A guide to buying Magic cards on the secondary market

Following several discussions about how to get into Magic over on BoardGameGeek.com, I put together a post about how I buy Magic cards on the secondary market.
You can click here to read the post and follow-up discussion at BoardGameGeek, or you can click through to the extended entry here to read the guidelines I posted.

Just as there are many ways to play the game, there are a number of ways to acquire Magic cards. Some people enjoy the feel of buying packs to see what they get. Others buy packs to draft with. My preference is to buy cards on the secondary market, which is the approach I recommend if your interest is in building up a specific pool of cards (for example, a competitive pool to play in Standard) and you aren’t planning on drafting with your cards first.
What is the secondary market?
When I refer to the secondary market, I mean anyone that resells cards in a non-random format, either as single cards or in groups. This includes your local store, online stores, and online auction sites.
Why do I recommend this approach?
If you’re interested in finding a specific set of cards, either for competitive play or just for that casual deck you want for when you and your friends get together at lunch, it’s almost always more cost-effective to acquire the specific cards you want on the secondary market rather than trying to buy packs randomly and hoping to get them. Note that if you have a very robust trading environment you may be able to buy packs and trade what you get, but this is time consuming and is effectively a hobby all by itself. If you enjoy trading and dealing, then by all means go ahead, but if you want to pick up specific cards in a reasonable amount of time, then the secondary market is the way to go.
Buying into a new set
Let’s say you’ve decided that you want to pick up a good set of cards from the latest expansion (as of this post, that’s Conflux, the first small set in the Shards of Alara block). Being a small set, Conflux has 145 individual cards, split into 60 commons, 41 uncommons, 35 rares, and 10 mythic rares (these are listed in order of ascending rarity). What’s the best way to buy the cards you want?
One option is to pick out the exact cards you want and buy them on the secondary market. However, if you think you’re going to want more than a few of the commons and uncommons I recommend against it. Instead, I suggest that you buy an entire common and uncommon playset.
A common/uncommon playset is four of each common and four of each uncommon card in a set. A common/uncommon playset for a small set (such as Conflux) can be purchased for $30 on an auction site. For that $30, you get roughly 400 cards for a small set (404 in Conflux), and you don’t ever have to think about which commons or uncommons you want to buy.
There’s an added value here, which is another reason I do this. In a given set, certain commons and uncommons become very valuable to tournament players, and will quickly shoot up in price. For example, one uncommon in the Conflux set, Path to Exile, is already going for between $2 and $5 a copy on the secondary market. This card is likely to stabilize in the $4 or so range for the next couple years, meaning that buying four copies of just this one uncommon will run you $16, or over half the price you would have paid for four copies of every common and uncommon in the set.
So if you’ve followed that plan, then the only thing you need to think about is which rares and mythic rares you want to buy.
Evaluating rares
Buying rares from a new set can be tricky. There’s hype from casual and tournament players driving some cards to be initially overvalued, while other cards are undervalued and should be snapped up sooner to get them at a discount. If you’re a competitive tournament player, you’ll already be interested in figuring out which cards are good or not, so you should have a read on which cards you think are valuable. If you’re a casual player, then it’s a matter of trying to judge whether those same tournament players will think a card is worthwhile, since they’ll be a major driver of the costs for you, too.
(As an aside here, Ben Bleiweiss has a column on the Star City Games site where he discusses the business of selling cards. Each time a new set comes out, he publishes his professional evaluation of starting card values, and how those cards are likely to change. This is paid content on the site, meaning you need a subscription to read it.)
As a general rule, most of the rares in a set will sell for $1 or less, as they are not “constructed playable” (they may simply not be good cards, or may only be good in draft). Most mythic rares that are not “constructed playable” will sell for about $3 each. A rare that looks like it will be very constructed playable may sell for up to $15 each right out of the gates, and a constructed playable mythic rare may sell for $25 right away. For these rares, the amount you’re willing to spend is entirely up to how much you think you’ll want to use the card. However, I strongly recommend that you either make a careful evaluation on your own, or look to expert evaluations from columnists and other competitive players. Your goal here is to evaluate which rares are over-, under-, or correctly evaluated. You then want to wait on buying the overvalued rares and jump on the undervalued ones.
