Thursday, July 29, 2010

Old Dog, New Trick

Today I drove up to visit my parents. I was not in a rush, so I did a search for places along the way that sold Magic cards, and stopped by two of them on the way.

Some brief background: Magic is a collectible card game. Imagine playing in a fantasy football league where you have to own the football cards of the players you draft. Magic is kind of like that. Now imagine a chess game where you get to customize the starting pieces on your side. Magic is kind of like that too.

The game can either be very cheap or quite expensive depending on how you play. It is kind of like golf: you can drop tens of thousands of dollars on really expensive golf clubs, or you can get a full set of clubs at a thrift store for maybe $40. Magic cards are the same way. Magic is also like golf in that most people play as a hobby, but there are a few people who play in professional tournaments for large cash prizes. In order to win these tournaments, you need good equipment, but the best golf clubs and the best Magic cards will do nothing for you if you don't have the skill to play well.

Several times a year, they produce a new sets of cards and sell those cards in packs. Each pack has one rare card, three uncommon cards, and eleven common cards. You can get a box of 36 packs online for about $90 including shipping, and most card shops sell the individual packs for between $3 and $4. Buying a new pack is basically like buying a lottery ticket. In each set, there are about a dozen cards that are worth $10 or more, and sometimes a card can cost as much as $50. But if you don't get one of those chase rares, the cards in a pack are worth much less than $3.

Bulk common cards cost around 2 cents apiece online. Bulk uncommons cost about 5 cents and bulk rares cost about 20 cents. That is how I get most of my cards. For example, in my last ebay order, I got 2200 random uncommons, 50 random rares, and 1000 commons from a set of my choice for $50. Shipping added another $20 to that; bulk Magic cards are heavy.

You need 60 cards to make a deck to play with, so for $30 you can easily get enough cards for five or six people to make decent decks. This is basically what it would cost to buy a game like Risk, and a few thousand Magic cards will provide much more gameplay and entertainment than any board game.

One way to play is to mix all the cards together and then deal them out to all the players in bundles of between 9 and 15 cards. Each player will pick one card from this bundle and pass the remainder to the right, and then everyone picks another card and passes, and so on until all the cards have been picked. Then a new bundle is dealt out, and the process continues until everyone has enough cards to make a deck to play with. This is called drafting, and it got its name from the process of drafting sports players for teams. I often run drafts for my friends, and since the cards are cheap and people tend to get attached to decks they have built I just let them keep the cards.

This means that I am continually rebuilding my collection. Normally I buy in bulk online. But sometimes the random cards don't have exactly what you need to make a good collection of cards for drafting. Imagine a collection of football cards where there were hardly any quarterbacks or wide receivers. It would be really hard to make a well-rounded team. Ordering individual cards online is expensive, because of the labor of finding them and shipping them. So, to fill homes in the collection, I go to card shops.

Most places that sell Magic cards have massive boxes of common and uncommon cards, and they let you look through the cards for what you need. They almost always charge 10 cents for commons and 25 cents for uncommons. Typically they are very casual about this; they leave the boxes lying around for anyone to look through, and they don't bother to look at or even count the cards you get. Often they will let you trade in at 2-for-1 or even better, so at my favorite card shop I typically deposit a big pile of stuff I don't need, take a slightly smaller pile of what I do need, and then tip them a few dollars. Their collections also grow because some people will often rip open a pack, take the rare, and then dump everything else. When they do buy cards, they get them in bulk for prices even better than what I paid, so whenever anyone pays cash for a common or uncommon it is free money for them. (They never charge sales tax or give receipts.)

The first shop I visited was basically like this. I got 20 commons for $2. While looking through the cards, I found about a dozen rares mixed in. I pulled them out and gave them to the owner so he could put them in his rare binder later. He did not know how the rares had gotten in there, and he would have never known if I had taken them.

It was a really nice, fun place. Instead of trying to make all of their money selling cards or comics or collectibles, they had a coffee shop and used the games to draw people in to buy coffee. They deliberately positioned themselves as a good place to hang out, rather than a merchandiser. But they were mainly into tabletop miniatures wargaming, not Magic cards, so there was not that much for me. They do run Magic games and tournaments, and I probably would go if I did not have a lot of friends at school to play with regularly.

The second place I visited was a sports and hobby shop run by an old man. He kept the boxes of commons behind the counter, and charged 25 cents apiece for them. He kept uncommons in a binder and charged a dollar each for them. I looked through a couple of these binders; they were exactly the same kinds of cards that I got in my last bulk order, where I paid less than 3 cents each inclusive of shipping. When I asked to look through the commons, he flatly refused. He said that he did not like me. His exact words were, "Yew dunn rubbed me tha wrawng way."

This was an odd experience for me. I am usually good at getting along with people, and I have never been refused service in any establishment for any reason. I think he did not like me because, when he said that commons cost a quarter, I said "That's pretty high." He seemed to take it as a personal insult. Also, we had earlier spent a little time talking about card boxes; I was wanting to buy some from him and was commenting that the shipping is really expensive unless you buy in bulk. When I think back on this, he seemed insulted that I was contemplating buying anything online rather than from a local shop.

My guess is that he does not really know how the Magic hobby works. He may have never been in another store that sells Magic cards; he certainly does not know what the industry standard is for selling random cards. He probably paid way too much for a collection and then spent way too much time sorting it out. He probably thinks that Magic cards are like sports cards, where people like my dad will gladly pay three or four dollars each for random old cards to fill out a collection.

In his defense, it is kind of an odd hobby and you can easily end up overpaying for things. I certainly did when I started playing. There are some price lists and stores online that can reinforce the impression that all cards are really expensive. It is also possible that he does not realize that most cards suffer a serious drop in value after they are more than two years old and cannot be used in most official tournaments anymore.

There is another possibility. While I was looking through the binders, another customer came in and bought stuff. It took the guy a couple minutes, and several attempts with a calculator, to figure out how much the total was. This was the kind of calculation that I can do in my head in about 10 seconds. It was not the only indication that he was not that bright.

It is usually pretty obvious to most people that I am smart. A couple minutes of talking to me will normally let you know that you are dealing with someone fairly clever. If you are dumb and a businessman, then it can be a good strategy to automatically be suspicious of smart people. You are less likely to get ripped off that way. He may have thought that I was some kind of con artist.

But the odd thing is that, as he refused to let me see the box, he told me that I could come back in the night when his son was running the place. He said that his son was more willing to let people look through things. If he really thought that I was trying to rip the store off somehow, why would he invite me back and announce that I would then be served by someone more pliant and less suspicious?

Maybe he was just an ornery old codger who didn't feel like moving or getting a heavy box off the shelf. But he really was mean to me, far meaner than someone who was just having a bad day because of an ache in his joints or something. But he couldn't be that mean to everyone, or he would have gone out of business long ago. It is a mystery to me.

Of course, any real con artist would not have made him suspicious. They never 'rub people the wrong way'; they have a charisma that I never will.

I guess the moral is to never try to do business with an old guy in a new hobby. Or maybe it is that some people are just mean and ornery at random.

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