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Insider: How an Old Article Has Aged After Six Years

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Let’s travel back in time for a moment. Back to an article I wrote nearly six years ago. It was on May 22, 2012 when I talked about a recent auction for Edvard Munch’s The Scream that had sold for over $119 million. The result inspired me to consider the rarest, most special Magic cards as art rather than as a game piece. Specifically, I talked about the investment merits of Near Mint Alpha rares.

Think about it. These cards were printed with known quantities in extremely low numbers. In the Old School Discord, some had referred to themselves as 1100ers because they had acquired one of only 1100 of any Alpha rare. Then when you filter out all the played stuff and focus on the Near Mint copies, you truly boil things down to a precious few.

This week I’m going to revisit this article for two reasons. First, I want to examine how well the topic has aged over time—these results may be surprising. Second, I want to take the topic of collectible Alpha one step further. I have noticed some very compelling trends lately and I think it’s worth highlighting so that our QS Insiders are fully aware of what is taking place in a very niche market.

Six Years’ Returns

In the 2012 article I talked about the minimal buylist for any NM Alpha rare (at the time, Star City Games was willing to pay at least $60 on even the worst rares). Right around when I wrote the article I had made two purchases myself: a Near Mint Two-Headed Giant of Foriys and a PSA 8 Earthquake. Now I’ll admit I flipped these both pretty quickly for an easy profit. But was that the right choice?


Nope! It turns out Earthquake has utility in Commander and Old School, and now Near Mint Alpha copies can buylist to Card Kingdom for $210! Oops. That’s one card I should have held!

How about the giant? That one didn’t age as well. The top buylist is currently $108 (MTG Seattle), not nearly as exciting as Earthquake. Still, this represents nearly a double-up from six years ago and this is not a return I would snub.

But here’s the thing: there are very few copies for sale on the open market right now. TCGplayer market price is $144.99, meaning copies have sold in that range. And there are zero Near Mint copies for sale right now. If I still had that card, I could pick a nice high price and sell to a collector. I’m thinking a Near Mint copy could easily sell at $200 with minimal effort.

In other words, just because buylists haven’t all caught up, finding gradable copies of Alpha rares has grown even more difficult over the past six years. For the record the lowest buy price on a Near Mint Alpha rare is now $79 (Living Artifact).


So with a few terrible exceptions, Alpha rares in nice condition have performed quite well and I think they will continue to do so over the next six years.

Downshifting Doesn’t Mean Less Profits

Investing in nice Alpha rares ended up being a solid investment these past few years. Old School MTG likely catalyzed some growth, and the collector market has heated up lately. Now I’m seeing an even more exciting trend: Near Mint and graded Alpha commons and uncommons.

Before you scoff, you really need to see some of these completed eBay listings.

These are just a fraction of recently completed listings on eBay from the past couple months! Some of these cards don’t even have very good grades! A BGS 7.5 Holy Strength selling for $46, are you kidding me?! And check out that premium demanded by a BGS 9.5 Alpha card! Firebreathing isn’t exactly Old School-playable, yet one sold for over $130 shipped not long ago.

This hype is all happening right now, as we speak. Graded Alpha commons and uncommons are selling fast, and even ungraded Near Mint cards are demanding large premiums.

Let’s face it: while the rares are obviously the cards with the fewest numbers, Alpha commons and uncommons are still extremely sparse. According to Crystal Keep, only 4,500 of each Alpha uncommon and 16,000 of each Alpha common were printed. Now add in the fact that these cards were played without sleeves back in the day and you can begin to internalize just how rare Near Mint copies truly are. And with the recent run on Old School cards, it’s no surprise that these too are being targeted.

The Strategy

With cards of this rarity, it’s impossible to prescribe a single strategy for buying and selling. Like rare artwork, selling highly graded Alpha commons requires the right audience.

Finding underpriced copies can be difficult, but not impossible. Especially if you are willing to buy Near Mint cards and submit for grading yourself. A $15 purchase may yield a $60 sale if the grade comes in favorably. Unfortunately I can offer little in terms of where to make such purchases. Scrounge the market, watch TCGplayer and eBay closely for Near Mint listings, and see what you can dig up.

If you can find some nice Alpha commons on the market, there are definitely buyers out there. Even that BGS 9.5 Alpha Firebreathing can fetch a huge price tag, but you need to find the collectors. When I talked about Alpha rares six years ago I mentioned using buylists as your price floor—buylists were aggressive then and they remain aggressive now, making any Near Mint Alpha rare worth triple digits with few exceptions.

This same approach doesn’t hold water for the commons and uncommons because many have pitiably low buy prices. The lowest buy price award currently goes to Gray Ogre, which gets you a whopping $3.65 from ABU Games.


But that’s a bogus number. You know that. I know that. Just last week a PSA 9 copy sold on eBay for $63 shipped! And that was an auction with four bidders! That means there are at least two people willing to pay $60+ for a nice copy of the “cheapest” Alpha card out there (according to vendors).

(Click to expand.)

At this point, you need to use eBay, TCGplayer, or some other platform to make profits on these cards. This means they carry a little more risk since you don’t have the security of a store’s buylist backing you up.

Despite the lower buy prices, I still think this is a worthwhile endeavor. In fact, I’ve recently submitted an order for some graded Alpha cards ranging from BGS 5.5 (it was $7 so I figured why not?) to BGS 9.0 (with subs 9/9/9.5/9.5). If you’re hesitant to pull the trigger on this trend, you can wait to see how I do flipping these cards. If I can generate profits by tapping this collectors’ market, then it may be worth it for others to open up a modest position.

