Best Magic! the Gathering Sealed Products - A Guide to Strategic Investment in Magic: The Gathering
"Many Magic: The Gathering players ask the question…" Don't you ever get tired of mocking the Professor of Tolarian Community College with that opening? The answer is no, we don't. Even though we love the Professor, and this post is partly inspired by his YouTube channel's content, he's just irresistible to mimic. Not to mention, if he were here reading this, he would probably disagree with the majority of what we're going to be saying here.
The Professor, spoiler alert, usually poops on Wizards of the Coast's boxed products. He tends to have a pessimistic view of boxed value product and has the annoying habit of counting every penny of literal card resale value as if that was the only metric of concern to players.
Pro players will also tell you: NEVER buy the sealed product no matter what, just buy singles from second-parties. If you're a tournament-playing spike, this article is likely not for you - not that you'd be grubbing over here in the backwoods of Uncle Petey's territory anyway.
But there are still good reasons to buy MTG sealed product. Such as:
- You want to support your local game store.
- Somebody has to open a box or there would be no singles for second parties to trade.
- Opening boxed stuff is fun.
- You're a casual player.
- You play Commander format or compete in Pauper format.
- You've been out of the game for a while and every card from recent sets is one you don't own.
- You're loaded with money and like busting packs.
- You've spotted the occasional great deal (yes, they happen!).
We'll be focusing on several of these aspects in the below list. We'll also keep to general rules rather than specific sets at this time because Wizards of the Coast has a frantic set release cycle that would make specific set recommendations obsolete by the time this posted. But our bottom line for good MTG sealed product is "Do I save money over buying individual singles?"
Make sense? Let's dive into the world of Magic: the Gathering boxed products:
Booster Boxes and Fat Packs
These are typically the bulk purchases that most pro players make when a new set drops. They're worth mentioning because they're the main way cards enter the ecosystem to begin with. Of course, if you attend pre-release, that's another kind of booster kit. They're mix-and-match in value depending on the set. We can't say for sure which is a good buy in the long run - who knows what crazy price sways a booster box will have going down the line? Some vintage booster boxes sell for thousands but contain far less in card value. We can't predict these, so let's move on.
Deck Builder's Toolkits
The big news recently is that MTG is bringing back Core sets, and with that comes Deck Builder's Toolkits. Here's a box opening for 2019 Core:
Typical Deck Builder's Toolkits run about ~$20 retail, some even less. They usually contain:
- Pre-determined 125 cards from recent sets - Negligible value, usually.
- 100 basic lands - Meh.
- Four 15-card boosters from recent sets - This is the value part!
- Guide booklet - Disregard except for raw newbies.
- A nice storage box - Also part of the value!
Booster packs from Standard-current sets normally sell for ~$3.50 to $4.00 each, depending on the retailer, so you're getting at least $14-16 value from just the packs. With just four-to-six dollars value left to fill, the remainder of the value comes from the box itself, a staple of MTG collections everywhere. You can consider the variable card and land packs to be tossed in extra at this point. However, while past Deck Builder's Toolkits were stuffed with lots of junk commons, the new boxes have at least some uncommons and nonbasic lands in the fixed-cards set, so at least the pre-determined cards aren't a total wash.
Deck Builder's Toolkits are recommended for new or returning players. Intermediate and advanced players probably won't find that much to be thrilled about, although for $20 USD this is still a pretty decent value margin even for serious collectors.
Pre-con decks for EDH Commander format are traditionally a must-buy item even for veteran players. At least one out of the typical four decks released per year becomes a chase buy. Here's an easy way to zero in on the hot deck of the year: MTGGoldfish.com publishes full decklists for Commander deck products as soon as they're out, and helpfully lists the cards' total value along the right-hand side. For example, check out the listing for Commander 2018 decks. Here's the totals in paper-card value:
- Exquisite Invention - $69.27
- Subjective Reality - $74.58
- Nature's Vengeance - $69.74
- Adaptive Enchantment - $57.87
Considering just the break-up value, "Subjective Reality" comes out on top from 2018. Take these prices with a grain of salt, though, as they're based on market metrics like TCGPlayer current prices, which are sometimes manipulated (we have a section on evaluating the card market at the end). Looking at the individual cards list, we see it's actually a few cards contributing to this high box total. But for pure play value, you might consider "Nature's Vengeance" to be the better deal, because the Jund planeswalker Lord Windgrace was the hot must-run commander of 2018. If you remember that year in EDH, everybody was scrambling to make a Jund lands-matter deck.
At a usual price of around $40, Commander decks are typically good-to-excellent value for EDH players, albeit they're starting points for upgraded decks. They also hold some marginal value just for pure investment. Take a look at past Commander precons; for instance, "Feline Ferocity" from 2017 Commander now shows the paper cardlist price at $154.60! This is because several cards in the list, including Lightning Greaves, Skullclamp, and Mirari's Wake (what were they thinking?) are enduring format staples that are in perpetual demand and will never really go down in value.
