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I’ve Spent Over $8,000 Collecting Trading Cards & Here’s What Having An Obsessive Hobby Is Like

Trading card collecting in Singapore

Everyone has their own Kryptonite. For some, it’s something wholesome like gardening and for others, it’s filling their closet to the brim with impulse buys. On a nerdier note, mine happens to be trading cards. Raptured by their cool graphics and shiny prints, a young me fell in love and became a collector at the ripe age of five. 

But boy, little did I know that this seemingly innocuous hobby would spiral into a full-on obsession that’s made me fork out thousands of dollars over the years. And disclaimer: I’d say my collection has heavily depreciated in value by now, so unfortunately, no overnight-millionaire story here.

Strap in as I share my topsy-turvy journey of card collecting, which comes fully furnished with all the details on how the heck I spent so much on, well…pieces of paper.

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The start of the addiction: card dispensing arcade games

Traditional arcade games like Daytona might be synonymous with most people’s childhood, but it was card dispensing games that stole the show for me. 

While most kids were busy ripping open packs of Pokemon loot, I, on the other hand, was busy amassing my collection of insect and dinosaur cards. Back then, it was the divine duo of Mushiking and Dinosaur King that dominated the card dispensing scene. 

card dispensing machine
Mushiking and Dinosaur King were the OG variants of card dispensing arcade games
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

A battle game involving beetles and dinosaurs respectively, the machine utilised a simple rock-paper-scissors fighting concept that pitted the creatures against each other. 

The best part was of course, the cards. The machine would dispense a random card which you’d then be able to swipe on a barcode scanner and control in-game. Couple that interactivity with the allure of pulling a shiny rare card, and voila, this then 5-year-old was hooked.

Mushiking and Dinosaur KingOver the years of playing these games, I only ended up with a mere five gold cards – of which three were bought from Carousell.
Image credit: Benjamin Wellesley

The unspoken arcade rule of thumb is that you’d expect a gold card once every 50 games, making them super rare. Once we saw another lucky kid pull one, we all knew to steer clear from that machine ‘coz it would’ve been a long time till one of those shiny gold buggers showed up again.

Fun fact: Back when arcades like Zone X had online forums, people used to post listings to sell individual cards for those looking to get specific ones, with golds going for roughly $30. 

Also, apart from looking glossier and prettier, the more elusive cards were usually stronger than their less-rare counterparts in battle. So as a young power-hungry lad, I needed to have the cream of the crop so I’d have the best characters to use while gaming. 

You’d see me inserting coins and hogging two machines at one go, just to double the card dispensing rate in hopes of pulling one of those coveted gold cards. Being the considerate gentleman I am, I’d like to clarify that I only did this when there wasn’t anyone else in the queue. 

I didn’t know it back then, but that was a huge red flag that signalled the beginning of an obsession. 

animal kaiserLike shiny things are to magpies, I got my hands on holographic Animal Kaiser cards as soon as the game started gaining popularity.
Image credit: Benjamin Wellesley

Damage done, aged 12: ~$3,000

A primary school hobby-turned-obsession 

trading card collectionThe leftmost column of boxes are filled with binders and stacks of cards
Image credit: Benjamin Wellesley

As those arcade games predisposed me to the idea of collections and rarities, I soon branched out into collecting all sorts of trading cards, like Pokemon, Ben 10 and even soccer cards. In the wise words of one Ariana Grande: I want it, I got it.

Since I couldn’t go to the arcade so often because of a peculiar thing called school ugh , I turned to commercial trading cards to feed my addiction. 8-year-old me would head down to nearby 7-Eleven stores or card shops at the local mall every single day to spurn my weekly allowance.

This was when things started going downhill and some really bad habits began to develop. Y’know what, some would even say they were downright despicable: I stole from my mum and even shoplifted from stores just to snag an extra pack or two.

match attax I’ve got binders filled with soccer trading cards that date back all the way from 2012
Image credit: Benjamin Wellesley

When I got my weekly allowance every Monday, the first thing I’d do after school is spend all of it on packs. So if I got $15 that week, that just translated into 10 packs of Match Attax – soccer trading cards that were all the rage back then – and nothing left for recess. 

