2020 was a wild year in nearly every respect, but the massive financial booms in the worlds of sports cards and the Pokémon TCG still took me by surprise. I really did not expect our lost pandemic year to be the time when we all finally decided that our First Edition Charizards and Patrick Mahomes rookie cards should be worth as much as a medium-sized boat.
Yet here we are.
It started with sports cards, a collectable commodity that I've described as a cautionary tale more than once. Sports card collecting was the hottest game in town back in the late eighties and early nineties, when thousands of collectors filled their basements with Chipper Jones rookie cards and complete sets of 1991 Donruss All-Stars, hoping to pay for their toddler's college education with the profits. Whoops. Most cards from that era were overproduced to the point of worthlessness, and they nearly took the entire sports card industry down with them when they eventually crashed the market.
The sports card comeback began a few years ago, as the previously-decimated industry focused on hyper-limited promos, super premium packs, and other gotcha-style techniques that WotC would go on to borrow for products like Secret Lairs and Collector Boosters. Even still, the true mainstream sports card boom didn't begin until late 2019, when social media influencer Gary Vaynerchuk made collecting them seem cool again. In a matter of months, sealed boxes were disappearing off of shelves while grading companies like PSA and BGS were back-ordered for months at a time. Some of those vintage nineties cards even began to spike last year, as us elder millennials began to re-buy the card collections of our youth.
It took another few months for the boom to hit Pokémon TCG, but when it finally happened, it hit hard. The spikes began in earnest when YouTuber Logan Paul started buying up vintage booster boxes and unboxing them on stream, often to an audience in the hundreds of thousands. Not only did this lead to scores of lesser YouTubers trying to get in on that action, it also made Pokémon cards the talk of the town for the first time since 1997 or so. Folks in their late twenties and thirties were stoked to get back into the game they played (or at least collected) in their childhood, while younger folks began getting excited about Blastoise, Venusaur, and Charizard holofoils for the first time.
If you want to learn more about the impact that this boom has had on the Pokémon TCG market, you can read the article I wrote about it here on TCGplayer Infinite back in early November. It tracks the Pokémon boom through its early stages, covers the types of cards that have benefited the most, and it also has some predictions on how this might eventually play out.
Today, however, I want to pivot to something slightly different. What might happen if this "boom" hits Magic at some point in 2021? This is more than just idle speculation: collecting fever already jumped from sports cards to Pokémon, and there's plenty of evidence that Magic could be next.
If that happens, boy, oh boy is there going to be a lot of money to be made.
Unlike Pokémon TCG or the sports card market, Magic has never actually been through a major fallow period. Oh, sure, things were looking somewhat dire in the Mercadian Masques era, and WotC has long said that the Time Spiral era was a dark period in terms of sales, but the game has been able to maintain an impressive amount of continuity and player base retention over its decades-long history. It hasn't followed the same boom-and-bust cycle that Pokémon and sports cards have.
That said, there are many more ex-Magic players than active Magic players. Most of the people who played Magic in 1994 and 1995 no longer play the game, and I suspect the current player base is mostly made up of people who have picked up the game within the last four or five years. Stay in the Magic community long enough, and you'll start to see how quick it turns over. Many of the lifers have prominent community positions, but numbers-wise? They're in the minority. There are a lot of people out there with nostalgia for this game, and most of them are not currently playing Magic.
When Magic has had massive upticks in the past, the cause has generally been new and returning players joining or re-joining the player base. In the early 2010s, for example, Duels of the Planeswalkers caused the player base to roughly double every year for three or four years. These players started with Standard, but many of them eventually jumped into Modern and Commander, causing those staples to surge in price.
That's not what this boom is about, though. Logan Paul isn't playing Pokémon TCG down at his LGS, nor would he be even in a pandemic-free world. He's not joining the Pokémon player base. Some pretty rad folks have been building a community for a format called "Pokémon 1999," which is similar to the unsanctioned "Old School" format in Magic, but they're still a niche within a niche. In fact, most of the people buying up old Pokémon cards aren't interested in playing the game at all. They're collectors. They want the coolest cards in the best condition, and they're going to grade and display them. It doesn't matter whether or not they're actually good in any extant Pokémon format. They just need to have some sort of "wow" factor.
I've seen a lot of people ask whether the Reserved List spikes of 2020—cards like Gaea's Cradle, for example—are related to this collectable boom. I don't think so. Most of the financial movement I saw last year was happening inside the existing Magic community, which is quite common. Reserved List cards spike all the time, especially when the overall economy is somewhat uncertain (check) and cryptocurrency prices are high (check again).
