I am going to be tackling a controversial topic today. I was taught Magic late in 1997 by two friends of mine as I got curious what all that gibberish they were talking was about. Both of them were very active traders and at least one of them was what we call a shark these days. Naturally I copied some of their habits when it came to Magic, among them their trading ethics (the distinct lack of them to be more precise). I was a shark, and I was good at it.
Quiet Speculation and I do not condone sharking, we have published this article on the free side to make sure it's available for everyone to learn from. If you cannot do well in the market without ripping people off, then you really shouldn't be into MTG finance. I am not proud of my past as a shark and have left it behind me, but I do believe there might be some lessons to be learned from it. I am writing this article for that reason.
Everybody can make a deal that is to their advantage: add up the numbers, make sure that what you're getting is worth more than what you're giving away and close the deal. The toughest part might be to keep a straight face. Repeat this a few times and you're quickly increasing your binder's value. (Un)fortunately, unless you're very good at it, people are bound to recognize you for what you are, and your reputation will start preceding you.
I'm sure we've all come across people with reputations like this, and they are usually easily recognized and avoided. At this point they actually start making fewer deals and everything they say and do will be scrutinized.
The more successful and thus dangerous sharks are the ones who manages to convince you of their honesty. Everyone can make a mistake when it comes to card pricing. The subtlest sharks may even make use of your mistakes rather than "accidentally" making their own. This shark will play mind games, manipulate you and is always capable of giving you a plausible excuse if caught.
You should understand that my examples come from a time long past. My sharking was done over 10 years ago. Prices were different back then and we did not have smartphones. However, we did have magazines and people often used those for guidance.
There was also MOTL that gave you an overview of going eBay prices for cards (and before MOTL there was Cloister's Trading Card Price Lists). I am nearsighted, so I would print up a MOTL pricelist at a size unreadable by others to gain an advantage. As printing was still fairly expensive, being frugal and reducing the number of pages actually made sense.
The Beta Clone
There was a monthly convention in the city of Purmerend, which was a long cycle away from my parents' place. This convention was organized by a local dealer and would usually draw around 50 people. Many were casual players, just there to have a good time. Every other event had a weird format, such as Rainbow Stairwell, All Common or Chaos Draft. Trading was very common.
I made many trades there that were to my advantage. I remember this one trade that among other things included a Revised Clone on their side. Back then Clone was worth more than we're used to now, comparable to a decent Standard rare these days. The deal I put on the table was fine as it was, a little skewed in my favor, but the Clone had some wear, and when I took it out I could see that there were more Clones behind it in the binder. I told my trading partner that I wanted to look at the other Clones to see if one was perhaps better looking and he considered that a reasonable request.
One Clone down I found a Beta copy and I (jokingly) remarked that I would make the trade with that one in its place. The other guy agreed and we closed the deal. I ended up with a Clone worth about six to seven times the one originally included in a deal already in my favor.
- Identified the trading partner as somebody who is not a regular at the event.
- Made casual chit-chat to figure out what kind of player he was.
- Took charge of putting together the deal: I like to put things down on the table to visualize what I am thinking about and this leaves a lot to the trading partner's imagination.
- Was picky on condition and made a fair request to look for a better copy of a card (remembering they were in the binder), which suggested I thought the deal could use a tad extra on their side without explaining where the difference lies or how much it is.
- Made a remark that could easily be explained as a joke, but that would make me a great deal if successful and would still leave me able to set up another good deal if it was taken as a joke.
- Kept a straight face through all of this.
Looking back on this trade, I am pretty sure I came across as knowledgeable to a player who was not very aware of prices. As I seemed to know what I was doing, he just went along with whatever I suggested, probably to seem more knowledgeable himself. Because he was not a regular, even if he figured it out later, it likely wouldn't come back to me (and never did). All in all, this was a very good situation for me as the shark.
So what could my trading partner have done better?
- Prepare: He didn't have to know all prices, but some general knowledge like Beta being worth far more than Revised would've been helpful. He also could have brought his own pricelist to check against, as even an outdated one would have told him that.
- Ask questions: He did not ask me how I figured the prices lined up; I would not have lied straight to his face.
- Get a second opinion: He could have asked somebody else to give their view. If a trading partner is being fair then they shouldn't mind; if they do, it's probably a good idea to step away.
- Most importantly, he should have realized that he wasn't knowledgeable on prices and come up with a plan for trading that would leave him less vulnerable
I later traded that Clone for a Beta Kudzu that I still own. This wasn't the greatest deal at the time because I lost a lot on liquidity and probably even a bit on value: you win some, you lose some. I guess in the end it paid off, as today the Kudzu is worth more.
The Stroke of Genius
When Urza's Saga came out, one of the hottest cards in the set was Stroke of Genius. Yes, it exceeded cards like Yawgmoth's Will and Tolarian Academy, while Exploration was little more than bulk and Serra Avatar was among the most expensive cards. Different times, for sure, I recommend checking out the picture to the right that shows an Inquest pricelist from that time. Check out City of Traitors...!
Magazine price guides were based on store prices in the US. Naturally it would take a while for prices to settle, so we would only find out the prices a month after release. This meant that you would be in the dark for quite some time, unless you had access to an online price guide like I did (Cloister was not well known). Of course, this led to a great situation for sharks.
A friend of mine opened a Stroke of Genius and didn't really see how it was any better than Braingeyser, a card that had some value due to age and nostalgia, but not very much. I ended up trading for it for three uncommons (one an Overrun, an above average uncommon at the time). When we spoke about it later, the friend commented that there was no way we could have known where the price would end up, so he didn't really blame me, figuring next time it would be him coming out ahead (like that was going to happen).
- Abused a knowledge gap.
- Kept information to myself.
- Had a plausible excuse.
- Kept a straight face.
Of course, these days we don't have a month of delay before we know prices, but there is still a large knowledge gap between those in the know and outsiders. We know where to look, how to use different prices sources to our advantage and have a better idea of what to expect for the future of a card's price. Especially knowing the different price sources and their particularities still allows for a lot of abuse by unscrupulous traders.
So what could my trading partner have done better:
- Waited: This guy knew prices would become known in a month. These days we have a similar situation with preorder pricing that tends to be very high where many people would be better off waiting for prices to drop.
- Paying attention: I was pushing him a little on making the deal. I think he could have picked up on that if he was paying attention (I remember him being surprised at me putting in an Overrun).
- Asked questions: When pressed, I would have told him that to me the card seemed pretty good. If he was persistent, I may have even told him I had seen some online pricing that was quite high.
I did ultimately develop a reputation with my friends that I was always trying to make gains on trades. I told them that I was happy to make any deal that was not to my disadvantage. That was honest; what I did not add was that they never pressed me enough to make the deal fair. If they did have concerns on a trade, I would take out a card that didn't really matter and still get a very good deal.
Around 2007, I started playing again with one of the people from those days, and they expressed quite some surprise at me being fair in trades. They still approached me with caution, but a few trades in they let go of that too. If I was to shark again, they would be sure to fall for it. Instead, these days I tend to donate to this guy just about every token and German card I happen to come across, as he likes them and they're almost impossible for me to move in any kind of profitable way.
I've wanted to show you both how far a shark might go as well as the tactics they might use. I realize that some suggestions to counter these tactics may not work all the time. Specifically, there are sharks out there who will straight-up lie to you, and some can be quite good at it. To avoid being sharked, you really need to make sure you have at least some knowledge of prices and tactics, but unfortunately, there is no way you can be 100 percent successful at it: even I've been sharked. I hope I've at least been able to make you aware of some of the tactics.