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Collection Buying 101: Where to Find Collections & Rules


Buying collections is an essential part of mtgfinance. While speculation is far more exciting, buying collections is really the bread and butter of making money with Magic cards. Just look at all the major vendors. They don't buy and sell Magic cards like stocks; instead, they buy them like they were running a pawn shop or second-hand store. If we use Magic players as an example, speculating is sort of like Justin Cohen, they guy who wins a PTQ and Top 8's his very first Pro Tour. It's awesome when it happens, but it's not something that you can really expect or count on. Collection buying, on the other hand, is Christian Calcano, a grinder who grinds prize money week after week, tournament after tournament. Sure, maybe he didn't take home $20,000 in his first Pro Tour, but over time, the profits are just as great. So today I'd like to talk about where to find collections, and begin a discussion on some of the basic rules of collection buying.

At first I thought this would just be one article, but after pushing over the 3,000 word mark and not being close to done, I decided it might take two (or even three) articles to cover everything. This is part one.

Where to Find Collections

In my experience, there are three places to find collections. There may be others out there, but these are the big ones: classified ads (of which Craiglist is likely the most popular), Ebay, and your Magic social circle (this includes Facebook groups, friends, local gaming stores, and players in your local area). I guess it is also possible to find cards at the Salvation Army or some other second-hand store, but I've never had any luck at those places myself. Each of these sources have some positives and negatives, so let's break these avenues down one by one. 

Craigslist

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 75% of all the collections I've ever bought have come from Craigslist. I've had my best buys from Craiglist, but also some of my biggest time wasters. The biggest benefit of Craigslist is that the sales are local so you can physically look through the cards before pulling the trigger. Not only does this make it much harder to get scammed into buying fake cards (most of the fakes feel weird to the touch), but it also allows you to get a general feel for the collection. When you buy a collection, especially very large collection where you can't look over every single card, coming up with a reasonable and fair price is as much art as a science.  Being able to get your hands dirty and dig through some bulk before handing over cash is great. The difference between 30,000 bulk cards from Alpha through Mirrodin and 30,000 bulk cards from Magic 2010 through Khans of Tarkir is hundreds — possibly thousands — of dollars, so being able to evaluate the collection in person is extremely valuable. 

Other positives to Craiglist is you get to negotiate face-to-face, which is much harder to do on Facebook and pretty much impossible to do effectively on Ebay. You can also find insanely good deals on Craiglist with the right combination of timing and luck. I've met a bunch of very cool and interesting people through Magic-related Craigslist ads, and have gotten to explore neighborhoods and towns that I probably would never otherwise. 

The downside of Craigslist is you often have to drive all over the place. I've definitely driven two hours only to turn back and go home with nothing. You also never know who you are going to run into on the other end of the connection, and while most of my experiences have been positive, you still need to be careful walking into a stranger's house with a bunch of cash. There are quite a few people who create very ambitious (or ambiguous) posts on Craigslist, either asking for far more than the cards are really worth, or just not giving enough information, so you need to learn to dig through the slag to find the gold. Finally, the amount of competition for collections (at least in my area) seems to have increased in the past two years. 

A final note on Craiglist: make sure to try alternative search terms. I generally use not only "Magic Cards," but "Magic the Gathering," "Magic: the Gathering", and "MTG" as well. You will be surprised how many people don't have the word "magic" and sometimes even "cards" in their listing for an "MTG Collection." Leave no stone unturned in the search bar. 

Ebay

A very small percentage of the cards I buy come from Ebay, and for collections in specific, the ratio is even less. The only upside I see to Ebay is that you can bid from the comfort of your own home which eliminates the driving problem from Craiglist. Apart from this, buying collections on Ebay has the potential to be a nightmare. There are numerous scams and semi-scams which seller can (and do) run, ranging from slipping a couple expensive forgeries into an otherwise legitimate collection, to "stacking" the pictures of their collection.

I know a guy who spent $3,500 on an Ebay collection based on pictures of a handful of "random" pages from several binders. These pages were stacked with expensive reserved list cards — Revised duals, Force of Wills, a couple Gaea's Cradles; they were just oozing value. The listing implied (without explicitly stating) that these pictures were representative of the collection, like whoever took the pictures just flipped to random pages which just happened to contain multiple cards worth over $100. Once the delivery arrived, the buyer found that all the other pages were filled with Ice Age, Homelands, and Revised commons. Every single card of value was in the pictures, and every card not pictured was worthless.

