Of Chess and Magic

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If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I haven’t tweeted much recently. I mainly use the account for engagement with the Magic community, and I haven’t really played Magic for a few months. At one point I was jamming as many games on Arena as I could, striving to hit Mythic every month. Now my free time has centered around a different game: chess.

Personally, there are some components to chess that Magic lacks, which I really appreciate. First and foremost, there’s no “luck” in chess. Outside the random chance of blundering a piece or having your opponent blunder a piece, the game starts the same way every time. Whether you win or lose depends solely on skill. I also appreciate chess’s ELO rating system (which incidentally, used to be reapplied for Magic ratings). When every game impacts your rating and global rank, it feels like every win counts. There are meaningful games that impact ranking on Arena too, but gold/diamond/etc. doesn’t carry the same weight as a precise number, in my opinion.

Obviously I can’t write about chess finance or ladder my interest in the hobby back to Magic finance. But I did come up with a clever idea for this week.

I’ve been watching this one Grand Master’s YouTube series, where he plays through games of chess and explains to the viewers his moves along the way. His name is Daniel Naroditsky, and if you’re interested in learning more about chess I highly recommend his YouTube channel. It’s been extremely helpful to watch. Now that I’ve watched over 70 of his videos, I’ve learned a few rules of thumb that he likes to repeat while he plays. I’m going to take some of those phrases and re-tool them to describe Magic finance strategies. The parallels won’t be perfect, so I ask readers for a little creative license here. With some luck, there will still be some useful tidbits.

Prepare Slow, Attack Fast

This phrase could describe some Magic decks. Combo decks come to mind—when I used to play Ad Nauseam in Legacy, I would spend the first couple turns to cast a few cantrips and disrupting my opponent’s hand. My opponent would always know when I was launching “the attack” because I’d get out a die to keep track of the storm count!

As it turns out, this is a reasonable strategy in chess as well. I have found that if I attempt to launch an attack prematurely, before developing my pieces optimally, a capable opponent is able to thwart my efforts. This leaves me licking my wounds (likely leading to a loss).

But how does this concept apply to Magic finance? When speculating on a card, especially a card with a long-term time horizon, sometimes it is wise to accumulate the card slowly and be prepared to sell quickly. If a new card is printed and is clearly a powerful Commander staple, it may be wise to acquire a bunch of copies. But new cards that only see play in Commander take a while to appreciate in price. If you rush out and buy a ton of copies day one, you may be overpaying. In these situations, I’d recommend gradually purchasing copies, allowing the price to come down a bit post-release and helping you cost average your investment.

Then when the time comes and the card spikes or reaches that inflection point, it’s wise to cash out fast. Reprints are everywhere these days, and you never know when your spec will get hit with fresh, new supply. That’s why I advocate cashing out quickly when the time is right!

A good example of this is Sliver Hivelord.

If you had bought the Magic 2015 mythic rare upon release, you would have bought in too early. The card’s price hit a bottom a few months after the set’s release. Then the card’s price languished for a few years; this would have been the best time to gradually pick up copies. Then, once new slivers were revealed in a recent set, the card spiked to $40. But it didn’t hold that price point for long—this would have been the prime opportunity to cash out fast. Funny enough, the card recently spiked again to $40, but is already on a downward trajectory. So in this case, you had a couple chances to sell out before a major reprint. Sometimes, we don’t get a second chance!

Knights on the Rim are Grim

This is one of my favorite chess sayings. In the game, it refers to the fact that placing your knights on spaces near the edges of the board limits the number of spaces the piece has access to. Thus, they are “grim” in their prospects.

With a little creative license, I can relate this to Magic finance pretty easily. The rule of thumb would be that cards that are only played sparsely, especially in sideboards (i.e. the “rim”), have grim prospects for financial gains.

