To say that 2020 has been interesting for Magic: The Gathering is an understatement. In-person organized play has fallen off a cliff. New product releases were delayed and suffered from supply constraints. Controversy has surrounded cards featured in Secret Lairs. Nevertheless, players continue to enjoy MTG by collecting and playing through virtual possibilities.
One format that evolved virtually during 2020 is Commander (EDH). Spelltable enables players to experience EDH with their friends via webcams. With an outlet to play EDH remotely, players continue to purchase cards and build new EDH decks. Prices for popular EDH cards such as Crucible of Worlds and Smothering Tithe rose throughout 2020.
On the other hand, reprints of desirable cards have come fast and furious in 2020 between Mystery Booster, Jumpstart, Double Masters, and Secret Lairs. The printing of these sets resulted in many high-value cards losing value. Although some players are excited to purchase Mana Crypt for under $100.00, others have seen their collection's value plummet. Anyone would be upset if they bought a Mana Crypt in early 2020 for around $200 and watched the price drop 50% a few months later. Wizards of the Coast's focus on reprinting valuable cards has led to some players questioning if holding cards in their collection is a smart long-term decision.
There's a group of cards known as the Reserved List that WOTC has committed not to reprint. This list contains hundreds of cards from MTG's rich history printed between 1993 and 1999. While players watch their collection's value diminish due to reprints, those holding Reserved List cards have seen considerable gains in 2020. For example, the average market price for Revised versions of Wheel of Fortune and Copy Artifact has more than doubled since March 2020. The following price charts show the price of sold copies (blue line) and the amount of copies sold (orange bars) between January 2018 and October 2020 for Wheel of Fortune and Copy Artifact.
The last time Reserved List cards saw this type of dramatic price increase was in March 2018, when prices rapidly climbed and then peaked in the summer months. After September 2018, there was a sudden price drop that continued through January 2019. This price movement is visible in the above price charts following the blue line from March 21, 2018, to January 23, 2019.
I believe the Revised set contains cards with worthy examples of the 2018 Reserved List price curve. One reason is the print run of Revised cards relative to Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited. The larger supply creates more transactional opportunities over time, leading to richer data. Also, Revised contains the original 10 dual lands, which represent about 81% of the set's value. Some consider these 10 dual lands as the gold standard for MTG finance. Dual lands are bought and sold frequently, have strong demand, and are part of the Reserved List. Lastly, the top 15 Reserved List cards in Revised account for almost 90% of the set's value. The overall set price for Revised is heavily affected by Reserve List card prices.
The 2018 price curves of these three dual lands follow similar patterns. What does this say about the Reserved List market in 2018? One possible answer is that Reserved List cards were in a market bubble. Troy Segal, a writer for Investopedia, defines a bubble as "a situation where the price for something—an individual stock, a financial asset, or even an entire sector, market, or asset class—exceeds its fundamental value by a large margin." When speculative demand drives prices rather than inherent value, a bubble may form. When a bubble ultimately pops, a selloff occurs, and prices crash.
A real-world example is the dot-com bubble between 1995 and 2000, involving the Nasdaq Stock Market. Money poured into shares of dot-com companies, driving prices higher and higher. Over time, share prices began to exceed their fundamental value. In 2000, investors panicked, and a selloff occurred. The sudden selloff of shares caused the bubble to burst.
It is plausible that the Reserved List is experiencing another bubble in 2020. Price trends in 2020 appear to have similar characteristics with 2018. The life cycle of a bubble consists of five stages. One potential method for determining if a bubble is about to burst is by relating the five stages to the Reserved List price changes in 2020. The five stages from beginning to end are displacement, boom, euphoria, profit-taking, and panic. While the stages may vary depending on the market, bubbles generally follow the same path.
The first stage of a bubble is displacement. Investors and speculators become interested in a new opportunity to make money. This opportunity is so groundbreaking that it could change the way people do something today. One good example was the creation of Tesla as a car company. Tesla's electric car sent shockwaves throughout the automotive industry. Nothing like it was previously available for under $100,000. The shift in customer demand for electric vehicles dramatically changed the automotive industry. Those that initially invested in Tesla made a large sum of money. So how does Tesla's evolution relate to the Reserved List?
There was a potential shift in the perceived value of Reserved List cards around April 2020. Collectors and investors began thinking of Reserved List cards as a long-term investment vehicle more so than ever before. Furthermore, prices for many Reserved List cards were at their lowest prices since 2018.
There are a few other factors worth considering. Secret Lair drops were in full swing since December 2019. WOTC had already shown interest in reprinting valuable cards. Lastly, stimulus checks arrived in the hands of eager Americans during April 2020. People that were not adversely affected by COVID-19 suddenly had additional funds to spend. This situation of low prices, reprints, and free money may have started a Reserved List bubble.
During the boom stage, prices go from a slow increase to a fast climb. The rapid rise is due to new investors and speculators entering the market (Segal, 2020). Many Reserved List cards had sharp price increases between April and May 2020. In addition to the previously mentioned Revised cards, there were price jumps for Grim Monolith, Intuition, Earthcraft, Yawgmoth's Will, Survival of the Fittest, etc. If we are experiencing a Reserved List bubble, we may have already passed through the boom stage. My reasoning for this is the average price increase between April and July 2020.
In the euphoria stage, prices rise steeply to new highs. No matter the reason, prices are seemingly justified as people continue to purchase Reserved List cards. Price escalations can lead to the Greater Fool Theory playing out in the market. Essentially, it states that a fool can make money buying an overpriced asset because they will sell it to a greater fool. If the Reserved List is in a bubble, then I believe we are in the euphoria stage. Prices have maintained new highs for numerous Reserved List cards heading into October 2020.
Savvy investors begin selling their positions and reaping profits during the profit-taking stage. It's hard to predict the right time to sell, but some investors do successfully figure out the timing. Investors that sell during this stage will earn considerable profits, while others may miss out. A rapid selloff of investors' assets may lead to the fifth stage of a bubble, known as panic.
Once the bubble bursts, there is no going back, and panic sets in. During the panic stage, prices drop as fast as they initially increased. Supply exceeds demand, causing assets to fall in value. Investors may sell assets below their initial purchase price to get some money back (Segal, 2020). The Reserved List did not have a selloff in 2018 with as sharp a drop as the NASDAQ in 2000. However, Reserved List cards' prices appear to drop as fast as they rose in 2018.
It is indisputable that many Reserved List cards have hit record prices. What is uncertain is if these prices can last long-term. If there is a bubble about to burst, then prices will fall for numerous Reserved List cards. However, the Reserved List prices seen today could become the new normal. Unfortunately, there is no crystal ball to foresee the future. Only time will tell if the Reserved List experiences a bubble in 2020. In the meantime, collectors and investors must rely on their own data gathering and personal preferences to decide when the appropriate time is to buy or sell cards.