Traderous Instinct – How to Negotiate

I’ve talked a lot in this column about pricing trends, the metagame, and how to make smart trades that will help build your collection.

But what I haven’t talked a lot about is one of the most important aspects of any trade: negotiation.

It may seem obvious, but the only way to become a good trader is to, uh, make a lot of trades. Which means completing hundreds (thousands?) of successful negotiations each year.

In this column, we’ll attack the art of negotiation and I’ll share all of my favorite tips and tricks with you.

But before we get to that, though, it’s important to talk about a few other ideas that are crucial to understand before any negotiating can happen. I’ve brought both of these points up before, but I think it’s important to look at them again in detail.

You Are Not Buying A Used Car

Most people only make a major negotiation once every couple of years. Unless you’re in sales or like to haggle at the flea market, the opportunity just doesn’t come up.

Because of that, the only negotiation skills that most people know are from online articles like “ten negotiation tips” that they read before heading down to their local Volvo dealership.

It’s true, the lessons from those articles are probably better than nothing when haggling over the price of a car, but they won’t help you all that much when trading Magic cards.

This is because buying a car is primarily an adversarial process. The dealership is not your friend – they’ll take you for all they can, and they know that you know this. Both sides in that transaction are aware that their relationship ends the minute a deal is struck.

Trading Magic cards isn’t like that. Not only do you have to make a favorable deal for yourself, but you have to do it with the same couple of people every single week. Even if you only trade at larger events, chances are good that you’ll run into the same person a couple of times a year at least.

I’ve met enough ‘slash and burn’ traders to believe that it’s possible to be entirely ruthless and still do ok for yourself, but in the long term it makes good financial sense to be nice, to foster relationships, and to ensure that your trading partners are happy with whatever deal you strike.

Also, trading with empathy means you can sleep at night.

Think of Magic trading less like buying a car and more like selling a product. If you work in sales for the Henry “Fats” Lardington Cheese Corporation, it does very little good for you to bully your clients into ordering way more cheese logs than they can afford – once they realize what’s going on, they’ll stop doing business with you. What you want is to establish a rapport that leads to steady business over time.

A customer for life is better than a momentary windfall. The current crop of ‘value’ traders out there would be better off if they reminded themselves of this once in a while.

Who’s the Beatdown?

There’s a reason “what do you value that at?” is the cry of the value trader: there’s no better way to make a quick profit than to find (and exploit) a hole in your trading partner’s knowledge of pricing.

While some trading still does work this way, most trading now happens with the trusty old smartphone riding shotgun. “What do you value that at?” these days is usually met with “hmm…let me check online.”

And I certainly don’t blame people for doing this. Heck, when I’m not sure about a price, I do it too.

That said, smartphone or not, it’s rare that a trade ends up precisely even in value. I consider myself pretty greedy when it comes to wanting value, but I’d say that I’m willing to lose value in about 20% of all trades I make.

About 10% of the time, I am perfectly happy to make a trade knowing full well that I’m getting the losing end!

That’s because it’s rare that both people in a trade have the same desire to get it done. Sometimes I need to sweeten the pot to get what I want.

While true ‘need for need’ trades do happen on occasion, most trades have both a buyer and a seller.

As an example, take a look at these examples of ‘win/win’ trades:

– You trade $20 worth of Standard cards that your partner needs tonight for $25 worth of standard cards that you believe have a shot to go up in price.

– You trade $20 worth of soon-to-rotate Standard cards that your partner needs for the PTQ tomorrow in exchange for $20 worth of Legacy cards that will likely maintain their value for years.

– You trade $20 worth of Legacy cards to a tournament grinder for $30 worth of low-value Commander cards they have no desire for.

– You trade $30 worth of casual Squirrel rares to a casual player for the $30 mythic they just cracked in a pack.

In all four cases, you’ve gained value by using your trade partner’s desire to acquire cards immediately or to trade things in a format they don’t play for things in a format they do.

In all four cases, they were buyer and you were the seller.

Because you don’t discriminate between formats and you have no immediate desire for a specific card in particular, you can help people complete their decks while sitting back and gaining value.

Much like Michael Flores’ classic article on beatdown vs. control, it’s important that you identify who the buyer is in any given trade.

If you’ve spotted a Commander foil you absolutely have to have or you’re trying to finish your Standard deck, it’s probably you.

If you’re aimlessly scouring their binder for something kind of cool, it’s probably them.

If you’re the seller, it is appropriate to ask for value in order to make the trade work. After all, you’re doing the buyer a favor by supplying them with cards they really need in exchange for their goods instead of cash.

