All posts by Travis Allen

Travis Allen has been playing Magic on and off since 1994, and got sucked into the financial side of the game after he started playing competitively during Zendikar. You can find his daily Magic chat on Twitter at @wizardbumpin. He currently resides in upstate NY, where he is a graduate student in applied ontology.

Ancestral Recall: MTGO and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Trading Market (Pt. 2)

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By: Travis Allen

Travis is away this week, so we’re re-running the second part of his two-part series about MTGO. He will return next week on the 21st.

This week is part two of a two-part series on the failure of the MTGO marketplace. You can find part one here. The tl;dr from last week is that Magic cards behave like commodities, and thus are eligible for a unique type of online market.


Upon entering a convention hall hosting a Grand Prix you’ll notice vendors ringing the space. The vendors, of whom there are usually between five and eight, each have different numbers for their buy and sell prices. If our intrepid player – let’s say you – decides he wants to buy the cheapest Glittering Wish in the room he’s going to have to do some legwork. Finding the least expensive copy is going to require visiting every single booth, muscling through the mob, locating the card in the case, and checking the price tag. Then you’ll need to repeat that entire sequence about seven more times. Once you’ve checked all eight vendors and have identified the cheapest copy, it’s finally time to go make a purchase. Let’s hope that they haven’t sold out while you were checking each other price in the room!

Imagine instead that there are not eight vendors in the room, but 50,000. Welcome to the Magic Online classifieds.

The unwieldy system for buying and selling cards at a GP is as it is because there is no centralized method for buying and selling paper cards in a meatspace. There is no single booth in the room that you can walk up to that sells cards on behalf of every vendor present. You’re forced to manually check with each one. This problem only becomes wildly more intense when add in the fact that not only can you buy the card from a vendor, but there are a few thousand binders in the room that are more than willing to trade. Somewhere amongst those eight vendors and 2,000 players is the theoretical cheapest copy of Glittering Wish, but there is basically no chance you’re actually going to find it. At the same time, someone in that room will give you fifteen dollars cash for your Courser of Kruphix (market value $15.76), but good luck finding the guy. It’s far more likely that you’ll take the seven to ten bucks one of the vendors is offering.

Such a system is brutally inefficient. There is no convenient method for buyers and sellers to see all the options available to them. There is no central structure in place through which all information is available to all parties at once. This is one of the myriad of reasons that real life sucks.

The solution to such a burdensome and inefficient system is to create some sort of hub of activity through which all transactions flow. A system that is capable of gathering all of the values of every unique card, for both sale and purchase, that is also fully queryable would do dramatic things to the market. By necessity such a system would immediately wipe out all transactions in which one party was getting more than their fair share. Third party vendors would disappear, and cards would flow freely among the vast majority of agents in the room: the players.

Magic Online is capable of this. There is only one MTGO server every single person in the world logs into. Whether you’re a bored housewife in Spain, an unemployed roustabout in Ukraine, or a pissy adolescent in the Nebraska plains, if you want to play MTGO you’re all going to the same place. This affords a fantastic opportunity that is not available to paper players: a true commodity marketplace.

MTGO puts every single player in the same system. You all have access to the same tournaments and classifieds. The foundation is in place to provide an efficient, fast, and fair marketplace for the commodity market that is Magic cards. Instead, you’re forced to bumble around blindly in a room of tens of thousands of vendors because….well, I have no idea why.

Because MTGO has failed to provide an adequate market for their playerbase, it has resulted in less-than-ideal conditions. If you’re a player on MTGO and you want to buy a Courser, you hit the classifieds and search for Courser of Kruphix. A list appears of everyone who has the phrase “Courser of Kruphix” in their title. (Remember too that “Courser of Kruphix” is different than “Courser,” so you’d better hope you’re using the same terminology as everyone else in the room.) If you’re lucky they put their sale price for Courser in the title of the classified as well, but not all will. Any that don’t have the sale price in the title will require opening a trade. This will have to happen several times before you can begin to get a feel for what the ‘average’ price of a Courser is so that when you actually find a good price you’ll know it.

There are a variety of pitfalls in this model. For instance, what happens if someone is selling their Courser for 20% less than everyone else, but accidentally spelled it “Cuorser?” How about the individual selling more than three different uniquely named cards? How is he supposed to advertise all of those as being for sale? The classified title has a character limit of course, so you can really only advertise your hottest items. This means it’s tough for someone to expose good prices on more off-beat cards, and it’s tough for buyers because they’re forced to just start wading through random trade binders to find a good price for a card. Sellers can’t adequately advertise their stock or even let people know what they’re selling, and buyers have trouble finding people who are selling what they want. Imagine going to a mall but instead of each store having large glass windows displaying their product they were all painted black.

What MTGO has done is effectively turn every player into a vendor in the same room. It’s hard to imagine a worse way to go about things. This frustratingly cumbersome system results in the creation of an automated process; the bot network. Anyone that plays with any regularity on MTGO is very familiar with bots. They’re awake twenty-four hours a day, have huge inventories, and are (mostly) easy to deal with. They exists to fill the massive exchange gap that MTGO continues to let exist. Imagine for a moment that MTGO banned bots. If you wanted to sell your Courser for tickets, the only way to do so would be to find another individual online at exactly that time that is willing to pay the price you’re asking. This doesn’t sound too bad for a hot staple like Courser, which will move quickly, but what if you’re trying to sell something like a foil Tangle Wire? What do you think the odds are that both someone selling and someone buying are online at the same time, that the seller is currently advertising that card in the classifieds, and that they can both agree on a price? This is exactly why bots exist.

