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The Expected Value of Ultimate Masters


Ultimate Masters has been one of the strangest and most controversial sets we've had in recent memory, starting with the Ultimate Box Toppers being mailed to people who tried to order Mythic Edition, which lead to a ton of hype, before crashing (at least, in the eyes of a big chunk of the community) with the announcement of a huge MSRP increase from $240 to $335 a box. As a result, rather than universal rejoicing that a bunch of important cards are (finally) being reprinted, the response to the set has been mired in arguments of its cost and the bad feelings associated with the MSRP increase. 

Today, our goal is to put all of those feelings aside and look at the set purely by the numbers, examining the question of how much money you should expect to open from an Ultimate Masters box if you should choose to crack one. Normally during these expected value articles, I provide a reminder that you shouldn't let the expected value be your only decision point when it comes to figuring out whether or not you should buy a box, but in the case of Ultimate Masters specifically, the expected value is extremely important thanks to the increased MSRP of the box and because the reprints from the set are going to give players a chance to buy some really powerful Modern (and also Commander) staples at a huge discount. In a world where money is finite, the choice between buying an Ultimate Masters booster box for $280 and buying $280 of singles is actually quite important. With a Standard-legal set where boxes are only $100, buying a box "for fun" is practical for many players, but at nearly three times the price, Ultimate Masters isn't the type of set that most players buy for fun, simply because the up-front cost is so high. Instead, most people will buy Ultimate Masters because they are hoping to get a good amount of value (in the form of Modern and Commander staples) from their box. 

As such, our plan for today is simple: we'll break down just how much value you should expect to open from your box of Ultimate Masters, which in turn will help us determine if buying a box could be worth it, as opposed to simply buying the newly cheap reprinted singles.

What Is Expected Value?

Expected value is actually pretty simple: it tells us how much value an average booster box will yield. We simply figure out our odds of opening any individual card in any specific box, do this repeatedly for every card in the set, and then mash everything together to figure out the expected value of the booster box itself. Of course, expected value comes with one big warning: we're working with averages, so there's no guarantee that any individual box will contain as much value as the expected value suggest. In the real world, there are good boxes and bad boxes—some boxes will contain way more value than our final expected value number, other will contain less. And since most people will only open a few boxes or even a single box, variance is something to be aware of.

It's also worth pointing out that expected value is not a predictive exercise. As Ultimate Masters is opened, the prices of the cards in the set will decrease, along with the EV of the box, so if you buy a box two months from now, the amount of value you pull will likely be a lot different than it is today. To keep up on the future EV of Ultimate Masters, check out the live Ultimate Masters EV spreadsheet, which will be updated periodically over the next month or two.

Mixed Pricing

Pricing for Ultimate Masters is a bit confusing at the moment, since there aren't that many copies of individual cards listed on places like eBay and TCGPlayer. Our basic goal is that we are trying to get the lowest realistic price possible because in the long run, it's better to underestimate the EV of a box than to overestimate. For this, we'll use a mixed pricing model, with each card's price being based on the lowest value we can find between presales on places like Card Kingdom and StarCityGames, along with TCGPlayer and eBay Buy It Now. In the past, I've knocked 15% of the price for the fees and shipping associated with selling the cards you open in your box, but considering that many people will be opening Ultimate Masters to grow their collection, we're going to use regular prices this time, and then we'll discuss the discounted EV in the wrap-up. 

Methodology Notes

  1. Most commons and uncommons are counted as bulk, which means a rate of $5 per thousand. There are a few exceptions, and these are listed along with my pricing in the appropriate sections. Since Ultimate Masters boxes are smaller than normal (with only 24 packs rather than the more common 36), all of the bulk commons and uncommons don't actually add all that much value to the EV—about $1.60.
  2. One of the quirks of Ultimate Masters is that you get a foil in every pack. Don't worry; we'll have a separate section on foils to calculate the value they add to a box.
  3. We'll cover the Ultimate Box Toppers in their own section, since they only apply to people buying full boxes and not purchasing smaller amounts of Ultimate Masters like blister packs from big-box stores or for drafting.
  4. I expect the prices of most of these cards to decrease over the next few months. This is especially true of uncommons and commons but also rares and some mythics as well. Traditionally, the common "discount" price of a Masters-series reprint is somewhere around 50% of the pre-reprinting price, although the amount that cards drop seems to have grown since Iconic Masters and Masters 25, thanks to the extra supply from the sets being sold at big-box stores like Walmart and Target.
  5. For Ultimate Masters, I've been working on a live EV spreadsheet. While it won't be updated daily, I'll try to update it weekly heading toward the official release of the set on December 6, so if you want an updated EV in the future, keep the spreadsheet in mind.
  6. Finally, be aware of variance. These numbers will be accurate if you open enough packs. But like most aspects of Magic, variance can have a huge impact on small samples. In theory (although not in practice, because box distribution isn't truly random), a booster box could contain zero mythics and all bulk rares, or it could contain a complete set of foil mythics. The more packs you crack, the more accurate the EV becomes because you smooth out these outliers.

