I've been playing Magic since Core Sets had white borders, and I've been invested in the collectibles since the great Beanie Baby craze of the mid-90s. I'm (hopefully) not the oldest writer on this site, but I've still been writing about Magic finance on a weekly basis since 2009. Strixhaven admission was only a nickel a year back in my day, and we planeswalked to school uphill, in the snow, both ways.
With that in mind, I can tell you without hyperbole that the past year and a half has been the oddest and wildest time I've experienced in all my years covering Magic finance. Without question.
Reserved List cards and Commander staples have doubled, tripled, or more over the past 18 months. A pandemic that kept us all trapped inside and away from each other for more than a year (and is still not over!) has somehow managed to help spur on an era of record sales, including wild prices on both old cards like Gaea's Cradle and new cards like The Great Henge. Heck, Kaldheim was WotC's best-selling set of all time, despite the fact that there are almost no local game stores open for play anywhere in the world.
So what happened? We're going to dig into all of this extreme price movement today, including the effects of the latest round of US government stimulus checks that supercharged the market back in March. What did those checks do to prices, and will they ever come back to Earth? Is the Magic market about to experience serious inflation, or will prices crash once we can all go outside again? Is there anything can we learn about the present and future of Magic finance based on the events of the past few months? Let's find out together.
The effect that the US government stimulus checks had on Magic sales is undeniable. From mid-March to early April, sales on TCGplayer exceeded projections by a noticeable margin. While I can't share that particular chart with you, I can certainly tell you that it was very clear to me when looking at my month-to-month sales figures for my personal TCGplayer account as well as my eBay store. People were snapping up cards (and other collectibles!) left and right.
Here's a price chart for The Great Henge from the start of March through the start of May. I've highlighted the rough start of the stimulus rollout, and you can see how demand is higher than average over the following weeks:
And here's Polluted Delta:
I chose these two cards more or less at random, looking for popular staples that sell well but aren't tied to a specific deck or metagame choice. I wanted to show you that this is a true stimulus effect, not some ripple effect from a specific card in Kaldheim or Strixhaven. I could have pulled any one of several hundred cards and generated roughly similar charts.
In all cases, it seems as if the stimulus wave broke over the rocks of the Magic market between March 12th and early April, causing above-average sales and rising prices. While sales have dropped off since that surge, they haven't fallen below normal and prices haven't dropped yet. It's possible that prices will start to fall this summer—we'll get to that later—but for now, it seems pretty clear that the stimulus checks had an immediate and lasting effect on the market.
This also happened in April of 2020, when the first round of stimulus checks went out. Let's take a look at what was going on in the market back then, as well as what happened next. Here's Cyclonic Rift's price chart from the start of March through the start of June, 2020, with the first day of April 2020 stimulus payouts highlighted:
Cyclonic Rift price tag was already on an upward trajectory before that—prices dropped at the start of the pandemic and were rebounding by the time the stimulus hit—but those checks supercharged the market and sent it soaring to new heights. Most key Commander staples have similar charts, with outsized sales over the two weeks following the start of the stimulus rollout followed by higher prices that have yet to really come down.
Of course, it wasn't just the stimulus checks that caused the market to soar over the past few years. There were other causes as well.
At the end of the day, it's impossible to tease out exactly how responsible any one thing is for Magic's current bull market. Some of these factors might be hugely impactful, while others might have barely made a blip. I do think we need to briefly cover all of them, though, if only to help us predict what might happen over the coming year. The more of these factors disappear, the more likely it will be that the Magic market will swing back the other way.
Stimulus checks. We've already covered this in detail, and I do think they are likely the number-one factor of price movement since early March. It is unlikely that the US government will be doing another round of these anytime soon, though, but they have proven quite popular, so never say never.
Tax return season. Magic prices always seem to rise between March and May, in large part because this is the season when many US taxpayers receive their refund checks. Much like the stimulus payments, folks who don't live paycheck-to-paycheck often use their tax returns to splurge on something fun that they might not otherwise consider buying, like a high-end Magic card or Commander deck. This will continue to happen every year until the US significantly reforms its tax code, which seems unlikely in the near future.
