(Author’s note: my 7-part Commander review will return next week. I am breaking it up so I can address other issues in my column as well.)
Physical Cards in a Digital Age
You don’t need me to tell you how much technology is changing the world right now.
All around us, large corporations are struggling to figure out what to do now that their business models are disappearing overnight. The record industry is fighting with the fact that no one wants physical media anymore. The television industry is reeling because no one watches advertisements anymore. Oil and automobile companies are lobbying the government to keep energy-efficient competitors from driving them out of business.
For better or worse, we live in a time when nearly every industry is in a transition nearly as massive as the industrial revolution of the 1890s. And above all, the Internet is driving this change.
Magic trading, of course, has already evolved quite a lot due to the Internet.
Think about what trading was like back in 1996, when all most people had to go on were the prices in their local store’s binder and the guide in the back of last month’s Scrye.
Once eBay came about, the prices of cards began to standardize across the country because access to baseline prices became much more uniform. When online stores started selling singles at competitive prices, everyone gained even easier access to accurate pricing tools.
Like any new technology, those who adapted early benefited most. Those who stuck to the old ways got left behind, often with shattered reputations and no profits.
Imagine someone using Scrye prices while trading today!
Right now, Magic trading is on the brink of a second digital revolution. Some of you have figured it out and are benefiting from it every week at FNM. Others are behaving like the record companies; either misunderstanding this technology or treating it like it doesn’t exist.
Still others – I’m looking at you, angry sharks! – are so frightened of it that they’ve reduced their trading tactics to intimidation and trickery at the sight of it.
This metagame-warping technology? The smartphone.
Now that more people than ever are plugged in while flipping through binders, it is important that all of us understand the brave new world of smartphone trading. Whether you are a fledgling trader or the biggest shark in your county, you need to be aware of what our new smartphone reality means for you.
Suddenly, Everyone is Smart
I don’t have the data on smartphone market saturation, but the tipping point in the Magic community seems to have occurred sometime in the last year.
Back in the dark ages of 2008 & 2009, pulling out your iPhone at an event was still kind of cool. You could look up gatherer text, card prices, and decklists in a minute or less. People would be impressed, too. Having access to the Internet no matter where you were was still a novelty.
Sometime in 2010, it started to feel like everyone who played Magic had their own smartphone. I found myself rolling digital dice to begin matches almost as much as physical ones. I began seeing dozens of people with their phones out, browsing Reddit or playing Angry Birds between matches. Players began using phones while trading, too.
And why not? Public access to the price of every Magic card should mean the end of lopsided deals. The power of the smartphone should usher us into a new age of egalitarian trading. John Q. FNM should be able to go toe-to-toe with a shark and survive every time. After all, who can refute cold, hard numbers?
You’d be surprised.
Outmaneuvering the Beast: The Shark Response to Smartphones
So you have a smartphone and you’ve bookmarked all your favorite online Magic dealers. Confident in your newfound ability to avoid getting ripped off, you stride toward the table of circling sharks in the rear of the event hall with a list of cards you need.
An hour later, you find yourself staggering out of the room, head spinning and your binder much emptier than you thought it would be. What happened? How did they get you? You had the answer key to all of their puzzles, right?
When the powers-that-be are first exposed to a threatening new technology, their first reaction toward it is going to be open hostility. Think about the record industry in the late 1990s – instead of embracing the Internet themselves and beating Apple to the iTunes music store, they tried to quash digital song distribution entirely.
Sharks, remember, are counting on the fact that they know card prices better than you. That’s how they make a profit. If “how much do you value this at?” is met with a quick price search online, their game is over before it begun.
So their first impulse is to try and stop you from using your phone at all.
My most hated intimidation technique was used on me by a shark at the SCG Open in San Jose last weekend.
“What do you value your beat Beta Ankh of Mishra at?” he asked me.
I pulled the card out of my binder and examined it. It was in fair shape – a few dings, but not awful for a Beta card. “It’s actually not all that beat,” I replied. “I value it between $35 and $40.”
“What? No,” he spat back at me. “There’s no way that card is worth more than $15.”
“Yeah it is,” I replied. “I can look it up if you want.”
“No need, not need,” he said. “Wow. I can’t believe you value that so high. It’s a $15 card. You’re totally wrong.”
By trying to intimidate me with his ‘superior knowledge’ and waving away my point of view, this guy’s hope was that I would simply give in to his price without daring to pull out my phone and challenge him. Since many Magic players have low self-esteem, this tactic is often very successful.
You shouldn’t stand for it. If your trading partner tells you that a card is worth much less than you think it is, make sure to look up the price.
Of course, sometimes having an accurate price in front of you doesn’t help.
