I have written about this subject many times over the last few years, and it continues to be one of the things that most users continue to struggle with. As a value indicator, card count can be a simple way to judge what a card will mean to the trade economy, and in other cases it only creates confusion. I want to take some time to walk through why card count is so important to people, and what the future might look like.
Im not actually sure where to start here, because this is such an involved topic. I will say that there are only a few things that can REALLY impact a card’s value on the open market, and I can count them on one hand. Card count is definitely number one, because it creates the most volatile reactions when it fluctuates. Unlike player/character popularity and card type, super low count cards are rarely worthless, and super high count cards are rarely valuable. I see the availability of a card as a factor that can act like a multiplier, a triple word score tile in scrabble if you will.
The rules of supply and demand are always at play, and a low count card exemplifies a famine type approach that can drive a community nuts. Funny enough, the concept of creating these types of cards isnt that old, especially when you consider that the first sigs all had unlimited counts in the game. The ones that maintain the most value in Bunt are low not because of contrived scarcity, but instead because they were impossible to pull.
In 2014, there were cards that were built with ultra limited counts for the first time, a newer type of concept that mirrors a similar shift on the physical side of things. Back in 2000, serially numbered inserts became more and more widespread. So much so that in today’s physical card sets, numbered cards can come in every single pack you open. Many cards, even as low as 1/1 can be pretty easy to obtain, even though there are still others that will cost you the price of a small car.
If you are worried that the saturation of low count cards will create a vacuum of value in the trade market, in some ways that has already started. When you think back to the beginning of 2014, the Trout and Jeter sigs were both at 100 count and were going for no less than entire collections if anyone ever offered them up for trade. Today, a card with a count of 100 is released almost daily across one of the four apps, and they rarely have that kind of value. Just this week, Bunt released a variant sig of Francisco Lindor with a card count of 100, and it is the 3rd most available signature card this year, let alone all year.
This doesnt mean its all doom and gloom, but with so much of the Topps collectible card apps dependent on trade value to remain high, its kind of odd that it has taken just 3 years for value to be impacted as much as it has. It took close to 10 on the physical side. Im not arguing that cards with 10 copies will eventually be without value, but it might take a little more than scarcity to really drive up value on the secondary market in the future. Things like design and other factors will be much more important than just setting the limit below 50, I would guess.
I think there is a reason behind WHY count is such an important factor in value, and its more than just the basic economics of the app. Competition and vanity are big drivers in the apps, mainly that users want to have the best and look the best. Part of that is having a crazy collection, and high end, low count cards look really good on the sheet. I think that this aspect of giving people a way to show off their goods is something that Topps has poorly managed over the last few years, and I think the longevity of value could be impacted if more showcase was available for the users.
I think this is starting to become a larger consideration as more and more cards are released. With daily content across 4 apps stretches the full checklist into the tens of thousands, there are a lot of cards in circulation. With counts down to 1/1, there are already users who feel like anything with a higher count really isnt worth their time. I think from what we have seen this year in Bunt and Huddle’s offseason, the look of the inserts has already started to evolve past the fundamental changes the apps have already gone through since 2013.
The designers are starting to take more risks with the look of each set they build and with new technology coming soon to the Apple and Android phone market, the sky is really the limit. Its refreshing when the sets take a leap that wasnt expected, and in some cases, that can spark a feeding frenzy that goes beyond count. As the app population grows among the four brands, so do the people who want to improve their collections. There is a reason why a low count Star Wars card still has extreme value above and beyond anything else. There are so many people out there who populate the app, that demand increases exponentially faster. That is the real key, and its stupid to think that card count should continue to go down instead of up.
App population growth is the key to increasing value across the board, and from Topps’ perspective, the short term revenue goals of low count cards should be balanced with the plans of more “community wins” to ensure more and more people join the fray. Adding guaranteed insert bundles in the store hurts considerably to this factor, especially if EVERYTHING has a price to get what you want. Part of the appeal of any card is the rush you get when pulled from a pack, and bundles take that away in many instances.
It also forces the user to assign a specific value to a card that immediately places pricing into a spectrum of already released cards. The element of chance and the ability to trade the cards is the soul of the Topps apps, and some of the pieces of that notion have been almost entirely.
As a whole, things look different today than they ever have and that isnt necessarily a bad thing all around. I very much like many choices that the producers have made in creating compelling content across the scope of what is possible right now. Huddle especially has seen a complete change in the way a set is built, and so far it has been quite entertaining. Design plays such a huge part in that, and its clear that ToppsCorey’s influence is palpable in that respect.
When we eventually look back a few years from now, on where we are now, I guarantee we will laugh the same way we do now about 2013. The Bunt Revisited program showed how far we have come and I am sure ToppsDan loved seeing the way his designs have a completely different approach than anything from 4 years ago.
Considering that card count is a number and can never truly evolve past its place in our economy, the other factors are what we look to for inspiration in where things are going. It becomes about shifting perspectives and focus, and I hope we continue to see that drift away from the traditional community viewpoints. That drift still hasnt happened on the physical side, and we can all see the trouble on the horizon for that space in the hobby. I sincerely hope digital finds a way.