On a fall day in 2019, a lucrative bit of backroom dealing kicked off with a typo-ridden message on the chat app Discord. Two players of the strategy card game Magic: The Gathering were about to engage in a little insider trading.
“Hey mate, I just got some game changing news, but i kinda dont want to put it in the discord yet. I want just a day to get ahead of the field,” wrote one of the men, BaconShuffel. “Its litterally gona change…… everything.”
BaconShuffel, real name Craig Chapman, was sidling up to entrepreneur James Chillcott with some inside information that, if handled properly, would position them and the people in their network to reap thousands of dollars. Chapman was firing off messages in excited little fragments punctuated by smiley face emojis while Chillcott responded in more a more measured prose, which appeared adjacent to an icon of a hairgelled man in a business suit making a Zoolander mouthshape. Chapman was hunched over his PC in his suburban Ireland home office and surrounded by piled-high white boxes of Magic cards, sorted and stacked. These things had made him money, and lots of it. Here was an opportunity for more.
“Lol ok,” wrote Chillcott. “Hit me.”
“They are announcing a new paper competitive format,” Chapman messaged. He was talking about Magic’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast. “Its name is Pioneer.”
“Yummy,” Chillcott said. “Source on this?”
“The source is trustworthy,” Chapman said. “He hasnt led me wrong for 2 years.”
Chapman had come to Chillcott because Chillcott was the guy to come to. He runs a website called MTGPrice, a podcast called MTG Fast Finance and a Discord group called Pro Trader, all of which are aimed at helping players maximize the value of their Magic cards by buying and selling them at the right moment in the card game’s unregulated, unofficial secondary market.
It was October 19, two days before Wizards of the Coast would officially announce the Pioneer format—a new method for playing the card game with a special rule set—which gave new life to older sets of Magic cards by bringing them back into competitive play. The format was a noteworthy announcement not just for dedicated players up for injecting some fresh nostalgia into their veins but also for the speculators who make a business out buying and selling Magic cards: The launch of the new format would instantly make a slew of dormant, low-value cards massively, massively relevant again. Their prices would naturally spike.
If Chapman and Chillcott bought in now, before the news broke and while the card prices were low, they could be up a couple thousand dollars by the end of the week. There are a lot of ways to get ahead of the curve, and in Magic, insider trading is perfectly legal.
“I just made this discord alot of money ?,” Chapman wrote.
Magic cards are extraordinary collectables in that, despite their pulpy fantasy art and idiosyncratic fandom, they’re less akin to rare stamps and autographed baseballs than stocks and bonds.
You don’t tongue a Declaration of Independence stamp, and your dad might wince if you tossed him a $249.99 baseball autographed by Sammy Sosa. There’s no real utility to them—just novelty and a price tag. But Magic cards have utility; they are playable, and their usefulness constantly shifts as Wizards of the Coast issues new cards and tweaks the in-game dynamics of others. Some 20,000 unique Magic cards have been released since 1993, and about four times a year, Wizards of the Coast designs and prints more sets.
And those cards aren’t just valuable for their rarity or historic authenticity. As play formats are announced or new cards proliferate, veteran cards are organically reactivated. Players are constantly reaching back into the still-living archives of Magic and plucking out old cards for their new decks, which makes those cards hot commodities in a constantly fluctuating market. (Of course some cards are simply rare and thus valuable. There are 572 Magic cards on a “Reserved List,” a catalog of cards that Wizards of the Coast promises will never be reprinted. On that list is the famous Black Lotus, one of which sold for $166,000 at a 2019 auction).
All of this has made for a Wild West secondary market for the fantasy trading cards. Demand remains healthy because there are millions of active Magic players. And for them, it’s not insane to shuffle a couple hundred-dollar collectable cards into a deck and whip it out for a casual game at their buddy’s kitchen table. It also wasn’t entirely surprising when, in 2016, pharmaceutical industry villain Martin Shkreli—who is in prison for securities fraud—claimed on Reddit that, as a “collector of wine, art, and other goods,” he was interested in purchasing a Black Lotus card.
Not quite a “free market”— since Wizards of the Coast still owns the intellectual property and controls all card-printing—the international trade of Magic cards has, in manifold and surprising ways, grown to echo trends in both information technology and world financial markets: arbitrage, speculation, influencer marketing, and, yes, even insider trading. Several representatives of digital Magic card marketplaces declined to estimate how much money passes through them annually, although individual traders cited six-figure deals they’d facilitated multiple times a year. Wizards of the Coast did not respond to several requests for comment on this story.
“One of the beauties of the game and of the Magic economy as a whole is that it’s not really a game,” Chillcott says. “It’s a platform.”
