Tag Archives: MTG finance

Mastery of the Invisible

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Author’s note: Today’s article is not to be treated as a standalone piece, but rather a continuation of last week’s focus. If you have not already, please read last week’s article here.

Do you know why Homelands failed? Part of the reason was that the set was terrible, but most of the sets of that era were pretty bad. The set was also massively overprinted, and compounding this with the fact that, as I mentioned, the set was terrible, caused demand to drop off quickly. But why was it overprinted?

When Alpha was first sent off to print, Wizards made what it thought would be six months’ worth of product. To the company’s delight, it instead sold out in about six weeks. Based on that information, WOTC ran a second, larger printing (Beta), which was intended to last six months. It sold out in one week. Seriously.

Fast forward a year or so, and demand for Magic is surpassing the ability of its printers. Store owners and distributors learned quickly how to play the system: if you wanted six cases of Legends for your store, tell Wizards you want ten or twelve. You wouldn’t get what you actually requested, but you would end up getting the amount you secretly wanted the whole time. As more stores wanted more and more Magic, however, they had to get more aggressive in their estimations.

In between The Dark and Fallen Empires, however, Wizards gained the ability to print on a much larger scale. Fallen Empires had a printing of between 350 and 375 million cards, compared to only 75 million for The Dark. After Fallen Empires was Fourth Edition (when Wizards experimented with new US-based printing companies) and then Chronicles.

In October 1995, Homelands was only the second expert-level expansion to get the big-printing treatment, and stores were still overestimating what they needed to request to get what they wanted. This time, though, most of the stores got exactly what they asked for—unfortunately, what they got was Homelands. Homelands: the set so bad, WOTC had to force people at the pro tour to play cards from it.

Homelands Constructed

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Now, in the twenty years since, Wizards has gotten much better at both understanding demand and scheduling printing. Homelands was a failure in many ways and along several metrics. Players hated it because the best card in the entire set was probably Serrated Arrows. Wizards hated it because it didn’t sell well enough, and that’s a key point to understand. There have been cases like Avacyn Restored, where Wizards loved the set because it sold well, but enfranchised1 players hated it. There has also been one case of the opposite happening, which lead to the discovery of the primary focus of our article.

The Invisibles

Here is Mark Rosewater from Drive to Work episode 96:

“…Future Sight had come out. Time Spiral block had come out. And for the first time, we had this weird statistic. Up until Time Spiral came out, we would look at sales and we’d look at tournament organization, like how many people were playing in tournaments, and they tended to be lockstep. Meaning if tournaments were doing well, sales were doing well, and it showed this tight-knit bond between the two.

But Time Spiral did this weird thing that we’d never seen before, in which sales were down but tournament attendance was doing fine. I don’t know if “up” is the correct term, but they were not trending on the same line. And that was very different. We’d never seen that before.

And that’s when we realized—at the time we called them The Invisibles, but the idea was, there are people who play who don’t participate in organized play, that are hard for us to see because they’re not somewhere that we can easily monitor.

But for the first time, because there wasn’t a lockstep between tournament play and sales, we knew that there’s this group that wasn’t being reflected in tournament organization, but was obviously being reflected in sales.”


It’s jarring at first to realize how significant these “Invisibles” are to Magic’s overall sales. Time Spiral, to the enfranchised players, was considered a tremendous success. I know I was personally buying a lot of sealed product and singles during that time, and playing in tournaments at least two to three times a week. If we assume that “Invisibles” are spending less money on Magic per person than enfranchised players, then there have to be so many more of them in existence that they are still able to guide the course of a format’s fiscal success.

tarmogoyf

In my (brief) time working behind a game store counter, I have encountered some of these “Invisibles.” These are the people who will come to a game store but not bring decks or trades. If you ask them what formats they play (as a kind way to guide and hopefully grow sales), they will either politely or brusquely state some iteration of “We just play for fun” or “We only play at home.”


BRIEF ANECDOTAL ASIDE: I had this interaction with some customers once, and their response was “Oh, we just play Legacy.” “You do?!” My heart skipped a beat—Legacy players are extremely rare in Florida. “Yeah, but just at home, we don’t play in tournaments or with tournament decks.”. My heart LITERALLY shattered.


These are, again in the small sample size of my personal experience, not the players likely to spend serious money at your local game store. They aren’t buying more than enfranchised players in singles, they aren’t paying tournament entry fees, but they love Fat Packs. I think the last time I bought a fat pack it came with a book2. I see people who I’ve never seen at my store before come in, buy some number of Fat Packs, and then leave.

I have to also think a sizable portion of Invisibles are kids. If you first got into Magic when you were young, you or someone you knew likely bought packs from a major retailer and then played some strange interpretation of Magic at school or on the bus. Even though my first exposure to Magic was in grade school, I wasn’t lighting the tournament scene on fire until high school. Oh no: I was an Invisible!

