Magic Finance At Large Events

If you want to start hitting up larger events but are intimidated or don’t know where to begin, check out Chas’ primer on buying, selling, and trading at large events.

Many of you travel the world—or at least your region—in order to attend large Magic tournaments. You hit up multiple Grands Prix and StarCityGames.com Open Series. You drive hundreds of miles in a day. You’re intimately familiar with how to squeeze the most out of your airline miles.

This primer isn’t for you.

This is for everyone else. Everyone who told me that they want to start hitting up larger events but are intimidated or don’t know where to begin. Now that the large regional Prereleases are dead, there’s no stepping stone between an eight-man draft at your local game store and a 2,000-person nine-round day 1 anymore. Taking the plunge can be daunting—even for FNM lifers.

How is the trading at large events anyway? Are the sharks as bad as advertised? Is it worth buying from or selling to the dealers? Will your cards get stolen out of your bag or confiscated by the TSA? Should you even bother packing a binder?

This week I’ve written a primer on buying, selling, and trading at large events. Let’s begin with the first major hurdle: traveling with Magic cards.

What to Bring and How to Bring It

If you’re not used to flying with Magic cards in your possession, know this; they will nearly always set off the metal detectors during airport security checks. The cards look very dense and weird in the scanner, and most TSA employees will flag your bag for further inspection. Sometimes binders or small decks will go through okay, but boxes of cards will always be a red flag.

My advice is to pull out any card boxes you plan on bringing and run them through in a separate bin, just like you would for a laptop or your shoes. That way the TSA folks will check out your box and let you through instead of having to go through your entire bag looking for the offending item. It’ll save you a good five-to-ten minutes and keep you from holding up everyone else trying to catch their plane.

If you are driving, be aware that excessive heat and humidity can cause foil cards to warp. If you’re from a cooler, less humid climate (say, Northern California or the Pacific Northwest) and you attend an event in Atlanta, make sure your foil cards are well secured. If they’re packed tight in boxes or binders, you’ll probably be okay.

When travelling, only bring cards that you plan to either play with or trade away. Do not bring your playset of Underground Seas unless you really want to try and turn them into Mana Drains at the GP. Do no bring your box of 2,000 bulk rares unless you plan on selling them to a vendor. Not only do you need to worry about the safety and security of your cards, but all of that weight adds up. You’re going to be on your feet and moving around for twelve-plus hours each day while you’re at the event—do you really want to have a fifty-pound backpack to babysit? Having too many cards available at once can also be overwhelming during a trade, leading to every deal taking much longer than it should.

These days I tailor my trade stock based on the event I’m attending. Most of the time I bring my Modern, Standard, and casual staples along with a small box of throw-ins. If I’m attending a specialized event with a large Vintage or Legacy crowd, I might bring something extra. My monster books and boxes full of lower-end random stuff for the FNM crowd? I leave them behind.

Don’t forget to follow the event’s rules on making cash transactions by the way. If you have a large enough collection, people will invariably ask you if they can simply buy a bunch of stuff from your book. Don’t do this. Every large tournament I’ve ever been to prohibited cash transactions between players and anyone who isn’t a dealer. This is to preserve the value of paying for a dealer booth—otherwise, why not just show up with a bunch of boxes and start selling cards on the tournament floor for free? If you sell cards and are caught, you will be kicked out of the event. You might even be banned by the TO from all their future tournaments. It isn’t worth it. 

As long as you are anywhere near the tournament venue, you are at a high risk for theft. That includes the parking garage and any hotel attached to the venue. Thieves are aware that people can leave tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of cards in their trunk or hotel suite and have proven willing and able to break in to either in order to get them. Your trunk is safer than your backseat is, but all of your cards are at risk just by being anywhere near the venue.

I can (and have) written entire articles about theft, but here are a few basic steps you can take to minimize risk:

1) Always keep a strap of your bag looped around your chair.

2) Keep your bag zipped closed whenever you add or remove an item.

3) Trade with one binder at a time. Make certain that your eyes are always on that binder. When your trading partner is done looking through it, put it back in your bag or pull it as close to you as possible.

4) Do not leave any spare decks or boxes filled with cards on the table while you trade. I had a deck stolen from me at a GP this way.

5) When completing a trade, make certain to eyeball every card you traded for as it goes into a box or binder page. I once traded for a stack of cards at a GP that included four Primeval Titans and three copies of Sorin, Lord of Innistrad. After the deal, I scooped the stack off the table and put them into a box. When I got home, I discovered that my partner had palmed two of the Titans and one Sorin before handing me the cards we had agreed upon.