That much was clear even in the game’s early days. Sometime in year two of playtesting Magic—this was 1993—creator Richard Garfield realized that it was “one of the best economic simulations” he’d ever seen, he wrote that year in a pamphlet under a section titled “Designer’s Notes.” It was before the widespread adoption of the internet, and in that less-connected world, lacking easy digital consensus-building tools, Garfield describes how “people valued different cards in different ways—sometimes because they just weren’t evaluating them accurately, but more often because some cards actually were better for one player than another, giving lots of opportunity for arbitrage.”
Garfield was wrapping up his PhD at Penn in computational mathematics when, on a hike up to Oregon’s Multnomah Falls, inspiration first struck for Magic. Over time, he worked out an elegant set of rules: It would be a card game designed around five colors, each with its own personality and signature mechanics, that would interlock and enable strategies. Players could cast spells, unleash creatures, and deploy various sorceries to bring each other’s life total (which starts at 20 points) down to zero. To cast those spells, they would tap “mana” representing those five colors. From there, Magic play would expand into a web of statistical patterns and human guesswork so complex that, even today, while artificial intelligence has mastered chess, no algorithm can reliably win at Magic.
Actually playing the game is only part of what Magic players do; the other part is assembling a strong deck. It takes ample study and practice to identify cards with optimal gameplay value—a two-mana creature card with two power that can also fly, for example—and engineer those cards into a deck containing aggressive combos, defensive gymnastics, and beguiling traps. A lot of those better-value cards are, naturally, harder to come by. Magic cards exist on a scale of rarity, and therefore, scarcity, which savvy entrepreneurs have exploited to build a gigantic secondary card marketplace.
This marketplace was an inevitable result of Garfield’s design: Each player only had access to a tiny percentage of the total pieces, but players could acquire more by buying booster packs, winning tournaments, or trading.
Players obsess over each small detail in their 60- or 100-card decks, and to perfect them, trawl the glass cases at hobbyist shops for cards that will complete them. Under that glass, clerks arrange plastic cartridges of cards in neat lines of 10 or 15 where they sell from anywhere from 50 cents to a couple hundred dollars. At conventions, players lug around binders or boxes of rare cards for cashless trades. At a convention in January, New Jersey’s MagicFest, card trader and co-host of the Brainstorm Brewery Podcast Douglas Johnson estimated that there was easily more than $1 million worth of cards circulating.
There has always been some concept of cards’ monetary value in Magic, whether based on in-game power or out-of-game novelty, yet over the last decade, the Magic card economy has rapidly accelerated to incorporate real-life economic concepts that at first blush appear too sophisticated for a fantasy card game.
A whimsical experiment in bartering kickstarted that evolution in 2010: A few years after the viral “one red paperclip” experiment—a Craigslister traded a single red paperclip for a series of increasingly valuable items until he managed to trade up for a house—a Magic player named Jonathan Medina embarked on a similar quest. Medina would trade from one random $4 pack of booster cards and keep trading up until he acquired one of the game’s legendary Power Nine cards— phenomenally rare cards widely considered very, very good. A pavement-pounding card trader, Medina blogged his experience in a widely read series of articles called “Pack to Power.” He would spend no money and, using just his wits, research, and networking skills, maneuver his $4 pack of cards into Magic wealth.
After opening his pack, Medina, in his words, began “hitting the streets to flip my cardboard.” By the time he’d traded with fellow players at gaming conventions and stores a total of 98 times, he had assembled an impressive binder stacked with valuable cards. It was at Gen Con, on a Saturday four months later, when Medina, groggy from playing Magic until five in the morning the previous night, handed over his binder in exchange for the $359.99 Mox Pearl card—a Power Nine.
“At the time, people were still trading based on nonmonetary metrics,” Medina says. “So when people read the small stories of the trades and looked at the math, they realized that they could be getting more out of their cards. This collective rise in awareness led to an interest in the financial side of the game. People in the general Magic community began to see that you could not only pay for your hobby with MTG Finance, but you could also make money.”
Medina’s project jumpstarted a move toward efficiency in the market, diminishing what economists call information asymmetry. Today, Medina says, his Mox Pearl would be worth somewhere between $1,700 and $2,500—if he hadn’t traded it to a fan of the series.
Craig Chapman could not stop gambling. As often as he could, between shifts at his job as a support officer for the Australian Department of Transport and Main Roads, Chapman took public transit 40 miles from his home in Perth, Australia, to the only casino around, where he ground out poker hand after poker hand for 12, sometimes 16 hours a day. As a teen on the brink of adulthood in the early 2000s, Chapman was big enough that the security guards didn’t bother him for an ID.
Compulsive gambling was a natural exacerbation of Chapman’s childhood gaming habits, which included blackjack and roulette video games. Back then, though, he’d operated a fake character rich with virtual cash. At the same time, Chapman dabbled in Magic, another consequences-free outlet for his passion for mathematics. It was perhaps inevitable that he’d level up from slinging Goblin decks on the playground to straight flushes at the poker table.