If you’re the buyer, you should be willing to give up some value. There’s nothing I hate more than someone who needs one more copy of the hottest card right before FNM try and ‘get me’ on a trade.

People who have traded with me extensively in the past know that have always been happy to give up value when acquiring NM foil copies of things I need for my cube. If you absolutely, positively, MUST have a card, you should be willing to pay for it.

If you want to be the seller, it becomes important to try and divorce emotion from your trades as much as possible. If you want your collection to gain value, you should be thinking of your collection like a bank – the goal is simply to end each day with a greater amount of cash. If you’re constantly overpaying for the hottest standard cards, you’re hurting your bottom line.

Of course, very few of us – certainly not myself- trade Magic cards purely for profit. If I only thought of Magic cards like money, I’d go trade money instead. I trade Magic cards because I love them. And that’s why I have a weakness for ‘needing’ to have anything super rare that I see.

If you have a similar weakness, make sure you identify it for what it is. Know that making trades like this are counterproductive if your goal is to make profitable trades.

So now that we’ve established these concepts, let’s get down to business and talk about good negotiation tactics.

And let’s start with the most important one of all.

Ask Questions, Build Trust, & Establish a Relationship

Having good social skills is just as important in trading as it is in playing.

When you sit down for a match, there are thousands of different ways to approach interacting with your partner. Some people are very talkative and attempt to get their opponents to play fast and loose. Others are nearly silent and attempt to get their opponents to play too tight. Whatever your method, the goal is to read your opponent and play your strengths into their weaknesses.

Trading works a little bit differently.

When building a relationship, the important thing is to find out what your opponent needs and attempt to fill that need the best way you can. Obviously if they’re after one or two specific cards, this is pretty easy, but beyond that most people have a couple of decks percolating in their mind at any given time. Ask them what they’re building, and see if you can help them along.

Remember – even if you don’t have the specific cards they’re looking for, you might have something else close.

You should also cultivate relationships with people who like oddities. Having a buyer for your foils, foreign cards, and misprints is a great thing. It’s also helpful to know the guy who will always trade any hot Standard rares they open for random Legacy staples so that you can fill up on high-velocity playables before attending a large event.

Beyond this, though, it’s perhaps even more valuable to learn what kinds of cards your trading partner doesn’t want!

Even those who swear by smartphones are much happier to trade away cards they don’t care much about. Heck, even the staunchest, most objective value traders do this to a point.

Like it or not, we all have different attachment levels to different cards, and you want to go after the ones that your partner literally has no use for.

Not only will doing this allow you to gain value, it’ll allow you to make a connection for the future. Instead of your partner remembering you as the guy they begrudgingly had to give up their best card to in order to work a trade, they’ll likely remember you as the guy or gal who traded them a bunch of awesome crap for some cards they didn’t really have a use for.

Isn’t that much more useful than trying to bully someone out of their last Jace?

Do Your Homework

One of the best negotiating tools available to you is superior knowledge.

First, knowing the prices of all your own cards saves you an astounding amount of time in trades with people who would otherwise demand that everything be looked up online. One of the reasons I put all of my low-value Commander cards into by-price sections in my binder is because I don’t want to look up twenty cards and have my partner balk at the prices on all of them.

Beyond just knowing prices, though, it’s important to keep up on the latest metagame trends.

I make sure to look at the Top 8 decklists for every Pro Tour, GP, and Star City Open event every single week. If a card start showing up in multiple lists, I know it’s card that will sell easily and might possibly even rise in value. If you are looking for a couple of throw-ins to fill out a deal, look toward the lower value cards that are putting up results. They’re rarely a bad gamble.

Further, strong knowledge of the metagame allows you to give your trading partner advice in whatever deck they’re building. If they’re putting together a U/W blade deck for Legacy and don’t know about the 1x [card]Moorland Haunt[/card] that Brian Braun-Duin ran in Nashville, mention it to them! Maybe they’ll want to try it out.

Oh, and it just so happens that you have a [card moorland haunt]Haunt[/card] for trade right now…

Position Yourself as an Equal

As someone who loves standing and pacing, this one comes hard for me. But it’s important nonetheless.

If you hover over someone while they’re looking though your cards, chances are they’re going to be at least slightly on edge by your lurking presence. There’s a reason my cats always gravitate toward the highest spot in the room – vertical position relative to another is the easiest way to show superiority in the animal kingdom.

When making a trade, you don’t want to be seen as the king with all the cards. You want to be seen as an equal – someone who is going to give a fair deal. Make sure you sit across from your partner and stay at their height for the duration of the trade. Don’t intimidate them by accident.

Share Information

At its heart, most value trading is based on one person leveraging better information over someone else.