If the Pokémon boom comes to Magic, you're going to see something different: a gaggle of community outsiders buying up cards and boxes that they know very little about. Some of them will be folks who haven't played the game since 1995, while others will have never played a game of Magic at all and have no intention of starting now. They'll be collectors first, and players either second or not at all.
You'll also see a lot of popular social media influencers and personalities engaging with Magic in all sorts of exciting ways. From live unboxings on stream to dips into Arena, Magic will suddenly be a topic of conversation in the wider world. Friends of yours who know that you play Magic but haven't expressed any curiosity about the game before will suddenly be asking you questions about cards, sets, and decks. YouTube channels that you follow for non-Magic reasons will suddenly be chatting about Masters packs and the condition of etched foils.
And the ways they'll be engaging with the game? They might surprise you. Their behavior will seem somewhat irrational to people like us, who have been around the game for a while. If you want to understand them, you'll have to start thinking like a collector.
Something is already happening to the price tags of vintage Magic: The Gathering boxes.
For example, Fallen Empires has long been considered the worst set of all time. The most expensive card in the set right now is Rainbow Vale, and I can still buy a lightly played copy of that card for right around $4. Beyond that, I have no idea what you're even hoping to open in a Fallen Empires pack. Ebon Praetor? Elvish Farmer? Conch Horn? It's garbo the whole way down.
And yet, sealed boxes of Fallen Empires have spiked recently. They are regularly selling in the $500-$600 range, and one even sold for over $1,000 recently. This makes no sense if all you want are the cards inside, which are close to worthless. Even Ben Bleiweiss, StarCityGames' GM, is baffled by this trend.
But sealed boxes are key to the sports card and Pokémon boom, for two simple reasons. First, this boom is largely driven by social media, especially unboxing videos, vlogs, and livestreams. Many of the people buying sealed Pokémon and sports card boxes are doing so because these videos and streams are super popular, and they want more engagement with their social media brand. Fallen Empires might not have any good cards, but it's an old, nostalgic set with an attainable price tag. Not a bad choice for a social media unboxing event.
Second, this particular boom is all about card grading. These collectors aren't just chasing rare cards, they're chasing rare cards that might come back graded at PSA 10. While pack-fresh cards often don't grade out well due to printing errors, centering issues, or wear suffered inside the booster, you still have a chance of opening a perfectly minty card every time you open an old booster. For that reason, collectors will pay massive sums of money for sealed boxes and try to gamble on opening that exciting chase card in absolutely mint condition.
Granted, vintage sealed Magic boxes are already super expensive, especially boxes from the pre-Modern era. None of this stuff is new, exactly—people have been doing unboxing videos for years, and who doesn't want a chance at a PSA 10 Black Lotus? We have yet to see Logan Paul money enter the top end of the market, though, and sealed boxes of Pokémon's first edition Base Set jumped in price from "too expensive for anyone you know to buy one" to "you can buy a nice house for less than this" over the last six months of 2020. Expect something similar to happen in Magic if the boom ever gets here. As usual, the rich get richer here.
This type of high-end market movement would almost certainly cause the entire sealed box market to spike, too. The same thing happened in Pokémon this fall, with lesser box prices surging as everybody wanted a piece of the pie and nobody wanted to miss out on the next $300,000 booster box. While this probably won't do much for the price of your extra Kaladesh or Dragon's Maze boxes, I can easily imagine popular, slightly older sets spiking pretty hard. Think Innistrad, Mirrodin, the original Modern Masters, etc.
I also suspect that this boom will trigger a buyout spike in some future limited-run set. Right now, the hottest sports card booster packs and Pokémon boxes are sold out everywhere and have become really hard to find, despite being distributed to big box stores all over the world. I'm active in quite a few reselling/flipping communities, and 2020 was the first time I started to see lots of people making money buying stores out of sealed Pokémon and sports card products at current retail and immediately flipping them on eBay, Amazon, or Facebook Marketplace at a profit.
I can easily imagine something like this happening in Magic, similar to the first couple of Modern Masters sets. It honestly wouldn't take much. If you start to see this sort of outside influence surging into the Magic community, get your pre-orders in for sets like Time Spiral Remastered and Modern Horizons 2 ASAP.
