Category Archives: Anatomy of a Deal

From Draft Chaff to Beta Black Lotus

By Zakeel Gordon

I started playing MTG in 2013, first sliding into the fascinating world of trading cards that we all know and love in childhood. Later going on to attend business school, I have always prided myself on my “side hustles”.

After playing on the FNM level for a couple years, I was forced to unload the majority of my collection in order to accommodate my career and academic progression. This resulted in what I call The Cube Project. This project is focused on the ‘museum effect’. My goal is to compile the rarest of rare cards and have them on display for what will be an annual Holiday Cube Draft. These rare cards include both Alpha and Beta dual lands as well as Power 9 cards, test prints, judge foils, and other tasty goodies. To enable my acquisition of these valuable cards as efficiently as possible I adopted a technique perhaps best labelled as “value grinding”.

Value Grinding

I define “Value Grinding” as trading for financial gain rather than specific outcome. This technique requires in depth familiarity with both current secondary market prices and relative speculative potential of a long list of Magic cards.

Note that this is not very far off the pack to power technique you may have heard others write about, wherein the participant seeks a premium on their cards in an attempt to climb the value ladder. Similarly, my methods seek to maximize value gained through a variety of techniques that combine strong instincts with access to scenarios where good deals may be found. Here are some examples of contributing scenarios:

  • helping players get cards they need for new decks, including last minute on the tournament floor
  • helping players get their (personally) high priority cards in exchange for cards with more upside for me
  • trading up or down with a bonus in value to me in exchange for being flexible in what I receive
  • working with stores that don’t enjoy strong demand for high value cards by trading in lower value staples at par

Employment of these methods has been my primary avenue for climbing the value ladder, as I have acquired high-end foils and vintage cards over the past five years.

Early Efforts

One of my proudest achievements in the Magic secondary market was paying for a large portion of my undergraduate tuition purely through speculative investment in Magic Cards and collectible sneakers. During the Return to Ravnica era cards like Pack Rat and Nightveil Specter went from bulk to $10 overnight. Arbitrage between various local stores in the area led to easy money through immediate buylisting.

During this time MTG was entering the first of two Bull Markets within a five-year span. The first was Innistrad/RTR. This standard period was one of the best in recent memory due to card quality in standard. Liliana of The Veil, Snapcaster Mage, Cavern of Souls, and Shocklands were all in standard. The average standard magic collection had eternal appeal due to the power level of the environment which in turn made it far easier to trade up the latter into reserved list cards. This price gap between the most expensive cards in standard LOTV ($50) and Underground Sea ($180), created a rift that pushed everything in Legacy up 100% and Modern up 75%. Grinding the gap allowed me to pay for several undergraduate classes.

Around this time, I also started paying attention to the arbitrage available between online stores and local vendors. With local stores needing cash flow to survive, they often had to choose between expensive cards in the display case and inventory that is applicable to the majority of the player base. Stores all over the country need to sell cards to stay in business, the specific cards they sell are far less important. My local area had more casual players than competitive players, which meant that cards like Elvish Mystic and Doom Blade were always in high demand. With less than 1% of customers being seriously interested in cards over $100, the novelty of dual lands and power was dubious for the vendors in question but more useful to me in my expanding sphere of activity.

With this information I would aggressively trade down to commons and uncommons that were prevalent in the community and either buylist to stores or just outright sell online in lots of four. The key to this process was understanding the market and leaning into discounted prices on recently reprinted staples as they would near peak supply.

Here are some examples of cards that I was targeting to flip that others were ignoring:

  • Doom Blade play set: $2.00
  • “Sliver Pack” 4x Every C/U M14 Slivers (Excluding Manaweft): $5.00
  • Conspiracy Squirrel Token play set: $4.00
  • Vampire Nighthawks play set: $3.00

Moving cards like this around in volume at the time was far easier to find, trade for and sell. Most competitive players would consider this draft chaff and wouldn’t be interested in trading on penny margins.

My First Lotus

Another major milestone in my MTGFinance efforts was the acquisition of my first Black Lotus. I bought an Unlimited Lotus for $1300 in cash and $400 in trade in 2014, which at the time was more than a reasonable deal. Successfully acquiring my Unlimited Lotus gave me the confidence to move on to a more ambitious target: a Beta Lotus.

Tokens are worth what?

Fast forward to the end of undergraduate school and I found that I would be moving across the country to take on a new job. This presented a problem. First, I wouldn’t have enough time in my new position to actively play anymore. Second, downsizing from a house to an apartment restricted the amount of inventory I could have on hand.

Couple these two problems with my eventual goal of creating the best cube ever and I faced a need to consolidate my collection again from two trade binders, thousand of bulk commons and two modern decks down to just my increasingly valuable cube. During this time my buylist orders were looking something like the following, including many random cards from every corner of the magic world that many of us just leave lying around the house.

