I’m going to throw down a bit of a different article today. Let’s call it “FAB finance-adjacent” in scope. That is, it’s related to the financial end of FAB, but it’s not really FAB specific. I’ve given a lot of thought to trading since getting back into CCGs with FAB. Back in my constructed Magic days, nearly a decade ago, trading was among my least favorite elements of the hobby. It was always such a miserable experience. A huge portion of my local player population were total sharks and pretty much traded exclusively for lopsided value. This is very rarely cool, although one guy did do a pack to power once, which was an interesting thing to observe (open a pack of cards, start trading upward until you get a Power 9). But, in general, it was just such a bad experience whenever I put my trade binder on the table that I eventually stopped bringing it to the shop. As a result, I almost never traded; instead I sold singles online, which essentially meant that anything under $10 never left my boxes because it wasn’t worth the costs associated with selling.
Since starting FAB though, I’ve made a bunch of trades, all online, and some of them fairly unique in scope. Overall, trading has been a fairly positive experience for me with some particularly fun ones, and I’ve achieved this by setting down a set of mental “best practices” that I try to go by when engaging in trades. So, I’m going to lay out how I approach trades, the motivations behind the choices, and the sort of overall philosophy that guides my trading appraoch.
Why Trade in the First Place?
This is, perhaps, and odd question to start with, but given that I didn’t like trading going into FAB, what prompted me to wade in, and why should you consider trading? Honestly? Because it’s way better value than selling cards and getting what you want with cash. I’m not sure how this works in other countries, but in the US, selling cards is income and it’s taxed. Now, if you sell a couple hundred dollars of cards a year, probably no one will find out, but, for me, A.) my FAB sales are in the thousands of dollars, and B.) I don’t screw around with taxes. In addition, post-2018, if you aren’t selling cards as a business, you can no longer subtract your hobby costs from your profits, so, when I sell a card, Uncle Sam gets a solid chunk. If you’re not into tax evasion (which is, again, something I advise not doing), you need to consider how much of the cash you’re losing to taxes when assessing cards to pick up or how viable a flip is.
This is where trades come in. Trading your cards isn’t taxed (though, if you later cash out the things you traded for, those will be). So, if you wanted a $100 card and you planned to pay for it by selling your own $100 card, before you ever consider fees for ebay/tcgplayer/paypal or costs like shipping/insurance, you need to remember that you owe 10-37% of that 100% to the government (depending on your tax bracket). Let’s pretend you’re an average American household making $63k a year. You sell a card for $100 of Facebook or Discord to sidestep middleman fees. You owe $22 of that in tax. You likely spend at least $4 in shipping and material costs. You’ve now got $74 towards that $100 card you wanted to buy. But, if you can trade your $100 card into the $100 card you want, then you’re just out $4 or so on shipping. This is obviously a much more appealing scenario, and it gets even better the higher your tax bracket.
Note: I am not a tax professional. If you are selling cards for cash regularly, you should talk to an actual licensed professional to make sure you’re staying legal.
Alright, trading is good because it gets you more value out of your cards, are there any other considerations? Well, I’ve got a couple things I generally think about when doing trades. These are overall principles that I try to consider when making decisions. First, your time has value. You’ve probably heard this sentiment before, but it’s something that I think becomes more meaningful for most people as they get older and/or their income goes up. When I was living on grad student money, I would try to get as much value as possible out of my cards even if it took a lot of my time. Now, I’m thankfully much better off financially, but I have less free time. So ideally, I want to use practices that minimize wasted time.
My other primary goal is, to be a bit more blunt than I was in the title, I don’t want to be an asshole, and I don’t want to trade with assholes. This was pretty much my constant experience with trading in the Magic days in that, even if I completed a trade, I left feeling like it was a draining experience. For me, if trades are going to be that bad, I’d rather just take the hit and go to the selling/buying path. So, I try to use practices that are as upfront as possible, and I’ve been working on quickly disengaging from trades that I can see being more trouble than they’re worth.
Laying the Groundwork
I think of trades in two broad categories: trades you find and trades you seek out. Trades you find don’t really have a lot of prep; you might not even know you were looking to trade, but you stumble across someone asking for something you have and they happen to be offering a thing you want. However, if you’re actively seeking out cards, then there are a bunch of things you can do to streamline the process. First, I highly recommend maintaining a list of cards you want. I use a Google spreadsheet because it’s easily shared with prospective trading partners. When listing cards, you should make note of things that are important to you or the people you’ll be trading with like the set, edition, foil/non-foil treatment, condition, etc. Some of this can be done at the individual line level, but you can also cover universal stuff in a block of notes. For instance, on my current trade list, I have a note that I am only interested in Near Mint or better quality cards. Maintain your list. It’s a lot easier to manage if you regularly add and remove things as you acquire them than if you let things go and have to commit a big chunk of time to catch up. It will also help you be more organized in terms of your own collection, and it will expedite the trading process and avoid getting locked into a show and tell of “what do you have” with you prospective trading partner, which is much less appealing online than in a shop where they can just slide you a trade binder for them page through.
