Jason’s Archives: When to Hold ‘Em, When to Fold ‘Em

Greetings, Speculators!

A couple months ago, Jon Medina was a guest on Brainstorm Brewery. Before casting we were talking about speculation. (I wax philosophical on this topic a lot, so if you’ve heard ramble about this before, just bear with me.) In the course of our discussion, I learned that there are really two prominent schools of thought regarding Magic finance. I’m calling them the “Medina School” and the “Bushard School,” because it’s my article and I’ll name my own theories after my friends if I please.

The Medina School of Magic Finance is all about turnover. If you can buy a card for a buck and sell it for two bucks, congratulations, you made an extra buck. Use those two bucks to buy cards you can sell for four bucks. Congratulations, you taught your money to reproduce asexually. Repeat as necessary, subtracting your overhead costs. In the Medina school, not having cash on hand to buy more cards is bad since you always want to be buying and selling, so having money tied up in stock that won’t move is folly.

The Bushard School of Magic Finance is about called shots. If you can buy Sever the Bloodline for a dime or a quarter and sell it for a dollar a bit later, you made 75 cents. If you had 100 copies, you made 75 dollars. If you had 1,000 copies, you made 750 dollars. Congratulations. You taught your money how to get a job and bring home a paycheck. Now use that 750 bucks to buy thousands of copies of the next called shot.

That little bit of exposition should helps frame the conversation we had about speculating a little better. Jon isn’t a fan of the Bushard School. If you know that [card Snapcaster Mage]Snapcaster[/card] will hit $25 tomorrow and you can buy it via buylist for $15 and sell it for retail, then make that $10. It’s a sure thing.

Selective Reporting

When pressed a bit more, he revealed that he didn’t appreciate when speculators focused on their successes and neglected to mention their failures. I think he’s absolutely right to feel that way about a tendency shared by many in this community. I won’t name names, but honestly nobody specific even comes to mind. We all do it to an extent. That time you snagged a playset of Tarmogoyfs for $20 makes a great story. (That was my first big score, years before I turned to finance.) Less exciting is that time you pre-ordered Time Reversal for $30 a copy. (I didn’t do this, but if I had I wouldn’t cop to it anyhow.)

See? Even writing this I used a hit of mine as an example of success and made up a fake one for an example of failure. It would be dishonest to fix it since this article is about transparency. I’d rather that everyone see even in this discussion about the cognitive dissonance that goes into diminishing one’s failures, I am not even being honest.

This mindset is so ingrained into us all that even with a conscious attempt to overcome it I still engaged in it unwittingly. Here’s one — I bought 200 copies of Collective Blessing for a quarter each. Even if they go up, I got all pee-pants and sold them at a loss as bulk so I can’t even benefit from them potentially going up in a year or so. That’s some honesty.

Will I learn from concealing my failure? Will I give an accurate representation of how good I am at speculating if I only talk about my successes? Will misleading you convince you I’m smarter than I am? Do I even care if my opinion is valued?

Well, I’ve come to realize that the answer to that last question is yes. I’ve been accused of being falsely modest (humblebragging) when I downplay my success this month calling a lot of cards before they skyrocketed. I think my reluctance to take a bow and accept praise for a pretty dynamite string of calls that netted me literally thousands of dollars stems from the conversation with Jon on the podcast.

The truth is that I’m still learning this and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I am going to come clean with you because there is an ugly side to speculation that no one talks about because no one wants to admit we all suck at it. Let’s not pretend we don’t — it’s dishonest and we all know we can improve.

When Do You Sell?

Did you buy Thundermaw Hellkite at $10? You had a few opportunities to do so, most recently around the time of GP Philadelphia. I bought a lot of them. As they started to creep up, my collection peaked at 107 copies. This isn’t exactly the mother lode, but at $10 a pop I had quite a bit invested. Thundermaw took off, the price hit $25ish on eBay and I sold playset after playset. The ones I had left I decided to firesale and outed for $18 each at the $50k.

After fees on eBay I made a little over $20 a copy. Not bad, not bad. The ones I outed to a dealer I made $8 a copy on. That’s 90% profit, nicely netted. But I was physically sweating holding the box of Thundermaws at the $50k. You might have seen me darting from dealer to dealer trying to find the best price, then outing a pile before the dealer could change his mind. I was so worried they’d say “Yea, we have enough of those for now” and offer $11, I was almost sick to my stomach.

You’ll perhaps sympathize with how I felt watching the coverage this weekend as Thundermaw ruled the skies in both Standard and Modern and talk of its potential to hit $45 was discussed. Still seeing a lot of copies at $30, I declined to buy back in in the hopes to retail them for $45 (more like $38 on eBay, which is hardly worth the effort).

But is it not worth the effort to out them for $38 if you paid $10 and still have a ton of copies laying around? In other words, as much as I made by buying early, how much did I lose by selling early?

Look, maybe it’s a bit unfair to say we all suck at knowing when to sell because knowing that is much harder than any other aspect of speculation. But let’s take another case to illustrate another point.

