All posts by Travis Allen

Travis Allen has been playing Magic on and off since 1994, and got sucked into the financial side of the game after he started playing competitively during Zendikar. You can find his daily Magic chat on Twitter at @wizardbumpin. He currently resides in upstate NY, where he is a graduate student in applied ontology.

My Financial Evil Twin

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By: Travis Allen

There are many ways Magic decks appeal to players. The archetypal GR list that is a pile of nasty monsters, each capable of winning a game when left unchecked, appeals to players who just want to beat the snot out of their opponent with heavy-hitters. Slow UW decks that seek to slowly gain complete control of the game with counterspells, removal, and card advantage appeal to those who want to leverage their play skill over their opponent in a long, drawn out process. Combo decks tickle the fancy of players that want to do cool things very quickly, ending with a critical turn in which the actually or virtually win the game on the spot. Burn decks appeal to sociopaths.

Everyone is drawn more strongly to one type of deck, and some are drawn more strongly than others. A severe spike may find one archetype more interesting than another, but will never play anything other than the deck that gives him or her the best chance of winning. Other players will stick to discard decks exclusively, despite the fact that they’re bad in every format, because they derive perverse pleasure from seeing their opponent empty-handed. Regardless, while everyone has their preferred method of winning, there still exists sexy decks that at the very least will momentarily capture the attention of nearly any player.

Sexy decks are ones that can claim to do something wild and unique. What does sexy in the world of Magic look like? It’s drawing your entire deck in a single turn. It’s a screenshot of your opponent at -20,000 life. It’s killing them on turn zero. It’s hitting the token limit on MTGO. (Which is only 200, by the way. That is a heinously low token limit, and further evidence of how garbage the software really is. What if your opponent is playing some stupid Rhox Faithmender deck and gets to 370 life before you go off and make infinite 1/1 hasty tokens on the last turn of time? “Sorry, even though you win in paper Magic, you lose online.” I’d be pissed.) Sexy is not things like casting Mana Leak or activating Deathrite Shaman to dome someone for two life at the end of their turn.

We’re all momentarily enthralled by sexy decks and sexy plays. It’s human nature. Even if we know that it isn’t good or reliable, it’s still fun to see the extremes of the game. It’s a great reminder of how flexible the world of Magic really is, which is a welcome reminder when staring down the seventh Siege Rhino of the day in round two.

Sexy decks are usually defined by sexy cards. One or two hot cards pull the whole package together and make it look desirable. Birthing Pod is a sexy card. Goryo’s Vengeance is a sexy card. Villainous Wealth is a smoldering, tight black dress in an upscale hotel bar, my-girlfriend-would-be-upset-if-she-knew-what-I’m-thinking-about sexy card. Sexy cards are perfect for letting us entertain our darkest, filthiest, magical christmasy-land fantasies. As such, they’re also prone to exciting our wallets as well.

Work horse cards can be expensive, but it usually takes time to get there. They’re boring and dependable. People buy them because they have to, not because they’re excited to. Sylvan Caryatid, a AAA Standard staple, has taken nearly two months to go from $6.50 to $16.50. Caryatid is powerful and format-defining, but it’s not exactly sexy. Sexy is Glittering wish, which went from $2.50 to $20 in twenty-four hours.

Everyone can appreciate a sexy deck, and sexy decks contain sexy cards. Sexy cards see drastic movements in price.

You go to Pat Chapin for Grixis decks. You go to Craig Wescoe for white weenie decks. Who do you go to for sexy decks? Travis Woo.

It must be the name, because he and I share a love for brews that do very sexy things. I’m playing Jeskai Ascendancy in Modern right now, and I’ve cast more Goryo’s Vengeances in my lifetime than most men. I was trying to get Tooth and Nail to work as soon as Modern was announced, and even when I play real decks like Scapeshift I shoehorn a Gifts Ungiven/Elesh Norn package into them. We both like sexy decks. We both like claiming crazy things. We both like playing on the edge of the format.

Travis Woo enjoys his creations and he wants you to enjoy them as well. When I consider his proselytizing I am reminding of Mike Flores. They both share unbridled enthusiasm for their creations, convinced that they will turn the world of Magic on its ear. Each new deck they unveil is, in their eyes, a game-changer that will Make Them Take Notice, and Set the Format On Fire. Their unadulterated exaltation of their creations is a key component of their public identity. Neither of them writes about a deck and says “This seems decent in testing and I’m looking for ways to make it better.” They say things like “cash in your 401k to buy Primal Commands because this deck is unreal.”

