The fully-social and pseudo-democratized internet was the best thing to happen to snake oil salesmen since the advent of artificial snake oil. Suddenly, you had an audience willing to buy your product plus a platform ripe for exploitation, all without putting boots to pavement. The great lie of post-millennial capitalism is that you’re independent; multilevel marketing schemes redouble that lie by referring to their networks as “independent consultants” or “independent retailers,” when what they really are is crowdsourced warehouses. Premillennial capitalism ran on blood; post-millennial capitalism runs on anxiety (and still a significant amount of blood). One of the most anxiety-inducing models of modern capitalism is the multilevel marketing company (or MLMs).

Amway, of course, is the classic MLM, but Mary Kay and Cutco are other staples. They prey on the disenfranchised or alienated and the people who believe “killing yourself for a faceless supervisor” is the same thing as “hustle.” LuLaRoe and Rodan + Fields in recent years have started snapping up the market. There’s a trend, as you can see, to focus on women; per the World Federation of Direct Selling Associations, 75% of direct sellers are women. That’s a topic for another article, and I’m hardly the person to write it, but long story short, it’s a huge industry—in 2016, per the lobbying group for multilevel marketers, over 20 million Americans sold merchandise directly. Statistically, then, you know someone who’s a direct seller for these companies. Hell, you may even be one yourself.

So, how does multilevel marketing work? Quartz has a fantastic article that goes in-depth into the math, specifically for LuLaRoe, and Racked hits some good narrative journalism. My personal analysis, if you’re pressed for time, is basically:

  1. Offer your target audience the illusion that they’ve won something or that they have access to a unique opportunity in order to draw them in. This can take the form of a party, say, or a “buy Reserved List cards now for free money” Reddit thread. Alternately, it can be a limited release that you can only get by laying out significant capital—think, for example, Nexus of Fate, which you can only acquire by investing $90-100 in a box of Core Set 2019.
  2. Once they’re drawn in, encourage them to invest and purchase the initial product—the stock that they’re meant to sell to other contacts in their social network—then continue to choke them with new stock. The best thing you can do here is to force them to purchase new product out of anxiety or fear of missing out. You can do this by releasing exclusive colors, limited product lines, or otherwise creating a false scarcity, a la LuLaRoe’s “unicorn” leggings patterns. In Magic terms, this can look like the major sites only listed 20 copies of buyout targets at a time or like Wizards of the Coast releasing San Diego Comic Con promos of moderately desirable cards. You’ll also notice that LuLaRoe, for example, sends bundles of product that the manufacturer chooses, rather than the seller, leaving sellers stuck with undesirable and unsellable product—much like Magic’s booster model.
  3. Sell a lifestyle brand, not just a consumable product. Treat your marks so that they believe they’re “consultants” instead of milkcows. Tupperware sold the illusion of efficiency, LuLaRoe the illusion of community. Magic sells the illusion of utility and encourages you to think of yourself as a “player” instead of a “consumer.” It’s possible to play Magic for five bucks, or for zero if you have a Sharpie and access to Gatherer. It’s impossible to be a “Magic player” without a constant outlay of money every few months or every year, depending on your chosen format.
  4. Once they’re invested, enforce the social boundaries that keep them invested. Hit them with FOMO messaging, shame those who speak out against the system, and reinforce buy-in. This can be as direct as some of the abusive techniques MLM sellers use on social media or as subtle as encouraging Magic players to buy new Commander decks every year because they never know which is the next Atraxa.

As the Quartz article quotes, “‘One of the unique facets of this business is that the victims are also perpetrators,’ Brooks says, speaking generally of MLMs. ‘You’re trained to recruit your friends and family and neighbors.’”

At base, MLM companies function through the sunk cost fallacy—the intrinsic belief that once you’ve sunk enough money into your personal stock, you’re so invested that it would be more damaging to your ego to divest than to perpetuate the commercial relationship. “I’ve come this far, might as well see it through” is the hamartia of the independent retailer; but it’s not their fault, so much as an exploitable quirk in the human psyche.

