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Most players will tell you that buying booster packs for values is a loosing investment, and for the most part this is true because the average expected value of cards in a set is lower than the retail cost of the booster.

So my question is this:

Which M:tG sets have the highest average expected value, and what is the break-even point for pricing against that set's EV?

I would assume that this set would be one with a high number of mid-priced ($2-5) uncommons, and other commons that help to keep the value of more valuable cards afloat.

My first guess would be Darksteel, as it has a number of commons/uncommons that are well priced for their rarity (Aether Vial, Echoing Truth, Darksteel Citadel, Skullclamp, Darksteel Ingot), is a small set, and has at least two big money cards in the Swords of X and Y.

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Be careful - the ROI can be pretty good until the game goes out of style and they are worth approximately nothing. Remember that this is a game here (a fun one, to be sure, which presently gives every appearance of having good staying power), and that it's popularity could precipitously drop at any moment for no visible reason. –  Michael Kohne Jul 25 '12 at 2:37
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@MichaelKohne While that's a fair point, given that it's one that people have been making for a decade now it's starting to lose a little bit of its merit... –  Steven Stadnicki Jul 25 '12 at 23:52
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@StevenStadnicki - credit where credit is due, WOTC has managed to keep the game fresh and interesting for a lot of fans, and not making changes that drove people away. And if you are going to buy any part of it to try to make a buck, sealed packs is probably the thing to buy (as opposed to individual cards), but it's still a gamble, NOT an investment. –  Michael Kohne Jul 26 '12 at 11:27
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@StevenStadnicki, I realize I'm replying to an old comment, but the game was nearly two decades old even when you made it. –  Brian S Jan 13 at 14:41

4 Answers 4

Anything after you wait long enough.

Of course, this is assuming you don't actually open the packs, but seriously, take a look at these prices:

$10 for ONE Lorwyn booster pack

$25 for THREE Time Spiral boosters

Over $100 for a Zendikar or Worldwake fat pack

Almost $20 for a Zendikar fat pack box with no cards in it

Since Magic is such a highly collectible game, people will tend to pay more for rarer items. This includes the booster packs themselves. Even though the cards from each of those sets are pretty cheap, the packs themselves are virtually impossible to find, so the price goes skyward. Sure, you could buy some Darksteel boosters and pray you get awesome cards and make a profit, but considering those are around $8 apiece now that's virtually impossible.

The other problem is actually finding people to buy your singles (you could sell in bulk, but that's going to hurt your profits even more). Considering that there's massive websites now that are devoted to nothing but selling singles and aggregate the results from tons of different sellers, you're going to have some tough competition. Even if people learn that they can buy cards from you, you'll have to at least match the prices offered on these sites if you want to stay marketable. You also have to have a LOT of cards available for sale, so get ready to buy 10 booster boxes so you can boast having all the mythic rares in a set (just like every other major card seller will).

The owner of our local card shop does a great business selling fat packs of sets that went out of print over a year ago online, and easily gets more than $80 for them. He personally told me he took all of his money out of the stock market and put it into Magic because the rate of return is infinitely better. See those Avacyn Restored Fat Packs for $35? Imagine what they'll sell for in 2016 and you'll pity yourself for not buying an extra 5 now... (see Steven's informative comment on the block sets generally being a better investment than core sets as well).

I know this isn't exactly what you were asking for, but if you want to make money buying and selling Magic products, actually opening them is probably one of the worst ways to do so IMHO. There's always the risk that prices will go down if the economy worsens or the game goes out of style, but that risk is inherent is virtually any investment nowadays.

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Generally this answer is pretty good, but one cautionary note: core sets are a notoriously bad way of 'investing' in Magic cards. It's only been the last few years that they've been anything but reprints, and generically most of the 'interesting' cards in the core set are either not quite at the power level of the top cards in other sets, or get several years' worth of printing. –  Steven Stadnicki Jul 25 '12 at 7:01
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Legal disclaimer: be warned that the value of investments in Magic product (or anything else really) can go down as well as up... –  thesunneversets Jul 25 '12 at 9:11
    
What goes up must come down. Inflation can't last forever. –  cdeszaq Jul 25 '12 at 16:21
    
So tl;dr is: keeping out of print sealed product sealed is universally a better prospect for value appreciation than opening it? :) –  Affe Jul 25 '12 at 19:03
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@CrazyJuggleDrummer I'd say you're right but it's the other way around. The card prices lands at a level where they're always above the pack prices. Remember that it is the market that sets the individual card prices. If you'd make money of of packs people would buy packs and sell the cards like crazy until the prices adjusted. That might actually be your shot, the first few weeks the prices of most cards are usually much higher than later. Especially the good cards right before the first big tournament. –  AndSoYouCode Aug 21 '12 at 11:07

A few months ago I wrote a Linux shell script which calculates the prices for each set; it's imperfect, and can use significant polish, but it may shed some light on this question. Please note that it does rely upon some assumptions which do not necessarily hold for all of the sets in consideration:

  • A booster pack contains 15 cards: one rare/mythic rare (with a 1/8 chance of mrare), three uncommons, and 11 commons. (This does not hold for early sets.)
  • All cards of a given rarity are equally probable in each card "slot" of that rarity. (It should be noted that it does not distinguish a land slot, but includes it as a common. This should pull down the average for Zendikar specifically. Also, it allows a theoretical M14 pack containing 11 Merfolk Spy's.)
  • The "average" prices, which are obtained from TCGPlayer's website, are reliable. (If a set does not have proper data from this source, it is ignored. Most sets do, fortunately.)
  • Foil cards are ignored entirely.

