Insider Trading – The Vintage Solution

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Tuesday, August 12th – A beat-up playset of Power Nine will run you in the thousands. A playset of Force of Will? Three-digits if you want them in Near Mint. The cost of entry into older formats keeps rising with each year, as cards get harder and harder to find. Could the financial barrier for Vintage, Legacy, and (to a degree) Extended be eased? Yes! Read inside for Ben’s thoughts on a solution.

Hey everyone, and welcome back to Insider Trading! One of the barriers of entry into the eternal formats is the cost of cards – and I’m not just talking the Power Nine. Sure, a Mox will set you back a few hundred, but many staples have been increasing in price as more and more cards are soaked out of circulation, either by players, collectors, wear and tear, or just plain loss (who knows how many more-casual throw out their cards each year?) Highly-played eternal cards are hitting the $20-$30 mark, from Phyrexian Dreadnought to Mox Diamond, with no signs of slowing down.

As the price to play these formats rises, it keeps newer players from entering these formats as the money needed to play steadily goes up and up, creating a large wall of cash. This is bad for multiple reasons; the less new blood entering the format, the more risk that format runs of atrophying, from the standpoints of innovation, growth (just sheer numbers playing), and interest.

Many players in the United States have turned to proxying as a way to make Vintage more affordable; at our own Power Nine series, we allow up to ten cards to be proxied so that a more wide-range of players can afford to be competitive at the tournament. Still, this has not extended to Europe (which has a thriving Vintage scene) – and it also has another side-effect that virtually none of the Vintage tournaments in the United States can be sanctioned.

Legacy doesn’t have as many of the highest-dollar cards as Vintage, but several are up there in price (say hello to The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale). Even the essential manabase to be competitive in the format (20 Fetch Lands, 40 Revised Dual Lands) will set you back over $1,000. Sure, you can pick your pet deck (Goblins, Affinity, Combo), but the average competitive deck in Legacy is going to cost significantly more to build than the average competitive deck in Standard. (And yes, I realize some Standard decks are going to be more expensive than some Legacy decks – but on average, Legacy costs a lot more).

Magic is a collectible card game, and collectible is every bit as important as card and game. The value of the cards comes from its collectability – prices are based on supply and demand, rarity plays a huge role in pricing, and if all cards were equally rare, the industry would likely be unsustainable for a significant secondary market. You don’t want to blithely dismiss how important it is to have cards maintain their value, as anyone who plays Yu-Gi-Oh can attest.

Yu-Gi-Oh is the poster child of an unstable market. Cards appear at all levels of rarity, and I’m not just talking Common/Uncommon/Rare/Mythic – no, we’re talking “Secret Rares” such as Dark Armed Dragon (that currently fetch $150+ on eBay) that may or may not be reprinted a few sets down the road as a common in some reprint set. No card is sacred, and at any time collectors live in fear that their highest dollar cards might be worth pennies on the dollar thanks to Upper Deck’s liberal Yu-Gi-Oh reprint policy (spurred, by a large degree, by Konami).

How can Wizards of the Coast reduce the cost of playing Vintage and Legacy? Proxies aren’t the answer, because it undermines the value of their product line; if they allow proxies for one tournament, it opens a can of wurms for other tournaments, devaluing Magic as a whole.

One solution I’ve heard proposed, and it’s one that I think would be good for the game, is to utilize cards that have already been printed by are not currently tournament legal – the Gold Bordered cards from the Collector’s Edition boxed set, and the 1996-2004 World Championship (and Pro Tour 1) boxed sets. Would making this large pool of cards tournament legal be a good or a bad change for the health of the game?

– Easier access to hard-to-get cards
– Lower cost to play older formats
– WOTC produced cards, so they are an official Magic product

– Cards do not have standard Magic backs
– Depreciation of value of the Black Bordered (and White Bordered) versions of these cards

The second point under the “Bad” column is the most important factor here – would making all gold-bordered cards tournament legal destroy the value of Dual Lands, Moxen, Force of Will, or any other card currently commanding a high price (Arcbound Ravager, Goblin Piledriver, Rishadan Port, etc).