Even though one of my orders was cancelled, I still ended up with about 80 copies of Rhox Faithmender. (Big props to RunMTG for actually having the 30 copies that I thought I only ordered because of a glitch and for mailing them out promptly. I am forever a fan!) This card very quickly hit $4 on a popular retail website, which means it buylists for about $2 now. Since I was quick and got a ton at $1, I can reap the sweet reward of a $1 extra per copy that I sell to a buylist! Is that not the best thing ever?

…Hang on. I was quick, I got a good tip from my boy Nick Becvar and Brad at ARG (making friends with dealers is like buying and selling with cheat codes, you’ve been advised) and ordered from multiple places to avoid the pains of cancelled orders. Hence this was one case where I made the same money Medina would have if he simply noticed the spike, adjusted his buy price to $2, and sold them for $4. The best case scenario on my spec is Jon’s day to day routine.

If Faithmender had not spiked as high as I’d hoped, I’d be eating a dick sammich with Rhox Faithmenders as bread. Sure, I can probably get about $3.50 on eBay, but not everyone has that out. Maybe this was a spec I should have avoided. I made money, and no one in the forums has complained (yet) since I guess they did too, but I am not calling this one a win. In hindsight, there was less upside than I’d thought.

What Was That Crap about Poker?

The crux here is that even though I’m getting ridiculously good at picking cards about to nonuple in value, I still have room to improve on maximizing my profit, and you can all learn as much from my failures as from my successes. For example, I sold Sphinx’s Revelations at $12 on eBay three days before they hit $25 on a popular retail site. Sure, I bought them at $4, and had about 60 left over, but selling 20 to one dude for $12 still made me sick to my stomach when I saw they had spiked again. Had I waited a bit instead of being a pee-pants I could have maximized my profit.

But being a pee-pants let me sell out of [card Craterhoof Behemoth]Craterhoofs[/card] before everyone realized that deck was just OK, and they probably didn’t need to be a 4-of. Dealers stopped buying them day two of the $50k and those who kept buying cranked their price way down. I ended up holding none, and selling a card I was able to buy for $1 a few months ago at 9$ a copy felt good.

The point is, sticking to one strategy won’t always work. I always hold, I make more on some cards and lose big on others. I always sell, I get to watch a second spike enrich those who bought from me. The lesson here is to think — to think as hard about when to hold and when to fold as I did about buying.

It’s the hardest, most nuanced part of speculation to be sure, evidenced by the number of people in the forums who ask about the right time to sell. But it’s something we should all be honest with ourselves about. Just buying for a low price isn’t good enough if your best case scenario is slightly better than breaking even. If you would have made just as much money buylisting and selling at near retail, the spec wasn’t worth the risk. If you don’t think about whether a card has future potential (me ignoring how good Thundermaw could be in Modern hurt me in this case) you might not maximize your profit.

I’m trying to improve at this, and since I made money on every spec I can’t complain too much, but one thing I won’t do is pretend I’m better than I am so more people will listen to me. Only by addressing how badly I screw up sometimes will I ever hope to improve.

A Tournament, a Tournament, a Tournament of LIES

What happens in Vegas….goes largely unnoticed as there were two major Grands Prix this weekend which overshadowed the SCG event.

SCG Las Vegas Standard Top 8

A lot of “midrange” here.

A Naya deck pre-Boros and also pre-Gruul is encouraging. I’m not sure how much new stuff will get incorporated and how much old stuff will persist, but Naya has a lot of tools right now and will likely benefit from a larger card pool. Not farting around with Faithmender, Brian Page still ran a decent amount of lifegain to stymie the aggro decks. Restoration Angel plus Thragtusk is a potent combination and not just for Bant anymore. [card Bonfire of the Damned]Bonfire[/card] is a card to pick up as I believe it’s at its lowest point and is starting to get played a bit more. Great job, Brian.

Three Zombie decks in a top eight that also contained three copies of “Four-Color Midrange” would seem to indicate the format may be getting less diverse. These four-color decks are essentially the Naya deck plus Sphinx’s Revelation. I won’t let the results of one event convince me Standard is flattening out this close to Gatecrash, but it could be. B/R Zombies continues to perform better than a fringe contender, due in large part to Hellrider and Knight of Infamy. Will Knight of Glory make a similar splash as a tool to fight off the increasing number of undead lists in the top eight?

A 7th place finish for the consensus best deck (according to pros and the results from Indy) says a lot about the field. I think most people were in Toronto at the GP, and Vegas isn’t super accessible for most. I don’t know the attendance numbers, but I imagine they didn’t break any SCG records.

SCG Las Vegas Legacy Top 8

So Sneak and Show makes a big comeback and its pilot is rewarded for being the first person to top eight in over a month with top honors. Were people not ready? Seems possible. In fact, a lot the top eight decks were combo — Sneak and Show, Hive Mind, ANT, Elves. Only one copy of the BUG deck that was all over last week’s top eight, this time piloted by an AJ Sacher who must have slept through his alarm to wake him up for his flight to Toronto. That, or he liked the idea of a weekend in Vegas and light competition for prizes.