Bots fill a gap, and whenever a service does so, the guy running the service is making a profit on every exchange. It’s the same way your LGS makes money buying and selling cards. Give players a little bit less for their cards than another average player would, and sell them for slightly more than the average player would. The reason anyone uses the service at all is not because they love getting ripped off, but because they’re paying for the convenience of having another market actor who will engage in 99% of transactions at nearly any time. Connecting buyer to seller is a profitable market to be in.

MTGO isn’t like real life, though. Computers aren’t hampered by the need to sleep or eat or otherwise be away from a market. They also can connect thousands and thousands in one central room with quick, easy transactions in a way that no real life environment could imitate. Why, when the system is already in place to provide the best possible market to the average player, does MTGO not capitalize on it?

The problem is compounded by the fact that tickets can’t be split. I’m sure Wizards has their own arcane reason for this, but the result is disastrous for players. By refusing to allow tickets to be split out to a hundredth of a decimal place, MTGO is essentially saying that no card can theoretically be worth less than one ticket. After all, if one ticket is the bare minimum official currency, how does one buy something that costs less than that?

Most commons, uncommons, and even rares for that matter, are worth less than one ticket on the MTGO market. Good luck trying to trade these easily between players though. Let’s say you want to acquire two copies of Restore Balance but without going through a bot. We have all the issues from before of actually finding someone who has two copies of this, but then how do you trade? You don’t want to pay a full ticket for what is worth maybe half a ticket at absolute best. This means you’ve either got to buy cards you don’t want, or the other agent has to take roughly half a tickets worth of value from you. Meanwhile all of this takes time and effort, and why is the guy with the Restore Balances going through all of this in the first place? It certainly isn’t worth his time for the what, tenth of a ticket worth of value he may get out of the transaction?

Bot networks are further supported by MTGO’s refusal to allow tickets to be split. They provide virtual ticket splitting by offering credit to players. Head over to your nearest preferred bot, trade him your cards, and you get credit out to multiple decimal places that can then be used anywhere on that bot network. This of course incentivizes players to keep returning to the same bot network over and over, lest they end up with ten tickets worth of credit spread out among ten different vendors. It’s the “forty-eight cents left on this gift card” syndrome all over again. The nature of the integer ticket is ultimately great for bots and terrible for the average player.

Let’s review. MTGO has the foundation in place to provide an excellent market experience that would be literally impossible to replicate in the real world. A commodity network on MTGO would overall reduce the prices players pay for their cards, overall increase how much they sell their cards for, and overnight get rid of bot networks. For 99.99% of people in the system it’s a complete upgrade. So what needs to change to get us there, and what does “there” look like?

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First of all the ticket system has to be fixed. Without the ability for players to reduce tickets to the second decimal place, essentially setting the minimum price on a card to a single cent, then none of this will work. When a huge chunk of the market is worth less than the smallest division of your currency, all sorts of weird problems will pop up. (Like bot networks offering credit that relies entirely on the buyer placing unfounded trust in an unaccountable stranger.)

The next step is basically to completely get rid of the classifieds as you know them. Gone. They will instead be replaced by a central commodity market that essentially functions as a miniature auction for every single type of good. These types of virtual markets already exist all over the place. We’ll take a look at a pretty big one that’s arguably the most successful: the Steam market.

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Welcome to the Steam Community Market. On arrival we see what I currently have for sale, when I listed it, and how much I’m asking for it. Below that are a list of the most popular items today. For right now we want to buy Jarate, an item used by the sniper in Team Fortress 2. For the rest of this demonstration, just imagine replacing the word “Jarate” with “Wrath of God” and the process is exactly how MTGO could work.

I’m going to plug in Jarate in the search field over there on the right, and this is what I see after:

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Here’s a list of everything with Jarate in the name. You’ll see there are various types of Jarate – Vintage, Strange, Festive, Collector’s, etc. Imagine these as being “10th Edition, 9th Edition, 7th Edition Foil, FTV:Armageddon, etc.” Let’s take a look at the festive Jarate.

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I get to see a big image of what I’m purchasing, along with a description that would probably be oracle text if this was an actual Magic card. Below I have a graph of the history of sales data for this product, with samples across multiple timespans, and below that all the Festive Jarates for sale. Because Festive Jarate is a commodity – every instance of it is basically the exact same as all the others – the listings automatically sort by the only defining characteristic: the price. I see how much it is, who’s selling it, and most importantly, for how much. Let’s buy one.

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Clicking “Buy Now” gives me a confirmation box, showing again exactly what I’m getting, how much I’m paying for it, and how my money is being spent. Notice Steam even gets to take a little off the top for providing the transaction. That’s a nice incentive for Wizards that doesn’t exist in the current MTGO classifieds system.

How about if I want to sell something on the market? If I’m browsing my backpack (or MTGO collection) and discover I have something I don’t need, selling it is eazy peazy.

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Simply clicking on the item shows me the cheapest price for the product on the market as well as how many copies have sold in the last twenty-four hours.

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Clicking the “Sell” button shows another price graph, and allows me to price the product in one of two ways: how much the buyer will pay, or how much I want to actually pocket after its sale.

These two examples show just how easy buying and selling in the MTGO marketplace could be. Need a Rattleclaw Mystic? Hop on the market, search it up, and find the cheapest four copies on MTGO immediately. Browsing through your binder and realize you’ve only got three Polukranos? Click on the existing card in your inventory and buy the card right from your binder. Find an extra copy of Mantis Rider you don’t need as you’re putting together a list? Put it up for sale right from your binder. You don’t even have to leave the page! A simple pop-up window will handle the ease of listing the card.

