When I began writing for TCGplayer Infinite, I declared my mission statement to be "personal finance for Magic players." I have no interest in helping a tiny cabal of speculators get rich via buyouts and price spikes, and I don't really participate in any of that stuff myself. My goal has always been to make the game cheaper and more affordable for everyone, regardless of income level. Whether your monthly card budget is $30 or $3,000, knowing the ins and outs of Magic finance will allow you to stretch your dollar as far as it can possibly go.
To that end, today's topic is a deep dive into one of the most important topics that I regularly cover. Knowing what cards to buy is important, yes, but knowing when to buy is equally important. For example, take a look at this price chart:
This chart belongs to Brazen Borrower, one of the best Magic cards printed in recent years. Figuring out that Brazen Borrower was good early on would have been an advantage over the market, sure, but timing the market correctly would have proven far more valuable.
Consider a hypothetical Magic trader named Lucky Lucy. Lucy bought Brazen Borrower on October 18th, 2019 for $11, sold it on January 5th, 2020 for $29, bought again on March 30th for $8, sold again on October 18th for $19, bought again on January 31st, 2021, for $8, and then sold on April 2nd for $15. Assuming she bought and sold a playset of Borrowers each time, she would have made a total of $144, minus fees.
Unfortunately, Ill-Fated Freddy wasn't as fortuitous. Freddy pre-ordered a playset of Borrowers for $23 on September 19th, 2019, and sold them for $11 on October 18th. Then he bought again on January 5th, 2020, for $29, and sold them on March 30th for $8. Then he bought again on October 18th for $19, and sold them on January 31st, 2021, for $8. In this sad scenario, he would have lost a total of $176 on his playset of Brazen Borrower.
Of course, most of us aren't going to end up timing the market perfectly in either direction. Knowing exactly when to buy and sell your cards doesn't just require knowledge of the market, it requires more than a little luck. It also means that you have to be constantly willing to churn your collection, listing cards on the TCGplayer marketplace when prices are up and re-buying them when they're down. This active approach to collection management takes a lot of effort, and most folks don't want to commit to the kind of time it would take to have a shot at being Lucky Lucy.
That said, some of Brazen Borrower broader price trends were predictable at the time, and it wouldn't have taken that much work to make them work for you. For instance, Brazen Borrower price tag was dropping like a rock near the end of preview season, and you could have waited until it bottomed out and started climbing again before committing to buy. Here's what its price chart looked like as of November 10th, 2019:
As you can see, there's a clear upward trend already forming in early November. You might have missed the shot at buying in at $11 at this point, but you still could have picked them up for around $14. Charts like this are like flashing green lights to me. By this point, we already knew that Brazen Borrower was good, and we knew that its price was slowly and steadily increasing. Worst case, you're paying fair market value for a hot new Standard staple. Best case, you're picking up a future $25-$30 staple for $14—which is exactly what happened with Brazen Borrower.
What about the price drop early in 2020? Two reasons. The first was the beginning of the pandemic, which tanked the entire market. Selling all of your Standard cards before the pandemic was clearly the right call if we're looking back with perfect hindsight, but I don't blame anyone for focusing on the bigger picture instead. I certainly didn't sell any cards back in March, and I don't have too many regrets about that.
But there was another reason for the drop: Brazen Borrower was reprinted in product-hover id="209423". These decks were announced on February 15th, and released on April 3rd. Take a look at Brazen Borrower price chart from February through May of 2020, with those two dates highlighted:
As you can see, there was a nice little window to sell Brazen Borrower in between the Challenger Deck announcement and the price drop. It also approached its yearly low right around the time the Challenger Decks were released. Again, the start of the pandemic is obscuring some of the truth in these numbers, and we can't eliminate any of those confounding factors, but it still would have been rational to sell your Borrowers right after the Challenger Deck announcement and bought back in once the decks were actually released. If you'd done that, you would have been able to buy in for about $11 after selling at $20.
Put all of this together, and you can easily imagine Market-Aware Martha buying her playset of Borrowers for $14 in early November of 2019, selling them for $20 after the Challenger Deck announcement, and re-buying them for $11 in early April of 2020. That would have left her with a playset of Brazen Borrower for roughly $5 each, and she'd still own the cards today. None of that would have required any supernatural market timing, either. Reading this column and being willing to go without her cards for less than a month in March of 2020 would have been enough.
Now that we know what timing the market can do for us, let's see if we can develop some card-buying heuristics. While it's important to evaluate each card on an individual basis, I often refer to different buying windows when I write about which cards to pick up and when. This is especially true during set review season, because new cards are both the riskiest buys and the most tempting. If we're going to develop any useful heuristics for timing the market, we're going to have to define all of our different buying windows first.
