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Jan 27 2014

Side Rant – Supply and Demand

This is a rant. It was cranked out somewhere in the neighborhood of half an hour. It rambles, it makes wild assertions, and offers no solutions or wisdom to speak of. Enjoy.

Pretty Sure it’s the Law

If there’s one truism of Magic cards, it’s that as hobbies go, this is a damn expensive one. Across Legacy, Modern, Standard… even EDH has got its pricey staples. Hell, online Pauper has got cards that spike in price. I wrote my column on Melira Pod two months ago, and already Birthing Pod has gone so far up in price that I wouldn’t put it in a budget column now.

So understandably, online discussions crop up every so often in which someone asks, “why the hell do cards cost so much?” And invariably, someone pipes up from behind a couch or something to say, “hey man, supply and demand, what are you gonna do.”

I’m pretty sure it’s the law. Complain about prices, That Guy has to appear in a puff of smoke, and vanish just as quickly.

The problem is that this attitude treats supply and demand as inviolable forces of nature, immune to outside influences. It acts under the assumption that there is a set supply value of X, a set demand value of Y, and a price that results when the two meet.

It is a false way of seeing a system that works on many more levels, and one that I think is ultimately harmful.

Supply

First off, Magic cards aren’t oil. There isn’t a set amount in the world that can never change in our lifetimes. Never mind the fact that even oil, which is a set quantity of supply with an essentially non-fungible demand, is not immune to price manipulation; that’s a whole other, far more important rant. There isn’t a well of Magic cards somewhere that only has X value hiding underneath the earth.

The number of Magic cards that exist is precisely the number that Wizards of the Coast wants to exist. One could make an argument that the reserve list limits the numbers of certain cards, although even then you have to account for the fact that the reserve list is a voluntary limitation.

Let’s keep it clean though, and talk about non-reserve cards. Some cards that aren’t on the reserve list? Force of Will. Wasteland. Polluted Delta (and its partners in fetch). Karakas. Show and Tell. Rishadan Port. Jace, the Mind Sculptor. To say nothing of Modern-legal cards that post-date the reserve list… Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, Vendilion Clique, or Emrakul, the Aeons Torn.

It might sound like I’m just rattling off a list of the most expensive non-Vintage cards in Magic. That’s because I am. I wrote a short list of ridiculously expensive cards off the top of my head, then knocked off ones that are reserved. Good news though, Moat‘s got an excuse!

Now certainly, WotC has good reason to not print Force of Will in Journey into Nyx. Nobody wants that thing in Standard, let alone hanging around Modern forever. But these aren’t the only reprint options. In the last year alone, WotC has published five non-set-aligned preconstructed decks, and our good friend True-Name Nemesis can tell you they’re not above printing cards in those decks that will throw a bomb into Legacy.

So when we talk about supply, let’s remember: we’re not talking about a finite amount. We’re talking about the number that have been allowed to exist. Does WotC have good reason to keep those cards ridiculously expensive? I don’t know, I don’t see their books. Maybe. Personally I don’t think it’s good for the long-term health of any given format to have single cards cost a hundred bucks a pop, especially cross-deck staples. But what do I know, I’m some guy on a blog. Judging by their support for Modern though, I suspect they agree that Legacy is currently pricing itself out of existence. And I think that without a change in the attitude towards supply, Modern will eventually head the same way.

Let’s give everyone the unquestioned benefit of the doubt though, and assume that up and down the line, everyone is making the best possible choices for the long-term health of Magic and for the company’s bottom line in one rousing synergistic burst of joy. It’s still disingenuous to present the supply of Magic cards as some unalterable fact that’s out of anybody’s hands.

It’s not. We are not, as a society, approaching Peak Force of Will. More could exist at a moment’s notice. If they don’t, it’s because someone chose for that to be the case.

Demand

Demand is an even fuzzier subject. Yes, the demand for cards is a driver on their price. But there are many types of demand, and they don’t all have the same impact on the price of cards. Every Timmy on the planet looks at Worldspine Wurm and says, “OH MY GOD I HAVE TO PUT FOUR IN EVERY DECK!” Now I don’t know about you, but I haven’t noticed any thirty-dollar Worldspine Wurms at my local game shop.