The excitement Woo exudes when discussing and showing off his creations, along with the fact that they often utilize cards that have been sitting in dusty boxes for years, has a tendency to generate powerful hype when a new model rolls into the showroom floor. Stream a few games of sacrificing Summoner’s Egg at the end of T3 and then killing your opponent with the Emrakul that was underneath and people get into a tizzy. Cries about Woo breaking it circulate amongst the echo chamber, and before you know it there are no copies of the eponymous card left on TCGP. This has become known as the Woo Effect.

Without fail, these brews end up being far too unstable to reliably perform in large events. A few diehards will actually sleeve them up and take them to local Modern events where they’ll realize that UR Delver is just too real a deck and too miserable to play against for the concoction to succeed. The deck is desleeved, the marquee cards put into the trade binder, and the player returns to Channel TWoo eagerly awaiting the next revolution.

Do you know what isn’t sexy? Slowing your combo down to play around removal. Boarding out the turn-one kill and instead beating down with a few 2/1s. Getting disrupted by a turn one Thoughtseize and spending the rest of the game durdling around while your opponent does you in with a Tarmogoyf. Consistency isn’t sexy. Losing to sideboard cards isn’t sexy. Low prices aren’t sexy.

Waves of Aggression is the most recent recipient of the TWoo fervor machine, and the impetus for me to write this article. It was $.50 to a dollar on CFB for the longest time, yet now I can barely find a copy under $6.

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waves

This is hardly the first time this is happened, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Let’s look back at the last few times a card has seen such a drastic rise in response to inclusion in a TWoo article.

The next most recent occurrence that I can recall was Summoner’s Egg. In typical TWoo fashion, this image was included in the article in which he writes about Summoner’s Egg.

Screen-Shot-2014-01-13-at-4.46.21-PM-e1389660462602

This stands in contrast to the price graph.

egg

Like Waves of Aggression, it hovered in the $.50 to $1 range before he wrote about it. The spike here was slightly less, only hitting roughly $4, but the fall more severe: back to $1.50 CFB; up a whopping $.50 from where it started.

Following Egg is a pair of green cards that seemingly held great potential. I seem to recall TWoo advising you take out loans to buy into Primal Command.

primal

genesis

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Primal Command faired a bit better. I was on the train on this one as I’m a sucker for a good green card. I remember picking them up between $2.75 and $3.25. The best buylist is as high now as it’s ever been at $5. It’s worth noting that while the spike on Primal Command first occurred in January, it wasn’t until May that the buylist actually got to $5. I spent weeks watching Command, hoping it would rise enough in price that it would be worth cashing out. It took months before there was actual realized profit to be had. I guess at this point, eight months later, I’ve made a profit of $2 a copy. Hooray?

Genesis Wave saw roughly comparable success. Copies were $2 on CFB right up until January 1st, when they jumped all the way to $7. The buylist didn’t follow immediately though. It ended up hitting $4 a copy, but not until February, and it only lasted two or three weeks. It dropped to $3 shortly after, and remains there today. I can recall shipping a few sets for $20 on eBay, but I think all said and done I made maybe $10 a playset. You’re certainly pleased with that, although the window of opportunity to do so was short; maybe a two or three days at most. There was no way you could have moved more than a handful of sets in that time period.

Finally we come to what would have been the most lucrative of TWoo’s recommendations: Disrupting Shoal.

shoal

Disrupting Shoal was $2 before Ninja Bear Delver Whatever, and managed a respectable $12 afterwards. A 500% increase is for sure a healthy profit margin. The buylist didn’t do a great job of keeping up, spending only days north of $5, but the private market would have been good to you. The heydey didn’t last forever, but NM copies are about $5-$6 on TCG right now which is still more than the $2 you would have paid for them.

Living End is perhaps the card most connected with Woo, although I don’t think he can claim responsibility for its price today. According to his CFB bio he T8’d with it in 2010, but the price spike isn’t until mid-2013, shortly after Modern Masters was released. While he certainly put the card on the map, buying in when he “broke” it would have meant a three year wait on getting paid.

What’s the takeaway from all of this? First I want to remind you of the costs of flipping cards.The short version of the story is that a card has to see a substantial rise in price in order for you to make any profit whatsoever, and even then it can be difficult to make more than minimum wage.

Next I want to point out that really, with the exception of Disrupting Shoal, you really wouldn’t have made much money buying cards Woo recommends. If you bought the night the article was published, before any movement had occurred whatsoever, you stood a chance to make a profit. It would have required not only being the first in line at TCGP, but also not having your order cancelled, receiving the cards before the hype died down, and actually getting them sold somewhere. If you were a day late to buy your copies or dragged your feet listing them after they arrived, any margin of profit would have been entirely erased.

