door for DGM cards to spike harder than their RTR/GTC counterparts because there were so many less available on the market.

Theros’ distribution will have a similar impact on viability of speculation targets. Theros will be heavily opened, while Born of the Gods and Journey Into Nyx will be less so. A good example is the two black Bestow cards Nighthowler and Herald of Torment. Nighthowler is from Theros, making it a much worse Standard target than Herald. There will be about three times more Nighthowlers on the market than Heralds without even counting the Gameday promo. The full ratio of packs opened across the block will be 6:2:1. Seeing that type of ratio should really help you understand why Born, and to a greater extent Journey cards will be such better spec targets than Theros.

The takeaway from all of this is that the less copies of a card in the market, the better your spec looks. That isn’t the only thing you need to consider, but it’s an important one.

Vendor Availability

This is directly related to the above topic. How many copies of your card are available at vendors? This is a good sign for your spec:

cap2

This is not:

cap1

Don’t just check a single storefront either. I’ve been burned before by seeing only a few copies on TCGPlayer, buying several playsets, then realizing there are huge stocks still available at SCG or ABU. You need to do your homework and see just how much is out there before deciding if your pick is a good one. And don’t forget about eBay either.

Quantity Needed

When considering a card, ask yourself how many the prospective player needs. Is it central to a deck’s strategy, as Living End is to its eponymous deck? Is it a one-of silver bullet? Or an occasional sideboard card?

The amount of copies players need of a given card figures into the ‘demand’ side of the equation. If I want to play Scapeshift, I may want a few Obstinate Baloth. Probably not all four though, and I can get by without them if I have to. I can’t play without owning four Scapeshift, though.

The general rule of thumb is that sideboard-only cards make poor specs. That isn’t to say it can’t happen, but the card typically has to be ubiquitous in sideboards to make a solid run. Spellskite is the most well-known sideboard card that has done well for itself, and even in that case it only went from $6 or $7 to $16 or $17. A $10 increase is nothing to sneeze at, but if it was somehow central to a strategy the card would be $30+.

Cards that need to be in the maindeck as a full set are a good choice. Cards that appear as a one or two-of in sideboards are not as appealing. Artifacts that every single EDH deck will want are universally desirable. Cards that are only useful to an unpopular general are less so.

Snowflake

How many other cards do what your card does? Restore Balance and Living End are the only things that accomplish their particular goals. Nobody is building a Living End deck that doesn’t run Living End. On the other end of the spectrum, Obstinate Baloth isn’t exactly unique. Sure, it’s very useful against Blightning and smaller aggressive decks. But so are Kitchen Finks and Loxodon Smiter. If the card you’re considering could be pretty easily replaced by a much cheaper option, you may want to look elsewhere.

Company

Part of what made Living End such a juicy pick was how cheap the rest of the deck was. Aside from the manabase, most of the deck is commons and uncommons. If a player can pick up fifty-six cards of a sixty-card deck for $100 then they’re going to be far more willing to spend ten or twenty or even thirty dollars on the lynchpin of the engine. However, if the deck is packed with Goyfs and Cliques and Snapcasters the list is already going to be atrociously expensive to buy into. Player’s willingness to fork over serious cash for some novel new tech is going to be far lower.

Siblings

I don’t recall exactly what the first card to spike because of Nekusar was, but I know it has happened to several by now. Cards that force your opponents to draw extra cards are all prime candidates at this point, especially ones that attach penalties to them. When Seizan popped up on my MTGPrice insider email, I knew the card would be rising soon. It makes other players draw extra cards and gets them for a few damage at the same time. It hasn’t fully taken off yet, probably because the effect is smaller when compared to things like Wheel of Fortune, but I expect it to eventually make a full jump to $8+.

Price History

Price history is an excellent way to spot cards that are moving up and possibly poised for big jumps. A card may seem underpriced, but is its price graph flat for the last year? Or has it in fact been slowly rising for awhile? A flat price history doesn’t doom the card, but it does mean that there hasn’t been much interest in it for awhile. However, price graphs that have been trending up indicate growing demand for the card, a big indicator for price spikes. Keep in mind the old legal disclaimer of “past results do not guarantee future returns” though.

Spikes are for Spikes, Climbs are for Casuals

What is the market for your card? Is it a Sphinx’s Revelation type of effect that is pure raw efficiency but otherwise an entirely boring card? Or is it a Vigor, something that your average PTQ grinder will scoff at but your younger cousin will be in awe over? 

Tournament staples tend to spike harder. The players with their fingers to the competitive scene will get whiff of a major contender on the rise, buy in early, and soon after the rest of the market will realize what is happening and finish off what’s available. The card will relist at ten times what it was, and eventually settle to its real price point, whether its actually ten times the old price, or only $.50 more than it used to be. Demand comes quickly, and it leaves quickly too. Rotations crush cards like Sphinx’s Revelation because once it’s off the radar of the grinder there’s no market left for the card. These are the types of specs that you immediately sell into the hype because there’s no way to tell where the card is going to land and you want to make sure you capitalize on the frenzy.

Casual cards, on the other hand, are guaranteed slow burners. There are less severe spikes on these types of cards because there are no tournament results or rotations to worry about. There are simply millions of players in their kitchens, collectively buying a playset of Consuming Aberration at a time, never trading or selling them, slowly but surely driving the price up. These cards do still spike on occasion when the MTGF community gets ahold of them and speeds the process along, but for the most part they get there on their own.

Knowing which market wants your card and what to expect out of its projected growth pattern is important for identifying short-term and long-term holds. Even if you know for a fact a given card is going to triple in price, if it’s going to take a few years, you may rather operate in a faster market.

