You, too, can turn cardboard rectangles into lettuce!
You know what’s weird? I get paid actual human money to write a weekly column about the value of tiny cardboard rectangles. “Some rectangles will go up in price,” I write, “but don’t get too excited — some of the rectangles will also go down in price!” Then I go to the store, shove a different kind of rectangle into a digital card reader, and watch as a computer takes some of my cardboard rectangle word money in exchange for a basket of fruits, meats, and vegetables.
Value is mostly intangible. Some things have value primarily due to their utility, but that’s a lot rarer than you might think. For example, a head of lettuce took a certain amount of effort to grow, and it provides very easy-to-measure nutritional benefits. Assigning value to a head of lettuce seems relatively straightforward. But how does that value change if there’s a lettuce shortage while you’re running a salad-focused restaurant? How does that change if your lettuce comes from a small organic farm with a sterling reputation? What if you’re buying that lettuce from a famous chef as part of a high-end meal? Once you add any complexity to these equations, assigning value to a specific item becomes significantly harder.
And that’s just for something concrete, like lettuce. How do you assign value to something like a share of stock in a large corporation? What about an hour of your time? What about a celebrity autograph? What about a receipt for a JPG of a poorly-drawn ape? Heck, even the venerable dollar bill is just a shared agreement to pretend that pieces of paper and lines on a spreadsheet have value. Without that, it would be extremely hard to get anything done.
I bring all of this up because today’s column is all about exploring where Magic cards get their value. I’m going to get deep into the nitty-gritty of that, but it’s hard to do that without first having a discussion about how value itself is such a fleeting and subjective thing. It’s all part of a generations-long confidence game, and it’s impossible to talk about something as abstract as value without starting here.
On the one hand, it’s terrifying to realize that Magic cards really are just little pieces of cardboard. If we collectively decide that they’re worthless, they’ll become worthless. There is nothing intrinsically valuable about any of them — not even cards on the Reserved List.
On the other hand, the entire global economy is more or less the same thing. Magic cards might just be little rectangles, but so are dollar bills. The US dollar is backed by faith in the US government, but faith in anything is still an intangible and ephemeral thing. Governments collapse all the time, and their currencies often go belly-up when they do.
None of the “solutions” to this problem are actually different, either. Gold and silver prices are backed by faith in the continued value of these materials. Cryptocurrency prices are backed by faith in a computer program that causes climate change. Everyone likes to claim that Their Thing is the Real Thing, but it’s all faith, all the way down. That’s just how economics works. We go along with it because trying to barter your way to a movie ticket or a nice dinner out would get very exhausting very quickly.
With that little dose of existential terror out of the way, let’s talk about Magic cards. They have value, and their value isn’t assigned arbitrarily. Some are worth fractions of a penny, while others are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. But what gives certain cards a ton of value, while others have none? That’s the subject of today’s article. Strap in — it should be a fun one!
Why Cards Have Value: A Primer
No Magic card has value for just one reason. From the hottest Standard staple to the oldest Reserved List card, calculating the value of a Magic card requires considering a whole bunch of related factors at once. I tried to write this article in a more linear style, going through each different value-add in detail before moving on to the next, and it didn’t work. I kept having to bring in other factors before I was ready to talk about them, and it got real messy real fast.
To prevent that, I’m going to cover all of the different things that give a Magic card value right here, right now. Let’s start with the most obvious:
Cards have value due to utility in competitive play. If a Magic card ends up being played in a lot of competitive decks, it will probably go up in price. Most people want to win when they play Magic, so a large portion of the player base is always going to be chasing the latest and greatest deck. If a particular card ends up seeing play in one or more really good decks, demand goes up. When demand goes up, value goes up. Cards that might have been worthless just a few weeks ago can end up being worth quite a bit once they start seeing play in competitive decks.
It’s also worth noting that competitive Magic is very much pay-to-play. If you want to be a high-level Magic player, you have no choice but to spend money on the top cards. The top cards are always changing, so you have to always be spending money on the latest tech. This ensures that there are nearly always Magic cards increasing in value, as well as others that are falling off, entirely due to shifts in the various competitive metagames. The more people are engaged with the competitive Magic ecosystem, the more cards will rise and the higher they’ll go.
Cards have value due to casual demand. It doesn’t matter how bad a card is in competitive play if it’s popular with the casual crowd. The vast majority of folks who buy cards online are casual players, not competitive players, and they’re going to buy the cards that they want to use — not the cards that are necessarily showing up at the top tables in the MPL.
It’s also worth remembering that “casual” and “competitive” aren’t a binary — they’re a spectrum. Pro players might be on one side, and the true kitchen table mages might be on the other, but there are thousands upon thousands of players in between who are interested in cards that are situationally powerful in their (usually Commander) decks. These cards might not see a lick of play outside Commander, but they’re still incredibly powerful staples for the folks who are buying them for use in their own small playgroups. These cards often end up being worth more than the top competitive staples because there are many more Commander players than competitive Standard or Modern players.
