Hello! For those of you who don’t know me already, my name is Ross. Before we begin, I’d like to share my philosophy on Magic finance. I am not a store owner or vendor (although I have worked in the business before), and I have more than a decade of tournament experience. I have observed firsthand all of the changes that have influenced the course of Magic finance in the last ten years, and I prioritize teaching over telling. If I am able to give my readers a more firm understanding of what to look for and why, then they will be able to have continued success over the course of their gaming careers.
I believe strongly in long-term speculation rather than short-term targets (which is something we will discuss today), as well as catering your targets to your best fit, rather than attempting to mimic the successes of others. I also believe that the key to educating someone is by entertaining them as well, so I try to approach my writing with a light and approachable manner. Professionally, my work is in commercial insurance and risk assessment/management, so I typically identify loss potential as a major (if not the primary) factor in determining the potential of an investment. But enough about me, let’s get to work.
Magic writing (any kind of content on it, really) is often very ephemeral in nature. Cards rotate, formats phase in and out of popularity, players (and even writers) come into and out of phases of their life where the game is a priority. The reason why I personally enjoy the writing (and podcasting) of Mike Flores is that he has a wealth of background knowledge to help make comparisons between Magic‘s present and its past. Being able to anchor your present mindset with past experience makes for more structured and informed decision making. That is, of course, just one piece of the puzzle. Magic has changed drastically in the last several years, both in how the game is played, and who is playing it.
KEY CONCEPT: THE ZENDIKAR BOOM
I’d like to quickly explain what is perhaps the most important factor in Magic finance in the last several years. Beginning in 2009 (around the release of Magic 2010 and Zendikar), the active Magic player population began to grow at extraordinary numbers. This dynamic increase has continued ever since, and has created both increased demand for cards, as well as higher print runs for newer releases. We will synthesize this information later, but I wanted to get the definition out of the way now, because this is a crucial topic for financiers.
Even though Magic is over 20 years old, Magic finance is largely a new phenomenon. The early days of Magic writing were a mix of fascinating, if imperfect, ideas (“The Schools of Magic” is a personal favorite) and extremely rudimentary grasps of what was actually good (Do you realize Giant Trap Door Spider won a pro tour?!).
In the years since, Magic writing has improved exponentially, but much of Magic finance remains woefully underdeveloped by comparison. My goal over these next few weeks is to help explain and develop upon things that may not be overly apparent to those who are new to the game, as well as solidify the understanding of the more advanced.
I want to spend the rest of today discussing the Zendikar Boom, so that you can broaden out the scope of it to inform your decisions. It should be mentioned upfront that Wizards very rarely releases any type of solid numbers on things like player population or print run— the latter for various reasons, and the former because even their internal figures are rough at best (DCI numbers track active tournament players, but what percentage are they of the Magic-buying public1?). When numbers are released, they are typically percentages, showing the increase or decrease in measurable metrics like sales or event participation.
Most of the population figures prior to Zendikar hover around the six million range. This number was thrown out in advertisements (and likely in early Hasbro acquisitions talks) as, “Join the game with over six million players worldwide!” Sometimes the number is seven million, sometimes five million, but the impression was that it was largely a static total number. Beginning in 2009, however, Magic suddenly began to show double digit growth, with percentages increasing around 25 percent annually. This means that by 2010, there were 7.5 million Magic players, definitely on the higher end of the fluctuations from 2000 until then. A 25 percent increase from there brought the population to roughly 9.375 million, the highest it has ever been.
It is important to understand how much of WOTC’s work is done in advance. Things like a set’s design begin more than two years in advance of its release, and even though printing happens much closer to getting the product on shelves, it is often determined on numbers arrived at much earlier. Many stores ran out of Zendikar product between the first and second printings. This indicates that there was insufficient quantity at the distributor level, not that a bunch of stores did really well.
Once can be a fluke, but twice and thrice may indicate a potential trend. In the Hasbro shareholder conference call for 2012 (fiscal year), they indicated that Magic had 25 percent growth for the last four years (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012). By just doing the same math we were doing before, we can guesstimate that Magic was at 11.7 million players in 2011, and beyond 14.6 million in 2012. In four years, the player population has added nearly ten million new people. Even if these numbers are fuzzy, the impact is not. If Zendikar was printed for six or seven million people, but now there are almost 15 million (other sources show “only” 12 million), what does that do to demand?
Now, when a set is in print, Wizards can always run more off the presses—even though the entire process is outsourced, the company is still able to get a few extra waves of product out after the official release. Any set that was no longer in print at the release of Zendikar, however, was done. Those sets, by the standards of the next few years, were extremely under-printed. Return to Ravnica, which had a much higher printing than Zendikar, had the same problem with running out of product before the release of the second wave (although not to as noticeable a degree). The annual percentage Hasbro has shown have all remained positive (showing growth), although if I recall correctly, this year’s was below double digits for the first time (six percent). That percentage increase is small, but the overall number behind it is still a massive amount of new players.
The most immediate impact this has is pressuring on the supply-side of any card printed before the Boom. Even if the percentage of demand stays the same (say, nine percent of all Magic players want a playset of Guttural Response), the actual number behind that percentage may have doubled. Not all of those players are going to transition into Legacy (or even sanctioned play), but how many of them want Underground Seas? The before and after on popular commons and uncommons from Modern Masters shows the impact an increase in supply can have on cards that fit our interests. It’s also why cards like Sleight of Hand (which had multiple printings!) are able to get high prices even at common. If you are looking for smart buys, they should most likely be from before the Boom impacted printing. Of course, unlike Guttural Response, which I mentioned just a minute ago, it should be a card people actually want.
The flip side, of course, is understanding what things to actively stay away from. While I would not say that newer cards are worth avoiding all together, you have to have a good reason and a better price. My personal baseline is $3 (the price of an in-print booster pack at my LGS). I like Rest in Peace as a card that sees play in both Modern and Legacy (as well as Commander, Vintage, Cube, Tiny Leaders, and whatever weird format has been invented since I sent this to my editor), and I can get two for the price of a booster. When considering cards from the last two or three years, you really have to have a clear idea of future potential to offset the huge amount of supply compared to cards from six or more years ago.
That’s all we are going to have time for today. Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments or on the forums. and I’m excited to be a member of MTGPrice!
1We will definitely talk about what Rosewater and company call “The Invisibles” next week.