Here's a dirty little secret about me: I do almost no short-term Magic speculation these days.

It's true! Buying cards today in hopes of cashing them out in a couple of weeks was a lucrative endeavor for me back when the market was hyper-reactive to competitive trends, but things don't work that way right now.

I'm not saying that short-term speculation doesn't work, but you have to pick and choose your spots a lot more carefully. For example, Den of the Bugbear was a great pick-up back in late August, when it first became clear that roughly half of the best decks in Standard would be running multiple copies. 

Fury of the Horde was also a fantastic short-term snag last week, which is why I highlighted the card in my newsletter (you are subscribed, aren't you?) before the inevitable spike. 

So yeah, if you want to day trade Magic, you can definitely stay ahead of the trends and make a tidy little profit.

That said, short-term speculation isn't a large part of my portfolio for two reasons. First, the good short-term specs don't come around as often as you'd want, especially for the amount of work you have to do if you want to suss them out with any regularity. You have to be paying close attention to tiny shifts in multiple metagames if you want to spot them, which is a lot of work to do if you're not actively involved with the competitive scene. If you're not eating, sleeping, and breathing Magic, you're going to end up behind the curve on all the best specs. Even this column boasts short-term spec calls that are already out of date by the time you get to see them a day or two later! Not only do things move fast, but there are fewer really good short-term specs than you think.

Second, short-term specs usually have a higher risk profile than long-term specs. For a short-term spec to pay off, you are generally betting on one very specific thing to go your way. On the other hand, long-term specs generally have multiple less-specific paths to profit. If one of them doesn't pan out, you've still got four or five other potential ways to profit.

Here's a hypothetical example. Say you spend $10 each on 10 copies of a brand new mythic rare that you saw overperforming in a new Standard deck on Arena. After you buy in, you're pretty much holding your breath for the next week or two, waiting to see if the deck catches fire or not. If it does, you might be able to cash out for $20 to $30 each, minus fees and shipping, for a total profit of between $100 and $200. If not, you might be stuck with a card plummeting toward bulk mythic range, with no bottom in sight.

On the other hand, your $100 long-term spec could pay off in Standard, Modern, or Commander. You might get lucky and it will synergize with the next round of Commander decks, or maybe it'll hit the next time that WotC prints cards focused on a particular tribe. Maybe it will just slowly increase over time, as most cards do. If one of these things doesn't pan out, one of the others might.

Think of it this way: you know how modular cards like Cryptic Command and Archmage's Charm are more powerful than they look, due to their flexibility? Long-term specs are kind of like the finance version of that.

So yeah. Long-term buys are great, which is why I talk a lot about them in this column.  The key word in that sentence is "buy," though, because I rarely talk about how to know when to sell your long-term specs. Selling is the most important part, too: if you buy 10 copies of a $10 card and it doubles in price, you aren't actually up $100 — you're still down your initial investment. You've made no profit at all until you cash out.  

Let's talk about that today. When should you cash out a long-term spec? Is selling into hype always correct? Are there ways to avoid getting blown out by reprints? Are there ways to hedge against future gains and losses? Read on and find out.

No Whammies

Back in the 1980s, there was a game show on CBS called "Press Your Luck." During the first phase of the game, you'd answer trivia questions and collect spins on the game board. Once you had your spins, you'd try to collect points on the big wheel without landing on a "Whammy." If you hit a Whammy, a little animated cartoon character would come out and steal all your money, sending you all the way back to $0. You could stop at any point and keep your winnings, or you could keep trying to press your luck (hey, that's the name of the show) and risk hitting a Whammy in order to potentially win even more money. 

Why am I talking about a 40-year-old TV show in a Magic finance column? Because Press Your Luck perfectly illustrates the tension between continuing to try and accrue value versus the risk of something sending you back to square one. In the gameshow, you lost all your money when you hit a Whammy. In long-term Magic speculation, you lose your money if WotC reprints your spec.

Reprints are great for accessibility, but they're awful for long-term speculation. Nearly a decade ago, I wrote an article describing my long-term speculation philosophy as "the best time to buy a card is always, and the best time to sell is never." Back then, this heuristic made sense. These days, not so much. Between all the Masters sets, the Secret Lairs, the Commander decks, the bonus sheets, and so many other reprint avenues, WotC can (and usually does) reprint over a hundred financially-relevant cards each year. If you're holding onto several dozen copies of these cards in the hopes of making a profit, it can feel pretty deflating.

