Chapter 21-Buy Low, Sell High


Buy Low, Sell High  

WHILE WIZARDS HAD to carve out their place within America’s business culture, their game was positively steeped in it. Magic boasts a mercantile core, which, however exportable and however popular, feels like it could only have been born in the nation most in thrall to the free market, the United States. Stanford sociologist and role-playing game expert Gary Fine describes Magic as “a manufactured subculture,” a leisure world created by an entrepreneur as a capitalist enterprise. While Magic is not alone in that sense, part of the game’s very rationale is the fastidious accumulation of its playing pieces, rather than, say, the incidental accumulation of new kit to play golf, go fishing or enjoy jogging. “If you get involved in that world, then part of the involvement is a materialist one,” says Fine. “For some people, there is certainly a desire to have the best cards.” And that desire was created at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1991, as soon as the excited maths crew got their hands on the very first playtest decks. A secondary market for Magic cards was an instant and defining offshoot of the game’s creation.  

While the first playtesters scrambled to trade cards with each other in the frenzied stock market-like environment Barry Reich (Garfield’s first-ever opponent) observed, once Magic hit the streets for real, simply swapping for the rapidly multiplying cards became impossible. Buying and selling specific singles cracked from Booster Packs was the answer to voracious players’ cravings and soon became a huge part of Magic culture: from the converted comic shops looking for new revenue streams, to the players auctioning spares on Usenet, to the speculators flipping red-hot boxes of Legends in 1994, instilling fear at Wizards HQ of an impending collapse.  

A sharp readjustment took place with the release of Fallen Empires, Ice Age and Fourth Edition as Wizards aimed to realign the game for its players, rather than for its hoarders. While the Pro Tour would be the culmination of that process, on the way to that end goal, Magic saw its most controversial release ever. Chronicles was released in August 1995, featuring white-bordered reprints of cards from Magic’s first four (extremely rare) expansions: Arabian Nights,Antiquities, Legends and The Dark. While the developers had decided against including some of the most powerful cards in those sets, they did nonetheless include a plethora of highly sought-after cards for casual and tournament players alike, which had rocketed to astronomical prices since they had first seen print. While Wizards wanted to deflate the game’s speculative bubble and drive ‘locusts’ out of the market, this was not just a warning shot across their bows. It was a thumping depth charge that initially decimated secondary market prices for the original black-bordered versions of the 116 cards included in the set. Collectors were up in arms about the hit they believed their collections would take. Many players, who had desperately hoped for even more powerful cards to be reprinted, were disappointed, too. Chronicles proved a step too far, or one taken too hastily. And it was nothing short of a PR disaster for Wizards.  

As collectors and players decried and defended the set on Usenet, and letters of complaint poured into Wizards of the Coast, the company rushed out a response. In March 1996, they announced the creation of the ‘Reserved List’, a controversial document that has become a bugbear for a huge number in the game – including many players, but also the game’s designers. It would prove a significant and ill-thought-out concession to the slighted collecting fraternity who had fought vociferously to maintain the value of their investment in the game. The Reserved List featured cards that Wizards undertook never to reprint, including the fabled ‘Power Nine’, certain powerful cards from sets like Arabian Nights and Legends, plus key rares from each new set. In practice, no new cards have been added to the Reserved List since 2002 when its implications began to be better understood and the collectors it had been designed to appease had become a far smaller part of Wizards’ customer base. The initial list was a knee-jerk reaction that has blighted the growth of Magic’s older formats and hindered today’s designers. But it could have been even more extensive. Skaff Elias was one of the R&D members who recognised the importance of having breathing room for reprints, so Wizards could re-use design capital already invested in neat, functional cards. “I didn’t think the Reserved List was necessary and personally, I would not have done it,” he says. “It was initially a bigger list and I got some cards taken off it – just useful nice, simple stuff, that could be used in tournament play.”  