The ease of buying and selling isn’t the only logistical advantage for the player. A model of this sort would allow the creation of buy and sell orders. Suppose there’s a card you want to spec on – maybe Spellweaver Volute or something wacky. You can create what’s known as a buy order. Tell the system exactly what card you want, how much you want to pay for it, and how many copies you want. Every time a Spellweaver Volute is listed at or below your designated price, your account automatically buys the card until the quota is filled. How amazing would it be to set prices for all these cards you need at low prices and then a week later have them?

If buy orders aren’t cool enough, how about MTGO telling you in real time how much it would cost to buy the cards you don’t currently own from a given decklist? Log into the mothership with your MTGO account info, and the next time Gavin posts a sweet brew there will be a dollar vlaue right there telling you how much it would cost to buy the cards missing from your account. “This is an awesome Junk reanimator list, and it would only be about seventy bucks to finish it. I’m going to go build it.”

A feature-rich commodity market such as what I’ve discussed and shown you here would have some large consequences. Bots would disappear overnight, which would admittedly suck for the guys over at MTGOTraders and such. That’s an acceptable loss if it means better prices for players across the board. Cards would find their equilibriums faster. Spreads would shrink to the smallest they’ve ever been. Gone would be the days of spikes causing cards to be difficult to find for less-than-insane prices. Players would more easily be able to switch between decks, because the cost of selling out of one list and buying into another would be so low. The metagame would become truly fluid, as players could easily and affordably build the best deck for each tournament, not just the best deck in their card pool. It would be a revitalization of the entire MTGO ecosystem.

MTGO has no shortage of problems, as many of my peers have written about. Twitter is fully of daily lamentations from fish and pros alike. Screenshots of ridiculous bugs circulate regularly. At least once a month someone writes an article about some other part of MTGO that is awful, such as the compensation policy or terrible payouts. While all of these are valid and frustrating complaints, few reveal a fundamental flaw in Wizard’s appreciation for their content like this issue does. Wizards refusing to deliver a common-sense commodity market to the players is indicative of an underlying failure to truly comprehend their product. How could a system that was outdated the day it was released still be in place today when the inevitable results would have been so clear even at the time of its conception? MTGO has no shortage of software flaws and misguided policies, but this is a disservice to the Magic community unlike any other in recent memory.

Nearly all of MTGO’s other problems can be fixed with software updates and policy changes. The solution to this problem, though, is what we all deserve and Wizards refuses to give us: A brand new Magic Online experience.


 

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A Case Study: Goblin Rabblemaster

By: Travis Allen

Studies in the medical field are typically based on reams and reams of data. Healthcare is a product that every human needs to consume, and legislation by the government to integrate computers into the clinical setting means collecting that data is an integral part of the process. With mountains of data being collected daily, most studies on drugs or diseases or whathaveyou have a bountiful amount of raw information backing them up. It’s a good thing all this data is being collected too. When clinicians are making decisions about a course of treatment for a patient, you want to be sure they’re working with the best information possible. If a doctor is making a recommendation on a surgery or drug based on recent studies, you want that study to model reality as closely as possible. The less data in the study, the more likely it is to be wrong, which means your doctor is more likely to make a decision that could end up harming you. Data is good!

There are always a few people that suffer from highly unique diseases though. Whether they’re pathogenic or psychological, the issues arise so infrequently that there is no plausible way to gather enough data to make statistically-sound decisions. Consider the case of Phineas Gage – back in the 1800’s he had a railroad spike blasted through his head, destroying a big chunk of his brain. Amazingly he survived for another twelve years. This incident was wildly interesting to anyone studying the brain because it gave a rare glimpse into aspects of the brain that were virtually untestable. Yet it was hardly something you could repeat, at least not within a million miles of the hippocratic oath. In these situations the medical community turns to case studies. Case studies are used to examine a single unique event that is basically unrepeatable for whatever reason. While case studies don’t have the statistical significance needed to develop ‘best practice’ decisions in similar situations, they at least provide additional insight for any practitioner finding himself faced with another impossibly rare scenario.

Today we’re going to perform our own case study on Goblin Rabblemaster. Rabblemaster has skyrocketed to nearly $20 recently, which is pretty wild considering he was under $1 at one point! I want to take a look at various aspects of Rabblemaster, compare that to other creatures we’ve seen in the past, and see what knowledge we can extract from the whole process. Hopefully we can identify a key marker or two that will help us catch the next rags-to-riches creature that shows up.

Dies to Removal

“Dies to removal” was the rallying cry of MTGS posters for years, and possibly still is. (I haven’t read the site in years.) No matter how powerful a creature was, if it was highly vulnerable to removal, it was deemed trash. Indeed, it may not have been an unreasonable rule of thumb quite some time ago, when creatures were generally weaker and spells stronger. I would say it was after M10 when the most Doom Bladeable creature ever was $50 and ruling the skies that the rules of the game changed. (Hah.) Baneslayer Angel proved that even if your guy is vulnerable to all sorts of removal, if your opponent doesn’t have it they can lose the game on the spot to a powerful creature.

Goblin Rabblemaster is about as vulnerable as they come. He’s got no protection of any type. He offers no ‘on death’ trigger like Voice of Resurgence does to scare your opponent away from zapping him. With two toughness, any damage dealt beyond the absolute minimum possible will kill him. Clearly resiliency is not part of his selling point.

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How do past threats compare? Last season Pack Rat came down with only a single toughness yet was the scourge of Standard for something like nine months. Rat was even more vulnerable the turn he came down than Rabblemaster is. The flipside of that is that Rat became incredibly resilient as soon as you untapped. If your opponent didn’t kill Rat before you had a second, the copies he put into play made actually killing him nigh impossible. If you missed killing the single rat you had about a turn to sweep him away with Anger of the Gods, and if you missed that window, all that was left was a full-on sweeper such as Supreme Verdict.

