All the world's a stage
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.
Long ago stories were used as ways to impart wisdom or pass the moral values of a society on to the next generation. In early tribal cultures stories were a great way to teach your kid not to try and pet the tiger that lived in the next valley over. In medieval Europe passion plays reinforced strict Christian dogma. Entertaining lessons are more effective teaching tools than boring ones. People like to hear stories. They work.
In 2012 stories are everywhere and we use them for everything. Do you follow sports? Every single game has a narrative element now—a plucky small-market team versus the big market goliath maybe or a struggling superstar trying to finally get over the postseason hump. Are you a political junkie? Election coverage is almost entirely story-based. Instead of discussing policy differences that are brought up in the presidential debates for example most pundits focus on things like who 'won' them and what that might mean in terms of the overall narrative of the race. Gaffes and poll fluctuations are plot points and each campaign has their own cadre of spin doctors whose sole job is to try to make sure that the narrative works in favor of their candidate. When in doubt people seem to vote for the best story.
TV and the Internet dominate our free time and we now take it as normal to experience hundreds of stories each day. We watch police procedurals and are reassured that the good guys generally win because the bad guys leave behind enough evidence or will make a mistake at the last possible moment. We watch medical shows and internalize the belief that while some people have to die most of the ones we really like will live. We watch comedies and are reminded that couples and families and friends spend a good deal of time fighting but it's okay because love will always come out on top. We watch reality shows and feel better about ourselves after seeing people worse off than us turn their lives around in 44 minutes. What can they do that we can't after all with a little effort?
Reality television has especially come to bring a sense of narrative into everyday life. The MTV shows of the '90s pioneered the idea of turning real people into archetypes—the bookworm the hippie the party guy the wild card—through selective casting and editing. From there real people have begun to view themselves in terms of the qualities that they believe publically define them as if they were characters in a TV show. How many of you have had a dark or transformative period in your lives when you've said to yourself "You know what? I don't like who I am right now. I'm going to try to become a <insert archetypal character here>." I know I have.
Stories also have strong roots in the way humans attempt to cope with traumatic situations. Many people who live with the scars of an abusive childhood and haven't dealt with it through proper therapeutic channels will continually create and recreate similar narrative situations in their lives in an attempt to work through them. This generally just leads to more trauma—it's a major part of why so many people seem to date a string of abusive or otherwise lousy significant others. Once you're stuck in a narrative pattern breaking that loop is extremely difficult.
I believe that this last point plays a large part in why narratives have come to dominate our lives. Media outlets ascribe a narrative to everything because their research shows that it's popular and effective to do so—their bottom line is to attract as many viewers listeners or readers as possible. I believe that this popularity exists partially because assigning stories to things allows us to bring order to an otherwise chaotic and interconnected world.
Ten thousand years ago the worst thing you could hear about would be a drought a disease outbreak in your tribe or an attack from the village across the river. You pretty much knew everyone you were ever going to see meet attack or elect.
There are seven billion of us now and many of us have Wi-Fi. If a terrorist attacks a village in Kuwait you'll read about it. If a psychopath in Boise goes off his meds and kills a couple of truckers you'll see it on the news. Every natural disaster and humanitarian crisis is simulcast worldwide in high definition. The men and women who lead you and shape your world are only visible as sound bites on the evening news—you've probably never met them and you probably never will. The world can feel strict and regimented thoughtless and chaotic at the same time. Through darkly tinted lenses modern life can feel like equal parts guilt fear and regret.
So we tell stories. We tell them over and over again. We fill our media with narratives that reassure us that there is justice and order in the world. We cast everyone around us as actors in the stories of our lives: the dorky best friend the evil boss the girl on the pedestal who will bring you salvation if she'd ever wake up and realize that YOU are the hero of this tale.
Have any of you ever had a near miss in your car and wondered if your consciousness had suddenly shifted into a parallel universe where you had survived? I suspect that many of us secretly believe that we are invincible until something comes along to shatter that illusion.
Never Tell Me The Odds!
On September 28th 2011 the Boston Red Sox squared off against the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays played the New York Yankees. The Boston Red Sox lost and went home for the winter. The Rays won and earned a spot the playoffs. On the surface this doesn't seem like that remarkable a thing.
But it was.
According to polling guru Nate Silver the odds of last year's baseball season ending like that after an especially chaotic month were just 1 in 278 million. Those odds are roughly equal to having your name randomly selected in a phone book containing the name of every single citizen of the United States of America.
