For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the Autumn season has arrived at last. As a fan of colder weather, I welcome the changing season with open arms. For me, it’s always a refreshing time of year.
It may be refreshing from an MTG finance perspective as well. After all, haven’t we all been talking about the “summer slowdown” in demand these past few months? The theory has always been that people leave college for the summer, don’t see their classmates as much, and have far better things to do during the summer season than sit at a kitchen table and sling cardboard. So doesn’t that mean prices need to be rebounding?
I’m not so sure if this sentiment is accurate—at least, not for every sector of the MTG market. This week I want to analyze some price charts for key cards across multiple formats to determine if the fall has historically been favorable from a price action standpoint. I’ll do my best to rationalize confounding data, such as reprints, and we’ll see if the fall is truly going to mark some price recovery. Otherwise, we could be in for a bleak season ahead.
Back when there was a definitive Modern Pro Tour schedule, it was a little easier to predict when Modern cards would come into style. Players would have to sleeve up decks for the format in order to have a shot at qualifying for that Pro Tour. But now it feels like the format-season relationship in competitive play is a bit tougher to track. Does this mean price trends aren’t as predictable? Let’s take a look at some key Modern cards and find out.
Karn’s price trend is so predictable, you could probably create a periodic function to describe it. He jumped in price in winter 2013, 2014, 2015 (marginally due to reprint in Modern Masters 2015), 2016, 2017, and 2018. His price never really showed appreciation during fall months. Movement always happened after each New Year holiday, sometimes taking up until March.
Liliana saw price increases in March 2013, March 2014, February 2015, February 2016, and then tapered off after Modern Masters 2017 reprinting. Then in February of this year she spiked again and has since been retracting rather aggressively. The fall has consistently been quiet for this Modern staple. I’m noticing a trend.
The reprints make this one tricky, but you can still decipher a similar trend with Cryptic Command. The card spiked in February 2013 and February 2014. It even held firm in the early part of 2015, despite being reprinted in both Modern Masters and Modern Masters 2015. Then it tanked throughout the rest of 2015 and remained in the dumps until it got a slight rebound in spring 2017. The spring of 2018 brought a tiny bump higher in price, but barely perceivable. Judging by these three charts, I wouldn’t expect movement on this card until February 2019.
In summary, Modern staples—when not enduring recent reprint—have a tendency to bounce in the late winter or early spring, but rarely show signs of life during the fall. I’m going to hold off on Modern acquisitions until after the New Year as a result.
With Legacy it is much easier to track trends because we can focus on Reserved List cards, knowing there will be no confounding reprint data. But even with reprints, we should be able to decipher the trend. Let’s take a look at a couple cards.
Dual lands could potentially fluctuate depending on their popularity in a given Legacy metagame. But Underground Sea has always been the most in-demand and most expensive—at least it has been for the past decade.
The card saw a small bump in price in April 2013, then a more significant one in April 2014. The card did nothing for 22 months before showing a small pop in February 2016. Then another 17 months of flatlining until it rose in July 2017. Then of course it spiked drastically in May/June of this year, along with every Reserved List card.
Ancient Tomb’s price history is interesting to study. It has occasional spikes followed by many months of tapering off. The first spike came in March 2014, then in June 2016, then in March 2018. It seems like this one moves approximately every two years, in the springtime. No sign of movement in the fall.
Here’s another Reserved List card that sees Legacy play. Yet again we see a strange pricing pattern—mostly flatlined with sporadic spikes. This card was pretty much $30 for a long time. Then it saw its first big move in February 2016. The card saw a subsequent, slight increase in July 2016, but then remained flat until September 2017. Then of course it jumped up like crazy this past April, being a targeted Reserved List card.
It seems Legacy cards spike less reliably than Modern cards—this makes perfect sense because there’s been no seasonality to Legacy for years. Prices move based on either metagame shifts or Reserved List buyouts, it seems. While they could happen in the Fall, I’m going to conclude that these really aren’t going to reliably increase this season. Since we just had a spike a few months ago, I suspect we’re going to be flat for quite some time before we see another increase.
So far, I haven’t found much evidence of price movement in the fall. Perhaps Commander’s trend will be different? Let’s take a look.
