Retaining Card Value

Jon shares the set of basic metrics that he has used to more effectively manage his collection without needing to know the specifics of the current market.

As many of us who began playing Magic when we were younger can attest, there is a strange interplay between emotion and reason when it comes to managing our collections of cards—which is doubly true if we try to be intelligent about how we manage our collections.

For those of us who have a basic goal of something like "own four of every card," these thoughts are much less relevant, but for the rest of us the conflict between emotion and economics is a very real issue as new sets are released and older sets rotate out of Standard. On one hand, there is something that "feels good" about looking into a binder and seeing multiple copies of the newest mythics and rares: Voice of Resurgence, Thundermaw Hellkite, Huntmaster of the Fells, etc. Since I’m not a child psychologist, I can’t really extrapolate with any scientific validity whether this stems from the fact that I began playing Magic when I was much younger or whether this is just a function of a collection mentality.

As I sat talking to some friends at a tournament a few weeks ago, though, I began thinking of the amount of value that I lose simply by sitting on my Standard cards while they rotate into Modern, Legacy, and often into obscurity. For those of us fortunate enough to have gainful employment, these losses in value aren’t tremendous, but they still have some magnitude. Primeval Titan used to sell to most buylists for $15-20, and now it sells for $3. I still have my playset, which I infrequently use. Is the abstract feeling of having those cards in my binder worth $48?

As I grow older, my answer—much more frequently than it has been in the past—is "no, not really." If I really wanted those Primeval Titans right now, I could buy them for $5 each. There is a real, basic cost to holding on to cards without reason.

This is something that many of the Magic financial gurus like Chas Andres cover with every set review.

"What," they ponder, "is the long-term value of this chase card?" 

There is a significant amount of analysis that goes into these articles, and the intent of this article is not to step on those toes because they are more qualified to do that work than I and there would be no use in replicating what already exists.

Instead, what I’ve begun doing is developing a set of very basic, general metrics that I can use to more effectively manage my collection without needing to know a lot about the specifics of the current market. Now, obviously, it pays well to know what the metagame in each format looks like. Sometimes the metagame will drive an exception, and I acknowledge that limitation. What I really want to be able to do is to sit down very briefly, glance over my collection, and make a general decision about what to retain and what to sell while being reasonably correct.

In order to do that, I began by poring over the buylist on this very website for the sets that were in Standard last year to see what kinds of cards retain value. Inevitably, one or more people will be tempted to post in the forums that "he’s a SCG writer so he has to use the SCG buylist."

To this anticipated complaint, I respond with two quick points. First, it’s important when doing an analysis to have a consistent basis to measure value. The SCG buylist is convenient because the same people have told me what I can get from them for all of the cards that I’m discussing. Second, the buylist prices for cards that aren’t extremely rare or new are pretty solid in many cases. Right now, for example, StarCityGames.com buys Thundermaw Hellkite for $10, and I could sell a copy on eBay for around $12.50 (based on the estimates from auctions ending in the next day or two). That’s not a serious disparity given the time that it takes to manage auctions and deal with customer feedback versus putting everything in a plastic box and letting an SCG buyer do it for me.

So let’s look at the cards from last year’s Standard (Scar of Mirrodin, Mirrodin Besieged, New Phyrexia, and Magic 2012) to see what has retained fiscal value. To attempt to avoid multiple reprint confusion, we’ll stick mostly to cards that were unique to these sets and not reprints. For example, Primeval Titan was printed in Magic 2011 as well. Although it currently is on the buylist for $3, we don’t know how that price would change if it were exclusive to Magic 2012.

Let’s look at the mythics, which generally hold the highest prices:

At $1 and over we have:

Angelic Destiny ($2)
Garruk, Primal Hunter ($6)
Jace, Memory Adept ($6)

Elspeth Tirel ($6)
Koth of the Hammer ($1)
Mox Opal ($20)
Platinum Emperion ($3)
Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon ($3)
Sword of Body and Mind ($3)
Venser, the Sojourner ($1)
Wurmcoil Engine ($6)

Blightsteel Colossus ($5)
Consecrated Sphinx ($2)
Hero of Bladehold ($2)
Sword of Feast and Famine ($6)
Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas ($8)
Thrun, the Last Troll ($3)

Batterskull ($6)
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite ($6)
Karn Liberated ($12.50)
Phyrexian Obliterator ($8)
Sword of War and Peace ($4)
Urabrask the Hidden ($1)
Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger ($3)

For the most part, these are the "biggest ticket" items that we can find from the previous Standard format. One interesting observation that we might make right off the bat is that very few cards from Magic 2012 retained any value. Two of the three mythics that can be sold for over $1 are still actively played in the current Standard, having been reprinted in Magic 2013, so we can’t be sure about their value.

