Arena Tournaments: The Great Divide

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This past weekend saw an all-virtual, Arena-based Players Tour. The structure is relatively straightforward. There are four qualifier tournaments and players can only play in one. The tournaments take place over the next few weekends. Anyone who makes Day 2 and then finishes a weekend with 33 or more match points will qualify for the 2020 Players Tour Finals, which I assume will also take place over Arena.

I checked in on coverage now and again throughout the weekend. The commentators did a fantastic job, in my humble opinion, making the best of a tough situation. Everything being virtual, we were still able to monitor feature matches and appreciate professional remarks on player decisions. Even though this was an Arena event, it felt a little special because of the real dollars at stake.

It was also pretty awesome to watch LSV live-stream his own participation in the event. He said multiple times that it felt like a Players Tour because he wasn’t feeling hungry during the event. Truer words never resonated with me.

Welcome to Standard: The All-Digital Format?

As long as large in-person tournaments cannot occur due to COVID-19, Wizards is going to be leaning heavily on the Arena platform. Out of necessity, Standard has rapidly evolved into an all-digital format. Sure, you can still purchase physical cards—but other than perhaps in a small group of friends, where are you going to play them?

With Arena’s success, Wizards has really been pushing the platform hard and for good reason. There’s no way their revenue from paper Magic will be near its usual level, so they need to engage with the community and make money somehow. And in all honesty, they’ve done a fairly good job with this pivot—after all, they got me playing Standard again, something I haven’t done in eight years.

Others have taken notice of these Arena events, and have begun following suit. Star City Games, who used to host their own successful tournament circuit, has begun a season of Arena qualifiers.

The qualifier events appear to be lower stakes than the Players Tour: entry is just $20 and there are just four rounds. Win all four, and you qualify for the SCG Tour Online Championship Qualifier—that’s where the real prize money comes in. The winner of the qualifier makes $1,000. That’s not bad at all for an initial entry fee of $20.

When this pandemic ends, I’ll be wondering a couple things. First, will some amount of Standard tournaments remain on Arena? It’s super convenient, probably cheaper than hosting an in-person event (though perhaps the organizers don’t make as much money?), and the Arena platform makes for a convenient venue for all players. There’s no travel, no excess expense for tournament center food, no lodging, etc. There’s also no cheating. These are some pretty compelling points.

Second, even if there are paper events again, is there room for additional tournament organizers to host event on Arena? Perhaps this will be the beginning of the democratization of Standard tournament circuits. I don’t think just anyone could host successful events, but I have to imagine the activation energy to host these events is lower when on the Arena platform versus starting a circuit of physical events.

It’ll be interesting to watch things unfold, especially after there’s a vaccine and life returns to a semblance of normalcy. Magic—at least Standard Magic—may be changed forever.

Some Finance Implications

COVID-19 caused virtually all major Standard tournaments to cease in paper and move to the Arena platform. Because of this, the demand for paper Standard staples is extremely low. The result: this looks to be one of the cheapest Standard formats I’ve ever seen! With very few exceptions, the mana base is basically the most expensive cards in a tier 1 Standard deck.

Those exceptions include A-Teferi, Time Raveler and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath.

Some of the other dominant cards in Standard are actually not even rares or mythic rares! Every time I tuned into Players Tour coverage last weekend, it seemed there was a Wilderness Reclamation deck on screen. This is a $3 uncommon that already has a reprint in Commander 2020. Another popular deck choice is a R/B sacrifice deck centered around Witch's Oven and A-Cauldron Familiar, two uncommons worth under a buck.

In the past, supply of the hottest cards from the latest Standard set would be constrained, causing a period of inflated prices. Not this time. Shark Typhoon, from Ikoria, is the third most played card in Standard according to MTG Stocks. This should be a $10-$15 rare; instead, it’s worth under $5. Even Fabled Passage, which goes in almost every tier 1 deck it seems, is worth $7 and change. And now with a reprint in Magic 2021, this land's price is going to drop even lower.

Let’s face it: Standard cards will remain depressed as tournament play shifts away from paper and towards Arena. Speculating on new cards whose sole play lies in Standard is not advisable at this time, no matter how powerful and format-warping that card may be. I'm sure there will be exceptions, but isn't it easier to buy cards where price increases is the rule rather than the exception?

What IS Moving in Price?

Standard cards are dead money, but to extrapolate and say that all Magic cards are floundering would be a grave mistake. In reality, a significant portion of cards are accelerating their price growth throughout this pandemic. This goes back to what I’ve written about in the past regarding the decay in supply due to lack of paper Magic events. Large vendors simply cannot restock the popular, older cards that see extensive play in non-rotating formats such as Commander and Cube.

The result: a seemingly random assortment of cards are jumping in value. Here’s a glimpse at the top movers last week:

There’s speculation galore on what cards Wizards will ban next. There’s speculation on goblins based on some of the Magic 2021 spoilers. And there’s overall solid pick-ups for Commander play in the list. Personally, I would not have expected to see Exploration hit $100, but that’s probably not a real price (yet).

And these prices are the tip of the iceberg. Not only are certain speculative cards spiking, but overall solid staples are all hitting new highs. Cards like Mana Drain, Wheel of Fortune, Mox Diamond, Vampiric Tutor, Gilded Drake, and Tolarian Academy are all taking off. I’ve also noticed the highest Dual Land buy prices on Card Kingdom’s site in quite some time.

It seems COVID-19 has only made these rare and valuable cards more expensive. If you’re concerned about lack of paper play deflating demand for these cards, you no longer have to worry. These price increases are likely motivating players to rush out and buy cards they need out of FOMO—don’t buy this week, you’ll have to pay more next week! I will admit this has motivated a couple purchases myself: I bought a Mox Diamond and a Eureka for my collection as I saw supply diminish.

Others are likely doing the same, and it only takes a couple dozen players to feel some pressure and make a couple purchases to move the market price.

Throughout the summer I expect this trend to continue. Eventually, things will calm down and prices will drop again. But they probably won’t reach as low as their previous levels, before COVID-19 struck. The most desirable cards will be sticky and maintain a higher price point.

Wrapping It Up

As COVID-19 disrupts the world of Magic, forcing Standard events to migrate to Arena, we’ve seen a real dichotomy in card prices. Newer cards have suppressed demand, keeping card prices lower than I would have expected. Older cards are disappearing from the internet little by little and there are not enough channels for large vendors to restock. This is causing the most popular stapes to climb in price.

If I have the causation correct, then the continuation of these activities will likely mean the divide between new cards and old cards will only strengthen. Standard playability will become less and less important a factor in determining a card’s value. Paper cards from Standard sets may be more influenced by their popularity in Commander than Standard. Older cards that aren’t reprinted will become harder and harder to find, leading to higher prices.

It will be interesting to see if these trends reverse when events start up again post-COVID. If these Arena-based tournament circuits are a huge success, they may become a new norm. I don’t think large paper events will be canceled altogether, but a hybrid of paper events and digital events could be an optimal approach that capitalizes on the positives of each platform. In this case, the future for card prices is muddled and difficult to predict.

Trust me on this: I’ll be watching closely, and will report trends as I see them. COVID-19 may have disrupted paper events, but it hasn’t disrupted paper speculation (as evidenced by MTG Stocks). I’ll keep writing regardless!

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