Judge Foil Finance

Magic finance is a complicated thing, especially once we start getting into premium products with small printings. That makes judge foils some of the most difficult items to price – but also some of the most lucrative cards to invest in for the savvy speculator.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that judges are the unsung heroes of the Magic community.

Judges travel the world in order to make sure that we can compete in well-run events. They arrive at tournament venues early, leave late, and spend most of their time in between answering complex questions and putting out fires. Local judges are the folks who keep FNM running smoothly and ensure that new players are welcomed into the community with open arms. And while judges are compensated for their time, most of them could be making more money doing literally anything else.

Judges don’t do what they do for the foils or the paycheck – they do it out of love for the work and the people. That level of commitment ought to be commended at every possible opportunity.

As we all know, a major part of judge compensation comes in the form of promotional foils. I’ve written about judge foils before, but that was a pretty basic overview and it’s almost four years out of date at this point. We’ve had four different runs of judge foils since then as well as a complete overhaul of the distribution process.

So what’s changed now that the Judge Exemplar program is in full force? When’s the best time to buy judge foils? When should you sell them? Are there any good spec targets out there? It’s Judge Foil Finance week here on StarCityGames, so put on your uniform, brush up on your rules knowledge, and let’s get started.

Categorizing Judge Foils

First off, I’m not going to talk about any judge foils before 2011 in this article. Magic finance was a very different beast during the first decade of the new millennium, and I don’t have enough historical pricing data to draw any worthwhile conclusions from foils that were released more than five years ago. There are interesting things to say about the older judge foils to be sure, but those insights belong in a different column.

I had originally planned on talking about each batch of judge foils on a year-by-year basis, but in doing my research I realized that grouping the cards by playability made for a more compelling discussion. There’s some overlap between the categories, but it wasn’t all that hard to figure out where each judge foil belonged. By grouping cards this way, my hope is that we can suss out some long-term trends among each category.

Vintage/Legacy Staples (2011-2014)

With an average price tag of over $100, Vintage and Legacy staples are the cream of the Judge foil crop. 2011 only gave us one Vintage/Legacy staple, but that’s because Entomb was supposed to be part of the 2011 run. It was shelved until 2014 because Premium Decks: Graveborn had made the card cheap and ubiquitous.

Let’s talk about the low value outliers first. Swords to Plowshares actually started with a price tag up near $50, but it began dropping quickly as more and more copies entered the marketplace. It finally hit bottom about six months after release and has been bouncing between $20 and $30 ever since. On the other hand, Entomb was never really worth much more than $30. It debuted low and has stayed between $25 and $30 over the past year.

In both cases, the market had been saturated by other, easily available promo foils copies of these cards prior to the judge foil being printed. Since there was nothing particularly interesting or desirable about this printing of either card, they’ve stayed near the judge foil low of $20-$30.

The expensive cards on this list are more interesting. Keep in mind that I don’t have much pricing data prior to 2013, so I’m mostly going to talk about what’s happened over the past two and a half years.

Mana Crypt began 2013 around the $100 mark. It steadily climbed toward $150 during all of 2013 before spiking just above $250 at the end of February 2014. It stayed there for almost the entire duration of 2014 before dipping back toward $200 again just before last Christmas. The card is currently sold out on Star City Games for $159.99, but the fair trade price is probably closer to a retail value of $200.

Karakas was also a $100 card throughout most of 2013. It began trending upward in 2014, spiking twice – once in late March of 2014, and again in early January of 2015. The spike was fairly naturalistic in both cases, with a jump of around $30 each time that occurred without a subsequent drop. Other than minor market fluctuations, Karakas hasn’t lost value in over two years.

Flusterstorm saw three distinct spikes. The first happened in November of 2013 when the price jumped from $40 to $70. It spiked to $100 again April of 2014, but those gains proved unsustainable. After months of price erosion, Flusterstorm was down to $70 again by this February. That’s when the price spiked to $100 again. The gains proved more concrete this time around.

Sneak Attack’s price graph is more straightforward. The card was a stable $30 until January of 2014, when the price began to surge upward. It was $50 by early April of 2014 when a buyout spike took it to $100. The value has slowly dropped over the past year as Sneak Attack has become a smaller part of the Legacy metagame, but it hasn’t fallen anywhere close to the pre-buyout prices.

Even though it was released a year later, Imperial Recruiter follows a very similar curve to Sneak Attack. It was a stable $100 for all of 2013 and the first month of 2014 before a spike in late February of that year caused it to double in price. The price eroded a little bit after that, dropping as low as $160 by this January, but it has been slowly trending upward ever since.

