There has never been another year quite like 2020, and here's hoping there never will be again.
I've done a lot of year-end Magic Finance wrap-ups, but they usually involve me talking about things like the impact of the latest Masters set, the state of the Standard metagame, or the latest frustrating changes in Organized Play. This year, I have to talk about the temporary disillusion of all tabletop events, government stimulus checks, and vaccine distribution timetables.
Of course, that might make this the most important year-end wrap-up I've ever done. 2020 was an absolutely seismic year in Magic Finance, and it's important that we take some time to reflect on what actually happened to our game over the past twelve months. It's also crucial that we take a nice, long look into our future and try to predict what might happen in 2021 and 2022. The future of Magic Finance is going to look a heck of a lot different depending on which parts of the 2020 card economy are temporary, and which parts are permanent.
That's my goal in today's article. We're going to take a look at all of the major Magic Finance trends of 2020, and then I'm going to predict how they'll play out in 2021 and 2022. Will WotC keep churning out products like they're Netflix Originals? Is competitive tabletop Magic over for good? Is Commander the present and future of the game? Are we mere months away from a Family Guy themed Secret Lair drop?
With 2021 just days away, grab your drink of choice and join me as we explore this dumpster fire of a year one last time, together.
Here's a list of all the Magic products released in 2020. I'm sure that I'm forgetting a few smaller releases, but I've done my best to be comprehensive:
This is a lot of products. A lot a lot a lot of products. WotC has been steadily increasing the number of releases per year for a while now, but 2020 was the year they finally turned their firehose on full blast and left it pointed at our wallets for twelve straight months.
Not only did we get a whopping 22(!) Secret Lair drops during our first full year of the product line, but WotC released more full expansions and Commander decks than ever before. I also don't want to underplay the impact of the Collector Boosters, which have somehow morphed into miniature Masters sets that are released five or six times a year. The Zendikar Rising Collector Boosters in particular had a full set of premium lands in them, while the etched foil subset in the Commander Legends Collector Boosters contained dozens of high-profile reprints. These were both pretty close to entire set releases in and of themselves, threatening to essentially double the content of each major set release from now on.
Financially, this has been an incredibly impactful shift across multiple axes. On the one hand, Magic sales are higher than ever. Mark Rosewater called 2020 "Magic's best year ever" on his blog, and I have no doubt that raw sales figures are a large part of his metric for doing so. We also know that sales have been way up this year thanks to the information present in Hasbro's quarterly stock reports. The fact that WotC has been able to grow their market share in the middle of a global pandemic is nothing short of remarkable.
On the other hand, set release fatigue is only getting worse. I've seen a number of decades-long players burn out this year, while many others are doing their best to try and tune out the sets that aren't for them. But since WotC is so good at playing up the FOMO with every single release, it's hard. Keeping up with Magic in 2020 feels a little bit like riding a bucking bronco, where the only goal is to just hang on as long as you can.
From a secondary market perspective, it is the best of times and the worst of times. Every set release is both a new chance to make money on the speculation market and a new chance for your favorite long-term spec to get reprinted and tank in price. Buying a stack of some underrated Commander staple and then waiting for the market to come around used to be a nearly foolproof strategy, but it's a lot risker now. These days, I spend much more of my time thinking about what older cards might see a secondary spike due to WotC revisiting some popular tribe or combo.
This shift in WotC's philosophy has also changed how I approach collecting. It's much harder to justify purchasing $30+ staples for your private collection basically ever, and it's hard for me to recommend buying expensive cards that haven't been reprinted in a while. While reprints are great for giving newer players access to cool old cards, people who paid 2019 prices for cards like Scroll Rack and Grim Tutor were severely punished for that decision.
I also feel generally worse about holding onto a large Magic collection this year, since WotC is so dedicated to reprinting everything. It's a lot easier to justify having a large portion of my net worth tied up in Magic cards when I'm not worried about dozens of them tanking in value every year. At this point, nearly all of the cards I add to my collection each year are reprints or new cards that I'm trying to pick up at market lows – letting the reprints work for me instead of fighting against them.
I have yet to see any evidence that WotC sees a problem with releasing infinite sets all the time, and Mark Rosewater has publicly defended this policy on his blog. And while I have no evidence that Hasbro upper management is responsible for this deluge, Magic's current pattern of trying to grow quarter-over-quarter, damn the consequences, is not unique and rarely ends well. While I personally believe that releasing hundreds of special shiny premium cards every year will eventually lead to diminishing returns and large-scale burnout, I think we're still several years away from seeing that play out. At the very least, I expect the release pattern in 2021 and early 2022 to match what we saw in 2020.
For all the "Death of Magic!" articles I've had to read over the years, I never actually expected to live through a year where there was essentially no tabletop scene at all. No FNM, no Players Tour, no MagicFests, no in-store pickup games of Commander…nothing. Outside of a few countries where the pandemic was responsibly handled by local government, tabletop Magic was essentially "killed" in a matter of weeks.
