Why Online Trading Is Terrible (And Why You Should Do It Anyway)

Chas Andres gives you the skinny on online trading, from where to trade online to online trading etiquette and more!

There are four main reasons why I love trading Magic cards.

The first is the social interaction. Much like on the TV show American Pickers, the best part of trading is getting to meet interesting people from all over and learning how different players interact with Magic cards. From the full-time PTQ grinder to the squirrel-lovingest casual mage, everyone’s got a story to tell.

The second is the treasure hunt. When you open your partner’s binder, the contents are a mystery waiting to be solved. Does she have that weird Japanese foil you’ve been chasing for the past two years? Seventeen pages of Worldslayers or Uncle Istivans? Commons from Odyssey block mixed in with mythics from M13? My heart usually starts to beat faster when I find a single good card in the middle of a terrible binder, even if it’s a card I would have passed up in someone else’s book. What is this gem doing here? Can I get it? Should I get it?

The third is the thrill of getting a good deal. This is the dance-y feeling that you get when you trade with someone who is willing to part with those last couple of staples you were about ready to go to the vendor over or the guy who will part with whatever without sweating the details. The best of these trades involve a massive trade-up or trade-down: either giving up a ton of stuff for a piece of power, say, or swapping a single card for someone’s whole binder.

The fourth is the reason even people who hate to trade have a binder: utility. Cards always have a lower cash value than trade value, and you lose at least 25% of your money every time you have to sell your cards in order to buy different ones. Trading is the most efficient way to feed the machine, turning last year’s deck into next year’s without losing too much in the process. People who don’t trade because they’re scared of sharks end up getting burned by having to cash out and buy back in.

Online trades don’t provide satisfaction in any of the first three categories. While some social interaction is possible, the tone of most deals ranges from blasé to slightly paranoid. Treasure hunting goes from being a highlight to a lowlight: pawing through binders is fun, while scrolling through lists is work. Getting a good deal? Close to impossible, since online dollar figures are omnipresent and online trading lacks urgency. Every card is always available somewhere on the Internet.

The only reason to trade online, then, is for utility.

This shouldn’t be enough, but it is.

While the weekend warriors who travel to events on a weekly basis don’t need to trade online, the rest of us are often left starting at the same thirty binders every week at FNM. Not only don’t you have any more business with that one kid who values everything way too high; you’ve come to the realization that your ten extra copies of Swords to Plowshares might never find a home.

Online trading turns the whole world into your local game shop. If casual planeswalkers trade briskly where you are and no one wants Legacy staples, you can take advantage of that disparity by changing up your stock online and acquiring cards that your locals want. It also gives you the chance to dump the cards that no one wants in person and to turn those foundering assets into high velocity staples.

Even more importantly, the biggest way people get burned in the world of Magic finance is by not moving volatile assets quickly enough. Prices change on an hourly basis these days, but even perfect information won’t help you if you don’t have the means to act on it. If you are sitting on a couple thousand dollars’ worth of Standard staples during their spring value peak, knowing they’re going to halve in value over the coming months doesn’t mean squat unless you can move them at full value immediately. While vendoring or eBaying them is one possibility, trading them online for undervalued or stable cards can be an even more lucrative option.

 Online trading, then, is likely something that you should consider taking part in. But where to begin?

Where to Trade Online

The biggest reason most people don’t trade online is the lack of a centralized feedback system.

For example, I have an eBay account with over a thousand pieces of positive feedback. This should clearly show that I am an upstanding citizen of the internet who is not about to grow a handlebar moustache while stealing your Fourth Edition Mishra’s Factory.

Unfortunately, my eBay account means diddly when signing up for an unaffiliated online trading community. Richard Garfield himself could sign up for a Magic Online Trading League account, and he’d still have a big fat zero next to his name.  

Even if you do manage to develop a bunch of feedback on one site, you’ll have to do it all over again if you want to trade anywhere else. And until that feedback number becomes respectable, you’re basically at the mercy of your partner when it comes to making deals.

This is why it’s important to pick the right site from the start. Not only don’t you want to build up your feedback score more than once every couple of years, but each site has its own little idiosyncrasies that take time to learn. No single site is perfect, but most of them have their uses.

Magic Online Trading League

This is easily the best-known trading site, and it likely has the most amount of traffic. Not only does a ton of trading happen here, but it’s a good place to find cash buyers for when you do want to make sales.

MOTL has a decent search feature, allowing you to search a card in either ‘haves’ or ‘wants.’ It doesn’t have too many rules, though, and be aware that it is lightly moderated. This is both a blessing and a curse—too much moderation chokes the life out of a community, but it does lead to a reasonably high level of bad traders. Luckily, most people who post their own threads on MOTL are high-volume traders that can be trusted.