Show and Tell also began its life around $100, but it dropped to $80 during the months immediately following release. It’s been stable at that price ever since, which is a relative rarity for a playable judge foil.

What have we learned here? Well, first of all, it’s fine to ignore judge foils that have already seen multiple promotional printings. Some people will trade for them, but scarcity alone isn’t enough to cause the price to spike.

Second, five of the six remaining cards saw at least one major price spike between six months and two years after release. In every case, the post-spike price was higher than the pre-spike price. (And in most cases, significantly higher.) When the price did come down, it happened in a matter of months instead of weeks. It’s easy to drive up the price of an expensive judge foil, but hard to get it to drop again, even when it falls out of favor in the metagame.

Lastly, Show and Tell appears to be an outlier. It’s possible that enough people prefer the goofy Urza’s Saga art, but OmniTell is enough of a popular deck that I’m surprised we haven’t seen any movement in the price of this foil at all. If you’ve got a Legacy collection and a bit of extra money lying around, Show and Tell might make for a nice long term spec target.

Modern Staples (2011-2014)

It’s clear that Wizards of the Coast was more interested in using judge foils as a way to reprint Modern staples before the advent of Modern Masters. After printing three Modern cards in 2011 and two in 2012, WotC only delivered three Modern judge foils during the next two years combined – and you can make a pretty good argument that Crucible of Worlds is more of a Legacy card and that the other two are very Commander-centric.

Knowing that this group of Modern cards had either been released recently or were likely to be reprinted at some point soon, Wizards began giving these cards a pre-7th Edition border treatment in order to make them feel special. This proved very popular, so WotC continued to innovate by releasing a Phyrexian language version of Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite in 2014.

Let’s get to the cards. 2011’s Vendilion Clique followed a similar spike pattern to the Legacy and Vintage staples we talked about earlier. It was stable at just about $100 for all of 2013 before spiking to $250 in early March of 2014. The price eroded a little quicker than Mana Crypt and friends, however, dropping below $200 by mid-July of last year. It’s been falling slowly ever since, no doubt thanks to the fact that it has been printed in two straight Modern Masters sets.

Sword of Fire and Ice spiked a month later, jumping from $60 to $120 in late April of 2014. The price spent most of the summer settling down, stabilizing near $90 by the time school started in late 2014. It’s been in that range ever since.

Bitterblossom was under $40 in 2013, but it could hardly have been considered a Modern staple upon release. Its spike to $150 coincided with its Modern unbanning and subsequent buyout in February of 2014. Bitterblossom settled in the $120-$130 range over the next couple of months, but it was under $80 by summer when people realized that BW Tokens wasn’t going to be a major player in Modern anytime soon. It’s been stable between $60-$75 ever since.

Noble Hierarch was also $40 in 2013. Just like Bitterblossom, the card spiked to $100 in early February of 2014. Unlike its Faerie counterpart, though, Noble Hierarch’s price spike stuck. The card got as high as $120 last winter, but the Modern Masters printing caused the price to drop a little bit last spring. Most of the people who had been willing to pay a premium for the judge foil didn’t sell their copies when MM15 was announced, so the card’s value wasn’t hurt all that much by thousands of new copies entering the marketplace.

Sword of Light and Shadow has always been more of a bit player in the Modern metagame, so its spike was much milder. After jumping from $30 to $50 in April of 2014, its price ended up fluctuating between $40 and $50 for the next year and a half. Crucible of Worlds, on the other hand, has seen multiple spikes: one from $25 to $40 in May of 2014, and another from $40 to $60 in March of 2015. In each case, the new value proved sustainable.

The 2014 judge foil releases have been much more stable so far. Sword of Feast and Famine debuted in the $80 range and the price tag hasn’t moved all that much. Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite started around $500 and the value has climbed a little since then. It’s clear that the demand for this unique card has outstripped supply by an absurd amount. If you have one, you can pretty much name your price.

I find it interesting just how much these prices are driven by aesthetics. Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite’s price tag is more than ten times higher than it would be without the Phyrexian text. Noble Hierarch lost almost none of its value to the MM15 reprint because of how cool the old-bordered foil is. Sword of Light and Shadow and Sword of Fire and Ice have seen their value hurt, at least in part, by just how much people love the Chris Rahn alternate art from Modern Masters.

