How Magic the Trading Card Game died
This morning I woke up from an especially confusing dream.
Now, see, my dreams are always really confusing and incoherent; as much as I can tell, both vastly overaverage compared to the dreams of other people. This one was special even when graded on my personal scale, and I will not make a try to relate it to you. May it suffice to say that over 95% of it did NOT have anything to do with Magic: The Gathering – but a tiny portion did, and when I woke up, that part got me thinking.
It was about me trading Magic cards, or more precisely, NOT trading Magic cards. Someone – actually, TV series actor Henning Baum (the actor himself, not one of his roles) – accused me of doing something related to trading them, but in fact an unknown third party did that something, and both I and Henning at first thought the other one was responsible for doing the things that unknown third party did for unknown reasons, which somehow had to do with Bugs Bunny trying to shoot me with a sniper rifle at the birthday party of a schoolgirl suffering from a yet undetected disease… which is actually the part of my dream which still makes the MOST sense, and such a small portion of its whole story that I still stand to my claim that I wouldn’t try to relate that dream to you, even when I say that much.
However, the point ist, I realized that I have not had the intention to trade Magic cards for a long, long while, but also that trading them had been an integral part of me enjoying this game when I started playing it, and that the ongoing decrease of this enjoyment was a driving force of my alienation from this game even before most of the stuff happened which finally drove me out of it and led to the present day situation I despise.
I’ll give you a rough overview of my collecting situation over the years: I began collecting Magic cards in December 1994, after resisting that urge for several months, which in hindsight cost me a fortune because it meant I started buying them when Fallen Empires, 4th Edition and Chronicles were available instead of when Revised & Legends were… At first I acquired the collection of a friend who had stopped playing. Soon I would buy boosters by the display box, which seemed insane to my friends and even myself back then, athough I just took a little earlier to buying habits which would soon become the norm. That was the first phase of my collecting days.
In 1997, I started working at a hobby shop (the dearly missed Serious Games), and beginning with Tempest, I made use of the fact that I could get display boxes at retailer prices and bought boosters in amounts which actually WERE insane by anyone’s and any time’s standards, considering I didn’t do it with the intention to resell those cards. That was the second phase of my collecting days.
It ended shortly after Prophecy came out, when I decided to sell my collection for a number of factors. One was that, after having done my civil service, my financial situation just did not allow me to go on spending that much money for trading cards, not even at retailer cost. The other was that constructed Magic at that time had become uninteresting to me, owing again to several factors: There was the Urza-block induced combo environment leading to non-interactive play; there was the Masques-block development disaster, when after the unchecked power of the Urza cycle R&D overreacted and made 98% of the following block boring, non-competitive trash (leading to the 2% they overlooked, like Rishadan Port or Lin Sivvi, standing out even worse); and there was the beginning uniformation of constructed metagames due to the rising popularity of netdecking, which shifted the focus of successful constructed play away from adapting to unknown (and, from the point of an overaverage player, inferior) strategies towards metagame analysis and systematic playtesting, both of which were neither my strength nor to my liking. Thus, I decided to concentrate solely on the cheaper and for me immensely more enjoyable limited play.
That break from buying Magic cards in large quantities was fated to be extremely short-lived, though. Invasion came out, captured my interest again and drove Urza-block out of the standard environment. Suddenly, constructed Magic was enjoyable again, with interactive matches and only a few overpowered cards. The metagame consisted of archetypes like Counterrebels, Nether-Go, Fires and RB Machine-Head. I grudgingly got back into playing constructed, at first with borrowed cards, then by buying display boxes again, but in reasonable amounts (actually the same amounts which I had considered insane in 1995) and slowly rebuilding my collection. That was the third phase of my collecting days. It lasted roughly from 2000-2008, and it was in those years that I qualified for the German national championships via rating once and via winning a constructed qualifier twice, and qualified for my only constructed pro tour by winning a PTQ. That is remarkable, because constructed play has never been my strength, and even more because there was a clear mismatch between my amount of preparation for tournaments and my success there. I believe it is no coincidence that my constructed successes came during a time when constructed Magic was mainly about interaction between decks in the spectrum between aggro and reactive control, not about comboing out (as during Urza-block standard) or trumping each other with threats (as it is today).
