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Time Walk: Is This the New Era of MTG Finance? (2018)

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Editor's Note: Sigmund is out for the week, traveling to visit family. In the meantime, please enjoy this unlocked Insider article from 2018 regarding Springtime Reserved List buyouts. We may never see market behavior such as this again, but there are important lessons here to review. As we draw closer to that time of year, it is important to reflect on these lessons and plan accordingly. 

Nothing in life is guaranteed except for death and taxes. That’s the saying, at least. But I would posit there is a third phenomenon that has become nearly as predictable these last few years.

I’m referring to the annual Spring Reserved List Buyouts (I should get that trademarked!). It looks like early spring has catalyzed the rampant buying of Reserved List cards time and again, although trends were admittedly muted in 2014 and 2015.


In the past, these cards would spike in price, drift a little lower and then establish a new base. But look at the magnitude of the spike this year in comparison to previous years. The move is so much larger. What’s more, the move is much broader than in the past. Academy Rector, for example, has spiked recently but had been largely flat in price during previous buying frenzies.


Is there a reason for the more pronounced moves? Are these trends going to be more permanent? Why are things different this time? This week Sig investigates these huge buyouts to try and decipher exactly what the long-term trajectory may be for these beloved, classic cards.

This Time Is Different

A couple years ago, Craig Berry posted a public video that announced his intent to buyout Lion's Eye Diamond. He also hit Moat around that same time, and the action resulted in a large price jump. This, in turn, triggered numerous other price increases across the Reserved List. The action was exciting, lasted a few weeks at most, and then people forgot about it.

Things are a little different this time. The breadth is so extreme. It’s not just the playable Legacy and Commander cards that are getting targeted—the distribution is far more complete. How else can you explain the lockstep move of stuff like Reparations and Grave Robbers?


These cards aren’t actually being played anywhere. Reparations shows up in 192 decklists on EDH REC. While that’s a huge number compared to Grave Robbers’ five lists, the number still isn’t relevant when it comes to impacting supply. It isn’t particularly strong in Old School, either, although it feels like a precursor to Deathrite Shaman.

The same can be said for so many of the spiking cards from less powerful sets such as Mirage, The Dark, and Homelands. Yes, even Homelands.


Then you need to look at the magnitude of these moves—they’re huge! When Craig Berry bought out LED, he helped spike the price from $75 to $175 in a few short days. That was a significant increase for sure. But the recent movement has taken this card from $145 to $275! While percentage-wise this may not be quite so large, the absolute magnitude of the move is larger. Also, this time around the movement happened much more quickly.

When you look at the change in some of the older cards, the movement is even crazier. Preacher spiked from $20 to $70 overnight. Jihad just recently jumped from $80 to $300-plus (the price still needs to settle). Over and over again we see this significant pressure to the upside in a much larger magnitude than any time before.

The other major difference is the participation in this market. When Craig Berry went viral with his Lion's Eye Diamond buyout, he became the face of market manipulation. Since then, multiple major investors have entered the market and started buying quantities of Reserved List cards. These are people with a deep appreciation for Magic’s nostalgia and even deeper pockets. The result: many copies of classic cards are disappearing from the market with no return in the foreseeable future.

And while some pump-and-dumps never even hit the radar for major vendors, this time it almost feels like vendors are in the forefront of the charge. ABU Games is paying record-high numbers on old favorites from Arabian Nights, Alpha, etc. (see Sigbits for examples). The fact that these moves are backed by large vendors tells me they have confidence the higher prices are here to stay. That is rather frightening.

Implications

I try not to publicize my pro-Reserved List views too frequently. My interest in the device that makes Magic spectacularly investable is not lauded by much of the socially active community. But the reality is, even I am starting to feel the pinch that is occurring with all these buyouts.

At first, I was mostly amused by the movement and the reaction in the community. It seemed like there would be some crazy prices for a few weeks and then they would settle back down. But things have not transpired this way. Instead, prices continue to climb, cards continue to disappear, and it’s making entry into some of my favorite formats absolutely prohibitive.