Grading cards has long been the norm in the world of sports card collecting. After all, there's no game you can play with your 1962 Mickey Mantle card. All the more reason to send it into a grading service, get it verified, and have it preserved in a nice hard piece of plastic! Also, the price of a good sports card goes way, way up if it gets a high grade. The difference between a PSA 7 and a PSA 10 can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Magic has never really had a culture of card grading, though. Getting a card graded means that you can never actually play with it, so most people don't grade their cards unless it's an incredibly high-end piece of power or something else very old and very mint. Most people aren't getting their foil expeditions graded, for example, whereas similar cards in the sports card world are usually sent out for grading almost immediately.
This has led to some interesting quirks in the Magic collectors' market vs. the sports card market. For example, misprints and miscuts are highly regarded in Magic because they're cool conversation pieces for your cube or Commander deck. These same cards are often shunned in the sports card world, however, because they grade out exceptionally low. In the sports card world, it's condition first, everything else last.
Not only did sports card grading become more popular than ever last year, but the grading industry began spilling over into things like sealed vintage video games and Pokémon cards. People had always gotten these things graded from time to time, of course, but there wasn't really a culture of grading in those spaces before last year. It's there now, though, and it's growing fast.
One of the exciting things about entering a market in the early days of grading is that there's a lot of free money just hanging around waiting to be picked up off the ground. If most people aren't used to grading their cards, that means that there are a lot of potential 8.0 or better cards being sold in loose NM ungraded condition. If you buy up these cards at their NM retail prices and send them in to be graded, you can make bank flipping them if they come back with a high grade.
This is what a lot of the Pokémon boom was really about. Speculators bought out the NM category on TCGplayer for most potentially exciting vintage Pokémon cards, looking for gems that they could send off to get graded. If graded Magic cards ever become a popular collectable commodity, expect the same thing to happen here.
If you want to get in ahead of the curve, consider picking up gradable Magic cards sooner rather than later. I'll cover my top picks in the next section, but really anything that's cool and NM from 1995 or earlier is a decent buy.
I'd also be a lot more careful about what cards you choose to sell as NM if the boom ever does arrive. Players have a higher tolerance for dings and tiny scratches than collectors do, and my rate of returns went way up when I began selling Pokémon cards to speculators focused on grading cards. I ended up moving a lot of cards that I might have been able to get away with selling at NM in previous years to LP, even though the price gap between those two conditions grew higher than ever.
It's also worth noting that the card grading world is not without its share of scandals and alleged corruption. There is evidence as early as the summer of 2019 that some graded sports cards were altered by the grading company in a potential kickback scheme, and there is also widespread talk that shill bidding on eBay has been deliberately used to inflate the market and create the illusion of high end buyers that don't actually exist. There's also a Twitter thread from several days ago claiming that there are loads of fake BGS cards out there with duplicate slab numbers, though that story has yet to gain widespread traction and I can't confirm the accusations.
Honestly, I suspect that all three of these stories probably have some amount of truth to them, and I'm not particularly interested in collecting graded cards as long-term holds regardless. It doesn't seem like the first two stories hurt the graded card market at all, though, considering these accusations were made in 2019 and card graders had their best year ever in 2020. The entire house of cards (excuse the metaphor) might topple over at some point, but that might not happen for years.
When graded Pokémon cards began to spike last year, the three cards that paced the market were Charizard, Blastoise, and Venusaur. These cards were powerhouses in their day, and are easily the most iconic cards in Pokémon's original Base Set, but none of them have seen actual tournament play in decades. Charizard is kind of like the Pokémon TCG version of Black Lotus, only if Black Lotus wasn't actually a playable card in the current game. Think Shivan Dragon, or Juzam Djinn.
The important thing to remember here is that these collectors aren't interested in actually playing Magic. They're interested in cards that are either impressive, nostalgic, or both. They want cards that are rare, in great shape, and would have made their friend Jimmy go "wow!" if he'd gotten to peek at it during recess in the seventh grade.
To that end, the Power Nine are the most obvious buys here. Power is already beyond expensive, but most of the demand has still come from inside the Magic community. If Logan Paul or another major influencer ever seriously began buying up graded copies of Black Lotus or Moxen? Look out. These already unattainable cards could surge yet again.
I also have my eye on all other Alpha and Beta cards, especially rares, especially in good shape. Even though it's rare to find any of these cards for under $100-$200, they're so much scarcer than anyone realizes. There were literally only 1,100 of every Alpha rare and 3,300 of every Beta rare ever printed. Most of these cards were lost or destroyed years ago, and the lion's share of the rest of them are locked away in permanent collections. That means that there are only a few dozen copies of each of these cards that are even available to purchase at any given time, with no hidden supply out there ready to restock. If people ever decide to snap these up and grade them, the market will go berserk.