Lack of dealer supply due to loss of large events. Many large dealers rely on event booths to buy cards for their online store. With no large events for over a year now, it's harder than ever for these shops to buy cards. Same for local game shops that buy singles from regulars and sell them on their modest online storefronts. The result is that it takes less demand to drop the overall supply and cause price spikes, many of which stick around even after the available supply increases. My guess is that this issue will correct itself over the coming year, and cards will be flowing more easily in a post-social-distancing world.
Lack of other things to buy. While many people lost their job during the pandemic, some of those with stable income streams suddenly found themselves stuck at home with fewer expenses than before. If you were used to going out with friends every weekend, dropping money on dinner, drinks, and movies, suddenly that cash was still burning a hole in your wallet. Saving for a vacation? Good luck planning that in the middle of COVID. I suspect that many of these people decided to spend this money on Magic cards instead, temporarily driving sales during the pandemic.
Building Commander decks is a safe, indoor, socially distanced hobby. There's only so much TV you can binge, and Animal Crossing gets a little stale after the first 700 hours. Commander deck-building is still fun, though, and it's a great activity to do at home while socially distanced. You might not have been able to play Commander—though the webcam community was vibrant—but you could still build decks. And more decks. And still more decks.
Cryptocurrency gains and meme stock increases (like Gamestop) have created a surge of cash into the Magic market. The price of Revised Dual Lands tracks pretty well with the price of Bitcoin, and the sorts of people most likely to have hit it big on recent cryptocurrency or meme stock gains are also the sorts of people who play and invest in Magic. A lot of folks have parked their earnings in Reserved List and high end Commander cards.
The overall collectibles market has been soaring. During times of global uncertainty, tangible assets (gold, silver, real estate, Reserved List cards) tend to hold a premium because people like investing in things they can touch and feel. Couple this with the increased attention on sports cards and Pokemon cards, and you have more and more people feeling confident that high-end Magic cards are a worthwhile long-term investment. Rising tides lift all boats, and if high-end cards jump, lower-end cards usually also see at least modest gains.
The economy at large is doing well. Real estate prices are soaring, jobs are returning to pre-pandemic levels, and many economic indicators are in the green. I'm not going to pretend I know enough about interest rates and other leading macroeconomic indicators to talk about them with confidence here, nor do I think the broad strokes of how "the economy" is doing lines up all that well with the financial status of the average worker. Even still, a "good economy" in any respect will likely mean increased confidence in spending on luxury goods, like Magic cards.
What does the future of the market look like once we've factored in all of these potential reasons for Magic's boom? It's decidedly mixed. In many ways, it seems as if the pandemic has paradoxically been good for the Magic market, giving us stimulus payments, time to build decks, cutting off the supply of cheap cards, and removing other avenues of potential luxury spending. The end of social distancing will eliminate many of these effects, but it will also bring us back to a world where folks are buying cards to play with on a weekly basis. Many of the other effects on this list are likely to continue, too, with the collectibles market still exploding and the economy likely to keep rebounding. I wouldn't be surprised if things settle down a bit once the era of stimulus checks and social distancing ends, but I don't foresee a major market crash or anything. Magic should continue to do well, unless circumstances change in other ways.
It has been a while since the US has had to reckon with a sustained period of economic inflation, where the buying power of the dollar drops while prices rise. We could be entering one right now, however. While it's too early to say for sure, noted rich person Warren Buffet has been talking it up in his last few interviews, and it definitely tracks with what has been going on in the real estate market over the past several months. Housing prices are soaring, which means that the value of cold, hard cash might be dropping.
What does inflation matter to us? Because tangible assets are a great way to protect against the dwindling value of the dollar. We normally invest in Magic cards because we hope that the cards will be worth more over time, but it can also help if you think that your money might simply be worth less at some future date. Think about it this way: if Force of Negation is worth $70 today, it might be worth $80 by this time next year simply due to inflation.
