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Standard Keeps Getting Cheaper


My initial plan for today's article was to do the next installment in the Preparing for Rotation series and talk about Oath of the Gatewatch, so I opened up the Oath of the Gatewatch set page and started to look over the cards. That's when I realized that most of the cards in the set are already cheap—super cheap, especially considering how many of the Eldrazi are played in Modern. In fact, out of the entire set, there's exactly one card that's worth more than $10 (Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet) and only five more that are worth more than $5. This seemed weird. Is it really worth it to write about preparing for rotation when only a handful of cards have any meaningful amount of value?

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So I changed gears and headed over to the metagame page to take a peak at the post-Pro Tour Amonkhet meta, and something struck me. It wasn't that Aetherworks Marvel is annoyingly high in variance, or that Zombies was finally a real deck in Standard, or that Mardu Vehicles was slowly but surly slipping down the page—it was that Standard was abnormally cheap. If you look at the 10 most played decks in the format, only three top the $300 mark (and just barely, coming in at between $318 and $341), and one of these three is Mono-Black Zombies, which was a Budget Magic deck a couple of weeks ago before the Pro Tour doubled the price of just about every card in the deck (with this in mind, it's likely that Zombies will fall out of the $300 club in the not-too-distant future). While we don't have a tier $100 deck, there are a ton of options in the $220 to $280 range, with seven of the top 10 most played decks residing here. All things considered, the average unweighted price of the top 10 decks in Standard is just $275. 

This is a really big deal. The cost of playing Magic has been one of the biggest concerns in the community over the past couple of years, and Wizards has responded by taking actions like creating the Masterpiece series and changing back to a once-a-year rotation schedule. While we can debate the wisdom of these moves from a meta perspective, if our only concern is the prices of cards and decks in Standard, there's little doubt that these changes are already paying off. To put our current Standard into perspective, let's take a look back at the last few years of Standards at about the same point in time. 

As you can see in the chart above, our current Standard is the cheapest we've had in at least the past four years, and we've seen a massive 29% decrease in the average price of a top 10 Standard deck in just one year, which is pretty impressive. It's also worth nothing that back in November, we talked about the price of Standard and were thrilled with the average price of $319, which itself was a meaningful decrease, but prices have dropped another 14% since then, in just six months' time. 

More important to the long term, it seems that this decrease in prices is sustainable. Looking back at past Standards, some have had a lower average price thanks to one really cheap deck that is essentially an outlier (a good example of this is the $85 Mono-Red deck back in 2015 Standard, which helped hide some really expensive decks in the same format and make the format look cheaper than it actually was). In our currant Standard, the range of deck prices is incredibly small—the cheapest top 10 deck (GB Energy) is $229, while the most expensive (Mardu Vehicles) is $341. Back in 2015 Theros / Khans Standard, the top 10 decks ranged from $89 Mono-Red to $477 Bant Megamorph, while a year ago in Khans / BFZ Standard, decks ranged from $255 Mono-White Humans to $581 Bant Company. 

This consistency is important for a couple of reasons. First, as I mentioned before, it shows that it isn't one or two outlying decks that are giving us this cheap Standard—rather than one abnormally inexpensive deck breaking into the top tier of the format and skewing the numbers, this is an across-the-board price decrease that is making playable Standard cards in general less expensive. Broad, across-the-board price decreases signify that these changes are likely repeatable and more likely to stick around compared to a quirk in the numbers from a $86 deck. Second, having all decks be cheaper and in a consistent price range is great for game play because it means that players have a ton of choice in which deck they buy. In a Standard where there are $86 decks and $500 decks, it's likely that the cost of a deck will play a large role in deck selection for at least some players, but in our current Standard, you know that you can play any deck you want if you can scrape up around $300.

So, what is it that's caused such a significant price decrease in such a short amount of time? It's not the format itself; the decks that are seeing play today look very much like the ones from past years, with most being two, three, or even four colors. Most decks are still built around powerful mythics, with lower-rarity cards filling in the gaps. From the perspective of the decks themselves, Standard looks pretty much like Standard has looked for the past few years. The answer here is quite clearly the addition and proliferation of the Masterpiece series.

The Masterpiece Series 

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The Masterpiece series has had some mixed reviews. Having a significant portion of a set's value concentrated in what essentially amount to foil mythics in terms of rarity makes opening boxes and packs an extreme gamble for the average player, and this had lead to some complaints. On the other hand, there's no doubt that these cards are doing a great job of making Standard cheaper by decreasing the prices of rares and mythics that see heavy play.

