Insider: Overcoming Variance in Trading

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I know terms like tilt and variance are usually applied to playing Magic cards rather than trading for them. But as is often the case, dealing with Magic's financial aspects  parallels playing the game. But there’s a big difference between losing because you drew seven lands in a row and losing big on a trade.

If your deck is constructed properly and you shuffled well, there’s just nothing you can do about losing to a good mana flood. However, when you trade off that Splinter Twin at a dollar you have no one to blame but yourself.

These are things that can lead to tilting in the trading game. Everyone has read a million articles about why going on tilt is bad when you’re playing the game, and the same thing happens when trading. I’ve gone on tilt and made my own mistakes after screwing up a previous trades, and it will always catch up to you eventually if you don’t understand how to handle it.

Rather than tell you how to handle these situations once you’ve gone on tilt, I’m going to instead suggest you check out any of the excellent articles written by the pros, like this one, about how to avoid going on tilt, and add in the words “while trading” instead of “while playing.”

Instead, today I want to focus on variance in the MTG financial world, and how to approach it.

Let’s start with the story that kicked off this train of thought.

Last Friday I show up for FNM excited to game with Eldrazi (the same deck that carried me to 2nd place at Nat Qs the next day), but even more excited to complete a trade. Earlier in the week a guy texted me to tell me he was willing to trade a Revised Underground Sea for my two Tezzeret Agent of Bolas and a few other things. I had three Tezzes, and was planning on holding on to them to play after rotation, but you can’t turn down trades for Underground Seas.

I arrive at the store 45 minutes early (an excellent technique to get good trades with those completing decks) and sit down across from Underground Sea guy. He’s a regular at the store, but he’s never had any hugely desirable cards besides a Volcanic Island that was too damaged to even be placed in a sleeve. I start the conversation off by asking how he was able to acquire a Sea while he pulls out his binder and hands it to me. I casually glance down while opening up his new binder, which is small, white and clean instead of his regular trashed binder.

I almost fainted, cheesy movie-style.

The first page of his binder contains no less than five pieces of Power. Mox Emerald and Timetwister are taunting me. Mox Sapphire is trying to tear my heart out. I look up quizzically, and he tells me to keep going.

The next page contains nine of the best-conditioned Dual Lands I have EVER seen. Beta Savannah openly mocks me. These things are so untouched they must have been sitting in a museum for the last 15 years.

Hands shaking, I gingerly pull out the Underground Sea, and he asks me what’s it’s worth. I desperately want to tell him it’s worth about two Tezzerets. I could tell him it’s a $50 card and he would believe me. I could tell him Revised lands aren’t worth anything compared to the others. After a few seconds, I tell him it’s a little over $100. I go on to complete a very good value trade for it (two Tezz, one Black Suns Zenith, and a few other comparatively meaningless cards).

While trading, I do a quick value check of his new binder (chock full of other expensive goodies such as Candelawbra of Tawnos, which is slowly melting my brain). It’s well over $2,000.

Underground Sea guy sometimes skips tournaments because he can’t afford the entry free. I know something is up, but he won’t budge. I’m honestly checking the cards for counterfeiting at this point because I’ve seen about two pieces of Power in Oklahoma in my lifetime.

Finally, he breaks. He found the cards at Vintage Stock, a new chain of stores that set up shop across Oklahoma and buys Magic cards in bulk and resells them based on rarity. He and a friend went through the shop’s boxes and he got his $2,000 collection for about $12. As in, less than I just spent on dinner.

I congratulate him for winning the lottery, but inside I’m steaming because I’ve gone through the cards at that same location before with nowhere near the success. I grind out incremental value every week and this guy just happens to go to the store after they receive a new collection and don’t know what a Google is?

Must. Be. Nice.

So what can we learn from Underground Sea guy?


He just got lucky. It happens.

But we can learn from ourselves.

Have any of these things happened to you?

-       You hear the new guy at the table next to you tell the person he’s trading with “I don’t care about card values, it’s about playability.”

-       You bought 50 copies of Sarkhan Vol at the prerelease (after all, he does ultimate in just two turns!)

-       You sold your Jaces at $40 apiece.

-       Your 500 copies of Hand of the Praetors on MTGO didn’t quite work out.

-       You bought or traded for a playset of Survival of the Fittest two days before the ban announcement.

-       You traded your Splinter Twins away for a dollar two weeks ago.

These are all examples of variance when dealing with finances, and they can be tough to get over, but you have to be able to set your frustration aside. If you’ve been around the trading game for awhile, something along these lines has happened to you. How did you deal with it? Did you immediately set out to shark the very next trade you could to make up your lost value? Did you take it out on your next FNM opponent? After all, why try to grind out small profits when the shark across the room is raking in the money?

It sucks to have variance strike like this and it may seem easier to just shark instead, but some of the best grinders in the world like Kelly Reid and Jon Medina have names you recognize because they have, by and large, kept true to the basic principles of good trading – Your trade partner is more important than the trade, and your reputation is more important than any single score you might make, even if its for a binder of Power.

It’s difficult to recognize in the moment, but our response to something like opening up Underground Sea guy’s binder of Power defines who we are in the Magic community. Inside you might be screaming that if anyone deserves this lucky break it’s you, the guy grinding it out every week, but in the end you have to swallow your pride and congratulate them instead.

They say your reputation precedes you, and it is absolutely correct. Everyone knows you can’t shark your way across town and expect anyone to trade with you. But I think it goes one step farther – You have to treat every situation like it’s your only chance to show who you are, because it is.

Someone somewhere, whether its your current trading partner, the guy next to you, or the store owner you didn’t know was listening, is judging you in that moment, and you only get one chance to tell them who you are as a person.