Of course those odds neglect to account for one thing: the fact that the baseball players were acutely aware of their situation. When presented with the looming possibility of punting their season away in a collapse of historical proportions I'm sure the Red Sox players began to tighten up. When everything started to go right for the Rays I'd imagine they firmly started to believe that it wasn't over until the final strike.
Heck I wouldn't be shocked if many of the players imagined themselves as narrative figures playing their roles in something far beyond the simple machinations of a baseball game. Have you ever watched a sporting event and had a looming sense of knowing exactly what was going to happen on the next play—no matter how statistically improbable—and then being right? That happens a lot more than it should right? I think part of that is that the players themselves are just as aware of the narrative and their play will gravitate toward fulfilling their own individual destinies.
Which finally brings me to Magic.
Magic is a streaky game but it really shouldn't be. Luck comes into play a lot more than we like to think it does: mana screw/flood bad sealed pool opens getting cut in draft unlucky matchups and more. Considering all of this winning five or six matches straight against roughly equal competition should be quite difficult even on the best of days.
Except there are times when you just run good. Everyone has them: FNMs when you always draw the right card at the right moment and Prereleases where you firmly believe that you could go X-0 against the entire room if it came to it.
This happens in part because of your commitment to the narrative. Today you are the winner. Your confidence allows you to play loose and aggressively. You joke with your opponent and play to win instead of simply playing not to lose. You trust your instincts because they're the instincts of someone who is going to win. And you do.
The reverse also happens. When you start expecting the worst the worst is generally what happens. For more on this check out John Rizzo's classic article "Stuck in the Middle with Bruce."
There are several major places where narrative-driven thought impacts Magic finance as well. Understanding them is crucial not only to understanding why prices work the way that they do but how to maximize your ability to speculate successfully.
Every Picture Tells a Story
I have a few stories I would like to tell you. They aren't exceptional in any way really—just the normal sort of stories that many of the cards in my collection have. You probably have dozens of stories just like them.
It was late in the summer of 2010 and Primeval Titans were impossible to find. I had almost finished foiling out my cube but there were a small handful of pesky cards that continued to elude me. One of them was the aforementioned Titan. Not only did no one seem to have one but those that did wanted upwards of $90 in trade. I knew it would come down in price of course but my love for shiny things knows no bounds.
I ended up finding a local Legacy player who was willing to cut me a really nice deal on the card. In exchange for his pack fresh foil Titan I shipped him two copies of Vindicate which were currently selling for $30 each. This was a ~$15-$20 discount at the time but of course the trade looks awful in hindsight. Vindicate still retails for $30 while the foil Titan is worth just $25.
I was at a SCG Open Series in Los Angeles last month. After scrubbing out of the Legacy event I hit the trade tables and ended up making a deal with a major floor trader from Las Vegas. The deal was big—$150-$200 worth of cards—and part of my compensation was two copies of Sorin Lord of Innistrad that would finish off my personal playset of Dark Ascension. I made the deal got home and was shocked to find that one of the Sorins was nowhere to be found. Not only was I down a Sorin but I still had to trade for another copy in order to finish my set. Even worse the card has risen from $10 to $15 so I'd have to give up even more than I did the first time.
On the night that Valakut was unbanned in Modern I immediately went to one of my favorite online retailers and placed an order for eight copies of Prismatic Omen at $5 each. The order was honored and I received the cards a few days later. The retail price had climbed to $15 so I offered them to people at $9 each. They sold within a few hours and I had made a nice little profit.
When the Commander precons were spoiled I immediately purchased several dozen copies of Command Tower for $2.99 each. Even though the card was a common I knew it was a must have for every Commander deck ever made and that demand would likely outstrip supply. I've held onto them for over a year now and the price has only climbed a little bit—from $2.99 to $3.99. I haven't sold a single copy.
I don't think much about any of these stories but that doesn't mean they don't affect my subconscious opinions of each of these cards. Even though anecdotal evidence is close to worthless as an analytical tool our own experiences still make up the majority of what we use to craft a point of view on something. If you asked me to free associate on these cards I would probably ascribe the modifier 'overpriced' to Primeval Titan 'frustrating' to Sorin 'lucrative' to Prismatic Omen and 'slow to catch on' to Command Tower. They might not be the first words I'd come up with but they'd be on the list.
