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Insider: How to Find a Bargain

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Dealing in cards on Magic: the Gathering Online Trading League (MOTL) is war. Often times, MOTL is where sharks go to make profits when they are too small or too busy to run an actual store. As a result, it's often quite cutthroat.

Every time I create a new sale list, there will be at least a couple members who will offer lowball prices on already-competitively priced cards. It’s inescapable, and at times frustrating. I will admit that even I fall into this trap on occasion – I become greedy and attempt to find a steal on MOTL in order to garner a tiny bit of profit.

I’ve quickly come to the realization that MOTL is not the optimal venue for finding profitable opportunities.

Being Opportunistic vs. Being Anticipatory

During the earlier rounds of Pro Tour: Honolulu, I observed that Huntmaster of the Fells // Ravager of the Fells was seeing an impressively decent amount of play. What’s more, many players were commenting on how powerful the card was in the given metagame at the time.

That Friday, I decided to take a small risk and purchase three copies of the Huntmaster at around $10 each. I did so in anticipation of the card’s further success. The payoff far exceeded my expectations when eight copies of the card landed in the finals between PV and Kibler. Should the tournament seen an alternate outcome, Huntmasters may never have skyrocketed the way they had.


(Picture courtesy of cardshark.com)

Profiting from these circumstances often lie in our inherent ability to predict cards’ performances. For example, we could have observed a card like Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite combos well with Unburial Rites and is quite the powerhouse even at seven mana. With this conclusion, we decide to purchase a handful of the card while it is still selling on MOTL in the $10 range.

This path usually implies some level of risk. Acquisitions are being made before a given card has proven itself.

These anticipatory pick-ups are often what the writers here at Quiet Speculation like to elaborate upon. Our predictions are usually around cards that have the potential to double in value, often with limited downside.

But I want to take a moment to distinguish between attempting to acquire cards which may increase in price versus acquiring discounted cards below going market price. The former often requires some risk, but quantities are normally available because a card is not yet proven. The latter involves less risk, but usually requires patience and discipline as you sort through countless collections and listings looking for the precious few with opportunity.

While the endeavor of acquiring multiple copies of Past in Flames in anticipation of a price rise (which never happened) was exciting, I often prefer my acquisitions to be driven by opportunistic pickups.

Where I Find These Opportunities

If underpriced cards were readily available, they wouldn’t be underpriced. The economic law of supply and demand ensures the “invisible hand” shifts inventories until the final price is established.

But opportunities do exist. This is due to an array of factors, such as price fluctuations, limited supply or demand markets, aggressive sellers, etc. My intent is not to elaborate upon all of the reasons why opportunities exist – rather, let us operate under the assumption they do and for various reasons.

eBay

I almost never sell items on eBay. Besides the fact that the fees are far too constrictive to profit reliably, the corporation will almost always side with the buyer on any disputes. The only time I’ll resort to eBay to sell is out of desperation, when I’ve realized there are not many buyers for this particular item.

Buying on eBay, however, is one of my favorite pastimes. I can basically name my own price, and if the cards exceed that price I simply don’t buy. It takes a minimal amount of time searching for a particular item and placing a few bids. And while it takes a lot of trial an error, persistence is often rewarded.

For proof, search any card on eBay that has some significant value. Let’s use Underground Sea for example. Take a look at this ended auction:

This was the cheapest tournament legal Underground Sea auction to have ended on eBay in the past few months. Would you have been interested in purchasing it for $66? I sure would have! Sellers are humans and they do make mistakes. When they underprice a card, write a poor description, or take a poor picture, you can profit. But don’t take my word for it – try your own search and browse completed listings. You’d be surprised how wide of a price spread exists on many popular cards. Especially the more obscure ones.

Cardshark

I repeatedly mention this website in my articles. You may begin to think I am part owner – I assure you I am not. I do shop on this site very frequently because of the opportunities that present themselves.