For this Commander staple that continues to dodge reprint, we can easily track price movement without many confounding variables. Phyrexian Altar rose in January 2014, March 2015, January 2016, September 2017, and March 2018. Every one of the price increases took place in the winter timeframe except for the one last year, which did occur in the fall. But in 2017 there was no winter jump, so perhaps that’s why it did move that fall. I wouldn’t have much confidence that this card will rise again this fall after already moving significantly in March.
This Commander all-star has seen a couple reprints, but we can still detect when it saw the most price movement. The first notable jump was fall 2013 before dropping back down after the Commander 2014 reprint. Then it saw a nice jump in February 2016, followed by another in January 2017. In 2018, the card has done nothing but climb upward regardless of the time of year. Wow, maybe we should just focus on cards that move like this!
I could keep going, but I think we’ve seen enough to make a reasonable judgement that the fall season does not reliably catalyze price movement. January/February, maybe. But October? I wouldn’t bank on it.
It’s most difficult for me to characterize trends from the charts of Standard cards. Metagame shifts happen frequently in Standard, and rotation limits the shelf-life of a Standard-playable card. This makes it difficult to analyze trends over multiple years.
Not to mention some of the most played cards in Standard have a tough time breaking $5 nowadays.
All that said, I have a feeling this format is the source for so much optimism in the fall. The fall brings with it a brand new block, Standard rotation, and a (potentially) exciting new metagame. In years past this would mean opportunity for new Standard cards to shine, leading to unexpected price spikes. Pro Tour season would make for especially juicy opportunities.
Nowadays there are still occasional profitable price spikes, but they are a little more sporadic. Sets with Masterpieces in them have repressed pricing. You may see a couple cards spike when they initially break out in Standard, but that pricing abates once hundreds hit the marketplace at the new price. Walking Ballista is a classic example. It spiked once people realized it was good, but then remained flat in price from February to September 2017. Then the fall brought it another leg higher before tapering back down throughout the Winter.
Or how about Chandra, Torch of Defiance, which made huge waves in Standard but still did relatively little price-wise. After tanking from its initial preorder price, it saw some appreciation in July 2017. It remained high throughout the fall, but then started selling off, presumably as Standard rotation approached.
Net, the fall can be a boon for a select few Standard cards that really shine in a brand new metagame, but that growth can be short-lived.
Wrapping It Up
“Sell in May and go away” is a popular saying on Wall Street. Such a phrase implies one should return to the market in the fall. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case in the Magic finance world, however.
Based on my cursory analysis of multiple format staples, I’m not seeing a whole of of reliable price appreciation in the fall. I’d much rather continue to avoid buying cards until the winter, where I’m seeing the most reliable price growth.
The one exception to this rule may be Standard—all the newness of a brand-new Standard metagame can provide opportunities for profit. But in today’s Standard environment, where print runs are huge and even the most desirable Standard mythic rares don’t appreciate as much as they once did, I’m not so sure if it’s worth the gamble. If you can truly pick out the staples in a brand-new Standard before everyone else, you can certainly have a profitable fall. But I won’t pretend to be so skillful in this space.
I do look forward to a fresh Standard. But at this stage in my life, I really prefer focusing on non-rotating formats. Standard evolves a little too quickly for me to keep up nowadays, and seeing so many cards I don’t recognize on camera makes for an awkward viewing experience. Still, if you thrive on Standard I do think there’s reason to return to the market in the fall after “going away in May.” Just don’t expect prices of cards from non-rotating formats to show any movement. At least, not until the dead of winter.
- Library of Alexandria remains atop Card Kingdom’s hot list. Their buy price of $1190 is quite aggressive. But with just one Good copy in stock, I can’t say I blame them. This card is an auto-include in almost every Old School deck. Such demand will keep this Arabian Nights card expensive for years to come.
- Mox Diamond has returned to Card Kingdom’s hot list as well—both Stronghold and the foil From the Vault printing ($140 and $135, respectively). This is a far cry from its spiked price from a couple months ago, but it is encouraging to see this one remain in-demand at a major vendor.
- Here’s a card that doesn’t get much attention: Earthcraft. The Tempest rare is on Card Kingdom’s hot list with a buy price of $39. Why? Well, it is in over 3,000 lists on EDH REC, but I suspect it’s a combination of being on the Reserved List along with Legacy unbanning speculation. I have no clue if it can safely be unbanned in Legacy, but if that does happen I could see a major price increase…at least temporarily.