Reprintability

I could (and did?) write an entire article about how easy or difficult it is for a card to be reprinted. The long and short of it is that the easier a card is to reprint, the less secure your purchase is. A card like Spellskite was juicy pickings because Phyrexian mana is unprintable outside of a Phyrexian block or smaller-run auxiliary product. Vendilion Clique is a tough reprint because it’s a named legendary creature with a specific creature type. Linvala, on the other hand, is not tied to any specific plane or keywords. She’s a generic angel which show up in nearly every single set. That isn’t to say that Linvala is getting printed in Journey Into Nyx, but it’s far more likely we’ll see her there rather than another printing of Birthing Pod.

Check Out That Gap

Take a look at the gap between the lowest retail price and the buylist. MTGPrice shows you this automatically on every page. The narrower the gap, the better your odds are. If the highest buylist is 30% of the lowest price, it means there isn’t demand from vendors to get copies into stock. They’re selling so few copies of the card that they aren’t in a rush to get more. A narrow gap means vendors are eager to have any copies they can in stock, and a rise on the purchase price is probably close behind. You’ll see a lot of MTGF types on twitter always talking about the gap on a card, and this is usually what they’re referring to.

Always Have an Escape Plan

Assume your spec bombs terribly. What is your out? How badly do you lose, and what can you do to mitigate it? If you’re buying your spec at $3 each and the best buylist is $.50, you’ve got a long way to fall. You’d basically be committed to holding onto the card indefinitely, until either it does actually spike or the buylist rises. If the buylist on those $3 cards is $2.25 though, you’re in good shape. Even if the card fails to do anything, you can get out having lost only 25% of your purchase. Obviously nobody wants to be in that boat, but it’s nice to know that you have an out that isn’t going to be soul-crushing.

 

*The author personally owns some number of Seizan, Vendilion Clique, and Herald of Torment

 

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Defeating The (Modern) Magic Myth Hydra

THERE IS NO BUBBLE! LONG LIVE THE BUBBLE! 

There has been a lot of talk over the last couple of months about the rising cost of playing Modern and Magic: The Gathering in general. Some doomsayers, including one on this very site, have gone so far as to say that we should be selling our Modern cards and heading for higher ground.

This is a long and detailed article but let me sum things up as follows: Modern’s likely user growth will more than counter any negative interest generated by rising deck costs. The economics of the brand, the company that owns it, and the demographics of our community bear this out. Read on and I’ll explain.

Here in a nutshell is a deconstruction of common logic fallacies, false facts and misinterpreted theories that are commonly offered up on the topic of Modern in specific and Magic in general, and how you, as an MTGfinance investor can avoid falling into these traps that could ultimately cost you money.

1)    (Modern) Magic Is In A Bubble & It’s About to Burst

Rest easy. Nothing could be further from the truth, but first we need to define what a bubble actually represents from the perspective of economics:

“An economic bubble (sometimes referred to as a speculative bubble, a market bubble, a price bubble, a financial bubble, a speculative mania or a balloon) is “trade in high volumes at prices that are considerably at variance with intrinsic values”. It could also be described as a situation in which asset prices appear to be based on implausible or inconsistent views about the future.” 

To provide an example, the economic crisis that hit the global economic system in 2008 was largely due to market manipulation on mortgage derivatives products that had been constructed to bet against the mortgages taken on by families with low incomes and/or bad credit, at abnormally low interest rates, on the premise that the home owners would default on those loans once interest rates rose again. At the core of the issue was a so-called “housing bubble” wherein housing prices in the US rose dramatically as many Americans chased the dream of house ownership without ever doing the math. When the economic conditions (low interest rates) collapsed in response to the crisis, a bubble was declared as housing prices snapped back to levels from several years earlier due to tens of thousands of home foreclosures across the country and the subsequent increase in supply of cheap homes, found as a result of banks unloading homes they had foreclosed on.

So what’s that got to do with Magic you say?

Well, for Modern as a format, or even Magic: The Gathering in general to be in a “bubble” would suggest that there is something inherently unstable and unsustainable to be found in the structure of the game, the products required for it to be played and it’s economic fundamentals. To recognize such a bubble we should be on the lookout for abnormally high volumes of economic activity, a growing gap between intrinsic value and cost, and unjustified optimism. Absolutely none of this is true, so bear with me as we break it down.

Let’s take each relevant attribute of a potential bubble in turn and see what we’re really dealing with:

Stability: Magic: The Gathering is now a truly global brand being published in numerous languages, with a 20 year fan base, a strong growth curve, and being managed by one of the biggest toy companies on the planet. Remember, Hasbro has an excellent track record of growing and protecting multi-generational brands. They started MTGO a decade ago because they assumed video games would erode their TCG business and they wanted to be ahead of the curve. Instead, MTGO and Duals of the Planeswalkers added significant business rather than cannibalizing it, while reducing production and distribution costs. If video games haven’t killed paper Magic yet, it won’t be happening this decade.

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Sustainability: Hasbro has largely stopped handing out simple sales figures but we can still figure out the growth math with some digging. Firstly, if we assume that the average Magic player spends a reasonable $75/annum (remember, most players are very casual and don’t spend at MTGFinance levels) and we have 6M current players, then total sales should be about $450M globally. From this NBC article last August, we can glean that of the 1.2B Hasbro is posting on games from Monopoly to D&D and Magic, Magic is producing roughly 30-40% of that revenue as their biggest producing games brand. Let’s call it $400 million, which matches the other estimate above. And sales have been growing at 25%+ for the last 4 years, so we could easily top $500M this year, as reports on Theros sales were quite positive. These are astonishingly good numbers and consistent with other inferences in Hasbro investor reports I received, but still a drop in the bucket vs. attainable market size.

