I have never been very good at math.
Once, way back in seventh grade, I was so desperate to get out of doing my math homework that I stuffed my textbook into a hole in the drywall in the back of the classroom. I can't imagine why I thought this was a good idea—my parents had spent good money on that book, and it's not like "Mr. Bradley, I lost my textbook, so I guess I can't do the homework ever again" would pass muster as an excuse. But I was desperate. And even though I know that this next scrap of memory cannot actually be true, I have a vague recollection of seeing several other math textbooks also lying discarded in the drywall, like intellectual corpses. Evidence that I was simply the latest in a long line of students who could not stomach solving for X one more time.
I am still not very good at math, a failing that will keep me from ever becoming a top-notch Magic player, but I have gotten quite adept at using statistics to explore narratives. Give me a couple of charts, a data set, or even just a small pile of crumpled receipts, and I can tell you the story of What Happened Here.
This is the skillset that I've leaned on while writing these articles for a decade now. The thing about Magic Finance is that it only seems like it's about math when you're looking at it from a distance. In reality, Magic finance is about people. What causes people to buy cards? What causes people to sell them? What staples will the people at WotC reprint next? What obscure card will the people on Reddit buy out next? How many people are willing to spend $300 on a Reserved List card, and why? These are the important questions—no algebra required.
I'm bringing this up because I want to spend the rest of today's article looking at statistical charts and talking about what they tell us about how people approach the ins and outs of Magic finance. One of the reasons why I was excited to join the team here at TCGplayer Infinite was because I now have access to an enormous amount of historical pricing and sales data that isn't available anywhere else. With this data, I can attempt to answer some of the key finance questions that I've been guessing at for years. How many spikes are speculator-driven, and how many are player-driven? When do sales peak? How much do major events like set releases, bans and major tournaments affect card values? I'd like answers to all of these questions, and I'm sure you would, too.
Whether you're some sort of mathemagician or you were one of the other algebraphobic kids who shoved their textbook into that hole in the wall, I think you'll be interested in what these charts have to say. The entire historical narrative of Magic finance exists somewhere in these numbers, and I'm excited to start unraveling it for you.
Here's an example of the sort of chart I can generate. Take a look at Fiend Artisan's entire price history, from when it was first previewed through today:
This chart shows sales volume over time as well as average sales price over time. The x-axis is always going to measure time, but the orange bars measure volume (how many copies of a card sold on each given day), while the blue line measures price. The y-axis figures on the right side of the graph are dollar amounts that correspond to the blue line, but there is no y-axis measurement that corresponds to volume, leaving the orange bars to stand alone. When you look at this chart, it's impossible to say how many actual copies of this card sold on a given day.
Several people have reached out to me on social media demanding that I provide them with this missing column, but it's not going to happen. Sorry, folks—there are legitimate business reasons why my employer does not want to plaster their actual sales data all over the internet, and I'm thankful that we have access to the information that we do.
At any rate, relative sales volume is the useful indicator here, and that's easy to grok from the chart above without those missing y-axis figures. See that big column on May 15th? That was Ikoria's North American release date. The actual number of cards sold that day doesn't tell us much, but knowing that the card's sales peaked that day is incredibly useful.
Remember, Ikoria had a very long preview season in most of the world because the tabletop release was delayed a month due to COVID-19. But the set did release on time in a few places, which is why you can see a small number of Fiend Artisan sales at a high price before the formal release came around and the price stabilized. Compare that to Heliod, Sun-Crowned, a similarly-hyped card from a set that came out on time, and you get this:
You can see the Theros Beyond Death release weekend pretty clearly on the chart—that's where all those big volume spikes are. There's still a period of low volume/high price sales before it, just like with Fiend Artisan, but it's over a much shorter duration since there was no delay at the printers.
As for that second large price drop in mid-March, I think we need to see what these charts can tell us about how the Magic market was affected by one of the key events of our lifetimes.