  •  Alara Reborn Foil – Terminate – FOIL (NM-M) @ 4.26: $4.26
  • Battle for Zendikar – Expeditions – Sacred Foundry – Expeditions FOIL (NM-M) @ 39.38
  • Battle for Zendikar – From Beyond (NM-M) @ 0.24
  • Battle for Zendikar – Shambling Vent (NM-M) @ 0.97
  • Battle for Zendikar Foil – Forest – 270 – FOIL (NM-M) @ 3.69
  • Battle for Zendikar Foil – Outnumber – FOIL (NM-M) @ 0.08
  • Battle for Zendikar Foil – Plains – 250 – FOIL (NM-M) @ 4.43
  • Battle for Zendikar Foil – Swamp – 260 – FOIL (NM-M) @ 3.94
  • Battle for Zendikar Foil – Zada, Hedron Grinder – FOIL (NM-M) @ 0.13
  • Born of the Gods Foil – Courser of Kruphix – FOIL (NM-M) @ 3.39
  • Champions of Kamigawa Foil – Isamaru, Hound of Konda – FOIL (NM-M) @ 6.96
  • Coldsnap – Dark Depths (NM-M) @ 28.12
  • Conspiracy – Dack Fayden (NM-M) @ 21.37
  • Conspiracy – Stifle (NM-M) @ 2.00
  • Conspiracy – Swords to Plowshares (NM-M) @ 1.28
  • Dark Ascension Foil – Thalia, Guardian of Thraben – FOIL (NM-M) @ 14.61
  • Darksteel – Trinisphere (NM-M) @ 4.40
  • Darksteel Foil – Skullclamp – FOIL (NM-M) @ 5.68
  • Dragon’s Maze Foil – Notion Thief – FOIL (NM-M) @ 4.09
  • Eventide Foil – Gilder Bairn – FOIL (NM-M) @ 9.36
  • Exodus – Sphere of Resistance (NM-M) @ 9.00
  • Exodus – Survival of the Fittest (NM-M) @ 20.68
  • Fifth Dawn Foil – Grafted Wargear – FOIL (NM-M) @ 3.31
  • Foreign – Magic 2014 – Scavenging Ooze – FOREIGN – Japanese (NM-M) @ 2.07
  •  Foreign – Magic 2015 – Chord of Calling – FOREIGN – Korean (NM-M) @ 2.39
  • Future Sight – Grove of the Burnwillows (NM-M) @ 36.56

You get the idea. These lists, populated by cards that are often easy to get thrown into trades or acquired cheaply from other players, would routinely result in $500-$1000 buylists orders for me.

Other buylists would be hundreds of cards like this.

  • Brute Force NM @ 0.08 1 EX @ 0.06
  • Cloudgoat Ranger NM @ 0.06
  • Executioner’s Capsule NM @ 0.07
  • Frogmite NM @ 0.06
  • Illusion Token NM @ 0.12
  • Thallid NM @ 0.06
  • Thallid Shell-Dweller NM @ 0.06
  • Treefolk Shaman Token NM @ 0.10
  • Emblem (Sorin, Lord of Innistrad) NM @ 1.50
  • Vampire Token NM @ 1.40

The point of sharing these two lists is to demonstrate the value I was grinding from cards that others largely ignore and the attention to detail I practiced to maximize value. Many of us have thousands of cards in our closets but fail to realize that even the ordinary things like commons and tokens represent value we can use to move towards our biggest goals in the hobby. If there is demand then there will be a price.

This journey of spending two entire days sorting cards and condensing everything I owned. Ultimately led to starting the cube on a good note. Large vintage cards like Mishra’s Workshop and Mox Ruby, only received increased market demand in the fall around Eternal weekend. During the time between the annual event, stores would place such large trade in margins that buylists became bread and butter for collectors such as myself.

After 3 years of grinding tokens and penny cards. I was able to establish a nice collection of top tier cards. Most were intended to enter the black hole that is my cube, while others were mere placeholders for further goals.

Organization is everything.

The one recommendation I would make to every magic player is to organize their collection. The amount of time you will save looking for cards is enough to sacrifice an afternoon in order to help your future self build an efficient process. I can’t tell you how many times I haven’t been able to find a specific card or after randomly looking through boxed finding a playset of Cavern of Souls I didn’t know I owned.

