An Expert's How To Guide for Novices
Buy, Sell, and Collect Magic the Gathering Cards
Use the Information in this guide to help you make the most of your Magic the Gathering collection, whether you are a first-time MTG seller, buyer, or collector.
I was introduced to the Magic the Gathering (MTG) trading card game in 1993 when I was a Freshman in High School. Groups of kids would play after school until the game was banned from many schools across the country (because of gambling and trading). I bought 2 Revised Edition decks so my sister and I could play. Then I discovered that Wizards of the Coast was issuing expansion sets at regular intervals and at that point I became a collector.
Introduction to Magic the Gathering:
I believe Magic the Gathering is the original trading card game. I only recall seeing one TV commercial advertising the cards (back in 1994), but it was mostly an "underground" game when I was in school and played by geeks and nerds. Recently I've seen lots of kids in high school playing during lunch (I guess schools lifted the ban!). Either way, the game remains popular and Wizards of the Coast continues to release new expansions sets for the game several times per year.
THE HISTORY: For information on rules of the game (which are quite complicated and always changing), I suggest visiting the Wizards of the Coast website: wizards.com/magic/. This has information on "What is Magic?" and it will fill in the gaps in my guide. The first release of MTG was in 1993 with the Alpha edition. This consists of 295 different cards that have black outer borders, very rounded corners (when compared to later editions) and Black, Blue, White, Red, Green, Dark Brown and Light Brown inner borders. Then there is a picture on top and the card's abilities with "flavor text" in italics below The cards can be sorted by these colors or by type (there are many "types", but some examples are: creature (preceded by the word "summon" in the early sets), enchantment, artifact (which has the dark brown inner border), land (which has the light brown inner border), sorcery, etc.). The cards can also be sorted into Common, Uncommon, and Rare. Today these Alpha cards are VERY difficult to find and highly valuable.
After Alpha, Wizards of the Coast continued to release "core sets" that consist of Beta, Unlimited, Revised (3rd Edition), 4th Edition, 5th Edition, 6th (Classic) Edition, 7th Edition, 8th Edition, 9th Edition, and 10th Edition. The Alpha and Beta sets are similar in that they both have black outer borders but the Alpha cards have rounder edges (this is the only way to tell them apart).
Beginning with Unlimited, the cards in the core sets were printed with white outer borders and this is still the case. The only way to tell an Unlimited card apart from a Revised card is that the Unlimited cards tend to be darker, as in more saturated with color, and the text on the bottom left of the card such as "Illus. © Mark Tedin" is hovering above the bottom line whereas with Revised cards this text is closer to the line.
Beginning with 4th Edition, they started adding the actual copyright dates, for 4th Edition it's 1995 and 5th Edition it's 1997. Finally, beginning with 6th Edition they added symbols for each core set, such that 6th Edition has a VI symbol, 7th Edition has a 7, 8th Edition an 8, etc. The symbols are also colored based on if the card is common (filled in as black), uncommon (filled in as silver), or rare (filled in as gold). The way to tell the rarity of a card prior to when the symbols were printed on the cards is to print out a checklist for the particular set from the Wizards of the Coast website.
6th Edition Common Symbol
6th Edition Uncommon Symbol
6th Edition Rare Symbol
Wizards has also issued expansion sets to complement the core sets. Expansion sets offer more complexity to the game. All expansion sets have black outer borders and their own symbols to distinguish them. The expansion sets range from Arabian Nights (released in 1993) to Shadowmoor (scheduled to release 5/2008). All expansion sets have symbols, but symbols were just black up until Exodus (released June 1998) when the symbols were filled in as black, silver, or gold based on the card's rarity.
Cards for expansion sets are usually released in deck boxes or booster packs. Beginning with 6th Edition and Urza's Legacy, foil cards were issued in the packs and decks. Foils have a shiny surface and are generally not used in game play. Some people love foils and others can't stand them. Rare foils are usually more valuable than the same rare non-foil card because they tend to be doubly hard to find.
How to Sell Magic Cards:
This information should be used by sellers who have very little knowledge about the game but have somehow inherited Magic the Gathering cards and would like to sell them for a maximum profit. Also, the more you can say about the cards, the more confidence the buyers will have in you as a seller! As a collector I look for the following in an auction:
- How many cards are there in the auction?