Let's look at the popular Commander card Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre:
This is Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre's chart for the entirety of 2020 to date. It doesn't look anything like Fiend Artisan's chart, which makes intuitive sense: not only does Ulamog not really see any play outside Commander, but there haven't been any Commander releases this year that have made Ulamog seem any more or less attractive than usual. I chose this card because it isn't especially unique. It's somewhat expensive, but it hasn't been in the spotlight for a while now.
There are two trends on this chart that seem to be pandemic-related, and it's worth talking about both of them in turn. First, you can see a notable dip in sales between early March and early May. Second, Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre's price tag has seen a notable price increase between mid-March and mid-June despite sales still being at or even a little lower than January/February levels.
If we take a look at Modern staples, we see similar trends. Here's Scalding Tarn:
The sales dip in March is harder to see here, but it's clear that it ends in mid-April. See that big spike on April 15th? That's the date that government stimulus checks hit bank accounts for the folks with access to direct deposit. That can't be a coincidence, though Scalding Tarn's price tag did start rising before the checks came out and continued rising even after sales began tapering off again.
Here's Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath. There's no meaningful stimulus check effect here—people used those on Eternal staples, not Standard cards. You can see sales start to pick up again in early June, though, thanks to Core Set 2021 preview season. Also of note here: when Uro's price dropped too far in late March, sales quickly picked up until the card's value rebounded. You can also see Uro's price continuing to rise throughout May despite low sales figures, just like most of the other cards we've looked at so far.
Lastly, here's Cavern of Souls, a card that has a lot of demand in both Modern and Commander. The late-February through mid-April dip is even more pronounced here. The April 15th stimulus check bounce is clear, as is the trend of prices rising throughout late April and May even though sales figures started dipping again.
Put it all together, and it's clear that the inferences we were all making about the pandemic were more or less true. Sales really were down in March and early April, many people really did use their stimulus checks to buy cards, and prices really did keep going up after that despite sales more or less returning to normal. I still don't know for certain what caused prices to keep rising after the stimulus money ran out, but the prevailing theory that it was due in large part to supply chain issues—primarily, large dealers not being able to buy cards at large in-person events anymore—still rings true to me.
What happens now? I have to be honest, those little dips at the end of Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre and Scalding Tarn's price charts worry me a bit. We're almost three months past those stimulus checks now, and no more government money is coming. COVID-19 cases are spiking again, and mid-summer tends to be a lousy time for Magic prices regardless. There has been a nice market recovery so far, and it might continue, but it could end at any moment. My suggestion? Stay vigilant, and don't be shocked if the market starts dropping again between now and the end of the summer.
On the other hand… well, I don't want to spoil anything, but there's another chart at the end of this article that gives me a little more hope.
I don't know if you remember this weird story from five years ago. Way back in December of 2015, there was a rumor going around that an unknown Redditor was offering $38,000 in bitcoin to any player who was willing to bring a deck based around Séance to Pro Tour: Oath of the Gatewatch. Several pro players expressed interest, but the post was taken down shortly after, and the card ended up being a Pro Tour no-show.
By that point, of course, quite a few Magic finance people had already rushed out to pick up their speculative copies of Séance. After all, if the card really was going to end up on camera at the Pro Tour, it would almost certainly spike—and why miss out on free money?
So yeah, here's Séance's sales data for December of 2015:
Wild, right? The weird bitcoin person didn't succeed in raising the price of Séance all that much, but look at that massive sales spike on December 9th, the day of their post. And as I'm pretty sure the famous basketball saying goes, "Chart don't lie."
Of course, not all buyouts are created equal. As far as I can tell, buyouts fall into three major categories:
Of course, most buyouts are a combination of at least two of these different categories. A single-source buyout can pick up steam and lead to a #magicfinance buyout, while most other #magicfinance buyouts happen in response to some piece of news—generally, the same piece of news that drives a player-driven buyout. At a certain level, teasing all of this apart becomes impossible.
