No topic in the Magic community these days is more polarizing than the value cards. The secondary market, as Jess so eloquently put it last week, is the tail wagging the dog in the Magic finance world. Despite the existence of a suggested retail price, the value of cards in the free market will often drive the value of the sealed product that Wizards produces. Case-in-point is the skyrocketing price of fat packs of Battle for Zendikar which are highly sought after for their valuable full-art basic lands. Even if, or when, Wizards produces more product, they’re reacting to a market they have little control over, and one of their own making for better or for worse.

Collectible Cards

Magic has been tied to capitalism and the free market since the very first days of the game’s creation. In his original vision for Magic, Richard Garfield assigned rarities to the cards which quickly changed after the first few testing sessions. Eventually settling on the distribution of rares, uncommons, and commons, Garfield and his friends envisioned people picking up a few packs or a starter deck, putting the cards together, and playing Magic. They kept the rarities secret from the public at first, wanting to make discovery of information part of the fun of opening the packs. However, even during the original testing among his friends and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, a secondary market had emerged where the set of cards that would go on to become the Power 9 were already amassing great value.

In Titus Chalk’s book about the creation of Magic, So Do You Wear a Cape?, Barry Reich talks about the secondary market that grew during those earliest testing sessions:

“It was fascinating,” says Reich. “It was like a little stock market. Like an economic simulation that was occurring as we were playtesting. Some cards were clearly very powerful, like Time Walk, while others would rise and fall in value depending on how people played them.” To tempt others into trades, the playtesters quickly realised they could showcase specific cards in their decks while playing against their opponents and inflate the value of a card they no longer wanted before trading it away. Scruples went out the window as the playtesters got more and more hooked on the game and tried to master the rapidly developing environment. “The game took on a life of its own and did things Richard never expected,” says Reich.

Barry was very close to Richard Garfield and decided to impress his friend by building an all-artifact deck. Only 10 moxes existed at the time (two copies of each) and Barry managed to acquire seven of them. He used them along with some Sol Rings to power The Hive and blew people away, including Garfield. This experiment of Reich’s highlighted the power of these cards and changed the way people thought about the game. Originally, the testers assumed people would buy a starter and a few boosters and play the game. But now, the idea that people would try to acquire all of the most powerful cards, no matter the cost, to put in one deck was a tangible possibility.

Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy

Fast forward almost 25 years later to the final core set released (at the time): Magic Origins. The secondary market which has its roots in the wheeling and dealing of the East Coast Playtesters is now one of the driving forces of the Magic community. While Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, is nowhere near the power level of the cards Barry Reich assembled back in the early nineties, it is nonetheless among the most powerful cards available today and therefore has great value to players who, like Reich, are willing to pay the cost to build the most powerful decks.

With 87 copies in the Top 64 of the first post-rotation Standard Open, it’s no surprise to see the price of Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy soaring.
-Ryan Overturf, Quiet Speculation

The original designers of the game never foresaw the competitive landscape of the 21st century. Pro Tours. Grand Prixs. Star City Opens. Friday Night Magic. The kitchen table is no longer king when it comes to card valuation. The days of being able to add a few bulk rares to your deck to impress your friends and pump up their trade value disappeared with grunge music and tie-dye at the turn of the century. Now, even though casual players are still the vast majority of consumers, card values are completely driven by the competitive scene. If you want to play the best cards then you’ll pay a premium to do so. Jace is only the latest in a long list of cards that have seen their value explode due to high demand.


This is, of course, the nature of capitalism’s free market, or at least one side of that market. The demand for Jace is very high because competitive players, from the top tables of a Pro Tour to the kitchen tables of our youth, want to win and they will pay a price to do so. In this sense the free market is doing the right thing. Like the latest aerodynamic golf balls guaranteed to add a few yards to your drive, or the latest and greatest racing simulators for NASCAR drivers looking to shave a few tenths of a second off their reaction times, Magic players will pay to acquire the tools needed to gain any competitive advantage over the competition, or to at the very least keep up with the competition. In this sense, the demand for Jace drives his value up immensely.

The point of capitalism is two-fold. First, capitalism provides for the accumulation of wealth by producing for profit. Instead of producing a good for common cause or to meet a demand, goods are produced so that the producer can earn a profit. Second, the goods are produced for exchange on a  free market. This results in the existence of exchange-value in addition to use-value. All of that is a complicated way of saying that capitalism facilitates people creating things for the purpose of selling them on an exchange for a profit, and other people buying them for the purpose of exchanging them again instead of using them, sometimes referred to as investing.

