In June 2013, WoTC released the first of the paper “Masters” sets, simply called Modern Masters. It was the first all reprint set since Chronicles in 1995, which as many of you know was the catalyst for the Reserved List. For those who don’t know the history of Chronicles, prior to the printing of the set, there were a lot of $10+ dollar rares from Legends and Arabian Nights and the ones included in Chronicles tanked in value due to the massive print run. You can find some fantastic information regarding print runs here.
The gist of it is that there were 20,500 of each Arabian Nights rare, 19,500 of each Legends rare, but 516,500 of each Chronicles rare which added 2580% to the supply of the rares included in the set. Obviously, there wasn’t nearly that much demand at the time, so cards that were $10+ dropped to under $1 and a lot of people got upset.
Flash forward to 2013, and it appeared that WotC had learned their lesson with the printing of Modern Masters; with a more conservative print run, WoTC ensured that instead of tanking all the chase card prices in the set, we only saw some dips and the eventual recovery. It was a set that included numerous cards that had skyrocketed in value with the creation of the Modern format and was a way for WoTC to add additional copies of powerful cards into the supply without having to run them through the Standard format. What’s more, it garnered interest in the Modern format.
At the time, Standard was WoTC’s bread and butter: it generated almost all of their revenue, while singles sales of older cards were often a major source of income for many local game stores. While some players feared what the advent of new “all reprint” sets would kill the singles market, this fear ended up ebbing as the cards rebounded. I myself actually bought a lot of singles shortly after the release of the set, and enjoyed speculating on numerous cards from it, given that my LGS had just enough boxes to sell me one and still run a wildly successful draft.
The next of the Masters sets didn’t come about until two years later with Modern Masters 2015. This time the print run seemed to be noticeably bigger, as stores had boxes in stock for weeks as opposed to days. Again, I speculated on numerous Modern staples that had plummeted in value.
As was the case before, many of the staples from this set recovered from their price drops, and WoTC had other successful Masters set under their belts. Those who cried out that the sky was falling were proven wrong.
Here is where we start to see the gradual slide downward. While previously WoTC had kept these sets to every other year, which gave time for the singles in the sets to financially recover. They began now to start releasing more and more of them.
- 2013- Modern Masters
- 2014- No Masters set
- 2015- Modern Masters 2015
- 2016- Eternal Masters
- 2017- Modern Masters 2017 + Iconic Masters
- 2018- Masters 25 + Ultimate Masters
It seemed WoTC had fallen in love with these Masters sets. After all, they don’t have to devote a lot of development resources to a set in which all cards and mechanics are already defined. They also know they can sell them at a significant premium over their standard set boosters, now called draft boosters, because the cards in the set held more value on the secondary market and thus players could justify the higher price because they got more valuable cards.
They also released a majority of these sets in late spring to early summer, when sales for Magic packs tend to dip; many student players were out of school and either working or doing other summer activities. I have no doubt that the higher-ups at WoTC loved having a nice financial shot in the arm for their quarterly earnings reports.
Not surprisingly, many of the singles in the sets from 2017 onward were not recovering in value, players and stores were seeing the value of their collections reduced with each new spoiler season. That isn’t to say one couldn’t speculate on cards in these sets, but with each new printing, the successful targets became fewer and fewer.
It’s also important to note that there is one customer base who had no qualms with these constant reprints: the casual and newer players looking to get into older formats. For this group, WoTC couldn’t make enough reprint sets. Finally, even WoTC could tell that the playerbase was feeling fatigued by these sets. With the release of Ultimate Masters, WotC vowed to put the Masters release schedule on a brief hiatus.
That hiatus ended May 21, 2020 with the announcement of Double Masters and given that Ultimate Masters released December 2018 it lasted about a year and a half. Though, I think there is a fair argument to call the Mystery Booster set a Masters set in disguise, which if you do means the hiatus only lasted 11 months.
I’ll be the first to admit that when Ultimate Masters released, I got caught up in the hype along with so many others. There were just so many awesome cards in the set. Previously, we’d have a fair number of duds in the other Masters sets to keep the overall EV of the set to a reasonable level, but Ultimate Masters seemed to be chock full of fantastic Modern and Commander cards. I looked through my records and realized I had spent $1340 on singles and $1032 on four boxes.
I loved buying cards like Engineered Explosives, Noble Hierarch, and Celestial Colonnade for 25-50% of their old prices. I took the promise from WoTC to hold off on more Masters sets as a security blanket, to invest heavily so I could reap massive future rewards. Those profits never came.
I can’t blame it all on WoTC. I did see significant gains on Commander specs from the set; Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre, Demonic Tutor, and Phyrexian Altar. Unfortunately, before any of my Modern specs could recover, WoTC announced the Pioneer format, which quickly overtook Modern as the new People’s Format. I don’t think many people could have foreseen a new format coming out in 2019. I have to look at those losses as more from a “black swan” event than poor speculation targets.
I don’t want this to come off as any sort of “woe is me” monologue, but I would like to warn those entering the speculation waters that the more something seems like a “sure thing,” the warier you should be. In fact, my Ultimate Masters losses have caused me to re-evaluate my entire speculation strategy.
I know many of my fellow QS Insiders feel like Double Masters is one such “sure thing.” I want to make sure people take a step back before going deep on any Double Masters reprints and hopefully learn from my failures. I also think it’s very important to point out that while we are seeing a lot of the Double Masters cards already start trending upward, the initial non-VIP boxes had print run issues that reduced a lot of allocation for stores. We should expect more boxes to hit the market when WoTC’s printers catch back up. I’d expect it to be a rather substantial print run, meaning the gains we see right now will quickly drop once additional supply hits the marketplace.
My new speculation strategy is to avoid all metagame driven formats: Modern, Pioneer, Standard, Legacy, Vintage, Pauper, etc. Now, I almost exclusively speculate on Commander. Even then, I have to limit myself on how deep I’m willing to go on any given target. I choose to restrict most specs at 12 copies or $100, whichever comes first. I’m more than willing to allow those who love the high risk/high reward style of speculation to fill in where I have left off.
I’m sure that my preference for reducing risk comes from growing older and having a growing family, but many of the players I hang out with seem to feel the same concerns with WotC’s current strategy of pumping out more and more supplemental products each year. I hear the term “wallet fatigue” thrown around a fair amount, and while I can’t speak for everyone, my friends and I are definitely feeling it with all these supplemental products.