"He traded sand for skins, skins for gold, gold for life. In the end, he traded life for sand."
Magic finance—like life—is a game of resource management.
Most people are preoccupied with the most easily quantifiable part of the game: price fluctuation. When a card they own goes up in value, they consider it a victory. When a card they own goes down, they mourn it as a loss. This is an overly simplistic and often wrong way of looking at the world, though. Today, we're going to explore why.
Life's Three Resources
The phrase "money isn't everything" is generally spoken by those who are well off. In fact, it's one of the more condescending idioms that you can say to someone struggling paycheck to paycheck. Money may not be everything, but without it one has a hard time finding a place in modern society. You need money to buy in to everything that makes society work. Without it, it's painfully hard to get food, water, safety, or shelter—not to mention access to art and entertainment.
But the phrase is still true. Money isn't everything. Having a lot of money seems like it'd be similar to having a fairly limited genie. Even though there are a million lavish things you could wish for, eventually you'd start obsessing over the limitations of your genie's powers. Most studies indicate that over a certain amount—somewhere in the $150,000/year range—having more money no longer increases personal happiness or stability. In fact, it starts to weigh on you, kind of like how Uncle Scrooge was always worried that the Beagle Boys were going to abscond with his money bin.
This brings us to our second resource: time. Unlike money, time is finite. One can have a virtually unlimited amount of money but still fail to gain more time, something that must be a constant thorn in the side of aging plutocrats. Access to good health care aside, time is more or less equally distributed between all of us. You can give yourself better odds of having more of it by taking good physical care of yourself and taking fewer deadly risks, but beyond that the amount of time you have is out of your control.
The third resource we have and use on a daily basis is something I am going to attempt to quantify as 'heart.' Heart is the sum of what we know as passion, chutzpah, determination, drive, creative energy, and desire. Heart is different from time, but I suppose it could be seen as 'productive time': the hours during the day when you are able to dedicate yourself wholly toward a cause you are passionate about. The jury is still out on where this energy comes from and whether or not it's something innate in people or something that can be cultivated. I personally feel that having a nurturing childhood can give someone the foundation upon which it becomes possible to discover the passion within, but it's by no means a guarantee. I also believe that heart is something anyone can find and use, provided they have the self-discipline to do so.
Our social status (money) may be largely dependent on our parents and our lifespan (time) may be largely dependent on our genetics, but our hearts are ours to grow and use as we see fit.
In general, life is most fulfilling when you're using all three of your resources toward a common goal. If you're investing your time and money into a business or project that you are deeply passionate about, things are pretty awesome. This, of course, is the allure of being an artist or a small business owner.
Of course, not everyone has a passion that can be monetized. Others don't want to put all their eggs in one basket, knowing that failing would be the loss of their entire identity. Still others realize early on that certain jobs will allow them to use very little time and very little heart in exchange for enough money to live a fulfilling life. These people gladly put in their time at the office in exchange for a rewarding family life and awesome hobbies.
Problems occur when all three resources are forced in disparate directions. If all of your time is going into an unfulfilling job in order to make enough money to barely cover the essentials of living, it becomes difficult to invest your heart in something meaningful. This is one of the deepest curses of being poor and undereducated, and breaking out of this paradigm is very difficult.
Most of you reading this, I would imagine, are at least a little bit well off. You have enough time to master the game of Magic to the point where SCG Premium is useful to you, and enough money to spend on the subscription fee as well as the cards you need to play the game. Clearly, you also have plenty of heart—you read these articles in order to become a better player or speculator, right? So from this point on, I'm going to assume that you have all three resources to spend.
Of course, that doesn't mean you know how to use them well.
Time Is Money
People who don't know how to use time as a resource must love timeshare presentations. After all, for the low, low, price of an afternoon spent locked away in a room with a salesman, you can have a free ticket for a cruise to nowhere that probably also has timeshare presentations on it.
Undervaluing one's own time is a problem in Magic finance as well. I am especially guilty of this when it comes to selling cards. I rarely use buylists, mostly because I hate to leave perceived money on the table. "If a store can buy a card at that price," I think, "surely, given enough time, I can find someone who will pay more."