Now, don't get me wrong: you can't really protect against inflation on this small a scale. Force of Negation price tag this time next year will have way more to do with the competitive metagame and whether or not it has been reprinted than with anything having to do with the value of the US dollar. Inflation is also unlikely to reach levels where you're covering your shipping and sales fees by buying individual cards now and selling them for "the same price" in a year or two. In terms of the overall Magic market, however, inflation might play a massive role over the next half-decade or so.
For one thing, the "will the Magic market tank after the pandemic?" question looks a little sillier in an inflationary world. If all prices rise over the coming years, it's quite likely that Magic prices will also continue to slowly trend upwards. At the very least, the idea that prices might tank once large event buylists start up and we all have the ability to go on vacations again will quickly be answered with a resounding "no." If inflation does hit, it is very unlikely any of Magic's recent gains will be reversed.
In fact, I would expect more people to invest in collectibles if prices surge. Like we talked about above, it's generally better to have assets than cash on hand during periods of inflation. If people see the price of everything go up, they're going to want to grab Dual Lands and Commander staples before it's too late. We could see even more upward movement in the Magic market for reasons completely unrelated to our previous list!
Do I think you should run out and drop your life's savings on Magic cards? Absolutely not! If you're worried about inflation and have extra cash on hand, there are safe, low-risk, long-term stocks and mutual funds that you can look into. But I do think that inflation could play a significant role in Magic prices, and it's one reason why I'm not currently looking to sell any of my high-end staples right now, even though the market is booming and sales prices are strong.
Predicting the market is always something of a gamble. WotC could toss the Reserved List and reprint every expensive Commander staple tomorrow. The economy could collapse due to war or another housing crisis or a virulent COVID variant. It's possible that the stay-at-home effects of social distancing were the driving force behind the Magic boom, and prices will collapse as we slowly return to normal. Or perhaps it was cryptocurrency all along, and the frenetic nature of that market will continue to wreak havoc on Magic prices.
Selling high is always the safest move. The market is high right now due to the stimulus checks, tax returns, and the other reasons we've discussed. If you want to sell off a bunch of your cards right now, you might look like an uncanny genius in a year or two. At the end of the day, cards are cards but money is money. One of these things will always be safer to own than the other.
On the other hand, take a look at Smothering Tithe price chart since being printed:
Smothering Tithe isn't a representative card—it's one of the best cards in Commander, and it has only been widely printed once—but look at that demand. Look at that price. Then remember that the most recent Magic set was literally the best-selling set of all time. Things are booming right now, and sometimes it's okay to just ride that wave and see where it takes you.
Honestly, I don't see the Magic economy tanking. Post-distancing optimism, inflation, the return of events, the continued boom in the collectibles market...these are all reasons to believe that we haven't climbed to the top of this particular mountain. Because of that, I don't think that the stimulus effect was a temporary blip. I think it was resetting the market at a new normal. Prices may drop a bit over the summer, simply because seasonal effects are still a thing and prices always swoon a bit over the summer, but the Magic market is a robust engine and I expect those wheels to keep turning.
Here's the thing: buying high is scarier than selling high, but sometimes it's the right move. I regret not buying Smothering Tithe when it spiked to $10, $20, $30….etc. etc. etc. And after looking at all of these different factors, I don't think the current state of the market should scare you away from picking up the cards you want, either for personal use or as an investment. Stay alert, but enjoy this moment and embrace the boom for as long as it lasts.
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This week, my newsletter covered the financial fallout from the most recent Weekly MTG stream. What does the existence of the old-bordered fetch lands mean for the future of the Time Spiral Remastered timeshifted foils? Will they drop in price now that WotC is printing more old-bordered cards, or is this the start of a new financial trend? I also talked a bit about the cards that are spiking thanks to the Modern-legal Counterspell reprint, and a card that I call "the Dogecoin of the Reserved List." Subscribe so you don't miss out next week!