DJ Johnson – A Smartphone is Only as Smart as its User

Hello everyone, and welcome to a new article series here on My name is Douglas (DJ) Johnson, and I’m here to aid the Brew Crew in the never-ending goal of helping you squeeze monetary value out of this card game that we all know and love. Seeing as I’m the new kid on the block, I’ll take a moment to introduce myself and explain my background, both in Magic and life in general.

I’m a 19-year-old college sophomore from upstate New York who has been playing competitive Magic for about three years now, since Scars of Mirrodin. I’m not a huge PTQ grinder, I’ve only been to one GP in my life, and I’ve only attended a few SCG Open Series events. I don’t get the chance to travel much between school, not having a car, and not having the capital to afford hotel/gas/entry for a large-scale tournament, at least not more than once or twice a semester. The most interesting or unique attribute about me is that I won a $20,000 scholarship from Gamers Helping Gamers because I play Magic. Lesson #1 if you’re a college-aged Magic player looking to save money: look for every scholarship possible, and apply for this one. I’m not here to give you a complete analysis of the current top five draft picks, or a sick new Modern brew that nobody has thought of yet. I want to explain the methods that I’ve utilized to go from “random FNM grinder kid” to “random FNM grinder with an abnormally huge collection for a 19-year-old kid who didn’t break the bank.”

Finally, Content!

Let’s start by reminiscing about the past. For those of you who have done a lot of trading, you probably remember participating in (or observing) some absurdly lopsided deals, on either side of a transaction. I remember when I first started playing years ago, I brought my Yu-Gi-Oh! tin full of Magic cards to an LGS in Syracuse. I let some people look through my pathetic collection, and I took out some sweet new cards from their binders for my GW token/life-gain deck, including a [card]Beastmaster Ascension[/card], [card]Celestial Mantle[/card], [card]Conquerer’s Pledge[/card], and [card]Emeria Angel[/card], plus a stack of commons and ucommons. The only thing my trade partner wanted at the time was a [card]Noble Hierarch[/card]. My thought was that I could probably just swap it out for another basic land, or a [card]Llanowar Elf[/card]. The exalted didn’t even matter that much in my deck, I thought…DONE! I walked away with a bunch of cards, none the wiser that I had given away a $20+ card for a bunch of sub-$1 rares (some of them are higher than $1 now, but you get my point). I didn’t learn until much later how bad of a deal I had gotten, and I resolved to never “lose” during a trade again.

Granted, we’ve all heard these kinds of stories, and I’ve done my share of taking advantage of deals that were way too good to pass up. What does that have to do with anything nowadays, though? Personally, I’ve noticed a drastic decrease in these opportunities in the past couple of years. You don’t see many insanely lopsided trades anymore, because there is a fairly recent tool that saves the newbie from total financial ruin. Some of you might know what I’m hinting at: the primary cause of this dry well of free money is none other than the smartphone. And you know what? That’s a good thing. There are far fewer opportunities for PTQ-grinder Spikes to see a [card]Death Baron[/card] or [card]Nightveil Specter[/card] in a 14-year-old’s plastic tin of cards and shark them out of it for nothing. Even brand-new players can say: “Let me check the value on that really quick.” Smartphones provide a failsafe to prevent value traders from taking greed too far, and that’s okay. When a greedy shark rips a new player off so badly that it makes him rage quit the game, us honest traders lose out on a future customer. I forget where I heard this, but it applies to the Magic finance world very nicely: “You can sheer a sheep as much as you like, but you can only skin it once.”

But what does that mean for us, though? Smartphones certainly aren’t without their downsides in the trading world. I’m sure that I’m not alone in being frustrated when trading and my trade partner, adding up the values on his smartphone, asks me, “Well, my cards are $0.49 more valuable than yours. Can I find a couple other things?” and then proceeds to check the value on every single bulk rare they pull out of the box I hand them. Traders like this walk away unhappy over losing out on $0.03, and believe that you sharked them. One of the downsides of these devices is that they increase the paranoia of the newer grinders. They have heard war stories and legends of trading bloodbaths where their friend got screwed over by not getting out his trusty phone, so they have to make sure everything is even. EXACTLY EVEN.