GP Seattle 2018

I soon made the decision that Unlimited Power wasn’t enough. I enjoyed the feeling that the cube was almost finished but seeing the white borders made me want to cringe every time I opened a pack. I know, I know, maybe it’s pretentious but I just love the look of old black border treasure. Fast-forward to GP Seattle 2018. The event was a Legacy tournament, so not only did many of the players attempt to outshine the room with their foils, but the number of vendors in the room who brought the extra spice was insane.
I visited the GP twice during the weekend. The first day was to only scout the tables and see the prices on the floor. I didn’t bring any cards, just perused the event writing down the vendors who had Beta Lotuses and the price they were asking. This was particularly important because I was able to get an objective look at the options. It is very easy to become emotionally invested in a deal and not want to get up from the table. So, to offset this possibility, I planned to handle my attendance in stages: scouting and deal making.
On the scouting day, I narrowed my focus down to two vendors. The first, Grey Ogre Games, had moderately played, lightly played and near mint copies ranging from $6,600 to $9,500. I knew that because this card was going to be in my cube, I didn’t need the near mint. Additionally, I already had an Unlimited Lotus that was on the border of LP/MP. For grading purposes, I would always assume MP but realistically it was fairly clean. So, at worst, I would like a condition similar to what I already had. This narrowed my options down to lightly played or moderately played.
The second vendor, which will remain nameless, had one MP copy for $7500 but wanted a premium if trading for power. This initial conversation was enough for me to walk away. While the premium is a valid business decision and holding power has objectively proven to be financially correct I wasn’t interested in playing that game so I steeled myself and politely disengaged.

Trading Day
During my morning preparation on Saturday. I packed a binder that had everything I was comfortable getting rid of. I didn’t bring anything that I wouldn’t mind trading in the deal. Once again, it’s very easy to become emotionally attached to our cards but in pursuit of your goals you need to stay objective. My main trade fodder for the day included:

Card                                                                           Expected Trade Value
Unlimited Black Lotus (MP)                                                              2500
Unlimited Mox Ruby (MP)                                                                    900
Unlimited Ancestral Recall (LP)                                                     1000
3x Beta Bolts                                                                                                400
Judge Bolt                                                                                                      200
Small stuff                                                                                                      140
Total                                                                                                             $5140

I expected $5140 going in but was willing to wiggle because of condition of my power. To double check my prices, I met with Jeremy from Cartel Aristocrats on site at the event. He assured me of my pricing and actually said there was a chance I would get more. I was prepared to spend upwards of $2,000 as cash additions to the deal.

After approaching the vendor, we spoke with Ben. The owner of Grey Ogre Games, who conditioned my cards and offered me the following valuations:

Card                                                                        Actual Value                Difference
Unlimited Black Lotus (MP)                                      3000                              +500
Unlimited Mox Ruby (MP)                                            700                               -200
Unlimited Ancestral Recall (LP)                                900                                       0
3x Beta Bolts                                                                        300                               -100
Judge Bolt                                                                              200                                       0
Small stuff                                                                              190                                 +50
Total                                                                                        5290                             +250

I was pleased to hear the price of my Unlimited Lotus was actually more than I quoted myself. There was one final aspect to settle. The final price of the Beta Lotus and to finalize the deal. After looking at the Lotus, I found that there was some slight inking on the bottom. Ben also shared the story behind the Lotus. Apparently, some Drill Instructor at a military school disciplined child who were disrupting the class by playing games. He confiscated the cards in 1994 and put them in a box in his attic. Two decades later the instructor’s son finds the cards in his father’s attic and brings them into the store.
The Lotus was listed at $6,600. I asked if he was willing to take $6,000. He insisted that we roll for it. If I win I can have the Lotus for $6,000 if he wins, it goes for $6,600. Since I was fully, intending to pay the full price I thought why not. I roll a seven, and he rolls….a nine.

It took me a moment to realize that we were rolling for low roll. I had no idea what was happening so I just stood there awkwardly for five seconds trying to figure how to react until Ben moves to settle up at the $6000 valuation.

I paid the cash difference and left the venue ASAP, grinning ear to ear. Once again, I would like to thank Grey Ogre Games for the deal and @MissouriMTG for the advice and mentorship during the GP.

And that my friends is the story of how, after four years of grinding penny cards and tokens I was finally able to lay hands on my very own Beta Black Lotus. I’ve now successfully traded for the most iconic card in Magic the Gathering, not once but twice and couldn’t be happier to have it occupying a place of pride in my cube for many years to come.

You can find Zakeel Gordon on Twitter via @ZakeelGordon and YouTube via @ZakeelGordon.

MTG Finance Unboxing #1 – Travis’ European Package

By: Travis Allen

Don’t miss this week’s installment of the MTG Fast Finance podcast, an on-topic, no-nonsense tour through the week’s most important changes in the Magic economy.

Check out Travis’ unboxing of his latest package from Europe. There’s about two hundred cards worth several thousand dollars! It’s over on YouTube right here.

Travis Allen has  been playing Magic: The Gathering since 1994, mostly in upstate New York. Ever since his first FNM he’s been trying to make playing Magic cheaper, and he first brought his perspective to MTGPrice in 2012. You can find his articles there weekly, as well as on the podcast MTG Fast Finance.