Keep in mind too that the buylists almost never move quickly with these sorts of spikes. Vendors know that these are flashes in the pan, and therefore demand will die off rapidly. They aren’t in a rush to buy your Waves of Aggression if they expect that nobody is going to want to buy the card a week later. This means that in order to out your copies you’ll need to go to somewhere like eBay or TCG. While you often sell the cards for more money in those venues, there are also greater transaction costs, greater risk, and they require a larger time investment.

I also notice that the two cards that sustained the largest percentage increases, Disrupting Shoal and Living End, are both free spells. Perhaps the lesson here isn’t to watch what Woo is playing, but rather just to assume any free spell will eventually be broken. (I personally have a pile of Soul Spikes that’s just waiting for the day.)

It’s easy to look at cards like Waves of Aggression spike so hard and wish that you had gotten in on the train, but the stark reality is that it’s nearly impossible to turn a profit from these types of spikes unless you were already holding a pile of copies when it happened. Without copies in-hand on day zero, your best approach to Woo spikes is to observe bemusedly while putting your MTG funbux somewhere more reliably lucrative.


On a separate topic, I’ll be a bit quiet for the next two months. Expect only two articles or so out of me between now and the first of the year. Don’t fret though; I fully intend to return full time in January, hopefully with tales about buying and selling across the sea in Tokyo. I’ll also still be active on Twitter – @wizardbumpin – to the chagrin of all of my followers.


 

MTGPrice helps keep you at the top of your game with our daily card price index, fast movers lists, weekly articles by the best MTGFinance minds in the business, the MTGFastFinance podcast co-hosted by James Chillcott & Travis Allen, as well as the Pro Trader Discord channels, where all the action goes down. Find out more.

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Get While the Gettin’s Good

By: Travis Allen

Perhaps the most common question I’m asked is “when should I sell [some card]?” It’s a reasonable question. You’ve got spare copies that you’ve been saving for a rainy day, say Sylvan Caryatid, and you want to know when you should get rid of them. The goal is simple enough to understand; maximize your profit while avoiding unnecessary risk. While there’s no clear algorithm that will tell you exactly when to sell, there is a heuristic I use when making the decision myself. I’ll provide you with my methodology today. First, two mistakes that are easy for anyone to stumble into when making decisions about selling cards. 

One of the biggest traps of speculating on Magic cards, or even more general investment avenues such as the stock market, is not knowing when to dump a good. There are a few psychological factors that play into this, such as the “sunk cost fallacy.” I can demonstrate this concept with an example from my own recent history. I purchased about $100 worth of Advent of the Wurms a ways back when they were still about $3. As it became clear they weren’t going break out and that I should out them while I could, I instead gripped onto them tighter, assuring myself that someone would definitely bust the card and I would make my money back. Because I had paid the $3 each for them, I didn’t want to sell them for less than that. Instead of taking the $1.50 each or whatever it was I could have gotten for them, I instead held on, waiting until I could at least break even. Here we are today, with the best buylist for my thirty-some copies being $.25.

When you’re considering whether to sell cards, you must divorce your decision from the amount you originally paid for them. If the best time to sell is today, then you should sell today, regardless of what sort of profit or loss you’re looking at. For a better understanding of the topic, I recommend checking out the wiki page.

Another trap when speculating on Magic cards is greed, plain and simple. When Fist of Suns first spiked in early January copies went from $2 to $12. If you had been lucky enough to have some in your possession when the spike occurred, you should have rushed to market. If you were greedy you would have listed the cards for the full $12, hoping to extract maximum value from the sudden surge in demand. Over the span of weeks the price slowly dwindled with a lack of results. If you kept trying to squeeze as much out of them as you could you would have never actually sold any. The card has now settled at $5, which means that if you manage to sell your copies you’d see a much smaller return than if you had just listed them at $9 or $10 immediately after the spike and gotten another fool to buy in. Instead of quickly shipping cards during the wave of hype, being greedy and hoping for maximum profit would have ended up costing you a good $3-$5 profit per card.

Managing to get ahead of a price spike is an excellent feeling. Watching TCG sell out of Master of Waves while you stroke your twenty playsets that you got for $6/card would have been euphoric. Getting in ahead of the spike is only half the battle though. Knowing when to get rid of your copies for a profit can be even more difficult than guessing the next big thing.

Hype-driven spikes aren’t the only times where we fail to sell out when we should. Impending rotations, promises of reprints, and the recognition of price ceilings are all indicators of the time to sell being now. Let’s take a look at some things to keep in mind when considering whether you should sell your copies of a card.

Choo Choo! All Aboard the Hype Train!

