I've recently made two cash purchases of Alpha goodies and while that required a significant upfront cost, the actual risks involved in the purchase are minimized by availability of the product (lack of) and a transparent buylist. Generally, I concern myself with writing about actionable advice and consider talking about personal specs no longer available to my readers to be bad form. However, in this case my purchases will provide great examples for those willing to enter what remains a volatile and thinly traded area.
I was able to acquire a slightly miscut near mint Nevinyrral's Disk from Ebay for just $206.49. A quick check of QS's own mtg.gg shows a buy price from retailers at $199.99, suggesting I'm putting $6.49 at risk. Of course, there remains a wide spread between this buy price and the remaining four dealers also looking to pick up Alpha copies of the Disk.
With an online low of $235 for the only heavily played copy and just two near mint copies of Larry's Disk listed for $399.98 turning this purchase into a profitable deal shouldn't be too difficult. Finding a buyer between the low and the high will be harder than trading to a retailer at $350. A trade of course requires something worthwhile to trade into.
Unfortunately with prices for Modern looking a bit hot and Legacy not far enough off the highs it achieved thanks to a Pro Tour event some years back, I'm faced with an interesting dilemma: hold out for a buyer or trade into shocklands/ Standard cards. I still find shocklands a tempting target but will hold for a buyer at least until Innistrad rotation. At that time plenty of new targets come up that should face pricing pressure as they move out of Magic's most popular format.
The next Alpha card I picked up was Meekstone for $52 shipped. Just five days after the Disk purchase, my first reaction to finding a BiN auction @$55 was to let the local shop and some random people online at the QS forums about the deal. After a meal with some friends I came home and submitted a Best Offer to the seller that (after a counter) we could both accept. Here I expect a card in excellent condition, but with a high buylist price of $72.16 and a major buylist buying at $60 this deal is approaching risk free.
The secret to speculation in thinly sought after cards is first and foremost trusting your evaluation of the card. Disk is an EDH board wipe that is easy to abuse thanks to Goblin Welder, Academy Ruins and Indestructible effects. The card itself has multiple printings, but there are only (at most) 1100 Alpha copies of the card and while I don't expect every EDH player to want one I am pretty sure demand exceeds supply.
Meekstone is a card I already have a home for. The local store owner - same guy I gave a heads up to - has already offered me more than two times my investment in trade. MtG speculators are the middle men of Magic card supply. It is our job to take advantage of real or perceived supply imbalance in a market and profit. Any investment in cardboard is easy with the other end of the deal already on the line. If you attend competitive Magic events, you can expect many willing buyers for your cards obscura. At worst you'll be playing vendors off each other for the chance to snatch up a piece of gaming history.
How to Profit
There will always be opportunities to profit handsomely from thinly traded stock. Ebay is home to distressed sellers and your chances to pick up cards for less than buylist are plentiful even excluding Alpha print runs. Buylists are more stable as concerns older cards and represent the safest assumption of risk for a speculator in my experience.
While scouring online deals for similar specs will be time consuming, narrowing your focus to limited print run cards and seeking distressed sellers at off hours will offer significant return at an easy to identify level of risk.
To see just how rare some of these cards are, I'll leave you with these stats on print runs from Alpha, Beta, Arabian Nights, and Legends:
Total limited run of 10,400,000 broken down as 25% Alpha, the rest Beta.
Alpha has 116 rares each with 1100 copies versus Beta's 117 rares with 3200 copies of each rare.
Alpha has 95 uncommon cards with 4500 copies each versus Beta's 95/13400
Alpha commons 74/15900 versus Beta's 75/47800.
Alpha basic lands 10/86800 versus Beta's 15/137900.
33U2/20000 of each
17 U3/30000 of each
1U4/40000 copies of Oasis
1C1/30000 copies of Mountain
16C4/120000 of each
9C5/150000 of each
1C11/330000 copies of Desert
121R1/19300 of each
107U1/57900 of each
7U2/115700 of each
29C1/212100 of each
46C2/424200 of each