The popularity of Magic: The Gathering has exploded over the past few years.
There, I just taught you everything you need to know about Magic finance. I’m not kidding. Well, I’m sort of kidding.
The truth is that it’s been pretty easy to make money buying and selling Magic cards recently because the overall price level of cards has consistently risen. Modern cards have generally increased in price. Legacy cards have generally increased in price. Casual and/or Commander cards have generally increased in price. Standard cards bounce around for a while in the format and the playable ones eventually find their way into one of those groups and rise in price. So the basic strategy has been to buy Magic cards, wait until they go up, then sell them. Sure, some of the better speculators find cards that go up more or go up faster, but this basic approach works for mostly everyone. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s impossible to lose money doing this. If you don’t understand transaction costs, don’t really understand Magic, or just don’t have decent business sense, I have no doubt you can fail at Magic finance. For the rest of us, though, buying good cards at reasonable prices is enough to stay in the black. You don’t have to be great at evaluating cards as long as you buy a good mix of stuff when you see good deals. Even reprints—formerly the most spectacular way to crash and burn on Magic specs—don’t seem that awful anymore. Modern Masters taught us that you’ll have to wait longer to cash out, but the ever-increasing player base will absorb the new copies just the same.
It’s important to understand that all this is being caused by the larger upward trend in Magic’s popularity. We all felt like geniuses when our Modern specs started spiking last year until we realized that basically every Modern card was going to spike. It was about the larger trend of a format growing in popularity, not about the specific cards. The big picture at that point was that Modern was on fire. No other information needed. Playable Modern cards were either good, great, or amazing buys, even the ones that didn’t end up seeing much play. Again, some people did better than others, but the only real losers were the ones who didn’t play. Recognize the trend, jump in, profit. When you step back even further and get the 10,000-foot view, you realize that the most important call yet was not on a particular card, set, or even format, but on Magic as a whole. Sure, different sectors of Magic have jumped at different times. The Commander trend, the aforementioned Modern trend, the Legacy trend. But Magic taking off as a game was the trend that started all the other trends, and getting that call right has been, by far, the single biggest money-maker to date.
Five years ago, Alara Reborn had just hit shelves. Magic finance wasn’t a thing (or it was just called “running a store”), and the new core set and Duels of the Planeswalkers were just getting ready to debut. American grands prix were starting to hit the 1,000-player mark consistently. All the ingredients were there. Hindsight is 20/20, but did you see it at the time? In all likelihood, you were just getting back into the game, oblivious to the fact that there were a million others just like you doing the exact same thing. If you could go back and talk to your 2009 self about Magic finance, what would you say? Sure, you could coach him up on specific cards that were in the pipeline—trade for fetches, pre-order [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card], find foil eldrazi, etc.—but mostly you would just say, “Get as many Magic cards as you can. Get everything, and get a lot of it.” Is there really much that would have been a bad investment? Let me remind you that we live in a world where [card]Lord of Extinction[/card] is a $12 card. How about sealed product of pretty much any kind? Zendikar boxes? The Divine vs. Demonic Duel Deck that was just hitting shelves? All those soon-to-be Commander staples sitting in bulk boxes? No need to pretend that we could have foreseen $80 fetches since we would have been shoveling those into our binders along with everything else. Literally anything you could get your hands on at the time would turn out to be money well spent. Magic itself was a good investment. If you had your head buried in decklists and tournament reports, you may not have seen it happening around you. But if you had backed up and taken a broad look at the entirety of Magic, the 10,000-foot view, you may have seen surging tournament attendance, exciting new products, more powerful cards being printed, and renewed interest from old players. You may have noticed something was going on.
Take a Look Around
The question I want you to ask yourself is simply, “What’s going on with Magic right now?” I’m not asking what’s happened over the past six months or a year. I know Modern exploded in popularity. I know dual lands jumped in price. I have to chuckle whenever I see Magic financiers post something on Twitter like “don’t sell fetch lands yet, they are still going up and Modern season is this summer.” Thank you for the report. I’m asking what is going on right now, today, as we speak, in game shops, kitchens, and cafeterias all over. Wherever you were in 2009, did you know players were starting to flock to the game in record numbers? You probably missed it, even though you were right in the middle of it, because you were having so much fun that you forgot to look around. I did. Well, do you know what players are doing now? Are you again right in the middle of something and not seeing it? Are you looking? This isn’t the “pick a format that hasn’t spiked in a while and buy in” exercise. This is trying to understand the health and direction of the entire thing. And there is no answer in this article because I don’t know for sure either. I’m writing to encourage you to spend time trying to figure it out. Do you think Magic has peaked? Why or why not? Are we just getting started, or somewhere in the middle? Do you have a good answer either way? If your default response is, “I think Magic is going to continue to increase in popularity because that’s what it’s been doing for the past few years,” you have some work to do. I’m not saying you are wrong, just that you are clearly guessing. If you have no idea, I suggest you start with Hasbro’s investor materials. Sure, it’s backward looking but it’s right from the horse’s mouth and they occasionally say something really interesting. Plus, with @time_elemental live-tweeting the earnings call, you have no excuse. On that subject, does this surprise you at all?
