Game Theory: The Definitive Guide to Fantasy Football Trades

Every fantasy football manager loves making trades. But how you go about trading is just as important as your trade hauls. So, what's the right way to do things?

Trades. Oh, buddy. In this article, I’m going to cover just about everything I know about trading in fantasy football. So buckle up, this one is going to be epic.

We’re going to cover value fragmentation, trade psychology, the art of the deal, and what your process for evaluating trades should be.

How to Get Started with Trades

First off, let me make an argument for why you should be trading in your fantasy leagues. All too often I have heard from managers who tell me that they don’t trade very often because they like the team they drafted and don’t think that trading would make their team better. That could not be farther from the truth.

If you are a good fantasy football player then you should expect to benefit from more than half of your trades. If you benefit from more than half of your trades, you are incentivized to trade as often as possible. So, the key here is to learn what kinds of trades to make so that your team benefits from the majority of them.

Communication is key—in so many ways. Trade discussions lead to more trades than blind offers do. I would hope that you know that. So, what is the best way to start a trade discussion? Be in regular communication with your leaugemates. That is always the best solution. A league that is active and communicates regularly is the kind of league where trades are most likely to occur. If you aren’t in constant contact with your leaguemates, I would still recommend reaching out and sending them a message on whichever messaging platform they are most likely to respond.

There are multiple ways in which managers can achieve successful trades, but my preferred method is a bit unorthodox. I rarely send an initial offer. Instead, I message my prospective trade partner and mention that I am interested in trading. I tell them my general trade idea, but leave enough up in the air that there’s room for discussion.

Flexibility is always the best option. Once the trade conversation starts, then I can begin to shape my trade in a way that makes it more likely for my opponent and me to come to an agreement. Communication is not only key for getting into a conversation with your trade partner, it is also important for the health of your league.

Stop Trying to “Win” Trades

Now, I need to address a topic that I am very passionate about. All too often I have seen terminology like win and lose associated with fantasy football trades. I believe that mindset is unhealthy and can be damaging to fantasy football leagues.

I don’t want to spend an entire article getting into why I believe so strongly about this, but I will touch on it a bit here. Instead of making your goal to win your trade, and therefore make your opponent lose the trade, your goal should be to create trades that benefit your team. There is a distinct difference.

When you use terminologies like win or lose, there is an implied loser in the transaction. One party will always come out the other end worse off than before. I do not think that is healthy for leagues because it puts the onus on determining how much of a loss is acceptable for a trade to be worthwhile. If managers are constantly competing to force the other one to lose a trade, conversations can quickly become contentious and vitriolic. I would like to suggest a better way.

The best fantasy football trades are those that benefit both teams. When trading, you should be targeting managers that have needs that you are capable of fulfilling. For example, if you are weak at running back, don’t talk to a manager that is also weak at running back and ask them to trade you their running back at an affordable price. There is no way both teams will benefit from that kind of trade.

Instead, find out what your own strengths are and find teams that you can help, then formulate a way that those teams can help your team as well. When trading in this manner, trade discussions are often much more productive and lead to more positive relations between the managers and more trade conversations in the future.

What Kind of Trades Should You Make?

So, now that you know how you should be communicating your trade interests, you next need to know which kinds of trades you even need to make. That is where roster evaluation comes in. You should be able to analyze your team and assess your strengths and weaknesses, while also doing this with every other team in your league.

Once you know what your strengths and weaknesses are, seek out managers who have strengths and weaknesses that complement yours. Once you have done this, the trade strategy comes into play. One of the most effective trade strategies for improving one’s own team is value consolidation. I made an episode about this specific topic for Instagram a few months ago, but I will explain it in a nutshell now.

Value consolidation and value fragmentation are terms I have coined to describe specific types of fantasy football trades. Value consolidation is when you return fewer assets than you give up, but those assets have more inherent worth per roster position than the assets you have given up. Value fragmentation is the opposite of that. It occurs when you gain more assets than you give up, with those assets having less inherent worth per roster position than those that you traded away.

Let me give you an example:

Player A is on your team, while Player B and Player C are on your opponent’s team. Player A scores 20 points a game, and Players B and C score 15 points a game. If you give away Player A for players B and C, you are lowering the amount of inherent value per roster position on your team. You are undergoing value fragmentation.

On the other hand, your trade partner is undergoing value consolidation because they are consolidating the value of Players B and C into Player A.

