Privileged Perspective 4: The Mana From Another Place

One of my favorite aspects of Magic finance is the one that is very likely the least discussed. People will pore endless hours over set reviews, Modern breakouts, and Reserve List buyouts, but there is, comparatively, nothing written about foreign foils and obscurities. There are several different factors that contribute to this, but in an era where it feels like Magic information is being homogenized and disseminated faster than ever1, it’s strange that the foreign markets have so little to go off of. We’ll touch a little bit on how the foreign foil premium works (spoiler alert: it’s pretty random!), some of the resources that you can use to grow your reach with niche markets, and we will get to look at lots of pictures of cool cards! Let’s rock!

Grasping at Straws; or “Known Knowns and Known Unknowns”

When you are operating with unknown or incomplete information, it is best to look at everything that you know is concrete, and extrapolate from that. In the context of today’s theme, this means we want to look at everything we do know when trying to determine the price of a card that we don’t know.

FIRST OF (SURPRISINGLY FEW!) BRIEF ASIDES: Very rarely will a site like SCG have a published price on a foreign foil or rarity. If they do, treat this as one possible price, not the correct one—it may be several months old or predicated on unavailable information (like what their buyer paid for it). Also, they are likely to tack on a “Star City Premium” (and I don’t mean the kind where they charge you money to watch Todd Anderson videos), because most people simply wouldn’t know where else to find these types of cards.

The very first thing I figure out is what language a card is in. This will give us some idea of the scarcity/demand relative to its standard counterpart, the English copy. While almost all languages receive shorter print runs than English2, not all of them experience the same influences when it comes to final price. Here is a handy cheat sheet when it comes to identifying languages:

  • With European languages (excluding Russian, but including Spanish and Portuguese even though the majority of their speakers live in Central and South America), the price is typically going to be lower than English. While supply is lower, demand is lower as well, and many players prefer English copies as they typically trade better, especially internationally. The caveat here is any card where the translation makes the name of the card hilarious. Popular examples include Spanish [card]Sarkhan the Mad[/card] (Sarkhan, El Loco), French [card]Delay[/card] (Retard, which I personally don’t think is funny, but I’m just presenting facts), and for a brief period, German [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card] (which many expected to include the word “Jagermeister” in the name). There are also occasional misprints for specific languages, the most notorious being Spanish Meloku, who makes 2/2 tokens, instead of 1/1s (because that card wasn’t good enough already).
  • Chinese cards are actually printed in larger quantities than English cards (you would know this already if you were reading the footnotes). This results in lower prices on the majority of cards, but things like foil [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] are typically in line with the English price. When I am preordering or buying cards just to play with in Standard, I will typically buy Chinese copies to get a little bit of a better deal on them. Ignore the stigma of potential counterfeits by buying from trusted, reputable vendors: I buy exclusively from MTGMintCard, because they have great pricing and are (I think) based in the US, allowing for cheaper and faster shipping. My most recent purchase from them was a preorder of four Chinese [card]Temple of Enlightenment[/card], which were almost $2 less a piece than the English price. In the wild, I am able to identify Chinese cards by comparing the bulkier printing style to Japanese lettering. Chinese lettering in the name of the card often appears thicker than any other language.
  • Japanese has long been the “cool” language, and so it sees a price increase by virtue of being Japanese. Because the Japanese Magic community travels well, there is a great arbitrage opportunity trading English cards to Japanese players at events. English cards often fetch higher prices overseas, and there is a large subset of American players who like the look of Japanese cards. Foils will always outpace the pricing on English copies, and tournament staples for Modern or Legacy can have even stronger premiums attached. The easiest way to tell Japanese from any other language is by checking the card name (top left)—there will often be a small row of characters on top of the name. Japan, moreso than Korea or Russia (to my knowledge), has an extremely strong Magic community, and so there are some easy-to-find store sites with prices on #JPFoils (a hashtag I invented along with Zak, Heiko, and a couple others—shout out!). My personal preference is TokyoMTG.com.
  • Korean was a supported language for a few years (starting with Visions and then ending with Urza’s Saga), before it was discontinued. It has since been resumed (as of M12 and Innistrad), and is a popular choice with people who like foreign cards. For some reason, the beginning of the new Korean printings seem prone to several typos and misprints, including [card]Gideon Jura[/card] and Ashiok.
  • Russian is the last of the premium languages. It has a very small printing, and started around Gatecrash. Because these last two languages are relatively new, they have had a hard time ousting Japanese as the de facto cool language. I’m not going to make a lame Yakov Smirnoff joke, BECAUSE I AM A PROFESSIONAL, DAMMIT.
  • Henceforth, I will refer to Japanese, Korean, and Russian as “prestige languages.” This is in no way, shape, or form an endorsement of Hugh Jackman.

