Wise Buys – Tricks Of The Trade

Wes Wise is a buyer for StarCityGames.com and has been trading Magic cards for a long time. He’s learned some lessons the hard way, but he shares them with you so you don’t have to do the same.

It was the Spring of 2003. I had been playing competitive Magic for over a year at the time, and I knew there was a Block Constructed PTQ coming up. Being the ambitious teen I was, I devised a plan to make a quick buck. I’d pick up cards that I expected to be good, hold them till the day of the event, and trade them away to the needy players at a premium. Solid plan, right?


Not one of my brightest ideas but far from my dumbest idea too. I eagerly began to trade for every Exalted Angel I could find. I picked up every Stabilizer I could get my hands on. There was also a lot of buzz about Stifle too, so I did what I could to acquire those as well. So many rookie mistakes in so little time. In my defense I was young and had a lot to learn about the card business. Reading a financial Magic article hadn’t crossed my mind. I’m not even sure if people were writing financial articles at the time—I’d assume people were… (OK, so I just searched SCG for Onslaught Block articles, and there’s like a million. With that in mind, I’ll use the “I was a young idiot” excuse and continue my article.) Long story short, the day of my PTQ came, and no one wanted my crappy overpriced cards. So what did I learn from this experience?

Mistake Number One – Investing in sideboard cards.

“Sorry Mom, I went all-in on Coffin Purge, and he rivered a Ground Seal.”

What the hell was wrong with me? How did I not realize that’s an awful idea? For those of you just joining us, there are a ton of reasons why buying sideboard cards is bad. A.) They’re sideboard cards. B.) I was planning on shipping them at a PTQ. No one is willing to trade for cards at a premium that aren’t vital to their decks working for a PTQ. C.) They weren’t even good sideboard cards.

I could write you an entire article on why it was a poor decision, but instead just take my word for it. Rarely, if ever, will a sideboard card make you tons of money. Once in a blue moon you might luck into this situation at a Pro Tour or something, but please refrain from betting the farm.

Mistake Number Two – Picking a single, small event to unload cards.

If/when you plan on speculating, you need to leave yourself an outlet to unload said cards. Make sure there is a GP or an Open Series event, brought to you by StarCityGames.com 😉 that you’re attending soon. One of the worst things you can do is invest in cards and miss their peak era.

Mistake Number Three – Investing in cards that are already at their peak.

I drew you a diagram of my history with purchasing Exalted Angels.  

exalted angel price

The whole point of speculating is to buy low and sell high. I did it backwards the first time. Speaking from experience, it was not a good idea…   

After all of it was said and done, I began my list of things to consider when investing in Magic cards.

  1. Pick cards that have the potential to go up.
  2. Be mindful of the times you decide to invest in certain cards.
  3. Don’t invest in cards that are already expensive.

With these lessons in mind, we’ll fast forward to the next major learning point in my Magic career.

It was the Extended season when Mirrodin produced a lot of degenerate Tinker decks. The games were pretty much decided by the dice roll. I saw the Twiddle, Mind’s Desire, Tinker, and Gilded Lotus deck and immediately got the cards for it. After “playtesting” with it, I realized there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell I’d ever get to play this deck in a tournament. Tinkers were a million dollars at the time, and I was almost certain that was the card they were going to ban. I knew I needed to get rid of them quickly.

After showing some locals how powerful the deck was, they showed interest in picking up the cards. I pretended to be reluctant to trade them away but told them if they gave me a good deal on them, then I’d be willing to part ways. I don’t remember what the trade was; I just remember that it ended very poorly for them.

About ten minutes after my trade was completed a friend of mine came busting through the doors of my local card shop yelling about how he had (un)confirmed reports that Tinker was getting the axe. Those locals didn’t really trade with me much after that.

This experience taught me two lessons. 1.) Be patient. Don’t hastily buy things, especially when you’re 99% sure you’ll never be able to get use out of them. Number two is way more important though, probably the most important thing I’ve ever learned in the card business.


Please, NEVER click on one of my articles expecting a list of cards that you can “rip off suckers for.” I’ve seen other financial writers who have developed some ridiculous ego about their trading skills – “People don’t want to trade with me because they know that I know what I’m talking about.”


They don’t want to trade with you because your last five articles were talking about how you ripped off some schmuck.

Trading for profit is fine; just be a reasonable human being while you’re doing it. Making a few dollars here and there is a fine goal. Buying a $100 card for $5 just makes you a scummy bear. Many people don’t have the ability to travel around the country and trade in various places, so developing a good reputation at your local shops is huge. It’s really easy to be labeled as “the guy who tries to rip everyone off,” and you can’t really afford to be that person.

