Since When Were Rares So Common?

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My family made a trip to the local game shop the other day. My 10-year-old son had a stack of Pokémon cards, and we were wondering if any of them were valuable. Hours of preparation were placed into organizing the collection—sorting by rarity, pulling aside the energy, and ensuring none of my son’s favorites were left in the pile. At the end, there was a relatively impressive stack of about 30 rares on top of everything else in the collection, with cards that dated back to the late 1990’s.

We arrive at the LGS, show them the stack of cards and hand them the rares first, to see if there was anything of value. It took the shop’s buyer all of about 1 minute to scan through the cards and tell us they were worth about $10-$20. For everything. That included the rares, the 100’s of bulk cards, the energies, etc.

When we were informed there were no diamonds in our rough, I asked the buyer what to look for in a valuable Pokémon card. The answer: you can largely tell a Pokémon card is valuable because it’ll look flashy. It doesn’t matter how powerful the card is, or that it’s a “rare”—if it has rainbow effects and full-frame art, then you know you have something desirable.

A Pack of Magic Cards

Let’s fast-forward to last weekend. Recently my son had been asking to “draft” with me at home, so I purchased a few recent booster packs to do a small pack wars competition. We would shuffle up 2 of each basic lands with a freshly opened, un-searched booster, and proceed to battle.

The games were entertaining enough, though newer cards are awfully complex and really give me a significant advantage over my ten-year-old. But it was generally fun, and as long as my son got to cast his rare, he didn’t mind losing.

When I opened my Strixhaven pack and started playing, I had a borderless copy of Ephemerate in my hand. Now keep in mind, I never drafted this set and this is the first time ever looking closely at cards from Strixhaven. Other than the theme around a school for mages, and that there are lessons that can be “learned,” I knew virtually nothing about it.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Ephemerate

“Neat,” I thought. “This must be a special printing of this rare. Maybe it’ll be worth something.” The game unfolded and I proceeded to draw a Necroblossom Snarl. Another rare?

There was an error retrieving a chart for Necroblossom Snarl

Then the real kicker happened. We were playing without sleeves, and during a shuffle I noticed I had a foil double-faced card in the same pack. Upon closer scrutiny, I saw it was a rare: Shaile, Dean of Radiance.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Shaile, Dean of Radiance

Besides the jealousy my son felt at my having three rares in my pack, we were both baffled at this occurrence. Since when did a draft booster pack contain three rares? I thought they were supposed to contain three uncommons, making rares in this set somewhat common, if you will.

I was starting to get pretty excited about my good fortune, and being the MTG finance guy that I am, I immediately looked up the Card Kingdom buy prices for each of these cards to see if my booster pack purchase (about $40 worth) was just paid for with this one lucky pack! As you can tell from the graphs above, I had no such luck. Here’s the rundown as of last Sunday morning:

Ephemerate: $1.00 (Apparently borderless is the base printing of the card in this set?)
Necroblossom Snarl: $1.30
Foil Shaile, Dean of Radiance: Not on buylist

Three rares, one of them foil, one of them doesn’t look like a traditional Magic card, and I can’t even buylist them to pay for the booster pack they came in. I have to wonder just how rare these cards truly are if they’re barely worth a bottle of soda? My ten-year-old would have loved opening this booster pack for himself, but as a seasoned player and collector, I’m not wowed by the flashiness of multiple rares and printing styles. The experience fell flat, as a result.

A Brief History Lesson

I started playing Magic back in 1997 or so. The first booster packs I ever opened were from Visions and Fifth Edition. I also remember discovering Weatherlight for the first time at my local hobby shop, and the thrill I experienced opening packs with cards I had never seen before.

Booster packs back then didn’t denote rarity on the cards themselves. Unless you knew how boosters were collated (at the time, I did not), you had no idea which card was rare, uncommon, and common. When I opened a new booster pack, I didn’t immediately hunt for a rare. I read through every single card and treated them all equally, and evaluated them based on their potential utility in my decks. If a common really impressed me (e.g. Dark Banishing), I would treasure that card as the most valuable I opened.

