Wesconomics – Reversing the Cash Flow from Magic

The StarCityGames.com Open Series heads to Denver!
Monday, August 2nd – In the first of a new financial-based column, Craig Wescoe presents a seven-step method of maximizing your profits from our glorious game! From buying your first booster to making a massive profit, Craig leads the way…

The vast majority of people who play Magic: the Gathering incur a greater financial loss than profit each year off Magic. Even if we ignore opportunity costs and say our time investment in the game is worth $0, I would estimate that something like 95-99% of people playing Magic still come out in the negative.

For most Magic players, this is perfectly acceptable because Magic is a hobby and hobbies are going to cost money. Instead of going out to a movie, we go to Friday Night Magic. Instead of buying rock climbing gear, we buy a Standard deck. Instead of renewing our World of Warcraft account, we renew our StarCityGames.com Premium membership. Magic is a game we love playing, and the fact that it costs money is not enough to keep us from continuing to play the game.

Wouldn’t it be great, however, if Magic were free? Better yet, profitable?!

A Seven Stage Process for making Money off Magic

I have been playing Magic since Ice Age was released, which was during the summer of 1995. Ever since competing in my first Pro Tour (Washington D.C.) in 1999, I have managed to fund over one hundred Magic trips as well as an entire Vintage, Legacy, Extended, and Standard collection all through Magic income without ever having to put any extra money into it. On top of this, I have managed to turn a healthy four-figure profit each of the past three years, and already a five-figure profit this year off Magic. I’m sure I could have made even more money off Magic had I not also been going to school and working full-time through most of my Magic career.

So how have I managed to make so much profit off Magic?

Better yet, how can you profit off Magic?

Let’s start from the beginning.

Stage One

Everyone has an initial startup cost when getting into Magic. You purchase some boosters, a Preconstructed deck, a Deck Builder’s Toolkit, or whatever. Then you buy more of these things to enhance your collection and improve the quality of your decks. For me, this meant buying a Starter deck of Ice Age while my brother bought a Started deck of Fourth Edition.

At some point you probably start playing in tournaments — maybe Prereleases and FNMs or local booster drafts. Initially, you are getting pummeled by the ‘better players’ with their fancy $500 Standard decks. You’ve already invested a decent amount of money into the game, perhaps a couple hundred dollars, and you realize in order to compete even at FNM you will need to acquire some of the more expensive cards. But you do not have the money to keep investing like this. How do you solve this dilemma? You’re ready to move to stage two.

Stage Two

My advice at this stage is to set a goal for yourself. For example, if your goal is to compete in FNM tournaments, which is a great goal at this stage, find a deck you want to build and research the prices of the cards in the deck. Then once you’ve determined the prices of the cards you are looking for, look up the prices of your cards so you know what your cards are worth. Once you’ve done this, put together a trade binder of all the cards of value that you are not playing. Use those cards as fodder to trade for the cards you are looking to acquire. As long as you don’t allow yourself to get ripped off, you should be able to acquire most of the deck without having to invest much money into it.

Let’s say you have accomplished your initial goal but now you decide you want to build a different deck, or maybe you’re looking to start playing in larger tournaments and want to fund a trip to an upcoming PTQ or Nationals Qualifier within driving distance. How do you do this? Move on to stage three.

Stage Three

The next step can take one (or both) of two directions. If you have a natural talent for the game and are winning prizes in your local tournaments, you can start selling some of your prizes and using that money to fund trips to larger tournaments where there are larger prizes. The other direction is to start researching the prices of all the cards, not just the ones you are specifically trying to acquire for a deck.

I would recommend starting by researching the prices of Standard-legal cards or cards from some of the most recent sets. These are the most common cards you will encounter, but if you have the time and the desire to do so, the more card prices you study, the better off you’ll be.
Once you’ve learned many of the card prices, when you go to the local store for FNM, ask people there to trade with you. Try to acquire the cards that are worth the most money because the reason they are worth the most is because they are in the highest demand. Try to trade away multiple smaller cards for one or two higher dollar cards. This is called ‘trading up’. Cards in the highest demand are more easily traded for the cards you are actually looking for (and are easier to sell for value).

For example, if you are trying to pick up a Vampire Nocturnus for your deck and nobody wants to trade one to you for anything you have, try trading for other cards like Maelstrom Pulse and Noble Hierarch. Then you’ll be able to trade that Noble Hierarch for the Vampire Nocturnus you are looking for, or sell it to someone for the gas money and tournament entry fee for the PTQ in which you are looking to play.

