Hey there! Welcome back to the finance corner of TCGplayer. With Dominaria in full swing, we've got a quick breather before we start getting flooded with several more products in the next month. Battlebond, Signature Spellbook: Jace, and Commander Anthology: Volume 2 are all on the horizon, but I just got back from Grand Prix DC and this week I want to talk about the Power Nine. As a vendor who works behind the booth at Grands Prix, I've seen a decent amount of high-end cards move in and out. It's easy to become desensitized to the sheer value of cards once you deal with them frequently enough, and you can forget what it's like to be someone on the other side of the table who's debating on picking up their first high-end Magic card.
While I'm going to be referencing Power Nine as an example for most of this article, the strategies and tactics I'm providing can really be applied to any high-end card. Things like Underground Sea, Gaea's Cradle, Moat or Power Artifact have a pedigree and can often be more daunting to purchase than your average Lyra Dawnbringer. If you're used to buying Commander preconstructed decks or $10 Hazoret the Fervents, the concept of spending several hundred dollars on a single piece of cardboard can seem overwhelming. The goal of this week's discussion will be to serve as a "finance 101" when it comes to putting your hard-earned money towards that Gaea's Cradle for your Hapatra deck or unproxying your Lion's Eye Diamond.
The first decision you're going to have to make once you've set aside the money to buy the card is whether you want to purchase it from an online retailer or make the exchange in person. There are benefits and downsides to each, depending on your personal situation and preferences. Some buyers don't want to risk dealing with the possibility of buying a counterfeit online, and some would rather support a local game store whenever possible. Let's use an example card that was in one of the booths in DC and talk about how you as an interested buyer might be able to go about picking it up.
Let's say you're interested in a Mox Sapphire. You want to buy with confidence for your cube, but you're unsure of where to start. Because of the scarcity of the card, there's a minimal amount of listings on TCGplayer. With Market Price being based off aggregate data of recent sales, it can be difficult to get an accurate number on something this expensive. Even when we look at the listing price, there's a huge variance in numbers for the different conditions and images. The least expensive Sapphire currently available on TCGplayer is $1,500, but we can see from the two available images that it's VERY heavily played. With the amount of surface wear and whitening across the back of the card, it's getting really close to the Damaged category. After that, we're looking at a $1700 Sapphire without pictures, and a $2000 one listed as Moderately Played with photos.
Which one of these is the "best deal"? While listings with photos help, it's very difficult for someone who's never purchased Power before to understand which (if any) of these three choices would be the best one for them. Even delving into the Seller Portal for additional information on Last Sold Listings doesn't provide us with much context, unfortunately. The last sold MP Sapphire was $1,600, and the last sold HP was $1,350; the higher listings for current pricings could mean that copies under that are being bought (evidenced by last sold), but we still only really have a rough idea of the $1500-1700 range for HP. When it comes to extremely high-end cards like this, even "Heavily Played" and "Near Mint" have their own subgrades. HP could mean it looks like it went through the washing machine, or it could just have one really bad corner with the rest of the card being gorgeous.
If you do choose to buy online through TCGplayer, you can buy with confidence knowing that you're protected by the Buyer Safeguard. If something goes wrong with your purchase and you can't mediate a solution with the seller directly, TCGplayer has your back when it comes to getting a full or partial refund for whatever the issue happened to be. The other clear advantage of buying online is that within a few days, that blue gemstone will magically appear on your doorstep or mailbox, without you having to lift a finger. If you can't really travel or your LGS isn't stocking what you're looking for, buying online is looking like it will be the better option for you.
On the other hand, let's talk about that Sapphire that was in the vendor booth at GP DC this past weekend. Unlike buying online, you get the chance to ask someone behind the table to let you hold it in your hand and get as many pictures as you want. You can examine every inch of your potential purchase, see how it feels in a sleeve, and put it through tests to verify authenticity. While some vendors will put their power on display at relatively high prices to make sure they get top dollar, others want to put it in the case to sell at the event. As you can see, this Sapphire is in way better condition than the $1,500 one currently listed on TCGplayer, and there would be no waiting to have it shipped to your doorstep.
I mentioned that some vendors are comfortable holding onto their Power, but pretty much every booth at every Grand Prix will have at least one display case dedicated to higher-end cards. Your advantage as a potential buyer is that these vendors are competing for your business, so the invisible hand works in your favor here. You have the power to shop around, take as many pictures as you want, make a spreadsheet of vendors and their prices and make your purchase when you're ready. Of course, keep in mind that there are other players in your exact situation who are likely doing the same thing. Waiting too long can end up with someone buying the piece you had your eye on, and unlike Lyra Dawnbringer or Rekindling Phoenix, there aren't a thousand additional copies in the room for you to settle on. Getting to a Grand Prix when the doors open on Friday will make sure that you have some of the first eyes in the room on the display cases. Even if you don't see the Sapphire you're looking for first thing in the morning, you should check back throughout the weekend. Most vendors will be looking to put any high-end purchases in the case immediately to get a quick return on investment, so you could see new Power in the cases as the weekend progresses.
The last two aspects of buying in person that we're going to talk about here could be a bane or a boon depending on your preference for carrying money and your ability to negotiate. Most vendor booths will accept credit/debit card or Paypal on site, but some will pass the percentage fee (usually 2-3%) onto the customer. Even a small percentage like that can mean an additional $30-40 added to the price of that example Sapphire, so be prepared for the sticker price to be specifically referring to the cash number. This could prove to be a problem if you're someone who (understandably) doesn't feel comfortable bringing thousands of dollars into a convention center with even more thousands of people you don't know. Most ATMs will cap out at around $300-400 as a daily limit, so those can't be guaranteed to be a reliable source to pull cash from depending on how expensive the card you want is going to be.
While cash carries an undeniable risk, it is also a powerful bargaining tool. Vendors are at these events to buy cards and they need a consistent way to pay out in the local currency at all times throughout the weekend. Being out of money early in the weekend is a death knell for any future buying, so some booth owners may be willing to knock off a few dollars to lock in a guaranteed sale in the moment, freeing up more cash for buying throughout the weekend. This isn't going to work with every vendor, but there's minimal downside in asking once.
For those who are looking to turn their current Standard/Modern/Commander binders into a select few high-end cards, you should absolutely be checking to see if the vendor offers a trade-in bonus for your cards, and run some numbers based on those factors. Some stores are going to give you anywhere from 10-30% bonus if you trade your cards towards something in the display case, while others will just offer really high cash numbers without being able to give a bonus towards trade. The only advice here is to run the numbers for yourself based on your own research and decide which vendor offers the best deal for what you're trying to do.
It's no secret that these pieces of high-end cardboard are getting more and more difficult to acquire. As the population that grew up with Magic's origins grows older, that demographic has more and more disposable income to put towards nostalgic collectables and high-end decks. Do you have any personal strategies you like to use to pick up high-end cards? Let me know in the comments section below! Thanks for reading, and be sure to subscribe to TCGplayer on Facebook and Twitter for more finance content every Tuesday!
- DJ Johnson