The day I opened a Scaled Wurm from an Ice Age booster pack was really special.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Scaled Wurm

If you were able to identify the rare, you could be confident in its utility—either as a staple in a deck, or else as valuable trade fodder. After all, a rare was an even trade for another rare, right? Thank goodness for InQuest Magazine, which gave us the rarity information we needed to facilitate such trades.

When Wizards of the Coast introduced the gold, silver, and black set symbols to denote rarity in Exodus (June 1998), my friends and I found it quirky at first but we swiftly got used to it. Then Wizards of the Coast introduced the first foils in Urza’s Legacy (February 1999), and we were a bit more aggravated. In our humble opinions, Magic didn’t need premium printings of cards because the game itself was so amazing and cards could be rare and valuable without adding another layer of rarity.

We tolerated the foils for a time, and eventually they faded into the background. If we opened a foil, cool it was again useful trade fodder. Fortunately, nonfoil rares could still be quite valuable and worth opening in a booster pack.

Fast forward to October 2008, almost a decade later, and Wizards of the Coast introduced the first mythic rare in Shards of Alara. Now there was a card that was even harder to open than a rare! Add on the fact that mythic rares could also have foils, and you began to sense the rarity dilution going on. No longer were rares the super-hard-to-find chase thing. At least the booster packs still only had one rare or one mythic rare per pack, so there was a limited occurrence of both ensuring card values didn’t plummet. Stoneforge Mystic and Noble Hierarch were both quite valuable during their time in Standard despite being printed at rare instead of mythic rare. Don’t forget Fetch Lands, which were also always worth at least $8-$10 as rares.

Skipping Ahead

Even throughout the early 2010’s, the addition of rarity indicators, foils, and mythic rares didn’t dilute card values too badly. But something happened over the past few years that really destroyed new card values. Suddenly, it feels like so many versions of a card exist that just having a base printing of a given rare isn’t special anymore. I am reminded of what that Pokémon card buyer told us the other day, as it also pertains to new Magic sets. [With very few exceptions] a Magic card needs to look valuable to truly be valuable.

Could you open a Boseiju, Who Endures and have a $20 card on your hand?

There was an error retrieving a chart for Boseiju, Who Endures

Yes, I’ll concede this point. But it is the exception and not the rule. Out of the 59 base rares in the set, only 4 of them can be sold to Card Kingdom to cover the price of the booster pack they’re opened within ($4). That 7% hit rate is hardly inspiring, and this is a brand new set where card prices are still a little inflated. The most valuable rare you can open from Strixhaven is Wandering Archaic—with a $4.70 buy price, it’s the only non-foil, non-special rare you can open from this set that will pay for the booster pack. Prismari Command is close, at $3.70.

No, opening a normal-looking, boring regular rare isn’t worth what it used to be. You really need to find that special looking, alternate art, foil, borderless, etched or whatever special printing of a card to know if you have something special.

Since when did Magic become Pokémon?

Wrapping It Up

The tone of this article may be a touch on the negative side, and I’ll admit this is partly due to the underwhelming nature of my pulls during last weekend’s pack wars. When I open three rares in a set, I expect to have a little more value amongst the cards—no such luck.

I’ll end on a positive note. While these cards may not all look like Magic cards, at least they still play like them. My son and I had a lot of fun shuffling up unknown cards from Magic’s most recent sets to battle. Even though the mechanics were foreign to me, they were intuitive enough to facilitate enjoyable gameplay (although I did get tired of rolling D-20’s over and over again when I played with Adventures of the Forgotten Realms). Foretell was a little bit too advanced a concept for my son, as well, but I am sure he would have picked it up the second time he saw the ability.

My conclusion after last weekend’s experience: if you like buying scratch-off tickets in the hopes of winning some real money, then modern day Magic booster packs are just the thing for you. They’re like modern day Pokemon packs, in that opening a flashy, special looking rare is your best bet to open something of value. The majority of base, normal printings of rares just can't compete anymore.

If, on the other hand, you’re into Magic for the game, then forego the paper stuff and stick to playing digitally. There’s no pack wars (yet) on Arena, but it’d be simple enough to facilitate and could be a good deal of fun. Other than that, as long as you’re looking for a weekend of casual play, nothing beats the price of free. No shuffling or manual rolling of D-20’s required.

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