There was a big announcement this week by Mike Turian over at the mothership, namely that the Power Nine is set to come to MTGO with the release of Vintage Masters in June 2014.
Originally the Power Nine was promised to arrive sometime in 2013, but it looks like WoTC has decided to get the online release of these fabled cards right rather than stick to a nominal deadline. This is a wise move as you can only release the Power Nine for the first time once.
A successful release of Vintage Masters should accomplish a number of things simultaneously. Obviously getting the Power Nine onto MTGO is at the top of the list, but that has to be balanced with keeping various segments of the player base satisfied. WoTC also has to be looking at this release as a way to attract new MTGO users; Vintage Masters should build the MTGO brand and user base, satisfy existing users, and make money for WoTC, all at the same time.
Bringing the Power Nine onto MTGO as it stands right now would be a mistake. At the moment, there are two parallel clients causing a fractured user experience. As well, the instability, poor user interface and lack of features in the clients would quickly turn new users off. At the minimum new users should not become discouraged just by using the client so the current state of affairs is unacceptable.
I take the announcement of Vintage Masters to mean that we can expect a complete switch over to the Beta client sometime in the Spring, giving the developers time to work out further kinks in the new client before the arrival of the iconic Power Nine.
Tied into the release of Vintage Masters will be a rebalancing of the MTGO economy. This is necessary in order to avoid the cognitive dissonance for someone who plunks down 100 tix for a Black Lotus, only to have to pay even more for a Lion's Eye Diamond (current price 164 tix). Try to explain that to a prospective player, talk about a head-scratcher!
The online price of this Mirage rare is mostly a function of short supply. When they are available, Mirage-Visions-Weatherlight drafts just don’t fire often enough to add meaningful supply into the MTGO economy. Thus Lion’s Eye Diamond is one of the most expensive non-foil cards in the MTGO market. In order for the price of a Black Lotus to make sense as a part of ‘Magic royalty’, the price of Lion’s Eye Diamond is going to have to drop. Expect this particular card to be reprinted, possibly as a non-mythic rare.
In general, the only way to make sure that the cards of the Power Nine are priced accordingly is to increase the supply of any older card with a high price tag. Any card that sits at 50+ tix right now should be on the watch list for reprinting. This includes Wasteland, Rishadan Port, Show and Tell, Force of Will, Gaea's Cradle, Misdirection, and the aforementioned Lion’s Eye Diamond.
Tellingly, all of these cards are from sets that were not widely drafted. The sets from Invasion block onward were all available to draft on MTGO concurrent with paper releases, so these sets have more substantial supply than online sets released after the fact. I think that sets prior to Invasion block are going to be the focal point for the card pool. Note that the Master’s Edition sets should also be included here with Force of Will being a prime target for reprinting.
The success of Modern Masters (MMA) as a limited format suggests that WoTC has gained the experience and the know how to put together a set like Vintage Masters so that it is fun to draft. Generally it should be viewed as a kind of powered Cube and I’d expect the limited format to be modeled in a similar way. Getting the draft format right is essential for encouraging repeat play. Lastly, MMA was available only for a few weeks so I’d also expect Vintage Masters to get a similar treatment.
For speculators, MMA offered us a couple of lessons. Noble Hierarch and Thoughtseize were both expected to be reprinted in MMA, but ultimately weren’t. Both saw rapid price increases as players bought back their play sets after realizing they would not be reprinted. When we get to May 2014, it will be time to start looking out for underpriced cards that might not get reprinted. At the top of my list right now would be the Alpha/Beta dual lands.
Although at first glance it might make sense to include the original dual lands in a set like Vintage Masters, I ultimately doubt whether that would be wise. Their prices are not extreme when compared to something like Wasteland. The current most expensive dual land is Underground Sea and it retails at 36 tix while Wasteland is more than double that price at 80 tix. Including the dual lands would make Vintage Masters a complete blow out in terms of value. The set would get drafted and opened like no other, and prices would tank on any card in the set, including the Power Nine.
The premium nature of the set has to be maintained in order to ensure some price stability, even while bringing down the price of the reprinted cards. Keeping the dual lands out of Vintage Masters would also save some bullets for a potential second set. WoTC wants to be make this a profitable venture over time and so they won’t throw everything they’ve got into this release. Speculators should watch out for cards that are expected to be reprinted, but aren’t in the end.
Lastly, it's not certain whether there will be a critical mass of online players for a Vintage scene to take off. While Modern is growing thanks to official support, online Legacy sees periodic but somewhat inconsistent play. Without support, interest in Vintage might fail to ignite.
Speculators should look to all-format staples before looking to Vintage-specific cards as speculative targets. Keep in mind that the Modern PTQ season will be getting underway when this set is released so all-format staples such as the Zendikar fetchlands will be at a premium anyway. An extra boost from the release of the Power Nine would not be unexpected.