Hey, TMD. It's been a while. I've just now finished writing this. I don't know how long this is, but it certainly feels long enough.
Please forgive me if there are errors in here. I haven't edited it, and I would honestly rather not.
Edit: I’ve lied, and have done some light editing to correct errors I found embarrassing.
While we've all been bunkered down through this pandemic, the paper Vintage world has been experiencing the tremors and the aftershocks of the seismic shifts that have been occurring with paper pricing lately.
This is all stream of consciousness writing, but it feels like this is going to be a long post, so please forgive me. I think in stories, narratives, so it seems best to start with that, and then wind back to where I want to go.
Back in high school I had a friend who started playing Vintage. Christian loved the game, but instead of just buying packs, boxes, he'd take his money and buy singles. While it's commonly accepted now that if you need cards, you just buy them, back then I remember everyone just opening a lot of product. We weren't looking for specific cards per se, we were just looking for things we hadn't seen, and would be able to unleash on unexpecting opponents. Opening product was a real rush.
You'd see something that you thought was cool, and you'd throw it in your 80+ card deck.
I don't know what drove Christian to Vintage. We would all go to Neutral Ground for pre-releases, and when we were there we were exposed to parts of the game that we hadn't experienced before. Maybe he found Vintage there. Even still, I remember him going to big events - Pro Tours and Grands Prix, back when none of us did anything like that. Our Magic highlight was kitchen table Magic at a friend's house on a Friday night.
I loved what I saw of the format, and I got into Vintage because of him. In some measure, every Vintage event I've ever run, ever attended, is due to him.
A girlfriend in high school gave me an Unlimited Mox Pearl as a gift. I later found out that it was $80. To put this into context, I had a job working on Saturdays that paid $5.15 an hour. During a trip to Neutral Ground at some point shortly after that, I saw Christian trade a very nice Beta Birds of Paradise for an equally nice Unlimited Lotus. Both were valued at $100. Moxen, at that time, were about $80-$90 per.
You know how some prices are sticky in your mind? I'd listen to my grandmother talk about how she went to the movies, and got change from her nickel, and I wondered what kind of world that was where you could go to the movies, have your popcorn, and come away with change from five cents.
My junior year in high school, Christian ran a Black Lotus tournament at a local game store. He bought an Unlimited Black Lotus on eBay, and paid a whopping $125 for it. We were aghast. Lotus was $100, solid. Not more. He had very clearly overpaid. I went to Grand Prix New York that year, at The Armory. I met Richard Garfield, I had some cards signed, and I came across dealer tables for the first time. Foil Serra Avatar was $150. Foil Stroke of Genius was $250. Foil Gaea's Cradle was $350. And a Beta Black Lotus was $400.
You are all acquainted with the mythology behind Black Lotus. By the time I was 17, I wanted to own one. I had a collection worth a few hundred dollars at that point, and I was concerned, because in the spring of 2000 Black Lotus had spiked, and an Unlimited Black Lotus would now run you $300. $300 was a fortune. Again, I was working one day a week, and I wasn't really comfortable with working more than that, knowing my grades would suffer. How the hell was I supposed to come up with $300? I had a mostly middle class life to that point, but things had gotten tight lately, and money wasn't thrown around anymore. As many of you are familiar, the thought of explaining a $300 purchase of cardboard to a parent or loved one was seen as a futile exercise in discussing an obscene waste.
I went to Mark's Comics, and I traded Mark Aronowitz nearly my entire Type II collection for a very, very nice Unlimited Black Lotus. It is absolutely ridiculous to say this now, but part of me was concerned back then that I would eventually be unable to afford a Lotus, and that if I didn't make a move then, I might miss the chance to ever own one.
Fast forward to 2002. Revised dual lands were $10, the first three Mishra's Workshops that I had bought were $25, $30, and $35 apiece, Lotus was still $300, and Moxen were $120 or so. I had started running Vintage tournaments at Mark's Comics, and it was easy to come up with prize support. The first tournament I ever ran had a $10 entry fee, 20 players, and gave away a nice Alpha Time Walk, purchased from Mark for $165, to first, with $35 to second. I know how ridiculous that sentence is now.
Cards started to spike again. Force of Will, a staple of Extended, and Vintage, was $5 for as long as I could remember before I went to Regionals in 2003, and saw that Mike Long (who had a dealer table) was buying Force of Wills for $10. $10 for a Force of Will was pure madness. I know that this seems like I'm revealing my age here, but you have to realize, we had lived with these cards for years, and they had been priced within the same range for nearly the entirety of that time.
