Cards You “Own” vs. Cards You “Rent”

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There are many qualities about Magic that make it a popular and successful game, but Magic's greatest strength is its ability to provide players and collectors with variable options for customization. There are seemingly endless ways that one can play, collect and interact with the game.

With all those options available, there are obviously a lot of ways to approach capitalizing off demand in order to grow the value of one's collection. As I stated a moment ago, there are infinite ways to play and collect – which also means there are infinite ways to approach the marketplace.

I'm a grinder, and I play and approach the game like a grinder. I also have a keen insight into the mind of how a grinder thinks and cares about. I am constantly using my "grinder sense" to sniff out good deals and make strong investments into my acquisitions.

Grinders make up a significant percentage of the Magic community population, but despite this, they are not the greatest trade partners. The problem with grinders and serious tournament players is that they primarily look to "rent" their cards as opposed to "own" them.

Recognizing Two Types of Cards

And thus, we find ourselves at today's topic. Obviously, there are not Hertz deck-rental kiosks inside of every convention center or game store (although, there are some savvy individuals who provide deck rental services – which is genius and is just waiting for somebody to really knock the concept out of the park...). What I mean is that tournament players are typically looking to build a deck that they will use for some finite period of time – and then move on.

The Magic metagame incentivizes players to switch decks in order to gain an advantage against the expected field, which means that dedicated grinders know that a new deck isn't forever, but rather, just for now.

Why does this matter? First of all, players who are looking to rent a card temporarily have very little attachment or desire toward the object. It's not something they actually "want," but rather something that they need to use for a while. These are cards that are kind of annoying to pick up and not things that people are particularly excited or happy to actually pay top dollar for, which is bad for traders and sellers.

Grinders also have ways of getting around paying rental fees on tournament staples. For starters, most people who have been slogging away at the tournament scene for a while have extensive networks of friendly players to borrow cards from. There are multiple pro players on my team that literally own zero actual, physical Magic cards but are able to borrow everything they need on a weekly basis.

To put it bluntly, renters are bad for business, which is why I typically try to avoid catering to them when I can. I'd rather rally my collection around the kinds of cards that people actively want to own. So, what do these cards look like and what is the difference?

Cards People Want for the Long Term

Well, there are a few of archetypes of cards that people buy to own forever.

  1. Foils for a personal, prized creation – People put a lot of work into their crazy Commander brews, and many of them like to reward their hard work with shiny cards. When a deck is never getting taken apart, it becomes a worthwhile place to invest some equity that also gets real play.
  2. Rarities, old cards, and nostalgia items – Again, these are cards that players feel a personal connection to and will be viewed as investments to be held onto forever. The might include an Alpha version of a favorite iconic card or a scarce version of a favorite staple for a deck. Dual lands to be used across a range of Commander decks.
  3. Ubiquitous "goes into everything" cards – These are cards that get spammed across numerous formats that players know they will get reuse value out of: fetchlands, Thoughtseize, Force of Will, Snapcaster Mage, etc. These are cards that can be hard to borrow that are very likely to be in a bunch of decks one might way to play. The reason these cards are hard to borrow is that everybody is always using them or trying to borrow them!

The absolute best card to trade for in the entire world is the expensive foil that your buddy has been targeting for his Commander deck or cube. There is the obvious upside of making a friend's day, but you also know that he'll give you a great deal in return because he actively wants it. (Well, assuming that your friend isn't too shrewd!)

Buylist Patterns

We can also see the relationship between cards people tend to want to "own" as opposed to "rent" reflected in the way buylist prices are calculated.

Random, deck-specific Modern and Standard staples tend to have worse buylist prices by percentage than cards that I would describe as objects to be "owned." An $8 Standard staple might buylist for $2 or $3, whereas a desirable $8 Commander specific foil might buylist around $4 or $5. The retail price is the same, but acquiring those cards isn't equally easy.

First of all, cards that are likely going into collections or prized decks and are likely intended to be "owned" are much less likely to be sold back to a retailer, whereas Standard cards always have tons of renters willing to cash them in to rent new cards.

On the Type of Cards You or I Might Want to Own

I have very little interest in owning "rental cards." As a grinder, I constantly need to have "rental cards" in order to play, but I'm mostly looking to borrow them. I play a ton of Limited, so I end up owning a fair amount of Standard cards, but I'm always trying to dump them whenever possible. I choose to put that equity into cards that I believe are candidates for ownership or cards that I actually care to own.

There are also a lot of lower-end rental cards that are simply hard to find homes for. When we are talking about $1 to $5 Standard cards, a lot of grinders are happy to just buy them from the LGS rather than deal with making trades. So you are often working against convenience to make trades at this level. Frankly, I'm always thrilled to find trade partners who want "rental" Standard cards that I'm often happy to take less value on just to get something for them above buylist price – especially, if I'm trading into cards that fall into the "owner" camp.

I am a grinder, but I'm also a collector. I don't think that relationship to Magic is particularly uncommon. There are exactly three kinds of cards that I collect:

  1. Old School Cards that go into my Old-School Battle Box.
  2. Foil cards that go into my Danger Room / Battle Box (kind of like a Cube).
  3. Really high-end non-foil Vintage and Legacy Reserve List staples.

