Money Masters

Last weekend, I sold a big chunk of my Magic collection. For years, I have always kept cards that were at some point in their lifetime “playable,” whether that was in their respective Standard formats, or in one of the eternal formats. I had multiple binders filled with uncommons from Revised until now, dozens of fat packs with commons, and more binders with rares and mythics, all of which I kept because: (A) I loved them; and (B) who knows when they might get reprinted and I need them?

Was this wise? Probably not. Common wisdom is that you should sell your Standard cards when they’re at the latest two sets away from rotating, unless you are actively playing them. That should be right before they start going down because of the dreaded rotation that’s coming. After that, you’re losing money. If you ever need them again, you can pick them up cheap.

Did I ever do this? Sometimes, but most of the time I couldn’t be bothered. The value of cards never really spoke to me because I almost always just kept everything I thought might be useful, and if you aren’t selling something, whether the value is infinite or nothing doesn’t really matter.

Slowly, that has been changing for me. While I’ve gotten older and my disposable income has grown, more and more I’ve come to realize that the value of Magic cards has risen to the point where I feel like I can’t ignore it anymore. The whole #GoyfGate debacle tipped me over the edge in this regard, where I felt it was totally justified to rare-draft the foil Tarmogoyf over the Burst Lightning, even in the top-eight of the GP. I realized that this sentiment was directly opposite how I generally act myself. I almost never rare-draft, as I’d almost always rather win the draft than take home a card I probably already have just because it’s worth $10. It’s a bit different when the card is worth $300+, though, even with higher stakes.

I was not happy to realize this. How did Magic get to the point where we have cards this expensive?* That foil Goyf, even if it weren’t in the top eight of a GP, was worth a plane flight to a GP. It’s a month of food for someone. My closet is filled with cardboard worth thousands of dollars, and most of it is collecting dust. What the…?

*I realize Power has been around that for a while, but how many people really get to play or draft those?

So I ended up sorting through my cards. I picked decks I wanted to keep, made sure I had a couple options in each format, kept a large selection of potential sideboard cards and alternate inclusions for those decks, and set aside the rest. The majority of “bulk” cards I sold locally; the majority of valuable ones I took with me to Origins Game Fair to sell there.

I could’ve gone to local dealers with the valuables as well, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want them to know I was selling a big part of my collection. I’ve always been very proud of my extensive collection, and am reasonably well known for being the guy to ask when you wanted to borrow some obscure tech for your Modern deck or what have you.

I was ashamed I was cashing in these cards for money. To be completely honest, I wasn’t really sure I actually wanted to sell these cards. Still, I did it. Why? Because it upset me what Magic has become.

I hate that Magic has gotten to the point where the financial value of cards matters more than the gameplay value of cards. Maybe it has always been that way and I’ve only recently started acknowledging it, but I am upset nonetheless. It’s appalling to me that one of the biggest hashtags for Magic is #mtgfinance. I despise every shark on the tournament floor trying to make a buck on every trade. I am sick of having to spend tens if not hundreds of dollars to try a new deck (yes, maybe I could borrow cards from friends, but I’m not exactly thrilled to ask them for hundreds of dollars worth of cardboard monthly either). I understand why all of it happens, and I don’t even blame the people behind #mtgfinance or the sharks. If anything, maybe I blame Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro.

For a while now, I’ve been working for White Wizard Games, the company owned by Magic Hall of Famers Rob Dougherty and Darwin Kastle. So far, they’ve released one very successful card game called Star Realms, and they just started a Kickstarter for a strategy card game called Epic Card Game. Within a day, Epic was funded, mostly thanks to the previous success of Star Realms (also a Kickstarter success story).