There's a lot going on here of course. I've written about the sunk cost fallacy before but it bears a brief revisitation. In short humans hate to lose. We often fixate on recouping the cost put into an item (or action) without giving fair consideration to the item's current and future value. For example imagine buying two cards—one for $10 and another for $5. The $10 card drops to $8 while the $5 card rises to $8. Which one should you sell?
The answer is that the purchase price of the card is irrelevant; the only thing that matters is where each card is likely to head. Subconsciously however you are far more likely to sell the card that started at $5 and lock in your profits rather than sell the card that started at $10 and recoup your losses. People don't like to admit they were wrong and would sooner ride their bad decisions into the ground than admit to themselves that they wasted some of their money or time.
I would like to extend this thought further and investigate it through the lens of narrative attribution. When it comes to buying selling and trading Magic cards I don't think the sunk cost fallacy is the only thing keeping us from making proper decisions—it's the storylines that we subconsciously attribute to nearly every card in our possession.
You see this most with players who are very old or very new and it happens with causal players more than competitive ones. Many who have been playing the game since 1994 can tell you a story or nine about every card in their collection: epic games won and friendships forged. Folks who just started playing last month only have a few cards so each one takes on a richer meaning. That Thragtusk isn't just a Standard staple—it's the card that allowed them to win the only draft they've ever 3-0'd. It might be time to trade that Jace Architect of Thought while the price is high but it's hard because it's the first planeswalker they ever opened.
Tournament players and speculators aren't immune though. In my experience grinders are far less likely to part with pieces of decks that they've won with and are eager to move cards that caused them to lose multiple events in a row. Ease of acquisition is a major factor as well—if it took someone a month to track down that fourth copy of Thoughtseize getting them to part with it later is going to be much more difficult. It works the other way too. I bought a set of Tamiyos last week for $65 and flipped them immediately for $82. I didn't think much about it and was happy to net $15 after shipping. If it had taken me several weeks to acquire those Tamiyos via trade though I would have been far less cavalier about selling them. Cards acquired via cash for whatever reason just feel different to me than cards I've traded for. It feels like they have a different purpose. Their stories are supposed to have a different ending.
It is easy to use this knowledge to your advantage when trading. Unless I really need a card I almost never go after anything that my trading partner has any emotion invested in. If they seem hesitant about parting with one or two of the handful of spells I'm interested in going after those becomes a last resort.
I find it easier to go after cards that have just gone up in price a little. The narrative of "I opened/traded for this creature it went up in price and I was able to flip it for a Standard staple I really wanted!" is a good story. It's the kind of trade that allows everyone to be content because it gives both parties a happy ending for their cards.
Trading for things that have just made a major price shift in either direction is very difficult. Because of the sunk cost fallacy people are never eager to trade things that they had to give up a lot to get. That foil Primeval Titan of mine might be worth just $25 but I'll never forget that I had to give up two Vindicates to get it. I'm not going to trade it—it's a champ in cube—but if I did I'd feel rotten getting retail for it. This makes it hard to trade for things like Xiahou Dun and Scars block mythics just after rotation. It's also part of why cards like Morphling are still worth $10 despite seeing no play in any format competitive or casual.
Some people get disgusted when their cards go down and are eager to trade them but that's rare. You can generally find out if someone feels this way by asking them how the format rotation went for them what deck they played last season or (if they're a speculator) what cards they whiffed on recently.
Generally it isn't a good idea to ask people how they got any of the cards you're trying to trade for though. Doing that brings up the narrative in their mind and will generally make them less likely to complete a deal. The important thing is to read the information you're given not to try and draw out a forgotten storyline.
The Public Eye
One of the most common questions I am asked is why a certain card is worth a certain amount even though it sees less play or is easier to come by than a comparable card that is worth less. The answer to that generally is because of the place each card holds in the public narrative.
As far as I know Wolfir Silverheart never did all that much in Standard. It was played in a couple of winning decks but it was far from a metagame-defining force. Yet it spiked last spring from $0.50 to over $10 in a matter of hours. Why?
The Pro Tour immediately following the release of Avacyn Restored was Block Constructed. In Innistrad Block there were very few answers to Wolfir Silverheart. Thus the card dominated the Pro Tour—and the headlines coming out of the Pro Tour. Even though Block is an unpopular format that almost nobody plays at the local level the card jumped because everyone who read or watched coverage of the Pro Tour heard the same thing repeated over and over: Wolfir Silverheart is the breakout card of this event. That became the narrative from that Pro Tour and the card spiked accordingly.
