FAB Investment in the Age of the Player

It’s been quite a while (nearly a month) since I got an article out, which I feel quite bad about. I’ve had a couple pieces published over at the Rathe Times during that window, so it’s not like I’ve been producing no FAB content , but life in general has been kind of a slog lately and FABwithFreyja along with my personal writing have been the areas that have suffered. I’ve still got the mostly complete Briar piece I started a month ago in the works, and I have plenty of other article ideas I want to write up, it just hasn’t happened due to being overcommitted to projects, some COVID-related depression, and an uptick in how busy I am at my day job. Anyway, enough with my whining, today we’re going to look at the current state of FAB as a place to invest. I’ll kick things off with a bit of bigger picture view of the CCG market at present and some overall framing I use when considering games, and then we’ll dive into FAB specifically.

What is the “Age of the Player”?

I’m using this term to describe the shift that the game and its market have taken pretty much from Monarch’s release to today and what I generally anticipate to be the overall approach to the game from here on out. I think that CCGs inevitably favor either making money off of them or their status as games. Some decisions may be fairly agnostic, others might support making money or gameplay without having a big impact on the other, but when you take all of these decisions together, games will lean more or less strongly towards one category or the other. Magic is a game that currently puts gameplay first, MetaZoo is a game putting its secondary market first. Neither of these is wrong per say, but understanding the big picture will help you manage your expectations as someone trying to make money off of a product. As an aside, all CCGs are trying to make money for their creators and they can be more or less greedy about how they approach this, but I think this is a different subject.

With that said, any individual decision for a particular game can go in either direction. For example, despite me calling Magic a gameplay first game, the Reserve List is one of the most anti-player pro-secondary market moves that has been undertaken by a popular CCG. It has functionally killed Vintage as a format people play in person, and it seems like it will inevitably do the same to Legacy eventually. Again, whether this bothers you or not depends on your own interests in the game. If you like collecting and making money but rarely or never actually play the game, you probably don’t care that two of the best formats are largely inaccessible to the average player. If your focus is play, you probably hate the Reserve List. The main point I want to get across here is that decisions on things like this (reprint policies) cannot be equally good for both groups. The Reserve List absolutely helps backstop investor/speculator involvement with a promise of no new supply entering the market. And that same promise makes any format that uses Reserve List cards doomed to eventual decline as prices rise (casual formats, like Commander, sidestep this by allowing people to decide if their playgroups want to use proxys).

So, returning to FAB, I would say that from about October of last year until Monarch’s release, FAB was a game that was being driven by the secondary market. I’m not claiming that it was a bad game to play, but the communal focus was oriented around speculation, flipping, and investment to a greater degree than gameplay, and LSS made various decisions that helped prices rise. However, post-Monarch we now see a market that has increasingly become focused on and driven by playable staples. New products closely mirror Magic release with high initial values that fall off notably in the first couple months post-release, slow to moderate progress for sealed boxes, and gradual growth for singles after they find their floor. Even the most ardent “MON to 1k” people are finally coming around to the reality  that it’s definitely not happening in 2021, and it’s probably not happening in 2022 either. All of that may sound negative, but the game of Flesh and Blood is actually doing quite well overall. We’re seeing large well-attended events, interest remains active among Magic content creators with large bases of subscribers who can direct more people to the game, and LSS seems to be actively trying to solve some of their problems even if there are some lingering concerns still (*cough* Unlimited *cough*).

