Whenever I'm tempted to begin an article by saying something like "back in my day…," I feel like I'm about to turn one thousand years old. In this particular case, though, "my day" really just means "before Project Booster Fun," which didn't even begin until the fall of 2019. That just feels like forever ago because time stopped having any meaning in March of 2020.
Anyway, back in my day, before Project Booster Fun, opening a foil Magic card was an exciting experience. Most foils were worth roughly 1.5 to 2 times as much as their non-foil counterparts, with select Commander and eternal staples demanding a premium up to 10 or 20 times their non-foil value. While there were Masterpiece and prerelease versions of some staples that complicated this calculus, the vast majority of cards were only printed in two treatments: foil and non-foil. If you wanted a cool version of the card for your Legacy or Commander deck, the best you could usually do was collect the earliest set foil and call it a day.
While I'm glad that collectors and deck-builders now have more versions of cards to choose from, especially since many Showcase variants are undeniably gorgeous, normal foils have become far more mundane. Instead of being the rarest versions of most cards, they are now simply the second-most-common version of that card. Opening a foil planeswalker from a Draft Booster used to make you feel almost cosmically lucky. These days, it's not much different than opening a non-foil version of the card.
But wait — some foils still command a premium, right? Maybe based on art, or format, or the quality of the other variants? What about older foils? What about old-border foils? What about iconic cards from beloved sets? The truth is…I honestly don't know. I already have an idea of what I'm going to say when I begin most of these articles, but this is one of those rare cases when I'm going to do the research alongside you, and we're going to learn together. Think of it like going on a trip to the school library with a friend!
So — let's begin. Do foil Magic cards still command a premium? If so, are there any useful pieces of intel that we can glean from our research? I'm excited to find out, and I hope you are, too.
Let's start by taking a look at a collection of cards from recent sets. What does the foil multiplier look like these days? Well, here's the current price for each version of Arlinn, the Pack's Hope right now:
There's a pretty wide range of prices here, but they do appear to be clustered in a couple of distinct tiers. After the non-foil, which is going to be the correct choice for anyone who just wants the cheapest version of the card, there are four different variants in the ~$20 range available to anyone who wants something slightly nicer. The showcase is quite a bit more expensive than that, and then the showcase foil is a full $21 more expensive still. There's still an elite option for those who want to show off (or who just really love the card), and it certainly isn't the regular pack foil.
Is this trend similar across other cards? Let's take a look. Here's Wrenn and Seven:
This time around, there's no showcase variant. That makes the borderless foil the de-facto "best" version of the card while also elevating the prerelease stamped version into the #2 spot. We still have the same three price tiers, but this time we can see different variants slotting into the more expensive spots.
Will the same hold true when we move out of the mythic rares and into Standard staple rares? Let's take a gander at Memory Deluge:
Interesting! This time, we can see a little more separation between the non-foil copies and the premium versions, which are worth between 1.5x and 2x as much. On the higher end, the "best" version of the card continues to be worth quite a bit more than the rest. Don't forget, though, that this is a competitive Standard card, and not so much a Commander staple. I'm not surprised these tiers look a little bit different.
What if we travel a little further back in time, say, to Kaldheim? Here's Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider:
I chose this card because I knew it had a famous additional variant: the full Phyrexian version, in both foil and non-foil. I was honestly shocked to see how cheap the non-foil Phyrexian version was these days, and even the foil is way, way down from the $300+ it was selling for when the set came out. For anyone who wants to see that price chart, it looks like this:
Sidebar: to me, this is a great example of why you need to sell into hype and be patient when making personal buys. This version of Vorinclex is just as cool as it ever was, but fewer people are paying attention to it right now because there have been so many other sweet cards released since Kaldheim. At some point, this card will end up back in the public consciousness again, and the price will spike. Until then, it appears to be bottoming out right around $100. If you're interested in a copy, this is a pretty solid window to buy.
We're trying to draw more general conclusions about foils today, though, so let's look at what's going on here. The foil copy doesn't command much of a premium here, though the prerelease foil is worth a tad more. Above that, we've got the showcase foil worth twice as much as the showcase non-foil and then the Phyrexian foil worth twice as much as that. Yet again, the "best" version of the card is worth a good deal more.