When deciding whether you should sell a card, ask yourself if it just saw a massive spike in price. If the answer to that is yes, then you should almost definitely be selling. “But Travis, what if that snake alchemist brew ends up being tier one and blah blah blah.” No, stop it. If a card spiked, ship your copies fast and hard. Nearly every single time a card sees a huge jump due to a breakout performance the price drops significantly from its peak in a matter of days. Master of Waves dropped from a peak of $25(!) to $10 in about two weeks, even though the best possible scenario of Mono-Blue being a tier one deck materialized. Think about that.

Everything went exactly right for Master of Waves. He was a four-of mythic staple in a tier-one Standard deck that dominated the format for months, and still the $20+ price tag was unsustainable.

Take a look at the price graphs on Aluren. Or Boros Reckoner. Or Fist of Suns. They all drop-off from their frenzied height. Exceptions to this are few and far between, and shouldn’t be used as evidence not to sell during a hype phase.

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aluren

Remember that we’re trying to be the best Bayesians we can be. A major part of that is not thinking absolutely, but rather probabilistically. If a $1 card hits $10 overnight, you have to think of the future in terms of probability. Which is more probable? That the card continues to climb past the $10, or it drops to half of that within a week? Well, which is more likely – that a $1 card has been so severely undervalued that the real price is north of $10, or that it’s really a $5-$6 card and the market just hasn’t corrected yet? 98% of the time it’s the latter. When a card sees a sudden meteoric rise, it’s simply so much more likely that the card drops significantly rather than continues to gain that it’s 100% right to sell. The one time you sell too early you won’t even have to feel bad, because the last nine times you sold out during the hype you made a killing while the card eventually bottomed out at half of the hype price.

Playability Saturation

Instead of seeing dramatic spikes, some cards experience slow and consistent growth. A good example here would be Jace, Architect of Thought. He bottomed out during the summer between Ravnica and Theros before jumping back into the spotlight after fall rotation. Aside from a very brief spike to $40+ (which may be a data problem; I don’t ever remember seeing him that high), he hung around $20-$25. This was absolutely the right time to sell. Some people may have held on hoping to break $30, but why would that have been a bad idea?

jaot

First we need to consider what formats care about a particular card. While Jace was doing excellent in Standard, his demand elsewhere was nearly nonexistent. Modern, Legacy, Vintage, EDH – nobody other than the Standard crew was looking for copies. Meanwhile, he was already all over the place in Standard. Mono-Blue was running multiple copies. Sphinx’s Revelation decks had the full playset almost without fail. Even off-the-wall brews had a few copies. At that time, I would say that Standard was saturated with JAoT.

There simply wasn’t any room left in Standard for Jace to see more play. Every deck that could possibly be interested in Jace already had them, and there was no other format placing demand on the card. There were only two realistic outcomes: the price sustains, or the price drops. Faced with those two options, you certainly want to be selling.

When you’re looking at a card you’re considering selling, ask yourself: how much more play could this see? How much more untapped demand could exist for this card? When you look at a card like Eidolon of Blossoms or some of the Theros gods, the potential seems huge. They’re powerful cards that could play well in both Standard and casual, and the prices are very low. There’s room to grow. However when you look at Elspeth, Sun’s Champion’s price tag of $32, do you still think the same thing? Do you realistically believe that there’s enough gas left in the tank for her to break $35 or $40? Have other fall set Standard-only mythics had price tags that high?

Consider what demand exists for the card. Think about how much play its seeing in the formats that may want it. Think about how much other cards from similar sets cost at their high point. Think about how much more the card could possibly rise. In a case such as Elspeth’s, the answer becomes clear. Yes, she could manage to eek out a few more dollars, but it’s considerably safer just taking the locked-in profit now and moving on to something with much more potential.

Hello and Goodbye

This factor is particularly salient today, only weeks after Khans release. Card prices are always high after a set release. They’re especially high after a fall set release. (People are excited about what the future holds. This is in comparison to a set like Journey Into Nyx, where the format is already pretty well-developed at that point.) They’re even HIGHER right after the fall Pro Tour, because all the new toys are on display and the frenzy is at its peak. Let’s see exactly what I’m talking about.

ktk

Right now the top thirty or so cards in Khans of Tarkir are worth roughly 20-25% more than the top thirty Theros cards. Keep in mind that the senior set is supposed to be more expensive than the junior! Theros boxes have dried up and MTGO redemptions are over. The stock available can only dwindle. Meanwhile, the drafting of Khans of Tarkir is just beginning. The amount of Khans that has been opened so far is only a small fraction of the total amount that will eventually be cracked. Prices in this set are inevitably going to crash from here. An in-print sent with this much demand is entirely unsustainable. $18 Polluted Deltas? $17 Windswept Heaths? No way this keeps up. Remember, Zendikar fetches were $8-$15 in Standard, and typically a lot closer to the low end of that scale.

