You see them at all major events. They walk around or set up at tables with their binders and backpacks. They have what you want and are always looking. They are the floor traders, a branch of the Magic community that focus on the value of cards and trading them. Sy Johnston is one such trader from the Atlanta area. Sy has been trading for years and travels throughout the South attending Star City Opens and Grand Prix events. He has a reputation of being a fair trader in a pool of trading “sharks,” and is always recommended by others to trade with. I know if I need a card and my friends don’t have it, I hunt down Sy. He has almost anything you need and will make sure you are comfortable with any trade. After a few weeks of back and forth communication, I finally caught up with Sy at Grand Prix Charleston to give you an inside look at one of Magic’s finest floor traders.
How did you get into trading magic cards?
That’s a good story. Back in 1999, when you couldn’t get every single you wanted at the local shops, there was a card I really wanted, I don’t remember what the card was, but I had heard of eBay. I went to eBay, this was back in 1999, and I went on eBay and this rare card that was hard to find, some Legends rare, I found it in a collection. Well I wanted the card bad enough that I bought the whole collection and figured I would dismantle the collection, keep the card I wanted, and sell the rest of the collection back. I accidentally ended up turning a pretty big profit off of that, so I was like wow can I do this again, it was pretty fun. So that’s how it started, surfing eBay, buying collections, splitting the cards up and auction the rest of the singles, and instead of keeping the money, I would buy more collections. Eventually, there was too much competition for that so I branched into other methods of growing my collection.
When did you start playing Magic?
1994. I was a junior in high school, some other kids had Magic cards. Took me forever to learn how to play. I think I was playing Craw Wurm six months after I learned. I remember openings packs, opening dual lands and being angry because I got a land for my rare. I was like, all I’m playing is mono green, why would I want a Taiga? I’m not playing red! I was pretty mad haha.
Did you end up trading those all away?
It didn’t take too long for me to realize, that hey, it’s really kind of a free bonus to get red mana out of it and back in 1994, dual lands were literally $5 – $10 a piece. So maybe a year after I started playing I started playing two and three color decks and before dual lands went up I got one complete player set. 40 dual lands back when they were $10 each.
Nice, still have them?
Yep, never sold them off. I quit Magic like once or twice, never sold those off though.
What would you estimate your collection size at?
I probably have about 100,000 cards.
How has trading changed over the years?
Quite a bit. It has gone from scarcity due to lack of internet access and all these websites, and now, not only are these sites all over the place, there are traders like me who have all sorts of cards and anything you want available. It’s really easy to access now. So you have to really have a competitive edge to stay ahead in this market now.
Would you say the access of prices with smartphones have affected traders a lot?
It’s changed the methods, but it’s changed it in a good way. In the past, people would gain value in trades by lying about the value of the cards. People didn’t have access to a smartphone, and unless they had access to a local Scrye magazine or some other way of looking up the cards, people would lie about cards. Now, everyone knows the value of the cards, so the only way to get ahead, with a smartphone checker is to say ‘Look I’m trading down this card, I expect a premium’ and it’s really opened everyone up to honesty. Now everyone knows what’s going on, but you can gain value as far as everyone is ok with it.
This leads to our next question. There has been a lot of talk lately about shark traders. You seem to get a good amount of referrals from a lot of local players; how did you avoid the reputation for being one of those types of traders?
I have a conscience (laughs). So I always feel really bad if I come out ahead on a trade, or something like that; I would feel bad. So that’s how it’s always gone. Jonathan Medina was my favorite financial article writer back when he wrote for Star City, he started out at Quiet Speculation I think, and he introduced me to value trading. He explained how you tell your trading partner what you’re doing and be open and honest about it and a lot of the times they are ok with it. So I started doing that and everyone was ok with that. And because I have a good conscience, I don’t like to rip people off; so as long as they know everything going on and agree to it then I started getting return customers. I was having people come to me that I never met before and say ‘Hey are you Cy?’ I’d say yes and they’d say ‘Oh my friend told me to trade with you.’ It feels really good and it also shows you that honesty does pay.
What are some basic trading strategies that you would give to people trying to get into the trading field?
Like any other market, it does take money to make money, so in order to offer you got to have a reason why someone would be willing to give you value in a trade. Usually that means a scarce card, a very popular card, or a very expensive card that people are not usually willing to trade down into. For me, as I mentioned earlier, it was the revised dual lands. I had the complete set, plus I acquired more during my eBay period. So when it came to trade the dual lands for stuff that came in Standard, people began to accept that ‘He’s trading down a revised dual land for a bunch of stuff in Standard, I’m OK with giving up some value.’ And that’s how I got started with that.
