Bull, Bear, or Somewhere in Between?

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For investors, the majority of the last 18 months has been a magical ride. Picking stocks on Wall Street in 2017 was easier than picking ripe avocados at the supermarket, and economic optimism was as high as I have ever seen in my lifetime. There was growth across nearly every sector and the major Wall Street indices climbed to all-time highs.

During the same time, Magic endured one of the most euphoric states of health in its 25-year history. Several formats grew substantially while player creativity and deck brewing escalated to unparalleled heights. Similar to Wall Street growth, Magic was a fruitful place to park money, both for enjoyment and to see a return on investment.

The wide-spread engagement of the playerbase was fueled by great products, notably Commander 2017 and Dominaria, and great designs, such as Ramos, Dragon Engine and Slimefoot, the Stowaway. The community saw a huge resurgence of Old School, and the Modern meta evolved into one of the most dynamic and exciting formats in recent memory. Additionally, previously casual formats like Pauper and Commander grew substantially in 2017, so much so that the latter is arguably now the most popular format of all.

Economic factors such as all-time low unemployment rates, increasing wages, tax cuts, and general consumer optimism only added fuel to the fire. The newfound disposable income led to new cash flows being infused into the secondary market, which in turn supported an unprecedented demand created by player optimism. Supply became challenged as players dove into a variety of formats and staples sold out everywhere. Replacement-level cards (i.e., budget options) jumped as well (ex: Collectors' Edition and Chronicles), proving the case that the bull market was for real.

At one point, it felt like there wasn’t a card in the Magic world that was off-limits to seeing a spike (I’m looking at you, Wall of Kelp).

What Goes Up…

But, inevitably, summer arrived and the stream of cash flows started drying up… vacations; college funds; beer gardens; you name it. Some took profits off the table while others rotated profits into higher end cards which caused things like duals, Masterpieces, and Power 9 to see additional gains into June and July.

Magic lost the interest of its players as it historically does over the summer, but interestingly, Wizards still released Core Set 2019. The set did draw a little interest because of its throwback to the Elder Dragons and background of Nicol Bolas. But M19 did little to shake up the meta, and Standard grew stale. Summer set in, and demand slowed significantly by June while supply returned, stabilizing prices in the process. Note the graph of Trinisphere: a growing commodity in Eternal formats, it saw a nice jump in the spring before leveling off around May 1.

This trend was similar with many cards I looked at while investigating my hypothesis, and it helps reinforce what we already knew about the impact the summer can have. As we head into the winter months, a new Standard is on the horizon and Magic should come back into focus for players, collectors, and speculators. But, the question remains: will the bull market pick up where it left off before summer or will the summer lull carryover?

Hibernating Bull

I am taking the stance that the bull market is a thing of the past, and that the summer lull was the beginning of a prolonged downturn for MTG finance.

For starters, with Guilds of Ravnica almost here and cooler weather starting to set in, the expectation should be that players will start brewing and infusing cash into Magic again. Unfortunately, I don’t sense as much excitement from players as we head back to Ravnica for the third time. This set doesn’t feel like it is sparking the creative desire in players like Dominaria did earlier in the year.

Furthermore, the set design mirrors Ravnica and Return to Ravnica, which feel too recent to need to be revisited. What made Dominaria exceptional was the amount of unearthed lore the set contained – it pulled players in from all over, especially those who hadn’t played Magic in years. The set was nostalgic for players who started in the 90s and the storyline was original, lessening the focus on the Gatewatch and instead bringing back or referencing some of the most memorable characters in MTG lore.

Combine that with great chase cards, lots of legendary creatures for EDH players, and wonderful card balance and you have one of the best single-set releases in MTG history. It would have been very hard to top Dominaria, but Guilds of Ravnica feels underwhelming and to be blunt, lazy.

If my sentiment is reflected in others, it could mean the marketplace is in for lackluster sales and constrained cash flows. This would, of course, make speculation on Eternal formats more challenging, at least until Ravnica Allegiance is released, and only if that set brings better design and some unique cards to get the creativity and inspiration flowing again in the community.

In addition to Guilds of Ravnica excitement, I have noticed price movement has been more concentrated lately. There will always be spikes because cards are spoiled, but the bull market was sparked by organic demand, notably from heavy deck brewing, an inspired player base, and collectors expanding their portfolios.

I will be watching closely to see if the inspired playerbase returns in the fall, especially with a fresh Standard and more EDH toys from Guilds of Ravnica (and Commander 2018 for that matter).

Action Plan

In response to my feelings right now, I am taking some steps to ensure my MTG finance game is prepared for any sort of prolonged downturn. Remember, when the rising tide is lifting all ships, it is easy to be less disciplined with investing decisions because the consequences are often mild. But, as the euphoria wears off, disciplined investing becomes critical and bad decisions can hurt far worse.

I am preparing for a different MTG outlook as we head into a new era of Standard catalyzed by Guilds of Ravnica's release. When Dominaria hit, MTG finance was booming, and gains were everywhere, so I was not as disciplined with my acquisitions. Many times, this did not hurt me as the cards still found their way into a price spike, even if the margins were only good enough to profit via buylists. I feel like those same decisions made in this cooled-off marketplace will have bigger ramifications.

Below are fundamentals I am reinforcing in my investment habits, particularly when making decisions on what my MTG finance portfolio will look like heading into the winter months (note: most of these apply regardless of a bull or bear market):

  • In a down market, even the most desirable cards can take significantly longer to net meaningful returns because demand spikes are capped by consumer reluctance and spending habits.
  • Focus majority of specs on low-risk, high-reward pickups while reducing or eliminating high-risk, high-reward exposure.
    • A good example of this was Phyrexian Dreadnought in response to Lazav, the Multifarious being spoiled.
    • An upcoming slam-dunk recommendation is Guilds of Ravnica: Mythic Edition.
  • Maintain free cash flow by not going as deep on specs.
  • Leverage buylists to keep capital freed up, and for QS Insiders, be sure to use Trader Tools aggressively to maximize value.
  • Purchase specs under the pretext that I, or players I play with, will use the cards should they not achieve serviceable returns in a desired timeframe (provides an easy out that helps mitigate losses on fees, shipping, etc.).
  • Acquire blue-chip cards that won’t be going anywhere regardless of player sentiment.

Here are some targets I am considering right now which meet the above guidelines:

  1. Walking Ballista – It's a multi-format, multi-archetype superstar; you can't go wrong.
  2. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria – See above.
  3. Tundra – It's on the Reserved List, and with Teferi making control relevant again in multiple formats, this dual feels underpriced.
  4. Paradox Engine – It's one of the most dominating "new money" (to borrow Brian's term) cards in all of EDH.
  5. Sol Ring – A forever staple of EDH and Old School playgroups, plus a casual favorite.
  6. Any playable Reserved List card – many important RL cards have cooled off and are beginning to retrace back to attractive entry points

Wrapping Up

I don’t foresee demand trends changing in the immediate future, and it is too early to say how long the lull will last. My prediction is it will last through the fall and into the winter, unless Guilds of Ravnica ends up being a big hit in Standard post-launch. I am genuinely concerned with the lack of overall buzz in the community right now given the new sets we received in the last six weeks, but I am hopeful that a fresh Standard will be the catalyst to inspire players to pick up where we left off before summer began.

What do you think? Is my sentiment on the market outlook off-base, farfetched, or an overreaction? Hit me up with your reactions in the comments below, on Discord, or on Twitter!

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