On July 16th, 2010, I sat down at my desk in Studio City and cracked a pack of Zendikar.
The contents were as follows:
• Verdant Catacombs
• Goblin Shortcutter (Foil)
• Frontier Guide
• Marsh Casualties
• Unstable Footing
• Kor Skyfisher
• Caller of Gales
• Whiplash Trap
• Vampire Lacerator
• Blood Seeker
• Goblin Shortcutter
• Stonework Puma
• Teetering Peaks
• Basic Plains
• Beast Token (4/4)
484 days later, I handed a binder to Jon Saso, the owner of Channel Fireball, and received in return a copy of Mox Sapphire from Alpha – one of only 1,100 copies that were printed in Magic’s very first expansion.
While the Sapphire is in heavily played condition, most of that is from creasing that is hard to detect when sleeved. The card lies flat, and upon first inspection is a gorgeous specimen of an older Magic card. Regardless of condition, it is an important piece of the game’s history and I am proud to own it.
The cards inside the binder came only from trades that I made from that original ‘seed’ pack. And yet, in just 106 trades, I made it from a single pack of the current set to one of the game’s marquee cards.
I turned a pack of Zendikar into a piece of the Power 9.
But the journey was about so much more than that for me.
500 days ago, I wasn’t a Magic writer at all. It was my Pack to Power project, in which I wrote about each trade in its entirety on my blog, Doctor Albert’s Trading Prescription , that started me on the road toward where I am now, writing weekly for Channel Fireball.
If it hadn’t been for Pack to Power, chances are most of you would have never heard my name.
Of course, Pack to Power has also had a powerful and far-reaching impact on the community as a whole. It was Jon Medina’s Pack to Power project that pushed MTG finance into the mainstream. And ever since he began blogging about his journey on the site that was then known as Mananation, a golden horde of ‘value’ traders have marched across our lands, leaving only decimated binders in their wake.
This week, I want to touch briefly on the Pack to Power phenomenon while discussing my personal experience in going from tearing open that booster to being handed an Alpha Sapphire. We’ll go through some of my best (and worst) trades, discussing the pros and cons of trading with a long-term goal!
A Short Disclaimer about Brags and Fleecings
In most of my articles, I preach a certain amount of humility and integrity that I try to take with me onto the trading floor.
Those who have dealt with me know that I don’t try to hustle or pressure people, instead opting to make conversation and keep the trade process fun. Trading is a hobby of mine, not a profession, and as such I try not to take it too seriously.
That said, this is an article about me trading a pack of Zendikar into an Alpha Mox Sapphire. While some of the value was gained due to good speculation and sheer luck, plenty of it came because I made some trades that were very favorable to me.
With my personal trade stock, I strive to make fair trades. Pull out a smart phone, check all the values, and I will happily trade for you as long as I end up with cards I want.
Pack to Power was different.
While I wasn’t actively trying to hustle people in making these trades, I did strive to gain as much value as possible whenever I could. I told most of the people I was trading with about my goal and explained to them that I either needed to gain value on a deal or trade obscure cards for in-demand staples that I knew I could move.
While I treat my normal trade stock as a collection, I treated Pack to Power like a store – everything is available, but I needed to try and gain value on every deal. Most people were more than happy to trade with me out of the binder, because I often had cards in it that no one else had available. Price, after all, is nothing more than what someone will spend for something.
I also told myself at the beginning of the project that I would accept “too good to be true” offers without protesting too much. Usually when people offer me, say, a $10 card for a $5 one, I will tell them to pick something else small out of my binder to even it up. Not so here. Again, if you want to turn a pack of cards into a Mox, you need to gain some value.
I know there’s a large contingent of people who prefer my articles to those of other MTG financial writers because I preach fair trading and don’t just write up a bunch of sick brags and call it an article.
To those guys, uh, I’m sorry about this week’s content. Try back next Wednesday.
(500) Days of Power
On April 22nd, 2010, Jon Medina made Magic history.
By opening a Rise of the Eldrazi pack that contained a Bear Umbra and trading it up toward what eventually became an Unlimited Mox Pearl, Jon made a name for himself as the ‘first’ Magic financial guru, a title that landed him a job as Star City Games’ financial columnist immediately following his Pack to Power quest.