You don't need me to tell you that Reserved List cards are always at risk of spiking. The Reserved List is the exact sort of thing that's likely to be catnip to collectors, despite it being a thorn in the side of the Magic community for years. While most "wait, why did THAT Reserved List card spike!?" conversations to date have been about speculators and market manipulation, I can imagine a world in which all gradable Reserved List cards end up having value on the collector market, regardless of their in-game quality.
Of course, we have to talk about cards that were huge in 1995 but have been overshadowed over the years—cards that would have impressed Jimmy on the playground, even if you haven't thought about them in quite some time.
Here's the price chart for Near Mint copies of Revised Shivan Dragon. It may not seem like much, but this card has already doubled over the past calendar year, and will be one of the biggest gainers if the Pokémon nostalgia boom comes to Magic:
Other Revised cards might spike, too. We all know about cards like the dual lands and Wheel of Fortune because they're still incredibly good, but cards like Serra Angel, Hypnotic Specter, Armageddon, Wrath of God, Braingeyser, Vesuvan Doppelganger, Nightmare, Sengir Vampire, Fork, Birds of Paradise, and Force of Nature all had the "wow" factor back in Magic's earliest days. If there's ever a true Magic nostalgia boom, all of these cards will spike—especially if you've got them in near mint or mint condition. It was hard to keep those white borders clean!
I'd also consider looking a little further afield for other iconic cards from Magic's earliest days. While cards like Juzam Djinn have already seen major price spikes due to Old School, and most cards from Arabian Nights, Legends, and Antiquities have already spiked a few dozen times over the past few years, nobody has really mined the mid-nineties sets for nostalgia yet.
Consider Morphling, from Urza's Saga. This card might be a bulk rare if it were released today, but it was considered the best creature in Magic for quite some time. I have no doubt that this card holds a special place in the hearts of a generation of Magic players. It's also shockingly cheap for a Reserved List card that once dominated the game, and is one of my prime spec buys in any world where nostalgia is driving prices and current playability doesn't matter all that much.
And then there's Jester's Cap, the chase card of all chase cards back in the Ice Age days. This is another card that doesn't really have a home anymore, but you can still play it in Commander if you want, and it's instantly recognizable to anyone who played Magic in 1996. In fact, a few people seem to have already started trying to buy this card out, betting on the same market forces that I've outlined in this article:
Those buyout spikes are artificial—one person bought all of those cards at once—but the card's new price tag has stuck, and that matters. This is exactly the sort of card that nostalgic collectors are going to want to get graded, and I can see it doubling or tripling in price again if the boom ever happens. Grab yours now if you want it.
Last week, I highlighted The Great Henge as a Commander and Standard staple with a shot at hitting $50 at some point in 2021. I talked about its slow, year-long rise, and how that gradual trend differed from most card values in 2020, which tended to either remain flat or shoot up in price all at once.
Well, it turns out I was just a week early. The Great Henge finally did a proper spike, surging almost $10 over the past week:
As you can see, the Black Friday sale was a real demarcation point here. Loads of people picked up their copies of The Great Henge during that kickback offer, and the remaining available supply took a real hit. The rest of this movement is simply the market drying up, causing the card to rocket up toward its inevitable price point. It might get there next week, or it might take the rest of the year, but this is a $50 card.
Also up this week: Oboro, Palace in the Clouds. This Modern staple was only printed once, way back in Saviors of Kamigawa, and this spike is a result of the last remaining "cheap" copies selling out on TCGplayer:
This may seem like a buyout, but it's similar to The Great Henge in that it's just a matter of the market drying up. This price spike is a reflection of that. There simply aren't that many copies of Oboro out there that could potentially hit the market in the coming weeks, so I'd expect the new price to stabilize closer to $80 than $40. This is a $5 card if it's ever reprinted, though, so watch out. I'm selling my extra copies into the current spike.
The last two cards to spike this week? Xantcha, Sleeper Agent and Magus of the Vineyard.
Here's Xantcha's chart:
And here's Magus of the Vineyard:
As you can see, both of these cards were on their way up long before this week. They're both very popular, and supply simply ran out. There's no evidence of a buyout here, either: just cards seeing a surge in popularity, and Commander players rushing out to nab copies for themselves. Expect both prices to stick until there's a reprint.