The Value of a Dollar: Determining the Worth of Magic Cards

At age ten, I took my birthday money ($50) and purchased a rookie card for my favorite player – Jose Canseco. At the time, Canseco and Mark McGwire were bashing out home runs for the Oakland A’s and the value of a Canseco rookie was sure to only increase. When my dad took me to the sports card store, he knew my intentions to purchase the card. When we pulled up, he parked the car and said something that I will always remember. He said, “You know, that card that you want is only worth what someone else will give you for it.” Taking that into consideration, as well as twenty years of history, the card now costs 99 cents based on a quick Ebay search.

How the mighty have fallen…

There are various ways to assign monetary value to Magic cards. With M12 landing in mere hours, the trading pool will be ripe with fresh cards for players to hunt down. There are desirable new rares and mythics (including three new planeswalkers) as well as returning favorites like Grim Lavamancer. Before you try and trade for these beasts, it is important to know the type of person you are trying to trade with and how the two of you will assign value to the cards in question. For simplicity, the worth of a Magic card can be examined from three perspectives:

  1. Retail value
  2. Buylist value
  3. Personal value

With that said, let’s take a look at each and try to determine the best course of action involved in trading with someone based on each.

Retail value is exactly what it sounds like. If you went on and looked up the card, how much is it listed for? This is perhaps the easiest way to trade with someone because you can assess the value of your cards rather quickly (thanks to internet-enabled smartphones) and figure out how far apart the two of you are in terms of your trade. Agreeing to use ARG’s cost for the cards will establish a base to work from that reflects the current demand for the card. The only potential problem here is if the item is out of stock because the cost may not reflect the most recent value. There are other sites that you can use to come up with a retail value (Ebay, for instance) but this takes a lot more work because you either have to search for “Buy It Now” prices or auctions ending within a relatively short time frame.

If possible, retail value is going to be the best bet for a trader because it reasonably assures that the deal will be fair. Sure, you could get stuck with someone who wants to trade you 100 uncommons for a mythic because “The costs are equal,” but common sense says that this is a time to walk away from that trade partner. Using your head and agreeing to use a static price guide will make dealing easy.

Not everyone, however, recognizes the cash price as the value of a Magic card. There are some who believe, as my father did, that something is only worth what someone else will give you for it. For those individuals, using the buylist price from a reputable website is a fair substitute. If I know that I could go on and sell my Phyrexian Obliterator to ARG for $12.50 in NM condition, then that is what it is worth from a trading perspective if my trading partner and I agreed to use buylist values.

As with anything, there are upsides and downsides to this method. A benefit to using buylist prices is that you know the actual cash value of a card based on what you could walk up to the counter and reasonably expect from someone at the store. This is great because it mirrors the “worth what someone will pay for it” idea. However, there are several potential downsides.

First, there are only a few websites that list a buylist price for EVERY standard legal card. That could make it difficult to trade with someone because your default at that point is to say that their card is “bulk” quality which, from experience, does not go over well. Next, this gives a low dollar amount to most deals which has a negative psychological effect for some people. The deal, when described to friends or fellow players, may not sound as good as you initially thought it was even though the numbers lined up. For most people, the lasting impression of a deal is more of a tell-tale sign of the quality than any other factor.

There are some who try and avoid these negatives by creating an average value between the retail value and the buylist value. While this may be appropriate in some instances, it is a lot of work and involves math. There are some that are great at math and others whose math skills I would not trust to help me figure out whether or not I can afford a snack at McDonald’s. Sorry, but it is the truth. If you choose to do this “middle road” hybrid technique I do have a suggestion: Write the deal down on paper. If it is written down, you can do all of your calculations there and make sure that everyone is happy with the completed version of the deal.

The final value is personal value. This is where trading gets very tricky. Some people are looking for a specific card for a reason and they are willing to shortchange the value of their trade bait to get that card. While this is the worst spot to be in from an outsider’s perspective, it is the best possible way to get a deal done. For instance, if I need a copy of Spellskite for a deck I plan on playing in 10 minutes, I do not have time to be picky about my deals. In this example, I would be willing to give up more for the convenience factor. This is similar to what happens when a new video game system launches. If the PS4 launched tomorrow and I did not preorder it (but for some reason had to have it), I would reasonably have to pay someone who did more than what they preordered it for to purchase it from them. Simple, right? Personal value is need based and causes major fluctuation in the value of a card.

Beyond the glaring possibility that you will probably be on the shorter end of a deal based on personal value, there is an additional wrinkle. Someone who values certain cards higher because they are thinking about building this deck or that deck with those cards complicates trading. Sure, they may be asking for a slightly inflated price for their trade, but ultimately you have to decide on your personal value of the card the same way that they have. If you “need” the card enough and the deal does not seem too outrageous, take it. If you feel like you are giving up too much, then you are. There is that “using your head” idea again.

Regardless of the value you choose to rely on, there are a few things to remember when trading. For one, you control yourself. If you are setting up a deal with someone and they just want to rip people off, walk away. It is that simple. To be a good trade partner means that if you offer a binder for someone to look through you will deal and be honest. If something is in your binder but not for trade, tell them BEFORE they clue in on it and want it. Take the moment to say, “Here’s my binder but the Dual Lands are not for trade.” You will save your time and theirs.

Good luck dealing and if you have a Primordial Hydra I want to talk to you at the prerelease!