Thoughts on Breaking the Reserved List

Over the past couple of months there has been much consternation and discussion in online forums and articles discussing the rise of prices in older Magic cards. There has also been much discussion lately of the Reserved List on the Official Reprint Policy.

In Stephen Menendian’s recent article Visiting Wizards, Reprints, and the Reserved List he posits that “You could print a million new Underground Seas in M11, and Alpha and Beta Underground Seas would probably not budge in their value or collectability. In fact, they might become more valuable!” Frankly, more asinine words and a conclusion based on many unaccounted for factors have rarely been written. The basic laws of economics tell us that if demand is relatively even and supply increases, price will naturally go down. Time and time again, history has shown us that when cards are reprinted (and supply is increased) they lose value.

When the original Chronicles set was released Magic players and collectors alike were taken aback and shocked. A “collectible card game” was reissuing some of the game’s most sought after and expensive cards, setting an alarming precedent. Cards like the Elder Dragons (Chromium, Nicol Bolas, Palladia-Mors, etc.) from Legends dropped from $30-40 to $5-10 within weeks. Legends printings of these cards can currently be had for $1-5 each, and Chronicles and Timeshifted copies can be had for $.25 to $1. Carrion Ants (from Legends) was a $30 card (based largely on collectibility and not the amount of them being played) dropped to $2 in a matter of weeks. Today a Legends copy of Carrion Ants is about $1 and the Chronicles reprint versions are about $.25 each. Erhnam Djinn was once considered the little brother of Juzam Djinn, as was once worth about $35-40 for an Arabian Knights copy. After it was reprinted in Chronicles the value dropped considerably, with today’s prices ringing in at $5-10 for an Arabian Knights original, and a Chronicles reprint clocking in at a mere $.25.

Psionic Blast was originally printed in Alpha/Beta/Unlimited and for a long time was a very sought after item, typically priced at $30-40 for Alpha/Beta copies and $18-25 for Unlimited copies. After it was reprinted in Time Spiral’s Timeshifted subset those same original copies are now selling for $15-25 for Alpha/Beta and about $4-5 for Unlimited, while Timeshifted copies can readily be had for $1 each.

Pithing Needle, which Stephen himself has reviewed in prior articles and is intimately familiar with, used to be a $15 card (this price, and all others I’ll talk about here are what I’ll refer to as the “street value,” or how much they can regularly be had for on eBay/MOTL/etc.). Pithing Needle was originally printed in Saviors of Kamigawa, and demand has always been steady but not overwhelming. I would argue that demand is about the same today as when it was originally printed and is played a moderate amount in many constructed formats. When it was reprinted in Tenth Edition the value dropped to around $9, and it has once again been reprinted in Magic 2010 (M10) and the value has dropped to an astonishing $3 or less. Demand has stayed roughly the same, yet the supply has dramatically increased, leading to a dramatic reduction in price.

For quite some time Meddling Mage remained valued at $10-14, even when it’s popularity and playability waned in Standard and Extended. It was rotating out of Extended finally as part of the Invasion-Prophecy-Apocalypse block and started to slightly fall in price to around $9, but it was then reprinted in Alara Reborn. So what happened to the price? Well, naturally since the supply doubled and the demand remained about the same the prices came crashing down. Meddling Mage from Invasion can now readily be had for about $5-6 and Alara Reborn copies go for about $4.

I could continue to cite example after example of where reprints have crippled the value of original printings, but I think if you’ve ever picked up (and understood) an economic textbook or spent time seriously buying and selling Magic cards, you probably get the picture. To suggest that reprints of cards like Dual Lands and Power 9 wouldn’t cripple the value of the original printings is either an uneducated, disingenuous, or intellectually dishonest point of view.

