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Insider: Be Nimble in This Unstable Market

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It took nearly twenty years, but at last the Un-block is completed. This past weekend, players got to experience the third joke set in Magic, Unstable. Judging by players’ reactions on Twitter, it seems that overall the set was a success. Granted, there will always be the dissenters who will complain on Twitter no matter what Wizards does. Ignoring that vocal minority, I’m feeling pretty good about where Unstable will fall when it comes to sales.

But of course, this is an MTG finance website. What readers here care about isn’t how fun the set is or how many laughs they enjoyed during their local prerelease. Instead, they want to know how to make and save money. When you look back at past Un-sets—especially Unhinged, which had some very exciting foils—you can readily see the financial relevance to Unstable. But can every card be purchased aggressively right now with the expectation of profits? Absolutely not.

This week I’ll review some Unstable data and make some predictions about the trajectory of these wacky, fun cards.

Looking at What’s Hot

Right out of the gate there is one overwhelmingly powerful trend: foils are hot, nonfoils are not. According to TCGplayer, the best-selling cards over the past few days are the basic lands ($2 - $3.50), the foil tokens ($0.20-$0.70), and Very Cryptic Command ($1.50). Not surprisingly, the most valuable cards in the set don’t even crack $10, with Urza, Academy Headmaster topping the list at around $8.

Does that mean the EV of the set is absolutely horrendous? Not necessarily. For one, almost every pack should contain a basic land. It’s not often you are guaranteed to pull a $1-$2 card in almost every pack, and this will eat up some of the total value of the set. If you subtract that out of the price of a pack, you really are paying only 50-75% of a normal booster pack’s price since you can liquidate the basic land very easily. After all, they are quite beautiful.

But the real excitement with this set comes in with the foils. When I look at the top-selling cards on TCGplayer and filter down to the foil prices, the values are far more exciting. Basic lands range from $40-$80, for example. Very Cryptic Command is fetching close to $30. And no one can overlook the fact that foil Urza, Academy Headmaster is going for $80!

Open one of those and your box is covered. Open a different random foil, and you still have a shot at outing it for money. These will be highly sought-after due to the allure of silver-bordered foils.

So Just Buy All the Foils Then?

When looking back to Unhinged prices, it’s easy to see how alluring the foils are and the resulting impact on their value in the secondary market. Foil basics from that set still fetch a pretty penny, and other random cards in the set with a cult following also demand a huge premium in foil.

I’ll always be amazed at Richard Garfield, Ph.D.’s foil pricing ($200 retail, if you can find one). Johnny, Combo Player and Mox Lotus also demand huge foil premiums. And who could forget collector favorite Little Girl, which has a nonfoil retail value of $0.25 and a foil value of $25. That’s a 100x foil multiplier!


So with this data in hand, and the hype Unstable foils are receiving at launch, one may come to the conclusion that buying all popular Unstable foils is the right play. It very well may be the correct choice, but I don’t think it is on day one. Just like with any set, there’s an artificial scarcity that is driving up prices on all Unstable cards—even the foils. And while it may be easy to panic-buy a few cards thinking more copies will not hit the market, I can assure you these prices will drop in time.

With previous Un-sets, there was a ton of hype at launch. But this was quickly squelched by subsequent set releases. The appetite the MTG world has for non-tournament-legal cards is very limited. While it’s cute that these cards are playable in Commander for another month or so, there will come a time when these foil cards will be largely forgotten. That’s when you’ll have an opportunity to buy the foils you’re looking for at a better price.

Take foil Urza, Academy Headmaster for example. It’s obvious this card is going to remain one of the chase cards of the set. It is wacky, but balanced sufficiently to play in cubes and whatnot. The TCGplayer market price on foils is around $110 (meaning recent copies had sold for around that much). But in the meantime, copies are readily available for $82. That indicates to me that the price has already pulled back 25% in the couple days the set has been available. That’s a steep decline!

For something like foil Very Cryptic Commands, there are some versions that haven’t even sold yet on TCGplayer. The copies listed are deemed too expensive by the broader market. It will take time for the bid/ask spread to close on these cards so that we can get a true read on what these should be valued at. Until then, any foils you chase will be purchased “at your own risk.”

(Click to expand.)

I can almost guarantee most of these foils will drop at least some amount in the coming weeks. If the set is as popular as it seems, there will be plenty of product opened in the near future.

Is there Anything Worth Watching?

Just because I rain on the preorder parade every year doesn’t mean I find the set financially uninteresting. As prices come down, there will be plenty that is worth keeping an eye on. With some of the Unhinged foils, the prices weren’t always as high as they are today. There’s plenty of potential profit to be made here. And unlike with other new sets, you have fairly high assurance here that these Unstable cards won’t be reprinted any time soon. This is as close to new “Reserved List” cards as you’re going to get!

