Improving your negotiation skills is a great way to level up at Magic finance. The ability to make better deals, even just slightly better, will pay huge dividends over time because you can use it again and again. Today I’m going to talk about keys to successful negotiation at the dealer booths and trade tables.
A Common Mistake
The most common negotiating mistake that I see is confusing the type of negotiation one is involved in. For our purposes, there are two types. The first is a forced-action negotiation. This is where a deal must be reached by some deadline. It’s the “ticking time bomb” or “gun to the head” scenario. These types of negotiations lend themselves to hard-line tactics, eleventh-hour deals, and so on. Every negotiation you see on TV or in the movies is this kind.
Forced-action negotiations are often win-lose by nature (meaning one party gets what they want and one doesn’t). Since a deal must be met, the negotiating parties jockey until one is able to force the other to take less.
You are never in a forced-action negotiation when dealing Magic cards. This is super important.
A lot of people think that all negotiations are forced-action and act accordingly. That’s just wrong. All Magic negotiations are voluntary-deal negotiations, the second type. Either party can get up and walk away at any point for any reason or no reason at all. Don’t forget it.
If you try to use forced-action techniques in a voluntary-deal negotiation, the other guy will get up and walk away more often than not. A hard-line approach usually just signals to the other party to move along.
Think about it: if you go into a negotiation thinking you are going to “win,” that means the other guy is losing. Why would the other guy make a losing deal with you?
In order to be a good negotiator in the realm of Magic finance, you have to master the win-win negotiation.
Let’s Make A Deal
The truth is that working with a good negotiator is easy, not hard. You walk away happy and generally feel that the deal was fair, not like he forced you into a bad trade. The reason for this is simple: a good negotiator will give you what you want. He does this because giving you what you want is the easiest way for him to get what he wants. That’s the essence of a win-win negotiation.
It isn’t about forcing the counterparty to take less. It’s about finding an arrangement that makes both parties happy. At its core, it’s problem solving—maximizing value under the constraints presented by you and your trading partner. How can you make a deal that works for both of you?
Approaching negotiation like this will lead to more efficient transactions and a higher volume of completed deals. Below, I’m going to cover what I think are the most important elements of win-win negotiating.
Discrepancies in Valuation
You need to find something he wants more than you and exchange it for something you want more than him. Ultimately, all deals are born of this.
If you played Magic as a kid and think back to that time, it’s clear—you traded the dragons to the guy who loved dragons, the angels to the guy who loved angels, etc. Everyone decided how they valued these things based on their personal preferences. The fact that everyone was different led to discrepancies in valuations and lots of trades. Generally, people went home happy.
It’s a bit more complex in the Magic finance world, but you still want to have this mindset. You have to understand how you value things and then you have to find out how he values things. I don’t have enough space in this article to talk about how to properly value your own cards (beyond a price guide), but you need to have a handle on it. If someone asks you what you want for any card in your trade binder, you ought to have an answer.
Valuing your own cards is the easy half of that equation, anyway. The challenge in negotiating is figuring out how a stranger values his cards in the span of a few minutes. If you can do that, the rest is just connecting the dots.
Learning About the Counterparty
Stop and think for a minute about trading with the guy who doesn’t bother to understand how you value cards. This is the guy who keeps trying to trade you the [card]Jace, Living Guildpact[/card] he just cracked even though you told him you only play Modern. This is the guy who keeps asking for cards out of your current PTQ deck, or who keeps trying to trade his Standard cards into your dual lands despite the fact that you told him you only trade Legacy for Legacy.
Trading with this guy is painful at best and impossible at worst. He definitely knows what he wants, but he doesn’t seem to care what you want or how you value cards.
This is the exact opposite of a good negotiator. A good negotiator finds out what the other person wants and finds a way to make that happen while capturing value for himself. But it’s not as simple as sitting down and saying, “Tell me all the things you overvalue so I can trade them to you.”