Both games have a great replay value and lots of strategy, and playing them really reminds me of the feeling I have when I play Magic, but each of these games cost about the same as a single Magic draft. No one card is worth a ton of money. Because there are no “random” boosters in these games, you can buy whatever card you want in whatever package it originally came in. And it’s not just games by White Wizard Games; games like Hearthstone also have shown that strategic card games don’t have to cost hundreds of dollars, despite that particular variant lacking some depth. I have high hopes for Epic, which will be released this fall, and $45 guarantees me a complete playset of every constructed legal card, something I wish was possible in Magic**. Compare that to the most recently released Magic set…

**Wouldn’t it be great if MTGO had a subscription option? Pay $50 a month to have a phantom account with all the cards for all formats? It should be easily doable, but I’m guessing Wizards is afraid of what it would do to the MTGO economy (and it might make them less money). Again, it’s all about the value of cards over play experience.

I was super excited for Modern Masters 2015, but the whole experience of drafting the cards (which I was most excited about) was overshadowed by rare drafting and complaints about the packaging causing damage to the (value of the) cards. For most players who drafted this set, it seemed like it was all about how much money they could open in the packs (which isn’t too crazy when the packs cost almost three times what normal packs are sold for). Players weren’t worried about which archetypes they could draft; they were worried about opening Comet Storm (in limited!) instead of a more valuable mythic money-wise. And it’s not only a problem with Modern Masters: every set that comes out has large threads and articles with calculations about the expected value of buying packs.

It used to be that we all knew the EV of packs: it was shit. If you wanted to acquire specific cards, you bought them from dealers or traded with your buddies. Now, in the market that is the MTG economy, EV calculations are the name of the game. On top of that, we have buyouts and artificial price increases, speculators and forfeiters, all because there is so much money being pumped around. Modern Masters 2015 was intended to reduce prices of cards in Modern, and while it did for some, it skyrocketed cards that were not reprinted. Snapcaster Mage foils are suddenly the price of foil Goyfs. Blood Moon is a $60 card, and it wasn’t even close to that before it was reprinted in Modern Masters.

Will these prices stick? Maybe, maybe not. One should expect that the price would drop if the demand isn’t there, but stores can keep them artificially high as long as we keep buying the cards anyway. Tarmogoyf was well on its way to $100 per card, but when it dipped below $130 some store raised their buy price to $130, and the card shot up again. As long as we all keep believing a Tarmogoyf is worth more than $130, it’ll never drop below that price. The demand might not be there, but since no Magic player can refuse a good deal, we just keep selling from casual speculator to speculator as soon as the price starts dropping.

I don’t know if that is actually the explanation for why prices go high and stay high, but it sure feels like everyone who plays Magic is no longer just a gamer. We are all investors and stock brokers, whether we like it or not—and I sure don’t like it. If only I could go back to just playing Magic, then I might have kept all those cards I sold. However, after seeing the absurdity of card prices taking over the Magic news world for a week, and seeing that it doesn’t have to be that way in other games, it’s doubtful that it’ll ever be the same.

I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it but try to limit my involvement in the market to a minimum. The monetary value of Magic cards makes me dislike playing them, and I don’t want to lose my enjoyment in the game. I’ve now liquidated the stock that wasn’t doing much for me, and hopefully having just cards I play with keeps my mind off their value. Magic has been a huge part of my life, and I’m far from ready to let it go, but I am ready to actively keep those parts I dislike as far from me as possible, while trying to search out those parts of it that I enjoy the most, even in other games if I have to.

Jay Lansdaal
iLansdaal on Twitter

18 thoughts on “Money Masters”

  1. I started playing around the release of Homelands (great timing on my part) and have been playing off and on since then, typically only going dormant when all of my friends quit and I lost the ability to play. I started playing again with the release of Return to Ravnica and quickly realized I dislike Standard as a format. It’s just too low power in general. Since then I’ve been slowly acquiring a Modern collection. I was doing the right things, buying after rotation kills prices etc. I’ve spent years doing this now, and I’m in the home stretch of being able to play whatever I want in Modern. Earlier this week I was looking at price graphs, looking at the spikes of Huntmaster of the Fells, Olivia Voldaren, Snapcaster Mage, Creeping Tar Pit, etc. – I own these cards already, mind you – and for the first time I wondered if it was even worth it anymore. The cost of this game is so high, the “market” so volatile, and how much of it is legitimate demand?