Starting out, I would recommend posting offers in the threads of people who do a lot of trading on the site and agreeing to send first. These high-volume traders aren’t likely to rip you off, and once you develop enough feedback from these deals you will be safe to put up your own thread and see what offers come in.

Most of the traffic on MOTL is for higher end tournament staples and hard-to-find foils. This site is a good place to make a significant trade, but you’ll probably have some difficulty unloading your $2-$5 casual cards. I recommend it for the experts but not the beginners.

MTG Salvation

MTG Salvation’s trading community is fairly large. The site has been around forever, and many of its users have stuck around for years.

The most important thing to know about MTGS is that it is VERY heavily moderated—there are pages and pages of rules, all of which are extremely important to read before making a single deal on the site. For example, if you buy a card via PayPal and give them an address other than your confirmed PayPal address, you forfeit all rights to the trade and will be banned from the site if you file a PayPal dispute. If the condition of every single card you trade isn’t specifically discussed, you cannot make a bad trader complaint based on condition, even if it’s in horrible shape. Moderators can ban you, sanction you, or cancel a trade at any time for any reason. And while this added security might seem like a good thing to some of you, it usually isn’t.

In my limited dealings on MTGS, I’ve found that many traders are incredibly paranoid and many deals require a ton of bureaucracy that you don’t have to deal with anywhere else. Further, the increased rules have led to a culture of fear that people are constantly trying to exploit.

For example, every trade on MTGS requires tracking. If you don’t use tracking and your trading partner claims non-receipt, you are banned. Not only does this make it more difficult to do small, otherwise easy trades, but it leads to a lot more things getting “lost in the mail.” Shockingly, none of the 100+ trades I’ve done without tracking on a no-moderation site have gone missing. Whenever that loophole can be exploited, though, my letters constantly get lost. What are the odds?

Combine that with a staff of moderators that are often overzealous and heavy-handed, and I recommend giving MTG Salvation a pass.


Deckbox is my preferred place to trade online, and I recommend it for beginner and advanced traders alike.

Unlike the bulletin board sites, Deckbox has its own built in inventory management system. Instead of building lists every week and clogging up posts with back-and-forth trades, all you have to do is input your haves and wants list into the system. Once you’re up and running, you need to find a community to join. As an avid Redditor, for example, I joined the large and vibrant Reddit community. Once you’re in, you can compare haves/wants with others.

The amount of upkeep I have to do in my inventory is almost zero. People make me trade offers, and I can use the site’s interface to accept, decline, counteroffer, or enter a dialog with them. Once you make a trade, the site walks you through where to indicate when it’s shipped, when you get your partner’s cards, and you’re prompted to give a feedback score once the deal is done.

 Of course, Deckbox has its problems as well.

The biggest issue that the site has is that it is inconsistent when and where it indicates foil cards, condition, or differences between editions. The site displays TCGplayer median prices at all times, and these are generally only accurate for the current, English, non-foil, near mint version of a card.

There are ways to indicate the language and edition of a card—along with whether or not it is foil—but that doesn’t change the price that shows up next to it. Even more problematic, this data only shows up when you browse someone’s inventory, not when you open up the trading interface that shows you what you have/want in relation to what another use has/wants. This leads to WAY too many trade proposals where I’m either offered non-foil versions of cards I only need in foil or I’m asked to give up foils that my partner thinks are non-foil.

All that aside, I still really enjoy Deckbox and invite you to trade with me on the site. I’m told that they’re working on most of those issues, and it’s still the most promising site to trade on right now.

Puca Trade

Puca Trade is an interesting site, and it’s trying to do something really unique. Basically, you mail your cards away to anyone on their site who needs them in exchange for ‘PucaPoints’ which are each worth about one US cent. Then you post a want list, also priced in PucaPoints, and other people mail you cards. In exchange, PucaPoints are deducted from your account and added to theirs. The values are updated twice daily, and they are also based on median TCGplayer prices.

In theory, I love this. No longer do you have to match up your wants with someone else’s haves. As someone who buys a lot of collections, this seems like a great way to ditch a lot of slow-moving stock and trade up.

Until it gets going, Puca Trade is going to be more useful for people looking to fill out collections and Commander decks than for people who just need 8-10 cards to finish their latest Standard brew. It also seems like a good place to pick up a ton of random common/uncommons for something like a pauper cube. The site is currently in beta, and it doesn’t support conditions lower than NM or foils yet. There is also some risk to your PucaPoints if the whole site goes under or people prove unwilling to send out anything more valuable than a Lightning Bolt.

