Magic finance is hard. Really hard. I could spend eight hours a day on it, every day, for the rest of my life, and I'd still make plenty of mistakes. Like chess, or like Magic itself, Magic finance is not something that can ever be perfected. You can only hope to do a little bit better than the day before.
I love writing about my successes — who doesn't love to brag, at least a little bit? — but there's only so much you can learn from your wins. Failures and mistakes may sting, but they also provide the best learning opportunities. Figuring out where you went wrong is crucial to success. Agter all, anyone who doesn't learn from their mistakes is doomed to repeat them.
To that end, today's article is a look at the top ten finance mistakes that I see folks make over and over again. Some of them are concrete mistakes that are easy to fix, while others are abstract concepts that require a long-term shift in mentality. It's not easy, and I say that from experience. These are all mistakes that I've struggled with myself over the years. I can confidently say that I've overcome some of them, but others still plague me. That's okay! I'm still a work in progress, and writing about this stuff is a good way to see how far I've come as well, as how far I still have to go.
One of the most difficult parts of growth is when you recognize a behavior that you want to change, but you don't have the skills or resilience to effectively make those changes yet. You can see the pit full of snakes right in front of you, but you can't help tripping and falling in anyway.
When you get to this part, it's always tempting to either turn around and run the other way or pretend that the snake pits are actually fun and nice places to fall into. My first piece of advice to you in this article is to power through, own your mistakes, and build the skills and resilience you need. Whether you're learning from the mistakes I outline in this article or others that I haven't even thought of yet, do your best to move forward with both courage and humility. Do that, and you'll find so much more success in whatever you do in your life.
Wait, is this still a Magic finance article? My editor tells me yes, so I suppose I should get back to the expensive bits of cardboard. Let's start with a mistake that should actually give you a bit of an ego boost, because it's about:
If you play a lot of competitive Magic, especially if you specialize in a specific format or two, chances are you have a level of very specific expertise that very few other people on Earth have access to. By and large, I've noticed that most truly dedicated Magic players don't realize just how ahead of the curve they are on this stuff. If you're in this position, you should trust your innovations and discoveries far more, and use this knowledge to your financial advantage. The exciting new deck that just demolished your tier one brew? That's a spec target. The sweet new piece of sideboard tech that just shored up your most difficult matchups? That's a spec target. That unassuming bulk rare that you just know will turn Legacy upside down? You'd better believe that's a spec target.
Remember: most other people aren't nearly as plugged into the bleeding edge of these formats as you are, and that includes myself and most of the other Magic finance folks. If you're ahead of the curve, use that to your financial advantage. This is especially true if you've been playing the game for a really long time, because in those moments, you really do just know when a card is about to blow the format wide open. Those moments don't come by more than once every year or two, but when they show up, you need to have the confidence to act.
Chances are, you don't have intimate knowledge of every Magic format. Nobody does. You might know the ins and outs of Standard better than anyone else in your playgroup, but you might still only have a passing familiarity with Modern. You might know both of those formats, but have never played a game of Vintage in your life. It's okay — the Magic ecosystem is big, and we all have our limits. Nobody can know everything.
One of the biggest differences between smart people and knowledgeable people is that smart people know when to listen to the experts. Figure out the gaps in your knowledge, and keep people around who can help fill them with their own expertise. If their opinions contradict yours, try to figure out why. If you can't find any trusted experts in your area, read lots of different opinions on social media and try to aggregate them into something useful. (NB: only do this with things like "how good is this new Teferi?" and not "should I take this life-saving vaccine?") You really do have to check your ego at the door for this stuff. If you're too arrogant to believe that other people might have more knowledge than you, you're not going to make it far as a speculator.
If you're saying to yourself "hey, this feels like the opposite of the last mistake!", I mean...it kind of is. You really have to be honest with yourself about where you have expertise and where you do not. The best way to succeed is by listening to yourself in areas where you have exceptional knowledge and listening to others (as long as it's the right others) where you do not. This requires a really difficult balance of low ego and high self-esteem that's difficult to achieve. I certainly haven't managed it yet, but I think it's worth it to try.
In competitive formats, winning is everything. If you can correctly guess what the most powerful rares and mythics in a given format will be, and speculate on those, you will rarely lose.
This isn't true in casual formats like Commander, though. In Commander, prices are all about popularity, not quality. The best Commander cards are probably going to be valuable, but the priciest cards are the ones that the most people want to play. These cards don't have to be good, and they definitely don't have to be cards that you like.
