In nature, sharks get a bad rap.
Alligators kill more people each year than sharks do. So do cows. So do dogs - at about a 12:1 ratio. Heck, even falling coconuts are responsible for more fatalities each year than the fearsome shark. I went diving in Australia once and swam less than five feet from several white-tipped reef sharks that were longer than I was tall. I expected they’d at least size me up as a potential meal, but they seemed more interested in swimming in large circles, much like a very large goldfish.
Of course, humans don’t interact with sharks very often. I swam with a couple that one time, but every other shark I’ve seen has been safely tucked away behind aquarium glass. I doubt most of you have encountered a shark in the wild, yet most of you encounter dogs and/or coconuts on a daily basis. How dangerous sharks are simply doesn’t have that much application to those of us without gills.
Trade sharks are a different story. They are inescapable.
At every event, from the biggest GP to the smallest FNM, they set up shop and pull endless binders out of their oversized backpacks. If no one comes to see them, they stroll the isles casually, looking for anyone who isn’t engaged in a sanctioned event.
“Any interest in trading?” they ask, looking for that one elusive player who will make their whole day worthwhile. They travel hundreds of miles and forgo dozens of actual events to find him.
It isn’t just the endless-backpack guys who make trading a priority now, of course. Almost everyone with a trade binder fancies themselves a ruthless trader nowadays, and Medinaspeak (legit!) is as omnipresent in the trading world as Dave Hester’s “yuuup!” is on the storage auction circuit.
In the past, it was possible to avoid trading with sharks entirely. You could build your collection quite nicely simply by asking your random opponents to swap cards with you at their leisure. Nowadays, finding non-sharks with binders is hard and random PTQ opponents are often the most obsessed with ‘getting value.’ The ocean of Magic has gotten bigger, but the percentage of sharks just keeps growing by the day.
If you read this column regularly at all, there’s a very good chance you are either a shark yourself, or can give one a good run for their money. No matter why you trade or how good you are at it, though, your game should still change when dealing with a shark. In today’s article, I’m going to talk about the different types of sharks and tell you how to beat them.
With any luck, this article will prevent a couple of friendly minnows from becoming some trade shark’s Friday night chum.
The Mako Shark
How to Spot a Mako Shark in the Sea:
Mako sharks can live in nearly any environment and seem to thrive in both warm and cool water. They are small sharks – among the smallest – but are very aggressive and have been known to attack humans who underestimate them due to their diminutive size.
Makos are also the fastest sharks in the world.
How to Spot a Mako Shark at a Magic Tournament:
At Magic events, mako trade sharks are very common and very dangerous. Unlike Great Whites, who are obviously out to get you, makos tend to be unassuming at first. Often, you won’t realize you’re trading with a shark at all until it’s too late.
Mako sharks usually have a small trade binder perfectly targeted toward the event they’re attending – most of the best Standard or Modern staples and very few casual cards. They will usually approach you and ask if you want to trade without any concern over what activity you’re otherwise engaged in.
Upon seeing your trade stock, makos will immediately home in on your top tier staples as well as utility lands (usually as throw-ins or deal sweeteners). They will make no pretense about wanting the cards for a deck, and will rarely make much small talk at all.
The only casual cards they’re likely to ask about are ones they’ve recently read about being undervalued on the trading floor – Thraximundar, for example, or Death Baron. Their interest in those cards will dry up immediately once they realize that you know what they’re worth.
Makos rarely think about anything other than gaining value, an idea they’re wickedly obsessed with. While many traders will use “what do you value this at?” as a way to get a sense of how your partner values their obscure or rare cards, makos will ask this question about almost every tournament playable card in your binder until they ‘get you.’
How to Beat a Mako:
If they have something you legitimately want to trade for, this is a great time to bring out the smart phone and circumvent the ‘what do you value this at?’ dance. Just make sure that you use the same source to evaluate both sides of the trade and you’ll leave in good shape.
The important thing to know about the mako is that his trading style is all about tempo. By asking you what you value things at and moving quickly in general, he’s setting the tone for the trade so that it’s over before you have time to really consider it. This is why I recommend getting out the phone and slowing things down. There’s no need to slow things down TOO much – there’s nothing I hate more than traders who obsess for ten minutes over a five dollar trade – but if you sense him try to increase the pace of the negotiations, taking a step back and playing control to his aggro strategy is perfectly reasonable.