Ultimate Masters: Mythics

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Ultimate Masters Mythics
Card Price
Liliana of the Veil $64.99
Karn Liberated $60.87
Cavern of Souls $51.99
Snapcaster Mage $50.87
Tarmogoyf $49.99
Karakas $37.99
Temporal Manipulation $34.99
Bitterblossom $29.99
Mana Vault $29.99
Dark Depths $28.87
Emrakul, the Aeons Torn $25.99
Kozilek, Butcher of Truth $24.99
Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre $22.99
Vengevine $19.99
Leovold, Emissary of Trest $16.92
Mikaeus, the Unhallowed $16.19
Sigarda, Host of Herons $9.99
Platinum Emperion $8.99
Lord of Extinction $7.99
Balefire Dragon $5.91
Total Mythic Value $600.45
Average Mythic Value $30.02
EV Added to Box (Average 3 mythics / box) $90.07

Let's start with the good news—the value of the mythics in Ultimate Masters is off the charts. In Modern Masters 2017, the last great Masters set, the average value of a mythic was less than $20; in Ultimate Masters, it's over $30! If we compare Ultimate Masters to some of the worst Masters sets we've had recently, like Masters 25 or Iconic Masters, the average mythic in Ultimate Masters is worth nearly $10 more, even discounting 15% for a fair comparison. While this is somewhat offset by the fact that sealed boxes of Ultimate Masters cost more than Masters 25 or Iconic Masters boxes, no matter which way you look at it, the value of the mythics in the set is great. 

After the great Tree of Redemption debacle in Masters 25, one of the biggest pieces of feedback from the community was that players shouldn't open a $1 mythic from a $10 pack. It seems like Wizards took this feedback to heart, even while increasing the cost of the set. When the set was spoiled, the value of every mythic was worth at least the price of a pack, even taking into account the MSRP increase, and even now as prices drop, 16 of the 20 mythics are worth more than $16, and even the "bad" mythics from the set are still worth $5.91 to $9.99. As such, it's going to be hard to be too disappointed no matter which mythic you open. While Balefire Dragon and Lord of Extinction aren't exciting, they are still worth significantly more than the cheapest mythics in previous Masters sets. 

There is one complicating factor about the mythics in Ultimate Masters that I haven't figured out exactly how to handle: instead of the normal 15 mythics, the set has 20. A bunch of boring technicalities about the printing process come into play here, but the bottom line is that there's some disagreement about how whether or not mythics will actually show up slightly more frequently in Ultimate Masters than in other sets. For our expected-value purposes, I decided to stick with the normal one-in-every-eight-packs ratio, meaning the average box will contain three non-foil mythics, but if the printing process is different in a way that makes mythics more common, the value of the mythic slot could be even higher, since the average number you open in a box could increase to closer to four.

In sum, there's really nothing to say except that the mythics from Ultimate Masters are great. Many are high-demand staples like Liliana of the Veil, Karn Liberated, Snapcaster Mage, and Cavern of Souls, and even the low-end mythics aren't Tree of Redemption bad. The median mythic value is $27.43, only slightly lower than the average of $30.02, which suggests that the value is fairly evenly distributed. So even if you don't manage to open one of the most expensive mythics in the set, you should still have a very solid box, at least as far as mythics are concerned. Basically, at least in terms of mythics, Ultimate Masters really lives up to its name.