Indeed, Elias (who remained at Wizards until 2004) would help undermine the rationale for the Reserved List’s existence at all. His brainchild, the Pro Tour, served to re-position the game to such an extent that it silenced the argument many collectors were making about the worth of their cards. They argued fiercely that whenever Wizards reprinted old cards, the value plummeted. And while that was true in the very short term, if the card was good enough to see tournament play – the game’s dominant mode following the Pro Tour’s creation — the reverse was actually true. Tournament players actively sought out older versions of the card – often with a different illustration or a more visually appealing black border – as a vanity for their decks. Playability became the main factor behind demand for a card, rather than simple rarity, driving prices for older, re-printed playables higher over time. Along with the moment he stood in the excited crowd at the very first Pro Tour, Elias says seeing the results of secondary market research confirming this trend, was his other favourite ‘Wow!’ moment in the game’s history. No more could the game be held to ransom by speculators, as comics and sports cards had been, he thought. “We knew for sure then that competitive tournament play was successful,” says Elias. “We had broken the cycle of speculation. Now, we were selling gaming equipment.” Appropriately, Wizards subtly re-branded Magic: The Gathering from a ‘collectible card game’ to a ‘trading card game’, adjusting the parameters of the hobby genre they had created. While an exchange of cards would always be inherent to the game’s richness, it was hoped it would never be allowed to dominate it again.  

WITH THE ADVENT of the World Wide Web, the secondary market for Magic quickly evolved away from the pioneering auctions taking place on Usenet and the bricks-and-mortar retailers with rammed folders full of cards. Instead, platforms such as eBay and specialist online retailers began to cater to the global demand that went hand-in-hand with Magic’s rapid worldwide expansion. Although trends in Magic retailing have waxed and waned and with them numerous retailers’ fortunes, two of the biggest and most interesting players in the market today are, based in Roanoke, Virginia and, based at the other end of the U8 underground line from my home in Berlin. While one is an online retail behemoth and probably the number one brand in the US secondary market (getting exact figures from anyone about market share is impossible), has taken a very different approach, creating a specialised marketplace for peer-to-peer Magic sales within the European Union. Both are wildly popular, both have made waves in the market and both are key components in the daily flow of cash and Magic cards around the world; thousands of transactions worth vast sums financially (and emotionally) to the game’s devotees.  

Pete Hoefling, president of, represents in many ways the trajectory of the entire Magic secondary market. He discovered the game as proprietor of an 800-square-foot comic shop in Roanoke, when in 1994, a group of kids came in trying to buy cards from the latest Revised Edition of Magic. Despite Hoefling telling them he had no idea what they were talking about, the kids persisted, coming back day after day. Finally, the comic book store owner relented and one day told his would-be Magic customers, “You know what? We did actually get a box in.” The four kids proceeded to buy every single pack. Hoefling, who had become resigned to the comic book industry’s stuttering fortunes, says, “That absolutely blew my mind.”  

Cards quickly supplanted comics in his affections and the 800 square feet of his store was rearranged to incorporate more Magic cards and ever-fewer comics. Eventually, the comics disappeared completely and Star City Games was born: a Magic retailer, game centre and tournament organiser. Hoefling began unloading a lifetime’s worth of comics clutter on eBay and tried selling a few cards on the auction site, too. He could spy its potential – and understood that selling cards online was a very powerful proposition. But only a chance offer from a regular customer persuaded him to take the next step. “The internet was starting to become a ‘thing,” says Hoefling, “But as to online retailing, I kind of got dragged into it.” The customer in question had presciently decided to return to school to study web design. One day, he asked Hoefling if he could develop a website for him, so he would have something to put in his portfolio. Up popped – loosely based on Frank Kusumoto’s Dojo – and a Magic behemoth was born. After much trial and error, the site hit upon the right combination of retail offering, tournament organising and content providing that would see it grow and grow. Today, it even stands out in the Magic universe, for charging fans for access toa ‘Premium’ content section – a controversial decision made in 2005 – that has nonetheless proved extremely successful.  

