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