Shifting Focus to Beta

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Last week’s article on the explosion of Alpha cards was well received. As always, I greatly appreciate all comments and feedback on my articles. One of the most common replies to my coverage of Alpha can be summarized in a simple question: “What about Beta?”

Basically, while Alpha cards sell out across the internet, Beta cards have lagged in their response. Typically, the two sets follow in step, but recently the gap between the value of Magic’s first two print runs has grown. Could that spell opportunity? Does this mean a Beta price adjustment is imminent? What Beta cards are attractive and where should one shop around for Beta rares?

Let’s investigate!

Beta’s Inventory

It’s well-established by now that the print run of Alpha was extremely tiny relative to the size of today’s Magic player base. The estimated number of any Alpha rare is between 1,008 and 1,100. Relative to the millions of players over the 28 year history of the game, this is extremely tiny. It should not come as a surprise that many Alpha cards out basically sold out across the internet, except for a few overpriced listings and the occasional copy in Europe.

But what about Beta? Beta’s print run was nearly triple the size of Alpha’s. That sounds like it’s much larger, but in mathematical reality, three times a tiny number is still a tiny number. The estimates put the number of each Beta rare at about 3,200. That’s still awfully sparse, isn’t it?

So why are Beta cards not virtually sold out across the internet like most Alpha cards? As of the morning of April 18th, there were 23 Beta rares out of stock on Card Kingdom’s site (not counting Akroan Crusader, which Card Kingdom doesn’t sell). For Alpha, I counted 96 rares out of stock completely on the site! That’s a huge difference!

Can the difference be explained by the differences in print run alone? That may be a small part of it, but we just established that three times a tiny number is still a relatively tiny number.

I have two other hypotheses for this discrepancy (by the way, the same trend of Alpha vs. Beta rare availability exists on TCGplayer). First, Alpha is not only rarer but it also represents the first printing of Magic ever. There’s something to be said for the iconic nature of being first on the market, and I believe this makes Alpha cards a bit more special than Beta. While opinions may differ, I believe there is something attractive from a collectability standpoint when looking at a stack of rounded-corner cards from Alpha.

Speaking of stacking Alpha cards, this brings me to the second hypothesis. There’s a group of players who participate in the ultimate enfranchised format: Alpha 40. This is a format that adheres to the deckbuilding rules during the time of Magic’s initial Limited Edition Alpha release—there’s no four card limit (hello Plague Rats.dec!) and decks are 40 cards instead of 60. And of course, every single card in your deck has to be from Alpha.

There currently is no parallel, Beta 40 format (at least not one I’m aware of). The number of players who engage in Alpha 40 can’t be huge—the print run itself is extremely self-limiting. However, it only takes a couple dozen interested parties globally to significantly impact the market.

Think about it: if 25 players pick up Alpha 40 and want a certain rare for their deck, it’s effectively absorbing a couple percent of the world’s print run! What’s more, I doubt there are 25 available copies of any given Alpha rare on the market at any point in time. This can really put a strain on Alpha’s inventory. This is strain that is not currently placed on Beta’s inventory.

Perhaps these two factors are combining to create greater pricing pressure on Alpha as compared to Beta. But the discrepancy may soon correct itself.

Shopping for Beta

Given the absolute rarity of Beta rares, it would not surprise me to see their prices climb higher in step with Alpha. In a world where collectibles are hot investments, Beta has got to be an attractive set to own. There’s no Beta 40 format to drive demand for Beta cards in particular, but it only takes a few folks who are priced out of Alpha 40 to get together and play Beta 40 to dent market inventory.

The relative availability of Beta cards is pretty high as compared to Alpha, making it an attractive alternative. Can’t find that Alpha Granite Gargoyle you’re looking for? The cheapest on TCGplayer is over $1000 at this point. But there are currently seven listings for the Beta printing, starting at $250. You could basically purchase a play set of Beta copies for the same price as a single Alpha copy.

This trend is common across many rares in the set…for now.

Personally, I believe this is likely to correct. While it’s true that Alpha is technically three times rarer than Beta, I don’t know if Alpha’s price should be more than three times its Beta counterpart. I definitely believe Alpha cards deserve some premium over Beta—I just don’t know if that premium should be 300%!

If you’re OK with moderately or heavily played copies, there are some surprisingly reasonable Beta cards out there still on the open market. As much as I love Alpha, I must admit I’ve begun shopping around for Beta cards as an alternative because they’re still relatively easy to find.

