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Unlocked: The Market Forces at Play

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Vendors have had variable reactions to recent shifts in card prices—particularly on older cards. Each online shop, whether it be ABU Games, Cool Stuff Inc, Star City Games, Channel Fireball, or Card Kingdom, has their own pricing strategies. Some move quickly and broadly, shifting prices of entire sets at once. Others bump card prices up little by little and in pockets.

But regardless of how vendors do things, one common trend has emerged: older card prices have been on the rise. The result is far less arbitrage opportunity across the entire market. I used to browse certain websites each and every day, scouring for restocks of cards priced far too low relative to the rest of the market. Now, sadly, this opportunity is much harder to find.

Is the party completely over? Can good deals still be located with patience and a little luck? This week I will examine a few websites I have tracked closely and share how their pricing strategy has impacted the broader market and evolved over time.

It All Started…

Back in March I discovered a major pricing discrepancy in Alpha cards. Prices had surged higher, but some vendors were slow to adjust. This led to numerous arbitrage-driven purchases from vendors such as Cool Stuff Inc, Star City Games, and my personal favorite, Card Kingdom. Here’s an example purchase:

(Click to expand.)

Approximately every other day, Card Kingdom would restock Alpha cards at these prices, and I would buy up a bunch. Some I kept for my collection, and some I threw on eBay to sell for modest profits. It was a perfect system, and I leveraged it as much as I could for about two months. In that time period I made over 40 purchases of Alpha cards, most coming from Card Kingdom.

Then the inevitable happened. I sat by and watched Card Kingdom, Star City Games, ABU Games, and Cool Stuff Inc virtually run out of all stock of Alpha cards. This was a bad sign—it represented the inevitable. Vendors would have to increase buy prices to restock these in-demand cards, and this would lead to higher sell prices.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, ABU Games came along and ratcheted their buy prices on all older cards way higher. Suddenly, the strategy needed to change drastically. Alpha cards were still sparse at major vendors, but some copies were available on TCGplayer for under ABU Games buylist. What’s more, ABU became aggressive on Beta, Unlimited, and Arabian Nights cards too. Suddenly one could purchase cards from these sets from Card Kingdom to ship directly to ABU Games for profit.


This move by ABU Games was the last straw. The market reacted; TCGplayer copies of older cards were relisted much higher, and other major vendors followed suit. Prices rose across the board, and the great deals on A/B/U cards became extinct.

The Current Landscape

Everything is more expensive now. Everywhere. For example, that $74.99 VG Alpha White Knight I bought from Card Kingdom would cost me $239.99 now. A similarly conditioned copy from ABU Games costs $287.49. Star City Games has arguably the most attractive price, $174.99 for “HP” (which I have found tends to be MP). This reflects a tripling of price in just four months.

The list of such price increases goes on forever. It also extends to Beta, Unlimited, and even Arabian Nights cards.

ABU Games’s aggressive move to increase buy prices created a halo effect, causing other vendors to follow suit. However this led to two additional consequences—one good and one bad.

On the plus side, major vendors finally have these old cards in stock again. It was so frustrating to browse Card Kingdom’s Alpha stock and see everything pretty much sold out. The same was true for Cool Stuff Inc and Star City Games. Now, a couple months later, vendors are finally starting to hold some of these cards in stock for longer than three minutes. Prices are all much higher, of course, but if you’re hoping to flip some store credit into these cards, it helps to at least be able to get said cards.

Now for the bad news: ABU Games was unable to maintain their crazy-high cash buy prices for these older cards. My guess (which is probably correct) is that after jacking up their buy prices, ABU Games received tons of high-end buylist orders. Cash flow probably became tight, and they had to adjust. That’s what happens when you suddenly pay above TCG low on hundreds of cards. However it also means the arbitrage opportunities are at least temporarily gone. It’s worth noting you can still get a ton of trade credit by shipping this stuff to ABU Games. Only the cash numbers were slashed.


ABU Games’s super high buy prices were only available for about a month. But that was enough to drastically move the entire market. The result: higher prices everywhere across the board. But at least vendors are starting to hold these cards in stock long enough for you to make a purchase.

Looking Ahead

It took months, but most vendors are caught up on the new prices. That being said, some inconsistencies are still yet to be corrected. For example, every online vendor has zero or near-zero stock on Unlimited Power. Star City Games is sold out (or perhaps pulled their stock for the SCG Open); ABU Games is sold out; Card Kingdom has a NM Black Lotus ($12,000) and a NM Time Walk ($3200); Cool Stuff Inc has a single Mox Jet ($2300) and Mox Emerald ($2000).

