Conducting A Seance

Chas Andres uses one of the most bizarre Magic finance episodes in recent memory to illustrate some very important points about speculation and the myths of card buyouts! If you’re in the Magic finance market or interested in getting involved, this is a can’t-miss!

Once in a while, something happens in the world of Magic finance that is too interesting to ignore.

On Wednesday of last week, an unknown Redditor made a post offering to pay approximately $38,000 in bitcoins to any player qualified for Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch who was willing to pilot a deck built around the card Seance. Considering the fact that the tournament’s top prize is a $40,000 check and second place will only earn you $20,000, this offer (if legitimate) represents a significant EV bump for anyone who accepts it. Indeed, by mid-morning several named pro players replied to the post expressing their interest. By the end of the day, news of the post spread to the rest of Reddit (it was the top post of the week on r/bestof) and the $38k offer was removed due to “legal concerns.”

This is not the first time our anonymous friend has made a bizarre proposition regarding the card Seance. Several months ago, he offered to pay people to burn copies of Seance and email him video proof of their destruction. At the time, Seance was a $0.15 bulk rare, and he was offering between $0.50 and $1 per destroyed card with a total ‘Seance destruction budget’ of $1,200. I have no idea if any of these transactions actually took place, however. I can’t find evidence of anyone who actually took this guy up on his offer, and neither YouTube nor Google could turn up a single confirmed result of a Seance being burned in exchange for either cash or bitcoin.

In descending order of likelihood, then, this is what I expect is happening:

#1) We are being trolled by a chaotic individual in the Magic community who has absurdist sensibilities and no intention of paying anyone a dime.

#2) We are being trolled by someone in the Magic community who has a vested interest in Seance being in the public eye (a speculator with several thousand copies, say) who hopes that these sort of elaborate stunts will raise enough interest in the card to cause a spike and allow him to make a profit. This speculator is banking on the anonymous $38k offer being enough by itself to cause a price spike—there is still no intention of a payout.

#3) A Magic player made a fortune by buying a ton of bitcoin several years ago and has more money than he knows what to do with. For whatever reason, (an unnatural obsession with the card Seance or a very large bet with a rich colleague are the two most likely possibilities) it is worth $38k to this player to see Seance in a deck at the Pro Tour.

#4) A speculator has attempted to corner the Seance market so completely that he is hoping a medium to high Pro Tour finish for the card will allow him to profit on his investment, even after the $38k payout has been made.

It’s very likely that this whole thing is a troll, though we won’t know for sure until the decklists from Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch are made public. Regardless, there’s no action you need to take here. Don’t run out and buy copies of Seance just because a weird person wrote weird stuff about a weird card on a weird internet forum. Seance still has very long odds of breaking out.

That said, this story brings up some really interesting questions. If we assume option #4 is true, how many copies of Seance would this speculator have to have before his operation became profitable? Could a buyout like this ever work? And how high can a card’s price climb on hype and rumor alone, anyway? I don’t know about you, but I’d like to find out.

The Supervillain Scheme

If you wanted to buy all the Seances in the world, what would it take?

There are 38 rares and 12 mythic rares in Dark Ascension, which means that you will open a copy of Seance, on average, once in every 44 packs. That averages out to one in every 1 and 1/6 booster boxes, which is roughly equal to seven copies per case.

How many cases of Dark Ascension were printed? It’s impossible to say—WotC has been tight-lipped on this subject since the mid-nineties, so I don’t have very much to go on. Estimates place old small sets like Exodus and Weatherlight at 180 million cards, so let’s use that as our starting point. There are 3,024 Magic cards in a case, so Seance appears once in every 432 cards. If there were 180 million Dark Ascension cards printed, that would mean that there are 416,666 copies of Seance out there. Modern print runs are probably a bit larger, but Magic was still very popular back in the Weatherlight/ Exodus era, so this number is probably somewhere in the ballpark. Let’s go with 500,000 copies of Seance as an estimate with the understanding that we might be low by several hundred thousand copies.

Of course, these figures ignore the fact that the majority of Seances are totally invisible for our purposes. Competitive players and casual mages who are active in the community are willing to sell or trade cards that they’re not using, but most cards end up seeing play a few times on the kitchen table before being tucked away in a binder or a box in the back of a closet. Packs bought on impulse at big box stores, gifts for kids, forgotten collections, copies that have been destroyed accidentally, cards owned by players who aren’t constantly refreshing this website…Seance could hit $50, and very few of these cards will turn up at dealer’s row during the next Grand Prix. So let’s revise our total slightly to reflect this and estimate that there 200,000 ‘active’ copies of Séance.

If you spend $1,200 destroying copies of Seance at $0.50/card, you’ve eliminated just 0.05% of the total print run and 1.2% of the active print run. You don’t need me to tell you that eliminating one percent of the active print run isn’t going to do much to the price of a card over the long haul.

