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Modern Prices, Masters Sets, and Reprint Equity


It's easy to forget just how much the financial aspect of Magic has changed in just the last couple of years. It wasn't that long ago that Modern Masters sets were being printed in very limited supply and selling for way above MSRP and when one of the biggest conversations in the community was about the need for more (and more effective) reprints to make Magic cheaper. Now, we live in a world where high-supply Conspiracy sets are often among the best reprint sets of the year and Iconic Masters is being sold in Walmart. If you combine these things together, it seems pretty clear that Wizards took the request from the community for more reprints to heart, and while it took a while for the plan to come to fruition, we now live in a world where any expensive card in Modern has several potential reprinting spots each year between dual decks, From the Vault, Masters sets, Conspiracy, and other supplemental products. 

While we know that Wizards had dedicated itself to reprints (at the request of the community), a bigger and better question is how much these reprints have actually changed the cost of playing Magic. With Iconic Masters releasing this week—the second of three Masters sets in a 12-month period—and the return of the Modern Pro Tour just around the corner, it's a good time to take a peak into Modern and see how much it actually costs to play the format today, after more than a year of extremely effective reprints, compared to a couple of years ago. Along with looking at the cost of playing Modern, we're also going to take a few minutes to talk about the mechanism Wizards uses to increase the supply of cards (and decrease card prices): reprint sets. We've seen a massive increase in reprint-focused supplemental products in recent years, and while these sets do a great job of bringing down the price of formats like Modern, they also come with some hidden concerns as Wizards cashes out reprint equity it has built up over the course of decades in just a few years. But first things first—let's take a look at the actual price of playing Modern.

Buying a Tier Deck

One of the easiest ways to do a quick check on the cost of playing Modern is to simply figure out the average price of the top decks in the format and see how these prices change year-by-year. There are benefits and downsides to this method. The biggest problem with simply averaging the price of the top 12 decks in the format is that it's not a true apples-to-apples comparison, since the most played decks in Modern change over time. This means that simply comparing averages doesn't show us much about the prices of individual cards. While it's probably unlikely, it's possible that expensive decks were popular in 2015 and cheap decks are popular now, accounting for at least some of the difference. 

On the other hand, breaking down the average price of the most played decks in the format has a huge upside: it does a good job of approximating the barrier to entry into the format. Think of a new player jumping into Modern; they probably look at the most popular decks in the format, choose one, and take the plunge. As such, having the average drop is a good thing because it means it's significantly less expensive for a new-to-Modern player to buy their first tier deck, which makes it more likely they'll start playing the format. 

As for the numbers themselves, they are actually pretty consistent. Between 2015 and 2016, the average cost of a tier Modern deck dropped about 12.5%, which was followed up by dropping another 11% between 2016 and today. This means that, in sum, the average cost of buying one of the top 12 most played decks in Modern has decreased 22.2% in just two years' time. Of course, $790 is still a lot of money for some people to spend on cardboard, so Modern still isn't cheap in an absolute sense, but it is significantly cheaper now than it was a year or two years ago.

Individual Decks

As I mentioned before, there are some problems with looking at average deck prices. For example, back in 2015, two of the three most played decks were Splinter Twin and Amulet Bloom, both of which have since been banned, which means they don't actually add much value to our discussion, since players don't have the option of buying and playing these decks. On the other hand, a handful of decks have remained consistently popular since 2015, and by looking at the prices of these decks individually, we can get a very good apples-to-applies look at the cost of individual decks and cards.

Affinity

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Affinity is probably the best deck for self-comparison because it's weirdly consistent, being the second most played deck in Modern in 2015, 2016, and 2017. While it hasn't crashed in price, it has been trending lower, especially in the past year. After a bump between 2015 and 2016,  the cost of buying Affinity has decreased by about 11% in the past 12 months. The fact that the price of Affinity is less today than it was a year ago is actually somewhat surprising because many of the most important cards in the deck have actually been increasing.

Mox Opal was a much-hyped reprint in Modern Masters 2015, but the combination of weird new demand from Lantern Control and Puresteel Paladin decks means that the reprinting didn't actually help to change prices much at all. While there was a short window to buy the artifact for around $40, it's back up to over $60 and currently at an all-time high. Meanwhile, Arcbound Ravager was $17 back in 2015 after Modern Masters 2015 but over $40 today. Despite these increases, the total deck price is down, mostly thanks to decreases in the prices of some lands (like Inkmoth Nexus and Blinkmoth Nexus) along with some secondary pieces (like Master of Etherium, which went from $15 to $5 thanks to a Commander reprint). 