The Game of Roster Management

Fantasy football is a game of roster management. You have a limited number of roster positions that you can use to reserve exclusive rights to a player. There are a finite number of players you are able to roster at any given moment. You want your roster to have the highest concentration of inherent worth possible. If you consolidate value from many players into fewer players you increase the amount of inherent worth per roster position on your team and increase your odds of success, generally speaking.

You also have the additional benefit of clearing up roster spaces to add more players from free agency. This is one of the most beneficial trading strategies a manager can utilize in their own league. However, value consolidation is not always an option.

So, what should a manager do in the event that they are unable to consolidate value?
This is where managers need to be smart. Analyzing trends, noting outlier performances, and predicting regression—in the positive and negative direction—can allow managers to understand when the “market” is high or low on the value of a player. If the market is low on a player, managers might look to buy them.

Conversely, if the market is high on a player, managers might look to sell them. I understand that this does take some skill because you need to understand a player’s range of outcomes in order to accurately predict what their future holds. That is why I am more comfortable trading players that I am familiar with. If I am rostering a player that I am less knowledgeable about, I simply may choose to not trade them.

The Art of the Deal

Once managers have determined which players they are looking to trade away and which players they are looking to trade for, there comes the negotiation process in which managers need to ultimately decide if a trade is worth accepting or not.

Every manager is different, but when I personally am evaluating a trade, I’ll try to break it apart into individual segments. If I am making a 3-for-3 trade, I will likely pair up every player and compare them individually to their most similar counterpart on the opposite end of that trade. Then I’ll analyze their net differences to determine if what I am getting for what I am giving is beneficial for my team as a whole.

It is usually poor process to analyze a trade in a vacuum, because no trade truly happens in a vacuum. You need to take into account the rest of your roster in order to determine if a trade is truly beneficial for your team.

Once you have a trade that is beneficial for your team, the hard part is having a trade partner that believes the same thing for themselves. This once again is why it is so important to steer away from language like win or lose when we discuss fantasy football trades. If you are someone that believes every single trade is won or lost, then there is a good chance that anyone trading with you believes that you are trying to make them lose the trade and that makes them less likely to want to trade with you.

If you instead utilize the language that I mentioned earlier in this article, I would venture to guess that managers are much more willing to trade with you since you have their best interests in mind as well. Put yourself in your opponent’s shoes.

Look at their roster and imagine that it is your own. Would you make that trade? If so, why? If not, why not? If you wouldn’t make that trade, what trade would you make?

If someone approached you offering the trade that you are offering your opponent, would you be insulted? Would you even be interested in continuing trade discussions? What does that trade offer say about the person offering it? These are all valid questions you should be asking yourself from the perspective of your trade partner.

The most successful trades occur when both managers are in agreement about the value of their players and the needs of their teams. Dishonesty may work from time to time, but ultimately it does not have fruitful consequences. Trust me, I am speaking from experience. Once you are on the same page, the trade discussion becomes less about arguing whether or not a trade is worthwhile, and instead about collaborating to discover which trade is worthwhile. You read that right: trading in fantasy football should be a collaborative effort, not a competitive effort.

Once you have completed the trade process, rinse and repeat! As long as you have a good process for making trades and can benefit from the majority of them, you should probably trade as much as possible. (Besides, who doesn’t enjoy a good trade?)

A Final Word: Trade Vetoes

Before I wrap things up, I want to take a moment to discuss trade vetoes. I understand we are heading into Week 6, and league rules are not going to be changed in mid-season. But this is an important enough topic that it needs to be shared anyways.

Trade vetoes should be reserved for trades that are detrimental to the health of the league. You are not smart enough to know who “wins” or “loses” a trade. You don’t have a time machine and you can’t predict the future.

Vetoes should not be voted upon based upon whether or not somebody wins a trade by too much. That’s just dumb. Instead, vetoes should be determined based upon if there is a belief of collusion, self-destructive activity, or any other act that is detrimental to the health of the league. I will leave that definition open-ended enough for you to come to your own conclusion about what it means for your league.

But I cannot overstate how important it is that we move away from the notion that there must be a winner and a loser in every fantasy football trade.

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Photo attribution:

Chris Liverani via Unsplash

A guest post by
Evan is the host of The Big Game Theory Podcast and specializes in teaching fantasy football managers how to apply the science of decision making to their fantasy leagues.