Stage Four

Stage Three usually takes a while to get the hang of, but that’s okay because it fades into stage four. At Stage Four you’ve begun accumulating a bit of a collection and you know which of your cards are worth money and which are not. You also know the value of many cards, but as a player you want to expand further and be able to not only build a Standard deck but also an Extended or Legacy deck. Or maybe there is a Grand Prix that you want to fly to and need to come up with a couple hundred dollars to cover travel expenses. What now?

For Stage Four you really need to start getting an idea not only of what cards are worth but also of what you can get for each card. Start scouring buylists online and see which cards are being bought for a premium price. Also keep in mind what specific cards individual players are looking for. Will that one kid at the shop not care about card values and will trade anything he has for a Doubling Season? If so, prioritize picking up a Doubling Season.

Also at this stage you should start paying attention to the various tactics that other players use when trading with you. The guy with all the expensive foreign and foil cards — how does he try to trade with you? How is this different from how the guy with a Vengevine and nothing else of value trade with you? Learning the tricks of the trade will improve your ability to make a profit from trading. Negotiating is an acquired skill.

As a word of caution, be careful not to be dishonest with people. Sure, trading is a game unto itself where the goal is to maximize value, but don’t say things you know are untrue like “StarCityGames.com sells Vengevine for $3, I checked yesterday, trade me yours.” Instead say something like “I’ll let you pull out whatever you want from my binder and I’ll make you a deal for your Vengevine.” This way both people are happy, and you’re not burning bridges.

No one wants to get ripped off, and if you’re lying to someone in order to get them to make an unfair trade with you in your favor, the chances are they will not want to trade with you again in the future. Hedge your bets. It’s better to create a relationship where the person is happy to trade you his good cards for your stack of junk than it is to get his good card for one worthless card and to never be able to trade with him again. You’re better off making $5 ten times than $20 once.

Stage Five

By Stage Five you really have to make a decision. Are you a trader that plays Magic or are you a player that trades Magic cards? Most people are a combination of the two, but it’s usually pretty clear which one is more important to you. Here is the difference:

A trader that plays Magic is someone who spends more time scouring prices than play testing, and who is more concerned with coming home from the Magic tournament with trade profits than with a solid tournament finish.

A player who trades Magic cards is someone who spends more time play testing for a tournament, but who keeps up to date with most of the prices and who is more concerned with doing well in the tournament than with making a profit off trading at the tournament.

Which sounds more like you?

If you want to go more the trader route, you will want to know the value of every Magic card, from older cards to newer cards, foils to non-foils, foreign to non-foreign, etc. You are essentially a Magic dealer and you make your profits off gaining value in trades. This also means traveling to the larger tournaments where there will be lots of people in attendance (prereleases, PTQs, Grands Prix, Pro Tours, etc.).

If instead you are more determined to succeed as a player, you will need to spend a lot of time testing for tournaments. Stay up to date on all the latest technology, read all the articles on the major websites, have a solid play test group either with the best players in your area or with players that you can test with online. Make a concerted effort to qualify for each Pro Tour and to attend every Grand Prix.

If you are not going the trader route, you will have to figure out a way to gain access to the cards you need for tournaments, either by investing some of your tournament winnings into building a collection, attaining sponsorship, or networking with people who can lend you cards for tournaments (and compensating them in some way, either by giving them deck lists, paying them some nominal fee, or giving them the cards you get from drafts instead of selling those cards to a dealer).

Tomoharu Saitou and Carlos Romao are two of the top Magic players in the world, and yet I would be hard pressed to say either attends a Grand Prix with (definitively) the “player” attitude. I more frequently see them trading between rounds than scouting potential opponents.

This just goes to show that being successful in both domains is quite possible and that playing and trading are not mutually exclusive. (As a side note: at the Pro Tour, Saitou intentionally leaves his trade binders at home since he attends Pro Tours strictly as a player, but Grand Prix tournaments are a different story).

Stage Six

Somewhere between Stage Five and Stage Six you have reversed the cash flow, and are not only funding your collection and your tournaments but are now making some amount of profit.

If you are serious about Magic and are looking to make a living off the game (i.e. not having to carry a job outside of Magic), Stage Six is where this starts to become a reality — and it can happen either as a player or as a trader (or as some combination of the two).