    My nephew started to show a genuine interest in the game the other night and as we played I found myself thinking “What if he actually gets into the game? What if he wants to play Modern like his uncle?” What am I supposed to tell him, “I know you make $10 a week in allowance, so what you need to do is stop saving up for video games and wait 90 weeks and you can maybe afford Grixis Delver. If something in it hasn’t spiked by then. Start with the lands, kid”?

    I don’t remember where I heard it, one of the podcasts I listen to, but someone made the argument that Chronicles didn’t just almost kill Magic, but it also most certainly saved it. It scared away people from hoarding cards and abusing the collectible aspect of the game for financial game. It put cards into players hands. It burst the bubble that was building up around the game and allowed it to just be a game. For instance I have to wonder if a format built around casting Elder Dragon Legends could have thrived in a world where no one could afford Elder Dragon Legends. I don’t know, but I do know that the financial aspect of this game is finally turning me off. Expensive used to mean $20, now it means $50…$80…$200 and I don’t know how much longer I can continue to justify it to myself.

    Sorry for the meandering comment. I enjoyed the article.

  2. Play more mono red and smile as you stomp somebody with $200 in his stupid hand. 🙂

    • You’re missing the point! Your comment indicates you’re still obsessing over (or at least caring about) the cost of the cards.
      The idea is to build fun/cool/powerful decks and not give a second thought to the ‘value’ of the cardboard. The idea is that fun is the only value.

  3. The thing that gets me the worst is the fact that the most expensive stuff in Modern is at risk of being banned out. I got into playing Pod in October of last year, spending about $500 on MTGO to buy in to it. I was moving to a place where my actual paper playing was drying up for a year, so I didn’t mind spending the money to get a deck that I really enjoyed playing. February rolls around and Birthing Pod gets the banhammer. I ended up paying $500 to play a deck for less than six months. That almost drove me out of the format, but I ended up selling everything worth money and buying Affinity instead. Chances are that if Affinity gets banned in July, I’m done with this game, and that feels really shitty.

    • The cards that are good in one deck are still good, even through a banning. Your pod cards would be useful in Abzan Company now, or in most GB decks. Delver cards from last year are playable in Grixis Delver now. Bannings only do so much.

  4. I was feeling the same blues regarding the state of price ticker watching with MTG cards. The solution, it turns out, is to frequent and support the third party unlicensed online communities like cockatrice or xmage. I’ve felt that I can personally justify what amounts to a free ‘phantom’ account to play all kinds of wild decks by supporting my LGS with semi regular drafting and product purchases.

  5. Hi. Had a read… You sure do seem to be leaving this game… Whilst in the same breathe promoting your own renditions… If you don’t like it then leave it. There are a lot of people who don’t have the “higher disposable” income, who actually manage to get set decks through smart trading, amidst this chaos, of $130 Goyfs. There is a format suited to you then. It is called pauper. The right thing to do would have been to give away all those cards you went and sold and moved on to your ultimately better games. It’s about choice and opinion and I like the fact that Magic challenges me outside of the game as well as within. Being in a position where I need to closely watch the game and pricing, it does offer a lot more intellectual simulation. Rather than just playing a game which gives me everything forever for a few bucks. Just my two cents…

    • Thank you for sharing your opinion. Maybe I should leave- the problem is though, I really don’t want to. I *love* playing this game. Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned the games from the company I work for, but they were a big part in opening my eyes, as it were. There apparently are solutions to the problems I have, and I just wish they applied to Magic.

      Pauper is not really a solution for me. The entire idea that we have this format first and foremost because it’s cheap is part of the whole problem to me.

      I’m glad you enjoy the collectable part of the game: that is a part that Richard Garfield put in there, and with you thousands (if not millions) of others enjoy that part of the game. I wish I did.

