Insider Trading – How Wizards is Tanking the Value of Promo Cards

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Thursday, October 23rd – In lieu of giving out money as prizes, Wizards hands out Promotional Cards for any number of occasions. Attend the Shards of Alara Prerelease, get a foil Ajani Vengeant! Judge a high level event and Wizards will compensate you with shiny Yawgmoth’s Wills and Decree of Justices! Heck, just by playing in enough matches you get a textless foil Cryptic Command! If Wizards is picking all of the right cards, why are the values of these cards going all wrong? Find out in today’s Insider Trading!

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Insider Trading, the column where yours truly comes to recuperate after getting a tetanus shot late in the wee nights of Saturday Night/Sunday Morning in a Kansas City emergency room. Memo to myself: Don’t leave my pants in the middle of the room ever again, where I might accidentally step on the pointy part of my belt buckle, driving it fully into the fleshy part of the middle of my foot. Does not make for fun times. Does make for much pain!

Speaking of pain, it’s been painful to see how Promo cards are being handled by Wizards of the Coast these days. Some years ago, I wrote an article about the state of Promo cards in Magic – you can find that article here. Reader’s Digest version of that article – pre-2004 FNM cards were haphazardly good/bad choices at best, the program got much better once Aaron Forsythe was given more reign to put input into which cards were made into promos and which weren’t (though honestly, don’t know who is directly in charge of that right now!), and White has a very suspiciously low count of cards worth being made into foils (i.e. highly desired White cards). So where are we now? First, let’s look at what’s going right with Foils. Start it on a high note!


FNM Foils

January: Firebolt
February: Deep Analysis
March: Gerrard’s Verdict
April: Basking Rootwalla
May: Wonder
June: Goblin Legionnaire
July: Engineered Plague
August: Goblin Ringleader
September: Wing Shards
October: Cabal Coffers
November: Roar of the Wurm
December: Force Spike

The 2007 crop of foils were all Extended Common/Uncommon mainstays. Goblin Ringleader, Engineered Plague, Force Spike, and Cabal Coffers are the stand-outs here, with only Wing Shards being an unfortunate choice. Every card on this list (except Wing Shards) has seen a good amount of play, and given the lead time on selecting FNM foils, 11 out of 12 is very good! As a general rule: the better the foil, the more overall attendance you’ll get at your FNM.

January: Remand
February: Tormod’s Crypt
March: Eternal Witness
April: Tendrils of Agony
May: Pendelhaven
June: Resurrection
July: Wall of Roots
August: Desert
September: Thirst for Knowledge
October: Serrated Arrows
November: Isochron Scepter
December: Shrapnel Blast

I will say this now: 2008 was the best year for FNM foils in the program’s history. Part of this is due to the introduction of alternate-art foils – instead of reprinting mainstays with old artwork, all twelve cards on this list were printed with new artwork! Not only that, but the cards chosen were all highly desired cards except for, you guessed it, the White card (Resurrection), and Serrated Arrows. The other ten cards on this list were not only mainstays of Extended, but were some of the higher dollar Uncommons in the format! This is the zenith of the Friday Night Magic program so far. I hope that this trend continues (high-demand Extended Uncommons/Commons with alternate artwork), because it has helped the cards retain value (moreso than previous FNM foils), and has helped boost overall FNM attendance (anecdotally).

Player Rewards Cards

Textless Foil:
2006/2007: Wrath of God
2007/2008: Damnation
2008/2009: Cryptic Command

Textless Non-Foil
2006/2007: Condemn, Mortify, Psionic Blast, Cruel Edict, Disenchant, Recollect
2007/2008: Tidings, Incinerate, Mana Tithe, Harmonize, Ponder, Corrupt
2008/2009: Flame Javelin, Unmake

Overall, a good selection of cards. Psionic Blast ended up being poor, because the value of the regular version of Psionic Blast was already going in the tank because of disuse when the textless version was released, and that just drove the value of Psionic Blast straight into the ground that much faster. Recollect and Mana Tithe were complete misses, and Tidings/Cruel Edict both came about a year too late. Disenchant and Corrupt were good guesses, but didn’t end up panning out. The other cards – Condemn, Mortify, Incinerate, Harmonize, Ponder, Flame Javelin, and Unmake – were all good cards to give out as rewards. Wrath of God/Damnation/Cryptic Command were all excellent as well, so Wizards was 3/3 for the high-end card, and 8/14 on the lower-end cards (I’ll count Psionic Blast as a win, because Wizards had their heart in the right place), for a total of 11/17 on Player Rewards cards. These cards are pure value added; you get them simply from playing sanctioned matches. As long as the foil textless card isn’t a complete tank, bravo for Player Rewards cards! Plus, Wrath/Damnation/Cryptic Command are a lot better than Powder Keg/Psychatog/Hypnotic Specter.