My collecting days then finally ended for good with the advent of mythic rares and cards becoming legal for constructed play on the day of their release, proving WotC’s unabashed dedication to make money a deciding factor to constructed success. While, in hindsight, I should not have sold my collection in 1999 (even though I could really use that money then), I never rued my decision to stop maintaining a card pool for constructed around 2008 and subsequently selling most of my collection, leaving only my comparatively small limited card pool.
Now, trading was a very different experience for me in each of those phases. In the first, I traded a lot, with many different people, and for cards of all rarities. I had quite a vague concept of rarity in the beginning – for example, I didn’t get the difference between an U3 and a U1 from Fallen Empires (which effectively meant that one was uncommon and one was rare). Also, I only knew that cards from Arabian Nights, Antiquities and Legends were somehow special (The Dark was actually reasonably well distributed among the players I knew), while Fallen Empires was so plenty that only the rarest cards were somehow valuable (then again, you could trade to get certain pictures of the commons). I also was a total scrub concerning my evaluation of card strength, like almost everyone else I knew. Shivan Dragon, Mahamoti Djinn and Royal Assassin were the chase rares, while stuff like Winter Orb or Nevinyrral’s Disk was just strange. To be fair, I had a slightly overaverage idea of the playability of cards from the very start, but that really didn’t mean much back then. It helped me to trade away really unplayable cards and acquire useful ones, but that was about it. Well, no: I liked dual lands from the beginning, which allowed me to pick them up from players who didn’t see their point (you could just play 2 basics instead!), but it took me years to realize their true potential. All in all, my trades were in most cases slightly advantageous to me, but not much, since I never lied about rarity and always openly discussed the merits of cards from my point of view. I got ripped off by a few players who had a better idea of the value of older cards, but not too badly, since I had no really valuable older cards, and since I knew to keep my duals.
Overall, that era was marked by people making many trades which satisfied both sides. There was no real concept of monetary value of single cards back then – if two cards had the same rarity, and you liked the one in possession of another person more than yours (for whatever reason), you wanted to make that trade and were happy if your trading partner complied. You also didn’t feel ripped off if your partner could only be convinced to part with his card if you threw an uncommon or two you didn’t need in the mix. The base line was that: If there were cards which their owner didn’t need, but another player wanted, an agreement would usually be found, and both players walked away happy.
Obviously, this naively idyllic trade environment couldn’t last. Still, it meant a rude awakening (no relation to the card) to me, when I discovered that I could meet new Magic players in stores – but when I endeavoured to trade with them, they only tried to rip me off in a manner so blatant that I simply couldn’t not notice it. Usually, they were still kids, who would show me a binder containing mostly inprint commons and uncommons – and LAME uncommons at that – while rapidly riffling through the much more extensive and interesting selection I provided, finally picking out the clearly most valuable rare with the comment “maybe this one…” The first time that happened, I felt pity for the kid who clearly had almost nothing to bargain with, yet longed for a powerful card out of his reach. However, I was irritated when that kid adamantly refused any deal I offered him which was clearly to his advantage, trading for cards I didn’t even really want just to help him develop his collection, since he was so obviously in need of playables. But no, the kid didn’t want anything except my best trade stock. Then, when this happened again and again, my pity was replaced by a strong desire to kick those kids in the teeth, because I finally had caught on of what was happening.
That was the first time I cut back on trading. I still traded with friends and acquaintances from my earliest Magic days, but soon realized that these people, who didn’t buy nearly as many boosters as I did, just didn’t have the cards I needed. So, instead I just bought more boosters, which I did from traders I had discovered who sold them considerably cheaper than most stores. I bought enough that I didn’t need to worry about commons and uncommons, and I bought the missing rares from those same traders for very affordable prices – the singles business was a new one, booster prices were quite low back then, and while a few cards were highly sought after by everyone just as today, every rare was worth something to someone, smoothing rare prices out.
