Hey there! I hope everyone had a great time at their Rivals of Ixalan prerelease. I'm from upstate New York and was dealing with a Coldsnap all weekend, so I ended up getting completely snowed in from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon. Maybe the wife and I will end up getting some prerelease kits later in the week if the store has any left, and do our own mini event at the house. I hope everyone opened up a Kumena or Rekindling Phoenix, which are the most expensive cards in the set right now. Trailing behind these two hyped mythics are the Planeswalker deck planeswalkers, Angrath and Vraska, at $10 each. Does that surprise anyone?
I remember the ol' days when we used to have multiple $30+ planeswalkers during the presale period. In fact, there was a solid several years where almost every planeswalker would presale for a ridiculous amount, regardless of the perceived power level. Even weaker walkers like Gideon, Champion of Justice would presale for $30, thanks to collective fear of missing out on the next Jace, the Mind Sculptor for too low a presale price.
Approximately eight years ago when Worldwake was released, the financial aspect of Magic was a lot more of a wild west. There were next to no financial columnists predicting the value of cards during their presale period, no articles teaching people how to turn bulk commons and uncommons into cash, and no expectations that a single planeswalker could reach heights of $100. In the years following, we started to see vendors and stores hedging their bets on whatever the newest walker was, just in case it was the next Jace. This process has started to die off in the past couple of years – we've seen starting presale prices as a whole drop over time. Unless a planeswalker appears to be blatantly pushed (Chandra, Torch of Defiance comes to mind), the starting presale prices of planeswalkers has calmed down a lot. We saw Jace, Cunning Castaway and Vraska, Relic Seeker preselling for around $20, and now with Rivals of Ixalan we're seeing $10 preorders on set planeswalkers (Angrath and Huatli) for the first time ever.
So, what does this mean for the set itself? During Ixalan, we had cards that were pre-selling for over $18 like Carnage Tyrant, Growing Rites of Itlimoc, and Hutali, Warrior Poet. If there are no cards in the set preselling at even $20 as the superhot chase rare out of the gate, does that mean that the set is going to bode poorly for the future?
Well, it's going to depend on the playability of the cards inside as the set integrates into Standard. While that might feel like a cop-out answer, there's still a lot of data to be inferred from the fact that the value in this set is much more evenly spread out as opposed to top-heavy. A set where one or two cards in the set vastly outperform the rest (in Standard) is going to end up having a much different value distribution than one with a much of Commander playables. One of the best case study examples of this is a good friend of mine called Dragon's Maze. When that set came out, we all knew that there was only one really powerful rare or mythic in the set: Voice of Resurgence.
Because Voice was so much more powerful than the other cards in the set, it quickly rose to a crazy price tag of $55-60; a price not seen since the days of Liliana of the Veil and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. While a "normal" mythic might have tapered off to $20 as more of the product entered the market, Voice stubbornly refused to go below $35-40 for quite a while; it took until Born of the Gods to even hit $30.
The reason behind Voice's price stickiness is partially because it was the only good card in the set. When you opened a pack of Dragon's Maze, it was Voice (or the rare shock land) or bust. The expected value (EV) of a box was pretty miserable, as you had to open multiple Voices (or at least one foil) to start to break even on the booster box. Now imagine that from a store or vendor perspective. Even if they're getting the boxes as low as $70-80 a box, it's still going to be really hard to make money if you don't crack a Voice. Because of that, it was smarter for vendors to simply sell the packs or product sealed, and let other people deal with that hassle. If those packs and boxes sit on the shelves, that's less Voices in circulation and adds to the supply issue of Voice, pushing the price up until it finally becomes worth it to bust a box at vendor cost.
The same can hold true even if we don't see a slam-dunk overpowered mythic in the set. If Rivals of Ixalan doesn't have the power to change the Standard metagame that's filled with Temur Energy, then we see the same effect happen spread across multiple cards simply because of that elasticity where supply ends up being artificially lower than what it otherwise would be if the product was worth opening. We could simply see a lot of $5-6 Commander cards like The Immortal Sun and Timestream Navigator remain steady instead of slipping from their presale price. If every card in Rivals is a competitive dud, we'll be picking some Commander cards at a higher price than what we could otherwise expect if there was a bunch of Standard staples packed into the set.
If a product has an unlimited print run and there's at least some demand for the cards, the market value of the cards inside will always be able to equalize itself to an approximate EV point. Let's look at the opposite situation, and just assume that the value of the product is way higher than the vendor cost; If we use our old friend mtg.dawnglare.com to calculate the EV of a booster box at TCG market (only taking into account cards worth over $1), we can see that Rivals of Ixalan product is almost $100 right now. That's pretty normal for a set still in presale period, because of course nobody really has cards yet. Players are more willing to spend money on theoretical values that haven't been proven true with playability yet.
A vendor will see that $100 number (and also the $70-80 number they got their box at, depending on the store), and see an opportunity to make some money with the boxes they ordered for their stock. While most stores will sell sealed boxes at $100 or so, you can only sell so much of that. Singles are an important part of a store inventory, so at $100 box EV it still makes sense to crack open the box, have employees sort the singles and start selling on release day when demand will be the highest. Of course, this isn't some next level genius strategy; it's simple math that almost every store will be utilize. As more product enters the market from more stores, the overall competition in online sales will Drag Down the set EV until it reaches an equilibrium; it will be profitable enough for some stores to crack and sell, but boxes won't simply be "free money" for anyone with access to a distributor.
Right now, we've got a lot of Rivals of Ixalan cards hanging at the $5-10 range, with none having a ton of room to Plummet like Growing Rites or Carnage Tyrant did. While the goal of this article is not to review the viability or Standard playability of the rares and mythics, it's worth trying to figure out if Rivals of Ixalan is going to be a repeat of Dragon's Maze or Hour of Devastation (another small set with one powerhouse mythic while the rest lag behind and make opening product a gamble for vendors). If something like Rekindling Phoenix or Elenda, the Dusk Rose ends up being the chase mythic of the set while the rest fall off as casual Commander fodder, be prepared to see a format-warping card from a weak set reach incredible highs, simply because of the equalizer that is expected value of a box.
For now, I treat every card in the set equally. I recognize that I don't have the Foresight and gameplay knowledge to reliably pick out the Smuggler's Copters and the Hazorets of the set, so I treat every presale price like a hot potato. Get out now, because it's a known fact that most of the cards in the set will fall in value. The only questions are which cards will rise to take the mantle of "most expensive chase rare," and if you'll have any buy-in opportunities thanks to the lack of a Standard Pro Tour.
Regardless of how (or if) this set impacts Standard, my favorite card as a vendor is far and away The Immortal Sun. This is the card with one of the highest disparities between competitive and casual players, so it's going to be really easy to buy these from Standard players and really easy to sell these to Commander players. I don't see this card going down very much, and expect it to have a price stickiness similar to Paradox Engine. The Immortal Sun is a jack of all trades, and while it doesn't excel in any one particular deck or strategy, the number of lines of rules text makes it attractive to many players looking to do more big things in the format of big things.
- DJ Johnson