My Tree of Tales
I spent the better part of last week lying sick in bed, blowing my nose and imagining all of the things I that were probably going wrong at work because I wasn’t there.
There were even several times that I managed to convince myself that the entire Charlie Sheen situation was my fault, even though I don’t work on Two and a Half Men. And even if I did, I somehow doubt The Tiffany Network would have accepted my humble advice on the matter.
Though I don’t see why not.
See, what they should do is schedule a two-episode season finale crossover with The Big Bang Theory. Devise some wacky misunderstanding where Charlie Sheen gets in a time machine that Leonard and Sheldon designed. But uh-oh! Howard built it wrong because he was hung up on a girl or something and due to special relativity, Charlie Sheen ages thirty years. He comes out of the time machine as Martin Sheen, who takes over the lead in Two and a Half Men starting next fall. You’re welcome, CBS!
Anyway, I was in no shape to attend FNM. Or Legacy on Sunday. Or write a Magic article. Or do anything other than sleep and catch up on a season and a half of Parks and Recreation.
Because I can’t keep numbers and strategy straight in my head right now, I am going to write a story column.
Below you will find the tales of my five most memorable trades or Magic-finance-related moments. Or, at least, the five I can remember most vividly right now.
There are probably some good lessons in there somewhere, but the Nyquil told me that I’m only allowed to give you the stupid and obvious ones and you have to figure the rest out yourselves. So, uh, sorry for that in advance.
Trade #1 – The Whole Enchilada
About six months ago, I was up at Superstars (the Channelfireball retail store) playing FNM. It was one of the weirdest drafts I’ve ever been a part of, as my black/blue M11 control deck quickly morphed into one of the most insane blue/white flyers decks I have ever seen. I drafted four straight Air Servants to begin pack two, and picked up multiple Assault Griffins and Wild Griffins on the wheel in pack three. I had zero white cards going in to that third pack, and my final deck ended up with at least ten of them, all of which were of excellent quality.
But I digress. This is a sweet trading story, not a sweet drafting story.
Sometime that night, a foil caught my eye in a binder several tables away. If you know me, you know how insanely addicted I am to foils. My true weakness lies with foils that are rare and also obscure. Foil Primeval Titan? Eh, I’ve seen dozens. Foil Defense of the Heart? That’s impressive.
Anyway, this foil was truly special. It was a Mox Lotus from Unhinged, and it was absolutely stunning. Foils from that set are insanely hard to locate, (my kingdom for a foil copy of Richard Garfield, PhD!) and there are often added pieces of content in the foil layer. This one had an infinity symbol in the text box. I had to have it.
I wasn’t the only one interested in that card, though. The man with the binder had already engaged another trader, who was staring wistfully at the foil. They talked a little turkey while I flipped through the rest of his book. It was an odd assortment – piles 8-9 deep of Japanese bulk rares from Worldwake, a playset of Oracle of Mul Daya, a set of foil Mulldrifters (Lorwyn, not promo) and at least seven foil copies of Sleep. All told, there were several hundred rares of varying degrees of interest, all standard legal, most of them crammed in the same few pouches.
“I dunno,” I heard the binder man say to the trader who was there before me. “I’m kind of getting sick of this whole folder. I’d like it gone tonight.”
“I’ll give you a Tropical Island for it,” I said, not batting an eye.
“Wait, really?” He turned to me, not quite sure he believed what I had just said.
“Maybe. I’ll have to look it over first.”
“Too rich for my blood,” the other guy mumbled, and walked away.
My heart sped up. Was I really about to drop a blue dual for this folder filled with junk? I decided to take a quick count of the binder, going over all the rares and trying to come up with the lowest possible value I could get the entire book for and be happy. There were a couple foil Oracles, those added up, and not all the rares were bulk…I did some furious math. Was the round about to start? How much time did I have?
“Alright,” I said, after looking everything over. “It’s not worth a Trop. But here – take a look at my binder. Find something else you want.”
In the end, I ended up giving him an Italian Karakas and an Aluren for his entire book. And while I didn’t find any more hidden gems in it once I got home, I did find that I had severely underestimated the amount of ‘useful’ bulk it contained. The only downside is that I still own ten Japanese Terastodons. But is that really a downside? Elephants!