The competition is also fierce on Ebay. Unlike Craiglist where you are competing with a handful of local buyers, you are competing with every Magic player/collector on Ebay. They range from people just getting back into the game to people who buy cards for a living for ChannelFireball or StarCityGames. This makes it very difficult for a worthwhile collection to slip through the cracks, which means the main (only?) way to make money with Ebay collections is to take more risk than the other buyers (like the guy in the story I just told). Needless to say, this is dangerous. Even when you think you find a good deal, you have to ask yourself, "Am I really smarter than everyone else, or am I missing something?"

Personally, I just don't buy collections on Ebay because to me it represents an unacceptably high level of risk. Remember, the allure of collection buying is that it is risk free, and this isn't true of Ebay collections. I'm not suggesting you should never use Ebay — it can be a fine place to pick up singles and playsets — just remember that buying collections from the site is riskier than the alternatives. 

Social Circle

75% of my collections come from Craigslist,  0% come from Ebay, so that means the other 25% come from my Magic social circle. While I'm not a Facebook guy, I know people who have very good luck buying collections from either friends or various Facebook groups. Another is to just put the word out in your playgroup, at your local gaming stores (with their blessings of course), and to your friends in general. Just getting people to know that you have cash and are looking for collections is half the battle. This method can score some pretty sweet deals. I recently bought a collection from my sister's boyfriend who had fond memories of opening 60-card boosters with his parents when he was 8 years old. I've also bought several collections from friends or playgroup members who decided it was time to move on from the game. Since they knew that I had the cash and am a fair dude, they came to me first when they wanted to sell their cards. 

I mentioned local gaming stores a moment ago. Some of my most profitable buying experiences have come from cultivating relationships with store owners. In my experience, it is almost always worth it to pay a few dollars extra for booster boxes to support your local gaming store. Never make your store feel like you're trying to step on their turf or cut into their business. At the same time, see if you can work out a mutually beneficial arrangement with a store in your area. 

A few years back, one of the local stores decided they were going to get out of the Magic singles business. I had been buying booster boxes at this store for years and the owner gave me the first chance at buying out his leftover inventory as just-above-bulk rates, which I did happily. One of his problems was that people kept coming in to sell him their collections. Even though he was out of the singles business, it pained him to see those cards walk out the door. So we ended up coming to an agreement where he would call me whenever a collection came in, and I would give him a finder's fee for the referral. I'm not saying this is possible in all locations, as many places obviously want to buy the collections themselves, but it is worth looking into. If there is a store in your area that isn't buying collections or isn't in the singles business, see if you can help fill that role. It helps the store and it will also benefit you. 

10 Rules for Buying Collection

Regardless of where you are getting a collection from, there are a few basic rules to live by. Remember, collection buying is a grind for value, so unlike speculation, where I fully embrace the theory that you don't need to "hit" on every buy to come out ahead, when buying collections, you really can't afford to have many (or any) misses since your profits are generally much lower. I mentioned in my Crucible of the Spirit Dragon article that you only need to hit one out of every six bulk-level specs to be profitable. With collection buying, this ratio is pretty much reversed and if you miss one out of six, the one "miss" has potential to eat away all of your profits.

1. Know prices, and know them well

When you roll up to someone's house to check out a 20,000 card collection, you can't look though every card. It takes hours to sort a collection like that, and a stranger's living room is not the place to do it. Especially for rares and mythics, you need to be able to look at a card and know its price, ideally without using your phone. Looking up prices tends to make the seller nervous, like you're pulling one over on them, and once they start seeing that TCG-mid is 40% higher than your offer, they are less likely to sell. 

You need to value cards at the price you can actually get when you sell them. TCG-mid pricing means very little when buying collections. If you buy collections at TCG-mid, or even TCG-low, you are going to lose money. There are various methods out there for calculating the "true" worth of cards. Personally, I just think in buylist prices. If you can buy for at-or-below buylist price, you are in great shape. You can also try to pay somewhere between 50% - 65% of TCG-low, which amounts to a few percentage points below the typical spread of 30-40%. You can use average Ebay prices, but make sure you account for shipping and fees which can be as high as 15%. I don't care what method you use; find one that works and stick with it. The important thing is that you realize you are not SCG or CFB, so you are not going to get their prices. 

Evaluating bulk cards is an art, and it's just as much about evaluating the seller as it is the cards. Some sellers will list out every uncommon and common at TCG prices and think that their 100 copies of Craw Wurm are worth 0.15 per (avoid!!!). Other sellers value all their commons and uncommons at bulk rates (score!!!). You can tell a lot about what could be in someone's bulk by what is in their rare binders. If you look through someone's binders and find a bunch of Lightning Bolts, Thought Scours, and Wirewood Symbiotes mixed in with the rares and mythics, it's pretty unlikely that the bulk is going to contain anything worthwhile. On the other hand, if the binder is only rares worth $5 or more, the bulk is probably golden. 

