Let's start off today's article with a brief story.
The year was 1993, and Richard Garfield had a little problem. Their first two print runs of Magic: The Gathering had come and gone, and his little game had proven popular beyond his wildest dreams. Another print run was being hastily ordered up, but Garfield wanted something to differentiate this iteration of Magic from the previous two.
It was the early nineties, and the first collectable card boom was in full swing. Ensuring that first edition cards could be told apart from their later counterparts was already somewhat commonplace. We were still years away from innovations like expansion symbols and edition markers, though, so Garfield decided to pick a different part of the card to change: the border. This is how Unlimited Edition gave us the first-ever white-bordered Magic cards.
The history of white-bordered Magic cards is actually really interesting, but it's somewhat outside of the scope of today's article. The brief version is basically: Wizards of the Coast decided that all reprinted cards should have white borders, a policy that became frustrating and confusing pretty much right away. Over time, they carved out exceptions for cards printed for the first time in a given language, and then for reprints with brand new art, and then for cards in some Starter sets, and then for cards printed in foil. They also decided to make Portal: 3 Kingdoms a white-bordered set despite it containing all new cards.
By 2007, a struggling WotC realized that boxes of Russian 9th Edition were selling for big bucks here in the U.S. because people were fed up with white-bordered Core Sets. Starting with 10th Edition, white borders were phased out entirely. They've never come back.
While black-border cards were historically more collectable and sought-after than their white-border counterparts, the difference was just cosmetic. A product-hover id="9236" does the exact same thing as a id="Tundra" variantId="8934", after all.That wasn't true for WotC's two other forays into alternate borders, though.
Silver-bordered cards were introduced back in 1998, when Unglued, Magic's first "comedy" set, hit shelves. WotC wanted an easy way to distinguish between cards that were legal to play in competitive events and cards that belonged solely on the kitchen table due to their goofiness and unbalanced power level. The silver border became an easy indicator, especially since it allowed players to identify Unglued on sight without having to memorize every card in the set. They have since been used in the other three Un-products: Unhinged, Unstable, and Unsanctioned.
That brings us to WotC's last and most interesting alternate border: gold. These were originally introduced all the way back in December of 1993, around the same time that Unlimited Edition hit shelves. They appeared on Collectors' Edition cards, which were complete sets of Beta sold in a nice, neat collectable box. Collectors' Edition cards differed from normal Beta cards by virtue of having fully square corners as well as a gold border on the back and a large gold "COLLECTOR'S EDITION" stamp right above the five-color pentagon. Because of that, they are not tournament legal.
The idea that this set was never intended to be tournament legal feels like something of a retcon to me, though. This was the era before Arabian Nights was printed, and that set was intended to have alternate card backs during its development. Heck, there wasn't even such a thing as tournament Magic back then. Based on the blurb on the CE box, it seems likely to me that these gold borders were initially intended to be a premium treatment, similar to modern foils or Collector Boosters. It was only in retrospect that they became seen as "less than" normal Alpha or Beta cards.
That switch did happen fairly quickly, though, especially since early Magic was rarely played with sleeves. Because of that, you couldn't play cards with gold back borders in the same deck as cards that you'd opened in booster packs. Gold borders soon came to symbolize tournament ineligibility, and you could buy a full Collector's Edition for a few hundred bucks, if that.
Enter the cards that we now think of as true "gold-bordered" cards. These were first seen in the Pro Tour Collector Set, released in 1996, with a print run of just 20,000 that put it on par with the original Collector's Edition. This box set contained copies of the eight most successful decks at the very first Pro Tour, which was held in New York City earlier that year. This time, the Magic back was entirely different while the gold border was found on the front of the card. This was done to prevent folks from attempting to pass them off as tournament-legal cards, especially since Magic was largely played in sleeves by 1996. Each card also had its pro player's autograph printed on the front, also in gold.
Since that initial box set was a success, WotC decided to print four gold-bordered pre-constructed decks from the World Championship each year from 1997-2004. These decks had a wider print run, and also contained gold borders and gold pro signatures. I don't believe I've ever come across cards from this initial box set, and when we talk about gold-bordered cards, we're talking about the 32 World Championship decks almost exclusively.