Before we get to that aspect of the bad, let’s examine the fact that the World Championship, Pro Tour Box set, and Collector’s Edition cards do not have standard Magic card backs. The PT and WC cards have the same dimensions as a typical Magic card, and the Collector’s Edition cards have square corners. While the square corners might be a problem (though not much more than alpha-cut cards, to be honest), the non-standard backs on the World Championship/Pro Tour cards are easily solved by requesting players use fully opaque sleeves when playing with these cards. If you can’t see the card’s back at all, there is no way to tell the difference between a Standard Magic-backed card, and a World Championship version of the same card while they are still in your deck.

There were approximately 15,000 Collector’s Edition box sets produced (10,000 domestic, and 5,000 International. Wizards of the Coast used to release print run information, so it’s also known that there are approximately 1100 of each Alpha rare, 3200 of each Beta rare, and 18,500 of each Unlimited rare printed. This means that legitimately, there are 22,800 of each Black Lotus, Mox, Time Walk, and Timetwister out there – though many of these are not available to players as they sit in collections, PSA/BGS graded-hard plastics, or have just been destroyed/lost to time. (Special thanks to CrystalKeep.com for this information!)

Imagine a scenario where the Collector’s Edition cards were made legal for tournament play. Would inserting double the number of each piece of power into the market be ruinous for the value of the non-collector’s edition cards? My answer would be no! At first, the price of Unlimited Power would take a hit, but Beta/Alpha power would stay relatively stable (as a lot of their price is derived from rarity as well as the fact that they are black-bordered). The value of Collector’s Edition cards would skyrocket, and in the short-term the value of CE cards and Unlimited cards would probably come close to meeting each other’s level.

But in the long term, giving players access to that many more pieces of power (from a reprint set released 14 years ago) would only help to foster interest in the Vintage format. The cost of entry would, in the short term, be lowered to a degree that thousands (if not tens of thousands) of players who could not previously afford the format would pour into Vintage, revitalizing T1 play completely. As more people became interested in Vintage, and as more tournaments popped up (it’s would be a lot more affordable to run a tournament with a CE Mox as a prize, than currently is to run one with a UL Mox as a prize), even more people would start playing Vintage. It would be a snowball effect – and within some period of time (my guess would be a year to a year-and-a-half), the increased interest in the format would cause the price of many of these cards to start a climb back up towards their current levels. But even if a Collector’s Edition Mox hit the price level of the current Unlimited Mox, the influx of thousands of players into Vintage (along with the ability to sanction tournaments a lot more freely) would make it a magnitude more relevant to Magic’s landscape.

Likewise, making the World Championship cards tournament legal would also lower the cost of entry into Legacy and Extended. The first gold-bordered Championship set was the Pro Tour 1 commemorative box set, which contained the top 8 decks from the 1996 inaugural Pro Tour. There were four decks produced each year thereafter until 2004, which commemorated the top decks for the Standard portion of the Magic World Championships each year thereafter. The product line was discontinued in 2004 due to poor sales.

Let’s take a look at a sample deck – Jakub Slemr’s 1999 deck:

Jakub Slemr (From MagicTheGathering.com’s product index)

1 Bottle Gnomes
1 Phyrexian Negator

3 Phyrexian Plaguelord

3 Ravenous Rats
2 Ticking Gnomes

2 Corpse Dance
3 Cursed Scroll

4 Dark Ritual
4 Diabolic Edict

4 Duress

4 Powder Keg

1 Rapid Decay

2 Stupor

1 Vampiric Tutor

3 Yawgmoth’s Will

2 Spawning Pool

15 Swamp

1 Volrath’s Stronghold

4 Wasteland

1 Bottle Gnomes

2 Carrion Beetles

1 Evincar’s Justice
1 Hatred
2 Perish
1 Persecute
2 Phyrexian Negator
3 Rapid Decay
1 Sphere of Resistance
1 Stromgald Cabal

The relevant cards in this deck:

3 Cursed Scroll
4 Duress
1 Hatred
1 Persecute
3 Phyrexian Negator
4 Powder Keg
1 Sphere of Resistance
1 Vampiric Tutor
1 Volrath’s Stronghold
4 Wasteland
3 Yawgmoth’s Will (ha!)

