How To Trade For Power

If you’ve ever wanted to get your hands on the Power Nine, this article is for you. Find out how you can trade for power successfully from Magic finance expert Chas Andres.

Most Magic trades are simple. I have a couple copies of Brimaz, King of Oreskos that sell for $40 each. You have a Marsh Flats and a Spellskite that sell for $60 and $20 respectively. I want to get into Modern, and you want to lock down your Standard deck. Once the prices are known, we make the deal, shake hands, and move on with our lives.

This is not how to trade for power.

The normal rules of Magic finance go out the window when it comes to the Power Nine. Book value is only the beginning when it comes to Magic’s most elite cards, and if you’re going into a deal for a Mox or Lotus expecting things to be easy, well, you’re going to be in for a shock. I’ve seen many awful Magic trades in my time, and several of the worst have been due to people being blinded by the presence of power. Others didn’t have the chance to become awful trades—they simply broke up after hours of negotiation, ending with one or both trading partners sorting their collections back into their binders while wondering what went wrong.

Is a Mox Jet at the top of your wish list? Do you fantasize of drawing three cards for one mana instead of six? This article will help you make those dreams a reality. But first let’s examine why power is such a unique case.

Know Your Nine

The "Power Nine" refers to nine cards originally printed in Alpha: Black Lotus, Mox Sapphire, Mox Ruby, Mox Jet, Mox Emerald, Mox Pearl, Time Walk, Ancestral Recall, and Timetwister. People have tried for years to replace Timetwister’s spot in the Power Nine with Library of Alexandria or Time Vault, but it’s never really caught on. Even though Timetwister is a notch below the others in power level and price, the card still has a mystical quality attached to it.

Needless to say, getting a full set of power is one of the coolest things you can do in Magic. Not only does it immediately connect you to the history of the game, but it opens up a whole new world of tournament possibilities in Vintage. If you’re wondering why you might want to consider playing Vintage, check out this format overview I wrote a few months ago. It’s an awesome format, and it’s arguably more popular than ever.

I’ve heard reports that the market for power was nuts at Grand Prix Richmond. This makes sense—with Modern prices through the roof, many long-time players are finally finding it possible to acquire a Mox Sapphire or a Black Lotus via trade. Ironically, Modern’s popularity has made Vintage more accessible than ever, at least for now. This increase in demand may cause power prices to rise in turn, making power one of the more attractive long-term spec targets in the game.

One thing that might keep the price high is that power is very scarce. While modern print runs are a secret, we know exactly how much Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited came off the presses. There were 1,100 of each rare printed in Alpha, 4,300 of each in Beta, and 18,500 printed in Unlimited. All told, a total of 23,900 copies of each piece of power existed at one point.

It’s likely that the number of power cards on the market today is less than that, perhaps significantly so. Some pieces of power have been lost or damaged during the past twenty years. Others have been locked away in the collections of people who are unlikely to want to sell it any time soon. While some still may be lurking in the shoeboxes or garages of unsuspecting gamers, I suspect that most of these cards are now in the hands of dealers and collectors who know exactly what they have.

Scarcity is only part of why power is hard to trade for though. Because the cards are so iconic and rich in history, many collectors like to get their sets of power signed, altered, or personalized. While these altered pieces of power still enter the marketplace often enough, the collectors who commissioned the alters generally want a major premium for them thanks to the emotional bond that they’ve developed with their cards. Personally, I’ll sell every other card I own before I part with my Sandreline-altered set of power:

Altered Power

Don’t worry, these were all Unlimited copies in very poor condition before going under Sandreline’s brush!

Another wrinkle in the power market is that people vastly prefer to trade for it in person. It’s easy to set up an online trade for something like a Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or Griselbrand because condition doesn’t matter very much. General grading guides (NM, SP, HP) might be fine when dealing with lower value cards, but much of the price in a piece of power is tied up in its status as a collectable, a world where condition is king. A tiny ding on the back of an Ancestral Recall can be worth a thousand dollars or more depending on the edition and condition of the card. Many people just aren’t comfortable making such a big money deal without seeing the cards in person first.

Condition is by far the biggest stumbling block that people have when attempting to value power during a trade. I’ve seen it go both ways—some people undervalue nearly flawless pieces of power, while others massively overvalue Moxen that are a stiff breeze away from being in seven different pieces.

