Exactly one year ago today I published an article about building a Magic Online (MTGO) “Bot.” Shortly after the article went up I was contacted by one of my readers.
Did you know that the bot that you're advertising is a scammer?
I always approach these types of reports with a careful skepticism. You never know when someone just wants to muddy someone else's name. I did some research and looked at the evidence provided by the concerned reader. Uneasiness started to develop in the pit of my stomach. I didn't know what to do. Some of the accusations that I was reading were pretty serious.
My concern was more for you guys (my awesome army of loyal followers) than for myself. I sent an instant message to Lauren Lee; if anyone could help me it was her.
I explained the issue and she appended a warning to the beginning of the article for me. I was still worried about what might happen with this bot. For the first time in my Magic writing career I felt bad about my article. It was like I got sent to the principal's office for acting out in class. I left my bot running for a few days after the article while I tried to do more research. My research was not conclusive but I still couldn't help but worry. I ended up taking the bot down and contacting the creator of the bot software.
Naturally he didn't admit to being a scammer. I'm not sure how I expected him to respond. It would be pretty stupid for him to say “Yeah dude I'm a scammer but don't worry your money is safe with me.” I'd been running the bot software without issue for a while so I decided to turn the software back on. This turned out to be a mistake but not for the reasons that you'd think.
Spoiler alert: I didn't get scammed (at least not that I know of). I entered the world of MTGO botting with big dreams of passive income and MTGO domination. What I got was very different. Here's what I learned about bot running an MTGO Robot.
The margins in MTGO are amazingly thin. Let me give you an example. Star City Games (SCG) buys a Spellskite for $5 and they sell it for $12. That's a $7 profit. I operate similarly but with smaller margins so I might get $4 for that same Spellskite. Now let's look at the MTGO version of this.
Super Nova (www.supernovabots.com ) buys Spellskite at 9 tickets and they sell it at 10 tickets. That's 1 ticket profit and 100 tickets profit for selling 100. Keep in mind that 100 tickets often translate to between $90 and $95. This gives little room for a change in the market. Even the slightest shift can cause you to lose money. Let me go into more detail about this.
The MTGO market is a treacherous one. The benefit that you have when dealing with paper cards is that if a card starts to fall out of favor then you have time to dump it before the information fully disseminates. This is not the case on MTGO; a card can drop or rise drastically overnight without warning.
If we look at the Spellskite example you can see that Spellskite only needs to fluctuate by one ticket for me to lose money on it but in real life a Spellskite can drop by $3 before I start to get worried; even if it does drop by $3 then I have a couple of weeks to sell/trade them before everyone is aware of the new price. On MTGO people will see the change immediately and begin to sell your bot all their copies. This brings me to my next point; bots are stupid.
Bits for Brains
Maybe I'm being a little too harsh on the little guys but the fact that a bot only does what it's told is a problem. This makes it easy for people to take advantage of you and any mispricing.
Here's an example: When Master's Edition 4 was released I set my bot up to buy cards. I wanted to stock Master's Edition and I didn't have time to buy collections by hand. I loaded the bot up with tickets and let it loose. Over the next day I let the bot buy until I checked the logs on the following evening. I saw that the bot had been buying a lot of Mishra's Workshops especially from the same user. I decided to do some quick research and I found that my bot was buying Mishra's Workshop for more than some retailers were selling it. My suspicion is that a savvy user figured this out and started buying them and then selling them to my bot.
I jumped into the bot with my remote control software to remove Workshop from my wish list. Lo and behold my industrious friend was back with some more Workshops to sell me. He connected and I sent him a chat message.
Him: Isn't this a bot?
Me: Yes but I'm doing some maintenance really quickly.
Him: What kind of maintenance?
Me: Removing some cards from my buy list.
Him: Which cards?
