The Mage-Ring Bully Pulpit: The Egregious Price of Modern
- Hans Davidson
Modern prices have been spiraling out of control, and I dive right in to ask what exactly has led us to this point of fifty-euro Snapcaster Mages. What solutions do I suggest to make Modern MTG a more accessible format? Continue reading to find out!
Welcome to the Mage-Ring Bully Pulpit, a column where I examine and discuss a topic to open up the discussion for the Magic community at large. For the non-U.S. American readers that might be wondering where I got the title for my column, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the term as "a prominent public position (such as a political office) that provides an opportunity for expounding one’s views."
Who ever said that Magic: The Gathering articles weren't educational?
The Problem with Inaccessibility
A higher barrier to entry leads to inaccessibility, and inaccessibility creates two major issues with the format that can be considered detrimental: the dwindling of new players and a "pay to win" metagame. The inaccessibility posed by the high cost of Modern decks will prevent those who want to play from, well, playing, and this will largely impact the paper Modern community. While some of us are fortunate enough to live in areas where the paper Modern community is present and even thriving, there will always be communities where the opposite is happening or where there isn't even a Modern scene in the first place. For a game that needs other players to play, Magic: The Gathering needs to convince its player base that the price of entry to any given format is low enough for players to feel that it is "worth it" to buy into the format. As of right now, interest in Modern is at a high and players are buying into the format, but there's no guarantee that that trend will continue.
The second problem with inaccessibility is that higher prices lead to "pay to win" metagames, which means players who have the financial capacity to switch between decks will have the best chance at spiking a tournament. While this has always been the case with Magic at any competitive level, Modern being a format that is supported at both the GP and PT level means Wizards should either give more weight to players making that big investment of purchasing their decks, or the initial investment should be lowered by at least three or four hundred euros. After all, this takes us back to the point mentioned earlier, which is if players find the entry point to be prohibitive, there will no longer be an influx of new players into the format. Most players don't want to play in a dying format.
The Cost of Playing Modern
Despite the flourishing popularity of Modern — and due to that very fact, as well — prices of Modern decks have climbed to record highs. Going off the prices listed on MTGGoldfish, Jund registers at a cool $2,100.00 (approx. 1.697,00 €), Affinity at $800.00 (approx. 646,00 €), and even the formerly lowly Bogles at $685.00 (approx. 553,00 €). That's right. Bogles, a deck that, outside of its mana base, plays cards that overwhelmingly have no overlap in other decks is close to seven hundred dollars. There's a caveat here, admittedly, as prices on Cardmarket are noticeably cheaper than its American counterparts, but even if we are using the information on MTGGoldfish simply as a reference point, the last time Jund was over the 2K mark was sometime before the release of Modern Masters 2015. Gone are the days when Liliana of the Veil was a 30 euro card, and looking at the prices of various Modern staples shows that she isn't an outlier.
Snapcaster Mage, the Swiss Army Knife of blue decks everywhere, is valued at $75.00 and 50,00 € in the U.S. and Europe, respectively. Prior to the release of Modern Masters 2017, Snapcaster was around $44.00 and 35,00 € but the supplementary set had an effect on Snapcaster Mage similar to what the original Modern Masters had on Tarmogoyf — the increase in supply led to an increase in demand, which then quickly outstripped supply and resulted in Tarmogoyf becoming more expensive than before. Liliana, Snapcaster, and Tarmogoyf are the premier midrange cards of the format that go into a range of decks, and they serve as a barrier to entry for those who want to play fair decks but didn't buy the necessary cards back in 2014.
However, in Modern even the cards that are trying to do unfair things are dumbfoundingly expensive. Take Chalice of the Void, a card that is played in some prison strategies and decks that can take advantage of locking opponents out of certain converted mana costs. This isn't a card that can be widely played in a multitude of decks, and certainly not a four-of in most cases like with Tarmogoyf, so what does Chalice’s price look like? Despite an incoming reprint, the card sits at 35,00 € on Cardmarket, and its rarity in Masters 25 as a mythic will likely not do enough to put a significant dent in the card’s price. To put all of this in perspective: Back in 2014 this card could be bought for around five dollars. There are plenty of cases similar to Chalice of the Void, cards that aren't midrange all-stars, such as Mox Opal or Karn Liberated, that command price tags that can't be explained by a matter of ubiquity.
What happened? Why are these cards so expensive?
A Supply and Demand Disaster
According to Hasbro, Magic has shown continuous growth in past, consecutive years, and the Modern format has been no exception. However, the demand for the format is outstripping the supply for the cards, and the recent reprint sets are largely to blame.
