I still remember the first time I realized that some Magic: The Gathering cards were worth more than others.
I had just assembled my first-ever deck, a white and blue nonsense pile that used cards like Counterspell and Wall of Swords to protect me while Wind Drake and Serra Angel flew in for the kill. The deck probably should have just been mono-blue, but Serra Angel was my favorite card and I wanted to get her into the mix. This led to a problem where I just…never seemed to draw the proper ratio of blue and white mana. Either I'd draw my Serra and not have enough white mana to summon her, or I'd end up with three Plains in play and a handful of blue spells that I couldn't cast.
After a few of these brutal losses against my friend Marc, I stopped a moment when he led off the next game with a land that had a very unusual text box. Instead of the normal mana symbol that I had become used to, it had a series of concentric rectangular boxes. "What's that?" I asked.
"Scrubland," he said. "It taps for either white or black mana."
I was stunned. This was the answer to my problems! "Do you have any more of them?" I asked. "For other colors, maybe? Like… white and blue?"
A quick conversation revealed that yes, he had a few more of what I now knew were called "dual lands," but no, they were not for trade. They had become hard to find over the past few years, and most card shops priced them around $20 each. Considering I had just spent $100 for an entire booster box and our LGS gave away basic land for free, $20 for a single land seemed needlessly spendy.
I then proceeded to lose the game because Marc had access to two colors of mana and I did not.
Over the next few years, I became obsessed with the financial side of the game. It was purely practical at first: I wanted cards like Scrubland and Tundra for my decks, but I didn't want to spend $20 each for them. Lucky for me, a lot of my peers didn't value mana consistency as much as I did. This meant that I was able to trade splashier cards for the lands I needed. After a few dozen trades like this, I realized that if I ended up with too many dual lands in the same color combination, I could simply sell them and use the money to buy another booster box. This freed me from having to save my money for the better part of a month or wait until Christmas.
Before long, I was buying, selling, and trading more cards than the people who ran the shops I played in. I began tracking prices, buying collections, and speculating on cards that seemed likely to increase in value. Not only did my collection swell to awesome proportions, but I was having an absolute blast. I've been involved in the world of Magic finance ever since.
If this story excites you, or if you've ever thought about investing in Magic cards, read on. My week-to-week articles usually dive into the minutia of Magic finance, but this article is for anyone who's newer to the concept and might not know where to begin. Can you really make money investing in Magic cards? What kinds of cards are worth buying, and how? When should you be selling, and where? Let's find out together.
While most of the investment world is focused on classical investments, like, stocks, bonds, and real estate, the idea of investing in collectibles isn't new. It goes back at least as far as the early 1980s, when the collectibles market became a billion-dollar industry. Granted, it was mostly things like Cabbage Patch Kids and Franklin Mint collector plates back then, but still; the seeds were being sewn for the massive boom that hit at the dawn of the 1990s. The market has been roaring ever since.
Investing in collectibles is appealing for several really understandable reasons. First, collectibles are tangible. If you buy a Magic card, you can actually hold it in your hand. This isn't true of things like stock shares, which really only exist as lines of text on a computer screen. In times of economic or social uncertainty, owning tangible things feels safer than owning ephemeral "shares" in some far-off company.
Second, collectibles are affordable. Real estate is tangible, but even the cheap houses in my metro area are selling for more than a quarter of a million dollars right now. I don't have a quarter of a million dollars to invest in a house, but I do have twenty dollars to invest in a couple of interesting Commander foils.
Third, collectibles are joyful and fun. While some investors delight in reading quarterly reports and watching Jim Kramer on TV or whatever, most people find the world of high finance to be stressful, boring, and—let's face it—kind of gross. Many of the big corporations out there are engaged in some pretty unethical behavior, and buying shares can feel like condoning that behavior. Not only does investing in Magic cards mean that you get to own some really exciting things, you don't have to feel quite as complicit about directly engaging with a system of global exploitation. Put all of this together, and you can see why so many people choose to make collectibles part of their investment portfolio.