6) Do not flash around a Cube, high-end decks, or high-end binder pages if possible. Try not to draw unwanted attention to yourself. If you want to play Cube or Vintage, stay vigilant.

At the same time, it is worth noting that 99.9% of attendees at Magic events are not thieves. Keeping your cards safe isn’t the same as being suspicious of everyone. It is okay to walk away from people or deals that make you feel uncomfortable, but don’t be afraid to approach people or trade at all out of fear or mistrust.

Dealing with Dealers

The size of the event usually determines how many dealers will be in attendance. At a large WotC-run event like a Grand Prix, there could be anywhere from ten to thirty vendors buying and selling cards and gear. At smaller events like the old regional PTQs or Prereleases, the number was generally closer to five.

Now that most PTQs are run out of stores (or at least by stores), though, there is a much larger chance of ending up at a single-vendor tournament. Since it’s super advantageous to be the only booth in the room, don’t expect any competition at events run by tournament organizers who are also large Magic dealers.

As a consumer, multiple vendor events a lot better for you. Intel passes quickly between booths, and people will adjust their prices on the fly in order to beat their competition. This can sometimes lead to dealers buying a hot card at the same price point they were selling the card at going into the event.  

Talk to any of the dealers in the room, though, and they’ll all tell you the same thing; the reason they are there isn’t to sell cards but to buy them. Most Magic players buy their singles online, not at events. Consumers are used to buying things online where they can feel comfortable shopping around for the best price and selection. Selling cards online, however, doesn’t come as naturally to most people. Buylists can feel ruthless and impersonal, and sending hundreds of dollars’ worth of cards to some faceless company without getting any cash up front is kind of scary. There are also plenty of horror stories out there about buylists holding cards for months without payment or knocking off 40-50% of the price over condition.

Selling cards in person removes that uncertainty. You hand over your cards, you get cash on sight, and you leave the event richer than you started it. Simple, right?

No matter which tournament you attend, most dealers buy cards using the same process. They get out a playmat with squares on it, each one representing a dollar figure. They go through your stuff, pick out what they want to buy, and place the cards one at a time on the square marking the amount of money they’re willing to give you for the card. At that point, you can choose to accept their offer, decline it, or counter.

If you are planning to sell a whole bunch of cards to a dealer at an event, I suggest doing some cursory research online beforehand. Figure out the lowest amount you’re willing to take on each card and don’t budge from that number. If the dealer is unwilling to meet that price, be willing to walk away.

Be mindful that the buyer probably has a little bit of wiggle room, but they aren’t going to give you anywhere close to retail for any of your cards. They’re the ones paying for overhead on their store, their website, the booth at the event, and even the buyers’ salaries. Don’t waste buyers’ time or treat them like the enemy—they’re a very useful resource for you as long as you are willing to accept the reality of what they need to accomplish for the transaction to be a win for them.

Which dealer should you sell to? Ask around at the event and see if there’s any buzz on who is giving the best prices that day. Sometimes an upstart store is willing to pay more in order to walk out of the tournament with the most stock possible. Other times it’s better to go with one of the big boys who has the cash and is willing to pay a decent rate on everything you’re trying to unload. If you can develop a good rapport with a storeowner or buyer over multiple events, it’s even better. Dealers usually give good deals to people they work with often because they know the transaction will go smoothly and you’ll always be back with more cards.  

Most buyers are focused exclusively on short-term gain. Cards performing and selling well will be bought at much higher margins than staples that have fallen out of favor. Traders might be worried about impending set rotation or impending changes in the metagame, but stores are mostly just concerned with out quickly they can turn over their stock. Buyers at events are also likely to give you good prices on casual all-stars—cards that are worth a lot but are hard to trade on the floor. Did you know Dragonmaster Outcast has a $10 retail price tag? No? That’s because you likely haven’t traded with one of these in several years. If you have a bunch of random stuff like this clogging up your binder, buylisting it at a major event is not a bad way to go.

If you’re an experienced trader, one of the most lucrative things you can do at a major event is to pick up a buylist from a major dealer and identify any cards that have a small spread between buylist value and perceived trade value. For example, at a recent event I traveled to it was easy to get copies of Sheoldred, Whispering One for around $3 each in trade on the floor. On the same day, one of the dealers was paying $3 cash for copies of Sheoldred. If I can trade a card that sells for $12 retail for four copies of Sheoldred, that’s just as good as selling my $12 card at full retail. This is how most of the honorable trade grinders make bank these days by the way. If your binder is well stocked, you can do this all day long.

