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MTG Finance ruined Magic for me.
This is a bold statement to kick off an article on a website about MTG finance, but it’s my solemn realization. I think it’s been this way for a year or two now, but it’s only now sinking in that the game itself no longer exists for me. Brad Nelson (@fffreakmtg) put it best on Twitter recently, and Jonathan Medina (@medina_mtg) helped emphasize the point.
Thinking back, I can identify a few key events that flipped the switch in my brain, shifting my focus from Magic play to Magic finance. They may not be 100% mutually exclusive, but often enough a decision within one negatively impacts the other. And now, I’m sitting here wondering if I can ever enjoy the game itself again.
Acute Life Events
When I consider my shift from “playing with Magic cards” to “buying Magic cards”, I don’t think the move happened overnight. It was a series of life changes that cascaded into my current reality.
First and most significant, my spouse and I had a child in 2012. This was around the time I was most interested in playing Magic. I never really believed I could make it onto the Pro Tour, but I had ambition once upon a time. Most realistically, I had established myself as a formidable opponent at my LGS, grinding out weekly Legacy events and winning the occasional draft. I miss the days of Mystical Tutor’s legality in Legacy!
In the year or two leading up to my son’s birth, I had been avidly collecting Legacy cards with the intent of playing multiple archetypes depending on my local metagame. But within a year or so of my son’s birth, I realized that playing in regular events was no longer so easy to prioritize. Around this time, Legacy staples all skyrocketed in price—this is when I developed the idea that I could use Magic to help offset my son’s college costs. I went to a local Grand Prix and sold out of Legacy.
Despite this cash-out, I still played Standard at local FNM’s and I thoroughly enjoyed the fledgling Modern format. I gravitated towards Melira Pod, and loved the infinite decision points the combo deck presents. Games were fun an interactive, and it always felt like there was a “way out” if I just utilized my Birthing Pod toolbox correctly.
Then Wizards banned the card.
I was really disappointed to see the value of my Modern deck drop considering my end goal was to fund my son’s college costs. How could I possibly justify owning cards with potential to drop in value if my end goal was to increase value?
I pivoted towards a Bloom Titan type deck and really enjoyed its engine. I acquired the cards for the deck as soon as I saw it perform well at a Pro Tour. But it performed too well, and shortly thereafter Summer Bloom received the banhammer. Fool me once, shame on you Wizards. But fool me twice, shame on me. I was done with Modern.
Around this time, I also lost interest in Standard because rotation hurt the bottom line too much. Imagine a format where every two years, entire sets were effectively “banned”. This wouldn’t fly.
Despite all the above, I still enjoyed the casual side of the game. A friend and I would get together about once a month and battled via all sorts of casual formats: Commander, Old School, worst deck challenges, pack wars, pack wars with Rainbow Vales, etc.
Then my good friend moved away, and the monthly get-togethers ceased. Making new friends—especially Magic playing friends—is very difficult when you’ve got two young children. I lost my last outlet for playing Magic, and with that, my focus on the hobby shifted 100% towards finance.
Tension Points and Decisions
If you truly wish to optimize your involvement in Magic finance, then you have to be willing to make certain sacrifices. This is the realization I came to over the past few years—I’ve tried all sorts of ways to enjoy Magic play, and the Old School community is the closest I’ve come to success. But at the end of the day, there are still trade-offs that require suboptimal decisions about finance, and I continue to struggle with this tension point.
Here are some recent examples of decisions I’ve made where I prioritized one and sacrificed the other. As you read through these, think about how similar situations may apply to your own MTG involvement, and if you should be making alternate decisions depending on how you want to engage the two distinct hobbies.
Over a year ago, I tweeted that Card Kingdom was paying some silly-high dollar amount on Grave Robbers. I think it was in the $6.50 range. I had a copy but didn’t want to part with it because I find the artwork amusing. Card Kingdom’s current buy price: $1.25. In fact, I could have sold my copy and bought several only one year later with the proceeds. This is a small example that defines a major tension point between Magic play/enjoyment and Magic finance.
I have a diverse collection of Old School cards and buy prices went through the roof a while ago. Now many prices have dropped back down (appropriately so, the high prices were unsustainable and manipulated by “MTG Finance”, after all). The optimal move would have been to sell during the hype and buy back in, but I chose to prioritize collecting over finance, sacrificing hundreds of dollars in value as I watched my collection’s value drop.
I have played the same two Commander decks for many years now, only making occasional tweaks here and there. Since I play so infrequently, it makes little sense to optimize the lists. But it goes beyond a time investment—consider the financial drawbacks to maintaining Commander decks. Sure, some cards do appreciate over time; but a lot of them see reprints and drop in value. What’s more, rather than holding a valuable Commander deck and haphazardly scoring a profit here and there, I’d prefer keeping as little value in these decks as possible, prioritizing the money on cards I am most confident in.
The result: I don’t win very many Commander games. And every time a card randomly spikes, I find myself feeling the need to cash out opportunistically since the cards themselves offer little value outside their monetary one. This happened most recently with the Medallions, which have recently jumped. I could hold these to see if they rise further in price, but it’s just too tempting to sell into the spike and put the money to work elsewhere.
This is the most recent example. After reading about the Alpha 40 format, I decided I wanted to try it out. I quickly built a Plague Rats deck, starting as budget as possible and then upgrading the deck as I went. I even managed to play some games with the deck, though the jury is still out on whether or not I think it’s all that fun (the deck-building options are fairly limited).
