"Lowballer." An accusatory message shot over Steam chat. The other person logs off.
I'll admit it started with some intent of honesty. Even after my initial expose on the community was done and over with, relegated to being a mere footnote in Internet history, there were still people buffeting me with well-meaning critique. I hadn't focused on this aspect enough. I should have talked about that more. The holistic view, it seemed, was completely insufficient; a threadbare version of the real experience. It's very different, they explained. You'd understand if you were a trader. Needless to say, all that transitioned into the decision to see what would happen if I plunged headlong into actual Dota 2 trading as opposed to, you know, just scribbling down notes about what someone else said. My Paypal had a spare 100 bucks and there was a Lockless Luckbox on sale in the Steam market.
I bought the Luckbox and opened it expecting shackles, the least desirable of the possible drops, for the two-man Alchemist show. Nyx Assassin's Dagon, ruby-tipped and hugely coveted, popped out instead. Awesome. Five minutes into my experiment and I was already operating in the black. The question then immediately became: what the bloody hell do I do next? Do I want to shoot for a Legacy courier? Try my hand at acquiring at Alpine set? Maybe, just maybe, work my way up towards owning a Golden Baby Roshan? In the end, at my wallet's behest, I ended up setting up a few ground rules for myself: I will not use any real money outside of that initial 100 dollar investment. My existing inventory will be left well and alone. I will not let the experiment be sustained for any longer than the week.
Oh, and I'll be positively ruthless in my transactions. But only when I had to be, of course.
In case you missed it the first time around, I spent about two weeks not too long ago rubbing elbows and shaking hands in and around the skeevy underbelly of the Dota 2 cosmetics trading scene. It's apparently both good and bad. More good than bad, my interviewees reassured me. Lots of nice people, a handful of would-be scammers and a conspicuous albeit good-natured lack of altruism. The community trusted its patrons to do its research. Failure to do so meant you were fair game in the the same noncommittal way it's always open season on a tourist with a bulging wallet. Being viciously low balled is practically a rite of passage, after all. No hard feelings. Honest.
There are things that Valve doesn't tell you about mid-tier trading.
Once you've transcended past the realm of exchanging pedestrian goods for equally ho-hum items, the friend requests begin piling up. Certain caveats can be used to stem the deluge - a flippant mention of how you will instantly block anyone who adds you on Steam without first being granted permission is a good deterrent - but a trickle should be all but expected. Obviously, I had no idea at first. I'd just put up an advertisement on Dota2Lounge - Single Nyx's Dagon; looking for offers, must be at least 60 keys - when the first wave hit. Five requests. Then, ten. It went on.
"Hi?" I tentatively approve the first guy.
"51? Fast trade!"
Quietly, I sever our digital acquaintance. The next person is added and the cycle repeats itself. Greet. Reject. Delete. Over and over, up till the last supplicant who broadcasted in all caps, like a minotaur in a china shop, that he would absolutely love to meet my price of 65 keys. Not the best trade but good enough. Like an antique collector, I had wanted to hold it, to wait until the market had warmed sufficiently to its value. Unfortunately, the imminent return of Lockless Luckboxes made such dreams rather inconvenient. (At least, that's what I was told. I have never been so wrong. Goddamn market trends.)My customer goes off to procure the requisite items, pleading with me, big blocky letters an awkward constant, to wait for his return. Yes. OKAY. Okay. OKAY THANK YOU.
"Unless someone offers me 80 keys, y'know?" I inform him jokingly.
"80 KEYS GOOD DEAL. GO TRADE." More bellowing.
"Unless - I. What? Nevermind. Just .. just get the keys."
He leaves. Someone else adds me a heartbeat later.
"Sorry, mate. You just got beaten to the punch. I'm waiting on the dude to get me my keys."
If you've ever turned down a date or been turned down yourself, you would have recognized the shuffling, feet-contemplating quiet that followed after.
"67 keys?" He hazards, after a long moment. "I'll give you a HUD worth 2 keys."
"Look, I just agreed to make a trade less than two minutes ago. No. Not unless you're, like, giving me 80 keys."
"LOL." A textual outburst. "You won't trade your Dagon for 67 keys? Rather wait for 65 keys? Yeah. Cool. Haha."
Another 'LOL' before the affronted party unceremoniously goes offline.
I shrug. Integrity would prove profitable.
Integrity isn't profitable.
My buyer never returned. It was another two days before I finally sold my Dagon.