Based on what I’ve vomited onto the page so far, it probably sounds like these devices are the equivalent of a medieval chastity belt to people trying to make value from trading cards. But fear not! The situation is not as dire as one might think. There are still ways to increase the value of your collection while out on the trade floor, even when your partner is wielding what they think to be a piece of Verizon kryptonite. I’m here to give you some handy tips on exchanging pieces of cardboard with people who are afraid of being sharked, think they’re a value trader themselves, or are just plain out to shark you.

1. Let your partner decide what pricing system they want to use

If you start a trade with someone and they ask about how much a card in your binder is, offer to let them use whatever pricing system they like. Different websites and online stores use different pricing systems based on their own needs, and you can use this to your advantage. If you memorize which stores have certain prices for certain cards, you can create a serious advantage for yourself by knowing which price points are closest to the “true value” of the card. Let’s use an example to try and work out how we can take advantage of this.

Most players agree that Star City Games overprices their singles by a bit, yet there are a lot of traders out there who will agree to trade by SCG prices saying, “Yes, it’s overpriced, but it’s all overpriced by the same amount.” This is the mistake that can let you trade up. While there is one camp of players who abides by SCG’s rule of law, there are (in my personal experience) more traders out there who believe that the average price from TCG Player is the true market value of a card. The spread between these two price margins is where we can get rid of cards that are inflated by SCG’s prices, and obtain cards that are closer to the real market value. For a simple example, let’s say that our trade partner wants to use SCG prices, and they want our [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card]. By SCG pricing, the [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] is $29.99, but the TCG average is only around $25. Now we can look for cards with prices that are much closer together. [card]Hallowed Fountain[/card]s are $9.99 each on SCG, but the average on TCGplayer is only about a dollar less. If we get rid of the [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card] at $30, for three [card]Hallowed Fountain[/card]s that also add up to $30, our trade partner is happy because the trade is even. However, we’re even happier, because we turned $25 in TCG Player value into $28.

Making trades like this one requires a lot of up-to-date knowledge on the larger websites’ prices, but there are opportunities for much larger profits than the one I outlined in the above example. Putting in the effort to know the price differences between sites can really help you raise the value of your collection, while keeping your trade partner left feeling satisfied. In addition, the potential for profit in each trade goes up a lot higher when your trade partner says, “I don’t care which pricing system we use, as long as it’s the same one.” Figure out what website to use based on their binder contents, and you’ll be able to trade for value that your partner won’t see. However, be careful with this tool when you spend a lot of time trading at a local level. If you constantly swap pricing when trading at a local level, your trade partners might start to think you are out to shark them by taking advantage of different price systems at different times. Try to focus on a single website when you’re asked to look up card prices, but always be aware of the other websites.

2. “Sold Out” (or close to it)

When checking the prices on a smartphone, sometimes it’s better to use the actual retail website instead of a third-party site or app that sources its info. One of the main reasons for this is to see how many copies of that card a vendor has in stock. If we check out SCG’s prices on Lorwyn [card]Thoughtseize[/card], they have the price set at $39.99, but they claim to have none left in stock. When SCG gets more Lorwyn copies in stock, they’ll most likely raise the price on them, because they sold out at the previous price. That’s all the more reason for you to try and get copies at the “sold out” SCG price. Additional evidence of this is that the TCG Player average of an old [card]Thoughtseize[/card] is $43 and change. There’s an advantage to be had for being the guy who looks up the actual listing of the card, instead of trusting a blank page with a number on it that a smartphone application might display.

Being 100% sold out isn’t a reason to stray away from a trade target, either. As my fellow BSB writer Enmou Gao wrote in a recent article, [card]Threads of Disloyalty[/card] is a great target to pick from the binder of a paranoid trader who trusts his phone more than anything. As I’m writing this, there is only a single page of listings of the card on eBay, only 25 sellers on TCGplayer selling the card, and only nine NM copies available. While the phone will still spit out a price of $7 from TCG average or $8 on SCG (sold out), the fact remains that there are very few copies of this card out there at the moment, and a spike in price seems likely. Targeting these in trade seems like a great plan with little to no downside.