I really enjoy Vintage, and while I don’t play Legacy anymore, I still like watching coverage on camera. But Vintage and Legacy decks are approaching $20,000 and $10,000, respectively, making the formats prohibitively expensive. The Old School format is getting hit the worst, as people make key cards cost 5-10 times more than they were just a few weeks ago. If this appreciation was organically driven due to increased participation in the format that would be fine. But these big-time investors buying up hundreds of copies have little plans to play. They want the return on investment and that dollar is their bottom line.

There’s a nuanced difference here I want to dwell on. I’m a collector and Magic investor too, but I never advocate buying up dozens of copies of a single card. Not because I oppose the market manipulation, but because trying to move so many copies of something obscure may be impossibly difficult! If you listed Jihad on TCGplayer for a competitive price, you’ll probably get the sale. But if you were sitting on 100 copies of Jihad, liquidating that quantity will either be extremely slow, or crush the card’s value.


Apparently that doesn’t matter to these investors. From what I’ve read and heard, these investors plan to sit on the cards for a long time. This has major implications.

Because many copies are being acquired to hold and not to flip, copies won’t be re-entering the market as they had in the past. These new prices may be far stickier than before, and this means it will become far more expensive for us smaller-time speculators and players to stay involved. I’ve already been priced out of many cards I once thought it would be really cool to own. If I’m right and these are investors buying copies, then these trends will continue and affordable old Magic cards will disappear altogether.

In other words, this may be “it.” This time, things are different. These cards may be disappearing from the market for a long time…

Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize

I hope I’m wrong. I hope what is going on is a run-of-the-mill pump and dump scheme, and copies will come back into the market as sellers undercut each other one by one. But we need to be prepared in case this really is the transition for older Magic cards from game pieces to investment pieces. Because we still love the game, we need to preserve as much as we can with deliberate actions.

First, as I’ve said many times before, you must prioritize what you wish to acquire most and act accordingly. If you’re like me, you get distracted by all these buyouts, experiencing regret each time a card you don’t own spikes in price. This reaction is unhealthy and breeds panic-buying. We have to learn to let things go.

It’s easier to do this if we have a cognizant plan in place to help organize our buying. For example, I really wanted to own a Guardian Beast. I noticed the quantities available for sale were extremely thin, so I spent some of my scant remaining cash to acquire one. Now if the card spikes I can ignore the noise as I already have a copy to play with. On the other hand, this meant I couldn’t buy something else that may have spiked. I need to accept the fact that I wanted Guardian Beast more, and that I was okay with missing other boats as a result.

It sounds simple on paper, but ignoring emotional reactions can be very difficult in practice. The more diligent we can be with our priorities, the better we’ll feel when there is another buyout day after day. Today I saw Field of Dreams spiked—I felt no remorse because that card was never a priority of mine. On the other hand, Rasputin Dreamweaver jumped 30% and I didn’t have to worry because I already own my copy. Because I am focused on priorities, I know I only have to worry about certain cards and I can ignore others.


I highly recommend you do the same if you have any interest in Old School or in collecting cards from Magic’s earliest sets. Just be cautious, monitor markets closely (both the U.S. and European market), and don’t contribute to the buyout madness. Try to avoid inciting panic, because it will inevitably cause a spike and lock some people out of the cards they wished to own. While we can’t be blamed for others’ inaction, we can at least try to protect those who also appreciate the game for what it is against the big-time investors who see only dollar signs.

Wrapping It Up

There have been buyouts before, and I haven’t dwelled as much on them because they were so often a flash in the pan. In the news for a day and then forgotten about.

I think it’s different this time.

I think there are enough people with deep pockets out there looking to convert capital into long-term investments. I heard a recent interview of high-end collector Brian Nocenti on the Fast Finance podcast. He describes his intent to form an investment firm of sorts with Magic cards. He also talked about how it wasn’t uncommon for comic book collectors to have seven figures worth of comic books—he is predicting Magic to go this direction soon.

I suspect there are a handful of others who agree and are now acting accordingly. Rudy of Alpha Investments is one of the more vocal proponents of MTG investing, but there are many quiet investors out there doing just as much damage to the secondary market.

If that’s the case, then buckle up because we are about to be taken on a wild ride that Richard Garfield could not have predicted in a million years. Things could get even more ridiculous than they already are, and the only way to stay sane in this environment is to have a definitive plan in place that we can execute against. Everyone’s plan will look different, but the key is to have one in place for acquisitions and exit prices. If we’re not purposeful in this regard, we will be left with buyers’ and sellers’ remorse as cards move in price and force our hand.

