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Good Specs, Bad Specs, and "The Process"

A couple days ago it was brought to my attention that people were buying up Garza's Assassin both in paper and Magic Online. Yesterday it was Sapling of Colfenor tripling in price based on the testimony of a podcast (sorry, I'm not sure which one) which declared the treefolk a good starting commander. If we go back over the past few months, the list of buys is so long I probably won't remember them all: Seance, foil Magus of the Bazaar, Savor the Moment, Skullbriar the Walking Grave, Night of Souls Betrayal, foil Command Tower, foil and non-foil Congregation at Dawn, foil Mystical Teachings, and Mishra's Bauble, not to mention any card that is good, could be good, or is even pretty clearly not good in Tiny Leaders (ironically a format that is good, could be good, or is pretty clearly not good depending on who you talk to). All of this buying got me thinking about speculations, specifically what makes a spec good or bad? How do we decide success or failure? 

While it might be tempting to think simply as success as profit and failure as loss, I'm not sure this is the most effective way, so today we are going to discuss speculation. I know some people think is this is a dirty word, but even though it was various buyouts that got me thinking about this topic, it's not buyouts that we are talking about today. Instead, by speculation I'm referring to buying cards at a certain price in hopes of selling them for more in the future. You can speculate on single foil copy of Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth or all the One with Nothings on the internet; it's not about the number of cards you buy or your budget, but about the process. 


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When it comes to speculation, opportunity cost is a very real and important concept. So often I, and I'm sure others as well, fall into the trap of looking for a "good spec," when what we really should be looking for is the best spec. Of course how you define "best spec" is dependent on your goals, time frame, budget, and other variables. So my best spec target will probably be different than yours.


It's important to know what your MTG finance goals are before you start buying cards. The ultimate goal of all MTG finance is to make (or at least lose less) money while being involved with a game that you love, but there are many sub-goals within this large group. Some people want to lose less on their Standard deck when it rotates, while others want to buy a Modern deck that is less likely to be crushed in value by Modern Masters 2015. Some people are looking for quick flip opportunities, either by buying collections for less than they can sell them for, or buying cards they think will preform well at the next big event and double or triple in price. Other people don't have any immediate plans of selling the cards they acquire. Instead they are looking to build a collection, but to do so in a way that will allow them to cash out for more than they spent if they decide to sell in the future.

Take, for instance, a quick flip collection buyer and the long-term collection builder. The types of cards that equal the best opportunities for these people are much different. I've written before about buying collections, and for me, nothing makes me happier than seeing a massive lot of unsearched commons and uncommons. I don't even really care what those cards are, because I know that on average, I'll be able to pull out some value and get my initial investment back. The collection builder on the other hand, likely has little interest in your 50,000 bulk cards, but your sweet judge foil Wasteland or black-bordered dual lands? Yes please. Similarly, a person building a Modern deck has different wants than someone building a Standard deck. 

I can't tell you what your goals should be; it's really up to you to decide. But what I can tell you is you need to have them if you don't want to risk wandering aimlessly through the multiverse.


This one is easy; when you are planning to cash out has a huge impact on the cards you buy. While setting exact time frames is likely foolish, learning to think in quick flips (a couple weeks max), short-term (maybe up to three months or when the next set releases), mid-term (maybe up to a year), and long-term (everything else) is essential. Remember, this doesn't have anything to do with when you actually sell the cards (you can sell your long-term holds in a week if it's the right move), but it means everything when you buy cards.

Opportunity Costs

Opportunity costs are all about making the best use of a limited resource, so knowing your budget for MTG finance is important. If you have $50 to spend, your "best spec" is going to look a lot different than if you have $500 or $5,000. If you have unlimited resources, this doesn't apply to you, but then if you had unlimited resources you would probably be buying a yacht rather than reading this article.


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Let's use an example to pull this together. Let's say you have $50 to spend on Magic cards. You're looking for something you can (hopefully) cash out in six months and your one and only goal is to make the biggest profit possible. After looking over your options, you are trying to choose between buying one Snapcaster Mage for $50, four Abrupt Decay for $12.50 each, or 250 copies of Seance at $0.20 each. For the sake of simplicity, let's assume that when you sell your cards you'll get full retail price (and that you can actually sell 250 copies of Seance). In reality, shipping costs, fees, and other variables eat into these profits and impact your answer. Note that unless you're buylisting, selling one Snapcaster Mage will always be preferable to selling 250 copies of a bulk rare.

