These last couple months I have been fairly bearish on this MTG market. Rampant reprints, less Legacy support, no Modern Pro Tour, and sudden changes to Standard rotation have all been a lowering tide that has dropped many ships. A lot of people have noticed these recent trends, and are sounding the alarm—thus far, I myself have been fairly vocal about selling while the market still has its warmth.
But while cards like Snapcaster Mage continue their monumental decline, the reality is that there are many cards with very bullish momentum. Casual cards are especially hot, as evidenced by the recent spike in The Chain Veil and Contagion Engine.
While not nearly as expensive, Standard still has its share of valuable cards, including Liliana, the Last Hope which has stabilized in the $40 range. And while the initial hype has passed, Old School remains a robust format driving appreciable price growth.
With this in mind, I’m going to put bearishness aside this week. After all, I have made some purchases lately and my MTG speculation isn’t extinct. Instead, this week’s article contains caution from a different angle: that of the overlooked pitfalls of MTG finance.
Many times we get caught up in charts on MTG Stocks or buylist arbitrage on Trader Tools, but in reality there are some expenses we incur without even realizing it. I want to make sure I bring up some of these neglected expenses to make sure they’re all considered fully when someone decides to continue their journey through MTG finance.
It’s easier to find arbitrage on obscure cards that vendors don’t check prices on frequently. Cards from Magic’s earliest years often fall into this category—especially cards that don’t ever appear on the tournament scene. Something like Pyramids from Arabian Nights or Icy Manipulator from Beta both fit this category.
My appreciation for Old School cards has really sharpened my scrutiny of card condition. I really had to when I started messing with Alpha and Beta investing—one minor flaw can transform a NM Alpha from $80 to a $50 SP copy, or even a $40 MP copy. There are many instances where an MP version of an older card is valued 50% or even less than its NM counterpart. Thus, condition is truly critical.
Unfortunately, not all sellers adhere to this same level of scrutiny. To some, older cards are expected to have a little wear so they become even less meticulous. This is absolutely the wrong direction to swing, and it has caused me some lost profits in the past. Suddenly that card being sold below top buylist on TCG Player causes you to lose money rather than gain.
Sure, you could ask for a partial refund. But do you think your seller is going to give you a 30-60% refund simply because there was a nick or two in an otherwise Near Mint card? Not likely. And while you could plead your case, chances are you will begin investing far too much time to eek out significantly reduced profits. Best to cut losses and move on at that point.
If this happens just once, it’s easy to isolate the incident in your mind and move on. But if it happens again and again, you can see how the issues could rapidly erode an otherwise profitable venture. Keep this in mind especially when dealing in high-end and Old School cards—sometimes if a price is too good to be true, it probably is. Scrutinize sellers thoroughly before seeking out arbitrage in this space.
For anyone who has done even the slightest bit of MTG finance, you probably have dealt with this issue before. It doesn’t take long for that first “damaged package” or “incorrectly graded” email to arrive. Not long ago I securely shipped an Arabian Nights Diamond Valley to someone from the High End Facebook group. He was kind enough to send me a picture of the package when it arrived:
Yikes. I don’t know if the USPS decided to use this package for their vehicle traction control testing or what. Clearly I hadn’t anticipated this possibility. Luckily enough I protected the card sufficiently such that it received no damage from this incident—a dodged bullet for sure. But things could have just as easily turned sour, necessitating a partial or complete refund for a $100 card. Such an occurrence would have completely wiped out profits from many sales just to recoup the loss.
And then there’s the truly inevitable: the missing package. Due to the price differential between tracked shipping and untracked shipping, I tend to mail cards valued under $20 in plain white envelope to preserve some of my profits. This can easily backfire.
It’s the seller’s responsibility to ensure cards arrive at the destination. If they cannot prove this has happened, the seller has no choice but to refund a buyer who states cards never arrived. Even tracked packages can get lost sometimes, especially when shipped internationally. Thus it’s important to factor these losses in when determining profitability of MTG finance because they definitely have a negative impact.
Transportation and Other Hidden Costs
When I first started selling cards to make a little extra cash to support the habit that is Magic, I used to do so in the most inefficient manner possible. I bought a bubble mailer from the store for around $1 to $1.50, I would drive to the USPS, and I would pay the tracked shipping cost in person to mail the card.
