A Practical Guide to Using Condition to Your Advantage

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Magic finance operates on multiple levels. The two most obvious are tied to playability and collectability.

As we all know, Magic tournaments play a big part in stimulating both growth and decline in terms of individual card values. When a new deck breaks out in Standard, we consistently observe the cards within the new deck rising in price. As more players are actively searching out the chase rares from that new deck, the demand for those cards rises and the price increases to meet demand.

When cards are better positioned in tournament formats, their values tends to rise; when they see decreased play; the prices plateau or decline.

The collectibility element of the game is significantly less rigidly defined in terms of what gets the needle moving for collectors. One fundamental reason that the collectible market is more difficult to predict and define is that there are so many different aspects to collecting and so many different ways to collect.

Playability is straightforward, as a card either is or isn't good enough in a defined Constructed format to send players to the LGS or TCGplayer to buy copies. On the other hand, players can and do collect whatever they enjoy, find interesting, or perceive as a good investment in the here and now.

For instance, I have a Legends Killer Bees collection that I've been working on for several years. It's up to about twenty copies of the card.

Why do I have this? Killer Bees is one of my favorite cards of all time. When I was first getting into the game as a youngster, back before Fourth Edition or Chronicles, the local baseball card shop had a copy of the card in the case with a whopping $30.00 price tag. I thought the card was so cool. Giant bees with swords and shields and amazing flavor text?

I could have bought ten booster packs of Revised to add to my small collection, but I had to have these Bees. They were my favorite card and they went into all of my early decks. To give you some perspective on what a goober I was at ten years old, on a family trip to Virginia Beach, for my "souvenir," I had a local airbrush artist paint all three Killer Bees onto a light blue T-Shirt that the ten-year-old version of me wore when I played Magic cards.

My "Killer Bee Heavy Portfolio" wasn't a finance move so much as a nostalgia one. Anytime I'd see one in the case and had store credit to burn: "I'll take the Bees." Anytime I'd randomly see one in a stranger's binder: "I want the Bees." The card was stuck in $5 to $10 limbo for decades, so it wasn't a very costly investment of resources. Now they are sold out on SCG for $50.00. Sweet as honey.

The point is that "collectibility" is much more difficult to pin down because it can be a lot of different things to different people. It exists on a spectrum that ranges from the random individual who collects every Dragon or Angel in foil to the advanced financier who uses metrics to predict which Reserved List cards will gain the most value over a long period of time.

I Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In

I've already touched on playability and collectibility as major factors that motivate MTG finance. Now, I'd like to bring condition into the equation and talk about some of the most useful ways to use condition to your advantage.

Obviously, the better the condition of a Magic card, the better the value. Given the option between a perfect condition Black Lotus or a chewed up one at the same price, it isn't much of a choice, right?

Better condition cards will almost always result in a higher asking price. The major exception to the rule comes in terms of alters and autographed cards. Technically, a card that has been painted on or signed is considered to have been damaged, but these "additions" can add value – but whether they actually do all depends upon the quality of the alter or signature.

A card signed by me? Probably losing value. However, a card signed by Richard Garfield will likely sell above the average selling price. The same is true of alters by noted artists and popular alterists within the community.

Misprints also fall into this category of cards. A card that has been damaged during production via off-center alignment, missing ink, or even a wacky impression from something on the press will not earn perfect gradings – but are rare, unique, and desirable with oddity collectors.

On a Spectrum from Gem 10 to Chaos Confetti

Let's talk strictly about card condition for a moment and how we can use that to our advantage in future acquisitions, trades, and sales.

There is an established framework for easily discussing card conditions: HP (Heavy Play), MP (Moderate Play), SP (Slight Play), and NM (Near Mint). If this is not something you are familiar with, there are literally dozens of articles and images around the web that explain how to grade cards, and you should consider familiarizing yourself with the rhetoric as it is a basic building block of MTG finance.

The common ground between these various indicators of condition is how much wear does your card have? Less wear equals better condition.

In most cases, common knowledge would assume that better condition is more desirable, since better-condition cards are understood to be more valuable, but I'm here to tell you that is not necessarily the case.

I mean, it's true they are more valuable in terms of the average asking price, but they are not necessarily the best cards to buy, sell, and trade for the savvy collector and investor.

