Along with all of the other turmoil caused by the greatest global pandemic seen in 100+ years, the COVID-19 virus has disrupted most of our hobbies, with Magic: the Gathering being no exception.
Wizard of the Coast, makers of the collectible trading card game, has been driven to post a public response to the pandemic: All in-person events canceled. But you can still play digitally on MTG Arena; isn’t that honky-dory? They link right to the Twitch channel – for MTG Arena.
MTGStocks, the arbiter of Magic: The Gathering card value, was driven to post a special report speculating on the value of cards post-COVID-19. Seeing as how the whole site’s bread and butter is based on the game’s continued thriving existence, they’re infuriatingly chirpy with optimism. No, of course, everything will be just fine, this is just a little bump is all. And anyway, you can still play digital MTG; isn’t that just honky-dory?
Quiet Speculation, another long-time MTG market voice of authority, has also posted a special report in response to COVID-19. Oddly enough, they too think this is gonna blow right over, no sweat folks. Yep, just sit tight, we’ll be back to those gaming tables in a jiffy! But how about that MTG Arena; honky-dory?
You’ll notice another common pattern in everything I’ve linked to so far: All of these articles were posted in early March. All of them crossed their fingers hoping the pandemic wouldn’t get that bad. Well, the pandemic did get that bad and it’s getting worse by the day.
As I write, for the very first time in the 27-year history of Magic: The Gathering, an expansion set’s release has been delayed. Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths has had its prerelease indefinitely paused. But right there in the subtitle to that article it has to say BUT DIGITAAAAAL!!!
Finally, latest news about the Ikoria release just straight omits all mention of paper and goes directly to “Get your ass on Arena and get some free packs, loser!” Honky, dory, one of each.
Yeah, look, I’m a paper cards collector since way back. Got boxes of ’em. I played the first time in 1993. Like many of us loyal, long-time tabletop gamers, I have money tied up in these boxes and boxes of cardboard. Some of us, not that I’m going to make two thumbs and point at “this guy!” or anything, have even treated MTG cards as an investment, even to the point of selling off a chunk of our coin collection to invest in cards, reasoning that we can’t play a game with Morgan dollars and standing Liberty quarters.
And I just got this telegram from God I’d like to share with the entire world about now:
DIGITAL MAGIC SUCKS!!!
In the first place, MTG Arena is compatible with one and only one system: A Microsoft Windows computer. Releases for other systems are “in the works” vaporware. We in the long-standing MTG community have been watching WotC play this digital whack-a-mole for a quarter of a century. When they say “we’re going to release another version for this other platform no worries,” you may bet your bottom dollar that that version is due out the day after Hell freezes over and opens a ski lodge.
Look at the history of digital MTG. Look! MicroProse 1997: fail. Acclaim for PC and PlayStation: fail. Sega Dreamcast 2001: fail. MTGO 2002 (Windows only): fail. Atari XBox Battlegrounds 2003: fail. MTG DotP versions, for the first time, were released for Android. Nobody has ever gotten one to actually run on an Android device, and gave up in frustration, which is how they discovered Hearthstone. Fail fail fail.
Digital Magic sucks. I’m not the first one to say it. The Verge made a very impassioned plea to WotC to get their digital thing together years ago. MTGSalvation forums have moaned in forum editorials about the state of having the digital game fragmented between MTGO and Arena. The poor MTGO players, you see, would lose money without the MTGO platform now.
That’s very heart-tugging.
You know who else could use some of that sympathy?
Us poor paper MTG collectors who’ve been nailed into a coffin and buried before we could even dare ask about our fate. We’re the ones who’ve been cracking packs and going to FNM and vocally supporting the game, the company behind it, and the stores who host it, for going on three decades now while the digital versions have come and gone and will continue to come and go.
We don’t want to hear one more word about a digital MTG version. I don’t care if you install it on a machine and mail the machine to my house for free. I don’t care if you send Pat Sajak and Vanna White to my house to point out the digital cards on screen for me. Video games are video games and MTG is MTG. We’re all peeper deep in digital games. We buy cards to play on a tabletop because that is a different thing that we like to do sometimes too. And for 27 years, we have been buying those under the agreement that they’d always be supported by the company that makes them.
So let me be among the first to take the taboo bull by the horns and address this question: What happens to the cards? The physical cardboard cards. The ones we hope have some other fate besides becoming hundred-thousand-dollar rat chow.