Even if you’re not there to sell, large events are a pretty good place to buy cards from vendors. Oftentimes dealers will bring cards to a tournament that are difficult to sell online: alters, signed cards, miscuts, foreign foils, obscure promos, and other ephemera. If you’re a collector or you just want to pimp out your Cube or Commander decks, this is the place to do it. Another advantage to buying cards in person is the ability to check out the condition of everything before you hand over your cash. Online, buying something marked "HP" is a gamble—has the card been sitting in a puddle of water for three years, or did someone merely nick the edge a couple of times? In person, you can get some killer deals based on overeager grading.

Dealers also like to use these events to blow out weird cards that have been sitting around for too long. There are a ton of casual rares and weird foils in the $4-$8 range that are rare enough to justify their price tag even though very few people actually want them. These cards tend to be expensive online, but at events you can flip through books or shuffle through stacks and pick them up between $1 and $3. You likely won’t find too many cards priced low enough to flip, but if you need any of these for your own use, you can generally find them as cheap as the lowest online price but without having to pay for shipping.

Most dealers also have bulk rare boxes priced anywhere from $0.50 each up to $2. If you get to an event early, by all means paw through these—sometimes you’ll find cards that have spiked in value since the last time the bulk box was made public. These deals tend to go quickly, though, so by the second day I wouldn’t recommend wasting your time with them.

Lastly, large events are great places to buy high-end cards. The prices tend to be competitive, and you don’t have to deal with the fear of getting a counterfeit piece of power that you do with some of the better deals online. Some dealers are even willing to trade power at a competitive rate for cards they can sell much easier. If you’re in the market, don’t be afraid to ask!

The Trading Floor

On the trading floor, it pays to be an extrovert.

I am not an extrovert. I can mimic one for a few hours at a time, but it costs me a ton of energy to do it. When I’m not feeling up to it, I’ll stop trading and focus on playing my matches or start a game of Commander with some close friends.

When I do decide to trade at large events, I tend to fall back on four options, ranging from the least to the most difficult:

1) After each round, if there’s enough time left, I ask my opponent if he or she would like to trade. They almost always say yes, and it’s great because neither of us is in the middle of something else so we can focus on the deal. You should always do this, and it’s super easy because by this point you’ve already established a relationship with your trading partner.  

2) If I’m done playing for the day, I can set up at or near the "shark table." This is an area of the room where multiple large-volume traders have set up. The expectation when dealing with these traders is that they will likely have what you need but making a deal with them is going to cost you. If I set up here, I generally just have to wait for people to come and find me. Of course, doing this means that I am only going to get to trade with people willing to make the "shark table" plunge—and I’m going to have to compete with traders who have much better binders for each deal I make.

3) I can wander the room, look for people who are already trading, and ask if anyone wants to trade with me next. About half the time, the answer is yes. Of course, I’ll have to wait in line behind the trade currently in progress before I can even look at anyone’s binder.

4) I can wander the room and ask random people fixing up their binder, playing casual games, eating lunch, or are otherwise doing non-tournament activities if they want to trade. This approach leads to the best trades by far and is generally the only way to make deals with casual groups who don’t trade much and aren’t always out for max value. I’ve also met friends doing this that I am still in contact with. Of course, this method is going give you about nine "no" answers for each "yes," and some of those people are going to be legitimately annoyed with you for interrupting them.

If you’re bad at remembering faces like I am, you also run the risk of pestering the same person more than once during the same event or even asking someone for trades who you made a deal with like nine hours earlier. This method can lead to embarrassment and frustration, but if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care about those things, I can’t recommend it enough. Just remember to always take no for an answer and walk away when people clearly don’t want to trade. Everyone has the right to enjoy the event on their own terms.

Overall, trading at major events tends to be decent but unspectacular. Back in the good old days, regional Prereleases were like Christmas for traders thanks to the cross-section of players who would attend. It was possible to flip Standard cards to grinders and grab their casual stuff at a discount and then walk over to the very next table and do the opposite with a casual playgroup. I don’t think I ever left a Prerelease without a couple of insane deals, a few new friends, and a fully stuffed binder.

