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By: KaraZorEl, Winter Trabex
Jun 25 2012 5:40am
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To begin with, we have to establish a few terms here. When I talk about "paper cards," what I mean is cards that you can hold in your hand, bend, rip up or write on with magic marker as you please. When I talk about "digital cards," I mean the images that appear on your screen whenever you use the Magic Online program. In this article, I'm going to compare the price differential of a tier one deck in Modern. My goal is to find out which type of card offers the best value (ie, more bang for your buck).

On a slow weekday, I browsed through my selection of paper cards and saw that I had a lot of cards that I didn't even use. Some of them were money cards. They were sitting around doing nothing. I had a playset of the promo Grave Titan and three Phyrexian Obliterators. These cards were leftovers from when I tried my hand at standard earlier in the year, shortly after the release of Dark Ascension. I very quickly discovered how boring standard was as a format- boring in that there were only two decks, Delver and Wolf Run- so I gave up on my mono-black rogue deck and went back to online play, where I already had a Modern deck put together. I played enough Modern over the past few months that I decided to trade in my standard cards to a dealer for store credit so I could get paper cards for the Modern deck I have. Let's take a look at the deck I put together:


Now, then, let's talk prices shall we? I will be using MTGO Traders for online prices and Cape Fear Games for paper prices. Both of these businesses may not always offer the lowest prices. When I purchase from them, I'm never sure if I have got the best deal on anything. However, I've chosen them both because they are reliable, they respond quickly and always deal in good faith. Thus, to me, any extra money I end up spending on cards goes towards a good buying or selling experience. Each price listed assumes the lowest in-stock price for a non-foil card (unless the card is a promo). Non-English language cards are noted where found. When different conditions of paper cards are available, Near Mint-Mint is chosen. All prices were taken on June 21, 2012. The price comparison for the deck looks like this:


Individual card notes:

Murderous Redcap's promo was cheaper than the version from Shadowmoor with MTGO Traders; however, the Shadowmoor version was the only one available at Cape Fear Games.

Magus of the Moon was only available in Spanish for Cape Fear Games. Presumably, the English language version would have been cheaper.

The final numbers tell the whole story: it is far cheaper to play online than it is to play in paper. This is not even factoring in the transportation costs of going to an event, staying in a hotel for a weekend two-day event or the shipping costs required to acquire the cards. However, this is not to say that Magic Online is always cheaper. There are some cards such as Kalitas, Bloodchief of Ghet that are expensive online due to set redemptions, or simply because they are mythics and everyone speculates in mythic rares. Most significantly, a playset of Birthing Pod is 16 dollars more expensive online than in paper. Do the online players know something that the paper players do not? Or is it that Melira Pod just isn't seeing play in the Modern paper events? Either way, Birthing Pod is more expensive than many of the "I win now" mythic Praetors that came out in New Phyrexia. Most likely, if Wizards had to do it over again, Birthing Pod would be a mythic too.

The shocklands are enormously expensive in paper. It seems they have a set minimum, possibly because there aren't that many to go around. Remember that in paper play, you need a physical copy of a card for each deck you run. Thus, if you have three Modern decks, you may need three playsets of the same land. Not so with Magic Online- you only need four. More than that is just speculation, which only works if you're dealing in the hundreds.

There also seem to be prices below which papers cards just won't go. Fallen Angel is a card I haven't seen in any other lists besides mine. As such, it has yet to poke its head over one dollar or one tix. The minimums are higher in paper, possibly because the supply is less. There might be hundreds of Fallen Angel in stock at any given online dealership, but a paper dealership may not carry as many. There are plenty of local stores that keep cards in their shelf and, staple card or not, players will walk in and buy them just to try it out in their casual 90 card deck they play at the kitchen table. There really isn't a kitchen table online. The casual room in the Magic Online client doesn't have the same feeling of playing a game with six people for an hour where the game ends with someone getting off an improbable combo that no one else thought of; instead, the casual room is a place for trying out underpowered decks wherein people complain because they're losing with their favorite strategies. Because of this, there's no hurry for anyone to acquire cards that just aren't seeing play. People who play Magic Online do so competitively.

Legacy also sees more play in paper. With the online program, it's a dead format. Its daily events never fire. Its staple cards are really expensive. This may be a by-product of trading. With paper cards, players can gradually acquire a substantial collection over time. It's easy enough to trade with another player you meet at a prerelease or standard event. However, trading is very difficult online. You almost have to make a nuisance of yourself and talk to someone- unsolicited- if you want to trade. Asking for a trade in any of the chat rooms is not allowed. The end result is that players can't trade cards to each other in a 1:1 value system. They have to trade to bots, where they get 80% of their value back. This only makes expensive cards more difficult to acquire and, rather than making a deck over the course of months, the majority of players have simply opted out and chosen not to play Legacy at all. There's always the danger of a card getting banned or the metagame shifting to make your deck obsolete. Without trading, Legacy becomes unplayable online.