The idea for the article actually came from me thinking about what kinds of cards I actually spend money and resources on in paper. Aside from buying something out with the intention of reselling or trading for a quick profit, all of the cards fell directly into one of these camps. I realized that I'm willing to spend money on owning cards for my own purposes – but only for these specific kinds of cards. Not only that, I'm often willing to "overpay" or "overtrade" for something I really want for one of these purposes.

Here's an example: I was at my LGS and a guy had a foil Akki Underminer that I actively wanted for my Battle Box. It's a new card that I've recently added and one of the few cards in my stack that isn't foil. I wanted this card.

The guy was obviously a shrewd trader with a decently stacked trade binder and started giving me the, "Oh, it's pretty cool... I'm not sure if I really want to let it go." Driving up the price, as he should. My response was, "Look, I really want it for my Battle Box. It's $15 bucks on SCG NM. I've got to play a round in less than ten minutes. You can take any combination of $25 bucks worth of trades out of my binder if you can get it done before the pairings go up." Six seconds later, I had successfully acquired a foil Akki Underminer for roughly double the market value. But here's the kicker – I was happy to do it.

Never underestimate the value of having something that somebody actually wants to own. The want is so strong!

[card graph = "Disrupting Shoal"]

Disrupting Shoal, on the other hand, is a great example of a rental card. It is the type of card that may be good now as a result of the Jace unbanning that most players won't likely own. I fortunately own a playset – which I will likely be selling into the spike on eBay to some unfortunate renter who doesn't have good borrowing connections. Sure, Disrupting Shoal could suddenly becomes a staple, but more likely, it's a piece of technology that will be decent for a moment and then fade back into obscurity. Rental cards have a tendency to backslide in value as the shock demand that comes with the spike fades.

When a Standard or Modern card spikes, it is typically the highest value that card will ever hold for a few reasons:

  1. There are only so many people willing to buy in and rent the card. Once those people have it, there are more copies for sale than people to buy them up.
  2. The metagame changes and the hot new rental cards change like the seasons. Jace is hot now, and therefore things that might be good with Jace are also hot. However, things will settle back down and the metagame will reestablish itself. The next big thing will be whatever is good against the Jace decks, and then whatever is good against those decks. People only really want to rent what is good "right now," and then they won't need it once a new hot thing comes up.
  3. The Masters reprint series has shown us that Wizards of the Coast is happy to help fill the demand for expensive "rental cards." Think about the types of cards that get included in Modern Masters sets. They are exactly the kinds of cards that people need to play right now that are not necessarily going to be hot commodities forever. Sure, we get Snapcaster Mage, Cryptic Command and Mox Opal which are legitimate mainstays, but we also get a lot of Mishra's Baubles and Primeval Titans, which are specific to types of decks that are good now but may not be top tier forever.

The reason the idea of understanding the difference between cards people want to "own" as opposed to "rent" is important is that "own" cards are much better bang for your buck.

Final Thoughts

Cards that people view as rentals tend not to trend upward over time. They are also not cards that people are willing to pay a premium for. When you take that Disrupting Shoal to the trade table, a couple of things are likely to happen: you may find somebody looking to rent it for an upcoming event, but they won't be happy to trade for it. They will give you the detached story about how they will take it off your hands because they might try it out at Tuesday Night Modern, but don't really want to give up anything too good. 

Secondly, they are going to want a good deal on it. They will recognize that it has recently spiked and will probably go down again soon. They will look on TCGplayer and see that there are a couple of cheaper copies than the median and want to pick them up at the price without having to give up anything too exciting.

That is the problem with rental cards! The people who "want" them, don't actually want them!

Not all $10 cards are created equal. Obviously. Some cards go up, some go down, some people want, and some people would rather borrow than own. If you keep your trade binder stocked with cards that will go to "owners" rather than "renters," you'll likely take in a much better haul over time. Think about the cards that you actively want to "own" or have bought because you wanted to "own" them.

What do they have in common? What do you use them for? Why did you want them in the first place?

These are things to think about when you are thumbing through another person's trade binder. There is a ton of value to being able to look at a card and imagine who will want to trade for it and why. The best way to ensure getting a good price for your cards is to know who is looking for each card and what they are going to use it for.

If you had to sell your collection, what would be the last things you'd try to hold onto? The cards that are personal and that you really enjoy:

  • A favorite Commander deck?
  • A cube that you worked on for years?
  • A Battle Box?
  • An Old School deck?
  • A foiled out Legacy deck?
  • A foiled out Pauper deck?
  • A favorite foil or Old School card?

Finding cards that fit into these niches for various people are the best possible value a trader or seller can find. Finding "owners" for cards ensures you'll bring in a solid haul (and maybe even make someone's day)!

What would be the hardest thing to let go of for you to let go of and why? Feel free to drop your answer into the comments – I'm always interested to hear what others value. Any other questions, comments or whatever? You know what to do.

One thought on “Cards You “Own” vs. Cards You “Rent”

  1. Great article…I will say though I really dislike the players who always borrow cards. We have a few locally and it gets old really quickly. The idea that one should provide something for free simply because they are asked is pretty ridiculous, yet we see it a lot here in the Magic community. I make it a point that only my very good friends are allowed to borrow cards from me and those that have tend to give me something in return (if they do well) as they understand that there is a very real cost to letting people borrow cards…the cards could get slightly damaged and drop down in grade (NM to LP, LP to MP, etc.). There is also the fact that if the card is being borrowed it can’t be traded so you lose out on opportunity cost. I realize this is only a small part of your article, but definitely one that resonates with me.

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