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Prices and the future of OS

When I started playing Old School Magic, I was very aware of the prices of the cards. I did not like to pay a lot of money for cards that were objectively (from a Legacy point of view) bad. Cards like Basalt Monolith. I ended up buying a playset of Beta copies, even though I thought it was insane. It took me almost half a year to agree with myself, to buy the Monoliths.

At that point, I was very certain that I would never be able to complete a fully Swedish legal deck. I simply wasn’t invested enough in the format. It was a novelty to me. Purely a nostalgic sentiment.

But lately, and at least throughout 2020, something has changed. I have stopped debating prices with myself. I no longer think to myself “A Beta Fog is like €4, why would anyone ever pay that?!” Rather I began to think along these lines “I really want a playset of Alpha Unsummon, simply because of the printing error in the textbox!”

I don’t think much about whether a price on a card is fair overall, I only think whether I can afford it or not.

It is not because I have a lot more disposable income now, than I did when I started my Old School journey. Actually the opposite (kids…). But I guess it is testament to the fact, that I have ventured deep into the Old School format, selling almost all staples from other formats (except for Premodern). Hence my Old School cards are no longer a funny sideproject, a nostalgic novelty, it is my preferred way of playing Magic. By far.

It is also testament to the fact, that I don’t really consider my collection as an asset. At least not in any financial way. My collection is my hobby and a great way for me to relax and hang out with like-minded, great people. It is not an investment. I never sell Old School cards, unless I am upgrading them.

Something has changed

The recent price spikes are of such an insane magnitude, that I must admit, I am starting to view my collection in a different light. My perspective is changing again.

Shortly into January, I talked to my cousin about buying some shares. He has owned shares for many years, and actually knows something about finance. He told me, that he had made about 25% gains on his portfolio in 2020. 25%! That is incredible. Especially considering 2020 also being the year of the worst global pandemic in a century.

I bought some shares. It is a long term investment. It is not that interesting.

But then I thought, “Well, my cousin has ‘earned’ 25% on his shares in 2020. I wonder how much I have ‘earned’ on my Magic collection.”

It was not easy to find out, because I had no starting point, so instead I decided to make some statistics: Every month on the 1., I write down the total worth of my collection according to deckbox.orgs tool “total set value”. The prices in here are probably not what I could actually sell my cards for, but I am not interested in total value, but rather the progression.

I entered a number on February 1. When writing this on February 18, the total value has risen 12%. 12% in about two weeks! That is absolutely ludicrous. Back in November, I wrote this article. In there I value my collection at around €70.000. From then to February 1, the total value has risen around 40%!

In short: The market for Old School cards, and the Reserved Lists cards in particular, has been absolutely absurd the last months.

A couple of weeks ago, a gem mint Alpha Black Lotus sold for more than $511.000! It is a whole new level of crazy collectible item. This particular Lotus was PSA 10 graded AND had an original signature on the casing. That is some rare shit. But still. Half a million dollars!

I would be uncomfortable walking around with a backpack with €10.000 in cash. I would stash the cash in a bank. But when I attend tournaments, the contents of my backpack is far greater! Maybe I should stack the cards in a vault? Or sell and cash in?

My point is, that with these extreme price increases, I now feel forced to consider the value of my collection, instead of just enjoying it for having a good time.

The Market

I am by no means a finance guru. My household economy is enough for me. But I think it is interesting to think and theorize about the Market – especially when it is as crazy as it is right now.

We all know that there are a lot of people with a lot of funny money these months. Different kind of stimulus money, GameStop shareholders and not least Bitcoin billionaires. I think it is obvious that all of these have something to do with the recent price spikes – not much news in this.

But it will be interesting to see, where it will end this time. Yes, we all know that the extreme spikes has a tendency to flatten out a bit over time, but we also all know, that the prices will never revert back to the level they were before the spikes. At least that has been the norm until now. Especially for playable, old Reserved List cards.

Could it be different this time?

Is there a breaking limit? How much is a Reserved List card worth? What is a fair price for a 30 year old piece of iconic cardboard?

Very difficult to answer such questions.

Is it possible for these Reserved List cards – especially the ones not gradeable – to hold worth, if there are no one playing them? If the price spikes drive players out of the market and force them to tend to their other hobbies, will the investors and hoarders actually be able to sell their cards?

I guess things like graded power – especially graded higher than 8 – will always have some value. But when looking at for example Diamond Valley and The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale on Magiccardmarket, the buyout has primarily been on the most worn cards. The nm copies are still to be found. Albeit at ridiculously high prices.

I asked Peter Strandbech from the Card Collective what his thoughts are on the matter.

First of all he also put the recent increases in prices into a wider context of money losing value compared to other physical valuable items. But he also has a very clever point with regards to whether the prices will stagnate or fall:

“In the long run, Magic will definately retain its prices. Many of the buyers are not people who are ever thinking of selling the cards again. They buy the cards to play, and to keep for a long time.”

In Peters view, the demand will thus remain high, but the supply will continue to decrease.