The Press Your Luck analogy felt apt to me because most Magic cards passively rise in price over time. I'm not talking about bulk rares or cards that don't have any real demand after they rotate out of Standard; I'm talking about Commander and Modern playables nearly always trend upward if you examine them over a two- or three-year timeframe. Luckily, this makes intuitive sense: over time, copies of these cards leave circulation, while more and more people who need copies enter the player base. Supply drops while demand rises. Repeat each year with a smaller and smaller number of available copies of each card. (What would happen if this trend were allowed to continue uninterrupted for 20+ years? Check out the price of Reserved List cards if you want to know the answer.)

That's why reprints feel so much like Whammies. You've stayed in the game accruing value, watching your prize total climb, until WHAM — you're back to zero. Time to either cash out at a loss, or wait another few years for the price to recover, if it ever does.

Speaking of Press Your Luck, though, have you ever heard of Michael Larson? Back in 1984, he videotaped dozens of episodes of the show, slowed them down, and realized that the patterns that led to getting Whammies weren't actually distributed at random. He memorized the patterns, managed to get a spot on the show, and won over $100,000 before CBS realized what was going on. For Michael Larson, Whammies were off the table. He could keep winning as much as he wanted.

It's impossible to be the Michael Larson of Magic speculation without actual insider knowledge, but reprints aren't totally random like Whammies, either. WotC's reprinting philosophy follows a couple of set patterns, which you can use to your advantage once you know them.

Cassie's Top 8 No Whammy Tips

  1. Other than Challenger Decks, new cards are generally not reprinted within their first 4 or 5 years of life. That gives you a nice window for long-term speculation in between each card's last possible Challenger Deck printing and their first likely reprint.
  2. Cards that have been reprinted before are more likely to be reprinted again. WotC has already indicated that they believe this card is worthy of coming back, and they've got multiple pieces of art already commissioned. Why not run it back again?
  3. Any pre-mythic-era card that hasn't been reprinted at least once yet already is unlikely to be reprinted soon. This doesn't mean they won't be reprinted, but if WotC hasn't deemed it worthy of showing up again in the past 10 to 20 years, it's likely that they simply don't like the card all that much and aren't interested in revisiting it. 
  4. Most cards are rarely reprinted more than once in a 3 to 4 year timeframe. WotC doesn't usually run their reprints into the ground, so you generally have a nice little window to buy low and wait for the price to rebound a bit.
  5. There are a few cards (Sol Ring, Fabled Passage, Swords to Plowshares, etc.) that WotC is happy to reprint multiple times per year. Avoid them.
  6. Generic cards (like the fetchlands) are easier to reprint than cards that are specifically tied to a plane or piece of lore (like The Chain Veil). Secret Lairs are making this distinction matter less over time, however. 
  7. Any card that sees significant Modern play is probably slated for one of the next two Masters sets. Speculating long-term on cards that are currently very popular in a competitive format is quite risky, and you should already be looking for an out.
  8. If you think a reprint is due, it probably is. Follow your gut, especially if you've been doing this stuff for a while. Intuition is powerful.

Remember — these are heuristics, not hard and fast rules. I can think of a handful of exceptions to each of these rules off the top of my head, which tells me that there are dozens and dozens more that I could uncover with even cursory research. As with everything in Magic speculation, you're playing the odds. Sometimes it'll pay off, and sometimes it won't. The best way to avoid getting blown out is to diversify your portfolio as much as possible. One of your best specs is blown up by reprints? It doesn't matter much if you've got 15 others that are still on track to pay out.

Setting Goals and Hedging Bets

Whenever you speculate on a card, your first goal needs to be recouping your investment as quickly as possible. That way, you can re-invest your initial nut and keep growing your portfolio! Specs where you lose your initial investment are bad, but so are cards that just sit around collecting dust for years. Both situations leave you without the capital to re-invest, which means you're missing out on future opportunities to profit.