I will tell you that the site’s owner/webmaster was more than happy to have a lengthy email conversation with me to discuss many of the issues I had with the site. (How much is a point worth? Where do the values come from? How often are they updated?) He clearly has a vision that he’s committed to making work, and I like the direction things are heading. While I’m not going to start mailing out dual lands, I’m certainly going to give Puca Trade a shot with some of my lower value haves and wants.

Other Sites

There are dozens of other trading sites out there, and everyone has a favorite. When I asked my Twitter followers where they traded online, Essential Magic and POJO were recommended to me among others.

Having never used any of these sites, I can only tell you to exercise the normal amount of caution when sending cards or cash. There are likely a ton of great smaller communities out there, and you need to weigh the advantages (smaller sites tend to have more camaraderie and fewer scammers) with the disadvantages (fewer people to deal with).

Social Media

By far, the best place to trade online is via Facebook or Twitter.

Unlike any of the dedicated trading site, there is more of a personal connection to people who are your ‘friends’ on one of these sites. These are people you can trust, and they’ll likely provide a smooth trading experience for you. Most serious Magic players have a strong online network anyway, and this is a great way to use those connections while continuing to strengthen them.

Of course, this is a very limited audience and probably isn’t a good primary location for online trading. Just don’t forget that it’s a good option to use from time to time.

Who Sends First?

After agreeing to an online trade, the next thing you’re going to have to figure out is whose responsibility it is to send their cards first. If there is a large gulf in the number of feedback or references—generally, this is an issue if one user has fewer than five and the other has twenty or more—the party with the lower references will agree to send first. If the two traders have roughly equal references, they will often agree to send simultaneously.

There is a good reason that this is standard protocol. A low-referenced trader asking a high-referenced trader to send first (or send simultaneously) is a huge red flag for me. While it might just indicate an overly cautious player, it is also very possible that it is a scammer hoping to snag some free cards from an easy target. Building up references takes time, and anyone with 40+ references can probably be trusted. If I’m just starting out on a site, I won’t mind sending first to someone who is respected in the community, but I’m always vigilant of people who have a chance to cut and run.

One thing to keep in mind: no matter how good their references are, I never agree to send first to an overseas/international trader. These packages are either impossible or overly expensive to track, and the potential for disappointment and loss is too high.


Shipping sucks—it’s the worst part of online trading by far. Not only is it expensive, but it takes a ton of time to do right.

The important thing to understand before making an online trade is whether the site’s policies favor the sender or the receiver. Once you know this, you’ll be better equipped to gauge how much risk you want to take.

Sites that favor the receiver—like MTG Salvation—work much the same way eBay and PayPal do. In these cases, the onus is always on the sender to provide proof of delivery. If you don’t use a delivery confirmation or tracking service on your package, the seller can claim non-receipt and you will be sanctioned or banned if you don’t return their cards.

Sites that favor the sender—like Deckbox—rely exclusively on feedback to police the community. If you don’t get your cards, the only real action you can take is to leave a bad mark on their account. While this sucks for people who are truly scammed out of their cards, it also means that there is nothing to be personally gained by claiming non-receipt of a package. Because of that, once your feedback is good you generally don’t have to shell out for delivery confirmation on trades under $20.

Worried about being scammed? Make delivery confirmation/tracking or even USPS Priority Mail a condition of the trade. If you’re dealing with $100+ in cards, most other traders will gladly go along with this and will add confirmation to the trade.

In general, I ship trades under $20 in a taped-up top loader that is taped inside a plain white envelope and sent out First Class Mail. The whole thing costs less than a buck. Orders over $20 go in a padded mailer with tracking, the total cost of which (including the envelope) is between $2.50 and $4.

Make sure you factor this cost in to whatever math you do in making the trade. There’s simply no way around it, and often it means that trading just for the sake of making a deal is a poor play.

As I mentioned above, international shipping is an even bigger headache.

As those of you who sell cards on eBay know all too well, international tracking is spotty at best and often costs between $15 and $20, even on a small envelope. When trading overseas, I always make sure to let my trade partner know that the deal is at their own risk. They need to send first, and only once I’ve received their cards and checked them over will I send mine. If they want tracking or insurance, they will need to cover it themselves either in cash or trade.

