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The Masterpiece Series and the Redistribution of Magic Wealth


Maybe the most exciting news to come out of Kaladesh spoiler season is the fact that Expeditions, now known as the Masterpiece Series, are here to stay. Moving forward, every set, at least for the foreseeable future, is going to feature these ultra-rare, foil reprints at the rate of about one every four boxes. One of the reasons for this change, according to Mark Rosewater in his article announcing the Masterpieces, is that it would help keep down the price of Standard. Of course, Rosewater couldn't say this directly, since Wizards can't officially acknowledge that the cards they produce have value on the secondary market, but here's what he said: Standard is the most-played Constructed format. It's designed as an entry point for players who wish to play Constructed Magic. Through market research and social media, we learned that many of the players who were interested in playing Standard felt it was something beyond their reach. We had to find ways to address this.

What I hear in Maro's comment is an echoing of something we've been talking about for a long time: Standard is simply too expensive, especially for new players who might balk at spending hundreds of dollars just to test out a new game. While this season's Standard is much more reasonable than last season's Standard as far as average deck prices are concerned, the current average price of the top eight decks in the format is still around $300 ($297, to be exact), which is still a lot of money to invest if you are a new player. 

The good news is that Maro is right: putting Masterpieces in all sets moving forward will reduce the price of Standard cards and decks. Corbin Hosler wrote an article on TCGplayer talking about it, and I agree wholeheartedly with his conclusions. However, I wanted to go a bit deeper into the mechanics of exactly how Masterpieces will reduce the price of Standard cards, and then talk about just how much of a decrease in prices we should expect. 

As an added bonus, we'll get to break down how the expected value of the set's moves and changes over the long term, which is something I've gotten several requests for in regards to the "expected value of X, Y, or Z" articles I publish every set release. So, if you're looking for a more in-depth explanation of expected value, this article will probably be enlightening for you as well. 

Set Prices Are Remarkably Consistent

EV of sets: Shadows and Battle blocks from today, Origins and Khans block from last September.

One thing that is very true about the value of Magic sets is that they all end up in just about the same place. While Khans of Tarkir might have been worth $140 a box during presales and Dragons of Tarkir might have been worth $75 a box during the same time period, when all is said and done, the expected value of a booster box of nearly all sets end up being worth somewhere between $55 and $75 (at TCG mid prices) once they reach peak supply (part of the reason that both Magic Origins and Eldritch Moon are on the high end of the chart above is because they are still relatively recent and supply is still trickling into the market). While there are occasionally exceptions on the low end (for example, Dragon's Maze was an incredibly low-value set, with an expected value of $40 or even less while it was legal in Standard), on the high end, we have what is essentially a hard cap.

The reason why this happens is fairly simple: the wholesale prices of boxes is somewhere around $75. So, when Khans of Tarkir was $140, the correct thing for a vendor to do was to crack as many boxes as they thought they could sell, because they were essentially doubling their money by cracking the box. This increases supply, which in turn drives down prices until after a month or two (and sometimes less), when it simply isn't worth cracking boxes (for value) any more. This rule is unbending. Wizards could abolish the Reserved List and put the entire Power 9 in Aether Revolt, and the expected value would still end up in the $75 range. This also means that Wizards can reprint Aether Vial, Mana Crypt, and Mana Vault as Masterpieces and a box of Kaladesh is still going to end up being worth between $55 and $75 (which bring us back around to the idea of reprint equity—there is a point where simply putting more value into a set doesn't do much and the returns diminish severely). 

While this may not be as obvious, the point I'm trying to get across is that Kaladesh, with the Masterpiece Series, is going to end up with an expected value of between $55 and $75 a box, and if Wizards decided not to print Masterpieces in Kaladesh, the expected value of a box would still end up being between $55 and $75. Disregarding the Dragon's Maze (aka "horrible set") exception, it doesn't really matter how good or bad the cards in the set may be; the total average value of a box will end up about the same. This means adding valuable cards to a set (like the Masterpiece Series, for example) doesn't actually increase the value of the set; instead, it redistributes the value of the set. 

The Redistribution of Magic Wealth

So, we've determined that adding the Masterpieces series doesn't actually add any value to a box of Kaladesh, so in a very real sense, the Masterpiece series is Wizards' attempt to redistribute Magic wealth. While "tax" isn't the right term, because buying cards is completely voluntary, we're going to use it anyway because it's close enough and helps illustrate the concept. 

