Card shark: One man's quest to turn a profit from Steam card trading

Tom Hatfield at

Like many, I rolled my eyes at the concept of Steam Trading Cards. "Worthless pictures of games being sold for real money? Why bother?" But immediately after my disdain came a second, more treacherous thought: "Can I make any money out of this?" The idea was tempting. Cards are relatively easy to find, so all I needed to do was not care about actually making any badges and I could make a killing, or at least a modest maiming. So I set myself a target: Could I, an economic dunce, make enough money from trading cards to buy myself a copy of the sweet roguelike, Rogue Legacy (£12 / $15 base price on Steam)? I grabbed a brick phone, yuppied up and got to work.

My starting plan was beautiful in its simplicity - I would do basically nothing. The simplest way to get cards is just to boot up as many card capable games as possible and then wait. Eventually all this hard un-work would net me a steady drip feed of incoming cards. I was successfully monetising my own laziness, one of the most powerful forces on the planet. Truly I was unstoppable.

My reward was a thick stack of trading cards. Some, like Team Fortress 2, were worth only 15p, but smaller, less popular games are worth far, far more. The star of my early haul was a Redhead from Monaco, worth an impressive 65p. 65p! You could buy a whole can of Coke for that! I decided to put a few of my duplicates on the market while I waited to see if there's any point to making a set. That's when I noticed something interesting: When you're selling a card, it brings up a graph charting how much that card has sold for over time. I used this to make sure all my products were reasonably priced. Some people on the other hand, seemed to charge whatever random amount came into their head. After a couple of minutes on the market I'd seen cheap Left 4 Dead Hunters offered for £6 (extortionate!) and pricey Gun Monkeys cards on sale for just a few pence. These people didn't have a clue how much their cards were worth. I was going to take them to the cleaners.

So I started refreshing the 'Newly Listed' page and watching for good deals. The market fluctuated wildly. The rapid buy/sell decisions formed into Stock Exchange patter in my mind. "The price of Magicka cards is dropping! Sell! Sell! Sell! Transfer your money to Portal 2 now!" Sure most of the best deals were already snagged by those with faster fingers and lower latency, but I managed to grab a few bargains: A Scout for 12p, an Engineer for 11p, all quickly bought and and re-sold for 16p or more. "Five pence profits for ten minutes work!" I thought. "I am the best at business!" Okay. Perhaps not, but these small gains felt strangely satisfying.

Somewhere in the middle of all the frenzied swapping I managed to collect a full set of TF2 cards. Once you've collected all the cards available for a single game, you can sacrifice them all and merge them into a badge. All fired up, I decided to see what this badge crafting was about.

Card Loot

That's it? A background for a profile no-one ever looks at and a sticky bomb emoticon? How often is that going to come up in a conversation that isn't going to set off alarms at the NSA HQ? Those aren't even worth as much as one trading card, never mind the nine I spent get them. The only plus point is the Dead Island Card, which was still a Mystery Card at the time. All I knew was that it was worth 60p, and it's true purpose would be revealed later. So I decided to keep hold of it, in the hopes that its value would rise later. Investing in Card Futures, if you will.

There was one other reward for sacrificing £1.50 to the Steam gods: 100xp, which upped my Steam level from eight to nine. A rapid Google search told me that hitting level 10 would net me a higher chance to get find cards, but that going any higher than that wasn't really worth it (if you want to know why, check my How to Make Money from Steam Trading Cards article). So how could I make it to the next level without giving up any of my precious cards? The answer came in the "Community Ambassador" achievement, which offered up a meaty 200xp for things like posting screenshots and commenting on people's statuses. Free xp, mine for the taking, all it required was for me to admit my embarrassing obsession with cards. But then I discovered you can meet all the requirements of the community milestone, delete them immediately afterwards and still receive the xp. Perfect. Bonus experience, and I didn't have to bother my friends.

Arbitrary number increase secure, I got back to business. I still wasn't a millionaire (ie: a person with £12 in their Steam wallet). Clearly if I wanted to climb out of poverty (ie: a state of having less than £12 in your Steam wallet), I'd need to play at the big money table, and that meant investing in foil. Foils are special cards that are more valuable than regular ones, and by 'special' I mean they have a grey border and the words '(foil)' on the description, that's it. For some reason this means people will pay ten times the price. Obviously I needed to buy some. But to do this, I'd need some more capital, and that meant sacrificing an old friend.