This is true, but only up to a point. There is always someone out there willing to pay full retail for every card, up to and including Urban Burgeoning at $0.05. That doesn't mean your copy of Urban Burgeoning is worth a nickel, though—good luck finding the one guy in the world who will make that deal. SCG is able to charge that much because they have a massive readership, a good reputation for being an honest seller, and almost every card ever printed in stock in their store. You and I have one or two of those things at most.
Of course, shipping your entire collection off to a buylist is probably the wrong move unless you already have a good deal of money and very little time. Assuming you value those two resources equally, it becomes important to find the point on the curve where you feel as if you are 'earning' a fair salary for putting time into parting out your collection and searching for buyers on your own. The equation looks something like this:
(Sell price via individual sales) – (Sell price via buylist) = ”
If ”/(estimated hours spent) does not equal a satisfactory hourly wage, you should consider increasing the number of cards that you send to a buylist.
Of course, sorting cards doesn't cost you much heart, if any. One of the reasons I'm stingier than most when it comes to buylisting cards is because I find the process of sorting cards to be soothing. After a long day at work, coming home, sitting in front of the TV, and leafing through cards is one of my favorite ways to unwind. Your mileage may vary, though.
The time/money equation also comes into play a lot when speculating. I personally don't like to go in on speculation targets that have a low ceiling for payout, even if the odds of the card 'hitting' are high. For example, Runechanter's Pike is starting to see a lot of play in Standard again. Right now, the card is just $1.99 retail. I doubt the card will stay that low—it was higher than that when it saw a lot of play last season, and Innistrad is further away from being drafted now.
That said, I don't think the card has a very high ceiling. It's a Standard rare in a large fall set without much casual or Eternal appeal. Assuming I can get copies of the card for around $1 each if I look hard enough, the retail value would have to approach $4 or $5 for me to be able to make a decent profit selling my copies to a buylist or on eBay. It's true that I could probably make some money buying in now, but the amount I would probably make—especially when factoring in the risk that the card won't go up in price—isn't really worth my time. This, incidentally, is part of why Angel of Serenity was the only card I preordered out of Return to Ravnica. It was a high ceiling mythic that would be easy to move if it hit, and I got lucky.
Of course, low-ceiling specs are bread and butter for a floor trader and a Magic Online speculator. When trading, the best thing you can do is always be churning your binder toward low-risk cards that have room to grow. That jump from $2 retail to $4 retail makes for an unattractive cash purchase, but it's great when you factor out transaction costs entirely. If you have an $8 card that you think is going down in price (say, Vexing Devil) and you have the chance to trade it for a playset of Pikes, the trade starts looking a lot more attractive. Online, of course, prices fluctuate much more rapidly and cashing out is easier. Bots have very little overhead, so their margins are far lower than retail stores. Because of that, their buy prices are going to be a much larger percentage of the retail cost of a card. This makes speculating on low upside plays a much better proposition in the digital world.
Heart Is Time
One of the biggest psychic prices that people in this country pay without realizing it is the cost of having too many possessions. Every purchase that you make has a cost beyond the price tag: the time you spend driving to and from the store, the amount of space it takes to store the item, money spent repairing or replacing the item when it breaks, and the effort it takes to maintain a reasonable inventory of your possessions.
I recently read several excerpts from a massive UCLA study about life in the modern American home. What it found was a stark contrast between the things that people claimed they valued—time with friends and family, travel, the outdoors—and the amount of time they spent experiencing anxiety over an increasingly paralyzing number of material possessions.
Most people are good about not going into debt through an insane amount of impulse buying, but they rarely think about the energy it costs to maintain a possession-filled lifestyle. When people consider their passion, they mostly assume that it's reserved for when they need it the most: spending time with their family, perhaps, or sketching on weekends. Instead, I think a lot of that energy is spent on truly trivial things.
Not only do we spend much our time acquiring and maintaining our possessions, but advertisers deliberately try to get our hearts involved. Diamond cartels have done a great job linking jewelry to romantic love. Beer and truck commercials link those products to manhood. In a consumer driven world, we're supposed to measure our success by how much we can afford. After all, wouldn't a passionate musician have all the latest and best equipment? Wouldn't a passionate cook have the newest kitchen gizmos? Wouldn't a passionate nerd own all the latest video games, TV shows, and films? When we're told to emotionally invest in our stuff, the lines are blurred and we end up with very little.