Unlike my journey, his only took 122 days. But he completed only ten fewer trades than I did – we did roughly equal amounts of grinding, but I was less focused. My binder sometimes went months without coming out of the bag.
Once people realized that Jon was actually going to ‘get there,’ hundreds of Magic players decided that they had been going about trading wrong from the start.
Instead of trading sparingly for cards they needed to finish decks, they began ruthlessly dealing for value, realizing that by churning enough capital they would never want for a card again.
While there had always been trade sharks, the term ‘value trader’ had yet to be coined. All of a sudden, every Spike, Tim, and Johnny would only trade their mythics if they could ‘get some value.’
With a growing legion of value traders, the demand for MTG finance content exploded overnight. What was once the purview of a tiny subsection of the community became mainstream, and so did those who could articulate the best ways to make a profit and close a trade. A website solely dedicated to MTG finance (Quietspeculation.com), which had actually been around for about a year at this point) exploded in popularity.
The age of trading had arrived.
Of course, blaming this new attitude entirely on Pack to Power is flawed.
The new, value-centric world of Magic that we now live in came to exist due to the recession, the rising price of cards due to mythics, and the rising age/income level/need for fiscal responsibility among Magic’s grinder class.
Jon Medina’s Pack to Power may have been the spark, but the powder keg was already there.
My own journey was inspired by Jon Medina’s quest, but probably not in the way you might think. The actual incident that sparked me to go from Pack to Power was the following trade, made by Jon about a month and a half into the project:
This trade, (and if you weren’t playing in June of 2010, it was a VERY lopsided deal), accompanied by the usual bravado that Jon employs in his writing, spawned a firestorm of comments.
While most people accused Jon of ripping off some kid, to me it seemed like a far bigger problem: collusion. As a purest, I REALLY wanted to see Mr. Medina go from a pack of Rise of the Eldrazi to a piece of the power nine – and I wanted to see him do it honestly, not by getting gift trades from friends.
That night, I ranted about Jon’s trade to my friend Kyle, who was also following Pack to Power pretty closely. “If you’re that bent up about it,” he told me, “why don’t we just do our own Pack to Power?”
So I did.
Even though I got a Verdant Catacombs in my pack, my first trade actually involved my second best asset – the full-art Plains.
• Basic Plains (Zendikar Full Art)
All four of those cards were from his bulk rare binder, and each of them was crucial in allowing me to build my portfolio.
The Glare of Subdual became a Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, which then became a Doubling Season and a Mana Reflection. (Yeah, the current price of Commander cards makes this one seem especially egregious.)
Lastly, the Cho-Manno was part of the trade toward the one card that proved to be the cornerstone of the entire project.
Don’t Always Diversify
I knew I was lucky to be starting with a rare as valuable as a Verdant Catacombs, and my immediate thought was to trade it down for as much volume as possible. The more cards I ended up getting out of it, I figured, the more chances I’d have to make good deals.
Even though I turned a card that was $10 at the time into a fat stack of rares worth about $20, only the Planeswalker and a singleton Jhoira of the Ghitu ended up getting me much in return.
My other big ‘scores’ from that trade were two of the Invasion dragons from Phyrexia vs. The Coalition. Unfortunately, they sparked zero interest from anyone for the entire duration of the project. Oops.
While I still believe it was right to trade down the Catacombs, it was wrong to do so for so many cards that required a niche audience. Were I to do this trade over again, I would have looked for a trade that left me with Standard playable rares.
The Lure of Uncommons
Continuing on my quest to fill the book with as many cards as possible, I traded the Mycosynth Golem for the following haul:
• Mycosynth Golem
• Leyline of Sanctity
• Hell’s Thunder
• Gatekeeper of Malakir x2
• Tidehollow Sculler x3
• Behemoth Sledge x3
• Goblin Ruinblaster x3
• Leatherback Baloth
• Cunning Sparkmage
• Ajani’s Pridemate
Again, the logic was to diversify into a bunch of uncommons that I might be able to trade at $1 each for higher-end rares. But the days of Ruinblaster were already behind us, and only the two rares and the Gatekeepers ended up making a difference in the ultimate quest. While this was still a good trade for me, the casual player with an interest in Behemoth Sledges just never materialized.