Now, compare these figures to the video gaming industry at $50B just in the US, and $100B globally and you’ll realize that Magic can keep grabbing market share from other nerd entertainment hobbies for years without running out of room for growth. Continuing growth in the middle class of developing countries like China will also help because middle class attainment equals free time and money spent on hobbies.

(It should be noted that when looking at this as a $1B+ business, counting the secondary market, the random activities of our MTGFinance community don’t count for shit. The average spec I hear humble-bragged on Twitter is a $50 upside, which is a joke vs. the big picture. Let me be clearer, MTGFinance CANNOT crash this business, no matter how hard we try. Even the vendors don’t have that power as there will always be a market actor that will step in to accept lower margins and ultimately Wizards can wield reprints and various tools on a limited basis to keep decks within reach.)

Intrinsic Value: I have seen it stated in several MTGFinance articles that Magic cards have no intrinsic value. This is in many ways used to suggest they have no utility, which is clearly false. Magic cards are entertainment goods, like sports equipment, my PS4, and MP3s downloaded from ITunes, and as such, are one of the most consistently valuable goods in the western world where recent generations have established free time and the pursuit of hobbies as crucial to an acceptable lifestyle. A movie and popcorn costs $25 and they’re posting banner sales figures. $25 worth of Magic cards is equivalent to plenty more hours of entertainment, though perhaps not at a Modern tournament. Still, looking at cost/hour of entertainment, Modern just isn’t that expensive and the fun factor of big tournaments is high, which is why we’re willing to travel to them and make a weekend out of it.

SUMMARY: There is no price bubble in Modern. Rather prices are rising naturally to meet demand which is a sign of a healthy market and a growing game.

 2)    Modern is too expensive

This fallacy indicates a lack of comprehension of just how good Hasbro/Wizards is at performing demographic research, predicting product demand and setting relevant price points for their products.

Hasbro is a multi-national corporation and they are marketers of world class calibre. This is the company that controls licenses on Star Wars, Transformers, GIJOE and Monopoly. As far back as the late 90s I remember seeing a survey result from Wizards indicating that the average player was spending over $1000/annum on the game. This game is predominantly played by middle class and upper middle class white males from the suburbs. So long as they keep the average cost of participation under $2500/annum, they’ll continue to do just fine. Also, if the average Modern card is now more expensive, it’s a simple reflection of the fact that the community has been redirected over the last 18 months to engage with this fresh new format. In short, demand is rising. 

Reflect for a moment, on how new Magic players are eased into it. “All you need to play is this Intro Deck at $15. Now try a Fat Pack or Event Deck at $35. Your first booster box will run you $100. Your first Standard deck will be about $300. Your Modern deck is going to run you $500-$1000.”

From a format perspective they lead us from the kitchen table or Duels of the Planeswalker, to Friday Night Magic, to drafts, MTGO and local tournaments, then on to Grand Prix events with travel and hotel expenses.

None of this is by accident folks.

In economics we talk about Price Elasticity, the ability for a price to be raised or lowered without effecting demand. Trust me, if you hear about people quitting Modern because they can’t afford it, Wizards economic modelling will already have calculated that their retreat is acceptable in the grand scheme of things, especially if they switch back to limited formats that move more product in the current sales cycle.

The rising cost of a small percentage of tournament quality singles on the secondary market is absolutely meaningless in any analysis of the price of playing Magic on the whole. Firstly, the vast majority of the economic action is in the primary Magic market (at retail) not the significantly smaller secondary market which is propped up by the most dedicated 10% of the community. Also, the cost of a pack of Magic cards has resisted inflation for most of the years since the initial release in 1993. I was buying 3 packs for $10 at 401 Games in 1998 and I still am today. In fact, the Internet has arguably made collecting far cheaper, as access to price data on MTGPrice.com, lowest common denominator pricing on TCGPlayer.com and access to $85 booster boxes have made smart purchases far easier to achieve.

Further, even at $500 for a Tier 2 Modern deck, the price really isn’t that high for something you can mostly reuse for most of a year and cash out at some point, likely for as much or more than you paid. Hell my snowboard, surf and skate gear in a given year all exceed $1K. That’s just what hobbies tend to cost and this game has the demographics to support that. Just look at a big Grand Prix like Richmond. The metagame was significantly warped on Day 1, mostly because the majority of players didn’t have access to Goyfs and Fetchlands and other expensive cards and wanted to try rogue decks they could easily build. It was still the biggest constructed tournament ever because players don’t need to be able to afford the best deck to be interested in playing Modern. They just need to have a shot at winning more than they lose and having fun with their friends. Only 8 people made the quarter-finals at Richmond, but the other 4500 people still had a blast by all accounts fooling around in side tournaments and testing their lower tier decks with other friends that dropped out.

Finally, we need to recognize that there is always a feeling of unfairness encountered when the price on a good rises. No matter what you’re buying you will feel ripped off if the price is higher than last week. However, there is never a “right price” on any good. If a consumer is willing to pay the price, the price must be inherently correct so long as no actual misrepresentation of the good has occurred. The funny thing is, only YOU control your own utility value for a good. If you think something is too expensive, DON’T BUY IT. This is the only way to send the correct market signals. Before you blame SCG for raising Magic prices, remember that every player that buys from them at a premium had a multitude of alternatives and still felt the price was acceptable. If Modern is too expensive for you, it means the cost of participating is higher than your next closest alternative activity, assuming it provides equivalent satisfaction and value/hour of entertainment.

