Each week I discuss an array of cards, sharing their price charts as an indication that they are increasing or decreasing in value. Readers internalize the information and use the numbers shown to make investment decisions of their own. It’s a well-oiled machine.
But this numbers-based analysis, while factually precise, misses an important factor: non-monetary utility. In other words, a card has “value” to an individual that goes beyond a number displayed on MTG Stocks. Is the card in a deck? Is it part of a collection? Does it represent some nostalgia experienced from childhood? Each of these “uses” builds upon a card’s value and should be quantified accordingly. When people fail to take those uses into account, it creates the perception that irrationality is driving the Magic market.
However, at the end of the day, these non-monetary utilities equate to a number. If nothing else, it should be driven by opportunity cost—your cards offer a utility that has value, which needs to be compared against other potential assets that have their own separate utility.
That’s what I’m going to chase after this week—it may be far from perfect, but hopefully the thought process alerts readers to the fact that cards have monetary and non-monetary value, and these need to be summed somehow in order to drive fully rational decisions.
Cards in Decks
Once upon a time I played Legacy at my local game shop every Sunday afternoon. I long for these “good old days,” back when Legacy was in its explosive growth period and the format was wide open and exhilarating to learn. Cards in my Legacy collection had different value to me then than they do now. I wouldn’t even think about selling my Force of Wills or Wastelands; they were critical components of my deck.
But rather than deciding these Legacy cards were not for sale and essentially applying an infinite value upon them, I maintained a pragmatic view of the value of my collection. I didn’t check buylists every day and I certainly wasn’t tracking the value of my collection too closely. But every once in a while, I would discover a price increase on one of my Legacy cards; I knew interest in the format was exploding. Then gradually over time, the utility I gained from owning these Legacy cards started to diminish.
I had gone from playing Legacy every week (and winning store credit a fair amount of the time) to playing the beloved format just once or twice a year. At the same time, values on Legacy staples had skyrocketed. Recognizing that my collection had grown in value, I made the decision that these cards would do me better if converted into cash than as game pieces I could use only sporadically. I sold out.
I share this anecdote because I think we need to maintain some level of awareness of the value we store in decks. For most of my Magic career (and even now, to an extent) I consider cards in my decks as “not for sale.” Why sell a card I’m using, right? But we need to focus on two things when making such a sweeping statement: how often we use the card and how much utility we get from using it.
If you’re playing frequently and you’re getting significant enjoyment out of playing, then it stands to reason you will value cards in your decks far higher than their market price. But even frequently played cards should still have an exit value. Minimally you should be willing to sell any card out of your deck that you could re-acquire for less money. But even beyond this, we need to accept that these game pieces don’t have infinite value to us no matter how much we like to believe this.
Remember: cards have real cash values to them. At some point, a card may become more valuable than the utility it provides even in decks. If you’re playing a deck infrequently and are mostly playing for fun, rarely cashing out at events, then the cash value of your cards need to be a considerable factor. After all, you can always swap out those cards with something else. This may be suboptimal, but if you’re not playing to win anyway, it may not make as much difference. Especially cards with near-functional replacements.
Your cards have opportunity cost, and you need to consciously be weighing the utility of your deck against utility of something else you could be doing with the money. This is what happened to me with Legacy: I recognized the value of my collection should be converted into cash because I could put those resources to work elsewhere and gain more value than the fun I had playing those particular cards.
And if you play in tournaments competitively with the intent of winning, then this discussion becomes even easier. You need to estimate your expected tournament winnings based on past performance, and add that value to the inherent cost of your deck. If at some point you can sell your deck and make a return on your investment that exceeds your estimated tournament winnings, then this is something you should do.
This is especially critical for formats where cards are frequently reprinted. We become blinded by winning cash at a tournament, while neglecting the fact that our deck’s value could be cut in half and wipe out those gains thanks to some poorly timed reprints.
Bottom line: cards in decks are fun game pieces, it’s true. But they have cash value too and we should not ignore this just because they’re sitting inside a deck box rather than a trade binder.
Cards in Collections
Things become a lot more emotional when collections are involved. I’m a bit of a completist myself, which is why I ultimately finished my set of 55 Legends legends—the multi-colored creatures. Now as I watch buylists on these cards hit all-time highs, I don’t feel even remotely tempted to cash out.
This must be how some diehard collectors feel about a large portion of their collection. If everything is critically included in the collection, then no price would be tempting. I would encourage even the most dedicated of collectors to remember the value of their collection and the associated opportunity costs.