Magic cards are produced to make a profit. There is a demand for games, obviously, and a demand for Magic cards exists, but they’re produced to make a profit for the shareholders of Hasbro. Furthermore, many consumers treat Magic cards as an investment. The secondary market facilitates the movement of cards from one private owner to another and therefore they have exchange-value in addition to use-value. This is the part of capitalism that often upsets many members of the Magic community. They want to use the cards, not exchange them again, so why should they be beholden to the exchange-value of a card? Why not set the use-value of all cards?

The exchange-value of Magic cards is largely driven by two factors. First is the use-factor which is the demand for powerful cards for constructed decks. Second is the rarity of the card. This is the other side of the capitalist free market: supply. Supply-side economics for Magic are tied to card rarity. Since Jace is a mythic rare from a set that was only drafted for three months it is difficult to acquire and therefore the supply on the open market is low. Supply is low. Demand is high. Capitalism is in action just like when Barry Reich paid the cost back in 1991 to acquire as many playtest moxen as he could.

Battle for Zendikar Fat Packs

As Jess wrote last week, the demand for Battle for Zendikar Fat Packs is astronomical, and therefore the prices have skyrocketed. Is this another example, like Jace, where supply and demand and capitalism are working to everyone’s benefit? Yes, and no. In the short-term, sure, there is high demand for these boxed sets and the supply of the first print run is a finite number. Ultimately there will likely be more fat packs printed and distributed, but in the meantime once they’re gone you’re at the mercy of the printing press to acquire another box. We see this phenomenon often with video game consoles, sneakers, and other luxury items. People will pay a premium to acquire the product on day one, even though there will be more available in the future.

What’s somewhat more astonishing about the BFZ fat packs is that the exchange-value is actually very low for these. Their demand is almost entirely in use-value. BFZ full-art lands will be plentiful and easy to acquire… in a few weeks perhaps. But right now they’re the hot new thing. Is this a feature of capitalism or is it a flaw? That’s a topic for a much more academic debate, but for the purposes of Magic I  don’t think anyone at Wizards is happy to hear about price speculation and market manipulation when it comes to fat packs.

Remember, the casual player is king when it comes to marketing  Magic. Competitive players may have the privilege of driving the value of cards, but they are not Wizards’ top consumer. The kitchen-table player will always be the one buying packs. These are the consumers who buy a fat pack of every set. They buy all the versus decks and the commander sets and they probably bought those terrible Premium Deck Series products as well. When one of these products is suddenly the victim of market forces then people start to take notice.

A Healthy Free Market

So what is the ideal world for the secondary market for Magic cards? I don’t think anyone has a definitive answer but we can almost all agree that the current system is not ideal. If Wizards agrees that the market is not healthy then they need to do something more drastic than they have in the past. Today, Wizards attempts to subtly manipulate the market by only controlling the supply-side of the equation. They can print more cards in order to bring prices down or they can make limited collectible sets to drive prices up. However this system is flawed because printing more cards takes time meaning Wizards cannot quickly react to changing market conditions. Furthermore, Wizards is reluctant to reprint cards in new expansions because of the impact to gameplay. They don’t want to end up with the same problems all over again, understandably so.

But what about the demand-side of the equation? Can Wizards control anything there? Not much, to be honest. I believe that if Wizards ever banned a card for financial concerns in Standard it would be a dark day indeed. Another way to reduce demand would be to cut support for tournament prize payouts, but that is almost as unlikely to happen as financially-driven bans.

In all honesty the only way for Wizards to rein in the market is the same way governments have controlled financial markets for centuries: regulation. I’m not even going to begin to speculate on what Magic market regulations might look like, but if the price of cards continues to spiral out of control, and more importantly the price of products like the Battle for Zendikar fat pack, then you’re going to start seeing Wizards make changes to their distribution model. The real change however would have to lie with places like Star City Games and TCGPlayer which control the secondary market’s pricing. So long as independent for-profit businesses can control the market with such ease, Wizards will never be able to regulate their own product.

At what point will people stop playing? When standard decks cost $1,000? What about $1,500? When is enough, enough? I suspect that, unfortunately, it won’t be until Hasbro shareholders start to complain and demand regulation of the Magic secondary market, but for the sake of the game and all players lets hope Wizards can take action sooner in a preventative way instead of continuing to let the financial tail wag the dog.

What We Learned is a weekly feature here at Hipsters of the Coast written by former amateur Magic Player Rich Stein, who came really close to making day two of a Grand Prix on several occasions. Each week we will take a look at the past seven days of major events, big news items, and community happenings so that you can keep up-to-date on all the latest and greatest Magic: the Gathering community news.

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