Obviously, the demand of Timmy isn’t what drives the price of cards. As I assume we all agree, the driver of price is the demand for cards that will win at events with a high prize payout. Demand is driven by incentives, and those incentives are controlled by people. They’re controlled by WotC, they’re controlled by Star City, and they’re even controlled by your local game shop when they give out prize packs at Friday Night Magic.

Is the level of demand being created a bad thing? Again, I’m some dude on a blog. Allow me to fart my opinions at you, that’s how much they matter. But if you’re curious what I think, I’d look at GP Prague earlier this month. One rogue deck makes a good showing with a deck that uses Fist of Suns. Even as the deck’s creator tells us that it’s not a viable competitive deck in the long-term, the card spikes in price, and settles to four times its original value.

Do I think that Magic players the world over began buying Fist of Suns to use in their decks? Absolutely not. The price spiked literally overnight. That is not the work of players, competitive or otherwise. That’s the work of speculators. The current system encourages speculators to drive the price of cards to unmanageable levels. And if you think that’s good for the long-term health of anything, I have a copy of the Death of Superman to sell you.

No, seriously. It’s been in my basement since 1992. Please take it off my hands.

Supply and Demand, Together at Last

There’s one more thing to talk about when it comes to the supply and demand of Magic cards, which is what happens when the people who create demand are also the people setting prices.

Recently, Travis Woo created a deck called Ninja Bear Delver for use in Modern, in which he sang the praises of Disrupting Shoal. Overnight—again, pretty near literally—the price of Disrupting Shoal shot up tenfold. This was before the deck even ran at any major tournament… a pro deckbuilder mentioned a card, and it went up in price.

Criticism began flying around the internet, and one accusation stuck out to me at the time. Specifically, that Woo was only building the deck to move some cards for Channel Fireball… essentially that they had a stack of Disrupting Shoals sitting around that they wanted to unload, and he built a deck (that he didn’t feel strongly enough to pilot himself in a Pro Tour) that used Disrupting Shoal specifically to drive up demand so Channel Fireball could make a profit.

And I thought to myself, “that’s not fair. You need a little more to go on to accuse a guy of overtly unethical behavior like that.” Or at least, that was my response until I saw Woo’s subsequent column in which he addresses the criticism.

His response is vague and non-committal. But it sure looks like it boils down to, “Yeah, you’re right, but I gotta pay the bills.” And that… is problematic. There’s a reason why, in any consequential investment field, that kind of behavior would be at least nominally illegal. Sure, it would still go on all the time, but people would at least have to put up some kind of shell game to pretend like they weren’t doing it. If you have the ability to manipulate the citrus market, you can’t parlay that into a killing on citrus futures. And if you get caught doing so, you need a hell of a better excuse than, “Look man, if I don’t impress Jamie Lee Curtis, she’s gonna go home with Eddie Murphy. Now gimme that gorilla suit.”

The reason it’s illegal in those fields is specifically because it warps the interaction between supply and demand. It manipulates supply, creates artificial demand, and decouples prices from actual value. It is terrible for any economy in which it happens.

Now let me be absolutely clear: I’m not saying Travis Woo belongs in jail (that would be insane), or (even with the most cynical possible interpretation of his words) that he’s even done anything earth-shakingly unethical. It’s possible that he does think Disrupting Shoal is a competitive-viable card, and it’s a happy coincidence that promoting it will make his employer money. But even if he didn’t—even if this deck was an entirely cynical effort to move a card that nobody was buying—as I said earlier, Magic cards aren’t oil. That cuts both ways. The consequences of manipulating Magic markets affects only Magic cards, which at the end of the day are just a game.

But do I think it’s a good thing in the long run, for anyone? Including Channel Fireball? Well, again, I have opinions to fart at you on the subject. A non-consequential economy is still an economy. It can still expand and crash, with bad results.

More Like DUH-mand, Amirite?

“So Dan, what’s your solution? Huh smart guy?” Well, I honestly couldn’t tell you. Economies are big and complicated things, and as economists go, I’m a dilettante at best. (Or, to drive a phrase into the ground, some dude farting on a blog.) The obvious (and entirely fair) response to this column would be, “If cards don’t hold some value, stores go out of business and the game collapses.” To which the obvious (and fair) response would be, “if nothing is done to control costs, people stop playing and the game collapses anyway.” It’s an endless back-and-forth that we could argue for another twenty years with no easy solutions, and a balance that has to be struck somewhere one way or the other.

