The first time I had to sell my Magic collection to make rent was December of 2008.
I had graduated college the previous spring, and spent that summer living at home and working as a camp counselor to save money for my pending move to Los Angeles. I still remember walking through the camp office one afternoon that August, slick with sweat and thirsty after a long day of work, as one of my colleagues was trying to explain what a subprime mortgage was and why we needed to care about them all of a sudden.
The day I crossed the California border was the day Lehman Bros. fell. The following morning, I found a studio apartment in the San Fernando Valley—a converted motel room, I'm pretty sure—and leased it for $950/month. For the first time in my life, I was truly on my own.
The next few months were tough. I was trying to break into the lowest levels of the TV industry, but jobs of any kind were hard to come by. I had a few weeks of scattered minimum wage temp work, but that was it. The economy was in the toilet, I had no relevant experience, and my anxious, closeted self was not exactly projecting the sort of winning attitude that is required for most jobs in Los Angeles.
But I still had my Magic cards.
I was a casual player all through high school and took a few stabs at getting serious during college, but I was primarily a collector. I had a binder filled with Serra Angels, a full playset of Revised dual lands, several sets of Force of Will, multiple foil Onslaught fetchlands, and more. Every once in a while, I'd pull out all of my favorite cards and re-organize them, like the protagonist of High Fidelity with his records. I was still more than a decade away from figuring out my gender identity, and that meant I was still trying to fill the void at the center of myself with meaningful objects.
Rent doesn't pay itself, though. By December, I was selling all but my very favorite Magic cards to stay afloat. It was painful, but it worked. Those cards gave me enough of a cushion to scour the online classifieds for collections to flip, which turned into more cash, which turned into more cards. I didn't quite have my head above water yet, but I was learning how to swim.
By spring of 2009, I was solvent enough to start attending FNM again—a big relief, since Magic was a huge part of my social life, and I was somewhat lost without it. Only I no longer had a deck that was legal in any format, and buying into competitive constructed was simply too expensive for me to consider without a job.
That's when I began trading—a little at first, and then a lot. People were less value conscious back then, and I also developed a knack for figuring out which cards were about to rise in price and which were heading toward a fall. By 2010, I was becoming The Person Who Has Everything at my local game store and most of my income was coming from what would later be known as "Magic Finance."
I honestly don't know what I would have done without it.
My name is Cassie LaBelle, and I have been writing about Magic Finance since July 2010. I started out on my own blog before moving to Quiet Speculation, then to Channel Fireball, and then on to StarCityGames, which was my home for the past eight years. Now I'm thrilled to be here, writing for TCGplayer Infinite, where I will be publishing weekly articles on Wednesdays for the foreseeable future.
I began this article off with a personal anecdote because my own history directly informs my somewhat unique approach to Magic Finance. In the years since I first started buying collections to make rent, the term has become an oft-mocked hashtag (#mtgfinance) that has seen its share of speculative buyouts, price manipulation techniques and even an insider trading scandal or two. Ask a Magic player to describe "Magic Finance," and they're likely to paint you a picture of a wannabe day trader in wraparound sunglasses using their bitcoin wallet to buy out every copy of Séance. And honestly, it's hard to say that they're completely wrong. Those guys are out there, and they're often the loudest voices in the room.
That's not what I'm about. I have no interest in any Gordon Gekko-esque shenanigans, and reading this column will not make you impossibly rich. I don't have any inside sources at Wizards of the Coast to tip me off to the inception of a new format, and I don't have a private discord server where we discuss buyout targets. If you see me use the #mtgfinance hashtag on Twitter, it will be ironic more often than not.
To me, Magic Finance is simply a tool that we can use to make the greatest game of all time more financially accessible to us. Unless money is no object for you, (and if so, consider making a series of large donations until this is no longer true), I'm sure you've stared longingly at a gorgeous foil in a dealer's case, or an expensive Modern deck list, or even just at the coolest brew in Standard and said, "dang, I wish I could afford that." That's where I can help.
