With proxy cards and various online freeware, you don’t have to spend a dime on Magic to have fun with it; funny then that it’s the most expensive thing in my life other than rent, and for most of us there is always more that we could buy if only we had a little more dosh. I have the dubious distinction of having spent more cash on this game than pretty much anyone you know, and I’ve learned a lot in the last year or two about getting more bang for the buck—too late to help me, but hopefully in time to help you guys.
Pack it In
They say that lottery tickets are a tax on stupid people, and I can’t deny that in terms of the average value of the ticket, it’s a terrible way to give your money away. But a lot of people get hooked on the anticipation that each time this ticket could be the one!! When it isn’t, they feel frustrated and wish there was something to make them feel better—then they remember that high of anticipation when they bought the last ticket, and the whole horrible cycle kicks off again. Buying individual Magic boosters has exactly the same psychological mechanism behind it, because for almost any set, the expected value (EV) of a booster is going to be less than the price.
No, buying boosters is a mugs game and no mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to pick up a booster most times I go to the card store, because this pack could be the one. Over the years, I’ve got a ton of great cards from boosters—a Japanese Jace TMS, a foil Kokusho, foil Garruk in M12, foil Elesh Norn, and a pack of Innistrad that had a Garruk and a multiland. But those are the highlights, and as much as they dominate the memory, they are exceptions. Overall, my pack experiences have been terrible, and it’s only recently that I realized that as disappointing as my experience has been, I’m about average. The contents of most boosters have to be worth less than the asking price of the pack.
Drafts and sealed deck events are different, because added to the value of the cards themselves are the value of the play experience and the potential future value of the prizes, but by and large, you’re never going to get great value buying boosters for retail prices—and if you ever did, the shops are virtually guaranteed to raise the prices of the boosters until you see the same value per pack that you always did.
Once folks realize that buying individual boosters isn’t worth it, they start to look at buying boxes, because you’re guaranteed to get a discount, and often get a shiny new promo card into the bargain. Even living in a place like Japan, with access to plenty of card stores, the cheapest way to get boosters is usually just to wear the shipping costs and order in a box from the States. If you can get a couple of other folks to join you then you can at least reduce your shipping costs, and perhaps make a little extra on the deal to reduce the price of your cards further.
Still, boxes are only slightly cheaper than boosters, and you’re stuck with a minimum quantity of 36. For some sets that’s worth it, and god bless ‘em, WOTC are doing their best to give us solid sets each time, but some just aren’t worth it, and you don’t know it until you’ve shelled out for them. As a perennial grad student, I jumped at the chance to get into boxes once my wife and I were both working, starting with two boxes of Rise of the Eldrazi. On the whole, having the packs sitting there was nice, allowing me to take my time opening them over a week or two. That was a really nice advantage of buying boxes, but after getting a box of New Phyrexia, I realized that I still had to same old problem on a slightly larger scale: too many crap cards, not enough of the stuff I wanted to use (two Elesh Norn, one in foil, but I had to buy my Sheoldreds as singles at the card store—why does the universe mock me?!), no guarantees that I’d get the chase cards I wanted as trade bait (one Mental Misstep, are you freaking KIDDING ME?!!!), and a ton of cards that are unlikely to ever see a deck and will probably end up being given away at some point in the future.
That’s not a reaction to a bad box, but a fairly consistent outcome. As players, we get excited about the idea of the cards in the set but generally disillusioned with the reality of how the random card distribution treat us. I still plan to get the occasional box in the future, but for me personally, I don’t think it’s worth it to get a box of every set—or really two boxes of a large set if you want a chance at a playset of some of the uncommons. The next time they do something special—like the full art lands in Zendikar, the time-shifted cards in Time Spiral or the flip cards in Innistrad, all of which increase your EV per pack—I’ll reconsider, but for now I’m out.
A couple of things you can do to make a box a better investment include playing a lot of limited, whether that’s a full draft, a Winston draft with a friend (thanks for that Russian Vengevine, Steve!) or sealed deck, if you planned to do it anyway then using your own product will save you some money, and if you want to encourage your group in that direction then having the product on you is going to be a big help. Bottom line, all of that stuff is going to increase the utility you get from a box, and can make it a fantastic way to dispose of your income in the right context.