ASAP: Obviously, the first buying window is, "buy it right now. In fact, buy it yesterday if possible." This comes up a lot during preview season, when I notice that an underrated card is starting to pick up momentum. It's a bad idea to pick up most cards right away, but this is where all of the best deals are found if you pick and choose your spots correctly.
Release Weekend: This is when dealers open their initial order of cases and flood the market with singles. High volume players usually get in on the action too, cracking boxes and selling everything they don't think they'll need. This can be the best time to buy certain high-demand singles, especially if it looks like the overall supply of a given set is going to be low.
Peak Supply: This is my term for the period between four to eight weeks after a set is released, when all of the major dealers have cracked their cases and flooded the market with singles. This is one of the best times to buy staples if you are willing to be patient and you believe that the overall supply of a given set is going to be high.
Seasonal Low: This is my term for mid-November through late December, when card prices tend to hit their yearly low points. It can often be prudent to wait until this time of year to pick up cards that you want as long-term holds. There's usually another small lull in late August that I like to use as an additional buying season.
It's worth remembering that there are advantages and disadvantages to each buying window beyond the world of Magic finance. If you buy a card ASAP, you will have access to it right away—always a boon. Sometimes it's not worth waiting weeks or even months to buy the cards you want, because you'll have missed the shot to play with them when they were fresh and new. That's why I recommend ignoring Magic finance completely when it comes to the cards that you're most excited to play. Remember: we're doing all of this finance stuff as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. If you make money on some of your buys, it'll help pay for some of your finance-agnostic personal purchases.
It's time to dig into some of that juicy, juicy data that you all love so much. My goal today is to go over most of the chase cards released over the past few years and figure out when you "should have" bought them. My hope is that some patterns will emerge, and we can use those patterns to better inform our future buying decisions.
Let's start by taking a look at the six most valuable cards in each of the last six Standard sets:
Throne of Eldraine
Let's begin with Throne of Eldraine, one of the most powerful sets in recent memory. Of its six key cards, three of them were worth buying right away, during the pre-order period: Embercleave, Fabled Passage, and Oko, Thief of Crowns. In all three cases, their price tags had already jumped by quite a bit by the time the set actually hit shelves, though they were a tad cheaper on Release Weekend proper. Take a look at Oko's price tag over its first few months, for example:
I've highlighted the set's release date so you can see that you'd have paid $30/copy that weekend versus less than $18 the week prior. This exact kind of gain is why folks are still eager to buy into cards during the pre-order period, and why it can be a good idea if you are both lucky and good at card evaluation.
The other three key cards in Throne of Eldraine are each a little different. Both Brazen Borrower and Questing Beast dropped a bit after being previewed, with Questing Beast bottoming out on Release Weekend while Brazen Borrower bottomed out a few weeks later. Waiting would have been correct on both of these cards, though you would have still had to time the market differently in order to get the best deal. This is likely because Questing Beast decks started out strong in that particular Standard environment, while Brazen Borrower took a little longer to catch on.
And then we have The Great Henge, Throne of Eldraine's top Commander staple. Take a look at this wild chart:
Yikes! It would have been smartest to buy The Great Henge for $9 a month after Throne of Eldraine was released, but pre-ordering the card for $11 wouldn't have been bad, either, especially considering this is close to a $50 staple today.
It's also worth noting that casual and Commander players had a strong second opportunity to pick up five of these six cards at a discount in the 18 months since Throne of Eldraine was released. Three of these cards were printed in Challenger Decks, with Fabled Passage getting a number of additional reprints beyond that—a unique situation for a card this new. Oko, Thief of Crowns was banned so much that it's very cheap now, and all five of these cards dropped considerably when the pandemic hit.
Theros Beyond Death
Let's move onto Theros Beyond Death, where the patterns look particularly clear. Thassa, Deep-Dwelling and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath were two of the strongest cards early in that Standard season, and they spiked right away. The folks who pre-ordered those two got the best deals. Dryad of the Ilysian Grove, Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger, and Nyxbloom Ancient are strong Commander and Modern cards, and they were never cheaper than on release weekend. Lastly, Heliod, Sun-Crowned ended up underperforming in Standard in the early going (despite seeing a lot of competitive play later on), so there was a nice window to buy in about a month after set release.
I don't know about you, but I had expected a few more Peak Supply and Seasonal Low deals at this point in our analyses. I've already started buying way more cards on release weekend than I had in the past, but if this trend holds, I'm going to start suggesting it even more often.
Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths
Ikoria is a bizarre set for a lot of reasons. It was the first set released during the pandemic, its street date was pushed back a month due to major supply chain issues, the companion mechanic ended up needing to be fully errata'd after release, and essentially none of the set's mythics ended up being any good. To that end, I'm not sure how useful it'll be to use this set as a comparison point for…well, any other set ever released.