It's still important to try and figure this stuff out, though. Cards that are bought out by the Magic finance community, whether by one person or many, tend to drop in price again really fast. This is because demand was never as high as the spiked price seemed to indicate, and all of the folks who bought ten or 12 copies of a card tend to immediately re-list them in a race to the bottom. A week or two later, the price is often close to where it started. On the other hand, the more player-driven a buyout is, the more sustainable its gains.
How can we even attempt to measure the cause of a buyout? Well, I do have access to one more source of information on those charts—the average quantity of each card purchased per buyer, per day. The higher the number, the more influence the finance community probably had over the buyout. The lower the number, the more player-driven it was.
(Note that this figure measures the total number of copies that a buyer has purchased in one order, even if it is from multiple sellers. If you buy eight copies of a card but they come from three different sources, it'll count the same as if you purchased eight copies from a single seller.)
Let's use that Séance chart from earlier as an example. The average (mean) quantity purchased per buyer on December 9th, 2015, was 10.1. Assuming that most non-speculators are either going to be interested in a single copy (for a Commander deck) or a playset (for a constructed deck), the player-driven demand average for nearly all cards should be somewhere in the 1-4 range. Indeed, if I pick a range of random dates in early 2016 to check for sales of Séance, those averages do range between one and four.
On the other hand, an average of 10.1 sales/buyer tells me that it wasn't just the one Séance person buying hundreds of copies for themself. I suppose it's possible that one person did buy half the copies sold that day, while everyone else just bought three or four, but it's unlikely—especially since the average number of copies sold to each buyer was in the same range over the next few days as well. No—I suspect that a few people saw the Séance news and bought a personal playset just in case the price was about to spike, while a bunch of speculators decided to snag 3-4 playsets to flip. Spoiler alert: it didn't work out.
Let's take a look at several more recent buyouts and see what the numbers tell us about the nature of buyouts:
Here's Fractured Powerstone, which was bought out on January 10th. This is a Commander card, and the average sales/buyer on most other days is a flat 1.0. On the tenth of January, however? That average ticked all the way up to 8.3. This was clearly a buyout started by a couple of speculators, though the price was already sort of ticking up, so it was likely somewhat motivated by real-world interest. At any rate, Fractured Powerstone's price jumped from about $2 to the $5-$6 range before settling in around $3 again by the end of February. That's still roughly where the card is today.
Here's the chart for Niv-Mizzet Reborn from the start of December 2019 through today. That big peak in early January was the result of Niv-Mizzet Reborn decks briefly ascending to the top tier of the Pioneer metagame, and you can see sales (and prices) start to flag again as the deck fell out of favor soon after. That big spike on January 15th looks like a buyout, but the average sales per buyer was just 4.5—too low to be purely #mtgfinance driven, especially since most Pioneer players probably wanted a personal playset of Niv if they were planning to build the deck. Things would have worked out for the few speculators who did get in on the action, though, providing they sold their spare copies while the deck was still hot.
What about that big spike on April 8th? That was more clearly a speculator-driven buyout. The average sales/buyer that day was 6.9, which tells me that there was likely a forum post or a decklist somewhere that got the speculators excited. Even though that spike wasn't very high, it's likely that the folks who bought in around $2 were still able to make a small profit if they sold at $5.
Here's another interesting one. This is Brain Freeze over the period of time between when Underworld Breach was first previewed and when it was banned in Legacy. That first big column you see was the card's preview date. I've also highlighted the card's ban date—it's one of those really small columns way over to the right.
What happened here? To me, it looks like Brain Freeze went mostly ignored by the Magic finance world. The average cards/buyer on December 30th and 31st were 3.6 and 5.1 respectively, which are only a little bit above the card's normal daily range of 2-3. And if any speculators did jump in, they didn't buy out all the cheap copies, which meant that the card didn't actually spike until almost a month later. Those late January spikes have an even lower average/buyer, too, indicating that it was almost exclusively actual Legacy players who wanted in on the action.