Then I started working at Serious Games, and another era began. I realized that I could just buy enough booster boxes that I had 4 of each rare on average, and the store owner allowed me to trade with the store’s collection to get the missing ones. In other words, I had no needs whatsoever to trade with other people (at least as far as inprint editions were concerned). But that was in private: As part of my job, I traded heavily with the store’s customers. I made it my maxim to openly discuss my opinion of cards in trades and found that, while this prevented me from blatantly ripping off customers, it still allowed for good trades in the store’s interest, while building up trust with its customers. I could usually obtain slightly highlier sought-after tournament-worthy cards in exchange for casual-only stuff, even though I explicitly explained why I wanted to make those trades, because many customers simply didn’t care for card efficiency (many years before Elder Dragon Highlander was invented!)
The trading card world was still a beautiful place back then: Tournament players and casual players coexisted peacefully and did not fight too much over the same cards. Nearly all rares from the boosters opened by the store sold for not too different prices (ranging from 3 DM to 15 DM; not from virtually nothing to 50 euros like today). But of course, that wouldn’t last long.
When the tournament scene began to establish itself, things changed. Tournament staples were ever-higher sought after, and other cards plummeted in price. I’m afraid I was a bit slow on the uptake here, causing the store to be sold out with some cards way too often because I just couldn’t bring myself to putting ever-higher price tags on them. I really wanted to avoid the impression that Serious Games was sharking its customers, but in the end, the danger was far greater that our customers would begin to shark us. I finally had to give in and ask for what I felt were vastly overblown prices, just to make sure that cards didn’t sell out faster than we could acquire them. Some customers paid those prices without reservation. Others complained and told me that cards were much cheaper in other stores. I could only say that I was sorry to hear that and advise those customers to buy the singles in question in those other stores then. Not too unexpectedly, I usually got the answer that those stores were sold out of them, and I explained that it wasn’t fair to compare prices of cards actually in stock to those of cards which didn’t exist.
Still, I understood those complaints, because I felt the same way: Chase rares were becoming too expensive. At least, back then I could advise customers to buy boosters instead, which, on average, provided better value – prices of less desirable rares had not yet adapted by falling to effectively zero, and you could still trade a couple of junk rares for a top rare.
At the end of that era, I sold my collection and restarted it soon after. Since I was determined to only spend somehow reasonable amounts of money on boosters now, I had to trade privately again. I mainly did so at big tournaments, because trading at Serious Games, even when I was not working, meant a conflict of interests; and trading at other stores was also problematic, given that I was known to be working for Serious Games. I found that trading had changed: People started citing prices and insisted that trades would balance those out. Those prices, however, were taken from print magazines like Scrye, Inquest or Kartefakt, which in turn created their price lists by polling stores. That meant that those prices were already near carbon-dated when they were published, and allowed me to stay ahead quite easily of those people who were trying to take advantage of me by referring to those lists: If you have several years’ experience as a tournament player, you are just better at evaluating cards than the typical store owner, who was usually charging exactly the prices from the very lists he helped create. That allowed me to identify cards which would soon rise in price and trade for those, increasing the value of my trade stock continuously.
While I was, on average, more successful in trading then than in my early days, I nonetheless found that I didn’t like it anymore. The spirit of finding trades which made both sides happy was gone. You didn’t even trade with people who really WANTED cards anymore – those wouldn’t bother swimming with the trade sharks, instead just buying singles at stores to save time and nerves – you traded with dealers and would-be-dealers bent on making a profit. I was ahead of those who only came armed with price lists learned by heart, but that didn’t mean I enjoyed it. I just wanted to play the game and acquire the cards I felt I needed for that without spending way too much for this hobby (there’s an important difference between spending too much and way too much for your hobby).
