Betting Against the Market: How to Short-Sell in the MTGO Economy

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by Anonymous

Editor’s note: The current state of the Magic the Gathering Online (MTGO) economy is truly unique in the world of video gaming. Fundamentally unchanged for over a decade, interacting with this aged software is almost certainly jarring for players coming from modern gaming platforms like Hearthstone, Gwent or Magic: Arena. One of the more glaring oddities is the ability to actually buy and sell cards on the platform from other parties that are not Hasbro owned or controlled. Perhaps even more odd is the continuing dominance of the platform’s digital marketplace by 3rd party bots that use price adjustment algorithms and a narrow spread to mine player sales and purchases for real world money. Tickets are still a relatively high value in-game currency worth over .9 USD most days, and they are relatively easy to buy and sell outside the platform via real world transactions with other players or bot owners. In addition, the lack of major formats older than Standard on Arena has ensured, at least for the short to mid term, that players looking to compete digitally in Pioneer, Modern, Legacy or Vintage must do so in this parallel platform. From 2012 to 2015 I managed a portfolio of MTGO card assets worth over $10K with excellent results. News on the coming of Arena crashed the market toward the end of that period, prompting me to exit, but left me with unanswered questions about what might have been. One of those questions was “could there be a way to “short” Magic cards on MTGO. With the advent of MTGO card lending services, we now have our answer. Read on, for details, as an experienced operator explains how it’s done.

The Magic the Gathering Online (MTGO) economy is a rollercoaster of price action unique to digital Magic. Unlike paper cards, buying and selling on MTGO only takes a few seconds, which promotes a very fluid economy. The difference between purchasing and selling a card (the “spread”) on MTGO is also relatively small, typically in the range of 5-30%, depending on the demand profile of the card. Factors affecting the spread include player demand, price, and the length of time since the last printing of the card. All of this means that players can and often do buy and sell cards frequently to switch between decks, unlike in paper eternal formats, where a greater portion of player’s collections are hidden outside the market in closets and under beds.  

MTGO players are fickle creatures. Most MTGO cards are fairly reasonably priced, but when a card begins to see a significant amount of play, its price can skyrocket quickly. This is especially true when a card becomes the centerpiece of a hot new deck that did well in recent tournament results. This is because competitive play is the primary driver of the MTGO economy, with Pioneer leading the way, followed by Modern/Standard, Legacy, and to a much lesser extent Vintage and Pauper. 

High prices for multi-format staples like Teferi, the Time Reveler are fairly stable, but cards that have a massive price jump overnight are often followed by a dramatic plunge back to reality. As a result windows of opportunity open and close constantly, sometimes multiple times per day!

If you ever look at the daily/weekly price movers on MTG Goldfish, this phenomenon becomes quickly apparent. While this has always been true, the launch of Pioneer has reinvigorated the MTGO economy, which in combination with shorter periods and higher fees for redeeming full sets of MTGO cards into physical form, has contributed to a fast moving realm of speculation and risk. 

The MTGO Short Sell

The process of profiting from falling prices is called “Short Selling”, and is a method more traditionally employed by options traders in the global stock markets. The concept is relatively simple: an investor borrows a stock, sells the stock immediately (the “short”), and at a later time the investor buys the stock at the new market rate (“cover”) to return it to the original lender. Profit is made for the investor if the short – the original sale price – is higher than the price paid to cover – to buy the stock back. 

One important thing to note about short selling is that it is inherently more dangerous than a traditional approach of betting on a price increase. This is because when short-selling, an investor’s potential loss is unlimited, instead of being limited by the gap between your purchase price and $0! Think about it. If you buy an investment for $25, the most you can lose is $25, i.e. your initial investment. However, with “naked short”, you’re loss is a potentially (though not practically) infinite increase to the price of the investment. So if a MTGO card goes from $25 to $100, you could lose $75, or 300%!

Short sales are also well suited to MTGO because historically MTGO prices have fallen/stagnated, rather than enjoying significant long term gains as in most first world markets. It is unclear whether Pioneer on MTGO will change this, but personally I doubt it. It’s more likely just a short reprieve until Pioneer is eventually ported to MTG Arena, resulting in a new MTGO crash and playing the short game is a solid way to be mostly out the door before the crowd.

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Spotting an Opportunity for a Short Sale

To effectively leverage a short sale on MTGO you must first find an overvalued card. Ideally you actually want to find a grossly overvalued card. A card that will slowly trend downward overtime is not enough – because each day you hold a short-sale you are losing money in fees. More on fees later. There are several key indicators that help identify grossly overvalued cards. 

Price Spike: Look for cards that have experienced a massive price increase in the last week or two, typically at least 100% for expensive mythics, or 200% or more for rares. Also look for cards that started at a reasonable price. Generally speaking, the more dramatic the increase, the better.

Critical Price Threshold: I’ve found that cards that cost around 1-4 tickets prior to a price spike start to see heavy resistance and begin to retrace when they approach 10-15 tickets.  Similarly, I find that previously 20 ticket cards begin to retrace after reaching 40-50 tickets. These thresholds are important as you consider your entry point into a short position, though strong statistical data is not easily found to frame our action.