If you want to legitimately ‘get’ a mako, of course, you have another option – turn the tables back on him.
First, it’s important to get an idea of how he reacts to your cards when you start spouting prices at him. If his eyes light up when he gets to a price that you’re not too sure about, that likely means that you’ve undervalued the card. Make a note of that for later, because he’s likely already dreaming on that profit.
After that, go through his book and ask him what HE values everything at. Go through every last card if you have to. If he knows all of his prices, well, good on him, but I guarantee you that 95% of these traders have gaps in their knowledge somewhere. Most Makos are the bottom-feeders of the trading community, and if you read any of these articles there’s a good chance you know something they don’t.
Then it’s a simple matter of pulling a bait-and-switch on them. Make him think that he’s getting the undervalued cards he wanted from you until the last possible moment, which is when you tell him that you need to hold on to those but you’re perfectly fine going ahead with the rest of the trade. In most cases, the ‘rest of the trade’ should be whatever undervalued cards you’ve found on his end going your way and a staple that you both know the correct value of going to him.
Because makos are all about closing deals fast, he’ll likely accept and you’ll have flipped his aggression right back around on him. Good for you!
The Whale Shark
How to Spot a Whale Shark in the Sea:
Whale sharks are the largest living fish. Save humans, they have no known predators.
Most sharks lurk near the bottom of the sea, but whale sharks prefer the warm waters near the surface. Unlike many other sharks, whale sharks feed passively on plankton, algae, and small fish that get too close.
How to Spot a Whale Shark at a Magic Tournament:
Much like their counterparts in the natural world, whale sharks on the trading floor are very intimidating at first glance. To those who measure sharkitude based solely on the size of a person’s trade binder, the whale shark is indeed the biggest fish in the sea.
Whale sharks will often have four or five binders, each larger and more intimidating than the last. At the largest events, whale sharks are likely to carry around upwards of $30,000 worth of cards on their backs – full sets of Beta power and dual lands, binders filled with Japanese and Russian foils, and playsets of every tournament staple ever conceived.
In nature, it takes a lot to get a whale shark to notice you. The same is true on the trading floor. Whale sharks often trade passively, preferring to sit around and let people paw through their books and admire their collection. Often they will only be interested in trading for cards they don’t yet have (and nothing under $50-$60), but many times they’ll be in the market for a random little $3-$5 card they want to experiment with in a Commander deck. Unfortunately for them, they’ll have a difficult time getting it because their books are too intimidating – potential trade partners will either be too intimidated to make an offer or too aggressive in trying to trade up for a $200 foreign foil.
How to Beat a Whale Shark:
In most cases, whale sharks are perfectly harmless. Most of these guys acquired their collections long ago and don’t need to fight for value on every little trade. Others simply have so much disposable income that grinding value is a waste of their time and energy. Or course, not every trader with a giant binder is a whale shark, but if you do actually find one of these guys you will have a positive experience more often than not.
Most whale sharks are collectors and lovers of rare and unique cards, so it’s important to engage them on this level if possible. They couldn’t care less about tournament staples – they’ll know all the values, sure, but their general feeling is that Titans come and go while this might be their one shot of the day to get that 4th Korean Mishra's Factory they need to complete their playset.
The best part about trading with whale sharks is that the values on the cards they are most interested in are far more subjective. If you have any rarities lying around, these are the guys most likely to give you top dollar for them. These are the kind of trades when you can turn a card that is only of real interest to a fraction of people into a playset of the hottest Legacy or Modern staple. If you’re an active trader, then, try and pick up velocity over value when dealing with whale sharks. Trading dust-gathering rarities for hot eternal cards is oftentimes more useful than simply gaining value.
This is also a good time to shop for cards you simply won’t find anywhere else. There was a player at my local store who told me that he had to have a Spanish copy of Sarkhan the Mad because the text read ‘Sarkhan el Loco’ and he thought that was the funniest thing ever. I was able to pick one up for him from a whale shark at a GP and I made a nice profit turning it over to him at the store a few weeks later.
The Great White Shark
How to Spot a Great White in the Sea:
The great white shark is known for a distinctive white belly, but the back of the shark might be black, grey, or even brown.
Great whites are responsible for more of the attacks on humans than any other type. The largest predatory fish in the sea, these suckers might go through more than ONE THOUSAND TEETH in their lifetimes!
