Author’s Note: This is an article that has really been a long time coming. As I am currently stuck on a four-hour flight to Virginia for the holidays and to take down a few events in the meantime (Six days late for the Star City Games Invitational – a long story I’d much prefer not to get into), I figured now was as good a time as any to go ahead and cover what’s been on my mind for a while in this special edition of Rhythmik Study. I will be using terms in this article dealing with trading. For those of you not sure, “sell value” in this article is defined as “the price the average high-end vendor sells this card for.” “Trade value” is the same as “sell value,” but is used in the context of a trade with other players, and “buy value” is defined as “The highest price a vendor is willing to pay in cash for the card in question. Enjoy.
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Jeph Foster, and I am a grinder. As many of you I’m sure know all too well, the life of a grinder is hard. Whether you’re a PTQ grinder, 5K/Open grinder, Grand Prix grinder, or all of the above, the toll grinding takes on your wallet, free time, and, to some, your sanity is nothing to be taken lightly. Unless your costs are being subsidized by appearance fees from Wizards of the Coast and Star City Games (in which case, you’ve been winning money at these events anyway), they can simply be way too much to keep up with. I’ve been grinding for two years, mostly for fun, friendship, and the love of the game. I’ve never taken a cash prize in an event (though I have won several events with large product payout and intangible payout , such as a PTQ), though I haven’t paid for anything Magic related in over two years. This primer will show you how to keep your EV as high as possible, even if you aren’t Gerry Thompson.
I’m going to start with a small disclaimer: some of these are much more obvious than others, while a few are quite a bit less conventional.
Take advantage of your free time at events. This is a problem I see with players all the time. As soon as they go 0-2 in an event, they just railbird their friends or mope around, and waste their time feeling dejected for the rest of the day. If you have the misfortune of falling out of contention early at a large event – or any event for that matter – take advantage of the time. When you go to a Premier Event, you spend the day surrounded by people who play the game, several of which are people who also couldn’t find a way to make their decks perform like they wanted. If you’re still confident in yourself and your deck (or another deck you brought with you) and haven’t put yourself on tilt, enter a side event. Win-a-box eight man tourneys run all day at PTQs, GPs and 5K’s/Opens. For $15-18, you can take down three players and take home a box, or easily sell it off site to players for an easy $80. When I fell out of contention of Day Two at Pro Tour: Amsterdam, I immediately signed up for a generic Grand Prix Trial. While I came in second and was unable to secure the slot, I still won a box which I was able to sell to players for €7 per draft set (Wescoe Check – off site, of course). However, if you aren’t feeling up to slinging spells, trading is always an amazing option and can even be more profitable.
Trade constantly, even if you aren’t gaining much value per trade. Players are always looking for that guy that’s going to give him a Mox Opal for his Predator Dragon. Sorry, guys but this just does not happen. Sure, every once in a while you get that blowout trade, but incremental advantage over several trades is always better than obscene advantage over few trades. Let’s look at it this way: Predator Dragon is a bulk rare that vendors always buy for about $.10-15, and Blackborder.com is buying Mox Opal for $10. This trade is about $9.90 in your favor. However, if over fifteen trades, each trade is even value except you ask for 2 Preordains or Mana Leaks and an Everflowing Chalice or Joraga Treespeaker as a throw-in, we actually make more. Let’s take a look at the figures - Blackborder.com is paying $.25 each for Preordain and Mana Leak and is paying $.75 each for Everflowing Chalice and Joraga Treespeaker. This makes our profit per trade $1.25, and our profit over fifteen trades is a respectable $18.75; you get this just for mising a couple of commons and uncommons! You’ve made almost double the profit, and you still come off as a cool guy because you aren’t “trying to rip them off.” One thing that I do is carry a notebook with a handwritten list of cards that either have high buy values compared to their sell values (at least 75%) or are grossly undervalued by most players (TrollandToad.com buys Sorin for $6.00 and Sanguine Bond for $1.50. You can get them from players for about that in sell/trade value, if not less) as well as commons that can be sold to vendors for at least a quarter.
This accomplishes several things: First, it allows you to know at a glance exactly how much trade value you should ask for your cards as well as theirs. Traders that are confident in the prices of the cards they are looking for are more convincing to other players than players who seem shaky and quote prices off the top of their head, or who simply make random guesses.
