MTG Financial Fundamentals: The Myth of Pack to Power

Trading Magic cards is a practice that has been going on since their invention in 1993.  When in its infancy, Magic was just as much about collecting as it was playing.  Before the Pro Tour, card values were driven mostly by casual playability within localized gaming circles.  This is how Craw Wurms became 1$ cards and Shivan Dragons closer to 10$.  The lack of complete information, namely before internet was widely used, was a key driver of this phenomenon.  As a result, trading became about the cards.  I had an extra of a card I didn’t need, and so I would trade that card for something I could immediately place into my deck.

As I have discussed in previous articles, times have changed drastically.  Some traders even took the practice to a whole new level.  By taking a page out of Kyle MacDonald’s book, they decided they could take a single booster pack of Magic: the Gathering cards and through a serious of numerous trades, obtain a piece of the Power 9.  I, too, decided to embark on this arduous journey.  But 40 trades in, I’ve discovered the secret of the endeavor, and this article is inteded to reveal that secret.

Who is Kyle MacDonald?

Kyle MacDonald is known for trading a red paper clip up to a house through a series of trades.  In fact, considering that even a Black Lotus is certainly not worth as much as a house, Kyle’s quest was even more challenging.  However, not being restricted to Magic cards certainly helps, as in the grand view of everything, you are bound to find some people valuing things far higher than others.  Arbitrage taken to the nth degree, if you will.  His goal became well known, and it ended up making him a pseudo-celebrity, at least for a limited period of time.

So if Kyle was able to turn a red paper clip into a house, surely opening a pack of Magic cards and trading up for power should be possible, right?  In fact, it is very possible, as a multitude of MTG traders have already done so successfully and some have even written about it.  I began this very quest almost a year ago with my eyes set on a Mox.  I was going to do it, through perseverance and commitment, it was within reach!  But along the way, I discovered a hidden truth behind pack to power trading.

The Truth? You Can’t Handle the Truth!

Hopefully, all these allusions to a secret truth have hooked you into my article.  I’ll start the revelation by sharing with you my first few trades:

So, I bought a pack of Zendikar. Here’s what I opened:

Emeria Angel
Soaring Seacliff
Plains
Kor Skyfisher
Zektar Shrine Expedition
Trusty Machete
Kazaudu Blademaster
Ravenous Trap
Nimbus Wings
Mold Shambler
Whiplash Trap
Crypt Robber
Relic Crush
Vampire’s Bite
Zendikar Farguide
Rules Card

Ok, so not too terrible, I suppose. One of the advantages of Zendikar is that I’m guaranteed that land card, at least. But I was fortunate enough to open an angel card! Alright, I can do this.

Trade 1
My:
Emeria Angel
Soaring Seacliff

His:
Everflowing Chalice
Tectonic Edge
Inquisition of Kozilek
Vampire Nighthawk

Trade 2
My:
Vampire Nighthawk
Tectonic Edge

His:
Volition Reins
Lightning Bolt
Spikeshot Elder
Vivid Marsh

Trade 3
My:
Everflowing Chalice
Vivid Marsh
Spikeshot Elder

His:
Wake Thrasher
Quest for the Holy Relic
Rite of Replication
Gatekeeper of Malakir (FNM foil)

Notice something here?  Would any of my well-informed readers ever consider one of these trades?  Of course not.  But these trades were made with friends of mine (or at least good acquaintances).  They knew I embarked upon this pack to power journey, and they were willing to help.  The problem is, this is how my first dozen or so trades progressed;  charity after charity from people at my local game shop to help me establish a foothold.  Much like Kyle’s first few trades, my first few trades were nothing but donations to help me get started.

After establishing a trade binder worth glancing at, it became more challenging.  It seemed like cheating to bring up the fact that the binder they were gripping was for pack to power, because I did not want to simply receive charity along the entire way.  But what is the alternative?  If my trade partners are not going to knowingly give me value on a trade, it meant I would have to swindle them out of it.  This can sometimes be done fairly, such as trading cards soon rotating out of standard for some newer cards, or perhaps trading standard cards for legacy staples.  Other times, however, the trade is outright unfair.  After all, if you agree with my previous article that Magic trading can be considered a zero-sum game, my gain is their loss.  And if I am approaching power through my trades, my trade partners must certainly be moving in the opposite direction.

Recently, this has led to an internal struggle.  I have enjoyed this exercise so far because it has helped me become more comfortable with trading.  I’ve also picked up some stories along the way, and that has been enjoyable.  Keeping an eye on the prize, it would be foolish not to continue.  However, deep inside, I am conflicted.  Basically, to continue this endeavor is to choose between two scenarios.