Now let's say you feel strongly that you will be able to sell Snapcaster Mage for $70 six months from now. In fact, you are 100 percent sure of it. This represents a $20 (29 percent) gain in half a year, which is great. Based on this line of thinking, there is little argument that the flashy human would be a "good spec," but is he the best spec out of these three options? This depends on how you feel about the other cards. If you are just as confident that you will be able to sell your Abrupt Decays for $20 each in the same timeframe, you should probably buy Abrupt Decay because you'll make $30 in profit rather than the $20 from Snapcaster Mage. On the other hand, if you only expect to sell your Abrupt Decays for $16, Snapcaster Mage is the better target. 

Where this gets really interesting is when you are not 100 percent sure about a card. This is a common theme in all MTG finance, but especially with bulk rares. So let's talk about Seance. At $0.20 each, you can buy 250 copies for $50. Now lets say you think there is a 20 percent chance the card finds a home in Modern and that you will be able to sell these cards for $2.00 each. If this 20 percenter hits you can sell your copies for $500, an amazing $450 dollar profit (and 900 percent increase) in six months. So, you should obviously be buying Seance, right?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple because we haven't taken into account the 80 percent chance that Seance is a bust. In this situation, after six months you'll have to sell your copies as bulk for $0.10 and you'll end up losing $25 of your initial $50 investment. Not so great. But lets say instead of buying just one Seance (i.e. bulk rare with a 20 percent chance of spiking to $2), you buy five different Seances with your $50 (so instead of 250 copies of actual Seance, you have 50 copies of five different bulk rares). This means that, assuming your number are correct (very important) one of these cards will increase to $2. In this situation, you spend $50, bulk out the four "misses" at $0.10x200 for $20 and sell your one hit for at $2x50 for $100. 

If you run through all that math, what do you come up with? A $20 profit, the exact same amount as you would expect from buying one copy of your "sure thing" Snapcaster Mage. I guess the point of all this is two-fold: First, think, plan, and research before you buy, you'll save yourself a lot of heartache and money in the long run. Second, ask yourself "where is the best place I can have my money given my time frame and goals?" and not "is this card a good spec?" 

Discount Results

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Since the ultimate goal of MTG finance is to make money, it's easy to slip into the trap of evaluating every purchase that turns a profit as good and every purchase that does not as bad. Even discounting opportunity cost for a minute, this simply isn't true. You can make horrible purchase and have it pay off and make great purchases and lose money. 

A Good Spec Gone Bad

Going back to are previous example, let's say you decide that Abrupt Decay is the best place you can have your money over the next six months. But instead of $50, you are going to sink $500 into the GB instant. You expect that you'll be able to sell them for a total of $900 this fall. You make a well-reasoned and researched decision: the spread is good, the time frame is right, a reprint looks unlikel,y and demand will likely rise if/when more people buy into Modern this summer in response to Modern Masters 2015. You buy your 40 Abrupt Decays, arrange them neatly in a binder, set them aside, and wait for the months to pass. 

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Then, out of the blue, you're looking over the visual spoiler for Magic Origins and disaster strikes. There's Abrupt Decay, with the same art staring back at you, and they even bumped it down to uncommon since they wanted a way to kill flipped planeswalkers in limited. You end up frantically unloading your Abrupt Decays to a buylist for $5 a piece, eating a $300 loss in the process.

Now in this case you might be tempted to beat yourself up. I mean, thanks to the hindsight bias, it seems so obvious. Of course they would put Abrupt Decay in ORI to deal with the flip-walkers. Duh! But in reality, your decision making and purchase are just as good if you end up selling the Decays for $5 or $20, assuming you did the proper research, thinking, and evaluation before buying. In MTG finance, like in many aspects of life, you can do everything perfectly and still end up with a bad result.

Winning Despite Your Stupidity

If you have been following my writing for any length of time, you probably already know that a few months ago I bought a bunch of copies of Crucible of the Spirit Dragon. While I think I did a pretty good job justifying my purchase (especially based on the 1 in 5 theory of speculating on bulk rares I broke down while talking about Seance), deep down I know that it was a bad spec. I didn't think it through, bought on emotion rather than logic, and above all, it was Crucible of the Spirit Dragon. Basically, in this situation I made a poor decision/purchase.


The funny thing is that is has (sort of) paid off. I haven't made a killing, but the card is worth more now than what I paid, and I even sold 0a few in trade for nearly double my buy in. Since the goal is to turn a profit, I am obviously a financial genius who next-leveled everyone and made a great buy, right? Wrong. Even though I ended up coming out a bit ahead, this was still a poor purchase. My process, research, and timing were just wrong. I'd take this as far to say that if Crucible of the Spirit Dragon spiked all the way to $5 and made me a huge profit, I would still feel that it was a bad spec. If we can't judge our losses by the results, we certainly can't judge our wins in this manner either.