Where is this article going?

Since I’ve started this article, I’ve drafted on Magic Online, ate dinner, and had about a dozen Facebook conversations. It originally started because I spent $500 on MTGO today, and I was going to discuss what I purchased and why—I guess that will have to wait till my next article! There’s still so much that I want to talk about in regards to trading, buying, and selling. If you’ve made it this far, then I assume you’re enjoying my random stories and the tidbits of information I gained from them—so we’ll keep doing that!

Spot the Sharks and get out!

At Nationals this year, I prettied up my trade binder with the intentions of trading on my own for a change. I saw the trading tables and walked over to have some fun. My thoughts on the situation were as follows, “I do this for a living.” I felt like that was grounds enough to assume I’d be fine wherever I went to sling cards.

Factually Correct!

However, some challenges arose. Let me preface this story by saying that when I trade with the general public, especially those who don’t know who I am, I try to act as dumb as humanly possible. If at the end of our transaction, my trade partner is convinced I’ve recently woken up from a month long coma, I’ve done my job. If I had the capability to uncontrollably drool during the entire trade, I would.

Tips on how to achieve excellence in the field of acting dumb.

  1. When looking at your trade partner, look directly at them but focus on something behind them creating the feeling that you might have a lazy eye or are potentially cross-eyed. Be sure to keep your head slightly tilted during this process.
  2. Make sure not to blink too often; you don’t want to lose that “glazed-over, haven’t slept in four days” look.
  3. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT breathe with your nose. Breathe with your mouth at all times, and if possible make a soft snoring sound from time to time. 

Now why would I do this?

Excellent question, me.

I don’t really do all of that, but I do think that would be really funny to try on someone one day. I’ll add that to my bucket list. When trading in unknown waters, I usually remain quiet and try to gain as much information about the surrounding individuals as possible. Once they tell me that they value their Bitterblossom at $25, I tell them my win-a-box is starting and find my exit. I have no problem abruptly ending a trade once I get a shady vibe, and you shouldn’t either. It’s not worth the risk or the effort.

Anyway, back to my story. My very first trade at Nationals this year, I started to talk to the guy, and he said he valued my card at roughly half of its retail value. I remained silent hoping that he was just working off buylist prices. This wasn’t the case. When discussing the value of his cards, he was pricing them at slightly over retail price. I handed him his trade binder, took mine back, and said, “I’m sorry, I’m not an idiot—I don’t think we’ll be able to work anything out.” I don’t normally say things like that, but he caught me the wrong way. He went beyond just trying to rip me off so I felt it was necessary to tell him his shenanigans weren’t welcomed in these parts.

The Great White – Floor Dealers

You’ll often see them nested in one area, their large suitcases and bags close by, several binders spread out across the table. These people are called “floor dealers.” Even before I started working for SCG, I avoided floor dealers. They’ll often treat you like they’re a vendor, trying to pick up your cards at buylist price while valuing theirs at retail. To me, that defeats the purpose of trading. If I wanted to do that, I’d just go trade with a vendor. I’d at least get 25% more in trade. You’re much better off looking for people who are trading for cards for their decks or picking up cards to prepare for an upcoming season.

Another thing I look for and try to avoid when trading out on the floor are people with ridiculous collections. If you open up someone’s binder and you see a page of Underground Seas, followed by a page of Tundras, followed by a page of other dual lands, fetchlands, etc. They’re probably very good at what they’re doing, and that should send up a few red flags. Like floor dealers, these people aren’t necessarily bad to work with; you just need to be extra careful when working with them.  

I’ve discussed some of the people to watch out for. Here are a few types of people who are usually safe to trade with.

The Pimp

Got a sweet foil? Find one of these people. They’ll gladly overvalue your stuff for a crack at your hard-to-find card. These individuals are well aware that they have a problem, and they don’t care at all. So bring your foil Japanese cards, your playable miscuts, and whatever else you think they’ll want and watch them fawn over it.

The Needy Tournament Player

You all know this person too well. He’s the guy running around looking for his fourth Tundra five minutes before the player meeting. You’ll often wonder, “why did he wait till now to try to find that card?” The answer is easy because he’s your generic procrastinating Magic player. He’ll trade at a premium for anyone willing to trade the cards he needs for the event. (You could even lend him the card for collateral plus a $5 card.)

The Colorist

You guys think I’m joking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been working with people, and they’ll have their binder nice and color organized, and I’ll get to a section, and they’ll say, “yeah, I’ll sell all the blue ones.” I just laugh to myself when this occurs. So if you find that person in the room that “HATES RED CARDS” pick up what you can from them.

