Making this hobby cheaper is possible straight out of the gate. All it takes is a few changes in habits and shifting your mindset a bit. It may be gradual, but within a few months you’ll notice your trade binder growing without your bank account shrinking.
This week I want to rewind the clock to a former article I wrote back in April of 2014. It used to be an Insider article, and it was published long enough ago that I'm sure many new Quiet Speculation readers may not be aware of it. You can find a link to the original here. Below is the same article, with updates shown in bold italics. Enjoy!
MTG finance is becoming quite the daunting endeavor. If you wanted to count every possible stock trading on some exchange in the US, you would crest 10,000 in total. The number of Magic cards, in all their varieties and printings, which you could track for financial relevance is likely in the same ballpark, if not higher. Thanks to all the new supplemental products and reprint sets, I am confident it is much higher now.
Reading through finance articles online (like these) is a valuable tool to educate and develop speculation and investing ideas. But even these articles can be overwhelming at times. If you were to follow the advice of every writer each week you’d be sinking thousands a month into cards you may not have even heard of.
While this can be reckless, it could make you money. But the approach is much like that of a novice stock market investor. Reading about what analysts are buying and blindly following suit cannot be the optimal strategy.
Who Has the Time?
To really optimize investing strategies, one could spend hours a day reading websites, browsing buy and sell lists, and interacting on social media in order to stay ahead of the curve. And in today’s MTG finance environment, this almost seems necessary in order to make this hobby more affordable.
I will argue that making this hobby cheaper for a newer speculator or investor (yes, those are two different groups of people) is possible straight out of the gate. All it takes is a few changes in habits and shifting your mindset a bit. It may be gradual, but within a few months you’ll notice your trade binder growing without your bank account shrinking. (I suspect not many people manage trade binders anymore, but the concept of a "collection of specs" remains relevant.) You’ll need to make some sacrifices along the way, but if you are willing to prioritize value for a few months you’ll definitely benefit in the long run.
Step 1: Move Standard to the Back Burner
Over the last few months I've heard routine local players complain about how expensive Modern is. Legacy doesn’t even come up in conversation, it’s so difficult to enter financially. I normally chuckle when I hear this and make a serious claim that Standard is expensive.
It really is, trust me.
The initial cash layout isn’t as significant; I’ll grant this much. But Standard does something that Modern and Legacy never do—it rotates. When Standard rotates, a large set of once-valuable and in-demand cards plummet in value. Some never recover again, rendering your no-longer-Standard-legal deck useless and worth significantly less.
I couldn’t imagine holding Bonfire of the Damned to use in Standard when it was a month away from rotating. The red sorcery went from $45 to $5. Holding a set of these through rotation would mean a $160 loss from your collection!
This is more true now than ever before. With print runs being so large nowadays, there really is so little reason to deal in Standard cards, with the exception of Pro Tour speculation and format rotation. Lands with multi-format playability are probably still worth following too. But something like History of Benalia? Sell those now, at their peak!
Not every drop is so pronounced, but the fact of the matter is most Standard cards are prone to price drops. To navigate around this, you could hop around from Standard deck to Standard deck to try and protect your value. This becomes time-consuming, however, and my intent with this article is to recommend ways to spend minimal time while making MTG more valuable. Not infinite time.
My advice: sleeve up a budget Standard deck for six months. Or better yet, skip over a Standard season altogether. It’ll still be there when you get back, I promise. The format has grown stagnant now anyway, and rotation is rapidly approaching. Now is the perfect time to neglect this time-intensive format and focus on a different priority. The time it takes not to play Standard: zero.
No, this isn’t a recommendation to cease acquiring equipment in Magic. I actually think strong equipment like Umezawa's Jitte is a fine place to park some money. This card may be dead money at this point, as there is little source of new demand. I'm not sure it is on the shortlist of cards that could get unbanned in Modern, either.
Once you’ve accepted the fact you’re not going to be playing Standard for a bit, the next step to making MTG a cheaper hobby is to remove emotional attachments from 99% of your cards. Nothing should be sacred. In fact, the cards people want the most are often cards you should be eager to unload.
All the Masters sets made this call correct, with the exception of Reserved List cards. If you're trying to spend less time on MTG finance, I'd suggest sitting on those cards until you need the money. If you had sold when I wrote this article, you would have sold at this card's peak thanks to the reprints. In fact, we may be nearing another peak.
Let the economics guide you in these situations. When Legacy spikes it means players are eager to acquire these cards. That means they have a ton of liquidity. There used to be a time when Jace, the Mind Sculptor was equivalent to a $100 bill. In fact Jace may have been easier to move than the $100 for a brief time (hyperbole). Now that card is NM Force of Will. Thanks to the unbanning in Modern, Jace is actually worth more than Force of Will again! If you're after liquidity, I'd prefer Jace.
This isn’t the time to hold Legacy staples close to your chest. If you want to make MTG cheaper you should consider moving what Legacy stuff you have that you’re not using into cards that are a bit out of favor. Modern cards have been pulling back slightly in the shadows of this Legacy boom. That trend will shift come Modern PTQ season this summer. There's no more Modern "season"—I think the play now would be to move into dual lands, actually. These have all pulled back significantly from their hyped highs of 2018. There will be another mad rush for them again. It's a matter of when, not if.
Traders may even be willing to give you a value advantage if you’re moving a Legacy staple their way while you pick up tons of Kitchen Finks and Path to Exiles. Three months from now you’ll have an incredibly liquid binder from which to trade.
