Self-Reflection: How MTG Finance Ruined Magic

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We are officially in the thick of Kaldheim spoiler season. Every day I see new cards from the upcoming set on Twitter. A few have looked interesting, but for the most part, I have to admit I’m distracted.

First of all, there’s the whole political situation in the United States. I’m going to try my very best to keep politics out of this article, but I do want my readers to know how upset I am about everything that happened last week. The news has monopolized my attention, and this is probably the major reason I’m behind on spoiler season.

The other distraction from spoiler season, outside politics, is the rampant asset appreciation seen across the board. After a brief cooldown, Magic cards are once again on the rise. Namely, I’m seeing numerous Discord and Facebook posts by folks looking to buy Power, Dual Lands, and Collectors’ Edition cards. These rises in price are also gripping my attention since I follow Magic prices very closely.

Perhaps too closely.

In fact, I wonder if Magic prices have become such a focus for me, that it has detracted from the game itself? That’s what I want to reflect upon this week, as an off-beat article. Rather than go on and on again about how economic factors are driving card prices higher, I want to ponder about how Magic finance has shifted my approach to the hobby itself. It’s not all sunshine and roses.

My History in Magic

I can define my engagement with Magic by breaking my history in the game into a few distinct phases. The first phase was the longest, ranging from 1997 until 2006. During this time period, I was strictly a casual player engaging with the game purely for its entertainment. When I had spare funds I wanted to spend on Magic, I purchased booster packs (or the occasional eBay repack). That was my primary way of acquiring new cards.

I never read about the game online. I very rarely bought singles (outside of the cool card I saw and could afford at my LGS). I never looked up deck strategy. My friends and I played for fun, building decks that fit our whimsy, and innocently playing a game.

Then something changed in 2006. I had purchased a booster pack of cards and the rare inspired me to build a new kind of deck. I believe that card was Celestial Convergence, but my memory is admittedly fuzzy. Around that same period, I also remember opening an Overburden from a booster pack of Prophecy once and immediately buying three more to try and make a deck out of the card.

I delineate 2006 as the start of a new phase because that’s the first time I started purchasing singles online. Looking back at my Card Shark order history, I see that January 25th, 2006 marked the date of this momentous event. Here’s the order below (notice how I was into older cards even back then):

This event seems inconsequential on the surface; I didn’t really buy any cards of note, other than Armageddon and Oubliette. But this was the first time I realized I didn’t have to open boosters or shop at my LGS in order to obtain cards for a deck. I can order them (inexpensively) online and they arrive at my doorstep a week later.

From 2006 until 2011, I started elevating my game. I started engaging with Magic like never before, engaging with the website to learn about new sets, the story behind them, and most importantly, the decks that made waves in the game. I still wasn’t net-decking at this point, but I realized for just a few bucks I could make my brews more streamlined by filling it out with key deck pieces. This was the time period where I started playing competitively: I attended a couple PTQ’s and started drafting at a local game shop (side note: Time Spiral is a very difficult format to learn how to draft!). I had the most success with local Legacy events, and I took down a few tournaments with Storm, Reanimator, and a deck called “New Horizons”. (I miss the days when deck names told you absolutely nothing about the deck itself. Who remembers decks like Team America and Fruity Pebbles?)

Towards the tail end of this range, I got to know a popular Magic personality at my local game shop: Jonathan Medina. Medina was a pioneer in MTG finance. I’ll always remember the first time I browsed through his trade binder and asked him how he acquired so many sweet, valuable cards. In my naivete, I asked him if he obtained all these $20 Standard rares by opening packs. He responded, “No. Through trades!”

Thus my foray into MTG finance began.

It didn’t really take form, however, until 2012. That’s the year my son was born, and it required I dial back my engagement with playing the game significantly. This was also around the time where Legacy was peaking and prices were reaching new highs. I noticed I could start converting Magic cards into real-life amounts of money (not just quarters and dollars; we’re talking $20 and $100 bills!).

This was when a circuit jumped in my brain—I flipped from being a player first to being an MTG finance person first. Playing became secondary to being able to make some money from Magic. It was precisely then when I lost my innocence. And it has been like this ever since.

The Impact of MTG Finance

When I started putting MTG finance first, I started making drastically different decisions involving how I engage with Magic. I no longer purchased booster packs, for starters. Such terrible EV, right? And on the rare occasions when I do open packs, it’s not because I want to explore a new world within the game. I’m not looking for new build-around cards to play with on my kitchen table. Instead, all I care about is whether or not I made a few bucks by opening a valuable rare. (spoiler: most of the time I don’t)

But the negative impact on my perception of Magic goes well beyond not opening booster packs. I completely lost my passion for playing the game. For example, participating in large events such as Grands Prix is terrible EV. From a money standpoint, it’s a complete waste of time to pay $100 to enter a tournament, play Magic all day, and have only a sliver’s chance of cashing out. I realized the most money-efficient way to engage with a Grand Prix is to use that time to sell cards to vendors, trade (less common nowadays), and shop dealer booths for underpriced cards.

The thrill and excitement I had playing in my first Grand Prix, a Legacy Grand Prix in Columbus (I went 6-2-1 and had a blast), became a thing of the past. Instead of tweaking decks and reading about metagames, I spent my pre-GP energy on researching card prices and mapping out what I hope to sell.

