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Insider: Lessons from Vintage Masters

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If you’ve been reading this column, you know that we focus on how you can play more Magic Online for your gaming dollar through playing smarter and managing your portfolio better.

Friday provided a rare opportunity: a pre-announced market disruption that could result in major profits or losses. If you’d been following the conversation in the forums you were prepared and knew the full Vintage Masters card list would go up Friday--most likely midnight ET--on the mothership.

You also knew which cards to Ctrl-F the minute after midnight and what to buy and sell. Fortunately, Douglas Linn also sent out an Insider Alert, so for those not following the MTGO forum you still had a chance preserve and increase your portfolio if you happened to be near a laptop.

It’s important to be prepared for these events since the window of opportunity is extremely narrow. Bots sell out and adjust prices within 15 minutes and finding an open bot can be an exercise in futility. It was bedlam.

ICAP Brokers Continue To Trade During Financial Turmoil

Wasteland jumped from 65 tix to 100 tix within the hour. Show and Tell, Sneak Attack, Rishadan Port, City of Traitors, Misdirection, Daze, Lotus Petal, Red Elemental Blast, Mental Misstep, Polluted Delta and other Eternal staples all jumped by 10-25% in a day.

Meanwhile, Vampiric Tutor, Ancient Tomb, Gush, Brainstorm and many other cards continued their free fall.

I've taken plenty of lumps over the past couple weeks, but was able to partially offset them with gains on Friday night. I’m guessing many subscribers made up for the cost of their annual Insider subscription on Friday alone.

Wasteland was atop the charts 24 hours after the VMA set list hit the web
24 hours after the list hit, Wasteland topped the charts.

In previous articles we predicted that new demand for Vintage would put upward pressure on all cards not reprinted.

But my view has been that the biggest beneficiary of Vintage Masters will be Legacy cards that aren’t reprinted. Legacy is a far more accessible and popular format than Vintage will ever be, and draws on a massive player base cultivated by the Star City Games tournament series.

These are not especially bold calls, and lots of people had the same idea. That said, it’s good to see that these trends have been validated over the past couple weeks. After hitting bottom last week (a result of pre-spoiler selloffs), the Legacy index has seen 5% growth over the past week. This bump is purely a result of speculation and players buying back staples they had sold as an insurance against reprints.

The Legacy Index rebounded 5% but is still down from its peak.

If players really adopt Legacy (as I predict they will after VMA launches) we are going to see a second ceiling. It won’t show up right away in the index since prices will continue to drop on reprinted cards, but many Legacy staples not in VMA still have room to grow.

Some cards are in a speculative bubble, but for many we haven’t hit the ceiling. We should see a second bump in Legacy once dual lands and Force of Will hit circulation and people start building decks...and realizing that they need that playset of Daze and that pair of Misdirection for the sideboard.

With VMA, Legacy has become a much more accessible format. However, even as overall cost of entry falls, there is a new set of “bottleneck” cards—especially Wasteland.

[pullquote]Wasteland and Rishadan Port are going to replace Force of Will and Lion's Eye Diamond as the most expensive cards in Legacy, but overall the format will be getting much more accessible.[/pullquote]While it is no doubt a barrier to entry, I don’t think the absence of Wasteland alone will be enough to stunt the growth of Legacy online. Wasteland is not ubiquitous.

For example, it is not played at all in combo decks: Show and Tell, Storm, High Tide, Belcher, Dredge, Reanimator, Painter’s Servant, etc. It is also not required for control strategies like U/W Miracles or Tezzeret. One of the best aggro decks, Affinity, does not play it. In midrange decks that do play it (Jund, Shardless Bug, etc) it usually appears as a two-of.

So it is very possible to build a large number of competitive Legacy decks without Wasteland, though you will need a playset to build a proper "gauntlet" for testing.

This month Force of Will (orange) and Wasteland (blue) flipped places as the barrier to entry for Legacy.

What Does the Absence of Wasteland Mean?

[pullquote]Wizards decided they didn’t need Wasteland to sell the set or the format, and that they could wait for another opportunity to monetize the equity locked up in those high-value cards.[/pullquote]It would have been easy to print Wasteland without warping the limited format—simply put it in place of Strip Mine, a card which is more degenerate and for which there is no price pressure.

This decision suggests to me that WOTC deliberately held Wasteland in reserve, along with several other key Legacy staples. Wizards decided they didn’t need Wasteland to sell the set or the format, and that they could wait for another opportunity to monetize the equity locked up in those high-value cards.