Luck and Time
The following series of trades, more than any other, is what allowed me to go from Pack to Power:
• Candelabra of Tawnos (HP)
Granted, this was a killer deal at the time, but valuing the Candelabra that day at anything over $25 would have been generous at best. I logged the value at $30, but that was me being hopeful, and I tried in vain to get people to take it off my hands at that price for the next couple of months.
Of course, you likely know what happened next.
Months after this trade, Candelabra became the most important combo piece in the best Legacy deck in the format. With prices shooting past $250 seemingly overnight, I was browsing Twitter and noticed that Jon Medina himself was in the market for a set of Candelabras – apparently several deals he had negotiated for them the night before had fallen though.
So we made the following trade:
• Candelabra of Tawnos (HP)
Thanks to a local Legacy player, I then turned the Underground Seas into this haul:
• Grim Tutor (NM)
• Armageddon x4
• Journeyer’s Kite x2
• Sylvan Library
• Phyrexian Arena x2
• Greater Auramancy x2
• Guttural Response x3 (Foil)
• Woodfall Primus
• Zendikar Island #235 (Foil)
• Zendikar Plains #232 (Foil)
• Zendikar Forest #248 (Foil)
• Blatant Thievery x2
• No Mercy
• Seedborn Muse
• Stonehewer Giant
• Memory Plunder
While the Tezzeret, which was still worth around $45 in value at the time, became this:
While some of this profit is due to speculation paying off, (I knew Sword of Feast and Famine and Skithiryx were likely to rise in value or hold value more than Tezzeret), a lot of my gain came from sheer luck.
I was lucky that someone wanted to trade me a Candelabra, lucky that no one else snagged it from me in the ensuing couple of months, and lucky that it shot up in value to the price of, well, a small piece of power. I was luckier still that I got out at the top of the market and ‘banking’ the assets in a Grim Tutor, which has maintained value beautifully in the months since I acquired it.
Value isn’t Everything
While up at Superstars (the Channel Fireball storefront) that summer, I came across a card that I absolutely, positively had to have: a foil Avatar of Woe from Prophecy.
I had only seen one other, back during Judgment at my local game store in Littleton, Massachusetts. At the time, it was probably the most impressive card I’d ever seen. And yes, I’d seen (and owned) dozens of dual lands and Forces of Will.
I offered him the Doubling Season for it straight up, and he accepted.
My problem? The market for that Avatar of Woe was, uh, me. After months of it sitting there and garnering no attention, I realized that I needed it for my cube. I swapped it out for a regular, non-foil Avatar of Woe – which also sat there and collected dust until the bitter end.
In that time, I could have flipped the Doubling Season a dozen times over.
Even though I ‘gained’ almost $10 in that trade, I wouldn’t do it again. The big lesson of this entire project? Velocity is SO much more important than value.
A few months into my journey, I found myself with a heavily played Badlands. This was before the ‘bad duals’ had as much mystique as they do now, but it was still burning a hole in my pocket. I was up at Superstars again, and I wanted to get a bunch of stuff to bring home with me to jumpstart my trading efforts.
