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How Chronicles burned Wizards

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Come with me, back in time.

Step into the Wayback machine, set for November of 1994. Magic: The Gathering has taken the gaming world by storm with its gameplay, portability, and fun. Stores cannot keep product on the shelf, and Wizards of the Coast has been plagued with problems as it tries to meet demand. People who run stores ask for 100 boxes and get ten, meaning that no one knows how much product they will get. Prices fluctuate wildly based on availability, local metagame, and the lack of centralized information.

Fallen Empires was supposed to fix all of that. Magic, for about the first 18 months of its life, was unable to stay in stock. Alpha, Beta, Unlimited…all of these had bigger and bigger print runs that they thought would keep up with demand but really, all it did was make players hungrier as the game grew and spread.

Stores would order what they thought they could sell, and then Wizards would only be able to meet a portion of those orders. By the time The Dark was printed, this was the practice stores had settled on: Order a whole bunch, and get only a part of that.

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Well, Wizards had finally figured out how to meet demand, and when Fallen Empires came out in November 1994, they gave every store as much as they had asked for…and lots of stores couldn’t pay for 10 cases when they were only expecting one. Fallen Empires remains the gold standard for overprinting sets for this reason.

The next expansion was part of a three-sets-in-four-months run that Wizards is going to try again this summer. April 1995 saw Ice Age, June brought Fourth Edition, and then July had Chronicles.

Personal aside: I was a sophomore when Ice Age came out. I remember seeing that a new  Counterspell was all of a sudden in the nickel bin at my LGS, and I bought four for a quarter, and I thought, “Someone really messed this up!!”

Ice Age had a small number of reprints, stuff like Icy Manipulator and Hurricane, but the other two sets were all reprints, all the time, and Chronicles specifically picked on things that were Rare or Uncommon. This was a game-changer, as some prices took a huge hit, as the number in circulation went up by an estimated factor of 10-20, according to Ben Bleweiss.

We have to remember how we found out about price changes back then. There were two main magazines that collected price data: InQuest and Scrye. Prices updated once a month when these bad boys hit the streets.

There was no shadowy #mtgfinance cartel orchestrating buyouts; this was opening a magazine and finding out that your rare $20 Killer Bees from Legends, the scourge of Hoover High School and a card with an ungodly number of kills…is now a dollar card thanks to being printed as an uncommon in Chronicles. Also, his Bees were not the only Bees to be reckoned with anymore, as we all had died to that card and now we all wanted to rack up kills with them!

What I want to think about is how the overprinting of Fallen Empires and Chronicles has made Wizards extremely hesitant about how they approach reprints at this time. We have some unofficial data about scarcity of Fifth Edition through Tenth Edition: They did not sell well, as evidenced by their low prices, aside from a few key cards.

It’s hard for me to express what it was like back then. There were boxes and boxes of Fallen Empires sitting on shelves, their six-card packs offering pump knights and the hope of a Breeding Pit. There was almost none of The Dark or things previous.

Contributing to the problem was that the packs previous to Ice Age were searchable. We knew the rare (or uncommon 3, or 2, or whatever system was in place) was the last card, face down. A little patience could tickle that card upward enough to expose the name, at which point the semi-transparent white plastic of the pack would yield the name of the card and whether it was worth buying…so the only older packs left on game store shelves were not going to have the cards people wanted most.

I’ve seen this trick done and it is disheartening in the extreme. Do not, ever, never, under any circumstance buy a loose pack of anything previous to Ice Age, when opaque foil started being used on booster packs. It’s been checked for duals/power/expensive cards already and while you might make a little money on the uncommons you have no hope of snagging the chase cards.

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Chronicles was meant to make the game accessible for those who hadn’t had a chance to buy cards during Magic’s early days. Because Wizards had sorted out the printing problems and could meet demand, it was theorized that everyone would be happy having lots of copies of the stuff that wasn’t available early.

There were indeed a lot of people who were stoked to have lots more copies in circulation, but there were lots of others who saw the value of their cards drop like a rock. This very vocal group of people continued to make noise at the company over reprints, to the point that Wizards tried to mollify them almost immediately with the creation of a reprint policy. This locked down the rares which had not yet been reprinted and prevented any rare printed between Ice Age and Urza’s Destiny from being reprinted more than once. That ‘one time’ is why you get Judge Foil versions of things that weren’t allowed to be reprinted.