Sometimes it makes sense to trade up. More valuable cards tend to hold their value longer, be more desirable, and take up less space in your house. But once in a while, it makes sense to blow the whole thing up and diversify. I tend not to have as much standard stuff around because I mostly deal in Legacy and Commander staples, so this binder provided a shot in the arm to my standard bulk supply. Yeah, I may never trade all nine of those Butchers of Malakir, but I’m sure as heck glad I had the first three or four lying around to get full value out of.
Lessons Learned: Take a shot in the dark once in a while. Draft blue in M11. If you have a foil Richard Garfield, PhD for trade, send me an email.
Trade #2 – You Can’t Trade for Everything
Throughout high school, Legends Comix and Games in Maynard, Massachusetts was the place to be. This was before FNM was a formal thing, and Legends was years away from having structured events at all. Instead, there was a huge multiplayer game every afternoon, and if you were lucky you made it there in time to join in.
By February of 2005, I was in college and playing standard each week at the venerable Your Move Games in Somerville. The competition there was fierce, and over the first few months of that semester I learned very quickly that I was not yet on the same level as most of those players. By that winter, though, I was winning more games than I was losing and I felt that I had a good grip on the format.
That’s why it was weird to go back to Legends over break and jump back in to the crazy world of giant multiplayer games and casual spells.
It was midway through the 7 or 8 person game when the door opened and the atmosphere in the store turned electric. A pudgy, shy-looking kid had just entered the store carrying a box of cards, and all eyes turned to him. He sat down at the table, put down his box, and turned to the room. “I’m here,” he said. “Who wants to trade?”
The scene that unfolded next was one of the most surreal things I’ve ever seen in my life.
Every player at the table converged on his collection and quickly began ripping through it. I couldn’t quite tell what was going on – were people tearing apart his decks? Had the box been filled with leftovers from opened packs? There was a liberal amount of land involved, so the truth was probably somewhere in the middle. I sat there for a while, stunned at the spectacle. This was trading?
After a few minutes, the first kid proposed a trade. I know the card he got was a Kokusho, the Evening Star, which at the time was trading at $15+. The card he offered to give up was a bulk common. For all I knew, it was also from this guy’s pile.
The man with the pile of cards picked up the two pieces of cardboard, weighed them in his hands, and looked at the prospective trader. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll make this trade if you’ll be my friend.”
The trader appeared to know the score. “I’ll be your friend,” he said, and snatched up his Kokusho. Then he wandered off to the vending machine in the back to get a drink.
The next trade was even more lopsided. I think the guy just asked for a card for free. And he got it – providing he was willing to declare his friendship as part of the deal. This continued for about ten minutes, until the piles of cards had been ripped to shreds and every last rare and good uncommon was gone.
At this point, the game started up again. The friendship trader was still there, sitting at the table, but he didn’t make a motion to join in. He didn’t have a deck left, and I don’t think anyone there was too keen to lend him one. He was mostly ignored for the next ten minutes, though he did occasionally try to break in to the conversation with awkward, off-topic declarations.
Then he left.
I wish I could say that I was a righteous person in this situation. I wish I could say that I either stayed above the fray, or that I made a genuine effort to include this sad man in the game. I wish I had made an effort to be his friend, even if I knew that such an act was ultimately futile.
Unfortunately, mob mentality is a stronger force than it seems in retrospect. And after years of spending afternoons and evenings in gaming stores, I was used to ignoring the dozens of people who game with odd social disorders. Every store has “that guy” who is just a little off, yet every day he goes back and tries to make friends with the only other people he knows who shares his interests.
So I traded this odd man my friendship and a couple of bulk rares for one of his deck boxes.
It was a really nice one. Heck, it still is. I’m pretty sure it was only available for a little while during the initial print run of Champions of Kamigawa, and it has Keiga, the Tide Star on it. I used it for years as my FNM standard deck box in Boston, and then my FNM draft deck box in Los Angeles. It made the trip with me cross-country – twice.
