What's this worth?
Gen Con 2011
It was Saturday, and I was trying to make the most of my last full day of trading at Gen Con. I had two trades going when David Sharfman walked up with the Counterspell that's pictured above. He waited patiently for me to finish with the other two trades and then handed the card to me for inspection.
“What would you pay on that?” he asked.
“Are you looking to ship it or just to get a quote?”
“I'm curious, but if the price is right I'd sell it.”
Alright, pause the game for a second. I've got to come clean about something. When it comes to pricing this kind of stuff, I have no idea what I'm doing (no one really does). I usually just try to get as much information as I can before making an offer. This revelation might put you in panic mode, “If Medina can't tell us how to price this stuff, then who can?!” The purpose of this week's article is just to make you aware of the different oddities and how to approach trading for them.
Before making an offer on a card like this, you have to at least have two things: an outlet and some idea of what you can get for it. I've always had a leg up on other traders because I have direct outlets for these types of cards. The limited experience that I do have with these cards also gives me an edge because once you've dealt with a handful of these, it's easy to develop an instinct for what you can get. You'll see how I navigate the conversation below to make an offer.
I thought for a second and then made an offer, “I can give you $30 on it.”
“Let me think about it. Alex Bertoncini wanted it so I want to see what he's going to offer.”
“That works. Let me know what his offer is. Maybe I can do better.”
My initial offer of $30 was aggressive in my opinion, but I didn't want to disrespect David by giving him a low-ball offer. I've dealt with playable miscut commons before, and it was pretty easy to get $20 to $25 out of them. I figured with something as iconic as Counterspell that I could get a little more. As you can see, I don't have hard numbers. I'm just playing jazz here; it's more of an art than a science.
A few hours later David returned.
“Alex said he'd give me $50 for it.”
$50 is way over my initial estimate; did I really want to be that aggressive? The other aspect to consider here was that maybe Alex didn't offer anything on it. My default mode is to trust people, but you have to be shrewd when it comes to money. You'd be surprised how much money changes people. Luckily for me Alex was passing by, so I could do some fact checking. I wanted to check in a way that wouldn't be obvious; again I didn't want to disrespect David.
“Hey Alex, are you crazy offering $50 on this Counterspell?”
Alex responded, “I want it for my Legacy deck! Are you trying to get it?”
“Yeah, but I don't want to get in a bidding war with you! You'll crush me!”
Alex laughed, “I can't go higher than $50.”
This exchange gave me all the information that I needed to make the deal. Now I knew that Alex did offer $50 and that it was his final offer. This means that $51 in cash would get me the Counterspell. The next question was; did I want to pay $51 dollars for it? The answer was no. Cash is king in this business, and throwing that kind of money down for an unknown quantity was risky. I didn't want to pay cash for the Counterspell, but I still wanted it. If Alex B was willing to throw down $50 on it, then my collector connections should at least do $55.
I came up with a solution. I offered David $60 in trade. When doing business, I always go to the worst-case scenario, or what I call the reasonable worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that someone punches me in the face, steals my cards, and then while trying to chase them down, I get hit by a bus … Okay, you get the point. It can always be worse right? It's not reasonable to consider that every card transaction will end with me being road kill. It is reasonable to think that I won't be able to get more than $60 from my connections. The worst-case scenario here is that I'll have to go back to Alex B and sell him the Counterspell at $50. By offering $60 in trade, this allows me to basically sell $60 worth of cards for $50 cash. This may seem strange to “lose value,” but $60 in trade almost never translates to $50 in cash.
Note: The above statement relates to when I trade $60 in cards out. When I am trading for $60 in cards, my goal is to trade for $60 + in actual cash value. This can be accomplished by trading for low-grade rares that buylist for their trade value or more. An example of such cards is Sanguine Bond, which you can trade off people for $1-$2, and you can buylist it (sell it to a dealer) for $2 or more.
David accepted the $60 in trade, and we worked out a deal for the Counterspell. I took a picture of it with my phone and sent it to my contact to see if he wanted it and how much he would pay. I figured that if he got back to me before the end of the weekend with an offer of less than $50, then I would pitch it to Alex. There was a chance that this could be worth some insane amount of money (Spoiler: it wasn't).
My contact got back to me with an offer of $50. This was good news; it meant that I didn't have to depend on Alex to recoup on the investment. I also have another contact in Cincinnati who collects miscuts and misprints, so this gave me an opportunity to pitch it to him when I got back. My Cincinnati contact named Keith was able to match the $60 that I gave for it. Here's what I got:
I didn't go with the “trade for low-grade” rares plan because he had four Bribery, which he valued at $10 each, and I expected them to jump. Networking is what really made this trade work for me, and that's the case with most of these oddities. I have a very simple understanding of this realm of pimp cards, but that little bit of knowledge goes a long way. I'll introduce you to the different types of oddities and say a little bit about each one.
This is when the sheet of cards gets cut wrong and cards end up off-center. As with all oddities, the more severe the miscut, the more the card is worth. Miscuts that show two cards are the ones that are most desirable. The playability of the card also comes into play when determining the value. Cards that are playable in Vintage, Legacy, and Commander typically go for more than Standard and Modern cards. See below to get a feel for some miscut pricing. The Manavault for example sold for $330.
Crimps occurs during the packaging process when cards are put into the packs. Sometimes a card gets crimped with the end of the pack. Like the miscuts, the more severe the crimp the better. The Grim Monolith above was sold for $35 when normal ones were selling for $22. Crimps can typically fetch you an extra 10% to 50% of the card's value.