For example, I may be trying to obtain key Alpha cards for my mono-black all Alpha Plague Rats deck. I would love to add a Mind Twist, Demonic Tutor, and Chaos Orb to the list. But these cards in Alpha are particularly expensive (at retail these are $600, $500, and $1200 respectively for NM). Not only that, they’re also becoming increasingly difficult to find on the market altogether!
So now here I am with a cherished collection of Legends creatures gradually climbing in value. At some point, is it better for me to cash out of that collection to pick up some key Alpha cards for my deck? Maybe. That depends on what I find more important in my collection. My point is, having a collection is fun but I need to understand that holding such a collection “sacred” and never selling it could be shutting me out from other acquisitions.
Now with Legends cards, many of which are on the Reserved List, I really have no qualms with holding for a long period of time. But if you had collected reprintable cards, then the decision becomes much more important.
Maybe having one of each Commander deck that Wizards printed isn’t as important as some other card you have been wanting for a while? Don’t forget to look beyond Magic too—many cards have become valuable enough to be worth real money. Home repairs, student loan payments, or family vacations: they all take money, and they all could be more important to you than a portion of your Magic collection.
Wrapping It Up
I am under the impression that a sizable portion of the MTG finance community is solely focused on buying. That is, they are keen to watch prices of cards because they want to make their purchases before prices go higher. But I would argue an equal amount of attention needs to go towards the sell side of the equation.
Some will hide behind the fact that they use their cards in decks, or that cards make up a crucial part of their collection. I’m not arguing with this point, nor do I disagree that they have utility beyond just their value on the market. What I’m emphasizing this week is the importance of recognizing that your cards all have value, and that value can be translated into cash. This is cash that can be used for an infinite number of other purposes, and some of those purposes just may offer higher utility.
In the case of having cards in decks, keep in mind how often you play both casually and competitively. If you find yourself playing cards strictly for fun, consider if the fun you’re getting out of a card merits sitting on it vs. putting that money elsewhere. If you’re playing competitively with the hope of winning tournaments, make sure you consider all costs associated with playing on that level (travel, entry fees, risks to reprints) and weigh those against the winnings you’ve accrued. You may find yourself “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” That is, you may be losing more money in these hidden costs than you’re actually gaining from maintaining tournament decks.
Lastly, for those of you sitting on more sizable/valuable collections, you must consider what you are sacrificing to maintain these collections. In an extreme example, owning a set of Power 9 while carrying credit card debt is a fool’s errand. There’s no way Power 9 will grow in value at the same rate as a credit card rate. And even if it did, you may be putting yourself at risk of financial ruin should something happen to you while nine pieces of cardboard rot in your collection waiting to be played in some once-annual Vintage tournament. These are real tradeoffs you’re making, and you need to be conscious of them.
And while Power is an extreme example, there are so many collectible or EDH cards worth a ton that perhaps merit selling for other uses. Gaea's Cradle, Imperial Seal, Ravages of War, Library of Alexandria, and Masterpieces are all examples of cards worth a great deal that may not be giving you the utility you deserve.
And while some of these cards are on the Reserved List and can double as investments, make sure you consider those opportunity costs when deciding to hold. Everything has been trending favorably now, but Magic cards may not climb in value forever. Even Reserved List stuff. Anything can happen in this unregulated market, and being conscious of your collection’s utility will ensure you don’t have regrets should anything happen to the game.
- While Star City Games has a price tag of $1200 on Alpha Chaos Orb now, they don’t have any in stock even if you wanted one. Actually, they don’t have any copies from any printings at all in stock. That includes CE and IE copies. At $500, the Unlimited printing of the card is now on par with Dual Lands from that set—a testament to the popularity of the only format that allows Chaos Orb, Old School.
- I’m kind of disappointed in Star City’s stock on older cards recently. They seem sold out of nearly all relevant Alpha, Beta, Arabian Nights, Legends, and Antiquities cards. It seems their buylist has really lagged competitors recently. So when I look at something like Tawnos's Coffin sold out at $80, I know this is meaningless because it’s too close to Card Kingdom’s buy price of $60. But when SCG will restock these cards is a mystery. Perhaps they’ve given up on these classic cards altogether?
- Here’s a more recent card that is also sold out at Star City Games: Mox Opal. No Scars of Mirrodin copies, no Modern Masters 2015 copies, and no Masterpiece copies with prices of $80, $80, and $200 respectively. This is a pretty substantial price for a Modern card that has been reprinted and can be reprinted again. Prospects would be good for a price increase if Masters 25 wasn’t right around the corner. Let’s wait and see what’s reprinted in that set and then revisit some of these Modern/Legacy staples.