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Loxodon Smiter was much tougher to kill. With four toughness he survived (and killed) any other creature in that mana range. There was close to no direct damage in the format that could take him down, and he was immune to Ultimate Price. As far as resiliency on a three-mana body, Smiter was well positioned relative to Rabblemaster. Smiter hung around the $3-$5 for a year or so, but ended up under $3 around the first of the year.

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Both Boros Reckoner and Nightveil Specter saw considerable success during their lifetimes, with Reckoner’s high point being a whopping $30 and Specter’s being $10-$12. Each had only one more toughness than Rabblemaster. Nightveil begged to be killed. Reckoner was a bit tougher because dealing damage to it meant that you or one of your creatures was eating the same damage back.

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Geist of Saint Traft was miserable to kill. Either you flashed in a blocker, had a sweeper in hand, resolved a sacrifice effect, or died to him. Geist reached $35 at one point, and was consistently more than $20.

It seems like being highly resistant to removal isn’t a key component of being expensive, nor is resiliency automatically guaranteed to make a creature expensive. Survivability helps, for sure. But it won’t get a creature there on its own.

Speed Kills

Rabblemaster kills fast. Real fast. Consider this sequence:

T3: Cast Rabblemaster. Make token, swing for 1. 19.
T4: Make 2nd token. Swing for 2 with tokens, 4 with Rabblemaster. 13.
T5: Make 3rd token. Swing for 3 with tokens, 5 with Rabblemaster. 5.
T6. Make 4th token. Swing for 4 with tokens, 6 with Rabblemaster. -5

An uninterrupted Rabblemaster will kill within four turns, counting the turn you cast it. How do other creatures compare?

Pack Rat:
T2: Cast Rat
T3: Make token, swing for 2. 18
T4. Make token, swing for 3 + 3. 12
T5: Make token, swing for 4 + 4 + 4. 0
4 Turns

Loxodon Smiter:
T3: Cast Smiter
T4: Attack for 4. 16
T5: Attack for 4. 12
T6: Attack for 4. 8
T7: Attack for 4. 4
T8: Attack for 4. 0
6 Turns

Boros Reckoner:
T3: Cast Reckoner
T4: Attack for 3. 17

T10: Attack for 3. -1
8 Turns

Geist of Saint Traft:
T3: Cast Geist.
T4: Attack for 2 + 4. 14
T5: Attack for 2 + 4. 8
T6: Attack for 2 + 4. 2
T7: Attack for 2 + 4. -4
5 Turns

Desecration Demon:
T4: Cast Demon
T5: Attack for 6. 14
T6: Attack for 6. 8
T7: Attack for 6. 2
T8: Attack for 6. -4
5 Turns

Master of the Feast:
T3: Cast Master
T4: Attack for 5. 15
T5: Attack for 5. 10
T6: Attack for 5. 5
T7: Attack for 5. 0

Our takeaway here is that Rabblemaster kills real fast. He kills on turn six, which only Pack Rat is faster than. Pack Rat has the caveat that he required mana and cards every turn to be lethal. Most creatures simply can’t kill this quickly, especially without any assistance whatsoever. A 4/4s for three is a full two turns slower. Geist of Saint Traft was close, and if you score two extra damage anywhere along the way he kills in four. Of course, if you manage to get five extra in with Rabbelmaster, it’s a three turn kill. While I didn’t list him above, Tarmogoyf represents a similarly brutal clock. If you can get your Goyf up to 4/5 or 5/6 on turn three, you can kill by T6 or T7.

Clearly you’re not often going to be able to cast a three-mana 2/2 and have your opponent spend the entire rest of the game just drooling on their cards. For the most part, you’ll be fighting for board control and not attacking with Rabblemaster every turn. The point isn’t to evaluate board states though, as those can be complicated and unique. Rather, we want to understand how quickly our threat is capable of killing the opponent in a vacuum. The reason for this is that while you often can’t attack unimpeded every turn, you can usually buy yourself a turn or two. How much ground can you cover on these turns? A removal spell on T4 on your opponent’s Courser following Rabble on T3 puts them at 13 already. That’s a lot of pressure that can force them to play the next few turns suboptimally in an attempt to survive. There are also the situations where you’re both in topdeck mode around turn ten that you draw Rabble and slam him. Depending on life totals, Rabble can represent lethal the next turn late in the game.

In looking at this, it seems like killing speed may be a factor to consider. Pack Rat took over Standard for months and is one of the fastest kills in Standard in awhile. It isn’t quite a fair comparison though, because he requires a card and all your mana every turn thereafter. Rabblemaster is the fastest card I’m seeing that doesn’t require any additional input. Geist of Saint Traft is similar, and that was ludicrously expensive. Tarmogoyf is similarly quick, coming down on turn two, and we all know the number on that guy. Other major threats have been comparatively slow. Boros Reckoner obviously wasn’t $20 because of how fast he killed, so clearly this isn’t the only thing to look at. It does seem that very fast zero-to-dead creatures have a considerable leg up though.

The Cost of Business

I think this may quietly be one of the most important aspects of a creature spiking in price. Rabblemaster’s mana cost is real simple: 2R. A single R in the cost means he’s about as easy to cast as possible. With only a single colored mana in the cost, your mana requirements are light: be able to produce R by turn three. In contrast, 1RR is significantly tougher. 1RR means that 2/3rds of your lands need to produce R by turn three, which puts a much tougher strain on your manabase. Any deck planning on casting a 1RR spell on T3 is going to be heavily red, whereas hitting 2R is almost an afterthought.

