, I spent over a thousand dollars on a long-term spec purchase. It wasn’t a collection deal or a lucky one-time find, either-in fact, you can go out today
and make the exact same buy that I did.
What did I buy, and was I crazy to do it? That’s the topic of this week’s article. Bear with me, though, because my story needs a little bit of set-up. The
first thing we need to do is talk about a Magic finance topic that is rarely discussed: the advantages of buying complete sets.
The Case for Complete Sets
If you’ve ever had a complete set that you’ve tried to sell, you’re probably rolling your eyes at me right now. Sets are notoriously difficult to sell.
None of the popular trading or individual sales sites really support them, and the eBay sales volume is a trickle.
This goes double for older sets, where finding a buyer at market value can be nearly impossible. I spent months trying to find takers for complete sets of Time Spiral block cards once, and at a certain point I just gave up and threw the cards in my closet. (This proved to be the right move in
Why don’t people like complete sets? Well, it’s rare that someone wants to buy, say, all 249 cards in Theros at once. Competitive players are only
interested in the format staples, and casual mages only want the cards they need for a specific deck. It also feels bad paying money for cards that you
already have, and very few Magic players have zero cards from Theros right now. Buying a complete set can feel like a repetitive waste of time,
effort, and money.
This is the same fallacy that makes the Battle for Zendikar event deck such a great deal even though very few people are taking advantage of it. I
bought a set of these decks at $20 each, and each contains a Hangarback Walker ($15.59), Tasigur, the Golden Fang ($5.99), Whisperwood Elemental ($5.99),
Warden of the First Tree ($3.55), Evolutionary Leap ($2.09), and Llanowar Wastes ($1.79) alongside a number of very solid uncommons. That’s a lot of value,
especially when you figure that a few of these cards have already proven themselves in Modern. Because so few people feel like they need all of
the cards in that deck, though, they’ve been sitting on shelves while fat packs have been flying out the door. Go figure.
Complete sets are also a good way to circumvent major price spikes. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy might have jumped from $50 to $80, but the price of a sealed Magic Origins set hasn’t gone up nearly as much. Complete sets are the barges of the Magic finance world: it takes weeks, not days, for them to
adjust to market factors.
The real trick with sets is take them apart and treat them like singles. Your complete set of Morningtide isn’t a magical object that collectors
will drool over-it’s a stack of cards, many of which don’t have any value at all. If you want to maximize value and flexibility, take the unplayable
commons and uncommons, stick them in a box, and give them to a kid at your local store or (even better) youth shelter. It’s addition by subtraction, and
breaking up sets will increase your number of potential buyers a hundredfold.
Buying Sets at Rotation
The future of the singles market is always uncertain. It’s starting to look as though a supply glut combined with a decrease in the growth of the player
base right around Return to Ravnica has stopped cards from 2012 and beyond from experiencing the same kind of quick Eternal growth curve as, say, New Phyrexia.
That doesn’t mean Return to Ravnica has been a complete bust. Utvara Hellkite, Worldspine Wurm, Abrupt Decay, and Chromatic Lantern have all more
than doubled in price since rotation. The shocklands have begun to creep up in price, too. A day might come when buying Magic cards at their rotational
nadir isn’t a guaranteed long-term money maker, but that day hasn’t come once in Magic’s 22-year history. That’s why I always post my long-term rotational
buys in mid-August; it’s the best way to build a sustainable long-term collection with a risk factor close to zero.
What would a complete set of Theros cost us right now? Well, the cheapest one I can find anywhere is $84 shipped. That number is meaningless until
we figure out what that means on a per-card basis, though. Let’s do some quick and dirty math.
First off, Dissolve is the only Theros uncommon of note, and it retails for under a buck. Let’s ignore it and the other commons and uncommons for
now. You might be able to sell these later as a common and uncommon set, but your profits will be negligible.
