The Old School Spikes

Don’t say Chas Andres didn’t warn you! Cards in Old School and covered by the Reserved List are soaring to new price heights! Chas explains why and explores what might be the next to spike! Plus, this week’s trends in other formats!

Last week, the Arabian Nights card Singing Tree spiked from $40 to $100. If you’ve never heard of the card, you’re not alone—Singing Tree is one of the many obscure, weird, and downright bad rares (and Uncommon 2s) from the early days of Magic that have more than doubled in price over the past few weeks.

The Reserved List works. It sucks. But it works.

This is fairly unprecedented. When the Old School format gained popularity a few years ago, a few of the 1994 powerhouses—Juzam Djinn, most notably—spiked in price as a small group of Magic players attempted to recreate the glory days of Magic’s first-ever tournaments. In recent months, however, we’ve seen those same spikes happen to some pretty mediocre spells. Stone Calendar, In the Eye of Chaos, Mana Vortex, Planar Gate, Willow Satyr…these aren’t Old School staples, they’re just…old.

What’s happening here? Unfortunately, there’s no new way of playing Magic that has made Stone Calendar a Tier 1 format staple. Instead, these new price spikes seem to be driven by the following four market forces:

1) Quick-flip speculators who are following a lucrative trend. Since these spikes keep happening, why not take advantage? If a card like Singing Tree is bought out overnight, it’s probably because of these folks.

2) Risk-averse speculators who like buying into Reserved List cards because the chances of getting blown out by a reprint are nil. This gang tends to lag a little behind the quick-flip crew.

3) Actual collectors. Some are going for full sets; others just want a small piece of history. A lot of them are buying in now out of fear of missing out before the next spike.

4) Casual and Commander players who are finding out about these cards for the first time due to the increase in hype surrounding them. You may not have known about Singing Tree before today, but at least one of you is now thinking to yourself, “Dang, I have a deck that could have used one of those!”

If you’re hoping that these new prices will hold, this paints somewhat disheartening picture of the situation. We’ve all seen random cards spike due to speculator buy-outs, only to have the price crater a couple of weeks later due to the fact that actual interest is low. If most of this price movement is just a bunch of speculators selling bad cards to slightly slower speculators, all of these cards should be cheap again in a few weeks.

That doesn’t seem to be happening, though. Stone Calendar peaked at a fairly artificial $40, but it’s still a solid $25+ on the open market. And if you don’t trust that anyone is actually interested in paying that price, it’s on the StarCityGames.com Buylist for $12.50 right now.

This is a card that was easy to find for less than $3 on August 1st, remember. When the major dealers start resetting their buy prices, that’s when you know that a spike has some actual legs underneath it. SCG wouldn’t be paying that much if they didn’t think they could make a profit. And they can’t make a profit if people don’t actually want it.

This is why I keep coming back to my initial analysis of Old School. I first talked about the format back in May of 2015, and it was one of the most polarizing articles I’ve ever written. Over and over again, people dismissed my bullish analysis of the format as Tiny Leaders-style nonsense because the player base was just too small to move the needle.

I’ve been wrong plenty of times, but this wasn’t one of them.

Juzam Djinn was about $200 that May. These days, it sells for about $600. If you dismissed the format as a bunch of speculators building yet another a mountain of fluff, you probably missed out on some massive profits.

The same thing seems to be happening today, albeit on a slightly different scale. There may not be that many players who are actually collecting rares from Legends and Arabian Nights, but just like Old School, there don’t need to be. We don’t have print run numbers for recent Magic sets, but do have solid estimates for the game’s oldest expansions. As best I can tell, these are the figures:

  • Alpha – 1,100 of each rare
  • Beta – 3,200 of each rare
  • Unlimited – 18,500 of each rare
  • Legends – 19,500 of each rare
  • Arabian Nights – 20,100 of each rare
  • Antiquities – 31,000 of each rare
  • The Dark – 128,000 of each rare
  • Revised – 289,000 of each rare
  • Fallen Empires – 744,000 of each rare

Note that these numbers are from this Crystal Keep calculation circa 1996. I’ve seen different figures circulating the internet more recently, including one Reddit post that claims there are only about 2,000 copies of each Arabian Nights rare, but I feel like these original numbers have the best chance of being accurate.

The problem with these numbers is that we have no idea how many cards survived the shoebox and schoolyard era. We also don’t know how many are locked in collections that are permanently off the market. Of the 1,100 Alpha copies of Mox Sapphire, how many are available at any time for any price? 20? 60? 200?

I really don’t know.