Pro Tour Foils

2007: Eternal Dragon
2008: Mirari’s Wake

Both of these were middle-of-the-road high-end rares (if you get my meaning), not too exciting and both past their prime. Both still have a group of core adherents, and both were given out in small enough quantities that the market was not flooded. These seem fine, because they are essentially participation prizes as a strict value-added, and not as much as an ‘entice you to come play’ (we’ll get to those in a moment).


Grand Prix Participation Cards

2007: Spiritmonger
2008: Call of the Herd

Wow, these were both a mess – in both cases, Wizards picked a card that might have been good in their heyday, but certainly weren’t going to draw people in just to get the cards. Call of the Herd was particularly bad, because the card was completely wrecked once Garruk Wildspeaker saw print, and at this point is hovering on life support barely above bulk-rare price! There are/will be 21 Grand Prix around the world this year. Let’s say that each event averages 600 players (which, I believe, is a low estimate given 1800 in Paris, 1100 in Indy, and 750 in Kansas City). That means at least 12,600 foil Call of the Herds will be given out by the time GP: Auckland finishes up in early December. This is pretty much a flood on the market for a card that nobody cares about!

Think about this past weekend alone. Every player who got one in Paris or Kansas City is likely to do one of four courses of action: save their Call of the Herd, sell it to a dealer on-site, trade it away, or sell it on their own afterwards. Imagine their surprise when they find out that A) the dealers have hundreds of people trying to sell them the same Call of the Herd – which the dealers then really don’t want to buy, because they still haven’t moved through their (potentially) hundreds of Call of the Herds from Grand Prixs over the past few months, B) the market overall is flooded because everyone is selling these at once, and C) nobody really even wants Call of the Herd to begin with!

I have a solution to the Grand Prix Participation problem that I think is simple, and elegant. Each year, print three different GP: Participation foils, and designate each one to a region: One for Asia/Australia, one for Europe, and one for North/South America. Only give out that foil in that region. For instance (and I’m just pulling cards out of a hat here), give out foil Elvish Champion to people at North/South American Grand Prix, give out foil Lord of the Undead to players at European Grand Prix, and give out foil Lord of Atlantis at Asian/Australian Grand Prixs. Do not cross-pollinate the foils. Regionally, you can’t avoid a depression on a price when you’re continually handing out thousands of the same foil year-round at events. Internationally, however, players would place a premium value on the two foils given out to players outside their region! This would globally inflate the value of Grand Prix participation foils, because it would be harder (but not overly difficult) to acquire cards from outside your region, and you would be cutting down the available number of any given Grand Prix foil by 2/3rds of their print run (because each region would only need approximately a third of the print run of the Spiritmonger or Call of the Herd). The higher value the participation card is for Grand Prix, the more of a factor that card becomes in whether someone attends a Grand Prix or not.

Judge Foils

1998: Gaea’s Cradle, Lightning Bolt, Stroke of Genius
2000: Counterspell, Vampiric Tutor
2001: Ball Lightning, Hammer of Bogardan, Oath of Druids, Tradewind Rider
2003: Argothian Enchantress, Intuition, Living Death
2004: Armageddon, Balance, Deranged Hermit, Hermit Druid, Phyrexian Negator, Time Warp
2005: Gemstone Mine, Mishra’s Factory, Regrowth, Sol Ring
2006: Exalted Angel, Grim Lavamancer, Meddling Mage, Pernicious Deed
2007: Cunning Wish, Decree of Justice, Ravenous Baloth, Vindicate, Yawgmoth’s Will
2008: Demonic Tutor, Goblin Piledriver, Mind’s Desire, Orim’s Chant

Then we get to judge foils. Oh boy, where do I start? This is the reason I got the idea to write this article to begin with – the sorry, sorry state of the judge foil program. A little background: at the Pro Tour, Grand Prix, and Nationals levels events, judges are compensated for their time and efforts with a set of foil Promo cards unique to the Judge Foil pool. For instance, if you worked a Grand Prix, you might be given a Judge Foil Vampiric Tutor, Judge Foil Oath of Druids, Judge Foil Living Death, Judge Foil Deranged Hermit, Judge Foil Sol Ring, 2x Judge Foil Meddling Mage, 2x Judge Foil Decree of Justice, Judge Foil Orim’s Chant, and Judge Foil Goblin Piledriver for your work that weekend.