So, uh, thanks, guy. If you’re still out there and need a friend, hit me up. I’ve made many friends in this crazy game, and it’s given me an excuse to stay in touch with many more. Next time, try building a deck and just asking someone to duel. Making friends is tough in life, but Magic is actually one of the better ways to do it.
Lessons Learned: You can’t trade for friendship.
Trade #3 – A Mutavault in the Hand…
Card condition is kind of a funny thing.
To some people, condition is everything. I know people who will discount a card massively due to a single scratch, ding, or scuff. Most of these people are dealers, set collectors, or sharks looking to talk down the stuff they’re acquiring to gain an edge.
Other players, of course, don’t care about condition at all. These are the people who keep their decks in rubber banded piles and riffle shuffle without sleeves.
Most people care about condition to the point where they can still trade the card in for store credit as VG/NM when they’re done with it.
I make a point to rarely discount for condition when I’m trading, especially when it’s a tournament staple. Unless it is a really ratty card, I can usually find someone who will value it at its going rate because they need it for a deck.
That said, I make a point to try and avoid taking in too many cards that look like they’ve been through the wringer. But once in a while, you have to make an exception.
This trade also happened at Superstars some time this fall. I was pawing through a binder when I came across a foil Auriok Champion. Hey, that’s one I needed (and still need) for my cube!
My excitement only lasted about a twelfth of a second. The card was beat – BADLY beat. Not quite ‘industrial-strength washing machine’ beat, but certainly ‘fell in a creek’ beat.
“Wow,” I asked him. “What happened to your Champion?”
“I pulled it out of an old toy box,” he said. “I had some good cards when I was a kid, but the ended up in a toy box in the basement. Then the basement flooded.”
“So, uh, why is it in here?” I asked.
“It’s still a foil Auriok Champion.”
He was kind of right. It used to be a foil Auriok Champion.
The back pages of his binder were filled with his toy box treasures, and most of them were no better off than the poor Champion. One particular page caught my eye, though: four waterlogged Entombs, their corners bent, staring sadly up at me.
“Too bad about these.” I told him. “They’re worth, like, 30 bucks each in mint condition.”
“Yeah,” he replied. “Too bad they’re beat to heck.”
I took the first Entomb out of the pocket. It was beat, but it wasn’t THAT bad. The card was still flat. There weren’t any warps in it. It wouldn’t be considered marked if you put it in a sleeve. Heck, double sleeve it with a perfect fit and it might even look respectable.
“Just for yuks,” I asked him. “What’d you want to get for these as-is?”
He looked down at the page and thought for a moment. “Oh, I dunno. Five bucks each?”
That was awful tempting. I mean yeah, they sucked, but the price was right. Maybe they weren’t worth $30. Maybe not even half that. But were they worth a third of retail? If so, I could still trade for them and double my money.
And what if I could find someone who would trade for them at $15 each? They’d be getting their set of Entombs for half price, and I’d be tripling my money!
I still have them, but I don’t regret that trade for a second.
Lessons Learned: “As is” isn’t just a descriptor, it’s a way of life.
Trade #4 – A Thousand To One
It was in late 1996 or early 1997, and I was in fifth grade. Magic had never really caught on in my elementary school, so we never went through the whole “Unholy Strength has a pentagram on it! This game is promoting Satanism! Burn all the cards!” panic that many kids in nearby school districts had to deal with.
My friends and I had just discovered Star Wars the year before, so Decipher’s long-defunct Star Wars CCG had become our game of choice. We had absolutely zero understanding of the game’s advanced or even intermediate strategy, but it was pretty fun to throw Stormtroopers and Jawas around the lunch table.
This one kid, Brent, had the worst deck in the whole school. While I had saved up my change for months in a giant Tupperware bag in order to buy a box of the latest expansion, his deck was basically the contents of three booster packs shuffled together.
What he did have, though, was a black-bordered pack fresh Obi-Wan Kenobi. He even bought one of those clear plastic cases for it where the card is screwed down beneath half an inch of plastic.
He didn’t even play it in his deck. It just sat on the table next to him, watching over his games.
I had to have it.
It didn’t matter to me that I already had two Obi-Wan Kenobis in my deck, and since creatures didn’t tend to die much in our games he was going to be stuck in my hand virtually 100% of the time. It was Obi-Wan freaking Kenobi! Have you even seen Star Wars? Even if the guy gets himself killed, he’ll be able to help me out as a ghost or something.