You are based out of Atlanta. What is the farthest you will usually go for trades?
I am definitely down for anything within 4 hours. For a Grand Prix, I’ll go a little bit further. The furthest I’ve ever gone was Orlando, which was 8 hours for me. And Orlando was a lot of fun.
What are some hot tips for Standard right now that you can give our audience?
With the information coming out so fast, you really have to stay on top of everyone else. It definitely helps to read articles on Star City Games. A lot of people will read those articles and so what you read there, even though you may agree with it or not, that doesn’t matter. What matters is how many other people agree with it. So if people start saying Sphinx’s Revelation is good and it needs to be worth more, and they were saying that when the card was $6 it needed to be worth more, sure enough, a week later, it’s worth $10. Whether or not the card actually turns out to be worth what it is; I think with Sphinx’s Revelation we have seen now that it probably is (ed. note: It’s up to $15 now), what matters now the most is what people are willing to try it. I try not to dip too much into the speculation part because it is a little bit risky and there is enough business to be done in other avenues. Another tip right now is Garruk, Primal Hunter. There are a lot of opinions, not only on the [trading] floor, but on the internet, and this environment which is quite grindy, Bant is a good deck so Garruk, Primal Hunter is a good source of card advantage. Currently only $8, sold out at some websites, so it’s a good buy at $8.
Can you give us an example of a trade or buy that you got in on that has performed well for you?
I have two examples, and it’s also good to show the type on insight you have to have in order to get in good on a speculation target. One of them would be Knight of the Reliquary. He was $5 for quite a while because he just didn’t do enough. Keeping up with the spoilers of Zendikar, as soon as they revealed the fetchlands, I realized this guy can be a 3/3 or a 4/4 pretty easily. So at that point I bought 20 of them at $5 apiece and that turned out pretty good. But my best one would have to be the Innistrad dual lands. As soon as they announced Return to Ravnica as the official set, I knew that guilds would have to come back and people would be forced to play these lands. At that point Isolated Chapel had already hit $10 because of Sorin, but all the other Innistrad duals were between $3 and $5, so I just began to amass them. I ended up with a total of 250 and so yeah, they hit up pretty high. I remember picking up Clifftop Retreats at $2 a piece because that’s all they retailed for. I thought ‘this card can’t possibly go lower, I will pick these up for $2 and sit on them until some red white deck comes out.’
What are some trades or buys that you have lost out on?
So a big loss on that.
Do you still play Magic?
Yes, and I love Modern. Legacy is cool too but Modern right now is definitely my favorite.
Do you think for traders Modern is going to make a big impact, or will Legacy stick around as the major second format?
I think Legacy will stick around for a while. I do think Modern is definitely primed to grow. Ben Bleiweiss settled my fears a little bit on Twitter saying that [Star City] is not dropping Legacy as the day 2 format for the SCG Opens, and they will not replace it with Modern. That was one of my fears. Wizards is definitely intent on forcing Modern to be a format. The people who do play Modern tend to enjoy it; I found that a lot of people who don’t play Modern are afraid that the format is a little too combo oriented, but there are a lot of pillars of the format. I thoroughly enjoy playing it; there are a lot of decisions to be made that can affect the outcome of the game, and I think there is a lot of room to make gains investing in Modern cards. I want to add that I’m not worried about Modern Masters dropping the price of Modern cards because $7 a pack is really high and it’s also a limited print run, so I’m not at all afraid of it.
Do you think Wizards will shy away from Legacy in the next few years and possibly drop Legacy Grand Prixes?
No, I don’t think the official Wizards support for Legacy will change. To be honest, I don’t think their support for Legacy has ever been very strong. It’s really Star City Games who has been the flag bearer for that.
Yeah, they are the ones that drove up the prices of all the Legacy cards. Out of all the websites would you say that Star City has the most control over the prices?
Yes, they definitely have the greatest influence. Not only do they probably have the most subscribers and the most purchases, but I’ve definitely witnessed patterns where websites follow Star City’s pricing.
If you could make trading your full time job, would you?
To be honest, no, I wouldn’t. At that point, it would become work. As it is now its fun, I enjoy growing me collection as a side hobby, and it’s nice knowing it has some value to it. If it became a full-time job, it would feel like work, and if I didn’t have a successful day, I’d feel like I’m failing at my career.
Well, I think that’s it. Thank you again Sy for speaking with us.
Thanks Adam, I appreciate it.