Say what you want about what exactly Wizards does in response to player outcries, but they have never failed to deliver a response, even if that response boils down to ‘calm down and wait,’ as evidenced with the outbreak of Modern Eldrazi. Wizards reacted swiftly to the outcry and decided that they were not going to devalue collections instantly.

This decision is at the heart of Wizards’ support of non-Standard formats. They have made a conscious and deliberate decision to attempt to lower prices gradually. Even big Standard reprints like Thoughtseize and fetchlands have not hit those prices too hard, and those are top-tier, four-of tournament staples.

I admit, I gave up trying to predict Wizards’ future behavior after they put Iona, Shield of Emeria in Modern Masters 2015 and then with the same art in the From the Vault set that same summer, yet the Reserved List makes a certain amount of sense. Some things are safe, everything else is fair game. You might not agree with this policy. Mark Rosewater doesn’t. Lots of people don’t, but as has been stated, it’s a policy and a promise that Wizards intends to honor.

MTG_iona

However, Wizards doesn’t want to make access to older cards too easy and too fast for the new player at the expense of the established player. This is a tricky line to walk, and I don’t think there’s a single correct path.

Wizards is aware of the pitfalls they have made in trying to strike that balance. Randy Buehler said it flat out: Chronicles was a fairly big mistake. It was overprinted. It tanked too much value too fast, and now every time there’s a set of reprints of non-Standard cards (Modern Masters, Modern Event Deck, From the Vaults, etc.) they have to reassure players that this will not be Chronicles all over again.

Wizards would rather underprint than overprint. We saw this in both Modern Masters releases, where there was a burst of product available but the demand was too high to keep prices low for long. You can find it now, but it’s going to cost you, and Wizards is okay with this outcome.

The end result is this: Eternal Masters is going to have a print run that’s relatively small. More Modern Masters 2013 than the 2015 version in terms of the numbers, and that means there will be less in circulation than you’re hoping for, especially the mythics or other cards you need a four-of, such as Force of Will.

 

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The Safety in Shiny Things

I love foils. I’m not shy about it. I am constantly looking for foils to go into my Commander decks, and that’s proven to be a sensible financial investment.

In the last couple of years, we’ve had some notable foil versions of lots of cards, and I want to examine what the long-term prospects of those cards are, because it seems likely that we’re going to get more and more of these.

For a long time, the usual special release of a card was a Judge Foil. This was a slow-but-sure way to get reprints out there or to put out foil versions of a card that had zero chance of being foil. Flusterstorm is an example of this.

flusterstorm

The Commander version has been ticking upward since its release in 2011, primarily due to Legacy play, but its power in any format cannot be overstated. The Judge Foil has consistently stayed more expensive, but not to a major multiplier. We don’t have exact numbers of how many Commander versions there are and how many Judge versions there are, but a multiplier of only 1.5 is surprising.

Should Flusterstorm be reprinted, what would happen to these prices? Well, it depends. Are there foils of the new printing? Is it in Conspiracy 2: Conspire Harder? Eternal Masters? Another Judge printing?

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Normally, the most valuable printing of something is the original foil. In these cases, new versions, even in foil, aren’t going to ding the originals or even will increase the values.

For instance, Damnation. The foil has stayed consistently in the $100-$120 range for the past couple of years, despite the presence of an MPR version and a Judge Foil in 2015. The foil has stayed stable, even with the foil judge version coming out. That’s what we want from our high-end cards: stability.

A big factor, though, is the art and the look. Let’s look at a case when the new art can blow the old versions away: Hanna, Ship’s Navigator.

Hanna

Hanna’s pack foil lost about a third of her value, dropping from $55 to $35 at the beginning of 2015, with the release of a Judge Foil featuring gorgeous new art from Terese Nielsen. In this case, the original took a hit but that’s quite rare. Mostly, old foils and especially those in the old frame, are immune to losing significant value.

There’s another example in recent times of a card that’s been given multiple printings and what the prices can do: Polluted Delta, along with the other Onslaught fetches.

The original Onslaught foil of Polluted Delta is at a little under $400, but two years ago it was about $100 more. In 2009, there was a Judge printing of those lands, and that helped keep prices reasonable, if not quite affordable in terms of the foils. We’ve gotten two new printings of the card, though, in Khans of Tarkir and as a Zendikar Expedition.

PD Foil

The price on this flinched slightly, about 15%, when Khans came out but didn’t budge at all when the Expeditions became known. This tells us that the sheer number available as an in-print rare matters a lot more than the presence of the Expeditions version. There’s not many of the pack foils, and they are going to stay rare and expensive. You now have four choices for the foil in your deck, though, and all four have different looks and different frames and different prices. It’s totally up to you what you like vs. what you can afford.