- What sets are they from? (describe if they are white-bordered, black-bordered, and what sets they're from based on the symbols or copyright dates)
- How many rares and uncommons are there?
- What are the rares? (make an easy-to-read list)
- What condition are they in?
COMMON MISTAKES BY NOVICE MTG SELLERS:
- Confusing which sets the cards are from - Unfortunately, Wizards created special sets that contain symbols from the original core or expansion sets, but they do NOT belong to those sets and in fact are part of an entirely different set. An example of this is Chronicles. Chronicles is a 1995 re-printing of some selected cards from the oldest expansion sets (Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends and The Dark) EXCEPT the reprint for the Chronicles set has a white outer border and the original expansion sets have black outer borders. Chronicles cards are worth very little and you'll have an angry buyer if you misrepresent cards by saying they're from Antiquities when in fact they're Chronicles. In the scan below, the card on the left is from Chronicles and the one on the right is the OBB (original black border) card from Legends.
- Poor photos or scans - the best way to make the most money is to include lots of clear scans and photos so buyers can judge condition for themselves and also confirm that you in fact have what you say you're selling. Do your research to find out which cards you have are rare or uncommon (commons, unless they are from some of the oldest core and expansion sets, are essentially worthless).
- Poor description - if you're not sure what you have, make a list of the card names (found in the uppermost left corner on the card) and either sort your list by set name (i.e. Legends, Mercadian Masques, etc.); or if you don't know the set names, by copyright date and/or symbol; or by card color.
- No grading information - it's important to at least state the condition the rare cards are in. These are obviously the most valuable (some are way more valuable than others) and collectors want to know how much they're willing to spend on a card based on its appearance. Generally, collectors only want Mint or NM ("near mint") cards.
- Setting a reserve or Buy it Now option - A reserve price usually scares buyers away. Instead, I suggest starting your auction at the price you're hoping to get if you're not willing to start low. With a "buy it now" price, bidders tend to watch and wait until the last minute to bid because as soon as someone bids, the buy it now option disappears and you may end up getting less for your cards because the auction didn't gain momentum early on.
Scrye magazine is one resource collectors use to find out the value of these and other trading cards. Scrye's grading system for cards is also frequently used and is as follows (as copied from the magazine):
- Mint - This is a card that is perfect in every way (front and back)
- Near Mint - This (probably) unplayed card shows almost no wear. It may have a few minor scratches or slight marks on the edges.
- Fine - This card has obviously been played, but not heavily. It lacks marks that would make it easily identifiable [if it were not played in a sleeve]. It has some minor scratches and/or less than perfect edges. It will show less than 1/16" depth of white along one or two edges of one face of the card. It may have a minor crease that is only visible close up.
- Good - This card has a played look to it. It will have white showing on three or four edges on both faces (meaning front and back). It may also have more than 1/16" depth of white showing on an edge on the back face of the card. It may also be a card that looks like a Near Mint card except for one distinguishing wear feature, such as a slight tear or easily identifiable crease.
- Poor - Any card in less than Good condition [i.e. heavy creasing, tears, water damage, writing]
MORE ADVICE FOR SELLERS (AND NOVICE BUYERS):
- Watch out for proxies!! These are fake cards that can appear very much like the originals. Some game players created proxies so they could keep their real cards in mint condition as playing the cards without sleeves will damage them over time and ruin the value. Other, dishonest people created proxies to profit from the highly sought after, most valuable cards: the Power Nine (P9)
A NOTE ON THE POWER NINE - The P9 cards are a set of 9 cards that are VERY hard to find (outside of eBay that is) and VERY expensive. They were only released in the Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited sets (and again in the Collector's Edition, but those are less valued). I assume they have so much value because of how useful they are in game play and also because of how rare they are. The P9 are as follows with their current (as of the writing of this guide) average Scrye values:
Card Name Alpha Beta Unlimited
Ancestral Recall $735.00 $860.00 $545.00
Black Lotus $1800.00 $1575.00 $935.00
Mox Emerald $600.00 $550.00 $415.00
Mox Jet $700.00 $620.00 $445.00
Mox Pearl $600.00 $625.00 $425.00
Mox Ruby $600.00 $575.00 $425.00
Mox Sapphire $800.00 $710.00 $465.00
Time Walk $780.00 $770.00 $450.00
Timetwister $500.00 $475.00 $300.00
So, if you have one of these and you didn't purposely acquire it, there's a good chance it's a fake. Visit a local card dealer who can verify its authenticity (and watch them drool if they realize it's real!).