I would argue that the far extremes – extremely minty and extremely played cards – are in fact the most desirable conditions to actually acquire because they have unique characteristics in the marketplace, as opposed to cards that are in the middle in terms of condition.

Let's start with minty collectible cards because those are obvious. There are many collectors who want the best possible versions and conditions. These people are collecting for the long game and are often looking to make gradeable sets. The market for gradeable cards has grown exponentially over the past few years from what it used to as more and more people look to capitalize on what looks to be a "forever deal" with the MTG Reserved List. The investment is essentially collected by a compact with WOTC's reprint policy, and so finding the best possible copies of these old, rare singles is a great move.

The other side of the spectrum is counterintuitive. If you are actually looking to move cards in the short term for smaller but more immediate profits, played cards should be your bread and butter. While a played version of a card will sell for less than an average copy of the same card, the lower price point itself has a ton of value, because it appeals to the greatest number of buyers. Also, while these cards can't be sold for as much as medium-condition copies, they can be acquired more cheaply, which makes the whole situation a wash. The provide a lower buy-in, and most importantly, a larger pool of potential buyers.

Imagine you are at a Grand Prix and there are 12 different dealer booths. Each dealer has between one and ten copies of The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale for sale. Which copy is most likely to sell first? The answer: whichever one has the cheapest price tag.

Most collectors don't simply put their cards into hard-shell cases and into a safe deposit box. Most potential buyers want to use the card for something – a tournament deck, a cube, a battle box, or a Commander deck – but they understand that purchase is also an investment for down the road as well.

If this is the case, would you rather spend $50 on a card or $70 for a better condition copy of the same card? Keep in mind that you are planning on playing with the card. I understand savvy buyers will say, "Well, it would depend upon how much better condition the card is for the $20.00." Sure, 100-percent true. There is such a thing as finding a "better deal." However, assuming each card is priced appropriately for the condition, there will always be a larger market for cheaper copies than more expensive copies.

The same can be said for selling online. The cheapest copy is typically the easiest to sell. Duh. Poor condition cards also have the advantage of being great "player copies" of expensive old cards. Why would I, or anybody else, want to pay a significant premium for condition, when we intend to put the card into a deck, shuffle it, and continue to degrade the condition over time?

I use this information frequently when I'm buying, selling, and trading. I love picking up those HP Reserved List cards at HP market price, holding them for three or four months, and then easily flipping them online once they have gained value.

It is also very useful to use above-average-condition cards to your benefit as well. If I have store credit (and they don't have any Killer Bees for sale), I'm typically going to want to spend that store credit on a Reserved List card of some sort. Most stores, and traders for that matter, simply snap open TCGplayer, look at the average price, and use that as the asking price for the card.

Well, we know that there is a premium for high-condition quality on Old School Cards that is derived from collectors and set builders. One of the best values on the open market is when you find a collectible card that has low playability but is in great condition. Often retailers will mark these types of cards according to the average retail value of the card, which includes worse condition copies, and you can find some absolutely savage deals if you keep your eyes peeled.

If that Purelace is in gradable mint condition and is marked at an averaged price, the copy you pick up can easily retail for more than double your investment!

Everything gravitates toward the middle when it comes to condition, but there is major value hidden on the extremes if you are a savvy consumer or retailer. In short, when it comes to collectible TCGs, chewed cards are great and pristine cards are gold mines.

2 thoughts on “A Practical Guide to Using Condition to Your Advantage

  1. Excellent article. I definitely follow that strategy. I bought quite a few extra dual lands a few years ago and was thrilled that they were all MP… As I matched the highest score buylist at the time (which was significantly lower than NM).. But I knew that most players want the cheapest copy so there would be plenty of demand.

  2. Another good point regarding cheap cards selling faster is, on Ebay and TCGPlayer, people will often sort search listings by price, then work their way up until they find that perfect marriage between quality and price (or if they don’t care about quality, then they go as cheap as possible). Regardless, it all starts with price, and by providing your card as the cheapest alternative, your card will stand out.

    Likewise, I’ve seen the opposite hold true. When there’s an ebay sale, people bust out their wallets to fulfill that $666 shopping cart sale to search for quality. I sometimes buy graded cards in this instance because I don’t want to risk wasting my discount opportunity on a potential counterfeit, since by the time a counterfeit claim is resolved any applicable coupon will have expired.

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