Wizards can’t directly profit from the rise of Legacy cards in paper, but by keeping some cards scarce they can profit from virtual printings of those cards. I believe that it’s only a matter of time before we see an announcement of the next virtual-only summer set: Legacy Masters. (Of course, it could take a couple years, and a lot will happen before then…)

Revisiting Our Portfolio: How Did We Do?

A lot of people smarter than me were wrong about what Wizards would reprint in Vintage Masters. Based on the initial announcement in October, we know that Vintage Masters was initially intended to be a much smaller set, akin to Modern Masters.

But in development, Wizards audibled to a new approach--a massive set packed with nearly everything Vintage-relevant. VMA would even include cards that had just seen a promo or special printing: dual lands, Force of Will, Lion's Eye Diamond, Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

In retrospect, most speculation prior to the May announcement was a swing and a miss. Kudos to Becvar for being virtually the only one to call this:

[pullquote]You didn’t need to test your trigger finger on Friday night to profit from the VMA spoiler: there was another far lower-risk approach available for several weeks…[/pullquote]Waiting for the spoiler was a good strategy if you could time things just right. But there were a number of reliable, low-risk strategies recommended in the forums and in recent articles.

One discussed in the forums (and in articles by myself, Sylvain, and Matt Lewis): load up a Modern-legal basket of Eternal playables that we knew wouldn't see a reprint.

In my May 17 article, I noted that "If you buy a portfolio of these cards you should do nicely in the mid to longer term. Some may see short-term gains as well." (Unfortunately, by the time the article came out, some of these cards had already increased because of speculation and represented less value.)

How did this strategy fare? I took a snapshot of these cards on May 17 and a snapshot today to see whether they had made any short-term gains.

These are the short-term winners. Only a couple big jumps; most of the gains were quite modest. One reason is that the market had been anticipating growth in these Eternal playables, so much of the upside was already priced in.

Two big winners were Lodestone Golem and Inquisition of Kozilek. It's interesting that Lodestone Golem spiked this week, since we have known for three weeks that it would not be reprinted because it is Modern-legal. If you bought them when that was announced on May 12 then you could get them for 0.50 and sell last week at 4 tix for a tidy profit.

Here were cards that remained stable (less than 5% increase or decrease.) From this list I like picking up Snapcaster Mage and Thalia during Innistrad flashbacks because they have crossover appeal in Modern, Legacy and Vintage. Griselbrand may also be underpriced, but ties up a lot of capital.

And here are the losers. Stony Silence and Geist of Saint Traft are Innistrad block cards that are being dragged down by flashbacks. Abrupt Decay is rotating in the fall, which explains its drop. Others are harder to explain.

I think all represent pretty good value in the coming weeks at their current depressed prices. Leyline of the Void, in particular, seems like a good pickup. Thoughtseize is also at a historic low and, as Sylvain mentioned in his article this week, is a multi-format all-star that will bounce back eventually.

In the past two weeks we didn't do great with these calls, and your money could have been better invested elsewhere. Being liquid was especially key on Friday night, so I'm glad I didn't go deep on these. But it's worth remembering that all of the cards above are longer-term plays, and are likely to continue their rise if VMA is heavily drafted and Legacy becomes a "real format" on MTGO.

In terms of very long plays, one of the best bets was advocated by Matt Lewis when VMA was first introduced in December 2012: Mental Misstep. For a long time you could buy them for 0.08. This week they hit 1.5 tix, and continue to climb. For each 10 you bought you earned yourself a free draft!

A ubiquitous Vintage card using phyrexian mana made this a high-demand card unlikely to see reprint. The same is true of Phyrexian Metamorph and Gitaxian Probe.

Legacy: in a Bubble or Underpriced?

By now, prices have reached a new equilibrium on most of the Vintage and Legacy staples. The question is whether this is the right equilibrium. In many cases it is not. For some cards, we find ourselves in a speculative bubble; if you missed the boat on a spike, stay away and look for the next opportunity.

Other staples still have room for growth, but represent a relatively high-risk investment.

Let’s look at Wasteland. 100 tix marks a psychological barrier for many players, and at this price Wasteland may actually represent good value. However, the problem with Wasteland at 100 is that a reprint seems virtually inevitable.

I would be surprised if we do not see Tempest block flashback by this fall. Lots of money Tempest block cards were not reprinted (Lotus Petal, City of Traitors) and its a fun format so lots of drafts would fire.