-- Whoever This Dude Was Left the Conversation --
I don't blame the guy for finding an angle and working it but I needed a way to protect myself and the only way would be to update my pricing multiple times a day. The way that the big bot chains do this is by having a central place where pricing is managed and then is pushed out to the rest of the network. I didn't have the time to manage a pricing list for my little MTGO Bot so I contacted the big dogs at Cardbot and inquired about becoming part of their network.
“I'm sorry; we're not taking any new clients at this time.”
What the heck?! Do these people not want my money? I did some more digging and found the name of a guy who runs these bots. I contacted him. He was very polite and cordial but he declined my request to join the network. I persisted and told him “Just give me a number; how much is it going to cost me?” He held his ground and declined to even tell me how much money it would cost if they were taking clients. I was a little disheartened by this exchange and later that week I shut the buying portion of my bot off.
The Beginning of the End
For a while I ran the bot as a sell-only bot. The problem with this model is stocking the bot. I spent my evenings trading for and buying MTGO collections. Most of them were small: $100 dollars here $300 dollars there. The intensity started to pick up and the collections that I was buying were getting bigger and bigger: $1000 here $2000 there. The problem was that I felt like I was chasing ghosts.
I spent hours pricing these collections (by the way there's no way to automatically price an MTGO collection) and even worse transferring them 75 cards at a time. You don't know true despair until you sit down after a 10-hour day at your day job to move a 40000-card MTGO collection 75 cards at a time. You can actually move these cards with another bot (another computer) if you have special software to run two computers on one (VMWare) but I didn't have either set up.
Needless to say this was taking a lot of time and money but it was yielding very little profit. Maybe I was doing it wrong (I bet the real MTGO pros are laughing at me right now) but to be a real player in this game you needed better connections and more patience than I had. I recently just finished grinding out a $4000 MTGO collection that I bought.
Optimistically speaking I made about $1000. If I would have put that money into paper then I could have doubled up in a quarter of the time. Here's the twist; I made more money on the Modern surge by just buying bots out and then reselling when the time was right than I did on the $4000 collection and I only invested $500 in Modern.
To Bot or to Not
At the end of the day I don't think that running a bot is a worthwhile pursuit for the typical grinder. The margins are too small; the market is unstable; and you need to invest a lot of time in making sure that your information is correct. My recommendation is to invest your time and money in paper singles or riding the waves of the MTGO speculations ocean. I sold all of my bot stock (over 90000) cards and shut the bot down last week.
My bot experience was educational and interesting and I left the project with some thoughts about how to work different angles of this digital market but until I have the time money and drive to hire a programmer these thoughts will have to wait for another day. If you have any questions about MTGO bots or my adventure feel free to drop them in the comments; I'll try to answer them. Now time to talk about a couple cards.
I know that some of you skip the article and only read this section (yes this sentence is for you Jamie) so it would be a misplay for me not to include it. This week I'm going to focus a little more on telling about some pricing that you may not have noticed as well as some cards that are starting to flare up.
Last week the card Laboratory Manic was spoiled and this prompted the buyout / price spike of these cards.
Leveler $3.99 – Seriously? If you want to break Laboratory Manic this seems like the most sucktastic option.
Mirror of Fate $.99 Sold Out – See Leveler.
Divining Witch $1.49 Sold Out – Cheaper than the other two options but it's a creature that taps to activate; it's probably garbage. On the bright side it can find you combo pieces.
Paradigm Shift $1.49 Sold Out – This is probably one of the better options. If this is going to be a deck I would look into Personal Tutor as a card to invest in.
Birthing Pod $11.99 – This card is about as hot as they come at the trade tables. I remember buying stacks of these for a dollar each. I expect this to be a viable strategy in Modern and post-rotation Standard.
Rite of Flame $3.99 – This is the backbone for a bunch of the U/R decks in Modern. It's a $4 common; isn't that insane? You can pick these up in trades for $.25 pretty easily; keep an eye out.
That's all for this week; have a rockin' week! Thanks for reading.