There is a saying in finance—they don’t ring a bell at the top. Magic could have peaked today for all we know. We wouldn’t notice it until it had declined somewhat. Any time you are at an all-time high, you are just one bad day away from having peaked. I don’t necessarily think that’s the case and I’m not trying to convince you of it here, but how are you planning to recognize this when it does happen? Then again, maybe this is only the beginning. Maybe Magic goes mainstream with the movie and the action figures and whatever else. Maybe the next generation grows up watching Adventures of the Planeswalkers on Saturday morning. We’ll look back and say, “This was about the time that 4,000 player GP’s started to happen more regularly.” If that is the case, it would be nice to figure it out now. So what would your 2019 self say to you about Magic finance today? Is it, “Get everything, and get a lot of it?” Or is it, “What was Magic finance?” There is a lot of money riding on the answer. Thanks for reading.
4 comments on The View From 10,000 Feet
Well, you’ve certainly given me something to think about. Its hard to imagine that buying all of the magic cards in this moment is a bad thing given how this game has solidified itself in so many peoples lives. Wost case senario you wind up with a bunch of cards you can break out on board game night with your friends, like you would with Dominion or Ascension now.
My question to you is: what happens if every young professional like me who played as a kid and now has disposable income has the same thought? Will that impact the MTG economy? Is that a bad thing? I can’t imagine it is. It would take something monumentally stupid for wizards to ruin Magic. Even then, I know of people who still play with only cards printed pre- 1998, like how people still only play old versions of D&D
I think its nearly impossible to determine a true peak.
I mean right now the game is growing in popularity, but it could obviously turn on a dime. If the game started to take huge hits in popularity though most speculators would likely notice it quicker than most.
From the 2014 Q1 Report:
Games category revenues declined 4% in the quarter. Franchise Brands MAGIC: THE GATHERING and MONOPOLY increased revenues in the quarter. Additionally, revenues grew in several Games Mega Brands, while Action Battling games and DUEL MASTERS, a trading card game, experienced a decline in revenues.
Mtg is partly responsible for the increase over the last 3 months, year over year, for the same quarter that saw the release of Gatecrash, Commander’s Arsenal, and the Holiday Gift Box last year.
Duel masters on the other hand… maybe time to trade for some magic cards.
I’ve only been back in the game for a year and a half and just the growth I’ve seen in that time period makes me think that we’re going to peak soon but there’s a good bit of upward momentum left to expel itself. Just the movement I’ve seen thanks to Modern so far this year – the main thing I’ve put my speculation dollars toward even though I’m basically a Commander player – has me feeling we have a solid year or two of upward trending on these pieces of cardboard, especially if they’re highly viable in that format and Legacy. And even after that I think we’re going to see things plateau for quite a bit, maybe with a slow spot here and there. I don’t think we’re due for a sharp down spike any tim soon with a bubble bursting unless the economy tanks and disposable income goes out the wind. Any reason otherwise and that probably means we may finally be seeing the end of the game. I mean, it has to happen eventually (maybe?) but I think we’re a long way off.
I’m almost 33 and I’m back in because of old memories and grown up disposable income. I imagine many of my peers are in it for the same reason and now they have kids starting to come of the right age to be taught the game and even inherit collections, which kind of blows my mind that is even a thing. That kind of mentality, honestly, is why even though I’m willing to throw some money here and there at “obvious” cards for Modern Growth like the Leonin Arbiters I grabbed at 50 cents a pop and the $1 Grafdigger’s Cages and so on, if there’s anything I’m targeting to sit on it’s some of the Reserve List cards I feel are still pretty underpriced. If for no reason than I end up wanting something for a Commander deck and all of a sudden find out its $50 because it simply hasn’t been reprinted in 20 odd years and I’m willing to put it in a binder now. Stuff like Grim Monolith, or Time Spiral, Humility, Volrath’s Stronghold, etc. If it’s $15-25 now and I can see it being double or triple that in a few years due simply to Commander or Legacy growth (and I feel I have a use for it) I’m snagging them when I can. Dual lands too obviously, but those are getting out of my price range pretty rapidly.