A second option would be to print Wasteland in a From the Vaults set, a duel deck, or another specialty product. This would provide additional copies to the paper market as well (perhaps they have something like this in mind which is why they held back.)

Finally, there’s the prospect of a Wasteland MOCS promo. Wizards remains stubbornly committed to a July timeline to shutdown v3 and switchover to the current Wide Beta client. If they do so, prices will plummet. What better way to mitigate the freefall than to offer a 100 ticket bribe for those willing to suffer through the new client? For me this scenario seems most likely.

People will be reluctant to buy and hold Wastelands but eager to play Legacy with their new dual lands, forces, and Lion’s Eye Diamonds. The net result of this will be to make Wasteland-free decks more attractive to players entering Legacy, and I expect  combo decks to be overrepresented in the online metagame.

[pullquote]Many cards in Sneak and Show are poised to rise, and the deck plays no Wastelands.[/pullquote]Sneak and Show is an interesting case: Sneak Attack, Show and Tell, and City of Traitors were presumed to be in Vintage Masters, as were Daze, Misdirection and Lotus Petal. None of these cards were reprinted, and have subsequently jumped in price.

But have they jumped enough? Do they have more room to grow? Considering that Show and Tell is among the best decks and Legacy, and is quite forgiving to beginners, I bought back into the deck. However, there remains significant risk in hold high-value cards with the v3 shutdown looming.

Are there other key cards in combo decks that are relatively underpriced? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments and in the Forums.

Finally, what about Onslaught fetches?

What price will these fetch?

These lands have basically doubled over the past few months, but (perhaps surprisingly) did not see a big jump after the VMA list was released. Even at current prices they are primed for further growth if Legacy and Vintage take off. However, like Wasteland, there is significant reprint risk--including in a Standard-legal set such as M15 (with a possible Zendikar subtheme) and Khans of Tarkir.

These are not a safe to go deep on, but they have significant short-term upside, especially Wooded Foothills, Bloodstained Mire, and Windswept Heath. (Note that Bloodstained Mire is so cheap because it was in an event deck when MTGO still did those...)

[pullquote]With the wildcard of the v3 shutdown looming, the best play may be to seek short-term gains, get liquid, and sit the summer out altogether...[/pullquote]Of course, the wildcard here is the v3 shutdown, which is still on pace for July and could create selloffs and lead to declines across the board. In last week's article, Heath Newton, owner of MTGO Traders, said he expects card prices to drop 20%. There's a good chance the the best play is to get liquid and sit the summer out altogether...

-Alexander Carl (@thoughtlaced)

9 thoughts on “Insider: Lessons from Vintage Masters

  1. This was pretty much my idea as well. Going to sell everything I purchased surrounding VM aside from my Legacy Deck that I plan to continue playing ( for now, we will see if I have to liquidate that too ). I feel like sitting liquid in terms of cash/tix is where you want to be if they do in fact force the merge to the new client.

  2. Very nice article Alexander! You tackle a lot of questions with a fair amount of examples and data.

    Unfortunately I didn’t have time to pick up non-VMA cards on the day of the release of the spoilers. With some much hype and the imminent V3 shutdown I would definitely recommend to anyone to sell now. 30 tix profits on 1 card and 48h, that’s quick flip at its best!

    I think mental misstep has still some room to grow tough 😉

    1. Thanks Sylvain, appreciate the kind words!

      Apparently the market agrees with you since some people have taken profits dropping Wasteland by 5% (down from 100 to 95 tix) since I posted this. Overall Legacy prices are going sideways with some gains and some losses. VMA could be a great opportunity, but the v3 shutdown is a massive storm front on the horizon.

  3. Nice article! Summed up pretty much everything about the VM spoiler rush. Could you explain a bit more about the psychological barrier of $100 on Wasteland that makes it represent good value at that price point?

    1. Generally speaking , people retain a price memory of cards at certain values. For many people, Wasteland is a 60-70 card, and 100 just “feels” overpriced. After all, it’s “just an uncommon” (nevermind from a very large set, and with a scarcity akin to today’s rares.). Few cards on mtgo have had a value over 100 tix, and hitting three digits takes a psychological jump. If supply remains low and the demand for Vintage and Legacy is there, it will be worth more than 100, but it could still take a while until people accept wasteland as a 100 tix card (this is all assuming no incoming supply to reduce the price). To make the leap higher, I think, will require real demand from players, not just anticipatory demand (which is driving today’s price).

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