The Judge Foil version of Polluted Delta took a little bit of a hit as well from the one-two punch of Khans and then Expeditions. I expect the price to recover, though, as the supply has maximized and people are getting the foils they want. There’s almost a glut on the market, though only two of these are printed in the last five years.

What does this mean going forward? It means that I love picking up the Expeditions edition filters. There’s one version competing, the original pack foil. These Expeditions will not go down in price once Oath of the Gatewatch stops being opened, and the relatively smaller print runs mean a smaller supply.

The pack foils from Shadowmoor and Eventide did not change in price when the Expeditions were announced, and that is telling. I think it reflects the relatively small print run of those sets more than anything else, and it’s entirely possible that there’s more Expedition Cascade Bluffs out there than Eventide foil versions.

These Expeditions are in a strange place, as some of them are more expensive than the pack foil, and others are cheaper. I am a fan of getting these, and other foil lands, as safe to hold their value for years going forward. If you want them for your Commander deck, your cube, or just to bling out any deck, I suggest you get them now.

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Casual Appeal

I do not spend much money on Magic. In fact, I actively try to invest at little hard cash as possible into this hobby.

My usual spending habit is to get in a draft for about $15, crack those packs, and get my single elimination on. Occasionally I buy individual cards, especially if they are EDH foils, but mostly I limit my spending.

I think of myself as a casual player, despite having written for MTGPrice for more than two years. There are a few cards that I’ve gone after hard and traded for many copies of (Thespian’s Stage, Prophet of Kruphix) because I believed, but I’ve never spent a lot of money.

I have never been a person who is heavy into speculation, but my collection’s value has gone crazy because I rarely dip into my old cards.

We are living in a very strange time for Magic. There’s more people playing this game than ever before, and the players appear to have more money to spend than ever. The structure of the game allows for people to play at the level they are comfortable with, be it in terms of finances, format, styles, anything.

My advice to you is now to never sell your bulk. Store everything. I’m not sure about the cards that are bulk from sets as recent as Theros (just as an example) but the spikes are coming so fast and so frequent that I would hate to move bulk unless I was moving to a much smaller home. Commons are probably okay to get rid of, but uncommons might have some legs, especially selected good uncommons.

Let me give you an example: Inquisition of Kozilek.

Inq

I sold 20 of these to a buylist for $5 apiece when they first went to $8, but that was simply because I didn’t know they had gone up to $4 months before. I went back to my Rise of the Eldrazi boxes and got them all out, cackling as I made $100 off of a card that I thought was a crap uncommon. It was crap, too: Inquisition was easily a last-pick card in ROE draft.

I don’t regret selling at that price, because I didn’t expect that three years later, it would be a $25 card. A card spikes and I want to move it out. I’ll have made a ridiculous profit already, and I have zero way of knowing if it’ll get reprinted or banned.

It started as a budget alternative to Thoughtseize but because there’s so many terrifyingly cheap cards in Modern and Legacy, though the reprint version is now cheaper. Thoughtseize also provides a strong example of what can happen if you hold a card indefinitely: If you had them in the summer of 2013, they were at $75, and who knew how high it could go…until it got reprinted in Theros and the value dropped.

I think there are cards in recent sets that are very cheap, which given the right circumstance, might really take off. For instance, Become Immense has proven to be a very potent card, especially with Temur Battle Rage. So far, no one has added Become Immense to Prophetic Flamespeaker, saving a card. Flamespeaker is about $1 now but it could go crazy as soon as one deck puts up results.

I want to look at a pair of recent spikes and think about if there’s room to grow.

dPath

I’ve given up trying to predict what card people will latch onto in a fit of hope and speculation. Descendants’ Path is one example, where people decided that they could use Conduit of Ruin to set up for a free Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. This seems awesome, but it hasn’t translated to a deck yet, or at least one with measured success. The card itself hasn’t come down in price yet, and that’s the key for people that were playing and drafting way back in 2012: it was bulk, or just about that price as an EDH card good in tribal decks. Now it’s a $7 card and the time has come to get rid of all the ones you have.

Shadow

This is different. First of all, it’s from Worldwake, a set that was opened in ridiculously small numbers. Think about it: Zendikar is the most popular set ever at the time (2010!), and the draft format is ZEN-ZEN-WWK for three months before Rise of the Eldrazi came out. There’s not a lot of this card around, and there are decks doing very well with it. Until it’s reprinted, it’s got room to grow but if you have some of these I’d get rid of them now.