Consider also something like the 1GW found on Smiter. This is easier than 1RR, and while reasonably easy to hit on T3 for any deck playing it, it presents another challenge: your deck must be capable of producing two colors. Even though hitting two different colors by T3 is easier than double of one color in most decks, you’re still forced into playing a manabase that can reliably generate both. What impact does this have? Consider the twenty-five different one, two, and three color combinations in Magic. Let’s take a look at where a spell costing only R can go.

Goblin Rabblemaster:
Mono-R, Rakdos, Gruul, Boros, Izzet, Grixis, Naya, Jund, Temur, Mardu, Jeskai. Total: 11

Loxodon Smiter:
Selesnya, Naya, Bant, Azban. Total: 4

As you can see, being a single color instead of two nearly triples the amount of decks a card can see play in. Three-color creatures? Beyond decks with the greediest manabases, they fit into only a single wedge or shard.

Looking back at some of those creatures from earlier, we see Pack Rat at 1B. He’s another member of the mono-cost club. Smiter was two colors and was cheap, while Reckoner was…sort of? two colors and was expensive. Tarmogoyf at 1G is $200, Geist was $30 at 1UW, and Demon is 2BB. Both the mana costs and dollar values are across the board. We have expensive cards in multiple colors, while Pack Rat was a single color and was only $6. What’s the takeaway here?

Being restricted to less decks doesn’t prevent a card from being valuable. Being mono-colored doesn’t mean a card will be expensive. However, being a single color definitely helps set the creature up for success. Any good #mtgfinance enthusiast knows that the more decks a card is playable in, the higher the ceiling. Siege Rhino is damn powerful, but you can only play it in one Standard deck. Even if Rabblemaster is slightly less powerful (which I’m not claiming it is), it can show up in eleven times more color combinations. More potential homes means more people that need copies, which means a higher price. I think our lesson here is that an easy mana cost doesn’t guarantee a high price, but it does allow for a higher potential price ceiling than a CDE card.

Availability May be Limited in Your Area

This next one isn’t about what’s written on the card, but rather, the environment it’s been printed in. Rabblemaster comes from Magic 2015, the most recent core set. While we don’t have hard numbers, the community has a pretty good feel for the relative sales. Core sets sell less boxes than basically any other set in Magic. They were Standard-legal for the shortest period of time, the draft environment typically wasn’t too deep, and the set was light on tournament staples. Not only were these all factors, but the timing of core set releases has been in line with the lowest player turnout at tournaments. With such a small amount of product being opened, it’s unsurprising that breakout singles can jump hard in price.

Pack Rat was a major part of Standard, but he was in a fall set, typically the most opened set in a block. Desecration Demon was too, although his price was about double that of Rat. Part of that may have been that Rat was in an event deck. Smiter was in Return to Ravnica, same as Pack Rat. Geist of Saint Traft was in a fall set – but as a mythic rare. Boros Reckoner was printed in a winter set, and a relatively unpopular one at that. I’m sure there was more Gatecrash opened than M15, but I can’t say by how much.

The amount of M15 product on the market suffered even moreso than usual because of MTGO forcing players to V4 around the same time. With the switch from one garbage MTGO client to another garbage MTGO client driving players away, the amount of set redemptions dropped. Again, it’s hard to say by how much, but there’s definitely an effect.

Of course Rabblemaster was also a Buy-a-Box promo, so the number of copies in circulation is higher than possibly any other rare in the set. Even still, a low-selling set combined with an unusually small amount of set redemptions may have been a strong contributing factor to his price surge.

We can see set printing making a difference for other cards as well. Voice of Resurgence was considered to be overpriced for basically its entire time in Standard. The reason was not because the card was lighting Standard on fire for months at a time, but more that barely any Dragon’s Maze was opened because the set sucked. On the flip side, even heavily-played fall-set cards have trouble maintaining high prices simply because of how many copies are on the market.

Availability of product is basically an invisible statistic. We can visit MTGPrice to see how much a card costs, or one of a variety of tournament tracking sites to see what cards are performing where, but there is no tool to see how many copies of a card is on the market. The amount of given product on the market, along with what player demos are generating demand for a card, are invisible to the average consumer. It’s guys like myself and other writers that have some amount of perspective on the situation, although admittedly it’s still all just educated guesses. The amount of product in a market has a large impact on price. The tough part is figuring out how much is actually out there, and what that will translate to in terms of prices.

Double Duty

The last feature we’ll look at today is where Rabblemaster is where demand is coming from relative to other creatures. A card like Snapcaster sees play in nearly every format. How about Rabblemaster?

Standard.

That’s it. He’s not in Legacy or Modern, although he may get there at some point. He’s not particularly exciting in EDH. There’s probably some casual players that want him as he’s tribal, but I doubt it’s any meaningful amount of demand. No, it seems like Rabblemaster is driven almost entirely by Standard.

Loxodon Smiter was mostly Standard demand, although there was some Modern splashed in there too. Certainly no EDH or casual.

Snapcaster Mage was and is played in every format. I’m guessing there’s no casual demand here either, but his presence in competitive play is unquestionable. In the last three years he was as high as $40, although he’s spent most of his time between $25 and $30.

Pack Rat was overwhelmingly Standard. There’s a splash of Modern in there but that’s about it. Desecration Demon was nearly exclusively Standard.

Geist of Saint Traft was a big Standard player, but has also seen moderate success in Modern, and mild play in Legacy. Geist was a big part of Modern a year or two ago, but he’s been on the downswing lately.

Boros Reckoner and Nightveil Specter were exclusively Standard cards.