Exiting Dead Specs Via Buylists: A Case Study

Buylists aren’t generally my thing. In my mind selling to a buylist often feels like admitting a mistake. If I bought in a card at $10, why should I sell it to a buylist for $12-14 if the going market rate is $20, and I can still get over $16 after fees and shipping? Most of the time I’m aiming for specs to succeed at a level where selling them less than 5% below the lowest TCG NM price is a legitimate option. If I bought Masterpiece Sol Rings in Europe last winter for $72 by the dozen, I really want my exit to as close to $200 as possible, and generally, by selecting the right specs and being reasonably patient these goals are achieved.

The thing is, if you’re really deep on a card, and they’re selling ok, but tend to sell slowly, AND you have solid leads on better specs, turning over your inventory to set up your superior reinvestment is still worth a look.

At present, my goal for MTGFinance speculation is a return on investment in excess of 50% per annum. For 2017, I’m currently on track to beat 65%, but aiming lower is safer for planning purposes.

If you’re used to traditional methods of investing this will seem like a fairly ambitious target, but if you’ve got some money tied up in Bitcoin (up over 800% in the last year!), you’ll probably stop reading at this point and go back to planning your vacation home.

In 2017, based on my reasonable success over the last couple of years, I’ve ramped up my MTGFinance investments to 30% of what I invest overall in a given year across all assets. The collection, and my hobby, is now utterly self sufficient and detached from my wallet, meaning that I am reinvesting everything I make back into the hobby without the need to extract any funds to cover bills and such, or add any funds to invest or play.

Image result for gatherer approach of the second sunMutavault

That being said, in MTGFinanace, as with most investments, the elimination of error and risk is virtually impossible. You can’t rely on winning all the time, so you need to dodge your worst possible outcomes by adjusting how deep you go based on your confidence level as informed by your spec selection logic. You can read more about rating specs over here.

In essence, you know that some reasonable % of your specs are going to fail to stay flat or even lose value, so you need to ensure that the ones that succeed, do so at levels far above your average stock portfolio. In short, your wins need to cover your losses AND provide your profits. When you’re starting out, you’re going to make plenty of mistakes. My specs are stored organized by date of purchase, and the quality of specs in 2017 is significantly better than from 2015 or 2013 tracking directly with my accumulation of knowledge, contacts, practice and lessons learned the hard way.

For those of us who have a closet or shelf dedicated to our specs, there is inevitably a box of shame in the mix. For me, there are a couple of under-performing long boxes, including a mixture of long shot specs that still haven’t hit a few years later, cards that have done well, but that are slow to sell or that sell one at a time (usually because they are EDH cards), and some cards that haven’t moved much since I invested but seem at an unreasonably high risk of reprint and are likely safer to exit from.

So a few weeks back I got curious: if I got my hands dirty in the back of my spec closet, could I mine untapped value and turn some of my least impressive specs into something special via a large buylist order. Because I’m in Canada, tracked shipping that would meet the buylist requirements to have my cards arrive within about a week was going to be about $20USD, so I resolved to attempt to pull together a $1000+ order than would diffuse that cost almost entirely.

Recalling that CardKindom and MTGDeals were often two of the more aggressive buylists recommended by my peers, I spent 30 minutes or so quickly price checking 40-50 cards that met at least one of the following criteria:

  • low on my priority list to post for sale if not yet posted (only a fraction of my specs are posted for sale at any given time, as I only have 5-10 hours/week to spend on this aspect of the hobby)
  • higher than average risk of reprint in 2017-2018
  • solid gains, but slow to move
  • higher than average buylist offers vs. retail price
  • recently peaking but at risk of retracing to a lower price plateau

I also cross referenced against recent price trends and likely alternate sale prices and pace on and Ebay.

Here’s what I ended up pulling out of the closet and shipping to Card Kingdom after they end up proving out to have the best offer on my cards:

Average return per annum of 34% on some of your most ignored specs is nothing to sneeze at.

Let’s take a closer look at what I sent in here.

Mutavault, Chord of Calling, Nykthos, Shrine to Nix, and Temur Battle Rage foils were specs I went fairly deep on when they hit their lows, but which I was selling out of too slowly for my liking. Mutavault seemed especially likely to see a reprint in a tribal heavy year of releases, and I was fortunate to exit when I did given the sweet GP Promo version that was announced shortly after I sent in my order.

Many of the others, including Chasm Skulker, Grasp of Fate, Mizzix’s Mastery, Crystalline Crawler, Urza’s Incubator  and the Masterpiece Extraplanar Lens and Rings of Brighthearth were solid EDH specs that carry the disadvantage of selling a copy at a time if they aren’t buylisted. For cards that I get really low, that later climb above $10, I don’t mind terribly shipping them out in a plain white envelope with a $1 stamp, but loading them into a $3k buylist order saves me a couple of hundred dollars total in shipping, as well as the time I would have spent packaging them and mailing them individually. That’s a nice piece of shadow profit to hold against the below market revenues from the buylist.