Second, having this cheat-sheet keeps players from having to check their smart phones for prices. This expedites the trades and saves a lot of annoyance.
Finally, this allows you to keep your losses to a minimum. While you may know buy prices off-hand, being off even by a dollar on a card or two can mean the difference between a small profit and an unnecessary loss.
Remember, when making 10, 20, or even 100 trades in a day at large events, every quarter counts. An extra quarter over 100 trades in a weekend is enough to pay for your meals for that weekend. In the same vein, spending an extra half an hour searching through sites’ buylists at large events where there are multiple dealers can really improve your profit margin if you capitalize at the event by trading for the most profitable cards, or sell only to the dealers offering even just a quarter extra for certain cards.
Note: all prices quoted are at the time of writing this article and are subject to change.
Rotate your stock regularly. No one cares how long that Nissa Revane has been sitting in your binder at $10-12 sell value if no one is looking for it in a trade. The cards you have with high buy value should be sold off if they sit in your binder too long, or traded at a slight discount to players if it means turning the card you receive into something you can profit off of. For this, we go back to incremental advantage. If you take a loss on one card in a trade, and gain value on either what you received in exchange for that card or other cards in the trade in question, you still gain advantage.
One of the best ways to help with keeping stock fresh is to ask every player you trade with what they are looking for – even if you don’t have it. One thing that a lot of players seem to have in common is a case of laziness when it comes to finding cards. Keeping a list of players in the back of the same notebook you should be using to record buy prices and the contents of each completed trade (recording each trade you make is a good idea as well, it allows you to track your profit as well as where each card goes, preventing awkward “Well, I thought I had that card” moments) as well as a physical description of the person to help relocate them later gives you more things to look for while trading. This provides even more opportunities to earn incremental advantage. Players are also more likely to help out people who do their card hunting for them.
Twitter is your friend. Okay, I may be focusing just a little too much on trading, but trading is one of the keys to keeping your costs down and your EV (Expected Value) as close to even as possible – maybe even positive. Most articles on trading specific cards can be outdated by the time they print. I recall one podcast I did with Kelly Reid and Dave Heilker earlier this year at Grand Prix Columbus where we were talking about Survival of the Fittest and how it was the breakout card of the tournament. By the time Kelly was able to get everything mixed and ready for post, the cat was out of the bag and the price was already beginning to skyrocket. Twitter is a very up-to-date resource that constantly relays information about hot cards and what to pick up from the people at the tournaments. Having Twitter available on your mobile device while at a large tournament allows you to pick up hints from other people who are there, and can be an invaluable resource.
For more information on Twitter, how it works, and how to use it as a resource, check out Dan Barrett’s article on Star City Games, located here (http://www.starcitygames.com/magic/misc/20719_SCG_Talent_Search_Knowledge_Profit_and_You_A_Twitter_Primer.html).
Make friends. While I in no way advocate seeing your friends as simply another resource to be used for personal gain, this game is all about interaction with other people. The people I play Magic with every month at large events are like an extended family to me, but we all also help each other keep costs per person down. If seven people share a room together for the weekend, a hotel can be as little as $15 per person, as the same goes for travelling to these events. Having five people that all want to go to the same event actually justifies driving as opposed to flying, which cuts costs to almost nothing.
Friends can also lend cards when you are in desperate need of them, or can even share a card pool, making the game even cheaper. I know when I head to an event, I sense players’ desperation for chase rares, and will charge a premium for necessary cards from those who weren’t smart enough to come prepared. With this in mind, I make sure I have everything I need to go ahead of time, or borrow what I don’t need from my friends before leaving for the event. Nothing can be a money sink like losing tons of value on a trade or paying five dollars over market value for a hot card that no one can find. Just for a few recent examples, Grand Prix: Washington D.C. saw Linvala, Keeper of Silence shoot to twenty dollars, Pro Tour: Honolulu had fifteen-dollar Uril, the Mist Stalkers, and Treefolk Harbinger, a previously unplayed uncommon was fetching a whopping €5 (roughly $6.60) at Pro Tour: Amsterdam.
Just remember that borrowing cards should be a two-way street – don’t leave someone cold who has helped you out when you were desperate for cards.