But he admits that some of the recent reserve list buyouts are out of hand, and he thinks the “bad” cards will go down in price again. “It has happened before,” as he remarks.

When I ask him, whether the prices will be able to remain high, if the players can’t afford the cards anymore, he answers, that the vast majority of sold cards, are not sold to “evil investors”, but to players. So there is that. And – apart from the obvious buyouts – he is, of course, right. As I mentioned before, it is not the collector objects that are torn off the shelves, it is the played copies – meant to be played even more.

According to Peter, in the future even more people will invest their money in collectibles such as Magic, making the prices soar even further.

PRICED OUT

The cards that have seen the most impressive jumps are all Reserved List cards. But of course, also staples from Beta and basically everything from Alpha has seen some nice increases.

Luckily, my primary wants these days are a couple of Beta Staples and some “cheap” Alphas for my Alpha40 project. So for the major part, my needs are not the ones flying through the roof.

But for spicy brewing purposes, I would need a playset of Diamond Valley (spiked from around €175 in August to around €550. Yeah, scratch that, since I started this article 4 days ago, the price has jumped to €700 for a bend, HP copy. The first LP one is €875) and a couple of Ifh-Biff Efreets (from about €50 last summer to circa €120 now).

As one of my friends mentioned the other day, when we were talking about prices “It has gotten a lot more expensive to brew…” Because when even outlier cards like Oubliette or Elves of Deep Shadow suddenly costs €20 and beyond, you will soon find yourself spending hundreds of euro, just to try out something new and fresh.

Old School has never been a cheap format. But it has always been a format, where the truly legendary pieces of cardboard was within some kind of reach for many of the new players. Now, the cheapest Unlimited Black Lotus on Magiccardmarket is €9500 (unless you want an altered, poor copy). And the one at €9500 looks a bit like it was run over.

The price of a very beat up unlimited Black Lotus is now more than what I bought my entire collection of Unlimited Power9 for back in 2015-2018. Actually it is more than I bought all of these cards for!

Most of these are worn and ready to be played, but still…

IMPACT ON THE OLD SCHOOL FORMAT

Will these extreme prices have an impact on the Old School format? Well, I think it will.

The prices simply make it impossible for everyone except for the very richest of people to ever acquire the beautiful flower. It makes the format less accessible. It makes it more elitist – it basically prohibits new players entering, with any hope of ever being able to play the best decks.

One thing is not being able to buy Power. But even Revised duals are fastly becoming mere objects of foolish dreams. A playset of Revised Underground Sea are now almost €2000. If you want to play a fast RG aggro deck, you still have to cough up almost €1000 for a playset of decent looking Revised Taigas. The hill to climb, to really be competitive in this format, has gotten a whole lot steeper. I know the format is not all about winning, but nor is it fun to never have a chance.

Now, this can – as far as I see it – mean one of two things:

Either the format dwindles and loses popularity. It seems to be what several of at least the Danish Old Schoolers think will happen. Even though one of the ones I spoke to said, that we are just all becoming angry and mad by sitting at home, just looking at prices soar on the Card Market…

Maybe someone will try some artificial respiration in the form of proxies (much like allowing CE/IE power has been a kind of artificial respiration, but now these cards have also gone through the roof). But I don’t think proxies will solve the problem. At least not in the long run. Just think about the fate of Vintage. Or Legacy, for that matter.

The other route I see the format taking is with a lot more focus on brewing and playing spicy decks with less Reserved List cards. Why not even a format like Old School, but with all the Reserved List cards banned? I guess the Revised40 format shows a bit of this route (I know you can play Reserved List cards in Revised, but there are not that many, and you can easily build great decks without Duals and Wheel of Fortune). In Denmark, we already se several tournament organizers make special rules for brewing, as well as entire tournaments where you cannot play all the most powerful cards.

And this is another route, I think we will see way more often – the points deckbuilding rules. It makes the format A LOT easier to come by, and flattens the “entry fee” by a lot. This would also mean, that the “open” Old School format would become a niche of a niche. Much like the Alpha-only format. A format only for the very rich, or the very lucky who bought the cards years ago.

I must admit, I fear for the development. And as I mentioned, I have revised my thinking about the meaning of the worth of my collection.

And I really have to call my insurance company.

How do you think the prices will infect the Old School format or the game in general? Let me know.

8 thoughts on “Prices and the future of OS

  1. A great read! Thank you.

    As a player that has been on the cusp of wanting to buy into Old School for the last 2 years or so, I have to admit the spikes of the last couple of months has made the idea a lot less enticing.

    1. Thanks Mathias
      See, I have a great interest in you buying into old school, so I just want to mention, that it is still very possible to build and buy budget decks – especially mono-colored. And I think you should 🙂 Thank you for reading and commenting

  2. I’m fine with realistic proxies. Make them available cheaply to new players if you want the format to grow. Otherwise it declines from here on out.

    1. I don’t think proxies has ever saved a format on the way down, but I am not certain. And OS is a format defined by nostalgia and to some extent a “play-with-what-you-have”-mentality. I think it is a way better route, to simply even the playing field by playing with a set amount of points.
      Thank you for reading and commenting.

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