How to Spot a Great White at a Magic Tournament:
Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to spot a great white by sight. They could have any size binder containing any number of cards, though they will be sporting a very nice collection with multiple pages of pimped-out foils and duals more often than not.
Much like its kin in the sea, the great white is most easily identified by its vicious nature and aura of fearsome intimidation. The great white is a bully – a scorched-earth trader who will attempt to berate their partner into making a trade that both sides know full well is lopsided.
While most traders are okay using smartphones to assist in finding the value of obscure cards, Great Whites already have a set value for each card they’re interested in acquiring. Great Whites often have no qualms about outright lying to you, but more often they’ll couch their dubious values in ambiguous terms. “I can go two on this,” he’ll say, pulling a card out of his partner’s book that retailed for $5 until last week when it jumped to $8 and slamming it down in front of him.
Great whites often act like they’re in a hurry, and usually treat their partner’s cards and binders roughly. It’s the trader’s version of that intimidating ‘shuffle-shuffle-shuffle-FLIP’ that so many grinders do with their hands to throw their opponents off.
Makos use speed as well, but they do it because they simply want to close the deal before you have second thoughts. The great whites like to use that trick as well, but they add a layer of condescension and intimidation on top of it. When dealing with a Great White, you are often overcome with a sense that their time is more valuable than yours. They’ll make you feel like you’re lucky to even be in their presence, and any time spent haggling over their prices reflects poorly on you.
Because of this, even if you were to get the better end of a deal with a Great White, you’d still probably feel bad afterward. In fact, you’ll probably feel bad regardless of whether or not you complete a trade at all. These are the sharks responsible for the least pleasant trade you’ve ever had.
How to Beat a Great White:
You are not going to win a trade with a Great White. He won’t let you. It doesn’t matter how up-to-date you are on your prices, sleeper card knowledge, or anything else, he will only make a trade using such laughably absurd margins that no one can possibly beat him. He will simply keep berating you until you take his deal or walk away in a confused huff.
The only way to beat a Great White is to troll him. When he asks about one of your most expensive cards, taunt him by asking a laughably low price in return – a $5 Maze of Ith, say, or a $20 dual land. Watch his eyes light up and that large, toothy grin spread across his face. (Note that if he clues you in to the fact that your card is worth far more than that, he isn’t a Great White!)
That’s when you spend the next half hour going through his trade binder and asking him about every single card at least twice. By the ten minute mark, he’ll practically be apoplectic over the fact that you haven’t found anything yet. This tactic isn’t for those with a weak constitution, as the Great White will stop at nothing to get your card, but when you walk away at the end you’ll have taken something valuable from him – his time.
The Tiger Shark
How to Spot a Tiger Shark in the Sea:
Tiger sharks are named after the dark stripes on their sides, though they tend to fade by adulthood and most full-grown tiger sharks lack these distinctive markings. Tigers are solitary hunters who generally seek their prey at night, and are responsible for the 2nd most recorded attacks on humans after great whites.
The most unique thing about tiger sharks is that they’ll eat absolutely anything. Have you ever seen a weird news story about someone who caught a shark only to find something weird in its stomach (A clock, an arm, a car, another shark)? Odds are, the shark in question was one of these.
How to Spot a Tiger Shark at a Magic Tournament:
While the seafaring tiger shark eats absolutely everything in its path, the tournament-attending tiger shark is the guy who notices absolutely everything wrong about your card. Any ding, scrape, scuff, or nick is a buck or two off in this guy’s estimation. He’ll do everything short of using a jeweler’s loupe to find reasons to devalue your merchandise.
Conveniently, this price-dinging step generally comes after you’ve already settled on values for his cards, and chances are you didn’t think much about the condition of those before agreeing on values with him.
While tiger sharks are hard to spot on sight, they generally gravitate towards older cards – Legacy staples, dual lands, and other high-value bits of cardboard that are likely to have sustained damage in their 10-20 years on earth. Rarely will they try this tactic on Standard cards, though often they’ll ask for a buck or two off if you’ve got a warped foil – as if there were any other kind!
While makos and great whites are the aggro players of the trading world, tiger sharks play control. As opposed to trying to get you to make a deal you’re not quite ready to make, tigers are willing to draw things out to the point where you’ll accept a subpar deal just to move things along. And the more desperate you seem to get whatever card he’s holding over your head, the longer he’ll wait and the more he’ll try to get.