The Commander (Player)

All of those dime rares that were sitting in your box of rares just went up, and it’s all thanks to this person. I don’t play Commander, and it seems almost daily where we’ll have a conversation at work where someone will say, “Why are we buying X card for $5?” Someone will always chime in and say, “EDH.” All of those random Commander cards you can get as throw-ins for trades at a few dollars can easily double your money. 

What are Good Buys?

Alright, so far we’ve covered things you shouldn’t buy, people you should avoid trading with, and people you should try to trade with. Now let’s talk about what we should try to pick up. The first thing you need to do is determine your goals. Are you trying to pick up all the cards you might need for your Standard decks? Are you trying to turn cards into cash? Are you preparing for an upcoming season? There are a million reasons why someone wants to acquire certain cards; knowing your reasons makes it easier to figure out what cards you should pick up.

Preparing for Events

Your goal – be ready to play whatever deck is right for a tournament.

If you’re one of the fortunate people who just buys four of every card that comes out, stop reading my article; you clearly don’t need my advice. For everyone else, listen up! Timing is the biggest thing to pay attention to when doing this. Buying cards when they’re first released can be risky. You have the potential to win big with some, but some of the time they’ll just decrease in value as their hype goes down and their availability increases with the amount of product being opened. Let’s use Innistrad for example. Now is a great time to be picking up Innistrad cards. They’ve come down in price since their initial boost, and they’re going to continue to go down/stabilize as more and more are opened. Once Dark Ascension is released, they’ll start to slowly go back up.

Another thing helping the future value of Innistrad is the fact that Avacyn Restored is a standalone set. This takes away about three months of potential drafting time from the set. It also means that Dark Ascension is set to follow a very awkward trend, much like Worldwake. (So if there is a busted planeswalker in Dark Ascension, you might want to go ahead and preorder four of it!)

Lands are always a safe bet to pick up. Most decks require four of them, and they usually retain their value, unless they’re reprinted five times or a better version of them is printed. Almost any “four-of” card is a safe bet. By that, I mean decks will either play zero or four of a specific card. You also want to pick up cards that are playable in multiple decks and multiple formats; that way if a deck comes out that you want to play, you’ll likely have almost all of the cards.

Turning Cards into Cash

One of the keys to this is making sure you have a large inventory of cards you’re willing to trade. Your goal should be to make a few dollars per card, so you can’t afford to not have cards people are looking for. In addition to keeping your inventory stocked, you need to make sure you know the buylist value and the retail value of most valuable cards. Furthermore, you need to be familiar with the buylists from all of the major vendors. Doing this well takes a lot of work. However, the better you are at it, the more money you’ll stand to make.

Another tip on doing this is to know the margins on particular cards. For example, Glacial Fortress is on a lot of buylist for 50 cents to $1. You can trade these away for $3-$4. Copperline Gorge is on a lot of buylists for $2-$3, and they retail for $5-$6. On a good day, you might be able to get a Copperline Gorge out of your Glacial Fortress. (I did say this is a very good trade, and it’s really easy for my example!) You’re completing a lot of goals with a trade similar to this. You’re making a few dollars off the trade, and in addition to this, you’re turning what was $.50-$1 in “cash value” into $2-3 “cash value.” When you’re trading for profit, it’s easy to have even trade stacks with a trade partner in terms of retail value, but your stack would be worth a lot more on buylist if you know what you’re looking for. The best part is that both parties walk away happy—they get the cards they need for their decks, and you increase the value of your collection.

It’s also important to get to know the vendors. You can try to sell your cards on eBay, but the fees and risk aren’t worth it for the majority of cards. I work with a lot of the same people in different areas of the country, and I do my best to remember all of them. There are people who know my store’s inventory much better than I do, and they make money because of it. These people will come up to me and say, “This card is on your buylist for $5, and you sell it for $10; you’re out of them. I have 20 of them, and I’ll sell them all to you for $6.” My answer is most likely going to be, “Sounds good.” Doing your homework is profitable.

In closing, I want to stress again how important your reputation is when it comes to the Magic community. I know a lot of floor traders who I will gladly direct people to when they’re in need of cards, and I also know a lot of traders who have been outcast by the community. You’re more than welcome to try to rip people off for a weekend at a Grand Prix and make a few grand, but just know that you lose ALL long-term potential to make money in this industry.

Until next time, do your homework, be friendly to people, and have fun!


– Wesley David Wise

@wdwise on Twitter