Insider: Shifting from Nonfoils to Foils

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I have been crushing it lately with MTG finance. I usually don’t pat myself on the back much, but after selling most of my collection in Louisville a few weeks ago it has become much easier to organize and manage my collection. As a result, I have kept good track of prices for cards in my speculation binder, opportunistically selling things as they jump in price. This, combined with the fact that I firmly believe MTG has been rekindled at least for the short term, has really buoyed my optimism.

Sadly, this doesn’t guarantee I am rolling in profits. I’m not losing money, to be fair, but I haven’t exactly made a “killing” beyond my Beck // Call purchase a while back. I’ll explain with an example.

This story will probably sound all too familiar.

Recently I noticed the rapid rise in Inexorable Tide, and I was fortunate enough to grab two playsets from eBay for a total of around $10 shipped. Within days these spiked on TCG Player to around $4 a copy. Hooray!

There was an error retrieving a chart for Inexorable Tide

You may assume that if they jumped to four bucks a copy and I had eight of them, I should have gotten $32 for my trouble, a net gain of $22. Sadly, this assumption has many flaws. First, there’s the fees and shipping: 10% to eBay, about 3% to PayPal, and another $0.70 for the non-machinable stamp.

Okay, so let’s subtract those out: $32 - 13% - $0.70 = $27. So I made $17 in profits, right? Not exactly…

You see, these are hot in Commander right now. The recent printing of the Commander 2016 Atraxa deck has driven a bunch of “counters matter” cards significantly higher, Inexorable Tide being one of them. The problem with this being a Commander card is that Commander players are the ones buying them. You know how many copies they want? One. For their Atraxa deck. And not a single copy more. In fact I had one person purchase a copy from me who asked immediately afterwards if they could cancel their order since they discovered they had a copy already somewhere else.

So now I’m selling these one at a time, paying the $0.70 in shipping for every sale. At this point I should also mention that PayPal’s fee structure includes a flat $0.30 plus their percentage—it’s negligible when dealing in larger numbers, but in reality I need to factor that in when calculating profits. So now we have:

$4 - 13% - $0.70 - $0.30 = $2.48 * 8 copies = $19.84. So that brings me to $9.84 in profits? Close, but still not there yet. You see, even though TCG mid was in the $4 range, I’m not a store who can sell at those prices. I need to be competitive to the market, which means I had to price my copies near the market lows, or roughly $3.30. So let’s do this calculation one last time:

$3.30 - 13% - $0.70 - $0.30 = $1.87 * 8 copies = $14.97. Net profit: about five bucks.

Tell Us Something We Don’t Know

When I cashed out of my Beck // Calls, I was celebrating every time I heard that cash register sound from my phone. Each time it meant a couple bucks more in profit as playset by playset sold.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Beck // Call

You may ask if the five dollar profit I made on Inexorable Tides was also worth it. I had to spend time writing up envelopes, re-packaging these cards into top loaders one at a time, and shipping them all out. The short answer: no. Unless I can learn from this.

It turns out I did learn a few things from this experience, and I would like to relay these tidbits to you the readers so you can hopefully avoid my pitfall in the future.

  1. If you’re buying cards in the $0 - $2 range with the hopes of selling out around $3 - $5, make sure you are able to sell in playsets. When Beck // Call spiked from $0.50 to $2.50 I was able to make significantly more profit because I could sell four at a time. This cuts back big-time on shipping costs (not to mention time investment).
  2. If you’re going to speculate on a card that is played as a one-of in Commander, be prepared to sell these cards one at a time. When my Inexorable Tides first came in the mail, I actually listed them as playsets for around $9 a set. None of them sold, even though the average price per card would have been discounted by about 30%. Players only wanted their one copy, which means my eight copies sold one at a time with no exception.
  3. If you have to speculate on a Commander card knowing you’re stuck selling one at a time, make sure it’ll be worth your while.

It’s this third observation that I want to expand upon from here.

Make It Worthwhile

This was the most valuable takeaway I had from my Inexorable Tide experience. Just because a card is jumping doesn’t necessarily mean you can make worthwhile profit on it. I sometimes joke that, “profit is profit,” and that, “no one ever went bankrupt selling for a profit.” That may be mathematically true, but a corollary of these idioms would probably be, “many people waste time chasing nickels and dimes.”