Who actually wants the cards from the Masterpiece Series? There are a few big groups, including collectors, cubers, and Commander / Eternal players who like to pimp their decks. These players, as a group, form the MTG version of the one percent. Magic is already an expensive luxury, regardless of how you play, but pimping, collecting, and building cubes is completely unnecessary to playing the game.  A HP Commander Sol Ring plays exactly the same as a NM Masterpiece Sol Ring, which means that no one needs a Masterpiece Sol Ring—instead, the people who purchase them do so because they want to and because they have enough disposable income that they can, just like buying a luxury car in real life—no one needs a Ferrari; a Ford Fiesta will get you to FNM just as well.

On the other hand, there's another, much larger group of players in the Magic community who don't especially care about the Masterpiece Series (other than, perhaps, hoping to open one at their FNM draft so they can trade it for half of a Standard deck). Sure, they may like the art, think they look cool, and enjoy the flavor, but this group of players—99% of Magic players—simply doesn't have an interest in (or, in some cases, the ability to) buy luxury Magic cards. Included in this massive group is nearly all new players, along with a huge majority of Standard players and casual players, most Modern players, and most less-enfranchised players who pick up intro decks and fat packs at Wal-Mart but don't go to the MTG subreddit, the Mothership, or FNMs. Basically, by including the Masterpiece Series in every set moving forward, Wizards is shifting the price of cards away from the 99 percent to the one percent. The playset of Masterpiece Aether Vials your local Legacy Merfolk expert buys will let you pick up some janky casual rares or even a competitive Standard deck at a significant discount, but just how big of a discount should you expect? 

Your Tax Refund

Before getting to the nuts and bolts, I should mention that we are making one big assumption here: we are assuming that the Masterpiece Series will continue to contain good, high-value cards. If we suddenly end up with Masterpiece Series: Gainlands, everything changes. Remember: this is a voluntary tax on Magic's one percenters, so for this group to continue paying the tax, Wizards has to keep printing cards they are willing to pony up for. The other issue is that our sample size is still pretty small—thus far, we've only had two sets with Masterpiece Series cards (Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch), and while I think the conclusions we can draw from these sets are solid, they should be considered preliminary until we get a few more Masterpiece sets to analyze. 

$ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00 $ 0.00

Battle for Zendikar was the first set with Masterpiece Series cards, and I would argue that it's an outlier to some extent, simply because the fetch lands are about as good as it gets as far as reprints are concerned (until Wizards decides to get rid of the Reserved List, which is unlikely). As a result, it's going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a future member of the Masterpiece Series to match the Expeditions in value or excitment. That said, if you look at the current expected value of Battle for Zendikar, the Expeditions are eating up a massive 45% of the set's value. Every time I look at Battle for Zendikar, I find myself thinking, "Why is this land cycle so cheap?" I mean, the pain lands were reprinted into the ground and still managed to maintain a value similar to the Battle for Zendikar lands in the $2–$3 range. The cards feel like they should be $4–$5, based simply on level of play and the fact that they only have one printing. The answer here is clearly that the Expeditions are holding down the prices of the rest of the cards in the set.

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Meanwhile, Oath of the Gatewatch has what I believe to be more representative Masterpieces as far as value is concerned and offers a discount similar to the one we should expect moving forward, with the Oath of the Gatewatch Expeditions eating up about 21% of the set's value. In fact, we might end up finding out that the Oath of the Gatewatch Expeditions are actually slightly below average for the Masterpiece Series (with an average value of about $60, compared to $108 for Battle for Zendikar and $87 for Kaladesh), since they are not only weak but limited to fringe competitive play in their appeal, at least for the most part (unlike the Kaladesh Inventions, which as clearly geared towards Commander players, cubes, and pimpers). Taking this as a whole, I expect we'll find that Standard rares and mythics will be between 20% and 25% less expensive moving forward. While this might not sound like a lot, when you look at what that means over the long term, this is a massive savings for Standard players. 

Spending Your Tax Return

Now, it's important to realize that it's going to take a little while for these changes to take full effect, since not every set in Standard has Masterpiece Series cards. As of this coming rotation, 60% of the format will have them, but this number is deceiving because Eldritch Moon and Shadows over Innistrad  (the Masterpiece-less sets) see significantly more play than Battle for Zendikar block, so the current discount is less than that 60% number would suggest if you are building tier Standard decks. As such, it's going to take another year—until Shadows over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon rotate from Standard—for us to see the full impact of these Masterpiece Series, but by that point, playing Standard is going to get much cheaper. 

25% Discount by Price
Old Deck Price 25% Discount New Deck Price
$100 −$25 $75
$200 −$50 $150
$300 −$75 $225
$400 −$100 $300
$500 −$125 $375
$750 −$187.50 $562.50
$1,000 −$250 $750

While the price difference might not seem massive, especially for cheaper decks, the difference between $75 and $100 can be the difference between having a deck and having a deck, some sleeves, a deck box, and enough gas to drive to a couple of FNMs. Once you move up the scale, the difference gets even more noticeable. Let's say you have $1,000 to spend on Standard for the year. Before the discount, this would get you exactly two $500 decks. Now, with Masterpieces driving down prices, if you can scrape up another $125, you can get three $500 decks instead of two. With $1,200, you could get three $400 decks under the old system; now, you can get four! 