While we aren't going to go deep into expected value here, because most of you probably understand the concept by now, it's worth mentioning briefly, since it's not all that obvious how Masterpiece series cards decrease the price of the other cards in the set. The short version is that there's a cap on the value of the cards in a Magic set while it is in print, because if the cards in the set ever end up being worth so much that it's profitable to open a sealed booster box, people will open boxes, increasing supply and driving down prices. This cap is somewhere around $70 or $75, which is the normal wholesale price of a booster box, although the actual expected value typically ends up closer to $50 or $60, depending on the set. This means that a Magic set has a maximum of $75 of value per box to spread around, and this is true of both Masterpiece and non-Masterpiece sets. In a non-Masterpiece set, the rares and mythics will eat up most of that value—if the cap is $75, we can expect that rares and mythics (weighted toward chase rares and mythic) will use perhaps $65 or $70 of this value. In a Masterpiece set, the Masterpiece-series cards themselves will take up somewhere around $20 of this value, which lowers the cap for non-Masterpiece series cards down to $55. This means the rare and mythics only have $45 or $50 of value to divvy up among themselves, rather than $65 or $70. Basically, set value is (close to) a zero-sum game, and for every dollar of value Masterpieces series cards have, rares and mythics lose an equal amount of value to keep the box under the cap. 

Regardless of the mechanics, the important thing here is that, from the perspective of making Standard cheaper, Masterpieces are not just working but working well. It's also important to realize that we haven't even reached peak supply for Masterpieces yet, since Shadows over Innistrad block did not have any Masterpieces, which means right now Standard is only 71% Masterpiece sets. It seems likely that prices will tick down a bit more as we reach 100% Masterpiece sets this fall.  While it would take a lot of calculations to give hard numbers (because we'd have to look at how much Shadows over Innistrad block—the only non-Masterpiece block in Standard—is actually being played), it wouldn't be a bit surprising to see an average deck price of around $250 after rotation this fall. 

Cheap, but Cheap Enough?

While I haven't heard as many direct complaints about the cost of playing Magic lately, the Standard bannings have kept the issue floating just below the surface, despite the fact that the numbers show that Standard, thanks to the actions Wizards has taken over the past year and a half, is cheaper than ever. So, let's take a minute and ask ourselves how cheap is cheap enough. At what price point do we declare the war is won? How much does the average top tier Standard deck need to cost for us to stop complaining and just enjoy Standard? 

One thing people love to do is compare the price of Magic to other hobbies, but I've always found these comparisons lacking because most hobbies (like Magic) are highly dependent on how much money you put into them. You can enjoy skiing with a hill and a pair of skis you picked up at a garage sale, or you can enjoy skiing with thousands of dollars of top-of-the-line equipment, it's really up to you and how much you are willing and able to spend. Magic is the same way. You can enjoy it with a $40 Commander preconstructed deck or with a $40,000 Vintage deck—it's your call. So, to put the cost of Magic into perspective and try to answer how cheap is cheap enough, let's narrow our comparison to other collectible / tradable card games. How does being a tier Standard Magic deck compare to buying a tier deck in other popular card games?

Pokémon 

Thanks to pokegoldfish, it's pretty easy to figure out the average cost of the 10 most played Pokémon decks. Right now, it comes out to $164, with the range being from $89 to $196 (with all but one deck being between $159 and $196; the $89 seems like the classic Mono-Red outlier). On its face, this means a tier Pokémon deck is about $100 cheaper than a tier Magic deck, but this is somewhat complicated by the fact that Pokémon decks don't use a sideboard, so you only need 60 cards instead of 75 to play a tournament-level deck. If we control for deck size by looking at the average card price from a top 10 most played deck, we'll see that things are a bit closer, with Pokémon being $2.73 per card to Magic's $3.67, although Pokemon is still cheaper in a vacuum. 

Yugioh

For Yugioh prices, we turn to YugiohTopDecks, which lists the most played decks along with their average price. Here, I was actually surprised to find that Yugioh is not only more expensive than Magic but significantly more expensive, with the average price of the top 10 decks coming in at $478 (compared to $275 for Magic). In fact, the cheapest "tier" deck in Yugioh (Metalfoe at $345) is more expensive than the most expensive tier deck in Magic (Mardu Vehicles at $341). Of course, there's always a complication, and for Yugioh, it's that they run formats in a really weird way. As far as I can tell, their version of Standard (i.e., the primary tournament format), called Advanced, is actually similar to Legacy in Magic, since it includes cards from all Yugioh sets ever, and their secondary format (called Traditional) is essentially like Vintage (right down to the fact that no one plays it). This, at least in part, probably explains the higher deck price, although to be fair, if Legacy is your primary format, new players have to buy a Legacy deck if they want to play, so the comparison to Magic's Standard seems reasonable.