What Happened to the King of MP?

There’s a running joke in the Quiet Speculation Insider Discord that I’m the king of MP sales. The MP doesn’t stand for major profits. It stands for Moderately Played. That’s because I’ve developed a sense of played, older cards that still have a demand profile on the open market. This ranges from Dwarven Warriors I’ve sold for $7 to [card]Spell Blast[/cards] that went for $33. These Alpha cards are getting so rare now that even played commons have a price floor.

To be able to navigate the market of played Alpha commons, you need to rely heavily on buylists and eBay completed listings. They can guide you in finding what’s worth buying. If I search TCGplayer for Alpha cards and sort by price, lowest first, I see Fear as the first match.

So you may think Fear is a garbage card not worth buying. Wrong! Channel Fireball will pay $7 for Near Mint copies, $3.50 for SP, and $1.75 for MP. Card Kingdom only pays $4.40 for NM, but they’ll pay $3.52 for SP and $2.64 for MP. But good luck finding any for that cheap—they start at $11.50 on TCGplayer for HP and the cheapest Buy-It-Now listing on eBay is $6 (and five copies sold at this price in the past month).

(Click to expand.)

So, if you find any Alpha “bulk,” say under a buck or two, anywhere—your collection, your LGS, at a GP, anywhere. Even if it’s moderately and heavily played. Buy it. Don’t buy hundreds (I doubt you’ll find that many) because they won’t move quickly. But they’ll move. You’ll make a profit.

Wrapping It Up

I want to conclude this week with a bold call. I’m not Tarkan, who correctly predicted a $1000 price tag on Juzám in 2017. But I know the Alpha market fairly well now and I think I have the data needed to make a prediction. I think any SP Alpha card will sell for at least $10 and any MP Alpha card will sell for at least $7 by the end of this year. They may not sell overnight, and it may take work. But I think the days of finding cheap Alpha cards are just about gone.

As for Near Mint Alpha cards, I think any BGS 8.5 or better Alpha card will sell for more than $30. BGS 9.0 and better should sell for more than $50, and when the subs are 9/9/9.5/9.5 they will sell for nearly $100. Again, selling these cards will take time and effort. There aren’t a ton of people out there looking for that BGS 9.5 Firebreathing. But these cards are so rare that they will continue to climb in price as they disappear into collectors’ hands forever.

When dealing with Alpha, the quantities are so small that even the most pitiful, unplayable common can still be traded for a booster pack of the latest set. I’ve been checking TCGplayer constantly for Alpha cards, so I’m well acquainted with the data—unless you’re buying something damaged or HP and completely unplayable, you’re looking at double-digit prices for almost any card. You may get lucky of course, and find something listed on an obscure website that’s underpriced. But in terms of TCGplayer and eBay, that’s my prediction for 2018.

I guess all we have to do now is wait.

…

Sigbits

  • It’s only a matter of time before vendors react to the recent movement in the Alpha market. Star City Games is literally sold out of every single common from Alpha except Sinkhole. They have a few overpriced uncommons in stock and that’s it. Given they’ve taken their foot off the pedal when it comes to buying older stuff, I’m not sure they’ll make a change anytime soon. But don’t expect to find anything Alpha worth buying on their site until they increase their buy/sell prices.
  • Card Kingdom has been far more responsive to Alpha movement lately, and as a result you can actually find some cards in stock on their site. Of course, the most desirable commons and uncommons are still out of stock or carry hefty market premiums. But over the next 12 months, I am confident they’ll find the right equilibrium. And if my prediction is correct, they won’t be selling EX copies of any Alpha cards for under $10 for much longer.
  • Lastly, direct your attention to ABU Games. Their Alpha stock is also quite spotty, but they actually have a relatively large stock of graded Alpha. This is where I’ve acquired a few lately—with trade credit, some of their prices are quite attractive. Just be careful if you decide to jump in. Finding the right cards with the right grades and subgrades is critical and could mean the difference between easy profit and a painfully-long-term hold.

2 thoughts on “Insider: How an Old Article Has Aged After Six Years

  1. Your predictions for new price floors make sense. How would you apply those to buylist floors, or do those numbers include buylists?

    Also – do you think there’s merit in exposing a longterm portfolio to a healthy amount of Alpha, regardless of condition, at current retail prices?

    1. Buy lists are a bit tricky with Alpha. It seems some shops are reluctant to increase their buy prices as cards from this set disappear. Card Kingdom has been the best one to react, but even they have been slow in moving. In the case of Alpha, I think you may have better luck waiting patiently for the eBay or TCGplayer sale if you want a higher price.

      Of course, buylists will move EVENTUALLY…it just may take some time.

      I definitely think Alpha belongs in every serious MTG portfolio. For players and people looking to flip cards quickly, Alpha isn’t really an optimal vehicle. But if you like to hold cards for long-term appreciation, then Alpha should definitely be prioritized. The cards are just SO rare and SO iconic in nature.

      As for retail prices – if you can find the more desirable cards at retail prices, then you should be snap-buying! That’s because retail prices haven’t caught up with market price in many cases. I have bought Alpha cards from SCG and CK numerous times now, only to flip a handful for immediate profit on eBay or Twitter. I wouldn’t chase too far on some of this stuff, but if you can find a deal I would definitely jump on it.

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