Paying $4-$5 per thousand for bulk is generally safe. While buylist prices have been down recently, you should be able to resell bulk cards for at least $5/thousand. Sometimes I'll pay more after looking at the collection, especially if a majority of the cards are from Mirrodin block or before, or if the seller seems to be the type to leave Remands and Serum Visions in their bulk boxes. One memorable collection I purchased a few years ago had a bunch of so-so rares from Invasion through Mirrodin. I got the bulk thrown in for free (maybe 5,000 cards) so I didn't even bother to look through it. When I got home and started sorting, I found that this guy must have opened cases of Invasion or something because there were 40 copies of Aura Shards and 40 copies of Sterling Grove in mint condition stacked in rows amongst the other bulk. On the other hand, sometimes I'll pay less, especially if the cards are new and/or the seller has most of the "good bulk" in their rare binders. 

2. Don't worry about being exact

When you are looking though a binder of 500 rares, being able to estimate quickly is important. I think of cards in rounded numbers, keep an eye out for high value cards, and add them up in my head. I try to get a general feeling for how many rares are true bulk, and how many are worth a few dollars. Using this I arrive at a rough number. Often, the seller has a price in mind, so the first question I always try to answer is "are these cards profitable at the buyer's asking price?"

For instance, a seller is asking $300 for their collection. As I'm browsing through the binders, I'm counting up in my head. "$40 for this Scalding Tarn plus $120 for this Tarmogoyf is $160. Fifty rares I can get $3 for, that's another $150 so we're up to $310. Okay, so considering there is a bunch more stuff I haven't even looked through yet, I can pay $300 for this collection." Even though there may be a bunch of bulk, or more binders full of rares, I pretty much stop looking though the cards at this point. I might flip through more binders and take a quick peek at the bulk for the sake of the seller, but once I know I'm buying the collection, the counting stops. For a $300 collection, it really doesn't matter if I add up to $400, $750, or $1500. Once I know I'm buying it, I'm buying it. 

I'm going to have to sort through all of these cards back at my house anyway, then stack them, pile them, sell them, and ship them. So at the meeting with the seller, I'm just trying to figure out if I can pay their asking price, and if not, what can I pay and still be profitable? Getting to these answers with the least amount of time and work requires some amount of estimation, so don't worry about being exact. Just make sure that your pricing is conservative enough so that you have a built-in cushion for your estimate. 

3. Ethics

Since I just wrote about the possibility of buying a collection valued at $1500 for $300, I should clarify a couple of things. I never ever lie to sellers about the price of their cards. If someone asks me the price of card X, Y, or Z, I give them an honest answer. If someone doesn't have an asking price, I will walk them through exactly what I'm thinking: the retail value, the buylist value, and how much I am willing to pay for the collection. However, when an adult (I generally just don't deal with minors unless a parent is present) posts a Craigslist ad asking for X dollars for their collection, I never feel bad paying the asking price, even if their cards are worth more.

So a while back I noticed an ad on my local Craigslist for 2,000 Magic cards for sale for $200 dollars. There were no pictures, no information about the cards other than "some rares," and the seller lived almost an hour away from me. I typically ignore these types of ads; there just isn't enough information to justify the effort, especially considering 2,000 card collections are very often someone who got into the game recently, cracked a few boxes and stopped playing. It's probably a bunch of RTR bulk and the seller is trying to "get their money back." (there seems to be a common misconception among people selling their cards on Craigslist that their cards should be worth at least as much as the boosters they opened to get the cards).

Two weeks went by and the ad was still up. This usually makes me even more skeptical because if neither I nor any other collection buyer in the area has picked up the cards after a couple weeks, they probably are not worth much of anything. Eventually I had a day with nothing to do, so I sent the guy an email asking if he still had the cards. He responded promptly that he did and really wanted to get rid of them. I figured it was a nice day for a ride so I went to check out the collection fully expecting it to be a waste of time. 

When I got there, the cards were all laid out on the guy's kitchen table. One Holiday Gift Box and two deckboxes. I took a seat and started to look through the gift box, here are some of the cards I found. 

Liliana of the Veil [ISD]Liliana of the Veil [ISD]Liliana of the Veil [ISD]Grindstone [TE]GrindstoneCelestial Colonnade [WWK]Ensnaring Bridge [ST]Sword of Fire and Ice [DST]Geist of Saint Traft [ISD]Infernal Tutor [DIS]

 

At this point I stopped looking. The $200 asking price was an insanely good deal. I asked the seller again, "so how much did you want for them?" He repeated the $200 price from his ad, stating that none of his friends played anymore and he just wanted to get rid of the cards. I pulled out $200, he thanked me, and I headed back home. He was happy. I was more than happy. To me this is a completely ethical and fair transaction. I mean, even though I would gladly pay $20 for Chipotle some days, I still walk into the restaurant and hand them $6 for my chicken burrito because Chipotle sets the price and says $6 fair. Even if I pick each piece of rice out of that burrito and sell them individually for $100, Chipotle is still just as happy with their $6.