What about buying up a significant share of the Seance market? Well, there certainly aren’t 200,000 copies available right now, but part of that is because this guy (and other speculators) are snapping up copies left and right. Using another Dark Ascension bulk rare, Flayer of the Hatebound, as a reference point, I came up with about 2,000 copies. This would mean that roughly one percent of the ‘active’ copies of a given three-year-old bulk rare are currently for sale.

My guess is that if you reached out to several of the top dealers and expressed interest in their back stock and product going forward, you could gather up another 10,000 copies without too much difficulty. The endeavor would probably cost you about $0.25/card, for a total investment of about $3,000. In the world of finance, this is not an unrealistically large investment. Thousands of trades much larger than this are made every day on Wall Street.

Even still, that approach would only get you about 6% of the active print run. If you really wanted to control the market, you’d need to approach 100,000 copies…something like half the active print run. At that point, you’d be buying up so many copies of Seance that the market would start to react. SCG has Seance at $0.79, for example, even though it isn’t really used in anything. Even at $0.50/copy, you’d have to have $50k set aside in your Seance fund and you’d have to devote several months at least to buying them up.

This, incidentally, is more proof that the Seance guy on Reddit does not control a major share of the Seance market. The card has spiked a little, and there have been little flurries of buyout activity over the years, but no one has been sucking the market dry for months on end. If someone wanted to accrue something like 100,000 copies of a card, you would notice it happening.

In the interest of both science and fun, however, let’s assume that you’ve made the $50,000 plunge and you own a hundred thousand copies of Seance. Good for you! Now what?

The card will have spiked somewhat based on scarcity, but I doubt it will have broken $2-$3. Seance is an interesting casual card that has some application in W/U or Bant “value creatures” casual decks, but its actual market is very small. I don’t think I’ve traded this card on more than a handful of occasions, and the fact that the returned creatures aren’t granted haste makes this a ‘feel-bad’ for the kitchen table crew. Some people will want copies for their wacky casual brews or their complete sets, but with 100,000 copies still available there are plenty of Seances to go around.

It gets worse. Even if the card’s retail price is $2-$3, you won’t be able to get anywhere near that for all 100,000 copies you have in your closet. Assuming you have a retail or online store, and you’re able to undercut everyone at, say, $1.50 per copy, you’ll only sell through to however many people actual want to buy copies of the card before you’ve re-saturated the market and the price drops back to bulk. And how many of your 100,000 copies will still be in your closet when that happens?

Hence the need for a successful Modern deck. If Seance were to put up a reasonable showing at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, the card would probably hit $10-$12 as Modern brewers rushed to pick up the pieces. If half the active print run were unavailable, however, the card might go to $20 or $25 as people dug deep to uncover their extra copies. At that point, it might be possible to broker deals with several large vendors at once to out a significant portion of your stock at $5-$7 per card. At $5 each, you’d have to sell 10% of your stock to break even. Everything beyond that, even if you were only able to get $0.50 or $1 per card, would be pure profit.

Of course, this doesn’t factor in the $38k offer to the pro player in order to start the hype train rolling. With that factored in, you’d have to sell 18% of your stock at $5 each before breaking even—a much harder proposition, considering that would be nine times as many copies of a rare as there usually are on the market at any given time. In order to keep from immediately saturating the market, you would probably have to dole out your supply very carefully over a period of several months. And if the Seance deck doesn’t continue putting up results, you run the risk of your demand completely drying up.

And, of course, this is assuming that the $38,000 Seance payout would even lead to a winning deck. After all, the payout isn’t attached to any kind of performance bonus, so the player could lose every game and still collect. Assuming someone really wanted to pay $38,000 to get Seance at the top tables of the Pro Tour, he’d have much better luck making it a well-publicized contest where anyone who makes the Top 8 of a Pro Tour with a sufficiently Seance-based deck is entitled to an independent $38,000 prize. That way, you’d only have to pay out if your gambit worked. You could also play the number game, sponsoring multiple lower-level grinders to play Seance at a Modern Grand Prix and hope that one of them made it far enough up the ladder to garner the necessary community attention.

This also implies that the reason Seance isn’t currently a Modern-playable card has more to do with the fact that no one has tried hard enough to make the deck work than the fact that it just isn’t a good enough card to see play in Modern right now. A quick look in the SCG deck database tells me that Seance isn’t some borderline playable on the cusp of breaking out…it’s completely irrelevant.

Seance is a combo card, though, so it will always hold a tantalizing amount of promise. Why couldn’t you build around Reveillark, Thragtusk, and Siege Rhino? Why not loop Mulldrifter and Fulminator Mage? Or put in a package with Griselbrand and Unburial Rites? That’s part of what makes this Seance story so compelling—if you squint hard enough, you can see a Modern staple ready to take off.

The Power of the Single Speculator

How much power can any one person have over the market?

Players who are unfamiliar with Magic finance give writers like me far too much credit for influencing the market. It makes sense from afar, because the correlation is easy to see: I talk about a card I think is going to go up in price, and lo and behold, it is far more expensive two or three days later. How did I do it?