Deathrite Shaman saw very little Standard play before rotation, yet saw a meteoric rise and eventual post-ban crash within two years. He was near $20 at his height, and was close to $15 until he was banned. Those are impressive numbers for a fall-set rare with absolutely zero Standard demand.

Looking back at this cross-section of creatures it seems like the major driving force behind price for a Standard-legal card is Standard. Other formats can certainly have an impact, as cards like Deathrite Shaman prove. However it’s very tough for Modern and Legacy to drive high prices on Standard cards while they’re still legal. It’s even tougher for EDH and casual markets to do it. Once cards rotate then the other formats can begin applying pressure. Until then though, most cards live and die by Standard demand. In order for a card to be worth a good chunk of change while it’s in Standard but have no actual Standard demand, it has to be a format-changer in both Modern and Legacy, just like Deathrite Shaman was.

Follow-Up

We looked at several traits of Goblin Rabblemaster and compared them to a swath of other recent creatures that have passed through Standard. We talked about resiliency, speed, mana cost, availability, and format demand. All of those factors certainly play a role, although not all equally. Given what we’ve seen so far, it seems like Standard demand may be the single most important factor when deciding a creature’s price. Being a major player in Standard is going to set the stage for big price tags. There’s certainly more to it than that though.

Format demand is important, but it really just opens the door to high prices. From what I can tell, mana cost and ability to kill an opponent are the next biggest factors. No matter how good a card is, if it’s three colors, it just has so many fewer homes than a card with a single color. A joke amongst players of older formats is that to make any deck better, splash green and play Tarmogoyf. A powerful card with light mana requirements can find many homes, which is exactly what is happening with Rabblemaster. Killing people dead is the other big driver of prices. If you’re able to put your opponent at nearly-dead on turn five after playing a creature and two removal spells, that is one solid threat. Pack Rat was wildly successful because of how quickly it could kill in tandem with Mutavault, and Geist of Saint Traft was a big player during his time as well. I firmly believe that had Pack Rat been from any other set or was mythic, his price would have been easily close to $20.

Card availability is important as well, but like format demand, it’s more about unlocking potential rather than pushing prices itself. Simply having few copies of a card in the market is not going to make it expensive. Having few copies of a card in the market along with being powerful on some of those other vectors is what is really going to drive the price. On the flip side of this is a card like Pack Rat. It had everything going for it, but the quantity in the market put too much pressure on its price.

Finally, resiliency doesn’t seem to matter one bit. A creature that is tough-to-kill is definitely helpful, but we’re past the days where it’s a key feature. If you jam your deck full of powerful threats, eventually your opponent isn’t going to be able to kill one. That’s the one that will get there, even if it is just a 2/2.

What’s the takeaway from all this? When evaluating creatures for potential price spikes, ask yourself a few questions.

  • What set was this printed in, and how much of it is out there compared to other sets?
  • What format is going to want this card? Do I want to spec on it because of Modern, or is this going to be a Standard player?
  • What’s the mana cost? How many different types of decks can play it?
  • If I play this onto an empty board on-curve, how quickly will it kill them? Will one or two swings put them precariously low, or do I have to swing five or six times?

All of this relates to creatures that get your opponent dead, of course. Cards like Sylvan Caryatid or Courser of Kruphix play by a different set of rules because they fill different roles. Those are utility creatures, and are definitely tougher to understand.

I hope you found our discussion of Rabblemaster today helpful. Be sure to check out my article series from last two weeks about the structural flaw in MTGO’s trading market, and stay tuned this coming weekend for Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir. I’m sure all sorts of wild prices swings will be happening because of it, especially Friday afternoon as people figure out which decks the pros landed on are actually good.

Follow me on twitter at @wizardbumpin


 

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MTGO and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Trading Market (Pt. 2)

By: Travis Allen

This week is part two of a two-part series on the failure of the MTGO marketplace. You can find part one here. The tl;dr from last week is that Magic cards behave like commodities, and thus are eligible for a unique type of online market.


Upon entering a convention hall hosting a Grand Prix you’ll notice vendors ringing the space. The vendors, of whom there are usually between five and eight, each have different numbers for their buy and sell prices. If our intrepid player – let’s say you – decides he wants to buy the cheapest Glittering Wish in the room he’s going to have to do some legwork. Finding the least expensive copy is going to require visiting every single booth, muscling through the mob, locating the card in the case, and checking the price tag. Then you’ll need to repeat that entire sequence about seven more times. Once you’ve checked all eight vendors and have identified the cheapest copy, it’s finally time to go make a purchase. Let’s hope that they haven’t sold out while you were checking each other price in the room!

Imagine instead that there are not eight vendors in the room, but 50,000. Welcome to the Magic Online classifieds.

The unwieldy system for buying and selling cards at a GP is as it is because there is no centralized method for buying and selling paper cards in a meatspace. There is no single booth in the room that you can walk up to that sells cards on behalf of every vendor present. You’re forced to manually check with each one. This problem only becomes wildly more intense when add in the fact that not only can you buy the card from a vendor, but there are a few thousand binders in the room that are more than willing to trade. Somewhere amongst those eight vendors and 2,000 players is the theoretical cheapest copy of Glittering Wish, but there is basically no chance you’re actually going to find it. At the same time, someone in that room will give you fifteen dollars cash for your Courser of Kruphix (market value $15.76), but good luck finding the guy. It’s far more likely that you’ll take the seven to ten bucks one of the vendors is offering.

Such a system is brutally inefficient. There is no convenient method for buyers and sellers to see all the options available to them. There is no central structure in place through which all information is available to all parties at once. This is one of the myriad of reasons that real life sucks.