4. Don't be afraid to walk away

If you don't feel certain you can turn a profit on a collection, just drive home. It is better to waste some time and gas and come home empty-handed than to double-down on the problem by buying the collection. You also have to take a holistic and realistic view of both the collection you are thinking about buying and how you are actually going to sell the cards. 

For example, you see an ad on Craigslist: "Collection for sale, $350." You get there and the entire collection is two copies of Volcanic Island.

 

Sure, you might not make a ton of money selling two Revised Volcanic Islands, maybe $50, but they are high-demand cards that are easy to move, require no sorting, and likely ship together, so all in all, you're making that $50 for very little work. On the other hand, if the $350 collection consists of 1,000 bulk rares and 50,000 bulk common and uncommons, you might have to think about it. Sure, you can probably make $50, but at what cost? Unless you are just going to bulk everything out (which may or may not be profitable), that is a ton of work. Hours and hours of sorting, many different shipments, and weeks of waiting for low-end cards to sell. It might not be worth your time for the $50 profit, and it is definitely far less attractive than two Volcanic Islands for the same price. 

At the same time, driving an hour or two to check out a collection only to return home empty-handed feels horrible and should be avoided if at all possible. Your best bet is to gather as much information as possible before making the drive. If you don't have enough information, ask the seller for more. At some point you have to make a judgment call as to whether or not it's worth looking at the collection in person. I tend to err on the side of making the drive simply because some of the best collections I've bought have been ones that didn't look very good on Craigslist. But I also end up driving home with nothing more often than I would like. 

5. Learn to negotiate

Pretty much everything in life negotiable, and this includes collections which are "priced fairly/firm/whatever." While in my ideal world the seller would always ask a price that I feel comfortable paying, this isn't always (or even usually) the case. When I first started buying collections, I used to feel bad making offers far lower than the buyer's asking price. Telling someone who is asking $1,000 that their collection is only worth $200 is never enjoyable. Then I realize that some percentage of seller are just being optimistic and hoping that against all odds, someone pays the asking price. I've had multiple instances where I've offered 25% of the asking price only to have the buyer jump at my offer. This doesn't happy every time; you will run into the seller who won't take a penny less than TCG-mid for every common they have (run, don't walk, to you car), but it happens often enough that I no longer feel bad about just shooting an offer out there for the seller to reject. 

As for negotiating itself, go watch a few episodes of Pawn Stars. That's basically how it works. While I try to avoid giving ridiculously low offers in an actual negotiation (just putting an offer out there knowing that you'll walk if it's rejected is not negotiating), it's always best to aim a little bit under the price you are will to pay to give yourself some room to up the offer. For instance, suppose I'm looking at a collection listed at $1500. After going through all of the cards, I don't feel comfortable paying more than $1000. Given that this is already 33% off the asking price, I'm likely to offer $750 cash, fully expecting the seller to reject my first offer. You could offer $500, but since you are actually trying to negotiate and not just throwing out a hail mary, an offer this low could make the seller less interested in negotiating. As a general rule, try to start at no less than 50% of the asking price. 

Apart from pricing at retail, two of the most common reasons I've found for why sellers overvalue their cards is that they don't realize that some of their cards have been reprinted, or they are pricing from memory, often at a card's peak price. So Jace, Architect of Thought is still $40, while in reality it's not much above a bulk mythic. 

So I offer $750 for the $1500 collection, explaining why their playset of Jace, Architect of Thought is only worth $7 today, and not the $160 in their heads. Ideally, they will come down a bit, maybe to $1250. Then I'll come up a bit, perhaps to $900, and after a while we will meet in the middle at $1000, which is what I was hoping to pay for the collection all along. Negotiating effectively is an acquired skill that comes from practice, so don't be afraid to try it, learn it, and perfect it. Negotiating is an essential part of collection buying. 

Conclusion

That's all for today. I'm planning on having part two covering the rest of my ten rules, along with some other random collection buying experiences and tips. Until then, have you ever bought a collection? If so, where did you find it? Was it worth it? Also, if there is anything specific about buying collections that you want to have covered, let me know, and I'll do my best to accommodate. As always, leave it in the comments, or on Twitter @SaffronOlive. 


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