Most articles or books that talk about this sort of thing espouse a philosophy of complete minimalism: distancing oneself from all material goods in the search for personal enlightenment. I reject this theory, mostly because I believe that we are too far gone to ever willingly embrace it. Like it or not, years of socialization have rewired our brains so that our self-worth is indeed tied up in our possessions and status. Trying to sever that connection may work for some, but for the majority of us doing that is painful and unrealistic. Espousing total minimalism is also a good way to lose touch with friends, especially because modern nerd culture is even more based around common cultural touchstones than most subgroups.
Instead, I think the important thing is to focus on the things that actually do make you happy. For instance, advertisers would have us believe that every single one of us would be better off with a cooler car. The truth is that most people only use their car to get from home to work and the shops—they're never going to take their sports car to the track or their SUV off-road. If you are indifferent to driving, it makes a lot of sense to admit that to yourself and only buy cars that are affordable, reliable, safe, and boring. If, however, you are the sort of person for which driving is an essential thrill of life, talking yourself into a safe and boring car is going to be maddening over the long term. If you can swing it in your household budget, you're better off paying a little more and getting a car that will be a pleasure to drive. Of course, doing that means that you should probably give up some other luxury that you care about less.
In other words, pick your spots.
The same is true when it comes to Magic. Including promos and multiple printings, there are well over 20,000 unique Magic cards. For a while, I was actively working toward completing a playset of all of them.
Okay, so not all of them—that would be truly insane. I made a concession to the fact that finding even a single playset of Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited would be really painful. I already had a set of Collectors' Edition cards, though, so I decided that was good enough. I also already had a single set each of Legends, Antiquities, and Arabian Nights, so I made a decision that one set of each of those would be good enough as well—at least over the short term. I also decided to forgo all of the base sets between Revised and M10, as well as the Portal variants.
After a few years of collecting, my binders began to get unwieldy. The big, early sets—Ice Age, Mirage, Tempest, Urza's Saga, and Mercadian Masques—required three inch binders full of Ultra Pro sheets. It got to the point where I didn't want to go into binders for those sets simply because they were too big to successfully maneuver through.
About a year ago, I came up with a temporary solution. I went through all of my binders and purged all the unplayable commons and uncommons: cards that have never seen play outside of Limited formats. In doing this, I managed to cut most of the larger set binders down to 1 1/2 or 2 inches. This was a revelation—looking for cards with which to build decks became far easier.
There were still complications, though. As I made trades, I needed to continually update my series of spreadsheets so I didn't accidentally acquire cards that I no longer needed. Having a collection that was separate from my trade stock also made deckbuilding awkward—how would I keep track of which cards went where? How would I make sure collection cards always went back into their binders when I modified my decks? What about playsets cards that I had split up through multiple commander decks? Or cards that I needed more than four of?
What about the continuing torrent of new sets and new unique cards in multiplayer formats? What about the fact that the Ultra Pro binder pages would degrade each time I pawed through my books? What about foils—would I sort those into my books or trade them away? What about condition issues? I wanted to upgrade my whole collection to NM, but I had acquired many of my cards long before I cared about that. How would I go through and sort out that mess? Would I have to buy thousands of low-end cards at full retail to finish the project?
Any sane person would have probably realized years ago that managing this particular collection was going to drive me into a Lovecraftian sort of madness. In recent months, I've been taking stock of my life and trying to figure out how to improve myself both physically and mentally. I had to decide if growing this collection was adding happiness to my life or removing it. Was it allowing me flexibility in deckbuilding or forcing me into weird corners when trading? Could I justify owning playsets of most cards in the game when I almost exclusively play Limited Magic? Was I making good use of my free time sorting cards when I should be working to further my career?
This is an extreme version of what most of you are probably dealing with, but I think the sentiment is fairly universal. An unorganized collection is bad—how many cards have you bought that you know you owned but couldn't find in time?—but organizing even a medium-sized collection requires a large commitment in time, money, and energy.
How many Magic cards do you actually need? If you're a trader, it's important to have a well-stocked binder, but even then it's a good idea to know your scene and cater your stock toward your local playgroups. If no one in your area plays Modern, for example, it's probably going to be more lucrative over the long term to focus your limited time and energy on other formats. If you play Standard almost exclusively, how important is it to maintain a collection of Legacy cards?
