Regrets & $100 Fetch Lands

Should you sell your fetch lands now? Chas takes a look at this important question in Magic finance in the wake of the massive Modern Grand Prix in Richmond this past weekend.

My morning began with a Magic video, as most of them do. Luis Scott-Vargas was drafting the Magic Online Cube, and I felt a small pang of regret as he moused over a copy of Scalding Tarn.

"I can’t believe Tarn is a $100 card," I thought. "Out of stock at $100 even. It feels like just yesterday Scalding Tarn was an $8 Standard staple. We had a running joke back during Zendikar where it seemed like my friend Kyle pulled a Tarn out of every draft. I wonder if he kept them. I certainly wish I had kept mine. If I had kept every fetch land that I ever owned, I’d be rich. Heck, if I had invested all of my spare money in fetches back then, I could buy a house now. I shot myself in the foot every time I traded one away. Why didn’t I see this coming? How could I have been so blind?"

Experts, at least the kind who write pithy list articles for a living, say that the key to happiness in life is to live without regret. Doc Brown isn’t walking through that door, so worrying about decisions you should have made in the past is futile. We can use our decisions as an objective learning tool, but it’s irrational and irresponsible to beat yourself up over failing to act on information that didn’t even exist at the time. There’s no use crying over spilt fetches.

Here’s an investment story for you. In 1998, I was in the seventh grade, and I was obsessed with the world of high finance. My mom and I had spent the summer buying stuff at yard sales and flipping it on eBay, which allowed me to bankroll my expansive comic book collection. EBay was just about to go public at the time, and I told my dad that he should buy some stock because eBay was totally awesome. He didn’t because no one should take financial advice from a seventh grader.

A few months later, after eBay had gone from $18 to $200 a share, another company went public: UBid. UBid was the company that ran Yahoo auctions, which were eBay’s main competitor at the time. Again, I told my dad to buy in. Again, he didn’t take my advice—the company just wasn’t worth it he said.

The stock surged. It went from $10 a share to $40, to $50, to $90. Finally, he decided to buy in. The market clearly wasn’t behaving rationally he figured, so it was time to climb aboard the irrational hype train and ride it as long as he could.

UBid plateaued around $95 a share before cratering a few weeks later. It went all the way to zero.

Here’s another investment story. At various times over the past several years, I have told you all when to buy and sell different cards. We’ve talked about rotation, seasonal highs and lows, spec targets, and formats coming in and out of favor. I’ve covered it all one week at a time over and over again.

You could have ignored all of it, instead sticking to the one investment strategy that has held true in Magic finance for twenty straight years: buy good cards and never sell them.

Very few cards have ever gone down in price all that much. Sure, shock lands were higher before being reprinted, and preorder stuff always drops. There are always random creatures like Terravore and Llawan, Cephalid Empress that fall out of favor too. But the overall index of Magic cards continues to climb. It has survived global recessions, broken formats, killed formats, bannings, reprintings, strong competition, and even Saviors of Kamigawa.

The time to buy most cards was years ago, and the time to sell them is never.

Most of my Magic finance regrets involve selling too soon. Back in 2009, I bought a collection for $8,000 that included a beat set of power, complete sets of most expansions from Arabian Nights through Scourge, and playsets of everything in the modern era. This was before Modern was a format, and I ended up selling all of the newer cards in order to recoup my investment. If I had simply kept everything, I would have a Richie Rich-esque collection right now.

Here’s the thing that’s always in the back of my mind though. If you brought up the concept of "Magic finance" to a real financial advisor, they would look at you like you have three heads. "So you have tens of thousands of dollars tied up in trading cards?" he’d say. "What, are they one of a kind collectables from the 1930s or something?"

"No, they’re game pieces. It’s like if you needed to spend $400 on a queen before sitting down to a game of chess. Otherwise, you’d be stuck only having pawns."

"Okay, so how much does a good deck cost?"

"In Modern? A couple grand. At least."

"Wait—people actually pay that much?"

