Four Simple Rules

I have been trading magic cards for 20 years.

It pains me to say, but I’ve made some terrible trades in my lifetime. TERRIBLE. Like, Onslaught fetch land for brand-new-shiny-mythic bad. I was 33, it’s not like I was a teenager who didn’t know better. (The teenage trades were more “my Tropical Island for your Lord of the Pit and its new best friend Breeding Pit.” Sigh.)

Today, I want to share with you four simple rules that if you follow them, you will never lose money at Magic. These are my safe rules, rules that will prevent you from losing significant value. I’ve never been one to speculate on cards or act in fevered response to results.

Rule #1: Trade all opened cards away at a pre-release or release event.

I have mentioned this rule in the past, but it remains a basic tenet of my philosophy. Supply is at its smallest, demand at its greatest. People lack the patience necessary to save money, all they see is the new hotness.

This is especially true for the brand-new mythics. The price on everything is going to go down (more on that in a moment) and even the bad mythics have a certain number of people who have to have the card. Fill that need for them. Trade them a bad card for the current premium price.

My personal experience: The Return to Ravnica prerelease. I opened a Vraska the Unseen, and within ten minutes of the end of the event, I’d found someone to trade me a Guildpact Stomping Ground and $15 in cash for it, since the planeswalker had a price at the time of $30.

Current example: Arlinn Kord. If you’re able to trade this away at $35-$40 or so (its preorder price) then you’re going to be far ahead. Only one planeswalker has kept that sort of price recently: Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. Arlinn has the chance to be good, with tokens and targeted damage as only two of her five abilities, but as history shows, she’s more likely to be $20 in a couple of months.

Rule #2: Never pre-order cards.

This is closely related to Rule #1, because no one wants to lose money on a preorder. What people remember is the one that got away, the Jace, the chase mythic, the surprise rare. Our memories are not as good at recalling the mistakes, the ones we bought at too high a price and did not make money on. Somehow, mentally, we accept those mistakes but tend to fixate on the opportunities we didn’t take advantage of.

I’m here to tell you that because almost all prices drop over time, there’s no financial benefit to preordering cards. Their prices are going to go down. Look at Oath of the Gatewatch. Kozilek was preordering for more than double his current price. Oath of Nissa was $8, now it’s a little over $2. You might hit it big on the one or two that are more expensive, but mostly, preordering will leave you in the red.

My Experience: Thespian’s Stage. I bought ten of these at $4 when it was first revealed, and I traded for them at $6…and then at $4 again…and then at $2…and then at $1…and now it’s finally back up to $2, three years later. Don’t be me!

Current example: Thing in the Ice. $15-$20 for this card is just silly. It can’t protect itself, and Reflector Mage is going to make you so very, very, very sad. Don’t preorder this. Don’t trade for this. Just wait. Please.

Rule #3: Do not buy singles until at least one month has passed.

This is one of the simplest concepts to get: Cards are most expensive immediately after release, and they are going to trend downward after that. Even when Standard cards spike, it’s rare that they maintain that spike, especially for a rare. Here’s Eldrazi Mimic:


Even as a four-of, even in the hottest deck in Modern, this has not been able to keep its price. Ten dollars that weekend, and trailing downward since. The vast majority of cards are going to lose value as more copies are opened. If you have to have a card for the new deck you’re playing, understand that you’re paying an extra premium for it. If you needed Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in the first month, you had to pay $40 or more! Now it’s down to $20, a more reasonable and manageable price.

My Experience: Prophet of Kruphix. I picked up a lot of these at about $4 soon after it came out, because a card this good just had to eventually find a home. It never did, and they went into long-term storage, where the Clash Pack and then the Commander ban keep shoveling dirt on my dreams.

Current Example: Jace, Unraveler of Secrets. He will have a big initial price, because his abilities are very strong. As time passes and more are opened, he’s going to drop. No one is going to play four of a Jace that costs five mana. Even the Jace, Memory Adept version was a one- or two-of in control decks as a finisher, and this Jace is defense and card advantage.

Rule #4: Stock up on things at the end of their block.

This is the time to buy stuff from Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch. It’s no longer going to be opened at Grands Prix, at Preliminary PTQs, or even at Friday Night Magic. There’s a new set getting all the attention and now is the time that the supply is at its greatest. This is when supply is highest, value is at the lowest, yet the power is the same.