In Europe, meanwhile, while online retailers similar to do exist, a rising star in the secondary market is, a site founded in 2007 by Luis Torres. Torres was an itinerant half-Mexican, half-German Magic player who had been buying and selling cards in Spain, France and Germany. He had remarked on some of the price differences he was encountering between countries, but also on the frustration of using eBay to sell cards – uploading items one by one, finding a picture, creating an individual description. It was those frustrations and the intriguing nature of the European card market that led him to start programming a marketplace devoted entirely to cards. Soon, the IT engineer had friend Matthias Knelagen on board as a partner and CEO and had moved to Berlin, where the start-up would put down roots. Since then, it has caught Magic players’ imaginations and irreversibly shaken up the European Magic market, far beyond the pair’s initial expectations. “We just thought that if we could get the trades that were happening between players on Magic forums on to MKM, that would be fine,” says Knelangen. In fact, the platform’s ease of use (it takes just four clicks to list a card for sale) has seen it capture a far greater audience (100,000 registered users at the time of writing), including who struggle to keep up with the demand in the US, despite an insatiable card-buying operation.  

But what has really proven revolutionary about the marketplace is the transparency it has created within the secondary market. Instead of buyers and sellers having to scope out recently finished auctions on eBay to determine a card’s market value (something even does when setting a new card’s price for the first time), every card is listed at a fixed price by its seller (with fixed shipping costs determined by the site). That makes the price of a card instantly accessible – and indeed its evolution visible in real time. Much like Scrye in the past, savvy traders in Europe now pull out a tablet or smart phone at big events when trading with strangers, to check the latest card prices on It might sound like a small change, but its effect has been seismic.  

 “At the very beginning, professional sellers complained about the degree of transparency on the site,” says Knelangen. As private sellers began listing their bulk cards for as low as a few cents, the retailers who had previously had the lion’s share of the market demanded MKM set minimum prices to protect their businesses. But, says Knelangen, they eventually saw sense. “They realised after a while, that they don’t have to compete with private sellers on price. We also run a shop on the site and we’re expensive. But we still sell a lot because we have every card in stock.”  

While Knelangen believes his service has helped drive down the prices of cards on the secondary market in Germany and much of Europe overall, he also says it has offered a new platform for retailers and professional sellers, too. Having come round to the site’s transparency, they are now among’s biggest customers, selling a range of cards that most individuals cannot offer and buying cards on the website to restock their inventories. Together with the steady stream of players joining the site to buy cards at competitive prices, the company has grown far beyond initial expectations. What started as Luis Torres’ modest idea is now an established business employing 10 people. Goals have been realigned – and the site expects to grow further in the European market. But Knelangen estimates they are still small fry compared to the biggest US retailers. “Although no-one wants to give out figures so we can estimate what the secondary market is worth,” he says, “I imagine that the US market would be bigger than the rest of the world put together.”  

Indeed, Pete Hoefling has long left his 800-square-foot premises behind. Today, employs over 100 people in a25,000-square-foot headquarters which the company has also “pretty much outgrown”, according to its boss. Although he too won’t talk specifics, he believes that is the biggest secondary-market dealer today – and while the company’s initial foray into the online realm might have been somewhat fortunate, its success since has been predicated on some very savvy decisions. Not only has the site built up a brilliant roster of contributors (which it can pay thanks to pay-wall subscriptions), but it has also used its heft to establish its own lucrative cash-prize tournament series called the SCG Open Series. Stepping into a void created by Wizards of the Coast’s decision in 2011 to move all pre-release tournaments in-store and to up the number of Grand Prix, the SCG series has now become the de facto mid-size tournament all over the United States. Hoefling says, “Grand Prix are off the scale now in terms of attendance, but essentially Star City Open events are what Grand Prix were a number of years ago.” That means players can come along and compete for a slice of a $20,000 prize pool at weekend-long events, meet and trade with players outside their normal play-groups and, with repeat success, begin building a certain status within the community – perhaps not pro-level celebrity, but enough to earn commissions for articles, attract viewers to a stream or make vital contacts in more rarefied testing groups. In short, the SCG series provides another revenue stream for the aspiring Magic pro. It also provides plenty of revenue for the coffers, too.  