"Sure. And you can’t just get one deck because the company that makes the game might ban a card or someone might come up with a better strategy. So you actually need an entire collection of cards if you want to compete."

"Wow. I had no idea it cost so much just to play Magic."

"I mean, there are other ways to play. You can draft for $15 a pop with no overhead. Actually, they give you a bunch of cards for free when you draft."

"Wait, so why don’t people just do that?"

"The style of play is different, and Modern is a fun format. Also, you need to play the Constructed formats if you want to make the Pro Tour."

"Oh, so the people that pay several thousand dollars for a deck are doing it so they can become professionals and win a bunch of money."

"Well, not really. Very few people go pro, and most of those who do struggle to break even. It’s a hobby mostly. People drop thousands of dollars on boats and elaborate models, so why not Magic?"

"That makes some sense, but is it something you really want to bet your most valuable assets on? People continuing to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars into the game forever? You could sell all of your cards now for more money than you earned at your job this year. At what point does it make sense to move on from Legacy and Modern?"

Nick Bevcar, whose opinion I respect, posted this on Twitter last week:

Nick believes that we’ve only just seen the beginning of price increases in Modern. He predicts that staples will continue to surge into the summer as demand increases and the PTQ season begins in earnest. He might be right too. Demand from grinders is likely to increase, and I highly doubt we’ll see too many Modern staples in Conspiracy. That leaves the Event Deck as the one place for possible reprints—all other cards might continue to climb in value.

When you think about it that way, it makes sense to keep buying and trading into Modern, doesn’t it?

Or perhaps Grand Prix Richmond is the high water mark of the year. I haven’t seen this much hype for a Constructed GP ever. Perhaps the number of actual players willing to spend three months’ rent on a deck isn’t as large as we think it is.

This is the question I’ve been struggling with all week.

 Should You Sell Your Fetch Lands Now?

A few conflicting facts about Modern:

Fact: Modern is Magic’s fastest growing format by far. We just had the largest Constructed Grand Prix of all time. The format? Modern.

Fact: March is nearly always the seasonal high for Magic card prices. In past years this has always been the best time to sell.

Fact: Due to 2014 changes in the tournament calendar, the Modern PTQ season hasn’t even begun yet. Demand for Modern staples from grinders is likely to grow during the coming months.

Fact: Fetch lands have started to outpace Revised dual lands in price. You can actually buy several dual lands for less than their respective fetches. The dual lands are eighteen to twenty years old, they are on the reserved list, and people have attributed the waning popularity of the Legacy format to their exorbitant prices. The Zendikar fetch lands are four years old, they were printed in one of the most popular sets of all time, and Wizards can reprint them at any point.

Fact: Modern is much more popular, and the fetch lands are arguably more crucial to success there than dual lands are in Legacy.

Fact: You can sell a Scalding Tarn and pay for a week’s worth of groceries for two people. You can’t buy a halfway decent Modern mana base with a week’s pay unless you have a very good job.

Fact: That last fact doesn’t seem to affect the popularity of the format much, which is weird. The Modern player base must be made up of people who have very good jobs, come from wealthy families, or bought into the format back when it was much more affordable.

Fact: The new financial entry point into Modern should halt the format’s growth somewhat. There are a finite number of people willing to start playing a version of Magic where the staple lands are $100 each.

Fact: Wizards of the Coast will address this by reprinting many current Modern staples at some point, which will help drive and create new interest in the format.

Fact: The staple mythic cards from Modern Masters stayed high. Some went up. Also, Wizards is probably not going to print a set containing every Modern staple or print it to demand. Modern Masters II will almost certainly not happen until June or July 2015 as well.

Fact: The Zendikar fetches could be reprinted as soon as the Modern Event Deck, Conspiracy, or M15.

Fact: This is unlikely to happen. The fetch lands are a super high profile reprint and a major sales driver, so they will probably be withheld until a fall set. The earliest we will see them again is late September.