Cards have value due to scarcity. The most-played card in Modern right now is Prismatic Ending. If you want to find a copy for less than $4, it’s not that hard to do. The 32nd most-played card in Modern right now is Wrenn and Six. Good luck finding one of those for less than a hundred bucks, though. Clearly, competitive demand alone isn’t enough to account for all of the value of a card. Otherwise, Prismatic Ending would be worth more than Wrenn and Six.
Market Price: $0.45
Market Price: $45.00
The biggest reason why Wrenn and Six is worth more than Prismatic Ending? Wrenn and Six is a mythic rare, while Prismatic Ending is an uncommon. There are a lot more copies of the latter card out there than the former, which means that it’s a lot harder to get. That makes it a lot more expensive.
Rarity is usually the largest contribution to scarcity, but it isn’t the only one. A card’s age is often just as large a contributing factor, because the available supply for older cards can be far lower than modern cards. Many, many fewer copies of each Shadowmoor card were printed than each Midnight Hunt card because the player base was a lot smaller back then. That might make Shadowmoor uncommons even more scarce than Midnight Hunt’s mythic rares. (I’d do the math if WotC released print run numbers, but alas, they do not.)
The other factor at play with older sets? Large swaths of the cards that were printed 10 to 20 years ago are locked away in collections and not available for purchase. What percentage of Shadowmoor cards are sitting in a drawer, deck, or binder somewhere? What percentage of them have been destroyed? Compare that figure to a set that was released last month, and you can see why scarcity compounds over time.
Lastly, the number of times a card has been reprinted contributes heavily to the scarcity question. Cards that have only been printed once, like Wrenn and Six, are simply a lot scarcer than cards that have been reprinted three or four times over the past few years. This goes double for cards that show up in Challenger Decks, where a key staple can appear as a 3-of or 4-of in a heavily printed pre-con. These cards suddenly become trivially easy to acquire, and their price drops considerably due to a total lack of scarcity.
Cards have value due to aesthetic pleasure. Some cards are worth more than others because… well, because they’re really pretty, or really cool-looking, or both. Take this particular Plains from Odyssey. We know it’s not expensive because of its gameplay functionality; copies of Plains are virtually free at any LGS. It’s not rare due to scarcity, either — other versions of Plains from the exact same set are worth less. Granted, the difference in price isn’t a ton here, but I wanted to illustrate the point that some Magic cards have additional value purely for aesthetic reasons. Certain illustrations or special treatments simply look better than others, and those cards usually end up being worth more because of it.
It’s also worth noting that aesthetic pleasure includes cards that are “iconic,” like Shivan Dragon, Black Lotus, Serra Angel, etc. These cards are strongly associated with Magic’s earliest days, and thus have additional aesthetic value due to these associations. There’s a reason why Beta copies of Shivan Dragon are worth more than most other Beta rares, and it’s not the card’s playability in any format, competitive or casual.
Cards have value due to collectability. The collectables market is primarily value-driven. People don’t just buy collectables because they’re fun — they buy them because they think that their collection will increase in value. This is sometimes true (think vintage sports cards) and sometimes not (think 1990s sports cards). Most of the time, collectables increase in value for a time before falling off considerably and crashing. I made a lot of money on Beanie Babies before that market crashed, for example.
Magic is a collectable card game, and there are loads of collectors and speculators who primarily engage with the cards as collectable items. This is especially true for Reserved List cards, because their immunity to reprint makes them especially collectable. This is also why cards with limited print runs like Summer Magic and Alternate 4th Edition have so much value, as well as one of the primary reasons why Collector Booster variants are worth more than the normal versions of those same cards. In these cases, scarcity isn’t just about preventing players from finding copies for their decks — it’s about how scarcity makes a particular version of a card rarer, and therefore more collectable.
This may seem like a (pun intended) financial house of cards, but collectability is generally pretty stable as long as the thing in question remains popular and the items in question are actually somewhat rare and impressive. Magic cards have had a collectable market for over two decades now, and it has never really crashed. Vintage sports cards, comic books, and action figures have a robust collectables market stretching back even longer than that. They are also playing on a very strong nostalgia for owning something very cool — whether it’s Iron Man’s first appearance, a Black Lotus, a Mickey Mantle Rookie Card, or a sealed copy of Super Mario Bros.
To me, the red flags start when we’re talking about collectability in an entirely new marketplace that’s based almost entirely on financial speculation. If people only want to own Beanie Babies or NFTs because they think they can sell them to some greater fool at some later date, you run the risk of the entire system imploding while you’re still holding the bag. That is unlikely to happen to something as established and nostalgic as, say, the vintage Magic card market.
Cards have value because they used to have value. This seems like a weird tautology, but bear with me. Once a card has established itself as valuable, it’s far more likely to end up becoming valuable again in the future because…well, because we’re all used to that card being expensive. This isn’t the only reason that a card will gain value, of course—you’ll need competitive demand, or casual demand, or increased scarcity, or something else. But if the market starts pushing on it, price memory will give it a far better chance of ending up being super expensive again than an equivalent card that was never expensive in the past.