The Decline of Investors

I don’t mean to say that there is no interest in investing in Flesh and Blood, but the proportion of the people who engage with FAB for the purpose of making money has declined sharply. The raw number of people trying to make money may be (and probably is) up, but these people account for a smaller portion of the audience. I think the cause for this is twofold. First, the game is succeeding as a game. More people can afford to play a game than use it as a way to generate money. Secondly, we’re in the middle of a CCG renaissance which is unlike anything seen since the late 90’s, and this time it’s supercharged by the fact that the people who are interested in these games are, on average, older and possessed of significantly more money than they were 20 years ago (I know I am). Because of that, if you’re seeking a potential big payoff in a shorter timeframe (which I think is actually most people despite how many diamond hands memes you see posted) the upshot on some of these other games is better than what FAB is offering. MetaZoo is rocketing towards the spikes we saw with FAB was last Spring, Nostalgix is gearing up for a Kickstarter in November and after going from a brand new Patreon account in September to over $56k in pledged support in October, and Akora already has KS promos going for over $800 on ebay.

Full disclosure: while I don’t have any sort of professional relationship with Nostalgix, I have put money into the Patreon. The potential upshot on something like this is quite high if it starts to get traction because the early print runs are so small (something we should have all learned from FAB). That isn’t to say that I think this or any of these other emergent games will necessarily succeed as games in a long term 5-10 year window. I actually think few if any will make it to ten years, whereas FAB seems almost assuredly on track for a 5 year run and increasingly like it could go to 10+. But, thanks in part to betting on FAB early, I feel pretty comfortable betting a modest amount on some of these games which could, even if it’s only short term, see price spikes like what FAB had when it was taking off. I try to avoid letting whether I personally want to play or collect a game disrupt my ability to make money off it. I did that with MetaZoo. I thought and still think that it is a game with an ugly aesthetic and a very messy ruleset, and that served as a reason for me to stay out when people I knew were picking up product because they saw a potential to make money. I was thinking of things on a 5-10 year window and discounting the ability to just flip in a 6-24 month window for a healthy return. So, while I have a whole list of reasons I’m suspicious of something like Grand Archive’s ability to be a big long term pillar of the industry, I’m definitely following it as they gear up for their KS because, if the market takes interest, there could be solid money to make, and I’d love to be in a position to quit my day job as soon as possible.

Where is FAB Now

For me, FAB has become fairly analogous to Magic in that I believe that we’ll occasionally see short term spikes in sealed products or single cards (as we did with Time Spiral Remastered earlier this year), but, overall, profits are going to be more gradual (though also more reliable). The odds that Flesh and Blood could be dead in a year or suddenly crater continue to go shrink. This means that, even if it were to slip into decline, there is a reasonable amount of time to decide to get money out of it and still be firmly in the black. That makes buying things with a mind towards a longer term timescale fairly reasonable. Picking up a few cases to keep sealed of each set’s first edition (at MSRP or less) remains a solid investment to me, and I think the potential upshot of where a first edition Tales of Aria box is in 5 years is probably better than most Standard Magic releases over the same time period. By contrast, I see singles from new sets (MON forward) as things that I want to collect with the upshot that if I decided to sell out some years down the road, they will have accumulated value. However, I am no longer building large positions in single cards the way I was with cold foil commons a year ago.

As I hinted at earlier, I think when people talk about investing in card games, most of them are really only interested in short term profits (we’re talking 6-12 months or so). For those people, FAB has increasingly few opportunities. If I had to put my money down on one current FAB product with the intent to sell it in a year, I would probably buy Tales of Aria first edition boxes, which have continued to tick down gradually to $110 in recent TCGPlayer sales. That said, you could likely get similar or better returns from the best performing Magic Secret Lair releases in that same timeframe. Buying new sealed first edition FAB from here on out should be viewed as a thing you’re doing with an intent to sell in a few years at the earliest and occasionally a set may surprise you and 1.5-2x in under a year.

What about Cold Foils?

Cold foils remain the premiere collectable treatment for Flesh and Blood, but I’m currently mostly excited about them from a collector’s standpoint. I believe they will continue to accrue value over time (though I suspect TOA’s specifically will take a notable hit as soon as unlimited drops and the CFs are no longer the only version available to players). Still, sealed boxes seem like a better product to me. A Rampart of the Ram’s Head is $240; assuming FAB is healthy in 5 years, I would anticipate it being worth at least double that but probably more. However, with that $240, you could also buy 2 sealed first edition boxes of Tales of Aria and have money left over. Personally, I’ll bet on the sealed boxes outperforming CF Ls and Fs from Monarch forward (and probably for most Ls and Fs from WTR to CRU as well).