Fact: The prices for these cards right now are stupidly high. You probably paid $10-$12 each for your fetch lands several years ago, which means you can trade them away at close to 1000% profit. Demand is very strong, so there is no race to the bottom here —you can pretty much name your price. Being greedy and holding off until a reprint seems a bit foolish, doesn’t it? After all, who knows what tomorrow will bring. "Everyone else is acting silly, so I’ll act silly too" is not sound financial advice.

Fact: Based solely on the history of Magic finance, it makes sense to hold on to your fetch lands for at least a couple of months. $100 for Scalding Tarn might seem like a lot—and it is —but the demand is very real, and the price isn’t outrageous considering how much other single deck staples are selling for. It is certainly possible that the price on all of this stuff will keep rising through June.

Fact: Based on everything else I know about investing, it makes sense to sell now and lock in a very solid profit. There are no guarantees about the future growth of Magic or Modern or that Mark Rosewater won’t announce a massive fetch land reprint tomorrow in order to curb a rising tide of complaints. Warren Buffet says, "Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful." Well, people are being supremely greedy right now. There’s simply no need to risk losing it all in order to squeeze another $10 profit out of these cards, is there?

Fact: I’ve told people that it’s time to sell their staples many times before, and I’ve almost always been wrong.

Looking Forward

Wizards of the Coast needs individual cards to have value. Otherwise, people will buy fewer booster packs. One of the reasons that Magic has succeeded while other games have failed is that older cards retain value. This gives people confidence that the money they continue to shovel at newer sets won’t be wasted. The secondary market has always been fairly robust, and eternal playability is a crucial part of that. WotC will not deliberately crash the market.

On the other hand, WotC also needs formats like Modern to remain relatively accessible. Otherwise, growth slows down, and customers get irate. Back when they created Modern because Legacy had become too inaccessible, decks in that format were less expensive than Modern decks are today. Heck, decks were significantly cheaper last year when they printed Modern Masters to help with supply issues.

Modern Masters was deliberately underprinted in order to keep the secondary market from crashing and causing people to lose faith in the prices of cards. As it turns out, they could have printed five times as many boxes, and people still wouldn’t have minded all that much. By wanting to avoid total market saturation, WotC erred on the side of extreme caution.

Do you think they’ll do that a second time? I don’t. Expect Modern Masters II to have a larger print run than the first set did.

If that does happen, expect the prices on all but the mythic rares to tank across the board. The first Modern Masters set actually had a huge impact on the market, though a lot of that is forgotten now because the marquee cards didn’t go down much.

Reprints will not be a universal balm of course. I don’t think we’ll see Modern Masters II until next summer, and the set almost certainly will not contain all the cards we want it to. There’s also a good chance that a few of the mythic rares, like Tarmogoyf last time around, won’t lose much of their value.

Even still, I don’t buy into the whole "this is your last chance to get into Modern cheap!" pitch that some would have you believe. Reprints are coming, and they do lower prices. That being said, these are the cards I would buy soon if I were looking to build a long-term Modern collection:

  • Shock lands. Remember when these were $40-$50 each? Granted, Return to Ravnica added a massive number of them to the market, but that’s the same thing we said in 2009 when the Zendikar fetch lands were $8-$10 and the Onslaught ones were $40-$50. If you believe in Magic’s continued growth, these are close to a no-brainer. If you don’t want to buy in now, start trading for them in August when Standard players want them out of their binders.
  • Modern Masters staples that haven’t spiked yet, especially rares. If Cryptic Command can break $50, a lot of the rest of this stuff can go up too. The prices on a lot of these haven’t gone up since hitting their post-Modern Masters release low. That won’t last. There’s no guarantee stuff like Arcbound Ravager and Vedalken Shackles will be reprinted again soon, and in fact I’d bet against it. Uncommon staples like Lightning Helix and Path to Exile will almost certainly be in Modern Masters II, so I’m not as interested in those over the long term.

If I were building a Modern collection from scratch for the long haul and desperately wanted to play in the upcoming PTQ season, I would focus on one deck and only work toward building it. The cost of putting together a full collection is too high right now. You will have the chance to do that once the weather turns cold and people get excited about the fall block.