Atraxa, Praetor’s Voice was one of my first forays into targeting popular commanders, and it was clearly a successful one. However, I fully expect this card to show up as a judge promo foil or something in the next couple of years, and the margin here was good enough to dodge that risk entirely on the fairly sizeable number of remaining copies I was holding, give the pace of EDH staple sales, and the fact that Atraxa is no longer the flavor of the month after the recent Commander 2017 releases and the constant stream of interesting new commanders in Standard legal sets.

The Urza’s Incubators were just lying around in the “Super Collection” I bought in the summer of 2015, and since that project was already wildly profitable and all expenses were covered by it’s resale in Dec 2015, anything I find in the leftovers these days I just assign a nominal cost to in my sales records so as not to throw the profit figures too far out of whack.

Approach of the Second Sun has an uncertain future in Standard, so profit taking there on my remaining sixty copies seemed like a solid move given that the first forty copies I sold on Ebay had already made the spec from last spring worthwhile. Ditching my last playset of Hazoret may have been premature, since that deck doesn’t seem to be going anywhere but I reasoned that if the meta stays narrow at and after Pro Tour Ixalan, people may end up less interested in Standard and profit taking this winter may get tricky. Potentially better to be out clean on a one trick pony, with one fewer spec to track.

All in all, very few of these cards were things I felt deserved my attention as priority specs in the current context and the opportunity to turn over these dead ends/time intensive exits in one fell swoop was too good to ignore. Not needing any of them for my own decks was a solid kicker.

By the numbers, this was 17 different cards spread across a total of 368 total copies. My original cost on the pile was $1676.95, and I expected to receive very close to the promised $2820USD after inspection by Card Kingdom as I hold myself to strict grading under strong light. In the end, I did get dinger on a few cards in the order, but the total reduction was less than 2% and I ended up with $2752 in store credit. Had I taken cash it would have been 30% less. Generally speaking, since I am always buying specs, I am happy to take the credit bonus from any major retailer knowing that they will have inventory I want soon enough. If I was selling to a smaller operator however, that might not have suitable targets or not have them all that often, I would almost certainly take the cash.

All told, I held these specs for an average of 610 days, or a few months less than two years. This is by no means my usual target exit horizon  of three to twelve months, but that’s to be expected for a pile of cards that I was largely ignoring at the back of the spec closet and the key reason I decided to try and exit on some of them in the first place. Surprisingly, the total profit was still a shade over 64%, though only 34% when I annualized those returns. Even still, 34% is a pretty good year for traditional investments by any reasonable measure, and if you could repeat that annually across your entire portfolio you wouldn’t have any reason to be upset. On the bulk of my Magic portfolio I do significantly better, but some quick math tells me that the profit this exit has easily covered off the cost of the truly terrible specs (ahem Aggressive Mining) that are still stuck in the box of shame, and then some.

Overall, that’s a good place to be, but tallying your buylist success you also have to assume that the total profit will be further reduced by at least 15%, since I took credit instead of cash and still need to sell the cards I acquire with that credit to achieve net profits.

So now that I’ve got a solid exit on a piece of my portfolio what’s the next move to be made with $2800 in store credit at

What I’m Buying & Why

One of my goals with MTGFinance is to occasionally take lesser profit to facilitate some of my relatively infrequent treasure hunts as a collector. I would eventually like to trade my way into a Beta set of Power 9 + 4x Dual Lands, and I’d like to do it within the next five years.

Now I should point out that I don’t actually believe that the Power 9/Reserved List/Beta Duals are priority specs. Rather, I see them as excellent value stores that tend to trend up modestly and almost never trend down. I don’t expect more than 10%/annum returns on this stuff, but they also don’t carry any significant reprint risk. Even still, tying up funds that you could be cycling into spec after spec every 3-6 months, into a single card that will grow more slowly and without compounding, is not the smartest move.

There is however an additional mitigating factor in play for me: time. I don’t have enough time to sell my succesful specs in a timely fashion as is. In any given week there are likely 50 Ebay listings I should be getting up, and I’m only getting through half of them. Some of them will only appreciate further while negligence substitutes for patience, but others will rot on the vine. I’ve got a new baby, we’re running two businesses and my hourly rate is too high to substitute this action for real work time. If you’ve got a full time job and a family, I’m sure you understand.

So the time constraint changes the math. I’m already maxing on research, spec purchasing and spec sales time, so pushing some value out of the shame box and into a single high value target that is liquid enough to be resold or traded up into lower value specs with a strong margin once I’ve cleared the back log holds serious appeal.