This is why I like to hedge my successful specs. Personally, I try to sell roughly half of my spec inventory as soon as a card has doubled in price. This allows me to recoup my initial investment and treat the rest of my inventory as pure profit. That way, even if I get Whammy'd by a reprint somewhere down the line, I haven't actually lost anything.

You can also set escalating thresholds that allow you to lock in value as a card rises in price. This is a good way to keep locking in small amounts of profit while still remaining nominally invested in case the price really starts to surge. 

Here's an example: say you buy 100 copies of a card for $1 each. A year later, it hits $2.50 and you sell 40 copies to more or less recoup your initial value. It hits $4 a year after that, and you sell another 20 copies to lock in that price. It hits $7 a year after that, and you sell 20 more. At that point, you've made more than $200 and still have 20 copies left. No matter what happens, you've made a successful spec buy.

With this much profit locked in, you can afford to gamble with the rest of your copies as much as you want. If you hold for a few years and the card ends up at $30, you still have enough copies to feel great about the profit you'll make. On the other hand, if the card drops back to $1 after a reprint, you can still feel good about having made a successful spec. It's a true win/win.

I suggest setting partial sales thresholds for yourself based on your risk adversity and comfort level. If you are more conservative with your investments, something similar to what I do should work well for you. If you're more comfortable with risk, you may want to wait for a card to hit 3x or 4x your initial investment before choosing to sell out. 

I also suggest changing these thresholds based on the initial cost of the investment, as well as the card's reprint risk profile. If your initial per-card investment is higher, you may want to hedge your bets earlier. Ditto for cards that are at greater risk of being reprinted. If a card is cheap and looks like it might not be reprinted for a while, like a Standard-legal bulk rare or mythic, you may want to be more patient. 

Always Sell into Spikes

All rules are meant to be broken, and that goes double for any advice I give you in these articles. Thresholds and hedges are important, yes, but they're far more useful when cards are slowly trending up over time. Every once in a while, your long-term spec will pay off in a very immediate and visceral way. For instance, Relentless Dead was a solid long-term spec that was slowly gaining ground month-to-month and year-to-year. Then people realized how good it was with new Commanders like Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver, and the price doubled overnight.

It can be really tempting to hold onto most of your favorite long-term specs through spikes like this, because it feels like the world has finally caught up to your own feelings about the card. After years of waiting, now everybody else wants a piece of your spec, too. As you see the card climb and climb, it's so tempting to just ride it out and see how far it'll go. After all, this is your baby — how crushed would you be if you held on for months, cashed out too soon, and missed out on the real gains that could be right around the corner?

The truth, however, is that most cards drop right after they spike. Not only does the community tend to move from card to card quite quickly, but speculators tend to buy out a lot of the copies during the early hours of a price spike. Once these folks get their cards in hand and start to list them on TCGplayer, the supply goes up and the price drops. As a long-term speculator, one of your biggest advantages is getting to act during this period of initial chaos. You already have your inventory in hand during the spike, and you can list your cards at the absolute top of the market. That means you can take advantage of FOMO as long as you act fast. 

In cases like this, I tend to list roughly 90% of my available inventory as quickly as I can. You can hedge if you want, but I tend to throw my plan out the window if a card spikes. Worst case scenario, I can usually buy back in cheaper in a week or two. If the demand is there, just turn your cards into cash and worry about the rest later. 

Organization is Magic

Be honest — how many times have you seen a card you own start to spike, think about selling your copies, and then realize that you have no idea where they actually are? You might even go into your closet and sift through a box or two before giving up. By the time you find the card a week or two later, the price has already dropped and you've missed the best window to sell out. 

If you've never done this, congratulations — you're better at this part of speculation than I am! This has happened to me at least a dozen times over the years, and I'm guessing the real number is far higher than that. Ever since I moved into an apartment where most of my Magic cards are in 5-row boxes stacked on top of each other, my desire to venture into the boxes near the bottom of the pile has dropped precipitously. I've left money on the table simply due to disorganization and poor storage solutions.

I highly suggest developing a storage system for your long-term specs that allows you easy access to all of your cards — neat, orderly boxes with a clear organizational system. Make sure that all your copies of each card are slotted in together.  I also recommend a spreadsheet for tracking information like what price you paid, the date you purchased, etc. This may seem like a small thing, but moving from a disorganized system to something like this is one of the best things you can do to maximize your profits.