At this point in time, a few days past the KTK gameday, you should be selling anything with the Khans set symbol on it. Keep only the exact cards you need to play with and ship the rest. Yes, even that card. Yes, even fetches. Nearly every single card on that list is going to lose value over the next two months. Why would you want to be holding onto toxic assets?

There are two exceptions. You should keep cards you want to play with. You don’t need to sell every single card from KTK. Feel free to keep fetches for decks you want to play or to continue using your Sidisis at FNM. After all, the whole point of all of this is to finance our habit. The other exception is foils. While most will come down, not all will. Dig Through Time foils in particular I’d probably hold on to. They may lose a little bit of value over the months, but not enough to really warrant selling or trading them. Remember that Abrupt Decay foils are now $70. I don’t think DTT is getting there tomorrow, but it definitely seems like it’s going to have an impact in every format, which bodes very well for foil prices.

There will be a card or two in Khans of Tarkir that rises in price from where it is now. Maybe it will be another Ascendancy, or Ghostfire Blade, or Crater’s Claws. I’m not sure which card will be $5 more than it is today. What I do know is that the total amount of value lost from Khans will be far greater than the small amount a single card gains.

Think of it this way. If we add up the value of a single copy of the thirty most expensive cards in Khans, it comes in somewhere around $275. Two months from now, that number will be much closer to around $225. As a whole the set will lose a large chunk of value. Now maybe Ghostfire Blade jumps to $4 from bulk, but unless you are prescient you can’t be sure that will happen. So which would you rather do: trade away all your excess Khans cards, ensuring you don’t eat a huge drop in value on the set as a whole, or hoard all of your Khans cards because two or three of them are going to rise by a few bucks? Getting rid of any excess product you have right now is a 100% guaranteed win.

Nothing to Lose

So far I’ve told you when to sell your cards. Now I’ll tell you when not to sell. This is even murkier territory. Holding onto cards carries inherent risk because you never know what’s actually going to happen. You can mitigate that risk though, and even get involved in virtually no-risk scenarios if you know where to look.

One of the worst things you can do is sell your senior set cards during late summer just ahead of rotation. Our most recent example of this would have been Theros block product during July and August. During those months the summer doldrums are at their most severe and prices are fairly low across the board because of it. Even Elspeth was a full $10 cheaper over the summer than she is today, in spite of the fact that she was one of three or four cards that entirely defined the Theros block PT.

During those hazy summer months there’s basically no real incentive to sell your cards. The absolute floor for a card’s price is typically found during the summer, which means you can’t really lose holding onto a card during that time. If four months ago you made the decision to hold onto Elspeth until October, two things could have happened. One, she could see minimal play in Standard once Khans came out. If this were the case, her price would have stayed relatively stable, with only maybe a marginal and slow loss. The other option is that she continues to be a force in the new Standard and her price rises accordingly, just as we’ve seen it do. Either way, holding onto Elspeth was virtually a zero-risk proposition.

Hold onto your Standard-legal cards through the summer. They won’t be any cheaper in October than they were in July, and it’s far more likely that most of your stock has risen in value, sometimes dramatically. You may even get lucky with random cards breaking out due to a shift in the format after rotation, ala Desecration Demon.

These same rules apply for Modern cards as well, although we’re holding onto them a little longer than Standard cards. Peak Magic prices seem to be around January and February. This is when you’ll want to move any Modern cards you’re looking to get rid of. Again, most Modern staples are at their lowest through the summer and fall. It isn’t until after the first of the year that they start to gain steam. Unless you’re terrified of a reprint, hold onto those Snapcasters and Restoration Angels until February. Today Scalding Tarn is $52, and was $60-$70 before the Khans fetches were announced. But back in March they peaked at a whopping $130 for a few weeks. Part of this was due to GP Richmond I’m sure, although that event wasn’t solely responsible for that much of a change.

At the end of the day, there are a few questions to ask yourself when deciding whether now is the right time to sell your goodies. Did the card just see a huge spike because of some break-out deck? How much more expensive could this card reasonably be, and how likely is it that happens? Given the time of year, is it more likely this card is closer to its floor or its ceiling?