  6. This. My word. THIS. I agree with you and feel 100% the same way.

    Magic has been invaded by profiteers the last 10 years and it is more a game of who can pay to play then who can cast awesome dragons and elves. I battle daily asking myself the question can I afford to keep playing this game at the level I want and WHY are so many defending the spiking of cards under the guise of “the market determines the price”

    Guess what people. There are so many people playing MTG as the stock market and not the game it was meant to be that you almost need to side with the finance argument bc you need to protect your own investment.

    Food for thought. If you think its expensive now, remember. We have the MTG movie coming soon.

  7. Nice article, even though pretty sad and I hope that Magic will still offer the fun and it won’t stress you much.

    I probably wouldn’t understand the way how you feel if it wasn’t for Modern Masters 2015. I never really cared for the value of cards because I usually owned them already and I always had enough money to buy anything I needed. But after losing my job and spending three years looking for one I learned that Magic actually costs a lot of money (not just the cards but participating in tournaments, because I couldn’t afford that sometimes). When someone asked me how much money my deck costs I put it on tcgplayer to see what the mid price would be. A price tag of 5800USD is something that I certainly did NOT expect. That’s when I realized that for someone starting with Magic it can really be too difficult to start (playing competitively that is). I wasn’t in a position of not being able to play a deck I wanted but I was (and will be for a while) on a really low budget. That’s when the value of cards started bothering me. That is the reason why I stopped playing limited altogether. Before I just payed the fee and did not care about the value of cards. I simply payed for 4 hours of fun. That’s how I saw it. But now that money means that I can have something to eat for two days (and that unfortunately wins over few hours of fun).

    When GP Utrecht was about everyone was speaking about opening Foil Tarmogoyf etc. Also cards that were rumored to be reprinted went down a lot and many people started buying them…I sold 13 Goblin Guides and 10 Spellskites in one day (more like in one hour). At the GP no one really was talking about what they played but rather about what they opened. I was pretty angry about that but I wasn’t really sure what caused that. At first I thought that it was because I was really unlucky with opening packs at the GP (for 220EUR my most expensive card was Hurkyl’s Recall FOIL, followed by Lightning Bolt FOIL) but it wasn’t the case. (I was also witness to two Tarmogoyf FOIL opened just next to me but that wasn’t the case either). When I came back home, I participated in a draft on MODO and that’s when I realized what was wrong. I enjoyed the draft very much and I did not need to care about the prices or anything. (after the GP I thought that I wouldn’t even be able to look at the cards…)
    I drafted what was passed to me, drafted a nice deck and had lots of fun (and won the draft). This draft made me realize what was wrong at the GP. There was no one who asked me how I like MM2 or what archetype I prefer to draft. People asked me about the cards I got and had to tell me what they got even though I really had no interest in that. This is something that shouldn’t be happening. Now I really wonder, did anyone actually enjoy playing MM2? Because I find it a way better ‘format’ than MM1 and would like to draft it even after june 17th. (ok, I can IRL, but where I find the people for that?).

    Something similar happened to me after I sold quite a big portion of my collection (including all dual lands) I thought I would abandon Magic more or less. But 14 days later I was invited to Pro Tour. I went there and participated because Wizards of the Costs payed for everything but at that time I wasn’t sure if I would participate in such a tournament if I would have to pay for it even if I would have qualified for it. After the PT I played several sealed decks and drafts and even SE Standard and I have to say I never had so much fun. I realized that what I really like about the game is the design of the game and the cards. The game is so well done that even with commons or uncommons one can have fun. In limited commons are the most important cards. If you can afford paying for a draft so you don’t need to care about the financial value of the cards just play and have fun. It works. Finding other people that play the game for ‘the game’ is something valueable. We are all different people and we play for different reasons. Fun is something that is subjective and different for each of us, But finding people with similar views can help a lot and make the game even more awesome.

    If I would feel similar to how you feel I would prepare a cube and find people to draft with.