I’ve seen pictures from GP Minneapolis—Power prices are higher across the board. Vendors have been gradual in their price increases, but this has led to a shortage of stock online. Expect prices on Power to continue climbing until vendors can actually hold. Don’t forget, pricing is all out of whack lately because of how hot older cards have become. When it gets to a point where a Juzám Djinn is worth nearly as much as a Mox, you know something isn’t right.

Let’s look at Chaos Orb next. This card ran up in price very quickly and caught every vendor off guard.


There are about a dozen Unlimited copies in stock on TCGplayer, with HP starting at $650 and NM at $1200. When I search all the major vendors, they’re all sold out. The one exception is ABU Games, who has a NM copy listed for $1749.99. By the way, that “near mint” copy is signed…

Vendors just can’t keep this card in stock, and they will have to keep increasing their buy and sell prices in order to actually have a couple available for prospective buyers. Until they make this adjustment, they will continue to be out of stock.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about Unlimited cards in general. Many Unlimited cards have jumped, partly thanks to ABU Games’s aggressive move. But vendors have been slow to react. Card Kingdom was way underpriced relative to the rest of the market for weeks, but they’ve gradually been catching up. But they're still offsides on pricing when it comes to cards like dual lands, Icy Manipulator, and Disrupting Scepter. Each of these prices needs to rise before Card Kingdom will be able to keep any in stock for more than a minute.

Lastly, I want to point out a shortage in a couple Arabian Nights cards on the market. Take a quick look at Guardian Beast.


There are eight copies for sale on TCGplayer, with HP starting at $350 and NM at $600. Card Kingdom has been out of stock on this card for days now. Their $350 buy price just isn’t high enough. ABU Games only has one altered copy in stock at $461.25. No thanks. Your best bet is actually to buy Star City Games’s “PL” copy at $425. This is a very fair price and will likely be a worthwhile purchase when looking ahead three months.

City in a Bottle is another Arabian Nights card that likely has an imminent price bump in store. Card Kingdom’s two copies of Juzám Djinn is unlikely to keep the vendor satisfied, so expect that one to adjust higher soon if they don’t get any new copies in.

Wrapping It Up

It’s really fascinating to watch the market on Old School cards unfold. With something like Standard or Modern cards, all vendors appear to move together in unison as they react to market trends. But with older cards that have low stock, price adjustments appear to happen in a cascading fashion. One vendor can make an aggressive move and cause other vendors to gradually follow suit. I find this fairly unique when compared to other MTG assets.

This has been happening steadily for the past few months as vendors take turns at an aggressive pursuit of key cards. That said, ABU Games was definitely one of the biggest catalysts for a market shift. When they posted crazy-high buy prices on Old School cards, it only took a month for the rest of the market to react. Now other vendors are all priced higher and TCGplayer has lost its allure for arbitrage.

With all that said, there are a couple positives from this move. For one, large vendors are gradually getting these desirable cards back in stock (albeit at higher prices). TCGplayer has also seen a gradual restock of Alpha cards, which is nice. And secondly, the attractive deals have not disappeared altogether; they merely shifted.

For example, you can still find some underpriced Unlimited cards out there if you are patient and lucky. Card Kingdom still has some low prices if you can catch a restock. Also, Cool Stuff Inc has restocked a handful of Alpha cards at pricing that is actually very reasonable. Even Star City Games is worth browsing if you’re after certain Alpha and Arabian Nights cards—their grading is conservative and this leads to some attractive deals.

In total, even though the general trend is a rising tide, relative opportunities are always present. There are too many niche markets with Old School cards for everything to be 100% efficient. The places one has to look may evolve with shifting market trends, but the opportunities are always out there, ripe for the picking.

Sigbits

  • Despite the recent pullback in dual land prices, Tropical Island appears to remain in robust demand. Card Kingdom still has the land on their hotlist and are paying $295 for near mint copies. This has got to be near their highest offer ever. Could this be a reflection of an evolving Legacy metagame?
  • Recently Card Kingdom upped their buy price on Beta Dark Ritual. They were paying $65, but they just upped their price to $78 for near-mint copies. Again, I don’t know if the Legacy metagame has anything to do with this move or if it’s strictly driven by Old School demand.
  • Card Kingdom has been varying their buy price on Eternal Masters Mana Crypt. At one point they raised their buy price all the way up to $90. Then they quickly went back down to $75. But as of this morning, they’re paying $90 again. This one will have sustained demand from Commander play, so expect it to keep climbing until it gets another reprint.

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