Workshops spiked, and were $100+ per. Blue duals were now $20-$25. Moxen were $175-$200. Lotus was now $400-$500.
I was 21 when this happened in 2003. I had been a member on BeyondDominia, and was then a member on the original TheManaDrain. I was running events, but we had an issue, where the players were having difficulty getting some of the cards. Yes, these prices look comical now, but remember, how much money did you have access to when you were a teenager, or in your early 20's? $25 for an Underground Sea was a real amount of money to a lot of us. I worked, and by the time I paid for car insurance, gas, books, and whatever other school-related costs, I didn't have much money to drop on cards. I knew what this was like, as I was operating from a firsthand experience with it. I picked up extra hours, worked holidays, did odd-jobs, and whatever else I could to try and make a few extra dollars to help me buy the cards that I wanted.
In 2003, my Keeper deck was stolen at Mark's Comics. I had gone to an FNM, and, like a fool, I had left the deck out on a table, stepped away, and then come back, not realizing that I wasn't paying attention to where I had left my cards. I went to put my cards away when I got home, and I realized what had happened. Perhaps most crushingly, I had just finished my play set of Winter Mishra's Factories. I was very upset for a few days, and about a week later, I decided that I wasn't going to let this kick me out of the format. I spent the balance of 2003, and much of 2004 working harder, replacing those cards, and eventually rebuilding precisely what I had stolen, sans Timetwister (because who really needed a Twister anyways? And besides, it was the cheapest piece of power - when an Unlimited Lotus was $100 back in '99, I remember Timetwister being $60).
We traded cards a lot more back in the day. Yeah, you could buy cards from dealers at big events, or you could go to Neutral Ground, or one of the other major stores, and probably find what you needed, but it wasn't a guarantee. I have had an eBay account since August of 2000. For those who don't remember, way back when, you would bid on an auction, hopefully win, then mail the seller a check. You would wait a week for the check to clear, and then you would wait for them to mail you the card(s) you had won - eBay was not comparable to what it is now. We were always asking to trade, in part, because you just might happen to find someone who would have the cards that you had been searching for for God knows how long.
Those winter Mishra's Factories were rare as all hell. It took me months and months and months to find them. With the release of Odyssey, we had the first printing of Standstill. I loved the card, and wanted to build a deck with Mishra's Factories and Faerie Conclaves, built with a hard control package.
So when someone who shall remain nameless offered to trade with me back in 2004, it was just another experience. I knew him, he was a regular at Mark's. When I saw the four winter Mishra's Factories that I had picked up back in 2003 sitting in his binder, I knew who had stolen my cards. It turned out that it was him and his buddy, and that they had just seen me carelessly leaving my deck box out, and taken advantage of the situation. They hadn't sold the cards, and, miraculously, nearly a full year after my Keeper deck was stolen, I had the deck returned to me.
Why this lengthy aside? Well, for the first time, I had more power, more duals than I needed. I had made tremendous sacrifices to replace the cards that had been stolen, so I had rebuilt nearly all of my Keeper deck. I was missing some small stuff, but the heavy hitters were all there. I decided that, instead of just selling the cards, I'd build extra decks, and have decks that I could loan out to anyone (whom I trusted) who wanted to play in the Vintage events I was running, but didn't have the requisite cards.
I wasn't the only one who had done something like that. People built extra decks, and they lent them out.
Another major thing happened around that time; Steve Menendian wrote an article for StarCityGames in which he advocated for the use of "proxies". It was a foreign term to me, but (without going back, finding the article, and re-reading it), I remember him advocating for their usage as a means to allow new players to experience the format.
I knew how tough it was for some of the 20-30 or so players I had to afford some of the cards that they wanted, needed, for their decks. So, almost immediately after that article was written, I instituted a 10 proxy offering for tournaments I ran. Now, instead of needing to spend $1,000, or more, in order to buy the Moxen, Lotus, etc., that you needed, you were able to spend a few hundred, build something that would let you play Vintage with your friends, all while you worked towards removing those proxies, and building a proxy-free Vintage deck.
Where am I going with all of this?