For example, I know a lot of people who really like playing aggressive decks in Commander. I'm not talking about Mono-Red Burn or anything; just decks that will either win or lose rather quickly on their own terms. Many of these players strongly dislike the sort of politics-heavy ramp decks that sit around and try to prolong the game until they get to do something really cool.
Green ramp decks and go-wide token decks are among the most popular Commander strategies out there, though, and it doesn't really matter how good they are at actually winning the game. If you're speculating on Commander or other casual cards, you have to check your own biases at the door. Don't pay attention to what you like to do — pay attention to what all the folks down at your LGS think are cool. Those are the cards that will hold their value over time.
It's also important to avoid your own biases when speculating on constructed staples. This is especially true in cross-format speculation: if you're used to playing combo decks in Modern, it can be tempting to overrate the potential of similar engines in Standard, even though that format may or may not have the enablers needed to make it work. Conversely, it can be tempting to fade a card that you expect to be powerful, simply because you don't want to think about playing in a format where that particular strategy is dominant. You can't ever free your decision-making from your own biases, but recognizing and acknowledging them goes a longer way than you'd think toward correcting these mistakes.
I can't tell you how many times I hear people talk about the 'profits' they've made when a card they've invested in surges from $5 to $20. It's true that this is an exciting moment, and I get the impulse to start daydreaming about how you're going to spend those profits, but don't forget that you haven't made a single cent until you find a buyer and their payment clears to your account. All profits before that point are theoretical, and subject to change.
This is admittedly less of a problem when you're talking about a high-end staple like Chalice of the Void or Wrenn and Six, where price surges tend to be fairly durable and lasting. When you're looking at a surging price from a random Reserved List card, a weird combo piece that had a single breakout tournament, or an old uncommon that plays well with a new Commander, however, value is an incredibly volatile and ephemeral thing.
Consider Worldfire, which surged from $1 to $30 in a matter of hours after being unbanned in Commander. That's great for anyone who managed to sell their copy for $30, but the last few copies of this card available on TCGplayer went for $8.85. That's still a nice return, but it's far from the $30 you might have expected. Be careful not to think of anything as profit until your card is actually sold.
Going hand-in-hand with the last tip, many people miss out on profits by waiting too long to either list their cards or drop the price. Worldfire is a great example again here, so let's continue to use that as our case study. Straight off the bat, we can see that anybody who listed their card at $30 on the day it was unbanned was probably able to cash out at the top of the market. Congratulations — you were rewarded for being aggressive. Anyone who waited to see if the card would continue to go up in price missed out completely, and they're going to be stuck selling their copies for less than $10 each. This is why I always encourage folks to sell into spikes like these.
Now let's assume for a moment that you did list your copies of Worldfire that day, but you missed the top of the market by hours. Your $30 copies ended up sitting there, collecting dust, while the price dropped to $29, then $28, then $27.
In those moments, it can be so tempting to stay the course. After all, your card was just worth $30. Who's to say it won't be worth $30 again in a day or two? Competing in a race to the bottom isn't fun at all, and it's certainly possible that those $27 copies will all dry up and then your Worldfires will sell for the price you want.
In reality, this rarely happens. If there's a run on a card, like when Worldfire was unbanned, the price tends to drop as more and more players fish copies out of their collections and toss them onto the marketplace. At the same time, the number of players who are actively thinking about buying copies of Worldfire drops off quick as the Magic news cycle moves on to something else.
While there are cases when it doesn't make sense to participate in a race to the bottom, these sorts of situations reward being aggressive. If you priced your copies of Worldfire at $25 right away, chances are they'd sell right away. Then you wouldn't have to worry when the card kept falling and falling over the coming weeks. I've definitely regretted this move before, but I regret not doing it far more often. I'm a big fan of aggressively selling during these tiny hype windows, and moving on to the next thing before everyone else has figured out whether the card is actually a new staple or not.
Over and over again, I see people speculating on the same exact number of cards in each buy they make, regardless of how good or bad the opportunity seems. They'll log onto TCGplayer, snap up 16 to 20 copies of their latest spec target, and call it a day. Other folks — and I'm very guilty of this myself — will change the size of their spec depending on the price of the card, but still won't switch it up based on the quality of the spec. I've definitely told myself, "My budget for each spec this month is $50," which is the wrong way of thinking about this stuff. It leads to scenarios where I'll buy four copies if that's what my $50 gets me, but I'll buy 200 copies if that's what I can do for fifty bucks. You can see why this isn't always ideal.
