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This essay won't make you money. It won't help you maximize the value of your collection, it won't make Modern more affordable, and it doesn't contain any speculation advice whatsoever.
It doesn't even have answers to the questions it attempts to raise.
Every Saturday at 6am, weather permitting, I'm out the door on my way to a garage sale. I buy up unwanted items, mostly video games, and flip them on eBay for a profit. The paydays are rarely huge, but the treasure hunt is fun and the work fits with my fractured grad school lifestyle.
Last week, I was met by a demoralizing sight at my very first sale of the day. Three guys, one wearing a T-shirt with a dragon on it, were already walking back to their car with a boxful of games. I had arrived at the sale half an hour early, a few minutes before the sun had actually peeked out over the thin pink horizon. I was still too late. The man in the dragon shirt rolled his eyes at me as I walked past him, unable to contain my disappointment. Our town is small enough that we see each other almost every week. Sometimes I get there first. Sometimes he does.
I strode up to the sale anyway. Why not? All pickers have a slightly different base of knowledge, and there might have been something valuable there that my competitor hadn't recognized. After a few minutes, I saw it: three Zendikar-era fat pack boxes. My heart began to race, but the surge of adrenaline slowed once I looked inside. Old Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. Commons, mostly. "I saw your boxes," I said to the proprietor, who was wheeling a rack of clothes out of her garage. "Do you have any Magic cards for sale?"
"Let me get my husband," she replied. "That's his obsession."
A man strode out of a garden shed a few minutes later, a couple of bags of potting soil in his arms. He was an older guy, balding a bit, with scrubby facial hair and a confident grin on his face. I liked him immediately.
"You out looking for Black Lotuses, or just want to see what I've got?"
"I don't expect to find a Black Lotus at a yard sale," I replied. Though isn't that the dream? "I'm happy to look at whatever."
He disappeared into the house for a few minutes and then returned with a couple of long boxes. "These are my extras. I've kept four of most cards in my collection, so I don't need these."
"How much are they?"
"Depends on the card," he shrugged.
I started to flip through the cards as fast as I could. I was on the lookout for things like Force of Will, which looks like a useless common to older casual players who haven't so much as heard of the Legacy format. At the same time, I knew that I couldn't stand in that driveway forever. Wilmington's summer humidity had finally broken, and the town was full of sales. Every moment I spent flipping past copies of Mons's Goblin Raiders was a moment I wasn't beating my dragon-shirted foe to the best score of the day.
"Got any of those double lands?" I asked. "You know, the old ones with the concentric rectangles in the rules box?"
This was a question I asked without thinking, almost by rote. I have always played dumb when looking through cards at garage sales because there is nothing worse than a garage sale proprietor who suddenly gets it in their mind that their old junk might have hidden value.
At that point, it doesn't matter if I reveal myself as an expert and assure them that you are making a fair offer. Everything I say will be treated with hostility, every card will be looked up on multiple websites, and any attempt to pay less than full retail will be treated like a slap in the face. I've left sales like this empty-handed more than once, knowing full well that the cards will eventually be thrown back into the closet in frustration after the owner rejects a worse deal from some local shop.
This is also why I am rarely able to trade with anyone these days. Once people know who I am, they immediately assume that I am hustling them with some piece of secret knowledge that I haven't shared with the world yet. It doesn't matter if the trade is even and they're getting a card they want for a card they don't. "Thanks, but no thanks," I'm told, and all I can do is pick up my binder and walk away.
The man at the garage sale scratched his beard and grinned. "I'm not willing to part with any of my dual lands," he said. "They're all in decks. And besides, they're worth hundreds of dollars."
"You don't say," I replied, continuing to shuffle rapidly through his bulk.
Fifteen minutes later, I had pulled a stack of about fifty cards. Most of them were still bulk, or at least pretty close—cards like Dismiss, which are only worth about a quarter on a good day. I had to admit, the man had done a remarkably good job separating his wheat from his chaff. My best find—my only good find, really—were a couple of Stronghold copies of Intruder Alarm. Did you know that Intruder Alarm retails for $15 now? Always check your bulk, kids.
The collector pawed through my stack for a minute or two, chuckling. "Just want to see what kind of mage you are," he said, and I shrunk back a little, embarrassed. There wasn't much rhyme or reason to my pulls other than some vague memory of monetary value. If he were looking for my deckbuilding soul in that pile of chaff, he wouldn't find it.
I paid the man three dollars for the cards, vigorously shaking his hand afterward. "He'll be down at the shop later today, teaching the game to some of the kids from our church," his wife told me. "Maybe we'll run into you down there sometime."
"I hope so," I said, the words feeling sour as soon as they ran out of my mouth. If I did run into him down at the shop, I realized, it wouldn't be long before he learned that I write Magic finance articles and know quite a bit about the price of "double lands." We really do live in a small town, I remembered, and the Wilmington Magic community is even smaller than that.
But it was too late to come clean, or offer more or do anything other than just walk away. Heck, it wasn't like the cards I'd bought from him were worth much more than I'd actually paid. Even still, I pictured his crestfallen face stuck in a moment of despondent realization that may or may not ever arrive. There are so few genuinely nice people in the world, and I'd taken one of them for a ride in order to make maybe—maybe—twenty dollars.
I want to believe that I add value to the world. Don't we all? We each craft our own narrative, one in which we are the hero and our actions are always righteous. Any action can be justified. Any belief can be reconciled.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, there are people out there who have convinced themselves that the world is flat. They refuse to believe otherwise, despite all evidence to the contrary. Convincing yourself that you are a good person doing good things is a darned sight easier to swallow than that.
I used to be a trade shark. I don't like to admit it, but it's true.
I got my start writing about Magic finance on a Pack to Power blog that chronicled my journey from a single pack of Zendikar to an Alpha Mox Sapphire in just about a year. You can't go from pack to power in a year, even a year with as much market growth as that one, without being a trade shark.
I justified this behavior in two different ways.
First, I was always open about the need to "get value" on my Pack to Power trades. I never misled anyone about my intentions, and I didn't deal with the folks who weren't down with that reality. Many of the people at my local store were excited about the project. Some of them even read my blog. This was before Pack to Power became a more common scourge. It was also before the proliferation of smartphones made Pack to Power almost impossible.
Even though I was up front about the need to get value, I was still looking to exploit an information gap between myself and my trade partner. I was on the lookout for cards like Doubling Season, which was worth about $20 at the time even though most people valued it as if it were a bulk rare. I'd pick it up as a throw-in and then trade it to someone with a bit more knowledge for a couple of Zendikar fetchlands. You used to be able to repeat this heist every week for about a year and end up with a Mox. Really. I did it.
Second, I always tried to be nice. Most sharks bullied their way through FNM, using sleazy car salesman techniques to close absurd deals with reluctant partners. Often, these players would come away from the transaction feeling dazed. They'd regret their trade almost immediately, but they'd be too embarrassed to say anything about it. These players would never trade with the shark again. Heck, most of them never traded with anyone again.
I never did stuff like that. I only traded with people who were actively excited about making a deal with me. I avoided hard-sell techniques completely. There were a handful of people at my local store who didn't care about how much cards were worth, and I dealt with them again, and again, and again. They were happy to trade with me, even though I was draining the value from their collection on a weekly basis.
I justified this because they didn't seem to mind. I justified this because someone else would have come along and done the exact same thing if I hadn't been here. I justified this because winning trades made me feel powerful and smart.
The age of the trade shark is over.