There was a model for leveling up from slinging Goblin decks to straight flushes. His name was Jon Finkel, among the most decorated Magic players of all-time, who hustled poker pros in New York basements and was sometimes forcibly removed for winning too much. In a pulpy 2005 biography titled Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids—How a Gang of Geeks Beat the Odds and Stormed Las Vegas, author David Kushner describes how Finkel cracked open the world of online poker in the mid-2000s, earning himself hundreds of thousands of dollars using the strategic discipline he’d honed playing Magic. “The thought of being able to turn cards into money always interested me,” Chapman says.
To finance his poker habit, Chapman was taking out loans to pay off loans. Some days, he’d stumble out of the casino bleary-eyed at six in the morning. By the time he was $43,000 in debt, he realized he had to get out. He had a trick to get there, too. His regular haunt was the only casino around. Employees of that casino were barred from gambling there. So Chapman decided he would become a poker dealer.
Around that time, Chapman rediscovered Magic, and he soon found that it was another way to satisfy his obsession with calculating odds, reading his opponents, thinking four steps ahead. It wasn’t long before he had another realization: In Magic, he could transmute cards into money, too. If he knew a card was valuable or saw it on his local hobby shop’s “buy list,” he’d sell it off soon after coming upon it. At first, he didn’t get much deeper than that.
Back then, smartphones and digital marketplaces weren’t what they are now; regular Magic card traders didn’t have instant access to card prices. Card shops were mostly relying on out-of-date information plucked from the pages of hobbyist magazines, whose editors assiduously called as many hobby shops as they could to ask how much they were selling a particular card for.
A feedback loop emerged in which magazine editors determined card shop prices, which, in turn, determined what was printed in the magazines. Although these published and apparently stable measures of value existed, card value, for the most part, was determined on the more granular level of the local card shop and whoever happened to be manning the register.
“Pack to Power” is what convinced Chapman, along with his contemporaries around the world, that the market for Magic cards was, in fact, not limited to any one player’s local hobby shop; there was an international market and a global web of factors determining a given card’s price. Chapman read about how Medina worked the room at Magic tournaments and conventions like Gen Con and, like a seasoned market analyst, zeroed in on which cards were doing well or getting lots of attention. Those were “hot cards,” and could be turned over fast for a quick profit. Medina compared sellers’ prices booth-to-booth and made shrewd decisions from processing as much intel as he could on the local level.
“A few of us tried to do it and were unsuccessful,” Chapman says of “Pack to Power.” In his mid-20s, Chapman and his buddies’ modest version had him trading his first card, a rare Loxodon Smiter, for a couple more rares. The high-value trades soon petered out. By the time Chapman had gotten around to the experiment, he says, “people knew what a card was worth.”
The online marketplace TCGPlayer.com changed everything in 2008. Anyone with a phone number, email address, and bank account could set up a store. Like eBay, Amazon, and any multitude of digital storefront hosts where individuals and businesses had begun selling Magic cards, TCG Player let individuals sell both on a small scale and in bulk. Yet its main contribution to the market wasn’t card accessibility; it was data.
Magazines listed the low, median and highest rates of cards. The lowest price was generally considered the accurate one, says Douglas Johnson, the MagicFest Magic card trader and co-host of the Brainstorm Brewery podcast. “That was the market metric. But then TCG Player worked on a system called TCG Market Price. That’s calculated on the recent aggregate sale data of a card.”
The advent of TCG Market Price, plus the mass adoption of smartphone technology, supplied neighborhood Magic card traders with immediate access to a much more accurate definition of card value. Market asymmetry decreased sharply, equalizing and lubricating the market for Magic cards. The new system was good, but not perfect, and for an old reason: Information moves faster than publishing—even digital publishing.
“It’s still not perfectly accurate because of how market fluctuations work,” Johnson says. Say the market price of a card is $15. Then, one day, Wizards of the Coast decides the card is an overpowered monstrosity, distorting game-play. So they ban the card. Players with the most up-to-date intel surely won’t pay $15 for it anymore. That means that there is no consensus between its actual value and the TCG Market Price value until more and more people buy it at a lower price. “There’s a race to the bottom for other sellers. The market price still quotes $15 even though sellers are going for $14, $13, $12. Everyone knows the actual price of the card is lower, but it hasn’t sold,” Johnson says.
On December 20, 2010, Chapman had his first taste of the rush. The banned card “Time Spiral” was suddenly unbanned. Wizards of the Coast had thought the card overpowered, but now that another deck type had grown to dominate the game’s competition, designers determined that “Time Spiral” was the antidote to the strategic monotony. It was about to become a hot card.
Chapman heard the announcement within five or 10 minutes of its going live. Word hadn’t quite gotten around yet, so Chapman acted fast. He hopped into his car and gunned it to the nearest hobby shop. To maximize gains, he didn’t want to pay shipping costs from a website or gamble against a possible order cancellation. Increasingly nervous that he’d miss his window, Chapman called the store from his car to ask whether they had a “Time Spiral” or seven. No dice; and the only store that had one, he learned, was over on the East Coast of Australia—too far for him to drive. But he wouldn’t give up, even if it meant paying a little extra. Chapman returned home and, online, purchased all four of the East Coast store’s stock for, he recalls, just about $10 or $15, plus shipping. “When people realized it was unbanned, it was worth $40,” he said.