Comparison to Similar Cards: Each set on MTGO is different. Some sets are drafted much less than others, and some cards have multiple reprints/promo’s, while others do not. As you evaluate a potential opportunity, examine closely how the price of your prospect compares to other cards from the same set. Specifically try to compare price trends to other cards that see similar amount of competitive play, share the same rarity, and have similar number of reprints.

Play Patterns: If a card price increased rapidly because it’s in a freshly hot deck, two things can happen that create a short sale opportunity. First, the card could fall out of favor – either due to a shift in the meta or because the deck was cool or fun (often promoted by streamers), but is not particularly good at winning. After all MTGO is a competitive environment and novelty tends to wear out very quickly on the platform that requires 10 ticket entry to each competitive league. Second, and probably more common, the price simply becomes unsustainably high compared to other similarly situated cards. Even good cards often become overpriced due to FOMO in the short term and sometimes supply just runs out of fresh demand to feed.

Risk/reward: This will be unique for every card, but try to consider the risk and range of potential gains/losses for each transaction. Only enter a short for transactions that you are confident have significant potential gains with limited downside risk. This is about the “feel” of the trade, and is mostly voodoo built on top of solid heuristics.

Recent Banning: If you are available when a new ban list is posted, you can often quickly flip banned cards for a quick profit. This requires immediate action, as bots will often cut off their buylists for banned cards within minutes.

Timing of a Short Sale

When executing a short sale, you must be sure to time your actions carefully. There is a brief period when MTGO cards have begun to level off, but bot vendors still offering solid if not generous sell prices. Get the best sale price possible by leveraging multiple vendors. I recommend comparing Cardhoarder and Goatbots to get your best sale price most of the time. These bot companies are both rock solid and between the two you’ll often get close to the best prices around and significantly close the buy/sell spread. Additionally check MTGO Traders HotBuyList, which generally has the best buylist around, but may only be looking for certain very sought-after cards at any given time.  

Finding the peak price is often more art than science. I recommend you look back at old price trends to get a feel for spotting a change in the weather. I’ve analyzed a few of my own trades below, but examples are abundant on MTG Goldfish

Logistics and Opportunity Costs

To execute a short sale, you must first sign up for a MTGO rental account. This is the innovation that forms the central pillar of shorting on MTGO and the “borrowing” portion of the short sale, so you can sell, and subsequently cover (buy) the card you are speculating on. There are multiple vendors in the MTGO card rental space, but the one that seems to work best for short sales is Cardhoarder.  You can sign up for an account here. There is typically a multi-week wait to sign up for a rental accounts, so do keep that in mind.

When you create your loan account, you must determine what level of ticket allowance you’d like access to at any given time. The cost of your service will depend on how many tickets you select – specifically Cardhoarder charges 3% of your loan value per week. This means that each ticket of loan value costs $.03/week, or $3/week for 100 tickets.  You are charged for your maximum ticket allowance regardless of whether you use your allocation.  

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I started with 500 tickets, and plan to move to 1,000 ticket plan soon. If you are just getting started, I would recommend starting small and working up higher as you become more confident in your results. Another way to approximate a short on cards is by selling a card you already own as part of your personal collection, and eventually buying them back later once the price drops, thereby lowering the cost of your personal collection. I often do this for the expensive staples in my collection – especially around set rotation, but obviously this method is limited based on your collection size.

Short Sale Case Studies

So, to summarize, here’s what we’re going to do: we will rent cards, sell them high, and then look to buy them low as soon as possible and return them to the rental service. Our profits will be the gap between those two prices minus time spent and rental fees paid. Got it? Let’s look at some examples:

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  • Price Spike: Large and dramatic.
  • Hit Critical Price Threshold: Yes, reached 10-15 ticket threshold.
  • Comparison: At the time of the price spice, of Aether Revolt rares only Walking Ballista, which sees significantly more play, was worth anything close to 10 tickets.
  • Play Patterns: Relegated to sideboards in small numbers, not essential to any strategy.
  • Risk/reward: Low risk, high reward. It was unlikely that this would become a 15-20 ticket card, limiting the risk, while it was very likely that the price would return to a normal (1-5 ticket) level soon.  
  • Outcome: Position closed, 12 tickets net profit after .91 tickets in fees on 4 copies, 5 day hold. Shorted at 10.33 tickets, covered at 7.09 tickets. I was a little early on exiting this position. For future similar transactions, I would now short 8-16 copies, spread out over 2-4 days, to accelerate the returns.
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  • Price Spike: Large growth, but not a true spike as it occurred overtime.
  • Hit Critical Price Threshold: Yes, reached 40-50 ticket threshold for mythic.
  • Comparison: Cavalier of Thorns is the best comparison, which is a 4x card in prominent standard and pioneer decks, and yet at it’s height couldn’t break 50 tickets. Another is Vivien, Arkbow Ranger, which saw play in dominant Pioneer Nykthos builds and reached a high of 80 tickets, before settling into a price of around 25 tickets.  
  • Play Patterns: In contract, Chandra barely sees play and is never more than 1-2 copies. Chandra’s high mana cost means this is unlikely to change. It is notable that Chandra sees more play in older magic formats compared to both Cavalier of Thorns and Vivien.
  • Risk/reward: Low. This seemed like a slam dunk with little down side. Even if Chandra got to 80 tickets like Vivien, such as gain would likely be short lived. 
  • Outcome: Position closed, 68 tickets net profit after 15.36 tickets in fees on 4 copies, 19 day hold. Shorted at 44.50 tickets, covered at 22.65 tickets. 
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  • Price Spike: Large and dramatic.
  • Hit Critical Price Threshold: No. 
  • Comparison: When this spikes, this was by far the most expensive mythic and card from Battle for Zendikar, and it was near an all-time high for the card.
  • Play Patterns: Ulamog is prevalent in multiple decks, in multiple formats. It always has been, especially in Tron builds, and in Legacy Cloud Post decks. But this spike was driven by Green Ramp in Pioneer – which only ran 2 copies and spiked this card because it was the flavor of the day. Additionally, the number of copies in ramp was unlikely to increase due to the 10 casting cost which even Tron can struggle to reach.
  • Risk/reward: Moderate. This could have become a 50 ticket card if ramp strategies took over Pioneer, or if Aetherworks Marvel decks became more prevalent because they run 4x copies of Ulamog. 
  • Outcome: Position closed, 20 tickets profit, 10 day hold on 2 copies. Shorted at 18 tickets, covered at 8 tickets. No fees, because the cards was from my personal collection.
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  • Price Spike: While the price increase was more gradual than others due to genuine demand, I’d still categorize this as a price spike.
  • Price Threshold: No, this is an old uncommon, so it’s pretty unique. 
  • Comparison: The best comparison is Exploration and Gaea’s Cradle, which are rares in the same set and cost between 14-20 tickets due to seeing play as 4x in various decks. Both have a cheap 2-3 ticket online promo available, which shows that people desire the old cards online and that they have limited availability. Additionally, this is the highest the card has been priced in recent memory. 
  • Play Patterns: Carpet of Flowers is typically a 1-2 of in the sideboard of legacy decks. While legacy can drive prices, this price spike drove the card to double its previous high of 12 tickets.
  • Risk/reward: Legacy/old cards can get crazy expensive. But with a 1 of card like this one, I believe the risk was fairly limited.
  • Outcome: This transaction was mostly a bust. Position closed, 12 tickets net profit after 15.65 tickets in fees on 8 copies, 1 month hold. Shorted at 15.81 tickets, covered at 12.35 tickets. 

Conclusion 

Rental programs like Cardhoarder provide an interesting opportunity to short digital MTGO cards for a potential profit. I’ve had some success with this endeavor so far and will continue to update MTGPrice members on my recent activity in constantly always active discord in the MTGO channel.

Update: Nathaniel from CardHoarder reached out with the following position on short selling via their card rental service:

“I can’t speak to ManaTraders, but utilizing our loan service as a means to short sell is a violation of our terms of service – part of the legal contract you sign when you get an account. We’ve never taken action against anyone for it, and if people do it here or there, we tend to let most things slide. But, if you’re actively doing it every time cards are banned, which is pretty much the only time you can have a “no risk trade” (barring a few other possibilities), then we’d probably take action against it. It’s not just it being a zero sum game, which it is – anything you’re making on it, we’re losing – but it’s really about using the stock in a way that hurts every other customer we have – either by artificially changing prices, or holding stock that could go elsewhere for someone to play with (not to mention the risk that you can’t afford to return the cards on a losing trade).

I will also note that you can just as easily lose money as make it doing shorting (assuming it is just speculation, rather than reacting to a ban) – it is extremely risky, and essentially uses the loan service to front money without collateral on a spec, which is not the nature of what these agreements are.”


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One thought on “Betting Against the Market: How to Short-Sell in the MTGO Economy”

  1. I can’t speak to ManaTraders, but utilizing our loan service as a means to short sell is a violation of our terms of service – part of the legal contract you sign when you get an account. We’ve never taken action against anyone for it, and if people do it here or there, we tend to let most things slide. But, if you’re actively doing it every time cards are banned, which is pretty much the only time you can have a “no risk trade” (barring a few other possibilities), then we’d probably take action against it. It’s not just it being a zero sum game, which it is – anything you’re making on it, we’re losing – but it’s really about using the stock in a way that hurts every other customer we have – either by artificially changing prices, or holding stock that could go elsewhere for someone to play with (not to mention the risk that you can’t afford to return the cards on a losing trade).

    I will also note that you can just as easily lose money as make it doing shorting (assuming it is just speculation, rather than reacting to a ban) – it is extremely risky, and essentially uses the loan service to front money without collateral on a spec, which is not the nature of what these agreements are.

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