Insider Trading – The Cost of Cards: Mr. Bleiweiss goes to Washington (Part 2 of 3)

SCG Open Richmond!

Friday, February 19th – On January 18th of this year, Wizards of the Coast brought Ben to their headquarters for an important meeting regarding the Reserved List. In today’s edition of Insider Trading, find out what was discussed at that meeting, Ben’s thoughts about the recent clarification of the Reserved List policy, and how this all relates to the cost of Magic cards!

Disclaimer: In this article, I discuss a lot of my ideas about reprint strategies for Magic: The Gathering. If you are a Wizards of the Coast employee or affiliate, I freely give you permission to use any of the ideas in this article, with no reservations.

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Insider Trading! This is part two of three in my series examining the rising cost of Magic Singles. In the first part (which you can find here), I discussed the reasons why some Magic singles have been rising in price drastically over the past year – particularly Legacy and EDH staples. If you haven’t already, you should also check out the forum discussion for that article – at the time of writing this article, it was 100 posts strong, with a ton of great community discussion!

A few weeks ago, Aaron Forsythe contacted me regarding a meeting that he wanted me to attend at the Wizards of the Coast headquarters. I wasn’t told the topic for this meeting, but we arranged for me to be in the offices on January 18th – at which point I would sign an NDA, be debriefed on the subject matter at-hand, and then have meetings with people across several departments at Wizards of the Coast.

There were three “outsiders” that were brought in for this meeting: myself, Stephen Menendian, and Eric Reasoner. The main meeting was scheduled for the afternoon, and I spent the early part of the day discussing my thoughts about some of the ancillary Magic products (Duel Decks, Planechase, Intro Packs, etc) with a couple of Wizards employees. We broke for lunch, and then the big meeting began – a meeting with us three consultants, and about a dozen people from Wizards, about the Reserved List.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Reserved List, here’s a quick rundown – in the wake of Chronicles and 4th Edition, there was a lot of collector backlash about the devaluation of Magic cards due to reprints. Wizards of the Coast made up a list of cards that they said they would not reprint – and over the years, this list has been shortened, amended, and made to never include cards past Urza’s Destiny. I’ve wrote an in-depth article about the Reserved List just over a year ago, which you can find here.

So what happened during that meeting? While I can’t discuss all of the specifics, there was an earnest discussion about the Reserved List, the role it serves, and how it will be approached going forward. Wizards had brought in me, Steve, and Eric to hear their thoughts, and in turn hear ours – so I want to be clear that in no way, shape, or form were the three of us directly affecting policy. However, more than a couple of the people in that meeting directly attributed my initial Reserved List article to opening the minds to discussing the Reserved List – so as far as I’m concerned, it’s a step in the right direction.

This past Monday, Wizards of the Coast published the following message on their Community Forums.

“Some of you might be surprised to see Phyrexian Negator. It is true that while we’ve been able to make premium versions of cards on the reserved list, we’ve so far only used them for promotional purposes (Negator was a judge promo, for example). We’ve taken a look at our special products and feel that we can create a better game experience for you by taking this step. How cool would it have been if Sliver Queen was in the Premium Deck Series?? Don’t worry that we’ve lost our minds. When From the Vault: Relics comes out, you won’t see these cards: (Picture of Black Lotus and the five Unlimited Moxen), but you will see this (Picture of From the Vault: Relics Masticore).”

We weren’t sure exactly what Wizards was going to do following the meeting, other than that was going to be an announcement about the Negator foil (and potentially the Reserved List, as a whole) in early February. The announcement ended up being a clarification of the foil/premium policy in regards to the Reserved List – but one that has big implications.

The following is my opinion about the Reserved List. It does not reflect the opinions, thoughts, or future plans of Wizards of the Coast, or any of their employees.

The Reserved List is effectively dead. I say “effectively,” because at this time Wizards of the Coast has clarified the policy to allow the reprinting of premium cards for retail products (as opposed to printing them as give-aways for their judge program). For my own part? I wish that Wizards would have just gone ahead and done away with the Reserved List entirely. It is nothing but a blight on the game, and one that long outlived its purpose.

The number one argument for keeping the Reserved List in place is that “Wizards of the Coast made a promise to the community to not reprint a certain list of cards, and people would lose consumer confidence in Wizards if this list was abolished.” The number two argument is “if a lot of older, valuable cards are suddenly reprinted, the value of Magic cards will plummet!” I have several arguments against these points of view:

1. Just because Wizards can reprint a card, does not mean that they will reprint a card. For example, every Uncommon and Common in Magic’s history can currently be reprinted, along with every Rare and Mythic from Mercadian Masques forward. For nearly sixteen years, Wizards of the Coast has retained the rights to reprint Mana Drain. Wizards of the Coast has not reprinted Mana Drain anytime in those sixteen years. Why? Because the people within Wizards have a pretty good idea of what would or would not be healthy to reprint – whether in a current set release so that card is Standard Legal, or as a usable card in a box-set format (Duel Deck card, for instance). Wizards went out of their way in this announcement to tell people not to suddenly expect a Black Lotus reprint. I wouldn’t expect a Black Lotus reprint in a Reserved List-free world any more than I expected Mana Drain to be reprinted in the current Magic world.