This is a hit-or-miss proposition. Originally called "Event decks," these are precon Standard format decks intended to be playable out-of-the-box at your local store's FNM. That's usually an absurd notion; the best you can say of these decks is usually that they're a starting place to upgrade to competitive. Wizards of the Coast still dreams of the days when a kid could win Friday Night Magic with a $10 Red-Deck-Wins. The reality is even the smallest FNM venue is dominated by 500-pound middle-aged uber-spikes with signed foil judge's promos, who have the mercy of a hungry shark.
However, keep an eye on decklists and Standard metagames, and you will see a flash of good retail value pop up occasionally. Challenger decks run ~$30, so when the decklist value approaches that, buy! Here's the 2018 Challenger decklists at MTGGoldfish. Note the two pricey ones revolve around just one card: Chandra, Torch of Defiance in "Hazoret Aggro," and Walking Ballista in "Counter Surge." Both of these cards are hot in Commander format, not because of Standard. While their value might flag over time, they're likely good buys right now, so if either of those cards go up even by a few dollars it could make the whole box a value buy while it's still on the shelves.
Challenger decks are decent for Standard FNM players looking for a quick base to upgrade. They occasionally have that sweet spot where a retailed deck happens to contain a card whose value is spiking.
We're going to get controversial here - retailers like Walmart, Target, and other big-box stores have second-market repacks of unsold MTG product, due to box damage, overstock, returns, etc. Some players frown on this, asking "Why should I give Walmart my money when I can't play game night there?" Others consider this a risky gamble not worth taking - some of these mystery boxes are a rip-off. I can see those points.
But sometimes Mystery cube repacks come through in a big way. Here's a box opening:
Your humble author chanced upon one of these "loot crates," as I call them, at Target in 2018 and bought one on a whim noting that it contained not one, but TWO Commander decks! I now wish I'd saved the box opening on video, but you'll have to take my word for it that the full count was:
- "Arcane Wizardry" Inalla Precon - $93 value
- "Entropic Uprising" Yidris precon - $150 value!
- The Goblin half of the duel deck "Merfolk vs. Goblins" - $20 value
- A loose bundle of mono-black draft chaff - $?
- Two booster packs (Rivals of Ixalan and Aether Revolt) - $7 value
- A foil promo Atarka World Render - worthless
For a $30 purchase plus tax, that comes to a conservative $270 value. Put it this way: Today, I could sell Thrasios, Triton Hero and Vial Smasher the Fierce from this box and just about break even on two cards, the rest of the cards are free. As it stands, however, it was an especially lucky pull for me, as I'd never gotten into goblin tribal so didn't own Krenko, Mob Boss and friends. You see in the video this guy pulled the same goblin tribal deck.
That's how good it can get. As the video clearly shows, you can spot a Commander deck in one of these cubes, and it's usually a sign of a valuable box.
I mentioned the Professor early on, but to be fair he does sometimes grudgingly favor "mystery" repacks too. Like in this video for "Happy Happy Go Fun Fun" packs:
A mini-guide to pricing MTG cards…
If you poke around in the MTG market, you'll notice it's a bit like the stock market; card values trend, spike, or bubble. Prices vary by opinion. Atarka, World Render is given at a price of a quarter, but I call it "negative $10," because they overprinted so many of these and spammed them to the universe that I consider a collection to be worth $10 less for every copy of this card in it.
Card prices are driven primarily by demand for the play value alone. If a card is currently a mandatory 4-of in a top Grand Prix deck, its price will shoot the moon. Or, an expensive card which just rotated out of Standard typically loses its value unless it's also played in an eternal format like Pauper or Modern.
Here are some sites to bookmark and check back when determining card value:
- TCGPlayer - The standard price judge. If you trade cards with another player out of your binders, this is the site you'll look upon your phones to evaluate trades.
- MTGStocks - This alerts you to rising and falling prices, with analysis explaining why card price changes are happening.
- Dawnglare - A one-page reference for Standard sets, showing only cards with a value over $1. This is ideal for seeing the most valuable cards from each set to keep an eye out for.
- MTGTop8 - This lists the current competitive meta for Standard. Useful for keeping an eye on what cards are in demand right now, or to price out a top tournament deck if you're acquiring the cards.
- MTGGoldfish - Also has a section on most valuable cards per set, as well as old booster box prices.
There you have it, a smart buyers' MTG guide. While some players frown on investor speculation - darn those greedy capitalists, ruining the game for the kids! - the fact is that greed spoiled this game for schoolyard play decades ago. You want to game for the kids, yell at your local shop to support Pauper format, where you can win FNM with a $40 deck. For all other formats, MTG is a game for those with expendable adult-sized income. Since it is marketed as a collectible trading card game, there's nothing wrong with keeping an eye on the bottom line like any investment.
Happy hunting out there!