How Speculators Could Kill Magic: The Gathering

The Reserve List is not going anywhere. I get that. There’s no point debating it. The only way to fix the list is through Wizards of the Coast (and Hasbro) deciding that whatever lawsuits are soon to follow fixing / abolishing the list are worth fighting. So let’s just stipulate that there’s no getting rid of the list because large corporations are not in the business of asking to be sued. That being said … I’ve been playing Magic: The Gathering since 1994. I primarily play in the Legacy format, and I have some thoughts on this stupidity involving buying out the supply of cards on the Reserve List. It’s a game. Not the NASDAQ. Buying out these cards does not make you smart or a good investor. It makes you an asshole. If you want to invest your money and build wealth, open up a mutual fund with a company like Vanguard.

That being said …

There is this persistent myth that Legacy is a dying Magic: The Gathering format. I have always been one of the first to jump in and argue with people who think that. Due to the speculative bubble, I can no longer disagree. If the speculators continue to scoop up Reserve List cards for even the lower tier Legacy decks, then it becomes fiscally irresponsible, and improbable, for new players to get into the format. (Improbable because of the cost of assembling a Legacy deck, irresponsible because for the amount of money required to do so, there are likely better things to be spending that money on. I love the game as much as you, but let’s be real here. It’s just a game.)

The other part to that myth is that Wizards doesn’t care about Legacy and Vintage. This isn’t true. Wizards may not care about Legacy from a game design perspective, but they damn well care about the Legacy players like me who buy booster boxes of the newest set to make trades or accumulate store credit, to pick up Legacy and Vintage staples. (And before you ask: $115 every few months for a booster box is a more reasonable expense for a hobby than $1,800 for a deck that you might play with only rarely because there are fewer and fewer people to play with. The cost-benefit analysis for a new player to build a Legacy deck is pretty grim these days. )

All of this adds up to the game losing players. That’s bad for Magic. First, because you’re losing a lot of people who have played the game for over twenty years. That represents a lot of wealth and good will put into the ecosystem by those players. Those players, from a branding perspective, are invaluable as they’re ambassadors to the game. Whether it be to their wives or husbands, co-workers, their younger siblings, or friends. Some of you might be reading this exactly because an older sibling got you into the Magic. If so, think about how much you’ve spent on Magic because of them, now multiply that by the number of Legacy and Vintage players there have been, going back to the days of Type 1 and Type 2.

You might not care about a Legacy player, but you do care about the new people they are likely to bring into play Standard or Limited formats. Magic needs as many new players as it can get. Nobody will dispute this. More players mean more money for everyone involved in the ecosystem. You lose those Legacy players; you will lose new players.

But let’s put all that aside for a second and look at the bigger picture. You don’t need me to tell you that speculative bubbles are bad news. If I look outside my window right now, I can see two Zombie Homes that will probably not be inhabited for another ten years or so. Good people used to live in those homes. Now they don’t. The housing market probably won’t ever recover. Not if current trends hold with people preferring to live in cities. Comics too. I don’t know how many of you remember the speculative comics bubble in the early ’90s, but until then it wasn’t unheard of for comics to sell millions of comics. As of May 2016, aside from an Event book like Secret Wars or Rebirth, the top-selling comic barely sells more than 100,000 copies. (There are exceptions, Black Panther #1 did really well as it was timed to hit shelves at the same time the character made his onscreen debut in Civil War, and Arrow #1 has done very well, thanks in no small part to the CW show.) The rare exception aside, the comics industry never fully recovered from their speculative bubble.

Magic is a fragile and far smaller ecosystem than the housing market. Maybe even smaller than the comics industry depending on how you want to look at it. You might not think the Reserve List speculative bubble impacts you, but it does. If prices go up on Legacy and Vintage staples, local gaming stores will behave irrationally, causing them to make a mistake or two that leads to them closing. These stores already operate on razor thin margins. Losing an LGS means possibly losing players since they have nowhere to play and nowhere to gather regarding a community. There’s a ripple effect from these stores closing. And it’s not hyperbole; this is exactly what happened with the comics industry during the bubble where retailers, operating on razor-thin margins, started acting stupid to maximize their profit for the short term. It will happen here.

Now you factor a loss of local gaming stores with a loss of new players being brought in by the brand ambassadors that are older players / players in the flashy and fancy older formats; you start to see the damage being done to the ecosystem. And that’s to say nothing from the marketing disaster that is bad word of mouth over the reserve list speculative bubble. This mess, and it is a mess no matter how you want to look at it, creates ill will and bad feelings, and Magic as a brand has already had to fight off bad word of mouth and public perception. Except this time, we’re talking about a legitimate beef (players can’t afford the cards they need to play) and not people hilariously misinterpreting Magic cards to be some form of devil worshipping. (True story. I experienced that in 1997.)

The last thing is that you might think this problem will go away eventually. The speculators will buy up the Reserve List cards, and then they’ll just go away. No. They won’t. Cards like Tarmogoyf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor may not be on the reserve list, but a moderately played Tarmogoyf is $115 on as of this writing. Those cards, and other rarely seen cards that have become Modern staples, are going to be next. And it’s not likely Wizards can come to the rescue when that happens.

Wizards plans new sets out over a year in advance, and they’re not necessarily inclined to reprint cards like Tarmogoyf, to begin with, because of how powerful they are. That means the speculative bubble will soon affect Modern players just as much as it affects Legacy and Vintage players now. Then you have three formats of MTG adversely affected by the bubble. That means more LGS’s being dumb and possibly closing, fewer brand ambassadors, and fewer new players coming into the standard.

This Speculator Bubble is going to get worse. Maybe it soon impacts Standard. Maybe it doesn’t. But the threat is there. I’m not the doom and gloom type, but depending on how big we as a community let this bubble get, that’ll determine what happens to our game.

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