Ultimately, I’m splitting the difference on what I’m doing with my Modern staples. I’m keeping everything in my personal collection—including fetch lands—and I suggest that you do the same. The cost to buy in again may come down on most of these cards, but that probably won’t happen until next year. There’s a lot of Magic to be played between now and then.

On the other hand, I’m happily trading and selling my extra copies cards that are peaking right now. Even if some prices go up another 10-20% between now and July, hype is so frenzied right now that it just feels right to me. The dollar amounts are just so big right now that I cannot continue to sit on my hands. I paid $3 each for my copies of Birthing Pod last spring. I can sell them for $16 today. That’s nuts.

Will this lead to more regret in the future? I don’t know, but I’d rather take that risk than do nothing and watch the prices start to fall.

This Week’s Trends

  •  The Modern Event Deck has been (sort of) spoiled! Take a look at this picture:


W/B Tokens was one of the decks I pegged as a likely target for this, so I’m not shocked. We already know that the deck is going to have Elspeth, Knight-Errant; Hero of Bladehold; Intangible Virtue; Honor of the Pure; and "black disruption," which gives us a good deal of information.

The only wrinkle? Aaron Forsythe tweeted that this picture is from a pre-production mockup before the list was finalized. It’s very possible that once they knew Bitterblossom was coming off the banned list they changed things up.  

If it is printed as it is written up here, though, forget about this deck containing Bitterblossom. The card doesn’t play nice with Honor of the Pure, and I doubt WotC put that nombo in here. Elspeth seems to be the big ticket item here, though I’d be surprised if the deck contains more than one copy of her.

What black disruption might we see? Inquisition of Kozilek seems like a must, and I wouldn’t count out Thoughtseize.

How will the mana look? Windbrisk Heights, Fetid Heath, Godless Shrine, Isolated Chapel, Tectonic Edge, Vault of the Archangel, and Marsh Flats are all possibilities since we know the deck contains both white and black. This is where the money in this deck will be.

Auriok Champion, Spectral Procession, Path to Exile, and Zealous Persecution are all likely inclusions. Lingering Souls is almost a certainty.

Don’t sleep on Bitterblossom as a spec target if it isn’t here, though, even if Faeries continue to flop. The best version of W/B Tokens likely involves the full playset of Bitterblossom, and people looking to buy this Event Deck and augment it for tournament play will want them. That should keep the price very high.

Knowing what we know, however, I’d be selling every card listed above and fast.

  • Fracturing Gust spiked because it was a two-of sideboard card in Brian Kibler’s Pro Tour deck. This is a bad reason for a card to spike, so my guess is that a couple of people decided to go in on a buyout. Stay away.
  • As I alluded to in my article, Birthing Pod spiked from $10 to roughly $16-$17. This is largely due to the actions of a single Spanish speculator, but the price has been threatening to go up for months, so I think the new price will stick. Heck, if the deck did well in Richmond, the card could hit $20.
  • It’s getting harder to find Modern Masters boxes under $400. If everything keeps spiking, these will hit $500 retail this summer easily. That’s the point when I would sell—if Modern Masters II has a larger print run and many of the same cards, demand for boxes of the original Modern Masters will tank.
  • I feel like this is the bottom of the market for Commander 2013 singles. This is your time to buy those, especially the ones that are good in Legacy.
  • The Standard format hasn’t changed much in the past few months, though Mono-Red Aggro has been appearing a little more at the top tables. Ash Zealot still has a little room to grow.
  • Runed Halo showed up a little as sideboard tech and spiked to $8 when someone bought out many of the major vendors. It’s fine, but this price is too high. I’m selling.
  • Someone bought out Helix Pinnacle for literally no good reason. This is randomly an $8 card now too.
  • Looking for the next buyout target? Check out Thrun, the Last Troll. It’s an underrated Modern card that hasn’t budged in price in over a year. It is cheaper than Helix Pinnacle right now.
  • With prices on everything going nuts, what’s the best way to make money? Buying collections!