Hot Tips for the Week

  • Hold onto your Thoughtseizes. If you just read everything above, you should have already come to the same conclusion. There’s pretty much no reason on the horizon for that card to lose value over the next two to three years. At worst the price stays stagnant and at best they double up (at least). Look at what has happened with multi-format-staple Abrupt Decay.
  • It bears repeating: sell any excess fetches.
  • Delver of Secrets was only a $5 foil or so while it was in Standard. There’s no way Treasure Cruise or Monastery Swiftspear maintain those foil prices. Wait before you buy in.
  • Any Modern cards you need you should be acquiring now. I’ve barely been around real Magic games for the past two months and I’ve already spoken to several people getting into Modern because of the fetch reprint. We got shocks two years ago, Thoughtseize a year ago, fetches today, and Modern Masters 2 is on the horizon for next spring. Once attention shifts back towards that format, prices will move accordingly.
  • Speaking of Modern, Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time are the new hotness in old formats. Both of them want lots of small spells to fill you up your graveyard. Thalia happens to be excellent at hosing decks attempting to do that, and she’s slipped down towards $3 again. This is a great pickup in trade.

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Ancestral Recall: MTGO and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Trading Market (Pt. 2)

By: Travis Allen

Travis is away this week, so we’re re-running the second part of his two-part series about MTGO. He will return next week on the 21st.

This week is part two of a two-part series on the failure of the MTGO marketplace. You can find part one here. The tl;dr from last week is that Magic cards behave like commodities, and thus are eligible for a unique type of online market.


Upon entering a convention hall hosting a Grand Prix you’ll notice vendors ringing the space. The vendors, of whom there are usually between five and eight, each have different numbers for their buy and sell prices. If our intrepid player – let’s say you – decides he wants to buy the cheapest Glittering Wish in the room he’s going to have to do some legwork. Finding the least expensive copy is going to require visiting every single booth, muscling through the mob, locating the card in the case, and checking the price tag. Then you’ll need to repeat that entire sequence about seven more times. Once you’ve checked all eight vendors and have identified the cheapest copy, it’s finally time to go make a purchase. Let’s hope that they haven’t sold out while you were checking each other price in the room!

Imagine instead that there are not eight vendors in the room, but 50,000. Welcome to the Magic Online classifieds.

The unwieldy system for buying and selling cards at a GP is as it is because there is no centralized method for buying and selling paper cards in a meatspace. There is no single booth in the room that you can walk up to that sells cards on behalf of every vendor present. You’re forced to manually check with each one. This problem only becomes wildly more intense when add in the fact that not only can you buy the card from a vendor, but there are a few thousand binders in the room that are more than willing to trade. Somewhere amongst those eight vendors and 2,000 players is the theoretical cheapest copy of Glittering Wish, but there is basically no chance you’re actually going to find it. At the same time, someone in that room will give you fifteen dollars cash for your Courser of Kruphix (market value $15.76), but good luck finding the guy. It’s far more likely that you’ll take the seven to ten bucks one of the vendors is offering.

Such a system is brutally inefficient. There is no convenient method for buyers and sellers to see all the options available to them. There is no central structure in place through which all information is available to all parties at once. This is one of the myriad of reasons that real life sucks.

The solution to such a burdensome and inefficient system is to create some sort of hub of activity through which all transactions flow. A system that is capable of gathering all of the values of every unique card, for both sale and purchase, that is also fully queryable would do dramatic things to the market. By necessity such a system would immediately wipe out all transactions in which one party was getting more than their fair share. Third party vendors would disappear, and cards would flow freely among the vast majority of agents in the room: the players.

Magic Online is capable of this. There is only one MTGO server every single person in the world logs into. Whether you’re a bored housewife in Spain, an unemployed roustabout in Ukraine, or a pissy adolescent in the Nebraska plains, if you want to play MTGO you’re all going to the same place. This affords a fantastic opportunity that is not available to paper players: a true commodity marketplace.

MTGO puts every single player in the same system. You all have access to the same tournaments and classifieds. The foundation is in place to provide an efficient, fast, and fair marketplace for the commodity market that is Magic cards. Instead, you’re forced to bumble around blindly in a room of tens of thousands of vendors because….well, I have no idea why.

Because MTGO has failed to provide an adequate market for their playerbase, it has resulted in less-than-ideal conditions. If you’re a player on MTGO and you want to buy a Courser, you hit the classifieds and search for Courser of Kruphix. A list appears of everyone who has the phrase “Courser of Kruphix” in their title. (Remember too that “Courser of Kruphix” is different than “Courser,” so you’d better hope you’re using the same terminology as everyone else in the room.) If you’re lucky they put their sale price for Courser in the title of the classified as well, but not all will. Any that don’t have the sale price in the title will require opening a trade. This will have to happen several times before you can begin to get a feel for what the ‘average’ price of a Courser is so that when you actually find a good price you’ll know it.