It’s important to keep this in mind when evaluating future Modern judge foils. While people buy scarce cards like Karakas and Imperial Recruiter based on need, art and the wow factor matters a lot more when you’re talking about staples with two or three printings.

Here’s a rule of thumb I like to use when evaluating foils like these: the coolest printing is always going to be in demand. For Noble Hierarch and Crucible of Worlds, this judge foil printing is it. For the two Swords, the Modern Masters foil is preferred by most people. Even though I like all four cards going forward, the Crucible and Hierarch are stronger buys for this reason.

As for Elesh Norn, its future value is going to depend largely on whether or not WotC does any more Phyrexian cards. People value uniqueness and rarity. This is why the first run of San Diego Comic Con planeswalkers is worth less today than it was two years ago, even though they’re rarer now. If WotC prints the rest of the Praetor cycle in the same style, Elesh Norn’s value will drop. If they never go back to that well, however, Phyrexian Elesh Norn could easily hit the thousand dollar mark in a couple of years.

Commander Cards (2011-2014)

Doubling Season was well above $50 in the spring of 2013, but the card showing up in Modern Masters (with the same alternate art, no less) caused the price to tumble. It steadily dropped through the end of last year, bottoming out under $30 last December. The price has been rising this year, though, gaining a quarter of its value back in the past seven months.

Believe it or not, Goblin Welder also spiked in the spring of 2014. It was a $15 card through all of 2013 before a price spike that took it to $25 late last February. Its new price of $30 has been stable ever since.

Command Tower was $15 through all of 2014 as well before the same spike hit last February, causing the price to double.

Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed spiked a little earlier, jumping from $25 to $70 in June of 2014. The price fluctuated between $60 and $70 last summer, never really finding a footing before dropping off a cliff last autumn. Real-world demand never really picked up, and Xiahou Dun’s price has been eroding ever since that initial spike.

Karmic Guide has done nothing but fall in price since her release in 2012. She was almost $25 at the start of 2013, but the card’s appearance in a Commander box set caused the price to keep dropping.

A few early copies of Overwhelming Forces sold in the $100-$150 range, but the bottom of that market fell out before the first round of judge foil packets were distributed. Much like Xiahou Dun, the price tag for Overwhelming Forces was almost entirely linked to its scarcity as a Portal: Three Kingdoms rare. Supply quickly outpaced demand, and the price cratered. It hasn’t recovered.

The 2013 judge foil Vindicate fails my ‘coolest version’ test – people prefer the 2007 judge foil Vindicate, which still sells for an easy $90. Vindicate doesn’t see much play anymore regardless, so this version never really took off.

Bribery and Genesis both started out higher – Bribery at $50 and Genesis at $25 – before dropping as the market hit saturation. There hasn’t been enough demand to put pressure on either card, so their price tags have stayed low for the past two years.

2014 brought the biggest crop of Commander judge foils ever. Hanna, Ship’s Navigator was the cream of the crop, mostly thanks to fantastic art provided by the talented and popular Therese Nielsen. Hanna started at $120 and the price has been slowly dropping ever since. Riku of Two Reflections and Nekusar, the Mindrazer both started at $50. Their prices dropped as more copies kept hitting the market. Greater Good, Oloro, and Karador all started between $20 and $25 and their prices have been stable since release.

Commander judge foils are fairly straightforward. Most of them start fairly high and the price drops quickly as more and more enter circulation. The price bottoms out about six months after release, and that low lasts anywhere from six months to three years. When most of the available supply dries up, someone buys out the remaining stock in order to trigger a spike. The card jumps too high, the market corrects, and the new price ends up being 50%-100% higher.

At this point, 2013 foils are starting to look like a decent buy. Not all of them will spike over the next year, but I’d wager that at least half of them will. That’s not bad for a group of cards that still have a very reasonable buy-in cost.

Special Releases (2011-2014)

These cards weren’t given out in standard Grand Prix judge foil packets, so they have a very different distribution curve than all the other cards on this list. Not only are there far fewer of them out there, but nearly all of them hit the market at once (past special release judge foils are also given out at judge conferences from time to time). Because of that, I wanted to talk about them separately.

The promo version Dark Confidant was worth about $100 at release, but it was up over $200 by the time the first Modern Masters set came out. In the years since then, multiple Modern Masters releases plus a lack of competitive play has really hurt the price. Its big tumble came this spring, when the Modern Masters 2015 release took about a $50 bite into its price tag. The judge foil passes my ‘coolest version’ rule with flying colors, though, so I like its long-term prospects.