Now, before we continue, I need to state very clearly that I don't recommend investing more money in Magic cards than you can realistically afford to lose. Collectibles are riskier investments than blue chip stocks, mutual funds, bonds, real estate, etc. Those things rarely come with the risk of complete collapse, but every collectible market is always at risk of the bottom falling out. The entire investing world is about balancing risk vs. reward, and collectibles tend to be on the side of higher risk and higher reward. You can make a lot of money, but at the end of the day you're still talking about spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on little pieces of cardboard. Investing in Magic for fun and a little profit? Great idea. Putting your retirement fund in Commander foils? I don't recommend it.
That said, Magic: The Gathering is one of the safer investments in the world of collectibles. The first Magic cards were actually released within days of the first Beanie Babies, and it's telling that WotC just had its best fiscal year of all time while Beanie Babies have been a punchline for the past 20 years. Magic cards have kept going strong through multiple sports card boom and bust cycles. They've outlasted thousands of other collectible card games, both digital and tabletop. They've survived multiple real-world economic collapses and are now thriving during a global pandemic. Many things have tried to "kill" Magic, but none have come close. Magic is a survivor, and it has maintained a robust secondary market for much of its life. I don't see that changing anytime soon.
Of course, many Magic cards do drop in price. In fact, it happens all the time. So how can you make money while avoiding as many pitfalls as possible? Let's talk strategy.
There are three effective, big-picture ways to invest in Magic cards.
First, you can invest in cards that you think are likely to go up in price over the short term. These could be cards that have just started to see play in a hot new deck, cards that are brand new and you feel are being underrated by the community, or cards that synergize well with newly released Commander decks. These investments are the riskiest, but they also have the highest upside. You also generally don't have to wait too long for them to pay off, which means that you can sell your investments ASAP, recoup your money, and reinvest it right away.
I mostly recommend this type of short-term investing for people who are experts in either the game at large or in one format in particular. For example, if you play a lot of Modern and you suddenly come across a new deck that feels impossible to beat, you're probably way ahead of everybody else in terms of recognizing that a shift in that metagame will lead to key cards from that deck increasing in price. Ditto for folks who are plugged into the Commander community. If a new commander comes out and you can immediately identify an existing card that everybody who builds that deck will need to own, that's a great piece of information to leverage in your favor. Everybody has specific fonts of knowledge that put them ahead of the crowd. Find out what yours is, and use it to your advantage.
The second type of effective Magic investment is long-term speculation. The idea behind this route is simple: you buy a whole bunch of popular cards when they are relatively cheap and easy to find, and sell them somewhere down the line when they are scarcer and more expensive.
These investments tend to have lower risk without sacrificing much in the way of potential reward, but they do require the expenditure of another resource: time. Turning $100 into $150 seems great, but what if you have to wait three full years to see a single dollar of that cash? That means your money is tied up for three full years, and you can't use it to invest in anything else. This is fine if you've got a decent amount of investment capital, but worse if you have to pass on future opportunities due to lack of money. I definitely do my share of long-term investing, but I like to mix it in with opportunities that have a faster turnaround.
If you want to invest in cards with good long-term potential, I suggest focusing on powerful Commander cards. Competitive metagames are too hard to predict even six months out, much less two or three years, but the best Commander cards tend to remain popular for a long time.
My favorite buys are cards that are good in multiple decks and that are currently in the lull between the excitement of set release and the product leaving print. This tends to occur when demand is at its lowest and supply is at its highest. For example, here's the price of Cyclonic Rift over the past few years:
As you can see, Cyclonic Rift price plunged when it was reprinted in Double Masters last year, but it rebounded early in 2021 and is still much higher than it was last autumn. If Cyclonic Rift isn't reprinted this year or next, it will likely soar to unimaginable heights by 2023.
The problem here, of course, is the phrase "if it isn't reprinted." Wizards of the Coast has been much more aggressive in reprinting Commander staples over the past few years, so it can be hard to figure out what's safe to buy and what is not. For example, Arcane Signet looked like a terrific long-term investment when the card was first released, but it's worth very little now because WotC decided to reprint it in nearly every preconstructed Commander deck.