So with my $2800 in credit on deck, a quick review of the Card Kingdom inventory lead me to this beauty:

Hello Beta Tundra! Card Kingdom called this thing Near Mint, and was asking $2499. The back right edge has some solid wear however, and you can likely parse the minor marks on the front right, so I place this thing at a solid LP.  It’s not perfect, but this is still a lovely Magic card and they’re really aren’t that many out there for sale online at any price. If Magic does well over the next 3-5 years, this card might hit $3000, but it’s true street price might be closer to $2000-$2200 at present so I’m taking a bit of a hit there by accepting the stated grade. If Magic only does ok, which is the more likely outcome, my value is unlikely to erode and I can almost certainly recover the loss from inaccurate grading via a trade down into higher priority spec targets whenever I like. A move into newly released and under-priced Masterpieces or judge promo foils at some point would be a likely option.

The remaining credit I pushed into 20 copies of the FNM Promo Fatal Push at $12.99. This was one of the specs I called out on MTGFastFinance this week, and though my preferred entry at present is closer to $10, the reality is that I think these will hit $30 within 12-18 months and I’m happy getting in on as many as I can under $15. Fatal Push is going to get reprinted a few times in the next five years, but aside from the inevitable Masterpiece Series, I expect the FNM promos to hit at least half the price of the pack foils as the art on these is arguably superior.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this walk through of a large buylist order aimed at reducing inventory, consolidating profit and fulfilling my collector goals. Join me next week when I take you on a tour of the worst specs I’ve ever purchased.

James Chillcott (@mtgcritic) is an entrepreneur, investor, designer, collector, gamer and adventurer. Between dolling out good advice and humble bragging on Twitter he can be found playing with his daughter Alara, running a couple of web companies and eating cookies.

The Super Collection: Diary of a Big Collection Flip (Pt 2)

by James Chillcott (@MTGCritic)

On the surface, this is a tale about an MTGFinance deal gone right, but this story is really about the things that can happen when you just go ahead and jump. It’s about the people you meet, the places you end up and the benefits you reap when you step outside your comfort zone and take a risk while doing something you love.

Ultimately, this is my letter to you, dear reader, issued in the hopes that you will ping me back one day with the details of your own awesome Magic adventure, so that I may smile with the knowledge that I have stood where you stood and felt some of your joy.

Finding a Buyer

As you may recall, last we left this matter, I had just finished tallying the retail value of the collection after a week of hectic sorting, sleeving and labeling. You can read all about the initial deal here.

The rough retail tally of the cards over $1 at this point was about $43-44K USD. Moving into sales mode, I quickly established that at TCG NM Low, the price the cards would likely need to be priced below to move quickly, the value was closer to $39K. (Note that this is not the same as TCG Low, which doesn’t account for the cards being NM. I have long considered TCG Low a foolish statistic, since it has little in common with the price of the lowest available NM copy, but that is another article entirely.)

Now with a collection this large, there were basically three ways to get it sold:

  1. Sell the collection piece by piece and get top dollar in exchange for significantly more time spent, while potentially enjoying some longer term appreciation in card values
  2. Break the collection down into lots and attempt to find an interested buyer for each logical assortment
  3. Sell the entire collection in one go to a vendor or super-collector

Given my fairly intensive day jobs running a web agency and a social commerce startup, Option 1 was quickly put aside. Most weeks I’m already maxing out on MTGFinance time, putting in 5 hours or so buying, selling and writing about the hobby. The prospect of having to at least double that time commitment was just not realistic.

I did spend some time considering the smaller lots option, especially given the large chunks of value tied up in the 60+ NM dual lands, judge foils, Modern and Legacy staples, and casual cards. Had the collection been composed of a plethora of fully formed decks, parceling might have been the better route. Ultimately however, these chunks proved to still rest in the $2500-10,000 range; too large for anyone but dealers to be interested. And dealing with dealers meant accepting their margins, so I ultimately resolved to attempt to unload the collection at a 30% discount.

Now in my experience, when you really want to move some Magic cards quickly, you need to cast as wide a net as possible. As such, in early August I posted details on the collection on various message boards, Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist and Kijiji. As part of my sale prep, I had created a massive spreadsheet on Google Docs, allowing for easy perusal of the collection, including TCG NM Low pricing on each card, and multiple tabs to allow interested parties to sort by set or by card value.

I also made contact with a few local vendors, but the rough offers I received back were much lower than expected. Part of this was likely because Toronto vendors already enjoy consistent access to staples at a steep discount from our large player community and carry significant inventory, but also because Canadians were still wrapping their heads around the ongoing currency exchange shift which is forcing them to rethink their dependency on SCG and TCG pricing at par. Getting a local shop to swallow my conversion math, knowing they would be fighting upstream to pass along that pricing to the local player base just left us too far apart.

Several contacts in the US came back with more reasonable offers in the $22K to $28K range, but when push came to shove, after three weeks of tire kicking, no one was actually ready to produce the funds and close the deal.

