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Flashback Drafts: Price Impacts and Profit Potential

The holidays in the Magic world usually means two things: First, paper Magic goes through a bit of a lull as organizers allow ginders some time off to visit their families and loved ones (unless you're Star City Games, then you make your best player play your most important tournament three days before Christmas. Come to think of it, due to the timing of the tournament, I think it would be great if SCG made Tom, Brad, CVM and the other players drink some of Matha Stewart's famous egg nog before shuffling up, making the Player's Championship go something like this). Second, the holidays means one of the most exciting times of the year on Magic Online with a whole bunch of cool events including the Vintage Championship, Holiday Cube (which is my favorite format in all of Magic) and the topic of my article today: flashback drafts.

Starting December 17 after the weekly downtime, we get five days of Mirage/Visions/Weatherlight, followed by two weeks of Urza's block drafts, both paired with the Holiday Cube. Flashback drafts are the only way for new copies of cards from older sets to enter the system (or at least it should be; there are probably a few people who crack packs against all odds and good advice). As such, flashback drafts can have a major and long-lasting impact on card prices. Let's use Rishadan Port as an example:

Masque's Block was the last block to enter the digital realm, finally arriving on MTGO in December, 2011. Over the next months, X number of Rishadan Ports entered the system as people drafted the set (this number was comparatively small because Masque's block is notoriously horrible to draft). Once the drafts ended, that was it. If you wanted a Rishadan Port (or four), you had to buy one of the finite number that were opened during the initial round of drafting.

In theory, the finite number of Rishadan Ports are slowly eaten away as more people join the game, buy into formats were it is legal (mostly Legacy), or leave the game without putting their cards back into the market. As supply decreases, the price of Rishadan Port begins to climb. The solution Wizards has for fixing cards like Rishadan Port is to release more into the system, and the primary way they achieve this is through running flashback drafts.

What Effect Do Flashback Drafts Have on Card Prices?

Last year, during the MTGO holiday celebration, the Holiday Cube paid out Urza's block packs for two weeks from December 24th until January 8th (almost exactly the same as this year). Show and Tell was 92 tix on December 18, it fell to 85 tix by the start of the flashback drafts, and tumbled through the first week of drafting all they way down to 68 tix (if you want to see the pattern, zoom in on mid-December 2013 on the price chart). After December 30 (basically the first week of drafting), the price of Show and Tell stayed flat, not only through the end of the flashback drafts, but for the next six months. Towards the end of June 2014, Show and Tell suddenly shot back up past its pre-flashback peak in about a month. Basically, the increase in supply from two weeks of flashback drafting caused Show and Tell to lose 35 percent of its value (likely compounded by a decrease in Sneak and Show decks around the same time) only to increase 44 percent six months later (likely helped by the Vintage Masters spike). 

How about the other important tournament cards in Urza's block? Is Show and Tell the rule or the exception? Let's see:

Name Before Price After Price Percent Difference Recovery Time Recovery Price

Ten Most Expensive Cards in Urza's Block

Show and Tell 92 68 35 percent 6 months 98
Sneak Attack 40 27 48 percent 9 months 40
Gaea's Cradle 72 60 20 percent Never (PRM Printing) NA (Current 36)
Time Spiral 22 10 (bottomed in March) 120 percent 8 months 22
Exploration 22 16 37 percent 5 months 22
Grim Monolith 16 8 100 percent 8 months (sort of) 12 (half of what it lost)
Metalworker 18 10 80 percent 9 months 15
Argothian Enchantress 24 12 100 percent never 12.7 (Current price)
Serra Sanctum 14 9 55 percent 9 months 13
Academy Rector 20 7 185 percent never 8.3 (Current price)

Let me make it clear right away: there are more variables at work with some of these cards than just the flashback draft. Cards organically become more or less played, Vintage Master's caused a lot of non-reprinted Legacy cards to spike, and so on. However, we can make some assumptions based on this data.

First, the more expensive the card, the less it loses in value. Show and Tell, Sneak Attack, and Gaea's Cradle (the only cards considered true Legacy staples on the list), saw a decrease, but less than 50 percent. On the other hand, expensive but relatively underplayed cards like Academy Rector and Argothian Enchantress lost at least half of its pre-flashback value.

Second, the most expensive the card, the quicker it recovers to near, at, or above its pre-flashback price. Mid-level cards cards on the list took a few months longer.

Third, for cards that recovered, the window for recovery seems to be between six and nine months. While Exploration recovered the fastest in only five months, almost every other card took between eight and nine, which unfortunately (for our analysis) puts us right in the window of the Vintage Masters spike.

The question now becomes, can this information be generalized to other sets, or is Urza's block an outlier? There are some things that set the 2013 Urza's block flashbacks apart from other flashback drafts, including the fact it lasted for two weeks (when most flashbacks last only one) and the fact that it was the payout for Cube. Both factors suggest more Urza's block cards entered the system than with most other flashbacks. Plus, there are a lot more cards than just the 10 most expensive in a block, so to see if our trends apply to more cards and flashback drafts, we are going to have to crunch the numbers on some more sets.