But that, really, is the only thing I’m driving at here. The price of cards is a big and complicated machine, and there are people making decisions that affect the price of cards; it’s not an immutable force that slowly raises prices, with nobody able to do anything about it one way or the other. So if you need a tl;dr version of everything I’ve written here today, it’d go something like this:

“Hey man, it’s supply and demand.”

“No it isn’t. Shut up.”

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  1. Jared Mancil

    While it may not be supply demand does have a large part to play in pricing. While most of the poeple that play MTG approach it as a hobby, something to do to have fun, it is essentially a sport. Just like any sport the equipment used by the pros is more expensive than the other varieties. The pros play cards and combos that the casual and non-casual yet non-pro players see and want to play, thus making those cards more expensive. If WOTC was to step in and start regulating prices what is to stop them from raising them even higher than what the market already does. Does it suck that somecards come out at stupid high prices even before they see any play? Yes very much so, but at the same time those prices are what helps keep WOTC and card stores afloat. The chance of paying $4 for a pack and opening a $10-$30 card helps to drive the desire to buy
    more packs.

    I agree completely that it sucks to not be able to buy some cards just becuase it would cost $100+ for a play set, but its an essential evil for this game’s viability. If every card had a flat cost and worth of $1 would you ever buy a pack?

    1. Dan Carroll

      I tried to avoid discussion of whether genuine demand for competitive cards is good or bad, because I don’t think it’s bad in and of itself. My call-outs here are for speculators (who don’t respond to competitive demand; they respond to the possibility of future competitive demand, real or imagined), excessive prize support as a driver of competitive demand, and artificial inflation of demand from competitive players working for secondary market sales venues.

      That being said, I don’t think the sports analogy is a good one. A handful of kids with a football in a field are playing the same game as the Bears; the fact that there’s a locker room full of high-end shoulder pads at Soldier Field doesn’t create two strata of gameplay. Professional players don’t have two extra premium-cost downs on each play.

      Also, the choice of whether or not to regulate prices isn’t one WotC gets to make. They already do so. Reprinting Thoughtseize affects prices. Not reprinting Daybreak Coronet affects prices. Reprinting Tarmogoyf in very limited supply affects prices. Everything they do, whether action or inaction, will affect prices.

  2. Andrew Moffitt

    This is an astute and well-written rant (which earns significant bonus points for the [em]Trading Places[/em] shout-out).

    Nicely done.

    Somewhere in my email account I have a draft of a similar rant that I wrote up a couple of years ago. My ideas back then were underdeveloped, however; for instance, I laid a lot of the blame for high prices at the feet of the players, accusing them of furthering the inflation spiral by being willing to shell out increasingly insane amounts of cash for singles. As it turns out, the lion’s share of the price-hikes are due to a then-unknown-to-me population of price speculators, and the drive to compete and win (and thus to procure pricey tournament staples to enable this) handily overpowers the average player’s drive to stick to a budget, which is why speculators exist in the first place.

    But, as you allude to, the more realistic approach is to hand blame out to everyone involved. WotC shares responsibility because they control supply with an unclear agenda. Stores share blame because they control their own pricing (although they’ll claim innocence because they’re just “reacting to the market”), Speculators share blame because they create artificial demand and drive the prices up. Players share blame because…well, it all does come down to whether or not they’re willing to pay to play, right? That last bit is kind of unfair, but it’s true. If the market couldn’t sustain premium rates for cards, prices would crash.

    Yeah, this is one of those “let’s talk about this over coffee for the next twenty years” kinds of discussions, isn’t it?

    And that bit about Travis Woo and ChannelFireball.com really makes my skin crawl. Woo builds a ‘meh’ deck featuring a low-profile card. LSV shills for it. Thousands of people read their commentary and that card’s price shoots up overnight as players and speculators alike rush out to get their copies. ChannelFireball makes a killing. Ugh. I hadn’t even considered that particular form of market manipulation.

    1. Dan Carroll

      Thanks!

      It’s tough to gauge whether prices crash when players stop paying. This is anecdotal, but honestly, I can count the number of Vintage players I’ve met in my life on one hand. That doesn’t keep Mishra’s Workshop under $400. Go back to online threads from even three or four years ago, people talk about Legacy like it’s the fastest-growing format on the planet; now all Legacy players talk about is why does nobody play Legacy. But somehow revised duals still cost a fortune.

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