Cards have value due to a whole bunch of weird and unquantifiable reasons. Why do planeswalkers tend to be worth more than other, better mythic rares? Casual demand certainly plays a part, but some of it is just that we’ve long had an idea in the Magic community that good planeswalkers are worth money, so that just ends up being true a lot of the time. Remember: a lot of this stuff is based on faith, and faith is inherently somewhat irrational. No market is truly rational, and that very much includes this one.
Here’s another quirk: blue control staples tend to be worth more than aggressive red staples. This is less true now than it used to be — Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer says hello — but in general, it’s a good rule of thumb to remember when you’re trying to figure out which cards in a new set are going to hold their value better. Why is this true? Well, some of it has to do with the fact that control cards tend to play better in older formats, and it’s probably true that more people like to play control decks, but a lot of it is just that red decks have been seen as “budget” decks for decades, and that mentality is hard to change.
How Value Compounds
Now that we know all the reasons why cards get value, we can see why certain cards are a lot more expensive than others. In fact, let’s compare a couple of cards that have probably never been compared before: Unruly Mob and Black Lotus.
Market Price: $0.02
Market Price: $9899.99
The cheapest copy of Unruly Mob on TCGplayer is $0.01, which is the cheapest possible price you can list a card at in their database. I don’t even know why anyone would sell this card for a penny, since you’re probably losing more in shipping fees and time sorting it out from your collection than you can ever hope to gain.
Why is Unruly Mob so cheap? Well, there’s basically no demand. It has no utility in competitive play, and nobody plays it in Commander or kitchen table casual, either. Is it scarce? Nope. It’s a common in the latest set, and it has been printed in two other large sets, also at common. There are millions of spare copies running around, and nobody really wants them. It’s not a bad card aesthetically — the art is fine — but it’s not particularly beautiful or iconic, and aesthetics can’t really overcome all the stuff we’ve talked about so far regardless. Unruly mob has no collector value, it has never been particularly valuable in the past, and I can’t think of a weird quirk that would make it any more valuable than any other bulk common. At the end of the day, there’s just nothing that makes me believe this card should be worth more than it already is.
Now let’s talk about Black Lotus. Believe it or not, there actually isn’t much competitive or casual demand for this card. It is banned in every competitive format save one, Vintage, where it’s often proxied and is restricted to one-per-deck regardless. You can’t play it in Commander, and I’d imagine most kitchen table mages would pick up their cards and go home if their opponent played a Lotus on turn one.
Beyond that, things get spicy. Black Lotus is one of the scarcest cards out there, with only a few thousand ever printed — and none since 1993. It is the most iconic card in the history of the game, giving it extreme aesthetic value. It is perhaps the most collectable non-sports card ever printed — not just in Magic, but in the entire collectable card sphere. It has also been expensive since the day it was printed, and it has never once seen a significant drop in value.
You can use these criteria to analyze any card you want, from Standard staples like Esika’s Chariot to Commander darlings like Smothering Tithe. It’s not a hard and fast algorithm — few things in life are — but if you do enough holistic card analysis, you can eventually develop a sense for which cards are likely to end up having more value over time. If you do it for as long as I do, you’ll stop being aware of it beyond an intuitive like or dislike of certain cards. Then you’ll have to interrogate those responses when you write your 4,000 word set reviews so that your opinions actually make sense to other people.
Now that we know how cards get their value, how can we use that to our advantage?
First off, this makes it a lot easier to see why so many Standard staples end up seeing a total collapse in value once they either rotate out of the format or their decks end up falling out of favor. If that’s the only axis where those cards hold value, they are unlikely to continue holding value when they no longer matter on that axis. On the other hand, this also helps us predict which Standard-legal cards are likely to continue holding value through rotation. If a card is scarce, iconic, and it sees a decent amount of casual play in addition to its competitive demand, chances are it’ll hold its value quite well going forward.
We can also use this to predict which cards are likely to gain value in the future. Esika’s Chariot and Alrund’s Epiphany each saw a lot of competitive play for weeks before they started surging in value, so it shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise when their prices finally went up. The same is true for cards that end up at the top of the EDHREC charts as soon as they’re released.
Most importantly, we can find cards that are cheap almost entirely due to high supply. I’m talking about cards that see a lot of play in both competitive and casual formats, they’re aesthetically pleasing, they’re iconic, they’ve been expensive in the past, etc. They’ve just been printed or reprinted recently, causing the price to be lower than you’d otherwise expect. Since we know that supply drops with age, these cards tend to be excellent long-term investments — as long as WotC doesn’t reprint them again soon. Even still, these cards are among my favorite specs in the game. At the end of the day, it’s important to think about why a card has value (or is likely to gain value) before you pull the trigger on your spec buy. Is it valuable on one axis, which makes it somewhat vulnerable, or is it valuable on many different axes? Is a lack of supply the biggest thing giving it value, making it vulnerable to a reprint? Would a single card being printed or banned in Modern or Standard cause it to tank? How collectable is it? Are there any weird irrational things making it more or less valuable? There are no hard and fast answers here, but this stuff is always worth thinking about. The more aware you are of why you’re making the decisions to make, the better off you’ll be.