For example, if I know that Channel Fireball buys [card]Nirkana Revenant[/card] at $3 and you think that the card is worth maybe a dollar or two, I ‘win’ the trade buy giving you a $4 rare for your three [card]Nirkana Revenant[/card]s, and then selling them to the store for $9.

This is where the ethics debate usually comes in. Show this scenario to a casual trader, and they’ll fume about how unfair it was that the guy with the vampires got ripped off. Show it to a value trader, and they’ll talk about how much work the value trader had to put in to learn the actual value of every single card in order to make an informed trade.

After all, the value of [card]Nirkana Revenant[/card] is public information, right? And the person trading them was a consenting adult who made the trade willingly, right?

I would be a liar if I said I didn’t make trades like this from time to time. Especially if I’m having a really horrible day of play, I will make a couple of trades driven mostly by frustration where I try to make as much value as I can. I do this mostly because I know I can, and after losing again and again in matches I need to validate my self-esteem by proving that I’m good at something.

I almost always regret it afterwards.

Leveraging information like this is a very good way to stop your trade partner from ever trading with ANYONE again, much less you. It’s foolish to do this too much, especially when you have a much better tool at your disposal – sharing information!

By and large, most people like learning – especially about things they love. If you see someone criminally undervalue a card of theirs, telling them so goes a long way toward building the goodwill you need to get a trade done for something else of theirs.

I also recommend sharing your experience with certain cards and the latest brews you read about online. Give them some of your tips – what you think will do well in their deck, what strategies you’ve seen win a lot lately.

I’m not saying to give away all your best information for nothing, but holding it all inside is an equally bad strategy.

It’s true, sometimes this will hurt your profit margin on individual trades, but it will likely improve your overall ‘hit rate’ on trades you’re able to complete.

Making five small margin trades (that lead to ten more small margin trades with the same people over the next few months) is far better than making one ‘gotcha’ trade and failing to complete the other four deals.

Make the Trade Bigger

If the pieces to a trade just don’t seem to fit together, go back to their binder and find more cards! Instead of scaling back to the essentials, go for broke and try to make the biggest trade you can. This leaves more room for negotiation and is way more fun.

Much like in theatre improv, leave ‘no’ out of your trading vocabulary. Instead, try to use ‘yes, and…’ whenever you can.

Multiply and Conquer

As a trader, your first instinct when making a trade is to stand firm – make a single offer, take it or leave it, and hope that your partner swallows hard and agrees.

This is just about the worst thing you can be doing for your bottom line.

If you really want to make a trade happen and you’re the seller, the best thing you can do is to make multiple offers at once. Obviously this isn’t always possible – sometimes you only want one or two things and so does your partner – but whenever possible, you should give alternative options to a deal.

Making multiple offers shows an openness and willingness to compromise. It also re-frames the trade. By making a take or leave it offer, your partner has two options: take it, or leave it. By making three separate offers, your partner has four options: trade #1, trade #2, trade #3, or leave it.

And most of the time they forget that ‘leave it’ is still on the table.

The modified version of this is a trade technique that I’ve spoken about briefly before. If your partner only wants one card, find three that you’d like – one worth significantly more, one worth slightly more, and one worth a lot less. Ask your partner to make an offer. Most times, it’ll end with you making a little value or having to throw something in at the end.

Once in a while, they’ll find something else and you’ll get the high value card that you never even thought you had a chance at!

Know When to Compromise

I see so many traders, especially newer value traders and people who have just been taken by them, fighting tooth and claw over every last dime.

This is unequivocally a waste of time.

The value of your collection – or even of the cards in a given trade – rise and fall due to external forces every single week. Trades that look awesome one day are awful the next, and aside from being on top of your game as a speculator there’s nothing you can do about that.

When [card]Primeval Titan[/card] was a $16 card and I needed two of them for Modern Twelvepost, I offered someone a gorgeous, NM [card]Show and Tell[/card] for them. I knew it was a bad deal for me, but I wanted the cards and was willing to take the hit.

My partner wouldn’t budge, and [card]Primeval Titan[/card]s were down to $12 the following week.

It’s simply not worth it to spend even ten minutes haggling over a dollar at the end of the trade – most of the time, that’s within the margin of error anyhow. Know when to shake your partners hand, take the small hit, and move on to the next deal.

Keep Trading When the Trading is Good

When is the best time to trade?

When you’ve just finished making a trade, of course!

Goodwill is at its highest when you’ve just completed a deal and both partners feel like they’ve gotten what they wanted. This is the best time to try and complete a secondary trade and nail down last card you had your eyes on the whole time.

That’s it! If you have any more negotiation techniques, please feel free to share them in the comments.

Until next week –

– Chas Andres


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