In truth, the difference in expected return between the best specs you come across each year and the "eh, this might be something someday" fliers you take because speculating is fun? That's massive. I'm not saying to stop taking fliers on fun cards with potential, but when the amazing specs come along — and if you're in the game long enough, you'll know them on sight — you shouldn't be afraid to go deep.
Think of it this way. Would you rather have $50 invested in each of the hundred specs you've considered this year, or $200 invested in each of the best twenty-five specs you made this year? You probably won't nail all twenty-five of the best specs with your big buys, of course, but I bet this type of thinking could get you super-charged investments on, say, twenty-five of your best fifty specs. Heck, even if you just doubled down on your best two or three sure-thing specs of the year instead of spending that money on a broader range of cards, you'd be doing better than you are right now. If you feel like something is a slam-dunk, trust yourself and go big.
This mistake doesn't happen as much when you're speculating on cards in the traditional sense, but it comes up all the time when buying collections or singles from folks who are looking to unload them for below-market rates. I buy collections more often than I buy cards at retail, so this is a pitfall that I'm thinking about constantly.
The mistake that most people make is refusing to deviate too far from paying, say, 50% of TCG (or some other price guide metric) for cards when buying a collection. It's true that this median rate is going to lead to a lot of safe and profitable ventures, but you're likely missing out on a lot of opportunities by refusing to up the amount you're willing to pay for expensive cards. It's also a great way to overpay on bulk or near-bulk.
Think of it this way. If you're willing to pay 50% of the going rate on collections, and you pay $10 for a card that's worth $20, you'll make $10 profit (less fees and risk, of course, but go with me here) after you sell it. That's a good rate, and you should be happy to get it!
Now consider a $100 card. If you can get someone to sell it to you for $50, great! But that deal would still be profitable if you had to pay $60, or $65, or even $70. The more expensive the card is, the higher a percentage you can pay and still expect to make a tidy profit. If you're willing to up your margins on pricier cards, you can make more competitive offers on more collections.
On the other hand, the reverse is true for cheap cards. If you agree to buy a $1 card for $0.50, is that really worth your time? You'll only make 50 cents in potential profit, and that doesn't include fees, a stamp, a top-loader, the time it takes to sell the card, the relative lack of demand that $1 cards tend to have, and a higher risk of the card totally busting out. To me, paying 50% of the going rate on a $1 card is an awful idea, yet I see folks who buy collections doing this all the time.
It's true that these two things more or less cancel each other out on many larger collection buys, and I won't worry about it much if I'm buying a huge and exciting lot filled with tons of great stuff, but if you buy collections a lot? Develop a sliding marginal scale that rises and falls based on the overall price of the card. That way, you'll be able to win more successful bids on high-end lots without getting stuck with a lot of overpriced bulk.
I make this mistake all the time. Heck, I made it three days ago — not with Magic cards, but with a vintage video game purchase I had lined up for my eBay resale business. In that case, I spent three weeks trying to line up a deal that also required me to drive 40 minutes south to a neighboring town on Friday afternoon for the meetup. The deal had a ton of potential, but very little of it was present when I arrived. Everything was in much worse condition than expected, and a few of the pieces I was hoping for were either clearly damaged or not there at all. I negotiated the price as low as I could, but I was unwilling to walk away after putting in so much time. It felt better to be walking away from the deal with something instead of nothing, so I made a dubious buy that I definitely would have passed on in most other situations.
I do the same thing whenever I'm in an LGS or looking through a collection and the deals clearly aren't there for me. Walking away empty-handed feels bad, so I'll buy a booster box, pick up a foil single that's just slightly underpriced, or make a value-neutral trade that I come to regret later. These deals are rarely awful, but they tend to be worse than just doing nothing, other than the fact that you got to tell yourself that the trip wasn't a total waste.
My suggestion to you is this: get comfortable with resting on your laurels. If a spec feels wrong, don't buy it. If a collection buy seems dodgy, be okay with walking away. Your available investment capital has value, too, as does your time. I understand the need to have not wasted your time leading up to that potential collection purchase, but you're not going to feel any better in the long-term if you have to put several dozen hours of additional work into processing that collection only to break even. Sometimes, the best play is to just shake hands and part as friends.
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Last week's newsletter is a deep dive into how TCGplayer's massive sale last week affected card prices. Did fetchlands surge in value? Were people snapping up Reserved List staples? What cards saw the most sales, and what does that mean for the near-term future of the market? You don't want to miss these newsletters, so sign up now!