While this may seem unreasonable on the surface, it’s simply the only way that it makes sense to deal overseas. Packages are far more likely to get destroyed in transit, and Magic cards are routinely held for 30+ days at customs. Cards are sometimes very hard to acquire in other parts of the world, though, and I’ve had plenty of people take me up on global trades regardless. In deals when I’ve put the onus completely on the other party, I haven’t had any major issues other than some incredibly long customs delays that had us both sweating.

The Tradeuppertons

Whether you’re a beginner or an expert at online trading, you’re going to run into one group of people who absolutely dominate the scene. I call them the tradeuppertons (the name is still a work in progress), and I hate dealing with them.

If you are lucky enough to post something sweet like an Underground Sea in your ‘haves’ list and you need a bunch of high end Legacy stuff and a couple Standard smalls, get ready for a thousand ‘my smalls for your Sea’ offers. While the offers are usually even value on paper, they’re likely not even worth considering given the premium for things like dual lands.

This happens a lot with hot Standard cards as well. If you have Bonfires of the Damned for trade right now, the tradeuppertons are going to go after them, and they’re going to ask for your lowest ‘wants’ in return.

Before posting your list anywhere, be sure to clarify in your post or on your profile that you are only interested in moving high-end cards if you’re getting something comparable in return. This won’t stop the flood of terrible offers from coming your way, but it will certainly help stem the tide.

Even worse, starting in late May and early June every year people will be doing their best to get full value for their rotating cards. If you are hoping to get any of these sweet spells at their summer/fall rotation lows, make sure you take them off your ‘wants’ list during that initial crash. Otherwise, you’ll be getting a lot of tradeupperton offers that no one with forethought would ever agree to. Things were even worse this year because people were trying to dump their shocklands for full price as well.

How can you make smart deals and avoid being a tradeupperton yourself? Be reasonable, be nice, and beat the curve.

Instead of trying to get full value for your rotating cards in June along with everyone else, ditch them in late April/early May at the top of the market. This gives you the most value and gives your partners a reasonable window with which to use the cards before they drop.

Always be courteous when trading, especially if you’re the one making an offer. If you’re making a piecemeal offer to test the water but are willing to consider a staple-for-staple trade, let them know beforehand.

If you’re trying to get a significant card from someone, try to offer a significant card in return. Usually, this is more important to people than simply getting equal value.

Never forget that their priority trade targets might not be listed in flashing red text on their post or in their profile. If you sense a trade falling apart, ask them what cards they are most interested in. You’d be surprised how often this will end in a favorable deal for you.

Conditional Losses

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about condition that I recommend reading before doing any online trading. While condition matters a lot in all aspects of trading, it is often forgotten when making online deals—and the consequences of doing so are serious.

When trading in person, condition issues are usually very clear. I personally don’t care much about whitening on the back or small dings, but if there’s a ton of whitening on the front of my cards I’m an unhappy dude. I can avoid this simply by not pulling out cards from binders that have obvious wear on them.

Online, though, all bets are off. While some people are fastidious about condition, most traders won’t mention serious creases or major whitening unless you ask them point-blank if all their cards are near mint. Even still, they just might not be all that detail oriented and miss something huge. In the past few months, I’ve had to return a Yosei, the Morning Star with a giant divot in it, a Misty Rainforest that had a crease AND a tear, and countless smalls that weren’t even close to sleeve-playable.

In general, most of the cards that you give and receive in online trades will be either SP or NM. It is generally accepted online trading etiquette that these two conditions are fairly interchangeable, and if you don’t want to receive SP cards in deals you should specifically make a note of that in every single trade that you make. I’ve been on both ends of a dispute over SP cards, and neither position is fun.

No one should be sending MP or HP cards in trades unless explicitly stated. In these cases, you are well within most community guidelines to ask for replacement copies, throw-ins, or to undo the trade.

If condition is important to you—and it should be—make sure you are constantly aware of it and are discussing it at each step of the way. Otherwise, you may pack off your gorgeous NM staples and get a bunch of dinged up junk in return.

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot that goes into making a successful online trade, and sometimes it doesn’t seem worth it. I run hot and cold on doing these deals myself, and usually it is a poor route to go as a value trader and speculator. You won’t get too many interesting stories out of it, only exasperating ones. You won’t get any great deals. You won’t find any treasure.

But what online trading lacks in fun and convenience it makes up for in size and scope. There are thousands upon thousands of Magic players out there just waiting for you to make them an offer.

Got a bunch of random stuff sitting around from that last collection you bought that no one wants locally? Looking for those random cube or Commander foils that no one in your area has? No one at your local store willing to trade you the staples you need to finish your Legacy deck? In all of those cases, the internet is likely your best bet.

See you on the virtual trade tables—

—Chas Andres