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Seeing the Forrest for the Trees

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Finance, Magic Culture

Forrest flipped through my binder, stopping occasionally to look at a few cards and make comments about the usual suspects. The sleeve with a $52 price tag on it attached to a Fiend of the Shadows. The $5 sticker on the sleeve containing a Tundra. A few words on the foil Mutavaults. The stack of Poison tokens (you’ve got to have 10, right?).

“So, do you see anything you’re interested in?”

“Really, the only thing I really want is this Volcanic Island. Is it for trade?”

I hesitated.

My modest collection of Dual Lands is as close to untradeable as anything I own. For many months, I traded just to cash out later and make money. That was before I decided I needed at least one selfish goal in this game so that I have something besides cash to look back on. I decided that something would be mint-condition dual lands.

After my short hesitation, the trader in me got the best of me, as it always does.

“It is, but it won’t be easy. You’ve got a bunch of Standard stuff here and that’s a dual, so it’s not going to be easy to make me comfortable with whatever we do. Is that okay?”

It was.

I told him the only way we were going to make this work is if we did cash prices on the cards. The reason for this is that dealers buy a Volcanic Island at a much higher percentage of its retail price than they do Standard cards. This helps temper the risk associated with cards with such short lifespans. In short, I could “win” a trade based on retail values but lose in buylist value on a trade like this–buylist value being what matters most to me.

“That’s fine. Just tell me what you need to do. I really want the Volcanic Island for my cube.”

At this point, I started to hope that we could work something out here. I would make a ton of retail “value” on the deal while he would get the dual land. It sucks trading away a dual, but I was confident that I could make enough trading the cards I was picking up to make the deal worth it for both of us. So I started to pull the cards out of his binder.

Snapcaster Mage – $13

Huntmaster of the Fells – $10

Path to Exile – $2.50

Mox Opal – $10

Then I noticed Forrest starting to get this sort of pained look on his face and I could see my hopes being dashed.

“What are you doing? Those cards are all worth more than that.”

“It’s a cash price. It’s what I could get if I took them to a dealer. I’m doing the same on the Volcanic Island. It retails for $110 but I’m putting it at $75.”

Forrest got pretty upset at this point. He didn’t like that his cards were half-priced and mine wasn’t. As proof that my numbers must be flawed, he told me that he could buy a Volcanic Island on TCGPlayer for $50 (the cheapest NM copy is actually $80).

I again explained to him that this is what happens when you’re trading for duals. The cash prices on the two are very, very different. At this point, Forrest was upset and I can’t imagine he thought very highly of me.

I tried to explain to him that I had no desire to scum him in any way. I told him that it doesn’t benefit me at all to lie to him in front of a big group of people. I have, I hope, some degree of a reputation to uphold and plenty to lose through that sort of behavior. I’ve written financial columns at Quiet Speculation for two years now. I’ve developed a modest following on Twitter (@Chosler88). At least some people in the Magic community know who I am. In short, I have a lot more to lose by lying to him than I have to gain in any single trade.

He said he understood, but he was clearly peeved, didn’t buy it and didn’t want to continue the trade. I told him I understood, shook his hand, and walked away. I was nearly shaking with disappointment, but not the kind that comes with failing to acquire a couple of Snapcasters.

Just another day at the office, right?

The problem was, it’s not just another day at the office. The failed trade ate at me from the second I stood up from the table.

I went into the other room to talk to the EDH group who are happy to trade with me every week. I tried to forget about the failed deal while watching the typical EDH shenanigans.

It didn’t work.

Didn’t I explain to Forrest what we were doing? Did I not make sure he was following along with me at every step? I even showed him the prices on my phone! If he wants to be a jerk about it, that’s not my problem. His fault, not mine.


As FNM ended and people were slowly clearing the store, I stopped to talk to the usual grinders. These are the Pro Tour wannabes who actually have a shot of making it there. Some of them already have.

They are my friends. They are Forrest’s too.

“Do you guys know Forrest? Did you see our trade earlier?”

Yeah, Forrest had talked about it from what the grinders said. He was as upset as I thought he was. He probably didn’t say the kindest things about me.

“Did I do something wrong? Was I wrong in the way I went about that?”

They all know me. We travel to events together. They play; I trade. I trust them to tell me the truth. After all, I’ve traded with nearly all of these guys plenty of times before and we’ve never had a problem.