2. Wizards of the Coast has already “broken” the Reserved List several times with various Judge foils – Intuition (2003); Survival of the Fittest (2009); Gaea’s Cradle (1998); Deranged Hermit (2004); Phyrexian Negator (2004); Karn, Silver Golem (Arena League, 1999); and Powder Keg (as a Player Reward mass-mailing in 2004!) have already seen reprint without very much of an outcry from the community. People have not been up-in-arms about these foils for over a decade now! Yes, most of these are judge foils – but Powder Keg was widely distributed as a Player Reward mailing, so a large number of these were put into circulation.

3. More often than not, reprinting long-out-of-circulation Magic cards has resulted in a rise in the value of all versions of that card, rather than a drop in price! Savannah Lions and Paladin en-Vec (8th Edition), Gemstone Mine (Time Spiral), Reflecting Pool (Shadowmoor), Time Warp (M10) are just some examples of this phenomenon .

4. On the flip side of #3, it is a widely-accepted fact that the majority of Standard-legal cards will see a drastic drop in value when they rotate out of Standard, because they are no longer playable in the majority of formats. It is equally important to note that while they do initially drop in value, a large number of these cards rise in value over time as they see play in Extended/Legacy/Vintage. Case-in-point: Ravnica Shocklands, Engineered Explosives, Dark Confidant, Chrome Mox, Rite of Flame, Onslaught Fetch Lands – all of these cards had a big drop in value once they rotated out of Standard, and over time have risen back to (or past) their Standard-legal high-value.

I bring this up because I believe that reprints of Legacy/EDH staples would follow a similar cycle over time – initially the value of certain cards would be brought down in value by reprints (due to a larger supply), but that over time these cards would be absorbed from the community, and the price would rise again. Not only this, but once the more expensive cards in a Legacy deck are reprinted, people would be more open to buying the lower-dollar cards from that deck – which in turn would begin to rise in price, and would eventually be reprinted once demand/price was high enough.

Let’s us the 43-Land deck in Legacy as an example. Right now, The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale is pushing $300, making it prohibitive for someone to play the optimal build of 43-Lands. Let’s say that Wizards of the Coast reprints The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, and the value of the card drops to $50. While Tabernacle itself would have dropped significantly in price, every other card in the deck would rise in price, because now people would be able to affordably build the deck for tournament play. Eventually, the most key cards in the deck might hit $50 (Exploration is a good candidate). Manabond might hit $20-$25. The total value of the deck would remain relatively constant over time, so the people who already own the cards for the deck – they might be losing value in one piece of the deck, but they will gain value in other places. Over time, other cards from the deck might be reprinted (to drop their value), but the reprint of Tabernacle will dry up – so in turn, it will go up in value again.

5. Collectors will still want the original versions of the card to complete their collections. When From the Vault: Exiled was printed, Berserk took a slight dip in value (nothing drastic), but the fact remained – if you wanted to make an Alpha/Beta/Unlimited complete set, you still needed an Alpha/Beta/Unlimited Berserk to complete that set, and the From The Vault version of Berserk did you no good on that front. No matter how many more versions of a card are printed, there are still only a finite (and never-increasing) number of the original (or earlier) versions of that card available.

People are worried about an abolishment of the Reserved List “bursting the bubble” of card values, which would bring a catastrophic collapse of the Magic economy. However, the primary reason for the drastic rise in value of Standard/Legacy/Extended cards in recent years has been due to players playing with the cards (and the demand that comes with that), and not because of collectability. Have you noticed that Vintage-only staples have been stagnant in price for a couple of years now (Moxen, Black Lotus, Mishra’s Workshop), except for the MINT versions of the cards needed for complete sets? That is because, for better or for worse, Vintage is too expensive for most people to afford. Vintage had a big resurgence in the mid-2000’s, but too many people didn’t get into the format because of the barrier of cost of entry, and in turn the format slowly bled out players over the course of years.

In essence, the bubble “burst” on Vintage, because while Legacy and EDH staples like Force of Will and Wasteland have doubled in price, there has been no such increase for Vintage. Legacy is going through a growth spurt right now, but the values of some of the cards in the format are getting prohibitive – enough so to be a genuine concern for the cost-of-entry into the format. Without reprints, the bubble will eventually burst on Legacy – the growth of people playing Legacy will slow down, and the number of people leaving the format (due to cost, natural cycle of leaving the game of Magic, or any other reason) will exceed the number of people coming joining that format. In time, card values will begin to drop or stagnate as people leave the format, causing long-term card devaluation.

