For many collectibles, value is tied to scarcity and nostalgia. Magic cards have value that is chiefly influenced by their popularity in current decks. Therefore, whenever a new card strengthens or weakens an existing archetype, the value of old cards can change.
The power level of mana-efficient cards has fluctuated from era to era. Certain sets are well-represented, and a few cards from weaker sets have just the right combination of strengths to see play. For quite a while, this balance was stable. Recent sets have exhibited power creep: where individual cards are better than similar cards from the past, and the drawbacks they have can be overcome. This has led to new cards breaking into eternal formats more regularly.
Each set released in 2017, for instance, has included cards strong enough to see significant play in Modern and a bit in Legacy. Since those decks are often full of cards worth $50-$100, shifts in the metagame can have real monetary consequences. For most, MTG finance is a way to save money here and there, by building decks at the right time, or trading mindfully. Respecting market fluctuations by trading cards away while they're still Standard-legal, or rapidly responding when the annual Masters reprint set is spoiled, are examples of how studying trends can help you construct valuable decks.
Truly speculating is challenging because the popular Magic formats are complex, and it takes thousands of brains working together and testing extensively to determine the viability of alternative strategies. But, like the Pro Tour itself, this massive complexity also tends to reward those who are the very best at it.
Because of transaction and shipping costs, it’s most feasible to invest in high-value cards. However, there is also speculation that involves buying huge numbers of certain bulk rares for a few cents apiece. This might be motivated by the pattern of how sets are designed to overlap in Standard. When a set comes out, it coexists with sets older than it. Then, it overlaps with later sets; then the older sets rotate out of the format. Certain cards are designed to interact with cards that will be printed in the future, or thrive in a format that won’t exist until after rotation.
The blossoming popularity of Commander has also created intensifying demand for many cards, including some that were quite cheap despite being old and scarce. The best way to predict these jumps in value is to observe which tribal decks are likely to be built in the coming year. For instance, The Scarab God presaged a surge of Zombie decks. As of this writing, previews for the 2017 Commander decks begin tomorrow, and they are tribal decks so get your eBay accounts ready!
Another way to invest in cards is to buy booster boxes and leave them sealed. Not all sets will rise in price after going out of print. There are some indicators, though, of which ones will; such as whether they include a cycle of valuable lands. So, Khans of Tarkir might be a good one to stash away. If you hang onto boxes for years you can see a return of 10-20% per year You can also just have great cards to draft for years to come without paying extra for those boxes later on. The sets currently in print, while print runs have become quite high, still could be investment opportunities, especially to the extent they are considered great draft formats or their rares become powerful in new decks. The value of sealed boxes is somewhat higher than the average value you would expect to get in singles by opening them. The chance of getting one of the best cards or a coveted foil push the price up, sometimes almost 100% higher than that expected value. Foils can be an investment opportunity themselves, as they are an excellent way to concentrate a card’s potential, and often the only edition of a card that will become valuable. In newer sets, masterpieces have been sprinkled into packs as ultra-rare foil editions of lands, artifacts, or control spells that are popular across many formats. These can be worth $10 or over $100, but since these sets were printed in such quantity, their value may not be completely stable.
Cards from the oldest sets had been readily available for just a few bucks up until a couple years ago. As the booming success of recent Magic has all but assured its longevity, without taking away an ounce of the coolness factor of Alpha, Beta and Arabian Nights, their scarcity (particularly in mint condition) is becoming a larger multiplier. Many of these cards are very valuable, and their potential as investments is starting to materialize. There is a reserved list of hundreds of cards that can never be reprinted. While Pharma Bro was under investigation for securities fraud, he moved hundreds of thousands of dollars into these cardboard assets that the SEC will not be able to touch.
Lots of players wonder if Wizards will one day decide to issue reprints of some of the cards on the reserved list. Legally they have no obligation to collectors, after all, and there are some really awkward logistics to it. First of all, most of the cards on the list are nothing special; in actuality they are largely from the down years where spell power was lower than ever before or since. Secondly, the original dual lands are virtually essential for Legacy play, and as a stack of $250 barriers to entry, they may be killing the format. From what I can tell, Wizards is quite steadfast at this juncture about not reprinting these cards. However, I believe that even if they did, the value of the originals would never go down. It might grow more slowly, of course, but it’s also quite feasible that reprinted dual lands would bring more players into Legacy, and would actually balloon the value of original editions (while indicating that organized play could continue to have critical mass for years to come).
The primacy of paper Magic is due to many things, from the beauty and satisfying quality of the cards to the success of the public Grand Prix series, but one of them is the various weaknesses of Magic Online. While MTGO is powerful, convenient, and popular, it is also buggy and aesthetically problem-ridden. These weaknesses won’t last for much longer, though, and by the turn of the decade there may be mounting advantages in the digital medium. So, it is useful to remember that while Magic cards currently seem like an investment that can provide decent liquidity alongside solid returns, they are still technically just toys, and if you can’t find a buyer, you have no recourse against anyone.
Thinking that their cards may be valuable is a common mistake of new players; whether the cards are new or old, few are prizes. It is amazing that this gaming system is so established that each card has a totally independent, nonzero value, and that you can often open a $4 pack and then get $5 for its contents. The secondary market is real. But it’s also quite large and saturated. It’s important to understand that most cards will never become valuable, but it’s also true that a few of them will, and there are a few you might only be able to afford if you invest at just the right time.
For most players, MTG finance is merely an entertaining angle to think about. Still, its potential as a vehicle for various types of investments is very real. Excitement for the unboxing of a set from years past is a pretty reliable thing to invest in - the value may grow slowly or quickly, but it’s unlikely to shrink. Yes, things like pogs and Beanie Babies lost value, but Magic seems resilient. The quality of everything including the artwork and printing stands up so well on vintage Magic cards that their collectible value is appreciated for many reasons by various kinds of collectors. That kind of market is still subject to fluctuations and yes, it could lose almost all of its value in some scenarios, but that seems unlikely. Even if the game dropped off or ended, it has millions of fans, most of whom have lots of income to spend on games.
One last way to speculate is to buy mixed lots of cards, either online or (ideally) in-person at garage sales. These are often old collections from people who don’t know their exact value. If you do some work sorting the cards, and you have a way to sell them, you can make a little. Mercifully, apps like ScryGlass can quickly price cards using a phone’s camera. But, these new apps may also mean that more of these lots have already been searched for anything of value. And as that happens, fresh cards from old editions will come onto the secondary market for collectors to invest in!