Needless to say, all of my trade offers over the following months were spurned. There are only so many copies of “The Force is Strong with This One” that a person needs (usually zero), and I was unwilling to give up any of my main character cards since they were all stuffed into my two decks. I hadn’t yet evolved as a player to the point where I understood why synergy might be better than just throwing all of my best cards into a deck, so I had very little use for cards beyond what I played with every day.
That’s when I got my idea. An idea that would change everything.
“Alright, Brent,” I finally told him. “If you give me your Obi-Wan Kenobi, I’ll give you one thousand cards in return.”
I don’t know if this is what actually happened or not, but I remember the entire lunchroom falling deathly silent. The echo of my words lingered in the air for a few moments as though I had just challenged this kid to a duel to the death.
“A thousand cards?” He asked me. “A thousand cards for my one card?”
“Yep. A thousand cards for your one.”
The wheels in his head were turning. This was unprecedented. This changed everything. A thousand cards? Really? I had just offered him one thousand cards?
Then the peer pressure began.
“Dude!” shouted Ryan. “You have to take it. It’s a thousand cards!”
“You don’t even play that card in your deck!” remarked Justin, who would be suspended three weeks later for bringing a knife to school and threatening people with it. “You’d be a flaming retard if you turned that deal down!”
The nerds had spoken. It was over.
Brent shook my hand, and I traded him a thousand cards for his Obi-Wan Kenobi.
That night, I went home and raided the shoebox in the corner of my room in order to figure out which thousand cards Brent was going to get. I had never bought commons in bulk – I had no idea that such a thing was even possible at the time – so I was quite startled to find out that a thousand cards was actually kind of a lot of cards – almost two booster boxes worth! I ultimately had to part with several uncommons – Lightsabers and Star Destroyers, mostly – that were probably worth more than most of the rares in my trade binder. But it was worth it. The statement I made with that trade was value enough.
Lessons Learned: Don’t be afraid to get creative. Go big or go home.
Trade #5 – The Score of the Century
The date was November 10, 2008. It was 11:30 PM. And despite the comforting, low frequency thrum of my air conditioner, I could not fall asleep.
It wasn’t anxiety over going to work the following morning, though that would have been understandable. My temp agency had called only a few hours earlier, telling me that I was about to start my first true industry job since moving to Los Angeles in early September. It was only a two-week gig filing receipts in the accounting department of a studio that does several of the home improvement shows on HGTV, but I didn’t mind. It was the first step on what I still hope is a long journey toward becoming a paid television writer.
No – what kept me flailing around in the sheets was a posting I had just responded to on Craigslist:
“Selling my Magic card collection. Black Lotus. Time Walk. Timetwister. Ancestral Recall. All Moxes. Four of each dual land (some Beta I think?) Poor condition but playable. Looking to get $800 for all.”
In the months leading up to that night, I had bought a few Magic card collections on Craigslist, but I had never seen a listing so obviously enticing. Could a score like that even be possible? Did I have a shot at being the first one to reply? Was it a trick? A sick joke? A Magic-style Nigerian prince scam?
Around midnight, I got a response: “Cards are still available. Cash only. I will meet you tomorrow evening if I have time.”
My heart started beating like a 10/10. Tomorrow evening? That was an eternity away. Heck, I would have gladly gone out and met him at 2, 3, 4 AM that night. By tomorrow evening, I was worried; someone else might have obtained a full list of his cards and offered him $3,000 or more. Every single minute the posting stayed active on Craigslist, anyone in the world had the ability to tell this guy that he was severely undervaluing his collection.
The following morning, while idling in the parking lot of my new job ten minutes before my first day was scheduled to start, I got the Craigslister on the phone.
“Hey!” I said, trying not to betray my excitement. “I’m looking forward to meeting you this evening. Your cards sound pretty awesome.”
“Yeah…” The voice coming out of the other end was one of reluctance and confusion.
“Where do you want to meet?” I pressed.
“There’s a Borders’ by my house. We can meet there. Only thing…I just don’t know about the price.”