Time Spiral Block Drafts: April 9 to 16, 2014

Using the Time Spiral block drafts from this past spring gives us a slightly different perspective on the impact of flashback drafts on cards prices. First off, the Time Spiral flashback was part of "Flashback April" and not attached to Cube in any way. Second they only lasted for one week. Finally, they are from a Modern legal set, so there should be more demand for these cards than the Legacy-only Urza's block staples.

Name Before Price After Price Percent Difference Recovery Time Recovery Price

Ten Most Expensive Cards in Time Spiral Block

Tarmogoyf 102 88 20 Never 76 (current price)
Horizon Canopy 22 15 47 1 month 19
Grove of the Burnwillows 27 20 35 Never 18
Daybreak Coronet 22 15 47 6 months 20
Venser, Shaper Savant 4.8 2.8 71 5 months 6
Magus of the Moon 8 4 100 5 months 7.2
Damnation 14 7 100 1 month 12
Pact of Negation 5.7 1.8 216 1 month 5
Sliver Legion 3.8 1.7 123 8 months 3.7
Aven Mindcensor 4.8 2.6 84 2 months 4.4

In some ways, this chart looks a lot like the Urza's chart despite the differences between the two flashbacks. The most expensive cards lost less then 50 percent of their value, while mid-range cards lost 100 percent or more. The biggest difference is how quickly most of the cards (including some that are not really played in competitive formats) recovered. Instead of 8 or 9 months like Urza's block, 40 percent returned to their pre-flashback price within two months, and 70 percent within six months. This makes sense due to Modern having more demand than Legacy.

The biggest surprises to me were Sliver Legion and Aven Mindcensor. I fully expected casual cards to have their value crushed by flashbacks, simply because MTGO isn't really known for its casual scene (especially with a lot of complaints about multiplayer EDH in Version 4). Sliver Legion is the most casual of casuals, and it recovered impressively back to its full price within 8 months (the same timeframe as a Legacy staple like Show and Tell). I also expected uncommons and commons to feel the wrath of increased supply on their values, but Aven Mindcensor (a Legacy staple) was back near full price in only a couple of months.

So let's review: So far there is a pretty clear pattern suggesting that flashback drafts will reduce card prices by no more than 50 percent for format staples, and 100+ percent for mid-tier rares. It seems like the difference between being paired with Cube (and drafted for two weeks) is not reflected in the percentage decrease, but in the amount of time it takes for prices to recover. At the same time, 61 percent of the 10 most expensive cards from both sets recovered to at or near their pre-flashback price in between two months (for the less drafted, non-Cube paired, Modern legal Time Spiral block) and nine months (for paired, Legacy only, two week Urza's block). A full 75 percent of cards increased at least 50 percent from their bottom. Furthermore, many of the cards that did not recover had other variables that negatively impacted their price (e.g. promo printing for Gaea's Cradle and Modern Masters flashbacks for Tarmogoyf).

So while we are starting to understand the impact of flashback drafts on expensive, competitive cards, two new questions have emerged: Is Aven Mindcensor's performance at the uncommon slot an exception or the rule, and what does Sliver Legion say about flashback drafts and the prices of casual cards? Well, let's find out.

Flashback April: Impact on Commons and Uncommons

I mentioned Flashback April a little bit ago. Here's the list:

Flashback April Drafts

Odyssey Block April 2 to 9, 2014
Time Spiral Block April 9 to 16, 2014
Shards of Alara Block April 16 to 23, 2014
Lorywn/Morningtide April 23 to 30, 2014
Shadowmoor/Eventide April 20 to 7, 2014

None of these drafts were paired with Cube, so the only thing really separating the Odyssey block packs opened in week one and Shadowmoor/Eventide packs opened in week five is the popularity of the format (yes, there is a bit of difference between 2-1 and 1-1-1 formats, but since we don't have solid numbers, it's pretty much impossible to tell how much). To examine the impact of flashbacks on commons and uncommons, let's look a bit at some of the valuable commons and uncommons from these blocks:

Cabal Coffers is a good example of a high value casual uncommon. If you look back over its price chart, you'll see that before Flashback April, Cabal Coffers maintains a pretty solid 6 tix price tag. By the end of May, however, Cabal Coffers had dropped an insane 600 percent to less than one ticket, and then slowly started climbing 0.5 tickets per month to its current price of just below 3. So, while Cabal Coffers is showing signs of recovery, it has not, at least as of yet, truly recovered.

Firebolt sees a bit of play in Pauper, so it falls somewhere in the middle of the casual/competitive scale. But that doesn't seem to matter much, because its price trajectory is pretty close to Cabal Coffers. Starting at about 3 tix heading into the flashback drafts, Firebolt fell all the way to 0.5 tix over the summer before slowly gaining month-over-month until now where it sits at about half of its pre-flashback value (basically the same as Cabal Coffers).