But since it is playable in paper, some card prices will go up since they are being used in multiple formats. For instance, Birds of Paradise is a card that sees play in Legacy, Modern and Standard. But is its price raised in paper because people are playing Legacy more?

To test this theory out, I looked up the prices for Vindicate and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. These are both Legacy staples. Jace should have more copies of himself floating around since Worldwake is a newer set and saw more printings than Apocalypse- just not enough to make Worldwake go out of stock everywhere it sold, mostly because everyone chased Jace, hoping to get a tenfold return on their investment (or more, before he was banned in standard). At present, there are no copies of Vindicate in stock for Cape Fear Games. The regular version goes for thirty dollars, but it's impossible to tell where this price will go since the demand is high enough so that everyone wants one. The online version is a lot more expensive- pushing over 60 dollars- but there are multiple copies in stock. For Jace, the Mind Sculptor, his price online is cheaper than his price in paper by about 20 dollars. The availability of Vindicate and the price of Jace both point toward the same conclusion- people are playing Legacy in paper, but online. This reduces the supply of cards that see play in Legacy as well as other formats, causing their prices to climb. I suspect that if the paper attendance for Legacy events dropped to where they are for online attendance, Wizards would be doing a mad dash to figure out how to revitalize the format.

What does all this add up to? Quite simply- the money is in paper cards. If you enjoy speculating, the gains are there for people who have binders upon binders of staple cards. Speculating online is a very risky business, one that often isn't worth it. There are cards that rise and fall, but for the most part, card values tend to fall over time. This is due to more people drafting in standard and trading their cards away to go draft again, as well as the diversity of eternal formats. Drafting with paper cards is a rare thing indeed- though from my own personal experience, I have found the real life interaction much more enjoyable, especially when someone drafts that foil Knowledge Pool because they have no intention of winning. Conversely, competitive play is a lot easier to enter into with Magic Online. Netdecks are popular (and sometimes boring), but there are enough cards out there to try out new things at a low price.

People on both sides of the fence are pleasant to work with. After doing business with both, I recommend both. A higher price doesn't necessarily indicate avarice or greed- it just means there are other factors at work that drove the price up which work in one arena but not the other. On the whole, online play is cheaper...but the community aspect of paper play, getting together with a group of friends has its own value which can't be measured. There is something invaluable about meeting new people and making friends, after all. 

Until next time!


Waking up at 5AM by ALUCARDAFK at Mon, 06/25/2012 - 12:29
ALUCARDAFK's picture

Good article. I enjoy playing the physical card game a lot, but nothing beats waking up early and having a MTG at your fingertips if you so desire it. Can you imagine trying to pull that one with your friends? "Yeah I know it's 5am, fancy a game of MTG? --- Click".

cool article, and that's a by Psychobabble at Mon, 06/25/2012 - 19:18
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cool article, and that's a huge difference in price between paper and online. Intersting how that works, and I wonder how much of it is just a function of the paper market being so imperfect due to transaction costs. Online, it's just so easy to liquidate cards you don't want and to match up buyers and sellers that the market must function better overall. I know that if I ever draft a money card that I'm not currently using in the deck, I'll quickly go trade it for tix unless I suspect its price will dramatically increase (which doesn't happen for many cards that are already money cards) becuase I know it's so easy to pick it up later if I ever actually wanted it - holding unused stock on hand just incurrs unnecesary opportunity cost.

Also, I'm not sure the "individual trading" explantion for the disparity in legacy prices holds water. First, I don't think you've established that legacy is actually cheaper irl than online. Yes, vindicate is "selling" $30 cheaper in paper, but it's actually out of stock which means it's too cheap, so who knows what the actual market price is. And Jace is only a one card sample. But assume that it's true, I don't see how having less liquidity in the market (due to "off market" trades) can lead to lower prices, it'd seem to either do the opposite or just be irrelevant. I don't really know why legacy hasn't caught on online, if it's primarily price (and not just a network effect/chicken and egg situation) then could it possible be due to lower digital supply of the earlier print run product? Was the online game markedly less popular than the physical game back when legacy staples were being printed?

I agree that the price by ayedub at Mon, 06/25/2012 - 21:00
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I agree that the price differences are due largely to liquidity of card. In paper, if I open a god but not amazing rare, it can often be quite difficult to trade, especially if everyone already has a playset of that card if they want it. Online, I can easily sell to a bot for 85-95% of its value, and use those tix to buy whatever I need. (Paper stores pay less than this for cards, and won't buy everything, and may only offer credit for their limited selection, etc.)

As for Legacy, it is much cheaper online. While FoW and LED are more costly in paper, dual land prices and other prices more than make up for this. E.g. the recent SCg Open was won by a deck with Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale. It is $325 in paper, and $5 online. Underground Sea is $120+ in paper and $25 online.