Under these constraints, the booster packs with the highest EV, as of this date (1/13/2014), would be:

$162.09 Arabian Nights
$87.43  Unlimited Edition
$35.63  Legends
$12.40  Revised Edition
$11.48  Modern Masters
$11.25  Portal Second Age
$9.92   Alliances
$9.07   Future Sight
$8.37   Tempest
$7.49   Portal
$6.87   Worldwake
$6.73   Coldsnap
$6.69   Shadowmoor
$6.66   Fifth Dawn
$6.64   Urza's Saga
$6.50   Darksteel
$6.40   Lorwyn
$6.34   Eventide
$6.21   The Dark
$6.16   Ravnica
...
$4.71   Theros
...
$3.35   Homelands
$3.16   Dark Ascension
$2.95   Chronicles

Obviously, most of the first few sets are off, since they didn't have 15 card packs. (Beta and Alpha are omitted because the sheer rarity of the cards there means some don't have prices listed.) I included Theros, the most recent set, to illustrate that, by these calculations, a pack of even the most current set is expected to be worth more when opened ($4.71) than when sealed ($4.00) -- which should be taken into consideration when interpreting these values. (Theros was actually nearer $5.50 when I originally wrote this script -- quite a value drop.) Also, it's interesting to note that the weakest three sets are Chronicles, Dark Ascension, and Homelands.

For those interested, the bash scripts are PriceCheck and MassPriceCheck;

./PriceCheck -s /path/to/pricefile

takes a downloaded version of the price page for a set (pricefile) and prints the EV of a pack under the assumptions above. (Without the -s ("simple") flag, it'll also print the EV of the individual card "slots" as well.) When executed in the same directory as PriceCheck,

./MassPriceCheck

downloads all of the pricefiles for each set (including garbage pseudosets listed there, like Duel Decks, which I haven't bothered to write code to exclude), dumps that into the directory

./junk/

and runs PriceCheck on each of the pricefiles systematically. The scripts are pretty terrible, but they weren't really meant for anything more than sating my own curiosity, if that assuages any guilt.

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An interesting point here is how you calculated the cards with the lowest value. Did you have a threshold where cards with value lower than X had 0 because no one wants to buy them? The cost of selling bad cards is much higher than selling great cards. Compare the work of finding a buyer for a Tarmogoyf to finding one for a Squire. –  AndSoYouCode Jan 13 at 11:43
    
"Also, it's interesting to note that the weakest three sets are Chronicles, Dark Ascension, and Homelands." -- Well, homelands is generally considered one of the worst sets in the game's history, and Chronicles is probably the most over-printed. DKA is a bit surprising, though. (I wouldn't have been surprised to see The Dark, as it's almost in the same boat as Homelands.) –  Brian S Jan 13 at 14:46
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Your price assumption may not be as valid as you think: the people actually selling cards on TCGPlayer are the presumably the ones with the low end prices, not the average prices. –  Jefromi Jan 13 at 19:01
    
@AndSoYouCode No, I didn't include any exceptions for excluding low-value cards -- simple modifications to the scripts could achieve that, however. It's mostly just to get a relative idea of the pack values. If you're interested, you can add a threshold (X) to the calculation by appending ` | awk '{if($1 > X){print}else{print "0"}}'` to the end of line 9 in the PriceCheck script -- naturally, replacing X with whatever number means "valueless" to you. –  Kite Jan 15 at 1:32
    
@Jefromi I do not presume that the assumption in question is true; but between the insanely inflated prices at "High" and the damaged cards sold at the "Low" end, assuming that average prices were representative was necessary for the calculation. Because of that, the EV calculations really only have meaning when compared with each other. –  Kite Jan 15 at 1:47

I know I'm somewhat late to the party here. But for the highest rate of return, I would look to see what is being played in eternal formats like Modern, Legacy or Vintage. Cards that are played in multiple decks in eternal formats are usually more expensive than other cards.

For example, Tarmogoyf is played in most green or green-splashed decks such as RUG Delver, Junk, Maverick (sometimes), BUG, etc. and is one of the most expensive cards printed recently.

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I play mostly Standard Constructed and my observations for it are such that the highest return rate boosters are the ones from the oldest block set that is currently in standard, which is the case up until before a new block is released.

For example once the Innistrad block came out the most return rate would be in the Scars of Mirrodin boosters e.g. the dual lands shot up in price.

This would not apply for non-standard players. As mentioned above Zendikar is absolutely very expensive because of the full artwork lands and the fetches.

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