SUMMARY: Modern is actually relatively affordable for a hobby even now, players can play cheaper decks if they need to, and even if that wasn’t true Wizards would see it coming and adjust accordingly without killing the whole format.

3)    Reprints are coming!

This is true, but it will be limited, well measured and the secondary market will be largely insulated from it by the growth of the game. Wizards has repeatedly expressed a willingness to keep Modern (and Magic in general) propped up by card availability. Note that this is very different than a commitment to making the format affordable! Remember, Modern was NOT designed to be the primary play style for Magic as a whole. From within the Magic tournament and/or MTGFinance communities it is easy to build up a myopic view of the game, so it’s important to remember that over 90% of all Magic cards are being played casually at the kitchen table and at small local tourneys and play groups. We’re breaking records for tournament attendance at nearly every Grand Prix this spring, but even GP Richmond and GP Vegas failed to break 5000 players. That’s vs. the approximately 6,000,000 people on the planet now playing Magic. Add up all the tournament players at all the tournaments on the planet and you still get something under 1M, many of which would be repeat players. You also need to consider that the growth rate of the game has been 25% for the last 4 years or so. This means we’ve gone from roughly 2M to 6M players in four years and that the average Magic player (4M people!) has been playing for less than 2 years.

I cannot stress enough how crucial this point is to understanding the economics of Magic.

Modern has been labelled by Wizards as the format for experienced players that have been playing for 3-4 years. Magic is sold at Walmart, at Target, on Amazon, and Ebay to people who are still trying to memorize all the rules and keywords, who don’t have playsets for Standard, let alone Modern, and who care more about learning the game than winning a Grand Prix for now.

This means that so long as Magic continues to grow at a reasonable pace, we are facing a massive influx of additional Modern interest and card demand within the next 2-3 years, and that demand will be constantly increasing. 

It also means that reprintings are not likely to reduce the cost of playing Modern, as the goal of the format and relevant reprints will be to ensure that decks can be made and played in great variety, and not that they are all available cheaply. If demand increases steadily then new card supply will not reduce prices on staples, only lower tier cards whose demand was only propped up by relative scarcity. An analysis of Modern Masters bears this out with key cards like Bob and Goyf rising a few months out from release, while lesser demand rares and mythics fell in price.

It’s important to recognize that Magic exists as a two-tier economy with Hasbro/Wizards at the top designing, developing and marketing multiple products per year for the Magic community, as well as running or supporting the tournament scene at multiple levels to provide structure, goals and a community that furthers their objectives of keeping players engaged and buying primary product.

The second tier is composed of the LGS system, mass market retailers, comic shops, online vendors and the (by comparison tiny) MTGFinance types that deal in the secondary resale of Magic products, largely to each other. Money from the secondary market literally never flows upstream to Wizards/Hasbro, it just circulates in the community and leaves occasionally when people cash out to leave the game or for personal reasons. It is however a big part of why many of us are willing to invest in the format and the game, and why higher deck prices won’t kill Modern or Magic. If I could sell my old snowboard for what I paid or more every year I’d be stoked. What does a $1K deck matter, if I can cash out at $1.4K later and get paid to play? Even if my decks value is cut in half through wear and meta-gaming, that’s pretty good. How many hobbies have this kind of intrinsic investment potential? Virtually none, though my toy and stock portfolios beg to differ.

This is important, because it means that the price of a Tarmogoyf or Scalding Tarn is only relevant to Wizards/Hasbro if the price decreases total primary sales. Ultimately the corporation answers to shareholders like me, and we only care about profits, or at least the system is only set up to make it seem like that’s the case. As such, there is no direct compulsion to ensure Magic cards stay cheap. In fact, on the contrary, the corporation is actively trying to get us to spend more on the game every year.

Once upon a time we got a few sets a year, core sets were all reprints and came out every couple of years and specialty products were incredibly rare. Now we’re virtually guaranteed a 3 set block, a core set, a summer specialty set, and FTV, multiple Commander products, theme decks, block decks, and a wide variety of promotional items. Over it’s 20 year history, the game has expanded to include multiple video game versions, with Duels of the Planeswalkers being especially notable for driving a significant portion of the new business on the physical side of the game over the last few years via exposure on the Apple and Android stores, as well as on PS3 and Xbox.

This is also not a binary situation of reprint or not. We often forget that they best tool available to Wizards is not reprints, but also card variety, power creep, silver bullets and support for multiple formats. The design/dev team is fully plugged in these days to the various formats and how to provide cards in each product to accommodate them. By slowly offering up new and varied cards and card types (think Planeswalkers or Rest In Peace) they can help keep a format fresh and diverse. Silver bullet cards designed to target certain dominant deck types also do work, as does the occasional banning or unbanning. Subtle power creep over time invalidates older cards in droves and forces us to buy newer cards to stay competitive.

Finally, Wizards works 2-3 years in advance now. As such, the current situation with after-market price increases in Modern staples is only going to yield product level changes on any kind of a large scale from 2016 forward. Sure, we’re going to get 5-10 key staples reprinted in 2014, and if things really get out of hand they may ratchet up the offerings, but again, this will only be due to the presence of equivalent demand that will swallow up the cards. It’s also tough to print a lot of the cards that have strong thematic elements that bind them to their original block and speciality sets, limiting their total options somewhat. So will we lost some cash on reprints? Definitely. But the growth in the game will keep our overall portfolio rising regardless. Diversify and you’ll be fine.

SUMMARY: Reprints are slow to produce, unlikely to temper prices on key cards, and the additional supply is highly likely to be met by equivalent demand.

