This week, I bring what looks to be one of the best articles I have had the pleasure to write. At Worlds, I had the opportunity to stay with a legend in the foil foreign floor-trading business, whom I also have the honor of calling a good friend. Jonathan Donovan has been floor-trading for upward of fifteen years, and when it comes to the high-end card market, he’s one of the few I would trust to inform and educate. During these past two weeks, we have been working together both at the major events and at local shops between events, and I was able to see his knowledge at work.
Afterward, I interviewed John, better known on the trade floor as “Donovan.” Given the length of the content and the amount of information I feel our combined knowledge can bring, I will be breaking this into a three-part series. This week will be the interview and some in-depth explanations from me, delving deeper into some of the topics he has covered. Next week, I will talk about a trade partner few have the pleasure of meeting—but those who do will appreciate—the foreign trader.
After that, I will be covering a reader request from last week that also has a lot to do with the foil market: promos. Unfortunately, due to the length and lack of organization I currently have while crammed in a car, I will be excluding any trades from this week’s article. I will make up for that next week, when I will talk about many of my trades from Worlds and even a few purchases I made! So, without further ado, I give you the man, the myth, the legend . . . Donovan!
Ryan: What makes a card worth trading for in foil? What about for a foreign foil?
Donovan: The first thing I look at is if I am playing it in a deck that I am running. Second, is the resale value a profit? If the answer is yes, not only do I want that card in English, I want it to be next-level in Japanese. The cards I look to foreign foil are typically Legacy, Vintage, and Commander staples because they will always hold value.
Ryan: So you stay away from Standard and Modern cards, typically?
Donovan: Standard—for sure. Standard cards, unless they are playable in Legacy or Vintage, drop in value as soon as they rotate. Modern is a different animal; we need time to see if the format has staying power or is Extended Lite with only three months of viability.
[While I do agree that Modern is a waiting game, I feel it is also the perfect opportunity to pick up cards that can be found for very reasonable prices while everyone else sits and waits. This difference of opinion just shows our difference in risk-management. In general, I am willing to take low-risk, high-reward chances, while many high-end traders such as Donovan do not want to risk anything when they have such a deep stock in other Eternal formats.]
Ryan: What about Commander? What impact does this have on your decision-making process?
Donovan: Commander changed a lot. For a long time, casual foils were worthless. Take Doubling Season—an $18 card for a long time, and a $22 foil. Now it’s $25, and the foil is $35, while the Japanese foil has skyrocketed all the way to $80. The format itself has made casual cards in general worth money again. I’m excited to see Azusa and other creatures not only sought after but demanding good foil prices. A great example of the price demand is Jhoira; $3 regular card, $40 English foil, $120 Japanese foil. Prices like that are not only typical, but are becoming the norm for good Commanders.
Ryan: How do you know how to set your card prices for foreign foils? Do you use a Website, or do you come up with a number yourself?
Donovan: I do research on retail websites and eBay. If there is no available price—as is often the case for high-end foils—I’ll consider the English price, the set it’s from, and which format it’s a staple in to determine the price. A card like Umezawa's Jitte only has an English foil price advertised anywhere. A Japanese foil is easily in the $300 range, while the English foil is in the $60 range.
[This is an extremely relevant point that I was going to bring up myself. The general rule is to follow a 2.5× multiplier when dealing with Japanese foils over English foils, but this system is flawed. As you can see with Umezawa's Jitte, that system would leave you at nearly half of the actual value. Instead, for prices such as Jitte, a seasoned trader such as myself or Donovan have other methods of finding such values. With Jitte, I looked at the card most closely comparable: Sword of Fire and Ice. Since we know the value of a recently acquired Sword to be $250, from there, we look at rarity. The sales of Kamigawa block pales in comparison to Mirrodin block, meaning the Jitte would have been opened less. In addition, since people despised the card in Limited formats, it is less likely that the foreign foil equivalent would be opened in the competitive crowd. There may be just as many Japanese foil Jittes out there as SoFIs, but considering the theme-based block, many of them would be in the hands of casual players in other countries driving the price up. Even though Jitte is less expensive than SoFI, the foil is certainly worth a significant amount more.]
