I’ve been playing Magic on and off for 23 years.
In that time I’ve taken years off due to all sorts of life events. I’ve bought, sold, and traded tons of cards. In person and online. I’m divorced now, but after my wedding reception there was a draft. In 2001 I sold cards to pay for a new transmission. In 2014 I sold cards to pay for a security deposit. I’m not an expert at card pricing -- I don’t have prices memorized and I don’t buy collections -- but I do have a lot of experience watching cards change in price and that’s the essence of what I want to bring to you.
People often say they don’t care about Magic finance, that they don’t understand speculators, or something else about the murky world I inhabit.
Time to shine a light, with some basic principles.
Price by Demand, not Power Level.
A card is expensive when lots of people want the card. It’s more expensive when it’s popular in Standard, because you tend to want four of the card and Standard is the most widely played Constructed format. It doesn’t matter if you think the card is good, because you might be mis-evaluating it based on your experiences.
For example, I looked at
Risk Factor and thought it was a worse
Browbeat. I’ve played
Browbeat and one copy of that card is bad. Two, though, now you’re in business and I should have seen that coming.
Not All Demand is Obvious.
Mill cards are the poster child for this phenomenon, because there’s a lot of people out there who love
Glimpse the Unthinkable was a $40 card at one point and Hedron Crab remains a $4 uncommon today. These are cards that see tournament play once in a blue moon, but they are huge with the folks who don’t really have a format, and just play sweet decks.
Pay Attention to Formats.
Nonfoil prices are set by Standard, Modern, Commander, and Legacy demand in that order.
Not coincidentally, this is the order in which the typical usage lifecycle of cards progresses these days. I’m starting to think that Commander may need to be moved up a notch, but as of now Modern's the format that new cards can really shake up, causing absurd price spikes. My favorite example is
Goblin Lore. This was a bulk out of Portal: Second Age and a couple of early core sets, and now it’s $30 because of
Hollow One synergies.
If you want to evaluate a card’s long-term potential (by which I mean outside Standard) then you have to look at Modern and Commander. Legacy doesn’t move the needle much anymore, though that’s a market that will impact foils.
Be Aware of Special Printings.
Foils/Promos aren’t necessary, but they are fun to have. And for many Magic players, are highly sought.
Mythic Edition demonstrates this principle to us very well. We want unique things, things not everyone has. Any Commander deck can have a
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Only a few will have this collectible version.
It’s the same card but we want to have the shiny things, the unique things. We want an Ubermyr, we want the textless
Gaea’s Cradle test print, we want the miscuts and crimped versions.
If you want to speculate on a card, your best bets are generally when the set is done and it rotates out of Standard.
Last month I advocated for
Fatal Push as something you should pick up because people are selling off the copies they used in Standard decks. The price is at its lowest in some time, and it’s one of the most played cards in Modern. The supply has temporarily gone up but over time (and as Modern gets bigger and bigger) more decks will want the card and you should have a couple to sell off.
Pack Foils Resist Falling Prices.
Pack foils (especially in old borders) are resistant to falling prices due to reprints.
Let’s look at the price graph for foil
Aether Vial. It was first printed in Darksteel, and reprinted in Modern Masters 2013, then again in Iconic Masters, and even has an Invention version to chase.
Even at rare, that’s a lot of new copies going into the market and the pack foils just keep climbing. This despite the fact foils from this era are kind of washed out and less visually appealing.
Original foils are a solid investment. Lots of them from Urza’s Legacy (first foils in packs) and 7th edition (first core set foils) are already SUPER high in price, and foils on the Reserved List are a veritable gold mine. Oh, and a corollary: the Reserved List is never going away and whining about that makes no difference at all.
Only Buy Early to Play.
If you’re going to play a card in the first weekend of a set, go ahead and buy it. Otherwise, it's best to wait.
Here’s the aggregate value of Guilds of Ravnica foils. Put another way, this is the cost of a full set in foil:
That downward trend is usually present in foil and nonfoil, but Guilds of Ravnica keeps showing us new decks, which causes spikes and the overall value to go up. Here’s the nonfoil graph:
I have to admit, I don’t remember the last time a set kept surprising us this way, but maybe that’s because Standard just rotated and things are still wide open.
Hold Your Old School.
If you own anything legal in Old School, just sit on it unless you absolutely have to sell it.
A trend in the last couple of years is that in Old School/93-94 Magic people have been enjoying the hell out of some astronomical price rises. Some are spikes. Some are just a function of relatively small supply and just a little demand will get there. Revised cards are legal in this format; they are pretty ugly, though, so people are eager to upgrade to black borders.
Cubes are Good Investments.
Financially speaking, a Cube is the best investment ever.
It’s not close, either. Cubes can be made on the cheap, with printed paper slid over basic lands, or super-blinged-out. It’s your call, but if you have a playgroup that can play with it regularly, you’re going to get enormous fun out of very little cash. I’ve got an uncommons-only cube and a silver-borders-only cube, and both of them are super entertaining for me while costing relatively little.