I wanted to mention some other Odyssey block cards like Cabal Therapy and Careful Study, but these cards spiked so severely in response to the release of Vintage Masters that it's hard to glean much information about how the flashbacks impacted their prices. However, it is interesting to wonder how much Cabal Therapy would cost now if Odyssey block wasn't a part of the flashback rotation.

Nettle Sentinel is a competitive card, being a crucial part of Combo Elves in Legacy (one of the most popular budget Legacy decks online). Like the other commons and uncommons, flashback drafts hit Nettle Sentinel hard, leading to a decrease of nearly 400 percent. Unlike the other Firebolt and Cabal Coffers, the elf rebounded a bit quicker, returning to 75 percent of its pre-flashback value in about five months.

Nettle Sentinel's trajectory mirrors that of Path to Exile, another mostly-competitive uncommon. Path to Exile dropped 100 percent in response to the Shards of Alara block flashbacks, gained back half of what it lost within a month or so, and 75 percent in about five months. It's currently within a few tenths of a tix away from its pre-flashback price of 5.

So it seems that Aven Mindcensor is the norm for tournament-level uncommons and commons.

What About Casual Rares?

Gauntlet of Power provides a great example of an exclusively casual rare. Sitting at 1.4 tix heading into Flashback April, the artifact crashed hard, reaching a low of 0.2 tix over the summer. Since then, Gauntlet of Power has been trying to recover, but it has been a slow process. In the six months since it bottomed, Gauntlet of Power has only managed to get back to half a ticket - or 0.05 tix per month on average. If Gauntlet of Power continues to grow at this slow of a pace, it could take two years to get back to 1.5 tix, and that's assuming another round of Time Spiral block flashbacks doesn't pop up in the meantime (unlikely).

The Gauntlet of Power example seems to be typical of casual rares, although some recover slightly faster. I couldn't find many casual-only cards that have returned to their pre-Flashback April price, especially low-value (say 2 tix and below). Most have increased in price over the past eight months, but in general, their average current price still represents a significant (somewhere around 50 percent, on average, more for low price cards) decrease in value from pre-draft prices.

Conclusion: The Five things We've Learned

  1. The initial value of the card matters a lot. The most expensive competitive cards in a set suffer the least from flashbacks with an average decline of less then 50 percent. The next tier of rares generally loses 100 percent of its pre-draft value, while low value cards of all rarities lose the most, generally between 200 and 400 percent of their value.
  2. Competitive cards regain their value quicker. This seems to hold true for all rarities, although commons and uncommons need to be true staples to regain their value quickly; a bit of sideboard or pauper play generally is not enough. For premium cards, most recover significantly in 5 months (and sometimes faster). Mid-level cards often take 8 or 9 months, and cheap / casual cards take a long, long time.
  3. Most casual cards get crushed, and some never regain their value. If Scarecrown is going to take a year or more to post significant gains after a flashback, chances are another Eventide draft will come around before it completes its recovery, starting the process over again.
  4. When a card bottoms out also appears to be impacted by its initial value. High end cards tend to drop fastest (often before the drafts even end) and skim along the bottom for a few months. This is because enough people are buying into the new, lower price point that the value gets propped up. Mid-and-low cost cards generally bottom somewhere between three weeks to two or three months after the flashbacks end before they start their slow, slow climb. This means that if you are looking to pick up some flashback draft cards on the cheap, either for speculation or to play with, there isn't a big rush. As long as you buy in within a month or two, you should be safe in most cases, and you might actually save yourself some money on less expensive cards by waiting for the bottom.
  5. So, should you be buying into flashbacks? As a player, the answer is a resounding yes. Are you looking for a couple copies of Sneak Attack to finish your Legacy deck? Hold off until the middle of January and you'll be able to complete your set for at least 25 percent less that you would pay now, and maybe even half price. What about speculation? Here my answer is less solid, but in general it seems like a solid strategy with two conditions. First, only buy in on high value/competitive cards. Second, think things through. Sure, maybe we won't see another round of Time Spiral block for a while, but that didn't make Tarmogoyf a good spec last time around, because Modern Masters flashbacks have popped up twice since then. Gaea's Cradle would have seemed like a solid spec at this time last year, until the MOCS promo was announced.

Basically, as with most aspects of MTG finance, there is no one right answer for all situations. Use your head, look at the evidence, and examine the big picture because price drops from flashback drafts are not enough, in and of themselves, to make a good spec.

That's all for today. Let me know your thoughts in the comments or on twitter @SaffronOlive. For the next couple weeks I'll be cubing around MTGO, so if you run into me online, make sure to say hello (and if you're feeling really generous, pass me some Power!). Until next time, may all your Turn Two Tinkers find Blightsteel, and your storm count always be at ten.

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