I'll admit it — this isn't the article I set out to write. 

When I pitched my editor on an article about Magic finance ethics, I figured it would end up being similar to the other times I've tackled this thorny topic over the years. Heck, the first Magic Finance article I ever wrote was about how to be an ethical trader. Back at the start of the Obama administration, I was fed up with the ruthless trade sharks down at my LGS. They kept ripping off children and adults alike in their quest to trade flashy foil bulk rares for freshly-opened competitive staples. These newbies would inevitably finish last in their first few FNMs, realize that their decks weren't actually improving, and quit Magic forever. For the good of the community, I argued, we all needed to hold ourselves accountable for our own behavior and try to become better people.

So how did I get from there to writing an article with a title that has big "Why Billionaires Are Good, An Opinion Piece by Jeff Bezos" energy? 

I honestly didn't expect it, either. When I was trying to come up with a title for this article, I kept getting stuck on the fact that the Magic finance community seems to have come a long way over the past decade, especially since the rest of the collectables industry seems to have taken the worst qualities of those late '00s trade sharks to the extreme. 

I don't think I'm exaggerating here. We're coming up on the 1st anniversary of the PlayStation 5, and it's still impossible to find one at MSRP because they're instantly snapped up by scalpers. The biggest auction house and grading company in the world of retro video games has been credibly accused of creating an entire collector's market for graded games through shill bidding. The environmentally unconscionable NFT market has also been a haven for the type of pump-and-dump scams that are illegal in all regulated marketplaces — and that's when folks aren't just being scammed the old-fashioned way. Earlier this year, Target and Wal-Mart had to stop carrying sports cards and most non-Magic collectors' cards because folks were getting into physical altercations with store employees over booster packs.

Is it just that Magic finance now looks tame in comparison to NFT grifters and million-dollar video game pump-and-dump schemes? I honestly don't think so. The Magic finance community has progressed beyond some of its most toxic qualities, and it was blamed for other things that were never really its fault to begin with. Most of what's left is fairly justifiable in the Magic ecosystem that we're all forced to live in. 

Sure, there are still issues — and we'll get to them a little later. But most of the people I know who are engaging in the sorts of Magic finance practices I encourage in this column are simply doing their best to make the game more affordable for them and their friends. 

I'm writing this article in part, then, to remind all of us that what we're doing here is okay. I still feel a little sheepish when I tell people what I write about for a living, and perhaps it's time to stop feeling that particular pang of shame.

I'd also like to keep challenging us to do better. We've come pretty far since I started writing about finance, but there's still plenty of room for improvement. This article isn't just going to be a victory lap, nor will it attempt to justify the dodgy behavior and poor actions of grifters, scammers, and trade sharks. My goal today is to take an honest look at the current state of Magic finance ethics and figure out where to go from here.

Before we get there, though, let's talk about a couple of the things that the finance community is often blamed for, despite the fact that it's (mostly) not a Magic finance issue. For instance:

Most Price Spikes Have Nothing to do with Magic Finance

When I started writing for TCGplayer in 2020, they gave me access to the part of their database that spits out the charts I get to share with you each week. One of the most useful numbers I get to see is "Avg. Quantity Per Buyer." This figure is essentially just the number of copies of a card that were sold in a given day, divided by the number of unique buyers who purchased copies of the card that day. This number is useful because it gives us some really big hints about who is buying cards and why.

If the average quantity per buyer is super high during a price spike, we can pretty firmly call it a speculator-driven buyout. Nobody buys 50 copies of a particular card for non-financial reasons, give or take the odd Polar Kraken collector or Relentless Rats player. On the other hand, if the average quantity per buyer is at or close to 1, we can pretty safely say that no speculation was involved in the spike at all. Speculators almost never just buy a single copy of a card, but Commander players do so with regularity. If the card sold out one copy at a time, it was likely featured in some popular Commander article, video, or podcast episode. 