While our focus today is on the total cost of Modern, looking at these Affinity prices provides a good reminder of how you can get a tier Modern deck for a lot less than the total deck price if you are looking to put in a little bit of work. Buying Arcbound Ravager for $17 would knock $92 off the sticker price (of just buying the deck all at once right now) of Affinity, while getting Mox Opal for $40 instead of $60 would save another $80.This means that with a bit of effort and timing, you could easily have an optimal Affinity deck today for $500 or less simply by buying key cards at their lows after Masters-set reprintings.

Burn

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Burn is another good deck for comparison, since its popularity has remained fairly consistent over the past two years. In 2015, it was the fifth most played deck in Modern; it was third in 2016 and is eighth today. As you can see, the price of buying a tier Burn list had dropped a ton over the past two years. While there was a bit of a jump between 2015 and 2016, today Burn is 38.5% cheaper than it was back in 2015 and 44% cheaper than it was just a year ago! 

This massive drop can mostly be tied to two cards: Arid Mesa and Goblin Guide, both of which were reprinted in Modern Masters 2017. Before the reprinting, building the optimal build of Burn required a playset of Arid Mesa at $220 and a playset of Goblin Guide, which was as much as $160 in the spring of 2016. Today, Arid Mesa is only $30 a copy (or $120 a playset), and Goblin Guide is $17 (or $68 a playset) and still dropping. Most of the other cards in the deck are around the same price, and some (like Lava Spike and Eidolon of the Great Revel have increased, but these small increases are more than offset by the huge drop from two of the most expensive cards in the deck.

Tron

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Traditional (non-Eldrazi) Tron was the sixth most played deck in Modern back in 2015 and dropped to 11th in 2016 but is back up to fifth today. Despite moving up the metagame rankings over the past year, the deck has also tumbled in price. After staying essentially the same between 2015 and 2016, the big-mana deck plunged a massive 22% in the past year alone. This is especially impressive considering that Karn Liberated nearly doubled in price last spring after not being reprinted in Modern Masters 2017

While these changes are partly because of the evolution of the deck (Spellskite is less common today than it was in the past, although in all fairness, Spellskite has been replaced with Collective Brutality and Walking Ballista, which are essentially the same price as Spellskite), there have also been some major price decreases, headlined by Oblivion Stone, which finally got a real reprinting in Iconic Masters, dropping the price from $35 in the spring of 2015 to about $5 today (for the Iconic Masters printing). 

Jund

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Looking at the price of Jund over the last couple of years has one major issue: the deck is significantly less popular today than it was in the past. After being the most played deck in Modern in both 2015 and 2016, it currently sits at #12 on our list of most popular decks in the format. This means that at least some of the price changes we see could be because the deck simply doesn't have as much demand as it did in the past. With this in mind, the numbers are still pretty shocking: in just the past year, Jund has dropped nearly 22% from over $2,000 to under $1,600. 

The decrease here is mostly tied to three major reprints from Modern Masters 2017. The first is Tarmogoyf. It's easy to forget that it wasn't too long ago the two-drop was more than $200 a copy, and even last year, prices were somewhere in the $125–150 range. Today, you can pick up copies of the Modern Masters 2017 printing for under $70. Meanwhile, Liliana of the Veil is still expensive at over $80 a copy but a lot less expensive than the $110 you'd have had to pay for the planeswalker back in 2016. Finally, Verdant Catacombs is about $40 today, after peaking at nearly $80 before Modern Masters 2017 hit the market. 

Other Decks

Strangely, thanks to a combination of bannings and some powerful new cards being printed in recent sets, the five decks above are the only decks that were among the 12 most played in 2015, 2016, and 2017. The good news is that the same pattern holds true for most of the decks in Modern—a slight increase between 2015 and 2016 and then a big drop in 2017. Mono-Blue Merfolk is down to $518 after being $574 last year (about a 10% drop). Abzan Company fell from almost $1,150 last year to just over $800 today, although this is partly because the deck has undergone some changes to incorporate the Vizier of Remedies / Devoted Druid combo.

Maybe more surprising is the fact that even decks that have drastically increased in popularity over the past year are significantly cheaper to buy. The janky 2016 version of Storm (which wasn't even among the 50 most played decks in the Modern format) was $725, but today's version—the #1 most played deck in Modern—is only $421 thanks to major price decreases from Past in Flames, Scalding Tarn, and Serum Visions. Of course, there are exceptions. Eldrazi and Taxes has moved up the metagame page and also increased slightly in price (from about $470 back in 2016 to around $505 today), mostly thanks to Thalia, Guardian of Thraben shooting up in price, but based on what we've seen so far, it's unlikely this will last for very long, since it should be near the top of the list for a reprinting in the near future.

