Mental Missteps: Mistakes I Made as a Casual Magic: The Gathering Player

038_mental_misstepLast week, I shared my personal journey through an eight-week “fast” from Magic: The Gathering. The much-needed time away from the game allowed me to realize some “mental missteps” I made as a casual player that I’d like to share, as well as what I plan to do more effectively in future games.

Let me say two things before I begin. First, I realize not everyone plays Magic in the same way or with the same motivations, so this is very much a “your mileage may vary” essay. Second, this is by no means an exhaustive list of dos and don’ts, so I welcome any feedback in the comments section to supplement what I’ve written.

I’ll start with my missteps, or, what I felt I did “wrong”:

  • I cracked boosters. This seems innocuous enough, right? People love surprises and instant gratification, and boosters offer both. “Am I going to get that shiny mythic rare?” “Ooh, maybe I’ll be the lucky one to score the ‘God Pack’ this time!” What I came to discover, however, is that cracking random boosters as an impulse buy ended up being a poor decision well over 80% of the time. By the time that wrapper came off and I’d sorted through everything, I often had a handful of cards I’d never play with or were worth too little to trade.
  • I bought into the hype, literally. Hype is everyone in the Magic community. Speculation over new and returning cards and mechanics ebbs and flows with the release schedule, but it’s always humming in the background. One of the worst things I did was trade for three of the Journey Into Nyx enemy-colored gods (Athreos, Iroas, and Pharika) right as the set came out. Athreos, for example, was priced at US $24 on release day. At the time of this essay, he’s hovering around US $8-9. This was a completely impulsive decision, and, as someone who played only occasionally with friends, is was a poor one to make as well.
  • I only played decks when I had all the cards (again, literally) in hand. For some reason, I never wanted to play with proxies, which are “stand-ins” for cards you don’t yet have in your possession. Professional Magic players use proxies constantly to test and fine tune their decks before they commit to adding them in their deck list. I never played any of mine until I had them fully assembled, after which I would start playing and testing. More often than not, I would discover that cards I had just traded for didn’t work out as I expected, so I’d cut them from the list and start up trades for their replacements.
  • I focused on too many decks in Standard. Part of what makes Magic endlessly fascinating is how many combinations of cards, effects, and mechanics you can combine in your decks. With each new set comes a whole new array of concepts and interactions. This makes it hard to choose where you want to go with your Standard decks, as new cards can make dramatic changes to your current game plan, both from what you want to design and what you’ll need to account for on the other side of the table. My problem here is that I couldn’t decide. I saw deck builds online and wanted to try quite a few of them, so I had at least three or four partially-built decks going at any one time. Without a consistent play group and use of proxies, I often didn’t realize how well a specific build would perform until I had committed a good deal of time into its design and development. This often left me with one decent deck and several other lukewarm builds.
  • I overlooked the most vital aspect of Magic: the social aspect. This was the hardest lesson for me to learn. At its core, Magic is a social game; it is not designed to be played alone. There is only so much satisfaction you can draw from singular activities such as trading, collecting, and deck building. As I mentioned in my “fast” essay, I had moved hundreds of miles from my former playgroup, so I lost my core group of casual gamers. I also did not have the desire to playing Magic online, as I had read many not-so-positive experiences about it, both from the mechanical side (glitchy interface and frequent downtimes) and the personal side (cutthroat competition and rude opponents). I started venturing out to local game stores to find other players, but did not have the guts to interact and talk with folks there beyond the games themselves.

What should I have done?