Things get dicier around the 3 to 4 copy mark, because that could either be a sign of competitive player activity (people buying playsets for Standard or Modern decks) or a lot of single copies being sold alongside one massive speculator purchase. These two things can average out in situations where both speculators and Commander players are vying for the same hot card. In these cases, though, you can generally use context to determine the truth. If the card in question is currently a four-of in a competitive deck, the spike is likely not speculator-driven. If a Commander card has an average quantity per buyer higher than 1 or 2, however, there is likely some finance action going on behind the scenes.

After more than a year of pawing through these charts, I can pretty safely say that most price spikes have nothing to do with the finance community at all. Oh, sure, the MTG Reddit and the folks down at your LGS will blame each and every spike on evil speculators, and everyone else will just sort of nod along, but that's not what's happening most of the time. I have the numbers to prove it, too.

Consider Child of Alara, a card that has jumped from $8 to $20 over the past two weeks. I picked this card as an example because it was the first one I saw on MTG Goldfish's "movers and shakers" page when I looked for recent spikes to talk about in this article. In other words, it's just one of the 5 to 10 random cards that are always spiking at any given time, usually for reasons totally unrelated to speculator action. Here's what the chart looks like:

I can tell you that speculators weren't really involved here because the average quantity per buyer never jumps above 1.7 at any point on this chart. In fact, it's exactly 1.0 on all but one day during this stretch, where a single speculator may have snagged a playset or two — not exactly a market-altering buy. Instead, the card jumped because the Commander community reached a loose sort of consensus that Child of Alara was the best post-ban Golos replacement for Maze's End decks. Everyone with those decks went out and snapped up a copy of Child, so here we are.

Of course, I only know this because I have access to the data. If all you know is that Child of Alara jumped from $8 to $20 over a ten-day span, it can be easy to assume that it was at least in part due to speculators cleaning out all the cheap copies once they realized that it was starting to see more play in Commander. This is especially true if you are a speculator, and you kinda wish you'd seen this spike coming. That kind of stuff does happen, of course, but these sorts of spikes are a lot more common and impactful. I might have blamed them on Magic finance in the past, but I know better now.

Buyout Spikes Are Often Just Temporary Inconveniences 

When Modern Horizons 2 was previewed, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that Urza's Saga was the real deal. In the months since then, the card has proven itself as a powerhouse in multiple formats. Seriously — the card is great. You don't need me to tell you that.

When Urza's Saga was first previewed, the Darksteel rare Retract was bought out almost immediately. It doesn't combo super well with Urza's Saga itself, but it definitely sees play in the kinds of artifact-based decks that Urza's Saga helps to enable. A single speculator cleaned TCGplayer out of nearly every cheap copy, and the price doubled overnight. 

What's going on with Retract these days? Let's take a look:

Back on January 1st of 2021, Retract was worth $5.60. As of yesterday, Retract was worth $5.19. That's a drop of $0.40 over the course of the year, despite the buyout and price spike that happened earlier this spring. If you were willing to be patient, you could have avoided the entire boondoggle altogether.

"But Cassie!" I can hear you saying. "This was a failed spec. The Retract decks never materialized! If they had, the speculator would have made several hundred dollars and you'd have had to find another example!" 

This is true, and there are definitely times when a speculator absolutely nails their spec and the price surges a few days before it probably would have spiked organically, like Child of Alara. Let's take a look at one of these hybrid spikes: Chain of Smog, an uncommon from Onslaught. It spiked back in March thanks to its interaction with Professor Onyx, and this is what its chart looks like since then:

Interesting, right? A speculator definitely bought a bunch of copies way over on the left-hand side of the chart, a week before everyone else, but it didn't affect the price at all. There was definitely some speculation involved in that first big price spike as well, though the average quantity per buyer sold that day was 3.1 — not exactly the sort of numbers you'd expect to see in a speculator-driven buyout. That number dropped below 2 on every day after that, though, which tells me that the speculators dipped out as soon as the price jumped from bulk to about $10.

What happened after that was entirely player-driven. The price rose again, dipped back to $12, surged to $25, then slowly eroded to $6, where it is now. It's certainly likely that speculators ended up with a few hundred copies of this card early on, and those copies could have ended up in the hands of players otherwise. 

