Last week I had an interesting experience that I've been reflecting on for the past few days. I repriced the entire Magic inventory at RIW Hobbies, the local game store where I manage the singles stock. The store is preparing to set up a booth at an upcoming Grand Prix, so making sure all of the prices are current and proper becomes increasingly important, since anything overpriced has no chance of selling and anything priced too low will sell at lower than the going rate.
The store has a huge display of singles, and merely to look up and reprice every card in the case is a four-to-five-hour endeavor. It simply isn't practical to do on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Which isn't to say that cards aren't regularly repriced, because they are. It is pretty easy to track when a card spikes in value by a wide margin and reprice it. Yet, aside from large gains or losses on a particular card, the case tends to stay the same until a concerted effort to update all prices takes place.
Aside from the monetary investment of having somebody physically reprice everything, there are other reasons why constantly updating prices is impractical. One philosophy I've adopted after decades of buying, selling, and collecting Magic cards is that singles don't actually have a finite price until the moment of sale. It is sort of counterintuitive, so let me explain.
Price Is Fluid and Never Static
You need look no further than any random trade to understand that cards don't have a set price. "Hey, do you want to trade?" "Sure." "Do you go by TCG prices or SCG prices?" Which price is it? When you look at TCG Player there is a whole range of sellers that may be selling a particular card for a range of prices.
One thing I've learned from pricing cards over the years is that even on large seller websites, prices bounce up and down from day to day. The price of a particular card can bounce around across a 20% range multiple times over the course of a month. Constantly changing a price between $4 to $6 every few days becomes an exercise in futility. I'd rather hang the card out there at $5 and be content that I'm in the correct range over a long period of time.
Staple Prices in a Downward Spiral
Another interesting tidbit that I'd like to share about my experience was that there was a tremendous downslide in the overall prices of Magic cards that I noticed. The last time I did a complete repricing of the collection was around Thanksgiving (two and a half months ago). I was surprised to find that, overall, the complete value of the cards I repriced (tournament staples and foils) lost around 10-15% of their overall value.
Foils, in particular, saw significant losses. It was rare to encounter foils that had appreciated, but the losers were quite numerous. I'm comfortable attributing some of this decline to patrons paying closer attention to foil price movements, and being attracted to the ones that had appreciated but whose prices hadn't been adjusted.
The real dagger were the case cards, which took a tumble consistently across the board. Even if there is some explaining away the drop in foil prices, I observed that the constructed staples also reflected the trend.
The concerning part about all of this is that winter has traditionally been a time when Modern and eternal staples tend to creep up in value. It's cold outside, school is in session, and the indoors nature of the cold months tend to facilitate more Magic being played. Summer tends to be the time when interest and prices wane—not December and January when people have holiday money to spend on luxury items.
The one area where this trend didn't apply were lands. Whereas every color and type of spell saw losses unilaterally across the board, the Modern and eternal land section of the case saw small gains on average. Land cards tended to hold their value or see modest gains. A land-heavy portfolio was one area that performed well in a staple-based economy.
The other saving grace over the last few months have been the creeping value of Frontier singles. Cards like Goblin Rabblemaster and Hangarback Walker (albeit great cards and playable in a variety of formats) have risen from the ashes of the $1 box to become desirable money cards.
The Myth of Perpetual Growth
Assuming that you are willing to buy my observation that singles overall have trended downward over the past three months, let's think about where the good investments might be hidden.
Lets try a quick thought exercise. The case cards at my LGS are comprised of every rare or mythic rare worth $7 or more, and every uncommon worth $3 or more, dating from The Dark forward (older cards have their own binders and display case). If I had bought one of every card at retail three months ago, the value of that collection would have lost approximately 10%. I would interpret that observation to mean that diversity for diversity's sake is not a strategy for success. We cannot buy anything and everything and necessarily have the totality of our collection appreciate in value.
However, if I had limited my purchase solely to lands I would have seen a significant gain in value. Meaning that in the current marketplace there are observable upward trends. Shocks and fetches ticked up across the board. The Scars of Mirrodin fast lands and creature lands ticked up. A variety of Modern-based utility lands (Cavern of Souls, Academy Ruins, Gavony Township, etc.) crept up.