The reason this is so important is because MTG finance isn't a lottery ticket. It's not some risky one-time shot at making money where the house always wins; it's a long-term grind. And over the long haul, buying Abrupt Decays is going to make you money and buying Crucible of the Spirit Dragons are going to lose you money. Likewise, having a good decision making process is going to lead to good results; not every time, but more often that not. Having an emotion-filled, haphazard, and faulty decision making process is going to lead to losses in the long run. 

So more than any specific card, spec, or result, MTG finance is about consistent well-reasoned decision making. To steal a term from the sports world, it's about "the process." 

The Process

For those of you who don't follow college football, Alabama is consistently great. They are the best team in the best conference. While this doesn't mean they win every game or come in first every year (see below), they do win way more than anyone else. Why is Alabama consistently great? According to the players and coaches of the team, it's because of "the process." So what is "the process,"? Let's let one of the Alabama player explain:

"The Process means not focusing on the results and focusing on how you get there. ... What this whole program is built on is if you worry about doing the little things right, the big things will take care of themselves. That's what The Process is. It's playing to a standard."

Alabama coach Nick Saban describes "the process" a similar manner: "It's the journey that's important. You can't worry about end results. It's about what you control, every minute of every day. You always have to have a winning attitude and discipline in practices, weight training, conditioning, in the classroom, in everything. It's a process." While hitting the weight room isn't essential to MTG finance (although finding balance in life is important), the broader themes of "the process" are just as important to the MTG finance as they are in football. We already talked about not focusing too much on results and instead focusing on how you get there, so before we wrap up today, let's briefly go through the rest of this Nick Saban wisdom. 

  • Do the little things right. This applies to so many aspects of MTG finance (and life in general) I'm not even sure where to start. Beyond the actual buying process, this can include how you care for your cards (I have a bad habit of sorting cards in my bedroom, leaving them out, and kicking them over in my sleep), how you organize your collection, and how you keep records on your purchases and sales. What articles do you read? What websites do you visit regularly? What vendors do you buylist to? What pricing do you use?  Do you look up the basic, foundation information on a card (spread, multiplier, supply, reprints) before buying? Do you buy on impulse or on emotion? Are you open to learning from others? Do you still think critically about the mass of information you take in each day? I could probably go on and on about these "little things," but I'm sure you get the idea. 
  • The big things will take care of themselves. This is the beauty of the process. If you do all the little things consistently and correctly, you will make money at MTG finance. This is why I have come to dislike the term speculation despite the fact that it is technically the correct term for buying cards in hope of a future increase in price. Too often people view speculation as gambling or guessing. If you are using the process and doing all the little things right, nothing could be further from the truth. There is, and will always be some level of risk involved, but it can be greatly minimized by doing all the things we've been talking about. 
  • It's the journey that's important. To me, this speaks to the importance of learning from your experiences and your mistakes. While I just got done telling you how horrible my Crucible of the Spirit Dragon purchase was, in some ways, it might be the best spec I've made in my life because I've learned so much from it. It's made me think about my process, articulate the theory on buying bulk rares, and also made for a great photo during Dragons of Tarkir spoilers.

Crucible of the Spirit Dragon / Haven Alter

  • Control what you can and don't worry about what you can't. One time, a couple years ago, the post office destroyed one of my flat rate boxes containing a $1000 buylist order. It was literally delivered to the vendor in a garbage bag. I looked back through my email and managed to find the picture they sent me (see below). I had shipped in the same manner hundreds of times before without having an issue, so I felt fairly confident that it wasn't my fault, but what could I do? Absolutely nothing. The vendor was kind enough to ship everything back to me free of charge, and amazingly no valuable cards were missing or damaged. So I reshipped the cards to the same vendor and ended up getting full value for the order despite the problems. The point is I can't control USPS, I can't control an Ebay buyer being scummy saying they never received a card, and I can't control many other things. And if I can't control it, I make a conscious effort not to worry about it and move on.

Magic cards delivered via USPS garbage bag


Anyway, that's all for today. So, what do you think? Do you have a process when it comes to MTG finance? What "little things" can you improve so the big things take care of themselves? Going back to our Snapcaster Mage, Abrupt Decay, and Seance example, which do you think is the "best spec" if you're planning on buying now and selling in six months (ignore the percentages we talked about since they were made up for the sake of discussion)? As always, leave your thoughts, feelings, and opinions in the comments, or you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive.      

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