Just as the Wizards-backed Pro Tour championed the Standard format of in-print cards to sustain on-going sales, the SCG Open Series initially made the Legacy format part of its offering. The format uses many old and out-of-print cards, barring the ‘Power Nine’ and some excessively broken cohorts. Because many of the format’s fundamental cards are on the Reserved List, though, it is only occasionally supported by Wizards for fear that limited card availability will create an uneven playing field. By backing the format, created a business model, which replicated what Wizards did with their flagship tournament series a decade or so earlier: They created lucrative play opportunities, which stimulated demand for the format’s key cards, which they could then sell to their player base. Also, precisely because many of the cards were on the Reserved List, with no hope of being reprinted, they rose in price as buyers gobbled them up as an almost foolproof investment. While that ultimately stymied the format’s growth, it helped cement as the big daddy of the secondary market. That status sometimes inspires suspicion among Magic players, who rail against the mega-retailer in online forums, accusing them of stockpiling cards to short the market. But Hoefling says, “We’re a retailer, not a museum.” With key cards often sold out on his website at dizzying price points, he is desperately trying to stock and sell more, as fast as he can.  

While Knelangen also scoffs at suggestions would stockpile cards, he has previously wondered if Wizards would give the powerful retailer an edge, by supplying them sorted single cards from new sets, rather than making them buy and open thousands of Booster Packs like everyone else. While Knelangen thinks that is impossible – the risk to Wizards’ reputation would be huge – it does raise the question of whether a market worth as much as the Magic secondary market needs some kind of regulation. Because as the number of players continues to increase (tournament attendance doubled from 350,000 players in 2011 to 700,000 in 2013, for example), the demand for cards is spiralling. That has led to a savvy Magic financial community, actively speculating on the value of cards as they would stocks and shares. Worryingly, a new trend has also developed. “I definitely think that the Magic finance community has gone from being a community of speculators for the most part to being a community of manipulators,” says Hoefling.  

Essentially, what that means is that a number of individuals will attempt to ‘buy out the internet’ of a specific card, depending on current or anticipated importance to the tournament metagame. This might be in light of an interaction with a newly printed card or, more worryingly, a reaction to insider information on a forthcoming printing. One notable recent case saw the under- played card Aluren inexplicably bought up en masse days before Wizards announced a reprint of the card Imperial Recruiter. The two cards combine to form the backbone of a powerful deck, which had previously been under-represented due to Imperial Recruiter’s scarcity. Whichever individual or group snatched up the global supply of Alurens seems unlikely to have been acting on whim alone.  

When would-be manipulators do pounce, cards like Aluren are just what they are looking for. Preferably, the card in question will be an old, obscure card printed in limited numbers compared to modern print runs. Ideally, it will also be a card on the Reserved List, meaning it can never be reprinted to meet demand. When the manipulators strike, they make a concerted effort to buy up as many existing copies of a card as possible, forcing retailers like to up their buy price, so they in turn can try and keep the card in stock. Once the buy price has risen to the manipulators’ satisfaction, they can unload their stockpiled cards to a major dealer and cash in. “I have no idea how to get them under control,” says Hoefling, “And I don’t know if it’s actually a problem.” That business-first response is entirely predictable from a retailer who increases his sale price in accordance with any rise in his buy price – but for the players who just want to go out and enjoy their hobby every weekend, getting shafted by escalating prices can somewhat detract from the fun. A tournament-winning Legacy decklist can now easily cost $3,000 to assemble. “It’s just crazy,” says Knelangen. “We now see people on MKM almost day-trading in Magic cards. While it’s fascinating that it works that way, I don’t think it’s very healthy for the game and I don’t think people trying to live off Magic card speculation are very healthy.”  