4)    No one got hurt selling for a profit!

As an economist, this makes me choke because it shows an utter lack of understanding of the concept of opportunity cost.

In short opportunity cost is the money you leave on the table when you push your investments in another direction. Here’s a little case study:

Eg) You brilliantly purchase 12 copies of Snapcaster Mage (Foil) in November 2013 for about $80/per. In March, 2014 you decide to sell your SMFs for $140 per, reaping a hefty profit of about $45/card post-expenses, and yielding an approximate annual return equivalent of 150%. Given that the average investment account only yields about 6% a year, you’re doing great.

The tricky part however is what to do next.

If you have a distinct personal need like a wedding, a new car or medical bills then the decision is a no brainer as your consumption needs will outrank your ability to invest. Many people see these scenarios as a win, and they can be, but they’re also a brick wall because you lose liquidity that costs you when future opportunities arise. Cars depreciate and weddings are anti-investments incarnate.

But if you can afford to reinvest your profits I strongly advise you against pulling out on Modern staples at present. This is not the same as indicting your specific sale. If you foresee a metagame shift and believe Snapcaster is on a down trend, by all means, dump. But make sure you know your next move to be better than where the money is currently parked! Don’t sell MTG cards to pay off a line of credit at 10% because MTG, invested wisely, can make far more than 10%. In essence you’re borrowing from your debt in the short term to pay off more debt later when you do this right. (We make a similar mistake when we ignore shipping, time spent at our hourly working rate and materials when calculating MTGFinance profits.)

So what should we be doing, if Modern is not in a bubble?

Well, firstly, you need to be tactical when deciding where your Modern investments could go wrong regardless of my arguments above. Fetches for instance are reasonably likely to get printed within the year as they are core to most decks across the board and would send a strong signal that Modern will be supported broadly. It’s also possible that the fall set will provide a fresh set of duals that will open up new deck building options at a cheaper entry price. You can still lose money in Modern, but you can make more if you’re smart about how you’re diversified.

Personally I’m balls deep on Modern staple foils. What’s your next move?

James Chillcott is a 20 year Magic veteran with a 1750 composite rating, an economics degree, and 12 years’ experience as a digital entrepreneur, marketing executive and business consultant. He’s also the co-founder of ShelfLife.net, The Future of Collecting.

Let’s Play Spike or Hype

By: Jared Yost

It’s that time again folks! As you may be aware these days cards seem to be spiking out of nowhere. Does the spike have merit, signaling a card has corrected itself in price? Is it just hype or a buyout where somebody thinks they struck gold but really it’s fools gold? Let’s take a look at the facts and try to analyze what’s going on here.

FNM Gitaxian Probe and New Phyrexia Gitaxian Probe FOIL

I think that this spike, in terms of what it was versus what it became, is very shocking. FNM Probe’s started at $2.50-$3 in January, with a minor rise to $4-$5 until last week, to the current spiked price of $15. From January until now that is a 500% increase. Similarly, NPH Gitaxian Probe foils were $4-$6 back in January and now are around $30 on tcgplayer. I knew it was a solid target but at the same time I was surprised at how far these two versions jumped because the card is a common. However, it just goes to show you that rarer forms of commons can certainly hold a premium price if they are sought after enough. An extreme would be foil Japanese Brainstorm which is worth about $340.

In general, Twitter contains some solid advice if you are following the right people for magic finance. Back in January, Twitter got me thinking about Gitaxian Probe foils (I believe @JasonEAlt made this tweet but unfortunately I couldn’t find it.) When I saw tweets about FNM Gitaxian Probe and Foil New Phyrexia Gitaxian Probe being criminally underpriced I looked into it further.

After my research, I also thought it was a solid pick for two reasons. First is that it is played in both Modern and Legacy, which means that foil copies will retain demand over time from the eternal players that eventually like to foil out their decks. Second is that Phyrexian mana spells are really hard to reprint since it is such a set specific mechanic. Everyone remembers Mental Misstep, so due to that huge mistake I think that Wizards is very hesitant to bring a mechanic like this back.

I then went to TCGPlayer and saw tons of FNM copies listed at $2.50 per piece and NPH foil copies listed from $4-$6. I thought that this was a low price considering the amount of play the card was seeing and picked up my copies accordingly. I’ve had them ever since and am glad I was able to capitalize on the Twitter advice.

Going forward I would say that the new price is going to stick especially for NPH foil copies. It is a card that is popular in both Legacy and Modern and I don’t see it going away for a long time due to it being a “free” spell.

Ancient Tomb

This spike, at least for me, was eerily similar to the Gitaxian Probe spike in terms of how I heard about it and the time it took from hearing that advice until the time that it decided to spike. Just like Gitaxian Probe, I first heard about Ancient Tomb on Twitter via the Brainstorm Brewery podcast. Being the counterpart to the other two-colorless land City of Traitors that is played in Legacy archetypes, they noticed that City of Traitors was $70 while Ancient Tomb was $10. Wasteland, which has gone over $130 recently, is a good example here of how underpriced Ancient Tomb was since it was from the same set. Although clearly Wasteland sees a ton more play than Ancient Tomb, $10 is quite low for a Legacy staple considering its power level.

Again, just like Probe, I checked out the price on TCGPlayer and the average in February was $10. Again, I picked up copies accordingly because I agreed that Ancient Tomb was popular and looked underpriced due to the play it was seeing. I regret not purchasing FTV: Realms copies of Ancient Tomb, since they are the only foil copy and have spiked way harder than the Tempest copies have.

