What growing up with Magic taught me about business and life
This is a very personal story — but I think you’ll find moments you can relate to! Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals. Thanks for reading. — JM
I never went to business school, but I was always surrounded by business one way or another. My parents owned a string of small businesses, including a couple of restaurants and a video store. There were good times and times when we struggled…
I learned pretty quickly that trends don’t last, that you have to adapt and always keep an eye out for opportunities, sometimes you’ll win and sometimes you’ll lose. We thought we were flying high with the video store until Blockbuster came to town. Then Netflix happened. You just never know. All you can do is work hard and stay vigilant, and not take failures too personally.
I thought I was going to own a small business when I grew up, because that’s what I knew. I spent my formative years at the video store rewinding VHS tapes, then graduated to my version of a lemonade stand, selling booster packs of Magic cards on the schoolyard. I thought I was pretty smart, but the game had a lot to teach me about business and life.
In the beginning...
I started playing Magic in middle school, 25 years ago. I was in 8th grade, worked at Baskin Robbins part time, and had a friend named John. One day John brought some cards to school — a Revised starter deck along with some cards from Antiquities. He had two decks, mainly red and green, and we played a game of Magic at school.
I thought it was fun, and that both the game and John were really cool. (In reality, both of us were wildly uncool.) I also thought the art was really neat. Some of my favorites at the time were Kird Ape and Keldon Warlord.
I would hang out at the Northgate Mall that summer of ‘94 and saw a bunch of people playing Magic in the food court. There was a game store at the mall that had recently opened up called the Game Gallery of Carmel.
That’s where I plopped down $7.95 for my first starter deck. I still remember the very first rare I opened, a Granite Gargoyle. From there, I got hooked.
Lesson 1: Know your numbers
I started playing at the mall and would trade with the other kids. In retrospect, I got ripped off by the big kids really, really badly. Back then there wasn’t any way outside of The Duelist or Scrye Magazine to know the value of the cards. It’s not like we had an iPhone to scan our cards. There was an asymmetry of information, and the big kids knew it.
I remember getting bullied into trading eight Revised dual lands, a Shivan Dragon and more, for Desert Nomads from Arabian Nights. Despite being a common card from Arabian Nights, the Desert Nomads were out-of-print (and my cards weren’t), so I thought it was a fair trade at the time.
Of course, once I had the card, I’d want to know exactly how much it was worth. So I’d go home after a trade and look it up in my price guides, and often learned how badly I got burned. I never thought to study the guides or bring them with me to the mall.
Instead, the more someone didn’t want to give something up, the more I wanted it because I thought it was worth more to them. “If they really want it,” I thought, “it must be valuable”. And I’d offer them all sorts of things for it, without really thinking about what I was giving up or what it was really worth.
I wasn’t thinking about the finance portion, I was thinking about what I wanted. And I made stupid decisions as a result. On the bright side, it only took a few stupid decisions to hammer home the importance of coming to the deal prepared.
Legends came out that summer...
It was my first encounter with the idea of scarcity in a marketplace. My local store had one box, and it had only 36 packs. There were a lot of people who wanted to buy the whole box, including me. It’s like buying a lottery ticket. The mystery of opening cards is an amazing feeling.
But there was a one-pack-per-person limit, and besides it’s not like I had a ton of money. I was making $4.50 an hour at Baskin Robbins. Even when the bus fare jumped from $1 to $1.25 it was a huge deal because I needed those quarters for the arcade and my mom wouldn’t give me any pocket money. I didn’t even know what an allowance was.
So I bought one pack and I opened a Marhault Elsdragon (which is a terrible card). But I thought my card was special. I didn’t understand the deeper dynamics and strategy and what made a card good until much later. My 14-year-old mind was just thinking about big stompy creatures and kicking butt.
It kind of snowballed from there. My friend Edgar also got into the game. He’d gotten a sudden windfall and we’d go out and spend like crazy on cards and video games. We’d spend a lot of time together and play, stay up late, and became close friends.
Lesson 2: You need hustle, timing, and a good product
At that point my mom seemed to understand more and more the value of Magic. She saw when she picked me up from the mall that there were a lot of people doing it. And it cost the same as a video rental but took up a whole lot less space. We saw how popular Legends was. After that came The Dark; that’s when my mom started ordering cards for her store.
Meanwhile, all the neighborhood kids would walk or bike to our local card shop, Just Collectibles, and buy packs there after school. But what if I could just bring the product to them at school?
For the first time in my life, I became both the customer and the business. I started selling The Dark packs at school, and the kids loved them. I used to carry the whole box in my backpack, but it got really heavy. So I learned just to carry whatever loose packs I thought I could sell that day -- like stocking inventory and projecting sales.