This is usually instead of direct financial compensation; essentially, your pay is in the judge cards. Sometimes, judges are given partial sponsorship to these events (airfare, hotels rooms). Occasionally, a judge will be fully sponsored and receive both. For those partially sponsored, or not sponsored at all, these judge foils are often the way that judges end up either breaking even, or making a little money for working an event.

As you’ll look over the above list, you’ll notice that the majority of these cards are, in fact, very good cards. Unlike the FNM program (where each card has a previously-existing foil version), several Judge Foil cards do not exist in foil outside of the Judge Foil version – of note, Lightning Bolt, Gaea’s Cradle, Vampiric Tutor, Oath of Druids, Intuition, Armageddon, Balance, Mishra’s Factory, Sol Ring, Yawgmoth’s Will, and Demonic Tutor. Other cards are alternate-art versions of the most in-demand cards from Extended (or at least, Extended as it existed at the time) – Grim Lavamancer, Exalted Angel, Meddling Mage, Pernicious Deed, Cunning Wish, Decree of Justice, Ravenous Baloth, Vindicate, Goblin Piledriver, and Orim’s Chant.

Great! So judges are “paid” with judge foils at high-level events, and these foils are almost entirely high-desired playables or even more highly-desired never-been-foiled staples. Isn’t this a recipe for winning? And yes, if that was all there was to it, I’d agree 100%! However…

(And you knew a however was coming…)

Did you notice how I listed every judge foil back to 1998? That is because, to this day, Wizards of the Coast is still drawing on the entire pool of judge foils to give out at events. That’s right – right alongside your shiny new foil Orim’s Chant from 2008, you can just as likely end up with a Hammer of Bogardan, Living Death, or Intuition. Over the course of dozens of Grand Prixs, Pro Tours, and Nationals each year, these cards have never left circulation – some for going on a decade — thus you tend to completely run down the value of these cards! There are three types of players to whom the Judge foils appeal to:

1) Collectors who want one of everything – and they’re only going to need, of course, one of any given foil you’ve got.

2) Vintage/Legacy/Extended players who want to foil out their deck. If they’re getting a restricted card (Yawgmoth’s Will, Sol Ring, Balance, Demonic Tutor), they again will only need one copy of the card. Otherwise, they’re probably going to need threesies or foursies of any given card.

3) EDH/Singleton/casual players: Those who, like the tournament players, want to foil out their deck, but again only need a single copy of any given card.

Average Joe Q. Magic player does not want a foil card – most casual players prefer to play with non-foil versions of a card rather than a foil version. This is for a couple of reason, but primarily because foils cost more (due to rarity) than non-foils. The average Magic player wants the most affordable, playable version of a card they can get their hands on, with certain quirks; some like only NM versions of a card, some only want black-bordered, but generally, they would rather go for a 10th Edition Adarkar Wastes than spring double that amount for a foil version. The average tournament player is interested in Standard (for FNM, States, Regionals, and occasionally a PTQ season or a $5,000 StarCityGames.com Open), so these Extended, Vintage, and Legacy judge cards don’t appeal to those players.

These cards are meant to appeal to the type of player who has a deeper wallet – and that isn’t to say that all EDH, Vintage, or Legacy players have deeper wallets, but if you’re willing to foil out your entire deck, chances are you have a little bit more money to throw around than the average FNM player. In general though, these players are only competing against three specific demographics to buy these judge foils – the ones listed above (and of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but I’ve found that the people who purchase rarer Promo foils generally fall into one of those three categories). This is a limited pool of players, generally who all only need a singleton of any given card, and might already have a foil version of that card (if it’s a reprinted Extended staple), but who have deeper pockets than the average player.

Instead of rationing out the number of copies of any given card given out to Judges, and instead of giving an absolute retirement to any given Judge foil after a certain time of service, Wizards has flooded an already shallow market for Judge foils with too many copies of each card for the market to bear. You’d think I’m kidding, except check the prices of those Extended-Alternate Art judge foils. Almost without exception, the Judge foil version is selling a comparable amount to the original foil version of that card! Let me compare a few:

Cunning Wish: Original = $25. Judge Version = $22.50
Decree of Justice: Judge Version = $15. Original = $12.50
Exalted Angel: $30 for Both
Goblin Piledriver: Original = $30. Judge Version = $25
Grim Lavamancer: Original = $20. Judge Version = $12.50
Meddling Mage: Original = $30. Judge Version = $20
Mind’s Desire: Judge Version = $30. Original = $10
Orim’s Chant: Original = $50. Judge Version = $30
Pernicious Deed: Original = $40. Judge Version = $20
Ravenous Baloth: Original = $8. Judge Version = $7.50
Vindicate: $30 for Both
# where Original > Judge Version: 7
# where Values are equal : 2
# where Judge Version > Original: 2

Moreover, I can tell you that the trend on prices for judge foils is straight downwards! Once a set is printed, and people open their initial packs and draft the set for a year, that’s it for the population of that foil in existence. Sure, there may be a hundred foil Orim’s Chants sitting in unopened Planeshift boxes across the country, but nobody is opening those boxes anytime soon. Conversely, Wizards is putting the judge foil version of that same card into circulation with each and every event, and shows no sign of cutting off the supply of that foil over the long term (remember – we’re talking about having a chance of getting decade-old foils still!).

