In case you missed it, Wizards of the Coast made an announcement last Thursday with huge ramifications on the future of high-level play. The MPL and current system of organized play will end after a stripped-down 2021-2022 season, to be replaced by some nebulous Pro Tour/Grand Prix-ish system that will be announced on some future date. All we know about it so far is that current Pro plays have been told that the new system will not be designed around paying high-end Magic players a full-time wage. The dream of being a professional Magic player might be over for good.
At this point, I don't even think WotC would disagree that Magic's brief flirtation with Esports was poorly implemented from the start and never given the room to breathe that it needed. Most long-time Magic players were incredibly frustrated with WotC's decision to dismantle their long-running tournament infrastructure and replace it with the MPL back in 2018, and their initial fears have finally been proven correct. Magic's pivot to Esports in lieu of tabletop gaming right before the era of social distancing gave it the best possible platform to succeed, but it still didn't work. Now it's gone, and we have no idea what's coming next.
Since this is a financial column, I'd like to spend today talking about the ramifications that this announcement might have on card values going forward. Is this a death knell for the secondary market? Will Standard and Modern prices crash or remain at their pandemic lows? Is competitive Magic really dead, and does that mean you should sell your collection? Let's find out together.
Five or 10 years ago, the announcement would have caused a major market correction. Back then, prices spiked and dropped based on small trends in the competitive metagame. Large swaths of the consumer base were tournament grinders chasing the dream of becoming a professional Magic player, and doing so required buying into the latest tech as it was revealed by the top pros. That's why Tarmogoyf was a $200+ card while Doubling Season was easily available for $5-$10.
Then something funny happened. When WotC announced the end of the Pro Tour, prices didn't drop. Then the pandemic hit, and while prices dropped for a few weeks, they hit bottom fairly quickly and rebounded past their previous highs. We currently exist in a world where virtually no tabletop play of any kind is happening, either at the local level or on the big stage, and it doesn't seem to matter. Magic prices are higher than ever, and they show no sign of collapsing.
The only way this announcement would cause a major crash in Magic prices is if you somehow believe that most people have been buying Magic cards over the past few years in anticipation for the return of tabletop Pro Tours. Given the fact that WotC has never provided us with any indication that they're going to re-prioritize these events, that seems like a huge stretch to me.
It's also worth taking a look at the kinds of cards that have seen the largest surges in value over the past few years. Commander isn't just the primary driver of value these days, it's just about the only game in town. Even elite Modern staples like fetch lands are expensive primarily because of Commander play. Beyond that, the biggest gains have been with cards that are expensive in large part due to collector's value, like Reserved List staples. Folks collect these cards simply for the sake of collecting or in the hopes of making a long-term profit off market trends. Nothing about this announcement is going to change the market for these cards, either.
If WotC had made this announcement in late 2019, it's certainly possible that this would have caused a drop in the value of Standard and Modern staples. At this point, however, the pandemic has more or less priced this drop into the competitive market. The people who are still buying competitive Magic cards right now are already used to not getting to play them in high-end tabletop events, so why would things change based on this news?
Take a look at the price chart for Force of Negation, a card that is the very definition of a Modern staple:
And here's Cryptic Command:
I chose these two cards because they're near the top of Modern's most-played list right now and they weren't reprinted in Double Masters or any other set in the past year or two. Even some of those cards are still doing well, though. Check out Thoughtseize:
Thoughtseize has been reprinted twice since 2019, and it's still near the $20 mark despite the pandemic. I can't see any WotC organized play announcement doing much of anything to this level of latent demand. All the evidence I have shows that people want good, competitive Magic cards whether they can dream of becoming the next PVDDR or not.
While I don't expect this announcement to hurt the value of Magic prices in the short-term, I do think that there are longer-term financial ramifications worth discussing. A lot of this will depend on what this announcement actually means for the future of competitive Magic (more on this later), but for now I'll operate under the worst-case assumption that larger competitive Magic events are going away and not coming back.
We live in a world where people are comfortable spending a lot of money on expensive Magic cards for their Commander decks and other personal pet projects, and that's not going to change. Heck, Parallel Lives is a $50 card right now despite seeing exactly zero competitive play. This market will continue to stay hot no matter what.
I also expect Standard to rebound nicely once LGS play resumes in earnest. I'm hopeful that we're still on track for this to happen in the fall, when Throne of Eldraine rotates and the Standard environment opens up again. The vast majority of Standard players don't have any Pro Tour dreams at all: they simply want to beat their friends and win some booster packs. You'd be surprised at the kind of money that folks will put into a deck that they'll only get to play a few dozen times over a period of two or three months, but this kind of play pattern has always been a large driver of Magic finance.
Where might we feel the impact in these announcements, then? I think it'll be in a lowered ceiling for high-end competitive staples.
Back when big events were driving values, cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Vendilion Clique could sustain price tags of $100-$200 without breaking a sweat. Heck, even Standard cards like Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria could end up in the $50-$80 range for months at a time. This sort of thing likely relies on a large base of people willing to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars on competitive decks, which likely requires a tournament infrastructure beyond the local level. I wouldn't expect these sorts of prices to return (outside of Commander, of course!) without a solid Pro Tour replacement.