And that's all we've ever been given. An eight-deck box set and then four gold-bordered World Championship decks a year, over a period of eight years, for a total of 40 decks. They've mostly been lost to time, but that doesn't mean they should be forgotten. For one thing, there's a small but dedicated group of collectors out there who are tirelessly attempting to assemble complete sets. For another, these decks contain some seriously valuable cards and even some Reserved List staples, like Gaea's Cradle and Grim Monolith.
This is what we're here to talk about today. Which gold-border cards are valuable? Are they still undervalued, or is it silly to spend $250+ on a card that you can't even play in tournaments? Should WotC go back to printing cards like this for those of us who don't care as much about tournament legality? Let's dive deep into this obscure little corner of the Magic world and find out.
Folks who collect gold-border cards generally do so for one of three reasons:
These three tiers of demand can tell us a lot about which of these cards remain valuable and why. For instance, the first two types of gold border collectors generally want to have full, intact decks for their collection. Because of that, these decks are usually worth quite a bit more as complete artifacts than parted out into singles. This is rarely true in Magic at large: Collectors' Editions are always worth more parted out, and complete sets tend to sell poorly for the same reasons. When it comes to these decks, though, even the ones without any valuable cards can sell for $50-$100.
Second, there is a massive discrepancy in demand between gold-border cards that are almost entirely competitive staples vs. gold-border cards that see a lot of play in Commander. For instance, here's the price chart for product-hover id="165093":
And here's product-hover id="164258":
I picked these two cards because the non-gold border versions both sell about $20 right now. The gold-bordered Mystical Tutor sells for roughly the same amount as its cheapest black-bordered counterpart, though, while the Rishadan Port is easy to snag for less than $2. This is in large part because very few people play Rishadan Port in Commander while lots of people play Mystical Tutor.
It's also worth noting that rarity is kind of an odd concept in the gold bordered world. Since all decks are pre-constructed, rarity isn't about the symbols on each card and is instead reflected in how many copies of a given card are included in each deck, as well as how many times that card has shown up across all 32 gold bordered releases. For example, another reason why Mystical Tutor is so much more valuable than Rishadan Port is that there was just one copy released in just one deck. On the other hand, Rishadan Port was in a whopping five of the 32 decks, often appearing as at least a three-of. As a result, there are many more Ports out there than Tutors.
If we're looking for value in gold bordered world, then, we're looking for complete decks or for Commander cards that were only printed once or twice. There aren't really any hidden gems here since people have been speculating on gold-bordered cards for years, but if the entire market were to increase again, this is where I'd focus my attention.
A few years ago, there was a major push to get WotC to legalize gold-bordered cards in tournament play. The hope was that this would help take some of the pressure off the Reserved List without WotC actually having to reprint anything. After all, there are 15,000 Collectors' Editions out there as well as thousands of each World Championship deck floating around. That's a whole stash of Dual Lands, Gaea's Cradle, and all the rest of it that could immediately make Vintage and Legacy more affordable without WotC having to break either the letter or the spirit of the Reserved List. What a win/win!
I'm still a big fan of this plan and believe that WotC should implement it ASAP, but I don't think it'll ever happen. For one thing, WotC doesn't seem to be focused on any format earlier than Modern at all anymore. Their answer to the Reserved List has been to say "Legacy? What's Legacy?" and I don't think they're terribly interested in making the older formats more affordable or accessible. As long as they can't repeal the Reserved List, it seems as if they'd rather pretend these old formats don't exist.
I also doubt this move would actually have much of an impact on format accessibility. The best Collector's Edition cards are already worth hundreds of dollars each, and there aren't actually that many World Championship cards that would help Legacy or Vintage's accessibility issues. The $150-$200 Collector's Edition Gaea's Cradles would be bought up in seconds, and then Legacy would go on being wildly expensive. I think it's still a move worth making because every little bit might help someone break into a cool old format, but it's not the Legacy-saving decision that some gold border advocates believe it is.
Finally, I don't expect that WotC really wants to give up the ability to print future gold-bordered cards that aren't tournament legal. While this doesn't seem to be something they're interested in doing right now, legalizing past gold-bordered cards would probably mean that all future gold-bordered cards would have to be tournament legal too. I'm not sure if they'll ever return to this well, and it doesn't seem to be in their immediate future, but I'd certainly like to own, say, a gold-bordered Vintage Cube. Make it happen, WotC!