Often times a new seller on Cardshark will want to rapidly accumulate feedback through sales. To do this, they charge sub-eBay prices on a handful of cards. Don’t believe me? Check out this purchase I made just a couple weeks ago:

Pretty reasonable deal, no? I’ve already managed to sell every card on this list for some profit except for the Cascade Bluffs, which I still own.

I’ll admit, this was the largest haul I’ve ever made on this site. But corner cases still exist, especially when prices are on a rapid incline. I originally found this seller because I saw he had two Phyrexian Obliterators for sale at $9.75 and I knew they were on the rise. After browsing the rest of his inventory, I swiftly added over two dozen more cards to my cart! Next time you see some cards on the rise, check out Cardshark. The shipping costs are tough to stomach, but if you can find a large group of underpriced cards from a single seller, you stand to gain handsomely.

MOTL

I began this article stating that MOTL is not an optimal place to find bargains. This is perhaps only half true. It really all depends on your approach… and how much time you have.

There are hundreds of sale lists on MOTL at any given time. A good portion of them are uninteresting to the speculator for a variety of reasons: the list is too small, prices are too high, cards are too obscure, seller’s rules are too strict, etc.

If you have enough patience and endurance, with a sprinkle of luck, you may be the winning person who is first to post on a new sale list with underpriced cards. Then, if the seller doesn’t realize his prices are too low, you may make yourself a nice profitable purchase.

The other 95% of the time you will be forced to navigate through sale lists with average prices and maybe one or two bargains. This leads to the negotiation step, which all sellers respond to differently. Make a reasonable offer to an anxious seller and you may still score a deal. Make a lowball offer to an agitated seller and prepare to be ignored or even lashed out at.

This is the reason I rely more heavily on eBay and Cardshark. I don’t have the fortitude to submit offer after offer with no response. Also, as a frequent seller on MOTL, I easily become frustrated with negotiators. I don’t want to be hypocritical, after all.

Summarizing

In the stock market, there is always a profitable opportunity somewhere, no matter how bullish or bearish Wall Street’s sentiment is. The same is true for the Magic Card market. But in the case of the Magic Card market, there are even zero risk opportunities to acquire underpriced cards. The trick is finding them.

This article touches upon the sources I use most frequently. There are other avenues such as small-scale retailers who don’t update prices often enough, sites like TCG Player and even your LGS. Even dealer booths at larger events can sometimes misprice a card or two.

Depending on how much time you have, there may be good reason to try this strategy. Search through eBay listings, look up some up-and-up cards on Cardshark, and browse a few MOTL lists. This gives you a feel for what cards should sell for and which ones are selling at a bargain. Even if you cannot identify any opportunities today, you will still learn something about the singles market. This can only make you a stronger trader.

I’ll leave you with a few last tips on how I browse eBay for deals:

  • Try looking for awkward quantities of a card. Often times a 2x or 3x auction will end cheaper on a per card basis than a 1x or 4x auction.
  • Don’t be afraid to narrow your search to Buy it Now auctions only. Some of the best deals I’ve found were from sellers who were overeager to sell, and so priced their cards far too low. The Underground Sea example above was a BiN auction.
  • On the other hand, if you're seeking an obscure card, it is definitely best to wait for an auction. Since demand for the obscure card is likely low, there may not be enough bidders around to drive the price up. This could result in a bargain for you!
  • Look for diverse lots. I once picked up an underpriced foil Scalding Tarn simply because the seller was selling it in a lot with a couple non-foils. I also found a lot of rare Innistrad lands that sold at below average prices.

Once you have acquired some inventory at bargain prices, the next logical phase is unloading them for profit. Next week I'll dive deeper into the different approaches you can take when maximizing sales and/or unloading quickly, depending on your goals

-Sigmund Ausfresser
@sigfig8

7 thoughts on “Insider: How to Find a Bargain

  1. I know a lot of small retailers (30-40), always very handy for finding underpriced cards. If I learn about a card rising that I am interested in I will just search them all and there are bound to be a few that have the card in stock. Then I continue searching through their inventory for other bargains. In my experience EDH foils are very often underpriced so I make sure to check for those. Even if I don't like foils at all I know enough people who do to make it worth my while. If I am ever at a brick and mortar store I do the same.