There are a number of different types of misprints. The picture above is a Dredge Skeleton with the Swamp artwork. This is an example of a printing error. These mistakes have multiple copies of the same printing error, so they are less rare than random misprints. Other misprints are created by printing malfunctions, like running out of ink or blotting; see below for an example.
Card alters have been around for a while, but in the last year they have skyrocketed in popularity. I don't think that any single factor caused this, but things like Jeremy Froggatt's column, Eric Klug's blog, and the fact that StarCityGames.com has been hosting card artists at each SCG Open have made card altering a big part of Magic culture. No matter what the reason is for the popularity, alters are now commonplace at the trade tables, and you should get acquainted with them.
Like with any piece of art, altered cards vary in their price range, but there are two factors that can have an effect on the price: who did the alter and what type of alter is it?
Who did the alter?
Alters that are done by the artists who did the original artwork typically sell for more than ones by freelance artists. Below is an example of a custom alter that was done by Terese Nielsen.
There's no reference for pricing these types of cards, but I've seen other Terese Nielsen Force of Will alters go for over $600 on eBay. This typically isn't the case for freelance artists, but some are becoming such masters that their pieces are selling high. Let's take this Maze of Ith by Eric Klug for example:
Eric put this up for “auction” on Facebook. The bidding started at 11:47 am, and it was up to $200 only ten minutes later. The bid is up to $550 dollars at the moment. There are some people who don't understand why anyone would pay so much money for an altered card, but these are the same people who don't understand why someone would spend hundreds of dollars on Japanese foils. In this case, the buyer sees this as an opportunity to own a one-of-a-kind piece of art. This is an example of the highest level of altered cards. There are some artists who don't command as high a premium. I've seen low-level alters sell for as low at $15; this is typically decided by the notoriety of the artist or the quality of their work.
What kind of alter is it?
Alters come in three different styles: the doodle, extensions, and full alters. See the examples below.
The doodle is typically done by the artist with whatever markers that they're using to sign cards. This doesn't usually add much value to the card. The only ones that I've seen go for a chunk of change are the ones that are done with silver and gold marker on foils. See the two examples below (the Sol Ring sold for $68 on eBay).
This style of alter is a simple extension of the artwork. These are typically less expensive than a full alter. The one below was done by Eric Klug.
Full alters are worth more because they take more time, and they include custom work. Instead of just extending the borders, the artist needs to do research and create something for the card. This is another example from Eric Klug's blog.
Interview with Eric Klug
I'm not an expert in the field of alters, so I figured that I would talk to someone who is. Eric makes a living altering cards, and he was kind enough to share his experience with us.
My name is Eric Klug. I've played Magic for the past twelve years. I've been altering cards as a hobby for the past three years. In January of 2011, I started my blog Klug Alters and have been painting cards fulltime ever since.
What tips can you give for pricing alters when trading for them?
I price my cards based on the value of the unaltered card, the time I've put into it, and demand. I think you also have to take into account quality, but that usually has a direct correlation to time invested. Personally, I've spent the past year trying to find a balance between what my time is worth and providing reasonable prices to the community. Demand has gone way up, and prices increase with it, but I also find myself spending more time on each alter. I'm constantly looking to one-up myself. It's all very subjective, but keeping all these factors in mind is a good start.
Where do you see the alter culture going in the future?
Over the past year or so the community has exploded. Lots of people are painting for the first time, and many of the regulars are raising the bar in terms of quality. SCG support has been incredible. I'm curious to see where things go in terms of innovation. A few years ago, all you saw were extensions. Now people are trying anything and everything. I'm not sure what the future holds specifically, but it's certain to hold good things.
What was the most that you ever sold an alter for and what was it?
Currently I'm holding a silent auction for my M. C. Escher Maze of Ith through the Klug Alters Facebook page. Today the high bid is $550 (the auction ends Friday). This already surpasses everything by a long shot. Second in line is my Voltron Squadron Hawk playset, which sold for $200.
Why do you think people buy alters? Do you expect this market to grow or shrink?
People have been pimping out their decks since the dawn of time; alters are just another extension of that. The past year has seen a huge spike in demand for good alters. I've tried to lead the forefront in the push for artists to produce high-quality work and feel I've been successful in putting out that message. I think the market will grow as long as the work continues to remain fresh. That gets back to innovation within altering and is a topic I'm always keeping in the back of my head.
Is there anything the readers should know on the topic of altered cards?
A fair amount has been published on the legality of alters in tournament play, so I'd like to take the chance to set the record straight. Here's what the official rulebooks have to say:
MAGIC: THE GATHERING® TOURNAMENT RULES
Effective April 1, 2011
Section 3.3 Authorized Cards:
Artistic modifications are acceptable, provided that the modifications do not make the card unrecognizable or contain substantial strategic advice.
The Head Judge is the final authority on acceptable cards for a tournament.
There are no definite perimeters for what a legal alter needs because the DCI does not specifically define what 'unrecognizable' means. Always consult the Head Judge before the tournament and make sure you have an extra copy of the card in case your alter is deemed unacceptable for tourney play.
Name your three favorite alters artists.
In no particular order: Ron Spencer, Demonium (of MTGSalvation), and Terese Nielsen. Nielsen and Spencer are actual Magic artists and coincidentally, brother and sister. They've been altering for years, and their stuff is always super polished and full of energy. Demonium is a French artist who posts on the American forums. His use of color and draftsmanship are both things to envy.
That's all I have for this week. I hope you enjoyed it. If I missed anything, be sure to sound off in the comments. Thanks for reading!