So I made the following trade:
• Badlands (heavy play)
• Armament Master
• World Queller
• Near-Death Experience
• Mesa Enchantress
• Brigid, Hero of the Kinsbaile
• Hedron-Field Purists x2
• Silence x4
• Terra Eternal
• Celestial Mantle x4 (1 foil)
• Umbra Mystic x5
• Vengeful Archon x10
• Traumatize x2
• Merfolk Sovreign x3
• Cosi’s Trickster
• Selective Memory x6
• Lullmage Mentor
• Recurring Insight x3
• Ambassador Laquatus
• Gravitational Shift
• Quest for Ula’s Temple
• Hive Mind
• Leyline of Anticipation
• Archmage Ascension x3
• Stormtide Leviathan x7
• Goliath Sphinx x9
• Clone x12
• Mind Shatter (foil)
• Skeletal Vampire
• Dark Tutelage
• Leyline of the Void x3
• Haunting Echoes x5
• Guul Draz Specter x2
• Halo Hunter x3
• Scepter of Fugue x2
• Royal Assassin x8
• Pestilence Demon x3
• Baneful Omen x2
• Repay in Kind x4
• Bala Ged Thief x2
• Blood Tribute x3
• Thought Gorger x2
• Agadeem Occultist
• Cairn Wanderer
• Quest for the Nihil Stone
• Void Maw
• Extractor Demon
• Drana, Kalastria Highborn x2
• Hoarding Dragon x3
• Ancient Hellkite x6
• Caldera Hellion x2
• Conquering Manticore x3
• Stone Idol Trap x4
• Hellkite Charger x2
• Worldheart Phoenix x2
• Warp World
• Disaster Radius x2
• Magmaw x4
• Goblin Razerunners
• Mordant Dragon x2
• Bloodhall Ooze
• Capricious Efreet
• Form of the Dragon
• Risky Move
• World at War x2
• Cyclops Gladiator x7
• Goblin Chieftain x6
• Kazuul Warlord
• Wild Evocation x6
• Ion Storm
• Protean Hydra x3
• Leyline of Vitality x4
• Strength of the Tajuru x4
• Weird Harvest
• Brooding Saurian
• Gelatinous Genesis
• Cylian Sunsinger x2
• Kalonian Behemoth
• Predatory Urge
• Turntimber Ranger
• Mirror of Fate
• Jester’s Scepter
• Jinxed Idol x6
• Sphinx-Bone Wand x6
• Keening Stone
• Grappling Hook
• Spawnsire of Ulamog
• Hedron Matrix x3
• Blitz Hellion
• Ink-Treader Nephilim
• Brilliant Ultimatum
• Blood Tyrant
• Charnelhoard Wurm
• Crypt of Agadeem
• Magosi, the Waterveil
Here’s what I wrote about the trade at the time:
“Ever hear that old capitalist chestnut “You have to spend money to make money?” That’s essentially what this trade was. While it looks on paper like I came out 50 dollars ahead, that’s not quite true – – I may never get someone to trade for my Mirror of Fate at $0.25 value – – or at ANY value, for that matter. I’d also rather not have twelve copies of Clone. But at the end of the day, I traded one sure thing for three hundred lottery tickets, any of which will get me closer to my goal. In my life outside Pack to Power, I wouldn’t have made this trade – – heck, I’d be more likely to do it the other way ’round. But for this project? My binder has just increased in size tenfold.”
In hindsight, my logic was sound but incomplete. I was dead-set on gaining incremental value with small, casual rare trades. Instead, I should have tried trading the dual for other, smaller value Standard or Legacy staples. While I did manage to turn some of these cards into things people might want, most of them ended up sitting in my closet for over a year.
The Commander Renaissance
This was a trade that, at the time, gained me about $2 in value:
• Mana Reflection
• Captivating Vampire
A lot of cards in my book gained absurd amounts of value due to the increased popularity of the Commander format. Unfortunately, I traded most of ‘em right away. Kiki-Jiki, Woodfall Primus, Mana Reflection and more came into the binder and then went straight back out at $1-$5 instead of the >$10 they’re at now.
Mind Your Price Swings
When I made this trade, I was gaining almost $20 in value:
Not cringe-inducing enough for you? This trade put me up almost $25:
This is why I tell people that value is more subjective than they think.
At the time, I gained a whopping $45 in ‘profit’ by making both of these swaps. Man, what a shark I was, right?
But by today’s prices, making the very same trades would mean I would lose $60 in value!
Granted, most of those Standard cards rotated and there was a massive price spike in eternal staples, but the point I want to make is that people often act like values are fixed points in space. They aren’t.
Think about these trades next time you fight over the last penny in a deal or trade your eternal/casual staples for Standard cards. You aren’t just paying for the card, you’re paying for a certain amount of Standard legality along with it. Use it or lose it.
On an opposite note, check out this trade. At the time, it was less than $5 in my favor:
• Koth of the Hammer
Yeah, this was a totally defensible trade at the time. The eyes of history judge Standard cards particularly harshly.
I’ve written about this trade before on this site, so I’ll only briefly touch upon it here:
• Entomb (Water Damage) x4 – $60.00
These Entombs were in dreadful condition. Even though I was unconvinced they’d pass muster at a sanctioned event, I couldn’t resist the value. After months of finding no takers in the trade market, I posted them on eBay (with a TON of disclaimers) at a $70 Buy it Now.