My Experience: Jace, Architect of Thought

Look at this graph for that Jace.Jace Aot

During the time of Dragon’s Maze and Magic 2014, you could get him for $10. When Theros came out and devotion to blue became relevant, his price spiked hard to $30. Picking up cards when they are moving on to a new set is the perfect time to build value to be released later.

Current Example: The Battle for Zendikar lands. Especially because no one is playing this as a playset, they are primed to go up when fetch lands rotate out of Standard. You have been given a fair chance to get it cheap!

These are my rules, but come to the forums and share your financial rules!

9 thoughts on “Four Simple Rules”

  1. Great article.
    All good points all around, and I agree on the don’t pre-order rule.. but there are a few exceptions when it comes to penny stocks.

    I made a few good choices when DTK was in spoiler mode, it was very blatantly obvious that dragons was going to be a successful tribal deck. As such, I pre-ordered 15 copies of silumgar’s scorn for $0.04 each. I had to pay shipping, so I also took a chance on Icefall regent at $0.99.

    I outed them at the next GP where Esper Dragons was a high percentage of the field, $1.50 per SS and $5.50 per regent buy prices.

    1. There are a few random cases like this. I really wish I would have had the money to preorder Geist of Saint Traft. That was preordering at $2.50, and just looking at it you could tell it was severely underpriced.

  2. Origins Pre-release, traded Jace away for 2x Abbot, 1 Despoiler, 1 Hallowed Moonlight.

    About a week later was when the tears began flowing.

    1. Don’t beat yourself up. Jace is the one card out of the whole set. Think about all the other cards you’ve traded away at their peak. You’re ahead on the whole.

      If you fixate only on that one card, you’re going to lose out. You’ll hold onto things longer than you should.

      It’s better to be right about 99 cards and wrong about 1 of them.

      1. I pulled a jace out of my box – and held on to it for a while. I think I traded it into the store and picked up a Foil Wooded Foothills when it hit $50. I didn’t realize it would go up to where it is now, but at the time I was grinning.

  3. I like all of these rules, but I bend them at times.

    Pre-Orders: Never pre-order cards that are hyped… But… I think its fine to look for cards that are undervalued. Uncommons that are 25 cents that should be $1-$2. Rares that are $2.50 that should be $5. Reflector Mage and Sylvan Advocate were both pretty good pre-orders for me while everyone else was focused on Eldrazi. The same with Den Protector and Deathmist Raptor when everyone was focused on Dragonlords.

    I’m just saying… If there is a cheap card that not many people are talking about and you feel like its undervalued, I think its fine to pre-order. Especially if you are planning on playing the card anyway.

    Like with SOI… While everyone is focused on vampires and zombies… MAYBE… take a look at Topplegeist or Eerie Interlude when no one is looking (too bad both are in the supplemental). Trust your gut in some situations, especially if people tend to agree with the power of the card, but are ambivalent about its price. No one could argue with me for pre-ordering Reflector Mage, Sylvan Advocate, etc. because they weren’t overhyped yet and were still cheap. No one is even arguing with what they are selling for now… which probably means they will be going up soon.

    So… While everyone is focused on the overpriced hype, lets find us some Den Protectors, Deathmist Raptors, Jace VPs, Reflector Mages and Sylvan Advocate look-a-likes in SOI.

    So… while graveyard shenanigans, zombies, vampires and instants and sorceries are all the rage right now spoiler wise… Everyone take a look how many ETB triggers white has in this set. Now think about Reflector Mage and its subtle power. Now think about Eldrazi Displacer. Now take a look at all the cards in SOI spoilers again, ignoring hyped cards and just looking at synergies. No one is even mentioning how many fliers white and black has in this set because we have big ass dragons right now… So they are talking about zombies/werewolves and shit. No one seems to be looking at the raw power of Black/White fliers and ETB creatures. Becuase… MADNESS and ZOMBIES ZOMG! lolololol.

    There will be opportunities to make money from pre-orders, just like any other set. Just be sure you are looking at the right cards (ex: the ones no one else is talking about but still think are good.) Thalia’s Lieutenant anyone? Doesn’t he play nice with Relfector Mage, Allies and every other human ever printed? Won’t people be experimenting with this card in EDH and Modern? Oh ya, and white seems to have some sac outlets coming, so that could be interesting too. Pious Evangel anyone? Notice you can sacrifice any permanent to flip him, it doesn’t say creature?

    But ZOMG Thing in the Ice, Planeswalkers and ZOMBIES? lol.