Fast-forward a few years to the mid-to-late 2010’s. I still maintain decks to play with, but I purposefully neuter them when it makes financial sense to do so. I abandon Standard because it’s terrible EV to constantly have cards rotate out. I abandon Modern because Wizards keeps reprinting cards, crushing values. I abandon Legacy for the same reason (although there’s reason to keep the Reserved List stuff).

I maintain a couple Commander decks, but I can’t bring myself to put any cards of value in them because those cards could be converted into cash before Wizards reprints them. As a result, I start tweaking decks to make them fun, but my focus no longer is on winning the game. Winning consistently usually costs money—money I’d rather not spend on the hobby. At this point, I do almost nothing in Magic that may be cash-negative on the balance sheet.

Magic had become nothing more than a modest cash-generator. While this is how numerous vendors, re-sellers, and MTG financiers continuously engage in the hobby, for me personally this was a disappointment. I longed for the days when opening a pack was about getting cool new cards and not about trying to win $10 on a $4 scratch-off ticket.

Optimism For 2020 and Beyond

In the back half of the 2010s, I started exploring Old School as a way of re-engaging with Magic. In a way, the format is ideal for people like me—people who craved the “good old days” of innocent Magic while also keeping an eye on the financial implications of doing so. With Old School, I was able to play the old cards I always wanted as a kid but could never afford, brew to my heart’s content, and focus on having fun. In the meantime, I didn’t have to worry about reprints, rotation, or masters sets crushing my collection’s value.

For once I could have my cake and eat it too.

What’s more, another new development came for me in 2020: I discovered Magic Arena. With the advent of this platform, I can engage in competitive Magic at no financial cost. Previously, if I wanted to play competitive Magic I’d have to sink $100’s into Standard decks or drafts with a hope and a prayer that I could cash out at tournaments to subsidize the practice. Now I can scratch the itch of competitive play for free!

It’s not quite the same as the late 90’s or early 00’s, when my enjoyment of Magic was the least impacted by money. But given my current paradigm, Old School is the closest I have to that childhood mindset. Frankly, I’ll take whatever I can get.

Wrapping It Up

The concept of Magic finance nearly ruined the game for me. With 24 years of playing under my belt, I reflect on my history and realize how the financial aspect spoiled the most beloved part of the game. My childhood innocence was washed away, replaced with greed. There’s no other way to put it.

Now that Magic is in its fourth decade (90’s, 00’s, 10’s, and 20’s) I can use this perspective in an attempt to deliberately shift my attitude about the game. Rather than fixate on money, I have found alternate ways of engaging in the hobby without burning through cash. Old School Magic is one avenue, and Magic Arena is another.

I don’t think I could ever return to the olden days. Gone are the times when I could drive to my LGS, purchase a handful of packs, and use the new cards to brew up new deck ideas using whatever I had on hand. These days are behind me not only because of my focus on finance, but also because I lack the luxury of time—I can’t play new decks on a daily basis with friends like I once did.

But what I can do, is utilize what I have available to me to try and enjoy the game like I once did. In addition, I can strive to re-create my innocent enjoyment of Magic for my 8-year-old son, who is only recently getting into the game. I need to make sure I engage with him on the exciting parts of the game and deck building rather than its financial component. I admit I have not done a great job with this thus far, but hopefully I have time to reconcile with that innocence. Just because finance corrupted my view of the game doesn’t mean it needs to do that for my children.

In the end, I’d like to enter a fourth state of Magic. One of generativity, where I can help my kids and other newcomers to the game enjoy it for what it is: a game.

3 thoughts on “Self-Reflection: How MTG Finance Ruined Magic

  1. Although I have always thought about my Magic life exactly like you described in this article, reading it made me realize how old I am right now. And, how fast things are going for us, old monkeys of Magic. Great words, friend.
    One objection though, isn’t this “new” format, old school, just another opportunity for dealers to inflate the market on these old cards? The format might die economically because of money…

  2. Lucas,

    Thanks for reading and sharing your own personal reflection on the article! We are indeed getting older faster and faster. Better than the alternative I guess!

    Old School isn’t really a “new” format anymore. It’s been around for at least 6 or 7 years, started by a Swedish group of players. It was a grass roots effort to relive the nostalgia and “good old days” of Magic. Since then, the format has been commercialized a bunch and MTG finance has reared its ugly head, creating a point of contention. I don’t think the format will die, though, as there’s enough true demand for the cards to keep it afloat. As card prices climb, it’s difficult for new players to enter. But there are budget options, believe it or not. Fallen Empires, Chronicles, CE/IE, Fourth Edition, Revised, FBB are all legal in most Old School events. I believe these options will keep the format viable for a while, even if in its purist form it becomes too expensive.

  3. Great piece Sig! So glad to have you in the old school community. One of the reasons I’ve always loved reading your stuff is that I feel like our magic journeys are mirror images. I went through legacy, modern and finally to old school around the same time as you. My friend tap hosts an oldschool type 1.5 tourney via web conference every few months and there’s a new one starting jan 26th. Check @santacruzmtg on insta to join! I’d love to play old school with you.

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