They sold within fifteen minutes.
I pocketed $56 after shipping and fees. One month later, Entomb was announced as part of Premium Decks: Graveborn, just as I had anticipated.
While the played Entombs wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere toward the Sapphire, the $56 cash was huge. Being able to offer it along with the binder got me the handshake that made the Mox mine.
I’ve spoken a lot in this article about investing in Standard and trading for high-velocity cards instead of dorky casual rares. The reason why most of the cards I targeted during Pack to Power were casual favorites was because those were the cards that were the easiest to gain value on. Most people know what their [card hero of bladehold]Heroes of Bladehold[/card] are worth and are reluctant to move them at a discount. That isn’t true for, say, Patron Wizard.
Another problem with buying into too many Standard staples is that often you will find yourself holding a hot potato when the bottom falls out of a deck.
For example, Eldrazi Monument was a solid $15-$20 for almost a year. Then, suddenly, no one wanted it anymore. I was stuck with one, and I had to move it months later in the following deal:
• Eldrazi Monument
• Mental Misstep
I did this because I wanted to at least ‘lock down’ the current value of the Monument at $5, and get a card that had a chance to rise in price and was always in demand.
Then Misstep got banned in virtually everything, and the trade looked REALLY foolish.
One of the primary skills of a good trader is knowing when to sell. Making value on a trade is a meaningless thing unless you ‘bank’ that value in something stable – cash, or (so far) eternal or casual staples.
Don’t make the Monumental mistake I did here. If you’re dealing with hot Standard cards, sell when you think the market has reached a fever pitch. (I’m looking at you, Wurmcoil Engine!)
I honestly hadn’t been expecting to trade for Power at the GP last weekend. My hope was merely to find out where I stood and then make the final push at Worlds.
Then my Commander deck got stolen, either out of my bag or off the table in front of me.
It was my girlfriend Emma’s Commander deck, actually. It was B/u/g Mimeoplasm zombie brew that she designed for a deck-building contest on Red Site Wins.
After I realized what happened, I was queasy, angry, and couldn’t face the trade tables for a while. I’d had cards stolen from my binder before, but never an entire deck. It’s not a good feeling – and it wasn’t fun calling Emma and telling her that some creep stole something she spent so much time building, either.
I headed over to the Channel Fireball booth, and ended up talking to Jon, TSG, and the team. After cheering up a bit, I decided to show Jon how far I had come with my Pack to Power project.
“Want to see if you got there?” he asked me.
“Sure,” I said, “but I want a good piece of Power. I was originally after a Beta Time Walk.”
He showed me the Alpha Sapphire, and I immediately took to it. “How far off am I?” I asked him. The Mox was in the case at $600, and I knew my book had a current retail value of around $1,000.
This is the sort of value hit you need to take when trading for power, especially power with a black border. Regardless of whether I went to a dealer or a trader for my prize, I was going to be using buylist prices for my cards and retail for theirs.
I knew this going in, even if I was going to have to shut off the, “you’re losing so much valllluuueee” part of my brain in order to make the deal.
I swallowed, and handed him my book.
Ten minutes later, he came back. “You’re around fifty dollars short on buylist prices,” he said, making me sweat it out for a good minute. “But I think we can make it work. Do you want to do it?”
I didn’t have to think twice. The only thing I asked was that I could keep the 4/4 Beast Token, which made the full journey with me, and will now have a permanent home in my cube.
