Yeah, that’s me, bringing you Mean Girls jokes in 2020. Today I want to address the so-called “Power 12”. As a warning, this is going to be like fifty percent actual financial talk and fifty percent me complaining about a thing that annoys me on an aesthetic level. I think “Power 12” is a stupid and misleading term. At best, it’s a naive misunderstanding of why the Power 9 are the Power 9, and at worst, it represents a cynical attempt to mislead people into overvaluing cards. For clarity these cards include the Legendary and Fabled cards from Welcome to Rathe and Arcane Rising. We’re going to start with a look at the Power 9 since not everyone necessarily has a lot of history with Magic, and even many people who are familiar with the game have never actually put Power on the table.
The Power 9
The Power 9 are a set of cards from Magic’s early days that were only printed in Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited editions (yes, yes, there are also the Collector’s Editions, shhhh). They were are incredibly rare and, most importantly, exceptionally powerful in the game. They’re so powerful that they’re restricted to a single format where only one copy of each is allowed as compared to the normal four copies of a card. These two factors have historically held their prices above almost all other cards in the game. Here’s the thing, both of these elements (rare and powerful) are essential to their status. Their power level has endured for nearly 30 years (with the exception of Timetwister, which were it not legal in commander, would likely have been eclipsed by Time Vault –a more important vintage piece, I’d argue).
Most current Magic players have never seen any of the Power 9 in person much less actually played with them. I think that part of the lore of these cards has, over time, shifted more towards their financial value than their utility. Players know that they’re good in the abstract, but they don’t really have an appreciation for how powerful they are, so the focus has shifted to their cost. However, that value is significantly rooted in their power. I come at this from the perspective of someone who started Magic in the 90s and was actively playing Vintage up to the time when I sold my collection. When you play Vintage, you have to reassess the entire card pool because the simple ability to play even a single copy of each of the Power 9 (and the other supporting vintage cards, like Yawgmoth’s Will, Tinker, Sol Ring, Bazaar of Bagdad, Tolarian Academy, etc.) so radically warps the format that it totally changes what sorts of cards are good. How warping are the Power 9? Well, they’re so good that you play them even when your deck’s core components punish them. Workshops, for instance, runs cards that attack the Moxes and Black Lotus, but you still play a complete set in your own deck.
So why should you care about this? Well, it’s important to understand how these cards got their legendary status and their current prices so that we can see why “Power 12” is both a bad analogy and can potentially lead you to making bad financial decisions. The Power 9 are a very cool part of Magic, and they’re tremendously fun to play with just because Vintage is so different from other Magic formats, even Legacy. However, they’re largely “mistakes” from a game design perspective that originate from the fact that Magic was never conceived of as this major decades-spanning game that would have an incredibly serious competitive scene. Vintage is an incredibly swingy format that showcases skill less than some others because of how much luck factors into a format where turn one and two wins are common place and your most powerful cards are singletons in a 60 card deck. If you were a modern game (like FAB), creating something like Black Lotus would be regarded as a failure of design if you are orienting you game towards competitive play.
To wrap up the Magic retrospective part of this article, let’s take a quick look at price for these cards in a historical context. We’re about a year into FAB, so we’re going to look at some Magic prices from a roughly similar time period. We’ll take these from a 1994 issue of Scrye, (yes we used to get our prices from magazines; now get off my lawn).
So, you’ll notice that the Power 9 got sorted out and recognized as the best cards fairly early on, but the really significant element here is how close other cards that later turned out to be far less impressive were. Shivan Dragon cost MORE than a third of the Power 9. Nightmare, Cyclopean Tome, Royal Assassin, and Word of Command all cost about as much as Ancestral Recall. Hell, you could have two Underground Seas for the price of one Two-Headed Giant. The important take home here is that these relative prices did not bear out over time. While literally every price across the board here is a bargain compared to today’s prices, trading your Ancestral Recall into a Shivan Dragon would have been a mistake long term.
Back to FAB
So the lessons to focus on here are that the Power 9 are cards that have been the pinnacle of powerful cards (with Timetwister merely enduring as “very good”) for nearly 30 years. This is then coupled with their extreme rarity and high demand to give them their exceptional prices. So, if you want to draw analogies to FAB, those are the markers we’re looking for. Do they bear out? Simply put, no. First, and most importantly, the most expensive FAB card at the moment to come out of a booster pack is Heart of Fyendal. This is a card that is almost universally acknowledged as not particularly good, with most people citing it as a niche card in one or two decks at best. It is almost certain that, barring a weird combo emerging, we’ll see a point in the next few years where no decks want to play it. Meanwhile people are valuing it at 5-6 times the price of Fyendal’s Spring Tunic. This, to me, indicates how early we are in valuation of FAB cards. Tunic is regarded as one of the best pieces of equipment in the game both by players and by Legend Story Studios. James White has even essentially said that it is a benchmark against power creep (see the Alpha Investments Interview post) in that they see themselves creating class-specific side-grades in the future but expect Tunic to remain as a premiere piece of equipment for years to come. This is where you should be pulling back and asking questions about the relative values of these two cards. If Tunic is a marquee play piece that LSS thinks will be in top tournament decks for many years, possibly for the entire life of the game, and Heart is more or less a pretty card for your binder, why would you expect them to maintain their relative values long term?