Tigers will often go through your entire book multiple times, haggling prices down on cards that they don’t even really want just to frustrate you and see how low you’ll go. Often you’ll go through a full run-around with them on a card time only to be told later that they weren’t actually interested – at least, not at that price. But because they’re the only one in the hall who has that City of Traitors you need to finish your deck, you decide that you need to stick it out and hope they eventually make you an actual offer.
I know I myself have proposed many trades to these people where I’ve showed them exactly how they’re gaining value AND getting cards they purported to have wanted only to get slow-played for the next half hour.
How to Beat a Tiger:
Any attempt to speed these guys up usually just ends in failure and a broken trade. If they can’t operate at their speed, they’ll often just walk away and search for another victim. Since you (in theory) really want a card they have, this isn’t good for you. Ditto to giving them a time limit (IE ‘my round starts in five minutes, so let’s wrap this up.’)
The best method I’ve found for circumventing their system is to start removing choices from them one at a time. If you have multiple binders and you sense you’re in the presence of a tiger shark, leave all but one of them in your backpack. If it’s too late for that, just start answering “It’s not for trade, sorry” when he asks about cards in your book that you don’t want to complicate the deal with.
This system will still end up with a failed trade now and again, but usually the tiger shark will just try and work with the cards you’ve already talked about. Taking away options from him just gets him to his endgame faster and reduces the chance of you taking a bad offer just to get the deal done.
If the tiger starts pricing your cards based on condition, make sure you go back and do the same for his. Do not let him get away with only doing this for your side of the deal! Another option is to simply tell him you expect full value out of your cards regardless of condition because so many traders out there don’t care unless the thing is literally falling apart. This is what I do, simply because 90% of the people I trade with don’t care in the slightest if a card is damaged and use near-mint prices on websites as their gospel.
The worst thing you can do is to get frustrated and just give in. I’ve made plenty of bad trades to these guys at the end of long GP days just to keep things moving, and I’ve regretted all of them.
Stay in the Water!
This may be a myth that’s grown into ‘fact’ over the years, but I’ve heard that in 1973 – the year that JAWS hit the big screen – beach attendance was down all over the country. Even though the chance a shark attack is remote, people were actually scared.
Similarly, you don’t have to go through every trading experience with a fear of being sharked at every turn.
Magic is supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun trading, don’t do it. As someone who trades a lot, I have more of a problem with paranoid non-sharks who assume I’m out to get them and go into a hyper-defense mode before I’ve opened my mouth. My biggest trading pet peeve is the guy who absolutely HAS to make sure their trade evens out to the last nickel and looks things up on multiple sites in order to make sure they’re not secretly getting robbed.
Collection ‘values’ fluctuate by hundreds of dollars every single day based on tournament results, speculation, and more. The dollar you gain or lose in a $30 FNM trade is a drop in the bucket compared to a hundred other factors that affect your collection’s price, most of which are entirely out of your hands.
Most of the trading I do these days is to complete sets for my own collection, which is solely a labor of love. People who approach trading with hostility and paranoia are ruining it for me even more than the sharks are.
General Tips for Shark Defense
There are two big differences between trade sharks and normal traders, and you should keep both of them in mind whenever you deal with one.
The first is that sharks will always try and conduct their trades in such a way to throw you off your game. By using all of the tricks I’ve mentioned above, they’ll find a niche that works for them and use it in order to get you to make a trade you wouldn’t otherwise make.
These practices have only increased with the uptick in smartphone use because the old trick of hoping people didn’t have accurate information is no longer as effective.
The second difference is that a shark’s only goal on a trade is to gain value. That’s it. Sometimes they’ll be up front about this and let you know that they’re trading for profit, but most of the time they won’t mention it – they’ll just try and ‘win’ whatever trade they’re in the middle of.
The best thing you can do in order to try and beat any kind of shark is to stay calm and stick to your principals. Most gamers have been bullied at one time or another in their lives, and the sharks are counting on that aura of self-doubt that we’ve all experienced to kick in and allow them to profit. Don’t let them rush you. Don’t let them slow play you. Don’t let them tell you that you’re wrong if you know that you’re right. Try to take emotion out of it and only make a trade you feel comfortable making.
If all else fails, remember this: you don’t have to make any trade. Not ever.
Until next time –
- Chas Andres