"Hey, man? Can I buy some of your cards?" A message from a half-familiar name.
"Eh, " My inventory is much like the contents of my laptop bag: a messy hodgepodge of essentials and 'Who the hell placed that in there?' "You can have 'em for free."
We segue rapidly into a trade, two professionals in a mercantile dance, the beat uninterrupted even by a brief lull spent clarifying that he wanted Steam cards and not Dota 2 player cards. After we're done, I glance at his inventory, taking note of his store of Vintage Timebreakers. It's a cosmetic weapon for the perennially grimacing Faceless Void, one no longer being supplied by a copyright infringement-fearing Valve.
"Hey," I write. "How much for a Timebreaker?"
A beat. "Offer?"
Immediately, I switch to Dota2Lounge, scrolling through a library of proposed barters. A median is quickly found and I make my proposal, anxious at the notion of my provisioner changing their minds.
"Sure. But only if you throw in a few cards."
This is the second thing you learn when trading:
Friendship is the magic the ruthless use to beguile the naive.
(Also, always check which side the item you're searching for is on. Always.)
The days stretched.
A friend advises me to hang onto the Timebreaker in case the price inflates once again but I'm impatient and want to offload my trinket now. I'm annoyed. It's only been three days and I've already been weaseled out of a few extra keys. In another life, I would have shrugged and walked away. But the idea of being robbed of even a single dime starts to rankle at me. Screw someone else's profit margin. Only mine matters, damn it. Another ad is put up on Dota2Lounge, this one boldly stamped with a curt 'do not add or block'. Shortly after, the offers begin rolling in like a Limp Bizkit song.
"These are worth more but I can't be bothered to find keys." Tournament-branded uncommon gear, from teams no one recognizes.
"Very rare!" Regular baby Roshan.
"Arcana for Timebreaker? Go fast!"
Amidst the avalanche of terrible propositions, one stands out: "I pay ur price. Add me?"
So I do. And it's very much like one of those archetypal encounters between a dusky-skinned tribesman and a colonial explorer except that my prospective customer only sounds like he lives in a yurt on the outskirts of civilization. Somewhere amidst the l33tspeak-peppered dismemberment of the English language, it is established that I need to add his primary account in order to get anything going.
He sends a link. I stare.
"Dude," I say, blandly. "Really?"
"The link. It says 'steamcmnitty.com'"
"Look, at least try to make it look believable - "
"Add my account. You see!"
I sigh. "Dude, I'm reporting you."
"I no understand."
Here is the third thing you learn:
Man, you get addicted to that F5 button.
It starts slow and, quite often, with a single trade. You put a item up and decide to ignore it for a little while, circling back every other hour or so to see if someone has decided to compensate you handsomely for your prize. After a while, the inspections start becoming more compulsive. You're back every half hour. Every fifteen minutes. Ten. Along the way, there's a chance that you might start rooting around other people's trades, curious as to whether or not there's anything else in your inventory that might be of value. You might even start betting some of your uncommons in an upcoming match; it's what all the cool kids are doing. And before you know it, you're constantly refreshing pages, eager as a vulture in the aftermath of a war.
Mostly, though, you catch yourself hovering. Trading is a whirlwind in Dota 2. Poor decisions and great business are made in the space between heartbeats. Allow someone time to cogitate, to evaluate the value of a purchase and chances are, you'll be called out for what you are. (Confession: I tried swindling someone into handing over their Dragonhook Claw. It almost worked.) It's one of the reasons you're often pushed to trade quickly. Don't stop. Don't think. Do it now, now, now.
"I like it. But there's one thing I disagree with."
I've just shown a draft of my adventures to a friend and moderator from the Dota2Traders website.
"If you ask me, it's mostly scammers and a handful of nice people."
I nod. "What about the complete and utter lack of altruism?"
"Oh, that bit is 100% true."
"Full set." A would-be buyer announces.
I check. It is, indeed, a full set of equipment for Nature's Prophet but a paltry bargaining piece in this situation. Vintage Timebreakers may have indeed depreciated in value but his offer is borderline insulting. I'd have shrugged it off previously but I now have a Vintage Timebreaker, a cheaply acquired Trapjaw and a host of keys to my name. I wasn't a greenhorn anymore. And the notion of being treated as one made me indignant.
"Ahahahaha," I type back, shaking my head. If you're going to scam someone, make it believable. "No."
(Anyone want to buy a Timebreaker? Real cheap. 35 keys.)