For both, I believe that this new price is here to stay. A solid Legacy staple from an older set that will have a home in Legacy archetypes, it was only a matter of time before this happened.

Food Chain

Due to the hype that Food Chain received from being a playset in a namesake deck that came in 4th place at the recent SCG: Los Angeles Legacy Open on 3/23/2014, it is no surprise that others decided to buy in. It went from $5 to $13, which is interesting because the first time this card spiked is when Misthollow Griffin was first spoiled back in Avacyn Restored. Around then it jumped up to about $13 as well, but since no one could do anything with the deck at the time it dropped right back down to its original price of around $5 after several months. Now that a Misthollow Griffin deck featuring Food Chain has placed in a SCG Open Top 8, I believe the new price is here to stick and could even increase if the deck keeps seeing Top 8 or Top 16 appearances.

Besides Food Chain, other cards from this deck to watch include Manipulate Fate and Shardless Agent. Manipulate Fate may seem like a strange target but I like foil copies at $0.50. If others decide to build this deck, clearly $0.25 for an uncommon from a set as old as Invasion seems low. It wouldn’t hurt to pick up a playset for yourself if you plan on building this deck for a Legacy event. Shardless Agent has already proven itself as a solid card in Legacy, with an archetype to its name (Shardless BUG) and only one printing in a somewhat limited product. This new archetype could be what it takes to get the Agent over $20.

Autumn Willow

Huh, going from $1 or less to $5 suddenly seems strange for this Homelands rare. I’m guessing a buyout occurred on TCGPlayer where someone bought up all the copies in hopes of turning them around at a later point for profit. Unfortunately for them, this card just isn’t that good. I realize that is has pseudo-hexproof but it just can’t compete with the all the crazy new kids on the block these days. I’m not sure if it will be ever less than $2 due to rarity alone but it is certainly not worth $5 and definitely not worth buying in at this point.

Leonin Arbiter

Going from less than a $1 to $2-$3 may not be much of a spike but it is certainly a double up at the least. Leonin Arbiter is a fine card in the Modern Hatebear deck and even sees play from time to time in Legacy in Death and Taxes, although this appearance is much rarer than Modern. I can see why someone would be looking to pick these up. Though he isn’t as great as Thalia (which also has gone up recently) or Aven Mindcensor in Modern, he is still usually seen as a playset in the the Hatebear decks that do exist. Modern is still pretty wide open, so even though his price has already doubled I think he still has room for future growth. This current spike is just a price correction.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he even climbed as high as $5 during Modern season if Hatebears puts up any Top 8 results. I wouldn’t actively trade for these guys as he plays a limited role in only one deck archetype and is from a fairly recent large set, but if you plan on playing Hatebears try to pick up your playset before Modern season goes into full swing.

 

Silent-Blade Oni & Ghostly Prison

I’ll lump these two together because they are both spiking cards that derive their demand largely from the casual market. Ghostly Prison does see play in Legacy and Modern from time to time but clearly its demand is 95% casual.

Ghostly Prison has demand but its price is contingent on when the next reprint happens. Stocking up on these and then seeing Wizards announce a product where it is reprinted will be bad for whoever decides to buy in at $7. Wizards has already reprinted Ghostly Prison three times so they have shown they want to get copies out there. Stay far away from this one, since there is almost no demand from the tournament scene and it could be reprinted at any time. If you have extra Prisons trade them into more solid long term gainers.

On the other hand, my first impressions of Silent-Blade Oni missed the mark. Silent-Blade Oni has a good chance of sticking to the new price. I now realize that since it only has one printing and utilizes the block specific mechanic Ninjutsu, there are only so many products that this guy could go into besides Commander or something similar. I wouldn’t expect him to go up in price again for quite a while since it already spiked last month. Even if it does spike again, you would be risking a lot for something where there is not a lot of money to be made. Clearly the casual market is a strong force but I would look to other targets as there is not really much money to be made here for the amount of time that you will need to wait and having the possibility of a reprint loom over your head.

  

Volcanic Island, Underground Sea, Plateau

Well, I think we’ve all seen this before. Starcity has a track record of raising their buylist prices on Legacy staples like dual lands in the hope that people will sell them what they have… only to then increase their store prices on those same dual lands by a huge margin to match the buylist increase. This is because they have a huge pulse on the market, being one of the top retailers of Magic products in the world, and use their inventory data to make price corrections based on the actual demand some of these cards are seeing so that they can capitalize off the demand.

If you’ve been playing this game long enough, dual lands going up in price should be no shock to you. Be aware that these days they can really go up a lot without much time for you to react and pick up them before the next spike. Long term, they are great gainers since the Reserved List guarantees that we won’t be seeing them or anything like them again.

I do share similar feelings with Travis about Modern replacing Legacy, and once that paradigm shift occurs I also agree that the dual lands won’t be the cards that go down. They’ll just teeter off, and go up slowly but surely like the Power 9 does over time. The takeaway here is that if you want dual lands you will need to budget, act according to your own needs, and develop a purchase plan if you are looking to eventually pick them up. I predict that they will spike a few more times before Modern replaces Legacy so the sooner you are able to act the better.

Final Thoughts

Here to Stay:
– Foil versions of Gitaxian Probe (FNM, New Phyrexia)
– Ancient Tomb
– Food Chain
– Leonin Arbiter
– Dual Lands

Ancient Tomb, Food Chain, and Leonin Arbiter are the shakiest inclusions for this category because of the reprint fear. However, for these three cards I don’t see that being a factor for quite some time. If you want to acquire them the new price is your reality and you won’t be getting a deal easily but they will trade well.