Good negotiation starts with understanding your partner. What do you know about him, if anything, prior to coming to the table? Is he a casual player, a grinder, a speculator, a dealer? What formats does he play? Why is he here today? What is he trying to accomplish at the table?
Ask. The goal is to give him what he wants, so you should find out what that is. Don’t interrogate the guy, just start up a casual conversation. Flipping through binders in silence is a very inefficient way to find out. As you collect information, start connecting it to the cards in your binder.
Knowing the basics about the other person is a good start, but you’re not there yet. “I play EDH,” doesn’t immediately tell you what you should offer. You need to dig deeper.
Understand Cost Structure
This is where you will make your money as a negotiator. You already understand who you are dealing with and why he is here. If you can figure out his financial motivation, you can make an offer that will be hard to refuse.
Let me start with an example. A few months ago, Travis Allen wrote a great article about the costs associated with speculating. In summary: Travis bought 37 copies of [card]Ghave, Guru of Spores[/card] at $3.35 cash and while the TCG-mid price went to $10, the buylist was still only $5 which didn’t net him much money after shipping.
Ghave has dipped a little since then but I want to use these numbers, so just imagine you bumped into Travis the day after he wrote that article. You want a few copies of Ghave for yourself and for trade fodder and know the price is now $10 TCG-mid. One way to approach it is to hand him your binder and ask him to take a look, but you can do better.
If you had read Travis’s article, you would have known that Ghave was a spec that didn’t quite pan out for him. You would also know that he isn’t really trying to trade his Ghaves, he would much prefer to sell to a buylist and get his cash out. You also know what he paid and what buylists are offering.
You now have enough information at your disposal to make an offer that gives both you and Travis what you want.
You can offer Travis, say, $6.50 cash each on eight copies, and reasonably expect him to take it. Why? Because he approximately doubles up in cash on those copies while avoiding shipping charges, and substantially reduces the money he has tied up in Ghaves. That’s what he wants.
For your work, you get your Ghaves for $6.50 instead of whatever the dealers are charging now (say, $9) and can go trade them out to your friends at $10 TCG-mid. That is value for both of you.
Deals like this are there all the time and people constantly miss them because they aren’t digging deep enough. This deal happened because you knew more than what Travis had in his binder, but how it got there, why it was there, how much he paid, etc.
It’s an easy one because the article told us everything. Your ability to make these deals in real life depends on how good you are at extracting those details. If you ask the right questions, you can get there.
One more example and then I’ll wrap up. You are at a tournament and you have two [card]Nissa, Worldwaker[/card]s that you are particularly eager to unload, so you go over to the dealer table to see what he is offering. He makes a very strong offer, much better than you were expecting. You can happily accept and walk away, but why not take a minute to talk to the dealer?
There could be lots of reasons for offering a great buy price on Nissa, and some of them are opportunities for you. Maybe it turns out that business was super slow for the dealer today. He was looking to scoop up a lot of inventory but it didn’t happen. He’s offering good prices as the event winds down to get whatever is left for sale in the room.
What does this dealer want and how can you do business with him? He wants inventory, he wants to put his money to work, and he wants to do that today so the money he spent on his booth isn’t wasted. Can you help him out? If you can get him the stock he wants, he’ll pay you well for your effort.
Maybe you pull out your Legacy collection. You didn’t come to the table to sell that, but now you have a chance to negotiate a sale at a premium over normal buylist prices. If it’s not your collection, maybe you call a friend who has a lot to sell (you can negotiate a finder’s fee later). Maybe you can’t help him at all, but at least you know for sure.
Negotiation is about finding the deal, and that is much easier when you understand the costs on the other side of the table. I promise you will make deals this way that you would never find through the iterative process of, “How about if I throw X in instead?”
Rethink Your Strategy
If you still have the “how can I win this deal?” mindset, I strongly recommend giving this approach a try. Mastering the win-win negotiation style will bring easier deals, more deals, and much better value in the long run.
That’s all I have for today. If you have any questions, find me on Twitter at @acmtg or here in the comment section. Thanks for reading.