“Bant Midrange?” This is very close to the New Horizons builds that were dominant a few years ago before Maverick became the go-to [card Knight of the Reliquary]KoTR[/card] deck, and it’s essentially my blue Maverick list. I never thought to call it “Bant Midrange” because that name is terrible. Stop calling everything midrange. Did you lose a bet with Brain Kibler?

The only thing I’ll say about this deck is that I usually want an [card Elspeth, Knight-Errant]Elspeth[/card] main, and infrequently I’ll side it out for a [card Jace, the Mind Sculptor]Jace[/card]. With a combo-heavy meta, turn three Elspeth is usually good for wrapping up a game quickly, and Jace isn’t much help against a resolved Show and Tell. Since stopping it from resolving is of import, “Maverick” decks with Force of Will seem to be the only ones reaching top eight. They’re called hate bears, guys. Use ‘em.

All said, a pretty typical top eight. More combo than usual, but that’s fine. Seems like all competitive decks are represented except for Elves. Congrats to everyone.

I’m Nagoya Dwell on This GP for Long

GP Nagoya Top 8

The Japanese sure do love to cast red spells. Red was all over the GPs top eight. When the Japanese started getting really interested in Thundermaw Hellkite, I paid attention. Similarly, their renewed interest in Bonfire of the Damned is almost certainly going to be relevant to the American market.

Angel of Glory’s Rise is el cheapo right now, so if you want to get a million copies, they may go up and they will certainly trade out well. There were three Zombie decks in the top eight on the SCG event. Zombies is cheap to build, easy to pilot and punishes bad draws. And Angel pantses the Zombie decks, plain and simple. The Japanese were clearly expecting some zombies, and the Angel decks kept them at bay to an extent. In fact, Okita’s winning deck is chock full of interesting tech. Mill yourself with Chronic Flooding? Check. Peddlecaster? Check. Goldnight Commander? Totally in there.

The rest of the top eight reinforces the idea that Thundermaw is due for another price spike, possibly to $40 (d’oh), and that Bonfire will be headed back up. Another card to watch is Stromkirk Noble, a card I pee-pantsed over and now have to pick back up at $2 or $3. If Boros becomes a deck off a flurry of new humans from Gatecrash, an unblockable, growing one-drop seems like a no-brainer. The Japanese are already all over this card, so it is worth picking up if you can. Don’t panic-sell them for $2.50 like I did, even if it means you get to sell so many your wallet won’t close.

Karaoke After GP Toronto but Not Nagoya?

Explain that!

GP Toronto Top 8

It’s a Modern GP, just like the one they announced for next season in Detroit. I’m not thrilled, but I’m sure some will be. Honestly, even as a Michigan native, I think Detroit is a pretty bad place to hold an event. GP Lansing or GP Ann Arbor or something would be better in terms of parking, culture, and avoiding so many hobos playing dice in the alley outside the event center. (Although we keep going back to Atlanta, don’t we? Do I ever have stories about that place.)

Digressions aside, Modern. Boo.

The new Scapeshift deck looks positively annoying. Fortunately, holding Cryptic Command back to make Scapeshift resolve isn’t particularly strong. Command does have a tendency to bounce an untapped land EOT so you can go off main phase, so it is still good in the enabler role. Modern has its combo players playing a lot of bad cantrips, but this list proves people will still do it.

I like the Superfriends list a lot. I am not sure whether unbanning Jace, the Mind Sculptor would be a problem. Obviously no one is testing him in Modern to find out, so we’re all just guessing. I just think he may not be too oppressive, certainly not compared to how he was in Standard.

The winning Jund list has far more innovation than I’ve seen in a Jund deck since the days of “In response to Blightning I’ll Harrow for a mountain and my one-of island. Swerve.” Lotus Cobra is positively bonkers and leads to very early Thundermaws, which I hear gets there. This adoption in Modern is partially fueling the second spike in the price of Thundermaw. That is twice in a month the price has nearly doubled.

The decks that just missed top eight are worth looking at. Nearly 100% of the time, 9th place has the same record as 8th with tiebreakers being the difference. Getting randomly paired against a scrub round one who drops at 0-3 isn’t your fault, but sometimes the X-1-1 gets 9th. The 9th place list here is very interesting, but judging by the number of Thundermaw Hellkites in the top eight, it would have been an uphill battle.

Also worth looking at is the pseudo-Maverick list in 10th place.

All in all Modern is still shaping up as unbannings and printings lead to new archetypes as well as just plain old innovation. Expect the format to continue to grow and diversify as time goes on.

Personal Word Count Record Broken

Thanks for bearing with me. I’ll be back next week for more shenanigans and maybe some henanigans if I have time.

Jason Alt

Jason Alt

Jason Alt is a value trader and writer. He is Quiet Speculation's self-appointed web content archivist and co-captain of the interdepartmental dodgeball team. He enjoys craft microbrews and doing things ironically. You may have seen him at magic events; he wears black t-shirts and has a beard and a backpack so he's pretty easy to spot. You can hear him as co-host on the Brainstorm Brewery podcast or catch his articles on Gatheringmagic.com. He is also the Community Manager at BrainstormBrewery.com and writes the odd article there, too. Follow him on Twitter @JasonEAlt unless you don't like having your mind blown.

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