Two months ago I wrote an article here on QS where I argued that what I labeled Tier 2 and Tier 3 Old School cards were, in my opinion, among the best investments in Magic. The activity that brought me to that conclusion was the design and acquisition of an Old School Battle Box.
As I went about trying to acquire the random Beta, Arabian Nights, Legends, and Antiquities cards that I needed to complete my stack, I was able to make a few observations that I thought were useful.
Firstly, there was very little separation between completely unplayable chaff cards and cool, playable, iconic cards. I noticed there was little difference in price between a Beta Conservator and a Beta Dragon Whelp—despite the fact that Dragon Whelp is a card more likely to be played somewhere and the fact that Dragon Whelp is much more iconic.
The prices seemed to reflect the fact that in terms of constructed tournament Magic, Conservator and Dragon Whelp are equally unplayable. The primary demand for either card is people who are making sets and so the demand is in effect equal.
However, as an individual who was literally building an Old School Battle Box it was clear to me that I wanted a Dragon Whelp and didn't give a crap about Conservator. Even if I wanted a cool card to stick in my binder or to use as a bookmark or something, Dragon Whelp was still more appealing than Conservator.
It isn't just limited to Dragon Whelp either. I distinguished between cards that I felt were "playable somewhere" and "completely unplayable anywhere." Could this card go into a cube? Could this card go into a Battle Box? Could this card go into a super casual deck? Is it a card that can be played or isn't it?
If a card is playable somewhere it has more inherent value than a card that is unlikely to ever be played because there is simply more demand. People are looking so hard for investing edges when it comes to Magic, and I saw this phenomenon as a clear edge that had been completely untapped.
A Refresher on Tiers
It will be helpful to revisit the system I laid out in my last Old School investing article. There I proposed thinking about Old School cards as falling into three distinct tiers.
- Tier 1: The card is playable in actual tournament eternal Magic. Duals, Moxes, Swords to Plowshares, etc.
- Tier 2: The card is playable in Old School Constructed or Commander: Disrupting Scepter, Thunder Spirit, Power Sink, Tawnos's Coffin, etc.
- Tier 3: The card is playable in a casual format like Cube or Battle Box. Dragon Whelp, Prodigal Sorcerer, Sorceress Queen.
Everything else are just bad cards. They were not useful in 1996 and they didn't get any better with time.
The whole thing is pretty abstract—but it comes together and holds a lot of water. It works. I realize the verbiage of these Tiers are kind of nonsense. I made them up. However, I made them up to describe trends that I thought were both real and useful for thinking about investing in old cards.
Here's why it works:
I noticed there were pretty consistent price points for cards that fell into these tiers depending upon which set they were from. Without knowing the specifics I could accurately predict the price of a card depending upon which tier and set it was from.
The big breakthrough was that the third tier of cards were priced at bulk basically across the board, despite the fact that I could clearly demonstrate a third tier in terms of how useful the card could be. Dragon Whelp is better than Conservator but equal in price.
Over the past two weeks I've noticed that the third tier of Old School cards has been consistently rising to exactly where I predicted it would go—somewhere in the middle between the baseline bulk Old School prices and Tier 2.
My suggestion is to be aggressively picking up Old School Tier 3 cards at bulk prices, which is still relatively easy to do, provided you know where to look.
The online prices have already begun to tick up and the good deals are fewer and more far between. Obviously, TCGplayer tracks these things and allows the online cards to adjust relatively easily.
eBay is a decent place to start because people just throw things up there for whatever price. There is not as much competition on the less desirable third-tier cards right now because it isn't exactly common knowledge.
Perhaps the best place to look is at your LGS. Ask to look at priced Old School cards if your store has them. Most likely, these were priced more than a few months ago which will allow you to score some really nice buys if you know what to look for (and you do, because you are reading this!).
A lot of stores price their cards based on SCG or TCG prices. SCG is always sold out on the cards I'm talking about and has been for months. They never update their prices until they restock, and they never restock. What does that tell you? They haven't gotten any Beta Dragon Whelps—or, they just aren't restocking them for some reason…
Either way, these are cards that they simply don't/can't get into stock ever, or, they are cards they choose not to stock. I can't imagine a scenario where this bodes poorly for my investment strategy.
While the biggest spikes have been in the Tier 3 department, I've also noticed that the Tier 2 cards have been slowly, steadily ticking up as well (which I also predicted).
The reason I think these cards are (and have been) such solid investments is that they are fixed in terms of supply—which is relatively low.
Investing in the Modern Era
Reprints have really put a damper on investing in anything from the Modern era. We all know this. You can't just buy Modern staples and hold them because 1) the format changes, which makes demand fluctuate depending upon the metagame, and 2) your investment can be reprinted and ruined at anytime for any reason.
The fact is that they can never reprint Beta cards. True, not every Old School card is on the Reserved List—just a lot of them. However, the iconic coolness factor of Alpha, Beta, Arabian Nights, and Legends is undeniable. Who would want to play with an Iconic Masters Mana Drain when they have the option to play with a Legends one? Or Karakas?
The answer is, "people who want to spend less money on cards." Yet, there is still a premium demand on the 1995 copies of these cards because they are older and more scarce. They also look way cooler which can never be underestimated in the eyes of collectors.
As far as finance is concerned, I think the movement of these obscure Old School cards over the past few weeks is likely the most significant trend happening. Hit up those local game stores and try to find these before it's too late. Not all bulk is created equal—the reason being, not all of it is bulk.