There are currently four cards from Scars of Mirrodin selling in the $40 range, all of them mythic rares. I’m not here to whine about how hard it is to acquire the cards needed to play in constructed formats. I am worried about the economic consequences — history shows us that mythic rares could kill Magic. Or at least rough it up a little.
Let’s establish some assumptions and given facts before I start speculating (oooh, foreshadowing!). By their own accounts, Wizards has been enjoying unparalleled financial success with Magic in the last couple of years, a period neatly coinciding with the introduction of the mythic rare: a card that’s more rare than rares are! The elevated popularity of the game is due to a number of factors, increased quality of the sets not the least among them, but the drive to buy more and more packs of cards for a chance to get that incredibly hard to find mythic has to be part of it as well.
So far it seems like I’m arguing against my own thesis. The problem is, Magic’s short-term success could backfire. As evidence, I offer the comic book boom and collapse of the 1990s.
In the early 90s, people were buying comic books like crazy. Sales numbers were ridiculous. The 1991 printing of X-Men number one, featuring five interlocking covers, sold eight million copies. By comparison, the top comic book in a given month right now sells around 100,000 copies, while most popular comics sell in the 40,000 to 50,000 range. Comic books in the 90s were laden with holofoil covers, polybagged trading cards, multiple covers, all sorts of bells and whistles. People flocked to comic specialty stores and bought five copies of everything. These things weren’t just comic books, they were goddamned collector’s items. They were an investment.
There are a bunch of problems with that, of course. For one thing, the future value of something is determined by supply and demand, not whether or not the Jim Lee cover image is embossed and trimmed with sparkly foil. If eight million of something is sold, it’s never, ever going to be rare. Perhaps the bigger problem is that few of those people buying all those comics actually cared about comics. As soon as they caught on that the books were worthless, they jumped out of the market. Incidentally, a lot of them were sports cards collectors before the comics boom. What did most of the speculators move on to? Pokemon.
I’ve tried to catch a little of the local buzz about Scars of Mirrodin, along with the usual internet hubbub. My personal feelings about the set aside, a lot of the prominent players and collectors in my area were declaring that they were not going to be buying any boxes of Scars. Why? Not because they didn’t like the set. They saw the ridiculous pre-order prices that the popular cards were fetching, heard lots of dealers and collectors say they planned to open tons of boxes because the high prices in individual cards made it profitable, and realized the market flood would drive prices down pretty quickly.
Is that the same kind of thing as the 90s comic collapse? No. There are some key differences, primarily that in the 90s the quality of comic books went right down the tubes. Magic’s designers are still making a great game. Extra rare chase cards haven’t altered that. It’s also a bit of a Yogi Berra-ism — one of his reported quotes being, “No one ever goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” So, yeah — no one’s buying boxes of Scars because everyone is.
But imagine that we are on the proverbial slippery slope. Mythic rares are sending pack sales through the roof. Hasbro wants more profits. Hey, let’s come up with cards that are even more rare than mythics. Holographic, hand-drawn, five-of-a-kind in the whole world cards — one guaranteed in every 50,000 packs. That will drive sales. But then everyone will realize only a few people get the special cards, the speculators who don’t play Magic will dump their extras on the market, and the dealers who sell Magic singles will be stuck with huge stockpiles of worthless cardboard. Pack sales won’t make up the difference, and many will go out of business. You know what people do at game stores other than buy Magic cards? Play Magic. You know what they buy if they have nowhere to play Magic? I don’t know, but it’s usually not Magic cards.