Risky:
– Ghostly Prison
– Silent-Blade Oni

Cards that derive their demand from the casual market and are reprintable are risky pickups. I would stay away from these, but if I see a good deal on them I would take it in the hopes of trading them for more solid gainers.

Stay Away:
– Autumn Willow

No real play, either in casual or tournament environments. Outclassed by newer cards with better effects. Acquire for gains at your own peril.

Weekend Recap – Legacy in Los Angeles

By Jim Marsh

Every week cards from Magic: the Gathering increase and decease in value based upon a number of factors.

Let’s take a look at some of the cards whose values have changed the most, and the factors behind why those changes occurred.

10 Big Winners of the Week

10. Wasteland

$109.98 to $133.99 (21.8%)

This card is no stranger to anyone who plays or follows Legacy. Strip Mine is banned and this is the Land Destroying Real Estate of choice. It can and does work in pretty much every deck in the format. In fact, it is pretty hard to come up with a Legacy deck that does not make use of the Tempest uncommon. There is a reason that it is the most played land in Legacy. \

Legacy as a format is still vibrant and strong. Even with articles lamenting its oncoming death. Wasteland is also a desirable inclusion in Commander, Cube and pretty much any format that will allow it.

The power of a land that can destroy your opponent’s nonbasics is only amplified in a format with such backbreaking lands as The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, Karakas, Rishadan Port, Cavern of Souls, Mishra’s Factory, Creeping Tar Pit, and Dual Lands.

A lot of Legacy decks don’t even run many, if any basic lands, so it is a target rich environment.

I expect this card to just keep climbing.

 

9. Grafdigger’s Cage

$2.20 to $2.71 (23.2%)

This is the quintessential sideboard card. For one mana you can turn off entire strategies. Suddenly Green Sun’s Zenith, Reanimate, Exhume, Snapcaster Mage and friends look pretty silly.

Innistrad has been out of print for about a year now, and given the name, it is not easy to reprint. It might show up in a supplemental product, but those rarely have pure hate cards in them.

I have long felt that this card did not deserve to be considered bulk, and it seems like the rest of the world agrees.

You may find a few trade partners that are still willing to give these away as toss-ins or to make room in their binder for something more exciting.

8. Twilight Mire

$19.99 to $25.48 (27.5%)

Modern prices have been increasing across the board recently, and it looks like Twilight Mire’s time to shine is upon us.

It can help us get our mana ready to cast Abrupt Decay, Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant or Scavenging Ooze and not break a sweat.

It is showing up in Modern Jund builds, as well as the G/B and Junk Obliterator decks.

I would take a good long look at the Shadowmoor filter lands. Right now everyone is (rightfully) clamoring for the reprinting of Scalding Tarn and friends, but after the influx of Shocklands in Return to Ravnica, these can play an important role in fixing your mana without requiring an investment of $100 per land in your mana base.

They are usually played as a 1 or 2 of in color relevant decks, but if people protest the price of Zendikar fetches, more and more will be tempted to experiment with filter lands.

7. Seizan, Perverter of Truth

$2.52 to $3.28 (30.2%)

In Kamigawa every rare creature was a legendary creature. Some of them were hits. Some were misses. Some have been sleepers for a long time. 

With the rise of the Commander format, a lot of people have been dusting off old Legendary creatures and giving them a spin either as a Commander or as part of their 99.

Seizan, Perverter of Truth is one of those, and giving everyone a free Night’s Whisper (or Sign in Blood) each turn is an interesting effect.

Normally a symmetrical effect like this starts with you on the raw end of the deal. You pay the mana and your opponents all get the extra cards before you do. (Think of tapping out for Howling Mine.)

This time at least that means they all get to pay life before you do.

He is also a strong possible inclusion in Nekuzar, the Mindrazer decks, which breaks the symmetry right in half and forces each of your opponents to take at lose at least 5 life a turn. That adds up quickly, and that may be why Seizan has moved from Bulk Rare to a decent price tag in the past few weeks.

6. Volcanic Island

$180.50 to $240.12 (33.0%)

There are a finite amount of Dual lands from Alpha, Beta and Unlimited in existence. I don’t know what that amount is, but as the amount of players grow and the opportunity to play Legacy looks more enticing, people will be fighting over these scarce resources.

You need a good strong, consistent mana base in Legacy (or any format) and the original Dual Lands are as strong and consistent as the get. They are restricted and are largely considered among the most stable collector’s items in the history of the game short of the Power 9.

I don’t think we will ever see these any cheaper than they are now. It’s been growing aggressively, and I would not be surprised to see the other Dual Lands (especially the Blue ones) hurry to catch up.

5. Hurkyl’s Recall

$14.99  to $23.90 (49.1%)

What do you do when you are playing Modern and the most aggressive, successful deck in the format is Affinity? How about a one sided Upheaval? For two mana?

What do you bounce? An Aether Vial? That’s a bargain.

Besides being in the sideboard for Modern Merfolk, Ad Nauseam, Faeries and other decks, it was also the subject of a recent buy out.

I see it coming back down, and quickly. It has been printed 5 times. It is a sideboard card against one deck, where a lot of sideboard cards have versatility that can be used against different strategies.

I would not get in on this (but try to move any you have that you don’t need to play with in the mean time.)

4. Sewer Nemesis

$3.08 to $4.67 (51.6%)

This card has only been printed once, in the original batch of Commander decks.

It has not seen any place in any competitive deck ever played, and probably won’t.

It is pretty fun in Mill decks that use creatures like this and Consuming Aberration.

Phenax, God of Deception loves cards like this. It is a perfect fit in a Phenax Commander deck, and the supply is pretty low.