So yeah, I don't think WotC is ever going to legalize these cards. It would have happened by now if it was ever going to happen, and at this point it doesn't seem to be in their best interests. I don't recommend buying into gold-bordered tournament staples in the hopes that they'll become Vintage or Legacy legal. I'll be the first one to cheer if WotC proves me wrong, though!
Before we talk about key gold-bordered singles, let's look at the complete decks. Pricing these out is hard, because they rarely come on the market, so I'll be using a combination of TCGplayer historical sales data and eBay completed listings to come up with something close to a fair market value. Note that we'll cover the 1996 box set separately, a little bit later.
Ready for a bunch of deck names and prices, sorted from cheapest to most expensive? Me too! Here we go:
Okay, so there's a lot to unpack here. First, just note that I swapped in some guild names and other modern decklist vernacular when creating this list because I figured that people in the year 2021 don't know what the 1998 deck name "Cali Nightmare" means offhand. Apologies to all of these classic pros for mangling your creativity!
Second, it appears as though the majority of these decks sell for $50-$100 in used condition. This seems to be the "I just want to play with the deck and collect these cards" price, without scarcity or expensive Commander cards factored in. Of these decks, the newer ones seem slightly more popular than the older ones, while the tempo and control decks seem slightly more popular than the aggro brews. It seems likely that all of these lower end decks will increase over time, though, and picking up any of them in the $50-$60 range seems like it can't really go wrong.
There's also a little bit of financial opportunity in picking up partial decks and finishing them off to flip. You can generally pick up individual cards from these decks for a buck or less, which means that you can snag partial lots on eBay for cheap and pick up the missing cards on TCGplayer. Just make sure that you buy lots that come with the original deck boxes, because those seem important for the folks who collect these brews.
Speaking of eBay, there's also some auction sniping opportunity here. While this is mostly a relic of years past, when more things were actually auctioned off on eBay and fewer people were looking to pounce on bargains, some of these decks sold for next to nothing at auction because the sellers didn't know how to price them and the eBay community at large doesn't really have a great sense of what they're worth because they sell so rarely. If this is something that you like doing, you can probably score some pretty amazing deals if you're very patient.
163960|| 164951|| 162284
As for the high-end decks, they all have at least a couple of valuable singles in them. For instance, Selden's $300 deck has Survival of the Fittest, Selmr's $400 deck has Yawgmoth's Will, and Linde's $700 deck has Gaea's Cradle.
The big question to me here is: are any of these decks worth picking up to crack for singles? We know that these decks tend to be worth more than the sum of their parts, at least at the low end, but what about these $200-$300 decks? Have the singles outpaced their full deck counterparts at any point? In order to figure that out, we're going to need to look at:
First off, here's a list of every gold-bordered World Championship card worth at least $10, complete with where they are found. There are quite a few $1-$10 cards, but I don't have time to list out another 30 singles and I don't see how useful that information is really going to be. If you want to chase $6 gold-border singles, you have my blessing, but I don't think it'll make for useful big picture discussion.
To the cards!
There are some really interesting price charts here that I'd like to highlight. For the most part, these cards were incredibly cheap through 2019 but they experienced a boom right around the time that Reserved List staples really took off in 2020. Many of them have actually dropped in price since this winter—just like most actual Reserved List cards—but they're still quite expensive.
Let's pull up some graphs, shall we? Here's product-hover id="162284":
This is a pretty typical Reserved List spike and drop, to be honest. We've got a slow climb to $180, a huge spike to $280, and then a drop to $150. In fact, let's see how it compares to the non-gold bordered Gaea's Cradle over the same time period:
Holy correlation, Batman! These graphs have incredibly similar spike and drop patterns, telling me that the gold-bordered price tag does indeed follow along with its black-bordered counterpart.
Let's do the same thing for Yawgmoth's Will. Here's product-hover id="164951":
And here's product-hover id="7118":
These charts definitely match, but take a look at how different the price ratio is between the cards. Gaea's Cradle is $1,000 in black border and $150 in gold border, while Yawgmoth's Will is $270 in black border and $90 in gold border. This makes me think there's not really a percentage of the price of a black-border card that a gold-border card is worth, just a ceiling and a floor on what people are willing to pay for these.