The $1 to $4 spike is probably one of the most deceptive spikes in all of MTG finance. What seems like a triple- or quadruple-up ends up leading to profits equivalent to the change buried in your couch. Luckily, I have some ideas for how to beat this pitfall.

First and foremost, consider foils when speculating on Commander singles. While nonfoil Inexorable Tides jumped from $1 to $4, the foil copies moved from around $2 to $15! The percentage gain was larger and it’s way more worthwhile to ship a $15 card than to ship a $4 card. Foils also have the added bonus of being less prone to reprint damage in sets that don’t include foils, such as the Commander series.

What are some foils worth picking up, especially in lieu of their non-foil equivalent? One of my favorites is Hardened Scales.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Hardened Scales

When I search this card on EDH REC, I see it's in 3,944 decks, which is roughly 3.6% of all decks submitted. That’s nothing to sneeze at! What’s more, the card is extremely versatile and fits in over a dozen decks where the commander cares about +1/+1 counters. The most frequently played commander where Hardened Scales is relevant? Atraxa!

Non-foil and foil copies alike have both turned a corner recently, moving from all-time lows for the first time in months. Nonfoils are around $1.30 while foils are in the $3 to $4 range. Sound familiar?

With its relatively recent printing, I don’t see nonfoil copies spiking to $4 like Inexorable Tide did. But I do see foils jumping, and when they do they should settle above $10. Sure, you could buy 50 nonfoil copies and wait patiently to sell them one at a time in the $2-$3 range a few months from now. Or you could pick up foils and pick up a larger movement that is far more worth your time.

Another foil I would be interested in is Lux Cannon.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Lux Cannon

Sadly, I fear this ship has already sailed. As I write this article, I am now realizing that the nonfoils jumped from $3 to $5 while foils moved from $5 to $15. Looks like this will be another case where I miss out on worthwhile profits because I played the nonfoils instead of the foils. I’m still learning.

One foil I won’t miss out on is Temple Bell, because I already have a few in my binder.

There was an error retrieving a chart for Temple Bell

This card-drawing machine is also played in over 3,000 decks on EDH REC. The most popular ones are Nekusar, Kynaios, and Group Hug Commander Phelddagrif. While these are no Atraxa, they're still very popular commanders for players to build around, meaning I see sustained demand for Temple Bells.

Price-wise, this card has really moved since early January 2016, rising from $0.38 to $0.58. While this looks cute on paper, in reality no one could make any profits from this movement unless they were buying copies in bulk at $0.10 a copy. Foils, however, are a much more attractive proposition. They began 2016 in the $2 range and now sell for nearly $4. This doesn’t represent profitability yet, but I suspect this one will become scarcer and scarcer over time. Even though this card was reprinted a few times, it still only has one foil printing.

You know how many foil copies are in stock on TCG Player? Nine. The number on eBay? Three. Star City Games has a few SP and MP copies in stock but these are really quite sparse. I think I’ll move in on a couple more copies myself…

Wrapping It Up

I deal in foils fairly infrequently. When you’re focusing on Old School investments, there’s no room for foils to come into the equation; therefore, I generally overlook them.

But in order to be successful when speculating on other formats—especially Commander—I need to start introducing foils into my portfolio. They offer a far better return on investment when compared to their nonfoil counterparts. The added benefit of reducing reprint risk in nonfoil supplemental products is a nice bonus, and one I don’t take lightly.

But ultimately, it all comes down to time. I would much rather sell a smaller volume in foils at higher prices than higher volume at low prices. After fees and shipping, dealing in $3 cards just isn’t worth it unless the cards are being purchased at near-bulk pricing.

Therefore, I’m going to learn from my recent Inexorable Tide experience and focus on foils where appropriate. I think Hardened Scales and Temple Bell are two primed examples of foils worth acquiring, and I have acted on this. There are many other Commander cards that also fit in this category, and I encourage you to leverage EDH REC to seek those out.

I don’t think handling all these shiny cards will convert me to a foil junkie, but I do have more respect for foils now. They deserve respect because they can make you significant gains, and I hope to convert on some of these going forward.