I think the lack of Legacy play is simply a network effect. If Legacy DEs launched every time (and one did launch yesterday), I personally would be willing to spend the money to buy a good Legacy deck. As it is, I am not willing, because I won't be able to use the deck much/at all in tournaments.

I can tell you that when you by KaraZorEl at Mon, 06/25/2012 - 22:27
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I can tell you that when you go to big events, there's a lot of opportunity to make gains by trading. A player who came to the FNMs I used to go gave himself a challenge: he would start with a land and trade his way to a Gideon Jura (when Gideon was 30 dollars). At the end of the day, he had his Gideon (but not his land). That's the kind of thing players do all the time, and it's one way people can get themselves better decks other than having to pay for it.

A couple of notes by howlett23 at Mon, 06/25/2012 - 23:16
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While I agree, the biggest glaring difference here is that in paper YOU CAN WIN MONEY. I know most will say, "yeah but not many win money, etc etc etc." but as someone who has done it, it really isn't that hard, it does take a large time investment and some money(but you don't HAVE to have 3 playsets of lands for 3 decks...that just doesn't even make sense) but if you are good enough and have some luck you can easily pay for your next trip and deck. I do concede that for the general public and especially new players that online is FAR FAR cheaper to get into and maintain.

You can definitely win money by ricklongo at Tue, 06/26/2012 - 07:53
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You can definitely win money online too - you just have to jump through additional hoops.

I've been managing to go "infinite" online for a couple of years now, to the point where I started selling tix to local MTGO players. If you don't have local players to sell to, you an always use PayPal, eBay, etc.

Yes, the potential in paper prize value is bigger (what with 1K+ tournaments and all), but it is also much harder to break even, and there are way, way less opportunities to play (i.e. less tournaments).

Maybe you can win more in by grapplingfarang at Tue, 06/26/2012 - 12:54
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Maybe you can win more in paper if you get on the pro tour or travel to lots of big tournaments, but it is so much easier to pay off your decks and come out ahead playing online. Daily events fire constantly, just simply enter those in your favorite format (unless it is Legacy,) sell your packs for tickets, and sell the tickets you don't need for cards to keep going through paypal. No travel needed.

Redemption Value by dave78pdx at Tue, 06/26/2012 - 12:53
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While I enjoyed this article, the glaring omission to me is the lack of discussion on the current Standard legal sets and recently rotated sets still available to redeem for paper cards. These cards tend to fluctuate more in value, but also tend to hold their value better because of the ability to convert them to paper within the given window.

This has greatly influenced my spending/playing habits... I now play draft and sealed events online to accumulate cards, and play Standard Constructed and Pauper for fun with the cards I have when I don't have enough time to dedicate myself to a tournament. When sets rotate out of Standard each year in the fall, I redeem for paper cards and use them for Modern/Legacy/EDH. I usually only redeem one copy of each expansion, which has steered me toward EDH almost exclusively when playing constructed formats in paper.

It is also worth noting that I do attribute my playing habits to having a family. I don't get to the game store like I used to. I log on to MTGO once everyone else is asleep for the night. My IRL play time is limited to prerelease events and the occassional EDH meetup.

Just my $0.02. Keep the good reads coming. :)

I must be the only player by KaraZorEl at Tue, 06/26/2012 - 13:09
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I must be the only player here who doesn't play standard. :p

Another Price Comparison by dave78pdx at Tue, 06/26/2012 - 13:52
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I'd also like to add some info from my own experience in building a deck both in paper and online.

I have an elves deck that I love to play online, and I'm currently putting together a paper version of it. The bulk of the value is held in 20/60 cards in the deck. *EDIT: adding in (Paper Price / MTGO Price)*
Knowing which site my local game store uses to price cards, and comparing to MTGOTraders.com

4x Elvish Archdruid (1.00 / 0.06)
4x Elvish Champion (5.00 / 0.41)
4x Imperious Perfect (5.00 / 0.15)
4x Joraga Warcaller (2.50 / 1.04)
4x Oran-Rief, the Vastwood (2.00 / 0.17)

Paper Total $62.00
Online Total $ 7.32

Roughly 1/8 of the price of paper. WOW!


True enough by howlett23 at Tue, 06/26/2012 - 13:17
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but I find those "extra hoops" to really be annoying and restrictive. They also diminish what you truly win, paypal fees, rate exchange on tix then paying taxes in some states for product out of the store, fractional bot credits, etc. All can and have been worked around, but just BLAH to red tape lol

It just goes to personal by grapplingfarang at Tue, 06/26/2012 - 14:44
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It just goes to personal preference I guess. I would take those extra hoops over the paper extra hoops of tournaments taking a whole weekend and having to travel a lot any day.