Here’s the mythics and their current retail prices:
– Elspeth, Sun’s Champion – $6.99
– Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver – $6.49
– Purphoros, God of the Forge – $6.09
– Thassa, God of the Sea – $5.99
– Xenagos, the Reveler – $5.49
– Erebos, God of the Dead – $4.15
– Nylea, God of the Hunt – $4.05
– Master of Waves – $3.95
– Heliod, God of the Sun – $3.19
– Stormbreath Dragon – $3.09
– Hythonia the Cruel – $1.49
– Ashen Rider – $1.49
– Medomai the Ageless – $1.49
– Polukranos, World Eater – $1.49
– Underworld Cerberus – $1.49
Let’s do a worst-case-scenario adjustment for the bulk mythics, giving them a more realistic price of $0.25 each. You should be able to get at least that
much for them from a store’s buylist. That gives our pile of mythic rares a total retail value of $50.73.
Moving on to the rares:
– Thoughtseize – $20.75
– Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx – $5.65
– Hero’s Downfall – $2.59
– Anger of the Gods – $2.15
– Sylvan Caryatid – $1.99
– Temple of Deceit – $1.75
– Temple of Silence – $1.69
– Fleecemane Lion – $1.55
– Prophet of Kruphix – $1.55
– Bow of Nylea – $1.49
– Temple of Mystery – $1.09
– Temple of Triumph – $1.09
– Whip of Erebos – $1.05
– Colossus of Akros – $0.99
– Bulk Rare x37 – $0.25/each
I’ll value the bulk rares at $0.10 each instead of $0.25, because that’s what you’ll be able to sell them for no matter what. With that adjustment made,
the rares of Theros are worth another $49.08. That puts our total relevant set value at $99.81.
Buying by the set, then, is a discount of about fifteen percent even after we factor out all the bulk rares, bulk mythics, commons, and uncommons.
Can we do better? Yes, but it’s going to involve the usage of a much-maligned feature of a much-maligned program. That’s right: It’s finally time to talk
about Magic Online set redemption.
Set Redemption Shuffle
For almost seven years, I worked in an office building from 9 AM to 7 PM each and every day. While our computers weren’t locked down, I never had the
ability to install programs that weren’t work-related. Because I never came up with a convincing reason why Magic Online was necessary for television
development, the inner workings of the MTGO market have remained a mystery to me. I’ve had an account since 2002 or so, but I only tend to open the client
once every couple of months when I’m itching to draft and my local shop is closed.
I’m often asked to write about MTGO speculation, and I usually defer by telling the questioner that I’m simply not well-versed enough in MTGO to speak
about it with any authority. I’m going to try and work on my MTGO literacy over the next couple of months. If all goes well, expect a small uptick in ‘MTGO
101’ type content from me. For today’s topic, though, very little MTGO knowledge is needed. In fact, I was able to spend less than two hours on the client
in order to get the job done.
Before we start pricing out our sets to see if the values make sense, it’s important to understand exactly how set redemption works.
First, each set on MTGO has a set redemption guarantee date and a set redemption cutoff date. Sets are only guaranteed to be available for redemption until
their guarantee date-if WotC sells out of complete sets before that, they’ll print more. Once the guarantee date has passed, they’ll keep allowing
redemptions until the cutoff date or until they run out of available stock, whichever comes first. For example, Dragon’s Maze was released on MTGO
on May 13, 2013. The guarantee date was October 31, 2014. The cutoff date is November 2, 2015. In my experience, sets are often available for a long time
after their guarantee date. In fact, we’re approaching the cutoff date for both Gatecrash and Dragon’s Maze, and both are still
in stock. You probably don’t have to worry about missing the deadline unless you’re very close to the cutoff date.
Set redemption used to cost $5, but the price was jacked up to $25 per set during Return to Ravnica block. This has made set redemption somewhat
less attractive, but it’s done more to depress MTGO values than anything else. Because the MTGO economy is still intrinsically tied to the paper Magic
economy, online card prices have dropped in order to accommodate the additional redemption fee. It’s a little more expensive to redeem a set now than it
was in 2013, but not by a full $25.
In addition, set redemption charges $3 shipping (inside the US) per order. That fee is the same regardless of whether you’re redeeming a single set or a
hundred sets, so you should try to redeem as many sets as possible in a single buy. International customers have to pay $30 shipping as well as any
associated customs or import taxes. This makes set redemption a much less exciting prospect outside of the US.