“After I did that, I began to understand how the value of a card can appreciate and depreciate depending on circumstances,” Chapman says.
Chapman had begun attending bigger and bigger Magic tournaments with his souped-up decks, which his new fluency in MTG finance helped subsidize. Along the way, he started sizing up the vendor booths. Unhappy with his job running a couple Domino’s Pizza stores, he took over managing a 24/7 LAN cafe that had fallen into debt. The store—filled with night-shift bopping goblins playing World of Warcraft—wasn’t making much money. To make ends meet, Chapman says he launched a small, in-store Magic card operation right out of the shop. The extra revenue, he says, enabled the owners to reliably pay their bills and the staff’s wages.
Even then, Chapman says, he still didn’t grasp the potential of Magic finance. He still mourns the loss of the untapped value of those cards, which he sold off before he, his fiancée, and his child moved to Ireland, where his fiancée’s family lives. He arrived there without a single Magic card to his name.
On his second day in Ireland, Chapman needed a jacket appropriate for the cold, and traveled 31 miles to Dublin to find a coat. Once he got there, though, something told him to go to a hobby shop instead of the mall. He couldn’t shake the itch.
Looking through the glass case at the local wares, Chapman attracted the attention of the store’s owner, who kept a binder stacked with the good stuff behind the counter. Chapman flipped through it and noticed a slew of decades-old, misprinted cards. On the secondary market, the novelties would go for well over $2,000. The store owner, though, had priced them for half that.
Chapman didn’t have the funds, but at that moment, a light bulb flicked on in his head. If he could come up with the money, he could flip the cards for a thousand-dollar profit. It would certainly help him pay rent or buy food for his family. He knew what Magic cards were worth, and if he didn’t off-hand, he knew where to look. He could execute cost-benefit analyses and had a well-honed gut for risk-taking. He could really make something out of this—next time, and the time after.
Between 2015 and 2017, still without a license to work in Ireland, Chapman says he generated the entirety of his income from speculating on and selling Magic cards, both IRL and in Magic Online.
Once he could earn an income and did through a part-time job in the games industry, Chapman kept going. He inserted himself into groups that traded in MTG finance advice. He began conducting deep searches on Reddit and Magic messaging boards for what he calls breadcrumbs leading to big, ahead-of-the-curve trades. The connections he made, and the transactions he facilitated, ended up earning him a reputation in the growing MTG finance community as the kind of guy who’ll do you a favor, help score you a deal. Last year, he pocketed an extra $9,200 from savvy Magic pick-ups and sales, and took his wife and daughter on a 10-day, all-inclusive beach resort trip in Spain.
Behind a purple booth in a packed New Jersey expo center, a pale, bald-headed man in a blue plaid shirt and square-framed glasses smirked as he fanned out six Magic cards, which he’d just retrieved from a locked, metal box.
Jeremy Aaranson held in his hands six Black Lotus cards—famously worth more than $150,000 on the secondhand market. By weight, they’re more valuable than plutonium. “There’s probably 20 Black Lotuses on the market in this room,” Aaranson said, gesturing to the 1,400 attendees of January’s New Jersey MagicFest.
Aaranson and his business partner Edward Nguyen were seated together behind the TOAMagic banner—a purple and yellow sigil representing what they call one of the biggest high-end Magic card dealerships in the country. In front of them, long tables of stern-faced Magic players competed for a chance to win up to $7,000, while on the sidelines attendees who’d traveled from around the country stuffed overpriced hot dogs into their mouths and gossiped about which pro players they’d spotted. Cartons of takeout were stacked behind Aaranson, Nguyen, and their colleagues as they rifled through cardboard boxes the size of small suitcases. Eager clients waited—sometimes for hours—as the professionals sorted through cards from people’s childhood collections, looking for valuable ones.
A lot of kids held onto their Beanie Babies in the hope that their Princess the Bear or Jake the Duck would sell for thousands in a couple decades or so. Most of the time, they didn’t. Holding onto Magic cards—or even whole boxes of unopened Magic packs—is another story. It’s possible that Wizards of the Coast hasn’t reprinted some of those old cards since their original runs, potentially making them super valuable. It’s also possible that a greedy buyer colluded with a dozen of their friends to starve the market of a particular card, artificially inflating its price. So the copies gathering dust in your dad’s closet could go for big money. It all depends on whether you’re the kind of person who might think to look.
“It’s a lot of rich, 30-year-old single guys,” Aaranson said of his clientele. “This is what they do with their time. They don’t have any other investments or any other vices. It’s all about the game.”
