The Emergence of Magic: The Gathering’s Reserved List

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As we near the 30th anniversary of the Magic: The Gathering (MTG) trading card game, the community is rife with anticipation. Exciting collaborations with the storied Lord of the Rings franchise, Fortnite, and other pop-culture phenoms will soon be coming to a tabletop near you. 

The early 2020s saw a substantial rise in new card games and revivals of old franchises, such as Digimon and Dragon Ball. Trading cards grow and decline in cycles, some are resurrected like the aforementioned Bandai properties, and others prove to stand the test of time (Yu-Gi-Oh!, Pokémon, MTG). When games last this long, a secondary market eventually emerges for individual cards. Some cards grow tremendously in value, due to their popularity or strength. Reprinting (printing the same cards in another set) helps to keep some of them from skyrocketing on the secondary market. In fact, reprinting cards in excess can actually tank their value. One might pose the question, “How does a budding card game walk this fine line of doing right by its collectors, and its players?” This question was more than just a hypothetical for Wizards of the Coast (WOTC). The solution they found was the Reserved List. In 1996, WOTC compiled a list of some of the most sought after and powerful vintage cards to make it easier for collectors to see what cards were safe from being reprinted. This list has been changed quite a few times, as some cards have come off and some have been added to it. Ultimately, it has stood the test of time and is a major driving force in the collectible world of Magic: The Gathering.

The Reserved List consists primarily of cards from Magic’s inception. Timeless cards like the “Power Nine,” which are among the heaviest hitters in the game, have not been reprinted in over 20 years!  The Power Nine (see chart below) refers to arguably the most powerful and rare cards in the history of MTG.

The most revered card is “Black Lotus,” an artifact card that has been sought after for its competitive power and very limited print run. Some cards are expensive due to their value in a competitive landscape, while others can hold a high price tag because of their collectability. Black Lotus boasts the qualities of being arguably the most collectible, most powerful, and most iconic card from the game. It has stunning art and was created by the late, great Christopher Rush, one of MTG’s most renowned artists. 

The Black Lotus only has three standard printings available (Alpha, Beta, Unlimited) and is widely recognized as the strongest card ever printed. The reason for this is that just one Black Lotus has the potential to put you ahead of your opponent by three turns! In a resource-driven game, that is no small benefit. All of these factors contribute to its colossal price tag. For a raw copy with heavy play wear, you would be hard-pressed to find one for less than $15,000 on the open market. Having these relics graded by PSA usually results in a very generous multiplier. The last PSA GEM- MT 10 example went for a towering $511,000! This was one of the highest grossing trading cards of all time! 

Other cards on the Reserved List command hefty price tags as well. Cards like Mox Sapphire or Mox Jet can help get you ahead on mana early in a match, similar to Black Lotus. However, not all of these legendary cards focus on generating more mana. Time Walk allows players to take an additional turn after their current one! With little to no drawback, these “Power Nine” cards have dynamic abilities that change the entire course of games and have set the standard for the most powerful cards in trading card games. It is only fitting that they ended up being included on the Reserved List. 

The list itself came about from an attempt by WOTC to boost consumer confidence in the game and product after it nearly crushed the brand by the overprinting of popular cards for which many players had shelled out cash. 

In the summer of 1995, the Chronicles set was released. This was Wizard’s response to a growing concern in the community about dwindling supply of older sets, making it difficult to obtain some of the more powerful and expensive cards. The game was not created with the foresight that its audience would grow so fast, much less have its own secondary market emerge. This caused a major conflict for WOTC and the player base. 

Upon the initial release of earlier sets, a much smaller volume of cards was produced, only select stores had MTG product, and oftentimes they would get less than what they had ordered. Over the years this led to many popular, powerful cards establishing expensive prices on the secondary market. The initial response of WOTC  – overprinting a set made entirely of cards released previously – only served to frustrate the player base. Cards they had shelled out big money for suddenly dropped in value overnight. In March 1996, the Reserved List was created to restore confidence in future products among their consumer base, while at the same time encouraging players to continue purchasing older cards without fear of reprints.

Over the years, WOTC has tried to push the envelope and test the very limits they themselves put in place. They exploited loopholes in the policy that allowed them to print “premium” versions of cards on the list. Through products like the From the Vault line, WOTC reprinted select cards in a foil variant. The majority of the community was not happy with the compromise of their promise to refrain from printing cards on the list. Ultimately, WOTC came to the conclusion that it was not worth testing the limits of the Reserved List any further for fear of risking significant ramifications from their consumer base. 

In 2010, the so-called “foil loophole” was closed and mutterings of displeasure were silenced within the MTG community. The Reserved List remains intact to this day, and contains a horde of cards worth several hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, although there are still some affordable cards on there! Like any secondary market, trends may move up and down. By and large, Reserved List cards tend to do very well over time and outperform the majority of other cards in the game when it comes to consistently appreciating  in secondary-market value. The formula is simple: more players want to play the game and the supply of cards stays the same as it was in 1996, so demand and price for these relic cards increases.

Set Registry Steps Up

In honor of the Reserved List, the PSA Set Registry team has surveyed internal and external MTG experts to curate a set of the “Top 50 Most Iconic Cards” from the list.

There were many factors that went into building this checklist: power level, collectability, popularity within the community, and overall population. This specific set, PSA’s Best of the Magic: The Gathering Reserved List, is a type set, meaning that any version (Alpha, Beta, Unlimited) of Mox Sapphire, for example, will fulfill the requirement for Mox Sapphire in the set. 

The Set Registry team is ramping up their MTG content and adding new ways for collectors to chase checklists and complete sets. We look forward to getting more sets posted for the community and see more engaging discourse about the community’s favorites! Speaking of discourse, the team would like to hear from our audience. Do you agree with our Top 50 list? Let us know your thoughts by emailing [email protected]!