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Applying Knowledge

So how can we profit off these rubes? Well, the honest answer is that we probably can’t. However, the more we can learn about them, the better we can predict how their preferences can and will affect the market. When you encounter Invisibles, make sure to present your game store as a friendly and accommodating environment. Offer events or game nights that cater to all types of players, not just the tournament-grinding Spikes. Put a tracking tag on their ears, like endangered species or that computer Professor Xavier has (note: please don’t actually do this). 

The truth is, a lot of the presuppositions we apply to “casual players” ought to be more correctly applied to Invisibles. Not every Commander player is going to rush out and build a dragon tribal deck today just because Dragons of Tarkir is available. However, dragons have for a long time been considered a “prestige” creature class, in the sense that inexperienced and disenfranchised players are likely to seek out dragons more than Lhurgoyfs or Splinter Twins. “Dragon” holds a captivating allure to players that are slowly familiarizing themselves with the game, which is why Shivan Dragon was the first real chase rare (that, and creatures were terrible pretty much up until Y2K).

I mentioned Avacyn Restored before, and almost every finance writer on the planet has made some comparative correlation between AVR and DTK.

Avacyn Restored, to players, sucked. However, the set was a huge success to both Wizards and game stores, and the set is considered in finance to be a slam dunk. You know what set Invisibles also liked? Rise of the Eldrazi. I noticed this trend a while ago: my store was selling out of Intro Packs and all the weird pre-con stuff that usually just collects dust. That set has a lot of value tied up in Emrakul and Ulamog, sure, but It That Betrays is also more than $10. That card saw absolutely no legitimate Constructed play, interacts poorly with formats that have singleton restrictions, and is still expensive! Khalni Hydra and Nirkana Revenant are each $15, Lighthouse Chronologist is $10 and freaking Bear Umbra is almost $5! While the value of that set is largely tied to its three headliners (and Linvala), there are plenty of, “No way, really?” prices in there that are based on eclectic demand.

I haven’t done a set review, and a part of the reason why is because so many people do a better job than I could ever hope to. I will, however, be going deep into my thoughts on the set next week.

Here’s a little homework assignment until then (don’t worry, I’ll be doing it too): look at the cards that are valuable in Rise and Avacyn that aren’t the obvious headliners (Emrakul, Avacyn, etc.). Do you see any cards in DTK that resemble them? What kind of effects seem to be popular? Nirkana Revenant feeds a very particular type of strategy with an effect that is not terribly common, but is always popular. See anything like that in Dragons? I’ll report my findings next week, feel free to share yours in the comments below.

Best,

Ross

1 I say “enfranchised” here rather than “competitive” or “casual” because either of those demographics is likely more connected to the game than the “Invisibles.” EDH players will never be on the pro tour, but the enfranchised ones are still moderately to very cognizant of what is going on in the rest of the Magic world.

2 Actually, the last Fat Pack I bought was with my best friend Byron. We opened a Tarmogoyf!

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Accumulated Knowledge 1 – Intro to History of Magic Finance

Hello! For those of you who don’t know me already, my name is Ross. Before we begin, I’d like to share my philosophy on Magic finance. I am not a store owner or vendor (although I have worked in the business before), and I have more than a decade of tournament experience. I have observed firsthand all of the changes that have influenced the course of Magic finance in the last ten years, and I prioritize teaching over telling. If I am able to give my readers a more firm understanding of what to look for and why, then they will be able to have continued success over the course of their gaming careers.

I believe strongly in long-term speculation rather than short-term targets (which is something we will discuss today), as well as catering your targets to your best fit, rather than attempting to mimic the successes of others. I also believe that the key to educating someone is by entertaining them as well, so I try to approach my writing with a light and approachable manner. Professionally, my work is in commercial insurance and risk assessment/management, so I typically identify loss potential as a major (if not the primary) factor in determining the potential of an investment. But enough about me, let’s get to work.

Magic writing (any kind of content on it, really) is often very ephemeral in nature. Cards rotate, formats phase in and out of popularity, players (and even writers) come into and out of phases of their life where the game is a priority. The reason why I personally enjoy the writing (and podcasting) of Mike Flores is that he has a wealth of background knowledge to help make comparisons between Magic‘s present and its past. Being able to anchor your present mindset with past experience makes for more structured and informed decision making. That is, of course, just one piece of the puzzle. Magic has changed drastically in the last several years, both in how the game is played, and who is playing it.


KEY CONCEPT: THE ZENDIKAR BOOM

I’d like to quickly explain what is perhaps the most important factor in Magic finance in the last several years. Beginning in 2009 (around the release of Magic 2010 and Zendikar), the active Magic player population began to grow at extraordinary numbers. This dynamic increase has continued ever since, and has created both increased demand for cards, as well as higher print runs for newer releases. We will synthesize this information later, but I wanted to get the definition out of the way now, because this is a crucial topic for financiers.