If we go back to August, you could get a Heart for about twice what a Tunic cost. That mapped very cleanly to their relative rarity (there are twice as many Tunics as hearts), but as the game grew and interest spiked, outside investors and collectors started popping into the game, and Heart was compared to Black Lotus, and thus, the price spiked to 5-6 times that of Tunic. I keep saying it, but I don’t think this can possibly bear out over a span of years. In the short term, we have a bunch of factors that are distorting the market (COVID certainly plays a part), but the end result is that the proportion of investors to collectors to players is way out of whack relative to what it is likely to be if the game proves to be an actual enduring success (which is the only scenario where financial discussion actually matters in the long term, so you better be thinking with that framework if you’re looking at FAB as something to invest in vs flip for short term gains). Simply put, over time, collectors and investors will be an increasingly smaller portion of the population of people engaging with FAB, and they will have diminished influence on prices relative to actual play results.
We can also see how young the FAB market is because the price band at the same rarity is so narrow for Legendries. For instance, Mask of Momentum is incredibly powerful, meaningfully more so than many other class Legendries, but it carries a modest premium at best. It seems possible that we will never see a Ninja headpiece that is markedly better than Mask –maybe we’ll get some sidegrades for very narrow builds, but I think it’s likely that, much like Tunic, Mask will be a staple tournament card for years to come. Given that, we should expect to see its gap over some of the other Legendries widen over time. Remember those Scrye prices above and how, in 1994, Beta Royal Assassin was worth two times as much as Beta Underground Sea? Well, today Underground Sea is worth twelve Assassins because it turns out that, despite them being equally rare, no one uses Royal Assassin these days, but Underground Sea is the most desirable dual land. While both cards are valuable due to being old and rare, Underground Sea is worth vastly more because it is powerful and people very much do want to play with it.
Let’s also take a moment to talk about the prices of FAB cards generally. You can get a graded 8-9 Beta Underground Sea for the price of a CF Heart. Take a moment to really think about that. The Heart may be rarer, but there are several mitigating factors that you should be thinking about if you’re considering buying a heart. First, there were six times as many Beta Underground Seas in 1993 as there were CF Hearts in 2019, but I think, realistically, there are likely fewer 8+ grade Beta Underground Seas left in the world than 8+ Hearts. More importantly, Magic is the premier game in the industry with a nearly 30 year lifespan. Detach yourself from any personal feelings you have about the game, and pause to recognize that, from a business perspective, the game is doing great, and the odds of it dying in the next 5 to 10 years is incredibly slim. FAB, on the other hand, despite its success to date, is a tiny 1 year old game with a VASTLY higher chance of failing in that same time window. However, the rush to buy in on the ground floor of FAB has already spiked prices for some of these pieces to where we might have expected them to be in 5+ years into a successful run. A plateau or a retreat on pieces like Heart is coming because there simply isn’t much room for prices to go before they start to eclipse 30 year old Magic cards of nearly equal rarity (and again, almost certainly fewer surviving pieces of the same quality).
Looping back to Tunic vs. Heart, FAB has relatively few people engaged with it, so the fact that we’ve got 550 hearts vs 1100 tunics means that collector demand can prop up Heart’s higher price, but I am very skeptical that, on a 5-10 year timeline, that will continue to be the case. If FAB grows to even 100k players (a tiny fraction of what Magic has), the demand for a CF Tunic is going to outstrip the demand for a CF Heart. This will happen because, while collectors will care that heart is rarer, player/collectors and players who like to play with premium version of cards, are going to care far more about having a CF tunic to put on the table than a CF Heart that sits at home in a case. And these later groups are a larger proportion of a healthy player base. There are very few unique Legendary Cards in WTR and ARC relative to Rares in ABU Magic, so we have less room for granularity, but we should expect that over time, there will be separation in prices at the Legendary rarity based on how good these cards are.
So what do we call them then? I don’t know. If we need a way to collectively refer to these cards (and I’m not convinced we do) we should pick something that conveys value but not necessarily power. Call them the “Crown Jewels” or something. But, I think that it’s entirely possible that some of these cards will get the Shivan Dragon treatment over time. I’m not saying they’ll have no value, far from it, remember, a Beta Shivan Dragon is still worth nearly $2000, but it’s definitely not in the same league as Power.
*Header Image: Screen capture from Mean Girls