Here’s another San Jose Open story. I was flipping through a different shark’s binder when I came across a foil Watery Grave.
“What do you value your foil Watery Grave at?” I asked. “I need it for my cube.”
“$40 to $45,” was his reply.
“R-really?” I asked him, and then checked the list on my phone. “There are five available on Star City in NM condition for $25. Magic Traders puts it at about $23. I’d be glad to trade for it at $25, but I certainly couldn’t value it at $40.”
“Those sites are wrong,” he said.
“They’re wrong. It’s worth $40 to $45.”
“I’m sorry,” I asked him. “I don’t quite understand. Do you think they’re going to be re-printed or start to see a ton of use in Legacy? Do you have personal attachment to the card?”
“No,” he said. “But people like them in EDH.”
“Yeah, I know that. That’s why they’re worth $20-$25.” I gestured toward the dealer’s booth. “I could buy one right over there for $25.”
“Everyone values cards differently,” he replied. “It’s worth $45.”
“But it’s not,” I said. “It’s worth $25. It might someday be worth $45, and if you think it’ll go up in value I understand, but right now, at this very moment, in this very room, this card is worth $25.”
“You’re wrong,” he told me again. “It’s worth $45.”
This went on for another five minutes or so.
Now, to be fair, I did end up making a deal with him on a few other cards that he put reasonable values on, but I just couldn’t get beyond his fervent denial at the value of his card. He never bothered to explain to me why he felt his card was worth $20 more than the dealers were selling it for – that didn’t seem to matter to him. He just kept repeating his baseless opinion over and over again in the hopes that it would eventually become reality.
There’s not much you can do against a tactic like this. In the above situation, I was the buyer and he was the seller. He could set the value of his card at five million dollars if he wanted to. If I wanted the card, I would have to pay the price.
Overpaying for a card now and then is ok, but if you care about card values then it is important for you to understand that overpaying for a card is just that – an overpay.
Refusing to Trade
I don’t have a great story about this tactic because it usually goes pretty much the same every time.
“Sounds good,” says trader B. “I need your foil Bribery for my cube.”
“Sounds great!” says A. “Let me check the price on that.”
“Actually, never mind,” B retorts. “I don’t really need your card that much – sorry.”
Most of the time, this tactic isn’t all that harmful. It sucks to realize that you’re not going to get the cards you need, but most of the time it’s not going to lead you to the fleecing of the century.
The danger of this tactic is the follow-up conversation that often happens.
“Wait!” says trader A. “I really do want that playset of Goblin Bombs. You’d be surprised how few people have them.”
“I guess I could give those straight-up for the Bribery.”
“Sure…I wasn’t using it anyway.”
So the iPhone never comes out, the prices never get checked, and the shark wins the day once again. (Or does he? You could make a reasonable argument that Goblin Bombs really are hard to find…)
At any rate, you can see the common thread that all of these shark tactics share. They’re all designed to either refute the price of the card as stated on the phone or stop you from getting out your phone in the first place. While these tactics are reasonably effective right now, they positively scream of ‘old guard refusing to adapt.’
If you see people trying to do this to you, you can be reasonably certain that they are not after a trade that is close to fair. And before long, they are going to have to figure out how to adapt to the smartphone world or it will pass them by.
Of course, you are going to have to adapt to the smartphone world too.
It’s a Tool, not a Bible: How to be Smart about your Smartphone
I would trade with those sharks all the freaking time if it meant I didn’t have to deal with the following guy ever again:
“Hey, want to trade?” I ask hypothetical trader Slowbro, who is filing his binder with rares from last night’s draft.
“Uh, ok,” he says, and hands me his binder. It takes me about a minute and a half to look through seven pages of standard-legal rares and a page of bulk from Morningtide.
“I guess I could use another Lavaclaw Reaches, but that’s really all I see.” I say. “Is there anything you like?”
Slowbro looks through my binder for eight full minutes, and then pauses. “I could use another Day of Judgment,” he says.
“Oh, awesome. I could do that trade.”
“Well, what do you value the Day of Judgment at?” he asks me.
“I value both cards around three dollars.”
“Hold on. Let me check.”
After 6 minutes of tap tap tap on what must be the slowest phone ever built, Slowbro looks at me with a mixed expression of confusion and irritation. “Magiccards.info has Day of Judgment selling for a high of $4.20, and Lavaclaw Reaches is at a high of $5.35!” He tells me. “Can I get another card or two from you?”
At this point, my head explodes and Slowbro just walks off with my binder because hey, dead people don’t play Magic.