It's no secret that WotC is somewhat under fire from the community right now for targeting so many products (VIP boosters, etc.) toward high end buyers while simultaneously failing to reprint necessary staples like fetchlands at a reasonable price point. You can complain if you want—complaining might get us affordable fetchlands at some point, if we're lucky—but nothing is going to change the fact that Magic: The Gathering is going to remain a CCG. That first "c" stands for "collectable," which means that Magic's secondary market isn't going anywhere. Cards you need are always going to remain annoyingly expensive: that's part of WotC's business model.
Put simply, Magic finance is not something you can afford to ignore. Whether you're engaging with it actively or passively, whether you like it or not, Magic finance affects you. And I don't know about you, but I like to stay as informed as possible about the things that affect me. I like to make my decisions with as much accurate information as possible.
So what exactly am I offering? Why should you read this column?
When War of the Spark was released, Teferi, Time Raveler was pre-selling for $20. Today, a copy of that formidable Planeswalker will set you back at least $30. If you'd picked your copies up last April, you could have played with Teferi, Time Raveler for a full year and still sold your playset for a nice little profit.
This is not the pattern with most new cards, of course. Narset of the Ancient Way pre-sold for $18, but her current market price is just $5.78. If you pre-ordered a playset of Narset of the Ancient Ways, you'd have lost more than $40 in less than a month.
Buying new cards is a risk, but it's often a necessary one. We need new cards if we want to try out new decks, or if we want to compete in tournaments, or simply because buying Magic cards is fun. But if you're value-conscious like me, these decisions can be agonizing. After all, you never really know if any new Planeswalker is going to be more like Teferi, Time Raveler or more like Narset of the Ancient Way.
In this column, I will be reviewing every mythic and rare in every new set—no exceptions. My goal is to help you make more informed purchasing decisions, minimizing the number of Narset of the Ancient Ways you end up buying and maximizing the number of Teferi, Time Ravelers. My analysis isn't perfect—I was certain that Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded would light Standard on fire back in the Avacyn Restored days—but I'm right more often than I'm wrong. My approach to set evaluation is both holistic and analytical, drawing on my knowledge of competitive and casual Magic alike. My hope is that by helping you make better decisions about which cards to buy and when, you'll be able to grow the value of your Magic collection a lot quicker than you'd be able to otherwise.
Unless you're highly involved in the world of Magic speculation, you probably have no idea why seemingly random cards like Brand and Extract spiked last week. You might not have even realized that Extract was a card in the first place—I don't think I've given it much thought myself over the past decade and a half.
What caused these spikes? Commander? cEDH? The Reserved List? Some new rogue deck in Vintage or Legacy? And were these buyouts caused by organic player demand, or were they the subject of a targeted buyout (where a single person or group buys every available copy of a card in hopes of raising the price)?
Furthermore, if you want to pick up a copy of Brand, is now a good time, or should you wait a few weeks? If you have a copy of Brand, should you sell it now or is it likely to keep rising?
Questions like this arise every week, and the answers are different each time. Now that I have access to a suite of powerful new TCGplayer back-end data, I'll be able to give you more concrete answers to these questions than ever before. We should be able to pinpoint which cards spiked naturally, which did not, and what that means for their future price tags.
Let's use these two cards as a case study. Brand may sound like a Reserved List card—it's from Urza's Saga, after all—but it is not. It is, however, a very old, very scarce card with cycling. That means it can see play in Commander alongside Gavi, Nest Warden. But did a whole bunch of Commander players buy copies of Brand on the same day, or did someone (or some people) spike the card via buyout?
Here is a copy of Brand's sales data from October 1, 2019, until now. The blue line represents the card's average sales price, while the columns represent daily sales numbers. As you can see, the price was pretty stable until a few days of sustained buying in mid-May, at which point the available supply dried up and the price spiked. A similar event happened in early April without causing a spike, but perhaps that was just fuel for the fire. At any rate, it is likely that the current lack of supply in the marketplace is a big part of what drove this value increase.