Let's check in on Goldspan Dragon next:
Ah, here's something different! There's very little separation between all the cards here, with $38 on the low and $53 on the high. Why is this? My guess is it's the fact that this card's price tag is almost entirely tied up in high end Standard play. Competitive players have never wanted to pay a lot for premium versions of a card that's never likely to show up in eternal play, because they usually tank after the Standard metagame moves on. My guess is that there would be more separation here if the non-foils were worth more like $18 to $20, but the high end didn't really budge once the low end spiked in price.
What lessons can we learn from all of this? Well, when we're looking at newer Standard sets with Collector Boosters, most of the "lower end" premium variants — set foil and non-foil extended art or borderless cards — aren't going to command too much more than the regular non-foil versions of those cards. This might change as these sets age, but right now, these are great budget options for anyone who wants a very cool-looking Commander deck without having to spend a whole lot of extra money.
Beyond that, most cards do seem to have a consensus "best" version that is worth quite a bit more than the other variants. Some also have a "second best" version that is also somewhat expensive, though not worth quite as much. The "best" version is usually the scarcest, and it'll be some foil variant if one exists. Over time, these versions are likely to hold their value pretty well, but make sure you don't buy into too much hype or you'll end up falling into the Foil Vorinclex trap.
Current foils may be devalued relative to previous baselines, but what about foils from sets that didn't have Collector Booster treatments? Has the current "eh, foils aren't what they used to be anymore" trend affected key cards from past sets, or have they remained more or less intact? Let's find out. Here's Anointed Procession:
This is more or less what things were like a year or two before Project Booster Fun, where foil multipliers were closer to 1.5x than the previous era's 2.0x or the current era's 1.2x. The most surprising thing here, to me, is just how much more expensive the prerelease foil sells for. Honestly, I've been kind of surprised by that throughout the research process so far, because prerelease foils didn't used to hold this sort of premium, despite being a lot scarcer. It might be worth being more aggressive in picking these up in the week or two after the prerelease if you're into collecting these.
Let's look at a few more. Here's The Immortal Sun:
This incredibly popular Commander artifact still has a modifier close to 2.0, with an additional $20 tacked on for the prerelease stamp. I see no sign of decline here. Let's check in on Mox Amber:
Yeah, this is still right about where these cards would have been, ratio-wise, before Project Booster Fun. Eternal staples like this often have larger than average foil modifiers, and that certainly still seems to be the case here.
Looking at all of this, it sure seems like collectors didn't just stop liking foils when Project Booster Fun started up. That's not why the newer foils have such a small premium modifier. As always, collectors want the rarest and most exciting versions of each card. With these older versions, the set and prerelease foils are the clear winners. With newer releases, set foils are both a lot easier to open (thanks to Collector Boosters) and less exciting compared to Showcase Foils. That's why they're so much cheaper now.
We know that reprints devalue non-foils — that's kind of the point, after all — but what happens to foils, especially older foils, when a card is reprinted over and over again, especially in a set with a whole lot of Project Booster Fun nonsense?
Let's take a look at a couple of land cycles first, since they've been reprinted several times and are played across multiple formats. If any older foils are still going to command a massive premium, it'll be the shocks and fetchlands. Let's start with Steam Vents:
We're back to three tiers again here, and you can see that nothing really holds a candle to the very first foil ever printed. Granted, I think that the $351 asking price for the cheapest NM foil on TCGplayer is almost certainly overpriced, but the point is pretty clear even if it only sells for half as much. We're back to our tiers again here, with a cheap non-foil tier for those who just want to own the card, a slight premium tier for some of the more common foils, and then a few really expensive and rare copies for the high-end collectors.
One interesting note: the Return to Ravnica foil is worth $11 more than the Guilds of Ravnica foil, despite the non-foil Guilds of Ravnica version selling for $1 more than the Return to Ravnica non-foil. As time passes, fewer NM copies of these foils exist, especially from sets released in the pre-Booster Fun era when foils were a lot scarcer. This can cause the price to rise over time, and it seems like even reprints don't really stop this trend. Worth considering, perhaps, as you try to future-proof your collection value!
Anyway, let's take a look at another high-end eternal staple that got the full Project Booster Fun treatment: Scalding Tarn.
Wow, there sure are a lot of different versions of Scalding Tarn! Most of them were released in the past calendar year, though I think it's interesting that the original Zendikar printing (non-foil) is worth more than a couple of the recent foil printings. If you'd told me that before the Booster Fun era, I don't think I would have believed you.