1) I continue to reveal to my trade partners that they are looking at my pack to power binder, which is nearly asking for a handout

OR

2) I attempt to garner value out of the trade with an unwitting trade partner time after time, which is morally difficult for me.

In Summary…

I feel like this is little more than asking for 1$ from everyone I trade with.  In fact, if I were able to garner enough support, I could probably go around telling people that I am performing a social experiment to determine who will give me free cards.  Then, once I have 1000’s of free cards, I can trade them for noteworthy cards, and proceed to trade for a yacht.  Often times, something gimmicky is all you need and people will reward you simply for entertaining them.

Perhaps that is what pack to power trading is:  A source of entertainment.  From that perspective, I must ask a question of my readers.  I currently blog about my pack to power trades at www.sigscorner.blogspot.com .  Are people entertained by these posts?  If not, I will halt the pack to power on principle.  If so, then please let me know.  I have a red paper clip I’d love to trade you.

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Posted on October 11, 2011, in Extras. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Well, I’m not so sure that trading is a zero-sum game. This is because cards aren’t just collectible, they also have utility, and the value each person puts on a card is a combination of the card’s inherent collectibility and the utility that person has for it.

    If ten people each have two Relentless Rats, those Rats are useless and have no utility. But now imagine that one person has accumulated a dozen or so of the rats, and is trading with one of the holdouts. The marginal value of that next Relentless Rat is high for the rat player and low for the non-Rat player. Both my 13th Rat and your 2nd Rat have the same ‘book’ value from a retail store, since they’re the same card; but it’s just plain more useful in my hands, so it has differing value depending on who owns it.

    Also, utility isn’t measured just in terms of deckbuilding. Access to different markets means cards have differing utility. If we meet at a big event, maybe I know of a store back home that will give me $1.50 for [insert junk rare]. In your hands, your junk is worth $0.25, but in my hands, it’s worth more.

    There’s limits to what this line of thought can justify, of course, but if you think you can navigate those limits then it should remove the moral objection and allow you to proceed. It is not a big stretch to say that the utility gained by going from having ‘a pile of cards’ to having ‘a complete deck’ is worth a couple dollars. You are NOT just asking for $1 from every trade partner. You’re charging them $1 for the service of increasing the utility of their cards.

    • This comment is very well written and provides a different perspective worth considering. You are pointing out the relative utility of a card as well as relative accessability (pseudo-arbitrage). The hump I have not yet been able to overcome is concept of viewing myself as a service provider. Especially at a large tournament, I feel like I am not necessarily entitled to charging that 1$ service charge when there are other “competitors” who will do so more effectively and more completely. Perhaps this is an internal struggle I will need to overcome in order to proceed. My question then becomes, “what gives me the right to charge this service charge and not the next guy over?” And if anyone has that right, then why am I so special to trade with? I expect to pay a premium when I buy from a retailer because of their overhead and inventory requirements. I do not want to necessarily pay that same premium when I trade with a random trader when I know the next guy over won’t charge that same premium.

  2. Very interesting article. I’ve had the same thoughts about pack to power series. I would find it great if someone who shows a moral sense of “gain value without trying to screw my trade partner over” got there. I usually have that same guilt when I trade, so I generally try to make moves on cards that I’m sure will have price jumps, or only gain a little. I’ve traded bulk rares to get timely reinforcements off people, but never big things like fetch lands.

    If you’re gaining a dollar off every trade I wouldn’t say you’re being a bad person. If you were gaining that dollar and then laughing at them for being dumb then I could find issue. 😛

  3. That is generally how I proceed with trading as well. Rather than seeking the cards my trade partner undervalues, I simply try to trade for cards that I believe will hold value for some time, or perhaps even rise in value. In the case of my Pack to Power, I picked up a Birthing Pod at 3$ a long while back and now it’s worth considerably more. The problem is, this often takes a LONG time and if you make one mistake, it could start you back at ground zero all over again. My biggest 3 Pack to Power cards now are Scalding Tarn, Knight of the Reliquary, and Birthing Pod. I’m afraid to trade into something trendy like Snapcaster Mage because if I can’t unload it quickly, I may lose significant value, setting my PtP back considerably.

    As for your second paragraph, what if I was gaining a dollar and then writing articles about it? 😛

  4. That’s the thing though. In taking such risks is where you can find your value and make pack to power truly work. For me building my online collection has been about watching or expecting trends and acting upon that information.

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