What isn’t as easy to see are all the external factors. I don’t make my calls by looking at gatherer a bunch while scratching my chin and tilting my head—I’m reading forums, talking to people on Twitter, monitoring decklists, and seeing which cards are selling through on the major sites and at Opens and Grand Prix. Most of my job is aggregating and presenting information that already exists. I make obscure calls from time to time, but most days I’m just pointing out market trends that already exist. I have some influence—hundreds of people read my column and some of them will use my advice to buy cards—but that’s a drop in the 200,000-card bucket. For the most part, I have as much power to control the price of a card as the meteorologist on CNN does to control the weather.

I know this because I have a box in my closet full of cards that I’ve talked up in my articles but have never gone up in price. I rarely speculate these days—I may not have much control over the market, but I do have some, and I don’t want my own stash of cards to affect my bias when making calls—but I do buy cards from time to time so that I can speak intelligently and from experience about the topic. If all a card needed to rise in price was my seal of approval, Daybreak Ranger would have made me money. And Nivmagus Elemental, and Duskmantle Seer, and Scarblade Elite, and Seshiro the Anointed, and Kuldotha Forgemaster, and Sylvan Safekeeper, and…you know what? Maybe I should stop speculating on creatures.

And it’s not just the Magic finance community. Brian Kibler, one of the top five or ten most influential Magic players in the world, couldn’t influence the game enough to cause Daybreak Ranger to become a staple during Innistrad block. Even Patrick Chapin, the most influential deckbuilder in the world, cannot spike a card by himself. An exciting article from one of these guys might cause a small run on a card, and the price might rise by a buck or two, but at the end of the day it’s all about results. Cards that win go up in price. Cards that lose do not.

Ultimately, that is the lesson you should take away from the Seance story. The card might rise in price a little as people try to make the deck work in Modern, and it might look from afar like one rogue bitcoin millionaire has made the market move all by himself, but that’s just smoke and mirrors. At the end of the day, Seance won’t be worth money unless the deck is actually good. When it comes to analyzing a spec, ignore the hype and focus on results. Bet on the fundamentals and it’ll be hard to lose.

This Week’s Trends

Wastes and Kozilek, the Great Distortion have been confirmed! I’ll cover these cards in detail when I get to my Oath of the Gatewatch set review, but let’s talk a little about them now.

Kozilek will be one of the two or three most expensive cards in Oath of the Gatewatch. It’s hard to cast, but the fact that it draws you a bunch of cards, has pseudo-evasion, and allows you to turn your extra ramp spells into counterspells will be enough to give it a place alongside Ulamog in the Eldrazi Ramp decks. It’ll probably start around $25 and end up in the $15-$20 range.

Wastes could have a higher initial value than the other full-art lands because it will only be printed in Oath of the Gatewatch, but I doubt there will be much long-term use for Wastes beyond colorless Commander decks and a few niche kitchen table brews. If you want to buy these, get foils. The Raymond Swanland version will probably be especially stunning in foil.

Wastes will be in the common slot—not the land slot—in OGW, so you’ll actually have to draft them and it won’t cut down on the number of full-art lands you’ll get in OGW packs. They will be in the OGW fat pack land pack, though, so the BFZ fat pack should still be worth slightly more than its OGW counterpart.

– I had thought that the Mystic Gate leak would turn out to be true once the new colorless mana symbol was confirmed, but that looks less likely after the weekend spoiling of Ancient Tomb and Forbidden Orchard expeditions. The entire OGW expedition cycle may be ‘individual’ lands other than the enemy color Battle Lands. Remember: expeditions must be able to be re-drawn and re-positioned on Zendikar from a flavor perspective. A card like Wasteland? Totally possible. A card like Urza’s Power Plant? Not so much.

– If the filter lands do show up, by the way, expect them to be worth about as much as the expedition shocklands. They’re less relevant in Modern, but non-foil copies are much more scarce since they haven’t seen print since Shadowmoor block.

Aluren has spiked again, which makes sense after its fine showing at #GPSeaTac last month. This has happened before, though I suspect it’ll stick a little better this time around—Aluren is a very good Commander card, and reserved list rares are always worth a second look. I doubt Legacy interest alone is enough to sustain its spike, though—you need four copies of Imperial Recruiter to play the deck, so real-world competitive demand is very limited.

Ugin, the Spirit Dragon has finally peaked and begun to drop, which means that the only Standard cards trending upward right now are Part the Waterveil and Painful Truths. As I said last week, this is the best time of the year to buy Standard cards. If you have any spare cash and a hankering for Magic’s most popular format, you might want to make an order before the holidays.

– Modern is actually showing some signs of life, with Crucible of Worlds, Glimmervoid, Auriok Champion, Ensnaring Bridge, and Oboro, Palace in the Clouds all getting a little frisky. Blood Moon and Magus of the Moon are trending upward online, but paper Magic prices haven’t started following yet. Magic Online always tends to be a little big ahead of the game, so expect those two to start trending upward over the next few weeks. Just like with Standard, now is the best time of the year to buy Modern staples. If you’ve been holding off on buying that playset of Scapeshifts or whatever, now is the time.