Popculture’s Cube: The Agony And Ecstasy of Buying Cards Online

Sometimes it’s just the way to go.

The Friendly Local Gaming Store just doesn’t have the cards you need for your deck; your trading stock isn’t deep enough to swap a few cards with your buddy. But, you have a little extra cash and you think, “Heck, I’ll just buy the shocks I need online.”

So, where do you start?

As you probably already know, there are many, many, many places online that sell Magic cards. As in tons of them. Everything from the grandaddy of them all, StarCityGames, to other providers like TrollAndToad, Untapped Games, Channel Fireball, and more – heck, there’s even an online shop with a brick-and-mortar store just a half-hour’s drive from my house.

These places not only will sell you cards, but most have fairly extensive buylists and will purchase your (usually rare) cards from you for cash or (more lucratively) store credit. Cards generally will be bought on these sites for about 50 to 70 percent of their generally-accepted value.

This, however, is where the dance begins. Because, first and foremost, many of these sites differ in inventory and what they will buy from you. I purchased and sold cards to one store for years – but found that they only sold cards from the two or three most recent Magic blocks, and generally only bought what was in Standard (or additionally in what used to be called ‘Extended’). Another place bought more cards from older eras of Magic, but tended to charge higher prices for the cards they sold, and paid out smaller amounts for the cards they bought. So I ended up selling and buying from both of them, but found that splitting my patronage wasn’t the best solution.

Additionally, the most popular cards are often in short supply at these sites, making it tough to buy a playset of what you need.

Something else to watch out for: most of these sites, when purchasing cards, advertise for cards that are Mint/Near Mint only. And, believe me, the interpretation of that varies from store to store, and may NOT be anything like how you see it. On a couple occasions I’ve sent off cards to be sold, only to get the invoice back and discover the cards I thought were in mint condition were “lightly” or “moderately” played, and therefore purchased by the store at a discount. I call shenanigans on that, but it’s tough to contest that.

That’s not to say that buying online has no benefits – there are plenty.

For one, these online shops usually take pre-orders when a new set is announced and the card set has been largely spoiled online.

For another, it’s far simpler to find the card you want by searching a particular site for it than digging through the rare binders and boxes at the FLGS.

Elesh Norn
Thirdly, there is no rush like being able to purchase an Elesh Norn, some pain lands, and some Modern staples with the store credit you’ve been painstakingly saving up by selling off some cards.

Thirdly, there is no rush like being able to purchase an Elesh Norn, some pain lands, and some Modern staples with the store credit you’ve been painstakingly saving up by selling off some cards.

And, though these online shops sometimes charge a premium for shipping, another advantage is that they tend to have stable pricing practices. That’s not always the case at an FLGS – at one store I frequented, the pricing of commons and uncommons depended on what clerk was working the register that day. One was a stickler for looking every single card up; the other charged a flat rate per rarity.

One particularly good option to try if you’re looking for a bargain is tcgplayer.com. This aggregator site pulls together the prices for cards at online shops throughout the Internet. Looking for a Phyrexian Arena in decent shape for under $8? There are plenty of options on there. It’s also a good place to go if you’re trying to price out your cards for trading purposes.

And while smaller online shops and boutique Magic retailers are plentiful on the information superhighway, they aren’t the only way to go. Singles – usually only those from within the last couple blocks – can also be found on Amazon.com (I know, right?). It’s also possible to find large grab-bag lots of cards for cheap there.

Of course, again, quality can vary. I once bought a 500-count lot of older cards on Amazon, and ended up with tons of copies of the same 20 cards or so (all Eventide commons – so lots and lots of Noggles). On the other hand, I later bought a 1,000-count lot of cards and ended up with some terrific old vintage and modern rares and uncommons, and even a couple of full-art lands from Zendikar.

So, certainly food for thought there.

Then there’s the Nuclear Option: eBay. The Heaven and Hell of Magic card shopping. Tantalizingly, nearly any Magic card you think of can be discovered on eBay – for a price. I’ve found selections there to be so extensive, it’s easier to look up cards on eBay than on StarCityGames or Wizards of the Coast’s Gatherer site.

Of course, what becomes readily apparent as soon as you start shopping on eBay is that the prices of the cards are somewhat inflated. A single common that would sell for 15 cents on StarCityGames could cost you 25 or 50 cents, for instance. And while many eBay stores offer free shipping, others charge $2 or more  to ship a single card, further making what seemed like a great bargain less so.

The other issue with eBay – the grade of the cards you buy. Here’s been my experience, based on the terms used in card descriptions:

• Mint/Near Mint – This card is truly immaculate. When you touch it, a choir sings.

• Slight/Light Play – This card might have some scratching on it, possibly scuffing around the edges.

• Moderate Play – This card has likely been stepped on at some point.

• Heavy Play – This card has been shot, or left in a basement for too long.

• Water Damaged – This card should be burned.

I honestly didn’t get hip to looking at whether the description of a card mentioned signs of “play” until, one too many times, I ended up buying cards that smelled like a mildewed shower stall and had to throw them away for fear they’d infect the others.

That’s not to say that eBay isn’t a great way to buy cards – I’ve been able to get great cards on the site for excellent prices (Deathrite Shamans for $8, you say? Abrupt Decays for under $10? Playsets of foreign language non-basic lands for a song? SOLD, American!), and most of the time have dealt with honest, reliable, and very cordial sellers.

Now, the point of this article isn’t to make you skittish about buying cards online – there are a bunch of plusses and, by and large, you’ll have a good and profitable experience. But, as in anything else online, you’ve got to be careful. The simple answer to all of this is is, of course, “Let the Buyer Beware.” When you’re thinking about buying (or selling) cards just make sure you go into the process with your eyes wide open. And don’t be afraid to ask questions.

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