But was it speculators buying out Brand, or was it Commander players? Believe it or not, this demand is 100% natural. Taking a look at those larger orange bars, the average quantity of Brand ordered by each buyer was always between one and two. That means that the price went up because folks were buying singleton copies, not because one person bought dozens of Brands.
What about Extract?
As you can see, demand has definitely increased alongside the price. This seems to be less about low supply than a sustained increase in demand, though both factors likely played a part. And just like Brand, the average quantity per buyer was still between one and two. These were Commander players buying the card, not speculators. That means that the price is far more likely to remain high than if it was simply a buyout spike.
There's usually some logic behind every card that spikes. Either it's a great piece of tech in some cool new deck, or it's a Commander card that sees steady increases in real-world demand, or it has some potential synergy with a recently-previewed combo card—you get the picture.
Not only do I have a good track record of picking out solid speculation opportunities, but I can now use that powerful new TCGplayer back-end data to better determine which cards are seeing an increase in demand before their price tag starts rising. That way, I can give you a heads-up about potential price increases before they happen—either as a way for you to make a little extra money to offset the cost of another expensive card, or simply as a last chance heads-up to anyone who doesn't want to pay a premium for the soon-to-spike card a few weeks down the line.
These days, it seems like WotC makes a seismic new announcement two or three times a week. Whether it's a banning, a keyword rework, a new set, a new tournament series, or something else, the world of Magic is constantly in flux. It can be really hard to keep abreast of it all.
Magic's competitive metagames are also in a state of constant flux. The best decks in Standard, Pioneer, and Modern can change from week to week, or even day to day. Major tournaments can act as bellwether events that cause major metagame shifts. So can rogue decks on Arena, or even just well-written articles from popular players.
It's incredibly difficult to stay on top of all this from a gameplay perspective, much less a financial one. Luckily, that's where I come in. Since I've been doing this for a decade now, I've lived through hundreds of major WotC announcements and thousands of significant tournament results. I have a pretty good idea of what sorts of changes are going to affect the Magic market, and how they're going to do it. A lot of my articles will involve me breaking down these events and announcements, including specific financial analysis that will help you decide which cards to buy, which cards to sell, and which cards to keep. That way, you can grow your collection in the most efficient way possible.
Magic: The Gathering is in a weird place right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down all large in-person events for the foreseeable future, and there really is no way to socially distance inside a large, poorly ventilated convention hall. WotC has already announced that all major events have been cancelled for the remainder of 2020, and we will probably not get them back until effective treatments have been found or an effective vaccine has been discovered and widely distributed. We still don't know if either of these things are possible, much less when they might become available.
It is also something of an understatement to say that WotC has been under fire by the community lately. Magic players are complainers by nature, but things are particularly bad right now. Between Oko, Thief of Crowns and Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis and Lurrus of the Dream-Den and the shifting OP changes and the loss of our DCI records and VIP boosters and new product fatigue, it can be hard to stay positive.
At the same time, Magic is in an era of unprecedented growth. The game's revenue continues to increase, we've got at least one major TV project in the works, Arena continues to surge in popularity, and Commander has kept tabletop Magic front and center. The pandemic also doesn't seem to have had much of an impact on singles prices, and many key eternal cards are more expensive now than they were back in February.
Point being, figuring out Magic's big picture is really hard right now. Things seem to be changing fast, and the hot takes that permeate Magic Twitter can often paint a distorted picture of what's actually going on. Since many of us have a lot of time and money invested in our Magic collections, it's important to take a look at the big picture so we can best plan our actions. For example, how many people sold their Reserved List cards or Modern staples at the start of the pandemic and regretted it?
I am also a huge proponent of using longer-term, seasonal trends to your advantage. Magic finance tends to operate on seasonal trend curves that are fairly easy to time and predict, which we can use to our advantage. If you learn how to properly time the market instead of just buying cards exactly when you need them, you can increase the value of your collection without hurting your bottom line nearly as much.
I didn't begin this article with my Magic finance origin story to elicit sympathy for myself. I've benefited from immense privilege in my life, financial and otherwise. I count myself extremely lucky to be able to engage with this hobby at all. Many people will never have that chance.