The actual process of set redemption is quite easy, though. Once you have a full set of cards in your collection inventory, you can buy a redemption token
from the MTGO store. You’ll get an email receipt during the weekly downtime, and the cards and token will be taken out of your digital inventory. About a
week later, the cards will show up at your house in the mail.
How much would our set of Theros cost us if we bought it on Magic Online today and redeemed it right away? Let’s use the price calculator on
mtggoldfish.com to find out. Mtggoldfish is a fantastic resource, especially if you use MTGO, and I highly recommend checking it out.
At any rate, that website prices the entire Theros expansion at 38.45 tix. (MTGO uses event tix as a currency instead of the US dollar. I’ll get
into the differences a little later, but for now you can assume that one ticket is roughly equal to one dollar.) If we add that to the $25 redemption fee,
we get $63.45 per set before shipping is factored in. That’s much cheaper than the $84 we were working with during the last section.
It’s tempting to go through the list of digital card values and balk at the prices that are higher online than in paper. Master of Waves is a mid-tier
mythic in paper, but it’s the most expensive card in Theros online–$8.17 vs. $3.95. That price increase is mitigated by the fact that nearly
every other card is much cheaper online. Thoughtseize is just over five tix, and you can buy five copies of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx for a dollar. Try
walking into your LGS and offering the owner twenty cents each for their Nykthoses!
Not only are digital prices cheaper than paper prices in general but rares tend to be especially devalued and casual rares are almost worthless. The only
reason that some mythics are expensive-Underworld Cerberus is almost a buck online despite seeing no play-is because they act as a choke point for set
redemption. This goes double for foil mythics, where Underworld Cerberus is worth more than 25 tickets by itself while foil Nykthos, $30 in paper, is still
under a dollar online.
You can use this to your advantage if you’re a shrewd MTGO speculator. Foil mythics tend to be at their lowest during the first few weeks of online
legality because set redemption hasn’t started yet. Standard staples can be cheaper while drafts are still firing than closer to rotation because the
number of drafters wildly outnumbers the number of redeemers. There was a time last winter when you could have redeemed an entire set of Khans of Tarkir-fetchlands included-for about 90 bucks.
Let’s stick with our $63.45 figure, though. Is there any way to shave that down even further? Well, like I said earlier, Magic Online’s event tickets are
roughly equal to a dollar. That ‘roughly’ can be exploited, though. Depending on the current health of the MTGO economy, you can buy tickets from
tournament grinders or big-time speculators for less than a dollar as they attempt to cash out. This is harder now that so many events are playing out in
Itchy and Scratchy Money
Play Points, but there are still deals to be found.
I put the word out on Twitter and found someone willing to sell me the tickets I needed at .95/each. That shaved another $2 off the price of my Theros set, putting the total at $61.45. If you buy your tickets during a time of general market panic or MTGO befuddlement (this happens at least
twice a year nowadays), you might be able to get an even better deal.
Firing up the MTGO client, I was able to reduce my cost even further without any additional effort. I found a bot selling a complete Theros set
for just 37.49, which shaved another dollar off my estimated price. At this point, my Theros set cost me just $60.61.
Let’s factor that out among the rares of the set and see what we end up paying on a per-card basis. This math isn’t exact, but I wanted to get a rough
sense of what I’d be paying per card if I bought my set of Theros this way:
– Thoughtseize – $12.50
– Elspeth, Sun’s Champion – $4.25
– Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver – $4.00
– Purphoros, God of the Forge – $3.50
– Thassa, God of the Sea – $3.50
– Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx – $3.50
– Xenagos, the Reveler – $3.25
– Erebos, God of the Dead – $2.50
– Nylea, God of the Hunt – $2.50
– Master of Waves – $2.50
– Heliod, God of the Sun – $1.75
– Stormbreath Dragon – $1.75
– Hero’s Downfall – $1.50
– Anger of the Gods – $1.50
– Sylvan Caryatid – $1.50
– Temple of Deceit – $1
– Temple of Silence – $1
– Fleecemane Lion – $1
– Prophet of Kruphix – $0.50
– Bow of Nylea – $0.50
– Temple of Mystery – $0.50
– Temple of Triumph – $0.50
– Whip of Erebos – $0.50
– Colossus of Akros – $0.50
– Bulk Mythic x5 – $0.25/each
– Bulk Rare x37 – $0.10/each
Would you buy all of these cards for these prices? It probably depends on how much money you have to invest and how long you’re willing to keep it tied up.