When it comes to tax returns, there are a couple of different techniques as far as spending money. The first one, as illustrated above, is by far the most fun: you simply blow it because it feels like free money. While this might not be the smartest plan, it is enjoyable. On the other hand, some people count on their tax return to pay off debt, get a new car, or pay for other unfun real-life things, and for these people, the discount offered by the Masterpiece Series and the new tax on the MTG one percenters is even more important. 

There are plenty of people out there who really, really love Magic but have a hard time justifying the expense of the game, and when it comes right down to it, buying Magic cards instead of putting gas in your car, eating healthy food, paying your utility bills, and all that unfun real-life stuff is a horrible choice. The good news is that this new tax refund offered by the Masterpiece Series means that fewer and fewer people have to make these hard choices. For people who are on the fence about whether or not they can responsibly continue to play Magic, being able to buy a competitive but inexpensive Standard deck like Wr Humans for $75 instead of $100 might be the difference between these people being able to play Magic for another year and selling off their collection in frustration and moving on to another, cheaper game. It also has the potential to draw new players into the game, some of whom may have avoided Magic altogether thanks to the sticker shock of getting started.

As a result, despite my initial reservations, I now strongly believe that having Masterpieces every set is another huge step forward in making the game accessible to more and more people, and in a world of free-to-play games, having Standard be as cheap as humanly possible is not just a nice thought but a necessity if we want the game to continue growing. Especially coming on the back of Conspiracy 2—the best reprint set ever made—it seems clear that Wizards is really, truly (and finally) taking the accessibility issue seriously, which is exactly what a large portion of the community has been asking for over the past couple of years. 

Your Concerns Answered

To wrap things up, let's take a minute to talk about two concerns that have been brought up over the past few days. First, some people have worried that the prices of their cards will be lower as a result of this change, and while it's true that Standard cards will be cheaper moving forward, this change doesn't apply retroactively, so you don't really have to worry about the cards you already have in your collection. Expected value only really matters on a set-by-set basis, so having the Masterpiece Series in Kaladesh won't have any significant impact on the Archangel Avacyns or Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hungers that are already in your collection. Also, it's important to realize that while your cards will be worth less, you'll also be paying less for your cards, which makes things equal out over the long run. Paying $10 for Dovin Baan and then selling your Dovin Baan for $10 isn't really any different than paying $15 and selling for $15, except you have an extra $5 in your pocket that you can spend on more cards or anything else, for that matter. 

The second concern comes from drafters, who worry that the lower price of cards will hurt them (because the prices of sealed product will remain the same), and this issue is a bit more complex. It is true that if rares and mythics are worth 25% less, any individual draft is likely to be less valuable. Maybe the best example of this is Battle for Zendikar, where without Expeditions, the average pack will only yield a dollar of value. On the other hand, at least on paper, this also evens itself out over time because sooner or later, you'll open a Masterpiece, which should make up for all the value you lost during your other drafts. Remember: the expected value will be the same; it's just divided up differently, where instead of getting $6.00 of cards per draft, every draft, you're getting $4.50 in cards in 98% of drafts and then $80 in the other 2%. As a result, since Masterpieces are the new normal, even if you draft just once per week, sooner or later, you'll be the lucky one and get back all of the value you were missing. That said, variance is a real issue, and there will be unlucky people who draft every week for years and never get their turn to open a Masterpiece, just like there will be people who open Masterpieces two drafts in a row. All in all, I prefer consistent value over a lottery ticket, but even with this uneven and random distribution of value, having lower-priced Standard cards will still be a net gain for a huge percentage of players—the only people who really lose out are infrequent drafters who don't play Standard, and even these people don't really lose out; they just have to deal with a massive increase in variance. 

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. For me, the bottom line is that, despite my worries that 54 cards per block is too many and that the exciting newness of the Masterpiece Series will wear off after a little while, having Masterpieces every set is a great thing for nearly all players. The one percenters can get some sweet new cards with amazing art to pimp out their decks and collections, and the 99% gets to play Standard at a significant discount. 

So, what do you think? Are you actually planning on buying any cards from the Masterpiece Series? Are there other upsides (or downsides) of having Masterpieces every set that I didn't cover? Do you think this pace (50+ Masterpieces per block) is sustainable, or will we be getting Masterpiece Series: Gainlands in a couple of years? If you're one of the lucky ones who opens a Masterpiece during your prerelease, what will you do with it? Keep it? Sell it? Trade it? Let me know in the comments, and as alway, you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com. 


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