“Should I Buy Repacks?”

I get asked a lot of questions with answers that seem obvious to me, but by far the most common one is this:

“Is it ever worth it to buy repacks? You know, those lots that are all over eBay where for four or five bucks you get a random collection of cards that might contain a Beta Mox or a couple of dual lands?”

For the short answer, I’m going to let Shia LeBoeuf explain my opinion.

Shia? How about it? Should I buy repacks?

Yeah, that about sums it up.

Case closed! See you all next week!

….

Oh, you’re still here? Yeah, I figured you might be. Despite repacks seeming like an obvious stay-away, I still get asked about them all the time. And usually when I respond with, “no, they’re a bad idea,” I get to hear an awesome story about this one time a dude they met at a PTQ totally ended up with a some sweet Beta card for a buck fifty plus shipping.

Rather than dismiss repacks out of hand, then, I thought it might be fun to take a week and examine them. If there’s any value to be had in buying repacks, perhaps I can figure out where it is.

And if not, well, maybe there’s a good market for SELLING repacks!

Let’s find out.

Psychic Benefits

It would seem, at its core, that a simple equation could be drawn up that would make repack decisions very easy

If the expected value of a repack is greater than the price of the pack, you’ll come out ahead. Anything less and you should probably take a pass.

This simplified way of thinking, however, ignores the psychic benefits of buying a repack.

What are psychic benefits? I’ve borrowed the term from this Malcolm Gladwell article about NBA teams and their owners. In the article, Gladwell argues that owning an NBA team should be more like owning a piece of art than owning a business.

If you’re a business owner, all that matters is the bottom line. You’re either profitable or you’re not. Period.

If you own a piece of art, however, there is an inherent enjoyment factor that is an intrinsic part of the value. By and large, no one owns a famous piece of art for purely financial reasons – there are added benefits from owning something exquisite.

Gladwell brings that argument to the NBA, proposing that owners of sports franchises aren’t factoring in the psychic benefits of owning a team into their valuation of its profits.

I am going to extrapolate further and assign psychic benefits to any Magic product with unknown contents.

The joy you get from tearing into a pack? Unless you’re opening them in some crazy world where singles are worth more than sealed product, (cough cough Innistrad), you’re pay for that. We all pay for that. We assign value to that experience beyond simply the EV of the cards inside, and that’s simply an unwritten rule of being a fan of Magic.

One of the most common arguments that proponents of repacks give me is “It’s fun to open them and see what cards you get!” What this tells me is that some people assign large psychic benefits to repacks – similar, I would venture, to the ones they associate with sealed booster packs.

Before you decide whether or not to buy repacks, then, you should stop and consider how much you’re willing to spend purely for the experience of opening ‘sealed’ packs of ‘unknown’ cards from a third party player/dealer.

I make no judgment either way, but I do believe this is one of the largest reasons why some people adore repacks and others wouldn’t even consider buying them.

The Myth of Feedback

“Don’t worry,” goes the second biggest cry of the repack supporter. “I always check the seller’s feedback before I buy. Then if it looks like other people are happy with what they open, I’m good to go!”

First, feedback in itself is a pretty flawed way to judge anyone on eBay.

As most of you know, sellers aren’t allowed to leave negative feedback for buyers, regardless of how horrible they act, whether or not they pay you, or for any other reason.

While this may not seem like an issue when dealing with sellers, it does mean that the person’s account may have a large history of bad behavior on the buyer’s side associated with it that you have no way of knowing about.

Second, I believe that there are ways of expunging bad feedback that most people (including myself) aren’t privy to.

Consider, for a moment, our dear old friend Slotcarboss.

Previously on this column, we examined in depth a Magic collection sold by this guy that portended to have a massive amount of stuff from Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited.

Upon further review, we discovered a link to a slot car forum where a disgruntled engineer accused him of selling counterfeit products.

We then spoke with the buyer of the Magic collection, who told us that the entire thing was a scam – the cards were absolutely worthless. He vowed to take the fight to eBay and try to get his money back.

Later, on Twitter, some of my astute readers pointed me toward another Magic collection being sold by the same jerk on the very same account!

It was going for thousands of dollars. Again.

I – and many others – tried reporting the matter to eBay directly, but there is just no space for ‘this is a scam’ in their complaint form. I did the best I could, but never heard back and the auction was not taken down.

Never forget this: eBay and PayPal are weird, nonsensical bureaucracies with a pretty draconian interpretation of rules.

At one point, back in my stupider days, I sold a playset of [card]Force of Will[/card] to a guy on eBay. Being dumb, I neglected to spring for Delivery Confirmation and assumed that my post office receipt would be proof enough of delivery.