Heading into late August, I was on the verge of an extended trip to Bulgaria and Turkey, so I shelved the sales efforts and decided to regroup in the fall.

As it turned out it was nearly November by the time I managed to get active on selling the Super Collection again. This time I narrowed my focus to message boards trafficked by vendors and the high end Magic group on Facebook.  With an increasingly busy work schedule, and a growing backlog of MTGFinance tasks associated with my personal collection, I talked to my financing partner and we agreed to target a pre-holiday season sale in the $22-$25K range. This price tag on the collection seemed most likely to ensure a dealer would see the value and make a move as it represented a margin closer to 40% than 30%.

Through early November, I fielded about a dozen more tire kickers, with four of the suitors coming forward with solid bids and a commitment to closing the deal. One offer was over $25K, but with the caveat that they couldn’t close/take delivery until February ’16. In my experience, folks that need time to raise funds are at the mercy of their funding sources, so we took a pass. The rest of the offers were all between $23K and $24K, with most requiring that I drive the collection across the US border and travel 10-16 hours, mostly to parts both cold and unknown to me.

And then there was Matt, a frequent poster in the High End Facebook thread, a man committed enough to the deal to send a deposit, sign a contract for $23,500 and set a meeting place in sunny California for early December.

Can you say “sold”?

Prepping For Success

There are versions of a $25,000 Magic collection that would be nearly impossible to easily transport on a plane, but fortunately for me, a lot of the value in the Super Collection was associated with a two-row cardboard box full of hard cases containing all the cards over $20. The rest of the cards had either been single sleeved (cards over $5) or put into penny sleeves in sets (cards under $5). Sadly, I had taken the initiative on pricing every last card, only to realize that my buyer would almost certainly want to reprice them.

At first I thought I could get away with leaving the rest of the cards in the two-dozen fat pack boxes I had used to organize them by set, but a bit of experimentation quickly showed that fat packs in a suitcase would result in far too much card damage due to the overabundance of space between card and box top.

A trip to 401 Games in Toronto, revealed the solution. Packed tightly, hard acrylic 250 count Ultra Pro storage boxes were perfect travel containers for the perfect sleeved portion of the collection. I needed 40 or so of them to house the majority of the cards, but it was a reasonable investment given that the airline would never insure my bags for their true value. By stacking and taping together the 250 count boxes, I was able to easily fit most of the collection into two large suitcases, reserving the most expensive $20K worth of hard cased cards to travel with me in a large backpack. This also allowed me to resell the Fat Pack boxes, many of which were old and in demand.

My savior for safe travel.
My savior for safe travel.

With a signed contract and deposit in hand, along with a specified delivery date, time and location, I realized that my four day round-trip was going to allow me plenty of time to explore. The suburb of Los Angeles set to host our deal was about an hour out of town, but with a vibrant city at my disposal, I decided to stay in West Hollywood and accept a longer commute to the drop-off. A decent last minute flight price and a visit to AirBnB later, I had my trip booked.

$40K in cards ready to roll.
$40K in cards ready to roll.

The Fruits of our Labors

I had to put time aside from my work and personal life to make the trip to L.A., and I was a bit stressed from my desire to see the deal work out as intended, but one step into a stunning California afternoon in mid-December was all it took to reform my resolve to have an amazing time getting this thing done.

As a sidebar, let me just remind you that Magic is unique among nerd hobbies in its’ ability to encourage travel and new experiences. Ask the Brainstorm Brewery crew how fondly they remember their time at Grand Prix Vegas last year or ask the pros how they feel about their trips to Hawaii, Japan or the time they got to rock a Pro Tour on the Queen Mary to get a sense of the potential. Sure, pro teams gather early overseas to get in a maximum of practice before a big tournament, but they’re also putting in valuable time with some of their best friends, eating, laughing and enjoying the wider world beyond the cards.

Following in that fine tradition, I dropped off my gear and headed straight for the Tempest Freerun Academy north of LA. I’ve been a parkour practitioner for almost a decade, and Tempest is one of the best indoor training facilities on the planet, so I looked up a few contacts and enjoyed an awesome evening with some of the most friendly monkeys you could ever meet.

Tempest Freerun Academy is a great place to workout in LA.
Tempest Freerun Academy is a great place to workout in LA.

Next I checked out the events going on around the premier of The Force Awakens at the storied site of Mann’s Chinese Theatres in Hollywood. The Disney store was stocked with some figures I’d had trouble finding at home, so I scooped those out with a smile and headed over to Birch, one of the best value restaurants in Los Angeles. By any measure, from ingredient quality, to presentation to flavor, this is the spot you want to check out if you’re on the West Coast. My rabbit baklava was sublime and magic cards paid for that. After dinner I headed over to Ameoba Records, one of the last great American record stores.

Good times in Los Angeles.
Good times in Los Angeles.