What's This Mean? 

One thing that's clear is that Modern is significantly cheaper today than it was a year ago. While there are a few exceptions, nearly every deck is less expensive today than it was back in 2016, and this is exemplified by the average cost of a tier deck in the format dropping more than 20% over the past two years. With a Modern Pro Tour on the horizon this winter and a partially Modern team Pro Tour coming next summer, in some ways it is the perfect time to jump into the format. Prices are low, the format is incredibly diverse, and it's possible that having more official support from Wizards on the Pro Tour will help the format grow even more (especially combined with heavy support from StarCityGames which has nearly dropped Standard altogether to focus on running Modern tournaments).

This isn't to say that Modern is cheap or even that it's as cheap as it should be from the perspective of players. From the perspective of someone who loves playing Modern and wants as many people as possible to experience they joy of playing the format, having Modern decks cost the same as Standard decks or even be cheaper than Standard decks sounds great. However, as with most aspects of Magic, we have competing interests. While cheap as possible sounds good to players, Wizards needs to sell cards to keep the lights on out in Renton, which means it needs cards to have some amount of value.

While many of you probably don't want to hear this, Wizards needs Modern to be more expensive than Standard. If we ever get to a point where Modern and Standard are essentially the same price, a savvy consumer will just forgo Standard altogether and buy a Modern deck that will last for years with minimal upgrades, rather than buying a Standard deck that lasts for two years max (and even this is far from guaranteed, since the Standard metagame shifts much faster than Modern's). Standard sets are Wizards' bread and butter, and while pulling in a few extra dollars from Iconic Masters, Modern Masters, or Masters 25 is great, this is bonus money for Wizards, not a replacement for selling Standard-legal product. 

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Now, picture a world where Modern decks averaged $250 (which is roughly the same as Standard right now). This means that Wizards would not only sell less Standard product (since the smart financial move would be to just buy singles and play Modern) but also lose the ability to sell $10 Masters packs, since to get the average deck price in Modern to Standard levels, most of the Modern chase cards would have to be priced similarly to Standard chase cards. This means $5–8 fetch lands (like the fast lands are today), most rares at $2 or less, and with few exceptions, mythics around $5 (with Liliana of the Veil being the The Scarab God of the format in the $40 range and other staple mythics like Tarmogoyf being $15 like Hazoret the Fervent). While this probably sounds like a Magic utopia for players, the end result would be Wizards making a lot less money, which could put the entire future of the game into question (since Wizards needs to make money to keep the lights on and continue to make Magic cards at all).

This isn't to say Modern can't (or shouldn't) be cheaper. From my perspective, in a perfect world, Modern would be roughly twice the price of Standard and Legacy would be roughly twice the price of Modern. We're obviously a long way away from this happening with Legacy, thanks in large part to the Reserved List limiting Wizards' ability to print important cards, but we are heading in the right direction for Modern. While we can debate the right price levels, having the average price of Standard decks be somewhere between $200 and $300 and the average price of Modern decks around $600 might be cheap enough to meet the need of the players to have accessible formats they can play but still meet Wizards' need to sell enough Magic cards at a high enough price to keep the game of Magic alive. Based on the how much the price of Modern has declined in just the past year or two, if things continue at the current rate, we'd be on pace for the average Modern deck to cost $600 in 2019, if not by this time next year.

Moving Forward

The biggest issue for Wizards is what to do moving forward. Right now, it is in an interesting position. Modern prices are heading into the right direction and not that far away from the sweet spot, which means Wizards has to figure out what to do next in terms of its reprint policy. Once Modern decks hit the desired price point—being accessible but still profitable—continuing at the current accelerated reprint pace would be risky for Wizards, since it would risk getting to the point where Modern becomes so cheap that it cannibalizes Standard. Of course, if Wizards pulls back too much on reprints, then the price of Modern would eventually return back to pre-2015 levels and the conversation would once against be about how the format is too expensive for anyone to play, which isn't good either. 