Again, reducing the costs of these cards (especially a card like Wasteland, which is a four-of in so many Vintage and Legacy decks) would remove a barrier of entry to the format for a ton of players (and judging from GP numbers, there is a very healthy interest in Legacy already at the theoretical level), and would self-adjust once the number of players (and therefore demand) in the format rose.

In the 2003 decks alone, there were these cards that currently sell for $10 or more for the regular edition versions:

8 Bloodstained Mire
4 Burning Wish
2 Exalted Angel
2 Flooded Strand
4 Goblin Piledriver
4 Wrath of God

Would making these cards tournament legal demolish the value of Bloodstained Mire, Burning Wish, Exalted Angel, Flooded Strand, Goblin Piledriver and Wrath of God? No! The price would temporarily come down as the value of the gold bordered versions rise, but seriously – Wrath of God has been in 12 sets (Alpha, Beta, Unlimited, Revised, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, Portal, Battle Royale, and as a Player Reward Foil), not counting gold-bordered sets – and it’s still a $10-$15 card!

Even more convincing is that previous reprint sets have done little to damage the value of cards. Elves vs. Goblins didn’t ruin the value of Siege-Gang Commander or Imperious Perfect or Mogg Fanatic – just as giving out tens of thousands of Figures of Destiny (at the least, the number could be a multiple of that!) at the Eventide release hasn’t ruined the value of regular Figure of Destiny from Eventide. And yes – it does keep the value from skyrocketing, but look at Damnation – the price came down some after it was given away (free!) as a player reward foil, but it was not, in any way, shape or form, devalued to the point where people would deem it valueless (in fact, it held steady as a $15-$20 card while in its heyday of Standard play).

In fact, over the history of Magic, have reprint sets (when done in moderation) ever really killed the value of a card? Anthologies, Battle Royale, Elves vs. Goblins, Beatdown, Deckmasters – these are only some of those sets. What about theme decks? Would Umezawa’s Jitte have been the first $50 card in Standard if it wasn’t readily available in the Rats’ Nest theme deck? Would Tarmogoyf have been a $25 rare if it were in one of the Future Sight theme decks as a rare? Is either of these a bad thing?

The only counterexample I can think of is Chronicles/4th, which tanked the value of tons of Legends, Antiquities, and Arabian Nights cards. But in the case of Chronicles, the value of the cards being reduced (such as Killer Bees and Carrion Ants, which were Rare in Legends and Uncommon in 4th) were due to both the complete rarity (as in short printing) of those earlier sets versus hundreds of thousands of copies being pumped out in 4th Edition/Chronicles, and the fact that many of these cards kinda sucked to begin with, and were being artificially inflated due to rarity and lack of other cards having been printed in the game of Magic in general.

So in short, if Wizards of the Coast were to make an announcement tomorrow that all Collector’s Edition and World Championship cards were legal for tournament play, I believe this would be good for the growth of Magic. Vintage and Legacy would keenly benefit from a greatly-increased access to key cards, and Extended players would feel slightly less of a pinch when trying to put together decks with Fetch Lands, Ravagers, and Piledrivers. In the long term, the prices for these cards would stabilize (and rise) as the interest in these formats would increase significantly, and more people playing Magic equals a healthier game overall – without compromising the collectability of the product.

Stillmoon Cavalier – $15-$20 and selling out at Grand Prix: Denver. Runed Halo and Archon of Justice – hot movers and shakers, or one-tournament wonders? (My take – worth picking up, price may increase, especially on the Archon). Life from the Loam – get them now. Possibly one of the top ten non-land cards in Extended post-rotation.

See you in seven!