And then we have Polar Kraken. This is Polar Kraken's price chart from January of 2016 through today, and you can see that the card has been bought out about once a year, every year, despite not being very good in any format. Sure enough, all of those spikes have a grand total of exactly one unique buyer. In one case, this actually led to a fairly sustained increase in demand for the card, including several months of sales in the $4-$5 range.
I included this chart because it's one of the few weird Magic finance things where I have the inside scoop. One of my friends collects Polar Krakens, and every once in a while, she buys a bunch of extra copies for her collection. There's a lesson in there somewhere, I think—sometimes you can try to play all the angles and figure out every motivation behind a spike, but there will always be times when a woman just really likes a Kraken.
I want to end today's article with perhaps the coolest chart I can generate: a market index that I'm tentatively titling the MTG 100. Much like the S&P 500, the MTG 100 is an index that measures the average price of the 100 best-selling Magic cards over time. That way, you can get a general sense of how the market ebbs and flows. For example, here's a look at how the 100 best-selling cards from Q1 of 2020 have fared between January 1st and today:
Neat, right? I'm not sure what caused that big spike and subsequent drop in January—it's probably a quirk caused by an individual card—but you can clearly see the pandemic and recovery at work here. That COVID drop starts right around the 15th of March, and the recovery begins on April 15th, which is when the stimulus checks went out. Based on these figures, the market is currently doing better than it has at any point in 2020 and shows no sign of slowing down.
Now let's see how the 100 best-selling cards from Q4 of 2019 have done so far in 2020:
This chart is even clearer. That weird January hump is gone, but we've still got the COVID-19 drop leading right up to April 15th, at which point the rebound starts. And even with Standard demand in the toilet right now, the 100 most-purchased cards from October through December of 2019 are still worth more right now than at any other point in 2020. Pretty cool, right?
I'm only teasing the MTG 100 this week, because I think there's a lot more we can learn from this particular tool. If you have any ideas, please reach out to me on Twitter and I'll see if I can work your idea into a future article.
Core Set 2021 doesn't formally release until July 3rd, so we're still in that awkward period of high prices and low supply that always seems to hit between the end of preview season and the start of widespread product availability. I wouldn't buy any cards from Core Set 2021 right now unless you really know what you're doing, especially since Standard demand isn't likely to affect prices all that much until the pandemic is over.
That said, there's one card I wanted to take a closer look at right now. Here's Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, which is already proving a formidable finisher in the current metagame:
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon's price is obviously down from its pre-reprint high of $70, but look at how demand has ticked up over the past three days as people finally started getting to play with this card in Standard on Arena. It's possible that you'll be able to snag this one for $20 in a few weeks, but Ugin is one of the few cards I'm actually considering picking up sooner than that. The fact that it's a known Eternal staple is a huge plus for a risk-averse buyer like me, and the fact that there's already widespread availability makes me less wary about a post-release crash.
Compare that to Grim Tutor over the same time frame, and the difference is clear:
Demand for Grim Tutor is also up a bit over the past few days—now that people can play these cards on MTGO and Arena, they all want copies—but the rise in demand is a lot smaller since the venerable tutor hasn't made much of an impact in Standard so far. That tells me that Grim Tutor is probably going to be slower to rebound than Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, even though both cards are solid Commander staples that I want to grab at some point in 2020 regardless.
Speaking of supply issues, be aware that Jumpstart's initial supply is going to be incredibly low. Some stores didn't order many boxes because nobody had any reason to believe that the set was going to be as good as it is, and a lot of dealers were already facing cash flow restrictions due to the pandemic. Beyond that, WotC is still having major printer delays due to COVID-19, so most stores have had their already-low allocations severely limited.
What might this look like? Well, the same thing happened to Commander 2020. Here's the price chart for Fierce Guardianship:
So, yeah. If you're going to buy Jumpstart cards, do it ASAP or wait a few months. My guess is that the best ones will spike pretty hard over the coming weeks, as people realize that there are fewer copies out there than they'd expected. Things will settle down by fall, though, and there should be a nice buying window through the end of 2020 if you're willing to be patient.