It’s just so easy to justify these scams to yourself: “This is something I’d use anyway, so why not make a little money on the side by selling what I don’t consume,” etc. “Even if they don’t spike immediate, the trend is such that, barring reprints or global recession, I’ll recoup my money!” Maybe those $4 Altar of Bone you bought will sell for $12.50 in 2022, and you’ll be able to buy list them for $6. You’ll watch it mature year by year and feel that dopamine rush as you calculate how much money you’ll make at some point in the future in the meantime, and can you really put a price on that? Sure you can. Here’s an example. I bought $3.30 Arcane Artisans two weeks ago and I’m selling them for $8 this week to a buy list. That’s a hell of a return for three minutes on eBay, but it doesn’t factor everything in:

    • the opportunity costs of sinking money into cardboard instead of savings
    • the cost of postage to get the cards to a larger retailer
    • the psychic toll of having to spend time on Reddit or Twitter
    • the impact of a successful speculation opportunity swaying my objective opinion in the future

Am I making money on those Artisans? Technically, yes—but it’s not the $4.70 per copy that it appears initially. Once the tangibles are factored in, I’m making $3.20 a copy. That’s on a successful spec. That $3 a copy—which is a great return, don’t get me wrong—dissipates entirely when you compare it to the stacks of Reaper of the Wilds and foil Vile Consumptions mouldering in long boxes.

Magic finance also has a superb auxiliary structure that keeps you buying by redirecting you to a sales site to check out their content. There’s an entire ecosystem designed to make you feel like you’re missing out by not snapping up deals here and there. You can feel smart for being ahead on both strategy and speculation, and it flatters you while educating you. You have to remember, though, that while a pleasant dude and a good writer, Chas Andres’ job is to make Star City money, not to make you money. His investment is just as weighty as your own, just with a bigger platform from which to sell. Jason Alt and Andres and Jon Medina are those MLM sellers who make $92,000 a year, who drive the pink cars, who evangelize for how the brand plucked them from the hell of cubicle life to a set-your-schedule fantasia of empowerment. They’re outliers. No question they love the game, but what they’re selling is the opportunity for you to buy cards, not the opportunity to make money.

I’m not a #mtgfinance guy, but I’ll get confessional with you, because today’s article is about vulnerability: I’m an inveterate independent retailer for Magic cards. As you’re reading this (assuming you’re reading it on Monday), I’m refreshing the Hasbro site, hoping to buy the SDCC promo pack, paying $100 for slightly rarer versions of cards I already own. I’m in the system, too. I’m as invested, as socially policed—“you know, your deck would be a lot better with off-color fetches”—and as committed to chasing that sweet EDH pick or stocking up on rotating staples to sell for a 300% profit in 2023 as anyone else. I’ve had some good times in Magic finance—Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy paid for my fianceé’s engagement ring and Urza’s Legacy foils a full month’s rent—but most of the money I’ve parked into Magic goes back into the Magic ecosystem, one way or the other.

I keep coming back to this line, from The Outline’s piece on MLMs: “Michelle isn’t the only one who has gone into debt to sell LipSense.” It reminds me of the Reddit threads back in December, asking if it was worth it to take out a loan to buy rising Reserved List cards to flip them for a profit—or just to hold onto in the hopes of future growth. Those threads went against long-held community wisdom, that the best ROI in Magic is in identifying a cheap spec, buying as many as you’re comfortable with losing value on, and holding on for the ride. If you need Underground Seas for a Legacy deck you shuffle up three times a month, and that’s worth $3,500, that’s fine. But buying 70 foil Donates at $48.50 in the hopes of recouping your investment is a different story. Here’s the thing, though: it’s all a scam. Multilevel marketing, the housing market, academia—all working to instill anxiety to reap the rewards of your personal efforts.

There’s a lot of angst around the way that multilevel marketing turns you into an unwilling advocate to your social network in order to sell your stock, but that’s not a “unique facet” of multilevel marketing schemes at all; that’s a core component of commerce. It operates, through recruitment, shaming people for not hustling enough, teaching your children that this is just how things go, venerating people born on third and determined to steal home. MLMs aren’t a disease; they’re a symptom. We’re all sick on some level, but like many chronic illnesses, suffering from capitalism is manageable. We may be trapped in the belly of the beast, and that beast may be bleeding to death, but we’re perfectly adapted to make good leeches.

All of which is to say: if you want cards, buy cards. Life is short, and games are fun. If you want to make money by flipping cards—if it gives you a rush, pursue it. But it’s important to pause periodically and take stock: are you doing something for your own benefit, or are you the middleman in a larger structure that provides benefits to others without scaling those benefits to you? When you invest, what’s your return and are you claiming that return each time? These are questions only you can answer, and, speaking personally, I haven’t found them in a 5000-count box yet. There’s been so much ink spilled over the last couple of months—I’d track it back to 2017’s Reserved List speculation-catalyzed spikes—over whether Magic is in a bubble when what we should be asking ourselves is something much thornier: Is Magic in a pyramid?

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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