It’s like stock, but with significantly less impact on real life. 🙂
By way of example, let’s take a look at two of the planeswalkers from the most recent big set, Shards of Alara. Shards contained four planeswalker cards, all of them mythic rares. One of them, Sarkhan Vol, was used as a preview card, and was heavily hyped in the official Wizards advertising, as well as in Magic-related forums. The other, Elspeth, Knight-Errant, was not previewed ahead of time. During prerelease sales immediately following the release of the full card list, these two mythic rares were priced as follows:
Sarkhan Vol – $25/card
Elspeth – $8/card
As a competitive tournament player, however, my valuations differed significantly. Sarkhan seemed like he was playable in a more narrow range of decks that happened to be popular at the time. Also, his “big” ability was a splashy one that many casual players would love, but not especially useful in tournaments. In contrast, Elspeth was not as splashy, but had a clearly powerful set of “smaller” abilities that would be significant in competitive play. I decided not to buy any Sarkhan Vols, but picked up my Elspeths immediately.
Now, several months after the release of Shards of Alara, the cards have stabilized at the following prices:
Sarkhan Vol – $10/card
Elspeth – $20/card
Much like picking stocks, it can be hard to figure out exactly what value a card will fix on, but if you have a good handle on the competitive scene — or can rely on someone else who does — you’ll be able to correctly pick good buys (like Elspeth) and defer overvalued purchases (like Sarkhan Vol).
Of course, if all you want is a good set of cards to play with, then you already have the common/uncommon playset and you’re good to go, and can ignore the business of trying to evaluate rares.
Keeping up
If you use this method to buy cards as the sets come out, you’ll likely pay $30-35 per small set (two per year) and $40-45 per large set (two per year – the big set from that year’s new block, and the core release). This means that to get a full common/uncommon playset for a whole year’s worth of releases (about 2,000 cards) will run you on the order of $150 or so.
Buying older sets
All of the information above pertains to newer sets. However, you may be interested in picking up older sets, either because you want to build an interesting personal play set (for example, my draft cube has one of each Kamigawa block card) or because you want to play in an environment like Extended, where about six years worth of cards are legal. My recommendation for purchasing older cards is that if you know you want most of the cards from a given older set, you go ahead and buy a full copy of that set.
The prices on older sets can vary considerably. In general, many of the big sets that are still legal in Extended, but not in Standard, are going for on the order of $60-80 for a set. Note that this is a one-of-each-card set, rather than a playset. Once again, however, this is typically still cheaper than buying the cards individually. It’s also sometimes the only way to get key commons and uncommons that were very popular, as after a certain amount of time, only rares are sold individually for many sets.
Buying via MTGO redemption
Sometimes, you’ll find an MTGO set listed on an auction site. Full sets of cards from Magic Online can be redeemed for their physical equivalents through Wizards of the Coast. The way this works, from your point of view as a buyer on the secondary market, is that you pay the seller. You then meet them on Magic Online, and they transfer the cards to your Magic Online account (note that you [i]MUST[/i] have a Magic Online account to accept and redeem Magic Online cards). You then request redemption from Wizards of the Coast, who will remove the cards from your Magic Online account and mail you a set of the physical cards. Wizards will charge you shipping for each set you redeem this way (I believe shipping has been $10 lately).
Note that not all Magic Online sets can be redeemed for physical cards – there’s an “expiration date” for older sets. I recommend you confirm the availability of a given set for redemption before buying one on the secondary market. Also note that you must have all the cards for a given set in Magic Online to redeem it. If you end up a card or two short, you can probably buy the digital card on Magic Online or on the secondary market, but this can be a hassle.
Which part of the secondary market should I use?
As I defined it in the beginning, the secondary market comprises your local shop, online stores, and auction sites. In general, cards are cheapest at auction sites, second cheapest at online stores, and most expensive at your local store. Note that this is not always true, though. Auction sites are very agile, and prices will quickly adjust to proper card evaluations (for example, prices for Elspeth, Knight-Errant adjusted upward on auction sites before they adjusted upward on online stores). Stores offer you the convenience of not having to bid, or of just getting your card immediately (in the case of your local physical store).
I recommend identifying several online stores you can check on in addition to auction sites, and then comparing prices across all of them for each new release or each potential purchase. This gives you the best chance of identifying a good value for each purchase.
How do I know I’m getting a good price?
Fortunately, there’s a wealth of price information online. While several sites maintain ongoing price guides, my recommendation is that before you make a purchase, you look at both purchase prices on online sites and at the prices paid in completed auctions on online auction sites. This gives you a benchmark price range, and lets you know what is the lowest bid at which you are reasonably likely to win your purchase. Once you know this, I recommend patience, and sticking to this low bid (if buying at an auction site). Especially around the release of a new set, there will be no lack of auctions for all the cards in that set.
Questions or comments
This has been a not-so-brief overview of my approach to buying cards for Magic. If you have any questions, requests for clarification, or comments, please let me know. I hope this will be useful to many of you, whether you’re just building a neat pool of cards for casual play or you want to get into the competitive scene.