That didn’t mean I was starving though; I’d ask my mum for extra cash on the pretext that I needed more for new school supplies. And you guessed it, I’d still manage to spend half of that amount on even more packs.

ben trading card hobby
Primary school me might’ve looked innocent, but he was in fact a bumbling criminal.
Image credit: Benjamin Wellesley

Confession: I even nicked $50 from my mum’s purse once for Pokemon cards. By the time she’d found out, I had already spent it all on 10 packets. I will say karma hit me hard, as I snagged zero rare cards and incurred the wrath of my mother which wasn’t pleasant in the slightest.

Things hit a new low one weekend after church – oh, the irony -, when my thieving ways were exposed. Remember those mama shops that sold $2 packets of cheapo bootleg cards? Yeah, I tried to steal an Animal Kaiser version and was caught in the act. 

After a big hoo-ha which involved my poor dad negotiating with the store owner who threatened to call the police, a stern warning plus a settlement fee of $10 was enough to let me off the hook. 

Sometimes repentance only happens after you face the consequences. This fiasco became the turning point for me to begin building my collection the honest way.

Reforming and expanding the collection with my savings

Cardfight! Vanguard trading cardsPeep my messy drawer with just some of my many decks and cards strewn all over the place
Image credit: Benjamin Wellesley

Fast forward to when I was graduating from primary school, when the latest craze at the time was trading card games like Cardfight! Vanguard. For this particular title, you’d need to build 50-card decks before you can even play the game, where the main goal was to knock your opponent out by dealing damage to them. 

Unlike my other collections where one copy of a prized card was more than enough, you’d most likely need four of the exact same card in order to maximise your gameplay. Having multiple copies of the cards meant increasing your chances of drawing them and accessing game-changing effects that would inevitably get you that dub.

Think about it this way – if you’re playing blackjack with only one Ace in the deck, you’ll never get the chance to strike a banban

Cardfight! Vanguard special cardsSome of the cards had versions with special prints (right) that, at the game’s peak, could cost up to $90 – triple the value of its regular counterpart (left).
Image credit: Benjamin Wellesley

Because the pull rates were so low, a single copy of those cards were seriously expensive. A single copy of a hyped card could cost up to $50 when first released, and acquiring four of them meant you weren’t even 10% done completing your deck. 

To save wherever I could, I turned to Carousell and Facebook groups to find individuals looking to offload their pre-constructed decks. The decks I ended up getting ranged between $80 and $350 depending on how good they were.

Cardfight! Vanguard tournament
As an introvert, this was one of the two Vanguard tournaments I attended back in 2012.
Image credit: Benjamin Wellesley

As an only child with no one else to play with, I ended up getting multiple decks just so I could conduct a two-player game by myself. It sounds a bit sad, but it was pretty liberating having my own commentary and monologues without having anyone to judge me.

Plus, if I wanted to flex my skills make some new like-minded friends, there was a thriving community at the time that regularly hosted competitions. Though I only went twice, I still vividly recall the experiences as I made some nifty trades for my spares and added some new rares to improve my decks.

Damage done, aged 17: ~$7,000

How card collecting stuck as I transitioned into adulthood

rare pokemon charizard cardsA bunch of shiny Pokemon cards I got off an international seller on eBay
Image credit: Benjamin Wellesley

By the laws of growing older, I should’ve probably left the card collecting phase in the dust a long time ago. But then again, we wouldn’t be here if I made the sensible decision to ditch this money-sucking hobby way back when. 

Though I definitely don’t purchase cards as frequently as before, I still indulge in some big-money cops here and there. Besides the nostalgic rare Pokemon cards, I’ve set my eyes on sport memorabilia – better known as hobby cards – that cost me up to $180 a pop.

sports hobby cardsMy soccer hobby cards featuring the legitimate autographs of the depicted players
Image credit: Benjamin Wellesley

Containing autographs or even real jersey patches of world-class players like Eden Hazard and Lionel Messi, these hobby cards are priced astronomically higher and are geared towards hardcore collectors – see, there are adults who collect cards too! 

