Jim Osborne recently wrote a great post about set collecting, with a focus on building vintage sets. For newer products, acquiring a base set, which I’ll define as not including shortprints or inserts, is not all that difficult. If you want a 2019 Topps set without any bells and whistles, they are relatively easy to find.
I have dabbled in master set building since about 2000. I think the first one I tried to complete was 2000 Skybox Dominion. Why that product? The card shop kept getting boxes and they were not that expensive. The inserts were interesting to me. There are some rare inserts like the Eye on October Warp Tek cards numbered to the player’s uniform number – those are white whales. There are two Jeters – I’ve never seen either of them, yet I’ve seen all three A-Rods for sale at some point in time.
Defining “master set”
Two of Jim’s main points – educate yourself and know your budget – are just as applicable here. I will not go into depth on those points beyond stating that you may want a slightly flexible budget, and I’ll explain why later. I will start with:
Define what “master set” means to you. It is a hobby – it is supposed to be fun. Look at your budget and determine the cards that you will use to comprise a master set. I have been building master sets of Topps Opening Day for a while now. I got hooked because, like Skybox Dominion, boxes of Opening Day are not that expensive, and you usually get a complete set or fairly close with one box. When I first started around 2006-2007 there were no relic cards, no shortprinted cards, and the autographs were of players like Toby Hall and Johnny Estrada with a Matt Kemp every now and then. Earlier years did have autographs like Hank Aaron and Wade Boggs, and 2005 had some game-used cards. But they were fairly simple to put together (even though I’m still missing a handful of cards – that happens when you decide to build a master set of a product after it has been on store shelves for a while), and the autographs were not the usual suspects. Opening Day is a fun product, meant for kids, and the inserts are fun.
In 2013 Opening Day introduced shortprinted cards and a more expansive autograph checklist. In 2014 relics came back. In 2020 there are now numbered dirt relic cards with autographs. If I can pick one of those up for a good price I do, but I do not include them in my master set list that I am actively looking to fill because the prices can be extraordinarily high. Nearly every product has 1/1 printing plates – again, I’ll pick those up if I like the price for that player but trying to put together a 200 card set of one-of-ones (or one-of-fours if you mix and match colors) seems more frustrating than fun to me, so my master set list doesn’t include those cards.
To give a sense of how many insert sets there might be, I’ve used Pete Alonso to illustrate the rarer 2020 Opening Day insert sets as he is in many of them, except for the Mascot Patches (so I’ve used Mr. Met). There are other rare inserts not pictured (autographs, ballpark profile autographs, Canada variations, mascot relics, mascot autographs, and mascot autograph relics). There are 346 inserts in 2020 Topps Opening Day, counting those rare low-numbered autographs; removing them still leaves over 300 inserts.
Once you have educated yourself, determined your budget, and decided what master set means to you there are some additional guidelines I follow. I’m going to channel Tyler Durden here – the first rule of master set building is to get started when the product hits the shelf. The second rule of master set building is … to get started when the product hits the shelf. If you have done your homework and you get started when the product hits the shelf you should be able to get some good deals early on before prices start trending to their equilibrium (buy-it-nows on eBay are more likely to lead to better deals than auctions early on). Knowing how many of an insert set fall to a box or a case is important, as is knowing insert set size. If an insert is a case hit and the set size is 30 and another is also a case hit and the set size is 10 then the cards in that 30 card set are likely going to be harder to find. But beware, as there are times right when the product hits the shelf that cards sell for really high prices. There are deep-pocketed player, team, and master set collectors who will spend money to get rare inserts. I do a lot of searching to find deals early on.
The other reason I recommend starting early is because I see the biggest difference between vintage set collecting and master set building of newer products is that it is amazing how quickly some of the cards dry up. Once they dry up, they can be difficult to find at any price. If you want a 1952 Topps Mantle, they are on eBay. They are reasonably expensive in any condition, but you can at least find them. I can’t find the 2019 Topps Opening Day Dugout Peeks cards I’m missing. I can find the 5×7 cards in regular (numbered to 49) or gold (numbered to 10) versions all day, but the pack inserts are nearly impossible to find. There is a Lindor on eBay right now. There are none on COMC. There are none on Beckett Marketplace. You might get lucky 6 months later and get the card for a good deal once people have moved on to other projects, but there also might be three people looking for that one card that they haven’t seen for 6 months.
If you decide to collect a master set a few months or years after a product hits the shelves you will need patience and persistence (which may mean years, if ever) to find the card at the right price. The alternative is to have a healthy budget for picking up the cards, as some sellers know that inserts and shortprints do not appear regularly and put high price tags on them.
Jim mentioned looking at previous sales prices, and I agree. I will take it one step further for newer products. Unless someone finds a discrepancy reviewing game logs, Mickey Mantle’s numbers aren’t changing. Unless someone uncovers some unknown secret, Mantle’s life story isn’t changing. With newer products I recommend paying attention to price trends. A player’s performance (on and off the field) affects his card prices, which is a second difference between vintage set building (as the players are mostly retired, at least from active rosters) and master set building of newer sets. That’s why I mentioned a slightly flexible budget – if a player is having a monstrous year, you’ll need some flexibility. If a card started off selling at $30 when the product hit the shelf but has consistently sold in the $40-$50 range recently, it’s unlikely that it will be found for $30 unless you get lucky or want to wait. You can wait for the player to cool off, but then there is the risk that the cards will dry up again. Hot players tend to see their cards listed more often.
As an aside, if the card you need is of Mike Trout you are highly unlikely to get lucky with respect to price, so I recommend having a Mike Trout rule (will you go after his rare cards or not). I got lucky once with Trout (I got the puppy dog card for a really good deal) – I don’t expect it to happen again. Sometimes a Kurt Suzuki insert will cost as much as a Nolan Arenado from the same set; that doesn’t happen with Trout and a few other players. Even his parallel cards are going to cost a few dollars.
In defining master set, do you consider the parallels to be part of your set and if so where do you draw the line? Do you go after the retail parallels as well or just stick to the hobby parallels? I think parallel set collecting is probably the closest to vintage set collecting. I buy lots like I would for a vintage set and try to sell or trade doubles (or at least I used to) to save on monetary cost. Unlike the base sets, there usually aren’t very many complete parallel sets available, and complete parallel sets are usually expensive, so I recommend buying lots until you get down to a few cards. Like with vintage set building, pay attention to the star cards in the lot. Sometimes you can get a lot for the exact same price as buying the star card individually, which to me makes sense because the extras can always be sold or traded. While that part of set building is similar to vintage sets, a third difference between vintage set and newer product master set building is that condition rarely comes into play with newer cards, unless you are concerned with the difference between a graded 9 and a graded 10. It is unlikely that cards from 2020 have been put in bicycle spokes or carried around in wallets. That also means there is not much room to trade off lower condition to try to get the card for a lower price.
Lastly, there are the “non-rare” insert sets. I have focused more on the rare cards because complete insert sets of the more common inserts, at least for a product like Opening Day, can usually be picked up for a much lower cost than if you were to buy the cards individually. For dealers who crack a case they will usually get multiple complete insert sets of this type. For some bigger insert sets I have used the same approach as I do with parallels in that I buy lots of the inserts until I get down to a few cards, and then pick-up the last few cards individually.
Those are just my thoughts given my experiences building master sets. Mostly I work on products with lower price points, so there may be different strategies with higher-priced products. I welcome others’ thoughts on their experiences.