What Should I Break: A Beginner’s Guide
by RGM81 aka Richard McAdam
When it comes to spending our hobby dollars, there is no shortage of options available to hockey card collectors. In a market with nearly 30 products released each season, a person can easily be seduced into abandoning any sense of budgetary restraint in order to bust some wax. The manufacturers astutely cater to every possible demographic, creating a wide array of products that start for as little as a dollar per pack all the way up to $400 for a tin of The Cup or Dominion. There is something out there for every budget, and this is carried over into the manner in which cards are distributed. Collectors can go big and purchase an entire case of a product, they can settle with a couple boxes, or they can just grab a few packs and hope to beat the odds. Of course, there is also the secondary market, which allows collectors to simply purchase the individual cards they want after others have broken the product in greater quantity. As a collector, which method delivers the best value for your hobby dollars?
The answer, of course, varies by the collector. Each of us has a diverse set of interests and goals when it comes to our participation in the hobby, and as a consequence there is no single correct answer to the question. Where you sit depends on where you stand. The type of collector you are will go a long way in helping to determine that answer to that ever-present question: what should I break?
If you are the type of hobbyist that does not really have a specific team or player to collect, case-breaking is probably the best option for you. If you’ve got the necessary funds available to pick up a case, you will end up with a wide array of new traders and possibly even get inspired to start up a new player or team collection. If you are a set collector, a case will go a long way in helping you to complete your large-scale project. If you are the type that loves the thrill of cracking large amounts of wax in the hope of hitting “the big one,” that one card or handful of cards that will make your money back in one fell swoop, this option certainly gives you the best chance to do just that.
Say you decide to get yourself a case of Upper Deck Series 1. At 12 boxes per case, and 6 Young Guns Rookie Cards per box, you could end up with a full set plus extras of one of the most enduring rookie sets out there. Upper Deck tends to load up Series 1 with most of the best new players in the NHL, including the first round draft picks and popular holdovers from the previous season. If you break the product right upon its release, you can expect to get back roughly the cost of a single box for “the” YG of the year. Consider also the case hit autographs of a highly popular player like Sidney Crosby, hitting a High Gloss/Exclusives Spectrum #’d /10 of a YG or collectable player, and you’ve got a lot of value at the case-break level. With the 72 rookie cards at your disposal, you will have no shortage of trades & sales to make to other set, player, and team collectors.
There are other perks to breaking open a case of a product, particularly if you collect a certain team or player. With that much wax to break it is very likely that you will pull some good cards to add to your PC. This is not a guarantee, of course, as sometimes cases have funny collation that will see numerous hits of a particular team and not much beyond the base cards and inserts for others. If it’s a specially-tailored product, like Upper Deck’s Montreal Canadiens Centennial set, every card is a potential PC item if you are a Canadiens fan. Even if you are not, you know that you will have a guaranteed market for every parallel, jersey, and autograph in the set. In short, if you want to get a large amount of inventory to move or to keep in a day, a case is the best option for you.
Breaking boxes is a pretty standard approach for many collectors. We all have budgets to adhere to, and the idea of spending upwards of a thousand dollars on hockey cards may not necessarily be possible. If you like variety, you can always buy a box of Product A, a couple of Product B, and one of Product C. If you just want to test out a product and get a feel for what hits it can deliver, a box is a good way to dip your toes into the water before possibly committing to a case. Box breaks are the lifeblood of the hobby, and are also a lot of fun to watch unfold on a YouTube video or live break on a trading forum.
Depending on how high-end you want to go, a single box of cards can range anywhere from $30 (Victory or Score) to $180 (SP Game Used, Luxury Suite) and of course higher for the premium products. This is a reasonable level of investment, and comes with a lower risk-reward prospect than breaking open a case. Most products will “guarantee” a certain amount of hits per box, and the occasional one will even have a “hot box” containing a higher number of rookies or special unique parallels. If luck is on your side, you can pull the lucky box out of the case and end up with some cool cards to trade. If your luck isn’t as strong, however, you can end up with a box that is very disappointing, whether it’s due to having a weak batch of rookies and inserts, or even more frustratingly, being shorted a hit or two. Your chances of hitting a PC card also decrease relative to that of breaking open a case. If you only collect a specific player, and you break a product like Panini Limited, the likelihood of pulling out a nice card of that player is pretty small.
