I started playing Magic in 1994. From those days of poring over printed price guides assembled weeks earlier, to having practically up to the minute prices at our fingertips digitally today, Magic finance has evolved considerably in the past twenty-seven years. Regardless of the decade, some Magic finance lessons are timeless and many of us learned them the hard way over the years. Here’s a countdown of five of the worst MTG finance mistakes I’ve made over the years, what I learned from them, and best practices on how you can avoid them.
Mistake 5 (2000): Trading My Guru Lands For Standard Cards
From July 1999 to February 2001, Wizards of the Coast ran The Guru Program, a program to encourage existing Magic players to teach new players the game. Each "Guru" received a teaching kit including sample decks and earned points towards rewards for each person they taught to play. For every ten points a Guru accumulated, they were awarded a booster pack of the current set, and a unique-to-the-program Guru basic land, chosen at random.
I participated in the program for the early part of its duration and received my set of Guru basics in mid-2000. At the time, I was hot on building a new blue/red mana denial deck in Standard using Parallax Tide, and Tangle Wire and was actively trading for those and other rares to complete the deck.
At the time, I kept most of my Standard-playable cards together in one binder, and it was in this binder that I slipped my Guru lands. When I found a guy who had all the cards I needed for my deck, I was trading out of this same binder. He immediately spotted my Guru lands and offered me most of the rares I was looking for in exchange for the five of them.
The latest issues of Scrye and Inquest we were trading with didn’t list the price of the Guru lands, but the owner of our LGS had his personal set in the case for sale at about $10 each. I was trading for Tangle Wires and Parallax Tides at $8 and $6.50 each respectively, so on paper I was getting a great deal trading for playsets of both for my set of Guru basics, but something about the trade felt off to me. I felt an attachment to the lands because of the effort I’d put into obtaining them, and they were unique compared to the rest of the lands in my collection. I made the trade, built my new Standard deck, and enjoyed playing it, but I regretted parting with my Guru lands. This regret only intensified as they climbed in value exponentially in just that first year.
Lesson: If The Deal Doesn’t Feel Right, Just Don’t Do It
No matter how much value you appear poised to gain, if something about a deal feels off to you, it’s always better overall to just walk away. Sure, if I’d held on to my Guru lands I’d have certainly been forced to work harder to acquire the cards for my Standard deck, but I could have done so without giving up what turned out to be a lot of long-term value both personally and monetarily.
Best Practice: If It’s Not For Trade, Don’t Put It In Your Trade Binder
After this situation, I moved my cards that were for trade into a separate binder, and the only cards that went into that binder were cards I was absolutely prepared to part with. Doing this not only keeps me from having any qualms about what I’m trading away, but it also saves anyone I’m trading with time and aggravation. While it may seem an obvious solution for seasoned MTG financiers, I still regularly sit across from folks trying to make a deal only to find that most of what’s in their binder isn’t for trade, or they are hesitant to part with their cards, as I was in this example. Keeping your trade fodder separate from your real collection makes everyone’s life easier.
Mistake 4 (2009): Trading My Dark Depths For Way Less Than Their Value
Today Dark Depths is a powerful and valuable card. Banned in Modern, it sees play only in Vintage, Legacy, and Commander. When Coldsnap first came out in 2006 though, the card was bulk, and I managed to pick up multiple playsets of them as throw-ins in trades because I thought the card was quirky and nostalgic. Fast-forward a few years later, the card had crept up in price, and I began trading away my stash of them at $3 each.
In September 2009, an answer to planeswalkers and anything else with counters on it was spoiled in the new Zendikar set. Vampire Hexmage not only killed planeswalkers, and answered some cards with counters, in combination with Dark Depths, it allowed you to quickly cheat out a Flying, Trampling, Indestructible 20/20. Dark Depths quickly shot up in price to around $20 or more. Not having seen the spoilers that day, I traded six of my copies of Dark Depths away at the $3 going rate they’d been at and didn’t realize until later that the price had exploded.
Lesson: Pay Attention To Spoilers, And Always Double Check Prices
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of spoiler season when it comes to not only making value but protecting yourself from loss. Had I been paying attention, I could have either traded my Dark Depths at the new higher price, or if the price hadn’t immediately spiked, have the knowledge that it likely would increase, and hold my copies rather than move them at a lesser price. I imagine every store who recently sold out of their copies of Chain of Smog in the hours after Professor Onyx was first spoiled before bumping up their prices felt the same pain I felt trading away my Dark Depths.
Best Practice: Do Your Homework Before Making Any Deals
Sometimes sites won’t have up-to-the-minute price updates. That’s why it’s important to keep up on spoilers so you can react appropriately. As notable fantasy author Terry Goodkind is attributed to have written, “Knowledge is a weapon. I intend to be formidably armed.”
Mistake 3 (1998): Cashing Out My Non-Standard Cards To Buy My First Car
In 1998 I was desperate to raise enough money to buy my first car, every teenager’s first major financial investment. I decided to get quick money by cashing out the non-Standard part of my Magic collection, because I wasn’t using them. At the time, my Revised duals were retailing for $10-$15 each at most, so I took the $5 each I was offered for them, plus money from other rares, and walked out with under $200 cash in my pocket. I bought the car, a 1987 Chevy Monte Carlo with low miles, and it was a great first car, but the full-time job I picked up that summer paid way more in a week than the chump change I’d parted with my collection for.