I am surprised to see it jump this much (it has been hovering about $2 since it was printed) and don’t see it going up much, but I bet some people will still give it to you as trade evener if you ask.

3. Ancient Tomb

$16.66 to $35.00 (110.1%)

Ancient Tomb is an important part of certain Legacy decks that need mana now to power out something gross and end the game.

These decks include Imperial Painter’s, OmniTell, Sneak and Show, MUD, etc.

It has steadily been growing for the past several months, and it has just started to explode. Its power level makes it unlikely to be reprinted in any Standard format, and even supplemental products are questionable. It was included in From the Vaults: Realms, but other than that this uncommon from Tempest has really made its presence known.

I don’t think it will hold onto this aggressive growth for long. It will dip back, not quite to the $10 it was at earlier, but probably back down to $20 or so, and then begin to grow again steadily.

I even think it will get back to $35 eventually, but not for a while yet.

2. Food Chain

$5.00 to $11.26  (125.2%)

Food Chain? Really? On Sunday it made the semifinals in a Los Angeles Legacy SCG event, but this feels like it came out of nowhere.

It has been a $5 card for a while, but the combo with Food Chain and Misthollow Griffin lets you get infinite mana and cheat out Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and several other value creatures.

It is interesting as a metagame choice, but compared to other Legacy decks, it seems a little unwieldy.

The price got as high as $15 before settling down to $11 and I think it will settle even further.

Even still, if you had some sitting in your trade binder, Sunday was your lucky day.

1. Leonin Arbiter

$0.89 to $2.77 (211.2%)

Now there’s a spec I am happy to see. Modern has a lot of decks that want to tutor for various cards. Birthing Pod and Chord of Calling want creatures. Ranger of Eos wants friends. Everyone wants to use their Misty Rainforest to find a Stomping Ground or Breeding Pool

Leonin Arbiter says not without a cost. It sets people behind when they want to use their fetchlands.

It is slows down Birthing Pod.

It makes your Path to Exile so much better.

All while providing a 2/2 to block and attack with.

It gets used in Modern GW Hatebears, Death and Taxes, UW Tempo decks and a few variations on each theme. It has been a Bulk Rare for far too long.

Modern is an increasingly expensive format. Sometimes that really bothers people. Sometimes it is just time for others to realize how good certain cards are.

If Aven Mindcensor can be $12, I see no reason why Leonin Arbiter can’t be $3. (Or even $5!)

5 Big Losers of the Week

5. Cabal Therapy

$15.59 to $13.97 (-10.4%)

I don’t think that Cabal Therapy is going away any time soon. It provides too much information and punch for its cost to ever be considered anything other than strong.

Recently it went from steady growth at $10 to an overnight jump to $20. Like Ancient Tomb, it is now settling again. I think it’s settling is just about over.

I probably have misnamed my Losers of the Week.

I think a better term would be Bargains of the Week.

Think of this as getting a coupon for 10% off Cabal Therapy. Or 30% off the high point.

I should just remind you that everyone playing ANT, Dredge, Nic-Fit, Manaless Dredge, Oops! All Spells!, anything with Young Pyromancer and more will all want their Cabal Therapys.

4. Old Man of the Sea

$52.38 to $59.98 (-11.9%)

Old Man of the Sea has been $40 for a while. It recently jumped to $60 for almost no reason. There is no demand from people who want to play the card, just collect it.

Are there really that many fans of this effect? Using creatures to steal other creatures is great, but there are other powerful ways to do it.

You can use Gilded Drake or Sower of Temptation.

You can use Threads of Disloyalty or Vedalken Shackles.

They all have more flexibility or power.

Yes, it’s on the Restricted List. Yes, it was only printed in Arabian Nights, but it bought to sit in a binder, not in a deck.

I see this one going back to the $40 where it came from.

3. Skullclamp

$6.20 to $5.44 (-12.3%)

This is a tough card to price. It is not played competitively because it is banned in both Modern and Legacy.

It got reprinted in both From the Vault: Exiled and in the original Commander decks.

It is still very powerful in the Commander format, but that is one of the few places you can play it. It was sitting at a pretty reasonable $3 to $4 for a while but tried to correct to $6. I think that was a little too much, which is why I think it will come down to $5.

It combos with pretty much any deck that can produce small creatures and wants to draw cards, so I don’t think Wizards will unban it any time soon. If they did the jump would be amazing (see Bitterblossom.)

2. Dragonlair Spider

$5.49 to $4.79 (-12.8%)

This is another Casual exclusive. It has seen two printings, and I would not be surprised to see it in Conspiracy. It cries out “play with me in a multiplayer environment!”

The past month has been interesting, with it fighting to get from $3 to almost $6 in value, but there has not been enough interest to sustain it. Maybe $4 is about right for now.

At least Ruric Thar and Jund Commanders love you Dragonlair Spider.

1. Silent-Blade Oni

$8.79 to $7.48 (-14.9%)

The creature type Demon Ninja looks so cool, how could it not be a winner? While the effect looks cool on paper (and I hope someone has gotten to cast a free Cruel Ultimatum with it!) it is rather expensive and cumbersome for all but the most casual of decks. 

In Commander you can hope your opponent has an Overwhelming Forces in their hand and not just a Rampant Growth.

It has been a $4 to $5 card for a while, and tried to get to $9, but it looks like it is on its way back down.

Ninjas are a personal favorite creature type, but there is a reason why Ninja of the Deep Hours and Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni are the most popular.

Their effects all but guarantee card advantage and are reasonably costed.

Six mana is a bit much for an effect that may not even have a valid target.

I’d stay away until it get back below $5.

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