There are a variety of pitfalls in this model. For instance, what happens if someone is selling their Courser for 20% less than everyone else, but accidentally spelled it “Cuorser?” How about the individual selling more than three different uniquely named cards? How is he supposed to advertise all of those as being for sale? The classified title has a character limit of course, so you can really only advertise your hottest items. This means it’s tough for someone to expose good prices on more off-beat cards, and it’s tough for buyers because they’re forced to just start wading through random trade binders to find a good price for a card. Sellers can’t adequately advertise their stock or even let people know what they’re selling, and buyers have trouble finding people who are selling what they want. Imagine going to a mall but instead of each store having large glass windows displaying their product they were all painted black.

What MTGO has done is effectively turn every player into a vendor in the same room. It’s hard to imagine a worse way to go about things. This frustratingly cumbersome system results in the creation of an automated process; the bot network. Anyone that plays with any regularity on MTGO is very familiar with bots. They’re awake twenty-four hours a day, have huge inventories, and are (mostly) easy to deal with. They exists to fill the massive exchange gap that MTGO continues to let exist. Imagine for a moment that MTGO banned bots. If you wanted to sell your Courser for tickets, the only way to do so would be to find another individual online at exactly that time that is willing to pay the price you’re asking. This doesn’t sound too bad for a hot staple like Courser, which will move quickly, but what if you’re trying to sell something like a foil Tangle Wire? What do you think the odds are that both someone selling and someone buying are online at the same time, that the seller is currently advertising that card in the classifieds, and that they can both agree on a price? This is exactly why bots exist.

Bots fill a gap, and whenever a service does so, the guy running the service is making a profit on every exchange. It’s the same way your LGS makes money buying and selling cards. Give players a little bit less for their cards than another average player would, and sell them for slightly more than the average player would. The reason anyone uses the service at all is not because they love getting ripped off, but because they’re paying for the convenience of having another market actor who will engage in 99% of transactions at nearly any time. Connecting buyer to seller is a profitable market to be in.

MTGO isn’t like real life, though. Computers aren’t hampered by the need to sleep or eat or otherwise be away from a market. They also can connect thousands and thousands in one central room with quick, easy transactions in a way that no real life environment could imitate. Why, when the system is already in place to provide the best possible market to the average player, does MTGO not capitalize on it?

The problem is compounded by the fact that tickets can’t be split. I’m sure Wizards has their own arcane reason for this, but the result is disastrous for players. By refusing to allow tickets to be split out to a hundredth of a decimal place, MTGO is essentially saying that no card can theoretically be worth less than one ticket. After all, if one ticket is the bare minimum official currency, how does one buy something that costs less than that?

Most commons, uncommons, and even rares for that matter, are worth less than one ticket on the MTGO market. Good luck trying to trade these easily between players though. Let’s say you want to acquire two copies of Restore Balance but without going through a bot. We have all the issues from before of actually finding someone who has two copies of this, but then how do you trade? You don’t want to pay a full ticket for what is worth maybe half a ticket at absolute best. This means you’ve either got to buy cards you don’t want, or the other agent has to take roughly half a tickets worth of value from you. Meanwhile all of this takes time and effort, and why is the guy with the Restore Balances going through all of this in the first place? It certainly isn’t worth his time for the what, tenth of a ticket worth of value he may get out of the transaction?

Bot networks are further supported by MTGO’s refusal to allow tickets to be split. They provide virtual ticket splitting by offering credit to players. Head over to your nearest preferred bot, trade him your cards, and you get credit out to multiple decimal places that can then be used anywhere on that bot network. This of course incentivizes players to keep returning to the same bot network over and over, lest they end up with ten tickets worth of credit spread out among ten different vendors. It’s the “forty-eight cents left on this gift card” syndrome all over again. The nature of the integer ticket is ultimately great for bots and terrible for the average player.

Let’s review. MTGO has the foundation in place to provide an excellent market experience that would be literally impossible to replicate in the real world. A commodity network on MTGO would overall reduce the prices players pay for their cards, overall increase how much they sell their cards for, and overnight get rid of bot networks. For 99.99% of people in the system it’s a complete upgrade. So what needs to change to get us there, and what does “there” look like?

First of all the ticket system has to be fixed. Without the ability for players to reduce tickets to the second decimal place, essentially setting the minimum price on a card to a single cent, then none of this will work. When a huge chunk of the market is worth less than the smallest division of your currency, all sorts of weird problems will pop up. (Like bot networks offering credit that relies entirely on the buyer placing unfounded trust in an unaccountable stranger.)

The next step is basically to completely get rid of the classifieds as you know them. Gone. They will instead be replaced by a central commodity market that essentially functions as a miniature auction for every single type of good. These types of virtual markets already exist all over the place. We’ll take a look at a pretty big one that’s arguably the most successful: the Steam market.