Luckily, there are several lessons that can be learned from my untimely demise:
Don’t Pinch Pennies
It is startlingly rare to make a trade that is penny-for-penny fair. Someone is probably going to come out a little bit ahead.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that they’re ripping you off. There are so many factors in the value of a card that aren’t present in the dollar figure next to its name on a website.
What is the condition of the card?
How hot is it right now?
Is one person trading up a lot of junk rares for a sweet tournament staple?
Is the card part of a stable eternal deck, or a volatile standard one?
If the values are close and you need the cards, just make the trade. Smartphones are there to keep one party from getting fleeced, not to ensure that the value of each collection stays exactly the same.
Remember that cards have play value beyond the financial. Which card is worth more to me – a $2 card sitting in my binder, or a $1 card that goes right in my deck? If your smartphone leads you into making far fewer trades than you otherwise would, than you’re putting too much stock in it.
Use Accurate and Consistent Websites
Sword of Fire and Ice is listed at $13.60 on MagicTraders. It goes for $14.40 on Channelfireball. It’s out of stock at $14.99 on Starcitygames. Magiccards.info gives it a midprice of $16.70.
So what is the card worth?
I met a trader the other day who looked up Nightmare Void on Magiccards.info and saw a ‘high price’ of $14. This means that one store out there, somewhere, is selling a $0.10 Ravnica uncommons for $14. I don’t know why – maybe it’s an awesome foil signed misprint or something.
At any rate, three of us attempted to convince this guy that no, his sweet page of Nightmare Voids were not worth anything close to $14. But because he saw it in print on the Internet, nothing we could say or do could sway him.
Remember that most prices you see on the Internet don’t mean anything. I can ask whatever I want for an item I have for sale, but it’s completely irrelevant unless someone forks over the dough. You don’t want to be unreasonably liberal with this figure (like the $45 Watery Grave guy), but you don’t want to be too conservative, either.
If you’re going to use online values for cards, make sure you use the same site for each card in the trade. If you’re only using online values for your cards, try and use a site that is roughly equal to how your opponent is valuing his cards. If they’re putting all their cards at full retail, use a site like Channelfireball. If they’re putting them at ‘trade value’, use a site like MagicTraders.
Don’t use Buylists
Each large card-buying website has a buylist. And since this buylist price represents a way to ‘cash out’ cards, many people use them as an easy way to value their cards while trading.
This is generally a bad idea.
All buylists represent is what a particular store needs to restock their back room. That’s it. If a store has too many Baneslayer Angels, they will often drastically drop the buylist price so that they don’t get too many more of them in. Conversely, if they’ve been out of a niche card for too long, they may offer a higher-than-average buy price as a way to increase their inventory.
This is great for them, but it has no bearing on you and your trading. You don’t want to find yourself overpaying for Ground Seal because Jerk Dragon Games in Utica, NY doesn’t have any in stock.
Respect the Grinder
Unlike sharks, grinders are there to provide you with a service.
They allow you to trade pretty much any card you don’t want anymore in exchange for pretty much any card of theirs as long as you are willing to let them make a small profit.
By allowing them to ‘win’ the trade, you are able to get cards far easier than you would from a normal player. They usually have a large binder and no emotional attachments. They’re cheaper to deal with than a store and easier to deal with than “you can pry this Jace out of my cold, dead hands” guy.
If they’re open about what they are and what they’re trying to do, let them make some money. That’s why they’re trading with you. Use your smartphone as a rough guide as needed, but remember that you wouldn’t be getting half your U/B deck in one place if they never gained value while trading.
Of course, grinders need to realize that gaining value on trades in the classic sense just got a heck of a lot harder. They need to learn how to embrace Smartphone trading in their own way.
Get on the Bus: Successful Grinding in the Smartphone World
Back in the dumb phone days, sharks and value traders used to get ahead by knowing the price of cards better than anyone else.
Would you believe that according to Channelfireball prices I would be winning that trade by almost fifty dollars?
I knew that because I’ve been trading regularly for years. I know all the oddball rares that are worth more than they should be. After all, you only trade away a foil 7th Edition Goblin Matron for peanuts once before you learn that it’s worth over $50.
That advantage is almost gone. It doesn’t matter that I know the price of Sol Ring – with a smartphone, you can find the answer too. That’s why sharks are so adamant about keeping you away from your phone – it keeps their tactical advantage intact.
As a grinder, you are going to have to learn new tactical advantages if you want to stay ahead of the curve while trading. While some traders will be willing to give you a small profit because they understand your needs, it is going to become more and more important to find alternative routes to making a profit.
Ask for Less
When Pack to Power became popular last summer, it seemed like everyone started asking for more and more profit during each trade.
This trend needs to stop.