This gets to the heart of trading, and, by my estimation, the main source of bad trade experiences: card valuation. There is an innate human tendency to value things you own for more than they are worth to others. This can be driven by sentiment, but it can also be capricious, and most of you have doubtlessly encountered someone who thinks all your cards are worth below market value and all of theirs are worth more. This is very much a case where my “I don’t want to trade with assholes” approach comes in, and the best solution I’ve found is to come into trades with prices already established and an explanation for those prices. For some of you, this may fly in the face of the “whoever establishes the starting price loses” approach, but, simply put, there are two types of trading philosophies. There is adversarial trading, where you are trying to “win” by maximizing your value at the expense of your trading partner, and there is collaborative trading where you’re trying to create an equitable exchange that leaves everyone happy. At this point in my life, I have no interest whatsoever in engaging in the first sort of trading as either party. I would feel scummy taking advantage of someone, and I don’t want to waste my time with people who are going to try to wring every scrap of value out of the trade.
How do you establish values? There are various methods –TCGPlayer low price is a common one in Magic and other CCGs, and as FAB continues to grow, I expect it to increase; however, there are a lot of cases where there is a single copy of a rare card on TCGPlayer and the reason it’s available is because it’s priced far in excess of market value. Ebay sales are also useful data points, but again, they aren’t perfect. The same goes for singles sellers and various private trade/sales groups. Ultimately, any of these can provide useful pricing, but the important thing to focus on is that you aren’t comparing apples to oranges. Ebay sales tend to be higher than sales on Facebook because sellers on ebay are going to lose a chunk to ebay and paypal so they set higher prices; whereas Facebook sellers can make the same amount of money at a lower sale price by not paying those fees. These are both fine, but if you see someone who wants to value their cards based on sold ebay listings and yours based on Facebook sales, they could be trying to hose you. This sort of thing is a red flag for me unless they have a compelling reason for the valuation and are upfront about it.
That last bit is very important, being upfront about how you are valuing cards, why, and what your’re making exceptions for and why can save everyone a lot of time. For instance, my trades list is based on TCG low, but includes “If you can find in stock FAB in the US with a lower price, let me know and I’ll consider it for transactions” because I know that there are some cards (like cold foils) that can have single very high listings on TCG Player. When trading, it’s important to get agreement on what fair prices are, and I usually try to get to this subject as soon as possible because it’s the place where I’m most likely to back out. I’ve certainly had FAB trades where people want to value my cards at TCG low, but have some “what it should be” price for their cards that flies in the face of all market data. This ticks both my “my time has value” and “I don’t want to trade with assholes” policy. It’s best to just cut your losses and get out at this point. Don’t be a jerk about it; just tell them that you don’t think you’re going to align on price and end the conversation. Again, this could also be a situation where it’s just not worth your time as opposed the other person acting in bad faith. I’ve had trades where I don’t think the other person is being a jerk, but I can also tell that we just have different beliefs in how a card should be valued, and it’s a waste of time to try to convince them of my side.
None of this is meant to say that you have to always trade even dollar for dollar, in fact, there are many cases where it’s entirely reasonable to make trades that are lopsided on paper. The most common case can be trading up. Trading up is when one person is offering a single high value item and the other is trying to get it in exchange for several lower value items. So, if you have a $100 card, it’s often more valuable than ten $10 cards. This is perhaps not intuitive to people who are newer to trading/selling, but single high value items are usually preferable to own. One reason is that, if you want to cash out, a single sale is easier (you only need to find one buyer instead of ten), less time consuming (you only need to list one card, pack one card, communicate about one card, etc.), and likely to yield higher net profits (shipping one card versus ten individually is significantly cheaper). In general, higher value items are also rarer and more desirable. It’s fairly easy to find people selling or trading a foil unlimited estrike, but if you want an alpha foil, it’s going to be a much harder search.
Generally, the more items that are being traded up, the more I would expect to get over market value. If someone was trading for my $500 card, and they were offering primarily $10-50 cards, I would probably want $650+ in value. If they were offering two $250 cards, I might just take that trade straight up. The key to these trades is being very upfront about the fact that you see this as a trade up and where you expect the valuation to be. Some people will balk at the idea of trade ups and insist that their ten $10 cards are a fair trade for your $100 card. Again, this is a “my time has value situation,” you’re unlikely to convince them mid-trade that trading up is a reasonable thing, so thank them for their time and get out of there.
There are a couple elements that we might consider “intangibles” that I think are worth considering when trading online. First, because online trades are conducted largely on reputation unless you’re making the exchange through a third party, there is a lot of value in trading with people who are well-known or vetted by well-known people. There are a handful of people on the FAB Facebook groups who, if my prospective trading partner has them as a reference, I’m pretty comfortable doing most trades with after just checking with that single person. People with good references are worth more of my time because I don’t have to worry about that end of the trade. Similarly, if I’ve traded with someone before, I’m often willing to spend more time trying to put a deal together or will make trades/sales that I wouldn’t normally bother with because I know that the experience will probably be good.
Figuring It Out for Yourself
These are the sorts of things I think about when I trade. You don’t necessarily have to have the same values as I do when you’re trading, but I think you can improve both your efficiency with trades and your general happiness if you take some time to think about what you actually value. Figure out what your own principles are when you engage in trading; what are you trying to achieve? Then, take some additional time to figure out what sorts of practices you can institute in order to meet those goals. Knowing what you want to do can also make it easier to identify incompatible trading partners early and make a graceful exit from communication. If you and another person don’t see eye-to-eye, they aren’t necessarily bad or wrong, but you’re not going to have a fulfilling experience if you’re each trying to sell the other one on a framework that they don’t ascribe to. There are plenty of people out there to trade with, don’t waste your time trying to get a square peg to fit in a round hole.
Header Image: Azalea by Maxim Kostin