The next morning, I rolled up on one of the longest running flea markets in L.A., enjoyed a wicked Vietnamese fusion burger at a foodtruck, tracked down some vintage lingerie for my lady and stumbled on a dude selling a huge pile of vintage Transformers, which as it so happens, are the only collectibles I love more than Magic. With the market closing shortly, I managed to swing a deal on about $500 worth of robots for $280, and set myself up to cover my meals on the trip via a little Ebay flipping.

Fun at the flea market!
Fun at the flea market!

In the afternoon I took a tour of the various nerd shops around the north and west ends of the city, and managed to track down a few solid deals on cards I am actively speculating on.

Melrose Music is more MTG than music these days.
Melrose Music is more MTG than music these days.

That evening I headed over to Universal Studios City Walk, picked up a few rare collectibles on the strip and then took in Creed all by myself with a huge bag of popcorn. A long sleep later, I was ready to get this deal done once and for all.

Delivering the Goods

Matt is a custom car guy, a mechanical engineer and an online Magic dealer, who’s moving a few thousand a week via the usual channels. He bought the Super Collection mostly for resale as part of his usual sales activities, but it was pretty clear a few of the more choice pieces were going to find a home in his private collection. His town is a charming hour drive north of Los Angeles, in the shadow of some of the most beautiful mountains you can imagine, and I find it hard not to envy the folks who run to work there when it’s -40 back home.

Matt and I hit it off right away, to no real surprise. We’re both guys in our mid-30’s that grew up loving Magic, super heroes and things that go vroooom. He’s 6’8″ and could eat me as a snack if he wanted, but that didn’t stop us from wasting a bunch of time reminiscing over every sweet card he pulled out of the collection as we tried to confirm the haul. The cards are well sorted and line up precisely against the list in our contract, so the tally is smoothly achieved in just a few hours. In the end, a banking snafu ends up forcing me to delay my trip home by a day, but I’ve got cash in hand and Xmas shopping to do so it’s no big thing.

All of a sudden it’s Monday afternoon and I’m standing in the parking lot of a bank in California handing a man $40K in Magic: The Gathering cards. The sun is shining, we’re both smiling as we shake hands and I leave knowing we’ll likely stay in touch, men of like minds with giant piles of cardboard in their closets.

A deal completed.
A deal completed.

The Final Tally

A most satisfying drive after the drop.
A most satisfying drive after the drop.

In the end, the numbers worked out for all involved.

The original seller got $14.25K up front, in cash, and never had to move a muscle to find a better deal or sell the cards individually. He could likely have found a deal for up to +5K, but would have had to rebuild contacts, research the market, sort and price 50,000 cards, and basically take on the work that took place further down the line.

My financing partner put in $14.25K in July, and received back $18K in less than 6 months, based on his guaranteed claim to the first $17.5K and 25% of the next $6K, minus $1K in expenses that he covered as agreed (flight, hotel, rental car, supplies).  This resulted in a 26% return on his funds, or the rough equivalent of a 50% annualized return. During that same period, the stock market fell nearly 10%, and he got his money back just in time to reinvest in some temptingly low stocks.

My buyer took on approximately $40K in inventory, with a solid 40% margin intact as he pieces the cards out during his normal day-to-day online sales activities, and just before Modern season boosted prices on a plethora of cards.

As for me, I traded about 40 hours of work, mostly while watching Netflix in my off hours, for $4500USD or about $6300 in my local currency (CDN). All told, that’s about what I make per hour at my day job, and it certainly won’t impact my bottom line very much. I did however, hold aside a couple of sweet cards for my own collection, and there are still 35,000 bulk cards to reap some benefit from. On a pass this week, I found an Arid Mesa, and $200 more in assorted goodies I missed on earlier passes, so the mine isn’t closed.

Ultimately, one of you may have logged a better result, had you parceled out the collection a card at a time. At least on the surface, the revenues would have been higher. The time factor however should never be underestimated. Even as a student you need to value your time at minimum wage or whatever you could be making elsewhere. In my particular case, I need to balance the additional profit against the dozens or hundreds of hours I would need to spend trying to squeeze every penny out of individual sales when I could just be focusing on my mainline responsibilities as a well paid web executive.

More to the point, I met some great people, enjoyed an amazing trip to California in the middle of a cold Canadian December, and did it all for free while making a solid payday fooling around with the hobby I’ve loved since I was a teenager. And that, my friends, is the greatest prize of all.

(p.s. If there were cards in the Super Collection any of you were after, say 7th foils, dual lands or various Modern/Legacy staples, I’d be happy to put you in touch with their new owner, who I’m sure will provide value pricing to move them along.)

James Chillcott is the CEO of, The Future of Collecting, Senior Partner at Advoca, a designer, adventurer, toy fanatic and an avid Magic player and collector since 1994.