  • Drafted. What I came to realize over time was that many of the cards in any given set are designed exclusively for the Limited format. “Bad cards” exist specifically to add strategy and tension in drafts. You need to be skillful and cunning to craft a winning 40-card deck from random booster pulls, which is why there is such a die-hard following around Limited. Had I drafted instead of cracking boosters, I would have been able to experience new cards and mechanics in a fun and constructive way.
  • Been patient. Had I bided my time and waited until the hype over Journey Into Nyx had cooled off, I could have snagged Athreos and his divine kin for a third of their prerelease cost, and spent my remaining trade credit on other cards I wanted. It seems that, with a few exceptions (such as dual lands and high-value reprints such as Mutavault and Thoughtseize), the inflated prices of hyped cards settle down within the first one to three months after the set hits the streets. Planeswalkers in particular are notorious for being highly overvalued ahead of a prerelease.
  • Used proxies and playtested. Whenever I design a deck, I have a vision in mind for how it will play out. More often than not, however, cards I bought or traded for didn’t interact on the battlefield the way I planned. Had I used proxies to test my theories instead of taking the time and money to acquire the actual cards, I could have given my builds a proper run-through, chosen what really, truly worked, and saved my trade credits for the final roster.
  • Narrowed my focus to a single Standard deck. Making a commitment to one build in Standard would have been a much wiser use of my time and money. It would have limited the trades I wanted and freed up points for higher-dollar cards for that one deck. It also would have allowed me to playtest it exclusively, sussing out strengths and weaknesses much faster and more effectively. Plus, playing with a single deck would have helped me sharpen strategies in specific matchups (for example, what cards would I need to always swap in or out versus a Control player, or an Aggro player).
  • Put more effort into finding a play group and settling in at my local game store. I’m an introvert at heart, so it’s challenging for me to form new friendships and connections in places where I don’t know anyone. It would have been worth the personal risk to have gone out of comfort zone and be more gregarious and purposeful when playing at Friday Night Magic and prereleases events. I could have also taken the initiative and taught fellow coworkers about Magic to form a new playgroup during office lunch breaks, much as I did at my former location. I took the easy route out and assumed I would make new Magic friends by proxy, when, instead, all I did was sit on the sidelines between games and keep to myself.

Now, let me turn it over to the masses: what have you learned as a Magic player that you realized was not the best method or tactic? What would you offer as guidance or advice to other players out there?

About brightmatrix

brightmatrix is a long-time casual gamer. His gaming journey has included Magic: the Gathering, the first, second, and fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons, and the first wave White Wolf games from the late 90s. If you are a denizen of the Twitterverse, you can read his posts on Magic, web development, puns, and other shenanigans at @brightmatrix.

A Casual (and Slightly OCD) Trader’s Guide to Shipping Magic: the Gathering Cards

I started trading Magic: the Gathering cards shortly after I returned to the game back in February 2012 (right after Dark Ascension was released). Over the past two years, I’ve used the trading websites Deckbox and PucaTrade with great success. I’ve found trading cards online to be nearly as much fun as playing and deck building, and I’ve learned a great deal, both in my own trades and hearing experiences from my fellow trading partners.

There are other guides on how to best send and ship Magic cards in the mail, but I wanted to put my own spin on “best practices” for doing so.

I will warn you in advance: this guide is detailed and may seem like overkill to some. Rest assured, my friends: you will make your trading partners very happy by taking the time to ship your cards with care and effort.

Single cards

For single cards worth less than $10 in value, I use one toploader, one playing sleeve or penny sleeve, and a check-size envelope. I slip the card into the sleeve, then insert it into the toploader upside-down, so the card doesn’t slip out during shipping. I then seal the open end of the toploader with a single piece of Scotch tape.

A single card, sleeved and inserted into a toploader.

A single card, sleeved and inserted into a toploader.

A close-up of the bottom of the sealed toploader.

A close-up of the bottom of the sealed toploader.

Once that’s done, I then slip the sealed toploader into the check-size envelope and seal that with more Scotch tape. I use tape on the envelope because 1) I really dislike the taste of adhesive glue, 2) I don’t trust the “peel-and-seal” strips on self-adhesive envelopes, and 3) it helps prevent tearing if the edges of the flap get caught in transit.

The sealed envelope with PucaTrade reference numbers on the back flap.

The sealed envelope with PucaTrade reference numbers on the back flap.

Multiple, less valuable cards

For multiple cards worth less than $10 overall in value, I do one of the following:

  • For up to three cards, I use the process above with a sleeve and a single toploader. Playing sleeves are a bit too thick for three cards, but the thinner penny sleeves work well. Just be careful not to crease or bend the cards as you’re inserting them.
  • For up to six cards, I may choose to put the three more valuable cards in the toploader as described above while putting the other three in a penny sleeve. I then tape the sleeve to the toploader using one strip on each side to prevent separation or sliding. I’ve found the stiffness of the toploader is enough to keep the entire package from bending.
  • For more than six cards, I use small bubble mailers, which can be picked up from your local Wal-Mart or Staples for around 70 cents apiece. I’ll use penny sleeves to protect the cards, then sandwich them in between toploaders or sturdy pieces of cardboard. Make sure to securely tape the sleeved cards together so they don’t slip or separate in transit.

Any number of valuable cards

There’s only one way I ship valuable cards like shock lands or planeswalkers: a bubble mailer. As with the previous steps above, use a sleeve and toploader along with a sturdy piece of cardboard to prevent bending. I very much appreciate it when extra care is taken with high-dollar cards, and I’m sure your trading partners will, too.

