The Big Things - The Secret Lair Effect

04 Sep
by Harvey McGuinness

Magic has a long history of specialty reprint products – from Chronicles to Commander Masters, Duel Decks to Event Decks, and, most recently, the evolution of the From the Vault Series into the now near-weekly Secret Lair Series drops.

Beyond quantity, however, there is something else about Secret Lairs which makes investigating their product history a bit more interesting: their tendency to have completely divergent prices from that of the base cards being reprinted.

Reprints - Artwork and Foiling

The year is 2016. Eternal Masters has just hit store shelves, and everyone is cracking packs in search of – gasp – the first ever printing of Force of Will in foil (outside of a Judge Promo, that is). This same feeling of overwhelming market excitement is hitting cards throughout the set – Argothian Enchantress, Toxic Deluge, etc. Not every card got new art, but plenty of the big hits did. All of this was done, of course, in a traditional treatment – no etched foils, no extended borders, just old cards with some new art and plenty of foils.

This glimpse down memory lane may be nostalgic and whatnot, but what purpose does it serve when talking about Secret Lairs, especially when every set comes with special treatments and arts-o’-plenty? Well, allow me to entertain the following comparison: Secret Lairs don’t serve just as traditional reprints, like that of Modern Masters, but rather each one is an attempt at creating a distinct spin on a pre-existing asset, something more akin to the first-time foils introduced via Eternal Masters.

Let’s look at one excellent example of this – Force of Will. A Force of Will (Borderless) courtesy of Dominaria Remastered will currently run you about $50. Want that in foil? Now you’re looking at about $85. Certainly a hefty foil multiplier by modern card standards, but still nothing compared to the first foil printing back in Eternal Masters – for that, you’re looking at almost $160.

Delving further back into Force of Will’s price history, we can see that the Eternal Masters reprint was followed by a steady decline – almost 25% - in the card’s price over the next six months. The foil, meanwhile, fluctuated rapidly at first, eventually settling into a price around $400 and eroding only once multiple competing foils were released.

What this shows is two things. First, reprints tend to lower card prices (this goes without saying, but there’s no harm in making the implicit explicit). More importantly, however, these “first generation” foils have a premium applied to them which is now regardless of the underlying treatment. In essence, you aren’t paying $160 for the most flashy Force of Will printing – there are plenty which compete for that slot – rather, you’re paying $160 for the historically significant “first foil” printing.

Secret Lair – Making Every Foil “The First Foil”

This is where Secret Lairs come in. Plenty of Secret Lairs have been done on cards which already have foils, and so Wizards of the Coast needs to find other ways of being creative with generating revenue from their reprints. Enter: artistic creativity (or, alternatively, hyper-differentiated treatments). For this price phenomenon, let’s turn to the example card of Thassa's Oracle.

When Thassa’s Oracle had a Secret Lair announced, its price did what most cards do when a reprint is announced – it started to fall. This is the first part of the Secret Lair effect. Rarely is it pronounced, but it is nonetheless a near-uniform phenomenon in the price history of cards. The market gains new supply, competition for the lowest price of the base version increases, and suddenly cards wind up a bit cheaper. The second part, however, is where things get interesting.

Thassa’s Oracle already had a foil, and beyond that it already had an extended art foil. However, that didn’t stop the new Secret Lair printing from exploding in price – quickly doubling from nearly $30 to almost $60 for a foil copy. So, if this isn’t the first foil, then why is it an important foil, especially when compared against the preexisting extended art copies?

Well, the answer comes back to the artistic component which I mentioned earlier. We’ve seen Wizards of the Coast reprint arts for cards over and over again (I mean, just look at Sol Ring), and we’ve seen specialty treatments make reprisals (such as with the March of the Machine: Multiverse Legends series), but overall Secret Lair themes – whether just across art pieces or in alterations to the card frames and texts themselves – are often relegated to a single drop. That is the express purpose of Secret Lairs, after all – the perfect expression of a fear-of-missing-out product. As such, they bring with them a more stable degree of “uniqueness,” and where there is uniqueness there is collectability.

Thassa's Oracle
Thassa's Oracle (Extended Art)
Thassa's Oracle
Force of Will
Force of Will (Borderless)
Force of Will
Force of Will (Borderless)

Wrap Up

While some members of the Magic market may be turned off by Secret Lair themes or choices, it is nonetheless worth keeping pace with their releases – if you can. Popular drops will oftentimes be buried in amongst their less-desirable counterparts, obscuring the opportunity to make a worthwhile pick up. The Magic market might be on the weaker side of things at the moment, but to dismiss the individuality, and the potential financial repercussions, of Secret Lairs is a mistake worth avoiding.

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Harvey McGuinness
Harvey McGuinness

Harvey McGuinness is a student at Johns Hopkins University who has been playing Magic since the release of Return to Ravnica. After spending a few years in the Legacy arena bouncing between Miracles and other blue-white control shells, he now spends his time enjoying Magic through CEDH games and understanding the finance perspective. He also writes for the Commander's Herald.

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