Just as players need to learn to respect what a grinder does, grinders need to lower their margins in order to ensure happy traders and repeat business.
If you keep asking for too much in trade, smartphone traders will stop dealing with you. Once everyone gets a smartphone, everyone will stop dealing with you.
Just as regular traders need to learn to respect the fact that grinders need to make a profit on each trade, grinders need to learn that they can still make a profit while trading on smaller margins. The alternative is to keep preying on a weaker and weaker pool of players until the day that no one will trade with you anymore.
Like any business, grinding cards for profit is about volume. If you ask for the moon every time, you’ll make fewer trades. If, however, you become the guy in your area with a binder full of everything and a reputation for being reasonable, everyone will come to you first and you can drastically increase your number of deals.
Learn your Rarity, Altered Art, and Foreign Card Prices
While it’s easy to look up the price of normal cards, rare and foreign cards are still very tricky to find values for. In many cases, this is because there is no established value – too few of them are sold for a stable price point to form. These “one of a kind” pieces require a human finesse to put a value on, and that means that the door is open to make a profit.
Learn which Korean cards are worth twice the price of English ones and which are worth ten times that. Always ask what people value truly unique cards at – alters, misprints, and the like. Stock up if you feel there’s money to be made. Many of these cards will sit in your book for months until you find the right buyer, but when you do it’s possible to trade them for a fistful of staples.
I’d rather trade two $5 cards for a $10 card at a net gain of $0 than trade a $2 card for a $3 card any day.
$10 cards are more likely to hold value, more likely to gain value, more in-demand, easier to trade for duals or power, and retain more of their retail value were you to decide to sell it to a dealer or online.
Pulling out the smartphone gives you the ideal ‘in’ to start trading up – just value out the pile of stuff they want from you on any large Magic retail site, and then go shopping in their binder for the priciest stuff they have.
Know Your Hot Cards
Now more than ever, it’s important to stay ahead on trends. Never put your book away because someone pulled out their phone. All you have to do is find something of theirs that you think you’ll be able to get more for later.
Learn the formats you love, read the strategy articles, and stay ahead of the game. It doesn’t take much sometimes – a quick look at the Mirrodin Besieged visual spoiler a couple weeks ago could’ve told you that Knight Exemplar would make a good trade target.
When analyzing prices during a smartphone trade, be on the lookout for cards that are sold out on websites. Sometimes they’re just obscure and crappy, but more often than not you’re getting the ‘old rate’ on them, and they’ll be re-listed soon at a higher price.
If you believe the card will go up, you can still use the old rate while trading in order to make the deal work out on paper.
You can also bring this up to your partner if the card they want from you is sold out. Most people are fine paying a slight premium for a card that is currently unavailable for its listed price.
The Future of Trading
A year from now, very few trades are going to be phone-free.
Traders who use denial or intimidation in order to keep people from pulling out their phones are going to find their methods becoming more and more obvious and ineffective. There will always be bully sharks out there, but there will be many fewer victims for them to terrorize. Their tricks are easy to counter if you stick to logic and don’t get intimidated.
Grinders are going to have to start relying a lot more on other ways to get value out of trades, like speculation and trading up. 25%+ profit margins during trades are going to become a thing of the past.
Just as we’ve seen a marked increase in “value” traders over the past year, I expect we’ll see a similar decrease over the next year or two. Being an honest grinder who adds value to your community is hard, and knowing the price of every card won’t be enough.
True grinding is time-consuming, and it is not an effective way to make money if you don’t enjoy it.
Having a good working relationship with your player base is going to be even more crucial. Phone trading takes a lot longer than just spitballing prices, so it’s going to be essential for grinders to build lasting connections with players that trust you to be fair without the phone coming out. Phone trading can be excruciatingly slow, and the trader who develops trust can eschew looking up prices for their regulars.
In the end, I guess my point is this: the smartphone is here to stay. For better or worse, it is going to be a part of your life going forward. Now is the time to figure out how to successfully incorporate it into how you deal with other people. Otherwise, you may find that the future has passed you by.
Pick of the Week 1/31: Contested War Zone, Mirrodin Besieged
Full disclosure: I’m writing this before any of the set reviews are out, so I don’t know what the general ‘pro’ consensus is on this card yet. I do know that right now it’s selling for just $1.50 on this site, which is a pittance for a rare non-basic land with a sweet ability.
I doubt this will be a huge gainer, but keep an eye on it. It’s very good in the right aggro decks (remember that it gives the benefit to ALL your attackers) and should be a casual token deck staple for years to come.
This should hit $3 eventually due to casual value alone. If it sees significant Standard play, it’ll be a $6 card.
Until next time –
– Chas Andres