I'm not telling you anything that you don't know, but I'm hoping to provide a slightly modified framework with which to think about MTG investing here. The key has always been to buy and trade for cards that have speculative value for growth. It is the reason why we don't speculate at random. There needs to be a system or thought process that enlightens our process for picking winners.
Earlier times have left us with a lingering theory of Magic finance that essentially states everything will eventually go up. Traditionally, this has held true.
The Legacy and Modern booms are two prime examples of this coming to fruition. Once cards have been out of print for an extended period of time suddenly find new demand, there's a surge in price. Cards that were complete and utter junk suddenly spike 500% and make you glad you didn't sell your Through the Breaches and Dark Depths off for ten cents apiece as bulk rares six years ago.
I'm very selective about bulk cards for exactly this reason. You never get value selling cards at bottom-basement prices, and the largest percentage gains in MTG finance come from these very cheap cards suddenly acquiring value.
But it's easy to get sucked into irrational thinking based on past events. People look back at their collection from 10 years ago and imagine how much they could have made if they held onto those "worthless" cards at the time. They're less likely to remember all the cards that tanked in value due to a reprint.
There is certainly money to be made by holding onto cards, but there is also money left on the table by holding onto everything forever. This concern becomes increasingly relevant at a time when Wizards is seriously pushing reprints via the Modern and Eternal Masters sets and Commander products.
I've become increasingly worried about instability in the market over the past six months, and have been steadily liquidating much of my extra Modern and Eternal staples. Don't get me wrong, I'm still all about making money on Magic finance, but I think the game has gotten a lot trickier now that we've seen the rippling effects that the flow of reprints has created in the market.
Another trend that I've been considering is the declining numbers of new players, coupled with the larger print runs of the newer sets.
One of the reasons the Modern and Legacy boom times occurred was because Magic as a game was rapidly growing between Zendikar through Theros. The influx of new players created tremendous demand for Modern and Eternal staples from sets that had much smaller print runs than the sets from the past four years. From RTR forward the production of cards increased dramatically to reflect the growing player base.
Simply put, the newer cards are not nearly as scarce as staples from Mirrodin to Lorwyn block. Let's be honest with ourselves: is Through the Breach really a good investment card? It is one Modern Masters reprint away from losing 60% of its retail value. The same can be said for a ton of Modern staples.
I believe that the game has shifted away from a collector/hoarder's paradise, where simply accumulating a card was guaranteed to produce long-term profits. In the new marketplace, constantly selling pieces off is essential to making money.
Places Where the Good Value Resides
At this point in the article, as we near the end, I may have thoroughly depressed you by spouting so much doom and gloom. Don't worry, because I saved the upbeat parts for the end.
The financial aspect of the game is definitely changing, as a reflection of growth slowing down, larger print runs, and the reprint policies. With that being said, Magic is still an unstoppable juggernaut of a game with a legion of fanatical devotees, and there is plenty of money to be made.
I imagine that most of the people who read this column here on QS are individuals who are passionate about the game and take pride in cultivating and crafting a collection they are proud of. I imagine there's a large contingent of readers who love playing the game but have a certain budget they need to work within. We want to play Magic, acquire the cards we love, and essentially mitigate the cost of playing and collecting by managing our collections in a heads-up way.
We put effort into trading for good value prospects, and use those profits to facilitate getting the cards we want to own or need to play in tournaments.
As you can tell from the previous paragraphs in today's offering, I'm not particularly high on Modern staples in a world where reprints have become a frightening reality. The key is that you've got to change and adapt with the times. Here is where I'm looking to get my money in right now in order to earn future gains:
1. Commander Supplemental Cards
One trend that I've noticed from the game store is that the unique singles from the various Commander decks are cheap, difficult to come by, and in higher demand than most people realize.
There are literally dozens of Commander cards currently between $1-$4 that have tremendous potential for gain. The fact is that these are "good cards" and you all know how I feel about good cards: there is always a growing demand.