Firstly, while the price on cards kept going up (spikes, followed by slight retreats, then a settling towards some new, more expensive, normal seemed to occur every few years), there were those of us in the community who were able to build extra decks, thus allowing allowing friends to join us, and play. Yes, the price was still prohibitive (I couldn't go out and buy a piece of power whenever I wanted), but if you had been around long enough, if you won some FNMs, if you traded, you could eventually pick up the cards you needed to play. It was reasonable to expect that you'd be able to help proselytize, and grow the format.
Secondly, the introduction of proxies took an enormous weight off the shoulders of new players. You weren't asking someone to spend $1,000 to play a game. You were asking them to spend $200. Then maybe another $100 here and there, as they could, until they eventually built up, and had the means to play.
And, again, you were able to help them. Underground Sea was $25? Well, maybe you'd use some of the credit you'd won at the last FNM, buy one, and trade it for less than that $25 to someone who was trying to play.
It was a wildly different time.
You all know what has gone on with pricing since. I left the format in 2005, and came back in late 2007, and by the time I came back, it already felt infinitely more obscene than it had just a few years prior. I bought a play set of Mishra's Workshops in 2008 for $965. I bought an Unlimited Black Lotus in 2008 for $825. I later traded that Unlimited Black Lotus, an English Mana Drain and $200 for an Alpha Black Lotus, valued at $1,200, in 2009. Dual lands shot up. Underground Sea went from the $25 I remembered to $50. Then it was $100. Then it was north of that.
I returned to T/O'ing in July 2009. My first event back I gave away an Unlimited Mox Ruby to first, an English Mana Drain to second, Revised Underground Seas to 3rd/4th, Alliances Force of Wills to 5th-8th, and a book promo Mana Crypt as a sportsmanship prize. The entry fee was $25. We had 22 players, a judge, and held the event at a respectable store. I did not lose money on the day.
Part of me wants to keep going on and on with more examples of price memory, but I really do have to stop, and shift, again.
A few days ago, I saw that a PSA 10 Alpha Lotus was up for sale on eBay:
The Alpha Lotus that I traded for in 2009 wasn't as nice, but it wasn’t that far off. It was beautiful. I later sold it for $3,200 in 2012, because I wanted to buy some Magic art, and I figured that I'd eventually buy another nice Alpha Lotus. That was the last time I owned a nice Alpha Lotus. I later dealt for a beat Alpha Lotus for $7,500 in 2015.
Magic is advertised as a collectible card game. For the entirety of the game's history there has been a struggle between those words. The collectors and the players fought it out over the same supply. And while the supply was very, very limited, for most of that time, it was reasonable enough to expect people to eventually be able to buy into Vintage if they wanted to. Yeah, it would take time. Few of us were able to buy in overnight. But we were able to slowly make our way in, and those who welcomed us often helped us pick up the cards we needed. In return, we helped those who came after us. I am not burnishing my laurels here, but I've given away a lot of cards, and I have sold cards for less than I paid for them because they were going to players whom I wanted to see join us in enjoying this format.
Now what? Some of my recent purchases have felt panic-inspired, as I think about the friends I have whom I want to see at Eternal Weekend one day, and I realize that they do not currently own the cards they'd need to play. If I extend myself further now, perhaps I can save them, allowing them the chance to experience Eternal Weekend firsthand.
Yes, there are myriad other issues in the world today that are far more deserving of our attention than someone's ability to play a collectible card game (health care, financial security, hunger, etc. ad nauseum). But you know - this passion of ours is something that we have dedicated a tremendous amount of time, thought, and effort to. We work, in part, because we want to be able to spend time doing this other thing, experiencing this other passion that we all share. I became a Vintage tournament organizer in 2002 because I wanted there to be more Vintage tournaments. I wanted more people playing. I built decks that I could loan out, and currently have multiple decks built again, expressly for this purpose.
Life is about more than the work we do, it is also about how we spend the time in which we rest. Vintage events are an opportunity to spend time doing something I enjoy, with people whose company I enjoy. Am I supposed to shut up shop once the prices hit a certain level?
Two more quick stories:
I was at GenCon in 2010, and I was sitting at a table, alone. I was listening to my music, thinking, going through my cards, not really paying attention. I was approached by someone whom I didn't know, who knew of me from TMD. He introduced himself as Josh Exe, and I had a really pleasant conversation with him. I kept in touch for a while, and while we haven't spoken in a couple of years, I deeply appreciated that moment, and his friendship.