Weeks later, the buyer told me that the address he had in his eBay account belonged to a friend that had moved. Of course, that didn’t stop him from making a PayPal claim against me and getting back all of his money when the cards didn’t magically arrive at his actual house.

I went on and on with PayPal about that – hours on the phone – and was told that the fact that I had a post office receipt showing I had sent something to him, him admitting that the address was wrong, and the fact that I was running about $2k/month through them and the seller had a feedback score of five didn’t matter. I hadn’t followed procedure, so I lost.

For years, my interpretation of those events was simply that the buyer always wins, but this isn’t really true. The rules are set up so that the buyer has a major edge, certainly, but the real victor is whoever understands the eBay/PayPal policies better.

For example, a friend of mine bought an airline voucher via PayPal and found out later that it was stolen. When she tried to get her money back from the thief, she was denied - apparently buying the voucher in the first place was a terms of service violation.

One of the Magic players I follow on Twitter bought a playset of [card]Underground Sea[/card]s on eBay a few months ago. He was sent a playset of [card underground river]Underground…Rivers[/card]. While I believe he did eventually get his money back, the investigation took a very long time and for a while it seemed like the seller (who used Delivery Confirmation and all precautions) might win out.

My guess, then, is that Slotcarboss lobbies eBay every single time he gets bad feedback. Because he isn’t technically doing anything wrong, (he’s not PROMISING Alpha/Beta cards, and I don’t think eBay has any provisions against deliberately misleading auctions), they probably just expunge the feedback without question.

Keep this in mind when looking at the feedback for sellers that deal primarily in repack auctions. Look at exactly what is promised, and think about the worst case scenario. If you’re not okay with that, don’t buy.

Also, if you think that someone posting feedback with, “OMG I GOT A [card]MOX PEARL[/card] IN MY REPACK!” isn’t just his buddy helping him out, I’ve got some sweet Izzet cards signed by Nikola Tesla you might be interested in.

The Impossibility of Calculating Value

So you’ve made your peace with psychic benefits, you’ve taken the seller’s feedback with a grain of salt, and you’re ready to calculate the expected value of some repacks!

Where to begin?

Well, here’s the rub. In order to get even a tiny handle on EV, you need to know two facts that you probably won’t gain access to:

1) The number of repacks made.
2) The number of repacks still available.

Often time, sellers will attempt to persuade you into buying from them by flashing a bunch of numbers and promises at you. A guaranteed number of rares per pack. A guarantee of an old card in each pack, usually Alpha/Beta/Unlimited.

Take this auction, for example. He’s listed about a thousand dollars worth of sweet singles, including [card candelabra of tawnos]Candelabras[/card], ten dual lands, and a bunch of other awesome old stuff. At first glance, it seems pretty well preordained that you’re going to get one of the cards on that list, right? After all, there’s like seventy sweet cards on that list!

Then take a look at how many of these have sold already.

FOUR HUNDRED AND TWENTY SEVEN as of this writing.

Or take a look at this auction. Almost fifteen hundred sold, almost three thousand left!

When you’re dealing with unknown or massive numbers, don’t even bother to try and calculate value. Don’t even bother to look at what cards might be lurking in your packs.

They say that the lottery is a tax on those who are bad at math – anyone who understands probability knows how poor the odds are and won’t buy in.

Well, these types of repacks are a tax on the gullible. While it’s possible that the sellers are honest, (I know a couple of my friends used to do repacks with their leftover cards and always delivered what they promised), never forget that there is ZERO ACCOUNTABILITY WHATSOEVER.

The lottery has bad odds, sure, but at least there ARE winning tickets.

The worst are the high value low volume repacks that occasionally show up claiming to have power.

The deal there is that there are, say, four repacks available for $200 each. One of them has a [card]Mox Sapphire[/card] in it. Guess right and you got yourself a bargain. Guess wrong and you’re out $200.

Often, these auctions will have already conveniently ‘sold’ one of them before you’ve found it.

Don’t buy those.

The One Time You Should Buy Repacks

I could keep going on and on about scummy repack practices, but I do want to touch briefly on the one case where buying repacks is actually a good idea.

Once in a while, you’ll stumble upon a private seller who is unusually forthright about the number of available repacks he has available.

And once in a blue moon, you’ll realize that he didn’t do the math and the value of his collection far outweighs what he’s asking for the repacks.

(It helps if he has some kind of ‘buy ten get two free’ deal that you can exploit by buying up all 80-100 he has available)

And once in a generation, you’ll discover that listing before anyone else has.

And once in an epoch, you’ll sit down and actually do the math and realize that you’re sitting on a pretty sweet deal.

Then, and only then, should you buy repacks. And by all means, buy all of them.