When faced with two choices: short-term card devaluation through reprints that encourages growth-over-time through long-term format health (or even, health for the entire game of Magic by not pricing people out of the game), or long-term card devaluation through lack or reprints (by pricing people out of Magic), I’ll choose the former every single time.

I am wholeheartedly in favor of getting rid of the Reserved List, and reprinting higher-dollar, staple cards from EDH and Legacy. Pete Hoefling, the owner of StarCityGames.com, agrees with my point of view as well. We both believe that this would benefit the long-term health of the game, and that any temporary drop in value of specific cards would be balanced out by the increased interest in older cards and formats, and a cyclical rise-in-value/reprinting of cards as needed.

I never, ever want to see a card banned in any format because of price. I mentioned this in the forums of last week’s article, but it bears repeating: banning due to price is a slippery slope, and one that can be manipulated by external forces. If cards were banned due to price in Legacy, unscrupulous individuals could affect the entire metagame by offering ridiculously high buy/sell prices on specific cards they wanted to see banned. Any external factor to the actual gameplay within a format should not play a factor in whether or not a card is allowed to be played within that format.

So for now, Wizards of the Coast can technically reprint any card in Magic’s history, as long as it’s a premium version of that card. And here’s where I’ll make the Tarmogoyf argument:

Tarmogoyf is a future shifted card.
Tarmogoyf is not a card on the Reserved List.
Tarmogoyf is pushing towards $100.

If Wizards were to reprint Tarmogoyf – be it in a Dual Deck, a Core Set, an Expansion set, or through any other mass-market product, the price of Tarmogoyf would drop from its current $90-$100 level. However, the people are buying Tarmogoyfs at their current price level ($90-$100ish) despite the fact that Tarmogoyf can be reprinted at any time, for any reason! There is no difference between Tarmogoyf and a card like Moat, except that one is on the Reserved List, and one is not – but yet Tarmogoyf continues to rise in value, and people continue to buy Tarmogoyf, because they need/want Tarmogoyf to play with. So in essence, the only difference between Moat and Tarmogoyf is that some people would be upset if Wizards reprinted Moat because Wizards made a Reserved List nearly a decade ago, even though the result of a reprint of both Moat and Tarmogoyf would likely be identical in operation.

One thing to note about reprinting any Magic card – you don’t need to reprint it in a Standard-legal set. Duel Decks, From the Vault box sets, Planechase, and other pre-packaged products can safely reprint higher-power-level cards for non-Standard play, in a tournament-legal form (see: Fact or Fiction, Fireblast in the Jace vs. Chandra Duel Deck, Demonic Tutor in the Divine vs. Demonic Duel Deck). While I don’t think we’ll see Tarmogoyf anytime soon in a Standard-legal set, it’d be great to see it in a box-set/reprint-type product.

So let’s say that under the clarification of the reprint policy, Wizards decides that they want to reprint the original Dual Lands, but in a non-Standard-legal format (Badlands, Bayou, Plateau, Savannah, Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author], Taiga, Tropical Island, Tundra, Underground Sea, Volcanic Island). There are several ways that they could get these cards into circulation – some which are already being done, and some that are ideas of my own.

1) Reprints in Duel Decks/Premium Deck: Slivers type products

Advantage: Duel Decks and Premium Decks are widely available, so they would enable these older cards to hit a large number of players.

Disadvantage: You wouldn’t be able to reprint all of these cards at once, without making a product that has an MSRP extremely disproportionate to the cards contained therein. I also don’t think you could justify putting all ten Dual Lands in a single Duel Deck – though printing maybe a Dual Land per Duel Deck (for instance, Plateau in an Ajani Vengeant deck) would alleviate this problem.

2) Reprints in From the Vault/Judge Foil type products

Advantage: Would get more copies of a card into circulation.

Disadvantage: Probably enough to keep the cards from continuing to rise in value exponentially, but not enough to bring the values down to a more manageable level for pre-existing copies of the cards.

3) Player Rewards Mailing/Grand Prix & Worlds Foil Giveaway

Advantage: Would get a lot of copies of cards into circulation – for instance, you might get one of ten Dual Lands at random as your Player Rewards foil, or as a free card given away at a Grand Prix – such as was the case with Chrome Mox and Umezawa’s Jitte – which have both retained or exceeded their pre-giveaway values.

Disadvantage: Would not get the cards into the hands of casual players/might not be enough of each card (when divided by 10 for the 10 dual lands) to really affect value.

4) Reprint entire complete sets as a box-set, like they did with Collector’s Edition – except tournament legal, all-foil, and with all of the cards updated for the latest oracle wording/new card frames.