Force of Will

When I asked on Twitter what other games (beyond Pokémon and Yugioh) should be looked at, the most popular answer was Force of Will. Unfortunately, there isn't an easy way to look up deck prices for Force of Will, which is probably because the tournament scene seems to be localized and not very large (one of the major deck list sites for Force of Will only posts about one tournament every six weeks). As such, I can't give you a full breakdown of what the top 10 Force of Will decks cost because I can't even figure out the top 10 Force of Will decks. That said, I did take the time to calculate the price of a few decks that finished in the Top 8 of a recent tournament and found that somewhere between $100 and $200 seems to be the norm for a tournament-level Force of Will deck. The problem is that just how much you'll get for your investment in a Force of Will deck remains to be seen. With Magic, pretty much no matter where you live in the country (or even in the world), you can find a local tournament every week, if not every night, along with large national / international tournaments most weekends. With Force of Will, it seems like your ability to actually play the game will depend on where you live. If you have a thriving scene in your area, it's probably great, but it seems that large-scale Grand Prix- / SCG-level tournaments are mostly missing from Force of Will, and you won't even find local events in some areas. 

Hearthstone

Let me start by saying that our focus today is on physical paper games, not digital games. It's simply not fair to compare paper Magic to digital-only Hearthstone. Instead, we'd need to compare Hearthstone to Magic Online, and there simply isn't a way to do this comparison justice in this article without going way too long and becoming way too convoluted, especially considering the complexity of the comparison, since Magic Online cards have real value while Hearthstone cards are untradable. That said, Hearthstone is the comparison people asked for the most, so we'll do an entire article on the topic in the not-too-distant future. 

However, it is worth mentioning that, just like paper, Magic Online decks are getting less expensive as well, with the average price of the top 10 decks being $192. Having the average deck price below $200 is fairly uncommon. Dating back to 2012, the only other times deck prices were consistently this low were the summers of 2014 and 2015, when heading into rotation. But as I mentioned a moment ago, an in-depth comparison will have to wait until we have an article about digital prices. 

Wrap-Up

After looking over the other games that compete with paper Magic, the current price of Standard looks even better. Yugioh is significantly more expensive, and while Pokémon and Force of Will are a bit less expensive, when you consider that Magic has more play locations, more tournaments, and better-run organized play (along with a bunch of other advantages), costing a bit more makes sense. A $275 Magic deck offers most gamers more value than a $175 Pokemon deck or a $150 Force of Will deck because there are so many more play opportunities and tournaments. Basically, Magic is priced like the premier card game on the market because it is the premier card game on the market.

Of course, there is a limit, which is why the recent price decreases are so important. When a Standard deck is $500 or even $700, like we saw in Battle for Zendikar, buying a $175 Pokemon deck—even though Magic is widely considered to be the better game and clearly has more play opportunities—might be the right move, but now that the gap between the games has decreased significantly thanks to the addition of Masterpiece series cards to Magic sets, it's hard to argue that Magic isn't the right choice by most metrics. 

The bottom line is Standard prices have dropped a ton—about 30% in the past year and almost 15% in the past six months. Better yet, they are likely to continue decreasing as we move from a partial Masterpiece Standard to a full Masterpiece Standard. While things could always be better (we are still missing a tier budget list like we've had in Mono-Red in some past Standard formats), it's hard to overstate just how much better things are now compared to just a year or two ago when Battle for Zendikar spiked the average cost of a deck to nearly $700. 

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While there has been a lot of hysteria regarding Standard lately, mostly because of some major unforced errors in the past from Wizards' design and development with Emrakul, the Promised End, Aetherworks Marvel, Copy Cat Combo, and Vehicles—and rightly so—at least in one important regard, Standard has drastically improved over the past couple of years, with accessibility increasing and the barrier of entry for new players dropping, which bodes well for the future of the format. Design and development mistakes should be fairly easy for Wizards to fix, while figuring out how to manage the economy and decrease card prices in a reasonable and responsible way is challenging. So, in some sense, the hard work is done. Once the quality of play in Standard catches up to the new, lower prices (and I have faith that it will because we've already seen movement in that direction and Wizards is redoubling its design and development efforts with things like new playtest teams), the stage will be set for a new golden age for Standard, with not just great game play but accessible prices as well. 

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. What do you think of the current price of Standard? If you aren't happy with the current $275 average deck price, what price point would make you happy? How do you think Magic compares to other hobbies in terms of cost? As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.

 

 


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