Judge foil Force of Will started closer to $600, but has mostly stayed been between $700 and $800 since release. It’s the only foil copy of Force of Will available, so its price will depend on how long that stays true. If no other foil Force of Wills are distributed, this one will hit the thousand dollar mark within a couple of years.

The Therese Nielsen lands haven’t done much financially since they were released, but they have an excellent long-term profile. Basic lands are the only cards in Magic that can’t really be hurt by reprints, and they will always be playable across all formats. WotC has no reason to ever reprint these lands with this specific artwork besides upsetting people who spent a lot of money, so they are only going to get rarer from here. Their upside is probably the $200-$250 Guru land range, and they are a strong buy for anyone with a spare $500 to drop on them.

The Post-Exemplar World (2015)

For those who are unaware, judge foil compensation changed significantly in 2015. Instead of ‘paying’ judges with foils based on their work at high level events, judges are now ‘recognized for their exemplary duty’ by fellow judges who are L2 or higher. These recognitions are vetted by senior judges, who then award foils in waves that occur several times each year.

When the Exemplar Program was announced, people high up in the judge community took great pains to assure everyone on the lower rungs that the number of foils being handed out wouldn’t be dropping. The distribution methods might be different, they said, but the change wasn’t going to cut down on the number of foils being given to judges.

This has not proven true so far. While I don’t have any hard data to back up my assertion that there have been fewer judge foils given out in 2015, every judge I’ve talked to so far has seen a reduction in the number of foils they’ve received. In the case of multiple people I talked to, that reduction has been from an average of 30-40 foils down to zero. Want more proof that distribution has slowed to a trickle? Take a look at what these cards are worth right now. The only reason a dud like Dualcaster Mage still has a $40 price tag is because of a serious lack of supply.

While it’s possible that this is the new normal when it comes to judge foils, it’s equally likely that there have just been some major hiccups in terms of distribution thanks to the advent of the Exemplar Program. It’s possible that the market will be flooded with 2015 judge foils as soon as next week. It’s also possible that 2015’s promos will always prove massively underprinted and in demand. It’s simply too early to tell.

For now, I highly recommend against buying any of the 2015 judge foils. It’s clear that the prices are still being propped up by a lack of availability. If we’re still seeing sparse mailings toward the end of the year, though, I’d start thinking about buying copies of all five of these cards, because that would likely mean that we’re entering a world where there is significantly less foil compensation for our judge staff.

Overall, judge foils are among the safest and highest-yield long-term investments in the game. Most judge foils drop in price for the first six months or so after release, plateau for a while, and then start to gain value – generally via overnight price spikes that end up sticking due to a lack of supply. Stay away from judge foils that already have multiple, easy-to-get printings as well as art downgrades. Pay close attention to Legacy and Vintage staples that are already very scarce as well as any cards that display an especially unique aesthetic. A good rule of thumb: if it makes you think ‘wow!’ then people are going to want it, even if the price seems really high already. If a card has already gone two or three years without a spike and you can’t figure out why, add it to your speculation radar.

This Week’s Trends

  • There aren’t very many Standard risers right now: All five fetchlands, Den Protector, See the Unwritten, Sphinx’s Tutelage, and Monastery Swiftspear is about it. Temple of Epiphany spiked briefly, but it’s dropping again as people realize that spending close to $10 on a rotating land is a silly idea.

    Otherwise, people are waiting for Battle for Zendikar spoilers to start rolling in. Once that happens, Standard prices will start moving in a hurry. If you can, get the staples that you know you’ll need now.
  • Modern season is wrapping up, which means that some Modern staples are finally starting to fall again. Tarmogoyf is dropping, as are Snapcaster Mage, Vendilion Clique, and even more stable cards like Blood Moon and Cavern of Souls. Now is a fine time to sell Modern cards that you aren’t going to want before next spring. Seasonal lows will probably happen in mid-December, so I’d recommend holding off on buying any Modern staples until then.
  • Full Zendikar vs. The Eldrazi Duel Deck lists were announced. Among the cards included are Avenger of Zendikar, Primal Command, Stirring Wildwood, It That Betrays, and Forked Bolt. Expect major drops for the prices of these cards.
  • Will allies return in Battle for Zendikar? Based on the cards spoiled in the duel deck, the answer appears to be yes. While none of the allies from the original Zendikar block were worth much at the time, some casual players will likely want the older cards to build decks with. While I wouldn’t go out and buy dozens of these bulk rares, grabbing a couple of playsets on the cheap as casual trade fodder isn’t the worst idea in the world.