  • Star City Games did have a few played Temple Bell foils in stock. But as for Hardened Scales, they have only one available. It’s an MP copy for $2.99. These will be restocked higher, inevitably, and I anticipate them cracking double digits down the road. It may take a year or two, but I suspect doubling up after fees in a year’s time is a solid expectation.
  • Lux Cannon recently spiked, and I see that Star City Games has one SP foil copy in stock at $7.99. This seems like the old price to me, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see this card sold and a higher price tag applied within the week. These have gotten extremely sparse, and the card’s utility in Atraxa means the demand will be fairly robust for the time being.
  • Time for an Old School shout-out: check out Beta copies of Blaze of Glory. I didn’t think this card was playable at first, but apparently it’s pretty useful in some sideboards. Star City Games has a bunch of Alpha copies in stock, but they’re sold out of Beta copies with a $49.99 price tag. I suspect this will go higher, which is why I picked up a couple SP/MP Beta copies myself lately.
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Sigmund Ausfresser

Sigmund first started playing Magic when Visions was the newest set, back in 1997. Things were simpler back then. After playing casual Magic for about ten years, he tried his hand at competitive play. It took about two years before Sigmund starting taking down drafts. Since then, he moved his focus towards Legacy and MTG finance. Now that he's married and works full-time, Sigmund enjoys the game by reading up on trends and using this knowledge in buying/selling cards.

View More By Sigmund Ausfresser

Posted in Buying, Commander, Commander 2016, Finance, Foils, Free Insider, Magic Card Market TheoryTagged , , , , , ,

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8 thoughts on “Insider: Shifting from Nonfoils to Foils

  1. It is important to note that currently the 2 most played versions of the Attacks deck are Planeswalker and Poison. The Planeswalker one doesn’t really benefit from hardened scales (as it tends to play only a small number of creatures). The Poison one obviously plays more creatures, but there aren’t any poison creatures that etb with +1/+1 counters…So again the scales only really helps if you play other spells that give counters…Now it’s entirely possible we see a +1/+1 counters creature version as well, but from what I have seen/read that one likely isn’t as popular.

    1. David,

      This is definitely valuable information to share, and I appreciate the build. I admit I haven’t been actively playing EDH lately, so my exposure to Atraxa is limited.

      What I will say is this: when I search Hardened Scales on EDH REC, the deck that it shows up most in is Atraxa (753). Next is Ghave and then Animar. The number of Commanders where Hardened Scales can be relevant is very deep, which makes this a really compelling play from multiple angles. So even if Atraxa isn’t as big a player as I was thinking with the EDH REC data, there’s such diverse demand that the card is a strong pickup regardless.



  2. thanks!

    I understand your feeling. Buying cards before hype, but not selling them.

    I also tried the foil strategy. I still have these foils because…

    What I learned:

    Foils can go up pretty fast, because of the limited supply, but there is also a limited demand, certainly if the price tag is high.

    For me, foils were not a good strategy. I let that one go.

    What I learned is that it is important to study demand rather than supply or price. So refering to EDHrec is good.

    However, how representative is this site to the real community?

    1. Thanks for the comment and question! You are absolutely right to call out demand challenges with foils – they will probably sell less quickly than nonfoils unless you price your copies well below market pricing. This can become a barrier to making larger profits on foils vs. nonfoils.

      But with foils not getting reprinted as often and having so much upside potential, I think it may be worth the slow grind. If you can’t sell your foils quickly, you will likely be able to just sit patiently for the eventual sale. In the meantime, the market price will gradually rise, so at some point your foil listing will be a good enough deal to get that sale. Since I’m relatively new to foils, I can’t offer any experiential data yet but I’ll let you know once I start trying to unload these foil Temple Bells and Hardened Scales. Wish me luck!

      I don’t know about EDH REC beyond what the site shows at face value. It seems like it’s pretty representative of the EDH metagame but I’m not sure. I wonder if other members of the QS community have some ideas here?


      1. By virtue of being internet based EDH REC cannot possibly give an accurate representation of EDH as a whole. Players who post online are far beyond your average casual player.

        Many people are fooling themselves into believing tools can give you an accurate idea of casual. The only way to really know is to interact with the players.

  3. I like going big on foils, promos, and other limited run blingy sorts of cards. I have pages and pages of zen foil goblin guides I got for 5-8$ apiece. Did great on the FNM Git Probes, and Tectonic Edge. Foreign are good too sometimes for Commander if its like foil Japanese.

    1. Tim,

      That’s great news! It looks like you’re already on top of this foil approach. I’m a little new to the game…what foils are high on your radar now?


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