Because of this, I find that it’s more useful to speak about the scarcity of these cards in relation to each other. The fact that 289,000 copies of Underground Sea were printed is pretty abstract, but it’s fairly useful to know that there are roughly 2.6 copies of each Fallen Empires rare out there for each Underground Sea. Here’s how all the early sets stack up to Revised:

  • Alpha – 263 times rarer
  • Beta – 90 times rarer
  • Unlimited – sixteen times rarer
  • Legends – fifteen times rarer
  • Arabian Nights – fourteen times rarer
  • Antiquities – nine times rarer
  • The Dark – two times rarer

There are five very distinct rarity tiers here. Alpha is much rarer than Beta, which is much rarer than Unlimited, Legends, Arabian Nights and Antiquities, which are all much rarer than The Dark, which is still twice as rare as Revised, which is a set that contains a $500 card.

When the print runs are this small, weird things can happen. If I want to spike the price of a recent card like Smuggler’s Copter, there isn’t much I can do. I can buy out the internet, but it’ll cost me a small fortune and all of those copies will be replaced right away.

If I want to buy out a Legends rare like Divine Intervention, the path to success is far easier. I did a quick search, and I can’t even find a hundred available copies right now. If I bought them all, it would take weeks for the supply to replenish. In the meantime, the price would probably end up doubling. And I could do the same for dozens upon dozens of weird old cards. Heck, somebody already did this to Divine Intervention back in December 2015, causing the price to spike from $15 to its current retail price of $40.

It’s not all speculators and market manipulation, either. One person deciding to start collecting copies of a single old card can trigger a price spike. So can a content creator who decides to highlight an older card in a video or an article. The current spikes feel fairly buyout-y to me, but in reality it’s probably a combination of buyouts and an overall climate of sensitivity to said buyouts. If someone snags the cheapest 30-40 copies of a card, it’ll move the needle enough to attract notice. Since there have been so many buyouts lately, other collectors and speculators will rush in and snap up all the leftovers. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

This sort of buyout/hype/sell-off cycle is fairly common in Magic finance, and your best bet is usually to just sell into the hype window and move on. It may take a couple of months, but the prices generally trend back toward the pre-spike figure. The thing is, the supply on these ancient cards is so low that this doesn’t really happen for Reserved List spikes anymore. Remember the time when one guy bought out every Lion’s Eye Diamond and the price doubled overnight? And then somebody else did it again a few months later? There hasn’t been any erosion from either price spike yet. I’m not saying that these cards can’t lose value, but they’ve proven fairly resilient in recent years.

With Magic’s 25th anniversary just around the corner, we seem to have reached the point where these card values are driven by more than just their value in Commander or Legacy. Tournament staples from these sets have been expensive for years, but the lower-value rares have gone more or less ignored by players and finance folks alike. In the meantime, collectors have been slowly draining the available supply to the point where creating a price spike is fairly easy. And because the supply is so low, it’s going to be difficult for the prices to start dropping.

We could take a deeper look at any of these sets, but I’d like to focus on The Dark today. Random rares from Legends and Arabian Nights have been spiking off and on for years, but The Dark tends to get lumped in with Revised and Fallen Empires more often than not. There are still tons of $0.50 bulk rares from The Dark, but that might not be true a week from now. Let’s break down the set and see if we can uncover any sweet specs:

Rares That Are Already Expensive

All of these cards retail for at least $15 right now. The might spike further, but they’re not what we’re looking for at the moment.

Rares That Aren’t on the Reserved List

If people are actually angling for complete sets of The Dark, these cards will spike at some point in the future. Right now, it seems like people are after older cards that don’t have other printings. Stone Calendar wasn’t in Chronicles or Fourth Edition, so there aren’t any copies outside of The Dark. There are many more copies of Inferno and Leviathan out there. I’m avoiding these for the moment.

The Worst of the Reserved List Rares

These cards might spike because they’re on the Reserved List and are needed to complete sets. That said, they’re neither interesting nor playable, even if you squint at them from a hundred yards away. I’d put them on the bottom of your spec list.

The rest of the rares are all worth a slightly deeper look:

Cleansing – Expensive to cast and never going to do what you want, but weird and unique enough to make me think that this might be the next card up. I’m also starting to see some movement on the lower end of the market, so take that for what it’s worth.

Exorcist – I like Exorcist even more. The flavor is neat, and it’s powerful enough to see play in a Commander deck that wants to take advantage of the theme.

Frankenstein’s Monster – This card is called Frankenstein’s Monster. People are going to want it for that reason and that reason alone. Too bad it’s anti-synergistic with every graveyard card since.

Hidden Path – If this only gave your green creatures forestwalk, we might be onto something. There are four green pips in the mana cost, though, so you’re probably going to be the most vulnerable person at the table when this drops. It’s unique and weird, though, so it makes the list.

Martyr’s Cry – This one actually spiked while I was in the process of writing this article. I kept it here just to show you that we’re on to something.