Ryan: You seem to pick up mostly Japanese foils based on our conversation so far. Do you stay away from other languages, or do you pick up others as well? If so, how do you determine a price scale for those?
Donovan: Depends on the language. Russian, German, and Chinese foils many times have value over English, especially when talking Eternal-format staples. Russian is very close to Japanese in price strictly on availability. However, this is almost exclusively in Vintage; the number of collectors looking for Russian are negligible compared to collectors in Japanese, so the demand is less and therefore they are harder to move. German prices are usually 75% of Japanese depending on the card, mostly due again to availability, and I find more people wanting German than Russian. As for Chinese—well, a friend of mine recently said that Chinese foils were worth less than English. Though this may be true of some of Standard cards, for the most part, this is just plain not the case. Chinese at one time was the preferred language, until Japanese took over, and that was the direction Vintage players went, bringing Legacy along for the ride. Vendilion Clique, for example, is a $90 English foil, $150 Chinese foil, $175 German, $200 Russian, and $250 Japanese.
[I’m glad Donovan mentioned the point about Chinese foils. Many people look at the fact that Chinese cards are more widely available than any other foreign card and, in turn, assume the foils will follow suit. This assumption, as Donovan pointed out, is a fallacy. Though this is true of most Standard cards, we can see that cards like the abovementioned Vendilion Clique and other Eternal-format staples defy this blanket assumption. Knowing what cards are safe to pick up and what to stray away from is one of the things that separate the real old-school traders from the new-blood traders. It just takes time and trials on the floor to learn the more complicated aspects of this game, so don’t be deterred.]
Ryan: What made you want to get into dealing with foreign cards in general?
Donovan: I deal a lot with Japanese dealers, and often obtain cards at prices well below their value here in the U.S. With a profit margin, I am able to pick up a lot of tournament staples to return to those dealers and pick up more. For example, this weekend, I picked up a Japanese Capture of Jzing Jhou for $80 and have it sold for $185 back home.
[I personally got into the market to broaden the traders I can successfully provide cards for. It is also nice to be involved in a market in which you cannot just whip out an iPhone and check a retail site; as with anything, the floor-trading community must evolve to survive. In addition, I enjoy the company of those who provide the foils from overseas. That aspect of the trade floor is something few have the opportunity to experience; it is a totally different world that I will delve into next week.]
Ryan: What are the advantages you have found?
Donovan: How excited people get over the cards. When you help that Commander player get one of the pieces for his deck, he is usually super-excited to pick it up, and more often than not is willing to pay you well for it. The other bonus is that a lot of times, there are no set prices, so you can get whatever people are willing to pay.
Ryan: What are the disadvantages?
Donovan: Sometimes, even the staples will sit in your binder until you find the right buyer. This means you have to be prepared to invest in trading for foreign foils. However, in the long run, the profits far outweigh the investment time.
[This is an extremely relevant point that I have stressed to people who have been looking to break into the market in the past. You have to have a large-enough stock to be able to move enough cards during each weekend that you can, and, in turn, afford to pick up more to cover your overhead. If you start off with just a few high-dollar cards, you will likely find yourself in a situation that ends with them collecting dust in your binder.]
Ryan: Who would you consider the biggest names in foreign foils? If someone is looking for a particularly hard-to-find card, who should he go to?
Donovan: Well, I would say Tomoharu Saito, Nick Coss, Morgan Chang, Masaki Kinoke, and I will more often than not have what people are looking for.