Ultimate Masters: Rares

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Ultimate Masters Rares
Card Price
Noble Hierarch $49.99
Engineered Explosives $39.99
Demonic Tutor $31.99
Back to Basics $29.99
Ancient Tomb $27.38
Celestial Colonnade $24.99
Phyrexian Tower $24.38
Phyrexian Altar $23.41
Gaddock Teeg $22.99
Through the Breach $19.99
Goryo's Vengeance $17.99
Life from the Loam $17.99
Reanimate $15.99
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth $14.99
Runed Halo $11.99
Maelstrom Pulse $11.50
Bridge from Below $10.99
Fulminator Mage $10.99
Containment Priest $9.99
Entomb $9,98
Glen Elendra Archmage $9,69
All Is Dust $8.99
Creeping Tar Pit $8.99
Flagstones of Trokair $7.22
Raging Ravine $5.99
Fauna Shaman $5.99
Vexing Devil $5.95
Eldrazi Conscription $4.99
Gamble $4.63
Daybreak Coronet $3.87
Woodfall Primus $3.89
Pattern of Rebirth $2.99
Sublime Archangel $2.99
Seize the Day $2.99
Disrupting Shoal $2.49
Nourishing Shoal $2.48
Squee, Goblin Nabob $2.40
6 Semi-Bulk Rares @ $0.25  
10 Bulk Rares @ $0.10  
Total Rare Value $511.54
Average Rare Value $9.65
EV Added to Box (Average 21 rares / box) 202.65

The rare slot in Ultimate Masters is almost as insane as the mythic slot. Traditionally, the average value of a rare in a Masters set is somewhere around $5.50, and even the fetch-land-reprinting Modern Masters 2017 only came in at $5.91. Even discounting the current average rare value of $9.65 by 15% to make an apples-to-apples comparison, the rares of Ultimate Masters are 33% higher in value. Again, this is partly evened out by the higher box cost, but even with this in mind, the value of the rares in the set is solid. 

This being said, there is one issue with the rares in the set: unlike the mythics, which have solid value throughout, the median value of a rare from Ultimate Masters is only $4.99, significantly lower than the $9.65 average. This means that a handful of high-end rares like Noble Hierarch and Engineered Explosives are driving up the average, so if you manage to whiff on the chase rares, the value of the rare slot in your box will be significantly worse than the expected value suggests. 

While not especially relevant to the expected value, which is only concerned about current prices, it is worth mentioning that in some sense, Ultimate Masters has already done its job of lowering prices. Many of the rares that are $10 today were $20-ish when they were first previewed, and a lot of the $25 cards were $50 or more. While this doesn't change the math on opening a box, it does highlight what a good job the set has done in making a lot of playable cards more accessible, and it's very likely that prices aren't done falling yet.

Ultimate Masters: Uncommons / Commons / Bulk

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Ultimate Masters Uncommons
Card Value
Eternal Witness $4.69
Lava Spike $3.49
Kitchen Finks $2.99
Chainer's Edict $2.49
Sleight of Hand $2.49
Laboratory Maniac $1.99
Golgari Thug $1.99
Buried Alive $1.99
Devoted Druid $1.99
Mistveil Plains $1.49
Desperate Ritual $1.49
Anger $0.99
Conflagrate $0.99
Young Pyromancer $0.99
Slippery Bogle $0.99
Fecundity $0.99
Countersquall $0.99
Average Uncommon Value $0.36
EV Added to Box (72 uncommons / box) $25.96

While there are no $40 uncommons in Ultimate Masters, the set has a lot of solid additions. For the purpose of calculating the expected value of the set, we're only including uncommons worth at least $0.99, which means in theory, you'll probably get a bit more value opening a handful of cards worth $0.25–0.50, but since prices on lower-rarity cards tend to drop fast, it's better to aim low in our estimate. All in all, the uncommon slot adds just under $26 to the value of a box, which isn't much compared to the mythics or the rares but is a nice little bonus. 

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Masters 25 Commons and Bulk
Card Value
Kodama's Reach $1.49
Hyena Umbra $0.99
Martyr of Sands $0.49
Faithless Looting $0.49
Bulk $1.60
Totals EV Added (Commons / Bulk) $9.80

As far as commons, you'll open an average of 2.37 of each from a box of Ultimate Masters, so even though there aren't any high-value commons in the set (apart from maybe Kodama's Reach, which is over $1 thanks to being a Commander staple), the fact that you get so many commons in a box helps to drive up the value. Toss in another $1.60 to account for all of the random cards you'll get in your Ultimate Masters box, and the commons in the set add almost another $10 in value, coming in at $9.80.

