“I’m okay with your pricing as long as both sides are coming from the same source.”
– Person losing value on a trade
Hello again, sweet ~*~*MTG Financiers*~*~. Welcome to the first Bargaining Table where I actually talk about ~*MTG Finance*~. In case you missed my intro last week, it explains my background a little and clarifies why you should blindly follow my advice.
This week, I want to start by focusing in on a building block that’s essential to understanding any exchange, in any of the countless markets that exist for Magic cards. This may come across as basic econ to more seasoned readers, but it’s a conversation I don’t see happening enough in the Magic/CCG community, so I feel it’s a necessary starting point.
What is the above card worth?
Go ahead, look it up. I’ll wait.
Did you check?
No, really, look.
Okay, good job. Here’s a bulk rare! Who’s a good ~*~*Financier*~*~?! YOU ARE. YES YOU ARE.
If you’re playing along, here’s what probably just happened:
- You searched for the card on exactly one website;
- You picked exactly one of the several (if not dozens or hundreds) of numbers that website associates with the card;
- You rounded it off to exactly one simpler, clearer number.
If that’s not Magic trick enough, I can also guess that, as an entrenched enough player to be reading Hipsters of the Coast, the website you used was probably exactly TCGPlayer.com. If you’re savvy and know the grind of buying and selling, maybe it was MTGPrice or Trader Tools, but you still didn’t regard the buylist prices as what the card is “worth.” And if it was in fact TCG, you probably looked at the Mid price and rounded it to the nearest 50 cents.
So now you have a single, quick answer to my question: what is the above card worth?
Next question: to whom?
Forget about trading for a moment. Let’s talk about cash money (millionaires), which is ostensibly the gold standard backing the trade value of cards: “My card can be sold for $X.00, and so can yours, so this is a fair trade.”
Who will pay you that TCG Mid price, in cash, for this card?
No one. Literally no one on earth, anywhere, ever — unless maybe they are A. desperate to have it right now, or B. misinformed about it by, most likely, you. (Bad ~*~*Financier*~*~!)
But wait! you cry out in the lonely night from atop your money-bed. I know this already! TCG Mid is used for trading purposes! It’s an average of the marketplace, so that’s the best we can do!
Is it though? Or is this kind of thinking a relic of the past, when the market was simpler, less developed, less diverse?
I LIKE MY RELICS LIKE MY PRESIDENTS
My view is that the short answer to every question about face-to-face exchanges is the same as the short answer to every question about relationships: “Communication.”
Communication skills are what I see most lacking in the way that people trade, buy, and sell collectible cards. This is not surprising, considering that effective communication is a skillset most people struggle with — because it’s genuinely hard. But it’s also very, very learnable.
The key piece to internalize is that a card, like anything, is only “worth” what two people agree it’s worth in any given space, at any given time. Nothing else.
If your Dragonlord Ojutai is “worth” approximately $18 in TCG Mid today, what does that actually mean about the card? Are all “$18 cards” really made equal?
Do they all have the same spread of sale prices on TCG, or does one range from $16-20 while another ranges from $10-26?
Do they all typically sell for the same amount in cash, or do some sell consistently at $15 while others sell sporadically at $12?
Among those that do sell at a similar price, do they all move equally quickly and in the same quantities?
Do stores and vendors buy all “$18 cards” at the same price, or do they buy some for $14-15 and others for $8-10?
These may sound like very basic questions with obvious answers, but once you start asking them of yourself regularly, you may notice yourself beginning to feel like most trades you witness are complete nonsensical chaos with a little bit of coin-flipping.
That’s because they are. More than one ~*MTG Finance*~ article has noted that one can make a win-win profit invisibly on simple trades by finding the differences in buylist rates among cards that appear equivalent using TCG Mid. As was spoken unto me in Providence by the great and mighty Ogre, “People don’t get that there are 10s that become fives and there are 10s that become eights.”
But the picture is even bigger than that. Yes, buylist differences can be instructive about contextual value: when I was walking around to vendors at Providence with my “Ogre box” full of cards all priced out for buylisting, I had Plummets in the $0.02 stack until one store, having not looked through yet, specifically asked me for Plummets at $0.10 each.
“I’ve got your Plummets right here,” I said. I guess they needed the Plummets right then, right there. After buying my batch, the buyer said they wouldn’t need anymore. Their contextual need had Plummeted.