[As a regular floor trader, I have met and interacted with many of the abovementioned traders and, I can say Donovan is spot-on. If you run into any of these gentlemen, it is likely that they can provide you with what you seek. I will regularly conduct trades with at least two to three of them at any major event I attend, and although I have not had the pleasure of meeting Nick Coss, I look forward to our future acquaintance. As with any like-minded group, the members of the high-end trade community are a tight-knit crew who will regularly help each other on the trade floor, perhaps trading multiple times over the course of the weekend to stock each other. I am honored to consider a large portion of this list my friends, and I feel humbled when I see the wares their binders contain.]
Ryan: Have you ever had a negative experience with foreign foils? What can the readership learn from that experience?
Donovan: Yes. I invested at one time in Standard foreign foils. I had most of Jund in Japanese foil, and while some of the cards are still worth money, a lot of them lost value, and the valuable ones are a hard sell. This is why I stick to Eternal-format foils, as their prices rarely decrease in value. [Shakes finger.] So, stay away from Standard foils.
[This is an extremely accurate statement that I encourage people to follow, for the most part. The only exception I can make is to look into Standard when a set first releases for Commander and Legacy bombs yet undiscovered. Cards such as Caged Sun and Parallel Lives are all but bulk in Standard, but when you look at similar cards from the past, such as Gauntlet and Doubling Season, you can almost predict the price trend of the foreign foils to the dollar over the coming years.]
Ryan: What is the “pimpest” card or cards in your foreign foil collection?
[Though my collection pales in comparison, I am very pleased with my acquisition this past week. I picked up a playset of Japanese foil Phantasmal Images from Saito that, in all honesty, is one of my favorite cards printed in recent years, and I feel it has only room to grow.]
Ryan: What have you done to shape the foreign foil market personally?
Donovan: In Chicago Land, I started the trend of Japanese foil Commander. Before me, people were content just having a deck built. After I started the pimp in Commander, everyone followed, and suddenly the demand in Chicago became high. This meant many of our players were buying off eBay and other sites, driving the demand and prices for what we now consider Commander staples.
[This is a common trend among floor traders who deal in these types of goods. The local market can only resist for so long before they catch the pimp bug. In my area, I am the one known for having a sick slew of new cards whenever I come home from a GP or PT, which I turn back into lower-end cards to repeat the process during the next event.]
Ryan: Any suggestions to those readers who may be looking to dip their toes in the water of what can seem like a merciless shark tank?
- Don’t be afraid of us. Just become informed and research before you start investing in this lucrative market. The prices may seem high, but they match the demand, so if you learn the trends, you can join in and make that profit that those of us in the market do.
- Stay away from Standard foreign foils. If you only play Standard, stick to English foils only; even then, remember, at most you get two years out of a foil that’s going to rotate—with, more often than not, no use outside the format.
- Look for staples you can find for a deal, because those are the easiest to move for the right price.
- Last but not least, if you have questions for me personally, please feel free to e-mail me at GoblinGames79@gmail.com
Ryan: Well, thank you for your time, Donovan. It is greatly appreciated by both me and my readership.
Donovan: Ryan, thanks for the interview. I hope my information can help your readers. I’d like more people in the pimp industry to trade with! And, if I may, shout-out to Ocean, Tyler, and Franco!
Well, that’s all I have for this week’s edition of Box to Extended. Check out next week’s article, when I discuss the process of acquiring foreign foils from foreign traders. In addition, I will be displaying some of this week’s information at work, as I show some of the trades from Worlds and what you can learn from them. I’d like to again thank Jonathan Donovan for lending us his knowledge of the foreign foil market. I had a great week, with some of the best people I have had the chance to room with. Below is a picture at the end of the weekend with me and my roommates and Saito and his best friend Genta. I could not ask for a better group to travel or interact with, and I hope everyone interested in this market has the same pleasure someday.
Keep your decks pimp and keep your margins high!
Top, L to R: Morgan “Bags” Chang, Genta Hagiwara. Middle, L to R: Jeph “Rummy” Foster, Ryan Bushard, Tomoharu Saito, Aaron “The Godslayer” Sulla. Bottom: Jonathan “The Don” Donovan