The pandemic will end, one day. There will be in-person events again. But are we past ‘peak Vintage’ (to utilize the 'peak oil' term to a different end)? It certainly feels like it. I want to do more - I want to build more decks, get more players in, spread the format, and build up the tournament scene that I miss, and love, so much. I have absolutely no idea how I'm going to do that again. And, even if I do end up doing something like that, will it just be a collection of Vintage dinosaurs like myself, lawyers, finance guys, and the children of wealthy parents? Don't get me wrong, I think I now fully understand that I am bound to this format, no matter what my temporary emotional relationship with it is like - I always return. But is this what we're bound to become?
The second story:
I came back to Vintage in 2007, and by the time 2011 had rolled around, I had done the same thing I always seem to do; build out a comprehensive collection, take the cards and turn them into decks, and then loan the decks out. I had been loaning one person in particular a Noble Fish deck for a while. He had sold his deck months back. A comment he had made slowly made its way back to me - "Why should I spend money to build a deck when Nick will just build one for me?". It left a bad taste in my mouth; in my mind, the players whom I was supporting by loaning out decks were, by and large, the future players of the format who were just slowly buying their way in. This was the counter, the opposite of that, presented in stark relief.
Nick Coss is one of my best friends, and I am lucky to have him in my life. He was dealing at one of the events I was running at Brothers Grim, on Long Island, and when he saw me lend that Noble Fish deck out again, he pulled me aside after round one started. He asked some questions that I hadn't really thought through previously. First off, he said, if the deck was stolen, lost, destroyed, would the lendee replace it? I knew the answer to that immediately, and had it confirmed for me later when the individual said that no, he would not replace it if something happened to it. Nick's second question was unfortunately poignant as well - how much was the deck worth? By that point, even with only FBB duals, and played Beta power, the deck was worth many thousands of dollars. What would it mean to me, financially, to have those thousands of dollars taken from me? I was still young enough that it would have really hurt. I drove a beater, I lived a frugal life, and I splurged, when I could, on nice Magic cards. If that deck were to disappear, what was it that had really been stolen? It was the time, the sacrifices that I endured. It was the easier times that I had foregone in order to have that thing, that thing that I was able to, hopefully, use to bring joy to friends.
So, where the hell does that leave us now?
I posted on Twitter in the last week that the rising prices on Vintage cards has made me uncomfortable. I had all these things in mind when I wrote that. How many Josh Exes will I not meet because of the price of cards? How many more paper Vintage tournaments will we all be able to play in? I'm a tournament organizer, and I'm sincerely wondering if I should have off-duty armed police at any future event I might run. Whatever a thief could steal at a Vintage event would likely be more than they could get in a smash and grab robbery.
Am I supposed to concede the war between collectible, and card game? Am I supposed to sell the excess cards I have, continue to keep everything locked away, and only loan cards to those who've promised me organs for cardboard (in the event of a theft)?
Many of us have been saying this for years, but the Reserved List desperately needs to be killed. It is actively killing Vintage, and I would imagine that Legacy is not far behind us. I was an advocate of killing the Reserved List years ago, when I had a set of Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited power, with all the accoutrements that you'd need to play any deck in format. I am only more resolute in the necessity of its death now.
We're going to, shortly, come to a place where there is really nothing that can be done. An Unlimited Black Lotus is now hovering around $10,000, a full 100x multiplier over the first Lotus I saw trade hands.
The only way that Vintage survives as anything other than a niche format played by the lucky, and the wealthy (and I legitimately mean wealthy) is by infusing more cards into the community, or finding some way to let a player with a tablet utilize their MODO collection to play with paper players. I am a technophobe, and couldn't begin to enumerate the difficulties (impossibilities?) with that interface, but I'd imagine they would be considerable.
It is sheer dumb luck that I got into Magic when I did. That I got in where I did. That I met whom I met. There isn't much that 12 year old me found worthwhile that 38 year old me still does. Magic sits atop that list. How many potential future Vintage players will we lose because of the price of these cards? Magic is an exceptional game, it is my favorite game, and I'd like to believe that in 20 years, 30 years, I'll still be playing. Who shows up to a paper Vintage event in 2050? Will it be me, Brian DeMars, Roland Chang, Steve Menendian, and a handful of the stalwarts, old and gray, battling away, shuffling ancient cards with arthritic hands?
That isn't a future I want to see.
It's time to divorce the collectible from the card game.