I am also not interested in trying to sell you a "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" story of Magic Finance domination. I was lucky to have a large collection as a starting point, and the real secret to my success was just putting a lot of hard work into buying collections and breaking them down for a marginal profit. This is something that anyone can do with enough start-up capital, and it's relatively unglamorous work at the end of the day. There's no get-rich-quick secret here, and anyone telling you otherwise is probably trying to sell you something.
No—my origin story is important because I want you to know who I am and why I do this. Magic finance is important to me because it provided me with financial freedom at a time when I was struggling and alone. It provided me with the ability to play my favorite game (and make countless amazing friends) when I would have otherwise been left out. I have been working to share these tools with as many people as I can, in as many ways as I can, ever since.
If you find the bizarre and wonkish machinations of Magic finance as fascinating as I do, welcome! We're going to have a great time here together. We're going to dig deep into data sets, pour over charts, and make thousands of predictions. If you're nodding along in excitement to the idea of geeking out over all this stuff, you're gonna love this column.
If you find Magic finance to be arcane and obnoxious, I welcome you as well. I am going to try to make the world of Magic Finance as clear, compact, and accessible as I possibly can. My hope is that this column can be your one-stop-shop for all Magic finance content, full stop. Come read it every Wednesday, and even if you never plan to speculate on a card in your life, I guarantee you it will save you plenty of money over the coming years. Even just having a vague understanding of how the trends are moving can be invaluable, and every week I look to synthesize and analyze all the important goings-on in the world of Magic finance. This column has no prerequisites and it makes no assumptions about what your goals are. If you're a Magic player of any sort, you'll find useful information here.
Lastly, I just want to say that I'm going to try to make this column as fun as I can. Financial analysis is a pretty dry topic, even when you're talking about Magic cards, and I want my articles to be things that people actively look forward to each week. We might not always get there, but I'm going to try my best. The world is a little bit short on joy right now, and if I can provide even a sliver of happiness for y'all, I'll take it as a win.
Thanks for giving me a chance. You won't regret it.
I like ending each of my articles with a section called "This Week's Trends." Sometimes, it's just a few paragraphs looking in on the price trends for formats that I wasn't able to touch on in the body of my article as well as a quick dive into the cards that spiked over the previous week. Other times, the trends section is far longer and it includes analysis of several major WotC announcements in addition to all the other stuff. Basically, it's where I talk about everything that didn't fit neatly into my main story of the week.
A lot happened this week, but let's start with the biggest one. Wizards of the Coast completely changed how companions work, putting an end to one of the weirdest, briefest eras in Magic history. Instead of being able to cast your companion directly from your sideboard, you will now have to pay three mana to place your companion in your hand, at which point you can cast it like any other creature card.
Financially, this is curtains for Lurrus of the Dream-Den. You can already pick these up for about six bucks, and I don't think that's anywhere close to bottom. This is probably a $2 card long-term, and I don't expect it to be more than a fringe playable going forward. You should sell your copies ASAP, especially if you have fancy Collector Booster versions, though you likely won't find too many takers. See that tiny column all the way on the right? That's what Lurrus of the Dream-Den' sales were at on June 1st—the day of the banning—as of 4:00 PM MST.
Most of the other companions are in dire straits as well. A few of them might break through here and there, but demand won't be nearly high enough to justify price tags above $1-$2, especially since most players will only need one copy of each. The exception might be Yorion, Sky Nomad, which is still quite playable despite the drawback, but those are easily available for $1 right now anyway. You might want to hold onto your premium Yorion, Sky Nomads if you have them, but the rest can go.
It seems odd to say that two cards getting banned in Standard isn't really the headline here, but that's Magic in 2020. Fires of Invention and Agent of Treachery are no longer allowed in Standard, putting a serious damper on Jeskai Lukka as well as the countless Fires of Invention decks that have been kicking around the format's top tables for months now.