On top of finding the right balance, Wizards has another problem: it is burning through expensive cards to reprint faster than it is making expensive new cards that can be reprinted in the future. Basically, Wizards is spending a lot of its reprint equity (if you're not familiar with the term "reprint equity," take a minute to read this article). Set by set, reprint by reprint, its bank account is slowly being emptied of funds. Every time Wizards reprints a card, that card is less valuable for selling future sets, which makes finding high-value cards to sell supplemental products (including Masters sets) more difficult as time goes by. 

It's worth noting here that it's not just that a card is reprinted but how a card is reprinted that matters in terms of the amount of equity Wizards uses on the reprint. The original Modern Masters didn't actually use up very much equity, since its supply was so limited that it didn't actually affect the prices of the reprinted cards in a meaningful way. On the other hand, Iconic Masters appears to be pretty high in supply (which is the main reason showing up in big-box stores like Target and Walmart matters; apart from potentially hurting local game stores, it's a pretty good sign that there's going to be a lot of Iconic Masters to go around), which means Wizards will likely spend most of its Mana Drain equity with just the Iconic Masters printing, rather than a little bit here and there in smaller-supply sets. 

With these problems in mind, let's look at the potential paths forward for reprintings once Modern hits Wizards' desired price point (in a year or two). While none of these things is an immediate issue (and by this, I mean Wizards could simply keep doing reprints and Masters sets the same way that it did this year for another couple of years), they are important mid-term concerns and are worth discussing.

Wizards Keeps Reprinting Cards at the Current Rate

By current rate, I mean a bunch of supplemental products (Commander products, Explorers of Ixalan, Duel Decks), a Conspiracy set every other year, along with one or two Masters sets each year. If Wizards simply keeps pushing out reprints like it has in 2017, we will quickly approach the point where Modern is about the same price as Standard. While this is great for new players looking to get into Modern, the fact that there's no reason to pay your dues in Standard (Wizards' most profitable format) first could actually have a negative impact on the game overall. From Wizards' perspective, Modern needs to be cheap enough that players are willing and able to buy into the format but not so cheap that a huge number of players stop playing Standard because it makes more financial sense to play a non-rotating format. In the worst case, this could lead to a sort of death spiral, where Wizards sees profits drop since it is selling less Standard sets and its response is to make more reprint sets to increase its bottom line, only to push more players away from Standard, rinse and repeat. 

Wizards Finds the Middle Ground for Reprints for Long-Term Stability 

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This is likely the best outcome for everyone involved. There's no doubt that a couple of years ago, Wizards simply wasn't reprinting cards enough (or effectively enough), which was leading to some crazy prices in Modern and keeping players out of the format. While today's level of reprinting is great for today, since it's helping get Modern prices to where they need to be for both players and Wizards, it's not sustainable over the long haul. Maybe in 2019 or 2020, Wizards will find the sweet spot—enough reprints to keep the prices of Modern at an accessible level but not so many reprints (or products) that players become overwhelmed and start to tune things out altogether or that Wizards cannibalizes its primary product: Standard-legal sets.

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The other upside of fewer reprints from Wizards' perspective is that it will make the reprint sets that do happen more exciting and that their cards will start to build equity. While Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker is a great reprint the first time and a fine reprint the second time, it's pretty uninspired by the third reprinting, and by the time we get the fourth reprint, it will be honing in on Comet Storm territory as the joke mythic that you don't want to open in your Masters-set pack. However, if Wizards backs off on printing Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker for a few years, it will slowly increase in price until the point where it's actually a desirable reprint once again.

Wizards Finds a Way to Increase Its Reprint Equity

If Wizards does want to keep up the current rate of reprint sets but doesn't want to crash the market and cannibalize Standard, it needs to find more reprint equity, since right now, Wizards is spending money faster than making it. So far, this has worked (and likely will work for another couple of years), since Wizards built up a massive stockpile of equity over the first 20 years of the game, when reprints were rare and supplemental products weren't common. 

At this point, one of the biggest challenges of Masters sets is that Wizards simply can't make expensive cards as fast as it wants to reprint expensive cards, which means little by little, after every Masters set, every Explorers of Ixalan, and every Commander series, there's less equity left in its bank account to cash in. While Wizards is nowhere near empty, it's also true that we are far past the low-hanging-fruit world of $200 Tarmogoyfs and $100 fetch lands. If Wizards can't make enough new equity (in the form of expensive new cards it can eventually reprint), the only way to increase this equity would be to cash in some assets that have been off limits, which in this case would be the Reserved List. While I'm not going to get into the entire debate over the Reserved List here and will readily admit that Wizards dropping the Reserved List is unlikely, it's also true that Wizards loves reprints and the easy money they generate, and as each passing Masters set empties its bank account, the huge, unused supply equity tied up in Reserved List cards has to at least be tempting Wizards a little bit. Getting rid of the Reserved List all by itself would give Wizards several more years of Masters sets, and if the goal is to print more than one Masters set a year (along with all the other supplemental products), it's hard to imagine that, sooner or later, Wizards won't try to find a way to dip into this huge pool of money and shift that money from the secondary market into its own pocket.