A blonde man with a strong jawline having his Magic cards appraised next to us looked over. “I’m not rich,” he said, flashing a smile.
Back in college, Aaranson and Nguyen were both what they refer to as “backpack traders.” To other college Magic players, they were the guys with the goods, and in exchange for cash, they’d buy and sell “hot cards.” (Johnson, too, was a “backpack trader,” and once a week in college, rolled a suitcase of Magic card binders and boxes into the “Storytellers Guild” club room to buy and sell.) Now, outside TOAMagic’s “Buy Station” at MagicFest, a rotating list of hot cards were advertised on a large board to potential sellers for anywhere between $1 and $750. At other booths, dozens of hot cards were displayed on large, vertical television screens that sellers updated live throughout the day.
From the buyer’s side of the booth, Aaranson explained how he travels to and from Japan every other month or so to arbitrage, taking advantage of price differentials between the US and Japan. Ping-ponging between about 30 shops in Tokyo’s geeky Akihabara district, Aaranson grabs inventory fast and cheap, he says, since all the little stores compete against each other. Select cards they bring from the US are worth 30 to 40 percent more over there. Selling them in Japan, Aaranson says, more than pays for the trip. Likewise, a Magic format hugely popular in the US, Commander, is quite rare in Japan, making Commander deck staples significantly cheaper over there.
Aaronson launched into an excited riff describing his arbitrage efforts: “We have a fixed cost of about $500 to $1,000 for a week in Japan. You go over there with a bunch of Fetch lands”—a card that efficiently generates mana—“that you bought here presumably for $40 or a ‘Misty Rainforest’ that sells for $70 in the States. You can get $70 on a ‘Force of Will’ in Japan and use that for a credit bump for cards that don’t see play. And then once you get over there, you can get a card called ‘Sol Ring,’ which is the most popular card. In English it’s $1 and in Japanese it’s from $0.10 to $0.50. So you buy a thousand of those, and you come back here and sell those Sol Rings you bought for a dollar for $3 to $4 dollars each. Cyclonic Rift is another. They were 300 yen for a long time and they’re $20 in the states.”
Asked how his taxes work, Aaranson, 25, referred me to his accountant.
A quirk of the Magic card market is that, in our increasingly connected and digitized world, arbitrage is miraculously still possible as domestic card prices rely heavily on domestic data and trends in gameplay. On top of that, the logistics and financial burden of shipping $5 cards internationally and at scale on TCGPlayer or Amazon or Ebay incentivize store-owners to keep things local.
The market for certain Magic cards has become so robust that investors are looking toward it as a viable alternative to more volatile commodities. In 2017, after Bitcoin’s first major spike, cryptocurrency heads looking for a way to cash out began noticing the market for rare Magic cards as another vehicle for investing. When the value of a Bitcoin hit $17,000, a customer of Magic retailer ABUGames.com called in to ask about their three Alpha Black Lotuses, which were $16,000 each, and specifically, whether they’d offer a discount if he bought in bulk.
“I told him that, the way things were going with Bitcoin, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone just took them all at our regular price, so we wouldn’t be looking to go any lower,” said ABUGames.com owner Gabriel Wilson. Fifteen minutes later, the guy called back. “He said he was that guy and took them all and paid in Bitcoin,” Wilson says.
Whenever Bitcoin’s value spikes, Wilson says, there’s been a “mad dash to offload them into valuable Magic cards.” As a result, the cards’ prices have artificially inflated. (In fact, Mt. Gox, once the largest Bitcoin exchange, dealing with an estimated 70 percent of all bitcoin transactions at its height, originally stood for “Magic: The Gathering Online eXchange.” It was a Magic card exchange for just a few months before its creator pivoted, although in 2014, it was allegedly hacked.) Bitcoin’s infusion in the marketplace made vintage and reserved-list card prices more volatile. The price of a mint condition Black Lotus skyrocketed. Nonregistered assets—or nontraditional investments that aren’t taxed—were in vogue.
“As they said in the ’80s, when Depeche Mode made a song: Everything counts in large amounts,” says Rudy, who runs the MTG Finance YouTube channel Alpha Investments and only uses his first name, in a 2017 video. Magic cards are unregistered assets, and when they’re paid for in Bitcoin, which is untraceable currency, the whole a-to-z of the transaction is shrouded in secrecy. It’s dark money—black Magic, if you will.
In his video, Rudy argues that the combination of Wizards of the Coast reprinting old cards and the US government’s desire to tax its citizens and regulate the economy pushed both Magic players and outside investors into the market for vintage, reserve-list cards. “The vintage stuff in our community is being attacked like an animal. It’s literally like fresh meat in a piranha pool, man,” Rudy says in the video. The trend has continued ever since.