Here’s another example: I love the artwork on Verduran Enchantress. It’s not the most powerful card, it’s not on the Reserved List, but it’s not completely unplayable in Old School. Enchantress can be a thing.

I would love an Alpha card as part of the collection. But TCGplayer is sold out, there’s just one $10,000 listing on eBay, and Card Kingdom has one EX copy in stock for $1039.99. That’s too rich for my blood! Fortunately, there are a smattering of Beta copies available for as low as $250. Once again, you can basically purchase a heavily played set of four Beta rares for the same price as a single Alpha copy.

Other Beta cards I found to be relatively inexpensive as compared to their Alpha counterparts include Cyclopean Tomb, Raging River, and Serra Angel (granted the latter isn’t a rare). There are so many available for still-reasonable prices, and I’ve had to prioritize the cards I wanted most due to my limited Magic budget.

Looking Ahead

The relative availability of Beta cards won’t last forever. It may not even last through 2021. With the rate Alpha cards have been disappearing, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Beta move in step this year. I admittedly made it sound like there are more than enough copies of a given Beta rare to go around. But the reality is these are still exceptionally rare, relatively speaking. It would only take a few people buying a playset of Beta Granite Gargoyle or Verduran Enchantress to suck market inventory dry, at least temporarily.

Of course the number of people who actually want a playset of a mediocre Beta rare may not be huge. But it doesn’t have to be! Just like with Alpha 40, just a few folks buying these cards globally is enough to move the needle in a material way. These cards are truly that rare.

So as I look ahead, I am bullish on Beta cards—rares in particular. Their overall print run may be nearly three times that of Alpha, but on the grand scale of Magic’s player base, that number is still miniscule. As much as I’d prefer Alpha rares in my collection for their novelty, I am going to start looking for Beta copies as a cheaper alternative (for now).

As long as Magic remains a healthy, popular game—something Hasbro has demonstrated their commitment towards ensuring—then I remain steadfastly confident that Alpha and Beta rares will slowly increase in rarity, decrease in availability, and increase in price. It seems inevitable to me.

Wrapping It Up

First editions of a given collectible are often more desirable than any subsequent printings—especially if the original edition’s print run was smaller than the next. This holds true with comic books, Pokémon cards, books, coins, etc. Magic is no exception to this trend.

That being said, I think collectors should open their mind up to Beta rares as a reasonable alternative to the super-expensive Alpha counterparts. The market is very high on Alpha right now, and it has left a large gap in pricing between that and Beta. Granted the print runs were significantly different, but looking at their numbers relative to the player base in Magic, both are extremely small.

Therefore, Beta offers an attractive alternative when collecting some of Magic’s earliest cards. I have adopted this mindset recently, and shifted focus away from Alpha (which appears mostly sold out across the board) to Beta (where inventory is still relatively stable). If you’re in a similar boat as me—you enjoy Magic’s earliest cards but have limited budget for purchasing cards—you may also benefit to shifting focus toward Beta.

A time will likely come when Beta copies are similarly cleared out of the internet like Alpha. With the way things are going, this feels inevitable. But we’re not there yet, and hopefully there will be enough time for us to pick up the cards we want for our collections before inventory dries up. Like I often say, it all comes down to prioritization. I’m not advocating you rush out and buy up all the Beta rares you can afford this week. But I do strongly recommend you prioritize any Beta cards you’ve been thinking of acquiring for your collections. You just never know when a few players / collectors may decide to pick up some playsets and putting a stranglehold on the market.

Given Beta’s tiny print run, it doesn’t take much demand to do so. The sooner we accept this reality, the better.

3 thoughts on “Shifting Focus to Beta

  1. Even with some pullback, Beta looks like a great investment. The inventory at Cardkingdom now isn’t as massive as it once was, so I’m guessing it’ll probably go just as quickly once Alpha is gone. I’m okay taking a hit as long as I get the cards I want. I took a loss with the Collector’s Edition moxes before they climbed to 300%-400% gains. Had I waited they probably would’ve been gone by then. Once you grab them you ride it out. I agree that if you buy them it’s because you want to keep them even if there’s some devaluation. Hardcore collectors will hold on to them one way or another.

    1. Beta is indeed a solid investment, especially as Alpha dries up. If you ever think you overpaid on a Beta card, just wait a couple years and suddenly you’ll feel like it was a wise purchase!

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