So what is worth targeting? With Unhinged, the most iconic cards and most playable cube cards seemed to do the best. Cheatyface was a fun, balanced uncommon that caught the attention of casual collectors as well. As a result, the foil and nonfoil demand a healthy premium relative to the average uncommon. Mox Lotus, Gleemax, and Super Secret Tech carried a “coolness” premium due to their unique abilities and/or special rarity. These are the kinds of cards we should look to buy when pricing bottoms in the next couple of months.


So far, it definitely looks like Very Cryptic Command foils will merit “iconic” status, and should demand a significant premium. The card this spoofs, Cryptic Command, has been a format staple since it was originally printed in Lorwyn. The silliness factor of there being many versions of the card makes this especially interesting: it’s cube-playable and highly collectible. People are going to want one foil of each. Expect these foils to remain hot. Copies are listed on eBay for between $60 and $175 as of now. Hold off and wait for these to come down significantly before making a purchase.

Baron Von Count foils will also likely maintain some value over time. Besides being a mythic rare (something that didn’t exist when Unhinged launched), it’s ability seems both fun and powerful. Casual players love alternate win conditions, and besides The Cheese Stands Alone, this may be one of the wackiest win conditions ever printed. The fact that the rules text states “destroy target player” rather than “target player loses the game” adds another layer of fun. I wonder if there will ever be a card that regenerates a player?

These are currently listed on eBay in the $14 range, and really that’s not a terrible price. I don’t know how low this one will get, but it seems like a price below $10 is quite attractive if you’re after a copy.

Then we have Spike, Tournament Grinder, which rounds out the set of three player psychographics: Timmy, Johnny, and Spike. Timmy, Power Gamer from Unglued has been on the rise lately, but does not exist in foil. Foil Johnny, Combo Player has blown up lately and now the only foils on TCGplayer are listed at $100.


With the collectability of these cards, I expect Spike, Tournament Grinder foils to be one of the most valuable foils in the set. But don’t buy any just yet. New copies are listed daily, and the cheapest TCGplayer copy is already down to $24. I don’t have data going back to Unhinged’s release, but foil Johnny, Combo Player was worth around $20 steadily from 2013 to today. It was only recently that the card popped.

I suspect you’ll have ample opportunity to acquire foil Spike, Tournament Grinders for under $20. It may take a while for them to bounce, but I can see these climbing higher over the years…especially if Wizards ever prints a fourth Un-set!

Of course foil Urza, Academy Headmaster will remain extremely popular because it’s the only Un-planeswalker. Watch these closely before pulling the trigger. Then there are the cute/collectible cards that may be a little less noteworthy on day one. The four seasons of Extremely Slow Zombie create a very flavorful and collectible set of cards. These foils may demand a premium someday—especially the winter one. That Santa hat…

Adorable Kitten is also on my radar. Could this be the foil Little Girl of Unstable? It’s too early to tell. But I’ve already seen a tweet about someone collecting these, so it certainly seems plausible. I’m tempted to pick up a few foils of these at $0.25-$0.50 to sit on for a few years just to see what happens.

Wrapping It Up

The MTG twitterverse is swept away by Unstable’s release. Thus far, I’d consider the set a huge success. And with previous Un-sets, this means there are some very interesting financial opportunities. But it may be a bit too early. I’d suggest waiting a bit to see where prices stabilize before picking up copies for speculation or collecting.

Personally, I’m not going to purchase any singles this month. I have a box coming that I plan on opening with friends around New Years, and I’ll see what catches my fancy then. I’ll probably pick up a couple foils I mentioned in this article, but all in good time. Don’t forget we’re approaching a slow period for MTG finance, and there may be plenty of opportunities for some deals throughout December and January. Patience will be your friend this time of year.

Until then, I hope everyone has an Un-Happy Holiday! (Wait, that doesn’t really work, does it?)

…

Sigbits

  • Timmy, Power Gamer seems to be the most recent Un-card to jump in price lately. Star City Games has a price tag of just $2.99 for the card, but market price is probably twice that. I expect when they restock this card, they’ll need to increase the price. It is interesting, though, to see the slow responsiveness major vendors have had to the spike in Unglued and Unhinged. Perhaps they are still feeling out the market to see if higher prices stick.
  • First it was Nicol Bolas, and now Chromium from Legends has become a bit more expensive than it was a couple months ago. Star City Games is completely sold out of the card at $19.99, and I think another $5-$10 bump in price is probably going to be necessary for them to keep any copies in stock.
  • Since I started working on an all-Alpha deck to give myself another project in Old School, I decided to look into acquiring some Alpha Hypnotic Specters. They’re only uncommons, how expensive could they be? Very! The cheapest copies I can find are still over $100 even in played condition. Don’t be fooled by Star City’s $149.99 price tag, chances are that Near Mint copies will fetch a higher dollar amount and SCG will have to adjust their price accordingly…if they ever get any in stock!

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