It's definitely fair to blame the finance folks for this. It's nearly impossible to find a price spike where speculators were successful in raising the price of a card for a long time by themselves, though. You usually either end up in a Retract situation, where the price spike is fleeting, or a Chain of Smog situation, where the most you can argue is that speculators helped speed up the spike by a couple of hours. That's not exactly the kind of gross market manipulation that the community is often accused of participating in.

Trade Sharking Is a Thing of the Past

It's hard to believe, but trade sharking wasn't just common a decade ago — it was omnipresent. Smartphones were around, but they were far less reliable, and it was way more difficult to look cards up in the middle of a trade. People were also less value-conscious back then, so it was easier to find people who just wanted to trade a bunch of Standard cards they weren't using for a bunch of Commander cards they needed, or the other way around. You could make a few hundred bucks in a single trade if you were ruthless enough, and every LGS had at least a few people who were always on the lookout for deals like this. Go to a large event, and you'd find dozens of people with gigantic backpacks full of overstuffed binders. If they ever smelled blood in the water, they'd descend on their hapless victim until every last dollar of surplus value had been gleaned from their binder.  

I definitely had this sort of shark mentality when I first started trading cards as a teenager, and it took me years to grow out of it. By the end of the trade shark era, I was doing my best to be as ethical as possible: keeping a healthy stock of cards for all formats, with the goal of making a small profit on each trade in order to keep accruing value. Ideally, my partners got a much better deal than they would have if they'd had to cash out their cards and buy the ones they needed at retail. Everyone got to walk away happy.

But at some point, it all just kind of went away. Trading still happens from time to time, especially in small local groups, but there used to be dozens of binders out on the table between rounds of basically every FNM I would attend. By 2015 or so, most of this was gone.

I don't really blame anyone. Around this time, online card buying had become a lot quicker and easier. More local shops had also switched over to more competitive online price matching models, making it easier to acquire cards locally at affordable prices. The increase in value-conscious players also meant that it didn't make sense for the sharks and binder grinders to keep hauling massive collections around on their backs. If all you care about is value, why spend twenty minutes trying to negotiate a trade that your partner will ensure is equal down to the last cent? 

While I do think that some utility (and fun!) was lost when trading culture died, the way things are now is undoubtedly better for newer and younger players. It's far harder for folks to get ripped off during their first few weeks in the community, which makes them more likely to stick around for the long haul. At any rate, I think the Magic finance community is still recovering from the reputation we (rightfully) gained during this era. The truth is that this stuff doesn't happen much anymore, and it's called out far more often when it does. This is a net good, and it makes me feel better about who we all are as people that we've left this stuff in the past. 

Magic Finance is A Rational Response to WotC's Actions

Wizards of the Coast's business model relies pretty heavily on Magic finance. Without it, they wouldn't be doing half the things they're doing right now.

Remember: at any point, WotC could turn Magic into an LCG. They could simply release each new expansion as a box set, allowing you to buy four copies of each card for $50 or $60 total. This seems weird to us now, but that's how most board games are marketed and sold. Consider Dominion, a game with dozens of unique expansions and thousands of cards. I can pick up most of those expansions on Amazon right now for less than $40 each. At that point, card rarity would be pretty immaterial, and new cards would struggle to maintain any sort of secondary market value while still in print.

Why doesn't WotC do this? Because right now, Magic players will shell out hundreds of dollars for booster boxes in the hopes of opening a bunch of expensive, hard-to-get cards. In fact, WotC has moved further and further into embracing the collectors' market in recent years. Collector Boosters don't make any sense without a secondary market, and Secret Lairs are a much harder sale without the knowledge that you can buy cards that are "worth" a certain amount directly from WotC. If Magic cards became mere game pieces instead of collectable assets, none of this would work. Folks would pre-order a box of the next expansion if it looked interesting, but you wouldn't get much retail engagement beyond that. WotC needs cards to be worth money. If they aren't, their whole business model kind of falls apart.