Once you have determined the language of a card, find out the price on the English equivalent (in the case of a foil, you will want both the foil and non-foil prices). For cards with either of the “modern” frames, the foreign and English prices on non-foils will be roughly the same (I might pad the sale price a little bit for prestige languages). If you are working with foils, then what you are looking for isn’t the price of the English card, but rather the foil premium between English versions. We will use two cards from Ravnica: City of Guilds as an example, with all prices coming from Star City Games.

[card]Blood Funnel[/card] is listed at 99 cents for non-foil and $1.99 for foil. These are, after doing some cursory research, about the lowest prices SCG will list older rares (and foil rares) at. We can establish the minimum foil premium at 100-percent markup, or double the price of the non-foil.

[card]Life from the Loam[/card], on the other hand, has a non-foil price of $4 (and out of stock!) and a foil price of $40. This means that the perceived value for [card]Life from the Loam[/card] (in spite of several additional printings and another foil printing!) is so high, that the foils are able to fetch ten times the non-foil price!

If I was presented with an opportunity to determine the prices on Japanese copies of these two cards (let’s say I’m somewhere without cell reception, like a giant concrete convention building or Mississippi), then I am going to value the [card]Blood Funnel[/card] about on par with the foil English copy (I’d probably settle on $3 in trade, which is pretty good for freakin’ Blood Funnel).

The Loam, however, is going to be trickier. Despite being unable to find any JP foil copies of Loam for sale with a quick Google search, I can tell you its typical sale price is about $180. The foreign premium will not always be the same percentage as the foil premium (thank God), but if there’s a foil premium in excess of the standard3, then the foreign premium for prestige languages will be in excess as well. I wish I could tell you exactly how the Loam got to $180, but it isn’t an exact science. A lot of times, however, it seems the rule of thumb is “double it, then double it again.”

Acquisitions

The growth of Magic’s presence on the internet has made getting foreign foils and niche cards much easier over the last couple of years. The expansion of eBay into other countries (with PayPal serving as a financial Tower of Babel in easily converting currencies) and social media have largely replaced the old system of, “Go to a GP and try and trade with the Japanese players.” While that original system of arbitrage is still largely in effect, the majority of my recent acquisitions have been from my phone, typically while pretending to work. Look, let’s just bullet point these so we can get on to the cool pictures of foils and stuff, okay?