WHEN DOES A simple hobby tip into the realms of the unhealthy, though? I am not a speculator, not even really a collector, but there have been periods, long stretches in fact, where I have bought Magic cards on a daily basis. They are just a click away! A Euro here, a Euro there. They needn’t be that expensive, if you set yourself a low threshold for satisfaction, shop within your means, and snap up bargains for the simple thrill of interrupting your workday with a tiny but precise hit of retail therapy. That is precisely what owning Magic cards has become for me — a deeply therapeutic and nourishing practice that means my attachment to the game is beyond a simply rational one. Beyond a simply healthy one, perhaps.  

Yes, there are laser-focused competitive players out there, who borrow cards from friends and sponsors for tournaments. Many of them don’t look at the pictures, read the flavour text or indeed give two hoots about possessing Magic cards of their own. In my most lucid moments, I tell myself that I belong firmly in this camp. “Pff goblins… whatever,” I mutter to myself, completely indifferent to the nature of Magic cards as an object, more interested in what they offer mechanically to the game. I am not a collector. Not like that. I don’t assemble sets of cards, chase after misprints and oddities, pay over the odds for mint-condition cards rated by an authenticator and sealed up in hard plastic cases so they may never be sullied by actual play. But I am, I realise, a collector of a different sort. I do have an affinity for certain cards. I do desire them. And each one I capture is a salve, a band-aid on traumas past.  

I WAS FIRST coaxed into collecting as a child, hustled even, as if it were an unspoken duty crucial to my development. For some reason, it started with eggcups. I was presented with one as a gift and immediately urged to usher more of them into my life. Soon, Iwas having them foisted on meat every birthday, pointed out to me at jumble sales and pressed into my hands by diligent parents who seemed very much to want me to care about these poisoned porcelain chalices. Maddeningly, I didn’t even like boiled eggs. But soon, I had a shelf on the dresser, cleaning responsibilities and the burden of maintaining a collection I could not honestly give two shits about. How long did this last? A few years at least. And now, a box of dreadful eggcups lurks at home somewhere, waiting to be sprung on me one morning, complete with eggs and toast soldiers. With the same kind of selective memory loss that plagues all parents, mum and dad will wave away my protests with a “But you always liked boiled eggs!” and, in my unwavering politeness, I shall be forced to bite my adult tongue. Grinning meekly, I will spoon the blobby ovum into my gob, accepting as we do the absurd but comforting theatre of being at home, where everyone plays a facsimile of the role they have played since birth, ina performance that lasts until death. Eggs be damned.  

I imagine, looking back, that the eggcup collection was a lesson in responsibility for me, much like having a pet. I was supposed to take ownership of these fragile items, sort them, polish them, perhaps prep them for a future appearance on The Antiques Roadshow. Never mind that I already had a box of pin badges that I greatly preferred (and which had earned me a Cub Scout collecting proficiency badge, I hasten to add). Nor that my Stars Wars toys were quietly piling up into a box-load worthy of collection status. They were appreciating in value all the time – not that back then I ever thought beyond ripping my new Han Solo figure from his blister pack and slamming him against a dull-witted Imperial Storm Trooper, just cruising for a bruising too close to the Rebel base.  

Circumstances changed though. That childish insouciance was spirited away, along with my Star Wars toys. Ina surreal brush with fame, I sold them to Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath for the princely sum of £40. At 13, that was a lot of money – and more than I feared I would see for a while. As my parents’ war-gaming company went under, fear crept into our household and steadily chipped away at the comfortable construct of middle-class, rural English life that we had thought ours for perpetuity. The toys had to go. We were leaving home, forced to sell up to settle loans with the bank. Only so much would fit into the container shipping what belongings remained to a ghastly new life in New Zealand. In the upheaval, it was not the only collection lost – my dad sold his thousands of toy soldiers, too. We were in the same miserable boat together.  