I suppose you could look at this whole system and say "well, if the finance folks simply stopped, maybe we could force WotC to stop pumping out so many premium products and make the game more affordable!" That wouldn't work, though, because everyone is at least minorly involved in finance at this point. I don't know a single engaged Magic player who isn't at least somewhat value-conscious now, and that shift in the community is pretty much complete. It's hard to imagine now, but back in the late 90's and early '00s, half the folks at your LGS had no idea what cards were worth money and would have been happy trading their dual lands for your Shivan Dragons. These days, I bet every single person in your FNM draft pod could rattle off the approximate price of the fetchlands and tell you the 2 or 3 most expensive cards in Standard. WotC has encouraged this style of engagement with the game, and the player base has responded.

Here's my point: WotC wants certain cards to be worth a lot of money, because that drives sales. Folks will crack cases looking for the cards they want, pay a premium for foil versions, and keep buying, buying, buying in order to get that sweet dopamine rush of pulling a $100 card from a booster pack. Blaming finance folks for trying to make money in an ecosystem designed around commerce is a little like blaming your cat for eating a fish that you left in the middle of your living room floor. That is just what the system encourages, and trying to make savvy purchasing decisions in order to keep the game affordable is a completely rational response to what WotC has been doing for the past decade.

What We Need to Improve

I promised that this article wouldn't just be a heaping pile of praise for Magic finance, so let's get to the areas where things need to get better. In some cases, they need to get better fast.

The biggest problem right now? Folks buying collector boxes on Amazon, pulling out the good cards, slipping commons back in, re-sealing them, and returning them. I wouldn't be up on my high horse about this if it was just Amazon on the hook for the loss, but they immediately resell the packs to other unsuspecting buyers. In the end, some poor player ends up shelling out hundreds of dollars for a bunch of worthless cards.

I have no idea whether this is being done by folks inside or outside of the Magic community, much less the Magic finance community. I don't even know if this whole mess is the result of a single person, or hundreds of people all trying similar scams. All I know is that this problem has become widespread over the past few months, and it has started to affect a larger and larger number of players. It's completely unacceptable, and if you know anyone who does this, you owe it to the rest of us to tell them to knock it off.

There is also still far too much grifter behavior in the community, which has only gotten worse as the sports card boom of 2020 and the NFT boom of 2021 caused more and more people to move into the collectable asset sphere. I'm talking about YouTubers and other personalities who always seem bullish about some part of the market in order to convince folks to sign up for their subscription services and Patreons, which is where they really make their money. There has also been a proliferation of ever-more-convincing repacks and "instant collections" showing up on eBay, fooling less experienced players into thinking they're getting a good deal. We've even had our own mini-version of the Wata Games Grading Scandal, as high-end Magic vendor PWCC was removed from eBay for shill bidding in order to artificially inflate the value of graded cards.

Most of us aren't involved in high-end grifting, though, nor are we buying and re-sealing packs on Amazon. For the average Magic finance person, the most important thing to work on is our attitude and approach to the rest of the community. At the end of the day, it's worth remembering that all engaged players — whether we do finance or not — are responsible for being stewards of the game and ambassadors of the community. It is our job to make the world of Magic feel friendly, welcoming, and inclusive.

Right now, too much of the Magic finance world feels focused on profits above all. It has begun borrowing a lot of language and attitude from the cryptocurrency world, which can feel incredibly toxic and alienating, especially for those of us who aren't really welcome in those kinds of spaces. There is a growing sense of entitlement, self-righteousness, and unwillingness to help folks who are just starting out. It makes me worried for the future of our community.

The good news is that this is something we can all work on. Whether you engage in Magic finance as a living or simply as a way to afford a few extra cards, it's possible to take on a warmer, more empathetic approach to everything that you do. This is not Wall Street, and there is no advantage to ruthlessness here. You can make a lot of money, and you can be kind while you do it. These are not mutually exclusive, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. 

Sign Up for My Newsletter

Don't forget to sign up for my newsletter if you haven't done so yet! Not only do you get my trends pieces emailed directly to your inbox for free, but you 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 World Championship results, and a discussion about where Standard's marquee cards are going to go from here. Is it time to sell your copies of Alrund's Epiphany, Ranger Class, and Esika's Chariot, or will Crimson Vow's imminent release cause them to spike even further? Is there risk of a Standard ban incoming? Don't miss this stuff — my newsletter often has a lot of actionable intel, and if you're not subscribed, you're only getting half the story.