That said, there are still a few trends we can uncover here. Shark Typhoon was the underrated Standard gem in Ikoria, and it was best to pick that card up right when it was first previewed. The set's two most obvious future Commander staples, The Ozolith and the Triome cycle, were best purchased on release weekend. It's hard to say what happened with Lurrus of the Dream-Den, since the companions were a mess in literally every way, but snagging it about a month after release ended up being the way to go. Lastly, Luminous Broodmoth and Fiend Artisan were competitive busts that bottomed out late last November.
Core Set 2021
Interesting! There weren't any key cards worth pre-ordering from Core Set 2021, but the best Commander cards were all strong buys on release weekend. Take a look at this price chart for Chromatic Orrery, which is pretty indicative of the lot:
As you can see, there was a little dip for all these cards right on release weekend. The card slowly gained ground after that, before really taking off early in 2021. You would have been fine picking up your Chromatic Orrery at any point last summer, but snagging it on release day was the best call, and waiting until this year would have been disastrous.
On the other hand, you would have been better off waiting on Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and Grim Tutor, the set's two high-profile reprints. This is likely due to the price anchoring effect. Both of these cards were incredibly expensive prior to release, mostly due to low supply, and the release day price was still somewhat anchored to that old reality. It took a few months before the price tags on these two cards finally caught up to just how high the new available supply was. Here's Grim Tutor as an example:
It makes sense that the two most underrated competitive cards in Zendikar Rising were worth picking up right away, but the best Commander cards bottomed out in late November, not on release weekend or even four to five weeks after the set was released. It's possible that this is simply a quirk of the fall sets, or the prodigious number of Collector Boosters opened to collect those sweet, sweet fetch lands. Either way, it's worth monitoring as we go forward.
It's hard to evaluate Kaldheim since it was released just a few months ago, but it certainly does seem like it was worth snagging most of the best Commander cards right away. A few of the more-hyped Standard cards were solid buys on release weekend, but they've since continued to lose value, and I don't know when they'll eventually bottom out. My guess? Late this summer, before set rotation causes a spike in Standard prices.
Now that we've taken a look at the past few Standard-legal sets, let's move on to Magic's recent limited releases, starting with:
Commander 2020 is another odd set. Released alongside Ikoria, it also had loads of delays in release, production, and distribution. As a result, pre-order prices started fairly reasonably, exploded to incredibly high highs, and then slowly dropped as supply trickled in to meet demand. Take a look at Fierce Guardianship price chart, for example:
Was this card worth pre-ordering? Technically yes, at least if you got in within the first week when the price was $30 or less. After that, it spiked to $80, which is buck wild. I'm not sure the card will ever reach such lofty heights again.
Commander 2020 is also still readily available, though that will likely change now that Commander 2021 is here. Now that the set is finally out of print, cards will probably start to increase. That hasn't really happened yet, though. Right now, most of the cards in this set are just a couple of bucks, if that. That's why I only even mentioned four of them here.
Jumpstart was another set with major supply issues that are continuing through present day. It was definitely better to buy these cards on or before Release Weekend than at any other point over the coming months, but a glut of Jumpstart product toward the end of 2020 finally depressed prices below those pre-order values. Most of the cards have soared in price since then, though, which is why it appears as though the best time to buy pretty much any Jumpstart card was in that high-supply window.
Wow, all of these Double Masters price charts look incredibly similar to each other. Take a look at this one, for Force of Will:
As you can see, the price was a little cheaper on release weekend, but it didn't really bottom out until mid-November. That big price spike you see toward the middle of the chart was the TCGplayer Black Friday sale, and prices started to climb after that. Right now, the price tag for all six of these cards is significantly higher than it was at any time during the pre-order or immediate post-release period.
There's a pretty clear narrative for Commander Legends, as well. Hullbreacher and Sakashima of a Thousand Faces were pretty underrated in the early going, so pre-ordering them was the right call. If you didn't do that, however, their price tags were also still quite reasonable on Release Weekend. Aesi, Tyrant of Gyre Strait and Jeweled Lotus were also solid Release Weekend buys, as were most of the other cards in the set. The key reprints, much like in Core Set 2021, took a little longer to lose their price anchoring. That's why it was smarter to wait another month or so on Mana Drain and Vampiric Tutor.
Now that we've discussed price patterns for Standard-legal cards and cards from special sets, let's take a look at some of WotC's premium offerings from recent months. Do they follow their non-premium counterparts, or do Collector Booster foils follow a different trend entirely? Let's find out.