While I found my solace in Magic, I realise now that the game fulfilled (and continues to fulfil) far more than just a social function for me. Beyond playing the game with my Kiwi schoolmates, I developed a need to own cards which I’m sure was inextricably linked with my need to re-establish a place in the world for myself. By accumulating these little treasures, I could reconstruct some of the self-esteem that had been so badly depleted by losing everything and surfacing in a foreign world I didn’t know how to fit into. I didn’t know how to voice to anyone what had happened to my family, nor how confused and ashamed I felt. With money painfully tight at home, the easy contentment of life as it had been, existed beyond a distant horizon I could never imagine reaching again. My parents tried hard to take steps forward towards a brighter future and at the same time, tempered. all expectation in their kids that things would ever quite be the same again. But the teenage environment I was stumbling into was superficial and unforgiving and I felt hideously exposed, my shiny surface cracked beyond repair. I could never hope to have the right trainers, the pocket money to go out, the dollars for junk food at the playground tuck shop. And worse, I felt guilty for wanting them as my parents stretched every buck to breaking point.  

IN THE ALTERNATIVE worth of Magic cards, though, perhaps I could be rich – even though I had far less money to sink into the hobby than those around me. I would barter for cards, haggle with anyone who might erroneously cede cards for less than the going rate, desperately try and scrape together money for Booster Packs, lunch at Baron of Beef, another trip to Pendragon Games. Sometimes, I would even find myself hysterically talking up the worth of a card I had procured, in an attempt to convince friends I really had landed a humdinger. Thus, I thought, I might earn the kudos I could barely hope to achieve in the social circles beyond the game. I was scrambling for some control on my life, to assert myself, with every precious card accumulated. It is precisely this function of collecting that the late psychologist Werner Muensterberger proposed would offer, “relief of the child’s anxiety and frustration that comes with feeling helpless and being alone.”  

Although things have changed for my family in the intervening years (my dad is once again happily ensconced in an attic surrounded by toy soldiers), Magic cards remain something I feel compelled to own. Each one is a balm to bruises buried deep beneath my exterior. Each one has been bought in a moment of need, of sadness, of longing. And there are many thousand of them. here – a lifetime of such moments.  

However conflicted or troubled the impulse to buy each Magic card is, the act of owning them provides resolution. I derive pleasure from seeing them stacked around me or lying around on my table. I fan them out, with no particular purpose in mind, other than to contemplate them and remind myself that these objects do indeed belong to me. I can touch them. I can clothe them in protective sleeves. I can even play with them at some point, should I desire. More often or not though, this is a delusion I feed myself to justify my constant spending on them. Many (most in fact) will never be played with and, really, they don’t need to be. Once they have sparked an instant of joy in me, as I stand in the chilly hallway, in front of my open mailbox; once I have wrestled them from their packaging, held them in my hand and soaked up their psychic warmth, that is almost enough. After that, they can go into the cupboard, their place in the mental inventory of my ill-defined collection satisfyingly ticked off. Another anxious moment conquered. Another wound healed.  

Still, for all my compulsive hoarding, I have no desire to own every Magic card, nor swoop on every pristine promo or showy ultra-rare Korean foil. Instead, I find myself drawn most to old cards, steeped in some indescribable magic of their own. My favourite boast a patina of scratches and finger grease, the kind avoided by most serious collectors. These are humble cards. Every scratch and scuff marks them out as having lived and picked up a little of the damage life is wont to inflict. As I hold them, like tiny mirrors in my palm, I tell myself, they are somehow beautiful, whatever anyone else thinks. These battered and beat- up acquisitions were loved by their original owners and played with, with the same innocence I once did my Star Wars toys. And in knowing that, I know what in truth I am trying to collect. Not cards, but the worry-free, pre-pubescent state of permanent summer, of cloudless skies and serene indifference to the real world. Only shadows of it remain.