Rudy’s videos, like “Lets watch a $21,000.00 Magic: The Gathering Deal happen in Las Vegas” and “$7,000.00 Beta Starter Opened with OpenBoosters – BLACK LOTUS?” have racked up more than a million views. With unruly hair and against the background of an ostentatious library stacked with classic books and Magic ephemera, Rudy, who claims to have graduated from business school and worked at a brokerage firm (he declined to be interviewed), shares hammy investor tips with his 267,000 subscribers. If his comments are any indication, though, a lot of people watching him aren’t just Magic players—they’re economics enthusiasts. “Interesting,” wrote a YouTube user with an anime avatar. “Don’t think I’ll convert my Crypto into MTG tho. There are plenty of other places to store value.”
“I learned about your channel because of bitcoin,” reads one comment. “We cashed out for memorabilia and sports cards and mtg. However, i focused on charizards for pokemon.”
As a recession takes hold alongside the spread of Covid-19, forcing more than 16 million Americans to file for unemployment benefits since mid-March, questions loom about its impact on the secondary market for Magic cards. Peter Fijbes, a writer with MTGStocks.com, created a small portfolio of Magic cards on the date of the first Covid-19 case outside China. He tracked the prices of five of the most important cards from different Magic formats and was surprised to see that, since January 20, the portfolio is down just 1 percent.
Closures have left brick and mortar stores hurting for foot traffic, and while it’s possible that some might sell their stocks to keep afloat, so far, the secondary market has remained mostly stable. Nobody interviewed could say why, although theories spanned from “it’s fun to play Magic when you’re stuck inside” to “the worst just hasn’t happened yet.”
“We don’t see people panicking and selling their whole collections,” says Fijbes, adding, “I believe it is a matter of time and, could be until the end of the month, when people need their money.”
At the top of MTGstocks.com, a marquee ticker scrolls: “Dawn of the Dead $2.35 (+48.73%) Prossh, Skyraider of Kher $4.61 (+44.51%) Bubbling Muck $2.39 (+34.27%.).”
It’s a harsh truth that fantasy worlds, alternative communities, and funhouse-mirror marketplaces often end up just emulating the real thing. A case in point: Magic luminary Jon Finkel now helps manage the hedge fund Landscape Capital. Influencers on Twitch and YouTube tout the Magic card du jour, which impacts the card’s value. TCGPlayer.com has taken on the aura of a bonafide startup, moving its staff of hundreds to a Syracuse, New York, headquarters featuring a hall decorated as a castle, a room decked out as the Millennium Falcon, and a wooden pirate ship housing several desks for employees. (In mid-April, months after dozens were laid off, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders endorsed the TCGPlayer warehouse workers’ union push.)
One digital card marketplace, Mage Market, created controversy in February after launching a deck-financing service in partnership with the Swedish banking company Klarna. Mage Market would let Magic players finance a deck over several months. For a price, it would enable Magic fans to play around with fancier decks than they’d typically have access to. Critics contended that Mage Market’s business practices—which they later rolled back—would prey on players with poor impulse control and would send them into debt. (In late March, they announced they would be going out of business due to the impact of Covid-19.)
Despite these very modern businesses reliant on the secondary market, the millions of dollars flowing through the aisles of Magic conventions and the glass cases at hobby shops and the Martin Shkrelis of the world sniffing around the reserved list for an off-grid investment, Magic’s secondary market is decidedly, and deliciously, unregulated.
There’s no SEC for MTG finance. Except for Wizards of the Coast’s decisions—gameplay decisions—MTG finance is anarchic and underground. The US Federal Reserve can, or can try to, count how many US dollars are out in the world. The IRS can pursue tax evaders, and the Treasury Department can scratch its collective head over regulating bitcoin. There’s no SEC for MTG finance. Call up the Securities and Exchange Commission to report underhanded dealings in Magic cards and, almost certainly, you will be laughed at.
In part because of this ultra-capitalist approach to gaming, the MTG finance community has a bit of a sordid reputation among more casual Magic players, who tend to see them as blood-sniffing sharks preying on fun-loving fans of a fantasy card game. Those fans have complained, loudly and for years, that they can’t afford the increasingly high prices of the cards they’d like to put in their decks because of speculation. Ambitious dealers have been suspected of buying out every single available copy of a card to inflate its price, creating a hostage situation for regular players who just want one copy for their Commander deck. After days of a stern “out of stock” on the card’s CardKingdom.com page, a price may appear that’s $150 higher than the original. Think of the children.
“Many of those who don’t speculate on cards view those who do as being bad for the game, or as hurting them personally,” says a longtime seller named Dan Bock. “I believe, in fact, the opposite is the truth. When a speculator ‘buys out’ a card, they are reacting to a perceived undervalue that exists in the market. If they are correct, the card retains its new value. If they are incorrect, the card returns to its earlier price. Either way, they are reacting to the market, rather than pushing it.”
“People think I’m a stockbroker and I have an earpiece in constantly and I’m constantly looking at graphs of stock predictions and pacing,” Johnson says. But “most of my job is buying cards and listing them online at a normal pace.”