But now Alpha cards have spiked to the point where I could sell the deck and put a good chunk of money away for my kids’ college. I suppose Alpha cards have further upside still in the long-term, but is it possible we see another pullback like we did with other Old School cards? Is this capital better put elsewhere? I could even just put the money into a mutual fund—the returns may not be as exciting, but they’ll be more dependable. As my kids age, reliable growth is going to be more important.
I haven’t made the sale yet, but I have to consider my end goal here: to help fund college costs. With that backdrop, I should be looking to sell opportunistically. But this comes at a cost: I can’t play an optimal deck and I can’t completely focus on building a collection of the oldest cards in existence. It’s a really hard trade-off I haven’t quite found the balance with yet. But since I don’t get to play the cards, you can understand my dilemma.
Wrapping It Up
If you believe you can equally engage in Magic play and Magic finance, you’re fooling yourself. Or, better put, you’re making some major sacrifices (perhaps without even realizing it). Making a decision to optimize one side of the hobby is often exclusive to the other side.
I have learned this gradually over the past few years, and my balance has tipped drastically in the direction of MTG Finance. In a way, I regret this progression because it occurred partly out of my control. I didn’t ban my two favorite Modern decks and I didn’t tell my friend to move away. But given my stage in life, this really is the best balance.
I could mourn my loss of interest in Magic play itself. But regretting the past is fruitless. I just need to make sure I delineate where my play/collecting hobby ends and where the finance hobby begins. Then as I make transactions accordingly, I can proceed with confidence in knowing that my actions are moving towards end goals. If they’re not, then I need to really scrutinize the action to determine if the happiness I’m going to get is going to outweigh the potential financial drawbacks.
At the end of the day I need to ask myself: am I getting enough enjoyment out of Grave Robbers, and Legacy cards, and Alpha cards, and all the other cards I decide to keep on a daily basis? If not, then my bend towards finance needs to take precedence. It’s the only way to proceed logically, with my end goals in mind.
But what about your end goals? Are you making optimal decisions based on how you’d prefer to engage with Magic?
- A couple of older cards have returned to Card Kingdom’s hotlist after a lengthy absence. The top card right now is Candelabra of Tawnos ($510). I’m not sure if there’s a particular reason demand may have risen, but certainly a powerful, rare card. I’d love to own a copy myself, but I cannot justify the cost.
- Arabian Nights City of Brass returned to Card Kingdom’s hotlist recently. They only have a few left in stock, so it appears these are on the move. Their current buy price is $245, but I remember their buylist peaking in the $270 range at one point. If you are interested, Cool Stuff Inc has a few copies that are competitively priced considering Card Kingdom’s aggressive buylist.
- Two Dual Lands have reappeared on CK’s hotlist! Volcanic Island ($320) and Badlands ($145). This may not be their highs, but the numbers are solid. I have a few extra Duals I recently acquired with trade-in credit, and I like the idea of cashing credit into these for a 1-2 year hold. These tend to rise and fall in cycles, and the next increase should happen within that time period.
One thought on “Magic Finance is NOT Magic”
Love your self-awareness here. I have a couple thoughts.
First let me say that our magic journey has several mirror points, from the move into legacy in 2012, then modern, then old school and the changing of circumstances around friends to play with along the way. (I now mostly play old school over skype and a couple times a year in person when I meet up with the old school community for events.)
The things you say always really resonate with me.
Thought #1. Every truly great spec I’ve made comes from *playing* magic. I first learned about Shadow of Doubt by getting blown out by it at a modern PTQ. Bought many copies, it spiked, I sold out. Same with Kolaghan’s command. I was a competitive Affinity player and someone killed me so hard with a K-Command I could actually feel it sting. I immediately went and bought a large number of foils and non-foils. Arclight Phoenix is on the same list. Playing is the basis for in-context card evaluation. IMO you cannot properly position yourself in MTG finance if you don’t play the formats you invest in. I bought a CE Lotus for $300 right before it spiked because I was playing old school and found out EC rules allow for IE/CE. We learn the value of the cards from their function and legality in the context of play.
Thought #2 is a takeaway that I have from this article about Alpha 40. You’ve played and realized the design space is extremely limited. The format started as a joke. Format creator Magnus de Laval has literally said it’s a joke (link :http://geocitiesofbrass.com/alpha-40/)
“It could be notable that this “format” was mostly made as a joke to avoid making an argument in an online discussion, and an excuse to meet international players in a pub the day before n00bcon ?
Anyways, people got excited and in the weeks following the announcement many of the common/uncommon Alpha cards saw an almost ten-fold increase in price. In the end we were almost 60 players at the first Wizards’ Tournament, the first gathering of it’s kind since September 1993. The idea took off from there, and for this years Wizards’ Tournament 100 players are signed up. Not too bad for a joke”
So yeah, the prices skyrocketed from people just wanting to play around with ancient magic cards in Sweden, but are these cards you really care about owning to play magic with? If not, I’d sell them. Old school players will move on to the next thing. See #revised40, a much cheaper and wider format.
If you are genuinely buying cards you want to play with because they are good or fun then you can be much more certain you’re making a good finance purchase. After all, you didn’t hang on to your copies of grave robbers because it’s a good card, but because you liked the art. A card being not playable is the easiest way for the price to contract. That why I worried when you suggested buying “any beta rare” in a recent article. Don’t do that. Buy a good beta rare that’s fun or powerful, even if it costs a little more. This is how to make old school finance like blue chip stock purchases. You may not hit the spike, but it’s less likely to retract.
If you ever want to skype battle some old school I’m down. @benjaMTG on twitter.