  • You already know about eBay, but make sure you’re able to see foreign sellers as well (I think sometimes this gets disabled in settings, I don’t know, I always look at it on my phone). Here’s a great tip: type “Japanese Foil” or “Japanese Foil MTG” into eBay and just read through all of the listings some time when you’re bored living in the most technologically advanced civilization to ever exist. Not only will this help you familiarize yourself with the kinds of prices and margins you’ll be dealing with, but it makes a fantastic car game on the way to a tournament. You, the phone person (and hopefully not driver), say, “How much is Japanese Foil [CARD NAME] worth?” and the other people in the car try to guess closest without going over.
  • Another quick eBay tip: Make sure to write down the names of some of the more frequent users you see dealing in foreign/niche cards. If you are going to be getting into this stuff, it’s good to know who the other players are, and you will likely buy from them repeatedly, so build a friendly rapport. This will allow you to build a network of people who are able to find things for you across the globe, which is pretty cool.
  • In a future portion of this article, I will tell you about a website called Magic Librarities. One of the things listed on it is every printing of every FNM/Arena/Gameday promo in every language it was printed in. I personally like Japanese FNM promos ([card]Grisly Salvage[/card] especially), so you can browse that website for promo cards to see what language they are in. I also have a sweet Japanese [card]Slave of Bolas[/card]. Will you deliver a message to future Ross for me? Tell him, “The owls are not what they seem.”
  • Websites like TokyoMTG and MTGMintCard are great if you know what language you are looking for. MTGCardMarket is a good source of European language cards, but you have to live in Europe to be a member. Therefore, I recommend either making a friend in Europe who doesn’t mind being a middle-man in facilitating trades, or committing international identity theft. Actually, you should probably just do the first one.
  • I literally just have a little blurb at the end of my PucaTrade profile that says, “If you have any foreign or weird foils that you don’t know what to do with, I’ll take ’em,” and people message me out of the blue all the time with cards they want to get rid of. It’s sweet!
  • I’ll let you in on a secret: your LGS can get foreign boxes from WOTC. They can’t get much (and I believe it is partially dictated by your store level), but if you’re the only person in your town that likes Korean cards, then make friends with the store owner. Be willing to pay up front if this is something they don’t do often—many small stores have a hard time selling foreign packs to casual players.
  • Trade with foreign players at large events! There are a lot of great guys like Saito who have been doing this for a while, and will be happy to scratch your back if you scratch theirs. DISCLAIMER: do not actually scratch another attendee’s back without consent. Can we look at cool cards now? Awesome.

The Sweetness

Do you ever scroll through Librarities? If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a website that catalogs all of the rare obscurities of Magic’s past, as well as a comprehensive collection of every promotional card ever printed. It’s MagicLibrarities.net and you should really go check it out after finishing my article and leaving me a comment about how great this was. Don’t worry, the link will still be there. Now, grab a cup of damn fine coffee and settle in, we’re gonna check out some sweet cards!

Tenth Edition Foils

Were you aware that foils in Tenth Edition didn’t have reminder text? This was before core sets featured new cards, so all the cards that got this treatment were reprints. The most famous is [card]Time Stop[/card], which sells for about $30, twice the price of the original set foil! Many of the cards with this treatment also received flavor text that otherwise didn’t fit. [card]Time Stop[/card] just looks sweet though.

1374_10E_Timestop_foil

Test Foils/Test Prints

While foils weren’t introduced to Magic until after Urza’s Saga, Wizards spent some time internally developing how they would look, including printing some test versions of cards that already existed. These are rare, and are not even technically supposed to exist. Likewise, right before the card frame overhaul in Eighth Edition, Wizards tried a couple different templates, including some that made it to print. These were never intended to leave the building, but a few made it out alive. We know these are legit because they were featured in an Arcana on the Mothership. Featured below are two scans of actual test prints: a basic Plains with a frame for Eighth Edition that was ultimately scrapped (as well as the Unglued set symbol, and the art for Parallax Tide), and a test foil [card]City of Traitors[/card], with a red text box.

testprints

Bear in mind that neither of these were ever expected to be seen by the public eye, so these aren’t mistakes—they are just attempts to see every possible permutation before announcing a change to the public. Obviously, when you get to this level of the game, things like price become much less concrete. I’m posting a couple of links to test prints that are on eBay. The high-end Magic crowd doesn’t play around.