There are many flaws with this system that I have since corrected. It’s fairly obvious I was overpaying for my bubble mailers—I have since begun purchasing bubble mailers in bulk 100 at a time to drive cost per envelope down to $0.19 or so. If you do larger volume, you can drive that piece price down even further by purchasing 500 at once—less than $0.07 per envelope! And I now can print my postage online using the PayPal shipping tool, eliminating the need to go into a post office to mail cards.
But there is one item that I still overlook, and I suspect it impacts others even more than it impacts me: gas.
I'm talking, of course, about the fuel it takes in your car to get you from A to B for the cause that is MTG finance. Going to scope out a collection from Craigslist? That 20-minute drive you incur could eat up nearly $5 worth of gas. Driving to the post office to pick up a package that someone shipped via registered mail? That’s another couple bucks lost. Heading to a nearby Grand Prix to buylist cards to dealers? That hour drive likely hits you for over $10 when all is said and done!
These hidden transportation expenses are easily overlooked because we look at gasoline as something outside of MTG finance needs. I have to have gas in my car, and I use my car for commuting to work anyway. So if I use a gallon here or there for MTG, I never notice. But the usage adds up to something that is most certainly nonzero and can even be significant without us even noticing!
In addition to fuel for your car, don’t overlook fuel for yourself. How many times have you picked through a collection late into the night with an energy drink at your side? Perhaps you order pizza to eliminate cooking so you can focus on the task at hand? While at that local Grand Prix, are you packing a sandwich or are you eating at the overpriced food vendor onsite?
While it’s true that we have to eat no matter what, it’s very possible we are spending more than we otherwise would have if we had not done the MTG-related task at hand. Such expenses are easy to overlook, but they too could eat into what otherwise would be considered a profitable venture.
Wrapping It Up
It’s easy to solely focus on acquisition price and sale price when calculating the financial reward of MTG finance. “I buy a card for $8 and sell it for $12, netting a $4 profit.” But this is a fallacy. In reality, no one nets profits in this way. Shipping supplies, transportation costs, the occasional partial refund, and downgraded card conditions all eat into our profits in hidden ways.
I’m not saying this is reason to stop bothering with MTG finance—my awareness hasn’t stopped me, after all. But I think it would be reckless not to consider these factors when dabbling in MTG finance going forward.
Pay attention to those occasional lost packages and make a tally. Be smart about fuel usage when driving around town to pick up collections by combining trips. Order shipping supplies in bulk and take advantage of the fact that the USPS picks packages up from your mailbox in most places. Be careful where you are purchasing high-quality Old School cards, sticking to trusted vendors with good history of selling cards with correctly labeled conditions.
All of these strategies can help you avoid incurring unnecessary losses. Just because these losses are hidden from you doesn’t mean they don’t happen. I would even argue such losses are more dangerous for being hidden because it could give us a false sense of profitability.
Perhaps when all of this is factored in, the resultant actual profits aren’t even worth the time spent to generate them? Perhaps. Perhaps this is yet another reason why I’ve been backing off on my MTG speculation lately. Too often the gains at hand end up being very small. And while I enjoy the endeavor as much as the next person, I also need to make sure I prioritize my time carefully. After all, time is the only thing you can’t get back once it’s spent. Therefore, it should be valued highest of all!
- Contagion Engine is nearly sold out at Star City Games. There are only five English copies in stock, SP at $9.35. They have zero foils in stock. If anything were to increase in price I would say it should be the foils. Right now foils are only 45% more expensive than nonfoils and this 1.45 multiplier seems incorrect given the card’s utility in Commander. If you can find foil copies, perhaps that would be the best way to play this one.
- Keep an eye on casual favorite Thieves' Auction. There are many copies in stock at Star City Games, but I’ve noticed Mercadian Masques copies creeping up on MTG Stocks’ Interests page lately. The spread between SCG’s SP prices and top buy prices are awfully narrow—though keep in mind, that condition downgrade is not negligible and makes the endeavor not immediately profitable. That said, some copies may be worth chasing. In a few months’ time, this could be a $5 rare.
- It’s been a long time since we last saw the printing of Time Sieve. Thus it’s no surprise the rare from Alara Reborn is at all-time highs lately. Star City Games is completely sold out of non-foils with a $7.99 price tag. MTG Stocks has the card valued at $12-plus so I doubt the price tag will remain under ten bucks for long at Star City Games. If you can find copies at that $8 price point and they’re truly Near Mint, it may be worth going after. Just be careful with those hidden costs I talked about above…a $8 purchase price doesn’t mean you can immediately profit overnight.