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Imagine if you bought your first booster pack of Magic the Gathering only to be told you never even had a chance to pull that cool chase rare (a rare card that sells for a mint in the aftermarket) you wanted or to even get a foil card. You would feel cheated and would want to demand your money back. You might not feel like ever opening packs again. That is the reality for many players who buy single boosters these days, only they have no knowledge of how badly they are being taken advantage of.

As many of you probably know, buying booster packs of Magic the Gathering cards is general not a good way of getting value for money. Wizards of the Coast (WotC) makes a good profit and the aftermarket is able to exist because, overall, the price of a booster will not be the same as the average value of cards in a pack. That’s just the way Magic pricing works. If the average value of a set is more than the MSRP of a booster, then they will be sold for above MSRP, as we saw with the original Modern Masters (it’s basic market economics). So buying boosters always has the caveat that you are most likely not going to get all of your money back, it’s just for fun.

But there are many extra pitfalls involved with buying loose boosters, especially online or from unknown sources. Here is what you need to be wary of:

Repacks

Let’s address the latest packaging controversy first.  This video of a pack of Modern Masters 2015 being opened and re-sealed with ease has been causing quite the stir online lately.

It’s confirmed from multiple sources that these boosters are quite simple and quick to open, search, and reseal packs, with Wizard’s new paper packaging method introduced in this set. These are premium booster packs priced at $10 apiece — not cheap — and have a high variance in the value of each pack, as we discussed in my previous article. With booster boxes costing $240 and above, the only way many consumers can hope to get their hands on sealed product is with individual booster packs. The prevalence of dollar rares makes pack searching all the more miserable; all an unscrupulous dealer has to do is search out and remove the three or four high value cards in each box, which gives you any hope of return on your investment nil.  With easy repacking, one can take everything of worth; they could even buy a bunch of bulk rares and commons from the set and re-insert low value cards in the packs where they found valuable cards, thus being able to sell every single pack at a high profit.  Assume every loose booster of Modern Masters 2015 listed for sale online has the words *REPACK* in big flashing letters next to it, because that is the probable truth.

This issue is coupled with the overall dissatisfaction that basic packaging errors and quality in Modern masters 2015 has brought. Issues such as poor card condition fresh from the booster, misprints, and missing rares and foils makes buying loose packs of Modern Masters 2015 a complete waste of time and money and will likely leave you feeling cheated and suspicious. Buy the set to draft if you are going to buy it at all. Wizards of the Coast has really mishandled this launch in a multitude of ways and I think more than just a short single paragraph statement is needed to calm fears and rebuild community trust.

Traditional booster packs take a lot more effort to repack and are much easier to spot. If you can prove a booster has been re-sealed, then make sure to let others know a dealer is mislabeling their products and being deceptive. As always, a factory sealed booster box is the only cast iron guarantee your packs have not been tampered with.

Box Mapping

This is a practice more Magic players need to be aware of. The contents of a Magic the Gathering Booster Box are not 100% random. To reduce variance and ensure better value, Wizards of the Coast has systems in place that structure what packs go into a box. This helps cut down on a frustrating amount of multiples rares from coming up and also helps more evenly distribute Mythic rare cards — generally 3-4 per box. Imagine getting a box with no Mythics, or a box where you got ten of the same junk rare. The upside is higher for a small number of players but the downside is miserable. You can see the benefits of having more even pack distribution, though. That’s why they do it.

But with this structure comes some opportunity for pattern recognition. Box mapping mainly effects newer sets where a large amount of information about booster-box structure is available online. Bytracking what Rares get opened in which column/row of a box, and with which pack the pattern used by Wizards in production emerges, an algorithm can be produced that attempts to predict what rares will appear when the contents of a box is laid out in a certain order.  This has been turned into software, with a couple of people charging money for apps with the ability to easily map boxes. Wizards of the Coast has been fighting box mapping with extra randomization within a box, making it harder to reliably predict what rare will appear at what location, although WotC has never publicly commented on box mapping concerns.

Box mappers pretend that the excess packs are being used for “casual drafting” but let’s cut the bullshit: the main application for this kind of box mapping based on value is to ensure you are selling junk cards to people.  It’s entirely unethical and if you sell mapped packs then you are a scam artist that is actively working against the Magic community and are eroding trust in the game. At the very least, label your packs as mapped. Box mapping discussions are now banned on most MTG forums and the practice has been shunned by the wider community. With box mapping being under attack from both WotC and the community, the box mappers have been driven underground. But they still claim to have mapped the latest sets of Magic (although the voracity of these claims is not yet known). If you plan to make money from selling Magic cards, then why wouldn’t you map your boxes? We know this facility exists, so I think it is prudent to treat all packs from untrusted sources like they have probably been mapped and are of lower than average value.

This is one of the main reasons you shouldn’t buy loose packs of recent sets, especially anything from Magic 2013 through to the Return to Ravnica block, as software is readily available that can reliably map those sets. There is nothing stopping unscrupulous local game stores, or even larger online stores, from mapping boxes when selling single packs. Bigger online stores are far less likely to, but the temptation is always there. Do not trust loose boosters.

Pack Weighing

Foil cards are heavier than their non-foil counterparts, so packs that contain foils cards are heavier than regular packs — in many cases enough to be measurable. This trick has been known about since Wizards introduced foils. Someone I know personally says that a number of years ago a (thankfully now defunct) local store used to weigh all their loose packs in the hopes of opening particularly valuable foils. This is less reliable than box mapping and is supposedly less jumped on with newer sets. But from what I’m told, with older sets that include foils and a decent set of digital scales, this is a pretty reliable way to pick out packs that contain foils. Foils are no indicator of value and this practice seems like needless penny-pinching to me, but people are still greedy enough to do it. Just another layer of risk in buying loose packs.

Transparent Packaging

In sets dating from before Fallen Empires, booster packs came in a white plastic packaging that was slightly transparent.  If you push a card up against the top of a pack, you could read what the Rare was and even the entire pack by shifting them up one by one. This will crease the wrapper of the booster but it will remain sealed. As older loose boosters have an expected level of wear and tear, it is impossible to know if your pack has been searched. Due to the nature of the aftermarket, some of these are hard to mitigate — even when buying from trusted sources. Even if you are buying from a reputable dealer that you 100% trust, boosters this old will have been through several sets of hands. So you have no guarantees.

Older sets also tend to be very expensive sealed (well except poor old lonely Homelands) and have a very few chase cards of ludicrous value, with the rest being unplayable bulk. With the potential financial losses and high incentive to search packs, I would strongly caution against buying any older loose boosters unless you are comfortable knowing they may well have been searched. As always, a box sealed in wizards-logo wrapping makes it much more likely you are getting unsearched packs and have a fair shot at opening cards worth money.

As always, the solution to all these problems is simple: whenever possible buy a WotC factory sealed product from a reputable dealer when ever you can. Any store that runs Friday Night Magic and holds a Wizards licence is part of the Wizards Play Network and therefore a much better source of MTG products. Supporting your local game store isn’t just good for them; it’s also good for you. Shady store managers do exist, but paying the couple of extra dollars at a store greatly cuts down your risk of falling victim to many of these scams. Simply knowing about these practices makes it less likely you will fall victim to them. The majority of mainstream Magic players don’t know about these risks and that’s why I want to share what I know with as many people as possible.

Don’t buy loose boosters online. Just don’t.

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Josh Bray
Josh has worked in IT for over 15 years. Graduated Broadcasting school in 2012 with a focus on A/V production. Amateur photographer with a passion to make things work... by any means necessary. Editor-in-Chief and do-er of tech things at SuperNerdLand