I usually use the NM StarCityGames.com price as a benchmark when I’m after a stunning piece of power that I believe worthy of grading. If there are a few small blemishes, I’ll use the SP price. SCG grades power for web sale very conservatively and usually sells their more damaged pieces at events with a variable pricing structure. If I’m trying to trade for a piece like that, I’ll estimate on a sliding scale that goes down to about 60% of SCG retail. That’s about the floor, at least for sleeve-playable power since there’s always a strong market for beat-up power from bargain-hunting Vintage players.

Because condition is so tricky and important, power "in hand" tends to have a slightly greater value than power online. People are willing to pay a premium for the chance to examine it and make a deal on the spot. If you’re preparing to trade for a piece of power at a convention or GP, keep in mind that the price tag might be a little higher than you’re expecting.

How To Pull Off The Trade

Most trades for power fail. Usually, it’s because of something I call the Superstar Premium.

Bear with me for a moment here and I’ll explain. It’s fantasy baseball season, and I’ve been ankle deep in preparation for my auction leagues. A fantasy baseball auction, much like a Magic trade, is all about trying to get the best deal possible. Everyone has the same amount of money and the same number of roster spaces going into the auction, but it’s up to you to find the best way to build your team. You can buy an awesome $29 pitcher and a mediocre $1 catcher if you want, or you can spend $15 on one and $16 on the other and get decent but unspectacular players at each position.

Since baseball is stats based, assigning dollar values to players seems like it should be a simple matter of finding the best projections and putting them in a formula based on your league’s scoring system. But if you use this method, you find that you will never ever own a superstar. They will all sell for $10 or even $20 more than your equation says that they should. Even if they do better than expected, they won’t have a chance of returning the price they sell for. Yet people will pay through the nose for them every time.

This is because superstar ownership comes with hidden benefits. For one, there’s the nonzero value of a roster spot. If you have a $30 player and a $1 player, you can always drop the $1 guy to make room for a hot young prospect. If you have two $15 guys, you have a much harder decision on your hands. The superstar is also much less likely to become a useless part of your team. He invariably comes with a longer track record of success than the mediocre $12 player, and he’s also going to be much more valuable on the trading block, possibly getting you back several useful pieces in a deadline deal. The same is true for superstars in real sport— teams need marketable stars in order to drive ticket sales and increase TV revenue.

Like a superstar athlete, power ownership comes with hidden benefits, and you’ll need to pay extra for them. For one, power ownership is as close to risk free as anything in Magic. Because the value is tied to iconic collectability and a grassroots format, there is almost no volatility in the value of a Mox or Lotus and very little chance the price will ever come down. Power is also easier to trade or sell at any later point than having to find a buyer for dozens of other cards that may continue to rise or fall in price depending on the season or metagame. There’s also the scarcity issue—finding someone willing to trade you a piece of power for whatever hodgepodge of stuff you have available can be hard. This comes up on a small scale all the time, especially when trying to trade Standard stuff into Modern or Legacy staples, but power takes it to the extreme.

Most people understand this to some degree, but the trade still fails when there’s a large enough gap between the premium that the trader with the power wants and the premium that the trader without the power is willing to pay.

Luckily, there are some trading approaches you can use to mitigate this.

First of all, don’t structure your power deal like any other trade, having your partner go through your book, pull out cards they like, and look them up on their phone. I know it seems tempting, but what tends to happen is that the person with the power will realize about three-quarters of the way there that they’re not going to be getting as much stuff in return as they thought. Magic cards add up quickly, and at the point when they realize that they’re bumping up against the value of the Mox without getting even half of what they wanted, you risk of losing the deal altogether. If you do try to trade this way, make it clear from the start just how much of a premium you’re willing to pay and be certain that your partner is on the same page.

The second option you have for a power trade is the one I alluded to at the beginning of this article—letting your trading partner run roughshod through your binder, pulling stuff out and making dollar value piles similar to a vendor working a buy list. The kind of traders who approach moving power this way are often high volume dealers looking for large amounts of Standard staples  to move. They make no bones about wanting value, but in return they won’t have any emotional attachment to the Mox Emerald you’re salivating over.

I’ve seen trades like this go down dozens of times, and they’ve all been successful. If you want to get power this way, you will. All of these deals had something else in common too though—I hated them. These large volume dealers tend to apply buylist prices to your stuff, put a retail price tag on their power, and then demand a premium on top of that for two bites at the value apple. Most of the time, you’d be better off trading your cards in on the buylist and buying the power yourself. That said, this is the only way to turn those $1-$10 cards taking up space in your binder into power, and that’s enough for many people. I’m just not one of them.