“Oh?” I was dying inside.
“Yeah. I mean, the moxes are pretty beat up. So I want like $50 each for them.”
“Sounds…reasonable.” I was now dying inside twice as fast. Must be poison damage.
“But there’s a bunch of other cards too. Some stuff from Legends and that other one with the anvil. Maybe I want like…$950 for everything?”
“I could do that,” I said too quickly. “I really want your cards, man. Shall we say 8 PM at Borders?”
“Yeah…I guess so…yeah.”
“Great! See you tonight!” I said, ending the call before he could change his mind.
After spending the next four hours making about thirty-two dollars, I got in my car and drove to the nearest bank. After the move and living without employment for months, my savings were severely depleted. $950 was not a trivial amount of cash for me to invest in anything. I had it, though, and I knew that I could flip the collection in a minute if I had to. You know, assuming it was real and I wasn’t about to hand $950 to an axe murderer as payment for him to axe murder me.
The bank parking lot was quiet. And the door was locked. I checked my phone – was I too late? Was it somehow a secret Sunday?
No – it was Veteran’s Day. All banks were closed.
I sent him another email from my phone, frantically trying to see if he would accept any other form of payment. Personal check? IOU? A picture of my debit card? Several pints of my blood?
The response he gave me sent ice through my veins. “Nah man, cash only. Some other guy wants ‘em too. He’ll pay me $1,100, but can’t meet until tomorrow night. I don’t really care who gets the cards, I just need some money.”
It was over. If there was a bidding war, I was doomed. I didn’t have the cash to pay this guy anything like what his collection was actually worth! I sent him back an email saying that I would match the $1,100 offer and went back to double checking receipt totals and making minimum wage.
The next morning, I got another call.
“I’ve decided to sell the cards to you,” he told me. “You wanted them first, so, uh, I guess that’s fair. Can you meet me at the Van Nuys Costco tonight after work?”
“Absolutely,” I said, breathing for what seemed like the first time in a day. “I’ll be there at 8 PM with the cash.”
That’s how I found myself driving through the parking lot of the Van Nuys Costco that night with over a thousand dollars in cash locked in my glove box.
I figured that as long as the money was locked up beforehand, he’d have to kill me with his axe if he wanted to get at it before handing me the cards. And by the time I realized that this is how more than a few Cohen Brothers movies start, he was calling my cell phone and asking me if I had arrived.
The face to face meeting was short and awkward. The collection was big – bigger than I had thought. I had imagined a small box with 200-300 cards, but what I ended up getting was a series of boxes and binders. The condition on many of the cards was quite deplorable, but it was eminently clear that he was no scammer. These were genuine cards, and this was the real deal.
“I dunno,” he told me before finishing the deal. “I can probably get a lot more for these if I put them up on eBay.”
“You probably can,” I said, shaking so hard I nearly dropped a mox. “But I have a big pile of cash sitting in my car for you.”
That was enough for him. And that, really, was the start of everything for me. I sold the power to a Superstars regular and dumped most of the rest of the collection online. That $1,100 investment eventually made me almost $5,000, which allowed me the starting capital to keep buying and selling cards and stay afloat without formal employment for almost a year. I eventually re-bought that power from the friend I sold it to, and I still have it today.
I wouldn’t be writing this column today if it hadn’t been for that deal. Heck, I might not even be here, living in this city, working at this job.
Sometimes it takes a crazy amount of luck, but like the pros say, you have to play to your outs. I checked Craigslist for Magic cards almost hourly for a year before that, and I still check it several times a day even now. I’ve never had another score even remotely as good. But there it was the one time I truly needed it.
Lessons Learned: Opportunity is out there. If you put yourself in the right place enough times, you might get lucky one of those times.
Pick of the Week: Hero of Oxid Ridge
This has been a trendy sleeper pick since Besieged was released, and I’ve been hearing more rumblings that it finally has legs.
Pick these up in trade at its current ~$8.00 price tag, and if the hero starts making appearances as a 4-of in a winning deck, be ready to go all in. It’s an aggressive red card, which means that its ceiling is probably $16-$18, but I wouldn’t be shocked if this card doubles in value at some point during its life in Standard.
Until next week –