Also, I started to hate the singles business at Serious Games. On one hand, I made some customers happy because they were able to buy certain cards cheaper here than elsewhere, because I knew that their list price was too high and would drop soon. But I knew this just meant that I was better at selling them stuff they didn’t really want, and I wasn’t glad about it. Worse, though, were the cards I decided to give a higher price to than the usual because I foresaw their price rising: People complained that Serious Games was more expensive than other stores (who mostly slavishly followed the very price lists they helped create), which was of course bad publicity. It wasn’t even fair, since our prices were usually still a bit lower than what other stores would ask (and get) a month later, when the cards were in higher demand, and the lower prices in other stores right now were often phantom prices, because I wasn’t the only person in Berlin able to evaluate cards, and some people would buy them while they were still cheap – clearing out the stores’ stocks – and then later resell them for a higher price. (Actually, I believe that those people were the ones complaining the loudest, applying pressure so that I would lower my prices and they could buy us out like they did with other stores.)
What I observed, without clearly seeing it then, was a change of the singles card market from a way to better distribute desired cards to customers towards a kind of stock market. But that development was far from over. When large online stores began to establish themselves, and the silly feedback-looping price lists from the print magazines were replaced by online price lists allowing you to actually buy those cards at those prices, price lists graduated from mere references to actual card values. Buying singles low and selling them high became a valid profession, and the resulting card hoarding exaggarated prices for top rares even more. That development also meant that I was no longer an expert for singles prices: The actual usefulness of a card had become less important than its perceived usefulness. To stay ahead of other dealers, you needed not to correctly evaluate the card, but the trend, and that was not a skill I possessed.
Private trading was now officially dead. You just didn’t trade anymore, you bought and sold. A “trade” consisted simply of piling up two stacks of cards amounting to the same total value. That was not only no fun at all, it also gave absolutely no advantage whatsoever to the tedious process of chcecking other players’ collections against your wishlist over simply selling the cards you didn’t need and buying the cards you wanted. Certainly, the trader or trading platform would make his cut, but that was neglectible compared to the time and nerves you saved.
While the internet factor was, of course, out of WotC’s control, the final nails in the coffin of the trading card concept came from the manufacturer itself: Mythic rares mean that most boosters no longer contain cards of little value, but instead of practically zero value – buying boosters has become a lottery, with a few winning lots among masses of blanks. Cards becoming legal in constructed immediately means that there is simply no time to trade for cards, or even buy boosters and then sell and buy singles. If you want to stay competitive when a new set hits the shelf, you have to preorder the cards you think you need from online sellers.
Buying boosters, even by the box, is no longer a way to smooth out the luck of the draw. You can easily open over 100 euros worth of boosters and find less than 20 euros worth of singles inside. (It happened to me the last time I bought display boxes.) Of course, there are also boxes which yield twice their cost in singles’ worth, but as a private customer, you can not afford that risk. You have to leave opening boxes to the professionals who open so many cases that variance poses no risk for them. (Incidentally, this also means that small stores can no longer afford to open a few boxes for their singles collection only – they are forced to open large amounts and sell the contents on the net.) As a customer, you no longer trade or even collect cards; you simply buy them as singles.
This is why Magic is no longer truly a trading card game or even a collectible card game, and this is just another reason why it has become less fun: You just do not get anything from opening boosters anymore (which used to be a captivating experience – do you still remember that?) Chances are that you will only find a bunch of cards you could have bought for half the price online, including shipping costs. If you play drafts, you will probably already own stacks of most of those cards, and the others are probably “not designed for you”, as Mark Rosewater uses to say. So you’re stuck with stuff you do not need, which no one else wants (because no one trades anymore), and which has no value whatsoever.
This is what I realized when I woke up from my dream: That just another reason I only play limited today (if at all) is that here opening a booster still means something. You find stuff you need inside, you might get a pleasant surprise with a higher chance than in the chase rare lottery – you actually have a USE for those cards… at least for a short while. If you play constructed or even casual, however, you have no use for boosters. You leave the risk of opening them to the professionals and buy the singles you want.
No trading, no collecting anymore. Just another way in which Magic actually IS already dead.