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Welcome to the Steam Community Market. On arrival we see what I currently have for sale, when I listed it, and how much I’m asking for it. Below that are a list of the most popular items today. For right now we want to buy Jarate, an item used by the sniper in Team Fortress 2. For the rest of this demonstration, just imagine replacing the word “Jarate” with “Wrath of God” and the process is exactly how MTGO could work.

I’m going to plug in Jarate in the search field over there on the right, and this is what I see after:

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Here’s a list of everything with Jarate in the name. You’ll see there are various types of Jarate – Vintage, Strange, Festive, Collector’s, etc. Imagine these as being “10th Edition, 9th Edition, 7th Edition Foil, FTV:Armageddon, etc.” Let’s take a look at the festive Jarate.

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I get to see a big image of what I’m purchasing, along with a description that would probably be oracle text if this was an actual Magic card. Below I have a graph of the history of sales data for this product, with samples across multiple timespans, and below that all the Festive Jarates for sale. Because Festive Jarate is a commodity – every instance of it is basically the exact same as all the others – the listings automatically sort by the only defining characteristic: the price. I see how much it is, who’s selling it, and most importantly, for how much. Let’s buy one.

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Clicking “Buy Now” gives me a confirmation box, showing again exactly what I’m getting, how much I’m paying for it, and how my money is being spent. Notice Steam even gets to take a little off the top for providing the transaction. That’s a nice incentive for Wizards that doesn’t exist in the current MTGO classifieds system.

How about if I want to sell something on the market? If I’m browsing my backpack (or MTGO collection) and discover I have something I don’t need, selling it is eazy peazy.

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Simply clicking on the item shows me the cheapest price for the product on the market as well as how many copies have sold in the last twenty-four hours.

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Clicking the “Sell” button shows another price graph, and allows me to price the product in one of two ways: how much the buyer will pay, or how much I want to actually pocket after its sale.

These two examples show just how easy buying and selling in the MTGO marketplace could be. Need a Rattleclaw Mystic? Hop on the market, search it up, and find the cheapest four copies on MTGO immediately. Browsing through your binder and realize you’ve only got three Polukranos? Click on the existing card in your inventory and buy the card right from your binder. Find an extra copy of Mantis Rider you don’t need as you’re putting together a list? Put it up for sale right from your binder. You don’t even have to leave the page! A simple pop-up window will handle the ease of listing the card.

The ease of buying and selling isn’t the only logistical advantage for the player. A model of this sort would allow the creation of buy and sell orders. Suppose there’s a card you want to spec on – maybe Spellweaver Volute or something wacky. You can create what’s known as a buy order. Tell the system exactly what card you want, how much you want to pay for it, and how many copies you want. Every time a Spellweaver Volute is listed at or below your designated price, your account automatically buys the card until the quota is filled. How amazing would it be to set prices for all these cards you need at low prices and then a week later have them?

If buy orders aren’t cool enough, how about MTGO telling you in real time how much it would cost to buy the cards you don’t currently own from a given decklist? Log into the mothership with your MTGO account info, and the next time Gavin posts a sweet brew there will be a dollar vlaue right there telling you how much it would cost to buy the cards missing from your account. “This is an awesome Junk reanimator list, and it would only be about seventy bucks to finish it. I’m going to go build it.”

A feature-rich commodity market such as what I’ve discussed and shown you here would have some large consequences. Bots would disappear overnight, which would admittedly suck for the guys over at MTGOTraders and such. That’s an acceptable loss if it means better prices for players across the board. Cards would find their equilibriums faster. Spreads would shrink to the smallest they’ve ever been. Gone would be the days of spikes causing cards to be difficult to find for less-than-insane prices. Players would more easily be able to switch between decks, because the cost of selling out of one list and buying into another would be so low. The metagame would become truly fluid, as players could easily and affordably build the best deck for each tournament, not just the best deck in their card pool. It would be a revitalization of the entire MTGO ecosystem.

MTGO has no shortage of problems, as many of my peers have written about. Twitter is fully of daily lamentations from fish and pros alike. Screenshots of ridiculous bugs circulate regularly. At least once a month someone writes an article about some other part of MTGO that is awful, such as the compensation policy or terrible payouts. While all of these are valid and frustrating complaints, few reveal a fundamental flaw in Wizard’s appreciation for their content like this issue does. Wizards refusing to deliver a common-sense commodity market to the players is indicative of an underlying failure to truly comprehend their product. How could a system that was outdated the day it was released still be in place today when the inevitable results would have been so clear even at the time of its conception? MTGO has no shortage of software flaws and misguided policies, but this is a disservice to the Magic community unlike any other in recent memory.

Nearly all of MTGO’s other problems can be fixed with software updates and policy changes. The solution to this problem, though, is what we all deserve and Wizards refuses to give us: A brand new Magic Online experience.


 

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