The solution to such a burdensome and inefficient system is to create some sort of hub of activity through which all transactions flow. A system that is capable of gathering all of the values of every unique card, for both sale and purchase, that is also fully queryable would do dramatic things to the market. By necessity such a system would immediately wipe out all transactions in which one party was getting more than their fair share. Third party vendors would disappear, and cards would flow freely among the vast majority of agents in the room: the players.

Magic Online is capable of this. There is only one MTGO server every single person in the world logs into. Whether you’re a bored housewife in Spain, an unemployed roustabout in Ukraine, or a pissy adolescent in the Nebraska plains, if you want to play MTGO you’re all going to the same place. This affords a fantastic opportunity that is not available to paper players: a true commodity marketplace.

MTGO puts every single player in the same system. You all have access to the same tournaments and classifieds. The foundation is in place to provide an efficient, fast, and fair marketplace for the commodity market that is Magic cards. Instead, you’re forced to bumble around blindly in a room of tens of thousands of vendors because….well, I have no idea why.

Because MTGO has failed to provide an adequate market for their playerbase, it has resulted in less-than-ideal conditions. If you’re a player on MTGO and you want to buy a Courser, you hit the classifieds and search for Courser of Kruphix. A list appears of everyone who has the phrase “Courser of Kruphix” in their title. (Remember too that “Courser of Kruphix” is different than “Courser,” so you’d better hope you’re using the same terminology as everyone else in the room.) If you’re lucky they put their sale price for Courser in the title of the classified as well, but not all will. Any that don’t have the sale price in the title will require opening a trade. This will have to happen several times before you can begin to get a feel for what the ‘average’ price of a Courser is so that when you actually find a good price you’ll know it.

There are a variety of pitfalls in this model. For instance, what happens if someone is selling their Courser for 20% less than everyone else, but accidentally spelled it “Cuorser?” How about the individual selling more than three different uniquely named cards? How is he supposed to advertise all of those as being for sale? The classified title has a character limit of course, so you can really only advertise your hottest items. This means it’s tough for someone to expose good prices on more off-beat cards, and it’s tough for buyers because they’re forced to just start wading through random trade binders to find a good price for a card. Sellers can’t adequately advertise their stock or even let people know what they’re selling, and buyers have trouble finding people who are selling what they want. Imagine going to a mall but instead of each store having large glass windows displaying their product they were all painted black.

What MTGO has done is effectively turn every player into a vendor in the same room. It’s hard to imagine a worse way to go about things. This frustratingly cumbersome system results in the creation of an automated process; the bot network. Anyone that plays with any regularity on MTGO is very familiar with bots. They’re awake twenty-four hours a day, have huge inventories, and are (mostly) easy to deal with. They exists to fill the massive exchange gap that MTGO continues to let exist. Imagine for a moment that MTGO banned bots. If you wanted to sell your Courser for tickets, the only way to do so would be to find another individual online at exactly that time that is willing to pay the price you’re asking. This doesn’t sound too bad for a hot staple like Courser, which will move quickly, but what if you’re trying to sell something like a foil Tangle Wire? What do you think the odds are that both someone selling and someone buying are online at the same time, that the seller is currently advertising that card in the classifieds, and that they can both agree on a price? This is exactly why bots exist.

Bots fill a gap, and whenever a service does so, the guy running the service is making a profit on every exchange. It’s the same way your LGS makes money buying and selling cards. Give players a little bit less for their cards than another average player would, and sell them for slightly more than the average player would. The reason anyone uses the service at all is not because they love getting ripped off, but because they’re paying for the convenience of having another market actor who will engage in 99% of transactions at nearly any time. Connecting buyer to seller is a profitable market to be in.

MTGO isn’t like real life, though. Computers aren’t hampered by the need to sleep or eat or otherwise be away from a market. They also can connect thousands and thousands in one central room with quick, easy transactions in a way that no real life environment could imitate. Why, when the system is already in place to provide the best possible market to the average player, does MTGO not capitalize on it?

The problem is compounded by the fact that tickets can’t be split. I’m sure Wizards has their own arcane reason for this, but the result is disastrous for players. By refusing to allow tickets to be split out to a hundredth of a decimal place, MTGO is essentially saying that no card can theoretically be worth less than one ticket. After all, if one ticket is the bare minimum official currency, how does one buy something that costs less than that?

Most commons, uncommons, and even rares for that matter, are worth less than one ticket on the MTGO market. Good luck trying to trade these easily between players though. Let’s say you want to acquire two copies of Restore Balance but without going through a bot. We have all the issues from before of actually finding someone who has two copies of this, but then how do you trade? You don’t want to pay a full ticket for what is worth maybe half a ticket at absolute best. This means you’ve either got to buy cards you don’t want, or the other agent has to take roughly half a tickets worth of value from you. Meanwhile all of this takes time and effort, and why is the guy with the Restore Balances going through all of this in the first place? It certainly isn’t worth his time for the what, tenth of a ticket worth of value he may get out of the transaction?

Bot networks are further supported by MTGO’s refusal to allow tickets to be split. They provide virtual ticket splitting by offering credit to players. Head over to your nearest preferred bot, trade him your cards, and you get credit out to multiple decimal places that can then be used anywhere on that bot network. This of course incentivizes players to keep returning to the same bot network over and over, lest they end up with ten tickets worth of credit spread out among ten different vendors. It’s the “forty-eight cents left on this gift card” syndrome all over again. The nature of the integer ticket is ultimately great for bots and terrible for the average player.

Let’s review. MTGO has the foundation in place to provide an excellent market experience that would be literally impossible to replicate in the real world. A commodity network on MTGO would overall reduce the prices players pay for their cards, overall increase how much they sell their cards for, and overnight get rid of bot networks. For 99.99% of people in the system it’s a complete upgrade. So what needs to change to get us there, and what does “there” look like?