It’ll be a few years before any of these cards begin to show real dividends, but not much has to go right before you start banking value. Thoughtseize
could hit $40 again. Master of Waves is already a staple in the resurgent Modern Merfolk deck. The Temples see occasional Modern play and a lot of
Commander play. All five Gods have a lot of casual value and are intriguing sleepers. The set’s three planeswalkers are casual favorites, and Ashiok might
find some Eternal value. Anger of the Gods is a Modern player. Prophet of Kruphix is a house in Commander. Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx could eventually become a
multi-format staple. Sylvan Caryatid could see a Standard reprint and shoot back up to $10. Hero’s Downfall or Stormbreath Dragon could find a home
Again, I’m not saying all of these things will happen, but some of them almost certainly will. When you’ve hedged your bets and avoided risk to this
degree, you only need a couple of wins before you’re profitable.
For just over a thousand dollars-$64 per set, on average-I was able to buy complete playsets of every Magic card that just rotated. That’s sixteen sets
total-four sets each of Theros, Born of the Gods, Journey into Nyx, and M15. I don’t know how long it’ll take before
the buy starts showing dividends, but I look at it like a long-term mutual fund or savings bond investment. At some point between three and six years from
now, I will be able to at least double my money. And in the meantime? I have some pretty sweet cards to play with.
A thousand dollars seems like a lot-and it is-but buying what amounts to a playset of an entire year’s worth of releases for the price of ten or eleven
sealed boxes isn’t all that bad. How many people do you know who bought two cases of Battle for Zendikar? This buy cost me less than that.
Of course, I could have had my sets much cheaper if I’d thought ahead even a little bit. Keranos, God of Storms cost me twenty tix by himself, but he was
just nine tix back in May. Eidolon of the Great Revel was three tix at release and almost fourteen tix now. Master of Waves was under four tix during most
of its time in Standard. If you play the MTGO market well, you’ll be able to lock in the key cards in your sets long before rotation. In future weeks, I’m
going to devote some space in this column at some point in the future to trying to figure out exactly when is the best time to buy.
For now, though, there’s an interesting proposition on the table: Are you willing to lay out a bunch of cash and buy sub-par cards for the chance to also
buy every high quality rotating staple at a below-market rate? For me, the answer was yes.
This Week’s Trends
– I’m writing this on Saturday afternoon, so I don’t have all of the results of #SCGINDY. Based on the trends I’ve seen online, Shambling Vent,
Dragonmaster Outcast, Scatter to the Winds, and Radiant Flames are the only BFZ cards trending upward right now-the rest are all stagnant or falling as we
await next week’s Pro Tour.
– Looking at the rest of Standard, Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy seems to be stable at $80. Dragonlord Ojutai is trending upward again, the fetchlands are still
climbing, and Den Protector and Anafenza, the Foremost are rising as well.
– Someone bought out Storm World, probably because it’s a Legends rare that might be somewhat Legacy-playable. It’s true that any deck running
Black Vise might want to consider Storm World, a card similar to The Rack that could be used as a kill once the player has escaped from underneath the
Vise, and most rumblings surrounding the price spike have indeed mentioned the Black Vise unban as the reason for the increase. I still don’t see it
becoming a real part of the format, though. Sell into the spike.
– Spawnsire of Ulamog is up to $7. It had been climbing due to actual casual demand, but the spike happened after someone wrote an article suggesting it as
a shrewd short-term pick-up. I don’t see this card settling in over $10, but any playable Eldrazi, especially from Rise, is worth at least $7-$8.
If you can get $10+ in the meantime, do it.