Johnson and Bock, who run larger-scale operations buying and selling cards, say the sordid reputation that comes with speculating taints an otherwise normal-ish line of work. They buy and sell cards, and price them in accordance with rarity. Others specialize. To really stand out, some in the MTG finance community are zeroing in on speculation, arbitrage, or other specific skill sets that they believe—or their fans believe—will make them money. James Chillcott, the recipient of the Pioneer leak and one of the staunchest defenders of the MTG finance community, is one of them.
Chillcott is a blue-eyed, clean-cut entrepreneur, investor, and self-described guru of MTG finance who slicks his hair forward into a ’90s-era point at the center of his forehead. Chillcott has played Magic casually and competitively for more than 20 years and, in college, studied finance and marketing. He’s central to a small and niche media empire including his podcast (“MTG Fast Finance”), the MTG Price website, and that Discord group Craig Chapman popped up on with insider information in the fall of 2019.
In exchange for an $8 monthly subscription, Chillcott and his “experienced team of MTGFinance pros,” as his sign-up page puts it, issue high-tier intel on when to buy and sell which cards, like the suits whispering over Manhattans in the back corner of a Wall Street restaurant.
Subscribers say the service is a bargain. “It made me realize how much I don’t know, and gives me a forum and the contacts needed to take my MTG finance strategy to the next level,” reads one testimonial on the MTG Price website. “And at a minimum, if you follow one or two hot tips offered by subscribers, you’ll easily pay for your subscription for the full year.”
In the Discord, Chillcott shares data aggregated from a variety of sources on which cards are, or will soon be, hot. He and his team read Magic strategy blogs and watch Magic strategy videos in bulk and identify which cards are valued inaccurately. They analyze new sets to determine which older card will come back in vogue. They publish guides, like how to assess a card’s Spec Score by judging its rarity, inventory levels, and number of printings. They follow Magic YouTubers and Twitch streamers who can instantly inject value into a card by playing it on video. They track which decks pro players use at tournaments, too. And, sometimes, they come across a game-changing leak.
“The economy of Magic is designed to suck money out of people’s wallets,” Chillcott says. “It behooves the average player to understand the basics of the economics so they can play the game more cheaply. MTG Price isn’t about pulling people toward highly speculative activities; it’s about helping people interpret the Magic economy so they can save money.” He adds that, if they get good enough, Magic players who pay attention can level up to become small-time vendors who make money with Magic.
In April, 2017, a Magic YouTuber stacked up two dozen board games—Ticket to Ride, The Settlers of Catan, Boss Monster—against one of the most popular competitive decks in the Modern format at that time: the $935 U/B Faeries deck (the most popular one was the $1,492 Death’s Shadow deck. Other popular decks ran between $545 and $1,662.) The point? Playing the Modern Magic format had become unreasonably expensive, a bad value proposition. (Buying Settlers of Catan in 2017 would set you back about $40.)
In a later video, Chillcott offered what turned out to be a controversial rebuttal. He said there are near-infinite options for casual play in other formats, and anyway, it’s good to have a big-money secondary market to return some value on players’ card investments—as long as you know what you’re doing.
“There is therefore little doubt that maintaining a model that keeps vendor inventory relevant is an important part of keeping this game sustainable in the long-term,” Chillcott says in his counter-argument. Commenters were quick to point out that this rebuttal was self-serving.
Chillcott’s pitch isn’t just his platform, where people buy and sell the stuff; it’s his philosophy. Making money consistently in a fluctuating market means winning out on bets more often than other people. If the goal of MTG finance was for everyone to make money, it wouldn’t pay off for the people who really invested their time in it. That’s why the dedicated few need a leader who can sniff out trails of blood. Or, better yet, teach them how to do that on their own.
“It’s all lining up,” Chapman said to Chillcott last October in that private conversation over Discord. After disclosing which Magic sets would return for the new Pioneer format, the two discussed which signs were already out there that might corroborate the leak. Chapman had received the information from an in-the-know friend of a friend over Facebook Messenger, and following some breadcrumbs scattered across a couple Magic marketplaces, felt in his gut that he should push his chips in.
Chapman had already bought up copies of “Voice of Resurgence,” “Grim Flayer,” “Emrakul, the Promised End,” “Siege Rhino,” “Mutavault” and some “Kaladesh lands”—all cards that would jump in value if the inside info proved correct. The order he’d placed was for $2,000. Since he wasn’t 100 percent confident of the leak’s accuracy, Chapman’s buys presented a 37 percent loss possibility versus, he said, a 250 to 300 percent gain if his bets on Pioneer sets were proven right. In the midst of their private chat, Chapman tabbed into the MTG Price’s Discord and alluded to his valuable insider intel.