Editor's Note: These are a snapshot of buylist prices at the time. You will see far less aggressive prices from these buylists at current, so treat them as food for thought. 

Sigbits

  • Last weekend I discovered that ABU Games pays even more aggressively on older cards than Card Kingdom. For example, did you know ABU Games pays $280 on Near Mint Jihad? I thought Card Kingdom’s $140 buy price was attractive, but $280 is ludicrously high! They even pay $175 on played copies!
  • Another crazy number: Diamond Valley. ABU Games pays $420 on Near Mint copies and $224 on played copies. This is just insane. That’s a full $140 more than Card Kingdom’s current buy price of $280. I thought Card Kingdom was leading the charge on these older cards, but it turns out they are just trying to catch up to ABU Games' aggressive numbers.
  • Last week I posted an alert in the QS Discord that Card Kingdom upped their buy price of Library of Alexandria to $980. I thought that was a record high for the card. I was very wrong. It turns out ABU Games is paying $1200 for Near Mint copies. However, they’re only offering $600 on played copies currently, so if you need to sell to a vendor make sure you ship your played copies to Card Kingdom for a better number.

12 thoughts on “Time Walk: Is This the New Era of MTG Finance? (2018)

  1. I hear you. I am a collector, but maybe a “casual” collector as in I am not aggressive in acquiring stuff. But I collect for the sole purpose of trying to complete a set. I could give two cares about how many of a certain card I have as long as I have at least one. Some price spikes have nearly made that impossible unless I find someone to trade with. It pains me that completing sets of the vintage cards has become more out of reach.

    1. Michael,

      I have some collector tendencies as well, and this has also been very difficult for me. For example I loved my copy of Jihad – it was very difficult to let it go. But how could I sit on it when I know I could sell it for $175 and put that money into other cards I would actually play with? And in the meantime, a card like The Abyss shoots up to $1000, essentially escaping my reach once and for all.

      Don’t even get me started on Tabernacle.

      This is the new reality we are operating in, and I’m not sure if it will go away any time soon. Maybe in the dead of summer we’ll see some retractions in price but I don’t think we’ll see that much of a sell-off on the truly rare cards.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Sig

  2. A few months ago I switched my retirement investments into RL magic cards. Every month I buy $3-4k worth of reserve list cards and stick them in my safe, where they will stay for the next 20 years, regardless of what happens with the singles market.

    1. Gus,

      While this has been a phenomenal move financially, have you considered what your exit strategy will be in 20 years? Will you be able to sell 20-50 copies of a random Reserved List card, such as Jihad? That’s why I’m nervous about going so deep. Unless you’re focusing on highly liquid cards like Dual Lands or Power, I think it may become tricky to unload $100k’s worth of cards all at once. I’m really curious to hear your plan in this regard as I think it may be the trickiest part of using MTG as an investment vehicle.

      Thanks for sharing!

      Sig

      1. I’m not going that deep on any cards. I really don’t see going deeper than 8-10 copies of any card.

        Besides, I believe the stuff I’m buying now won’t be going up by 10-20% over the next 20 years, but will have the same 1000% growth they’ve seen in the past 20-25 years.

        So while it would be hard to sell 50 copies of Jihad right now at whatever passes for a price, imagine if your cost basis was $5. Selling 50 copies of Jihad at $50 each would be super easy, and you would have gotten yourself a 900% increase on your investment.

        20-25 years from now, when Jihad is a $20k card, selling 50 copies of it for $5k will be just as easy as selling them at $50 now.

  3. Awesome, awesome read. I have my hands on some of these cards as well. As much as I’d want to hang on to some of them, I’d have to let go of a few to keep the cash flowing. I’m not really a mogul who could hang on to them but I would if I could.

  4. “In other words, this may be ‘it.’ This time, things are different. These cards may be disappearing from the market for a long time…”

    M-My FOMO is acting up again. Argh, someone take my money!

    Anyways, I just bought 2x Jihad because I knew even if the reserved list goes away, WotC would never reprint it again. I mean, it’s fricking Jihad. There’s no way that would fly post 9/11 from a marketing perspective.

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