Vintage buying is halted right now
So far, the only person in the MTG community who has spoken to me and right to my concerns is Rudy with Alpha Investments. And he says:
In a nutshell: So many collectors have been panic-selling their collections that major card retailers like Star City Games, Card Kingdom, and Channel Fireball have yanked their buylist for the higher end, more expensive cards. As for Rudy, cowboy that he is, he concludes by grandly inviting everyone who would sell their cards at other outlets to sell them to him instead.
He’s freely acknowledging that he could end up homeless and building shelter out of glued-together Power Nine sets, but for now, damn the torpedoes. If you’re sellin’, he’s buyin’. He says if he’s wrong, he will ride it into the ground.
Well, here’s the same guy one week later. Does he look grounded yet?
For one thing, he’s pointing out what we’re all starting to realize. The world has changed and may never be the same, even after the pandemic. For one thing, if people keep doing crazy stupid stunts out there to deliberately extend the pandemic, it will never end. But presuming that it does, we’re still going to have to ask ourselves “what about the next pandemic?” We had Swine Flu just ten years ago, after all. They’re getting closer together.
ANYWAY, back to the future of MTG cards. One more Rudy before we roll along:
Leading off with a Black Lotus – the iconic “most expensive card in MTG” – selling at auction for $11.9K, pennies on the dollar compared to the record highest (as mentioned in our previous MTG post (and boy what rotten timing that was!)). Rudy gets philosophical. Honestly, were Wizards of the Coast a democracy, I’d vote Maro out and vote in Rudy.
Other realistic observers
This will be a short section. The MagicTCG forum on Reddit is, predictably, not much help, since it’s mostly devoted to coloring cards (oops, excuse me, “altars”) rather than addressing reality in any lovely way. But hey, that’s one way forward for MTG: altars! Get out your crayons and scribble all over your Modern-format Affinity deck, then trade them back and forth on eBay forever.
MTGFinance is the best place to go on Reddit right now. There are far more realistic people on there. Most encouragingly, they are neither panicking nor dwelling in denial about what’s going on. This comment advises one interested seller:
> “Sales are flat and dropping for most cards. Buylists are much lower than before this. Many of the giant stores are sitting on inventory and have no way to ship it. I would wait.” — /u/closedsockets
And that seems to be the sum of the sagest advice out there. More telling is the thread under “Any sign of price tanking due to corona virus?” Again, the consensus is that prices are down and staying flat, but it’s not a full-out crash. And I’m sorry to lean on Reddit, of all things, for research, but that’s the kind of option we’re left with while the company that makes this game plus every major outlet devoted to it is busy collectively chanting “Ha ha ha what paper?”
Final summation: Penguin Pete says “Hold”
Don’t sell. Don’t buy. Freeze, wait, and see.
Unless, of course, you’re one of the unlucky people who have to choose between your collection and groceries. Then sell, but watch out for scammers (who prey on markets like this one).
From my references to coin collecting, you might guess that this isn’t my first rodeo when it comes to collecting. And that’s what MTG is first and foremost, is a collectible trading card game.
In the first place, it is and will remain possible to play your paper cards remotely. There’s Discord servers and various teleconferencing models out there. I know, it’s not the same, but it’s the closest you can get.
Secondly, in pure collector’s value, the market is never going to bottom out. There’s markets out there for all kinds of collectibles. Binge a few episodes of Storage Wars, it’s an education in this kind of topic, albeit a daffy one. There’s a market out there for Pogs, and nobody plays that anymore. There’s a market for coins, stamps, cryptocurrency, postcards, anything that can be traded. There will always be a market for Magic: the Gathering too, as a strictly collectible product.
However, the tie between card prices and play value is slowly being erased. In light of that, cards whose price has been inflated due to play demand may not hold that connection. Likewise, cards that were not very valuable in-game might rise gradually if they’re rare, possibly through being in a not very popular set.
Over the long term, the future of MTG card value will be determined by:
- How long the current epidemic lasts – smart money says it could be months or a year or two
- What card shops are left open after this is over – they are in a fragile position in a disaster economy
- What interest remains in the game – if there’s a long enough lag, people could just sell out and move on
- What interest there is in collecting in the long term – imagine decades from now when even your trash cards sell for a decent amount because they’re in perfect condition from never seeing play
That’s it, that’s the best I think anyone can tell you.
P.S. And if anybody from Hasbro / Wizards of the Coast / major media outlets would like my advice, could you kindly stop shutting out the paper investors? There was a time when WotC took the investment portion of the game so seriously that they made a reserved list. Boy, I sure miss the days when we got that kind of respect!