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

Tom Hatfield

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.

Killer Exclusive

You may remember the Killer Exclusive from issue 232 of PC Gamer, when we gave it away for free. It's been my treasured companion since that day, but you have to be merciless in this business. You can't have attachments. You've gotta keep moving forward, like a shark, or a bus with a really contrived time-sensitive bomb on board.

That sale released me from the penny-grabbing of the first few days of the experiment. From then on, I was one of the fat cats. The plan was simple: Watch the new queue for cheap foil cards, preferably worth less than £1, then quickly re-sell them for a 50% markup. That's 50 pence profit a time! I was rich! Which is to say I had around £6, which took me a couple of hours to earn. But it's hard to think about quibbles like "This is actually way less than minimum wage" when you're basking the warm glow of successful capitalism. I'd become obsessed my investments that the tea I'd poured when I sat down had already grown cold. No matter, I didn't deserve it. Tea is for closers .

After buying and selling several TF2 and Left4Dead foils I'd built myself a tidy plot of coins, but the highlight of the endeavour came when grabbed a cheap Half Life 2 booster pack and opened it up to find a foil Alyx Vance, worth a glorious £3. I was hot, I was on a roll. I was a shit King Midas, everything I touched turn to foil. Foil worth at least £1.50. I nearly had enough money for Rogue Legacy, but why should stop there? Why not double down? In retrospect, I think this was how Wall Street Bankers used to think in 2006.

I converted all my money into foils and booster packs, including my prize assets, two Gratuitous Space Battles foils picked up for as little as 60p and 70p and re-listed for £1.50. How could I lose? "This stuff never loses value, invest in foil today!" I thought as I filled out my application for The Apprentice.

Then the cards began to lose value. As more people found cards, they started relentlessly undercutting me in order to try and grab sales. This'll be that 'supply and demand' thing I've heard so much about. Every time I listed an item at a competitive price, a dozen more would rapidly be offered at a few pence cheaper. Cheap enough to drive prices down, but not so cheap that I could make any money from buying and re-selling. I rapidly grew to resent the competition, and with good reason, soon my margins were so small that speculation wasn't making me any money at all.

Of course I didn't admit that to myself. Instead I kept buying and selling cards nonetheless, making only pennies on each sale. The problem was the transaction fee. 15% of every sale is split between Valve and the game developer. This meant that to make money I need to make a big gain with every transaction, something that was becoming harder and harder as the prices fell. Even that lovely Alyx card was losing value faster than I could sell. The price dropped from £3 to £2.50 to £2 before eventually being sold for £1.50. Other cards were dropping in value so fast I ended up selling them at a loss.

Alyx Vance

Then there was there other problem. I still hadn't sold most of my original cards, I was hoarding them, hoping to make a set, despite knowing that they were pointless. I found myself wondering if it was worth crafting them to get more mystery cards, or for xp, or for any reason that would let me hold onto them. I was like a drug dealer sampling his own product. I'd made my fortune (£9) by realising that the cards weren't worth anything to me, and now I was losing it because I kept thinking they were.

The lowest point? A friend asked me to trade cards. He didn't care about the money, he just wanted to make a set. I offered a couple of cheap G-Men and got some pricey Monaco and Company of Heroes cards in return. He made his set, and I took his sweet, valuable cards. What a great trade! That guy probably didn't even know the worth of what he was giving away! Awesome, I totally screwed over my friend!

Oh, wait. I stopped and took a look at myself. Was this really worth it?

I was done. I decided to offload all my cards, every last one. I cut prices hard, undercutting every other seller on the market. "Closing down sale! Everything must go! 20% shame discount!" Slowly those 15p and 16p cards began to add up, resulting in a total far higher than I'd expected. The numbers began to rise: £10, £12. £14. The big break came when the summer sale began and Mystery Cards turned into Summer Getaway cards, nearly doubling in price. They quickly fell back down of course, but not before I offloaded them onto those looking for a quick buy. Soon, it was all gone, and my grand total was £18.46. Not only enough for Rogue Legacy, but nearly enough for two copies, and all it took was a little piece of my soul. Well that and way more time an effort than it would have taken to make the same amount of money any other way. In the end, selling fast and playing recklessly made me the most money. More than enough to pick up a bunch of discounted indie treats in the Summer sale.

If you'd like to know how to make money from Steam Trading Cards without driving yourself insane, check out my How to Make Money from Steam Trading Cards article.

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