Even though Magic is over 20 years old, Magic finance is largely a new phenomenon. The early days of Magic writing were a mix of fascinating, if imperfect, ideas (“The Schools of Magic” is a personal favorite) and extremely rudimentary grasps of what was actually good (Do you realize Giant Trap Door Spider won a pro tour?!).

In the years since, Magic writing has improved exponentially, but much of Magic finance remains woefully underdeveloped by comparison. My goal over these next few weeks is to help explain and develop upon things that may not be overly apparent to those who are new to the game, as well as solidify the understanding of the more advanced.

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I want to spend the rest of today discussing the Zendikar Boom, so that you can broaden out the scope of it to inform your decisions. It should be mentioned upfront that Wizards very rarely releases any type of solid numbers on things like player population or print run— the latter for various reasons, and the former because even their internal figures are rough at best (DCI numbers track active tournament players, but what percentage are they of the Magic-buying public1?). When numbers are released, they are typically percentages, showing the increase or decrease in measurable metrics like sales or event participation.

Most of the population figures prior to Zendikar hover around the six million range. This number was thrown out in advertisements (and likely in early Hasbro acquisitions talks) as, “Join the game with over six million players worldwide!” Sometimes the number is seven million, sometimes five million, but the impression was that it was largely a static total number. Beginning in 2009, however, Magic suddenly began to show double digit growth, with percentages increasing around 25 percent annually. This means that by 2010, there were 7.5 million Magic players, definitely on the higher end of the fluctuations from 2000 until then. A 25 percent increase from there brought the population to roughly 9.375 million, the highest it has ever been.

It is important to understand how much of WOTC’s work is done in advance. Things like a set’s design begin more than two years in advance of its release, and even though printing happens much closer to getting the product on shelves, it is often determined on numbers arrived at much earlier. Many stores ran out of Zendikar product between the first and second printings. This indicates that there was insufficient quantity at the distributor level, not that a bunch of stores did really well.

Once can be a fluke, but twice and thrice may indicate a potential trend. In the Hasbro shareholder conference call for 2012 (fiscal year), they indicated that Magic had 25 percent growth for the last four years (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012). By just doing the same math we were doing before, we can guesstimate that Magic was at 11.7 million players in 2011, and beyond 14.6 million in 2012. In four years, the player population has added nearly ten million new people. Even if these numbers are fuzzy, the impact is not. If Zendikar was printed for six or seven million people, but now there are almost 15 million (other sources show “only” 12 million), what does that do to demand?

Now, when a set is in print, Wizards can always run more off the presses—even though the entire process is outsourced, the company is still able to get a few extra waves of product out after the official release. Any set that was no longer in print at the release of Zendikar, however, was done. Those sets, by the standards of the next few years, were extremely under-printed. Return to Ravnica, which had a much higher printing than Zendikar, had the same problem with running out of product before the release of the second wave (although not to as noticeable a degree). The annual percentage Hasbro has shown have all remained positive (showing growth), although if I recall correctly, this year’s was below double digits for the first time (six percent). That percentage increase is small, but the overall number behind it is still a massive amount of new players.

The most immediate impact this has is pressuring on the supply-side of any card printed before the Boom. Even if the percentage of demand stays the same (say, nine percent of all Magic players want a playset of Guttural Response), the actual number behind that percentage may have doubled. Not all of those players are going to transition into Legacy (or even sanctioned play), but how many of them want Underground Seas? The before and after on popular commons and uncommons from Modern Masters shows the impact an increase in supply can have on cards that fit our interests. It’s also why cards like Sleight of Hand (which had multiple printings!) are able to get high prices even at common. If you are looking for smart buys, they should most likely be from before the Boom impacted printing. Of course, unlike Guttural Response, which I mentioned just a minute ago, it should be a card people actually want.

The flip side, of course, is understanding what things to actively stay away from. While I would not say that newer cards are worth avoiding all together, you have to have a good reason and a better price. My personal baseline is $3 (the price of an in-print booster pack at my LGS). I like Rest in Peace as a card that sees play in both Modern and Legacy (as well as Commander, Vintage, Cube, Tiny Leaders, and whatever weird format has been invented since I sent this to my editor), and I can get two for the price of a booster. When considering cards from the last two or three years, you really have to have a clear idea of future potential to offset the huge amount of supply compared to cards from six or more years ago.

That’s all we are going to have time for today. Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments or on the forums. and I’m excited to be a member of MTGPrice!

Best,

Ross

1We will definitely talk about what Rosewater and company call “The Invisibles” next week.

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