The third option you have is my favorite—find a couple of cornerstones to build a fair deal around. Most power deals fail because the guy or gal with the power has, well, all of the power in the trade. Because there’s nothing out there quite as good as power, the person trading it away feels the need to try to get as much value for it as they can. This generally leads to raw feelings on both sides—the person getting the power has to give up more than they want to, while the person giving up the power has to trade away the best card in the deal.

If you find a few cornerstone cards—dual lands, Force of Will, even fetch lands—that the player with power really needs, the balance of power moves closer to the middle. Now both sides have something rare and desirable that they’re actually excited about getting in the trade. You will still have to pay a premium for power, but if you can get 75% of the way there with staples that you don’t have to discount, you’ll pay a much smaller superstar premium for your shiny new Mox.

If you’re in the market for power, I suggest always being on the lookout for possible cornerstones in trade. Never be afraid to give up a little value to get stable high end Modern, Vintage and Legacy staples in return. If you set yourself up with a stocked binder, you’ll find worthy trading partners if you go to enough Grand Prix or SCG Open Series. Sundays at Open Series are especially great for power trading, as they bring out the Vintage and Legacy crowd.

Over the long run, I love power as an investment. As the generation of players who grew up with the game ages, the amount of money and interest in nostalgia they have will increase, while the amount of time they have to play competitive Magic will decrease. These are good things for the Vintage scene, which is a haven for players like that. Don’t acquire power hoping to make a quick buck, but if you want to bankroll value in your collection over the long haul, there’s simply nothing better.

There’s also nothing more exciting than slamming a Black Lotus on the table and looking eagerly at your hand, excited for the possibilities that await you.

This Week’s Trends

  • Standard finance has been kind of a bust this year, hasn’t it? Increased print runs and moving the PTQ season to the fall meant that there was never a prime window to move in on staples and sell them for unbelievable highs. This is a good thing for the affordability of Magic’s most popular format, though, and hopefully it has made Standard a little more accessible for people compared to previous years.
  • Standard cards trending up: Domri Rade; Archangel of Thune; Stormbreath Dragon; Elspeth, Sun’s Champion; Courser of Kruphix; Abrupt Decay; and the shock lands.
  • Standard cards trending down: Jace, Architect of Thought (thanks to the Duel Deck); Xenagos, God of Revels; Mogis, God of Slaughter; Hero’s Downfall; Desecration Demon; Pack Rat; Spirit of the Labyrinth; and Xathrid Necromancer.
  • For the most part, people seem excited to brew with red, green, and white (but not Xenagos) as mono-black slowly falls out of favor. Also, Born of the Gods singles haven’t quite reached their initial bottom yet. Give it another week or two.
  • The big shock land question is this: are we at the bottom or will there be a better chance to buy in during the August/September lull? If you think this is it, I’d buy in now. If not, buy in this summer and make sure you monitor things in case they make a leap between now and then (this is the track I’m taking myself). Even though the shock land supply has massively increased thanks to RTR block, that’s the same argument that stopped me from going all in on Zendikar fetch lands back in 2009. Modern demand will cause these lands to rise at some point.
  • Thrun, the Last Troll is up to $12 this week after being $8 last week. It hasn’t been seeing much more play, though, and I don’t really like buying in without results. If a Thrun deck ever finishes well in a big tournament, this card will shoot toward $25 in an afternoon. I’m holding the copies I have in my spec box.
  • Modern growth isn’t stopping. It isn’t even slowing down. Mox Opal, Fulminator Mage, Cryptic Command, all the fetch lands, Damnation, Vendilion Clique, Tarmogoyf, Batterskull, Griselbrand, and a hundred other cards are still shooting into the stratosphere.
  • Have you noticed that some of the casual mill cards from Gatecrash have started to rise? Mind Grind and Consuming Aberration are both trending upward. You can still pick these up in trade easily, and I’d move in soon if I were you.
  • Someone made a run on Gisela, Blade of Goldnight last week. It was a buyout, but a well-timed one. She’s a very hot casual card and a must-run card in Avacyn, Angel of Hope and Kaalia of the Vast decks. Her new price is $10-$15, which will probably stick.

For those of you who are fans of my personal writing, I am pleased to introduce my new website, which I launched just last week. My Brain Is A Jerk is the new home for my personal introspective writing with both humor and heart. The stories I chose to launch the site with are among the most raw and emotional stories I’ve ever written, and I’m excited to finally have the opportunity to share them with the world.

Stories you can find there right now:

  • "Roommates" – About why I am bad at living with people.
  • "The Trade" – About the worst Magic trade I’ve ever seen.
  • "Things That Outlive Us" – About a small moment in the wake of my father’s death.

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