Because of this announcement, I've revised down my expectations on competitive Modern staples as the world opens back up. I had expected a massive surge in high-end Modern singles at some point this year, but now I'm thinking that might not actually happen. While most of these cards should sustain their current price tags, and some will rise a bit as tabletop events return, I don't see enough people dropping thousands of dollars on Modern right now to cause a full-on market rush. If you're looking to invest, focus on Commander first and everything else last. Just like always.
It can be hard to feel optimistic in the wake of announcements like this, but let's take the glass-half-full approach for a few moments and see how it shakes out.
First off, WotC doesn't have a monopoly on organized play. They didn't have one before the MPL, and they don't have one now. The SCG Tour had arguably already become the heart of competitive play before COVID hit, and I would assume that it will be returning just as soon as it is safe to do so. Ditto for the large events organized by local TOs and shops. There's also now a vacuum for other folks to step into the tournament organizing space, which can be operated at a profit instead of just as a marketing arm for boosting WotC's sales. It would be silly for an extremely lucrative industry like tournament organizing to simply disappear because a single company chooses not to provide large payouts to its biggest winners.
This is also why WotC will almost certainly be bringing back some sort of traveling tournament series in the future. They aren't just ways to boost sales: they make money all on their own. It can be tempting to read their announcement as yet another example of them making vague promises that they will not plan to keep, but there's simply no reason for them not to bring back events that are both profitable and useful as an effective marketing tool.
Why not simply announce the new tournament series now? Because WotC is bad at messaging. Also, because they don't know when it will be safe to gather in large event halls yet. My guess is that WotC doesn't have any of the details actually hammered out, because ramping the TO infrastructure back up only to have to cancel events due to COVID concerns is a great way to light money on fire while continuing to disappoint their player-base. Heck, there aren't even any judges working at the moment. WotC can't announce anything concrete about the future of high-end competitive play without risking further disappointment and shutdown. You can make a compelling argument that doing so would be less messy, muddy, and scary than the vague and unsettling announcement we got. In fact, I would make that argument myself. But a lot of people seem to think that WotC secretly wants to end all competitive Magic forever and that this announcement is basically just gaslighting, and I don't see it. Competitive Magic will be back, likely in the form of CommandFests and Grand Prix-esque events.
A question I've been asking myself all morning is this: why did WotC make this decision? Obviously the MPL wasn't working, but why sunset virtually all high-level competitive play without a ready replacement?
The obvious answer is that WotC has a history of throwing money at something cool before slowly pulling it away and killing it unceremoniously, but I don't think that's the whole story. My guess is that something in WotC's financial data told them that people aren't driven to buy more Magic cards because they want to go pro. There have been some pretty major social shifts in the game over the past few years, and a move away from a competitive professional model is among the biggest.
Personally, I don't remember the last time I traveled to a large event for the event itself. I went to play Commander, do some side drafts, enter a small Legacy event, buy cool cards, meet artists, and hang out with all of my wonderful friends from all over the world. That's what I miss most about Magic, and I think I'm far from alone. The CommandFest model is likely the future of Magic events, where it's more like a traveling convention focused on a single game than a chess open or bridge tournament. There will be large tournaments with large prizes, but there probably won't be a class of players who make their living traveling or playing pro Magic. There won't be a gravy train to aspire to hop aboard.
Do we even still need that dream? I'm not so sure. As former Magic pro and current streaming personality Brian Kibler wrote on Twitter, you can still make a living at professional Magic, but it's about cultivating a personal brand. You're making your money through Twitch subs and Pateron content, not by collecting large novelty checks from WotC. To this end, the dream is more alive than ever; it's just about being one of the best personalities and community-builders in the world instead of one of the best players in the world.
Is this better than what came before? That depends a lot on your experience with professional Magic. This announcement is crushing for a lot of my friends who live, eat, sleep, and breathe pro Magic. It's also not a big deal for me, a more casual player among the enfranchised, or most of the other folks I know who rarely play beyond the regional level. The online discourse happening around this announcement is largely being driven by a tiny fraction of even the enfranched player-base, for whom the Pro Tour and even perhaps the MPL was synonymous with Magic. These voices are important, but I don't even think they represent a majority of long-time players, much less all Magic players. For folks like me, doubling down on more CommandFest style events is likely going to help me engage with the game more, not less.
At the end of the day, then, I suspect that this is more about a change in focus and culture than the end of the road for competitive Magic. I don't think your collection value will suffer, nor will future sets be dead on arrival. It's a bleak time for some of you, and I don't want to overlook that, especially since WotC's OP announcements are baffling, poorly timed, and seem almost perfectly designed to cause frustration and fear. At the end of the day, though, things will work out. One way or another, we'll be playing competitive Magic again very soon. The stakes and venue might just look a little different.
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This week's newsletter covered the shocking news by Target and Walmart to stop carrying most TCG products, as well as the biggest Commander and Modern movers of the week. Then we discussed the future of the id="Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite" variantId="82627" now that we're getting a Secret Lair containing a new Phyrexian language printing of the card.