If you want to avoid most future reprint risk, you'll need to focus on cards that are printed in current Standard-legal sets. These cards are only occasionally reprinted before they hit the three-or-four-year mark, which means that you've got a pretty safe path to profits. For example, check out the price history of Growing Rites of Itlimoc:
Now we're talking! Obviously, it's easier said than done to figure out which cards are likely to become the next Growing Rites of Itlimoc, but Growing Rites has been one of the most popular cards in Commander since the day it was printed, so it's not like it came out of nowhere. If you can buy cards like that before they leave print, and you're willing to be patient, it's pretty easy to make at least modest gains with your portfolio.
Lastly, we come to the safest way to invest in Magic: buying collections at below-market prices. This is exceptionally safe because you're already paying less for the cards than they're currently worth. Even if none of the cards go up in price, you can still sell them for more than you paid. What's not to love?
The best collection buys, of course, are the ones that have a lot of meat on the bone from the start. I'm talking about garage sale finds fresh from 1993, or scores from that friend or co-worker who has a few boxes of old decks stashed away in their closet. These types of buys are few and far between, though, and you can't count on them. I visit hundreds of garage sales a year and find Magic cards maybe once or twice during the summer. Even then, it's usually just a couple of Commander cards or the remnants of a few old draft decks.
If you want to buy collections, then, you have to offer two valuable things: cash, and time. That means a high percentage of fair market value in cash, as well as the time it will take you to sort the cards and sell them individually. The correct number is going to differ from person to person, but somewhere between 35% (for cheaper cards) and 65% (for pricier cards) of recent comparable sales is in the range of fair, especially if you're willing to take on an entire collection at once.
Just be careful not to overextend yourself, and to try and recoup your initial investment as soon as possible. Since some cards fluctuate pretty wildly, you don't want to pay a lot for cards that are currently dropping in price and end up not getting your money back because you waited too long to sell.
Collection buying is also a great way to get cards that you wanted to speculate on anyway at below-market prices. For example, if you were already interested in Growing Rites of Itlimoc before it took off, buying a bunch of copies at retail would have been a great call. But you know what would have been even better? Nabbing a bunch of copies at 50% of retail because they were in a collection that you decided to buy. You have less control over the cards you buy this way, of course, but it's a great way to supplement all your long-term action at extremely low-risk price points.
The best place to find collections is through people you know. Colleagues, friends, folks you used to game with who decided to stop playing Magic, etc. After that, you can try posting query messages on local Facebook Buy & Sell groups. Cash is king, but trades can sometimes pull really good offers as well. Offering sealed boxes of current generation Pokémon or high-end sports cards, current generation video game consoles, or other collectibles that can be difficult to find at big box stores can get you some pretty sweet Magic collections in trade if you're willing to be patient and sort through a lot of very bad offers.
If you're here because you're already familiar with other collectibles investing but want to make the jump into Magic, welcome! We've got cookies and instant coffee on the table in the corner. Also, there's Nicol Bolas, the Ravager that comes around sometimes, but don't worry about him. He's probably not going to eat you.
Anyway, the biggest difference between Magic and other collectible cards is that most Magic cards have value because people actually want to use them, not just collect them. This isn't true for any sports cards, or even most vintage Pokémon cards. Those markets are entirely driven by collectors and investors. The Magic market is driven by players, collectors, and investors—in that order.
Because of this, grading and condition matters a lot less in the Magic world than it does in the other card-collecting hobbies. For instance, I know some sports card investors who grade pretty much every card they come across with a loose price of at least $20-$30, provided they think that they can get back at least a PSA 7 or so. If it's a star player from the 1950s or 1960s, practically every card is worth grading as long as it can come back as at least a PSA 2. This is just how that hobby works, and it makes sense based on who is buying those cards and why.
If you do that with Magic, you will waste your money. While there is a market for some graded cards, it's pretty limited to cards from Magic's earliest sets as well as some incredibly rare old foils and promos. The more recent you get, the more people just want to play with the cards, and the less of a premium your graded cards will be able to command. For instance, Doubling Season is a $70-$80 card right now, which would absolutely be worth grading in the sports card world. In Magic, however, at least 99 out of 100 Doubling Season buyers simply want a copy for their Commander deck. Grading that card would be a waste of cash.