What did this mean for the secondary market? A lot, actually. The Standard market has almost completely tanked, and there are only three Standard-legal cards worth more than $20 at the moment. Pioneer was pronounced dead on arrival, especially since Historic is a similar (and better) format that can actually be played on Arena. Modern prices have also flatlined, and that format is cheaper to engage with than it has been in years. Essentially, the lack of competitive tabletop play has done more or less what we would have expected it to do.
On the other hand, Commander prices are still doing great. I know plenty of folks who have been building decks all year despite not having had a chance to play with them yet, and there are plenty of others who have been playing pickup games with their housemates inside their individual quarantine bubbles. We've also seen the proliferation of webcam Commander this year, as the community has banded together to keep the format alive through virtual play.
Why did Commander buck the 2020 trend? Part of it is because of the format's casual bent and grassroots support. If you want to seriously play Standard or Modern, you really do need a whole room full of people to test your mettle against, all of whom are engaged with the current metagame. For Commander, you just need someone else with a Commander deck.
The other piece of this puzzle is that WotC makes it really easy to play competitive magic on Arena and MTGO, but there is no way to correctly replicate the Commander experience with virtual cards yet. The format doesn't exist on Arena, and MTGO Commander is something of a visual and layout nightmare. Even if the interface was good, Commander is a heavily social and political game that can't be replicated nearly as well on a digital client. Webcam Commander is actually the ideal way to play the format virtually right now, and that requires owning physical copies of the cards. Because of that, demand for Commander singles have actually gone up this year.
Yes, then no.
The first few months of 2021 are going to be rough, but I'm actually really bullish on the world "returning to normal" next year. The COVID-19 vaccine is incredibly effective, and I expect that distribution will happen faster than expected. I don't claim to have any expertise in this field, but I do a lot of reading about this stuff and the vaccine approval timeline prediction I made over the summer ended up being accurate.
My current belief is that most people in the USA will be vaccinated in April, May, and June. July 4th will be the first American holiday that will feel somewhat "normal," and we will have full occupancy indoor dining, gyms, and local game stores by the time WotC releases their fall 2021 set. FNM will be back this fall, as will in-store Commander play. The Standard market will spike hard in late September/October of next year, as many players who dipped out on tabletop Magic during the pandemic are finally able to buy back in.
I wouldn't be surprised if this prediction actually turns out to be too conservative, too. I've tended to underestimate how many risks other people are willing to take, since I have been quarantining heavily over the past nine months. It's possible that enough of the world has opened up by late spring that WotC will lift their in-store play moratorium at some point in April or May, despite the pandemic not being close to over yet.
As with FNM, I expect conventions to come back (and to packed crowds) earlier than most people expect. While many people are adamant that they will not even consider returning to convention centers until 2022, we live in a world where the bulk of the population is eager to put this year behind them as quickly and completely as possible. Since vaccination provides a high level of personal protection, I don't foresee a world in which late 2021 conventions like PAX Prime don't draw massive crowds. While some will still stay home, countless others will not.
At any rate, I expect that many people will be clamoring for the return of large-scale Magic events next fall. It will likely take until 2022 for most of those to come back, though, because the events industry has been decimated by the pandemic. Your LGS can just slap an "open" sign on their play space (provided they've survived to this point), but the events industry is going to have to build back up almost from scratch. It will happen eventually, but it will take far longer than many are hoping.
What does this mean for Magic finance? Well, I expect the Standard market to rebound somewhat quicker than the Modern or Pioneer markets due to how much sooner small events will likely return. The eternal formats derive more of their value from large events, and those are going to take longer to come back. While Modern might spike next spring due to Modern Horizons 2, that spike will be somewhat short-lived unless Modern gains more of a foothold in local play.
Lastly, I simply don't buy the argument that competitive tabletop play is dead forever, or that it will be permanently replaced by Arena. Everyone in the world is suffering due to a lack of personal connection right now, and people will be prioritizing in-person socialization once it is sufficiently safe to do so. I do think we're going to look back at 2020 as the year in which Arena did permanently capture a large share of the competitive Magic market, but 2020 is not going to be "the new normal." Tabletop events will return, both large and small.
The Walking Dead Secret Lair drop was one of Magic's biggest community flashpoints in all of 2020. The controversy had less to do with the drop itself—though some people were understandably upset that a character as dark and violent as Negan has his own Magic card—but with what the drop might mean for the future of the Secret Lair line in particular and the future of Magic in general. After all, we're getting an entire Dungeons & Dragons crossover set in 2021, and who knows what will come after that. Does the future of Magic look more like Ready Player One than the game as we currently know it? Will we be able to tap Hogwarts to equip Taylor Swift with a DeLorean by the end of 2022?
This crossover fear was exacerbated by the fact that the Walking Dead cards are mechanically unique. If you like how Negan plays out mechanically, then you have to play with Negan regardless of how you feel about his character on The Walking Dead, which wasn't true about the Toho Godzilla cards. Some people also found it frustrating to see mechanically unique cards in a Secret Lair at all, because that turns the product series into another thing that you can't really ignore without triggering FOMO. In other words, this product was at the confluence of several major community issues in 2020.
Yes, but not to the degree that some people fear.