How to Buy and Collect Magic Cards:
What is your goal? My goal was to collect every single Magic card such that I had every set complete. In 2008, I finally gave up that on goal. Of course the cards I never acquired were the most expensive ones. In total, I probably spent at least $10,000 in lot auctions, deck boxes, booster packs, repack auctions, and singles. Alternatively, your goal may be to collect only foils, or only artifacts, only from certain sets, or only the most valuable cards. If I could start over, I probably would have made a better investment by just purchasing rares. Rares tend to keep their value or increase dramatically, a few uncommons have this status as well. Commons just haven't been worth my investment.
Huge Lots - Often times you'll see MTG cards on eBay as lots of 10,000 or 5,000. If you're just starting out and your goal is to create complete sets or to have a lot of choices for creating a great deck to use for game play, I suggest starting with big lots. It's an excellent way to amass a HUGE amount of cards sometimes for $0.01 a piece! Just watch out for the shipping price.
Deck Boxes and Booster Packs - Usually buying on eBay is cheaper than at a trading card store, and there's more variety. If you want to make sure your cards are in MINT condition, I suggest going this route.
Repack Auctions - I've seen a lot of these pop up recently, but buyer beware! Sellers tempt buyers with the chance of winning one of the P9 cards I listed above, but there's no way to be sure these powerful cards are in there. Repacks contain a mix of random cards that may be all rares; rares and uncommons; or rares, uncommons, and commons (READ THE REPACK AUCTION LISTING CAREFULLY). I've purchased many repacks and have won some great cards, but no P9. This is a fun way to expand your collection and take a chance at winning a really expensive card for a very low price.
Singles - If your goal is to build a valuable collection, keep it in the closet for several years, then sell it at a profit, purchasing singles (or small-lot auctions) may be the best option. A good seller will have a clear picture of the card and information about its condition. Mint and Near Mint cards are usually all that collectors seek. If you want to spend a lot of money and try to cash in later, the following is a list of very valuable cards (other than the Power Nine) that should be in every collection:
A complete set of dual lands (from Revised or Unlimited and if you can Alpha or Beta)
Birds of Paradise (from any edition)
Mishra's Workshop (Antiquities)
Time Vault (Unlimited, Alpha, or Beta)
Library of Alexandria (Arabian Nights)
Bazaar of Baghdad (Arabian Nights)
Juzam Djinn (Arabian Nights)
Mana Drain (Legends)
Mirror Universe (Legends)
Nether Void (Legends)
Chaos Orb (Unlimited, Alpha, or Beta)
Berserk (Unlimited, Alpha, or Beta)
Ali from Cairo (Arabian Nights)
This list is of course not complete, but it's a great start. If you're going to buy any of these cards, do your research, watch several auctions, and wait for the best price. I find that most stores charge more for singles in their "buy it now" inventory, so auction format is usually the better option (unless you want to be sure the card is yours).
WARNINGS FOR NOVICE BUYERS:
- Again, watch out for proxies!
- Don't accidentally bid on MTGO ("Magic the Gathering Online") cards! - these are virtual cards that are traded online and if you win an auction for MTGO cards, you will not be getting anything in the mail!
- Beware of sellers who claim ignorance! - some sellers will say, "I'm not sure if this mox is real." They could be telling the truth OR they are trying to make a lot of money off a proxy. Also, some sellers may say "I don't know how many are rare, uncommon, or common" and this could either be a really great opportunity or a dishonest seller trying to unload their worthless commons.
- Collector's Edition, Chronicles, Battle Royale, World Championship Cards - these are all reprints of cards from the original core or expansion sets and are worth less than the originals. If a seller says the cards they are selling are OBB (original black border) that means they're the real deal.
- OOP - just because a card is "out of print" doesn't mean it is valuable, this is a hook some sellers use to get you to view their auctions
Note: If you're not sure what a "dual land" or other type of card is, do a search for the item in eBay and I'm sure you'll find an auction for it. Good luck to all sellers, buyers, and collectors of MTG cards!
I hope you found this guide helpful. Please vote so I know how I did!