Lesson: When Cashing Out, Only Cash Out As Much As You Have To
Ultimately, I realized I shouldn’t have cashed out as completely as I did, as I wasn’t quitting Magic. There may be times when we need money more than we need cards, but ultimately, if you’re not quitting the game entirely, and you don’t need the money immediately for survival, it’s better to hold cards that you’ll possibly want to use down the road. If you sell them and want them later, you may be forced to buy them back at an inflated premium, as I was forced to do over the next several years.
Best Practice: Always hold onto your mana base.
If you’re not permanently quitting Magic, but needing funds has you considering cashing in, the best thing I could suggest is not to cash in your mana base. Sell your Thoughtseizes, your Force of Wills, whatever you need to, but holding onto your duals, your shocks, or your fetches means you’ll have a much easier time jumping back in when whatever’s going on in your life settles down. The most expensive part of a constructed deck, depending on the format or decklist, is usually the mana base, so it’s the only part of my collection that I’m willing to hold onto at all costs.
Mistake 2 (2019): Sleeping on Mystery Booster "Playtest" Cards
When Mystery Booster playtest cards hit the market, they screamed to be added to my cube of Un-, Conspiracy, and quirky cards from throughout Magic’s history (looking at you Shahrazad). I assumed incorrectly when learning about them that they were part of the regular run of Mystery Booster products, akin to the recent Mystical Archives of Strixhaven, and not something exclusive to “convention edition,” boxes of the product. With the main cards in the set mostly unappealing to me, I didn’t pay much attention to the set, and slept on buying any of the playtest singles floating around at reasonable prices throughout most of 2020.
Lesson: Pay Attention To The Product Details And Know When To Buy
Pretty much any point in 2020 would have been a decent time for me to move in and start picking up Mystery Booster playtest cards. While the top-end cards like Slivdrazi Monstrosity have spiked and fallen and spiked again, many of the lower-priced cards like Wizened Arbiter and Bucket List fell from their initial highs and remained relatively flat for most of 2020.
Best Practice: If It’s Something You Want, Move In When You Can
For cards that I’d planned to buy and hold for personal use, I should have moved in on most of them early after the initial hype died down and prices flattened. Instead, I’ll be looking to draft as many events as I can at my LGS from the small round of product coming to them soon as part of WOTC’s Summer Of Legend, and hoping the influx of product will take the prices of singles back down to 2020 levels.
Mistake 1 (1997): Not Buying A Mint Unlimited Black Lotus For $275
As soon as I turned sixteen, I rushed out and got my first job bagging groceries at the local grocery store. Two weeks later, when that first sweet paycheck arrived, I went straight to the local card shop. My plan was to either buy Cursed Scrolls for Type 2 (Standard), or buy a couple booster boxes of Tempest and hope to crack them. As had been the case for weeks, the shop had no singles in stock, but the shop owner pulled two boxes of Tempest from the shelf behind him and put them on the counter next to the register.
“Before I ring you out for these, let me show you something,” he said. He took me to a glass case that used to be filled with high-end sports cards, and now had several shelves of Magic singles on display. He opened the case, removed a card from its stand, and put a mint Unlimited Black Lotus in my hands. It was an awesome moment. I had some Unlimited, Beta, and Alpha cards in my collection, mostly commons and uncommons, but I’d never even held a piece of power in my hands before that moment.
“I’ll do it for you for $275,” he said.
Faced with a choice of rolling the dice on two boxes of Tempest and not pulling the cards I needed for Standard, or owning not just an actual piece of power, but the most sought-after card in all of Magic, I hesitated. Either way, this was my entire first-ever paycheck I’d be spending in one purchase. Did I want to spend that on just one card? It’s laughable in retrospect, but these were the thoughts flashing through my sixteen-year-old brain. I handed the card back to him, walked away with my two boxes of Tempest, and away from the cheapest Black Lotus I ever had a chance of purchasing.
Lesson: When A Unique Opportunity Presents Itself, Take It
While I can and did have more opportunities to acquire cards for that Standard deck, that Black Lotus I passed up on buying was sold when I went back to the shop less than a week later. I never saw one in as good condition for that kind of price again. The lesson I begrudgingly learned was that sometimes unique opportunities will come along, and it’s important to be able to recognize those situations and act accordingly.
Best Practice: Be Open To Possibilities Beyond Your Goals And Expectations
I went into the shop looking to buy cards for Standard. By having that rigid goal, I was so tunnel-visioned into purchasing Tempest cards I was unable to recognize the unique opportunity I was presented and to act on it. By keeping expectations open in all my MTG financial moves, and in life in general, I’m better able to act on unique opportunities when they appear.
These are some of the mistakes I’ve made over the years, and the lessons I’ve learned from them. While I know I’ll make more mistakes, the goal is always to learn not only from one's own experience but also from the experiences of others, which helps us all be better prepared to make informed decisions.
What are some MTG finance mistakes you’ve made over the years, and what lessons did you learn from those experiences? Please share in comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I can’t promise I’ll respond to everyone who emails, but I’m interested to hear your own stories, lessons, and best practices.