Playing and Selling: a Balancing Act

For over 20 years, I have been active with Magic: the Gathering in some capacity. There have been many stretches where that activity involved playing some kitchen table Magic or going to FNM. But somewhere into that second decade, I evolved into a financially-focused, money-driven human that saw the value in my cards. It started during college if I am being honest. Student loans, beer money, and plane tickets to support my other passion, travel, became the priority, so playing MTG took a backseat.

When the shift took place, a few things happened. For starters, I began to see Magic cards as a financial vehicle that could help me pay for college essentials: food, toiletries, gas, beer, the list goes on… rather than a source of entertainment. Every card I had in my possession had monetary value, and I knew that. However, it became immediately clear to me that cards from my decade-old collection would be hard to part with.

Introduction to MTG Finance

I took my first foray into MTG finance in 2008 while I was a junior. I found an eBay lot that I felt had quite a bit of value based on the photos, but was still underpriced at the tail-end of its auction. I bid it up by about 10% at the buzzer, and ended up purchasing over 4,000 cards for $800. It was pretty much every dollar I had to my name at that time, mostly accrued from Halo 2 tournament winnings and some birthday cash from my family. There was a rush when I won the auction, probably because it was the most expensive thing I had ever bought (not realizing at the time that the college tuition I was paying for was waaay more expensive).

The package arrived about a week later, and suddenly I now owned 4K+ Magic cards. Considering I probably owned 2K to that point, this was quite an experience.

I left the lot in the box they came in and found a few extra shoeboxes that I could start using to sort them. I’d grab a stack or two a day, maybe 200 or so cards at a time, and began sorting by color and rarity. I really didn’t know what I was doing, but it felt so good to just have all these cards knowing I was going to be able to profit by reselling them.

Within a couple weeks, I had everything sorted and a pretty good idea what the lot was actually worth if sold as singles. I paid $800, and my estimation was that the rares alone were worth over $1,700 (retail, before fees and shipping). The commons, uncommons, basic lands, and random foils would add another $400, but I would quickly learn they were harder to move, lower margin, and debatably not worth the time.

All told, I was looking at a potential double-up with this lot even after fees, shipping, and the time I had invested. It was time to get to work listing and selling.

Managing Conflict Between Playing and Selling

Conflicting feelings set in as I began to sell my first eBay lot as singles. As cards sold, I’d feel this sinking thought like I could’ve used the card in X deck or that it would’ve been great to trade that card with (insert friend name here). But I was pretty committed to this idea of profit first, and with it, I felt like I also needed to hide this newfound approach to Magic from my friends. Desensitizing myself to the cards I owned and/or acquired was already tough, and I didn’t want that to permeate to my friends who truly just loved Magic: the Gathering for what it was: a pastime and excuse to hang out.

I began living an alternate life selling my cards to survive and thrive while at college, then coming home and maintaining a façade that I loved to play still by maintaining a handful of decks I loved too much to part with.

But it was grueling. Lots of cards came and went, and I began processing as many as 2,500 cards a week at one point. I was pulling in a lot for a college student, and to be honest, those were the best times in MTG finance. People generally still didn’t really know the worth of their cards, so eBay, Craig’s List, newspaper listings, and garage sales were all prime places to source inventory. Aside from eBay, CardKingdom and Troll & Toad were the only online storefronts with any meaningful MTG presence that I can remember. It was easy to make money if you knew what you were doing, or in my case, were willing to learn on the fly.

My increasing revenue stream made it easier to accept the separation of playing and selling cards, but with each dollar earned it became more appealing to reinvest some of that into my own collection.

I can recall going home for spring break in 2009 and not winning a single game of Magic the entire week (we must’ve played 40 games). My decks were pretty much the same as they were when I was 10 years younger, and my friends had all begun using the new cards.

If you know anything about MTG, its that “power-creep” is actually an empty term we use to express our frustration at Wizards of the Coast. They know darn well that to keep you buying their product, they need to make your older cards increasingly irrelevant.

My decks were not up to par anymore, and as a competitive individual (understatement), that didn’t sit well with me. I had access to pretty much any card I could want, so why was I still playing with these decks that weren’t strong enough?

My discipline to separate playing and selling was broken. Upon returning to college, I had made it a mission to rebuild my decks and win games moving forward, and the only way I knew to do that was tap into my blossoming Magic resale business.

Mistakes Made; Lessons Learned

One of the worst mistakes I made as a vendor was syphoning cards out of inventory and into my personal collection.

For starters, it clouded my ability to focus on the business, and it also tapped into my revenue stream (often with big impact because I wasn’t just keeping a few commons; I was keeping valuable cards). It also capped my ability to churn cards into more cards, thus reducing my cash flow and slowing the number of collections I could buy. Finally, it reduced my focus on the single thing that any small business should care about: profitability.

If you are reading this and new to selling cards, I strongly encourage separating your inventory from your personal collection. Mixing these together clouds judgment. You’ll find yourself feeling like the cards are “free” sometimes, or that the other cards you are selling will pay for the couple you want. But it’s a bad behavior to develop which makes profitability difficult. If you want to keep a card, pay your business for it with your own money at the price you would have sold it to someone else (sounds ridiculous, but trust me). Make it feel like you are actually purchasing the card the same way you would have if you went to an LGS or bought from TCGPlayer. This helps to form a behavior that reminds you these cards you’re taking from your inventory aren’t free.

I would absolutely change this if I could go back, but it is also a great retrospective and lesson learned that I am happy to share so others can avoid making the same mistake.

Wrapping Up

Becoming a seller of MTG cards is a long process, but it is totally worth doing from a financial perspective. You don’t have to necessarily buy and sell a lot to make money, but you do have to stay disciplined to the process itself. Co-mingling your personal collection with your business is the worst thing you can do. It reduces focus on the main goal of having a business which is to make money. I strongly encourage taking an approach where you are setting inventory aside into a “do-not-touch-until-sold” box (literally and figuratively). This prevents conflict from arising and allows you to keep the business running smoothly without disruption. It also will help you keep variability of cash flow and profits to a minimum, so your business can run more predictably.

Remember, if you like the card, pay full price for it even though it feels like you already own it.

Chris Martin is the co-founder of Conviction Gaming and co-host of the Brewin’ With Conviction podcast. He has been playing MTG since 1998 and is an avid EDH player with a knack for MTG finance.

You can find him on Twitter @ChiStyleGaming.

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