Become a DCI Judge. There have been plenty of times that I’ve found myself unable to find space in my budget to justify putting myself at a potential loss when taking meals, hotel and travel into account for an event. Even at times I can afford to head out to a tournament, sometimes card availability is too low to build two decks for each Star City Games Open event. Fortunately, many Premier Tournament Organizers are understaffed and looking for judges. Becoming a sanctioned judge takes a lot of time and effort, but the rewards heavily outweigh the costs. Most events offer compensation of about a booster box per day, with Star City Opens and Grand Prix offering DCI Judge promos as well. While some promos are better than others, compensation for a weekend of judging can be sold for anywhere from $200-$500, with many Tournament Organizers offering free hotel accommodations and food as an extra incentive for judges willing to offer their time. At worst, this results in a free pseudo-vacation (judging is still hard work!); at best, you may be able to make enough money to pay for your next flight and have a few promotional cards left over to fill holes in your Legacy deck, or trade for what you need. Speaking of trading, most Tournament Organizers will typically allow judges a round or two off as a break to grab lunch, which is plenty of time to grab a quick bite and still head out to the trading floor to make a few extra bucks (Read: Take advantage of your free time at events). The best part about judging is the ability to stay connected to the game and see your closest friends, even if you can’t really afford to.
As a quick note: Judging is not something you should get into simply for the monetary gain. Anyone considering becoming a judge should be genuinely interested in being constantly connected to the game. Remember, Tournament organizers typically do not compensate Rules Advisors. This means becoming certified requires a lot of volunteer work and studying first.
Write articles. While this kind of goes with what was mentioned above – do this for the love of the game, not the money – writing articles for various websites dedicated to the game can bring in enough money to mitigate the losses you might incur from traveling or amenities at events. Some sites, like ManaNation.com, pay their writers in store credit and award cash for exceptional writers, while TCGPlayer.com lets anyone blog and pays people based on their popularity. This is not only a great way to make a little bit of extra cash, but can also help get your name out there, not only as a player, deckbuilder, or theorist, but also as a writer. Sharing your new deck with the world can also serve as conclusive proof that you were the first to build it, and receive the credit you are due, and your articles can always end up in a collection of your published works to submit if you ever want to be a professional blogger or columnist.
Fly for free (well, almost). Yes. You read that right. Mise flights as much as possible. This is a secret I’ve been keeping relatively well-kept for a while, but I figured I’d go ahead and share it with a couple hundred of my closest friends – you guys. Have you ever been sitting at the airport, and someone comes over the PA saying the flight is overbooked? Well, it’s a little-known fact that airlines like to sell more tickets than they actually have available seats so they can still send out a full aircraft even if a few people don’t show up. (Un)Fortunately, sometimes everyone who said they were going to show up does. When this happens, the airline starts looking for someone to give up their seat. You may ask “Why would I want to give up my seat?” Well, Federal Law requires domestic airlines to be pretty generous to the people who don’t get to fly when they wanted to. Typically, this generosity is in the form of a free meal and a $200-300 voucher for future flights (about one almost free round-trip flight; airlines still requires you to pay about $20 in taxes each-way on flights purchased with vouchers). There are a few ways to manipulate the odds for this to happen in your favor so you aren’t always drawing dead.
First, fly out on Thursday night or Friday morning. These are relatively busy travel days that also happen to be perfect for flying to a big event, anyway. The busier the travel day, the more likely you are to hit an overbooked flight.
Second, try to get a flight with a layover in a “hub” airport. Hubs are airports that are typically very large and are popular transfer stations for connecting flights. These flights tend to fill up more often simply because the people on the flight to the hub could literally be going anywhere in the country. Layovers also give you two opportunities to be booked on a full flight.
Third, be proactive. As soon as you arrive at your gate, ask to speak to a representative to see if your flight is overbooked and express interest in giving up your seat if needed. These are first-come, first-served, and expressing interest before they ask for volunteers ensures that if anyone is getting paid, it’s you.
As my plane is getting ready to land, my battery is running dead, and I’m pretty sure I’ve touched on everything I wanted to in this article, I’m going to go ahead and bring this one to a close. Remember, while you may not need to do well in the tournament to go infinite, you still have to play tight, be smart, and get a little lucky with your draws. If you follow this guide, maybe you’ll be one step closer to living the dream.
Jeph “Rhythmik” Foster