While Masters 25 won't be released until Friday (16 March 2018), the set has attracted criticism from those who have been puzzled by the choices of reprints in the set. I won't repeat what has already been said online a million times in regard to the overall criticism of the set, and I just want to focus on the aspect of assessing these reprints in the context of Modern.
When we look at the cards that are being reprinted, most cards fall flat in terms of applicability for Modern players. For Iconic Masters and Masters 25, the land slots failed to hit the more important cards of the format. The Future Sight cycle of lands, other than Grove of the Burnwillows and Horizon Canopy, see next to no play in Modern. Of the two, Grove of the Burnwillows sees very minimal play, and Grove’s current price of 11,00 € on Cardmarket reflects this. On the other hand, take the cycle of creature lands from Worldwake — of note, Celestial Colonnade, Creeping Tar Pit, and Raging Ravine. These three cards see play in the primer midrange and control strategies of the format (UWx Control, UBx Control, and Jund, respectively), and they can slot into decks that play the respective cards much better than, say, Grove of the Burnwillows. Masters 25 brings us the filter lands such as Twilight Mire that have low supply because they were printed in sets with low print runs, but even the very few decks that play these lands only play them as a one-of and therefore won't impact players' abilities to get into Modern. On the other hand, which cycle of lands sees ubiquitous play and remains as a large price barrier to Modern, despite its recent reprint?
Scalding Tarn is listed at 52,00 € and Verdant Catacombs at 36,00 €. These fetch lands could be reprinted until the end of time, and they would still see continuous demand because of their application in every format in which they are legal. Saffron Olive over at MTGGoldfish has oftentimes talked about reprint equity, which to paraphrase him, is the value of cards that supplemental sets dip into by reprinting said cards. Expensive cards that have high demand have a more reusable reprint equity and their prices don't tank, whereas cards such as Imperial Recruiter and Mana Drain hold their value based on low supply rather than natural demand, so they see a marked crash in value. Reprinting Modern cards, because of their high reprint equity, not only benefits Wizards (because they sell sets like hot cakes) but also Modern players (because we don't have to fork over a fortune to build our Modern collection). The fact that they haven't aggressively done so since the last Modern Masters has led us to this point in Modern history where decks have reached their peak prices.
There are many ways to go about making Modern more accessible, and the most obvious answer is through reprints. There is granularity in going about with reprints, though, and with Wizards stating that Masters sets in the future will revolve around themes, one wonders how necessary reprints of overpriced cards will make their way into circulation.
Solution #1: Scrap the idea of having themes for Masters sets.
We won't know what happens with Masters 25 until, well, after its release, but initial reactions to the spoilers have been decidedly negative, with most of the criticism arguing that the set fails to meet the expectation of its stated goals as an anniversary set. Modern Masters 2017 was such a success on so many fronts that both Masters sets following it have failed to make the same kind of impression. If that's the case, why not just go back to printing Modern Masters?
Solution #2: Aggressively reprint cards into Standard.
The reprinting of allied fetch lands in Khans of Tarkir crashed the prices of the cards and introduced the lands into Modern as budget alternatives for their Zendikar counterparts. While Mark Rosewater has stated that he does not want to see fetch lands in Standard again, the best way to make sure prices of cards are under control is to print them in a Standard-legal set. Is Snapcaster Mage an extremely powerful card? Absolutely, but as long as it's not paired with Lightning Bolt and Kolaghan's Command, the card can serve as just another powerful card in the format. With the introduction of the Play Design Team in Magic R&D, I fully expect that capable hands would create a format in which known powerful cards can exist without breaking anything.
Solution #3: Introduce Modern Challenger Decks.
The Standard Challenger Decks that will be coming out in April 2018 are fantastic products that allow players to immediate jump into Standard. They are affordable, they are well-built, and they bring down the prices of format staples (and already have in the cases of Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Hazoret the Fervent). What if we took that concept and ported it to Modern? Wizards used to print Event Decks, and the BW Tokens event deck that accompanied the release of the original Modern Masters is exactly the kind of opportunity for Wizards to bring down the costs of playing Modern by reprinting chase cards.
If Wizards is serious about continuing to promote Modern as a competitive format, the status quo regarding the cost of Modern is unacceptable and detrimental to the format. They can't continue to waste reprint opportunities on cards such as Tree of Redemption and watch as prices of staples balloon out of control if a healthy, thriving format is what they want. As someone who loves playing and watching Modern, I know that that is what I want.
What do you think about the price of Modern? What would you suggest Wizards do? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below, and I'll see you next time!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.