As the year comes to an end, I’m hearing summary discussion on various MTG finance podcasts. Analysts are looking back at the last twelve months and commenting on where they perceive market strength and weakness to lie. Many have expressed at least some level of concern that the hobby is less lucrative than it once was due to the massive wave of reprints and endless supply of new sets.
The fact that you can purchase Iconic Masters booster boxes for $148—far under MSRP—underscores the situation at hand. Wizards of the Coast has communicated time and again they want to avoid a Chronicles 2.0. We’re not quite there yet, but we are approaching that level rapidly without sign of reversing course.
Perhaps this uncertainty has pushed speculators and investors into the direction of the Reserved List and Old School. If there’s one consistent communication we’ve received from Wizards, it’s that the Reserved List isn’t going away. Period. End of discussion. Thus, money invested in these classic cards is protected from all that is going with reprints and supplemental product.
Another Reserved List Article?
Before you close the window to avoid reading another article touting the Reserved List, stick with me for this next section. I’ll be first to admit the Reserved List well has run fairly dry, at least for the short term. Gains realized on cards like Library of Alexandria may not be replicated so easily over the next few months as prices reach all new highs.
This got me thinking, though. We’ve seen all the Arabian Nights, Legends, Antiquities, and The Dark cards spike like crazy. Meanwhile, there is a class of cards that are far rarer than all of these. One set in particular is so rare that many singles from the set are virtually sold out on TCGplayer, eBay and many major vendors. If we consider how parabolic the Reserved List cards went in price, I think this similar trend is in media res as we speak.
I’m referring to Alpha, Magic’s first set.
You’ve seen print runs for Alpha cards right? Only 1,100 of each Alpha rare was printed, 4,500 of each Alpha uncommon, 16,000 of each Alpha common and 85,500 of each Alpha land (per picture). Chas Andres over at Star City Games wrote a valuable piece on this set back in 2012, and I find the numbers more compelling than ever.
In that article, Chas goes on to point out that every Alpha common is rarer than an Unlimited Black Lotus. Add in the fact that many Alpha cards have been lost or damaged over their 25 year history, and you have a recipe for extremely rare and collectible pieces that will never be damaged by a market filled with reprints.
The New Information
Everyone actively involved in the Quiet Speculation community is probably familiar with the numbers on Alpha. So none of this so far is new information. But I do have some particularly interesting numbers that make it a worthwhile article topic this week.
First, let’s take a quick look at some specific card prices that Chas points out in his article. Below are Star City Games buylist prices at the time of his article’s publishing in August 2012. To the right of each I list the current SCG buy price and current highest buy price on Trader Tools. Keep in mind these are Near Mint numbers.
|Card||SCG Buy Price (2012)||SCG Buy Price (2017)||TT Highest Buylist|
|Wrath of God||$200||$500||$600|
|Swords to Plowshares||$60||$200||$213|
|Lord of Atlantis||$80||$250||$300|
|Wheel of Fortune||$150||$600||$800|
|Delayed Blast Fireball||-||$15||$18|
|Birds of Paradise||$200||$750||$1000|
I hope you're as blown away by these numbers as I was. Buylists (and likely market values) of Alpha cards have all exploded over the last five years. We’re talking about gain percentages in the hundreds. I’ve always viewed Alpha cards as solid investments, but I could not have predicted this explosive growth. But despite these high numbers, I think the growth is far from done. Indeed much of this growth likely happened over the past couple years thanks to Old School. And most recently, interest in Alpha has been on the rise.
Here’s another number for you: 20. That’s the number of Alpha cards completely out of stock on TCGplayer. And this isn’t a collection of twenty cards you would be able to readily guess, either. It’s not just the Power 9 and dual lands that are out of stock. Instead, it’s pretty random stuff like Ironclaw Orcs and Uthden Troll.
Old School players and collectors are moving on these original cards aggressively, leading to a surge in prices and a sudden reduction in stock. Even with such limited numbers, it still takes a good amount of speculation/demand for a common to disappear from the market, but it is happening over and over again.
