Jul 21, 2016223 views

The journey of an aspiring Economagician

I remember it very clearly. I bought a starter deck of Magic:The Gathering, Revised Edition from Dufferin Games for $9.99,in June 1994. These were the days when the starter deck came with cards in a very specific order and an instruction manual that walked you through a "fictitious game" of MTG where you could pretend you were playing the cards in a specific sequence to beat your imaginary opponent. I remember not interpreting the instructions completely correctly, so that the first few games I played against my friends, we executed our turns simultaneously instead of sequentially; as if it made perfect sense that two players on a chess board would move their pieces at the same time instead of one at a time. I remember trading a Tundra for a Basalt Monolith, because "an artifact must be worth more than a land."
I entered the world of Magic The Gathering at a very young age and I strongly believe it changed my way of thinking forever. It provided a foundation for my fundamental understanding of strategy, synergy, efficiency, economics, game theory, trading, entrepreneurship, teaching, and countless other attributes I can't even imagine. Less obvious nostalgia from my MTG obsession would include some of my fondest memories where my parents would drive me to the local game store to buy booster packs, or some random social hall two cities over so I could enter into their local tournament.
After going down the rabbit hole of MTG, I started learning about the relative value (and strengths) of cards, this is back in the day when there was only one game format, "everything". I would regularly play against decks where opponents with "the power 9" would destroy my prized Shivan Dragon or Serra Angel. I quickly learned that "I joined the Magic The Gathering community 6 months too late", and that all the unlimited-edition cards that had recently gone "out of print" were significantly more powerful than the meek revised-edition cards that I was using. Being young with very limited funds, I saved my money and traded cards smartly, slowly building a collection that included prized possessions like Candelabra of Tawnos, Library of Alexandria, Mana Drain, Berserk, Ball Lightning, and a few other moderately valued cards. I sat in my bedroom, shuffling my deck, drawing and playing "imaginary" games to understand optimal land distributions, mana curves, removal, spell, and creature tempo. I purchased and read Scrye (the price list) religiously, cover-to-cover, tracking the value of my collection like blue-chip stocks, hoping my investments would pay off, either financially or on the playmat. (Come to think of it, Playmats didn't even exist back then...)
I remember not having enough friends to play with, so I selfishly (or selflessly?) brought my friends to card stores and helped them spend their allowances on cards, taught them how to play, and then traded my cards with them...being the only one with a copy of Scrye was a big advantage. I remember convincing a friend to purchase a Mox Pearl (around $125 at the time) from a store, and 2 weeks later- after 3 hours of trade negotiations, low and behold I was the proud owner of a Mox pearl.
Through a confluence of events, I ended up moving on from my MTG hobby sometime around Homelands/Mirage. As a teenage kid, I was very proud of myself when I discovered I could sell my cards on this thing called the "Internet" using auction sites. I mailed my cards to a 3rd party site in top-loaders, who would grade and list the cards, sell them for me, and then mail me a money order for the proceeds (less their 10% cut).
My parents were shocked when I showed them a money order for $2500, the results of 3 years of my obsession; and were utterly confounded by the fact that these obscure pieces of cardboard used to conjure spells were worth a significant sum, versus the worthless sports-related cardboard that reflected baseball and hockey players that were household names.
With $2500 in my pocket and a taste for buying and selling things, what's a teenage kid supposed to do? Naturally, start playing the stock market! I took my 'earnings' from selling my MTG collection and opened an E-Trade account. I remember the first two stocks that I bought, ATI Technologies (now part of AMD) and BEBE Stores (yes, the women's fashion outlet- I read somewhere about diversification being important!). Watching the prices change every day was just like getting the latest monthly edition of Scrye, except these updates came every day! Over the next 6 months I had a life changing experience. The $2500 tuition taught me that getting a good deal trading MTG cards with your friends is much easier than trading on the stock market. But why?
This question led to my singular obsession in the stock market and ultimately my lifelong career path. During my studies of Finance and Economics, I learned about Information Asymmetry, Market Efficiency, Asset Pricing/Valuation, Negotiation (Trading), Liquidity, Market Microstructure, and tons of other terms. As I was learning it, I could quickly relate the concepts back to my earlier experiences with MTG, and understand the relative advantages or disadvantages. i.e. When trading with my friends in my basement, "I was participating in a decentralized market and I possessed superior information about the values of the assets". Had internet trading been around, or if anyone else owned a copy of Scrye, or other people competed with me to make better deals, I would have had considerably less "alpha".
These days, I'm fortunate in that my job allows me to study and teach about those very same topics that I've spent my whole life immersed in. I often wonder whether it was my predisposition towards economics and trading that led to my interest in MTG, or if it was MTG that led me to an interest in economics and trading. Regardless, I'm grateful for my time playing MTG and believe it has significantly contributed to the person I am today. It's also significantly contributed to the success of Massdrop as a company, but that's another story for another day.
Kevin Mak is an Advisor to Massdrop and teaches at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
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Prhines, Kaz, and 8 others
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What a great story! I remind my wife all of the time of the skills that I honed playing D&D as a kid, and why gaming is important. I can do math in my head, navigate with a map (and with great spatial memory) negotiate, orate, and facilitate better because of it. I have the vocabulary of an English major. I am a better Soldier, Leader and attorney because I spent those hours in imaginary worlds, cooperating with real people to solve fake problems.
G-Deuce
Reminds me of something I wrote for a leadership class a while back "How I motivated a group of 40 people to kill Internet Dragons" :)
"I remember convincing a friend to purchase a Mox Pearl (around $125 at the time) from a store, and 2 weeks later- after 3 hours of trade negotiations, low and behold I was the proud owner of a Mox pearl."
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