But once again, let’s go back to face-to-face trading, which is the main way most Magic players exchange cards — in many cases, the only way.
What makes TCG Mid a valid metric for trading if it doesn’t reflect the actual cash value of a card to anyone?
And if we can agree that it’s not, then how do we evaluate our trades?
Can you guess what I’m going to say?
That, if anything, is the theme of this column — and the reason it’s called “Bargaining Table” and not “Price of Progress” or “Icatian Moneychanger” or “Mad *Profit” or whatever all the other ~*MTG Finance*~ columns are called.
I, for one, am done taking TCG Mid seriously as a trading metric, and so should everyone be. The only thing holding it together is that lots of players agree on it — and sure, that is a valid reason to use it — but if you want your trading to be as frictionless as possible, you need to be able to assert what a card is worth to you right now and why.
If anything, the best way a resource like TCG can be used to actually produce a representative price for a card is as a tool for negotiation: “I’m going to look up how much it would cost me to order the amount of copies I want, in the condition I want, this minute.”
“Oh, you have a playset of Whatever Standard Card? Well, I see on TCGPlayer that the Mid is a bit inflated because several sellers still have it listed at the prerelease price of $11 a copy. The current lowest Near Mint playset from a single seller costs $17 total after shipping. That’s the best option available right now, so if you can beat that, I can trade anything except my fetchlands, since Whatever Standard Card might still be dropping.”
“Hey, nice to meet you! I sell cards for a living, and I’m interested in your Some Modern Card. It’s a little LP, and the lowest LP copy online is about $20. That means that I’ll probably have to list it for sale at 17 to get it to move, and I may have to settle for 15 or less. How much can you work with me? I’m flexible, but I definitely can’t trade for it at 20+.”
“What’s up man! So, I’m a dealer. Is it okay with you if I just flip through and make offers on your cards? They’re not gonna be full price, but they’ll be higher than buylist, and you can just take or pass on whatever you like, with no pressure. And I don’t care at all which cards you want from me, including my Legacy stuff.”
All that said, let’s look at the other side of the Gold token: what if we don’t assume cash value as the sole standard backing a card’s worth at all? What if we factor in other costs?
“Oh, you’re interested in my Bad Standard Spec? Well, as you can see, I’ve been hoarding a bunch in case there are some good Synergistic Creatures in Reasonable Assumption block. I can trade them, but I’m not willing to let them go at the current price. They could end up being $20. What are you willing to call them?”
“Well, I’m not really planning to keep these Multiple-Dollar Uncommons, but right now they’re kinda metagame options for my Modern sideboard. If you can throw in something like this Cheap Playable Land on top of the trade, I guess that would make up for the effort of finding more if DiesToUncommon.dec pops up again.”
See how easy that was? I have found that in most cases, if you’re honest, friendly, and respectful of other people’s time, but frank and clear about how you evaluate things and why, they’ll hear you out and you can usually work out a deal you’re both happy with.
All that said, this is in no way to suggest a defense of misinforming anyone you trade with. You may be able to convince someone to agree about what something is worth between you, but that does not change the reality that there are thousands of other Human Advisors out there who have already more or less agreed on what it is worth to them. TCG Mid and other such averages may not be a reflection of real cash value, but they are still a widely accepted currency.
What I’m stressing here is that with precise, clear, honest negotiation, you can find trades that better reflect the actual demand, utility, liquidity, and costs of little magical cards — and find ways to make a profit or grow your collection, with no need for Misdirection.
WHAT DID YOU WANT FOR IT, AGAIN?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s foray into questions to be asking yourself and each other across the Bargaining Table. I believe you’ll find this thought process very useful in real practice time and again.
In fact, what happens to your evaluations when you start asking yourself the right questions regularly and developing your negotiation skills is that you begin to operate the way a (successful) store does: concretely and pragmatically.
So stop asking what a card is “worth.”
Instead start asking: what can I do with it?
And then communicate that!
Join us at the Table next week, for a conversation you’ll just have to speculate on the topic of.
Stefano Black is an NYC-based writer, filmmaker, Cabal Therapist, and cardboard-drug dealer. He can be found on Twitter as @StefanoBlackest, sharing humor, criticism, and Garfield-related poetry, and is available for hire or collection buying. He also unabashedly wants your money.
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