Digital and Paper, Head to Head

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Hey everyone, and welcome back to Whinston’s Whisdom on Quiet Speculation. Last week for the comment contest someone suggested a topic so good that I knew I needed to cover it: why are there often large price discrepancies between MTGO and paper Magic? In this week’s article, I tried to break it down according to the law of supply and demand. What are the differences in supply and demand between the two platforms, and why are they there?

Let’s start by talking about supply. At the most basic level, supply is how much of a commodity there is. The less there is, the more it will cost, and the more there is, the less it will cost.

The first major difference between paper and MTGO, is that MTGO has significantly more copies of a card than the paper world does. More packs are being opened every day, and so the number of a certain card in circulation is greater. While there are more people clamoring to own copies of that card, there are significantly more limited-only players on MTGO than in paper, so the supply available is greater. Let’s look at two examples where this can be seen (for reference, I'll be using Starcitygames for paper prices, and MTGO Traders for MTGO prices):

Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Paper price: $110

MTGO Price: $95

While this difference in price is only about 10%, it still shows the impact that a greater supply can make on MTGO. Also note that Jace was in Worldwake, which wasn't opened very much online, meaning that this difference in price is smaller than it is for other sets, for instance...

Primeval Titan

Paper price: $40

MTGO Price: $30

Here is where the difference is more apparent. There is a full 25% decrease in price when switching from Paper to MTGO. M11 was opened much more online than in paper, so the value of a digital copy of Primeval Titan is worth much less than its paper counterpart.

Another factor to consider when looking at supply is the absence of "old" or "out of print" cards on MTGO. Many cards in the paper world don't pull their cost in terms of power, but because they are so old, and there are so few copies remaining, they command higher prices than they would otherwise. Yet online supply doesn't suffer from this problem. There's no limit to the number of packs that can be bought from a store while in print, and these cards then remain in circulation, can never get damaged or lost etc. This leads to MTGO having significantly lower prices on older format staples than paper.


Paper price: $40

MTGO price: $2.50

As you can see, this is a massive price gap. A digital copy of the legend bouncing land costs only 1/16th the price of a paper copy. This holds up for most "old" cards on MTGO, especially those played in Legacy and Classic (the MTGO form of Vintage), such as the original dual lands.

And finally we arrive at our final supply category: looking at the 3rd set. In both paper and MTGO, the 3rd set of a block will feature cards more expensive than the previous 2 sets in a block? Why? Because this set is opened the least. Let's use Timespiral as an example. When Timespiral was released, it was triple Timespiral draft, so every draft had 3 packs of Timespiral being opened per person. With the release of Planar Chaos, 1 pack of Timespiral was replaced with 1 pack of Planar Chaos, leading to a TTP configuration. And finally with Future Sight, there was 1 pack of each type, so TPF. This meant that for every 6 packs of Timespiral opened while drafting, only 2 Planar Chaos and only 1 Future Sight got cracked. This leads to significantly lower amounts of these cards in circulation, which in turn, increases price. This effect is much more pronounced on MTGO, however, because nearly all the packs that get cracked come from drafting or other Limited events. Unlike paper, it just isn't profitable to buy packs for the sole purpose of cracking them, so the fewer packs of a set  that get drafted, the lower the supply of cards, and the higher the prices. This effect was at its highest with Eventide, because of the 4 set block structure, as evidenced by two cards on MTGO in particular...

Twilight Mire

Paper price: $6

MTGO price: $13

Figure of Destiny

Paper price: $10

MTGO price: $17

With differences in price of over 100% and 70% respectively, the 3rd set obviously has a larger impact on the price of digital cards than in paper.

Now we move on to covering differences in demand. The potential markets, and the desires of your customers differ greatly between the digital and physical worlds. these desires prominently hinge on the formats that a card is playable in, so we'll first look at the gap in popularity of formats between the internet and the real world, and then look at some MTGO specific formats.

But first, there are two formats that have a massive gap in popularity between paper and MTGO. The first of these is Vintage. In paper, Vintage is the most expensive and powerful format, with a nearly nonexistent ban list. But online, where fewer of the most important Vintage cards such as the Power 9 have been released, the MTGO version of Vintage, Classic, is floundering, and this has had a noticeable impact on card prices.

Mishra's Workshop

Paper price: $300

MTGO price: $17.50

While some of this monumental difference is undoubtedly due to the wider availibility of Workshop on MTGO, it also has to do with the larger popularity of the vintage format in paper as compared to MTGO.

The same is true when looking at EDH. EDH is one of the most popular ways to fool around with your Magic friends, and pass time in between rounds. Yet online, Commander (the online EDH), is not very popular at all, and so many of the staples for the format cost much less.


Paper price: $10

MTGO price: $3.75

Bribery is one such card. It's an EDH staple in paper, but because EDH doesn't enjoy the same popularity online, its price is lower.

Last, but not least, we come to how MTGO specific formats can cause discrepancies in price. The first of these is quite obligatory: Momir Basic. Momir Basic uses the Momir Vig Avatar, a card not even available in physical form, and so demand for the Avatar online must therefore be higher than in paper (a Momir Avatar can go for about $12). But a format that could possibly be mirrored in paper, yet isn't, is Pauper.