Another issue that Stephen ignores in his quoting of prices for Alpha/Beta/Unlimited/Revised/10th Edition/M10 for cards like Shivan Dragon and Birds of Paradise is the fact that there is a major drop off from Alpha/Beta to everything else, including Unlimited. As my teammate Jason Pare pointed out to me, you can’t have a serious discussion about reprinting cards like the Power 9 without looking at the fact that roughly 82% of the Power 9 that are in existence are not Alpha/Beta, but Unlimited. You know, the same Unlimited that Stephen shows in his chart amongst all of other printings that represents a small percentage of the total pool in his Shivan Dragon and Birds of Paradise examples. If Power 9 were reprinted the value of these would drop like a rock, decimating the value of 82% of the Power 9 overnight. The set collectors will still want their Alpha/Beta Power 9, but most other people would gravitate towards a cheaper and also black-bordered foil version for a fraction of the price. This migration would also signal a reduction in the price of Alpha/Beta copies for this very reason, albeit not as devastating as the huge loss Unlimited owners would see.

Part of the reason the Power 9 has increased to dramatic prices is because aside from the fact that they are some of the most powerful and rarest cards, they have never been reprinted and are currently never slated to be reprinted according to Wizards’ own published Reserved List Policy. They have essentially become Vintage Gold because the consumer has placed faith in the manufacturer that a set number of these exist (solidifying their rarity and collectibility), and because of this they can be viewed as a valid investment vehicle. Without this assurance from the manufacturer they would not be worth nearly as much.

The function of the Reserved List is to assuage fears of players and collectors that their collectible card game will actually maintain some semblance of collectibility. Wizards’ formally acknowledged the giant mistake they had made by printing Chronicles and created the Reserve List as a response to grant the consumer some basic protections. It represents a contract with the customer meaning “we (the manufacturer) will not violate your consumer confidence in us.” This contract with consumers was necessary following the backlash and departure of players following the release of Chronicles. By altering policy and breaking the Reserve List and changing course, Wizards of the Coast would have lied to their customers for the past ten years and effectively reduced any incentive to consider Magic cards any sort of investment or an actual collectible card game, as it has always been marketed as. To this end the Reserve List is accomplishing exactly what it was created to do.

In the past few years Wizards’ has exploited a loophole in the Official Reprint Policy that states that “All policies described in this document apply only to non-premium, tournament-legal Magic cards. Wizards of the Coast has and may continue to print special versions of cards not meant for regular game play, such as oversized cards.” They have designated foil cards as premium cards to fit the bill and to create a loophole to essentially allow them to reprint whatever they want (see: Phrexian Negator, Phyrexian Dreadnought, Intuition, Survival of the Fittest, Karn, Silver Golem, Yawgmoth’s Will, etc.). But looking at the wording of the revised Reprint Policy it says “All policies described in this document apply only to non-premium, tournament-legal Magic cards. Wizards of the Coast has and may continue to print special versions of cards not meant for regular game play, such as oversized cards.” Does this sound to you like their original intent with that exception was to print foil cards used for tournament play and as a mechanism to reprint hard to find cards to increase market supply? I don’t think so. The original intent appears to simply allow them to reprint things like the oversized cards they used to print, or box-toppers, or promotional items, or things of that nature that would not be used for tournaments and by actual players. But by designating foils as premium they have created a loophole with which they can twist the Official Reprint Policy and effectively negate the entire thing.

By using a loophole to reprint cards on the Reserved List and simply designate them as ‘premium,’ Wizards’ is shaking customer confidence, and the outcry by many players can be heard on whatever message board you fancy. But the biggest outcry is the unspoken one, by players who believe that Wizards’ will do the right thing and respect the Reserved List, which is their contract to the consumer. This outcry will not truly be heard until the point when we see the Reserved List being violated in a notable way. Creating something like From the Vault: [Underground Sea and a bunch of other Restricted List goodies], and then following it up with a bunch of other similar boxed foil sets would create a terrible precedent and would achieve the same thing as just reprinting cards in a modern edition. The same could be said for creating all foil (i.e. premium) booster packs full of Reserved List cards. This would decimate the consumer confidence that the Magic brand has achieved, and I believe would lead to the departure of a significant number of players. Many people drawn to games are smart, and they can probably tell when something is going the way of the Dodo bird, or is in the process of jumping the shark.

So if cards like Dual Lands and others are rapidly rising with the increase interest in Legacy, what can be done to offset this and make Legacy more palatable to the wallet? Check out our next article in this series, Solutions to the High Price of Cardboard for this answer to this important question.