People who attend Grand Prix and SCG Open Series are all fairly competitive. You’ll get some players who love Commander or are there to try to improve their sweet rogue deck in Vintage, but for the most part everyone is after the same staple cards and is hyperaware of current prices.  

When you do come across casual players or Commander brewers, do everything you can to try to make a large trade with them. Chances are everyone at your local store has already seen your casual/Commander binder a thousand times over and has decided that foil Primalcrux is not for them. These large events are a prime place to churn unwanted stock and refresh your collection. It’s okay to let casual players "win" a trade on something you’ve had a hard time moving as long as you get something back that will be in demand at your LGS.

This incidentally is a why the shark table traders can be a great resource. Many of them are focused exclusively on value since they’re planning to buylist everything at the end of the weekend anyhow. Feel free to go over the table and be honest with them—let them know that you’re willing to take a hit on buylist prices provided you get Standard staples in return. You’ll probably get a taker or two who is more than happy to give you a fair deal on some cards that would have otherwise sat in your book for months.

The shark table is also a good place to trade for high-end stuff, provided you’re willing to pay for it. Simply put, you’re not going to have the chance to trade for an Alpha Sword to Plowshares or a foil Japanese Scalding Tarn at FNM. Even if your local Two Burrito Pete had those cards, he’d probably just steel them in Lucite and lord them over you for the next three years. At the shark table, everything is available—for the right price.

Try to respect the time of these traders just as you would a dealer. Most of them aren’t out to rip you off; they’re just trying to make bank while offering a trading alternative to straight up buying the high-end cards you want at the dealers’ booths. Understand that if you’re trading Standard cards for something extra rare, you’ll have to pay a premium on top of book value. This isn’t a scumbag move—it’s the price you have to pay when trading for an expensive card. If you’re not okay with that going in, you should avoid trying to make the trade happen in the first place.

If you do end up dealing with a jerk who tries to rip you off, you have my permission to troll him as much as you want to of course!

Everyone else you’re doing to deal with at the event is mostly going to be interested in the same 20-30 Standard staple, depending on which decks are hot at the moment. These cards are as good as cash, so don’t just trade them away for the sake of trading—save them for when you can get something you actually want in return. Unlike at FNM, where I always try to make a trade happen just for the sake of helping people out and building relationships, at large events you have a limited number of hot cards and a nearly infinite number of available trading partners. Don’t blow out all your fetchlands right before you come across the trader who has the rare Cube foil you’ve been trying to track down for two years!

Lastly, don’t forget that time goes by quickly when trading—even quicker than when you’re playing in the event. Drink water, eat lunch, and don’t forget to play a bunch of Magic and hang out with your friends. After ten or eleven hours, trading will start to feel like a frustrating slog, and you might find yourself snapping at other traders for taking too long or not having what you want. At this point, take a nice long break and remind yourself that you’re here to have fun.

Portfolio Update

We’ve had some decent movement in both directions this week. First, the good news:

And now for the bad:

  • Aetherling has gone from $3.50 to $3. Our $56 spec is down to $48.
  • Armada Wurm has gone from $3 to $2.50. Our $24 spec is down to $20.
  • Angel of Serenity has gone from $6 to $5. Our $24 spec is down to $20.

We also made a buy this week. As my Twitter followers know (you can follow along @ChasAndres), I bought all nineteen copies of Detention Sphere that StarCityGames.com had in stock at 5:41 PM PST on 8/27. The price was $2/card, leaving me with $262 still in cash. The card has since risen in price to $3/card, putting me another $19 ahead for the week.

Why buy Detention Spheres? Well, last Tuesday we had the blue Theros God unofficially spoiled for us. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s an indestructible enchantment that’s affordable to play and hard to kill. We don’t know how many more indestructible enchantments there are going to be, but all of the Gods might have similar abilities and all of them might be very playable. If so, Detention Sphere becomes one of the most important and versatile answers in the format. Even if not, the card may spike due to other people having the same idea; there was a small run on the card that day that likely led to the price increase. If this card hits $4 or $5 over the next few weeks, I’ll happily sell.  

Overall, the value of our portfolio has increased from $1,000 to $1,075. This is a 7.5% gain in just one week. Obviously we’d be thrilled if every week was like this, but most of these were small gains that are hard to monetize—Detention Sphere is the only card we could sell right now for a profit over what we paid considering the 25% hit we have to take upon selling. We’re doing well out of the gate, but it’s a long road ahead.

Until next week –

– Chas Andres