Wizards Finds a Way to Increase Its Reprint Equity (Part II) 

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Let's assume for a minute that, despite the temptation of easy money, Wizards keeps the Reserved List in place forever (which is the most likely outcome). If it can't print enough new expensive cards to stock future supplemental products and Masters sets, how else can Wizards increase its reprint equity? There is one other option: Wizards simply makes a new format. Most of the cards and decks we've been talking about today are expensive for one reason: they are staples in Modern. If Modern weren't a format, most of these cards would be a lot cheaper, since they aren't good enough for Legacy and aren't legal in Standard, which means the only demand they would generate would be from casual / Commander play. Barring the end of the Reserved List, the easiest way Wizards could make more reprint equity would be to support some sort of Frontier-esque format. Suddenly, a bunch of cards that aren't good enough for Modern and aren't legal in Standard have a ton of demand in this new format, causing prices to spike (much like we saw with the creation of Modern a few years ago), giving Wizards at least a couple of years' worth of "Frontier-esque Masters" sets to print. Personally, I 100% expect this to happen, if for no other reason than Wizards has made it pretty clear that Magic Arena won't have Modern (at least for a long, long time) but players will have a format to play their cards in once they rotate from Standard. As such, assuming Magic Arena takes off, it's hard to imagine a world where we don't have a new non-rotating format two or three years from now, likely tied to the card pool of Magic Arena

TLDR

To recap: Wizards' aggressive reprints over the past year or two have done a great job of lowering the barrier to entry in Modern, with the average price of buying a tier deck in the format decreasing over 20% in just the past two years. While the format isn't as cheap as it could (or should) be yet, at the current reprint pace, having Modern be as cheap as Wizards wants it to be isn't some far-off distant fantasy—we'll likely be to that point within the next two years. 

To bring down Modern prices (and to make money), Wizards has spent the last couple of years cashing in a big chunk of the reprint equity it has built up over the first 20 years of the game, to the point where finding enough high-priced cards to keep filling the increasing number of supplemental products and reprint sets will soon become challenging (if it isn't already). While spending equity is fine, it's much like funding your personal life with your credit card—it's not a sustainable long-term strategy to spend more than you make. 

When you combine these two things together, something will have to change in Wizards' reprinting policy in the next couple of years. The most likely outcome is the creation of a new format in between Modern and Standard to temporarily boost reprint equity by creating demand for a bunch of cards that currently fall into the cracks of being not quite good enough for Modern but not legal in Standard. It's also possible that we see Wizards slow down on reprints, either by making fewer supplemental products or by limiting the supply of supplemental products, in an effort to give cards a chance to appreciate in value and build equity for future reprint sets. The third possibility is that Wizards eventually bows to the temptation of monetizing the Reserved List, although based on everything Wizards has said thus far, this is more of a long shot.

Finally, to bring things back around to where we started, this winter has the potential to be the single best time to get into Modern for the next several years. The weird scheduling quirk that gave us three Masters sets in 12 months means a huge percentage of the format's staples would have been recently reprinted by the time Masters 25 is released in March. If these cards aren't reprinted again, they will start to increase in price (see Arcbound Ravager and Mox Opal), so if you've been on the fence about getting into Modern, I'd strongly consider using this multiple Masters-set window as a reason to buy in now. While we don't know what the future holds—perhaps in a few years, everyone is playing a Frontier-esque format tied to Magic Arena—all signs point to the short-term future of Modern being strong, with ramped-up tournament support, Pro Tours, and ample reprints to give new-to-Modern players a discount on their decks. While Wizards' haphazard spending of equity brings with it some long-term concerns, the fact that Wizards has been so willing to reprint format staples is great for us players, who just want to play Modern on the cheap.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. What do you think about the current number of reprints? Keeping in mind that we need Wizards to make money to be able to keep making us sweet Magic cards, what do you think is the right price point for Modern decks? Are you concerned at all that Wizards is spending its equity too quickly and could run out of things to reprint in Masters sets and other supplemental products? If so, could this lead to a new format or even the end of the Reserved List? Let me know in the comments!

As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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