Once The Dark went out of print, we all thought the next one would be hot. It was called Fallen Empires. My mom doubled down and ordered 10 cases. We also bought Revised starters and boosters, and those were selling fine. But the new stuff is what the kids on the schoolyard wanted, and the packs were only $1.50 vs. $3 so they were easier for a middle school kid to buy. Or so we thought.
After the first few boxes, Fallen Empires wasn’t moving. My mom cut her order from 10 cases to three and some ended up not selling at all. The people who loved the game still played it but the cards was just so overprinted.
At the time, I didn’t understand the concept of overprinting or supply vs. demand. I just knew there were almost no cards in the set that I wanted to play with. There were very few interesting or powerful cards. I didn’t even want the thing I was trying to sell.
And I was worried the fad was over. All the hustle in the world was near useless without proper timing and a great product to sell.
Lesson 3: Hacking the system
I used to call stores that would advertise in The Duelist and Scrye Magazine to see if they had certain cards and how much they were selling for. I would just call them on a daily basis even though I didn’t have the money to buy anything. I’m not sure why, except that it would make me feel closer to the cards somehow.
That was my first exposure to life outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, where I grew up. Stores were commonly not on the coasts; the middle of the country really likes this game. The problem was, all these stores were in far flung places like Oklahoma and Minnesota. New York felt like a world away. I wracked up hundreds of dollars in long distance fees (remember, this was in the pre-cell phone ‘90s). My mom was not happy!
After that, I learned to call people on the pay phone. I’d call 411 and ask them for the phone number of a certain store. “Found it, do you want me to connect you?” And they’d connect me and I’d get a free call.
That’s how I fed my addiction for a while, until I could save enough money to upgrade my collection, and my long distance plan.
Lesson 4: The one thing you can’t fix or replace
I eventually saved up a good amount and met someone who was selling his collection. I looked at it in the parking lot of the Corte Madera Town Center, and was like, “Oh my god, I waaant iiiitttt.” He was asking $1,600-1,800, so we started haggling and knocked it down a couple hundred bucks.
But he kept two cards: a Beta Black Lotus and an Alpha Black Lotus. (Little did I know how much an Alpha Black Lotus would be worth today! Or that I’d get another chance years later, in a way I never imagined.) But I got an Unlimited Black Lotus and the rest of the Power Nine. Most people didn’t have all this stuff, so I’d show them off.
One day, a lot of my cards got stolen and I came to find out it was someone I knew — my buddy Edgar. He was hard up for money after blowing through his windfall.
I was at Edgar’s apartment showing him all my cards, and then he came over and we were playing Magic all day. Somewhere in between I realized my binder was missing, and I didn’t know who took it. I suspected my friend but you never want to think your best friend robbed you.
My other friend who was an employee at a local game store noticed Edgar was coming in with a collection to sell. So the store bought them. And Edgar suddenly had a bunch of money.
I brought it up and he denied it. It was weird because I couldn’t prove it; what else could I do?
After that, things were different. We still played together but it was never the same. It changed the relationship. Even if he didn’t do it, I could never really trust him again.
I learned that showing off makes you a target. But most of all, I learned how quickly trust can be broken.
Lesson 5: Sh!t happens (sometimes all at once)
Still, I went and earned some more money working at my family’s restaurant and at The Gap through high school and junior college. I acquired someone’s collection for $3,000, and also some other cool stuff along the way to build my deck. It was a really sweet five-color control deck that everyone hated playing. I felt at the top of my game.
My friends would get together on Friday nights to draft at our local game store, and I would always join them after work. Sometimes on Thursday nights we’d go to Little Caesar’s Pizza because we had a friend who worked there. They had an all-you-can-eat salad bar, and allowed us to play there all night. I kept my cards in my car, so I’d always be ready for a game.
Unfortunately, right in the middle of finals week, my car got pinched along with all the stuff in it. It was so brutal getting wiped out of nearly my entire net worth. I was 21, making $10 per hour at The Gap. I thought it was the biggest loss I’d ever experience. I was so bruised from the car getting stolen, that I just stopped playing for many years after that. And I never did get back into collecting. Sometimes, when you get knocked off the mountaintop, you don’t want to climb back up.
Epilogue / Lesson 6: It’s okay to start over
I know, I kind of left you on a downer. At the time I felt like the things I lost were a part of me, and when I lost them I lost that piece of myself. But that wasn’t entirely true. I still had my MBA — my Magic Business Acumen.
My life was also about to change a lot because I was moving to San Diego. Everything was changing — new car, new city, new school, new jobs, new friends, new everything. It was a purely fresh slate. So I thought, screw everything, I’m just going to throw caution to the wind and say yes to everything.
So it was more of a new beginning than an end. True, I got burned a lot, but I also learned a ton and still love the game. I started playing Magic again a few years later. And I realized, your MBA comes with continuing education. Just as the game grows and evolves, so do I. That’s just life.