The auction for that Plains I showed you

Giant Growth Test foil, for the best-looking Infect list ever

Here is a Counterspell with a price tag higher than some credit card limits

A Somehow Even Less-Playable Shivan Dragon

One of the more interesting things about Magic obscurities is that they can sometimes become lost, even to the hyper-aware Magic finance crowd. Featured below is the CoroCoro Magazine Shivan Dragon promo that was released in Japan to celebrate the upcoming Seventh Edition. (Note for young people: magazines were like the internet, but strictly worse. But sometimes they came with crap inside!)

corocoro shivan

Notice the alternate card back. This card is literally unplayable in sanctioned Magic (sweet gift, thanks!). The great thing about older, unimpressive regional promos like these is that they don’t stay in the public eye. Because people aren’t trolling eBay and such for these niche cards, it makes it possible to pick them up for surprising prices. I snatched one of these of eBay for $10, and was able to flip it for double. SCG actually has quite a few of them in stock, all for between $25 and $30 based on condition, but these were going for about $40 NM a while back. While demand is not very high, it’s still a collectable, and I imagine SCG is just content owning a bunch of them and moving them whenever. I’m still a buyer at $10, but not much higher.

More Expensive Promos. Like, Much More

It’s interesting to me that Wizards seems to be moving away from the regional distribution of promotional cards. Every GP gives away a [card]Batterskull[/card], every PTQ gives away a Liliana (I want yours, by the way), but it wasn’t always like that. I’ll lead off with what is likely the most high-profile example of a regional promo:

mutavaultEA

Only 32 of these exist, and they are going for roughly the same price as a beat up Unlimited Mox. If you didn’t make top four of Champs (which was basically States before “States” meant “eight-hour win-a-box tournament”) in England or Ireland, you likely don’t have one. Why these were not the selected promo for all Champs events is beyond me (I got a Doran).

Do you know what the JSS was? It was a tournament series for kids too young to understand the moral severity of cheating in Magic tournaments, but old enough to watch Rounders during FNM to ranch fish for scholarship money. No joke, many people still refer to, “Swamp, Duress” on turn one as the “JSS Opening,” since: #1. Duress was a great card 10 years ago, and #2. You immediately got to see your opponent’s hand to determine if he was playing an actual deck or not. Anyways, WOTC gave out a bunch of promos for JSS events, some of which are really expensive today. The program was later extended to be internationally run, and its somewhat abrupt end4 caused some promos to be under-distributed (or not given away at all). The best such example is the APAC Glorious Anthem, which was never given out, but has slowly leaked into the market through other means (supposedly, a former Wizards employee was given one as a parting gift). The APAC version is only identifiable by the APAC stamping on the foil watermark (I highlighted it for you).

APACAnthem

I saw one of these close recently on eBay for about $650, although they’ve been known to go for much more.

The last thing I’ll leave you with is the Hachette or “Pegasus” cards. There was a program in Italy (and/or possibly Spain?) where you could basically register for a “Magic Encyclopedia Program” and they would mail you terrible decks to play with your friends. The cards were all white-bordered, had a unique Pegasus set symbol, and were part of a terrible system that nobody signed up for. Fast forward to our times, and the cards sell as yet another collectible oddity. The most playable card printed for this program was probably Marrow-Gnawer, although there was a Sliver deck with Riptide Replicator. You can find all of the decks (with card images) here.

I will see you again in 25 years. Or next week. Whatever. Actually, I’ll see some of you at GPNJ!

BEST,

Ross

 

1 Nowhere is this more pronounced than Magic Online, where WOTC is literally restricting the amount of decklists that get published to try and delay format stagnation.

2 The only one I know of that has a larger printing is Chinese. More on this later!

3 Remind me some time to tell you why the foil premium is BS.

4 It was actually “redesigned” as the Magic Scholarship Series in ’07, and the Glorious Anthem was for that, and not the JSS. That said, the redesign only lasted a year, so meh. Everyone just called it the JSS then anyways.

About the Author
I've been gaming MtG finance since artifacts were brown. Longtime magic player and TO. Loving husband and father. Cube > Commander.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.