They confirmed that I wasn’t at fault. Don’t let it get to me, they advised. He doesn’t hate me or think I’m a scumbag. He just thought his cards were being undervalued.

We parted ways for the night, the grinders and me. I made plans to come back a few days later to test Standard with Avacyn Restored spoilers. I headed home and had a bowl of cereal. I played a little Starcraft and then tested a few games with RG Werewolves. I took a shower and headed to bed with my mind trying to focus on what I needed to do at work the next day.

But I ended up still thinking about Forrest and that Volcanic Island.

What was it that bothered me so much? It wasn’t the failed trade; that’s a reality that happens every day and has longed since stopped bothering me. Cards come and cards go. I work as a sports writer now, but I literally lived off the money I made from trading Magic cards for six months after college.

No, it wasn’t the 20 or 30 bucks I lost out on in trade.

It was the very first bullet point I wrote in my very first Magic article back in the summer of 2010 for Doubling Season (interestingly, that site was the precursor to both Quiet Speculation and LegitMTG):

It’s about building friendships, not matching dollar signs.

To that I’ll add another old adage, likely said a million times before:

“It’s not about the Magic. It’s about the Gathering.”

To me, this is what trading is truly about, and always will be. You go to Friday Night Magic to win some packs by beating other people. But you also go for the experience. The sense of belonging in a community of like-minded people.

The better players make money off the casual or less-skilled players every weekend at FNMs or SCG Opens or Grand Prix or Pro Tours in much the same way traders do. That doesn’t mean those people–those “fish” as they are too often derisively called–stop coming. We show up every week for the experience; for those few hours we escape the problems of our outside lives and just enjoy slinging some cardboard. And we make life-long friends in the process.

Like all of you, I’ve met some incredible people through this game and experienced things I never would have otherwise. Unlike some of you, I’ve chosen to get there through trading rather than playing. I’ve met hundreds, no, thousands of incredible people through the lens of the trade binder and loved doing so. The money I make doing it is nice. But at its core, it’s not why I do it. It’s not why any of us do. There’s a lot better money to be made elsewhere. Grinding cardboard is not glamorous, nor is it going to make you rich.

I do it to be a part of this community. To feel like I’m adding something to that community and helping to give something back. And that clearly did not happen in my trade with Forrest.

I didn’t do anything wrong in that proposed trade. I didn’t lie about numbers or try to trick him into making a deal with me. I didn’t berate him or treat him disrespectfully in any manner. My failure was deeper than that.

If only for a moment, I got caught up in the dollar signs and forgot what’s it’s always been about for me; building friendships. I could have introduced myself when we started the trade. I could have asked him about his cube. I could have talked to him about Norman since I just moved here six months ago. I could have asked how he was doing in the tournament or what deck he was playing.

I didn’t.

There it was. That’s what was bothering me.

I’ve decided to take this as something of a wake-up call.

Most people don’t want to trade with a number-spitting machine and I don’t want to even start down that path. Now, I’ve never been unpleasant to trade with as I’m comfortable 99 percent of the people I’ve traded with can attest to. But I can do better. I owe this game, this community more than that. Writing this article is nothing but a start.

There’s plenty of room for making money in trading. The world of Magic is rich for speculation and there’s nothing wrong with making money at the trading table or at the playing table. However, developing real relationships with your trading partners will do nothing but increase your profits.

But that’s not all there is to it. My favorite Magic writer is Gavin Verhey, who now works for Wizards, but it’s not his tech or decklists that interested me. Gavin had this passion for the game and the absolute, total commitment he made to it and the community. This trading experience reminded me of something he wrote before he took a job with Wizards. This is a sentiment that that can never be said enough:

After my first PTQ top 8, I took my sparkling Sensei’s Divining Top Top 8 pin home with me and showed it off. I wasn’t sure what to do with it. ‘Put it on your playmat for good luck and a reminder to have fun,’ Mom told me.

That collection has grown. If you’ve ever seen me play a match at a tournament, you’ll notice a playmat full of PTQ Top 8 pins. I’ve long outgrown the novelty of them. But whenever I look down, there they are: my reminders to have fun.”

Gavin has his Top 8 pins.

I guess I have a Volcanic Island.

What about you?


Author’s note: I’m not completely confident that I have Forrest’s name right. If not, I apologize.

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