    • Thank you for the suggestion Youko, I am working on a Cube as that definitely sounds like a good solution to my problem with the current status quo.

  8. I started playing with Revised when I was 13. Sold my first juicy pile of cards to go on spring break with some good looking girls when I was 19 and in College. I don’t regret it. I’ve played all my life until recently, I just don’t seem to find 4 hours together for fnm. Kids do that to your time. So I build 6 full modern decks. When I feel like playing I call some friends over for a BBQ kids included and everyone rolls a die and gets a random deck. I’m now building a cube to do the same. I enjoy collecting like this. I do put my decks up to date yearly or so. I sell what I don’t use. More importantly I enjoy the game with my friends.

  9. I’m one of the people you mentioned who does buyouts, arbitrage, speculate on cards(I have 1600 Rest In Peace) etc for a living, and look at Magic almost strictly for its financial aspect; and honestly, I hate it. The money isn’t bad by any means and I definitely make more than most store owners, but it’s really taken almost all the fun out of the game for me.

    I travel a decent amount for Magic(although not much the last couple of months) and the last time I went to a GP to actually battle was Atlantic City, January 2013. It sucks that the game I grew up loving(starting at FNM, then finding out what a PTQ was, followed by playing in my first GP(Philadelphia 2005), later on Top 8’ing my first PTQ, then losing in the finals of 3 PTQ’s, eventually winning a PTQ), I basically despise now. I recently built my first cube(and it’s a sweet mono green one), in the hopes of reigniting the spark I once had for this game, but the only time I’m actually able to play is when I “have to be” out on the floor grinding. I unfortunately don’t live anywhere close to a legitimate card store, so I don’t even have that option, as a place to cube draft.

    My morning routines goes as follows:

    – Get my daughter out of her crib
    – Make her breakfast/feed it to her
    – Put on Monster’s Inc, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse etc
    – Play with her until noon
    – Put her down for a nap
    – Scour buylists, eBay, Facebook groups etc for things that I can make money on
    – Spend a couple hundred dollars(sometimes a couple thousand) buying cards
    – Talk to people about good speculation targets, card spikes, when to buy/when to sell etc

    … I’m VERY good at what I do and a bunch of my friends think I love what I do/want me to open up a store, but honestly, that’s the last thing I want. There’s nothing I’d like more than to stop dealing/grinding, but at this point it’s my life and I’m incredibly good at it. I was very upset leaving GP: Vegas because I “only” made $3k; that’s not the mindset that anyone should have, who started this game as a way to make friends/have fun on Friday nights. There’s nothing I’d love more than not being able to afford $12 Burning-Tree Shamans and $22 Force of Wills.

  10. Hello Jay,

    Very nice article and it resembles my sentiment. Unfortunately the ‘innocence’ of Magic’s previous decades, as much as we would want to, won’t be coming back. There are some serious financial interests out there now. And fortunately, the cards and prices you are talking about are mostly focused on the modern format. As you also note, WotC has a big impact on that format with bannings, reprintings and so forth.

    My advice to you would be to check out Vintage, Legacy and Cube drafting. For the first two formats, although not played as often, the main money drivers are cards that WotC can’t reprint in any good way, as they would destroy their reputation and wouldn’t provide any value to the bulk of their tournament players. At the same time, those formats may feel a bit stale due to the lack of new cards entering the pool at an approriate power level. At the same time, a buy&hold will feel less painful as prices will just go up steadily. In terms of cost to play on an annual basis, I’d rate the formats from most expensive to least expensive as Standard > Modern > Legacy > Vintage.

    One of the best things I ever did was start a cube. It allows you to tune the cube to the power level you enjoy, with the interactions you enjoy, at the price level you enjoy. I see my cube as an investment not in Magic’s current state, but as an heirloom and legacy of my history with the game (although I was very luck with deciding to pick up a collector’s edition about 15 years ago for $200). I also chose to lag behind standard’s rotation a bit with new cards, so I don’t have to pay as much for newly printed mythics and rares, and can just pick up whatever I want when they are going down. Monestary Mentor or Dragonlord Ojutai will go down at some point and that’s when I’ll pick them up. All in all I estimate the cube I have to be worth about $4k, which for me given the history I have with the game is well worth it even if WotC screws up and the game dies. It will be something for my own personal collection and there are much worse places to put money in the current consumer oriented society.