3. Be honest, build a reputation.

This tip works less when trading at larger PTQs, GPs, and SCG opens, and more for your local FNMS, 1k events, and such. Trading with a phone takes time. It might sound minor, but if you add up each second spent typing in URLs, waiting for pages to load, or just waiting for your phone to start, you’ll find a lot of wasted time. If you spend enough time around the trade tables at your local store and are consistent with your pricing, eventually people might just start to trust your pricing (crazy, right?). Note that I am not saying this in order for you to form bonds and relationships, then to go abuse those once your partner is relaxed around you enough to not pull out their smartphone. This is not the goal. Ripping people off by intentionally misnaming prices will only lead to you being labeled as a shark. The goal is to simply save time.

You can still use the previous two suggestions in addition to searching for speculation targets if you are looking to make money off of trading. The point here is that by being honest and consistent with your pricing, you might just be able to get your trade partner to trust you, taking minutes off of each trade you make. Minutes off of each trade add up, and you’ll be able to get a lot more done in a shorter time span. Finance is about efficiency in time, as well as money.


Well, I hope I’ve helped some of you in your trading endeavors. I don’t want this to seem like an article designed to help you rip off players despite their smartphones, but as a way to still increase your own card value during a trade without the other person losing out. Join me next time when I discuss the possible outs you have as a player for your cards, no matter what scale of inventory you maintain.

On a personal note, this is my first article that’s not related to school or college applications, so I appreciate any and all constructive criticism on my writing style, content, or anything else of note. I may not (yet) be a grinder who top eights all of the local PTQs or travels across multiple states for a GP, but I want to start leaving my mark on this game in my own way. If that way happens to be writing an article series for an amazing podcast team who helps people to make money off of a trading card game, then so be it. Thanks for reading!

About the Author
@Rose0fthorns     -     Email     -     Articles Douglas Johnson is a 20-year-old MTG player who goes to college courtesy of a scholarship from Gamers Helping Gamers. He is currently found writing a weekly finance column at, and you can always feel free to contact him on Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit.

6 comments on DJ Johnson – A Smartphone is Only as Smart as its User

  1. Jason Alt says:

    ” I forget where I heard this, but it applies to the Magic finance world very nicely: ‘You can sheer a sheep as much as you like, but you can only skin it once’.”

    That was me on the podcast.

  2. Sound advice here. Admittedly, I’m in the SCG prices camp, and use my phone extensively during trades (which works because their iPhone app is pretty functional for this purpose). We have one guy at my LGS who seems like he knows his stuff but pretty much always overvalues his cards and undervalues cards across the table. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been summoned away from a game to help facilitate trades with this guy. But, haven’t seen him around in a while, so maybe that’s a good thing. I’ve definitely made a name for myself and earned a lot of respect by trading fair and being open about it. I’ve also done quite well for my collection by spotting undervalued cards that go up with rotation (remember when Desecration Demon was a dollar?). I think spotting undervalued powerful standard cards is one of the best trading skills you can develop.

  3. Enmou Gao says:

    Thanks for the mention.

    Personally I value honesty very highly. That means going out of my way to make the trades even if the other person doesn’t see it. Being able to make profitable trades in the future seem more important than getting that extra $1 or $2 in current value, especially if you know that you’ll ahead in the future.

    I would let the other person know if a card is sold out on StarCityGames. I would also let the other person know if they’re valuing a card incorrectly, it’s up to them whether they believe me or not. I feel that Corbin’s article about the ethics of trading is very important here, especially if you frequent the same store and trade with the same people.

  4. Douglas Johnson says:

    I definitely should have specified in the article that I only target sold out cards on SCG when I have already offered to let my trade partner pick the pricing system, and if they have picked SCG.

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