Nameless Race – This card is awful, but I think it’s the only creature in Magic without a creature type. Thanks, errata!

Niall Silvain – So many green mana pips! The Dark is basically a bad homebrew set. I think Niall is weird enough to make the cut, but it’s not high on my list.

Psychic Allergy – I like this one. It’s a bad card, sure, but it’s a blue enchantment (!) that deals direct damage (!!). I see no reason why Psychic Allergy can’t end up as a random $15 card.

Scarwood Bandits – Heck yeah! Scarwood Bandits is a legitimate threat in Commander, where stealing artifacts from tapped-out opponents is a fairly disruptive thing to do. Sure, this would be a bulk rare if it were printed in a recent set, but in The Dark? It’s a hidden gem.

Sorrow’s Path – This is one of the two or three worst cards ever printed. It’s almost legendarily bad, though, which might help it out here.

Worms of the Earth – We might have something here if it wasn’t for that last clause, but this is basically a way to deal five damage for 2BBB. It’s weird and cool, though, and I’ve noticed the price chart already start to creep up.

Where do we go from here? We’ll see. These cards have probably been underpriced for too long relative to the better cards from these older sets, but if they all shoot up to $20, than the better cards have suddenly become underpriced relative to these. We could end up seeing a bit of a feedback loop where every Reserved List card ends up seeing a significant uptick in value. A lot of those cards were heading to the moon five or six years ago, but the pressure was somewhat released by Modern gaining popularity at the expense of Legacy. Legacy is pretty stable at this point, though, and people still want these cards for Commander decks and Cubes and just to feel connected to their past.

At the same time, the baseball card market should provide something of a warning here. Even if you go back to those 1950s and 1960s Topps sets—the ones that have $1,000 Mickey Mantle cards—the chaff cards still aren’t worth more than a couple of bucks each unless they’re perfectly graded. If you’re of the mind that this is a silly, temporary, speculator-driven phase, I can’t really argue with you.

Ultimately, I have to come down on the side of collectability. Even if the Reserved List is abolished, they won’t be making any more cards from Legends or Arabian Nights or The Dark. Magic is here to stay, and people are always going to want cards from its nascent days—even if they’re bad, and especially if they’re weird. It’s a little counter-intuitive for people who aren’t really in to the whole “collection” aspect of Magic, but I still think it’s correct. Just don’t expect to get rich quick on these cards—if you’re buying in, it’s with a look at the future of Magic collectability and the small chance of selling into a short-term spike.

This Week’s Trends

There was almost no major movement in Standard this week. Collective Brutality continues to tick up, while Grim Flayer, Hour of Devastation, and Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh continue to tick down. Ramunap Red and Mono-Black Zombies are still the class of the metagame, with Temur Energy, Mardu Vehicles, B/G Constructor, B/G Delirium, U/W Control, and R/G Ramp making up a solid second tier. It’s a pretty fun format, though a lot of people are still waiting for Ixalan before they re-buy into Standard.

Porphyry Notes was bought out last week, which caused the price to triple overnight. I’m pretty sure this was a response to the Drop of Honey spike—if that card can be $600+, why can’t a color-shifted version be $10+? The answer is that it probably can, though it doesn’t currently see play outside a single U/W deck in Legacy, so the upside isn’t really there. From what I’ve seen, people who actually play Lands in Legacy would rather just not run Drop of Honey than splash white for this card. It’s an intriguing effect, and there certainly isn’t much supply out there, but I don’t think there’s a ton of actual demand, either. I’m selling into the hype.

Commander 2017 caused a few more spikes this week, with Voidmage Prodigy; Brimaz, King of Oreskos; Shared Animosity; Sigil Tracer; Bloodline Keeper; Urza’s Incubator; Mana Echoes; Steely Resolve; and Ertai, Wizard Adept all seeing gains. Expect this to keep happening as eager Commander players look to supplement their new decks.

There were a whole bunch of Old School and Reserved List spikes last week. In addition to Singing Tree, the following cards shot up in price last week:

Not only are oddball Reserved List cards climbing in price, but so are some of the best-known cards in these early sets—Juzam Djinn, Nether Void, and even Bayou. This is a pretty major market trend at this point, and I expect it to continue for the foreseeable future.

Also of note: thanks to a recent Magic finance video, foils from Urza’s Legacy and Urza’s Destiny—the only Reserved List sets with foils—saw major price spikes as well. In fact, it’s hard to find a foil copy of Grim Monolith for under $500 right now. Just like the rest of the stuff we’ve been talking about in this article, these cards have probably been ignored and underpriced for a while now. These cards will probably drop a bit past their current spiked price, but I doubt they’ll fall off too much.