    I guess the same goes for EDH, although I don’t like that format myself. It is too casual in my opinion, with people complaining once you start doing unfair stuff. I like doing unfair stuff and keeping in mind other players can also do unfair stuff.

    Anyway, I just wanted to show you there are pursuits in the game of Magic that are

    • Thank you Victor, I appreciate the suggestions. I have recently begun to dabble in Legacy, and I’ve been working on a Cube for a while now. Slow process, but I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of this Cube once it’s done, so it’ll really be all about playing with that one.

  11. I think we all agree that Magic is becoming obscenely expensive to play competitive. As Jay pointed out: there are other cardgames that don’t do the rarity thing and sell complete sets from the start.
    Netrunner for example sells complete sets, and in addition to that they sell randomnized draft packs for limited play. My question here is: what would happen for Wizards, if they would switch to this model, as opposed to the current way of selling?
    I mean, wizards does not directly profit from the sales of singles, but in an indirect way they do. Would wizards lose money because scg etc won’t buy boxes by the pallet, or would the gain money because lots of people start playing because the total cost would drop?

  12. Now is the time to get into Legacy.

    Wait, let me finish!

    We’re already starting to see prices bounce back from the MM15 release, less than a month later. Anything that didn’t get reprinted is already spiking, and all it takes is a deck placing highly in a large Modern event to cause the equivalent of a bank run. Look at Heritage Druid; $15 for an uncommon that is only played in one deck, all based on hype and a handful of appearances in top eights. Every slightly powerful card is now a barrier to entry to the format, and we’ve proven time and time again that we will pay whatever people charge for the cards. $200 for a Goyf? Well of course you’ll buy it, what choice do you have? Are you going to NOT own a Goyf, like a pauper? (/sarcasm)

    Meanwhile, you know what hasn’t gone up nearly that much, and is considered the “barrier to entry” of another format? Dual lands. Despite what you hear from Wizards and SCG, Legacy is still around and thriving at the local store levels, with players who are older, friendlier, and just want to play their favourite decks. No one is grinding points or trying to squeeze out “value”, we have our decks and just want to play them. Want to save money by paying MP cards? So do we! Have a deck full of proxies so you can try before you buy? Works for me, shuffle them up!

    You can trade 2 Snapcaster Mages for a Tropical Island. You can trade a Goyf for a Tundra. If you take the plunge now, you can convert boxes of cards that were bulk last month, and might be bulk again next month, into cards that will slowly but solidly increase until the cardboard itself rots.

    Or you can spend $80 on that Blood Moon that you “need”

  13. Certainly agree with you Jay. The financial investment into this game is going crazy. Even after reprints and such, the game continues to become bloated with investment. It’s disgusting. Goyf is a joke and continues to blow my mind that people are willing to pay such prices for a piece of cardboard. We have had yet another printing of Goyf and the card continues to remain high (even though there are stacks of them sitting on store shelves) and it continues to rise even with more on the market. It feels like a potential housing crash is on the horizon. I can understand the price for cards which don’t/won’t see reprint because they’re limited in number. But cards with 3rd, 4th, 5th print runs? What is this crap about? No store is ever going to lower the price so it puts a lot of responsibility on the player to try and figure out a solution. I had a discussion at a local store about it, mentioning how the goyfs are just sitting there collecting dust because people are not willing to pay the price for one. The response; “They move slowly, but surely.” Ya. So do tectonic plates. The point is it doesn’t do anyone any good if the card just sits there collecting dust when people legitimately want to play with the card in competitive events. Even as an adult, making decent money, at what point do you stand back and say NO!? And walk away from an otherwise great game.


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