Advantage: Would put entire sets into circulation all at once. Would allow Wizards to update all older cards for the current wording, which is especially relevant for creature types.

Disadvantage: All sets are not equal in value, or in size. How would you price something like Visions versus Arabian Nights? Are there sets that are even pointless to reprint, like Homelands or Fallen Empires? Where would you have to price this product in order to get people to buy it? Would someone buy a Mirage set essentially just to get their hands on Phyrexian Dreadnaught and Lion’s Eye Diamond?

5) Make Master’s Edition reprint sets, like they have online.

Advantage: Would let you do a non-Standard Legal set that contained all reprints, and you could control exactly what goes in each set, if you were Wizards of the Coast. Would allow you to update both good and bad cards alike with current wording. Could reprint cards both on and off the Reserved List.

Disadvantage: Chronicles is the reason why the Reserved List came into be to begin with. I want to be clear though: when Chronicles came out, Magic was selling faster than people could get it into stock, and things like Legends packs were literally selling for $10 as-they-arrived-off-the-truck-while-in-print at a goodly number of locations (with a $2.45 MSRP). The real reason cards like Carrion Ants and Killer Bees were $25 was because of the rarity/scarcity/cost of product for Legends packs – and this is something that does not exist in modern Magic! There has been no regular-release set since the Dark (which was released in 1994, the SECOND year Magic was in existence) that has sold for higher than MSRP while still in-print! Keep in mind: MSRP on English boxes is $143.64. When is the last time you saw an in-print box going for anywhere near that price (in the United States)? The answer is never. So the cost of initially acquiring product these days is nothing like it was when Chronicles devalued several Arabian Nights/Antiquities/Legends cards. Until we see in-print sets selling for $360 a box, the realities of the situation just simply are not the same as we saw with Chronicles!

6) Insert cards randomly into in-print packs, but without letting them be Standard Legal.

Advantage: This could be done in one of two ways – like Time Spiral (121 different cards, one-per-pack), or maybe on an “X” per box basis, with a smaller card pool. Baseball card companies have frequently done this with “Blast from the Past” reissues -like a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle reprint, clearly marked as a reprint, showing up in a current Topps baseball set. Imagine that the Hidden Treasure of Zendikar were not a one-in-20ish box chance of getting an older, more-valuable card, but that instead you got 1-2 foil Revised Dual Lands per box, in addition to whatever other foils you got in that box!

Disadvantage: People might be confused by not being able to play these cards, because they are being packaged with Standard-legal product. You’d need to find a damn good way to make clear that these cards are not legal for Standard play, but are legal for tournament play in older formats. Might end up causing consumer dissatisfaction, on that end.

7) Stock Split

Advantage: Wizards could do a redemption program where you send in one copy of a Dual Land, and then they mail you back two promo copies of that same card. For instance, you mail them a Revised Badlands, and they mail you back two Foil promo Badlands, and they keep your Revised Badlands (to insert into later sets a la Zendikar/give away as tournament prizes at Worlds/Grands Prix, or even eventually release them as packs of product in-and-of-themselves). This would also potentially have the effect of doubling supply, while halving price – or in the end, keeping the total value of Badlands the same, though each individual version of Badlands would be half of where it initially was.

Disadvantage: Could be a huge mailing nightmare/cost for Wizards. Would they charge for shipping? Would this be a free service? Potentially would it be “free” with five proofs-of-purchase from Booster pack products (IE: Mail in the UPC from 5 Zendikar Booster Packs along with your Badlands, and get two foil Badlands). Also, if tens of thousands of Revised Dual Lands are taken out of circulation, would the price of Revised Dual Lands skyrocket for people trying to make complete sets (even though the cost of the “new” promo Dual Lands would likely be half of the current price of Revised Dual Lands?)

These are just of some of my ideas about what Wizards can do now that they have clarified the Reserved List policy in regards to reprinting premium cards. In the end, this is a huge step in the right direction – the majority of players want the Reserved List modified in some form (over 90%, according to a MTG.com poll), and reprinting Legacy/EDH staples to make the formats more accessible/affordable is essential for the long-term health of both those formats, and the game. I applaud Wizards for this decision, and hope that one day they will see fit to abolish the Reserved List entirely, for non-premium versions of these same cards.

Because, as we’ll see next week, there is one big hitch with the new Reserved List clarification:

Not everyone is a fan of the foils.

As always, please feel free to give your thoughts in the forums of this article! If you are shy and would like to contact me directly, please drop me a line at Ben@StarCityGames.com. I’d especially love to hear from other people who deal with Magic cards for a living this week, to get your thoughts about the Reserved List!

Ben Bleiweiss
General Manager of Acquisitions, StarCityGames.com