    My general rule of thumb is never Pre-Order a card that I think has no chance of doubling in value. Thing in the Ice has no chance of Doubling in Value in my mind because its already at its peak price. Some of these other cards that are under-hyped, however, look like good targets depending on what prices we see.

    People NEED to remember that while there are cards that are over-priced initially, that means there are cards that are under-priced initially as well. I’m super curious to see what Declaration in Stone, Bygone Bishop, Thalia’s Luieutenant,etc. will be priced at since this set has Planeswalkers in it… lets just leave it at that!

    Everyone do yourself a favor and take a second look at all the WHITE cards in SOI. One or more of these white cards is going to be underpriced at release because people aren’t super hyped about them. But you can be sure as hell many of them will be played in a lot more decks than some of the more hyped cards.

  4. Wow WUBRG, just wow! lol

    Yeah I agree with WUBRG but only after I learned and got burned in the past. I really capitalized on Collected Company and Atarka’s Commands preorders. I was picking up foil Reflector Mages before anyone knew it was a card. I also made a killing on fetches cause the “experts” thought they would trend like Shock lands…luckily I was very right.

    2 modifications to Cliff’s rules:
    1. and I agree with WUBRG – if a card is NOT hyped and you think it’s really good buy a few. I thought Stratus Dancer looked good and playable with Deathmist shooting up early on during DTK presales. Well I’ve been mostly wrong but I got in at maybe $1 a copy. I firmly believed CoCo was at minimum a casual bomb and got in at $4 a copy on multiple playsets…well it’s been better than that. IF YOU LOVE A RARE AND IT’S $2 OR LESS BUY A PLAYSET OR 2. If you truly can’t afford that then seriously Magic finance isn’t for you.

    2. Don’t feel pressured to trade away a card at pre-release…also don’t be mad that someone refuses to trade a card you need even if you are giving fair value.
    People forget, there is sentimental value in Magic the Gathering. I unnecessarily value cards I open much more than cards I’ve traded for or bought. Arlinn Kord is going to drop in value, by a lot in my opinion, but if it’s the first planeswalker you ever opened at a pre-release and you did well for the first time at pre-release then maybe it’s worth it to keep the card. Yes this is a finance article, but people don’t associate monetary worth with happiness or memories. Conversely, don’t be mad that you offer a playset of Deltas for a new Jace from SOI and you are shot down. I’ve seen too many players flip out that someone wouldn’t trade card X to them even though they offered them the world…don’t ruin the fun part of Magic for others because you didn’t get what you wanted 😀

    Financially, Cliff is 98% right. If you track and trend the prices of rares, especially of the large sets, rares do NOT do well. Look at how much play Thought-Knot Seer is seeing in multiple formats, it’s under $10. So is Den Protector (currently but he could be like Courser and Caryatid and spike upon rotation), Hangerback, Reality Smasher, Thunderbreak etc. Even the mythics typically plummet a lot. But just because you Should trade pre-release cards away doesn’t mean you Have to.

    Additionally, pick cards from BFZ and Oath that you think are too low and start trading for them. I’ve been getting Oath of Jace for virtual pennies, well the card enables madness and has the name “Jace” on it; I’ll be shocked if it never sees play but it’s bulk so it’s about as safe a pick up as possible. I don’t recommend chasing DTK and Origins cards at this point unless you see them in an Eternal format. The cards from those 2 sets aren’t going to be along all that long and if you can’t flip them quickly you might get stuck with a whole lot of good Standard cards (like being stuck with Mantis Riders and Crackling Dooms).

  5. Great article, great “advices!”
    I mentioned trading away a pair of Polluted Deltas from Khans of Tarkir for Avacyn, Angel of Hope and Platinum Angel just before they both got reprinted in FTV: Angels. I would not feel too bad about trading away fetch-lands (or any card, for that matter), if you are not planning on using them, in exchange a card or two that you really want and will play in a deck right away. Yes, looking at historical pricing trends can help justify a decision to make a purchase, sale or trade (for short or long-term investment purposes). And looking at current price spikes on cards you just traded away, or cards you thought about buying last week – but did not, can make you doubt your love of MTG (finance) in general. Just remember, on an infinite timeline, the all gains and losses eventually cancel each other out.

  6. With all advice this is all generally correct at most times but people should not be blinded to when there are opportunities outside these rules. Oath of Nissa was a card mentioned as a don’t pre-order. But there was a window to pre order at $3 on SCG when they first went up and then a 1 week window after the release to get them out at $8 so you can make money through the pre-order process but its very micro management and the windows are short.

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