It is trivial to suggest that cards that see more play have more upside, all other things equal. While sideboard cards have their place in decks, the reality is such cards don’t offer the same upside potential as cards that see any significant play, especially as a 4-of, in the main deck. That’s not to say that sideboard cards can never be valuable—there have been numerous costly sideboard cards across the history of the game. Leyline of the Void and Leyline of Sanctity come to mind readily. And there was a moment when Rest in Peace was a $10 card.

But in general, sideboard cards don’t have as much upside potential as cards that are played in the main deck. A recent example is Modern sideboard card Plague Engineer.

Modern Horizons cards that dodge reprint are likely going to be hot as in-person Magic events resume. We’ve already seen some cards in the set climb. While Plague Engineer has its place in Modern sideboards, it really can’t be justified in the main deck as it would be a poor draw too much of the time. Stuck in the sideboard, the card’s price growth is relatively limited; I would much rather buy the cycle of dual lands in the set, or perhaps Altar of Dementia, a Commander staple, despite the multiple reprints.

Not Every Piece Has to be an All-star

I’m paraphrasing this last chess concept because Daniel Naroditsky varies this one a bit. One of my favorite versions is, “Not every piece has to be out there finding a cure for COVID.” What he means is, while it’s nice to develop each piece on an optimal square, the reality is that you can’t do that perfectly in every game. Sometimes, you just need to accept the fact that a piece needs to be a bit more passive, at least temporarily.

I can translate this to Magic finance when I think about the diversification of my collection. While I would love all cards I purchase to be homerun specs that spike quickly and leave me with hefty profits, I have to recognize that this isn’t really feasible. There are times when we need to be okay with throwing some cards in a box for a couple years in the hopes that the spec pays off.

In both Magic and stocks, I am an advocate of diversification. It is wise not to over-expose yourself to a single card or format because you leave yourself vulnerable to reprints and shifts in the metagame. While it’s fun to buy dozens of copies of a new, flashy card, it’s also wise to find those slow-and-steady growers and sit on them for a couple years.

Of course, the exception here is the Reserved List. Cards on the Reserved List cannot be reprinted, and are from the game’s earliest days; both factors make for a wise investment, which is why Reserved List cards have overheated recently. But even still, I recommend diversifying—all the Reserved List cards feel overpriced currently, so if you want to put money to work, it probably needs to be something else. I cannot support buying some of these cards… I mean, $30 for Spiritual Sanctuary? Come on, now!

It’s probably worth diversifying and picking up a smattering of newer cards. The triomes from Ikoria seem like good medium-term investments as long as they dodge reprint. The same can be said for the pathways from Zendikar Rising and Kaldheim, which will likely be mainstays in Standard and Pioneer. Or if you want a penny stock, I still have a stack of Arachnogenesis from Modern Horizons and Ruin Crabs from Zendikar Rising—I’m hoping to cash out of these at a buck apiece at some point in the future…distant future, perhaps. But my entry price was low enough that I don’t mind the wait.

Wrapping It Up

Daniel Naroditsky has taught me a great deal about chess strategy and in an entertaining way. He has a bunch of other phrases that I could have worked with.

“You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs” is one I particularly like. Then there’s his description of “potential energy” versus “kinetic energy” when it comes to positioning pieces. I never thought learning about chess could be so fun—I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s really helped keep my interest.

Despite my virtual abandonment of Magic play for chess in recent days, I still practice Magic finance as fervently as ever. The market is very exciting right now as prices fluctuate, inflation rises, and Reserved List cards hit retreat from all-time highs. I think that even if I lose interest in the game of Magic, I’ll never lose interest in the collectability and investability of the cards.

For this reason, I decided to have some fun this week and convert some recent chess tidbits into Magic finance tips. I hope readers enjoyed the exercise as much as I did. In fact, if you did or did not appreciate this foray into a different game, please mention something in the comments below or on Twitter (@sigfig8). If I get positive feedback, I may do this again. Either way, I have a feeling I’ll be eschewing Arena for chess for the foreseeable future.

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