    While I don't follow ebay I do follow similar Dutch sites looking for good deals. Every now and then some underpriced collections or single cards pop up. I regularly make fairly low offers, knowing I likely won't get the item, but when I do it is very much worth it. Strangely recently some good deals even popped up on my own forums, 25 euros ($33.5) for a DCI foil sol ring, yes please!

  2. it cannot be stated enough that even Brick and Mortar stores make mistakes. I need to do my part to pay attention to this more, but this last weekend I walked into a PTQ and a friend alerted me of underpriced Legacy staples in the case. I walked over to find a German FWB Tundra marked at 115 IN NM condition. Of course, only one is on eBay at the moment but for me this was a steal considering NM English ones are selling around ~100. I also found 3 Karakas at 40$ (lol) and 2 Maze of Ith for 20$. Also, the EDH foil is a big big big tip in that some smaller stores will have these in bulk binders or in the case incredibly cheap. Recently got foil Decree of Punishment for 3$ and a foil Japanese Thraximundar for 4$. Keep your eyes OPEN at these places as the deals when they present themselves can be incredible.

  3. It's true that brick and mortar stores also make mistakes. Your good finds likely depend on how good of a job the stores does at maintaining updated prices. For me, even though I live in a major city, there's only one store I can get to reasonably easily. They don't normally have the most phenomenal selection, but once in a while I find a bargain.

    Your comments on EDH foils is a great one. I know so little about EDH foils, so I cannot really elaborate. But there are so many obscure EDH cards worth money, it only makes sense that there are some huge opportunities there. Thanks for building on my article with those adds – great points!

  4. I got a foil Decree of Pain for a couple of euros when I was in Germany at a local shop. Also got misprint Walds (the German Forest with the Plains picture) thrown in as he didn't know how to price them, foil Shockduals for similar prices as the non-foils in a different binder and a lot of other good deals. It was very worthwhile going to that shop…

    EDH is a strange beast for people used to competitive. I am guessing most pricers at shops are used to that, just as most people here on the site. It's a very good idea to try to understand the mindset of the people who are fanatical about the EDH format. I have just 2 fans of foils in my group, but I can easily move at least half the underpriced foils I get to them and the rest I can move online.

    I once did a very extensive aptitude test to find out what kind of career would suit me best. I turned out to be fairly good at everything with very similar scores on all different dimensions they scored on with a single exception. I got a much higher score on memory. In magic I always seem to surprise my group with knowing even the most random cards from memory, they used to read the card out loud when I asked them what it was, after me responding a few times with, "ah, it's a …" they now just name it. What I am trying to say is, as far as prices for obscure cards go, I'm really quite good. I will know not only if they have underpriced that Sword or other popular card, I will know if they have underpriced some random Legends rare most people haven't even heard of (say Invoke Prejudice or something similar). If you don't have the memory for it, it might be very difficult to make use of these situations when you're in a Brick and Mortar store and more time consuming when you're checking out an online shop.

    1. Pi, that is so true (and you are lucky to possess an astute memory). So much of finding bargains is keeping familiar with card prices. This is perhaps why I target online venues primarily to find underpriced deals – I simply can't remember all the values of foil EDH cards and random Legends cards. Shopping online means I can constantly research prices on various websites to confirm the deal is a good one.

      1. To be honest, I don't remember exact prices, but I can generally make a ballpark estimate. If a $25 card is listed at $20 I probably will not notice, if it's listed at $10-$15 I probably will. Foils give me a harder time than regular cards, but the same applies.

        And yeah, lucky that way :D.

        1. Reading back I think it may be a little confusing, I am not actually estimating, I remember a ballpark value, not the exact value. Not quite sure how it works :S. Possibly because I get prices from so many sources. Something just "looks" over- or underpriced to me before I even consciously think about it, though I may later remember what I last saw it at and where (or at what kind of place if not where exactly).

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