You need to be aware of this trend. Five years from now, the number of “out of stock” Alpha cards on TCGplayer will be even larger. There will come a time when an Alpha card you want won’t even be readily available on the open market—literally zero copies will be for sale.
Where to Shop for Alpha
Perhaps these numbers convinced you to shop around for a few Alpha cards you always wanted to own. I myself have been acquiring Alpha cards fairly aggressively lately—nothing expensive, mind you. Just some potentially useful commons and uncommons for Old School. You don’t need to invest in Alpha Shivan Dragons to make money on the set’s rarity. Even Alpha Dragon Whelp is sufficient.
So where have I been doing my shopping? I’ve focused on a couple primary places.
First and foremost, Cool Stuff Inc has been my favorite vendor for Alpha cards. Their stock has been dropping steadily like everyone else’s, but their prices are quite competitive. A few times I have even been able to buy cards from their site to directly resell for a modest profit. The fact that they include high-quality pictures of most of their worthwhile Alpha cards is an added bonus, and their markdown on played copies are especially interesting.
Next, I have had some success acquiring Alpha cards from Tokyo MTG, an easily accessible Japanese vendor. Their prices are a little more hit-or-miss given the recent weakness in the US Dollar, but I love that they accept PayPal USD payments and they offer PWE shipping. This makes the site just as easy to buy from as any domestic vendor.
Beyond major vendors, I have done plenty of shopping on TCGplayer. Filtering out HP and Damaged cards has helped me focus on playable cards that aren’t too ugly to be buylisted to stores. Some of the obscure cards have been lucrative for me—it seems many vendors apply a standard minimum buylist price on Alpha commons and uncommons, and some smaller TCGplayer sellers don’t know about this (or don’t care). This has led to some immediate arbitrage opportunity.
I’ve even bought cards directly from Star City Games recently. It seems some playable Alpha cards have recently jumped in price, and vendors have been a little slow to adjust. Twiddle, Orcish Artillery, and Plague Rats are a few examples of cards you may find at an online vendor with prices that haven’t been adjusted to match recent market pricing.
Finding good deals on Alpha cards is becoming tougher and tougher. But by shopping around extensively you have a decent chance of finding that underpriced gem simply because vendors aren’t used to wildly fluctuating prices for Alpha singles. But that seems to have been changing lately.
Wrapping It Up
Alpha cards are arguably the most investible pieces in Magic. They have extremely small print runs, their age implies the number of remaining copies in nice condition are even smaller, and they are 100% immune to reprint. Wizards could churn out a dozen Masters sets over the next couple years and Alpha cards would do nothing but rise in price.
Speculators and collectors are catching on to this trend most recently, and even random commons like Ironclaw Orcs are disappearing. In Europe, these cards are moving in a big way as reflected by Magic Card Market’s price charting.
The trajectory has always been upward, but most recently things have begun to go parabolic. “Begun” is the operative word now. I am flagging this trend to you as it is happening, and it may not be too late to pick up a few gems for your Old School decks, cubes, portfolio, etc. But there will come a time when it will be too late, and the card you’re looking for just isn’t available for sale on the open market. At least, not at a real price that isn’t silly.
Then again, with a market as special as Alpha cards, maybe there is no such thing as “silly” pricing anymore. A month ago I would have said 15 euros was already too silly for an Alpha Ironclaw Orcs, after all. This just goes to show you how real this market trend is. I’ll conclude with this completed eBay listing below, just for awareness.
- I did a quick browse of Star City Games’ stock on Near Mint Alpha cards and the numbers are staggeringly low. There are a few random ones left, don’t get me wrong. But unless you’re looking for a Near Mint Ankh of Mishra or Chaoslace, the available stock is nearly nonexistent. I am extremely tempted to try buying their Near Mint Healing Salve simply because of auctions like this one:
- I just checked and confirmed that every common and uncommon from Alpha that is out of stock on TCGplayer is also sold out on Star City’s website. Coincidence? Or are these cards really in demand? Either way, if you can find any copies of these cards you could set the new market price by listing the only copy for sale on TCGplayer.