Addressing your packages

First, the common sense tip: always include your return address and make certain you have a complete address from your trading partner.

Second, I highly recommend putting “PLEASE DO NOT BEND” in bold lettering on any package you send (you can also use a stamp, if you so choose). I’ve seen folks write “Non-machinable” on theirs, which basically tells the postal service not to run the envelope through sorting machines, but I personally feel the “do not bend” serves as a helpful reminder to your local letter carrier, as well.

No one likes creased cards.

No one likes creased cards.

Third, if you’re using a service like PucaTrade, make sure to include the trading number so your partner knows who to confirm when the cards arrive. I’ve been using a small Post-It note with the number stuck to the toploader as well as writing the number on the back of the envelope (such as “PucaTrade #100500”).

A simple Post-It note helps your trading partner know which specific cards arrived, so they can mark them as sent in sites like Deckbox or PucaTrade.

A simple Post-It note helps your trading partner know which specific cards arrived, so they can mark them as sent in sites like Deckbox or PucaTrade.

Last, if you use your own shipping label (see below), I recommend taping it to your package with glossy packing tape so the label doesn’t get smeared or damaged by water or rain.

Shipping costs and delivery confirmation

Your check envelope packages can easily go anywhere in the United States for one stamp. For shipment to Canada, I would recommend international forever stamps. You can use U.S. stamps to send to the Great White North, but it will cost you more than the international stamps. I’ve shipped successfully to Ontario and Nova Scotia with two U.S. stamps, but that’s daring. If you can’t get the international ones, spring for three U.S. stamps to be safe.

For bubble mailers, you’ll need to visit your local post office or print your own shipping labels. By far, the easiest and most painless way is to use PayPal (paypal.com/shipnow). You’ll want to choose “Standard mail” and the “package/thick envelope” option. Unless you’re sending a deck’s worth of cards, you can choose three ounces as your shipping weight. Shipping via PayPal costs around $2 and gives you free USPS delivery confirmation. Tracking information is exceedingly useful for your own peace of mind and to make sure the cards arrive safely with your trading partner. It also becomes invaluable on the rare occasion you need to settle a trade dispute.

My recommended selections for sending a bubble mailer using PayPal's USPS shipping service.

My recommended selections for sending a bubble mailer using PayPal’s USPS shipping service.

Both Deckbox and PucaTrade recommend using delivery confirmation for all trades.

A few additional helpful pointers from fellow traders

  • NEVER ship without a toploader or other stiff piece of material secured to your cards. Sending a card by itself or with only a sleeve is asking for trouble.
  • Blue painter’s or masking tape are good alternatives to Scotch tape for sealing your toploaders, but it’s strongly advised against using stronger or thicker tapes such as clear packing tape. This can be a nightmare to remove from the toploader and can permanently damage the card if it sticks to the seal in transit.
  • Trader @astormbrewing showcased a unique method for sealing toploaders which involves a piece of looped tape at the top of the sleeve to serve as a pull tab versus taping the open end. Another illustrated example of this method, detailed by veteran trader Elliot Scott (@Hackworth), can be found in this tweet. If you want to get around the problems with sealing toploaders altogether, these are superior solutions.
  • If you’re keeping toploaders to send in future trades, remove any excess tape to provide a clean seal and avoid damaging the cards with any residue from older trades.
  • If you’re concerned about theft, you may wish to reconsider writing the reference numbers on the outside of the envelope and include a small note for the trader instead.
  • For high-value trades in excess of $50-100, some traders suggest going the extra mile and buying insurance for the value of the cards you’re trading.
  • A few traders I’ve dealt with love to add “throw-ins”: bonus cards you didn’t ask for, but get as a fun surprise in addition to your trade. These could be foil lands, foil commons, tokens, or even unique playing sleeves. I like to include any associated tokens or emblems with the cards I send, such as a Saproling token for Sporemound.

Resources and materials

Ship it!

I hope this detailed list of trading tips will prove useful to you in your future Magic: the Gathering trades. If you have any of your own suggestions, by all means, feel free to share with folks in the comments below or contact me anytime on Twitter at @brightmatrix.

Happy trading!

About brightmatrix

brightmatrix is a long-time casual gamer. His gaming journey has included Magic: the Gathering, the first, second, and fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons, and the first wave White Wolf games from the late 90s. If you are a denizen of the Twitterverse, you can read his posts on Magic, web development, puns, and other shenanigans at @brightmatrix.