Don’t have Legacy staples? That is perfectly fine, especially since casual cards are all the rage right now. If you have some Commander generals you may want to consider moving those today. As in not tomorrow or the day after…
Selling Ghave was the right call as well. Reprints strike again!
These Commander generals are all very hot right now, which means you want to be moving them into Modern. If you insist on ignoring Modern then go for the Theros block Temples. Those won’t move downward in the next six months, and when you are ready to play Standard again you’ll be surprised how much value you preserved by picking up safe Standard cards that are guaranteed to be in demand post-rotation. Nowadays it would be Shock Lands or Dominaria Check Lands.
Total time it takes to trade away your hot cards emotion-free? Well, you likely already do some trading so there is no incremental time requirement. The biggest challenge will be overcoming emotional attachments and knowing which formats are hot and which are likely to be hot in the future.
The former is a link to the hottest cards according to price increases on TCGplayer. It is updated daily and takes about two minutes to read through. I’d recommend checking this every day, which equates to about fifteen minutes a week of your time. When you see trends showing up on this list (i.e. there sure are a lot of casual cards on there right now) you’ll quickly identify which formats are most popular.
The latter link brings you to the Pro Tour schedule. Leading up to each Pro Tour is the PTQ season, and the chart on this website will tell you the format played for each Pro Tour and preceding PTQ season. Once a year that format is Modern, and so late summer you can expect these cards to take off with one last hurrah during Pro Tour Honolulu in October. Again, there are no "seasons" in the same sense. But there are Modern or Team Pro Tours, and those could spark interest in Modern and Legacy, respectively.
Keep this information in the back of your mind—knowing when Modern and Standard will be most in demand (during their respective PTQ seasons) will help you predict trends. Then you can trade accordingly while investing minimal time in endless research.
Ignore the Noise
My last piece of advice should also resonate with those who are short on time: ignore the noise. I don’t always believe the cliché, “less is more,” but in some cases it can work wonders. If you are truly strapped for time then you’re likely to get bogged down by every speculation tip and buyout that occurs. Chasing after these can be a time sink.
Imagine you saw that Ghave, Guru of Spores was suddenly bought out yesterday. You could spend an hour sifting through websites looking for the remaining underpriced copies that everyone missed. This behavior may even make you a few bucks, but at what cost? Even if you found ten copies at $5 each and decided to pull the trigger, you’re likely to net only $7 or $8 a copy after fees and shipping. And if this buyout turns out to be a bust and the card falls back down to $8 your profit will be wiped away.
Worst of all, you would have sunk an hour of your time into something that may make you a few bucks at best. There are times when chasing a buyout can be worth your while. When SCG upped their prices on Underground Sea, Ancient Tomb, and Volcanic Island there was an opportunity to make significant profits. But when Márton Stromgald doubles in price overnight I don’t even blink an eye.
The information likely won’t help you in the near term, and you’re much better off focusing on macro trends. By looking at the big picture and focusing on format shifts you’re less likely to get bogged down by the details. By avoiding the daily hype you’ll save time and energy (not to mention money).
Wrapping It Up
If you have limited time to speculate on MTG finance but you still hope to make this hobby a bit cheaper, you have to focus more on the macro trends. The day-to-day speculation and buyout will distract you too much. Look at what formats are most attractive and help to meet that demand. Convert your hot cards into assets that will become hot next season.
Eliminate your emotional attachments wherever possible. Remember that Magic cards are commodities--there are dozens if not hundreds of stores you can access to purchase a card and the card will have the same abilities no matter who you buy from.
Just because you are trading away your favorite card right now doesn’t mean you can never acquire it again. Focus on the numbers and on macro trends and move accordingly. This will pay dividends in the long term.
Finally, I want to stress yet again that playing Standard is a major resource drain. You either lose value as rotation approaches or you lose time trying to navigate around it. There are definitely times when investing in Standard is correct, but you have to be careful with what you target.
By focusing on the cards furthest from rotation and the robust card most resistant to metagame changes, you’ll maximize your Standard collection’s value. This will enable you to trade into cards you’ll want to play with in the future at a much lower cost.
Remember—you’ll never make the most money possible if you have limited time. But you will mitigate the hobby’s cost and possibly even make money along the way. Identify what’s most important to you. If your Magic time is limited, do what you can and focus in the right areas. You will not be disappointed as long as you keep your goals in mind.
Sigbits (updated to December 2018)
- If you haven’t seen this yet you should be aware: Channel Fireball now has NM Revised Underground Seas at $379.99 (Now $699.99). There is no ceiling to these duals. The second you question if Legacy will die because of these new price increases, remind yourself that NM Unlimited Mox Ruby now retails for $799.99 (Now $3499.99). Even in a “dead” format like Vintage the staples are still increasing.
- I have to admit my bias will show on this one. I just saw that SCG is sold out of Innistrad booster boxes with a price tag of $179.99 (Now $399.99). I’ve been watching these on eBay for months now, and I can say that boxes under $190 are selling. I suspect SCG will be up to $199.99 on these very soon. These will probably taper off, with little remaining upside. Opportunity cost is steep here, don't bother.
- I was absolutely baffled when I heard retail price on Kitchen Finks was $5.99 (Now $5.49). No way. There have got to be dozens if not hundred of cheaper copies on TCGplayer. But with Modern PTQ season approaching I predict the TCGplayer price will go higher, eventually catching up to retail pricing. The increase is premature in my opinion, but it is going to happen soon enough. Reprints made this a dead spec, though it peaked way above $6. This underscores the power of the reprints vs. the Reserved List cards mentioned above, where reprints are impossible.