As I’ve finally learnt the value of money and don’t have that much spending power as a 20-year-old youngin today, I’m not as hasty when it comes to pulling the trigger on these three-figure cards. But I do pop by local 7-Elevens or bookstores every once in a while just to get some good ol’ $2 soccer card packs, just to relive the mini-thrill of getting a rare card. No stealing, of course.

Damage done, aged 20: ~$8,200

Why do Singaporeans like trading card games so much?

rare charizard
Pokemon cards are also well-known for their investment value, like this First Edition Charizard that sold for US$55,650 (~$74,000).
Image credit: Beckett

If we put aside sentimentality, it’d seem like these trading cards are just decorated pieces of paper that shouldn’t be worth all that much. The thing is, if you play your cards right, they’re also tangible forms of investment for those looking past the stock market. 

Kylian Mbappe base card from 2018
The Kylian Mbappe base card from 2018
Image credit: eBay

With some speculation and a little bit of luck, some pinpointed hobby cards can drastically rise in price. Case in point: French footballer Kylian Mbappe had a normal card worth just a couple of bucks when it was first released in 2018. 

But when people realised that was the first-ever print of the player, who is now quite the big shot and plays for Paris Saint-Germain, it shot up in price and is now worth roughly $400. Good news if you currently own one that’s in pristine condition with no scratches; the card would be valued as high as ~$1,580.

In the grand scheme of things, the autographs I own – varying from $10 – $180 – are low-to-mid tier in the realm of hobby cards. Exclusive autographs from famous players like Cristiano Ronaldo can easily set someone back a whopping five-figure amount for a single card.

spots hobby cards ebay saleYeah, I wasn’t kidding when I said five-figures.
Image credit: eBay

People try to predict which players are destined for greatness and invest on their rarer variants accordingly. If they happen to make it big in the future, well, then so do you. But of course, people need to do their due diligence and research exactly what they’re looking for before they take the plunge, as these baller cards ain’t cheap.

Besides monitoring the market price, another aspect hobby card fans look out for is the “rookie” card. Be it in basketball, football or soccer, the first card of new players – like Kylian Mbappe – that debut are known as “rookies”. If they end up actually doing well in the future, you can bet that card will soar to the moon in price.

And just like the stock market, the rule of thumb is to only invest or buy what you’re prepared to lose. After all, you don’t want to incur debt and put yourself in a precarious financial position all because of a bunch of cards.

How card collecting has become a big part of my life

When I explain this hobby of mine to my friends, the most common reaction I get is, “You siao ah?”. And to that, I say… fair enough. 

Where most people would splurge on fancy clothes and shoes, I like to sport a classic all-black fit and spend the rest on cards. It’s money well-spent in the name of passion.

Spinosaurus trading cardOther than Spinosaurus, I have absolutely no idea what this card says. What I do know is that my grandfather sat down at an arcade to play the game just to obtain a rare one for me.
Image credit: Benjamin Wellesley

Truth be told, the majority of the cards I own now cost pennies compared to what I paid for them in the past. They’re either outdated, damaged or just unwanted. But looking past the money my mother I spent on them, collecting cards will always remind me of the fondest parts of my childhood.

Yes, I’ve had some bad beats when I fell down the rabbit hole of thievery, but I’ve also learned a lot from the mistakes made along the way. Plus, little moments like my grandfather spending precious time just to get me a card showed that even my family knew how much my hobby meant to me.

And for that reason, it’s something I foresee myself continuing in the near future. So no matter how strange or uncool others think your hobby might be, just keep on doing you if that’s what makes you happy.

Take it from me, a boy with a ton of “worthless” pieces of paper, but a treasure trove of priceless memories.

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Cover images adapted from: Benjamin Wellesley
Originally published on 5th March 2021.