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The big exception to this rule are cards from Alpha and Beta, the first two waves of Magic's first-ever product. These cards behave almost entirely like vintage sports cards, because there are cheaper versions of these cards available for folks who need them for decks. There are also a lot of other cards from Magic's early years that have value both as collectible objects and as gameplay pieces.
Magic has something called the Reserved List, which is a list of cards that WotC has promised never to reprint—ever. Cards from this list tend to spike every couple of years, and a market for high-end graded Reserved List cards is starting to form. Many of these cards are also still useful in the game, though, so it's important to check the market before you get anything graded. This is especially true with cards that aren't likely to get a very high grade. Since these cards are still important parts of certain decks, played copies still have loads of value to folks who want them for their decks while collectors can hold off for really exceptional graded copies.
There's also not really a market for graded, high-end Magic foils from current sets. This is another break from the sports card world, and it's in part because of all the stuff we've just talked about in terms of playability vs. collectibility. The folks who want these cards want them for decks or cubes, not for slabbing and sticking in a box.
It's also because Magic has yet to adopt the hyper-rare atomic refactor model that many other collectible cards have taken on since the early 2000s. While Magic does have loads of foil variants now, none of them are limited to 1/10, 1/50, 1/100, etc. These are the cards that drive the modern sports card market, and WotC hasn't tapped that particular well yet. (And it would be great if we all agreed not to show them this article, just in case they were getting any ideas.)
It's also a lot harder to make predictions about which Magic cards will rise in price than it is in the sports card world. In sports, you're either buying copies of star players from long ago, their legacies long since set in stone, or you're making bets on which players will do well in a future season. This sort of prognostication is fairly straightforward. You don't have to be an expert on cards to get started; you just need to be a sports fan with an opinion on whether or not it's worth buying Mac Jones or Trevor Lawrence's rookie card before the 2021 NFL season.
In the world of Magic, you need to consider metagame shifts, potential reprints, new commanders that WotC might print, and dozens of other factors. This doesn't mean you shouldn't make the leap, but I do think you need to have more than a passing familiarity with the game before jumping in.
If Magic is something that you already love, I highly recommend getting involved with the financial side of the game. If not, pick up a couple of decks and start playing. The more you dive into the game, the better your investments will be.
No matter how you choose to invest in Magic, the one thing I recommend above all else is to start a spreadsheet that tracks all of your endeavors. I know, I know—Magic cards are supposed to be a fun investment, and spreadsheets are boring business stuff. We're turning our tangible objects back into lines of text on a computer screen again, and that can feel really chafing and unsatisfying.
Here's why spreadsheets are important, though.
First, you need to know which of your investments are working out and which are not. Early on, you will make a lot of mistakes that will lose you money. That's just something that happens, and it's worth accepting that before you start. As Jake the Dog said on Adventure Time, "suckin' at something is the first step to being sorta good at something." Nobody is good at this from the start, and that includes myself. I made loads of bad decisions, and passed on dozens of profitable deals because I didn't really trust myself. This is something that I still struggle with, which is why there are times when I just need to see cold, hard data.
That's where the spreadsheet comes in. At the end of the day, math doesn't lie. If you find that your Modern investments are paying off but your Commander buys keep losing money, or that your short-term investments are doing poorly but your collection buys are going great, or your long-term holds keep losing value… well, you can adjust your behavior based on the information. Good investors accept that failure happens more often than you'd want, and great ones will press through that shame and use it as a learning experience.
Spreadsheets and other inventory systems are also important for knowing what you have so that you can sell cards easily if there's a market spike. I can't tell you how many times I've seen some random Commander card spike and knew that I probably had a dozen copies socked away somewhere, but who knows where, or how much I paid, or how long it would take me to fish them out and list them. If your system is both nimble and comprehensive, you can take advantage of these spikes whenever they occur.