The choice of Vintage/Legacy judge foils has been fine, but some of the Extended picks have been really, really questionable as of late. Mind’s Desire was not a high-desire foil, and all seven of the non-Vintage promos from 2007 and 2008 (100%!) were scheduled to rotate out of Extended in 2008 at time of printing. Four were saved by the change in Extended rotation policy, but publically these were cards given out with sometimes less than a year of life in them!

The Judge Foil program, frankly, is a mess right now. The wrong cards are being printed, the cards flooding the market disproportionate to demand (realistically, a judge foil version of a card should be worth equal to or more than a publically-available foil version from a pack), and there is every sign that the overpopulation problem for judge foils is not going away, because of how far back the foils handed out go, chronologically.

In order to tackle this problem, you’d need to completely rethink your philosophy, as Wizards of the Coast, about how to handle judge foils. Personally, if I were in charge, here’s what I would do:

1) Reduce the individual number of foils handed out to judges. At any event, a judge would only get one copy of any given card – they would never be given two copies (or more) of any single, unique card.

2) Reduce the total number of foils handed out to judges. This is a ‘more is less’ philosophy – if judge foils were hard to get for collectors/players, there would be a higher demand for them, proportional to how hard it is to get that foil. Right now, Demonic Tutor is the hard foil to get, and it’s in the $100 range. Once it becomes more widely available, it’ll probably tank to the $25-$30 range that Yawgmoth’s Will, Sol Ring, and Balance have gone to. There is a firm precedent for this. If judges were handed out a smaller number of foils, and drawn from the same pool (so they may get 3/6 new foils, instead of 6/6), this would again drive rarity, demand, and prices upwards. Again, look at Demonic Tutor – hard to get right now, and the price is certainly more than double any other current judge foil.

3) Burn the old judge foils after “X” years in circulation. Is this two years? Three years? Either way, set a lifespan for the season of a judge foil, and then burn them. Seriously – have a bonfire. Keep a couple dozen copies for promotional events (like a once-a-year Vintage championship, or Super-FNM at worlds), and put the rest in a big ol’ bonfire and light the kerosene. Even if you don’t plan on giving them out again, there have been unfortunate ‘incidents’ of large stacks of promo cards finding their way out of Wizards and tanking the value of that card (or causing a card to be released a decade after-the-fact, see Crystalline Sliver), so remove temptation – get rid of those excess cards, and preserve the value of the cards to your judges.

4) Improve the foils being handed out. You’re willing to foil out the best cards in your game -either make them more current (so they aren’t rotating out and losing demand from Group #2), or focus more on cards that will appeal to the EDH/Vintage/Legacy crowd. Foil out higher-end cards that have never been foiled before with more frequency – seriously, you’re only doing 5-6 cards a year, and I could draw you up a list of at least a two decade’s worth of cards you could realistically foil from sets pre-Urza’s Legacy.

Judge foils are the way that most judges are paying their own costs for attending high-level Magic events. If you ensure that the cards they are getting as ‘payment’ have a high value (and as Wizards, you completely control this – nobody else turns ‘on’ or ‘off’ the faucet in this case), you A) have happier judges, and B) ensure that the good judges who come to your events can, at the least, make enough money to pay for their own gas/flight or hotel stay (or both) at an event where, other than judge foils, they are generally unpaid volunteers.

The Ugly

Ajani Vengeant Prerelease/Release card
Reya Dawnbringer 10th Edition Release Party card

But as they say, I’m out of time and out of space this week, so we’ll take a long, hard look at the Ugly, and revisit the state of a few other Promotional Card programs Wizards of the Coast has, in a future edition of Insider Trading. See you in seven days as I sort out the aftermath of the largest pre-States Standard tournament in the world (the StarCityGames.com Standard $5,000 Open in Richmond, VA this weekend), and tell you which cards are going to rise in value, and which will drop based on the setting of the Standard metagame. See you in seven!


(As always, please feel free to comment in the forums or e-mail Ben at [email protected] with any feedback!)