Finally, I want to point out that new formats offer unparalleled opportunities. Just in the last couple of years, we’ve seen Tiny Leaders take off (and crash, to some extent) as well as 93/94, also called Old School, and those cards have seen significant growth. Who knows what the next format will be?

Keep everything. Once it spikes, let it go, but until it does, store it all in a safe, dry, and cool place.

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The Unpredictable Wizards

A long while ago, I made a set of predictions about From the Vault: Angels. I was right about eight out of the 15 cards. And while I think my picks are better, Wizards is always going to do what it wants.

And that’s something we need to keep that in mind going forward. Wizards of the Coast employs some very intelligent and very confusing people. Trying to predict what will and won’t get printed/reprinted/banned/unbanned is an exercise fraught with peril and likely missteps.

Today I want to look at some…curious decisions they have made and see if there’s lessons we can glean.

FTV: Angels

While all of the choices are defensible, there’s a couple of pieces of information that are very clear: Wizards isn’t trying to just increase circulations of cards. This is the third piece of art for Akroma, Angel of Wrath and the second ‘special’ foil printing. If you count the reprint of Duel Deck Anthologies, then that’s the fourth.

That’s not the strangest choice in the set, though. That honor goes to the inclusion of Iona, Shield of Emeria just two months after having her as a mythic in Modern Masters 2015. Iona is a worthy choice to go into the FTV set, but it’s almost as though each of the two sets didn’t know the other was including her. Just one of these two sets would have been enough to increase her copies in circulation, and she was only at $20/$80 before.

From the outside, it’s impossible to say if this was a communication error or a conscious decision to really push Iona into a low price. But since we are on the outside, we are left to wonder what the motivation was. There was a slot in either set that could have been another card, but who knows what could have been.

Fetch lands and Battle for Zendikar

When the name of the fall set was revealed as Battle for Zendikar, the five enemy fetch lands immediately took a dive on price, losing more than half their value in some cases. Writers and financiers and players all jumped to the conclusion that the cycle would be in BfZ.

And then, Mark Rosewater dropped this bomb via tumblr:

BFZ lands

Was there a voice anywhere that said the fetches were NOT in BfZ? Would you have listened if you’d heard one?

For that matter, who had any inkling that Wizards wanted the allied fetches in Modern and would put them in Standard?

Again, we are forced to confront a very basic truth: Wizards works at their own level. This is true of why Duels is now only on the newest Apple versions, why Magic Online has all of its changes (including the still-missing Leagues!) and when it comes to what is and isn’t in any set or product, outsiders are merely tossing darts at the wall while blindfolded.

Building decks at the end of Standard

What would the last two years have been like if Herald of the Pantheon or Starfield of Nyx had been in Theros block, or even way back in Dragon’s Maze? I can’t remember seeing as many cards dedicated to upgrading an archetype as what showed up in Magic Origins. Granted, this is the last core set, and it’s only legal together for a few brief months, but wow. This is another thing we never saw coming. What is the next two sets going to bring for Abzan or Megamorph decks?

Takeaways

So if we can’t accurately predict what Wizards will do, what can we do to gain a little power over the future?

The easiest course of action is to do nothing. Don’t attempt to speculate or predict and don’t attempt to gain from foreknowledge. We’re all just guessing now.

With a little thought, though, we can make some inferences based on negative information. For example, we know that Commander 2015 will be enemy colors. Instead of trying to predict what will be in those sets (my gut tells me to get out on Prophet of Kruphix, for one) we can infer that allied-color cards are safe for now, so go ahead and stock up on things like Privileged Position or Oona, Queen of the Fae.

Keeping today’s lessons in mind, don’t presume that this winter’s Commander decks will have Arid Mesa and its buddies. We need the set of filter lands just as badly from a price perspective, especially the enemy ones that were only in the barely-bought Eventide. There hasn’t really been a big land present in each of the Commander releases so far, but today’s whole point is that we can’t predict accurately what Wizards of the Coast will do.

Still, though, keep in mind that everything will get reprinted eventually. There’s too many outlets. We have Conspiracy, Modern Masters, Clash Packs, Event Decks, judge foils, GP promos, and special releases like foil Force of Will or the foil promo Genesis Hydras being given out when you buy two old packs at my Target. Everything not on the reserved list will be redone. It’s only a matter of time.

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