by Colin Bevis
I stumbled across Magic on a Tuesday. I bought an Innistrad event deck, spent two days teaching myself how to play Magic, and then went 1-3 that Friday in my first FNM. I knew I had found the game I had long been looking for. I was hooked.
I had very little extra spending money in college so playing in drafts each week wasn’t something I could afford. I knew I needed something to kick-start my collection so I bought an Innistrad booster box.
During that first year I traded that Box of Innistrad into four of each Zendikar fetch land as well as a bunch of other current-day Modern staples.
How did I do it?
I got really lucky.
When I first started watching people play Modern and started getting excited about the format I thought it had been around since Eighth Edition. I thought the format was defined and therefore the card prices were defined. What I didn’t know was that Modern was a fairly new format and that it was the replacement for the Extended format.
Because Extended had just “failed” in many Magic players’ eyes, there was a lot of fear that Modern might not catch on and some other format would replace Modern as quickly as Modern had replaced Extended. So even though there were really powerful Modern decks like UR Twin, Splinter Twin itself as a card wasn’t worth much more than a dollar.
Because the original Zendikar had only come out a few years before I started playing, the fetch lands were still readily available in most trade binders. The non-blue fetches were about $10 apiece and the two blue ones traded closer to $15 apiece when I first started trading for them.
I was not some guru who knew Modern was going to take off. I was not some speculation genius. I was a casual FNM player who loved the idea of a fun way to play with cards you liked from Standard after they rotated out (aka Snapcaster Mage).
The Little Blue Book
I realized I wasn’t as good as I thought I was and needed to really step up my trading game if I was ever going to get into Modern. I don’t know where the original idea came from but one day I decided the only way I knew to get better was to record each trade and review my trades at the end of each month. I started tracking my trades via a small blue notebook. After each trade, I would write down what I traded and what its price was at that time. I did this for about a year until I felt I could trust myself without it.
Looking back I made some poor, good, and incredible trades. I learned that the current price of a card would almost certainly not stay the same. The key I found was to find the cards that were going to go down and get rid of them instead of trying to find the next speculation target. This form of anti-speculation became the core of most of my best trades.
When a new card comes out, most of the time it’s hot and new and everyone has this idea of how good the card will be. This was most evident in Duskmantle Seer, the four-drop UB flyer that had the Dark Confidant mechanic. Its pre-release price was around $20. I opened a few of them on pre-release weekend. Instead of trying to guess the “spec” for the set it was way easier to figure out which cards, like Duskmantle Seer, would go down and trade them for cards in Modern that were already defined. I traded two Duskmantle Seers for two Geist of Saint Traft and yes that was an almost even trade at one time.
Long story short: Trade away a Standard card if you feel it’s overpriced at pre-release and turn it into a Modern or Legacy staple. This “trade back” mentality is basic knowledge for trading, but it’s shocking how many people forget that or get caught in the hype of the new set. If everyone is trying to get the new hot thing then trade that thing away. There will always be the next hot thing. You want to be trading in the “winter” of each season or format.
The “trade back” approach to trading worked for me early and for years was the undisputable best way to trade your cards. Or so we thought.
The Modern Wave
I studied my blue book trades and I kept “trading back” as much as I could and within a year I made my way to twenty Zendikar fetch lands, all the creature lands, speed lands, snapcasters, geists, Cryptic Commands etc. The only thing I didn’t have were the shock lands, which at the time were more expensive than Zendikar fetches and very hard to find.
As I was trading into Modern, the more I learned the more I could make since Modern was about to take off. Cards began to creep up and the format proved it was going to have some serious legs. Wizards threw a lot of weight behind it and when they reprinted shock lands Modern became the “New Legacy,” the Legacy that everyone could afford.
The Power of Star City Games
Things have changed a lot in magic finance and online card pricing from just a few years ago. TCG was just starting to catch on but most people still used Star City Games website to look up card prices during trades. Star City Games had so much online power that when they changed the buy price of Scalding Tarn and Misty Rainforest from $15 to $35 dollars they were sold out overnight. Within 24 hours every other retailer had doubled their price on blue fetch lands.
Suddenly my collection was worth a lot more money.
People who had not bought into Modern, thinking it would die, were now scrambling to pick up rotated rares they never thought they would play with again.
The End of Speculation
The year Modern spiked marked the end of old-school speculation. Magic speculation has never been and may never be the same as the first year I played the game. Unless a new format arises in the future there won’t be a moment in modern-day Magic like the Modern Spike.
Before and leading up to the Modern Spike I think speculating was an acceptable way to trade, but not anymore. Speculation is dead.
The internet, and the speed of information through the internet, has changed Magic finance forever. Where once a magazine would come out once every few months with updated prices, now TCG changes every day. Sometimes every hour.
Right after a few dozen bulk and one-dollar rares like Splinter Twin and Spellskite became double-digit Modern staples, everyone thought that buying into one-dollar rares was a safe bet, the “spec of tomorrow” was in every conversation and finance article. The Magic finance scene became a frenzy of new speculators traveling west in search of gold when the reality was there wasn’t that much gold to begin with and most of it was already gone before the majority of people got there.
To keep this Gold Rush metaphor alive a little longer, if you actually look at the majority of wealth made during the gold rush it came from the people who became merchants selling gear, clothing, and food to the new hungry speculators, not from people actually finding gold.
Its hard to change perspective and see the game of Magic finance in a new light. We all want to strike gold with a new spec, but in the course of this column I hope you learn to become the merchant and not the gold speculator. When I first started trading I was a gold speculator. I had a “spec box” like everyone else. I may have gotten lucky with the Modern Spike but it took me years to finally get rid of my spec box.
A spec box keeps a percentage of your cards from being seen or traded. Even if your spec does hit and the card goes up from a dollar to five dollars, what could you have done with that card in the year it sat in that box. Maybe you could have traded it into a different card ten times in that year and that staple is worth $20 now. So even if your spec hits, how much value did you lose by not constantly flipping it in the first place?
Aside: Some Advice
Speculation is gambling. The only time you should be speculating is when you have a lot of money or time and don’t mind losing both.
I’m not going to tell you not to speculate because if you have fun doing it or you occasionally hit on one of your specs, you won’t listen to me anyways and that’s fine. All I can do is strongly advise against it.
If you are new to trading you need to fill your binder out with as much as you can at all times to keep your binder as diverse as possible. Don’t trade into multiple decks or try to foil out a deck when you are first trying to get the ball rolling in trading, as this will take an unnecessary amount of your trade stock away from being seen.
Now that I was in love with trading but unsure of what to do next a friend challenged me to try and trade all the way from Modern staples into a Legacy deck without buying a single card. The first part of my Magic trading story was a lot of luck and the invention of the blue book, but the second chapter would prove to take a lot longer and be a lot harder!
Colin Bevis started playing magic right after the release of Innistrad his freshman year of college. He moved to New York City this fall after traveling the country learning and surviving off of floor trading. He enjoys theatre and film, and now flies out to most U.S. GPs.