If you're curious how the most expensive foils have fared through all of these reprints, well, it doesn't seem to have affected them all that much. That said, they don't sell often enough for me to say much more than that. Here's what the chart looks like for the Zendikar set foil over the past couple of years:
And here's the Zendikar expedition copy:
Small sample sizes aside, this is some pretty useful data, especially compared to non-foil copies of the card over this same time frame:
Yeah. If you bought the cheapest version of Scalding Tarn at the start of 2019, you likely lost $40 in value as your card plunged from $70 to $30. However, if you bought either the Expedition or Zendikar Set Foil, you may have only lost $10 to $20 in random market fluctuations. Granted, most people can't afford to hedge their bets this way, especially when expensive older foils can sometimes drop like a rock, but this certainly makes me more likely to at least consider privileging older, more expensive foils if I want to avoid getting blown out by a reprint.
Just to make sure this trend isn't just occurring with competitive staples like lands, let's take a look at Doubling Season, which got a Project Booster Fun reprint treatment in Double Masters:
This appears to be more of the same. The newer set foils don't command too much of a premium over the non-foils, though the cool showcase treatment (in this case, alternate art borderless) is clearly in higher demand.
This particular card is also a good example of why aesthetic appeal is worth considering alongside pure scarcity. The Battlebond foil is worth more than the Judge foil, despite the latter almost certainly being a good deal scarcer. Why? Because the judge foil has the same art as most of these other foil copies that are easier to get, while the Battlebond foil is the only copy available with that particular piece of art.
Lastly, the Ravnica City of Guilds foil has actually gone up in price since 2019, despite the reprint. Take a look:
Will this card sit in your TCGplayer inventory for six months waiting for a buyer if you want to liquidate it? Probably. But yet again, we can see the advantage of buying and holding original set foils in the Booster Fun era. No matter what else seems to happen, these cards are rare enough that they'll hold at least most of their value through an extensive reprinting. I didn't expect this trend to be quite so clear before I dove into this research, but here it is, clear as day.
Most people who buy Magic cards simply want the cheapest available copy of a given card for their deck. As long as it isn't marked and doesn't look like it got run over by a car, who cares? You can play in any format that it's legal in, and then sell it to someone else when you don't need it anymore.
Folks who are seeking to pay a premium for a card want something with a 'wow factor'. They want cards that look and feel scarce, impressive, and expensive. They want a card that might generate an audible gasp from across the table, or at least ping that internal feeling of collecting excitement that comes when you've finally acquired a special version of a beloved card.
Most high-end cards have at least one really scarce variant with a high wow factor, if not two or three. Masterpieces and original set foils tend to hold this distinction for older cards that have been reprinted a lot. For cards without reprints in the pre–Booster Fun era, it's the regular set foils. For cards released since the fall of 2019, it is generally the highest end foil variant, especially if there's a foil showcase version. In all cases, the highest-end versions of these tend to be worth quite a bit and hold their value well, even though a reprint.
On the other hand, set foils released in the Booster Fun era simply don't have "it." The foil drop rate is just too high, especially with Collector Boosters giving out so many guaranteed foils, and there are so many other versions of these cards that high-end collectors seem to prefer. These set foils are going to end up being worth a few bucks more, mostly because some folks will throw a few extra dollars at slight aesthetic upgrades for their decks, but they'll be much closer to the price of the non-foils than the high-end variants.
If you're in the market for foils, snapping up set foils now seems fine. You aren't paying much more, and over time the market might tick up a bit — especially if future reprintings use different art, like the Battlebond Doubling Season. Your buy-in cost is low, especially if you were going to pick up the card anyway, and there's a little bit of potential there.
Most shockingly, my big takeaway from this article is the overall stickiness of truly elite foils — especially original set foils for cards that have been competitive staples for many years. These collector pieces don't sell often, but they also don't seem to be affected by the ebbs and flows of reprints. Not even several rounds of aggressive reprinting, like with the enemy-colored fetchlands, seemed to affect the price of the original Zendikar foils. While it isn't cost-effective for most Magic players to go this route when making investments, it's nice to know that this kind of market stability actually exists on the high end.
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Last week's newsletter took a look at a pair of Modern Horizons 2 cards that are moving in different directions. In fact, one of them has shockingly overtaken the other on Magic Online and is now the most valuable card in the set on MTGO. Will that trend repeat itself in paper Magic? You're going to have to subscribe to find out!