WotC will likely release more tie-in products in 2021, and they will probably release at least a small handful of mechanically unique Secret Lairs as well. People will be MAD ONLINE about both of these things, and each one will be met by a small (but loud) contingent of the community as if it's the end of the world. Hasbro even has a Star Wars license, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Babu Frik or The Mandalorian show up in a Secret Lair at some point within the next year or two. Some people will hate this. Some people will love this. Most people won't care.
One change I do expect to see: WotC will be better about releasing "Magic versions" of mechanically unique tie-in cards, likely within 1-2 years of their initial release. I bet we'll see non-Walking Dead versions of nearly all of those cards within the next 16-18 months. If WotC can dodge some of the criticism over this decision by printing and selling more cards, I have faith that they'll do exactly that.
I also expect that 2021 or 2022 will give us the first mechanically unique Secret Lair card to cause problems in the world of Magic finance. At some point, one of these cards will break out in Commander and will be bought out by speculators. WotC will eventually print a new version of the card, but since it has a different name, you'll be able to play with both of them in your Commander deck, allowing the original to maintain most of its value. I'll do what I can to try to point this card out when I see it and give you a chance to buy in early, but still. I have to believe that something like this will be a discourse-driving engine at some point in the future, and I'm already rolling my eyes about it.
The weeks between the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the April 15th release of the US Government stimulus checks were the worst I've ever seen for the Magic economy. The entire market fell off a cliff, and it looked like there was no end in sight. I wasn't worried that the market was going to drop and drop forever, but I did wonder how low the floor actually was. Could Magic's secondary market really lose a third of its value? What about half of its value?
Thankfully, the $1,200 stimulus checks turned everything around. They definitely weren't enough to help struggling families deal with the job losses and other economic struggles of 2020, but a lot of well-off Magic players who didn't lose their jobs suddenly had an extra twelve hundred bucks to play around with. And play around they did.
While I have no proof that the stimulus checks caused the market shift, I can't imagine what else could have done it. The market literally turned on a dime on April 15th, the day those checks hit bank accounts for most Americans with direct deposit. Take a look at this chart, which tracks the average price of the 50 best-selling cards from Q4 of 2019 and Q1 of 2020 across the entirety of this year:
I've sliced and diced this chart a dozen different ways, and it always looks more or less the same. The market tanked into mid-April, hit bottom, and then turned around on the 15th of that month. Sales have been doing great since then, largely on the back of Commander and other casual formats. I shudder to think what might have happened if the US government failed to act at all, and I'm glad we didn't have to live in that world. It's also pretty remarkable to see a rebound like this in a year where tabletop gaming wasn't possible. Magic is really strong, and the community is really dedicated.
Kind of. As I'm writing this, the US Government is on track to approve an additional $600 in stimulus money. This smaller amount is unlikely to have the same effect, tough. The Magic market isn't currently plummeting toward rock bottom, so I don't expect we'll see the same kind of upwards velocity in response, either.
Also, this round of stimulus checks will not be sent to folks who made more than $100,000 in 2018. That won't be a concern for me, obviously, but I'd imagine the sorts of people most likely to go "oh, hey, free money, guess I'll buy a couple of Taigas" will not be getting any money this time around. That said, I wouldn't be shocked if we saw a small uptick when these checks go out, especially for underpriced Modern staples and Reserved List cards. It won't be anything like it was last spring, though.
Beyond that, I think we're done with stimulus checks for the time being. Some folks will probably try for another round in March or April, but I don't expect it will make it very far in the Republican-controlled Senate.
While I've integrated most of my serious 2021 predictions into the body of this article, I'm also going to throw some more specific darts at the wall and see what sticks. It's always fun to make a bunch of quantitative predictions and then look back on them a year later in order to see how wrong I was. Anyway, take all of these predictions with an entire shaker of salt, though I will post a .gif of me hanging out with Fivey Fox if I get enough of them right.
WotC decided to give us a few key previews as an early taste of Kaldheim, and the set looks pretty neat so far. I'll be covering every rare and mythic in detail when I start my set review, but the secondary spikes have already begun. Cards like Magda, Brazen Outlaw indicate that Dwarf Tribal is going to be a thing, which has caused cards like Dwarven Bloodboiler and Dwarven Recruiter to spike hard. Check it out:
These massive single-day columns make it seem like these cards were bought out by a single speculator with a really fat wallet, but that's not what happened here. Instead, it appears as though a single person (or small group) did buy out a decent chunk of the available supply, but the rest were sold as singletons to individual players. This tells me that these cards are likely to keep at least most of these gains through the next few weeks, and you don't need to rush to sell your copies. I would anyway, though—selling into spikes like this is rarely wrong.
Also up this week: The playtest cards from Mystery Booster: Convention Edition. These casual darlings have been rising in price for months—something I talked about extensively in last week's article—but it looks like somebody finally cleaned out a lot of the remaining stock. I'm personally not that interested in buying high on these, and at this point I'd rather just wait for the market to move on and the price to drop again, but I do really like these cards over the long haul. They're super unique, and there simply aren't that many of them out there. If you can find any of them at last week's price, you might want to consider picking them up.