A Final Word on Buying Repacks

By and large, people who sell repacks aren’t scammers. Usually, they’re people who are just trying to eke out an edge when selling their collection.

If you have a collection that would be worth $1,000 if you split it up into singles, why not break it up into 1,000 separate repacks and charge $2 each for them? It allows you to double your money without having to list hundreds of separate eBay auctions! Who cares if someone scores a $50 card out of one of the repacks? At the end of the day, your overall profit will be staggering.

That, then, is the crux of the issue. Even if the re-packer you’re buying from is honest (and many aren’t), you are essentially paying over market value for the pleasure of getting cards that you may not want. If you like to gamble this way, just by booster packs.

The odds are far better.

Selling Repacks

In the example above, I make a pretty compelling case for SELLING repacks, right? After all, who wouldn’t want to double the value of a card collection they were already planning to move?

Honestly, selling repacks isn’t a bad idea. For some of you, it might be right. Here are the major issues that I see with it:

- Getting value for mid-level cards is hard. A [card]City of Brass[/card] here and a [card]No Mercy[/card] there won’t get the re-packs flying off your digital shelves. If you’re getting into the repack sales market, you had better include something sweet like dual lands to give your buyers something to dream on. The best selling repacks are pretty feast or famine.

- You will have your share of angry buyers. Many people won’t get good cards in your repacks – in order to give someone the thrill of paying $2-$4 for a Dual Land, 50 people are going to get shafted. And those people will spam you, will leave you bad feedback, and will likely never buy anything from you again.

- Repacks are a bad way to get rid of newer cards. The best cards in Standard change all the time. If your auction goes long enough, invariably you’ll end up with a [card]Vengevine[/card] headlining your auction and a couple of [card]Tempered Steel[/card]s thrown in as $1 cards. And once you’ve made your repacks, going back through and fiddling with them is HARD and ANNOYING.

Also, a lot of people believe that selling repacks (and knowingly getting more value for your cards than they are worth) is a moral grey area at best. I don’t judge, but I’ve also never sold repacks myself. Take that for what it’s worth.

The Travesty of Certified Pre-Owned Booster Boxes

One last point on repacks.

In doing research for this article, I stumbled upon this eBay listing that made my blood boil.

Seriously – this guy is selling booster boxes of Innistrad – BOXES THAT HE ALREADY OPENED AND PULLED THE GOOD CARDS OUT OF - for more than sixty dollars each!

And looking at his feedback, he pulled the same trick with M12 and got similar financial results!

I don’t even know what to say about this. It rendered me speechless. Part of me wants to reach through my computer screen and punch everyone who considered buying this, and another part of me wants to go out and buy dozens of boxes of the next expansion and do the exact same thing.

I mean, if you can buy a box for $80 and sell it for $60 after pulling every card of note and replacing it with a bulk rare, haven’t you found a way to make Magic essentially free for yourself?

At any rate, this sort of practice exists and is stupefying lucrative as long as you’re willing to make it look to the buyer like their might still be good cards left in their box when you know full well that there won’t be.

Just know that you’re not doing the community any favors.

Week of 10/10/11 – Buy, Hold, & Sell

Buy

Check the prices on the Scars duals. Shocked? Me too.

In case you didn’t get the memo, these have now entered fetch land territory and are retailing for $10+ on this very site. Don’t think the price will last? CFB will give you ~$5-$6 cash for your duals if you think they’ll go down.

I’m not sure if the new high prices will last, but I do know it’s still possible to get these in trade for far less than they’re selling for. And that certainly won’t last.

[card]Spoils of the Vault[/card] was spotted as a 4-of in a [card]Past in Flames[/card] Legacy deck over the weekend, bringing the card from bulk prices up to about $2. [card]Past in Flames[/card] is still only about $6 retail, so both cards have room to grow if the deck ends up being legit. Keep an eye out next week, and buy in accordingly.

Hold

[card]Riptide Laboratory[/card] was a 2-of in the deck that took down SCG’s Legacy open. The card jumped to $15 overnight purely on hype, which is slowly turning into results. If you have any of these socked away, don’t ditch them in panic. Demand should increase as more people jump on the [card snapcaster mage]Snapcaster[/card] bandwagon in Legacy.

Sell

[card]Liliana of the Veil[/card].

Yeah, she is actually putting her money where her mouth is, and people are playing her to great results in Standard. Unlike last week, when I argued that Lilly wasn’t actually showing up in huge numbers in winning decks, this week’s results paint her in a much more favorable light.

That said, $65 is too much for a card in a large fall set. I COULD see her hitting $80, but I’d put my money on her going down to $35-$40 even as she continues to see play.

Selling into hype is one of the best ways to make money in anything, and Liliana (results or not) is the definition of hype right now.

Until next week –

- Chas Andres