In the end, here is the full list of significant cards I acquired during my journey and subsequently forked over for the Mox:
Consecrated Sphinx x3 – $45
Darkslick Shores x3 – $39
Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon x3 – $30
Vampire Nocturnus x2 – $30
Knight of the Reliquary x3 (Japanese) – $30
Doubling Season – $25
Wurmcoil Engine – $20
Goblin Piledriver – $20
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite x2 – $20
Dismember x4 – $16
Cryptic Command – $15
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth – $12
Misty Rainforest – $12
Phantasmal Image- $11
Verdant Catacombs – $11
Terravore – $10
Sylvan Library – $10
Armageddon x4 – $10
Woodfall Primus – $10
Zendikar Island #235 (Foil) – $10
Master Transmuter x2 – $10
Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre – $9
Back to Basics – $9
Horizon Canopy – $9
Sun Titan – $8
Blood Moon (The Dark) – $8
Lotus Bloom -$8
Zendikar Plains #232 (Foil) – $8
Zendikar Forest #248 (Foil) – $8
Eladamri, Lord of Leaves – $8
Painter’s Servant – $7
Blade Splicer (Foil) – $7
Nevinyrral’s Disk – $7
Blinkmoth Nexus -$7
Ratchet Bomb x2 – $6
Phyrexian Arena x2 – $6
Stoneforge Mystic – $6
Braid of Fire – $6
Guttural Response x3 (Foil) – $6
Patron Wizard – $6
Sorin Markov – $5
Journeyer’s Kite x2 – $5
Stonehewer Giant – $5
Spell Snare – $5
No Mercy – $5
Aluren – $5
Summoning Trap x4 – $4
Goblin Guide – $4
Auriok Champion – $4
Consuming Vapors (Foil) – $4
Threads of Disloyalty – $4
Awakening Zone (Foil) – $4
Avatar of Woe – $4
Bloodbraid Elf (Promo Foil) – $4
Path to Exile (Promo Foil) – $3.50
Blatant Thievery – $3
Seedborn Muse – $3
Scion of Oona – $3
Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle x3 – $3
Wirewood Lodge (Foil) – $3
Raven Guild Master – $3
Puresteel Paladin – $2.50
Leyline of Sanctity – $2.50
Fauna Shaman – $2.50
Wall of Blossoms – $2.50
Wipe Away (Foil) – $2.50
Mental Misstep – $2
Comet Storm (Promo Foil) – $2
Tectonic Edge – $2
Go for the Throat (Japanese) – $2
Bonehoard (foil) – $2
Total Retail Value = $1,054
If you want the full story of every trade I made, jog on over to http://dralbert.wordpress.com/ and read the full journey from the beginning.
In the end, Pack to Power was pretty eye-opening for me. At the beginning, when every trade completely transformed my binder, it was easily the most fun I ever had slinging Magic cards around. And even more fun was writing about all of the trades on my blog, something I still enjoy doing for you every single week.
It was also very liberating to be able and willing to trade any card for any other card with no emotional attachment whatsoever – for those who struggle with this, I recommend Pack to Power style trading as a good way to work on breaking the habit.
On the other hand, I hated having to tell people why they couldn’t bundle cards from the Pack to Power book in with cards from my main collection, or why they couldn’t trade me a cube foil I really needed for something from this binder. It was always a bit awkward, especially when the Pack to Power binder started getting better than my Standard folder.
Did I go about my quest the right way? I’m not sure, honestly. The result was pretty good, but I think I was focusing too much on value and not enough on desirability.
In this project, my overall philosophy went something like this:
- Turn the seed pack into as much bulk as possible.
- Trade up from the bulk to staples.
- Trade the staples down for more bulk.
- Rinse/repeat gaining value until the binder is respectable.
- Trade into expensive, eternal staples to ‘ bank’ value and get cornerstones that will be attractive to someone trading power.
Were I to do the project again, I’d probably try the following strategy:
- Turn the seed pack into a low value, desirable Standard card or two.
- Slowly churn the Standard stuff, sticking to high-velocity cards.
- Trade into expensive, eternal staples to ‘ bank’ value and get cornerstones that will be attractive to someone trading power.
I don’t know how effective this would be – I may be forgetting just how hard it was to get any sort of trades going at the beginning of something like this. But perhaps I’ll try if you want me to.
Do you, dear readers, have any interest in me taking on another trading project? If so, I’d love to hear some ideas in the comments. Some people (a trend that I believe was started by Ryan over at Gatheringmagic) are doing ‘Box to Extended’ style trading contests, but I’d rather start small – the early trades are the most enjoyable to me.
At any rate, good luck in your own trading ventures as the Magic year comes to a close. And come hang out with me if you’re at Worlds – I’ll be there Saturday and Sunday, ready to draft, play some Commander, and trade!
Until next time –
- Chas Andres