The list goes on and on. People have picked up on the obvious bonkers cards like Mystic Confluence, but there are plenty of other cards that are great for causal play that are becoming increasingly difficult to scavenge from trade binders. I'm always happy to pick up the unique Commander cards on the cheap in a trade or buy.
It is also worth noting that from the perspective of a store, we are always sold out of these cards. People are not fond of selling them and there is a large contingent of people looking to purchase.
2. Old School and Reserved List Cards
The Reserved List is a unique element in MTG finance. In a world of instability created by an increasing reprint marketplace, these are cards that are very safe as long-term investments. They are highly collectible and play into the history of the game. It also helps that many of these cards are bonafide tournament staples in Vintage, Legacy, and now Old School Magic.
In particular, I'm a huge fan of the non-blue Revised dual lands. First of all, consider this: a Volcanic Island or Underground Sea is four to five times the price of most non-blue dual lands. It shows that there is clearly opportunity for growth depending upon demand.
The blue dual lands have obvious advantages to non-blue currently: Force of Will, Ancestral Recall, and Brainstorm, among others. However, it only takes a handful of new printings to shake up Eternal and bring a new combination of colors into the forefront.
Obviously this is all speculative, but Wizards has proven that they are committed to printing powerful Legacy staples. There has been a concerted effort to level the playing field and bring some semblance of balance to the color pie in Eternal. Will the other colors ever catch blue? Unlikely, but as the gap closes it certainly makes other combination dual lands better.
Think about Bayou as an example. Sultai and Jund decks have gotten a lot of help in the past few years, and the price of Bayou has nearly tripled over that time. Imagine if a Jeskai or Temur deck was given impactful new tools in the next few years and Plateau or Taiga suddenly started seeing more tournament play.
Even assuming that never happens, these lands will always have a place in the imaginations of collectors and in casual kitchen table and Commander decks all around the world. Seeing as they will never see another printing and are relatively cheap considering their power and pedigree, I've been picking them up whenever I have the chance.
While not Reserved List cards, I'm a big fan of these good staple cards. We've already seen tournament staples like Counterspell, Lightning Bolt, and Swords to Plowshares rise to such great heights that it makes some of these lesser tier commons and uncommons feel enticing.
The demand from Old School alone makes these cards feel like a great investment. Also, they are cool and a piece of history. People want them for their Cube or Danger Room. They are readily available on the internet but I've noticed they are becoming a less and less common sight at the LGS.
3. Original Foil Versions of Staples
Foils suffer from reprints like any card. But the original foil version tends to retain a higher percentage of its value (and sometimes even increases). This is increasingly true when the original foil version has the old card face. These are like the "rookie cards" of Magic collecting, and they are in high demand.
If you need proof, look no further than a Mercadian Masques foil version of Dust Bowl, which is roughly twice the price of a premium Masterpiece version.
Although not the original printing, the 7th Edition version of Wood Elves strikes me as a card that has potential to become more expensive. It is the only old-card-face foil version, and comes from a set that is notoriously difficult to find foils from. There are dozens of other examples of tournament and casual staple foils in old card face that will surely tick up as time goes by.
4. Junk Rares with Room to Grow
One of the primary places that I invest in Magic is in junk boxes at Grand Prix and Opens. Perhaps your LGS even has a box of random rares sitting on the counter marked two or three for a buck. It's a great place to find good deals. The obvious reason is that the cost to invest is so low.
If the card is good enough that I'm willing to pay between a quarter and fifty cents up front to stash it away, there very little chance that I can lose in the long run. Right after Kaladesh released I purchased a stack of Panharmonicons out of a three-for-a-buck box before people caught on to the card in Standard. I didn't see it as a constructed card, but I certainly saw the Commander appeal. I did the same thing with Lifecrafter's Bestiary when Aether Revolt came out.
If you have an imagination, there is a lot of value hidden in those boxes. All you have to do is envision a world where a card you are paying between 33 cents and a buck for could become a three-dollar card, and you've made some spending money.
The landscape of Magic finance is becoming increasingly tricky. We largely have reprints to thank for that, but with good judgment and savvy there are still plenty of ways to build our collections and make some extra cash on the side. Good luck!