Magic: The Bubbling


As I am writing this article, Jace, the Mind Sculptor is sitting at $150.00, Force of Will is $100.00, Lion’s Eye Diamond is $100.00, and many players are scratching their heads and wondering, “Is this madness sustainable?”

It is certainly no surprise when we see individual card prices steadily increase over time as they are removed from print.  After all, Magic: the Gathering is a collectible card game that has recently experienced an incredible resurgence in popularity.  The supply of many of the older cards has not increased, yet the number of players seeking these cards has, which creates a disparity in supply and demand and causes the prices of many of these cards to rise.  Recently, however, we have begun to see a shift in the aggressiveness of these price increases, and many players are beginning to realize that these increases are not being caused by normal supply and demand market fluctuations, but instead by individual entities acting within the market to artificially raise card prices.  These entities range from wealthy individuals or long-time collectors/traders, to teams of speculators, all the way to major online retailers such as Star City Games.  While many people enjoy seeing the value of some of their cards rise dramatically overnight, the one question that many players are asking is, “Is this practice good for the overall health of the game?”

The first question that most would ask is, “How is this happening?”

To answer that question, let’s examine a long-time powerhouse card to recently soar in value: Jace, the Mind Sculptor.  Here is the entire price history for Jace:

When Jace first debuted, his price tag was not incredibly high, sitting at around $25.00.  It only took a few months for players to catch onto him, and his price started to reflect his power level.  After Alara block rotated out and was replaced with Scars of Mirrodin, Jace’s power level shot through the roof as the only real answers to him, Oblivion Ringand Bloodbraid Elf, rotated out of the format, leaving Jace alone to completely dominate, and dominate he did.  It was during this period that Jace hit his standard high of $110.00.  Eventually, the CawBlade lists that included Jace became too dominant and WotC stepped in and took action by banning both Jace and Stoneforge Mystic from standard play.  As expected, this caused Jace’s price to drop dramatically, falling almost 50% to $60.00 at first and eventually to a low of $50.00.

Since that time, Jace’s price has been on a slow creep back up.  From December, 2011, when he was at his post-banning low of $50.00, it took almost an entire year for him to get back up to the $100.00 mark.
Once Jace hit $100.00, he just sort of stopped, and for about 5 months we saw no movement from him.  Then, almost overnight, he skyrocketed from $100.00 to $120.00 and then immediately to $150.00 on Star City Games website.  What caused this price increase?  Jace’s popularity has not really changed recently.  He is still seeing play in the same legacy lists.  During the recent Invitational in Atlanta, when this price spike occurred, many players were rumoring that the price increase occurred because Jace was being slated to be unbanned in Modern.  By now, most people realize that those rumors are just that, rumors.  So, why did Star City raise the price of Jace?  Simple, they want Jace to cost more so that they make more money off each one they sell.

When Star City raised their prices on Jace, the remaining secondary market did not really change.  The entire weekend, and a few days after the Invitational was over, you could still find Jace for $90-$100 on eBay and TCGplayer.  Most people would point to this and say that this is a fine practice because if Jace is not really worth $150 then no one will buy them from Star City and they will eventually have to lower their prices to meet his realistic demand.  However, there is another factor that must be considered, and that is Star City’s buy list.  You see, Star City did not just raise the sale price of Jace, they also increased their buy price on Jace up to $100.00.  This meant that if you were selling Jace on the secondary market for less than $100, you were losing money.  If you had the money, you were out there buying up Jaces for $90 and then selling them to Star City for $100, netting you $10 for every Jace that you bought and sold to them.   Once the rest of the market caught on, Jace’s price everywhere went to $120.00.

As you can see in this chart, taken from TCGplayer’s website, showing the recent price history for Jace, his mean price was $99.50 on April 9th, which was the Tuesday immediately following the Invitational.  In the seven days since, Jace’s mean price on TCGplayer has risen to $153.52.  This rise in price wasn’t due to Jace suddenly becoming more in demand, or becoming unbanned in Modern, or finding a home in a ridiculously overpowered legacy brew.  This price increase was directly caused by market manipulation at the hands of Star City Games, and this isn’t the first time it has happened, and my money says it won’t be the last either.

The first time I remember this type of incident occurring was last year when Star City came out and aggressively raised the prices on their Zendikar fetch lands.  The Zendikar lands had stayed around $15.00 after rotating out of standard, and it wasn’t until the announcement of the Modern format that their price began to rise to around $20.00.  That wasn’t enough apparently, because about six months after the announcement of Modern, Star City decided to aggressively raise their sale price on the Zendikar fetches to $35.00, and it didn’t take long for the rest of the secondary market to follow suit.

It isn’t just Star City that is manipulating the secondary market.  Individual traders and investment teams are also involved in the practice.  Thoughtseize was a card that saw a staggering gain in value at the hands of online speculators.  For over one year, Thoughtseize’s price had sat at a firm $40 on Star City.  Then, in early 2013, Thoughtseize all but disappeared from the internet.  Speculators, in response to the Modern PTQ season, were buying them up.  This created an issue with supply and demand for the card, which caused Thoughtseize’s price to jump from $40 to $70 within a month’s time.

These price increases are becoming more and more frequent.  During the same weekend that Jace rose to $150, Force of Will also increased from $80 to $100 and Lion’s Eye Diamond increased from $80 to $100.  While these price increases are great for the people who already own the cards, it’s terrible for those seeking to acquire them.  These dramatic increases only add to the already staggeringly high costs of getting into eternal formats.  Not only that, but even Standard is beginning to suffer from it.  This year, many of the tier 1 competitive standard decks came in between $600-$900.  That is almost as much as Caw Blade during Zendikar-Scars standard, and that deck was a financial outlier when compared to the rest of the decks in the format.  Now, it has almost become the norm.  We are entering a Magic bubble, and either the card prices are eventually going to give, or the player base will, as it becomes more and more unaffordable for the vast majority of people wanting to play competitively.

Unfortunately, there is not a great way to fight it.  Star City has become the Vatican of the secondary Magic market, almost able to just dictate the price of cards as they see fit and forcing the rest of the market to either adhere or be priced out of the industry.  Even eBay is not safe from the effects of these aggressive tactics.  Sellers on eBay can easily compete with Star City’s sale prices, but they are hard pressed to compete with their buy list prices.  This practice is completely unhealthy for the long-term growth and development of the game, and while I do realize that the purpose of any retailer is to generate profit, I would have hoped that these giants in the industry would use their power and influence for the overall betterment of the game, rather than excessively lining their own pockets.

So, what can we do to combat this then?  First, you can vote with your wallet.  Simply refusing to buy aggressively priced or overpriced cards from these retailers will show them that they cannot just freely manipulate the market.  Support your LGSs, especially if they are willing to beat the inflated prices.  Use TCGplayer more often, and purchase cards from the retailers who are selling them cheaper.  Show the retailers that we are not willing to pay more for cards just because they say we should.  Unfortunately, this is really all we can do.  Sadly, though, there will still be people out there who will continue to buy these cards at these inflated prices just because they feel that they have to have them.  Eventually though, the bubble will burst, and prices will hopefully fall and then normalize.  Let’s just hope that it happens before too many players are completely priced out of the competitive scene.