Fires of Invention has been a bulk rare for a while now thanks to the Challenger Decks, but Agent of Treachery had been kicking around the $10 mark. That won't last, obviously. This card sees enough play in Commander (and a little in Pioneer) to sustain a $3-$5 price tag, but the current market value is still close to $8 as of this writing. If you can get anywhere near that for your copies, I would. As with Lurrus of the Dream-Den, however, nobody seems to be biting on Agent of Treachery right now:
What Standard decks will benefit most from these bannings and rules changes? My money is on Jund Sacrifice, Temur Reclamation, and perhaps even Bant Ramp. When in doubt, look to the previous metagame's best decks after a major change. Temur Reclamation looks like the best-positioned deck on the surface, but remember that Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast and Lurrus of the Dream-Den were keeping aggressive decks somewhat in check. If aggro becomes viable again, Temur Reclamation might not be as well-positioned as we think.
Financially, I'm not sure there's much money to be made speculating on post-ban changes in Standard. Part of the problem is that the decks likely to benefit most from this decision have been known entities for a while, and their staples haven't really dropped in price. Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath is likely to see more play in the new metagame, for example, but that doesn't mean it'll see a commensurate gain in value—in fact, it is already pretty close to its all-time high value.
The other part of the problem is WotC's other major announcement last week. We now have conformation that there will be no more major tabletops Magic events in 2020, and 2021's events are also in doubt. While some folks on my social media feed seem to think that WotC is deliberately trying to pivot away from tabletop Magic, I honestly do take Wizards at face value here: COVID-19 makes organizing large events impossible, so we need to know when the world will be back to normal before we can realistically plan any more tabletop Magic tournaments.
Because of this, I expect the Standard market will finally start to show some real signs of a slump. Newer cards are still going to have value, of course, but I suspect it'll be much more dependent on Commander, eternal, and casual playability than on the ebbs and flows of a Standard metagame. After all, why drop $10+ on a Standard-centric card if you can't even bring your deck to FNM, much less a MagicFest?
This has already been somewhat true, of course. Take a look at Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast. It was the key mythic in Standard's best deck before the Agent of Treachery banning, and its price hasn't budged in weeks. Its price dropped to $10 a few days after Ikoria hit shelves, which is where its price tag has been ever since. I don't expect the banning to cause Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast to tank, but I also don't think that any future Standard innovations are going to cause a spike—not until FNM becomes a thing again, at least.
What is spiking right now? It's primarily Commander staples. For example, here's what the sales data looks like for Vedalken Orrery from New Year's Day through yesterday:
As you can see, sales for Commander staples have remained fairly solid throughout 2020. There's a lull in late March as the pandemic set in, followed by a flurry of buying in mid-April when stimulus checks hit US bank accounts. All of that buying seems to have caused a major drop in supply, because the price started going up shortly after that even though buying slowed down a bit.
What does this mean for the future of these cards? Well, supply chain issues are fixable, but the large vendors have lost the ability to buy cards at large in-person events for the foreseeable future. This could lead to prices remaining artificially higher for quite some time to come.
I'd still sell cards like this now if you can, though. Not only is Vedalken Orrery the sort of card that could return in either Core Set 2021 or Double Masters, but large vendors might soon decide to increase their stock by being more aggressive with their online buy lists. And if they can get the wheels moving again soon, prices will drop.
Lastly, I'm excited to say that Core Set 2021 preview season begins tomorrow! I'll be doing my card-by-card set review starting tomorrow, and I can't wait to see what WotC has in store for us. From a financial perspective, it is worth noting that both Grim Tutor and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon have been rumored to be in the set. I normally wouldn't put much stock in unsourced online rumors, but this same source did correctly identify what the companion rework would look like eight days before it was announced, and that's just too weird a fix to be a lucky guess.
It might be too late to move your Ugin, the Spirit Dragons and Grim Tutors anywhere near fair market value, but if you can, I would. Grim Tutor is especially at risk for a major price drop—it is currently about a $200 card in decent shape, and the Core Set 2021 version (if real) is unlikely to ever be worth a tenth that much.