If you are a trader, you look into starting your own online business (usually through eBay and/or MTGO) to sell cards and to start asking about setting up a booth at local PTQs, Prereleases, Flea Markets, etc. to buy and sell cards.

If you are a player, you should start planning to attend every Grand Prix and Pro Tour and amass as many pro points as you can. The bigger tournaments are where the real money is, and you will not be able to make much of a living as a player without doing well in major events. If you spike a big finish, you may even look into sponsorship deals and/or writing positions for additional income.

Stage Seven

Stage seven is essentially where you are making a living off Magic.

If you are a trader, you are a full-blown dealer who pays your rent (or mortgage) and all your bills strictly off buying and selling Magic cards. You have built up a sustainable customer base and no longer need to work an additional job to support yourself and your life style. This is a very difficult feat to accomplish since now you have to invest money into marketing in order to expand your customer base and compete with the larger companies. The barrier to entry at this stage can be quite high, depending on how big you’re trying to grow.

If you are a player, this is where you are at least a level 4 pro that is qualified for every major tournament and attends every Pro Tour and at least most Grand Prix tournaments. There are only a handful of players at this level, many of whom have sponsorship and writing deals to supplement their playing careers. It is very hard to sustain Stage Seven solely as a player, but there are people who do it.

I suppose there is a Stage Eight, but I think it only includes one person in the world: Pete Hoefling. Until Nintendo buys out Magic from Hasbro and launches a huge tournament series in Japan and North America (which should but likely never will happen), we probably won’t be seeing anyone from the player camp beyond Stage Seven.

Analysis of the Seven-Stage Process

In case you hadn’t noticed, the key to this process is building, maintaining, and expanding your Magic collection. By trading for value, you acquire the cards you need for tournaments and provide enough surplus value to sell off part of the collection to fund Magic trips, which will in turn yield more value and a greater surplus to your collection. This all assumes that you put the time into trading while at the tournaments.

There are plenty of Magic players that do not wish to own, maintain, or expand a Magic collection and would much prefer to just borrow cards so they can play whatever deck they want to play for a particular tournament. This is fine, and can certainly be profitable if you have enough talent at the game. But it is much more difficult to profit off Magic as a player than it is to profit as a trader (note that less than .001% of Magic players in the world make enough money solely playing Magic to support themselves).

I consider myself a player first, and my job of choice outside of playing Magic is to trade Magic cards and write articles about playing and trading Magic cards. If you’re only playing Magic, chances are you will have to hold another non-Magic related job to financially support yourself. This is a fine choice; just realize the trade-off you are making.

About Me

As of this past June, I am now relying on Magic as my sole source of income. I consider myself approximately a Stage Five trader and a Stage Seven player. For the past decade or so, I have referred to Magic as a lucrative hobby of mine, but after my recent finish at Pro Tour: San Diego where I made $13,000, I decided to make a run at playing Magic full time. Prior to that point I had consistently made more money each year trading than playing, despite competing in over a dozen Pro Tours and playing in tournaments each weekend.

I still trade quite a bit, but more of my time now is devoted to playtesting and writing articles for StarCityGames.com. I decided to start writing financial articles in addition to my strategy articles primarily because I believe I am in a unique position as a player/trader that allows me to offer some insights that very few others could offer.

For instance, in San Diego I was on the cutting edge with Stoneforge Mystic and when I found out about Boss Naya the day before the event, I bought out all the dealers of Stoneforge Mystics at $1-3 and went online and bought play sets for $5. The next weekend they were easily trading for $6-8 each, and the same dealers were trying to buy them from me for twice what I paid for them the day before. I thought to myself when making these purchases, “I bet others would be interested in hearing these real time stock tips and sharing in the profits too. Maybe someday I’ll write articles about this sort of thing.”

This was more of an introductory article to get the column going. Most of what I will be dealing with in this column will be higher level Magic Finance. You can expect future articles on topics such as:

• How much to invest on prognostications

• Which cards will be rising or declining in value and when to pick them up or unload them (recurring theme, hot insider stock tips)

• Minimizing your travel expenses at Magic tournaments

• Influencing and controlling the market (mostly Legacy and Vintage)

• Strategies for “going infinite” on Magic Online

• Knowing which cards to buy and sell from a newly released (or upcoming) expansion set

• Much, much more.

Craig Wescoe