First of all the ticket system has to be fixed. Without the ability for players to reduce tickets to the second decimal place, essentially setting the minimum price on a card to a single cent, then none of this will work. When a huge chunk of the market is worth less than the smallest division of your currency, all sorts of weird problems will pop up. (Like bot networks offering credit that relies entirely on the buyer placing unfounded trust in an unaccountable stranger.)

The next step is basically to completely get rid of the classifieds as you know them. Gone. They will instead be replaced by a central commodity market that essentially functions as a miniature auction for every single type of good. These types of virtual markets already exist all over the place. We’ll take a look at a pretty big one that’s arguably the most successful: the Steam market.

s1

Welcome to the Steam Community Market. On arrival we see what I currently have for sale, when I listed it, and how much I’m asking for it. Below that are a list of the most popular items today. For right now we want to buy Jarate, an item used by the sniper in Team Fortress 2. For the rest of this demonstration, just imagine replacing the word “Jarate” with “Wrath of God” and the process is exactly how MTGO could work.

I’m going to plug in Jarate in the search field over there on the right, and this is what I see after:

s2

Here’s a list of everything with Jarate in the name. You’ll see there are various types of Jarate – Vintage, Strange, Festive, Collector’s, etc. Imagine these as being “10th Edition, 9th Edition, 7th Edition Foil, FTV:Armageddon, etc.” Let’s take a look at the festive Jarate.

s3

 

s4

I get to see a big image of what I’m purchasing, along with a description that would probably be oracle text if this was an actual Magic card. Below I have a graph of the history of sales data for this product, with samples across multiple timespans, and below that all the Festive Jarates for sale. Because Festive Jarate is a commodity – every instance of it is basically the exact same as all the others – the listings automatically sort by the only defining characteristic: the price. I see how much it is, who’s selling it, and most importantly, for how much. Let’s buy one.

s5

Clicking “Buy Now” gives me a confirmation box, showing again exactly what I’m getting, how much I’m paying for it, and how my money is being spent. Notice Steam even gets to take a little off the top for providing the transaction. That’s a nice incentive for Wizards that doesn’t exist in the current MTGO classifieds system.

How about if I want to sell something on the market? If I’m browsing my backpack (or MTGO collection) and discover I have something I don’t need, selling it is eazy peazy.

s5.5

Simply clicking on the item shows me the cheapest price for the product on the market as well as how many copies have sold in the last twenty-four hours.

s6

Clicking the “Sell” button shows another price graph, and allows me to price the product in one of two ways: how much the buyer will pay, or how much I want to actually pocket after its sale.

These two examples show just how easy buying and selling in the MTGO marketplace could be. Need a Rattleclaw Mystic? Hop on the market, search it up, and find the cheapest four copies on MTGO immediately. Browsing through your binder and realize you’ve only got three Polukranos? Click on the existing card in your inventory and buy the card right from your binder. Find an extra copy of Mantis Rider you don’t need as you’re putting together a list? Put it up for sale right from your binder. You don’t even have to leave the page! A simple pop-up window will handle the ease of listing the card.

The ease of buying and selling isn’t the only logistical advantage for the player. A model of this sort would allow the creation of buy and sell orders. Suppose there’s a card you want to spec on – maybe Spellweaver Volute or something wacky. You can create what’s known as a buy order. Tell the system exactly what card you want, how much you want to pay for it, and how many copies you want. Every time a Spellweaver Volute is listed at or below your designated price, your account automatically buys the card until the quota is filled. How amazing would it be to set prices for all these cards you need at low prices and then a week later have them?

If buy orders aren’t cool enough, how about MTGO telling you in real time how much it would cost to buy the cards you don’t currently own from a given decklist? Log into the mothership with your MTGO account info, and the next time Gavin posts a sweet brew there will be a dollar vlaue right there telling you how much it would cost to buy the cards missing from your account. “This is an awesome Junk reanimator list, and it would only be about seventy bucks to finish it. I’m going to go build it.”

A feature-rich commodity market such as what I’ve discussed and shown you here would have some large consequences. Bots would disappear overnight, which would admittedly suck for the guys over at MTGOTraders and such. That’s an acceptable loss if it means better prices for players across the board. Cards would find their equilibriums faster. Spreads would shrink to the smallest they’ve ever been. Gone would be the days of spikes causing cards to be difficult to find for less-than-insane prices. Players would more easily be able to switch between decks, because the cost of selling out of one list and buying into another would be so low. The metagame would become truly fluid, as players could easily and affordably build the best deck for each tournament, not just the best deck in their card pool. It would be a revitalization of the entire MTGO ecosystem.

MTGO has no shortage of problems, as many of my peers have written about. Twitter is fully of daily lamentations from fish and pros alike. Screenshots of ridiculous bugs circulate regularly. At least once a month someone writes an article about some other part of MTGO that is awful, such as the compensation policy or terrible payouts. While all of these are valid and frustrating complaints, few reveal a fundamental flaw in Wizard’s appreciation for their content like this issue does. Wizards refusing to deliver a common-sense commodity market to the players is indicative of an underlying failure to truly comprehend their product. How could a system that was outdated the day it was released still be in place today when the inevitable results would have been so clear even at the time of its conception? MTGO has no shortage of software flaws and misguided policies, but this is a disservice to the Magic community unlike any other in recent memory.

Nearly all of MTGO’s other problems can be fixed with software updates and policy changes. The solution to this problem, though, is what we all deserve and Wizards refuses to give us: A brand new Magic Online experience.


 

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