Similarly, if you’ve had enough of the packs and you’ve got enough Mythics out of the box to feel like you got your money’s worth, then selling the remaining cards to drafters is a fine way of doing it. I’d gotten tired of seeing the same cards in my second Eldrazi box and had opened four Mythics already, so I brought the last twelve packs to Shakey’s and sold them to some guys who were playing sealed, then use that money to get a Vengevine and a Kozilek at the card store; in other words, I made sure that my last twelve packs had exactly the two cards I most wanted to see, making that box overall the finest I’ve ever opened, even if it only contained 24 actual packs.
So what if you’re a card junkie who can always find a deck for a card eventually? Well, then, check out the stores in your area to find what they do with the commons and uncommon from the boxes they open. Most stores will open at least a couple of boxes in order to get their initial supply of singles, and most non-rare cards aren’t worth the hassle of sorting through, sleeving and pricing. A lot of stores—certainly every store I’ve seen in Tokyo, as well as many online vendors—will offer you great prices on bulk commons. I got an entire box (36 packs) worth of commons and uncommon, including land, checklist cards and the non-rare double-faced cards, for about five bucks—and found another store that would have actually given me twice as much for less than twice the price, which is definitely worth it for the next large set.
Bulk buying definitely seems like the best way to handle your common and uncommon requirements, although you might also compare prices online for 4x common and uncommon sets; once again, shipping costs start to get prohibitive for bulk purchases for those of us away from the US market. At the same time, a Fat Pack is a great with a to some of the thrill of cracking boosters without getting carried away. I suspect that Fat Packs aren’t worth it in purely financial terms, but I like stacking those boxes up (and filling them with Commander decks, three to a box), looking through the guide to the whole set, and I always need more dice.
What about the real goodness—the rares and mythics that you’ve been dying to get your hands on since they were first spoiled? Well, I’ve got some good news, some great news and some bad news. The good news is that you can get playsets of the cards you really want, not spend a single yen on the junk rares that don’t interest you, and still get the same number rare as you would from a box for a fraction of the price through the wonders of the internet. Lots of card stores are reliable, have great prices and can offer you decent rates for shipping, and it isn’t hard to find them at all. I popped my e-commerce cherry at a place called CCG House and was satisfied with the experience, but things really changed when I discovered eBay. It isn’t the only game in town, and it can be almost as addictive as Magic in its own right, but eBay is the great news, with potentially unbeatable savings. Moreover, for those of you who fear that a Nigerian prince is going to steal your Visa card, eBay works to keep you safer from fraud than you would be on your own.
On the advice of my attorneys (read: fellow muses), I can’t guarantee anything about an online trader, but if you’re just getting started, I can say that I have used a couple of sellers several times and have found them to be reliable in my limited experience. My first stop when it comes to new cards is an eBay seller called kidicarus2000, which is the eBay name for Icarus Magic in (I believe) Indiana. They always have multiple auctions ending each day, selling an endless stream of cards from Standard and recent sets. Mainly they just do rares, but there’ll be playsets of foils that allow you to pick up commons and uncommon occasionally, and they have the aforementioned bulk lots of commons, uncommon and even rares. I also make sure to check out a seller called danbock (Powernine.com). On any given day, he’ll have a huge selection of stuff for you to buy at a fixed price, everything from original dual lands to sets of classics like Moment’s Peace and Shatterstorm for a buck. Most of his rares are overpriced, and I’ll usually only get the cheaper stuff from him, but a couple of times a year he has a massive auction of rares, usually as playsets, going back to the dawn of time, and the prices on those are usually phenomenal. I’m talking the classics of multiplayer, probably from before anyone in your group started playing (they won’t even see it coming!). If you don’t mind waiting for The Opportune Moment™ you might get some great stuff for a song.
If you’re like me, living overseas, then you really need to be careful of shipping costs. One time I bid on a couple of items from one seller but only won one item (I think it was a set of Night of Soul’s Betrayal for around $3), but then that seller (Thursday Night Magic, I think he was called) announced he was going on hiatus and wouldn’t be putting any more cards on sale for a while. That left me on the hook for $3 worth of cards plus another $3 for international shipping, which took it from a great deal to slightly worse than I could get just paying local dealer prices. Fortunately, he was a nice guy about it and agreed to cancel the order, but it is something to watch out for. International shipping is not the way to get your hands on a set of Innocent Blood for your new control deck; you need to save up to get them in one lot so that the initial shipping cost ($2-$3 for the first item is normal for US-Japan, but check the rates for your country) is spread out over the cost for each extra item (usually just 75 cents, although Icarus is a tad pricier).