For example, I can imagine that the difference between $300 and $1,000 is kind of meaningless for the kind of person who wants to buy one of these cards for their Commander deck, because both numbers are too large. Thus, there's a pretty similar price floor on the gold-border version. At the same time, there's something of a ceiling on the Gaea's Cradle because after a certain amount it just makes sense to pony up and buy the real version or else just make your own proxy out of a Basic Forest. That should prevent either of these cards from climbing too high or dropping off too far in the future.
That said, these values correlate more with their black-bordered counterparts than with each other, so if one of those cards spikes, expect the gold-bordered version to follow. If you miss out on the next round of Reserved List spikes, consider buying into gold-border versions of the same cards.
But let's get back to the question I posed at the end of the last section. Are any of those complete decks undervalued right now? Let's price out the value of the $10+ cards in each of the 32 decks and compare those prices to the full deck value:
As you can see, most of the sub-$100 lack expensive cards, but there are a few exceptions. Gabriel Nassif's deck comes close to paying for itself off gold-border fetch lands, as does Julien Nuijten's brew. Mark Le Pine's deck is an especially good buy, as you get $50 of your $60 back immediately in the form of gold-bordered Ancient Tomb.
And hey, there are a few decks where singles have indeed outpaced full deck prices: product-hover id="158279", product-hover id="158285", product-hover id="158293", and product-hover id="158290". This is happening largely on the backs of recent price increases to gold-bordered product-hover id="162316", product-hover id="164951", product-hover id="164491", product-hover id="163898", and product-hover id="164416". Unfortunately, there are no available copies of these decks at current market value, so it's likely that the next few times these decks sell will be more in line with current value. If you can find someone who lists their copies by using existing sold comps, however, you might be able to snag yourself a bargain.
I wanted to discuss this collection separately because it's vanishingly rare and is generally considered a separate product from the 32 individual decks released afterward. There are zero copies of the set or any of the decks within available on TCGplayer right now, and almost no sales data. Two sealed sets have sold on eBay over the past few months, one for $1,000 and the other for $2,000. Two are available right now for $800-$900, albeit open and in a box with heavy wear.
These sets don't have a ton of expensive singles. A few of the decks contain product-hover id="158493", which sells for $17 in gold border form. There are also a few copies of product-hover id="158509", which are worth roughly $20. There are also a whole bunch of product-hover id="174174", which are worth about $8. 1996 was just too late to give us Power 9 reprints, and too early to give us most of the other broken cards that are sought-after now due to the Reserved List. It's a great set for collectors and completists, but there isn't a ton of Commander value here.
Interestingly enough, I think the primary reason why most of these gold-border cards have value is that most casual Commander players are fine allowing these cards in the format whereas proxies that weren't made by WotC will get you more of a side-eye. With gold-border cards, there's a sense of, oh, okay, these are an official Wizards of the Coast product, so who am I to tell you that you should have a $1,000 Gaea's Cradle in your deck instead of a $150 copy?
As Commander continues to gain ground over all other forms of tabletop Magic, these cards should continue to gain ground. This is especially true for Reserved List cards, since WotC isn't going to print those again in any form. It's certainly possible that WotC will release some future gold border product that negates these cards, but I doubt it. At this point, they're so old and scarce that they've become collectable for their own sake. See: all the decks that are worth $50-$100 despite containing no cards worth at least $10 on their own.
It may seem silly to spend real money on cards that can't be played in tournaments, but most of these cards aren't played in competitive settings any more anyway. And as the entire gold border era recedes into the sunset, it's hard not to see these cards as something extra cool instead of something that was designed to be less-than.
All of that is to say: feel free to pick up these cards if you want budget copies for Commander. They should hold their value, and they're a neat part of history besides. I especially like the blank cards, which came with every deck and are still readily available for a buck or two each. These cards are perfect for creating your own proxies, and I keep being surprised they've never experienced any kind of price spike. Writing this article has also made me wish I'd started collecting these decks back when they were cheap, because I'd love to play them casually now. I might start dogging the TCGplayer pages and snapping up all the $50-$60 decks that I don't have, just for fun. Why not? This is a wonderful part of Magic history that's never coming back. Let's enjoy it in whatever form we can.
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