Lastly, you should get used to tracking your profits because (if you're in the U.S.), you have to pay taxes on them. You're legally required to pay taxes on all of this stuff, even if you make just a dollar or two, and the government is about to start getting stricter about actually enforcing that. When congress passed the third round of stimulus checks, it included a change to the tax rules that lowered the mandatory IRS reporting threshold for sites like eBay and PayPal from $20,000 to $600 starting with the 2022 fiscal year. This means that if you sell more than $600 worth of cards in 2022 and every year after that, you will get a form from the IRS that you will have to report on your year-end income taxes.
I'm not a tax expert, but I do pay income taxes on my online sales, so I know how scary it can be to figure out all that stuff on the fly. The number one piece of advice I can give you is this: keep track of everything. Keep track of it from the start, so you're not scrambling to figure it all out later. Every stamp, every box, every dollar spent. Throw it all on a spreadsheet so that you don't have to pay taxes on a single cent of money that isn't actual profit. If you do that, your taxes won't be nearly as daunting as you think.
The first thing you need to do is download the TCGplayer app on your Apple or Android smartphone. It uses your phone's camera to scan cards and tell you what they're worth. You can even list cards directly from that screen, though be careful doing so until you get the hang of things. It's a great scanner, but it does sometimes have a problem with foils, set variants, etc. At any rate, this app is a great companion for scanning through boxes of cards from a collection buy, or even just figuring out what of your backlog is worth listing vs. what should end up back in the closet for another year or two.
Second, set up a TCGplayer seller account. Yes, I write for this website, so you should take my recommendations with the grain of salt that comes when anyone talks about their employer's products. That said, I've had an active seller account on TCGplayer since December of 2012, many years before I began writing here. It's my go-to platform for all of my Magic and Pokémon card sales, and I say this as someone who does thousands of dollars in eBay sales every month for the non-CCG side of my business. TCGplayer is simple to use and there are loads of buyers here. The seller protection is also stronger on TCGplayer than on eBay. I recommend selling here.
After that, if you're in the U.S., set up an account on Pirate Ship. It's a totally free site with no strings attached for getting cheaper shipping than the USPS counter. You can just print out the postage at home, and drop it off at your leisure. I am not sponsored by Pirate Ship and I don't think they sponsor anyone. I just use them for all my shipping because it's a lot cheaper, there's no subscription fee, and I don't have to wait in line at USPS.
You're also going to need a workflow for buying and selling cards. The more you can streamline this, the easier it gets, and the more time you can save. More time equals more money. I highly recommend buying plain white and padded envelopes in bulk, keeping a few hundred sheets of stamps near your workstation, and purchasing a thermal label printer. Hand-addressing envelopes is a trap, and you shouldn't fall for it. Just buy a used thermal label printer and re-sell it if you don't need it anymore.
On the information side of things, there are lots of useful resources that you should familiarize yourself with. EDHREC is my favorite site for keeping tabs on the Commander community, especially since you can get some solid numbers on which cards in each net set are seeing the most Commander play. The MTG Goldfish "movers and shakers" pages are a good place to get a sense of which cards are on the move as well as some longer-term trends, though be aware that a lot of the bigger spikes on here are super misleading and I'm not sure where that data is coming from. Their metagame pages are also a useful resource for getting a big picture look at the top tiers of a given competitive format.
I'm not a big Reddit fan, but I do check in from time to time. The magic finance subreddit is full of poorly thought-out predictions and people shilling their pet specs, but whenever there's a big news story you can still use it to get a good sense of how the community is reacting. The Spikes subreddit has also gotten less useful in recent years, but it can be a good place to mine for interesting high-win-rate decks early in a format's lifespan. I also use the Commander subreddit sometimes to keep tabs on how the community is feeling about a recently previewed card.
Lastly, I recommend checking out my article archive and subscribing to my weekly newsletter. It's totally free, and it contains a lot of my week-to-week analysis of the Magic market and the latest news. You also gain exclusive access to all of my articles two full days before anybody else. It's a win/win/win!
Last week's newsletter was a look at the current Reserved List and collectible market, which seems like it might be on the decline. Is it just seasonal trends, or something that might cause long-term concern? You're just going to have to subscribe to my newsletter to find out information like that!