For those living in the US, I have only one thing to say: focus on sellers that say “Ships to: United States.” You see, a lot of the single prices in online stores are actually driven by demand in places like Japan and Singapore. It’s not that folks there necessarily have more money, but prices are higher there and players are willing to spend more on the game, it seems. What that means is that the wheelers and dealers are looking for arbitrage opportunities, and the internet makes that a game that people all over the world can play. Let’s say that the Japanese tournament scene is dominated by a deck featuring a particular mythic rare, and players here are willing to pay ¥5,000 yen each for that card (about $63 at current exchange rates). Pretty soon the stores will be needing to get more of them in stock, and so they’ll start buying them for ¥3,500 or even ¥4,000 per card (up to $50). Dealers in Japan will realize that the price in the US is still much lower than that, and that if they can get a copy of the card for anything less than $50 (including shipping) then it is just free money. Once they start scouring the Web, it will be virtually impossible to buy any copies of that card for less than $45-48 each, even if the price at your LGS was only $30 last week. BUT, if you can find a dealer who isn’t shipping to that overheated Japanese market, then you’ll find that the bidding there isn’t nearly as intense. That means you can get cards for prices well below the globally-determined price.
Knowing how prices are determined is going to give you an edge in getting your belovedest cards for the lowest prices, but with new stuff it’s also important to understand the ebb and flow of prices. Obviously, prices are primarily determined by the tournament set, but new cards tend to be a little bit overpriced to start with, just because stores are reluctant to get burned selling tomorrow’s OMGgottahaveitnow tournament staples for the price of a booster pack. It’s much easier for them to go through and reprice the stuff a week or two after the set release than to make up for the money lost by underestimating a card’s popularity. There are exceptions, though, for the cards known either derisively or lovingly as junk rares. Nobody knows exactly how good Ruinator.dec is going to be, but most folks are fairly sure that Gutter Grime won’t be busting Standard open any time soon, so the Ruinator will be overpriced and the Gutter Grime will be priced to sell.
There are exceptions, though. I’ve found that the Johnny-riffic cards that are supercool and powerful but don’t have a deck to call home yet tend to be easy to pick up. A great example of that is Birthing Pod, which Brandon and I both pre-ordered before it became a thing. Curiously, I actually found that Solemn Simulacrum was in the same boat. Years ago, before it became all about Commander, I passed up the chance to get them for $3 each or less, but early this year I broke down and bought a set for around $15. I knew that price was driven by demand from casual players and would be stable over the long term. But when it was reprinted in Standard, everyone knew it would be a staple in tournament decks too, so the price was obviously going to be higher than that. I was able to pick up a set for $20 or so in the first week, and now the price is over $30. That illustrates the importance of netdecking in determining prices. If a card is rare and solid but nobody quite knows which archetype it belongs to, there are bargains to be had.
Unfortunately, Innistrad hasn’t been as kind to me. I’ve picked up a few cards like Evil Twin, Kessig Wolf Run and Unbreathing Horde for a buck or two, less than their current prices, but was surprised at how high the starting prices were for the new duals, and even casual powerhouses like Charmbreaker Devils, Endless Ranks of the Dead and Creeping Renaissance. Still, it’s early days; the duals are already beginning to come down as the tourney market starts to get saturated with the staples, and the prices for the others is either being artificially inflated by new set hype, or driven by casual demand, which is usually pretty stable. In either case, the cards I want will be available for the same price or less in the future, and as a casual player I can afford to wait.
As the 3,000 word mark approaches, let me offer a final option for the truly innovative Commander player: full sets. A married couple that I play with has been getting full sets online for a year or two now, giving them one—but only one—of every card from the new set. The prices are usually decent because the dealers are happy to have someone take the chaff off their hands as well as the chase cards, and it means that you always have new and different cards for each deck. That’s a surefire cure for staple-itis!
 No discussion of buying things can be complete without referring to Brandon’s article of the same name—as far as I know it’s the best analysis out there of the value of older booster products and well worth a read.
 Did I say shiny promo card? Guul Draz Assassin is likelyto go down in history as the most underwhelming buy-a-box promo card ever. Considering that set also featured Drana and Nirkana Revenant, that’s a steel-toed kick in the junk for a first-time box buyer.
 Not over the course of a month, as originally planned. Apparently, having a huge stash of crack in your basement doesn’t make the crack any less addictive!