Without question, the best time to buy Commander Legends cards from Collector Boosters was on Release Weekend. The price dipped right when everybody opened boosters, and rose from there. Because these cards aren't readily available for pre-order due to the way WotC staggers releases, there's rarely even an opportunity to buy them ASAP at a discount. Because of that, the best time to buy, say, a foil extended-art Hullbreacher was the day that everybody opened all of their Commander Legends Collector Boosters.
On the other hand, nearly every Double Masters Collector Booster foil has lost value since Release Weekend. These cards appear to have been overpriced in the early going, leading to a lot of charts like this one for Foil Borderless Chrome Mox:
As you can see, there was a tantalizing release weekend dip that would have given you a pretty solid buy-in price of $60. You could have picked these up for closer to $50 if you'd waited, but the fact that they're selling for $100 now means that you're probably not too upset regardless of which path you took.
Patience would have also been a virtue with Zendikar Rising's Collector Booster foils. There was a clear Release Weekend dip here as well, but nearly all of them bottomed out even lower in the following weeks. Check out Sea Gate Restoration here:
The only exception here is Skyclave Apparition, which saw a major surge in competitive play after Zendikar Rising release weekend had already finished.
Looking back at older sets, it seems as if there is a roughly even split between "should have bought this on Release Weekend" and "should have bought this 3-4 months later." There doesn't seem to be a huge difference in terms of high-end competitive cards vs. high-end Commander cards, though, and discerning patterns from this is difficult. Prices definitely vary more from set to set than from card to card, with (for example) Ikoria Collector Booster cards being better Release Weekend buys and Core Set 2021 cards being better to pick up later on.
Now that we've pawed through all the math, (and believe me, I looked at a good hundred or so graphs that I chose not to include in this article to keep both you and my editors from tearing their hair out), we can try to come up with a few rules of thumb to help us out during future preview seasons.
#1: Buy obvious Commander staples on Release Weekend.
This rule seems to hold true pretty well from set to set, especially when we're talking about cards from Standard-legal sets. If everybody is looking at a card and saying "this is going to be an expensive Commander card," pick it up on opening weekend. You'll rarely regret that decision.
#2: Release Weekend is the best time to buy most Standard-legal cards that aren't being overhyped for competitive play.
While the hottest competitive staples often bottom out a few months after set release, when the hype has died way down, most other cards are worth picking up right away. We've already talked about Commander cards, but you can also apply this to utility lands, bulk rares, curiosities, and other cards that aren't super expensive or buzzy at release.
#3: You can still hit on underpriced staples during the pre-order period.
If you are both lucky and good with your card evaluation, there are deals to be found while a set is rolling out. This is worth considering if you feel there is a large mismatch between the quality of a card and its pre-order price tag. Looks like I won't be ending my set reviews any time soon!
#4: "Peak Supply" is likely a misnomer at this point, and the concept is quickly becoming outdated.
This might just be a 2020 issue, since fewer people are drafting these sets and there are no large events, but I was surprised to see how few cards seemed to bottom out four to five weeks after release, which used to happen all the time. These days, it seems like if you want to buy cards within two months of set release, the best time to do it is on Release Weekend. Noted. I'll check back in on this next year, and we'll see if it changes in the post-pandemic world.
#5: Wait a few months to buy high profile reprints.
Price anchoring matters a lot here, and even the best reprints will likely continue to drop after Release Weekend. Be patient with these cards, and try to buy in during seasonal lows instead.
#6: You can still wait for seasonal lows… on cards from supplemental sets.
This doesn't appear to matter as much for Standard-legal cards these days, but waiting until late November should still pay off for cards from supplemental sets. Take note of this when we start our Modern Horizons 2 set review, because a lot of those cards likely won't bottom out until Thanksgiving.
#7: There is a lot of set-to-set and format-to-format variance between cards you should pick up on Release Weekend vs cards that you should be patient with.
By and large, you should be patient with competitive cards and aggressive with Commander cards. This isn't always true, but it's a good prior to begin your evaluation process with. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of set-to-set variance here, with some sets being better to buy in on ASAP while others require patience. I haven't figured out a strong pattern for this yet, but you'd better believe I'll be working on it.
#8: Be okay throwing these rules away and go with your gut.
It's easy to look at this stuff in hindsight, but it's hard to make these calls in real time. The truth of the matter is that you should probably be buying about 40% of your cards on Release Weekend, another 5-10% during the preview period, and the rest anywhere between one and six months after release. Knowing which cards to buy when is an art, and you're going to get it wrong often enough, but if you stick to this general heuristic (and take my advice in this weekly column), you'll be just fine.
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This week's newsletter covered Post Malone's surprising decision to enter the high-end Magic market, dropping thousands of dollars on Magic: The Gathering last weekend. Will his newfound interest supercharge the collectable market like Logan Paul did for Pokémon cards last year? Only subscribers found out. Join us next week for more insights!