Pauper is easily one of my favorite formats. It is an all common format with a Legacy ban list , and the format is incredibly diverse, making it my format of choice when I just want to kick back and relax. Yet the popularity of this format has caused some ridiculous prices for in demand cards, such as...

Crypt Rats:

Paper price: $.50

MTGO Price: $1.75

Now for the first time we can have a clear cut example. The only reason for this price difference is Pauper. the supply level is relatively even between Paper and MTGO, and so Pauper is the only thing causing this +300% price increase.

Overall, the different types and popularity of formats on MTGO affect prices in a huge way when compared to paper cards. when evaluating a card online, always make sure that you have a market that will pay for it before picking it up, or else you may end up with it stuck in your collection.

Let's move on to this week's comment contest.  Last week's winner was Macadosche, who will receive a textless Searing Blaze and textless Treasure Hunt as his prize, so please email your address to me so i can get your cards out to you. For the previous winners: your cards have been shipped and should be on their way. Because I'm running low on cool cards to give away, I'm going to be cutting the comment contest down to a monthly thing, but I'll be looking at every week's article to determine the best comment and winner. So comment under the article or send me a tweet (I'm nwhinston on Twitter) with one positive comment, one constructive criticism, and one future article idea you'd like to see in order to have a chance to win.

Moving on,

--Noah Whinston

nwhinston on Twitter

Arcadefire on MTGO

baldr7mtgstore on ebay

6 thoughts on “Digital and Paper, Head to Head

  1. I recently started playing MTGO only to draft because the casual group I play with rarely drafts. I enjoy drafting a lot but have no desire to build decks and play on MTGO. Interesting article. I have noticed these drastic price differences in my limited time on MTGO. I typically trade my cards to bots for tix in order to draft cheaper. I did learn recently about getting a complete set and trading it in for a paper set. I am curious if you are aware of how many times you would need to draft in order to complete one. I guess that would follow in line with which set. M11 being all 3 packs vs Worldwake I guess the odds are much better. I don't really have negatives or positives specifically. Just commenting.

  2. Interesting article about the price differential and now I want to get into modo more now however *points to self*Mac user with notable attachements I'd wait to get a browser update or some multi-platform but this article convinced me to want to try it more now.

  3. I was incredibly disappointed by this article. I found it to be supremely basic, and then proceeded to completely miss the boat in its third example. Additionally, there was no discussion of the 'stickiness' of paper prices in comparison to the fluidity of MTGO prices.

    The Karakas example is horribly misleading. In paper, it has been out of print for over a decade ago, in (comparatively) small quantities. On MTGO, it was released less than 2 years ago. Additionally, Karakas is still available in a preconstructed deck as a 3-of for $30 from the MTGO store, and the deck also contains 3 Stoneforge Mystic (a hot commodity right now). And where is a discussion of the monumental price of Force of Will and the different cost associated with it being MTGO's (effective) only card on a 'Reserve List'?

    As for the 'stickiness' of paper prices, you can usually find players and stores who are slow to update prices due to tournament results (and newly hot cards). On MTGO, the market responds very quickly. Additionally, the playerbase is much more inclined to practice a 'revolving door' policy with their collections. This is largely due to the much smaller markup that the 'stores' (bots) have on singles, in comparison to brick and mortar stores. This allows players to more effectively leverage the cards they already own to build any new decks they want. MTGO players are also much more inclined to know the value of their cards. They are already on the internet after all. I believe that the type of person on MTGO is also inclined to be different than in paper, leading to fundamental differences in the MTGO environment (such as less attachment to their cards), but that is a bit much to delve into in a comment post.

    As an introductory article, the mention of Pauper's effect on the MTGO marketplace is incredibly important to understand. It certainly caught me off guard when I attempted to acquire some Pauper staples.

    1. I can certainly understand that an overview article which gives a broader overview rather than drilling down into one specific segment might be incredibly disappointing to those with a more advanced level of engagement with finance and MTGO. To be fair, for those like me who are much less experienced, though, it's definitely targeted well and was a very insightful and informative read.

      I certainly can understand wanting to get your money's worth from Insider, but let's not forget that Insider will be attracting all levels of experience- everyone has to start somewhere! 😀

      Like you, I'd really enjoy seeing Noah take a particular one of these elements and 'go deep' now that he's set the table, so to speak.

  4. @starwarer: great comment! I do agree that this article did not really discuss the specificities of MTGO vs Paper Magic like the mentioned substantially different printing history and MTGO-only formats like Pauper.

    I would welcome a "strategy guide" on set redemption, like how many drafts you should play, when you should start buying missing singles, and how to best exploit the pricing differences between online and paper.

  5. I think you missed a major piece of evidence with your third set comment. Eventide was released during the 2.5 to 3 switch over and a lot of people could not get on to draft at the time. As such a lot less of that set was opened compared to the usual 3rd set.

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