“Hold up,” Chillcott chided. “We are not seeing eye to eye on how to present this.” Chillcott didn’t want rumors proliferating that could undermine his own value proposition: reliable information that would earn his subscribers money from Magic. He especially didn’t want Chapman, who wasn’t too far removed from the leaker, to take credit for the thing.
“There are multiple Irish lads who have even dug into their savings (and they arnt speculators) based on this information,” Chapman messaged. He had given Chillcott’s Discord a taste of the goods and was glad to see that they were hungry for more.
“It’s too risky, they shouldn’t go deep,” Chillcott wrote.
“You know they will, the cabal suffers from severe fomo,” Chapman replied.
Insider trading in Magic does not appear to be common. In an interview, Chillcott adamantly reiterated that the vast majority of his time is spent doing metagame analysis, discerning format staples, and tracking which cards are due for a reprint from Wizards of the Coast, adding that he rigorously vets information that seems surreptitious. Rumors that Wizards of the Coast employees were whispering upcoming card descriptions to hooked-up Magic card vendors have proliferated on Magic forums for a decade; the real thing—a friend of a friend’s short disclosure over Facebook Messenger—isn’t as sensational.
Joked Magic pro player Luis Scott-Vargas on Twitter, “thanks to my insider knowledge of Angel of Despair’s downshift, I sold hundreds on the secondary market, making dozen of cents of profit.”
There’s a fine line between speculating and insider trading on Magic cards. If an employee intentionally shared what they know about an upcoming set with the Magic sharks, they would certainly be fired and potentially sued. But inadvertent or secondhand leaks happen all the time. Last year, before Wizards of the Coast announced the “War of the Spark” Magic set, which focused powerful and rare cards called Planeswalkers, Chillcott said someone in Asia sent him an email containing a picture of the card “Nicol Bolas, Dragon God.” It read, “Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God has all loyalty abilities of all other planeswalkers on the battlefield.” Speculators’ ears perked up—all other planeswalkers?
“We knew the format would be heavily centered on Planeswalkers,” Chapman says. He made a couple of bids on the intel, buying up cards that interacted with Planeswalkers. Some earned him a little money. Others didn’t. He scooped up copies of the card “Chain Veil” for $15 each, but when the set was finally released, players didn’t use it in their decks the way he’d hoped. He got rid of them at just $10. Chillcott says he reported the leak to Wizards of the Coast.
Chapman is a gambler at heart. Chillcott is an entrepreneur. They’re both out there to take risks on privileged information and maximize gains. The difference may be a matter of respectability politics. “You are making a gamble when you’re making a magic investment,” Chapman says. “You can increase the odds in your favor if you have good knowledge of what’s coming or if you have a fairly good grasp on how the market fluctuates, but there is always that chance you’ll lose.” In February, Chillcott ran an informal poll on his Twitter surveying 333 of his followers on how much money they made or lost in MTG finance. 56.5 percent had profited between 0 and $45,999000 pre-taxes. The next-highest category, at 23 percent, was “I usually lose $.”
Once Chapman began issuing small nods toward his insider info in Chillcott’s Discord, Chillcot started deleting posts. Chapman became frustrated; he’d been a part of the community for months—why couldn’t he shake things up a little? It’s a free market. He could do what he wanted. It wasn’t illegal. It was just games and cash.
“We were having a bit of fun, making a bit of money off a fluctuating market and didn’t need his drama,” Chapman says, clicking away on Magic Online throughout our interview.
Chillcott would soon remove Chapman from his Discord server, and from his entire MTGPrice enterprise. Chapman says it’s because Chillcott was threatened. Chillcott dismissed this, and pointed to an incident from June of last year when Chapman collected more than $10,000 from people in his Discord to acquire and distribute 96 boxes of special, Japanese cards, which were never acquired or distributed. (Chapman says the store he was paying pocketed the money and didn’t have the merchandise.) Customers did not get their money back, although Chapman says he’s been slowly refunding them out of pocket.
As streams of Magic intel have, over the years, drained down into the ocean of available information online, it might seem that anyone with a little extra money and the time to spend digging could do well out there. The widely-told story goes that with more data comes more democracy. But there are still underwater currents, fast channels, that the risk-loving swim through to get ahead. Just before his exile from the MTG finance mainstream, Chapman started BAN, which stands for BaconShuffel (his Discord handle) and “arbitrage network.” There, he and his small cabal sniff out and capitalize on lesser-known Magic card deals. For a long time, his pinned tweet included the Magic card “Inverter of Truth”—a card that he and his comrades were purchasing for 25 cents that, recently, spiked to $5 on MTGstocks.com. He has 252 followers on Twitter.
“What is Ban?” asked Pack to Power inventor Medina on Twitter. Chapman explained that, while it started as an arbitrage network, he was expanding his new project into an “MTG Finance market network with a bunch of individuals that all bring different approaches to speculating and profiting off the market.”
Medina liked the tweet. “Thanks mate,” replied Chapman. “Its amazing what you can do with the right data. :).”
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