Ultimate Masters: Foils

Calculating how much foils add to an Ultimate Masters box is actually a bit tricky, partly because most places don't have foils listed for sale yet and partly because the "foil in every pack" aspect of the Masters series does strange things to prices (compared to regular pack foils). As far as I can tell, the typical box will contain 0.25 foil mythics (one per case), about 1.5 foil rares, and six or seven foil uncommons, and the rest of the foils in the box will be commons (so, approximately 15 foil commons). The strange thing about Masters foils is that they aren't worth as much as normal foils—if you look over past Masters sets, the foil multiplier for rares and mythics is usually about 1.5 (meaning a $10 non-foil would be about $15 in foil). This being said, Ultimate Masters has a lot of Modern, Legacy, and Commander staples that command a heavy premium in foil form, doubly so thanks to some exciting first-time foil cards. The prices below are based on presales from Card Kingdom with a 30% discount. For commons and uncommons, only cards worth $2 or more are included.

Ultimate Masters Foils
Rarity # in Box Average Value (average non-foil value x 1.5 multiplier) Value Added
Mythic 0.25 $53.73 $13.43
Rare 1.5 $24.51 $36.76
Uncommon 6.5 $1.55 $10.06
Common 15.75 $0.22 $3.46
Totals 24 n/a $63.71

The foils from Ultimate Masters add a surprising amount to the value of a box, coming in at $63.71. While this is partly because the set has a lot of high-end cards that Legacy, Modern, and Commander players want in foil, it's also because of some really expensive first-time foils. For example, Back to Basics is currently around $200 in foil, Phyrexian Tower is $150, and Demonic Tutor is pushing $100, and this doesn't even include commons like Frantic Search and uncommons like Anger. The point is, if you do decide to open a box, make sure to check your foils. It's possible that they are worth a lot more than you think thanks to them being a first-time foil printing!

Putting It Together

Ultimate Masters w/o Topper—EV Summary
Rarity Value Added
Mythic $90.07
Rare $202.65
Uncommon $20.96
Common / Bulk $9.80
Foil $63.71
Total (Non-Box Topper) EV $387.19

So, there you have it. Discounting the Ultimate Box Toppers, the expected value (at current retail prices) for a booster box of Ultimate Masters is about $387. Considering that boxes are selling for around $280, this is a pretty solid deal. Even if we discount the expected value by 15% as is our tradition, the value still comes in at just over $329. No matter how you break it down, the average box of Ultimate Masters will make you money at current prices—somewhere between $50 and $100, assuming you pick up a box for around $280. In fact, right now, prices are high enough that even if you just buy the three booster blister packs from a big-box store like Walmart or Target, you should come out ahead, on average. The same is true of a draft. While paying $40 or more to enter might seem like a lot, there are enough good cards in the set that you should get your money's worth. 

Of course, having such a high expected value means that the cards from Ultimate Masters still need to drop a lot in price. Over the next month or two, it wouldn't be surprising to see at least a 25% decrease in the prices of most cards in the set, and this is on top of the big discount that is already priced into presales. As such, even if you aren't interested in picking up a booster box, Ultimate Masters represents a great opportunity to get into Modern or bling out your Commander decks at a discount. 

Ultimate Box Toppers

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Perhaps the most complicated parts of Ultimate Masters are the Ultimate Box Toppers. If you buy a sealed box of Ultimate Masters, you'll get a special one-card pack containing a full-ish art promo featuring one of the chase cards from the set. All 20 mythics are featured, along with 18 rares and the two "chase" uncommons (Eternal Witness and Kitchen Finks). Unfortunately, figuring out just how to value the Ultimate Box Toppers is extremely tricky, since they aren't listed for sale anywhere except for eBay, and even on eBay they are fairly rare. Right now, the sealed Ultimate Box Topper booster seems to be selling for around $70, while most of the individual cards are at least $50 (with some of the best ones being in the hundreds). However, the supply is incredibly limited at the moment, since the only Ultimate Box Toppers on the market are the ones that Wizards mailed to people who ordered Mythic Edition, which will change once people start opening booster boxes. Based on the cards available as Ultimate Box Toppers, $40 seems like a pretty safe low-end estimate as far as expected value is concerned.

