Insider: Has Card Value Shifted from Playability to Collectability?

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The finance game has changed dramatically in the past few years. I feel like I write sentences like that often here on, but the shift has been so dynamic and significant that acknowledging that simple fact is important to nearly every facet of collecting, buying, selling, and playing Magic: The Gathering.

The two biggest factors in influencing the market have been:

  1. Wizards has embraced frequent reprints in the Modern and Commander sector. If it isn't on the Reserved List, bet on seeing it again in a booster pack or preconstructed product.
  2. Investors and collectors going hard on Reserved List cards with the mentality that if Wizards is going to churn out reprints of every good card that they can, the best investment is obviously the cards that cannot be reprinted.

In the past, the best formula for investing in cards was to primarily acquire copies of fantastic tournament staples. There is always a high demand for cards that people will need to play the game. Not so much anymore. In fact, things have changed so much that I now believe if a card is good enough to be a long-term format staple, it will see multiple reprints down the road, which makes it a bad investment.

Basically, if your plan is to buy-in on Magic cards as collectible investments, the only "safe" move is to straight-up attack the Reserved List.

The Reserve List is a strange mish-mash of cards that includes many of the most iconic cards, the most powerful cards, and the most nostalgic cards. There are plenty of cards on the Reserve List that are staples in Eternal formats: The Power Nine in Vintage, the dual lands, and archetype-defining Legacy cards such as Lions Eye Diamond, Mox Diamond, and The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale.

There is clearly a correlation between collectibility, playability and the price of a card. In the past, I would have described an equation that tends to be an accurate predictor of value as looking something like this: collectability accounts for 25 percent of a card's value and actual playability accounts for 75 percent of the value.

These numbers are clearly not verifiable and they are not specifically important for understanding the concept that I'm proposing. The important part of the concept is simply that cards that generated value and became expensive tended to do so based around demand from players building decks.

Let's hop in the QS Time Machine so we can take a look at exactly what I'm describing:

It was a simpler time: Modern Masters was just a glimmer in WOTC's eye, The President of the United States didn't get into Twitter flame wars with athletes, and Jace, the Mind Sculptors ran roughshod over every format in Magic.

Standard-legal Jace was $150, which was in the same ballpark as many of the most desirable collectible Reserved List cards: Moxen, blue duals, Tabernacle, etc. The demand for legitimate tournament staples was closely linked to how many players were looking to pick up the card for play and much less so from people who viewed cards as collectible items. The collectible aspect of the game manifested less prominently than the utility a card provided in tournament Magic.

Masters sets have dramatically changed the value associated with utility or playability in the Modern marketplace. If a card is playable, and not also highly collectible (i.e., on the Reserved List) we can pretty much predict it will be reprinted to meet tournament player's demand.

I would actually argue that the loose equation I proposed earlier, where utility was the dominant predictor of value and collectibility the afterthought, has flipped in the other direction.

Here's a thought exercise:

If somebody gave me $1000.00 with the stipulation that I had to spend it on either Alpha Acid Web Spiders or Scalding Tarns, I'd choose Webs. I feel like that is a pretty fair indicator of a pure utility card versus a pure collectible card. Tarn is one of the most-played Magic cards throughout the non-rotating formats and Web is quite bad and has been reprinted in the Modern era as an uncommon. It's literally not even a Reserved List card.

And yet, my prediction would be that the Webs would generate more profit over the course of several years than the Tarns. Collectibility is king.

It's also a reason that I question the effectiveness of the Reserved List in general to accomplish what it was designed to do. Would reprinting Sedge Troll in a Standard-legal set have any impact on the value of Alpha, Beta, or Revised Sedge Trolls? Obviously, I'm spitballing ideas and have no way to prove or disprove the consequences made in my bizarro world, but I predict the value of the older editions would actually go up.

The addition of Llanowar Elves into Standaquadrupledled the value of the Beta editions. It isn't an apples-to-apples comparison, since Llanorwar Elves isn't on the Reserved List. However, I would argue that the "collectibility" factor of Beta cards is a fairly static statistic linked to scarcity and little else.

It is interesting to me exactly how the Reserved List plays into collectibility. Obviously, a card earmarked with a "never again" clause is more valuable than one that isn't. I believe that buyouts on Reserved List cards (AKA old cards) in a world of Masters and other reprint sets sparked the movement toward collecting old cards. However, I'm beginning to wonder if such a shift toward collectibility would have simply happened anyways, even without a Reserved List. Is it possible that we would have ended up in the same place even if the Reserved List didn't exist?

Really, I'm inclined to say yes, but probably at a less frantic pace. Even assuming that any card can be reprinted, in a world where anything can be reprinted, and cards tend to be reprinted based on demand (in particular, tournament demand), what cards would you want to invest in?

I wouldn't want to stock up on Scalding Tarns because they will get reprinted a zillion times. I'd still want Alpha Acid Web Spider.

The types of cards I would want in a Masters edition era with no Reserved List would still be copies of old-school tournament playable staples: Moxen, duals, Alpha cards, etc. The early, short printed editions would still be the most desirable and collectible cards in the game.

I don't mean to go too deep on the Reserved List, I'm merely bringing it up to illustrate a point: the value of Magic cards has shifted toward collectibility rather than playability. We live in a bizarro world where good cards equal bad long-term value. Up is down and down is up. Dogs and cats are living together. Mass Hysteria. Okay, that is maybe a slight exaggeration.

The fact remains, though, that old cards (Reserved List, but also other nice cards) are the most collectible cards in a game where Lion's Eye Diamond's value is derrived more from collectibility than playability. How have you shifted your card-acquisition strategy in the last few years?

One thought on “Insider: Has Card Value Shifted from Playability to Collectability?

  1. I think it’s very card dependent. I can certainly see how Alpha Web’s price is primarily based on collectibility, however, I would certainly not assume the Lion’s Eye Diamond price to have the same collectibility factor in it. It could very well be that the Alpha Web’s price is 99% collectibility while the Lion’s Eye Diamond’s price is 20% collectibility (and I feel I am putting that pretty high).

    I can agree with the general concept of collectibility becoming a larger factor. In fact I’ve written about how the print runs of older sets compare to current player numbers (here) and it makes sense that more players correlates with more collectors. As such I can certainly see older cards being influenced more by collectibility. (Though I think that “pimping” may possibly be a bigger factor than actual collectors).

    It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy to recommend that people put their money in older cards as they are so incredibly rare relative to the player numbers that even if 1% of your readers follows that advice they’d make a significant dent in the supply. There is for example only an Alpha Web for 0.005% of all players if you assume the 20M number Wizards once shared is correct so even if your article leads to a single sale on the card that’s very significant. You can make similar calculations for many older cards.

    Of course you’re not specifically recommending going out to buy this stuff, but that doesn’t mean people won’t.

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