What If You Want to Go Long?

If you’re interested in the multiyear approach to FAB, I do think there are areas that remain untapped or underappreciated. All playable non-foil WTR alpha and ARC first edition cards as well as most of their rainbow foil versions have long term potential. The print runs of these are very low and the current market does not value them because it’s a player’s market. My comparison point on these are Beta commons (particularly basic lands) in Magic. 15 years ago, I could find those from $1-5 for NM copies. Today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find near mint copies under $20-50 (depending on the land). If you had sunk $100 into Beta Islands 15 years ago and just put them aside, you’d be enjoying a tidy payout. It’s not a particularly sexy way to make money, but it’s worth keeping in mind. If FAB is still going strong in 10 years, I have a hard time thinking any playable pink striped WTR card won’t be worth significantly more than it is today, and many of these are relatively cheap right now. Similarly, if Command and Conquer is still legal, a NM first edition ARC copy should be going for a hell of a lot more than the $170 it currently sells for. In particular, rainbow foil first edition cards that either remove the reminder text or have alternate flavor text seem like probable candidates for significant spikes years down the road (assuming LSS sticks by these variants being a first edition exclusive – which they haven’t overtly promised but seems to be a thing they’re doing).

Graded cards are also a consideration. As ever, graded cards are not “my thing”. They don’t excite me, and they also demand that you cultivate specialized knowledge to be able to make good purchases and assess which raw cards to send for grading or even when/if you should send a card to be graded. If you don’t feel confident evaluating the difference between two BGS 9.5s based on their subgrades, then welcome to the club. If you want to get into this space you should take the time to develop your knowledge before buying things up. Know that you’re also dealing with a product that is harder to cash out. You have a smaller potential audience of buyers and the prices you’re dealing with are generally going to be higher, so you’re putting your money in a less liquid asset. In exchange for those downsides, on a long timescale, graded cards, particularly highly graded rare ones, can have really profound profit potential.

If graded cards is something you want to get in on, start looking for resources. A solid chunk of my education on the subject comes from friends who aren’t content creators, but who deal in graded cards and field questions for me. In terms of publicly available resources focused on FAB, the Facebook Group is a good starting point. Then there’s Saint Hung who is one of the more prolific graded card enthusiasts in the community, and has produced videos on the subject for both his FaBled Hunters YouTube channel and for Channel Fireball. James Curry (an admin from the FB group I linked above) also makes some detailed information posts in that group dealing with things like population reports that help contextualize how to look at some of the top cards. For example, seeing the single digit percentages for 9.5 quads among graded populations is pretty striking.

Closing Thoughts
I feel good about FAB’s continued growth and stability. This is in no small part due to how much it’s become a player’s game. However that same stability comes with a diminished chance of sudden massive spikes in value. Wealthy investors are prepared to play the long game on a scale of years, and they potentially stand to do quite well for themselves. However, I think for the sizeable group of people who, if they’re honest with themselves, really want to get returns in something more resembling a six month to two year timeframe, Flesh and Blood no longer offers the short term gains we saw last year and it’s unlikely to ever do so again. I don’t see this as a problem, but it is something people should be cognizant of as they go forward. Things like the Gamestop surge, crypto spikes (and busts), and the recent rise of NFTs have a lot of people chasing quick profits, but it pays to remember that these opportunities generally come with more risk. Once everyone know about something, you’re too late to make the absurd money. FAB’s already had it’s rapid ascent, if you want to 10x your money in a year, you’ll need to speculation on something else. If you’re sticking around with FAB, you’d do well to set realistic expectations and expect to hold things for a longer period of time before selling.

*Header Image: Lake Frigid by Carlos Cruchaga

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