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Right now, the average (normal printing) price of the cards available as Ultimate Box Toppers is $22. Even with a conservative foil multiplier of x2, that would give us an average value of $44, and considering the price of other ultra-rare collectible cards like the Masterpiece series and various Judge Promos, it's likely that these cards will fetch more than two times their non-foil price, especially for some of the most playable cards on the list. Still, out of an abundance of caution, let's say that the Ultimate Box Topper adds about $40 to the value of an Ultimate Masters booster box, to be safe. That would give us an expected value that looks something like this:

Ultimate Masters w/ Topper—EV Summary
Rarity Value Added
Mythic $90.07
Rare $202.65
Uncommon $20.96
Common / Bulk $9.80
Foil $63.71
Ultimate Box Topper $40
Total (Topper) EV $427.19

As you can see, when you throw the Ultimate Box Topper into the mix (even priced conservatively), the expected value of an Ultimate Masters box looks even better, coming in at just over $425, and even discounted 15%, it's still $363—nearly $100 more than you'll pay for a sealed box!

As such, if you're thinking of buying Ultimate Masters, it's definitely worth it to buy an entire box, if possible. While the value in the set is high enough that you should still come out ahead buying individual packs (on average), the box topper itself technically cuts nearly $2 off the price of an Ultimate Masters booster pack, which is a lot of free value to give up for no good reason. When you consider that buying a booster box worth of packs from Walmart or Target will cost $280 and that a sealed box with the Ultimate Box Topper is about the same price, assuming you have the upfront money to buy a box, it's the best way to go. 

This being said, $280 is a lot of money for a box of cardboard, no matter how valuable that cardboard might be, and even with the expected value being as high as it is, it's certainly possible to open badly and lose money, and this will become more and more possible as the prices of the set's cards continue to drop in value as they are opened. As such, if your goal is to use Ultimate Masters as a way to build Modern or Commander decks, the safest plan is still to spend your money on singles, where the value is guaranteed and you know exactly what you're getting for your money. While prices are already significantly lower than before Ultimate Masters was announced, with many cards pre-selling for 25% or even 50% less than their previous price, considering how high the expected value is at the moment, it's pretty safe to assume that the prices of individual cards will continue to drop over the coming month as the set is opened. If you're going to buy singles, cards typically hit their floor about a month or two after a set is released and remain there for six or eight months post-release, after which the cards will start to increase. And within a couple of years, it wouldn't be surprising to see many of the chase cards in the set back to their pre-reprint price (or close to it).

Basically, in the paper world, Ultimate Masters is a win for everyone. The value is high enough that drafting or cracking boxes is profitable, and if you're not interested in gambling on sealed packs, you'll be able to get a great discount on a lot of Modern, Legacy, and Commander staples over the winter! 

Magic Online

Magic Online EV
Rarity Average Value
Mythic $4.46
Rare $1.60
Uncommon $0.03
Pack EV $2.08

While our primary focus today is paper, I did want to take a minute to briefly mention the Magic Online expected value, since Magic Online offers the quickest, easiest, and cheapest way to draft Ultimate Masters. Unfortunately, the expected value of the set is extremely low in digital form, at just $2.08 per pack, and this is at current (pre-reprint) prices, so it's likely to get even worse once the set is being opened. This means that if you join a draft on Magic Online for $25, you'll open just over $6 worth of cards, on average. As a result, if you want to draft the set, your best best is likely the $10 phantom drafts (where you don't get to keep the cards you open). While we'll know for sure once the set is released and the true Magic Online expected value is calculated, it's very likely that you'll lose less money by playing phantom than by playing keeper drafts. In phantom drafts, if you win 50% of the time, you'll spend an average of $2.75 per draft, which is a pretty great deal for a couple of hours of entertainment. Although be warned: to actually go infinite in phantom, you need to win a massive 68% of the time, which means you should be playing on the Pro Tour rather than phantom Ultimate Masters draft on Magic Online

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. So now that we have all of the numbers, what do you think of Ultimate Masters? Are you buying a box? A case? Singles to fill out your collection? Let me know in the comments! As I mentioned in the intro, I'm working on a live Ultimate Masters expected value spreadsheet, so if you want to check on prices over the next couple of weeks as we head toward the official release of the set, that's the best place to do it. It's possible that prices have already moved since this article was written on Friday! 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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