Leaving those two cards aside, we can further break this first list down into basic categories:

1) Planeswalkers – There are five planeswalkers that can be sold for $1 or more. The ones that don’t see any significant play in Modern or Legacy are worth $1, while those that see some play range from $6 to $12.50. Karn, the most expensive of the planeswalkers, was printed in a third set and was not really on anyone’s competitive radar until it started popping up in Urzatron decks, so those factors might have contributed to its heightened price relative to Tezzeret, which appears in both Modern and Legacy lists. The biggest decline that we see here is Koth, who was a fairly valuable card while in Standard but who also fit the general rule that red planeswalkers don’t retain value once they rotate out of Standard (and infrequently have any value while in Standard).

2) Enchantments and artifacts (noncreature) – A significant outlier from these cards is Mox Opal, which currently can be sold for $20. This card has followed the trend that we can observe with playable mana sources (i.e., Cabal Coffers at $4 on the buylist despite being an uncommon and Mox Diamond at $15 despite only being eligible for Legacy, Vintage, and Commander). Otherwise, the primary cards that have retained value in this category significantly and repeatedly strengthen creatures (equipment and reusable enchantments). Stoneforge Mystic probably affects these values in Legacy, but the cards are valuable on their own. It’s worth noting that they still have significantly less value than they did in Standard (I recall selling a Sword of War and Peace for $20 during the Caw-Blade era).

3) Creatures – A significant number of legendary creatures retain value for casual and Commander play (i.e., Vorinclex and Urabrask), while others are good reanimation targets (Elesh Norn) or significantly affect the board and/or can be cheated into play easily (Wurmcoil Engine). I can’t really figure out why Phyrexian Obliterator is worth $8 right now though.

Now let’s look at the mythics from the same sets that are considered to be "bulk" cards:

Quicksilver Gargantuan
Praetor’s Counsel
Molten-Tail Masticore
Lux Cannon
Liege of the Tangle
Indomitable Archangel
Hero of Oxid Ridge
Glissa, the Traitor
Geth, Lord of the Vault
Etched Monstrosity
Time Reversal
Inferno Titan
Furyborn Hellkite
Frost Titan
Bloodlord of Vaasgoth

Some of these cards clearly were bulk cards when they were released, but others had very significant value while they were played in Standard. Molten-Tail Masticore had its day in the sun, though it was never excessively expensive, while Hero of Oxid Ridge, Inferno Titan, and Frost Titan all were fairly expensive during their heydays.

Here are some general concepts we can infer from this:

First, most creatures at mythic rarity will not be worth more than $6 after they exit Standard. Obviously, there will be exceptions; cards like Snapcaster Mage, Dark Confidant, and the like, while not mythics, are cheap and powerful. It’s possible that Voice of Resurgence will also join these cards. Based on this limited sample, even very powerful red creatures like Hero of Oxid Ridge will lose all of their value once they rotate. They simply are too expensive to fit into red strategies in the Eternal formats.

Second, planeswalkers will retain value generally in proportion to how valuable they are to Eternal archetypes. While Venser is a really "cool" card for Commander decks, that hasn’t done much to stabilize his price higher than $1. Some cards that are interesting generals, like Vorinclex, will have slightly higher price points and may actually be worth more than they were while they were in Standard.

Third, good equipment will generally be worth something, though it will be difficult for any equipment printed in the future to eclipse the "holy hexagon" of the five Swords and "Batterskill."

What does that lead me to conclude about the cards that I currently own? Bear in mind that my goal was to sit down, briefly scan through my collection using general principles, and then make a moderately informed decision.

There are a few cards that I fully expect to lose a lot of value at the end of the summer. Some prices on the buylist that seem out of place in the broader context include:

Thundermaw Hellkite ($10)
Falkenrath Aristocrat ($8, but was $10 last week)
Huntmaster of the Fells ($8, but was $10 last week)
Vexing Devil ($5)

These four cards all break a variety of the general rules that we’ve set up. First, they are creatures that have red in them (less meaningful when mana fixing is good, but still relevant). With the exception of Vexing Devil, they cost four or more mana and are designed expressly for aggressive strategies. I can’t imagine that these cards will retain anywhere near the current value that they have. Thundermaw Hellkite is abstractly powerful in a strategy like Mono-Red Aggro (he may be better than Demigod of Revenge in some circumstances), but that doesn’t merit a $10 price tag. I imagine that he will sit on the buylist at $2-3 at this time next year.

For those of you who have read my articles before, you know that I always try to put my money (or actions) where my mouth is. I sold all of my copies of those cards last week based on the very general, non-scientific concepts that I’ve outlined here. It’s always possible that I’m wrong, but simply by selling last week versus this week I’ve already seen a net return of $16 on the playsets of Huntmaster and Aristocrat.

It felt a little strange to drop those cards in the mail because I’ve always just kept playsets of those kinds of cards in the past, but as I look at my now-bulk copies of Frost Titan and the once-$20 copies of Koth of the Hammer, I think I can reconcile my heart and my wallet.