This sort of reporting is generally how the news works today. For instance a lot of ground was covered in the first presidential debate by both candidates. More often than not though Romney seemed to adopt a confident tone while Obama looked tentative. This was the most interesting story coming out of the debate so it was the one that almost all of the bloggers and columnists wrote up that night. Even now just three weeks later 'Obama lost the debate' is probably the only thing people remember about that night. I'm not saying it isn't true—Obama did have a really bad debate—but it's very interesting how that became the one and only narrative from that evening.
This isn't just a political thing or a Magic thing—it's a news thing. We are inundated with thousands of stories daily and no one has the time to develop a truly informed opinion on everything. We each have our areas of expertise but in things that we're weaker on we generally just try and do our best to shortcut our way to understanding. And the easiest best way for people to try and get their mind around a complex topic? Turn it into a story.
As a Magic speculator then there can be such a thing as failing because of too much information. While wins and losses eventually shake the best cards to the highest prices short-term losses and gains are much more influenced by the public narrative than overall playability. I have never made a short-term speculation on a card that no one has been talking about because people have to be conscious of a card in order for the price to go up. When people tell me about their pet specs I smile but I don't buy in until the public starts to get excited.
It is also easy to get too technical about how good a card actually is when running a short-term spec. As I'm writing this Nivmagus Elemental has just shocked everyone by coming fast out of the gates at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. Unfortunately for the deck's pilots everyone else at the event seems to be on Jund which is the deck's worst matchup. So far the Nivmagus deck hasn't done that well—at least on camera.
It's too early to tell yet what the narrative will be. If the Nivmagus deck flames out people might have forgotten about it by Monday and Jund will be the one and only story. People love a rogue brew though and I suspect the deck will be the talk of the community over the next few days. Even if it never wins another event Nivmagus Elemental will likely jump in price simply due to the fact that it makes for a good story. That was reason enough for me to jump in and by a bunch of copies.
"We're all stories in the end. Just make it a good one eh?"
For those of us who watch Doctor Who the idea that time is narrative is not a new one. While the show often plays fast and loose with its own rules of time travel the most important one this season has been time's unique relationship with storytelling. According to the rules of the show any action or event written down by someone and read by someone else is immutable. Not even a near-immortal demigod with a sentient time machine can rewrite history as long as they have prior knowledge of it and it was consumed as factual media ahead of time. Even when traveling through time we are all slaves to the narrative.
This is a powerful metaphor because it speaks deeply to where we've found ourselves as a society. Part of the reason we are so divided is because we've each painted the world with our own set of heroes and villains and attributed our own assumed motivations to the public figures that shape our world. And because information surges at us through 500 channels and several million websites we tend to focus our attention toward only those others who share our immediate worldview. You me the guy down the hall…we each act like we are trapped in different quasi-fictional universes existing simultaneously in the same space.
But that isn't true. Time can't be rewritten but that doesn't mean that we are all just characters living out our lives in pursuit of some predestined epilogue. We don't get new abilities more money better lives or true love just because the page turns—we have to work toward our goals every day of our lives. I have found that the absolute hardest part of growing up has been the realization that my actions have real and lasting consequences. Every day I don't write is a day I don't grow as a writer. Every day I eat too much pizza is a day I don't grow healthier as a person.
It isn't written in the cosmic narrative that I must write—that's a choice I must constantly make. It also isn't written anywhere that I must be overweight—that's a choice I keep making too. We are all victims of circumstances to some degree but we also have the free will to grow in amazing and unexpected ways. The only way to find out what you can do is by trying to break free of the parts of your life's story that you don't want to live anymore.
Most Magic cards are just cards. The ones that mean more than that to you should never be traded. The rest of them—the other 99% of your collection—should be dealt with as dispassionately as possible. If you find yourself thinking back to what it took to acquire a card or shy away from making a trade because they card you're after burned you in the past try and realize what you're doing to yourself and let logic not emotion dictate the correct move. If you're a speculator don't undervalue the popular opinion or the public narrative—that drives the price far more than mathematical tournament win percentage or anything else.
I'm going to leave you with one more quote—a piece of advice that has been freeing for me since I first heard it eleven years ago in one of my all-time favorite films:
"All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to us." -Gandalf the Grey
"All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to us."
-Gandalf the Grey
Until next time–