Because trading is considered more of a social activity than playing, especially at the FNM level, you are much less likely to be forgiven for behaving badly during a trade than if you nerdrage during a match.

There’s another trader I’ve seen who’s pretty good at what he does. He knows his prices, is sociable and friendly enough when he’s playing or trading. But that’s where it ends. His interest ends when he shakes their hand. Watching from the outside, it’s easy to watch the shark chase down his prey (even if he’s not actually sharking them). The technique is nearly flawless, but it comes across as way too practiced.

It’s effective, but does that make it right? I say no. When I write about engaging your trade partners about more than just number crunching, it doesn’t mean it ends once you’ve tucked his cards into your binder. One of my core trading philosophies, taken from my very first article on QS, is “It’s about building friendships, not matching dollar signs.”

Remember that, and the rest will take care of itself.


Corbin Hosler

@Chosler88 on Twitter


I initially planned on writing price predictions for New Phyrexia but there has been a glut of articles doing the same recently, and I don’t want to waste an article agreeing with everyone else. For what it’s worth, I see Karn ending up about $25-30 (Price-wise, it’s a better Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker and goes into every deck), and I think the best pickup this weekend is Urabrask, the Hidden, who I think is undervalued right now. If anyone is interested in hearing my predictions (or at least wants them on record), let me know in the comments and I’ll tack it on to next week’s article.

8 thoughts on “Insider: Overcoming Variance in Trading

  1. Good article sir. Very true and almost quoting what I have been preaching for the past couple of weeks. Just curious who are you talking about involving the guy you watch from the outside? I used to be just like that when I first started but have realized that honestly after you do this long enough future trades are far more important than initial value. This is slightly different at major events than local stores but still applies. As for Underground Sea guy don't worry the way I look at it is yes they got max value but in the end grinding will work far better for you they will squander what they have and that is the major difference between being a true trader and someone that stumbled upon the nuts. Hope to see more financial from you in this light I think you have a lot to offer and could make the Kelly/Medina eventually. Just takes time and devotion…we all pay our dues and watching Underground Sea guy is instrumental in learning. Its honestly not true that you can't learn anything from him though…. you can learn how to look up your values and not take for granted what you have just because you got a good deal. Max value is the true lesson there.

  2. Also Sea guy seems to be a great trader to stay in touch with, especially because it is likely he will squander them and you'll be happy to provide whatever he'll squander them for.

    When around 2002-2003 Type 1 got hot I had just traded away a number of good cards for fair prices before that. Bazaar, workshop, alpha recall, unlimited recall and ruby, unlimited mask, etc. That bummed me out. But them's the breaks. Also most of that got me duals I still have, so eventually the values caught up a bit (actually the workshop was traded for 7 duals, very good value by today's standards). It still stings a little to have been on the wrong side of that price spike, but you can only go on. I've made rather more deals where I was on the positive end so I'll just think of those instead (for example I got that mask in the first place by trading it for an urza's rage and a few throws, look at what that's worth now…).

    Nice article, enjoyed reading it. If anything it inspires dreams of once finding a deal like Sea guy did.

  3. Enjoyed the article but I have to say that Underground Sea guy's story is so sketchy. In my experience whenever ive run into a person that makes a claim that they just happened to stumble on big money cards at an antique show / estate auction etc etc for pennies I usually think they were stolen. Not saying the Underground Sea guy stole them, rather someone was trying to unload it quick and the thief didnt care if he got 10 cents on the dollar for em, its all free money to them.

  4. One of my big problems is combining game tilt with trade tilt. If I go on tilt from a crappy game or match, I will decide to go into "ruthless crushing" mode while trading. The rest of the time, I'm personable and I try to be fair. When I'm on tilt? Hold on to your value, kids.

  5. This was a great read. I don't do any trading, but recently decided that it was just silly for me to hold on to a ton of cards that were just going to drop in value once ZEN block rotates- cards that I don't even play. So I packed off a nice bundle to an online dealer and raked in about $250 in store creadit which went right into buying up some precons (which I *will* play with). To my sorrow, I shipped them a trio of Stoneforge Mystics for about $4 apiece.

    But variance happens, and I was perfectly happy to ship them a JTMS for top-dollar right before he started trending downward, and got another $50 in cred for a foil Sword of Fire and Ice that I'd come across in a collection I'd been given. Making that kind of coin (and ordering anozer dozen precons) easily salved the 'tilt' I felt at juuuust missing the boat with the Mystics. C'est la guerre, non?

  6. @Ryan – Thanks! I agree there are lessons we can learn from from Sea guy, just not ones that are really relevant to variance. As for who in particular I'm talking about, I based it off a particular person, but in reality it can apply to nearly anyone at least some of the time.

    @Pi – I agree it definitely keeps that dream alive, the next day I heard there were 5-6 people at the same store digging for anything left over.

    @Val – It's clearly a sketchy story, but despite my doubts it proved to pan out. The next day a friend of mine went there and found the rest of the nearly compelte Arabian Nights set that they pulled the expensive cards out of.

    @Ertai – Thanks! I'm glad you liked it. I've done the same on numerous occasions, including shipping my Mystics off at the same price (I remember being pleasantly surprised I was getting $5 apiece on Ebay).
    As they say with sports, you don't remember the dozens of games you won, but you'll always remember that one you lost at the buzzer. Same goes with trading. I've made plenty of good calls in the field, but it's shipping those Mystics early that really hurts.

  7. How about some speculation on cards from Scars or Mirrodin and Mirrodin Beseiged that will be affected by New Phyrexia? Or, some cards to watch in Legacy/Vintage that have the potential to be affected by New Phyrexia's release?

  8. Yeah, I have seen tidbits, I was thinking more along the lines of a comprehensive list, in the typical, "new cards to buy" form.

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