Busting open a box of cards is the solid middle ground for most collectors. If not a hobby box, you can even pick up a couple of blaster boxes off a retail shelf. Blasters are a great alternative, especially those that guarantee a certain number of hits. An UD Series 1 or 2 blaster will get you two YG’s at a fraction of the cost of a hobby box, and Certified can net you a 1/1 or a short-printed RC just the same as a hobby box. If you break the box open with your wife/husband or just a friend, it’s a great way to spend a few minutes of quality time.
Pack-buying is the least expensive method of buying wax. You can sample just a few packs of a number of products and hope that luck is on your side for the same price as putting all your eggs into one basket. This is a great method for new collectors and those on a tight budget to get themselves acquainted with a number of releases. They may find that they like a particular card set more than others, and then decide to pick up a box. Unfortunately, due to the unscrupulous practices of a few in the hobby, or just plain old bad luck, buying packs can also be a very frustrating experience.
Due to some people’s good fortunes over the years, there is something of an unwritten rule in the hobby: never leave just a couple of packs behind out of a box. I myself have hit some nice cards when buying the last 2-3 packs in a box. There is no better feeling than dropping a five-dollar bill to get the last pack in a box and coming out of it with a $100 card. This all depends on good practices of a shop owner or retail outlet; there are those who search packs and leave only all-base hits behind, taking with them the rookies or autographs & memorabilia cards. How many of us have seen a 40-year old at Wal-Mart thumbing loose packs to check for jersey cards? It is a sad reality. There’s also the bad luck some people just have – they can buy 3-4 packs each of 3-4 product, and end up with 10 all-base packs and only one hit for the experience. Sometimes lady luck is on our side, sometimes she is not.
Picking up packs is a fun & cheap way to build up some traders, or if you’re building a base card set it’s a great way to continue to add those cards you need. It’s a lot like old-time collecting from our childhood, when the idea of buying a whole box never really entered our minds. Your odds of hitting a great card are a bit longer, but when you do it is an all the more exhilarating experience.
Picking Up Singles
Acquiring singles via trading sites like SCF or large marketplaces such as eBay puts the greatest level of control in the collector’s hands. If you are risk-averse or just do not care for spending money on cards that you probably will not want, sticking to singles is easily the best way to go. With the increasing prevalence of online trading, it is easier than ever to scour the hobby to find cards for your collections. That card that you may have searched for weeks or months when you were younger can now be found with a couple clicks of a mouse. Singles are cheap, easy to find, and as previously noted, you know exactly what you are getting.
If you have been collecting for a while, you have probably made a decision as to what you want to focus on adding to your PC box. You have a favourite team, you have a couple of favourite players – you want to get cards of them and not have to deal with the added expense and hassle of breaking a box or a case, only to have to find new homes for all of them. It really doesn’t matter if you collect the most popular player in the hobby or a fringe guy, pulling a specific need out of a box is a major longshot and not something you should expect going in to the break. Say you have a monthly budget of $100 for your card buying – you can get a dud box of stuff that you’ll be lucky to get $20 worth in return, or you can go out and get $100 worth of cards that you know you want. That may only be 1-2 cards or it could be up to 10 cards depending on the market for your player/team that month.
Buying singles puts the collector in the driver’s seat. There’s no guess-work involved – you know exactly what you are getting. Sure it doesn’t have the thrill of cracking open a box, but you don’t need to worry about coming away empty-handed from the experience. For a player collector this is the most efficient way to build up a collection. If you are a set builder, you will inevitably transition to buying singles once the set gets close to being complete, as the likelihood of pulling that one or two cards you need for the set drops dramatically after a while.
As I said in the introduction to this piece, there is no right or wrong way to build up your inventory of cards. If I want to buy a case of cards, I am going to do it. If I just want to get a box, that is perfectly acceptable too. We all have our individual preferences and the manner in which we participate in the hobby will often dictate what we want to do with those hobby dollars. As long as we are enjoying whatever we do, whether it’s opening that 3rd case of SP Authentic or buying that elusive single on eBay, that’s all that matters.
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