Even if you play every format and switch things up every weekend, I'd imagine that 95% of all competitive Magic decks can be built from the contents of a single 5,000-count box. If you own more cards than that, it's important to understand why. I'm not saying that having a lot of Magic cards is a bad choice to make, but it is a choice. Part of why I decided to build such a massive collection is that I enjoy the act of sorting cards—I find it relaxing after a long day of work. If you have a ton of cards and you feel buried underneath them, though, maybe it's time to sell.
There's another advantage to owning fewer Magic cards: increased objectivity when evaluating pricing trends. When Modern Masters was announced, it was pretty easy to tell who owned a set of Tarmogoyfs already and who did not. Even the most objective of us can turn myopic when enough money is on the line, and it's impossible to ignore that Goyfs cost $300-$400 per set. That's a full week's pay (after taxes) for most of us. We can talk all we want about reducing the barrier of entry into certain formats, but at the end of the day seeing a major personal asset drop in value is going to hurt for some people. If you own very few cards, you'll spend less energy fretting over your collection's possible devaluation and more time focused on how to profit on market fluctuations.
Money Is Heart
Believe it or not, the money you spend on and around Magic isn't immediately subsumed into the coffers of Hasbro, Inc. While many people have a formal Magic or entertainment budget and most of us at least try to limit how much we blow on cardboard monsters, I've noticed that very few people consider precisely where their money goes.
A lot of people are especially ignorant about exactly how their local brick and mortar store makes money. Contrary to conventional wisdom, booster boxes and Limited tournaments are not big moneymakers. While there is a healthy margin built in to individual $3.99 pack sales, many stores sell boxes for just $5-$10 over wholesale cost in order to compete with online businesses. Further, most Limited tournaments—at least those without atrocious prize structures—pay out in product every dime they rake in. $5 Standard tournaments are a little better, but even those aren't going to keep the lights on for more than a couple of days.
Most stores I know make most of their money in one of two ways: refreshments and singles. Even though most Magic players are unwilling to pay a 200% markup on their cards, they're more than happy to do so on snacks and drinks, turning many game stores into glorified concession businesses. Other stores focus more on singles, generally buying cards for around 50% of what they hope to sell them for. In areas where Standard is big, this can often be the difference between a profitable year and a losing one.
If there's a local store you enjoy playing at, try having a frank discussion with the owner about what areas of the business are most profitable for them. It's important to spend money at stores that work because otherwise we'll all be stuck going to our tournaments at that one shady place where the prize payout is wretched and the storeowner plays in all the events and miraculously seems to win every single draft. You know the one—it smells like stale Doritos and despair.
Of course, buying all of our cards at the local shop isn't viable for most of us. Online retailers generally tend to offer a far wider selection and better prices. Luckily, your money can make a difference in this arena as well. While it's often tempting to simply buy cards from the lowest bidder, paying a slight premium for services along with your goods is generally the right call. Many small businesses in this country were lost because people decided to spend their cash at big box stores with lower quality merchandise and poor service, only to later realize that this was a huge blow for their community. If there's a site that you would like to see succeed because you appreciate their service or strategy content, giving them a proportional amount of your business will increase their chance of survival.
Putting your money in the right places rewards other people for putting their time and heart into something useful or enjoyable. Sometimes this means thinking beyond getting the best deal. In the end, though, it will lead to a much stronger community.
- Helm of Obedience – A reserved list card seeing play in Legacy combo. Acquire accordingly.
- Sphinx's Revelation – A mythic rare in the color combination that has dominated the past three Standard seasons.
- Hellrider – This card has been tearing up Magic Online and is poised to make the leap to paper Magic.
- Terminus – A solid staple. Eternal play should keep the price above $10.
- Thalia, Guardian of Thraben – This card is good in Standard and better in Legacy. One of the best long-term investments you can make.
- Thundermaw Hellkite – Back up to $20 and should hit $25 at some point soon.
- Deathrite Shaman – Finally certified as 100% insane in both Standard and Modern.
- Vraska the Unseen – It's all over but the crying. Down from $40 to $16, this one should hit $10 by Christmas.
- "Zombies" rares – The deck has fallen out of favor, and its signature pieces are going to fall in price accordingly.
- Jace, Architect of Thought – The big guy is finally back down to $30, but price memory might let you get $40 in trade for him still. I'd expect him to jump around between $20 and $35 over the next year depending on the metagame.
Until next time–